Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Hudsonian Whiteface

On a warm, sunny 29 April 2919, Erika and I explored the hiking trails in the McLane Creek Nature Trail Pond, located southwest of Olympia. The weather is still a bit cool for dragonflies, and we only saw one. We became disoriented and hiked a short distance up the foothills behind the ponds. In an old clearcut area, maybe five years old and very brushy, a very small dragonfly flew ahead of us, landing low in the trailside undergrowth. If you look closely, you may notice that the black spots on the hind wings have pale veins—a trait unique to the Hudsonian Whiteface. Males and some females are reddish. This yellow-spotted female does sport a few anterior spots with pale orange tinge. The spots are also wider than in other whitefaces.

Hudsonian Whitefaces are found from Alaska and across Canada, south to central California, Nevada, Michigan and New Jersey. Females wander from their acetic, boggy ponds and are often found away from water in forest clearings (Paulson 2009). This whiteface is the first I have ever encountered.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Pioneer Violet

A backyard flower—I assume it is Viola glabella, the Pioneer or Stream Violet. This common, native wildflower inhabits the western United States, Canada and northeastern Asia. It is a shade-loving plant, often found under conifer forests. The dark lines on some of the petals serve as nectar guides for pollinating insects. Young leaves are said to be edible, but the flowers can cause diarrhea (Wikipedia).

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Swift Forktail

When Erika and I arrived in Olympia, Washington, we knew one of the early flying damselflies is the relatively uncommon Swift Forktail. Often they are gone by midsummer. After three days of searching grassy areas near area ponds, on 26 April we found a couple of these forktails in our own, dry, backyard. They flew low to the ground, often landing on dandelion and other leaves. Their relatively extensive blue tail tips often alerted us to the forktail’s location, This habitat surprised me, since Swift Forktails are supposed to prefer clear water with lily pads. Paulson (2009) assures us that this speciess also perches on the ground more often than do other forktails. Swift Forktails are found from southern British Columbia to northern California.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Surf Scoter

On 9 April 2019, Erika and I took a pleasant stroll along a rainforest trail at the Evergreen State College. The trail ended at a small beach along Eld Inlet of Puget Sound. A pair of Surf Scoters swam among much smaller Buffleheads. Surf Scoters breed across northern Canada and winter off the coasts of North America. Pairs often migrate together to breeding sites. After a few weeks, males depart to coastal molting sites. Only the females incubate the nests. At sea, scoters eat bottom-dwelling invertebrates.

Friday, April 26, 2019

California Darner

On 24 April 2019, I found my first dragonfly of 2019. This California Darner flew in circles about six feet from the ground in a clearing in our backyard in Olympia, Washington. Occasionally it landed in brush piles or bushes at the edge of the lawn. This relatively small darner is found across wide areas of the western United State and in southwestern Canada.

The day was warm and sunny. I wandered from the house, despite having a long list of chores. When I saw the darner, I ran back inside for my camera. I relocated the dragonfly, onbly to discover my camera’s battery was completely spent. Back to the house for a fresh battery. I was only able to capture a couple of images before the dragonfly flew.

The California Darner is a new species for my list. I was searching for one, since I knew that this dragonfly is one of the first darners to fly in the spring. By mid-summer they become uncommon, replaced by later species (Paulaon 2009). This individual is an immature female. Dennis Paulson writes me that they often occur surprisingly far from the ponds in which they breed.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Wilson’s Warbler

When I banded this male Wilson’s Warbler on 24 April 2019, I knew this Olympia bird looked different from the Eastern birds. It seemed brighter yellow, had a huge black cap, and the forehead sported an orange tinge. All of these traits suggest the race Cardellina pussila chryseola, which breeds in coastal lowlands from southwestern British Columbia to southern California. Overall, the species nests across Canada and the western United States. Western populations show mDNA sequence diversions from eastern birds. Across their range, Wilson’s Warblers appear to be declining, presumably due to destruction of riparian habitat (Ammon and Gilbert 1999).

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Green-winged Teal

Erika and I took this photo of a Green-winged Teal at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 30 March 2019. The teal is seining the marsh mud for tiny animals like nematodes, ostracods or copepods that live along the mud surface. The edges of Green-winged teal bills have fine combs to strain their prey from the water. 

But seining is not the only way that Green-winged Teal capture prey. Overall this species enjoys an opportunistic diet, which includes “seeds of sedges, grasses, and aquatic vegetation; aquatic insects and larvae, molluscs, and crustaceans.” Although they generally eat smaller prey than other ducks, they are not adverse to foraging in winter fields of corn, rice, or other crops (Johnson 1995).

The blue sides of this teal’s head are a bit strange—they should be green. Birders, however, know to be weary of iridescent duck plumage, which notoriously reflects different colors depending on the sun’s position.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Intergrade Flicker

Northern Flickers come in two forms—Yellow-shafted Flickers in the East and Red-shafted in the West. Because the races interbreed where their ranges overlap, these flickers are thought to be the same species. I have always known that this hybrid zone runs across the Great Plains. I was surprised when I banded this apparent hybrid on 15 April 2019 in our Olympia backyard. This female has but a trace of the red stripe which should be prominent on the back of the head on a Yellow-shafted bird. But, on the other hand, you can barely see on this photo that the shafts of this bird’s wing feathers are yellow, not red.  This bird appears to be an intergrade flicker.

