Monthly Archives: April 2010

Fill Fashion Plates

Wood Ducks on a double date

Whenever stylish New Yorkers come to Seattle for a visit, one of the first things they remark is the drabness of our dress. No matter the social strata or season, Seattleites seem to prefer to wear clothes that match our climatic reputations: gray, grayer, grayest. A bright splash of color for us is the dark green of an old-growth forest or maybe an olive to match our famous banana slugs. If Seattle ever hosted an Easter Parade, I’m afraid out-of-town onlookers would mistake it for an early Earth Day march.

So it is always a wild surprise when I scan the Fill and find a Wood Duck. Wood Ducks are shy residents of our secluded ponds and sloughs. They contradict everything you would expect of a native. The males wear elaborate, drooping headdresses of iridescent green, purple, and white. Their bills are painted with a kind of flame-red lipstick, matched by the red of their eyes. Their body feathers display an array of stripes, herringbone, and dots, mixed with broad swashes of mahogany, taupe, turquoise, and black. The females are understandably more understated, but even they sport elaborate makeup – in their case, a white kohl around the eyes that would make any ancient Egyptian female swoon with envy.

Like many of their Beautiful People counterparts, Wood Ducks prefer to keep their private lives private. At the moment, couples are strengthening the bonds of their partnership, getting the nursery ready, and trying to stay away from their adoring fans. If you’re lucky, you can glimpse them in the early morning or late afternoon. Perhaps they figure that’s when most of us paparazzi are either still in bed or at dinner, and it’s safe for these Seattle stars to come out.

His Little All

As much as I love Savannah Sparrows, I can’t say they are nature’s innovators. Of all the sparrows I know, Savannahs are the most predictable. They spend their time scurrying around on the grasslands, hunting for seeds. If a jogger or a birder startles them, they always flap to the nearest tree or bush and hide among the leaves, always at about head-high. Occasionally they’ll exert themselves a little more and get as high as 15 feet, but that’s about it. I never see them soaring sunwards, and I never see them skulking. It’s always the same: hop in the grass if unperturbed, fly to a low branch if scared.

When the males feel the hormones surge enough, they get on a low-lying bramble or post and sing their dry, buzzy song. I have no idea how the females can tell which male is most appealing – the songs all sound exactly alike. No variations on a theme, like the White-crowned Sparrows produce. No original tunes like the Song Sparrows work on. Just the same tune, over and over, sung by everybody.

Savannah Sparrow

I imagine if Savannah Sparrows had the vote, they’d pull the lever for a straight conservative ticket every time.

So it was with open-mouthed wonder that I put my binoculars on a little form perched way on top of the light standard south of the Center for Urban Horticulture building yesterday. I expected to see a lofty Brown-headed Cowbird, surveying the possibilities of raiding someone else’s nest; or perhaps a Northern Flicker about to whang away on the metal to impress his girlfriend. But no. It was a Savannah Sparrow front and center, getting ready to sing a solo.

He looked over his domain for a moment, threw back his head, opened his beak, and let fly with his song. BuzzbuzzbuzzBUUUZZZbuz. Okay, so his song was still the same ol’, same ol’. But I hope the female Savannahs were as thrilled as I was by his daring. He was giving his all for love, a Cyrano among Savannahs.

I Can Hardly Wait

I remember the impatience of Spring. I felt it first last year, when Spring was delayed by the weather. It snowed in April. Do you remember? The birds seemed to know somehow and kept safe in the south. When the weather finally warmed, they came in a rush. For three weeks in late April and May, a vast river of birds flooded the Fill. I remember sitting on my camp stool near the alder grove, counting the warblers. Counting and wondering what I was missing on Main Pond. Not able to sit still, I grabbed my stool and hurried to Main Pond. Sat there briefly, counting the shorebirds and wondering what I was missing in Surber Grove. I snatched up my stool and flitted off, feeling impatient. Feeling disconnected from nature, feeling wrong.

Impatience is not why I go to the Fill. I go there to find serenity. The Fill is a refuge from the frantic demands of the other world, my culture. I don’t wear a watch when I go. I carry no cell phone. I hear no pleas from work, family, clock, or calendar. I am at peace.

Until the impatience of Spring jolted me out of kilter.

I felt it again this year, another late Spring, another held-up migration. Where are the birds? Temperatures fell into the 30s last night. It’s April 23. I feel impatient, and wrong. Again.

