Friday, November 29, 2019

Surf Scoter

At high tide on 14 November 2019, Surf Scoters filled Woodard Bay near Olympia. These sea ducks are common in most of Puget Sound. In any plumage, bill shape is a good field mark. Male bills sport clown-like colors. I’m not sure what is happening with the explosion of water in this photo. Synchronous diving, where a bunch of ducks dive together to better locate fish schools, is known for Surf Scoters. Perhaps this bird is driving fish towards its companions; or is this bird alerting its companions to our presence along the shore? Or is the bird simply quickly swimming to a new location? In any case, Surf Scoters eat a wide variety of bottom-dwelling invertebrates and small fish.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Northern Pintail

Drake Northern Pintails are handsome ducks. Erika and I found this one on 25 November 2019 at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. These ducks are abundant across Alaska, Canada, and much of western North America. In the fall and winter, pintails eat grain, marsh plants, and invertebrates.  Clark et al. (2014) assure us that, through prudent wildlife management, pintails “should have a secure future in North America,” despite threats from predators, farming and agricultural development, water shortages, environmental contamination, and urbanization. Population numbers, nevertheless, have fallen form six million birds in the early 1970s to 3.3 million now.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Horned Grebe

23 November 2019 found Erika and me watching about a dozen Horned Grebes feeding along the Bremerton, Washington, ferry dock. Although this grebe is known to feed cooperatively in groups, our birds appeared to be individually hunting. In the winter they consume fish and crustaceans. The birds swallow small prey under water, but bring larger items to the surface, where they manipulate, pinch and disable their catch (Stedman 2018). The grebe in the second photo carried what appears to be a crab, which seemed dead. The grebe made repeated dives with its crab, returning with it to the surface—until the last dive, when the bird reappeared without the crab. Presumably the crab was eaten under water.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Pacific Wren

For most of my birding career, ornithologists considered Pacific, Winter and European wrens to be a single species. These populations, however, prove to sing distinct songs and have significant differences in their genes. Where Pacific and Winter wrens overlap, they do not interbreed. Pacific Wrens breed along the coasts of southern Alaska and the coasts and western mountains of Canada and the United States. Isolated populations breed in South Dakota, Utah, and Arizona.

Pacific Wrens, although common in Washington, are cryptic and elusive. These tiny wrens skulk about forest undergrowth and prefer old-growth habitat. In the Pacific Northwest, they are often found along streams enriched with “salmon-derived nutrients” (Toews and Irwin 2012). Clear-cutting and other forest fragmentation pose threats to these wrens. I have, nevertheless, seen several Pacific Wrens in our Olympia backyard. This image is my first of these wrens I’ve banded—on 21 November 2019.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Peregrine Falcon

A distant Peregrine Falcon on 19 November 2019 at the the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. These falcons are famous for their 200 mph dives, often knocking prey out of the air with their clenched talons. Breathing must be difficult at such speeds, and may explain the presence of baffles, barely visible in this photo, within falcon nostrils. See also my previous blog on these baffles.

High speed stoops are not the bird’s only hunting method. This bird made several low passes over marshland, repeatedly returning to its initial perch. Peregrines are bird -specialists—birds constitute up to 99% of their diet—eating songbirds and other species up to the size of small geese. Peregrines also occasionally take small mammals, amphibians, fish, and insects (White et al. 2002).

Friday, November 22, 2019

Rhinoceros Auklet

Erika and I surprised a Rhinoceros Auklet at the end of a dock in Olympia on 14 November 2019—finally a half-decent photo of this odd bird. I have previously written that auklets are related to shorebirds and gulls and not to penguins, which they superficially resemble. Although they are adept divers like penguins, but auklets are also excellent fliers. Rhinoceros Auklets are found on both sides of the North Pacific. Most North American birds breed on islands in British Columbia, nearby Washington, and southeastern Alaska. These birds winter along the Pacific coast from Southwestern British Columbia to almost the tip of Baja California.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Barrow’s vs. Common Goldeneye

