Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Going deep

Very early in my life I knew I was a bird watcher. From the ages of seven to seventeen I could safely say I saw less then fifteen Bald Eagles in the wild. This was in Wisconsin. If someone was going to see an eagle you would have thought Wisconsin would had been a pretty good place to look.  By the time I was twenty three and left the US for Panama for two years I could safely say I had seen less then twenty more bald eagles. During this time period I traveled from coast to coast. Any sighting was noteworthy and some are still vivid.  Sad to say that there were so few.

Times have change and I now live where at any given day if you were to say....take me to an eagle, I could probably find one if not more within four hours on a bad day. This make me happy.

This encounter took place this past April. The local hatchery had released a large number of salmon that were the epicenter of a feeding frenzy.  Over two dozen Bald Eagles had converged offering an unparalleled opportunity to zero in on them. I am sorry if I post to many eagle blogs, I love to see them, I love to photograph them, I love knowing that they are there.
Fish that had been plentiful over the past two weeks were starting to thin out.  As there physiology changed from fresh to salt water they moved out of the intertidal zone for Puget Sound. The eagles were starting to get on each others nerves and squabbles were frequent.  
Two weeks ago these birds would drop a fish they had in their talons just to pick up another for fun.  
 That was not the case today.

This is the local nesting male bald eagle. He just missed his targeted fish.

 He looked back over his shoulder as he lifted up and circled back sharply.  On his initial approach had hit the fish and stunned it leaving it to linger near the surface.

 He locked his wings and plunged into the water at a steep angle more like an Osprey then an eagle.

Like an Osprey he pours on raw power and lifts effortlessly pulls himself and the fish out of the water. 
I love how it looks as if he looking down at the fish to see if it is really there.

I had seen seven eagles in the trees ringing this little arena.  One of them is his mate.  
I am not clued into exactly what a female eagle is looking for in a mate but I would say that that little maneuver will sure look good on his resume.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

An Odd Duck

Last Spring I stopped by Titlow Park in Tacoma, Washington. The fall before I had seen an Eurasian Wigeon Drake and was hoping for better pictures then I had taken in the past.  I found and focused in on the Wigeons on the pond which became a large part my blog “Who’s the Daddy”.   In this chapter I photographed  not only an  Eurasian Wigeon Drake but also a Hybrid American X Eurasian Wigeon Drake.

During that outing I took pictures of all of the birds in the small pond so I could get an overview of the Wigeon population to see if there were any female Eurasian Wigeons in the flock.  I did not find any females that I could say for sure one way or the other they were Eurasian.  I did find a strange Drake Mallard. It stayed away from the rest of the Mallards on the pond. At first I thought it was a young Drake in some type of transitional phase but also noticed that none of the other Mallards look like that. I was very excited about the whole Wigeon discovery I figured I would figure it out later.  I made a folder called "Odd Mallard" and put the pictures in it. I would drop by from time to time to compare it to other mallard photos to figure out why it was different but the same.

Over the following months I looked very closely at every single Mallard and Wigeon picture I have. Then I did it again.  No other Mallard looked like that.

This past week an errand took me near Titlow at mid day and the Sun was shining bright. This is one of those moments like I mentioned in my last blog entry that I can not let slip by. I wanted to see if the Eurasian Wigeon or the hybrid  had returned this Fall. I scanned the birds on the small pond and quickly saw there was no sign of either of them.
The strange Mallard was there. I zeroed in on him and took the following photos.

When I looked them over later that day I started to notice head shape irregularities.   The pattern on the head started to look like he might be a Mallard x American Wigeon.

A Typical Mallard Drake

A typical American Wigeon Drake
I could not explain the female looking feathers on the flanks but I thought the head pattern was very Wigeon like and the body feather coloration was effected by the mixing of genes. 

I went online and started to look for photographs of Mallards X Wigeon hybrids.  Surprisingly I found quit a few. Mostly killed by hunters. The photos did show a wide range of possible color variations.    

So this is about where I went off the rails.   Damn internet.  

I gathered up and cropped the pictures for this collage to support my “discovery”.

I posted this picture on my Flickr page so I could add it to the Hybrid Bird Group to see I could get feedback to see if I was right.  Even before I could get the head collage up loaded a local birder and wildlife photographer who kindly comments on my photographs did so on the first one.  She questioned if the bird could have looked the way it does due to age.  I had thought of that the first time I saw it and then again when I saw the duck the second time.  I was leaning toward thought that he was an older bird.  When I headed down the hybrid path I forgot all about a chance it was a pure Mallard and it's age being a factor in it's feather coloration.

This morning coffee in hand I light the old Flickr page and I was rather shocked to learn that the wizened ones in the Hybrid Bird Group informed me that this in as “Inter-sex” Mallard.

It is clear this duck was odd. I guess I focused in on the head pattern and called it wrong. In a nutshell low estrogen in a female duck causes them to developed male feathers. Male feathers are the "default" setting.  Normal female Estrogen levels provide the characteristic brown camouflage pattern we are all familiar with.

