By Dave Galvin, Seattle Audubon “Master Birder” and houseboat resident since 1986.
Let him know what you are seeing, and what questions you have, at email@example.com
Thank you for your continued interest in our local birds.
Birds on Lake Union and Portage Bay — September/October 2022
This is definitely our quietest time of year on lake and bay. Resident birds have finished nesting, they no longer need to defend territories or attract mates, and thus are mostly silent.
Our Canada Geese and dabbling ducks (Mallards and Gadwalls) have raised their young; have gone through the “eclipse” molt where they lose all their primary and secondary wing feathers at the same time; and are now getting into their new, fall plumage, looking all bright-and-dapper. This year’s juvenile Canada Geese stay with their parents (and, it seems, cousins), forming big flocks of lawn-mowers on Gas Works and Lake Union Park grassy areas. Young Canada Geese hang out for another year before becoming full breeding adults. Young Mallards, on the other hand, are now emerging from their May peep-peep-peep duckling cuteness into full adulthood and will join the flocks looking for mates soon this fall. They start pairing up in the fall, even though they don’t nest until next spring — possibly a strategy to address the lopsided number of 2+ males to each female. Gadwalls are our latest nesting ducks, and have just recently fully-fledged their crop of new dabblers.
A few American Coots and Pied-billed Grebes nest around Portage and Union Bays, but 99% of them have been over in Eastern Washington through the summer. We expect to see many of them show up anytime now, but more likely as of November. Same for the Double-crested Cormorants — we should start seeing them soon as they return from breeding in the Potholes and other spots away from the city.
I heard the sound of geese honking over Lake Union on a day in late September and looked up to see a huge V of Greater White-fronted Geese heading south, right over the city. They likely nested in Alaska, way up in the tundra, and were on their way to the Central Valley in California or even farther south. It was a treat to catch them in their flight overhead — a clear sign of fall and a wonderful link to wild nature in the middle of the big city. A few years ago at almost the exact same date I heard these geese at night, and there was just enough city light to make out the shape of their V flock. Identity was given away by their distinct honk.
So migration is in the air for those birds who move around between summer nesting and winter relaxing. I noticed the last Osprey on Lake Union on October 2nd this year, probably one of the juveniles from a nest over by Husky Stadium or Dahl Field. The parents have already headed for Mexico; now the young ones need to pull maps out of their DNA and follow the species’ path south on their own, a truly amazing phenomenon. Our local American Robins have now reconvened into large flocks locally. Some of them will stay here through the winter, while others will travel south to find better berries and worms. I’ve also noted the “perdick” call notes of Western Tanagers recently as they come out of Canada and the Cascades to pass through on their way to Central America. “Our” tanagers spend most of their year in thick, tropical forests and shaded coffee plantations where they enjoy more fruits and food than they can find through our harsh northern winters. Bird migration is truly an amazing phenomenon.
Get ready for the onslaught of wintering waterfowl! Pretty soon we should see not only the Coots, Grebes and Cormorants noted above, but rafts of Common Mergansers, Buffleheads, Ring-necked Ducks, Scaups and Common Goldeneyes — all diving ducks who nest elsewhere but come back to low-land Puget Sound for our mild winters and abundant small fish. More about them next month….
Birds on Lake Union and Portage Bay — August, 2022
August is a quiet time for birds on Lake Union and Portage Bay, but still an interesting time to pay attention.
Canada Geese hang out in big family clans known as crèches, as the “teenagers” are now as big as their parents and will stay with them for an entire year. Canada Geese mate-for-life and are sexually monomorphic, that is, they look identical; the only way I know of to tell male from female is to observe who sits on the nest, as only the female broods the eggs while the male maintains guard nearby.
