Monthly Archives: July 2010

Social Studies

Cliff Swallows like to do everything together. Like a gaggle of seventh-grade girls, they travel together, eat together, roost together, and dress alike.

This year, Cliff Swallows arrived at the Fill from their homes in South America on April 4. One day, no swallows; the next, sky filled with them. They congregated mostly on the western side of the Fill, not too far from their mud nests plastered under the eaves of the IMA Building. There, they checked out the old nests, many of which had been scraped off by the maintenance staff, who seem to prefer bare walls to bird condos.Cliff Swallow in nest

Undeterred, the Cliff Swallows flew over to Main Pond to collect mud to repair the old nests and construct some new ones. As they renovated the colony, they took their lunch breaks together, naturally, flying around Canoe Island, where the insects breed abundantly in the cattails and still waters. Every morning during nesting season, I walked over to say hello. Cliff Swallows are early risers, like me, and the rising sun would find them already out and about.

Last week, though, the colony was deserted. Ah, I thought, moving day. Sure enough, the colony had moved itself to a little tree growing in the center of Canoe Island. The nestlings had fledged, and parents and kids were now all clutching branches on that tree, waiting for the insects to warm up and begin flying. I counted more than 200 birds packed into a tree not much bigger than an SUV. Everyone was chattering at once. Cliff Swallows are small birds with small voices, so I was surprised at the decibels they generated when in chorus. From a distance, they sounded like a flock of blackbirds. In fact, I thought the noise was the raucous Red-winged Blackbirds, who also hang out on Canoe Island. After I realized the cacophony was caused by the Cliff Swallows, I tried to analyze how many swallows it takes to duplicate the raucousity of one blackbird. Scientists will be pleased to know the ratio is 14:1.

For the next several days, the Cliff Swallows will continue to hunt insects together, building up strength and fat for the long journey south. Last year at this time, the flock decided to patronize Main Pond. I think the protected waters of the pond attracted them. Swallows drink on the wing, so it’s helpful to find waveless water. To take a drink, they skim over the water, flying closer and closer to the surface. Then all at once, they fold their wings back, put their heads down, and take a tiny sip on the fly. It takes a lot of skill to drink on the wing like this ­­– the juveniles tend to misjudge at first and make a mighty splash instead of a delicate ripple.

You should keep an eye out to see this lovely phenomenon of nature because it won’t keep happening for long. One night soon, the swallows will sense conditions are right. They will rise into the night sky together, circle their summer home a time or two, and wing their way south. I will miss them when they’re gone.


It’s no accident that the large shorebirds we see at the Fill during migration – the dowitchers, snipe, yellowlegs, and pectoral sandpipers – all have eyes near the tops of their heads. They are the favored food of the Peregrine Falcon and must constantly search the skies to stay safe. Searching the sky is easier if your eyes are already angled upwards.

Peregrines, you see, are among the fastest of all birds. When they stoop (i.e., dive) on their prey from above, they have been clocked at speeds higher than 240 mph. That means at top speed, these falcons can cover 200 meters in about 2 seconds. Peregrines are no slouches when it comes to flapping speeds during powered flight, either. At the Fill, they can burst out of hiding and chase down a hapless shorebird so fast the human eye cannot follow.

Peregrine Falcon

This makes the shorebirds understandably nervous. You can see how wary the shorebirds are as they feed in the mud on Shoveler’s Pond. The yellowlegs seem especially conscious of their delicious vulnerability. They bob and twitch almost constantly, ready to leap into the air in an instant. The dowitchers aren’t much calmer. They stitch their heads up and down in the water like a fast-moving sewing machine, coming up for air and a quick scan of the skies after every stitch. In the military, such vigilance is called situational awareness. It means being aware of everything that happens around you so you spot danger before it spots you.

Situational awareness is a critical skill for shorebirds, who are right to be worried about safety. A large female Peregrine has been shopping the neighborhood regularly of late. She flashed by earlier this week, scaring all the birds and exciting all the birders. She was on the lookout for especially weak or unwary prey that would be easy to catch.  She didn’t get anything on that pass – the birds were too situationally aware and managed to escape – but she is so big and healthy-looking I know she won’t go hungry for long.

