A utility pole across the street and one house down has, for years, been an object of interest for a variety of birds. The hairy and downy woodpeckers drum on it in the spring, and various songbirds hang out and rest on the top. About a month ago now I saw a raptor up there, eating something. It was a female merlin (Falco columbarius). According to Cornell's All About Birds, merlins are in our area during the nonbreeding season, but I've never been certain about having seen one.
On the morning of Saturday 13 March I went outside to look around, and saw a bird on the pole. It appeared to be either eating or cleaning its beak. I ran inside to grab the camera, which fortunately had my longest lens and the 1.4x teleconverter attached, and snapped off a bunch of shots. The sun was rising, but I was able to get some decent photos of the bird even though from the best vantage point it was backlit.
Clearly, he's eating something:
But what is it eating? Rodent bits?
No, look at that foot. It's a bird!
Yep. Definitely a bird.
And here he is, taking a break between courses:
Merlins are members of the falcon family. Smaller birds make up the majority of a merlin's prey, but they also eat large insects such as grasshoppers. As with peregrine falcons, merlin populations were severely reduced in the years when DDT was widely used to keep insect populations down, but they have since recovered. Truly, the recovery of birds of prey after DDT was banned is one of the great successes of conservation biology.
There were feathers in the street below the pole. I assume they are from the merlin's prey, as when I looked at the top of the pole through binoculars I could see the same sort of feathers up there. I compared the feathers with photos on a few ID sites, but it's no easy identifying feathers without any additional context. Someone suggested that they might be from a male house finch. We have lots of those around all the time, so that's probably the best guess possible.
So there you have it: Saturday brunch with songbird on the menu!
During what has become my daily check to see what's going on in Younger Lagoon, I got totally lucky and was able to see and photograph lots of birds. A morning with mostly cloudy skies meant good light for picture-taking. So I took lots of pictures! Some of these are series and need to be viewed in order to see the action. Sure, I could have just shot videos, but where's the fun in that? Sometimes still photos show a lot more than video.
It was a great day to watch wading birds! Legs and beaks come in varying lengths, and a particular species' combination of beak length and leg length determine where and how the bird forages.
While the long-billed curlew (N. americanus) has the longest beak-length-to-head ratio of any bird, the marbled godwit and whimbrel also have impressively long bills. In the photo below, the three birds with slightly downcurved beaks are whimbrels (Numenius phaeopus) and the one bird with the two-toned straight beak is the godwit (Limosa fedoa). Most of the godwits I've seen have beaks that are a smidge upturned, but this one looks pretty straight to me.
All of these birds forage by probing the sand with their beaks. All sorts of infaunal invertebrates are taken, and the mole crab Emerita analoga is a favored prey item. Obviously a longer beak allows for deeper probing in the sand, and the variation in beak lengths among the shorebird species may allow for niche partitioning. In other words, a long-billed curlew can reach down for prey items that are unavailable for birds with shorter beaks. The flip side of this equation is that birds with the "short" beaks might be better at picking up prey buried that are buried at shallow depths.
Prey are also distributed patchily along the beach itself, from the surf zone to the dunes, and these birds forage in the entire range. The length of the legs determines how far down into the surf zone they can go. When the beach is steep, as it is now at Younger Lagoon, the birds don't have much time to dig around in the surf zone before the next wave comes up. Click through the slide show to see this group of godwits, curlews, whimbrels, and a snowy egret react to an oncoming wave. It's important to note that while these birds do have some waterproofing in their feathers, they do not swim. Nor can they take flight if their feet aren't on the ground. Getting swept up by a wave and carried off the beach would likely be deadly for them.
The long-billed curlew is a favorite of mine, because I can't imagine what it would be like to go through life with a 2-meter beak sticking out of my face. They are fun to watch, and can probe remarkably fast with that long beak. This is one of the phenomena that is best shown by video.
You can watch how the birds forage within the surf zone, as in the slide show above, and also how long-billed curlews probe the sand higher up the beach.
These long-legged wading birds also feed in protected bodies of water and estuaries. All of these species can be seen at Elkhorn Slough as well as on the open coast, as one would expect from the Slough's position along the Pacific Flyway. Some birds migrate to California from far away. Marbled godwits, for example, spend the summer breeding season in the interior regions of North America, and winter along the Pacific, Gulf of Mexico, and Atlantic coasts. The long-billed curlew also breeds in the interior of the continent. Snowy egrets, on the other hand, are year-round residents.
