Is Play for the Birds? A Lughnasa Reflection

Today marks summer’s midpoint, Lughnasa, the magic moment halfway between the solstice and equinox that open and close the bright time of year.

Summer, the season of play. Lincoln Park’s saltwater swimming pool is open, and the bluff above rings with the exultant sounds of “Marco!” “Polo!” and shrieks and splashes of kids emerging from the spiral slide into the deep end. Kids built forts—

Fort on Lincoln Park beach

Fort on Lincoln Park beach

—frisbees soar across park lawns, volleyball games sprout on Alki Beach. We play by moving ourselves around in fun ways, by moving things around in playing catch or to build interesting structures, and by horsing around with each other.

* * * * *

The forest’s birds play too. I’ve watched in various years while a young owl and a young eagle walk the “tightrope” of branches near their nests, flapping their wings or balancing with only their legs. Sure, it’s useful; but why shouldn’t it be fun as well?

Young Barred Owl walking a "tightrope"

Young Barred Owl walking a “tightrope”

Young eaglet practicing balancing skills near nest, shortly after fledging. (Taken on Lughnasa 2012)

Young eaglet practicing balancing skills near nest, shortly after fledging. (Taken on Lughnasa 2012)

Here’s the young Cooper’s Hawk I wrote about a few years ago, playing with a fir cone as it develops its preying skills.

Juvenile Cooper's Hawk rotates on left foot while holding cone in right

Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk rotates on left foot while holding cone in right

This juvenile hawk and its siblings often seemed to be playing in trees around their nest, sometimes even knocking each other off of branches.

Researchers have found that young birds are more likely to engage in play behavior if they’re more altricial (aren’t fully able to function on their own when hatched) than precocial, and if they tend to have siblings/nestmates. Both of these characteristics mean that they have to find ways to entertain themselves for long developmental periods while they’re waiting for their parents to bring them food. More complex play is associated with larger brain sizes, larger overall size, and longer childhoods (time to sexual maturity). None of these characteristics is always associated with playfulness, but they help.

And it’s not only in summer and not only juvenile birds who play. In winter, crows play with ice.

Crow holding up ice

Crow holding up ice “treasure”

This summer, I looked more closely at the crows dropping things on the beach near my house. I’ve seen them drop clams to break them open to eat, a well-known behavior. But this time one was dropping a little empty-looking shell, and catching it repeatedly in midair.

Crow playing catch with empty shell. This behavior was repeated multiple times in a single flight. (Lawman Beach, West Seattle)

Crow playing catch with empty shell. This behavior was repeated multiple times in a single flight. (Lowman Beach, West Seattle; photos by Trileigh Tucker)

Like us, birds play by frolicking; that is, moving around in ways that aren’t part of their normal routine, like the owlet and the eaglet. They play by manipulating objects, like the fir cone and the ice chip.

Birds also engage in social play, interacting with others of their species and beyond. They invite each other to play, they wrestle and play tug of war. A few bird orders include species that engage in many forms of social play; you won’t be surprised that they include the parrot families and perching birds (a huge group that includes crows and other corvids), but also the woodpeckers. I’ve looked hard for examples of birds playing in teams, to no avail—but that’s a topic for another post.

* * * * *

After reading stories about crows bringing gifts to people who feed them, I thought I might play a bit with our local birds to see what happened. I’d seen crows building a nest near my home and observed the kids learning to navigate our neighborhood natural area, so I knew they’d be hanging around.

One day back in April I put some raw peanuts on the deck rail and waited to see what would happen. And indeed, within about two minutes, one of our local corvids stopped by to check them out—but not a crow.

Steller's Jay discovers peanut gifts

Steller’s Jay discovers peanut gifts

A Steller’s Jay was first on the scene. He took a peanut, then surprised me by stowing it in his throat (crop) and grabbing another.

Steller's Jay moving peanut into crop

Steller’s Jay moving peanut into crop

Steller's Jay picking up second peanut - note bulge of first peanut in crop.

Steller’s Jay picking up second peanut – note bulge of first peanut in crop.

We named him Jay-Z. Eventually he learned to hop onto the sill of our Dutch door and take his pick of the peanuts in the bowl on the nearby table.

Jay Z arrives at kitchen feeding table. (The dictionary is for us; his Spanish is already pretty good.)

I’d roll peanuts on the deck floor for him, then after a few weeks I tried tossing them directly to him; he caught them easily in his beak. One day another game occurred to me. Could he catch them in flight? Yes! When I call his name, he watches me closely, I toss the peanut up in an arc, and he nabs it.

Jay Z launches after tossed peanut

Jay Z launches after tossed peanut

Jay Z en route toward tossed peanut

Jay Z en route toward tossed peanut

Jay Z nabs it!

Jay Z nabs it!

Now he starts our mornings by tap-tapping his beak on the deck rail, letting us know he’s ready for a game of catch…our Jay Z rapper.

It’s a game for me, but I have to admit, probably not for him; I have to guess that he’s probably just in it for the peanuts, not the fun. How could I test that? Maybe I can figure out how to try offering him both an easy peanut (rolled to him on the ground) and a “fun” peanut (tossed) and see which he prefers. Got any other ideas to try?

