Archive for the ‘Birds’ Category

Neighborhood Eagle, 2

April 28, 2013 Leave a comment


In March a year ago, I posted a photo of an eagle I spotted on the north end of Foster Island, a leisurely 15-minute walk north of our house. As I said then,

it’s not entirely news that there are eagles from time to time in our neighborhood, but when I see one, I still get excited. … We are fortunate to live close to Seattle’s Washington Park Arboretum … . Foster Island is its northernmost portion … [with] a clearing on the edge of the island, on the shoreline of Union Bay, with an outlook across Lake Washington to the east, the Montlake Cut (an artificial waterway with a drawbridge) dividing the north and south sides of Seattle to the west, the university to the northwest, and the Laurelhurst neighborhood to the northeast. The northernmost tall tree on the east side of the clearing is the eagle hangout.

This afternoon, I was just approaching the clearing from the south when I heard a rustle in the trees to the right and saw two large birds taking flight, emerging from a tree and flying right to left just ahead and above me. As their path took them straight ahead, I could see that they were bald eagles.

Arriving at the water’s edge, another hundred yards north, I surveyed the scene, but there was no evidence of their presence. Then I wandered around a bit, reaching the shore to the west just in time to spy a large bird approaching, not more than 20 yards above the water’s surface. A couple of wing flaps, glide, two more flaps, glide. It was a ways out, and I didn’t want to get excited about an approaching eagle that would turn out to be a gull. But sure enough, as it drew nearer, it became more and more eagle like, until it gained height on reaching land, passed by with full eagle features, and landed back in the tree from which it had taken off three minutes earlier.

I headed back to the tree, pulled out my iPhone, and took a lame series of photos, one of which you can see above. The blob almost dead center is the eagle, sitting almost exactly in the spot that was home to the eagle I photographed last year.

There’s no sign of a nest. Perhaps this is the same pair that nests a few hundred yards to our east, with the tree serving as their Union Bay fishing base.

I’ll be watching for them.

Categories: Birds

Owl Outing

February 24, 2013 Leave a comment


Two Aprils ago, our friends Deborah and Paul attended the Burke Museum‘s annual fundraising dinner/auction with us and we jointly purchased a one-day owl viewing trip with Rob, the Burke’s ornithology collection manager. Deborah is a fanatical owl lover. She couldn’t bear to miss out on the opportunity. We were happy to go along.

We timed it well. Every few years the snowy owl, an Arctic bird, comes down to Washington State for the winter in large numbers, for reasons not yet understood. Last year was such a year. Rob urged us to take advantage of this fortuitous timing by coming up with a mutually agreeable date for our outing. Alas, for one reason or another, we failed. (Maybe we’re the reason that at last April’s Burke dinner, the auctioned trips with Burke staff came with deadlines attached.)

A couple of months ago, we chose a date at last for this long-deferred trip. Yesterday. Three days ago, Rob suggested a 5:30 am start. He was tracking the latest news on owl sightings and had come up with an itinerary, one that would begin within Seattle at some of the more heavily wooded parks, followed by a drive 60 miles north to the Skagit River delta wetlands, a rich bird habitat. That 5:30 start was a bit of a shock. Heck, the sun wouldn’t even rise until 7:00. Some parks don’t open until then, or at dawn. After a few more email exchanges, we agreed to meet up at our house at 6:00 am, work out a plan for the day, then head out.

By 6:00, everyone was here. Rob spread out maps, bird books, and explained the possibilities. The most disappointing news was that a great-horned owl had been living right next door to us, in the Arboretum, but it had just been hit by a car last Wednesday, its body brought to the Burke later in the day for preservation. For all I know, the owl had regularly passed over our backyard. No longer.

At 6:45, we left for Lincoln Park in West Seattle. This would be the first of many stops that made me wonder what we’ve been doing with our time all these decades. We used to drive by Lincoln Park on the way to the Vashon Island ferry, when Gail’s brother Gary lived there 25 years ago. But we never stopped to go in.

