Down at the bay

Down at the bay in San Diego, just 10 miles from the Mexican border, the Living Coast Discovery Center houses some captive native bird species and provides habitat for some wild ones as well.

San Diego Bay, San Diego skyline, bridge to Coronado island

The San Diego skyline and US Navy shipyard in the far distance across San Diego Bay.  A bridge to Coronado Island crosses the bay south of the city.

Snowy egret and Reddish egret in San Diego bay

A Snowy egret and it’s much larger cousin, the Reddish Egret, stood like statues while I walked around their small island.  Very tame for wild birds, I thought.

Snowy egret and Reddish egret in San Diego bay

A Great Blue Heron couldn’t even be bothered to raise its head from its nap.

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egrets are somewhat rare in the U.S. and are considered a threatened species.  They breed in Central America, but disperse north of their breeding range.   Finding this bird here, posing so cooperatively, was just lucky.

Osprey, San DiegomBay

Osprey and Marsh Hawks (Harriers) flew overhead, cruising the cattail marshes and fields for prey.

Agave in bloom

30’foot tall Agave plants were in bloom, with their massive flower heads buzzing with bees.

Agave flowers

Closeup of the Agave flower head. The plant goes to a lot of effort to ensure pollination, but blooms only once on its massive flower stalk before dying.

Rarely seen

You can see an amazing assortment of birds from the boardwalks that traverse the coastal nature reserves near Huntington Beach, California.  On our early morning walks, we spotted three species I had never photographed before, two of which I had never even seen before.

Surf Scoter

With its thick, boldly patterned red, yellow and white bill, and white eye, the male Surf Scoter is an easily recognized black diving duck.

Surf Scoters breed on fresh water lakes in Alaska and northern Canada, but winter along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.  Usually they are much too far out in the ocean to photograph, but a small flock was exploring the Newport Back Bay the same day I was.  Females lack the big white patches on forehead and nape.

Male Pintail ducks

A pair of male Pintail ducks foraged in the still waters of the Newport Back Bay.  When these handsome males are in breeding plumage, they sport elongated, upright tail feathers that give them their name.

Like Mallards, Pintail ducks breed in fresh water lakes all over North Anerica, but I rarely see them near me.  Their chocolate brown color and graceful swan-like necks make them a standout for photography.


More often seen than heard, the Sora is the most common rail in North America. This one was probing the short, fleshy stems of pickle weed in deep shade under the boardwalk.

Secretive Soras!  So difficult to see, but here was one just waking around right in front of me, completely oblivious to all the people passing on the boardwalk. I most often hear them calling their distinctive “whinny” of descending notes from somewhere deep in the cattail marshes that they occupy during the breeding season.

Garth McElroy at Wild Bird Video productions has a great video of a Sora foraging is a marsh.  Click on the highlighted link and advance the video to 0:50 seconds to hear the bird make its call.


Fall color redux

Growing up in California, I don’t ever remember spectacular color in the fall.  But the trees imported from southeastern Asia that are now used as boulevard trees in San Jose (Northern California) are exceptionally colorful in what is now the fall season here.  I am delighted to have a second fall season before going back to a colder MN winter season.

Chinese Pistache

Chinese Pistache are relatively small trees with slender leaves that turn a red to gold color.

Chinese Pistache

These trees are a favorite not only for their color but their ability to tolerate extreme heat and cold, as well as drought — conditions they are likely to experience in this challenging climate.

Sycamore fall color

Sycamores turn a bright yellow in fall, and drop lots of large, star-shaped leaves.

Sycamore leaf fall - oil canvas look

I discovered the photo editing software on my iPad has special effects. This is the oil painting version of the sycamore leaf fall…almost looks pastoral instead of urban.

Liquidambar fall color

I call the Liquidamber a tree of many colors because each branch seems to take on a different brilliant hue, from yellows to deep purples.

Fall color -Chinese Pistache and palm trees

The contrast of red Chinese Pistache and green Palm trees seems quite Christmasy.

