Each morning, there’s one Steller’s Jay who arrives to sit in our Japanese Maple before the others. I like to think it’s the same bird each time, but I honestly can’t tell, so I pretend. My nine-year-old, given the task of naming him, calls him Toca Boca after a hair styling app on iTunes. (Of course, we also don’t know if he’s actually a male, but we’re going with it.) The maple is just 15-ish feet from our patio, which is where I stand in my pajamas and bedhead hair to toss peanuts to birds who have bedheads of their own. As soon as I start tossing, the rest of Toca Boca’s clan swoops out from wherever they were watching me, including from the roof just above where I’m standing. (Why, yes, that does freak me out.) On the days when the rest of the gang is otherwise predisposed, TB will loudly squawk to let them know they’re missing out on the food, and in they fly from all corners of the neighborhood.

“Silly bird,” I say. “You could have had all these peanuts to yourself.”

“Crazy lady,” I imagine he replies, “I’m not coming near you on my own.”

Toca Boca contemplates keeping the peanuts for himself. Photo: Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds

Toca Boca contemplates keeping the peanuts for himself. Photo: Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds


This handsome yet quirky bird might have had a different name than the one he has now (Steller’s Jay, that is, not Toca Boca) were it not for a brave botanist named Georg Steller, the first European to see — and set foot on — the beautiful land we now call Alaska. It was on Kodiak Island where Steller first saw the black and blue jay, a relative of the Blue Jay and the American Crow, among others in the Corvidae family.

Georg (pronounced GAY-org) Steller was born 306 years ago on March 10, 1709 in Windsheim, Bavaria (now Germany). Long before the ill-fated voyage of 1741 that left him a survivor among a much smaller group than had first set out, Steller was educated at several universities, where he studied theology, medicine, and the natural sciences, including botany. The knowledge he gained, especially in medicine and botany, made him a highly-valuable BMOB (big man on boat), when he put it to use to save many of the sailors afflicted with scurvy. Captain Vitus Bering, in charge of the expedition, unfortunately was one of the men who did not survive.

Georg Wilhelm Steller, 1709-1746

Georg Wilhelm Steller, 1709-1746


It was on one of the Aleutian islands during this difficult trip that Steller was able to collect specimens of several birds and animals that were named for him in the years after his death. Steller’s Sea Cow (Hydrodamalis gigas), a marine mammal that was a cousin of the manatee, was one of the creatures he discovered. The sea cow was massive, weighing around nine tons (or more) and measuring up to 30 feet in length. Sadly, Steller’s Sea Cow was hunted to extinction within the two decades after its existence was made known.

Other creatures discovered by and named for Georg Steller were Steller’s Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus pelagicus), Steller’s Sea Lion (Eumetopias jubatus), a mollusk called the Gumboot Chiton (Cryptochiton stelleri), Steller’s Eider (Polysticta stelleri), and our friend, Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri).

Georg Steller died in 1746 while attempting to return home on an overland journey through Siberia. I’m grateful, as I’m sure you are, for valiant and brave men like Steller who put their lives at risk to discover more about our amazing world.

This glimpse into the life of Georg Steller and the tragic voyage to the Kamchutka Peninsula in Alaska was just the tip of the iceberg. You can read more at the following links:

Georg Steller: Zoologist and Botanist (Encyclopedia Brittanica)

Encounters of Alutiiq and Russians on Kodiak Island, 1741 (in the words of Georg Steller, himself)

Absurd Creature of the Week: A Strange Saga of Bribery, Skinny-dipping, and a 12-ton Sea Cow (Wired.com)

Profiles in Natural History: Georg Wilhelm Steller and the Ape in the Sea (Popular Social Science)

Steller’s Voyage on Google Maps

Learn more about Steller’s Jay:

The Beautiful Yet Dastardly Steller’s Jay (Pacific Northwest Birds)

Ever Heard of a Bearded Steller’s Jay? (Pacific Northwest Birds)

Which Jay Was That? It’s blue… it’s a jay… but what KIND of Jay? (BirdNote)

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Learn more about your backyard birds in the newly revised and updated Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds. Get it for your Kindle (which you can also read on your PC, Mac, smartphone, or tablet with this free reading app), Nook, on Smashwords, or in the iTunes bookstore.

Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and Twitter!

Often, the first inkling we may have that a Varied Thrush is close by is its song: a haunting, monotone trill that it lets loose from its perch in a tree or bush. It sounds something like this one:

Varied Thrush Song (Opens in a new tab.)

The Varied Thrush is a common resident of the Pacific Northwest, though not seen in backyards as often in the winter as during warmer months — from my vantage point, at least. In fact, it’s so rarely seen in my yard (at least compared to the “usuals” who are always here) that when I heard it’s whistle the other day, I stood wracking my brain for a good several minutes trying to remember which bird was making the sound. (I’d just seen a female Varied Thrush under my feeders a day or two before — you’d think I could have put two and two together. But no.)

Male Varied Thrush (Photo: Walter Seigmund) and Female Varied Thrush (Photo: Minette Layne)

Male Varied Thrush (Photo: Walter Seigmund) and Female Varied Thrush (Photo: Minette Layne)

Whatever the season, being visited by a Varied Thrush is a treat. Here’s what you need to know about this very pretty bird.

Scientific name: Ixoreus naevius
Family: TURDIDAE

Size and markings: Also called the Oregon Robin by some, the Varied Thrush is about 9.5 inches long with a wingspan of 16 inches. This cousin of the American Robin has a dark slate-gray head, back, wings, and tail with orange banding on the wings. The slate-gray color can look navy blue in certain light. The Varied Thrush also has an orange belly, throat, and eye stripe. Males can be identified by the black band across the upper chest and somewhat darker coloring. Females have this band, also, but theirs is much lighter.

Food: The Varied Thrush has a “varied” diet and eats berries, seeds, nuts, and insects. It is often seen foraging for seeds below feeders but will also venture onto suet and seed feeders.

Habitat/nesting/behavior: Though the Varied Thrush lives year-round in the Pacific Northwest, it is most common in the Cascades (including suburban areas in the Cascade foothills), Northern Rockies, and along the Pacific Coast. Breeding usually happens in the rainforests close to the Pacific Coast. Compared to its cousin, the American Robin, the Varied Thrush is rather quiet and shy, but can still let loose a variety of songs and calls, the most recognizable being a sweet yet haunting monotone trill.

Number of broods per year: 1-2
Number of eggs per brood: 1-6

Migratory pattern: In the Pacific Northwest, the Varied Thrush is a year-round (though not always seen) resident. It also breeds throughout western Canada and all of Alaska and spends winters in California and on the Baja California peninsula in Mexico.

Months usually seen at backyard feeders: Any, though most common during spring and fall.

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Learn more about your backyard birds in the newly revised and updated Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds. Get it for your Kindle (which you can also read on your PC, Mac, smartphone, or tablet with this free reading app), Nook, on Smashwords, or in the iTunes bookstore.

Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and Twitter!

American Bittern by John James Audubon

American Bittern by John James Audubon

If you’re a fan of John James Audubon (1785-1851), you may also be familiar with his work, Audubon’s Birds of America, which contains beautiful watercolor illustrations of 435 North American birds. Audubon discovered 25 species himself, naming quite a few of them for people he knew (Bewick’s Wren, Swainson’s Hawk, Wilson’s Warbler, and more).

Audubon’s illustrations are made from hand-engraved plates and are now available at Audubon.com. Because the good folks at Audubon have made these available to us in their online library, we can now download a high-resolution version of each print for free. As a warning, these are huge files, which you might want to resize once you’ve downloaded them.

Having these illustrations at our fingertips is a really big deal. Personally, I feel like a kid who got locked in a toy store for the night and isn’t one bit upset about it. (Seriously. Don’t even call my parents, ’cause I’m staying!) The only negative about this is not knowing which ones to print first.

So, bird and nature lovers, do check out and enjoy these beautiful Audubon prints. You just might feel like you took a walk through the countryside with John J. himself.

You can also get Audubon’s Birds of America for your Kindle or Kindle app or by choosing one of these other hard cover or paperback editions.

