Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawks breed across Canada and the United States, south through Mexico and Central America. Northern populations are migratory. These hawks are extremely variable across their huge range—at least a dozen races are currently recognized. But the situation is confused by individual variation—Red-tailed Hawks come in dark, light, and intermediate morphs. Generally in the US and Canada, western birds are much darker than eastern ones. Eastern birders sometimes don’t even recognize western hawks. This Red-tailed Hawk, found by Erika and me on 23 November 2021 at the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge, is an example of a dark, western race. It is an intermediate-colored morph.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Townsend’s Warbler

On 20 November 2021, Erika and I banded this Townsend’s Warbler. We have them in our backyard all year, except for June, July and the first half of August. This absence is strange because the bird should be found in Olympia all year. Wahl et al. (2005) write that Townsend’s Warblers breed in conifer-dominated forests, so perhaps the fragmented woods here in suburban Olympia falls short of the warblers’ breeding-habitat requirements.

Friday, November 26, 2021

American Kestrel

On 24 November 2021, along the northern end of the Challis Bike Trail, Erika and I photographed a pair of American Kestrels. The female behind the male is clearly larger than her mate. Larger females are typical of raptors. Northern females are typically 10 to 15% larger than their mates. This size difference may reduce aggression and competition between the sexes. Females have larger hunting ranges and take larger prey than males.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Eared Grebe

On 21 November 2021, Erika and I photographed an Eared Grebe in Olympia’s Capitol Lake. This species can be hard to tell from an Horned Grebe. Note the relatively small head, black neck, dark ear feathers (auriculars), lack of a white tip to the bill, the somewhat rounded body, and the peaked crown above the eye—all field marks that add up to Eared Grebe. This species is abundant around the world—western North America, northern Europe, Siberia, China, the Middle East, and Africa. In eastern Washington, Eared Grebes are common in the summer, but they are uncommon in the western part of the state. Most Eared Grebes leave Washington in the winter.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Autumn Meadowhawk

This Autumn Meadowhawk surprised Erika and me at the Nisqually national wildlife refuge on 23 November 2021. I am not sure when we last saw a dragonfly. These meadowhawks are the last to fly in the fall. This record is almost the latest on record for Washington. Dennis Paulson writes that, in the past, he saw one at Nisqually on 4 December.

Monday, November 22, 2021


This Canvasback pair greeted Erika and me at Olympia’s Capitol Lake on 18 November 2021. These ducks’ “ski-sloped” bills and foreheads are clearly evident in this image. Recently I wrote that Canvasbacks appear to be recovering from recent low numbers. Daught and hunting pressure apparently caused this decline. In my photography, I often try to capture waterfowl in pairs.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Double-crested Cormorants

On 18 November 2021, Erika and I took this image of an immature Double-crested Cormorant along Olympia’s Capitol Lake. I was on the lookout for this species, since recently I wrote about the Puget Sound’s other two cormorants. Double-crested Cormorants are abundant here, but their beauty always surprises me. As breeders, migrants, or winter visitors, these cormorants are found across the United States, coastal Canada and Mexico. Cormorants have always been thought to be related to pelicans, but recent molecular studies suggest that the pelicans are actually more closely related to herons and egrets (Dorr et al. 2021).

Friday, November 19, 2021

Bonaparte’s Gull

On 15 and 18 November 2021, Erika and I found Bonaparte’s Gulls at Olympia’s Capitol Lake. These small gulls are handsome birds with bouncy, almost tern-like flight. Bonaparte’s Gulls are locally common migrants in western Washington, as they are across most of North America, but we see them infrequently. Recent DNA work indicates that these birds, although clearly gulls, are not closely related to the larger, white-headed gulls in the genus Larus—they are now placed in the genus Chroicocephalus. In any event, this gull is named after Charles Lucien Bonaparte, an ornithologist at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences in the 1820s.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Brandt’s Cormorant

On 16 November 2021, I wrote that Erika and I do not see Brantd’s Cormorants very often here in Olympia. That very day we found one perched on a large channel marker in Puget Sound off KGY Point. Actually this structure is where we see Brandt’s Cormorants, when wee see them at all. I wondered how the habitat requirements for this cormorant differ from the other two local species. Although all three cormorants can be seen together, Brandt’s prefer deeper water, whereas Pelagic Cormorants tend to feed in more shallow areas, and Double-crested is the only species found inland (NPS). Brandt's Cormorants’ throats become bright blue during breeding season.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Pelagic Cormorant

