Monthly Archives: June 2010

The Rashomon of the Mud Puddle

Barn Swallow

I’ve been hearing a lot of muttering at the mud puddle that leaks out of Southwest Pond and covers a portion of the Loop Trail, like a watery boulder in the path of life. Runners come to it and start dancing up and down in place as they contemplate how wet and dirty their expensive running shoes will become if they splash through, versus what would happen if they follow the newly trodden path through the grassland above the trail. Unfortunately, they soon realize the new trail is also unbelievably wet and muddy. That’s when they start to mutter.

Birders are just as chary of the mud. “Did you get through?” they often ask me as I round the Loop Trail, much as the royal heads of Europe must have asked their hired explorers after they tried to find the Northwest Passage. A mix of hope and curiosity.

One day, as I approached the Great Barrier Puddle, I saw that someone had placed a stick in it as a kind of wooden steppingstone. It didn’t last. Numerous feet soon trod it deeper and deeper into the depths of the puddle, until it disappeared from view. It’s probably still down there, waiting to burst forth again like Atlantis rising from the sea, if and when our summer ever dries out.

What is irritating to us, however, is essential to the birds. Barn Swallows and Cliff Swallows come here to gather mud for their nests. A Common Yellowthroat sometimes lands near the edge to hunt for insects. Yesterday, a Virginia Rail slowly slinked out of its marshy blind and poked about for crustaceans. I think it got a little snail. Every now and then, the Cinnamon Teal pair who live in the pond stand in the puddle just deep enough to cover their feet. Why do they do this? I can’t say. We humans don’t always know why a bird does something. We just have to know that it’s up to us to provide enough good habitat for them to do what they need to survive. Even if it comes at an irritating cost to us.

Feathered Notes

Great Blue HeronGreat Blue Herons often look to me like they just stuck a toe in an electric socket. Foom! and their feathers jut out in shock. Other times, they remind me of Emperor Joseph II’s criticism of Mozart’s new opera. To paraphrase: “There are simply too many feathers. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.”

But as Mozart was completely unable to cut a note without ruining the perfection of his opera, a heron needs every one of its feathers, too, raggedy or not. Some it needs to keep warm. Some it hopes will attract a mate. Some it uses to intimidate a rival. Some are to fly, some to steer. Some smooth out the contours of the heron’s wings to improve air flow. All these feathers are piled onto the bird – in rows, in stacks, in heaps, in single plumes. There are so many you could never hope to count them all.

The feathers take a lot of care. They must be oiled and smoothed, fluffed up and patted down. Sometimes, the feathers itch, and the heron must raise one foot in a careful balancing act and scratch the offending area. Sometimes, the feathers wear out, and then the bird must molt.

All birds molt their feathers, usually at least once a year, but they do it on their own schedule. Some birds molt just before they leave to head south on their long flight to their winter territory. Some wait till they’re home for the winter and then molt. Some molt soon after the babies leave the nest, when the parents have time to draw a breath. Many males, especially ducks, molt out of their breeding plumage shortly after mating – they need to get inconspicuous as quickly as possible to evade predators.

Herons never seem to molt. On the contrary, they always seem to carry an overabundance of supply. Intellectually, you know they must lose a feather here and there, now and then. But like all the best performers, they never let you see them drop a note.

Beyond Our Senses

It must be hard to be a woodpecker. For one thing, all that head-banging can’t be good for your brains. More to the point, how does one even go about finding the right piece of wood to bang your head against? The number of trees and snags in the Fill is large. They can’t all have insects under their bark.

Luckily this past week, the Downy Woodpecker family that has been nesting in the cottonwoods at Boy Scout Pond all spring put on a demo on just this topic. I was privileged to be in the audience. Here’s how it’s done.

First, mom came roller-coasting out of the woods and landed in a dead snag bordering the marsh. She began banging away at the wood. Soon junior came bouncing out to join her, followed by dad, whose little red topknot gleamed in the weak sunlight. Junior watched intently as mom pecked vigorously on the trunk of the snag. Her bill moved so fast it was impossible to see the motion distinctly – only a blur showed in my binoculars. She stopped a few times, as if encouraging her little one to try. But junior was clueless. So dad tried his beak at the lesson. He flew to another tree and waited till the family positioned themselves on the tree. Then, WHANG WHANG WHANG.Male Downy Woodpecker

It is said that woodpeckers can detect their larval prey through sound. I find this hard to believe, given the noisiness of the Fill – the constant whooshing of traffic across the bridge, the drone of the Laurelhurst neighbor’s pontoon plane taking off, the shouts of the crew coaches spurring their kids on to greater effort. There is always a lot of noise pollution in the city. How can you hope to hear a sound as tiny as that of a grub inching its way inside the wood of a tree?

