Monthly Archives: September 2011

X Marks the Spot

This week I experienced a Ponce de Leon moment at the Fill. Ponce de Leon, you may recall, was the Spanish conquistador who, legend has it, went looking for the Fountain of Youth and found Florida instead. Not being satisfied with having discovered a new continent, Ponce de Leon searched all up and down both coasts of Florida for the Fountain of Youth, enduring heat, humidity, the flies, and mosquitoes. I can easily imagine him marching along in his metal helmet and breastplate, wishing someone would invent air conditioning.

However, much as I respect the conquistador’s trials, really his quest was nothing compared to mine at the Fill. He searched Florida for only eight months. I have been searching for something even more elusive than a mythical fountain for 25 years: the Hutton’s Vireo. Hutton’s Vireos are small, nondescript birds of olive and gray with few distinguishing field marks and almost no singing ability. (Their “song” is really more of a two-note set of calls repeated monotonously in the spring, a repertoire as drab as their outward appearance.)

It is, perhaps, this bird’s very plainness that has attracted me. Hutton’s Vireos are creatures as full of life as the gaudiest bird on the planet, yet they have some of the dowdiest plumage. I like the contrast. Unfortunately, Hutton’s Vireos do not belong at the Fill. “The habitat is just not right,” one expert told me, “so searching for them here is pointless.” It’s all too true. Hutton’s Vireos are fairly common in western Washington, but they prefer forests. There is no forest habitat at the Fill — just marsh, prairie, ponds, swamp, and gardens. Hutton’s don’t travel around much, either. They are year-round residents who tend to stay put once they establish a territory. However, some do spread to non-breeding areas in the fall, and why not to the Fill? I have long wished to see one here. This past Tuesday, I got my wish.

I was sitting on my camp stool in front of a small grove of alders and cottonwoods, watching a gigantic flock of Bushtits forage from bush to branch to grass stem. Among them were Black-throated Gray Warblers, Wilson’s Warblers, Western Tanagers, and other migrating songbirds. I was trying to put my binoculars onto every twitching leaf before “warbler neck” set in and incapacitated me, when behind one leaf halfway up an alder emerged the vireo. I stopped breathing as this little guy slowly worked its way along a branch, captured a bug, ate it, then wiped its bill clean on the branch. It was in plain view for perhaps three seconds.

Twenty-five years of searching, and here was my reward at last. Three seconds became an eternity as I watched. Rare magic. Who needs that silly Fountain of Youth when you can find a treasure like a Hutton’s Vireo? Best of all, my treasure was real.


They leave quietly in the night, the birds who came here last spring to breed, and the young they raised. Without fanfare they steal away – the Tree Swallows who cared for three chicks in the narrow snag at Southwest Pond; the four Cinnamon Teals who hatched on Main Pond and took their first flight together all the way over to the lake, a distance of 20 meters; the Savannah Sparrows who kept the prairie grasses abuzz with their chatter; the Common Yellowthroat babies whose dads were so busy fetching bugs the poor guys barely had time to sing their boundary songs. All gone away.

I wanted to say goodbye, to wish them well on their long journey south. But birds are not about saying goodbye. Sentiment is simply not in them. Neither nostalgia nor regret can hold them here. When they leap into the sky and join the vast stream of other birds fleeing our shortening days and colder nights, they do not look back. Their eyes look only ahead. They feel the call of the south, and they are free.

Fall is a time of leaving. The last warmth of summer drifts away as languidly as the cottonwood leaves that break from their branches with a little crack and float down.

But fall is not just the season of endings. It is also the time of arriving. Yesterday, a foursome of American Wigeons flew in from the north. They will spend the winter here. It is their home. So too for the flock of Ring-necked Ducks that winged their way back and forth across the lake, looking for just the right place to set down. Foster Island looked good at first, but in the end they settled on Waterlily Cove. A good place for fish. A good place for life.

Mom, Make Him Stop

Late August through mid-September is the time when most of our wood-warbler species migrate through the Fill. Wood-warblers are a family unique to our hemisphere. They are small songbirds (4-7 inches long) that eat mostly insects. North America hosts almost 50 different species each summer. The males of most species molt into bright colors in breeding season so they can attract the drabber females.

Much as I love the Fill, this is not the best place to find warblers. At most, we get only 13 species, and some of these are quite rare. So it is always with great delight that I greet the warblers who do come here.

One of my favorites, and one of the most colorful of all the species, is the Yellow Warbler, a bird so yellow it resembles a small sun rocketing through galaxies of green leaves as it hunts for food. Two Yellow Warblers were migrating through here yesterday. They both showed up to forage in the bushes lining Main Pond, the biggest pond at the Fill. This pond has many bushes, and each bush has innumerable insects, so there was plenty of food to go around. Evidently, though, this was not the case in the minds of the two warblers, who spent more time chasing each other than they did finding their own bugs to eat. They acted like they had to defend each little branch of each bush from the depredations of their rival. Around and around they would fly, never allowing each other a moment to perch or, God forbid, eat anything.

Watching them reminded me of the times I would drive my two kids around in our van. There was space in the back for six kids, but my two always clashed over who got to sit where. Our trips were filled with cries of “Mom, make him stop.”

I wonder if those Yellow Warblers will chase each other in continuous spirals all the way down to South America.

Diamonds, Rings, and Other Things

The “teenage” Pied-billed Grebe who hatched out on Main Pond here at Montlake Fill was busy catching fish again today. His parents left him on his own at least three weeks ago, a very tender age to be all alone in the world. You might say they threw him in the deep end of the pond, except this pond is nowhere very deep. That’s a good thing because the only fish that thrive here are tiny minnows, just the right size for a small grebe to eat. The pond sustains this little guy bountifully, so perhaps it is no accident his parents chose it for their nest back in April. They must have known their baby would be confined here a long time, unable to leave until he grows his flight feathers. Pied-billed grebes cannot walk – their legs and feet are set too far back on their bodies, so at best they can flop forward a few inches at a time, hunching with their toes and “ankles.” Grebes do much better underwater, where they can rotate their feet 90 degrees, turning them into effective paddles. On still days like today, I can follow the youngster’s progress underwater because of the air bubbles he releases periodically. The grebe’s bubble-path reminds me of the ring of bright water that Gavin Maxwell’s otter Mij made as he dove for food. A large ring ripples out from the grebe’s dive site, spreading leisurely in even-spaced circles across the mirror surface of the pond. A few feet further on, a smaller ring appears, marking the grebe’s progress. I watch for the next sign, a ring still smaller. Then the grebe himself breaks the surface of the water, shaking his head and sprinkling droplets all around, like diamonds strewn on satin. Perfection.