Actually I should not be so surprised to find a hybrid flicker in Olympia. After running north/south through the Great Plains, the hybrid zone veers northwest, reaching coastal, southeastern Alaska. Flickers migrating south from that region and from central Alberta and central British Columbia undoubtedly find their way to western Washington during the winter. Wahl et al (2005) write that hybrid flickers are common in winter in the state.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Least Sandpiper

Least Sandpipers are very common migrants over most of the United States. The species breeds from Alaska across northern Canada. Most winter in northeastern South America. They are recognized by their small size, brown plumage, and yellowish legs (which can pass unnoticed if they are muddy). Erika and I photographed this bird on 15 April 2019 at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge near Olympia, Washington.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Greater Yellowlegs

Not all the birds of Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge are hard to see—take this Greater Yellowlegs we photographed on 15 April 2019. This species nests on the groungd in “inhospitable, mosquito-ridden muskegs” across central Canada and southern Alaska. As a result, this shorebird’s breeding biology is relatively unstudied. Although often a solitary bird, Greater Yellowlegs are, nevertheless, common across North and South America during migration and winter. The species consumes invertebrates and small fish (Elpick and Tibbitts 1998).

Friday, April 19, 2019


A hard-to-see Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge bird, a Sora, taken on 15 April 2019. This was another species pointed out to us by fellow birders, this time a group of a dozen middle school students being led by an enthusiastic guide. All had cell phones that they were using to identify what they saw. The students seemed excited by seeing the Sora and successful at identifying it.

Soras, like other rails, have laterally compressed bodies to facilitate their skulking through marsh plants. Rails are a well-defined family of birds within the order Gruiformes. As such, they related to cranes and other crane-like species. Overall, the Gruiformes, however, are recognized as a poorly understood taxonomic grouping.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Great Horned Owl

Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge is one of the highlights our immediate environs. Being only 13 miles from our home, the refuge is one of the premier birding spots in the country. Not all the birdlife is easy to see—take this Great Horned Owl. (What appears to be a fuzzy, white ruff around its neck is actually a patch of lichen on a tree twig.) I doubt Erika and I would have ever spotted this owl on our own. Fortunately the refuge is always swarming with optic-laden birders, who are happy to share their findings with others. I took this photo on 30 March 2019.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Black-tailed Deer

We have several deer that fearlessly forage through our Olympia backyard. Erika and I were immediately impressed with their black tails. Most biologists consider these deer to be a race of Mule Deer. Two subspecies of Black-tailed Deer inhabit coastal areas from Alaska to Northern California. Black-tailed and Mule deer are known to hybridize. The situation is a bit confusing, since the mitochondria DNA is more similar among Mule and White-tailed deer than to the mDNA of Black-tailed Deer. Hybrids between Mule and White-tailed deer are known but appear to suffer diminished survival rates (Wikipedia)..

Monday, April 15, 2019

Pacific Banana Slug

We discovered our first Pacific Banana Slug on our driveway in Olympia on 5 April 2019. These slugs are the second largest species of terrestrial slug, growing up to almost 10 inches. (The largest, which grow up to a foot, are found in Europe.) Colors vary from yellow to tan or white. Their black spots can make them appear to be black. The colors also vary with food, light, moisture and/or health of the animal. Banana Slugs are prone to desiccation. To avoid drying out, they often secrete a layer of slimy mucus. They remain inactive in dry conditions and are often most active at night.

Banana Slugs are found from southeastern Alaska to Santa Cruz, California. They inhabit coastal coniferous rainforests. These slugs eat dead leaves, small plants, and animal excrement and recycle these materials into the soil. They consume mushrooms and spread mushroom spores. The slugs have a number of predators, including raccoons shrews, moles, garter snakes, waterfowl, and salamanders (Wikipedia). 

Sunday, April 14, 2019

American Dipper

On 12 April, Erika and I hiked along Tumwater Falls, a city park in the middle of Olympia. We saw American Dippers there on a previous visit. Dippers are thrush-like, gray birds that feed along mountain streams. They are our only truly aquatic songbird, often submerging completely in search of food. On this trip, however, we thought way too much water cascaded down the falls for even dippers to handle.
Dippers used to be named Water Ouzels. The name was changed to dipper to conform with nomenclature of the four other dippers in other parts of the world. Dipper species are found North and South America, Europe, and Asia. The word dipper describes the bird’s habit of bobbing up and down at the water’s edge, alsmost if the bird was exercising. My father, who took us boys on our first birding forays in central Mexico, took delight in Blake’s calling these movements spasmodic bobs.
Dippers give the impression of being closely related to thrushes, and early traditional DNA research suggest that is the case. Willson and Kingery 2011 report that recent mitochondrial DNA research indicates that dippers are more closely related to starlings.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Black-capped Chickadee

Seven races of Black-capped Chickadees are described from North America. Black-capped Chickadees in Olympia surprise me.  I assume they are the Pacific Coast race, Poecile atricapillus occidentalis. Their wings are at least a centimeter shorter than those of Minnesota birds. This difference may not seem very large, but it is obvious in a bird being banded. Olympia Black-capped Chickadees have far less white in the wing, and, overall, are duller and browner. They are far more different to my eye than Black-caps compared to Carolina Chickadees. I wonder what their genetics are like?

