Grouse or Ptarmigan Birds

I identified the Ruffed Grouse based on its large size and those feather twinkles above its head. The Ptarmigan is identified due to the dark line behind the beak, its smaller size, and longer neck. The one I only identify as a Grouse bird is because I cannot yet determine the exact species. I could be wrong on the first two, but all of the above are commonly known as Grouse birds.

Have you seen Ptarmigans or Grouse birds yet ? I have only observed them 3 times in several years despite their commonality. Once up at Mount ST Helens, once while while hiking up Mount Rainier, and another at a hike near Mount Rainier. Each time it was at a fairly high altitude in a forested area, their standard habitat preference. I was quite surprised at the numbers and size of these birds. Generally known by the common name of Grouse and Ptarmigan there are several species under each of those common names, and a bit difficult to accurately identify. Why? Well, to begin with they are in the same Order and Family (Tetraonidae/Galliformes). And because you normally see them scrambling around in a dense forest area, and dark tree shade hides their real feather colors. Some also molt and change feather color between summer and winter. Chicken sized and larger, they will catch your attention. There are differences, of course. According to “BirdGuidance” The Grouse species are bigger with well rounded chest regions. The Ptarmigans are small but have longer necks. Now that gets you the difference between these two in general, but identifying the individual species sometimes remans a challenge depending on the time of year and the location you see them. I have identified the species above in connection to many pictures in my hard copy books and the ones on line.



Audubon Society Filed Guide to North American Birds

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Marmot Season Ending

The Hoary Marmot is the largest of our NW species. Large colonies inhabit high levels of Mount Rainier. Yellow-Bellied Marmots also live in big colonies and make alert noises similar to Hoary Marmots, yet they inhabit sea level. I’ve seen Woodchucks in my backyard a few years ago, but the ones I were able to film were in other states. Those labeled as the IL Woodchuck lived under a shed in front of a business right alongside of a very busy highway. Once in West Virginia just outside of the hotel I stayed in, I found a Woodchuck climbing a fence. That was as surprise.

As the weather chills up here in the Northwest there are animals that we will not be seeing for a while. Quite a few birds and mammals disappear over our winter season, but right now I want to focus on the largest members of the squirrel family – the Marmots. They are hibernators that attempt a lot of fat gain before winter. As they search for their food and enjoy breeding season, marmot colonies are a big attraction in Mount Rainier and other high elevations.  And there are other marmot species that do not want to live up in a mountain.  From low to high elevation here are the ones we are most likely to see in our area:

Woodchucks – Also called Ground Hogs, and often seen in backyards.

Yellow-Bellied Marmot – A ground dwelling marmot named in honor of its stomach color.

Olympic Marmot – Found in the lower levels of the Olympic Mountains in Washington.

Hoary Marmot – The species that lives above tree lines, also known as the Whistle Marmot due to the very loud squeals they make.

Other marmots are found all over our country, including Alaska. The most common (and unwelcome) is the woodchuck/ground hog. No, they are not little hogs that chuck wood. But when they have picked a human backyard for a home, their burrowing and gobbling up vegetation is not welcome. This does not bother me, but I’ve seen homes where it does from Washington to New York. I have also witnessed some unusual behavior of the woodchucks, as noted in the photos above. I have not yet seen the Olympic marmot yet, but I will be looking for it this fall.

And if you love marmots or squirrels I highly recommend this great book which was my resource for marmot information and the book I use many times to identify squirrels:

Squirrels of the West by Tamara Hartson

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Hummingbird Feeder Visitors

Anna’s Hummingbird is our year round and most common visitor, but since I got this good shot of a Rufous Hummingbird I posted it. By now I believe most of them have headed back down south to escape the cold weather here. The Hairy Woodpecker was a surprising visitor to one of our three feeders. Then we have the Carpenter Ants. Notice how many have climbed into the feeder and died in there.

