Oh, To Be a Northern Shoveler

Northern Shovelers were actively feeding on Central Pond at Union Bay in Seattle, Washington.

Their heads were underwater; occasionally, their eyes came above the surface, but mostly they stayed down. Somehow, they were getting breaths, but I couldn’t see how. True, their nostrils are near the base of the bill, and maybe only an instant is needed. These ducks, two males and a female, were swimming fast. The body plumage said Northern Shoveler. The males had cinnamon-brown sides, white in front and behind the cinnamon patch. The heads appeared black, showing, though, as green when the light was right, and their backs dark. The female was streaked brown and light, like so many female ducks. But I hadn’t seen their bills, those large spatula-like projections. Ornithologists created the genus Spatula for these and their three close relatives in honor of that bill.

I’d come to the Union Bay Natural Area at UW’s Horticulture Center to look for them and see if I could watch them feed on this April morning. During spring in Seattle, shovelers are often on the Central and Carp ponds. Most would be paired by this time and traveling as a unit or in small feeding groups. Finally, one raised its head entirely out of the water and showed that humungous projection. I always think that bill should cause them to fall over, but its structure makes it surprisingly light, and I suspect they have strong neck muscles. 

A pair of Northern Shovelers swim in a tight circle while feeding.

They use their bill to filter out food. These birds suck water through the front of their beaks and push it out through the lamellae on the sides. They specialize in small nektonic invertebrates, which is the scientist’s way of saying swimming critters. Probably, Daphnia and many other minute things fill the water column in these shallow ponds. These shovelers swam in straight lines, occasionally doing turns, moving their heads up and down in jerky motions. A few weeks ago, pairs were swimming in tight circles. That behavior probably stirs the crustaceans and other invertebrates, seeds, and microscopic vegetation up from the bottom, making them better for filtering. We’d had strong winds in the last couple of days, and the water column was probably well mixed. 

A female Northern Shoveler opens her mouth wide to show the lamellae that allow her to filter out microscopic organisms from the water column.
The fine lamellae on the bill of this female Northern Shoveler allow her to filter out small crustaceans and other microscopic food items from the water column.
A group of Northern Shovelers swim in an oval. Each is stirring the bottom with their feet and the one following can filter any food items stirred up.
Northern Shovelers swim in a wide oval, following the one in front to catch the stirred-up water.

Once, a year ago, on Carp Pond, I watched some shovelers swim in an oval. The oval swimming, as well as the circling, are cooperative feeding techniques. It is an ingenious way of working together, everyone benefits. They can exploit the stirred-up food items by following, filtering out the good pieces. For example, we filter out noodles and vegetables from soup by pulling a spoon full along the side of the bowl and letting the liquid drain out. These ducks suck in a mouthful of soupy pond water and then use their tongue to push the water out through their built-in sieve. 

A male Northern Shoveler actively preens while a female takes an bath in the water beyond him. These are probably paired for the coming breeding season.

At the eastern end of Carp Pond, I found a shoveler pair actively preening. The female floated in the water, using her bill to pull through the body, wing, and tail feathers, occasionally taking a vigorous splashing bath. The male stood on a log, using his bill to work all its feathers. This log must be a favorite perch for ducks. A week ago, a female shoveler had her bill tucked under back feathers on one end, two Green-winged Teal were preening in the middle, and a drake shoveler was on other end. 

I find it amazing that the skin on these ducks is dry. Water doesn’t get to their skin even when swimming. The tight barbules on each feather vein act like Gore-Tex, and the weaves are so close that water droplets can’t get through. The layers of feathers and the coating they put on their feathers make the plumage waterproof. A drop of crude oil on the plumage negates all this and allows water to seep through the plumage, reaching the skin. Birds that encounter an oil spill will vigorously try to preen off the oil. The oil is toxic, but often they die of hypothermal because of the water that reaches their skin, chilling them. Just a dime-size dot of oil may spell their death.

A male Northern Shoveler actively preens while a female sleeps. Two Green-winged Teal also care for their feathers while resting on the log at Union Bay.

Birds spend a lot of time each day taking care of their feathers. Probably, these two were well fed and preparing for an afternoon nap, if not the night. Once they felt they had thoroughly cleaned and straightened their feathers, it would be time to sleep. We do something similar before bed each night.

