Birds on Lake Union and Portage Bay — September, 2021

By Dave Galvin, Seattle Audubon “Master Birder” and houseboat resident since 1986

September is a transition month for birds on Lake Union and Portage Bay.  Days are getting shorter and almost all nesting is finished for this year. (Young Ospreys over by Union Bay are some of the last birds to fledge (leave the nest on their own) around now.   Gadwalls, our late-breeding dabbling ducks, have finally produced their next crop of young, many of them still growing out their wing feathers as September arrives.  Meanwhile, the Mallards, who are early nesters and often double-clutchers, have produced young who are molting right now into adults.  The young Canada Geese from this season are now as big as their parents, and will spend another year hanging out with the family before striking out on their own.

It is still a bit early for our wintering ducks to return — they are more likely to show up in October.  Look for early Ring-necked Ducks (a type of scaup), Buffleheads and Common Mergansers by late this month — the vanguard of the hundreds or thousands of these diving ducks that spend winter with us.

Double-crested Cormorants will begin returning from their nesting sites in Eastern Washington or Puget Sound islands to hang out locally.  You can tell the juvenile (first year) birds by their pale, almost white breasts compared to the black adults.  American Coots will start returning from Eastern Washington in large numbers.  A few coots nest locally, in Portage and Union Bays, but the vast majority migrate east-west over the Cascades each year, returning to our milder winters and abundant milfoil and other aquatic weeds.

Great Blue Herons are year-round residents, always a treat to see fishing stealthily along our shores or docks.  They are colony-nesters, with a local rookery on the south side of the Ballard Locks.  Watch for juvenile GBHs newly out of the nest, which are darker overall and sport a black beret atop their heads, where the adults have a white beret with jaunty black plumes behind.

On shore, Song Sparrows are about the only birds still singing.  Young Bewick’s Wrens are learning their songs from parents or nearby adults, and show quite a bit of variety before locking into their still quite varied repertoire.  Black-capped Chickadees are still “chick-a-dee-dee-deeing” and Bushtits are still twittering, but the spring and early summer chorus is over until next year.

Keep me posted of your sightings and questions at galvind53@gmail.com


Birds on Lake Union and Portage Bay — August 2021

By Dave Galvin, Seattle Audubon “Master Birder” and houseboat resident since 1986

A neighbor asked me, “What about the gulls?”  To which I responded, “They’re complicated.  You could spend a lifetime trying to figure them out.” Sibley, in his field guide, notes that, “Gull identification represents one of the most challenging and subjective puzzles in birding….”

Gulls are medium-sized, generally white-bodied birds that stereotypically hang out near salt water, thus the generic term, “seagull.”  Yet some gull species spend their whole lives inland, and many of our “sea” gulls nest in Eastern Washington, the high plains or northern tundra.  Gulls are flexible omnivores — they will catch live fish or other creatures when available, but often scavenge whatever is around, from Ivar’s French fries to dead animals to garbage.  They have adapted well to human beings and cities, and now nest on rooftops right downtown, where a century ago they would prefer remote islands. So, what about the gulls we see or might see on Lake Union and Portage Bay?  I’ll begin this topic with summer gulls, and will follow up in the fall with our more varied crop of wintering species.

In the early to mid summer, gull I.D. is easy here on the lake: our only breeding gull is the Glaucous-winged Gull.  But even these guys and gulls aren’t so “easy,” since they hybridize so much with the more coastal Western Gull that ornithologists are debating splitting out the variants that we see all over Puget Sound as a separate species to be called the Olympic Gull.   But in the meantime, if you see a large, white-headed and white-bodied gull with dull gray back and no black at the wingtips, nesting or hanging out early to mid summer, you can be sure it is either a “pure” Glaucous-winged or one of these Puget Sound hybrids.  These gulls used to prefer remote islands to nest, such as Protection Island between Port Townsend and Sequim, but in recent decades more and more of them nest in the city, either on downtown building roof-tops or on the roofs of houseboats and boat shelters around the lake.  The hypothesis is that they can find more readily-available food now in the city, either at outdoor restaurants, or in city dumpsters or garbage landfills.

