Warm Sun, Icy Skies, Bittern

Cirrus duplicatus over Enumclaw, Washington
  Our recent and most-welcome warm weather in Western Washington this week has brought warm temperatures (50s F) and cloudy skies to the region. Cloudy?! locals might gasp. Yes, cloudy, the Accidental Naturalist insists. I'm on a mission to restore the good name of "cloudy" and divorce it from its knee-jerk association with low, gray, rain-making clouds. This weekend was cloudy. Just look.
   Saturday, my husband and I drove toward Enumclaw for a snow-free, low-elevation hike along the White River. With the dog. Who needed a leg-stretch. Who got us out on a rails-to-trails path outside the town of Buckley. Where we watched the skies get crazy with cirrus clouds that first caught my husband's eye because they looked "square."
   Nature isn't too fond of square shapes, especially in the cloud department, but these clouds had some edges and corners (at least from our perspective):
"Square" clouds indicate cirrus at more than one altitude with winds blowing the filaments in different directions.
  Once we started looking up at these clouds, we couldn't stop looking. Then the breeze kicked up. We walked a bit further, looking east, west, north, and south toward Mt. Rainier. We couldn't figure out what the skies were telling us. So I told my husband I thought the sky was "thickening" a bit and it would likely rain in 24 hours. Maybe 36. This was a mistake. I figured I had a 70-30 chance of being right. It was, after all, February in the Pacific Northwest. Often, cirrus clouds to portend rain. But only if they show a marked progression of lowering (to cirrostratus, altostratus, nimbostratus...rain). These cirrus dominated the sky.
I'm not sure what's going on here with this leaping cirrus cloud.
Here we have cirrus fibratus (I'm 86% sure) and what appears to be a salmonid migration of small altocumulus lenticularis.
  I have about fifty photographs of the skies on Saturday. I will spare you only so I have your attention for what happened on Sunday--another cloudy day in South Puget Sound. Look!
Clouds at sunset at Nisqually NWR. During the Super Bowl.  It is challenging to tell cirrocumulus from altocumulus--I haven't acquired the skill yet to judge the size of the cloudlets or height of the clouds. I'm working on it.
Heading west on the I-5 toward the Black Hills, the clouds produced a feature that looked like whale's baleen.  I believe these are trailing ice-crystals called virga. 
  At this point, you might be wondering why I seem to know so little about the clouds I saw this weekend. The problem is that despite my studying, constant use of cloud guides, sky guides, weather blogs, and National Weather Service data, it's difficult to match the clouds I'm seeing at any one moment to the data available. And no matter how many photographs I scrutinize, the clouds in the pictures (the supposed "type specimen") never quite match the pictures I've taken. Unlike the American Bittern.
An American Bittern, one of four seen hunting during the Super Bowl at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.
  Under those gorgeous sunset skies at Nisqually on Sunday, my husband and I were able to identify the secretive and camouflaged marsh bird--the American Bittern. This relative of the herons was hunting in the reeds and grass along one of the inner boardwalks. It looked just like its photograph in the Audubon field guide. We walked a bit further. And we saw four more bitterns. They looked and acted like the field guides said they would. It was so simple. And so satisfying.

Birds? What Birds?

Wednesday morning birders at Nisqually NWR. 
     The first hour of my Wednesday morning did not go well. I slept through the alarm, had to cancel my first appointment, was already running late for my second, and forgot a third. But nothing was going to keep me from joining the birders at Nisqually. So what if it's 27 degrees Farenheit?
   Every Wednesday morning at 8, a genial band of birders gathers at the refuge Visitors' Center for a three-hour birding walk with Phil Kelley or another Nisqually NWR volunteer. Usually there are several refuge volunteers in the group all with spotting scopes, field guides, and much knowledge to share with beginner as well as experienced birders. The weekly walk is organized through the Black Hills Audubon Society; there is no fee for the walk, just the $3 refuge entrance fee. Tip: spend your first $3 of the day at Nisqually instead of Starbucks.
Pintails, snow goose, mallards, shovelers, mergansers, buffleheads, Canada geese, and goldeneyes are commonly seen in the refuge ponds.  Luckily, they did not distract me from the cirrus sky above. 
   Until this month, I have been going to Nisqually to walk, usually very fast, out to the end of the new boardwalk and back. Nisqually was exercise with a great view, maybe some bald eagles, a harrier, or other large bird I could see without binoculars. Now I go to walk very slowly and just to the start of the boardwalk looking at birds. I cannot call what I am doing "birding." I am looking at clouds while birding. I am chatting while birding. I am not pulling out my field guide or making a list. I am hearing the names of the birds and watching them fly and perch and hunt. Being in their company is marvelous. As is being in the company of a group of people who seem to want nothing more than to make sure everyone sees what they do--and delights in it.
   There is a generosity of spirit that infuses this group and that seems to build during the walk. The volunteers and birders set up their Swarvoski spotting scopes and newcomers are invited to take a look. Birds are identified, genders noted or guessed at, behaviors marveled over, plumage admired. Everyone will see something common such as a bald eagle (usually several) and everyone will see something unusual or something few have seen before. This morning, in addition to many eagles, we saw one cryptically colored American Bittern crouched down in the grass, it's feathers fluffed against the cold. We watched a red-tailed hawk perched in a small tree warming itself in the sun--its wings spread like a cormorant, its tail fanned out so that we could see individual feathers. Common or rare, it was all stunning. And unphotographable with my l'il camera that is better suited to big skies.
Here are the cirrocumulus clouds. There is a bald eagle in the top of that Douglas-fir.

Altocumulus lenticularis forming above the pond where waterfowl dabbled.

This January sky holds so much more than I will ever know.
   To find out for yourself what's in the sky and waters of Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge (8 miles from Olympia) follow this link: Black Hills Audubon. Or better yet, cancel all your Wednesday appointments and go the refuge at 8.