Friday, April 30, 2021

Tree Swallow

Except during the winter, Tree Swallows are abundant  at the Nisqually national wildlife refuge. Erika and I photographed this individual on 26 April 2021. If you see then well, separating Tree from Violet-green swallows is not too difficult. For one thing, the white on the throat does not curl up behind the Tree Swallow’s eye. The messed feathers on this bird gave me pause. This ruffle may be evidence of the bird’s brood patch. If so, this swallow is probably a female, as only they have brood patches (a single, unfeathered, vascularized area used to warm the eggs in the nest). Indeed, with few exceptions and during very cold weather, male Tree Swallows rarely incubate the eggs (Winkler et al. 2020).

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

At the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge, 26 April 2021 proved to be a five-swallow day—Erika and I saw Barn, Cliff, Tree, Violet-green, and this Northern Rough-winged swallow. Of these species, the rough-winged swallow is the least frequently seen. For one thing, this species can be difficult to identify—it lacks a breast band and sports and indistinct dark crown. Audubon first described this species, and even he initially did not realize he had a new species. This swallow is named for the tiny barbs that protrude from its outer wing feathers—barbs whose function remain a mystery.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Swift Forktail

On 23 April 2021, Erika and I took this photo of a mating pair of Swift Forktails at the McLane Creek Nature Trail about five miles south of home. Their large size (for a forktail), blue thoracic stripes and relatively dark abdomens certify identification of this early-flying damselfly. It almost looks like two males are in the “wheel position,” wherein a male grasps his mate behind her head, while she reaches her abdomen up to fertilize her eggs. But these are not two males. Rather the one on the bottom is an andromorph female. One hypothesis for some females looking like males is that the andromorphs are less hassled by aggressive males. Also present on our path were a few gynomorph females, like the one in the second photo. The advantage to looking like a female is that the males find you. But this might not be so important if you only have to mate once to fertilize enough eggs to last the season.
Dennis Paulson (2009) writes that Swift Forktails are often found on water lilies. I was surprised to read this passage, since all the Swift Forktails I have seen have been on dry land, far from water. But I must be getting old—I completely forgot about a Swift Forktail I photographed, also at McLane Lake, on water vegetation on 27 May 2019.  I found my old record, which I fortunately submitted to Odonata Central. Dennis, who patiently helps me with most of my Washington dragonflies, further writes that Swift Forktails “also perch on ground, rocks, and logs much more than other forktails. Females often found far from water…”  

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

American Robin

Erika and I watched American Robins feeding on a Quinault Lake lodge lawn on 14 April 2021. As I photographed the robins, their drooped wings reminded me a bit of egrets and herons that raise their wings, hoping small fish will swim into the shade or perhaps enabling the predators to see the fish without a lot of sun reflection. Robins are most successful at feeding on the ground in short grass and sunny days. I wonder if wing shadows make robin prey fatally flinch. On the other hand, perhaps feeding on the hot lawn requires robin’s to cool off with wings held loose. 

Monday, April 26, 2021

Hudsonian Whiteface

After a week of no rain and temperatures over 70°, odonates are flying. On 23 April 2021, I found an Hudsonian Whiteface in our Olympia yard. These dragonflies have an odd range, breeding from central Canada into the northeastern United States and also from British Colombia south into California. In Washington, they are locally common in wooded lowlands and up to 6600 feet in mountains (Paulson, pers. comm.). Although they can be locally common, this young female is only the second one I have ever seen. 23 April is two days later than the species has ever been seen in the state. My other record is from near Olympia two years ago on 26 April. Keys to identification include the yellow top of the abdomen and the pale wing veins running through the dark basal wing spots.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrows sang at Seabrook, Washington, when we visited on 13 April 2020. Erika and I enjoyed recording their calls with our cell phone and the BirdNet app. Each of the half-dozen or so North American subspecies of this bird sing slightly different songs. The song of the race that breeds along the coast form Vancouver Island to northwestern California, Zonotrichia leucophrys pugetensis, can be recognized by the two thick, buzzy trills evident in this sonogram. Click here to hear it.

Young White-crowned Sparrows learn their call from the birds that sing in their neighborhood—not directly from their parents. This learning process takes up to three months. Where two races meet, young sparrows can be “bilingual.” Females in these populations are attracted to both racial song types. Some sparrows learn the songs of the wrong species, but this phenomenon is rare (Chilton et al. 2020).

