Saturday, August 13, 2011

Birds, San Juan Islands, sizes XS to XL

Washington State's oceanic shorelines are a wonderland for birders. There's your ocean, for starters. Then there are all the levels of the shoreline and variations thereof: rocky, muddy, gravelly, sandy. Take a few more steps east, and you're deep in a forest--anything from a mix of conifers and red alders to ancient temperate rainforest. This variety of habitat makes the shorelines a wonderland for the birds themselves, too.

Vacationing in the San Juan islands these past two weeks, up north near Canada's own islands, thus meant lots of bird sightings. I managed to get a few photos--forgive the resolution, my camera's just a little Panasonic Lumix, so once I get past the optical zoom's limits and it goes to digital zoom, the crispness is gone.  Still, they bring me back, with exquisite clarity, to the moment I saw these wild creatures.

I'll start with the XL birds:

Bald eagle, sighted over cove along Lopez Village, Lopez Island. I've seen hundreds of bald eagles since moving to Washington
State 20-odd years ago, but every time I see one it is still a thrill. This fellow looks as if he flew straight out of central casting.
Great Blue Heron, southern shore of Cascade Lake, Orcas Island. These guys sound positively
Jurassic when they take to the air on their massive wings and rasp out loud, croaking calls. They
fold their necks in flight so that the head appears to be resting on the back, instead of sticking their
necks out in front as cranes do.

Double-crested cormorant parent and chick, Anacortes ferry dock. This image doesn't
show the bird's slinky, snaky neck, but it does show the colorful sheen that you don't
usually see in the black feathers when the birds are just flying by as black silhouettes,
which is how I usually see them. I was charmed that my daughter's friend, who was
along on our trip, thought that the cables and spikes throughout the pilings and pillars
were put there to help keep the cormorants' nests and chicks from falling out, whereas
I imagined they were there to prevent nesting in the first place.

These barn swallows are having a conference on Turtleback Mountain near a stable we visited. At our campsite by Cascade Lake,
we were treated to aerial displays over the water morning and night as violet-green swallows swooped low over the mirrorlike
surface to snare insects. At dusk, the swallows clocked out for the night, and bats flickered in to take their place skimming
across the lake.
Song sparrows trooped regularly through our campsite and
fearlessly trotted across the table to retrieve fallen grains of oatmeal.
Many of them looked terribly tatty, with adults apparently molting
and fledglings trading up to more adult plumage. This little guy
even lacked a tail. I thought this was due to a narrow escape from
a predator, but I later found online images of young song sparrows
growing in their tail feathers, so I guess this is a common sight.
I was thrilled to spy a brown creeper, a cryptically colored bird as invisible on a tree as a
sole on a sandy seabed. I only noticed him because it was very quiet and I could hear his
little claws scratching on the bark as he hitched his way up a branch. Creepers are great
examples of niche-filling in nature--they go UP tree trunks, searching for bugs under bark,
while the red-breasted nuthatches (which we heard calling "yank, yank" in nasal tones
all day long) travel DOWN the trunk. Either way, hidden arthropods are doomed.

The tiny, mouselike winter wren (now called a Pacific wren, sadly) is more often
seen than heard--and the song produced by this little waif is an amazing torrent of
liquid notes; it's like turning on an ordinary kitchen faucet and having the Columbia
River pour out of it. Only without the plumber bills. An excellent bird.
Smallest of all were the rufous (at least I am 99 percent sure they were rufous)
hummingbirds that patrolled the flower-filled garden of the cottage we stayed in
at the start of our vacation. They spent all day probing and feeding at flowers,
interspersing these activities to conduct dogfights and chases to prevent each other
from gaining access to said flowers. I'd be sitting and reading, enjoying a cup of
coffee, and meanwhile furious "chips" and "squeaks" and menacing buzzing of wings
filled the air around me as the hummers waged their ceaseless border disputes. Best of
all, though, I got to see a hummer take a bath in a gigantic, 3-level garden fountain.
Very cute. These little birds pack a lion's bravery--I got too close to one with my nosy
camera, and it buzzed me, then hovered a foot in front of my face with what looked
like a very angry glare on its face, starting me down for 10 seconds before huffing off.