A Breathtaking Baritone

Stillwater Wildlife Area near Carnation, Washington

Author Note: This trip was done in 2017. As of late April 2020, Washington is in a “Stay at Home” mode as we try to control the coronavirus and the resulting COVID-19 disease. In early May, the state will open some protected areas for recreation while we continue to practice social distancing. If the Stillwater Wildlife Area opens, I hope to make it out early one morning to search for the “pump-er-lunk” bird. An earlier version of this essay appeared in WOSNews 173 in 2-18. I thank Dan Steiffert for letting me use some of his amazing photographs. https://www.flickr.com/photos/danstreiffert/

The trees were just beginning to show a little shape as I inched my way along the dike at Stillwater Wildlife Area. It was 5:00 AM on a Sunday morning in early May, and sunrise would not come for another hour, even longer before the sun hit this area at the western base of the Cascades. My flashlight was off so as to not disturb any wildlife. The songs of American Robins filled the air. Their “cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up” melody proclaimed spring had arrived, and they were ready for another day, even though it looked like night. 

American Bittern – Photo by Dan Streiffert

A different sound made me stop, a gulping like someone was swallowing large mouthfuls of air. It came from the marsh across the small pond to my south. Five gulps were quickly followed by an eerie call: “pump-er-lunk,” then another “pump-er-lunk” and finally, a “dunk-a-doo.” A male American Bittern was trying to woo a female. 

I’d come to record this exact sound, so I settled onto the ground to put my stereo microphone rig on a tripod and see if I could hold still for the next hour. I slid off the gravel-topped dike to station my mic with its back to the bank, partially blocking sounds from behind me. The water was ten feet below, and a few bushes and cottonwoods lined the pond’s edge. Open water extended fifty yards to a thick marsh. The bittern was probably sitting at the water’s edge, hoping a female would like his display. 

Sonogram of the morning chorus at Stillwater Wildlife Area near Carnation Washington. The American Bittern has a deeper call than most birds. They hide in the marsh where this deep call will travel farther through the thick vegetation.

A second male began gulping; he was roughly a hundred yards east of my seat. The closer one instantly responded with his answer. Last week, I was here with a group of birders. The sun had risen as we searched along this old railroad bed, now a hiking trail. One person discovered a male bittern, probably this same one, lurking in the reeds and focused her spotting scope on him. We watched the male contort its neck as it lunged forward to gulp in air, expanding its esophagus like a balloon, and then used that air to make this resonant “pump-er-lunk” sound. 

In five decades of birding, I had never heard their call until last week. They don’t breed in Florida where I lived for more than two decades and were not common breeders near my Maryland home either. The sound last week took me by surprise; I watched the male for a long time while the birding party walked farther down the dike. Every few minutes, the bittern would begin again to blow up his esophagus and bellow out this resonating sound. This behavior and sound were so astonishing that I felt the need to return to see if I could record this spectacular call.

Their courtship boomings have a ventriloquistic nature, and rural people have given them some exciting names; “stake-driver,” “thunder-pumper.”  These are low-frequency sounds that will travel much farther through thick vegetation than the high pitch songs of most birds. Ornithologists think that these calls function both to attract females and tell rival males that this marsh was taken.

American Bittern (adult) Photo by Dan Streiffert

American Bitterns are members of the heron family. Their streaky brown and buff plumage allows them to disappear into the reeds, blending perfectly with the vertical shoots. They often freeze in a pose with their bills pointed skyward, neck stretched, so the streaks in their plumage will run parallel with the reeds. If they see people, they usually sulk back into the marsh.

But on that day, I was alone along this dike; no other person was out this early. I was hunched low; I had headset over my ears; my stereo mic pointed right toward the marsh where the bird just called. My eyes were closed so I could concentrate on absorbing the morning chorus of birds. It was still 45 minutes until sunrise. In addition to the robins, the Red-winged Blackbirds had started their “conk-la-ree” song, and I could imagine them drooping their wings while leaning forward and puffing out their bright red shoulder patches as they bellowed. They reminded me of my high school years when the football jocks would strut down the aisle, not moving aside for anyone, puffing out their shoulders when passing a pretty girl. The six-phrase melody of a Song Sparrow came from right above me. He was probably sitting at the end of a branch, looking across the marsh, and raising his head, puffing out his chest when he sang his beautiful song. Individual male song sparrows have about nine different melodies, and they mix them up in their morning repertoire. He hopes this diversity will impress a mate. 

