Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Wild Bird Wednesday: Western Tanager...and a Surprise!

These photos were taken this past May at Laguna Niguel Regional Park.  It's a great local birding place that has even grabbed the attention of an unusual migrant or two the past few years. 

Lately, it's suffered some unfortunate environmental impacts, though.  The park includes a large lake which attracts lots of waterfowl including multiple duck and goose species, terns, herons, egrets, killdeer, spotted sandpipers, ibis and more.  An outside contractor used to manage access to the lake which required purchase of a special fishing permit and additional costs to take out a boat (vs. fish from the shore).  This past year, control of the lake reverted to the County park system so there is no more boat fishing and the only requirement for shore fishing is a California state fishing license.  This has been great for the fishermen (much lower cost), but as a result, the entire bank area where I used get great shots of herons, ibis and egrets are now full of fishermen no matter what time of day I go.  The birds have either left or re-located to the far side of the lake where there's no bank access.

In addition to the fishing issue, the sycamore trees in the park are under assault from a fungal disease caused by an insect that bores into wood and leaves the fungus behind.  The trees' main defense to this is their sap, but that has been affected by our terrible drought.  Many of the trees have already had to be removed in hopes of preventing the spread of the disease. 

I don't think the fishing issue is going to improve any time soon, but we have had some rain this fall so I have hopes that perhaps we'll start to make a dent in the drought (although we'll need several years of good rainfall to really make up for it).

I took the below photos before they started removing the sycamore trees in this area and got lucky to see my first ever male Western Tanager.   Such gorgeous colors - they remind me of my favorite popsicle - Cherry-Pineapple Big Sticks:

I was first alerted to this gorgeous bird by a flash of bright yellow high up in this tree.

I kept hoping he'd come out from the leaf/branch tangle so I could get a better shot...

...so I followed him pretty relentlessly as he hopped around inside this huge tree.

No such luck.

This was probably the best shot that I got - at least he doesn't look like there's a twig sticking through his head.
It was at this point that the park had a little surprise for me.  Have you ever been so focused on something that you only realize later that you were actually hearing or seeing something else happening in the background, but that your brain filtered it out so you could maintain your intense focus?  Kind of like when the alarm goes off in the morning, but doesn't wake you all the way up until you realize that you've been hearing music in the background of your dream...that is really coming from your radio?
As I was focused on the tanager and firing away with my camera, I finally realized that I'd been hearing a repetitive noise for a few minutes off to the side.  As I turned my head to figure out where it was coming from, I suddenly discovered a VERY pissed-off Red-Shouldered Hawk diving RIGHT AT MY HEAD!  I quickly dropped to the ground and she passed close enough to ruffle my hair with the air from her wings!
Apparently, I'd been so focused on the tanager that I hadn't realized that WAY UP HIGH in the top of a nearby (and very, very tall) tree...was a hawk's nest.
Um...oops!  I felt terrible and backed off to where my car was parked in the lot nearby.  She continued to sit on a nearby branch and scream her displeasure at me...and everyone else (to be fair - this is a VERY busy park and I was not the only person wandering near the trees - there were people playing tennis and basketball on the nearby courts, kids playing soccer on the grass, people walking dogs on the path through this same group of trees, and cars driving by on the nearby road).
Here is Momma Hawk - still screaming.  I'm now inside my car with the door shut and am shooting at the full range of my SX50 through window that's open just a crack.
She did calm down eventually.  I really love these hawks - such gorgeous colors and patterns on their feathers.
Because her nest was so high up, I couldn't see what, if anything was going on in there that day.  I went back to the park a few weeks later and was able to take a more circumspect approach to the tree and maintain a proper distance now that I knew where the nest was.  On that occasion, I was rewarded with these shots:
Here's mom on the actual nest.
And a few minutes after she flew away...Junior popped up and showed himself.  He's still got a few fuzzy baby feathers along the top of his head, but he looks ready to fledge soon. 
I learned a valuable lesson about not getting so focused on a particular bird that I completely tune out what's going on around me.  I've had mockingbirds in our front yard who will dive bomb anything that comes near (making it difficult to get to the car in the driveway sometimes), but that is NOTHING compared to having a full-grown momma hawk try to scalp me.
Not a lesson I will forget...ever.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Wild Bird Wednesday - Baby Tree Swallows

Since I started birding, I've become a big fan of Tree Swallows.  Their amazing aerobatic displays are so fun to watch - I've even seem them grab drinks of water and bathe while on the wing - dipping first one wing and then the other into the water as they skim over the surface.

At San Joaquin, there's been a concerted effort to promote breeding of this species with nest boxes placed all around the ponds.  Watching the birds arrive in January and start to bicker over the boxes is endlessly entertaining. 

But nothing can beat the sight of what comes next - the first appearance of the babies!!

I could've sworn there was really only room for one bird at a time in that doorway, but everybody wants to get fed RIGHT NOW!

