Do You Enjoy Pareidolia?

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Rock “monster” peers into Denver Arboretum

You just might, even if you don’t know what it means yet.  To some extent, we all enjoy it.

Pareidolia, according to Dictionary.Com is “The imagined perception of a pattern where it does not actually exist.”  It originates from the Greek words “para”(something wrong) and eiddon (image, form or shape).

Here are a few examples of pareidolia:

  • The man in the moon
  • Star constellations with human forms and names
  • The Virgin Mary, supposedly seen on a grilled cheese sandwich
  • A cinnamon bun in Tennessee that apparently resembled Mother Theresa
  • Numerous landforms like Sleeping Lady Mountain in Washington
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Tree “wolf” in Olympic rain forest

Often the shape that we imagine is that of a human face.  Carl Sagan believed that recognizing faces from afar was a survival tool.  This fits into a broader hypothesis that pareidolia is the result of natural selection over the years that favors people who can quickly identify the mental state and/or face of people or animals around them.  This in turn provides them with opportunities to trust, flee or attack as needed.


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Rock “turtle” on Olympic rain forest floor


Aside from the survival value of recognizing human or animal images, pareidolia can also provide a form of amusement when outdoors.  It gives us yet another reason to look up and engage our senses.

Another Miraculous Winged Migration

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Cave Point County Park — Best known for its wave-carved cliffs and caves on the coast of Lake Michigan

On a recent trip to northern Wisconsin, my wife and I were fortunate to find migrating Monarchs fluttering and gliding through the woods, landing on Canada Goldenrod just feet away from us to feed in preparation for their epic journey south.  We discovered the Monarchs while searching for migratory birds on a quiet forest trail at Cave Point County Park in Door County, Wisconsin.

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Rufous Hummingbird

Birds are well-known for their incredible migrations.  The phenomenal round trips taken by birds that often weigh just a few ounces range from Arctic Terns covering 14,000 miles spanning four continents, to Ruby-throated Hummingbirds flying all the way across the Gulf of Mexico, to Rufous Hummingbirds migrating north from Mexico along the Cascade Mountains and then looping back from as far north as Alaska via the Rocky Mountains.  The list of epic bird migrations goes on and on.

Now consider Monarch Butterflies.  They weigh an average of .20 ounces and have a wing span of 3.5 to 4 inches.  These tiny, light as or lighter than a feather insects can fly up to 3,000 miles each way on their migration from the U.S. to central Mexico.  The Monarchs that make this journey are the ones born in late summer to early fall; they make this round trip once – an extraordinary feat.

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Monarch on Canada Goldenrod

Sadly, Monarchs are much less common than they used to be.  Their population has declined from a peak of 1 billion in the 1990s to less than 50 million at present.  Three major conservation groups have called for their listing as a Threatened species.

Like so many other species, Monarchs are declining due to lack of habitat, and in particular, the lack of their host plant Milkweed.  In addition to providing nectar to feed Monarchs during their migration, Milkweed is the only plant on which they lay their eggs and their larvae eat.  Milkweed has declined due to loss of habitat and the widespread use of Roundup – a broad spectrum herbicide.

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Monarch on Rough Blazing Star

In addition to pursuing regulations on herbicide use and protecting habitat on a large-scale, we all can all help save butterflies in our back yards.  By planting Milkweed and other Monarch-friendly plants like Canada Goldenweed and Rough Blazing Star (both pictured with Monarchs on them), we can attract and help perpetuate the species in areas where Monarchs occur.

How large of an area does a Monarch “Way-Station” need to be?  According to Dan Ashe, Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “The scale can be a backyard, a schoolyard, a state park, a national park.  It’s a matter of everybody doing what they can do, and it all makes a difference.”  Visit the website below before you plant to make certain that you select a variety of Milkweed that is native to your region and that you avoid accidentally planting exotic/invasive plants:

As I write this, Pope Francis is making his first visit to the United States.  In his impressive Encyclical Letter “On Care for Our Common Home” he reminds us of our moral responsibility not only to one-another as humans, but to planet Earth and all of its inhabitants, aka God’s creation:  “Authentic human development has a moral character.  It presumes full respect for the human person, but it must also be concerned for the world around us and take into account the nature of each being and of its mutual connection in an ordered system.  Accordingly, our human ability to transform reality must proceed in line with God’s original gift of all that is.”

Pope Francis continues:  “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us.  We have no such right.”  To this I say amen!

Addendum:  Good news for Monarch Conservation just arrived in the form of increased funding for Monarch habitat:

Going Neotropical

Western Tanager

Western Tanager

Earlier this month, I awoke to the sound of two different bird calls in the tall trees surrounding our home – Neotropical migrants heading south.  They were both here earlier than usual, perhaps due to the extremely hot and dry summer.

The first call, uttered from high in the tallest remaining Douglas Fir in our neighborhood, was the characteristic “Chid-up” or “Pri-dik” call of the Western Tanager.  It took a while to find this bird due to its uncanny ability to blend in to the tree foliage despite it being characterized by David Sibley as one of the “…most intensely colored birds in North America.”

This Western Tanager is staging here prior to its return trip to Western Mexico and Central America where it will spend the winter.  Most Western Tanagers depart from the Pacific Northwest by late October and return to breed in our conifer forests in April and May.  In the spring, the first tanagers we see in our yard arrive in mid May.  Tanagers are insectivores, feeding on wasps, bees, caterpillars, moths and beetles.

Black-headed Grosbeak

The second vocalization I heard was the “Zhink” call of the Black-headed Grosbeak.  Occasionally, this call is accompanied by its florid whistling song that birders say sounds like a drunken robin.  The Black-headed Grosbeak is easier to spot, because it parks on the feeder and eats copious quantities of sunflower seeds before making its return trip to central Mexico.

When you see the Grosbeak through binoculars, you are struck by the size of its triangular “grosbeak” bill.  This big bill is not only good for crunching down seeds, but also insects including beetles.  When the Black-headed Grosbeak returns to Mexico, it will be among wintering Monarch Butterflies, which despite their toxic content, Grosbeaks can eat.

As the Grosbeak spends hours and days (up to a week) at our feeder, it gains weight and starts to tip the feeder.  Sometimes you wonder if this newly acquired pudginess will impede its journey, but the extra fuel is necessary to complete the 2,000-mile-plus trip.  Maybe the same male will be back on our feeder next year in full adult plumage?  I hope so.

Yellowstone Ranger Extraordinaire

Roadside Grizzly Sow and Cub in Yellowstone

Roadside Grizzly Sow and Cub in Yellowstone

Recently while co-leading a greater Yellowstone Ecosystem tour,  I encountered something extraordinary.  It was not a wildlife encounter (although we had plenty of those and they were amazing); it was a park ranger performing his job in an unusually graceful and positive manner.

While I was attempting to make a difficult re-entry into traffic from a deep gravel siding with our Ford 15-passenger van, I saw this ranger making his way along a line of vehicles that had pulled over to see a bear.  I braced for the usual threats and lectures  – even though I was in compliance, with all four wheels of my vehicle completely off the road and all the appropriate permits in place.

But this ranger was different.  He was a mature guy in the 70-plus range.  He had a sunny, jovial demeanor.  As he approached our van, he was in the midst of a mock rant saying that he’s “really grumpy today; that he did not get a good night’s sleep; that he had an argument with his wife,” etc., etc. – all to persuade us in a humorous way, to keep our vehicles parked completely off the road.  We chuckled at his amusing banter while checking to see if our vehicles were in compliance.P1000831

Then he helped us get back into the stream of traffic by temporarily stopping the traffic and waving us on with a smile.  What just happened?  Who was this guy?

All too often in National Parks, including Yellowstone, you expect to encounter parks staff angrily blaring at you over a megaphone, treating you like a criminal or intruder, instead of a valued customer or taxpayer.  The kind of treatment we were given by this ranger was not only refreshing, it was revolutionary.  He added value to our park experience, just as he did to the experience of other park visitors.

As luck would have it, the very next day we found our ranger again, back in action in Lamar Valley.  This is where many search for wolves and other large mammals.

Our favorite ranger was there with a group of bikers discussing wolf biology, summarizing different perspectives on wolf management, and respectfully answering their questions with humor added.  It was brilliant.

This time I saw his badge with the help of my ten-power binoculars:  John Kerr.  Once back at home in the land of internet connections, I performed a Google search on him.  Several articles popped up, including one from The Huffington Post.  It turns out that John Kerr is a former PBS TV executive from the Boston area.  Being a ranger is his semi-retirement dream job.

Here is how he views this job, according to the 2013 Huffington Post interview:  P1000835

“(I get to) …help people rediscover wildlife in the wild, keep them safe, practice stewardship in a very direct way, and try to elevate the experience of visitors in America’s National Parks.”  This last sentence could be a mission statement for park employees.