Anuran Chorus at Stossel Creek

Pacific Tree Frogs were in full chorus, and a few American Bullfrogs added to the performance. The marsh system along Stossel Creek provides ideal habitat for these species.

The frogs were in full chorus. Swamp stretched across the valley for a hundred yards and for a half-mile along Stossel Creek. A mixture of willows and grasses grew in the wetlands, and then a pond opened downstream from this spot. The loudness and diversity of their songs made me think that hundreds were singing simultaneously. These were Pacific Tree Frogs Pseudacris regilla, and I was trying to absorb that a tiny anuran, less than 2 inches long, could make that much sound.

They also go by the name Pacific Chorus Frog and hearing this choir made me think that chorus frog might be a better name. When one male begins to sing, any nearby male will jump right in and try to outsing the other. Each puffs out its vocal sack as it puts forth the song. This was not an organized chorus with all of them singing together, but rather each male was trying to out-compete the next. If he succeeds, a female may come his way. He needs to sing louder or differently to entice her to pay attention to him. 

In the distance, I noticed the deeper and more resonating call of an American BullfrogLithobates catesbeianus. This introduced species is a severe problem in Washington. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has listed it as an invasive species. Bullfrogs grow to be big. With their legs stretched out, they can be up to ten inches long and are voracious predators, eating anything they can catch. They were natives in Western Pennsylvania, and I searched for them along the shoreline of ponds near my parent’s farm. 

At fifteen minutes into my recording, a lull of ten seconds happened. Perhaps, one male needed a break to catch a snack, and all the rest followed, but I suspect it was more likely that one sensed a possible predator nearby, and they went silent. Eventually, one male frog couldn’t resist and croaked. The rest then started back up. Barred Owls are common in these lowland forests of the Pacific Northwest and will hunt these frogs. 

Tree frogs need to breed, though; these anurans sing even if it exposes them to the risk of being eaten. 

Dawn Chorus on Mary Ann Creek

A marsh along Mary Ann Creek in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington.

A cattail marsh with a small pond in its middle extended upstream, and a swamp of willows and cattails ran downstream. I stood on a narrow causeway where Mary Ann Creek ran through a culvert under the dirt road listening to the morning chorus. It was diverse, energetic, and loud. Right then, a Wilson’s Snipe was dominating the cacophony with its persistent jick-jack. The snipe must have been sitting someplace and letting everyone know that he or she was there. Both sexes will give this call, and it is a component of pair formation and territorial defense. I tried to ignore the snipe and concentrated on identifying the other birds.

A male Red-winged Blackbird.

Mary Ann Creek runs through a gentle valley with mostly grasslands covering the slopes on both sides. This area of the Okanogan Highlands is just south of the Canadian border and often filled with birds not found west of the Cascades. Here, along the valley’s south side, a narrow strip of conifers and aspens grow on the lower slope providing a different upland habitat. 

Three Red-winged Blackbirds were perched high in willows right along the dirt track and periodically gave their musical song. They seemed to ignore my presence and concentrated on announcing theirs. A Eurasian Collared-Dove cooed in the distance, probably back in one of the Ponderosa Pines. The melodic tune of a Song Sparrow and the fitz-bu of a Willow Flycatcher filled out the initial ensemble.

 A few minutes later, the long-drawn-out whistle of a Western Wood-Pewee caught me by surprise, and I turned to stare into the small coppice of trees along the edge. Almost immediately, a California Quail called from in that direction. I raised my binoculars to scan all the trees and see what else might be there. Flickers and bluebirds had been in the patch when I’d been here before, and other things could have easily been there.

Wilson’s Snipe.

The sweet, sweet, sweet ti ti ti to soo of a Yellow Warbler and the complex trill of a House Wren brought my attention back to the willows. A brief chatter made me think of Northern Catbirds. I wished it to sing, but it didn’t. I often find them farther down this road, where the willows are thick and dense. An American Coot made a brief squawk and then went silent. No rails, though, made their presences known. A Common Yellowthroat rounded out my list of vocal feathered friends. Occasionally a male Yellow-headed Blackbird will be in the cattails, but none today. They are common in a more extensive marsh downstream from this site. 

It seemed like I heard twelve, maybe thirteen species in the ten minutes I stood: a fine chorus for the day. 