Mallard fledglings are also now full-sized, looking just like mom before their fall molt into adulthood. Dabbling ducks (such as the genus Anas) do not mate for life, changing mates yearly and even during second broods within the same season. They are sexually dimorphic, meaning that males and females look different and are easily told apart. An interesting evolutionarily corollary (or maybe the other way around?) seems to be that there are more males than females in most adult duck populations. This increases the “sexual tension” during mating season as males unsuccessful at securing a female mate from the more limited pool get increasingly feisty (testosterone is a powerful drug), trying their best to find somebody to mate with. Note that adult male mallards go through a late-summer molt called “eclipse,” where they lose all or most of their brightly colored feathers, including all of their flight feathers, and take on a female-like plumage until they can fly again. They tend to hide out and not be too conspicuous during this period, but the bright yellow bill gives the male away.
Any late-summer, relatively newly-hatched ducklings are most likely Gadwalls, as these dabblers are late-nesters.
Our population of Caspian Terns are quite vocal as they fly over Lake Union. These gull-like birds with pointy wings nest in the lower Duwamish, but forage daily for fish in our neighborhood as well as all over the region.
We are proud god-parents to three successfully-fledged Peregrine Falcons on Lake Union this year. The parents nested on a lake-front building in the southern part of the lake, and produced four chicks, all of whom turned out to be females (an unusual occurrence, according to Patti Loesche of the Urban Raptor Conservancy, a local group of volunteers who monitor falcons, Cooper’s hawks and other urban raptors). Three of the four survived the challenging fledging process, so keep your eyes peeled for our new local falcons. As their name (Peregrine) implies, they can move around a lot, but these local falcons don’t tend to migrate huge distances, such as to other continents, but rather stay in the Northwest, from southern B.C .to places in Oregon. If you are lucky enough to see a PEFA (birders’ and bird-banders’ acronym for this species), let Patti know at urbanraptorconservancy.org .
We await the fall influx of our wintering ducks who nest north and east, while enjoying Seattle’s classic summer weather!
Birds on Lake Union and Portage Bay — June/July, 2022
We are in deep summer now, which, as I’ve noted in previous postings, is our slowest period for birds on Lake Union and Portage Bay. Singing land-birds are much quieter as they wind down nesting season, and waterfowl are for the most part past their nesting obligations.
Canada Geese will parade by with their “teenage” goslings, often in flocks larger than one-nest-worth. These crèches result from a combination of mating-for-life and two-year immaturity among these geese. They also continue to bond with other families into clans that stay together. Ducks, on the other hand, tend to be promiscuous without family bonds. Mom Mallards carry the burden to hatch their young and keep them safe as they “peep-peep-peep” behind her in the water. Broods of six or eight generally see reductions as the season progresses, due to predation from raccoons, otters, even bald eagles. This is nature’s way, as we only need two replacement progeny over multiple years to maintain a stable population of these birds.
Portage Bay harbors a few nesting Pied-billed Grebes. It is a treat this time of year to see newly-hatched grebelings riding on their parents’ backs. Unlike most ducks and geese, whose offspring can float within minutes of hatching, young grebes are semi-precocious and will sink after a few minutes for the first week-or-so. Thus the back-packing option offered by the parents. Cool to see.
Ospreys have returned from their winter vacations in Mexico. Our closest nesting pairs are on Union Bay by Husky Stadium. Yet we tend to see multiple Ospreys overhead on Lake Union, searching for fish. Individual birds might be from one of the pairs nesting on Union Bay. Yet, I’ve seen pairs and as many as four Ospreys recently over our lake, which indicates to me that we have multiple young birds freshly back from an extra vacation year in Mexico and ready to pair up and nest. (Juvenile — first-year —Ospreys spend an extra year down south as they become young adults still enjoying life in Mexico — they don’t return to their original natal area until they are two-year-olds, ready to find mates and settle down.). We might encourage a new pair to nest on the southeast part of Lake Union. Some proponents have supported raising an Osprey nesting platform as part of the proposed rejuvenation of Terry Pettus Park at the E. Newton street-end in Eastlake. My suggestion is to move such a site south to the Garfield street-end, so that the Ospreys can make all the noise and drop all the smelly fish-remains they want in an area slightly removed from our residential neighborhood. We can still enjoy them, should they choose to nest here, yet not have to deal with their proximity too close to where we live and play.
