Gone But Not Forgotten

Earlier this summer my wife and I were rounding a corner on an old forest service road when  we saw a vehicle approaching from the opposite direction. A bird fluttered up from the gravel in front of the vehicle, and the vehicle’s occupants stopped briefly to admire it as it alighted on a nearby tree trunk. After a few seconds they continued on, giving my wife and I the familiar “Did you see that too?” look as they passed our car before disappearing around the corner that now lay behind us.

We continued forward and came to a stop next to the tree to which the bird was still clinging, and we both immediately knew something was wrong. The bird on the trunk was a male Northern Flicker, and if he was healthy, there would have been no way he would have allowed us to be this close to him. Tail feathers soiled by his own excrement further betrayed his condition even as the bird did his best to appear as if he were not in distress, knowing instinctually that to do otherwise would quickly attract the attention of predators.

Northern Flicker 1

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More Than Meets The Eye

On a recent wilderness hike, my wife and I were approaching a waterfall when we heard the unmistakeable sound of baby birds begging to be fed. The sound stopped us in our tracks, and broad, knowing smiles appeared on our faces as we looked at one another. We hurried down to the riverbank where we found exactly what we expected. A small, unassuming, gray songbird was standing on a mossy rock near the waterfall.

American Dipper in habitat

A small, gray songbird was standing on a mossy rock next to the waterfall.

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Something To Chew On

The next time you see a cute little bunny munching on some nice, leafy greens consider this- in a few hours the rabbit will be pooping out those greens only to eat them again. You see, rabbits practice coprophagia, meaning they ingest their own feces.

OK, so technically what the rabbits are ingesting are called “cecotropes”, and they are not exactly the same as feces. They are moist masses of partially digested food that just happen to come out of the same orifice as feces. The rabbits are able to absorb much more nutrition from the “food” as it makes its second trip through their digestive system. It’s really an amazing adaptation… one that I’m thankful I do not share.

Eastern Cottontail Eating So the next time you have a child or adult that is refusing to eat their vegetables, just tell them to look at the bright side. At least they’ll only have to eat them once.

Kids In A Candy Store

I love this time of year. Spring has given way to summer, and the parks are full of feathered teenagers trying to find their place in the world. This is especially evident among the local hummingbirds as dozens of these colorful youngsters reach the age of independence just as several different species of plants begin to bloom. 
The nectar these plants produce is a boon to the birds, giving them an easily accessible energy source right when they need it most. The newly fledged Anna’s and Rufous Hummingbirds are like kids in a candy store gorging themselves on a nearly endless supply of sugar. And like kids who have had too much sugar, the diminutive birds continuously get into squabbles, chattering at, chasing, and fighting with one another. Adult birds are in the mix too, drinking their fill and correcting bold, young upstarts who dare to challenge their elders.
I spent several hours yesterday with a rowdy group of hummingbirds that had formed around a cluster of blooming Snowberry bushes and Fireweed plants. It was a dark, overcast day, but the color of both blossoms and birds still shined through the gloom. The following photos will give you a glimpse of what I saw.
Even in the overcast conditions the color of both birds and flowers was stunning. Here, an Anna’s Hummingbird sips from a Fireweed blossom.
This is another view of the Anna’s Hummingbird that was in the first photo. In this photo you can tell she is an adult, female by the iridescent patch on her throat.
Occasionally, the birds would take a break from feeding and fighting. These breaks never lasted very long.
A juvenile Anna’s Hummingbird hovers over Snowberry blossoms. Note that the wings are nearly upside down. While hovering, hummingbirds beat their wings in a figure-8 pattern. The motion is similar to the movement of a human’s arms while treading water, but the birds are treading air.
Here the same juvenile is sipping from a Snowberry blossom. Her wings have just finished a forward stroke and she is about to flip them over for the backward stroke.
In this photo she has just finished a backward stroke with her wings and they are begin to rotate back into position for the forward stroke. Since Anna’s Hummingbirds flap their wings at a rate of 40 to 50 beats per second or more, this figure-8 pattern is just a blur of motion to our eyes.
Rufous Hummingbirds are much smaller than Anna’s Hummingbirds. What they lack in size they make up for in attitude.
Even on a gray day, the rusty color of the Rufous Hummingbirds stood out.
The iridescent greens, rusty reds, and matte black of the Rufous Hummingbirds contrasted nicely with the pinkish-purple Fireweed blossoms and the surrounding foliage.
Even though they were much smaller than the Anna’s Hummingbirds, the Rufous Hummingbirds seemed to hold their own in the interspecies skirmishes. This little juvenile had just chased off a rival before taking a rest on this plant stalk.

Magic

I am a biologist and a naturalist.

I understand, at least on a basic level, how iridescence works.

I understand that it can be created structurally or through diffraction.

I understand that it is the inevitable result of light hitting a certain type of surface.

I understand that it is simply physics.

But I don’t care.

As I watched a male Anna’s Hummingbird turn his head toward me today, I could only think of one word to describe what I was seeing.

Magic.

Insignificance

At 4 pm on Saturday, I stepped out of my house and headed off into the neighborhood on my daily after-work walk.  Saturday is the last day of my work week, and as I started my walk I was feeling the kind of peace that I imagine most working folks feel when a few days of freedom are stretched out before them.  With each progressive step, I shed a little bit of the stress that I had picked up over the preceding five days, and by the time I had traveled about a mile I was feeling calm and reasonably centered.