Humans at the Fill, by contrast, seem to have almost no situational awareness at all. Civilization has contrived to keep us at the top of the food chain for so long, we have little sense of danger when we venture forth, ear buds in place and thumbs in the texting position. Not good. We may have deleted our predators from the landscape over the years, but we have not deleted nature as the dominant force in our environment.

Lately, I’ve begun to think we should take a page out of the shorebirds’ book and develop more situational awareness of the world around us. Perhaps then we would realize that nature still controls our lives much more than we would like to think. As an old TV ad used to remind us, “You can’t fool Mother Nature.” At least, not for long.

Spaceship Earth

As the Mars Rovers continue to send back photos of the Martian landscape, one thing has become crystle clear. If there is or ever was life on Mars, it’s darned elusive. Despite months of trying, the scoopers are coming up empty, at least life-wise.

Mars Rover

Mars Rover "Spirit" takes a photo of its own tracks on the desolate Martian landscape. (Photo courtesy NASA/JPL-Cal Tech)

Such a thing could never happen here on Earth. If alien scientists were to send their version of a Rover here to scoop up samples, they would find abundant life anywhere they looked.

In fact, I can’t think of a single place on the planet where a scooper wouldn’t find some evidence of life, whether the deepest ocean depths, the coldest reaches of the Antarctic, or the hottest, most arid desert. (Okay, maybe the heart of a volcano would be a little sparse, but landing a Rover-like device smack-dab in the middle of a volcano would be like me hitting a ringer at the local Puyallup Fair arcade. And what are the odds of that??)

Life on our planet, in other words, is everywhere rich, vibrant, diverse. You can see this especially well in July at the Fill. The local resident birds – everything from wrens and robins to hummers and eagles – are bringing their fledglings out into the open now to teach them how to forage for themselves. Meanwhile, the migrants from the Far North are beginning to come through in numbers: adult sandpipers on their way south ahead of another wave of juvenile migrants scheduled to appear in August and September. A few early winter residents will show up any day now, even as the summer breeders are getting ready to head out.

Before they leave us, though, these temporary residents and their brand-new progeny will have to fatten up for the flight. So they’re busy eating as much and as fast as they can. Flights of swallows fill the air. Young cowbirds mix freely with the finches finding seeds in the newly mown fields.  In the reeds of the ponds, Virginia Rail moms hurry their kids along, urging them to eat grubs and worms so they can grow their flight feathers in time to fly before winter.

Virginia Rail Chick

Virginia Rail chick. (Copyright Doug Parrott)

I saw just such a little family of rails near Main Pond yesterday – three black fuzzballs on stilts. When the mom called from one clump of shrubs near the shore, the babies darted out to grab a bite and then run back into cover.

They were the most adorable example of new life brought into being, right there at my feet. Oh, wondrous planet. “Let the heavens rejoice and the Earth be glad.”

Birds of a Feather

I am not a bird. I cannot fly or sing like a bird. I do not molt or migrate. When my grown children ask to come home for a while to roost, I do not peck or drive them away, as the eagles do. On the contrary, I love having my kids come back. Maybe I’m a colony bird, like the Double-crested Cormorant? No. No feathers.

Male Mallard bathing.Do the birds know I am not one of them? That’s a bit hard to answer.  On the one hand, many of the birds at the Fill are wary of me. The Savannah Sparrows often raise their head feathers in alarm when I come too close to their favorite grass stems. The Killdeer on Shoveler’s Pond start calling the minute they see my blue hat approach. On the other hand, Savannahs and Killdeer are wary of any big bird. They keep an eye on all us jumbo-sized critters, just in case we should take the notion to eat them.

Lately, the Mallards who are flocking on Main Pond now that breeding season is ending have allowed me to join their flock. Whenever I set up my camp stool at the southern lookout point, the Mallards begin to float over from the far shore. Eventually, they come out of the water to feed on the weeds all around me. Some snuffle for food in the mud nearby or dabble for plants a little farther out in the water. They bathe or preen. A few even go to sleep.