Keep an eye and ear out for our summer Caspian Terns. These small, gull-like birds have pointed wings and often fly with their heads pointing down, always on the lookout for fish. Their squak gives them away long before they are obvious by sight. They nest in a colony on a warehouse roof in the lower Duwamish, but spread out by day looking for fish in a wide arc all the way to Lake Washington.
We enjoy a rare treat locally with the fledging of four young Peregrine Falcons in late June from the AGC building on the SW shore of Lake Union. Volunteers from the Urban Raptor Conservancy (urbanraptorconservancy.org ) kept up a vigil on the water and shore in case one or more of the fledglings dropped to the water instead of gaining their wings. One as of this writing had to be taken to PAWS for re-hab, but the other three seemed to be flying nearby and gaining strength and experience, so we are hopeful that these young falcons will thrive and further our local population of Peregrines. They have many pigeons to feast on — rats, too.
Keep watching and marveling at the local birdlife on our urban lake.
Birds on Lake Union and Portage Bay — May, 2022
By May, our wintering migrants are long-gone, some of our early nesters have produced new young, and summer migrants who spent the winter farther south are now arriving or already here and beginning their own nests. Spring is in full force.
Canada Geese and Mallards should hatch their precocious young by early May, so this month should be time to watch new goslings and ducklings on the water. They quickly grow in size and strength, turning into “teenagers” by the end of May. Both goose parents tend to their goslings, while only mom Mallard shepherds here ducklings forward while trying to avoid mating attempts by multiple drakes. Gadwalls, meanwhile, are paired up but not yet nesting — they are our latest nesters on the lake, not producing young until later in the summer.
The swallows are back. We mainly have Violet-green Swallows and Barn Swallows near the houseboats, but look also for Tree Swallows and Cliff Swallows amongst the swooping fliers as they vacuum up clouds of midges in the air over lake and bay.
Nearby Ospreys are also back from their winter vacations in Mexico, and are nesting over by Husky Stadium. We see and hear them in our area as they search for fish. It is always a treat to have them around through the summer.
A pair of Peregrine Falcons have taken up nesting on the upper east side of the AGC building at the SW corner of Lake Union. Keep an eye out as they hunt for pigeons or young waterfowl around the lake. Viewing is best from MOHAI and Lake Union Park, or from a boat on the water.
Migrant song birds continue to arrive, some from as far away as South and Central America. One of my favorites to listen and look for is the Western Tanager. These gorgeous birds usually show up around Lake Union uplands (where there are stands of trees) in mid May. They only grace us with their presence for a week or so before moving on north into B.C. or up into the Cascades to nest. Listen for their characteristic “che-beck” call or their song which is often described as “a-robin-with-a-sore-throat.”
Caspian Terns are also back from their wintering areas along the coasts of Baja and Southern California. A colony nests on some a warehouse roof along the Duwamish River. They often fly up our way to fish in Lake Union or beyond in Lake Washington. Listen for their harsh “squawk” as they fly overhead searching for small fish near the surface.
Enjoy our spring birds around the urban lake.
Birds on Lake Union and Portage Bay — April, 2022
April is definitely a transition month for us on the water. Some days warm and sunny, others still cold and wet. But the sun keeps moving north day-by-day, and the longer daylight hours (not the weather) trigger the mating hormones in our local birds.
Our wintering waterfowl — such as Common Mergansers, Buffleheads, Common Goldeneyes, Lesser Scaups, Ring-necked Ducks, American Coots and Double-crested Cormorants — pick up and leave us for the summer as they head north or east to breed. Some go far up river valleys in the Cascades, others to Eastern Washington potholes, while many head north into British Columbia and Alaska to nest. We won’t see them again until late fall.