The importance of good customer service in National Parks cannot be overemphasized.  Park visitors are constituents, and Yellowstone has more than three million annually.

We have politicians who want to get rid of National Parks and turn them into pin cushions for oil and gas development.  Others want the feds out of the Parks business (Utah) altogether, and would prefer that they be managed by state parks — even though states are often cash starved and opt to close parks or to significantly reduce their care and maintenance.

Rangers like John Kerr set a tone that resonates with the public.  It reminds them that they belong in National Parks and should enjoy partaking in their majesty. It also reminds them that National Parks, as Ken Burns said, are “America’s Best Idea.”


Accidental Pleasure

“Accidentals” do happen and it is a pleasure to see them when they migrate near you.  In birding parlance, an “accidental” is a species living outside of its native distributional range.  This time, for those of us fortunate enough to see it in suburban Seattle, it was a Brambling.

Bramblings are Eurasian finches that rarely migrate to our area.  They are attractively colored in orange, black and gray tones with a distinctive pattern set off by a yellow bill.  They feed on seeds and some insects. The one we watched in Issaquah, Washington consumed cherry blossoms.

Bramblings are common in Europe and in Asia.  They often appear in small numbers in Alaska in autumn via the relatively short crossing from Siberia to across the Bering Sea.  Some who make the crossing continue south.  The Brambling we saw apparently traveled well over 2,000 miles from Alaska on the second leg of its journey.

When rare birds like Bramblings are posted on websites and list serves like Tweeters and E-Bird, impromptu groups of birders appear at specific locations (often GPS coordinates) where the bird was last seen.  I’m not keen on chasing rarities that are great distances away, due to the large carbon footprint of driving so far, but when one comes to my “neighborhood,” I’m in!

I went twice to see the Brambling – once with my friend, Dave, and another time with my wife, Lori.  Each time, we were among half-a-dozen other birders with scopes and binoculars, staking out the area.  These are friendly occasions where you compare notes on sightings, talk about birds in general, gear, photography, nature and the weather among other things. Such impromptu gatherings provide a sense of community to otherwise far-flung birders.

After about 15 minutes on both visits, we found the Brambling.  Its russet and black tones were especially beautiful against the pink backdrop of a blooming cherry tree.  We all exchanged scope views, tried to photograph it (challenging due to distance, dim light and frequent movement), and uttered expressions of joy ranging from passionate, to high fives, to understated smiles.

For all of us, it was a special experience:  a chance encounter with a rare and beautiful creature from another continent.  Life can be enriched by an accidental.

Tips on Buying Binoculars

Binocular Illusration

I have often been asked to recommend good binoculars for birding and wildlife-watching.  Although not an expert on optics, I do have lots of field experience and hang out with other birders.  I have purchased and tried many different types of binoculars and have my personal favorites. To enhance what I know, I have provided excerpts below from’s Binocular Buying Guide below.  My tips follow.  I hope these are helpful! Binocular Buying Guide Excerpts:


Generally, the range in magnification for hand-held binoculars is from 6 to 10 in power.  In a binocular designation (7 x 35, for example) the first number indicates the magnification, or how much larger, or closer, the object will appear than seen with normal vision.  When considering magnification, more is not necessarily better.  As magnification increases, brightness and clarity may diminish, depth of field can become shallower and the field or view is usually more restricted.  More noticeable and disturbing at higher powers are fine hand tremors and the effects of atmospheric conditions, such as the distortion caused by heat waves.

If your observation is done primarily at close range, such as in woodland areas or in your backyard, then a good 6, 7 or 8 power binocular might be the best choice.  This range of magnification generally gives you a larger picture (wider field of view) which is especially important for viewing objects relatively close at hand.  Also, binoculars of this magnification usually deliver better performance under conditions of low available light, due either to the time of day, weather conditions, or shadows caused by dense vegetation or other structures.”

“For long distance viewing or where greater detail is required, a higher magnification of 8, 9 0r 10 should be considered.  For example, the demands of observing in wide open terrain with little cover are best met with a binocular of 9 or 10 power.  This generally holds true for situations where there is a need for critical field mark identification, as in observing raptors and shorebirds or when the object or animal is difficult to approach.”


The second number of a binocular designation refers to the diameter, in millimeters, of the front, or objective lens.  The diameters usually range from 20 to 50 millimeters and this number will almost always be directly related to the size of the binocular.  The objective lens size, or aperture, determines the amount of light that will enter the optical system.”

