Fast Learners


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


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:

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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Baseball Fan


This week’s photo, taken July 26, 2014 at Meadowbrook Pond in NE Seattle, WA, features an OSPREY gliding above the main pond.

This is the time of year for Washingtonians to enjoy the Osprey, because this magnificent raptor, being a spring/summer breeder in our area, is mainly found in the Northwest from April through August.

The osprey is equipped with a special surface on the bottom of its feet to help it hold onto slippery fish, its main source of food. After snatching a fish from the water’s surface with its talons, the osprey will take flight and reposition its prey so the fish’s head leads the way and the fish’s tail brings up the rear. This clever adjustment cuts down on wind resistance, so the osprey doesn’t have to work so hard while flying with food.

Osprey have adapted quite well to manmade structures; they frequently build their large stick nests atop light platforms at baseball fields. They seem to be quite comfortable in the presence of humans, and without a doubt they are big baseball fans.

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Upwardly Mobile


This week’s photo, taken July 19, 2014 at the Arboretum in Seattle, WA, features a BROWN CREEPER.

The BROWN CREEPER is an adorable little bird with a rather unique behavior. It forages for insects by creeping up large tree trunks, in search of snacks in the nooks and crannies of the bark. Since the creeper lacks a reverse gear, it only works the tree in an upward direction. So, when it runs out of trunk or it’s simply ready for a change in elevation, it launches itself off the trunk into a free fall (like bungee jumping but without a bungee). Then, just before it crashes into the ground and bursts into flames, it swoops up and attaches itself like velcro to the base of a neighboring tree. From this low point, it resumes its upward creeping, in search of more protein.

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Why the Chicken Crossed the Road


This week’s photo, taken June 15, 2014 in Yakima County, WA, features our second RUFFED GROUSE of the day.

It’s day 3 of the 2014 Washington Ornithological Society conference, and the lead driver of our 4-car convoy has just noticed a RUFFED GROUSE up ahead on the gravel road. When all vehicles stop, I step out of our car to snap some photos, but the skittish chicken-like bird immediately explodes into the air and flies away. My one photo shows an over-exposed, blurry and downright lousy depiction of a grouse during lift-off. Nevertheless, it’s the best photo I’ve ever taken of this elusive species – because it’s the ONLY photo I’ve ever taken of this species.

A few miles later, we spot another Ruffed Grouse in the road, and this one has attitude. Instead of flying away, it stands its ground and seems to dare us to approach. But before we can make our move, a guy – who is not part of our group – makes his own move. No longer willing to wait in his pick up truck behind our last car, he steps on the gas and begins to pass our stopped caravan and head up the road. We figure that the grouse will fly for sure, but to everyone’s surprise and relief, it stays put as the truck rolls by.

With renewed hope for better looks and finer photos, we creep forward in our cars, a short distance at a time. Each time we stop and get out, you can hear rapid fire camera clicks from the paparazzi among us. Eventually, the bird runs across the road and disappears into the brush.

So, why’d the chicken cross the road? To get away from us, that’s why.

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The Far East


This week’s photo, taken June 25, 2014 at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge, south of Spokane, WA, features a fledgling PYGMY NUTHATCH.

During a brief visit to a far eastern part of Washington state, I spend a few hours birding at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge. While walking a few trails and also driving the 5-mile auto tour route, I observe plenty of interesting species, including EASTERN KINGBIRDS on a nest, a BLACK TERN cruising back and forth above Kepple Lake, and a female RUDDY DUCK floating on the lake with 9 ducklings paddling close to their momma. At the start of the refuge’s newest foot path, called the Bluebird Trail, several WESTERN BLUEBIRDS perch out in the open. Apparently, they are employed as official greeters on their namesake trail.

When I return to my car and begin to leave the refuge, I only drive about 200 feet before I notice several PYGMY NUTHATCHES in a small tree across the road. Fledglings are being fed by adults, and a young Pygmy Nuthatch is sitting alone on a branch in an adjacent tree. It’s probably waiting for a food delivery from its parents. I stop my car, walk to the other side of the road, and capture a few images of the lone and quite cute nuthatch.

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Alert Leader


This week’s photo, taken June 14, 2014 in Yakima County, WA, features a SWAINSON’S HAWK, a new state bird for me.

On day two of the recent Washington Ornithological Society conference in Yakima, our leader is slowly driving our van along a gravel road when he suddenly spots a SWAINSON’S HAWK soaring above us. It’s nice having a multi-tasking guide who can drive and find birds at the same time. We’re fortunate that he notices the high-flying raptor because most of us are riding in the back of the vehicle and unable to see much of the sky. He quickly brings the van to a halt, we all climb out and watch the majestic hawk as it slowly circles in a thermal. After a few minutes, the hawk loses some altitude, glides toward us, and treats us to even better views.

During our time on the side of the road admiring the Swainson’s Hawk, we observe other soaring birds as well, including several COMMON NIGHTHAWKS, a NORTHERN HARRIER, an AMERICAN KESTREL and a TURKEY VULTURE. Our brief stop turns into a very productive stop, and it’s all because we have a very alert leader.

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