Saturday, May 26, 2012

Stormy Weather

Farmers, photographers and birders. If you want an accurate weather forecast, rely on 'em.

Outdoor photographers must be exquisitely attuned to climatalogical and lighting conditions. To employ technical language: if the light sucks, the photos will be subpar.

Yesterday as I set out on my bike to bird the Montlake Fill, grey-black clouds hovered right over my destination on what was an otherwise glorious late spring day. Based upon decades of dependence on natural light as both a photographer and birder, I wagered that the fast-moving clouds would be gone by the time I arrived. Or, I gambled, a mini-storm could be to my advantage as it would create dramatic lighting and cause some interesting effects on bird activity.

Upon arrival, it was extremely windy and branches were down, the water and greenery were effervescent, and a mere three raindrops fell on me. My bet paid off: the birds, as a result of the dramatic winds, were particularly exercized, especially the crows and red-wing blackbirds, who are already excitable, territorial and bossy due to mating/nesting imperatives.

I saw red-wing blackbirds mobbing a Cooper's hawk; crows play-fighting with each other, assisted by post-storm gusts; a crow trying to raid a tree swallow's nest; a different crow terrorizing a parent robin who had built an unwisely exposed nest; and red-wing blackbirds mobbing crows.

Tree swallow dive-bombing crow who repeatedly tried to get inside its nest cavity

Red-wing blackbird mobbing crow with plane in background.

On a less contentious note, an exuberantly bathing gadwall sprayed a coot and a couple of mallards. Not sure if the mallard is appreciative or annoyed.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Hoot-hoot in the Hood!

Yup, within a 10-minute walk of my house, barred owls are in residence.

Territorial, vocal crows helped my locate both mother and father in Interlaken Park last week. Barred owls are of a mammal-like bulk (21" tall) and relatively unfazed by human presence--they will stretch, emit wisdom, yawn, gambol, sleep, be serene, faire la toilette, hunt, etc. within 10-15 feet of a person (in this case, me.)

There is consternation and controversy regarding this species. According to the Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society:
The Barred Owl is non-native species to the West, including Western Washington. It has migrated across the continent into western U.S. forests from eastern states. Where the ranges of Barred Owls and Spotted Owls overlap, the Barred Owl has proven to be a more successful competitor that adversely impacts the Spotted Owl. Spotted Owl populations in Washington have been declining at a rate of 7.3% per year. On the Olympic Peninsula, the Barred Owl has increased five-fold in the past 10 years. Biologists observe that the Spotted Owl is being pushed to higher elevations on the Peninsula because of competition from the Barred Owl, which prefers lower forested areas.
I have mixed feelings about their presence. As an urban birder, it's a treat to be able to hang out with owls, but this gratitude is tinged with an uneasy awareness of their effect on other species.

Here's a happy sight for a barred owl-hater: a partially-developed (feathers are visible) egg that I guess was ejected from the nest to the forest floor by a parent or perhaps taken by a raccoon. (If you know otherwise, please let me know.) Beetles are now devouring the partially developed and feathered remains.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Four-winged, two-backed beast

My romantic life has been so barren of late that I have had more luck finding birds in courtship/mating mode than in engaging in such behavior myself.

Friday was a bonanza for observing mating rituals--spring is stirring and I was in prime raptor habitat: the Cle Elum to Thorp area, where coniferous mountains give way to rolling shrub-steppe and flat agricultural land.

I arrived at the Cle Elum River around 7:30. Within minutes, raptor-ish squawking  was overhead: a mature eagle (meaning it sported a fully white head and tail) heading toward the river. Then another.

Female on right; females are typically
larger than males.

They were flying very close together--a mated pair. After zooming over the water, one landed atop a snag and the other soon made purchase on her back. For bird sex, it was long-playing—29 seconds, according to my camera's metadata. Like males of many species, among them homo sapiens, he threw back his head, proclaiming pleasure and conquest, both during and after copulation.

From a distance, their bodies merged, becoming a beast with two backs--plus four wings. Below is the sequence:

The male is now on the right.


Saturday, March 10, 2012

Cute Butt!

I've never been much of an ass connoisseur (human or otherwise), but this white-breasted nuthatch's butt is the cutest avian posterior I've ever seen.

Nuthatches are perennially peripatetic; they are forever nimbly scrambling around tree trunks in search of food. Like creepers, chickadees and bushtits, they are industrious and seemingly indefatigable. I have never seen one at rest, just doing nothing. Even hummingbirds, certainly the most energetic of birds, take breaks and nap in the sun.

Nuthatches have the ability to scale trees upside down, as shown above, and sideways. Needless to say, it was a workout to follow their movements with my camera.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Bird in the Hand

"I want to take you to a secret place in the woods where the birds eat out of your hands."

I--and my Zipcar--were stuck in a ditch along a country road in the Skagit Flats when I got this text from my friend Nancy. Needless to say, this was added reason to get the hell out of that ditch STAT.

A couple of hours (and many fresh-faced offers of help from young farmboys in trucks) later, I was indeed standing in the woods with a chestnut-backed chickadee clinging with its spidery-soft-but-tenacious toes to my hand, snatching a peanut with its mosquito-sized beak.

Never having seen this species up close before, I was able to marvel at its subtle coloration: a warm cinnamon-red in its sleek black cap.

Apparently, the people who own this land outside of La Conner have stood with their nut-filled hands outstretched so often that the birds have gradually acclimated to humans who come bearing food.

Thank you very much to Nancy and Wendy for sharing this magical experience with me.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Cherry Red

A few tell-tale anatomical features of a young crow are well-displayed here: its blue eyes and pinkish-red inner mouth (called a gape by ornithologists). The angle of the sun and the crow's posture coincide to strikingly illuminate its cherry-red mouth.

Many bird species have a gape in the red-orange-pink-yellow range; the generally accepted explanation is that such bright coloration helps the parent bird more readily hit its target when arriving with food for its young. In other words, the brighter the gape, the greater a nestling's competitive advantage over its siblings.

In another pleasing coincidence, right across the street from this cherry-gaped crow were bunches of cherries, also enhanced by the sun.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Crow Alpinist?

Lord knows I'm not an animal behaviorist, but here's my perspective on this popular crow-sledding video: I'm a curmudgeonly non-anthropomorphizer on this one; I do not believe that the crow is engaging in what real birdologists call "tool-making or play behavior".

Crows are curious and tenacious and will explore an object quite exhaustively (to our eyes, at least). This bird seems more concerned with pecking at the object's rim than in using it to gain unlimited sled rides. Notice how it continues to drill it after ride #2.  It then takes the object back to the roof's apex for more beakwork--rather than setting itself up for another downhill ride. Nor do I see the crow making a connection between its pecking motion/body weight propulsion and the ensuing downhill ride.

I will admit to some very non-scientific anthropomorphic outbursts when it comes to our avian friends (see, there I go again!), but in this case, I'm gonna play it more objectively.

Thank you to fellow crow-lover John S. for sharing with me!

Addendum as of January 29: After further conversation with a few others, I should clarify that I don't deny that the crow experienced some enjoyment or sense of "play" from the slide. But I don't believe enjoyment was the bird's primary motivation. Any positive experience of that nature, I posit, was secondary and/or incidental to its primary motivation, which was figuring what out what the hell that lid is and/or does it have any edible food particles.