Juvenile American Bittern (left) being fed by Adult (right) Photo by Dan Streiffert

These birds would be an excellent background to the bittern, creating a musical filler between this heron’s calls in my recording. He’s my quest today. To think a bird could be such a breathtaking baritone. Each time the sound came across the marsh, I was amazed by how these notes were made and wanted to show others this unique love song. Another bittern called to my left, and a third at the limit of my hearing on the right. A long pause happened between their trumpets and then once one started to gulp in air, the others followed. I tried not to move or say anything in spite of my excitement. My recorder picked up every nuance of the morning.

The Pied-billed Grebe – A Not So Mundane Bird

The bill on this Pied-billed Grebe still had the dark ring around it that is typical of the breeding season. This one was in a small pond in Magnuson Park and It was mid January. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The bill on this Pied-billed Grebe still had the dark ring around it that is typical of the breeding season. This one was in a small pond in Magnuson Park and it was mid-January. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A movement caught my eye on the chilly January day. The glimpse had come from under the leafless branches of some willows and cottonwoods where a small pond was tucked in a thicket. I froze but could see nothing until I slowly crouched down. There, floating on the water, was a football-sized mass of feathers, tan along the waterline and darker above. It had two black eyes that glared at me from a smallish head, probably wondering if I was friend or foe.  A tiny Pied-billed Grebe drifted less than 20 feet from me.

Typically, they slink away, so I decided to settle here and see what it would do. These grebes are permanent residents in the Puget Trough, but over much of the United States, they are migratory. People seldom see them flying because they travel at night and rarely fly to escape a disturbance. Usually, Pied-bills dive and swim away, often undetected. People on birding outings will often comment, “Oh, it’s just a grebe,” wanting I presume to see something more colorful, bigger, less mundane.

The distribution of Pied-billed Grebes in the Western Hemisphere as calculated from eBird Data by scientists at Cornel Laboratory of Ornithology.

Their distribution is fascinating with breeding populations in both North and South America. Although a few are in Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, and Central America, generally, a big geographic gap exists between those groups on each continent. 

The Pied-billed Grebe sat motionless in the water after surfacing from a dive. They are permanent residents in the Puget Sound area of Washington. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Pied-billed Grebe sat motionless in the water after surfacing from a dive. They are permanent residents in the Puget Sound area of Washington. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

For North America, the animation of weekly abundance data from eBird showed that in January, Pied-bills were concentrated in Florida and along the Southeast coastal plains and across into Texas and Northeastern Mexico. Lots were also in the central valley of California and then a few here in Puget Sound. Some were scattered elsewhere, especially Central Mexico and near the Gulf of California. By March, birds had moved into the Great Plains and by late April had extended into the Canadian prairies, Central Washington, and British Columbia. Their numbers in the Southeast had plummeted by April, but those in central California remained pretty constant. In the fall, they started to head back toward the Gulf Coast.

https://ebird.org/science/status-and-trends/pibgre/abundance-map-weekly?forceLogin=true

In South America, the migration was in the opposite direction. In late January, lots were in Northeastern Brazil and then scattered to northern Argentina. As the year progressed, they migrated south to breed from Southern Brazil into Central Argentina. A few were also in Chile, Equator, and Columbia. Of all the grebe species in the Western Hemisphere, Pied-bills have the most extensive distribution. 

The pied-billed Grebe slowly turned in the calm waters at Magnuson Park. It then just sank into the water and disappeared. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The pied-billed Grebe slowly turned in the calm waters at Magnuson Park. It then just sank into the water and disappeared. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The one in Magnuson Park, a protected area in Seattle, slowly turned a complete circle while keeping one eye on me. Its back and sides had water droplets beaded on the feathers. Those feathers seemed slicked down but waterproof. The bill still had the black ring mid-way out and the bluish-white base. Usually, they lose that band, and the bill becomes more yellowish-brown in the non-breeding season. Perhaps, its breeding hormones were still flowing here in January.

The bird radiated a sense of pride, confidence. In Celtic mythology, the grebe guards the spirit world and helps humans find beauty where they otherwise might not. The contours of its body, the S-shape of its neck, the tautness of its muscles all projected splendor. 

