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.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Barrrow’s Goldeneye

Barrow’s Goldeneyes are among our favorite local winter birds. Erika and I found this one at Woodard Bay Preserve near Olympia on 23 November 2020. These ducks have an interesting range. A few breed in Iceland and locally in Quebec. Most breed in Rocky Mountain Lakes and winter in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere in the western United States. About 60% of the approximately 200,000 Barrow’s Goldeneyes breed and winter in British Columbia. Others breed in Alaska and the northern Rocky Mountains. Eadie et al. (2020) write that this duck is “named for John Barrow (1764-1848) of the British Admiralty in recognition of his support of arctic exploration.” 

Friday, November 27, 2020

White-throated Sparrow

We only see a few White-throated Sparrows in Ollympia. This sparrow breeds across Canada from eastern British Columbia to the northeastern United States. Most birds head southeast in the fall and winter in the southern and southeastern part of the United States. Some birds migrate to and winter along the west coast of the United States. The species commonly visits feeders during migration and winter. Erika and I banded this individual in our backyard in Olympia on 26 November 2020.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Brandt’s Cormorant

Three cormorant species are reported from Budd Bay in Olympia. Most are Double-crested Cormorants. Occasionally I have seen Brandt’s Cormorants on a distant channel light, like these on 10 November 2020. Actually I have never recorded Pelagic Cormorants here, but they pop up on eBird now and again. I have seen Pelagics at nearby Woodward Bay, about 6 miles east of Olympia. Note the yellow chin bar and the relatively thin, dark bill on the Brant’s Cormorant in this photo. (The bird is actually sticking its neck up from behind another cormorant.) The final photo was taken by me in La Jolla, California, in March 2012.

Brandt’s Cormorants are found along the North American coast from Alaska to northern Mexico. This cormoant is named for a Russian ornithologist, who first described the species in 1838 from a specimen in the Academy of Sciences at St. Petersburg, Russia. The type specimen is now lost and the original collector of the bird is unknown. Wallace and Wallace (2020) speculate “The specimen likely was collected by Russian naturalists during one of several expeditions to the Pacific Coast of North America during the early 1800s.”

Wednesday, November 25, 2020


Erika and I found three Killdeer on KGY Point in northern Olympia on 10 November 2020 KGY Point. In the midwest, I think of Killdeer as being summer birds. Here in western Washington, these plovers are seen all year. Killdeer are found in a wide variety of habitats—these were at the edge of a parking lot near the Farmer’s Market. Killdeer are named for their calls. Historical names include Chattering Plover and Noisy Plover. Killdeers, although common, are threatened by “pesticides, oil pollution, lawnmowers, and automobiles” (Jackson and Jackson 2020),

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Fly Agaric

The Burke museum writes, “with its bright red cap and white 'polka dots,' the typical Amanita muscaria no doubt is the most widely recognized mushroom in the world.” Erika and I found a stand of these fungus at Woodard Bay Preserve on 23 November 2020. Fly Agaric naturally grows in forested areas of the Northern Hemisphere and has been introduced to the Southern. This mushroom is psychoactive, but poisonous—especially if you eat too much or prepare it poorly. To our surprise, a quick WEB search uncovers a thriving, apparently legal, commerce in Fly Agaric. We think eating such a mushroom is a fool’s mission—we urge you not to consume Fly Agaric. The hallucinogenic and effects of the mushroom are unpredictable. Although death is rare, it is possible. One clue to the wisdom of ingesting this mushroom is that one folk use is to kill flies (Wikipedia)—hence its name. The word Agaric is derived from a Middle-English word for mushroom.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Long-tailed Duck

A Long-tailed Duck (or two) have been popping up on eBird during November. Erika and I made dozens unsuccessful forays in search of the duck. On 22 November 2020 we received yet another rare bird alert from eBird. (You can set the alert parameters up in the app.) Two Long-tailed Ducks were seen in Budd Bay in the previous 90 minutes about a mile from our home. Erika sent me out alone, and, for once, I immediately found at least one of the ducks. I took the lower photo first and then discovered a Long-tailed Duck at even closer quarters. You can decide if they are the same bird (I am not sure). 

