NEST BOX CHRONICLES: Hatching Hooded Merganser Ducks

In this blog we show the successful results of our efforts in three videos showing the young ducklings as they hatch out of their eggs and successfully fledge from a nest box.

2009_WA_8890A male Hooded Merganser during courtship season

For 17 years, my wife Karen and I have been providing nest boxes for wild ducks at our Fawn Lake home, which is located on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. Originally, we set up a box to attract Wood Ducks, but we found that Hooded Mergansers (another kind of duck) also used the box. We started with one box, and eventually built and installed three boxes on Bigleaf Maple tree trunks at the water’s edge.

After 15 successful years, 2013 was a debacle. A Raccoon heard the peeping chicks on the night before they were to leave the box; it skillfully bypassed our predator guards and managed to tear apart the nest box, killing and eating the mother duck and her 15 or so babies. Then it raided a second box and destroyed that one as well. We were heartsick.

Later that year, we beefed up our security on the boxes by adding still more metal sheathing on the tree trunks and cutting away as many branches as we could reach. It was with some trepidation that we repaired and cleaned out the nest boxes and prepared for the 2014 nesting season.

In this blog we show the successful results of our efforts in three videos showing the young ducklings as they hatch out of their eggs and successfully fledge from the first nest box. Watching the duck behavior for all these days makes us emotionally attached to these ducks, which is why it was so devastating for us when the Raccoon got into the boxes last year. This year I felt like handing out cigars after the 11 chicks successfully fledged, and we felt a pang of postpartum depression when it was all over.

Below the videos, we have provided an extensive selection of our written 2014 field notes describing the behavior of the ducks during incubation, for anyone who is interested in the background leading up to the successful fledging.

In this video, we see the first hole appear in an egg, and watch the mother merganser’s behavior as more and more eggs hatch. Hatching began after 34 days of incubation, and the family stays in the nest box overnight before fledging the next morning.

This video from a camera inside the box shows the mother leaving, followed soon by all 11 chicks when she signals that it is okay to leave.

This view from outside the nest box shows the mother looking outside to make sure the drop zone is safe; then she calls to the chicks and they follow one by one, leaping to the lake surface. Be sure to turn up the volume on your device so that you can hear the mother’s chuckling call, the babies’ excited cheeping, and the splashing when each bird hits the water.

The following notes are from a journal I kept during the time from the day we installed the camera to the morning of fledging. If you are a birder or enjoy detailed natural history observations, as we do, then these notes may be of interest. These are the highlights; my other notes in the series are more routine.

SATURDAY, MARCH 15

Today we hauled out the ladder to clean out the nest boxes, which I will designate as Duckbox L (for left), Duckbox C (center), and Duckbox R (right).

When I climbed the ladder to clean out Duckbox C, I opened the maintenance door and saw the wide eyes of a very startled Hooded Merganser looking back at me. She gazed at me for a second or two, then scrambled up to the entrance and out, protesting noisily as she flew out to her mate in the middle of the lake. Presumably, she told him the scary story of a big fat human face looking at her from two feet away!

She left two eggs sitting atop the sodden wood chips left from last year. I carefully removed the two eggs and the old wood chips, carrying them down the steep extension ladder in a plastic bucket. Then I ascended the ladder and sprayed the box with Lysol (to discourage wasps from making it home), then put in fresh aspen chips that I bought in the pet section of Walmart. Lastly, I set the two eggs in the middle of the box, and covered them with a thin layer of aspen chips.

I proceeded to also clean out Duckbox R, which is attached to the same Bigleaf Maple tree as Duckbox C and is two feet higher on the other side of the tree. This box was empty of eggs and ducks, but had been used as a night roost during much of the winter by a Northern Flicker, who I saw entering the box at twilight on quite a few nights.

Then I moved the ladder to Duckbox L, which was filled to the rafters with bright green moss. This was one of the nests of a Douglas Squirrel. I had observed the squirrel taking whole peanuts from my feeder into that box several times this winter, so I wasn’t surprised to see the mossy nest and a cache of perhaps 100 peanuts, some of which were getting moldy from having been stored so long.

I evicted the squirrel’s possessions, figuring that it could find another nest location, justifying my action on the fact that I had originally set up this box for ducks, not rodents.

Later that day, after I had installed infrared nest box cameras in Duckboxes L and C, we observed a pair of Hooded Mergansers below the nest boxes on Fawn Lake. Suddenly both took off together and did a wide circle of the lake, eventually boomeranging back to the nest box upon reaching the proper altitude. The female abruptly put on the brakes and came to rest in the opening of Duckbox C, where she inspected the box before entering.

