Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Canyon Towhee

You have to creep like a cat to see them...the Canyon Towhees.

Not all birds are bright, brilliant and beguiling. Some species are shy, dun colored and receding. They live in the understory and they prefer it that way, too. When they do show themselves, it's a treat.

The Canyon Towhee is a larger member of the sparrow family.

Well-adapted to the sunbaked southwestern states, the Canyon Towhee thrives in a scrub and cactus environment.

Foraging for seeds around rocks and in the desert leaf litter, they pose little contrast to the desert to go unseen.

Their boldest distinguishing mark is a rust colored under tail, but that, too, remains hidden at ground level.

Their conical bill gives them away as a seedeater.

To uncover the seeds the desert floor provides, the Canyon Towhee grabs a two-footed hold of the ground litter and makes a big backwards leap.

This scraping action reveals seeds and insects hiding beneath. It's this bird's way of smartly picking up a meal.

Unfortunately, this scraping takes place undercover, mostly out of sight.

It's a foraging trait the Canyon Towhees practice well.

Luckily, Canyon Towhee population numbers have remained strong over the past fifty years, despite a human desire for desert living. Sadly, as humans encroach on the desert, they bring their cats with them...many going feral. It's the feral cats that are placing a downward pressure on many bird populations.

Unfortunately, even the secretive haunts of the Canyon Towhee won't protect them from a hunting cat.

(Click any picture to enlarge.)


Cornel Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds
The Sibley's Guide to Birds

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Hummingbird Wars

At warp speed, hummingbirds do battle daily...Star Wars on the smallest scale.

A male Anna's Hummingbird watches from his treetop perch. He claims ownership of our backyard as his territory and he watches over it closely.

He doesn't like trespassers.

He scans the comings and goings of other hummingbirds who stop or pass too slowly, persuading them to leave before they get hurt.

His weapons are a swordlike bill and an awesome-hot helmut.

He controls his territory with all-out frontal attacks and a take no prisoners attitude.

This Broad-billed Hummingbird was one bird who lingered too long.

He received a high speed escort to anywhere else but here.

In this case the tresspasser escaped to a tree in the front yard, well away from the food at the backyard.

His only retort to this rude treatment was delivered after the fact.

This Costa's Hummingbird was similarly encouraged to leave, but the odds were more even here. The Costa's Hummingbird is capable of standing his ground against the Anna's Hummingbird, resulting in a begrudging agreement to share opposite sides of the feeder.

He's similarly adorned with an fabulous purple helmut and long gorgets, adding a dash of flare and fierceness to his look.

This first-year male Anna's Hummingbird doesn't stand a chance against the older male of his own kind. He takes flight at first sight of an attack.

He is just now sprouting the weapons he needs to defend a territory and attract a female.

Defending a territory takes a lot of energy...nectar.

Plain sugar water provides energy in a 4 to 1 ratio.

Even though I provide plenty of nectar, there seems to be a natural aversion to sharing this wealth of food.

It's a winner takes all world and the strong survive.

Aggression seems so unnecessary to an outsider, but nature plays by its own rules.

As the undisputed master of arial acrobatics, hummingbirds enforce their rules. Weighing in at only a nickel's weight, they maintain the smallest of no-fly zones. With landing gear extended, the male Anna's flutters into the treetop to resume the watch for challengers...whether real or imagined.


Credit: Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds

Friday, November 27, 2015

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

The bird with the  magic-hat is the   Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

Only slightly larger than a hummingbird, the Ruby-crowned Kinglet is an entertainer.

This male arrived at our window sill with a thud.

Not just one thud either, but thud after thud as he did battle with his enemy.

His enemy was in the glass...his reflection.

Staring into the glass, he flares his magic-hat in an attempt to look as fit and strong as possible to his rival. Not surprisingly, he's evenly matched with his 4inch, 0.3 oz. reflection. The staring and flaring eventually prompts an eruption of claws and a full frontal attack on the window. 

Thud after thud into the window seems to invigorate the fight in him more than discourage it. 

The battle continues until both combatants tire out. 

(Click any picture to enlarge.)