“A larger objective lens will gather more light and theoretically provide greater detail and clarity of the image.  This is especially true under low light conditions. ”

Woody’s recommends:

A good,versatile pair of binoculars in the 8 x 40-42 range.  Ten power magnification works well if you have steady hands, don’t mind the extra weight and are mainly birding or wildlife-watching in wide-open areas like wetlands, prairies, or over open water.

Moderately priced 8×40-42 binoculars ($250 – $600) include:

  • Eagle Optics Ranger
  • Nikon HG DCF or Monarch
  • Pentax DCF SP
  • Vortex Diamondback or Viper
  • Zeiss Terra

If you are willing to swallow hard and pay $1,000 – $2,500 for even better binoculars, consider the higher end models of these brands:

  • Leica
  • Swarovski
  • Vortex
  • Zeiss

Four more important considerations in selecting binoculars:

  1. How they feel in your hands.  Try them before you buy them.  Don’t buy them if you don’t like the way they feel – even if they are the finest quality binoculars.
  2. Weight:  Think about carrying and holding binoculars for long periods of time.  Generally, binoculars that weigh over 30 ounces are heavy.
  3. Waterproofing or water-resistant binoculars – important in many places – especially here in the rainy Pacific Northwest.
  4. Avoid tiny opera glass binoculars.  Although they are light and compact, they also have a small aperture (a low second number or size of objective lens), and therefore sacrifice image sharpness in low light conditions. Compact binoculars also have limited peripheral vision making it more difficult to locate birds or wildlife.

Final Suggestion:  Spend as much as you can afford on your binoculars. In general, you get what you pay for.  The mid-price range binoculars have improved immensely in recent years, so you can get a very good pair for around $400.  Keep in mind that binoculars are a lifetime investment and will deliver enhanced enjoyment of birds, wildlife and other natural wonders to you for years to come.

Good Birding!




They’re Back! Pine Siskins “Irrupt”

Pine Siskin on Deck

Confiding Pine Siskin

The air just outside my window in Seattle is filled with the chatter of Pine Siskins, punctuated at times by ascending, zipper-like zreeEEE! calls.  Tight flocks of up to 75 Siskins fly between trees and feeders.  Then they descend and feed with determination and persistence. Following several years of Pine Siskin scarcity in the Pacific Northwest, they are back with a vengeance!

These small brown-streaked finches with yellowish wings are most closely related to Common Redpolls and the American Goldfinch.  They have a fine bill and a forked tail.  Pine Siskins chatter constantly.

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Pine Siskins mob feeder. They can empty it in a single day

As their name suggests, Pine Siskins are often associated with coniferous or evergreen forests.  Being adaptable, they are also frequently found in deciduous trees like the Sweet Gum Trees in our front yard.   You can find them – often hanging upside down – as they feed on seeds in trees.

It is not unusual for local populations of Pine Siskins to ebb and flow. The irruption that is underway now is a term for “the mass movement of typically non-migratory birds,” according to the Handbook of Bird Biology by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  Pine Siskins are nomads of North America.  They follow seed crops throughout the continental U.S. and southern Canada in the winter, and breed in the northern Boreal forests of Canada in the summer.

Denizens of colder climates of North America, Pine Siskins have developed strategies to survive sub-zero temperatures.  One is their ability to increase their metabolism to help get through cold nights. In addition, they can store extra seeds in their crop which enable them to obtain much-needed calories in the dead and cold of a winter’s night.

You can get close to Pine Siskins; they are quite tame.  If you go outside and sit quietly in a forested area or near feeders, they will come to within three feet of you.  They have a higher tolerance of human movement than most other bird species.  Yesterday I got to within two feet of several siskins on a feeder while carrying a large metal extension ladder before they finally decided to fly away.

Although Pine Siskins are considered common, they are part of a disturbing trend that was noted in the 2014 State of the Birds Report.  Pine Siskins were among the 33 species of “Common Birds in Steep Decline” listed in this report.

For now, if you live in North America and visit evergreen forests or put out feeders with Sunflower or Niger Thistle seeds in them, you are likely to have large flocks of these gregarious, vocal birds in your midst.  They provide us with yet another reason to conserve our trees and forests.


  •  All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology website
  •  Handbook of Bird Biology, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
  •   National Geographic Birds of North America website
  •  The State of the Birds 2014, U.S. Committee of the North American Bird Conservation Initiative—a 23-member partnership of government agencies and organizations dedicated to advancing bird conservation.