Mission: To promote the appreciation of wildlife on and around Union Bay and a higher level of harmony between humanity and nature.

(It is fine for educators and artists to use any of the photos on this blog as long as when publicly displaying the photo or related artwork the following comment is included, "The original photo sourced from http://unionbaywatch.blogspot.com".)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Specialist

Some creatures survive because, like humans, they are generalists. They can do a number of different things quite well. For instance they can catch a variety of prey. This can come in handy when there is a shortage of one prey, they can simple switch to the next item on the menu.

However there are also creatures who are specialists and focus on a single food source, to the exclusion of almost all others. They fill a niche. A predatory niche aimed at a specific type of prey. These specialists usually have unique skills that allow them to procure their prey with a greater success rate than a generalist. One of the following three birds is a specialist. Do you know which one?

 A) A Cooper's Hawk 

B) An Osprey

C) A Bald Eagle

Please make your choice before proceeding.


This week an Osprey decided to try hunting on the south side of Union Bay. It landed on top of a relatively small snag on Oak Point just north of the mouth of Arboretum Creek. The Osprey is a specialist. Its primary prey is fish. Cornell says Cooper's Hawks will eat many types of birds, and in our area they eat small mammals as well. Bald Eagles will eat birds, mammals, fish and most likely any other creature they can catch (or steal).

One would think that a bird who focuses on fish would not be considered much of a threat by other birds, but this is not the case. In the photo on my masthead you can see an Osprey being chased away from Duck Bay by one of a number of Crows. That photo was taken in April when the Crows were nesting, so they may have been especially nervous. 

Nesting time for Crows has passed, but that did not stop our current Osprey from being harassed. Before the Osprey even landed, this Kingfisher began circling and calling with enough noise to the alert anyone one within earshot. Maybe the Kingfisher was angry because it did not want the competition. 

It makes one wonder why the concern, since Osprey would never catch the small little fish the Kingfishers eat. Basically the Osprey only catches fish that are around the size of the Kingfisher. Maybe the Kingfisher was really more concerned about its reputation.

Nearby, a Robin began a constant strident call for the duration of the Osprey's visit and soon a Stellar's Jay joined in. A Crow flew over, but surprisingly it simply ignored the Osprey. 

The Osprey, however, kept a watchful eye as the Crow passed by.

On the flip side, this modified Mallard kept a close eye on the Osprey as it and its mate passed underneath the Osprey's perch.

The Osprey's focus quickly returned to peering into the water in search of passing fish. The Osprey's special skills include diving feet first into the water, and going as much as three feet below the surface. The Eagle, on the other hand, normally only catches fish that are near the water's surface. Cornell also says the Osprey have a reversible toe which allows them to grasp with two talons on each side of their slippery prey. 

After an hour of patiently waiting and watching, the Osprey finally decides to make its move. By the way, it is interesting to note the color difference between the top of the Osprey and the underside. I suspect that when looking down on an Osprey which is flying over the water or land, the darker color is hard to pick out, while looking up at an Osprey circling against the sky, the lighter color is more difficult to see. This same dark and light pattern can be found on trout and salmon as well, most likely for the same reason.

One exception is the dark portion of the wing that is the furtherest forward in this photo. That area is referred to as the wrist. 

It is fun to try and imagine how the bones of the wings are actually structured in a pattern similar to our arms and hands.

At the last moment, the Osprey threw its feet forward and dived into the water. Sadly this happened behind a branch and out of sight. Much more sadly for the Osprey, it came up empty before heading back to the north side of Union Bay.

The Osprey are migratory birds, and in the next month or two they will be heading south. So if you would like to watch them in action, you should get out on the water as soon as possible. Some Osprey actually winter as far south as Argentina and Chile. In order for them to make a journey of that length, I suspect they must find food all along the way.

In parting, here is a photo, from two years ago, of a nest near the Ballard Locks. When we visited the nest earlier this month, it appeared to be empty. This made me wonder if a lack of fish is to blame.

If you are interested in protecting the Osprey's food sources, as well as our own, you may want to read this story published in the Seattle Times. Reverse decline of marine birds.

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


Friday, August 8, 2014

The World's Largest Hummingbirds?

