the beauties of 2017

The backyard is quiet again, as the snow falls, temperatures drop, and the wildlife roam less far and wide (meaning, less likely to be seen in my backyard at least).  So, I’ve dug through the collection of “best birds of 2017” to bring you my 12 favorites from our treks around the U.S. this year.

Texas (near Brownsville)

Crested Caracara, Alamo TX

Adult Crested Caracara, Alamo TX

Harris Hawk-Alamo, Texas

Adult Harris Hawk diving down to get its piece of frozen chicken-Alamo, Texas

Great Kiskadee, Alamo TX-

Great Kiskadee, Alamo TX-

Red-winged Blackbirds-Alamo, TX

Male Red-winged Blackbirds behaving badly, Alamo, TX

Tri-colored Heron, Padre Island, TX

Tri-colored Heron, Padre Island, TX

Long-billed Dowitchers-Laguna Vista TX-

Long-billed Dowitchers, Laguna Vista, TX

South-eastern Arizona (Tucson and Portal areas)

Painted Redstart (or Whitestart), Portal AZ

Painted Redstart (or Whitestart), Portal AZ

Phainopepla-Tucson, AZ

Phainopepla-Tucson, AZ

Vermillion Flycatcher-Tucson AZ

Vermillion Flycatcher-Tucson AZ

Magnificent Hummingbird-Santa Rita Lodge, AZ

Magnificent Hummingbird-Santa Rita Lodge, AZ. The light was just off to the side so his brilliant iridescence is dulled.

Cactus wren-Tucson, AZ

Cactus wren-Tucson, AZ, in its elements of thorns and spiny plants

Gila Woodpeckers at their nest, Tucson, AZ

Gila Woodpeckers at their nest, Tucson, AZ

You don’t really have to go too far to see some special birds, not found in your own backyard.  The trick is not just finding them, but getting them to cooperate for a photograph!

running on water

Watching ducks and swans take off from the mostly unfrozen lakes the other day, I was impressed with how important those big, webbed feet are in keeping the birds’ bodies up near the surface of the water.  For example, a light-bodied, male Hooded Merganser “ran” on the water less than 50 feet before it was air-borne.

male hooded merganser running on water

The merganser’s feet barely touched the water surface as its rapid wingbeats lifted it into the air.

These small diving ducks weigh only 1-2 lb, so getting air-borne from the water surface is less of an impressive achievement.  However, Trumpeter Swans, the heaviest bird in North America, weigh 20-30 lb, and lifting those big bodies into the air requires the combined effort of both feet and wings.

trumpeter swans running on water

Initially, it looks like a lot of splashing without much lift taking place.

trumpeter swan running on water

Their bodies are so close to the water on take-off, they can’t utilize their powerful wing down-stroke for lift, so the large surface area of the feet really is essential in pushing the bird up.

trumpeter swan running on water

Even as the bird begins to lift above the water surface, it still can’t use the down-stroke for lift;  the feet continue to propel the bird upward.

And those are some really big feet aiding the launching effort.  Swans rarely show off those big appendages that are so useful in water take-offs, as well as digging up the bottom sediment while they forage.

trumpeter swan landing-

Coming in for landing with webbed feet fully extended to brace for impact…

The birds with probably the longest required take-off pathway from water are the loons.  With relatively short wings and legs placed far to the rear, loons need two to three times the distance for take-off that ducks do, and as they take-off, they too appear to be skipping along the water surface — or even hydroplaning.

loon running on water-northof49photography.com

A Common Loon (or Northern Diver) in mid-take-off (photo by northof49photography.com)

The true masters of “running on water”, however, have to be the Western Grebes, whose courtship dance is a synchronized ballet of movement across the water, all performed without a single wingbeat, paddling with just their feet in completely upright posture.  A clip from David Attenborough’s Life of Birds shows this incredible feat the best.

odd couples

When they’re not competing for food or space (nest holes, etc.), different species of birds sometimes pair up in odd couples, seemingly coexisting without much ado.  It’s as if they either don’t recognize their differences or don’t care about them.  Hmm…wonder if there is a lesson there for us?

Northern Pintail-American Wigeon

A couple of Northern Pintail and American Wigeon males swam around together in a shallow lake near Brownsville, Texas last January.  Ducks often form rafts of mixed species when they flock up on their wintering grounds.

lazuli bunting-black-headed grosbeak

A Lazuli Bunting and a Black-headed Grosbeak are perfectly happy to share the bird feeder.  These distinctly different looking species (both brightly colored males) are both members of the Cardinal family and they overlap in both their breeding ranges and their wintering areas.