The habitat downstream is thick brush in the wetland and then upland forest and grasslands along the slope.

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

The “Sher-rick” of a Great Gray Owl

A young Great Gray Owl sits on a branch in the Okanogan National Forest.
An owlet sat on a branch close to the trunk and stared down at me.

I cupped my hands around my ears. The sweet evening song of a Swainson’s Thrush drowned out all but the faint babble of the creek down the short draw. A distant second one made an echo of the first. Their opening whistles and spiral flourishes were spectacular. At any other time, I would have stopped and listened, but there was another sound I was straining to hear.

The previous evening, Julie, Craig, and I had come along this trail in Okanogan National Forest just as final twilight had been fading. The “sher-rick” call that repeated every few seconds came from a patch of Douglas firs and lodgepole pines across a small creek. We searched for the source of the sound for thirty minutes, but the light was mostly gone, and we could detect no movement. Craig and I had come back, but right then, all I could hear was the thrushes.

The recording of the “sher-rick” call of a Great Gray Owlet.

This was prime habitat for the gray ghost of the northern boreal forest. Great Gray Owls are large birds, looking bigger than a Great Horned Owl, although actually weighing a little less. A female may approach three pounds, and a male a little over two. They prefer mature forests with numerous meadows, bogs, and small openings spread through the trees. This species breeds throughout Alaska, Canada, and across Northern Europe and Asia, but only in some high elevation dry forests in the Western United States. These rodent eaters are often quite elusive, making them difficult to find. They occasionally fly out of their remote homes in winter, but my searches had consistently failed to find one. 

After moving in the direction of the previous night’s screech, I put a pair of headsets over my ears and pointed my microphone into the woods. Its parabolic reflector would amplify any sound. There it was, the “sher-rick” call of an owlet, persistent but faint, and a little off to our left, and then it stopped. We crept in that direction, scanning up and down trees, looking for a shadow or blob that might be a roosting owlet. Young Great Grays will jump out of their nests when only a few weeks old. Much like rambunctious teenagers, they strive for independence well before they can fly or care for themselves. After tumbling to the earth, the young owls will climb leaning trees to get off the ground and then hop from branch to branch back into the canopy. Usually, they sit right against the trunk on a horizontal branch, waiting for their parents to feed them.

Twice more over the next half hour, I put the headsets on to refine the direction toward the begging. Finally, after moving several hundred yards back into the forest, we heard the whining child without the aid of the parabolic reflector. Craig and I eased toward a small meadow with a clump of larches, firs, and pines surrounding it. I stepped around a six-inch lodgepole pine and scanned every tree in front of me, up and down the trunks.

Craig, who stood tight by my left shoulder, tapped my arm and pointed almost straight up. There, forty feet up a pine, sat a downy owlet on a small side branch. It was right against the trunk as expected, his clawed talons curling over the branch and his eyes looking straight down at us. I started the sound recorder, set the microphone down, pointed into the coppice, and focused my long lens on the owlet. As my camera began to capture pictures, Craig again tapped my shoulder, pointing this time across in front of me.

An adult Great Gray Owl flies in to feed the calling young owlet in the Okanogan National Forest.
An adult Great Gray Owl lands between two owlets and passes a vole to one young.

Two owlets, both with slightly longer wing and tail feathers than the first, sat about a few feet apart on a horizontal branch nearly forty feet up, and one gave that “sher-rick” call while they both stared right at us. Their dark eyes gave the impression of curiosity and amazement in seeing these strange two-legged creatures that had walked into their home. All three seemed totally unafraid of us. As I focused my camera, an adult flew silently into the frame, gliding up to land beside the screeching owlet where it passed a vole from its mouth to the young and then dropped off the branch flying back through the forest. The ghost had come and gone.

The parent owl immediately leaves after passing the vole to the young that had been calling.
The parent Great Gray Owl left as soon as it passed the vole and was off to catch more food for these young.

The breath slowly left my lungs as I continued to stare at the one with a vole hanging from its mouth like a long piece of thick brown licorice. These owls are not rare in their prime habitat, but because these dry interior montane forests are remote and inaccessible, few people have the chance to see one. Adults hunt from perches, and a perfect hunting site is a short tree on the edge of a meadow where the bird can scan for rodents. The facial feather disk on their oversized head directs sound to their acute ears, and they hunt almost entirely by hearing the prey. These owls can plunge through a foot or more of snow to snare a mouse or vole in winter. Pocket gophers burrow through the soil and are another favorite food. 