Mom must be comin' in hot from the right!
Ooh...she just missed on that pass!
Now she's got it dialed in...and with a nice, juicy dragonfly, too!
Across the trail in another box...another hungry baby!

Not to worry...the parents are on the job!

Apparently, EVERYONE in the neighborhood is having dragonfly for breakfast!

No picky eaters here!

Just tired parents who swoop off to catch more bugs as soon as this one gets delivered.
These photos were all taken this past Spring.  I was at San Joaquin yesterday and noticed that the first Tree Swallows had just arrived - soon the sky there will be full of their aerial displays and the liquid trills of their voices...and the cycle will start over again.


Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Wild Bird Wednesday: Common Yellowthroat

Since I first started birding in 2015, one of the birds that has really frustrated me is the Common Yellowthroat.  As its name suggests...it's common.  In fact, it's "witchety-witchety-witch" call is one of the few bird calls that I can easily recognize and learned right away.  However, since it has a tendency to stay hidden deep within the reed beds or only pop out for a half-second (just long enough to get the camera trained in and focused, but not long enough to actually get the shot!), it has been difficult for me to get any decent photographs.

Finally, I found a cooperative male who left the reed beds and took up position in this tree to sing.

They are striking-looking little birds with their black bandit masks.

This male is singing his "witchety" song.

And now he's cranking up the volume.

Gotta hit that high note!

Not sure why this bird was willing to hang out and let me get so many nice shots of him, but as long as he was willing to cooperate, I was willing to go with it!

After singing, he got hungry and started hunting for bugs on this branch.

Hope you enjoyed meeting the Common Yellowthroat.


Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Wild Bird Wednesday - California Least Terns

I've posted previously about one of our local beach bird species that is on the endangered list due to loss of dune habitat - the Western Snowy Plover.  Sadly, though, that is not the only species affected.  The California Least Tern also utilizes the rapidly-disappearing dune habitat for nesting and is similarly threatened.   The Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve and nearby Bolsa Chica state beach have both set aside protected nesting areas for the Terns and Plovers.

After watching the adult birds fly back and forth diving for fish during breeding season, I was lucky enough to witness the successful results below as a Least Tern fledgling waited for its parent to bring it a meal...except it wasn't quite ready for the meal it got...

Here's the fledgling, patiently waiting to be fed.


Parent shows up with a fresh-caught, delicious fish...
However, like many children, this kid is a picky eater and loudly protests not receiving any more "pre-digested" fish...

The parent bird continues to patiently offer the fish...

...but Junior is having none of it and continues to squawk.

Junior eventually turns his back and walks away...

...in fact, he takes his first short flight in attempt to get out of eating fish for dinner.

He only makes it a few feet away...

...but poor Mom or Dad is left behind...still holding the now much-less-fresh fish.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Wild Bird Wednesday: Costa's Hummingbird

Love getting to travel outside of my normal stomping grounds to see different birds.  Last fall, I had a work conference in Palm Desert and since the last session ended at mid-day, I was able to sneak in a visit to The Living Desert - one of the best small zoos I've ever been to.  Seriously, it is WELL worth it if you are in the area to stop by.  Not expensive and in addition to all the exotic zoo animals, the place is a mecca for wild hummingbirds of all varieties. 

One type that I don't get to see near my home on the coast is the Costa's Hummingbird, but they were sure putting on a show during my time at the zoo.  I think I spent more time photographing them than I did looking at the giraffes, cheetahs, etc.

This is a young male - his purple throat feathers are just starting to come in.

The energy output of a hummingbird is truly astounding to watch.  No wonder this little guy is trying to catch a few ZZZs...
This mature male has the full complement of purple head feathers.  I just couldn't get the right angle of light to make them all appear, but you can see a few.  There's an amazing hummingbird documentary on PBS that shows how these birds use these feathers in mating displays.  The head and throat feathers flare out and make it look like the bird's entire head is a glistening purple flower as he hovers in front of a female. 

Here are few more looks at this pretty little bird.
Does anyone else ever silently chant in their heads "C'mon, just look over here" while photographing birds?  Or is it just me?

Because...sometimes it works!!  Finally got him to turn and show off those gorgeous feathers!
If it works...you can't call me crazy, right?

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Wild Bird Wednesday - Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

I was introduced to this sweet little bird last fall when I caught a quick flash of blue out of the corner of my eye.  Realizing it was too small to be either of our other local "blue" birds (Western Bluebird or California Scrub Jay),  I thought I might be on to something new.  Once I got home and compared the photos to my birding guide...yep, new bird for me:  Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

They are more blue than our endangered California Gnatcatcher (still hoping to see one of those!) and have that distinct white eye-ring.

He was definitely keeping an eye out for the local Cooper's Hawk who flew over while I was taking these photos.

Such a pretty little bird.
And feisty, too!
Woops!  Gotta watch out for that hawk again!

These little guys are back in town now that it's fall again, but I have yet to get shots any nicer than these from last year.  I must've had a little bit of beginner's luck going!