* * * * *

Watching birds at play, and seeing that adult birds play as well as young ones, got me thinking about how we grownup humans play. I’m not thinking of sports or activities done to stay in physical shape (though both can feel like play to some), but of open-ended activities done for their intrinsic enjoyability rather than to reach a goal. Birdwatching and photography bring me a lot of joy, relaxation, and refreshment—and of course a wonderful sense of connectedness to nature. But somehow I don’t think of these as play; I want to know more about birds and learn how to better portray their beauty and intelligence and  fascinating character, so in each case I’m striving to do something “better.” It’s great fun, but not pure creative play.

So how do I play these days? I play with my kittens. I have a lot of fun doing word-play with my partner. I do a bit of occasional physical play when I go to the saltwater pool and pretend I’m a mermaid, or spring backwards up from the pool floor for the pure fun of it. And I want to start playing with art: not with the goal of making gorgeous pictures, but just fooling around with color and pattern.

We contemporary adults (and children too) who are so time-driven and goal-oriented—we need play. Our brains need it, our bodies need it, our hearts need it. Play opens new creativity. And play opens up inner space that invites spirituality, love, and greater depth in our one wild and precious life.

How do you play during these lovely summer days? Do you play games with birds? Do you see them playing, either with each other or on their own? Let me know. And a very happy and playful Lughnasa to you!

Young Black-capped Chickadee splashing in birdbath

Young Black-capped Chickadee splashing in birdbath

 

 

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Love in the Time of Extinction

For the past few weeks, Rob’s been spending his weekend days clearing the immense nonnative laurel trees from our new back yard, opening up their shadowed land to light it hasn’t seen in decades. We can now see from our living room and deck all the way into the adjacent protected wetland.

Apple and pear trees soaking up new sunshine

Apple and pear trees soaking up new sunshine

He’s also been giving the ancient fruit trees—apples and pears, lucky us—a much-needed pruning. Freed from having to support suckers that shoot unproductively up toward the little light that had been making it past the laurels, the trees can now direct that energy into blooming and fruiting, benefitting both them and us.

The fruit-tree trimmings are neatly stacked at the trees’ bases, awaiting transport to our city compost, where they’ll become mulch for future gardens. But one pear branch has been lying by itself on the lawn, and I was astonished a few days ago to see it blossoming its little heart out, cut off from the trunk’s nourishing sap and water supply, but nonetheless somehow able to send its remaining sustenance up to those buds.

Cut pear branch, flowering anyway

Cut pear branch, flowering anyway

Pear flowers on cut branch

Pear flowers on cut branch

Looking more closely at the flowers, I finally noticed the little fly who was combing her way through the stamens, inadvertently collecting pollen on her legs for later delivery, perhaps to the other of the pear pair to inseminate offspring, perhaps to an uninterested apple or lilac. New life may yet spring from this branch.

Pollinator on pear flower

Pollinator on pear flower

* * * * *

Yesterday I indulged myself in a long walk in the park, in a midmorning still ringing with the last voices of the dawn chorus. With my naturalist skills rusty from the disuse of a too-busy working life, it took me a while to register that the repeated trill coming from high in the Bigleaf Maples along the bluff trail was that of an Orange-crowned Warbler — the first of the year. Surprise: the warblers were coming back already! I finally found the perky little yellow bird, well-camouflaged as it hopped among the maple’s new yellow leaves and pendulous racemes full of tiny flowers, searching for grub sensu stricto.

First Orange-crowned Warbler of the year, who has just caught a grub (small caterpillar).

First Orange-crowned Warbler of the year, who has just caught a grub (small caterpillar).

When I got back home, I checked my photo records: this was indeed early for them. In 2014 and 2013, they first arrived two weeks earlier, on April 10 and April 11. Of course, in those years I may have just missed seeing them when they breezed into town—but my sense of their earlier arrival is in line with the observed and predicted effects of global warming.

After a long wet work-filled winter, my spirit needed the thrill of trilling, the new music in the forest announcing a spring full of these little feathered flowers who bring a new form of aliveness to the woods. But my heart sagged again as soon as I thought, oh, this is too early for them, they shouldn’t be here yet, will they have enough to eat? When birds migrate too soon, they can get to their summer homes before the preparation is complete; if the right plants haven’t yet flowered enough to bring in the right bugs, there may not be enough food in the cupboards.

* * * * *

Our world is inexorably changing, and the natural patterns that have sustained our spirits like the apple’s sap are getting pruned and tossed aside, destined for the compost heap of human history. How can we ethically find beauty in these signs of environmental changes that are costing so much in fruit foregone, birds hungry, species lost? Dare I delight in that warbler, early though she is, even though she shouldn’t be here yet? How about in the Barred Owl who hoots in the wetland near my home, sharing a little nachtmusik while he outhunts the smaller, shyer native owls hanging on in the city for dear life?

Barred Owl stretches foot and wings

Barred Owl stretches foot and wings

In our desperate passion to salvage as much of the earth’s natural heritage as possible while we peer over our shoulders at the abyss of extinction, we environmentalists can be pretty righteous, both toward nonbelievers and toward each other. We’re not supposed to love invasive species, even if they do have lovely big brown eyes and sweet round owly faces; we’re supposed to tsk-tsk at the early warbler who’s yet another clue to doom.

