Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Wild Bird Wednesday: Northern Red Bishop

This past fall, I was pulling out of the parking lot at my regular birding spot in Irvine when a brilliant flash of orange caught my eye.  Due to other commitments, I was unable to turn around to see what it might have been and wondered all the way home what I'd missed.

A week later, I discovered that a small flock of unusual birds had made a temporary home at this spot.  Northern Red Bishops (also known as Orange Bishops) are actually from Africa!  However, they are one of a multitude of non-native species that has escaped and taken hold in the Southern California environment.

The males are a brilliant orange/red with black faces and chests.

This small flock hung around for about 2 months on this same grouping of dead branches.

Their brown wings look almost like a sparrow's wings have been grafted on - I always thought they don't match the rest of the bird.

As I watched them over time, it was easy to pick out their dominance games...always trying to be in the "top spot" on the branch.

The orange feathers on the backs of their heads can ruffle up to appear almost like a hood.

This set of photos was taken two weeks later than the ones above...and the birds were still on that same group of branches!

This time, I was able to get a few shots of the females...who really do look like sparrows! 

I had to do some research at home to make sure these weren't just sparrows hanging out with the Bishops.

There's quite a lot of controversy regarding these non-native species (especially those that are nest parasites like the Whydahs) and whether they should be allowed to proliferate.  I'm a little on the fence - would not want to see a native species displaced by these birds, but on the other hand, if there are enough resources for them to co-exist, then maybe it's okay.  We've lost so many species and so much habitat...if something can manage to survive, maybe it's Nature's way of moving a new game piece onto the board.  In any event, I'll be interested to see if this flock returns this fall or if this was a one-time deal.


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Wild Bird Wednesday: Northern Harrier

These pictures are not of the best quality, but this was such an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime encounter that I decided to share them anyway.  While I saw Northern Harriers several times over the course of fall and winter (the only time they are present in Southern California), it was always at a distance or while they were in flight.  However, one day, as I was walking down a path, I was amazed to see a female Northern Harrier pounce on something in the reeds just in front of me. 

She graciously allowed me to snap 3 shots and then she was off with her prey and disappeared in the distance.  I had no time to maneuver for a clean shot so there are a few reeds in front of her, but the owl-like facial disk that is unique to this raptor is clearly visible.

Maybe if I can just sneak a teeny bit around I can get those reeds out of the shot...

Yep - she saw me.  Bye-bye!
And that was it.  The end of my surprise close encounter with this amazing raptor.  I did at least manage to get a shot of those cool facial markings, though.  I saw her a few times after this, but always in flight.  Never saw a male at this location, but did see one in April at location much farther inland - the males are smaller and much more gray in coloration.  In fact, their nickname is the "Gray Ghost".
Next fall...I'll definitely be looking out for the return of this stunning bird.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Wild Bird Wednesday: Snowy Plovers

In late 2015, Ryan and I participated in the OC Snowy Plover survey.  After a day of training, we were assigned a particular beach and went out on two occasions to survey it.  Unfortunately, our beach was an unlikely location and, as expected, we didn't find any Plovers.  However, a few weeks later, the Sea and Sage Audubon Society (who sponsored the survey) also had a Snowy Plover field trip which we attended in the hopes of finally spotting this bird.  While numerous in other parts of the country, Snowy's are listed as threatened in Southern California due to habitat loss.  Work is being done to restore native sand dune ecologies and to set aside some roosting/breeding areas for these birds.  Following are some of the photos from that day:

This shot (looking north towards the pier) shows some of the very small area of remaining native dune plants.

This shot looks south towards Balboa Harbor and shows the fenced off Plover area.

These are some close-ups of some of the native/endangered plants...

...Beach Primrose...

