Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Rock Pigeon

Here we are at the last day of 2019. At the end of each year, I back up my blog posts with a hard-covered book. This year’s book is fun for me to read, since it covers our move to Washington. As I began the year, I was curious about how many birds I could photograph. Taking pictures of every bird I saw is clearly impossible. My all-time Washington state list is at 219 species. I have images of 145.

In December, eBird challenged birders to submit photographs in at least 20 bird lists. That quest found me stalking feral Rock Pigeons in down-town Olympia. North American birders and ornithologists have mostly ignored Rock Doves. An Old World bird, the species was released in the New World for the first time in 1606 and pigeons quickly escaped into the wild. “Plumage variation is nearly limitless in polymorphic domestic and feral birds” (Lowther and Johnston 2014). Notice that the pigeons in this photo do not appear to be banded.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Reindeer Lichen

Looking for a new location to hike, on a gray and misty 27 December 2019, Erika and I discovered the Mima Mounds Nature Preserve, about 10 miles south of Olympia. My photograph does not convey the oddity of this prairie, which is covered by two-meter high mounds. The mounds mystify geologists. Hypotheses for their origin range from insect/soil interactions, gophers, earthquakes, and/or glacial remnants. Stranger yet, many of the mounds are capped by clumps of Reindeer Lichen. Lichen literature is confusing at best. Reindeer Lichen are found, often abundantly, in the northern hemispheres of the world. These may be Pacific Reindeer Lichen, Cladonia portentosa pacifica, a subspecies found nowhere except for three Washington counties. Smith et al. (2012), however, discovered five additional species (= chemotypes) at Mima Mounds.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Wood Duck

Like this one on 13 December 2019, leaving Wood Ducks unphotographed is hard. The species is infrequently reported in the winter. We listed two drakes and a hen at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. We did not see them two days later on the Christmas Bird Count. In any case, Wood Ducks are ominvores, consuming seeds, fruits, and invertebrates. (Hepp and Bellrose 2013).

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Red-winged Blackbird

Here is a female Red-winged Blackbird at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 18 December 2019. Not black and lacking red shoulders, female Red-winged Blackbirds are often misidentified by beginning birders. The full name of the refuge, clearly one of our favorite birding destinations, is actually the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. The 12.6 square-km refuge includes a protected estuary, salt and freshwater marshes, mudflats, grasslands, and woodlands. My understanding of the refuge’s history is derived from various sources. Here is a very concise summary:

White settlers first settled the area in 1845. At that time, timber was exported to San Francisco. In 1854 the local Nisqually Tribe signed a treaty, granting the tribe fishing, hunting and gathering rights, and apparently some land rights, which are still held by the tribe. During the late 1800s, the Nisqually River esturary was diked and drained for agriculture. In 1904, Alson Brown purchased 2350 acres of the esturary and built a four-mile dike and drained the area to raise crops and livestock. In 1932, two large barns were built, which still stand today. The refuge used them as an environmental education center, but they were severely damaged by the 2001 Nisqually earthquake. Subsequent owners put the land up for sale in the early 1970s. The Nisqually Tribe lacked funds to purchase the land. Proposals for creating a deepwater port or a regional garbage dump were on the table. Local environmentalists were able to persuade the Federal Government to create the wildlife refuge in 1974. Much of the mudflats now enjoyed by wildlife were created about ten years ago with the destruction of the old dike.

In 2015, President Barack Obama signed an act designating the wildlife refuge in honor of a flamboyant Nisqually tribal leader and treaty rights activist, Billy Frank, Jr., who died in 2014. The act also established the Medicine Creek Treaty National Memorial within the refuge to commemorate the original Nisqually Treaty.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Surf Scoter

Female scoters are difficult to identify. This bird, seen on 17 December 2019 at Woodard Bay northeast of Olympia, is probably a Surf Scoter. The white spot just behind the eye is oblong, not round. The bill is relatively short and stocky. A white wing spot is not evident. The bird is likely a first year bird, since the cheek patch becomes indistict toward the upper neck.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Northern Harrier

Northern Harriers from Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, the first on 13 December 2019, the second two days later. With its long wings and tail, harriers fly and glide low over marshes and meadows as the hawks search for their main prey, small mice and birds. The number of breeding birds is strongly correlated with spring vole numbers.

During their first year, the sexes are similar. The second bird is probably a young male, because of its yellow eyes and relatively small size. First year females have brown eyes. Older females’ eyes change to yellow after several years, and older males sport gray plumage. Thus the first bird may be an older female. Both sexes and all ages have white rumps, not visible in either of these images. These hawks are almost owl-like, with their binocular vision. Their facial disks work as parabolic reflectors. Northern Harriers can locate their prey by sound and by sight.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

American Wigeon

An Amercan Wigeon—Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, 2019, 8 Deember 2019—showing the effects of watching too many Monty Python Flying Circus reruns. 

