Thursday, October 31, 2019

Cackling Goose

There used to be 11 races of Canada Geese. Now the smallest four subspecies are recognized as a distinct species—the Cackling Goose, which breeds further west and north than the larger birds. This goose is abundant at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge in the non-breeding seasons. Erika and I counted over 1000 individuals on 22 October 2019. The smallest Cackling Geese are only a quarter of the size of the largest Canada Geese, but small Canada Geese and large Cackling Geese are sometimes hard to separate. Generally, Cackling Geese have small, rounder heads an much smaller, stubbier bills.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

White-winged Scoter

Puget Sound is only a mile and a half from our home—closer as the crow flies. I often duck out to check the water out for birds. On 28 October 2019, I stopped at an undeveloped park along Budd Inlet and spied the usual suspects. I noticed two distant, dark ducks. I immediately recognized them as White-winged Scoters by the striking plumage of the adult male. Note the oddly shaped, white, upward pointing tear drop that runs from the bottom of its eye. Also note the odd hump on the top of their bill. Usually you can see this species’ white wing patches but, obviously, not always. I have never seen an adult White-winged Scoter until now. White-winged Scoters breed in northern Alaska and the interior of northwestern Canada. The winter along the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. In the winter, the species is fond of crustaceans and mollusks—especially mussels. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

American Pipit

We saw several American Pipits in a wet, plowed field at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 24 October 2019. They used to be named Water Pipits, which, as you can see in these photos, seems like a good name. At the time, Water Pipits ranged from North America across much of the Old World. Recent studies, however, indicate that the North American birds, along with the most eastern Asian subspecies, are actually a distinct species, Anthus rubescens. Perhaps the bird might be better named Reddish Pipit, a translation of its Latin species name. In any event, in North America, American Pipits breed across the Arctic south through alpine regions to El Salvador.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Pacific Golden-Plover vs. Black-bellied Plover

During this season's godwit hunt at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, Erika and I also searched for Black-bellied Plovers. Becasue the birds fed on distant mudflats, this species also proved to be elusive. I finally took several photographs on 22 October 2019. I was startled when I came upon the second photo, which to appears to be a Pacific Golden-Plover, a rare bird in Puget Sound. 

In winter plumage, the two species are difficult to tell apart. Looking at these pictures, the most obvious difference is the color of the belly—white in the Black-bellied Plover, dark in the golden-plover. The golden-plover sports a yellowish wash on its face and breast. The golden-plover also has brown spots on its nape, lacking in the Black-bellied. The golden-plover is a slightly smaller bird and its head is more roundly shaped. The Black-bllied Plover’s bill is slightly larger and differently shaped, Black-bellied Plovers show black “arm-pits” in flight, but I did not have the luxury of noting  that field-mark on these perched birds.

After reviewing all these marks, I reviewed one of my previous Pacific Golden-Plover records. I have argued with friends about this identification. I guess my previous record is wrong, and that the bird is actually a Black-bellied Plover. This reminds me of a quote attribued to Pete Dunne: “The difference between a beginning birder and an experienced one is that beginning birders have misidentified a few birds. Experienced birders have misidentified thousands.”

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Marbled Godwit

For the last week or so, Erika and I looked for a small flock of Marbled Godwits reported on eBird at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. We did not list it until 25 October, and we almost missed it then, too. The bird slept at high tide on a distant island behind a flock of gulls. Not the best of looks and, in fact, we would have never seen the bird had not it been pointed out by other birders. I was surprised by the difficultly of adding this species to my Thurston County bird list. I have seen this godwit along Washington’s Pacific Coast in August 2002. There the bird is common. To my surprise, Marbled Godwits are rare in Puget Sound. Thus the Marbled Godwit was added to my county list, but hardly with a satisfying observation. The bird’s long, upturned bill was tucked under its wing coverts. As you can see in the photo below, taken near La Jolla, California, in 2012, Marbled Godwits are spectacular shorebirds.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Short-stemmed Russula

Suddenly Short-stemmed Russula are exploding from under the ground cover, taking a lot of the cover up with them. I have relied on iNaturalist, which did not hesitate giving me a name for this fungus. The ID seems likely to be correct, since this mushroom is widespread in North America. wbere it grows in a mycorrhizal association with the fir, spruce, and hemlock that surround our house. Curiously, the species is also found in the Pakistani Himalayas. The mushrooms, which emerge in late autumn, are said by Wikipedia to be edible. Their bitter flavor, however, would suggest extreme caution. Rodents and deer consume them—or, at least, ominously, the mammals only take single bites.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Double-crested Cormorant

