Saturday, February 26, 2011

February 23rd

Snowfall is not a common occurrence in the Puget Sound lowlands.  If we get any, it usually comes between late November and early January.  Sometimes we don't even get frost until late December or January.  Other parts of the US have been clobbered by repeated waves of heavy snowfall this winter.  In the Pacific Northwest, we have tried to keep a low profile, hoping to escape La Niña's attention.

When February arrived, we thought we had staved off any chance of snow for the winter, but no such luck.  On February 23, 2011 a Pacific low positioned itself off the coast in a perfect location to draw Arctic air down the Fraser Valley into Puget Sound.  At the same time, it pushed moisture from the ocean into western Washington.  This was a recipe for heavy snowfall and it came very quickly.  For a time, 30 miles of Interstate 5 was shut down in Skagit County north of Seattle where drivers where overwhelmed by the volume of snow.  Up to 14 inches/36 cm fell in some spots.

The BirdCam, now set up with safflower seed, caught some interesting winter weather action.  On South Fidalgo, about 6 inches/15 cm of snow fell in the morning.  By noon, it was already starting to melt.  In the photos above, we catch a Spotted Towhee, Dark-eyed Juncos and a female House Finch negotiating the snow to get to the seed.

With the ground covered by snow, the usual feeding sites are unavailable.  A group of House Finches (called a "development") and a Spotted Towhee take advantage of the BirdCam feeder.  The pink blur in the lower-right corner is caused by a water drop on the lens cover, one of the hazards of an unattended, outdoor camera.

A handsome Northern Flicker also attends the feeder.  This is a Red-shafted female lacking the red moustache mark of the male.  In my semi-wooded yard, Flickers are year-around residents.  They will soon begin their courtship dances at the top of a dead fir at the edge of the back garden.  The males also like to drum on my metal chimney 5 in the morning.

Towhees are the largest birds in the Sparrow family.  The Spotted Towhee is also a year-around resident on South Fidalgo and one of my favorites.  Again, the forest edge habitat of my yard is to their liking.  They nest near the ground hidden in dense shrubbery.  Our "oregonus" race is the least spotted of the species.

As the Towhee flies off, a Fox Sparrow checks out the safflower seed buffet.  These sparrows are abundant winter visitors in western Washington.  Their breeding range is Alaska, Canada and the northern US Rockies.  A group of Fox Sparrows is a "slyness."  Think "sly" like a Fox Sparrow, I guess.

By late afternoon, the snow started to fall again.  The BirdCam even managed to catch a falling snowflake.  Temperatures would drop into the teens and twenties and stay below freezing for the next few days.  Our normal February temperatures are in the 40's and 50's F (4° to 13° C).  As I write this, it is still below freezing and snowing again, but tomorrow promises the return of more normal conditions.

Species List:
  • Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis)
  • Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliacus)
  • House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus)
  • Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus)
  • Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus)

Friday, February 11, 2011

Heart Lake Cormorants

Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus)

Heart Lake is another area in the Anacortes Community Forest Lands.  Recall our visit to Whistle Lake in December.  A network of trails takes hikers through undeveloped forest.  Heart Lake also has Cormorants, perhaps in greater numbers than Whistle Lake.  Cormorants will stretch their wings to dry them after diving for fish.  We also spotted Common Mergansers (Mergus merganser) and Buffleheads (Bucephala albeola) on the lake.  The lighting of this overcast day, however, made it difficult to photograph birds out in the water.

On arrival at the parking area, we were greeted by the woodwind tones of Common Ravens (Corvus corax).  Raven is regarded as The Creator by local Native Americans in stories that remarkably parallel those in the Bible.  Along the trail, a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) called from off in the woods.  The sights, sounds and smells of the Heart Lake forest offer visitors an authentic Northwest experience.

There are more photos of this Heart Lake forest visit posted at Fidalgo Island Crossings.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Golden-crowned Sparrow

Golden-crowned Sparrow (upper right) with Spotted Towhee

It's always fun to catch a "first-timer" in a BirdCam photo.  This past weekend it was a Golden-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla) that debuted at the BirdCam station.  South Fidalgo is part of their winter range which extends from northern Baja, up the Pacific coast through Vancouver and Graham Islands in British Columbia.  They breed in the subalpine interior of British Columbia, and through the southern Yukon into most of Alaska.  Even during winter, they are rarely seen on South Fidalgo in my experience.  This makes these photos even more pleasing.  Their cousins, the White-crowned Sparrows are more common here.

Golden-crowned Sparrow (top left)

This fellow has some streaking on the breast which would indicate a juvenile.  In the breeding season, the golden crown would be surrounded by a distinctive black cap for both male and female.  According to iBird, a group of Golden-crowneds is called a "reign."  BirdWeb indicates they like to feed in mixed flocks, and these photos bear that out.  Perhaps I will see more of them in the coming days.

Golden-crowned Sparrow (bottom) with Juncos and a Song Sparrow