Monthly Archives: October 2011

Costume Change

Clark Kent came to the Fill yesterday. Or at least the avian version did. Kent, you’ll recall was the shy reporter whose alter ego was the awe-inspiring, colorfully clad Superman. On regular work days, Clark wore a plain gray suit, glasses, and a fedora. But when crisis called, he would step into a phone booth, tear off his glasses, rip open his shirt, and reveal a garish get-up of red, blue, and yellow, ready for action.

Our own (avian) version of mild-mannered Clark Kent was a winter-plumaged Eared Grebe, a duck-sized puffball of a waterbird garbed in gray flannel above and dress white below.

Eared Grebe in winter plumage

So nondescript is this bird in winter that I didn’t think I would ever be able to identify one at the Fill. Few people have. In the past 30 years, only four Eared Grebes have been reported here.

In the summer, though, there is no mistaking this bird. Like Superman, Eared Grebes dress so flamboyantly even Edna Mode (superhero design queen) would be impressed. Streaks of gold shoot out in rays from behind the grebe’s lava-red eyes, creating a solar flare against the night-dark black of the bird’s head and neck. Rich chestnut glows along the bird’s flanks, a banked fire serving as a base for the flaming gold and red above.

Our grebey Clark Kent never morphs into Superman at the Fill though, and not because we lack a phone booth for the guy to change in. Eared Grebes change only when it’s time to breed, and they don’t breed here. Instead, they form dense colonies in the pothole ponds of eastern Washington. It is there they put on their superpowered displays. All we see here is the ashy aftermath in smudges of black, gray, and white.

This particular Eared Grebe was diving for fish just beyond the edge of the lily pads that float near the shore where the Loop Trail parallels the lake. I wouldn’t have picked him out from the other more common grebes if fellow birder Evan Houston hadn’t come by with his scope and zeroed in on him. Together, we watched the grebe dive over and over, staying atop the waves only briefly before submerging again. A bird on a mission. A big thrill for us.

A Thousand Words

Adult Northern Shrike. Photo © Lyn Topinka, courtesy Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.

Ansel Adams would have loved the Fill today. The soft sun of an October morning shed its light on the groves of trees surrounding the ponds, creating deep shadows contrasted by the bright leaves just beginning to turn to gold.

Adams’s great artistry as a photographer was his ability to capture these contrasts of light and shadow. But although he loved all the colors of nature, Adams preferred to express himself in black-and-white.

It wasn’t just that the color photography of his day was too primitive to represent nature accurately. For Adams, black-and-white exposed the inner meaning of nature’s beauty, allowing viewers to understand nature more deeply.

“Our lives,” he said, “at times seem a study in contrast: love and hate, birth and death, right and wrong…everything seen in absolutes of black and white. Too often we are not aware that it is the shades of gray that add depth and meaning to the starkness of those extremes.”

The stark beauty of black-and-white was on full display here today, embodied by one small bird who flew across the yellow-brown fields of Hunn Meadow to perch in the Triple Tree near Main Pond. A Northern Shrike has brought its beauty from the Far North to grace the Fill for a time, a living monochrome framed by a backdrop of autumn gold.

Smarter than We Think

My favorite Western Grebe motored over to the Montlake Fill this week to fish in the Lagoon (the westernmost water body on the site). I was very glad to see him again. I think he’ll probably stick around here for the winter.

I first saw this fellow three years ago as he was paddling westward beside the floating bridge. Western Grebes are not very common at the Fill, although a wintering flock has gathered for years at the north end of the lake a few miles away. I keep my eyes open for one because I like to keep records of bird species at the Fill. This site has been birded since 1895, and I am one in a long line of records keepers.

Anyway, three years ago, the Western Grebe I spotted was behaving in a most unbirdly fashion. It was making a beeline westward, clearly paddling with some purpose in mind. The purpose turned out to be fishing in the Lagoon at the Fill, almost a mile away.

The thing that struck me about this was how long the grebe kept its destination in mind. It took about 20 minutes for the bird to swim from the bridge to the Lagoon. In all that time, it never wavered from its purpose.

I’m not sure, at my age, that I could keep one thing like that in mind for as long! As I get older, I find myself more easily distracted from whatever it is I am doing, and then when my mind drifts back to its original thought, I can’t remember what it was I wanted to do. “Why did I come into this room?” I often ask  myself.

Unlike the grebe, who obviously had decided that it was going to the Fill to find fish, when I forage at the supermarket, I frequently forget what I went there to forage for. So I buy bags of groceries, return home, and attempt to answer my husband when he asks, “Where’s the milk?”

Maybe, instead of being so proud of how smart we are as a species, we should all wish for bird brains.

It’s Morning at Montlake Fill

If I had to guess the political persuasion of Wilson’s Snipes, I would say most of them are probably Reaganites. While I generally dislike painting an entire species with such a broad brush, it’s obvious that Wilson’s Snipes are great believers in one of President Reagan’s favorite maxims: Trust, but verify. Snipes clearly trust that the Fill is a safe place to hang out during the fall, winter, and spring, but they constantly verify that no predators are about to pounce on them. They look up into the sky for enemies almost as much as they look down at the ground for food.

Wilson’s Snipes are freshwater shorebirds with short legs and Jimmy Durante beaks. They are arriving at the Fill now in numbers. Yesterday I found four in Hoyt’s Meadow. If you’re lucky, you may come upon one foraging on the mudbanks of the Lagoon, ponds, and Waterlily Cove of the Fill. Their favorite food is worms, crustaceans, and insects that burrow into mud. Snipes hunt by probing the soft mud with their long bills, which are loaded with sensitive nerves at the tips so they can feel out a likely morsel. Occasionally, snipes fly over to the prairies to pick at food or seeds they find on the ground.

Wilson’s Snipes are plump, tasty menu entrees for a variety of raptors that regularly come to the Fill, including Peregrine Falcons, Merlins, Cooper’s Hawks, and Sharp-shinned Hawks. I’m sure the local Red-tailed Hawks who usually prey on rats wouldn’t say no to a snipe if one were offered, either.

With that many fearsome predators seeking your demise, it’s no wonder Wilson’s Snipes are conservative in their habits. Without sharp bills or long talons, snipes’ only defense against attack is to be wary and to hide. That’s why they have eyes set almost on top of their heads (so it’s easy to scan the sky), and cryptically colored feathers (so they can blend in with their surroundings). Their beige, brown, white, and black feathers camouflage them so completely that we birders usually see them only when the birds flush from hiding and fly away. Most of us are more familiar with the back ends of Wilson’s Snipes than with the whole bird. Makes it hard to verify they’re here, but I trust that if I am patient and persistent, I will find them.