Posted tagged ‘behavior’

GALAXIES OF DUCKS: Science and Telling a Story

February 8, 2014

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-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-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 (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.

HAWAII: The Grace of Sea Turtles

June 18, 2013

Green Sea Turtle Swimming among Coral Reefs off Big Island of HaA Green Sea Turtle swims over a shallow coral reef using its powerful front legs for propulsion

Karen and I were snorkling in a coral reef area south of Kona, working hard to stay together despite all the distractions of colorful fish everywhere among coral canyons. When I looked toward her, I was astonished to see a Green Sea Turtle swimming right between Karen and me, about five feet away from each of us. I couldn’t shout with glee without drowning, so instead I took pictures as we swam parallel to the turtle through the tropical aqua sea. It was enchanting.

 The music for this video is from the song Silver Creek, by the German duo DOKAPI. More information and a link to their website is at the end of this article.

Pacific Green Sea Turtle and Snorkeler Swimming off the Big Isla

This was the third sea turtle I had seen on this trip. The day before, both of us had observed one basking on a narrow strip of sand beach, where it shared the space with scores of humans. It seemed content to be there, and even used its flippers to toss sand onto its back.

Pacific Green Sea Turtle Swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii

The endearing thing about sea turtles is their grace. Most of us humans are water nerds, graceless and gangly and splashing. In contrast, the sea turtle moves with the cadence of time itself. The swimming is slow and graceful, as if it got extra points for style and poetry of motion.

Pacific Green Sea Turtle Swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii

This swimming sea turtle was covered with green algae. It looked like it needed to go to one of the natural cleaning stations that certain fish have set up in the sea. These sea salons are known to turtles and fish as places where they can go for a good grooming to have parasites and algae removed and gobbled down by specialized species of fish.

Pacific Green Sea Turtle Swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii

Pacific Green Sea Turtle Swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii

Pacific Green Sea Turtle Swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii

Pacific Green Sea Turtle Swimming off the Big Island of Hawaii

In contrast, the Green Sea Turtle I had photographed several days before looked like it had just come out of the turtle wash and had been waxed afterward. There was not a speck of visible algae on it; in fact, each plate on its back sported lines of subtle color that looked for all the world like soft brushstrokes in a watercolor painting. Against the aqua color of the sea, it was stunning.

Green Sea Turtle Swimming among Coral Reefs off Big Island of Ha

Green Sea Turtle Swimming among Coral Reefs off Big Island of Ha

Green Sea Turtle Swimming among Coral Reefs off Big Island of Ha

Green Sea Turtle Swimming among Coral Reefs off Big Island of Ha

The Green Sea Turtle lives around the world in the tropics, and is endangered. It gets caught accidentally in nets and is killed for its meat and shell. Fortunately, in Hawai‘i the sea turtles are revered, and everyone is ecstatic to see them. They have special beaches where they go to lay eggs, and it would be wonderful to see the hatchlings emerging and heading for the sea, but that will have to wait for another trip.

Green Sea Turtle Swimming among Coral Reefs off Big Island of Ha

Green Sea Turtle Swimming among Coral Reefs off Big Island of Ha

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to (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). 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

Music for the video in this article was created by the German duo DOKAPI. It was licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution–ShareAlike 2.5; go to for more information. DOKAPI has a website at where you can find out more about their excellent music. Our video, Dream of the Sea Turtles, is available for use under the same terms of the ShareAlike 2.5 license. Contact us at for information.

TWITCHING AND GRUNGE: A Day of Birding on the Washington Coast

November 5, 2012

Like water off a duck’s back: Common Eider 1st year male in winter plumage bathing in the saltwater of Westport Marina; the last time I saw this species was in Oswego Harbor in Upstate New York some 30 years ago

Once in a while I get an itch to twitch. Which means I have to convince Karen that there are some rare birds to be seen somewhere within a 200 mile drive that we really should add to our life lists.

