Sunday, May 31, 2020

Virginia Rail

On 20 May 2020 at the nearby McLane Creek Nature Tail, Erika and I were attacked by a pair of Virginia Rails. We thought we saw several young swim away from us at the adults squawked. For once I thought to record the ruckus with the BirdNet app on my cell phone. The result appears on my eBird list for the day—click here.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Black-headed Grosbeak

On 23 May 2020, we banded a pair of Black-headed Grosbeaks in our Olympia backyard. The first photo is of a male, the second is a female. Black-headed Grosbeaks are common Western birds that interbreed with Rose-breasted Grosbeaks where their ranges overlaps. The males look quite distinct, but the females can be similar. Note that the female tend to have a much less streaky breast.  

During our traels, we often hear Black-headed Grosbeaks singing.They sound to me like a jazzed-up Amerian Robin.  Males sing for territorial defense. Females usually sing a toned down version of the male song. Female song is used to communicate with mates and nestlings. Curiously, females occasionally sing full male song, "apparently to deceive mates about the presence of intruders and force greater nest attentiveness” (Ortega and Hill 2020).

Wednesday, May 27, 2020


Vanilla-leaf, Achlys triphylla is in the family Berberidaceae. This wildflower is found along the western teir of states, from British Columbia to northern California. The species is said to be ubiquitous in western Washington. The flowers sprout from runners along the forest floor. Dried leaves are supposed to smell like vanilla. I crushed a fresh leaf, but it just smelled like fresh foliage. Dried leaves are occasionally used as mosquito repellent, but I can not vouch for that claim. A similar species in the same genus also grows in Japan.(Wikipedia). Erika and I noticed Vanilla-leaf in several local areas—this is from McLane Creek Nature Trail on 20 May 2020.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Solomon’s Seals

Erika and I try to take daily walks along area natural areas. One of our favorites is the McLane Creek Nature Trail. When we visited about two weeks ago, we had to share the trail with way too many people—most without virus masks and some not respecting safe distances. On that trip, however, we did take two wildflower photos. Both were out of focus. Early morning on 20 May 2020, being drizzling seemed like a good bet for a day without other people. We rediscovered both wildflowers, both lillies closely related to Solomon’s seals.

The first is Smith's Fairybells (aka Largeflower Fairybells) Disporum smithii. This flower is native to western North America from Vancouver Island in British Columbia south to central California. It grows in shady forest and woodland. The second wildflower is Star-flowered False Solomon’s Seal, Maianthemum stellatum. It is native across much of North America, from Alaska to California to North Carolina and Newfoundland, plus northern Mexico.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Western Tanager

Just a couple of days ago we reported seeing Western Tanagers and complaining that the bird we photographed did not have much red on its head. Who knew how soon we would find a bright, red-headed bird. Yesterday, 23 May 2020, we banded three tanagers in our Olympia backyard. The first bird is a male, the second is a female. These birds are common but relatively inconspicuous across most of western North America. The variation in the amount of red in male Western Tanager heads is well known but its cause is not understood. It does not vary with age of the adult, but diet is probably involved (Hudum 2020).

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Anna’s Hummingbird

While Erika and I watched the Western Tanager reported in my last post, we witnessed odd behavior by an Anna’s Hummingbird. The bird made repeated passes at the Western Tanager, usually flushing it from the tanager’s perch. Anna’s Hummingbirds are very aggressive. When these hummingbirds display, they often plummet towards a female. Occasionally the males dive towards other birds perched in their territories (or even towards humans). Ornithologists are not sure why the hummers dive at other species. Some males will dive at nearly any bird. Other males are more selective, diving only toward female Ann’s Hummingbirds. Discrimination may come with age or individual levels of aggressiveness (Clark and Russell 2020). We witnessed this behavior on 18 May 2020 at a forest opening along a logging road in Kennedy Flats in Mason County west of Olympia.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Western Tanager

I am enjoying using BirdNet, an app that identifies bird calls that you record on your cell phone. So long has you have a strong Internet signal, you get a quick response, often giving you a species name, occasionally a list of two or three ranked possibilities. BirdNet’s first suggestion is usually correct. Reminiscent of Marvin, the depressed android in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the app notes how likely its identifications are correct. A wide range of self deprecations seem to exist, ranging from “highly unlikely” to “almost certain.”

On 19 May 2020, Erika and I heard an unfamiliar bird song from the forest along a logging road in Kennedy Flats in Mason County just west of Olympia. BirdNet announced that the bird was a Western Tanager, but considered this conclusion to be unlikely. A short distance up the road, we found three Western Tanagers, two males and a female, that flew up and began circling us. The male in these images, perhaps defending a territory, repeatedly landed on a tall, dead, small tree. Apparently this tree was also claimed by a male Anna’s Hummingbird, which persistently dove at the tanager, chasing it to the edge of the woods. I will share a photo of the hummingbird in tomorrow’s post.

