2birdfeature #6

20130812-DSCN1905 One of these things is not like the others. And it doesn't care. Even as a more solitary bird, it seems as if the Double-crested Cormorant might like the company of an entire colony of Glaucous-winged Gulls. I saw a few cormorants during my time on the island but this little character was on the dock the day before I left the island for good. So I remember him fondly.

Most of the time when you see cormorants they are fishing or drying out in the sun in their characteristic horror movie stance. Cormorants lack a uropygial gland. This is the gland that produces the oil that birds preen into their feathers rendering them waterproof. It's odd that a water bird like a cormorant wouldn't have this gland but there you have it. In order to dry after swimming and diving, cormorants generally perch in trees or on rocks where the sunshine is plentiful. But to make the process go a bit faster, they spread their wings and stretch their necks forward.

Imagine an entire tree full of large black birds holding their wings out like a dozen grim reapers. Unsettling.

This fellow was doing something entirely different. He was watching the gulls with great interest and then jumping up and down on the horn cleats of the dock (that metal thing you tie your boat off to). An easily amused bird for an easily amused birder.

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Our second and final bird of the 2birdfeature posts will be this guy:

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The Cassin's Finch is a near threatened bird that lives in western North America. Prior to 1996, this bird was one of the more numerous finch species but it is now estimated that only 2 million remain. Lack in availability of nest sites is one reason for the decline but the species also struggles with male to female ratio. It seems that the natural balance tends to shift toward many more males than females which is problematic for obvious reasons.

If you're looking for Cassin's Finches, look toward the top of conifer trees in montane and subalpine forests. And listen for a call that sounds like "giddy-up". Finches are also famous for mocking other birds' calls so good luck to you there.

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I hope you've enjoyed the 2birdfeatures! Stop by this weekend for Glaucous-winged Gulls. I know what you're thinking. They're just a bunch of seagulls.

Think again.

Let's talk about songbirds

Last night in a meeting with my M.Sc. supervisor we had a look at the new Handbook of the Birds of the World illustrated checklist--which is stimulating for people who are obsessed with birds. He bought the non-passerine version (the one without any songbirds in it; think chickens, herons, kiwis, boobies, anything that cannot be considered a little dickie bird). As we flipped through it marveling at the number of chachalaca species extant in our world, I was quick to dismiss songbirds saying that they weren't nearly as interesting as owls or flamingos. A dime a dozen. Take a tiny bird, add a bunch of different color swatch possibilities and there you have it. But I don't really think that, of course. Songbirds are immensely diverse. I'd like to say that they have a plethora of life history methods but what does life history really mean? Life history is a combination of these essential events: mating, chick rearing, nesting habitat (both physical and social), diet, predator/prey interaction, etc. There's a lot of work that goes into living wild. Protection Island was flush with songbirds.

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The poles at the ends of the floating dock in the marina were equipped with nests made from pipe meant for the resident population of Purple Martins. More Tree Swallows than martins nest in them but both species are present.

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Here's a Tree Swallow. You'll notice that the nests have pieces of wire protruding from their tops; this is to discourage Glaucous-winged Gulls from landing atop the structures and covering them with guano. The wire works in theory.

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This is a female Purple Martin preening in the sunshine. It was difficult to get a photo of a male. They are iridescent flashes of lightning coming to and from the nest. Below is a pair of martins.

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The male looks black here but indeed he is bluish-purple, especially in the ultraviolet light spectrum which our eyes cannot see.

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This is the only sub par photograph I have that somewhat shows the luster of the male Purple Martin's plumage. Notice the purplish head in contrast with the oily black breast and belly. This species prefers to nest near water (and humans) if possible and eats mostly ants and wasps. The dirt road running from the marina, up the hill to the island's plateau top is aerated with thousands of tiny holes that ground wasps call home. These wasps are probably a staple in the martins' diet. Every year the martins leave the island during migration which ultimately ends in Bolivia or Brazil.

While we're on the topic of swallows and martins, I also had some Barn Swallow neighbors during my stay at the old house on the island.

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This nest might look ugly but it is a perfect, thermoregulated, laboriously constructed home for 2 adults and 4-5 nestlings. All of those bumps on the nest are individual mud pellets that were mixed with horse hair or dry grass while wet to give the fortress some staying power. The process of mixing and placing mud pellets one by one takes 7 - 10 days and then the female swallow will line the nest with feathers for warmth. As the nestlings grow, she takes the feathers back out so that her chicks aren't overheated. The average lifespan for one of these nests is 12 years but they've been known to stick around for up to 48.

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I was lucky to be on the island long enough to see the little darlings fledge the nest. Above is the first chick to fledge.

Check back soon for more on the songbirds of Protection Island!

Kisses (continuous biting) from a seabird

I thought you might enjoy seeing a Rhinoceros Auklet chick in action (one of my study species for my masters). Especially one that bites me a lot. This chick was nearing about a month old. I weighed and measured all of my selected nestlings every other day on the island and this is what a typical session looked like (albeit much shorter without the petting and chit-chat seen here). To answer a few of your questions...

Yes, I'm on a cliff face.

Yes, that is the gorgeous Pacific Ocean behind me just after sunrise.

No, the chick is not seizing for part of the video.

And yeah, I'm awkward. Old news.

