Birding on Point Buchon

There is more to see along the coast of Montaña de Oro state park than just the park’s generous 8000 acres. The utility company (PG&E) maintains land on Point Buchon that abuts the park to the south. It is open to only a limited number of hikers daily, but has some of the most dramatic scenery and abundant wildflowers in this area.

Rocky crags line the coast here, and they make perfect roosting/resting spots for Cormorants and pelicans.
A few Brandt’s Cormorants (distinguished by their brilliant blue throats) gathered on this particular rock top.
Brown Pelicans were interspersed with the Brandt’s Cormorants on one end of this rock. The birds must have been feeding earlier because most of them were busily preening their feathers.
Wave action on these rock faces creates indentations that widen into caves and eventually break through into arches in the rock slabs. Look above the peak of the arch at the white streak running down the rock face. This is a sign that some seabirds have sat here long enough to decorate the rock with their excreta. A closer look at the rock face reveals what made the white “stain”.
There are at least three nests in this crack in the rock. These are Pelagic Cormorants (white spot on their flanks), which unlike what their name would suggest, actually do most of their foraging close to the shore. So these rocky crags offshore are the perfect place to nest. These birds hunt fish and invertebrates in deep water near the rocky shore, while the Brandt’s Cormorants hunt for prey in the water above the rocky bottom. Ecologists call that niche partitioning.
A better view of the rocky coastline habitat, with its isolated rocky crags, tide pools, sea caves and arches. Brown Pelicans are flying overhead.
Pelicans can “coast” over the water gaining lift from the air pressure changes in the wave surge.
Another inhabitant of the rocky shores here are Pigeon Guillemots, a member of the auk family. They are medium-sized seabirds with sharp bills for catching fish, short, stubby wings that help them “fly” through the water when diving for fish, and brilliant red feet that they show off to females when courting them.
I’m not sure who is who of this pair of birds, but this individual was perched perfectly to show off its feet. Guillemots forage for fish in the same areas as the Pelagic Cormorants, but as you might expect, they pursue smaller individuals than the cormorants. Another example of niche partitioning!
And back on land, some of the frequently encountered birds that wander through the grassy “heath” (scrubland) are small coveys of California Quail (male in front, female behind).
Probably the most common bird in this area — a sub-adult White-crowned Sparrow singing with great enthusiasm to stake out a territory and attract a mate.

Birding on the beach, part ii

Here are a few more photos at the local beach in Cayucos CA of some of the shorebirds darting in and out of the waves. The birds seem to be used to the people walking the beach, but not the dogs running in and out of the waves. However, dogs chasing birds gave me a chance to get some good flight shots.

Willets are medium-sized shorebirds with stubby black beaks, and striking black and white wing patterns. They joined the Marbled Godwits (previous post) in the receding water to probe into the sand for invertebrates.
I usually see Willets in the winter, when they are dressed in their “blah” plumage of drab gray, but at this time of year, the birds are transforming into their much more attractive speckled gray, like the bird on the left.
Willets really are very attractive birds at this time of year.
This is a composite image of one Willet in flight, as it shows off it’s black and white wings.

A third and regular visitor to this particular beach in Cayucos was the Whimbrel, easily recognized by its bold striped head and long, down-turned beak.

Unlike the Godwits that foraged in small flocks together, the Whimbrels were often solitary and probed both the wet sand as well as the seaweed higher on the beach, looking for something to eat.

The series of images below shows one Whimbrel’s successful capture and ingestion of a small crab it found in the seaweed. Use the arrows on either side of the image to advance (or reverse) the slideshow. (Note: if you’re reading this post in your email, the slide show may not be accessible, so click on the title of the post in your email, to go to the blog website.)

After swallowing the crab, I think I see a lump and ruffled feathers along the side of the bird’s neck. I always wonder how birds manage to avoid punctures in their gut after swallowing creatures with spines or pincers.
Whimbrels in flight — thanks to an adventurous canine.

Birding on the beach

We’re on a short excursion to CA to celebrate a birthday and hopefully experience the amazing super-mega-wildflower bloom that is taking place there this spring. But first, a trip to the beach where we found some shorebirds probing the sand for invertebrates.

