Home sweet home

It’s nesting season for some of the resident birds. Having staked out a territory and driven off the competition, it’s time to find that perfect little home in which to raise the kids this year.  For some species, the safest place is a cavity in a tree or nest box, where the offspring will hopefully be safe from predators.  The other day while I was down by the pond in the far backyard looking at turtles, a pair of Black-capped Chickadees were flitting in and out of a notch in a dead branch just a few feet away.

black-capped chickadee-at its nest hole

Each one of the pair entered the hole completely silently (no vocalizations) and then exited a few minutes later with a beak full of wood chips.  It must have been a pretty roomy nest cavity because a couple of times they were in there together.

This cavity may have been used by a previous owner (e.g., a woodpecker) because the entrance is quite a bit larger than the chickadee is.  Nevertheless, this pair is modifying the cavity to suit their needs this year — for example, the typical cavity for a chickadee nest is about 8 inches deep.  After excavation, they will add a layer of moss and small sticks, and then another layer of soft fur to line the nest cup.  It’s quite a production.

Black-capped Chickadee leaving nest hole

They were furtive and silent as they went about their task, — better to keep potential predators from coming back to raid the nest sometime later.

But the number of suitable cavities of just the right size are limited, and there are lots of chickadees, House Wrens, Tree Swallows, and Bluebirds that require one about this size to start building their nest.  While I was watching the courtship activities of the osprey pair at the marsh the other day, I saw some of this interspecific competition between chickadees and Tree Swallows, each of whom seemed to be claiming a cavity in a tall, dead snag.

Black-capped chickadee entering nest hole

A pair of Chickadees were entering and leaving the hole with wood chips in their beak, — completely silently.

Black-capped chickadee leaving nest hole-

Definitely some construction going on there.

tree swallow at chickadee nest cavity

Meanwhile, when the chickadees departed to get rid of their wood chips, a Tree Swallow investigated the cavity.  Unlike the chickadees, three Tree Swallows swarmed around this cavity vocalizing loudly.  They entered and exited very quickly — did they recognize this home belonged to someone else?

Tree Swallows checking nest hole

This shot was taken when one chickadee was still inside, with the Tree Swallow poking its head down into the cavity to observe whose home it was.

I didn’t stay to see who got control of this cavity.  Tree Swallows are a little larger than chickadees and weigh about 50% more, so it’s possible they might have ousted the chickadees and claimed this cavity for their own home.  I’ll have to check back later to see who “won”.

spring fling

I got back from a two week visit to relatives in California to find that spring was in full swing here in Minnesota.  On my walk around at the local marsh this afternoon, not only were the frogs, turtles, and birds visibly active, there was quite a lot of courtship singing and territorial fighting going on.  I watched a pair of Osprey swoop, circle, dive, land on their stick nest, take off again, fly around more, then finally back at the nest get down to business — yes, that kind of business.  I found an unobstructed view about 150 yards from the nest platform, propped my telephoto on my knees and shot 180 photos!  Here is some of the action I witnessed.

osprey landing on nest

This nest platform has been here several years, and I know this pair have added sticks to it recently because last winter, the nest platform was completely bare.

osprey pair flying

Circling around each other for several minutes — I guess this constitutes courtship flight.

osprey pair-at their nest

osprey pair at their nest

osprey pair at their nest

Male (on the right) displaying to female

osprey pair at their nest

He alternated between showing his rear end and flapping his wings in her face.

osprey pair at their nest

A strange wing fluttering behavior that you might see in a begging chick…sort of submissive for a male.

osprey pair at their nest

Then he took off, circled the nest three times, and came in for a landing

osprey pair at their nest

Some serious braking action here, as he wants to land on her, not the nest.

osprey pair at their nest

Touchdown — ouch — pull your talons in.

osprey pair at their nest

And…success —mission complete.

Just as the finale was taking place, my camera blinked and quit — card full, battery dead.  What a great experience.

Sharing the resources

Shorebirds are some of the longest distance migrants among birds,  moving back and forth annually from breeding areas in the far northern hemispheres to wintering habitat in the far southern hemisphere.

dunlin and western sandpiper

Flocks of western sandpipers and dunlin may be in transit to their breeding areas in northern Canada and Alaska.  The mudflats of the San Francisco bay delta (at Alviso marina county park) provide the perfect stopover to refuel for the continuation of their journey.

