Friday, December 31, 2021


One of my last photographs of 2021, a Killdeer on 29 December at Capitol Lake. Although these plovers are common all year in Washington, Erika and I have not seen one since mid-November. This photo is a first for our December collection. Again, The water is warmer than the ambient air temperatures—in the upper 20°s F on this chilly day—so the Killdeer may be warmer belly-deep in the water.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Northern Shoveler

The eBird 50-image in December challenge had Erika and me appreciating even abundant birds. For example, we never really knew how extravagantly beautiful are drake Northern Shovelers. These ducks are abundant winter residents in western Washington, where they also rarely breed. Shovelers breed across much of northern North America and across Asia to Europe. Like many birds, this duck is standing on one foot. We have previously posted that this stance is energetically efficient. The water is actually warmer than the ambient air temperatures—in the upper 20°s F on this chilly 29 December 2021—so the duck might actually be warmer with both feet in the water.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021


Erika and I captured this already banded Bushtit in our backyard on 27 December 2021. These grayish-brown birds appear to be drab until you see them close, where they prove to be subtly elegant. In previous posts, I mentioned that Bushtits travel in large flocks, breed communally, and share their origins with Asian birds. This year we’ve banded over 70 bushtits and ringed birds have been reported to us from about a mile radius of our nets.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Great Blue Heron

Recently I complained of being unable to leave a Great Blue Heron unphotographed. This bird was special at the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge on 13 December 2021— image number 67 on my eBird photo quest. (You may recall eBird challenged its membership to capture 50 bird images during December.) Not too surpisingly, various studies suggest that herons and egrets are most closely related to ibis or, somewhat more unexpectedly, to pelicans.

Monday, December 27, 2021

Anna’s Hummingbird

26 December 2021 dumped four inches of snow on us (the all-time record for one day is 14.2 inches). The next night, temperatures dropped to 24° F. Much to Zelda’s (the indoor cat) delight, Erika and I moved the hummingbird feeders under the eaves of the house. Anna’s Hummingbirds quickly rediscovered the feeders. This fluffed-up female obvious felt the cold. Clark and Russell (2020) write that these hummers “Can survive sub-freezing temperatures provided a food source is available, but is likely vulnerable to starvation in such weather. Anna's Hummingbirds can sometimes survive several hours without food, but it seems probable they cannot go an entire day without food. Starvation is likely the major cause of mortality…” 

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Belted Kingfisher

On 13 and 21 December 2021 and 21 December 2021, Erika and I saw Belted Kingfishers, perhaps the same individual, at the Nisqually national wildlife refuge. The males are blue-gray and white—the females have the rusty sides. Kingfishers are often heard before they are seen. Click here to listen to a kingfisher audio-bombing my recording of two Ring-billed Gulls on 21 September. The kingfisher is one of the first birds you hear.

Friday, December 24, 2021

Red-winged Blackbird

One of the stranger bird behaviors Erika and I have seen was what this Red-winged Blackbird was doing in the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge on 17 December 2021. The bird fed at the base of cattails in the marsh. Instead of flying from plant to plant, the blackbird leapt, about a foot or so, without bothering to open its wings for either fight or balance. The bird appeared to be in perfect health and eventually flew away.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

House Finch

The Olympia Christmas Bird Count happened on 19 December 2021. Most readers are familiar with these 15 mile diameter count circles conducted from 14 December to 5 January every year. These world-wide counts are coordinated by the National Audubon Society. Erika and I volunteered to count wherever we were needed and ended up covering a small area northeast of Olympia. Despite limited places to easily park and walk, and a surprising absence of residential bird feeders, we enjoyed our count. We tallied 30 species of common birds, including 14 House Finches—birds we do not see often at home—masquerading as Christmas ornaments.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Eurasian Wigeon

At Capitol Lake in Olympia on 5 December 2021, Erika and I scoped a large flock of ducks.  We delighted to add an Eurasian Wigeon to our list. For some reason I am reminded of “Where’s Waldo?” The errant wigeon is fairly common in the winter in western Washington and swam among hundreds of American Wigeons—it is the duck on the far right in this photo. Actually two other ducks of interest swam among the wigeons. The bird at the lower left side of the image, judging by its warm-rufous head color, is probably a non-breeding plumage male Eurasian Wigeon. The duck with the white patch behind its bill at the center of the photo appears to be a female scaup. It is gray-sided like a Lesser Scaup, but has a head profile reminiscent of a Greater Scaup. At this distance, I am not sure.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Least Sandpiper

