Monday, December 29, 2014

Steppin' Out For Juncos of the Pink-Sided Sort

I enjoy watching birds visit my backyard feeders during the winter, especially after freshly fallen snow has blanketed the ground and the feeders present easy pickins for hungry birds. Woodpeckers and chickadees like the suet feeder while Lesser and American Goldfinches prefer the sock feeders loaded with thistle seeds. House Finches, House Sparrows, doves, Scrub-jays, and Magpies gravitate toward the feeders with larger seeds and nuts. They tend to take what they want and toss to the ground below what they don't want. Robins and Cedar Waxwings enjoy the fruit of the flowering pear and choke cherry trees around the yard. While most bird species are feeding at the hanging feeders and in the trees there are small birds scurrying around on the ground beneath the feeders. I jokingly refer to them as the bottom feeders, but in truth I find this little group to be quite interesting because they present a bit of a small bird treasure hunt. While they may appear to all be the same at first glance there are subspecies among this group of birds called Dark-eyed Juncos. The subspecies typically seen where I live in northern Utah are primarily Oregon with a dash of Pink-sided. Even less common than Pink-sided is the Slate-colored. Continuing in a much less common direction we sometimes see Cassiar, a subspecies that has the appearance of an Oregon by Slate-colored mix. During one hard winter we actually had a few Gray-headed move down from our mountains to the valleys and our backyard.

Well we got our first snow fall to speak of on Christmas Day so the feeders were swarming with birds the day after Christmas. Looking out the kitchen window I noticed and then became intrigued by the smooth, muted colors of several Pink-sided Juncos. I decided to "step out" into the yard and watch these cute/handsome little birds for a while. I made an attempt to capture the plumage that appeared simple but beautiful. I don't know if the images capture what I so enjoyed with the naked eye, but here's a try.

The Pink-sided population of Dark-eyed Juncos is characterized by a pale hood and dark lores (the area between the eye and the bill). Additionally, their sides are more heavily colored than the more-common Oregon population. Hence the name, Pink-sided.

The next image simply attempts to show the pattern on the top side of a Pink-sided, including the soft brown crown and nape. That is an Oregon in the background with the dark hood.

The lores aren't quite as dark on the bird below, but it is definitely a Pink-sided with the pale hood and broadly colored sides.

Last but not least is a nice looking Junco with some dirty looking feet. These little birds spend a lot of time scratching at the ground to uncover seeds and other food sources. I'll continue my small bird treasure hunt in the wintry days to come and will share what treasures I uncover with diligent observation.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Lesser Black-backed Gull: A First for Provo Christmas Bird Count

My First Lesser Black-backed Gull Located Nearly Three Years Ago in Pleasant Grove, UT
I continued a yearly tradition on December 20th when I participated in the 115th annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC). The Audubon CBC is the longest running Citizen Science survey in the world. This year over 2300 count circles, each with a 15-mile diameter, were organized around the world to conduct bird counts between December 14th and January 5th. That's right people around the world organize themselves to identify and count as many individual birds as they can hear and/or see on a specified day between December 14th and January 5th. The information obtained from these counts provides important data on bird population trends. Learn more about the Audubon Christmas Bird Count by clicking here.

I participated in the Provo, Utah count circle and had the pleasure of introducing two new birders to counting birds. Fifteen-year-old Easton Parkhurst and his dad Ben joined me to count every bird seen or heard in the area that was assigned to us. The area we counted was the same one I counted during my very first CBC about four years ago and runs along an eastern portion of Utah Lake from northwest Orem, through Vineyard, and western parts of Lindon, Utah. It was a real treat to have new birders join me for the count because I relived the excitement of a new birder with each new species observed by Easton and his dad. I also enjoyed helping Easton get photos of some of the birds we discovered. Maybe he'll include some in a future post to his blog, eastonswildlife.

We started about an hour before sunrise with hopes of finding a Screech-Owl and a pair of Great Horned Owls I'd discovered in our count area prior to the CBC. We missed out on the Screech-Owl, but we were able to hear and then locate one Great Horned Owl hooting in the early morning darkness. We also confirmed the presence of two Barn Owls that are on private property. The property owners granted us permission to check for those owls. Secretive Virginia Rails were fun to hear and see. And as I suspected, Easton soon grew tired of counting Starlings and Robins. They numbered in the thousands. Fortunately, we were able to locate some more exciting birds such as Spotted Towhees, Red-tailed Hawks, Cooper's and Sharp-shinned Hawks, and Downy Woodpeckers. We even heard a lone Sora doing its "whinnying" call from a well-hidden location among the phragmite overgrowing the settling ponds south of Lindon Boat Harbor. Soras don't generally winter in northern Utah, but perhaps the warmer-than-usual weather we've had kept it around. The lake is typically frozen during the CBC, but there was not even a thin layer of ice to be found this year.

The biggest surprise and highlight of the day for me was discovering a Lesser Black-backed Gull along Lindon Beach. It was an historic discovery since it was the first-ever Black-backed Gull observed for the Provo CBC. I discovered the gull using a basic technique for sorting species among mixed flocks of gulls. I was comparing the gray shades of their mantles, looking for any that were obviously lighter or darker than the expected Ring-billed and California Gulls. The image below illustrates the differences in color between Utah's more common Ring-billed and California Gulls. The Ring-billed has a more lightly colored mantle. When seen side by side the California is larger and more darkly mantled than Ring-billed. With those two as a frame of reference I was able to notice a gull nearly the same size as the California but more darkly mantled. It is the third gull in from the left. The dark primary feathers of this gull showed almost no white compared to the white marks seen in the dark primary tips of the California Gulls--another indication of Lesser Black-backed Gull.

I suspected we had a Lesser Black-backed Gull based on previous experience with them, but I needed to see the color of the iris to be certain. My scope was out of commission and the binoculars only revealed the detail you see in the image above. I resorted to another technique for identifying distant birds. By carefully approaching the gulls while using phragmite stands as a blind, I was able to capture an image that could be zoomed and later cropped.  The image below was still taken from quite a distance, cropped significantly, and slightly lightened to uncover the light iris of a Lesser Black-backed Gull. Bingo!

By cropping the image even more the light iris becomes more evident. Nearly three years ago when I found my very first Lesser Black-backed Gull it was a species on the Utah state review list. Because it was considered a rare bird for Utah I had to submit photos, including the one at the beginning of this post, and field notes in order for the Utah State Bird Records Committee to validate the observation. The Lesser Black-backed Gull was removed from the state review list shortly after I found my first one, but it still is a very uncommon gull for our state and especially for Utah County. This gull, for me, was an early Christmas gift!

Easton's dad used a phone camera to capture an image of Easton and me at the end of our count. It was a good and memorable day for me. I hope it was the same for Easton and Ben.

Monday, December 22, 2014

A Merlin First for Me: Perching on a Wire

Something I saw on my way home from work today reminded me of a Hawkwatch International blog post I read the other day. The post was cautioning against using "always" and "never" when describing bird appearances and behaviors.

When I was new to birding I wanted to learn how to identify each species I encountered by understanding their shape and plumage. After I had been birding for a while I began to key in on behavior as another consideration for correctly identifying a bird species. One behavior I picked up on very quickly because of my desire to find falcons was that American Kestrels, North America's smallest falcon, regularly perched on power lines that ran along road sides. The similar looking Merlin, a slightly larger and bulkier falcon which moves down from Canada and Alaska into the lower US states and Mexico during winter months seemed to avoid perching on wires. Instead, I always found them perched on posts, poles, buildings, and trees. After several years of birding and having never seen a Merlin perched on a wire I concluded that if a small falcon was seen on a wire it would be a Kestrel. I tested this behavior countless times and even at great distances. It seemed that my "sure fire" way to separate a Merlin from a Kestrel was validated by other birders, including very experienced birders. That was until this afternoon when I observed and photographed a Merlin that was perched on a power line near the entrance to my neighborhood. The wind was blowing quite a bit so the falcon was leaning into the wind as it perched.

My bubble did not burst when I saw a Merlin on a wire. I've been wrong about birds more times than I'll ever remember. I was actually rather excited to see that one of my favorite falcons was more versatile than I had supposed. The image below is one I've grown more accustomed to seeing when I discover a Merlin perched along the road. I'll take a look at a Merlin no matter where it appears, even if it is just a peek over the edge of a tall power pole as I stop my vehicle for a short look from below.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Hooked on Hawks: Blame it on Jerry

Rough-legged Hawk in Davis County, UT USA

Back in 2009 I was on a date with my wife. No it hasn't been that long since we dated. We were on the waiting list at a restaurant and decided to kill some time by checking out the Barnes & Noble Bookstore across the parking lot from the restaurant.  For some reason, a childhood interest in birds bubbled up and led me over to field guides for birds. I decided to purchase one of the guides that night because I found the diversity of the birds fascinating and I wanted to study them further. When my married daughter saw the field guide on my desk at home she asked about it and made a mental note that led her to purchase some inexpensive binoculars for my birthday. One thing led to another and I found myself becoming a "birder".

After about one year of delving into "birding" I wanted to learn more about hawks. I had become familiar with a local club called Utah County Birders and asked one of their members who might help me learn more about hawks. I was told to consider some guy named Jerry who was supposed to be a raptor expert. Jerry was posting occasional emails to a Utah birding listserv and I noticed he did seem to know a bit about raptors when I read his emails. Like countless other newbie birders I sent Jerry a photo of one of the most common hawks in North America and asked for his help. I look at that situation now and realize how little I knew at the time. Jerry responded with the ID for the hawk and shared the important field marks for identifying it as a juvenile light-morph Red-tailed Hawk.

The simple Red-tailed Hawk question I had led to other questions. When I found myself perplexed by trying to decide whether I'd seen and photographed a Cooper's Hawk or a Sharp-shinned Hawk I sent off an email to Jerry. I got a response with some tips on distinguishing between the two look-alike species.  At one time I learned that Jerry had actually written books on identifying raptors so I did a Google search and realized that I was exchanging emails with North America's premier raptor expert. It wasn't too long before I found myself standing on the side of a mountain in Salt Lake City being dumbfounded by how quickly Jerry was able to identify hawks in flight and at great distances. He described how the harrier has a buoyant flight style, compared how eagles soar in large, lazy circles compared to the tighter circular soaring of a hawk, and distinguished between Cooper's Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks based on the slight nuances in shape and flight style. I learned later that I spurred one of Jerry's blog posts when I was asking him about subtle nuances that help him distinguish between similar looking species in flight. It made sense when I connected his comments with being able to easily distinguish between my identical twin sons at a distance based on the subtle nuances of posture and movement. Jerry helped me identify my first Harlan's Hawk. Imagine my surprise when I bought a book to which Jerry contributed and I saw an image of a Harlan's Hawk he and I both observed and photographed in Utah. Jerry fueled my fire for gaining more and more knowledge of North America's raptors. In short, I blame Jerry Liguori for getting me hooked on hawks.

Check out Jerry's website: Click Here
Buy his books:
Follow his blog posts on the Hawkwatch International website by clicking here.

Here are some images of hawk species I saw and/or photographed for my first time during 2014. I owe a lot to Jerry when it comes to my continued interest and increasing knowledge of North America's fascinating birds of prey.

Harris's Hawk Near Apache Junction, AZ USA
Common Black-Hawk in Washington County, UT USA
Red-shouldered Hawk in Long Beach, CA USA
This one is not a new species, but it was the first time I identified and photo a sub-adult Swainson's Hawk. I credit this ID to having studied Jerry Liguori's books and learning that the Swainson's Hawk is the only buteo that has subadult plumage. Other buteos go from juvenile to adult plumage as they go through their first molt.

Swainson's Hawk Sub-adult in Salt Lake City, UT USA
I'll sign off with a line Jerry wrote in my copy of one of his books, "...and I hope you see lots of hawks!"

