Showing posts from 2011

California Quail

In the dappled shade of Douglas Firs, two male California Quail (Callipepla californica) dance on a rail fence evoking the shadow puppet plays of Asia.  The bevy pictured here was spotted at Rosario Beach in Deception Pass State Park.

When I moved into my house, the Quail were the first birds I noticed in the yard.  Six or seven broods, chortling parents and young together, would move across the ground on foraging expeditions.  One of the males would perch on something high and serve as a lookout.  His attention to duty was steadfast.  The group would move along quickly, never lingering in any one spot.  The first time I saw this, I thought the ground was rippling.  It was the visual effect of dozens of tiny scurrying chicks.

There is a reason these shy birds use a lookout and rarely stop moving while out in the open.  They are the "wildebeests" of the bird world.  By that I mean they are a favorite food source for predators.  Every couple of weeks or so I find a pile of gr…

The Eagles of Wiley Slough

I have an endless fascination for Bald Eagles.  I grew up in the era of DDT, Silent Spring and the near-extinction of these great birds.  When I spot one now, it is a thrill beyond description.  I feel like I am witnessing a miracle.  I am privileged to actually have them regularly hanging out in the trees in my yard.

Like other predators, eagles spend a lot of time resting.  Even while hunting, they may often sit still, perched where they can spot their prey.  This habit makes them great photography subjects.  The little birds, on the other hand, are always foraging on the move making photos more difficult.

All of the photos here were shot along the Spur Dike Trail at Wiley Slough in the Skagit State Wildlife Recreation Area.  This preserve is in the heart of the Skagit River delta wetlands and is managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.  Visitors should remember to bring their Discover Pass.

This first year juvenile is already sporting a regal bearing.  As you hik…

Trumpeter Swan

During the winter, gatherings of Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator) are a fairly common sight in the fields along the roads in Skagit and Whatcom counties of Washington State.  It is even possible to catch sight of them along Interstate 5 foraging on plant material and invertebrates.  These are truly impressive birds and graceful in their movements.  Trumpeters are North America's largest native waterfowl, and among the heaviest of all flying birds, according to Birdweb.

As of 1900, they were thought to be extinct.  By 1930, small populations were discovered in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming but fewer than 100 birds remained south of Canada.  Then in the 1950's a large population was discovered in Alaska.  Because of protection, habitat preservation and reintroduction they have made a comeback.

Seasonally, they are now found in greater numbers in Washington than anywhere else in the lower 48 states.  The North American population is estimated to be 15-16,000 birds.  In one recen…

A Golden Crown...

...and a tick!  On a chilly morning last week, I encountered a half dozen Golden-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia atricapilla) dressed in their winter plumage.  This group, or "reign" as it is called, was foraging in the grass near Rosario Beach in Deception Pass State Park.  Around here, we only see them in the winter.  Their breeding range is further north, Alaska, the Yukon Territory and British Columbia.  Last winter, I caught some visiting my yard in BirdCam photos.

It was only after I got home that I realized that there was additional wildlife in some of the photos.  One little fellow was host to a tick.  After some internet searching, I learned that the parasite is possibly Haemaphysalis chordeilis, the Bird Tick which is known to occur in British Columbia.  Other possibilities include Ixodes spp. also found in Canada.  Ticks can spread Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever in humans, but not much is known about how they affect migrating birds.  One source indic…

Eagles of Ala Spit

Ala Spit is a narrow sandspit off Whidbey Island which I can see from my house.  It is also an Island County park.  I have found it to be a good spot for viewing wildlife and this morning's visit was no exception.  On the lee side of the spit, I encountered a mature pair of Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) each perched on one of the old pilings in the pocket estuary.

Western Washington has one of the largest concentrations of Bald Eagles in the contiguous 48 US states.  Northern Puget Sound and the San Juans are productive breeding areas.  The eagles visit the two hunting perches in my yard almost daily.  I know they are around when I hear their chattering calls announcing their arrival.