Rob led us about 200 yards west from the parking lot on the park’s eastern edge. It would have been around 7:15 at this point, a few minutes past sunrise. In the heavy woods, with clouds above, there was modest lighting. Suddenly, Rob halted us. He walked under a tree just a few feet off the walking path, looked up, studied the branches with his binoculars then came back to the path and looked up at an adjacent tree right on the path. There it was, about 40 feet up. A barred owl. Or so Rob said.

He told us where to look and one by one we identified a blob on a branch. With binoculars, we could see the feather pattern and recognize that indeed the blob was an owl. Rob returned to the van, brought back a small telescope on a tripod, and with its aid the owl came completely into focus. What a marvel! Just sitting there, over the path that leads directly from the parking lot to a bluff over Puget Sound, one of the park’s main walking axes.

After we had studied the owl enough, we continued west to that bluff, where between the trees, thanks to a break in the clouds and the illumination from the sun in the east, a section of the Olympic Mountains over Puget Sound to the west was glowing. It was a spectacular view.

For me, the day was a success already.

We walked around the park some more, with Rob pointing out a box built high up on a tree for nesting owls. Then we returned to the van and stopped at a nearby Starbucks, where Rob had offered coffee for the day. From there, we headed north to another of Seattle’s wooded parks over the Sound, Discovery Park. Here our goal was to look for saw-whet and long-eared owls. We stopped at the visitor’s center, got oriented, headed to one of the parking lots, and carried food from the van to a picnic table for our 9:00 breakfast. It was cold out there, with a breeze chilling us while we stood over the table and ate. But we were happy. Once the food was stowed, we headed up a hill in search of owls.

Rob had some owl calls recorded on an iPod, with a speaker attached to amplify the sound. Every so often he would stop to play the calls. We worked our way up past the old Army housing of Fort Lawton, then over and down, returning to the open field where we had breakfasted and to our van. No luck. Then we covered much the same ground in the van, Rob stopping from time to time to scan the trees, but again no luck.

Rob had warned us during our early morning planning session that, like fishing, looking for owls is about the process as much as the result. The process was enjoyable. We were content.

Time to drive north. Through the city to I-5, north, out of Seattle, out of King County, into Snohomish County, through Lynnwood and Everett and Marysville, past the Tulalip casino, over the Stillaguamish River, into Skagit County, through the county seat of Mt. Vernon, over the I-5 Skagit River bridge, past the Burlington mall, off at State Route 20, which leads eastwards over the Cascades or westward through the delta to Fidalgo Island and Anacortes. We went west for a few miles, then north, then turned west at a road leading to a farm, parking and heading across some muddy turf to the dairy barn pictured above.

What’s a barn without a pair of barn owls? Or so we learned. As Rob would later explain, when he first conceived of these trips, he scouted barns, asking permission to enter, then asking permission to return with groups. Some said yes, some said no way. One fellow, for example, pointed out that he hadn’t had any mice in the barn for fifteen years, and he wasn’t about to let people come in and change that. It was a pretty good bet that the barns we saw were occupied, as this one was.

Rob brought us in, then had us wait while he scouted. One owl flew out of sight, but he located the other, sitting high up where the main ceiling beam meets the wall. The view was blocked by a ceiling above us, except where there were gaps. Rob had us stand in one corner and look up to the opposite end, telling us how to find the owl. The women found him first. I saw a couple of blobs that might be what everyone was excited about, but I wasn’t sure. Then Rob found a new vantage, almost directly below, where we had to look through gaps in the ceiling, and this time I was pretty sure I saw the right blob. But we were looking from behind, so the blob had little detail. Then, heading a few feet over and finding another ceiling gap, we got to see the owl from the front. He was looking right down on us. Once Rob got the telescope, we could see his face in fuller detail, eyes wide open, directly above. That was great.

If you’re wondering about the owl’s location in the photo above, he’s sitting just below the peak at the far end of the roof’s ridge line.

Once outside, Rob had us examine one of the many owl pellets that he had pointed out inside. He explained that owls swallow their prey whole, then regurgitate all the indigestible material. By going through the regurgitated pellets, one can learn what the owl has been eating. For instance, well, I’ll skip the details, but Rob did break up and show us the contents of the pellet he had carried out, identifying some hard rodent body parts for us.

