Saturday, February 29, 2020

Red-eared Slider

27 February 2020, a sunny, 60ᵒ F day, brought out a turtle at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge—a Red-eared Slider. Note the red behind the eye. These turtles do not hibernate. They are able to slow their metabolism and can emerge on a warm day. They are the most frequently observed turtle in most of western Washington (Paulson). The problem with Red-eared Sliders is that, while native of the southeastern United States, they have escaped or been released from the pet trade all over the world. Feral populations are now found in Australia, Europe, South Africa, the Middle East, Asia, the Caribbean, and various Pacific Islands. Paulson warns, “These invasive turtles compete with native turtles and transmit diseases to them.”

Friday, February 28, 2020

Surf Scoter

When I spied this duck on 27 February 2020 at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, I first thought we had a Black Scoter. I noted no large white patches on the head or neck and no white in the wing. The bill, however, looked like a dull Surf Scoter. This Surf Scoter is typical of a first-winter, male.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Least Sandpiper

On 20 February 2020, Erika and I counted 68 Least Sandpipers at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. This count is one of the highest for Least Sandpipers in the winter in Washington. The species winters along North American Coasts from Oregon and southeastern Virginia to northern South Amierica. On the Pacific Coast, they are casual north to British Columbia. Least Sandpipers breed across Alaska and Arctic Canada and they are common across the continent during migration. The species is best identified by its brown coloration and yellowish legs.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Wood Duck

Here are three images of male Wood Ducks taken at McLane Lake near Olympia on 25 September 2019, 4 October 2019, and 11 February 2020. The second male is either immature and/or eclipse plumage, that ducks undergo after the breeding season. Note the faint suggestion of the male’s white chin stripes.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Virginia Rail

During a stroll along a marsh at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 24 February 2020, Erika noticed the cattails move. Out popped a Virginia Rail. This species is common, even abundant (albeit elusive), in freshwater marshes across the northern United States and southern Canada, They can be very hard to see—especially at the refuge where playing bird call recordings is forbidden. I was surprised at this bird’s coloration—it looked unlike any Virginia Rail I have ever seen. The breast seems remarkably rich chestnut. The gray face is oddly bordered by a pale, gray band. The flanks are much more finely barred than the flanks of other Virginia Rails. I was surprised when I researched this post, that no geographic variation is described in the ornithological literature. There are no recognized races in North America. The confusing field marks on this bird must fall within the normal range of coloration in Virginia Rails.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Great Blue Heron

Here are a few photos taken over the past year of Great Blue Herons.  All are from the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.  Wetland pollution and draining has also threatened the species. Currently populations appear to be stabile, with increases in some areas, but decreases in others. (Vennesland, R. G. and R. W. Butler 2011).
Great Blue Heron plumes were prized by the millinery trade if the early 1900s. The species has more or less recovered from this decimation, although some studies conclude that populations were higher before the 1930s than they are now (see citatio above).

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Surf Scoter

A Surf Scoter swam up to us at the Bremerton Ferry on 14 February 2020. One assumes that these ducks use their outlanish bill colors to differentiate the age and sex of their companions. Surf Scoters consume bivalves and small fish, but take advantage of whatever prey items are most abundant at a given location and season.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Eurasian Wigeon

Erika and I have found about a half-dozen Eurasian Wigeons during the spring and fall at Nisquially National Wildlife Refuge. Most of these birds were well camouflaged in grassy meadows. On 17 February 2020, we found this individual at the end of the refuge boardwalk. The bird fed in the open alongside several American Wigeons. I have previously written about this duck. This bird fed in shallow water—the species is normally vegetation.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

American Bittern

On 17 February 2020, after months of searching, Erika and I finally found an American Bittern at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. You can tell why bitterns are difficult to see. Bitterns inhabit cattail marshes in the Northern United States and southern Canada. Most migrate south in winter. Bitterns are in western Washington all year.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

California Sea lion

California Sea Lions breed along the Pacific Coast from central Mexico to California. In the winter they move further north, reaching southeastern Alaska. They are seen in Puget Sound, usually from fall to spring. Females rarely occur here. These mammals are probably attracted to the Sound in search for salmon. Erika and I found this sea lion as we waited for the Seattle Ferry in the Bremerton, Washington, Harbor on 14 February 2020. I am not sure we have ever seen California Sea Lions.  First we heard the sea lions, which sound somewhat like barking dogs. Other field marks include its brown to black coloration, dog-like snout, and apparent crest on the top of its head. This crest is typical of older males.

