Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Barred Owl 2

As I watched the Barred Owl in our backyard on 15 October 2021, and I reported on my last post, the bird preened, fluffed out its feathers, and violently shook its whole body. 

To my surprise, little information has been published on Barred Owl’s preening, stretching, or other aspects of self maintenance (Mazur and James 2021). I regret not having photographed the preening, which appeared to be typical of most birds, with the owl’s bill pulling at its flight and body feathers. I did catch the body-shaking behavior. The owl remained at its perch when the shaking was finished.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Barred Owl 1

On 15 October 2021 in the mid-afternoon, while doing house chores, I returned an empty trash barrel from our curbside. This endeavor is noisy. As I strolled out of the forest and into our front yard, I was surprised to spy a raptor fly along the forest edge and perch low in the outside edge of one of the Western Red Cedars. I abandoned my trash bin, ran into our house, and returned with my camera. The Barred Owl took little notice of me. Barred Owls seem to be fairly common in our woods, but we seldom see them in the day. More often we hear their calls during the night.
Barred Owls regurgitate pellets of fur and bones of their prey. I believe, however, that here I captured the owl’s yawning. Barred Owls apparently sleep much of the day. Captive owls sleep about a third of each hour between 5 am and 6 pm (Mazur and James 2021). Most spend their days roosting deep within tall trees. Finding this owl in the middle of the day at the edge of the tree was a surprise.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

American Kestrel

Falcons are another family of birds in systematic flux due to molecular studies—in this case, an American Kestrel on 1 October 2021 at the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge. Falcons were thought to be close relatives of hawks and eagles. In this new research, falcons cluster closer to screamers (large South American ground-birds) and parrots (Winkler et al. 2020). Most recently published books reflect this interpretation of these data.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Horned Grebe

About the only other bird of interest that Erika and I saw during our 9 October 2021 eBird Big Day Count was this Horned Grebe seen at Capitol Lake in Olympia. Red eyes found on many diving waterfowl apparently are not visible under a few feet of water. Apparently this adaptation makes the eyes hard for prey to see and thereby recognize the approaching predator. In the first photo, notice the individually webbed toes present on grebes. Grebes are not closely related to ducks. According to Winkler et al. (2020), grebes have traditionally thought to most closely related to loons. Recent studies, however, conclude that grebes and flamingos are each other’s closest relative. This conclusion is so surprising that many ornithologists have been slow to adopt the new classification.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Belted Kingfisher

After the Snow Goose counted on our 9 October 2021 eBird Big Day, a female Belted Kingfisher flew by and landed on a nearby pier piling. It so happens that fish over 10 centimeters are hard for kingfishers to swallow. After catching a fish, kingfishers often flies to a perch. There the bird pounds its prey by sidewise head movements. This behavior stuns the fish allowing the kingfisher to swallow the fish headfirst. Pounding may also break stickleback and bullhead spines (Kelly and Hamas 2020).

The white spots in these photos, by the way, are plumage patterns in front of the birds’ eyes. The birds apparently use these as sights that the kingfishers use to line up their prey with the tip of their bill. Birds whose white spots were painted black by researchers are unable to successfully hit their prey.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Snow Goose

A Snow Goose strolled by our parked car during our eBird Big Day on 9 October 2021. Erika waited in the car while I looked for birds along Puget Sound. “Look over here!” shouted Erika. “It looks like a Snow Goose!” “Yeah,” I replied, “A Snow Goose is going to be walking in a parking lot?” But the goose came out from behind a bush and walked across the tarmac. The bird appeared to be wild and uninjured. Snow Geese are super abundant in some parts of western Washington, but are seen less frequently here in Olympia. This goose was our first for the season this year for us. I thanked Erika for finding the bird by asking her “Why did the Goose cross the road” jokes for the rest of the day. I think she was glad to see the end of the eBird Big Day count.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Brown Pelican

