Tag Archives: Washington state

9th Grade Cancer Researchers

Chemists at work

I visited my friend Bill at SHS again last week.  You might remember him from this post from November in which I described the STEM program he helped to start.  As part of the STEM initiative, students investigate real-world problems and use literature and laboratory research to try to uncover real-world answers to these problems.  Over the past few weeks they have been studying cancer, and one question that they have been trying to answer is “How can chemotherapy treatment single out just cancerous cells in the body while leaving healthy cells alone?”

This topic has the potential to grab students right away.  Even 9th graders usually know someone touched by cancer: a friend, relative, or neighbor.  And the question is a subtle and complex one.  Basic chemotherapy usually involves introducing a cytotoxin (a chemical that damages or kills cells) into the body.  Because cancer cells grow much more rapidly than most other cells, they are more affected by the cytotoxin than normal cells and (in the best case scenarios) the cancer cells die while the normal cells survive.  Unfortunately in most cases healthy cells are also affected by chemo, especially those that grow and divide rapidly – like cells that make skin and hair (which is why chemo can cause hair loss).  An ideal treatment would target ONLY cancerous cells, and leave healthy cells alone.  This is the kind of treatment that Bill’s students began to investigate.

Bill and his kids got some important help from Dr. A.J. Boydston, a Chemistry Professor at the University of Washington.  Among many other things, Dr. Boydston studies polymers which can form micelles – large molecules that can aggregate together to form a kind of cage.  The idea is that you could build a custom molecular cage to hold, for example, a cytotoxic chemotherapy drug.  Then you could inject the caged drug into the patient.  As long as the drug is trapped inside the cage, it won’t harm any cells.  The key is to build a cage that remains closed as it bumps into normal cells, but springs open if it encounters a cancerous one to release the drug and kill the cell.

But how can you build a molecular cage that can remain ‘sealed’ for period of time, and then spring open?  And how can it tell a cancerous cell from a healthy one?  These are questions that Bill and his students explored, with the help of Dr. Boydston.  It turns out that if you vary the building blocks (monomers) of the polymers, you can change the properties of the micelle cages that are formed.  Some polymers will create cages that open in the presence of acid or base.  Some will open when exposed to ultraviolet light or ultrasonic agitation.  The students set out to design and create different polymers using different monomer building blocks.

polymer sheets

The Boydston Lab provided the actual, synthesized polymers – the same ones that they are using for their professional research.  Then the students began testing the different polymer cages to see under what circumstances they remained closed, and when they opened to release their contents.  Instead of using actual poisonous cytotoxins, the students used a dye called Nile Red to simulate the behavior of a chemotherapy drug.  Nile Red fluoresces under the action of UV light when trapped inside the micelle, but it does not when it is released into an aqueous environment.  Thus the students could use UV light to see if the “drug” was successfully trapped in the micelle, and when it came out.


Various student groups tested different conditions to see exactly when the micelles opened and when they did not.  Medical research on actual tumors indicates that many of them are more acidic that normal tissue by as much as 1 pH unit (a factor of 10 in acid concentration!), so polymer micelles that open in acid might be promising.  Doctors and researches are also experimenting with next-generation powerful light sources.  Micelles that open when exposed to a certain frequency of light could be useful if doctors can pin-point particular cancerous areas and illuminate them appropriately.


While Bill and A.J. were on hand to answer questions and supervise the experiments, I was impressed with how the students took responsibility for their own investigations.  They had to really think about what they should do at each step in the lab, and what the results meant for their particular polymer.  At the end of the experiment, the students had to write up their research in the form of an academic poster, a format familiar to real scientists, professors, and grad students.


This was a super-ambitious project for 9th graders, and I was impressed with how well Bill, A.J., and their colleagues pulled it off.  It was exciting for the students to work with actual research equipment and actual research polymers that may be approved for therapeutic use in humans within this decade.  They dug deeply into the concept of experimental design, and had to understand a host of complicated chemical concepts from acid/base chemistry to intermolecular forces, and to use those ideas in concert.  While some of the more detailed intricacies of the science were a bit beyond the comprehension of these 9th graders, the basic principles were well within their grasp – as was the realization that science can be a powerful tool for good, and that they are capable of using that tool themselves.