After a minute, the owlet wolfed down the vole in one giant swallow and then flew behind trees to land precariously on the top of a subalpine fir, where it swayed back and forth in the breeze. Its sibling followed it back into the forest. The adult came in again, landing in the middle of the thicket where it glared right at me while another vole hung from its mouth. Then the second adult arrived also with something in its mouth. It was as if these two predators had flown down to the local corner store for a snack of fresh live meat for their children.

An adult Great Gray Owl flies into a tree with a vole in its mouth. It was feeding its young in the Okanogan National Forest. The young had been calling.
An adult Great Gray Owl flies in with a vole hanging from its mouth.

For 30 minutes, I stood silently watching while Craig snuck to my right to see if he could spot where the other two had gone. An adult came in at least twice more but never to the one above my head. That baby yawned a few times, stretched its wings, flexed one or the other foot, but never moved. Occasionally, it became bored of us and stared into the forest. It never begged or seemed distressed that a parent didn’t come to visit. Finally, the light was fading, and we decided to back out of this place and leave the owls to their own. As we strolled through the forest, the occasional screeches from the owlet pushed us along, and a cloud of mosquitos buzzed around our heads. Neither of us thought to swat at those that feasted on our blood.

A young owlet waits for its parent to return. It had hatched in the Okanogan National Forest and was still dependent on its parents for food.
The Great Gray Owl tapped its toes a few times and kept an eye on the surroundings but was not fed while we watched.
Two Great Gray Owl young sit on a branch in the Okanogan National Forest. One had been calling and one parent had just passed it some food.
Two Great Gray Owlets sit on a branch, one had just been fed, and it held the vole for a few minutes before gobbling it down.

An hour-long recording of the evening serenade of the two Swainson’s thrushes mentioned early in this essay can be heard on Spotify or you can find it on Amazon and on Apple Music.

A version of this essay first appeared in the Washington Ornithological Society’s Newsletter.

The Flute-like Song of a Black-faced Solitaire

Black-faced Solitaires have a beautiful song, very flute-like in its tone. I made this recording at Mount Totumas in Western Panama.

The high-pitched whistles, very flute-like, came from a dense patch of forest just off the Big Tree Loop. The notes had a resonating quality to them that held in one’s brain for long after they passed. Several notes followed relatively close together, then a long pause before a different tune was uttered. Reinaldo and I had left the lodge early that morning to hike the network of trails at Mount Totumas. I was particularly interested in recording the song of a Black-faced Solitaire, and we had found one. 

This small thrush is in the genus Myadestes. The genus has some remarkable songsters. In undergraduate school, I traveled numerous times with friends in Mexico, and there we heard the Brown-backed Solitaire sing. After graduating, I purchased a print of George Miksch Sutton’s painting of that species and hung it in my house. In the painting, the bird is singing from a branch surrounded by orchids in flower and other epiphytes. Their voice is ventriloqual and that makes it difficult to find them. Hearing the Black-faced singing in Panama made me suspect that they too can project their voice. Oh, to watch a Black-faced sing from a perch such as Sutton painted for its relative would be a thrill.

Ridgely and Gwynne translated the black-faced song as “teedleeleé … tleedleeé … lee-dah … lee-doo.” This bird, though, seemed to use more phrases than they listed and had a series of different tunes before repeating. The slowness and crisp notes reminded me of a fiddler who might be sitting by himself on a porch enjoying the sun and afternoon. Of course, we are not supposed to anthropomorphize, but I can’t imagine that this bird doesn’t enjoy singing.

Scientists have not studied the song of this species very much. Consequently, we don’t know much about its variation within or between individuals. I wondered if it was like our Hermit Thrush in the Pacific Northwest. Each male thrush has 9 to 12 different opening sequences and then elaborate flourishes that follow each. They mix up their songs, and adjacent males rarely have similar tunes. Perhaps, this Black-faced individual has developed his repertoire to deal with his neighbors and keep his territory safe from intruders.

His frequency range was broad, extending the full spectrum of a grand piano, and some notes went even higher than that. Like other thrushes, he uses both of his syrinxes to make his melodious song.

I could listen to him sing all day. 

The montaine forests of Central America are lush and cool. They are highly diverse with hundreds of tree species and provide habitat for numerous birds including the Black-faced Solataire.

The Complex Tune of a Yellow-breasted Chat

A Yellow-breasted Chat along Sinlahekin Creek.

Loud catcalls came from the willows along Sinlahekin Creek, followed by whistles and rattles. A short pause happened between individual notes, and then a new and different call came. The diversity of sounds that this bird produced was astonishing, and I began to creep along the edge to see if I could spot this Yellow-breasted Chat.

Sinlahekin Creek.

In Central Washington, chats live in riparian areas where the vegetation is thick and dense. Often, they are secretive, skulking through the thickets and challenging to see, but sometimes males will sit high and on exposed twigs when they sing. The Sinlahekin Valley runs north-south on the eastern side of the Cascades. All along the stream are copses of willows—perfect habitat for this songbird.

I saw my first chat when I was still in high school. Our neighbors in Western Pennsylvania had let brush grow up in one of their fields, and a pair had taken up residence. On my way back from a walk into the hollow, I found a male singing in a thicket and ran home to tell my mother about it. They occur across much of the eastern United States and the interior west. 

Back then, Ornithologists thought this bird was an overgrown warbler. However, recent genetic work and behavioral studies have suggested it might be more closely related to the blackbird family and has been given its own family, Icteriidae. Nevertheless, ornithologists find it an enigma, and its taxonomy remains controversial. Finding one is always a thrill because it reinforces in my mind that we have so much to learn about the natural world.

Sinlahekin Valley has wide areas of riparian habitat that is ideal for Yellow-breasted Chats.

Chuckles, rattles, gurgles, and pops came from a branch sticking right over the creek. This diversity made me remember that one study found that the repertoire of some males could average more than 60 different calls, and this guy seemed to be right on par. A sonogram of their call really illustrates this diversity. So there he was, sitting on a branch three feet below the top of a bush and just calling away.

His yellow breast glistened in the morning sun, and his throat puffed out with each note. I settled to watch this songster perform.

A Yellow-breasted Chat sings in the top of a bush.

The Song of the Ruddy-Capped Nightingale-Thrush

The ethereal song of a Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush at Mount Totumas in Western Panama.

A melancholic liquid song floated through the understory. Reinaldo and I had left the lodge at Mt. Totumas early that morning to see if we could catch the dawn chorus. The night insects had not yet completely shut down while the birds had begun to wake up when we heard this tune. After a short pause, a clear whistle drifted through next. Reinaldo whispered Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush. This montane forest was thick second-growth and ideal habitat for this member of the genus Catharus

This genus has twelve living species. Two, the Swainson’s Thrush and Hermit Thrush, breed in Western Washington, where I currently live. Those, too, have beautiful songs. However, this nightingale-thrush has a rich set of phrases that carry far. Sometimes they will sing more than 100 of them before taking a break. This one was putting on a good performance; fluty trills, whistles, warbles, and slurs kept filling my ears with delight.

Two other Catharus species breed at Mount Totumas, and the Swainson’s Thrush migrates through on its way back north from its wintering grounds in the Andes. The Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush breeds at lower elevations and the Black-billed at higher. The Ruddy-capped fills this in-between range on these mountains. Reinaldo took me up into La Amistad International Park to find the Black-billed, and we hiked down to the flood plain of the Rio Colorado to see the Orange-billed.

The diverse phrases of the Ruddy-capped continued to float around us. It sounded like a woodwind quartet, right here. Songbirds create their song in the syrinx, which lies at the base of the trachea and top of the two bronchi. With an elaborate set of muscles, they can control the tension of the wall of each bronchus. As the air passes over this tissue, it oscillates, creating each note. Remarkably, a bird, like this thrush, can control the syrinx at the top of each bronchus separately, allowing them to make different notes in each. Perhaps, this individual is alternating sides or even using both simultaneously to harmonize with himself. 

I could listen to this melody all day.

The Montane Forest at Mount Totumas Cloud Forest Preserve.
The montane forest at Mount Totumas where Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrushes live. The elevation here is about 6500 feet. Lower down, the Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush nests and higher up is where the Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush is found.

