Monthly Archives: March 2011

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Wonderful winter wigeon

Pelagic cormorant with its touches of mating season bling (red face, white haunches, wispy white neck feathers). Photo: Jeff Adams

I love spring! However, some of my favorite winter commute companions will soon be departing. Our Salish Sea feathered friends are turning their focus from sitting out the winter in our  relatively calm and rich inland waters to getting busy on this summer’s crop of young’uns. For many birds, that means leaving central Puget Sound for points north or inland. Many are changing dramatically into their winter plumage (the flashy reds, blues and whites of grebes and cormorants are some of my favorites). The winter birds of which I am most fond, however, are the wigeon.

The large overwintering flocks can be appreciated day and night from September through April. Many grassy shoreline parks host their own band of wigeon that offer you a good look during the day. During the long dark hours of winter, the large flocks rest on quiet waters. Waiting for a foot ferry to shuttle across Sinclair Inlet to Bremerton on a dark, wet morning may treat you to a  chorus of peeping and whistling. (YouTube video of whistling wigeon.)

Many nearshore homeowners may disagree with my attraction to wigeon. Wigeon love short green grass and can poop, stomp and nibble a manicured lawn all winter long. I’ve seen flashy objects in some shoreline lawns that I imagine are intended to keep wigeon off (if you have experience with this, I’m curious how well it works).

Eurasian and American wigeon at Evergreen Park, Bremerton. Photo: Jeff Adams

A large flock of wigeon typically affords an ornithological treat. Actually, it’s more like a treasure hunt. When you find the treasure, you get the treat.

Like a needle in a duck down pillow, a male Eurasian wigeon (rust colored head) can often be found among the hundreds of American wigeon (speckled head with a green stripe) in a large flock. This winter guest to our shores typically breeds in northern Europe and Asia. Then flies far to the south to enjoy more temperate winters. Those that we see just happen to migrate down through Alaska instead of Siberia.

In mid-March, the flock of wigeon at Evergreen Park in Bremerton made it a little easier to find the needle. At least 4 handsome, brown headed lads were pulling up grass with gusto. If you wish to see them, you might head down to Evergreen Park to scan the flock and wish them well on their long flight to the breeding grounds. However, it’s possible that some Eurasian wigeon temporarily defect to North America.

American, Eurasian and hybrid? wigeon at Evergreen Park, Bremerton. Photo: Jeff Adams

There’s some debate among birders that a few wigeon ladies might find themselves swooning for the fancy feathers of a male from the other species, resulting in hybrids that share some characteristics of each. There also appears to be some variability in each species that may lead to the speculation of hybridization.

Wherever they go, these large flocks will soon depart, and I’ll just have to look forward to September when the wonderful wigeon return. In the meantime, my arguably less charismatic commuting companions of summer are just around the corner… Go big jellies!

Jeff Adams is a Washington Sea Grant Marine Water Quality Specialist, affiliated with the University of Washington’s College of the Environment, and based in Bremerton. You can follow his Sea Life blog, SalishSeaLife Twitter, email to jaws@uw.edu or call at 360-337-4619.

Become a Kitsap Beach Naturalist!

Below is a plug for the upcoming Kitsap Beach Naturalist training. This program is a lot of fun, and you walk away having learned from some great speakers and carrying very helpful materials for identifying and understanding the creatures on our region’s beaches. You also get a great hat! Once you’ve completed the class, you can join as a Beach Naturalist on events coordinated during the summer daytime or winter nighttime low tides.

Explore & Learn, a Kitsap Beach Naturalist sign ready for action. Photo: Jeff Adams

Speaking of low tides… Today marks the first full day of spring AND the first daytime minus tides of 2011!

Bremerton minus tides
Monday (3/21) – 1:15PM, -0.7
Tuesday – 2:00PM, -1.3
Wednesday – 2:45PM, -1.4
Thursday – 3:30PM, -1.0
Friday – 4:30PM, -0.4

Join the Kitsap Beach Naturalist Class of 2011. Kitsap County has extraordinary beaches and a lot of people interested in enjoying and learning more about them. You can help while enriching your own experience. In the classroom and on field trips, Kitsap Beach Naturalist volunteers learn about seaweed, fish, invertebrates, clams, crabs, anemones, and friends). Marine riparian habitat and conservation, beach etiquette and beach walk coordination are also covered.