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Lichen Agaric

I discovered about six of these tiny mushrooms growing on a rotten stump on 14 April 2020. They were along a trail near Lake Quinault, Washington. Without hesitation, iNaturalist identified them as Lichen Agaric, Lichenomphalia umbellifera. These mushrooms harbor symbiotic, single-celled green algae, Coccomyxa. Presumably the algae provide some nutrients to the mushrooms, which, in turn, give the algae somewhere to live. Oddly, the mushroom spores do not contain algae, so that the algae must be able to disperse on their own.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Bald Eagle

On 13 April 2021, Erika, our Seattle friends, and I marched back from the beach at Seabrook, Washington. We did not see too many birds, but were delighted as a Bald Eagle circled overhead. Eagles are majestic birds, even if their resurgence has hurt other bird populations. Eagle recovery is, nevertheless, an outstanding success for American conservation. Bald Eagles now breed across Canada and every US state except for Hawaii. Bald Eagles also nest in northern Mexico.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Bordered Plant Bug

We did not see any dragonflies at the Darlin Creek Preserve south of Olympia on 18 April 2020—but a pretty, little bug scurried through the leaf litter next to our trail. My best guess is that the bug is Largus cinctus, the Bordered Plant Bug. They are found on the ground or on plants in western North America from British Columbia to southern Mexico. They feed on juices of soft plant tissue.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Black-tailed Deer

After two weeks without rain, a strange creature appeared at our birdbath. Fortunately for this Black-tailed Deer, the birdbath stands outside of Erika’s garden fence. The deer are remarkably tame. It does not help that neighbors feed the deer.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Rufous Hummingbird

This male Rufous Hummingbird visited our backyard feeders on 2 April 2021. This image languished in my blog queue until 19 April, when Erika and I photographed a female apparently building a nest at the Nisqually national wildlife refuge. (Rufous Hummingbirds breed in the northwestern United States north across western British Columbia to southeastern Alaska.) Females do all the nest building and only they incubate the eggs. Nests are lined with soft plant material and the outside is decorated with lichens or other plant materials attached with spider web strands (Healy and Calder 2020). The hummingbird in the last two images barely fit in her nest. Note the tail poking out of the back of the nest. In the last photo, the bird’s bill is pointed downward, apparently constructing the nest.

Monday, April 19, 2021

California Darner

A California Darner in our backyard, 18 April 2021. My first dragonfly of the year. This species is relatively small compared to other darners and is one of the first to fly in the spring in Washington. Last year I saw it on 16 April, and, in 2019, on 24 April. As might be expected, this individual is only very recently emerged from its natal pond.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Western Grebe

Erika and I found a few interesting birds on 12 April 2021 in Grays Harbor. Western Grebes spend the winter mostly in coastal saltwater from British Columbia to central Mexico. The species can be locally abundant. Birds breed across much of western North America, east to Wisconsin. They breed in parts of eastern Washington. From the late 1800s to the early 1900s, however, Western Grebes were slaughtered for their white ventral plumes, which were used to make capes, hats, or coats. Pesticides, oil spills, and gill nets have also caused drastic declines in Western Grebe numbers. If those factors were not enough, breeding colonies are endangered by boat wakes and other human disturbances. In parts of their range, populations have rebounded to some degree from historic low numbers (Laporte et al. 2020). Partners in Flight classifies Western Grebes as a species of conservation concern.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Violet-green Swallow

I found it hard to get a decent Violet-green Swallow photograph. These photos finally show their greenish crowns and violet backs. Field marks for separating them from Tree Swallows include the white lines around the backs of their eyes. Violet-green Swallows also show much more white on the sides of their rumps. This Violet-green Swallow posed for me at Seabrook, Washington, on 13 April 2021. This species breeds across western North America, from Alaska to central Mexico (and winters into Central America. They breed in dead snags, often in abandoned woodpecker cavities. They are much less likely than Tree Swallows to next in bird boxes.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Great Blue Heron

Erika and I are back from our first post-covid-vaccination road-trip. We spent four days with friends (also vaccinated) near the Washington coast north of Ocean Shores (at a planned community called Seabrook). We enjoyed spectacular weather—cloudless skies, relatively warm temperatures. The scenery was outstanding—even the Great Blue Herons appeared to be impressed with this view of the Olympic Mountain Range. Our listing few birds was the only downside to the trip. Over the next few days, I will share the few images we collected.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Great Blue Heron

On our way back from the Whimbrels at the Nisqually National Wildlife refuge on 8 April 2021, Erika and I came face-to-face with a Great Blue Heron. I, for one, was happy to be larger than the wide variety of prey these herons consume. We have watched them swallow snakes, small mammals, fish, and crabs. We’ve seen photos of herons eating birds. Utilizing binocular vision and, perhaps, sighting down their bills, result in their being efficient predators.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Whimbrel

When we arrived at the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 8 April 2021, Erika and I overheard two photographers talking about seeing Whimbrels. “We just saw them about two-thirds of the way to the end of the estuary boardwalk,” they told us. We hustled on out there, Erika commenting that her husband’s walking pace picked up when birds are ahead. “And your point?” asked I.  A second birder told us the Whimbrels were still out there, about three-quarters of the way out. “This is going to be like a needle in a hay stack,” said Erika.  “They are fairly large shorebirds,” I pontificated, “we should be able to find them.” And just then Erika spied four distant Whimbrel. I got on my knees, and balanced my camera on the boardwalk railing.

