Thursday, September 30, 2021

Semipalmated Plover

Semipalmated Plovers are handsome little birds. Erika and I saw two at the edge of a large flock of Western Sandpipers on the beach near Westport, Washington on 25 September 2021. These plovers nest in northern Canada and winter along the coasts of the United States south to Argentina and Chile. Population estimates are that there are slightly over 200,000 individuals and their numbers appear to be stable (Nol and Blanken 2021).

Wednesday, September 29, 2021


Erika and I counted a dozen Sanderlings on the beach near Westport, Washington, on 25 September 2021. Most foraged by running on the sand at the edge of the incoming and outgoing waves. This sanderling slept among the large flock of Western Sandpipers I reported on yesterday. Instead of brown and white, non-breeding Sanderlings are clearly gray, black, and white. Sanderlings do not gather in such large flocks as many other sandpipers. The number of Sanderlings is unknown—there may be 300,000 in North America. Nevertheless, Sanderlings breed around the northern hemisphere’s arctic regions and can be seen “on almost any sandy beach, anywhere on the planet!” (Macwhirter et al. 2021).

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Western Sandpiper

During our 25 September 2021 beach walk near Westport, Washington, Erika and I listed few birds. An exception were Western Sandpipers. We estimated that we saw 400 above the high-tide mark along the beach. Over twice as many individuals might have been present. One key to identification is their reddish scapular (shoulder) feathers. Western Sandpipers are abundant migrants in western Washington, In some locations they are also common during the winter and they are uncommon in the summer. Western Sandpipers are one of the most abundant shorebirds in the Western Hemisphere, but breed only in western Alaskan and far-eastern Siberian tundra. Most winter along the Pacific Coast from British Columbia and Peru. Others winter from New Jersey to Venezuela. During migration, some stop-over locations host flocks of hundreds of thousands individuals—the total population is estimated to be 3.5 million birds (Franks et al. 2020).

Monday, September 27, 2021

Eccentric Sand Dollars and Blood Stars

On 25 September 2021, Erika and I took a spur-of-the-moment drive to Westport on the Pacific Ocean. The day was sunny and warm, with the weather forecast being for rain during the upcoming week. We do not have too many creatures to report—but any day at the beach is fun. We ended up walking along the beach, seeing little besides two Echinoderms—aka starfish. The first is probably an Eccentric Sand Dollar, Dentraster excentricus, found from Alaska to Baja California—eccentric because the pattern on the back is off-center. My understanding is that this species is the only one found in Washington and Oregon. The starfish may be a Pacific Blood Star—that is my best guess. These starfish is rebounding from near extinction from an unknown wasting disease that struck several years ago. They occur from Alaska to Mexico. Although Echinoderms show considerable variation, all are basically pentaramous, a trait they share with us Chordates. That trait along with aspects of their embryonic development indicate that, among the animals, echinoderms are our not-so-distant evolutionary cousins.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Savannah Sparrow

While I chased shorebirds on 17 September 2021 in Olympia, Savannah Sparrows fed among the rocks and in the grass along the Puget Sound shore. Over the years, at least 28 races of Savannah Sparrows have been named. Today about half of these subspecies are recognized. Molecular research suggests that a few of these races are actually separate, although similar, species—which is one reason why birders should pay attention to subspecies. I have shared the bottom photo before, which may be P. s. brooksi, the race that breeds in the Pacific Northwest. At this time of year, however, P. s. anthinus should be migrating through this area from Alaska or northern Canada. Most brooksi are smaller and paler than the northern race, but you really need them in hand to know for sure.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

European Mantis

While at Scatter Creek Recreation area on 21 September 2021, this European Mantis flew up and perched on a Scotch Broom. The mantis’s scientific name, Mantis religiosa, refers to the posture of the first pair of legs, which often look like the insect is praying. Female European Mantises eat their mates, after, during, and sometimes before copulation. Sexual cannibalism is not well understood. Perhaps females require extra nutrition, which the males may or may not be happy to provide. Males are attracted to well-nourished females. European Mantises are found around the world and presumably have been introduced to North America. Some were released in hopes of controlling various other insect numbers, but the mantis rarely becomes common enough to do much good (Wikipedia and 

