Monday, September 30, 2019

Horned Grebe

On 24 September 2019, inspired by reports of rare grebes, Erika and I checked out Olympia’s Capitol Lake. Upon our arrival, a very pale, long-necked grebe greeted us. We both identified it as a Western Grebe, but we become increasingly uncomfortable with our conclusion. The bird seemed to be too dusky to be that species. The bill seemed too small to be either a Western or a Red-necked grebe. Red-necked Grebes are much darker than this bird. Also, Red-necked Grebes do not seem to have red eyes, which the mystery grebe definitely sported.That pretty much leaves Horned Grebe.
I wrote our local eBird reviewer for his opinion. He replied, “Your suspicions are correct. It is a Horned Grebe for the reasons you mentioned. I'm constantly reminded of the impact that my first impressions have on my identification skills. It can be so hard for me to shake a first impression…I have been bedeviled by the occasional Horned Grebe in stretch mode.”

Saturday, September 28, 2019

House Finch

A fiarly common species, a female House Finch taken during my 25 September 2019 Common Tern quest. The bird on the bent fence just seemed to be a Kodak moment. House Finch females are told by their unmarked heads and overall drabness. House Finches were once native to the desert southwest. A few California birds were relaeased from a New York City pet store in 1939 and spread back towards the west. Washington birds, however, are the result of natural expansion from the southwest. Highly adaptable, House Finches now occupy “one of the widest ecological ranges of any extant bird” (Badyaev et al. 2012).

Friday, September 27, 2019

Common Tern

A Common Tern has been reported on my eBird Needs Report for about the past week. Erika and I have unsuccessfully chased after it a couple of times. On Wednesday, 25 September, I found five Common Terns at a small park that looks out over Puget Sound. The terns were on a tidal mud flat quite distant from me. I was able to get some images, which I could blow up. The black nape, black shoulder patches, and relatively long legs (at least for a tern) are all Common Tern field marks. The faintly white-scalloped back indicates an immature bird. Common Terns breed in central and eastern Canada and in the northern Great Plains. They migrate along both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of the United Coasts and over eastern North America to the coasts of Mexico, Central, and South America.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Lesser Goldfinch

A pair of Lesser Goldfinches bathed in our Ashland, Oregon, hotel birdbath on 20 September 2019. This photo is not the clearest, but I took it through a window with my cell phone. This western species occurs south into northern South America. Their range is extending northward.

In the United States, males in the eastern part of their range have black backs, whereas western males, like this one, have greenish upperparts. Females do not differ. Almost all Lesser Goldfinches in Latin America are black-backed. These types are currently considered to be subspecies, but have different molt timing and breeding behaviors. Intergrades exist where their ranges overlap in Arizona and New Mexico (Watt and Willoughby 2014).

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Harlequin Duck

Oregon’s Boiler Bay State Wayside lies on a point that sticks out into the ocean. During our short visit on 18 September 2019, I took this photograph of four distant sea ducks. I assumed they were Surf Scoters, but, upon enlarging the image in my camera, I was surprised to discover that at least the bird on the far right is a male Harlequin Duck. This duck breeds in turbulent mountain streams, where they eat larval insects from the stream-beds. After mating, the females have sole responsibilgy for brooding the young. The males desert the mountains and loaf in the sea. The males forage near the shore, where the forage on a variety of small sea-life.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Western Gull

A small flock of Western Gulls loafed at a picnic area at Boiler Bay State Wayside, on Oregon’s Pacific Coast on 18 September 2019. This gull breeds from central Baja California north to Vancouver Island. Although often seen on the West Coast, the Western Gull has a smaller population than any other North American gull—there are only about 40,000 pairs nesting in some 200 colonies (Pierotti and Annett 1995). The warming of ocean waters, oil spills, and pesticides all threaten Western Gulls. To further complicate the situation, in Washington, Western and Glaucous-winged gulls form a hybrid swarm, with few, if any, genetically pure individuals. The hybrids are often called Olympic Gulls.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Leucistic American Crow

Erika and I are back from a five day trip with friends to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon—a rare non-birding jaunt. We found ourselves on 18 September 2019 driving along the Oregon coast. The ocean was stunning, and we made a few quick stops. The second photo is at Seal Rock State Wayside, where we saw few birds and no seals. At Boiler Bay State Wayside, we were greeted by a leucistic American Crow. Leucistic is sometimes used to mean partially albino. But the two terms are different. To be albino, you have to sport pink eyes, a color clearly lacking in this crow. Leucism is defined by varying degrees of failure of pigment cells. Both conditions are occasionally reported in crows.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