I’m sure that many of you out there love hummingbirds and have a feeder for them. Here in the NW our two main species are Anna’s Hummingbird and the Rufous Hummingbird. And as you may know experts claim the feeders require 1 cup of water mixed with 4 cups of water, and never add honey which can cause fungal explosion in them. Then, after you get the feeder filled and posted, other animals also show up at the feeder. Bees and wasps are expected and I was not surprised to see them. They intimidate the hummingbirds, but not for a very long period and the hummers seem to get used to it. Yet a much larger bird also found its way into the feeder. Observing this bird I assumed it was some kind of sapsucker. What other bird species would go after a hummingbird feeder? But after using my picture to identify the species I was very surprised to find that it was actually woodpecker, a Hairy Woodpecker. And this bird caused a lot of the feeder food to empty out. Could be from making it leak, but these woodpeckers are sap drinkers, too. I also noticed one of my favorite insects finding its way in – ants. I love bugs and I was fascinated watching these carpenter ants climb up the side post of our deck, crawl upside down on the deck cover, and find their way into the feeder. I would have let this go on but many of the little creatures actually climbed into the feeder and died inside of it. So how did I fix these problems? It was pretty easy. The woodpecker went away after several visits and has not returned. To protect against the ants I moved that feeder to a new location away from the post they were climbing up. For a couple of weeks now it seems to have worked.

Questions or comments? Contact me at [email protected]


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Lizard Feet vs Frog Feet – Who has the best?

Not too long ago I found this pretty Pacific Tree clinging to the wall on the outside of my home. And you see a gecko lizard on the wall inside my room in Saudi Arabia when I was there quite a few years ago.  Last week I found another one but was able to catch it and photograph it’s feet. Note that the Geckos also have claws and their toe pad scales are covered with microscopic sized “bristles”. Meanwhile the tree frog toe is composed very differently. Their moisture toe pad pretty much allows it to stick to things.

This is something that has intrigued me for quite a while. I have spent a very long time with all kinds of herps but two species that really got my attention was due to their ability to climb up on things. I’m not referring to things like tree branches and rocks, I’m talking about much more challenging material. In several different countries I saw geckos not only climb up things in nature, but also up walls inside and outside of my room, and glass walls of aquariums. That was very interesting and got me wondering about the design of their toes. Then right back here in Washington state I witnessed a frog that possessed the same climbing ability of gecko lizards! Because of this I set up a goal to use my macro lens camera for pictures to compare gecko toes to Pacific tree frog toes. And I finally got it done. Now I am sure that many people living here in WA and OR have seen, and heard, these Pacific tree frogs on the walls of their home. Yet just like the gecko lizards, I observed them also easily and quickly climbing up the glass walls of an aquarium. Of course, these are probably not the only frog and lizard species capable of something like this. According to the Audubon Society Field Guide there are sixteen other “tree frog” species in North America, and 17 different species of geckos in North America. An interesting thing about our Pacific Tree Frog is that despite their great climbing talent, they usually spend much more time hiding under vegetation closer to the ground. During cool spring weather you will hear them “creaking” away in huge loud numbers and volume, but then in summer they quiet down and seem to disappear. Unpredictably after that, however, they may show up on tree branches or on the side of your house. That is not usually where they spend most of their time, although some do. I suspect that “tree frog” common name was based on its ability, not its normal behavior. Whatever, I love these little frogs.

Ankenny Wildlife Reserver July 2023

Once I got to the big stream, bull frogs and nutria showed up. Most of the frogs jumped away as soon as I approached but the brown one above kept staring at me. The bald eagle stared at me too for a while as if to say “How dare you walk on our property!” When I came to a small bridge I immediately jumped out there in order to get a closer observation on the stream. But two nests full of yellowjacket wasps on the bridge also yelled “How dare you!” and let me know how upset they were. I apologized and quickly got out of their way. In the northwest we have 3 wasps species known as “yellowjackets” due to their color pattern. This one that got me happened to be the German yellowjacket.


My job had me in Oregon again for a few days so I ran out to visit one of my favorite places – the Ankenny Wildlife Reserve. I saw what I expected to see due to the warm dry weather in Oregon – just about all of the water along the beautiful Rail Trail boardwalk was dried up. I would be happy to see any kind of wildlife but with the temperature up to 90 degrees the next day, I went to another place in the reserve and kept strolling along until I found what I was looking for – a big stream. There again were a pair of common water loving creatures – bull frogs and nutria. I got some nice views of bald eagles, too. Canada geese, of course, maintained their big populations as well in several locations. I also had run ins with lots of insects, one of which – yellowjacket wasps – did not appreciate my visit and they let me know about it on the side of my arm. Oh well, it was a small price to pay for what I found. I love going to that wildlife reserve so just for your information I recommend that you first stroll along the Rail Trail Boardwalk. A little further down the road on the right, you will find another boardwalk. Check it out. A bit further on down from there on the right is a huge pond often found with incredible populations of waterfowl, especially Canada geese. But keep on moving down the road and you come to another huge pond, often dried up by July, but in front of a great level hiking trail. That trail is very interesting during the wet or dry season. And that was the location of my most recent visit where I found a big stream still full of water that lasts all year. Where is this wildlife reserve? About 10 miles south of Salem, OR. Drive down south I-5 and look for the Ankenny Hill exit. Take the exit, make a right turn, and you’ll be there.


