Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Leucistic American Goldfinch

On 30 November 2015, a leucistic American goldfinch accompanied a small flock of normal-plumaged goldfinches to our feeders. The long contour feathers splayed across the wings are also abnormal. Although an Internet search brings up many images of leucistic goldfinches, this individual is the first that I have seen.
The wings are also intriguing. Their general black hue suggests a male. The tan wing-bars are typical of a first-year bird. Leucism causes birds or other animals to be pale or have white patches. Albinos are pure white and have pink eyes.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Blue-eyed Darner

We visited Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 13 July. We rustled up a bird-list of 24 species, but were disappointed to see little unexpected. An unfamiliar dragonfly, however, patrolled up and down our walking path. Often it hovered, making photographs possible. The eye color makes the name Blue-eyed Darner perfect for this species. This common West Coast dragonfly ranges east into the Midwest and north into Canada.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Northern Harrier

John Holden drove near Circle Lake in Rice County, Minnesota, on Wednesday. I spied an odd raptor perched near the ground along the roadside. We made a quick U-turn and stopped on the wrong side of the road. The hawk’s strange face and long legs both suggested a Northern Harrier, but its small size and brown coloration left me a bit perplexed. This hawk turns out to be an immature harrier as indicuated by its unstreaked, buffy underparts and by the large amount of white on the head. The small size suggests that it is a male.
Unlike most other hawks, harriers have facial disks—indicated by the white stripes around the head. This disk works like a parabolic reflector. Harriers consume a wide range of prey—small to medium-sized mammals and birds. The facial disk is an aid because the birds rely on auditory and visual cues to find their prey. Harrier numbers are dependant on vole poplulations. When there are few voles, harrier numbers crash. When voles are abundant, harriers rebound. Indeed, in times of plenty, male harriers take on multiple mates (Smith et al. 2011).
As we watched, this harrier lifted its tail and wings and shat. I considered deleting this last photo, but bird excrement is interesting. (Also of note is how much of the bird’s body consists only of wings and tail—as you can see by the source of the excrement, the bird’s anus is located well toward the center of the raptor’s total length.) Take a careful look the next time you see a bird dropping. The urine is a pasty, white substance that is composed of uric acid (not urea like in mammals). The excrement consists of small, black specks within the paste.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Pacific Forktail

Last year, on 21 July, we took our granddaughter to the Olympia Water and Children’s museums. “No reason to take my big lens,” I thought.  Wrong. We discovered a Pacific Forktail, easily recognized by its four-spotted upper thorax. This damsel is the only one in Washington with such marks. I was only able to to take a poor photo through a plate-glass widow with my small camera. This year we returned on 11 July. This time I brought my large lens along with my granddaughter.
These damselflies are fond of backyard, urban pools. Females oviposit in the morning, before males become active. Males dominate later in the day (PaulsonKerst and Gordon). We easily found these males at midday at the Water Museum in downtown Olympia.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Red-tailed Hawk

During a quick drive to nearby Circle Lake on Friday, Erika and I found this handsome Red-tailed Hawk. I did not know that these hawks are included in the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. This legislation allows Federally recognized native tribes exception to treaties making the possession of eagle parts illegal. Qualified people must make application to the Federal government before feathers can be used.

Red-tailed Hawk (and eagle) feathers are sacred for many native people. The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act enables these tribes to maintain their cultures. The law is not without critics. Some believe that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act should have no exceptions and that the eagle feather act leaves raptors vulnerable to poaching and trafficking (Wikipedia).

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Eastern Bluebird

Since 2007, I banded 68 Eastern Bluebirds. Only four were adults and three others were fledged, hatching-year birds. The rest were all nestlings. I have never recaptured any of these babies. But this lack of retraps does not surprise me. Although young may over-winter with their fathers, second-year birds are “aggressively repelled” the following breeding season by both the fathers and the fathers' mates (Gowaty and Plissner 2015).

To my surprise, on 8 June this year, I photographed a banded male bluebird. Over time, bird bands tend to become dull and worn. The ring on this bluebird is a shiny, new band. I suspect this bird, therefore, is the only bluebird I bandedin 2015. On 27 April I banded an adult, male bluebird at our Dundas banding station, which is where I took this photograph. Of course this bird could have been banded elsewhere, but I think the odds favor my hypothesis.

Saturday, November 21, 2015


Bushtits are chickadee-like birds that are in constant motion. They are the only member of the family Aegithalidae in the New World. These birds travel in nervous flocks, from three to 40 individuals. They can be hard birds to photograph.

They are common, year-round residents of western North and Central America. Individuals in the southern parts of their range have black ear coverts. These birds were called Black-eared Bushtits. Northern birds lack this field mark and were known as Common Bushtits. But the two populations were merged when it became evident that ear covert color is polymorphic in central populations.

One day in July they descended upon our children’s backyard in Olympia, Washington. Only then did I discover that birds have different eye colors.  Males have dark brown irises, whereas females have yellow, white, or cream-colored eyes.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Western Scrub-Jay

Last July we spent a week in Olympia, Washington, getting to know our granddaughter and welcoming her brother into this world. Birding and dragonflying took second seat. The kids filled their feeders allowing us to see some interesting birds. Western Scrub-Jays have hard for me to photograph. These jays are common across the western states south into Mexico. They frequent forests and suburban areas. In these images, the first is probably an adult and the others are young birds.  Younger birds lack blue on their heads and have have less white in their throats. They lack an obvious white eye stripe.
Coastal Western Scrub-Jays are darker and less shy than birds from the interior.  Unlike in many animals, northern birds are larger than those in southern populations. Contrary to this trend, birds from central Mexico are the largest scrub-jays of all. Because of this variation, ornithologists may yet recognize three species of these birds—the California Scrub-Jay from the northwestern United States to Baja California; Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay from Nevada to central Mexico; and Sumichrast’s Scrub-Jay in south-central Mexico. These species would be further broken into various races. As it is, two outlying jays, the Florida Scrub-Jay and the Island Scrub-Jay are currently considered to be distinct, but closely related, species (Curry et al. 2002).

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Black Saddlebags

If you drive west across Washington on I-90, you should stop at the overlook just before you reach the Columbia River. There, on 8 July, Erika and I encountered dozens of large flying dragonflies. Often they were attached pairs. We chased single dragonflies until one finally perched on the dry vegetation. The black patches on their hind wings suggested Black Saddlebags.

This behavior is typical of the species. After mating, males and females fly in tandem until they are over water. The male releases the female so that she can drop her eggs into the water. He reunites with her after she deposits her eggs, until she is ready to oviposit once again (Kerst and Gordon).

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Black-billed Magpie

Last July, as  Erika and I drove west across Montana, we saw Black-billed Magpies at a few Interstate rest areas.  Magpies have a long association with humans. This corvid followed both Native and European Bison hunters and explorers like Lewis and Clark (Trost (1999); see my previous post of a magpie eating a French fry.) In recent years, Magpie populations have suffered losses from West Nile Disease and pesticides applied to control ticks on cattle. In the last case, mapgies are poisoned after they scavenge the remains of dead livestock. Overall, however, we thought magpies were more apparent than during our other trips in recent years.