Monthly Archives: February 2010

The Beat Goes On

Every drummer (and every mother of every drummer!) knows that at some point in your performance, you just have to cut loose and play LOUD.

So it was with the male red-shafted Northern Flicker three mornings ago. He had stationed himself on top of the light standard in the CUH parking lot, a prime location for loud drumming. Loud drumming is essential for a woodpecker male to attract a mate, because the female judges the worthiness of her partner based to a large degree on his ability to beat his head against hard surfaces.

Just as he was about to begin, a female flicker flew in and perched on the other side of the “drum.” She watched intently as he got ready to go. Then,

WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! The flicker’s “song” went forth.

The female was apparently entranced by the strength and vigor of this guy – she seemed to just radiate admiration. The two must have sealed the bargain that very day, because this morning I saw the missus perched near the top of a dead tree in the alder grove. The male was some distance below her, excavating a nest hole.

It could not have been easy.  I saw he had made a start farther down the snag,

but this had evidently not pleased the couple because she had him working away on another hole in the same tree.

It reminded me of the last time I had moved the furniture. Or to put it more accurately, the last time I had directed my husband to move the furniture. We began with the heaviest piece, a large desk. “No, dear, not there. Let’s try a little farther over. No, I don’t like that. Let’s try across the room. Hmm, doesn’t look right there, either. Maybe parallel to the window?”

Sweat began beading my husband’s wrinkled but still willing brow. Finally, I found the absolute right place for that desk. My husband smiled in triumph. No flicker could have asked for more.

Grand Sparrows

I shared this morning with a pair of Lincoln’s Sparrows located just north of Southwest Pond. All three of us had come out of hiding to soak up the warmth of the sun after a clear winter’s night had radiated all the Earth’s heat back into space. Mist lay smoking over the ponds and lakes, and every blade of grass was coated with ice.

Lincoln Sparrow

Lincoln’s Sparrows are chunky little guys with Arnold Schwarzenegger necks – thick looking, you know, and muscle-bound, although in the birds’ case it’s probably mostly feathers. They combine this wrestler look with a delicate array of fine stripes washed with a pale beige in the front. Usually when you see them (if you ever do – they are pretty shy), their head feathers are raised in a kind of alarm-crest, as though they had stuck their beaks into an electric socket.

These particular sparrows were all puffed up like pincushions to keep out the cold. I was puffed up too, with layers and layers of clothing. All of us were too cold to move. We perched on our respective twigs and camp stool with half-closed eyes, taking in the scenery all around us.

Lincoln’s Sparrows live in a small world of willow wands, grasses, and snowberry bushes. In the winter, all is bare of green and leaf but not bare of beauty. The branches in this little section of the Fill glowed flame-orange in the sun, bright gold, chocolate brown, soft yellow and ruby red.

You don’t need to travel all the way to the Grand Canyon to see nature’s palette of reds and golds set against a lazuli sky of blue. Grandness exists on a small scale too, right here in our own backyard. It’s awesome.

Spring Concert

Western Meadowlark

The Western Meadowlarks who have been here all winter have begun tuning up their vocals for springtime concerts. You can hear them practicing in Hunn Meadow West (the prairie between Main Pond and Southwest Pond). They prefer to take center stage on the little pear tree in the field, although they also sometimes use a grass tussock nearby. I recommend that you bring your own seating (I use a folding camp stool) and attend a pre-concert. You won’t be disappointed. Meadowlarks are among the most musical of all birds, and our pair are especially talented.

Like all artists, though, they appear to have a sensitive soul when it comes to audience appreciation. I was enjoying one of their practice sessions two days ago when a distant cousin – a Red-winged Blackbird – flew in to perch on the pear tree stage. The blackbird listened to the meadowlarks for a brief time, then swelled himself up like a bagpipe about to burst and let loose with the distinctive tune of the Red-winged Blackbird: Okalee!

My grandmother used to say that appreciating bagpipe music took a special person. She had a theory it was genetic and skipped every other generation. She adored bagpipe music, but her daughter – my mother – thought pipers were worse than fingernails on blackboards. I play my beloved bagpipe music in my car so as not to inflict it onto my poor daughter, who is sure that bagpipes were invented so hunters could attract ducks by making them think they need to fly to the aid of what they perceive as a dying member of their flock.

So I love the bagpipey song of Red-winged Blackbirds, but hearing it as an accompaniment to the celestial fluting of the Western Meadowlarks was so incongruous I had to laugh out loud.

Male Red-winged Blackbird singing on a twig

The meadowlarks, not liking this comment on their performance, huffed up their shoulders and flew off. The blackbird kept singing. I guess he was too into his own music to notice he had lost two members of the trio. I think this is a common occurrence among bagpipers.

Teal Wars

Male Green-winged Teal

The male Green-winged Teals have been working on their feathers all winter, and today, the 17th of February, they were ready to do battle for the attention of their fair females. Who, I’m sorry to say, paid no attention to the males whatsoever.