That day I felt compelled to walk a route that I rarely travel, down a steeply-inclined, well-forested road that lacks sidewalks.  My mind wandered as I trudged down the hill, and I wasn’t even aware that I had tuned out my surroundings until movement at my feet snapped me back to reality and the present moment.  Before my eyes focused my mind had already identified the movement as belonging to a ground feeding bird, and I had also already identified the movement as abnormal due to both proximity and pattern.  As my eyes focused and the details resolved, a series of thoughts came in rapid succession, “American Robin…no tail feathers…left wing drooping…left eye partially closed…dried blood on wing and head…likely cat attack victim…f@#$!”

The profanity came as automatically as the rest of my thoughts, and it was in no way directed at the bird or cats.  It was directed at people who let their cats roam free in the world with no regard for the safety of their pet or for the wild animals that their pets are likely to kill or injure.  After more than 16 years of working with injured wild animals, a staggering number of which have been injured by domestic cats, my tolerance for this completely preventable cause of wildlife injury has been utterly spent.  In addition, as a cat lover that has seen countless cats in my neighborhood suffer and die due to the laissez-faire attitudes of their supposed guardians, I feel a surge of anger anytime I am faced with evidence of an unprotected domestic feline.

My initial surge of anger quickly passed as I redirected my thoughts toward how best to help the victim that was before me.  Droopy wing or not, she still might have been able to fly, and I wouldn’t know whether or not I could help her until I tested her ability to escape.  I crouched down and made a quick movement toward the robin with one outstretched hand.  She spread her wings and flapped hard, but she gained no lift from the effort.  She managed some forward movement by pushing off with her legs, but the movement was arrested as she weakly bounced off of a thick tangle of ivy growing alongside the road.  Assuming this might happen, my left hand enveloped her immediately with a technique known as the “bird bander’s hold”.  She struggled briefly against the restraint, calling out more in fear than in defiance, and then she relaxed and fell silent.

A quick examination of the robin uncovered multiple, serious lacerations.  Her eye was clearly damaged, although to what extent I could not be certain, and the trailing edge of her left wing had a blood clot that stretched nearly the entire length of her humerus.  Although the bone felt like it was intact, the amount of bruising and dried blood present gave me serious doubt that the robin would ever fly again.  The anger that I had felt upon my initial sighting now turned to sadness for the tiny being that was in my hand.  Her injuries were at least 24 hours old, and it was likely that an infection of pasturella or some other bacteria that is abundant in cat saliva was already setting in.  Even if her injuries were not fatal, this infection most likely would be.  I carried her the mile back to my house as quickly as I could, and when I arrived I transferred her to a dark but well-ventilated box and immediately drove the 45 minutes back to my place of employment to get her either the care or the humane release from suffering that she needed.

On the way home from the wildlife center I reflected on what I had just experienced.  As a biologist, I was taught to believe that one individual among a population of millions is insignificant; that we should not get hung up on the fate of one but on the overall health of the many.  While this reasoning may be sound from the standpoint of population viability, it would require that I give up a fundamental piece of my humanity to fully embrace it.  When I met that robin, she was definitely one individual among millions, but she was not insignificant.  She was a fellow living being that was suffering and needed help.  If I had passed her by, I would not have been confirming that she was an insignificant individual in a much larger population but, in my opinion, I would have been confirming that I was.

  

Change of Pace

After rising with the sun this morning, I headed for my favorite patch of fireweed at a Seattle area park.  I had been anxious to visit the patch since a single fireweed plant in my backyard opened its first pink blossoms almost two weeks ago.  The fireweed patch is beautiful in its own right, but it is more than just the flower that lures me back year after year.  The fireweed acts as a stage, on and above which a great drama plays out.  Darting among the green leaves and pink blossoms are flashes of green, white, black and reddish-brown, occasionally punctuated with flashes of brilliant red iridescence.  The whole area is literally abuzz with activity, and at times I can become dizzy trying to keep track of it all.

The main players on the fireweed stage are juvenile Anna’s and Rufous Hummingbirds.  Occasionally an adult will pop up in the mix, but for the most part the area is dominated by rowdy youngsters vying for totally supremacy of the best blossoms in the patch.  There are constant dive-bombings followed by erratic chases.  The buzzing and trilling of wings fills the air.  One moment a long curved bill is inserted into a flower, the next moment it is being used like a rapier in a fencing match.  I occasionally try to capture the activity through the lens of my camera, but mostly I just stand and take it all in with my senses.  As I stood in the patch this morning, watching the spectacular aerial ballet above me, my eye was suddenly drawn to unexpected movement at a much lower altitude.  I looked down among the slender-leaved stems of the fireweed plants and found that a less frenetic, but no less interesting player had just arrived on the stage.

A Pacific Chorus Frog was working his way through the fireweed patch, presumably in search of a meal.  The fireweed leaves were just strong enough to bear his weight, though they still bent considerably under the load.  The frog was traversing the plants mostly by walking, but I am quite sure it was his landing after a jump that had caused the initial movement that drew my attention.  Having just been immersed in the high-speed world of the hummingbirds above, I found the slow, deliberate movements of the frog almost hypnotic.  For several moments I forgot about everything else and focused my full attention on the fascinating, sticky-toed hunter.  

My trance was broken as two battling mini-birds buzzed by within a foot of my face.  Their fight continued as they rounded a snowberry bush and disappeared from view.  Three more birds buzzed by in quick succession, and for several minutes I was drawn back into the air around and just above the blossoms at the top of the fireweed plants.  By the time my mind turned back to the unassuming amphibian making his way through the lower leaves, he was nowhere to be found.  No movement in the plants betrayed his direction of travel.  Wherever he was off to, I felt extremely fortunate to have spent even a short time in his presence.