California Spreadwing

On 16 September 2019, a California Spreadwing flew between perches along Olympia’s Capitol Lake. You may recall my recent account of our finding this species for the first time, when David and I found an early-flying, immature female. This spreadwing is an adult. Males of this Western damselfly are usually found near water and “often conspicuously perch in open on dead twigs, and defend small territories” (Paulson 2009). Females lay eggs in plant twigs, even a few feet above the water. When not defending territory or laying eggs, California Spreadwings can be found far from water.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

River Otter

This River Otter was one of four that Erika and I saw on Olympia’s Capitol Lake on 20 August 2019. We did not expect to see otters in a city lake. These weasels fare poorly in the face of pollution and habitat destruction. Being at the top of the food chain means that they also depend on a variety of prey items, mostly fish, but also almost anything they encounter—amphibians, mollusks, turtles, crayfish, and even small mammals. With environmental protection, otter populations are recovering across much of North America.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Great Blue Heron

I am surprised that Vennesland and Butler (2011) in The Birds of North America do not mention that Great Blue Herons yawn. After all, this resource covers most of what is known about the birds of our continent. But I think that is exactly what this heron is doing. We came upon this bird as it slept along Olympia’s Capitol Lake on 10 September 2019. The heron nestled its head under its wing coverts. Unfortunately, the bird woke up before I could capture its image. The heron yawned, but did not fly away.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Horned Grebe

I think I’ve mentioned that I have signed up for hourly eBird reports of species I lack on my county list, but that other birders have seen in Thurston County, Washington. Of course using this service requires that you enter all your records into eBird. The 12th of September found Erika and me searching Olympia’s Capitol Lake for Horned and Red-necked Grebes. Erika quickly located the Horned Grebe in this image—field marks include the grebe’s distinct, dark cap, relatively short neck, and small bill. We did not find any Red-necked Grebes.

One problem is that eBird does not guarantee the accuracy of the forwarded records. You are able to look at the submitted lists and check if photographs were taken or if you know the observer. The first Red-necked Grebe report was by a excellent birder. No sooner than we got home, however, another Capitol Lake record, made very soon after our visit, dinged on my cell phone. Could the observer misidentified our Horned Grebe? No Horned Grebes were included on his list.

I am not sure how I feel about these eBird lists. It is interesting to know what birds people are seeing in our county. Running every which way searching for specific birds, however, does seem a bit compulsive. Moping around the house, fretting over birds you’ve missed also seems a tad sad. I tell Erika that it could be worse. I might have signed up for birds I haven’t seen in the entire state or whole country—such alerts would quickly clog my email account. We did enjoy seeing the Horned Grebe. We conversed with a few passersby, who asked what we were doing. And, after consulting eBird when we got home, I was surprised to learn that the Horned Grebe, although new for me in Thurston County, was not new for my state list. I have four other state records, the first seen on 8 August 1968 at Deception Pass State Park.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Purple Finch

What looks like a male and female Purple Finch, in a flock of a half-dozen birds, on Orcas Island on 6 September 2019 isn’t necessarily so. The “female”-plumaged bird could well be a first or second-year male. Purple Finches may even breed in this drab plumage, although less regularly than do the older, purple males. Purple Finches were fairly common this spring in our forest in Olympia and we banded a few at our feeders. Curiously, we never saw a purple male in Olympia. I don’t have a ready hypothesis for this apparent absence.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Striped Meadowhawk


We found this Striped Meadowhawk on 6 September 2019 on Orcas Island after we discovered the White-faced Meadowhawk described in my last post. The two dragonflies look similar, but we noted the obvious yellow stripes on the sides and top of this species’s abdomen. Oten very common, Striped Meadowhawks are found across most of western North America. Paulson (2009) writes that males often set up territories over dry, grassy, weedy basins near water. They often lay their eggs on the ground, hoping the area will later flood. They may perch on the ground, like this one. 

Friday, September 13, 2019

White-faced Meadowhawk

We found a White-faced Meadowhawk in our Orcas friends’ garden on 6 September 2019. Identification took an embarrassingly long time, since the whote face and red abdomen are diagnostic. This dragonfly is common across most of southern Canada and the northern United States. This ode was common in Erika’s Northfield, Minnesota, garden. Here in the West, the species is often found in mountain forests, where they can be “superabundant” (Paulson 2009). Although White-faced Meadowlarks are almost never found right on the Pacific Coast of the United Stetes, numerous records from Vancouver Island, BC, exist. To our surprise, our record appears to be a first for Washington’s San Juan County (Odonata Central).

