Monthly Archives: May 2010

Avian Con Game

The Killdeer was at it again in the Dime Lot yesterday – spreading out her tail and dragging herself pathetically along the gravel as though at least one wing and probably lots of other appendages were broken and useless. She looked like she was about to expire and provide me with a tasty meal of Killdeer Tartare.

It was all a scam, for as soon as she thought I was far enough away from her babies, she spread her perfectly healthy wings and tail and flew off, leaving behind only her shrill cries to mock my gullibility. She didn’t go far, though – only to the south end of the parking lot, where three miniature versions of herself popped out of the grass and began to hunt for insects. They were so tiny but had such long legs they looked like Killdeers on stilts. They were inexpressibly cute.

The Killdeers as a whole have done remarkably well this year. One pair hatched out a batch of babies at East Point and seem to be working on another batch in the field nearby. But it is along Douglas Road, leading into the Dime Lot (or E-5), that the Killdeers have really flourished. I saw at least two nests earlier in the year, scratched out in the gravel that slops from the road into the grassy verge. I think the locations were ideal. The grass hid the nests from the view of the crows, who prey on both eggs and babies, and when the chicks were ready to roll, they had convenient amounts of insects supplied by the proximity of the marshes that line the east side of the road.

The Fill is beautiful and healthy-looking right now, with the tall grasses flowing in the breeze and birds swirling in the sky. But it is breeding success that for me really defines the health of an ecosystem. By that measure, the Fill is bursting with life.

I’m Dotty for Spotties

Spotted Sandpiper in breeding plumage

Spotted Sandpipers like to have their cake and eat it, too. Not that they really eat cake, of course. On the contrary, like other sandpipers, spotties prefer a diet rich in worms, small crustaceans, and insects. But I’m not talking about their diet here; I’m talking about their breeding plumage. On their undersides Spotted Sandpipers dress to kill, while on their upper reaches they dress to conceal. In other words, they stand out and blend in at the same time.

Spotted Sandpipers, you see, are plain brown above. This makes it easy for them to “disappear” whenever a predator comes by. They simply crouch and freeze. Their plain brown feathers perfectly match the brown mud upon which they feed, and they become almost impossible to spot. I’ve seen even a sharp-eyed Merlin fly right by a Spotted Sandpiper on an open mudflat without knowing one of its favorite foods was right there for the taking.

The underside of a Spotted Sandpiper, though, is a completely different design. Here, the bird sports a wild array of black polka dots on a snow-white background. It’s cute and eye-catching in the extreme, and I can’t see how any female sandpiper can resist.

There are two Spotted Sandpipers hanging out at Shoveler’s Pond right now. You can often see them foraging along the pond edge in the early morning. Occasionally, one becomes really bold and ventures out into the water to hunt for a particularly attractive morsel. This makes the bird dangerously conspicuous, so it usually isn’t long before it seems to ask itself, “What was I thinking?” and rushes back to stand on the mud.

As they hunt and peck for food, Spotted Sandpipers seem compelled to bob their rear ends up and down in a kind of avian mambo. No one knows why they do this, but for a non-dancer like me, it is a treat to watch.

Now You See It…

When I first started birding, I used to page through the field guides trying to fix birds’ various field marks in my mind so I would be able to identify any new bird I saw. I remember noticing how many birds have a yellow color scheme: warblers, goldfinches, tanagers, orioles, flycatchers – many of them are bright, bright yellow.

“How dumb can you get?” I thought. “A bright yellow bird would stand out from green leaves and brown branches like the caution part of a stoplight. You just couldn’t miss it.” I figured adding all these yellow species to my life list would be pie.

But I was wrong. Somehow, yellow blends in perfectly with green and brown, creating the ideal camouflage.