On 13 November 2021, Erika and I took a short (but dry) stroll to the Woodard Bay Natural Area in search of new birds for our November eBird list. The area is interesting. Once it was a logging center, where timber was floated in on Puget Sound and transferred to train to the greater Olympia area. The area is incredibly beautiful, and guarded by Mt Rainier, forested shores, and an abandoned pier surrounded by pilings that used to secure the floating timber. At one time or another, we have listed all three of the local cormorants here: Double-crested, Brandt's, and Pelagic. Huge numbers of Double-crested Cormorants nest along the Puget Sound bays here. This day we had no problem finding Double-crested and Pelagic cormorants perched on the pilings. We have only found Brandt’s Cormorants a few times here. This Pelagic Cormorant is perched on a bird box that Purple Martins use during the summer.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Tundra Swan

Erika and I heard these Tundra Swans before they flew overhead on 8 November 2021 at the Billy Frank Jr Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. I think I am correct in our identification. If you look closely, the black eyes of these birds are clearly visible against the white sides of their face. A Trumpeter Swan has the eyes more hidden by a black background. Further, the black edge of the bills appears to run straight down, rather than angle towards the front of the bill. This straight line is another field mark of Tundra Swans. These swans are locally common in the northern areas of Puget Sound, less so here in the south, They breed in western Alaska. 

Friday, November 12, 2021

Questionable Stropharia

At the McLane Creek Nature Trail, on 9 November 2021, Erika found a stand of unfamiliar fungus. iNaturalist identified it for us as Stropharia ambigua—the Questionable Stropharia. The name is due to its difficult identification. This species is common in leaf litter and wood chips, usually under conifers in western Washington and in western North America. This fungus grows in cool, damp habitats. Apparently it is less common further east. Experts question if Questionable Stropharia are edible and generally conclude “mistakes can be serious.” They are similar to a number of hallucinogenic and/or dangerously toxic species. Furthermore, apparently people vary in their reactions upon eating this mushroom. The general consensus is that “it’s best to leave this one off the plate” (Healing-mushrooms.net).

Thursday, November 11, 2021


A few Redheads were reported at Capitol Lake the week before Erika and I found this duck on 9 November 2021. Olympia is the only place where we have seen fewer Redheads than the similar looking Canvasback. Redheads have a more typical duck profile, while Canvasbacks sport a “ski-slope” shaped forehead and bill and have a much paler back. This record is only our third that we have seen in Washington. Wahl et al. (2005) consider the Redhead to be an uncommon migrant and rare breeder in western Washington. The other birds in this photo are Ring-necked Ducks.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Ring-billed Gull

During our last visits to the Billy Frank Jr Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, Erika and I noticed Ring-billed Gulls’ diving for prey. These photos are from 8 November 2021. I’m sure we’ve seen this behavior before, but not to the extent observed this year. Its almost like the gulls took a correspondence course on diving like a tern, The gulls hover, turn, and power dive, flying into the water. I’d give them a B in their course—they are not as elegant as a tern diving, and they didn't submerge completely under water. But the gulls do get the job done, since they appeared to be successfully catching small fish, Ring-billed Gulls usually stroll for their prey on dry land or swim when they are in the water. Pollet et al. (2020) apparently do not mention, in Birds of the World, diving in these gull.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Fox Sparrow

Finally a day without rain—8 November 2021! Erika and I celebrated with a morning’s stroll in the Billy Frank Jr National Wildlife Refuge. A Fox Sparrow greeted us. Fox Sparrows are relatively uncommon birds at our backyard feeders, but they are secretive and we seldom see them elsewhere. The dark Fox Sparrows in the Pacific Northwest look quite different from Eastern birds. They look like different species, and further genetic studies may prove that what we call Fox Sparrows are actually three or four distinct species. Birders new to the West often have trouble separating Fox from Song sparrows, Song Sparrows here are also very dark birds which are almost the same size but which usually show more of a facial pattern. Song Sparrows, however, sport unicolored, dark bills. 

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Pine Siskin

From New Years Day through 27 June 2021, I banded 244 Pine Siskins. This photo was taken on 6 May. Except for a few last month at the Nisqually Refuge, I have not seen a siskin since. I wonder where they are now. Siskins last spring were starving and many died from Salmonellosis, a highly contagious bacterial disease. I released unbanded obviously sick birds. Two or three of my banded birds were recovered in Olympia, but not from more distant locations. During my 25 years of banding in Aberdeen, South Dakota, I banded 13,239 Pine Siskins, more than any other single species and, despite their being absent during some winters. Two recoveries illustrate their nomadic nature--one banded in Aberdeen on 10 March 1985 was found in Connecticut on 11 March 1988; another Aberdeen siskin, banded on 12 December 1992 was recovered near San Francisco, California, on 5 January 1995.

