Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Rainbow of Summer (Photo Blog #2)

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Summer in Southern California means vibrant reds, pretty yellows, and beautiful blues to birders. Here are seven common colorful visitors from the tropics that can be seen here. 

Western Tanager (backyard)

Fast fact: Western Tanagers obtain their red-colored head from rhodoxathin, without their specialized diet they'd lose it. 

Black-headed Grosbeak (backyard) 

Fast Fact: Black-headed Grosbeaks are one of the few birds that are immune to monarch butterfly toxin and often feed on them. 

Yellow-breasted Chat (Golf course)

Fast fact: Chats mimic other birds in their rattling, loud songs.

Yellow Warbler (park) 

Fast fact: The oldest Yellow Wabler recorded in the wild lived to be 11, which is longer than the longest recorded life span of a Western Tanager by five years. 

Orange-crowned Warbler (outside bushes of a building)

Fast fact: The Orange-crowned Warbler is one of the most geographically diverse warblers in North America.

Blue Grosbeak (Aliso Woods)

Fast Fact: Blue Grosbeaks seen in Orange County and other areas in the West Coast migrate directly over the Gulf of Mexico! 

Costa's Hummingbird (campground area)

Fast Fact: The heart rate of Costa's Hummingbirds vary from 50 times for minute when the bird is torpid to 900 times a minute when the bird is fully active (Soruce: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Monday, May 26, 2014

A Starling Story: The Alarming Fate of Starlings

Most people know...
Once upon a time, in a place far, far away (Okay, not so far away. On the East Coast) some smart guy decided it would be a good idea to release European Starlings for the simple and stupid reason that the new continent America had to harbor every single bird that appeared in Shakespeare.

Little did he know he was unleashing a deadly fate for many of North America's native birds.

House Sparrows, also from Europe, were released in the hordes for a different reason. People thought that the cities were lifeless without birds. At the time, no native American birds were found in cities due to their unexpected and sudden arrival (They didn't have time to adapt). 

Bathing House Sparrow. These guys are found ALL OVER THE PLACE now, and they push out native birds.

What better way to cure the lifelessness than release a couple dozen House Sparrows? House Sparrows had already adapted to the gradual arrival of cities in Europe! They would surely take to the cities of America, right? 

People were so worried that House Sparrows wouldn't make it that they started to shoot the now rapidly-declining shrikes to protect the lousy sparrows. 

The two invasive, highly aggressive birds grew hugely in numbers and began kicking out native cavity-nesting birds from their nests. They almost caused the extinctions of the three bluebird species in North America. No doubt, they have extirpated hundreds of native bird populations locally through the entire nation.  And they still are doing it, to this day, despite the huge amount of control efforts to bring them down.

Often, House Sparrows will completely dominate and take over a feeder, keeping native birds away from it. 

The Other Side of Things


House Sparrows and European Starlings are both declining rapidly in their native homeland. And they are still declining, to this day, despite the huge amount of control efforts to bring them back up. Starling populations in Europe have declined over 80% in the last couple decades. Unfortunately, it looks like they're headed on the path of hard return. 

Sadly, these birds may become extinct if the reason for their rapid decline is not discovered and dealt with soon.

So why are starlings and House Sparrows doing so ridiculously well in America, which isn't even their native homeland, but dying out miserably in Europe? 

What's happening to the starlings? 

Starlings feed on specific invertebrates heavily that are regarded as pests, so as those "pests," are eliminated, the starlings are eliminated too, some say. Then how are starlings surviving so well here, where gardeners freak out and spray two tons of pesticide at an aphid? 
Others (in denial. This decline has been going on for decades) say the huge crash is because the mild winter has enabled the starlings to forage in the wild. I'm not even sure how that really makes sense. Isn't there more food in the wild than in cities anyway? 

Still others say that other birds are pushing them out. I doubt that a bird aggressive enough to kill two bluebird parents for their own nest will be pushed out by other less aggressive birds. And there's no evidence that other aggressive bird populations are on the rise, anyway, quite the contrary. 

So what's happening to the sparrows and starlings? 

What do you think?

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Strange Case of Pin-tailed Whydahs and Nutmeg Mannikins

The Strange Case of Pin-tailed Whydahs and Nutmeg Mannikins
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FOR A WHILE, I thought there were Black-chinned Sparrows at my feeder.

The very thought may sound ridiculous. "Black-chinned SPARROWS?" you may exclaim. "Why, they don't even occur in suburban backyards, let alone visit feeders!" Well, I was absolutely positive they were BC sparrows because nothing else in my field guide even came close to the strange birds I was seeing.

Then one day, I bought a 4 dollar Kindle guide to California Birds and behold: my amazing, super rare "Black-chinned Sparrows," were actually introduced, common, juvenile Nutmeg Mannikins.

Visit any Petsmart or Petco and you'll find these small, perky mannikins hopping around in a glass case. Apparently, the small amounts released into the wild formed a local, established populations that has grown incredibly fast. The California Ornithological Union (I have NO idea if that exists or not) decided to add it to the official California List a couple years back.

Nutmeg Mannikins are extremely social: There are always found in a flock of 5+ and I have seen them "cuddling" together in a cute little bundle of furry feathers, similar to the huddling behavior of swallows and bee-eaters.
Visting the birdbath! 

Adult Nutmeg Mannikins are very distinctive and beautiful.

Nutmeg Mannikins are not the only exotic birds to have established themselves in California.
What's worse than mistaking a juvenile Nutmeg Mannikin for a Black-chinned Sparrow is mistaking the introduced Pin-tailed Whydah for a Fork-tailed Flycatcher, which actually happens quite often and causes considerable consternation among birders until everyone realizes that some birder guy has mistaken a cat for a tiger, so to speak.

A whole little mob of different-aged mannikins. 

What's so interesting about  Pin-tailed Whydahs? Well, they have a very unique relationship with Nutmeg Mannikins- a similar case is found nowhere else in the world. Pin-tailed Whydahs are nest parasites, like Brown-headed Cowbirds and most worldwide cuckoo species. Rather than build their own nest, they lay their eggs in another bird's nest. You would think that this would be terrible for the native species of California, but in reality, there is NO effect at all because Pin-tailed Whydahs aren't very smart. Whydahs only know how to recognize mannikin nests and parasitize those, because only Nutmeg Mannikins  hail from their native homeland. Every other nest they see, they don't recognize with their tiny brains.

As Nutmeg Mannikin populations grow, it's expected that Pin-tailed Whydah populations will continue to grow for obvious reasons. For now, there are few studies being conducted on this and we don't know much about the actual relation between the two introduced species' population changes-most of this is just a hypothesis. What we do know, is that both populations ARE rising. Recently one birder had a whydah  show up in his yard!

Hope you enjoyed this week's post.


Sunday, May 11, 2014

Celebrate P&S Power!

(If that sounds made up, it's because it is)

WARNING: If you have no interest in taking photos of birds whatsoever, and you read this post, you will be so bored you will shoot yourself. HAHAHA. Get it? You shoot stuff with cameras? Fortunately, I'll insert random pictures of birds I shot with my P&S camera.

Too often, I hear people complaining about their P&S cameras.

"I wish I had a DSLR! I would be so much better at photography."

"These pictures would come out SOOOOO much better with a DSLR!"

"I would take good pictures, but I don't have a DSLR."

The above statements are complete BS. BS means Ballerina Spins, for those of you who don't know. Of course, a GOOD photographer would take MUCH better photos with better DSLR equipment, but having good equipment does not make you a good photographer.

DSLR cameras are superior to point-and-shoots in many, many ways. It would take hours to count them all.
Unfortunately, most of us really just can't afford quality DSLRs.
So, let's celebrate National P&S Day by listing some of the things that make P&S cameras better than DSLRS!

1. Point-and-shoot cameras are waaaay cheaper than DSLRs.
Quality wildlife photography DSLRs are typically 2X more expensive than 2X the cost of a cheaper DSLR which is 3X the cost of the best P&S camera available, which is 500X the amount of money I have.

2. You can go incognito.

You can sneak tiny little P&S cameras with their tiny little lens to boring events like soccer games and not look suspicious while you're secretly taking pictures of birds! Going to a soccer game with a DSLR is just too obvious.

3. You're less likely to get robbed.

Criminals look at a DSLR telephoto lens are immediately think of money. They look at P&S cameras and immediately think of bad experiences of trying to take pictures of butterbutts.

Seriously, who has not gone insane trying to get shots of these guys?

4.You're less likely to get tendinitis if using a point-and-shoot.

Lugging and lifting a huge lens can cause some serious arm strain, especially if you take lots of pictures. Actually, not really. It just creates a tiny bit more arm strain that leads to a 0.01% increased risk for tendinitis.

5. P&S is a cooler abbreviation.

Just look at that! P&S sounds more like M&M, or some kind of awesome candy company to people who have no clue about photography. DSLR sounds like a huge, clunky, machine that requires 200 years for assembly, and to figure out how to use.

Hope you enjoyed this week's celebration!


Sunday, May 4, 2014


The bird babies are coming in
The bird babies are coming, thick and thin
So many babies they make my head spin
Let the bird baby arrival begin!

I apologize if the hideous rhyme made your brain melt. 

Quick Update: Yearbirds
Last last week- Avery Golf Course: Yellow-breasted Chat, Brown-headed Cowbird
Last week-Aliso Woods: Blue Grosbeak, Eurasian Collared-dove, Yellow Warbler, Ash-throated Flycatcher
Today-Laguna Niguel: Downy Woodpecker, Caspian Tern, Bullock's Oriole, Common Tern

Today I dropped by Laguna Niguel to see what I could find, since I hadn't been there in forever. I was in for a surprise! Besides the sudden huge abundance of tanagers, orioles, and warblers,  there were also tons of ducklings and goslings (Though if you put them all together, they would probably weigh less than a pound, they were so light and fluffy). I counted at least thirty total in six different families. One poor pair only had a single gosling left. *insert sadface*

All in a line. So cute!

Both Canada Goose parents help in the caretaking of their goslings. They carefully maintain and watch each one, doing their best to ensure the survival of their offspring. 

SO...MANY...BABIES... There were 2+ families who kept a grassy corner as a group nursery for all the babies. There were at least twenty goslings total!

A closer look at a gosling.

The cute little gals/guys made constant "peep!" noises.

They didn't mind passerby coming up to them to take photos, though I tried to maintain a wide distance. 

Canada Goose. The familiar, widespread, considered-annoying-by-many-people goose that is the parent of the adorable goslings on this page. 

Two duck families were also in the vicinity. The ducklings are almost full grown in this one!

The Mallard female is the sole caretaker of her family. She does not check or round them carefully like the geese do. Males have been known to help, but only rarely. 

And for the "why not," factor, here's a picture of a Pied-billed Grebe!

Hope you enjoyed this weekend's post!