The first photo is a male Barrow's Goldeneye that Erika and I listed on 14 November 2019 at Woodard Bay Natural Area near Olympia. The second is of a male Common Goldeneye we found in Olympia on 16 November. The two goldeneyes are similar. Compare the sicke-shaped head spot on the Barrow’s. This spot is round on the Common Goldeneye. The white spots on the back indicate that we have a Barrow’s Goldeneye. I have only recently learned that the head shape helps separate these ducks. In both sexes, the forhead of the Barrow’s Goldeneye comes off the bill at a steep angle, whereas the head of the Common Goldeneye is much more gently rounded.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Barrow’s Goldeneye

Erika and I found a small flock of Barrow’s Goldeneye on 9 November 2019 in Budd Bay off Olympia. These ducks breed along freshwater lakes in the mountains from Alaska into the northwestern United States. They wnter in coastal bays or estuaries or freshwater mountain lakes that do not freeze. The species also breeds in Iceland and winters in eastern Canaca and the far northeastern United States. The duck is named for John Barrow (1764-1848), a British Arctic explorer. The bird with with bright bill is a female.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Pileated Woodpecker

This Pileated Woodpecker worked dead wood near the tip of a large tree at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 8 November 2019. This species is found in Eastern North America, across Canada, and down the northern Rockies and the Pacific coast to central California. Erika commented that this bird seemed to be darker than the Pileated Woodpeckers we fed in our Minnesota backyard.

Despite its extensive range, only two races of Pileated Woodpeckers are recognized by ornithologists. Dryocopus pileatus pileatus is found in the southeastern United States. from Kansas to Maryland, south to the Florida Keys. Florida birds may be slightly darker than more northern ones. Northern and western birds, D. p. abieticola, are similar but slightly larger. Pileated Woodpeckers along the Pacific Slope often have relatively unbarred underparts, which would might account for Erika’s observation that our bird looked dark. Bull and Jackson (2011), however, note that over 50% of western birds have identical plumage to eastern ones and both eastern and western Pileated Woodpeckers are the same size.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Ring-necked Duck

Ring-necked Ducks on 5  November 2019 at Olympia’s Capitol Lake. Erika and I did a double-take when we saw the single female in the first photo. The extensive white streak behind the bill made this duck look a bit like a Blue-winged Teal. The white band on the bill argued to the contrary. Despite being vulnerable to over-harvesting and prone to ingesting lead shot, continental poluations of Ring-necked Ducks appear to be stable or increasing (Roy et al. 2012). The species is abundant on Capitol Lake.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Autumn Meadowhawk

The problem with my relatively newfound passion for dragonflies is that the creatures disappear in the winter before hatching in the sping—just long enough for me to forget how to identify them. Autumn Meadowhawks, told by their pale, yellowish legs, are among the last dragonflies of the season. I found this meadowhawk basking in the sun on 7 November 2019. I have not seen a dragonfly since.

Autumn Meadowhawks are common. They have two North American populations, one in the East, and the other in the Pacific Northwest. They prey upon almost any soft-bodied flying insect they can catch.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Great Blue Heron

Here is a remarkably tame Great Blue Heron that strolls down the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge dike. We have seen it at least twice, the first image was taken on 7 November, and the second on 12 November 2019. The bird was calmly, slowly, methodically hunting garter snakes. A passerby on the first day showed me a photo of the heron with a snake wrapped around its bill. The snake in the second image barely fit down the heron’s gullet. Great Blue Herons mainly eat fish, but, in fact, will take nearly animal they can swallow—amphibians, invertebrates, reptiles, mammals, birds, and even carrion. Vennesland and Butler (2011) speculate that the diet reflects prey abundance. These authors also report that occasionally herons choke to death on large prey items!

Friday, November 15, 2019

Long-billed Dowitcher

Telling Long-billed from Short-billed dowitchers is difficult. Female Long-billed Dowitchers have long bills, and this bird’s bill does seem to me to be relatively long. The striking stripes on  this bird’s flanks also suggest that this bird is a Long-billed Dowitchers. Short-billed Dowitchers often have spotted flanks, but western birds can be quite similar. Note that the stripes lie against a dusky, not white background—another field mark of the Long-billed Dowitcher. Being that Erika and I saw this bird at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 7 November 2019, I wore long pants. This observation is an odd field mark for Long-billed Dowitchers. But Long-billed Dowitchers tend to be late migrants, when birders are unlikely to be wearing shorts.