What our minds know asserts privilege over what we see with our eyes and feel with our hearts. Our awareness of the unfolding tragedy of climate change and other human-caused catastrophes, whose devastation is sweeping inexorably past our feeble protests like an Indonesian tsunami through palm fronds, instructs us to be rigorous in our disapproval of inappropriate species, to turn our faces from the evanescent beauties of our contemporary days, to scold the Western Tiger Swallowtail for its temerity in foraging on—heaven forfend—a Buddleia. Of course I’d rather see the swallowtail nectaring on a native thistle, but look! There it is in all its glowing stripy glory, brilliant yellow and black against those soft pink-purple blossoms! I submit, letting it go ahead and fill my depleted beauty-reservoir.

Western Tiger Swallowtail aiming for Buddleia

As we strive to be good enough, self-disciplined enough, sustainable enough, wise enough to redeem a few centuries—nay, millennia—of human environmental shortsightedness, whom, then, are we to love: only those select native organisms who’ve evolved with enough gumption to make it among us? And where shall we allow ourselves to find beauty? In only the purest species, at whom we wave our tear-drenched handkerchiefs as the train of anthropocentric destruction bears them away into fossilhood, condemning ourselves to noble loneliness rather than open our hearts to new companions stained by a bit of sin?

Or shall we allow ourselves affection for our everyday neighbors, the impure, unchaste, complex, beautiful ones who may nectar at the wrong plants, run their gasoline-powered leafblowers on an otherwise peaceful Saturday afternoon, vote the wrong way, stumble a bit trying to make their way along their paths? Keeping only the company of the impeccable, the righteous, condemns us to desolate isolation. And to self-hate—for which is the most invasive, damaging species on the planet?

Cut off from the sustenance in which we were once rooted, we bloom in our too-soon dying, invite absurd pollination, dine with sinners, hold onto the strange beauty in the aging, wrinkled, sublime face of the only world we’ve ever known. You have to love the earth you have, the people you have, love them until death do you part and beyond, for as long as your one wild and precious life may last.

Orange-crowned Warbler

Orange-crowned Warbler

Eyes on the Sparrow

A heartbreaking image of a swallow with seared wings is what initially scared me away from Rebecca Solnit’s important recent essay in the New York Times Magazine. But Rob insisted rightly that I needed to read it, so I finally prepared my all-too-sensitive eyes and mind to get through painful descriptions of bird tragedies.

Solnit argues forcefully that to deal successfully with our contemporary climate crisis, we need to reinvent not only how we extract energy (and, I would add, our desire for it), but how we tell stories about our time. She is right.

We do need to tell stories, ones that work, about the profound costs to wildlife of how we’ve chosen to live in our places, how we choose every day to extract our lifestyles’ materials from the interdependent Earth.

One of the clearest days of the year in Datong, China

Smog on one of the clearest days of the year in Datong, China

Solnit acknowledges that understanding these interactions requires the tools of the scientist: vast amounts of quantitative data, global statistics, complex graphs. Finding ways to translate all this voluminous systemic information into compelling stories is both difficult and essential.

To do this well, she says, “you have to look past what can be photographed — individual cases, incidents in the past — at the broad patterns.” She insists that we must “see past the death of a sparrow or a swallow to the systems of survival for whole species and the nature of the planet we leave to the future.”

And that’s where we part ways.

We contemporary humans are already pretty good, I think, at looking past the lives of individual creatures. We’ve lost so much of our ability to “pray attention,” as I’ve written elsewhere, to our urban animal neighbors and the other wild creatures of sky and forest and sea. Children often know more facts about global warming (and, my Facebook feed tells me, commercial brand names) than they do species names of birds in their back yards.

How can we continue to care about our effects on wildlife, and to teach our children to care, if we don’t honor our personal heart-response to individual sparrows, owls, hawks?

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Young Barred Owl calling to parent for food

Young Barred Owl calling to parent for food

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

In our quest to heal our global environment for our sake and for our animal companions, we must hold for dear life—literally—to our connection to local nature. Following Solnit’s call to “see past” a dying sparrow, we run the risk of insulating our hearts from breaking. But it is our beating hearts’ fragility in the face of a hurt creature that supplies our lifeblood with passion. And we need that fervor: it’s hard work to understand the natural system that supports the creatures we love, and we need all the soul-sustenance we can get.

Black-capped Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee

Solnit claims that “the stories about individual birds can distract us from the slow-motion calamity that will eventually threaten every bird.” No. It’s these stories that honor intimacy, that pierce to our core, that impel us to take action on behalf of love.

By keeping our eyes on the sparrow (as someone with a much greater reputation than either Solnit or I is reputed to be doing), we can look with our bird rather than past him to develop a vision for healing our shared world. And maybe that will give our sparrow a little more to sing about, and a more whole place in which to sing.

Song Sparrow in full voice

Song Sparrow in full voice

Feast of Fogamar

Fogamar, “of wind and abundance,” Old Irish for this season we call autumn. It’s the perfect word for our annual shift from daylong predictable sunlight to those interesting grays and shifting breezes, and the occasional convergence zone with its furious rains and towering charcoal cumuli.

Convergence-zone rain over Puget Sound

Convergence-zone rain over Puget Sound

When we first met our new home a few months ago, the air was lilac-laden, dizzying in its sweetness. The blooms were fading by the time we moved in at the beginning of August, and by a couple of weeks ago the tall shrubs were looking pretty bedraggled, with shriveled brown seedheads sticking above the brown-edged green leaves.