By mid to late summer, we begin to see a “medium-sized” species called the California Gull.  These birds nest in Eastern Washington and the high plains, then pass through our area, lingering between July and October, before spending the winter on the outer coast all the way to Baha.  If you see a medium-sized gull with black wingtips on Lake Union in mid to late summer, it is likely a visiting California Gull.

Gulls take multiple years to mature, presenting a wide range of plumage and bill colors.  Newly fledged (“juvenile”) Glaucous-winged and California Gulls have dark, mottled, brownish-gray feathers all over, with black bills — very different looking from their parents.  Then there are first winter, second winter, and third winter birds to add to the challenge. Confusing enough?  The rest of the year, gull I.D. gets really complicated, so we’ll wait to discuss our winter visitors at another time.

In the short-term, focus on adult birds and ignore all the variable juvenile and immature options.  After a while, you will begin to pick out the species by overall size, size and color of bill, color of wingtips and other details.

Sorry if all this is TMI.  You can simply enjoy our gulls as they are without having to name them.  Watch their behaviors, and let me know if you have any observations or questions at galvind53@gmail.com


 

Birds on Lake Union and Portage Bay — July 2021

By Dave Galvin, Seattle Audubon “Master Birder” and houseboat resident since 1986

As I noted earlier, summer is our quietest time of year for birds on lake and bay.

Mallard ducklings are quickly becoming teenagers — officially called juveniles — where they look almost exactly like females; they still hang out with mom before molting again into their first-year adult plumage by October.  Gadwall ducklings are late-hatchers, so any small ducklings in July are likely that species.  As they grow into juvenile status in late summer, they also look just like mom before molting into their full adult plumage by early fall.  Male Mallards and Gadwalls go into eclipse in mid to late summer, where they lose all their flight feathers at the same time and switch all their other showy feathers for a more drab look similar to females while they wait for their wings to re-grow.  If you see what looks like a female Mallard in late summer sporting a bright yellow bill, that is the give-away that it is a male in hiding while he can’t fly.

Canada Geese have completed nesting and are cruising the lake in multi-family groups called crèches.  Often these geese share daycare duty, with one pair of adults watching over young goslings from multiple couples, giving the other adults a bit of a break.  A photo of a crèche near MOHAI was attached to my April note.  First-year geese — called immatures — stay with their parents and might assist with the crèche of new goslings, since these geese don’t mate until year two.

Our Barn and Violet-green Swallows have likely fledged young by now.  Look for blacker-backed Barn Swallow juveniles, and grayish-backed Violet-green juveniles with dusky faces — field marks often hard to see while they dart by so quickly on the wing.  Purple Martins and Tree Swallows nest on Union Bay, and Cliff Swallows nest under some of our local bridges, so keep an eye out for these less common species over the water.

More sheltered and shallow Portage Bay may harbor one or more nesting pairs of Pied-billed Grebes.  These fish-eating divers build a floating nest among emergent plants.  Unlike Mallards and Gadwalls, both adults share nest-building, egg-brooding and young-raising duties.  Also unlike our local ducks, the young are born semi-precocious — they will drown if in the water for very long in their first week; instead, either mom or dad carries them on their back during this time, a wonderful sight to look for.

Newly-fledged Bald Eagles should emerge from the three nests on Union Bay in July.  Watch for them as they practice their flying skills and begin to learn how to hunt (while mostly still begging for food from their parents).  These juveniles are dark brown all over, with mottled white under their wings and tail in flight.  (Sometimes people confuse these fledglings for Golden Eagles, which are found east of the Cascades and almost never in lowland Puget Sound.). It takes a Bald Eagle five years to reach full maturity with its iconic white head and tail.

