birds and blossoms

Spring has arrived in Northern California, despite long periods of recent heavy rain.  Trees are blooming, birds are singing, its green everywhere you look — truly a wonderful time to be outdoors.

Sycamores and green grass

Leafless Sycamores are a stark contrast to the lush green grass below.

Magnolia

This magnolia in my mother-in-law’s front yard began blooming back in November for some reason, and now shows both flowers and leaves simultaneously. The weather must have confused it….

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow singing loudly from his straddled perch

Black Phoebe

A Black Phoebe sang a few times in between catching bugs

Plain Titmouse

The Plain Titmouse whistled repeatedly to his mate to follow him on to the next tree.

Vultures on the beach

Taking a lesson from the Oroville dam almost-catastrophe, water levels in the Vasona reservoir south of San Jose, CA, have been lowered substantially prior to the next series of storms expected this weekend.

Vasona Reservoir, CA

The water in Vasona Reservoir is quite muddy, with a high volume coming in from highly eroded banks upstream.  The lake level is low enough now to expose some minor gravel islands, though.

Apparently, fish stranded in some of the back channels of the reservoir became fodder for the local bird life.  Turkey Vultures, seagulls, crows, and even a rarely seen Bald Eagle have been spotted feeding on the fish carcasses the past couple of days.

A “venue of Vultures” (I.e., a group of them) were still present picking over the last remains of a few fish this morning.

Turkey Vultures, Vasona reservoir, CA

Turkey Vultures:  where you see one, you usually find many

The weather wasn’t chilly, but when the sun emerged from behind some low clouds, the Vultures immediately began basking, backs to the sun and spreading their wings wide.  First one, then another and another…

Turkey Vultures basking

Does one Turkey Vulture copy another?  Coordinated basking behavior…

Turkey Vultures basking

Turkey Vulture show-off  — “I’m so pretty, oh, so pretty…”

Turkey Vulture take-off

Turkey Vulture taking off.  If you can ignore the naked red head, they are kind of pretty, especially those long, black and white wings.

California flooding

I have been reading about all the rain falling over most of California, but now I’m seeing the effects first hand.  We re-visited our favorite winery in Sonoma this past weekend and found Lake Sonoma overflowing into various tributaries.

Lake Sonoma spillway

Water rushing down the Lake Sonoma spillway is at high volume.

Lake Sonoma county park

At Lake Sonoma county park, what were once clear running quiet streams have turned into muddy backwaters.

Common Merganser and American Widgeon

Common Merganser and American Widgeon ducks seem to love all this water though.

However, the flooding here is minuscule compared to the amount of water pouring over the Oroville dam in the foothills of the western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Oroville dam concrete spillway

A huge chunk of concrete eroded out of the center of the Oroville dam concrete spillway, where excess water was being released from the lake. Photo from SFGate.com 2 days ago.

Emergency spillway Oroville dam

Unable to release enough water over the concrete spillway at the Oroville dam, water was released over the emergency spillway and down into the Feather River, which has become a high volume of muddy water. Still capture from KCRA live streaming news coverage.

Thousands of (almost 200,000) homes downstream have been evacuated, but more hard rain is expected next weekend for this rain-soaked and flooded area.  From extreme drought to extreme flood, weather fit for neither man nor beast.

UPDATE: water leaving the dam via the emergency spillway was producing too much erosion with the potential for collapse of that wall of the dam.  Instead, engineers increased the flow out the concrete spillway today.  Great video of the process on Vox:  http://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/2/13/14598042/oroville-dam-flood-evacuation

Pa–what?

My response to the name of this unusual bird, the Common Pauraque (“pa-rock’-hay”) was “pa-what?”. The Common Parauque is a type of Nightjar, like the Common Nighthawks we see and hear on summer evenings in most of the U.S.  It’s another of those rare visitors to the U.S., found only in the Rio Grande Valley near the Mexican border, but they are common throughout Central and South America.

common-pauraque-

The bird sits incredibly still, well camouflaged in the leaf litter. I couldn’t find it until its position was pointed out to me.

