Godwit Days Part II: Birding with Sibley

Just when you think birding life can’t get any better, you go on a trip with David Sibley.

Pay no attention to that shirt.

Pay no attention to that shirt.

He is just as awesome as you think. Son of Yale University ornithologist Fred Sibley, David began watching and drawing birds at age seven. He’s an author (of my favorite bird guide), illustrator, ornithologist, and a down-to-earth nice guy. His favorite birds to draw are warblers. I tried to keep my inner fan-girl in check. (squeee!)

Birding with Sibley

We birded the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary a.k.a. Arcata’s Wastewater Treatment Plant. It’s actually a pretty ingenious system. Part recreation, research, refuge, and part wastewater. Keeping it classy.

Arcata Marsh

The variety of sanctuary habitat is key for birds in this area: freshwater marshes, salt marsh, tidal sloughs, grassy uplands, mudflats, brackish marsh, ponds, etc. Shorebirds especially love it, but the first bird on this trip that caught our attention was the highly vocal Marsh Wren.

Marsh Wren

Sibley explained, though currently considered one species, Marsh Wren populations in the western U.S. are probably a separate species from the eastern populations because of the differences in songs (the eastern birds have about 50 “musical” songs, the western up to 200 “harsh” songs), and their slight variation of appearances.

We continued scanning the marsh and saw a White-tailed Kite, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and a spring of Green-winged Teal. One teal stood out to Sibley as an “intergrade” with both a vertical white bar of the American subspecies, and the horizontal white bar of the Eurasian subspecies.

Intergrade Teal

Half a lifer

In another pond were American Coot, Gadwall, Eared Grebe, and Lesser Scaup. One unusually light-colored scaup was identified as a leucistic female Lesser Scaup. “Leucistic” is partial loss of pigmentation (not to be confused with albinism, a total absence of melanin).

Leucistic Scaup (far left)

Leucistic scaup (far left), normal scaup (far right), Bufflehead in the middle

Apparently, odd-ball birds show up when Sibley is around.

He has a profound scientific understanding the natural world around him. We watched the Least Sandpipers at the edge of the pond, while he described how hormones determine the melanin differences between the birds’ feathers.

The bird on the far left has more greyish-whitish edges on its feathers (like winter plumage), and the others have more rufous color and black in the centers of the feathers (closer to breeding plumage), therefore with more breeding hormones. Swoon.

Least Sandpiper

And these birds are Long-billed Dowitchers (not Short-billed) because they are sitting in a freshwater, non-tidal, muddy-bottom lagoon.

DPP_779

Sibley-vision

Sibley-vision is no joke

After lunch near the end of the trip, we spent some time watching a pair of Red Crossbills before finally moving on to book signing and gushing.

So much cheese. Photo thanks to Lee Brown.

So much cheese. Thanks to Lee Brown for the photo.

Sibley Signing

Good birding!

Audrey

Seattle Part I: Reliable Redpolls

A couple of weeks ago, Jen invited me on a birding day trip to Seattle with her and her pups. How could I resist those faces?!

Jake and Ralph

To sweeten the deal, there were life-birds up for grabs. A flock of Common Redpolls was reportedly (reliably) camped out in the birch trees near Green Lake.  Redpolls typically winter in the northeastern portion of United States, so this rarity would be a treat.

Along the way, we checked in on an unusually large group of Redheads at Weyerhauser Pond, just north of Tacoma. My first new bird of the day!

Mostly Redhead

Redhead

We got closer looks of a couple of “brunettes” too.

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe

Lesser Scaup

Lesser Scaup

The morning temperatures started out chilly, but the forecast promised blue skies, warmth, and sunshine to come. Seattle graciously delivered.

Statues

The Olympics

Why can’t every day be like this?

A quick stop at Green Lake turned up empty for redpolls, so we drove farther north to Edmonds, Washington, with the intent on returning to the lake later in the day.

Edmonds has stellar views of the Olympic Mountains. And some pretty good looks of birds from the shore and from the pier too. Like another life bird for me, the Red-necked Grebe.

Red-necked Grebe

Red-necked Grebe

Some day I’d like to see grebes in their breeding plumage so they can really wow me. Speaking of wows, while walking along the pier we got the best looks ever of this Belted Kingfisher.

Belted Kingfisher

We inched closer.

Belted Kingfisher

I was in shock. I’m pretty sure my jaw was hanging open. Kingfishers usually spook easily, but this one paid us no mind. We watched as she darted in the water, grabbed a fish, and flew to a perch, where she then proceeded to furiously whack the fish repeatedly on a pole.

