Sunday, June 30, 2019


We finally got around to identifying this white-flowering bush on the edge of our yard—Oceanspray or Ironwood, Holodiscus discolor. Ironwood, though, is a name we usually reserve for an Eastern tree, Ostrya virginiana. By whatever name, Oceanspray is a common understory shrub in the Pacific Northwest and coastal California. Often it appears is recently burned areas, although we suspect our’s is an ornamental  plant. We found it is more wild habitat at the Saint Martin University in Olympia on 28 June, which is where the second photo was taken. Tribes in the area used the wood for tools, spears, arrows, and furniture. 

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Pacific Hairy and Downy Woodpecker

Many birds of the Pacific Northwest (although not all) are darker than their eastern relatives. Elsewhere in this blog, I mentioned that, despite their apparent similarity, Hairy and Downy woodpeckers are not closely related. Nevertheless, both woodpeckers are much darker here in Olympia than in Minnesota. In the first photo, the red top of the head is expected in a young, male Hairy Woodpecker, even in eastern birds. But note the gray underparts—these would be bright white further east. The Downy Woodpecker in the second image is even darker. Also compared to eastern birds, both woodpeckers have fewer white spots on their backs. Obviously something favors this melanism, and even unrelated species are responding to this evolutionary pressure. We banded both of these woodpeckers in our Olympia backyard—the Hairy on 1 June and the Downy on 2 June 2019.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Blue-eyed Darner

Erika spied a pair of Blue-eyed Darners on 10 June 2019. These dragonflies hung under a vetch along a trail at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge near Olympia. Readers of this blog may recall that most dragonflies mate with the female collecting semen from the male, while he grasps her by the back of her neck. Dragonflies often fly about in this wheel position. This behavior prevents other males from mating with the female. One of the first things another male does is flush semen from the females with whom they are about to mate.

Blue-eyed Darners are common across much of the western United States, and barely into adjacent Canada and Mexico. They are found in all sorts of wetlands, even venturing into urban areas. They do, however, prefer open, rather than forested, habitat.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Belted Kingfisher

This image of a Belted Kingfisher is another early record, 20 April 2019, from when we first moved to Olympia.  We found it at Woodard Bay Conservation Area. Kingfishers breed across much of the United States and Canada. Some winter wherever water does not freeze, but most migrate, even as far south as northern South America. Despite this wide range, few biological studies are published on the species. Kingfishers specialize on fish, but will also take other aquatic creatures. What birds can’t digest is regurgitated in pellets, making tallies of food items relatively easy to catalog (Kelly and Hamas 2009).

Monday, June 24, 2019

Steller’s Jay

Steller’s Jays breed from Alaska to northern Central America in the Cascades and Rocky Mountains. These jays habituate to humans and are often found near bird feeders or campgrounds. They are common residents in forested areas of Washington. During winter, there is some elevational migration and young birds occasionally wander from breeding areas. Therefore, I am surprised that this Steller’s Jay, checking out our feeders, is the only individual I have listed in our Olympia backyard. Washington populations are not declining. Breeding Bird Surveys indicate Washington populations increased 1.3% from 1966 through 2011 (Walker et al. 2016).

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Ring-necked Duck

According to The Olympian, our local newspaper, vandals attempting to rob copper piping from the abandoned Olympia Brewing Company, damaged a transformer. At least 600 gallons of mineral oil spilled into the Deschutes River and Capitol Lake—both great places to search for birds and dragonflies. The state was notified of the spill on 25 February but may have occurred before then. Despite full time, seven days a week cleanup, no completion date is predicted. The cost is estimated to be five million dollars. Erika and I photogrphed this pair of Ring-necked Ducks on Capital Lake on 23 April. Now that summer is upon us, most of the waterfowl have migrated from the area. We trust the environment will be cleaned by next fall. As of this writing, we have seen few dragonflies on the lake.
Read more here:

Read more here:

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Band-tailed Pigeon

After two Band-tailed Pigeons discovered our feeder, I may invest in birdseed futures. These pigeons, the size of Rock Doves, are found from Alaska to South America. In North America, they are found along the Pacific Coast and in the Southwest. The species is found in a wide variety of habitats, from rainforests to cities and farms. Band-tailed Pigeons lay but one egg per clutch, but may complete three nesting cycles per year. Despite what might appear to be dangerously low fecundity, and despite being hunted, Band-tailed Pigeon populations are either steady or only sightly declining (Keppie and Braun 2000).

Friday, June 21, 2019

Barn Swallow

Barn Swallows are such common birds across nearly the whole world, one tends to give them little notice. But they are beautiful, little birds, as you can see in the top photo of one of the first of the season that Erika and I found at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 23 April 2019. Judging by his tail length, this bird is probably a male. Tail length, along with other traits, indicate evolutionary fitness in both males and females.

