Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Chinese Chestnut

Erika and I encountered a row of strange (to us) trees along a boulevard next to Capitol Lake in Olympia on 15 October 2020. Large, spiny fruits littered the ground around the trees. We figure the the trees are Chinese Chestnut (Castanea mollissima). They are native to China and Korea, but are planted extensively in the United States. Why wouldn’t Olympia plant native trees, we wondered. Well, they replace native American Chestnuts that were decimated by Chestnut Blight—although I doubt American Chestnuts grew in Washington. In any event, these trees grow well with minimum maintenance. Their fruit is “delicious and low fat” and can be eaten raw, roasted, or baked (fastgrowingtrees.com). The chestnuts you buy from street vendors or specialty stores are usually Spanish Chestnuts (Castanea sativa). On the other hand, the fallen fruit burs are spiny and “pose a significant litter problem, and often make walking barefoot in the lawn a real adventure.” (Missouri Botanical Garden).

Monday, October 19, 2020

Anna’s Hummingbird and Salvia

On 9 October 2020, I watched an Anna’s Hummingbird feeding in the Salvia at the end of our porch. We bought the pink and white flowered Salvia more or less by mistake. We aimed to purchase “normal” Salvia like the flower in the second photo. We also have a dark purple Salvia that you can see behind the multicolored flowers in the first photo. I was surprised that the hummingbird stuck its bill high up on the flower, not towards the end of the corolla like in the second photo.
Taking a closer look at the multicolored Salvia, the entrance to the corolla is actually at the top of the back of the flower, with stamens hanging overhead—exactly where the hummingbird probed. (I have no clue what the small, hole-like structures at the bottom end of the flower might be.) This plant seems to be Baby Sage, Salvia microphylla, of Arizona and Mexico. Horticulturalists have bred lots of hybrids of this plant, and this Salvia must be one of those nursery-store products. I do not know the name or the origins of the red Salvia.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Western Grebe

I was initially disappointed with this photo, taken on 15 October 2020 at Olympia’s Capital Lake. The image is not quite in focus and the bird too distant. I hoped for a better result for my first picture of a Western Grebe from our home county, Thurston. I processed a cropped image and submitted it with my eBird list—the species is not so rare here, although this is only my third county record. I actually kind of like this un-cropped, un-enlarged version of the grebe swimming across the fall reflections on the lake.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Snow Goose

On 14 October 2020 Erika and I found two Snow Geese among a flock of some 80 Cackling Geese along the Nisqually refuge dike. Their gray plumage indicates they were young birds. Snow Geese breed north of the treeline from Northeastern Russia and Alaska across Arctic Canada. Most winter in various regions of the United States and Mexico. Snow Geese in Washington breed in Wrangel Island, east of northern Alaska in Russia. These geese make long-distance, high altitude migrations, stopping in western Alaska, and then continuing to two wintering areas—about half fly to southwest British Columbia and along the Skagit River north of Seattle; the others to southern Oregon and the Central Valley of California. Many of these northern wintering birds slowly continue through the fall to the more southern wintering areas. About 10% of the Wrangle birds fly up the Mackenzie River Valley and then down through the Central Flyway and back over to Oregon or California. 

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Greater White-fronted and Cackling Goose

Jack Davis Pond is a very small body of water surrounded by a few cattails at the edge of a parking-lot next to the Port of Olympia. Occasionally interesting birds are reported from the pond. Because of eBird, I was aware that someone reported seeing a Greater White-fronted Goose. We drove by the pond on 13 October but saw no birds at all. We turned around and I shouted, “Turn around—I saw a goose in the tall grass!” Erika raised her eyebrow and negotiated a U-turn. We pulled into the parking lot and found two Greater White-fronted Geese along with a small, short-billed Cackling Goose, The Cackling Goose was until recently thought to be a race of Canada Goose. The white-fronted geese lacked white patches behind their bills, indicating these were birds hatched this year. Greater White-fronted Geese are common and widespread birds. They breed in the Arctic across both hemispheres and winter south as far as Central America. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Sooty Fox Sparrow

Erika and I banded this Sooty Fox Sparrow in our yard in Olympia on 8 October 2020. Previously I have written about the complicated systematics of Fox Sparrow. Ten subspecies sort out into four groups. These groups may be full species. This bird is one of the Sooty races that inhabit the west coast of North America. These western subspecies breed from the Aleutians south to western Washington. Curiously the more north a population breeds, the farther south it winters. Alaskan birds winter in southern California, whereas birds breeding in Washington may remain all year (Weckstein et al. 2020).  