To Fly Like a Kite: The Northern Fulmar

The Northern Fulmar glides like a kite along the cliff in southern Iceland.
The Northern Fulmar glided along the cliffs at Krysuvikurbjarg in southwest Iceland. It held its wings stiff, catching the gale winds that blew from the ocean, using them for lift.

The bird held its wings stiff and flat as it glided along the Krysuvikurbjarg. The wind whipped along these cliffs, making me cinch down my hat, and this guy was using the gale to drift smoothly right in front of me, almost floating. The crashing of the North Atlantic filled the air, and other birds’ cries added to the chorus. I felt like I could reach out and touch this Northern Fulmar, but I was staying a good twenty feet back from the sheer drop. He seemed to be hanging there, like a kite, just playing in the blow.

This was a bird I’d hoped to see on this trip to Iceland. A friend had called a few weeks earlier to say he had an opening on a photography trip; he’d asked, “Do you want to photograph puffins and skuas?” I did, but I also thought about these guys and would I finally have a close look at this marvelous family. They have a unique tube on the top of their bill that gives the order their name, Procellariforms, the tubenose. Albatrosses, shearwaters, and petrels are all in this group. 

The Norther Fulmar is part of the order Procellariforms, also known as the tubenose group.
This fulmar’s head is stout and the bill large with a pronounced hook. The large nostril tube on the bill’s top shows that this bird is closely related to shearwaters, petrels, and albatrosses.

I’d seen this species in 2005 when I came to Iceland with my wife, daughter, and her future husband, but on that trip, they flew along a cliff more than half a mile away. So, I couldn’t study them in detail; see that bill. Also, my wife was sick with cancer, and that trip wasn’t about birds. But as we drove north toward Snæfellsnes Peninsula, a place she wanted to see because a volcanic crater, there, had been the inspiration for Jules Vern’s book, Journey to the Center of the World, I spotted fulmars flying, and she insisted I stop to look. I’d seen other members of this order a few times but also not well, not where one could have a feel for them. So, according to eBird, they were on my life list, but yet something still seemed missing. Mostly, I knew these birds from books.

Krysuvikurbjarg are cliffs in southwestern Iceland that have thousands of birds nesting in crevices and on ledges.
The volcanic cliffs drop two hundred feet to the ocean. Crevices and ledges at Krysuvikurbjarg provide nesting sites for thousands of birds, including petrels, kittiwakes, puffins, cormorants, and gulls.

Krysuvikurbjarg are a well-known breeding site for thousands of seabirds. The volcanic bluffs drop almost two hundred feet straight to the water’s edge, and birds nest on outcrops and in crevices. Siggi, my Icelandic guide, pointed out other great birds, including kittiwakes, murres, puffins, and gulls. He warned me not to get close because slabs of tuft or basalt sometimes crack, falling into the surf. He didn’t want to lose a customer. But right then, my concentration was focused on this Fulmar and its incredible ability to fly.

I used to dream of flying myself, especially when watching Red-tailed Hawks soar over our farm in Pennsylvania. They would catch the thermals that rose from the sun’s heating of the ground. On fixed wings, they’d make marvelous loops, never once twitching those wings, going in circles, often climbing higher and higher. They weren’t hunting, just playing in the afternoon, enjoying life. I’d be out helping with the hay or doing some other chore, stop, and watch in envy. 

Although fulmars look somewhat like gulls, they are more closely related to albatrosses. This entire group is true pelagic birds, generally spending all their time at sea and only coming to land during the nesting season. This guy’s body was thicker than a gull’s, about the size of a Mew or Ringed-billed gull, with a heavier head and thinner wings. On the top of its bill was that closed-over tube, like someone had glued an inch-long straw to its dorsal surface. The bill was also thick and had a distinct hooked beak. Apparently, they have an excellent sense of smell and use it to find food — eating fish, invertebrates, and offal from the fishing industry. Their numbers have grown in the North Atlantic over the last two centuries, presumably due to the increased food the fishing industry has provided.

The word fulmar is derived from Old Norse and means “foul gull.” Adults and chicks produce a nasty smelling sticky oil from the lining of their stomachs and will regurgitate it onto something threatening the nest. Siggi told a funny story of climbing a steep hill to get a better perch for a photograph. Unknown to him, a pair of fulmars were nesting just over a little bump. As his head came over the grass-covered rise, they vomited right on him, covering him in this smelling goo. He said the smell didn’t wash off, and his wife was not particularly pleased to let him back in the house.

