Thursday, December 31, 2020

Pine Siskin

Erika and I are finding huge flocks of Pine Siskins. This year is a “finch year,” with siskins and other northern birds spreading across the United States. These irruptions are presumably tied to food cycles—during low food years birds move south. We have seen flocks of well over 100 birds swirling over our path. In this case, siskins were dripping from the limbs of an alder. Curiously, just in the last week have siskins discovered our home bird-feeders. So far only about a half dozen have appeared but the may be harbingers of bad news for our seed budget. It may be noteworthy that the siskins we’ve banded were emaciated. These birds are clearly hungry. 

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Red-tailed Hawk

Erika and I found this Red-tailed Hawk on 22 December 2020 at the Bill Frank Jr. National Wildlife Refuge. This species is really variable across its range. At least 16 subspecies are described. Differences in populations do not trend geographically, making identification difficult. Adding to this challenge is that some races are polymorphic, ranging from nearly white to almost black. Furthermore, adjacent subspecies often show intergradation of patterns. I think the Red-tailed Hawk we found was B. j. calurus, which breeds from eastern Alaska to Arizona and New Mexico. This race winters into Central America, but is resident in our part of its range. This race has dark, light, and rufous morphs—intermediates between all of the morphs can be found. This race is the only Red-tailed Hawk with a barred, not streaked, belly band and usually the only one with a dark brown throat.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Common Merganser

The first photo is of a drake Common Merganser that has been floating around my blog queue since 5 March 2020; the second is a drake Red-breasted Merganser photo Erika and I found on 22 December 2020 at he Nisqually wildlife refuge. Mergansers, because of their serrated bills, are perhaps the most specialized ducks. Among the ducks, mergansers are thought to be most closely related to the scoters, eiders, and goldeneyes. The duck family (Anatidae) is most closely related to Australian Magpie-geese (Anseranatidae) and, slightly more remotely, to the South American screamers (Anhimidae) (Winkler et  al. 2020; Pearce et al. 2020)

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Cackling Goose

These birds are Cackling Geese—the Pacific race, which have relatively dark bellies. These geese also show how the white neck-ring of this race varies from no ring to a relatively prominent one. Cackling Geese are an annual long-distance migrant. They often fly nonstop between their arctic breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska to wintering locations in the mid-latitude and southern areas of the United States. Erika and I saw these birds on 22 December 2020 at the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Northern Flicker

A strange angle of a Northern Flicker showing off its white rump—a female of the expected Red-shafted race judging by the lack of red or black on the bird’s head. I think the gray feathers on either side of the rump are flank feathers that are usually underneath the bird’s wings. One of the joys of birding is that even the most common of birds is often exquisitely plumaged. Erika and I found this flicker along Capitol Lake in Olympia on 24 December 2020.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Hooded Merganser

Just like Great Blue Herons, I find walking by unphotographed Hooded Merganser to be very difficult. This pair of mergansers were at the Nisqually wildlife refuge on 14 December 2020. Hooded Mergansers breed in eastern North America and also in the Pacific Northwest. They enjoy a diverse diet of aquatic critters. It turns out that these ducks can change the refractive properties of their eyes. People can only affect the curvature of their lens. Many diving ducks can also change the curvature of their corneas—and they have an “extra eyelid” (the nictitating membrane) that they use much like underwater goggles. The result of these adaptations is that Hooded Mergansers have great under-water vision.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Northern Pintail

Both drake and hen Northern Pintails are elegant ducks. Erika and I found this male on 7 December 2020, the female on 9  November 2020, both at the Billy Frank Jr. National Wildlife Refuge. Pintails are common birds, found across the world’s Northern Hemisphere. Predators and habitat destruction destroy thousands of pintail nests. Wintering ducks suffer from water shortages, farming, pollution and urban development. By the early 1990s, North American pintails dropped from 6 to under 3 million individuals. Thanks to wildlife and habitat management, in 2013 the population was estimated at 3.3 million birds (Clark et al. 2020). This increase is in the right direction, but leaves plenty of room for improvement.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

American Robin

22 December 2020 found Erika and me taking photographs of an American Robin to meet the eBird challenge of 50 images taken while compiling bird lists. The rules of this game do not forbid taking 50 photos of the same bird over and over, but I have attempted to collect different plumages (male/female), if not 50 different species. 