As common as they are around here, it is always a thrill to catch sight of these large and beautiful birds.  It certainly was a treat for me on this very chilly morning.


The Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus) is the largest, and in my opinion the handsomest of sparrows.  They are among the most common birds seen locally.  They prefer a forest edge habitat where they forage on or near the ground.  They will also frequent  planted yards and parks where they can find food.  Their shrill call sings their name, "tow-HEEEE."  I often see them in my yard and along trails exploring thickets or scratching in leaf litter on the ground.  This bird was enjoying wild crabapple fruits in the wetlands of the Skagit River delta on Fir Island, Washington.

Fraggle Rock

Under an approaching windstorm on Thanksgiving Day, Fraggles and Doozers take a rest and teach us how to understand and embrace diversity.  In Outer Space, the Silly Creatures call these Black Oystercatchers (Haematopus bachmani) and Glaucous-winged Gulls (Larus glaucenscens).  I watched the two species for about forty-five minutes and never witnessed any sign of hostility or disagreement.  Gulls are notoriously difficult to ID, so I could be wrong about it.  Maybe someone more adept at gull identification will chime in.  At the time, I estimate there was a good 20 knot sustained wind.  From the photo, can you guess the direction it was blowing?

The location is Deception Pass State Park, Washington facing the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  The rock is just offshore from the West Beach parking lot.  Anyone who has visited the park will recognize the spot.  I am told the Oystercatchers fly over from nearby Deception Island to rest here.  I have come to call this Fraggle Rock for want of a be…

Red-tailed Hawk

This was the first glimpse.  At a distance I thought it was a Cooper's or Northern Goshawk.  Instead, it turned out to be a western juvenile Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).  This morning, I returned to the Skagit State Wildlife Recreation Area on Fir Island to see if there was anything interesting going on.  I spotted this guy in the trees on the north side of the Spur Dike Trail at Wiley Slough.  As I hiked along the dike, this camera-shy bird would fly off.  He kept moving ahead of me until I finally lost track of him.

Fir Island provides ideal habitat for the Red-tailed Hawk.  It is mostly open, agricultural fields interspersed with small clumps of trees.  The birds will use the trees, light poles and road signs as perches for spotting prey.  They can also hover on wind currents, referred to as "kiting."  Their diet consists of small mammals, birds, reptiles and even fish.  Their range is extensive and includes most of North America, Central America and the West…

A Rose Among Thorns

A Douglas Squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii) finds food, camouflage and protection in a Nootka Rose thicket.  This denizen of Deception Pass State Park enjoys a breakfast of rose hips along the Rosario-Bowman Bay Nature Trail.  He is also called Pine Squirrel and Chickaree, but Douglas Squirrel is preferred.  He is yet another namesake of the great Scottish botanist David Douglas joining Douglas Fir, Douglas Spirea, Douglas Iris and about eighty more plants and animals.


After breakfast and a bath, it's time for a snooze.  At Cranberry Lake in Deception Pass State Park, these Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) have perfected the technique of the one-legged nap.

Birds of a Feather

Last winter we met the Lesser Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens) of Fir Island, Washington.  They are back again, of course, following the migratory urges which have compelled them for millennia.  Their home is Wrangel Island, a tiny dot in the Arctic Ocean just off the Siberian coast.  Every fall, they make the 2,500 mile (4,000 km) journey to North America where they will spend the winter.  While here, the 30,000 to 70,000 birds of the Wrangel Island flock will divide their time between the Skagit and Fraser River deltas.  You can set the calendar by their arrival in mid-October.  This annual event literally puts Fir Island in the Skagit River delta on the map.