He turns his back on the problem to think it over.

He is a pretty little bird in olive gray-green tones.

Soft shades of yellow outline his primary feathers and a white ring circles his eye.

And, of course, the red hat that makes him an attractive little packet of energy.

He can display as much or as little of his ruby crown as he chooses, depending on his mood.

Nevertheless, the window always matches him stare-for-stare and flare-for-flare, as this is a zero sum game for him.

Not so with windows in general because windows are a major threat to birds. 

Birds see the sky reflected in the glass and often crash headlong into it. 

The cost to the bird, if lucky, is an injury, but millions of birds die this way every year.

Always in motion the Ruby-crowned Kinglet thrives on insects and spiders, aphids and ants. 

Interestingly, the Ruby-crowned Kinglet population has held steady for the past fifty years. They have adapted to the human interruptions of windows in their way. 

The fact that they are small and lightweight may be their salvation. 


Credits: Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds 

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Roseate Spoonbill, Huntington Beach State Park, SC

Wading in the knee deep water of Huntington Beach State Park, South Carolina, the Roseate Spoonbill is a crowd pleaser. Not shy or flighty by normal bird standards, the Roseate Spoonbill goes about its daily search for food.

There is little doubt as to how the spoonbill got its name. Probing the mud with its spatula shaped bill, the Roseate Spoonbill finds its food beneath the water. With a side to side head swinging motion, the spoonbill slices the mud snapping shut on invertebrates and crustaceans.

                Additionally, fine comb-like filters on the edges of the bill strain the mud for small edibles.

An uncommon sight for birders in South Carolina, the Roseate Spoonbill just barely reaches North America, instead preferring Central and South America. The gulf coast states of Texas and Florida would be your best opportunity of predictably finding one.

The visitors at Huntington Beach State Park, SC were treated to a special sight this day. Tourists line the saltwater basin at high tide.

Alligators live here, too.

Something made this one stir and prompted a quiet slip into the water...his back is still dry.

A spoonbill could be on his mind.

A couple of spoonbills and a White Ibis (center) go about their search for food.

If the alligator got its back wet it could sneak up on one of these sizable's a meal!

But this alligator may not have been hungry today. Never-the-less, the spoonbills gave the alligator a wide margin for any error in judgement. While making a broad arc, they keep an eye on the 'gator', still never missing an opportunity for a tidbit of food.

The other eye was looking for the next serious threat.

You may be far more aware of the other 'pink' bird, the Flamingo. It's an easy mistake.

Yet, it is hard to mistake a Roseate Spoonbill on careful, close-up examination. The bill is just so obvious.

Don't let the 'pink' in the 'Roseate' Spoonbill confuse you. It's a whole 'nother bird.


Credits: Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Osprey, North Myrtle Beach, SC

Nature doesn't provide a safety net. If you don't hunt, you don't this case fish. The osprey is a hawk that fishes. That's unique among hawks. Nearly the entire diet of an Osprey consists of fish.

A wave of  Ospreys patrolled the Atlantic shoreline off North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. They could have been just passing through or winter residents. As autumn fades and winter approaches it is hard to tell where they will spend their winter.

However, South America is a good guess. With nearly a six foot wingspan, long distance traveling is not a problem for them.

Any lake, stream, marsh or ocean shoreline would suit an Osprey just fine. Ospreys need open water to fish the year round.

                  A female makes an abrupt stop when she spots a fish, hovers briefly and goes into a dive.

The dive is a high speed maneuver of timing and agility. In the plunge there is little room for error. Any miscalculation results in a missed meal.

In this case the fish saw her coming and jumped out of the way at the last second...too late to change course.

Score one for the fish.  

                                                                  Nothing to do, but try again.

Powerful wingbeats raise her out of the water. That is no easy task for a heavy wet bird. Ducks and geese have webbed feet for a running start over the water to get airborne. The Osprey talons have no such ability. She only has wing power to rise from the water.

With wings drawn close for maximum speed she sights through her talons to hunt again.

Her concentration is intense. At the last second she will fold her wings behind her body to reduce drag when entering the water.

Even fish three feet beneath the surface are reachable this way.

The Osprey's talons have evolved differently from other hawks. An Osprey's outer talon is reversible allowing it to grasp its slippery prey front and back. When flying they rotate the fish's head forward to minimize wind resistance.

Male and females look alike, although the female wears a brown 'necklace' across her breast.


Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Sanderlings, Myrtle Beach, SC

The surf pounds down hard onto North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. It seems an unsuitable habitat for such a little bird as the Sanderling. Yet, this ever changing zone at the water's edge is his home.

The Sanderling has an uncanny sense of time and place. In between the dangerous swirling surf and a bone dry beach lies a buried treasure of food.

With a diet of small invertebrates, crustaceans and horseshoe crab eggs, the Sanderling finds food as each wave retreats.

Easy might think. However, to do this safely one must avoid being pounded by the next incoming wave.

Walking smartly in front of each frothy wave, the Sanderlings entertain and amuse the human beach walkers.

A quick turn around reveals tiny organisms the wave exposed.

It's only a matter of seconds to score this meal or it's gone.

The sun rising from the Atlantic highlights today's bounty. These long distance flyers are just winter residents in Myrtle Beach. They breed and raise their young near the Arctic Circle in far northern Canada. After raising their one brood a year, the monogamous Sanderlings depart to the world's coastlines to continue their wave dodging lifestyle.

Human presence doesn't seem to bother the Sanderlings, although populations are declining. A rough estimate of 700,000 Sanderlings worldwide is the best guess available.

Three Sanderlings search for food a few feet from fishermen. That's unusual behavior in the normally skittish bird communities, but the Sanderlings tolerate people. Sharing may be part of their nature. Sharing and protecting a place we all covet may be a good example for us, the waterline.

Credits: Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds

Monday, September 28, 2015

Cooper's Hawk Juveniles

Keeping yourself entertained while your parents are hunting is a struggle for a first-year Cooper's Hawk.

One can only stretch and twist, bounce and bob for so long before it becomes boring.

I discovered two young Cooper's Hawk siblings in Lake Park, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. One examined my every move while the other lost interest in me quickly.

Only able to fly short distances and unpracticed at hunting, they mark time together in a narrow park ravine.

With nothing to do, but wait to be fed, this is a good opportunity to explore one's own body...grooming is important.  Grooming removes dirt, debris and parasites, along with realigning the feather shaft for airworthiness.

People watching helped pass time, too.
If people and dogs stay on the path the Cooper's Hawks were content to hang around, provided a respectable distance was maintained.

But, I strayed one step too close.

That immediately prompted rethinking the margin of safety in the sibling minds.

Would they accept me?

The answer was 'no'.

They both flew away.

I would have enjoyed their company for longer, but it wasn't up to me.

I had all the pictures I was going to get this day.

(CORRECTION: I'm told the last three photographs in this story are not a juvenile Cooper's Hawk, but instead a juvenile Merlin. A Merlin has a faint malar (mustache) and a Merlin's tail is slightly different. I trust this is the case and I am noting it here to reflect that fact. The diet of the Merlin and the Cooper's Hawk is similar, with the Merlin taking other birds, mostly. Thanks to Todd Fellenbaum for sharing his knowledge of birds.)

But, I found juvenile Merlin in Theinsville Village Park, also in September.

He was quite agreeable with having his picture taken. He posed in a tall tree for longer than I cared to remain.

He seems to be giving me the equivalent of a high five, even though he doesn't have the digits for it. I doubt he knows the meaning of the gesture and had little to celebrate quite yet anyway.

 He too was waiting to be fed.

He is too young to hunt. He's safe in the park while his parents find food for him. His father has provided nearly all the food for his mother and him for the past ninety days. 

His care will continue until he's able to hunt the Merlin's main food...other birds and small rodents. 

He watches the people below as well as the fish in the river.  Poised for action yet still lacking the skills of a hunter, he never-the-less displays the potential of a powerful falcon.

(Click any picture to enlarge.)


Credits: Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds
The Sibley Guide to Birds, David Allen Sibley