The first photo sat in my blogging queue until Erika and I took the following sequence of images at Nisqually on 19 June. This bird was one of four young Barn Swallows begging to be fed. As soon as they spied an adult, all four opened their mouths and fluttered their wings. The adult flew in and, wbile flying, fed the young. I was surprised when the adult almost completely inserted its head in the young bird’s mouth. I suspect few scraps fell from that feeding!

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Columbia Tiger Lily

Erika and I found a few Columbia Tiger Lilies during our hike yesterday, 17 June 2019, in one of our favorite places near Olympia, the Mclane Nature Trail—a tract for forest managed by the state, containing a large dragonfly-infested beaver pond. We found the lilies in a clearcut hillside. These pretty flowers are smaller than other species of tiger lilies. The plant grows in western North America, from Montana west to British Columbia and northern California. According to Wikipedia, bulb from these flowers were used by native peoples to spice-up various food items.

Monday, June 17, 2019

American Emerald

This American Emerald photo has waited in my blog queue since 26 April 2019. This species is an early flying dragonfly in Olympia—I found it hanging in the bushes, as typical for an Emerald. One of its characteristics is the thin yellow line at the beginning of the abdomen, This individual is immature. Later its eyes will turn emerald. They prefer forested edge areas, often flying in great numbers. This individual was in our backyad,  American Emeralds are found from Alaska across southern Canada, south to northern California in the west and North Carolina in the east.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Eight-spotted Skimmer

Two Eight-spotted Skimmers from the Nisqaully National Wildlife Refuge. The first is a male on 23 May 2019.  The second, a female, on 10 June. Males fly along shorelines. They do not defend terrtories. They are aggressive toward others of their species and towards other dragonflies. When they find a female, they briefly copulate. Males sometimes guard females as the females deposit eggs. Often she lays her eggs in one spot, but other times she drops eggs over wider areas. This species is common across much of the western United States in a wide variety of wetland habitats.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Anna’s Hummingbird

Before the 1930’s, Anna’s Hummingbirds were restricted to southern California and Baja California. These hummingbirds now breed in western Texas and north to British Columbia. They are now found all year in Washington, although it has not been deterimed if the breeders are the same individuals as the wintering ones. We have listed the species often, but the top and the bottom images depict a male and a female posing for photographs at our Seattle friends’ feeder.
When we got home from Seattle, we caught the male Anna’s shown in the middle photo. The color is not quite brilliant enough, but you get the idea. Anna’s Hummingbirds are named after the duchess of Rivoli, Anna de Belle Masséna, who, by all accounts, was both young and beautiful (Gruson 1972). She and the duke owned the collection from which Lesson described the species in 1829.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Pelagic Cormorant

Pelagic Cormorants are another wides-ranging bird of the North Pacific, found from the Bering Sea south to Baja California and south China. Despite their name, Pelagic Cormorants are found along inland areas, where they feed on fish and invertebrates on the sea floor. Cormorants are related to gannets, Anhingas and Frigatebirds. Recent studies, unlike earlier work, suggest that Pelicans are closer to herons and egrets than they are to cormorants, with whom they once shared the order Pelicaniformes (Hobson 2013). Many ornithologists now place the cormorants in a separate order, the Suliformes, apart from the pelicans. In any case, note this bird’s orange face. The key field-mark, white patches on its lower back, are not visible in this photo.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Pigeon Guillemot

We drove the backway and took the Bremerton Ferry to Seattle last weekend. The weather was perfect, our friends in Seattle were delightful, but we saw relatively few birds. We missed our return ferry by three minutes, leaving us an hour to discover a half-dozen Pigeon Guillemots under the pier.

Guillemots are auks, birds of northern oceans. At one time or another, auks have been thought to be related to penguins (although auks can fly), loons, grebes, or diving-petrels. Recent studies ally the auks with gulls, with both groups sharing a shorebird-like common ancestor. They often feed along inland waters. They dive to the seabed for fish and vegetation. Birds are vulnerable to oil pollution, gill-netting and mammalian predators, but their range is so wide that they do not appear to be globally threatened (Ewins 1993).

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Evening Grosbeak

We were delighted to discover a pair of Evening Grosbeaks at our feeder on 6 June 2019. The female fed while the male flew into our banding net. The female then followed the male into the net. Then both birds escaped.

We enjoyed seeing Evening Grosbeaks in northern Minnesota. Eastern and western populations are slightly different. Western birds have longer bills and the females tend to have darker, brownish-washed underparts. The second image, of a female from Minnesota, sort of illustrates the difference in bill size. Evening Grosbeak flight calls have at least four dialects across North America. Western birds have somewhat clearer calls, whereas eastern ones tend to be more raspy. The difference, however, is subtle. Evening Grosbeak flight calls are usually unmistakable. These grosbeaks are odd songbirds in that they seldom sing (Gillihan and Byers 2002).