After she came into the box, she clearly realized that changes had been made. She spent a couple of minutes standing with her legs awkwardly sprawled wide, looking warily up at the camera, which had not been there before Eventually she seemed to grow more comfortable with her renovated apartment, and proceeded to lay an egg with rhythmic contractions of her body. This was the third egg in the box, and she carefully covered all three with wood chips.

TUESDAY, MARCH 18

After several days away, I returned home and switched on the television that we use to monitor the next boxes. Almost immediately, a female Hooded Merganser entered Duckbox C and proceeded to uncover the eggs. There were now four eggs, so presumably one additional egg had been laid on Monday. This appeared to be a juvenile female who did not have a mate (there was no male waiting for her below the box, which is the usual practice), and she seemed to be practicing motherhood by moving around the eggs with her bill and feet, and sitting on them for brief stretches. Eventually she left the box, but left all four eggs uncovered. Bad babysitter! She still has some techniques to learn. Hooded Merganser pairA breeding pair of Hooded Mergansers on Fawn Lake

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 19

At 7:45 a.m., a female Hoodie entered Duckbox C and proceeded to lay a fifth egg (I didn’t see them all afterward, so I am making a presumption here). She departed and joined her mate down on the lake.

A bit later, another pair appeared and I think the female entered the cameraless Duckbox R, presumably to lay an egg.

Duckbox L is still empty.

With Hooded Mergansers and Wood Ducks, it is normal to lay eggs over a period of many days, but not to begin incubating until all the eggs have been laid. That way, all are incubated for the same amount of time and are ready to hatch together.

FRIDAY, MARCH 21

When I wandered out to view the nest boxes on the television at 6:45 a.m., there was already a Hooded Merganser in Duckbox C, with a male on the lake below. We watched her until she laid what we think is the 6th egg in the box, then carefully covered them up and departed.

At about 8:30, a pair of Wood Ducks appeared in the Bigleaf Maple tree where two nest boxes are located. We think this was a reconnaissance trip, since we had not seen them before. Female Wood DuckA Wood Duck female; notice how she has a similar head shape with a crown as that of the Hooded Merganser.

At about 9:15 a.m., the female Woodie entered Duckbox L, which had had no activity until now. She sat on the wood chips and worked them around a bit, as if testing for suitability.

A couple of minutes later, fireworks began when a female Hooded Merganser entered the same box. There was a brief battle, then it quieted down, with the Wood Duck firmly gripping some of the Hoodie’s tail feathers in her bill. Eventually the Hoodie jumped up to the opening, where she sat for a couple of seconds. Then she twice went back down into the box for another go-round with the Woodie. Eventually the Wood Duck won and remained in charge of the box.

The Wood Duck left the box at about 9:30 a.m. and we don’t think she laid an egg.

At about 6:00 p.m. I saw a Northern Flicker quickly dash into Duckbox R, where it has spent many nights roosting. We can’t see it, because there is no camera in that box.

At 9:45 p.m. I turned on Duckbox C Channel, and found all six eggs uncovered. I believe that an immature female Hoodie came into the box and was badly practicing being a mom, and left after uncovering and sitting on the eggs briefly. Of course, teenagers of many species aren’t known for their sense of responsibility.

SUNDAY, MARCH 23

At 6:40 a.m. the Hooded Merganser mother entered the box right on her schedule, in which she has been laying an egg every other day. Today she laid egg seven. One thing we noticed after she went through the contractions of her body necessary for laying an egg was that she began shivering. She shivered for several minutes while sitting on the eggs, then used her bill to cover up all the eggs before leaving the nest box.

In the afternoon, I took the ladder down to the tree and attempted to ratchet in a lag bolt that is exposed in the Duckbox C camera view, but gave up when it was apparent that I was about to break the bolt. I checked Duckbox R, and there were two duck eggs in the box. I carefully covered them with wood chips before departing.

TUESDAY, MARCH 25

All quiet today until about 4:00 p.m., when the juvenile Hooded Merganser entered Duckbox C and uncovered all the eggs. She moved them around a bit and tried sitting on them, but apparently got bored and left the box with all the eggs uncovered. When I looked out at the box, there was a female Wood Duck sitting on top of it, looking down and into the box, while her mate clung to the trunk of the tree nearby, apparently waiting patiently while she tried to make a decision to enter the box.

Eventually the female Wood Duck entered Duckbox C, where she immediately saw all the uncovered eggs. She sat down on them and rearranged them, trying it out for several minutes. Then she leaped up to the box opening and left with her mate.

Meanwhile, a female Hooded Merganser went into Duckbox R while her mate waited on the water below. I suspect she was laying another egg, but I’m not sure since we have no camera in that box. It was an exciting 20 minutes!

