The Flight of a Neotropic Cormorant

A Neotropic Cormorant in the Pantanal of Brazil uses both its feet to launch from the water.

The splash came from my right. A Neotropic Cormorant ran across the water, flapping its wings, trying to gain lift. It was coming along the shoreline and would pass our boat as we floated on the Rio Sararé in the Pantanal. They typically need to run into the wind, but this morning it was calm, and surprisingly it had taken off by coming right toward us.

These cormorants are compact, dense, and look like torpedoes. They are pursuit hunters, chasing down fish underwater. Their body, neck, and head are all hydrodynamic for the least drag possible. Their feet are set well back on their body; this makes them ideal for propulsion underwater but not the best for walking around on land. All four of their toes are connected by webbing, totipalmate feet, where a duck or goose only has three toes webbed. 

I’d brought my GoPro on this trip in the hopes of doing some underwater filming. But unfortunately, the water here in the Pantanal of Brazil is high in tannins and organic matter, so nothing is visible a few feet out. So, no luck, but the athleticism of this bird taking off was a treat to watch. 

Neotropic Cormorant
The Neotropic Cormorant pulls both of its feet forward to push again hard on the surface of the water.

To take off, the bird pushed hard down with both feet like it was trying to launch from the water’s surface. At the same time, it flapped its wings, the outer primaries hitting the water, helping to lift its body. It then drew both feet forward as far as possible and pushed hard on the water, flapping again. In essence, it was hopping as fast as it could while smacking the water with its wings. Finally, it gained enough altitude to fold back its feet and move just to wing beats.

Neotropic Cormorant
The Cormorant is now gaining lift and can switch to just flapping rather than running on the water. Pantanal, Brazil.

The cormorant disappeared down the river. Neotropic Cormorants are smaller than the widespread Double-crested Cormorant of Northern America. They live all through Latin America and even extend into Southeast Texas. This is one of the most adaptable birds in the Western Hemisphere, ranging from sea level to some Andean Lakes at 5,000 meters.

A flying Cormorant
The elegance of flight by a cormorant in the Pantanal of Brazil.

Neotropics and Double-crested look much alike, and the size difference is often impossible to tell. Double-cresteds don’t occur in South America. The best characteristic to separate them is to look at the profile of their gular pouch, the yellowish area behind the bill, and at the top of their neck. On an adult Neotropic, this structure looks like a horizontal “V” with the bottom pointed backward and is less than 50% of the rest of the head. The V also has a thin white border along the back edge. In the Double-crested, the pouch is bigger and rounded rather than “V” shaped.

Farther down the river, a cormorant sat on a branch hanging over the river. Its webbed feet curled around the twig as the combination swayed slightly. In this morning sun, the feathers had a sheen to them. It didn’t fly as we cruised by.

A Neotropic Cormorant in the Pantanal of Brazil.
A Neotropic Cormorant sits on a branch along a river in the Pantanal. Note the V-shaped gular pouch with a white strip against the black neck feathers. Also, all four toes are connected by a web, totipalmate feet.

The Hyacinth Macaw

A Hyacinth Macaw sits at a water trough in the Pantanal of Brazil.

A cobalt color zipped just above the ground and around the small building. It was big, maybe 2 meters across and half as long. I ducked left to go around the opposite side of the structure so perhaps the sun would be behind me. We were in the small community of Porto Jofre along the Rio Cuiaba in the Pantanal. There, on a cement water trough, at the end of the building, sat a Hyacinth Macaw.

It dipped its massive black bill into the water for a drink, then sat back up. This bird was even more giant than I’d imagined from my readings—at least a meter from its head to the tip of that long flowing tail. The body was chunky, cocker spaniel size, but with wings with a violet tinge. Bare yellow skin showed around the eye, and a little yellow hugged the base of the lower mandible.

Water drips from the bill of a Hyacinth Macaw.
The Hyacinth Macaw raises its head, and water drips from the bill tip.