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Hutton’s Vireo

A fancy bird in my banding net yesterday—a Hutton’s Vireo. The species looks like a kinglet, but note the stocky, hooked bill. The drab plumage and incomplete eye ring both suggest Hutton’s Vireo. This vireo is an uncommon resident in Washington, and ranges south across the Pacific Coast to Baja California and in the Southwestern United States south through central Mexico. I have only seen the species once before, over 50 years ago in Mexico.

Because they are drab and inconspicuous, the biology of Hutton’s Vireos is little known. Even the bird’s call is described as “persistent but insipid” (Davis 2018). Some populations, such as those in the Southwest, are migratory. Resident, non-migratory birds, like those in Washington, may wander locally, but these movements have been little studied.  Davis suggests that the Hutton’s Vireos of the Pacific Coast and Mexico differ sufficiently genetically as to warrant being considered separate species.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

As you probably noticed in my last few bird blogs, the Federal and State authorities have authorized me to band birds here in Washington. I am grateful for these permits, since they can be difficult to obtain. Despite our living among 175 moving boxes, I did open a single net in my backyard. The first bird banded in Washington was this Chestnut-backed Chickadee.

The second bird banded was a Black-capped Chickadee. Erika and I wondered how these two similar birds coexist. Chestnut-backed Chickadees forage higher in trees than do Black-capps and are more restricted to conifers. Chestnut-backed also forage more often on the upper sides of leaves and branches. Finally, Black-capped Chickadees employ more feeding strategies than do Chestnut-backs (Dahlsten et al. 2002).

Chestnut-backed Chickadees are found from southern Alaska to southern California. In the last 50 yeas, this range has expanded a bit into the central Sierra Nevada and suburban areas in eastern San Francisco Bay. Ornithologists can not explain these changes (Dahlsten et al. 2002). 

Monday, April 8, 2019


Bushtits are common in our Olympia backyard. They are small but interesting birds. For one thing, females have bright yellow eyes, whereas males’ eyes are dark. Another curious fact is that Bushtits appear to have come to North America via the Bering Land Bridge some 11 million years ago. They are the only European long-tailed tit found on our continent. Despite their name, long-tailed tits are more closely related to Old World warblers or swallows than they are to titmice and chickadees (Sloan 2001). 

Pacific Trillium

Pacific Trilliums (Trillium ovatum) are blooming in our Olympia backyard. This flower is variable, ranging from white to purple. It grows in western mountains and along the Pacific coast, from California to British Columbia and Alberta. The species blooms early in the spring, and, for that reason, is also called wake-robin, They are occasionally commercially grown, although seeds take many years to germinate. The plant also propagates asexually by root growth and division, Trillium is pollinated by ants. What appear to be Trillium leaves are actually flower bracts and their stems are extensions of their roots (USDA). The true leaves are tiny, scale[like structures that grow on the roots. Although the leaves can be boiled and eaten, the berries and roots are known to be of “low toxicity” (Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. This source advises caution since closely related plants are poisonous,

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrows are common in OIympia. Here in the Pacific Northwest, Song Sparrows are much darker than eastern birds. These sparrows vary greatly across their wide range across North America, from northern Mexico to central Canada. Ornithologists recognize 24 races and have, at one time or another, named twice that many. Generally Song Sparrows are darker in regions with high humidity and larger in northern areas (Arcese et al. 2002).

Friday, April 5, 2019

Northern Pintail

After many visits to Olympia, by the time we moved here my Thurston County list was just shy of 100 bird species. To my delight, this Northern Pintail at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 30 April 2019 proved to be number 101. Northern Pintails are common ducks. In 2013, biologists estimated the North American population at 3.3 million, up from three million in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This sounds great, but in the early 1970s, the estimate was six million. Draught and habitat destruction combined to cause this decline. Conservation efforts, however, provide hope that populations of pintails should remain at current levels or increase (Clark et al. 2014), 

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Sooty Fox Sparrow

Fox Sparrows are drab in the Pacific Northwest. This bird at our bird feeder on 29 March 2019 does not even seem like the same species as bright reddish Minnesota Fox Sparrows. This species is highly variable across its range. Eighteen races are described, which fall into three or four subspecies groups. Coastal Washington birds are most likely Sooty (aka Pacific) Fox Sparrows, which lack wing bars and have relatively short tails. Their lores, the area between their bills and eyes, are dark. The various groups of Fox Sparrow races only rarely interbreed. Ornithologists may someday split these groups into distinct species. For now, more genetic study is required (Weckstein et al. 2002). Meanwhile, if you are into listing birds, you may be wise to keep track of what kind of Fox Sparrow you find.