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Reddish Egret Foraging Behavior

Reddish Egret Foraging at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve Huntington Beach, CA

Reddish Egret is a bird species I enjoy seeing when I visit family in Orange County, California. I saw my very first one in March of 2011. I've been fortunate enough to see them at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve each time I've visited the area since. My recent visit over Thanksgiving weekend allowed me to see multiple Reddish Egrets. Not one of them seemed to have an "off" button. Each appeared to be in some sort of hyper drive as they ran through the shallow water, spun themselves around erratically, flashed their wings, and snatched up tiny fish.

I decided to capture their behavior on video this time. While they are fine birds to observe in a photo, the photo just doesn't do justice to their foraging behavior. The video below is just under two minutes long and captures their typical hunting behaviors including one I hadn't noticed before. The bird paused to study one area of the water and then used its foot beneath the water to rustle up some fish that may have been hiding or somewhat obscured from its sight. Be sure to change the settings to High Definition if your video player doesn't default to HD.

If all the fish are as small as the one caught below it makes sense that these egrets appear to be in a feeding frenzy nearly every time I've observed them. That is more like an appetizer, not even a snack.

Reddish Egret Foraging at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve Huntington Beach, CA
Reddish Egrets are considered wading birds and are about about 30 inches long with a wing span of about 4 feet. They typically forage in shallow salt water and nest and roost with a variety of other wading birds. They breed along the coasts of Mexico and the southern coast line of the US, from Texas over to Florida. There is a white morph of the Reddish Egret, but they are not very common and are typically seen along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. From what I understand, the ones along the Pacific coast are all dark morphs, such as the one I've shared in this post.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

"Owl" be Jiggered!

I went out tonight to help my friend Eric P locate and photograph a Western Screech-Owl. We stopped to check on a local Barn Owl roost before making our way to a couple of Screech-owl spots. We were able to watch the ghostly white figure of a Barn Owl as it flew circles in the darkness above us for a few minutes before making our way to our first Screech-Owl location. We came up empty on that spot and headed to a wooded area in our local foothills where we hit a Screech-Owl jackpot with at least two Screech-Owls calling from the darkness. What a thrill to spot the small silhouette of an owl tooting from a barren branch. I put a light on the small, portly silhouette to reveal a handsome grey fur ball, about 8 1/2 inches tall, with bright yellow eyes. Eric was able to get his photos and then gave me a moment to capture a few. I wonder if the fine downy feathers projecting from the sides of the owl's head indicate that the bird hatched this year. Or was the owl just ecstatic about seeing Eric and me?

I did my best impression of a singing Western Screech-Owl and the owl responded in kind. Eric and I both enjoyed that short vocal interaction with the fascinating little owl. I thought to myself in my little Kentucky kid way, "Owl be jiggered! I just conversed with a Screech Owl."

Monday, December 8, 2014

Say "Ridgway's Rail" Three Time Quickly

I quickly learned that I was wrong when I said I found my first Clapper Rail over a week ago at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Huntington Beach, California. I had seen the familiar Virginia Rail (9 1/2 inches long) just moments before so when I noticed what looked like a Virginia Rail on steroids (14 1/2 inches long) I wondered if I'd found a Clapper Rail. I pulled out my phone and checked my Sibley Guide to Birds app for Clapper Rail and sure enough it looked like a perfect match. I was excited and shared the news with a bystander who corrected me by saying, "It's now a Ridgway's Rail." I was informed that the American Ornithological Union changed the official name over the summer. Well actually the AOU officially accepted the name that James Maley, collections manager at the Moore Lab of Zoology at Occidental College, gave the California Clapper Rail after confirming that the California rails were not genetically the same as east coast Clapper Rails. Now to get my Sibley app to catch up with the times.

I wanted to "clap" when I thought I found a Clapper Rail. I wasn't sure how to "ridg" after finding a Ridgway's Rail, but when I made my first verbal attempt at the name it came out as "Ridgway's Wail". It suddenly sounded like a tongue twister. Try saying Ridgway's Rail quickly three times. Hopefully you do better than I did. Fortunately for me the bird was not hiding in the reeds like most rails when I came upon it so I enjoyed very clear observations of its foraging and preening behaviors.