Last week while walking through the Arboretum, one of this year's young Pileated Woodpeckers flew past calling loudly. It was apparently chasing after its parents. It became too hard to follow the mostly black bird as it wove its way among the fir trees. However a few minutes later, a rhythmic knocking near the base of a Douglas Fir provided a new location. The young bird was sitting just below her mother, apparently waiting for the mother to find her food.

A close look at the young bird showed the two distinctive marks just behind the eye that identified her as Marie, the same female bird we saw in the nest back in June. 

(To see the photos from the nest click on the following links: In the Nest Leaving the Nest)

Marie followed her mother, Priscilla, from the Douglas Fir to a Big-Leaf Maple where they nearly caught up with her father, Elvis. Notice that Priscilla is wider and heavier than Marie, her top knot is a brighter red and her eyes are red as well.

Elvis, with his yellow eyes and red malar stripe, leads the way to large pink blossoms in a nearby Magnolia. The blossoms were huge, maybe as much as 10 inches across. Acting more like a hummingbird than a Pileated Woodpecker Elvis fluttered, crawled and leaped among the leaves to get to the blossoms. It was impossible to determine whether he was eating nectar from the flower or some small insect that was attracted by the nectar. 

In either case his example was all Priscilla needed.

She dove in among the magnolia blossoms and...

…somehow found room to almost hover during her approach.

Marie did her best to get to the blossoms…

…but it seemed to require a bit more coordination than she could muster. (While I must admit that these are not the world's largest hummingbirds it was the most surprising behavior I have ever seen by Pileated Woodpeckers.)

After awhile, the exertion apparently tired them out and Elvis led the way back into the fir trees.

A few days later a single young Pileated Woodpecker was spotted prospecting for food near the base of another Douglas Fir. Later, by comparing the bird (in the photo) to distinctive marks on the tree, the length of this bird was estimated to be about 12 1/2 inches. This seemed odd since in the earlier photos Marie was nearly as long as her mother and full grown Pileated Woodpeckers are usually between 16 to 19 inches. 

Due to the loss of feathers just behind the eye it was impossible to tell if this was Marie or her sister Lisa. However given the apparent size difference, the much more ragged & tattered look of this bird and the fact that it was feeding alone, it all makes one wonder if it is not one of Elvis and Priscilla's offspring. (By the way did you notice the ant stuck in the white feathers below and behind the eye?)

Photographically, it is interesting to look at the same bird in the same location, but from a slightly different angle so that the background changes.

I suspect I saw this same bird a few weeks ago. It was high in a snag around dawn and I had no way to determine its size, until a crow came and set down nearby. I was shocked to see that the two birds were virtually the same size. In any case, with the missing feathers behind the right eye this bird should be easy to identify with binoculars or a scope. I am thinking we should call her Pee-Wee. Please let me know if you spot her. Both of my sightings were between the mouth of Arboretum Creek and the Stone Bridge near the Tot Lot.

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


Friday, August 1, 2014

The Easy Life

Imagine you are a bird of prey sitting silently in the early morning sun. Your eyesight is very keen, your hearing does not miss a sound, your wings are broad and strong, your talons are sharp and your tail is adapted to help you fly between the branches of the forest. Best of all your camouflage allows you to hide in plain sight (Did you spot the bird in the photo?) and…

...there are plenty of tasty creatures…

...wandering through your favorite hunting ground. How could life be easier? Certainly this must be...The Easy Life.

Here is a close up (from the first photo) showing this week's candidate for first place in the easy life competition. However before we vote let's take a little closer look into the life of this particular Cooper's Hawk.

First of all sitting just overhead in the same tree is the dark shadow of a crow (with a rather odd shaped beak). The crow is keeping an eye on you but it is not chasing you like it would an eagle or a red-tailed hawk. It is not that a crow never chases a Cooper's Hawk but there is a certain level of respect. The birds are somewhat similar in size and agility and the Cooper's is a much more effective predator so the crow is not so loud and annoying as it is with larger birds.

Closer at hand a much smaller and more agile creature sneaks up behind you. 
(Can you find the second creature?)

Hidden among the cones behind your head the hummingbird watches your every move.

In fact the fearless little bird flies around right in your face as if to say, "Mess with me and you will get an eyeful of hummingbird!"

Still the most irritating creature is the loud, noisy robin that keeps flying from branch to branch and stridently calling to the whole world as if to say, "Look, look a hungry bird of prey is in my tree!" All the while it stays just out of reach. 

However it is not just you that is hungry. In the nearby trees are your three young.

It is true that they are bright, attentive and are learning to hunt. (Did you notice the difference in eye color between the adult and the young bird?)

It is also true that sometimes they just rest in the shade… 

…but most of the time they sit and call for food. It is no wonder that they look nearly perfect. Every feather is shiny and new with no signs of wear to be seen.

Your wrinkled and worn feathers are obvious around your head, so who can blame you if you sometimes shut your eyes to all that surrounds you.

Still at the sound of potential prey you are alert and ready to fly.

Sadly there are still a couple of other challenges that you must deal with. 

First there is the growth on the talon of your right foot. It must get in the way when you go to grab your prey but somehow you have learned to compensate. You and your young are proof of that. 

Finally, without your vote, a new paved bike trail is planned and approved to run right through the middle of your favorite hunting ground in the Arboretum. Maybe your life is not so easy after all.

Note: It might be less expensive and easier for nature if the bikes just used the existing Arboretum Drive which is paved, closed to automobiles and parallel to the planned bike path. Just a thought.

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


Parting Shots:

Near by this bushtit fluttered about the ocean spray. It stopped a moment as if to say...

…"What? You want me to stop and pose in the sunlight!"

"Oh all right! But your better get your photo quick" it seemed to say as it came to rest on a small alder branch.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Duckling Dreams

Imagine the innocence of a duckling's dream. Having only lived a short while, during which the world was full of sunshine and juicy little bugs, what else is there to want?

A few minutes earlier this little one had been following its mother among the lily pads.

When mother stopped to rest on a nearby log our duckling decided it was bath time.

The dreaming came just after the bathing and preening. A few moments later the young one decided it needed a little more protection.

It is hard to imagine a more secure situation.

Although occasionally it may become necessary...

... to remind her of your exact location.

You can almost hear the mother saying, "Sorry I was just trying to stretch a bit."

"Ah! Now that feels better!"

After all the excitement a bit more resting is required.


…the slightest sound brings the mother to full alertness.

However in the end they both get to catch a little shut eye. It is curious how nature works. The mallard ducklings have been out and about for as much as two months and are now nearly as large as their parents. On the other hand gadwalls, like these, seem to have waited much later to lay their eggs. Right now it seems like 9 out of every 10 young ducklings on Union Bay are gadwalls. It makes one wonder, Why? Is this a way for the young ducklings to have less competition for duckling food? Are the mallards just better adapted to handle some occasionally cold weather? or Are the mallards just more flexible and change their egg laying time depending on the weather?

Even among gadwalls there can be a lot a variation in reproduction. The photos above were all of a mother with a single duckling.

On Wednesday evening my wife and I spotted this female gadwall with a much larger collection of ducklings. How many do you see in this photo? Did you notice the variation in size and color? Cornell says that gadwalls lay one egg a day so there could be a significant difference in hatching time between the smallest and largest of these ducklings.  It also appears that the younger gadwall ducklings have lighter colored feathers than the older ones. 

While crossing open water the ducklings all stay tightly bunched. It seems like a logical survival technique. It makes one wonder if it is nature or nurture e.g. instinct or education.

One morning this week a young gadwall was found using a lily pad as a bath tub. Apparently gadwalls have a bathing instinct.

After a moment's thought…

…it almost looks as though the lily pad is being transformed into a boat. By the way I counted 14 ducklings in the photo above.

It is also interesting to note the difference in color between this mallard duckling and the gadwall ducklings, above.

By the Bay:

Sasha from the UW Botanic Gardens asked for me to mention this tour opportunity:

Saturday, August 16, 10am – 12pm
UW Botanic Gardens - Center for Urban Horticulture, 3501 NE 41st St, Seattle, WA 98105

Professor Kern Ewing will lead you along trails through Yesler Swamp and the rest of the Union Bay Natural Area and we will see the swamp, other wetlands, grasslands, woodlands, shoreline, lakes and shorebird habitat.  We will look at different aged restoration projects, discuss the upcoming WashDOT mitigation activities, talk about plant species, visit different habitats, and cover different strategies for dealing with invasive plants.

Cost: $10; $15 after August 9th.

Register online, or call 206-685-8033

Parting Shot:

Just for fun can anyone identify where on Union Bay this old piling can be found? There is just something wonderful about nature making use of the things we leave behind.

Have a great day of Union Bay…where nature lives in the city!