Sunday, October 31, 2021


Dennis Paulson noted under my recent post on Dunlins that this sandpiper is a late fall migrant to Washington. They molt their wings in or near their breeding areas in the world’s Arctic regions before heading south. On 27 October 2021, Erika and I found a large flock of Dunlin resting in the grass at high tide. We estimated that 200 individuals were present, although this count could well be low. So focused was I on the sandpipers, I did not notice the Short-billed Gull loafing behind the Dunlin. Only later did I add the gull to my eBird list.

Friday, October 29, 2021

Common Merganser

22 October 2021 is a bit early for Common Mergansers to be courting, but that appears to be happening here. The species does court early, like the December before the upcoming breeding season. Pairs are presumed to be monogamous during any given season. Erika and I observed these two birds were among about a half-dozen birds off KGY Point north of Olympia. 

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Hooded Merganser

Off North Point in Puget Sound on the north edge of Olympia on 22 October 2021, Erika and I saw several Hooded Merganser. As I took photos of this male swimming by with its beak somewhat open, I hoped that I would be able to blog about mergansers' odd, serranted bills. You can ALMOST see these tooth-like structures, lacking in other ducks.  Some ornithologists argue against placing Hooded Mergansers in a separate genus from the other mergansers. In any event, all mergansers are closely related to goldeneyes.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021


Also present on Capitol Lake on 21 October 2021 were a few Canvasbacks. These ducks show fluctuating population numbers, with high numbers in wet years, and lower numbers during dry ones. Canvasbacks have also benefited from strict hunting regulations. Populations have increased since 1995, appearing to have recovered from a stretch of below average numbers from the late 1970s through 1995. We saw six Canvasbacks during our short census.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Ruddy Duck

In the crowd of newly arrived waterfowl on 21 October 2021 in Capitol Lake, the most interesting were two Ruddy Ducks. We have only observed a few in Olympia depsite Walt et al.’s (2005 assertion that Ruddy Ducks are locally common migrants in western Washington. Ruddy Ducks tend to float with their tails held at an upward angle. Ruddy Ducks are classified with a few other similar species around the world—all falling within a group called stiff-tailed ducks. Just how this group is related to other ducks is open to debate. Some ornithologists consider this group to be a sister group to all of the other ducks, Other researchers place stiff-tailed ducks within the greater assemblage of ducks.

Monday, October 25, 2021

American Coot

On a short stroll to Capitol Lake on 21 October 2021, Erika and I discovered that great numbers of coots have returned. We counted 40. The vanguard of a host of other waterfowl were also present—Ring-necked Ducks, American Wigeon, Canvasbacks, and Lesser Scaup,  among others. The photos I took are pretty, thanks to reflections of fall, bank-side foliage. A few of these images will appear in upcoming posts.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Eurasian Wigeon

Erika and I are always delighted when we spy an Eurasia Wigeon, like this one on 18 October 2021 at the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge. These ducks are abundant across the northern climes of the Old World, but, in the winter, are increasingly seen in Canada, the United States, and even northern Mexico. We find them every winter here in Olympia. This October bird is a bit oddly plumaged. I can find no similar photos or illustrations. Perhaps this is a young male or a male emerging from eclipse plumage. A hybrid with an American Wigeon is also a possibility. We took the second photo, of a more typical male, at the refuge on 12 March 2021.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Cackling Goose

During our most recent stroll at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 18 October 2021, Erika turned to me and said, “Look at all those Cackling Geese!” “Where?” I asked. “You don’t see them? They are right in front of you!” “Oh, wait, maybe I do. I thought they were clods of dirt on a newly plowed field…” Erika shook her head and mused, “No wonder I am doing most of the driving these days.” I did a quick estimate, and came up with 3,000 birds. Then another seven landed in the field. So I guess that would make 3,007. I called the refuge and asked them if my estimate was realistic. They patiently replied,  “At this time of year, 3000 birds is totally reasonable.” 

