Monthly Archives: January 2012

Yesler Swamp Bird of the Week: Black-capped Chickadee

Eulogy to the Ordinary

Though Black-capped Chickadees are among the most common birds of the Fill, they are anything but common, everyday animals. On the contrary, Black-capped Chickadees are extraordinary. Just ask yourself this: If to fix your breakfast you had to climb barefoot up a 50-foot tree, hang upside down by your toes, then drop like a trapeze artist 20 feet down to grab onto a new hold, all for the reward of one bug — and all before your first cup of coffee — how long could you survive?

My answer would be: three minutes, tops. But chickadees do this every morning for years without a single complaint.

Well, maybe they complain. It’s hard to say, not knowing exactly what their frequent “chickadee-dee-dee” song means.

Yesterday I was standing among the willow trees where the chip path curves south to Yesler Cove when three chickadees flew in to forage for insects. Before I knew it, they had triangulated me: one bird behind my left shoulder, one behind my right, and one in front. The one in front was so close I could see its throat throb as it gave its diagnostic call. The other two answered from concealment. The first one examined me with its beady left eye, then shined its equally beady right eye at me. Again it spoke to its companions, and again they answered. Then everyone came out to forage.

I became part of the little feeding flock. It was magical. Extraordinary. Some of the flock members hunted for bugs on the undersides of leaves and branches. Some scrambled through the leaf litter looking for seeds. I wanted so much to join in, but I’m not fond of bugs, and the seeds all around me were better left to the birds. I found myself getting hungrier and hungrier. The thought of a cheeseburger began to take over my mind. When the flock finally moved on, so did I: they to the next patch of brush, I to the nearest fast-food outlet. Not good. My recommendation? If you want to join a feeding flock, bring along a healthy salad in your backpack.


• In fall and winter, Black-capped Chickadees often cache seeds in many different hiding places.

• They can remember where they hide all their seeds because each fall, they grow new neurons in their brains, just for this purpose.

• Black-capped Chickadees are the gourmands of the avian world: They spend much of their day finding and eating food, and they aren’t fussy about what they consume. They eat seeds, nuts, fruit, insects, spiders, larvae and eggs of small arthropods, suet at feeders, and even carrion.

• Black-capped Chickadees form long-lasting pair bonds.

• In breeding season, they are extremely territorial and will fight to defend their nest holes.

• During the off-season, though, they flock together for protection. Other small birds are welcome to join the flock. It’s common to see a feeding flock of chickadees, kinglets, sparrows, and even overwintering warblers.

• The oldest known chickadee lived to be 12 years old.

• Chickadees sleep in their own holes at night.

• Chickadees communicate many messages with their song. Among the most important are alarm calls, warning other birds of predators. The more “dee’s” in a chickadee’s song, the greater the alarm.

Yesler Swamp Bird of the Week: Trumpeter Swan

Four juvenile Trumpeter Swans (left) with parent (far right) in Yesler Cove.

January is the season for newbies, the time for us to say goodbye to the old, worn-out year and ring in the hopeful new one. It’s the month we make resolutions to become a newer, better person, the paragon we always wanted to be but so far never were: slimmer, perhaps, with curlier hair (or straighter if you’re already curly), tidier, more organized, dedicated to eating more vegetables. In a sense, January is when we all become young again, free to discover who we really are and what we really can become.

In Western culture, this annual stampede to our personal Big Bang is symbolized by a happy, diapered baby, often wearing (for reasons that escape me), a top hat. At Yesler Swamp, however, beginnings are epitomized by swans. Four juvenile Trumpeter Swans, to be exact.

Their story began last summer. Far away on a tundra pond, four baby swans pecked open their shells and saw the light of day for the very first time. Their snow-white parents worked hard to protect them and shepherd them to the best places to eat plants. Throughout the long days of summer, when the sun never sets, the cygnets grew until at last they reached the size of their parents. Just in time, too, for winter was coming to the Far North. The swan family felt the shortening days and fled, all the way to Yesler Swamp. Here, the young swans are safe. Here they are free to explore their new world. And here their feathers will molt from gray to white, as the juveniles become adults. In the spring they will fly back to the tundra, beginning a cycle that can last more than a decade. For now, they sleep in Yesler Cove in the evenings, paddle into the lake to feed during the day, fly a little, learn a lot, as youngsters should. We are their home.– Constance Sidles


• Trumpeter Swans are the largest and heaviest waterfowl native to North America.

• They can be difficult to tell apart from Tundra Swans. Trumpeters are bigger than Tundras and have all-black bills. Tundra Swans often (though not always) have a spot of yellow on their bills, near the eye. (We have one Tundra Swan visiting us this year.)

• Juvenile Trumpeter Swans are sooty gray all winter long. They don’t molt into the all-white plumage of adults until spring migration.

• It takes four to seven years before Trumpeter Swans begin having babies. However, they choose their lifelong mates between ages two and four.

• In our area, Trumpeter Swans feast on aquatic plants, often tipping up their rear ends to reach deep underwater with their long necks. Farther north, in the Skagit Valley, swans come onto land to graze in fields.

• Parents do not bring food to the babies; rather, they bring the babies to the food. Baby Trumpeter Swans are able to leave the nest and swim almost immediately after hatching and don’t need to be fed by the parents. However, family groups usually stay together until the young are fully grown and can fend completely for themselves.

• Trumpeter Swans used to range throughout North America. Their numbers were reduced by hunting to around 100 birds south of Canada. The population is rising now, thanks to habitat preservation and protection from hunting.

