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Friday, January 25, 2013

Bookend Species of the Woodpeckers

[Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Florida. January 2013]

Of all our woodpeckers, the Downy is the tich of the family while the Pileated is the giant (assuming the Ivory-billed and the Imperial woodpeckers remain extinct). The Downy is only 7" in length while the Pileated is almost 3 times as large at a massive 20".
The Downy is named for the texture of the feathers between bill and forehead (finer in the downy; coarser in the Hairy).

The Pileated (pile-e-ated) instead is named for the prominent pointy tuft of red on its head -- resembling a Pileus (pile-e-us), or Roman felt cap, which it resembles.

Both individuals of the two species photographed at Corkscrew are males as evidenced by the red hindcrown patch on the Downy and the red mustache stripe on the Pileated.
This Pileated is a female (no mustache) and the solid garnet eye indicates that this is a juvenal unlike the adults which have a yellow iris.
Elsewhere in the Swamp, a wintering indigo bunting is found among the more numerous painteds.
And a quick walk in the parking lot results in an encounter with some warblers and a thrasher.
The always charismatic Prairie Warbler:
And, the black-and-white:
..the photography of which is the ultimate exercise in testing one's reflexes as it moves about hurriedly in its foraging routine.

And finally, the thrasher:

GPS tag in Pileated Woodpecker jpeg: Woodpecker Location
GPS tag in Prairie Warbler jpeg: Warbler Location

Thursday, January 24, 2013

A California Endemic: Yellow-billed Magpie

The fabled yellow-billed magpie is found nowhere else but California. A striking bird, this corvid is restricted to the Central valley region of the state.

Yellow-billed magpie seen at Mines and Tesla roads, Livermore, CA.

A raucous and gregarious bird, the yellow-billed magpie is suffering population declines due to disease (West Nile virus; which decimated 50% of the population several years ago) as well as increased competition with crows. This species is very similar to the black-billed magpie -- except of course for the color of the bill.

Earlier, a quick stop at Sunol Regional Park produced some choice species including varied and Swainson's thrushes.
The varied thrush is a signature thrush of the West -- boldly patterned and colorful. In winter, it is known to disperse widely -- even reaching the Eastern US.
While the Varied offered only fleeting looks, a far more cooperative thrush was the Swainson's; seen here with its diagnostic eye-ring and buffy face showing clearly.

In the nearby woods, a noisy flock of tiny birds feeding energetically emerges -- chestnut-backed chickadees -- these Western specialties are similar to the black-capped's but of course with a chestnut rather than grey back.
At Sunol, the sparrow family was especially well represented. First up, dark-eyed juncos -- found in a small flock feeding on the ground:
Dark-eyed junco feeding.

And, of course, this being California, can the golden-crowned sparrow be far behind? And, indeed, there it was -- found in mixed feeding flocks in the leaf litter.

Less conspicuous were a small number of white-throated sparrows. Temperatures were exceedingly cold by California standards as the frozen puddle in this image attests.

Perhaps outshining all the other sparrows was the handsome spotted towhee.

The spotted towhee, of course, is much more flamboyant than the drab but superbly camouflaged California Towhee.

Overhead, a pair of Acorn Woodpeckers stash away acorns in purpose-built holes. They are known to stash away up to 500 lbs of acorns in their granary trees.

A fascinating morning and the return ride yields the only raptor of the day -- a red-tailed hawk.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Long-Tailed Ducks at Lighthouse Park

[Port Huron, Michigan. January 2013]

While this is surely subjective, one could argue that the long-tailed duck is more handsome in winter than in summer. And indeed, this sea duck is in alternate plumage in winter and basic plumage in summer.

The long-tailed duck [fka "old-squaw") is a marine duck of the polar regions and thus found not only in North America but also globally. However, despite its global presence, it is classified as "Vulnerable" -- having seen drastic declines (up to 65%) in some regions (i.e., the Baltic); nevertheless, it is still shot regularly in both Europe and the US.

Male shown with a female in the St. Clair river, Port Huron, Michigan.

The ducks were seen in considerable numbers but really far from shore which made photography difficult. However, a couple of barges passing under the Blue Water bridge caused enough commotion to offer some in-flight photography opportunities.

This handsome and unique duck is known to be quite vocal -- chattering constantly and noisily. And, this characteristic has earned the long-tailed duck its American colloquial name -- "old squaw" (also "old wives"); stemming from the curious notion that the spirits of (native American) women were transmigrated into noisy waterfowl after they died. This name was discontinued (for obvious reasons) by the American Ornithologists Union in 2000 and the name "Long-tailed Duck" is now consistent with how the duck is known outside the US.

The male shown above was photographed at Lighthouse Park, Port Huron, Michigan.