Although these tanagers are common in western North America, these are the best images I have ever taken of the species. The amount of red on Western Tanagers’ heads varies among individuals. I look forward to finding a male with a completely red head. Finally, I should mention that the Western Tanager song sounds similar gutteral American Robin. BirdNet is a good way to learn bird calls.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Western Red Columbine

Western Red Columbine, Aquilegia formosa is similar to Eastern Red Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis. The two species’ ranges meet at the center of the continent. This native wildflower grows across much of the west and is found from coastal to alpine meadows. Erika and I found this columbine at the Woodard Bay Preserve near Olympia on 18 May. Aquilegia refers to the spurs above the petals, which resemble eagle talons. Formosa is Latin for beautiful. The plant attracts hummingbirds and butterflies. Some Native Peoples ate nectar as candy (Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center). Just for the record, the second photo, taken near Northfield, Minnesota, is an image of an Eastern Red Columbine.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Purple Finch

Two races of Purple Finch are recognized in North America—the Eastern and the Western purple finch. The few birds I have banded in our Olympia backyard should be the western subspecies, which breeds from British Columbia to northern Baja California. Western birds have more olive-green in their plumage. Western Purple Finches also have their outer primary feathers longer than their fourth outer wing feathers. I still need to confirm the primary length issue, but this bird does seem somewhat olive between the dark streaks on its back.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Northern Bluet

Dennis Paulson assures us that this dameselfly is a Northern Bluet. We found just one flying along a forest trail on 10 May 2020 at the Darlin Creek Preserve just south of Olympia. This species is often common but hard to tell from a Boreal Bluet. Many observers combine the two species into one, calling both NoBo Bluets. If you enlarge this photo and look at the upper terminal abdominal appendage, you can see that has a tiny, sharp spine, The same structure is oval on a Boreal Bluet and looks a bit like a shark’s fin on another similar damselfly, the Familiar Bluet.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Gambel’s White-crowned Sparrow

On 29 April 2020, I posted a note about our seeing the Pugest Sound race of the White-crowned Sparrow. The second photo is another image taken at the same time on the Washington Capitol campus. At the time, Dennis Paulson wrote a note saying that I identified the race correctly, adding “the dark brown stripes on a light brown back indicate pugetensis. Reddish stripes on a gray back, as well as a brighter bill, are the signs of gambelii.” On 5 May 2020, Erika and I found the gambelii subspecies at Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve south of Olympa. We noted the difference in back color—the gray back is clearly evident in the first photo. Gambel’s White-crowned Sparrows breed across the far North from Alaska to Hudson’s Bay, wintering south into central Mexico.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Savannah Sparrow

On 5 May 2020 at Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve south of Olympia, Erika and I listed several Savannah Sparrows, Passerculus sandwichensis. This sparrow breeds across northern North America and south through the West through parts of Mexico. Northern birds winter across Mexico and the southern United States. Breeding birds tend to be darker and larger in the East and are smaller and paler as you go West, with each population tending to blend with adjoining groups. Over the years, at least 28 races of Savannah Sparrows have been named. Today about half of these subspecies are recognized. Molecular research suggests that a few of these races are actually separate, although similar, species—which is why birders should pay attention to subspecies. In the early 1960s, the Peterson field guide listed subspecies, which is one of the aspects of ornithology that intrigued me. My 1961 printing includes a discussion of subspecies. Peterson, claiming subspecies just confused the lay reader, abandoned these lists in later editions.

Because of its overall paleness and relatively gray back, I suspect the Savannah Sparrow in this photograph is P. s. brooksi, the race that breeds in the Pacific Northwest. At this time of year, however, P. s. anthinus should be migrating through this area on its way to Alaska or northern Canada. Most brooksi are smaller and paler than the northern race, but you really need them in hand to know (Wheelwright and Rising 2020).