• From the time the Pilgrims arrived in America, Trumpeter Swans were hunted extensively for food and for their feathers, which people thought made the best quill pens.

• Washington State hosts more Trumpeter Swans than any other state except Alaska.

Swan Lake

Two of "our" Trumpeter Swans, Lake Washington south of Loop Trail.

Four years ago, heavy snows in December drove a flock of 11 Trumpeter Swans down from the Skagit, where they usually spend the winter eating leftover grain in farmer’s fields. Three of the swans were juveniles, easy to tell apart from the all-white adults because juvenile Trumpeters are gray.

The three babies spent the winter here in the waters of the Fill, always close together, frequently touching each other with their bills. Here they grew to adulthood, always together, often touching. We became their home.

When spring arrived, the three flew north to the tundra to look for mates. We human fans were sad to see them go, but as all good parents must, we told ourselves it was for the best. Babies have to leave the nest if they are ever to grow up properly, and ours — while still so very young and untried — were ready to fly.

The next winter, “our” swans came back, now snow-white but still close-knit, touching each other often. Once again, they spent the winter here at home with us, and once again, they flew north when the call of spring told them it was time. Last winter, I began to look for them again, hoping they had survived, hoping they would return. On January 1, 2011, two swans flew overhead and landed gracefully in Waterlily Cove. Before I could shout with joy, four more winged in. “Our” swans were back, and they had brought their spouses! We enjoyed the pleasure of their company all winter long before spring arrived and they left to breed.

This year, like most parents of adult children, my hopes were high that some of our swans would bring their babies home for the holidays. In December, they did. And they brought some friends. We now host 14 (!) adult Trumpeter Swans and four juveniles. Among the Trumpeters is a true rarity: a Tundra Swan.

Tundra Swan in slough near Canoe Island.

Tundra Swans are noticeably smaller than Trumpeters and have a different facial pattern: the black skin of their bills and foreheads is usually graced with a yellow splash near the eye. Tundras’ heads are frequently more rounded than Trumpeters’, and their bills often more curved. Unfortunately, these field marks are not always helpful. Size is hard to judge when bodies are distant, not all Tundras have a yellow lore, and head shape varies considerably from individual to individual.

One day, I was gazing at the swan flock on the lake, muttering to myself about the finer points of swan identification, when a nonbirder happened by. “Swans are here?” she asked, having caught a piece of my one self arguing with my other self, both out loud. (I will point out that in times of yore, such uni-conversations would have made audiences start back-pedaling out of a conviction that there was no knowing the outer limits of the speaker’s outre behavior, but nowadays, listeners just assume you’re hooked up to a cellphone.)

I told her we have 19 swans visiting now, but, I cautioned, at least one was a different species. She was supremely indifferent to this point. “Swans!” she said in an awed voice, and was off down the trail to get a better look.

She made me realize that while precise identification of bird species does matter to many of us, and it matters for very cogent reasons of science, not to mention personal goals of listing, at another level, it matters not at all. Swans of any sort are wondrous creatures. The fact that we host them in the heart of a major city is even more miraculous.

Adult spreads wings over juvenile foraging near Canoe Island.

First of Year

January 1 is a special day for many of us birders. As soon as we down our first cup of coffee, we stagger blearily to the window and look for the very first bird to appear. That bird becomes FOY: First of the Year.

For many of us, the FOY becomes the year’s birding theme. If Mother Nature sends us a good bird, we gleefully brag to all our birding friends. If she sends us one we don’t like – say, a bird introduced to the US from another country (eg., a European Starling), or a bird we associate with bad vibes (eg., a gull from the local dump, or a blackbird strolling around the K-Mart parking lot) – we despondently seek comfort from our birding friends. Everyone always commiserates with the unlucky birder, but secretly we’re glad that bird wasn’t wished on us.

I don’t wait for a quality bird as FOY because if I did, it would *always* be a crow. Crows have their fans, but I am not a big one. To avoid having one Crow Year after another, my husband and I engage in long discussions in late December about which strategy we should pursue to see a bird before the crow tide flows out of the current roost in the cemetery at 7:29 a.m.

This year, he told me he has been seeing a “fluffy, fuzzy, owly kind of thing” fly out from a tiny nook between the beams of the Center for Urban Horticulture building in the early mornings. John is not a birder by choice or by nature: he loves to watch birds’ behavior but cares nothing about identifying species. You might say his lack of interest in listing is zen-like in its purity.

While I admire his dedication to ideals, I have to admit it’s frustrating at times, too. This Jan. 1 was one of those times, when it would have been great if he had been able to provide a few more details about his nook bird. But his description was good enough to determine our plan for FOY: get to the CUH before first light and try to identify what was lurking in the nook.

So there we were in the dead of a dark January 1 morning, creeping up on the CUH building as silently as we could, dressed in dark clothing, with a flashlight and various optics strewn about our persons. My best hope was that none of the neighbors would report us to security (remembering the eco-terrorists who set the building on fire some years ago). I get so nervous when questioned by authority figures. I start to babble, and the more I babble, the more suspicious I appear. Been there, done that – no desire to repeat.

Anyway, despite our stealth, no one was at home in the nook, so there we stood, plan shot to pieces. Now what? We headed over to the Lagoon to look for ducks, but the night was so dark even my Nikons couldn’t pick up enough photons to make out a bird from a buoy. We decamped to the New Wooden Bridge to discuss. There, in the brightness of the light standards, were five Pied-billed Grebes paddling around in the puddle of orange light shining on the water. Great birds, no gendarmes, and a whole day of surprises still ahead. Who could ask for more?