The Butcher Watchman

The Northern Shrike zipped overhead going behind me and landing on top of a leafless bush. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Northern Shrike zipped overhead going behind me and landing on top of a leafless bush. (Thomas Bancroft)

Movement caught my eye, and I glanced up through the windshield. The flight seemed labored, heavy, something a little different, unusual in this robin-sized bird. The individual was 15 feet above the ground and flew across the grass field along Rawlins Road. It came right over the car. Maybe, it was headed for a large bush behind me. I stopped in the middle of this dead-end road on Fir Island, jumping out.

Sitting on a top of the bare bush was the unmistakable silhouette of a Northern Shrike, a plump body, a big head, upward stance. It glared out across the fields, moving its head back and forth. Last week, my birding group had found a juvenile individual along the dikes, not a quarter-mile from this location. I moseyed back along the road, keeping my eyes averted. 

Sure enough, dark eye mask, the bill with a stout hook and a large tooth, black wings, scalloped cream breast feather, this was a perfect plumage juvenile. It was alert, hunting, but seemed to be ignoring me. This was my fifth trip to the Skagit in two weeks, and on each trip, we had spotted a Northern Shrike. On one trip, it was at Wiley Slough, on another at Hayton Reserve, once in the Samish Flats, and then here. These were probably four different individuals, and all had been juvenile birds. Possibly, this was turning into an irruptive year for shrikes.

These birds nest across Northern Canada and Alaska, coming south in winter. Most winters a few can be found in Washington, but in some years, vast numbers will come south. Perhaps, this happens when they have had an exceptionally successful nesting year or when northern winters become particularly hard, or food supplies low. 

These are voracious predators, capable of taking small birds and mammals. They store prey by sticking it on thorns or barbwire, coming back later to eat more of it. Often, they sit and wait for a prey item to show itself before darting off the perch. This species occurs in Europe and Asia, too.

The bird bolted from the branch, dropping down to just above the field and flying rapidly away from me. I couldn’t tell if it was chasing something or just heading to another hunting spot. It probably makes the rounds of a series of good lookouts. Their scientific name is Lanius excubitor, which translates as “Butcher Watchman.”

The scaupy cream plumage of the young Northern Shrike showed clearly as it sat erict, hunting from the top of the bush. (Thomas Bancroft)

The cream plumage of the young Northern Shrike showed clearly as it sat erect, hunting from the top of the bush. (Thomas Bancroft)


Roger Lake in the Okanogan National Forest. The area burned a decade ago and a new growth of pines, firs, and spruce are coming up throughout the forest. May 25th. (Thomas Bancroft)

Roger Lake in the Okanogan National Forest. The area burned a decade ago and new growth of pines, firs, and spruce are coming up throughout the forest. May 25th. (Thomas Bancroft)

My neck hurt. I’d been staring straight up for the last ten minutes, trying to find the source of the haunting sound that was radiating down. A tremulous “hu-hu-hu” would come from one direction and then another. Wilson’s Snipes were winnowing overhead. I stood by the marsh surrounding Roger Lake in the North Cascades. It was late May, and these birds were actively defending territories and courting. Males, in particular, will fly to a high altitude, then dive, spreading their tail. The sound is made by the wind moving across their outer rectrices, both during the dive and when leveling out. It is a creepy sound and just beautiful to hear. I’d stopped at this place in the hopes of catching it.

Finally, I spotted one. The bird circled in a broad arc around the southern end of the lake. As long as I kept my eyes on it, I could follow it. It was 150 to 200 feet above the ground, doing a gradual dive while making that sound, and then climbing again. When I blinked, I’d lose it. After spotting one a few times, I stopped trying and just listened to the chorus happening all around me.

