Wednesday, March 31, 2021

American Bittern

This American Bittern was the high point of Erika and my 29 March 2020 visit to the Nisqually national wildlife refuge. Even at close range, the bird was hard to see. We knew something was nearby because of the half-dozen birders intently focusing their optical equipment along the small creek that runs next to the refuge’s Twin Barns. I asked the woman who pointed the bird out to us how she found it. She replied, “Oh, that bird is always here…” If so, Erika and I have strolled by this American Bittern a hundred times during the past year.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Greater Yellowlegs

On 22 March 2021, Erika and I watched as a Greater Yellowlegs gave a prolonged chase of another yellowlegs. This encounter was probably not sexual. In the field, you can not really tell males from females. Yellowlegs of all ages are known to drive off competitors from good fishing pools (Elphick and Tibbitts 2020)—apparently, that is what is happening here. These chases are usually infrequent and short, but can be longer in duration and can even result in pecking and kicking—although we did not see any physical contact.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Great Blue Heron

This woe-begotten Great Blue Heron could be wounded, but more likely is just cold on this 40ᵒ, 22 March 2021, morning. The heron flew off after posing for a few photographs. Erika and I were strolling at the Billy Frank Jr Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Blue Orchard Bee

While working on the back porch on 27 March 2021, I found s small, black bee. iNaturalist had no trouble identifying it as a Blue Orchard Bee, Osmia lignaria. This bee nests in reeds and natural holes, but, unlike carpenter bees, it does not drill its own cavities. Blue Orchard Bees are common pollinators in the early spring—the species flies during colder and cloudier days than many other bees. Commercial orchards and gardeners buy these bees and bee houses. These bees seldom sting and tend to be solitary. The bees do require cold winters to survive and are found across much of North America. 

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Audubon’s Warbler

Two versions of the same photo taken on 22 March 2021 at the Nisqually national wildlife refuge. I like the small-bird image better than the cropped one—you can see the little gnats that the bird is hunting. You may recall my recent picture of the Myrtle race of the Yellow-rumped Warler. The bird here is the more to be expected Audubon’s race. A male, like this one, is unmistakable with its bright yellow throat. This bird was even more gorgeous than is shown here—its breast is jet-black.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Northwestern Salamander

Northwestern Salamanders are found along the west coast of North America, from Alaska to central California. In Washington, they range from sea-level to the timberline west of the Cascades. They spend most of their time under logs or underground. They are usually active only during fall rains or, in the spring, as they migrate to the freshwater ponds in which they breed. These salamanders secrete poison from the glands behind their eyes and are normally avoided by predators. Erika and I encountered this individual on 22 March at the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge. The salamander seemed quite lethargic, probably as a result of the 40° morning temperature, but the salamander may have been wounded by any of the many human hikers along the dike trail. In any event, for us this Northwestern Salamander is a first.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Bufflehead

Buffleheads, like this drake on 22 March 2021 at the Billy Frank Jr. National Wildlife Refuge, are among the most abundant ducks in Olympia. I mentioned in previous posts that Buffleheads are difficult to photograph. Their white sides and white head patches tend to overwhelm the camera sensors. But bright sunlight is needed to show off this ducks dazzlingly iridescent heads. Consequently for the past two years, I have pursued the ultimate Bufflehead image—this photograph comes closer than most.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Marsh Wren

This Marsh Wren greeted Erika and me at the Nisqually national wildlife refuge on 22 March 2021. Marsh Wrens, with their amazing song repertoires, seem like delightful birds. On the other hand, these birds have a disturbing habit of destroying eggs. Both males and females often peck and break any egg of any species—other birds' and Marsh Wrens' alike—they encounter (Kroodsma and Verner 2020).

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Band-tailed Pigeon

On 19 March 2021, two Band-tailed Pigeons, after a winter’s absence, appeared at our feeders. These pigeons are common in western Washington in the summer and can be locally common in the winter, too—just not in our backyard. We are ending our first full two years in Olympia. Previously the pigeons’ earliest dates were 4 April 2020 and 19 May 2019. Most of our birds move south to winter along Pacific Coast. This dove enjoys a remarkably wide range, from western North America south  through Central and western South America to northern Argentina. Here in Washington, numbers are declining. The species may be susceptible to protozoa diseases at feeders. Band-tailed Pigeons also depend on mineral springs, which supply essential nutrients, but are disappearing with agricultural and urban development (Wahl et al. 2005).

