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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’.

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.

Best. Summer. Ever. – Episode 10: The other side

Note: Between the last episode and this one we visited Mount Rainier for the first time ever as a family, but that’s covered in its own post.

Some friends at our church, Jeff and Michele and their daughters Alli and Marissa, have a cabin at Fish Lake in the mountains on the other side of Stevens Pass. Once or twice a year for the past few years we have joined them there for a weekend of boating and swimming and cooking s’mores over bonfire embers, if it is summer, or sledding, tobogganing and other snow and ice play (including walking out on the frozen lake) if it is winter. Both of the princesses of that house, being older, have babysat for our girls, who adore them, and we’ve much enjoyed their society. They’ve also invited us to visit the cabin by ourselves on weekends when no one else has signed up for that date, and this summer we took them up on it. As a side adventure we drove from the cabin a score of miles or so to the alpine-style town of Leavenworth, where we tried to find a restaurant worth writing home about (those of you at home will notice you received no mail from us on this subject) and embarked on a rafting — or rather inner-tubing — trip down the Wenatchee River, which was loads of fun. On the way home, we pulled over on a whim to check out a waterfall and enjoy a lovely hike through tall firs at a place called Deception Creek between Scenic and Skykomish. We especially loved this part of our weekend because we had no idea the falls and trail existed until we stumbled upon them and the adventure we had there was completely unplanned. We had the time…we took the path.

The cabin at Fish Lake.

The Fish Lake redoubt. Here’s to friends with big hearts and a cool cabin.

They give you frisbees to steer with and they pick up what's left of you a couple miles downriver.

They give you frisbees to steer with and they pick up what’s left of you a couple miles downriver.

Deception Falls is literally right next to the freeway, even partially underneath it. But the loop trail takes you on a pleasant sylvan journey.

Deception Falls is literally right next to the freeway, even partially underneath it. But the loop trail takes you on a pleasant sylvan journey.

Best. Summer. Ever. – Episode 9: Seafair

We didn’t really DO Seafair, the week-long summer hootenanny that kicks off with the Seafair Pirates landing at Alki Point and ends with the Seafair Cup hydroplane races on Lake Washington. That is, we didn’t attend any particular event. But we went to the beach at Waverly Park on race day and met up with some members of the Very Special Family in our lives. It was the perfect early August day at the lake, and we could see the Blue Angels off to the south as they did their loops and rolls over the race track. Occasionally one would streak by close and we’d hear the tearing loud roar, and we could hear the dull rumbling as all the jets curved away together in the distance. We didn’t hear the “thunderboats”, which make almost no noise these days except for a jetsy turbine sound. When I was a kid, we could hear the boats doing time trials all week long from our house in the south Bellevue neighborhood of Enatai, even over the big ridge of our neighborhood with all its tall firs. That’s when they ran with Allison and Rolls Royce engines salvaged from World War II Allied fighter planes like the Warhawk, Mustang, Spitfire and Hurricane. Those boats made some noise. It was part of the excitement building up to the races. This was a sweet day even without the boat noise — the beachgoers registered plenty of happy decibels themselves splashing and hollering. Mara wore a life jacket and got to jump off the dock and paddle around in the deep water with the “big kids” in our VSF. Here, Millie goes for a wade with Grandpa Andy.

Stepping out.

Stepping out.

Best. Summer. Ever. – Episode 8: The Sound

We like the beach, we do. In recent summers we’ve been going up to Camano Island to spend a few days at Cama Beach State Park, where about 30 beachfront cabins built in the 1930s have been restored to their original Craftsman charm. This beach, on the west side of the island, was a fishing resort in its salad days, where local folks would come to relax and enjoy the beach in inexpensive lodgings. There were a dozen or more family-owned places like this around the Puget Sound between the wars*. But after World War II the middle class became more prosperous and could afford more for their vacation dollar, and gradually these resorts all fell on hard times as vacationers took to the interstate highways or boarded jets for their getaways. This one was shuttered in 1989, but instead of selling the land for millions to developers, the owners sold it for cheap to the state to be made into a park, which opened in 2008.

Cama Beach Resort in the 1930s. Photo courtesy of Stanwood Camano Historical Society.

Chillaxin’ at Cama Beach Resort in the 1930s. Photo copyright Stanwood Camano Historical Society.

