Thursday, December 30, 2010

Seagulls 101

Western Gull Juvenile (Larus occidentalis)
I was at Deception Pass State Park today in the West Beach/Cranberry Lake area.  On arrival, I was greeted by this youngster in the parking lot.  I think his unique dark coloring, sooty cheeks, dirty pink legs and black bill identify him as a juvenile Western Gull (Larus occidentalis) in his first winter.  Gulls always stand nicely for their portraits.

There are 97 species of gulls worldwide, with 49 occurring in North America.  Most take four years to reach their adult plumage.  Their state of maturity is classified 1st winter, 2nd winter, etc.  The Western Gull is not commonly seen in the Puget Trough region of Washington.  Glaucous-winged Gulls (Larus glaucescens) are more common here, but their juvenile plumage is much lighter.  They are known to hybridize with the Westerns.  In general, Gulls are very difficult to identify.  The distinct coloration of this fellow is a big help.

We tend to take these intelligent, sociable and resourceful birds for granted.  They are so common, we often don't notice them.  When I lived in Iowa, I was surprised to see Gulls on the Mississippi River.  Like crows, they have become proficient at living with humans.  These park birds thrive in our company and are probably fond of hot dogs and potato salad.

Meanwhile, I spotted an animated group of Gulls splashing in Cranberry Lake.  They were bathing out in the fresh water and having a very good time.  Yes, that is ice you see in the foreground.  It was very cold last night but the Gulls didn't seem to mind:

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Chestnut-backed Chickadee (Poecile rufescens)

Working around some melting snow, this Chestnut-backed Chickadee (Poecile rufescens) deftly picks the seeds out of Douglas Fir cones.  These little birds are abundant on South Fidalgo this time of year.  They prefer living in coniferous forests.  Their cousins the Black-capped Chickadees favor deciduous trees.  Both are seen in my yard, but the smaller Chestnut-backs are far more abundant.

These little birds are fearless.  They will come to the feeders even if I am nearby.  I get a good scolding in the process.  I am putting up some nest boxes to see if I can get these little guys to rear some young in my yard this spring.  They line their nests with animal fur and lay clutches of 5 to 9 eggs.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Canada Goose

Canada Geese (Branta canadensis)

A recent news article caught my attention.  Canadian biologists are recommending that populations of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) be eliminated from Vancouver Island.  Eliminated?  They assert the birds have done significant harm to the habitat of the island.  This damage, they believe, is a threat to other wildlife including the very important salmon resource.

I have always enjoyed the annual fall visits by the geese to South Fidalgo.  They are large, beautiful and graceful, one of nature's greatest achievements.  While they have become year-around residents locally, I only see them in small groups during September and October.  I believe these are travelers on migration.  A stream flows onto the beach near me, drainage from the wetland across the road.  The birds often stop here for a drink of fresh water, a seaweed snack and a bit of rest.  A very pleasant scene is created by geese sleeping in the sun with heads tucked under wings.

To Americans, I think, this bird is one of the iconic symbols of Canada with much to be admired.  It was jarring to learn that Canadians were considering their complete elimination from an entire region.  After a little study, I find that Canada considers the Beaver its national symbol, and not a single province or territory claims the goose as a representation. 

Seattle has had issues with Canada Geese as well.  Traditionally, the birds are only migratory visitors to western Washington.  They readily adapt to human-altered habitats and have become permanent residents in city parks.  Defending their nests, they fiercely attack people and their droppings have earned them nuisance status.  Culling and relocating have only been temporary solutions.  Their populations quickly rebound.  We must not forget that we are the source of the problem.  We have shaped habitats that are attractive to the birds.

The birds have also created a threat to aviation, especially in urban areas.  They have brought down both military and commercial aircraft after being sucked into jet engines.

We humans seem to know what to do when a species is threatened.  An example is the Bald Eagle.  We realized that protection from hunting, preserving habitat and banning certain pesticides was required to fend off total extinction.  Populations are now slowly recovering.  But what do we do about a species whose overwhelming success has made it a pariah?  Those of us who enjoy watching wildlife want to be on the side of the geese.  We also understand that this issue is much more complex.  There will be no easy answers.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Fox Sparrow

Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca)

The Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca) is a winter resident on South Fidalgo Island, but they do not breed here.  Their breeding range is coastal British Columbia and Alaska.  Ours are the western "Sooty" races, fuliginosa and unalaschensis.  The wings, back and head of local birds are solid dark brown with brown speckled white breasts.  There may be some gray on the cheeks.

Across North America, there are wide variations in colors and markings locally.  These fall into three color groups, Sooty, Red and Slate-colored.  Among the largest of the family, Fox Sparrows are common feeder visitors during the winter.  They accept most commercial seed including safflower.  It is possible to confuse them with Song Sparrows which are year-around residents.  The local "morphna" Song Sparrow race is smaller and distinguished by gray streaking and mottling and slightly redder coloration:

Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Processing BirdCam Photos

Dark-eyed Junco with Song Sparrow at BirdCam Feeder

BirdCam photos do not come from the camera ready to post.  A bit of work is required to get them in shape.  Conditions for a perfect shot don't always exist.  The first chore will be weeding out unusable pictures, the blanks, blurs and butt shots.  When the lighting is poor, such as early morning, late afternoon or on dark, overcast days, many of the photos will end up blurred or hazy.  While weeding photos, I rename the good ones by adding the species to the photo name.  The best also get three dashes.  "WSB0364Towhee---" would be a great Spotted Towhee shot.  This makes them easy to find later.

