Thursday, May 30, 2019

Black-throated Gray Warbler

On 27 May 2019 at the McLane Creek Nature Trail near Olympia, Erika and I were startled by a female Black-throated Gray Warbler. The bird collected objects from the ground along our path. Females are apparently entirely responsible for nest building and incubation. Males’ only contribution is to scold the female while she works. Nests are lined with feathers, grass fibers, and/or animal hair (Guzy and Lowther 2012). I don’t know what this warbler is gathering—perhaps dog hair, as plenty of dogs were being escorted through the park.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Barred Owl

I went dragonfly hunting on a warm weather breaking 10 May 2019. In Grass Lake Nature Trail about a mile from our home in Olympia I came  upon two robins giving serious alarm chirps. I did not think a solitary Odonata searcher warrented such wrath. In the trees overhead perched a solitary, young Barred Owl. Hallucinating up a rare and endangered Spotted Owl would have been exciting, but this bird appears to be too light and not in the old-growth forest preferred by Spotted Owls. 

Monday, May 27, 2019


On 10 April we found a Killdeer nesting next to a sidewalk a couple of feet from a road and next to a elementary school. The bird brooded four eggs. One would not expect a nest would be successful in such a busy location, However, success is possible. (Killdeer have nested in more unlikely spots like between railroad tracks and on roofs that the young can’t exit (Jackson and Jackson 2000)). The last photo was taken in a busy Olympia park on 11 May. Then a Killdeer pair tried to lead us away from two recently fledged young.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Four-spotted Skimmer

We have begun finding dragonflies in Olympia. These two critters are both Four-spotted Skimmers. The first is from a barrow pit near the house on 13 May. The second is from Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 7 May (both 2019). Four-spotted Skimmers are old friends from Minnesota. We often saw them in Erika’s garden and elsewhere around Northfield. In fact, For-spotted Skimmers range across Alaska, Canada, and the northern United States—also across Eurasia (where they are called Four-spotted Chasers) from Great Britain to Japan. Curiously this dragonfly is migratory in the Old World, but apparently not in the Americas (Paulson 2009).

I added this species to our Olympia yard list on 15 May. I was surprised to find it perched on the ground—actually on a small twig. A quick review of the literature indicates that Four-spotted Skimmers do perch on the ground more often than their close relatives. Their brown bodies and relatively unpatterned wings make for great camouflage. 

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Black-throated Gray Warbler

Black-throated Gray Warblers are common breeders from northwestern Mexico to British Columbia, and wintering mostly in Mexico. Guzy and Lowther (2012) report that this warbler is relatively tame and easily approachable. Not a whole lot seems to be known about  this warbler’s biology. I wonder about the purpose of the yellow spots behind the bill. In some other birds, spots like these are used to sight down the bill and aim for prey. This individual is the only one I’ve seen since moving to Olympia. I banded this bird on 2 May 2019.

Friday, May 24, 2019

MacGillivray’s Warbler

MacGillivray’s Warblers breed in the Rocky Mountains and winter in Mexico and Central America. Their range and taxonomy are both interesting, but today I write about their nomenclature. They are one of the few birds named for more than one person. Their scientific name is Geothlypis tolmiei. William Fraser Tolmie was a physician and worked for the Hudson Bay Company. He made the first recorded ascent of Mount Rainier. John Townsend named this warbler for him in 1836.

William MacGillivray was a zoologist who ultimately taught at the University of Aberdeen (Scotland) and helped write many of Audubon’s publications. Audubon gave Macgillivray scant recognition but did name this bird after him--Sylvia macgillivrayi. Unfortunately, Townsend published his description of the bird slightly before Audubon, so Townsend’s scientific name takes precedence. Audubon’s common name remains in the popular literature. 