Birdlife International lists this macaw as vulnerable, one notch below endangered. Their population has plummeted because of the pet trade and loss of habitat. Sadly, poachers might have captured 10,000 individuals during the 1980s for pets, and their numbers fell to an estimated 3,000 wild ones. The stronghold for this species is here in the Pantanal, and two other small groups, still declining, survive in East Amazonia and the Gerais. For a while, scientists listed it as endangered, but they think their numbers have somewhat stabilized right now in the Pantanal. Conservation initiatives and ecotourism have helped. Our Brazilian guide, Paulo, told us that the absence of ecotourism during the two years of severe Covid was problematic. But, at least we were here now, supporting the local economy.

This parrot leans over to take a drink from a water trough,

The macaw drank a second time, and water dripped from the hook on the upper mandible when it raised its head. The bill was massive, maybe 3 or 4 inches from top to bottom at the back. The front edge of the lower mandible looked razor sharp. It could probably snip my finger off without any effort.

This parrot, the largest in the world, is tied closely to various palm trees, and they need that massive bill to crack the palm nuts. Here in the Pantanal, evidently, Attalea phalerata and Acrocomia totai are the two most crucial palm species. One book said the seed of Acrocomia was as hard as a stone, yet this bird can crack it with that bill. Apparently, tapirs eat the fallen fruit whole but don’t digest the nut, passing it through their digestive system and dispersing it to new areas. Macaws, though, crack the seed to get at the inside. These parrots will eat other things, including snails.

The head of a Hyacinth Macaw.
A headshot of a Hyacinth Macaw in the Pantanal of Brazil.

My eyes fell to its feet, sprawled across the cement. Two toes pointed forward and two backward, zygodactyl feet, and a smile came to my lips. I hadn’t thought of that term in a long time. Occasionally, my early career as a research ornithologist pops back out. These toe arrangements allow parrots to hold food in one foot while they use the bill to peel and crack a morsel. One of the nails was white while all the rest were black; it made me wonder if this bird had damaged its nail or if this was just normal variation. So many questions!

A Hyacinth Macaw takes off and flies across Port Jofre in the Pantanal of Brazil.
A Hyacinth Macaw leaps into the air to fly across the town along the Pantanal.

The hyacinth pivoted and shot into the air, its massive wings drawing down, lifting the bird several feet off the ground. It flew right in front of me. The yellow around the eye and along the lower mandible glowed in the sun, and the giant hooked beak projected down and back. Its feet were folded under its tail coverts, and the long tail flowed behind it. The underside of the primaries and secondaries looked grayish rather than the blue of the other feathers.

It landed in a tree across the opening, and the breath left my lungs. For some reason, I’d held it when the macaw took off. It sat beside its mate, and the two leaned forward, looking back at me. Adult Hyacinth Macaws are always paired, which is the most common way of seeing them. Paulo told me of a few places he knew about where we might see small flocks, but neither was scheduled for this trip. A good reason to come back.

A flying Hyacinth Macaw
A Hyacinth Macaw in full flight near the Rio Cuiaba in Port Jofre, Pantanal, Brazil.

A Marbled Murrelet by Edmonds Pier

Marbled Murrelet
A Marbled Murrelet drifted in the water off of Edmonds in Washington State.

A light breeze came in off Puget Sound, keeping the temperatures in the mid-60s on this August morning. I headed onto the fishing pier at Edmonds to see what birds might be around when a small bird floating just beyond the tideline stopped me. The tide was out, and little waves caused by the ferry lapped along the shore. The bird floated only a dozen feet from the edge. It was dark brown, stubby body and short bill. A Marbled Murrelet cruised in the shallows. I backtracked to walk down onto the sand.

Its plumage was transitioning from summer to lighter winter plumage. Overall, it seemed a dull brown, with no evidence of the brighter brown of a breeding adult. Perhaps this was young of the year. The chest and neck had mottled white and brown. The back and sides had white flecking. Scientists do offshore surveys in the late summer to determine how many young might have been produced. They can tell adults from juveniles quite well, but I wasn’t sure which this was.

