Thursday, December 31, 2009


On the eve of the New Year I am filled with anticipation. It’s funny how, in viewing the upcoming year, I only see opportunity and give little heed to the challenges that I know lie in wait. I’m eager to make my own bid for a “big year” listing of Washington birds. I impatiently wait for a new job and better financial footing. I vow to truly study those passions I’ve only dabbled in such as drawing and writing and like most, I pledge to work harder and eat less. On the precipice I don’t worry that all my dreams won’t come true or even acknowledge that for me doing more and eating less have never been successful in the past. No sense in dashing hope when the eve will soon give way to a new day and a new beginning.

Mostly my head is filled with visions of birding. My goal is to see 240 species of Washington birds by this time next year. After reading Pheobe Snetsinger’s book, “Birding on Borrowed Time” and Kenn Kaufman’s, “Kingbird Highway” I am excited about my own ideas for record keeping and documenting my birding year. I purchased a composition book today and have already cracked open the spine to ponder what my first few entries might be. Backyard birds, no doubt, but still some of my favorites, black-capped chick-a-dees, dark-eyed juncos, red-breasted nuthatches and Stellar jays.

In planning my goal I gave myself leeway on shorebirds because I know I trouble over definitively identifying them but I pushed the limit on ducks, owls and songbirds. In order to make my goal of 240 I will have to find a number of eastern Washington species, many of which will be life birds for me. I’ll need to carefully consider seasons and the potential for passing migrants in a way I’ve never measured before. I already feel a sense of immediate urgency to visit the geese at Skagit Flats even though I know they will be there for many more weeks before migrating back to northern nesting grounds. I’ve sketchily made plans, fantasy plans at this point, to see the Sandhill cranes in Othello and tufted puffins off the coast come spring. So, the North Creek Birder is branching out, north, south, east and west of my comfortable little wetland to view the world through a pair of slightly out-of-focus binoculars. The goal, 240 birds and day one is fast approaching. Welcome big year.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Birding By Bus

Anyone who rides public transportation has come across their share of odd birds, the ones who only flit at the outer edges of socially acceptable behavior. Like the man who feels compelled to show everyone the dozen or so pictures of his cat, which he keeps stored on his cell phone. This one comes with a bit of relief to discover that it’s only a cat, since it is usually initiated by his plopping down in the seat next to you and loudly exclaiming, “Let me show you some pictures of my girly”. Or the guy who is obviously high on something and keeps up a running monologue with himself, one richly peppered with expletives and grunts. However, whenever possible I try to ignore these occasional odd birds and grab a window seat on the right hand side of the bus so that I can keep a vigilant eye on the passing ditches and tree snags for real birds.

Improbably enough, I’ve been rewarded for this a number of times with a particularly fine sighting. The other day as the bus rumbled home through the North Creek business park I was somewhat shocked to see an American bittern hanging out in one of the sparsely vegetated ditches. There have been hundreds of times I’ve scanned the edges of vegetation in North Creek Park hoping to see one of these shy fellows. Their camouflage plumage and slow movement make them hard to spot among the reeds and stems, and although many birding guides mention that they are often heard and seldom seen, I rarely hear them or see them.

I think part of the allure of spotting a bittern is their long list of pseudonyms. Sky-gazer, look-ups and stake bird are all names derived from the odd behavior of a startled bittern that will point its bill straight up in the air and contract its body into a thin sheath. Occasionally it will sway with the surrounding reed movement as though to say, “Nothing here but us cattail stems. Nope, nope, nothing to see here!” The loud gulping and thumping calls from a specialized esophagus have earned it the nicknames water-belcher, mire drum and thunder-pumper. Although I haven’t witnessed it, apparently the mating dance of the American bittern would put even the sourest judge from the So You Think You Can Dance competition into fits of laughter. With all of this, I can’t help but believe that the behavior of this bird is a bit odd and quirky, even for one of nature’s most singular recluses. So it makes me wonder, if an American bittern were to
board a bus…?

(photo credit to Dan Chernoff at

Monday, August 24, 2009

Molting Like A Duck

As I walk through North Creek Park on the boardwalk, I can only hear the soft “waack” of ducks tucked away in the dense vegetation. Of late there have been few ducks visible, none in the air and only a startled few out in the open who quickly melt into the mix of wetland plants if they catch me approaching. I suppose they are molting, preparing for their winter run to warmer weather. I too, am sensitive to the shorter days and cooler air. Instead of a day out hiking, my husband and I chose a quiet, indoor day at a local art museum this past weekend. The Frye Art Museum hosts a wonderful permanent collection and although much of it was tucked away in storage to make way for a large temporary exhibit, still on display was one of my favorite paintings, Moulting Ducks by Alexander Koester (1864-1932). I couldn’t help but compare the two images, the one scene, only imagined in my head of molting wild ducks at North Creek wetland and the other, the feathery image of Koester’s painting. If one could actually view the wild ducks, would the viewer receive the same scathing looks as those from the barnyard ducks in the painting, a look that says, “Excuse me, but this is a rather personal and delicate time. It’s rather rude to watch just so!”