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Surf Scoter

Surf Scoters breed across northern Canada and winter along coasts of Canada and the United States. They often migrate through the Great Lake States and New England. These birds are females. Most of the Surf Scoters here in Washington breed in the Northwest Territories. Soon after arriving in Canada, males retire to coastal molting areas (like Puget Sound). Non-breeding individuals may remain in the winter range, so these ducks can be listed all year in western Washington. Curiously, although males and females often return to the same breeding and wintering areas, they and young birds migrate separately (Anderson et. al 2020). We took this image on 10 October 2020 in Olympia.

Monday, October 12, 2020


Our recent rains have brought forth a varity of fungus. I am about as far from being a mushroom expert as you can get—one reason I NEVER nibble on wild fungus. The first, found on 29 September 2020 at Woodard Bay Preserve, appears to me to be Leucoagaricus leucothites—a White Dapperling. This Northern Hemisphere inhabiting fungus is common on lawns or, as in this case, roadsides. If I am correct, some people get very sick after eating this species, others enjoy it. “Gastrointestinal distress” is the most common symptom. The University of British Columbia states the best treatment for an adverse reaction is to “contact your Regional Poison Control Centre.” Bring along a mushroom sample to confirm your identification.
We photographed the next two mushrooms on 9 October 2020. The white fungus is from Kennedy Flats west of Olympia. The reddish one was one of two growing in our yard.  My Android phone assistant seems to think the white one is some sort of puffball, but it does not look like a puffball to me. The reddish one may be a species of the usually non-deadly genus of Russula (Brittlegill), perhaps R. paludosa, edible and common in Europe and North America. Something, maybe slugs, have been munching on it. I think I will follow iNaturalist’s advice, “Don’t eat anything you find in the wild.” I would appreciate identification suggestions for any of these fungus from my mushroom-expert friends—Kathy or Ron Hall?

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Varied Thrush

We have been looking for Varied Thrushes. Last year they appeared in our yard during the first two weeks of October. This year they seem to be a few days late, perhaps due to our dry season—they may await snowfall to leave their forest habitat. I have heard Varied Thrushes for the past few days—their song is an eerie, penetrating, single-pitched but slightly modulating whistle that reminds me of bird calls in the tropical jungle. Others compare the sound to a policeman’s whistle. My birds sang from the tree tops, which is typical for the species. On 9 October 2020, I finally saw a Varied Thrush. The bird swooped out of the forest and into thick bushes outside our study. I ran for my camera—the result is the first photograph,
Later that day I banded a second Varied Thrush. This second bird is an immature—judging by its faint breast band and relatively pale sides to the face, it is probably a female. With the bird in my hand, I was struck by the stunning scalloped pattern on the bird’s flanks. To me this pattern seemed reminiscent of a bird-of-paradise. Varied Thrushes are found in the along the Pacific Coast from Alaska to California. Most retreat south in the winter. Population numbers increase on a three to five year cycle. During peaks of their cycle, Varied Thrushes stray across wide areas of Canada and the United States.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Ring-billed Gull

This Ring-billed Gull photograph is left-over from 4 January 2020 at the Nisqually national wildlife refuge. These gulls are opportunistic feeders, eating insects, earthworms, fish, rodents and grain (Pollet et al. 2020). They breed across southern Canada and the northern United States and winter south through Mexico and the northern Caribbean. 

They are so abundant now that it is hard to believe that Ring-billed Gull populations were decimated between 1850 and 1920 by human persecution and habitat modification (Pollet et al. 2020). Not even their fondness for termites and crickets saved them. Due to protection from persecution, numbers have rebounded to well over 4 million birds by 1990 and they are still increasing—even though the species is considered a pest in some locations and are aggressively harvested.  They are found all year in western Washington and breed wherever appropriate habitat is available (Wahl et al. 2005).