Natural History

It was a rainy Sunday morning. San Juan Island, Washington doesn’t get many cool, damp, gloomy Sunday mornings during August, and this one seemed to have taken even the wildlife off guard.

In the hour after dawn, a young buck deer, its antlers mere buttons, had pressed itself against the windows of our living room, trying to stay dry. It quivered but stood its ground while Quilly approached, to mere inches and a pane of glass away from its overworked snout. It was unwilling to forsake its haven and its chance to browse, from it, the sprouts of the madrone stumps that dotted the slope below our apartment. By mid-morning, however, even that buck had sought better shelter under the douglas firs, and the landscape was left to the fog and mist.

Weather changes in the Puget Sound region are rarely as dramatic as they are further East, with their sharp-edged fronts and drenching, wind-driven downpours driven off by wedges of chilled blue skies. Nevertheless, when the sun finally fought its way through the low clouds early that afternoon, it was as if a computer graphics guru had just restored, at a stroke, all the colors to a grayscale image of a still life.

For still it was, as if the wind itself had caught its breath at the sight of the freshly-illumined landscape.

And crossing that landscape were little puffs of gauze. The color and size of dandelion puffs, they were. Except that they wafted up in the motionless air. And as they rose, they flickered, flickered with the beating of frail wings.

450px-antflight.jpgWinged ants.

I followed the flight path back down to the ground, to the madrone stumps that had held the attention of that buck deer in the rainy hours of the morning. One of those stumps was now an insectoid helipad, fully invested with winged ants and wingless in urgent motion, anxious to see the honeymoon flights safely launched. The nervous bustle puzzled me. What, in that bucolic scene, could possibly be signalling, to these ants, a need for haste?

Then the feathered monster appeared.

It was a male Dark-Eyed (“Oregon”) Junco, a miniature among birds but a thrashing troll among the now-panicked six-legged debutantes. At first he flapped among the fliers, snatching and grabbing. Then, just as I had earlier with my eyes, he followed the flights down to their source and landed. The carnage was total. Ants vanished into the bill of the beast until all the winged ones were consumed or, dismayed, had retreated below ground. With the clearing of the feasting table, the junco wandered off.

A few minutes later, another madrone stump a few feet away erupted into flying ants. It almost seemed as if that stump had a sentinel, which waited to sound the “All Clear” until after the junco had gone. Once more the sunlit stillness was criss-crossed with gossamer gauze.

Then, suddenly, the slope was alive with dragonflies.

The junco had been clumsy in the air, missing more insects than it captured. But the dragonflies were precision fliers; one would swoop up from behind and below a flapping ant, and pick it out of the sky as neatly and as efficiently as a magnet scoops up iron tacks. Soon there were more predators on the wing than prey. I found myself cheering on the occasional ant that got close to the trees at the edge of the clearing made when the madrones had been cut down, a year or so ago, and to safety. A few of them made it.

The dragonflies were sated, though, before the second ant colony ran dry, and once more the helipad was bustling.

Only to be disrupted by a foraging junco. A female this time, picking off the would-be departures before they got airborne, just as her presumed partner had done. But unlike her partner, she held most of her prey in her beak. It soon was apparent that there was another party to this arrangement. She flitted off to find it, a fluttering, begging mass of brown in the bushes at the bottom of the hill. A fluttering, begging mass of brown that, incongrously, was almost twice her size …

cowbirdfl-junco.jpgThe junco was feeding a baby brown-headed cowbird.

Cowbirds lay their eggs in the nests of other bird species. The cowbird eggs usually hatch earlier than the eggs that actually belong there, and the young cowbird either kills the other chicks, elbows them out of the nest, or, by grabbing all the food that the parents bring to the nest first, starves them out. Species that are targeted by cowbirds often suffer disastrous declines in numbers, even to the point that they are threatened with extinction. Unless they learn to fight back. Adult juncos will attack any cowbird that they see approaching a junco nest. Other birds will abandon a nest that has a cowbird egg in it, or will destroy the cowbird eggs. Once the egg hatches, however, the cowbird chick becomes a baby like any other, and it must be fed …

The ant supply being finally exhausted, the mother junco and her outsized foster child disappeared into the bushes.

At that moment, a horn sounded. The ferry, with its load of Nigerian oil, Namibian diamonds, Malaysian electronics, Bangladeshi clothing, and well-fed Americans with an obsession for their personal security, was pulling into the dock at Friday Harbor.

  – O Ceallaigh
Copyright © 2007 Felloffatruck Publications. All wrongs deplored.
All opinions are mine as a private citizen.


  1. O.C…………You have put the pictures in my mind and I feel that I watched too.

    *smiling* It probably took longer to write about these two moments in time. than it took to watch them. But, it WAS worth the read………..Judy

  2. Interesting to read about the Cowbird, over here in Britain we have a bird that does exactly the same as the Cowbird, it’s called a Cuckoo, I wonder if they come from the same family?

  3. Quilly, it’ll be hard to leave this place.

    Y’see, Judy, we don’t really need television … thanks.

    Missed you too, cooper.

    Actually, Bazza, we have cuckoos in North America as well, three species if I remember correctly, though it’s not all that easy to find one in the places I hang out. Cuckoos belong to their own family of birds (Cuculidae), while Cowbirds are a type of blackbird (Icteridae).

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