Until, that is, I saw a female Common Yellowthroat south of Main Pond. She had a wisp of grass in her bill, and she was in a hurry to find another. She had arrived only a few days ago, and yet eggs were clearly on the way. No time to waste. Must build her nest. Must raise her brood.

Common Yellowthroat

It came to me that hurry is as much a part of nature as is the slow rotation of the seasons. There is a time for impatience. Now is the time. Seize the moment.

Or as the sign my tenth-grade chemistry teacher taped next to his wall clock read: Time passes. Will you?

Nature’s Impersonator

Male Spotted Towhee

The first time I saw a Spotted Towhee, I thought it was just a weird-looking, tricked-out robin. Black head, rusty-colored sides, a little white here and there – what else could it be? But Spotted Towhees are not even close to robins taxonomically. They’re really a kind of sparrow. A big sparrow.

The males have black hoods and backs; the females are browner. Both the male and female help to build a nest near or on the ground out of bark and leaves, well hidden from view.

You can find Spotted Towhees all over the Fill, wherever there is brushy cover for them to hide in (they’re a little shy) and leaf litter to forage in (they like seeds best, although they’re not above eating the occasional bug). In fact, when they forage is also when they appear most sparrow-like. They dig into the leaf litter with both feet and then kick backwards, sending detritus flying. This can sometimes make a heck of a racket in the still mornings. If truth be told, when that young cougar was prowling around Discovery Park last year, I would sometimes wonder, when I would hear the crunch of dry leaves near the trail, whether he had managed to find his way over here. But no, it was just a towhee being exuberant.

Towhees are like that – they often sound like something else. Sometimes they mew like a kitten. Other times they give an echo-y rattle like someone shaking a rain stick toy. Now and then they sing a chirpy song that to some people sounds like a P.G. Wodehouse character singing, “Drink your tea.”

I’m not fond of tea, and I’m even less fond of the Tea Party, but towhees are luckily completely apolitical. Even if they do sometimes appear to be something that they’re not.

The Pleasures of the Yellowlegs

Birders are always happy to see a yellowlegs ­– a long-legged shorebird decked out in spring in harlequin black-and-white. But birders rarely go into much detail when we talk about them. We’ll say, “I saw a yellowlegs today,” and let it go at that, although there are two kinds of yellowlegs: Greater and Lesser.

The reason we don’t specify is that it’s very very hard to tell these two species apart. One is a little bigger than the other (the Greater), has a slightly upturned beak, and knobbier knees. But it can be difficult to see these distinctions in the field. Much safer to stick to the generic.

We birders do the same thing with dowitchers (the Long-billed and Short-billed varieties of Jimmy Durantesque shorebirds, which, despite the name, have the same-sized bills). Ditto many gulls, flycatchers, and shorebird “peeps.”

My husband calls all these birds “eyebrow birds,” because the differences come down to what in humans might be only a couple of eyebrow hairs. John dislikes eyebrow birds. Give him a flamingo or an eagle, and he’s a happy birder (although, come to think of it, it ain’t all that easy to tell flamingo or eagle species apart either!).

Greater or Lesser? You tell me!

I, on the other hand, love these inconspicuous differences. They set me a puzzle that I like to solve. They force me to really look at the birds, when it can be way too easy to give them a quick scan and hurry on down the human road of too many other things to do. They give me something to wonder about: how important are these differences to the birds; do they mark recent speciation or are they long-standing; what evolutionary forces are at work to make species different yet superficially similar? In other words, these small differences make me notice the natural world and marvel.

Yellowlegs are coming through the Fill right now. If you are lucky enough to see one, I hope you stop a moment and try to figure out which kind you’ve got. You’ll smile for the rest of the day.

A Patch of Heaven

When you’ve been birding the Fill as long as I have, it’s hard to find a place you’ve never been. But this year, I have stumbled across just such a place. It’s a tiny field – a patch, really – bordering the south end of the baseball diamond, over at the Conibear mitigation. You can find it by walking across the wooden bridge, south down the service road, past the yellow gate. Here you will find a remnant stand of blackberry along a nasty slough-y area that time and the UW groundskeepers have forgot. The tiny field is at the westernmost end of the slough.

You have to come here in the early morning, before the college kids get up. That’s when the birds own this little piece of habitat, and that’s when you can see SPARROWS: Golden-crowned, White-crowned, Lincoln’s, Song, and Fox Sparrows all love this area. So do juncos and finches. A male Anna’s Hummingbird guards his territory here, as does a Bewick’s Wren. Occasionally, shrikes hunt along here, and phoebes. High above on the light standards, Double-crested Cormorants are courting now. They gargle out their mating calls, sounding like woodpeckers knocking on metal. When they open their beaks to nuzzle each other, you can see their lime-green throats.