Other aspects of the place’s history are more depressing — the resort was built on the site of a logging camp that had been there since the 1880s, but the camp was only built after First Nations peoples had been treatied out of the area and imprisoned on reservations, so…same old same old. It is believed that the site was a seasonal Tulalip fishing camp for time out of mind. Worse, archaelogical evidence surfaced during the creation of the state park that the Indians had been using the area for burials, but the state was eager to git a move on with the park and the process of investigating the extent of the burial grounds was, many feel, incomplete, hasty and unsatisfactory. The Tulalips naturally felt ill used (again) and their boycott of the park opening made it less of a happy thing.

We love the place even so. We usually meet interesting people in neighboring cabins, and one year we took interesting friends along with us. The girls spend hours just throwing things into the water and dragging things out again. Mara’s seaweed mining operation attracted the partnership of a kid named Gabe who, he happened to know, was descended of Vikings. Angela and I cook and clean all day like we always do, only here in rustic cabins without amenities. One thing we’ve done a couple years in a row is take one of the boats out from the Center for Wooden Boats, which has an operation there at the park. This year while rowing on the becalmed Salish Sea one grey morning, we watched an eagle perch in a tree with a fish lunch, and a seal popped up a few yards away and watched us for a while before disappearing again without a sound.

Millie is still timid about turning over the rocks in the tidepools. Those crabs are startling!

Millie is still timid about turning over the rocks in the tidepools. Those crabs are startling!

Mara meets a fellow seaweed enthusiast, Gabe the Descendent of Vikings.

Mara meets a fellow seaweed enthusiast, Gabe the Norseman.

Gloria.

Gloria.

This fellow fancies himself a star, but we think he's washed up.

This fellow fancies himself a star, but we think he’s washed up.

————————————————

*The phrase “between the wars” will probably mean something else pretty soon, but throughout most of the late 20th century it meant between world wars I and II.

Best. Summer. Ever. – Episode 7: Oompah

We found ourselves footloose on the Fourth of July this year, so we piled into Chitty (the girls’ name for our Subaru Forester) and headed “down to the Locks” — that is, the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks (a.k.a. the Ballard Locks, the Government Locks or even the Gummint Locks) in Ballard. Somehow it’s always a gas there. You got yer flowers in the gardens, and you got yer raising and lowering of boats in the big and little locks — hours of fun, that, since invariably the lock master has to yell at someone to pay out some line or get their bowsprit out of someone else’s shrouds — and you got yer fish ladder. AND…on the Fourth of July, which we didn’t know until we happened to wander onto the lawn at two minutes until showtime, you got yer free old time music being played live by the Seattle Civic Band. We hunkered down on the grass on our blanket, which we just happened to be carrying (really!), and enjoyed classic horny hits such as “Washington Post March” by J. P. Souza, the “Princess of India Overture” by Karl King, and of course the SSB by Francis Scott Key. The special guest was the Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s bass trombonist Stephen Fissel, who soloed on Stephen Frank’s “Barnacle Hill”.

The Seattle Civic Band rocks the Locks.

The Seattle Civic Band rocks the Locks under the superb conduction of William Blayney.

LIvin' lawj on the lawn.

LIvin’ lawj on the lawn. Yeah, we’re scrappy and ill-mannered, but we’re Americans!

A magic window. The salmon ladder at the Ballard Locks.

A magic window. The salmon ladder at the Ballard Locks.

Together is a good way to spend a day.

Together is a good way to spend a day.

EJG and I

We interrupt this programming to bring you a photo taken today. It’s of me and my grand-niece, whose initials are EJG. The J is for Jenifer, for she is my sister’s second grandchild and her first granddaughter. Jeni died more than a year and a half ago, so she didn’t get to see this child, who was born only weeks ago to her oldest child (my oldest niece), or her first grandson, who is just shy of a year old now and is the son of Jeni’s second daughter. We all went to Jeni’s grave today to look at the new stone marker that we finally had installed in place of the temporary one, and we sang her happy birthday since she would have turned 54 yesterday. Then we all reconvened at Grandma’s (my own mom’s) for soup and coffee and cake.

The future keeps coming.

The future keeps coming on, even if the socks keep coming off.

We wish Jeni could have lived to see her grandkids, of course. But with all these babies happening, the sadness of everything is slowly starting to drift down and settle in the bass clef for me. I don’t expect it to go away, just join and reshape some of the foundational themes in the music. Babies are insistently forward-looking. Good things, their furrowed brows and twitching hands seem to say, are all ahead of us. When someday I tell this child a story about her grandmother and middle-namesake Jeni, and a picture of my sister takes shape in her mind and takes root in her heart, it will all have come back aright.


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