But oh, they are beloved by the birds.House Finch eating lilac seed

Anna’s and Rufous Hummingbirds, Chestnut-backed and Black-capped Chickadees, the tiny chattery Bushtits bring the fading lilacs to fluttery, feisty life. The lilacs are even graced with the occasional flycatcher visit.

Dancing Anna's Hummingbird on lilac seedhead

Dancing Anna’s Hummingbird on lilac seedhead

Pacific-slope Flycatcher on lilac

Pacific-slope Flycatcher on lilac

* * * * *

Near the lilac hedge, a wrinkled old apple tree still grows, its cambium nobly gnarled and eroded, moss-laden, scarred.

Apple tree and lilacs

Apple tree and lilacs

2014-10-2_0005-Gnarled cambium of apple tree-TT

As August inexorably turned into autumn, I was startled to see the abundance of the ancient tree’s apples. Once they reddened, I tentatively bit into one, anticipating the sour taste of  crabapples plucked from other yards in other years.

It was delicious. Firm, crunchy, flavorful, the fruit of a mature lady who knows what she’s doing.

* * * * *

Native Americans who lived here enjoyed the native Pacific crabapples that thrived in our moist lowlands, preserving the fruits with water and oil in boxes made of our abundant Western Redcedar, their flavor growing richer through the hard months. Although historical evidence is scant, early Seattle was probably replete with orchards planted by newcomers of European ancestry, including Wilhelmina (Minna) Piper of the Hanover region of Germany, shown here with her daughter in Piper’s Creek Orchard, North Seattle.

Minna Piper, on left. Undated photo (click for Seattle Times publication info).

Minna Piper, on left. Undated photo (click here for Seattle Times publication info).

Minna and her husband Andrew (a Bavarian confectioner, artist, and early Socialist member of the Seattle City Council) planted many types of apples, including the now-rare Bietigheimer variety. Amazingly, some of their original trees, planted after Seattle’s Great Fire in 1889, still grow in the orchard. Could my elderly apple tree, dwelling in autumnal peace near the lilac hedge, be as old?

I like to imagine that in my tree’s heartwood, her strong inner core that supports all the living energy coursing through the enveloping sapwood, she still carries fibrous memories of her sprighood on the slopes of this pretty little valley near Puget Sound.

Days of Fogamar will fade into winter as the old apple tree prepares her blossoms for next spring’s bees, spending the darkening days in quiet companionship with her lilac friends. To every life there are seasons; yesterday’s sprig has in the mysterious moment of time become today’s Cailleach, old woman, bringer of winter. My apple-tree surely cannot last many more years, as I surely have left only a few evanescent decades. But in time’s cedarwood box, her fruit’s flavor has surely gained depth, dimension, a richness unimaginable in her first bearings.

* * * * *

There’s one apple left on the tree now, suspended above the earth by a slender, lichen-laden twig.

The last apple.

The last apple.

Shall I pluck it to eat, or leave it to reach its final ripening, letting it fall to feed my little ground-foraging birds? I envision gray-haired Eve, her face wrinkled with the love-lines of a life in Eden, calling to her beloved to show him the gnarled, ancient tree she’s just discovered in a back corner of the garden.

Adam! Look and see! Here, it holds one fruit of exquisite beauty, a singular gift. It must be meant to complete our joy; it is offered so freely. I taste…ah! It is so sweet, so very sweet…

Summer’s Secret Stories

As I mentioned last time, it’s been a hard season for forest babies: no eaglet, no owlet, no bushtit-lets. After realizing this wouldn’t be the year for any of them, it took a while to recalibrate my attention toward the less conspicuous developments of spring nesting, those subtle clues to smaller dramas. On closer inspection, the Black-capped Chickadee hopping through the hawthornes turned out to be gleaning nutritious protein for its children, hidden somewhere in nearby shrubbery but peeping insistently for their forthcoming meal.

Black-capped Chickadee with grub

Black-capped Chickadee with grub

A few days later, as I walked along the beach, I noticed a Gray Squirrel at the edge of the forest, gathering flowers for a midday munch. Although I first thought they were dandelions, they’re more likely Common Catsear, whose milky sap is reported to contain lots of nutrients—and when I looked more closely with my binoculars, I saw that the squirrel was a lactating mother who surely needed that nutrition. I imagined a flock of squirrel babies back in the grass, peering through the green curtain as Mom worked her way along the tangled bank.

Squirrel with flower

Squirrel with flower

The slight shift of shadow under a leaf suggested someone hiding beneath:

Baby Dark-eyed Junco hides under dandelion, waiting for parent to return with food

Baby Dark-eyed Junco hides under dandelion,
waiting for parent to return with food

Then one afternoon, as I was in the central part of the forest watching the chickadees and song sparrows, the faint but persistent bleating sound ongoing in the background finally caught my attention. I followed it, threading my way through a thin forest trail—and look what I’d been missing all this time!

Pileated Woodpecker twins - two girls!

Pileated Woodpecker twins – two girls!

Pileated Woodpeckers, our largest woodpeckers, had built a nest and raised young almost to the point of fledging without my observing them. Early in the summer I’d noticed an adult Pileated Woodpecker working this well-excavated snag, and briefly checked it out another time or two, but I didn’t follow up; I figured it was just too rotten to make a good nest and that the woodpecker was using it for its bug banquet.

Now it was back to the nest snag every chance I got! I was fortunate that my friend, noted photographer and author Paul Bannick, could join me on several occasions at the nest, sharing his remarkable knowledge of woodpeckers’ lives.