THURSDAY, MARCH 27

Incubation begins in Duckbox C!

This morning very early a duck came into the Duckbox C and uncovered quite a few eggs, then left. I assume this is the juvenile female with a bad habit.

Later, in mid-day, a female Wood Duck came into the box after staring down into it from the roof for several minutes. She proceeded to inspect the box carefully and to sit on the eggs in several positions. After about two minutes, she covered up all the Hooded Merganser eggs like a good mother and then left.

Several times during the day, a European Starling came to the entrance of Duckbox C, but I never saw it actually enter.

At about 6:30 p.m., a female Hooded Merganser entered the box with her mate on the water below. I presumed that she was going to lay another egg, and I’m not sure that she did. But she did remain in the box until darkness fell … and was still there when I came to check on the box at 5:15 a.m. on Friday. So, incubation has officially begun. There is a minimum of eight eggs, which is much lower than in past years, but there could be a couple more.

FRIDAY, MARCH 28

The Hoodie that stayed in Duckbox C stayed all night, but left at dawn. As of noon, she has not returned.

Meanwhile, at noon there is a Hoodie in Duckbox L, with her mate on the lake below. Hopefully she will start laying eggs. She certainly looks comfortable, and now she’s pulling chips toward the center as if she is covering eggs. So my guess is that she did. She is leaving as of 12:02 p.m.

SUNDAY, MARCH 30

At 10:25 a.m., the female entered Duckbox C, with her male resting on the water below. She may have laid an egg. There are now many eggs–at least ten. The wood chips now have down feathers woven into them, creating a kind of blanket that can be pulled over the eggs. She left at 2:20 p.m. after covering up all the eggs.

As of 6:30 p.m. the female was back in the box with no male below. 

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 2

The female in Duckbox C has settled into a routine of incubating the eggs all night, then leaving in the early morning for a break of an hour or so, then returning. I observed her leaving again in early afternoon, then returning, then doing the same in the early evening.

TUESDAY, APRIL  8

First thing this morning, I saw the bird in Duckbox C pecking at a black object in one corner of the box. I believe that I could see the head of a swallow that had come into the box and was killed by the Hooded Merganser female, though I’ll have to double check that when I eventually clean out the box.

Other than that, the normal routine of incubation with a couple of breaks during the day continues.

FRIDAY, APRIL 18

The last week has been routine in the extreme, with no new news.

Until this morning, when two Wood Duck pairs showed up at the nest boxes. I noticed it first when the female Hooded Merganser in Duckbox C vigorously opened her bill and seemingly hissed at an intruder; I looked out at the nest box and noticed a female Wood Duck on top of it, so it had apparently looked inside.

At one point, the two Wood Duck pairs were sitting atop Duckbox L and Duckbox R at the same time (we’re still not sure if R is occupied by a merganser). One or the other pair also perched atop Duckbox C several times, but did not dare to venture inside. Finally, a Wood Duck female entered Duckbox L and within seconds, laid an egg and left. A little while later, a second female entered Duckbox L and also laid an egg. We think this has the potential to be a “dump box,” where eggs are laid by a female with no intent to incubate, but with hopes that another female might do the incubation duties. Neither egg was covered up with wood chips in the box. It seemed that the females just tried to dump the eggs as quickly as possible. [Note: the box did not end up being a dump box but we will have to watch for the two species of ducks if the brood hatches.]

About 12:30 p.m., a Hooded Merganser female entered Duckbox L, and stayed in there quite a while as her mate waited on the lake below. When she left, there was a third egg sitting next to the other two laid just this morning.

So, in the space of half a day, we went from no activity and no eggs to three females of two species entering the box and leaving three eggs. Life in Duckbox L is finally getting interesting.

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 30

When I returned home at about 8:00 a.m. this morning, the female Hoodie in Duckbox C was perched in the opening looking out, with all her eggs covered up. Meanwhile, there was also a Hoodie in Duckbox L, where she now remains 45 minutes later. She now has quite a few eggs, and I expect that incubation will begin soon.

I thought that the Hoodie had returned to Duckbox C at about 8:35 a.m., but I now believe that she was a third female. She entered the box, nestled on a few eggs–but never uncovered them all–then covered up the few she had exposed and left the box. There was a male Hoodie on the lake below, and I think she was paired with him. Kind of late to be looking for a nest box.

As of 9:30 a.m., with the regular mother back in Duckbox C, I believe I am seeing the first small black hole where a young bird starts to chip away at the egg from the inside, using its egg tooth.

YES! This is the day for Duckbox C!