Researchers Adams, Robertson and Jones noted that when they studied molting in the Harlequin Duck of the Gannet Islands in Labrador that not only do ducks loose their ability to fly during this time, but they also tend to stay out of the cold water. Quiet and still, they spend their time on land conserving thermoregulatory and maintenance costs. These researchers also noted that the ducks don’t forage as much and suggest this is a specific design so that the body mass is reduced and flight is possible at an early stage of feather renewal (The Condor, May 2009, Vol 111, Issue 2). New feathers tend to be of a duller color then the summer mating phase and may help to camouflage the ducks during this flightless time.

It’s an interesting concept, that of molting. Casting off what one no longer needs, slimming the old waistline and preparing for a new journey. Perhaps an idea I’ll take on for myself. I’ve recently passed a personal milestone; I both earned a new degree from University of Washington and unfortunately, lost a job I loved as another victim of the economic downturn. I can’t think of a better time to make like a duck. Leave the old behind, renew myself in body and spirit and look forward to something new. Hopefully I’ll soon join a new flock or team and will be able to put my newly acquired skills to good use. I imagine, like the ducks, at first I will find the new feathers a bit itchy and I cringe a little to share this rather personal and delicate time of being jobless and without a daily routine. But in the end, I will embrace the coming of flight and welcome the sunny days at the end of the journey.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

NEW - link to North Creek Bird List

Mother Goose

A couple days ago, I inadvertently startled a tiny Gadwall duckling that was dabbling around the flow channel between pond and wetland at the south end of the park. There were no obvious sightings of mama Gadwall but the little, downy fellow seemed pretty sure that life would be safer on the opposite bank of the pond from where I stood, so flailing both stubby wings and tiny feet, he did his very best to run on water to the far bank. Once across he was loosely joined by his siblings, a wildly independent bunch that seemed more intent on individual exploration than being comforted by the safety of a parent or by the numbers of the flock. I have no idea if this is a common trait among Gadwall offspring, but it contrasted sharply with the family of tightly linked mallards that were seen swimming bill-to-tail on the west bank of the pond or of the closely protected Canadian geese broods with mom and dad flanking each rank.

Watching them makes me consider the debate of nurture vs. nature and wondering how the seemingly different levels of parent protection shape the success of each individual. Is it good to foster independence early in life? Or is it better to offer a narrow path of protection through that vulnerable dance of youth. As a parent, I suppose I’m prone to favor that embrace of protection and yet, there was something captivating and admirable about watching those young Gadwalls take on life, seemingly by themselves.

This spring we have celebrated graduations and new beginnings for all three of our children. Whether it is nature or nurture, I hope they are equipped to take on the world. I encourage them to be bold, explore, experience; continue to grow in knowledge and understanding. Be a baby Gadwall! And in the meantime, I will be a mama goose, ready to protect just in case the need ever arises.

Sunday, May 3, 2009


She likes ducks. That’s how my kids might introduce me, “This is my Mom, she likes ducks.” It’s true, I do like most waterfowl and during this time of year who isn’t captivated by the antics of baby ducks? I call this the gleeful season, because watching fluffy balls of newly hatched offspring is joyful, and yet, so humorous that I can’t think of a better word to describe the feeling than glee. Quick, follow mom! No, dash after that insect! No, scamper back to see what that was in the grass. Whoops…where’s mom? Trip, fall, jump up, find the flock. Each duckling seems like a possible candidate for the Attention Deficit Disorder poster child; their behavior so erratic and different from mama duck, whose slow deliberate movements and focused attention suggest a knowledge of the dangers lying in wait for her young brood.

Ducks hatch, on average, seven to twelve ducklings and their survival is not only threatened by predators, but also on the abundance and quality of local wetlands. Shallow wetlands that spawn and support rich insect and snail populations supply an instant food source for precocious ducklings that hatch ready to feed. Ducklings must have this supply of protein rich insects in order to survive their first few weeks of life. Early precipitation that allow for a mosaic of neighboring, shallow wetlands increase survival, but once the ducklings are hatched, inclement weather, such as heavy rain, wind and cold, tip the balance and survival rates drop. Survival rate for ducklings is so dependent upon weather and the resultant hydrology patterns of wetlands that survival rates can fluctuate wildly from 10% to 70%. (Ducks Unlimited, Dr. Brian Davis, May/June 2009)

The key is having enough rain to support the wetlands and ensuing insect populations, but not so much rain that ducklings are kept close to mom for warmth, preventing them from nibbling up the protein they need.

Although we had an atypical winter, the North Creek wetlands seem to be sporting plenty of wet mudflats and insects. The last few days have been balmy and mild, ideal for raising a young brood. Although I’ve seen a couple young Canadian Geese families, I have yet to see my first bunch of new ducklings, but surely it is that time of year and perhaps today will be the opening day of the gleeful season.

Thursday, April 30, 2009


“It was pretty disturbing”, said the gentlemen before me. Recognizing him as a birder, I had stopped at the north entrance to the park to visit and compare notes. “When I was here on Thursday,” he said, “the eagles were completely decimating the eggs and all the herons were lined up in the trees about 100 yards away looking very angry.”