Twice a year, eBird hosts a Big Day. This fall this event fell on 9 October 2021. When I last checked their website, over 32,000 observers around the world had contributed almost 76,000 checklists containing 7,103 species of birds for the day. In the old days, before computers, I always did a Big Day once a year in the spring. I was fanatical about it and usually totaled over 100 species. Now I am lazier, and try to contribute five checklists to the event. For Erika and me, this fall’s highlight are these six Brown Pelicans, common along the Pacific Coast but rare birds here in the south end of Puget Sound. Like Heermann’s Gulls, these pelicans have an odd range. Here in the United States' West Coast, they breed off central California before wandering north along the Pacific Coast in the late summer and fall. Then most turn around and head south for the winter. Those few that might remain in Washington do not breed here.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Varied Thrush

October is Varied Thrush month in Olympia. We banded this male on 10 October 2021 in our backyard. Varied Thrush are common permanent residents in western Washington. The situation is complicated. Before logging and urban development, these thrushes bred in the lowlands. Now that are mostly restricted to the mountains. Migration in “uncertain,” complicated by elevational movements during inclement weather. Wahl et al. (2005) report movements in mid or late September and larger influxes  in November or December. In our backyard, birds reappear in the spring. On top of that, populations fluctuate, with more birds present in some years than in others. Varied Thrushes also tend to wander in the fall and winter—to almost every state in the Union—but these vagrants may or may not find their way bvack to their breeding grounds in northwestern North America.


Monday, October 11, 2021

Song Sparrow

This Song Sparrow photo was taken at Lighthouse State Park near Westport, Washington, on 25 September 2021. Song Sparrows are one of the most variable North American songbirds. Up to 52 races of this species have been described, although only about 38 are recognized by the American Ornithological Society, the arbitrator of such matters. We thought this individual was paler overall, but with a much deeper chestnut tail than our Olympia birds. All, however, should be Melospiza melodia morphna.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Northern Pintail

One of our first Northern Pintail this fall, on 1 October 2021, was this rather regal hen. An early fall migrant, this duck arrives on wintering areas beginning in August. Note the hen's chestnut head and all-black bill. In many ways, she is as pretty as her mate, like the drake in the second photo from 4 March 2021. Pintails breed across the northern parts of both hemispheres. They winter from the Pacific Northwest and the southen United States to northern South America. Old World breeders winter in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, India, and southeast Asia. Erika and I found both of these ducks at the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge.

Friday, October 8, 2021

Western Red Twin-spot

A moth we assume to be a Western Red Twin-spot spent most of 2 October 2021 on one of our screen windows. This species is variably patterned and flies in the spring and in the fall. This month is found from British Columbia to California, east to Arizona and Utah. The larvae feed on begonia flowers of Begonia. It may not be coninsindental that this individual perched near Erika’s petunias. 

Thursday, October 7, 2021

New Editions of Dragonfly Books

I published new editions of my dragonfly and damselfly books. They are available in a variety of formats. The least expensive are PDF formats for $9.99. Follow these links if you are interested:


Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Turkey Vulture

Erika and I spied three vultures high in the trees near the Billy Frank Jr. National Wildlife Refuge on 4 October 2021. We don’t see these birds often at the refuge. Perhaps these vultures spent the night. In any case, the highest perched vulture preened its neck while we watched and took photos. This behavior is described by Kirk and Mossman (2020) and is in response to irritation rather than to preening or bathing. I found this image a bit hard to decipher. The bird’s bill is open, and pointed fairly directly towards us. The front toe is working on the bottom of the vulture’s head, which is oriented sideways. The black dot opposite the toe is the vulture’s nostril.

Monday, October 4, 2021

Great Blue Heron

I post so many images of this species that I many have to change the name of my blog to Dan Tallman’s Great Blue Heron blog. These impressive birds allow birders close approach at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. On 1 October 2021, Erika and I observed this rather ragged-looking individaul. Like many other herons, Great Blues have a comb structure on their middle toe nails. When scratching its head, these birds erect their crest feathers, lower and twist their heads so that they can use their toe combs. They stand on one foot and usually lift one leg over a closed wing—but notice that this bird is clearly scratching with its leg under the wing. When the birds are done preening, they shake its head, body and tail (Vennesland and Butler 2020).

Most of the Great Blue Heron photos are of adults with their impressive streaming scapular manes. This bird is immature. A refuge sign indicates that in the refuge these herons breed in February. Note the lack of scapular plumes and the brown spots at the wing covert tips. I suspect this bird is in the middle of a yawn. I don’t think the bird had just swallowed a fish.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Heermann’s Gull

On Erika’s and my 1 October 2021 trip to the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge, we met another birder who pointed out a dark slaty gull out on the estuary mud flats. “It looks like an immature Heermann’s Gull,” commented our companion, “what with its pale forehead and white eye-ring.” We concurred with his identification. That this gull was a new county bird for us is kind of strange, since the species is common along the northern reaches of Puget Sound and along the Pacific Coast—eBird, however, only shows some dozen records for the very south end of Puget Sound. One reason for this distribution is that most Heermann’s Gulls breed in the Gulf of California (a few breed along the coast of southern California and northwestern Mexico), dispersing after nesting north as far as southwestern British Columbia. Then, in the spring, they migrate back south. This gull is named after Adolphus Lewis Heermann, a surgeon-naturalist who studied western birds in the 1800s. (While hunting birds, he died of a self-inflicted gun wound in 1865. He did suffer, however, from severe syphilis complications in his old age (Gruson 1972).)

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Cackling Goose

Over the past week, Erika and I read reports of Cackling Geese returning to Puget Sound. On 28 September 2021, we counted 170 of these small, Canada Goose-like geese at the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge near Olympia. These birds breed in arctic Canada and Alaska. They can be seen across the United States, but most winter along the Pacific Coast, the southern Great Plains, or the central Atlantic Coast. A few travel further south along the Gulf Coast of Mexico. According to Sibley (2014), the Cackling Goose’s flight call is distinctive in the Pacific Northwest—high pitched squeaking or yelping, unlike the familiar “honk” of a typical Canada Goose. 

On 1 October, we counted 50 Cackling Geese at the refuge. In this second photo, the Cackling Geese are joined by several Greater White-fronted Geese. The third photo is a close-up of a Greater White-fronted Goose that we photographed at the Tumwater Historical Park in Olympia on 17 March 2021. This last goose has a wide range across Arctic regions of the world. In our hemisphere, they mostly breed along the Pacific Coast and along the northwestern shores of the Gulf of Mexico.

Friday, October 1, 2021


On 25 September 2021 at the beach near Westport, Washington, Erika and I noticed that some of the shorebirds among the large flocks of Western Sandpipers were obviously larger birds. These new birds sported down-curved bills that were clearly relatively long—field marks of Dunlin. This shorebird breeds across the arctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere. In North America, they winter along the shores of the United States and Mexico. Birds along our Pacific coast are larger than other North American Dunlin. The population of these Pacific coast birds may exceed a half million individuals, but this number appears to be declining (Warnock and Gill 2020).


Thursday, September 30, 2021

Semipalmated Plover

Semipalmated Plovers are handsome little birds. Erika and I saw two at the edge of a large flock of Western Sandpipers on the beach near Westport, Washington on 25 September 2021. These plovers nest in northern Canada and winter along the coasts of the United States south to Argentina and Chile. Population estimates are that there are slightly over 200,000 individuals and their numbers appear to be stable (Nol and Blanken 2021).