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Learn more about your backyard birds in the newly revised and updated Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds. Get it for your Kindle (which you can also read on your PC, Mac, smartphone, or tablet with this free reading app), Nook, on Smashwords, or in the iTunes bookstore.

Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and Twitter!

Adult Bald Eagle on the beach in Ocean Shores, WA. Photo: Julie Cavendish

Adult Bald Eagle on the beach in Ocean Shores, WA. Photo: Julie Cavendish


What comes to mind when you think of the Bald Eagle: America? Freedom? Because it’s our national bird, that’s what pops into my head, too, but mainly I think of the Bald Eagle as a bird of prey. A big, beautiful, majestic bird of prey.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen Bald Eagles in my neighborhood in unincorporated South King County, WA. We’ve lived on our street for almost 14 years and used to see quite a few more eagles than we do now, and for this I blame the territorial chutzpah of American Crows, among other things.

The angry cawing of the crows was usually a good sign that eagles, who’d probably gotten overconfidently close to the crows’ nests, were in the area. Upon hearing the crows — and if I was lucky — I would look outside just in time to see a Bald Eagle being chased by two or three of them, who are still here, by the way, defending their territory against Red-tailed Hawks and their ilk.

Besides seeing them being chased by crows or sitting high in nearby Douglas Firs, evidence of the eagles’ presence here over the years has been the mysteriously dwindling gosling population in my neighbor’s barnyard. Each time his domestic geese had their young, only a few of the adorable little balls of fluff would reach adulthood, as it seemed the eagles thought of that barnyard as their private vending machine. And, of course, seeing a Bald Eagle sitting in the middle of the barnyard one day was also a big tip-off.

Once in a while, I’ll see eagles flying over our neighborhood’s lake, but regularly venturing back to our side of the neighborhood again has yet to happen. I assume they’re too busy catching fish and waiting for the ducks and Canada Geese to have their young than to be bothered with sparring with the crows again. But all of life’s a cycle, so I’m sure they’ll be back someday to have another go at any recently-hatched goslings. (Though I do hope they’ll fill up on the lake’s trout instead.)

If you’re a fan of Bald Eagles and are also on Facebook, you’ll want to check out the following pages:

Hornby Eagles

American Eagle Foundation

On Eagle’s Wings

Conowingo Bald Eagles

Eagle Chatters

Bald Eagle Photo Site

National Eagle Center

EagleEyes Photography

Jack Molan Photography

And now, here’s the 411 on the Bald Eagle.

Scientific name: Haliaeetus leucocephalus
Family: ACCIPITRIDAE

Size and markings: 28-43″ long with a wingspan of 80-96″ (that’s 6-1/2 – 8 feet). The adult Bald Eagle is one of the most easily identifiable birds in the world, with its white head and tail and brown body and wings. Its beak is yellow, as are its eyes. Feet are golden yellow with black talons. Juveniles have a dark beak and are mostly brown with some white mottling. (Juveniles are sometimes confused with Golden Eagles.) Sexes are similar, but females are larger than males.

Food: Bald Eagles mainly dine on fish (salmon is a favorite), waterfowl, and carrion (dead animals). They’ve also been known to go after rodents and small pets.

Habitat/nesting/behavior: Rivers, ocean beaches, large lakes, and marshlands are good places to look for eagles (nests are built in tall trees near waterways), while wildlife preserves and fish-processing plants here in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska are worthwhile places to visit if you’re hoping to see them in larger groups. Nest construction begins in winter in preparation for young born later in the spring.

Eagle courtship has long been known as a thing of beauty, as the pair locks talons and tumbles through the air. Check out this video, complete with mood music by Adele:

Number of broods per year: 1

Number of eggs per brood: 1-3

Migratory pattern: On the North American continent, Bald Eagles spend their summers in Alaska and Canada, and winter throughout much of the lower 48 and Mexico. However, they are also year-round residents in many areas, especially along waterways and coastlines from northern California to Alaska, including Alaska’s almost-treeless Aleutian Islands.

Months usually seen at backyard feeders: Not a feeder bird.

We would love to hear your Bald Eagle stories! Share your stories and photos below, on our Facebook page, or on Twitter.

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Learn more about your backyard birds in the newly revised and updated Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds. Get it for your Kindle (which you can also read on your PC, Mac, smartphone, or tablet with this free reading app), Nook, on Smashwords, or in the iTunes bookstore.

Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and Twitter!

Female Red-shafted Northern Flicker. Photo: Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds

Female Red-shafted Northern Flicker. Photo: Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds

As a child, I was a product of the Saturday morning cartoon era…it was, in fact, the highlight of my week. If I didn’t watch Looney Tunes, it just wasn’t a good Saturday. Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner were my favorite characters, but a close second was Woody Woodpecker. I guess you could say that everything I knew about woodpeckers I learned on Saturday mornings: I was convinced that all woodpeckers had a red head like Woody and that they all pecked incessantly on trees, to the annoyance of every human within earshot.

In actuality, there are many different types of woodpeckers, and they don’t all look or even act the same. (Rumor has it, by the way, that Woody was modeled after the Pileated Woodpecker.) The all-woodpeckers-are-the-same stereotype was blown for me the day I discovered and fell into deep like with the Northern Flicker, a soft gray-brown, spotted bird more closely resembling a dove than a feathered drill bit.

Not everyone is a fan of the flicker. A quick search on Google will reveal plenty of ticked off homeowners plotting the demise of one or more of these birds for having pecked holes in the sides of their houses. In my yard, they’re quite content to just eat suet when not looking for ants in the ground, though they’ve been known — once in a while — to wake me up during warmer months by pecking on the roof above my bedroom.

While the Northern Flicker’s habitat stretches across North America, the species can be separated into two distinct types, and possibly a third. Northern Flickers are called “Red-shafted” in the west but “Yellow-shafted” in the east. (Read below for an explanation of this.) They hybridize (interbreed) in an area that stretches from Alaska to Texas, producing offspring that have traits of both western and eastern Northern Flickers. Click here to read about the beautiful hybridized Northern Flicker that visited my suet feeder some time back. That was a very cool treat, indeed.

The following information is taken from my book, Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds. Read on to learn more about the Northern Flicker:

Species: Colaptes auratus
Family: PICIDAE

Size and markings: The Northern Flicker is 12-14 inches long with a wingspan of 17-21 inches. The markings of the western variety, the Red-shafted Northern Flicker, are different from those of its eastern counterpart, the Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker. On our side of the country, males will have red malars (moustaches), but the females do not. In the East, both males and females will have a red crescent on the back of the neck. In the West, northern flickers have red flashing under the wings and tail feathers, while in the East, that same flashing is yellow. Other marks are the same, such as the brown-gray coloring, the obvious black bib, the white underside spotted with black, and the black barring on the back, wings, and tail.

Food: While the Northern Flicker is not a typical feeder visitor in summer months, it will visit available suet feeders. You’re also likely to see it on the ground where it will search for insects and other invertebrates, such as slugs and snails. It will also peck the ground to get at ants and their larvae, much like other woodpeckers will do to tree bark.

Habitat/nesting/behavior: The Northern Flicker will nest in any large cavity in a dead tree but will also use an artificial nesting box.

Number of broods per year: 1-4

Number of eggs per brood: 1-8

Migratory pattern: This bird is a year-round resident in most of the lower 48 states and southern Canada. Some flickers, however, will move south for the winter and fly farther north into Canada and Alaska for summer breeding.

Months usually seen at backyard feeders: Expect to see the beautiful Northern Flicker at any time if you have a suet feeder. It’s also more likely to visit seed feeders in the winter months when the insect population isn’t as plentiful.

Want to attract Northern Flickers to your yard? Order Pacific Northwest Birds’ Peanut Butter Suet here.
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Learn more about your backyard birds in the newly revised and updated Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds. Get it for your Kindle (which you can also read on your PC, Mac, smartphone, or tablet with this free reading app), Nook, on Smashwords, or in the iTunes bookstore.

Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and Twitter!

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