The Wilson's Snipe popped up on the down log along the edge of the marsh at Wiley Siough. Its long bill stuck down and its right eye glared right at us. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Wilson’s Snipe popped up on the down log along the edge of the marsh at Wiley Slough. Its long bill stuck down and its right eye glared right at us. (Thomas Bancroft)


The Grace of the Trumpeter Swan

(Thomas Bancroft)

A pair of Trumpeter Swans fly overhead on their way to join a larger flock roosting on Fir Island in Skagit County. (Thomas Bancroft)

The low-pitched trumpet came from behind us. Turning, I spotted two large white birds that then flew right over us. Their translucent flight feathers glowed in the early morning sun. Their wingspan, more than 6-foot, created a moving shadow across Fir Island. Long white necks extended in front of solid bodies, and elephantine black legs and feet were tucked tight against their underside. More than 25 pounds each, these Trumpeter Swans flew with grace, style, and dignity.

The pair circled the field a quarter-mile east of our location, then set their wings, dropped their black feet, and landed without a stumble among several hundred swans. A few trumpets and calls drifted toward me from the crowd. Most of these largest of North America’s waterfowl seemed to be resting on the green grass.

The trachea in these birds is more than three feet long, about a half-inch in diameter, and has a volume three to four times what one might expect for a bird this size. The trachea folds back and forth in the chest and creates the resonating chamber for the beautiful call that caught my attention.

(Thomas Bancroft)

Four Trumpeter Swans bank to fly out from a roosting area on Fir Island in Skagit County. (Thomas Bancroft)

In the summer of 1968, I flew with my sister from Pennsylvania to Yellowstone National Park. Finding a Trumpeter Swan was a priority, I wanted to be able to brag to my high school birding buddies about the western birds we discovered, including this rare swan. In the 1800s and early 1900s, hunting decimated Trumpeter Swans populations. They were shot for their skins, flight feathers, and undoubtedly meat.

In 1935, only 69 birds were known to exist, although probably some undiscovered flocks occurred in remote parts of Canada and Alaska. In 2005, a continent-wide survey estimated that the population had grown to more than 34,000, a conservation success. Stopping the hunt and protecting habitat were critical, but also the birds adapted to wintering on agricultural lands, accessing novel food items. In winter, lead poisoning and collisions with power lines are now the major mortality issue.

These birds looked stunning through my spotting scope. Dirty-gray, full-grown cygnets accompanied many pairs. We had seen half a dozen flocks of similar size already that morning. In 1968, my sister and I searched Yellowstone for several days and found only two individuals. They swam on the far side of a small river, and our view was through thick vegetation.

Managers have introduced the species into several eastern states where they now breed. A few even winter in birding spots that I visited in Western Pennsylvania and Ohio as a high school student. Scientists at Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology have analyzed eBird data to provide a much more refined abundance map than are currently available in birding guides or on other websites.

It shows that the Salish Sea and south into Oregon are important wintering areas for our west coast population. These birds then migrate through British Columbia to breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska. The Central Rockies population had expanded substantially from the range in 1968, and birds are found in a band from the northern prairies across the Great Lakes.

A pair and two full-grown gray cygnets began running, head and neck extended while flapping their wings. They quickly became airborne, banking to the left while climbing up over the flock, before turning to fly north away from us.

See: Fink, D., T. Auer, A. Johnston, M. Strimas-Mackey, M. Iliff, and S. Kelling. Ebird Status and Trends. Version: November 2018. Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York.

A family of Trumpeter Swans rests on a green field.

Fall Colors at Magnuson Park

The fall color of Red Osier Dogwood
Red Osier Dogwood

The morning took on a yellow cast from the soft light filtering through the cottonwoods and willows. It made me stop, gaze, and listen. The fog had just lifted, but a sweet smell lingered around the Frog Ponds. Song Sparrows and Spotted Towhees flitted through the underbrush, not stopping long enough for a look. The red osier dogwood glistened as it swayed in the light breeze. The tension dissolved from my body. With a few crows chattering about the day, I strolled through the fall colors.

The yellow-Pink leaves on a Currant at Magnuson Park.
Currant Bush in Fall

Sunset at Mt. Totumas, Western Panama

The fight had been going on all day. The Caribbean was not about to give up. It had dominated the Cordillera de Talamanca since last fall. But in early April, the Pacific thought that its turn had come and was pushing hard to bring new weather patterns to these mountains.

The clouds would drift through the forest, bringing on an entirely different feeling to the place.