Marbled Murrelet

Marbled Murrelets are endangered in Washington. Their populations have plummeted over the last 50 years, and this decrease seems mostly related to the loss of suitable nesting habitats. Surprisingly, these birds fly inland and nest high in the canopy of old-growth coniferous trees. They find a broad branch covered in mosses and lichens. They make a depression in the vegetation and lay a single egg. Then, both parents fly back and forth to Puget Sound or the ocean to feed and care for the egg and nestling. Some nests can be as far as 50 miles from the water. 

This alcid shifted directions and began to swim parallel to the beach. Its bill had a small hook at the tip, and the nostril slit near the base was thin and long. The feathers were tight against the body, and a few water droplets clung to them, glistening in the sun. It looked plump, but I’d worried that being this close to shore was not a good sign. Might this bird be skinny, not in good health? Maybe, if it was a young bird, it was just learning the best places to fish. Once they leave the nest, it appears they are on their own, needing to find all their food themselves.

Marbled Murrelet

With the tide still receding, the murrelet had come into a small pool between two sandbars. It turned and started to head out to sea, but the water was too shallow to swim. Here it attempted a stumbling walk. Its legs are far back on its body, making walking difficult, so it raised itself on its legs and then plopped forward. After ten minutes, it was back in deep water and headed offshore.

A Marbled Murrelet begins to swim out into Puget Sound and away from the shore at Edmonds.

What Did You Expect from a Toucan?

A pair of Toco Toucans land in a tree at House Alegro in the Pantanal of Brazil.
A pair of Toco Toucans land in a tree at Pouse Alegro in the Pantanal of Brazil.

“Toucan,” erupted from the person on my right. In the canopy, two large birds with bright colors were mainly silhouetted against the sky, but some yellow, red, and white showed. The long bill was enough to confirm that two toucans had arrived in the Pantanal.

This was my last day in Brazil, and I’d seen Toco Toucans fly over two or three times but never had a decent look. Yesterday, a pair at Rio Claro flew across the Rio Sararé just as the sun broke the horizon. The sky and low light silhouetted their bodies. That long thick bill was unmistakable. Unfortunately, my camera didn’t focus fast enough in that nonexistent light.

Toco Toucan

The bill on a toucan is a thing of wonder. In this species, it is about a third the length of the bird but weighs very little. With strong, finely tuned muscles in their necks, these birds can use it like a fine tweezer. The bill is strong and tough. The outer layer is a series of overlapping keratin tiles that are fused – like armor plating. The interior is like foam and is made of bony fibers and drum-like membranes to form a strong ridge and brace structure – a three-dimensional lattice. The middle is hollow. The bill is a marvel of engineering, and a person who could design something like this would be considered a genius. The overall configuration gives a high degree of strength for minimal weight—evolution at its most remarkable.

Toco Toucan
The bill of a Toco Toucan is large and long but they can manipulate it like a fine pair of tweezers.

The pair hopped down to where both were visible. This Pantanal lodge had put fruits, nuts, and seeds out at first light this morning, and a plethora of doves, finches, guans, chachalacas, and others had come to feed for the last 90 minutes. Toco Toucans are splendid birds, bigger than I’d expected. They are the largest toucan species. Their white bib, black body, red under-tail coverts, and distinctive red-orange bill make them pop on a tree branch. Females apparently average a little smaller, but there was no way to tell that difference in the wild.

A Toco Toucan in the Pantanal of Brazil.

One glided down to a horizontal log attached to two fence posts. This species is primarily frugivores, but they will take bird eggs, nestlings, small birds, lizards, and insects. They can hang upside down and use that long bill to snip fruit from twigs or probe deep into holes. Earlier, a person had spread bananas and mangos across the back of the branch and dropped small pellet-looking stuff on the feeder. Paulo, our Brazilian guide, had said the small fruit-like nuggets were items the toucans particularly liked.

