Monthly Archives: March 2010

Bad Relations

Spring is perhaps the most thrilling season for birders. The birds who fled south for the winter start to return in late February, and migration accelerates from then on until the end of May. Each new arrival is greeted with excited yelps from us on Tweeters, the birders’ online hotline and virtual chatter room. “Saw my first Tree Swallow today,” chirps one. “Gotta Savannah Sparrow today,” sings another. “Rufous hummer,” chortles a third.  Yowza.

It’s one big family reunion, as we welcome back old friends and long-lost beloveds. Maybe the reason we get so excited is that all our feathered returnees are in their brightest, most spectacular plumage. This is, after all, their mating season and the birds have got to look good for each other. Perhaps, though, birders get our biggest lift from the mere fact that the birds really do return. I, for one, harbor a secret worry that humans have finally wreaked enough habitat havoc to push the birds over the precipice. We are getting close with many species, as bird populations fall by huge percentages. So I’m always glad to see each new arrival. It’s a triumph for them, making their long journeys over mountains, seas, and developed lands. And it’s a celebration for us.

There is one arrival, however, who is never greeted with shouts of joy. Like the auntie with the glare that can melt plastic, this particular member of the bird family brings with it a feeling of dread, not delight. I’m talking about the Brown-headed Cowbird.

Male Brown-headed Cowbird

Cowbirds are New World parasites who lay their eggs in other birds’ nests. Sometimes the female cowbirds kill the hosts’ eggs before laying their own. Often, though, the  cowbirds just lay an egg in someone’s nest, move on, and lay another egg. Cowbird eggs tend to hatch before hosts’ eggs do, and the babies are bigger and more aggressive. So the hosts end up favoring them, almost always to the detriment of their own babies, who starve to death or are killed outright by the cowbird youngster. Nature is not always kind or even pretty — it is what it is.

I heard my first Brown-headed Cowbird singing this week. “Oh, you’re back,” I said. Then, as I used to say to that aunt of mine with the plastic-melting superpower, “Welcome home. It’s good to see you.” I could almost feel my nose elongate.


One of the biggest charms about the Fill is that every day brings a surprise, and every surprise is good. Where else in life does THAT happen?? On the contrary, in my regular life, I usually dread surprises: the notice in the mail from those happy folks in the traffic department who caught my picture at the camera intersection and now want to celebrate by giving me a big ticket; the report from my doctor about cholesterol levels that, if they were the DOW Jones Industrial Average, would make the nation leap for joy; the cheerful little beep from my computer-driven oven that announces I will now have to buy a new computer for it or go back to roasting my kill over an open fire.

How much more welcome are the Fill surprises! Like the one earlier this week that happened near the chip pile at the west end of Wahkiakum Lane. I was busy trying to locate the little male Anna’s Hummingbird who has been guarding the restoration plants there all year. He has grown out his iridescent head feathers now so he is almost completely helmeted in a magenta so bright it is almost blinding. I like to catch him just when the sun reflects fully off his magnificence – otherwise, his feathers can appear nearly black.

As I was standing near the chip pile, waiting for him to appear, I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. Ah, the hummingbird. I raised my binoculars, but instead of the Anna’s, there was a male Rufous Hummingbird. Back to front, he was cloaked in cinnamon. His chin was draped in an iridescent red so bright he looked like a fire-engine gone wild. He flitted from flower to flower, spreading his tail to hover while he drank nectar. He stayed for all of half a minute and then was gone, leaving me with only one appropriate word to say. Wow.

Male Rufous Hummingbird

Rufous Hummingbirds sometimes breed here at the Fill, so be sure to check out every hummingbird you see. Perhaps you’ll be surprised as well. (Hint: A female Rufous has been showing up fairly often near the Wedding Rock; I think she’s nesting nearby.)