Wednesday, September 29, 2021


Erika and I counted a dozen Sanderlings on the beach near Westport, Washington, on 25 September 2021. Most foraged by running on the sand at the edge of the incoming and outgoing waves. This sanderling slept among the large flock of Western Sandpipers I reported on yesterday. Instead of brown and white, non-breeding Sanderlings are clearly gray, black, and white. Sanderlings do not gather in such large flocks as many other sandpipers. The number of Sanderlings is unknown—there may be 300,000 in North America. Nevertheless, Sanderlings breed around the northern hemisphere’s arctic regions and can be seen “on almost any sandy beach, anywhere on the planet!” (Macwhirter et al. 2021).

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Western Sandpiper

During our 25 September 2021 beach walk near Westport, Washington, Erika and I listed few birds. An exception were Western Sandpipers. We estimated that we saw 400 above the high-tide mark along the beach. Over twice as many individuals might have been present. One key to identification is their reddish scapular (shoulder) feathers. Western Sandpipers are abundant migrants in western Washington, In some locations they are also common during the winter and they are uncommon in the summer. Western Sandpipers are one of the most abundant shorebirds in the Western Hemisphere, but breed only in western Alaskan and far-eastern Siberian tundra. Most winter along the Pacific Coast from British Columbia and Peru. Others winter from New Jersey to Venezuela. During migration, some stop-over locations host flocks of hundreds of thousands individuals—the total population is estimated to be 3.5 million birds (Franks et al. 2020).

Monday, September 27, 2021

Eccentric Sand Dollars and Blood Stars

On 25 September 2021, Erika and I took a spur-of-the-moment drive to Westport on the Pacific Ocean. The day was sunny and warm, with the weather forecast being for rain during the upcoming week. We do not have too many creatures to report—but any day at the beach is fun. We ended up walking along the beach, seeing little besides two Echinoderms—aka starfish. The first is probably an Eccentric Sand Dollar, Dentraster excentricus, found from Alaska to Baja California—eccentric because the pattern on the back is off-center. My understanding is that this species is the only one found in Washington and Oregon. The starfish may be a Pacific Blood Star—that is my best guess. These starfish is rebounding from near extinction from an unknown wasting disease that struck several years ago. They occur from Alaska to Mexico. Although Echinoderms show considerable variation, all are basically pentaramous, a trait they share with us Chordates. That trait along with aspects of their embryonic development indicate that, among the animals, echinoderms are our not-so-distant evolutionary cousins.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Savannah Sparrow

While I chased shorebirds on 17 September 2021 in Olympia, Savannah Sparrows fed among the rocks and in the grass along the Puget Sound shore. 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 one reason why birders should pay attention to subspecies. I have shared the bottom photo before, which may be 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 from Alaska or northern Canada. Most brooksi are smaller and paler than the northern race, but you really need them in hand to know for sure.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

European Mantis

While at Scatter Creek Recreation area on 21 September 2021, this European Mantis flew up and perched on a Scotch Broom. The mantis’s scientific name, Mantis religiosa, refers to the posture of the first pair of legs, which often look like the insect is praying. Female European Mantises eat their mates, after, during, and sometimes before copulation. Sexual cannibalism is not well understood. Perhaps females require extra nutrition, which the males may or may not be happy to provide. Males are attracted to well-nourished females. European Mantises are found around the world and presumably have been introduced to North America. Some were released in hopes of controlling various other insect numbers, but the mantis rarely becomes common enough to do much good (Wikipedia and Bugguide.net). 

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Western Bluebird

Scatter Creek Recreation Area is an upland prairie area about 20 miles south of Olympia. On 21 September 2021, Erika and I found a flock of a half-dozen Western Bluebirds feeding west of the parking area. Typical of the species, the birds perched on low branches and captured insects from the ground. The bluebirds then returned to their perches to consume their prey. As you can see in the last photo, birds often beat larger insects that have hard exoskeletons against the ground or on the bird’s perch. In the summer Western Bluebirds eat mostly insects—in the winter they switch to small fruits and some seeds. Studies show that Western Bluebirds enjoy a wide variety of prey items—crickets, like in these photos, grasshoppers, caterpillars, beetles, bugs, ants, spiders, wasps and bees, and a host of other arthropods. Snails and even lizards have also been reported as prey items (Guinan et al. 2020). 
Western Bluebirds look somewhat similar to their eastern relatives. They can be told apart by their blue, not chestnut, throats. Often Western Bluebirds sport chestnut backs, unlike the blue backs of Eastern Bluebirds.  