We ask that you attend 4 of the 5 classes and 3 of the 4 field trips to graduate (and receive your nifty KBN hat!) and give back 20 hours of related volunteer service to the community over the following year.

Kitsap Beach Naturalists sharing with beachgoers at Kitsap Memorial State Park. Photo: Jeff Adams

The Kitsap Beach Naturalists Program is coordinated by WSU Kitsap County Extension and Washington Sea Grant.

2011 Class schedule
When:   March 31;   April 7, 21, 28;   May 5
Time:  9:30a.m.-12:30a.m. OR 6p.m. – 9p.m.
Where:  Norm Dicks Government Center, Bremerton

2011 Field schedule
April  7 – Illahee State Park
April 9 – Kitsap Memorial
April 21 -Lions Park, Bremerton
April 23 – Silverdale Waterfront Park
May 21 – Fay Bainbridge

Cost:  $55 – to offset book and field guide costs

For more information on joining the training you can download the flyer or contact Peg Tillery 360-337-7224, ptillery@co.kitsap.wa.us

Thanks and happy spring!

Jeff Adams is a Washington Sea Grant Marine Water Quality Specialist, affiliated with the University of Washington’s College of the Environment, and based in Bremerton. You can follow his Sea Life blog, email to jaws@uw.edu or call at 360-337-4619.

Emperors of the air, stuck in the mud

Albatross in flight off Washington coast. Photo: Jeff Adam

Albatrosses are birds that few of us ever get to see or fully appreciate. They avoid the mainland, nesting on remote islands, and foraging in the open ocean. We certainly don’t find them in the Salish Sea. A Puget Sounder’s best bet is to head out to the Washington coast, jump on a boat (Westport has a great pelagic birding charter) and ride the waves for a few dozen miles out to sea. Once out of sight of land, you may be in sight of albatrosses.

These unique birds are build for long trips at sea, soaring so efficiently that their hearts beat about the same when they’re soaring for hundreds or thousands of miles as when they’re resting. And these are big birds! Wingspans of North Pacific albatross are between 6 and 7′.

Ironically, the wings that makes them soaring superstars also makes them pretty poor flapping fliers. Relatively stiff wings aren’t very effective when winds that are essential to their flight are calm. While we sit out a storm, albatrosses sit out the calm, floating on the sea’s surface until the wind picks up.

Amid the devastating human tragedy of Japan’s recent earthquake and tsunami, albatrosses and other island nesting birds in the Pacific have also faced challenges. I thank John Williams of Still Hope Productions for turning me onto Midway Atoll wildlife biologist Pete Leary’s blog. In a March 12, 2011 posting Pete shared experiences and dramatic images of the tsunami displaced birds he and many others rescued from debris, mud and open water. It’s amazing that the birds captured in his images were the survivors, some buried with only their head above the debris. Unfortunately, Pete suggested 10′s of thousands of albatross chicks were washed out to sea.

Albatross species, most of which are considered threatened, face a number of other, more chronic threats.

  • Albatrosses see an easy meal as bait in longline fisheries sinks slowly behind a boat. The result is 10′s of thousands of albatross bycatch deaths each year. Washington Sea Grant staff and others are working with longline fisheries to reduce seabird bycatch. Just distracting birds until the bait sinks below their diving depth can reduce seabird contact with the bait by 70%.
  • Invasive rats and cats prey easily on eggs and chicks and may attack adults. These birds evolved to breed on islands without terrestrial mammals and lack the necessary defenses. Invasive plants and overgrazing have impacted habitat for some species.
  • Plastic garbage is a problem of deepening concern. Plastic debris is now a prominent component of the oceans’ surface water. Mistaking these materials for food, albatrosses pack their gizzard and stomach with the undigestible plastic, creating blockages or reducing the space that should be taken up by food. They also regurgitate plastics for their own chicks, likely causing the chicks to feel full and increasing physiological stress. Steps to reduce plastic consumption and increase proper disposal are worth taking.

When even the emperors of the air are unable to avoid the crushing force of runaway water, the consequences of a tsunami for those held firm by gravity become all the more sobering. My heart and hopes for recovery go out to all. JEff

Jeff Adams is a Washington Sea Grant Marine Water Quality Specialist, affiliated with the University of Washington’s College of the Environment, and based in Bremerton. You can follow his Sea Life blog, email to jaws@uw.edu or call at 360-337-4619.