Next, comes a bit of simple photo editing.  This solves the problem of getting a great capture but a mediocre photo.  I am not very good at this, so I do very little of it, but I have learned how to improve the BirdCam shots.  Do not edit your original photos.  Always work with a copy, so if you screw it up, you can discard it and start over.  At the moment, I am using Windows Live Photo Gallery for editing.  It was something I already had and I like to keep things simple.  Picasa will also do the job, as will Photoshop Elements, of course.

To begin, here is a raw photo out of the BirdCam:

Click on the photos to view them in full size.  Photos are 3264 x 2448 pixels out of the BirdCam.  Blogger will resize them to 1600 x 1200 in the enlargement link.  I begin by sharpening the image just a bit:

The slight change might be easiest to see in the Junco's head.  Don't overdo the sharpening or the result will be a plastic look.  Next, I add a bit of contrast.  I might add a little brightness, but that is not always necessary:

I rarely fuss with the colors.  The last step is to resize and watermark the photo using Bytescout Watermarking.  I have settled on a standard size of 800 x 600 pixels for blog posts.  Bytescout does a good job of resizing without distorting the image.  The first photo above is the end result.  Here are two more examples showing before and after:

Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus)

Mourning Dove with English Sparrow Female

I would be interested in hearing about others' BirdCam photo editing tricks and tips.  You can add yours to the comments here.  Also, what is your favorite photo editor?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Mourning Dove

Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura)

I did not expect to catch a Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) at the BirdCam feeder.  I have only seen them ground-feeding the seed spread on the basement patio.  Sometimes they also like to just "rest" on the patio.  Apparently they find safflower seed irresistible.  I am not sure why they are called "mourning."  Perhaps it is due to their mournful calls.  They also seem to have a sad, almost pathetic aspect.  It is my instinct to feel sorry for them, only because of their appearance.  They are good sized birds, larger than a Robin and about the same size as a Northern Flicker.  The are extremely wary and will fly off in terror at the site of me.  There is a whistling noise in their flight with a flash of white in their tail feathers.

This is Washington's only dove species, and we also have one native pigeon.  The only difference is size, pigeons being larger and doves smaller.  They are common, year-around visitors to my yard, as these December photos attest.  In the last photo, the dove is joined by a Spotted Towhee at the feeder:

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


"Ahh, now for some good sunflower see....What the...?"

I thought I would try some safflower seed at the BirdCam.  I read that the squirrels and starlings don't like the taste.  The Eastern Gray Squirrels have been getting a little greedy at the BirdCam lately.  Sure enough, one of my resident Grays showed up right on schedule expecting to find sunflower seeds.  When a squirrel gets angry, it flicks its tail up and down:

"OK, who's getting cute with my snacks?"

If nothing else, squirrels are persistent.  We use the word "dogged" for tenacious stubbornness, but "squirrelled" would work just as well, aside from its meaning to hoard:

"I know there are sunflower seeds here somewhere."

The ploy seems to be working, but the squirrels still check back occasionally, I guess, to see if I changed my mind:

"Oh please, please, please may I have some sunflower seeds?"

While the squirrels might be disappointed, several of my regular birds seem to be enjoying the new fare.  These include Juncos, Towhees, Song Sparrows, English Sparrows and Mourning Doves.  When summer comes, I hope to attract some of the rarer birds, Crossbills and Grossbeaks, with safflower seeds.


Friday, December 10, 2010

Double-crested Cormorant

Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus)

An orange patch at the base of their bills identifies a pair of Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus).  They appear to be in a state of mutual admiration.  While normally thought of as sea birds, Double-cresteds are also found around lakes, ponds and rivers throughout the US and south-central Canada.  These birds were spotted at Whistle Lake in Anacortes, Washington.  After diving for fish, they are sometimes seen standing with wings outstretched to help dry their feathers.  Perching on a branch like this is not an easy task for a web-footed bird.

Whistle Lake is located in the Anacortes Community Forest Lands.  This is a unique program which preserves about 2,800 acres of forest, meadows and wetlands in a natural state.  A network of old logging roads and trails offers nature lovers a Northwest wilderness experience, all within the Anacortes city limits.  The complete Whistle Lake Adventure was posted at Fidalgo Island Crossings.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Checking It Out

Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus)

Changing the feeder at the BirdCam station always creates a period of adjustment.  Birds that were accustomed to finding suet, may be surprised to find it replaced with sunflower seeds.  Winter regulars are coming to check it out.  The Flicker seems puzzled by the change.

Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis)

Our always-faithful Juncos, on the other hand, are delighted to find sunflower seeds.

Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)

Chestnut-backed Chickadee (Poecile rufescens)

Chickadees also readily accept sunflower seeds with their usual panache.

Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)

This is our Pacific Northwest race of Song Sparrow called "morphna."  They are darker and redder than in other locations.

House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus)

 Finally, a handsome House Finch enjoys the new entree.