Monday, December 29, 2014

An Eagle for Boxing Day

Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)

On the day after Christmas, Boxing Day is observed in many English-speaking countries around the world.  For some reason, it is well known, but only erratically observed in the United States.  Mostly, we use it as an excuse to take another vacation day after Christmas.

My Christmas present this year was a new Canon EF 100-400mm II telephoto lens.  Among the first subjects I wanted to photograph with it were the Black Oystercatchers on "Fraggle Rock" in Deception Pass State Park.  Winter is the best time to find them there.  On Boxing Day, I headed over to the park with the new lens.

When I got there, I was pleased to find several dozen Oystercatchers on the rock.  Just as I was getting ready to shoot, some ignorant, yahoo tourist started throwing things at the birds.  This is the second time I have observed this behavior in the same spot.  The gulls weren't bothered, but all of the Oystercatchers flew off, about fifty in all.  My shoot was over before it started.  I don't understand why some people can't just enjoy the occasion.  Instead, they find pleasure in ruining it for everyone else.

Plan B would be a spin around the Sand Done Trail nearby.  Maybe the Oystercatchers would be back later.  Almost directly over the trail where it enters the Dune Forest, I spotted this Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus).  It was perched in the tree 80-100 feet (25-30 meters) above me.  This is where a 400mm lens shines  It's actually reaching 640mm on my APS-C 7D camera.  There is a pair that I often see perched in this same tree.  It is not unusual to spot one or both of them around the Dune Forest.  I am guessing they have a nest somewhere in the Cranberry Lake area

After completing my hike around the Sand Dune Trail, I headed back up to the rock.  The Oystercatchers had not returned.  At least my Boxing Day in the park wasn't a total loss.  I have some pretty good eagle photos shot with the new lens to show for the morning.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Giving Eagle His Space

Recently, I hiked the Bowman-Rosario Trail out to Rosario Beach in Deception Pass State Park.  At the beginning of December, we had a stretch of clear skies and cold temperatures.  For me, this is ideal weather for hiking and exploring.

Big rocks out in Bowman Bay are visible from the trail.  On the map, I believe these are the ones identified as Gull Rocks.  Usually, they are populated with dozens of cormorants, a real spectacle.  These are diving birds that like to gather together in such places to dry their feathers, preen, rest and socialize after fishing.  Such a group is called a "sunning."  On this morning, however, there were no cormorants.  I spotted just a single bird, a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) perched on the rock in the early December morning sun.

Here's a closer view of the eagle taken further along the trail.  I doubt this is a good vantage point for spotting fish in the bay.  Like other predators, eagles spend a lot of time just loafing.  There is a resident pair that I frequently see at West Beach in the park.  If Bowman Bay is part of their territory, this could be one of those birds.

About an hour later, I returned from Rosario along the same trail.  The eagle was gone now, and the rock was again becoming populated with cormorants.  Some were striking the "angel pose" to dry their feathers after diving.  These are probably Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritis), the most common of the three species that occur locally.  Oddly, the scientific name means "bald raven with ears" according to Latin for Bird Lovers.  Apparently the crests that form in the breeding season resembled ears to the explorer who named them.

Bald Eagles are known to prey on cormorants and will flee their colonies if eagles arrive.  Obviously, the cormorants of Bowman Bay were not about to give this eagle any temptation.  They waited patiently until the eagle was gone to return to their favorite roosting spot.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Get Out of My Yard!

Douglas Squirrel

Encountering a Douglas Squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii) is always an adventure.  Sometimes they are indifferent or even curious and engaging. Other times, they can be aggressive and territorial.  I ran into this fellow on the Bowman-Rosario Trail in Deception Pass State Park.  The reaction was hostile and noisy.  I heard his angry barking and scolding first.  Then he came right up to me to challenge my presence in his territory.  From the look in his eye, it was obvious that I was not welcome here.

Does anyone recognize what he is carrying?  It looks like a chunk of dried conifer sap.  Whatever it is, it must be something good to eat.  He was not about to give it up.  Chasing off intruders should never interfere with a good meal.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Life and Death at Kukutali

Eastern Gray Squirrel

December 1 is the meteorological beginning of winter.  In northern latitudes, winter is the season of cold, stillness and darkness, when much of nature seems to die.  True to form, ours has come with subfreezing temperatures and even some snow in places.  In the north Puget Sound area, we have been getting clear skies and bright sunshine along with the cold temperatures.

For some reason, I love hiking in cold weather.  With a day off work and a beautiful day, I headed over to the Kukutali Preserve to check out the wildlife.  I didn't get much past the parking lot before spotting this Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) enjoying the fruits of a Common Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna).  This tree is a native of Europe that has become naturalized in the Pacific Northwest.

Ice on the Pocket Estuary

As I mentioned, our overnight temperatures have dropped below freezing.  It was about 26° F (-3° C) when I left home.  A skim of ice had formed on the surface of the salt water lagoon next to the road to Kiket Island.

Bald Eagle

As I expected, I spotted one of the neighborhood Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) perched above the road on the southeast corner of Kiket Island.  I believe this is the bird I call George that occasionally visits my yard.

Bald Eagle

As I got closer, George flew off and headed toward Fidalgo Island.  Immediately, Martha arrived and perched on the northeast corner of Kiket.  This pair has built a nest across the bay on Fidalgo and raised two eaglets there this past summer.  My neighbor tells me they have been adding material to the nest during the last few weeks.

Kill Site

After hiking across Kiket Island, I checked the clearing where the old boathouse used to be.  I have spotted deer here in the past.  What I found instead was a kill site, a large scattering of feathers and down.  It covered an area of about 60 square meters.  I think there had been quite a ruckus here.

Kill Site Feathers
Kill Site Feathers

Kill Site Feathers

Something lost its life here, perhaps to the jaws of a coyote.  It was a large bird.  My best guess would be a Canada Goose or Heron had been the owner of those feathers.  I have often found wing joints and neck bones in kill sites, but there were only feathers here.  The predator apparently carried off the carcass to consume it in seclusion.  This serves as a reminder that death is also a part of nature.  One life was lost to sustain another.

Hooded Mergansers

Beyond the clearing, a trio of Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) happily swam in the half-moon bay between Kiket and Flagstaff Island,  They appeared unaffected by the either the chilly temperatures or the drama that had taken place nearby.

Pine Siskin

Hiking back off the island, I encountered a flock or "company" of Pine Siskins (Carduelis pinus) near the caretaker's house.  As usual, they flew away at my approach.  I stayed in place and kept very still to see what would happen.  One brave little bird returned to the tree and I was able to catch a photo.

Pine Siskins

Then two more birds arrived.  I remained very still.

Pine Siskins

As I stayed in place watching, the flock returned, nine birds in all.  Pine Siskins are seed eaters, so I'm not sure what attracted them to this tree.  Perhaps they simply found it a good spot to socialize and enjoy the morning sun.

Spotted Towhee

Nearby, a Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus) was foraging at the edge of the road.  They are ground feeders that enjoy insects, spiders, seeds and fruits.  They usually stick to dense thickets, so it was nice to see this one out in the open.

My first winter outing turned out to be an enjoyable and productive day.  Even in this season of sleep, cold temperatures seem to bring out lots of wildlife.  Evidence of life lost was also encountered.  Nature has always been a matter of life and death.