Archive for February, 2013

24
Feb 13

Flight in Birds, Oh I wish I could fly!

The Tundra Swan took off away from me and then circle back around and flew right over me.  I was able enjoy the beauty and grace of its flight as it climbed up from the field and headed off.  Watching the grace and athletic ability of this bird helps one appreciate why swans are considered so wonderful. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Tundra Swan took off away from me and then circled back around and flew right over me. I was able to enjoy the beauty and grace of its flight as it climbed up from the field and headed off. Watching the athletic ability of this bird helps one appreciate why swans are considered so wonderful. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Did you every wish you could fly?  When I was young, I use to imagine what it would be like to fly and look down at the forests and valleys of Pennsylvania.  I had the chance to do aerial surveys in a small plane for wading birds across Florida in the 1980s and 1990s and was always thrilled to be able to see the natural landscape from the air.  Oh, to be a bird and be able to fly!

Birds have many adaptations to be able to fly.  Air sacs in the body cavity help increase their respiratory efficiency and replace fluids with air, helping to reduce their weight compared to a similar size mammal.  Their bones are hollow, also reducing weight, and their front limbs have been modified into wings.

There are many similarities in their wings to our arms.  Like mammals, they have a humerus, upper arm, and ulna and radius, forearm.  The hand is highly modified with reduced number of bones from ours and many fused bones to form what is known as the manus. The flight feathers known as the primaries are attached to the manus and this outer part of the wing provides the power when birds flap down.  The secondaries, additional flight feathers, are attached to the ulna and this part of the wing provides the lift.  Coverts cover the bases of the flight feathers and additional feathers cover the rest of the wing surface.  These feathers help make the wing very aerial dynamic.  Individual primaries can be twisted during certain maneuvers to provide control.  The tail is also critical for flight in helping with stability and direction.  So to put it in human terms, flapping your hand provides the power for flight and your forearm provides the lift, the upper arm is important in putting the other two components in the right place.  The power muscles for flight in birds, both down stroke and up stroke, are attached to the breastbone and connected by tendons to the wings.  The breast meat on a chicken or turkey are these flight muscles.

The Tundra Swan is gaining altitude in this picture.  The wrist is about two-thirds out on the wing; the primaries are off the manus out from the wrist.  Secondaries extend behind the wing between the humerus and the wrist.  The translucent nature of the flight feathers allows you to see the rows of coverts (small feathers) at the base of the flight feathers both on the top and bottom of the wing.

The Bald Eagle is going through a rapid turn.  The outer primaries on its left wing are slightly twisted to allow airflow between them.  You can see the details of the coverts and small wing feathers on the top of the right wing.

The Snow Geese are coming into land in a field.  The wings are held far back and are being used to slow the birds down.  Notice on the front edge of their right wing in front of the primaries is a small feather that sticks out a little.  This is known as the alula and is thought to be critical in preventing birds from stalling as they slow down for landing.

A flying bird is incredibly agile and graceful thing.  As I took these pictures, I could not help but stand in aw of these birds in flight.  Next time you see a bird fly by, think about what it would be like to fly and how birds have evolved to be able to fly so well.

PS:  The Spring Best of Northwest 2013 Art Show is March 23 and 24th at the Smith Cove Cruise Terminal on Pier 91 next to the Magnolia Bridge, 2001 West Garfield St, Seattle.  I will be there showing some of my photographs.  Come on down to enjoy the artwork.

The Bald Eagle suddenly turned hard to its left and crossed in front of us.  We could see the power of its flight and its expression appeared almost serious.  Mud seemed to be on its bill and its eyes looked straight forward.  Its body arched as it sharply banked in the turn. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Bald Eagle suddenly turned hard to its left and crossed in front of us. We could see the power of its flight and its expression appeared almost serious. Mud seemed to be on its bill and its eyes looked straight forward. Its body arched as it sharply banked in the turn. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Snow Geese pair spread their wings to begin to slow themselves down as they descended to land amongst other geese.  They dropped their feet and spread their toes to give additional drag.  When they touched the ground, it was as if they had gently stepped onto the grass; as graceful as an Olympic gymnast. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Snow Geese pair spread their wings to begin to slow themselves down as they descended to land amongst other geese. They dropped their feet and spread their toes to give additional drag. When they touched the ground, it was as if they had gently stepped onto the grass; as graceful as an Olympic gymnast. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

 

22
Feb 13

A Conclave of Bald Eagles at Boundary Bay

 

Bald Eagles began to converge along one section of the beach in Boundary Bay.  A small group settled together and additional ones were spaced out from this central group.  I wonder what brought this magnificent assemblage of eagles together in one place? (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Bald Eagles began to converge along one section of the beach in Boundary Bay. A small group settled together and additional ones were spaced out from this central group. I wonder what brought this magnificent assemblage of eagles together in one place? (G. Thomas Bancroft)

I was at Boundary Bay in British Columbia on Sunday to look again for Snowy Owls.  We found one way out in the marsh grassland habitat toward the bay and a second closer to us sitting in a parking lot inland from the dike.  There were about 20 people along the dike when I arrived and most were focused on the Owl in the parking lot because it was closer and kept adjusting its stance making us think it might fly.  It was as if the owl was teasing us.  About a dozen photographers stayed there all morning hoping for a great shot.  Many dozens of additional people came and spent a few minutes looking at the owls.

At one point I stretched my neck and in the process looked straight up into the sky.   A kettle of Bald Eagles was soaring above.  Several dozen adult and immature birds were gliding easily on the thermals and circling lazily on their seven-foot wingspan.  The updrafts or thermals must have been good because I didn’t see any individual flap and they seemed to be climbing slowly.  At times several individuals would come into my binocular view at once.  I did not see any interaction between these soaring birds.  It was spectacular to see so many eagles at once.

When I looked down and out into the bay, I saw an equal number of eagles flying in circles along the shore.  Gradually over a 30-minute period these individuals settle to the shoreline.  At least a dozen eagles landed close together (in the center of the picture).  For several minutes I studied this group carefully through binoculars and didn’t see any interactions between them and could not tell if they were feeding on anything.  Others landed in singles or pairs at various distances out from this central group.  At several points small flocks of shorebirds flew along the line from left to right and other shorebirds fed in the shallows.  The eagles did not appear to pay any attention to these shorebirds nor the shorebirds to the eagles.  A number of the people shifted their focus from the Snowy Owl to these eagles and I heard the rapid clicks of pictures being taken.

What was happening that brought all these eagles together?  Could it be food or simply a good place to rest in the late morning?  Maybe fish had moved into the shallows.  To humanize it, one might imagine this being a conclave of eagles coming together with the central group making some decision and the rest waiting for the answer.  Boundary Bay must be a productive feeding area for Bald Eagles for we could see close to a hundred eagles at one time in a 360-degree scan of the bay, land, and sky; both fascinating and amazing to see.  The Pacific Northwest is graced with some spectacular natural wonders!

PS:  The Spring Best of Northwest 2013 Art Show is March 23 and 24th at the Smith Cove Cruise Terminal on Pier 91 next to the Magnolia Bridge, 2001 West Garfield St, Seattle.  I will be there showing some of my photographs.  Come on down to enjoy the artwork.

The Bald Eagle sat on a branch gazing out across the marsh.  It stayed on the branch for several hours allowing people to study it carefully.  Its powerful beak and tallons were obvious. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Bald Eagle sat on a branch gazing out across the marsh. It stayed on the branch for several hours allowing people to study it carefully. Its powerful beak and tallons were obvious. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

13
Feb 13

Tundra Swans in Skagit County, Washington

Tundra Swan families stay together throughout the winter. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Tundra Swan families stay together throughout the winter. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

When I was growing up in Western Pennsylvania, we would listen for Tundra Swans flying over during spring or fall.  These birds would generally fly over Pennsylvania between breeding grounds in the Arctic and wintering area along the eastern shore.  Here in Washington, it is great that we can easily find this magnificent bird in Skagit County feeding, resting and flying in areas where they are easy to study up close.

Tundra Swans are monogamous and form long-term pair bonds.  In North America, they breed across the northern tundra from Alaska through Canada.  They winter along both coasts of North America.  Young of the year stay with their parents throughout the first winter.  You can often tell how successful a pair was by whether one or two young are foraging with them in the fields or flying as a group overhead.

In Washington, they feed in agricultural fields in winter on grain, roots, and tubers and graze on grass.  The area west of Interstate 5 from Conway north to Bow and Edison is an excellent place to look for them in winter.  I found a number grazing grass in green fields and pulling roots from fallow fields.  I was able to park along the road’s edge and watch them feed peacefully.  Seeing family groups fly over and land amongst others is a spectacular sight.  They fly with their necks stretched out and use their wings to slow themselves down as they come into land.

Trumpeter Swans, a larger species, also winter in this area and are often difficult to tell from Tundra Swans unless they are standing together.  Bill and head shape is the best characteristic but difficult to see unless they are close.  Some Tundra Swans have a distinguishing yellow dot between the eye and bill.  In March, families of both species will start heading back north to breeding grounds.

A pair of Tundra Swans fly from a feeding area. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A pair of Tundra Swans fly from a feeding area. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A Tundra Swan flies while calling. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A Tundra Swan flies while calling. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Tundra Swans feed in fallow fields on roots and tubers. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Tundra Swans feed in fallow fields on roots and tubers. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

 

10
Feb 13

Snowy Owls and Short-eared Owls at Boundary Bay, British Columbia

The Snowy Owl stood upright on the edge fo the stump, looking gradually from one side to another.  Its eyes partially closed and seemed to be just enjoying the morning. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Snowy Owl stood upright on the edge of the stump, looking slowly from one side to another. Its eyes partially closed and it seemed to be just enjoying the morning. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The heaviest North American owl, standing about 2-feet tall and weighing almost 4 pounds, the Snowy Owl, is an incredible sight to see.  This bird, made famous by the Harry Potter series, breeds on the Arctic tundra and only flies far south in winters when food is apparently in short supply farther north.   This winter we are lucky because some have flown into Washington and British Columbia.

One of the best places to see them is at Boundary Bay Wildlife Management Area in Southern British Columbia; so on Sunday I met a friend in Bellingham and we drove north to look.  You take 72nd street out of Surrey and drive down to the coast.  We walked SW along a dike for about a mile to find the owls.  Four birds were up close to the dike and sat out in the open.  Occasionally they would preen a little or stretch their wing but generally they seem to be relaxing this day.  We saw 4 more far across the tidal marsh toward the coast.  An additional individual was on top of the water tanks on the inland side of the dike.  This bird moved around the tank field while we were there, at one point sitting peacefully on a microwave dish.

The Snowy Owl rested peacefully on a dead branch just above the grassland-marsh.  It ocassionally looked lazily from side to side. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Snowy Owl rested peacefully on a dead branch just above the grassland-marsh. It ocassionally looked lazily from side to side. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Maintaining feathers in critical for birds.  This Snowy Owl worked on the feathers of its wing and breast, gradually pulling them and stratighting barbules (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Maintaining feathers in critical for birds. This Snowy Owl worked on the feathers of its wing and breast, gradually pulling them and stratighting barbules (G. Thomas Bancroft)

They feed on mice, voles, and rabbits and along the coast here also take Horned Grebes and small ducks.  These owls feed at any time during the day or night, on their Arctic breeding grounds it is light all day long so they are well adapted to feed during the day.  Although it is hard to tell, these birds appeared healthy.  Adult females are bigger than males.  Males have whiter plumage than females or first-year birds, which are impossible to tell apart in the field.

The Snort-eared Owl fly on the stump and looked intently across the marsh.  It must of seen something because it quickly flew over the grass, hovering briefly, before flying on. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Snort-eared Owl landed on the stump and looked intently across the marsh. It must have seen something because it quickly flew over the grass, hovering briefly, before flying on. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

On our walk back to the car, we spotted several Short-eared Owls searching for prey.  One flew back and forth across the marsh trying to spot something.  Its wing-beat was like a gigantic moth.  The wing-beats are slow and deliberate, it hovered at times as it quarter back and forth across the marsh.  Several sat on perches, actively looking in one direction and then another.  These owls are much smaller than Snowies, weighing less than a pound.  Their facial mask is quite distinctive with the yellow eyes and dark highlights around the eyes.

We saw a number of other species during the morning.  Bald Eagles and Northern Harriers were hunting in the area.  White-crowned Sparrows, Song Sparrows, Savannah Sparrows, and Dark-eyed Juncos foraged in the fields and several ducks were in ponds along the dike.  Visiting this site is definitely a very enjoyable way to spend the morning.  The Snowy Owls will leave to head back north soon though.

PS:  The Spring Best of Northwest 2013 Art Show is March 23rd and 24th at the Smith Cove Cruise Terminal on Pier 91 next to the Magnolia Bridge, 2001 West Garfield St, Seattle.  I will be there displaying some of my photographs.  Come on down to enjoy the artwork, 150 artists will be present as well as music.

The sparrow jumped up from under a bush as we walked by and looked intently at us.  Quickly it decided were were not a threat and dropped back to the ground to feed. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The sparrow jumped up from under a bush as we walked by and looked intently at us. Quickly it decided were were not a threat and dropped back to the ground to feed. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

3
Feb 13

Grebes and Goldeneyes at Langley Marina on Whidbey Island

Four horned grebes rest between dives for food.  The morning sun created a brilliant reflection of the peer. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Four horned grebes rest between dives for food. The morning sun created a brilliant reflection of the pier. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A couple of weeks ago, I was up on Whidbey Island and stopped by the marina in Langley.  It is a small marina and if the clouds are high has a wonderful view across the sound to Mt Baker and the Cascades.  The mountain was out today and stood brightly on the morning horizon.  I found several horned grebes lazily floating on the waters in the marina, seemingly to be just enjoying the sun.  They definitely weren’t working very hard looking for food at 10:30 in the morning.  Occasionally one would dive and be below the surface for almost a minute at a time.  When they surfaced with a small fish in their mouth, I knew they had a successful dive.  In winter they search for small fish and crustaceans, often swallowing the prey underwater.  I suspected they were pretty full after spending more time foraging earlier.  A small group of Barrow’s Goldeneyes swam into view from the right.  The adult male had its distinctive black and white pattern.  The crescent moon shaped oval white patch behind the bill being easily seen from a great distance.  The female is more camouflaged with brown and muddy white patches.  A first-year male was not as distinctive as the adult male.  They swam lazily around several piers taking quick bites at mussels or barnacles at the surface.  I saw one dive briefly but they definitely weren’t actively foraging at this point.  I was surprised to see an adult male Common Goldeneye swim into the group of grebes.   I usually see this species in freshwater habitat because it winters all across continental United States.  These birds breed in the boreal forest of Canada and Alaska as well as the boreal forests of Eurasia.  In winter, they feed on small fish, crustacean and mollusks.  The green head and yellow eye stood out in the morning sun as the bird drifted through the grebe flock.

The sun created a dynamic colored reflection of the dock in the rippling waters.  The birds among this pattern were mesmerizing.  I watched the flock for half an hour before I needed to jump back in my car and head down the road.

An adult common goldeney swims between two horned grebes and into a godlend reflection on the water. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

An adult common goldeneye swims between two horned grebes and into a goldend reflection on the water. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

2
Feb 13

Hike up Kendall Peak Lake Trail

The sun started to poke through the clouds giving bright contrast to the landscape.  Fog continued to flow through the valley below Kendal Peak.  Snowshoers were enjoying the hike up the trail. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The sun started to poke through the clouds giving bright contrast to the landscape. Fog continued to flow through the valley below Kendal Peak. Snowshoers were enjoying the hike up the trail. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Kendal Peak Lake Trail is a popular trail in winter and quite crowded on weekends.  I was the first to the parking lot on Friday morning and headed up the trail, which follows an old logging road through second growth spruce, fir, hemlock and cedar forests.  The snow was very crunchy this morning.  Temperatures have been rising about freezing during the day and the top of the snow had refrozen during the night.  I had a black-capped chickadee follow me along the trail for a short period; otherwise I didn’t see or hear any birds or wildlife.  The sun was peaking through the clouds and fog was moving through the valley bellow me as I hiked up the trail.  Several small groups passed me as I stopped to take pictures.  After a couple of hours I turned around to head back to the car, a place worth returning to again.