Archive for January, 2012

Eulogy to the Ordinary

Though Black-capped Chickadees are among the most common birds of Yesler Swamp, they are anything but common, everyday animals. On the contrary, Black-capped Chickadees are extraordinary. Just ask yourself this: If to fix your breakfast you had to climb barefoot up a 50-foot tree, hang upside down by your toes, then drop like a trapeze artist 20 feet down to grab onto a new hold, all for the reward of one bug — and all before your first cup of coffee — how long could you survive?

My answer would be: three minutes, tops. But chickadees do this every morning for years without a single complaint.

Well, maybe they complain. It’s hard to say, not knowing exactly what their frequent “chickadee-dee-dee” song means.

Yesterday I was standing among the willow trees where the chip path curves south to Yesler Cove when three chickadees flew in to forage for insects. Before I knew it, they had triangulated me: one bird behind my left shoulder, one behind my right, and one in front. The one in front was so close I could see its throat throb as it gave its diagnostic call. The other two answered from concealment. The first one examined me with its beady left eye, then shined its equally beady right eye at me. Again it spoke to its companions, and again they answered. Then everyone came out to forage, and not just the chickadees. Bushtits joined the flock, along with two Golden-crowned Kinglets, several Ruby-crowned Kinglets showing off their ruby crowns, a couple of Song Sparrows, even the tiny Pacific Wren who is usually so elusive I hear him but rarely see more than a flash of cinnamon brown before he disappears.

I became part of the little feeding flock. It was magical. Extraordinary. Some of the flock members hunted for bugs on the undersides of leaves and branches. Some scrambled through the leaf litter looking for seeds. I wanted so much to join in, but I’m not fond of bugs, and the seeds all around me were better left to the birds. I found myself getting hungrier and hungrier. The thought of a cheeseburger began to take over my mind. When the flock finally moved on, so did I: they to the next patch of brush, I to the nearest fast-food outlet. Not good. My recommendation? If you want to join a feeding flock, bring along a healthy salad in your backpack. —Constance Sidles


• In fall and winter, Black-capped Chickadees often cache seeds in many different hiding places.

• They can remember where they hide all their seeds because each fall, they grow new neurons in their brains, just for this purpose.

• Black-capped Chickadees are the gourmands of the avian world: They spend much of their day finding and eating food, and they aren’t fussy about what they consume. They eat seeds, nuts, fruit, insects, spiders, larvae and eggs of small arthropods, suet at feeders, and even carrion.

• Black-capped Chickadees form long-lasting pair bonds.

• In breeding season, they are extremely territorial and will fight to defend their nest holes.

• During the off-season, though, they flock together for protection. Other small birds are welcome to join the flock. It’s common to see a feeding flock of chickadees, kinglets, sparrows, and even overwintering warblers.

• The oldest known chickadee lived to be 12 years old.

• Chickadees sleep in their own holes at night.

• Chickadees communicate many messages with their song. Among the most important are alarm calls, warning other birds of predators. The more “dee’s” in a chickadee’s song, the greater the alarm.


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Beaver Dance

On January 19 at 8 PM—when we had plenty of snow–I skied into the end of the west trail of Yesler Swamp. As I approached the lagoon there was the initial flapping of wings. I stopped motionless and watched. The birds settled. In the distance there were two beavers swimming. One stayed close to the lodge but the other passed out and back closer to me each time. The one closest to the lodge then slapped his or her tail violently and dove briefly. The more courageous one then slapped his tail as he turned close to me.

“Tail slapping is followed with a warning dive completed in one movement then coming back to the surface to view the danger. This action is brought on by a careful use of other senses. The smell and keen hearing weigh up a situation to a point the beaver discomfort level sends out a message of tail slapping that can be heard above and below the water.” (ref:

This was quite a show that would be repeated for any visitor (or for any intruder from the beaver’s perspective) at that time of night.

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Four juvenile Trumpeter Swans (left) and parent (far right) settle into Yesler Cove for the night.

January is the season for newbies, the time for us to say goodbye to the old, worn-out year and ring in the hopeful new one. It’s the month we make resolutions to become a newer, better person, the paragon we always wanted to be but so far never were: slimmer, perhaps, with curlier hair (or straighter if you’re already curly), tidier, more organized, dedicated to eating more vegetables. In a sense, January is when we all become young again, free to discover who we really are and what we really can become.

In Western culture, this annual stampede to our personal Big Bang is symbolized by a happy, diapered baby, often wearing (for reasons that escape me), a top hat. At Yesler Swamp, however, beginnings are epitomized by swans. Four juvenile Trumpeter Swans, to be exact.

Their story began last summer. Far away on a tundra pond, four baby swans pecked open their shells and saw the light of day for the very first time. Their snow-white parents worked hard to protect them and shepherd them to the best places to eat plants. Throughout the long days of summer, when the sun never sets, the cygnets grew until at last they reached the size of their parents. Just in time, too, for winter was coming to the Far North. The swan family felt the shortening days and fled, all the way to Yesler Swamp. Here, the young swans are safe. Here they are free to explore their new world. And here their feathers will molt from gray to white, as the juveniles become adults. In the spring they will fly back to the tundra, beginning a cycle that can last more than a decade. For now, they sleep in Yesler Cove in the evenings, paddle into the lake to feed during the day, fly a little, learn a lot, as youngsters should. We are their home.– Constance Sidles


• Trumpeter Swans are the largest and heaviest waterfowl native to North America.

• They can be difficult to tell apart from Tundra Swans. Trumpeters are bigger than Tundras and have all-black bills. Tundra Swans often (though not always) have a spot of yellow on their bills, near the eye. (We have one Tundra Swan visiting us this year.)

• Juvenile Trumpeter Swans are sooty gray all winter long. They don’t molt into the all-white plumage of adults until spring migration.

• It takes four to seven years before Trumpeter Swans begin having babies. However, they choose their lifelong mates between ages two and four.

• In our area, Trumpeter Swans feast on aquatic plants, often tipping up their rear ends to reach deep underwater with their long necks. Farther north, in the Skagit Valley, swans come onto land to graze in fields.

• Parents do not bring food to the babies; rather, they bring the babies to the food. Baby Trumpeter Swans are able to leave the nest and swim almost immediately after hatching and don’t need to be fed by the parents. However, family groups usually stay together until the young are fully grown and can fend completely for themselves.

• Trumpeter Swans used to range throughout North America. Their numbers were reduced by hunting to around 100 birds south of Canada. The population is rising now, thanks to habitat preservation and protection from hunting.

• From the time the Pilgrims arrived in America, Trumpeter Swans were hunted extensively for food and for their feathers, which people thought made the best quill pens.

• Washington State hosts more Trumpeter Swans than any other state except Alaska.



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The UW students are bringing native plants back to an upland area of the the Yesler Swamp overrun by blackberry. They are anxious to work with volunteers who enjoy Yesler Swamp. We will be working right behind the entrance of the Swamp at the SE corner of the Center for Urban Horticulture parking lot. Bring clippers and thick gloves.

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