Monthly Archives: November 2011

Marsh Wrens Be Free

The two Marsh Wrens who lay claim to the cattails of Southeast Pond have been venturing forth into unknown territory recently. It all started when they ratcheted themselves up the berry tree that grows amid the cattails on the north end of the pond. From there, they could look over a vast spread of prairie, where sparrows and finches have been feasting on the grass seeds and chicory that grew so abundantly this past summer.

Something about the prairie or the other birds must have attracted the wrens, because, after hesitating in the tree a few days, they finally worked up the courage to fly over the Loop Trail that separates the pond from the field, crossing the Rubicon, as it were. Since then, they have roamed all over the field. I hear them chittering among the grass tufts that rise from the prairie like miniature teepees on the Great Plains. If the air is still, I can follow their progress by the twitching of the grass tufts.

Occasionally, one of the wrens will pop up at the top of a grass stem to see what’s what before diving back down again. The marsh that figures so large in their names seems a distant memory to them, at least for now. “Marsh?” they seem to say. “What are you talking about?”

It’s a reminder that although we humans like to give names to everything, thereby categorizing and locking it all into niches, the ones thusly named do not have to agree to stay safely categorized. Marsh Wrens can be prairie wrens whenever they want. And who knows? Maybe they’ll become forest wrens someday, or mountain wrens, or Lexus-driving suburban wrens. Whatever they do, it won’t be up to an outside agency to set their internal limits.

It never was.

Bird of the Week: Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Recently, I’ve added a new project to my activities at Montlake Fill. The Friends of Yesler Swamp (the swamp is easternmost part of the Fill) have asked me to post a “Bird of the Week” on the signboard at the entrance to the main trail leading into the swamp. Actually, I think I’ll be posting a “Bird of every two weeks,” because I’ve counted only about 105 different species in the swamp, and I’d like this project to last longer than just two years!

The current Bird of the Week is:


Two Ruby-crowned Kinglets were going after each other on the East Trail of Yesler Swamp the other day. The way these diminutive knights fight is they shine their ruby crowns at each other. Whichever warrior shines the brightest wins the match. The male I saw was shining his crown so brightly it looked like his head was on fire. I’ve never seen more red feathers on a kinglet’s crown in my life. Normally, kinglets keep their firebrands sheathed, as it were. So seeing even a glimmer is unusual for me in the field. As for the kinglet’s opponent, he had already retreated into the brush, flinging insults with his little voice as he fled.

Meanwhile, to the victor go the spoils. The winner shook out his feathers and began feeding in the territory he had defended. Ruby-crowned Kinglets spend the winter with us here in the balmy south of their range. When they arrive in late fall, they must establish a new territory each year. The stakes are high: rich habitat means survival through the difficult winter and early spring. Luckily for “our” kinglets, Yesler Swamp and the rest of UBNA provide plenty of food for all.

Fun Facts about Ruby-crowned Kinglets:

• Look carefully at Ruby-crowned Kinglets’ feet: they’re yellow!

• Ruby-crowned Kinglets breed in the heights, either in the Far North or in montane regions from New Mexico north to Alaska. They come down to the lowlands in winter.

• Ruby-crowned Kinglets eat small insects, arachnids, their eggs, and small fruit and seeds. They glean their food with their, tiny, pointed bills.

• Kinglets’ food is often stuck to the undersides of leaves and branches. To get at it, kinglets often hover under a likely piece of vegetation, flapping their wings quickly and maneuvering with their tails to stay in one place (a bit like hummingbirds).

• Males and females are loyal to each other throughout the breeding season, but in the winter they part company. Spring finds each one looking for a new mate.

• Relative to their size, Ruby-crowned Kinglets lay more eggs than almost any other bird — as many as 12 in one clutch.

• Both parents work hard to bring food to the babies after they hatch, but only for a couple of weeks. After that, the female leaves, and the male continues to care for the young.

• The nests are somewhat elastic and can expand as the young birds grow.

• Ruby-crowned Kinglets have only one near cousin: Golden-crowned Kinglets, which can also be found in Yesler Swamp. Golden-crowned Kinglets have black-and-white racing stripes on their heads, as well as gold-colored crowns that are always visible.

• Ruby-crowned Kinglets often feed in mixed flocks, traveling from one bush to another in the company of chickadees, other kinglets, wintering warblers, and other small birds.

• They are fierce birds. When they see a predator, such as a Northern Saw-whet Owl, they will band together and mob the owl, pestering it until it leaves. Listen for excited, fast-paced chipping noises from many throats — it’s a good way to see an owl!

Show and Tell

A male Wood Duck floated into my sphere of existence today, decked out in breeding plumage like a multicolored party balloon. His head was helmeted in iridescent plumes trailing down the back of his neck, by turns green, purple, turquoise, and blue as the feathers caught the sunlight at different angles. His eye was fiery red, matching a flaming brand of red and yellow on his bill. His breast was bright plum, speckled with pale dots. His tan sides were outlined in icy white. Bluish-black framed his back. When he spread out his wings, a flash of satiny teal-blue appeared, like a magician opening his cloak briefly in garish display.

Most un-Seattleish. We Seattleites prefer a more sedate color scheme when we appear in public. Dark gray, black, or green are about as colorful as we allow ourselves to get (except on football Saturdays, when we expand our color wheel to include purple, gold, and white).

However, we must be careful not to judge others’ choices, flamboyant though they be. The Wood Duck, for all his foppish dress, is a utilitarian at heart. His feathers serve a multitude of nuts-and-bolts purposes: They keep him warm and dry in winter and cool in summer. His wing feathers enable him to fly. His tail feathers let him steer. His bright colors warn off rivals and let the females know he is good to go.

Our own organic covering suffers mightily by comparison. Our hair is not thick enough to keep us warm, even on our heads (assuming we still have hair there at all). It doesn’t enable us to fly or even walk. We can’t steer with our hair; in fact, when it gets in our eyes, we can’t steer at all. Our hair does attract mates, especially right after we come out of the salon, but it works a lot better if we also pay fashion visits to the mall.

Our hair does do something that a Wood Duck’s feathers cannot achieve: Styled properly, it drives our parents crazy. I guess that’s something.

My New Book

The APL Iolite, unloading at Port of Seattle © John Sidles

John and I went to the Port of Seattle early yesterday morning to wave hello to my new book. For the past few days, we’ve been tracking the progress of “our” ship, the APL Iolite, as she made her way from our Hong Kong printer across the Pacific. It turns out there are several websites that track ships in real time. When John discovered this, it stimulated all his nerd molecules. So he spent a morning trying to estimate exactly when the Iolite would steam past Golden Gardens Park. We thought it would be fun to stand on the cliffs there and wave as our books went by.

On Monday morning, the ship was anchored in Elliott Bay, waiting to chug into dock and begin unloading. We sprang into the car and headed over the West Seattle Bridge to Alki, where we could get a good view. Unfortunately, the ship moved to dock as we were stuck in rush-hour traffic, so we just missed seeing her arrive. We did get there in time to wave at the crane operators as they unloaded one container after another, moving one every two minutes on average. We also waved at the truckers as they drove the containers to US Customs. They probably thought we were nuts, but we were having a blast.

The book, Second Nature: Tales from the Montlake Fill, is the culmination of all my best craftsmanship in writing and color printing both. It has 32 essays about the intersection of human nature and wild nature at the Montlake Fill, my favorite place on Earth; and it has nearly 90 photographs from some of the best bird photographers in the region. The photos are simply stunning, and I can only hope my readers will think the essays are worthy.

Books should be released by US Customs later this week. If you want one, you can order it directly from me ($23.95, plus tax and s/h), or you can buy a copy soon at Seattle Audubon’s Nature Shop, Flora & Fauna Bookstore, or University Bookstore.

I’ll be giving a series of book readings in December if you’d like to come hear me read and have me sign your book: Grays Harbor Audubon on Dec. 4; Kitsap Audubon on Dec. 8; Friends of Yesler Swamp at UW’s Center for Urban Horticulture on Dec. 11 (co-sponsored by UW Botanic Gardens); and Seattle Audubon at CUH (co-sponsored by UW Botanic Gardens) on Dec. 15.

Here is a sample of some of the spectacular photography: