Saturday, September 29, 2012

First Junco

Like the swallows to Capistrano and the buzzards to Hinckley, the Dark-eyed Juncos return to South Fidalgo Island every fall.  I caught this lone female bird at BirdCam-One this past week.  While it is not my best BirdCam photo, the occasion of the first Junco's appearance is too important to pass up.  Another chime of the cosmic clock has sounded.

Over October, they will become one of our most abundant wintering birds.  In March, they will begin their migration to breeding grounds at higher elevations.  By the end of April, they will all be gone again.  Meanwhile, this charming little sparrow will provide us a bit of warmth through the winter.

Dark-eyed Junco (Oregon Junco) Junco hyemalis

Friday, September 21, 2012

Pecking Order

An adult Gull is relaxing and enjoying some morning sunshine.  His perch is an old piling near Ala Spit, off Whidbey Island, Washington.

When joined by a juvenile, the adult assumes a more alert stance.  The juvenile takes a groveling, submissive posture, as if to say, "please, do you mind if I join you."

The adult will have none of it, however, and evicts the juvenile from the piling.  The youngster has learned a coming-of-age lesson about pecking order in the world of gulls.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Heron Saves the Day

I drove across Deception Pass to Whidbey Island this morning to see if I could spot any wildlife.  My first stop was Ala Spit where I spotted a "parcel" of Black Oystercatchers, six in all.  The sun was right behind them which ruled out a decent photo.  They were not going to let me get close, either.

The next stop was West Beach in Deception Pass State Park.  I took a stroll around the Sand Dunes trail.  As usual there were a lot of gulls and crows, but not much else going on.  Even my reliable old friend the Douglas Squirrel, the "Mayor of West Beach,"  was nowhere to be seen.

Heading back to the parking lot, I spotted something moving behind the reeds growing at the edge of Cranberry Lake.  I practically walked right into a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) patrolling the shallows at the edge of the lake.  They have the habit of freezing in place when alarmed.  This makes them great photo subjects.

I was amazed how close the heron was allowing me to approach.  No doubt, this State Park bird has become accustomed to having people around.  I had the same experience at the marina in downtown Anacortes.  I have never gotten this close to the herons on the beach at home.

The binomial carries a mystery for me.  Why was this bird given the name herodias?  Herodias was the second wife of Herod Antipas and the mother of Salome.  I don't get the connection.  I would enjoy hearing from anyone who knows.

When I backed off a bit, he continued his patrol along the edge of the lake.  I was pleased to have met this fellow.  He saved the day for a hopeful photographer.

Thursday, September 13, 2012


My neighbor sent me this photo for help with identification.  I know it's a Flycatcher, but I am not sure what kind it is.  The photo was shot on South Fidalgo Island at the northern end of Puget Sound in Washington State.  My best guess is Pacific-slope Flycatcher (Empidonax difficilis) but that is only a guess.  Can anyone help identify this Flycatcher?  My neighbor and I thank you for your help.

UPDATE:  In comments to the post, both Dan McShane and Jill's friend Ian Paulsen have confirmed that this is indeed a Pacific-slope Flycatcher.  I also contacted the Seattle Audubon Society and this was their response:
...I believe I agree with you that the photo is of a Pacific-slope Flycatcher.  As you know they can be notoriously difficult to i.d., but this one so nicely shows a slight crest, an eye-ring that tapers to the back of the head (or The white eye-ring extends to the back in a teardrop shape. ), and the buffy wing-bars of the juvenile.
Seattle Audubon publishes the great BirdWeb site featuring the birds of Washington State.  I use this site a lot for identification and information about the birds I see.

So there you have it.  I have gotten into trouble trying to ID birds on my own by leafing through books or searching websites.  It's great to get some expert help.  My neighbor Dan Codd and I thank everyone for their assistance.

Photo:  Dan Codd

Monday, September 10, 2012

Slugfest: Ariolimax columbianus

After a month and a day with no measurable rainfall, it finally rained last night.  My weather station recorded 0.07 inch (1.8 mm).  Some are surprised to learn that during July and August, the Pacific Northwest is one of the driest places in the country.  My garden is testament.

After early morning overcast, the skies quickly cleared.  It looked like a good day to check out Deception Pass State Park nearby.  Now that school is in session and most of the tourists are gone, may I declare that the park is all mine again?

I crossed the Deception Pass Bridge and headed over to West Beach and Cranberry Lake on Whidbey Island.  I found it breezy with surf rolling in off the Strait of Juan de Fuca, an aftermath of last night's rain system.

I set off on the Sand Dunes Interpretive Trail.  As usual, a couple dozen gulls were in Cranberry Lake for their morning swim.  Northwestern Crows were patrolling the outer dunes.  There were no Canada Geese this day, but their legacy remains.  Their, uh, remains have forced the closure of Cranberry Lake to swimming by humans.  Today I found the most interesting wildlife was in the dark, shady spots of the dune forest next to the lake.

