Wednesday, December 28, 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.

California Quail Female

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 gray feathers on the lawn.  I know the resident Cooper's Hawk or a Peregrine bagged another meal.  I actually witnessed this event in action, which served to fill in the details of the mysterious feather piles.  Like the herds of Africa, the practice of communal brooding is another defense against predators.

California Quail Males

I rarely see them out and about in the yard during fall and winter.  I do hear them calling from their cover in dense shrubbery.  Apparently this is reassuring and helps to keep the groups together.  It was a surprise to come upon these birds on an early winter excursion in the State Park.  It is necessary to work fast catching photos.  When they see a guy with a camera, they skedaddle like celebrities running from paparazzi.

If you are planning a wildlife garden and wish to attract California Quail, give them cover of dense shrubbery and mixed borders that imitate the early successional habitat they like.  A source of water is also necessary.  If you have a patch of dry ground they will enjoy a dust bath and will rest in the sun if they feel comfortable in such a spot.  A little birdseed scattered on the ground is also appreciated.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

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 hike along the dike, find the duck blind and look to the south.  You will be able to see a nest across the large pond.  I believe this youngster could be one of the offspring I spotted in that nest this past summer.  I have seen this bird with a smaller companion which is possibly a nestmate.

Even in December, the parents are still occupying the nest or aerie as it is called.  Eagles may use the same nest year after year.  New materials will be added each season and some nests can weigh more than two tons.  Note that the name "bald" does not mean hairless.  It comes from the Middle English word balled and refers to the white on the head.  Piebald is a related word.

Along the grassy outer dike, it is common to come upon kill sites.  I am guessing this is where one of the eagles has consumed its prey.  The victims appear to be large ducks with black feathers, possibly Scoters.  Besides feathers, the carpal joint and distal parts of the wing are sometimes left behind.  On this last hike, I counted five fresh kill sites along the trail.  Somebody is eating well

This area is open for public duck hunting from September 1 to March 1.  As I was walking back out on this last visit, I met a hunter who was on the way in.  I told him, there were a lot of eagles today, but no ducks.  His eyes lit up and he said, "Oh, I haven't been up here in a while, where did you see them?"  That's when I realized that a love of wildlife, and eagles in particular, was something we had in common.

Monday, December 19, 2011

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 recent census, more than 2,000 were counted here in Skagit County.  Trumpeters are still under threat due to habitat loss and poisoning by lead shot, now banned in both Canada and the U.S.

A similar local visitor is the Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus).  The differences between the two species are subtle.  Sibley tells us, the Trumpeter is the larger of the two and has a larger bill.  Also in the Trumpeter, the slope of the bill matches the slope of the flatter crown of the head with a sharp corner at the rear of the crown.  Tundras have a rounder shaped head and often have an orange spot in front of the eye.  The birds in these photos match those characteristics of the Trumpeter Swan.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

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 indicated that when it is finished feeding, it would probably drop off and leave its host unharmed.  This was reassuring.  Apparently, it is not uncommon to find ticks around the eye, bill and head of birds where preening is difficult.  A second source confirmed this encouraging news.  The bird in the photo did not exhibit any signs of distress.  The little guy scratched and foraged as vigorously as his companions.

Other birds in the group appeared to be tick free.  This would hopefully indicate that infestation is not a widespread problem among birds in migrating flocks.

Monday, December 12, 2011

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.

Monday, December 5, 2011


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.