Sunday, November 6, 2011

Accepting the Birds that Come

It is currently 39 degrees and sunny in Seattle, but I'm sitting here at my desk in a heavy coat because my dogs want to have access to the front deck.  Sigh.

Long ago, when I was an art student, studying drawing and photography, I learned a valuable lesson:  don't wait for the perfect subject, draw what's in front of you.  It seems like an easy principle to master, but it turns out it's one of those things you have to learn over and over again.

Starling and Sparrow, familiar visitors, in an uncommon mutual pose.
Take birds, for example.  As a birdwatcher, and as a photographer, I am always hoping for the next big, unexpected find.  For some rare (or at least previously unseen) bird to fly onto my yard list, or alight on the bushes at the dog park.  Of course, the definition of "rare" means that it's something which very seldom happens.  So the artist who waits for "rare" subjects -- unless he takes off for Tahiti like Gauguin -- may have a long wait.  (I couldn't come up with Paul Gauguin's name to save my life just now, so I Googled "Tahiti Artist" and it was the first hit -- I love the Internet.)  There are days when I take my camera outside and I think, "Nothing here but more chickadees, Juncos and pigeons.  I have thousands of pictures of them, why do I need more?"

Beautiful rich colors make this Junco stand out.
The answer is, "I don't."   But I need to take more pictures of them.  It's not the end product, it's the process.  That may sound like a cliche, but it's true.  Most basically, because it keeps your skills and your eye sharp -- the way practicing scales keeps a musicians hands limber and ears tuned.  But it's also true for a couple of other reasons (that I know how to articulate).

First, is receptivity.  As an artist -- photographer, writer or birdwatcher -- receptivity is one of the most important traits you can possess.  (Reactivity is another, but I'll write about that some other day.)  You could compare it to the chemical nature of film (remember film?  If you're too young, Google it).  The chemicals on the film are sensitive to light and they react in its presence, creating an image.  Similarly, the artist has to be available to the "light" of the world around him, has to let it in and let it change him.  The inner film develops these images, stores them, and they become the raw material out of with art is created.  Standing on my deck, with my camera, I am at my best when I can cultivate a state of open receptivity.  If I was religious I could phrase it as, "Not my will, but yours be done."  In other words, I will accept what comes. I'll photograph what's in front of me instead of complaining that I don't get anything "new".  Out of that openness comes possibility, the chance for something unexpected and creative to occur.  Without that openness, nothing is possible.
A distinctive mostly white Pigeon surveys the deck.

I love pigeons!
Henry James -- not usually one of my favorite writing mentors, but you really can't escape his influence -- advised us to strive to be someone on whom nothing is lost.  The emphasis on striving (James said, "try" but it's the same point) is important.  It's a goal we can't reach.  Still, it's crucial.  As soon as I begin thinking, "Oh, they're just chickadees, just pigeons, I've seen them a thousand times before," then the doors of my perception are closed.  The world is being lost on me.  The chickadees that I see today may or may not be the actual birds I've seen before -- it's very difficult to tell.  (Actually, sonograms of the songs of individual birds can help you identify whether the particular birds in your yard are the ones you've seen before -- another topic to get into later.)  With pigeons it's a little easier.  I saw four pigeons on my deck yesterday and, because I forced myself for a moment to put down all the things I was worrying about and everything I "should" be doing, I got some really great photos of them.  Two of them I knew and two were really striking, mostly white birds that I'm not sure I've seen before.  I love pigeons, but familiarity can blunt even our greatest passions.  Only openness and receptivity -- being the present moment without any certainties -- can reignite that love.  My pigeons reminded me of that.
Like the Four Stooges having lunch.

And ultimately, the birds that I see today are not the birds that I've seen before -- and I am not the person who saw them.  A photographer knows that from moment to moment the light moves and the image changes.  The photographer changes too.  No amount of clinging to my opinions or preferences will prevent that.  Tomorrow, the birds will be different and I will be different.  The tree will have a few less leaves, the monster dog on the deck beside me will be a little bigger, and the light will keep moving.

And the pigeons will have something new to say.