Marbled Godwits assembled in twos, three, and small groups vigorously probing the wet sand after each wave receded. It was a gray, foggy morning at Cayucos beach on the central coast of California.
Whatever they found was too small to see.
One pair in their breeding plumage finery went everywhere together.
Another trio flittered from wet patch to wet patch looking for breakfast.
A graceful exit in the tiny glimmer of light through the morning fog.

Spring beauties

We made brief visits to the Paton Center for Hummingbirds in Patagonia and the Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson while camping at Catalina State Park to enjoy some of the spring delights of southern Arizona.

Granddaughter got a chance to photograph hummingbirds and other birds coming to the feeders at the Paton Hummingbird Center in Patagonia.
She got a very nice photo of a Broad-billed Hummer and a bee friend at one of the feeders.
A Green-tailed Towhee perked up his crest while singing to us.
Tiny Inca Doves were easy to photograph at the stream.

Desert wildfowers were plentiful, especially along the roadside where we saw dense swaths of orange Globe Mallow, yellow Bitterbush, pink Parry’s penstemon, and short purple lupines.

The penstemon was by far my favorite flower in the roadside displays.
At the Sonora Desert Museum, we had a brief encounter with a Pipevine Swallowtail on one of the penstemons.
The desert museum’s wildflower gardens were in full bloom.
Dry arid desert scenes are greatly enhanced by the brilliant colors of the wildflowers.

At our spacious campsite in Catalina State Park, we had room to spread out and time to take a walk before sunset. Quite a few birds were singing and displaying right at our campsite.

Sunset in Catalina State Park featured a giant saguaro surrounded by leafless mesquite shrub/trees.
A most cooperative male Vermillion Flycatcher posed on a few of the mesquite trees around camp.
I’ve never seen this species before — A Rufous-winged Sparrow. Several of them were flitting around camp, and some were singing. This is primarily a Mexican species and its range barely extends into southern Arizona.
A pair of Phainopepla, mistletoe berry specialists, hung out around the campsite also.
The diggings and burrows of the Round-tailed Ground Squirrel ran through our campsite, but only one individual showed up to check us out.

Spring is in the air

Snow or not, the birds are “springing” into action. Decked out in their newly refurbished plumage, males are returning from “down south” to establish territories and are advertising their stuff to potential mates.

Let the pairing begin — although these spectacular looking male males will only briefly copulate with a given female and then move on to find other mates.
Hen mallard checking out this fine-looking specimen.
Mallards are so common we take them for granted, but the males can dazzle with their iridescent blue-green heads and tawny feathers. How about that nice streak of blue down his back?

And if this attractive male does everything right, with appropriate attention and head bobbing, etc., he may be acceptable to the female.

Head bobbing in both partners is a signal that the female may be receptive to this male.
Elsewhere on this stretch of open water, Wood Duck males were courting a few females.
Males outnumbered the females here, so the lucky males (with interested females) usually stick very close to their potential mates to ward off challengers.

Glorious green on St. Paddy’s Day

In celebration of what is to come in the not too distant future…a shock of green to help you think “spring!”

The verdant California oak savannah, in all its spring glory.
Fern fronds are one of the first to unfurl in the spring.
Gray Tree Frogs (that can also turn green) love to sit on the leaves of my raspberries where they can find all sorts of pollinators coming to the flowers.
Green Iguanas (which can be green, gray, and orange-brown as they control the dispersal of pigment in their chromatophores) are very common in Mexico and Central America — so common that they are hunted and “taste like chicken”.
Many members of the parrot family sport green feathers. But there is no green pigment, so how is the color produced in the bird’s plumage?

In elementary school we learned that to get green color you mixed yellow and blue — and that’s just what birds do. There is no blue pigment in birds’ feathers either, but incoming light scattered off air pockets in the feather structures can be reflected to our eyes and appear blue. By adding this reflected light to the yellow light reflected from underlying (carotenoid) pigments in the feathers, the birds are doing just what we did in mixing our paints. This is illustrated below by a Broad-billed hummingbird as it approaches a feeder.

