Archive for December, 2014


bird (\ˈbərd\) v intr:  to observe or identify wild birds in their habitats”

–Merriam Webster

I’ve started to bird. That is, I’m becoming something of a birder. I strode out at lunchtime yesterday with my new given-to-me-by-my-wife-for-Christmas 10x Nikon binoculars in search of Grady, a great blue heron of my acquaintance who hangs out in the swampy bits of the state park across the street from where I work (lucky me, yeah?).

Grady a week or so ago.

Grady a week or so ago.

We’re all becoming birders at my house. Angela has fed hummingbirds for many winters, and we’ve gone through many different types of feeders as she’s learned more about what these feisty little ex-dinosaurs need. And we’ve hung suet cakes in feeder cages in the yard for years, too. But in recent months Angela has had me install hooks in the wooden joist supporting the balcony off of our kitchen, and she’s spent some time learning what kind of birds might come to the various feeders we’ve hung there.

Thus, for Christmas, I and the girls went to Wild Birds Unlimited up by Lake Forest Park and got Angela some suet cakes (one with real dead bugs in it!) and a sweet new suet cage, and a colorfully illustrated book about birds of Seattle and Puget Sound by Chris C. Fisher.

Hummingbird at our feeder. Look inside the feeder and you can see her translucent pink tongue emerging from her beak.

Hummingbird at our feeder. Look inside the feeder and you can see her translucent pink tongue emerging from her beak to lap at the elixir. Click the image to see it bigger.

I had intended — of course I would do this — I had intended to procure for her a vintage hardback copy of the mammoth and encyclopedic Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America, which catalogs and illustrates in a stridently rigid style every bird known in this quadrant of the globe, in both sexes, but on Christmas Eve I couldn’t get into the bookshop on whose shelf I knew it to repose, and I’m glad. The thin paperback we got her instead restricted itself to the birds we are likely to actually see, and the book has hardly left Angela’s lap since she unwrapped it. She already used it to identify a visitor who came Sunday during a little afternoon hootenanny that we were having at our house and hung on the new feeder in the company of a merry mob of bushtits (we only figured out who the bushtits were a week or so ago, but we used the Internet for that) and in plain sight of all of our guests, who were all standing in the kitchen (that’s what guests do). He availed himself of some of the insect suet.

Bushtits always come to the suet feeder in bunches.

Bushtits always come to the suet feeder in bunches.

This turned out to be a kind of woodpecker, we now believe. I saw him while we were all talking and I thought “that looks like a chickadee, kinda, but not really — he’s more contrasty, and what’s that little glow of red on the top of his head?” But since Angela was looking right at him (so I thought) and wasn’t commenting, I said nothing at first, assuming it was just a chickadee after all. When I did mention the oddness of his red crown, everyone turned to look and he flew off, and it was clear then that he was no chickadee. At first consultation with the book, we thought it might have been a ruby-crowned kinglet, but we’ve agreed now that what we saw was most likely the male downy woodpecker, Picoides pubescens, (UPDATE: especially since he’s been back — see image below). The female of the species, alas, has no color on her crown.

Several days after I published this post we caught him red-handed (or red-headed, I should say) at the seed feeder. It's clear here that he's no chickadee, but he was backlit when we first saw him.

UPDATE: Several days after I published this post we caught the downy woodpecker red-handed (or red-headed, I should say) at the seed feeder.

We were all ecstatic to see a bird hanging on our balcony that none of us had ever seen before even though many of those present had grown up here. That experience sort of finalized a wish I’ve had lately that I were more familiar with my own habitat, not just its birds but its rocks, trees, fish and fauna, and especially the watersheds and drainages that support it all. Life in Puget Sound and the glacial till it rode in on, in other words.

