Sunday, January 31, 2021

American Goldfinch

It seems that I never run out of birds to chase. 28 January 2021 found me searching an Olympia neighborhood for Lesser Goldfinches. For the past two years, these goldfinches have been reported in eBird from Olympia. They are residents of the American southwest, north to Oregon and south through South America. The species has been spreading north. The most recent report was from just a few days ago—a flock of over a dozen at a local feeder. I parked and a nearby tree filled with Pine Siskins and goldfinches. (Birding with binoculars and camera can be somewhat dicey in some neighborhoods.) The bad news is that the goldfinches were clearly American Goldfinches. Lessers have dark caps and show more yellow below in the winter. The bird in the first photo is clearly a male in winter plumage—note the black wings. (Above and to the right is one of the Pine Siskins.) The bird in the other photo is a winter female, with her tan wing bar. So I did not see Lesser Goldfinches, although photos in eBird assure me the Lessers are in the area. The good news? These photos of American Goldfinches are my first from Washington.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Long-tailed Duck


On 27 January 2021, I finally added a Long-tailed Duck to my year bird list. This individual is a female, which swam quite a distance from me in the Olympia harbor. Long-tailed Ducks breed across the world’s arctic regions. They breed in freshwater and most winter in seawater. They eat a wide variety of prey, depending on the habitat in which they find themselves. Here in Olympia, they dive for bottom-dwelling crustaceans, bivalves, gastropods and fish.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Black Phoebe

I usually allow way too much time before chasing after rare sightings, giving the birds such a head start that I do not catch up with them. This Black Phoebe is an exception. This bird, presumably the same individual, has been reported in eBird since mid-November. Erika and I made two unsuccessful attempts to see the phoebe—the first time way too many people were on the Chehalis Bike Trail for us to be Covid safe. The second time, we could not find the bird. On 27 January 2021, I found it. The bird flushed from a nearby lake shore, flew across the lake, and perched on a cattail. This photo is amazing, considering the distance the phoebe was from me. 

In 2005, Wahl et al. wrote that Washington only had six records of Black Phoebes, but these authors wrote “additional records are expected, as this species is expanding it's range northward in Oregon”—this bird breeds from Oregon south through much of South America. These ornithologists were correct. Black Phoebes are now found north to southern British Columbia. This season a couple of dozen Black Phoebes are reported in eBird from Washington and even on Vancouver Island in BC.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

House Finch

Erika and I found House Finches among the House Sparrows in a bramble-filled hedge row near Olympia on 22 January 2021. House Finches were originally were found in southwestern deserts. Thanks to releases of birds in New York in 1939 and subsequent spread across eastern North America, House Finches are among the most common birds across most of North America. At same time as the birds were spreading from New York, western birds spread north and became much more common in areas where they were previously found, if at all, in small, isolated populations. The species now inhabits nearly all types of habitats. Wahl et al. (2005) suggest that the species’ expansion in Washington (and elsewhere) is partially due to a great increase in bird-feeders.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

House Sparrow

House Sparrows, like this male and female near Olympia on 22 January 2021, are not all that common in our area. These images are my first for the species in Washington. These sparrows are introduced to North America, first released in New York in 1851, as well as elsewhere in subsequent years. By 1943, House Sparrow populations reached upwards of 150 million birds (with, perhaps, 500 million world-wide). Numbers have fallen since 1966, both in North America and western Europe (where House Sparrows are native). Some populations declined by 70%. Suspected reasons for this decline include increased use of herbicides and pesticides in farm-fields, resulting in fewer insects and weed seeds, and more efficient farming, resulting in less grain spillage (Lowther and Cink 2020). Note that sparrow populations have also declined in urban areas.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Pigeon Guillemot