“Long-tailed Duck” is a European name for a species that breeds in the northern taiga around the world. Americans used to call this duck “Oldsquaw.” “Squaw,” historically, is often a pejorative word, and ornithologists changed the name to conform to its Old World appellation.  In North America, Long-tailed Ducks winter mainly along the coasts south to the Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound. Others winter in the Great Lakes. Actually the species winters along all our coasts, and in Mexico's Gulf of California. Straddlers can be found across all of the United States. The population size is hard to estimate—they often winter far off shore. Data suggest, however, that despite hunting pressure and environmental pollution, populations in eastern North America are stabile, while west coast numbers are drastically declining (Robertson and Savard 2020). In any event, this encounter is only the fourth of my birding career. I first saw the species in Maryland sixty years ago. I have since listed it once in South Dakota and once in Wisconsin.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Herons are often quite tame at the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge. They search for prey along the refuge dikes. Often the herons freeze, waiting for movement in the grass. We have seen the herons swallowing frogs, mice, and even relatively large snakes. In the nearby ponds, they aggressively search for fish. Herons will eat almost anything they can capture. Records of their eating birds are in the literature (Vennesland and Butler 2020).

Saturday, November 21, 2020


The Gadwall white wing patch is smaller on a female than on a male, but in both sexes this field mark may be hidden, as in the male in this photograph. Erika and I took this image at the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge on 9 November 2020. Despite having a huge range across mid latitudes of North America, Asia, and eastern Europe, only two subspecies are currently recognized. Mareca strepera couesi was described from the southwest Pacific in 1874. Two birds were shot, both the size or a teal, and this small race has not been seen again and is assumed to be extinct (Leschaek et al. 2020).

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Bald Eagle

The last time Erika and I visited the Darlin Creek Reserve near Olympia (on 10 November 2020), a disheveled Bald Eagle greeted us. These raptors take five or six years to achieve their striking, black and white plumage. I suspect this bird is a four-year-old. When it next molts, in its fifth year, the bird will lose the black band at the tip of the tail. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Pine Siskin

In the Birds of the World, Dawson (2020) writes "The opportunistic nature of [Pine Siskins and their] partial indifference to constraints of time and space make [them] an intriguing subject for a variety of studies.” They usually breed across northern North America and south through the Rockies into Central America. They winter across southern Canada and almost all of the United States. Pine Siskins are an irruptive species, abundant one year and often absent the next—probably in response to the abundance of seed  crops. If there is enough food, siskins may breed in areas where they usually just winter. During my 25 years of banding in Aberdeen, South Dakota, I banded 13,239 Pine Siskins. Two recoveries illustrate their nomadic nature--one banded in Aberdeen on 10 March 1985 was found in Connecticut on 11 March 1988; another Aberdeen siskin, banded on 12 December 1992 was recovered near San Francisco, California, on 5 January 1995.

Here in western Washington, siskins breed and winter. This year is an irruptive year elsewhere in the United States. Our banded backyard breeding birds appear to be displaced by huge, swirling flocks of visitors. Erika and I took this photo of one of a flock of at least 30 birds at the Nisqually national wildlife refuge on 9 November 2020. 

Monday, November 16, 2020

Hooded Merganser

During our Capitol Lake stroll on 14 November 2020, we saw Hooded Mergansers that appeared to be a ménage à trois—two males and a female swam close to each other on a small, side pond along the lake. This observation is not surprising, Hooded Merganser courtship often involves multiple birds, at least one female and several males.The male's raised tail and the lowered crest, however, do not appear to be a courtship stance. I think these two birds are already mated and this behavior is a pair bond maintenance display. Erect forehead feathers are also typical of this type of display. Hooded Merganser pairs are seasonal. Pairing occurs throughout the winter and can form as early as mid-November (Dugger et al. 2020).  Males abandon females immediately after the females begin incubating eggs.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

American Dipper

On 17 November 2020, Erika and I found ourselves where Percival Creek enters Capitol Lake. The lake is shaped like an 8. We were surprised that, since our last visit, the bottom half of the 8 was drained. All that remained were extensive mud flats and the Deschutes River flowing towards the intact northern part of the lake. We suspect the lake is drained in an effort to eradicate introduced New Zealand Mud Snails, which do not do well in the near-freezing weather we expect in the next couple of days.