All morning, the high country to the east had clouds draping over the ridges and peaks, then starting to flow down the Rio Colorado Valley, but the white blanket never entirely made it to the Lodge at Mount Totumas. The Caribbean had lost its oomph. On that day, we had hiked deep into the montane forests, continually watching the changing weather conditions, wondering if the rain would come. First, the sun shone bright, and then clouds would move in. The trees took on a subdued look, soft in color and texture. Then the white blanket would withdraw back up the valley. The shadows grew dark and refined. During those sunny periods, the air had tasted dry, but with that filtered light, it was sweet with moisture. The birds seemed to increase their chorus during those cloudy periods.

In the afternoon, the sky darkened out to the west, rolling clouds moved up the valley but petered out before they reached us. The forest would go from calm, no breeze, to rustling such that we no longer could hear the birds. Then as quickly as it came, things would switch back to tranquil. We never had rain.

Clouds came up the valley from the west, moving as if they would bring rain to the lodge but we mainly had a spectacular dance of white.

Now, the light was fading; the sun had moved far to the west, over the Pacific, beyond our view. But that western body had one final push. Massive cumulonimbus clouds grew to great heights out there. They began to move toward the Rio Colorado but stalled just beyond the ridge in that direction. The thunderheads continued to roll and tower, occasional flashes coming from their interior.

Bird calling diminished except for a three-wattled bellbird that wanted to make sure we hadn’t forgotten him. The night insects tuned up, filling the air with their raspy sounds.  The western sky turned color. Subdued blues became red then pink, fading gradually to black. The definition of the foliage changed, disappearing. The world darkened. The evening howls from the monkeys resonated one last time as they prepared for bed.

I had been standing on the lodge’s deck for more than an hour, mesmerized by the unfolding action. The air was fresh, moist, full of vigor. Life seemed vibrant here. The sounds intense but soft, the light intriguing. This was the tropics in all its glory.

Inside, dinner was coming to the tables, time to leave this world and watch through the large glass panes.

A three-wattled bellbird calls from a high perch as clouds sweep into the area.

On October 23rd 2019 I will be making a presentation on my birding trips to these cloud forests of western Panama. We will meet at the Mountaineers building on Sandpoint Way in Seattle. I will also discuss a new journey I’m planning for April 2020 to this area.  

Additional short essays are available here and here.

An album of bird songs from this forest is available here.

Discovering a Cirque in Mt. Rainer National Park

My Friends disappearing into the fog.

Clouds concealed Sourdough Ridge and filled both valleys. Mark and Karen, two of my hiking companions, became abstract silhouettes though they were only a hundred feet in front of me. Laurie and I caught up with them at the crest where a breeze made it chilly. The four of us stood abreast, …. keep reading in the link.

Migration of the Rufous Hummingbird

The marsh at Stillwater Wildlife area in Western Washington.

A flash of reddish-orange zipped by and dashed into the bushes at the trail’s edge. A dozen birders had come to Stillwater Wildlife Area on a beautiful early May morning. Red-winged Blackbirds, Marsh Wrens, and Black-capped Chickadees sang all around, but our concentration was on this flitting glimpse.

“Look, there it’s sitting on top of that branch,” Stewart pointed through a small opening, “a male Rufous Hummingbird.”

The motionless bird stared across the marsh; it then looked one way and the other, totally ignoring our goggling eyes. Quickly, two spotting scopes focused on the male who was searching for possible intruders.

“That’s my first Rufous of the year,” Gordie said. They had only just arrived in the Puget Sound basin, and this one had chosen Stillwater for its breeding territory. He was busy defending this space as well as looking for a prospective mate.

The range of the Rufous Hummingbird determined by modeling eBird data. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

Recently, Cornel Laboratory of Ornithology has started to use data collected by birders to understand the distribution and movement patterns of birds throughout the year. The eBird program has been running for more than a decade and now covers the entire globe. Sufficient data have been recorded in North America to allow some fascinating analyses for a few species.

Rufous Hummingbirds take a clockwise migration path on their annual trek. In the spring, they head north from Mexico along the western side of Mexico, through California, and into their breeding range. In the summer and fall, they move south through the Rocky Mountains into Texas and southern Mexico. The distribution map Cornell has produced now provides a finer resolution understanding of this species range.

