Friday, October 30, 2020

Western Meadowlark

When I took this photograph of a Western Meadowlark on 27 October 2020 at the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge, I meant to show how camouflaged this species is against a grassy background. Even though Erika and I have seen many meadowlark backs, we were surprised by the  stunningly latticed pattern. We appluded and the meadowlark flew up and took a few encores.

“Meadowlark” is an odd name for this bird. It is not a lark, but in the same family as Red-winged Blackbirds and grackles. We have two species of meadowlarks in the United States and Canada. Eastern and Western meadowlarks can be difficult to tell apart. Fortunately, here in western Washington, we only the Western Meadowlark that sings his distinctive and gurgled, “Have you planted your wheat yet?”— Eastern birds give a drawn-out whistle. Several additional species inhabit Latin America.

Thursday, October 29, 2020


Gadwall breed across the prairies of North America and the steppes of Asia and Europe. Erika and I chanced upon these Gadwall as they fed on Olympia’s Capitol Lake on 24 October 2020. I think of Gadwall as being abundant ducks across their range. One of the interesting aspects of eBird, however, is that their mobile apps indicate how often species are reported. Common species lack notation, infrequently reported ones sport a yellow dot, and rare ones are indicated by red dots. These symbols can cause some confusion, since they do not represent the birds’s actual status—they only indicate the frequency of their being reported. (If a bird is really rare, the app demands supplemental information.) I was surprised that my Gadwall were followed on the eBird list with yellow dots. When this happens, I always try to whip out my camera and take a photo.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Golden-crowned Sparrow

Golden-crowned Sparrows are abundant winter visitors to Washington, Oregon and California. They stray elsewhere in North America. This sparrow feeds in shurblands and urban thickets. The species can be destructive to gardens and cultivated vegetables. Despite increasing populations and their deitary propensities, Golden-crowned Sparrows are relatively little studied (Norment et al. 2020). Erika and I photographed this vain male at the Billy Frank Jr Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 19 October 2020.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Anna’s Hummingbird

All year small numbers of Anna’s Hummingbirds visit our hummingbird feeders in Olympia—this one on 25 October 2020. I have written before that the bird’s scientific describer wrote that this species was one of the most gorgeous hummingbirds, as he named it after the Duchess of Rivoli, Anna de Belle Massena. Males turn their head from side to side, flashing the brilliant iridescence as a signal to other hummingbirds (Clark and Russell 2020). In recent years, this species's range has expanded from California into Texas and British Colombia. How does a nectar and insect-seeking bird survive Washington’s cold, wet winter? (It was 30 degrees this morning.) These conditoons do kill these hummingirds, which can not suriviie an entire day without food. Starvatopm os a major cause of mortality. Biologists assume that the expanding range is due to the hummingbirds living in human-altered landscapes where people often feed provide bird feeders.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Varied Thrush

Strolling in the Darlin Creek Preserve south of Olympia on 21 October 2020, Erika and I kicked up the Varied Thrush in the top photo. These robin-sized birds breed in the deep, old-growth forests. They venture out of this habitat in the fall and winter, when flocks may gather around food sources—like the Evergreen Huckleberry in our backyard. For us, former Easterners, seeing Varied Thrushes is always exciting, even though they are “fairly common” across much of Washington in appropriate habitat and season (Wahl et al. 2005). On 24 October, we were amazed to see seven Varied Thrushes feeder under a bird bath in our front yard. The thrushes appeared to be feeding, but we are not sure what was out there to eat. There is no feeder in the front—perhaps the birds were scavenging items that other birds dropped after carrying food from the back yard.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Double-crested Cormorant

On 15 October 2020, Erika and I walked down a lesser-populated stretch of Olympia’a Capitol Lake. Double-crested Cormorants often lounge about a stump near the lakeshore. I did a double-take at the wide, white line behind this bird’s yellow throat. Could this bird be a Neotropical Cormorant? I think the yellow stripe from the bird’s eye connecting with the upper mandible of the bill precludes such a rash identification. This bird’s bill is too robust for a Neotropical Cormorant and the bird is too large for that species.

Two days later found us at the same location. About a half-dozen Double-crested Cormorants perched on and swam near the stump. Two of the birds vigorously bathed nearby. Was this some sort of cormorant courtship? I can find no mention of such behavior in a quick review of the literature. I think these two birds were just bathing near each other. Bathing in cormorants involves a lot of vigorous wing slapping on the water surface. The resulting shower of water wets the birds’ backs. 