Leave a comment

Filed under Teaching

Owling on Bainbridge Island

I took the 2:10am ferry to Bainbridge Island this morning to meet Jamie Acker and six other participants for an owling fieldtrip that spanned the entire island and lasted until dawn.  Jamie has banded Saw-whet Owls on Bainbridge for well over a decade, and is very knowledgeable about the habits and natural history of all of the owls on the island.

We stopped at numerous spots, watching and listening to Saw-whets, Barred Owls, and Great Horned Owls.  It was thrilling to see these nocturnal raptors up close in their own habitat.  Of course, what blog post of mine about owls would be complete without some ridiculously bad owl photos (hey, it was dark!).  Here’s a Barred Owl, a relatively large owl at nearly two feet long and close to two pounds:

Barred Owl

And the smallest owl we saw this morning, a Saw-whet Owl, which is about 8 inches long and weighs in at a little less than 3 ounces (about 25% less than the weight of the new iPhone).

Saw-whet Owl

 Ya, not great photos, I know.  But we had great looks at many of these little hooters.

Another of the field trip participants, Scott Ramos, shot some video of owls that you can watch on youtube.  Barred Owls actually EAT Saw-whets, which is problematic if you are trying to band the little owls when Barred Owls are close at hand.  Jamie combats this problem by feeding the Barred Owls mice while he is banding.  This keeps them busy long enough for the little Saw-whets to get away safely.  You can watch Jamie feeding the Barred Owls on our trip here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MfRuzimr1WQ – if you listen closely, you can hear me say “whoa-ho-ho!” about 25 seconds into the video.

If you are interested in taking an owling field trip of your own, it’s easy.  This trip was organized by the WOS, the Washington Ornithological Society.  Anyone can join the WOS for only $25 a year – and membership entitles you to go on the many awesome field trips.  The WOS also has an amazing annual conference with speakers, workshops, and more field trips.  You can find more information at their website: http://www.wos.org

Your local Audubon Society also offers field trips, including owling.  Check out Seattle Audubon (http://www.seattleaudubon.org/sas) or East Lake Audubon (http://eastsideaudubon.org) to learn about upcoming field trips, classes, and events.


Filed under Birding

Things That Were Petrified: Wood, Partridges, and My Fingers

Last week I took an overnight trip to Eastern Washington.  It was my first birding trip there since my Okanogan Adventure last August.  Needless to say it  was a completely different experience.  Snow blanketed the ground, day time temperatures hovered in the mid-20s, and birds were scarce.

Snowy Eastern WA

Why would I travel over the icy mountain passes for two days in this frozen landscape?  Winter is when some avian residents of the high arctic descend from the subzero darkness of mid-winter Alaska and northern Canada into the relative warmth and light of 47 degrees north latitude.  If you want to see these birds in Washington state, January is prime season.

I started in Yakima County, where I picked out three Bohemian Waxwings from a flock of Cedar Waxwings.  Cedar Waxwings are relative common year-round residents of Washington, but the Bohemians are their bigger, beefier northern relatives.  They usually only venture down in the dead of winter, and then only in small numbers.  Both waxwings love to eat fruit, so if you can find a large crop of winter berries (like mountain-ash), waxwings will probably be close at hand.  The Bohemian is the larger, grayer bird near the middle of this photo facing to the right.

Waxwings (1)

Not visible in this photo (but I saw it in the field) is the yellow Harry Potter-style lightning bolt that adorns each folded wing on the Bohemians.  A few seconds after I snapped this picture, a Kestrel chased out the waxwings and took ownership of the tree.

Yakima Kestrel

I traveled on to Vantage, where I-90 crosses the Columbia River.  The lower elevation and moderating effect of the water meant that there was less snow here.