I got a good example of this the other day when I was over at Surber Grove (aka Yesler Swamp), trying to find Western Tanagers. Western Tanagers are towhee-sized songbirds that come through the Fill during spring migration. They breed in coniferous or mixed-coniferous forests, so they usually don’t stay here for long – we don’t have enough big trees for them. Surber can be a good place to find tanagers, though, because it does have dense scrub and a few tall cottonwoods and alders.

Sure enough, no sooner did I plunk down my camp stool than I heard a male singing deep in the trees. I craned my neck, searching every tree for him but I couldn’t find a trace. Then a little motion in a lacy-leafed tree drew my eye, and pop! out he hopped for exactly 1.5 seconds, just long enough for me to see he really was a tanager.  Then he dove back into the tree, never to be seen again.

Western Tanager

Mind you, this tree is a very open-branched specimen. From my sidewalk perch, I can see all the way from the front of the tree to the back. Every branch is visible. I would say, every leaf. But that bird vanished as thoroughly as the Statue of Liberty magicked away by David Copperfield in his most famous trick. Just gone. And people scoff at UFO disappearances.

(Note: for  a YouTube demo of Copperfield’s trick, check out this link (if the link takes too long to download, click on the YouTube black box):

As the Crow Flies

Scientists abhor anthropomorphism. I think it’s because as a group, they have a low gagging point. They fear the slippery slope of sappiness.

On the other hand, it would be wrong to deny the fact that we share much with other animals and even plants. We all need our space. We need to breathe and eat, procreate and die. Anyone who has owned a dog, for example, knows that dogs have feelings like we do. They can laugh and cry, feel shame, be exuberant.

It should thus come as no surprise that scientists at UC Santa Cruz recently reported that humans share significant portions of our DNA with animals. The scientists had matched nearly 500 animal DNA segments to ours. Thus, it’s not anthropomorphic to acknowledge what we have in common with other life forms with whom we share the planet. It’s just common sense.

Take fun, for example. While I would be the first to admit that potato bugs seem to have no liking for wild parties, college kids do. Therefore, at some point in the evolutionary timescale, the ability to have fun evolved. The question is: when?

The answer, in my opinion, is clearly: when crows evolved.

American Crow

I’ve been watching the American Crows flying around lately in the gusty winds we’ve been experiencing at the Fill. Unlike most birds – who seem to prefer hunkering down on a sturdy limb or under a dense bush to wait out the storm – crows seem to love the wild wind. They leap into the air like hang gliders jumping off Mount Si, spread out their wings, and let their long black feather-fingers caress the air currents as the wind takes them where it will.

Five of them were at it over the greenhouse field this morning, when without warning, one of them broke formation and careened straight down. I thought it was going to crash into the greenhouse superstructure, like a WW II kamikaze aiming for the nearest aircraft carrier, but no. It was just diving for the heck of it. Having fun.

Rarely Beautiful

Blue-winged Teal male

Blue-winged Teals are one of Washington’s oh-wow birds – a duck that, when sighted, causes the jaw to drop, the eyes to fill with wonder, and the mouth to say, “Oh wow.”

I’m not exactly sure why this is. Yes, the male teals have dramatic plumage: a gun-metal, bluish-gray head marked with snow-white crescents in front of the eyes; a chest covered  with cute little black spots on a beige background; and powder-blue wing patches that rival the sky in their blueness. But other ducks are far more colorful, including the Blue-wingeds’ close cousin, the Northern Shoveler, a duck with iridescent green head, bright mahogany body, white chest, and carrot-orange legs.

And maybe that’s the key. Blue-winged Teals are uncommon at the Fill. They come in April and May, stay for a few days, and then disappear to better breeding grounds in undisturbed fields and potholes around the state. I don’t see them every year, and even when I do, I know they are not going to hang around for long. They’re a confection. Mallards, Northern Shovelers, the ubiquitous Gadwalls are residents, more like everyday meat-and-potatoes . We’d miss them if they were gone, but we take them for granted as long as they’re here.

