Sunday, January 30, 2011

Fraternal Order

Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus)

"The meeting will come to order.  We have a guest speaker today.  Seagull will talk about anchor buoy hazards in Skagit Bay."

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Spotted Towhee

Spotted Towhee Female (Pipilo maculatus)

In the same family as Sparrows and Juncos, Towhees are the largest birds of the group.  The Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus) is our western Washington representative.  The bird originally called the Rufous-sided Towhee was divided into Eastern Towhee (P. erythrophthalmus) and the Spotted Towhee.  White spotted markings on the wings distinguish the latter.  Our local oreganus race shows the least white spotting among regional groups.  Draw a line from the western border of Minnesota south to roughly define the territories of the two species.  Both Easterns and Spotteds may have the unusual fiery red eyes.

Spotted Towhee Male with House Sparrow

They are midway in size between Sparrows and Robbins.  Male Spotted Towhees have black markings and females dark brown.  Pronounce their name TOE-hee or TOE-ee.  These are very congenial citizens around the feeders that never use their size to intimidate other birds.  They also seem less wary than other birds.  If I am working in the yard, they will go about their business nearby without apparent concern.

Spotted Towhee with House Sparrow

Like Juncos, they feed and nest on the ground but also adapt to elevated feeders.  When hiking in shrubby or light forest habitat, you might hear them loudly scratching in the leaf litter.  At the feeders, they are not choosy and take to suet and various seeds.  A group of Towhees is called a "tangle" or a "teapot."  Don't ask me why.

Spotted Towhee with Mourning Dove

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Dark-eyed Junco

Male and Female Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis)

Like the swallows to Capistrano and buzzards to Hinckley, the Juncos return to South Fidalgo every fall.  This event adds another chime to our seasonal clock.  The Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) has always been one of my favorite birds.  They are not flashy or brightly colored.  Nevertheless, their tasteful, muted tones gives us one of our most attractive little birds.  Ours are the "Oregon" variant with a black hood for males and gray hood for females.  Take a pair of these charming birds, add a snowy holly branch, and you have a perfect Christmas card image.

In other parts of North America, your Dark-eyed Juncos may look completely different.  Depending on region, they also come in "Slate-colored," "Pink-sided," "White-winged," "Red-backed" and "Gray-headed" variants.  At the moment, they are all considered the same species, an indication they possess a high genetic diversity.  Even among the local birds, there is variation in markings and color tones, especially in the browns and grays.  If you consider the wolf genome and domestic dogs, it is apparent such diversity is not unusual in the animal world.

During the winter, Juncos are the most abundant birds I see on South Fidalgo.  In the wild, they are ground feeders, and they like to scratch around in the garden.  They readily adapt to elevated feeders, but I also spread some seed on the patio for them every day.  As you can see in the photos, they are not picky eaters.  I might see groups of twenty or thirty at a time around the yard.  According to iBird, a group of Juncos is called an "ubiquity" or a "crew."  They are always agreeable among themselves and towards other birds.

I have noticed a couple of interesting behaviors at the BirdCam stations.  More than other birds, they appear to engage the camera like vain movie stars.  They act as if aware they are being photographed.  Then, I often catch a "watcher" at the rhododendron station, and it is always a male.  He perches in the background as if keeping an eye on things.  This would be similar to male behavior in their nesting grounds.

By the end of March, the Juncos will have all departed my South Fidalgo neighborhood.  I won't see any until the next fall.  They are forest ground nesters, and probably seek suitable habitats free of raccoons and other predators.  Based on their numbers, the strategy seems to be working.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker

Since November, the Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) visiting the BirdCam station have all appeared to be of the "Yellow-shafted" morph.  The bird above clearly has yellow-shafted tail feathers, gray crown and tan cheeks.  The problem has been the lack of a red nape chevron also characteristic of the Yellow-shafteds.  Hmmm.

Some references put Yellow-shafted birds in the East and Red-shafteds in the West with hybrids found in the Great Plains or Rocky Mountains.  This is obviously too simplistic.  More complete sources indicate that the Yellows are found in the eastern U.S., western Canada and Alaska.  No doubt, we benefit here from our proximity to western Canada.  We are only 30 miles/48 km due east of Victoria, B.C., and about 50 miles/80 km south of Vancouver.

