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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Ridgefield NWR - May 2012

On Sunday afternoon my parents and I spent over four hours at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, one of my all-time favorite places to bird watch and a site I try to visit whenever I'm in the area. My dad and I comment how when you make a repeat visit to a location where you saw an uncommon bird, you always find yourself looking for that same species in the exact same spot. That's why we stopped before the bridge into the auto-tour loop to look around the trees where several years ago we found an oriole nest. We found a nest in the same tree, though it looked like the tattered remains of an old one made up primarily of blue fishing line. While looking around, we heard a loud call and then spotted a Bullock's oriole (190). Nice! Sometimes it pays off to take a closer look in those locations.

Along the first part of the drive we saw all the expected species: lots of waterfowl, including another family of pied-billed grebes. While we didn't see the numbers of ducks we do in the winter, a huge variety of species was still present, with small numbers of eleven duck species seen, including about 20 cinnamon teal, a few redhead, and a single male blue-winged teal (191).

Male gadwall
 We also saw some yellow-headed blackbirds and heard the first of many, many common yellowthroat and marsh wrens for the day. The new purple martin boxes seemed to be fulfilling their purpose, too - we saw one purple martin there, a new species for me at the refuge.

At the bird blind I found a white-breasted nuthatch (192), but the best photo op was of this little Pacific tree frog:

In the middle of the auto tour route is the one mile Kiwa Trail loop, which we hiked. It takes you out through a marsh habitat where this time of year you can hear lots of American bitterns, soras, and Virginia rails. On our walk we also heard several winnowing Wilson's snipes. The other main bird species present here were yellow warblers, tree swallows, and lots and lots of cedar waxwings:

Back in the car, we were able to find an adult great horned owl but not any of the chicks that were supposedly out of the nest nearby. The next reason to come to a stop was for this yellow-headed blackbird perched close to the road. Turns out he was also perched close to a red-winged blackbird nest, and the pair tending the nest were not happy about that, with the male red-winged blackbird keeping a close eye on him and flying directly at him if he made too many moves.

That didn't seem to be enough to deter the yellow-headed blackbird, however. This, for some reason, was definitely the place he wanted to be singing, if that's what you can call the interesting noises they make:

This was a popular stretch for singing birds. Here's one marsh wren belting his little heart out nearby:

Down the final stretch of the auto-tour loop is another one of those places where we always talk about how we saw black terns there once. With the species having been sighted there the day before, we took extra care to look for them again. I spotted something that very well could have been terns extremely high in the air, but as we positioned ourselves to get a better look they seemingly disappeared and we could not relocate them. Two other flying birds did catch my eye, however - at first I thought they were hawks, but the flight didn't seem quite right. Turns out they were bitterns! I've seen bitterns fly occasionally, but never so high in the air! It was quite a way to see these usually secretive birds. The one on the left was calling, and his mouth is open in this picture:

We were just pulling out of the refuge when one last bird caught my eye - a woodpecker that landed on a telephone pole. I only got a quick look, but enough to see it was a red-breasted sapsucker (193), my fourth year bird of the day. In total, we saw and heard 54 species at Ridgefield - not bad at all!

Monday, May 28, 2012

From Stanwood to Saint Helens

Friday afternoon we headed south from San Juan Island to Saint Helens, Oregon to spend a week with friends and family and attend an event at my alma mater. Our first stop after disembarking the ferry was Eide Road in Stanwood, Washington where there are always some great birds to be seen - it's where I saw the snowy owl in December of last year. There were several species that had been reported the weekend before I was particularly interested in seeing, the rarest of which was a bobolink. I didn't have luck turning up the bobolink, but the shrubby trees at the beginning of the road were very active with birds, including cedar waxwings, yellow warblers, and western tanagers.

A little further along the road I saw a pair of western kingbirds - always a great find. Then, I was really surprised a few hundred yards away to see a second pair! Despite their name, they're pretty uncommon in western Washington, and I've never seen so many in one place.

Northern harriers, an osprey, and a pair of turkey vultures soared overhead, and a few great blue herons were flying in the distance, but still no sign of any of the "target" birds I was looking for. From the parking area I could see a pond to the southwest with lots of birds on it. As I was walking along the path, a bald eagle flew over and flushed almost all the birds off the pond. Argh! A few birds remained, however, so I continued in that direction.

The only ducks left were a pair of cinnamon teal. There were three shorebirds left.....what were was a Wilson's phalarope (182)! (Note: just realized I never mentioned cedar waxwing near home was 181.) An excellent find. When the other two flew, I was able to confirm that they were short-billed dowitchers (183), another year bird.

