Saturday, November 23, 2013

Harlequin Ducks and Friends


This seems to be a banner year for Harlequin Ducks (Histrionicus histrionicus) in Deception Pass State Park.  Off and on, I have seen one or two birds at a time.  Was I ever surprised to come upon this gang out on Urchin Rocks at Rosario Beach.  I have never seen so many at one time.

They nest along fast moving streams at higher elevations.  In winter, however, they love our rocky shores, according to Seattle Audubon.  They suggest the west coast of Whidbey Island and Rosario Beach on Fidalgo Island are two of the best places to spot them.  My experience is proving them right about that.


This group appeared to be resting and bathing.  The two males in the water would dunk their heads and splash with their wings while the others looked on and enjoyed the sunshine.


The best wildlife viewing in the park is on a weekday, off-season and early in the morning when it's quiet.  Just one other party and I had this whole section of the state park to ourselves.  That included all of Bowman Bay, Rosario Beach and Lighthouse Point.  Later in the morning and throughout the day, more visitors would be arriving.  Even though this is off-season, it is still one of the most visited parks in the state.

Meeting the Harlequin Ducks at Rosario Beach was a special treat.  I also met several of their friends along the trail from Bowman Bay to Rosario:


As I set off on the Bowman-Rosario Trail, my first encounter was this Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon).  This one is a female identified by the rufous coloring on the belly.  I have been trying to get a decent photo of one for two years.  So far, this is the best I have been able to accomplish.  They're very active and fast and they can spot a guy with a camera from a hundred yards.  This one paused momentarily on the exposed rock in Bowman Bay, but there was no time for do-overs.  When out exploring, listen for their ratcheting calls that sound like loud fishing reels.


I can always count on the Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritis) out on this rock in Bowman Bay.  There is a smaller rock further out that they also like.  Can you spot the one striking the "angel" pose?  They do this to dry their feathers after diving.  A group of cormorants like this is called a sunning for obvious reasons.


As I got close to Rosario Beach, near the Rosario Field Classroom, I heard her tapping before I spotted her.   When out exploring for wildlife, your ears can be as important as your eyes.  This female Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus Pileatus) was busy working a Douglas Fir.  I could tell this was a female because she had a black mustache or malar stripe.  Males have a red mustache.  These are large and magnificent birds and I am always thrilled to spot one.  Also, how fitting to see one during Movember.


For the past few days, we have been under a Modified Continental Polar air mass which brings dry air, bright sunny skies and frigid temperatures.  It was about 26° F (-3° C) when I arrived at the park, very cold by our standards.  Usually our weather involves warmer Maritime Polar air masses which bring overcast, drizzle and showers during the fall and winter.  I think these chilly temperatures also help to bring out the wildlife.  I seem to have the best luck when it's cold.  For some reason, this is also my favorite hiking weather.


A raft of eight or ten Common Goldeneyes (Bucephala clangula) were swimming and diving out in Rosario Bay.  I tried to catch them all on the surface at the same time, but they weren't cooperating.  During the breeding season, they nest in forests around small freshwater lakes and ponds.  In winter, they move to marine areas, protected bays and estuaries according to Seattle Audubon.  Here they feed on mollusks, crustaceans and fish.


As I watched the Harlequin Ducks, once again, my ears became a useful tool.  High pitched calls alerted me to a pair of Black Oystercatchers (Haematopus bachmani) resting at the top of Urchin Rocks.  These laid back shore birds seem to like to announce their presence to the world.  I am told they nest across the way on Deception Island.  Sparse populations are found in rocky habitats along the Pacific Coast from the Aleutians to Baja California.  Beaches in the San Juan Islands, around Whidbey Island and in Skagit Bay are some of the few places they can be seen further inland.

Deception Pass State Park is one of my favorite places to visit for viewing wildlife.  This day I met the Harlequin Ducks of Rosario Beach as well as several of their friends along the Bowman-Rosario Trail.  It was a very good day to be in the park.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Return to Fraggle Rock


Over the past month or so, I have made several trips to West Beach in Deception Pass State Park.  I have been coming to check this big rock just off shore from the parking lot.  It looks oblong from shore, however, the satellite map view reveals it to be fairly round in shape.

