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... 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.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


In the past I had introduced you to Red.
He was the antagonist in my blog entry titled;  Red, Phoebe and Lister. I wrote it in September, 2008.

Anyway...  Two years have passsed since then and things have steadily escalated as the trio have aged. All three have grown to maturity. All three have determined what they feel is "their" territory. All three have strong feelings about having unwanted intruders in said territories.

Too cliche? Too predictable?

All  three have become little butts.

They may look sweet and innocent after a long work out at the beach but at a moment notice they will launch out the door to defend their sacred territory.

Lister has grown into a sixty-five pound "bag of meat". Muscle, bone and fast. Lister  is always serious, neurotic and looking for something to eat.  Come on, if you were Red wouldn't  the sight of Lister looking like this bearing down on you not make you think twice about taunting him? Red, what are you thinking?

Phoebe is right there with Lister weighing in at dainty sixty-two pounds. She is more playful and a true Alpha dog.   She is a red dog. If you have never owned a red dog you will not know what I mean.
(She is three biscuits short of a treat box.)

What is she looking at you may ask?


So, with all of this "dog power" at my disposal you would think my yard would be a little more secure. 
Yet, Red is running amuck.

 He has turned my outbuilding into his bachelor pad.  From his penthouse he went so far as to remove pieces of the recently installed insulation from the attic and carry it over one hundred feet through the yard to give it to his girlfriend who used it in the nest she was making in the attic of our house. I could not close up any holes while there may have been babies up there.

 When I was able to find where he was going in and out of the out building I would cover them up...

...he would seek out alternatives.
The window damage was bad enough, frustrated he then went and just opened up a hole in the wall as if to show me who really had the control in this dance.

I filled this hole with expanding foam when I saw he was out of the hole tormenting the dogs from the Dogwood tree. I was going to cover the foam with screen the next day when it was not raining.  Well so much for that plan. He waited until the next  morning and beat me to the punch. Punched right through the foam.

As well as destroying property Red has become crazed with the glut of food available this fall. He has already started to store food in places I know I can not screen off now with out denying him food over the winter. So our dance continues.

 Red is in the process off harvesting Spruce cones and Sunflower seeds. Under the Spruce tree he has amassed a midden pile that is feeding the mushroom understory that he is also consuming. I do like the Prince mushrooms also but not enough to take them from Red.     
 Well the truth is... I like my liver and with all of the heavy metal contamination in our area from the defunct smelter upwind I figure the odds of Red coming down with cancer before something else gets him are pretty slim.

If Red doesn't get the mushrooms the flies do. This one is laying fast hatching eggs. The little maggots will ruin a mushroom within minutes of hatching.

His table manners with the sunflower are just as bad. No, worse.   He is just throwing them everywhere.  I mean everywhere. He romps through the garage with his mouth bulging on is way to the attic where my wife swears he is moving  furniture around. Everywhere you look there are sunflower seeds and plant parts. It's like a sunflower Armageddon.

"I love the smell of sunflowers in the morning"!  Or was it napalm?

Gravity means nothing to Red.'s a law damn it... you have to obey it!!

Twice now I have rounded the corner of a brick wall and ran headlong into him as he was about to round the corner.  In that fraction of a second it takes the brain to react to the flight or fight response that takes over in such instances, Red's smaller brain has the hands down advantage. He always breaks eye contact first as he explodes leaving a cloud of seeds, fur and squirrel shit behind. His larger eyes in relation to the shorter distance the information has to travel in the almond sized brain allows him to bark, turn and run before I could shudder to a stop and yell "shit". I hate that. I hate that. I hate that.  Of course the dogs are usually with me and they react somewhere in between the squirrel-human  dynamic outlined.  This variable just makes my reaction all the more entertaining.

I rule you.

 Turning the "EVIL" on!

Gravity damn it ...GRAVITY!


OK, now you're just showing off. Being a show off really doesn't help support you point of view.

  And as Red gets to ravage this sunflower unchallenged...

,,,Phoebe looks on helplessly.

 Time has passed.
These pictures were all taken about a month ago. I wanted time to pass to see how it would play out. Red has secured his food supply and become more secretive. He still barks out to let us know where he is and let us know he know we are there. He is not as aggressive or reckless.
I have thought about this and I think there was a bigger force at work here.  During the height of Red's antics there also was a lot of bird activity around the collecting of the sunflower seeds.  Chickadees and  Steller's Jays were the most active harvesters of the seeds with a few Pine Siskins and Gold Finches that would sneak in and out. What was of the most interest were the actions of the Anna's Hummingbirds in the yard.

The Anna's were protective of the sunflowers. When the male Anna's caught birds feeding he would drive them off but the hummingbird would not approach or challenge Red.
The male humming birds were going through a pseudo-spring where they were acting territorial and preforming their courtship flights. This is where the male Anna's silently flies straight up into the air from a perch then turns and rockets earthward turning upward sharply at some point in space where he thinks it is right and the feathers create a sharp and distinctive "chirp".  The Chickadees, Juncos and Bewick's Wrens were also singing garbled and shortened versions of their respective springtime songs. I think they were all under the influence of a pseudo spring. They amount of daylight in each day was the same as it would be as if spring were coming on. This daylight window along with clear and mild weather was topped off with the abundant food supply. 

Just a though.  Just throwing it out there to see who it pisses off,? 
Other thoughts?

As easy as Red's life seems to be, he is constantly on guard to protect his way of life. One eye one everything that moves, his food, his girl, his world. He has to be aggressive, alert and an asshole.  The dogs are no real threat to him at all. They can not run up the walls or climb the tree. The only threat I pose is if I step on him as he is shitting and getting out of my way at the corner. 

There are others in the neighborhood who are keeping an eye on Red and his domain.

And that is where is is keeping his other eye.