In summer, the farms of Fir Island produce crops which include feed corn, broccoli, cabbage, wheat, potatoes and cucumbers.  After harvest, winter wheat and other cover crops are planted to provide habitat for the geese.  Until the following spring, the geese are given right of tenancy to the island.  The flocks will freely move …

Cedar Waxwing

One of our most beautiful birds is the Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum).  It can also be one of the most elusive.  I do see them in my yard, but very rarely.  Meanwhile, out on Fir Island, the wild Pacific Crabapples (Malus fusca) along Wiley Slough are now fruiting abundantly.  They have attracted large numbers of Cedar Waxwings.  I have never seen such numbers in a single spot.

Fir Island, Washington is actually the Skagit River delta.  Most of it is farmland, protected by a system of dikes and drainage sloughs.  We have visited the island before to see concertizing Song Sparrows and flocks of Snow Geese.

The Skagit State Wildlife Recreation Area at Wiley Slough is amicably shared by hunters, birders, photographers, hikers, dog trainers and a lot of big, friendly dogs.  Here, the barrier dike was moved inland to restore salmon habitat.  The old spur dike has been left in place.  The "Spur Dike Trail" now provides easy foot access out into these unique and amazing wetla…


A juvenile Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus glaucescens) grovels and pleads to an adult who remains impassive.  The youngster calls pitifully during this encounter in downtown Anacortes, Washington.  These are city birds who allowed me to take the photo from about 10 feet (3 m) away.

Improving BirdCam Photos with Photoshop

The Wingscapes BirdCam is a popular tool for birding enthusiasts.  It is a sensor-activated, 8 megapixel digital camera hardened for outdoor use.  It has a fixed f/2.8 aperture with shutter speeds 1/8 to 1/400 of a second.  Set it up aimed at a feeder and see who is visiting your yard when you're not around.  For birds like these clever and perceptive crows, it would be impossible to capture such a relaxed demeanor if there was a person with a camera in the yard.

There are many variables involved in producing a great digital photo.  Since they can't all be controlled, the BirdCam sometimes produces hazy, softly focused shots.  If the lighting is less than ideal, photos might be under- or over-exposed.  All is not lost, however, since these problems can often be fixed with a good photo editor.  Click on the 'Before' and 'After' photos here to view them full-sized.  These methods will also work for Trail Cam, Game Cam and Plant Cam photos.

The longer I do this, …

Procyon Lotor

Procyon lotor is the scientific name of the Common Raccoon.  It literally means "like a dog that washes its food."  Astronomy buffs will also recognize Procyon as the brightest star in Canis Minor.  I caught these guys in my koi pond yesterday afternoon.  There were five altogether, not fully grown.  They are probably littermates who have not yet learned that they are supposed to be nocturnal.  Grabbing a photo was a challenge.  They kept scooting around to the other side of the tree.

Having them around is a mixed blessing.  They have chewed up one hot tub lid and they can make quite a mess in the koi pond.  Their dexterous little fingers managed to pull all the weather stripping off the bottom of the back door.  This time, I caught them before they could do any real damage.  Despite rascally behavior, they are definitely cute and engaging creatures.  At night I have had them climb up onto my front deck and look in the windows.  Startling!

They have adapted successfully to l…

Glaucous-winged Gull

I was at West Beach in Deception Pass State Park yesterday.  This Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus glaucescens) agreed to stand nicely for his portrait.  I can add this photo to my collection of "seagulls standing on rocks."  This must reveal some unique behavioral characteristic, but I have not yet figured it out.  Whatever is going on, it certainly adds to the charm of these common shorebirds.

Pink feet and a red spot on the bill are identifying characteristics.  A similar, less common local bird is the Western Gull (Larus occidentalis).  The Western has black wing tips with white spots, while the Glaucous-wingeds have gray wing tips with white spots.  This is complicated by the fact that these and several other gull species will interbreed producing hybrids.  In general, gulls are extremely difficult to differentiate.  As we get further into fall and winter, the head and neck of these birds will take on brown mottling.

In natural areas, Glaucous-winged Gulls like to nest on t…