I was delighted to band this female MacGillivray’s Warbler in our Olympia backyard on 18 May 2019. The bird was in a huckleberry thicket. Usually they are found in brushy riversides. Although relatively common, they are often hard to see.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Dot-tailed Whiteface

The Dot-tailed Whiteface is a dragonfly with which we were familiar from Minnesota. We found this individual at a barrow pit near our home in Olympia, Washington. This whiteface enjoys a transcontinental distribution. It frequents all sorts of lakes, including farm and garden ponds. They can also be found along slow streams and even perched on waterlilies.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Cardinal Meadowhawk

On 13 May 2019 Erika and I found outselves in the Olympia Watershed Park, a surprisingly wild area just blocks from the state capitol. The park paths often wind along on boardwalks over a small creek. Within the forest, we discovered this Cardinal Meadowhawk. It repeatedly returned to the same perch within a tiny clearing. I believe this individual is an immature male, in which case it will become bright red. Paulson (2009) writes that females are seen only infrequently. The species is common along the west coast and in the Southwest.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Spotted Towhee Fledgling

My third fledging of the season—a Spotted Towhee, almost unrecognizable compared to the adult plumage. You can see just a hint of what will become this bird’s chestnut sides. Identification was helped by the nearby scolding parents. The date of this record was 19 May, which seems a tad early for a fledgling towhee. Marshall et al (2003, however, report fledglings in Oregon on this date. The second photo is of an adult female, which fearlessly foraged in Erika’s garden after raking.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Baby birds are beginning to leave their nests. On 18 May in Olympia, I banded this recently fledged Red-breasted Nuthatch. This species forms pairs at almost any time of year. These nuthatches usually raise one clutch per year, but individuals may pair twice in a single year. They excavate oles in tree snags. Finding nuthatch holes is not proof of breeding, since the birds may begin excavating and then move elsewhere to actually breed.  Young fledge after about three weeks. They stay with their parents for about another two weeks but some parents may feed their young for longer times (Ghalambor and Martin 1999).

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Western Forktail

While searching for female Pacific Forktails (see yesterday’s post) in the barrow pit near our Olympia home, I photographed a male Western Forktail. The Western differs in having broader black thoracic stripes. This small species is fairly common across much of western North America. Males are less often encountered than are females. Sometimes at ponds no males are observed. Females only need to be fertilized once in their lives, and can store the males’ sperm for future use (Paulson 2009). If you look closely, you might see that the underside of this forktail’s abdomen is full of tiny, red, water-mite larvae.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Pacific Forktail

Pacific Forktails are abundant damselflies of western Canada, western United States, and northwestern Mexico. They are found in almost any pool with vegetation, even small ponds in city parks. We found these forktails in a barrow pit about a mile from our house in Olympia. The first is a male, the second is a young, andromorph female. I have posted on this phenomenon before, where females look somewhat like males—an andromorph—or have distinct coloration—a heteromorph. The advantage of looking like a female is fairly obvious. That way males easily recognize with whom to mate, and the job gets accomplished with relative ease. The advantage of being a female who looks like a male is less obvious. A female only needs to have her eggs fertilized once. After fertilization, not being harassed by males may be to the advantage of a weary female. Recently a report was published of female dragonflies playing dead to avoid obnoxious males.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Caspian Tern

During a 7 May 2019 stroll at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, we spied a flock of about a dozen Caspian Terns. These terns are found almost around the world. In North America, they breed along our coasts, and in the Midwest. They winter from our southern coasts to Venezuela and Columbia.

Caspian Terns dive for fish. Like the tern in the bottom photos, they also court with fish. Males carry their prey over a tern colony. A male then lands near the other birds, often near a female at the edge of the flock. Still carrying the fish, the male bows. The female might ignore the male, try to steal the fish, or initiate copulation. She may beg for the fish, which the male is often hesitant to give her. If the male is successful, he may feed the fish to the female. Copulation oftren follows courtship feeding. Males may make several different colony sites a day until her acquires a mate (Cuthbert and Wiens 1999)

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

American Robin at Suet Feeder

I have never seen American Robins at my suet feeders. In Olympia, however, we often have this thrush at the suet. The key here may be that, for the first time, we are serving calcium-enriched suet. Calcium proves to be essential for egg production. So far we do not have other odd birds at the feeders. National Public Radio suggests baking and crushing egg shells and feeding this to be birds as a calcium supplement.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Bluebell Harebell

On 20 April 2019, near Olympia, Erika and I found Bluebell Harebells, Campanula rotundifolia. In parts of Europe, harebells are associated with witches. Apparently witches transformed themselves into hares by drinking harebell juice. It is bad news if one of these hares crosses your path. Other names for the plant are Witch’s Thimble and Dead Mens’ Bells. The Haida People of the Pacific Northwest called this Blue Rain Flowers—picking them causes rain.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Bewick’s Wren