But my husband, the physicist, has no trouble believing this tale. “When I was a paperboy in Iowa,” he said, “I could always sense when one of my customers was hiding in the closet so he wouldn’t have to pay me when I came around to collect for delivering his newspapers. I would knock against the door and listen for a body taking up space in the room, just like a carpenter knocks against a wall and listens for a stud. If that didn’t work, I would knock again and freeze. Somehow, I always knew when my customer was there, standing just behind the door, trying to breathe without a sound. I think I could sense my prey’s vibrations through my feet. A paperboy with sensitive feet can go far in this world.”

I still don’t know if I believe that woodpeckers can hear grubs moving inside wood. But I am willing to concede that beings different from me can have senses I cannot hope to understand.

Patience Rewarded

Pied-billed Grebe on nest

“Patience on a Rock,” as I have nicknamed the female Pied-billed Grebe who has been patiently sitting on her nest in Southwest Pond since early April (!!!), has brought forth babies. I saw two under her this week. Normally, Pied-billed Grebes take only about three weeks to incubate their eggs, with the mom and dad switching places and covering up the nest with rotting vegetation when they both need a break. But this pair took three months. I suspect the female kept laying nonviable eggs, or perhaps a raccoon snuck in there and put in a couple of whitish rocks as a joke. (Raccoons are known for their jolly sense of humor, as anyone who has confronted one of their spilled-garbage pranks in the early morning when you’re late for work will attest.) Now that the babies have hatched, we can expect to see them riding on their mother’s back as she takes them around the pond for an outing.

Pied-billed Grebes feedingLook for the babies’ zebra-striped heads peeking out of their mom’s warm feathers. You should also listen for the kids’ little peeps when they get hungry and beg for food. The parents will be frantically catching fish to stuff into the babies’ beaks for the next several weeks. No more time to sit there and brood, letting the days drift by. As tempting as it is to just incubate, life demands more from us than that.

Free Spirit

Cliff Swallows at work

Cliff Swallows at work on Main Pond.

Cliff Swallows always strike me as the blue-collar members of the swallow clan, that is if swallows wore collars. What I mean is, they are a hard-working, beak-to-the-grindstone kind of bird. While their more hey-go-mad cousins the Tree Swallows wait for a handy woodpecker to dig a hole in a tree for them to use as a nest, the Cliff Swallows make their own. It isn’t easy for them, either. They must gather mud by the tiny beakful, mix it to proper consistency, and carry it back to a flat surface, where they plaster it onto hundreds of other beakfuls of mud, making colonies of nests in row upon row.

Seeing them toil at the mudbank of the Main Pond, like Israelites making bricks for Pharaoh, does not give the impression that Cliff Swallows believe in partying till you drop. So it was with jaw-dropping wonder that I watched one Cliff Swallow the other day break off from his laboring brethren, float up into the ether, and commence executing barrel rolls that would have put the Red Baron to shame. With a casual dip of one wing, he tossed off a roll, flapped a little to gain air-speed, tossed off another roll, squeaked to the chain gang below, and then did it all again.

There is an age when the strong vitality of youth produces such exuberance that you simply must run, or dance, or do a barrel roll.

Has that vitality passed from us baby-boomers? Absolutely not! We may have reached the age when we can’t get up or down without making a noise. We may think twice before bending down to pick up something, and then when we’re down there think about what else we can do before we straighten up again. But inside, we are still eighteen. And inside is where it counts.

Love Song

Willow Flycatcher

A Willow Flycatcher has been singing his love song from the swamp south of the CUH building lately. I wonder if he’s the same flycatcher who sang every summer morning from the top of the dead willow snag on the north end of Main Pond. He may very well be – birds often do come back to their same breeding grounds. One male Willow Flycatcher returned to its Oregon territory every year for eleven years.

Willow Flycatchers belong to the Empidonax family. There are eleven different species of Empidonax that come to the US from Central and South America to breed every summer. The distinguishing characteristic of  Empidonax flycatchers is that there is no distinguishing characteristic. They all look alike: brownish to olive backs, grayish to yellowish fronts, a couple of whitish wingbars, whiskers around the beak. Not a peacocky family. In fact, they’re all what we birders call LBBs – little brown birds (or, if you’re from Texas, LBJs – little brown jobs).

Oh, you can see minor differences in eye-rings, yellow wash on the belly, bill length, tail length, and such. But the truth is, the only way to tell one fly-catcher from another is to hear its song.

That’s what I loved so much about my favorite Willow Flycatcher of last year: his song. He would fly up to the topmost branch of the tree and wait while the House Finches amassed there to sing their own liquid, complex melodies. The finch songs would go on and on while the Willow waited in the wings, so to speak. Finally, the finches would pause, and the flycatcher would swell himself up like Pavarotti . His little neck would bulge, his beak would point itself up to the heavens, and forth would pour the little singer’s aria: “FITZ-bew! FITZ-bew! FITZ-bew!”

I have to say the Willow’s song is one of the least melodious in all the bird kingdom. Many people would scarcely classify it as song at all. More the crankcase than the trumpet. But to the singer, his music was sublime.

