Sunday, April 27, 2014

Birds in Love (Episode 1: Part 1/3)

Springtime, for birders, means lots of things. Warblers, thrushes, beautiful birds of every shade possible. For birds, Spring means something very different!

What does Springtime mean for birds?

Mr. Oreo the Hooded Oriole

A few yards away from my yard is a huge, thick palm tree with a lot of stumpy ones scattered around it. I was hoping for an Oriole nest this year. When a male Hooded Oriole (whom I have named Mr. Oreo. I know, super generic name) started swaying and singing on the tree, I took it to be a good omen.

Mr. Oreo doesn't look like he's singing, but he is. Orioles manage to sing their scratchy songs opening their beaks less than an inch wide. 

Today, as I was scouting around and trying to find nests in the backyard, I heard a series of frantic chuffs and scuffles arise from the palm tree. Mr. Oreo had attracted a female with his horrible singing! 

His effort was so desperate and strained, like he had spent his lifetime on getting a girl and now couldn't afford to let her go, that I sincerely hoped they would form a mated pair.  Mr. Oreo tried to impress the female by singing swankily while carefully assuming an upright position on a shaky perch. The female watched for a bit, seemed won over, and the two flew off to who knows where. 

Mourning Doves in Love

Though I can't say this is the same pair I've seen throughout the year mating for sure, it definitely seems like it!

It starts off with a simple routine. The pair starts off far apart and slowly inches together, preening all the way so that they look like giant cottonballs: 

"I love you!"

One member of the pair then extends their beak outward in an offer:

And they form a violent, swaying kiss! 

What are some of the courting and mating rituals YOU have seen in your backyard?

Sorry about the lack of blog posts recently, time has been really short.


Monday, April 21, 2014

Homage to Hummers

The hummingbird is made of jewels and glass
A million embedded in its miniature body
Obsidian eyes and paper-thin emeralds
Enclasp the delicate feather's sheen

Billions of rainbows bounce off 
A hummingbird's body, shimmering
And glittering like some sort of fantastic alien

The hummingbird was dipped
 in hundreds of pools
 of gold, silver and copper
And all sorts of other strange iridescent liquids
From different planets 
That shift and sliver like a snake
From color to color to color

Some hummingbirds have twisted canes
Dangling from their tail, with a bead of sapphire at the tip
Others have magic discs
A thousand shades of turquoise and green
And laced with glitter
Hanging from their ends. 

The lanky lance of the hummingbird
is sometimes curved like a crescent moon,
sometimes it slips like a sickle
the hummingbird has 
Wires coming out of its head.

And yet, with the heavy burden of grace
hummingbirds are bullets
Powered with energy like a shotgun
Maneuverable to the last millisecond.
A falcon in the spirit, a quetzal in the body

All the colors in the rainbow
are not enough to describe the beauty of the hummingbirds

In southern California, we don't get very many hummingbirds. The ones we do are certainly beautiful, but are dwarfed by the legendary hummingbirds of Ecuador, 135 in total. Their names are set in stone in the birding myths of North America: the Booted Racket-tail, Violet-tailed Sylph, Velvet-purple Coronet, Sapphire-vented Puffleg, Wire-crested Forktail, and a ton of others. I say "myth," because whenever some birder comes back from South America  with photos of these hummingbirds and declares he/she has seen those birds, everyone is so overwhelmed with jealousy that they can't believe it. Literally. 

Not the best picture but it really shows the fire of the male's gorgets.

I guess I really shouldn't be complaining because after all, hummingbirds can only be found in the Americas and the ones I get are beautiful.

All this talk about hummingbirds reminds me of an old Indian myth my first-grade teacher told me about the strength and magic of hummingbirds! I have no idea how close my version is to the actual tale, as it is based on memory and my imagination only.

When the world was new and the air was full of dew, all the animals of planet Earth got along with each other. For nourishment, all settled on grass and vegetation as it was the only substance that was readily available and would keep the animals in good health, and the Goddess of the Earth demanded that it stay this way. The sun shone all day and there was no night, and for a long, long time, life was peaceful. 

Of course, some animals were not content. They tired of grass and flowers and leaves, and wished to try something new.

Brown Bear went to the river and decided by himself to kill and eat the salmon. After sampling, he discovered it was ravishingly tasty and told the other animals.  

"Coyote, try the salmon. It is delicious and satisfying."

Coyote could not catch the slippery salmon with his blunt claws, so he chased the Jack-rabbits until he caught and ate one. The Jackrabbits and the Salmon complained to the Goddess of the Earth and Skies. The Goddess became angry.

"From now on to eternity, the Earth shall become as dark as a rabbit-hole to punish the creatures of Earth for their insolence!"

And she was true to her word. The goddess placed a pitch-black curtain over the sky to block the sun out. For many, many months, the Earth was indeed as dark as a rabbit-hole. The animals were miserable and sorry. The most miserable of all was Hummingbird, who called a meeting to the lowest valley in the lands to decide what was to be done.

"One of us birds should fly up to the blanket and rip it in half!" Pheasant proposed.

"But who is strong enough to do that?" Everyone else rejected the plan.

Only Hummingbird, the tiniest of all birds, a mere speck nest to Pheasant, responded, "I will do it."

And she flew up to the highest mountain peak, and flew even higher from there, until she reached the blanket, and she poked it once before her strength gave out and she fell back to Earth. 

But Hummingbird would not give up. Again and again she flew, up, up, and up, and each time she fell back down, until there were thousands of tiny white specks in the blanket where daylight fell through.

On the last time, Hummingbird again flew. As fast as as a storm she flew, past the clouds and the cold, and this time she ripped open a huge, round hole. Alas, all the flying was too much for her and she dropped down and fell dead.

The goddess was so impressed and moved by the courage and strength of Hummingbird she announced that from now on she would place the blanket on every 12 hours, and take it off again every 12 hours. 

And that is the story of how Hummingbird created the moon and stars, and why we now have day and night. 



Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Insect World

The Fantastic Beautiful World of Insects
Special Post

A single bee.....

....and a lot of them.

I've always been fascinated by the weirdness and awesomeness of insects. With their metallic globular eyes, paper-thin wings and swiveling antennae, they look like organisms from another planet. And what huge variety! Look on a simple daisy-bush and you will probably be able to find more than three species hidden among the blooms.

Spot the leafhopper! 

My favorite buggy buddies are the damselflies, dragonflies, ad butterflies. I remember as a young kid I would try to catch the winged jewels with nets and bottles. It's funny that now, I still try and capture them...with a camera. 

This damselfly looks simple at first glance... a closer look and it appears like an elaborately crafted robot with its gleaming gray and black body. Damselflies live only long enough for a lucky few to reproduce, then die like a withered flower. 

Another type of damselfly has fragile crystal wings bordered with thin fire-filled glass panes.

A tiny skipper butterfly perches delicately on the flimsy perch, stretching its knobbed wires forward. Each of those wings is coated with a million tiny scales that come off like powder if disturbed.

A Gray Hairstreak butterfly, the size of a penny, shows intricate, tiny details on the sides of its wings.Many scientists believe the tails on the ends of the wings are used to foil predators who believe the tails are antennae connected to the head. 

What is your favorite type of insect?

Happy Easter,

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Laguna Mountain- Part 2/2

Laguna Mountain- Part 2/2
The Migrants

(Read part 1 for part 2 to make sense)

I woke up in the tent to the sound of Wild Turkeys gobbling and Acorn Woodpeckers' raucous waka-waka-waka-WAKA!  The turkeys just kept gobbling and gobbling and wouldn't stop, so I accepted the fact that I wouldn't get any more sleep and rose up to eat breakfast at 6 AM.

First up, we went to a highish elevation sagebrush trail.

Most of the birding I did on this trail was accomplished by peering through my 'nocs at the distant canyon whenever I saw flickers of movement, whether they turned out to be birds, moving branches, or volcanic eruptions.  Black-chinned Sparrows and White-crowned Sparrows were barely identifiable through the thick brambles.
I began to see sprinklings of spring migrants coming through far off in the distance. There were several gorgeous Western Tanagers (yearbird!) chirruping among the crags.

The next thing I knew, Western Kingbirds (yearbird!) were all over the place, emitting silly squeaks. Their pitiful calls are nothing like the hearty belches of the Cassin's Kingbirds I had grown used to over the winter.

There was nothing more to see and hear on the trail but dead, dry mountains and the shrill, neverending wind so we headed back down. 

Our next trail turned out to be much more productive. Almost immediately, I spied a Black-chinned Sparrow, a Lark Sparrow, a White-crowned Sparrow, and a Spotted Towhee, making the record for "Most Sparrows Spotted in a Second on Laguna Mountain While Eating a Kit-kat." Mountain Quail calls echoed through the shallow valley. I saw a particularly fat one strolling along the opposite side of the hills and providing good photograph opportunities. Of course, every time I clicked the shutter,  it hurriedly  ran behind a tree. I changed my strategy, waiting for the quail to come to the camera. It realized my efforts and decided to walk into a bush.

After five minutes, we arrived at the spring, our destination for the trail. Singing warblers overflowed the trails. Black-headed Grosbeaks joined in the mixed, rambling chorus. 

I could have sat at the oasis for hours, but unfortunately we had to leave after a exciting ten minutes. Here's what I saw. Yeah, I'm not too happy about the pictures either. I was running out of camera battery and honestly a lot more focused on the warblers than getting any photos at all. Spoken like a true warbler fanatic!

First Lazuli Bunting (yearbird) of Spring!

As you can see, Mr. Lazuli was very far away. At closer range, male Lazulis are beautiful birds. The females are much more dull and brown. 

Black-throated Gray Warbler (yearbird)

Orange-crowned Warbler (yearbird)

Nashville Warbler 

Wilson's Warbler (yearbird)

Beautiful male Wilson's Warblers. I was so excited about the warblers coming in at the oasis. I wonder what it must be like to be in the East Coast during warbler migration! 

Black-headed Grosbeak

Warbling Vireo 

Rock Wren (yearbird)

We hiked two other short trails, none of the particularly interesting, save Hermit Warblers (yearbird) and a singing California Thrasher too far off for decent views. I was pretty blown out anyway, so I don't think I would have the energy to keep up with a ton of cool birds. Birding takes a lot of energy! 

Wrapping up this trip report with a last video. Shaky, as I don't own a tripod:


Saturday, April 12, 2014

Laguna Mountain- Part 1/2

Birding Expedition 1 - Laguna Mountain 

Part 1/2

Surprise Visitor

Let's start off with a warm and fuzzy story!
Two days ago, I was cleaning up the giant piles of sunflower shells the finches and sparrows had shoveled out on the floor when my mom started yelling at me like a maniac to turn around. Naturally, I thought she was pointing at some sort of really cool bird. Well... it wasn't a bird at all, but it was just as cool!

This is probably the same opossum that lost all its hair three years ago, grew it back,  and made a giant racket trying to (and failing to) climb trees in our backyard. 

The 'possum was just strolling down the fence in the middle of the day like a cool cat. It didn't even turn its head at the loud clangs and bangs the neighbors were making. Mrs. Possum disappeared a few minutes later into a shady pine tree. 

Laguna Mountain

Enough of the playing 'possum. Let's get to the point of this post. I don't know about you, but the tension for this post is "mountain." "Needles" to say, I'm "pine"-ing to hit a new "peak" on this post (Get it?).

Okay, that was really bad. It wasn't even punny. 

As you may already know, we had a camping trip scheduled for Thursday and Friday at Laguna Mountain. I had some doubts about the validity of the mountain. I mean, a icy, tree-filled, mountain in San Diego County? The county that's even drier and more desert-y than Orange County? 

What's even worse, the drive took two hours. Luckily, San Diego County (NOT San Diego, San Diego County) is pretty gorgeous. There were rolling sagebrush hills and blue distant peaks on the horizon. The houses were pretty charming compared to the boring square Orange ones. Turkey Vultures lingered in the dark blue skies, searching for dead, rotting animal carcasses to rip apart on in the beautiful valleys. 

Finally, we arrived at a small nature trail and began to bird the boundless, bountiful, bluebird-filled, bubbling-with-bounciness peaks (Whoah! I got a seven-word alliteration there!).  I got out of the car and right off the bat, I heard a Cassin's Finch and a load of Mountain Chickadees. You're probably wondering why I was sitting on a bat anyway. I like sitting on bats. They're squishy. 

  A raucous Steller's Jay (yearbird) hopped around with a buddy and let out scorning chek-cheks. 

Beautiful and noisy Steller's Jay. They're a dime a dozen in most of the Pacific Northwest.

Mountain Chickadees were a penny a dozen. They joyously pecked each other and let out their cute chicka-dee-dee-dee calls constantly to anyone who who listen. I can't believe they're considered rare back in Orange, I have them at my feeder and neighborhood year-round.

My favorite feeder bird! 

Western Bluebirds were oozing all over the place (Yes, they were oozing. Laguna Mountain has some FAT Western Bluebirds.). They should be renamed "Mountain Bluebirds," and Mountain Bluebirds should be renamed "Lowland Bluebirds." I'm dead serious. I didn't see a single Mountain Bluebird up on the mountain, but they flit and hop everywhere down in the plains (Mountain Bluebirds are much lighter than Westerns.)

Then I was in for a surprise! Two Anna's Hummingbirds were mating! I've seen the courtship process numerous times, but never the mating process. To put it into ten words: it looked like dolphins doing tail flips on each other.
My camera was driving me bat crazy. It was taking 1-2 seconds to focus on ISO speed 800 and the resulting pictures were blurry and extremely noisy. I checked all the settings a billion times until I switched to autofocus. Autofocus drove me crazy until I turned back on "User Settings." And so the cycle went on.

I finally figured out what the problem was...at the end of the trip.

After the short nature trail, we drove to the campground and I explored the bird life. The air rang with acorn woodpecker calls and every time I glanced upwards, an Acorn Woodpecker zoomed into my vision. The trees looked like they had been shot hundreds of times with a .22. I had a fun time watching nuthatches and jays stealthily borrow acorns from the woodpeckers' precious graineries (I'm not going to say they stole any acorns, because "stole" is a mean word). 

We embarked on a meadow trail. 

Ahhhhhhh, scenery. 

More boring scenery.

A Pygmy Nuthatch (yearbird) zoomed into view, chattering maniacally and evading my camera. Finally I got a shot. Their name makes them sound cute but these guys are evil. They pretend to be adorable and then they try to kill you by dropping pieces of bark on your head. 

I could watch these guys for hours! 

Some other stuff we saw:
Chipping Sparrow
Hairy Woodpecker (yearbird)
American Kestrel
Ruddy Duck
Northern Shoveler
American Coot
House Wren
Red-winged Blackbird
Lark Sparrow (yearbird)
Violet-green Swallow (yearbird)
Mourning Dove
Western Bluebird & nest
Dark-eyed Junco
Brewer's Blackbird
European Starling

Although we didn't see an awful lot, I was still happy because hey, at least we saw something and managed not to fall off the side of the cliff trying to identify birds. 

Chipping Sparrows were abundant. Hey, Mr. Sparrow. Looking pretty chipper there!

Desert View Trail

I took a brief rest at the campground and we headed over to our next trail, the Desert View Trail. 
It was a deserted and lonely trail, and I enjoyed the solitude that rarely occurs in the busy and crowded Orange County. 

Desert trail view and prime Mountain Quail habitat.

The wildfire had reached the lonely hillside and I felt like I was strolling through a graveyard of stiff, blackened trees. Brushstrokes of wildflowers lightened up the deadened landscape, along with churring bluebirds and hopping titmice (chickadees of the desert). They didn't even seem to realize there had been an awful wildfire barely any time ago as they defecated freely on the skeletons of the trees and pecked holes happily  in the trees' sooty arms. Man, I wish I could have the memory of a bird!

A quiet Pacific-slope Flycatcher (yearbird) dipped its tail politely and snickered at me while I fumbled with the camera. What does as flycatcher snicker sound like? I don't know ( I don't even think birds snicker. Why did I even use that word anyway? I need a Snicker candy bar).

If you can even tell that there's a bird in there I congratulate you. 

Next thing I knew a fat gray chickenlike bird  that managed to avoid Neil Hayward last year (http://accidentalbigyear2013.blogspot.com/2013/07/mountain-quail-extinction-shocker.html ) was running around in circles.

I counted ten in two flocks running distantly through the woods as fast as their little quail legs would carry them. 

This is the best picture I managed to get. If you can find the bird, tell me, because I sure can't! I just know it's in there....somewhere.

Find the Mountain Quail (lifer and yearbird!)

After looking at some scenery and leaving, we drove back to the campground for the night. While we were driving we heard what sounded like a deranged monkey laughing. Of course, it was they were even better than a laughing deranged monkey. 
Wild Turkeys (yearbird and lifer)!!!!!!!!!

The rare Two-bodied Turkey.

My camera was on the wrong settings resulting in pictures like this.... and I would find out about it tomorrow. :(

The Hole of Life

My dad says it's wasting water. I call it good for the birds and a whole lot of fun to watch!

The "Hole of Life" is not that impressive. It's just a concrete-walled pit with a rusty old water pump above it. Why is it called the Hole of Life? Well, when you pump enough water to get the thing filled, the birds come flocking to it like a bunch of old birders to a birding hop-spot! It doesn't waste that much water. You only have to pump about a gallon a day, compared to the ten gallons wasted every time you flush the toilet. 

Animals I saw visiting include:
Nashville Warbler (yearbird)
Cassin's Finch (yearbird)
Purple Finch
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Steller's Jay
Western Bluebird
Band-tailed Pigeon (yearbird)
Western Scrub-jay
American Robin
Mountain Chickadee 
White-breasted Nuthatch
Acorn Woodpecker

This robin obviously hasn't read the sign that says "No Bathing," on top.

Band-tailed Pigeon visiting (At dusk, hence the badly lit picture).

A chickadee scorns the rules. 

A really bad picture depicting three species: Western Bluebird, Nashville Warbler, and Cassin's Finch.


That just about wraps it up for one day (Day Two coming tomorrow!) It was a great day and I had tons of fun. I'm trying to think of a witty phrase or saying to end this post but it's just not coming to me right now, so whatever.
Have you ever been camping in the mountains before? Respond in the comments!


Click here for part two.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Signs of Spring

Spring is Here!

I'm convinced spring is here.

Of course, since it's southern California, technically spring is always here anyway. It's 90 degrees out right now. What I wouldn't do for some darn snow!

The swallows arrived a month or so ago, of course. You know what they say: The early bird gets the worm
(Okay fine, that doesn't even make sense. Whatever, you get the idea).

NRWS at Laguna Niguel. 

They're already seeking out nesting sites! SJ Wildlife Sanctuary. 

Today, I was surprised by one of my favorite summer friends....

 I was reminiscing about spring migration and getting ready to put my feeder back out for the beloved Hooded Orioles. The feeder was buried under a mountain of dust and trash under my bed and the nectar had been sitting in the refrigerator for a year (yeah, I'm probably going to throw it out) when my brother called me over.

"There's a SPOTTED TOWHEE on the plate!"

Now, naturally I was surprised because Spotted Towhees NEVER come to my feeder. They prefer to shamefully scratch under the cover of the briars and thorns. I toss out handfuls of sunflower seed out on the ground for them and the White-crowned Sparrows. '

Of course, it wasn't a Spotted Towhee.

The Black-headed Grosbeaks are back in my yard!!

Last year they had a lot of fun annoying the House Sparrows by pecking their feet at the birdbath (We no longer have House Sparrows here. That's not because of the Grosbeaks, though).

"Is that a House Sparrow?"
"Get out of here, pipsqueak!"


A couple days ago I also sighted the first Hooded Oriole of the year (which was why I was getting out the Oriole feeder) sitting in the magnolia tree. These guys were a blast last year. 10+ would come scrabbling and fighting on the feeder silently. They were all quite amusing to watch! 

"Outta here! This is MY turf!"

"Uh-oh - it's stuck!"

Male Oriole having a splash.
(No pun intended)

Different orioles like to eat in their own different ways. 

I haven't seen any spring warblers yet, unfortunately. It's only a matter of time....

What are some of your favorite summer bird residents?

For the next two days, there won't be any updates. I'm going on a two-day birding trip and will give full details and info when I get back! 

Happy birding,