Monthly Archives: August 2010

My Way

American Goldfinch in winter plumage

The enormous American Goldfinch flock that has assembled recently to feast on the abundant seeds in Hunn Meadow East was teasing the two juvenile Cooper’s Hawks again yesterday. The hawks are teaching themselves how to hunt effectively for their favorite prey: any bird they can catch. The trouble is, they simply cannot catch the faster, more maneuverable goldfinches.

The finches know this, and so they cheerfully gather in the little hawthorn tree whenever one of the hawks perches there. The poor hawk twists its head this way and that, trying to grab one—like a kid grabbing at popcorn—but this never works. Sometimes, the hawk tries so hard I think it’s going to twist its head right off its neck, like a piece of wire you wiggle until metal fatigue splits it in two. All to no avail.

Eventually, the hawk gives up and—head still firmly attached to body, luckily—flies to the Triple Tree, a set of three tall cottonwoods growing in the middle of the field. Invariably, the would-be prey fly off in a finch-cloud in all directions, chattering a warning to any other likely prey. “The hawk is coming! The hawk is coming!” after which all birds simply disappear.

It’s an example of how a flock works for the good of all. Many species of birds begin to flock together at this time of year for reasons of safety. The more eyes, the better, they seem to believe. The more voices, the louder the warning. The more wings flapping, the greater the confusion.

Within a goldfinch flock, though, you can also see that each bird is an individual. For one thing, they all seem to be molting out of their bright gold feathers at their own pace. Some birds are already completely dull, ready for winter. Others have barely begun. I often wonder if these procrastinators procrastinate the same way every year, habitually late to turn in their homework, as it were. Or maybe an individual makes the molting deadline most seasons, but this fall got a little behind, for whatever reason.

I’ve counted more than 500 American Goldfinches in the flock, each one an individual, yet each also contributing to the safety of the whole. I like to watch them as they go about their birdly business because it reminds me of the push-pull we humans also experience as we try to strike a balance between individual versus community. Like the goldfinches, we too are individuals, but we are also social creatures.

The first few years of the 21st century have demonstrated that we live in a time when individuality amongst our own species is at an all-time high. So I feel grateful to the goldfinches for reminding me that me too is also we too, and self should never become selfish.

Full of Surprises

The “dog days of August” may oppress the rest of the nation, but they are completely unknown at the Fill. On the contrary, August is one of the most exciting months in our calendar. Shorebirds and songbirds from the Far North are migrating through the Fill now, so you never know what will show up. All you know is you’re going to be surprised, and the surprise is going to be good. Where else in life can you find that?

In the past few days, we’ve hosted a Semipalmated Sandpiper (a bird that should be migrating east of the Cascades, but oops); three Solitary Sandpipers (uncharacteristically in a flock, since usually they really are solitary); and a Red-necked Phalarope (headed eventually for the ocean, where it will spend the winter). Flycatchers can be found in the willows and bushes, bursting forth suddenly to catch a fly on the wing and then returning to the dense foliage to hide. Flycatchers are songbirds whose songs and feathers are equally drab. Most of the ten or twelve species we see here look almost exactly alike. They are best told apart by song, but in the fall they rarely if ever sing! Makes for a great ID challenge, as you look for minute differences in eye-ring and wing bar. Warblers are also coming through now – my very favorite bird family. Wood warblers are tiny bundles of energy who hunt for insects along leaves and branches. Many are gorgeously colored, even in the fall, and I always smile when I find one. Yesterday I found a lemon-yellow Yellow Warbler whose color rivaled the sun.

But perhaps the most exciting thing about August is the fact that this is the time when newly fledged raptors show up at the Fill. At 75 acres, the Fill is really too small to host full-time raptors, but the juveniles don’t know that. They come here hoping to establish their own territory, away from the more experienced and aggressive adults. It’s fun to watch them. They remind me of my own twenty-somethings: full of energy but not so full of experience.

Yesterday three Sharp-shinned Hawks appeared with their mother. She introduced them to their new dining room and then left for her own territory.  The hungry younglings began to hunt, but really they were pretty clueless. The first one sat in a tree with more than a hundred American Goldfinches perched just out of reach. The goldfinches weren’t scared at all. They knew a hawk catches food with its feet, and how was this one going to do that, perched on a low branch? The second hawk scared up a Green Heron on Main Pond, but the heron was bigger than the hawk, so that didn’t work. The third hawk started out after a Barn Swallow. I’m not absolutely sure the swallow even knew it was being chased. Swallows can fly at least twice as fast as Sharp-shinned Hawks, and this swallow never even looked back. Finally, the three hawks gathered together on a tree to think about things.

Female Belted Kingfisher

That’s when they made their biggest mistake. A Belted Kingfisher flapped over from the canoe house, headed for her favorite fishing hole, the Southwest Pond. All of a sudden, the three hawks rocketed forth from their tree, intent on capturing the kingfisher. The kingfisher gave one startled squawk and then did what all kingfishers would do in this situation. She lost her temper. Rattling off a series of unprintable phrases, she looped-a-loop behind the startled hawks and began pecking at them with her saber-like beak. The hawks tumbled in the air trying to escape. Finally the kingfisher flapped off, leaving the young hawks to preen their addled feathers back into shape. Lesson for the day: never agitate a bird with a sharper beak and a bigger attitude than yours.

Music to My Ears


The Fill is never free from noise. Night or day, the city’s clatter spreads over the area in a continuous wave of constructed sound.

For me, the noise starts as soon as I open my car door in the parking lot east of the Center for Urban Horticulture. Invariably, the first sound I hear is the WHOOSH-wickety-wickety of the CUH’s fan system. In the distance, the thrum of cars over the floating bridge is a constant suspiration, the breath of civilized life for us ever since Henry made a Ford. If you listen closely to the bridge traffic, you can hear an underlying rumble, pitched low like an elephant’s long-speech. The elephants, at least, are communicating. We are merely transporting machine and man from here to there.

Overhead I hear the din of air traffic, a noise I have experienced every single day at the Fill except for one: September 11, 2001. Depending on the wind direction, the Fill is usually on the flight path of the commercial jets flying in and out of Sea-Tac, and their engines are loud. But jets are not the only planes flying by. A surprising number of single-engine Cesnas pass overhead, too, taking folks for a spin, I guess. These planes are much louder than the jets, oddly. Loudest of all is the seaplane that belongs to a local pilot, who docks it near the mansions that line the eastern shore. I timed all the airplanes flying overhead today. One went by every three and a half minutes, on average.

Even more frequent passers-by are the joggers. Joggers, on the whole, don’t make a huge racket, but I can hear them crunching the Loop Trail’s gravel from a hundred meters away. It is a cheerful noise in a way, a reminder that this place is shared by people with many different interests – not all of them birders! – but human noise nonetheless. This morning the joggers turned out early, trying to get their exercise done before the heat of this August day melted them into immobile puddles.

You might think all this hubbub would drown out the quieter sounds of nature, but this is not so. We hear, after all, with our brains even more than with our ears. Just as we can focus our eyes on a particular blade of grass, blocking out all others, we can turn our ears to a particular sound. As we do this, the clamor of our stressful civilization gradually fades away into the distance, and we enter the green symphony of nature.

Here, there is no cacophony. There is only the harmony of bird song, wind sighing through grass, autumn leaves breaking off from their anchor stems with a little crack and drifting down, wavelets lapping against a log, the hum of insects, a beaver’s slapping tail. It is peaceful, beautiful. And it is ours whenever we choose to listen.

Fill of Wonder

Juvenile Red-necked Phalarope

Birders are agog because of a little bird that showed up at the Fill yesterday: a juvenile Red-necked Phalarope. This visitor from the Far North is stopping briefly on our shores to fuel up before continuing its journey south. It belongs to a unique family of shorebirds who both wade and swim. Only three species of phalarope exist on all the planet, and we have one visiting us right now.

I’ve been watching Avatar this week because I’m interested in seeing how Hollywood designers imagine an alien Paradise. Pandora, their fantasy world, is a magical place, lushly filled with strangely beautiful wildlife that the hero comes to believe is worth saving at any cost. Caught up in the loveliness of the scenery, I too come to think the same, and to wish that somewhere in our galaxy, Pandora exists.