Some years ago this same bee got in my bonnet, and I visited my friends at Island Books on Mercer Island, who I should not have been surprised to find actually had on the shelf a copy of Arthur Kruckeberg’s The Natural History of Puget Sound Country. I relieved them of it specifically so I could know everything about the region I was born in. The Georgia Basin, which includes all of the Puget Sound and the lion’s share of both the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia, is a huge bowl overlapping the Canadian-American border and it contains many watersheds, including my “home shed”, the Cedar River. I started reading the book, but life happened and I got overwhelmed by something or other. Professor Kruckeberg, who taught a botany class I took at the University of Washington in my youth, is an engaging writer, and so I dragged out this doughty text again recently. I’m going through from the beginning, from preglacial times, to understand what’s around me and under my feet. Our new attention to our avian visitors fits right in with this plan.

This mallard hen and her beau-drake actually chased me, hoping for a handout.

This mallard hen and her beau-drake actually chased me, hoping for a handout.

I walked over to the park and checked in a reedy wet area in which Grady tends to stand knee deep at midday, usually motionless. I see other walkers walk right by him without even noticing him. I think it’s a male because he’s so large. Male and female great blue herons (Ardea herodias) look similar and can often only be distinguished by their size; the male is a little larger, and his beak is a little longer. (A little tuft at the back of his head, I’ve heard, may also be a male-only feature, and Grady seems to have this, though in the photo at top he’s wearing it in a long pony tail.) But they both have the same coloring, and until I see a mating pair side by side I’m really only guessing at gender.

Grady wasn’t there yesterday. My new binoculars hung disappointedly around my neck. He wasn’t there the day before either. I started walking toward a second, slightly more secluded area where I’ve seen a heron before and on the way, I noted Canada geese, a whole squadron of them standing in a grassy field near the lake, until someone’s dog ran up to them, at which point, because I was at that instant blocking their access to the lakeshore, they rose flapping noisily into the air and flew away honking.


I drew sketches of some of the ones I saw and wanted to look up in the book. One of them was the American coot, which I had incorrectly noted as a grebe.

I also saw coots by the scores, which turned out to be American coots; mallards aplenty; seagulls of some species; a kind of black-and-white duck that Angela’s book suggests was a bufflehead; and a murder of crows, plus some loner crows NOT in a murder. There was no heron in place #2, so I skibbled over to an even more remote corner where I go sometimes, a secluded beach along the mouth of the Issaquah Creek, which has plenty of marshy, heron-friendly habitat. I saw four mallards — two hens dozing and two drakes doting nearby — but I didn’t see any heron.

Not at first. Then I turned to look across the water toward a little grassy island and there he was.





Of course, when a heron stares at you it’s only with one eye, with its head turned to the side, because otherwise it can’t see you. So it actually looked like he was specifically NOT staring at me. But I knew he was watching my every move (that’s what herons do).

Easy to miss, but they don't miss us.

Easy to miss, but they don’t miss us.

I noted the time (that’s what birders do). It was 12:50. The heron was standing in a circular area where it seemed the grass or reeds had been mashed down. I know they make their nests in tall cottonwood trees not far off, so I was confused by what looked like a ground-nesting thing going on. And was this really Grady? Or was it Grady’s mate, or another male? I know that a lot of herons nest in this area so maybe it was half of another couple altogether. I watched through my binoculars for a minute or two, focusing on the bird’s big yellow eye, then departed. On the way back to the office, beside a branch of the creek, I encountered a gang of robins hopping around, and out of curiosity I stopped and put my field glasses to my eyes.

Normally I’d just say, yeah, robins and little sparrows and what, and keep walking. But I decided to pause and look, try to really see what I was seeing. There were indeed a dozen robins, spaced out to give each other plenty of elbow room (that’s what robins do), but there were also a mess of juncos, which I know by their black heads — I always called these chubby little twitterers ‘executioner birds’ because they look like they’re wearing a dark cowl — and these were all bunched together flapping and chattering in a kind of tumbling pile. Then there were two small, yellowish gray birds foraging just along the edge of some shrub canes; they had no bright markings but their bodies and wings seemed lightly streaked. And finally there was a single dark bird, thinner than a robin but otherwise about the same size, that had a black head and back, darker than the dark gray of a robin, and a bright orange breast and rump. It may also have had a bit of a comb at the back of his head, like a Steller’s jay. I have no idea what it was, though for some reason I imagined it as a kind of blackbird, and I could find neither this not-robin nor the yellow-grey birds in Angela’s book when I got home.