On 17 December 2021, Erika and I found a flock of a dozen Least Sandpipers at the Nisqually national wildlife refuge. Least Sandpipers are rare winter residents in western Washington, but are reported all year from the refuge. We were glad to grab an image to add to our eBird December photograph collection. We had not listed any since 11 October 2021. Least Sandpipers are fairly easily recognized by their small size, brown plumage, and yellow legs.

Monday, December 20, 2021

Lincoln’s Sparrow

Lincoln’s Sparrows breed across northern North America and winter in the Southwest, and south from Louisiana, Texas, Mexico and much of Central America. Although fairly common during migration, these elusive sparrows are uncommon in western Washington in the winter. They are usually encountered in dense shrubs. This sparrow was named by Audubon in 1833 for his traveling companion, Thomas Lincoln.

Erika and I photographed this Lincoln’s Sparrow on 17 December 2021 at the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge. This bird was noticeably smaller than a nearby Song Sparrow. A number of field marks conspire to make this a Lincoln’s Sparrow—the chestnut wing feathers contrast with the black-streaked wing coverts, the ochre flanks and breast are finely, but distinctly striped, and the sides of the head are ochre, not gray. The buffy malar streaks contrast with the finely streaked, but otherwise white throat. Finally, the head feathers form a small peak and the bird has a thin, buffy eye ring.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Digger Bee

My phone app tells me this creature is a Digger Bee. This bee is found across North America and shows considerable geographic variation. Most look like bumblebees, which convinces birds (and people) to give them some distance. This summer I found this Digger Bee in Erika’s garden.

Friday, December 17, 2021

American Crow

American Crow (formerly known as Northwester Crow) at the Nisqually NWR on 13 December 2021. December eBird image #63. Notice that the crow is scratching itself with its leg on top of its wing. This behavior is called indirect scratching. Other birds use direct scratching, with their leg between their wing and body.

Thursday, December 16, 2021


Buffleheads are abundant winter residents in western Washington and, as breeders or wintering birds, across Canada, the United States, and northern Mexico. Among the diving ducks, Buffleheads are closely related to mergansers, eiders, and scoters. Buffleheads are not highly sought after by hunters, but a significant number are harvested every year. Gauthier (2020) notes “they are nevertheless among the few species of ducks whose numbers have increased markedly since the mid-1950s.” Erika and I phtographed these drakes on 5 December 2021 during our eBird photography quest along Olympia’s Capitol Lake.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021


Erika and I found a small flock of Dunlin on 15 November 2021 at Olympia’s Capitol Lake. This Dunlin was photo-bombed by a passing hen Mallard. Dunlins are sandpipers and, in winter plumage, they are usually recognized by their relatively long and slightly down-curved bills. The species breeds in arctic areas around the world. In North America, flocks of thousands of birds can be found along the Pacific Coasts of the United States and Mexico. Some Alaska birds, however, spend the winter along the Pacific Coast of eastern Asia (Warnock and Gill 2020).

Monday, December 13, 2021

California Quail

Erika and I discovered three California Quail along the Chehalis Bike Trail on 10 December 2021. Curiously, we found quail here almost exactly a year ago, almost precisely at the same location, near a large farmstead along the side of the trail. California Quail are introduced birds in almost all, if not all, of Washington. This quail is native to other areas of far western north America. We suspect the birds we saw were intentionally released at or near the farm. Presumably the quail’s crest advertises genetic fitness and/or social status.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Trumpeter Swan

Dodging rain showers on 8 December 2021, Erika and I captured this image of two of 15 Trumpeter Swans on Olympia’s Capitol Lake. Not quite creating the heart design often formed when two swans face each other, I thought these birds communicated an interesting design. We recorded swans here every winter. This photo is number 56 in our 50-images-in-December eBird challenge.