 I've been a little busy this month doing NaNoWriMo and other writing related activities.  So far, it's been a pretty good year for writing.  If you're interested, you can check out some of my other work.  Starting with our sister Blog, Books and Beasts.  Also, the Seattle Mariners Blog, Sodo Mojo has been hosting my posts every Sunday morning for a couple of months.  You can check out some of my pieces (and the great baseball analysis of the rest of the site's writers) here

Many of the original photographs featured on Birdland West are available for sale as art quality prints.  You can check out all of our offerings at  If you see an image here that does not show up on our Imagekind site please contact me directly and I'll let you know about availability.)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Warriors of Winter

Since I was writing about hummingbirds in my previous post, it seems appropriate to continue.

Zeke is weatherproof.
It's been wintery in Seattle this week.  Grey wet weather and cold temperatures have moved in.  We had to close the house up for the first time -- although my dog Zeke insists on having the door open as much as possible, in spite of the weather.  In fact, Zeke, with his St. Bernard ancestry, is thriving.  The cooler it gets, the happier and more energetic he becomes.

The sense of winter may have been as much internal as external though.  I've been tired lately, feeling my age.  And I've been in the midst of what is most likely a hopeless infatuation.  At least it seems that way on long gray days when I'm home with the dogs working alone.  When she's around me, I can convince myself that anything is possible.

Webs decorated by winter (photo by Dan)
But seasons are slippery things.  They resist our attempts to turn them into metaphor.  Last year, as winter turned into spring, I got excited about the possibilities for bird watching around my home.  I already had twenty-plus species on my yard list and I was expecting that to burgeon.  The list did grow, but not dramatically.  And I did see some excitement with fledglings, but overall there actually seemed to be a drop off in bird activity during the spring and summer.  Perhaps because of the unusually cool weather -- we never really got a sustained summer going -- the ripening of fruit on the cherry tree didn't draw nearly as much activity as it had the year before.  So -- because of that and other, unrelated things -- I was feeling kind of down.

But seasons -- as I said -- are slippery things.

Male Anna's (photo by Dan)
This past week, as storm clouds move in and winds pick up, the hummingbirds have returned in force.  Most people think of hummingbirds as tropical birds, summer friends.  But in my yard they are creatures of the snow and rain.  I already had two female Anna's visiting me regularly -- one looks young and the other is more mature.  But this week the males arrived.  Not just one, but two.  And the yard became a battleground.

The male keeps his lonely vigil.

I've written before about fierce these little guys are.  How the Aztecs considered hummingbirds to be warrior symbols, and wore their feathers into battle. 

Over and over he stood off attacks.
Well, this week they proved it.  I stood out on the deck and watched a male Anna's sitting at the very top of the cherry tree, loudly asserting his position.  Then the second male began to buzz him, swooping by again and again at full speed, each time making with a piercing chirp as he passed, almost like a high-pitched sonic boom.  The first hummingbird stood his ground for a long time though before abandoning his perch.  I wasn't able to get any photos of  them together, but I did get some shots of the first male holding his perch, and a shot of what I assume was the attacker pulling up out of one of his attack dives. 

I believe this is the attacker, pulling out of his dive.
Twice, afterwards, I saw them "dance" with each other around the feeder.  The would fly straight at each other and then spin around a common center, cursing all the while.

None of this drama seems to bother the females, who continue to come regularly.

 It might look like winter, but around here every gray day has a scarlet and emerald lining.

If you like Birdland West, you might also want to check out our sister blog Books and Beasts, which focuses on reviews of books about animals and related topics.
I have also begun writing regular Sunday morning posts for SoDo Mojo, a Seattle Mariner's blog.  Check out my most recent post, Change of Season.

 Many of the original photographs featured on Birdland West are available for sale as art quality prints.  You can check out all of our offerings at  If you see an image here that does not show up on our Imagekind site please contact me directly and I'll let you know about availability.)

Friday, October 7, 2011

Anna's Hummingbird

[Today's post marks something new from Birdland West.  I want, from time to time, to post experiments in fictional technique, short stories or sketches that attempt to bring more of the non-human world into fictional forms.  At this moment, this all experiment and feeling my way forward in the dark.  I hope that readers will offer feedback and ideas in response.]

The hummingbird hung motionless, except for its furious wings, above the feeder.  The red plastic -- a human would have called it red -- glowed like a beacon in the bird's vision, reflecting parts of the spectrum no mammal could see.  Light glinted off the bird's feathers which broke it apart like millions of tiny prisms, throwing flashes of green and red.  (Again, green and red as humans would see them -- with their primate color vision, recently recovered in evolutionary time, and so limited as compared to the bird's).  The hummingbird poised above the feeder.