On 25 April 2019, Erika and I banded a Bewick’s Wren. This species has mysteriously disappeared from its eastern North American range—it used to be found in the Appalachians and in the MIdwest. This wren is still common enough in parts of the West, although its numbers are declining. A few hypotheses are on the table for what caused the drop in numbers—the most likely may be that the Bewick’s Wren has suffered from competition with nest-destroying House Wrens (Kennedy and White 2013). In any case, Audubon first scientifically described this species in 1821, naming it for a British engraver, Thomas Bewick. “Bewick” os pronounced like the car of the same name.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Rufous Hummingbird

Erika and I took this Rufous Hummingbird photo almost a month ago, on 15 April 2019. With so much many new plants and animals to write about since our move to Olympia, my queue of unpublished blog posts has grown considerably. Rufous Hummingbirds breed further north, to southern Alaska, than any other hummingbird. The breed south to northern California. They winter south to southern Mexico. One result of this distribution is that Alaskan birds enjoy “the longest day-length seen by any hummingbird” (Healy and Calder 2006). More and more often Rufous Hummingbirds are seen in eastern North America. Readers of this blog will recall a bird we saw in Minnesota a few years ago. Rufous Hummingbirds a circular migration route, coastal in the spring and inland in the fall, and this route may send then eastward in the fall. Another possibility is that there are simply more birders looking for western hummers in the east.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Golden-crowned Sparrow

Golden-crowned Sparrows are common migrants and winter residents in western Washington. This sparrow breeds from western Canada north into Alaska. They winter from southwestern Canada to northern Baja California. Erika and I photographed the first bird on 23 April 2019 as we walked around Capitol Lake in Olympia. The second image is of a bird banded in our backyard on 2 May. The numbers of this species appear to have increased during recorded history, presumably due to forest cutting and the birds’ fondness for cultivated fields and gardens. Despite their abundance, Golden-crowned Sparrows have been scantly studied by ornithologists.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Oregon Fawn Lily

Erika discovered and photographed a lovely lily growing at the edge of a riparian deciduous woodland at the Glacial Heritage Preserve near Olympia on 4 May 2019. The flower looked like a fancy White Trout Lily (which was common in our Minnesota woods). This Oregon Fawn Lily, which grows along the Pacific Coast from southwestern British Columbia to northern California, sports yellowish and pink colors on its white petals. Botanists seem unsure of the origin of the name—either the two leaves look like fawns’ ears or the name alludes to the mottled pattern of the leaves. Probably not a good idea to try eating Oregon Fawn Lilies, as the bulbs are suspected of poisoning poultry and some people develop rashes if they touch this lily (Practical Plants).

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Purple Martin

I was surprised by the Purple Martins we saw on 4 May 2019 at the Glacial Heritage Preserve near Olympia. First, I tend to think of them as an eastern species. In fact, isolated populations also breed in the American Southwest and along the Pacific Coast. Next, eastern martins, which historically bred in old woodpecker holes, now almost exclusively nest in human-provided martin houses. West Coast martins are less common than eastern ones and still use old woodpecker holes. At the preserve, the martins were using artificial nest boxes, but these structures were much more similar to woodpecker holes than the condominiums Eastern birds prefer.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Pacific-slope Flycatcher

Perhaps the most interesting bird we photographed on 4 May 2019 at the Glacial Heritage Preserve was this Pacific-coast Flycatcher. This bird was not new for us, but was a first for our photographic efforts. Until 1989, ornithologists thought considered this bird to be a race of the Western Flycatcher. But then, due to their having different calls, measurements, and DNA patterns, these coastal birds were given species status. At the same time, Western Flycatchers in the interior Rockies were renamed as Cordilleran Flycatchers. The two new species very difficult to tell apart in the field, are mostly separated by range. Note the tear-shaped, white eye-ring, a field mark of the old “Western” Flycatcher. The habitat where we found this bird was also typical—stream-side, second-growth woodland. The species is also found in coniferous forests. We also heard this bird call, a wheezy, upward inflected whistle.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Glacial Heritage Preserve