The second one flew to the other end of this natural-looking feeder. It stood staring at us. Maybe fifteen people congregated behind a small fence watching the feeders. We all had homed in on this unique bird. The second one reached down, picking up a small quarter-inch pellet from behind the branch. It seemed to roll it in the tip of that foot-long bill much like a jeweler might role a diamond between her index finger and thumb. It then cocked its head slightly, flipped the nugget up, opening its mouth as the morsel flew to the throat; its foot-long tongue showed for a second as it closed its bill, to then twist a stare right into my eyes as if to say, “What’d you expect?”

A Toco Toucan tosses a nugget in the air and then swallows it. Pantanal, Brazil.
Toco Toucan in the Pantanal of Brazil.
The Toucan looked straight at me.

Fishing by a Black-collared Hawk

Black-collared Hawk hunting from the edge of a river in the Pantanal, Mato Grosso, Brazil
Black-collared Hawk hunting from the edge of a river in the Pantanal, Mato Grosso, Brazil

Brr-rrrrrrrdddd came from behind me and lasted for close to two seconds. I whipped around and realized it was our boatman making that sound. He was standing in the back of the boat with a five-inch fish in his right hand. The fish was shaped like a bluegill and probably was a piranha, for we were in the Pantanal of Brazil. He made the call a second time and then paused while he waved the fish in the air at a 45-degree angle above his head.

Almost instantly, the exact same sound came from a tree boarding the small river. I put my binoculars back onto the large overhanging branches 20 meters above the water where two Black-collared Hawks sat. I’d watched and photographed these birds as we progressed down the Rio Sararé. The tree was the tallest along this section of the river, and the pair had built their nest in a large branch that projected to the left. Paulo, our Brazilian guide, said the one on the nest was a young one and to watch the other one. I guessed the other might be the female, and probably the male was out hunting. Our boatman began talking in Portuguese. Perhaps, he was telling us to be ready. He continued to wave the fish. The hawk called again, then the boatman, then the hawk. Maybe it would come down to the bait.

Black-collared Hawks occur from southern Mexico south through Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, and very northern Argentina. They are associated with freshwater and brackish habitats in lowland tropical regions. This bird feeds primarily on fish, and the undersides of their toes have spines that aid in grabbing and holding onto their prey. Rivers and their gallery forests — like the Rio Sararé where we were right then — are perfect places for this species to feed and breed. I’d never seen this species before this trip, but I knew about it.

A few months ago, Paulo posted a photograph of this hawk flying low over a river in the Pantanal, and I wrote to him about the stunning take and the color of this unique species. I’d come to see it for myself and had asked him when we met a few days ago in Cuiaba if we might see them. 

The head is a creamy white with darker stripes, making the bird look like it had just come out of a beauty parlor. The front of the neck is black, as if the bird is wearing a bowtie or fancy lace collar. The body and inner wings are a bright rufous, and the primaries and tips of the secondaries black. The short tail has some black and rufous barring. Overall, this hawk looks as if it had dressed for a fancy gala. 

Ten of us were in a narrow, flat-bottomed boat with a small outboard motor. The boatman was in the back and Paulo in the very front. The boatman had carefully placed the other eight of us, two across, to even out the weight in this tippy contraption. He’d assigned me to the back row just in front of him and opposite from where I thought he’d throw the fish. To balance, one knee was pushed hard into the seat in front of me, and my other foot spread wide to be as stable as possible. I would need both hands to operate my camera and photograph the bird when it flew. The gentle rock of the boat made me nervous, and I figured it would tip even more when everyone started photographing, but I was determined.