The light angle changes as the hummer approaches the feeder, so that we first see mostly the blue reflected light from structural elements of the feather, and then a mix of the yellow light reflected from carotenoid pigments plus the blue reflected light, which makes the sitting hummer look green.
Many insects, both predators and prey, are green, which is usually good camouflage, but in the case of this praying mantis completely misses the mark.
But this is what we are really waiting for — the first multicolor blooms of spring, like this wild columbine from the backyard.

As they say in Eire-land

“May your blessings outnumber the shamrocks that grow. And may trouble avoid you wherever you go.” –Irish Blessing

Spring fling?

The birdies seem to think it’s spring — cardinals and chickadees are singing in the backyard. A pair of Cardinals were courting on the tree outside my porch window yesterday morning, even while it was snowing.

Usually, Mr. Cardinal would be offering his mate a food morsel, but Mrs. Cardinal seems to be busy with a seed already. So, it looks like he’s offering her a drink (in the form of snow) to wash down the seed.
She doesn’t look at all interested in his gift.
So, he ate it himself.
Ho hum, waiting to see what he brings next…

Meanwhile…the backyard still looks like this

The bird feeder stands above my head in the summer, but right now its at chest height. Sooooo much snow. When will it end?

Wildlife extravaganza at Whitewater Draw

Northeast of the copper mining town of Bisbee, Arizona and west of the Chiricahua mountains in the southeastern corner of the state is the Sulphur Springs valley, which has recently become a birding hotspot because of the huge numbers of overwintering cranes, geese, ducks, waterbirds of all kinds, and assorted other small passerines.

Looking toward the western mountains, Snow Geese rested on a small pond.

Originally this area was a cattle ranch with springs and runoff from a part of the Chiricahua mountains that run through the middle of the valley and eventually end up in the Gulf of Mexico. But since the late 1990s, the land has been managed by Arizona Fish and Game and is designated a state wildlife IBA (important birding area). Tens of thousands of Greater and Lesser Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese spend the winter here foraging in nearby crop fields and wading in the 1500 acres of streams, marshes, and ponds.

Looking toward the south, hundreds of Sandhill Cranes were flying in to join others resting in a crop field.
Cranes were doing a lot of flying on this day — back and forth from field to marsh, providing numerous opportunities to photograph them in flight.
I almost think the amount of flying, often in formation, might be their “practice runs” to get in shape for spring migration. Migration is kind of like a marathon race for birds, and they must build muscle strength and endurance just like human long-distance runners do before setting off to the north.
Despite the long wingspan, which is great for gliding, these birds are powerful flyers with deep wing strokes, and they can power by you very quickly. They average 25-35 mph during migration, but can fly up to 50 mph, and can cover 300-500 miles per day during migration.
Coming in for a landing, lowering the landing gear (legs), as they glide to a stop.
Motionless gliding…
The same two birds as above, just about to land.

You can see some variation in the amount of red on the forehead of the cranes. The forehead is actually bald, devoid of feathers, and the red color is due to blood flow in this area. In territorial disputes or during courtship, the forehead may be flushed with blood and be a much bigger area with brighter color.

Getting a drink of muddy water, after all that flying around.

The Snow Geese were unusually quiet on this morning, resting on a small pond, rarely making a sound, and just sitting or sleeping. Perhaps they were digesting their early morning meal.

The darker morph of the Snow Goose used to be considered a different species (the Blue Goose), but in fact is just a rare color variant.
A pair of American Widgeons swam by. The male has a striking white stripe down his forehead (which looks like it might be a bald spot—but isn’t), and a bright green-bronze patch of feathers above his eyes.
A pair of Gadwall were also in the same pond. The male looks plain until you see the beautiful steel gray pattern of feathers on his breast.
I saw many male Shoveler ducks but rarely any females who might have been foraging elsewhere.
American Coots on the bank — this one showing off his lobed toes which are great for propelling the bird through water. But on land, coots walk like humans do when they are wearing snorkel fins, with exaggerated lifting of their feet in order to step forward.
A beautiful little Vermillion Flycatcher was hunting bugs in the weeds next to the pond.

What an incredible morning of birding. It was amazing to see how many people knew about this place and were walking slowly around admiring the birds.

Raptors, antelope, deer, and ducks at the Mexican border

We’re on the road again, sadly on our way back to Minnesota, where I’m hearing winter weather is raging. We’ve decided to try to visit as many new places as possible on the trip east.

