Thursday, June 28, 2012

It's Been a Busy Day...

Rufous Hummingbirds (Salasphorus rufus) Females

The poet Robert Sund has anticipated my recent BirdCam Experience:

Summer Solstice

It's been a busy day.
     one hummingbird, then

For Allen Engle

Cleared for approach

Flashing her red throat spot

"I'm ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMille"

Then, I did some experimenting with Photoshop's special effect filters:

Monday, June 25, 2012

Rufous Hummingbird

This week I set up a BirdCam for hummingbirds and I am finally getting some decent pictures of the little guys.  These are Rufous Hummingbirds (Salasphorous rufus).  I was puzzled why I was only seeing female birds in the photos.  Not a single male has made an appearance so far.  Then I found something interesting at the Seattle Audubon website regarding Rufous Hummingbird migration:
"In June and July, males leave the breeding grounds for higher elevations, from which they will later migrate south. Females and juveniles leave the state from late July through September, with most migrating in August."
Apparently, all the male Rufous Hummingbirds have already left the area.  I will keep an eye out to see if I catch any stragglers.

On her approach to the feeder, she flashes her tail.  I think it's like lowering the flaps on an airplane to maintain lift while decelerating.  The rufous orange band on her tail differentiates her from our other hummer, Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna).

Getting usable hummingbird photos with the BirdCam has required some trial and error.  First, if there is busy foliage in the background close to the feeder, these little birds can get lost in the scene.  I solved this problem by moving the camera at least eight feet (2.4 m) from the background.  Using the 18-23" focus setting the background will be slightly blurred (referred to as "bokeh") and this makes the little guys stand out better.

Last summer, the camera pointed north so both the subject and background were directly lighted.  Too much reflected light created a lot of bad photos.  My current setup has the BirdCam pointing west.  The lighting is now coming from the left side and this seems to be producing better images.  I may try this angled lighting with other feeders.

To prepare the nectar, I use a hot water dispenser at the sink.  I dilute 1/4 cup sugar to one cup hot water.  For winter feeding, I found a recipe using 1/4 cup sugar diluted to 3/4 cup hot water.  Site the feeder in a protected spot close to the house.  This will stay liquid down to 25° F (-3.9° C) which will serve for most of the winter in our climate.

All the range maps and references indicate that Rufous Hummingbirds occur in western Washington during the spring and summer breeding season.  Then they migrate to the Gulf Coast and Mexico for the winter.  Either some may be wintering here on Fidalgo Island or they arrive very early to begin their courtship.  On a cold, sunny day last January, I had about a dozen buzzing around the yard, flashing orange and emitting their "chip-chip-chip" calls.  There was quite a vigorous aerial display going on.  I immediately put up a feeder, but I never saw them around the yard again the rest of the winter.

When I set up this BirdCam station for hummingbirds, it took them all of about five minutes to find it.  They are either feeder-savvy birds or very clever ones.  They are now emptying this 8 ounce/250 ml feeder once every day.

When I discovered the BirdCam, I wondered if it was an expensive gimmick, too good to be true.  It also seemed like too much fun to pass up.  I went ahead and bought one, and I have never regretted it.  Capturing photos like these hummingbird shots has been more fun than I imagined.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

More Cedar Waxwings

I was back on Fir Island yesterday hiking the dike at Wiley Slough.  In this wetland garden, I saw bouquets of blooming wildflowers and heard a symphony of birdsong.  All the parts of the orchestra were playing and every color of the spectrum was on display.  Once again, the Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) were featured in starring roles.  The Black Twinberry (Lonicera involucrata) which lines the dike trail is fruiting now and these fruit-loving birds were enjoying the buffet.  Nearby, the Coastal Hedgenettle (Stachys chamissonis) served as table decoration:

Sunday, June 17, 2012


Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) Similk Bay, Washington

Friday, June 15, 2012

American Goldfinch

The American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) is the state bird of Washington, as well as of Iowa and New Jersey.  On Fidalgo Island, we see them from spring to late fall.  They are year-around residents of eastern Washington.

These are Birdcam photos and it has been surprisingly difficult to get decent shots.  The breeding plumage of the male is so intensely yellow that it tends to over-saturate, especially in sunlight.  The best Birdcam photos are produced in shade or under overcast skies.  Even then, they need a little Photoshop hocus-pocus to make them presentable.

This is a breeding season pair which allows comparing the plumage of the male and female.  The male on the right is bright, clear lemon yellow with a small, black cap on the forehead.  The female is drabber, grayish yellow-brown and lacks the cap.  In he winter, the males lose their black cap and become drab olive or brownish like the females.

The older binomial is Spinus tristis and this name is sometimes still used.  Carduelis comes from cardus, "thistle," and refers to this finch family's fondness for nyjer or thistle seed.  If you want to attract Goldfinches to your yard, put up a thistle seed feeder.  They will come like heroine addicts to the methadone clinic.  At the feeder, you will notice their quiet demeanor, and a focus and intensity not seen in other birds.  Where nyjer seed is concerned, they are all business.  Now say "thistle seed feeder" three times fast.