Monday, June 10, 2019

Black-headed Grosbeak

I expected to see a Black-headed Grosbeak at our feeder and, on 5 June 2019, we discovered this male at the suet. Grosbeaks are seed-eaters. Our suet is mixed with seeds and bug parts and fortified with calcium, ingredients that attract a surprising variety of birds.

Black-headed Grosbeaks are odd songbirds. First, some ornithologists consider them to be the same species as the Rose-breasted Grosbeak—just the western form of two subspecies. Females are hard to tell apart and the two types do occasionally interbreed where their ranges meet in the Great Plains. Alan Phillips considered the two forms to be the same species and named them Common Grosbeaks.

Black-headed Grosbeaks are monogamous. Males and females about equally share nesting chores. Males often take up to two years to attain breeding plumage. Second-year males are more likely to breed the more they resemble males in full breeding plumage. Females usally sing a toned-down version of the male song. Occasionally she sings just like the male. Ortega and Hill (2010) write that singing a full male song deceives “mates about the presence of intruders and forces greater nest attentiveness.”

Friday, June 7, 2019

Western Wood-Pewee

Saint Martin's University in Olympia enjoys a lovely campus. On 5 June 2019, Erika and I took a short stroll there. Among other birds, we found a Western Wood-Pewee, a common flycatcher in western North America from Alaska to northern Central America. Eastern Wood-Pewees breed in eastern North America, and barely overlap with western birds. Western and Eastern Wood-Pewees are nearly identical. Only their ranges and songs can be used to identify them.

Wood-Pewees flycatch from open twigs, often returning to the same perches after each sally. They eat a wide variety of flying insects.  Bemis and Rising (1999) warn that, although still common birds, Western Wood-Pewee populations may be declining due to habitat destruction both in their breeding and winter ranges.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Great Blue Heron

Erika and I found this Great Blue Heron on Capitol Lake in Olympia on 30 April 2019. I have seen this heat-regulating behavior a few times. I assured passersby that the bird was not wounded. Other herons have similar behavior in which the birds make a shadow that attract unfortunate minnows within striking distance. That behavior, however, has a more horizontal aspect. The linked photo is of a heron on dry land, and this bird is casting a fairly scant shadow.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Black-tailed Deer

An unwelcome visitor to Erika’s garden. Several of her plants are missing in action and she is not a happy gardener. She also is unhappy when people like the men in her family confuse antlers and horns. 

Antlers are found on deer, like this Black-tailed Deer. Antlers are usually found only on males and are extensions of the deer’s skull. They are annually shed and regrown.

Horns are found on antelope, sheep, and bison. Horns are found on males and females (although they are often smaller on females). Horns have two parts, an extension of the skull and a sheath of specialized  hair follicles. Although antelopes shed their horns, normally horns remain on the animal all year (NPS).

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Hammond’s Flycatcher

Yesterday, 3 June 2019, Erika drove 50 miles to Forest Service land adjacent to the Olympic National Park. We took an easy, three-mile trail to Staircase Falls, just within the National Park. The Old Growth Forest was gorgeous but the wildlife disappointing. The only bird of interest was this Empidonax Flycatcher, perched on a tall snag in the forest. The genus Empidonax contains a suite of species that are notoriously difficult to tell apart—especially when they are silent. A number of factors lead me to conclude this bird is a Hammond’s Flycatcher. The first hint is its habitat. Other species are found low in trees and shrubbery and often prefer non-coniferous habitat. Note the notched tail—other Empidonax have square-ended tails. The wings on our bird are relatively long, extending well along the tail. Finally the bill is relatively small, even compared to other Empidonax species, small birds as they are. 

Monday, June 3, 2019

California Darner

I found a male California Darner in my bird net on 13 May 2019. Dragonflies are hard to remove from my nets, but I released this darner unharmed. I recently commented that this species is a small and early-flying darner. The name commemorates its place of discovery rather than its range, which extends over much of the western tier and some of the interior of the United States and southwestern Canada. This species often flies around forest clearings like that of our backyard.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Song Sparrow

I recently posted about dark Song Sparrows in the Olympia region. Another difference seems to be their habit of cocking their tail. One could almost confuse the sparrows with wrens. Erika and I have not noticed this behavior, at least in the frequency seen here, in Eastern birds. Reviewing a few literature sources, I find no mention of this behavior. 

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Common Loon

On 23 April 2019, Erika and I found a Common Loon diving in Capitol Lake in Olympia. We watched it swallow a small fish, which was kind of odd. Loons usually consume small fish under water. They may bring larger fish to the surface, where they break their prey up or discard it. In any case, although they take whatever fish species they can capture, they seem to prefer perch and bluegills. Loons also eat crustaceans, especially when water is muddy or fish are scarce. Chicks are fed fish, but also crustaceans, snails, leeches, and dragonfly and beetle larvae (Evers et al. 2010).