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Western Bluebird

Scatter Creek Recreation Area is an upland prairie area about 20 miles south of Olympia. On 21 September 2021, Erika and I found a flock of a half-dozen Western Bluebirds feeding west of the parking area. Typical of the species, the birds perched on low branches and captured insects from the ground. The bluebirds then returned to their perches to consume their prey. As you can see in the last photo, birds often beat larger insects that have hard exoskeletons against the ground or on the bird’s perch. In the summer Western Bluebirds eat mostly insects—in the winter they switch to small fruits and some seeds. Studies show that Western Bluebirds enjoy a wide variety of prey items—crickets, like in these photos, grasshoppers, caterpillars, beetles, bugs, ants, spiders, wasps and bees, and a host of other arthropods. Snails and even lizards have also been reported as prey items (Guinan et al. 2020). 
Western Bluebirds look somewhat similar to their eastern relatives. They can be told apart by their blue, not chestnut, throats. Often Western Bluebirds sport chestnut backs, unlike the blue backs of Eastern Bluebirds.  

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Erika and I see Red-breasted Nuthatches all year at our bird feeders. This female—note her gray crown—visited on 17 May 2021. I keep hoping one of my banded nuthatches will appear somewhere else. Red-breasted Nuthatches breed from southern Alaska across central Canada to Laborador south through the Rocky and Allegheny Mountains. Northern birds appear to migrate in the fall. High elevation birds may migrate to lower elevations in the winter. Other populations seem to be year-round residents, with some individuals irrupting southward in alternating years. Ornithologists assume these flights are the result of varying food supplies on the breeding grounds. Curiously, no banding studies exist to demonstrate if migrating birds return to their nesting areas or if survival rates differ during irruption years (Ghalambor and Martin 2020).

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Great Blue Heron

This Great Blue Heron display long pectoral plumes. These feathers indicate age, as immatures become adults. Fully mature birds have feathers up to a foot long. No doubt the feathers advertise breeding fitness. Erika and I discovered this individual at the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge on 13 September 2021.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Short-billed Gull

This year ornithologists declared that the bird formerly known as the Mew Gull is actually two species—Short-billed and Common Gulls. Short-billed Gulls breed across Alaska and Northwestern Canada, south almost to the United States. Common Gulls breed across Eurasia, straying only occasionally to the New World. In the winter Short-billed Gulls migrate and are common residents along our Pacific Coast—a few stragglers remain in the summer. 

The problem is that the two species are extremely difficult to tell apart—“a very complex challenge” according to bird-identification guru, David Sibley. In his blog, Sibley says “there is a lot of variation and a lot of overlap, and you should not identify one of these gulls unless multiple features align with that identification.” Further complicating matters is that Common Gulls that stray to eastern North America are a different race and look different from Russian birds that might turn up in the West. 

Playing the odds, any of these gulls seen in the Pacific Northwest are almost certainly Short-billed Gulls. The gull in this photo, which I took on 17  September 2021 in Olympia, demonstrates this dilemma. The bill is plain yellow, lacking a distinct red spot—typical of Short-billed Gulls. But the head and neck are very pale and almost streaked rather than smudged on the back of the neck—a field mark of Russian races of the Common Gull.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

American Crow

I recently read a book with the premise that animals without names do not exist. What about small, Northwestern Crows? They used to have a name, but this year ornithologists merged them into American Crows. This deletion was a fairly long time coming, the result of various studies showing the two populations share a significant number of genes. In many areas of the Pacific Northwest, no pure American or Northwestern birds exist. The crow in these photos is curiously ruffled. I suspect this posture, like the sign, is meant to be aggressive—although I did not notice any nearby birds. Perhaps the crow was not happy about my taking photos. Erika and I encountered this American Crow at the Nisqually national wildlife refuge on 13 September 2021.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

American Pipit

Flocks of American Pipits greeted Erika and me at the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge on 13 September 2021. We counted 35 in two flocks, one near the refuge headquarters, the other in front of an increasing tide along the estuary boardwalk. We listed this species already this year in the subalpine meadows of Mount Rainier, where they breed. At lower elevations, they are migrants. I think I have pointed out before the long back claw on pipit toes. This feature is typical of ground-walking birds.
Erika and I returned to Nisqually on 16 September. The wave of migrants seemed to have dissipated. To our surprise, however, three pipits flew up and landed on the estuary boardwalk handrail. We usually do not see pipits perched on anything but the ground. These three birds proceeded to feed on the boardwalk itself. We wondered what the birds were finding to eat.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Blue-eyed Darner

