Friday, January 31, 2020


Here is my latest effort in Bufflehead photography. The image was taken on 26 January 2020 at the Nisqaully National Wildlife Refuge. Perhaps not the ultianate photo of a Bufflehead pair, but it does show what a handome pair they are. Buffleheads breed in forested areas of central Canada to Alaska. Buffleheads also breed here and there through much of the western United States. Their winter range occupies ice-free waters from central Mexico north to Alaska and Newfoundland. 

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Bald Eagle

Along the estuary boardwalk in the Nisqually Natiobal Wildlife Refuge on 26 January 2020, Erika and I came remarkably close to a Bald Eagle. The eagle was only a few feed from us and appeared to be unconcerned about the crowded walkway. Was this bird healthy? At the time, I noticed the ruffled feathers on the upper-right side of the eagles breast. This was a windy day and I thought these feathers were blown aside. It is possible that the bird is wounded. Hunting season is almost over and the bird could have been shot at by competing duck hunters.
Other possibilities exist. About a hundred feet along the boardwalk were a pile of gull feathers. Conceivably, the eagle had struck the gull and wounded itself on the boardwalk railing. The hyphesis I prefer, however, is that the eagle stuffed itself on the gull and is now recovering from over-eating. Whatever the answer, the gull was at its perch for over an hour, both when we went out the boardwalk and when we returned. We made no attempt to flush the eagle. I called the refuge a couple of days later and they were unaware of any wounded birds. “Birds of prey sometimes act oddlty,” they reported.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Hooded Merganser

A drake Hooded Merganser greeted Erika and me on 26 January 2006 at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. The duck swam under the walkway leading to the refuge headquarters. The the bird dove and came up holding a bullfrog by the amphibian’s leg. After a bit of thrashing, the frog died and the merganser swallowed its prey whole. The small pond in which it swam sworms with bullfogs all summer. This January day was briefly sunny and, at 52 degrees, relatively warm. I suspect the frog was woken from its winter slumber. The frogs are introduced to western Washington and are a scorge to native aquatic wildlife. Mergansers’ culling the frog population is a good thing. As a result, perhaps we will see more dragonflies in the spring. In these posts, I have images of Hooded Mergansers also consuming small fish and crayfish.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Witches’ Butter

Because of this mushroom’s shiny, slimy appearance, Erika and I first thought it might be a slime mold. We found it on a small log along a paved path near Olympia’s Capitol Lake on 24 January 2020. After taking the photo, I asked my phone what this fungus was. My phone replied, “Genus Tremella, probably Tremella mesenterica—several similar species exist.” This species often goes by the common name, “Witches’ Butter,” and it occurs across much of the world. The habitat was perfect—a recently fallen deciduous log, where it is a parasite on wood-rotting fungi in the genus Peniohora. Witches’ Butter often appears after rainy weather, which is just what we’ve been enjoying. Mycologists argue if this fungus in inedible or merely non-poisonous. At best, it is said to be flavorless—unknown wild mushroom should never be eaten. Nevertheless, mycologists have found glucuronoxylomannan, a substance found in Witches’ Butter, to have a number of biological activities, including “immunostimulatory, antidiabetic, anti-inflammatory, hypocholesterolemic, hepatoprotective, and antiallergic effects” (Wikipedia).

Friday, January 24, 2020

Orange-crowned Warbler

I banded this Orange-crowned Warbler in our Olympia backyard on 19 April 2019. Ornithologists describe four races of Orange-crowned Warbler across North America. Because of its bright yellowish and relatively unstreaked underparts and yellowish head, I suspect this bird is Oreothlypis celata lutescens. This bird seems much brighter and less streaked than Orange-crowned Warblers that I banded in Minnesota. This race breeds from coastal Alaska south through western Washington to southwestern California. This race mostly winters from central California south into Central America. Orange-crowned Warblers are cold-tolerant and are recorded in the winter north into Oregon, with vagrants even reaching British Columbia. To date, however, I have not seen a wintering one in Olympia.

Thursday, January 23, 2020


Four Dunlin asleep on a raft of timber on 20 January 2020 at Boston Harbor, just north of Olympia, Washington. This was my second trip to the harbor in search of an illusive Harlequin Duck. All four had at least one eye open, a habit common among birds. Note the black legs. I suspect their breasts would appear darker if their necks were not twisted to their sides. Dunlin winter south through Mexico and Central America, and are also winter along the American coasts, even as far north as Alaska. They are common in western Washington They breed in the Arctic around the world; nonbreeders are found further south.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

American Coot

Although coots are common year-round residents in the Olympia area, their numbers appear to fluctuate a bit across the year. Erika and I took this coot image on 21 August 2019 on Capitol Lake. The bird is waving its webbed toes at us, proving that coots are, indeed, not ducks. They are, instead, rather large rails. I have occasionally written about these apparently discombobulated birds in my blog pages. This post is one of a backlog of a couple of dozen posts that sit patiently in my computer, awaiting publication. A rainy forecast for the next week suggests ample time to whittle away on these posts over the next few days.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020


A flock of male and female Buffleheads swam by us along Olympia’s Capitol Lake on 25 December 2019. Buffleheads are North America’s smallest diving duck. One reason for this small size is that this tree-cavity-nesting duck often uses Northern Flicker holes. The ducks will also use human-made nesting boxes. Buffleheads are one of the few ducks that are almost entirely monogamous. Mates often pair for several years. Depite hunting being a significant factor in their mortaility, Buffleheads numbers have increased in the last fifty years (Gauthier 2014).

