Saturday, March 28, 2015

Brrrr-ding in the Bluegrass

It's March 28, and officially Spring, right? Then why was it 24 degrees in Louisville when I got up this morning? What happened to the warm breezes we had a few days ago?  I know, in July I'll be complaining about the heat and humidity. Well, it's everyone's prerogative to complain about the weather. But the sun shone brightly, so Dick and I got in the toasty, solar-heated-through-the-window car and drove to Lexington. A birder there had posted on the KY bird list that she saw Common Loons and Eared Grebes in breeding plumage there yesterday! I've seen them in drab winter feathers, but not the brilliant colors of the field guide, and figured this would be a good chance to see them without going to Canada.
The Lexington water company has four reservoirs right in the middle of town. Right in the middle of a pricy neighborhood, to be exact. If I could afford to live there, I could also afford to get a new high-class spotting scope. As we walked across the causeway, one nice little bird stayed close to the road and posed for me. There must have been at least 12 of them on the lake today. We wondered why the migrating water fowl chose these lakes, rather than the big lake at the public park down the road. Better neighbors?
Actually, we saw several different behaviors. This low-to-the-water look must mean something. And the guy at the top of the blog had an itch he just had to scratch!
Then we noticed two Loons swimming beak to beak. They would dip their beaks in the water at the same time, then swim a circle around each other, dive under the water and start again. Hmmm, looks like courtship behavior to me. Cool! I guess it would still take a trip north to see them swimming around with chicks on their backs though.
At first, I couldn't figure out what this bird might be- blotchy brown and white and some odd kind of stripe on the head. Then it dawned on me that this is the Eared Grebe we were looking for! He seems to be still in the process of molting, since the field guide shows much darker body feathers on him. But look at those red eyes! He's definitely getting hormonal!
Since we were nearby, we drove on down to Jacobson Park, which is dominated by the resident geese and Mallards. This group of American Coots clustered together grazing in the grass, while one guy kept guard.
Have any of you other birders noticed more leucistic birds in the past few years? I used to think they were very rare, but now I find them on a regular basis. This little Coot is not supposed to be brown and white. I always thought birds (chickens at least) would peck a different looking bird to death. Is something in the environment doing this?

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Peent - What's that Bird Saying?

While we were in California last week, Louisville received 12 inches of snow. As the plane approached the Louisville airport, we were surprised to see no snow on the ground at all. Apparently rain followed the snow and melted it all away. So it looks like spring is on the way at last! And what is a great indicator of spring? Woodcocks calling and spring peepers! Scrubby meadows are a good place to look,  but waiting until it's dark enough to suit the bird is the hard part.
The American woodcock is known by a host of colloquial names, the most common being timberdoodle. Other colorful nicknames include Labrador twister, bogsucker and mudsnipe.  Woodcocks are about the size of robins, and their plumage is an overall mottled russet or brown. Males and females are similar in appearance, although females generally average a bit heavier than males -- 7.6 ounces vs. 6.2 ounces -with the weight of each sex varying depending on the time of year. The bird's bill, which appears too long for its body, is used to probe rich soils for earthworms.  Earthworms provide about 60 percent of the bird's diet. The worms are high in fat and protein, they provide the necessary nutrients to help keep woodcock healthy and strong. They are considered game birds, although I can't imagine why anyone would want to shoot one.
Eyes are large, set well back and high on the sides of a timberdoodle's head. Naturalists have speculated that this positioning lets the bird look to all sides while it probes for food. Nostrils are located high on the bill, close to the skull. A woodcock's ears are ahead of its eyes, between the base of the bill and the eye sockets.

During the mating season, a male timberdoodle on the ground will sound a nasal, buzzing insect-like note usually described as a peent. While the peent carries several hundred yards, the much softer tuko is audible up to about 10 yards from the bird. Look around on YouTube for more videos. They are hard to take in the low evening light. Some examples of the different woodcock sounds include: the flight song -- a series of liquid, gurgling chirps -- which is sounded on the wing by a male trying to attract a mate, while a male defending his breeding territory against another male calls cac-cac-cac-cac as he flies toward his rival. While on the ground, a male peents to attract females. He next takes off to ascend 200 or 300 feet on twittering wings. Then, sounding his liquid chirps made with his wings, he spirals downward. Displays and mating occur during short periods at dawn and dusk, usually from early March to mid-May when temperatures are above freezing and winds are calm. I always wonder how the females can see him spiraling above - I certainly have trouble finding him!
Eastern Screech Owl by Thom Barnell
 When it got really dark, the group walked into the woods to look for owls. I confess, I wasn't dressed warmly enough, and wimped out to return to my car. The group was successful though and Thom Barnell got these great shots of a red phase Eastern Screech Owl.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Hawk Alley

