Monthly Archives: January 2011

Ew, Do I Have to Eat That?

Snowberries are the cauliflower of the avian menu: edible, yes—even nutritious. But hardly the go-to entrée when a chef is looking to upgrade the restaurant from four stars to that all-important five.

Yet it is precisely because of their distastefulness that snowberries might well be the crème de la crème at the Fill. Because birds turn up their beaks at snowberry whenever there are tastier seeds or fruit available in the spring, summer, and fall, the snowberry bushes are still heavily laden with food at the tail end of winter. It is now—when all the grass seeds have been eaten and all the chicory stems stripped—that the birds become desperate enough to eat snowberries. Thus the bad-tasting plants are a life-saving larder for critters who can’t afford a refrigerator.

Today a Lincoln’s Sparrow was making use of the pantry at Kern’s Restoration Pond. It hopped up on a snowberry bush, grabbed a marshmallowy berry, and squeezed. The skin split open, and the sparrow dug around inside to unearth a few seeds, spitting out the skin with a birdy “ptooie.” Soon it was joined by a Spotted Towhee and then two Fox Sparrows.

Lincoln's Sparrow

As the birds ate their vegetables, I was reminded of the seasonality of nature. This is the lean time of year, when wild creatures must do whatever they can to hang on until the earth tilts again toward the life-giving sun, and summer arrives with its bounty. We humans forget how much the seasons really do dominate the planetary food supply. We’ve grown accustomed to eating grapes in January and apples in May, thanks to the wonders of refrigeration and the speed of air freight.

I am glad to watch my favorite sparrows find a food that has been preserved for them not through the inventions of humans but because of the intricate relationships of nature. Snowberries need birds to spread their seeds. Birds need the snowberry even though the plant never bothered to lard its fruit with showy color or sweet taste. Together the snowberry and the sparrow create a balance that benefits both the plant and the bird.

Their interconnectedness is the very staff of life. For all that we do to manufacture our own environment apart from nature, we should remember that we too are not just the growers, but the grown.

My Favorite Grump

Pacific Wren

A Pacific Wren was holding forth in Kern’s Restoration Pond this morning. Pacific Wrens (formerly called Winter Wrens) are our smallest wren, hardly more than brown puffballs, with miniscule tails and big attitudes. They are uncommon at the Fill, so I was glad to hear we are hosting one now. This one was chattering to itself as it went about the serious business of finding food on a cold winter’s day.

Kern’s Restoration Pond is one of my favorite places to set up my campstool and be with the birds. I like to roost just where the Loop Trail bows out and then bends gently west, near the snowberry bushes that Kern’s restoration ecology students have planted to replace invasive blackberries. It’s a quiet spot, sheltered from both the wind and the whoosh of the cars going across the floating bridge.

The birds here seem to appreciate the quietness, too. They keep their singing and chipping low-voiced.  All but the wren.  She didn’t seem to care what anybody else thought. She had a comment to make on everything, and by golly, she was going to have her say.

I call her a “female,” but really I have no idea what the bird’s gender was. With wrens, it’s hard for us humans to tell. But this bird reminded me so strongly of Mrs. Olswang that I couldn’t help but think of her as female. Mrs. Olswang was the most curmudgeonly person I ever knew. She lived at the Caroline Kline-Galland Home, a Jewish nursing home down in Seward Park. I met her when I was in grade school. I had gone to the home one day to meet my mother, who was the secretary there. As I walked up the drive, I saw an old woman with her skirt hiked up, wading in the duck pond in front of the building. Curious, I walked up to ask her what she was doing. But before I could open my mouth, she saw me and said, “Who do you think you are? You just frightened off the ducks, and now I can’t find where they’ve hidden their eggs.” Muttering Yiddish imprecations, she climbed out of the pond, put on her shoes, and clomped off.

Mrs. Olswang was always muttering imprecations. Whenever I saw her in the hallways, her mouth was going a mile a minute, commenting unfavorably on the weather, her arthritis, the food, the fact that you couldn’t get flesh-colored stockings anymore (whatever color “flesh” was),  and—sighting me—how the younger generation was  a train wreck just waiting to happen.

I loved that mean, old woman for her vinegar and her spice. I made up my mind that I was going to get her to smile at me somehow, someday, but I never could. Then one year, May 1 rolled around, and my mother hauled us kids over to the Galland Home to pick wildflowers for May Day. May Day was a very important holiday for the residents, most of whom had emigrated from the Old Country. Every year, my mother would convince our grade-school teachers to have all the kids fold dozens of paper baskets, one for each resident. Then my two brothers, my sister, and I would fill the baskets with flowers and hang one on each doorknob. Mrs. Olswang caught me just as I was hanging a basket for her. “So,” she said, giving me the usual stink eye, “you’re the one who’s been giving me baskets of flowers.”

I waited for the storm to break over my head, but suddenly Mrs. Olswang grabbed me and gave me a big hug. Then with a “hrmph,” she unhooked her basket from the doorknob, went into her room, and slammed the door. I think I might have caught the glimmer of a smile on her face before the door banged shut. But it might have been just a trick of the light.

You Go, Girl

To many of us in Seattle, January is just a month to get through. The days are short, the light is dim. Gray surrounds us everywhere we look: low clouds fill the sky, tree branches wring their bare, barky fingers, and people bundle up in dark wool or Gortex as we venture forth into bad weather. Our version of cold doesn’t bite with the clean, sharp air of winter; it slobbers with drizzle and rain.

To birds, though, January is a time for romance. The vast flocks of ducks that fill our waters are all coming into their breeding plumage now, looking like newly polished jewels. The Bald Eagles have begun to bring more sticks to their nest at nearby Talaris, and the female is working hard to build herself up for the great task of making two eggs. The male helps her by catching food and laying it at her feet, the eagle equivalent of dinner for two at Palisade’s.

Yesterday, the Red-tailed Hawk pair who have claimed the Fill as their territory decided to join in. The female—the larger of the two—was minding her own business, perched on a cottonwood branch overlooking Sidles Swamp. She was studying the land below, looking for an unwary rat, when the male came winging in from the west.  He threaded his way through the trees to reach her perch and landed on the same branch but some distance away.  The female paid no attention. She was looking south, the male faced north.

Red-tailed Hawk

Time passed. Then the male took one sidling step toward  her and began gazing at the sky. More time passed. He took another step and scanned the swamp too, as though intent on finding his own rat.  No rats coming into view after several minutes of scanning, the male took one last step and leaned over to brush against the female. She turned her head to gaze at him over her shoulder. “Oh, you here?” she seemed to ask. She turned around to join him side by side, and their bills briefly touched. If she had had lips, I think she would have been smiling.

I certainly was. As a female myself, I had to admire her performance—and his persistence.

(Photo © and courtesy of Kathrine Lloyd)

Home Again

The kids, kids no longer. (Photo copyright Kathrine Lloyd)

In December 2008, the Arctic pummeled western Washington with a fist of ice and snow that paralyzed us for days. We weren’t the only ones to suffer. The swans who had settled in the Skagit for the winter were forced away from the farmers’ fields, where they liked to forage for fallen kernels of grain throughout the winter. Instead, they had to find new habitat in order to survive.

Several of them came here, to the Fill, where they found a welcome refuge. The decaying lilies and other water plants in the shallows of Union Bay provided a rich smorgasbord that the birds liked just as much as the grain they usually ate.

A dozen stayed until spring, providing a daily vision of grace and beauty that brought joy to all of us who gazed upon them. Among the swans who stayed were three babies. Well, teenagers, really. They were juvenile swans who had hatched in the Far North, grown their flight feathers there, and then migrated with their families. You could easily tell them apart from the grown-ups because Trumpeter Swan juveniles are gray. They don’t turn white until it’s time for them to head back north again in the spring.

For months the babies paddled around in the lake, gaining strength. As time passed, they began to separate from their parents, as teenagers do. They would paddle over to the Cut to forage, or drift among the marsh islands in the west. But no matter where they went, they stayed together. Almost always, they were within touching distance of each other, and often they would touch. A close family.

When spring came, they flew off to the north, together as always. I was both happy and sad to see them go. Babies must grow up and leave home. It is nature’s way, so I must feel happy that they grew strong enough to strike out on their own. Still, I worried for them, as I do for my own kids, grown up as they might be. Life is chancy, and there are many dangers.

Last December, though, the three swans returned, still together, still touching. They were all white now, fully adult. A proud sight to see them floating so gracefully in the bay. Another winter passed, and the swans flew again to the north when spring told them it was time to go.

I’ve been watching for them to come back again, ever since I turned the last page of my calendar to December. Would the swans return? Had they survived? Were they safe? Would I ever see them again? On the very last day of December, two appeared magically in Union Bay. “They’re back! They’re back!” I wrote ecstatically at the kiosk. Little did I know.

For on January 1, the first day of the New Year, I was out counting all the birds of the Fill for Seattle Audubon’s annual Christmas Bird Count. My husband and I set up my scope on the deck of the crew house to count the bazillions of ducks out on the bay. As I swiveled the scope back and forth, I looked for the two swans, hoping to add them to the count. Sure enough, there they were, swimming on the far side of the bay. As I watched them through the scope, a flurry of white appeared, a mighty splashing, water everywhere. I blinked, and there were SIX swans. Three touched each other briefly, then separated into pairs, never far from each other.

The kids have come home for the holidays, bringing their new mates with them. I am smiling so hard my cheeks hurt. Oh the joy.