Twitching is the now widely-accepted term for going long distances on a moment’s notice to see rare birds–an activity that began in the land of trainspotters and other great eccentrics: Great Britain. The British Isles are small enough that twitchers can go anywhere in pursuit of rare birds. The passion quickly spread to other European countries and to the USA and Canada. I know people who will hop on a plane to go and see a rare species on the opposite coast.

Back in the ancient 1980s, twitchers used phone trees to notify each other about rare birds and where they were being seen. This evolved into recorded phone messages as “birding hotlines.” Then, in the mid-1990s, the internet was hatched and birders started posting messages about birds they had seen. Here in Washington State, the regional resource is Tweeters, a great name for an internet posting group that is hosted by the University of Washington. I have followed Tweeters almost daily for about 15 years, so that I can find out about birding hotspots. Other regions have similar informal groups, where people can get emails of all the postings about birds. When smart phones became widely adopted, birders started posting about birds in real time from the field, and using apps to broadcast bird calls to bring in target birds (to some controversy). It has gotten exciting to be a birder in these technological times!

Anyway, word got out on Tweeters that Grays Harbor was suddenly hosting a variety of rare birds in late October, including a Northern Wheatear, Common Eider, Wilson’s Plover and several others. Of these, the Wheatear and Eider are usually Alaskans, while the Plover normally calls the Mexican and Gulf coasts home. They apparently decided to meet in the middle for a discussion of the changing climate.

Grays Harbor is often a terrific birding destination; last winter, Damon Point State Park, a sand spit that sticks out into Grays Harbor, was where a dozen or more Snowy Owls escaped the Arctic cold and spent a mild winter. The marina at Tokeland is a great place to observe over a hundred big and gangly shorebirds roosting and feeding together; these Marbled Godwits have wintered in this remote location for years.

Still more rarities have been seen around Grays Harbor lately. There was a Northern Mockingbird at the Tokeland Marina–way out of its normal range. A Tropical Kingbird was sighted at the Hoquiam Sewage Treatment Pond. Now, if you are not a passionate birder, the idea of staring intently through binoculars at a sewage treatment pond might seem a bit odd, but those of us who are truly odd don’t find it weird at all. Last Christmas break, Karen and I took Karen’s mother (on her birthday!) and father to see Snowy Owls at the Muskegon Sewage Treatment Facility in Michigan. It made for an “interesting” and aromatic day; but we did see the owls and enjoyed an aromatic picnic lunch at the facility, with a nice view of masses of gulls at the adjacent landfill mountain.

Immature Brown Pelican in flight over Grays Harbor

Back to Grays Harbor: we got to Westhaven State Park in Westport by 10:00 a.m. This is where the Northern Wheatear was being seen. I asked Karen to look for Subarus in the parking lot, as that would be a good indicator that Seattle-area birders were looking for the bird. Actually, the parking lot was almost full. In addition to all the older birders (including us), there were lots of surfers, kayakers, and dog walkers at the state park. We walked up a dune to where people were intently watching a jetty through spotting scopes, and found the bird. It was hyperactively foraging at one end of the jetty, and apparently did that continuously. We rarely saw it pause. To add to the fun, there was a Palm Warbler feeding among driftwood on the sand. The last Palm Warbler I had seen was in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where one was flying up to within a foot of my face and grabbing the black flies that were hovering there and making me miserable. I wasn’t able to photograph the Wheatear, as it vamoosed when we were approaching photographic range. Others were successful in photographing it, as some of the posts on Tweeters show.

We spent the rest of the day searching for other birds. We had great views of the behavior of the Common Eider as it dove and caught Dungeness Crabs in the Westport Marina. We dipped on the Wilson’s Plover: okay, I need to backtrack here and talk about British birding again. “Dipping” is another British birder-originated term for when you don’t manage to see the bird that you just drove 200 miles or flew 2,000 to see. It is discouraging, but it happens. We decided not to go look for the Tropical Kingbird at the Hoquiam Sewage Treatment Pond because it was getting late, it was raining, and we are wimps.

Common Loon in winter plumage doing a friendly leg wave

Near the end of the day, we drove a road through the cranberry farms near Grayland, and enjoyed seeing some the harvest, including huge bins full of fresh cranberries. There is an informative auto tour that you can take, and the guide is available online at Cranberry Bog Tour. There are also opportunities in the Westport Marina to take a chartered boat out for Halibut fishing during certain times of the year, as well as lingcod, salmon, and albacore tuna fishing. Pelagic birding trips are also available occasionally, where birders can see ocean-dwelling species that are otherwise hard to see.

This Eider of the Arctic adapted well to Grays Harbor, where it repeatedly dove and caught Dungeness Crabs in the Westport Marina

The only problem for the Common Eider was that a gull repeatedly hovered over it when it came up from a dive, and in this case successfully snatched the eider’s crab; the enraged eider then attacked the pirate, to no apparent success

Grays Harbor is famous for an entirely different reason. I was reminded of that when driving past the “Welcome to Aberdeen” sign that had a tourist slogan attached that said “Come as You Are.” I did a double-take at the sign and drove back to photograph it when I realized its subtle double meaning. Aberdeen is the small mill town and harbor on Grays Harbor where rock star Kurt Cobain was born and lived much of his life. “Come as You Are” was one of his great

songs, and a fitting memorial to him and his band, Nirvana, in a town that largely ignored his huge cultural contributions for many years. As an older guy, I considered his grunge style to be just noise for many years; lately I’ve started enjoying his music. I’ve always been slow to adapt new styles, though I was right in synch with the grunge era in my appreciation of old flannel shirts. Perhaps I’ll get a tattoo next … maybe of a Northern Wheatear (actually, in Portland recently I saw a young woman whose arms were covered with bird tattoos; I guess she took to heart the Portlandia slogan: “Put a bird on it!”

Harbor Seal and Common Loon

Nonbreeding adult Brown Pelican in flight near the jetty at Westhaven State Park

Yeah, I believe that birds evolved from dinosaurs!

Common Eider motoring to its lunch spot in the Westport Marina

Common Eider bathing after feeding

Loon staredown

Marinas in Washington State are among the best places to closely observe loons; they are accustomed to seeing people and are relatively approachable with a camera from the docks

Common Eider flapping its wings to adjust feathers after preening

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to (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 PhotoShelter Website

YOHO NATIONAL PARK: The Day of the Wolverine

October 13, 2010

Wolverine carrying a dead Hoary Marmot

Karen and I were hiking to Lake Oesa, a turquoise gem in a mighty mountain cirque, on our first morning in Canada’s Yoho National Park, along with three companions who were behind us on the trail. We had stashed our gear in the Elizabeth Parker hut, then set out on the trail, first rounding part of Lake O’Hara, then climbing the switchbacks up the trail to a high bench studded with lakes.

At the first viewpoint, we paused to rest after the climb. While gazing out toward a tarn at the base of Yukness Mountain, I saw a large, dark animal crossing a sedge meadow next to the tarn, but within a couple of seconds it disappeared in a willow thicket. Karen caught a passing glimpse. My mind went through the possibilities. Black Bear? If so, it was a small bear, but it moved more nimbly than a bear. Wolverine? We couldn’t get that lucky–or could we? The legs were short, but the body relatively long. We thought through the two options, deciding it had to be a Wolverine.

The Wolverine ascended a steep boulder field

I went back along the trail a few yards and called to our companions that we had just seen a Wolverine. They laughed at my presumed joke and I said, “No, really–you’ve got to come and look for it!”

Anticipating the animal’s movement, Karen and I struggled to climb over rough talus to where we could get a better viewpoint if it continued to move along the base of the mountain. Bingo! We sighted it again. It was moving quickly among the sharp boulders at the base of the mountain. Hand-holding my 500mm lens, I managed to get a lot of photographs in a short time as the Wolverine made its way up through the boulders. It appeared to be carrying something heavy, which we decided was a big, fat marmot. Like a human making the same journey with a heavy pack, the Wolverine had to frequently stop and rest.