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Northern Shoveler

According to Dubowy (1966), “the Northern Shoveler is a common holarctic duck with a high degree of morphological and feeding specializations.” This duck is widespread across northern regions of North America, Asia and Europe. We photographed this hen on Olympia’s Capitol Lake on 16 December 2019. These birds use their grotesquely shaped bills to strain aquatic crustaceans from the water. The bill edges are specially laminated for this purpose. While swimming, the ducks hold their bills under water. The bills strain out their invertebrate prey.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Barrow’s Goldeneye

A first sign of spring—courting, male Barrow’s Goldeneyes—except it was on 17 December 2019 at Woodard Bay northeast of Olympia. We found a flock of three males and two females, a number typical for this species when courting—they may form groups of up to 20 birds. Courtship pair formation begins in November and lasts until males abandon females in early incubation (Eadie et al. 2000). Curiously, however, pairs sometimes reform in subsequent breeding seasons. What I at first took to be a submissive posture in the closer bird may be a threat— a display seen in both males and females, The other male was pumping its head up and down—a common and variable courtship display.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Moon Jelly

Moon Jellies are in the genus Aurelia and have a world-wide distribution. The species are closely related and require genetic sampling to identify. The four rings in the body are the animal’s gonads. Stinging cells paralyze its prey, which are then hauled up by tentacles to the digestive system. They are poor swimmers, and can not usually move against the current. Olympia: 16 December 2019.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Greater Yellowlegs

During the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge Christmas Bird Count on 14 December 2019, Erika and I watched a Greater Yellowlegs hunting. The species visually locates its prey—usually small fish—and then swiftly plunges its head into the water. Other feeding strategies are known, depending on time of day and habitat. Yellowlegs will also take insects, snails, small clams, toads, and worms from muddy shorelines or directly from the air. In some freshwater locations, dragonfly nymphs are a major food source and are more often consumed than fish. Greater Yellowlegs are also known to eat crowberry berries (Elphick et al. 1998).

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

American Crow

I have written before that hybrid American x Northwestern crows abound in western Washington. Apparently a study recently concluded that no pure American or Northwestern crows exist in the Puget Sound region—all carry the genes of both parental species. So what does that make this bird that Erika and I photographed a few feet from Puget Sound in Olympia on 13 December 2019? eBird, the app I use to keep track of my birding, allows you to enter American Crow, Northwestern Crow, or American/Northwester Crow. The app, however, makes the Northwestern Crow difficult to enter, considering it to be a rare species. Frustratingly, eBird does not give you credit for American/Northwester Crow, counting neither Northwestern or American Crow. Certainly seeing this bird should count towards your grand total of birds seen for the day. Because they all harbor variations of the same genes, I am inclined to enter all as American Crows. Further north, in British Columbia and Alaska, pure Northwestern Crows may exist. But in western Washington, American Crows have swamped out Northwestern Crows.

Monday, December 16, 2019


29 November 2019 was a three-merganser species day at Woodard Bay near Olympia, Washington. Hooded Mergansers, not shown in this post, are relatively easy to identify. Common and Red-breasted mergansers can be harder to tell apart. Usually Common Mergansers are known by the sharp line of demarkation between their dark heads and white breasts. You can see this line clearly in the first photo. The second photo shows an example of when this field mark is less obvious. There appears to be a sharp line, but the breast is less white. Here you have to rely more on bill shape. The bill of the Red-breasted Merganser in the second photo is narrower than the thicker Common Merganser bills. The Red-breasted Merganser’s bill is also ever-so-slightly upturned. In any event, mergansers are ducks whose serrated bills help them capture fish.

Friday, December 13, 2019


You might think that, for all our travelling across fields and through streams, we would come across Coyotes more often. They are common enough in most of North America, from Alaska to Panama. Erika and I spied a long-eared, ratty tailed Coyote trotting across a field in the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 5 Deember 2019. The front right leg is hidden, thus this is not a three-legged coyote. 

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Greater Yellowlegs

Greater Yellowlegs breed across Alaska and central Canada, migrate across most of the United States, and winter along our shores south to northern South America. This bird swam past Erika abd me, as we walked along the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 9 December 2019. Aside from phalaropes, swimming sandpipers do not come readily to mind. But I have seen stressed shorebirds swim and even dive to escape predators. This bird appeared to be staying in deeper water, thereby avoiding getting too close to us. Swimming Greater Yellowlegs are well documented in the literature, Elphick and Tibbitts (1998) write that these birds “will feed in water up to belly or while swimming.”