Keep your reports and questions coming; send to galvind53@gmail.com .  Enjoy the summer.  — Dave Galvin


Birds on Lake Union and Portage Bay — June, 2021

By Dave Galvin, Seattle Audubon “Master Birder” and houseboat resident since 1986

Spring is fast waning behind us as we move into full summer on lake and bay.  Mallards are pretty much finished even with their second broods, while Gadwall ducks are raising their first (and probably only) brood much later than the Mallards.  Our Anna’s Hummingbirds have also wrapped up their two-brood nesting season — you might see a mix of adults and juveniles at your sugar-water feeders.

On the shoreline, and sometimes even out on our houseboat docks, “land” birds such as Song Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Black-capped Chickadees and Bushtits have been nesting, and singing their territorial and mate-attracting songs.  On nearby shores, upland, American Robins, House Finches, White-crowned Sparrows and Bewick’s Wrens are wrapping up their nesting season.  American Robins nest throughout our neighborhood, the males singing nonstop from the treetops through early morning in May and into June.   Photo by Tom Allan, used with permission. Look for young birds hanging out and often still being fed by their parents (including young American Crows, who pester their parents for food well after they are as big or bigger than mom and dad).

Summer on the lake is a low-point for local birds.  We get some visiting Ospreys from Union Bay who come here to fish, as well as some Great Blue Herons from their nearby rookeries at the Locks and on the U.W. campus.  But generally speaking, summer is a quiet time for birds here. But not for our local swallows, who are loving the regular midge hatchings.  Violet-green Swallows and Barn Swallows are most common; some Tree Swallows might be mixed in, plus an occasional Cliff Swallow or Purple Martin flying by.  Swallows are super aerialists, skimming the air with their mouths open to scoop up midges and other flying insects. Violet-green Swallows skim the water seeking emergent insects,  Photo by Larry Hubbell, used with permission. Watch, or listen, for Caspian Terns through the summer, who nest on the Duwamish River but who forage widely, including regular fly-bys on and over Lake Union.  Their loud, raspy squawk is quite distinctive and a regular call-note over the summer lake.

A neighbor asked me to diverge slightly to talk about bats!  We have many small bats that emerge at dusk to take over from the swallows on the night shift of insect reduction.  My friend, Sarah, the bat expert from Whidbey Island, says these are probably Little Brown Myotis bats, but could also by Yuma Myotis or California Myotis bats.  I need to invite her for dinner on the back deck to confirm sighting I.D.s, so stay tuned there.  These cute little flying mammals find their prey by echolocation and often scoop the insects up in their tail and wing membranes before getting them to their mouths, thus the erratic flying pattern.  No Washington bats feed on blood, and only one in 20,000 might carry rabies (but not COVID-19).  (Just in case, don’t pick up a bat unless you are certified by the state to do so and have been vaccinated for rabies.). Bats are clearly our friends and could use more roosting and nesting locations such as specially-built bat boxes — did you know that a nursing female Little Brown Myotis, whose body size is about that of a mouse, can eat her body weight in insects each night during our summers?  Nice to have them around!

Keep me posted as to your summer sightings as well as any questions you have on our local birds (and now bats):  galvind53@gmail.com .

Birds on Lake Union and Portage Bay — May, 2021

By Dave Galvin, Seattle Audubon “Master Birder” and houseboat resident since 1986

Spring is in full bloom.  The “dawn chorus” of American Robins, Song Sparrows, House Finches, Bewick’s Wrens, Black-capped Chickadees, Northern Flickers, and other local land birds is awesome and a wonderful tribute to urban nature in the spring, when hormones rage and nesting is in full swing. Our local couples of Canada Geese and Mallards are nesting, the Mallards relatively quietly throughout the houseboat community or onshore,  while the geese can get out of hand making loud honking vocalizations as they defend their territories.  A local Zoomer noted that her colleagues online can tell it is her on the line (unmuted) when the geese are raising a ruckus nearby.  I’ve heard reports of ten eggs in one local Mallard nest, which is a lot for that heroic female.  Chicks should be emerging now or soon, peepers-peeping along our channels gleaning algae and related vegetables but also learning too quickly about bread handouts (not recommended!).

