Sunday, January 24, 2021

Olympic Gull

Hybrids between Western and Glaucous-winged gulls, known as Olympic Gulls, are abundant in Puget Sound. I am finding gull identification to be a challenge, but this bird’s back seems to be darker than a Herring Gull, but not dark enough for a Glaucous-winged. Herring Gulls would sport bright yellow eyes, unlike the relatively dark eye on this bird. I took this image because the bird sat close by at the Billy Frank Jr. National Wildlife Refuge on 19 January 2021. Most interesting on this bird is the bill is crossed. The bill tips clearly do not meet. Occasionally birds with crossed bills are encountered. This deformation must surely interfere with efficient food capture and feeding, although this individual has successfully reached adulthood.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Red-tailed Hawk

On 19 January 2021, this Red-tailed Hawk flushed from a shrub and flew up into a nearby tree in the Nisqually national wildlife refuge. Judging by the barred tail, this is a relatively immature bird. Recently I’ve written about how confusing Red-tailed Hawk identification can be—plumage variations exist even within many of the 16 recognized races. Two notes about this bird—note the dark band between the belly and the throat. Although individuals vary in just how dark and extensive this band appears, it is nevertheless a good field mark for Red-tailed Hawk identification. Note also that, although the bird is facing us, you can clearly see both eyes. No doubt binocular vision gives hawks the ability to clearly assess the exact location of their prey.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Red Alder

Near our house on 20 January 2021, another first sign of spring?—Red Alder male catkins emerging in front of last year’s cones. Red Alders are among the most common of Pacific Northwest hardwoods. Look for them in lowlands, usually within 100 miles of the coast. They are a pioneer species that grows in disturbed habitat from Alaska to central California. Red Alder roots fix atmospheric nitrogen via symbiosis with fungus. This winter Erika and I have seen hundreds of siskins feeding of alder fruits.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Bald Eagle Nest

A first sign of spring?—a Bald Eagle pair on their nest at the Billy Frank Jr. National Wildlife Refuge on 19 January 2021. Perhaps not a sign. Eagles begin nest building one to three months prior to egg laying. Adults often maintain nests all year. In Washington, the breeding season begins in January (Wahl et al. 2005).

Monday, January 18, 2021

American Kestrel

American Kestrels are small falcons that famously hover in the air, before swooping down on their prey. In fact, kestrels far more often hunt from exposed perches, like this bird on 13 January 2021 in the Nisqually wildlife refuge.  Hover-hunting is not ideal for the kestrel’s preferred prey—a wide variety of insects. We have seen kestrels flying among swallows, taking insects from the air. I have read that kestrels follow migrating dragonflies that avoid flying over large bodies of water. Migrating Common Green Darners and their attendant kestrels circumnavigate Chesapeake Bay. (These birds are quite capable of over-water flights—we have seen them on one of the outermost of the Florida Keys.) American Kestrels also hunt for small mammals and birds—but kestrels are also opportunistic, taking small reptiles, amphibians, and even small fish (Smallwood and Bird 2020),

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Pelagic Cormorant

Pelagic Cormorants are small, common birds of the North Pacific shores. You can find them about anywhere in Puget Sound, but Erika and I have had most success near Olympia on an abandoned logging pier at the Woodward Bay Conservation Area. We headed out there on 14 January, successfully adding the species to our growing 2021Year List. The cormorants perched some distance from us, but were identifiable by their steely-blue plumage and reddish color at the base of their bill. As they preened, I wondered if these birds were an exception to the list of cormorants that spread their wings during feather maintenance. Back home, a quick check in Birds of the World assured me that Pelagics are no exception, and usually show wing-spreading behavior at their roosts.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Double-crested Cormorant

Erika and I encountered this Double-crested Cormorant on 6 January 2021 at the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge. Wing-Spreading is a common, but not universal, cormorant behavior. Cormorants do spread oil on their feathers, an action that water-proofs feathers in other birds. Cormorants, however, may make use of wet feathers, since that makes the birds less buoyant when they dive. Wet feathers, however, facilitate heat loss in the birds. Most ornithologists believe wing-spreading is a thermoregulatory behavior. Occasionally, wing-spreading is done in the rain, which would be an odd thing to do for a cold cormorant. The answer may be that this behavior simply contributes to feather maintenence (Dorr et al. 2020). The second photo is of a Galapagos Cormorant on 2 May 1976 showing the same behavior. Interestingly, this species is flightless.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Western Black Elfin Saddle

Erika and I discovered what we presume to be several Fluted Black Elfin Saddles (Helvella lacunosa) growing in our back yard on 14 January 2021. Our mushroom hunter’s guide does not recommend eating this fungus. The thought never entered our minds. This mushroom is widely distributed but its taxonomy and subsequent common name is confusing—some references name western North American Elfin Saddles as Helvella vespertina—the Western Black Elfin Saddle. Fungi like this one are found in Europe, China, Japan and North America. Here they are most abundant along the Pacific Coast. They grow under pine and Douglas Fir in parklands and lawns.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Northern Pintail


I was not too close to this Northern Pintail pair on 6 January 2021 at the Nisqually wildlife refuge. I took the photo because it seemed a pretty image. Females choose mates based on male attentiveness and plumage (whiter breasts and more colorful scapulars). Clark et al. 2020 write, “male dominance is a result rather than a cause of female choice.”

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Bufflehead Courtship

On 7 January 2021, I watched Buffleheads court in Budd Bay in the Port of Olympia. Two males courted a female, who was clearly attracted to one of the males. The male did nothing to dissuade her, raising his wings at her approach—a typical courtship display.
At her approach, called a Following Display and indicative that the birds are paired, this male raised his head feathers, lowered his head, and directed his white head patch towards the female. The raising of the head feathers greatly increases the size of the white head patch. A few times the first male, swimming with speed, chased off the other male. 
The  male ran across the water, making splashes behind me as he flew low enough to beat the water with his feet—another courtship behavior used to impress potential mates Gauthier (2020).