Friday, December 10, 2021

Spotted Towhee

December finds us running around greater Olympia as we try to meet eBird’s 50 images for the month challenge. Initially I though this goal was unobtainable. But, on 5 December 2021, when we banded this male Spotted Towhee—one of the most frequently seen species in our backyard feeders— our photograph total topped 50. (Not  50 different species, but close.) What with all the rain for which the Pacific Northwest is famous, any additional images will be icing on the proverbial cake.

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Short-eared Owl

After three days of rain, Erika and I vowed to go birding whatever the weather. 7 December 2021 was a foggy, drizzling day. My camera instructions say, “Whatever you do, don’t get this camera wet!” But I knew, if we left the camera at home, we would see a rare bird. After three winters of searching, we finally encountered a distant Short-eared Owl, a new bird for our Washington list. These large, owls hunt during the day and night for small mammals, especially voles. Vole populations cycle, and in years with few rodents, Short-eared Owl numbers plummet. The owls may stop breeding or disperse to other regions—perhaps why we have taken to long to see one. Another result of this dispersing tendency is that Short-eared Owls have an almost world-wide distribution.

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Northern Pintail

Each month eBird conducts a drawing from lists meeting challenges issued to its users. Most of these challenges are reasonable. Some are not. Submitting sound recordings if you live in northern climes is difficult. Sending three files a day results in being glued to your cell phone while entering data and distracted from actually bird watching! Usually the monthly challenges offer some spice to daily birding, although the odds of winning are less likely than winning something playing Power Ball. Several thousand entries are submitted each month. December’s challenge is to submit 50 photos or sound recordings acquired the month.  

This Northern Pintail is one of my first images of the month. This duck greeted us on 1 December 2021 at the Nisqually national wildlife refuge. I have taken many images of this common bird, but never one so clearly showing the drake’s pin tail feathers. I guess acquiring different images is the object of eBird’s challenge. With over 33.5 million photos and sounds currently archived in the Macaulay Library, you wouldn’t think eBird and Cornell would really need so many images from its users.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Red-tailed Hawk

This post might well be titled “How does a Red-tailed Hawk scratch its throat?” The answer is probably “Very carefully.” Erika and I encountered this relatively pale, western Red-tailed Hawk along the Kennedy Flats logging road in nearby Mason County, Washington, on 3 December 2021. Only recently I wrote about plumage variation in these hawks, and posted a photo of a much darker individual--

Monday, December 6, 2021

European Starling

At the Nisqually national wildlife refuge on 1 December 2021, Erika and I followed an European Starling as we walked down the estuary boardwalk. Suddenly the starling stopped, and its bill disappeared into the boardwalk. 
We checked out what the bird could be eating, but we found nothing. We suspect the starling drank rainwater that collected in a shallow depression in the wood. Freshwater may well be at a premium in the saltwater estuary. Starlings are known to drink water from crevices in tree bark (Cabe 2020).

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle nest maintenance on 1 December 2021 at the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge. This nest is the same one I blogged about on 20 January 2021—perhaps even the same birds. I wrote that Bald Eagles begin nest building one to three months prior to egg laying. In Washington, the breeding season begins in January (Wahl et al. 2005). Adults often maintain nests all year. A result is that Bald Eagle nests are among the largest of all birds. Buehler (2020) reports that a nest in Ohio was used for 34 years and weighed almost two metric tons! The nest we photographed was nowhere near that size.

Friday, December 3, 2021

Red-breasted Sapsucker

Red-breasted Sapsuckers, found along the West Coast, from southern Alaska to southern California, are common summer residents that are less common during the winter in western Washington. Erika and I took this photo on 1 December 2021 at the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge. These woodpeckers were considered to be a race of Yellow-bellied Sapsucker until 1983, when molecular studies suggested they deserve species rank. Sapsuckers get their name from the holes they drill and then mine for sap and insects trapped in the sap. Other species raid sapsucker holes. Rufous Hummingbirds nest near sapsucker holes and often follow sapsuckers as the woodpecker make their sap runs (Walters et al. 2020).