On 4 May 2019, Erika and I took an Audubon Society tour of the Glacial Heritage Preserve just south of Littlerock, Washington. Ths photo does not do justice in portraying the beauty of this 1020 acre site, managed by Thurston County and the U. S. Fish and Wildlife service. The management history of the preserve is complicated—apparently it was first run by The Nature Conservancy, then taken over by the Center for Natural Lands Management, with the county and USFW taking over since 1994. Now the prairie is open to the public only one day a year. Otherwise, the land is open only to school groups and researchers by permit only. The prairie is not flat, but filled with curious mounds, which are covered with grasses and wildflowers.
The refuge is a remnant of the Puget Prairie ecosystem and first greeted settlers in the 1800s. One of the most abundant wildflowers, Common Camas, was abundant. This lily was noted by Lewis and Clark, who wrote that the camas made fields look like a blue lakes. Even today the prairie has a blue wash. The Nez Pierce fed Lewis and Clark Common Camas bulbs in 1805. Clark wrote he felt unwell afterwards “from eating the fish and roots too freely” (Forest Service). Since then camas has been widely propagated in both the the eastern US and Europe.
Another wildflower of the prairie is the Golden Paintbrush, one of Washington’s rarest plants. These paintbrushes were reintroduced here and are now thriving. All is not secure, since Golden Paintbrush hybridise with red paintbrushes, resulting in orange-flowered plants. These hybrids are the bane of prairie managers.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Western White-ribboned Carpet Moth

Mesoleuca gratulata, the Western White-ribboned Carpet Moth, is an early-flying day moth. The moth breeds from California to Colorado, north to southern British Columbia and Alberta. They lay eggs in the early spring. Caterpillars hatch ten days later and over-wintering pupa develop in about three weeks. The pupa emerge the next spring. The species is “a sure sign of spring in the west” ( On 3 May 2019, Erika and I photographed this moth at Grass Lake Preserve about a mile from our house in Olympia, Washington.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Cinnamon Teal

Cinnamon Teal breed from the Great Basin and the western Great Plains south through much of South America. In the United States, this species is relatively uncommon compared with other ducks.

Erika and I found a pair of Cinnamon Teal at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 1 May 2019. In this part of Washington, these ducks are probably migrants. They pair monogramously, at least for the current season. Pairs form before they reach their breeding grounds. Males guard females until late incubation. Then the males form small flocks in nearby wetlands or move to large marshes to molt. The females remain with their young until they fledge. Males and females that did not produce young begin their southern migration in late summer; successful breeding females and young birds follow in early fall (Gammonley 2012).

Friday, May 3, 2019

Oregon Junco

This juvenal Dark-eyed (Oregon) Junco is a hard bird to identify. One reason is that this plumage is not illustrated well, if at all, in most field guides. I banded this bird on 30 April 2019 in our Olympia backyard. Its white out-tail feathers were strikingly evident. This plumage is similar to a streaky juvenal Chipping Sparrow, but juncos are presumed to be more closely related to Zonotrichia, the genus that includes White-throated Sparrows. Nolan et al. (2002) comment that relationships among sparrows are uncertain. The second photo is an adult, male Oregon Junco, banded on 7 April, one of the most common birds at our feeders.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Red-breasted Sapsucker

Red-breasted Sapsuckers breed along western North America from southeastern Alaska to southern California. Three vaguely similar sapsuckers breed in the United States and Canada, this species, the Red-naped in the central Rocky Mountains, and the Yellow-bellied in northern and eastern regions. Before 1983, ornithologists considered these woodpeckers but a singe, variably plumaged species. Various studies have concluded that, although limited interbreeding occurs, the populations are, in fact, separate species.

Erika and I found this Red-breasted Sapsucker as we strolled around Olympia’s Capitol Lake on 30 April 2019. The bird made repeated sallies out of a deciduous tree, returning nearby after every flight. The bird appeared to be flycatching. This foraging strategy is reported for the species up to 10% of the time. Like other sapsuckers, however, these woodpeckers are specialized for tending sap wells that they previously drill. There they drink sap and eat trapped insects (Walters et al. 2014).