Green-winged Teals are not nature’s most fearsome warriors. They are among the smallest of our state’s ducks, and perhaps the mildest. They are lovers, not fighters. When other ducks put their heads down flat on the water and paddle furiously toward each other, like aqueous jousters tilting in a medieval tournament, the Green-winged Teals sit on the sidelines and chirp. Oh, they’ll give each other an occasional nip when they’re feeling irritated enough, but you can tell their hearts aren’t in it.

However, even Green-winged Teals feel the hormones begin to flow in late winter, and they are moved to duel. I watched six males displaying their prowess on the Lagoon today. You have to have quick eyes to see how they scrap because their clashes are over in less than two seconds. Green-winged Teals always give me the impression they’d rather be reciting poetry.

Here’s a typical exchange. One male paddled close to another and fluffed out the feathers of his dark green mask. Then the male formed his green neck feathers into a discrete point at the back and quickly raised his neck up and then ratcheted it back down again, like a Pez dispenser granting a small candy. The display ended with a little chirp. “Take that, you varlet.”

The second male, not to be outdone, pointed his little feathers into a crest, ratcheted his neck up and down, and gave his own little chirp. “How do you like them apples, buster?”

This excited the other males so much that they all pointed their crests and ratcheted their necks at each other. A big chirp fest ensued. The females went to sleep.

Female Green-winged Teal asleep


Taken in the all-together, Double-crested Cormorants are a walking, talking, flying contradiction in terms. They have webbed feet like ducks, but they perch in trees like robins. They are water birds, but their feathers are not waterproof. After they dive for fish, they have to hang their wings out to dry. You can often see them with their laundry on the line, as it were: arms outstretched, gently waving their wing feathers to create a breeze in the dank, humid air of a cold Seattle winter. I’ve hung laundry out myself in winter, and I can tell you, neither clothes nor feathers are going to get dry very fast in this climate. You’d think a hundred million years or so of evolution would have created a water bird better suited to the water, but no.

As for their romantically dubbed double crests, we rarely see them here at the Fill. Even if we did, I’m not sure they would add anything to the bird’s gravitas. Probably the opposite, for the crests are not really crests at all. They are outlandish white and black tufts that sprout on the bird’s cheeks in breeding season, kind of like a grandpa whose ears have become excessively hirsute with the passing of the years.

Cormorant with wings outstretched

And yet. Grace Kelly might very well have swooned with envy at the beauty of these birds, whose eyes are the color of jade and whose faintly iridescent black feathers are edged with even deeper black. No one in the bird kingdom wears the “little black dress” more elegantly than do cormorants. As awkward as they appear on land, they are grace itself in the water. They glide along on the surface with their chins up, like runway models dressed in the latest Dior. When they dive, they often give a half-leap up, then nose down as sleek as an arrow with not a single splash. Olympic high-divers should be so skilled.

How to Find Birds

Eurasian Wigeon, male

Today dawned heavy with clouds. A narrow ribbon of sunlight edged the foothills of the Cascades when I started my walk around the Loop Trail, but that didn’t last. Soon the clouds descended, and the light became dim. It was so dark, it seemed nature was trying to save on electricity: “Turn out the lights. Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know!”

I sat for a while at East Point, congealing in the cold that I had thought wouldn’t return again until next winter. Rain began to spit down.  Luckily, master birder Evan Houston turned up to share the dawn  – and his scope.  “I always see Common Goldeneyes out here,” he said, setting up,“Oh, and there’s one now.”

I got creakily to my feet and looked through the scope. Evan had it focused way out in the middle of the lake, near the Floating Bridge.  Yep, there was a beautiful male goldeneye. I sat down. “Oh, and there’s a Red-necked Grebe,” Evan soon said. I got up again, looked, and sat down. “And a Western Grebe.” Again with the up and down.  “And a Horned Grebe.” I was beginning to feel like a yo-yo. Why find my own birds when Evan was doing such a great job?

“Well,” he finally said, packing up his scope, “I’ve got to go to work.” But before he headed out, he found me two more great birds: a Western Meadowlark singing in the Triple Trees, and a Eurasian Wigeon paddling in the big duck flock on the lake. A great day.

Timeless Beauty of the Fill

Ducks flying at sunrise

Yesterday, February2, I spent the whole day out here from dawn to dusk. I just couldn’t tear myself away – chores at home, work assignments, family obligations all had to wait their turn. Yesterday was mine.

When you decide to spend a whole day (or more!) out in the wild, you begin to find yourself adopting the pace of the wild. It’s not slow, exactly.  After all, when you’re in a flock of European Starlings and Red-winged Blackbirds, you are flapping your wings every few seconds and flying to a new spot to look for seeds and bugs. And yet, the overall speed of the day passing by IS slow. When your only clock is the sun itself, you can let hours go by before you notice time has moved at all. It is a welcome freedom from modern life.

You may not have a day to spend, but I hope you can immerse yourself here enough to feel the pulse of the wild life: steady and sure, turning with the seasons, waiting for spring.