...and Sand Verbena

Hopes were high in the week leading up to the trip as the biologist/guide reported that the Plovers were in the expected location every day.  We arrived at the meeting location south of Balboa Pier on the morning of October 17th...only to be met with the news that the Plovers had apparently just moved to a new location that day.  As we expressed our disappointment and tried to decide what to do next, one possible reason for their departure became immediately apparent:

This adult Cooper's Hawk flew right in and settled on the fence of the roosting area...clearly he wanted a nice plump Plover for breakfast!  Just as clearly, the Plovers weren't coming back to this area any time soon :-(

After much discussion, the group agreed it was worth heading up the coast another 20 minutes or so to Huntington Beach to check out another potential location.  This time...the Plovers didn't disappoint!

Now you see why we couldn't give up on finding them...they are quite arguably the world's cutest bird!

For comparison, here's a shot of Snowy's mixed with Sanderlings.  You think Sanderlings are tiny little birds until you see them next to Snowy's!

Here's an example of what our guide referred to as the "egg carton effect."  Snowy's like to roost in divots in the sand...think a speeding lifeguard vehicle is going to notice them in time?

Speaking of vehicles...guess where the nicest "sand divots" are?  Yep...vehicle tracks!  You can see a track running right through the bottom section of this photo...and a Snowy standing right in it!

These guys are just so cute that I couldn't stop taking photos.  I took well over 1,000 shots that day which is why it's taken me 6 months to go through them all.  Truly, it was a bit excessive LOL!

On the day we were there, I seemed to see mostly females or males in non-breeding plumage, but I was looking for that one male who would be showing the nice dark shoulder bars...

Here's a wing stretch in progress, but the shoulder marks were still a little fuzzy...

...and then this handsome specimen showed up with his nice dark shoulder marks.  If there was a complete single dark ring...this would be a Semipalmated Plover.  If larger and 2 rings...a Killdeer.

Another example of the "egg carton" effect.

Just for fun...see if you can guess how many Snowy's are in this photo!


Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Wild Bird Wednesday - Cooper's Hawk

Still dealing with the annoying aftermath of a that cold so I'm pulling from the archives again.  Last fall, I had an incredible, up-close encounter with this juvenile Cooper's Hawk who was sitting at eye level right along one of the main paths at the San Joaquin sanctuary.  He sat there for quite a while and let me just blaze away with my camera.  Taken October 4, 2015 at SJWS in Irvine, CA.

Cooper's Hawk's eyes turn red as they mature.

Sadly, I believe this bird may have been responsible for the loss of the local female Kestrel several months after I took these shots.  She was reported to have been taken by a Cooper's in front of witnesses and she has not been seen since.

At the time I took these shots, though, this bird was still perfecting it's hunting skills.  I would watch it drop in low over the various ponds and try to grab one of the shore birds...but fail.

I managed to get this shot showing one of a Cooper's more distinctive features - the long, striped tail.

The rounded end/uneven tail feather lengths help differentiate it from another similar raptor known as the Sharp-shinned Hawk.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Wild Bird Wednesday - Sanderling

Somewhere around September, 2015, I got very behind in reviewing, processing and filing my photos.  I'm determined to get caught up so this series of photos was taken around that time frame at one of my favorite local beaches:  Crystal Cove.

After taking part in survey Training for the Snow Plover survey, I learned that this bird, the Sanderling, is one of the birds that people often mistake for Snow Plovers.

Seen on their own, I see why as they appear so much smaller than the other common beach birds like Turnstones, etc.  However, once you see them in comparison to an actual Snowy, you realize that Sanderlings are quite a bit larger.

Also, they are much more gray/white where the Snowy's have a touch of light brown.

Both can have partial black shoulder marks...more or less defined depending on whether it's breeding season or not.

Some other key differences are behavioral...

...Sanderlings are more likely to be found running almost ceaselessly between the waves and the tide line on the beach.

When roosting in groups, Sanderlings require less "personal space" between birds than do Snowy's.

Everyone occasionally experiences itchy feathers, though.


Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Wild Bird Wednesday - The Tale of the Northern Flickers

I'm still processing through my vacation birding photos.  I saved one of my favorite birds to do all at once although we had quite the on-going saga with them throughout the week.  I had previously seen ONE Northern Flicker near my home about a month before this trip, but it was on a terribly overcast day, it was way at the top of a tree and it took off before I had time to take more than one or two shots...all that by way of saying I'd never really got a good look at these beautiful birds before other than in my field guide and other people's terrific photos of them.

So, the first day we were there and I was sitting out on the deck taking shots of the birds at the feeder, I was thrilled to realize that the "knocking" I heard coming from the house next door was not another Acorn Woodpecker, but was, in fact, this gorgeous male Northern Flicker.  He was busily engaged in enlarging this hole in the wall of the house.  However, before I could even cross to the other side of the deck to move closer...

...he was off!  Of course, my shot has that horrible wood deck in the background, but you can still get an idea of how gorgeous these birds are in flight.  If you can get a clear flight shot with the sun coming through those wings...they look like they're on fire.

I thought that was going to be it for my encounters with this gorgeous bird, but lo and behold...

...he came back to work on his hole again the next day.  This time, I dashed outside and down the stairs to cross the patch of woods between our rental house and the next house so I could get some closer shots...

...I never thought he'd stick around while I maneuvered into position, but there must have been some GOOD bugs in that hole...

...because he hung out for quite a while.

I had mixed feelings about whether I should rat him out to the homeowners - hated for him to lose such a good restaurant, but with rain in the forecast and the size of that hole I also felt bad for the homeowner having to deal with potential water damage.  But, since they never were around (most of the properties on the street are vacation and/or rental homes) during our stay...I didn't have to make that decision after all.

The next day, I got a wonderful surprise.  He noticed all the activity at our bird feeder and decided to come and check it out.  We were eating lunch inside at the kitchen table so I had to shoot through the glass doors in order not to scare him off.

Interestingly, the Acorn Woodpeckers who, although they clearly dominated the goings on at the feeder, mostly let everyone else come and go with no problem, totally FREAKED OUT when the Flicker approached the feeder. 

This railing was the closest he managed to get on this day.  Every time he would make a move toward the actual feeder, a Woodpecker would launch itself out of a nearby tree with what I can only describe as a scream of rage and chase him off.

He kept trying, though.

At one point, shortly after I took this shot, he actually landed on the feeder for about a half a second until one of the Woodpeckers performed a birdie body slam (seriously, I heard the "thunk" of bodily contact from inside the house!) and knocked him right off the feeder.

The next day, he wouldn't come any closer than this dead tree at the other end of the deck.

He did a lot of calling from this perch, though.  I didn't figure out why until a couple of days later (we left and went down the mountain to another birding spot and then came back).

He called for reinforcements!!  That's the female on the right (her face is missing the red marking).  By this day, it was raining so I had to shoot from inside which meant the deck railing was a bit in the way.

Here are some close-ups of the female - I cropped out the deck railing.

The rain kept the Woodpeckers somewhat at bay - they were still around, but much less prevalent.

This allowed the Flickers to sneak in and get some suet, finally!

After the rain...we found ourselves inside a cloud bank (we were at the top of a mountain after all).  Here's the male "cloud sitting."

Finally, on our last day...we had a brief bit of sun before the clouds closed back in.  I found the female sitting on a branch directly overhead.

The male kept watch from a different tree nearby...I think they were really keeping an eye out for the Woodpeckers who had returned in greater numbers during the break in the rain.

These birds truly have some of the most striking markings on their feathers.  The black polka dots are awesome!

Finally, it was time to pack up and leave.  Watching the spectacle of these different species interacting with each other, the weather, and their mates all week was so informative.  I would love to know the REAL reason the Woodpeckers had such a hate on for the Flickers, but I did come up with my own (totally un-scientific) hypothesis.  Out of all the species that came to the feeder, the Flickers were the only ones who were 1.  ONLY interested in the suet (the others took some of both the sunflower seeds AND the suet) and 2.  They had by far the largest beaks and took HUGE amounts per bite.  So, whereas the other species all together had worked on the suet all week without making significant inroads on it, the Flickers were at it for a very short time and it was almost gone.  I actually replaced it after their short visit.

Hope you enjoyed the Tale of the Flickers!