Monday, May 31, 2021

Stinging Nettle

Stinging Nettle surrounded Erika and me on 19 May 2021 at the Woodard Bay Nature Reserve. This plant is another introduced species. It originally grew in Europe, Asia, and western North Africa. Nettle now grows in across much of the western hemisphere and Australia. Wikipedia mentions that nettle is especially common in the Pacific Northwest. Most people know that Stinging Nettle hurts when you come in contact with it. The plant impales you with spicules and releases a number of chemical irritants. Soaking and boiling nettle removes the irritating chemicals in the plant, which has a long list of human uses. Despite being the Red Admiral butterfly caterpillar’s primary host, nettle is seldom welcome in gardens and can be difficult to control.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Pacific Waterleaf

Erika and I came upon wildflowers at the McLane Creek Nature Trail near Olympia on 26 May 2021. We recognized the flowers as waterleaf, but we were surprised to learn that they are not Eastern Waterleaf Hydrophyllum virginianum of eastern North America. We noticed that the leaves are not white streaked (although some Eastern Waterleaf have similarly colored leaves). The plant proves to be the Pacific Waterleaf, Hydrophyllum tenuipes. This species grows in lowland forests west of the Cascades from southwest British Columbia to northern California.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Lincoln’s Sparrow


We banded this Lincoln’s Sparrow in our Olympia backyard on 26 May 2021. Although this is only my fourth banding record, I did not think much about this common fall, winter, and spring bird (they breed at higher elevations east of us). I took this photo because I thought this sparrow was handsome. To my surprise, when I entered the record into eBird, the app alerted me that Lincoln’s Sparrows are rare enough Olympia in May to require additional evidence. According to Wahl et al. 2005,  the spring migration in lowland eastern Washington lasts from April to early May, and the latest date they mention is 26 April. Fortunately I took the photograph.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Narrow-leaf Plantain

On 11 May 2021, these Narrow-leaf Plantain caught my eye as Erika and I strolled along the dike at the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge. I thought they were lovely, even if they are introduced to North America (and many other parts of the world). We have seen plantain often and knew their name. The plant is native to Eurasia. Finding this plant in the refuge is not surprising. Plantain prefers open fields where livestock disturb the turf. The Nisqually refuge was originally a diary farm. These plants can grown in a variety of habitats, however, including dry meadows, lawns, rainforests, and roadsides. Plantain is often used in herbal teas. These beverages are used as a cough medicine, a cure for respiratory upsets, and various infections and insect bites (Wikipedia)

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Four-spotted Skimmer

Our first Four-spotted Skimmer of the year flew before we could photograph it. So I was glad to capture this individual on 20 May 2021 in our Olympia backyard. Few dragonflies are found in both hemispheres of the world, somewhat surprising given their abilities of flight. Four-spotted Skimmers are found across Canada, south to the central United States. The species also breeds across northern Eurasia, from Great Britain to Japan. Paulson (2019) notes that this dragonfly goes by different names across its range—Four-spotted Chaser (England), Four-spot (Germany), and Four-spotted Dragonfly (Russia).

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Sparrow Safari

Erika and I drove 20 miles south of Olympia to the Scatter Creek Wildlife Recreation area. Our quarry were Vesper Sparrows, common birds in eastern Washington, but known mostly from Thurston County in the west. The sparrow is reported in eBird almost every year, especially from Scatter Creek. The species, however, is locally uncommon and in danger of extinction in western Washington (Wahl et al. 2005). Habitat destruction and an invasion of Scotch Broom, an invasive, introduced European plant—the yellow plants in this photo— have adversely affected Vesper Sparrow populations. 
We saw a lot of sparrows at Scatter Creek. Savanna Sparrow sang from behind nearly every clump of grass and even from within the Scotch Broom.  These sparrows are identified by the yellow pathes that runb from their bills and along their eye stripes. Below they are streaky on top of white  breasts and bellies.

We were greeted at the wildlife area by many singing White-crowned Sparrows. Notice that the face is gray between the eye and the bill—indicating this birds are the expected, and abundant, race in the area, Zonotrichia leucophrys pugetensis, the Puget Sound White-crowned Sparrow.
Just the other day, I wrote how infrequently we find Chipping Sparrows in western Washington. When it rains, it pours. Chipping Sparrows, with their rufous crowns and black eyelines, were abundant at Scatter Creek.
Our last sparrow seems to me to be a Vesper. I had trouble identifying it. The bird appears to have its ear coverts surrounded by a brown line and its eyering seems to be white. (Look carefully at this image—what first appears to be the bird’s eye is actuality an ear spot.) The stripes on the upper breast show a faint, yellowish wash. I tried to record the bird’s song, but it was drowned out by singing White-crowned Sparrows. The Vesper Sparrows of western Washington are a distinct subspecies from those in the eastern part of the state and are named Pooecetes gramineus confinis. They have more slender bills than do other populations and creamy-colored underparts. 

