Mission: To promote the appreciation of wildlife and increase harmony between humanity and nature.

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Saturday, February 6, 2016

Easy Livin'

Lately, this beautiful pure-white egret has been living on houseboats in Portage Bay. Technically, the correct name for this species is a Great Egret. It stands over three feet tall, even though it weighs less than half as much as one of our local Great Blue Herons.

Like the heron, this bird loves fish. The placement of its eyes are obviously optimized for looking down on its prey. It certainly makes me feel nervous, and a bit sorry for the fish.

 The long legs, neck and especially the spear-like beak strongly resemble the heron.

It is however the stunning white feathers that confound my thinking. Many white birds like the trumpeter and tundra swans, snow geese and even snowy owls live around snow. Like many other birds they often come south in the winter. Great egrets normally spend their whole lives even further to the south - this is the first one I have seen in Seattle. The great egrets usually winter in the southern part of the U.S., Central America and apparently almost every place east of the Andes in South America. I wonder if climate change and the exceptional warm year in 2015 may have motivated this bird to visit Seattle for the winter? I also wonder why a bird would have pure white feathers when it so seldom near snow? 

I suppose one answer might be that the white feathers reflect away some of the Southern heat. Regardless of the reason, this egret certainly devotes a great deal of its time to maintaining its pristine plumage.

It alertly interrupts its cleaning anytime it hears a noise.

 However, it is seldom distracted for long.

The combination of a long neck and a long beak make for some oddly distorted twists and turns.

None-the-less, egrets do have a long-necked elegance, similar to a swan, except 
for the beak which provides a sharp "punctuation" at the end of the neck.

At first, I do not have a clue why the bird decides to move away from its comfortable perch in the sun.

The twisting and turning of the head alerts me to a fly-in-the-ointment. It is curious to see how the egret elevates its gaze as it keeps the fly in focus.

 As the egret tracks the fly, the bird's thin delicate structure is revealed.

 The fly tempts fate.

The egret debates whether the fly is worth the effort. I am not positive if the egret could actually catch a fly or not. However a couple of years ago, I did watch a great blue heron catch dragonflies - with about a fifty percent success rate.

 One last time the fly passes by.

At this point the fly disappears. Evidently, it made a safe get away since I never saw the egret swallow.

 Apparently the fly reminded the egret that it had an appetite.

 After a moment of careful consideration, the egret decided to return to a private dock...

... just behind Seattle's oldest houseboat, where a tiny strip of shoreline still exists. I suspect the reason the egret feels comfortable fishing at this location is in part because it is so seldom disturbed. 

Nature, just like the egret, does not need a lot of space to continue to live in our city, but it does require some sunlight, soil and a safe place to feed, which in this case is just ~15 feet of shallow water beside the shore.

The egret is not so picky about its roosting locations, they simply need to be elevated and have a nice view. It is important to remember nature does not see our city the same way we do.

It took the egret less than 10 minutes to fly a hundred yards, search the fifteen feet of shoreline, find a fish, capture it and...

...swallow it. 

Maybe heading north to Seattle, when most of its kin headed south, was motivated by plentiful food. Even if the fishing is not the reason the bird came to Seattle, there is no doubt that the easy living is a good reason to stay.

Have a great day on Portage Bay...where an egret is living in the city!


Parting Shots:

Harmony between humanity and nature may be...

...equally important to both parties.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

A Bathing Beauty

Thursday was gray, cloudy and wet. Around noon the rain let up. I headed to the Arboretum in hopes of finding a few birds to photograph. As the sun shone between the clouds, red-winged blackbirds sang and a robin bathed in the freshly fallen rain.

Students in a UW class on water quality pointed out this tree where they saw a pileated woodpecker. I quietly circled the tree without noticing any signs of Chip or Storm, two of our local pileated woodpeckers. 

A few days earlier I saw them working side-by-side in the same tree. They fed for awhile but when it came time to head home they each went in different directions. It made me think that maybe they were doing the woodpecker equivalent of dating. They do not appear to be spending their nights in close proximity.

A sudden flash of a bright red alerted me to the fact that Chip was working inside the decomposing tree once again. In this hidden back-water of Union Bay near Elderberry Island, the willow trees grow, fall and rot in the wetlands. Often what looks like a dead tree laying on the ground will sprout vertical branches that end up becoming a row of "new" trees growing side-by side. The willow and the decomposing alder in the area may look unkempt, but they are a critical feeding habitat for ants and bugs that the pileated woodpeckers, flickers, downy woodpeckers and others depend on for food. These messy looking spots are some of the most productive parts of our city's ecosystem.

Most of the time Chip was virtually invisible while feeding inside the tree. However every few seconds his head would pop up and he would check for any signs of danger. 

Whenever pileated woodpeckers excavate for food, other birds like this male flicker often come looking for leftovers.

When the flicker landed on the outside of the tree where Chip was working, Chip must have been alerted by the vibrations as he immediately came out and looked around.

The flicker relocated to a safe distance.

Once Chip was full, and most likely covered with a fine dusting of wood chips, he flew to the backside of reclining willow tree. Slowly, he hopped backwards down the side of the tree.