American Robins are the most abundant and widely distributed North American thrush, found from Alaska and northern Canada south throughout most of Mexico. The species winters far to the north, even into Alaska. Many robins migrate, but other individuals are year-round residents. Still other birds perform elevational migrations along various mountain ranges. Distinguishing robin races in the field is difficult. The robin in this photo, however, appears paler backed than the breeding robins we see in Olympia. In the winter, robins by the hundreds form flocks that roam in search of trees with fruit. In the summer they eat worms and a variety of invertebrates.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Surf Scoter

Surf Scoters breed across Alaska and northern Canada. They winter off the coasts of North America. Erika and I found this pair at the Woodward Bay Preserve on 18 December 2020. We are always impressed with the clown-faced male Surf Scoter. I was surprised by the brown bird’s white nape and had assumed it was an immature male. But a white nape is typical of an adult female. The male and the female appeared to be paired, which is typical for the species. Pairs migrate together to breeding sites, although males leave the nesting area after a few weeks—the females do all the incubating of eggs. Meanwhile males depart to coastal molting sites and later migrate to their wintering range. Females leave their nesting areas before their young leave the area (Anderson et al. 2020).

Monday, December 21, 2020

Green-winged Teal

Green-winged Teal become abundant at the Nisqually wildlife refuge in the winter. These ducks have a broad diet, eating seeds, aquatic insects and larvae, mollusks and crustaceans. They feed on whatever is locally abundant. They often feed in shallow water. These teal typically dabble or catch prey with their bill above water. They are also known to probe in mud, like this on at low tide on 14 December 2020, capturing nematodes, ostracods, and copepods just above the mud sediments (Johnson et al. 2020). 

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Great Blue Heron

I try to walk by Great Blue Herons—they are so common that I already have dozens of images. Erika insisted I take this one—the morning light promised a perfect photograph. This species is, indeed, one of the most abundant North American wading birds. Great Blue Herons have weathered the feather trade of the late 1800s and early 1900s, habitat loss and other environmental threats. Bald Eagles are a primary predator of these herons—rebounding eagle populations may be bad news for heron numbers. On the other hand, some herons nest near eagles that keep other predators at bay (Vennesland and Butler 2020). These photos were taken on on 14 December 2020 at the Nisqually refuge.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Varied Thrush

A flock of about a dozen Varied Thrushes are foraging around our neighborhood. I took these photos of a male and a female on 6 December 2020. I am not sure what they are eating as they feed among fallen leaves of an ornamental maple tree—maple seeds? Varied Thrushes breed from Alaska to the Pacific Northwest. Most winter from northern British Columbia to northern Baja California. Numbers of these birds fluctuate on a two to five year cycle. Here in Washington, their migration seems to be stimulated by mountain snow. Some evidence suggests that northern birds migrate further than southern and coastal populations. During years with high numbers of birds, some Varied Thrushes wander across much of southern Canada and the United States.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Taiga Merlin and Kestrel

On 14 December 2020, Erika and I discovered a Merlin at the Billy Frank Jr. National Wildlife Refuge. These small falcons can be fairly common in Washington, but we do not see them very often. They breed in northern forests across Alaska, Canada, the northern Rocky Mountains, northern Europe and most of Asia. They winter south to northern South America, north Africa, and southeastern China. 