Almost no one noticed.  The writer -- who lived in the house attached to the yard where the feeder hung -- was uncommonly aware of the sounds of the bird's presence -- the high pitched, fast sound, like a telegraph key -- but the weather was growing cold and the doors and windows of his house were shut.  Besides, he was preoccupied with work (or with the distractions that kept him from working).  And he was thinking about a young woman he had recently become interested in and what seemed like the impossibility that she could be interested in (old, fat, unsuccessful) him.  He didn't hear the hummingbird's approach or sense it hovering over the feeder in the bush at the front of the yard.

Across the street, a woman had just come out of her split-level home, carrying her son in her arms.  He had just turned a year old and was large for his age, with a thick tassel of very dark hair and dark eyes.  His mother looked as if she could barely hold him.  She was from China, but spoke English with only the barest trace of an accent, having lived in Europe for years before the US.  The writer, who was probably old enough to be her father, thought she was beautiful.  Her son was moody, and sometimes when he cried she would bring him across the street to the sidewalk outside the writer's house to look at the writer's dogs -- especially the huge St. Bernard mix puppy who liked to hang out on the front deck in all kinds of weather.  He was oblivious to cold or rain or snow.  Children loved him, with his goofy face and harlequin colors.  He would stand up on his hand legs and put his paws on the rail and the little boy's fussing would turn to laughter.  He would point and laugh.  The funny dog was too big and rambunctious to play with small children though.  Ironically it was the older dog, a female pit bull two thirds the size of the clown dog -- the type of dog that some people crossed the street to avoid -- who was really good with children.  She understood that they were like puppies.

The little girl who lived three houses down also loved the dogs.  She was a few months older than the boy, much smaller, but already walking.  Running.  Her mother -- tall, slim and unselfconsciously lovely -- was always chasing her up and down the sidewalk.  They were a Mormon family, the mother and father had met at Brigham Young University, moved here because of his work, and were renting a house on the block until they could find one of their own to buy.  The little girl was fearless.  She would run down the sidewalk, and back down the stairs into people's yards.  Once, she had started climbing the steps to the writer's deck with the clown-dog, who outweighed her by three times or more -- at the top of the stairs, behind the gate barking.  Whenever she saw the dogs she would point and squeal.  Her mother believed her first word had been "dog".

But today the sky was gray and the mood was drizzly.  The writer's door was closed and the dog's were inside.  The mother, struggling with her son's weight, sighed and headed off down the sidewalk, hoping a little more walking would ease his mood.

She didn't see the hummingbird.

In the cherry tree, which grew in a neighbor's yard but overhung the writer's yard, chickadees were queuing up to take their turn at the brass feeder which swung from one of the lower branches.  They leapt from branch to branch, their sharp black and white markings standing out when they landed in the light.  Chicka-dee-dee.   Chicka-dee-dee. Their call had a wheezy sound and the writer often whistled, absently, a rough approximation of the tune.  Nothing any chickadee would recognize.  The little birds seemed almost fearless, and they would sit on the feeder and look into the eyes of a person standing on the stairs only a few feet away.  They could, with a little patience, have been coaxed into eating out of the writer's hand.  They would even scavenge seed off the boards of the deck while the clown dog lay close by, watching.  They were smart enough not to try that with the older dog.

Suddenly, a young grey squirrel raced up the trunk and out along one of the branches.  Chickadees, startled by the sudden movement, dived upwards into the air.  The squirrel leapt heavily off the swaying branch and landed on the rail of the porch, where seed had been scattered (by the writer) for the pigeons and other birds, like the Juncos who preferred to eat off the ground or rail instead of a feeder.  Just as often, though, it was the squirrels who ate it, or one of the rats that lived in burrows underneath the fence.

Inside the house, the clown-dog, whose hearing was acute, jumped on the couch beneath the window and bayed.  The blinds were down, so he couldn't see out, but his eyesight was not so good anyway.  His ears never failed.  The older dog's head bobbed up out of sleep at the sound of the baying.  She jumped up on the couch beside him.  Even with her front feet on the back of the couch, standing nearly erect, she wasn't as tall as the clown dog sitting on his rump.  Her three short, hoarse barks counterpointed his bay.

On the rail, the squirrel pivoted, changed directions almost as if he had turned himself inside out.  His busy tail sprang upward and he reversed his leap, catching the thin branch -- which dipped precariously under his weight -- and hugging it with all four paws.  He flowed rapidly along the branch and down the trunk, disappearing into the neighbor's yard.

