Birdbrain

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.

Sketches.

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.

Staring.

Right.

At.

Me.

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’.

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6 Responses to “Birdbrain”


  1. 1 James January 2, 2015 at 18:55

    Lovely photos. I knew right away the final shot was a reenactment. In the actual moment of spotting an ivory-billed woodpecker your jaw would be more agape.

    This was the loveliest birding trip I’ve undertaken since a cross-Washington drive I took with friends more than a decade ago. We didn’t spot any living birds, but we spent hours naming the hundreds of species we might have seen if we’d known what to look for. I like the words even more than the birds, I think.

    • 2 Matt January 4, 2015 at 09:21

      James, it sounds like you were a victim of a prankster preying on birders. I hope you didn’t pay money for that trip. Thanks for coming along on mine. I too love the naming conventions. Even the legitimate ones sound intentionally funny. You don’t get that with trainspotting!

      • 3 James January 4, 2015 at 19:34

        The more full explanation behind that trip was that it was undertaken for completely non-avian purposes. Isabelle, our friend Christopher, and I were driving back from Missoula; near Spokane Isabelle saw a white bird and said, “Hey, that looks like a seagull.” Since we were 300 miles from the nearest ocean, we mocked the idea. “No, I think it was a tern.” “You mean an erne, don’t you?” We moved on, but whenever the conversation flagged, out would come another bird. “Maybe it was a moa.” Grackles, sapsuckers, bitterns, curlews, etc.–I never imagined we knew so many names.

        She was right, of course. Seagulls really get around.

  2. 5 Cheryl Otto-Cunningham February 15, 2016 at 21:40

    I’ve begun enjoying amateur birding. I just got back from TN where I saw very large crows, which turned out to be a Turkey Vulture and then later we saw another large crow which was actually a Black Vulture. These are actually very large birds very common to TN and when I looked them up, the Turkey Vulture head looked like a vulture’s red head where as their feathers and markings were really quite pretty. Something fascinating & new every single day! You’ve moved out of the city, I see. I must have missed some posts although I do keep a watch out for your posts/

  3. 6 Matt February 15, 2016 at 21:54

    Hi Cheryl, thanks for looking in. No, I haven’t moved out of the city, but I work over in Issaquah near the state park now. I don’t post a lot here anymore, but I watch the birds almost every day. Cheers.


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