Close Look Finds Creatures

We have three ponds on our property, the smallest only about 3 square feet sits right out in front of the house. We did not expect much but goldfish for this, but it turned out to be a favorite habitat for salamanders. I did not quite know that until I sat down and took a look. I am very pleased to see two different species. And as you know the world is full of tiny insects and spiders, and I am always greatly pleased when I find them. Here for example, I lift up a tiny piece of something on a concrete boundary and find an itsy bitsy spider.

For a very long I have been doing this, and for a very long time I’ve been advising others to do the same. Why? Because you never know what you may find or where you may find it. Of course, this being me, I am only referring to wildlife. Years ago I began turning over logs and rocks and was amazed at the creatures I found. So much so it inspired me to write the book “Let’s See What’s Under There!” and give numerous presentations. But it is not just looking underneath things that turns up surprises, just plain looking closer at everything will do it for you. And there is no need to travel around the world to find beautiful, interesting animals. Many are right there in your front yard, backyard, or anywhere else you go. Just take the time to look close.


Puget Sound Express Whale Watching


On Saturday, 22 April, my wife and I went on a whale watching tour with the Puget Sound Express company in Port Townsend. And it was marvelous! I’ve been on a couple of other whale watching tours, including some on my own boat, but this was the best I’ve ever been on. The guys running this business have such great knowledge about Puget Sound and the wildlife out there that they even know when to stop and give everyone a chance to observe and film the animals. As you can see above, a couple of these pauses were very worthwhile. And while rolling along on this very comfortable ship you will also get entertaining educational lectures from whale watching experts. I highly recommend you book a tour with this company. Bring your camera of course. Binoculars, too. If you don’t have a bino they will give you one on the boat. Here is the link to their website:  Or call 360-385-5288.

Gray whales normally turn up in Puget Sound during spring while on their way to Alaska. Although they look pretty dark, they get that Gray Whale name due to bright parasite scars on their back. This thanks to their feeding habit. Rubbing the sea floor they will gobble up any small creature they expose, but will also eat invertebrates they can catch above the sea floor. This method must work very well. They get almost 50 feet long and up to 40 tons by feeding along the ocean bottom. Females are a little bigger than males.

Several species of sea lions live in ocean habitats around the world. And here in Puget Sound we have two species of sea lions that stay with us throughout the year. Known as “eared seals” due to that visible ear on the side of their heads, sea lions have rear flippers that expand out horizontally instead of the vertical up and down style of real seals. This gives them a much great ability to move on land or even to climb up on things. The Stellar Sea Lion is the largest of our sea lions. Males reach 10 feet in length and over one ton in weight. These sea lions have a range that extends from Japan to Russia and Alaska, and are reported now as two sub species. The California Sea Lion ranges from North Pacific to Gulf of California and the Galapagos Islands. And according to data from the Smithsonian National Zoo, each of these is a different sub species. Darker in color and smaller than the Stellar sea lion males get up to 7 feet in length and about 800 pounds. California sea lions have reputation and fame as the most vocal of all pinnipeds. They bark, growl, and make a lot of other noises above and under water. And they seem to love hanging out in channel marker bouys.

Pacific Tree Frog Season!

Our Pacific Tree Frog has a wide variety of color, size, and habitats. From sea level to altitudes even beyond Paradise at Mount Rainier, they are found from British Columbia to southern California. (this according to National Audubon Society Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians)

The time of year for one of my favorite little frogs has arrived. Despite our cooler than normal temperatures you may hear hundreds of these amphibians croaking away, and maybe only one or two them. But whenever and wherever, they are often very hard to find due to their hiding habits under vegetation. And their unique sound could be mistaken for just a big cricket. So how do you know this is a frog? Because the unique two note chirp will usually come from a place very close to water and is surprisingly loud. At this time of the year many are hidden under shrubs and things but later you can see them clinging to everything from blackberry leaves to the walls of your home. They can climb like gecko lizards. I have even seen them easily scrambling up the side of my home and even up the glass wall of an aquarium. And you will hear them there also. Amazing! One of my goals this season it to get a macro photo of their toe and compare it to one of a geckos. More to follow – I hope!