Suddenly, the grebe just sank out of sight, hardly making a ripple. No dive, it just dropped as if it was a rock gently placed on the surface. The bird must have compressed its body feathers, squeezing out the trapped air, and tightened its chest muscles to make its air sacks smaller, decreasing its buoyancy.  

I shook my head as I got back to my feet. Birds are so marvelous.

The Pied-billed Grebe glared at me from a small pond in Magnuson Park. Water droplets were beaded across its back and sides. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Pied-billed Grebe glared at me from a small pond in Magnuson Park. Water droplets were beaded across its back and sides. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A version of this essay first appeared in the Washington Ornithological Newsletter #184.

http://wos.org/documents/wosnws/wosnews184.pdf#page=8

Visitors from Mexico

Heermann's Gulls roost on the rocks by Edmonds Pier. (Thomas Bancroft)

Heermann’s Gulls roost on the rocks by Edmonds Pier. (Thomas Bancroft)

“What are those seagulls?” came from behind me, “They’re a lot darker than our ones back east.” Half a dozen birds stood on the gray rocks. Their bills were tucked under back feathers, and their eyes shut.

“Heerman’s,” I said, “visitors up from Mexico. They come up for the summer and fall.”

“Wow, so they are not Herring Gulls,” one of the three women said. It was the common gull near their New England home. They watched for another few seconds and then wandered on toward the Edmonds Pier. I probably should have pointed to the Glaucous-winged Gull that was on a different rock, but these Heerman’s had captured my imagination.

What possessed them to come north. These looked like adults. Their heads were heavily mottled, bill red with a black tip, typical winter plumage. Their dark gray backs and lighter gray undersides blended in with the rocks that had been used to make this seawall. I hadn’t noticed them when I first walked up the ramp. 

They were mostly sleeping. Occasionally, one would pull its bill out from under back feathers, look around a little and then tuck it back in, closing its eyes. They looked comfortable, content, with not a care in the world, while I wore a heavy sweatshirt, wind jacket, gloves, and was definitely cold on this November day.

In the breeding season, their head would be pure white, and a bright red ring would surround their dark eye. Maybe I’ll see breeding condition birds when I go to Baja in March. Over 90% of the world’s population breeds on one island, Isla Raza, in the Gulf of California. In much fewer numbers, a few nest on other islands in the Gulf or along the Baja Peninsula. So far, they have never successfully nested in the United States. But they sure like to move north following breeding. They come up the Pacific coast as far as British Columbia and even loop down into Puget Sound, staying into the fall before heading back south. Early November seemed late for them, and these individuals might soon have a yearning for more southern weather. 

During the breeding season, most are offshore feeders, chasing schools of herring, joining cormorants, pelicans, and boobies. They are excellent kleptoparasites, even grabbing a fish out of a pelican’s mouths. They must find something to eat here in Puget Sound, but I’ve only ever seen them roosting or cruising along the shoreline. Perhaps, they find schooling fish offshore here, too.

Three of them woke and took off, heading out over the water. The other ones looked around for a minute before they too left. 

Heermann's Gulls roost on the rocks by Edmonds Pier. (Thomas Bancroft)

Heermann’s Gulls roost on the rocks by Edmonds Pier. (Thomas Bancroft)

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

A Spring Mourning at Magnuson Park

An Oregon Junco, a race of the Dark-eyed Junco, sings from a red alder branch along the pond's edge at Magnuson Park in Seattle. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

An Oregon Junco, a race of the Dark-eyed Junco, sings from a red alder branch along the pond’s edge at Magnuson Park in Seattle. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A light mist hit the window shield as I turned into Seattle’s Magnuson Park. Thick clouds covered the sky, and a light breeze made it chilly, but the birds were singing on this Monday morning a little after dawn. A musical, high pitch-chipping trill came from the alders just as I entered the trail around the ponds. A male junco sat about 5 feet down from the top on a side branch, right beside the trunk of an alder sapling. He’d leaned his head back, opened his bill slightly, and let lose a rapid tempo song. I imagined him saying “Spring is here and this is my territory!”

 

 

The male Gadwall extends its head to take a drink as the females swims away. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The male Gadwall extends its head to take a drink as the females swims away. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A Great Blue Heron rests its head along the side of its body in the early morning. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A Great Blue Heron rests its head along the side of its body in the early morning. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Buffleheads, green-winged teal, gadwalls, mallards and pied-billed grebes floated lazily in the still water, slight movements of their bodies causing concentric ripples to spiral out. The buffleheads dove, surfaced, and dove again, searching for food. Each dive was acrobatic as they almost jump up to plunge head first into the water. Even though it was now 7 AM, one great-blue heron still had not woken up. His head held down by his right side for the entire time I watched.

Songs sparrows alternated between their “maids-maids-maids-put-on-your-tea-kettle-ettle-ettle” and “Madge; Madge; Madge pick beetles off; the water’s hot” songs. Several sang simultaneously, not letting the other hog the morning airtime. Numerous red-winged blackbirds perched high in trees or on cattails giving their harsh gurgling trill.

A Song Sparrow looks down just after giving its sweet spring song. He moved to a new branch and continued to sing for several minutes before flying into the bushes. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A Song Sparrow looks down just after giving its sweet spring song. He moved to a new branch and continued to sing for several minutes before flying into the bushes. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

 

 

 

Spring had arrived at last. Migrating yellow-rumped warblers darted everywhere, and even a few frogs croaked from the pond’s edge. Smelling deep, the damp air was fresh and alive, invigorating my soul. New leaves popped out on the tips of branching casting a green glow to the landscape. Time for breakfast and heading to work.

A male Red-winged Blackbird gives its harsh song to declare it owns this section of the marsh. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A male Red-winged Blackbird gives its harsh song to declare it owns this section of the marsh. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Sweet Elegant Song of the White-crowned Sparrow

A male white-crowned sparrow sings from the top of a cedar in Washington Park by Anacortes. (Thomas Bancroft)

A male white-crowned sparrow sings from the top of a cedar in Washington Park by Anacortes. (Thomas Bancroft)

We had been birding all morning as we climbed onto viewpoint above Burroughs Channel. It was almost noon and we had a good morning searching for seabirds and shorebirds, pretty much ignoring the little tweets.  The sweet whistle followed quickly by several more whistles and buzzes, therefore, caught me off guard.  I stopped to listen again.

We had pulled into Washington Park at Anacortes to search for buffleheads and surf scoters on Rosario Strait. We found several feeding out from the boat landing. They repeatedly dove staying down for 20 to 30 seconds while they searched for tasty morsels. My birding partner spotted a white flash way off shore and we discovered a pigeon guillemot stretching on the gentle swells. With each stretch of its wings, its white patches flashed in the noon sun and the white contrasted with the black body plumage. A common loon in its new nuptial plumage cruised by as we climbed back into the car to head to Green Point. At the point, five red-necked grebes bobbed in the waves; they had shifted from their drab winter plumage to their nuptial plumage with the distinctive rufous neck that gives them their name. We, also, heard the loud cries of a black oystercatcher pair and ran to the edge but to no avail.

So what was this sweet whistle I just heard above Burroughs Channel?

As we strolled down the slope toward the source of the whistle, I realized that we could hear a line of these songs echoing in both directions through the scattered cedars and pines. These songs declared that each vocalist owns their individual patch of habitat. Finally, one called in a cedar not far from where we stood. I crept around the edge of the tree to find a white-crowned sparrow on the top singing its sweet melody. We stood for quite a while listening to him bellowing out his song as strongly as any opera singer.  In 1772, J. R. Foster got it right when he called this one of the most “elegant little species.” This little bird is one of the most intensely studied species in the world. It breeds across western United States and north into Canada and across the Arctic. Just like people, these little guys have distinctive dialects depending on where in their range they breed. A number of years ago when I heard one singing in Denali National Park, I remember that I didn’t recognize it. It looks like I still can’t seem to keep all their dialects straight. We found a nice bench just above the cedar and sat to eat our lunch and listen to his solo version of “I will always love you.”

Here it is if you would like to hear it too.

 

Birds at Mukilteo Lighthouse Beach

A glaucous-winged gull cruzes along the beach at Mukilteo Lighthouse. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A glaucous-winged gull cruzes along the beach at Mukilteo Lighthouse. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

I stopped by Mukilteo Lighthouse to see what birds might be there. I had hoped to find surf scoters and Barrow’s goldeneyes feeding on mussels by the ferry terminal but none were present. They may not have moved south from their breeding grounds yet. I did watch a red-breasted merganser that had the last inch of its lower mandible-missing. It dove repeatedly just off the beach and successfully caught three fish in the half hour that I watched. Its plumage looked in good shape as if it had not had problems preening and caring for its feathers. I wonder how long this bird has been like this. Heading north, a flock of 20-40 red-breasted mergansers flew by a few hundred yards off shore but the one I watched made no attempt to join its brethren.