Belted fish-basher

Belted “Fish-basher”

Here’s a video of nature’s awesome brutality.

The clang of the fish on the pole was oddly disturbing…and funny at the same time. One of the most hilarious birding encounters I’ve had, and I’m happy it was a shared experience.

Jen and the mutts

From the pier, we saw Surf Scoters scooting along in the waters below. What a great look at that bizarre bill.

Surf Scoter

Surf Scoter

There were other tame birds in the pier waters, like this Horned Grebe.

Horned Grebe

And at one point, we watched a Common Goldeneye fight a crustacean that was no match for this diving diva, and she devoured it no problem.

Common Goldeneye

Common Goldeneye

What a great spot! Offshore, we caught sight of a bird in the same family as Puffins (Alcidae), the Pigeon Guillemot.

Pigeon Guillemot

Also present were Pelagic Cormorants, Red-breasted Merganser, Great Blue Heron, Western Gulls, and the cuddliest harbor seal.

Jen spotted a group of Brant flying by that I barely saw, but luckily got better looks of later at a viewpoint along Sunset Ave. This dignified goose earned the title of third life bird of the day for me.

Brant

Brant

Quality time was spent at Edmonds, but target birds remained on the list. On route back to Green Lake, we made a quick detour to Discovery Park, to find a Hutton’s Vireo, another lifer for me! No pictures of the vireo (that looks like a Ruby-crowned Kinglet), but I did get a recording of its distinctive song, “zu-wee, zu-wee, zu-wee“, before it dive-bombed us and hid back in the shrubbery. Pretty cool.

By this time we were losing daylight and quickly made our way back to Green Lake for another try at redpolls.

Reliable coots

Reliable coots

Share the path for wigeon

Share the path for wigeon crossing

We found plenty of ducks, geese, people, dogs, and even people who had *seen* the redpolls, “they were right there on those birch, yesterday!” Unfortunately though, after two visits and trekking the entire 2.8 miles around the lake, we lost the bet and “dipped” on the redpolls. Redpolls 1; Us 0.

Birding is humbling, challenging, and rewarding all wrapped up in one fun-feathered package. Despite the redpolls, I had a blast and would do it all over again.

“What is life if not a gamble? – F. E. Higgins

Tweets and chirps,
Audrey

Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden III

I’m taking a duck class! Thanks to Audubon, I have access to expert guidance to learn about birds. It’s incredibly rewarding to learn what to focus my attention on when in the field. Learning field marks is the key to telling all those bunches of feathers apart from one another.

It was a sunny field trip to Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden.

Duck Class

I’ve learned about a new domestic duck, the Call Duck. Call ducks were originally called Coy or Decoy Ducks from the Dutch word de kooi meaning ‘trap.’ And that’s precisely what they were used for. Hunters would set out Call Ducks to lure target birds then funnel them in to their demise. According to Wiki, the use of Call Ducks in the U.S. for hunting was permanently banned in 1935 because it resulted in over-harvest. Now, Call Ducks are primarily pets or exhibition birds or ‘traps’ for beginner birders who think they’re mallards.

The variety at CSRG look like mini-mallards.

Call Duck

Not the greatest comparison-photo below, but check out the difference in bill size. The Mallard on the left’s bill is much larger than the Call Duck’s bill (bottom-center). Update: Thanks to Laura’s keen eye, the left mallard has been identified as a possible hybrid due to the lack of typical brown chest, so I attached the original photo to include a true mallard in the upper right corner. So now there’s three different “mallards”! Duck madness!

The sunny day at the park brought out the iridescence in many of the birds.

Male Wood Duck

Male Wood Duck

Female Wood Duck

Female Wood Duck

Bufflehead

Male and Female Bufflehead

Female Wood Duck

Female Wood Duck

Double-crested Cormorant

Double-crested Cormorant

Look at the size of those Carp!

Look at the size of those Carp!

Male Lesser Scaup

Male Lesser Scaup

Female Lesser Scaup

Female Lesser Scaup

My buddy the Hybrid Canada Goose

My buddy the Hybrid Canada Goose

These pictures of the Red-winged Blackbird are my favorite of the day.

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

It reminds me of my first picture of a Red-winged Blackbird this year at Whitaker Ponds. What is that fuzzy dark bird shape? Thank goodness for the new camera.

Red-winged Blackbird

A nice surprise flew over our heads at the gardens. Eventually we caught a visual of the Green Heron across Crystal Springs Lake! A new bird for me (#90!).

Green Heron

Green Heron

Thus ends another glorious visit to the Rhododendron Gardens.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey