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.


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.



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.


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.



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


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.


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.


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!

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.