“It is sad,” I remarked. “I heard the same thing happened last year and it makes me wonder how much more the herons will take before abandoning this rookery.” He shrugged and the two of us stood quiet, starring off into the distance, contemplating the loss of the Blue Heron nesting grounds.

Maybe I was raised on too much Disney and not enough Planet Earth, but there are some parts of nature that just make me queasy. I’m drawn to nature watching because of the intense beauty and diversity of the subjects, but when they start eating each other I’m reminded that it is not all cute and fluffy. It’s not just eagles eating heron eggs, I’m also distraught when I see a stand of alder completely wiped out by beaver activity or a flat of native grasses and sedges plowed through and eaten by Canadian Geese. A mouse writhing in the talons of an owl about does me in.

There is a part of me that wants to step in, insert control. “Stop that”! “Play fair”! “Leave that alone”! But I know from observation that we don’t do a very good job of trying to redirect or control natural forces. So, I suppose for now, I’ll accept nature’s method and do my best to not impact the path. I’ll observe what seems like record numbers of nesting Canadian Geese and fewer numbers of Great Blue Heron and while I might think that a poor development for North Creek Park wetland, I’ll keep still and see what nature might unfold over time.

Still, should you see me on the boardwalk with my hands over my eyes and sporting an anguished look…know that I’m just blocking out the queasy parts!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Don't Mess with Mom

It’s a story my children love to tell, the time when their normally gentle, mild mannered mother grabbed a young man by the collar and threw him up against the brick wall of their elementary school gymnasium. It happened almost 12 years ago, but my adult children still get a sparkle in their eye when they tease me about the incident. An older high school student had come onto the school grounds and was roughly shoving some of the young girls as they waited for the bus. I asked him to stop, but it only elevated the situation and his belligerence and threatening behavior sprung something in me that unleashed a mother-bear response. In a pure mode of reflexive action, I grabbed the young fellow by the scruff of his shirt and had him up fast to the brick wall. I stood on tip-toes to get as close as I could to his startled face and said something to the effect of, “THAT BEHAVIOR IS NOT APPROPRIATE AROUND HERE. YOU NEED TO LEAVE!”

I was reminded of the scene the other day when I was birding. I had stepped off the boardwalk to walk a dike that runs along the north side of North Creek Park wetland area. The dike provides protection from flooding to a number of homes in the area and during the winter it provides a great birding spot with access to viewing the ponds at the northwest corner. A few days ago I noticed some waterfowl in the back corner and decided to take the short dike walk and get a closer look. As I walked along the dike, I absently made note of the killdeer in the north barnyard field. Intent on the back ponds, it didn’t really register that the killdeer were growing more and more frantic until one of them finally jumped up onto the dike, positioned itself about six feet in front of me and began screaming in my direction. In my mind I could imagine her tiny toes grasping at my shirt collar and her cries became very clear, “That behavior is not appropriate around here. You need to leave!” Fully chastised, I retraced my steps and vowed to keep clear of the nesting areas for the next several weeks.

I would suggest the following two take-home messages, don’t mess with mom and for now be sensitive to the nesting birds as you travel through North Creek Park wetlands.

Sunday, April 26, 2009


As a young mother in the eighties, I was often confronted with a popular idea from the time period, that women could have it all. A career, a perfect home, a family and all it took was managing “quality” time in each fraction of your life. Yet, special moments can be elusive, rarely programmed and even the most careful of planning can’t insure quality time. No, it just happens, whether with family or an experience at work or even birding, quality time drops in like a special delivery. And so it was last Thursday; unplanned, unexpected, a quality moment with a delightful companion.

I was walking south to north on the boardwalk, quietly checking off the usual players…marsh wren, red-winged blackbird, tree swallow, Rufus hummingbird, when a bright and friendly lady caught up with me on the trail. I asked if she had noticed the hummingbird and quickly learned that she too was a birder and quite familiar with the solitary hummer that had been staked out in the willow for the last few weeks. For the rest of the way we walked and shared stories of our birding experiences. But her stories had a common thread, a connection with the bird community that I knew I didn’t have. She told of a hawk that grabbed at her hat and an owl that always seemed to seek her out when she hiked the woods through Mill Creek. Birds became relaxed and comforted around her and I quickly began to think of her as the “bird whisperer”, because she shyly confided that she felt many of her unique experiences with birds were a result of her talking to them. She showed me her picture from just a few days earlier of the bald eagle obliterating this year’s hope for a new crop of herons. We bemoaned the loss and moved on to discuss the changes we’d seen in goose and duck populations. The end of the trail came much too quickly and at least on my part, I hoped our paths would cross again.

Visiting the North Creek Park wetlands, I always hope to discover something new, something delightful. Until last Thursday, I expected this to come from the natural environment, a novel bird, something new in bloom, a glimpse of a small critter, but I was reminded that, even with the negative impact of our presence, humans too can be remarkable.

Over the next few weeks and months, as I visit North Creek Park and share my birding experiences, I hope to have many quality moments; many with the birds who happen on the landscape, but perhaps now I will be more attuned to fellow birders as well. If you see me on the boardwalk, stop and share a special sighting or birding story; I will consider it quality time, well spent.