Tuesday, March 22, 2011


This is the time of year when our resident birds begin to sing. Already I have heard Anna’s Hummingbird, Bewick’s Wren, American Robin, Varied Thrush, European Starling, House Finch, Song Sparrow, and Dark-eyed Junco singing around my house. On the other hand, the vast majority of migrant species have not arrived yet, and those residents that are singing won’t be breeding until some time in April.

Why don’t all birds breed at the same time? Well, an easy explanation for raptors is that their incubation periods are long, so it behooves them to breed before many other species, so they have eggs hatching at a time when food resources are high. As it turns out, the eggs of the early breeders hatch at a time when many local mammals are weaning young.

Some species, for example raptors such as Barn and Great Horned Owls and Red-tailed Hawks, have already begun their breeding cycles. A Northwest pair of Red-tailed Hawks could have a complete clutch of three eggs laid by March 20. The first egg would hatch in mid April, and young would be ready to leave the nest by the end of May.

The bird-eating accipiter hawks (Cooper’s, Sharp-shinned) begin to breed later than the mammal eaters, because the supply of naïve young birds doesn’t really kick in until May or June. A Cooper’s Hawk pair that lays the first egg of a clutch of four on April 15 would expect the first young to hatch on May 20 and the first young to fledge about a month after that. By the end of May there are great numbers of young, naïve birds in the surrounding woodland that can provide prey for a family of Cooper’s Hawks.

A Barn Owl that laid her first of six to eight eggs on March 10 would see the first young hatch on April 10 and fledge in about two months. By hatching time, great numbers of young voles would have emerged from their grass nests to forage in their myriad runways, and the parents can find plenty of protein for their growing young. Furthermore, a just-fledged owlet should have no trouble detecting and catching those furry snacks.

Mammal-eating owls such as Barn and Great Horned breed early, but insect-eaters such as Western Screech and Burrowing Owls breed later for two reasons. First, incubation and fledging periods are shorter for smaller birds, so there is no reason to start so early. More importantly, their prey does not become active until ambient temperatures allow activity. So these owls are laying their eggs in April and even May.

A Burrowing Owl clutch of eight eggs might be completed on April 15, when incubation would ensue. The eggs would hatch around May 15, and the young would be ready to leave the burrow by the end of June, when insects and lizards abounded in its nesting territory.

So the eggs of the mammal eaters hatch about a month before the eggs of the bird and insect eaters, just as predicted. Not only the wonderful adaptations of living organisms, but also their exquisitely fine tuning, never fail to impress me.

Dennis Paulson

Monday, March 7, 2011


These are the scoters, three species of ducks we are fortunate to see in the Pacific Northwest every winter. The males are black with bright head markings, the females mostly dark brown. They breed in Canada and Alaska and winter along most of the temperate coasts of the United States. They are mostly confined to salt water in the nonbreeding season, although wintering numbers on the Great Lakes have increased because of the proliferation of zebra mussels there.

The Surf Scoter (Melanitta perspicillata) is the most common of the three scoters wintering in the Pacific Northwest. While all three scoters include a variety of marine invertebrates in their diets, they seem to be bivalve specialists. The heavy bill of a Surf Scoter provides it with strength to pull mussels loose from their attachments to rocks and pilings. Accordingly, Surf Scoters are common where there are large beds of mussels, and that includes a lot of territory in this region.

Surf Scoter courtship displays are fun to watch. The male flies a short distance with loudly whistling wings, then slides to a stop on the water with both wings raised high. How could a female not be impressed? Like other ducks, they pair during the winter and fly back to the breeding grounds together. Most males probably don’t breed until they are two years old, and younger males can be distinguished in winter by less brightly colored bill and often smaller white head patches.

White-winged Scoters (Melanitta fusca) appear to be more locally distributed than their Surf cousins. They are most common in bays with sand substrates, where clams are much more common than mussels, surely indicating a food preference. The White-winged is a bit bigger than the Surf and is our largest duck. The big white wing patches are prominent in flight but may be hidden on a resting bird. Note the difference in feathering on the bill of the two species, useful when identifying juveniles, which look very similar.

The Black Scoter (Melanitta americana) is the least common and most locally distributed of the PNW scoters. Its head shape is more like that of other ducks, presumably indicating it is less extremely adapted for bivalve pulling. As in the Surf Scoter, the male wings whistle in flight.

Male scoters see their mates on a nest on the breeding lake and then head for the coast in what is called molt migration. Female Surf Scoters follow the males after they raise their young, but female White-wings undergo this molt on the breeding grounds. The molt migrants arrive at their destination and begin their body and wing molts. They are flightless during wing molt, so they need to be somewhere with abundant food resources for that period. After completing molt, many continue farther south along the coast.

Scoter migration is dramatic on the outer coast, where flock after flock of Surf Scoters pass by just offshore, heading south in September and October and north in April and May.  Smaller flocks of White-winged Scoters are interspersed, but you’ll have to look long and hard for the much smaller numbers of Black Scoters. Migrants of many other seabirds, in flocks and by themselves, add to the thrilling experience of a few hours spent on an outer-coast point.

Dennis Paulson