Puget Sound

After my talks in Seattle, Olympia, and Tacoma, I spent Saturday in Tacoma with my friend Peter Wimberger. We were in graduate school together back in the early 1990s and we have a shared affinity for natural history, helping our students see the world through the eyes of evolutionary biology, and eating salmon. He was kind enough to take me on a tour of some good bird-watching spots on Puget Sound.

A different world from the forests of Tennessee.

Douglas firs, western cedars, Pacific yews. Ever Green. Tree trunks thicker than any that have grown in most eastern forests for hundreds of years. There is no “ground,” no litter layer; instead, moss, moss, moss, as if a bryophyte blizzard had passed through, leaving drifts everywhere.

And on the water: murrelets, goldeneyes, harlequin ducks, scoters, loons, red-necked grebes. These are birds of cool rocky coasts, of Alaskan inlets, of moutain lakes, of streams running out from mountain glaciers. Look up from the water, and there are the snowy mountains rising behind wooded slopes and coast-hugging cities.

We conducted our bird-watching through binoculars and a scope, out of range of my modest, weak-lensed camera. But, a few ducks were bobbing close to shore. These Barrow’s goldeneyes were close to the dock. I’d never seen this species before. It is distinguished from its cousin, the common goldeneye, by the bright orange beak of the female and the crescent-shaped white patch on the male’s head. They winter on the coasts, but move inland to mountain lakes to breed, building nests in holes in dead trees. They feed by flipping their compact bodies forward and diving under the surface with a little splash. They swim down to grab mussels and other invertebrates from the rocky bottom. Their eyes are, indeed, golden — just visible in this photo.

Next stop, Newark, NJ…

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