Next up, the start of our search for snowy owls. As birds of the tundra, they are accustomed to hanging out in open fields. When they make their way down this way, they don’t suddenly take up residence in trees or barns. They continue to hang out in fields. We were instructed to be on the lookout for white objects standing two feet tall. But not the white milk jugs the farmers put out to help line up irrigation systems. And not signs. And certainly not the swans that also stood in the fields, or the smaller snow geese.

We worked our way west and north and west and north, through the farmlands and wetlands of what I later learned is the Padilla Bay estuary. Along the way, we stopped momentarily at a small parking lot beyond which lay some wetlands of the Skagit Wildlife Area. On leaving, heading north, we spotted two juvenile eagles standing on telephone poles and turned in for a closer look. Then, at the northernmost point of our drive, we rose above the tidal flats to the wooded elevation of Samish Island, which is not an island but rather a peninsula reaching out toward the San Juan Islands.

After looping around Samish Island, we headed south to the Breazeale visitor center of the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. I picked up a pamphlet there about Edna Breazeale, a remarkable woman. She grew up nearby, came down to Seattle to attend the University of Washington, went on to teach English for 43 years, including 33 at nearby Roosevelt High School. Around 1960, she returned to the family farm in Bay View and turned into a community activist, leading a fight against development plans for the bay. Two decades later, over 11,000 acres were declared the eighth national estuarine research reserve. Brava Edna!

It was lunchtime. A late lunch, around 2:00 PM, and therefore one eagerly eaten. Rob had shopped for a medley of options, all of which we were thrilled to eat. By 2:45, we were ready to head back south. We crossed over Route 20 into the famous Skagit tulip fields, continued south to Stanwood, then still farther south, where our snowy owl search got serious, for this was where two snowys were sighted on Thursday. It’s also the delta and tidal flats of the Stillaguamish, which flows into Port Susan Bay, with Camano Island to the west and Puget Sound beyond Camano.

We looked and we looked, without luck. Then, as we pulled aside, overlooking a farm, a flock of snow geese was disturbed in the distance, with hundreds swirling around, a quarter mile away. They formed a big cloud, just above the ground, a dramatic sight. We headed a little south on the road, then turned west just before crossing the Stillaguamish to drive down the road that runs alongside it, an embankment separating the two. As we headed west, the river drifted southwest. A couple hundred yards farther, our road deadended, with wetlands and Port Susan Bay just beyond. This beyond happens to be part of the Nature Conservancy’s Port Susan Bay Preserve, another protected area. From the website:

Port Susan Bay holds some of the finest estuarine habitat in Puget Sound. Its marshes, vast mudflats and tidally influenced channels support hundreds of thousands of birds, several species of salmon, smelt, English sole and clams. Western sandpipers, dunlins and dowitchers swoop over the mudflats. Wrangel Island snow geese gather by the thousands in tidal marshes and on nearby farm fields. And hundreds of raptors, from peregrine falcons to short-eared owls, add to the drama.

The Stillaguamish River spills into the bay, mixing freshwater and saltwater to create extensive estuarine marshes that produce a vast quantity of decaying organic matter, which feeds the abundant invertebrate life in the tide flat sediments. These tiny creatures, in turn, feed the shorebirds and waterfowl that make Port Susan Bay and adjacent Skagit Bay important stops for migratory birds traveling along the Pacific Flyway.

If you look at the photo and map in the preserve’s brochure (available as a pdf file), you can see where we were, just north of the point where the river flows into the bay.

No owls, but there was a pair of eagles, one of whom you can see below.


It was 4:30 now, the perfect time to retrace our steps and get back to the Skagit Wildlife Area, just north of the Padilla Bay visitor center. We arrived 5:30, with sunset and dusk approaching, a good time to see short-eared owls.