The Northern Fulmar fixed its wings and glided in the strong breeze along the cliffs in Iceland, Krysuvikurbjarg.
The wing on this Northern Fulmar projects way out from the body. Note how it is thin and curves to give great lift as the air rushes over it. Some of the inner primaries are growing in new, and the bird is replacing a few covert feathers, too.

My attention, though, was focused on how this bird flew. This species and its close relatives, the shearwaters, petrels, and albatrosses, are best known for their flying abilities. Many of them travel huge distances on foraging trips, and Fulmars sometimes make many hundred-mile loops gathering food for their young. They can cover enormous distances across the oceans outside of the breeding season. His wings were longer and thinner than I expected, and that made sense as I thought about their ecology. The long-thin wings allow this bird to use any wind or slight updraft from waves to glide. When they do flap, their wingbeats are short and choppy and can take them readily where they need to go, but it was their use of the wind that I’d come to marvel.

My sister and I used to fly kites, especially in March and April when it was windy on our Pennsylvania farm. We take them up the hill, west of the house. Attached to a long string, with the appropriate tail, they’d climb above the hayfield, gliding back and forth with the constant breeze. Giddiness would fill our hearts. A gust might make them dip or crash if we didn’t react correctly, and a drop in the wind would cause them to fall. We had to turn and run to keep them up until the breeze picked up. Here, this bird was using the updrafts from the cliff. The brisk wind came in from the ocean, turned vertical, shooting up past us, and the Fulmar just drifted on that boisterous current. 

The wing of a Northern Fulmar showing that primary feathers are growing.
The Northern Fulmar has a long, thin wing typical of Procellariiformes. They are excellent fliers and can use a slight breeze to glide effortlessly for hours.

Incredibly, this bird was molting flight feathers, yet it seemed to hang on this gale. Several inner primaries were growing. It also was replacing some of its coverts and maybe a few secondaries. All birds must replace their feathers each year to maintain their aerodynamics and insulation. The feathers wear with time and life’s actions, like our clothes. They are made of keratin, the same as our fingernails, and the complete plumage can weigh as much as a fifth or sixth of the bird’s weight. So, energetically, it is an expensive process, and they must keep their ability to fly throughout. Yet, it seemed to fly perfectly even with those new feathers growing.

Siggi called, “We need to move along now.” The others had walked a quarter-mile across the tundra toward the vehicle. Siggi stood not thirty feet from me, still watching the birds over the ocean. He was a big man, a good head and shoulders taller than me, with a build that looked more like a professional wrestler or defensive lineman in American football. When I’d seen him walk into the hotel lobby on that first morning, I’d dismissed him as someone not possibly interested in nature. I couldn’t have been more wrong. He walked through this natural landscape with reverence and freely shared his love of nature. He joked about being a Viking, and we all teased him about it too. But I’d follow this man into the wilds anytime. 

Right then, the Fulmar banked right, dropping below the edge of the cliff, and disappeared. Maybe I already had this species on my life list, but this sighting I’d never forget. My kites in Pennsylvania never quite flew like this bird. A master of flight had passed, having fun with the blow, not once flapping its wings.

A pair of Northern Fulmars nest on a narrow ledge on the cliffs of southwest Iceland.
Northern Fulmars nest on narrow ledges at Krysuvikurbjarg in Iceland.

A version of this essay first appeared in the Washington Ornithological Society Newsletter 193: 7-9.

The Call and Courtship of Resplendent Quetzals

The two-note whistles came from the forest up the hill. The first note was slightly higher than the second, both were slurred, and they came in rapid succession. A Resplendent Quetzal was giving his territorial call on this April morning. A fainter reply could barely be discerned in the distance by a second male.

These altitudinal migrants had returned to the Westside of the Cordillera de Talamanca in the last few weeks. They spend October through March on the Caribbean side and return to the western side just as the rains begin in April. Here, they court, find a mate, and wait for the flush of fresh fruit that comes with the showers. I’d come to the Mount Totumas Cloud Forest in Western Panama in hopes of finding these magnificent trogons. 

Nest cavity for a Resplendent Quetzal
A nest site with the tail of a male Resplendent Quetzal sticking out the hole.