Red-shafted Northern Flicker Male

Beginning New Year's Day, Red-shafted Northern Flickers started to visit the station.  This bird has red (or red-orange) tail highlights and gray cheeks.  He also has the red malar (moustache) of a male.  Yellow-shafted males have a black malar.  To compare, here is a female Red-shafted Northern Flicker:

Red-shafted Northern Flicker Female

Both Red- and Yellow-shafted females lack the malar marking.  This bird also appears to have a tan crown.  A further complication with ID'ing Flickers is a tendency to hybridize where the Red and Yellow variants overlap.  Also, unusual among woodpeckers, Northern Flickers are migratory.  It stands to reason that Yellow-shafted birds from Alaska and Canada might be visiting western Washington in the winter.  Confused yet?  In an admittedly poor quality photo, this bird has now appeared:

Is this a Yellow-shafted Northern just developing a nape mark, or a Red/Yellow hybrid?  Only we humans will get ourselves bogged down in such details.  We try to find order in nature, but nature is notoriously disorderly.  Perhaps we should take a lesson from these kindly birds who don't seem to worry about such things.

To avoid leaving this blurry photo as a last impression, here is a nice shot of a Flicker which has been joined by a Red-breasted Nuthatch:

Monday, January 10, 2011


Just a couple of pals hangin' out at the rhododendron watchin' the snow melt.
  • Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis)
  • Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Snow on Sunday

Red-breasted Nuthatches (Sitta canadensis)

Red-breasted Nuthatches make a warm spot on a snowy Sunday.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Nest of Bandits

Chestnut-backed Chickadee (Poecile rufescens)

"Banditry" is the collective noun for a group of Chickadees.  Presumably, the term refers to their masked appearance, not their behavior.  When they are not relishing suet, they like to eat the seeds from Douglas Fir cones.  I also see them picking at the cone-like catkins of Red Alder.  Only the most agile and athletic can negotiate these food sources.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Fox Sparrows at Wiley Slough

Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca)

Fir Island is the delta of the Skagit River and Wiley Slough is a small piece of it.  It is part of the huge complex of tidal marshes and wetlands where Fir Island borders Skagit Bay.  A system of dikes keeps the island from going underwater when the Skagit floods.  After 33 years in the area, I thought it was about time for a visit.  I was blown away by the beauty and magnificence of these wetlands.  I have never seen anything like them before.

You can park at either the Fish and Wildlife headquarters or the boat launch and walk atop the dike.  The trek is about two miles/3.3 km until the path ends in marshes and muck.  Boots are needed to go further.  By far, the most numerous birds this day were the Fox Sparrows (Passerella iliaca).  It is not an exaggeration to estimate the numbers seen in the hundreds.

This fellow was working very hard, vigorously scratching and digging in the gravel.  I believe he was stirring up weed and grass seed.  He was completely absorbed in the task, unaffected by my presence.  Also seen were Spotted Towhees, Song Sparrows, Great Blue Herons, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a Belted Kingfisher and a Bald Eagle.  One Owl, either a Great Horned or a Barred Owl was camouflaged in the branches of a tree.  There were also some very small ducks diving in a pond, but again, their identity was obscured by vegetation.  At one point, I heard the Snow Geese in the distance lifting off to move to another Fir Island field.

For a nature lover, this vast, magical wetland was a joy to behold.  Over the last few years, a restoration project has been underway to rehab the estuary wetlands and improve salmon habitat.  Hunters, bird watchers and hikers have all been considered in the plan.  The dike provides access deep into the marshes.  Normally, such a place would be inaccessible by foot.

The natural river and tidal flows will recreate channels providing habitat for salmon and other aquatic species.  This is where the river's fresh water mixes with the salt water of the bay.  Young salmon smolts will spend up to three years in the brackish waters while their bodies become accustomed to living in the sea.

After several days of sub-freezing temperatures, ice had formed where the waters were still.  The water level had dropped since freezing and the temperature had warmed a bit.  Everywhere around me were the sounds of dropping chunks of ice, adding to the mystical experience.

A Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera) stands out among the Red Alders (Alnus rubra).  Someone thoughtfully put up a nest box out here.  It was more than a mile from the parking lot in the middle of nowhere.  Maybe it's not a nest box at all, but something else.

I spotted an Eagle's nest across the waterway, but in early January, nobody was home.

This is part of Wiley Slough near the spot where the Fox Sparrow was photographed.  This is also how a river was meant to enter a sea.  The flow of the great river is controlled when it divides into many small channels and ponds.  Pollutants and silt are filtered out by the marshes.  Untold numbers of wild species will make their homes here.  Now that I have discovered this amazing piece of creation, I plan to return many times.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


Photo by Monika Wieland
For 23 years, I have scanned the waters of northern Skagit Bay trying to catch site of whales.  A visit by the Southern Resident Orcas (Orcinus orca), in particular, has been a quest which has eluded me.  I have written about this longing in a post at Fidalgo Island Crossings.  It includes wonderful photos by Monika Wieland of Orca Watcher.  Perhaps 2011 will finely bring success.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Harbor Master

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)

From Fidalgo Island Crossings, I spotted this Heron standing watch at the Cap Sante Boat Haven the other day.  This is downtown Anacortes, Washington and he's obviously a city bird.  I am only about 20 feet/6 m from him.  The birds at home on South Fidalgo would never let me get this close.  Another shot reveals the context of the photo:

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Lesser Snow Goose

Mount Baker, Washington and Skagit Valley Snow Geese

At first you hear them in the distance.  As they come closer the sounds become a symphony, 10,000 woodwinds tuning up.  The geese are coming!  In the winter cold, nature aficionados rush to pull off their gloves and get their cameras ready.

The Lesser Snow Goose (Chen caerulescens) is one of the miracles of the planet.  They are an international treasure.  The Wrangel Island Flock nests in the Siberian Arctic of Russia.  From October to April, however, the flock comes to North America to spend the winter.  You can set the cosmic clock by their arrivals and departures.  They divide their time between the Skagit and Fraser River deltas, moving between them.  The geese are citizens of three countries.

Snow Geese Wintering on Fir Island

Most of Fir Island, Washington, the Skagit delta, is diked to protect working farms.  The habitat also includes salt marshes and wetlands along the Skagit Bay shoreline.  Various produce crops and feed corn are grown in the summer.  After harvest, winter wheat and other cover crops are planted to provide food and habitat for the geese.  A section of the island has been set aside as a shared wildlife reserve.

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Their numbers can be staggering and difficult to perceive.  At times, up to 20,000 birds will gather providing a spectacular wildlife experience.  Tourists and nature buffs come from all over the Northwest to see them.  Locally, the geese are much-loved and appear as a logo for many businesses.  For me, Fir Island Road is part of my daily commute to work.  I believe the metal triangles and spinners are hung on the power lines to prevent the geese from flying into them.

Snow Goose Blizzard

Snow Geese occur in different colors which include white, blue-grays and browns.  The Wrangel Island/Skagit/Fraser birds are all white with black wing tips and tail feathers.  Juveniles will carry some light brown on their backs and wings.  In sunlight, there is a sparkling effect when the birds are in flight.  One distinguishing feature of this flock is orange staining on their faces.  They acquire this while feeding in iron-rich soils.

Orange Facial Stains Distinguish Wrangel Island Geese

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Deception Pass

Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus)
From Fidalgo Island Crossings, a winter visit to Deception Pass State Park produced a couple of wildlife photos.  At Cranberry Lake, this Cormorant in black winter plumage dries his wings in the low winter sun.  According to iBird, captive birds will take the same posture after feeding, even when their feathers are not wet.  At the parking lot, one of the park rangers reminds visitors to follow the rules:

Northwestern Crow (Corvus caurinus)
Northwestern Crows (Corvus caurinus), smaller cousins of the American Crow, make their living as beachcombers.  Meanwhile, Canada Geese take a break at the edge of the lake to wish everyone a Happy New Year:

Canada Geese (Branta canadensis)