Category Archives: Wildlife

Bald Eagle Recovery a Reason for Optimism

I will never forget the first time I saw a Bald Eagle. I was twelve years old and on a family camping trip to Deception Pass State Park. My Dad and I, and perhaps my sister Barb, had hiked to the top of Goose Rock. Not a long or difficult hike, Goose Rock provides territorial views of Deception Pass, the San Juan Islands, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, mountains, and more.

At the top we saw a large, brown bird soaring over the pass. My Dad identified it as a juvenile Bald Eagle. I was in awe. I watched it for what seemed like hours, as it soared near and far, in overlapping circles, not once flapping its wings.

This was a big moment for me. First Bald Eagle of my life, not for lack of looking, but because their numbers had declined so precipitously in prior decades.

DDT, a major factor in the shrinking population, was still a few years from being banned.

The good news is Bald Eagles seem almost common now. I believe that on any given day I could find one within a half hour of my home if I set out to do so. Within the past couple of years I had six circling over my house as they moved slowly from west to east. A few years back I missed by a day or two  a congregation of close to a hundred at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.

This success story points out why government needs to keep a firm hand on what businesses can and cannot do. Had DDT been left on the market, we would likely see no Bald Eagles in the continental U.S. They would likely be restricted to northern Canada and Alaska. But that’s not all. Peregrine Falcons, Brown Pelicans, and Ospreys may have disappeared from the contiguous states as well. And California Condors, to this day struggling to rebuild a viable population, may have vanished from the face of the Earth.

The Bald Eagle is now a symbol of hope.


Shared moment with a stranger

Just a little while ago in downtown Puyallup I thought I heard geese flying overhead. I started looking for them, and eventually spotted them, probably a thousand feet above. I estimate 2-3 dozen Cackling Geese in the classic formation.

At that moment, another guy passed the other way and said, “I hear them!” I pointed them out, and he responded, “Oh yeah!”

For the unacquainted, Cackling Geese used to be considered to be a sub-species or race of Canada Geese. They were split off into a separate species at some point. Superficially, they appear the same, but they are significantly smaller, with somewhat different coloration, relatively shorter bill and neck.

A few years back I wrote about Cackling Geese and posted a photo I took. The photo shows both Cackling and Canada Geese for a good comparison.

Birds galore as the solstice approaches

Over the past several days our yard and neighborhood have been rich with a variety of birds. Many of the birds seem to be finding relatively natural sources of food. I currently only have one hummingbird feeder and a suet feeder stocked.

Among the birds I’ve seen include many Dark-eyed Juncos and American Robins, roving flocks of Bushtits, a few American Goldfinches and Pine Siskins, and a couple of Western Scrub Jays.

The Goldfinches and Juncos seem to be interested in seeds from last summer’s flowers. At least one Robin was gleaning berries from a juniper. The Bushtits work the trees and shrubs and mob the suet feeder. Two or more Anna’s Hummingbirds jockey for control of the feeder.

Early lunch for a Red-tailed Hawk

I had a little extra time this morning and took my camera and binoculars out looking for Trumpeter Swans. We often have a few in the valley this time of year, but it’s hit or miss. I drove out along Pioneer Way, River Road, Stewart, 66th Avenue, and Gay Road. I was striking out early, but chanced upon a Red-tailed Hawk fairly low in a tree along Gay Road. It stayed put when I stopped and rolled down the window.

As I got my camera up and ready, I noticed it was eating something. I started snapping a few pictures and noticed that part of the hawk’s meal was dangling from the branch. I focused on that and saw that it was a fish head! Then I saw the tail on the other side of the branch attached to a spine that had been picked pretty clean.

I’ve never heard that Red-tails are adept fishers, but maybe they are. More likely though is it found a carcass that had been abandoned and took it to a nearby tree for an easy meal.

Red-tailed Hawk with fish carcass

After attracting the attention of a nervous resident in an Army Ranger jacket, I decided to move on rather than tempt fate.

Continuing back onto River Road then back over to Pioneer, I noticed a group of large white birds in the distance from 52nd Street. With my binoculars I confirmed a flock of about twenty swans too distant to photograph or sort out species, but I would guess the majority would be Trumpeters. Like in past years, they congregated near the railroad tracks that parallel Pioneer. The elevated road bed for the tracks make it so they are not visible along most of Pioneer, and where they are visible it is only a peek-a-boo view.

I drove back onto 66th, and stopped at the Pierce Conservation District office. I asked if they had a view of the field in question. Mike Baden of the PCD accompanied me out to the back of the facility and told me the extent of their property. He then left me to it and I proceeded to walk along a fence row hoping to find an open view. Once again I got just peek-a-boo views of the swans, and finally had to turn around as the soil in the field got softer and softer. Shoulda worn boots!

Popcorn birds

Fridays at schools around the nation is “munchies” day. PTA volunteers sell popcorn, pepperoni sticks, and other snacks at recess time.

Some years ago at my previous school I noticed that Fridays were also the day we would have swarms of gulls and crows on the playground. I put two and two together. Popcorn is a very drop-able snack. Gulls and crows are both opportunistic omnivores. Same thing happens at my current school.

During recess they circle the playground looking for the opportunity to quickly grab and go. But when the playground clears, the banquet really begins. Other than the occasional squabble over a plump piece of popcorn, the living is easy.

Gulls begin to circle at recess

Bird brains? I don’t think we give them enough credit.


Twenty-two years ago the United States was in the middle of a debate over flag burning. Congress had approved the Flag Protection Act of 1989. Literally the minute it took effect on October 28, 1989, opponents challenged it by publically burning flags.

People were arrested and charged, but ultimately charges were dropped because the law had been declared unconstitutional. In the ensuing years, more public acts of flag desecration were carried out. Organizations such as the American Legion protested some of these acts, including an art exhibit called What is the Proper Way to Display the U.S. Flag? at the Phoenix Art Museum.

Some people reacted violently to these acts. A number of states even tried to pass laws making the penalty for assault negligible if the victim was in the act of flag desecration. These were referred to as “beat up a flag burner laws.”

At the same time this was happening, crews were cleaning up spilled petroleum in Prince William Sound. Countless animals had died as a result of the Exxon Valdez being introduced to Bligh Reef by its captain. Among them were at least 250 Bald Eagles, America’s other symbol of national pride.

Yet there was no patriotic outrage about this desecration. The people who showed the greatest concern for the deaths of these living symbols were not those screaming bloody murder about flag burners. Nobody introduced laws making assault of careless ship captains worry-free.

Maybe it’s because we all know we are guilty of causing the devastation in Prince William Sound. Our consumption of petroleum continues to be insatiable. Although there is new-found interest in alternative forms of energy, those entrenched in the oil business have motivation to keep it on top, and will doubtless do all they can to keep it that way.

I consider myself a patriot. As an Army brat and former Boy Scout, I learned about flag ettiquette and practice it to this day. We display our flag on national holidays, but not in the rain or at night. We don’t allow the flag to touch the ground. When our flag becomes too soiled and tattered to display, we will send it to an organization which will destroy the flag in a dignified manner.

I am also a lover of wildlife, particularly birds. The images of dead and dying wildlife, particularly Bald Eagles, in Prince William Sound brought tears to my eyes. I still cannot understand how this tragedy did not motivate patriots to do something big about our thirst for petroleum.

There’s no time like the present, Americans.

Using the Sandbox

This morning I saw a cat using the sandbox, and by sandbox I don’t mean litter box. In a neighbor’s yard is a child’s sandbox and in the child’s sandbox was a cat. The cat was scratching in the sand, and you know what that means: Little gifts awaiting the children who play in that sandbox. This is not an isolated incident. Cats find these play areas to have perfect conditions for their potty needs.

Other perfect kitty commodes include flower beds, vegetable patches, and garden paths, but that doesn’t end the opportunities for cats to do damage to your property. Young trees and fence posts make wonderful scratching posts. Your car’s tires are a perfect target for their spray, not to mention the paint!

I gotta tell ya’, there’s nothing quite like weeding the garden and unexpectedly grabbing a fistful of cat crap. There is also nothing like the “magnificence” of watching a well-fed, pampered, healthy feline stalking its feathered prey, pouncing on it, then tormenting it for twenty minutes or so until it finally, mercifully, and needlessly, dies.

