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.)