After a moment the dogs fell silent, but the clown-dog kept his ears cocked.  Somewhere down the block, the little boy was crying.

The hummingbird, all but unseen, alighted on the perch of the feeder and drank.


If you like Birdland West, you might also want to check out our sister blog Books and Beasts, which focuses on reviews of books about animals and related topics.
I have also begun writing regular Sunday morning posts for SoDo Mojo, a Seattle Mariner's blog.  Check out my most recent post, Change of Season.

 Many of the original photographs featured on Birdland West are available for sale as art quality prints.  You can check out all of our offerings at  If you see an image here that does not show up on our Imagekind site please contact me directly and I'll let you know about availability.)

Friday, September 23, 2011

Where to from Here?

It's been about six months since I started this blog -- it seems so much longer.  Spring (which never really got on its feet this year) was just "heating up" back then.  There were Flickers and Starlings on my suet feeder, the hummingbirds had braved the snows in my yard, and the rats were foraging under the fence.  Six months later the rats are still there, the Starlings are re-forming their winter flocks after the breeding season (there were two in my backyard this morning making such an incredible variety of sounds it seemed like a huge mixed flock), and the hummingbirds are coming back.  Most people have hummingbirds in the summer who leave in the fall.  Around here, it's been different.  The hummingbirds left for the summer (because there were so many other food sources, I guess) and now that the weather has begun to cool a little and most of the flowers are gone, they're coming back.  This past week I've seen almost constant hummingbird activity.  They're so vocal (a lot of hummingbird sounds are not actually vocal, they're made by wings and tail) I can hear them from inside the house.  There have been at least two here regularly, a young female and an older female.  I'm on the lookout for more.

Zeke's first day home.
When I started the blog I did it for a number of reasons -- the most important of which are spelled out on my "About" page.  It was pretty dark time in my life, I had gone through the deaths of my mother and my canine companion Roscoe, and through it all it was bird watching and observing wildlife that really got me through.  Since I started, some things have changed-- for instance, my "puppy" Zeke now weighs close to 120 pounds -- and some things haven't.  Bird watching is still very important to me.
Zeke today.

It's been a pretty good year for my writing in general.  Both this blog and its companion, Books and Beasts, have been pretty well received.  I had an article about Roscoe published by Whole Life Times.  I've done a couple of guest posts for 10000 Birds. (Consider the Chickadee and Crazy Flickers). I may soon be doing a regular post for SodoMojo, a blog which covers the Seattle Mariners.  And my Klout Score (if anyone can explain to me how that thing really works, I'd love to hear it) is hovering somewhere around 47, give or take.  Not bad, all things considered.  It's a far cry from making a living as a writer, but I'm having fun.

Meanwhile, I keep thinking about what I want to do with these blogs.  Between them, they take up a fair amount of my time now, and I want to keep them as fresh an interesting to the readers as I can.  Without losing what's good about them so far -- I have some ideas that I am hoping to try out in the months to come.

The first of these involves my puppy Zeke.  I will soon be doing a review for Books and Beasts of Mary R. Burch's book Citizen Canine, about training for the Canine Good Citizen test.  Following that review, Zeke and I are going to undertake a regular training regimen with the goal of his passing the test at next year's Paws Walk.  And my intention is to document that training here -- with regular updates, and even videos of his progress.  I'll tell you a lot more about it in the near future, but if you think this would be an interesting addition to this blog, I'd love to hear from you.  (And if you don't, I'll still be glad for the feedback.)

The second thing is fiction.  I've written a little here, and a lot more at Books and Beasts, about point of view in fiction, and how incorporating the consciousness of other species might effect that.  I've also been working on that problem more practically in my own fiction, and what I hope to do is share some of that work with my readers from time to time.  I'm thinking of having a semi-regular short fiction post in addition to the regular contents of the blog.  Again, I'd appreciate any thoughts readers have on this idea.

Meanwhile, I'll keep doing what I'm doing, keeping you informed on what's going on with the birds and wildlife in this tiny corner of the world.  I hope it makes interesting reading.

If you like Birdland West, you might also want to check out our sister blog Books and Beasts, which focuses on reviews of books about animals and related topics.

 Many of the original photographs featured on Birdland West are available for sale as art quality prints.  You can check out all of our offerings at  If you see an image here that does not show up on our Imagekind site please contact me directly and I'll let you know about availability.)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Busy Day at the Bird Feeders

Yesterday, in the afternoon, the sun came out unexpectedly after a cold, rainy weekend.  The yard was glistening in a way that I usually associate more with spring than late-summer-fading-into-Autumn.  But then, we didn't get much spring in Seattle this year, so I'll take it.

Black-Capped Chickadee with his prize, perched in cherry tree.
Waiting his turn.
I don't know if it was the sunshine, the cooler, crisper temperatures or just a coincidence, but suddenly the yard was alive with birds.  Chickadees, who are always around, were out in force.  They queue up in the cherry tree and wait their turn at the feeder -- it seems to be a chickadee rule that only one bird can use the feeder at time.  Sparrows and finches and Juncos are glad to double up, but chickadees wait their turn.  Usually, the next chickadee waits on the branch above the feeder until the one who is there leaves.  They never take very long, picking out the seed they want and flying back up into the tree with it.  Every once in a while a chickadee approaches the feeder and realizes at the last minute that there's someone already there, then pulls up in a whuff of wings and lands in the tree.  But they never seem to squabble the way sparrows and other birds do.  It's all very orderly and efficient.

I wasn't the only one watching the chickadees yesterday.  Another familiar visitor was out and about.  I'm pretty sure that this is the same young House Finch that I photographed (and blogged about) earlier this summer.   


He's looking much more adult now, but he still has a tentative, uncertain air.  I didn't ever see him use the feeder, but he did sit on the chickadees' queue branch and watch them for quite awhile.  It seemed like he was observing their use of the feeder. 

 I also saw another return guest.  This Bewick's Wren was foraging in the Morning Glory vines along the fence.  I haven't seen a BW in months.

 And, the young Anna's Hummingbird that I've seen and reported on a couple of times recently was back.   In fact, I could hear her periodically throughout the day -- a rapid chirp sound like a high-pitched telegraph key -- but it wasn't until late in the afternoon (when the light was fading) that I managed to get some shots of her.

So, counting the crows who were foraging on the sidewalk and the House Sparrow at the feeder -- not counting the Starlings I could hear in the back yard or the pigeons who I didn't see until evening -- that's five species that I counted standing on my deck, without even really trying hard.  None of them were new or unusual, but it was still pretty exciting.

And just to top things off, today I was drawn outside again by the Anna's Hummingbird sound, only to find a totally different bird at the feeder.  This one, as you can see, is quite a bit larger and clearly full grown.

 If you like Birdland West, you might also want to check out our sister blog Books and Beasts, which focuses on reviews of books about animals and related topics.

 Many of the original photographs featured on Birdland West are available for sale as art quality prints.  You can check out all of our offerings at  If you see an image here that does not show up on our Imagekind site please contact me directly and I'll let you know about availability.)

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Nest Generation

Despite the belated summer weather here in Seattle -- we just went through a record setting late September spell of nine over eighty degree days (after an almost nonexistent spring and unusually cool summer) -- the birds seem to know that fall is coming and they are changing their patterns.  I've seen a couple of species back around my yard in the past week that haven't been around much during the summer.

First -- a hummingbird.  Anna's hummingbirds were frequent guests in my yard all winter.  In fact, on very cold mornings I had to keep rushing outside to make sure that the feeders weren't frozen.  I got very good at thawing them out, and keeping two in rotations, one inside the house to stay warm, one outside for the birds until it got too cold.   

I haven't seen them much this summer, though.  Which seems opposite of what you would expect.  But Seattle is a city full of flowers (a blooming city, you could say) and I suspect that the hummingbirds just had plenty of food sources and didn't need my feeders.  Now, the blooms are fading and they're coming back.

At least this little gal is.  This is an Anna's hummingbird, and though it's not easy to be sure from the photos, probably a female and very likely a juvenile.  (You don't have much scale in the photos, but if you could see her in person, and you know Anna's at all, you'd realize she's pretty small.)

(Photo by my roommate Dan)
I also saw this week -- not in my yard, but at a nearby bus stop -- a busy flock of bushtits.  These guys are frequent visitors to my yard and suet feeder, and they have also been mostly AWOL during the summer.   I was happy to see them back -- they come sweeping in with lots of activity and chirping like a sudden rain squall, and then, just as suddenly they're gone.  Off down the road to another yard.  I'll be keeping my eyes (and ears -- I frequently hear them before I see them) open for them at home.

(Photo by Dan)
(Photo by Dan)

I mentioned in my last post that I had seen a Steller's Jay eating on the rail with Timmy (my resident pigeon).  I got a few photos of him, and roommate got some more soon after.  You might not think it's the same Jay from the different angles in the photos, but I'm pretty sure he is.  And if you look closely at the photos you can see, at the corner of his bill a trace of a lighter color.  That, most likely, is the remnant of gape flanges which allow juvenile birds to open their beaks extra wide (to "gape" in other words) so that they can be fed by their parents.  In a fully mature Steller's Jay the beak is dark all the way down, with no lighter coloring visible.  That means this guy is very likely one of this year's fledglings.  It also might explain why he's on his own and looking for new sources of food.

A sad note:  One of my personal heroes passed away recently.  Sarge the Elderbull was a tireless advocate for his breed, for dog lovers (and dogs who love dog lovers) and for the welfare of shelter dogs everywhere.  You can check out this sweet remembrance of him at Stubby Dog, as well as their loving obituary.  Also, you can check out Sarge's own site at Elderbulls and his Facebook page.  Sarge was a true American hero.  Thank you to Sarge and to his human family who carry on his work.

You can also enjoy my recent article "Crazy Flickers" over at 10,000 Birds.  They have a great site, well worth checking out even if I wasn't included.

If you like Birdland West, you might also want to check out our sister blog Books and Beasts, which focuses on reviews of books about animals and related topics.   

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Island (Yard) of Misfit Birds

Things have been hoppin' in Pigeon Town.

As I've mentioned before, I have a resident "special needs" pigeon named Timmy who lives (or at least hangs out most of the time, I don't actually know where he roosts) around my house.  Timmy was briefly trapped in our attic last year when we evicted his parents and sealed up the opening.  We were sure everyone was out, but it turns out Timmy wasn't, and was trapped in the attic for several days.  I'd feel even if I hadn't noticed before that Timmy was a weird bird.  Special.  At least I know that the trauma we accidentally inflicted on him is not the cause of his oddness. 

Timmy's Plus One
Timmy (who despite his behavioral issues is a big, beautiful and healthy looking pigeon) now has a friend.  Who I call "Timmy's Plus One".   Of course I can't tell a male a pigeon from a female pigeon even if they're dressed for the prom, so I don't know whether Timmy is male or his friend is female, or the other way around.  They could both be males or both be females for all I know (not that there's anything wrong with that).  But pigeons are known to mate for life, and these two seem to be a couple. 

(I've read speculation on how birds recognize each other and distinguish gender -- in many birds it's easy because differences in coloration or size are so striking -- but in birds like pigeons and crows, who don't show much sexual dimorphism, it's more of a puzzle.  Mammals do it mainly by smell, and by visual cues in some species, for instance primates whose noses are not good.  Most birds have only a rudimentary sense of smell -- so there must be other kinds of cues.  I would suggest looking at them more in the infra-red part of the spectrum, which we can't see naturally but they can.  Could it be they have hidden patterns on them like some flowers do, or that the oils in their feathers show some difference in those wavelengths?  I haven't been able to find any photos of birds in the infrared, but I'd be curious to know if anyone has explored it.)

Lately, there have been two other pigeons dropping by (I unfortunately do not have photos of them yet).  They are both unusual in their own way -- mostly white with gray mottling.  One of them is almost albino. 

I have observed -- and have also read -- that pigeons sometimes seem to shy away from the "odd" members of their flock, and that unusual coloration may make a bird unwelcome. But I'm not totally sure that's true.  The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, as part of their Celebrate Urban Bird project has Project Pigeon Watch, a chance for citizen scientists to contribute their observations, and one of their goals is to study how different color patterns among feral pigeons effect mating.  Anyway, these two pigeons have been hanging around lately and I started wondering if maybe our yard was becoming a sort of island of misfit birds.  Like Timmy, these guys might be less at home in the big flocks that hang out down the road in White Center.  I've often observed the two mottled pigeons eating on my rail together, and I've seen them eating along with Timmy's friend.  I've never actually seen Timmy eating with them though.

Saturday, I finally saw them together, and it got pretty exciting.  First, I saw Timmy's friend on the rail with one of the white birds.   They were eating together like usual, and then suddenly a fight broke out.  Timmy's friend and the mottle pigeon were going at each other up and down the rail for about a minute, and then they both flew off. 