Like other members of its family, these birds are active primarily at dusk and dawn, flying over vegetation or along hiking trails, or even perching near where nocturnal insects forage in order to grab them up in their over-sized mouth.  In the daytime, they roost on open ground, but their highly camouflaged plumage makes them really hard to detect.

common-pauraque-

The bare slit of an eyelid gives it away. For a bird 9-12 inches long, it looks like it has a really tiny beak.  

How would it catch insects with that tiny little nubbin of a bill?

With its enormous gape, of course.

commonpauraqueyawn-john-dicus

With amazing patience, John Dicus waited almost an hour until this sleepy Pauraque finally took a stretch and yawned. Now that’s a gaping maw, into which a lot of insects fall, no doubt.

Cha-cha bird

Here’s another bird that just barely makes it into the U.S., where it resides in the Rio Grand river valley in South Texas — the Chachalaca.  They are related to chickens and turkeys, and sort of resemble them in looks and  habits, but Chachalacas, and their close cousins the Guans, and Currasows, make up their own tropically distributed family, the Cracidae.

plain-chachalaca-

Plain brown, with long legs, and a long striped tail, the Chachalacas really do look like arboreal chickens.

You almost never see just one Chachalaca — they are highly social, and quite happy foraging either on the ground or in trees.

plain-chachalaca-

They explore leaf litter, as well as bark crevices in the trees, where they find buds, berries, seeds, even new leaves to snack on.  They might even consume a bug or two in their search, but they are primarily vegetarian.

plain-chachalaca-

When one bird finds something good to eat, the others rush over to share in the find.

Highly social birds are often highly vocal, and Chachalacas are no exception.  Click on the video to hear a sample of their cackling conversation.

plain-chachalaca-

Plain Chachalaca with something to say…

 

the woodpecker and the blackbird

I’m still working through the thousands of images from the 3-day bird photography workshop I attended in Alamo, Texas a couple of weeks ago, and found this series of interactions between a Golden-fronted Woodpecker and a Red-winged Blackbird.  No one can say those blackbirds aren’t feisty, pesky, and challenging.

Red-winged Blackbird vs Golden-fronted Woodpecker

the initial face-off — innocent bystander in the background looks on

Red-winged Blackbird vs Golden-fronted Woodpecker

the initial attack, blackbird pecks at woodpecker

Red-winged Blackbird vs Golden-fronted Woodpecker

woodpecker retaliates, but the blackbird won’t back down

Red-winged Blackbird vs Golden-fronted Woodpecker

trying the overhead threat approach

Red-winged Blackbird vs Golden-fronted Woodpecker

okay, maybe it works better from this angle instead

Red-winged Blackbird vs Golden-fronted Woodpecker

Success! Annoy the woodpecker enough and it finally leaves

Shorebirds take flight

Early one evening just as the sun was setting, we spied a large flock of Long-billed Dowitchers resting on the shore of a large inland lake in Laguna Vista, Texas.

Long-billed Dowitchers

Long-billed Dowitchers resting in the shallows, bill tucked under one wing, all facing the same direction.

A photographer can only creep up so far on these birds before they take flight, swarming around in a huge circle, checking out the dangers below them, before settling back on the shore again.

Long-billed Dowitchers

They all take off simultaneously, flying closely together, turning as one massive body.

The striking thing about whole-flock flights like this is that huge numbers of individuals seem to swarm with organized intent, moving uniformly in the same direction as they whirl, change altitude and direction, and eventually land again.  This phenomenon has been well-studied in several species of birds and is most often associated with predator detection and avoidance.  How do birds do it?

Long-billed Dowitchers

It might not look like it, but there is rather uniform spacing between birds in the large flock, and always open space in front of them.

To make flock flight work, each bird pays attention to 6-7 of its neighbors, following their movements closely, and making quick adjustments when a neighbor changes direction.  This type of mass movement has been likened to performing “the wave” in the stands at a football match, but may be happening much more quickly than that.