Meanwhile, our resident Canada Geese and Mallards are settling down to nest locally, on houseboat decks, rooftops or nearby shorelines. This is the only time that we can tell the sexes apart on Canada Geese, since they look identical. Only the female sits on her nest, while the male guards her and the immediate territory nearby. She lays on-average five to eight eggs, one every 1.5 days. Once she is finished laying, then she sits down to brood all of the eggs together, so that a month later, the goslings will all hatch on the same day. These young are precocious, able to swim and feed themselves right from the get-go, all the better to avoid predators and stay close to mama.
Mallards also nest in April. Males and females paired up early in the winter, but only now choose spots in planter boxes, on decks or along the shore for their grass nests. The hen lays 8-10 eggs, one per day, gradually increasing her time spent on the nest. Once all eggs are laid, she broods for a month, before the young hatch together, and, precocious like the geese, swim and eat and follow mom from their first day. The drake stays with the hen only until she completes her egg laying, then he leaves her to do the rest of the work. For him it’s not about her, it’s about ensuring that his DNA passes on to a new generation.
Anna’s Hummingbirds are finished with their first brood and usually on to a second by April. The male Anna’s defends his territory and keeps at a distance while the female builds the nest, lays and broods two eggs, and feeds the young without any help from dad. You might have noticed the female picking midges out of spiders’ webs along the gutters to feed protein to her growing babies last month. Now she disappears again for a few weeks while sitting on her second clutch, before reappearing to find insects for babies in May.
There is a lot of singing and nest building going on along the shore, too, as Song Sparrows, House Finches, Bewick’s Wrens, Northern Flickers, Black-capped Chickadees and Bushtits all get into springtime. It is a lovely time to enjoy all of our local birds, residents and migrants alike.
Birds on Lake Union and Portage Bay — March, 2022
You’ve now tolerated a full year of my monthly musings about our local birds. Thanks for your interest, observations and questions. I could simply reprint my columns from a year ago, which are still relevant regarding monthly highlights, but I hope to continue to add new details as we progress into spring in the new year. March is a wonderful and “birdy” month on lake, bay and nearby shores. Our winter visitors such as the diving ducks and cormorants are still with us, while land birds begin to sing, select mates and commence nesting. It’s the length of daylight, not temperature, that triggers their hormones into full alert, so even a late-season snow flurry won’t dissuade them from their breeding cycle.
Our earliest nesters locally are the Anna’s Hummingbirds. Males set up their territories in December and January, and females are already finishing up their first brood this month. You might notice additional female-look-a-likes at your sugar-water feeders in March and April. These are the new fledglings of 2022, already spreading their wings and learning how to navigate the world. Fairly soon thereafter, males will again do their J-dives, resulting in a loud, metallic “tewk” sound created as air is forced through their tail feathers. Females will mate a second time and commence sitting on a second set of two eggs, to hatch out later in the spring.
Most of our wintering waterfowl nest elsewhere. Common Mergansers, Scaups, Buffleheads, Common Goldeneyes, American Coots and Double-crested Cormorants are all still hanging out where the fish are on Lake Union, Portage Bay, the Ship Canal, the Montlake Cut and Lake Washington’s Union Bay for another month or so, before most of them head east or north to breed. Enjoy them while you can, since only a few stragglers stay here through the summer.
Local Mallard and Canada Goose couples are now hanging out more closely together and choosing potential nesting spots on shore or houseboat decks and floats. It will probably be another month before they start nesting in earnest, but their movements from big winter flocks signal that spring is here.
Song Sparrows, House Finches, Black-capped Chickadees and Bewick’s Wrens — all year-round residents — are singing and pairing up. American Robins — some winter residents, others migrants from farther south — will start singing from the tree tops, and Northern Flickers will begin their yak-yak-yak-yak calls in search of mates.
Even while the rain keeps falling and many days remain cold and dreary, spring is in the air.