Father Pileated Woodpecker arrives to feed daughters

Father Pileated Woodpecker arrives to feed nestlings

Father Pileated Woodpecker gets ready to feed his daughters

Father Pileated Woodpecker gets ready to feed his daughters

Pileated Woodpecker dad feeding daughter

Pileated Woodpecker dad preparing to feed daughter

Parent feeds nestling

Parent feeds nestling

(Although those photos both show the father woodpecker [note his red malar patch], the mother also feeds them.)

I hadn’t caught their whole childhood, but I knew it wouldn’t be long until the girls fledged. I could hear them tapping in the nest hole, practicing the skills of finding and extracting the ants and beetle larvae that make up most of their diet. One at a time, switching places every few minutes, the girls would “hang four” on the nest hole (two toes per foot on the hole’s lip, two toes behind as the anchor), leaning out to examine this huge new world. Which has flying bugs, imagine that!

Pileated girl checks out bug

Pileated girl checks out bug

Five days after I discovered the nest, I arrived midmorning to find it empty. Paul had said the young would be likely to fledge near dawn so they’d have the whole day to practice getting around the forest before it got too dark to fly. I knew I should get up and be at the nest before dawn to catch that first flight—and dear Gentle Reader, surely I would have, had sunrise come at some reasonable hour rather than 4:11 am—but I slept in and missed it.

What must it have been like, that first flight, for a girl who’d never even been able to fully stretch her wings out before then? This particular nest hole wasn’t that far up, maybe 8′, but this couple’s past nests were 20′ or higher in nearby trees. It’s pretty important that young woodpeckers get it right the first time. My fellow nature blogger Larry Hubbell, in his marvelous Union Bay Watch website, documented another young Pileated’s first scramble out of her Seattle-area nest: rather than winging it straight from the nest hole, she edged her way out, clinging to the bark for a while before taking that inaugural flight.

Now that the sisters are out of the nest, they’ll stay with their parents for a few weeks as they learn their way around the park, getting shown the juicy decaying trees, learning aerial navigation.

Pileated family (boy and girl, with father at bottom) Lincoln Park, West Seattle

2011 Pileated family (boy and girl, with father at bottom)
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

The nest hole won’t stay empty long. Because Pileated Woodpecker nest holes are so large, they provide homes for cavity nesters too big to fit in other holes: owls, ducks, even fishers and martens in other areas. I’m looking forward to seeing who moves in next.

In the meantime, the forest is still filled with smaller wonders. And, really—aren’t those enough?

Parent Dark-eyed Junco collects various prey for her young

Parent Dark-eyed Junco collects various prey for her young

The Fragile Season

Midspring was a time of astonishing busyness in the forest, with May Day full of singing and sprouting, building nests and tending the eggs of this year’s hope.

Female Bushtit parent flying from her nest to collect food

Female Bushtit parent flying from her nest to collect food

Then things got tough.

Bushtit nest destroyed

Bushtit nest destroyed

Predation

A predator took apart the Bushtit nest that had been so carefully constructed a month earlier. If you look closely at the image above, you might be able to make out a few blue feathers that reveal the likely culprit: a Steller’s Jay.

Potential perp

Potential perp

I was surprised to see eggs still in the nest. I later showed the photo to my natural-history students and asked what they thought had happened here; a couple of them proposed that the tiny Bushtit parents had valiantly fought off the Goliath predator, who fled before eating any of their precious eggs…but not before robbing the eggs of any chance of hatching.

A few days later, when I could finally get back into the park, I knelt on the forest floor below the nest and parted the buttercup leaves. There in the duff were the eggs, two broken, two apparently whole. Again: why had no lucky predator gobbled up these protein-rich delicacies? I lifted the eggs and shell fragments with the lightest touch I could muster. Yet one of the whole eggs broke, its shell crumbling under a whisper, dribbling its clear blood and fluid onto my palm. Using a leaf, I managed to get the last tiny egg whole into a crumpled tissue, along with the fragments, staining it slightly with the remaining traces of liquid; they’re in my freezer awaiting further investigation and appreciation.

2014-5-11-P1100422-Bushtit eggs in hand-Trileigh Tucker

Desolation

Five years ago, in 2009, we had the joy of watching a baby Barred Owl develop from fuzzdom to adulthood. (Click on image for photo collection.)

2009 - Baby Barred Owl in nest box

2009 – Baby Barred Owl in nest box

This year on April 27, perfectly on time for Barred Owl hatching, we found shell fragments beneath their nest box.

Barred Owl eggshell fragments near base of nest tree

Barred Owl eggshell fragments near base of nest tree

Oh, the excitement! The chances for the first baby Barred Owl since 2009 looked pretty good. We got lots of glimpses of the female in the nest, with her husband standing guard nearby.

Female Barred Owl in nest box

Female Barred Owl in nest box

In 2009, the first day I’d observed the baby owl peering over the edge of his nest box was May 15, so we forest fans were watching intently around that time for a fuzzy white head in the box opening.

By mid-May, we began seeing both owls together on nearby branches, meaning no incubation was happening; did that mean a hidden nestling might now be old enough be left alone? Look closely at this photo from May 18 (male on right, female on left) and see if you can find a clue:

Owl couple preening near nest box

Owl couple preening near nest box; male on right, female on left

Take a close look at the female’s lower breast—see the bare area where her feathers are sparse? This is a brood patch: an exposed area of flesh that many birds develop as they’re brooding, so that the eggs or chicks receive warmth directly through their mother’s skin, uninsulated by feathers. Seeing this gave me hope that the nest box held life.

But the next week, I watched at dusk as first one owl then the other left their preening branch and headed not for the box, but for the deep woods for evening hunting; the nest was now completely unguarded. Looks like our Barred Owl parents will have yet another childless year.

Desiccation

While the owl parents had been spending their days at the nest box, the forest had been drying up. As Earth’s tilt toward summer moves the Pacific Northwest out from the influence of the polar front, our trusty winter rain tapers off, and the one ephemeral stream in the park becomes a damp groove in the forest floor. By May 26, the diminishing rains had managed to fill only three small puddles in the entire 135-acre park.

These scarce freshwater ponds were in high demand. A pair of robins took bath after bath, while a series of other applicants pleaded for admission to the public pool. First in was a Spotted Towhee, who was allowed to bathe with the robins.

Robins and towhee bathe in one of last remaining puddles

Robins and towhee (background) bathe in one of last remaining puddles

After the towhee left, a Chestnut-backed Chickadee was turned away, then a Dark-eyed Junco tried to sneak in but gave up in the face of robin protest.

Two days later, the junco had managed to tiptoe back in while the robins were off somewhere.

Dark-eyed Junco finally gets a bath

Dark-eyed Junco sneaks a bath

But it turned out that robins weren’t the real competition that day.

A thirsty Barred Owl eyes the scene

Thirsty Barred Owl eyes the scene

The female Barred Owl was sitting uncharacteristically low in a tree overlooking the puddle, perhaps five feet above my head. She kept gazing longingly at the puddle. Every time she seemed about to descend to it, a dog came along the nearby path, or a passerby walked noisily through the scene, oblivious to our hand signals to shush and walk around. It was Memorial Day, so the park was unusually full of holiday activity. And of course the crows had figured out where the action was, so they were hanging around for the harrassment opportunities.

Finally she found a gap in the traffic: human, canine, corvid. She landed in the puddle, setting up a bow wave that would have knocked over any junco too dense or slow to escape.

Female owl lands in puddle—finally

Female owl lands in puddle—finally

The joy of wet feet!

2014-5-26_1412-Owl playing in puddleAlthough owls typically get sufficient moisture from their prey, I imagined that this expectant mother owl, sitting on her unhatched eggs far longer than she’d planned as she held onto hope, had begun to yearn for a drink or even a bath. Now she might finally have a chance to at least quench her thirst.

Twice, crows dive-bombed her back into the nearby trees. Then at last:

Barred Owl female finally gets a drink

Barred Owl female finally gets a drink.

After a few moments, crows swooped in again, scaring her off without a chance to bathe, but I felt better knowing she’d at least had a few sips of water. A few nights ago I heard both owls calling outside my window; they’re doing fine.

Predation, desolation, destruction: it’s been a hard season in the park. But there’s also plenty of good news and happy surprises, which I’ll share in the next Natural Presence. In the meantime, please be kind; you never know what a creature, or fellow human, may be facing.

* * * * *

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A Million Bird Miles: International Migratory Bird Day

(reposted with slight modifications from 2013)

“Congratulations – it’s a FOY!”

Janeanne, Mark, and I were peering last week through binoculars at a fuzzy blob on the top of a Western Hemlock on the other side of the little clearing. Janeanne, a far better spotter and diagnoser than I, called it: a Western Tanager. Since it was the first tanager any of us had seen this year, that made it a FOY (first of year), always very exciting.

Tanagers are lovely little birds, the males glowing yellow with an incandescent reddish head. So you’d think in our fifty-shades-of-green Pacific Northwest forest, they’d be easy to spot. But no: it turns out that these beautiful feather-people love to hang out in Pacific Madrones, whose peeling bark is a translucent brown-orange and whose aging leaves turn yellow and then deep orange. Perfect camouflage for a brilliantly-colored traveler.

Fortunately, in today’s fresh clear morning, an energetic tanager chose an east-facing Madrone to forage through, and I finally got my first-ever recognizable photos of one.

Western Tanager, Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Western Tanager
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

He was right on time. Here in the Upper Left-Hand Corner, our tanagers start arriving in late April and really increase in numbers after early May. (That is, according to our local birders’ listserv, Tweeters. I hardly ever see them until a really good birder like Janeanne or Mark points them out. Sigh.)

Western Tanager, Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Western Tanager
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

The Western Tanagers are presumably here in my neighborhood park to build their little cup nests on one of our abundant conifers and to snack on forest food. To do that, they fly all the way from Central America or Mexico, around 3000 miles.

Western Tanager Range Map
(From Fieldguide.mt.gov)

They’re not the only well-traveled spring arrivals in our woods. On April 28 I heard the FOY call of a Pacific-slope Flycatcher, and the warblers have been spreading through the trees for about the last ten days. (The two below visited today – check out the Lincoln Park Bird List for photos of several more warbler species.) While tanagers build their nests up pretty high in trees, warbler nests are soft weavings of soft moss and grass, hidden carefully near the ground.