Wherever they are, there is competition from resident species that push both migrant and resident species to diversify the way they exploit the food resources.  Some of that diversity is reflected in the unique structure of their beak.

western sandpiper and dunlin

Two Western Sandpipers (center) are dwarfed by the much larger Dunlin (another type of sandpiper). Their bills are half as long, and they use them to skim the surface of wet sand picking up minute invertebrates, rather than probing more deeply for worms and crustaceans like the Dunlin do.

Long-billed_Curlew_eating_sand_crab-Mike Baird

Long-billed Curlews are uniquely suited to probe deeply into the mud and sand to extract clams, worms, or crabs.  Photo from Wikipedia (by Mike Baird)

american avocet

American Avocets swish their slender, uptured bill back and forth in the water to stir up invertebrates, which they then grab in the pincer-like tip.  Clearly, this is not a bill designed for probing deeply into mud, despite its length.

But even in birds having similar shapes or sizes of beak, minute differences in structure or the way they use it (specific foraging behaviors) might be enough to reduce the competition.

black-necked stilt and greater yellowlegs

Black-necked Stilts and Greater Yellowlegs are about the same size, and have about the same length bills. Stilts are very visual hunters, often herding small fish or crustaceans to a site where they can grab them.  Their bill is a bit more slender and they use it like a pincer.  Greater Yellowlegs are also fond of fish and small crustaceans, but they hunt by feel using the very sensitive tip of their bill to detect prey.  Sweeping the bill side-t0-side through the water, they grab at any prey they detect.

Greater Yellowlegs

Greater Yellowlegs are called “greater” because their bill tends to be about 1.5 times the length of their head. Closely related Lesser Yellowlegs have a smaller body relative to the length of the legs and a shorter bill (about the same length as the head).


Willets are another, large-bodied shorebird with a short, stout bill they use to probe into the mud for crustaceans and worms. Unlike the stilt or the yellowlegs, willets can hunt both by feel at the tip of the bill and by sight, and are able to feed bot day and night — a handy trait when there is a lot of competition for food.

A really excellent video produced by the Cornell bird lab illustrates the way that shorebirds specialize in harvesting their food, by variation in their bill structure, foraging behaviors, vision, or micro-habitat preferences.

almost there…

This is a progress report on my photography efforts within the Arcanum cohort with Les Imgrund — so not much backyard biology in this post.  I am 3/4 of the way through the 20 levels of the Arcanum experience for apprentices, and am slowly improving my photographic efforts on many fronts.  I’ve learned quite a bit about composition, what is pleasing to the eye, and what makes a viewer say “wow”.  I’m still learning what my camera can do — and what I can make it do better.  And most importantly, I’m learning quite a bit about what to do with the photos I’ve taken when my efforts with the camera were not that stellar (which is more often the case).  Lastly, I certainly haven’t completely mastered the art of wildlife photography by any means, but I’ve been branching out to shoot other subjects, which is great way to learn what works best for composition of all photos (and especially wildlife).   So, here’s what I have done recently to illustrate those efforts.

dogs at play

Capturing the action of dogs at play in the doggy park is just like shooting wildlife (action-packed), but you often have the distracting elements of the humans or structures in the background to deal with (which in this case I tried to diminish by blurring them out of focus).

street singer

Before I joined the Arcanum. I never would have considered shooting something like this. This man just had so much character and emotion locked up in that expression and those creases, I must have taken 20 shots of him from different angles. In color it lacked the punch I think it has in this sepia tone instead.  Again the background of the shot needed a lot of remediation.

platte river sunrise-

This Platte River sunrise is a work in progress. I tried a different HDR technique (blending 3 images in Photoshop) to get to this image, but am going to work on it more with the assistance of my Arcanum master to really make it sing. Landscapes are something I really want to get much better at photographing and processing.

Anna's hummingbird

Of course, my favorite subjects are still the birds, and this shot illustrates what I am aiming for now — simple lines, uncluttered background, crystal clear subject(s), and interesting content. I’m learning to be more intentional about composition, and more careful about camera and lens settings before snapping the shutter.

birds in the bay

We took a short walk at the Alviso marina yesterday and found shorebirds by the hundreds.  This little bay is at the extreme southeastern end of the large bay that opens up at San Francisco’s Golden Gate and runs almost all the way to San Jose where we have been staying the past couple of weeks.  Two creeks empty into the bay here, so there is a sizeable acreage of marsh just perfect for migrating as well as breeding shorebirds.  I’ll write more about this in the next couple of days, but for now here are a couple of photos of what we saw.

eared grebe-male

A male Eared Grebe with his golden feathers flying out from his “ears” (really the side of his head) patrolled along the shore accompanied by his two females.  Nice mohawk hairdo on this guy.

black-necked stilt-

There were several Black-necked Stilts wandering around among the other, smaller shorebirds.

american avocet

Avocets have one of the most unusual bills — long, slender, and upturned, which apparently is useful for finding tiny invertebrates in the water.

western sandpiper and dunlin-

The mudflats were crowded with little sandpipers. A group of Dunlin (with dark black bellies) surrounded one lone Western Sandpiper on this mudflat.

western sandpiper-

A lone Western Sandpiper got close enough to us that we could zoom in on his spots.  Its beak kind of looks like Pinocchio’s nose.

dunlin and western sandpiper

Every so often a large group of sandpipers would fly off, circle around, and land on a different mudflat. The whole flock turned simultaneously, causing it to shimmer in silver or white, as they flashed their white bellies toward or away from me.

The wind was blowing pretty hard in the open areas of the marsh, and the telephoto was pretty wobbly in my hands, so my husband had a try at getting these photos, with much more success than I did.

shorebird photography

This is what you do when the birds are far away and you don’t have a tripod for your telephoto lens.  (photo taken with my phone)

the oak savanna

We hiked for an hour at Quicksilver Park in San Jose the other day and were treated to quite a wildflower show as well as an eye-pleasing green scene of oaks and grasses.

poppy field

California poppies dotted the hillsides, especially in the rocky and sandy areas. They seem to grow best where there are serpentine soils.

serpentine rock and flowers-

Flowers pop up wherever there is enough loose rock to hold water for seed germination, like this ledge in the serpentine rock formation.

Serpentine rock is recognized by its green color, occasionally with magenta highlights. It is really a mineral aggregate formed on on sea floors by the interaction of heat and water containing magnesium, silica, iron, and often several other heavy metals like chromium, manganese, cobalt, and nickel.

serpentine rock-

Wildflowers literally grow right out of the rocks in this environment. Their roots must probe between tiny rock granules to find water trapped below. Close-up, the serpentine rock is quite colorful.

sky lupine

Lupines are usually eager colonists of bare soil, but the grasslands are pretty well developed here, so there is not much bare ground or many lupines.

oak savanna

Apparently northern California did receive enough rain this winter to green up the hillsides and produce a wildflower show. Dry, rocky hillsides like this one allow the native grasses to flourish without competition from all the species introduced for cattle feed.

Flowers, flowers, everywhere

I love this idea of short-circuiting end of winter by coming to a place where spring is in full swing.  The backyards (and front yards) here are full of flowers:  roses, irises, bougainvillea, poppies, and more.  Here’s a small sampling of what I am seeing.

California poppies along the trail

California poppies cover dry, rocky hillsides. It’s amazing how they can flourish where there seems to be so little soil.

Cymbidium orchids

Orchids my dad originally started growing more than 40 years ago. He gave some plants to my mother-in-law many years ago, and she has kept them going.

rose garden

The neighbors have an amazing rose garden in full bloom. The first bloom of the spring always seems to be the strongest and most colorful.

I have been encouraged to experiment more and “play” with the images using the photo editing software.  The image below is the result of my attempt to get more artistic in my photo editing.

Orchid art

I selected just one bloom from the spray, modified the color and texture of the petals a bit, selectively enhanced and sharpened just the red and white accents, while softening the other petals, and then applied a neutral background.  I like the way it resembles a painting more than a photograph.

Hummers in the garden

Ah, to be back in the warmth and sunshine of northern California, where the roses are blooming and the birdies are singing.  I was entertained by a very territorial Anna’s Hummingbird trying to assert control of a profusely blooming Bottlebrush shrub in my mother-in-law’s backyard.  The bird sat in the shade of the Bottlebrush “singing” a raspy chortle and making a long train of clicking sounds.  It chased, it buzzed over my head and in front of me (too close for my telephoto to focus), and then fed intermittently from the bottlebrush flowers.

anna hummingbird-feeding on bottlebrush

anna hummingbird

I was close enough to actually see its throat moving as it sucked nectar deep from the interior of this complex flower plume.