At about 11:00 a.m., the first duckling cracked its way out of the egg. As the day went by more and more holes began appearing in the eggs and more and more babies hatched out.  They are so wet and bedraggled at first and they look like it could be days before they dry out, but it actually happens very quickly.  When an egg shell is empty, the mother will pick it up and thrash it, apparently getting some nutrients from the liquid and the shell itself.

By evening we were counting 8 babies pretty consistently, but the mother is still incubating and it will be interesting to see if any more appear.  The young periodically emerge and scurry around the mother, looking cute as they pop their heads out from under her wing. At other times all will be quiet with the youngsters invisible to us, gathered under the mother, where she is keeping them warm.

When the young are active they learn to use their bills as a tool, pecking each other and at their mother’s head, bill and sometimes her eye, which she tolerates patiently.

When we went to bed we knew that tomorrow morning the fledging would occur.

THURSDAY, MAY 1

During the night when I got up to go to the bathroom I would also check the TV to see inside the nest box and illuminate the outside of the box itself with a powerful headlamp to make sure that no raccoons were trying to approach the box (after last year’s debacle). 

In the morning the mother left once for a bathroom break and came back.  While she was gone the chicks all huddled together, quietly as if she had told them to stay put and remain quiet.  They were huddled so tightly that we couldn’t count the number of chicks.

We had set up our cameras at 6:00 a.m. in preparation for the fledging, but it took longer than expected.  Lee ended up having to change batteries two more times. While trying to be as quiet as we could, it is possible that we delayed the fledging with the noise of our activity below the box. Karen was video taping the outside of the box and had to change tapes three times, as each tape was only 60 minutes long.

At about 9:25 a.m. the mother ascended to the nest box opening, where she waited for several minutes looking around to make sure that it was safe for the babies. She started making a chuckling sound, then dropped down to the lake below, all the while continuing the sound that would draw the babies to follow her.  Then one by one the babies appeared at the nest box opening, hesitated briefly, then made a leap of faith to the lake below, landing with a small splash and scurrying to join the mother.  This event was disrupted a bit by the presence of a male Hooded Merganser, who was accompanying a different female that was in Duck Box L.  He and the new mother squabbled a bit, splashing around.  Within about two minutes all of the babies had leaped and gathered around the mother and she led them off along the lake shore.  We knew that we would never see them as a family again, and are feeling a bit of postpartum depression.

There were three eggs left unhatched in the box after the family had left; one of which might have just been laid the day before by a different female.

SATURDAY, MAY 3

Last night was the first full night that the Hooded Merganser spent in Duckbox L, so we officially proclaim that incubation has begun. That puts hatching at around June 1, if all goes well. Wood Duck maleA Wood Duck male, showing his bling To see more of my photography, go to Lee Rentz Photography

PHOTOGRAPHING A BELTED KINGFISHER: A New Technology in Bird Photography

Photographing a Belted Kingfisher remotely using a CamRanger WiFi network.

FINAL BELTED KINGFISHER

With a flurry of dry rattling calls, two Belted Kingfishers appeared to be battling over the shore of our little lake on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, flying back and forth, back and forth, chasing one another. This goes on late every autumn; I assumed it was a territorial battle, but perhaps it is a mating ritual. Ever since I observed this behavior, I’ve wanted to photograph these fascinating birds. Actually, I’ve enjoyed seeing them since first watching kingfishers from my family’s cabin along the Muskegon River in Michigan.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, Male

Belted Kingfishers mostly eat fish, as the name implies. An individual can sit on a high perch, glaring at the water surface below, looking for a fish. If it sees a small fish below, if will instantly leave the perch, fold its wings, and dive head-first into the water with just a small splash. This is often a successful fishing technique. Alternatively, the kingfisher can hover above the water, then dive from the hovering spot. I think they can do their rattling call while diving, so I can only assume the fish can’t hear it or that it petrifies the prey like rebel yells or bagpipes were purported to scare enemy soldiers.

Kingfishers nest in burrows dug into high banks along rivers, lakes, or the ocean. I have seen a couple of nest holes that I believe were made by kingfishers here in the Puget Sound region, but I’ve never photographed a kingfisher near its nesting hole. After exiting the nest, the parents stay with the kids and teach them to fish. A parent can teach a youngster to fish by dropping dead fish onto the water surface; apparently kingfishers know a birdy variant of the old proverb give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, Male

Every autumn and winter the kingfishers come to Fawn Lake; they are here occasionally year-round, but I’ve learned to expect them especially during the November through January period. Their appearance has been reliable enough that several years ago I set up a curving branch attached to our dock so that the kingfishers would have a place to perch. More to the point: I would have a place to potentially photograph them.