For want of a better name, I have dubbed it Fraggle Rock after the Jim Henson/HBO TV series from the 1980's.  Like in the TV show, it's a little world apart where different creatures live in a complex ecosystem.


I have discovered this rock to be a favorite resting place for sea birds.  Fall and winter seem to be the best seasons to view this phenomenon.  After 09:00 AM is the optimum time to view the birds.  By 10:00 AM, the crowds really begin to gather.


One of the species I have been looking for in particular is the Heermann's Gull (Larus heermanni) and here is one red-beaked fellow in all its glory.  They breed on hot desert islands off the west coast of Mexico according to iBird Pro.  In late summer and fall, they migrate up here as far north as British Columbia.


Here are three more Heermann's Gulls on the beach in front of the rock.  You can spot the ones with red beaks and black legs.  The pink legged birds are our resident Western and/or Glaucous-winged gulls.


There are smaller rocks in clusters near "Fraggle Rock" which are exposed at low tides.  These are also attractive roosting spots for the local sea birds.


After feeding all morning, it's nice to gather with friends to rest and socialize.  This photo was shot on a very foggy day.


Here are three Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritis) identified by their orange cheeks and throat pouches.  During the breeding season, they have little white crests behind their eyes.  Of the three species of cormorant in the state, these are the most commonly seen.  I am always amazed how different species peacefully gather together on the rock.


This handsome fellow is a male Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus).  Outside of the breeding season, West Beach and Rosario Beach in Deception Pass State Park are two of the best spots to see them.  His scientific name translates to "theatrical theatrical" befitting his dramatic costume.


When it is windy, you can always tell the direction of the wind by the orientation of the birds.  In this case, it's blowing from the north.


Among the resident gulls in this photo are two Black Oystercatchers (Haematopus bachmani), five Heermann's Gulls and three Double-crested Cormorants.  Can you spot them all?  This photo should reveal why this has become one of my favorite spots for wildlife viewing.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Lesser Canada Goose?


I spotted this fellow resting at the edge of Cranberry Lake in Deception Pass State Park.  There was something about his beak that caught my eye.  It looked smaller than I would expect for a Canada Goose (Branta canadensis).  I wondered if I had spotted a Cackling Goose instead.

When I got home and started studying the question, I found myself mired in a very complicated subject.  My Sibley lists six subspecies of Canada Goose, Aleutian, Cackling, Dusky, Richardson's, Lesser and Common.  National Geographic refers to "approximately seven named subspecies."  The phrase "approximately seven" would indicate a hesitancy to commit.  It also lists the Cackling Goose as a separate species, Branta hutchinsii.

Seattle Audubon indicates there are five subspecies that occur in Washington, Western, Lesser, Dusky, Vancouver and more rarely Giant.  It also lists the Cackling Goose as a separate species.

Finally, Wikipedia lists seven subspecies, Dusky, Vancouver, Lesser, Moffitt's, Giant, Interior and Atlantic.  Then, of course, there can be hybrids among these subspecies.  I believe Wikipedia sums it up best when speaking of "confusion and debate among ornithologists."


So, returning to my friend at Cranberry Lake, I have decided this might be a Lesser Canada Goose, Branta canadensis parvipes.  His beak looks too small to be a Common Canada Goose and too large to be a Cackling Goose.  This fellow is also not as big as other Canada Geese I have seen, another characteristic that would point to the "Lesser" subspecies.  But like National Geographic, I am not ready to commit to that.  I would be interested to hear from anyone who might know more than I do about identifying these birds.

Another unusual feature about this guy was that he was alone.  Canada Geese are gregarious birds, almost always seen in groups.  I have read that if one is injured during migration, a companion or mate will stay behind until the bird either recovers or dies.  This is a characteristic I admire.

Frankly, I sometimes wonder if we may be overthinking the subject of subspecies among birds.  Consider the huge genetic variation within the domestic dog, Canis lupus familiaris.  In ten thousand years, if scientists found the bones of Shaquille O'Neal, Peter Dinklage and me, would they consider us three different species or subspecies of human?  Is it possible, as in my Homo sapiens example, we are just seeing normal genetic variations of Branta canadensis?



Meanwhile, the fall migration continues back home along my beach on South Fidalgo Island.  Can you understand from these photos why the Canada Goose is one of my favorite birds?