A Blue-eyed Darner perched along our path at Capitol Lake in Olympia on 15 September 2021. We were able to closely approach it, even getting close-ups with our cell phone (although this image is with the regular camera). Blue-eyed Darners are common across western North America from British Columbia to northern Mexico east to Wisconsin and roughly the Mississippi River drainage. In Washington, this dragonfly flies from mid-June to mid-November.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Black Phoebe

On 14 September 2021, Erika and I searched for a Black Phoebe reported from Eagle Lake along the Chehalis Bike Trail near Olympia. I first saw this flycatcher there in January, but I am aware of no records all spring and summer—until a report sprung up last week on eBird. We had no difficulty finding the bird along the trail over the lake shore. We were even able to record its song— Black Phoebes are rare, but increasing, in Washington.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Bewick’s Wren

Notice that this Bewick’s Wren, visiting the feeder on 17 July 2021, is banded. Audubon described this species 200 years ago and named it after a British engraver, Thomas Bewick. This wren was common across much of the central and western United States. Today Bewick’s Wrens have almost disappeared east of the Mississippi and are declining in the West. Ornithologists are not sure what caused this downward trend. Perhaps the best guess is that increasing numbers of House Wrens have adversely affected Bewick's Wrens. Other hole-nesting species, such as starlings and House Sparrows, have also been accused of out-competing Bewick’s Wrens. Other researches point at agricultural pesticides and severe winters for causing the decline in wren populations (Kennedy and White 2020). 

Monday, September 13, 2021

Striped Meadowhawk

This photo is of a Striped Meadowhawk from our Olympia backyard on 23 July 2021. Erika and I have listed 11 species of dragonflies and damselflies from this location. Calculating such a report is fairly easy with Odonata Central, a citizen science effort initiated by John Abbott, now of the University of Alabama. Assuming that you submit your records to this site, keeping tabs of your data is no trouble—so far I have 588 records. In my earlier years chasing dragonflies, unfortunately, I only entered my more noteworthy records. Now I am making an effort to submit records from every dragonfly encounter. The result is my being able to generate lists and also to my contributing to our overall understanding of dragonfly distribution—both over time and location.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Wood Duck

A splash of Wood Duck color at the McLane Creek Nature Trail on 10 September 2021 got Erika and me wondering about the distribution of this duck across the year. Sometimes we don’t see this duck there, other times, like this day, they are abundant. Exploring eBird proves that Wood Ducks are seen frequently at McLane Creek all year. Apparently our personal lack of records from November to February is due to our own faulty observational skills. This photograph shows an immature male in front of an adult male.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Common Whitetail

Erika and I photographed this Common Whitetail on 10 September 2021 at the McLane Creek Nature Trail near Olympia. This dragonfly is common across much of North America, including lower elevations of Washington. This species flies from 15 April to 2 October in this region (Paulson, pers. com.) The Common Whitetail’s scientific name is Plathemis lydia. According to Paulson and Dunkle (2021), Plathemis refers to both the flattened abdomen and to Themis, the goddess of order. Lydia refers to an unknown woman, perhaps from Roman antiquity.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Common Green Darner

Common Green Darners are common migrating dragonflies across most of the continent, They winter in California and Texas into Mexico. Not all migrate—some northern individuals overwinter as larvae in local lakes (Paulson 2009). Like other Darners, Common Green Darners can be difficult to photograph as they fly randomly about. Darners can even be hard to photograph when they cryptically perch in the vegetation. This individual, however, flew right up and perched in front of Erika and me at the Billy Frank Jr Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 9 September 2021.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Salmon and Dipper

A banner in downtown Olympia proclaimed, “The salmon are back!” We saw dozens of salmon, probably Coho, in the Deschutes River. A salmon flying above Tumwater Falls amazed us. Further up the river, we saw salmon having somewhat more success leaping over a smaller dam. I have mentioned in a previous post that fish hatchery workers tend to cut the adipose fins off the salmon they release. Because these salmon lack those fins behind their dorsal fins, one can conclude that this population is introduced to the river.
Brewery Park at Tumwater Falls on the Deschutes River is also where we look for American Dippers. We don’t always find them along the river, but we did on 8 September 2021, while we were salmon watching. The yellow bill suggests this dipper is a young bird.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Pacific Dampwood Termite

I don’t think I’ll clean the spider webs from our house windows. They have been catching flying termites—Pacific Dampwood Termites, Zootermopsis angusticollis. Fortunately these termites live in wet wood. Usually they only damage homes where wet wood is in contact with wet ground. These termites are found from southern British Columbia to California, Idaho, and western Nevada. Colonies do not usually move to new locations. When a colony gets big, however, swarms of about 50 termites fly in search of wet, rotten wood (Wikipedia).

