Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Pacific Northwest Thanksgiving

We spent Thanksgiving week in the Pacific Northwest with friends and family. Birding, as others have noted, takes a backseat on these visits since many involved haven't transformed from "bird-friendly" to "birder" (yet). But for some of us the birding never really stops, especially when you're 3,000 miles from the typical birds of your own backyard. Instead, the birding is whatever you can squeeze in during or surrounding the family time.

Spotted TowheeThe neighborhood Spotted Towhee.

Happily, there is a lot surrounding my sister's place in Gig Harbor, just north of Tacoma. Their neighborhood is hilly and covered in conifers. The highlights of the neighborhood walks, for an easterner, were Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Varied Thrushes, Spotted Towhees, "Oregon" Dark-eyed Juncos, and more Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets than I've stumbled across back east.

Pelagic CormorantsPelagic Cormorants resting on a buoy above two
lolling pinnepeds (California Sea Lions, maybe?).

Nearby parks allowed views of Puget Sound so scoping for waterfowl didn't disappoint. Pacific Loons and Surf Scoters floated with Red-necked Grebes, Pelagic and Double-crested Cormorants raced across the water. Marbled Murrelets and Pigeon Guillemots added to the excitement of seabirding. I didn't have many views of sheltered coves so ducks weren't easy to come by; those I did see included Barrow's and Common Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser, Bufflehead, and the ubiquitous Mallard.

Tufted PuffinThe only puffins seen were at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium.

The weather was great, with only a couple of the days flouting stereotypical clouds, rain, and fog. It's no wonder local birders spend much of their time scoping open water. It's tough to see the canopy of those tall conifers, especially on mornings with fog. Birding by ear must have developed in this area.

The most surprising bird was the first bird encountered on the trip. We landed at night so we didn't see any city-dwelling Rock Pigeons, House Sparrows, or European Starlings on the drive to my friend's place in the University District. Near midnight, local time (3 AM for us) I stepped on to his balcony so I wouldn't wake his daughter with my sneezing fit. The backyard slopes away so during the day you have an amazing view of a fairly large park and, in the distance, the Cascades. As the distant lights played across the waters of Lake Washington a medium-sized bird made its way through the darkness, first moving north over the neighbor's yards, then circling a large tree, finally heading south on completely silent wingbeats, almost lazy flight, head swiveling right, then left, repeatedly back and forth.

I've only seen the graceful hunting of a Barn Owl twice in my life, and it was possibly the same individual bird. My sister and I happened upon a single bird patrolling the park below my friend's house in the fading light back in August of 2007.

Cascades ViewThe view from the balcony during daylight.

Ironically the birds I spent the most time watching were ones I'm not comfortable identifying. The first group: gulls. I'm happy to watch gulls, I like sort through huge congregations trying to pick out the oddball and examining the various cycles (plumages) to identify what I can, but around Puget Sound? Forget it. The field guides will show you Glaucous-winged and Western Gulls are both present and relatively common, but a third type may be the most encountered: when those two hybridize you wind up with intermediate forms that have their own name, the "Olympic Gull." Here are a couple of the individuals I saw, please feel free to leave your identifications in the comments, preferably with some reasoning how you got there, and don't forget about Glaucous-winged x Herring Gull or any of the other possible gulls.

Gull speciesGot a guess? Click for larger image.

Gull speciesGuesses? Click for a larger image.

Finally, the crows. Are Northwestern Crows a "real" species or merely a race of small American Crows? More on these two dilemmas at another time, they both deserve more space and thought than I can provide tonight.

Crow speciesCrow species at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium. This
one was wild, no convenient sign to help with identification.


1 comment:

Heidi said...

Don't worry. I'm sure you'll be able to put Maddie into the "birder" category as soon as her naps stop getting in the way!

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