Peeps

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This week’s photo, taken September 13, 2014 at Discovery Park in Seattle, WA, features a WESTERN SANDPIPER, in flight with its “peeps.”

Sandpipers, especially the small ones, can be notoriously difficult to tell apart. Often, we are forced to view them from a great distance, making it tough to detect much detail. Even if they fly close by, they move so darn fast and turn and bank so often that it’s mighty hard to figure out what specific birds we have in front of us. To make matters worst, many types of sandpipers look amazingly similar to others when they are not in breeding plumage, and most of us are likely to be in the presence of the non-breeding variety (unless you happen to live in the far northern latitudes where most sandpipers nest).

Small sandpipers are casually called “peeps,” and many people use that term when they have difficulty figuring out the exact species. Last Saturday at Discovery Park, a flock of “peeps” zoomed right by us. We suspected that the fast-moving birds were all one species, but when they landed conveniently close to us, we noticed a lone SANDERLING mixed in with the group of 24 WESTERN SANDPIPERS.

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Birds Gone Wild

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This week’s photo, taken September 4, 2014 in Mount Rainier National Park, WA, features a GRAY JAY on the offensive.

My second visit in less than 3 weeks to Mount Rainier National Park produces another incredibly scenic hike, as well as another interesting day of birding. This time, some of the birds (and one particular mammal) boldly go where few animals have gone before; that is, they fearlessly and shamelessly come toward us instead of dashing off for cover.

When we reach our hike’s highest point, on Burroughs Mountain, where we stop and relax to take in the magnificent view of the big mountain (Rainier), a chipmunk pays us a visit to help us eat our snacks. Even after we order it to back off, it refuses to take no for an answer. Fortunately, the relentless rodent doesn’t follow us during our return trek down the mountain.

Later on, we stop at a view point for a break, and the moment I place my bagel on a rock, a CLARK’S NUTCRACKER zooms in and lands a short distance away. Clearly, this member of the jay family wishes to add bagel with cream cheese to its diet. When I lift my camera to take photos of the brazen bird, it hops in closer, hoping to steal my meal while I have both hands on my camera and lens. I quickly cover the bagel with one hand, and the bird flies to a nearby tree. I lift my camera again with both hands, and the Nutcracker again flies in to seize the moment (and the bagel), until I once again protect my food with my hand.

The Bold Bird of the Day Award goes to a GRAY JAY that does more than approach us; it actually lands on my friend’s head and spends a minute nibbling at his cap. Maybe it’s looking for food, maybe it’s trying to intimidate us, or perhaps the jay just wants to pick his brain.

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Distracted

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This week’s photo, taken August 23, 2014 at Meadowbrook Pond in northeast Seattle, WA, features a female BELTED KINGFISHER. This species is an exception to the rule in the bird world that the male displays more color than the female. The male Belted Kingfisher lacks the rusty breastband seen here on the female.

The BELTED KINGFISHER is one of the most challenging birds to approach for a photograph – at least that’s been my experience. Lucky for me, the female pictured above is preoccupied with a COOPER’S HAWK that it just chased into a nearby tree. Distracted by the hawk, the kingfisher couldn’t care less about me, and it lands surprisingly close, providing me some nice photo opportunities.

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Sardines in a Tree

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This week’s photo, taken August 23, 2014 at Meadowbrook Pond in northeast Seattle, WA, features a few BUSHTITS waking up after a night of snuggling. The light-eyed individual on the right is an adult female.

BUSHTITS are adorable little birds with some interesting habits. When they are not paired off during breeding season, they famously flock; so when you find one Bushtit, it’s likely that 10 or 20 more are nearby. They feed as a group in a tree, where they search for tasty spiders and other insects. Being mini-acrobats, they easily feed right side up, sideways or upside down. When their “leader” decides that it‘s time to move on to a neighboring tree, the rest of the flock follows the leader, usually one Bushtit at a time.

If you’ve ever seen a Bushtit in flight, then you know why they do not migrate any significant distance. They are very weak flyers. In fact, if you observe their short aerial commute from one tree to another, you might wonder if they are going to run out of gas before reaching the next tree.