Merlins usually attack from perches, like the one we saw from a great difference. These falcons usually chase eat small to medium-sized birds in the air. Prey is captured in mid-air, as the Merlins fly close to the ground. Unlike Peregrine Falcons, high speed stoops are uncommon. Oddly our bird appeared to be harassing ducks in small ponds in the marshland. The Merlin made repeated swoops at the ducks, which appeared to panic with a great deal of splashing with each attack. The Merlin then flew towards us, circling a male Pintail along the way. None of the ducks fell prey to the raptor and it is possible that the falcon was actually searching for small birds. 

Finally the falcon flew along the gravel road along the dike upon from where we watched. The Merlin swerved over four grazing Snow Geese, which gave the Merlin scant attention. To our amazement, the Merlin landed at the edge of a puddle in the middle of the road. We noted the white stripe above the falcon’s eye and its dark mustache streak. These marks indicate this bird was the Taiga race of the Merlin, which breeds across northern North America into the northern Rocky Mountains, including Washington. A black race of the Merlin also breeds in Pacific Northwest forests.

Our falcon adventure continued. An American Kestrel flew up and landed nearby. This smaller falcon did not fly, but ran several yards along the road and began bathing in one of the puddles. Oddly the Merlin appeared to watch the kestrel bathe, but appeared not to be interested in bathing or drinking. Was the Merlin waiting its turn at the puddle, or was the falcon miffed at the kestrel’s cutting to the front of the bathing line? Curiously, in Birds of the World, neither Warkentin et al. (2020) writing about Merlins, nor Smallwood and Bird (2020) writing about American Kestrels, mentions bathing in water. We had the road to ourselves for five or ten minutes before other people began appearing and both falcons flew off in different directions.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Peregrine Falcon

Another Peregrine Falcon from the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge—4 December 2020, perhaps the same individual I recently wrote about in my blog. Peregrines breed widely across the Northern Hemisphere of the world. They winter all the way from northern latitudes, like from southern Alaska and northern Europe south to the tips of South America, Africa, India, and Australia. Breeding can also occur in the winter range. Recent research by Beingolea and Arcilla in the Journal of Raptor Research (2020) showed that eight Peregrine Falcons wintering in Peru did not hatch at a single region of North America. These birds were banded in Alaska, northern Canada, Minnesota and Nebraska. Thirteen additional migrating falcons banded during migration along the East Coast of the United States and Texas were recaptured in Peru. An Alaskan bird traveled 6630 miles. The authors conclude that Peregrine Falcons wintering in Peru “originate from a widespread geographic breeding range, corroborating other research suggesting that Nearctic peregrine migration is highly dispersive.”

Monday, December 14, 2020

Anna’s Hummingbird

Anna’s Hummingbirds are one of the delights of winter in Washington. I photographed the female on 4 December 2020 and the male on 9 December. I have previously written about how this species, before the 1930a, nested only from northern Baja California to San Francisco. Now it breeds north to Vancouver Island, southern Arizona, and perhaps west Texas. Post-breeding vagrants appear even as far north as southern Alaska, Canada, and the Gulf Coast of the United States. Records, mostly in the late summer and fall, exist from almost every state in the country. What caused this tremendous range expansion is unclear, but is probably due to a tendency to wander after breeding coupled with people planting exotic plants and providing winter hummingbird feeders. Here is an eBird summary of our backyard Anna’s Hummingbird records. The white blocks represent months of the year. We will have been here two years next March. I suspect our winter records will further fill in after we complete two years with hummingbirds becoming increasingly accustomed to our feeders. We do not know if our winter birds are the same individuals that breed here.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Common Raven

Erika and I occasionally see or hear Common Ravens in our Olympia, Washington, back yard. With the exception of June and July, we have seen them all year—this bird was photographed on 5 December 2020. I might submit this image for a Worst Bird Photo contest, but I doubt it will win. For one thing, the image is in focus. At least two critical field marks are clearly visible—the huge bill and the graduated feathers that result in a wedge-shaped tail. A crow has a much smaller bill and a squared-off tail. I heard this bird calling from a tree-top in our backyard. I ran into the house and recorded it with my cell phone. I submitted both the image and the sound recording with my morning eBird list.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Bald Eagles and Salmon