I am grateful to have access to places like Younger Lagoon, where I can spend time outdoors without other people around, remove my mask, and take pictures of birds. I love that the Younger Lagoon Reserve has so many different habitats to explore, from ocean to beach to dunes to coastal scrub, in a small area. Fingers crossed that sooner rather than later, we'll be able to once again bring students there to study the natural world in the Reserve's outdoor classrooms.
Still more or less under quarantine shutdown due to COVID19, I haven't been doing much outdoor stuff over the past several months. What with the pandemic and horrid air quality due to wildfires throughout the state, spending time in places I would normally like to hang out simply hasn't been possible. We're still getting too many out-of-the-area visitors for me to feel comfortable being around people, and weekends are especially bad. But last weekend I went to Moss Landing to take pictures of birds and other wildlife—I needed visual aids for a virtual lab my students will be doing in a few weeks.
It's the time of year for birdwatchers to get excited about winter visitors. I've had golden-crowned sparrows in the canyon behind the house for almost a month now, but I hadn't been down to a beach in a while. Moss Landing is a great place for birdwatching, because you can explore the estuarine habitat of Elkhorn Slough, the sandy beach, and the harbor during a 2-mile walk. That's three distinct habitats for very little effort!
Starting at the tidal marsh, I always keep an eye out for the long-billed curlew (Numenius americanus). They have the largest beak-to-head ratio of any bird.
One of my favorite winter visitors to the marsh area is the willet (Tringa semipalmata). Unlike most shorebirds that are speckled or mottled, willets in winter plumage are a beautiful soft gray-ish brown color. Every time I see a willet I ask myself, "Willet, or won't it?"
And when they take off in flight, willets show these striking black and white wing patterns. They always take me by surprise, even though I know to expect it.
A whole flock of willets taking off at once is quite an impressive sight!
From the marsh it's a short walk over the dune and onto the beach.
I always look forward to walking this beach because of the dead things. Don't get me wrong, the living things are fun to see, but in some ways the dead critters can be more informative. For every species there is always some baseline level of mortality in the ocean, so you expect a certain number of dead things to wash up. However, an unusually high number of corpses could indicate that something is going on at sea. This trip I didn't see very many dead critters: just a few grebes that had been there for a while, nothing out of the ordinary.
Oh, and an otter pup. At least, I'm pretty certain it was an otter.
Yes, we came across a dead sea otter pup, my first ever.
The body was missing a head, but the parts that remain were a bit longer than my booted foot. Although most of the soft tissue had been scavenged, the carcass had distinct paws, meaning it wasn't any kind of pinniped (seal or sea lion). Also, pinnipeds don't have fur like this, as they rely on blubber for thermoregulation. Sea otters, on the other hand, have the densest fur of all mammals, with the oft-cited 1 million hairs/in2.
But let's be honest. I like the beach because I like photographing birds, and there is always interesting bird life at this beach. I'm not one of the crazy bird people who keep a life list and need to be the first person to spot a particular something-or-other. And, unlike the idiots I saw tramping through the pickleweed in pursuit of a Say's phoebe that day, I don't climb over fences and trespass where I'm not supposed to be. Besides, even the everyday backyard birds are fun to watch. Whoever says that familiarity breeds contempt certainly is not a naturalist!
And who doesn't love a snowy plover or two?
The snowies aren't nesting at this time of year so the upper part of the beach isn't roped off. They do still get disturbed by people wandering around, who probably don't even know the birds are there. They (the snowies, that is) are so tiny that when they hunker down behind a divot in the sand they disappear completely. If you sit or stand quietly, they will pop up and make short dashes from hillock to pile of beach wrack and back again, feeding on the insects and crustaceans they find.
In addition to the snowy plovers, another tiny "peep" bird runs around on the beaches, often in large groups. These are the sanderlings, Calidris alba. I've only ever seen them in nonbreeding plumage, as they nest in the high Arctic.
Sanderlings are the little birds that run back and forth from the waves. As a wave recedes the sanderlings frantically stab their stout beaks into the sand, grabbing up small mole crabs and other crustaceans that are right at the surface. When the next wave arrives the sanderlings run back up the beach. They have short legs and don't swim, so getting swept out to sea would be a very bad thing for them.