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Bald Eagle: Dream Destroyer

I hate to break it to you friends, but that white-headed, dark bodied wing-ed warrior that you vow your patriotism to is not at all what you think she (or he) is. I've given the obsession over Bald Eagles much thought. I have seen them romanticized, the things of paintings and bronze sculptures. I have seen people tear up at rodeos as the image of an eagle is projected, soaring, on to the dirt of the arena. I saw a woman completely lose her cool as a child slowly bent to pick up an eagle feather on the grass. **First of all, let's make something clear. It IS illegal to keep feathers or other parts of Bald Eagles unless you are from a recognized Native American tribe as stated by the International Migratory Bird Treaty Act. But this is ME telling YOU to pick up the eagle feather and examine it. Do it. I am not denouncing the fact that the bird is a 14-pound killing machine on wings with talons long enough to puncture your vital organs. I am simply trying to shed light on his or her true nature.**

Bald Eagles rarely maintain the stark white head that is contrasted by a crisp and minute line into their dark brown bodies. There are several reasons for this. One of them is that they don't have the white head/dark body until they are, at the earliest, about 5 years old. There are many stages of juvenile plumage in these birds and all of them consist of some brown feathers on the head. Secondly, Bald Eagles are ruthless scavengers. If ever the term "beat a dead horse" were to manifest into life, it would come in the form of a Bald Eagle ripping the insides out of a weeks-old carcass with as much aggression and fervor as you can imagine. For every one of these beasts catching a fish out of a picturesque lake in mid-flight, there are an army of them eating roadkill.

So why do I bring this up at all? Why do I muddle that satisfying sigh you let out as you pass by your eagle mural above the hearth? Surprisingly enough, it's because I think the eagle a perfect metaphor for human liberty. In our most raw and unaltered form, we are powerful. Not because of the conquering olympic creatures we think ourselves to be but because we adapt. We live almost everywhere. We take shortcuts. We survive.

Protection Island was infested with Bald Eagles. I saw them every single day, waiting above auklet burrows for an adult to leave or a chick to wander too close to the edge. There were cameras set up all over the Rhinoceros Auklet colonies monitoring the damage that Black-tailed Deer were causing. As they graze, the deer often step through the roofs of the burrows and crush eggs or chicks. But over time I became convinced that the Bald Eagles were killing far more auklets than the deer were. Sometimes I would catch a glimpse of a pristine eagle and snap a few photos. Most times though, the white heads of the adult eagles were stained red with blood and the ground beneath them, a pile of carnage which I have heard called "feather bursts."

When I started seeing the eagles, I was excited and couldn't believe such a congregation of them existed on one tiny island. But as my field season progressed, I grew used to them. Protection Island is the only place in the world that I know of where people come to refer to eagles as pests. Innumerable nuisances dropped to the level of pigeons or fire ants. And really, they are just another bird. Almost all species of birds have a few places where they are the most abundant.

Now if that isn't a luke-warm homage to the national bird of the United States, I don't know what is. Only remember that my intention is not treason, it is simply truth. Now look at these eagles and think about your scope for beauty. No matter how "ugly" we may think the scavenger is, she is successful at staying alive and that, my friends, is beautiful.

These are my photos so please be kind.

This eagle is ~2 years old:

Here's a ~3-year old:

And a ~4-year old:

These Bald Eagles are waiting for an auklet snack from the burrows beneath them:

Had enough yet?

'Murica.

Making my way to Protection Island

Before I was a castaway on Protection Island for the summer, I stayed in Port Townsend, WA for several days. This area is lush with mature trees and has the rare dichotomy of both large mountains and vast ocean. There is a tangible placidity in this area of Washington. A neighboring city, Sequim, has one of the oldest populations in the United States. Nobody drives quickly. Every lawn is well-tended to. There are many drugstores. And the cops are very bored, I assume. Retired folks flock to the cities surrounding the capital, Olympia, because of the temperate climate. There are no temperature extremes of any sort, only occasional light humidity.

In some ways, Port Townsend reminded me of my hometown because there were no mainstream hotels nor chain restaurants. I became quite good friends with the young manager of the small, family owned motel that I stayed at in a matter of minutes. His well received continental breakfast consisted of black coffee and store-bought muffins. More than anything, his building was a perch for gulls, a lookout point to the marina and a back porch for the passers-by on the beach who stopped intermittently to dig for clams. I would like to go back someday, without the pleasant anxiety of my approaching field season, and let the tranquility take me.

Port Townsend was my introduction to hybrid Glaucous-winged/Western Gulls. They have many colonies around Puget Sound.

Also, I had grown rather accustomed to the dinosaurian crows in Newfoundland. If you're not familiar with the island effect, or  Foster's Rule, species on an island are oftentimes much larger than their mainland counterparts. This is mostly because of their increased access to food and habitat and decreased exposure to predators. Once in a while, this rule gets flipped on its head if indeed, the island has little food and/or many predators. In the case of Newfoundland though, the coyotes are much larger and the crows are nearly the size of ravens. The species of crow inhabiting Washington, the Northwestern Crow, is much smaller with tiny white whiskers on its face.

There was a racket outside of my motel room each morning that puzzled me for a day or two before I found these European Starlings. This pair of attentive parents always checked in on their chicks like this:

Stay tuned as I make my way across the ocean to the island in the next installment of the tale of my field season last summer.