23 January 2021 found me searching for a Long-tailed Duck in West Bay in the Olympia harbor. You may recall, I saw that duck a few weeks ago, but I needed it for this year’s list. Erika claims this obsession is pathological. I searched for a relatively white duck among the many dark scoters in the bay. Success? No, this is a winter-plumaged Pigeon Guillemot, quite a bit different looking than the black and white breeding summer birds. (The second image is of an adult from 4 May 2020 taken at the same location.)  Guillemots are not closely related to ducks, but, rather, are auks, a family descended from gulls or shorebirds.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Olympic Gull

Hybrids between Western and Glaucous-winged gulls, known as Olympic Gulls, are abundant in Puget Sound. I am finding gull identification to be a challenge, but this bird’s back seems to be darker than a Herring Gull, but not dark enough for a Glaucous-winged. Herring Gulls would sport bright yellow eyes, unlike the relatively dark eye on this bird. I took this image because the bird sat close by at the Billy Frank Jr. National Wildlife Refuge on 19 January 2021. Most interesting on this bird is the bill is crossed. The bill tips clearly do not meet. Occasionally birds with crossed bills are encountered. This deformation must surely interfere with efficient food capture and feeding, although this individual has successfully reached adulthood.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Red-tailed Hawk

On 19 January 2021, this Red-tailed Hawk flushed from a shrub and flew up into a nearby tree in the Nisqually national wildlife refuge. Judging by the barred tail, this is a relatively immature bird. Recently I’ve written about how confusing Red-tailed Hawk identification can be—plumage variations exist even within many of the 16 recognized races. Two notes about this bird—note the dark band between the belly and the throat. Although individuals vary in just how dark and extensive this band appears, it is nevertheless a good field mark for Red-tailed Hawk identification. Note also that, although the bird is facing us, you can clearly see both eyes. No doubt binocular vision gives hawks the ability to clearly assess the exact location of their prey.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Red Alder

Near our house on 20 January 2021, another first sign of spring?—Red Alder male catkins emerging in front of last year’s cones. Red Alders are among the most common of Pacific Northwest hardwoods. Look for them in lowlands, usually within 100 miles of the coast. They are a pioneer species that grows in disturbed habitat from Alaska to central California. Red Alder roots fix atmospheric nitrogen via symbiosis with fungus. This winter Erika and I have seen hundreds of siskins feeding of alder fruits.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Bald Eagle Nest

A first sign of spring?—a Bald Eagle pair on their nest at the Billy Frank Jr. National Wildlife Refuge on 19 January 2021. Perhaps not a sign. Eagles begin nest building one to three months prior to egg laying. Adults often maintain nests all year. In Washington, the breeding season begins in January (Wahl et al. 2005).

Monday, January 18, 2021

American Kestrel

American Kestrels are small falcons that famously hover in the air, before swooping down on their prey. In fact, kestrels far more often hunt from exposed perches, like this bird on 13 January 2021 in the Nisqually wildlife refuge.  Hover-hunting is not ideal for the kestrel’s preferred prey—a wide variety of insects. We have seen kestrels flying among swallows, taking insects from the air. I have read that kestrels follow migrating dragonflies that avoid flying over large bodies of water. Migrating Common Green Darners and their attendant kestrels circumnavigate Chesapeake Bay. (These birds are quite capable of over-water flights—we have seen them on one of the outermost of the Florida Keys.) American Kestrels also hunt for small mammals and birds—but kestrels are also opportunistic, taking small reptiles, amphibians, and even small fish (Smallwood and Bird 2020),

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Pelagic Cormorant

Pelagic Cormorants are small, common birds of the North Pacific shores. You can find them about anywhere in Puget Sound, but Erika and I have had most success near Olympia on an abandoned logging pier at the Woodward Bay Conservation Area. We headed out there on 14 January, successfully adding the species to our growing 2021Year List. The cormorants perched some distance from us, but were identifiable by their steely-blue plumage and reddish color at the base of their bill. As they preened, I wondered if these birds were an exception to the list of cormorants that spread their wings during feather maintenance. Back home, a quick check in Birds of the World assured me that Pelagics are no exception, and usually show wing-spreading behavior at their roosts.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Double-crested Cormorant

Erika and I encountered this Double-crested Cormorant on 6 January 2021 at the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge. Wing-Spreading is a common, but not universal, cormorant behavior. Cormorants do spread oil on their feathers, an action that water-proofs feathers in other birds. Cormorants, however, may make use of wet feathers, since that makes the birds less buoyant when they dive. Wet feathers, however, facilitate heat loss in the birds. Most ornithologists believe wing-spreading is a thermoregulatory behavior. Occasionally, wing-spreading is done in the rain, which would be an odd thing to do for a cold cormorant. The answer may be that this behavior simply contributes to feather maintenence (Dorr et al. 2020). The second photo is of a Galapagos Cormorant on 2 May 1976 showing the same behavior. Interestingly, this species is flightless.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Western Black Elfin Saddle

Erika and I discovered what we presume to be several Fluted Black Elfin Saddles (Helvella lacunosa) growing in our back yard on 14 January 2021. Our mushroom hunter’s guide does not recommend eating this fungus. The thought never entered our minds. This mushroom is widely distributed but its taxonomy and subsequent common name is confusing—some references name western North American Elfin Saddles as Helvella vespertina—the Western Black Elfin Saddle. Fungi like this one are found in Europe, China, Japan and North America. Here they are most abundant along the Pacific Coast. They grow under pine and Douglas Fir in parklands and lawns.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Northern Pintail


I was not too close to this Northern Pintail pair on 6 January 2021 at the Nisqually wildlife refuge. I took the photo because it seemed a pretty image. Females choose mates based on male attentiveness and plumage (whiter breasts and more colorful scapulars). Clark et al. 2020 write, “male dominance is a result rather than a cause of female choice.”

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Bufflehead Courtship

On 7 January 2021, I watched Buffleheads court in Budd Bay in the Port of Olympia. Two males courted a female, who was clearly attracted to one of the males. The male did nothing to dissuade her, raising his wings at her approach—a typical courtship display.
At her approach, called a Following Display and indicative that the birds are paired, this male raised his head feathers, lowered his head, and directed his white head patch towards the female. The raising of the head feathers greatly increases the size of the white head patch. A few times the first male, swimming with speed, chased off the other male. 
The  male ran across the water, making splashes behind me as he flew low enough to beat the water with his feet—another courtship behavior used to impress potential mates Gauthier (2020).

Monday, January 11, 2021

Trumpeter Swan and Wigeons

A few days ago, I wrote about Ring-necked Ducks feeding alongside Trumpeter Swans on Capitol Lake in Olympia. Dennis Paulson commented on my blog that American Wigeons also take advantage of the swans’ messy eating habits. On 7 January 2021, we found a dozen swans surrounded by wigeons, just as Dennis predicted.
While I was photographing the swans, Erika called to me, “Look! There’s a Eurasian Wigeon!” Sure enough, among the American Wigeons swam at least one Eurasian Wigeon. These much less common birds, at least in North America, breed across the Old World and into Alaska.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

American Wigeon

Erika and I went to the Billy Frank Jr Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 6 January 2021. Our goal was to add waterfowl to our new year bird list. We added seven ducks, but missed quite a few others. Among the first we saw were a large flock of American Wigeon loafing and feeding along a grassy roadside.
Later we observed several wigeon bathing during high tide. After splashing in the water, the birds dried off by raising their front ends and flapping their wings. Such bathing serves as a courtship behavior. The wing flapping shows the birds white wing patches and advertises their age and their candidacy of being a successful mate (Mini et al. 2020). Normally the sides of a drake wigeon’s head is iridescent green, but on this beautiful morning, the heads shown bronze.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Canada Jay

On 8 January 2021, after an almost two-year search, Erika and I finally found a Canada Jay in Thurston County.  Our search was hindered by the popularity of the McLane Lake Nature Trail. Often this year we have turned around upon finding a full parking lot—the trail is heavily used by Olympia dog-walkers. Over these two years, Canada Jays were occasionally reported along the trail. This day, four flew high in the trees near a nearby lake.