Monday, September 6, 2021

Black Saddlebags

Black Saddlebags are named for the black splotches at the bases of their hind wings. Erika and I found this one at Capitol Lake on 2 September 2021. I am sure we’ve seen this species there in previous years. Earlier saddlebags never perched, so we lack photographs. This individual proved to be quite cooperative, repeatedly returning to the same nearby shrub. Black Saddlebags are common in the Columbia River Basin, where we previously photographed them, but they are local in western Washington lowlands (Paulson 2020, The Dragonflies (Odonata) Of Washington, unpublished manuscript). This migratory dragonfly is also found across most of the United States south through Mexico.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

European Starling

European Starlings are strikingly plumaged birds, even though all of them are descended from about 100 individuals released in Central Park in 1890 and 1891 in an effort to introduce to New York all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare. Now at least 200 million starlings are found across almost all of North America. Erika and I took this photo at the Nisqually national wildlife refuge on 9 August 2021. One problem is that starlings out-compete native, cavity nesting species. Starlings are native to Europe and Asia, but are also introduced elsewhere (although not part of the Shakespeare project)—see the eBird distribution map below—including parts of Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, the West Indies, and South Africa. South Africa surprises me, since that country contains many colorful native starling species. 

Saturday, September 4, 2021

California Spreadwing

On 2 September 2021, Erika and I strolled around Capitol Lake in Olympia and we spied several California Spreadwings. This species is another late-flying odonate. Note that this damselfly perches with its wings held out, rather than closed above its body. This spreadwing is found from northern Washington south to Baja California and Sonora.

Friday, September 3, 2021


Erika and I found ourselves at the Bill Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge on 31 August 2021. An Osprey soared overhead. These fish-eating raptors breed in Washington and across much of northern North America and Europe across central Asia to the Asian Pacific Coast. Ospreys winter in Cebtral and northern South America, Africa, India, southeast Asia, and Australia. Bierregaard et al. (2020) calculate that, since Ospreys live up to 20 years, they may well fly, in their lifetimes, over 124,000 miles.

Thursday, September 2, 2021

Orb Weaver

I suspect this web belongs to an orb weaver. The species may be the Cross Orb Weaver, the most common orb weaver in western Washington. In any case, the spider sits in the middle of the web until it catches prey, which the spider wraps in silk until the prey dies. Then the spider consumes its victim. This orb weaver lay in wait at the Woodard Bay Preserve, northeast  of Olympia, on 25 August 2021.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Book Review: Loon Lessons

 Loon Lessons. James D. Paruk. University of Minnesota Press. 2021. 222 pp. Hardbound. $24.95.

A plethora of loon biology is to be learned in these pages. Some examples include why loons are closely related to penguins and why loons and cormorants look so different if they compete in similar habitats. Topics such as these are discussed in an evolutionary framework, opening a door to evolutionary theory and how biologists think.

Anyone remotely interested in loons or birds in general will love this book. Although written by a renowned ornithologist, the style is folksy almost to a fault. Some of the author’s personal narrative could have been omitted—it seems irrelevant that Paruk grew up watching Wild Kingdom or that he pinched himself with delight during an Arctic field trip. Instead of footnotes and scientific citation, each chapter ends with a list of further reading.

At first, I was taken aback by the casual writing. Perhaps this style will lure lay readers into the wonderful world of loons, but after only a few pages, I realized this is a really great book. Loon Lessons is an enjoyable summary of loons. Once you get used to his style, Paruk covers a lot of loon biology--evolution and physiology, loon anatomy, communication, behavior, migration, ecology, and conservation. My only disappointment in the book is the sparsity of Illustrations. Only a dozen small, color photos are included in the center of the book. A few small, black-and-white diagrams, maps, and photos pepper the text. On the other hand, if someone wants to see more loons, there is always the Internet or trips to the North Woods.

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