Friday, March 30, 2012

Heron in Haiku

A great blue heron
Softly singing like the tides
Taking flight with me

Heron in the marsh
Moves silently with the earth
Welcoming the sun

The blue heron speaks
You are laughing at the rain
I know this is home

Morning blue heron
Takes flight warmly with the dawn
Spirit of this place

Waiting blue heron
She is speaking for the earth
Awakening us

Sunrise on the marsh
Blue heron greeting the dawn
Taking flight with her

Tranquil blue heron
The tides speaking with the earth
The song of moonlight

Heron in the mist
Whispers softly like the dawn
The name of the earth

Blue heron at dawn
Tells a story to the tides
The song of the earth

Misty yellow sun
Awakening with the marsh
A heron takes flight

Ripple in the marsh
The dawn shifting to the past
Heron awakens

Resting blue heron
The sea smiling with the day
Taking flight with him

The visitor speaks
Awakening like the sun
I know what we are

Visiting a Great Blue Heron in the tidal marshes of the Skagit River Delta.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Greater Yellowlegs

It's neither the name of a Viking chieftain nor a town in New York State.  The Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) is a wading shorebird related to Sandpipers and Curlews.  They winter along the Pacific Northwest Coast and are common migrants in Washington's lowland wetlands and salt marshes.  According to Seattle Audubon, a few may remain in this area through the winter.  The solitary bird was spotted this past weekend in Wiley Slough in the Skagit River delta.  Lesser Yellowlegs (T. flavipes) are smaller, seasonal migrants, but unknown in Washington this time of year.

This part of Wiley Slough is outside the barrier dike which protects the farms and homes on Fir Island.  It is open to the sea and the water levels here fluctuate with the tides.  At the time, the tide was outgoing and the mudflats were exposed.  The dormant vegetation includes cattails and other salt marsh grasses.  This is part of a restoration project (.pdf) aimed at improving Chinook Salmon habitat for the Skagit run.  Birds also find this a great spot to feed on insects and aquatic animals.

Greater Yellowlegs breed across the Canadian provinces and into Alaska.  While I watched this bird, he vigorously displayed, calling, bobbing, dancing and strutting.  At first, I thought it might be a courtship display, but there was no other bird around that I could see.  Could he have been practicing his pick up lines before heading off to Canada?  Then I read that they also display when alarmed.  Even though I was on the dike at least 20 meters away, that may still have been too close for comfort.  Nevertheless, he chose to display and emit his piercing calls rather than abandon his patch in the mudflats.

This is another first sighting for me.  With every visit, these tidal marshes always provide something new for me to discover.  It is possible to hike deep into the wetlands using the Spur Dike Trail.  It can be accessed at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Skagit Headquarters Unit.  When you visit, be sure your Discover Pass is displayed in your vehicle.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Robins of Bowman Bay

The lawns of the picnic grounds at Bowman Bay in Deception Pass State Park provide a forest edge/open woodland habitat.  This is exactly what our good old American Robin (Turdus migratorius) likes.  That Latin name literally means "migratory thrush."

We had some nice, sunny weather in early February.  Since then, it has been cold, windy, raining and even snowing.  Yesterday, after some local, spotty snow, the sun finally came out, sort of.  I took the opportunity to hike the Bowman-Rosario Nature Trail in the park.

I spotted a lot of wildlife, but the lowly, taken-for-granted Robins put on the best show of all.  I don't recall ever seeing so many gathered in one place.

The lawns at Bowman Bay were literally alive with dozens of these common thrushes.  They were all busily stalking their annelid pray among the blooming English Daisies growing in the grass.  The birds cock their heads as if listening for the sounds of earthworms moving through the ground.  From what I observed, the technique is nearly foolproof.

Perhaps this behavior explains why a group of Robins is called a "worm."  The pickings must have been pretty good, a testament to the park's low impact lawn care methods.

The bird in the photo above did more resting than hunting.  She looks just about ready to lay a clutch of eggs and probably finds it a bit difficult to get around.

There was also some scrapping going on.  When such a large number of birds gathers in a single place, territorial disputes are likely.  Outside of the breeding season, Robins form congenial flocks, but this time of year, tempers may run a bit thin.

I have observed a variation of this stalking behavior among the Robins in my own yard.  When I am out gardening, digging and planting, the birds have learned that I might also kick up some goodies.  They will gather on a perimeter at a comfortable distance.  The minute I step away, they come right in to collect their prizes.  In this case, I am the one being stalked.

Also spotted during my hike was the Rosario clan of California Quail.  A Bald Eagle rode the brisk winds over Rosario Head.  Another Douglas Squirrel was cleaning up the last of the Nootka Rose hips on the Rosario tombolo.  A Pileated Woodpecker was heard but not seen in a grove of firs.  A "murder" of Northwestern Crows appeared to be exercised about something happening on Rosario Beach.  Song Sparrows were concertizing everywhere along the trail.  With all that happening, however, the most impressive moments of the day were provided by that large gathering of Robins at Bowman Bay.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Camera Ham

Douglas Squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii)

On a recent visit to West Beach in Deception Pass State Park, I checked out a familiar grove of Shore Pines next to the parking lot.  As I walked around the grove peering in, sure enough, up pops an old friend, the Douglas Squirrel we have seen here before.  I was sure he recognized me, but that would probably be wishful thinking.