Home sapiens aviphila.

Red-chinned speckled birdwatcher (Homo sapiens aviphila, sometimes mistaken for Homo sapiens audiophila). F.d.: This photo is a reënactment.

Well, I need practice seeing what I’m seeing, but eleven bird species on a lunchtime walk is not a bad haul. I went back again today and found Grady standing in the exact same place and facing the same direction, as though he hadn’t moved, and I saw another one of those little black not-robin birds that I finally identified as a spotted towhee (Pipilo maculatus), plus the male bufflehead again — I just like walking by and saying “hi Bufflehead!”. I even added a new species, the hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus), a startled-looking duckish party that has a crazy translucent crest on his head — really, the sunlight glows through it — and very bright stripes on his wings and chest. He was paddling around in the big creek, and I watched long enough to discover his mate, whom I probably wouldn’t have even noticed if I hadn’t been watching the male through the binoculars, so muted were her colors. She had the wacky hairdo, though, just like his only drab, and that look on her face as though she’d just been caught with her bill in the cookie jar.

Yep. Don’t mind me. I’m just birdin’ around. Birdin’ birdin’ birdin’.

When music condenses

Yesterday while I was driving around with my daughters doing some panic shopping for the double jeopardy of Jesus’ and Angela’s birthdays, which are just days apart, Emilia asked me how radio happens. Millie is lately very “sciency”, to quote the eleventh Dr. Who. So I told the girls about radio waves, how someone sitting in a radio station spins a record (yes, I know) and the radio station has a machine in it that makes the sound of the music go up to the top of a tower and then shoot out across the sky to our radio, and the radio is a machine that listens for that music and plays it when it hears it.

“The towers are called radio towers,” I said. “You’ve seen them on top of Queen Anne. Those three really tall red and white towers with the blinking red lights on the top? Those are radio towers sending out the music we hear.”

Millie is like Mara was at that age — she expressed no further interest in the topic. She was done with it, I thought, even before I finished talking.

Tonight as we drove home from Gramma’s house on Interstate 5, I pointed out the radio towers on Queen Anne, which are lit up with Christmas lights right now. These were visible out Mara’s side of the car, to our left as we headed north through downtown. I don’t know whether Millie saw those, but she saw something interesting to her a minute later when we crossed over what is known hereabouts as the “ship canal bridge”, from whose top deck automobile passengers (and drivers who are not paying attention to the traffic in front of them) can survey the campus of the University of Washington and the houseboat-deckled Portage Bay beside it.

“I think I see the music coming out,” came Emilia’s voice from the back seat.

Angela and I swiveled our heads this way and that to try to see what such an announcement could possibly mean (I was driving, yes, but there were few cars on the road because it is Christmas day). I figured she might be seeing more radio towers, but couldn’t think of any she might be looking at. I turned back (again, it’s a holiday) and saw that her face was turned toward the campus, the curve of her cheek lit softly by the lights of the University district.

“The steam!” cried discerning Mara. “She means the steam.”

I then saw that the old steam plant on campus, which has a tall chimney stack, had a red light on top of it, and a cloud of water vapor was condensing into steam as it spread out from the top of the stack, streetlit amber gray against the darker gray of night behind and above. Emilia had heard how it works. She had been told how to identify the towers. And there was the music coming out. It made perfect sense.

Things are sometimes not what they seem, and still exactly what we expect them to be. Merry Christmas if that’s what you’re having. If else, peace to you and yours.

Best. Summer. Ever. – Episode 15: Rainier redux

We had such fun the first time we went to Rainier this year that we decided to go back and spend a night there in October when the fall colors rise up into the leaves of the meadow shrubs and the sky is achingly blue. That way we could take our sweet unhurried time getting there and also enjoy a morning, when both we and the mountain were fresh. We stayed at the National Park Inn at Longmire, one of the old lodges in Mount Rainier National Park. It’s not one of the ones up high — those are Paradise and Sunrise. Longmire is down in the forest along the Nisqually River, a half dozen miles in from the park’s Nisqually entrance.