The rumors are true that Bushtits sleep together. They huddle tightly on branches to stay warm during the night. Last Saturday was only the second time in my life I’ve ever stumbled upon a group of Bushtits waking up from their communal roost. I found a total of 12 -15 birds, in packs of 4-5 each, sleeping well past sunrise, but that was acceptable behavior since it was the weekend.

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Mountain Birding

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This week’s photo, taken August 17, 2014 in Mount Rainier National Park, WA, features an immature COOPER’S HAWK.

On Sunday, I’m one of 12 participants on a Seattle Audubon hike along the lower slopes of Mount Rainier. After a 2 1/2 hour drive from the city, we reach the Sunrise parking lot: at 6400 feet above sea level, it’s the highest point in the park that’s reachable by car. As we gather together to begin our 8-mile hike, our leader mentions some birds we might encounter today, but I’m not listening very well. I’m majorly distracted by the incredibly fresh mountain air, the gorgeous green meadows, and the elephant in the room – also known as Mount Rainier. If I don’t see a single bird today, I’ll be ok because I’m just thrilled to be in the presence of the highest volcano in the contiguous United States.

I try to focus solely on the magnificence of the area, but a few birds do manage to appear in my line of vision. Close to the parking lot, we spot MOUNTAIN CHICKADEES, CHIPPING SPARROWS, PINE SISKINS, CASSIN’S FINCHES and one CLARK’S NUTCRACKER. Later, when we hike above 7000 feet, we spot a few HORNED LARKS and AMERICAN PIPITS, and a dozen or more MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRDS.

It’s a good day for raptors. Soaring RED-TAILED HAWKS, AMERICAN KESTRELS, PRAIRIE FALCONS and COOPER’S HAWKS inspire us to keep trudging up the trails. When I’m in need of additional motivation, I glance up at Mount Rainier, and instantly the going gets a little bit easier.

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Fast Learners

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This week’s photo, taken August 11, 2014 in our Northeast Seattle backyard, features a young AMERICAN ROBIN taking a bath.

Several days ago, four fledgling AMERICAN ROBINS made their premiere appearance in our backyard. Initially, they seem overwhelmed with everything, so they remain perched on top of the fence for a long time. Eventually, one by one, they parachute to the ground, from where they stare across the yard and attempt to make sense of this strange new world.

In order to photograph the young birds, I slowly slide open our bedroom window. Yet, the soft sound of the window frame shifting in its track causes the “Four Freshmen” to immediately fly back up to the top of the fence and scamper into the safety of the thick foliage that grows above our property line. Their parents have taught them well, and they have passed their first test: If you hear a strange noise, go to a safe place.

By the second day, the young Robins begin to explore their surroundings more thoroughly, and in doing so they appear much more relaxed than the day before. Nevertheless, their food-gathering skills are still quite poor. Maybe the early bird gets the worm, but the novice Robin is still wormless on day two.

It’s impressive how far they progress by day three. Now, they examine every corner of the yard with confidence, and one of them finds a worm in the grass and devours it like a kid eating a strand of spaghetti.

Just like young humans, young birds possess tons of energy, so they tirelessly investigate their world, making lots of mistakes along the way, but also learning rapidly as they go. By day four, one of our fledglings even figures out the purpose of that shallow water in the light blue pan.

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Island Birds

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This week’s photo, taken August 2, 2014 on Whidbey Island, WA, features a CHESTNUT-BACKED CHICKADEE, a colorful chickadee of western North America.

While we enjoy a peaceful weekend on Whidbey Island (the largest of the islands in the Puget Sound), we spend Saturday afternoon lounging on the back deck of our friends’ house, where the only sounds we hear come from birds at the feeders, in the bushes and surrounding trees, and during a fly by.

Some of the birds we spot during our late afternoon retreat:
BALD EAGLE
NORTHERN HARRIER
EURASIAN COLLARED-DOVE
CHESTNUT-BACKED CHICKADEE
BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEE
HOUSE WREN
WESTERN TANAGER
AMERICAN GOLDFINCH

Of course, the above species can all be found on the mainland, but somehow the Whidbey Island birds seem different. Perhaps they breathe more slowly, keep their shoulders relaxed down, or hold on to their perches with less of a death grip. Maybe the Island Birds are more mellow than the birds on the mainland.

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