Also, Cornell created an animation of this hummingbird’s distribution throughout the year. You can watch these little birds begin their northward travels, settle in for breeding, and then head back south. Imagine, a bird whose weight is only a little heavier than a half teaspoon of table salt can do this monumental loop.

Keep birding and keep entering your sightings into eBird. We have much to learn about the natural world and its fascinating inhabitants.


A version of this essay appeared in WOS Newsletter 177:


Fink, D., T. Auer, A. Johnston, M. Strimas-Mackey, M. Iliff, and S. Kelling. eBird Status and Trends. Version: . Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York.


Black Oystercatchers at March Point

Two Black Oystercatchers amble along the shore of Padilla Bay enjoying the last afternoon sun on this winter day. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Two Black Oystercatchers amble along the shore of Padilla Bay enjoying the last afternoon sun on this winter day. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

“Oh, look, two Black Oystercatchers are in the rocks,” Craig said. One bird stood on a seaweed-covered rock a foot above the water. The other waded in the shallows; the gentle swash was only coming an inch up its tarsi. My three buddies and I had been scanning Padilla Bay for 20 minutes, watching the Surf Scoters, Common Goldeneyes, and Buffleheads that were feeding offshore. Our three spotting scopes had been straining to find a loon, murrelet, or grebe while right, almost at our feet, were these two black birds that blended into the rubble in spite of their long red bills.

The Black Oystercatcher rests on one foot along Padilla Bay. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Black Oystercatcher rests on one foot along Padilla Bay. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Oystercatchers moseyed toward the right. One stopped to bathe in three inches of water, then flew to a small rock where it started to preen. The other ambled around the edge, probing into the debris but without putting much energy into it. They both seemed to be enjoying the late afternoon sun on this 45-degree February day.

Mt. Baker presides over Padilla Bay. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Mt. Baker presides over Padilla Bay. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Glacier Peak shows among the closer mountains. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Glacier Peak shows among the closer mountains. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Mt. Baker rose in the north above Padilla Bay and had overlooked our journey like a god watching the peasants work. “We should get a picture of the oystercatchers with Mt Baker,” Bruce said. Craig already down on one knee held his phone vertically and was snapping amazing photos. Their red bills glistened while the volcano sparkled in the distance.

“Look, there’s Glacier Peak through the gap,” Craig pointed east across the water. A white pyramid rose above the Douglas firs on the east side of Padilla Bay. “The Peak is way back and only visible in a few places.” We had been discussing all the snow-covered peaks on this cloudless day; my friends knew them while I was working on learning their names.

Our gaze returned to the Oystercatchers who had drifted another dozen yards down the surf’s edge. “Let’s stop at one more place around the point before we head back,” I said. Bruce, Gordie, and I had left Seattle early this morning and birded the Stillaguamish Flats before heading north to meet Craig on Fir Island. Identifying fifty bird species had warmed our souls on this chilly winter day.

 (G. Thomas Bancroft)

(G. Thomas Bancroft)

Water Cascading Through Beverly Creek

The water tumbles down over rocks along Beverly Creek in the Wenatchee National Forest. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The water cascading over rocks along Beverly Creek in the Wenatchee National Forest. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The water cascading down the narrow valley, crashing and tumbling over boulders. Mist hung in the cool air, and the musty smell of fallen leaves and wet conifers filled my nostrils. Beverly Creek, a tributary of the North Fork Teanaway River originates high in the Central Cascades at the edge of Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area. Light snow covered the high ridges, and recent rain made the forest wet, giving much to fill this little creek. The sounds and smells wrapped around me and I settled to contemplate this watercourse.

Scientists recently released “Climate Science: Special Report,” which concluded, “… based on extensive evidence, that it is extremely likely that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are the dominate cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. For the warming over the last century, there is no convincing alternative explanation supported by the extent of the observational evidence.” In late fall, as I sat beside the creek, it was actually cold – low forties – and I wondered how long I could sit before I needed to move to stay warm.