Actually the target of my 21 October 2019 jaunt to Puget Sound off Olympia was not for auklets, but cormorants. Three species are found here and, of course, the best photo I took was of the common and widespread Double-crested Cormorant. This one is an immature. Note the yellow above and behind the bill. The other two I lacked on my county list—Brandt’s and Pelagic cormorants. I got a photo of the Brandt’s Cormorant perched on a very distant harbor marker tower, stretching every millimeter of my telephoto lens. I won’t subject you to the grainy, shaky result. The head was dark with a small, pale patch behind the bill. I will recognize Pelagic Cormorants when I see them by their dark heads and small white patches along their backsides. I am confident I will get more acceptable photos on a sunny day’s search.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Rhinoceros Auklet

On 21 October 2019, I got fairly close to a few Rhinoceros Auklets. Despite the foggy, rainy weather, I was able to note the yellowish color of the bill. The bird in the second photo flashed its white belly, another of this species’ field marks. I am a bit puzzled by the white line on the first bird’s shoulder—my field guide does not illustrate this mark.

The closeup shot give a good look at the auklets strange bill. The bill is unlike a duck, more reminiscent of a gull. Both gulls and auklets share an evolutionary heritage with shorebirds—gulls, shorebirds, and auks are now placed in the same order. You can almost see a hint of the structure of the rhinoceros-like “horn” (vertical extensions of mandibular plates) that gives this auklet its name. Hopefully the auklets will stick around Olympia long enough for me to capture one in its stunning, full-breeding plumage.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Song Sparrow

A Song Sparrow from last summer, 5 July 2019, near Olympia. Judging by the beak-full of insect larvae, the sparrow must have a nest of hungry young. Song Sparrows appear to be monogamous, yet 15% of young in nests are step-siblings. Thus males and perhaps females occasionally “step-out” on mates (Arcese et al. 2002). In any event, like many birds that consume seeds in the winter, these sparrows feed on invertebrates in the breeding season, which they also feed to their young.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Varied Thrush

One more Varied Thrush image, a male banded on 12 October 2019! This capture brings Varied Thrush bandings past a dozen in October. Varied Thrushes are basically birds of the west coast of North America, breeding in the north and wintering in the south. They do wander during migration. They are recorded in every Canadian province except Newfoundland and all the Unted States except Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and North Carolina. Especially outside of their normal range, Varied Thrush population numbers vary greatly, with peaks every two to five years. Numbers appear to be increasing in the Midwest, but George (2000) warns that this trend is “likely due to more complete coverage and reporting rather than increase in numbers.” Until this year, one of my best Varied Thrush sighting was in Minnesota several winters ago.

Friday, October 18, 2019


On 15 October 2019, Erika and I found a variety of waterfowl—including this male Canvasback—at Capitol Lake in Olympia. The duck made repeated dives, accounting for the splashes of water on its head. They are primarily vegetarians, but, expeically when breeding, are not advese to taking various invertebrates. Canvasbacks breed across Alaska and western Canada south into the northern Great Plains and parts of the northwestern United States. Populations are severely affected by drought, sometimes not breeding at all during dry years. They winter across ice-free areas of the United States south into Central America. Wintering birds are concentrated in the Chesapeake Bay (although numbers have greatly declined there due to declines in Wild Celery), the lower Mississippi Valley, and in the San Francisco area. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Mew Gull

We found this Mew Gull on 3 September 2019 at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. The bird is in a second-winter plumage, similar to a Ring-billed Gull. The Mew Gull is somewhat smaller and has grayer legs than a Ring-billed. The head shape is also subtly different—the Mew Gull’s head is rounder, giving it a more dainty look.

Although somewhat catholic in its habitat preferences—it breeds in salt and fresh water and on the ground or in trees—Mew Gull breeding is restricted to Alaska and northwestern Canada, south along the coast to Vancouver Island. Most winter along coastal North America, although a few regularly stray to the central United States and south-central Canada. Despite the restricted New World breeding range, the species also occurs across most of Eurasia. Although preferring fish, Mew Gulls also consume insects and other invertrabates, grain, and berries. They also often hang out at sewage treatment pools (Moskoff and Bevier 2002).