It was time to continue south, and the plan to take an extra ferry from Edmonds to Kingston to avoid the Memorial Day weekend traffic on I5 turned out to be a good one. There was a wait for the ferry, but there was virtually no traffic down Highway 3 on the other side. I'm no fan of scotch broom since it's so invasive and causes me horrible allergies, but my attitude towards it softened a bit on this drive. I've never seen so much of it in such peak bloom - it lined both sides of the highway for miles and miles, and was a pretty impressive sight.

On the first day of our visit in Saint Helens my dad and I went birding along the Crown-Zellerbach Trail in Scappoose. A gray morning turned into another beautiful afternoon, and right when we got out of the car we saw an olive-sided flycatcher and a pair of California quail - not a bad start!

Lots of flowers were in bloom, and some of the Nootka rose provided an opportunity to get a photo of another plant in in all its stages - bud, blossom, and rosehip:

Along the first part of the trail some of the birds we saw included common yellowthroat, American goldfinch, and marsh wren. At the marshy area, I was hoping to hear an American bittern, and I wasn't disappointed (184). We also heard a pair of Virginia rails there, and a couple of Vaux's swifts (185) flew overhead too.

While looking at a pied-billed grebe family with a couple of cute chicks, all of a sudden there was a flurry of bird activity. In one tree there was a cedar waxing, an olive-sided flycatcher, and a western wood-pewee (186) perched on right above the other.

Western wood-pewee

A woodpecker flying across the trail caught my eye, but when I investigated further the only thing I could find was a pair of warbling vireos (187), already the fourth year bird of the day!

Before heading home we drove to a spot further along the C-Z Trail where my dad had seen some good birds biking a few weeks ago. Right under the bridge where he had seen it was an American dipper (188). We were ready to head home when I heard a bird singing I didn't recognize. I headed in that direction and spotted something blue perched on a wire, facing away from we. What the heck? It turned out to be a lazuli bunting (189)! Another species, along with the Wilson's phalarope from the day before, that didn't make it onto my year list last year.

The birding is just as good at my parents' house, where their feeders are always bustling. The main attraction is the big flock of evening grosbeaks that comes by, with a few black-headed grosbeaks mixed in for good measure.

Two female evening grosbeaks
Male evening grosbeak
Female black-headed grosbeak
Other regular visitors include band-tailed pigeons, mourning doves, Steller's jays, dark-eyed juncos (including one with one leg), red-breasted nuthatches, both black-capped and chestnut-backed chickadees, rufous hummingbirds, and pine siskins. There's a lot to watch, and it's a treat to spend time just sitting by the window taking in all the activity.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

South Beach Baby Foxes ~ 2012

My photos of baby foxes on San Juan Island have been some of my most popular blog posts over the years. Last weekend a sighting of a baby fox along the road tipped me off as to the location of this year's den. They weren't as young as I've seen them some years, but they were still pretty darn cute. I saw at least two orange ones and one black one. What was amazing about this year's den is how close it was to one of the remaining rabbit warrens near South Beach! That's the fox in the front, and all the brown lumps in the background are rabbit holes.

Baby foxes are never too skittish - more curious than anything else. I'm hoping that's not because they get fed by humans! Last year that was definitely the case, as the den was right by the road. This year, they were a little more remote.

All these foxes were kind of squinty-eyed. Was it just too bright that day, or was it some genetic trait? It seemed to me they looked different than other baby foxes I've seen.

There's always been a lot of debate on San Juan Island as to whether the foxes eat the rabbits. They're both introduced species, but there's been an effort to eradicate the rabbits from at least the prairies at American Camp, where the National Park Service wants more native plants to return. Personally, I've never seen the foxes catch anything larger than a rat, and doubt that a fox could take down an adult rabbit. Maybe the adult foxes can take baby rabbits, but I don't think they're a main staple of their diet. Plenty of people will disagree with me, but there's my two cents! Still, that doesn't keep the fox kits from getting some good sport out of chasing adult rabbits. Check out this little guy stalking a rabbit that was probably his equal in size, if not bigger:

The rabbit probably knew he was just fine, but when the fox got closer he bolted down his hole anyway. The fox looked like he thought about pursuing him, but he didn't:

The black fox wasn't interested in checking me out, but he too came on scene with the rabbits. Notice the rabbit in the background:

Next up, a trip southbound. Birding from Stanwood to to Saint Helens will get me back into the year list race with Dave!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Bunch of Flowers

A co-worker picked flowers she saw growing along the road yesterday, and brought the bouquet into work today. She was wondering about the identities of some of the flowers, and soon a small crowd had gathered to discuss which flowers we knew and which ones we didn't.

There were a few I didn't know, and of course I can't leave those sorts of questions unanswered - those are the types of challenges I thrive on! So over lunch I poured over my flower books and figured them out. Here's a photo labeling all the different species in case there's one you wanted to know, too! (Click to see a larger view.)