Leaves lined the sides of Beverly Creek as snowmelt and rain contributed to the torrent of water crashing over the rocks. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Leaves lined the sides of Beverly Creek as snowmelt and rain contributed to the torrent of water crashing over the rocks. (G. Thomas Bancroft)Winter snowpack is an essential component of keeping these forests healthy as well as downstream areas. The Teanaway River flows into the Yakima River, and this system is already experiencing water shortages during the summer because of the reduced snows this region has experienced over the last few decades. Allocating water between people, agriculture, and nature is difficult when the amount isn’t sufficient. And this challenge is likely to worsen.

The report also concluded:

Annual trends toward earlier spring melt and reduced snowpack are already affecting water resources in the western United States and these trends are expected to continue. Under higher scenarios, and assuming no change to current water resources management, chronic, long-duration hydrological drought is increasingly possible before the end of this century.”

The state recently protected more than 50,000 acres lower in the Teanaway watershed from additional development because of concerns about water supply. The national forest where I sat, as well as the wilderness upstream, protects additional lands critical to maintaining natural water regimes. Fortunately, Washington State is a leader in combating climate change. During the 2018 Legislative session, our representatives will have the chance to pass legislation that could make Washington a model for how to implementing programs to reduce the release of gases causing climate change while also maintaining a healthy and robust economy.

The double note chip of a Pacific wren caught my attention, and I turned to watch the bird move through a tangle of cedar branches before flying back into the woods. I then rose to walk along the edge of the creek, studying the design of the fallen leaves in the water eddies, some still holding a little yellow color. The water felt cold, not much above freezing. Snowmelt from higher elevations was driving the flow. The crystal clear water should make ideal habitat for aquatic insects. Small fish and American dippers should be along this rivulet. The sounds radiating from the creek filled my heart with hope and resolve. Washington can lead us forward to a solvable solution to this dilemma.

The soft sound of water cascading across rocks filled the air with the sweet sound of fall. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The soft sound of water cascading across rocks filled the air with the sweet sound of fall. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

USGCRP, 2017: Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume I [Wuebbles, D.J., D.W. Fahey, K.A. Hibbard, D.J. Dokken, B.C. Stewart, and T.K. Maycock (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, USA, 470 pp., doi: 10.7930/J0J964J6.


Wood Thrushes Sparing at First Light

The eastern deciduous forest in Western Pennsylvania is full of bird songs in the spring.

The morning fog filled the landscape with a sweet damp smell and dawn had only just started. It was late May in Western Pennsylvania. The eastern deciduous forest surrounded me. A few hemlocks grew on some north-facing slopes, but mostly oaks, cherries and maples dominated the landscape. The gurgling sounds of the stream filled the atmosphere and contributed to the sublime feeling.

I had just rounded a corner when I heard the first morning notes of a Wood Thrush. The flute-like whistle resonated through the forest and immediately a second and then a third began to sing. I stopped my walk to listen and imagined this cinnamon bird with a streaked breast sitting a dozen feet up in a tree proclaiming its territory. Since moving to Seattle, I’ve missed hearing this bird in spring and summer. When I lived in Maryland, I looked forward to its return in late May. One would sing from the oaks just up the street from my house, and I’d listen from my backyard.


We often call migratory birds like the Wood Thrush that breed in the United States “our birds,” but is that the right characterization when they spend most of the year farther south. Wood Thrushes winter from southern Mexico south through Panama, spending at least as much time there as they do on the breeding grounds.

In 2009, I was invited to do a Christmas Bird Count in Costa Rica and arrived late at night before the count day. The next morning, we met at 4 AM to begin our search. The first bird we detected was the “pit-pit” call of a Wood Thrush. Later when talking with folks, I thanked them for sharing “their bird” with us in the United States and told them about the thrill I had each spring on hearing them sing.

Although populations of Wood Thrushes are still strong across the northeast, their numbers have decreased by more than 60% since 1966. They are now listed as a species of “Continental Concern” in the 2016 State of North American Birds’ Watch List.

Other birds, including chickadees, titmouse, cardinals, and Carolina wrens began to join the wood thrushes in morning melody. I closed my eyes to take in the beautiful sounds before continuing my walk.