But where there is competition for food or nesting areas, aggressive threats or attacks often ensue, even between individuals of the same species.  Close proximity is not tolerated, and everyone gets hyperactive and flighty.  It’s not a lot different than what happens in human societies living in crowded conditions.

Red-winged blackbirds

Red-winged blackbirds engage in all-out battles with each other over monopoly of a food source.

harris hawk- crested caracara interaction

The postures exhibited in this interaction between an adult Harris hawk and a juvenile Crested Caracara tell the story: the hawk owns this meat, and open-beak threats make the caracara back off in submission.

Will it be competition or coexistence between two species or two individuals — odd couple or fierce combatants?

gray squirrel for breakfast

I complain that I have too many gray squirrels in the backyard, clever ones that manage to defeat all the squirrel barriers on bird feeders.  It’s my own fault for supplying too much bird seed, but there is an unexpected benefit to attracting squirrels — attracting their much more photogenic predators.

red fox with gray squirrel kill-

I missed the actual fox-squirrel encounter, however, the fox was making sure the squirrel was dead by biting it in the neck several times.

red fox with gray squirrel kill-

checking for life from another angle…

red fox with gray squirrel kill-

bite it again, just to make sure…

red fox with gray squirrel kill-

So, eat it now, or save for later?

Save for later, was apparently the decision, as the fox picked the squirrel up in its jaws and trotted off behind bushes and the neighbor’s house to have some privacy.

Foxes and probably the Great Horned Owls in the backyard have been doing a fine job of keeping the local rabbit population in check.  In fact, I rarely see a rabbit munching on my flowers any more.  As is usually the case, when one population of prey decreases, there is increased pressure on other prey species, in this case, the gray squirrels that annually produce a new crop of naive youngsters that like to hang out near the bird feeders.  And therein lies the balance of nature…

Note: these are not the best photos of a photogenic fox; they were shot on a very gray day, early in the morning, through dirty windows, with a much too slow shutter speed — but the action was exciting!

big bruiser in the backyard

This guy is big! The biggest one I think I have seen near my backyard, anyway. He calmly strolled onto the neighbor’s lawn about 20 feet from their house, and plopped himself down on the lawn for a morning rest.

buck with big antlers-

The photo doesn’t do justice to his size and girth, but it’s obvious he has a pretty massive neck.

Not only are there multiple tines in his rack, but some are quite broad, meaning this guy took in a good measure of protein and minerals (e.g., calcium) in his summer diet while those antlers were developing.  Maybe he discovered a nice vegetable plot with peas and beans, or a stash of acorns.

buck with big antlers-

You would need to develop those neck muscles just to hold up the weight of those antlers.

Males need a high protein (as much as 16% protein in younger animals), mineral-rich diet not just to grow antlers but to develop the protein and fat stores that will carry them through the energy-intensive rut season and the remainder of the winter.   How much leafy green stuff would they have to chow down each day to take in that much protein?

That’s a trick question, because the protein they absorb doesn’t come directly from their food, but from the microbial fermentation products, and from digesting the microbes themselves, that deer and other ruminant herbivores raise in their complex, four-compartment stomachs.  So, the better they feed their microbial friends, the more nutrients the microbes pass onto their deer hosts.

buck with big antlers-

He looks like a champion contender, doesn’t he, ready to take on the competition?

Males might lose as much as 30% of their body mass during the rut, depending on the level of competition and number of competitors they face, so gaining as much mass as possible during the summer is integral to their success and their survival.

I know I’m doing my part to sustain these guys, judging from the number of perennials in my garden that get munched down to their roots every summer.

Getting to know you…

“getting to know all about you” — that’s what we often see in the synchronized displays of paired birds that mate for life.  It’s more commonly seen in the spring resurgence of pre-breeding behaviors, but often, mated pairs renew their bond in the fall before migrating to warmer climates with open water.

Trumpeter Swans pairs exhibited their neck bowing and chest-to-chest-wing flap and trumpet greetings with each other on Lake Vadnais yesterday with gusto.