A red-breasted merganser pauses between fishing dives along Mukilteo Beach. Notice that it is missing the end of its lower mandible but was able to catch serveral fish while I watched. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A red-breasted merganser pauses between fishing dives along Mukilteo Beach. Notice that it is missing the end of its lower mandible but was able to catch serveral fish while I watched. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A head shot of a glaucous-winged gull. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A head shot of a glaucous-winged gull. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A common crow pauses for a portrait along the beach. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A common crow pauses for a portrait along the beach. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Glaucous-winged gulls and common crows were numerous along the beach and at the ferry terminal. When ferries came and went, many gulls flew out to where the water churned from the ship’s propellers. I guess the ship stirred up morsels for them to catch and eat. Others seemed content to feed along the beach or lounge in the parking lot. A family with two children fishing at the peer beside the ferry terminal put the birds in a frenzy each time they pulled something up from the water but I never saw the birds successfully snitch something from the family. By the boat launch, I watched a couple hold a piece of food out for a gull. The gull sat just beyond their fingertips leaning toward them clearly frustrated and wanting the food but would never take the final step to grab the morsel from their fingers.

I found a pair of rock pigeons roosting peacefully on a crossbar of the ferry terminal. I thought they might flush when a ferry pulled into the dock but they stayed content in their little spot, out of the wind and resting shoulder to shoulder. They looked like an old couple sitting peacefully on a park bench enjoying the day. Just the way I felt after my short walk; content, calm, and relaxed.

Two rock pigeons rest on a cross arm of the pillings at Mukilteo Ferry Dock. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Two rock pigeons rest on a cross arm of the pillings at Mukilteo Ferry Dock. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Common Merganser Family at Seward Park, Seattle

 (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Family of Common Mergansers on a log at Seward Park. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

At Seward Park, I spotted a family of Common Mergansers along the shore of Andrews Bay in Lake Washington. The female duck had her brood resting on a log. For ten minutes she preened her wings and back feathers by taking individual feathers in her serrated bill and pulling them through her bill to straighten barbules and align feathers with adjacent feathers. All birds need to maintain the water proofing on their feathers so water doesn’t soak into to their skin.  For ducks this is especially important because they spend so much time in water. If water makes it through the plumage to their skin, a duck will suffer hypothermia and if not solved, wet skin usually results in death. They waterproof feathers by coating them with oil from the uropygial gland at the base of the tail. The oil contains diester waxes that help waterproof as well as keeping feathers flexible. All birds spend substantial time caring for their feathers.

While I watched, the female and young slept by tucking their heads along their back feathers and sometimes their bill under wing feathers. They were quick to wake-up and look around if they sensed danger. One young squeaked once at something and all became alter and looked around to be sure nothing was approaching. One young peered carefully into the sky, its head cocked to the side, but I could not see anything when I looked. Bald eagles will feed on ducks and two pairs of eagles nest at Seward Park. The ducklings closed their eyes so I guess they didn’t feel an eagle was patrolling at that moment.

Common Mergansers nest in tree cavities where they lay a dozen or so eggs. The young leave the nest soon after all have hatched. They jump from the cavity, falling to the ground where their body acts like a ball and they bounce unhurt. The mother gathers the young and heads to the water. For the first week or two, the young feed on caddis flies, mayflies, dragonflies and other aquatic insects. When about two weeks old, they begin to pursue and eat small fish. Adult mergansers feed primarily on fish and chase them under water, twisting and turning with the fish until they capture it.

I watched the family for 20 minutes before moving on down shore loop road. My heartbeat increases when I find something as exciting and interesting at this. It is great that some species successfully nest and prosper in a city landscape. This female had five half grown babies accompanying her. Outstanding.

Clouds in Seattle

This afternoon, the skies cleared a little allowing the sun to peak through the clouds. I sat watching out my west window as they drifted north trying to see animal and bird shapes in the clouds. After a spattering of rain all this morning it was fun to watch the skies change. I have always found clouds fascinating to watch. I wonder why? They create such a relaxing setting.