It’s good to step outside our own reality now and then to see how someone else somewhere else views beauty – I get the same thrill from watching Nature or Art Wolfe’s Travels to the Edge. All of these shows, both real and un-, remind me to stop a moment and reflect on the fact that we ourselves live in a paradise of beauty, right here in Seattle. Pandora, for all its alien wonders, has nothing as really wonderful as our little Red-necked Phalarope, who is paddling serenely on Main Pond for now but who will soon spend the winter storms swimming on the deep ocean. How can such a fragile-looking creature survive the power of the sea? I don’t know. It’s a wonder. Art Wolfe and the videographers of Nature spend untold money and effort to film the exotica of our planet, yet we ourselves are hosting one of the most exotic of birds, a living, breathing miracle of life in the heart of a big city.

The Red-necked Phalarope was not the only amazing bird at the Fill yesterday. Also on Main Pond were two Spotted Sandpipers bobbing their clownish derrieres on the shore, paying no attention to two lemon-yellow Wilson’s Warblers, who spent more time chasing each other than chasing bugs to eat. A sun-bright Yellow Warbler was not so distracted and caught numerous prey while the Wilson’s were arguing. A drab Willow Flycatcher flew in to perch among the willow wands as it searched for its own brand of bug, finding much to eat in the rich mud of the pond. Earlier in the day, an equally drab Western Wood-pewee put on a masterful flying exhibit as it too looked for insects to snatch in mid-air. I also saw a Green Heron fishing on the Turtle Logs, while a Great Blue Heron nearby opened its wings like a living umbrella to shade its fishing hole. Over on Surber, a Band-tailed Pigeon (our native forest pigeon) surveyed its domain from the top of a conifer. I tried to tell it to be on the lookout for the Peregrine Falcon I had seen in the dawn, but the pigeon was much to lofty to pay any attention to me, beyond one look down its beak at the lowly human who must slog around on the ground and cannot ever hope to reach its heights. Mirabile dictu.

Poorwill Hunting

Common Poorwill, Eastern Washington

Last night, John and I went looking for poorwills. Common Poorwills are small, nocturnal birds mostly of Eastern Washington, who come out of hiding when it’s full dark. They lurk at the sides of roads, looking up into the night sky with their big eyes, searching for the sight of big moths and beetles flying against the stars. When the poorwills see such a bug, they burst forth from the road, open their wide mouths, and scoop up their prey.

The poorwills are starting their migration now. At least, I think they are. Their habits are not too well known because they operate almost entirely at night. During the day, these birds roost in trees or on the ground, so well camouflaged that they might as well be invisible.

Nobody knows how often they frequent the Fill. The only time one has ever been seen here was in May 2006, when two birders found a stray migrant at midnight. I have a feeling poorwills are more common than that, but who is ever awake and abroad in the dead of night at the Fill to find them?

Well, we are. At least whenever we can manage to stay awake long enough to greet the night. At our age, John and I find that Mr. Sandman usually comes by our house around 7 p.m. and coshes us over the head. Next thing we know, we’re sawing lumber. But not last night. Last night, we stayed conscious until full dark had spread its velvety shadow over the Fill, like a crow covering us with a protective wing. Conditions were perfect for finding poorwills.

The way you hunt for poorwills is by driving very, very slowly along a road, with your headlights on. The headlights catch the eye-shine of the poorwills crouching by the roadside. The eye-shine is exactly the color of a candle lit inside a jack o’lantern on Halloween – a kind of unearthly orange glow. I have seen this glow three times in my life while birding in Eastern Washington, and I want to see it again, only this time at my favorite place on Earth.

So there we were in full dark, with our little hopes up. John drove while I sat on the edge of my seat, binoculars at the ready, heart beating wildly from the excitement of the hunt. We held to a steady 3 mph, cruising up the roads and back, scanning for orange glow. Scanning for any glow, actually. Every beer can gave us a jolt, until we saw the glow was cold silver, not molten orange. No good. Drive on.

We searched for 45 minutes until…….

we grew too tired from the excitement to continue. We never did find a poorwill, but I discovered that didn’t matter. What we found instead was a long-forgotten, child-like sense of anticipation, the kind that makes you forget to breathe. It’s the belief that anything can happen and probably will. A treasure hunt, where the treasure you find comes not at the end. It is the purer thrill of just looking.

A Wren’s Life

I think of Nature as slow-moving. One season gradually fades into another as the Earth in its orbit tilts first toward the sun and then away from it. Our world takes an entire year to go around once, then repeats the transit, over and over again. And so the years pass into decades, the decades into centuries, and the eons flow by, a slow-moving river of time without end.