The derivation of the word “dowitcher” is open to debate. Gruson (1972), my usual source for etymology, suggests dowitcher comes from an Iroquoian name. Cornell, however, maintains that the word is derived from a hunter’s traditional name, “German Snipe.” In Pennsylvania Dutch, “Duitscher” means  German. (The name for Wilson’s Snipe was “English Snipe.”)

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Northern Shrike

Erika spied and I photographed this immature Northern Shrike at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 13 November 2019, Immatures and first winter birds, as they slowly molt, tend to look more and more like adults as the winter progresses. The young birds tend to sport brownish wash on thier upper parts, and they tend to be dusky and finely vermiculated below. Their black masks are usually less distinct. Across their Arctic breeding range, western birds tend to be slightly darker than eastern ones. I was surprised by how brown our bird was—I do not recall ever seeing a bird this brown in Minnesota or South Dakota.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Chum Salmon

Erika and I occasionally hike along Kennedy Creek a few miles west of Olympia. We were aware of a salmon viewing area along the creek, but we had never seen any fish—until 11 November 2019. Chum Salmon, splashed, spawned, and died in the stream. This spawing area is only a mile from Puget Sound—typical spawning habitat. In Washington, Chum do not swim as far upstream as Coho Salmon—Chums’ larger size keeps them in relatively deeper water and Chum are poorer jumpers (WDFD). Elsewhere, however, Chum make extended travels up larger rivers.

The Chum Salmon is this photo is probably a non-hatchery released individual since its adipose fin is present. This current-sensing fin can be seen on the fish’s back, behind the dorsal fin and in front of th tail. Fishery biologists often cut off the adipose fin so that researchers can easily recognize hatchery raised fish—for more see my blog on Coho Salmon.

Chum enjoy the largest range of any Pacific salmon. Chum breed in rivers along the North Pacific Rim in Korea, Japan, eastern Russia, Alaska, British Columbia south to California (where they are rare or extirpated). In the ocean, they swim relatively near the surface, deeper in the day than at night (Wikipedia).

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Snow Goose

On 7 November  2019,  Erika and I photographed an immature Snow Goose at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. I an surprised that this is the only Snow Goose we have listed this fall. The species is an abundant winter visitor in scattered locations in western and southern North America. Up to 40,000 have been censused just north of Seattle and many winter in northwestern Oregon and in California. You might think that Snow Geese would be a common sight overhead as they head south. Almost all the Washington Snow Geese breed on Wrangel Island in the Chukchi Sea off northern Siberia (Wahl et al. 2005). These birds often have rusty-stained heads (a color that this bird is lacking). 

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Bufflehead 2

I’ve menstioned before that male Buffleheads are hard to photograph. The drake’s striking and contrasting plumage is part of the problem. It also does not help that these ducks seem to be in constant motion—diving, flippering off the photographer, and even laughing a the photographer’s curses. These pictures were taken on 6 November 2019 at Olympia’s Capitol Lake.
I took the last photo with the final rays of the day. I think the dark water perfectly contrasts with the drak’s iradescent head and white body patches. It would be nice, one of these days, to capture images like this on purpose, rather than by dumb luck.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Bufflehead 1

On 5 November 2019, Erika and I stalked around Olympia’s Capitol Lake trying to take pictures of Buffleheads. My first goal was to capture a female. In my next post, I will report on my subsequent efforts to photograph a male. I was well-enough pleased with my first two images, but the third may be the most interesting. Note the roiling water in front of the duck. Unseen by us, a dozen Bufflehead were feeding under the water. This duck grew tired of my attention, and flew off to join a huge raft of Buffleheads in the center of the lake. Her flight must have been noticed by the divers—in rapid succession, the twelve birds exploded from under the lake and, without pausing to take the situation into account, took to the air, following the first bird to her distant companions. Erika and I could only laugh at this amazing sight.