Feistiness Defined

Buffleheads landing

Male Buffleheads are the avian answer to the old childhood riddle: What’s black and white and red all over? Buffleheads have dramatic black backs, white breast and flanks, a wedge of white on their black heads – and bright red feet that would turn Dorothy green with envy. When a male Bufflehead lowers his landing gear in bright sunlight, he is a living jewel box of glory: rubies, onyx, and jet. He acquires even more jewel tones when the light catches his iridescent black feathers and transforms them into emerald and amethyst.

Meanwhile, his drab mate floats discreetly nearby, an understated sketch of charcoal and smudgy white.

Looks can be deceptive, however, for it is the female who is the star of the Bufflehead show. Although female Buffleheads are our smallest diving duck, they are packed from head to webbed toe with aggression. They nest in old woodpecker holes in the boreal forests of Alaska, Canada, and the northeast corner of our own state, where they fight all comers who try to claim a piece of their territory. The fights with other females take a very serious turn because the victor often co-opts the ducklings of the loser.

As winter gives way to spring down here in the balmy south of their range, the female Buffleheads start to ramp up their aggression. I’ve seen females fly across the entire length of the Cove to attack each other over the possession of a mate. Buffleheads keep the same mates from one year to the next, but that doesn’t mean a rival female won’t try to steal a guy who is spoken for. Meanwhile, as the females duke it out, the male in dispute puffs out his little chest and rears halfway up out of the water.  Clearly, he believes he is well worth fighting over. Ain’t I fine? you can almost hear him ask.

And I find myself humming the Carly Simon song, “You’re so vain.”

I Love Those Little Guys

The little flock of seven Cackling Geese was foraging in the field beside Shoveler’s Pond today. They’ve been here all winter, but they won’t stay much longer. They are tundra breeders, and soon they will heed the call of the Far North. When the wind blows in from the south one day, they will lift their heads, study the sky briefly, and then they will take off. Perhaps they will circle the Fill once or twice, as I have seen them do many times in the past few weeks. But instead of studying the fields to select just the right one for succulent grass, they will give their distinctive yipping call, and then they’ll be gone, heading for a place I have never been, never seen, except in my imagination.

Cackling Geese are a recently named species. Formerly, they were considered to be a subspecies of our familiar Canada Geese, just a lot smaller (scarcely larger than Mallards) and equipped with dinky beaks. REALLY dinky beaks. But a few years ago, the American Orni-thological Union, the folks who decree which birds shall merit species designations and which shall not, decided the Cacklers were different enough from Canadas to deserve their own category. Plus, no one had observed the tiny Cacklers interbreeding with the ginormous Canadas, so there you go.

Cackling Goose

It was easy today to see why the AOU folks had come to this decision. The Cacklers were foraging beside two Canada Geese, and the differences were dramatic. As I was studying both species, a jogger happened by. “Gosh,” she said, “I didn’t realize the geese were having babies so early. Just look at those cute little guys.”

“Oh, those aren’t baby Canada Geese,” I replied. “They’re a completely different species of goose. They’re Cacklers.”

There was a long, silent pause. Then, “Er, don’t all geese cackle?” the jogger asked.

Without thinking, I said, “Goodness no. These geese yip like terriers.”

We stared at each other as we both processed how little sense I had just made. I grinned foolishly. The jogger back-pedaled a few feet, carefully keeping me in view, then when she judged she had put enough distance between us, she turned and ran off. I looked around for the nearest fence. Clearly, I needed to sit on it and swing my feet aimlessly while chanting, “Doh-de-doh-de-doh.”

Once again, birding had made me look like the village idiot.

High Notes

Brown Creepers are the male countertenors of the bird world. Other birds can call in the upper register (Bushtits, Cedar Waxwings, Dark-eyed Juncos), but Brown Creepers actually sing in the stratosphere. If your ears are good, you can hear them concertizing now in the alder grove south of the kiosk. Surber Grove is another popular venue.

As talented as they are with their arias, though, Brown Creepers sing only part-time. They make their real living hitching up the side of tree like a miniature funicular, probing the bark with their curved bills as they search for insects and spiders. When they reach the top of a tree, they fly down to the base of another tree and start again, working around the tree in a spiral.