Time went by, and a couple of times each year I would notice that a kingfisher was indeed using my branch, but it happened so rarely that I could not commit the time to working in a blind down on the lakeshore. It might have been weeks and weeks of waiting; I’m a patient man, but not THAT patient.

Other birds also used the perch. I’ve had Wood Ducks, Violet-green Swallows, a Great Blue Heron, and a Bald Eagle perched there, but again not long enough or frequently enough that I could justify the time of sitting in a blind.

In the last few months, things changed. Starting in December, a male kingfisher came and sat on the perch almost every morning. It became a ritual for me each morning, as soon as it got light enough to see down to the lake, to check if the kingfisher was sitting there, and it often was.

The first couple of weeks of perching were rainy, then we had a long, dry stretch that gave me a chance to check out some new technology in the form of a CamRanger. This little electronic device attaches to the camera’s USB port and sets up a wifi network. When I set my Canon camera on “Live View,” I can view what the camera sees right on the screen of my Mac laptop.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, MaleThe Belted Kingfisher has a thin head from the front view, shaped almost like a hatchet to enable it to cleanly cleave the water surface. From the front, the head looks disproportionately small for the body.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, MaleFrom the side view, the head appears unusually large in proportion to the body

The CamRanger is not just a dumb box transmitting an image; the CamRanger software also allows me to control several important aspects of the camera. I can focus remotely, as well as change the exposure and ISO, so it is almost as good as being in a blind–though not quite, since I don’t have a motorized tripod head that would enable me to remotely change the composition. The best quality motorized tripod head would cost about $9,000, so I think I’ll hold off on that purchase.

Early one morning, after I had tested the technology, I set up a tripod and carefully composed the view through a long telephoto lens. I tested the CamRanger and found that it was working, then waited. Within a few minutes, the kingfisher showed up and I was able to photograph it remotely using my computer mouse as a shutter release. The first images were stunning!

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, MaleOne of the first photographs I took using the CamRanger

Each day, for the next couple of weeks, I dutifully set up the camera and CamRanger, but with less success than I had the first day. I found that the camera battery only lasted about two hours when working in the Live View mode. Worse, the CamRanger would shut off frequently, especially when the weather was foggy (if it was crystal clear, the unit was more likely to stay on). When this happened, I could reboot the software remotely, so it wasn’t a big problem. I also found that the location of the laptop was important. I tried to use the laptop from the comfort of a leather sofa in the living room, but the signal wasn’t strong enough. I found that I had to go downstairs to my daylight basement, and there it worked far better if I had the laptop elevated, sitting right in the doorway, with the glass door open. It required frequent attention, and keeping the door open. I was prepared that as soon as I saw a kingfisher from inside the house, I would run downstairs to try and take a photograph.

One day, after I had set up, I went downstairs to check on the computer after the door had been open for a while. While I was looking out and down to the lake, a black-and-white mammal ran between my legs and out the open door. It had come in while I was upstairs. We have no pets, and I hope beyond hope that it was a cat rather than a skunk!

Persistence eventually paid off, and one morning almost immediately after I set up, the kingfisher appeared. I ran down the stairs and saw the image on my computer screen. I proceeded to take over 60 photographs as it modelled for the camera, turning its head this way and that, sometimes looking up, other times looking down into the lake. It was magical.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, MaleThe end of a yawn with its bill closing

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, MaleTiny water drops spraying out in an arc when the kingfisher instantly turns its head

Those were the last pictures I got this year, as the kingfisher has apparently moved on. Twice, during the period when I was watching, but not photographing, it came to the branch with a small fish. Each time, it perched for perhaps five minutes with the fish in its bill, perhaps waiting for the fish to die before downing it. I didn’t capture that behavior; perhaps next winter I’ll have another chance.

Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, Male

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my NEW website at Lee Rentz Photography or go to my Flickr Photostream.

If your are interested in remote photography using the technology described here, go to CamRanger.

GALAXIES OF DUCKS: Science and Telling a Story

Northern Shoveler ducks fed communally in a spiral-like formation on Seattle’s Green Lake.

Seattle_Green_Lake-203A swirling galaxy of Northern Shovelers feeding

Inspiration can come when I least expect it. The winter day was gray and dry, and cold for Seattle, with temperatures hovering around 25°F. Ice was forming where small waves lapped against the shore of Green Lake, one of my favorite places to get some exercise when visiting the big city. But I was cold today and couldn’t get up the gumption to go jogging, so I took my camera for a bird walk.