Setting down the marmot to rest during the steep ascent

For perhaps five minutes, we watched the Wolverine ascend the steep slope up to the next bench, and it disappeared from sight. Later, we talked to a photographer who was at the first lake on the bench, and he excitedly said that he had seen a Wolverine moving quickly past the lake, heading for higher country. We didn’t see it again, but I consider this to be one of the best wildlife sightings of our lives, since Wolverines are relatively scarce and rare to see.

Karen created video of the Wolverine while I did photography. To see her short video of the Wolverine in action, go to Wolverine Video.

Before I go on, I should mention that I am a Wolverine. Or at least that I grew up in the Wolverine State–Michigan–and graduated from the University of Michigan, where the sports teams are known as the Wolverines. But the namesake animal had not been seen in the state since the very early 1800s–until 2004, when a biologist saw and photographed a lone Wolverine ambling across a farm field in Michigan’s thumb, a most unlikely place to see a fierce predator. Before that, most of the Wolverines in the Wolverine State were furs that trappers to the north brought through the French-named ports of Sault Ste. Marie and Detroit.

Wolverines are opportunistic predators that can take down much larger animals in deep snow, and they are known to dig marmots out of dens. For an excellent synopsis of Wolverine ecology and biology, go to the University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Web.

From all the days and weeks we spend outdoors, there are a few moments we could never possibly forget. Our Wolverine sighting at Yoho National Park was one of those times, and was the highlight of our trip to Lake O’Hara, which I believe is the most beautiful place we have ever experienced in North America.

The color pattern on the fur is distinctive

The Wolverine was adept at finding its way through the maze of boulders

Wolverines often enter deep into a hibernating marmot’s den to snatch the marmot for a late fall or winter meal

Wolverines have a reputation as fierce predators who can defend their prey against bears and wolves that try to steal a free meal

This Seattle Mountaineers photography trip into the Canadian Rockies was ably led by Linda Moore. Yoho National Park is, in my opinion, the most beautiful place in the Canadian Rockies and perhaps in all of North America. For more information about Yoho National Park, go to the Parks Canada web site.

For another entry in my weblog about Yoho National Park, go to Ice.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.


STREAM WALKER: The American Dipper

August 5, 2010

Juvenile American Dipper peering into stream for insects

Trout fishermen and trout know that rocky streambeds are teeming with insect life, in the form of mayflies, caddis flies, black flies, and numerous other critters. Dippers know this as well, and make their living feeding in the shallows of western wild rivers and mountain lakes.

I took this series of photographs during a backpacking trip to Melakwa Lake, in the high country not far at all from Seattle. We pitched our tent near a creek connecting the upper and lower Melakwa Lakes, and noticed that there were two American Dippers feeding in the murmuring stream.

This pretty subalpine stream is perfect Dipper habitat

After cooking dinner, we decided to try and photograph the birds. Dippers are not particularly afraid of people, though they like to keep a respectful distance from sweaty backpackers, and we were able to crouch down behind rocks and logs to photograph from perhaps eight feet away. This photo essay shows the birds actively exploring the stream habitats and successfully catching a variety of insects.

One added bonus to dipper-watchers is to hear their lovely song. Unfortunately, the season was late and we only heard a fragment or two of dipper music. Had we seen the dippers during winter or early spring, their effusive songs would have harmonized with the burbling stream.

Dipper exploring the stream

Success means never having to say you’re hungry

A coat of water covers the Dipper in this bizarre photograph

Dippers use streamside rocks to rest and to look for trouble (such as me!)

The camera will sometimes catch the eye as it blinks, showing the white nictitating membrane that serves as a protective layer

Long and powerful legs enable the American Dipper to walk underwater against the fast current

Look carefully to see a black aquatic insect in the bill

Walking down this steep log was tricky; with wet feet, the bird slipped several times

The Dipper spends a lot of time with its head underwater

The young Dipper occasionally looked at me, but without fear

Ready to take the plunge

Dippers are not afraid of fast water, within reason

SKINNED ALIVE: A Black Bear Story

August 5, 2010

Pacific Silver Fir bark stripped by a hungry Black Bear

When we panted our way up to Hemlock Pass on the trail to Melakwa Lake, Karen noticed a big tree, perhaps 20′ from the trail, that had its lower bark removed. Examining it, we discovered that the tree had been skinned alive by an American Black Bear, and that two other trees in the vicinity had experienced the same fate.

This was actually the fourth time we have seen this phenonmenon; in all cases in the Cascade and Olympic Mountains. When bears emerge from hibernation in the spring, they are REALLY hungry, and where there are no people or pic-a-nic baskets to consume, they turn to trees. Specifically, to the Pacific Silver Fir, though they are known to have less than selective taste in trees and will consume others as necessary. But the Pacific Silver Fir is apparently the caviar of trees, and is targeted.

Vertical tooth marks and diagonal claw marks

Can you imagine a bear coming up to a tree, delicately sniffing the bark and nibbling it to see if the taste is something exquisite? No? Neither can I. Instead, the bear roughly uses its claws to rip and shred the outer bark from a tree, then uses its front teeth (not its canines) to scrape the nutrient-rich phloem layer, which we call the “inner bark,” and consume the sugary treat. Mmmmmm …

You might think that foresters would dislike this bear habit, because it often girdles the trees and kills them. Right again! Foresters have long wrestled with strategies for discouraging bears from eating trees, even going so far as to put “vending machines” out in the woods where bears can get a treat that has similar nutritional properties as the trees, and is a lot easier for a lazy bear to exploit. Though I’m not sure where the bears are supposed to get the quarters for the vending machines … perhaps from campers’ pockets while they are “safely” asleep in their thin nylon tents?

Front tooth marks where the bear has scraped off the inner bark

Bear damage either kills or slows the growth of a tree

MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD: A Slice of Western Sky

June 9, 2010

Sublime beauty in a small bird

The color is startling: a pure cerulean blue that mirrors the vast dome of sky stretching over the sagebrush.  A color so achingly intense, when the light illuminates it just right, that it renews my appreciation for the wild palette every time. That is the powerful attraction of the male Mountain Bluebird.

I photographed these bluebirds near a pair of nest boxes along a fence bordering Washington State wildlife lands on Whiskey Dick Mountain. This is hot, dry country in the sagebrush-steppe lands near the Columbia River,

Sagebrush, barbed wire, and windmills in the land of the Mountain Bluebird

where Big Sagebrush and Bitterbrush dominate the landscape. In spring, the earth between the shrubs is filled with wildflowers, and the cooler temperatures of the early season make hiking bearable. During my visit, the Mountain Bluebirds had paired off and were defending their nest box, but no eggs had yet hatched so the adults were not incubating or carrying food.

An interesting fact: the Mountain Bluebird has NO blue pigment in its feathers; the intense blue is created by the structure of the feathers themselves, which scatter light in the same way that the deep blue western sky scatters light. I find that the bluebird blue is most intense when the sun is at a low angle, directly behind my back. But these birds are breathtakingly beautiful anywhere, anytime.

Female Mountain Bluebird on Bitterbrush

Defending its nest box against swallows and other invaders

Male on Big Sagebrush, the dominant plant of the shrub-steppe ecosystem

Female staring intently at the intruder

Alert male on Bitterbrush

Master of his domain

The cerulean blue is a perfect match for the vast western sky

An impressionistic view of the Mountain Bluebird near its nest box

Female Mountain Bluebird on Bitterbrush

Mountain Bluebirds are relatives of robins and thrushes

For more information about Mountain Bluebirds, the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology is a good place to start.  Go to All About Birds.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.