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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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 fieldguidetohummingbirds.com, 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?
What could be more colorful than the brilliant pink of a male Anna’s Hummingbird throat against the pinkish-purple flowers of Mexican Sage?
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.
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 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.
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 black-furred Gray Squirrel has been hanging around in the back yard for a few weeks, but today, it looked a little different.
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.?
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.
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.
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.
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.