 I will admit I may have made an assumption here far beyond what I should have.  I have always seen the Mallards on this small pond with Wigeons. I assumed that if I had already found a hybrid at this site why could I not possibly see another. The head pattern may have been coincidental and I filled in the rest as I went along.

I love it. That is what keeps birding fresh for me.  Finding something new, something rare or something totally unexpected in the middle of a park when hundreds of people visit a week.  This bird has been sitting there along.  If I had not taken the picture I would have surly forgotten the minor details that made the difference in the identification, blown it off and never known.  

Here are the links to the comments and Flickr pages mentioned above.

Comments on the head shot collage on Flickr
Comments of the Inter Sex Mallard photos on Flickr

Have fun and take care!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Cold snap

The weather took a turn and a cold front landed on top of us for a few days. Heavy snow and high winds made it difficult for all of the little birds to find food.  The first clear day afterward was cold and calm. I came across a small group of birds in a parking lot at the local mall.
Their focus on finding food outweighed their interest in me taking pictures of them. 

This is a Male Brewer's Blackbird
His kind evolved with the ebb and flow of the Great Plains of North America. With the reduction of the Bison they adopted cattle and human agricultural ways.  More recently most any urban parking lot will harbor a group of Brewer's blackbirds. 
Potato chip crumbs and cigarette butts in a Safeway parking lot seam a world apart and somewhat less romantic then roaming the open plains of a precolonial North American with Bison and Antelope herds that spread from horizon to horizon.

Our striking Male specimen here was causally strolling near this patch of undisturbed snow covered grass.

He was attempting to draw a trio of females over to his spot

He was also hoping that they would leave the two male Brewer's Blackbirds with them behind for he is a better provider and obviously of superior breeding stock.   You do not have to look hard, you can see it his walk as well as being written on his forehead.

The small group of Brewer's Blackbirds started to move closer to the first male when they intersected with a group of European Starlings. These two birds species are literally from different worlds. 

The Starlings were introduced to North America in the 1890's. They were transplanted from Europe. At the time I am sure someone had a good reason to do it. Since then the Starlings expanded Westward until they reached the West Coast in the 1950'S.  In sixty years less then a hundred Starlings fanned out to cover the entire United States of America's lower forty eight states.

Along the way the Starling has become vilified for competing with native bird species for food and nesting locations.  They are also viewed as a destructive agricultural pest causing higher food costs for us humans. The bottom line is we screwed up the system and bare sole responsibility for the loss of so many species. Blaming the Starling is not fair, they are just doing what Starlings do.  We get pissed off just because they are so good at it.

 This is the Starling "Winter coat".  Fair wear and tear on the Starlings feathers over the Winter gradually wears the light colored feather tips off.  They revile the dark metallic color of the mating colors in the Spring.

Starlings are aggressive and demanding. Starlings often travel in groups that easily over power other groups of birds that have already found a found source. This does not endear them to many bird enthusiasts.

This handsome bird is a great example of feather coloration that can be found in many birds. The feathers do not really have a color of their own. They refract light with tiny structures in their feathers the act as prisms constantly changing the light reflected off of them. 

These two pictures were taken an instant apart and you can see the difference.

Portraits of the European Starling

I could not tell you if this is a male of female Starling. 
They all look alike to me.

The groups intermingled.

Even though he acted as if he wanted this female to come closer to see what he had found, he turned on her and drove her off.

With his focus returning to his precious, he lowered his guard for a moment.

A moment is all it took for the Starlings to seize their chance. The differences in how the feathers of each species catch and reflect the light.

Out numbered and caught off guard there is nothing in that little hole worth fighting for.
 A tactical retrograde and...

...no harm done.  

In the end there was nothing there. Was our sly Male smooth talking the Lady Blackbird?

The cold snap and the fleeting moments of brilliant sunshine gave me a chance to photograph these often overlooked birds up close and in detail.   As much as the whole snow thing was a major inconvenience for me it was a life challenging episode for them.  The snow melted the next day as the temperatures rose to the high 30's.  With the lower pressure and warmer temps come the clouds and the gray overcast skies of our typical winters.  These wet and warmer nights allow the birds to conserve their energy.  Every calorie saved is one that goes to surviving the Winter.  They say it is going to be cold and snowy this year.

I feel selfish for hoping for more sunny days.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Helican

A wonderful bird is a pelican,

His bill will hold more than his belican.

He can take in his beak

Food enough for a week;

But I'm damned if I see how the helican.

"The Pelican" (1910) by Dixon Lanier Merritt

When I was in school at some point in time I was introduced to Ogden Nash's poem "The Pelican".  My English teacher did not have access to a service such as Wikipedia to get her facts straight.   The very first thing I find as start to write this entry is that Mr. Nash did not pen this poem so in trying to give credit where credit is do,

Thank you Mr. Merritt.

 In forming the core thought of what this blog would be I knew that I had to use those words.  I never became a big poetry fan so this cute little ditty slipped to a back corner of my mind to be pulled out at the right moment to impress someone with my refined, well rounded and cultured mind.

There have been few opportunities.