Fall color, San Jose CA

What a treat to see such vivid color twice in one year.


Pelican encounter

Brown Pelicans were diving for the small fish swimming right next to the boardwalk across Bolsa Chica lagoon in Huntington Beach, CA.  They lifted off the water in a few mighty flaps, circled over our heads at about 30 feet, glided out over the lagoon, and then quickly plunged into the water with a loud splash.  Here’s a sample of the action.

Brown Pelican taking off

The lift off was accomplished with just a few wing flaps.

Brown Pelican taking off

Flying right toward the dozen or so photographers on the boardwalk didn’t faze these hunters intent on their next meal.

Brown Pelican soaring

Those long wings make soaring over the open water effortless.

Brown Pelican diving

Fish spotted, dive commenced…

Brown Pelican soaring

Like an arrow into the water…

Brown Pelican

I’m not sure what it caught but there was something there to swallow.

Brown Pelican soaring

And back out over the lagoon again for another try.

Confusion over true identity

Who are you little bird?  Are you a Rufous Hummingbird, with your bright chestnut-colored plumage and iridescent orange throat, or are you a similar-looking Allen’s Hummingbird with iridescent green feathers on your back?

Male Rufous/Allen Hummingbird

Who are you?  This was a most uncooperative little male.  It simply would not turn to face the light so I could photograph that brilliant orange  throat.

Male Rufous/Allen Hummingbird

The green feathers don’t cover the bird’s back as they normally would in an Allen’s Hummer, but the green coloration is apparently variable in both.

To further confuse the issue, Rufous Hummingbirds migrate through California, from their breeding grounds in northern Canada and southern Alaska to their wintering areas in Mexico, the longest migration for a bird of that size (3 inches, 2-5 grams).  They should have passed by this area in Los Angeles already.  But weather patterns have been strange this year, and fall migration of some species delayed.  Occasionally migrants stray from their southerly course and “stay over” in unexpected places. So this might be an errant Rufous hummer after all.

According to Sheri Williamson at, if the back of the bird is less than half green, you can safely call it a Rufous Hummingbird.  What do you think I should call this impertinent male?

Pretty in pink

What could be more colorful than the brilliant pink of a male Anna’s Hummingbird throat against the pinkish-purple flowers of Mexican Sage?

Male Anna's Hummingbird sitting in Mexican Sage

Rare to catch the male sitting, even rarer to catch him showing off his iridescence.

The wings are a blur as this busy little male probes all of the white flowers that still hold some nectar.

The wings are a blur as this busy little male probes all of the white flowers that still hold some nectar.

Juvenile or female Anna's Hummingbird

The little juvenile or perhaps female Anna’s Hummingbird is plain in comparison.

For an explanation of how hummingbirds (and other species) achieve the brilliant glow of iridescence in their feathers, click here.

NOTE ADDED: These photos were taken at Silverlake Reservoir in Los Angeles.  Anna’s Hummingbirds only live along the west coast of the U.S.

Hawk of the bay

Marsh Hawks (or Northern Harriers) don’t typically hunt over open water, as this one did at the Newport Back Bay, but it coursed back and forth several times over flocks of ducks and shorebirds, gliding low, then performing a quick turn to repeat its flight in the opposite direction.

Marsh Hawk or Northern Harrier

Perhaps there were small mammals (their typical prey) running around in the plants at the edge of the marsh.

Marsh Hawks hunt by sound as well as sight, and their head and face has an owlish look with its flattened and rounded facial disk of feathers to capture the slightest whisper of a mouse twitch.

Female Northern Harrier, Wikipedia, photo by Lee Blumin

Female Northern Harrier, from Wikipedia, photo by Lee Blumin


Marsh Hawk or Northern Harrier

Female and juvenile Marsh Hawks are brown with a white spot just ahead of the tail. Males are gray with paler breast and abdomen feathers.

