The weather in Seattle has been cold and wintery the last few days. I snuck out of town just before it got really bad and made it to my sister’s house in Pennsylvania. Tomorrow, that front should reach here with dropping temperatures, winds, and snow. I had a good walk in the wilds today to receive some solace that nature provides. A little snow is on the ground and the tracks from turkeys, squirrels, rabbits, and deer provided much to examine. The ice in Cedar Run from yesterday had melted and the forest had the winter browns, grays, and tans. A few chickadees, titmice, and juncos flitted through the branches. It was wonderful and what I needed before the cold and wind hit.
The Mountaineers contacted me in early fall to ask how nature helped people deal with winter. I penned this article for them. Nature and birds, in particular, can provide much solace and delight. Being in the natural world is a powerful source of healing and an excellent antidote to our troubles. Seeing how species survive and thrive is mesmerizing. Strolling through the wilds provides time to absorb the wonder of life.
May you have a wonderful holiday season and may your new year be filled with nature.
Click on the Excerpt below to go to the full article.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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 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)
A version of this essay first appeared in the Washington Ornithological Newsletter #184.
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)
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 rain started last night, and it was supposed to turn to snow. The pitter-patter on the roof was soft and enchanting so I turned off the music. The open window allowed the full sound of the rain to come into the room. The soft melody made the perfect atmosphere to read.
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)
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)
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 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.”
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 head shot of a glaucous-winged gull. (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)