Sunday, June 16, 2013

Red Crossbills of Gibralter Road

The Red Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra) was the bird that led me to bird watching.  I had recently moved into this house, and as I recall, it was late August.  The house was new and there was no yard yet.  I spotted a bright red bird with dark brown wings.  It was perched on an Alder snag and preening.  I had no idea what it was.  In the late afternoon sun, the red color was brilliant, almost glowing.  I tried to memorize everything I was seeing.  The important thing I could not see from a distance was that unique bill.

I bought my first bird book, a Peterson Field Guide to Western Birds, because of this sighting.  Using the book, I tentatively ID'd it as a Scarlet Tanager, but I had doubts.  It did indicate they were "accidental" in the Pacific Northwest.  The picture of a Red Crossbill in that book looked pink to me, and my bird was brick red, more like the Tanager.

Now, move ahead in time about 12 years.  Add a bunch of feeders, a few more books, the internet, a little experience and a couple of BirdCams.  I got something interesting in a BirdCam photo that helped me ID the bird I had seen years before.

In this photo, a pair of Crossbills has been joined by a Pine Siskin at the BirdCam feeder.  One of the larger finches, mature male Red Crossbills display an orange-red color, while the females come in shades of olive green.  That crossed bill is a tool designed for removing conifer seeds from cones.  In this neighborhood that means Douglas and Grand Fir seeds.  Apparently, Safflower seeds from a feeder are also relished.  According to iBird, the size and shape of the bill will vary to accommodate local food sources.

The local food supply also determines the time of year for breeding.  Interestingly, Crossbills will even raise their young during the winter months if this is when the food supply is greatest.  The young are not born with crossed bills.  Instead, the mandibles cross as the chicks grow.  With so much governed by local food, would it be wrong to view this species as an example of evolution in action?

In this neighborhood, the upper bill always seems to cross over to the left side. Does anyone know if that characteristic holds true elsewhere?

Photo:  Dan Codd
Photo:  Dan Codd

Photo:  Dan Codd

My neighbor Dan who lives in The Heights behind me has been visited by several Red Crossbills and he sent me these photos.  These shots really catch that odd bill.  He has been seeing nearly a dozen or so at a time.  This is a remarkable experience.  Other than the occasional BirdCam photo, I have only seen that one bird in the yard years ago.  Nevertheless, our experiences indicate the local population might be increasing.

I was lucky to catch the Crossbills in the BirdCam.  At least 98% of the photos lately have been of House Finches.  The BirdCam has now been reset with Thistle Seed for American Goldfinches.  Here is a preview of coming attractions:

Sunday, June 9, 2013

More Baby Pictures

I was wandering around the yard checking out the garden to see what was blooming.  I had the Canon 7D and the 100 mm macro lens with me.  Behind some big rhododendrons there is an empty shaded spot where I am working on some ideas.  In the corner of my eye I caught movement and something brown.  That neighbor's cat is here, I thought.  Then suddenly, this little fellow came rompity-stomping right up to me!  He was only about five feet away, almost too close for the lens.

His reaction was a mix of curiosity and wariness.  My reaction was f-stop, f-stop!  He ran up the bank to the driveway, stopped and stared at me for a moment.  Then he scampered back down to get a closer look again.  He continued to move around me as if to check me out from every angle.  He was a tiny little guy, no taller than a Border Collie.  But he was full of spirit, bold and curious.  I am probably the first human he's laid eyes on up close.

I admit, I don't really know if I should say "he" or "she."  "He" just seems right for some reason.

These are Columbian Black-tailed Deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) in this part of the state.  They are frequent visitors to the garden.  The property includes an old deer trail they still use to get from the road down to the shoreline of Skagit Bay.  This is the first time I have encountered a fawn on his own without his mother nearby.

I never did see mom.  I wondered if she was lurking somewhere getting ready to kick the crap out of me.  After I got a few shots, I moved away from that corner of the yard to let him settle down.  His mother may have left him there while she went to the beach for some salt.  There is a lot of cover in that part of the garden where the visiting deer can feel comfortable.

To paraphrase an old 1950's TV show, "There are 8 million stories in the wildlife garden."

You might also enjoy Baby Pictures:  Northern Flicker

Monday, June 3, 2013

Mother's Day

Well at least this morning it was for this mother Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) swimming with her brood in Wiley Slough.  I wonder if this is the same hen I saw here last fall.  On that encounter, she was swimming with a mate.  Wiley Slough is in the Skagit State Wildlife Recreation Area on Fir Island. Here it is possible to hike out into the wetlands of the Skagit River delta on the Spur Dike Trail.  This is one of the best spots I have found in the area for viewing wildlife.  The site is a partially wooded wetland which is ideal Wood Duck habitat.

Another shot provides a look at a few more of the ducklings.  There were 12 to 15 in all.  I spotted the ducklings first before mom swam into view.

Wood Ducks have the unusual characteristic (for ducks) of nesting in trees.  They have claws on the ends of their webbed toes to facilitate this.  They will nest in a natural cavity or in a nest box according to BirdWeb.  There are some large nest boxes mounted over the water here which I now suspect are for them.

Within a day of hatching, the ducklings will leave the nest.  This might involve jumping into the water from high in a tree.  They are able to swim, feed and fend for themselves at this point, but they will be shepherded by their mother for another 5 to 6 weeks.