Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Tale of Two Phoebes

This Say's Phoebe gave me an iconic Birding-in-Arizona moment as it paused in front of Tuzigoot National Monument, a hilltop village built by the Sinagua people between 1100-1400 A.D. The view below shows how the settlement, gradually expanded over a few centuries, flowed down the hillside.
This Black Phoebe, seen at Page Springs Hatchery about 15 miles away, was much more nimble and active by comparison.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Simply Golden

Rich autumnal hues were the order of the day: a yellow-eyed Bushtit straddling a double-trunked yellowing maple.
One of a pair of squabbling Flickers seeking amnesty in a berry-laden bush.
And a Black-Capped Chickadee gleaning insects amidst golden and salmon-tinged leaves.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Bad-Ass Urban Bird

Who's the baddest mother in the ID? This red-tailed hawk, indifferent to a mob of nearly a dozen crows.
 A high point of urban birding this morning: while finishing up my shopping at 12th and Jackson (one of the dirtiest, grittiest areas in Seattle which, I admit, isn't saying much), I looked up to see this juvenile gliding around, unperturbed by its corvid harassers and vigilant for potential prey on the ground. The theme from "Shaft" comes to mind:
Who's the cat that won't cop out
when there's danger all about
Right on
You see this cat Shaft is a bad mother--
(Shut your mouth)
But I'm talkin' about Shaft
(Then we can dig it)
12th and Jackson is right next to I-5, where red-tails are not uncommon, so I think s/he must have glided west a bit on this exquisitely gorgeous fall morning. Note the two hallmarks of juvenile status: a pale, non-red tail and yellow eyes.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Anna's and Acorns

There's been a birding hullabaloo in Seattle the past few weeks as an Acorn Woodpecker has been hanging out in Magnuson Park--a good one to two hundred miles north of its typical range. I made an unrequited pilgrimage to the parking lot where it has been documented. No sign of its clowny face.
But this bad luck was offset by seeing dozens of them in Carmel, California this past weekend. In fact, it was the very first bird I saw as we checked in to our cottage on Friday afternoon.

They are among the most winsome of birds--anyone seeing an Acorn for the first time will unequivocally and delightedly state that they look like clowns--due the black, white and creamy yellow patchwork on their faces. Noisy and social, they are much more like parrots than woodpeckers, who are generally pretty solitary outside of the breeding season.

Another species I saw in spades was Anna's Hummingbirds, which are definitely part of the Seattle ornithological landscape. 
This one let me get within an arm's length of it for quite a few minutes. In fact, I had to move back a bit in order to focus on it as I was too close, which is a pleasant but rare occurrence when shooting birds! I think its lack of wariness was due to its juvenile status.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Anatomy Lesson

When I lived in NYC, I occasionally went to Jones Beach for the day. I felt sorry for the old grey-mottled sea gulls who, unlike their younger, pristinely white compatriots, were spackled and speckled with grey marks. Their bedraggled state struck me, the hippy chick from Oregon, as yet another sad manifestation of the city's grime and decay.

WRONG. The speckled and strippled sea gulls are in fact the juveniles while the unblemished, snowy-white birds are the adults; it takes a few years for gulls (like eagles) to achieve sexual maturity, which is indicated by the snow-perfect appearance.
Thanks to expert bird spotter AZ, I shot these adorably spotted nestlings next to a ferry dock on Whidbey Island in late July. The charming polk-a-dots will have morphed into unsightly streaks by now.
Another interesting phenomenon in some young birds is beak size.  I posit that some birds' beaks grow faster and disproportionately--sometimes reaching full size--before the rest of their bodies do. Case in point is this juvenile (note the fluffy down on its belly and head) brown creeper whose beak appear just a bit out-sized for its body.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Fledgling Feathers

Lots of recently fledged birds around these days, like this cute ensemble of daddy house finch (accessorized in red) and two young with a bit of baby fluff-down still erupting from their heads, seen along Lake Union at the Montlake Community Center.  The middle finch features a hint of yellow coloration under its chin, indicating that it is probably male, and that it will one day sport  colorful head- and shoulder-gear like dad. Male house finches can vary in coloration anywhere between the red-orange-yellow spectrum, though red is most common.

A half-mile away at the Montlake Fill, insistent chirping led me to a little family of song sparrows creeping around in the grass. It looks as if there is at least a week's age gap between these two siblings:
The one on the left exhibits many signs of its relative youth: it is smaller, has more yellow flesh around its beak and lacks the more precise feather coloration of the one on the right.  The female parent can lay a clutch of eggs over a period of many days (during which time she may mate with more than one male, creating a nestful of half-siblings), which leads to this apparent discrepancy in maturation.

The telltale fluff of youth (seen as white patches interrupting their otherwise sleek blue-black upper bodies) is also visible in this group of sunbathing barn swallows:

The final feather exhibit is the juvenile male red-winged blackbird whose nascent flame red-yellow epaulettes are foreshadowed by a patch of orange at the shoulder:

Monday, July 5, 2010

Color Injection

As we slog through "summer" in Seattle, which yesterday truly felt like fall with bushtits parading en masse through trees as if they were fattening for an imminent winter, I thought I would offer a visual jaunt to Mexico.
I'd caught some teasing glimpses of this pale-billed woodpecker throughout my week in Sayulita, and was finally rewarded with an unimpeded view outside my window on one of my last mornings. At 14", this magnificent male rivals the 16" pileated woodpecker for its bold presence and its almost mammal-like heft.  Seeing it gives me only a taste of what encountering a 20" ivory-billed woodpecker must have been like before its probable and much-contested extinction in the mid-20th century (possibly, in part, due to my ancestors' ownership and logging of pine forests in Arkansas.)

Apparently it was called the Lord God Bird because that was the involuntary utterance elicited upon seeing it. Indeed, there is something odd and alien about a large woodpecker--its movements more rigid and robot-liked compared to the delicate and dance-like actions of smaller songbirds. It seems poised somewhere between bird and mammal. Even though it is fearsomely large, it flees upon seeing a human, hence:

Monday, June 28, 2010

Pretty and Pugnacious

Looks are deceiving: this lovely emerald and bronze creature zooms and zaps anything it perceives to be an intruder. That could be another hummingbird, you, me, a crow, a robin or anything else.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Better Baby Picture

A nestling in the western heronry on campus today. It's got its sights on me, already exercising the keen vision which will serve it well once it fledges and has to fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner on its own.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Hello, Heronettes!

At first, I didn't think anybody was home when I visited the heronry on campus Friday evening. A sudden SPLAT!! to my right, and a bit on my cheek, soon told me otherwise. Baby heron butt above.

Hard to be sure, but I estimate at least five or six nestlings in the eastern heronry. And some of them have nearly lost all their fuzz, so perhaps they are about three-to-four weeks old.

In fact, some of them were stretching and flexing, at the very edge of their nests; I sensed their boredom, their itch to move--just like plane travellers on a cross-country flight.
You can see the keratin sheaths from which their primary feathers emerge--they look like slender grey tubes. On smaller birds, like my cockatiels or songbirds, they are called pin feathers because they really do look like needles or pins when they first emerge, the feather completely encased in the sheath liked a tightly rolled umbrella.

When a bird runs its beak through its feathers, the behavior called preening, it is sometimes helping the sheath dislodge and fall away. Social birds, like parrots, sometimes do this for each other. And I sometimes help my cockatiel Lemon remove her sheaths with my fingers. You can see the result on my floors.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Secret Sap

What could these two possibly have in common?

They were both addicted to whatever elixir this tree produces. I first noticed the squirrel licking the tree, then saw flies on it and then the sapsucker showed up, who had made the pattern of gouges over time.

And I really do mean addicted:  the woodpecker's desire for sap overrode its life-protecting impulse to flee upon seeing me. Initially, when I was about 30 feet away, it was spooked by my presence. After gradually creeping closer over an hour, I was about six feet away from it. The bird was so enthralled by the tree's excretions that it didn't mind me or my camera shutter clicking.

Table Manners

Steller's jays are usually even more rabidly territorial and cranky and loudmouthed than their fellow corvids, crows. In other words, if you breathe in their direction from 20 yards away, you will be raucously upbraided by a brilliantly blue bird as if you'd pulled out its nails without anesthesia. (Postscript 6/20: After watching the Italy v. New Zealand World Cup game this morning, I realize it's apt to liken the histrionics of jays to that of Italian footballers when they have been "injured" on the field.)

This morning I met a welcome and unusual exception to this rule--even more unusual because it was a juvenile accompanied by a parent, an occassian when outsized squawking has some merit. The parent was either on avian qualudes or got some sort of cease-and-desist order on the squawking. Here's the cute juvie solo with a little green insect ensnared in its toes and then begging for food:

Notice the small light-colored spot where the beak joins the head (right), a telltale sign of a young bird. This slightly yellow or pink fleshy bit allows the bird to open its beak really wide for food, and reveals a startling reddish-pink mouth (see below).
Also typical of begging behavior is the outstretched wings, which are shaken and/or lifted up and down very quickly as if the bird were trying to propel itself into the air.  It's rather telling that the drive for food and sex ellicits similar postures. Below is a juvenile crow in the same begging posture with its parent.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Baby Stuff

Yes, it's that time of year. Cute fledglings and parenting activity abound.

I accidentally flushed this young savannah sparrow from a field and, not yet able to fly, it skittered away like a cartoon character, its wings windmilling across the pavement. A parent soon followed it. At the Kent Ponds.

Fledgling junco with dad in the Arboretum yesterday afternoon.

Chestnut-backed chickadee at a nesting box in the Arborteum.

Mom mallard with hygenic offspring.

Pugilists' Sunday II

A gorgeous chocolate-brown juvenile eagle was standing sentry when a single crow began mobbing it. After a while it conceded and flew off (crappy pics):

Pugilists' Sunday

The cedar waxwings at the Kent Ponds today were out in full force, both in numbers and in attitude. Lots of jockeying for position--as many as four to six crammed on a branch, one inevitably bickering at and jostling the others.

In fact, I had a brief, much-coveted sighting of a male lazuli bunting, but it too was displaced by a waxwing who apparently had nothing better to do than muscle his or her way onto the branch, although there were literally acres of unpopulated branches available. Anthropomorphizing aside, this is presumably keyed-up territorialism due to mating season.  

Friday, June 11, 2010


Enfin! A non-blurry image of a brown creeper. Like the towhee 20 yards away from it, this creeper in the Arboretum this afternoon was unusually unfazed by my presence and did its nimble peregrinations in front of me rather than scurrying away. Thank you, brown creeper.


Song sparrow doing its song thing. It was singing back and forth with a spotted towhee, who was proclaiming himself for about half and hour from a bare branch, which is not their MO, in my observation. Towhees are generally pretty secretive and furtive, scratching around on the ground, hanging out in shrub-height greenery. But this one was going for it--you can even see the pink of its mouth:

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Seeing Red

Please meet my new best friend, the cinnabar moth. It is improbably beautiful and striking, straight from central casting for enchanting winged creatures. I discovered it while birding in a field next to the Black River in Renton yesterday afternoon.

The intensity of the red and the black, the graphic interplay of the dots and swirls, remind me of Preston Singletary's glasswork (below, top, is Raven Steals the Stars). Another striking red-black combo is this hybrid red-naped x red-breasted sapsucker sucking sap in Hylebos Wetlands Park in Federal Way yesterday.