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Rufous Hummingbird

This Rufous Hummingbird image languished in my blog queue since 12 May 2012. Rufous Hummingbirds have departed Olympia for their west Mexican wintering grounds. They breed in the Pacific Northwest north to Alaska. As a result, Alaskan birds enjoy “a short breeding season but the longest day-length seen by any hummingbird” (Healy and Calder 2020).

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Red-winged Blackbird

Erika and I encountered a few female Red-winged Blackbirds at the Billy Frank Jr Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 18 October 2021. These blackbirds are one of the most common North American birds, so we were surprised that we had not listed the species since 3 August. Their absence is a mystery. Although migratory elsewhere, this bird should be present in our area all year. Red-winged Blackbirds owe their abundance to their nesting in large freshwater and saltwater marshes and prairies as well as near lakes, ponds and roadside ditches (Yasukawa and Searcy 2020). Red-winged Blackbirds even breed in urban and suburban habitats and in fallow fields. Most Interstate highway edges provide perfect habitat and facilitate the species’ spread. 

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Barred Owl 2

As I watched the Barred Owl in our backyard on 15 October 2021, and I reported on my last post, the bird preened, fluffed out its feathers, and violently shook its whole body. 

To my surprise, little information has been published on Barred Owl’s preening, stretching, or other aspects of self maintenance (Mazur and James 2021). I regret not having photographed the preening, which appeared to be typical of most birds, with the owl’s bill pulling at its flight and body feathers. I did catch the body-shaking behavior. The owl remained at its perch when the shaking was finished.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Barred Owl 1

On 15 October 2021 in the mid-afternoon, while doing house chores, I returned an empty trash barrel from our curbside. This endeavor is noisy. As I strolled out of the forest and into our front yard, I was surprised to spy a raptor fly along the forest edge and perch low in the outside edge of one of the Western Red Cedars. I abandoned my trash bin, ran into our house, and returned with my camera. The Barred Owl took little notice of me. Barred Owls seem to be fairly common in our woods, but we seldom see them in the day. More often we hear their calls during the night.
Barred Owls regurgitate pellets of fur and bones of their prey. I believe, however, that here I captured the owl’s yawning. Barred Owls apparently sleep much of the day. Captive owls sleep about a third of each hour between 5 am and 6 pm (Mazur and James 2021). Most spend their days roosting deep within tall trees. Finding this owl in the middle of the day at the edge of the tree was a surprise.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

American Kestrel

Falcons are another family of birds in systematic flux due to molecular studies—in this case, an American Kestrel on 1 October 2021 at the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge. Falcons were thought to be close relatives of hawks and eagles. In this new research, falcons cluster closer to screamers (large South American ground-birds) and parrots (Winkler et al. 2020). Most recently published books reflect this interpretation of these data.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Horned Grebe

About the only other bird of interest that Erika and I saw during our 9 October 2021 eBird Big Day Count was this Horned Grebe seen at Capitol Lake in Olympia. Red eyes found on many diving waterfowl apparently are not visible under a few feet of water. Apparently this adaptation makes the eyes hard for prey to see and thereby recognize the approaching predator. In the first photo, notice the individually webbed toes present on grebes. Grebes are not closely related to ducks. According to Winkler et al. (2020), grebes have traditionally thought to most closely related to loons. Recent studies, however, conclude that grebes and flamingos are each other’s closest relative. This conclusion is so surprising that many ornithologists have been slow to adopt the new classification.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Belted Kingfisher

After the Snow Goose counted on our 9 October 2021 eBird Big Day, a female Belted Kingfisher flew by and landed on a nearby pier piling. It so happens that fish over 10 centimeters are hard for kingfishers to swallow. After catching a fish, kingfishers often flies to a perch. There the bird pounds its prey by sidewise head movements. This behavior stuns the fish allowing the kingfisher to swallow the fish headfirst. Pounding may also break stickleback and bullhead spines (Kelly and Hamas 2020).

The white spots in these photos, by the way, are plumage patterns in front of the birds’ eyes. The birds apparently use these as sights that the kingfishers use to line up their prey with the tip of their bill. Birds whose white spots were painted black by researchers are unable to successfully hit their prey.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Snow Goose

A Snow Goose strolled by our parked car during our eBird Big Day on 9 October 2021. Erika waited in the car while I looked for birds along Puget Sound. “Look over here!” shouted Erika. “It looks like a Snow Goose!” “Yeah,” I replied, “A Snow Goose is going to be walking in a parking lot?” But the goose came out from behind a bush and walked across the tarmac. The bird appeared to be wild and uninjured. Snow Geese are super abundant in some parts of western Washington, but are seen less frequently here in Olympia. This goose was our first for the season this year for us. I thanked Erika for finding the bird by asking her “Why did the Goose cross the road” jokes for the rest of the day. I think she was glad to see the end of the eBird Big Day count.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Brown Pelican

Twice a year, eBird hosts a Big Day. This fall this event fell on 9 October 2021. When I last checked their website, over 32,000 observers around the world had contributed almost 76,000 checklists containing 7,103 species of birds for the day. In the old days, before computers, I always did a Big Day once a year in the spring. I was fanatical about it and usually totaled over 100 species. Now I am lazier, and try to contribute five checklists to the event. For Erika and me, this fall’s highlight are these six Brown Pelicans, common along the Pacific Coast but rare birds here in the south end of Puget Sound. Like Heermann’s Gulls, these pelicans have an odd range. Here in the United States' West Coast, they breed off central California before wandering north along the Pacific Coast in the late summer and fall. Then most turn around and head south for the winter. Those few that might remain in Washington do not breed here.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Varied Thrush

October is Varied Thrush month in Olympia. We banded this male on 10 October 2021 in our backyard. Varied Thrush are common permanent residents in western Washington. The situation is complicated. Before logging and urban development, these thrushes bred in the lowlands. Now that are mostly restricted to the mountains. Migration in “uncertain,” complicated by elevational movements during inclement weather. Wahl et al. (2005) report movements in mid or late September and larger influxes  in November or December. In our backyard, birds reappear in the spring. On top of that, populations fluctuate, with more birds present in some years than in others. Varied Thrushes also tend to wander in the fall and winter—to almost every state in the Union—but these vagrants may or may not find their way bvack to their breeding grounds in northwestern North America.


Monday, October 11, 2021

Song Sparrow

This Song Sparrow photo was taken at Lighthouse State Park near Westport, Washington, on 25 September 2021. Song Sparrows are one of the most variable North American songbirds. Up to 52 races of this species have been described, although only about 38 are recognized by the American Ornithological Society, the arbitrator of such matters. We thought this individual was paler overall, but with a much deeper chestnut tail than our Olympia birds. All, however, should be Melospiza melodia morphna.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Northern Pintail

One of our first Northern Pintail this fall, on 1 October 2021, was this rather regal hen. An early fall migrant, this duck arrives on wintering areas beginning in August. Note the hen's chestnut head and all-black bill. In many ways, she is as pretty as her mate, like the drake in the second photo from 4 March 2021. Pintails breed across the northern parts of both hemispheres. They winter from the Pacific Northwest and the southen United States to northern South America. Old World breeders winter in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, India, and southeast Asia. Erika and I found both of these ducks at the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge.

Friday, October 8, 2021

Western Red Twin-spot

A moth we assume to be a Western Red Twin-spot spent most of 2 October 2021 on one of our screen windows. This species is variably patterned and flies in the spring and in the fall. This month is found from British Columbia to California, east to Arizona and Utah. The larvae feed on begonia flowers of Begonia. It may not be coninsindental that this individual perched near Erika’s petunias. 