Not every creature on Earth is like this. You’d never catch a cow walking half a mile for one bite of borage. No, cows prefer abundance. A gull with one herring is not nearly as happy as a gull surrounded by a school of herring. Most animals shun rarity. They distrust the unusual. “Antiques Roadshow” would never make their A list.

We, on the other hand, value the rare. We’re crazy about the Mona Lisa because there’s only one. If every household had a Mona Lisa hanging in the kitchen window, its value would plummet to the level of a bullfighter on black velvet.

Maybe we should think about that. After all, clean air is common. So are parks, loved ones, the dawn chorus of robins, smiles. They deserve an “oh wow” even if they are everyday. Because they are every day.

What’s Good for the Gander

Canada Geese with goslings

The season’s first Canada Goose babies hatched out this past week, and the dad has become paranoidally protective. You wouldn’t think an animal with webbed feet and no teeth could be very fearsome, but geese are fully capable of taking on grown men. I know, because of Mr. Hissy.

Mr. Hissy was a male Canada Goose who decided to stake out the entire East Point as his territory one year. As April faded into May and his hormones cranked up, he began charging out of his grassy kingdom whenever anyone got near – mouth agape, eyes aflame, tongue sticking out, hissing like a broken steam pipe. It was totally intimidating.

I came home from a losing bout with Mr. Hissy one morning and complained to my husband that a goose was keeping me from visiting one of my favorite lookout spots. “I can’t even walk near East Point without that pesky goose attacking me,” I said.

“Well,” huffed my husband, “we’ll soon see about that.” John was offended that his own mate was being threatened by another male, avian though it might be. All his defensive hormones began to rage, and a faint brogue entered his speech. John claims a wild Scottish clansman as his ancestor, and I suspect he secretly yearns for a claymore.

Canada Geese hissing

The next morning, my hero accompanied me out to the point. When Mr. Hissy saw us, he came charging out as usual. In his eyes was the light of battle. On his lips (if he had had them) was his hissy battle cry. John puffed himself up, spread out his arms, and hissed right back. Mr. Hissy stopped dead in his tracks. He was baffled. No one had ever hissed at him before. He stalked back and forth through the grass, trying to figure out what to do. But it was no good. John was just too big and feisty. Mr. Hissy was forced to retreat.

As we continued down the trail, John remarked, “There, you see. You should have no more troub….” Pow! Mr. Hissy had taken flight and rammed John in the back of the head. We fled. Later on, after we got our breath back, John turned thoughtful. “You know, the Fill is home for all these birds – we’re just casual visitors. Maybe you should skip going to the point for a few days. It would be the kind and generous thing to do.” So I did.

John is still my knight in shining armor. Kindness requires its own heroism, you know.

Bald Eagle, Junior Grade

Bald Eagle, adult

Bald Eagles belong to the tough love school of child-rearing. Once the babies reach flying age, out of the nest they go, never to return. Not for eagles is the open-door policy of letting grown children return home to find themselves or find a job, whichever comes first. (In the interests of full disclosure here, let me say that I love it when my grown kids come home to live for awhile – if I had the money I would buy up the houses on either side of mine, connect them with tunnels and walkways, and have everyone live cheek by jowl. This dream causes my kids to run around in circles, screaming and pulling at their hair.)

One of the junior eagles has been stubbornly ignoring Ma and Pa Eagles’ attempts at tough love. He keeps coming back to the nest for food and care. I think he’s had some trouble adjusting to adult life. Earlier in the year, I saw him try to catch a coot, as his parents often do. He soared above the terrified flock, which was all hunched up in the middle of the lake. Then he dove on it, causing several individual coots to break formation. All good so far. But then, instead of choosing one hapless coot and stooping on it repeatedly until it became too exhausted to dive out of the way, the adolescent eagle dove on first one coot, then another, then another, until he himself was too exhausted to try anymore. Later on that day, I saw him catch a fish – unfortunately, a fish so tiny he could hold it in one foot, and even then it almost slipped out between the talons. It was the equivalent of half a Chicken McNugget, definitely not a Happy Meal.

Bald Eagle, immature

Still, he does look like a healthy eagle. His wings are strong, his eye is clear. He’s finding something to eat every day. Which is just as well because Ma and Pa have their own troubles to worry about now. They’re sitting on eggs that will soon hatch, if they haven’t already. The next generation of eagles is well on its way.

The Gold that Really Matters

When warbler season arrives, as it did yesterday, you have to press your “fast forward” button and speed up everything – your eyes, your reaction time, maybe even your metabolism. For the warblers are quick themselves, definitely the Type A members of avifauna.  As they hunt for insects, they flit here and there, hopping, flying, leaping, hunting. They don’t pause for anything, and that makes them hard to watch.

Yesterday was typical. I’d been looking for the warbler migration to start for weeks now, but the cold has kept the birds in the warm south. Now that spring has arrived, so have they. I went hunting for them in the bushes that line the trail by the Leaky Pond. Historically, this has been a good spot for warblers. I think the perpetual wetness of the pond – which tries so hard to be a pond but only achieves pondhood when the rain pours down, and then only briefly – attracts insect parents, who lay their eggs in the dampness and thus doom their progeny to become warbler prey.

I could hear warblers in the depths of the bushes, but I wanted to SEE them. Soon, I did. A Yellow-rumped Warbler popped up for all of three nanoseconds, just long enough for me to tell it was of the Myrtle persuasion (white throat, not the yellow of the Audubon’s variety). Beautiful, yes – spectacularly so now that breeding season has arrived –but common. They’ve been here all winter. I wanted to see a new bird, a, a, a… OMG, there was a Wilson’sWarbler. A male. He stood in the bright sunshine for one breath, two, then poof!gone. But he stayed long enough for me to see the tiny black yarmulka on his head, his olive back, and the stunning yellow of his entire front.

Wilson's Warbler

English has no word for the yellow of the Wilson’sWarbler. It isn’t just one color. It is every yellow that ever was. A Wilson’s is so yellowful that there was only one thing to do. I went to the paint store and picked up all the yellow chips that I saw in his feathers. I figured an interior designer would be able to describe his yellow much better than a mere writer.  So now I can tell you that a Wilson’s Warbler is Ever Sunshine, Golden Glimmer, Daffodil, Cornbread, Buttery, Days of the Sun, and Dutch Gold. It is a Summer Petal, a Golden Fable, a Glimmer. In short, a Wilson’s Warbler is Solarette itself: little sunshine.

A Swirl of Swallows

Tree Swallow in flight.

Joy lies in the connections we make  ­– with each other and for me most of all with nature.

Yesterday was a day of pure joy, and all on account of the swallows who welcomed me into their world.

Swallows are fast-flying birds who make their living by flying around catching insects in the air. They are summer birds at the Fill, and they have been slowly arriving here since February.  They’re here now in numbers.

We host four resident species: Tree Swallow, Violet-green, Cliff, and Barn. All four were swirling around the alder grove near the kiosk yesterday. There must have been a bug hatch near the ground because the swallows stayed low, nearly brushing the tops of the grass stalks as they flew. They skimmed the earth at incredible speed, around and around the grove, a living carousel that sang their little songs as they worked.

They took me right back to my childhood, when I would stand watching the carved horses of the Fun Forest’s carousel  prance around and around in an endless parade of elegance.  My favorite horse was a wild black one with tossing mane and flaring tail.  I liked him best because he was the fastest – or at least so it seemed to me, despite the fact that his wooden hooves were attached to the platform the same as all the other steeds. What does reality matter to a child with an imagination?

I was that child again yesterday, as the swallows swirled around me, drawing me into their magical merry-go-round, singing and swooping.  As I turned one last time to follow their flight, a black shape rocketed past me. It was a Vaux’s Swift, a bird even faster and sleeker than the swallows. The wildest  one. The fastest. My favorite.