Bushtits are nesting in the neighborhood onshore.  These tiny members of the chickadee family are mousey gray-brown, with long tails, but so small that they only weigh one gram more than an Anna’s Hummingbird.  Bushtits build their nests fairly close to ground level (usually in low branches six or eight feet from the ground).  Their nests look like a long sock, all made of plant fibers and spider webs, with a hole at the top where mom and dad pop in and out.  Look for these “socks” wherever you see a pair twittering in our local bushes.  They are very shy and quiet, yet will allow you to stand three or four feet away from the nest to watch their comings-and-goings. Most other local birds are now nesting.  American Robin males sing their iconic song from local treetops in mornings and evenings, signaling their territories.  Fights between male Robins can be seen where they define their otherwise invisible boundaries.  House Finches, Bewick’s Wrens, Song Sparrows and Black-capped Chickadees are all involved in local nesting, which includes loud declarations from the male who defends the local territory, while the female quietly deals with the emerging family.

Our local hummingbirds are on different schedules.  Our Anna’s Hummingbirds, who live here year-long, have moved into their second broods for the season.  If you have local sugar-water feeders (careful to replace them weekly, including cleaning via Clorox solutions, with new sugar-water in a one-part white sugar to four parts water solution warmed on the stove to dissolve), you should look for the newly fledged young ones joining mom at the trough.   Meanwhile, the males reentered the scene with their “J-dive” again in early April, signaling their need to re-defend their territories, and at the same time to attract the same or more female(s).  So by early May the females are likely to be on-nest again for a second brood!  These tiny creatures do so much work in a short amount of time that they deserve some kind of prize.  Look for a second hatch of fledglings at your feeders in May. Our native Rufous Hummingbirds began to show up in April and by May most of them have gone on to their mid-mountain habitats to nest.  But some stay local, so look for the very different Rufous coloration at your Mahonia bushes or sugar feeders.  These native hummers rely on native vegetation such as the red-flowering currant and the Oregon grape (Mahonia sp.).   These Rufous tend to pass through quickly in our lowlands, but let me know if you see a couple staying local to breed.

Belted Kingfishers also are in the area.  We hear their rattle as they fly by, and we delight when we get a glimpse of one or both sitting still, eyeing the water for fish.  Have you ever seen one head into a shoreline borrow?   Or otherwise indicate a likely place where they might nest?  I’ve seen them and loved their rattle as they fly along the Eastlake shore, but I’ve never been able to confirm a local nesting spot.  Kingfishers have the heaviest skulls of any bird relative to its size.  They use this head-weight to plunge straight down into the water to catch small fish.  They are one of very few birds that can hover over one spot before diving in.  Another local hoverer?  Our favorite Ospreys.

Let me know what you are seeing locally, as well as what questions you have.  Both inputs will help me to address future notes for everyone’s benefit.  Send to galvind53@gmail.com.

Birds on Lake Union and Portage Bay — April 2021

By Dave Galvin, Seattle Audubon “Master Birder” and houseboat resident since 1986

Most houseboaters see our local Canada Geese and Mallards when the birds paddle by all year round or, this time of year, when they climb up on the deck looking for a place to nest, or honk or quack annoyingly early in the morning trying to define their potential territory. These are our resident birds. They have very different biologies.

Canada Geese mate with multi-year bonds (known as “mating-for-life”, although that might be a bit anthropomorphic), and the male sticks around to help with nesting, fledging, and taking care of the new brood, although only the female sits on the nest to incubate the eggs. These geese tend to form multi-family groups with the new fledglings, called gaggles, where different “sentries” take turns to watch for danger while others feed or sleep. You can see this behavior clearly in the groups of geese that hang out through the winter and early spring at Lake Union Park near MOHAI and at Gas Works Park.

They split up into mated pairs by early March and find nesting spots around the lake. Only later do they reunite with their family groups. When they reassemble after the young hatch and immediately fledge (these “precocious” young are able to swim within 24 hours), they often organize day-care, where one pair of geese will watch out for up to 20 or more young, way more than any one pair could produce from their own nest, in a group known as a crèche or gang brood.