Erika and I must be becoming Washington residents—we went birding in the rain. Curiously we did not see much on our 9 December 2020 walk up Kennedy Flats. Overlooking Kennedy Creek, we listed about a dozen Bald Eagles flying up and down the creek valley. Several eagles perched in the tree-tops along our logging road. Such a concentration should not be unexpected—the creek, like this side tributary, is full of dead Coho Salmon. Eagles are opportunistic feeders—they will actively hunt live prey or steal from other predators—and eagles regularly feast on dead fish and other carrion. 

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Townsend’s Warbler

A Townsend’s Warbler visited Erika’s garden on 6 December 2020. This species breeds from Alaska, across British Columbia, south to the Olympic Peninsula, the Cascade Mountains of Washington, and the Rocky Mountains of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and western-most Montana. Birds winter from Vancouver Island, Puget Sound, and south along the Pacific Coast to Baja California and from southern Arizona south through much of Central America. Playing with eBird range maps, I notice an odd thing about this bird’s distribution in Olympia. They are often found in the urban area of the city during December and January. But in June and July, although found in the forests surrounding the city, they are absent from urban areas. This pattern does not seem to hold in other areas of Puget Sound (like in Tacoma or Seattle).

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

American Wigeon

When Erika and I visited the Billy Frank Jr. National Wildlife Refuge on 4 December 2020, the tide was high. Many of the waterfowl we listed, like these two drake along with a hen American Wigeon, were asleep. The high tide may be a good time for sleep. Mammalian predators may not be easily able to approach the birds—and the birds may have more limited foraging opportunities in the deep water.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Review: All the Birds of the World

All the Birds of the World. Josep del Hoyo, ed. 967 pp. Lynx Ediciones: Barcelona. Hardbound. $125. 

This book is amazing. If you are interested in birds, or if you need a gift for someone who is, take a look at this volume. This 967-page book contains a series of excellent color illustrations of all of the 11,324 known bird species of the world. For each species, both sexes are illustrated, if they differ, and many races are included—20,865 illustrations in all. 

The sample page below gives you an idea of the book’s layout. Each species is framed in a section that includes a range map, a notation of the bird’s conservation status, a red circle that indicates if ornithologists disagree about the taxonomic status of the bird, and alternate common and scientific names. There are checkboxes for your own lists. Even the approximately 150 species known to have become extinct since 1500 are included in an appendix. The book also includes a 37-page world atlas with details of interest to amateur birders and ornithologists. This book may strike you as fairly expensive at $125, but, as the publishers proclaim, it is the “easiest and most enjoyable way to browse through all the birds of the world.”

But it gets better! Included with each illustration is a QR code that, when read by your cell phone, links you to that species' account in eBird’s collection of videos, photos and sound recordings. The result is a mega reference book that can be enjoyed by anyone interested in birds. You can get more details or order through this LINK, ( (If you buy through this link, I receive a small commission.)

Monday, December 7, 2020


Two female Buffleheads greeted Erika and me at the Nisqually national wildlife refuge on 4 December 2020. The ducks fed in a large, shallow pond in a field near the refuge headquarters. What seemed odd was that the Buffleheads dabbled in such shallow water—so shallow that only the ducks’ heads went below the surface. Gauthier (2020) writes, in Birds of the World, that Buffleheads (except for the downy young) feed by diving in shallow water (up to ten feed deep). Gauthier, makes no mention of Buffleheads’ dabbling from the surface. He writes “all food acquired solely through diving.” These Buffleheads are apparently an exception to that rule.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Green-winged Teal

The handsome Green-winged Teal is North America’s smallest duck. They breed across northern North America, Asia, and Europe. Old World teal lack the white line on their sides but usually have white-lined green facial patches. The breeding range of the Eurasian birds extends into the Aleutian Islands, so I am always looking for one to appear in the winter here in Washington—so far without success. Erika and I took images of these male Green-winged Teal at the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge on 4 November 2019 (top) and 4 December 2020 (bottom).

