Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Kiket Island Towhee

Spotted Towhee

The Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus) is one of my favorite birds.  They always look confident and happy and they love to sing.  Instead of fleeing, they will often sit still long enough to get a photo.  They seem to like watching us while we watch them.  This is another appealing trait for me.

Look for them along forest edges.  They can be seen year-around foraging in dense thickets of shrubbery or in leaf litter on the ground.  Sometimes you will hear them scratching in the leaves before you see them.  They will be looking for insects, spiders, seeds and fruits.  I caught this one in a Nootka Rose thicket on Kiket Island.  I think they might like those rose hips.  For bird feeders, the Towhees in my yard are especially attracted to safflower seed.

Spotted Towhees are the largest of the New World Sparrows (Emberizidae).  The black feathers reveal this bird to be a male.  The back, head and wings of females will be dark brown.  Found throughout the western states, birds in different regions will show different degrees of "spottiness."  Our local oregonus race tends to be the least spotted, although we are seeing spottier birds due to immigration and interbreeding.  Red is the true color of the eye, not a camera artifact.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Eagle Morning

Juvenile Bald Eagle

Last week, I drove over to Fir Island to visit the Skagit Wildlife Area wetlands.  It had been closed for several weeks for construction of a new pumping station.  I was glad to be able to get in there once again.  This is part of a complex system of dikes and drainage sloughs that prevent Fir Island farmlands from being flooded by the Skagit River.  Fir Island is actually the Skagit River delta where it flows into Puget Sound.

This portion of the delta is a state wildlife refuge administered by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.  Mixed uses include hiking, duck hunting, bird watching and dog training.  It offers the unique feature of hiking out into the wetlands atop the spur dike.  There has been an ongoing program of restoration here to improve Chinook salmon spawning and rearing habitat.  This has become one of my favorite places to explore and view wildlife.

On last week's visit, everywhere I looked, there were Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus).  There were mostly juveniles, but also a few adults.  Altogether, I saw ten to fifteen birds either perching or flying.

Bald Eagle Adult
Juvenile Bald Eagle

Juvenile Bald Eagles
Juvenile Bald Eagle

The bird in the first photo was the only one I could get fairly close to.  He was perched about 20 feet/6 meters directly above the dike trail.  He was surprisingly tolerant of me walking beneath him.  The rest of them were quite far out in the marshes.  To get photos, I had to strain the limits of the camera and lens, and then do some cropping to bring them in closer.

I met the Fish and Wildlife guy at the new pumping station.  He wasn't sure why there were so many eagles around the site.  He said they often hang around to snag the injured ducks that are lost by the hunters.  But there has been no hunting due to the construction closure.

Juvenile Bald Eagle

I spotted this one landng out in the tidal marshes.  At the time, I didn't notice the second bird flying just above the cattail line.

Juvenile Bald Eagle

This is another view of the juvenile bird in the first photo.  He had me going for a while.  With so much white on the breast I started to doubt he was a Bald Eagle.  Was he really a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk?  But then I realized that was the beak of an eagle, not a hawk.  Also, this bird was twice the size of any Red-tailed Hawk I had ever seen.  This was a Bald Eagle juvie with a lot of white.

While I was watching, he apparently spotted breakfast.  He took a run, but then looped around and returned to the same perch with empty talons.  Not every attempt at prey is successful.

Northern Shrike Prey?

I found something else interesting along the dike trail.  This partial bird carcass was skewered on a twig.  I knew the Loggerhead Shrike did this with its prey, but they don't occur here.  The Northern Shrike, however, is a rare winter visitor.  Shrikes have the habit of storing their prey in this manner for later consumption.  Could this be what I was seeing?  Sometimes we don't actually see wildlife, but instead, find evidence that it has been around.

New Blind Just For Bird Watchers

This is a new blind on Wiley Slough that Fish and Wildlife has installed for bird watchers.  The sign on the back indicates no hunting allowed from this one.  Inside, a couple of chairs have been thoughtfully provided.

Mount Baker and the Skagit Wetlands

Mount Baker stands watch over the Skagit Wildlife Area wetlands.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Oystercatcher Hangout

Black Oystercatchers
Black Oystercatchers and Friend

Solitary pairs of Black Oystercatchers (Haematopus bachmani) nest on solitary islands above the high tide mark.  A simple scrape in the rocks is all they require.  Locally they can be found around the rocky shores of the San Juans, Whidbey and Fidalgo Islands.  Pairs are monogamous and return to the same nesting sites every year.

During the fall and winter, however, they give up their isolation and come together in flocks or "parcels."  One spot where this can be observed is at West Beach in Deception Pass State Park.  They can be seen mid to late mornings on the large rock just offshore from the parking lot.  I have unofficially dubbed this "Fraggle Rock."

Black Oystercatchers and Gulls

On my visit yesterday, I watched as more gulls flew in to join the party.  I have never witnessed squabbling between gulls and Oystercatchers.  Mixed groups always appear amicable.

Black Oystercatchers and Gulls

More gulls continued to fly in.  Peace continued, but it started to get too crowded for the Oystercatchers.  They began leaving, flying off the rock with their rapid, high-pitched calls.  They appeared to be heading over to Lighthouse Point across Deception Pass.  When I returned after my hike up the North Beach Trail, only gulls remained on the rock.  All the Oystercatchers were gone.