Winter Columbia River

I stopped to visit Gingko Petrified State Forest, which is a remarkable area where you can see many kinds of well-preserved petrified wood.  Millions of years ago, trees and logs were buried in sediment (perhaps volcanic ash from one of our nearby volcanoes).  The low-oxygen environment prevented decay and bacterial decomposition.  Over the eons, the organic material in the wood was replaced with minerals.  The resulting petrified wood was exposed by floods and other erosion events.  You can see over a dozen different kinds of ancient trees at the park’s Interpretative Center overlooking the Columbia River, and at the nearby hiking trails.

Petrified Wood

Petrified Wood

Travelling north, I birded my way to Wenatchee where I spent the night.  This Northern Shrike was a fun find along the way.

Northern Shrike

The next day I continued northeast up to the Waterville Plateau, an area of rolling hills in Chelan and Douglas counties.  The snow was several feet deep here, and the low clouds and fog created white-out conditions.  Looking over the landscape, you could not tell where the ground ended and where the sky began – everything had a uniform pearly glow.  Driving east on US-2, out of the blinding whiteness a half dozen dark shapes streaked across my path.  They were Gray Partridges, flapping their wings furiously as if their very lives depended on it.  They did, in fact, depend on it – for in hot pursuit was a Gyrfalcon.  This largest of the North American falcons spends most of its time in the high arctic, but a small number of them winter in Washington state where food is easier to come by.  This Gyrfalcon was planning on a partridge lunch, and was gaining fast on the poor chubby game birds.  I screeched to a stop on the shoulder of the deserted highway to watch.  Just at the last second, the partridge found cover – a short hill of chest-high sage brush covered in another three feet of snow.  Lunch disappeared in a poof of powdery snow, as the little birds quickly scampered through the maze of snow-covered sage and were gone.  The Gyrfalcon was pissed.  It circled three times overhead (giving me great looks), screaming the whole time.  Then it landed some distance away in a snow bank, where I managed a ghostly photo through the fog.


After a moment, it raced off to find a different meal, and I continued my trek north, turning from US-2 onto icy back roads.  Near the town of Bridgeport, I passed one of the many Columbia River dams – the Chief Joseph Dam.

Chief Joseph Dam

Near the dam overlook, a Short-eared Owl was making good use of a convenient perch that was so thoughtfully provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Short-eared Owl

Short-ears are not strictly nocturnal – they are often out at dawn and dusk (and sometimes even midday), so they are one of the easier owls to get a good look at.  The “ears” are just tufts of feathers on the tops of the head – owls have no external ears, but they do have internal ears and excellent hearing.  Large, asymmetrically-placed holes in the sides of the head allow them to pinpoint a sound’s direction and range with amazing accuracy.  Experiments have shown that Barn Owls can hunt successfully in total darkness using only their hearing.  This Short-eared uses both sight and hearing in combination.

Short-eared Owl2

Just up the road was Bridgeport State Park, my final stop for the day.  Like many Eastern Washington state parks, it is officially closed in the winter – meaning no services of any kind are available.  But you are allowed to park outside and walk in.

Bridgeport SP

The park had a number of unexpected treats, included some Western Bluebirds – common in the summer, but very unusual in winter east of the Cascades.  I also found quite a number of owl pellets under at least a dozen different conifer trees.  Owls swallow their prey whole, but have a hard time digesting the bones and fur of the small rodents that make up much of their diet.  A while after they eat, most owls form an aggregate of indigestible material and cough it back up.  These owl pellets provide an excellent record of what owls eat, and can be a good clue to finding where an owl roosts during the day.

Owl pellet

By searching under trees for pellets and owl droppings, birders can often pinpoint an owl’s daytime roost.  Counterintuitively, to find an owl in a tree, you should study the ground.  I looked and looked for roosting owls, but I didn’t find any.  These conifers had amazingly dense networks of branches, and it was hard to see more than five or so feet up into the tree.  I’m not positive what kind of owl made this pellet, but I suspect it was probably a Northern Saw-whet Owl – it’s a rather small pellet, and Saw-whets (named thus because their call is said to recall the sound of a saw being sharpened – ya, whatever) are known to winter in the park.

I had a long drive home, and the sun was rapidly setting on this frozen landscape, so I headed back towards I-90.  It was a great 36 hours, with the highlights being Bohemian Waxwings, Gyrfalcon drama, petrified wood, and owl pellets.