The bridge at Myrtle Falls.

The bridge at Myrtle Falls.

Onward and upward.

Onward and upward.

We had a small room with uncomfortable old beds, but that didn’t matter. The girls were enchanted, by our room upstairs and by the guests-only fireplace room on the main floor, which had puzzles and games and a roaring fire. (Don’t eat at the restaurant in the lodge. The food was okay, I thought — Angela thought not — and we were grateful for it because we stayed on the mountain until dark the first night and our dinner options became swiftly negligible, but it was expensive and took so long to come out that our daughters nearly expired before it arrived before us. And then the girls couldn’t eat the mac and cheese, it smelled and tasted so bizarre. Later a friend told me that the National Parks contract their food services out to one giant corporation, which, if true, explains everything.) We drove up to visitor center at Paradise the first evening after dumping our gear at the lodge and climbed up part way to the Glacier Vista lookout. Angela had some kind of conversion experience up there by herself, when I hung back with the girls because it was getting dark and very cold, and almost all the other park visitors had retreated from the mountainside and Angela wanted to press on (so unlike her to get the trail-crazies, and so unlike me to be realistic and conservative when hiking), and she did press on, and she bonded somehow with the universe up there in the near dark, and came down sort of glowing.

Angela near Alta Vista.

Angela near Alta Vista, still aglow after her alien abduction, or whatever it was, the evening before.

The National Park Inn at Longmire.

Sleep but don’t eat. The National Park Inn at Longmire. Photo by Angela.

The next day was even magicaler. In the morning we returned to Paradise and hiked all the way up to Glacier Vista via the Alta Vista and Skyline trails, which was 916 feet of elevation (from 5420 to 6336 feet) for my little girls, who were troopers about such a big, hot climb. We saw marmots sunning on the rocks and a family of ptarmigans fluttering under a tree on the way down. And that pretty much caps our tour of the Best. Summer. Ever. It had truly been a wonderful extended summer of little escapades, one I will always cherish and I think the girls will, too. We got to know our mountain, our region, our family tribe, and each other a little better through these often impromptu weekend adventures. I hope you enjoyed riding along.

The bluest skies you've ever seen are near Seattle.

The bluest skies you’ve ever seen are near Seattle.

On the Alta Vista trail.

On the Alta Vista trail.

Best. Summer. Ever. – Episode 14: A bed for Millie

When Mara was ready for a big-girl bed at age three, Angela found a nice old wooden bed frame in a shop in Port Orchard, which for you outtatowners is a sweet little one-street port town across the Puget Sound from Seattle, several days’ hard riding in a saddle, a few hours by car, an hour by ferry. She found it online; it was the right bed, and it just happened to be in a little antique store across the Salish Sea. So we went there and brought it back. Mara’s little sister Millie turned four this summer and she was still sleeping in her crib. She loved her crib, even though when fully stretched out she was almost touching both ends of it. She loved climbing out over the rail every morning. Once in a while she mentioned that she’d like a big-girl bed, but it was more my own fears that we might somehow be stunting her psyche by delaying the transition that got us to start looking for a bed for Millie.

The right bed. In another shop in Port Orchard, of all places.

The right bed (leaning against the wall). In another shop in Port Orchard, of all places.

Millie climbing in a playground we found in Port Orchard.

Millie climbing in a playground we found in Port Orchard.