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Erika and I see Red-breasted Nuthatches all year at our bird feeders. This female—note her gray crown—visited on 17 May 2021. I keep hoping one of my banded nuthatches will appear somewhere else. Red-breasted Nuthatches breed from southern Alaska across central Canada to Laborador south through the Rocky and Allegheny Mountains. Northern birds appear to migrate in the fall. High elevation birds may migrate to lower elevations in the winter. Other populations seem to be year-round residents, with some individuals irrupting southward in alternating years. Ornithologists assume these flights are the result of varying food supplies on the breeding grounds. Curiously, no banding studies exist to demonstrate if migrating birds return to their nesting areas or if survival rates differ during irruption years (Ghalambor and Martin 2020).

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Great Blue Heron

This Great Blue Heron display long pectoral plumes. These feathers indicate age, as immatures become adults. Fully mature birds have feathers up to a foot long. No doubt the feathers advertise breeding fitness. Erika and I discovered this individual at the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge on 13 September 2021.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Short-billed Gull

This year ornithologists declared that the bird formerly known as the Mew Gull is actually two species—Short-billed and Common Gulls. Short-billed Gulls breed across Alaska and Northwestern Canada, south almost to the United States. Common Gulls breed across Eurasia, straying only occasionally to the New World. In the winter Short-billed Gulls migrate and are common residents along our Pacific Coast—a few stragglers remain in the summer. 

The problem is that the two species are extremely difficult to tell apart—“a very complex challenge” according to bird-identification guru, David Sibley. In his blog, Sibley says “there is a lot of variation and a lot of overlap, and you should not identify one of these gulls unless multiple features align with that identification.” Further complicating matters is that Common Gulls that stray to eastern North America are a different race and look different from Russian birds that might turn up in the West. 

Playing the odds, any of these gulls seen in the Pacific Northwest are almost certainly Short-billed Gulls. The gull in this photo, which I took on 17  September 2021 in Olympia, demonstrates this dilemma. The bill is plain yellow, lacking a distinct red spot—typical of Short-billed Gulls. But the head and neck are very pale and almost streaked rather than smudged on the back of the neck—a field mark of Russian races of the Common Gull.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

American Crow

I recently read a book with the premise that animals without names do not exist. What about small, Northwestern Crows? They used to have a name, but this year ornithologists merged them into American Crows. This deletion was a fairly long time coming, the result of various studies showing the two populations share a significant number of genes. In many areas of the Pacific Northwest, no pure American or Northwestern birds exist. The crow in these photos is curiously ruffled. I suspect this posture, like the sign, is meant to be aggressive—although I did not notice any nearby birds. Perhaps the crow was not happy about my taking photos. Erika and I encountered this American Crow at the Nisqually national wildlife refuge on 13 September 2021.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

American Pipit

Flocks of American Pipits greeted Erika and me at the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge on 13 September 2021. We counted 35 in two flocks, one near the refuge headquarters, the other in front of an increasing tide along the estuary boardwalk. We listed this species already this year in the subalpine meadows of Mount Rainier, where they breed. At lower elevations, they are migrants. I think I have pointed out before the long back claw on pipit toes. This feature is typical of ground-walking birds.
Erika and I returned to Nisqually on 16 September. The wave of migrants seemed to have dissipated. To our surprise, however, three pipits flew up and landed on the estuary boardwalk handrail. We usually do not see pipits perched on anything but the ground. These three birds proceeded to feed on the boardwalk itself. We wondered what the birds were finding to eat.