Searching the mudflats, Erika asked, “What is that small black bird that just landed on the mud?” “Shorebirds should be mostly white,” she continued, “I think that is an American Dipper!” The problem is that dippers are almost always found in rushing mountain rapids. The bird took flight again, and to our surprise, the dipper flew near us and landed under a bridge at the mouth of Percival Creek. We easily confirmed Erika’s identification. 

Dippers apparently nest nearby along the Deschutes River along Tumwater Falls, about a mile or so from where we stood—Dippers depend on rushing streams for nesting. Our observation is our first away from the falls. In the Birds of the World, Kingery and Wilson (2020) write that dippers do occasionally frequent lakes and seashores. Dippers eat aquatic invertebrates, small fish, and roe.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Mourning Dove

Erika and I looked for ducks on Olympia’s Capitol Lake on 11 November 2020. “Isn’t that a Mourning Dove?” asked Erika. Water seemed an unlikely habitat for a dove. It took me a few seconds to refocus on some nearby railroad tracks. My first Thurston County Mourning Dove photograph—I shared with you one from next-door Mason County a few weeks ago. We are not sure this dove was feeling too spiffy. Its feathers were ruffled and the bird was still in the immediate vicinity when we returned 40 minutes later. I doubt it was hit by a train—more likely the dove had a close encounter with a car or some predator.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Belted Kingfisher

These photos are from 27 October 2020 at the Billy Frank Jr Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. This Belted Kingfisher dove from the railing of a boardwalk above tidal mudflats. The bird flew out of the water, dove, and returned with a fair-sized fish.  I guess the fish is a sculpin, a common, bottom-dwelling species in Puget Sound. Sculpins can produce painful stings. The kingfisher bashed its fish against the boardwalk railing, but I do not know how a kingfisher is supposed to safely swallow even a dead sculpin. Perhaps the bashing breaks dangerous fish spines. They usually swallow their prey headfirst. Did I mention that sculpin can also bite? They have large teeth. Besides fish, kingfishers consume mollusks, crustaceans, insects, amphibians, reptiles, young birds, small mammals, even berries (Kelly et al. 2020).

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

American Bittern

Strolling along the Nisqually national wildlife refuge dike, Erika and I always stay alert for American Bitterns. We don’t see them often, although these herons are reported from the refuge all year. Bitterns are cryptically colored and they often remain motionless while waiting for passing prey—insects, amphibians, crayfish, small mammals and fish (Lowther et al. 2020).  On 9 November 2020, we independently noticed something move in the marsh. When I raised my camera, I couldn’t find the bird. “Its to the right of the dark brown vegetation,” instructed Erika. So I took a photo of the vegetation, which you can see above. Enlarging and cropping the image, I was surprised to have captured the bittern. If you can not see the bird in the second photo, look for the bittern’s eye. These birds can be common, if infrequently seen. Unfortunately, their populations are declining due to loss of wetland habitats across much of the northern United States and southern Canada.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Hooded Merganser

According to Idioms on Line, the saying “like water off a duck’s back” has been used since the early 1800’s. The saying applies when one is not affected by insults or criticisms. Ducks may spend up to 25% of their time preening, spreading oil from a gland on their rumps (KQED). Further, ducks have more and denser feathers than many other birds. Erika and I photographed water droplets on this Hooded Merganser’s back on 7 November 2020 at Olympia’s Capitol Lake.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Zeller’s Bolete