 

Mallards, our local, most common duck, have a different mating strategy. They select different mates each season, and even during the season. They tend to pair up early in the winter, as the male defends his selected mate for the spring (because, not sure why, there are more male Mallards than females). But once they have established a nest on the shore or houseboat around April, and the female is on eggs, the male leaves the rest to her — she broods the eggs for a month, and then marshals the precocious young as they feed on algae and other greens along the water’s edge. Males quickly thereafter swoop in in hopes to mate again with any female in sight for a second brood, all the better to send his DNA on to the next generation. This rendezvous later in the spring or early summer, even while the young are still following their mom, can seem quite aggressive, even what one of my neighbors referred to as “duck rape,” yet it is what it is — a different strategy for moving DNA forward. We are all observers to this choice of the “Anas” genus of dabbling ducks, which is very different from the approach of the “Branta” genus of geese. Evolution has produced multiple ways to successfully reproduce. And one must admit that both Canada Geese and Mallards have been successful.

Geese, ducks and many other birds, especially those with precocious young who can walk, swim and eat within 24 hours of hatching, also follow a strategy of having large broods, due to predator loses before any can “fledge” in the sense of being able to fly. Geese typically have 5 eggs, although some really proficient females can produce up to 12 eggs in a clutch. Mallards typically have 8 eggs, but clutch size varies from a few to as many as 20!. The female of both species lays her eggs one day at at time, covers them with down, but doesn’t incubate them until she is done laying; thus once they are all being incubated, they all hatch at the same time. It is often a houseboat joy to watch the new fledglings swimming behind their mom, eating vegetarian pickings off the logs. But it is also a given, if one pays attention, that the groups of young decrease over time, as otters, raccoons or other predators, even Bald Eagles, take the less-wary young. Over time, multi-year, after all, each pair of ducks or geese only has to produce two successful offspring in order to further the species. The rest are part of nature’s challenge, the survival of the fittest and part of the food chain, even on our urban lake.

April signals the return of Ospreys to our area. These consummate fishers “mate for life,” but spend their winter vacations at different spas. The females, who leave us first in August, tend to head for the east coast of Mexico or farther south, while the males stay into September to feed the nearly fledged nestlings before heading to Mexico’s west coast. They get back together this month at their previous nesting sites (having what ornithologists call high breeding site fidelity) to tell stories about their winters, or not. (Even more interesting, the newly-fledged young are the last to migrate south (how do they know the way?) and they stay 18 months on their chosen wintering grounds before coming back north.) Locally, Ospreys nest nearby on the north side of Union Bay. A pair did try to nest on top of a crane at Lake Union Drydock a number of years ago, but needless to say that platform didn’t stay still. The Union Bay birds often come into Portage Bay and Lake Union looking for fish, so keep your eyes and ears peeled to catch them flying overhead or even grasping a fish from the surface of the water with their hooked talons. (If you are lucky enough to see this capture, watch how the bird always shifts the fish to be head-first in its talons as it flies off.) There is talk about encouraging the city to include an osprey nesting platform as part of the redesign of Terry Pettus Park at the E. Newton street-end in Eastlake. We might need to be careful about its location there, preferring a pole in the offshore water, since these birds are prolific and messy fish eaters, resulting in a bit of a stinky mess directly under the nest! Better in the water than on the land.

A quick update on Anna’s Hummingbirds. A neighbor on the Eastlake houseboats sent me this photo of a female on her new nest, perched, like the image I shared from a local bird from previous years, precariously on a wire under the houseboat’s eves. Maybe this is the same female who likes this kind of location and is good at balancing? She has likely laid two eggs and spent most of March brooding them. Watch now for the local nesting females to reappear once the eggs hatch because now she needs not only to feed herself but also her growing young, who require a lot of protein. Watch as mom goes searching along gutter edges and spider webs to pick up midges and other tiny insects to feed her little ones.

Spring is really in full swing now, with Violet-green and Barn Swallows returning, Song Sparrows, House Finches, American Robins and Bewick’s Wrens singing on the shore, and many other local birds putting their energy into nesting. I’ll try to fill in some more details in May. In the meantime, thanks for the positive comments. Keep your reports and questions coming, to galvind53@gmail.com.