Trumpeter Swan courtship behavior

Neck bowing behavior, up and down, from fully extended to completely bowed, repeated several times, both while swimming in parallel and while facing each other.

trumpeter swan courtship behavior trumpeter swan courtship behavior

Because these birds often don’t breed until they are 4-6 years old, cementing their partnership early is integral to their eventual breeding success, in defending their nest territory as well as protecting their offspring, which single individuals cannot do alone.  Their synchronized neck bowing behaviors occasionally escalated to more vigorous displays of wing flapping and chest bumping (kind of remniscent of football players in the end zone after a touchdown).

trumpeter swan courtship behavior

Muted trumeting accompanied the wing flap face-off between these partners.

trumpeter swan courtship behavior

But then, one swan seemed to be trying out a couple of different partners as it first performed the neck bowing sequence with one individual and then took-off flying and pursued another individual, bowing and wing-flapping with it, and then eventually settling down to feed side by side.  I wonder if this is the equivalent of swan dating?

trumpeter swan courtship behavior

Swan in the lead with partner #1, performing the head bowing behavior as they swim

trumpeter swan courtship behavior

Suddenly the lead swan takes off, trumpeting, chasing another swan into flight. Huge webbed feet paddling against the surface of the water help these large-bodied birds get aloft.

trumpeter swan courtship behavior

trumpeter swan courtship behavior

Once landed in the same area, vigorous wing-flapping and trumpeting occurs for several seconds, following by neck bows, and finally feeding side by side.

I might have thought this was one male chasing another, except for the behavior that followed.

trumpeter swan courtship behavior trumpeter swan courtship behavior trumpeter swan courtship behavior

Just another day in the lives of the Trumpeter Swans, even if confusing to us human observers.

Another California memory

Sometimes small sparrow-like birds are difficult to identify because they are rather non-descript or resemble a number of different species, and so birdwatchers call them LBJs (little brown jobs).

california towhee

A California Towhee sitting very uncharacteristically in a tree.

The California Towhee might be a plain brown, but it is larger and stouter than an LBJ, and usually recognizable by its habit of scratching through the litter by jumping back and forth with both feet.  It’s a bird of the understory, meaning way under and into the interior of low shrubs, and usually pretty well hidden from view.  So, it was a little unusual to see a towhee perched in a tree in full view, and completely at ease with me encroaching on its space.

california towhee

If only the male hummingbird was as patient as this bird…

California Towhees are found only along the coast of California and the Baja peninsula in Mexico, where they thrive in the dense chaparral scrub, hunting seeds, fruits and berries, insects, spiders, and whatever other edibles can be found there.  The berries of Poison Oak are a favorite item in their diet; in fact, they like poison oak vegetation so much, they often nest in the thickest branches of the plants, perhaps feasting on the berries at the same time.

california towhee

More often you find California Towhees scratching the surface near grassy areas where they can pick up fallen seed and perhaps an insect or two.  Their long tail and smooth, all-over brown coloration make them easy to identify — not an LBJ.

And so another California visit comes to an end, and I’m back in the freezing northland again, awaiting the next snow storm.  Sigh…

The teaser

The resident (and very territorial) male Anna’s Hummingbird in my mother-in-law’s backyard proved to be quite a challenge to photograph. He always sat with his back to me, singing his scratchy sing-song, and he preferred to hover in front of me with his back to the sun.  In fact he hovered above and around me for just seconds before dashing away to hide in the middle of the bottlebrush shrub.  What a tease!  You have to be really quick on the trigger (shutter) to catch these guys in prime light, and there were many more misses than successes with my attempts.

Male Anna’s Hummingbird

Male Anna’s Hummingbird

Male Anna’s Hummingbird

Now you see it…

You have to be in exactly the right light to catch the beautiful iridescence of the male hummingbird’s gorget of feathers around his neck and the top of his head.  It’s almost as if he knew what I was trying to photograph and purposely turned away from the sun.

Male Anna’s Hummingbird

Iridescent feathers of a male Anna’s Hummingbird look black when not in direct light.

and then he took off from the branch…

Male Anna’s Hummingbird

Wow! What a spectacle; what female hummer wouldn’t be dazzled by this?

Iridescence is believed to be caused by multiple reflections from semi-transparent surfaces where interference between the reflected light paths modulates the color observed. In fact, microscopic studies of hummingbird feathers reveal that their surface is constructed of layers of elliptical plates resembling a tiled floor. These reflective surfaces produce the interference optics that results in the shimmering colors of iridescence.