Angela went looking on Craigslist again, and darned if Millie’s bed didn’t turn up in an antique shop on the main drag in Port Orchard. It wasn’t the same shop — the one we found Mara’s bed in, sadly, is gone — but it was only a block away and on the same side of the street. Well, we know when we’re looking into the maw of destiny, so we drove over and got it. We spent a long afternoon in Ikea looking for mattresses for both girls’ beds, and decided in the end that the quality of the mattresses we could afford there wasn’t high enough for our princesses, and the ones we thought would be suitable and that we might suck it up and shell out for, even though they were out of our price range, they didn’t have in stock. Instead, we ducked into a family-owned store called Bedrooms and More in our neighborhood, and they treated us right, got us into some really nice mattresses at the right price. Millie fell out of her new bed twice the first night because she was accustomed to sleeping with her face right up against the wooden bars. We put pillows on the floor next to her bed and tucked her sheet in after that, but she internalized the boundlessness of her new nighttime environment pretty quickly, so the midnight thumping has subsided. And for the first time ever, we get to read bedtime books to Millie in her own big-girl bed.

Making the bed for the first time. Angela gave the old wall a fresh new green coat of paint.

Making the bed for the first time. Angela gave the old wall a fresh new green coat of paint.

We used to read bedtime stories to Millie in Mara's bed and then put her in her crib afterwards. Now her own new bed is her story place.

A sweet new regime. We used to read bedtime stories to Millie in Mara’s bed.

Best. Summer. Ever. – Episode 13: The farm

When I was a kid, Remlinger Farm was the place my mom and Aunt Jean always wanted to drag us kids out to to pick strawberries in the blazing summer sun. It was a cheap way (cash-wise, anyway) to get lots of berries. You just picked ’em yourselfs. At that time they actually grew strawberries there and tortured children by handing them a crate and pointing off into the fields. Now children enter an unbelievable playland and if they are picking anything besides their noses I don’t know where that’s happening. It’s more like an amusement park, although somewhere I suppose there is still an agricultural hinterland supporting its Delusions of Agriculture. Anyway, Remlinger Farm is a big hit with families these days, and our family is no exception. Angela has been taking the girls there with various friends for years. I myself have thus far been absent from these excursions to the Eastside’s most popular farm, but we visited one day in September this year and I got to experience the madness. It really is a gas. They have a stage coach that kids can get up on, and pony rides, and a log ride where kids board hollow log canoes and ride around a chute filled with running water, and a petting barn, and a roller coaster, and a teacup ride, and a go-cart ride, and a pumpkin ride, and an antique motorcar ride where kids can “steer” their car around a track, and an old bus to climb in and out of and an old firetruck to climb on, and a giant silo full of hay to jump into, and a theater with a man playing fun songs on a guitar every half hour or so. And…a steam train. A little one. Not a real old working engine and real old working passenger cars like the ones at Snoqualmie, but a shiny pint-sized custom amusement park engine just big enough to hold the engineer and open-sided cars just big enough to hold us passengers. It runs down a quarter mile track and back in a loop. Well, we enjoyed just about every ride and amusement the place had to offer, but you know we do love us a train ride.

Another fun journey down the tracks.

Another fun journey down the tracks.

Whoohoo! Millie and I rode the rollercoaster.

Whoohoo! Millie and I rode the rollercoaster.

Best. Summer. Ever. – Episode 12: Rails

What best-ever summer would be complete without boarding a train somewhere along the line? Along the line, heh. I just realized the phrase “somewhere along the line” probably comes to our daily usage courtesy of America’s (or Britain’s) long and romantic history with railroading. It’s a history that in this utilitarian and forward-looking corner of the world has had a hard time being remembered.

Boarding the Snoqualmie Historic Railway.

Boarding the train in historic Snoqualmie depot. Today the train will be pushed and pulled by a modern switcher rather than by a steam engine, but it’s still a ton of fun.

Nevertheless, volunteers at the Northwest Railway Museum have been collecting old engines and rolling stock at Snoqualmie’s historic depot for as long as I can remember — many of the engines being fine examples of the compact Shay logging type that worked these hills in the more exuberantly rapacious days of northwest resource extraction. In fact, my folks took us kids on what we always called the “Snoqualmie Railroad” or the “train at Snoqualmie” when I was about Millie’s age. It runs from Snoqualmie to North Bend. I have just the barest memory of being on the train with aunts and uncles visiting from the East, and of the train going north to the falls (Snoqualmie Falls, yeah, a big deal) on a summer morning where the sun dappled through the canopy of firs above the track, and of the train reversing and my thinking that was because it had derailed and had to go back, which I’m now sure was my misunderstanding.