Brown Creeper

Sometimes males chase females around and around a tree in a kind of exuberant Ring-Around-a-Rosie courtship display. When it comes time to build a nest, they find a place on a tree where the bark has separated from the trunk. There, they construct a nest of leaves, bark, and twigs, shaped to fit the niche they have found.

Brown Creepers are hard to see against tree bark. Their brown/beige/black backs are the ultimate in camouflage dress. They prefer conifers for their activities, but at the Fill they settle for deciduous trees – lucky us. Any day I see a Brown Creeper is a great day.

You’re Driving Me Nuts

I freely admit that we birders are nutty about our passion. We keep extensive lists of all the birds we see, sometimes listing by county, continent, even our own backyards.  When we’re out birding (which is anytime we are allowed out), we rudely interrupt conversations if we see a good bird. Many of us drop everything to chase a rare bird whenever one happens to appear. I once stood beside a birder from Indiana who was trying to find a very rare thrush in Olympia. As we stood under a dripping pine tree, thrush-less and wet, he mentioned he had left his daughter’s wedding to look for this bird.

In all fairness, though, perhaps part of our looniness might very well be caused by the authorities who determine what name a bird shall bear. These are guys who work for the American Ornithologist’s Union, and I have to ask at times, “What were you thinking??!!”

There are many examples of names that make no sense: Long-billed Dowitchers and Short-billed Dowitchers have bills more or less the same length. Sandhill Cranes prefer wetlands and rarely if ever come near sandy hills, whatever those are (dunes, perhaps?). Tennessee Warblers neither live nor nest in Tennessee.  Bald Eagles aren’t bald, and any guy with as full a head of white hair as a Bald Eagle has white feathers would be offended if told his pate even looked bald.

But perhaps the most egregious case of misnomerness in all of bird-dom is the name given to one of our very own scaups, a diving duck with feet set far back on its body to help it swim underwater. In winter, we see fairly large flocks of this spiffy-looking duck, each male decked out in black, gray, and white feathers; and each female discrete yet elegant in brown. This duck has a dramatic white ring around the tip of its bill. Males have an additional white ring around the base of the bill. And yet, this duck’s name is Ring-NECKED Duck. Naturally, the Washington duck that does have a ring around its neck is called a Mallard.

So it was that after years of tripping over my own tongue whenever I talk about this duck (“I saw a Ring-billed… er, Ring-necked Duck today”), I was highly gratified the other day to find a male example swimming in the Lagoon in perfect, strong sunlight. He began preening the feathers of his flank, and as he did, he twisted his head, revealing…a dark brown ring around his neck. Hey, hey.

Ring-necked Duck showing ring on neck

Kinglet Cuties

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Ruby-crowned Kinglet at peace.

I’m sure to a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, life is a serious matter. Find food, avoid predators, stay warm. Ruby-crowned Kinglets are among the smallest birds in our state, and yet they’re able to survive a Seattle winter that can vary from dull days of endless rain and temperatures in the 40s to cold snaps that drop us into the arctic zone.

In spring, the seriousness of life ramps up for the kinglets.  That’s when they start to establish their pair bonds. Ruby-crowned Kinglets don’t breed down here.  They like the high, dry reaches of the alpine areas or the far north. But they do begin to look for a mate here in the spring, and so the males fight each other.

That’s when, at least to us humans, the kinglets leave the realm of the serious behind and just get cute. Ruby-crowned Kinglets, you see, duel with each other by showing off their little ruby crests. Normally, the males keep their crests discreetly covered. Most of the time in the winter, you never see the crests of the Ruby-crowned Kinglets at all, to the point where you might wonder, “How the heck did the naming-powers-that-be come up with THAT name??!!”

But lately I have seen the answer for myself. I was down at East Point the other day when a bevy of kinglets showed up to duel. Each male found his own neutral corner of the glade, and then on some mysterious signal I never did catch, they came out fighting.  They did this by uncovering the little ruby dots on the tops of their heads and pointing them at each other, like yarmulkes on fire.

“Ha, ha, take that!”

“You think that’s a ruby crown? That’s no crown. Take a look at this!”

Armed and ready.

Imagine fighting by showing off how colorful you are. Men (and in these modern times now, combat-ready women) would face off against each other, make threatening remarks, and then pull off their hats and show their pates.

“My red dot is bigger than your red dot.”

“You ain’t seen nothing yet. Take a look at what I’ve got!”

“Whoa, I’m not going up against a red dot as big as that.” The loser would just lower his little crest as he backed away.

And we think birds are the ones with the tiny brains.

Bidding Wars

Tree Swallow at nest

Housing stock is at a premium if you’re a Tree Swallow at the Montlake Fill. Tree Swallows are cavity nesters, meaning they need to build their nests in tree holes, but they are unable to excavate their own holes. They depend on woodpeckers and insect-borers to create the holes in dead snags, and at the Fill, there just aren’t that many snags with holes in them.

To alleviate the housing shortage, the Center for Urban Horticulture folks have been putting up nest boxes on short poles in the North Blue Forest and in Kern’s Restoration Pond habitat near the Dime Lot (E-5 to people under the age of 50).

To my eyes, the nest boxes look far more inviting than a hole in a dead tree, but the Tree Swallows think differently. Their favorite choices are the holes in the small snag on the south edge of the Southwest Pond. Every year, there is a fight over who gets these holes.

This year, though, looks to be a little more peaceful. For one thing, the snag broke off about halfway up, so there is less real estate to argue over. For another, two Tree Swallows showed up on February 19, well ahead of the other lookey-loos, and immediately claimed the second hole from the top. Other early arrivals are quickly claiming the rest.

More Tree Swallows are appearing every day, so the market in nest boxes will be brisk over the next few weeks. I’m keeping my eye on the home that’s always last to go. It’s a ramshackle affair just north of the Southwest Pond. A real fixer-upper for the right bird, perhaps, but no self-respecting female Tree Swallow would look twice at it. It leans over worse than the Tower of Pisa – so much so that any egg laid in the box would immediately roll right out again. Last year a little male was perched on the roof, singing for all he was worth. I had to admire his heart but wondered where he kept his brains.

Dining Out

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwings have been sparse at the Fill this winter. At this season, they roam about in small flocks, looking for the last of the fruit from the fall harvest, so usually when you see one, you see several others. I’ve been looking for them every day and wondering why they’re not here. The Fill still has berry-laden serviceberry bushes just waiting for birds to come by and dine, but not even the American Robins are doing that. They’d rather eat worms.

I love Cedar Waxwings because they look so exotic, with their black masks, yellow-banded tails, pale yellow bellies, and outrageous crests. I think they must have the smoothest body feathers of any songbird – they look like they’re dressed in a Lycra-like supersuit as eye-catching as any comic book hero.

Last August and September, they were everywhere, picking off the berries from the trees and bushes that dot the site. They must have eaten all the tasty food because they disappeared for months. Now a few are back, and they don’t look happy. Yesterday they were perched on the serviceberry bush right here near the kiosk. A few withered berries clung to the branches, and the birds were studying them. Finally, one bent, pecked at a berry as if to test its edibility, picked it off the bush, held it in its bill for a while, then gulped it down.

Unlike most Cedar Waxwings this one looked a bit scruffy. I think maybe it was a juvenile just beginning to molt into its spectacular adult plumage. It reminded me of my teenagers when I called them to a dinner of their least favorite foods, liver and broccoli.  They would sit there just like that Cedar Waxwing, pecking at their plates, finally spearing a morsel with a fork, and gulping it down without chewing or – I’m sure – tasting. Food, yes, but not appetizing.

The adult waxwing nearby looked on with no sympathy, its beady eyes as stony as mine must have been all those years ago. If it had had vocal chords and a grammatically organized bent of mind, it would no doubt have echoed what I used to say to my kids: “Quit griping and eat your broccoli.”