Our American Opossum!

Above you can see part of the large numbers and size of possum teeth, and the resemblance to reptile scales in the tail. These were photographed from a poor thing hit by a car. Sitting and eating lunch off a street in Illinois, I noticed what look like something in a tree. Doing what I always do, just in case, I took a picture with my long lens and discovered this large almost pure white possum during the day. The more normal looking one on the ground is gobbling up things in our backyard compost heap.

We have here in America a lot of common but very interesting animals. One of which I love and take time to feed in my backyard is the Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana). We happen to have just one of many possum species. The rest of which have decided to stay in Central and South America, thus giving us our only marsupial. This is our most primitive animal, too, having survived from the time of dinosaurs over 70 million years ago. Our American Opossum has several other interesting features:

Teeth – more than any of our native predators, about 50 of them!

Babies born quickly. Over a dozen young that gestate in less than two weeks, the shortest time for any North American mammal. They then spend time clinging to Mom’s back. Marsupial birth is amazing in any animal that does it.

About one year later, when finally mature, they love to climb trees. And like monkeys they have prehensile tails which help that activity.

Self defense – If those abundant teeth don’t frighten you, they play dead. And if you have ever experienced this you’ll know how realistic it is. Even fooled me once because I thought my dog had killed it. On another occasions I was threatened by those teeth, and that was frightening. By the way, we have one other animal in our country that does the same thing – a Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos). I’ve experienced that too.

Diet – Possums will eat just about anything from insects to chickens, and numerous veggies, especially fruit. We keep a compose heap in our backyard which attracts, and saves, a lot of possums.

            Since possums are so numerous and widespread around North America why do we usually just see them lying dead in the road? Because our Virginia Opossum is usually only active at night, and apparently does not recognize cars as predators that will stop. Too bad. These accidents and natural predators kill a lot of them. On that note, however, there is a surprising number of wild reserves and other organizations that work to protect them. No surprise about a wildlife reserve or zoo doing this, but here is an organization that did surprise me:

Opossum Society of the United States

Go there and you will find a lot more information about possums and their relationship with humans.

Winter Weather Waterfowl

No matter how chilly temperatures here in the northwest get there are a couple of animals you can always depend on seeing. Birds and coyotes. And sometimes both at once! Coyotes pop up just about everywhere and are usually seen just individually. Packs up to 7 exist and are mainly families. As you know they do not tolerate anybody else to joint their group. Here’s one trotting along very close to Canada Geese, Mallards, and Coots. Probably looking for lunch, but the birds did not seem at all nervous. The coyote trotted away without trying to get anything. Anhingas love to take over the empty boat docks in the winter. And when you get a close look at Coot flocks, here is what you see.

The increased flocking of certain waterfowls as the weather cools is surprising. Sure, Canada Geese flock in astounding numbers at all times of the year. That is no surprise to just about anyone living in this area. But I notice that in the colder temperatures they seem much more content to gather with other flocks in the water. I’ve seen this behavior numerous times on American Lake in JBLM, as seen in the above photos. Then there are the waterfowl that put on the biggest winter weather show – Coots. Congregating in huge flocks in the water they tend to travel in extraordinarily lengthy formations, a behavior I have never observed them doing in warmer seasons. Then we have the Anhingas. Also called “snake necked birds” due to their very long necks, Anhingas seem to follow the same pattern of flocking in cold weather, yet they do it differently. They do not gather in swimming flocks. They group in big numbers on the shore or on empty boat docks. Joining these flocks are the Mallards, very common birds that also gather in big numbers. Not as much as the Canada geese, Coots, or Anhingas, but they have seem to have no problem at all swimming around with these other birds in the winter. So – why such big avian crowds in the water during the coldest weather?  Perhaps because there is much less food on land. Or maybe the water is a bit warmer. This more intense flocking of the water fowl during the winter season is based on my own observations. If you see anything different please let me know.