Sometimes even the long-legged shorebirds forage on the beach. I've seen the curlew there, as well as whimbrels and godwits. This day the godwits were stealing the show.
The godwits, with their longer legs, are able to stand their ground when the waves wash up. They can catch food that is buried more deeply into the sand. On mudflats they pick their way over the flat at low tide, digging for worms, clams, and crustaceans. They can feed on a mudflat only at low tide. But on the beach they can feed at any time, just moving with the tide as it floods and ebbs.
And my friend the long-billed curlew was there on the beach, too!
The curlews are not as eager to forage in the waves themselves as the godwits seem to be. The curlews might wander down to where their ankles are swashed by the waves, but do not seem to like getting wetter than that. But that bill can probe very deeply into the sand or mud. I've watched them feeding on mole crabs on the beach, and on worms on the mudflats.
Autumn and winter are good times to watch birds around here. There's a bit of a lull in bird activity once the swallows leave depart for the south and before the winter residents show up. For me, autumn begins when the golden-crowned sparrows arrive in the neighborhood, which this year was September 25. I'm listening to them now as I write this! Being located on the Pacific Flyway means we get lots of birds resting for a bit on their migration even if they don't winter here. I'll try to get out to Moss Landing during the winter months, to keep track of the avian comings and going.
For some reason, the barn swallows at the marine lab like building their nests above doors. It seems that little 1/2-inch ledge of the door frame provides support for the mud nest. And the birds don't always choose little-used doors, either. This year a pair constructed their nest above one side of a double-door that people walk through all day. The mother laid and incubated her eggs, but would occasionally get flushed off the nest if someone came through the door. I always tried not to disturb her any more than necessary. The animal is always right, so I figured she knew what she was doing.
The eggs hatched about a week ago, I think. The mom would sometimes leave the nest when people approached, and even though I couldn't see anything in the nest I'd hear little cheeps. Earlier this week I thought I could see little heads poking above the edge of the nest.
It seems there are three baby birds in this nest!
I haven't spent much time watching the nest closely, because I don't want to scare the mother off and keep her away. Today I was lucky and stuck around just long enough, and with the big camera at hand, to capture both parents returning to feed the babies. The first parent arrived with an insect and landed on the nest. The other parent alit on the door frame.
After depositing the insect into one of the gaping yellow mouths, the first parent flies off. The second parent doesn't seem to have anything to offer the babies, though.
Ooh, maybe this parent has food!
The second parent lands on the nest. . .
. . . and promptly takes off again. . .
. . . leaving the babies alone in the nest again.
These babies still need to grow feathers, although they are clearly big enough to thermoregulate without a parent sitting on them. Growing feathers takes a lot of metabolic energy, and aside from when the parents arrive with food the nestlings will sleep. But it's funny. They seem able to keep an eye (or maybe an ear) out for the parents flying around, and whenever one flies past the doorway they all perk up and start cheeping. There are lots of swallows at the marine lab right now, and I wonder if these babies can identify their parents from among all the other adults in flight.
They'll grow fast, being fed frequently by their parents. They'll have to get big and strong, to prepare for their migratory trip south in the fall I've never noticed exactly when they leave, I think because by the time they head south they've dispersed from the nest site. I always look forward to their return in the spring, though.
Every year we are fortunate to watch a pair of red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) raise young in a tree across the canyon. We're not always sure if the parents are the same birds every year, and I think this year's female is a different bird from last year. Her mate may be the male who has used this nest site for a couple of years now, but again, we don't know.
This year the parents raised three youngsters, who have just begun leaving the nest. They prepare for their first flights by making their way to the edge of the nest and flapping their wings to exercise the flight muscles. This is usually fun to watch, as they don't seem to care whether or not a sibling is in the vicinity. This flapping activity begins before the bird is fully feathered, and they look like awkward punk-rocker teenagers, trying to be cool and not even close to pulling it off.
The hawk nest is in a eucalyptus tree. As the time to fledge approaches, one or both of the parents often perches at the top of a nearby cypress tree. Usually the youngsters' first flights are to the cypress tree. Cypress trees may be the ideal location for fledging, because they have lots of soft-ish branches to fall on when the birds biff the landing. The first flights don't go far from the nest, and the birds end up hopping along branches as they flap their wings. So they are called branchers.
With raptors, the females are bigger. Males tend to leave the nest before their sisters, who have more growing to do, so we always assume that the first one to depart is a boy. This year the females lagged by only a day or so behind their brother. And all three of them seem to be progressing pretty quickly, compared to cohorts we've watched in previous years. Good little branchers!
We watched these two for a while in the early evening. I don't know where the third one was. The branchers watch their parents soar around effortlessly. Here they are at the very top of the cypress tree:
Okay, my digiscoping skills need work. I did, however, get lucky enough with the spotting scope and my phone to catch a few video clips.
You can see them trying to maintain their footing as the wind blows the tree around. They're able to use their wings for balance, but then they catch a little lift and get knocked about. In the second clip one of the birds is hanging out when its sibling crashes into it. If they were human teenagers, you'd hear one yelling "Look out below!" while the other hollers "Get off me!" Yeah, landing is toughest part of flight!
Over the next few weeks the branchers will get better and better at landing, and their flights will get longer. They will learn how to find thermals and soar. Their parents will continue to provide food for them, but at some point the kids will learn how to hunt on their own. Rodents of the neighborhood, look out! Eventually the branchers will be as badass as their parents. Then they'll disperse to find territories of their own.
We have all heard about hummingbirds and their ability to hover and fly backwards. These tiny feathered jewels are a delight to observe. They are birds of the New World, and I feel sorry for people living in parts of the world that don't have hummingbirds. Where I live, on the coast of Northern California, the resident hummers are Anna's hummingbirds (Calypte anna). We get the occasional Rufous and Allen's hummers (Selasphorus rufus and S. sasin, respectively) passing through on their migrations, but the Anna's are here year-round. We have front-row seats to watch their mating displays, and I know they must be nesting nearby even though I've never managed to locate a nest.
The other day, while sheltering in place at home, I went outside to photograph birds. The Anna's hummers were putting on quite a show. The males have been displaying since February, flying straight up-up-up and then plunging into a J-shaped dive near an observant female. At the bottom of the dive the male uses his tail feathers to create a sharp and very loud chirp. When this occurs about a meter from your head, it sounds like a pistol shot. Trust me on this.
Anyhow, that day I was lucky and captured some shots of a male Anna's hummingbird hovering in place. These aren't National Geographic quality photos, but then again I'm not a National Geographic-caliber photographer. For anyone who is interested in such details, here are the EXIF data:
300mm f/4 lens
1/2500 sec at f/4
At a shutter speed of 1/2500 sec, you can freeze even the movement of a hummingbird's wings. You can see very clearly that although the bird's wings are moving, his head remains perfectly skill and his position doesn't change at all.
A hovering hummingbird moves its wings in a figure-8, similar to the sculling motion of a skilled rower. If you use your imagination a bit you can see the rotation of the wings in this set of photos.
Given the mandate to shelter in place at home, I don't know how many of the upcoming morning low tides I'll be able to explore. On the one hand, I'd be by myself, not risking exposing anyone to any germs I might be carrying. On the other hand, staying home means, well, staying home. The tidepools are calling to me, but this year I might not be allowed to accept the invitation. All for the greater good, right?
We Californians are all under a state-wide mandate to stay at home, to minimize the spread of COVID-19 this spring. School hasn't been cancelled, but all classes have converted to distance learning. I had four days to figure out how to deal with that. Fortunately we are in spring break this week, which gives us all a little bit of a breather. I'm going to use the time to catch up on grading and plan for the second half of the semester.
The marine lab is also closed for business. Only essential personnel are allowed to be there. The term 'essential personnel' includes people whose responsibilities are animal husbandry. Since animals will die if I'm not there to feed them, I have met that criterion for essentiality. That's not a word, but you know what I mean. With so many fewer than usual people at the marine lab, there's a lot more wildlife activity. A few days ago I saw a long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata) chase down and capture a young brush rabbit. I just barely had time to catch a quick shot with my phone.
The most noticeable thing, though, is the increased birdsong. The sparrows, finches, red-winged blackbirds, mallards, doves, towhees, and hawks are all making a lot of noise. The barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) returned to the lab on the 21st, right on time! Maybe this year they'll have a more successful nesting season than they did last year.
Yesterday I witnessed something I'd never seen before: a territorial dispute between a black phoebe (Sayornis nigricans) and a barn swallow. The fact that I had never seen it before in no way implies that it happens only rarely; maybe I've just never paid that much attention to these things before, or they've never happened while I've been around to watch.
Here's the story, in a series of snapshots.
Prologue. The barn swallow (H. rustica) is perched on one of the outdoor light fixtures. The phoebe (S. nigricans) swoops up from below.
The swallow takes to the air, only to be divebombed by the phoebe.
The swallow retreats. . .
. . . and the phoebe perches, triumphant, on the rain gutter.
The entire altercation lasted maybe as long as four seconds. I didn't see where the swallow flew. The phoebe remained on the rain gutter for about a minute or so, then took off over the meadow. Perhaps it has a nest somewhere nearby and was defending it. Both species build mud nests on cliffs and buildings, so these birds could be competing for nest sites. Or maybe phoebes just don't like swallows. Either way, this was the sort of interaction that I don't notice when there is a lot more human activity at the marine lab. Nature has a way of re-asserting herself when humans are removed from the scene for even a short period of time.
It's no secret that I love pelicans. I love watching them soar low over the waves, where they are truly in their element. I love watching them plunge from the air into the water and then bob right back to the surface, because unlike their cormorant relatives, pelicans can't fly underwater. And I love watching them plunk around on land, where they are dumpy and awkward but still somehow elegant.
The other day I ventured out between storms to photograph birds. As per usual I ended up down at Natural Bridges, where pelicans were hanging out on the last remaining rock arch. They were well within the reach of my long lens, so I took a lot of photos.
The best photos I got were of a subadult pelican coming in for a landing.
Landing gear down!
Decreasing air speed:
And. . . touchdown!
A job well done!
The youngster managed a safe landing without knocking one of its compadres into the water. That isn't always the case--those wings can do a lot of damage. But the three adult birds on the left hardly seemed to notice, which means the youngster has learned how to stick the landing without disturbing everyone else in the vicinity. I'm sure that's a lot easier said than done!
People call them air rats or trash birds, but I really like gulls. Especially the western gull (Larus occidentalis), known colloquially among birders as the WEGU. Yes, gulls eat garbage, but that's only because humans are so good at making garbage and leaving it all over the place. Other gulls may travel quite far inland--in fact, the state bird of Utah is the California gull (Larus californicus)--but the WEGU is a California Current endemic species. This means that its natural food sources are the fishes and invertebrates of the California Current, which flows southwards along the west coast of North America. As a result, it lives in only a very narrow strip of coastline, nesting on cliffs and restaurant roofs.
Case in point. Yesterday afternoon I was at Moss Landing with my marine biology students. We had hiked along the road, over the dune to the beach, down the beach a ways, and returned over the dune to circle back to our starting point. The last item of note that we all watched was a western gull hunting along the shoreline of the Moss Landing harbor.
It had grabbed a crab. It looked like a rock crab, but I couldn't tell what species.
The crab wasn't dead, and was thrashing around enough to make it difficult for the gull to get a good grip on it.
The crab gets a reprieve!
But the gull didn't give up. It reached down, came back with the crab in its beak, and then flew off.
Over the holiday weekend I was in Morro Bay for a surprise 80th birthday party--not mine! The party on Friday evening was a huge success (none of the guests let the cat out of the bag), the birthday girl was completely taken by surprise, and a good time was had by all. The weather was cold and sporadically stormy the entire weekend, but the clear spells between storm squalls were gorgeous and almost a little warm.
Since it wasn't raining on Saturday morning, we went out to Morro Rock to look for peregrine falcons. There are two (I think) pairs of falcons nesting on the Rock, one of which nests on the side of the rock that is visible to people. This is nesting season, and Morro Rock has a lot of ledges that make good nesting platforms. Peregrines don't make a nest, really. They lay eggs and incubate them on ledge high up on structures--rock cliffs, buildings, bridges--that dominate the landscape. We did see one peregrine way up on the rock, identifiable through binoculars but far enough away that I couldn't get a decent photo. This is the best I could do:
So not much success with the falcons, although I could at least document that they were there. Turning away from the Rock I was able to watch a great blue heron (Ardea herodias) go after and catch and eat a juvenile rockfish! The photos tell the story, so I'll just post them.
And finally, down the hatch it goes:
And there you have it! On a day when it was too blustery for human fishers to venture out of the bay, one avian predator had a successful morning. Way to go, bird!