Pine Siskins (Carduelis pinus) are the smaller cousins of Goldfinches and are often seen feeding with them.  Other family members are the Lesser Goldfinch (Carduelis psaltria) and Common Redpol (Carduelis flammea), but these are only rarely seen in Washington.  During the winter, Common Redpols have been spotted in the wetlands on nearby Fir Island.

"Psssst, over here."

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Birdcam Back in Business

My two Birdcam photo stations have been shut down since mid-February.  Recall the problems I was having with Eastern Gray Squirrels and House Finches.  Too much success can be the worst dilemma of all.  I decided to give all bird feeding a cooling down period.  This week, I began setting up my Birdcam stations again.  Station No. 2 now has a brand new woodpecker feeder and I provisioned it with pepper suet.  I have been experimenting with it for a couple of months, and the Gray Squirrels have shunned it totally.

I was pleased to catch this photo of a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) on the first day out.  This is the bird that inspired me to purchase and install a Birdcam in the first place.  This is also my first photo of a female Pileated.  The black mustache and black forehead are the distinguishing marks.  Until now, I had only seen males in the yard.  Yes, friends, I am definitely back in business.

The Black-headed Grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus) is one of our summer-only birds.  It is also Fidalgo Island's only member of the Cardinal family.  The tortoise shell markings and colors identify a male.  In the Northwest, they will be attracted if there are a few broad-leaved trees among your confers and a water source.

The pepper suet received mixed reviews at Amazon.  I decided to give it a try anyway.  It is softer than the regular kind I bought locally and a bit messy to use.  Contrary to some of the reviews, it does seem to repel my local Gray Squirrels and the cakes last a good two weeks.  That offsets the higher cost a bit.  I would enjoy hearing suet recommendations and experiences from others.

Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) are always photogenic and another of my favorites.  Hanging out in small groups is an interesting behavior I have noticed during the winter.  They will just sit quietly together in the yard, perhaps sharing flicker gossip.  This is a red-shafted flicker and a female distinguished by the lack of a mustache mark.  I also see a few yellow-shafted birds who venture down from Canada, but most of my Flickers are red/yellow hybrids.  They have orange feather linings and will display a faded nape mark of the yellow-shafted race.

I was shut down for four months, so I missed the spring migrators.  Last year, I caught locally rare Western Tanagers passing through.  I will have to wait another year for that opportunity.  I am also waiting for the little Nuthatches, Chickadees and Wrens to show up.  They should discover the suet in a short time.  There is never a dull moment in the wildlife garden.

This post is being published simultaneously at Fidalgo Island Crossings.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


Yesterday morning there was quite a ruckus in the front yard.  A Bald Eagle had settled on one of the hunting perches, but a local Northwestern Crow was having none of it.  I was surprised to find only two birds.  It sounded like a very noisy gang fight.

The eagles are often harried by smaller birds, in particular, during nesting season.  Even the little sparrows try to chase them off.  Smaller hawks, Ravens and crows are especially intolerant of eagles in their territories.

Despite their size, Bald Eagles are not bullies.  They are very peaceable birds.  They usually yield to the harassment and leave.  I have never seen them fight back or try to stand their ground.

This photo is the proverbial "lucky shot."  I was surprised when he launched.  There was no time to frame the shot or focus.  I just clicked the photo and hoped for the best.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Banana Slug, Hooray!

I am about to wax rhapsodic over finding a slug in my garden.  I know some may find that weird, but remember, this is the Pacific Northwest.  We're a little different here.

This lovely lady (or handsome gentleman, if you wish, you can use either since they are both) is Ariolimax columbianus, the Banana Slug.  If you're lucky, you can find him/her in the foggy, moist coastal forests from southeast Alaska to northern California.

These are not the garden pests that climb your Lupines, gobble up your Hostas or feast on your Petunias.  Those gray, red or black invaders are immigrants from Europe.  Our native Banana Slugs have a refined and gentle palate.  They are more likely to be found cleaning up decaying plant material from the ground.  According to Paghat's Garden, they prefer densely wooded places where there are lots of mouldering conifer needles to eat.  Mushrooms are their favorite food.

Why am I excited about finding one in my garden?  To begin, it is the first one I have seen here in 25 years.  They are rarely found in "cosmopolitan" areas.  The preferred habitat is dense forest.  Because of this, it could be evidence that my attempts at creating a Northwest forest edge habitat in the garden has been successful.  Of course, it is always a thrill to spot something rare, wild, and quintessentially Northwest, in my own yard.  Even a lowly gastropod mollusk.

Banana Slugs are actually under threat from the introduced species through competition and predation.  Remember that these are the good guys/gals and that they deserve your protection.  If you spot one, you are most fortunate.  Be kind and considerate to this native-born Northwesterner.