Monday, February 17, 2020

English Daisy

Flowers are appearing in Olympia park lawns! We think this weed is English Daisy—aka Lawn Daisy—Bellis perennis. Daisies, however, are difficult to identify. This common European weed is found in lawns and roadsides in low elevations of western Washington. The plant is grown commercially and escaped in much of the American West and Northeast. Erika and I found this daisy in a park lawn in Olympia on 12 February 2020,

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Bewick’s Wren

A furst sign of spring on 12 February 2020! Erika and I strolled along a trail connecting the Tumwater Historical Park and the south pool of Caiptol Lake. This Bewick’s Wren vociferously sang its loud, bouncy trill. (Only the males of this species sing.) We stood kind of transfixed, which is too bad, since we could have recorded the song with our cell phone and included it in our eBird list. After the bird flew, I vowed to record the song during our return trip—the bird’s presence seemed likely since it appeared to be defending territory.
As luck would have it, the bird was not at its perch when we walked back about 30 minutes later. But a few feet further down the trail, the wren flew out and landed nearby. The bird behaved quite oddly. We can only assume this behavior was directed towards us. Mind you, we were silent throughout the bird’s display. We never made any of the squeaking or spishing sounds often used by birders to attract birds. During the display the bird made loud, low buzzing noises. Kennedy and White (2013) mention that Bewick’s Wrens defend territory againsts House Wrens and Song Sparrows, but we observed no other birds during this display. They also report that these wrens give “staccato scolding notes in response to human intruders.” 
First the bird spread its tail and wagged it back and forth horizontally—not up and down as you might expect for a wren. Then, even more remarkably, as it continued the tail spreading and wagging, the bird twice fluttered both wings, but without taking to the air. You can see this in the final photo. Finally the wren flew away.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Northern Pygmy-owl

After 11 months searching every tree branch in Olympia, Washington, on 11 February 2020 Erika and I found a Northern Pygmy-Owl. This bird is one of North America’s smallest owls, at only 6 inches, making it hard to see even though it hunts by day. Despite its size, this owl is described as a “blood-thirsty, rapacious...fiend” (Bent in Holt and Petersen 2000). This owl mostly eats small birds and mammals, but also insects (including dragonflies), amphibians, and reptiles. Probably also because of its size and despite its range across western North America well into Central America, the Northern Pygmy-owl is one of our least-studied owls. Ornithologists suspect what we now call Northern Pygmy-owls may actually comprise two or three distinct species. Different populations vary in details of their single or double-noted whistles and in their color—some are gray while others are a rich chestnut. My only view of this owl was extremely back-lit, which made capturing this bird’s bright chestnut difficult (the color expected in western Washington). Despite being high in a leafless alder, this owl was very hard to see. We only found it because Erika asked a nearby birder what he was so intently photographing.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Mallard and Pintail

Walking back from the Nisqually boardwalk on 3 February 2020, Erika mused, “Mallards would be better appreciated if they were not so common.” So I took a picture. According to Drilling et al. (2014), “ In North America, the Mallard is the most abundant duck species. Its success in the wild reflects its adaptability to varied habitats, its hardiness in cold climates, its catholic food tastes, and its tolerance of human activities.” The second photo is clearly the backend of a drake Northern Pintail. Like the Mallard, pintails are both common and enjoy a wide distribution around the world. Pintails and Mallards are not called “dabbling ducks” for nothing.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Wood Duck

Erika and I found a pair of Wood Ducks in the pond at McLane Lake near Olympia on 5 Feburary 2020. The female busily pulled down from her belly while the male napped. Hens do line their nests with down feathers, but she did not appear to be collecting the down. Perhaps she was bareing her brood patch. Her behavior may have just been an example of feather maintenance. The drake seemed to pay little attention, although he did lean away as the hen ruffled her feathers and flapped her wings at the end of this sequence.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Pacific Loon

During our 3 February 2020 Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge Brant search, Erika and I spoke to a birder. He reported that he saw three Red-throated Loons near the end of the boardwalk. We photographed two loons. I really think these look more like Pacific Loons. They don’t have the haughty, bill-in-the-air, attitude of a Red-throated Loon. The bird in this photo has what appears to be a thin necklace, a feature of Pacific Loons. The birds have relatively dark backs.