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

American Wigeon

At Olympia’s Capitol Lake on 13 October 2019, I photographed a pair of American Wigeon. Females differ from males by their white-edged wing coverts. This wigeon breeds across Canada and the northern Great Plains. They are the northernmost breeding dabbling duck. They winter along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and across the southern United States south through Mexico and Central America. Wigeon are mainly vegetarians in the winter.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Rhinoceros Auklet

After going to the Metropolitan Opera Simulcast and a the Olympia Farmers’ Market on 12 October 2019, I read in the eBird Rare Bird Alert that hundreds of Rhinoceros Auklets had been seen that morning in Puget Sound on the north edge of Olympia. It being late in the afternoon, I wondered if chasing these birds would be worth while. Since I the drive to a Sound overlook was but a mile from our house, I went to check it out. I was partially successful—I counted five auklets and one Western Grebe, both new birds for my Thurston County list—but both species were too distant for decent photographs.

Here are the results of a return trip the next morning. This time I counted 100 auklets (but no grebes). The auklets were still fairly distant, which made photography difficult. The best of my images is the one below of an immature male bird. At this time of year, field marks are few. Later in the spring, males will sport twin facial plumes and rhinoceros-like growths on the top of their bills. Photography was also hard because I found it difficult to locate the auklets, focus, and take the image before the birds dove for their fish prey. I have never seen anything like the first photo. The twin water spouts behind the bird are probably caused by the bird’s kicking its feet to force the front end under the water. The object at the bird’s right front is one of its wings—these birds must propel themselves under water as if they are flying through the air.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Rosy Aemilia

This handsome moth larva greeted us on our garage door on 11 October 2019. Having no clue as to its identity, I tried unsussefully to ID the beast with iNaturalist’s app called Seek. “Not to worry about this failure,” wrote the app, “we will post the record on iNaturalist and see if any experts can provide a name.” Within hours, two people provided concurring identifications—Lophocampa roseata, a moth called a Rosy Aemilia. 

This moth ranges from southwestern British Columbia south through western Washington and Oregon. Disjunct records exist from Colorado and northern Mexco. The species inhabits conifer forests and urban areas. The larvae favor maple trees. The adult moth has clear hind-wings but is otherwise a mottled rosy color.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Townsend’s Mole

On 9 October 2019, Erika and I found a Townsend’s Mole dead on the road. Not wanting to pass up a new species for my blog, I took these photos. Note the almost black dosal fur, the large front, digging feet, and relatively long, naked, white tail. We were in the correct habitat for this spevcies—coniferous forest rather than a meadow or a deciduous woodland. We were hiking along a restricted gravel road in the hills west of Olympia. Traffic is minimal here, so rather than an automobile strike, I think some mammalian or avian predator must have dropped the mole.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Sharp-shinned Hawk

An adult, female Sharp-shinned Hawk is larger than her mate (presumably to keep him in line at the nest). Both are smaller (and do not overlaps in size) than the otherwise similar Cooper’s Hawk. Sharp-shins can be told by their square tip of the tail, their dark cap running down the back of their neck, and their, smaller, more rounded profile head. Both of these hawks are terrors at the bird feeder. Sharp-shins consume birds and a few small mammals. In the fall, they are particularly found of juncos. I sure hope that this individual, banded on 8 October 2019, will not remain in Olympia this winter. The species breeds across Alaska and Canada south through both Eastern and Western mountains. They winter across the United States south through out Mexico to Panama. Sharp-shinned Hawks are also resident across much of South America. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Varied Thrush

Varied Thrushes have become fairly common in our Olympia backyard during the first week of October. We took this photo on 8 October 2019. The thrushes, and a host of other birds, are attracted to an Evergreen Huckleberry hedge on the east side of our house. These are native plants, Vaccinium ovatum, which are very common along the US west coast. The shrubs grow in secondary forests and woodland edges. Other plants in the genus include Blueberries, Huckleberries, Cranberries, Lingonberries, Whortleberries, Bilberries and Cowberries. .

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Pacific Tree Frog

Pacific Tree Frogs range from British Columbia to northern California. We photographed this one at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 24 September 2019. They enjoy a wide range of habitats, but are usually found near water. They can change from brown to green (and mosaics between the two colors). Color change is triggered by background brightness. A complete color change may take months, but can begin in a few hours (Wikipedia). 