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Margined White

At the Woodard Bay Preserver a few miles northeast of Olympia, Erika and I observed quite a few white butterflies bouncing over the forest floor (8 May 2020). A submission of this photo to Butterflies and proved the butterflies to be Margined Whites, Pieris marginalis. These creatures are found in forests and meadows in western North America from Alaska to southern California and the Rocky Mountain West. Adults feed on nectar from mustards and other plants.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Evening Grosbeak

This month I have been hearing, but not seeing, a few Evening Grosbeaks from within our back forest. Although strikingly apparent most of the year, these grosbeaks become hard to see during breeding season. They build flmsy nests high in trees. The species, therefore has been little studied and comparatively little is known about its life history (Gillihan and Byers 2020). On 9 May 2020 I banded this male (which is about to bite a chunk out of the bander’s hand). My only previous Olympia record was at our feeder on 6 June 2019, when a pair escaped from my net.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

American Emerald

Erika found me an American Emerald along a local hiking trail in the Darlin Creek Preserve on 7 May 2020. We knew this species from Minnesota, and we saw one last year in our backyard in Olympia. Note the yellow ring around the upper end of the abdomin. This species can be common near water in Washington lowland forests. Its range stretches across most of northern North America, from Alaska across Canada south to nortern California in the West and North Carolina in the East. Oddly, emeralds are most active in cool mornings or afternoons rather than in the heat of midday (Paulson 2009).

Friday, May 8, 2020

Western Azure

At the forest edge on 1 May 2020. our muddy logging road through Kennedy Flats in Mason County west of Olympia took us through a blackberry patch. Dozens of bright, chalky-blue butterflies apparently gathered moisture or minerals from the mud. As Erika strolled by, the butterflies flew up, unpredictably darting back and forth. They closed their wings when they landed. I was never able to capture an image of their blue upperwings.

These butterflies are Western Azures (aka Echo Azures)—Celastrina echo. They can be identified from other blues (a genus of butterflies) by not sporting tails off their hind-wings. Their underwings are chalky white with blackish-gray spots (Butterflies and Moths). No orange spots appear under the wings. The species ranges from southwestern Canada, across much of the western United States, and into northwestern Mexico. There is also a record from Guatemala. They inhabit Woodlands, shrublands, and riparian corridors. That we found them near blackberries is probably not coincidental. Blackberries are among the plants prefered by the butterflies’ caterpillars (MT Field Guide; Butterflies and Moths).

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow, tap-tap-tapping on the porch door all day, “Its all mine! Thanks for the great garden, guys.” Zelda the Wonder Kat replies, “Ma petite chanteuse, we can discuss the title to the garden over lunch.”

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Bigleaf Maple

Erika and I found a Bigleat Maple, Acer macrophyllum, flowering on 1 May 2020 along a logging road in Kennedy Flats in Mason County west of Olympia. This maple is common in western Washington and is found from southern Alaska to southrn California. Although this individual was relatively small, Bigleaf Maples can grow to be quite large—over 150 feet. They are the only commercially important maple of the Pacific Coast (Wikipedia). Our tree must be still leafing out—leaves get to be almost a foot across. The winged fruits are typical for maples and are eaten by squirrels and birds. The leaves are browsed by deer. Bigleaf Maple is rarely tapped because its sap has a relatively low sugar content. Some maple syrup, however, is produced in areas with a hard freeze, such as coastal British Columbia and in the higher mountain ranges.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Dark-eyed (Oregon) Junco

On 26 April 2020, I banded a recently fledged Dark-eyed Junco in our backyard. Last year I banded a similarly plumaged junco on 30 April. Juncos fledging young this early in the year surprises me. The earliest egg date for the state listed by the Burke Museum is 11 April. My records, thus, fall more or less with known early junco nesting. Juncos breeding in Olympia are of the western, Oregon Junco race. These birds are known by their dark hoods and chestnut backs, like the one in the second image taken on 29 April 2020. Note that this second bird is banded.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

False Solomon’s Seal

Maianthemum racemosum, Large False Solomon’s Seal, is a common native forest wildflower from Mexico north through most of the United States and Canada. Other names for this lily incliude Treacleberry, Feathery False Lily of the Valley, and Solomon's plume. Erika and I encountered this plant on 1 May 2020 at the edge of Kennedy Flats in Mason County west of Olympia.

The species is often cultivated in gardens. Young, boiled shoots are said by Wikipedia to be edible. Older plants are fibrous, bitter, and have “strong laxitive qualities.” Wikipedia further warns that young plants are difficult to distinguish from other, toxic plants. False Solomon seal, however, is easily told from various species of Solomon’s seal, Polygonatum sp., which have flowers growing along the stem under the upper leaves.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Audubon’s Warbler

During migratin, two races of Yellow-rumped Warblers (Audubon’s and Myrtle warblers) are found in western Washington. Both races are common migrants and winter visitors—Audubon’s are also common breeders. Audubon’s, at least bright spring males, are easily identified by their yellow, rather than white, throats. Especially during migration, Erika and I often list both species. Therefore I was surprised that I banded no Yellow-rumped Warblers in the backyard in 2019. This situation was remedied on the evening of 27 April 2020, when we finally banded a pair of Audubon’s Warblers. I am usually able to take decent images with my phone, but the phone does poorly in dim light. This image is kind of an odd pose, but better focused than any of the other photos I took.