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.

Larks of the Platte River

While driving around looking for Sandhill Cranes feeding in the corn fields a week ago, we spotted a couple of lark species (not closely related species actually — they just happen to have “lark” in their common names).

Horned Lark

Horned Larks are the only true larks in North America. The “horns” are just longer feathers on the back of the male’s crown that tend to ruffle up in the wind. Females are browner overall and usually lack the dark black cap.

Horned Lark panting on a hot day

It was a very warm and still in the middle of the day, and this little bird was sitting by the side of the road panting to stay cool. Notice how the bird has drooped its wings and is holding them out to the side to increase air flow through its body to dissipate heat. Facing directly into the sun to expose those reflective white breast feathers also cuts down on the heat gain from solar radiation.

Horned Larks are one of the earliest nesting species, often losing a nest full of eggs to a late winter snow storm.  They seem to be really adaptable, hearty birds, breeding from low desert to high altitude (as high as 13,000 feet), over an expansive range from southern Mexico to northern Alaska.  Despite their wide geographic range, Horned Larks seem to prefer the geography and climate of the place they were raised (like many humans I know), so those that migrate south to avoid the harsh Canadian and Alaskan winters return to exactly the same spot to breed each year.

Meadowlarks are not larks at all, but are members of the Blackbird family. Their name seems to suit them, as they are most often found in grassy meadows or fields and “sing like a lark”.

Eastern Meaadowlark male and female-

Although they tend to move around somewhat hidden in the tall grasses, males often perch on higher ground to sing, proclaiming their territory to other males, and advertising their virility to local females.  In fact, the brightest and best singing males may have attracted more than one nesting female to their territory.

Meaadowlark male

The meadowlarks were also engaging in a little open-mouth panting in the bright noon sun.

Eastern Meaadowlark male

This is most likely an Eastern Meadowlark male, but you would have to hear its song to differentiate it from the Western Meadowlark which looks almost identical, but sounds quite different.

The geographic ranges of Eastern and Western Meadowlarks overlap slightly in this area of central Nebraska, but the two species keep their amorous efforts strictly within species boundaries, based on their song preferences, so there is no hybridization between them.  Males of the two species may even compete with each other for the best territories, making sure to exclude the other species’ females as well.

Winter wonderland — again!

I thought Spring was on its way, but Old Man Winter isn’t through with us, it seems.

White-tailed deer herd foraging after a snowstorm

The deer herd cruised through the backyard looking for anything halfway edible still remaining this late in the year.

White-tailed buck

This big buck still had his antlers last week when he wandered through. Another smaller buck with him had already dropped his.

white-tailed doe

The remnants of conehead flowers in the wildflower garden are not very tasty, I guess. Perhaps the birds have gotten all the seeds out anyway.

backyard snow

This kind of scenery is a lot prettier in November than it is in March.

Time to move on…Winter!

Owl family update

It was morning nap time at the owl nest today.

Great Horned Owl female

Mom sat in one tree about 50 feet from the nest box, miraculously free of branchlets across her body, eyes completely closed and unperturbed.

Great Horned Owl male

Dad sat in another tree a little further away, closer to the trunk as he usually does, also completely unperturbed by photographers snapping photos of him.  

Great Horned Owl chicks

Two nestlings pressed tightly together in one corner of their nest box with their eyes closed, also completely unaware of how many people were staring at them from below.  They look more and more like Ewoks with their fuzzy, downy plumage.

Great Horned Owl chicks

Momentarily wide-eyed to check us out, but then they went right back to their nap.  The best guess is that they are about 6-8 weeks old now, and might be leaving this cozy nest box soon.

Sandhill Cranes in action

This short video clip of the Sandhill Cranes at their overnight roost site on the Platte River will give you a better idea of the numbers of birds there and the continuous racket they make with their loud rattle calls.

You can view the video in low resolution by clicking on the play button on the video screen here.  However, to view the video in HD, click on its title at the top of the video (next to my lovely photo), which will take you to the Vimeo site.  There, you should be able to view it in HD by clicking on the HD button at the bottom right of the screen.

a day in the life of a Sandhill Crane

sunrise on the Platte River, NE

Sunrise on the Platte River near Grand Island, NE. Already, hundreds of Sandhill Cranes have launched themselves skyward to fly out to crop fields to forage.

Sandhill cranes at sunrise-

One large flock of cranes flew off before sunrise, but several more flocks still remain on the sandbars. You can just barely see one group in the lower third of the photo.

From sunrise to sunset, Sandhill Cranes make their presence known with their loud rattle call (click here to sample the sounds of a single bird or that of a large flock of cranes).