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Franklin’s Gull

Franklin’s Gulls breed in the Northern Great Plains and in the southern Canadian prairie provinces. These gulls winter off Peru and Chile. They migrate south, most passing over Panama on their way south. In western Washington they are uncommon fall migrants and very rare at other times. One was reported from Tolmie State park in late October. This observation is actually my second for Thurston County. On 16 August 2020, Erika and I photographed one in Olympia (
Even for me, waiting until 30 November to see the bird gave it more than ample time to depart. I tried unsuccessfully for it a couple of weeks ago. On a rainy end of November, I returned and found the Franklin’s Gull sitting solitary on the beach at the park. The gull was probably not in peak health—I suspect vagrants seldom are. The bird’s belly was an odd, muddy color—probably not a healthy symptom. After walking towards me and then swimming a short distance off the beach, the bird flew. I might mention that I stood still and did not try to approach too closely. The bird appeared to be circling, waiting for me to leave.  

Wednesday, December 1, 2021


Although not a stellar photo of a pair of Buffleheads, I liked the mood it presents. We took this image on a foggy 21 November 2021 at Olympia’s Capitol Lake. Buffleheads are the smallest North American diving duck. This size allows Buffleheads to breed in holes abandoned by Northern Flickers. Tree cavities are often a scarce commodity and females often return to their nesting areas, keeping the same mate over several years. Buffleheads also breed in human-made nest boxes.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawks breed across Canada and the United States, south through Mexico and Central America. Northern populations are migratory. These hawks are extremely variable across their huge range—at least a dozen races are currently recognized. But the situation is confused by individual variation—Red-tailed Hawks come in dark, light, and intermediate morphs. Generally in the US and Canada, western birds are much darker than eastern ones. Eastern birders sometimes don’t even recognize western hawks. This Red-tailed Hawk, found by Erika and me on 23 November 2021 at the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge, is an example of a dark, western race. It is an intermediate-colored morph.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Townsend’s Warbler

On 20 November 2021, Erika and I banded this Townsend’s Warbler. We have them in our backyard all year, except for June, July and the first half of August. This absence is strange because the bird should be found in Olympia all year. Wahl et al. (2005) write that Townsend’s Warblers breed in conifer-dominated forests, so perhaps the fragmented woods here in suburban Olympia falls short of the warblers’ breeding-habitat requirements.

Friday, November 26, 2021

American Kestrel

On 24 November 2021, along the northern end of the Challis Bike Trail, Erika and I photographed a pair of American Kestrels. The female behind the male is clearly larger than her mate. Larger females are typical of raptors. Northern females are typically 10 to 15% larger than their mates. This size difference may reduce aggression and competition between the sexes. Females have larger hunting ranges and take larger prey than males.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Eared Grebe

On 21 November 2021, Erika and I photographed an Eared Grebe in Olympia’s Capitol Lake. This species can be hard to tell from an Horned Grebe. Note the relatively small head, black neck, dark ear feathers (auriculars), lack of a white tip to the bill, the somewhat rounded body, and the peaked crown above the eye—all field marks that add up to Eared Grebe. This species is abundant around the world—western North America, northern Europe, Siberia, China, the Middle East, and Africa. In eastern Washington, Eared Grebes are common in the summer, but they are uncommon in the western part of the state. Most Eared Grebes leave Washington in the winter.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Autumn Meadowhawk

This Autumn Meadowhawk surprised Erika and me at the Nisqually national wildlife refuge on 23 November 2021. I am not sure when we last saw a dragonfly. These meadowhawks are the last to fly in the fall. This record is almost the latest on record for Washington. Dennis Paulson writes that, in the past, he saw one at Nisqually on 4 December.

Monday, November 22, 2021


This Canvasback pair greeted Erika and me at Olympia’s Capitol Lake on 18 November 2021. These ducks’ “ski-sloped” bills and foreheads are clearly evident in this image. Recently I wrote that Canvasbacks appear to be recovering from recent low numbers. Daught and hunting pressure apparently caused this decline. In my photography, I often try to capture waterfowl in pairs.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Double-crested Cormorants

On 18 November 2021, Erika and I took this image of an immature Double-crested Cormorant along Olympia’s Capitol Lake. I was on the lookout for this species, since recently I wrote about the Puget Sound’s other two cormorants. Double-crested Cormorants are abundant here, but their beauty always surprises me. As breeders, migrants, or winter visitors, these cormorants are found across the United States, coastal Canada and Mexico. Cormorants have always been thought to be related to pelicans, but recent molecular studies suggest that the pelicans are actually more closely related to herons and egrets (Dorr et al. 2021).