March 2021

Ever wonder what that funny-looking duck is off your back deck?  Or wonder why some birds seem to only be here for parts of the year while others are permanent residents?  I hope with this article to launch a monthly update on local birds on our lake.  Here is my first post.  If it piques your interest, let’s turn this into a conversation.  Let me know what you are seeing, and what questions you have, to help us all to celebrate nature in the city.

March is a transitional month when local geese and dabbling ducks are paired up and starting to nest while winter visitors are still diving for fish locally before they fly north or into the mountains to breed.  I’ll focus today on our wintering waterfowl since most of them will be gone in another month or so.

But first a note about one of our earliest-breeding residents.  Anna’s Hummingbirds are already on nest, so if you happen to see mom at your feeder, gleaning sugar water, she is working hard to brood her two tiny eggs.  Soon she will be skimming dock plants for insects and emerging spiders to use as protein for herself and her newly-hatched young.  Here is a shot of two baby hummers tucked tightly into their sock-like nest, which mom chose to build a bit precariously on two joined electric plugs on a neighbor’s back deck.

The diversity of water-birds is actually greater on Lake Union and Portage Bay in the winter months than in summer.  Many species of ducks and other waterfowl nest elsewhere, such as in the mountains, or on Eastern Washington potholes, or in the vast Canadian and Alaskan wilds. They then come to more temperate Puget Sound lowlands for our (mostly) snow-and-ice-free winters. One of the more striking species we see now is the Common Merganser.  These sleek waterfowl sit low on the water like battleships.  They are consummate fish eaters who dive under our houses to catch small fish.  The males sport striking white sides and breast, with dark green heads and backs, and bright red, serrated bills.  Females have rusty redheads and gray backs, usually with more of a punk-style crest of rusty feathers sticking out.  We often see flotillas of these mergansers on the lake from November through April, then one day, poof, they disappear for six months to breed.  Shown in the photo is a small flotilla working the fish in my channel.

Other wintering ducks include cute little Buffleheads, Common Goldeneyes, Ring-necked Ducks as well as their cousins, Greater and Lesser Scaups, and an occasional Hooded Merganser.  These are all piscivores (fish-eaters), so to me they serve as an indication that Lake Union and Portage Bay are healthy enough habitats to support enough fish for these hungry divers to feed on.

Another common water-bird this time of year is the Double-crested Cormorant, which hangs out here through the winter and then travels east to nest in big colonies in the potholes of Eastern Washington.  You might see the cormorant occasionally sitting on a piling with its wings spread out to dry.  Large groups of them sit on top of the covered moorages along Westlake, and in the spring hang out in the trees along the Ship Canal west of the Fremont Bridge.

American Coots are another primarily winter visitor, often in flocks numbering in the hundreds (and in Union Bay by Husky Stadium in flocks in the many thousands).  Coots are diving vegetarians that bring milfoil and other aquatic plants up to the surface to eat.  They are often hounded by dabbling ducks such as American Wigeons or Gadwalls, who can’t dive and who instead lurk at the surface to steal the bottom plants from the diving coots.  You can watch this phenomenon, known as kleptoparasitism, wherever coots hang out this time of year.  A few stay local to breed, but the vast majority wing over the mountain passes in early April to nest in Eastern Washington.

What are you seeing?  What are your questions?  I’ll try to address these topics as I also hope to point out our local and transitory birds through the months.  Thanks for your interest and your help to build this column into a useful venue for all.  Send commentary to galvind53@gmail.com. Readers who are members of Eastlake Community Council or who pick up The Eastlake News at Pete’s will note that I have launched a companion column in that quarterly publication, where I will keep a neighborhood bird list, so you can see (and add to) all the species documented on land, in the water or overhead in the Eastlake area.  This might miss some sightings from Westlake, Fremont, Gas Works or other spots where FHA members live, but might be of interest to you.  Find this list at www.eastlakeseattle.org .]