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Turkey Vulture

An adult Turkey Vulture and its young stood in the grass along an Orcas Island roadside on 6 September 2019. I am not sure what they were doing there—probably feeding on roadkill, although possibly the red-headed adult was feeding the young bird. Both birds flew up to nearby trees, which supports the roadkill hypothesis. The birds could have been waiting our departure before returning to a feast. We don’t see vultures very often in Olympia, but they appeared to be common on Orcas.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Orcas Island

Erika and I spent the weekend with friends on Orcas Island—a bautiful and remote location. Verizon welcomed us to Canada, although we had our feet firmly planted in the United States. Granted we were north of nearby Victoria, BC. We enjoyed an excellent time, although the birds and dragonflies were not very cooperative. Images will follow over the next few days.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Common Merganser

In the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 22 August 2019, Erika and I watched a large flock of Common Mergansers feed cooperatively. These ducks swam in a loose line, with birds in the rear splashing the water as they tumbled forward and leap-frogged the birds in the front. The whole scene was chaotic, but the flock slowly moved forward, driving their prey ahead of them. Adding to the tulmult, several gulls scavenged overhead, stealing fish from the merganser flock.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Townsend’s Warbler

On 2 September 2019 I banded an immature male Townsend’s Warbler. Only a few days ago, on 27 August, I waxed eloquently over the beauty of the female of this species. At the time, I indicated males were even more striking.  See what you think.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Golden-crowned Kinglet

Recently fledged Golden-crowned Kinglets, like the first bird banded on 10 June 2019, presented me with an identification challenge. I had never seen this species with no color in its crown. It took me several days to come up with a name for this bird. The Sibley guide, however, does illustrate this plumage. The second photo was taken on 4 September 2019. This bird is molting from its fledgling plumage into its first basic (winter) garb. I have never banded birds in Golden-crowned Kinglet breeding territory, thus even this older bird is like nothing I have seen before—even though identification in this case was no problem. The few orange feathers appearing in its crown indicate this kinbglet is a male.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Glaucous-winged Gull


Watching the salmon run with us on 1 September 2019 at the mouth of Capitol Lake were two immature gulls. These birds fed on barnacles or mussels on nearby bridge supports and appeared to take no interest in the fish. Gull identification is always sort of tricky, expecially here in Puget Sound. Here the ranges of Western and Glaucous-winged gulls overlap—Westerns for the south and Glaucous-winged from the north— and the two “species” massively hybridize. In this hybrid swarm, almost no genetically pure birds exist. Frustratingly for birders, these “Olympic” Gulls can not be definitively counted as either species, so neither is counted on our lists. (You would think, by seeing one hybrid, you would get credit for both species.) An exception to this dilemma may be immature Glaucous-winged Gulls, which sport noticeably pale-colored primary feathers.

Monday, September 2, 2019

The Salmon are Running

Chinook and Coho salmon are swimming up Puget Sound and into the Deschutes River in Olympia on 1 September 2019.  A small dam separates the salty sound from fresh-water, Capitol Lake. Without even bringing up the specter of pollution, the fish face survival challenges from Harbor Seals and Ospreys. Cormorants and gulls, scavengers or outright predators, line the shores. People take salmon from the Sound, and Native People take a quota from the river. Milt and roe are collected from some and transported to a nearby fish hatchery below Tumwater Falls. Apparently salmon can not make it over the falls, despite a rather elaborate fish ladder, thus our run is not of historic or evolutionary significance.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Autumn Meadowhawk

This Autumn Meadowhawk landed in Erika’s Olympia garden on 28 August 2019. Bad news. These dragonflies are about the last to emerge—a sure sign that autumn is around the corner. Dennis Paulson assures me, however, that odonates here in Washington “carry on through October, a few even into November, if there’s warm enough weather.” Autumn Meadowhawks were common in late summer in Erika’s Minnesota garden. The species has a curious range, breeding in the Northwest and in eastern North America, with few records in-between. Field marks include their yellowish-brown legs, and clear, amber-tinged wings. Females, like this one, have a ventral, triangular plate at the end of their abdomen. Males have brown bodies and bright red abdomens.