Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Rough-skinned Newt

This Rough-skinned Newt surprised Erika and me on 20 January 2022 along the Challis Bike Trail near Olympia. January seemed early to find an amphibian. In fact, they breed from December through July along their western range from California to Alaska. These newts are common west of the Cascades in Washington. They are Washington’s most poisonous newt. They only cause mild skin irritation, but can be deadly if eaten. They have the same neurotoxin as pufferfish. This tetrodotoxin interferes with sodium flow and blocks nerve impulses, and can result in paralysis and asphyxiation.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Northern Saw-whet Owl

On 21 January 2022, Erika and I found ourselves looking for a Northern Saw-whet Owl that was reported in the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge. We did not hold out much hope for success, since we only knew the general area in which to search. Despite being one of the most common owls across southern Canada, the United States, and the mountains of western Mexico, the owl’s distribution and biology are not well known. (eBird rates them as not rare, but seldom reported.) The problem is that they are our smallest owl, about the size of a robin, and finding their roosting perches is difficult. In fact, we walked right by this owl once before Erika found it. She said that she noticed the white spots above its wings.

Saw-whet owls hunt at night, taking mostly Deer and White-footed mice. These owls have asymmetric ears, which enable them to locate prey at night only by hearing (Rasmussen et al. 2020). They hunt from low perches, which they also use for daytime roosting. At the roost, they can be quite tame. Sometimes you can find these owls at their roosts by watching for “whitewash.” This sign, however, was not present under this bird.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Red-throated Loon

Erika and I witnessed some interesting Red-throated Loon behavior on 18 January 2022 at the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge. The photo of the loon on its haunches appears to be an aggressive behavior called Penguin Posture. Most loons show similar behavior. I suspect, however, that this loon is drying and fluffing after feather maintenance. The loon then rubbed its head across its back, a preening behavior.  Loons often spread oil from their uropygial gland across their back feathers (Rizzolo et al. 2020). 

Friday, January 21, 2022

Pacific and Red-throated Loons

Erika and I photographed these loons 14 and 18 January 2022 at the Nisqually national wildlife refuge. Clearly both are belong to one of the three smaller loon species. Neither bird shows a large white splotch at the tail end, so neither is the very similar, but much rarer, Arctic Loon. Examine the image of the more distant loon. The bill, although held above the horizontal in this individual, is straight, not appearing curved upward. The back is barred, not spotted. The front of the throat is not uniformly white and there is a dark pattern of the base of the neck. Last, but possibly not least, the back is relatively black, although a close look will reveal white bars (rather than spots). The closer loon has different field marks, most clearly not like those I just listed for the first. Therefore, I conclude that the distant bird is probably a Pacific Loon, whereas the close one is a Red-throated Loon.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Anna’s Hummingbird

Clark and Russell (2020) write that male Anna’s Hummingbirds “turn their heads from side to side as they sing, flashing the brilliant iridescence as a signal to other hummingbirds.” Erika and I suspect this male, which we happened upon along Olympia’s Capitol Lake on 17 January 2022, was defending his territory. Notice the aggressively raised head feathers in the first image. The bird, at one point flying up to a more exposed perch, refused to yield his space to us. All the while, he flashed his iridescence at us. We did not hear any song, nor did we see any other hummingbirds in the vicinity.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

American “Storm” Wigeon

The photo of the single drake American Wigeon has languished in my blog queue since 8 April 2021. This image shows an uncommon plumage variation in this species. Normally male wigeons have speckled gray cheeks, as do the ones in the second image. Ducks with white cheeks, such as this one, are highly prized by hunters, who often call them “Storm Wigeons.” I did not get around to taking a wigeon shot until 14 January 2022. Erika and I found all of these birds at the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawks have a strange range. Most birds breed in the eastern United States and southeastern Canada. An isolated population nests from central Oregon to Baja California. These western hawks are smaller than the eastern ones, have a solid rufous breast, and wider, white tail bands. This image is my first of this race.

The western population, Buteo linatus elegans, has expanded its range into Arizona. Birds are also moving north in the winter east of the Cascades into northern Oregon and Washington. The species is considered to be rare, but increasing in Washington, the first record for the state being from the Nisqually national wildlife refuge in 1979. We photographed this Red-shouldered Hawk on 14 January 2022 at the refuge. This and an immature bird have been reported most of the 2021/2022 winter. We previously listed Red-shouldered Hawks at the refuge in September and October 2019. 

Saturday, January 15, 2022


Rainier continues to be our favorite mountain. Every time we see “our mounntain,” the peak looks different, depending on time of day, weather, and our location. This photo is on 13 January 2022 at the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Olympic Range

The Olympic Range from Olympia. We are looking forward to three rainless days this weekend—the first three sunny days in a row since last September.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Short-billed Gull

Erika and I listed this Short-billed Gull on 1 January 2022 at the Nisqually national wildlife refuge. Note the smallish head and relatively unmarked bill. Short-billed Gulls nest across far-northwestern North America and winter from coastal Alaska to southern California. At least I think it is a Short-billed Gull. Last year, ornithologists declared North American populations to be separate species than Common Gulls of Asia and Europe—all these gulls were previously known as Mew Gulls. Across their range, these gulls have been declared to be two or three species. Although genetically distinct, the various species show lots of overlapping field marks—making identification difficult. Perhaps an argument could be made that this bird is Common Gull, since Old World Birds often have "a more distinct blackish ring on the bill, and Kamchatka and Russian subspecies apparently often retain brighter yellow bill color through the winter” (https://www.sibleyguides.com/2021/07/mew-gull-is-now-two-species-how-to-identify-common-gull-and-short-billed-gull/).