The paved pathway through the forest was alive with our native Banana Slugs (Ariolimax columbianus).  Even here, I had never seen so many before.  No doubt they were lured out of the vegetation of the forest floor by last night's rain.

Banana Slugs are terrestrial gastropod mollusks related to snails, but they lack an external shell.  They are cousins to oysters, nudibranchs and octopuses.  They have a lung and breath air through a hole in the side of their mantle called a pneumostome.  You can see it in the photo above.  It always seems to be on the right side.

Slugs have two pairs of tentacles on the head, upper and lower.  There are light sensing eye spots at the tips.  These do not provide vision as we think of it.  Vision is not an important sense for an animal that lives in shady darkness.  The tentacles also contain olfactory cells for smelling which is their most critical sense for finding food.  They have no sense of hearing, but seem to be very perceptive to the vibrations of human footsteps.

Gastropod reproduction is hermaphroditic.  Each animal possesses both male and female reproductive organs.  You can refer to them as he or she since they are both.  Pheromones in the slime attract other slugs for mating which involves a mutual exchange of sperm.  Self-fertilization by a single animal is also practiced.

The Banana Slug is our only native slug.  Those red, gray and black slugs which are garden pests are all introduced, invasive species from Europe.

The Banana Slug is a valuable detritivore.  This means it consumes plant and animal waste material and converts it into organic soil.  They are an important part of the ecosystem.  Even in the garden, they will more likely be found chewing up fir needles which have dropped to the ground, rather than your petunias.  Do what you wish with the garden pests, but If you find a Banana Slug, give it your protection.  It is one of the good guys.

A slow-moving, defenseless creature relies on stealth and camouflage for protection.  Even on the path, they are almost impossible to spot in the forest shade and leaf litter.  Where I grew up on the west side of Puget Sound, we had the big, bright yellow Banana Slugs.  Again, these were well camouflaged in the leaf litter and dappled sunlight of the forest floor.

I wonder if the black spots are unique in each individual, like fingerprints.

There are a few animals which eat slugs.  I have seen a garter snake eating a black slug in my garden.  A greater threat to the native slugs, however, are the introduced European species through competition and predation.

Deception Pass State Park is named for the gorge and waterway between Whidbey and Fidalgo Islands.  Sections of the park are on both sides.  The iconic Deception Pass Bridge connects the two sections and will be my route home to Fidalgo Island on the opposite side in the photo.  It was a very pleasant morning visiting the Banana Slugs of West Beach.

Sunday, September 9, 2012


In nature, it is not always "Peace in the Valley."  It's hard to know why these Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) appear to be quarreling.  They are known to be territorial during the breeding season, but that's over now.  I believe they are first season juveniles, but that's a guess.  I am used to seeing more gray striping around the eyes.  Over the last two months, I have been seeing a lot of juveniles at this BirdCam station.

Monday, September 3, 2012


Arguably, the film Predator gave us one of the greatest movie creatures ever.  It took cunning and some luck for Arnold to defeat it.  Our wildlife gardens can also contain predators that are as malevolent and ruthless as that alien creature in the movie.  Domestic cats that are allowed to run free are known to exercise their predatory instincts.  One blogger did the math and came up with an estimate of 1.7 billion birds killed by outdoor cats annually in the United States.  If you think that is an overestimation, divide it by 1,000 and the number is still too large.

If cat lovers are not feeling a little concerned by that number, perhaps they will take notice of these figures:
  • Free-roaming cats live 1 to 3 years
  • Indoor/outdoor cats live 6 to 8 years
  • Indoor only cats live 20 years or more

My neighborhood serves as an example.  When I first moved here, there were several cats, perhaps a dozen, that roamed the area.  I came to recognize them, Black Spot, Scruffy, Gray Stripes, Calico, Scrawny and so on.  My own indoor-only cat Big Guy took great interest in them.  When driving to work early in the morning, I would often see coyotes around Fidalgo Elementary School.  When they started clearing for homes near the school, the coyotes began to appear in my neighborhood.  Very suddenly, all the neighborhood roaming cats disappeared.  The predators became the prey.  I haven't seen a cat roaming the yard in twenty years.

That's why the appearance of this cat in a BirdCam photo took me by surprise.  Before this, I wasn't concerned about the siting of the birdbath.  Fortunately, the cat has been an infrequent visitor.

This is a nice looking cat and obviously well cared for.  But if his owners don't keep him indoors, he'll be coyote food for sure.  Arnold Schwarzenegger taught us a lesson in the movie.  Regardless how well equipped, no predator is invincible.