As we walked south from the parking lot, we found that we had to cross a muddy stretch with water above our ankles. Gail and I weren’t brave. Having made it across, we decided to stay put. Rob set up the telescope and somehow found, far in the distance, a short-eared owl sitting on a post. We were happy. He went farther south with Deborah and Paul while we worked our way back toward the lot. A fellow bird enthusiast, camera and gigantic zoom lens in hand, asked what we had seen. We tried to point to the location of the owl. He was at the end of day three of a four-day organized trip, accompanied by some scientists. He’s from Olympia, he explained, and last week had seen eight snowy owls on another outing down that way.

After we got back to the parking lot, another owl swooped by, pointed out to Gail by a woman sitting in a car in the lot. Having seen many harriers throughout the area, we assumed the other birds we saw near the lot were harriers. Or maybe it was just one, coming in from different directions. When two women reached the lot from the wetlands and asked if we knew anything about birds, I told them that we had an expert along who would be back soon. They said, well, they just wanted to know what that bird was. A harrier, we announced. That was sufficient expertise for them.

Once our companions returned, Rob filled Gail and me in on the plan. It was getting dark now. We would drive back to Edna’s visiting center at the Padilla Bay reserve with the hope of spotting the great horned owl Rob had previously seen hanging out right there in the visitor center lot. And that’s what we did. No great horned owl though. Rob called for it with his recorded tracks. That didn’t do the trick. Some drinks and mixed nuts later, we climbed back in the van and headed home.

By the time we arrived, unloaded our belongings, and said our goodbyes, it was 8:00 PM. A long day. But a very special one. Three owls seen, many more imagined, other birds galore, an overview of the wonders of Western Washington, good food, great company. And just maybe we learned enough so that we can head out on our own soon.

Categories: Birds, Travel

Neighborhood Eagle

March 11, 2012 Leave a comment

It’s not entirely news that there are eagles from time to time in our neighborhood, but when I see one, I still get excited. Three Junes ago, I wrote in passing about an eagle sighting on the north end of Foster Island. Today, at the same location, I saw the juvenile pictured above.

We are fortunate to live close to Seattle’s Washington Park Arboretum, a city park managed by the University of Washington as part of the larger entity, UW Botanical Gardens. (The UWBG is directed by my friend Sarah Reichard whose book The Conscientious Gardener was the subject of a post of mine last June.) Foster Island is its northernmost portion, as you can see on the map below, on which north is to the right. Our house is on the map too, making it a short walk to the island.

You’ll also see the island’s one drawback, the fact that State Route 520 happens to run across it. A pedestrian tunnel provides access to Foster Island’s north end, with the highway well hidden visually, but not aurally. On weekends such as this one, when SR-520 is closed to traffic because of maintenance work or construction, a walk across the island is mandatory.

Once through the tunnel, it’s a straight walk of about 200 yards north to a clearing on the edge of the island, on the shoreline of Union Bay, with an outlook across Lake Washington to the east, the Montlake Cut (an artificial waterway with a drawbridge) dividing the north and south sides of Seattle to the west, the university to the northwest, and the Laurelhurst neighborhood to the northeast. The northernmost tall tree on the east side of the clearing is the eagle hangout. I zoomed in below.

Not the best photos. Sorry.

Categories: Birds, House

Hangin’ Out

July 23, 2011 Leave a comment

[Adithya Sambamurthy/The Bay Citizen]

Tomorrow’s NYT has a short piece about the problems Western gulls are causing at AT&T Park, the home field of the San Francisco Giants baseball team. The piece is provided by the Bay Citizen, described as a “nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization providing local coverage of the San Francisco Bay Area for The New York Times.” It seems the gulls used to wait for games to end before grabbing a bite to eat, but lately, “the avian avalanche has begun during the seventh-inning stretch.”

I just love the photo, above, that accompanies the article. You’ll know the glove if you’ve gone to any games at the park or watched the Giants on TV there. Otherwise, see the photo below for context. The view is toward the stands in left center.