I sit there enchanted as the ducks ebb and flow. They talk to each other, you know, keeping up a constant commentary. I talk back. “You’re looking a little scruffy today,” I’ll say to one molting male. He doesn’t seem to resent my personal  observation, but then I remember my mother’s admonition never to make personal remarks about anyone. It’s rude. So I apologize and point out a tasty weed he might enjoy. I think the ducks like the sound of my voice. It reassures them that I am settled, unlikely to leap up and grab one of them. Sometimes I’ll give a muttered quack, just to see if anyone notices. I take care to do this when I’m sure no people are around to hear me. I’m already weird enough as it is.

It’s amazingly comforting to be in a flock. Like any functional community, the members watch out for each other. They pay attention to what each one is doing. They’re interested in what everyone has to say. They don’t always get along perfectly – sometimes they give each other a peck or even chase each other. But they accept each other, too. They belong.

When was the last time you felt you belonged? For me, that happens every day. I belong at the Fill.

Dowitcher Doings

Long-billed Dowitcher

In the tundra of the Far North, the wind blows steadily and sometimes fiercely. It ruffles the feathers of one Long-billed Dowitcher as he faces south, into the teeth of the wind. His mate stands nearby, her feet in one of the innumerable puddles that nourish the insect larvae hatching all across Alaska. It is the larvae that have brought the dowitchers so far from their southern homes, to a feast for them and their hatchlings.

But food is not what the dowitchers have in mind now. They have done what they came here to do. Their babies, only a few days old, are already able to care for themselves. It is time for the parents to go.

Without a backward look, the male spreads his wings, catches the wind, and flies. His mate watches him leave with no regrets, no memory even that will draw them back together again. There are plenty of dowitchers in the tundra for her to choose from next year.  For now, she too feels the pull of migration, but she will catch another wind, another night.

On Saturday, the male arrived at the Fill. The warm breeze ruffled his feathers as he bent his long bill into the rich mud of Main Pond. I found him there on the western shore, bobbing his head rapidly in and out of the water as he used his long, sensitive bill to hunt for larvae and crustaceans.

He looked up at me when I slowly and carefully opened my camp stool and sat down to watch. The Mallards floating nearby scarcely bothered to turn their heads. They know people are no threat to them here, and somehow their peacefulness reassured the dowitcher. He studied me for a minute, then went back to stitching the mud. He had miles to go on his way south, but for now, there were critters to eat and safety among the ducks. If you’re a dowitcher on migration in July, that’s all you need. Life is good.

Gotta Sing

One of the sounds I love best about summer is the tootling of the House Finches.

House Finches are the quintessential LLB (little brown bird). The females and juveniles are a nondescript combo of muted brown and beige stripes that allows them to simply vanish from view whenever they hop onto an equally brown and beige branch. The males have a little red here and there, but somehow it all blends into the browns and disappears from notice.Male House Finch

I’ve sat in front of blackberry bushes knowing a House Finch was mere feet from my face, and yet I couldn’t pick it out from the foliage. Other times, I’ve seen one or two in a bush, and then they get startled by something, and a bazillion fly out, like clowns exiting the Clown Car at a circus. They were obviously perching in plain sight all the time, but their nondescription hid them like magic.

What the House Finches lack in appearance, though, they make up for in song. House Finches have one of the most complex, beautiful songs in all of bird-dom. In spring, the males give concerts that go on and on, never seeming to repeat themselves. Not tuneful, exactly, since I can never quite identify a pattern; more like an improvised operatic run, when the tenor takes one note from the score and won’t let go of the spotlight for long minutes at a time.

Now that it’s summer, the males have mostly stopped singing. Instead, they and their families are tootling. It’s a musical conversation they carry on with each other, and it is lovely. I guess they just can’t help singing, even when they’re only passing idle comments.

It’s this trait of House Finches that appeals to me the most because it reminds me it’s what you do in life that matters, not what you look like.