Leaving Port Huron, and taking advantage of the balmy January Michigan weather (inexplicably reaching the low 60's), I stopped at Lake St. Clair Metropark where I ran into fellow birder (and videographer) Kevin R.  Kevin is an ace birder who has a knack for finding the birds that everyone else is chasing.

Birding fortunes thus improved, I got some superb looks (and a few shots) of a brown creeper and a red-tailed hawk.

Brown Creeper dispensing with an arachnid.

Red-tailed hawk (sub-adult).

All in all, a productive morning yielding a lifer (the long-tailed duck) and an enjoyable outing at Lake St. Clair Metropark.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Catching Thermals ...

[Sanibel Island and Bunche Beach, FL]

An impressively large bird soars overhead; gliding effortlessly. The Magnificent Frigatebird uses its 7-ft wingspan to travel long distances leveraging thermals in search of food.

The red pouch on its neck indicates that this is a male; this is one of the few sexually dimorphic pelagic birds. In its feeding habits, it is  not averse to indulging in kleptoparasitism -- harassing and intimidating other sea birds to give up their catch; a behavior that is shared with other members of the frigate family and help explains its common name of "Man O'War".

Elsewhere, the smell of rotting fish washed up on the shore proves irresistible to a bevy of turkey vultures who circle lethargically; careful not to expend even a single calorie of energy more than necessary to remain in a masterful state of controlled levitation.

A few, finding a perching point, looked for a chance to scavenge in peace but a steady stream of beach foot-traffic keeps them hesitant and at a respectful distance.

On the other side of bay at Bunche Beach, an immature bald eagle soars overhead.

Down below, the eagle is detected by a long-billed curlew as if by a "sixth sense" -- well before it appears overhead. The curlew sounds its alarm call sharply and takes to wing in a flash.

The nearby raft of resting skimmers, gulls and terns [which I was hoping to examine next] all take off in panicked unison. Hard to imagine that just minutes before, the curlew was found feeding contentedly and confidingly.

Walking in regal steps on the mudflats at Bunche Beach in the bright sun.

This graceful walk interrupted by the presence of the raptor had one silver lining. As the curlew takes off, it reveals the rich cinnamon of the underwing.

Reminding all present that the rewards of nature observation are gifted in mysterious and unexpected ways.

GPS tag for magnificent frigatebird: Map Link
GPS tag for long-billed curlew: Map Link

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Southwest Florida's Wintering Gulls and Terns

[Sanibel Island, FL. January 2013]

On the beaches of Southwest Florida, amidst the innumerable [and perfectly ignorable] laughing gulls and royal terns, some choicer species may be found by the discerning observer.

Consider firstly the gulls:

A massive gull with a very dark back is seen on a sandbar -- this, the appropriately named Great Black-Backed Gull: it is certainly "Great" -- being the largest gull in the world; and its back is truly very dark; deep charcoal if not jet black.

A coastal gull, it is found from the shores of the Baltic states through Northern Europe to Northern Canada and the US; where it is expanding its presence.

Like most gulls, the greater black-backed gull will scavenge for food; but, unlike most gulls, it is also a vicious predator and will hunt down other birds as well as small mammals.

In contrast to the massive black-backed, the ring-billed is a pale gull with yellow legs and a black ring at the tip of its bill. In gull identification, it is useful to look at leg, bill, and back color in addition to size.

Compared to the pale pink of the great black-backed, the Herring Gull's legs are pinker. It is also much larger in size than the ring-billed.

Treated by the British Ornithologists' Union as a separate species unrelated to the European Herring Gull, the American Herring Gull, although superficially alike, has several variations in plumage to the European as both an adult as well as a juvenal.

Another gull is found grooming -- sharing the yellow legs and bill of the ring-billed gull, but much larger in size and with a darker back: this is the lesser black-backed gull.

This pose shows the light streaking on the neck and head that is typical in their winter plumage.

Now moving on to the terns. A small to mid-sized tern with orange-ish legs; could this be a Forster's Tern?

A little further down the sandbar, another similar tern -- but brighter orange legs and paler on the back.

Now seen side by side, the difference (and similarities) become more apparent:

First the similarities: similar size and orange legs; fading black on the head and dark bills. Readily apparent are also the differences: The Common Tern [left] stands a little squatter than the Forster's which stands taller. The Forster's [right] has brighter legs and the familiar black "comma" shape on the side of the head. The common tern also has black [more prominent in the first photograph] on the shoulder; and, the black on the head goes all the way down the nape but recedes on the forehead. Of course, distinguishing them in the field is a bit more challenging and any carelessness in observation could easily prevent disambiguation.

Lastly, the ubiquitous Royal Tern. A larger tern with black legs and orange bill. The only other tern that it could possibly be confused with would perhaps be the Caspian but that is much larger, and with more scarlet in the bill.

Here's where these birds were seen based on the GPS tag in the JPEG files: Map Link