Monthly Archives: April 2012

You Are Good

When it comes to plumage, Dunlins are extremists, like many other members of the sandpiper family. To paraphrase an old nursery rhyme, “When they are drab, Dunlins are very, very drab; when they are bright, they are torrid.”

Dunlins in winter are two-tone blahs: nondescript dark on top, white below. But when spring arrives, Dunlins assume an altogether different guise. Their back feathers become a fiery symphony of burnt orange, glowing rust, and ashy black. Dark chevrons of brown march up and down their white breasts. Most stunning of all, Dunlins sport a giant black bulls-eye on their snow-white bellies.

Most of the spring Dunlins who come through the Fill this time of year are in the middle of “the change,” like this one that was here last week.

Yesterday, though, a fully bright Dunlin appeared on Main Pond, glowing in the weak sunlight of a typical Seattle April. The bird was foraging at the pond’s edge, minding its own business, when a crow flew in and began to chase it.  The Dunlin flew away but returned when the crow had gone. Unfortunately, the crow saw it reappear and went after it again. This happened over and over. At last, the Dunlin managed to sneak back to its feeding area unobserved. As it stood there on the shore, panting, it looked over at me. It seemed bewildered by the numerous attacks.

I was moved to quote Gene Wilder. “You’re a good looking fellow, do you know that? People laugh at you, people hate you, but why do they hate you? Because… they are jealous! Look at that boyish face. Look at that sweet smile. Do you want to talk about physical strength? Do you want to talk about sheer muscle? Do you want to talk about the Olympian ideal? You are a god! And listen to me, you are not evil. You… are… good.”

The Dunlin gave a little peep and went back to feeding, happy again.

‘Tis the Season

To a large degree, we have lost the sense of season. Most of us spend the majority of our time indoors, in a climate-controlled habitat with artificial light and air-conditioning, wearing sweaters whether it is July or December. We eat grapes year-round, and lemonade is no longer just a summer treat. With a simple stroke of the pen, we can join a gym and jog whenever we want, rain or shine, without getting wet and without actually going anywhere except maybe an inch or two forward or backward on the treadmill.

For the birds, however, seasons are everything. Birds conduct their lives wholly in the outdoors, where weather tells them to huddle or hustle, and where length of day tells them to stay put or fly far.

Now that April has come, our winter residents are quickly replacing their drab plumage with the brilliant colors of spring. Summer residents are arriving each day, already decked out for breeding. And everyone —everyone! — is singing.

Male Yellow-rumped Warbler, about to leave for the northern taiga.

In fact, the first two weeks of April are the most musical time of the year for us at the Fill. The birds who live here year-round are establishing their breeding territory, which the males do by singing. The birds who come here in spring to breed need to attract a mate as rapidly as possible, which the males do by singing. The winter birds who will soon leave us to fly north to their breeding grounds are so revved up by their hormones that the males are behaving like they already are in the Far North, where they fight by singing. I think many of them will fight and sing all the way to Alaska.

Take a moment out of your busy day to stand still anywhere on the Fill’s trails and listen. The concert you hear will last only another week or two before the winter birds depart, the year-round residents settle down to brood eggs, and the summer breeders get busy raising a new family. We will still have song, of course. We have that all year round. But the symphony will never present us with so many diverse voices as we hear right now. Once the symphony disperses, it won’t return for an entire year, and we will have only our memories of this rich sound to sustain us till then.

Survival of the Fittest

Yesterday, I saw a flash of yellow on the edge of Yesler Swamp, in a tree covered with last year’s fluffy white seed balls. I’ve been noticing yellow more as the sun has decided to appear again in our cloudy, gray skies. But this was no glint of sunlight. It was an Orange-crowned Warbler, looking bright and newly fledged in breeding plumage.

It was weeks too early for such a warbler to be here, however. In fact, it was weeks too early for me to be out birding in just two layers of thermal clothes. I needed three or four, at least. The wind was howling, the trees were thrashing, and ice had only recently retreated from my windshield. Spring is definitely on the way, but winter is still putting up a fight. It was bitterly cold, and I was huddled in my car with the heater going full blast.

“Ah, that’s our overwintering guy,” I said to Alex MacKenzie, my birder friend who was spreading her hands in front of the car’s heat vent, trying to restore circulation. She had tried to walk the Loop Trail in this winter storm and had made it as far as the Dime Lot, when she saw my car and hustled over to get rescued.

Every now and then, a summer warbler elects to stay in Seattle all winter, instead of migrating south with everyone else. It’s a hard life for an insect-eating bird, especially when relentless rain and snow kill all the insects.

I had first seen this little Orange-crowned toughie back in December, foraging for frozen insects along the fence that borders the western edge of the swamp. Birders have reported seeing him near here for weeks now, but I had not been able to find him again. Now here he was, feisty as ever, the Ernest Shackleton of avians. A survivor.