It’s a lesson for all us seemingly untalented talents. To an outside ear, our song may not qualify us to appear on stage, but it is uniquely ours. No one else can sing it as we do. No one else ever has or ever will. Therefore, sing it loud and sing it proud. It is beautiful.

Puddles of Fun

An artist I met once at the Wooden Boat Festival told me it never rains when you can see the Dutchman’s breeches. She had set up her easel out in the open on an overcast day that looked as if the heavens could open at any moment, although there were patches of blue here and there (hence, the breeches). Now, usually I am gullibility itself. I tend to believe what anyone tells me until I find out different for myself. But even I thought she was loony. Why should one cloud pay attention to the lack of cloud in another part of the sky and hold off dropping its buckets of rain? Nevertheless, when I spotted a tiny patch of blue yesterday afternoon, I was off like a shot to the Fill. I’ve been working on my unbridled optimism lately, and maybe that artist was right after all.

Unfortunately, no sooner did my husband drop me off and head over to the Mac store with the car than the heavens opened and the rain came down. Not to worry, though, because I think I must know every tree on the site that is worth huddling under in a storm. In this case, my tree was behind the baseball diamond, where a little service road goes up to a sawdust pile and ends at the back of a polluted slough. You wouldn’t think this would be a good area to be forced to sit in while hoping the rain would end. But it was utterly charming.

First, three American Goldfinches showed up to take a bath in a nearby puddle. Why bathe when it’s raining? Beats me. The male went first, wading in until his stomach was underwater, then splashing decorously with his wings. One of the females was more exuberant, motoring around in the puddle like a rubber ducky with an outboard. The third female had just entered the puddle when I had to cough. Blam! My cough blasted her straight out of the water and onto the shore as she checked to see what had just exploded.

Meanwhile, a Black-headed Grosbeak alit in a nearby tree and posed for a few seconds. A Downy Woodpecker began to ratchet along a branch, and a family of Bewick’s Wrens began agitating for their parents to get busy and feed them now now now.

Female Downy Woodpecker

Female Downy Woodpecker ratcheting up a tree.

Near my tree, a female Common Yellowthroat showed up. I thought she was there to huddle from the rain as I was, but no, she was a lot more interested in catching the myriads of insects that all this rain has fostered. We must be grateful to the mosquitoes, for they nourish the birds. As I nourish the mosquitoes. Hakuna Matata!

Alex’s Project

Alex in Micronesia

Alex in Micronesia, 2002

Long-time Seattle birder (and my son!) Alex has been up to good lately. Birders may recall that Alex spent three years teaching in Micronesia. While there, he experienced a typhoon that destroyed all the breadfruit on two of the outer islands. Alex asked the birding community (and others in Seattle) to help him save the lives of 400 people. Which we did!

I guess helping others grew in his heart because for some years now, he has been on the board of a nonprofit called Habele. (He actually helped to found it.) Habele is an organization that provides scholarships for Outer Island Micronesian high school kids to attend boarding school on the main island.

Boarding school is the only way that Outer Islander teens can get a decent education, and a chance upward in life.

For $500, Habele can provide a year’s worth of tuition, room, and board for one student. Last year, Habele funded 16 kids.

This coming year, Habele needs to keep those kids in school and perhaps send a few more too.

You can help! Imagine the good you can do with a small donation to change a Micronesian kid’s life.

Check out the Habele web site. It’s an IRS-recognized charity. One hundred percent of your donation will go to help the kids – Habele is totally run by volunteers.

Please go to: and dig deep into your pockets. Your money can change lives.

Black Magic

June is the month to raise your eyes to the heavens and search for one for the rarest and most beautiful birds of the Fill: Black Swifts.

I do not see them every year. But when they come, the Black Swifts appear out of nowhere, conjured by Mother Nature as a special gift to the Fill. One second the skies are empty, the next they are crowded with black, swooping birds. They knife through the wind but make no sound, like aerial scimitars brandished high above the landscape.

Black Swifts are one of the latest migrants to arrive from the south. This year, they reached the Fill on May 27, when 24 soared overhead in the most wondrous show I have ever seen. For almost an hour they swirled – first over the fields, then over the alder grove, out to the lake, and back again. As they passed by each other, now and then two would engage briefly in flight. A mated pair? I think so, for Black Swifts live on the wing, mate in flight, hunt together in flight.

Black Swift in flight

For the past week, half a dozen have come in the early morning hours to draw fractal patterns among the clouds like the brushstrokes of a celestial sumie calligrapher, whose ink paints an avian phrase against one cloud, then fades to memory, only to write another phrase in the next cloud. What is being written? We are not privileged to know.

Black Swifts are birds of mystery, rumored to build their nests behind mountain waterfalls in the Cascades and on the sheer faces of cliffs where the moss grows strong. No one knows exactly where the nests are, or if people do, they keep the secret. As do the swifts. It’s black magic.