Sunday, January 13, 2013

Today's Pterodactyl

National Public Radio's popular and long-running BirdNote® calls the great blue heron a "modern day pterodactyl." The great blue heron is the largest heron in North America. The great egret, a slightly smaller and white version of modern pterodactyl, is second largest. We've begun to see great egrets more frequently, even one that wintered at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.

Scientists believe that birds are descended from dinosaurs, so it's really not much of a stretch to believe these creatures were once much larger and more fierce predators.

Herons pretty much eat anything they can catch and swallow. I've watched them hunting fish but recently saw one catch a mole. I wondered how it could swallow something so large. I saw this heron catch it, shake it, then hop into the water. He came back to the hunting area a few minutes later without his prey.

They're usually solitary birds, except when they nest which they do in large rookeries with 25, 50, even 100 nests in close proximity to each other. I'm hoping to find a rookery to photograph this spring. You can see more heron photography in my Low Tide Gallery and Water Wings Gallery.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Eagle siblings

A juvenile male, about a year old, observes duck action on the lagoon below
Last summer one of my friends asked how I could possibly know that the eagles I saw in the Nisqually delta were "my eagles," the eagle family I've been observing and photographing for several months. A strong hunch based on observation and what I've learned about bald eagles.

Many raptors set invisible boundaries around their nesting areas. Bald eagles generally don't allow other bald eagles within a mile radius of their nests before the kids fledge. When I spotted two adults hunting down on the delta, they were almost directly below the nest area. Mama eagle snagged a fish and flew up to the ridge, where I've observed them numerous times traveling back to the nest, only from the ridge viewpoint.

Sister eagle (on left) takes over a prime spot her brother was in a couple of seconds before.
So how do I know that two juvenile bald eagles I photographed at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge are the kids of "my eagles?" A strong hunch based on observation and what I've learned about this bald eagle clan. There are two active nests on the DuPont side of the Nisqually delta. I've seen and photographed the Red Salmon Creek eagle clan on a few occasions. In late summer, I see them in the southeast sky practicing eagle maneuvers on the thermals along the ridge. Sometimes there are several juveniles, soaring, dipping, flying in formation, and practicing the courting sky dance, where they link talons and spin in the air.

Sister eagle takes over the prime spot while her brother heads for another area.
These two are young, not more than a year old. I observed them a couple of times in the past week. I saw some similar behavior that I saw when they had just started flying but were still being fed by mom and dad at the nest. They were as big as their parents, actually a bit bigger...Ma Nature gives young eagles "training wheel" wings that are slightly longer than adult eagles. Mama or Papa would drop off food, then get out of the way. These two often engaged in a food fight (link to a blog entry from July). One would steal a chunk of food and fly off to another tree.

The two at the Nisqually refuge are about the right age and are male and female. Later that afternoon, brother eagle displaced his sister in another tree above the Nisqually River. She flew off to a snag in the center of the marsh. A growing collection of favorite images from the past year can be found in my Fauna collection.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Sand, surf and snowy owls

Sand, surf, sun, and blue January. I'm sure the January water temp is below 50 degrees F. There were hundreds of people walking on the beach, clamming, and even surfing in Ocean Shores, Washington. On the Jersey Shore, we'd call this place a "barrier" island or peninsula with Grays Harbor on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. Like the Jersey Shore, Ocean Shores and other low-lying beach towns can easily be swamped by a storm surge.

The whole place is teeming with not-so-wild wildlife. Herds of mule (black-tailed) deer, raccoons, bald eagles, osprey (seahawks) can be found in every neighborhood. And, lately, snowy owls.

Snowies, also known as Arctic owls and great white owls, live near the Arctic Circle most of the year. In the dark winters, these birds head south to Canada and the northern U.S. In winter of 2012, Washington and British Columbia experienced what is called an "irruption" of snowy owls, when a large number of the owls are seen in areas they're not normally seen. Here's a map of sightings from the past two years. Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes irruptions happening every four years or so when owls winter even as far south as central California, Texas, and Florida.

Damon Point's terrain looks a lot like the Arctic tundra with grasses and few trees.
Damon Point in Ocean Shores is again attracting snowy owls, although not in the numbers we saw last winter. I spent part of the weekend before New Year's visiting with two owls. Snowies are the largest owl (about 4-5 lb.) and are diurnal which means they hunt day and night. That makes sense when you think about what Arctic summers where the sun doesn't set for 60 days.

I'll be heading over to the coast to spend more time with the owls later this month. In the meantime, here are a couple of favorites. A few of my snowy owl photographs from last year are online in my Talons Gallery.