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Ring-necked Duck

All winter, Erika and I listed Ring-necked Ducks Olympia’s Capital Lake—this drake on 16 March 2021. This duck’s neck ring is often invisible, even in close-up views like this one. The drake’s white-ringed bill is a better field mark. Ring-necked Ducks prefer smaller, freshwater lakes and are less often seen in Puget Sound. These ducks are migrants and/or winter residents across most of the United States. They breed across Canada, spilling over into most our our northern states. They also breed south into the northern Rockies. In Washington, they breed in the east, but only rarely in the west.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Cedar Waxwing

Although they can be common during the summer in Washington, Cedar Waxwings are rare to uncommon winter visitors west of the Cascades. This status is reflected in eBird by a yellow dot, indicating that the species is infrequently reported in this season in Olympia. Erika and I observed a flock of about two dozen on 16 March 2021 along the shore of Capitol Lake. This bird is clearly a male, judging by the bird’s extensively black throat. This individual lacks the red wing “droplets,” for which waxwings get their name. The numbers of these droplets vary widely among the sexes and ages of waxwings. 

Friday, March 19, 2021

Common Merganser

On 17 March 2021, this drake Common Merganser swam up Capitol Lake in Olympia. As it travelled, the drake spent more time apparently “snorkeling,” with his head under water. Normally these mergansers dive for their prey (small fish, a wide variety of invertebrates, and even frogs, small mammals, birds, and plants) (Pearce et al. 2020). Mergansers are known to forage on the surface and even upend like a Mallard, but the afore-cited authors do not appear to mention swimming with their head under the water.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

American Robin

The early afternoon robin gets the worm. This American Robin consumed worms among a flock of a dozen robins at the Tumwater Historical Park on 17 March 2021. Robins consume nearly equal amounts of fruit and animals, although their diets vary, depending on the season and what prey are available. Researchers have cataloged robins’ consuming over 100 families of invertebrates more than 50 genera of fruits (Vanderhoff et al. 2020).

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Common Goldeneye

A hen Common Goldeneye’s golden eye, the photograph taken at Olympia’s Capitol Lake on 16 March 2021. The other photos were taken at the same location and day.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

White-winged Scoter

I photographed these White-winged Scoters on 9 March 2021 where Schneider Creek enters Budd Bay in Olympia. It is a shame that this spot is in the city’s crosshairs for condo development. White-winged Scoters breed deep in the interior, northwestern Canadian wilderness and most winter along both coasts of North America. Because they breed in such remote areas, their conservation status is poorly known. Ecologists are concerned that these scoters are poorly censused, White-winged Scoters winter along oil transportation routes. These scoters feed at considerable depths in the ocean and are often tangled in fishing nets. Global warming also threatens to disturb scoter breeding and wintering habitats (Brown and Fredrickson 2020).

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Northern Harrier

 
While Erika and I watched the Coyote we reported in our last post (at the Nisqually national wildlife refuge on 12 March 2021), a hen Northern Harrier flew low to the ground. The raptor flew alongside our trail at the edge of the marsh. When the raptor reached the Coyote, the harrier swung around and circled the coyote. Perhaps the harrier was attracted by whatever the Coyote was molesting. Harriers take a variety of prey, but specialize in hunting small rodents, especially voles. In this respect, the prey of harriers and omnivorous Coyotes probably greatly overlap.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Coyote

Erika and I, along with a dozen others at the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 12 March 2021, observed a Coyote. Coyotes inhabit all of Washington in almost all habitats, including urban ones. Twice we have seen Coyotes at our house. This Coyote was intently digging at the edge of the marsh. It held its tail high. Occasionally the canine jumped upright and back to where it was digging with its forepaws and probing the ground with its snout. We are not sure if the Coyote was actively hunting or playing with some unfortunate prey. Oddly, the Coyote remained in the same location for at least an hour. We would have thought that most Coyotes are shy and would not remain long near all the people watching.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Rufous Hummingbird

In western Washington, Rufous Hummingbirds are common migrants and breeders. They are very rare in the winter—usually adult males are first seen in early March. Females appear in April (Wahl et al. 2005). Erika and I caught this male on 10 March 2021. These authors further report that Rufous Hummingbird populations have been declining in Washington since 1966. The reasons for this decline, both in Washington and elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, are unclear and require further research (Healy and Calder 2020).