Frozen Sunset
I’m currently packing like mad for my next trip – more soon!

Leave a comment

Filed under Birding

Emu Composting

I am taking full advantage of my sabbatical by spending as much time as possible on the Olympic Peninsula, one of my favorite places in Washington.  I love the wild confluence of the Olympic Mountains, the Hoh Rainforest, and the Salish Sea.  And all just a short ferry ride away from my home in Kirkland.

Near the Dungeness NWR north of Sequim, I ran into two more Tropical Kingbirds.  Are they more lost souls, or the vanguard of a coming Tropical Kingbird invasion force?  I’m betting on the former, although I will check to see if my insurance covers flycatcher damage.  Here’s one of today’s Tropical vagrants:

At Ediz Hook in Port Angeles, I watched shorebirds and seabirds as the sun set behind the mountains a little before 4pm.  Sanderlings (the lighter ones in the picture below) and Dunlin (the darker ones) fed nearby.  They are some of the most common sandpipers in the County in November.

Much more rare in these parts was this Rock Sandpiper that my wife spotted under the Pilot House:

This was a new bird for my Big Year, and one that I thought I’d have to drive back out to Ocean Shores to do some more jetty walking to see.  They had not yet arrived for the Winter when I was last at the Point Brown Jetty.

Finally, adding to my collection of unusual signs, I offer this one – seen near Hansville on the Kitsap Peninsula.  I have composted many things in my life: leaves, sticks, fir needles, vegetable peels, pizza boxes, and moldy jack-o-lanterns.  But I have never had the need to compost 6-foot tall Australian birds.  Now I know where to go when the need arises:

I wonder if they take Ostriches, too?



Filed under Birding

New bird added at the Aquarium, almost…

At the Seattle Aquarium this morning, I added a new bird for the year: Cassin’s Auklet.  My intrepid assistant was the first to spot it, and alerted me to pair of them diving (for frozen shrimp).

We did have a great time at the Aquarium, but of course birders don’t “count” captive birds in zoos, aviaries, or aquaria.  They must be “alive, wild, and unrestrained” to count for my year list.  Seeing Cassin’s Auklet from 6 inches away was an amazing treat though, especially since my most recent sighting in the wild was from the deck of a heaving ship at range of 100 yards, squinting through the fog with my spray-drenched binoculars.

1 Comment

Filed under My family

Goosed at Nisqually NWR

National Wildlife Refuges have been protecting habitat for wildlife and providing recreational opportunities for Americans for over a century.  Founded by Teddy Roosevelt and currently administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Wildlife Refuge system has over 500 sites encompassing 95 million acres of land.  NWRs are great places to go for a nature hike, watch birds and wildlife, hunt and fish (in season), and even buy a bison.  Yes, I said buy a bison.  Go figure.

My favorite refuge in the state of Washington is Nisqually NWR, about an hour south of Seattle.  Founded in 1974 on former farmland, Nisqually now is home to protected wetlands and estuary habitat where the Nisqually River joins Puget Sound.  I spent a couple hours last week walking the trails and boardwalks there, enjoying the fall weather and the newly returning ducks and geese that have spent the summer up north in Canada and Alaska.

Geese flying in formation crossed the sky throughout the afternoon.  It is thought that formation-flying reduces the drag of air resistance on the geese following the leader, and is thus an efficient way to fly long distances.  A number of different species of geese were present on the refuge when I was there, including this chap:

If you recognize this as a Canada Goose, you used to be absolutely correct.  But not anymore.  Same with these birds:

The Canada Goose, formerly considered just one species, was split in 2004 into a pair of species: a physically larger one breeding primarily in the Lower 48 and eastern Canada, and a physically smaller one breeding primarily in northwest Canada and Alaska.  The larger species retains the name Canada Goose, while the smaller one is now called the Cackling Goose.  And while their summer ranges are mostly distinct, in the fall and winter these two species mix and mingle, especially in places like western Washington – site of Nisqually NWR.

Telling these two species apart isn’t always easy.  In general, Cacklers have a smaller body, shorter neck, and shorter/stubbier bill.  Some of them are barely bigger than a Mallard duck.  But there is quite a bit of variation in both Cackler and Canada Geese, with a gradient of sizes, shapes, and colors represented in the field depending on the subspecies.  For comparison, here are a few Canadas – note especially the longer necks and longer bills.

If you want more information on how to tell Cacklers and Canadas apart, David Allen Sibley has a great page with photos and maps here.

You might think that deciding which animals comprise a single species and which are really two or more species might be straight-forward.  And sometimes it is.  But often it is more complicated than you might think.  Originally, animals that looked the same were considered the same species, while those that looked different were classified as a different ones.  The problem is that some birds that look different (like all of the different color morphs of Red-tailed Hawks) breed with each other successfully, share most of the same habits and habitats, sound the same (songs and calls), and are genetically pretty similar.  In contrast, some birds look almost identical (I’m looking at you, Alder and Willow Flycatchers!), but do not regularly interbreed, have different songs, and show notable genetic differences.  And then there are cases like the (Eastern) Yellow-shafted Flicker and the (Western) Red-Shafted Flicker.  They look similar, but the western (sub?)species has red feather shafts instead of yellow, and subtly different markings on the head and neck.  Their calls and behaviors are pretty similar.  But they have pretty distinct geographical ranges, so they don’t interbreed often.  Where their ranges overlap, they do breed with each other producing hybrids with a range of intermediate or mix-and-match characteristics such as a “red-shafted” head on a “yellow-shafted” body.  I once saw a pretty amazing “orange-shafted” flicker in Oregon.

Ornithologists sometimes have difficulty deciding which groups deserve status as full species, and which are just variations or subspecies.  And sometimes they change their mind in light of new information (take note, politicians, that changing your mind about something is not always a weakness!).  The two flickers mentioned above, once considered separate species, where “lumped” together into a single species a few decades ago, now called Northern Flicker.  For the geese, the opposite happened.  After decades of being considered the same species, Cackling and Canada Geese were “split” into two different species in 2004.  Sometimes, there is real indecision.  The California Towhee, once considered part of the “Brown Towhee,” was split, then lumped, then split again!  The confusion is in part based on the fact that the simplest concept of a “species” is purely a human construct.  We like to classify things as either/or and yes/no in a binary, black and white way.  Nature, however, is more analog than digital.  Changes in populations wrought by natural selection and evolution happen in a continuous curve, not in discrete quantum leaps.  Speciation, the creating of new species from a common ancestor, is a process not an event.  As such, we try to use our best judgment to decide where one species ends and where a new one begins, but sometimes it’s complicated.  Look for more splits and lumps in the years to come!

The handsome fellow above is a Northern Shrike.  It has not quite reached full adult plumage, as the mask isn’t completely black and there is still some brown wash on the belly.  Shrikes eat small vertebrates like lizards and birds, and have a reputation for impaling their prey on thorns, sharp sticks, and barbed wire.  The first Common Redpoll I ever saw became a Shrike meal about 4 minutes later.

Just past the Shrike, the Nisqually estuary was filled with ducks, ducks, and more ducks.  This area is a protected zone that is surrounded by hunting areas on two sides.  And the ducks are not as stupid as they look.  These are male Northern Pintails.  They are still in the process of growing in their very long “pin” tail feathers.

The northwestern part of the refuge features a relatively new boardwalk, which stretches most of the way to the Sound.

Nearby I found a Great Egret feeding.  These elegant waders are common over most of the United States, but are quite uncommon in Washington state.

Nearby was a wader that is NOT uncommon – the familiar Great Blue Heron.  Like the Mallards, GBH’s often don’t warrant a second look from birders.  But they are pretty spectacular creatures.

As I turned for home, I meandered by the Twin Barns, a reminder of Nisqually’s farmland past.  They are currently languishing in a state of majestic disrepair.

As the days grow shorter and colder, the Big Leaf Maples throughout the refuge have received the signal to stop chlorophyll production and drop their flat photosynthetic factories.  Winter is coming.