Thursday, October 7, 2021

New Editions of Dragonfly Books

I published new editions of my dragonfly and damselfly books. They are available in a variety of formats. The least expensive are PDF formats for $9.99. Follow these links if you are interested:

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Turkey Vulture

Erika and I spied three vultures high in the trees near the Billy Frank Jr. National Wildlife Refuge on 4 October 2021. We don’t see these birds often at the refuge. Perhaps these vultures spent the night. In any case, the highest perched vulture preened its neck while we watched and took photos. This behavior is described by Kirk and Mossman (2020) and is in response to irritation rather than to preening or bathing. I found this image a bit hard to decipher. The bird’s bill is open, and pointed fairly directly towards us. The front toe is working on the bottom of the vulture’s head, which is oriented sideways. The black dot opposite the toe is the vulture’s nostril.

Monday, October 4, 2021

Great Blue Heron

I post so many images of this species that I many have to change the name of my blog to Dan Tallman’s Great Blue Heron blog. These impressive birds allow birders close approach at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. On 1 October 2021, Erika and I observed this rather ragged-looking individaul. Like many other herons, Great Blues have a comb structure on their middle toe nails. When scratching its head, these birds erect their crest feathers, lower and twist their heads so that they can use their toe combs. They stand on one foot and usually lift one leg over a closed wing—but notice that this bird is clearly scratching with its leg under the wing. When the birds are done preening, they shake its head, body and tail (Vennesland and Butler 2020).

Most of the Great Blue Heron photos are of adults with their impressive streaming scapular manes. This bird is immature. A refuge sign indicates that in the refuge these herons breed in February. Note the lack of scapular plumes and the brown spots at the wing covert tips. I suspect this bird is in the middle of a yawn. I don’t think the bird had just swallowed a fish.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Heermann’s Gull

On Erika’s and my 1 October 2021 trip to the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge, we met another birder who pointed out a dark slaty gull out on the estuary mud flats. “It looks like an immature Heermann’s Gull,” commented our companion, “what with its pale forehead and white eye-ring.” We concurred with his identification. That this gull was a new county bird for us is kind of strange, since the species is common along the northern reaches of Puget Sound and along the Pacific Coast—eBird, however, only shows some dozen records for the very south end of Puget Sound. One reason for this distribution is that most Heermann’s Gulls breed in the Gulf of California (a few breed along the coast of southern California and northwestern Mexico), dispersing after nesting north as far as southwestern British Columbia. Then, in the spring, they migrate back south. This gull is named after Adolphus Lewis Heermann, a surgeon-naturalist who studied western birds in the 1800s. (While hunting birds, he died of a self-inflicted gun wound in 1865. He did suffer, however, from severe syphilis complications in his old age (Gruson 1972).)

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Cackling Goose

Over the past week, Erika and I read reports of Cackling Geese returning to Puget Sound. On 28 September 2021, we counted 170 of these small, Canada Goose-like geese at the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge near Olympia. These birds breed in arctic Canada and Alaska. They can be seen across the United States, but most winter along the Pacific Coast, the southern Great Plains, or the central Atlantic Coast. A few travel further south along the Gulf Coast of Mexico. According to Sibley (2014), the Cackling Goose’s flight call is distinctive in the Pacific Northwest—high pitched squeaking or yelping, unlike the familiar “honk” of a typical Canada Goose. 

On 1 October, we counted 50 Cackling Geese at the refuge. In this second photo, the Cackling Geese are joined by several Greater White-fronted Geese. The third photo is a close-up of a Greater White-fronted Goose that we photographed at the Tumwater Historical Park in Olympia on 17 March 2021. This last goose has a wide range across Arctic regions of the world. In our hemisphere, they mostly breed along the Pacific Coast and along the northwestern shores of the Gulf of Mexico.

Friday, October 1, 2021


On 25 September 2021 at the beach near Westport, Washington, Erika and I noticed that some of the shorebirds among the large flocks of Western Sandpipers were obviously larger birds. These new birds sported down-curved bills that were clearly relatively long—field marks of Dunlin. This shorebird breeds across the arctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere. In North America, they winter along the shores of the United States and Mexico. Birds along our Pacific coast are larger than other North American Dunlin. The population of these Pacific coast birds may exceed a half million individuals, but this number appears to be declining (Warnock and Gill 2020).