Ridgway's Rail Fluffing Feathers in Orange County, CA
Ridgway's Rail is an endangered species and is split into three subspecies--California Ridgway's in the San Francisco Bay area, Light-footed Ridgway's between Los Angeles and San Diego, and Yuma Ridgway's in Arizona, Nevada, and eastern California.

The images below were captured while the rail was preening and stretching below a foot bridge in early morning light.

Ridgway's Rail in Morning Light in Orange County, CA
Ridgway's Rail Stretching in the Early Morning Sun of Orange County, CA
The two images below allow a comparison of the Ridgway's Rail from Orange County, California to a Virginia Rail I photographed on Antelope Island in Davis County, Utah. The much smaller Virginia Rail (right) shows a gray face and darker markings around the hind quarters. The bill lacks the bulk seen in the bill of the Ridgway's Rail (left).

It was nice to add a new species to my life list with such an obliging bird. These rails spend most of their lives out of human sight as they live, forage, and nest in dense grassy marshes.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Great Horned Owl Pair: Courting in December?

This appears to be the male of a pair of Great Horned Owls in Utah County, UT
Both were found roosting in the same tree about 15 feet apart.
Great Horned Owls are solitary except during breeding season. If they are not paired up for breeding they roost alone during the day and hunt alone during the evening. They are known to begin breeding during winter months, often starting in January here in Utah. The early start to breeding provides them the benefit of using nests that hawks, ravens, herons, or other other birds built and used months earlier for their own breeding purposes. In other words, Great Horned Owls are not nest builders but rather nest takers or squatters of the bird world.

I went for a drive this afternoon in Utah County and was on my way home when I saw the following scene off to my left. I caught a very quick glance of what looked like the tufts of a Great Horned Owl. I backed up and confirmed my suspicions and decided to capture a few images. As I approached the group of trees I noticed there were actually two owls. While I didn't initially notice both owls from the road I captured the following image as I was leaving so you can detect both owls with a careful look. One is the dark vertical figure in the lower left quadrant and the other is between the forked branches in the lower right quadrant of the image.

One owl was noticeably smaller and lighter in color. That individual also showed more of a white patch on the chest below the throat area. The other owl was larger and darker in color. The tawny color around the eyes of the larger owl was also darker. Since Great Horned Owls are sexually dimorphic, showing differences in plumage and size, I suspect that this is a courting pair and the female is pictured below on the right--the larger and darker one. I used exposure compensation when I captured these images in the field to increase the exposure of the owls since they were in the shade. Consequently, the sky and some branches that were well lighted naturally are overly exposed in my images.


After observing these owls for a few minutes I recalled that the earliest pair I'd seen prior to this was January 24th of 2013 in Goshen, Utah. I also recalled the two Great Horned Owl nests I monitored last spring in American Fork and south of Saratoga Springs, Utah. I had a realization that the cycle of life moves quickly. The years are seemingly passing more quickly with each year I age.

I'll keep an eye on this pair if they remain in the same area. I'd love to watch another generation of Great Horned Owls flourish in Utah County over the next several months.

This appears to be the female of a pair of Great Horned Owls in Utah County, UT
Both were found roosting in the same tree about 15 feet apart.

This appears to be the male of a pair of Great Horned Owls in Utah County, UT

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Down Goes the Octopus: Western Gull Predation

Western Gull Consuming an Octopus at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Huntington Beach, CA
I had never thought of gulls as predators until I saw a Western Gull preying on a live octopus over Thanksgiving weekend in Orange County, California. The gull literally stalked its prey by cruising over shallow water at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Huntington Beach, California. It located, captured, and then moved a live octopus from the water to the nearby shoreline. That is when I realized what the gull was actually doing and thought, "Holy mackerel!  I've got to capture this on video!" I had no idea how long the process might last, but it felt like I was watching a rare moment unfold so I prepared to sit back and enjoy the show. Fortunately, I had no time constraints because my wife was enjoying a shopping day with her sister. I didn't have a tripod so I sat on the bank across the water from the gull and used my knees the best I could to hold my lens still while fully zoomed to 400mms. I believe it was about forty minutes from start to finish and it was worth every minute.