Birds on Lake Union and Portage Bay — February, 2022
A quick, mid-winter update. Have you noticed something odd about our flocks of Common Mergansers? At least out on Lake Union, I am consistently seeing large flocks of these wintering fish-eaters that are predominantly male birds. See the image above, from neighbor Bill Donnelly on Fairview E. near Terry Pettus Park. We often see 50 or more birds in a block, with only 5 or 6 females. Sometimes flocks of 100, with only 10 or 11 females. What’s going on here? I don’t know, and neither does my mentor, Dennis Paulson, who teaches Seattle Audubon’s Master Birder program. Cornell’s excellent on-line reference, Birds of the World, mentions studies showing a 2:1 ratio of males-to-females, which can be found in a number of duck species, but 8:1? 9:1? Keep your eyes peeled and let me know if you also notice this phenomenon. Do the females hang out somewhere else? Or are there really that many fewer females than males? One of the great things about nature is how little we know!
Anna’s Hummingbirds are well into first nesting season. The males set up their territories in late December and January, and the females are now brooding eggs in their tiny, sock-like nests. Let me know if you are lucky enough to have a nest nearby. I see the males regularly guarding their turf, but the females are much more secretive. Once the eggs hatch, we’ll see them more as they scour spider webs for little midges and other bits of protein to feed the tiny nestlings.
Birds on Lake Union and Portage Bay – January 2022
The snow is melting as I write this, but it continues to be cold, dark and wet. Yet, the wintering waterfowl are quite happy, unlike the human contingent, as they (the ducks and geese) have chosen the Puget Sound lowlands as a safe bet for their winter habitation as compared to staying in Siberia, Alaska, inland B.C. or the northern plains. The definition of good weather is relative.
We have a hundred or more Common Mergansers rafting out in the center of Lake Union as of early January. I’ve seen flocks of 50 or more at the south end of the lake depending on weather conditions, and I’ve seen many more Mergs over on Union Bay. So I’m sure we are dealing with the same individuals or their offspring (who either follow their elders in the fall or have migration maps somehow embedded in their DNA). The key for them is open (unfrozen) water and lots of small fish. The fact that we see this many Common Mergansers and Double-crested Cormorants on Lake Union is a positive sign of a relatively healthy urban lake, in that we have sufficient small fish for them to eat, as well as an open (unfrozen) lake that meets their wintering needs. (The last time Lake Union froze over was in the “little ice age” of 1916. Fish-eaters back then had to wing-it farther south.)
American Coots are back from their major nesting area east of the mountains. They are vegetarians, bringing up aquatic plants that dabblers cannot reach. The dabblers, especially American Wigeons and Gadwalls, practice clepto-paracitism — they lurk at the surface, waiting for the American Coots to bring up fresh veggies, where the non-diving ducks take advantage of these Coots and steal a meal.
Belted Kingfishers continue to hang out here through the winter, as do Great Blue Herons and our dabbling duo of resident Mallards and Canada Geese. Keep an eye out for our solo wintering Great Egret, which tends to hang out in Portage Bay while making regular forays around Lake Union and Ship Canal shores in search of small fish near the surface. It is a treat to see all of these birds hanging out near, on or under our houseboats.
Our local Anna’s Hummingbirds amazed me through the blasts of sub-freezing, snowy weather. I kept my sugar-water feeders ice-free by regular exchanges during the cold days, and especially by bringing them in at night and putting them out before first light each morning when it was south of 32 degrees. Other neighbors from the lake shared photos of their feeders covered in bubble-wrap, or with hand-warmers taped on. These little dynamos somehow found places to hide from the cold winds, go into short-term tupor, and live for another day. Not only that, but a couple local Seattle Audubon members recorded these hummingbirds catching snowflakes! See the “snow dance” post at https://seattleaudubon.org/2021/12/16/annas-hummingbird-snow-dance/ for more details. Keep your eyes open to see if your resident Anna’s show this behavior when snowflakes are falling. Male Anna’s will begin advertising and defending territories in January, doing their amazing J-dives which end in a loud “tewk” sound created through their feathers. These hummers are one of our earliest nesters. If females find these males attractive and/or fit, mating will occur, after which the males depart (to play poker somewhere?), leaving all the rest of the work to the females to build the nest, lay and incubate the eggs, and feed the young until they fledge. They do continue to amaze me.