Friday, November 8, 2019


Erika and I found this FOS Gadwall at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 4 November 2019. FOS stands for First of Season. Had it been new for the year, it would be FOY. Gadwall are common ducks across northern and western North America. They winter in more southern climes as far as Central America. I find these photos odd. Although they appear well within permissible variation for male Gadwalls, the photographs are actually of the same individual. I assume the differences are due to the bird’s orientation to the light, and not to different plumages on the duck's left and right sides.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Wilson’s Snipe

On 4 November 2019, Erika and I took more photos of Wilson’s Snipe at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. I was pleased with how the images turned out, since these shorebirds are often hard to find out in the open. These snipe are named for Alexander Wilson (1766-1813), sometimes called “the father of American ornithology.” Wilson, a weaver and a romantic poet, led an interesting life, before embarking on a 10-volume, illustrated treatise on the birds of eastern North America. This effort was before Audubon. Wilson got to volume 8, and number 9 was published posthumously. The name, Wilson’s Snipe, is a bit confusing due to ornithologists’ arguing if our snipe is the same species as the Old World’s Common Snipe. If the two species are merged, then they are both known as Common Snipe. If you think that slight differences in voice, color, and structure are significant, then you call our species the Wilson’s Snipe. I tend to side with species-splitters, since then you can better know what is being reported—and, of course, you can amass a larger life-list.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Pectoral Sandpiper

Pectoral Sandpipers provided Erika with the data for her dissertation. She studied their trematode parasites as the birds made their 15,000 km migration from the Arctic to Argentina. She took parasite samples in Canada, South Dakota, Louisiana, and Peru. She discovered that the the more internal parasite species, those not restricted to the digestive tract, were most likely to be found across the birds' whole migration. Intestinal species were lost, those lodged in the birds’ air sacs were not dislodged. Such a long migration must be physiologically stressful for the birds. Pectoral Sandpipers that breed in Siberia may winter in southeast Asia and in the South Pacific. Other Siberian birds may make a “Great Circle route over the Arctic Ocean to Alaska or Canada and then to South American wintering areas (Farner et al. 2013). Erika and I found this Pectoral Sandpiper on 31 October 2019 in the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Halloween Owls

Halloween, 31 October 2019, found Erika and me at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. A woman came down the boardwalk and told us, “there’s a Barred Owl just ahead—look for all the people!” We are not sure we would have found the owl without the birders, who subsequently took us to see a Great Horned Owl about a 16th of a mile further down the walkway.

The proximity of the two large owls surprised me. I thought that Great Horned Owls displaced Barred Owls from shared woodlands. A quick review of the Internet suggests that the situation is complicated. The Audubon Society writes that Barred Owls are less aggressive and competition between the two species may drive Bared Owls out of more open woods. Great Horned Owls are “the most serious predatory threat to the Barred Owl” (Cornell). Nevertheless, this source informs us that when the two owls live in the same areas, Barred Owls will often move to another part of their territory when a Great Horned Owl is nearby. On the other hand, (Artuso et al. 2001) report an “exceptional record” of the two owls nesting successfully in the same tree.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Wilson’s Snipe

Wilson’s Snipe are abundant but elusive shorebirds. We finally began seeing them at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 29 October 2019. Snipe breed across Alaska, Canada, and the northern United States. They winter across most of the United States south into northern South America. Here in western Washington, and elsewhere in the northwestern United States, the species can be found all year.  It is a little strange that it took Erika and me so long to photograph one.

The word “snipe” come from “snite,” which means “snout,” referring to the bird’s long bill (Mueller 1999). As in other shorebirds, the tip of the beak has sensory pits for the birds to detect submerged invertebrates. Snipe eyes are set relatively far back on the head, allowing for binocular rear vision while the bird has its bill buried in the mud.

Friday, November 1, 2019

American Dipper

Ever since 7 July 2019, when we observed an immature American Dipper in the cascades of the Deschutes River in the Tumwater Falls Park, we have looked for another. On 25 October we finally succeeded. This latest dipper is also a young bird, judging by its pale bill. The scalloped back feathers indicate that it is newly molted. (The white feather is miscellaneous down.) In the second photo you can see white lines on the bird’s eyelids. According to Kingery and Willson (2019), these feathers produce the white flash that you often see when you watch dippers. I had always thought these flashes are caused by their nictitating membranes blinking.

I suspect dippers are year-round residents on this sea-level stream, perhaps augmented by mountain birds moving to lower elevations when their streams freeze in the winter. Dippers inhabit cascades, even nesting behind waterfalls and feeding under water. I am surprised they do not have even larger toes help them swim in the rapids or to hold on to the slippery rocks upon which they forage. To survive this environment, they have low metabolic rates and their blood can carry more oxygen than other birds. Their feather coat is thick. In Arctic Alaska they have overwintered at tempetatures below -50 degrees Celcoius (presumably near salt water).