Whimbrels can be seen at any time of the year in western Washington. They are most common in the fall, but locally common in spring. They breed in the arctic of both hemispheres and are found on mudflats, beaches, fields, and rocky shorelines (Wahl et al. 2005). They enjoy a broad, invertebrate diet, including fish, crabs, crustaceans, and mollusks. They usually feed more by plucking than by probing, although Whimbrels also probe muddy habitats. They are usually visual foragers. Their curved bills match the curvature of fiddler crab burrows (Skeel and Mallory 2020). 

Friday, April 9, 2021

Glaucous-winged Gull

Glaucous-winged Gulls are found around the Pacific Rim, from Japan to northern Oregon. This individual opened mollusks by dropping them on the rocky mud flat at low tide where Schneider Creek meets Budd Bay in Olympia on 3 April 2021. I figure this is a first winter gull, judging by its black bill and white wing tips. Glaucous-winged Gulls are abundant here and inhabit ocean waters and urban areas. In Puget Sound, these gulls hybridize with the more southern-breeding Western Gulls. There are almost no pure birds in the hybrid swarm that breeds here. 

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Hooded Merganser

This Hooded Merganser on Capitol Lake in Olympia on 31 March 2021 is another image that Erika strongly suggested that I take. Hooded Mergansers are such flamboyant ducks—passing without photographing is always hard. Although difficulties in censusing cloud our knowledge of the population status of these mergansers, data suggest that current numbers are either stable or increasing across the species’ range (Dugger et al. 2020).

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Mountain Bluebird

Mountain Bluebirds were reported on eBird last week from Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve. Although these bluebirds are common breeders in across much of eastern Washington, they are very local breeders in the western part of the state. The Mima Mounds prairie is about 20 miles south of our home. The preserve is an interesting area but we usually tally few bird species there. A drawback to the park is an adjacent shooting range, which often makes the area sound like a war zone. The area does attract rare birds. 

Mountain Bluebirds were lacking from our Washington bird-list, and we made two attempts to see them.  Our first try failed—the park was closed for road maintenance. Our next trip was on 5 April 2021. We got there early on a cold morning—fog rose eerily from the strange mounds that fill the prairie. As we left the park, we found a flock of both Western and Mountain bluebirds. The birds hawked for insects from perches in prairie bushes. The bluebirds seemed quite wary and did not allow close approach. Male Mountain Bluebirds are unmistakably bright baby-blue. Females are a bit tougher to identify. They are told by their drab Confederate-gray plumage. Some females sport more brown on their breasts than do others. According to Sibly, reliable field marks include a black bill that lacks yellow base and a pale line across the forehead.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Great Blue Heron

On occasion, like on 29 March 2021 at the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge, Erika stops and points out nearby photo opportunities—like this Great Blue Heron. I have mentioned in my posts various threats faced by this species. Not the least of which is the fact that, by the 1970s, over half of the wetlands of the United States have been drained (Vennesland and Butler 2020). These authors report that, based on recent Breeding Bird Surveys, North American Great Blue Heron populations appear to be holding their own, increasing in the United States, but declining in Canada.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Double-crested Cormorant

Erika and I have seen many Double-crested Cormorants, but never ones with white ornamental breeding crests running above and behind their eyes. But we saw several such birds on our visit to the Nisqually national wildlife refuge on 1 April 2021. It turns out that these crests are variably colored—black in eastern North America, but mostly (and even totally) white in the West. We are more familiar with eastern Double-crested Cormorants, but we find it odd that we have never noticed the white plumes during our two springs here in western Washington. 

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Salmonberry

Salmonberries are brambles closely related to raspberries. Erika and I photographed this one in the Bill Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge on 29 March 2021. This plant is native to the west coast of North America, from Alaska to California, and inland to Idaho. Escaping cultivation, Salmonberries also grow in parts of Europe. Raw and processed fruit is edible. Native people ate the fruit with salmon and other fish (Wikipedia).

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Osprey

Ospreys nest in the Port of Olympia. This Osprey is the first for Erika and my 2021 year list. On 31 March a bird flew around the south end of Capitol Lake. I did not think too much of it until I opened my eBird checklist and discovered the species unreported in the area. Further research uncovers a few other observations in Olympia on the same day. In any case, I did not get a photo until the Osprey flew back towards the north, so this bird was quite some distance from us. Osprey field marks include its white underparts, dark wrist patches, and a long, “crooked,” “M-“ shaped wingspan.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Green-winged Teal

29 March 2021 found Erika and me standing on the Nisqually national wildlife refuge estuary boardwalk. A different bird call waffled through the air. The only bird in the immediate vicinity was this drake Green-winged Teal. Closer observation revealed that the duck’s bill opened and closed as the bird vocalized. These days I usually carry a microphone with me, but, not wanting to fumble around, I aimed my iPhone at the duck and recorded the call with BirdNet—the Cornell app that does a decent job of recording and also attempts to identify the call. I was relieved to read that this call was labled “Green-winged Teal.” I am slowly building a collection of bird calls.