Birding Ruston Way

Although I still miss Vancouver, Washington, and the Columbia River where I spent all my working life, I do love being back to the Puget Sound where I was raised. I don’t think I ever consciously thought about birds as a kid, but I realize now that Puget Sound attracts large number of birds in the winter, particularly grebes and Sea Ducks.

It is nearly impossible to walk along Ruston Way without seeing Horned Grebes.

Horned Grebe

The most common duck, though, is the Goldeneye, both the Common Goldeneye and the Barrow’s Goldeneye. So far this year I’ve seen far more Barrow’s Goldeneye than I have Common Goldeneye.

Although I sometimes have a hard time telling the two species when I haven’t seen them for nearly nine months, I do think the Barrow’s, at least the male, with its chevrons is the more striking of the two:

male Barrow's Goldeneye

I would be hard pressed to tell the difference between the female of the two species, but that doesn’t stop me from admiring their ability to dive instantly.

Goldeneye Diving

Their back legs seem further back than on most ducks which must help them dive and swim underwater. This seems to be a characteristic of Sea Ducks. I’ve never seen them on land, but I’m curious how well they would walk. What I’d really like to do is take pictures of them swimming underwater to see what they’re eating. Unfortunately, that would require learning scuba diving, and I’m afraid that’ll have to wait for my next lifetime.

Generally I’ve shown them in profile since their “racing stripes” are their most distinctive feature, but the male looks particularly intimidating from the front:

Goldeneye Pair

This is a hard time of year to identify the birds because the young drakes are in the process of changing to breeding colors. I might have identified the duck on the left as a female if he weren’t head bobbing, a male mating behavior, which would make better sense if there had been a female around.

immature Barrow's Goldeneye changing colors

Originally drawn to these birds for purely photographic reasons, the more I see them the more I want to know about them — which is how I ended up at the Sea Duck Joint Venture organization site,and several other places on the web, including one in Scotland.

And a Sunny Afternoon

I loved my solitary Theler walk in the morning fog. As cold as it was, and my fingers quickly confirmed it was freezing, just I and the animals were about, a special treat.

Still, it warmed my heart, and fingers, when the sun finally began to burn the fog away, opening up a whole new palette of colors:

Common Mergansers

Although you can almost always count on a duck or a cormorant perching on this log, it takes bright sunlight to provide enough light to get an interesting shot.

On the way back I could finally see across the creek where most of the birds flock to avoid people. It was even bright enough to use a fast enough shutter speed to freeze motion and catch this Great Blue Heron just as it landed.

Great Blue Heron Landing

Even the Spotted Towhee emerged from the underbrush to warm himself, unable to resist the sun anymore than I.

Spotted Towhee

It’s hard to imagine better lighting for a Golden-Crowned Sparrow,

Gold-Crowned Sparrow

glowing in the winter sun.

The foggy morning and the sunny afternoon made for a perfect day, yin and yang.

A Foggy, Winter Morning

Although the rainy season is the dominant season here in the Pacific Northwest, there are sunny days even during winter, and we’re far enough North that when evening skies are clear there’s liable to be fog the next morning, and, if you’re lucky, frost.

December 12 was one of those days. When I left Tacoma around 8:30, the skies were clear. However, Theler Wetlands was cloaked in fog, frosting many of the plants, like these rose hips,

Frost on Rose Hips

transforming these weeds into a candelabra lighting the way through the fog.

Frosted weeds

Thick fog often times allows you to get closer to birds than you normally could. I probably wasn’t more than 20 feet away from this cormorant when I heard the slapping of his feet on the water as he ran to take off.

Cormorant taking off in fog

It’s all too easy with Photoshop to get caught up in trying to make photos as colorful, as “realistic,” as possible. In doing so, though, it’s easy to lose what it actually felt like to be in that particular moment.

Mallard in Fog

There’s something almost meditative about walking in the fog; it’s a pleasure I wouldn’t want to miss.

Shades of Brown

I sometimes think of In a Dark Time as my journal. For instance, I often use it to remember when something happened during the last 10 years. But looking back at this month, it’s clear I haven’t recorded some of the best days of December.

That’s because I resolved not to post another entry until I finished my write-up on Crow Planet, which, of course, I’d finished reading at least a month earlier.

Thankfully, weather-wise, December has been an unusually good month and though I resolved not to post any entries until I finished Crow Planet, I wasn’t about to stay inside on a sunny day even if I hadn’t finished writing a blog entry. These pictures were actually taken on the last day of November.

You know it’s winter here in the Pacific Northwest not by the amount of snowfall, but by the number of brown ferns you see in the woods.

Dying Fern

I think these shots actually reveal the complex structure of ferns better than shots taken in Spring because it’s hard not to get distracted by the brilliant greens.

Another sign of winter here is an increased number of birds. Because the weather here is relatively mild, birds come down from the mountains and from northern latitudes. If the experts are to believed, the large flocks of robins seen here in the winter are northern residents, not the native species who spend most of the year here.


With all the brown foliage and an increased number of predators, it’s a good thing most of the small songbirds are cloaked in brown, like this small Song Sparrow hiding in the reeds that surround the pond.

Song Sparrow

Though the lack of leaves makes it easier to see these LBJ’s (Little Brown Jobs), it’s still tough getting your camera to focus on the bird, not the small branches they flit back and forth on.

Bewick's Wren

Out of the dozen or so photos I took of this Bewick’s Wren which was only a few feet away from me only two turned out because so many were out of focus.

In the winter you sometimes have to look harder to find birds and their colors tend towards the browns, to match what little foliage there is, but I’m quite fond of small songbirds birds in their subdued colors and “blast-beruffled plumage.”