Posted tagged ‘behavior’

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.

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I Am the Walrus

September 8, 2009



Pacific Walrus male portrait showing tusks and nodules

I am the Walrus, or at least the best looking Walrus, on Round Island


You strange two-legged creature:  I’ve seen you watching us from that high overlook, and as long as you stay right there I’ll tell you a bit about myself, since you are so curious and you’re probably going to stay there unless I reveal a bit about me and hundreds of my closest friends.  Just wait a minute while I jab my neighbor with my ivories for no particular reason.


Pacific Walrus threat postureWe like to give each other the evil eye and threaten each other with our favorite weapons–our gleaming white ivory tusks!


Yes, my ivory tusks are long, and they are closely related to your puny canine teeth.  Those of us who believe in evolution–and that’s surprisingly few among us Walruses–think that we had a distant bear-like ancestor who decided that swimming and diving for clams wasn’t such a bad way to live.  In fact, I can’t imagine any better way to live than mucking around the murky ocean bottom, 200 feet down, probing in the dark for clams hiding in the mud.

Did you know that all of us here at Round Island are males?  Yes, I suppose you had guessed that by the tough guys surrounding me right now, several of whom


Pacific Walrus haulout along Dragon's Tail

Hundreds of us gathered on the shore of Dragon’s Tail, on Round Island.


are giving me the evil eye.  “Back at you, one tusk!”  The testosterone is thick here, but with my 4,000 lbs. and 36″ tusks I can fight ANYONE on the beach and win.  At least I think so.  And I’ve got some major league scars to prove it.  But even I am reluctant to tangle with Orcas and Polar Bears.


See all these big bumps on my neck and shoulders?  Only we males have them, and they develop in our maturing years, kind of like your teenage boys get a big Adam’s apple and whiskers.  In contrast, our ladies have shoulders as smooth as silk–or at least smooth as thick leather.  We males call our bumps “bosses;” remember that term for your hardest crossword puzzles!


Pacific Walruses battling for dominanceThere is a time to rest, and a time to fight (I think it says so in Ecclesiastes).


Here comes a big pale male named “Ghost” emerging from the ocean.  He looks like an albino, but really he is just cold from spending so much time in the ocean depths, and the blood retreated to the core of his body to keep his heart warm.


Pacific Walrus pale upon emerging from the Pacific OceanGhost is a pale male who just spent the morning groping around the dark sea floor


Did I mention that we have warm hearts?  When he climbs up here and snuggles close to the rest of us, he will warm up and turn to a bright cinnamon color as his blood rises to the skin.  Much more attractive, don’t you think?  Human, how come you’re so pale?

When the guys get together each summer, we make a lot of noise.  With the ladies up in the arctic this summer, we can belch and burp and sneeze and snuffle and splash and pass gas to our heart’s content, and nobody’s around to turn up their disgusted noses at us.  But we can make some sweet sounds too.  When I was in the ocean this morning, I inflated the air sacs around my neck–they’re kind of like the life vests that I’ve seen on your boats–and began practicing the song I am going to sing when we get together with the ladies again.


Pacific Walrus singing using inflated pharyngeal sacI sing sweet songs using my inflated pharyngeal sac (my very own life preserver)

Oh, you heard it?  What did you think?  Some of us think it sounds kind of like bells, but I prefer thinking of it as a sweet violin song.  I bet you didn’t think a big, fat, old guy like me could play a violin ever so sweetly, but there you go.  Another mystery for you to contemplate.  And you think you humans know everything!

I like seafood of all sorts, but especially clams.  My buddies can tell you that I’ve eaten 6,000 clams in one morning!  That was a personal best, but I also like sea cucumbers and crabs and shrimp.  Some of my buddies like to catch and eat seals, but that seems like too much work; plus, it’s a bit too much like cannibalism, don’t you think?

You live up there on rock while I spend most of my time in the deep ocean, where it’s dark and cold.  Yeah, I’ve got nearly four inches of  blubber to keep me warm.  Human, I don’t mean any disrespect, but you are carrying quite a bit of blubber too.  What’s your excuse?


Pacific Walrus using flippers to rub his headI awoke with a headache after a long nap


Speaking of you, human, I see you have a beard that is showing a bit of white.  Kind of like my whiskers, is it?  No?  Well, my whiskers are actually connected by nerves and muscles to my brain, so I can use them to “feel” the gravel bottom of the ocean.  With my little eyes up pretty far on my head, they are of no use 200′ down at the bottom of the Bering Sea.  So I use my whiskers–actually I call them vibrissae–to help me gather food by touch.

Pacific Walrus climbing up on a rock at Round IslandThey are the most sensitive part of my body, with one exception, hey, hey, if you know what I mean!  Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you; I think I’ve been spending way too much time with the guys.

You’re probably wondering why all of us guys like to snuggle together on the beach, when we don’t even like each other all that much.  On a cold day, it helps keep us warm and it gives us a lot of eyes and ears and noses to look for trouble.  The downside is all these bloody patches on my shoulders where I’ve been stabbed by young toughs.  That’s not to say I don’t get in a few jabs of my own; when I raise my head with these fierce tusks and sharp glare, most of my lessers will back off pretty fast.  My biggest nightmare is losing one of these tusks in battle; that would be so humiliating!  Talk about a blow to a guy’s ego!


Pacific Walrus with broken tuskOne of the saddest experiences you’ll ever know is losing a tusk.


My tusks are useful for other tasks that you might not know about.  During the winter, I can come up over the edge of floating ice and sink my ivories into the ice like one of your ice axes; with that grip I can then raise my whole body up over the edge.  Some of your kind, I think they were called “Eskimos,” used to call us “tooth walkers” after seeing what we could do with these babies.


Pacific Walruses showing threat postures in haulout on Round IslResting with my peer group on Flat Rock (though, in reality, I am peerless).



Pacific Walrus hind feetDid you know that I have tiny toenails on my flippers?

Do I miss the women and children?  Well, sort of, but we said our goodbyes shortly after mating and that’s all right by me.  She can raise the kid all on her own and I would just get in the way.  Isn’t that how a lot of you humans live?  Oh, sorry, I didn’t realize that was such a sensitive subject …

I’m getting kind of warm laying out here in the hot July sun, so if you don’t mind, I’m just going to roll off this rock and into the ocean.  Watch the big splash!


Pacific Walrus entering oceanSee ya later, gator!..


Oh, and why don’t you come and visit me next winter!  I’ll be on an ice flow several hundred miles from here, and you can take a combination dogsled and boat tour.  Just ask around if you have trouble finding me:  my Walrus name is Goo Goo G’Joob.  Everyone knows me by reputation.  Meanwhile, let me say goodbye to you with my favorite bubbly Bronx cheer.


Pacific Walrus exhaling with a cloud of sprayI bet you wish you could hear me right about now!..




Pacific Walrus waving flipper while restingBye now!..



To view three other weblog stories of our Round Island trip, go to:


4th of July in an Eskimo Village


Puffins and Auklets and Murres, Oh My!


Experiencing the Walruses of Round Island, Alaska


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 myPhotoShelter Website

GREATER SAGE GROUSE: Dawn on the Sagebrush Plain

May 15, 2009



Greater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse dancing on lek near Malheur National Wildlife Refuge



They gather in darkness, males on a mission.  Elaborately costumed, they begin to dance to an ancient inner song in a place that has remained a tradition for countless generations.  Spread out among the sagebrush, the males strut and puff out their chests in a show of virility and athletic prowess.  Their tail feathers fan out like those of a wild turkey.  These native Americans are the Greater Sage-Grouse, and this is their lek.


Karen and I shimmied out of our sleeping bags at 4:30 a.m., leaving our tent while stars still glowed in the endless high desert sky.  It was 22°F on this clear morning and there was no time to make coffee, so I substituted a Diet Coke to get my caffeine fix, hoping that adrenaline would also kick in upon seeing the Sage-Grouse.  We drove the 20 or so miles up to the lek, arriving at 5:30 a.m. as the sky was brightening.  We turned off the car engine, and began watching.


The Sage-Grouse wait for no human, so the display was well underway.  We counted 13 males, many strutting at once.  After an intense session of dancing, the tail feathers would fold and a male would take a break.  Then, if a nearby male started strutting, others in its vicinity would resume.


We have been to this lek perhaps seven times through the years, beginning about 15 years ago.  The numbers of birds and birders vary from time to time, but it is always unforgettable.  On our first morning this year we were the only humans at


Sagebrush-steppe habitat near Malheur National Wildlife Refuge,

Directly across the road from the lek


the lek.  We decided to go a second morning, and we were one of five cars.  Every birder was on their good behavior; nobody got out of their cars to try to get a closer look (unlike one year, when a loud trip leader gathered the birders around him outside the vehicles).  Grouse on a lek are sensitive to human disturbance, so it is important to minimize the threat to the birds.  Sometimes other creatures will show up; this year a lone Pronghorn walked nearby.  We have also seen Mule Deer and a Badger.


Some mornings we have seen a lot of chasing and jousting of aggressive males (you have to love that testosterone!).  One time we saw a female go from male to male, observing its display with a critical eye, then go on to the next, and so on–as if she was on a shopping trip.  Which, in a sense, she was.  From our readings, we understand that there are one or two males in a lek who occupy the most important location, and they are the ones who will most likely attract the female (it’s kind of like high school, with the football star and the prom queen likely to match up).  After the mating is done, the male is abandoned by the female; she goes to make a nest and he just keeps dancing.


The Sage-Grouse display is a blend of visual and auditory cues for the female; if you listen carefully you can hear strange pumping and flapping sounds that are part of the ritual.  Since the experience is so sensory, I will stop trying to describe it here and let the photographs speak for those wonderful mornings we spent in the sage.


Greater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lek

A sequence, facilitated by the camera’s motor drive, of the Greater Sage-Grouse mating dance


On our first morning this year, at about 8:30 a.m., the males collectively decided that the dawn dance was done.  One flew a beeline over the road toward a low ridge; one after another all the others quickly followed, leaving the lek quiet and lonely.  The next morning, we left before the grouse did.  On our way down, we saw a pair of Wild Horses.


Sagebrush-steppe habitat near Malheur National Wildlife Refuge,High desert sky above the sagebrush on the road to the Greater Sage-Grouse lek


If you go, stop at Malheur National Wildlife Headquarters for directions to the lek, which is on BLM land about ten miles up a sometimes rough gravel road to the west of the refuge.  The grouse are on the lek each morning from sometime in March until sometime in May.

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

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A Murder of Crows, Northwestern Style

April 22, 2009


A Northwestern Crow pauses for a portrait

Spread out across the beach, each Northwestern Crow was busy overturning oyster shells to see what tasty tidbits might be hiding beneath. This went on for a long time, until a pair of teenage girls showed up with a bag of Cheetos and tossed the orange curls into the air, attracting every gull and crow in sight. Cheetos trump oysters for most of these birds–and for most teenagers.

2009_wa_91961A murder of Northwestern Crows feeding in an oyster bed exposed at low tide in Illahee State Park.

There have recently been some great low tides combined with afternoon sun at Illahee State Park, located on Puget Sound near Bremerton, Washington, USA. These low tides expose a beach packed with oysters, as well as other areas dense with Eccentric Sand Dollars (that’s their name; I don’t know if their behavior is eccentric). There must have been nearly 100 Northwestern Crows in attendance; between them and the gulls it made for a raucous party atmosphere.


This  Northwestern Crow is not giving me the evil eye; it simply blinked for an instant when I took the photograph.  The bluish-white eye covering is a nictating membrane that covers the eye briefly to moisten it and to protect it from sharp bills and talons.  Humans have a lump of tissue in the inside corner of the eye that might be a vestigial nictating membrane.

Northwestern Crows have long been suspect among ornithologists. Are they really a distinct species from the American Crow, which most of us associate with scarecrows and corn? I’m not sure, but the foraging behavior on the beach and the lower, hoarser call are distinctive. Genetic studies are being done that may solve the question, but it is helpful to consider that our rigid classifications of species does not really match the sliding scales of classification that nature uses.


Northwestern Crows forage on the beach by using the bill as a tool for turning over oyster shells and looking underneath for food.



Male Bufflehead in breeding plumage navigating the waves.

Illahee State Park is a small, but beautiful state park on Port Orchard Bay. Tall lowland conifers–Douglas Fir, Western Hemlock, and Western Red Cedar–provide a peaceful forest for a picnic, for camping, or for a short hike (oh, oh–I’m starting to sound like the Chamber of Commerce!).

The most distinctive tree in the woods here is a Pacific Yew that is the Washington state champion for that species. 400 years old with an impressive girth, this tree can also be proud that it contains Taxol, a pharmacological compound unique to the Pacific Yew that was discovered in the 1990s to be a cancer fighter, useful in therapy for breast cancer and Kaposi’s sarcoma. At first, Taxol was extracted from yew bark, but is is currently cultured in the laboratory.

2009_wa_7839Most of the Eccentric Sand Dollars are buried in the sand, with just a crescent showing.

A steep, switchbacked road leads down to the Illahee Beach for the waterfront experience. There is a pier leading to a dock where boats can tie up for the night; there is also a boat launch. In addition to the birds and seashore life, I found the dock to be fascinating. The pilings supporting the dock are covered underwater with big crabs, sea stars, and other marine invertebrates that we rarely see. Be sure to take a look if you go.

2009_wa_7848Marine life on a piling at Illahee State Park.

While on the dock, photographing crows, a pair of drab green military helicopters flew low over the beach. Of course, 2009_wa_9228I raised my long lens to photograph them–which might not have been the wisest thing for me to do since I imagine my lens could look like a hand-held missle launcher from a distance. Anyway, I was lucky:  they didn’t turn me into pink mist, or even send the Black Suburbans to pick me up.


Two quiz items for you:  I know what species the eye belongs to, do you? The other creature is an interesting intertidal animal–could you help me identify it?

2009_wa_9192Who owns this eye?

2009_wa_7840What the heck is this (the broken shell is not related)?

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

Click on the photographs below to see them in a larger size, with captions.

January 12, 2009 Four Otter Morning

January 12, 2009

This morning I watched a family of four River Otters swim along the  shore of Fawn Lake, where I live in Mason County on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington. When I stepped out  on the deck to watch from above, I watched and heard one otter’s jaws crunching a fish after emerging from a dive.  Whenever I see a family of otters here, they dive closely together–usually just a few feet apart–not spreading out as they fish the lake. When they dive from the surface, it is an act of grace with barely a ripple, the tail arching as the animal slips into the depths.

Also today, I watched a Common Loon out on the lake.  Closer in, a  Double-crested Cormorant spent the night in the ragged Bigleaf Maple in front of our house on the shore, 60 or so feet away from the roost where many of its “colleagues” routinely spend winter nights. Then, this morning, a Sharp-shinned Hawk attempted to raid the feeder and  perched on my deck railing a few feet away, showing off its bright yellow feet.

A good wildlife day on an otherwise dreary day at home.