Chip spent a few moments in the water at the base of the tree. I suspected he was bathing, but the obscuring cluster of trees, branches and twigs made it hard to be sure. I would guess he picked this hidden location because it would be more difficult for earthbound-predators to approach him while he had his head in the water.

Afterwards, Chip climbed back up the tree with his feathers looking a bit damp.

Any doubt about whether he had been bathing evaporated when I saw this spray of water come off of his head.

Not having a bath towel, Chip used the moss to wipe away as much of the remaining water as possible.

He still ended up with a kind of damp, fresh-out-of-the-shower look.

His next stop was in a higher and more sunlit tree...

...where the preening and cleaning continued.

Chip must have spread his wings to dry them in the sun, but given the angle, all I could see were a few of his wing feathers hanging over the side of the branch.

Another flicker, a female this time, landed below him and started looking for food. 

She was clearly paying attention to Chip's every move. Chip may not have the rock star attitude of Elvis, the previous male pileated who used to spend time in the area, but the flickers that follow him around do seem to be forming a fan club.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where nature lives in the city!


PS: By the way, if you look very closely at the first photo, Chip's back in barely visible while his head is completely hidden inside the tree.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The World's Largest Swans

Once again, trumpeter swans have returned to Union Bay. 

A week ago I counted a total of fourteen swans. Seven had the pure white feathers of adults, and seven had the gray-brown coloring of juveniles. This was the first time I remember seeing an odd number of adults. During their regular winter visits, the adults usually arrive in pairs.

They can be spotted from shore, however they appear rather small in the distance. Be sure to bring binoculars or a scope. From Foster Island or the Waterfront Activities Center look to the northeast. From the eastern shore of the Union Bay Natural Area they are usually situated more directly to the east.

Swans often sleep during the day. With their heads down they look a lot like pillows laying on our low-lying, muddy-black islands. I would not be surprised if swans provided the inspiration for the first down-filled pillows. Those fluffy white feathers sure look soft and comfortable.

It is easy to imagine how a demure and elegant swan inspired Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake ballet

Their necks make the most mundane tasks,...

...appear refined and elegant.

Even the necks of juvenile swans hint at their future elegance. 

In this case, I believe the swan was simply waking up and stretching...

...however with a wingspan larger than that of a bald eagle...

...trumpeter swans are very impressive. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife says, "They are the largest waterfowl in North America and the largest swan in the world." They also credit the trumpeter with an eight foot wingspan. Not all sources agree, some state around six and a half feet, however I have also seen as much as a ten foot wingspan mentioned. I suspect that must be an exception, while six and a half feet is most likely the average.

On Monday, I watched a bald eagle swoop low over five resting trumpeter swans.  As the eagle descended - to pluck a fish from the water - the swans showed no signs of concern. They never even raised their heads. On average, the trumpeters are about twice the weight of a bald eagle, plus their wings are longer, stronger and heavier. I suspect their weight and wings are the primary source of their confidence. 

The five swans appeared to be a single family of two adults and three juveniles.

I spent most of the daylight hours simply watching them sleep. I was surprised to notice they did not feed at all. Since then, I have learned (please see the citation below) that they can feed at night as well as during the day. Maybe they prefer to sleep when it is warmer and to be active during the colder nights.

It is interesting to see the difference between this swan's primary and secondary feathers. The primaries are the swans longest wing feathers and, given their wing tip location and size, they are critically important feathers for flight. At this angle, the primaries have a watery blue tinge while most of the secondaries and coverts reflect a bright white light.

It is also interesting to see how white the underside of the juvenile wings are - especially when compared to their other feathers.

 I wonder if the ruffled look of the leading wing feathers has to do with new feathers still growing into place. 

Overall, I suspect a swan's neck is their most under-appreciated appendage. It is obvious that their necks allow them to harvest underwater food that is out of reach for ducks and geese, but it provides other benefits as well.

I think a swan's neck is actually most similar to human arm, given the variety of ways it is utilized.

 They can reach any and all areas of the body...

  ...for grooming... 

...and maintenance. 

The neck allows them to lift a mouthful of water, like we might lift a glass to our lips before swallowing the liquid.

The neck is also used in defense. When another swan gets too close, the irritated swan while strike out with the beak. If you watch you can see the head and neck coil back in preparation. The result is usually just a nip at the backside, but the offending swan moves briskly away, as if it has previously experienced pain in a similar situation. No doubt the strength of the neck adds a little extra bite to the strike.

Have you ever thought about the term, "Armed and dangerous." Why do we call someone who is carrying a weapon, "armed." Most people without weapons still have arms. I suspect the reason is because before firearms, the power of an assault came from the strength of the arm. A club or a rock intensified the damage, but it was the arm that made the attack possible. While wings on a swan may have originated from a similar source as our arms, I think it is their necks that have evolved to provide similar functionality.

 In case you did not notice it earlier...

 ...I wanted to point out the white eyelid on the juvenile, which closes to cover and protect the eye. In any case, beware of getting too close to the swans, not only does it disturb them and waste their energy but they are also...armed and dangerous.

Have a great day on Union Bay - where nature lives in the city!



Mitchell, Carl D. and Michael W. Eichholz. 2010. Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/105