The crows were having a convention, and looked strikingly sinister when silhouetted against a gray sky. I found some tiny birds foraging in the birch trees along the waterfront; several ladies stopped and asked what the tiny birds were; I wasn’t sure yet, because they were moving rapidly and were a little ways away from me. One of the women thought they were Bushtits, which I had seen in this location on my last trip to Green Lake, but it turned out that they were Golden-crowned Kinglets, feeding and in constant motion among the birch branches. They were so fast that they were extremely difficult to photograph.

Seattle_Green_Lake-378Crows high in a birch tree, facing into the wind

Then a couple from Boston came up and asked if I had seen the big bird with the long legs standing in the water. I hadn’t, but I explained that it was almost certainly a Great Blue Heron. Almost immediately, an enthusiastic young woman came up, pushing her baby in a stroller, and asked if I would like to see the picture she had just taken on her iPhone. I said I would, and she had a good photo of what was probably the same heron. I asked where she had seen it, and she pointed across the bay to “where the ducks are.” Since I wanted to see the ducks, and they were not floating on this cold and windy part of the lake, I decided to head that way. I stopped at my car to pick up a layer of puffy down, because I was getting chilled.

When I reached the dock near the community center, I noticed a lot of Northern Shoveler ducks intensely feeding, and thought that someone was illegally tossing bread to the waterfowl. Then I realized that the ducks were crowded together in three clusters, each group swirling around in a tight circular pattern. I estimated that there were between 50 and 100 birds in each circle, so it was a lot of ducks engaging in a behavior I had never seen before.

At this point my sense of wonder kicked into high gear, and I wanted to know more. Northern Shoveler ducks have a disproportionately large and spoon-shaped bill, which is structured for surface feeding. Their mouth anatomy reminds me of baleen whales in the way they filter tiny plants and animals from the water. Typically, I see a Northern Shoveler motoring along, with its bill just under the surface, busily gathering its food as it swims. But I had never seen shovelers working together while feeding.

Seattle_Green_Lake-350Northern Shoveler male feeding in a typical manner, with its bill just below the surface; with this behavior, it filters small plants and animals from the surface

Seattle_Green_Lake-260In contrast, this group of Northern Shoveler ducks was feeding communally; there must be some advantages to clustering and feeding together

Apparently the circular motion stirs up the water and sediments, and I suspect that it generates a current that brings food from the bottom mud toward the surface. This kind of current has been scientifically demonstrated in the feeding behavior of phalaropes–a small bird that must make itself dizzy spinning in circles on the surface of the water. Perhaps the action of many shovelers working together can create a similar effect.

This shoveler behavior has, of course, been described before, but it was new to me and perhaps not commonly seen, at least with so many birds at once. A fellow blogger, Greg Gillson, described it in this entry: Feeding Habits of the Northern Shoveler. And I saw one video on youtube of three shovelers engaged in the same behavior, going ’round and ’round and ’round.

My challenge in the field was to show the behavior through photography. I snapped a few photographs to record the scene, but quickly realized that freezing the action in a quick shot did not show the pattern of movement and was not an artistic portrayal of the ducks. I decided to concentrate on long exposures to blur the movement of the ducks, but hopefully record the sense of motion. It worked! The motion shots told the scientific story of the feeding behavior, but were also beautiful in their own right. The form reminds me of the spiral shapes of galaxies.

Seattle_Green_Lake-237

Seattle_Green_Lake-224These two photographs show the difference between freezing the motion and using a longer exposure to show the motion

When I am photographing, I constantly face choices like this, and my analytical left-brain and artistic right-brain skills have to work together to solve a problem. When successful, the pictures can tell an effective story.

Seattle_Green_Lake-267

Seattle_Green_Lake-291

Seattle_Green_Lake-220I ended up really liking the motion shots; I took nearly 300 images while experimenting with the rapidly changing composition and while trying different shutter speeds

Seattle_Green_Lake-99One of my Golden-crowned Kinglet photographs that started the afternoon

Seattle_Green_Lake-76Crows noisily flushing from a battered tree that seemed somehow perfectly appropriate 

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my NEW website at Lee Rentz Photography or go to my Flickr Photostream.

OLYMPIC NATIONAL FOREST: Marmot Pass in the Olympic Mountains

3,800′ of vertical gain. Yes, 3,800′. With a full backpack, in about 5.8 miles. It was an exhausting climb–especially the last 300 vertical feet, which had the steepest pitch. But we did it!

Marmot_Pass-87Our tent on a ridge, with Warrior Peak and Mount Constance and the incredible starry sky in the distance

3,800′ of vertical gain. Yes, 3,800′. With a full backpack, in about 5.8 miles. It was an exhausting climb–especially the last 300 vertical feet, which had the steepest pitch. But we did it!