The one I was especially intrigued by isn't featured very well in the photo - purpleleaf sand cherry. It's a hybrid ornamental shrub rather than a wildflower, but it's so pretty! I can't really find a picture that does it justice for the way it looked today, with little buds like little pink ornaments on stalks surrounding the clusters of flowers. Click here to see a photo that gets pretty close.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Many Shades of Lupine

I was very intrigued by this recent post by my friend Phil, wherein he tries to get photos of single plants showing flowers in all their stages (bud, bloom, seed). This must have been in my mind on Saturday during a walk at Cattle Point, where I immediately noticed the multi-flowered lupine plants were an ideal candidate for finding just such a specimen. This was the closest I could find, with the flowers at the top opened up just past their budding stage. The flowers in the middle are in full bloom, and towards the bottom of the stem are the seed pods:

The other thing I noticed was the amazing color variety within the lupine plants. The dominant color was this purple:

But there were other plants ranging from white:

To pink:

To pale lavender:

To darker lavender:

That's what's so cool about being a naturalist - the closer you look, the more you see, and there's always something to look at!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

A Warbler, An Owl, and A Starling

Last week I got the chance to take another walk at Three Meadows Marsh, and it's amazing how much the bird life had changed in the few weeks since I was there last. This time, there wasn't a single duck, goose, or grebe in site on the lake. Most of the birds identified were heard rather than seen, with the highlight for me being my first yellow warblers (180) of the year. Other warblers heard were Wilson's, Townsend's, and common yellowthroat. There were cliff, barn, and violet-green swallows about, and both Pacific-slope and olive-sided flycatchers could be heard, as well. A resident of the area also pointed us in the direction of a Cassin's vireo nest in a madrone tree, and we were lucky enough to find it and see the bird on the nest! Unfortunately it was too high up to get a picture.

I also got to check on the barred owls with Katie again last week, and when we first got there we couldn't believe our eyes that the nest hole was empty! The owlets seemed to way too young to have fledged already, but where were they? It took me a moment to spot this one sitting ON TOP of the nest hole:

We did a little bit of research later, and found out that it's common for barred owl chicks to leave the nest and start crawling around a week or two before they actually start flying. These young owls are called "branchers" because they climb around on branches using their beaks and feet. I can't imagine how this guy was able to climb from the hole up to where he was sitting here, but I guess they can even climb up trees if they fall out of them. I hope the other two chicks weren't too far away, but we didn't see them!

Another impressive bird sighting I had this week was actually of a starling. At the end of my street there's a starling who perches in the same tree and sings, and while I know starlings are mimics, this is the most incredible mimicry I've heard. One day he imitated an olive-sided flycatcher, red-tailed hawk, and greater yellowlegs one right after the other. On other days I've also heard his American robin and killdeer impressions. I didn't have the right lens on the camera to get a closer photo of him, but I thought he deserved to have his picture shown, because I'm impressed:

Monday, May 14, 2012

Lots of Spring Walks, Lots of Spring Sightings

Last week Wednesday I got to check on the owlets again with my friend Katie (check out her blog for some awesome owl pics!). It's amazing how much they grew in just one week!

We watched them from a distance for about 10 minutes, and the cutest moment was when this little guy stretched, looking more like a slinky toy than a baby owl:

On Friday, a walk at the Friday Harbor Labs turned up my first singing olive-sided flycatcher (174) and also a western tanager (175) and another barred owl. A non-avian highlight was this very cooperative butterfly:

On Saturday, we spent the afternoon at another friend's house. I enjoyed exploring around her yard, where in an hour I saw/heard about 20 bird species. Here's the view from her back porch:

One bird highlight were the pine siskins. They were loooovvvviiinng the thistle seed feeders:

But my favorite birds to watch were by far the two pairs of rufous hummingbirds, that showed no fear of me sitting right below the feeders. That allowed for some great photographic opportunities. Here's a male, just landing and holding onto the perch:

And here's a female hovering near the feeder, my favorite photo of the week:

While watching her feeders, I also saw my first black-headed grosbeak (176) of the year. We then went for a walk, and along her driveway was some striped coralroot (Corallorhiza striata), the first time I've seen this particular species of flowering plant that gets its nutrients not through photosynthesis but off fungi in the soil:

Nearby was the spotted coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata), the species I see more often:

On the walk, I heard several Wilson's warblers (177), as well as more olive-sided and Pacific-slope flycatchers, a mourning dove, and a band-tailed pigeon,  the latter two being more uncommon species here.