I have become quite fond of the Fox Sparrow who claims this area for his own. Fox Sparrows are large sparrows that look to me a lot like their smaller brethren, the Song Sparrows. One way to tell them apart is by thinking of men’s suits. Fox Sparrows wear herringbone vests (v-shaped chevrons down their sides), while Song Sparrows sport twill (blotchy diagonal stripes). Both sparrows forage in this magic little patch, and both will come out to join you, if you’re quiet – and early!

Song Sparrow

Fox Sparrow


Drab, winterized Yellow-rumped Warbler.

If you’re like me, when you get into the shower in the morning, turn on the hot water, and let the steam fill the room, something happens to your common sense and your vocal chords. Before you can stop to think, your mouth opens and the songs pour out. In my case, badly sung.

Professional singers never do this. Before they start singing, they do warm-up exercises. I’ve seen videos of Luciano Pavarotti and even Sting trilling up and down the scale, getting ready for their performance.

So it is now with the male Yellow-rumped Warblers that have been at the Fill all winter. They’re busy molting into their breeding plumage, like performers putting on makeup. And they’re practicing their beautiful mating song. The song starts out with a liquid trill that gets louder and faster as it reaches its crescendo. Then the singer takes a breath and gives an encore. And another. It is lovely. But it is only practice for the big performance the males will give in the far north.

Yellow-rumped Warblers are among the few wood-warblers that regularly stay in our state through the winter. Most of the other species in their large family head much further south – to Mexico, Central America, or South America. Yellow-rumped Warblers, though, are hardy souls who don’t mind eating their insects frozen or soggy. They spend their winters here, dressed in drab plumage and enduring the gray skies that are as drab as they are.

Ready-for-breeding, dazzling Yellow-rumped Warbler

Come spring, the males begin to sport  lemon-yellow feathers on their heads, flanks, and rumps as they get ready to go on tour in the far north. Their streaky drabness gives way to a symphony of black, gray and white that forms a perfect frame for their splashes of yellow.

There are two kinds of Yellow-rumped Warblers – in fact, they used to be called two different species: the Myrtle variety has a white throat; the Audubon’s variety has a yellow throat. We get both kinds here at the Fill.

You can hear them practicing their songs anywhere there are a few trees or bushes clustered together. My favorite place to listen to their warm-ups, though, is along the west side of University Slough north of the wooden bridge. It’s quiet here, except for the occasional “tink” of golfers hitting balls at the driving range. The perfect spot to hear some truly professional singers at their work.


Although Bushtits are among our state’s smallest birds (I think of them as golf balls with wings), they do not let size limit their ambitions. On the contrary, Bushtits entertain expansive notions about their domiciles. A committed couple measuring only four and a half inches each can build a bag-nest that hangs down as long as twelve inches – some three times their own length. The Bushtits glue the beginnings of their bags onto twigs or branches, and then they weave the bag itself out of spider silk, grass, fluff, and lichens.Bushtit home construction.

You might ask: What’s the point of such a large nest? After all, our similarly-sized Anna’s Hummingbird builds a teeny cup of a nest that barely contains the operative part of her brooding mechanism, i.e, her belly. The rest of her sticks out preposterously from each end. Even the Bald Eagle, no slouch when it comes to thoughts of status, builds a nest that is so small, relatively speaking, that when the usual two babies get to be teenagers, they have to perch on the rim. The nest cup is way too small to accommodate them.

In all fairness to the Bushtits, they do not build large to impress the neighbors, as people do now and then. Rather, they do it to minimize their own need to sit on eggs for long periods of time. Because the nest is so well insulated, Bushtits need to brood their eggs for only 40 percent of the day. The rest of the time, they can be out hunting for their own food: spiders and small insects.

The Bushtits at the Fill are doing well this year. Several of them have already built their nests and are probably brooding eggs. Many may find the time to have a second brood later in the year. If you look carefully, you can find their bag-nests hanging in several locations on site. One such nest is attached to a huckleberry tree on the northwest side of the cottonwood grove near East Point, very near the Loop Trail. If you are careful not to disturb the parents at work, you can observe them coming and going into the hole at the top of the nest. The male has dark eyes; the female has light eyes.