Friday, November 19, 2021

Bonaparte’s Gull

On 15 and 18 November 2021, Erika and I found Bonaparte’s Gulls at Olympia’s Capitol Lake. These small gulls are handsome birds with bouncy, almost tern-like flight. Bonaparte’s Gulls are locally common migrants in western Washington, as they are across most of North America, but we see them infrequently. Recent DNA work indicates that these birds, although clearly gulls, are not closely related to the larger, white-headed gulls in the genus Larus—they are now placed in the genus Chroicocephalus. In any event, this gull is named after Charles Lucien Bonaparte, an ornithologist at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences in the 1820s.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Brandt’s Cormorant

On 16 November 2021, I wrote that Erika and I do not see Brantd’s Cormorants very often here in Olympia. That very day we found one perched on a large channel marker in Puget Sound off KGY Point. Actually this structure is where we see Brandt’s Cormorants, when wee see them at all. I wondered how the habitat requirements for this cormorant differ from the other two local species. Although all three cormorants can be seen together, Brandt’s prefer deeper water, whereas Pelagic Cormorants tend to feed in more shallow areas, and Double-crested is the only species found inland (NPS). Brandt's Cormorants’ throats become bright blue during breeding season.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Pelagic Cormorant

On 13 November 2021, Erika and I took a short (but dry) stroll to the Woodard Bay Natural Area in search of new birds for our November eBird list. The area is interesting. Once it was a logging center, where timber was floated in on Puget Sound and transferred to train to the greater Olympia area. The area is incredibly beautiful, and guarded by Mt Rainier, forested shores, and an abandoned pier surrounded by pilings that used to secure the floating timber. At one time or another, we have listed all three of the local cormorants here: Double-crested, Brandt's, and Pelagic. Huge numbers of Double-crested Cormorants nest along the Puget Sound bays here. This day we had no problem finding Double-crested and Pelagic cormorants perched on the pilings. We have only found Brandt’s Cormorants a few times here. This Pelagic Cormorant is perched on a bird box that Purple Martins use during the summer.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Tundra Swan

Erika and I heard these Tundra Swans before they flew overhead on 8 November 2021 at the Billy Frank Jr Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. I think I am correct in our identification. If you look closely, the black eyes of these birds are clearly visible against the white sides of their face. A Trumpeter Swan has the eyes more hidden by a black background. Further, the black edge of the bills appears to run straight down, rather than angle towards the front of the bill. This straight line is another field mark of Tundra Swans. These swans are locally common in the northern areas of Puget Sound, less so here in the south, They breed in western Alaska. 

Friday, November 12, 2021

Questionable Stropharia

At the McLane Creek Nature Trail, on 9 November 2021, Erika found a stand of unfamiliar fungus. iNaturalist identified it for us as Stropharia ambigua—the Questionable Stropharia. The name is due to its difficult identification. This species is common in leaf litter and wood chips, usually under conifers in western Washington and in western North America. This fungus grows in cool, damp habitats. Apparently it is less common further east. Experts question if Questionable Stropharia are edible and generally conclude “mistakes can be serious.” They are similar to a number of hallucinogenic and/or dangerously toxic species. Furthermore, apparently people vary in their reactions upon eating this mushroom. The general consensus is that “it’s best to leave this one off the plate” (

Thursday, November 11, 2021


A few Redheads were reported at Capitol Lake the week before Erika and I found this duck on 9 November 2021. Olympia is the only place where we have seen fewer Redheads than the similar looking Canvasback. Redheads have a more typical duck profile, while Canvasbacks sport a “ski-slope” shaped forehead and bill and have a much paler back. This record is only our third that we have seen in Washington. Wahl et al. (2005) consider the Redhead to be an uncommon migrant and rare breeder in western Washington. The other birds in this photo are Ring-necked Ducks.