Birds on Lake Union and Portage Bay — December, 2021
Did I mention dark, cold and wet in my last note? We’re deep into it now as we shift from Thanksgiving turkey to Christmas goose.
All the winter waterfowl I talked about in November are in full season on lake and bays. We see individuals or small groups of these diving ducks near or going under our moorages. Note how these divers with their legs so far astern actually leap up from the water surface ever-so-briefly in order to dive under in search of fish. And when they want to fly, they can’t just leap straight up off the water like the dabblers do; instead, they need to run along the water surface like a seaplane in order to gain the air. Different body shapes are designed for different functions. In this case, legs and feet farther to the rear allow for better underwater swimming ability. Evolution is an amazing thing.
I seem to hear more Belted Kingfishers rattle past my place on Eastlake during late fall and winter months. I’m not sure if they are more present along our urban shores now compared with breeding season, or if I’m just more attuned to that wonderful rattling call with fewer other aural distractions. Keep eyes and ears out for these consummate fishers-with-attitude.
Also keep eyes open for a big, white bird in our neighborhood. For the past few winters (some report as many as the past five years), a single Great Egret has graced the Ship Canal with its presence. It has been seen over the years from Ballard to U.W., with frequent visits to Portage Bay and a few sightings along the Eastlake shore. It’s back, so watch for this all-white apparition with bright yellow bill and black legs and feet. Even though they share body shape and habits with their cousin Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets are actually significantly smaller. This isn’t obvious unless you get the rare opportunity to see them side-by-side.
Enjoy the holidays. Participate in the annual Christmas Bird Count on Dec. 19th via Seattle Audubon. You can stay at home under Audubon’s “feeder watch” protocols as part of the historic count and then astound the compilers with your “feeder” — they include “yard” — birds such as herons, egrets, mergansers and coots! Sign up ahead of time at seattleaudubon.org.
Happy New Year!
Birds on Lake Union and Portage Bay — November, 2021
By November we are in full winter swing for birds on and along the edges of lake and bay. Days are short, so food-gathering time is greatly reduced. Days are cold (but typically not freezing) and days are wet — good days for ducks, one might say!
Yep, winter is our season for the most variety of birds on the water. In addition to the confusing gulls I mentioned recently, and our resident Canada Geese, Mallards and Gadwalls, we enjoy at least 10 wintering waterfowl who find our lake and bays much to their liking: cold (but not freezing) and wet, with lots of small fish to eat.
Our winter abundance includes Double-crested Cormorants, Buffleheads, Pied-billed Grebes, American Coots, Greater and Lesser Scaups, Ring-necked Ducks, Common Goldeneyes, Common Mergansers and American Wigeon. Most of these waterfowl nest north and east of us: some close-by in the Cascades, more in the potholes of Eastern Washington, and many way up into Canada and Alaska. (We do have a few Pied-bills and Coots who hang out to nest in Portage Bay and Union Bay, but the vast majority leave us for the summer.)
Most of our winter waterfowl are piscivores (fish-eaters), with the exception being coots and wigeon, both vegetarians often found in mixed rafts due to the wigeons’ habit of clepto-parasitism of coots. As dabbling ducks, wigeon can’t dive for food, they can only reach under as far as their necks extend when bottoms-up. Coots, on the other foot, are competent divers, where they grab underwater bunches of milfoil and other aquatic plants, bring their mouthfuls back to the surface, and have some of their catch immediately stolen by the lingering wigeon. This is an interesting behavior to watch for where you notice these two species together. Gadwalls also exhibit this behavior, but wigeon are the master thieves. The coots seem to adapt — there is, after all, plenty of milfoil out there along lake edges and in the bays.
