Monday, October 22, 2012


Autumn Blue Heron
She is dancing with the wind
Taking flight with me

Skagit River Delta, Fir Island, Washington

Quiet visitor
Softly singing with the wind
Music of the earth

Skagit Bay, South Fidalgo Island, Washington

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Wood Duck

While hiking the dike in the Skagit Wildlife Area on Fir Island, an opening in the vegetation revealed this handsome Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) swimming in Wiley Slough.  Wooded areas in the Skagit delta wetlands provide ideal habitat.  These "tree ducks" are monogamous, solitary nesters.  Up to fifteen eggs will be laid in the cavity of a tree and incubated by the hen according to iBird.

He was joined by his mate and the pair quickly disappeared behind the vegetation lining the dike.  This is a public hunting area, so the birds are wise to skedaddle.

Wood Ducks were almost hunted to extinction around the turn of the nineteenth century.  Efforts to restore populations included installing nest boxes in breeding areas and allowing beaver populations to increase.  Beavers help build the habitats desired by Wood Ducks by creating fresh water marshes with their damming.

As an aside, I see the terrific iBird Pro app for Android devices is currently on sale for $4.99 US at the Google Play store and at Amazon.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

More Fall Migration

The Spur Dike along Wiley Slough in the Skagit River delta has become one of my favorite spots for exploring.  There always seems to be something new to discover there.  Maybe this is a benefit of the Washington "Discover" Pass.  On my last visit a week ago, I came upon this group of long-billed wading birds in the marshes south of the dike.  At the time, I wasn't sure what they were.  This was a busy, active bunch, about a dozen in all, moving quickly as they probed the shallow waters with those specialized bills.  The moved along in unison like a troupe of caffeinated dancers.

With bright morning sun, the lighting and shadows were terrible for both photos and for identification of the birds.  When I got home, I hunted through my bird books and internet sites to try and determine what they were.  With some reservation, I have identified them as Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca).  As usual, please correct me if I am wrong.

UPDATE  As it turns out, I was wrong, and gratefully, Hugh at Rock Paper Lizard has corrected me.  These birds are Long-billed Dowitchers (Limnodromus scolopaceus).  When I look back at the photos in my Greater Yellowlegs post, I see the difference in the bill length that Hugh pointed out.  At least I got them in the right group, so perhaps there is hope for me yet.  This time of year, the Long-billed Dowitcher is actually a more common bird in this area.  This would be another factor in confirming the ID.

For larger and sharper images, click or right-click on the photos.

Long-billed Dowitchers breed along the Arctic coasts of Alaska and western-most Canada.  Western Washington is part of their migration route.  The salt marshes of the Skagit River delta is also ideal wintering habitat, according to Birdweb.

I am actually pleased to learn the true identity of these birds.  Long-billed Dowitchers provide me with a first sighting.

My reservations about the identity of these birds stem from my past (and now present) ID failures.  Leafing through books and scanning internet photos is not a very good method.  I have made some bad mistakes using this process.

I also misidentified the second bird.  Hugh again reveals that it is a Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria), and he describes it as "a much cooler bird."  I agree.  They are apparently an uncommon migratory visitor to Washington State.  Their breeding range includes wooded areas in much of Canada and Alaska.  A unique characteristic is their habit of reusing the abandoned nests of other birds, including Robins, Waxwings and Jays.  Again thanks to Hugh, this becomes another first sighting for me.

When I review photos and drawings of all the Sandpipers, what becomes apparent is how similar they are to one another.  I hope no one was led astray by my fumbled ID.  I also went back and reviewed my original Greater Yellowlegs post.  Without anyone disagreeing so far, I do believe I identified that one correctly.

A group of Sandpipers may be referred to as a "contradiction" or a "time-step."  It seems either would be appropriate.

The Spur Dike Trail into the Skagit delta wetlands is a wonderful and unique place for wildlife viewing.  It is possible to hike deep into the wetlands atop the dike and keep dry feet the whole way.  To find it from Interstate 5, take the Lake McMurray exit in Skagit County and head west.  Quickly turn right into Conway and stay on Fir Island Road for about 2 miles.  Turn left onto Wylie Road and continue south all the way to the end.  The entrance to the site is marked by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife sign.  You can park either at the boat launch or the headquarters.  Be sure to display your Discover Pass during your stay.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Fall Migration

For the past twenty-five autumns, I have observed Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) stopping for a visit on South Fidalgo Island.  While we have year-around resident geese in the area, the only time I see them here is during September and October.  This tells me that these visitors are stopping by on their annual migration.  The geese routinely come to the spot where a small stream drains into the bay.  Here, they can get a drink of fresh water, refuel with a seaweed snack and catch a snooze.  I have come to look forward to this annual event.  It is a part of the natural rhythm of the neighborhood.

I also see the V formations and hear the woodwind sounds of Canada Geese flying overhead.  They are always moving to the west following the South Fidalgo shoreline towards Deception Pass.  I suspect they will head out the Strait of Juan de Fuca to join other flocks in the Pacific Flyway.

Groups of between five and thirty birds will spend a couple of hours resting on the beach.  Then they will move on.  This pattern might be repeated two or three times a day.  Apparently, Canada Geese have traditional rest stops along their migration routes.  The South Fidalgo shoreline could be one of those spots.  It is always a pleasant, enjoyable scene when the birds stop by to take one of their breaks.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Bushtits at Deception Pass

The first day of October and Deception Pass State Park have given me beautiful weather and a first sighting.  In a small grove of Shore Pines at West Beach, I spotted a half dozen tiny birds making a chattering ruckus in the branches.  From their size, I first thought they were wrens.  When I noticed the light gray coloring, I wasn't sure what they were.

These fast moving, active little birds were difficult to photograph in the branches, but I managed to get a few shots.  I hoped a couple would turn out to be useful.  When I got home, I identified them as Bushtits (Psaltriparus minimus) using iBird Pro's* search function.  This is a handy tool I have used several times.

This is an adult female bird in the photos, identified by her light colored eyes.  Males and juveniles have dark eyes.  According to Seattle Audubon, they live in "mixed coniferous and deciduous areas with shrubby growth."  That describes the dune forest at West Beach to a T.

The most interesting feature about these birds, however, is their nest.  They weave impressive hanging basket nests made of plant wool, lichens, mosses and spider webs and line them with fir and feathers.  An entry hole near the top provides access to the nesting chamber.  Helper birds, not actually the parents, may assist in feeding the nestlings.  Next spring, I plan to see if I can spot some of these nests hanging from tree branches in the park, now that I know what to look for.

Bushtits are year-around residents in the Puget Sound lowlands, southwest British Columbia, the lower Columbia Basin, and most of Oregon except the northeast.  What a kick it is to see something new for the first time.  A nice morning walk around the Sand Dune trail capped off with a first sighting made for a very good day.

* iBird Pro is available at Amazon, Google Play Store and iTunes Store.