Sandhill cranes at sunrise-

All but a few of the Cranes in the foreground have taken off, but a huge flock in the background is still waiting for just the right time.

Sandhill cranes at sunrise-

What are they doing, besides preening, calling to each other, and occasionally stabbing a bill into the mud to find a snack there? Waiting…waiting, for just the right time to take off.

Sandhill Cranes flying to crop fields to feed

Often still vocalizing, it’s follow the leader to the first foraging site at some farmer’s corn field.  These birds are strong flyers, and move quickly across the landscape!

Sandhill crane flying and calling

Calling out….”follow me”

Sandhill Cranes flying

Large flocks accumulate in fields of corn stubble a few miles from the river, but often a small flock simply joins another larger flock if the foraging looks good there.  Here, this small flock is gliding in to land with another larger group.

Sandhill cranes flying

Put down the landing gear…

Sandhill Cranes flying and feeding

Gliding in for the landing…

Sandhill Cranes feeding

Heads down, the Cranes are intent on gobbling up every kernel they find. However, more efficient machinery for harvesting corn leaves far less waste on the ground these days than in previous decades. Cranes must search more intensively or stay longer on their stopover to gain adequate fat stores to complete their migration.

Sandhill Cranes feeding in corn stubble

The Cranes spread themselves out in a straight line across the remains of last year’s corn crop. You can see there is not much in the way of edible nutrients left on the ground.

Sandhill Cranes flying back to the river at sunset

After a long day of foraging in the corn stubble, Sandhill Cranes head back to the river in huge flocks of hundreds of birds — for another night on the river’s sandbars.

Three subspecies of Sandhill Cranes converge on the shallow sandbars of the Platte River from their wintering grounds in New Mexico, Texas, and northern Mexico in late February to early March.  They might stay several weeks, depending on how quickly they can refuel their fat deposits, before taking off for prairies in central and western Canada and Alaska.

Central Flyway_Map

Cranes and other waterfowl funnel through the narrow channel of habitat along the Platte River in the Central Flyway.

Sandhill Cranes are one of the oldest bird species, with fossils (found in Nebraska) indistinguishable from living cranes dating back 9 million years, long after the the rise of the Rocky Mountains and the development of prairie grasslands.  It’s amazing to think that these birds may have been repeating this same migratory journey for millions of years — and hopefully will continue for years to come.

Sandhill Cranes flying

Cranes at sunrise

We met our small birding group at 6 a.m. to drive/walk out to the blinds managed by the Nature Conservancy on the 250 acre prairie preserve owned by the Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center.

We walked in the dark, aided a little by moonlight.  The cranes sounded like they were very nearby, constantly calling in the dark.  At sunrise an hour later, we could finally see them, packed tightly together, just 200 yards away on a sandbar across from the blind.

Sandhill cranes on the Platte River, Alda NE

Sandhill cranes at sunrise on the Platte River, Alda NE

As the sun rose, cranes began to leave, some in small groups, and others in huge wheeling flocks that covered the entire sky.

Sandhill cranes at sunrise on the Platte River, Alda NE

Sandhill cranes at sunrise on the Platte River, Alda NE

Over 500,000 Sandhill Cranes funnel through a narrow zone about 30-40 miles wide along the Platte River between Kearney and Grand Island each year as they make their way up the Central Flyway to northern North America to breed.  This number represents about 85-90% of the Sandhill Crane population in North America moving through just this one narrow stretch of river, a migratory path that has been ingrained in the species for perhaps millions of years.

Sandhill cranes at sunrise on the Platte River, Alda NE

To ensure continued health and population stability for Sandhill and Whooping Cranes, as well as numerous other species of waterfowl that utilize the Platte River stopover, the Audubon Society, the Crane Trust, and the Nature Conservancy have purchased land along this critical stretch of the Platte.

Sandhill cranes at sunrise on the Platte River, Alda NE

Although they are pretty far away in this photo, you can get an idea of the huge number of cranes that congregate on the sandbars overnight before heading out to forage in the corn fields next to the river in the daytime.

Cranes at sunset

It took us all day to get to Grand Island, Nebraska, but there was a very rewarding sunset at the end of it.  We traveled here expressly to see the Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese that use this area of the Platte River as a staging area prior to their migration to their breeding grounds in northern North America.

Sandhill cranes at sunset

Sandhill cranes at sunset

This is the actual color — I didn’t intensify these images in Photoshop.

Sandhill cranes at sunset

Long lines of Sandhill Cranes were flying everywhere over the river on their way from feeding grounds near the river to a comfy sandbar for the night.

Sandhill cranes at sunset

The sky was filled with hundreds of birds, but this is early in the migration. Local residents said next week will be the peak of migration when there are tens of thousands of birds on the river.