Wednesday, December 11, 2019


Our backyard has been fairly devoid of birds ever since mid-October. A gang of Bushtits visit the feeders about once a week—ths photo was taken on 9 December 2019. Bushtits are a welcome sight since other birds often follow them to the feast. These seven Bushtits were part of a flock of over 15. At least two appear to be banded—look closely at the birds on the front left and the far right. These birds, both banded on the left leg, are probably mine. The shininess of the bands indicates the bands are fairly new. Since April, we have banded 40 Bushtits in the backyard.

Bushtits have fascinating and variable nesting habits. They build insulated nests. Often their offspring help their parents raise subsequent young. In some populations, other, unrelated Bushtits of all sexes and ages assist the nesting pair. Most of these extra birds are unmated males that may contribute genetically to the nest. Thus, writes Sloan (2001), Bushtits are “potentially polygynous, polyandrous, or polygynandrous.”

Monday, December 9, 2019

Red-throated Loon

The Red-throated Loon is a circumpolar speices. In North America, this loon breeds acoss Alaska, the Canadian Arctic, and the Canadian Northwest. They winter along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States. Identification marks include its relatively small size, upward held bill, and striped back. With help from eBird, on 5 December 2019, Erika and I found this Red-throated Loon near the end of the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge estuary boardwalk. Fog and distance resulted in an almost black-and-white image.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Storm Wigeon

I was aware of the existence of Storm Wigeons for some time, but I do not know exactly when I learned about them. Tbey are not illustrated in my field guides. Storm Wigeons are an uncommon “natural variant” (Mini et al. 2014) of male American Wigeons that have white around the front of their heads and necks. Discovering much more about Storm Wigeons is difficult. I can find nothing substantive about their biology or genetics. These ducks do have some presence in hunting websites. Storm Wigeons are prized by hunters. The name is an old folk name and may refer to influxes of wigeons in general during fall storms. In any case, on the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge estuary boardwalk on 5 December, a fellow birder mentioned she saw a Storm Wigeon. For a bird we had never seen, we had no trouble finding one or two among the numerous regularly plumaged wigeons.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Northern Pintail

Note the drake pintail’s elongated central tail feathers. Both sexes are handsome birds—in the second photo, see the hen’s bronzy wing patch. Erika and I saw several Northern Pintail on 2 December 2019 on Olympia’s Capitol Lake. Pintails are early spring breeders across much of northern North America. Pair bonds form each winter, before the birds migrate north. Once on the breeding grounds, pintails are highly promiscuous. Both mated and unmated males display for females. Only the female incubates. Males abandon the nesting area shortly after incubation begins (Clark et al. 2014).

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Harbor Seal

According to Wikipedia, Harbor Seal nostrils “appear distinctively V-shaped.” I suppose that shape holds true for this seal we photographed in Woodard Bay, just east of Olympia, on 29 November 2019. True seals like this lack ear flaps. The ear canal is visible behind the eye. Harbor Seals are common in Puget Sound. Seal populations were greatly reduced during the early 1900s. Washington put bounties on them until 1960 and both the State and the Federal Government have protected them since 1972. Numbers have recovered since then (Puget Sound Institute), Now that people wonder if control of these fish-eating mammals would result in more gamefish, including salmon, which, in turn, would result in more Orca Whales.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Peregrine Falcon

We photograped two Peregrine Falcons at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 30 November 2019. These birds seem to be a pair. As in many raptors, females are larger than males—in Peregrine Falcons, the sexes hardly overlap in size. The bird on the left is clearly the smaller male. One hypothesis is that this size difference keeps aggressive males under control. Peregrine Falcons have an almost world-wide distribution. Three races of Peregrine Falcons breed across North America. Judging by their dark-hooded heads that lack a thin “mustache” stripe under their eyes, I suspect these birds are one of the western races. The situation is a bit complicated. In the 1900s, pesticide poisoning wiped out most of the eastern Peregrine Falcons. Reintroduction programs are restoring many of these populations. But the restoration efforts were made with western birds, so now determining origins of Peregrine Falcons is problematic. These falcons are quite different from the Peregrine Falcon image we recently posted in our blog—https://dantallmansbirdblog.blogspot.com/2019/11/peregrine-falcon.html