My winter schedule is beginning to firm up.  The week after Thanksgiving I’m traveling to New York and New England to see some schools (like the public Bronx High School of Science and the independent Groton School in Massachusetts).  I’ll also be looking for Atlantic sea ducks, gulls, and alcids.  I’ll post more from the Northeast!

1 Comment

Filed under Birding

The Mystery of the Diving Emerald-Hooded Quackaneer

Saturday’s brilliant afternoon sunshine lured me down to the Kirkland waterfront.  My kids were busy at a play date and a birthday party, so I had a few hours of fading daylight to wander through my local patch.  Many birders have a regular park or wildlife area that they visit frequently, observing how this familiar “patch” of land changes throughout the seasons.  While I don’t have an official patch, the place I visit most often (especially when I only have an hour or so free) is Juanita Bay Park (and nearby Juanita Beach Park) in Kirkland, about five minutes from my house.  This little green space hugging the shores of Lake Washington always has some interesting wildlife present.  It’s one of the best places near my house to see a Wood Duck:

Although not uncommon, Wood Ducks are often shy and retiring birds.  But the boardwalk between Juanita Bay Park and the adjacent Beach Park is a great place to see them, as they seem to have become accustomed to people walking through their habitat.  I almost never fail to see them there, often at close range, and they always make me smile.

There were many other species of ducks present on Saturday: small black and white Buffleheads, rafts of Scaup, and a couple hulking Canvasbacks.  And of course Mallards.  Mallards are almost an afterthought.  They are abundant throughout almost all of North America, and often quite tame.  They beg for bread at many small urban and suburban ponds, loaf in the puddles of parking lots, munch grass on the lawns of homes and office buildings, and paddle through the shallow water of roadside ditches.  Most birders don’t pay much attention to Mallards.  They are neither rare nor hard to see nor a challenge to identify.  I guess they are a bit like a piece of common granite to a rock hound, or a 2010 quarter to a coin collector – “I’ve seen a million of ’em.”

Of course, if you’ve ever bothered to looked closely at a 2010 quarter, they are quite spectacular.  I used to be a small-time coin collector as a kid (mostly pocket change), and I love to study the new designs.  There are several different versions of the 2010 quarter, but here is the Mount Hood one (showing the reverse, image courtesy of the US Mint):

I think these quarters are quite beautiful, and worthy of appreciation – even if over 68,000,000 of them were minted, and they are only worth 25 cents each.

As with the new quarters, Mallards are spectacular and under-appreciated.  They are large and elegant ducks.  The male sports an iridescent green head that literally sparkles in the sunlight, a chestnut breast, golden bill, silver sides and back, and a cute curly tail.

The female is more understated, but she is a beautiful mottled brown with a flash of teal and white in the wing (this colorful wing patch, present in many ducks, is called the speculum).

Why do so many birders dismiss these gorgeous creatures as “junk birds”?  Why do so many people ooh and aah over Wood Ducks while ignoring nearby Mallards, which are almost as flashy and charismatic?  I suspect if Mallards were rare, or at least shy and hard to see, birders would pay them a lot more attention.  It would also help if they had a more exotic name, like maybe Emerald-hooded Quackaneer.  Wouldn’t you be a lot more interested in seeing the extremely rare and reclusive Emerald-hooded Quackaneer than the Mallard who comes to untie your shoelaces looking for a handout?

Anyhow, I was enjoying my walk in the park, admiring the Canvasbacks and ignoring the Mallards, when a duck that had been swimming underwater suddenly popped up next to me.  I did a double take.  And then a triple take.  It was a Mallard.  And with a small leap forward it disappeared again under the surface of the lake.  I was a bit dumb-founded.  This was no ordinary Mallard.