Out at the Fill, as the days slip by uncounted, I observe the wild things as they keep doing what they have always done. The trees add a ring to an already thick trunk. The cattails grow their brown flower spikes in the late summer, preparing to give their fluff to the chickadees for nests in the coming spring, year after everlasting year.

Meanwhile, we humans scurry from one appointment to another, our days filled with too long to-do lists, burdened with more items to check off than anyone could possibly do in a day. Cars filled with frantic commuters crowd the floating bridge’s lanes from dawn to dusk and beyond, as we rush to work, hurry home to make dinner, cram in a quick jog or a fast gulp of latte. If only the sun would slow its long slog across the sky just a wee bit more and give us a 25-hour day, think what we could stuff into that extra hour.

In reality, though, it is Nature that rockets through time, not we. To see this is true, all you have to do is study the Bewick’s Wren family that popped into view at the Wedding Rock today. The two babies have fledged enough feathers to enable them to flap after their parent, begging incessantly for food. They were at it this morning in a bush just two feet from my camp stool.Fledgling Bewick's Wren

The dad was rushing from branch to branch, trying desperately to catch enough bugs to shut them up. (I say the dad not because I’m sure of his gender – with Bewick’s Wrens, it’s hard to tell – but because he was willing to truck back and forth from the relatively buggy alder grove to the bush near me where the babies were crying. A female, I feel sure, would have insisted on the babies coming at least as far as the table. But all the dad could do was mutter, “I’m coming, I’m coming,” as he fetched one bug after another.)

He and his mate have been caring for the babies for several weeks now, which sounds long but is nothing compared to the amount of time John and I have been caring for our kids. The Bewick’s Wrens (like all birds) get mated, breed, brood, hatch, and raise their young all in one short season. They accomplish in four months what it takes humans to do in four times four years – minimum. Wrens are teenagers for what? Two weeks? Three, tops. Mine took eleven years to get through their teens, and I’m not counting their present years as twenty-somethings, when they still come home to roost occasionally and ask for a bug.

Wild Nature is a searing bolt of lightning compared to the slow-cooker of human nurture. And because our lifespan is long compared to a wren’s, maybe we should carve out some of it just to savor slowly on one of these lazy, hazy days of summer. We have time to slow down.

The Old Made New

Male American Goldfinch

This past Saturday, I guided two Texas birders around my favorite place on Earth. They were here for a short visit and wanted to bird one of the most famous spots on the West Coast.

It’s always fun to show newbies the Fill because you get to see the place anew through their eyes. (Young children perform this same invaluable service for us jaded adults, a big reason why we keep having them, no doubt.)

Not that I need anyone to reopen my eyes to the glories of the Fill, mind you. I see such wonders every single day. But I guess I’ve been at it long enough now so that I do sometimes overlook the gold right at my feet. For example, my best bird of the day on Saturday was a Solitary Sandpiper foraging on Shoveler’s Pond. The Solitary was down from its breeding grounds in the muskeg bogs of the Far North, on its way to its home in the tropics. It had stopped awhile in our neighborhood to catch its breath and fatten up a bit. The Fill had provided a bounteous table of mud laden with delicious insects and small crustaceans. Normally, Shoveler’s Pond is as dry as a bone by this time each year. But thanks to our cold, wet spring and non-summer, the pond still has water and gooey mud, and the bird was eating everything in sight.

I don’t get to see a Solitary Sandpiper every year, so this was a happy surprise. I was about to turn to my guests for a high-five, when I noticed they were looking at an entirely different bird. It was an American Goldfinch that had landed in the mud near the Solitary. American Goldfinches are so common at the Fill that I have ceased to look at them beyond noting their mere presence. As in, “Oh, yeah, there’s another goldfinch. Ho-hum.”

But the Texans were riveted. “Of course, we get goldfinches in Texas in the winter,” they said, modestly declining to note that they get nearly every North American bird at some season in Texas. “But we never see them in their bright golden plumage.”

Many of the goldfinches here are already beginning to molt into their drab winter dress, a kind of muddy, mustard brown-yellow with paler wingbars. But goldfinches follow their bliss when it comes to molting, and some of the males have declined to begin just yet. This particular male exhibited golden feathers that gleamed in the gray light of our Seattle summer like a small sun about to go nova.

“Ohhh,” said the Texas birders, “how beautiful.” Yes, he truly was. And thanks to Dick and Shirley, I could see the wonder of his beauty, too. Like the first goldfinch I ever saw. Like new.