Gliding low over the landscape, a female Marsh Hawk listens for her lunch.  Females are brown with brown straked breast feathers.  Males are gray on top and pale on their underside.  A truly studly male Marsh Hawk may mate with as many as five females, supporting all of them during egg incubation with his foraging prowess!


Still water in the salt water lagoons along the Pacific coast of Southern California make wonderful reflections of the bird life living there.

A pair of American Widgeons

A pair of American Widgeons swimming in the quiet water of the Newport Back Bay in Southern California.

Greater Yellowlegs

Even the Greater Yellowlegs foraging by the shore cast quite a nice reflection in the quiet water.

Brown Pelicans grooming

Brown Pelicans grooming Their feathers after an early morning fishing expedition.

Marbled Godwits and Willets

Marbled Godwits and Willets in the shallow water right next to the road never even noticed me.


A narrow escape?

A black-furred Gray Squirrel has been hanging around in the back yard for a few weeks, but today, it looked a little different.

tail-less black squirrel-

Missing a chunk of tail and a big patch of fur on its head as well as its left side — this little squirrel was almost some predator’s dinner.

tail-less black squirrel-

A closer look at the damage.  Ouch, that exposed tail looks like it would hurt.  But the squirrel was moving around perfectly normally, trying to flick its stub of a tail at the other competitors for the fallen bird seed.

Whatever it was that grabbed this squirrel pulled all of the hair from the tail, but didn’t manage to even break the skin on its head and left side.  A lucky escape.

None of the other gray squirrels in the back yard (and there are a LOT of them, supported by my many bird feeders) have sustained any damage lately.  So I wonder if being black is a disadvantage in terms of being seen more easily and attacked by predators?  Could this be why we see so few black forms of the Gray Squirrel in our neighborhoods?

A little research reveals that the black coat color is actually rare, and is a recessive trait due to a deletion in the gene that controls on ON/OFF switch in melanin production.  Up close, the so-called “gray” hairs of the Gray Squirrel are actually banded with dark brown and lighter yellow-brown pigments, giving a grizzled appearance to the hair as it grows out from the skin.  Black squirrels lack the switch that causes the banding of the hair, and so only dark brown melanin is produced in the shaft of the hair — thus, a dark furred animal results.

But if black-furred Gray Squirrels are supposed to be rare, why are there so many of them in the eastern and northeastern U.S.?

The black morph of the Gray Squirrel is much more common in Washington DC than genetics would predict.

The black morph of the Gray Squirrel is much more common in Washington DC than genetics would predict.  Photo from the Great Lakes Gazette, Jan 21, 2013.

Apparently, the black morph was quite popular back in the days of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, and 18 of them from Canada were released at the National Zoo in DC, from which they spread to the surrounding metro area.


Black Squirrels thrive in urban and suburban areas (photo from Wikipedia)

This population has continued to thrive and produced lots of black-furred offspring (because two black-furred squirrel partners will produce a litter of all black babies).  Parks and residential areas where these squirrels like to hang out are largely free of the typical suburban predators, so there is less risk of being eaten.  AND, it turns out that black furred individuals expend less metabolic energy regulating their body temperature in cold weather than gray-furred individuals do — so they have an energetic advantage.

So while my black-furred squirrel may survive the Minnesota winter better than its gray-furred counterparts, it might be much more vulnerable to predation from hawks and owls in my backyard.  It will be interesting to see how long the squirrel lasts here.

Sunrise colors

There’s something about the air in the Fall that makes a sunrise extra spectacular. Is it because the frequent windy days blow all the particulates somewhere else making the landscape crystal clear?   Whatever the reason, I love fall mornings for the crisp, clean feel of that air.

fall sunrise

Sunrise and sunset colors develop their magnificent glow when the longer, red wavelengths bounce off particles among the clouds on the horizon.

Today, I am especially grateful for clean air after reading in the morning newspaper about the choking smog that has reached new highs for air pollution in China.