Category Archives: Birds

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.


Tundra and Trumpeter Swans | Flickr – Photo Sharing!


Tundra Swans & Trumpeter Swans

Tundra Swan (L) and Trumpeter Swan (R)

In the interest of improving my ID skills I’ve been studying these two nearly identical species. Both can be found in Washington in winter in large mixed groups, particularly in the Skagit Valley. I do see them in the Puyallup Valley regularly in smaller groups, but are often in locations that are distant from public rights of way (right of ways?).

The main difference between the species is size, with the Tundra Swan being a foot or more shorter from beak to tail. That can be difficult to discern in the field unless the birds are side by side in the same pose.

Another difference is the bills. Most Tundra Swans have at least a small yellow patch on their bill close to the eyes. The problem is that a significant number, ~10%, lack that feature. In addition, a small number of Trumpeter Swans have a similar light area on their bills.

I recently read a piece about how to identify these birds on David Sibley’s blog. Shape of the bill plays a big part in separating the two species. The biggest take away I got from his article is that the Tundra Swan’s eye is more defined because of the way the black of the bill narrows near its eyes. The Trumpeter’s eye appears to blend into the bill. I guess even more important is to look at the whole bird and note as many details as you can see.

But none of that can dampen the enjoyment of seeing such magnificent creatures in the wild.

Tundra and Trumpeter Swans | Flickr – Photo Sharing!.

Photo by Michael Brown


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.

Anger, Part II

In the paper this morning: “blobs of tar washed up at an Alabama beach full of swimmers… the ominous arrival of the sticky substance at Dauphin Island, Ala.”

It took longer than I expected, and I didn’t expect it to be the first landing spot, but there it is. Our friends on Dauphin Island have suffered the loss of one home (totally washed out to sea by Katrina), and severe damage to a second (flooded by Ivan) in hurricanes, now this. I can’t imagine it won’t get worse.

This photo, taken in April 2005 shows Mississippi Sound, which is between the island and the mainland. Right of center is an oil drilling platform. To the left of it near the center you may be able to make out the profile of a ship, probably an oil tanker. Flying in formation in the upper right corner are a half dozen Brown Pelicans, one of the species most impacted by DDT and removed from the endangered species list just last autumn.


John SherffiusI’m angry at British Petroleum. That iconic “BP” logo that I first noticed in movies and images of motor sports events is now nothing more than a symbol of corporate greed and irresponsibility. Human beings died, now wildlife is dying and our tax dollars go to work to clean up “Big Petroleum’s” mess. We don’t even know what the scope of this disaster will be.
Five years ago I stood on a beach on Dauphin Island, Alabama watching Northern Gannets diving far offshore into Mississippi Sound. You may have seen film of them on Discovery or PBS in the past. They start the dive high above the water. As they near the surface they fold back their wings, extend their necks, and plunge dagger-like into the water in pursuit of their prey. This occurs in large flocks and is a spectacular sight to see. There was a photo in the paper the other day of a worker cleaning the oil from the feathers of a Northern Gannet. Dauphin Island is directly north of the source of the spill. Enough said.

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.