Two Birds of Prey

This story is for my old friend Donna, homebound in frigid Minnesota. She’s always loved the flora and fauna of the Northwest.

    We’re used to the sight of eagles circling along the bluff below us, soaring on wind currents while keeping an “eagle eye” out for rodents and other small creatures in the fields. But this morning I was amazed to see huge black wings float across our front yard. As the bird lifted to the top of one of the twin firs across the road, I saw the flash of white tail feathers as he landed. His snowy head turned to scan the ground below and I thought, “Look out, neighborhood cats!”

    But there were already crows on guard duty in the neighboring fir and they did not take the invasion peacefully. Although they looked very small in comparison to the interloper, they knew an eagle strikes first with his talons. And those lethal claws were busy holding on to his perch. So they boldly swooped and dove and hovered and scolded. One crow even grazed the eagle’s back, ruffling its feathers and jarring the big bird, which tried to ignore the indignity. Although I am impressed and amazed every time I get to see one of God’s creatures living into its niche in creation, I’m glad the crows interfered with the eagle’s intentions this morning. 

    We had the chance to see another rare sight a month ago while visiting Tucson, Arizona’s Sweetwater Wetlands. This stocky, yellow-legged bird is a black-crowned night heron, very common across the U.S. and around the world. But because it’s most active at night or at dusk, a lot of people never see it. Night herons often build their stick nests in colonies over water.  We first saw this one in the daytime, standing motionless as a piece of driftwood, its back toward us.

    Just as I clicked the shutter, its powerful bill stabbed into the water and came up with this prey. The frog didn’t struggle long, even when the night heron dunked it several times. We left him to breakfast in peace.

    *Perhaps someone reading this will know why this bird did not have the black back and crown the books say it should have, although if you click to enlarge the picture you can see the characteristic single white plume on its head. Would love to have your comment.

A Good Day for Birds

A flock of snow geese with Mt. Baker as backdrop

A large proportion of this flock are gray-feathered young birds. Note one wears a collar.

    January and February are soggy months in northwest Washington. The ground gets so saturated the bluffs and hillsides slide under their own weight. Rainwater can’t soak into the flat fields of the Skagit and Stillaguamish Deltas, and it can’t run away, so it lies in a silver sheen beneath the sprouting grass or between furrows.

    The birds love it. Fields become shallow lakes where flocks of ducks preen and dabble. Harriers swoop in search of field mice forced from their burrows. Blue herons hold solitary vigil along the drainage ditches while hundreds of swans muddy their plumage foraging in plowed fields.

    We aren’t expert birders, but we’ve noticed some birds are doing things differently this year. Only a few snow geese spent the winter around Stanwood, compared to the usual thousands. There are far more trumpeter and tundra swans than usual. But we’re told that there are plenty of snow geese in fields farther north. Maybe they just don’t like to share their territory.

    Be that as it may, when the first day of February dawns sunny and bright, we join dozens of other motorists and cyclists on the narrow back roads of the Skagit Delta. Spring is in the air although a chill wind blows streamers of fog inland. New growth is sprouting, pussy willows blooming, alder catkins heavy tasseled with about-to-be-released pollen. Birds and birders are out in force.

    Nearing the village of Edison, we see cars stopped along both sides of the road. Spotting scopes and telephoto lenses aim toward the leafless alders. Eagles, so many I lose count, perch in the trees and pose for the cameras. Why so many? Next weekend Edison holds a birding festival. Maybe the eagles got word and are awaiting the festivities. (For more about the festival, go to

Of the 5 eagles in this shot, 4 are young ones.