The rest of our winter cohort are all after the various species of small fishes we live over (or which live under our floating homes). Yellow perch, small- and large-mouth bass, bluegill (“pumpkinseed”) sunfish, pikeminnow, and sticklebacks are a few of our local underwater menagerie suitable for piscine bird food. In the spring, unfortunately, the list also includes the early vanguard of our juvenile out-migrating salmon: coho, sockeye and Chinook fry all run the gauntlet from Lake Washington through Montlake Cut, Portage Bay and Lake Union on their way out to salt waters. While this westward movement of young salmon peaks in May and June, after most of our winter piscivores have headed to their breeding grounds, fry that try to get a jump on the anadromous life run the risk of becoming merganser lunch or cormorant snack. More likely they get eaten by all the predatory fish mentioned above, the ones who survive the winter’s diving-bird onslaught.
And so nature goes in such cycles. Eat or be eaten. Try to stay alive and make it through another season. Always keep looking over your shoulder.
As you watch Double-crested Cormorants or Common Mergansers diving for dinner under your house or dock, see if you can identify the type of fish they come up with before it gets tossed down the gullet. I’d love to hear what you notice, or see any photos if you are lucky enough to catch them at just the right moment.
Enjoy these “snowbirds” who join us for the winter. And the turkey on the holiday table, too.
Birds on Lake Union and Portage Bay — October, 2021
October continues our seasonal transition to winter birds on Lake Union and Portage Bay. Look for the vanguard of Double-crested Cormorants, Buffleheads, Pied-billed Grebes and American Coots returning from their nesting sites east and north. (Those of you on Portage Bay probably have had a few Pied-bills and Coots all summer, as a few of them nest there and on Union Bay.). Keep an eye out for early Scaups, Ring-necked Ducks, Common Goldeneyes and Common Mergansers, but these diving ducks typically don’t show up until November.
And what about those (more) confusing winter gulls? Summer was confusing enough? Well, then simply sit back and enjoy them as “gulls” without worrying about their I.D.s! But if you are curious about the additional species that over-winter with us, read on. The typical additions beyond the Glaucous-winged Gull, the Glaucus-winged/Western hybrid and the California Gull seen in the summer on Lake Union include two other medium-sized gulls, the Ring-billed Gull and the Short-billed Gull (formerly known as the Mew Gull). These two plus the California Gull (which is still around) are quite similar — your best bet to identify them is to study resting birds up-close, and consult Sibley or another top field guide. As their new name implies, Short-billed Gulls have a small bill and are the smallest of the three medium gulls. Short-billed and California Gulls have dark eyes, where Ring-billed Gulls have pale eyes. (So, as on Bunker Hill 246 years ago, it’s best to be close enough to see the color of their eyes before shooting …pictures.) They all have black rings of varying sizes on their bills, they all have black wing-tips, and their immature stages are even more confusing! It may be best to say “gull” and move on! Let me know if you have some close-up photos and want my opinions about their I.D.s.
On the shore, our Song Sparrows are still singing (pretty much the only bird that does so through the winter) and many of our small birds are beginning to form their winter mixed flocks. Ruby-crowned Kinglets reappear from summer breeding in the Cascades and often join the local Black-capped Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches and other species as they spend the winter months together foraging loosely through bushes and trees.
Male Anna’s Hummingbirds are re-establishing their territories for mid-winter breeding, so watch for them doing their “J” dives and emitting the loud tewk sound through their tail feathers.
Birds on Lake Union and Portage Bay — September, 2021
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.
Birds on Lake Union and Portage Bay — August 2021
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Birds on Lake Union and Portage Bay — July 2021
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.
Enjoy the summer!
Birds on Lake Union and Portage Bay — June, 2021
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!
Birds on Lake Union and Portage Bay — May, 2021
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 email@example.com.
Birds on Lake Union and Portage Bay — April 2021
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 .]