The boatman and Paulo kept talking back and forth in Portuguese, and Paulo would interject “Is everyone ready?” to the rest of us. The sun was behind us, and the water was calm on this July morning. The light was perfect for outstanding photography. The boatman hurled the fish a good 75 feet, and the hawk instantly left her perch, spreading her four-foot wings, flapping gracefully as she dipped toward the fish. I jammed my camera tight to my right eye and pressed the shutter, the motor drive taking pictures as fast as possible. I tried like the dickens to keep the bird in the frame; fortunately, it wasn’t flying particularly fast and seemed to be making a beeline for the fish. Yet the rocking made it particularly tricky, probably meaning I’d sometimes cut off its wings.

A Black-collared Hawk grabs a fish at the surface in the Pantanal of Brazil.

As she approached the fish, her legs dropped down, the talons spread apart, and her legs moved forward like outstretched front legs on a horse coming down from going over a jump. She picked the fish off the water with practically no splash and circled left, away from us to head back toward the tree. I kept following her, taking more photographs, and praying I captured this magnificent demonstration of athleticism. Sure, it was staged, but this showed the grace and precision of their hunting techniques. 

A Black-collared Hawk makes a small splash as it pulls the fish from the water in the Pantanal of Brazil.

I dropped the camera to my chest and plopped back down into the boat, breathless with excitement. Paulo yelled from the front, “Did everyone get it?” And I hoped I had. The motor drives on nine cameras made it sound like multiple machine guns were going off all at once. Hundreds of pictures had been taken. I began to look at mine on the back of my camera. Smiling, I seemed to have an incredible series; unfortunately, on a few, I had cut the wings, and on others, the bird wasn’t in the middle, but I was delighted with the results. I raised my binoculars to look back at this stunning raptor.

Black-collared Hawk rises from the river with a fish in its talons.

The Black-collared Hawk had gone back into the tree, but I couldn’t tell if she still had the fish or had given it to the nestling. Apparently, this species generally lays only one or two eggs and often raises just a single nestling. The young looked fully grown and probably was close to leaving the nest. After fledging, it will stay with the parents for several more months as it learns to feed on its own. According to Birdlife International, the species is still relatively abundant and not of immediate conservation concern, but the Peregrine Fund warns that populations have been declining in recent decades. On the other hand, we’d seen a lot of individuals over the last week in the Pantanal, so maybe they are doing well here.

The boat drifted for several minutes as we chattered about what had just happened. Eventually, the boatman started the motor, and we cruised down this Pantanal river for another hour, photographing other riverine wonders. My mind, though, kept coming back to that flight, the grab, and the return.

Dawn Chorus along Stossel Creek

The marsh along Stossel Creek in Western Washington had a wonderful dawn chorus in early May.
Wetland along Stossel Creek.

Droplets bounced from bow to bow, making light ringing sounds as they fell through the Western Hemlocks and Red Cedars. Although it didn’t appear to be raining right then, the built-up water in the trees still tumbled. Water in the Red Alders gave a little different sound in this pre-dawn light, but the songs of hundreds of Pacific Chorus Frogs dominated the dark. A wide, slow-moving portion of Stossel Creek extended for a hundred feet or more in front of me. There, grasses, bushes, and small trees grew in the wetland, the perfect habitat for these tiny anurans. The males will climb a grass stem or twig, puff out their gular sack and let forth with that song. Within five minutes, a Common Yellowthroat added its “witchy witchy witch” to the dawn chorus, and shortly an American Robin began his melodious song. The area was getting lighter, dawn was happening.

The Dawn Chorus along Stossel Creek a mile or two north of the Big Pond.

It would be another five minutes after that before I heard the long, raspy whistle of a Varied Thrush. His note lasted almost a second and stayed all at the same pitch; then, he paused before giving another note at a higher pitch. He continued this pattern, long pause, long note, either higher or lower than the previous, always different than the immediately prior one. For me, this bird symbolizes the thick coniferous forests, especially at mid-elevations, of Western Washington. I wasn’t sure they would be at Marckworth Forest in May, so this was a special treat. Their tune gives me an eerie feeling, one also of mystery and intrigue. Hearing it always fills me with envy, for I wish my house were among thick, giant conifers such that this bird sang around me each spring. But I’d found one and my heart rose with delight.