Orange-crowned Warbler Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Orange-crowned Warbler
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Wilson's Warbler Near Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Wilson’s Warbler
Near Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Of course, it’s not just the migratory birds who’re building nests this time of year. A pair of Northern Flickers have been diligently working on their nest hole—

Northern Flicker pair greeting each other at nest hole Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Northern Flicker pair greeting each other at nest hole
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Northern Flicker excavating and cleaning her nest Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Northern Flicker excavating and cleaning her nest
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

—and if you’re quiet and attentive, you’ll notice lots of little birds preparing homes for themselves and their children.

Pine Siskin gathering nesting material Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Pine Siskin gathering nesting material
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

"A robin feathering her nest Has very little time to rest, While gathering her bits of twine and twig..."

“A robin feathering her nest
Has very little time to rest,
While gathering her bits of twine and twig…”

Hutton's Vireo gathering nest material Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Hutton’s Vireo gathering nest material
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

If we just consider the tanagers and the six warbler species who spend summer in our park, that’s 21,000 miles traveled by the seven species—times, oh, say, 50 birds per species in our area—gets us to over one million miles traveled by little birds in order to build their nests in our neighborhoods.

That’s a million bird-miles through storms, wind, mountains, hunger, thirst, massive weather systems–as well as navigating around lost habitat and other human-generated challenges. Of course, then they have to go back south at the end of the summer, bringing us to two million miles of travel.

All that effort, and it just takes one dog running through the shrubbery, or one group of people chatting as they push through a trail-free area, to disrupt the delicate nesting process that’s the culmination of weeks of effort, the future of that little family.

May 11, 2013 is International Migratory Bird Day. Celebrate the wonder of warblers, the thrill of tanagers, by taking a quiet moment to imagine the forest as a network of fragile hidden homes: cherished cradles that need and deserve our protection. Please check out Seattle Nature Alliance for more information and ideas about preserving our natural areas.

Happy Bird-Day to you!

Field Notes: Mid-spring on May Day

It’s May, it’s May, the lusty month of May!

Female American Robin with nest material Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Female American Robin
with nest material
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

This time of year, the park is alive with song, sun, and scavenging for just the right nesting setup. It’s often a team effort; as the robin above collected dry grass, her mate was on a nearby branch, seeeep-ing softly.

Male American Robin Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Male American Robin
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Robins’ approach to nest construction is within the broad category of assembling: taking biological or non-biological materials and putting them together in various ways to form a sturdy nest. More specifically, robins use an interlocking technique, piling sticks together, then weaving grass to make a soft bed for their eggs and later young.

But the real expert weavers in our woods are the Bushtits, those perfect tiny brown fuzzballs who work assiduously to weave a huge variety of forest materials—lichens, mosses, feathers, grass fibers, spider silk—into a long, flexible, snug place to raise children. This female Bushtit is just leaving her nest-under-construction after several minutes of interior decorating.

Female Bushtit (note golden eyes) leaving nest to fetch more building materials Lincoln Park, West Seattle, Spring 2014

Female Bushtit (note golden eyes)
leaving nest to fetch more building materials
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Prospective parents who aren’t weaving their nests are busy at excavations. For the past few weeks, chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Northern Flickers, and other cavity-nesters have been exploring various nest possibilities in the forest.

Black-capped Chickadee explores potential nest site in tree Lincoln Park, West Seattle Spring 2014

Black-capped Chickadee explores
potential nest site in tree
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Red-breasted Nuthatch at potential nest hole (hidden behind nuthatch) Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Red-breasted Nuthatch at potential nest hole (hidden behind nuthatch)
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Northern Flicker exploring nest hole Lincoln Park, West Seattle Spring 2014

Northern Flicker exploring nest hole
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Northern Flicker female at nest hole

Northern Flicker female at nest hole

Humans have provided some nice nesting opportunities near the park as well. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the Black-capped Chickadees who seem to have chosen this incredibly convenient-to-photograph nest hole—at human-eye level in the utility pole across the street—will keep at it. How great it would be to have a spring full of baby chickadees to follow!

Black-capped Chickadee excavating nest in utility pole (note claw marks below hole)

Black-capped Chickadee excavating nest in utility pole
(note claw marks below hole)

More secretive are our seasonal visitors, the warblers. I’ve never managed to find their nests in the park; I feel lucky enough just to occasionally get to see the actual bird, usually camouflaged perfectly in the foliation…

Orange-crowned Warbler on Oceanspray Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Orange-crowned Warbler on Oceanspray
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Black-throated Gray Warbler Lincoln Park, West Seattle Spring 2014

Black-throated Gray Warbler
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

We also have Yellow Warblers, Townsend’s Warblers, Wilson’s Warblers, and Yell0w-rumped Warblers, but so far this spring they’ve been too sneaky for me to get a good current-year photo to share with you.

The woods are full of secrets and surprises this time of year. It’s a time for new hope as buds burst into flowers and birds burst into music. Happy May Day!

It's May, it's May!

It’s May, it’s May!
(Spotted Towhee)

 

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Hooting, drumming, flights so fine…will you be my (bird) Valentine?

Love is in the air! It swoops in graceful dark-winged arcs across the drooping tips of Western Hemlocks, rings through the forest in resonant baritone duets. Love hammers its name on strong bare tree limbs. And just before 5AM in yesterday’s misty gray morning, love hooted lustily in the cedar outside my bedroom window.