Sunday a hike near Roche Harbor gave me a chance to stop by the marina and see the purple martins (178) that are taking advantage of the nest boxes there. Finally, during a walk after work today, I heard my first Swainson's thrush (179) of the year. Meanwhile, Dave's been ticking away over in the UK, and despite my productive California trip in February sits only 7 species back in our year list competition!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Yellow Island Wildflowers ~ 2012

Yesterday afternoon I got to make a trip to Yellow Island, the 11-acre wildflower mecca that sits in San Juan Channel. It's protected by The Nature Conservancy and open to the public year-round, though the peak visitation coincides with the spring wildflower blooms for which the island is famous. The caretaker of Yellow is my friend and fellow birder, Phil, who had a great idea of bringing several island bloggers to the island together, inviting each of us to blog about our visit in our own unique way. I'll link to Alex's and Shann's posts here, so make sure to check back; this morning, I learned Phil used the visit as an opportunity to start his own blog, too! You can read his inaugural blog post here. Here are the four bloggers:

My first visit to Yellow Island as part of a San Juan Nature Institute field trip in 2009 inspired me to learn more about local plants, and opened up a whole new world of investigation on San Juan Island. Last year I got to go again, and the flowers were in such abundance (the biggest bloom Phil has seen in 13 years!) it took two blog posts to capture the flowers here and here.

After arriving on the island, we didn't have to walk too far until we were hip-deep in western buttercups (Ranunculus occidentalis), great camas (Camassia sp.), and harsh paintbrush (Castilleja hispida).

I walked straight to Hummingbird Hill, my favorite part of the island where the three flower species mentioned above grow in abundance in and among each other. It's a popular location with hummingbirds and bumblebees, and I was pretty happy there too!

Here are a couple views looking out from the hill:

With the exception of the above photos, I spent most of the visit with the macro lens on my camera to take flower close-ups. It was occasionally challenging in the wind, but I'm pretty pleased with some of my results. It turns out taking macro pictures of wildflowers is a great way to get a workout without even realizing it; today I'm sore from all the deep knee bends I must have done to take my 200+ flower photos!

Harsh paintbrush (Castilleja hispida)
Meadow death-camas (Zigadenus venenosus)
Chocolate lily (Fritillaria biflora)
Some flower species jump right out at you and dominate the landscape, but it's amazing the diversity you can see if you take a closer look. One species that was fairly common but could easily be overlooked is the Pacific sanicle (Sanicula crassicaulis), a member of the parsley family. It comes in two color morphs - yellow and maroon.

Speaking of color morphs, the camas came in two colors, too! The purplish-blue is the predominant variety, but I saw four plants that had white flowers.

Some of my favorite flower species are pretty small, like the broad-leaved starflower (Trientalis latifolia):

Another one I really like is the tiny small-flowered forget-me-not (Myosotis stricta). This whole head of flowers is smaller than a fingernail!

Another little flower Phil took the time to point out was naked broomrape (Orobanche uniflora) growing in a patch of broad-leaved stonecrop (Sedum spathulifolium), one of the species it parasitizes. Broomrape doesn't have any leaves, since instead of generating its own energy through photosynthesis, it taps nutrients from other plants.

Field chickweed (Cerastium arvense) is a flower I see a lot of on San Juan Island, and we saw some on Yellow, too. One plant I didn't recognize turned out to be another type of chickweed: common chickweed (Stellaria media):

Remember the tent caterpillars I saw at Three Meadows Marsh a little over a week ago? They're on Yellow, too, and they're getting bigger:

There were many members of the pea family in flower, both vetch and pea species. I'm not sure what kind of vetch (Vicia sp.) this is, but it was pretty:

Phil taught me the difference between the native Sierra-Nevada pea (Lathyrus nevadensis), pictured below, and the non-native beach pea (Lathyrus japonicus). The best way to tell them apart is by the size of the stipules (pairs of leaf-like appendages at the base of a leaf stalk): beach peas have large stipules, and Sierra-Nevada peas have small ones.

One of my favorite photos of the day is of the large-flowered blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia grandiflora). I like both, but the second one is my favorite:

And finally, one more flower picture (I probably could have made this Yellow Island visit two posts, too!). Cow parsnip (Heracleum maximu) stands out for its giant leaves, but its cluster of tiny flower is pretty impressive, too:

As the wind picked up, we headed to Phil's cabin for some snacks and good conversation. One of the most interesting things that came up was this specimen Phil's neighbor (meaning on a neighboring island!) brought him some fresh seafood, and in his trap was this creature that he believed was a hybrid between a crab and a shrimp. It's certainly not like anything I've ever seen before, and a little searching online didn't turn up anything about it Help me out, readers - do you know anything about this creature?!

EDIT: Thanks to blog reader Connie, who identified this as a galatheid crab (Munida quadrispina), also known as a squat lobster.  According to my helpful book Marine Life of the Pacific Northwest,  it's even known for being a nuisance in prawn traps.

As always, it was an honor to get to visit Yellow Island - thank you Phil! It was especially nice to do so with some fellow bloggers. I look forward to reading all your posts!