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Townsend’s Warbler

Our backyard had been relatively birdless for the past two weeks. On a rainy, gray 1 December 2019, a large flock of songbirds bounded into the yard. Among them were at least six Townsend’s Warblers. I ran for my camera, because the banding office commented “really?” when I reported banding this species during November. Due to the lousy weather, my banding nets were closed. Despite the wet weather, the Townsend’s Warblers were particularly attracted to our water feature, which also brought in a few of the Golden-crowned Kinglets in the flock. Our species tally included: 1 Black-capped Chickadee, 1 Chestnut-backed Chickadee, 10 Bushtits, 10 Golden-crowned Kinglets, 2 Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and 6 Townsend’s Warblers.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Mew Gull

Mew Gulls—the first on 9 November 2019, at Capitol Lake in Olympia, the second on 22 November, at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge just east of Olympia. The first bird is a second-year bird and the others are probably adult birds. Mew gulls all have smaller, narrower bills and rounder, less oblong heads than the superficially similar Ring-billed Gull. In the group photo, note the proportions of the third bird back, which is a Ring-billed Gull. Both species are common in our region.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawks are extremely variable across their wide, North American range. Sixteen races are currently recognized by ornithologists. Races are identified by ventral colors, tail markings, and size, but geographical trends in these characters is generally lacking. Further complicating things, adjacent races often show intermediate patterns (Preston and Beane 2009). On top of this variation, many populations are polymorphic—they come in dark, white, and intermediate colors.

Erika and I found this dark Red-tailed Hawk on 4 November 2019 at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. This bird appears to be, Buteo jamaicensis calurus, the only race with a barred, not streaked, belly band. This race is the expected breeding race is western Washington, breedibg west of the Rocky Mountains from eastern Alaska soth to Arizona and New Mexico. They are resident in mucb of their range but but some winter though the southern Great Plaains to the western shores of the Gulf of Mexico south into Central America.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Surf Scoter

At high tide on 14 November 2019, Surf Scoters filled Woodard Bay near Olympia. These sea ducks are common in most of Puget Sound. In any plumage, bill shape is a good field mark. Male bills sport clown-like colors. I’m not sure what is happening with the explosion of water in this photo. Synchronous diving, where a bunch of ducks dive together to better locate fish schools, is known for Surf Scoters. Perhaps this bird is driving fish towards its companions; or is this bird alerting its companions to our presence along the shore? Or is the bird simply quickly swimming to a new location? In any case, Surf Scoters eat a wide variety of bottom-dwelling invertebrates and small fish.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Northern Pintail

Drake Northern Pintails are handsome ducks. Erika and I found this one on 25 November 2019 at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. These ducks are abundant across Alaska, Canada, and much of western North America. In the fall and winter, pintails eat grain, marsh plants, and invertebrates.  Clark et al. (2014) assure us that, through prudent wildlife management, pintails “should have a secure future in North America,” despite threats from predators, farming and agricultural development, water shortages, environmental contamination, and urbanization. Population numbers, nevertheless, have fallen form six million birds in the early 1970s to 3.3 million now.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Horned Grebe

23 November 2019 found Erika and me watching about a dozen Horned Grebes feeding along the Bremerton, Washington, ferry dock. Although this grebe is known to feed cooperatively in groups, our birds appeared to be individually hunting. In the winter they consume fish and crustaceans. The birds swallow small prey under water, but bring larger items to the surface, where they manipulate, pinch and disable their catch (Stedman 2018). The grebe in the second photo carried what appears to be a crab, which seemed dead. The grebe made repeated dives with its crab, returning with it to the surface—until the last dive, when the bird reappeared without the crab. Presumably the crab was eaten under water.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Pacific Wren

For most of my birding career, ornithologists considered Pacific, Winter and European wrens to be a single species. These populations, however, prove to sing distinct songs and have significant differences in their genes. Where Pacific and Winter wrens overlap, they do not interbreed. Pacific Wrens breed along the coasts of southern Alaska and the coasts and western mountains of Canada and the United States. Isolated populations breed in South Dakota, Utah, and Arizona.

Pacific Wrens, although common in Washington, are cryptic and elusive. These tiny wrens skulk about forest undergrowth and prefer old-growth habitat. In the Pacific Northwest, they are often found along streams enriched with “salmon-derived nutrients” (Toews and Irwin 2012). Clear-cutting and other forest fragmentation pose threats to these wrens. I have, nevertheless, seen several Pacific Wrens in our Olympia backyard. This image is my first of these wrens I’ve banded—on 21 November 2019.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Peregrine Falcon

A distant Peregrine Falcon on 19 November 2019 at the the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. These falcons are famous for their 200 mph dives, often knocking prey out of the air with their clenched talons. Breathing must be difficult at such speeds, and may explain the presence of baffles, barely visible in this photo, within falcon nostrils. See also my previous blog on these baffles.

High speed stoops are not the bird’s only hunting method. This bird made several low passes over marshland, repeatedly returning to its initial perch. Peregrines are bird -specialists—birds constitute up to 99% of their diet—eating songbirds and other species up to the size of small geese. Peregrines also occasionally take small mammals, amphibians, fish, and insects (White et al. 2002).

Friday, November 22, 2019

Rhinoceros Auklet

Erika and I surprised a Rhinoceros Auklet at the end of a dock in Olympia on 14 November 2019—finally a half-decent photo of this odd bird. I have previously written that auklets are related to shorebirds and gulls and not to penguins, which they superficially resemble. Although they are adept divers like penguins, but auklets are also excellent fliers. Rhinoceros Auklets are found on both sides of the North Pacific. Most North American birds breed on islands in British Columbia, nearby Washington, and southeastern Alaska. These birds winter along the Pacific coast from Southwestern British Columbia to almost the tip of Baja California.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Barrow’s vs. Common Goldeneye

The first photo is a male Barrow's Goldeneye that Erika and I listed on 14 November 2019 at Woodard Bay Natural Area near Olympia. The second is of a male Common Goldeneye we found in Olympia on 16 November. The two goldeneyes are similar. Compare the sicke-shaped head spot on the Barrow’s. This spot is round on the Common Goldeneye. The white spots on the back indicate that we have a Barrow’s Goldeneye. I have only recently learned that the head shape helps separate these ducks. In both sexes, the forhead of the Barrow’s Goldeneye comes off the bill at a steep angle, whereas the head of the Common Goldeneye is much more gently rounded.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Barrow’s Goldeneye

Erika and I found a small flock of Barrow’s Goldeneye on 9 November 2019 in Budd Bay off Olympia. These ducks breed along freshwater lakes in the mountains from Alaska into the northwestern United States. They wnter in coastal bays or estuaries or freshwater mountain lakes that do not freeze. The species also breeds in Iceland and winters in eastern Canaca and the far northeastern United States. The duck is named for John Barrow (1764-1848), a British Arctic explorer. The bird with with bright bill is a female.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Pileated Woodpecker

This Pileated Woodpecker worked dead wood near the tip of a large tree at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 8 November 2019. This species is found in Eastern North America, across Canada, and down the northern Rockies and the Pacific coast to central California. Erika commented that this bird seemed to be darker than the Pileated Woodpeckers we fed in our Minnesota backyard.

Despite its extensive range, only two races of Pileated Woodpeckers are recognized by ornithologists. Dryocopus pileatus pileatus is found in the southeastern United States. from Kansas to Maryland, south to the Florida Keys. Florida birds may be slightly darker than more northern ones. Northern and western birds, D. p. abieticola, are similar but slightly larger. Pileated Woodpeckers along the Pacific Slope often have relatively unbarred underparts, which would might account for Erika’s observation that our bird looked dark. Bull and Jackson (2011), however, note that over 50% of western birds have identical plumage to eastern ones and both eastern and western Pileated Woodpeckers are the same size.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Ring-necked Duck

Ring-necked Ducks on 5  November 2019 at Olympia’s Capitol Lake. Erika and I did a double-take when we saw the single female in the first photo. The extensive white streak behind the bill made this duck look a bit like a Blue-winged Teal. The white band on the bill argued to the contrary. Despite being vulnerable to over-harvesting and prone to ingesting lead shot, continental poluations of Ring-necked Ducks appear to be stable or increasing (Roy et al. 2012). The species is abundant on Capitol Lake.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Autumn Meadowhawk

The problem with my relatively newfound passion for dragonflies is that the creatures disappear in the winter before hatching in the sping—just long enough for me to forget how to identify them. Autumn Meadowhawks, told by their pale, yellowish legs, are among the last dragonflies of the season. I found this meadowhawk basking in the sun on 7 November 2019. I have not seen a dragonfly since.

Autumn Meadowhawks are common. They have two North American populations, one in the East, and the other in the Pacific Northwest. They prey upon almost any soft-bodied flying insect they can catch.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Great Blue Heron

Here is a remarkably tame Great Blue Heron that strolls down the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge dike. We have seen it at least twice, the first image was taken on 7 November, and the second on 12 November 2019. The bird was calmly, slowly, methodically hunting garter snakes. A passerby on the first day showed me a photo of the heron with a snake wrapped around its bill. The snake in the second image barely fit down the heron’s gullet. Great Blue Herons mainly eat fish, but, in fact, will take nearly animal they can swallow—amphibians, invertebrates, reptiles, mammals, birds, and even carrion. Vennesland and Butler (2011) speculate that the diet reflects prey abundance. These authors also report that occasionally herons choke to death on large prey items!