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Bald Eagle

November has brought a lot of rain to the Pacific Northwest. Erika and I ventured out during a lull on 3 November 2021 to the forest in southern Mason County a few miles east of Olympia. We did not bring the camera in the rain, but did manage a cell phone photo of two eagles perched high above a stream. Dead and dying fish are preferred by eagles, which, around here, commonly congregate around salmon streams. Although opportunistic foragers, and not adverse to taking birds or mammals—dead or alive—Bald Eagles prefer fish. 

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Brown Creeper

Brown Creepers are tiny songbirds that have evolved to behave somewhat like woodpeckers. They crawl up tree trunks, all the while supported by their stiff tails. Erika calls them tree lice. They are not closely related to woodpeckers. They have three toes forward and one back, like most songbirds. Instead of pounding on tree trunks, they glean small arthropods from under the bark and among the other plants growing on the trees. The creepers were traditionally allied with the chickadees and nuthatches. Genetic studies suggest creepers and nuthatches are most closely related to wrens and gnatcatchers (Poulin et al. 2020). Eleven species of creepers are known, but only Brown Creepers are found in the New World. Erika and I found this creeper at the Nisqually national wildlife refuge on 2 November 2021.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Western Grebe

Erika found me three Western Grebes on 1 November 2021 at KGY Point in Olympia. We have seen only a few Western Grebes in Olympia. Local birders tell us that for the pst 30 years Western Grebe numbers have fallen significantly. This observation is supported by LaPorte et al. (2020) who write that the Puget Sound area has witnessed major declines of these birds from the 1970s to 2007—like up to 90% for wintering populations. Fortunately, during this same time, winter numbers have increased along the California coast.

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Black Scoter

We enjoyed two birding adventures this week. On 29 October 2021 we finished house cleaning and ran out to Capitol Lake in Olympia. We did not see many birds. We did meet  two birders, a high school student and his grandfather. They confirmed the lack of exotic birds, but mentioned that they were on their way to look for a Black Scoter at KGY Point, jutting out into Puget Sound about a mile from Capitol Lake. When we finished our walk, Erika said, “I suppose you want to look for the scoter.” She needed to ask?

Several birders patrolled the point, including the two birders we just met. “Have you found the scoter?” I asked. “Yes, it is with the Surf Scoters about a quarter-mile away between two buoys.” Even from that distance, the white cheek patches and sides to the neck on the Black Scoter were distinct. In the first photo, the Black Scoter is on the left—a Surf Scoter is to the right. This is the second Black Scoter I have seen in Olympia. This large duck is common enough in the ocean, but is encountered less often in the sound or further east in Washington.

Monday, November 1, 2021

American Avocet

A birding adventure—American Avocet. Last Wednesday, 27 October 2021, Erika and I took a break from the rain and walked in the Billy Frank Jr Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. There we introduced ourselves to the leader of the weekly bird walk, led by a near neighbor to us. We did not join the walk, since they spend 7 hours in the field and go a whole lot slower than we do. We were frustrated to learn that the birders found an American Avocet about an hour after we met them, close to the estuary boardwalk, where we had walked and seen nothing.

Then Washington enjoyed an atmospheric river pass through, but reports of an avocet at the refuge continued to appear. So on Saturday, 30 October, we ventured back, specifically to try to see the avocet. The day was cold, beautiful, but very windy. We stopped in the area where the bird had been seen but saw nothing. The tide was low—previous reports were from periods of high tides. Nothing. Being Saturday, the refuge was fairly crowded. An obvious birder walked by with a scope on his shoulder.  I asked sarcastically, "Seen any avocets lately?" He replied, "Yes, right in front of you, among those three Ring-billed Gulls about a third of a mile across the estuary." We would NEVER have seen it on our own.

As you can see, avocets are stunning birds (even more so in the summer, when they sport orange heads and necks). The use their upturned bills to scythe the water surface for various aquatic invertebrates.  They also jab and probe for small fish and seeds. The species is unexpected in western Washington, were it is considered to be a rare, local migrant. Although the species is an uncommon breeder in eastern Washington, this observation was our first in the state.