It was mid-May, and many residents and early migrants had begun breeding. Other migrants would be arriving from their southern wintering grounds over the next few weeks. The Common Yellowthroat winters well south of Washington but had come back in April. A Song Sparrow and a Red-winged Blackbird gave their unique melodies to this morning ensemble. The sparrow probably stayed here all winter, while the blackbird might have wandered in western Washington before moving back to these marshes.

The forests in the Stossel Creek valley are filled with Western Hemlocks, Western Hemlocks, and Douglas firs. It is wet forest typical of the Pacific Northwest.
The forest along Stossel Creek.

Behind me, the high pitch song of a Chestnut-backed Chickadee drifted in, and the energetic trill of a Pacific Wren filled the forest with cheeriness. Unfortunately, I’m losing my ability to hear the high notes of the chickadee. Age is catching up to me. Soon I will need to seek a hearing aid to continue listening to these birds, for spring without them is unthinkable. 

A Steller’s Jay gave his rattle, and I looked down to see what my phone thought had been calling. Last year, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology added song recognition to their Bird Identification app, Merlin. They had volunteers go through thousands and thousands of recordings, marking which songs belong to what species, and then used machine learning to teach the app. They even used a few recordings I had made. The app said that a Northern Flicker and a Sora had called, but I hadn’t caught either in this morning’s chorus. 

I’d been there almost 40 minutes when I shut down my recorder and wondered what the chorus here might be like in another few weeks when more migrants had arrived, and some of the residents might be less vocal as they concentrate on raising young. I’ll have to come back again. 

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.

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 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:

“Who cooks for you?” in the night

The Barred Owl began to call around 3 AM and sang for 5 minutes.

Barred Owl calls are eerie yet enchanting and downright marvelous. These birds are common in the lowland forests of the Pacific Northwest, but often go unnoticed because of their nocturnal habits. Their call rings through the woods sounding like “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” Their song travels well through dense vegetation.

On June 17th, I stashed a sound recorder in the woods along Stossel Creek, just west of Carnation, Washington. Units from the stereo microphone were tied three feet off the ground and on opposite sides of a small vine maple. At the time, I wasn’t sure what I might capture. Perhaps, the evening chorus of birds or the dawn awakening, maybe frogs croaking in the wetlands that ran along the forest’s edge. I left the rig, climbing up the forested slope to my car and driving away.

During the middle of the next day, I came back to retrieve the equipment. To my delight, an owl called right near my setup a little after 3 in the morning. It sang for 5 minutes and then went silent. While listening to it the first time on my computer, I imagined the bird sitting on a western hemlock branch, maybe 20 feet off the ground while it called. The woods at this location were a mixture of hemlocks, Douglas firs, and red cedars. Along the edge were deciduous trees and bushes. A marsh began within a dozen feet of my recorder and extended for a hundred feet or more across the valley and up and down its bottom. Dense coniferous woods rose on a gentle slope away from my rig. Perfect habitat for Barred Owls.

On the second time listening, I realized that a young owl whined from up the hill. It was a ways off and the call is faint. Recent fledglings will constantly beg for food, and I wondered if the parent was calling the young to fly down near the creek where the hunting for frogs would be good.

Pacific cricket frogs and bullfrogs are abundant in the marsh system running along the valley bottom. Both these would be ideal food and by June, the parent owls were probably starting to teach their owlet to catch its own food. Perhaps, when the adult went silent, it had gotten the young to fly down near it and the two had started to hunt. The frogs were silent during this recording and on either side of the recording. Yet, earlier in the night, both cricket frogs and bullfrogs had been calling. I wondered if they knew the owl was on the prowl.

Although not there to hear this firsthand, I could imagine the scene. Magical!

More Sounds here: https://thomasbancroft.org/sounds-of-the-wild-country/

Zumwalt Prairie SoundScape: https://thomasbancroft.org/zumwalt-prairie-soundscape/

Or on Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/tom-bancroft-2