Monday, May 24, 2021

Brewer’s Blackbird

The Brewer’s Blackbird is another species (like the Chipping Sparrow) that is considered to be common in Washington, but which we have seen very few times. They are found in disturbed habitats—lawns, urban parks, vacant lots, and farm and pasturelands. This blackbird is found across most of western North America and has expanded its range east into eastern Ontario and Michigan. Most surveys show steady populations across the continent. Erika and I found this Brewer’s Blackbird across the road from the Scatter Creek Wildlife Recreation Area about 20 miles south of Olympia on 22 May 2021. (I am not sure how wildlife recreates.)

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Spotted Towhee

We banded our first fledgling of 2021 on 21 May—a Spotted Towhee. This bird lacks most of the field marks of an adult—its eye is dark, not red, its flanks are streaky, not uniformly bright rufous. The tail feathers did sport white, terminal spots and a pair of adult towhees scolded nearby. The earliest date for egg laying in Washington is 10 April, with a median date of 7 May (Burke Museum)—so this fledgling is just about right on time. Spotted Towhees are year-round residents in our backyard.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Killdeer

Finding Killdeer is always satisfying. These plovers are easy to identify, noisy, and have entertaining breeding behavior—leading intruders away from young by feigning broken limbs. Erika and I discovered this bird on 13 May 2021 at a cattle pond at the Deschutes Prairie Preserve south of Olympia. The pond was partially surrounded by a wooden erosion-control structure. Although Killdeer are larger then other ringed plovers, they are closely related to them.

 

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Whimbrel

Erika and I were delighted to discover a flock of over a dozen Whimbrels on 17 May 2021 at the Nisqually national wildlife refuge. We’ve seen Whimbrels at Nisqually before, most recently on 8 April 2021, but never at such close range. Whimbrels breed in far north latitudes around the world. In the New World, they winter along the coasts from Vancouver Island and North Carolina south to Tierra del Fuego and the interior of Brazil. Some migrants fly nonstop over the Atlantic (4,000 km) from southern Canada to South America. Non-breeding birds occasionally spend summers loafing on their wintering grounds.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Common Yellowthroat

Common Yellowthroats are found across much of North America. These warblers are abundant in the marshes of the Nisqually national wildlife refuge, where we heard them singing on 17 May 2021. Ornithologists are confused about variation among different populations. I have always thought that western birds have broader white bands above their black masks than do eastern birds. Recent studies show that western birds show significant genetic differences from eastern ones.  

Erika and I note that Washington yellowthroats seem to sing a slower song than eastern yellowthroats. Although Western birds are known to have more complex songs than in the east, we do not find our impression of slower songs confirmed in the literature. If you are familiar with Common Yellowthroats, listen to this song file we made at Nisqually and see what you think.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Blue-winged Teal

A Blue-winged Teal on 17 May 2021 at the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge. Despite being fairly common in Washington, this drake is only our second record as we begin our third year in the region. This small duck breeds across most of Canada and the United States and winters in the extreme south of the United States south into northern South America. Continental population  numbers depend on sufficient rainfall in the prairie pothole region of north-central US and Canada.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Western Tanager

On 14 May 2021, Erika and I hiked up a Kennedy Flats logging trail in Mason County, a few miles west of Olympia. We found this gorgeous Western Tanager, a new bird for our year list. The location is exactly the same where we have previously found this species, so we assume it breeds at that spot. As its name suggests, Western Tanagers are found across much of western North America. They winter from central Mexico through most of Central America. This tanager has been assumed to be closely related to the Scarlet Tanager of eastern North America. Recent genetic reseach, however, indicates that Western Tanagers are most closely related to Flame-colored Tanagers of Mexico and Hepatic Tanagers from the American Southwest and Central and South America (Hudon 2020).

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Chipping Sparrow

Chipping Sparrows are one of North America’s most common and widely distributed sparrows (Middleton 2020). Across their range, these sparrows are found in a variety of habitats—forest openings and grasslands—and towns and gardens. But their range in Washington is strange. They are common in the eastern part of the state, but their range is sporadic in the west. I have never seen one here in Olympia, but Erika and I have occasionally seen them in prairies 20 miles south of us. During a bicycle ride on the southern Chehalis Bike Trail on 13 May 2021, we hoped to photograph a Chipping Sparrow. We found them to be relatively common and succeeded with our photographic quest. 

In the west, Chipping Sparrows are also common in clearcuts and forests in the San Juan Islands and in the northern Olympic Mountains, and in scattered high elevations of the Cascades. Isolated populations exist in prairie regions just south of Olympia and in the southwest corner of the state. Wahl et al. (2005) write that Chipping Sparrows were far more common in western Washington in the early 1900s. Populations have since greatly declined, presumably suffering from increasing cowbird predation and habitat loss.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Red-winged Blackbird

This male Red-winged Blackbird displayed on a small shrub on 11 May 2021 at the Nisqually national wildlife refuge. Yasukawa and Searcy (2020) write that having the head forward is a typical passerine threat. Red-winged Blackbirds hold their wings away from the body and erect their red shoulder patches. This behavior is used in conflict situations throughout the year.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Wilson’s Phalarope

Despite being common in eastern Washington, Wilson’s Phalaropes are rare west of the Cascades. These sandpipers breed across much of the northern Great Plains and other northern states and in the western Canadian prairies. They migrate across western North America and Central America, and winter across western South America and in Argentina and Chile south to Tierra del Fuego. Erika and I dropped everything when, on 11 May 2021, eBird alerted us that a small flock were feeding in a pond at the Nisqually national wildlife refuge. We had no difficulty finding four Wilson’s Phalaropes. The photo does not seem too spectacular until you realize these birds fed almost a third of a mile from us.

Phalaropes are wonderful birds. They have lobed toes, and usually feed while swimming in tight twirls. The females are larger and brighter than the males. All phalaropes have their sexual roles reversed. Females mate with males, but usually desert their mates within a week or two. The females court and mate with additional males. The males alone incubate and care for the young.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Pacific Wren

Pacific Wrens sing amazingly complex songs. Erika and I heard one calling from shrubs on the floor of the Woodard Bay Conservation area on 10 May 2021. We never saw the bird. We recorded the song using BirdNet on our iPhone. I was relieved that the app confirmed my identification. Researchers describe the song as one of the most complex of all birds. You can listen the our recording by clicking here.

Toews and Irwin (2020) describe the complexity of Pacific Wren songs. Each male has up to ten short song introductions. These intros are followed by up to 80 successive songs. The male, therefore, may have a repertoire of over 800 songs. Wrens are able to repeat songs. The songs are composed of syllables. In one study, the average syllable number within a song ranged from 73 to 338, with an average of 158. You may note in the song graph, Pacific Wrens can can sing simultaneous notes from their syrinx and each of their two bronchial tubes. How a male sings seems to depend on how he feels and the intensity of competition from other males. 

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Swainson’s Thrush

Our first Swainson’s Thrush of 2021—a very common breeding bird along most of the west coast of North America, Alaska, and central Canada and the northernmost United States. We caught this individual on 9 May, and noted that the bird was already banded. We first banded this thrush on 13 June 2020. This age is not unusal for songbirds, but its fidelity to our backyard is noteworthy. The closest that these thrushes spend the winter is central Mexico. Many continue south, wintering through Central America and all the way across western South America to Argentina.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Pigeon Guillemot

Erika and I spent most of 8 May 2021 counting birds for eBird’s Global Big Day. For 24 hours (local time), birders from around the world are urged to submit checklists to be tallied. Last year over 50,000 people from 175 countries submitted 120,000 checklists—6,479 species were recorded. I doubt any of the 50 species that we submitted this year were unique or even all that rare. This photo of a Pigeon Guillemot in the Olympia harbor was one of the best birds we found. In any event, we enjoyed the chase. We suspect that ours will be an easy total to surpass next year if we forgo an unproductive afternoon driving through the birdless hills beyond Olympia.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Wood Duck

A photographer of birds can hardly walk by a Wood Duck without stopping to take a picture. These images are of six at the McLane Creek Nature Trail near Olympia on 7 May 2020. Erika and I only saw males. Perhaps they staked out territories while waiting for females to arrive. We did not, however, notice any aggression between the drakes.
As we watched from a viewing pier, two of the drakes swam quickly, making a wide circle around us. After making three quarters of a circle around us, the two ducks flushed and flew further down the lake. Looking at these images, I notice that the closer drake has his scapular feathers raised. I find no mention of this behavior in the literature. The day was windy—perhaps the scapulars just blew oddly on the close bird. Drakes are not normally aggressive towards one another. When aggression is shown, drakes open their beaks, lower their necks, and attack. Possibly the drake was showing aggression towards us, but hesitant to attack.

Friday, May 7, 2021

American Goldfinch

A pair of American Goldfinches sang from a hedgerow at the Nisqually national wildlife refuge on 5 May 2021. Because of the black, rather than gray, wings, I identified the second bird as a second-year male. Actually we kind of hoped for Lesser Goldfinches, which we have seen in Oregon but not in Washington. Lesser Goldfinches are often reported from the Olympia area, and their numbers seem to be increasing. In fact, Lesser Goldfinches appeared on a couple of eBird lists on the same day and in the same general area of our birds. These photos definitely show pale, pinkish bills typical of American Goldfinches. Lesser Goldfinches’ bills are dark-gray.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

White-throated Sparrow

I agree with Wahl et al. in Birds of Washington that White-throated Sparrows are uncommon migrants and winter visitors in western Washington. Erika and I have only seen six since we moved here in 2019. Our seventh was this bird that Erika found for me along a road in the Billy Frank Jr Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 5 May 2021. Breeding Bird Surveys indicate widespread decreases of White-throated Sparrow populations (Falls and Kopachena 2020). In western Washington, however, this species is now more frequently reported than historically. Wahl et al. are at a loss to explain this increase, but suggest human creation of sparrow habitat through clearing forests, increased bird feeding by the public, and more birders looking for this species. 

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Mallard

Erika and I found a hen Mallard with several chicks at the McLane Creek Natural Trail. 23 April 2021 seems like an early date for hatched birds. However, 14 March is the earliest first egg laying date (Paulson pers. comm.). Incubation averages 28 days. Thus our April record is probably not so noteworthy. 

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

American Dipper

Tumwater Falls Park,  in the middle of Olympia, is the easiest place for us to find American Dippers. The park, however, has been closed for over a year, first due to the Covid virus, then for renovation. This 15-acre private reserve, originally donated by the Olympic Brewing Company, is reopened with a new new name, Brewery Park at Tumwater Falls. The park basically consists of a cascade as the Deschutes River drops over  80 feet into Capitol Lake. This habitat is perfect for dippers, but the birds can be hard to see and are not guaranteed. I am fond of dippers because they inspired my father to become interested in birds when he read to watch for dipper’s bobbing spasmodically along mountain streams. The result was a remarkable patience with his bird-watching sons. After much searching, we three found our first dipper in the mountains of central Mexico.

I have previously posted a lot about American Dippers, so I will not repeat too much of what I have already written. As the birds search for aquatic critters, dippers blink a striking white eyelid. On 3 May 2021, Erika and I found three dippers along the Deschutes cascade. All of these images are of the first bird. The first photo is uncropped, meant to show you what their habitat looks like. The second photo is an enlarged version of the first, and shows the bird’s white eyelids.
Dippers feed both on the wet rocks along the riverside and in the river itself. Often they will completely submerge under the water. The submersive behavior does not produce much of a photo, so I am content to share this fourth image of the bird with only its head under water. The dipper in the last photo has water rushing off its back after it dove into the rapids.
Even in the summer, dipper streams are cold. Dippers are evolved to survive the cold water by having a low metabolic rare, blood with extra oxygen-carrying capacity, and a thick feather coat (Kingery and Willson 2020).

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Western Azure

Western (or Echo) Azures are tiny butterflies that flutter by, flashing their brilliant upper wings. They are difficult to photograph in the air. When they land, these butterflies fold up their wings, showing only their white undersides. This azure, in our backyard on 23 April 2021, was an exception. These butterflies have an interesting life cycle. The larvae are cared for by ants, and the caterpillars may pupate in ant nests (Butterfliesandmoths.com). Echo Azures are found in western states from British Columbia to Baja California and are habitat generalists.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Black-necked Stilt

eBird is a large part of Erika and my birding. This computer application keeps track of the birds we see, even filling in the counties in which we see our quarry. The app is able to alert us when a bird we have not seen has been reported by other observers, and can give you directions on where to look. (eBird is also a tool for “citizen science,” although those words seem oxymoronic.) Erika and I are not good at chasing rare birds, but yesterday we did search for two Black-necked Stilts reported from the Nisqually national wildlife refuge—only 12 miles from home. Stilts have a patchy distribution across the western hemisphere. They can be tolerably common in eastern Washington, but, inexplicably, there are only several dozen records for the western part of the state. Finding rare birds at the refuge is often not difficult—all you have to do is look for the abundant birders.
Black-necked stilts wade in freshwater wetlands in search of crawfish, aquatic insects, snails, small fish, and frogs. Robinson et al. (2020) do not specifically mention dragonfly larvae, but I am sure stilts would also find them tasty. 
Stilts use a few hunting methods. This stilt plunged its head under water. This strike was successful, but I am not sure of the prey’s identity. Stilts can hunt by simply walking along with their heads and necks under water. Other stilts peck prey form the surface of the water or off muddy shores. Others snatch prey that attempt to fly away from the birds. Usually stilts find their prey by sight, but they can also hunt using tactile methods. Stilts can also hunt using scythe-like sweeps, swiping their bills sideways through the water or mud.