Yes, we knew Marmot Pass was a difficult hike, since we had done it once–23 years ago. We had vowed not to do it again, because we remembered the difficult hike, and the rainy night at Camp Misery, about 4.5 miles in. Oh, did I say Camp Misery? I meant Camp Mystery, as in: it’s mysterious why anyone would want to camp there, in a tangle of dark trees that still sport the stink of decades-ago campfires.

Marmot_Pass-254Picking Wild Strawberries at the trailhead

We arrived at the trailhead at about 10:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning, thankful for the spider web of logging roads that gets hikers closer to the pass than would have been the case decades ago. We pulled on our hiking boots, adjusted our packs, hung the trailhead pass from the rear-view mirror, then walked over to the bulletin board to sign in, where we read the standard warnings about fire and cougars and bears. Oh my.

Marmot_Pass-259The Big Quilcene River cascades quickly from the Olympic Mountains

There were four of us on the trip, with three of us training for the steep ascent into The Enchantments in about three weeks. We started up the trail, light in heart if not in load. My pack and camera gear weighed 45 lbs., which is about 12 lbs. lighter than I will carry in The Enchantments. (Note to myself: remember to pack the Ibuprofen for that trip.)

For the first several miles, the trail parallels the raging and beautiful Big Quilcene River as it tumbles down toward Puget Sound from the steep eastern slope of the Olympics. This area is a real tangle of fallen trees, but the WTA (Washington Trails Association) volunteers recently did a great job on this section of the trail, cutting huge trees that had fallen across the trail and improving drainage with some innovative techniques.

We steadily hiked upward, accompanied by the incredibly complex song of the Pacific Wren, the incredibly off-key song of the Varied Thrush, and the incredibly haunting song of the Hermit Thrush–which may be the most beautiful birdsong I have ever heard. I stopped at a few points to photograph lichens and mosses, which are the intricate little wonders of the lush Olympic Peninsula forest that grow around the bases of immense Western Hemlocks and Douglas Firs.

Marmot_Pass-270Lungwort lichen, one part of the lungs of this moist forest

We stopped for lunch near Shelter Rock, about 2.5 miles in, where there were perhaps a dozen tents set up by a boy scout troop. Karen and I ate Dubliner Cheese, brown rice Triscuits, fresh sugar snap peas, and a handful of mixed nuts and dried Michigan cherries. All good energy foods.

We needed the energy for an even steeper and unrelenting grade that people have called Poop Out Drag. The effort was balanced by the mountain meadows here, which sweep steeply up to the crags of Buckhorn and Iron Mountains. These meadows were filled with thousands upon thousands of blossoms of brilliant reddish-orange Indian paintbrushes and bright indigo larkspurs, as well as scores of other species. Spectacular!

Marmot_Pass-283Larkspur and Indian Paintbrush wildflowers fill the lovely meadows

We reached Camp Misery, pausing only to pump water, since water availability above this point is iffy and depends upon snowmelt. Camp Mystery wasn’t as bad as I remembered, but this was a sunny day and I’ve been taking my meds. Several small groups were setting up camp along the trail, and others passed by on the way to higher campsites. This proved to be a busy weekend on the trail: we estimated that we saw several hundred people making the climb to Marmot Pass. With the Dosewallips trails access limited because of a landslide about a decade ago, hiking is concentrated here more than ever.

We resumed our trek, soon entering more beautiful meadows on the way to Marmot Pass, and passed a pudgy blonde Olympic Marmot–a species found only in The Olympics. Up and up, we finally got to Marmot Pass, and were disappointed to see that we really needed to go higher on the ridgeline. Three of us were almost devoid of energy at that point, but we shifted into what my dear wife calls “creeper gear” to make it to the top. There we were rewarded by one of the most spectacular views in this spectacular state, with rugged mountains all around, except for the look back at the valley we had just come up, with Puget Sound sprawling in front of distant Glacier Peak.

Marmot_Pass-232Trail crawling steeply to a high ridge above Marmot Pass

We set up camp with our three tents in a mountain meadow, with perhaps another ten tents around us in what one hiker passing by disdainfully called “Tent City.” We set up our tents in a pattern that I thought would make a good illuminated tent photograph after dark (I was, of course, playing the part of the always-irritating photo director!). Then we heated dinner on our camp stoves, rationing the hot drinks a bit because we didn’t have unlimited water at this location.