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Myrtle Warbler

On 10 March Erika and I were delighted to see our first spring migrating warblers of 2021. A dozen Yellow-rumped Warblers flitted about the upper branches of a row of alders along the shore of the north end of Olympia’s Capitol Lake. We looked carefully and noted all of their throats were uniformly white (rather than buffy or yellow). We concluded these birds were Myrtle Warblers, not the more expected Audubon’s race of Yellow-rumped Warbler. The two races meet and hybridize across parts of British Colombia, and so both subspecies are seen during migration in Washington. Noting such subtleties is important for us birders, in case ornithologists ever change their minds and declare that Yellow-rumped Warbler are actually two species that enjoy only limited genetic exchange.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Licorice Fern

Erika and I identified a Licorice Fern at the Nisqually national wildlife refuge on 8 March 2021. These plants are super common in the Pacific Northwest, from Alaska to northern California. They thrive in rainforests, as an epiphyte growing on Bigleaf Maple trunks (as well as on logs, rocks, and mossy ground). Native people used these ferns, both raw and cooked, to fight respiratory ailments. Fern rhizomes taste like licorice (Slater Museum of Natural History). The scientific name is Polypodium glycyrrhiza—“glycyrrhiza” means “sweet root.” I will investigate how the rhizomes taste the next time I encounter one, and, assuming I survive, I will report back to you. (Famous last words: I am unaware of any poisonous ferns.)

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Osoberry

I thought I had posted an image of Osoberry (or Indian Plum), Oemleria cerasiformois, last year—especially since this common shrub is one of the first plants to bloom in the spring. Perhaps my original images were out of focus. Erika and I have already seen several this spring—we came upon this one in the Nisqually national wildlife refuge on 8 March 2021.

Osoberry grows along the Pacific Coast from British Columbia to California. Native people used this plant as a mild anesthetic and aphrodisiac. Birds, mammals, and various insects all feed on this plant’s flowers and berries.  Osoberry’s genus commemorates Augustus Gottlieb Oemler (1773-1852), a German naturalist from Savannah, Georgia, who first collected the species. Cerasiformis means cherry-shaped (Native Plants of the Pacific NW).

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Western Bluebird

Before the rain and hail forced us out of the Mima Mounds Natural Preserve south of Olympia on 6 March 2021, Erika and I photographed two Western Bluebirds. This species can be identified by range and by their often sporting brown back patches. Western Bluebirds are found in open areas, but, unlike other bluebirds, require nearby forest edges. Guinan et al. (2020) write, "Clear-cutting, snag removal, fire suppression, and any changes in land use that cause open forest and edge habitat to be diminished adversely affect Western Bluebird populations.” As a result, despite bluebird box programs, Western Bluebird populations have declined in western Washington.

Friday, March 5, 2021

Marsh Wren

On 4 March 2021, Erika and I heard several Marsh Wrens at the Bill Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. Abundant birds in many North American marshes, Marsh Wrens are easy to hear but they can be hard to see. Marsh Wrens have amazing song repertoires. Males learn up to 200 song types and sing almost continually—day and night. Males compete with singing duels. Males often mate with two or more females, and the male song advertises his genetic fitness and his territorial wealth (Kroodsma and Verner 2020). Erika and I recorded this Marsh Wren’s song—click here.
The various races of Marsh Wrens differ in eastern and western North America. Western birds learn many more songs than do eastern ones. The western songs are harsher and more variable than those in the east. As a result, western males are more likely to be polygynous than eastern ones. Kroodsma and Verner (2020) suggest “Future studies may reveal...that these two wren groups would best be treated as two species—e.g., Eastern Marsh-Wren (C. palustris) and Western Marsh-Wren (C. paludicola).”

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Northern Shrike

On 1 March 2021 at the Nisqually national wildlife refuge, Erika pointed out a bird on a treetop snag at the edge of the marsh. I had no idea what the bird was. “How about a Northern Shrike?” asked Erika. “Too small,” I replied, “and the bill is not large enough.” The bird looked more like a strange, tree-top-inhabiting sparrow. While I took photos, the bird flew lower into the nearby forest-edge, and disappeared. I captured the bird’s takeoff. Back home, I ran the image through my image processing software. Erika is correct—undoubtedly a Northern Shrike!
 

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Spotted Towhee

Erika and  I encountered a female Spotted Towhee at the Billy Frank Jr Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 24 February 2021. Twenty-one races of Spotted Towhees are described, differing in color and size. In fact, only recently have Spotted and Eastern towhees been declared distinct species.  This bird is undoubtedly the Spotted Towhee race, Pipilo maculatus oregonus. It is both the darkest of the Spotted Towhee races and one that has the fewest spots and streaks on its scapulars and wing coverts. I think these birds of the Pacific Northwest are as different from most other Spotted Towhees races as they are different from Eastern Towhees. Genetic studies of these birds would probably prove to be interesting.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Bufflehead

Between rain storms at Woodard Bay Natural Area near Olympia on 25 February 2021, I was trying somewhat unsuccessfully to capture a drake Bufflehead’s iridescent head. As I photographed, the duck swam away from me, reared up, and dove under water. The result is in this series of images. To me, the most interesting shots are the third and fifth images. At the beginning of the dive, the duck holds its legs close to the body, thereby speeding the plunge. Once under water, the feet are flayed outward to forcefully push the bird under.