Of course, there are controls for wandering cats. They’re called coyotes, stray dogs, busy streets, leaking antifreeze, cat hating humans in three ton vehicles, and occasionally, large raptors. When I was in third grade, I visited a classmate’s farm and saw the damage done by a barn owl. Several dead kittens were scattered around the property in various states of wholeness. I was horrified to see one with its eye hanging out of its socket. That image is still pretty vivid 45 years later.

None of this is necessary. If you love your cat, keep it indoors. Build it an enclosure if you must let it go outside, or leash train it. I’ve seen it done.

Horned Grebe at Marine Park in Tacoma

Horned Grebe
Originally uploaded by M.B.Brown

It was a gray Sunday, but a pair of very cooperative Horned Grebes led to this photo. The two were foraging fairly close together. One had started its transition to breeding plumage, this one still in winter plumage.

As I was leaving, a yellow lab drove them farther out from shore as it swam toward them. I don’t know what the rules are at Marine Park, but I suspect it’s not meant to be an off-leash area!

Hummers Are Back

Last August while our house was being painted I took down my two hummingbird feeders. Just recently, I cleaned one of them in preparation for putting it back out, but was in no hurry, since it had already been a long time waiting.

Today, while working in the kitchen, I caught a glimpse of a hummingbird through a steam covered window. It was checking out one of my seed feeders, which is painted bright red. I instantly started brewing some nectar to put out in one of my feeders. After allowing it to cool down a bit, I put the nectar in the feeder and hung it up. Within one minute, there were two hummers using the feeder!

Wildlife First

In recent weeks there have been two stories in the papers about wildlife threats to pets. One was local, the other from another part of the country. The wildlife in one story was coyotes, in the other, raccoons. In both stories, family pets had been killed and badly wounded in encounters with these animals. In both stories there was much hand-wringing about how to protect pets and children from marauding predators.

I have a plan for people concerned about the safety of family and beloved household companions. First, do not let your small children or pets outside unsupervised. Never allow pets to just roam the neighborhood. Second, do not leave food for pets outside. It will attract the aforementioned animals, not to mention rats, opossums, et al. Third, keep your garbage in a tightly closed container in a secure location. Fourth, if you feed birds, set your feeders up in such a way as to be inaccessible to undesirable wildlife. There are many clever devices on the market to assist you. Clean up beneath your feeders regularly.

As to my first point, it is especially common for cats to be allowed to roam. There are many problems with this. Not only are cats easy prey for predatory wildlife, if they happen upon a cat-hating dog the result could be the same. A fight with another cat can end badly as well. How often have you seen a dead cat by the side of the road? I don’t think many of them died from natural causes. Also, I hope you keep your cuddly kitty up to date on vaccinations for those random encounters with other domestic felines, or worse, feral cats.

So far, I’ve only mentioned the dangers to cats roaming, but there are other problems. About twenty years ago I acquired a beautiful male grey tabby cat. He was a stray, brought home by my then roommate. At the time he was my only model for cat care, and he always let his cats roam. So I let Billy roam. I thought, “This is great! He barely ever uses the litter box.” What I didn’t really think about was what he wasusing. The neighbor’s flower bed, or a child’s sandbox for example. I imagine he found all sorts of wonderful scratching posts around the neighborhood as well. Years later, when a landlord told me Billy would need to be kept inside, I was unhappy about the inconvenience, but I eventually learned that it was for his own welfare, and I had been selfish by letting him roam free. A smart veterinarian would tell you the same thing.

Then there is the damage they do to native songbirds and small mammals, such as rabbits and squirrels. Domestic cats stalk these animals not because they need to eat, but because it is their instinct to do so. So, well fed, pampered pets hunt down and kill wild birds that are just trying to survive and feed their young. Millions of them die this way every year.

Many communities already have laws about roaming animals. They just aren’t always applied to cats. Here is part of the law in my town:

8.12.020 Impounding authority – Care.

It is unlawful for the owner or person having control or custody of any dog, cat, or other animal to allow such dog, cat, or other animal to enter or trespass upon private property without the express permission of the owner or caretaker of such property. Any such dog, cat or other animal may be seized and impounded. (Ord. 2463 § 1, 1995; Ord. 293 § 3, 1904)

In the end I have just this to say: Take care of your pets. Be responsible and protect them. I will feel sorry if I hear that your dog or cat died in some horrible and unnecessary way, but you, the pet owner, will get little sympathy from me.