American Kestrel Couple
Our final trip with the Birding Festival was called "Hawk Alley." How could I resist this one? About 30 or so climbed on to an executive style motor coach which may have been a bit more than we needed. The poor driver couldn't quite get this monster down the little roads in the agricultural parts of San Diego County where the birds were. At one point, he had to back up almost a quarter of a mile to return to the main road after we found a Vermillion Flycatcher. We watched for birds by a field of contented California dairy cows (who were rather aromatic), then drove through the groves where trees had blossoms and fruit at the same time. Our leader knew where a Golden Eagle nest is, but we didn't see them.
Cooper's Hawk
Of course, raptors were not the only birds we looked for, but they were my favorites. You knew that already, right? A small county park with a very small pond was home for this Cooper's, Red Shoulders and an Osprey.
Red Shouldered Hawk Couple
March must be the time for romance among Californian raptors. We came across at least 3 species who were getting romantic.
Some of them were very far away, even with my 60X zoom on my camera, so we appreciated all the birders who'd brought their scopes along. Of course, I couldn't resist taking a few shots, knowing they would probably be pretty fuzzy.
Red Tailed Hawk
I kept hoping we would see some of the unusual raptors here in the west. For a moment, I thought this might be a Swainson's Hawk, but apparently not, according to the field guide.
Ferruginous Hawk - internet
 I got a brief look at a Ferruginous Hawk (so the leader said, and he was pretty good) but did not get a photo myself. It's amazing how similar they are, at a distance, to the abundant Red Tailed Hawks. Compare them in the book sometime.
Bald Eagles
Waaay across one field, the leader pointed our a dark blob in the tree, which turned out to be a Bald Eagle sitting on the nest. I asked if there was a large lake just over the edge of the field, and he said eagles around here eat mostly ground squirrels instead of fish. That makes sense, given how Aquila enjoys his rat at suppertime. And there are plenty of ground squirrels to go around.
Osprey Soaring
 Lack of large lakes didn't discourage this Osprey though. He sat in a tree above a shrunken vernal pond, and actually dove in, although he didn't catch anything and returned to the same branch to continue his watch without paying any attention to us at all.
Varied Thrush
Varied Thrush - internet
 Everyone was excited to find a Varied Thrush, skulking in the shade under a picnic table. The Varied Thrush is rarely seen outside the Pacific Coast. You can just see his orange eyebrow in my photo, so I borrowed one from the Internet for comparison.
Burrowing Owl
The cute little Burrowing Owl was my target bird for this trip, and we finally found him along the edge of a large cattle field. Ground squirrels are all over in this area, but we couldn't drive or walk to get a closer look at the owl. In the last four days, we saw 11 raptor species, 25 new Life birds, and a grand total of 139 species! We were honest and did not include any bird that we didn't actually get a look at, even though the leaders saw it. What a weekend!

Pelagic Birding

Western Gulls after Popcorn
Today we learned an entirely new way to go birding. Any water in a sea or lake that is neither close to the bottom nor near the shore can be said to be in the pelagic zone. The word "pelagic" is derived from Greek πέλαγος (pélagos), meaning "open sea". So we climbed on a boat (wearing the scop patch applied behind my ear last night, just in case), and headed out the Mission Bay Harbor. We tossed popcorn off the stern as "chum" instead of fish parts. A choice much appreciated by all - after all, gulls eat anything and were quite happy with popcorn.
Brown Pelican over Kelp Bed
 I always have trouble finding little birds in the leafy forest. But at least you can point to a tree, and the warblers are colorful. First, you must remember that the sea is very, VERY large.
Brown Pelican over glassy sea
And there are no landmarks on the ocean, once you get away from shore. The western Brown Pelicans have a bright red area under their bills, which I have not seen with any of the eastern Pelicans.
Cassin's Auklet
And everything moves - the boat moves forward, and up and down, while the birds fly towards you or away from you, or up and down on the water itself. Yikes! The room is still swaying even though we've been back on land for almost 5 hours!
Large Western Gull, Small Immature Ring-billed Gull
The only reliable birds to be seen are the various gulls, who fly right into your face while going for the popcorn chum.
Black-vented Shearwater
 After a while, I could walk a little better, and saw by eye alone more of the brown Shearwaters flying low and fast above the waves. However, I still had little luck finding them in binoculars or the camera lens.
Heerman's Gull
Of course, this gives you a wonderful opportunity to distinguish the gulls, both adults and immatures.
Brown Booby and Pelagic Cormorant
Brown Booby
I liked the Brown Boobys that remind me of their cousins the Blue Booby we saw in the Galapagos Islands.
Brandt's and Double-crested Cormorants

Double-crested Cormorant with white "crests"
We found several varieties of Cormorant. Double-crested Cormorants come to Kentucky all the time, but I've never seen their breeding plumes, the "double crests."
Sea Lions Sunning on Buoy

Sea Lions Sunning on Dock
Dolphins off the bow
We watched for the marine mammals with some interest. Pods of dolphins surfed our bow waves, while sea lions just lounged anywhere they could find. Several whales (grays and a minke) lazed up the coast after spending the winter near Mexico. It was almost impossible to get photos of the whales since they spouted then went back under again. 8 more life birds today, totaling 21 for the week so far. Well, it's one more day, going off to look for raptors - my favorites!

Friday, March 06, 2015

California Days

Northern Harrier
It's been a great time in San Diego so far. Lots of great raptors - I especially love Harriers.
White-tailed Kite
and raptors I'll never see in Kentucky.
Ridgway's Rail
A Clapper Rail on the endangered species list came out for a bath.
Heerman's Gull
Who in the world was Heerman? His gull has a white head and orange bill.
Rufous Hummingbird
San Diego is full of Anna's Hummingbirds, that look dark headed until they turn just right in the sun and shine in shades of purple and red I can't even describe. But this Rufous Hummer is bright orange all over!
Acorn Woodpecker
A trip to the mountains was cold, windy and snowy, but these little woodpeckers look like clowns, and fly everywhere! They live in groups with an alpha female who lays the eggs, while the others in her group work to feed everyone.
Acorn Woodpecker larder tree
Best known for its habit of hoarding acorns, the birds drill small holes in a dead snag, then harvest acorns in fall and store them in these holes, to be eaten during winter. Such a "granary tree" may be used for generations and may be riddled with up to 50,000 holes. Nesting is a group activity, with several adults (up to 12 or more) taking part in incubating the eggs and feeding the young in a single nest.
Mountain Chickadee
Pygmy Nuthatch
 Of course, most of the birds at the shore are big enough to see, even though they are mostly the same color. In the mountains, many birds are really really small, and love to zip from one branch to another before you can focus on them.
Spotted Towhee
Stellar Jay
Nuttall's Woodpecker
But then some of the bigger birds - woodpeckers and jay - show up.
But this Rock Bird was the biggest that we saw all day!

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Low Tide Birding

Anna's Hummingbird
Today we headed down the coast to the Living Coast Discovery Center, an educational facility connected with Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge on San Diego Bay. We wandered around for a while waiting for it to open, and found this little Hummingbird. What kind do you think it is? The dark throat is most obvious, so you might think Black-chinned.
But remember, color isn't part of the feathers for Hummers, but depends on how the light hits it for reflection. When he turned, the red (sometimes purpleish) throat and crown became apparent. He wasn't looking for nectar this morning, although flowers bloomed all around, but ate the gnats swarming above.
Northern Harrier Male
The Northern Harrier, aka "Marsh Hawk," glides low over marsh or grassland, holding its wings in a dihedral "v" shape, while flashing his white rump. He looks like a combination of owl and hawk, with a facial disc that allows him to hunt with hearing just like an owl. Since they glide fast and low, it can be a real challenge to focus before it disappears over the horizon.
American Kestrel Female
Is it another Harrier? No, this hovering bird is an American Kestrel female. Several Ospreys circled the bay too, making this a hat trick day for raptors!
Reddish Egret
When I go west, somehow I always expect to see all entirely new birds, and am surprised to find many that I already know. We normally see this Reddish Egret in Florida or along the Gulf. The field guide says they are "rare" in southern California, but the birds don't read the book.
Black-necked Stilt
When the tide goes out, the Mudflat Diner opens for business. Long billed birds with legs of all sizes wade in the shallow water looking for delicacies to eat. These Stilts have the funniest bright pink legs! As always, I have trouble identifying the brown sandpipers that all look the same to be. Maybe someone at the festival can give me some hints to tell them apart.
Brant Geese and American Wigeon in Bay
Green-winged Teal dabbling in shallows
Say's Phoebe

Song Sparrow
Tomorrow the Birding Festival begins, and we'll be getting up at 5 am to be there on time for the first trip! At least it isn't snowing here like it is in Louisville.