Running from the Mexican border to the tiny burg of Arivaca in south central Arizona is a 117,000 acre grassland preserve — the Buenos Aires national wildlife refuge, where the deer and the antelope definitely roam in numbers. An occasional jaguar has even been sighted here. And it also seems to be a haven for wintering raptors.

Pronghorn Antelope leisurely crossed the road right in front of us. It looks like the male is wearing a radio collar. Pronghorn were reintroduced here, and are now considered to be a desert subspecies.

Buenos Aires NWR is a grassy, semi-desert landscape, but has some woodland features along the creeks and in draws. It supports quite a variety of large mammals (deer and antelope), and a great diversity of bird life that is attracted to the various water landscapes.

At another location on the refuge we discovered a much bigger herd of over a dozen antelope. I’m not sure if this group is composed of one male (antlered) and a harem of females, or the other antelope just haven’t regrown their horns yet.
I got too close to the antelope and they began to run away, Note the mule deer in the background that look like they’re wondering what all the fuss is about.
Buenos Aires has both White-tailed deer and Mule deer, shown here. They are easily recognized by their over-sized ears. These two were coming down from the wood thickets to drink at a pond.
Much of the refuge is a huge expanse of grass permeated by mesquite trees (now leafless), with an occasional cactus to remind us that this is a semi-desert area. This landscape will be even more beautiful when the trees leaf out and new grass is growing.
The most numerous raptor on the refuge is the Red-tailed Hawk, and most of the ones we saw were juveniles with light eyes and brown (not red) tails. The birds were amazingly tolerant of our presence, and let us drive right up next to them on the road.
The next most common raptor we saw were Northern Harriers, but all of them were females (brown plumage). The gray plumaged males may have been elsewhere on the refuge, or perhaps they don’t overwinter here at all.
In one of the wetland ponds, we found a few Green-winged teal (females) and a Sora foraging on the vegetation in the shallow water.
The male Green-winged Teal showed off his gorgeous head, lit up nicely in the morning sun.
This was the least shy Sora I have ever seen —usually I get only a glimpse of their body as they scuttle through waist high weeds. This one was out in the open, intent on finding something in the shallow water.
Loggerhead Shrikes were also seen frequently near the road. I have no idea what they could find to eat at this time of year when most insects and reptiles are dormant. Perhaps they can catch the small finches that forage for seeds by the side of the road.
A beautiful landscape, made more attractive by the absence of humans here.

Hidden gems

Amidst the vast expanse of California’s breadbasket of agricultural production in its Central Valley there are numerous “refugia” for wildlife. I was surprised to find that there are dozens of wildlife refuges scattered near the main artery of Interstate-5 in the Central Valley. We made a brief stop at one of these, the Kern National Wildlife Refuge, on our way north to the Bay Area, two weeks ago.

It was a very overcast day, and windy and cool as well. But the wildlife was abundant here, especially water birds of all sorts. A couple of hawks rested in the tree surveying for potential prey below them.

Kern NWR is at the south end of what was once a huge (at least 625,000 acres) wetland complex in the Tulare Lake Basin that was inhabited by hundreds (if not thousands) of migratory water birds during the winter. Today, 11,250 acres are protected in this area just north of Bakersfield, and visitors can drive a loop road around much of the open wetland areas.

A juvenile (light eye color) Red-tailed Hawk sat quietly while we drove past it.
Northern Shoveler ducks were one of the most common ducks here. This male is ready already decked out in his beautiful breeding plumage.
A little Pied-billed Grebe dived in the pond in front of us.
I think these were Violet-green Swallows, diving and swooping en masse over the surface of the water. Perhaps there was an insect swarm there.
A flock of Golden-crowned Sparrows were finding some luscious seeds among the early spring grasses.
This Western Meadowlark male was digging around in a litter pile, and finally found a grub of some sort.

But the most exciting find of the morning was the male Northern Harrier that we found coursing over the tops of some orchard trees along the roadside. We followed it along the road for quite a way, and I got several shots of the bird in flight.

What a beautiful little oasis among the crop fields. I would come back here (on a sunnier day)!