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagles are common throughout the year in western Washington. This apparent pair perched in the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 26 Decermber 2019. Bald Eagles are surpassed in size in North America only by California Condors. Bald Eagles are generally larger in the north and smaller in the south. Although the sexes look similar, females tend to be about 25% larger than males (Buehler 2000). This disparity is typical of most hawks, and, presumably makes aggressive males behave themselves at the nest. In this photo the bird on the left appears to be larger than the one on the right, so I guess the left bird is probably a female.

Friday, January 17, 2020


Identifying male mergansers, like Red-breasted above taken at Woodard Bay near Olympia on 9 January 2020 and Common, found on Capitol Lake on13 January 2020, is not difficult. (The females can be tricky.) Their long, serrated bills make mergansers among the most specialized ducks. Ducks are notorious for their propensity to hybridize with other ducks. Mergansers apparently hybridize less frequently than do other ducks. My graduate professsor, George Lowery, was fond of commenting that, given the opportunity, Mallards will mate with fence posts—and, in fact, hybrid Mallard x Merganser have been reported (Pearce et al. 2015).

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Townsend’s Warbler

9 January 2020 proved to be a two-Townsend’s Warbler banding day in our Olympia backyard. This species is one of Washington’s most common warblers (Wahl et al. 2005). This warbler is an uncommon winter resident, mostly below 490 feet elevation and usually within a few miles of salt water. Our backyard meets both those requirements. I think I have mentioned that the Banding Office asks me if I am sure about my identification when I report banding Townsend’s Warblers in the winter. In these images, the first bird is a female and the second is a male. The warblers appear to follow mixed flocks of Bushtits and chickadees.
Yet another male Townsend’s Warbler in the final photo—this one eating at the suet feeder on a snowy 14 January 2020. These warblers also forage on berries during the cheese, marshmallows, and peanut butter.”

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Audubon’s Warbler

Erika and I photographed this Yellow-rumped Warbler at Olympia’s Capitol Lake on 13 January 2020. A simple explanation of the situation is that two groups of Yellow-rumped Warblers exist—Myrtle Warblers that breed across Canada, the Northeast US, to Alaska, and Audubon’s Warblers that breed from British Columbia and western Washington to Texas and through Central America. The groups are now considered to be a single species because they interbreed along a narrow band between British Colombia and Alberta.

Both Audubon’s and Myrtle Warblers winter in western Washington. After presenting a plethora of records for both warblers, Walh et al. in Birds of Washington, write “field identification of birds within the Audubon’s and Myrtle groups is not possible.” I am not sure what that means. Our bird seems to me to be clearly an Audubon’s Warbler. Note the distinct, white eye-ring and the lack of even a small stripe behind or in front of the eye The ear patch is not bordered by a pale edge and the throat is distinctly yellow. The possibility of hybrids does present glitches to identification, but Sibley maintains that hybrids can usually be recognized by a mosaic of Audubon’s and Myrtle field marks.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Northern Harrier

Northern Harriers nest in dense vegetation on the ground. They also roost on the ground, in numbers, in the winter, of one to 85. Erika and I have observed only up to three harriers at any given day at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. We do regularly find perched birds at two locations, one location on the ground and the other consisting of small shrubs. We have not seen other raptors near the harriers—not counting a harrier harassing a nearby Red-tailed Hawk—but there are reports of multi-species roosts. Some roost locations exist at the same location over many years (Smith el al. 2011). We took this photo on 8 January 2020.

Monday, January 13, 2020

White-winged Scoter

The Pacific Northwest is living up to its soggy reputation. On 9 January I took advantage of a foggy break in the deluge to try to add White-winged Scoter to my 2020 birdlist. Success—I finally photographed a white-winged White-winged Scoter! I was confused by this bird’s plumage. It lacked the tear-drop eye stripe of the male scoters I previously found. But the bird also lacks the white head spots I expected on a female. I suspect this bird is a first-winter male, as illustrated in the Sibley bird guide. (As I write this link, this book is almost 30% off at Amazon.)

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Western Meadowlark

Two Western Meadowlarks perched high in a dead tree on January 8, 2020 at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. Western Meadowlarks are western—they breed fron northwestern Canada east to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and a few even breed in New York. They nest south through midwest to Baja California and into the Mexican highlands. They winter fairly far north and move towards the southeast, but the exact range is unclear since, in the winter,  separating Western and Eastern meadowlarks is difficult. Western Meadowlarks are introduced to Hawaii.