Friday, December 4, 2020

American Crow

Rain started falling on 24 November 2020. I was birding in West Bay Park in Olympia. I thought the light was interesting and took this photo of an American Crow. Feathers resist water, which rolls off the bird without being absorbed. In really heavy rain, birds can flatten their feathers, increasing their water resistance. Note the water droplets in the enlarged second photo.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Trumpeter Swan

Erika and I visited the less human-frequented south end of Capitol Lake. I am therefore fairly sure that  the two Trumpeter Swans we saw on 2 December 2020 were recent arrivals. After centuries of commercial harvesting, in 1935 only 69  Trumpeter Swan remained in the contiguous United States. With rigorous conservation and restoration management, numbers reached over 63,000 in 2015—and there are certainly even more birds today. In our part of North America, these swans breed from Alaska through British Columbia and Albert and winter along the Pacific Coast south to Washington and Oregon. The species has been reintroduced to many locations in the northern United States and southern Canada.

Each month, eBird issues challenges to its users. December’s challenge is to submit 50 photographs or sound recordings. If nothing else, this activity will provide me a bunch of blogging material. As I took this swan picture, I realized the neck reflection had possibilities for an interesting image.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Peregrine Falcon

If you look closely at this photo you can see a baffle in this Peregrine Falcon’s nostril. Such baffles are almost unique to the falcons. Conventional wisdom is that these baffles regulate airflow, which would be handy if you dove at speeds up to 200 mph.  Other hypotheses are that the baffles measure air speed or in some way help with the sense of smell.  Curiously hawks, which also dive, lack these baffles. The dark sides of this bird’s head are typical of western Peregrines. Eastern birds tend to have much thinner facial markings. This difference, however, has become muddled as birds have been reintroduced in the East or the West without regard to where they originated. Erika and I photographed this Peregrine Falcon at the Billy Frank Jr Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 1 December 2020.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Common and Barrow’s Goldeneye

Female goldeneyes are harder to tell apart than the drakes. This first photo is a Common Goldeneye that Erika and I found on 13 December 2019 on Capitol Lake in Olympia. The second we photographed on 17 December 2019 Woodard Bay, near Olympia. Identifying these hens is a lot like telling the drakes apart. The duck in the first photo has a gently sloping forehead and its relatively large bill has a yellow base, but is mostly dark. Look at the second image. That bird has a shorter bill that is mostly yellow. The forehead leaves the bill at an acute angle. All these field marks add up to the second duck being a Barrow’s Goldeneye.
Now for a quiz. What is the goldeneye in the third photo, taken on 20 November 2020 at the Nisqually national wildlife refuge? Although the bill is mostly yellowish, the bill is not particularly stubby. The forehead is not acutely angled. I think these field marks all add up to Common Goldeneye. But, if I am mistaken, it would not be the first time. The yellowish bill leaves me wondering if this might be an immature bird.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Common Goldeneye

Erika and I also found a male Common Goldeneye on 23 November 2020 at Woodard Bay near Olympia. Both Common and Barrow’s goldeneyes can be found on the same locations during the winter here. The Common Goldeneye has a much wider range than the Barrow’s. Common Goldeneyes breed in boreal forests in both the New and the Old worlds. Note the round, rather than crescent-shaped, white patch below the golden eye. Also diagnostic is the gentle slope to the Common Goldeneye’s forehead. The Barrow’s Goldeneye’s forehead rises almost straight up from its bill—compare this photo to the Barrow’s Goldeneye in my last post. I think the Common Goldeneye’s bill is not as stubby as that of a Barrow’s Goldeneye.