Two local bird watchers walked by as I was capturing the video and let me know that some locals will spend most of their day trying to see what I was witnessing. Apparently, this gull, and probably others like it, have been regularly observed preying on small water creatures such as octopuses and stingrays.

I learned a number of things from this experience:

  1. Scavengers can also be predators.
  2. Birds are smart about how they obtain and consume their food.
  3. There are three acceptable forms for the plural form of octopus--octopuses, octopi, and octopodes. Octopuses is the correct standard English form given in the 1700s. About that same time grammarians wanted to standardize irregular English words to be more like Latin. Enter the form octopi. Octopus is actually of Greek origin. That is where we get the plural form of octopodes.
  4. Octopi have four sets of arms. They have neither tentacles nor legs technically speaking. 
  5. Apparently it is not necessary to wait thirty minutes after eating octopodes before going swimming. This gull swam immediately after eating with no ill side effects.
Here's a short video (three minutes) I created to document the process and share the experience with others. It is best viewed when set to 1080p HD. You can adjust that setting by clicking on the small settings (cog wheel) icon in the bottom, right-hand corner of the YouTube screen when it loads. You may want to pause then restart the video to ensure your are viewing with HD resolution. Enjoy!

I'll finish this post with an image that was captured about two gulps before the gull finished off the octopus. The gull and octopus experience was just one more to add to the long list of experiences that fuel my love for birds and nature and the places they meet. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Not Just a "Brown" Pelican

The name "Brown" Pelican seems fair when it comes to a descriptor for juveniles and the Atlantic variety, but it doesn't aptly describe the appearance of Pacific adults when they are sporting their breeding plumage. A striking combination of red, yellow, olive, and orange in the pouch and facial areas brighten the otherwise white, silver, and brown colors of these birds. I saw these striking colors this past weekend as I watched groups of Brown Pelicans plunge dive for fish at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Orange County, California.

Pelicans are large, with wings spans reaching 6.5 feet, and fly rather gracefully. They can often be seen gently cruising just inches above the surface of the water. I enjoyed watching their smooth flight as they came and went before me. The following series shows one approaching my position. You can see water dripping from the tip of its bill. Eventually there is a single drop just below the bird's bill. The last image of the series also shows the webbing between the toes. This webbing makes them strong swimmers. My understanding is that Pelicans are the only birds to have webbing between all four toes.

I tried to capture some video as the pelicans did their plunge diving, but it was hard to track their flight and keep them in the frame while the lens was zoomed. I'll know better how to capture video if I get the chance again, but I did capture a few images of birds in various stages of the plunge dive. The first image shows the bird beginning to break it's glide with a sudden bank to its left.

One came up empty just as another submerged its head. The pouch is probably fully expanded while the upper and lower mandibles begin to close the net, so to speak.

Pelicans essentially dive to just below the surface of the water. Their body's are not fully immersed. Their pouch expands to take in water and hopefully fish. After emerging the pelican hangs the bill down to allow water to drain and then tilts the head back to swallow the food. Not all of the catch from a dive is retained as the pelican allows water to drain from its pouch. An empty shell and small fish fell from this bird's pouch as it was in the process of tilting the head back for a swallow.

The small bulges in the pouch below are formed by the fish and debris that are gathered during a dive.  Part of one small fish can be seen near the tip of the bill.

And it is too late at this point for anything in that pouch to return to the water before it is fully digested. I like this view of the pouch and its structure. You can see the folds that allow the pouch to expand and fold down as needed.  That hook on the tip of the bill helps the bird to hang onto slippery fish.

I watched one bird as it preened between dives. I was surprised by how it could twist and turn itself into a "pelican pretzel". Can you imagine getting your mouth to your back?

I captured a number of images I'd like to share, but I'll finish with a portrait, a landing, and a wing stretch.