Friday, October 23, 2020

Cackling Goose

Historically the systematics of the bird formerly known as the Canada Goose were a mess. About 200 races of the bird were described in the literature. The situation is still not resolved, but is a bit clearer now. The smaller geese have been declared a separate species, the Cackling Goose. Genetic studies showed that these birds are not closely related to the larger ones and that there is limited gene flow between these size classes. Currently four races of Cackling Geese are recognized.

On 19 October 2020, Erika and I searched for Snow Geese among several hundred Cackling Geese at the Billy Frank Jr Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. Most of the Cackling Geese looked like the bird in the first photo, but I slowly realized that many had dark chestnut breasts like in the second image. Two of the four Cackling Geese races are unlikely to occur here. The Aleutian Cackling Geese is a rare bird and usually sports a white white band at the base of the neck. The Richardson’s Goose winters mostly in Oklahoma and Texas and breeds in the eastern Canadian Arctic—it has a rounder head and lighter underparts than the bird in my first photo. Consequently I think the first photo is a Taverner’s Goose, which breeds in Alaska and northwestern Canada, and winters from Oregon to southern California. There remains the final Cackling Goose with the dark chestnut breast—a field mark of the Pacific Cackling Goose. These birds have very small bills and short necks. This race breeds in western Alaska and winters along the Pacific coast from Washington to southern California. 

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Wilson’s Snipe

We were surprised that this photo is half-decent. This Wilson’s Snipe fed along the far side of a large lake at the Billy Frank Jr Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 19 October 2020. Snipe feed in marshes and are usually elusive and camouflaged. Yet they are one of the most abundant and widespread shorebirds in North America (Mueller 2020). Snipe feed by probing their long bills under the mud. They enjoy a number of feeding adaptations. Their nostrils are at the base of their bills, allowing them to breath while their bills are deep in the mud. Their bills have sensory pits near their tips, allowing them to locate their invertebrate prey. Snipe eyes are far back on their head, allowing them to see behind and above them while their bills are under water—a handy ability in a predator-filled world.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Chinese Chestnut

Erika and I encountered a row of strange (to us) trees along a boulevard next to Capitol Lake in Olympia on 15 October 2020. Large, spiny fruits littered the ground around the trees. We figure the the trees are Chinese Chestnut (Castanea mollissima). They are native to China and Korea, but are planted extensively in the United States. Why wouldn’t Olympia plant native trees, we wondered. Well, they replace native American Chestnuts that were decimated by Chestnut Blight—although I doubt American Chestnuts grew in Washington. In any event, these trees grow well with minimum maintenance. Their fruit is “delicious and low fat” and can be eaten raw, roasted, or baked ( The chestnuts you buy from street vendors or specialty stores are usually Spanish Chestnuts (Castanea sativa). On the other hand, the fallen fruit burs are spiny and “pose a significant litter problem, and often make walking barefoot in the lawn a real adventure.” (Missouri Botanical Garden).

Monday, October 19, 2020

Anna’s Hummingbird and Salvia

On 9 October 2020, I watched an Anna’s Hummingbird feeding in the Salvia at the end of our porch. We bought the pink and white flowered Salvia more or less by mistake. We aimed to purchase “normal” Salvia like the flower in the second photo. We also have a dark purple Salvia that you can see behind the multicolored flowers in the first photo. I was surprised that the hummingbird stuck its bill high up on the flower, not towards the end of the corolla like in the second photo.
Taking a closer look at the multicolored Salvia, the entrance to the corolla is actually at the top of the back of the flower, with stamens hanging overhead—exactly where the hummingbird probed. (I have no clue what the small, hole-like structures at the bottom end of the flower might be.) This plant seems to be Baby Sage, Salvia microphylla, of Arizona and Mexico. Horticulturalists have bred lots of hybrids of this plant, and this Salvia must be one of those nursery-store products. I do not know the name or the origins of the red Salvia.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Western Grebe

I was initially disappointed with this photo, taken on 15 October 2020 at Olympia’s Capital Lake. The image is not quite in focus and the bird too distant. I hoped for a better result for my first picture of a Western Grebe from our home county, Thurston. I processed a cropped image and submitted it with my eBird list—the species is not so rare here, although this is only my third county record. I actually kind of like this un-cropped, un-enlarged version of the grebe swimming across the fall reflections on the lake.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Snow Goose

On 14 October 2020 Erika and I found two Snow Geese among a flock of some 80 Cackling Geese along the Nisqually refuge dike. Their gray plumage indicates they were young birds. Snow Geese breed north of the treeline from Northeastern Russia and Alaska across Arctic Canada. Most winter in various regions of the United States and Mexico. Snow Geese in Washington breed in Wrangel Island, east of northern Alaska in Russia. These geese make long-distance, high altitude migrations, stopping in western Alaska, and then continuing to two wintering areas—about half fly to southwest British Columbia and along the Skagit River north of Seattle; the others to southern Oregon and the Central Valley of California. Many of these northern wintering birds slowly continue through the fall to the more southern wintering areas. About 10% of the Wrangle birds fly up the Mackenzie River Valley and then down through the Central Flyway and back over to Oregon or California. 

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Greater White-fronted and Cackling Goose

Jack Davis Pond is a very small body of water surrounded by a few cattails at the edge of a parking-lot next to the Port of Olympia. Occasionally interesting birds are reported from the pond. Because of eBird, I was aware that someone reported seeing a Greater White-fronted Goose. We drove by the pond on 13 October but saw no birds at all. We turned around and I shouted, “Turn around—I saw a goose in the tall grass!” Erika raised her eyebrow and negotiated a U-turn. We pulled into the parking lot and found two Greater White-fronted Geese along with a small, short-billed Cackling Goose, The Cackling Goose was until recently thought to be a race of Canada Goose. The white-fronted geese lacked white patches behind their bills, indicating these were birds hatched this year. Greater White-fronted Geese are common and widespread birds. They breed in the Arctic across both hemispheres and winter south as far as Central America. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Sooty Fox Sparrow

Erika and I banded this Sooty Fox Sparrow in our yard in Olympia on 8 October 2020. Previously I have written about the complicated systematics of Fox Sparrow. Ten subspecies sort out into four groups. These groups may be full species. This bird is one of the Sooty races that inhabit the west coast of North America. These western subspecies breed from the Aleutians south to western Washington. Curiously the more north a population breeds, the farther south it winters. Alaskan birds winter in southern California, whereas birds breeding in Washington may remain all year (Weckstein et al. 2020).  

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Surf Scoter

Surf Scoters breed across northern Canada and winter along coasts of Canada and the United States. They often migrate through the Great Lake States and New England. These birds are females. Most of the Surf Scoters here in Washington breed in the Northwest Territories. Soon after arriving in Canada, males retire to coastal molting areas (like Puget Sound). Non-breeding individuals may remain in the winter range, so these ducks can be listed all year in western Washington. Curiously, although males and females often return to the same breeding and wintering areas, they and young birds migrate separately (Anderson et. al 2020). We took this image on 10 October 2020 in Olympia.

Monday, October 12, 2020


Our recent rains have brought forth a varity of fungus. I am about as far from being a mushroom expert as you can get—one reason I NEVER nibble on wild fungus. The first, found on 29 September 2020 at Woodard Bay Preserve, appears to me to be Leucoagaricus leucothites—a White Dapperling. This Northern Hemisphere inhabiting fungus is common on lawns or, as in this case, roadsides. If I am correct, some people get very sick after eating this species, others enjoy it. “Gastrointestinal distress” is the most common symptom. The University of British Columbia states the best treatment for an adverse reaction is to “contact your Regional Poison Control Centre.” Bring along a mushroom sample to confirm your identification.
We photographed the next two mushrooms on 9 October 2020. The white fungus is from Kennedy Flats west of Olympia. The reddish one was one of two growing in our yard.  My Android phone assistant seems to think the white one is some sort of puffball, but it does not look like a puffball to me. The reddish one may be a species of the usually non-deadly genus of Russula (Brittlegill), perhaps R. paludosa, edible and common in Europe and North America. Something, maybe slugs, have been munching on it. I think I will follow iNaturalist’s advice, “Don’t eat anything you find in the wild.” I would appreciate identification suggestions for any of these fungus from my mushroom-expert friends—Kathy or Ron Hall?

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Varied Thrush

We have been looking for Varied Thrushes. Last year they appeared in our yard during the first two weeks of October. This year they seem to be a few days late, perhaps due to our dry season—they may await snowfall to leave their forest habitat. I have heard Varied Thrushes for the past few days—their song is an eerie, penetrating, single-pitched but slightly modulating whistle that reminds me of bird calls in the tropical jungle. Others compare the sound to a policeman’s whistle. My birds sang from the tree tops, which is typical for the species. On 9 October 2020, I finally saw a Varied Thrush. The bird swooped out of the forest and into thick bushes outside our study. I ran for my camera—the result is the first photograph,
Later that day I banded a second Varied Thrush. This second bird is an immature—judging by its faint breast band and relatively pale sides to the face, it is probably a female. With the bird in my hand, I was struck by the stunning scalloped pattern on the bird’s flanks. To me this pattern seemed reminiscent of a bird-of-paradise. Varied Thrushes are found in the along the Pacific Coast from Alaska to California. Most retreat south in the winter. Population numbers increase on a three to five year cycle. During peaks of their cycle, Varied Thrushes stray across wide areas of Canada and the United States.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Ring-billed Gull

This Ring-billed Gull photograph is left-over from 4 January 2020 at the Nisqually national wildlife refuge. These gulls are opportunistic feeders, eating insects, earthworms, fish, rodents and grain (Pollet et al. 2020). They breed across southern Canada and the northern United States and winter south through Mexico and the northern Caribbean. 

They are so abundant now that it is hard to believe that Ring-billed Gull populations were decimated between 1850 and 1920 by human persecution and habitat modification (Pollet et al. 2020). Not even their fondness for termites and crickets saved them. Due to protection from persecution, numbers have rebounded to well over 4 million birds by 1990 and they are still increasing—even though the species is considered a pest in some locations and are aggressively harvested.  They are found all year in western Washington and breed wherever appropriate habitat is available (Wahl et al. 2005).

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Great Blue Heron

Erika and I found ourselves at the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 5 October 2020. Two Great Blue Herons flew into a large pond that was receding with the tide. A few other herons were present. Judging by the frenzy of the gulls, a lot of fish must have been stranded in the pond. 

As the two herons landed, they began a strange behavior, apparently the Upright and Spread Wing Display described by Vennesland and Butler (2020), This “spectacular” display occurs at heron foraging grounds. When two herons approach each other, they extend their necks and the bills are held high. The wings are drooped and held away from their bodies to expose their black shoulder patches. Often the wing nearest the other heron is dreopped lower than the other wing. This behavior usually causes the two herons to move apart, but sometimes one heron chases the other. The previously cited authors write “This display is sometimes directed towards gulls (Larus sp.), Great Egrets (Casmerodius albus), and even people.”

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Mew Gull

This Mew Gull has been hanging around my blog queue since 10 February 2020, when Erika and I found this bird at the Nisqually national wildlife refuge east of Olympia. Its been awhile since we’ve seen a Mew Gull. Adults look a bit like delicate Ring-billed Gulls, but with smaller and relatively unmarked bills. They can be seen all year at Nisqually, but they are less often encountered in the summer. Their breeding range in North America extends from Alaska to Vancouver Island, and summer records of non-breeding birds here are not too surprising. They winter along the Pacific Coast of North America, less straying to locations further east. In fact, scattered records exist across North America. Mew Gulls in the Northeast, however, may have originated in Europe, where they also breed.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Perhaps the most abundant birds in our yard are Red-breasted Nuthatches. I took this photo of a young nuthatch this spring. Judging by its gray crown, it is a female. The species is common across North American boreal forests south into the United States through the Rocky and Appalachian mountains. They winter, often in large numbers (depending on food crops and, perhaps, in a ten-year cycle) almost everywhere except the very deep South. Their fondness for firs and spruces sets them apart from other native nuthatches.

Friday, October 2, 2020

Canada Goose

During our 30 September 2020 stroll along a logging road above Kennedy Flats just west of Olympia, Erika and I first heard and then saw a flock of over 40 Canada Geese fly overhead. Canada Geese are abundant across most of North America from Alaska and Canada south through much of the United States. Where they do not breed, they are often migrants or winter visitors. They inhabit a wide variety of habitats, including city parks and industrial campuses. Years ago, when we lived in Louisiana, birders and hunters complained that we Northerners “short-stopped” migrants that used to regularly winter in that state.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Banded Whoolybear

Banded Whoolybears are the caterpillars of the Isabella Tiger Moth, Phrrharctia isabella. During our recent strolls,  Erika and I are seeing a multitude of these caterpillars. They are common across most of North America. The caterpillars brood three times during the summer and then overwinter. The caterpillar becomes a moth in the next spring. Caterpillars eat a wide variety of plants. I am not sure what the drops of liquid are on this caterpillar. The morning had been foggy, so perhaps this caterpillar picked up some moisture during its travels. Folk wisdom suggests that you can predict the severity of winter by the width of these caterpillars black bands. These correlations are without scientific basis. In fact, the orange band lengthens as the caterpillar ages. Wetter weather lengthens the black bands. concludes, "So while not a reliable measure, it makes some sense that onset of an early and thus longer winter will force younger and less red caterpillars into hibernation.”