Nine subspecies of Canada Jay are described. The expected race in Olympia is the Oregon Jay. Note this bird's white the underparts and relatively dark head (most races have mostly gray underparts). Prior to 1944, Oregon Jays were considered to be a distinct species, and today some ornithologists argue that full species status should be reapplied to this population.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Rough-skinned Newt

On 4 January 2021, Erika and I were surprised by the rain letting up, so we took a stroll at the Woodard Bay Preserve northeast of Olympia. In our path, we discovered what we presume to be a Rough-skinned Newt. According to the Burke Museum, these amphibians are found west of the Cascades in Washington—overall the species is found from Alaska to California. These newts are toxic. Touching them can cause mild skin irritation—but eating one (I am not sure why you would eat one) can result in paralysis and/or death! The breeding season in Washington is from December through July. They may make long migrations to breeding ponds. Others breed as larvae in their ponds

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Pine Siskin

Early January witnessed an influx of Pine Siskins at our feeders. This particularly handsome siskin posed for a photograph on 5 January 2020. Siskins  seem particularly susceptible salmonellosis at feeders and often succumb to the disease. Some birders stop feeding birds during invasion years. I noted that the siskins I have been banding appear to be emaciated. It was with interest that I read a post on the Washington bird listserv by veterinarian Dave Parent. He wonders if siskins really get sick at feeders and suggests an hypothesis that sick, starving siskins may look to feeders for salvation. He points out that most birds harbor Salmonella, which is not lethal to healthy individuals. Perhaps the onslaught of winter weather, (incessant rain in Washington) and food shortages drive sick birds to bird feeders. Parent concludes that bird feeders should be kept clean to guard against a variety of fugal and other pathogens but that feeders are probably responsible for saving more birds than for killing them.

Monday, January 4, 2021

Tundra Swan—Ring-necked Duck

Trumpeter Swans are increasing on Olympia’s Capitol Lake, We regularly listed four birds during most of December, but, on 29 December 2020, Erika and I counted 11. We took photos of two of them that ventured relatively close to us. Feeding close to the swans, and appearing to follow the larger birds, were four Ring-necked Ducks. It almost looked like some sort of cooperative feeding was afoot. Both species eat aquatic vegetation. We wondered if the swans might be more efficient foragers than the ducks, which have to dive to reach their food. Perhaps the swans are messier eaters, leaving “crumbs" for the ducks to salvage. Another possibility is that the ducks follow the swans to rich feeding areas.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

California Quail

Finally a winner for the World’s Worst Bird Photo Contest—there is a California Quail somewhere in this photo—like just about near the center you might see a pale line that runs down the bird’s back. Four quail scurried about the brambles on 31 December 2020 along the Chehalis Bike Trail. One them occasionally called, and I, for once, had the wherewithal to whip out my cell phone and record it: https://macaulaylibrary.org/asset/292939261. I used the Android app, BirdNet, which can often identify the recordings you make with it. (They say an iOS version is also available.) If you attach these recordings to eBird lists, the files are stored at Cornell’s Macaulay Library.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Rock Wren

Erika and I ended 2020 with a rare bird—a Rock Wren on 31 December along the Chehalis Bike Trail. These wrens are found in western North America, south into Central America. Strays are occasionally reported from eastern states. Rock Wrens can be common breeders in eastern Washington, but very few are seen in any season in the western half of the state. This Rock Wren was first reported on eBird in mid-December, but the one time we ventured to the spot, a farm feed-lot along the tail, way too many birders to be Covid-safe were searching for the bird. When we did find it, the wren was not our objective. We wanted to walk at a nearby conservation area—but that parking lot was jammed full. So we walked down the bike trail instead. We found the Rock Wren exactly where eBird promised.