Murmurations of Starlings have stunned observers and impressed many a videographer, as flocks of hundreds of thousands of birds form ever-changing patterns prior to descending into their nocturnal roosts in urban locations.  The video below illustrates this well, as a peregrine falcon hunts for its evening meal within an enormous flock of Starlings in Rome. (John Downer Productions)

Taking chances

I tried out a new telephoto lens (Tamron 150-600 mm) at the Alan Murphy bird photography workshop in Alamo, Texas, and was very pleased with the results.  It’s extremely sharp, even at full 600 mm extension, especially when the camera-lens setup is secured on a tripod.  However, when zoomed all the way out, there is not much area in the frame, and it’s more likely that parts or all of the subjects will be missing from the image.  But I took a chance that at least some of the images might capture the action, and indeed there were a few notable ones.

great kiskadee-confrontations-

Here’s the shot I captured with the new Tamron lens at 600 mm of two Great Kiskadees jockeying for position on the stump feeder.  This was an almost full frame image (very little crop), meaning I could crop more tightly and still get good resolution.

kiskadee-face-off-

Here’s the shot I took the day before (a little cloudier morning) with the Canon 100-400 L lens at 400 mm. This image was cropped quite a lot and is much fuzzier at 100% viewing than the one from the Tamron lens.

I certainly learned a lot over the course of the three days that we photographed these birds in action, and one thing that will stick with me is to take chances by zooming all the way in to get really good close-up images.

Blackbirds behaving badly

Male Red-winged Blackbirds have no tolerance for each other, kind of like politicians these days.

red-winged blackbird-confrontations-

Arguments over who controls the food source lead to a face-off

blackbird-confrontations-

A lot of the puffed chest, wing display, and flared tail is for show, but sometimes beaks and feet get used as weapons

blackbird-confrontations

One bird may get its toes pinched by the other’s beak

blackbird-confrontations-

Flying backwards is a useful skill for getting away from an aggressor

blackbird-confrontations-

How to land (gracefully) on a stump

Taking a rapid series (10 frames per second) of high-shutter speed (1/5000 sec) images of flying birds allows one to see just how birds manage some of their aerial dynamics, like how to land gracefully on a small spot.  The test for the birds was to flap-glide-brake from bushes about 25 feet away to land precisely on the edge of a stump feeder filled with delicious suet.

green-jay-landing-

Wings and legs fully outstretched, the Green Jay makes a perfect landing.

What amazed me was that all five species we observed used the same technique:  flap, fold wings in horizontal posture, making them look like a speeding bullet, then brake by spreading wings wide with huge gaps between the flared primary feathers and switching to a vertical posture with outstretched feet.  This is the type of flight used by many small to medium-sized songbirds, often viewed as roller coaster, or bounding flight.

Flap-glide pattern of bounding flight in small birds

Flap-glide pattern of bounding flight in small birds (Cornell Lab).

Bounding flight like this accomplishes at least two important things:  first, it saves energy, 15-20% over the cost of continuous flapping because of the reduced drag during the glide (closed wing) phase; second, it lowers the cost of flying more slowly between closely spaced perches.

Orange-crowned Warbler bounding flight

Orange-crowned Warbler bounding flight with wings closed prior to full braking mode of outstretched wings and feet.

Female Hooded Oriole bounding flight

Female Hooded Oriole bounding flight. The bird might have changed its mind a little too late to make a totally graceful landing — it was still in bullet shape quite close to the stump.

Green Jay bounding flight

The Green Jays were masters of this technique, transforming from bullet shape to full braking mode in milliseconds.

Male Cardinal bounding flight

Streamlined like a torpedo, then suddenly, full flare of the wings, tail, and feet for stopping short.

Golden-fronted Woodpecker flight

I didn’t catch the glide phase of the Golden-fronted Woodpecker as it made its approach. A full flap, then glide, then landing was this male’s approach like all the other species.

Not every approach to the stump was completely graceful, but birds are such adroit athletes, even being slightly off-balance on approach can be immediately corrected.

male-cardinal-flying-

Can you just imagine the alarms going off in the bird’s brain as it makes sudden changes in its approach for landing?

Graceful