In Washington, Western Meadowlarks are common permanent residents in the east and are locally uncommon in the west. The southern Pugest Sound region, where we live, is one of these local western areas. Western Meadowlarks used to be more common in the west, but urban debelopment and large-scale farming have destroyed grasslands, the major, meadowlark habitat (Wahl et al. 2005).

Thursday, January 9, 2020


Erika and I took this photo of a Snow Goose on 13 December 2019 at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. This bird does not appear to be the same individual that we saw there on 7 November. We saw another single bird during the refuge Christmas Count on 17 December. More interesting to me was the Cackling Goose behind the Snow Goose. Because of its white neck collar, I wondered if this bird could be the rare Aleutian Goose. At least four races of Cackling Geese are described. This bird is probably not an Aleutian Goose, since that race’s neck collar is usually complete, wide, and prominent. Also, the white cheek patches are small and not connected on the throat on an Aleutian Goose.

Richardson’s Geese, another of the races, usually does not show a white neck band. The two remaining subspecies are called Cackling and Taverner’s geese. I am not sure which of the races this bird is. I lean towards Cackling Goose because of its short neck. Taverner’s Goose is supposed to have a rounder head and even a more stubby bill—but these two field marks are both variable and subjective (Mowbray et al. 2002).

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Hooded Merganser

Hooded Merganser drakes are striking ducks. Hens are also handsome. The first photo was taken at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 5 December 2019, The pair of mergansers swam in the Olympia harbor on 4 January 2020. I heard two birders comment that every day is a bad hair day for female mergansers, but I think both these hens are relatively well coiffed.

Hooded Mergansers are common across the breeding range in eastern and western Canada and the United States. In ice-free areas like western Washington, these ducks can be year-round residents. Although Hooded Mergansers eat fish like other mergansers (see third image), Hoodeds have a broader diet, including “aquatic insects, and crustaceans, particularly crayfish” (Dugger et al. 2009).

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Trumpeter Swan

Thanks to eBird and the Washington birders’ listserv, Erika and I were aware that Trumpeter Swans had been seen on Olympia’s Capitol lake since the first of the year. We found two swans at the south end of the late on 5 January 2020. Trumpeter Swans were nearly extinct in early 20th century, but populations have rebounded thanks to strict hunting prohibitions, reintroductions, and habitat preservation.

Trumpeter and Tundra swans are similar (eBird). Trumpeter Swans never show yellow on their bill. Their facial skin is relatively broad where it meets the eye, so the eye does not stand out. The border between the bill and the white face is straight, not curved. Another field mark is that, in the front of the swan, where the forehead meets the bill, the white forehead is pointed. Tundra Swans usually have curved forehead points. Closeup, Trumpeter Swans have a reddish line between their mandibles.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Pied-billed Grebe

A non-breeding Pied-billed Grebe, in the Olympia harbor on 4 January 2020, allowed close approach. Just what is a grebe? Curiously, ornithologists don’t know—grebes do not appear to be closely related to any other birds (Llimona et al. 2020). Traditionally grebes were allied with loons, but scientists generally agree this similarity is due to shared behavior rather than genetic ties, an example of convergent evolution. Now grebes are thought to be derived from the oldest birds, stock that also led to herons, storks, albatross and shearwaters, pelicans and cormorants, and penguins. Despite this ancient lineage, grebes are a fairly cohesive bird family. They have pointed bills (the Pied-billed sports one of the smallest grebe bills), lobed toes, and greatly reduced tails. The grebe family is found almost everywhere in the world. The New World contains the greatest diversity of grebes.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Ruddy Duck

Ruddy Ducks are locally common migrants and wintering birds in western Washington. A few even breed in the area. The first of these birds is a basic (winter) plumaged male. I believe the second is also a male just beginning to molt into alternate (breeding) plumage. The second bird appears reddish on the nect and on the posterior flanks. Both photographs were taken at Olympia’s Capitol Lake, the first on Christmas Day and the second on 3 January 2020.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Pelagic Cormorant

At Woodard Bay Conservation Area on 1 January 2020, we noticed a few distant cormorants. Their small size, dark faces, and glossy plumage all add up to their being Pelagic Cormorants, which seem to hang out further in the bay than do the far more abundant Double-crested Cormorant.  2020 bird list building marches along! For more Pelagic Cormorant natural history, follow this link.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Barrow’s Goldeneye

This drake Barrow’s Goldeneye was nearly our first bird of 2020—beaten only by our hearing an American Crow and seeing a Spotted Towhee at home. We enjoyed a New Year’s stroll at Woodard Bay Conservation Area. Despite a rainy forecast for the first week of 2020, we enjoyed a sunny afternoon. I took the remaining photos of Barrow’s Goldeneyes, including a female in the final picture, on 24 December 2019. All these images were also taken at the conservation area.