I imagined this quetzal sitting on a high branch, his long upper tail coverts flowing back and forth in the light breeze. His brilliant coloration, a golden-green iridescence, should make him stand out, but these birds blend into these forests quite well. Although I’d seen several individuals in my week here, I stood, studying every branch, hoping I might spot this one.

Jeffrey — the lodge owner — and I had come out before first light to listen to the forest wake up, and now we’re headed back. The forest was still full of sounds. Black-faced Solitaires, Flame-colored Tanagers, Slate-throated Redstarts all sang along with many things I still couldn’t identify. The screeches of a Three-wattled Bellbird seemed to overpower everything else. Finally, we gave up the search for the quetzal and continued down the trail.

The montane forest in Western Panama where the Resplendent Quetzal comes to breed in April and May each year.

We had gone a half-mile more when Jeffrey halted, whispering quetzal and pointing directly over our heads. Almost immediately, “keow kowee keow” came from above us as some feathers began to move in the leaves. “Courtship display,” murmured Jeffrey. Males do a courtship flight, often flying above the canopy or they may chase a female through the canopy. Two birds were above us, but the vegetation was thick; they appeared to stay in the trees. Active vocalization between them lasted over a minute as I craned my neck to look straight up.

When they stopped, “Wow” seemed to be the only thing I could say. Jeffrey nodded, and we continued back toward the lodge, absorbed by this spectacle. 

Resplendent Quetzal
Resplendent Quetzal looks back over its shoulder. The long feathers are specialized upper tail coverts that grow exceptionally long in males, and they use them in their courtship of females.

Listen to other sounds from the forests at Mount Totumas on Spotify.

The Courtship of a Male Ruddy Duck

A male Ruddy Duck in full breeding plumage at Teal Lake in the Okanogan Highlands

Ch-chi-chuuruur came from my right, and I froze in my tracks, for I’d never heard that sound before. Coots, blackbirds, and Pied-billed Grebes had been calling since I arrived at Teal Lake twenty minutes earlier, and a Song Sparrow sang to my left. A scan of the lake had found Buffleheads, Lesser Scaups, and Blue-winged Teals. The Ch-chi-chuuruur drifted across the water as I crept toward it, binoculars ready.

Teal Lake
Teal Lake sits in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington. Numerous wetland birds nest there and many others use the surrounding habitats.

Teal Lake sits in a depression on the Okanogan Highlands, probably carved out by the Pleistocene glaciers. It is nestled between gently rolling hills covered with conifers. The blue water glistened on that June morning, and lush marsh habitat formed a wide literal zone around much of this fifteen-acre lake. The birds here always seem to put on a show.

Crouching down, I spotted the source of that strange sound, a male Ruddy Duck. Two females followed him as he swam right toward me, again doing that call. A second male lurked a dozen yards behind the three. This was the bubbling display that I’d read about. The male bobbed his head a few times and then dipped his bill while slightly extending his neck and head. The throat expanded while the sound radiated. He was courting the females. Then, with a sudden lunge, he ran across the water, wings flapping and hitting the surface, before settling back down and doing the call again. At first, I thought maybe I’d spooked him, but then it occurred to me that this was probably part of the display. A few seconds later, he did it again as he came closer and closer toward me.

Male Ruddy Duck on Teal Lake in the Okanogan Highlands.
A male Ruddy Duck sits in the Teal Lake in the Okanogan Highlands. They get a sky blue bill and red body plumage for the breeding season.

The male was in full breeding regalia. His bill was bright sky blue, an extra intense vibrance. The top of his head was black; he had a crisp white cheek patch and reddish back and side feathers. He held his stiff tail flat to the water. Ruddy Ducks aren’t like most ducks, acquiring their breeding plumage in the fall. Instead, these birds wait until spring, when they begin the courtship process to find a mate. 

This male ran across the water again, coming between a few cattails and the bank. He began to cruise along a channel coming even closer to me. The females seemed hesitant to follow, so I slowly backed away from the edge and gave them their space. 

As I strolled back toward my car, I continued to hear the Ch-chi-chuuruur from that male.

Female Ruddy Duck on Teal Lake in the Okanogan Highlands.
A female Ruddy Duck cruises at the edge of the cattails in Teal Lake in the Okanogan Highlands.

Listen to other bird songs from the Okanogan Highlands on Spotify: