Author Archives: constancesidles



If birds ever ran for office, the little Golden-crowned Sparrow who lives on the corner of Wahkiakum Lane and the Loop Trail would no doubt be president. He is the Bill Clinton of birds: Whether you agree with his political positions (or whether you even know what those positions are!), you have to admit he is utterly charming.

Every day, you can find this little guy foraging along the verge of the trails. When he sees you, he stops what he’s doing, cocks his head at you, and gives a little encouraging nod, as though he wants to know everything on your mind. Somehow he makes you believe that  you are the most important person in the world to him, and he will engage with you for as long as you want. It is the essence of charm.

I’ve known this sparrow for months now. He first arrived as a juvenile last fall, his head all stripey, his personality already distinct. Gradually over the past few weeks, I have watched him become an adult. He has lost his head stripes completely now. They have been replaced by a beautiful golden crown, fringed with black and white. Last week, I found him perched on the woven nest some artist has placed on the corner of the trail. A yearning came over me to hear him sing. Golden-crowned sparrows don’t usually sing down here. This is only their winter home. They reserve their singing for Alaska, where they breed. I know our little politician will be leaving for the north soon, and I wanted to hear him before he goes.

“Sing,” I begged, not expecting anything except his usual friendly but quiet looks.

He hesitated a moment, shifting from one little clawed foot to the other. Then he threw back his head. The short feathers along his throat began to quiver, and he burst into song. The piercingly sweet notes floated up over the trail and hung in the still air, almost visible, almost palpable. Like the most orator I ever heard, he swept me along with his passion, but in song not in words. An oratorio of pure beauty.

Shades of No More Gray

Spring in Seattle is all about color. I suppose that’s because we grow so accustomed to gray throughout the winter. The clouds sock in around November, and everything dulls. High clouds, low clouds, thunderclouds, fog, mist, drizzle, rain, sleet: we get way more than a mere 50 shades of gray.

When the sun finally does appear, as it did yesterday, we pretend to grump about it. “What’s that bright ball hurting my eyes?” we ask.

But really, we love the rainbow of colors painted by the sun: New grass a tender green. Diamond drops of water trembling on the ends of rose bushes now ruby, now emerald, now citrine. Gold crocus peeking out of the fields like doubloons washed up on the beach. But the most wondrous color of all is the red of a Pileated Woodpecker’s red crest, a red so red it defines the color itself.

I know because a male Pileated Woodpecker flew out of the swamp yesterday to perch in a cottonwood beside the Loop Trail. The long rays of the springtime sun bathed his head in light, and his head burst into flame. Living fire.




Since that long ago day when the glaciers released their hold on the land and fled back to their home in the mountain fasts, ice no longer rules in the lowlands of the Fill. Our winters are mild now. The soft blanket of gray clouds that covers us from November to February drops showers of life-giving rain, encouraging insects to hatch, winter flowers to bloom, and birds to forage everywhere.

Oh, but the rocks remember the ice. They remember how the glaciers carved deep gouges through the basalt. Lake Washington is a reminder of the relentless power of the ice. Its very bed was hollowed out by a glacier—a lake of ice choking the valleys, creeping over the tops of the foothills, scouring everything in its path.

The boulders that lie at the south end of Main Pond are a reminder, too. They are erratics, stony remnants sheared from some unknown bedrock in the north, plucked up by the glacier, and slowly rolled along within the ice—a frozen river of ice more than a mile thick.

Though the thick ice is gone now, sometimes in January, when the night blanket of clouds rolls back from the Fill and allows the meager warmth of the land to escape into the starry emptiness of space, a little of the ice comes back. It hunkers down on the ponds and trails, on the grass stems and rose bushes, anywhere a drop of water might have lingered too long, caught by the freezing touch of an icy hand tapping it into immobility.

Hope Springs Eternal

Female Bufflehead (left) pursues a likely male.

The Buffleheads have recently returned from the far reaches of the taiga, where they spent the summer and fall breeding and raising their young. You would think that after months of child-rearing, they would want to give it a rest. But no. Yesterday, the males were vying for females in Yesler Cove as vigorously as if the believed the females had never heard the babies of their latest brood incessantly crying for months, “Feed me! Now!”

Mother Nature probably programmed Buffleheads to forget the pangs of duckling-rearing. That’s my husband’s theory, anyway. Of course, he thinks women quickly forget childbirth too, so there you go.

To attract a new mate, each male Bufflehead flies near a rival, spreads out his ruby-red feet, and splashes down, puffing out his chest and giving the biggest  quack he was capable of. Unfortunately, since Buffleheads are among our tiniest of ducks, his roar comes out sounding more like a rubber-ducky squeak. Macho Man. The rival squeaks in return, and then they both look around to see how impressed the females are.

Very impressed, if the females’ admiring looks are anything to go by. As for me, I was doubled over on the shore, laughing.

Winter in Seattle is just around the corner, with perpetual gray skies, sleet alternating with cold rain, and daylight hours restricted to the ones you spend indoors, hunched over your computer in your work cubicle. Ancient peoples of the Northern Hemisphere, faced with similar conditions, would sacrifice their first-born, hoping the gods would relent and make summer return. Luckily, we more modern types don’t have to go to these extremes. All we have to do is walk down to Yesler Cove and watch the Buffleheads for awhile. They know spring will come again soon, and they plan to be ready.


To see a Western Grebe floating serenely on the lake, its long white neck punctuated by the black comma of its head and nape, is to see grace itself come to life.

“Grace” is an odd word in our language. It comes from the Latin word gratis, meaning “a pleasing quality.” Over the centuries, as Latin became more vulgar and eventually turned into French, the “pleasing quality of grace” came to mean “elegance of form” or “beauty of movement.” Along its way toward elegance and beauty, though, grace took a turn toward good will and also came to mean “favor” or “gratitude.” That is why devout people say grace before a meal and also why they pray for grace from God.

For me, the Western Grebes who grace the waters of Union Bay embody all the definitions of the word. They fill my eyes with elegance and my soul with gratitude, whether they are fishing for minnows, or briefly coming together to swim side by side, or floating with necks curved into telephone cords of folds so they can tuck their bills into their backs for a nap.

To see them for yourself, you should walk out to the crewhouse at Conibear, where they hang out almost every day. They aren’t shy. If you walk slowly out onto the dock and make no sudden movement, in all likelihood, they will let you get close enough to see every feather.

In this world of chaos and confusion, they are a great gift to all who seek grace of any sort.

Not What Meets the Eye

Like a wisp of gray fog, the Northern Shrike snagged itself onto a tree in the middle of Hunn Meadow East, silvery feathers ruffled slightly by the breeze. It surveyed the mowed grass, glancing up from time to time at the goldfinches that swirled in alarm over its head. I could hear it trilling to itself, like an opera star getting ready to perform.

Shrikes are robin-sized songbirds that nest in the empty lands of the Far North. They come to the Fill singly and rarely in spring and fall, but seldom stay for long. We don’t give them enough habitat to live on, I guess, and so after a few days, they move elsewhere.

Most songbirds chirp their way through life, feasting innocuously on seeds or insects. Not so shrikes. Shrikes are the opposite of innocuous. They prey on other birds and small animals, catching them on the fly and sticking them onto convenient twigs or brambles for future consumption. For this reason, shrikes are commonly called butcher birds. The equivalent of cows with fangs.

Beautiful but deadly — like nature itself.

One October Morning

Today was definitely a fall day, with gray skies (at last!) spreading pearly light over the rank weeds of autumn. The birch trees near the Lone Pine Tree are dripping with gold now, and fog blanketed out the sounds of the city so much I could hear the plop when a golden leaf snapped off and drifted down.

At the Lagoon, a Western Grebe was fast asleep, its neck folded back onto itself like a twisted telephone cord. It paid no attention when a male Wood Duck in stunning breeding plumage began splashing in a bathing frenzy. Why wake up when your belly is full of fish and life is easy?

Out on the pewter lake, a flotilla of ducks and geese clumped together, herded by the screams of the two Bald Eagles who have returned to their territory after a brief vacation. Among the dark shapes was one luminous white one: a SNOW GOOSE! It’s the first one I’ve seen at the Fill in almost two years. I ran over to Waterway 1 to get a closer look, but when I arrived, it had already disappeared, a ghost shimmering away into the mists.

Also on view today were two Ruby-crowned Kinglets back from Alaska and feeling feisty. Ruby-crowned Kinglets are drab little songbirds who spend the winter down here with us and then head north each spring to breed. Usually in fall they are peaceful creatures, intent on foraging for the miniscule insects that are their favorite food. Every now and then, though, they argue over who has laid first claim to a likely bush or branch. Then they fight. The way Ruby-crowned Kinglets fight is they part their olive-green head feathers and reveal a bright red set of plumes that make their heads look like they’re on fire. Then they shine their red crowns at each other. Two of them were mixing it up near the Turtle Logs, showing as much red as I’ve ever seen. A serious squabble.

Years ago, I was talking to a birder friend of mine about how Ruby-crowned Kinglets fight. “Wouldn’t it be nice if humans fought the same way, by shining our heads at each other?” I mused.

“I don’t know about that,” my friend replied. Then he took off his hat and showed me his head. It was completely bald. “Some of us wouldn’t have much ammunition!”

Dumb and Dumber

The Turkey Vultures from British Columbia are migrating south through the Fill right now. The other day, I saw six circling overhead, their wings outspread. They were all trying hard to find one thermal updraft after another that would carry them along without the bother of flapping.

Turkey Vultures are unlovely birds of prey who don’t quite fit the paradigm of fierce, wild, and free — characteristics that so pervasively embody our image of other raptors, such as eagles, falcons, and hawks. Vultures “prey” on carrion. They are featherless — quite bald — from head to neck, supposedly to facilitate hygiene. I guess when you dine by sticking your head as far as it can go into a carcass that has seen better days, you don’t want to mess up your hairdo. Better to have no do at all.

Most people feel uneasy around vultures. When they see a vulture, they will crack jokes about the need to stay upright and keep moving. But I have had a soft spot in my heart for vultures ever since I attended a raptor show at Woodland Park Zoo. The zookeepers have trained their raptors to perch on a wrist. When the keeper flings the bird up, it spreads out its magnificent wings and flies toward a piece of meat on a stick at the other end of the birds’ enclosure. It’s all very impressive.

One day, the keepers decided to bring out Modoc the vulture. Like all the other raptors, Modoc sat quietly on his keeper’s gloved wrist until the keeper flung him up. Modoc didn’t really want to go – vultures value their rest and relaxation. But what choice had he? Up he went, flapping his massive wings much harder than he liked, and off he disappeared into the distance. The crowd was silent. The keepers were silent. We all waited for Modoc to reappear, but he never did.

“Well,” hemmed his keeper, “Modoc’s a slow learner. We’re still trying to teach him to fly to the post over there. But he doesn’t always remember to do that.” Then she added in a hopeful but unsure tone, “He’ll return when he gets hungry.”

I was utterly charmed. Modoc’s combination of stupidity and independence appealed to me, I suppose because I also live dumb and free. The freedom to be dumb, after all, gives you the freedom to start over, to be the newbie, to learn something new without fear.

(Note: You can see Modoc in action if you Google “Modoc  vulture” and check out the YouTube entries from 2011. Modoc is still confounding his keepers. I love it!)

Faith in Your Feathers

The two Killdeers who have laid claim to the gravel road next to the Youth Farm were on patrol the other day, marching back and forth in the short grass sprouting amid the pebbles. When I inadvertently crossed into their territory, they swarmed around me like MPs at a checkpoint, yelling at me to move away or else.

Ordinarily, when I find I am bothering birds in their natural habitat, I leave. I figure I’m in their home, and they make the rules. Besides, after years of political doorbelling and yard-signing, not to mention Girl Scout cookie-selling, I know when I’m unwelcome. So usually, I pass on to the next yard without demur. But Killdeers have expansive ideas about their home territories. I’ve had Killdeers chase me halfway around the Loop Trail, alerting all and sundry to hide from this dangerous, bipedal interloper with the floppy hat and the folding camp stool. Their voices are piercing and loud, their manners pushy and rude. When they get revved up, all the other birds within hearing disappear. It’s annoying.

I remonstrated. “Look,” I said, “I just want to scan for pipits and sparrows. I won’t bother you. Now be quiet.”

No good. “Ki-ki-ki-killeer,” they clucked, skittering around my feet like ankle biters trying to decide the right spot to bite.

I was about to advance another argument, when suddenly the Barn Swallows soaring overhead gave their distinctive, two-note alarm call. The Killdeers and I froze, knowing a raptor was near. Sure enough, a Merlin rocketed by at head height, its wings bent back like a Stealth jet on turbo-chargers. After it passed, I glanced down at the Killdeers at my feet. They weren’t moving a muscle. These normally twitchy, can’t-sit-still birds might as well have been stuffed, they were so immobile. The Merlin cruised back, its ominous shadow skimming the short grass like Death itself with a scythe.

A juicy Killdeer would have made a perfect meal for the falcon, and my two compadres knew it. So they stayed absolutely still, counting on their brown, white, and black feathers to blend into the background, making them invisible. In reality, they were out in the open in plain view. If they had moved, they would have died. But they had faith in their feathers, and the shadow of Death passed over them harmlessly.

In these days of recession and uncertainty, perhaps it’s wise for us to recall our own “feathers” and to have faith in the skills, strengths, and beliefs that give us the power to overcome.

Lift Off

The American Coots came back from their summer vacation this week. Not that they went far. I think most of the coots that ply the waters of the Fill spend their summers on Green Lake. It’s not exactly the Far North. Somehow, though, the fact that coots go only a few blocks north during breeding season – when birds such as Arctic Terns routinely fly tens of thousands of miles – seems appropriate. Coots are goofy.

Take the one that was on Main Pond the other day. It apparently saw a berry it wanted to eat near the shore and figured if it stood on the willow bough that stretched across the berry bush, it could dine in comfort. So, flapping its stubby wings and churning its size-10 feet, it lifted off the water and landed on the willow. Unfortunately, the willow bough was more of a willow wand and could not support the hefty weight of the coot. Down went the coot, only to rise up again as the springy willow obeyed Hook’s Law: the flexion of a spring is in direct proportion with the load applied to it. Coot and willow shot up like Greg Louganis executing his Gold Medal dive off the three-meter springboard. At the maximum extension of the branch, the coot’s hold on the bough broke, and the coot blasted off into space, squawking all the way. I think it ended up in Green Lake.