There were no pelicans In Wisconsin.  When I first heard the poem the concept of a pelican became exotic and something far far away.  I could see them on the television, Flipper, remember Flipper?
 The only other images I can remember of Brown Pelicans on TV was when they were oil soaked after some drilling disasters in the Gulf states or California.

I could see them in my birding book. I had the one birding book at the time, still have it. I would spend hours studying  and thinking of the day I could travel to each of the colored areas on each distribution maps in my bird book. Pelicans ranked among the highest of my "wanted birds".  Birds like the California Condor, Golden Eagle, Vermilion Flycatcher and Road Runners did as I recall rank higher. I still have not seen a Condor.

In July, 1975 I stood in a marshy backwater of the Yellowstone River. An unbelievably large white feather had lured me from the comfort of a dry trail into ice cold water well over the tops of my boots. It floated barley touching the surface of the water as if it had no weight.
I waded in deeper and examined the feather.

My mind raced through all of those distribution maps I had studied for countless hours and made the logical choice. I mentally declared it to be a Swan feather and turned to make my way to higher ground. I climbed back up to the narrow trail and looked back to the river below me. From my right saw a string of white pearls silently gliding above the river's surface. The string slowed, dropped lower to the water and turned to their left as they dropped their feet and slid to a stop on the marsh just feet from where I had picked up the feather. My jaw dropped along with the feather. Eight brilliant white American Pelicans were before me decompressing and adjusting to their new static environment.
My feet were very cold.

After a few moments the group started to drink, vocalize and interact with each other like the were comparing notes about the flight in as a hush fell over the backwater. The closest bird looked up at me and I could see it blink as it focused in on me.  I was instantly struck by how large and primitive it looked. As if a portal had opened  from another dimension and we were both sharing a “first contact” moment.  "My" pelican notice it’s companions moving toward the river's current and turned to followed. One by one they entered the flow of the river and disappeared behind the trees headed downstream.  
I was left in the silence of the moment.  

American Pelican

This is not one of the birds from 1975. I took this picture in 2009 in Eastern Oregon. It is the only image of an American Pelican I have.  Sorry, they have been hard to come by.


Last month my wife and I spent a few days in Seaside, Oregon.  One day I had to myself and I crafted a plan to find some Brown Pelicans and Heermann’s Gulls.  Both of these species breed much further South but during the late Summer and Fall they wander North along the West coast. These wanderings vary from year to year with food supplies and the weather playing a large part in how far and for how long they travel. It also limits opportunities to see and photograph them.  Both were lofty prizes I wanted.

I searched for three hours and covered over sixty miles. I reached the last place I had planned to visit after doing my map recon the night before.  I  found a the jetty at a small marina that looked promising. I approached form the South and saw ab-so-lute-ly nothing.  

Tired and disappointed I lowered my camera and as if on cue, three Brown Pelicans materialized from my left just feet above the water. They turned directly toward me, rose up and flew over my head. They kept turning and landed on the far side of the jetty.

I worked my way to the other side of the jetty and found a small group of Heermann's Gulls.

They stood their ground as I approached.

This side of the jetty was shaded and sheltered from the wind.  I could see a large group of the Pelicans  a hundred yards or so ahead.
 It took a few moments for me to realize there were hundreds of Heermann's Gulls between me and the Brown Pelicans sleeping in the rocks. There was very little movement and almost no bird noise you would expect in such a large collection of birds.

I took a few quick pictures and backtracked off the jetty as fast as possible. I did not want to startle hundreds of sleeping birds for a few pictures. The light was not at a good angle and the dark birds against the dark rocks did not look as if the had much contrast between them.    The later is what happens when you forget to take your sunglasses of before trying to take pictures.


All summer long my wife and I have been trying to get away to the Washington coast for a day with the dogs on the beach. The summer slipped away.
Last Friday the weather report looked like the last reasonable day on the coast for a long, long time to come. We were both off, the tank was full and the dogs are always ready to go to the beach, any beach.  We figured we would get some Dungeness crabs in Tokeland and search for mushrooms in a campground that produce some amazing  Boletes last year.  Had to settle for fresh shrimp and the mushrooms had already been picked over.

The weather was amazing for the time of year and the Pelicans were in a photogenic mood.

Brown Pelicans, immature on the left and non breeding adult on the right.

Incoming! Brown Pelicans effortlessly ride the winds along the tops of the wave on their massive wings.

Notice the pouch on the bird second from the top. Baggage?

" His bill will hold more than his belican"

An observation deck in Westport, Washington was a perfect location. With bright sunlight to my back and strings of Brown Pelicans streaming by at or just above eye level how could you not get a great picture?

We had a very nice day.

There are more Pelicans today then when I first heard Mr. Merritt's poem.
The effects the pesticide DDT in the 1960's and 70's took a heavy toll on all birds near the top of their respective food chains.   Pelican populations suffered massive losses during theses times prompting protection under a variety of state and federal laws.  DDT interfered with the proper formation of egg shells causing the loss of countless birds.   DDT has been banned for decades in the United States and all most all of the affected species are recovering.  
With the environment on the mend and state and federal protections in place these ancient birds should be around for us to enjoy for a long time.  

Now, if we can keep them from being soaked in crude oil they should do just fine.