AT&T Park Coke Bottle and Giant 1927 Old-Time Four-Fingered Baseball Glove

[Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images]

Rude Residents

June 8, 2011 Leave a comment

In my post a week ago about Spring Visitors, I mentioned in passing the Stellar’s Jays who have been spending a lot of time at our bird feeder. They’re lovely to look at, but since I mentioned them, they’ve shown their true colors. They’re pleasant enough when we’re around. But poor Emma. If she heads out the back door in mid-day, within seconds one of the jays flies down to our patio chairs or the low branches of the giant maple tree and squawks like crazy. The jay may fly from branch to chair to chair to table to chair to branch to branch, squawking incessantly. I keep telling the jay that Emma has rights too, but to no avail.

So what do you think? Are they nesting in the maple? I’m thinking so. It’s fascinating that they instantaneously identify Emma as a threat, but allow us to go about our business. They might have been right once, but now she’s just a slow-moving 15-year-old heading outside for sun, warmth, fresh air, and a taste of the old days. Her running, chasing, hunting days are past. The jays are most unkind.

Categories: Birds, Cats

A Man and His Goose

February 21, 2011 Leave a comment

[Gary Leonard, WSJ]

I’m a little late getting to this article, as explained in part in my post last night about my gap in writing. But better late than never, so let me direct you to the front page feature article in the Wall Street Journal two weeks ago, with the clever title Maria, Maria, I’ve Just Met a Goose Named Maria.

It’s a simple enough story, about a man, a goose, and a park.

Their relationship started last spring when Mr. Ehrler discovered that the goose—whom locals call Maria—liked to accompany him on his daily walks around a lake in Echo Park, a neighborhood about two miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

He’d show up, Maria would find him and the two would walk. A city worker joked to Mr. Ehrler that he was being stalked.

Now each morning, the couple walks the loop of Echo Park Lake together. Maria waddles a few paces ahead with her head stuck up straight and her belly full of tortillas Mr. Ehrler feeds her.

When they’re done, Maria walks, then runs, then flies alongside as Mr. Ehrler, 65 years old, speeds away on his red scooter. She returns to the same spot to greet him the next day.

The problem, alas, is that the lake is polluted and the city has plans to close it city plans to drain it, put a fence around it, and fix it over a two-year period. The environmental-impact report failed to take Maria into account.

What to do? Well, you can read more in the article, about the plans and about Maria herself. She’s really quite wonderful. Click on the slideshow as well and see her flying side-by-side with Mr. Ehrler as he speeds away on his scooter after their walk.

At times, Maria won’t return to the lake, so Mr. Ehrler guides her back to the park, where onlookers lock her behind a fence until he’s gone. Once she was spotted blocks away waddling down busy Sunset Boulevard. A firehouse crew escorted her to the park in an ambulance.

The couple’s fame grows. A waitress at a nearby pizzeria is working on a documentary about them. On Saturday, a group of 100 people plan to sing a send-up of “Maria” from “West Side Story” while marching around the lake with Mr. Ehrler and the goose.

Categories: Birds, Life

Bird Update

July 15, 2010 Leave a comment

Just thought I’d report on some unexpected developments the last couple of days. Maybe where you are this is ordinary, but hereabouts it seemed worth paying attention to.

Two mornings ago, I was in the den when I saw a crow fluttering. He had decided to land on our rhododendron, not the most promising tree to alight on. The branch responded about as you’d expect, bouncing up and down vigorously. But then came the best part. A hummingbird, apparently sharing my doubt about the sensibleness of the crow’s decision, flew over, hovered about 18 inches in front of the crow, and taunted him. Okay, I’m anthropomorphizing a bit here, but the hummingbird did hover, staring right at the crow. And the crow, surely feeling embarrassed, took off after about 7 or 8 seconds of taunting, landing an an almost-as-ridiculous location on the steep sloping edge of our neighbor’s roof. The hummingbird raced up that way, perhaps for another round of taunting, then flitted across the street.

That afternoon, I heard Joel running down the stairs from the upper floor and out the back door. I went into the kitchen to investigate and saw him making circles in place, looking up at the sky. “Eagle?” I called to him. “Eagle?” Then a big shadow passed over him and my question mark changed to an exclamation point. “Eagle!” I still hadn’t seen it, but the shadow didn’t leave much room for doubt. I ran out too, and just then Joel, who had moved to the edge of our backyard for a more open view, saw the eagle heading north. I joined him in time to catch the last part of the eagle’s flight over the golf course, about 20 feet up.