Living Sunshine

Yellow Warbler

Some say the Yellow Warbler is our yellowest songbird. It may very well be true. Yellow Warblers are bright yellow from head to claw. When I say “bright,” I mean they may rival the sun itself in measurable lumens – although I must admit that really isn’t hard to do in the gray skies of our typical Junuary. A day-old corn muffin could rival the sun at this time of year. But I digress.

When a male Yellow Warbler shows up in his newly donned spring plumage, you can see his flash of sunshine from a quarter-mile away. Every square inch of him is yellow, except for a few black wing feathers, and some red breast streaks that look like rays at sunrise.

The ancient Egyptians often depicted the Aten – the sun god – as a disk emitting rays with little hands at the end of each ray. The hands patted the upraised faces of worshippers, blessing them with the gift of life. That’s what a Yellow Warbler is to me – a blessing of life itself. Seeing one always makes me happy.

Don’t get me wrong. We have other yellow birds at the Fill, of course, and I’m very fond of them, too. One of the brightest is our state bird, the American Goldfinch. But if you look closely at a goldfinch’s feathers, you can see that underneath the yellow lie white feathers, kind of like a guy wearing a lemon Armani shirt over a Jockey tee. The Yellow Warbler, by contrast, is yellow through and through.

Yellow Warblers come to the Fill during spring and fall migration. It’s rare for any to nest here, but I think we are hosting a nesting pair this year. I found a singing male in the willows near Southwest Pond this week, and I suspect he’s defending his mate’s nest by doing what warblers do best: singing.

This one, however, was not looking great. His yellow was worn and frayed. He was busy hunting for bugs and barely had time to toss off a snatch of song. He would hop onto one branch, sing a little, look for predators, hop to the next branch, do a quick preen, search for an insect, hop, sing. The poor thing looked exhausted.

I know intellectually he was probably just molting his feathers, and that’s why he was looking a little dull. I also know scientifically he was merely following his genetic imperative to breed. But to my eyes, he had worn himself wan, spending his life force in the service of his family. A shining example to us all.

Yadda, Yadda, Yadda

Belted Kingfishers were born to kvetch. They can’t seem to go anywhere or do anything without a running commentary, pitched loud, raucous, and endless. My favorite female kingfisher, for example, never flies silently. Yesterday, she was flapping around Paulson Prairie kvetching with every flap. Last autumn, we found her perched in a snag at East Point. Every few seconds, she would raise her tail and make a comment. The tail-raising seemed to fan her temper.Female Belted Kingfisher

I love that little gal. Kvetching, you see – contrary to what the online dictionaries say – is not ordinary complaining. It is complaining raised to an art form. In the military, they call it griping. Among the English upper crust, I believe it is called grousing.

Kvetching is not meant to be taken seriously. In fact the word “kvetch” is a Yiddish word derived from the German for “squeeze.” Think of squeezing a toy and hearing a kind of eep-y protest. Kvetching is like that. No one – least of all the kvetcher – expects the listener to do anything to make a squeeze toy’s life better. We can thus just stand back and admire.

As  I  did  last  year when my favorite female flew into the dead willow snag at the north end of Main Pond. There she stood, kvetching continuously as she studied the water below, looking for a fish. Unfortunately, a Cooper’s Hawk was drawn to the sound of her voice and came rocketing in. With one especially loud squawk, the kingfisher sprang into the air and flew around and around the pond, keeping just barely out of reach of the hawk. Kvetching all the while. Then in a virtuoso display of flying technique, she executed a loop-the-loop and got behind the hawk. Instead of flying off safely, though, she went after the hawk, pecking him in the behind with her powerful beak. Kvetching all the while. The hawk, completely cowed by this attack, fled, leaving behind one feather that floated gently down to land on the water. The kingfisher returned to her perch, fluffed out her own feathers, and settled down to hunt for fish again. Kvetching all the while.

In other words, she shook off a life-threatening attack that would have prostrated you and me for days. “Hawks? Nu? What do I care for hawks? Let me tell you about something really important. The supply of fish. The placement of this snag. Those geese that get in my way when I try to dive. The birders with their binocs, watching, watching, always watching. What’s with that? My lumbago….”

You can’t help loving a soul like that.