We found the best seat, where we could sit facing each other to share our excitement better.

We found the best seat, where we could sit facing each other to share our excitement better.

The train awaits new passengers in North Bend. Mount Si is the berg in the background.

The train awaits new passengers in North Bend. I wonder why I’ve included more photos in this BSE post than in any other? Hmmm…Does somebody like trains? Mount Si is the berg in the background.

In my late teens, Kip’s little brother Caleb and I went on a black-and-white photo expedition where we ended up climbing out onto the support beams under one of the bridges on the line between Snoqualmie and North Bend, waited for the little steam engine to toot its arrival at the bridge — not so little when it’s roaring above your stupid danger-courting teenaged misdemeanor-committing head and hot grease and oil are spattering off of it (off of the engine, I mean)  —  and then stood up next to the track with our cameras just as the engine was about to pass over and took one incredibly good photo (each) of the train crossing the bridge from rail level. I lost that photo and its neg “somewhere along the line.”

At the historic Snoqualmie Depot. Here Emilia's skill at finding a way of thwarting a photo op comes into play.

At the historic Snoqualmie Depot. Here Emilia’s uncanny skill at finding ways to thwart a photo op comes into play.

The "guy" (I'm sure this volunteer has a title like "brakeman" or something) operates the horn and maybe some other functions with these levers as we reverse back to the depot. Note the stack of old logging engines on the siding.

The “guy” (I’m sure this volunteer has a title like “brakeman” or something) operates the horn and maybe some other functions with these levers as we reverse back to the depot. Note the stack of old logging engines on the siding. Will they rust away before funds are raised to get them back under steam?

We got on at the depot in Snoqualmie, ate lunch in North Bend, then made the return trip. On the way back from North Bend, the train actually continues on through Snoqualmie Depot to the falls, stops next to the famed cataract, then reverses and backs up to the depot in Snoqualmie again. For this part of the trip we had secured the seats at the very back of the last Pullman car on the train, where some wicker chairs were arranged as in a living room. Millie, who has a thing for nodding off in moving vehicles, fell asleep just before we reached the falls.

Millie was a tired little hobo that day, and fell asleep to the clickety clack.

Millie was a tired little hobo that day, and fell asleep to the clickety clack.

Best. Summer. Ever. – Episode 11: Visitor

We finally coaxed Angela’s sister Out West for a brief visit this past summer. Linda is one of Angela’s two siblings, the oldest of three girls who grew up in St. Louis. She’s a professional musician — the sisters were raised in a very musical household — and we were lucky to steal her away from her busy schedule of gigs for a few days. She is the one who stayed in St. Louis and raised her children there, while the youngers each flew to opposite coasts. The distances in this state of affairs makes family meetings precious. I had to work for most of the time she was here, but Angela and the girls and Auntie Linda packed as much first-time-visiting-Seattle stuff as they could into a couple of days. This included the Duck Boat tour, to which Linda with her nutball sense of humor is particularly suited. She’s also just very game. When Mara wanted to show her how she can play Ode to Joy on the piano, Linda slid into position on the lower half of the keyboard and provided the bass clef, matching Mara’s pacing and waiting when she got stuck, and then putting a 20th-Century-Fox flourish on the end of it. And she’s a natural teacher; when conversation turned to songs I wish I could figure out chords for, she asked me which ones, and a few seconds later she was finding and naming the piano chords to “Dream a Little Dream of Me”, and helping me hunt them down on my guitar, and enthusiastically offering variations of chords that she thought would work better in arrangements of songs I’d found on my own. She was a delight to have with us, and we wish she could have stayed lots longer. On her last evening here we took her to Walt’s for ice cream and to nearby Golden Gardens to catch the sunset.

At our favorite ice cream shoppe with Auntie Linda on a warm summer evening.

With Auntie Linda at our favorite ice cream shoppe — The Scoop at Walt’s — on a warm summer evening.


The Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt