Friday, June 27, 2014

Backyard Photoshoot #2!

Backyard Photoshoot #2

Quick Update

Over the last couple weeks, I have amassed more than 30 year birds at Starr Ranch, Laguna Niguel, Bolsa Chica, and other birding hotspots, raising my yearlist to 187. Here are a few recent photos:

A beautiful tern gives a cheer for the camera. Or at least, that's what I  want to think it was doing. It was probably just belching happily after eating a fish. 

A Snowy Egret tries to shake feather dandruff off its beak. I made that up, there is no such thing as feather dandruff. OR IS THERE?

A cormorant holds out its beautiful, scaly, wings to dry. Cormorants are ugly at a first glance, but a second look reveals the beauty inside the beast. 

Sometimes, with all the cool birds I can find at my local hot spots, sometimes it's hard to remember that there are just as cool ones at home in the backyard! 

It takes a little closer inspection to truly appreciate the wonder of the hidden jewels in life, whether it's a marauding Coopers's Hawk or a tiny striped fly. (I'm sure that hawk would not be pleased with being called a "hidden jewel!")

But backyard photoshoots aren't just for the birds. Today's 90+ degree heat meant the usual orioles, tanagers and grosbeaks lounged in the shady, thick palm fronds instead of coming up and out.  

You have to admit, flies are pretty cool.  Even if they barf on your food and suck it up with their alienlike tubes. Just look at that iridescence!

A closer look at a fly's eye will reveal thousands of tiny hexagons. My camera is nowhere near the top grade required to get a close-up picture that is intimate enough to show them. 

For those of you who think flies are disgusting: My theory is that you can love any creature when you get to know it! So next time a fly lands on your steak dinner, don't be grossed out! Be excited, because it's another opportunity to better know a fly.

(Okay, I admit, a fly landing on your dinner IS gross)

I like flies, you like flies.  But you know who likes flies even more than I do? Birds! Particularly swallows and swifts. They LOOOOOVVVE flies! 

Monarch butterflies zipped among the dying rose bushes and dead brown sunflower heads covered with mites. Birds hate monarch butterflies! To them, monarchs probably taste like brussel sprouts (if this offended any brussel sprouts lovers I'm sorry).
The only bird in Southern California that is immune to the monarch butterfly's poison is the Black-headed Grosbeak. Interestingly, the grosbeak is patterned similarly. It has black wings with white spots and an orange belly.

My brother took both these photos here with his new camera! I hate to give him the credit. They actually turned out not bad at all! 

A Monarch butterfly chrysalis...

...and a caterpillar. 

If you would like to read more about Monarch Butterflies, click here! 


Along with the bounty of insects, their were also a couple of curious Lesser Goldfinches who didn't mind the hear. 
"MWAHAHAHA! I will purposely stand right behind a bunch of branches so your camera autofocus will freak out and you will have to use manual focus!"

One of my favorite subjects are House Finches. A frequent sight in my yard in the spring is the male House Finch courting the female House Finch. He will sing vigorously with his head and tail raised high and strut around like a little clockwork bird. Often these advances are unwanted, and the female will viciously attack and peck at the singing, marching male House Finch. It's quite a spectacle! 

The incredibly rare House Finch.

Male: "Look at me! Am I hot or what?"

Female: "GET OUT OF HERE!"

Bewick's Wrens are another favorite photo subject of mine. At this time of the year, the squeaky sound of juvenile wrens is almost constant in my yard. The parents still hang around and supervise the bouncy babies.

A fledgeling Bewick's Wrens will sit in the same place for hours waiting to be fed, even if large dangerous creatures with one giant eye in the middle of their head approach (aka humans. For those sensitive people, I did NOT get close enough to disturb the bird, the above shot was taken through a dirty window)

Sunday, June 15, 2014



I've always been amazed by birds' flight. If humans had wings, we would probably be crashing, blundering, and falling everywhere, being the clumsy organisms we are. But the flight of birds is graceful, quick, and complicated.

To start, I'll post an old set of photos showing the takeoff progression of a House Finch, which all takes less than 1/10 of a second. Though they're not eye-pleasing images (I filmed the takeoff, then clipped seperate images from the video) they show decently the complicated-but-simple act of taking off that birds probably do 1209803948098 times a day.

Mr. Finch has to position himself into the prime position for takeoff.

One powerful flap provides all the lift the finch will need to set him on his appropriate pathway.

A little flap helps the finch maneuver towards his goal.

He then tucks in his wings, creating the classic "bobbing" look of finch flight:

And he directs himself towards the feeder down below. 

See? A lot more complicated than it looks at first. To get to the feeder and use a minimal amount of energy, the House Finch has to use the best angle, direction, and flapagram (yes, that's a thing now) to calculate the best route to go.

A Purple Finch (The only female I ever saw at my feeders) tries to figure out how to land on my feeder without stepping on a House Finch head. 

Having a fight? Hard. Having an airborne fight? Super hard!! 

The ultraspeed flight of the hummingbird

I remember around ten years ago, some random guy at a bird show said that hummingbirds can beat their wings up to 200  times a second. I didn't buy it then because my little kiddy brain just couldn't imagine that, but I certainly believe it now! The amount of control and manipulation hummingbirds gain from their ultra fast-moving wings and small body is mind-blowing. 

Unfortunately, it also spells a shorter, harder life for the bird, and most hummingbirds don't live too long (There are a few super exceptions- A couple hummers have lived to be more than 9 years old).

Hummingbirds are the only birds that can fly backward! Males display their super-stamina and strength in extremely impressive, energy-consuming courtships that have only a small chance of winning over mates. 

Hummingbirds use their minute wing  control to hover and drink from the typical thin tubes of nectar-rich flowers. 

As well as constantly feeding to ensure that their energy level is up, hummingbirds have to constantly be on the watch to ensure no other hummingbirds are stealing food from their territory. Another hummer found on one's territory will result in an incredibly fast, exciting aerial chase.

Skilled flight of flycatchers

Imagine this. You are hungry, and there's no food left in the kitchen. So instead of cooking up a meal, you have to go about it another way instead. You stand outside in a large park. Every couple of minutes, a random chocolate chip goes flying at a hummingbird's speed through the air somewhere in the park. You must first spot it.  Then you have to run over to it and catch it with your mouth before it flies out of the park, which it will soon. Now repeat this about 1000 times a day, or starve. Oh, and if you have kids, you need to catch 5X more chocolate chips to keep them from starving. Sounds fun, right? 

In order to catch fast, small insects in the air, flycatchers have to be extremely adept at flight and have spectacular vision. 

A Say's Phoebe hovers in the air like a butterfly searching for insects. When it finds one, it will dive down on the insect and grab it. 

Phoebes seem to be on the constant watch for insects. 

Hope you enjoyed this week's post!