Marmot_Pass-58Snowfields lingering on the slopes of Warrior Peak

Marmot_Pass-291Tree shadows crossing the snowfields below Warrior Peak

Marmot_Pass-64Mount Constance catching the last rays of the day

Marmot_Pass-1One of our group contemplating the dramatic view across the valley of the Upper Dungeness River

Marmot_Pass-49Unidentified distant mountains in the rugged Olympics

Marmot_Pass-66Alpenglow illuminates the sky after sunset

Then we settled into an evening of watching the sun sink below the mountains on the western horizon and feeling the air grow chillier. We got into the tents and found it was harder to get warm than we thought it might be, probably because we had used so much of our energy on the long climb. Shortly after 10:00 p.m., I unzippered the sleeping bag and tent and proceeded to take a long series of tent photographs, directing the occupants on how to better create even illumination on the tent walls. Finally, content, I let everybody drift off to sleep and went to bed myself.

Marmot_Pass-70Our three tents, with Mount Constance to the right in the distance

Karen woke me up at 1:00 a.m. and said she was cold–especially her feet. We cuddled for a long time, and finally I had the idea of giving her my down jacket, which I had been using as a pillow. We slipped her legs into the armholes and finally she got toasty warm. One side effect of the really lightweight new tents, like ours, is that they are largely made of mesh and easily let the breezes in. My estimate is that for every pound of weight that you save in using a lightweight tent, you need two additional pounds of sleeping bag and clothing. There are no free lunches in backpacking equipment.

Nature called later in the night, so I walked outside to talk to her. The Milky Way sprawled across the entire sky in a glorious show that our ancestors observed on every clear night. What a sight!

When my alarm went off at 5:30 a.m. on this slightly frosty morning, I went outside to check on photo conditions. The night wind had ceased, and I was immediately comfortable. I was the first one up in all the camps (so give me a gold star!), and I enjoyed the quiet sunrise. Two Mountain Goats walked through a camp farther along the ridge, then departed to the lower meadows. Perhaps the three dogs in that camp growled at them.

Marmot_Pass-140Our tent in morning light

Marmot_Pass-126Two Mountain Goats feeding in a high meadow

Marmot_Pass-129Looking across the morning mists of Puget Sound to Glacier Peak

Actually, this was a doggy kind of hike. I would guess that we saw about 25 dogs, mostly very well-behaved, including several in close proximity to our camp. Since this hike is completely within Olympic National Forest, dogs are allowed along the trail. Had it been across the valley in Olympic National Park, there would have been a stern ranger giving a warning or writing a ticket to each of these dog owners, and instructing each to vacate the park immediately.

I didn’t hear any barking during the night; perhaps the dogs were as tired from the hike as the humans. One adjacent camp had two little children; I would guess their ages as four and seven. These kids had hiked up a very long ways and were having a great time in the dramatic campsite with their extended family.

The next morning we enjoyed identifying wildflowers and building a snowman. Yes, Karen, you can blame yours truly for the basic construction that led to a catastrophic snowman collapse. At least my engineering didn’t result in a bridge falling, which is reason number 27 as to why I am a photographer instead of an engineer.

Marmot_Pass-141Indian Paintbrush near our tent

Marmot_Pass-179Mountain Wallflower on a high ridge

Marmot_Pass-182Davidson’s Penstemon

Marmot_Pass-240The beautiful magenta Olympic Mountain Paintbrush

Marmot_Pass-187Silky Phacelia

Marmot_Pass-215Alpine Lewisia: this was the first time I had seen this flower, which was named for Meriwether Lewis

Marmot_Pass-209Our snowman named Zeus

This was a nearly clear day, with just a very few scattered shreds of clouds. I said we should place bets on when a cloud shadow would briefly darken us, and it didn’t occur until mid-afternoon.

At noon, we shouldered our packs, now slightly lighter with less food and water, and slowly descended to the pass, stopping at several places to identify and photograph wildflowers. Then we went lower and dined with the blond Olympic Marmot we had seen the the same place the day before (though she did not appear to like our company and got up from the table and left–I’ve got to stop telling blond jokes around the PC crowd).

Marmot_Pass-234Pretty blond Olympic Marmot below its namesake pass

Marmot_Pass-280Weathered wood on an ancient tree at timberline

Marmot_Pass-221The beautiful meadows below Marmot Pass, with one tent among the krummholz

The rest of the hike out was fast and uneventful, and we reached the trailhead at 4:45 p.m. The destination had proven to live up to its reputation as one of the premier hikes in The Olympics, and made me glad that we live in the one place that hosts The Olympics every year.

Marmot_Pass-250Definitely not rolling stones; photographed in the Big Quilcene River near Camp Mystery

For someone thinking about hiking to Marmot Pass, the Olympic National Forest website is a good place to start. Go to Marmot Pass Trail.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

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