How do I love thee? the birds ask. Let us count the ways. The woodpecker’s valentine is a drum, its message of affection delivered in staccato rapping on a firm branch or tree trunk—or, unfortunately for you if you happen to be a noise-intolerant human, on your metal gutters or chimney.

Northern Flicker pair on light pole

Northern Flicker pair on light pole, male in front

As Beethoven knew, an unsterbliche Geliebte, the Immortal Beloved, can inspire truly creative expression: here’s a Red-breasted Sapsucker who apparently hoped he’d get more bang for his buck with this particular drum. Hopefully his “Mein Engel, mein alles, mein Ich” felt the same way.

Red-breasted Sapsucker at fire alarm. Pack Forest, Washington.

Red-breasted Sapsucker at fire alarm.
Pack Forest, Washington.

Don Giovanni himself, calling under his tesoro‘s window, couldn’t generate a richer baritone love song than these Common Ravens, calling back and forth across my park yesterday and today as they soared over the trees.

Common Raven. Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Common Raven.
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Common Raven. Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Common Raven.
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Surely their dramatic flights, diving, chasing, calling, weren’t so much about Nevermore, but rather, How about sometime soon? Like many longtime lovers, this raven pair—who’ve been showing up briefly in my park about this time of year since 2009—might want that special date in that special place each year to remind themselves of just how wonderful each other is.

Or maybe it’s more your style to just sit quietly together on your porch swing.

Crow pair on swing Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Crow pair on swing
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

At the beginning of his career, Shakespeare was ridiculed as an “upstart crow.” Crows are probably still chuckling about this compliment to Shakespeare’s  intelligence and verbal expressiveness.

Quiet companionship is a lovely thing. But oh, the intimate joys of 5AM hooting! “Then nightly sings the staring owl/Tu-whit; tu-who, a merry note,” says Winter in Love’s Labour’s Lost. But my owls, beyond merry, didn’t stop at tu-whit, tu-who—they were outright calloohing and callaying in their frabjous joy. Ha-ha-ha-ha-hoo-hoo-heh-aHOO! Ha-ha-ha-ha-hoo-hoo-heh-aHOO! One Barred Owl belly-laughed while his partner trilled, then they moved around the cedar branches and went at it again and again. Titania, Queen of the Fairies, shares her forest with “The clamorous owl that nightly hoots,” but I think Shakespeare must have misheard her adjective: they’re cl-amorous.

Caught in a kiss! Barred Owls, Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Caught in a kiss!
Barred Owls, Lincoln Park, West Seattle

And finally, I have to share this wonderful painting by my gifted friend and fellow Antarctic aficionado, artist Kate Spencer. Instead of chocolate or flowers, Gentoo Penguins offer their sweethearts small rocks (often stolen from a neighbor’s nest)—almost as “forever” as diamonds.

Valentine's Day gift in the Deep South. Gentoo Penguins, painted by Kate Spencer (katespencer.com)

Valentine’s Day gift in the Deep South.
Gentoo Penguins, painted by Kate Spencer (katespencer.com)

Take your choice—hoot, drum, soar, sit, or give a rock—and go show someone you love them. Happy (belated) Valentine’s Day!

Field Notes: Jewel Worlds in Teaser Season

Every year in late January or early February, we seem to get a week or so of lovely weather: sunny skies, temperatures in the 50’s that lure us out into the forest or onto the beach. And every year I succumb to the hope that spring is really on its way early this year, that the abiding gray will give way to blue, that the scent of moist air will get its floral infusion in February instead of April.

Cliff Mass’s weather forecast assures me that teaser season will soon be over; we’re due for rain in a couple of days. If past years are a good guide, we’ll then likely be under mostly gray skies through early June.

Teaser season’s clear afternoons often follow foggy mornings, since overnight clear skies allow the air to cool enough so its moisture condenses to form droplets.

Fog breaks over Vashon Island, WA January 25, 2014

Fog breaks over Vashon Island, WA
January 25, 2014

So after yesterday’s morning fog began to clear, it felt good to get out for a while yesterday in the sunlit forest, and to look closely at the new life that’s expanding sneakily under the radar.

The hellebore in my Easter garden is in full bloom, its broad pink blossoms facing coyly downwards where it’s easy to overlook them from our towering human heights.

Hellebore blossom and buds

Hellebore blossom and buds

A strategically placed mirror reveals the veined exuberance hidden beneath that green veil:

Hellebore blossom from below

Hellebore blossom from below

But it was a budding witch hazel in my neighborhood park that wore worlds of jewels, each a minuscule aquarium bearing a forest within.

Witch hazel offers a necklaced bud

Witch hazel offers a tiny necklaced bud
(Bud is ~ 1/8″ in diameter)

Dewdrop garland on witch hazel

Dewdrop garland on witch hazel

Dewdrop suspended from witch hazel. Brown area at top of drop is the inverted image of the twig above.

Dewdrop suspended from witch hazel.
Brown area at top of drop is the inverted image of the twig above the drop.

Forest on a pedestal. (Image is inverted; dewdrop was suspended from a twig.)

Forest on a pedestal.
(Image is inverted; dewdrop was suspended from a twig.)

And in a celebratory finale, this miniature Disneyland castle sprouts exuberantly atop a fencepost.

Mold mycelium with sporangiophores (about 1/2" across)

Mold mycelium with sporangiophores
(about 1/2″ across)
(Click here for closeup of lower part.)

Happy teaser season! May your senses open wide to its worlds of wonder.

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