Erika and I found this spectacular mushroom between our driveway and the forest. “I don’t think you should nibble on that one!” exclaimed Erika. When we submitted our photos to iNaturalist, the app immediately identified it as Zeller’s Bolete. It seems that this fungus is edible, although “the taste is not exemplary” (Mushrooms of Vancouver). If you are foolish enough to eat wild mushrooms, Smith writes “observe the usual precautions.” In other words, absolutely know what you are doing. Another drawback to this fungus is that maggots often infest the mushroom’s flesh. Zeller’s Bolete is found in western North America from  British Columbia into Mexico and is characteristic of Pacific Northwest forests and forest edges.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Northern Harrier

Erika and I photographed this first Northern Harrier on 10 February 2020 at the Nisqually wildlife refuge. In all the photos, note the owl-like facial disk. This hawk is easily identified by its white rump, unless it is hidden, as it is more or less in these photos. Otherwise harriers are told by their large size, and long wings and tails. Often they soar low over fields and marshes. 
The photos of the flying harrier were also taken at the refuge, but on 30 October 2020. In all these images, note the owl-like facial disc on these birds. These feathers allow the harrier to locate its prey by hearing the prey rustle through the marshland. In the summer, harriers capture mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. Wintering birds eat what is available, usually voles. Sometimes a drop in vole numbers will cause harriers not to breed during the subsequent spring.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

American Kestrel

American Kestrels are uncommon residents in western Washington. We do not see them very often. These little falcons are more common in eastern Washington and elsewhere across much of North and South America. We photographed this male kestrel on 27 October 2020 at the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge. Our understanding of what falcons are has changed greatly since the advent of molecular systematics. We used to think that falcons were closely related to hawks and vultures. Now we think they share ancestors with parrots and songbirds. The evidence is robust enough to move falcons away from the hawks and next to woodpeckers and vireos in most current North American bird lists.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

American and Eurasian Wigeons

On 30 October 2020, I took photographs of a gaggle of American Wigeons on Olympia’s Capitol Lake. “What is the duck with the reddish head?” asked Erika. At the edge of the wigeon swarm swam an Eurasian Wigeon. This common European and Asian duck breeds into western Alaska. Migrants are regular, and locally common, along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of North America. During the winter, we occasionally find this species at the Nisqually national wildlife refuge—this record is our first away from the refuge. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Yellow-billed Loon

Sometimes eBird can be frustrating. You submit a rare bird and the record is labeled “Unconfirmed,” but you get no feedback about why. Take this bird that Erika and I photographed on Capitol Lake in Olympia on 30 October 2020. To us it is clearly a loon with a massive, sharply up-angled ivory-colored bill. The bill is not dark on the top all the way to the tip and and end of the bill is pale, not dark. The head is also relatively pale, a field mark of the Yellow-billed Loon. I think the pale stripe under the eye is also diagnostic.  Perhaps the problem is that other birders have not relocated this bird. This species breeds in the western Arctic and winters in the northern Pacific, very rarely to Puget sound. If eBird does not accept our sighting, it is their loss. The bird will still appear in my eBird lifelist—other birders will just not be able to easily find the record.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Aleutian Goose

On 27 October 2020 at the Nisqually national wildlife refuge Erika and I found a bird we have not previously seen—an Aleutian Goose. These geese used to be considered to be a distinct species, but were merged as a subspecies under Canada Geese, and then recently moved to a race of Cackling Goose. Field marks that add up to make this an Aleutian Goose include 1) a complete, wide, and prominent white collar;  2 the white on cheeks is not extensive and is separated by a black stripe on throat; 3) the collar is bordered immediately below by dark, almost black breast feathers; 4) a relatively pale back and belly; and 5) a small, round head.

Aleutian Geese breed on the western Aleutian Islands; they winter chiefly in central California. These geese have made “one of the most astounding recoveries in the history of wildlife management.” Fifty years ago, fewer than 800 of these geese survived—victims of people introducing non-native Arctic Fox onto their breeding grounds. After removing the fox and after rigorous habitat management, these birds were removed from the Endangered Species Act.  Now each fall, about 200,000 birds migrate down our West Coast  (USFW).