This species may be the most abundant loon in North America (Russell 2018). They breed n freshwater lakes across Northern Canada and Alaska, even into northeastern Siberia. In winter, Pacific Loons are abundant in saltwater of the Pacific Coast, from Alaska south to Baja California. Most Siberian birds winter off Japan, Korea and eastern China. These loons are casual from the Midwest to the Atlantic Coast—many of these records, however, “may involve misidentifications of Common or Red-throated Loons” (Russell 2018).

Thursday, February 6, 2020


Erika and I made at least two unsuccessful trips to the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge in search of a flock of Brant reported by other eBirders. Finally on 3 February 2020 we found them as they fed in the base of the estuary about a half-mile from the end of the boardwalk. Fitbit in hand, Erika generally arrives at a destination before I do. “I think I found your birds!” she announced. The first photo is taken at about 350 mm, the second greatly enlarged from a 550 mm image. We counted 30 Brant. They are smaller than Canada Geese. Note the lovely white stripes on their necks. Brant breed in the Arctic and winter along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of North America. Lewis et al. (2013) write, “this species provides biparental care, accompanies its young through their first migration, and usually mates for life.”

Wednesday, February 5, 2020


Since Janauary, Erika and I have been seeing swans under the shadow of the state capitol. Those white dots on the lake in the first photo are swans. At first we saw two birds, then 10.  All appeared to be Trumpeter Swans. I was surprised by the extensive orange on some of the swans on 24 January 2020. This mark indicates a young bird. Frustratingly, some eBirders began to report a Tundra Swan among these swans.
On 2 February 2020, more or less on a whim, Erika and I set out to try to find the Capitol Lake Tundra Swan. I vowed to take a photograph of all 11 swans on the lake. The second bird I photographed was clearly a Tundra Swan. The two species, nevertheless, can be quite similar. Notice on this last bird, which appears to be somewhat smaller than the others, that the eye is much less surrounded by black, making the eye very distinct. The best field mark is the yellow tear drop coming from the eye at the base of the bill. One of the joys of birding is being at the right place at the right time.  Both swan species are sporadic migrants and winter residents across western Washington, ranging from being common to uncommon.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Red-breasted Sapsucker

Two Red-breasted Sapsuckers, the first being banded in our Olympia backyard on 17 May 2019, the second working a tree trunk at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 1 February 2020. I do not know what to make of the pale bill of the Nisqually bird. Various photos float around the internet showing these sapsuckers with pale bills. I do not think it is age or sex-related. In The Birds of North America, Walters et al. (2014) list only black for bill color—yet their account shows photographs of pale-billed individuals. Possibly pale-billed birds are deformed. In some images, including mine, the pale bill appears to be abnormally thin and long.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Black-bellied Plover

I returned to Boston Harbor, just north of Olympia, on 30 Janaury 2020. I searched for a Harlequin Duck reported roosting on a raft of logs in the marina. I had high hopes when I spied two larger birds among 80 Dunlin sleeping on the floating timber. But these bigger birds were not ducks. I did not expect to see Black-bellied Plovers.

In North America, Black-bellied Plovers breed in the Arctic and winter along the coasts of North and South America. This shorebird occurs further north than does any other plover—to southern Alaska in the west and Newfoundland in the east. Poole et al. (2016) surmise that this plover’s cold tolerance is due to its relatively large size and diverse prey preferences. Tbis hypothesis does not explain why the much smaller Dunlin have a similar, and slightly more northern, overall winter range.