To explain my confusion, it helps to know that birders often separate ducks into two convenient groups: dabblers and divers.  Dabbling ducks usually forage by working their way along the surface, munching on floating plant matter and small invertebrates.  Or they use their feet to tip their heads and necks under the surface, leaving their rear ends bobbing high in the air.  Diving ducks, as their name suggests, submerge themselves completely using their feet to propel themselves under the water in search of plants and small animals.  David Allen Sibley, in his terrific book The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, shows a diagram (from page 197):

Mallards, as shown in Sibley’s diagram (the middle duck), are dabblers.  You can see them feeding in their characteristic manner at your local pond or lake.  They look like this:

They are not divers.  They are dabblers.  My field guide says so.  In the class that I taught for Seattle Audubon last month, *I* said so.  Mallards don’t dive underwater.  Except, apparently, this one does.  The Mallard re-surfaced close by, and eyed me to see if I was hiding any bread in my coat.  “Mallards don’t dive underwater,” I informed him.  He responded by jumping back under the water.  This was not a quick dip; he stayed underwater for at least 10 seconds, going down several feet.  I whipped out my iPhone, suddenly realizing that I should capture this amazing moment on video.  I can’t embed video on this blog, but I did upload a short clip to youtube.  The quality isn’t great, in part because I cleverly used one fat finger to cover half of the lens – but you can see the video of the incredible diving Mallard here.

When I got home, I researched the matter a bit more.  Several reference books said things like “Mallards typically feed at the surface, and only very rarely dive underneath the water.”  Very rarely, huh?  I have watched birds pretty seriously now for about 13 years, and I’ve never seen a diving Mallard before.  Is this a one-in-a-million event?  Or is it an uncommon but regularly occurring one, an event that I arrogantly ignored because I wasn’t paying attention to the lowly Mallards?  Perhaps it is the former, and I should feel very lucky to have witnessed such an extraordinarily rare and unusual behavior.  But I’m actually betting on the latter.  In any event, the diving Mallard was an instructive reminder that amazing things are all around us, if we just take a minute to actually notice them.


Filed under Birding

A Fog Enshrouded Nation on the Edge of the Map

On the northwest tip of the Lower 48 States lies the Olympic Peninsula, and on the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula you can find the Makah Nation.  The Makah Indians welcome visitors to their small but spectacular reservation, perched on a finger of land where the Straits of Juan de Fuca meet the Pacific Ocean.  The Makah call themselves “the people who live by the rocks and the gulls” in their native Klallam language, and their home is indeed nestled between a pair of rocky shorelines and hosts the highest diversity of gulls in the Lower 48.  The Makah lands are also on the edge of the largest temperate rainforest in North America, and it rains about 220 days a year (for an average total of 110 inches, or over 9 feet of rain).  When I visited last week, the forecast called for (surprise!) thick clouds, misty rain, and heavy fog.  Fortunately, real birders have waterproof binoculars.  I packed my things and started driving northwest.

My first stop was at a little tribal store in Neah Bay where I picked up a visitor permit ($10 allows access to all of the Makah’s recreational sites for a year), a map, and a snack.

The fog was lifting and the winds were calm, but the rain was coming down in the steady drizzle.  The waters of Neah Bay were teeming with ducks, grebes, loons, cormorants, and alcids (birds of the auk family).  My camera told me it was too dark for distant photography, but I snapped a few pictures anyway.  This gray and grainy image doesn’t begin to do justice to the handsome male Harlequin Duck, but it’s the best one I have:

“Rockpipers,” sandpipers and shorebirds that prefer rocky coasts were also present in great numbers, especially Black Turnstones (named for their habit of turning over small stones to look for lunch hiding underneath).  I also found a Surfbird, an unexpected treat here (and last seen near the end of the Point Brown Jetty).  As I continued my walk along the bay through the cold, November rain here in at almost 49 degrees north latitude, I ran into a …

Tropical Kingbird?!?

Yes, a Tropical Kingbird.  According to my field guide, Tropical Kingbirds are “… uncommon and local in southeastern Arizona and the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.”  In fact, Tropical Kingbirds are one of the most common and widespread birds of Central and South America.  Their normal range ends in the extreme southern portions of the US.  This was one LOST Kingbird, and he knew it.  He sat a bit forlornly in an alder tree, occasionally flying out to snap up one of the last flying insects of the season.