He was looking even grayer than he did in January.  By late spring, his coat will return to a deep sable brown.  A distinct black lateral band on the sides will divide the brown from the orange belly fur.

Most remarkable about this encounter were his antics.  He moved from limb to limb in the grove as if he wanted to lead me around and show me things.  Naturally, I followed.  Then he would stop for a moment to pose for a photo like a red-carpet celebrity.  I have posted one of those moments here.  He appeared to enjoy the rendezvous as much as I did.

After about twenty minutes of this tête-à-tête, it was time to go home.  I left the park with another memorable wildlife experience.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Exploring The West 90

In early February, I finally got to explore "The West 90."  I had heard about it a few times, but as a birding neophyte, I didn't know where it was.  The official name of the site is the Samish Unit of the Skagit Wildlife Area and it is managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.  I still don't know why it's called "The West 90."  I would appreciate hearing from anyone who does know.

Historically, this was the Samish River floodplain.  When Europeans arrived, the river was diked and the land drained for agriculture.  Now, about 400 acres along the Padilla Bay shoreline have been set aside for wildlife.  When I arrived, I found a big, flat open field.  It was hard to imagine it was a spot where I would see much wildlife.  In the end, I would not be disappointed.

The setting was magnificent.  Mount Baker stood watch stoically over the fields.  Despite the sunshine, the morning temperature was cold, near freezing, and some patches of fog lingered in the area.

Efforts are underway to restore the natural wetland habitats on the site.  This makes it attractive for migrating and wintering birds.  With the adjacent Padilla Bay estuary, this is also an edge habitat where shorebirds may be seen.  From the parking lot, the main trail sets off to the south.

As you begin to explore the fields and ponds, you will be glad you wore your boots.  "Wetland" is the operative word, especially during winter.  Across Padilla Bay to the west, Fidalgo Island and the refineries on March's Point are visible.  The high point on Fidalgo is Mount Erie.  With clear skies, the Olympic Mountains are also visible in the distance.

Twenty-three ponds and a number of copses are scattered over the 409 acre/166 hectare site.  Cereal grains are planted by the WDFW on some of the acreage as a food source for wintering waterfowl.  On occasion, pheasants are released here for sport hunting and there is waterfowl hunting during the winter months.

Several posts have been set in the ground along the dike which borders Padilla Bay.  During my visit, every post was occupied by a Bald Eagle or a hawk using them as hunting perches.  It was literally a field of raptors.  These posts seem to serve no discernible purpose other than to accommodate the birds.  If you build it, they will come.

A Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) was using this post which appeared to be a piece of driftwood stuck in the ground.

Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias) stalked the grasslands adjacent to the ponds.  This was early February and they were probably looking for small rodents, especially voles.  There is a Heron rookery of around 400 nests across Padilla Bay on March's Point.

The sunshine of early February brought out the Pussy Willows.  They were growing in the marshy borders of some of the ponds.

Another post, another Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus).

A big flock of birds flew in and took up perches on shrubs next to the main trail.  I thought they were Starlings and didn't pay much attention or work very hard getting a photo.  In fact, I did my best to avoid them and only took a couple of quick "mob shots."

Red-winged Blackbird Females

After I got home and started looking at the photos closely, I realized these were not Starlings at all.  They were American Pipits (Anthus rubescens), a first-time sighting for me.  I apologize for the poor quality of the photo.  As I said, I didn't work very hard and this is an extreme crop and edit of the original to get a closer look.  These are fairly uncommon birds in this part of western Washington, so this was a good lesson learned.

As pointed out in comments by Dyvon, these are not American Pipits.  They are female Red-winged Blackbirds.  I hate making mistakes like this.  It does illustrate the problem when one is reduced to leafing through books trying to identify birds.  I apologize for the misidentification.  I hope no one else was led down the primrose path by this.

I spotted a Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) perched near one of the ponds.  This open grassland is perfect habitat for them.  This member of the Blackbird family was not singing today.

Speaking of Blackbirds, the male Red-wingeds (Agelaius phoeniceus) were out in force, guarding their individual ponds and singing their hearts out.  They were not hard to find.  Just listen for their rich, melodious calls and follow the singing.  I wrote a Blackbird haiku to post on a friend's blog:

Blackbird in the marsh
Singing lord of the cattails
The sound of sunlight

Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) found rich pickings foraging the cereal grasses planted by the WDFW.  Our Pacific Northwest morphna race is the darkest variation of this common and widespread bird.

In a place where predators and prey come together, there will be kill sites.  I spotted several of these while exploring the fields.

A trio of eagles seemed to be enjoying some aerobatics over by the bordering foothills.  It was hard to tell what they were doing.  This may have been some early courtship dancing.  Whatever it was, they appeared to be having fun.

If you are like me and wondering where this place is, just head towards Samish Island.  Enter the parking lot where Samish Island Road makes a 90° bend to the right.  (Could that be the source of the name?)  Don't forget to bring your Discover Pass.  Now that I have found it and have some orientation to the lay of the land, I plan to return many times.  It appears to be one of the richest birding sites in the area.

As an aside, there were some interesting goings-on here during my visit.  The WDFW has provided a privy adjacent to the parking lot.  It seemed to be frequented by a steady stream of truckers, deliverymen and other assorted road warriors.  Patrons included Fedex, Waste Management and the U.S. Border Patrol.  For those driving occupations some distance from civilization, I am sure this accommodation was much appreciated.