Monday, October 7, 2019

Caspian Tern

In their account of the Caspian Tern in The Birds of North America, Cuthbert and Wires (1999), aside from bill and prey cleaning, make almost no mention of this species’ bathing. On 2 September 2019, I photographed this Caspian tern as it bathed in western Olympia. The bird splashed water over its feathers in an area where a storm sewer drains fresh water into Puget Sound. The tidal flats are a hangout for various gulls.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Coho Salmon

This salmon’s apparent lack of an adipose fin did not surprise me. I knew that fishery biologists cut off this “fin,” a small bump on the back of salmon and trout that lies along the fish’s back, behind the dorsal fin. This operation assures these biologists that the fish is hatchery-raised. On 29 Septemer 2019, Erika and I found this fish attempting to scale a small waterfall on the Deschutes River just below the Tumwater Fish Hatchery. Earlier I have written that this salmon run is a human-established route for hatchery-raised fish.

Fishery biologists have long argued that this operation does not harm the fish. Recent research, as reported in The Globe and Mail, suggests otherwise. The adipose fin turns out to be a current sensory organ for salmon. Without the adipose fin, fish use 15% more energy to maintain their position and speed in the water. Clearly this energy expenditure comes as an overall detriment to the fish’s survival.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Shadow Darner

Among the Paddle-tailed Darners we found on 30 September 2019 at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, we found this Shadow Darner. Its blue abdomen spots are relatively small and the last segments of the abdomen are dark. Shadow Dragons are, indeed, often found among Paddle-tailed Darners.

Shadow Darners, as their name implies, often lurk in the shade.  Females lay their eggs on logs and twings in the water or on tree trunks or mud banks, even above the water. This species flies later in the day than other darners, feeding in clearings and forest edges. They often fly until dark and, being relatively cold-tolerant, are among the latest flying dragonflies in the fall,.

Two races are described—one from the Rocky Mountains, the other across the Great Plains. Eastern individuals have small abdominal spots with tend to be greenish on the end of the abdomen. The information for this post comes from Paulson (2009).

Friday, October 4, 2019

Paddle-tailed Darner

30 September 2019, a sunny but chilly day at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, witnessed a large immergence of  Paddle-tailed Darners. Erika and I were able to photograph several that we saw. The species is very common in western North America, and perhaps the most common mosaic darner in the northwest..
These darners are found near ponds and slow streams, and often prefer wetlands near woods, where they often hang from vegetation. Males ofter hover, and then fly into shrubbery, perhaps looking for roosting females. Note their bright, blue-spotted abdomens, un-notched side stripes, and paddle-shaped terminal abdomen appendages (Paulson 2009).

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Varied Thrush

On 30 September 2019, I banded a Varied Thrush in our Olympia yard—a first for my banding career. Varied Thrushes breed in montane forests, although previously they bred to sea-level. Logging and other types of habitat disturbances forced the thrushes to hiogher elevations.

Our understanding of Varied Thrush migration is somewhat muddled (Wahl et al. 2005). Some birds make true migrations, while others may only undergo elevational shifts during the winter. In the fall, birds spread out from their dense forest breeding areas into the lowlands, where they are found in a variety of habitats, including urban areas and fields. In the fall, birds begin moving in mid- or late September, especially after early mountain snows. Larger numbers are recorded in November or December. In mid-April and May Varied Thrushes head back to their breeding grounds. They are less common in western Washington in mid-winter. The situation is further confused by the possibility that populations may be cyclical from year to year. In any event, it is worth noting that the Olympic Range and much of the Cascades suffered their first major snowfall of this fall during the past several days.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Green Heron

Although surrounded by walkers, joggers and the homeless, Olympia’s Capitol Lake often yields good birds, like this Green Heron on 15 September 2019. This city lake is about two miles in circumference. The lake connects the Deschutes River and Puget Sound. The lake was created as a reflecting pool in 1951. Water levels are controlled by a dam where lake water enters the Sound.

The lake is becoming clogged by sediment and contaminated with phosphorus. Recently an oil spill and sewage spills have further contaminated the water. Algae and invasive species also inhabit the lake. According to our local newspaper, The Olympian, the state has initiated an environmental impacts study about what to do with the lake. At least four solutions present themselves.

1. Leaving the lake as it is.
2. Managing sediment levels.
3. Taking the dam out and reverting the lake to an estuary.
4. Making a “hybrid version,” including a pedestrian walkway across the lake.

I am not sure which of these alternatives I favor. I suppose a muddy esturary would replace current duck habitat with shorebirds. On the other hand, alternative duck habitats seem few and far between. In either case, a final report is due in 2021.