What was a Tropical Kingbird doing in Neah Bay?  This unfortunate fellow fell victim to reverse migration, sometimes also called “mirror migration.”  Most migratory birds hatch in the early summer, and are tended to by their parents for a few weeks.  By autumn they are on their own, and must rely on their genetic programming to figure out which way to migrate for the winter (exceptions would be gregarious birds like swans and geese which tend to migrate together in flocks).  In over 99.99% of cases, the juvenile birds go exactly where they are supposed to go.  But in rare cases, a bird gets mixed up and travels 180 degrees in the opposite direction.  Thus, a Tropical Kingbird born in Arizona does not migrate south-southeast to Mexico but instead travels north-northwest, eventually hitting the Pacific Ocean and following it north… to someplace like Neah Bay.  On this northwest peninsula, the Kingbird is now surrounded by ocean on two sides, and is probably seriously regretting not stopping for directions when he hit Fresno.  Some species are more prone to mirror migration than others, and while a Tropical Kingbird in Washington state is most definitely not an every day occurrence, they are seen almost every year – usually along the coast, and usually in October or November.

While this guy is probably doomed (like kingbirds everywhere, he depends on a robust supply of flying insects which are becoming in short supply in Neah Bay right about now), mirror migration might in fact be a genetic feature, not a bug.  Imagine that almost all of the kingbirds in a certain area travel to a known, safe wintering location.  This ensures that the vast majority of the population will end up in suitable habitat.  But a tiny fraction travel instead in almost the opposite direction, or wander at random (imagine they have, for example, a rare “crazy explorer” gene).  Most of these explorers will perish, but a few might randomly end up someplace hospitable.  This could be how kingbirds find distant new areas to populate.  They are one of the most widespread birds in the Americas, and perhaps their tendency towards vagrancy is one of the reasons why.

A little while later, I ran into another lost avian soul.  But this one was a visitor from Asia who has travelled too far west (actually so far east he made it to the west!) and too far south: a Eurasian Wigeon.  We have good old American Wigeons in abundance in Washington, but about 1 out of every 10,000 or so wigeon here in our state is actually a transplant from over the ocean.  There are a few differences between the two species of wigeon, but the most noticeable one is that the Eurasian Wigeon has a red head with a yellow crown stripe, not a gray and green head with a creamy white stripe.  The bird in the middle standing up and facing left (and again, too far away and too dark for good pictures) is the Eurasian one:

A little further along, I stumbled upon a pair of Snow Buntings.  These beauties nest in the high arctic, and winter in the northern tier of states (but rarely in western Washington).

This is a male and a female.  The males have a little more white on them, and the females have a bit more brown and yellow.  It’s hard to see all of the differences in this picture, but the female is in the background.  Here’s a picture of the male alone (he was a little less shy – or maybe more hungry for the grass seeds):

I spent most of the morning around Neah Bay, but had a little extra time before I needed to head back so I drove a short distance to the Pacific coast and Hobuck Beach.

Here a gale was blowing, waves were crashing, and I began to understand why the Makah identified themselves as the people who live near gulls.  Because there were a lot of gulls.  I mean, I whole lot of gulls.  I didn’t count them all, but my conservative estimate was at least 2000 individuals.

This photo only shows a tiny fraction of the multitude.  Contrary to popular belief, there are no such creatures as “seagulls.”  As a group, they are simply called gulls.  And of course there are many different species of gulls.  In this group, I picked out Western Gulls, Glaucous-winged Gulls, Thayer’s Gulls, Heerman’s Gulls, Mew Gulls, Herring Gulls, and Bonaparte’s Gulls (named for a French ornithologist and nephew of Napoleon).  And yes, the convention is to always capitalize the name of a particular species.  Capitalization is what helps you differentiate a blue jay (any kind of jay which happens to be blue) from a Blue Jay (a specific jay which lives in eastern North America, and/or the mascot of the Toronto major league baseball team).

All too soon I had to drive back along the winding route 112 to the south and east.  As I was leaving, the sun peeked out for a moment creating a brilliant rainbow.  And at the end of the rainbow?  (I checked with my binoculars!)  It was a gull.


Filed under Birding