Yesterday morning, in the den again, I looked out and saw a greenish-gray hummingbird sitting on one of the conical metal structures that support our tomato plants. He didn’t seem in any particular hurry to get going. I wasn’t in much of a hurry either, so I just watched as he did that birdy thing, bending his neck and preening his chest and wing feathers. I should be so flexible. And what a beak he had! An excellent preener. In something of a role reversal, he outlasted me. After a few minutes, I moved on.

Last night, I was outside on the patio reading when I heard the beat of approaching wings. By the time I looked up, I caught the briefest glimpse of an eagle overhead, flying just above me, parallel to the house. I ran out to spot him, but he didn’t come back our way. Not on my watch anyway.

That’s about it on the bird front. It would help if I had managed to capture any of these moments with my camera. In the absence of a photographic record, I have put a random hummingbird photo at the top.

Categories: Birds

New Residents

April 19, 2010 Leave a comment

Pictured above is our latest house remodel, the addition of a bedroom up against the downspout that runs outside our dining room south wall. And we paid nothing for it, thanks to the efforts of two local finches. In fact, to my astonishment, I’m looking at them right now. Moments after I started the first sentence, one burst out of the nest and swooped down to the ground below our cherry tree. As I finished the sentence, the other landed on the back of one of our outdoor dining chairs (I’m sitting on another and typing on the table) before moving to the cherry tree.

I’m not overly pleased with this addition. I first noticed one of the finches a few weeks ago. It would sit for unusually long periods of time on top of the hedge that borders the patio. I had also noticed some debris at the base of the downspout, but didn’t think much of it. A week later, Joel asked me why I thought the bird was hanging out on the hedge. I remembered that the day before, the debris pile on the patio had looked quite large, and that’s when Joel and I took a closer look and put the pieces together. What we were looking at on the ground was a collapsed nest. Above, wedged between the downspout and the outdoor lighting, was a small amount of nest residue. And the bird we were looking at had some material in his mouth, perhaps eager to continue rebuilding.

My guess was that the bird would give up. Alas, I was wrong. Yesterday was a beautiful day, sunny with temperatures around 70. I sat outside in the late afternoon, maybe 10 feet from the downspout. Emma (our cat) came out too and was sitting nearby when one of the birds landed on the top of the open door that leads from the house to the patio. It’s an odd perch for a bird, who had drawn Emma’s attention as well as mine. Only after 20 seconds did I think to look over to the old nest site, with which the bird was even in elevation, but about six feet away. I beheld a completed nest. Our presence must have distracted the bird on his return to the nest. Emma eventually lost interest and wandered farther out into the yard. The bird flew onto the back of one of the dining chairs, perched there for a while, then disappeared.

Tonight was something of a repeat, with Emma and me coming out to enjoy the lovely evening, interrupting the bird at work. But this time, once Emma moved on, I saw the bird fly into the nest, my first confirmation that the nest was indeed just that. I got my camera, took some photos, and began this post. As I already noted, just as I started typing, the bird flew out of the nest.

I have no idea if the nest holds any eggs yet. If so, they surely haven’t hatched. I don’t hear anything or see any feeding activity. I’m thinking, if there are to be babies, once they move on, so does the nest. I’m willing to leave it for now, but I don’t want a permanent addition.

As for Emma, whose 14th birthday is just a week away, I suspect her hunting days are in the past. She has slowed down a lot in the last year. The birds are presumably at the height of vigilance. I don’t think I need to worry about orphans.

You know, I might be wrong about the lack of feeding activity. One of the birds, the one I’m thinking is the male, just flew into the yard from afar, landed on the chair across from me for a moment — with a little stringy object in his beak — then continued on to the nest. His partner followed three seconds later, landing on the house trim just outside the nest before joining him on the nest. I don’t hear babies, but it sure looks like the couple is in the process of feeding them. Either that or the nest is still under construction.

I’ll keep watching.

Categories: Animals, Birds, House