Exotic flowering plants have thrived in California with its mild Mediterranean climate, providing Anna’s Hummingbirds — the most common of the western hummers — with ample supplies of nectar almost year-round.  Bottlebrush, a member of the Myrtle plant family, is endemic to Australia, but once introduced, has thrived in California backyards as a decorative plant.

anna's hummingbird

This feisty little bird had about three different stations in the backyard from which it patrolled and defended its territory.

Males and females look much alike having a drab gray breast with emerald green back and head feathers. The big difference is the brilliant magenta gorget of neck feathers in the male, only seen when the light strikes them just right.

anna's hummingbird

Those almost circular-shaped neck feathers that appear to be black are actually filled with air spaces and multiple layers of transparent to semi-transparent plates that reflect light of particular wavelength — in this case, hot pink.

For a more thorough discussion of the optics of iridescence, with colorful examples of its uses in birds, see an earlier post here.

anna's hummingbird

The smaller gorget in this bird probably means it is in fact a female, even though the intense territorial defense it exhibited made me think at first it was a male.


The brilliant gorget of the male Anna’s Hummingbird wraps around its throat like a scarf. There is no mistaking this bird’s sex. Photo from Wikipedia by Alan Vernon.

Still in the nest…

but not for long.  The Great Horned Owl chicks are growing rapidly, and I think they might fledge this next week.  Unfortunately I won’t be here to witness that, as we are flying back to California today.

Great Horned Owl female and chick

It looks like the chicks have gotten big enough to jump up on the edge of the box and poop over the side now. That helps keep the interior of the nest cleaner and less parasite infested, I’m sure.

I was told (by all the photographers standing around at the nest site this morning) that there really are two chicks here, but the younger (smaller) one is obscured by mom’s big body.


I have achieved a personal milestone — graduation from the first phase, the Foundation Sphere, of The Arcanum, an online photography apprenticeship, in which basic photography skills are developed and honed.  The Arcanum began as Trey Ratcliff‘s inspiration a couple of years ago, and since its inception has gained in popularity rising to 8th on the list of the top 51 websites for online learning.


A certificate is awarded for each level attained (10 of them in the first, Foundation Sphere). This certificate marks my completion of that Sphere and movement into Sphere 1 — where real photographic artistry is mastered.

For me, this experience is about developing better instincts (and habits) for image composition, gaining some exposure to the more artistic style of expression in photography, and learning a LOT about post-processing of images.  As with any graduation, one should illustrate what they have mastered or gained in the process.  So here goes…

My previous experience with post-processing consisted of cropping, contrasting, and sharpening the photos I took, some of which were beyond this kind of help anyway. I had my camera set to compress the photos and store them as jpegs on the camera card, and to keep things quick and simple, I used Photoshop Elements or perhaps Picasa for photo editing.  Using this process, photos might have taken as long as 5 minutes to “fix”, but most were just a minute or two.

snow leopard-PS elements edit

The Snow Leopard edited in Photoshop Elements is great looking — the wire mesh fence, not so much.  The head and eyes seem to be the real focus of this shot, but I have unfortunately minimized their importance by including most of the body of the leopard.  The background, especially the wire mesh, is quite intrusive on the beautiful animal that I’m trying to showcase here.

Now it’s not just a snap decision how to crop the image because there are rules of composition to consider, and it is a much longer and more refined process of “developing” (rather than “fixing”) the image in Adobe Lightroom 5, whose many features I have now fully explored with the help of a 2-day hands-on workshop, a lot of online tutorials watched during jury duty, and a very thick book on the subject. The end result of this much more lengthy process of photo editing is an image in which the subject “pops” from the screen, hopefully in a much more impressive manner than previously.

Snow Leopard-Como Zoo-Lightroom5 edit

In Lightroom 5 I was able to separate the leopard from its background, selectively sharpen the head and especially the eyes (which also received a “glow” treatment) while blurring the background and then adding a black vignette around the edges to further emphasize that beautiful head.  Oh, and did I mention that shooting in RAW instead of jpeg format allowed me to make these adjustments with more impact?

I’ll leave it up to the audience.  Which treatment do you prefer?  And I will not be at all offended if you chose the first one, because I like it too.  In fact, I’m not really sure I prefer the Lightroom edited leopard, but I sure enjoyed learning how to do this.