I thought maybe the food was getting low and that sparked the argument.  So I went out and put more food on the rail.  A little while later Timmy and his friend came back and while they were eating the mottle pigeon showed up again.  This time, Timmy got into it with him.  It even looked like Timmy attacked first.  There was a brief squabble and then all three birds took off.  I was standing in the front door watching and one of the pigeons -- I think it was Timmy -- flashed by just a few feet from my face with a loud crack of his wings.  Timmy, who is by far the biggest of the pigeons that visit here, seemed to have things well in hand.

That wasn't the end of the excitement though.  Timmy and his friend came back a little later.  I was watching from inside, under the window blinds.  I could see Timmy, clearly recognizable by his banded wings, and it seemed like there was another pigeon too -- but a very small one.  I got closer to window and caught my breath.  It wasn't a pigeon at all.

It was a Steller's Jay.
This is the Jay that was eating with Timmy.

Last winter, and well into the spring, the Jays were frequent visitors to my yard.  They come swooping in with their wings spread wide, looking like a caped superhero and announcing their arrival with loud screeches.  I haven't seen them in a while, but all day Saturday I kept hearing them.  When I was out for a walk with my dog Lulubelle, and when I took my "puppy" Zeke to the park, I could hear the Jays but I never saw them.  And now here he was.

So, fighting pigeons and then Timmy sharing dinner with a Jay -- that's lot of adventure for one Saturday afternoon.

For previous posts about Timmy and pigeons see "Around the Yard and Around the Web", "Pigeon Watch" and "Timmy!"

You can also enjoy my recent article "Crazy Flickers" over at 10,000 Birds.  They have a great site, well worth checking out even if I wasn't included.   

Birdland West readers will be interested in my review of Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle by Thor Hanson, which is posted now at Books and Beasts.   It's a great book and a must read for all bird lovers.  Check out the review here.

 (Many of the original photographs featured on Birdland West are available for sale as art quality prints.  You can check out all of our offerings at  If you see an image here that does not show up on our Imagekind site please contact me directly and I'll let you know about availability.)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Spiders! (and a butterfly too)

When in doubt, ask for help.

Zeke as a tiny puppy in the plot that now holds kale flowers.
Normally, I am pretty careful to identify the subjects of my photos before I post them.  Today, however, I'm having some trouble with IDs, and so I decided to get some help from readers. 

Because bird activity has been slow in my yard the last couple of weeks, I have turned my attention to the small denizens.  Warmer weather in August, plus the decay of the cherry tree crop, and the still blooming flowers brought out the insects.  And the insects brought out the spiders.  At any given time my front yard seems to be host to a dozen or more spider webs -- some of them quite large. 

Before I get to the arachnids, though, let me present one visitor who I can (I'm almost certain) identify.

This lady is an example of what is commonly called the "Cabbage White" butterfly (Pieris rapae).  I happen to have in my yard a Kale plant which has gone to flower (it belongs to my dog Zeke now, who thinks kale is great to eat and even better to pee on), as well as some flowering wild green bean plants.  These butterflies (which are supposed to be fond of cruciferous vegetable flowers) seem to really like both plants.  The guide that I consulted says that you can tell the sex of the individual by the number of spots on the wing -- one for male, two for female.  Making this one a "she". 

Now back to the spiders (and other arachnids). 

The most exciting find, to me, was this one.  Of the type commonly called "granddaddy long-legs" and more formally known as harvestmen.  Technically (and I didn't know this until I started looking him up) harvestmen are not spiders at all.  They are closely related arachnids.  I was really fascinated with this guy (odds are, any spider-like individual you see is female, I think -- but how would I know for sure?) because I had just finished reading an article about newly discovered fossils that show harvestmen ancestors from around 300 million years ago who are virtually unchanged from the ones we know today.  That would make them among the earliest known land animals to assume their modern form.  Pretty exciting to think that after all those millions of years they are still stalking around my front yard.


These other spiders, I am embarrassed to say, I have not identified.  

Look at these guys closely  and see if you know what they are.  I'm a little obsessive about identifying things and then reading about them, so any information you can provide to point me in the right direction would be great.  I'll give credit in a future post to whoever comes up with the right ID.

If you like Birdland West, you might also want to check out our sister blog Books and Beasts, which focuses on reviews of books about animals and related topics.

(Many of the original photographs featured on Birdland West are available for sale as art quality prints.  You can check out all of our offerings at  If you see an image here that does not show up on our Imagekind site please contact me directly and I'll let you know about availability.)