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Archive for the ‘Passerines’ Category

A few mornings ago, I was sitting at our kitchen table eating breakfast with my family. As we eat and talked, I looked out through the sliding glass door toward the bird feeders we have hanging out there. This time of year, our feeders get some pretty good activity. As I watched, the usual House Finches, White-crowned Sparrows, Golden-crowned Sparrows (a lot of them this winter), and Mourning Doves were poking around eating sunflower seeds.

But then something amazing happened! A bird hooped up to the top of the wall that defines one side of our yard. This bird was new. This bird was slightly smaller than the White-crowned Sparrows (which are themselves slightly smaller than the Golden-crowned Sparrows). This bird had a clear, white triangular patch at its throat. This bird was a White-throated Sparrow!

Photos - White-throated Sparrow - Zonotrichia albicollis - Birds of the  World
A tan morph White-throated Sparrow like the one I that visited my yard (Photo credit: Birds of the World).

White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia ablicollis) are a mostly eastern species. A spattering spend their winters on the west coast, but not many and finding one is always a real treat. This is the first White-throated Sparrow I have ever seen in our yard making the 75th bird species to be added to the yard list!

This species has a bunch traits that make it a bit odd and very interesting. One is the there are two different color morphs, one with white stripes on the head, and other has tan stripes. A related oddity is how these color morphs (which are genetically determined) are maintained in the population. Males of both morph prefer females that have white stripes, but females of both morphs prefer males with tan stripes. A final oddity is that White-throated Sparrows sometimes breed with Dark-eyed Juncos! The two species are not particularly closely related, nor do they look or sound alike. I have never seen one of these hybrids, but I really want to.

Like I said, a really odd and interesting bird, my favorite member of the genus, and a very exciting visitor!

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An adult male Audubon’s Yellow-rumped Warbler

In my December article for Berkeley Hills Living, Montclair Living, and Piedmont Living magazines, I decided to focus on the Yellow-rumped Warbler and the idea that this one species may be split into several. Take a look!

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I spent the 4th of July weekend camping with my family at one of my favorite spots. Domingo Spring in Lassen National Forest. I first visited this site during my graduate school work where I was recording the calls of Evening Grosbeaks, and I have returned regularly ever since. The campground, set among jumbled piles of volcanic rocks and large conifer trees, is immediately beside a wet meadow that Domingo Creek runs through. Near the entrance of the campground is the source of Domingo Creek, and the campground’s namesake, Domingo Spring. This spring is one of the few places I know of where one can drink right out of the land. In my mind, that makes this a very special spot, indeed. We also drove to Willow Lake for part of one day which was lovely. Willow Lake has a floating sphagnum bog where a couple of native species of carnivorous plants grow wild.

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My brother birding Domingo Spring

The days we spent camping were filled with birds, a lake visit, walks throughout the surrounding meadows, lots of cooking over the fire, singing, talking politics, reading the Declaration of Independence on the 4th of July, drawing, and so much more! One bird encounter that was really wonderful was our neighbors in the campground. A pair of Cassin’s Vireos had a nest about 25 feet up a ponderosa pine tree at the edge of our campsite where four nestlings eagerly gobbled down each of the insects their parents delivered. Many Western Tanagers, including a lot of newly fledged birds, were also around this year.

The full species list for birds included: Mallard, Common Nighthawk, Anna’s Hummingbird, Turkey Vulture, Great Horned Owl, Black-backed Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, White-headed Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Western Wood-Pewee, Stellar’s Jay, Common Raven, Tree Swallow, Mountain Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, House Wren, American Robin, Cassin’s Vireo, Evening Grosbeak, Purple Finch, Cassin’s Finch, Song Sparrow, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Orange-crowned Warbler, MacGillivray’s Warbler, and Western Tanager.

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My daughter holding a Pacific Tree Frog

We also had some nice herpetological encounters. I caught a small Mountain Gartersnake, and my wife and daughter caught a Pacific Tree Frog. Oddly, we did not see any gartersnakes are Willow Lake. In the past we have often seen them swimming in the lake as they hunt for minnows in the water, sometimes around our feet. This year, the water was much more turbid that it usually is (a result of the fairly recent snow melt?), and maybe this made the water less appealing as hunting grounds for the snakes that are pretty visual predators.

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Mountain Gartersnake

Mammals we saw included Mule Deer, California Groundsquirrel, Golden-mantled Groundsquirrel, Douglas Squirrel, and Allen’s Chipmunk.

I very much look forward to the next time I return to Domingo Spring to enjoy the mountains and drink from the rocks.

 

 

 

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I spent this past weekend camping with family and friends. We camped at a spot that I have not been before called Upper Blue Lake in Alpine County, California. This site is about 45 min south of Lake Tahoe, at around 8,200 ft in elevation, and just off the Pacific Crest Trail. It is a pretty spot set in pine and fir trees, and we had a really nice and relaxing time.

The birds around the campground were pretty entertaining. We had Brown Creepers, Red-tailed Hawks, Williamson’s Sapsuckers, Audubon’s Warblers, Mountain Chickadees, Steller’s Jays, and a Cooper’s Hawk in the trees surrounding out campsite.

But one bird was particularly memorable. As several of our group were watching a Williamson’s Sapsucker, when I heard a warbler chip in the trees above me. I found the warbler and saw an adult male Wilson’s Warblers flitting in the branches. As I and a few others watched, I noticed that the bird seemed significantly more clumsy than most. It was very active hoping from twig to twig looking for, and catching insects. Each time it landed, however, it would wobble around, loose it balance, and need to flap its wings a bit to regain its perch. I was starting to really wonder about this odd behavior when something caught my eye. As this warbler was just landing on a twig, and attempting to hold its position, I saw that one leg was gripping the twig. There was only a stump where the other leg should have been!

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The one-legged Wilson’s Warbler (photo courtesy of Erin Hess).

From what I could see, it looked like the leg ended cleanly at the distal end of the tibiotarsus, or where the “ankle” joint would have been. Most of the time the tibiotarsus was held up in the feathers, tucked out of sight. It was only visible when the bird lost its balance a bit and instinctively reached out with the incomplete leg. A friend of mine was able to snap a few pictures, and in them you can see the bird standing on a branch and only one foot gripping the bark.

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Clear view of the one-legged Wilson’s Warbler standing on one leg (photo courtesy of Erin Hess)

I have no idea if this was an injury (seems more likely) or a birth defect (seems much less likely especially for an adult bird). Regardless of how it happened, the bird seemed to be doing ok. It was very active, the feathers looked to be in good condition, and it was vocalizing normally as well.

This was an impressive example of how resilient birds are. I have seen numerous wild birds that have injuries that were severe enough to cripple a mammal, but the birds have healed and are still able to function at a survivable level. For how fragile they seem, birds a tough!

 

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My wife, daughter and I were in Berkeley, CA this weekend visiting my mom and some friends. One morning, while we were having breakfast and watching the visitor to the bird feeders hanging not far from the floor-to-ceiling windows, we witnessed a pretty dramatic event.

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A female or juvenile Purple Finch.

As we eat our breakfast, a group of three or four Purple Finches were enjoying their’s. Suddenly, a California Scrub-Jay made an ambush attach on the feeder! It flew in through the branches of the Incense Cedar, and startled the finches into a bit of a panic. One of the Purple Finches (either a female of juvenile bird) made a very bad decision, and flew directly away from the incoming jay which meant it crashed into the big windows right in front of us. The jay flew past the feeder, not stopping at all, and landed on a table near the big windows. It seemed from watching the flight of the jay, that landing on the table had been its plan. The finch was on the deck, stunned by the impact with the window. The jay looked down, watched the finch for a moment to assess its condition, and then jumped down, grabbed the adult finch in its beak and flew away toward a large tree that we are pretty sure this bird and its mate have a nest in! That’s right, as if it was pretending to be one of the small hawks or falcons, the jay picked up the stunned Purple Finch and flew off with it!

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California Scrub-Jay

This whole event only took a total of about one minute, but it got us all talking and thinking a fair bit about what we had just seen. First off, What a sight to see! All of us around our breakfast table were pretty surprised, impressed, and a few were taken aback at seeing a predator prey interaction at such close range. Secondly, I have never seen a California Scrub Jay prey on an adult songbird, before! I looked it up, and while there are reports of similar behaviors, they are not common. Thirdly, was driving a finch into the window the jay’s plan? The jay seemed like it was aware of the window, as its movements never put it in any danger of colliding itself. The finch was either unaware of the window, or was so frightened by the jay’s sudden attack that it forgot about it. So, did the jay basically hunt the Purple Finch using a window? Jays, members of the corvid family along with ravens, crows, magpies, and others, are highly intelligent and have been observed using tools in a range of settings. So, using a tool such as a known window location to incapacitate prey certainly seems possible.

Regardless of whether or not the window was used as a hunting tool, or if the jay just got lucky, this was a pretty impressive sight to see. And those baby jays had a very big breakfast of their own that morning!

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Information is important. With information each of us as individuals, and our society as a whole, can learn about the world. With information, we can all make decisions that make sense. With information, we can all discuss ideas.

Without information none of that is possible. Without information, we are, at best, at the mercy of our current, limited knowledge, and our base instincts. Without information we are, at worst, at the mercy of the limited knowledge and instincts of someone else.

This is why the gag order, and insistence that all reports and data be pre-screened before release to the public, issued by the President to the EPA are so concerning to me, and I think should be so concerning everyone else. This is exactly the kind of action that limits access to, and spread of, information. It will only hamper all of our abilities to operate as rational, critically thinking individuals. It is the kind of action that is put in place to control what we, as citizens, know and when we know it. This is censorship and it has no place in science or a free society.

#thisisnotnormal

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The American Ornithologists Union (AOU) is, among other things, the arbiter of avian taxonomy in Middle and North America. They are the organization that rules on whether a species should be split in two, or if two species should be lumped together. They are the organization that rules that Loons are no longer the most basal group of North American birds, but that they group that contains ducks, geese and swans holds that honor. The AOU releases all these decisions in the form of annual Supplements to the official AOU Checklist (which is a complete list of all bird species and subspecies listed in taxonomic order).

A lot of science has to be done before the AOU makes any of these ruling, and these ruling are subject to change as more science is done, but at any given time, the current AOU Checklist represents the best available knowledge on how many species of birds there are and on how they are  all related to one another.

Well, the AOU just released their most recent Checklist Supplement and it has, among the many updates and changes, an interesting change for California. Since that is where I live, I am particularly interested in this one. It concerns a common member of the corvid family that anyone who has spent any time outside has seen. The Western Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma californica).

This species has actually already had an interesting history in the taxonomy world. Before 1995, there was one species recognized as a Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma coerulescen). This species was found across the western USA and also in Florida. In 1995, the AOU split the Scrub Jay into three distinct species. They were the Florida Scrub-Jay, which retained the original scientific name (Aphelocoma coerulescens), recognizing the Florida population as genetically distinct; the Island Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma insularis) recognizing the population found on the Channel Islands off the coast of southern California as genetically distinct; and the Western Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma californica) which included all the remaining populations in the western continental USA.

California Scrub-Jay - Frank Lang

California Scrub-Jay (Photo credit: Frank Lang)

Now, in the most recent AOU Checklist Supplement, the Western Scrub-Jay has been split again. We now have the California Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma californica) recognizing that the population along the Pacific Coast is actually genetically distinct from the Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii) found in the inter-mountain west.

Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay - Robert Mortensen

Woodhouse’s Srcub-Jay (Photo credit: Robert Mortensen)

In addition to the genetic distinctions, these two new Jay species also have behavioral and morphological differences. The California Scrub-Jay is darker in color, generally lives in Oak woodlands, and eats a range of seeds including a lot of acorns and so has a heavier bill. In contrast, Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay is lighter in color, generally lives in the Great Basin pinon-juniper scrublands, and correspondingly eat a great deal of pinon pine nuts and juniper berries and so have a slimmer bill.

So, update your life lists, start getting used to using the new four-letter codes of CSJA (now standing for California Scrub-Jay) and WSJA (Now standing for Woodhouse’s Scub-Jay, and not Western Scrub-Jay that it used to identify), and enjoy picking apart the finer levels of identification between these two newly recognized species!

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A sad landmark has been reached.

A fellow species has fallen.

Let us each take a quiet moment to consider what we have lost.

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A male San Cristobal Flycatcher

The landmark that has been reached is the first extinction of an endemic Galapagos bird species. For a long time, many species of animals found on the Galapagos Islands, and no where else on earth, have been declining. Biologists have warned for years that if dramatic steps are not taken, many of these species will go extinct and the ecosystems of the Galapagos Islands will be impoverished forever. Exactly this has now happened. The San Cristobal Flychatcher (Pyrocephalus dubius) is the first species to fall. Found only on a couple of the Galapagos Islands, this stunning flycatcher used to be thought of as a subspecies of the more widely distributed Vermillion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus). Recent studies, however, have shown that it and the Galapagos Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus nanus), also a former subspecies of the Vermillion, both warranted elevation to full species status. And now, surveys of the islands have found that there are no San Cristobal Flycatchers to be seen.

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A female San Cristobal Flycatcher

The reason for this tragic loss is not completely known, but it is likely due in part to invasive Brown and Black Rats and in part to the parasitic fly Philornis downsi. The rats have been transported to the islands unintentionally by humans. They climb up trees and eat the eggs out of the nests of many songbird species. The flies were another accidental introduction to the islands by humans when their eggs were brought to the islands on imported fruit. The fly larva infect nestling songbirds feeding on blood and tissue. Infestations frequently become severe enough to kill the nestlings.

How many more species will go extinct before sufficient actions are taken? How many more species can go extinct before the ecosystems of these fragile islands collapse into a ghost of their former selves?

I leave that to your consideration.

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My recent trip to Ireland brought me a bunch of lifers, 34 in total! To the non-birders reading this, a ‘lifer’ is the first time you see a particular species, thereby allowing that species to be added to your life list. Getting so many was pretty darn terrific, and it made me realize that there are many lifers still to be had in the US. Now, I am not supper obsessed with adding to my life list. Some people are all about getting the next species added to their list, and then it is off the next one and the next one after that. This style of birding has never really appealed to me. I really enjoy spending time with a bird and getting to know it in more detail than is possible from only a first impression. But, that having been said, seeing something new is pretty exciting. So, when I read on a local bird list that several Grasshopper Sparrows (Ammodramus savannarum) had been sighted not far from my house, I decided to go and have a look. Grasshopper Sparrows are a bit of a nemesis bird for me. They are not particularly rare in central California where they breed in small numbers out in grassy and weedy agricultural fields. But, while I have spent lots of time in such habitats, I have never seen or heard one. So, with some detailed location notes in hand, I drove into the agricultural land south of Davis, CA one Tuesday morning to see what I could see. Once I reached a particular stack of hay bales, I parked the car and got out to walk along the county road I had driven down.

That morning was a really pretty one in the lands south of Davis. There was an almost complete cloud cover except to the west where the trailing edge of a weather system was leaving the sky open and clear. A moderate breeze was blowing, as it almost always does out in the wide open fields and pastures. The birding was pretty nice as well. As I walked down the road, I passed a partially mowed hay field on one side and the field on the other was flooded with just a few inches of water. The combination of grassland and water made for a nice diversity of birds, even though I was only there for half an hour.

As soon as I stepped from my car, I heard the hoarse call of a Ring-necked Pheasant. Western Meadowlarks were singing all around. A flock of some 90 Red-winged Blackbirds were foraging in the grasses above the water line in the flooded field. In the areas of slightly deeper water were a pair of Great Egrets and one female Mallard. I was pleasantly surprised to see 4 Wilson’s Phalaropes swimming in tight circles in one corner of the flooded area. Overhead, small groups of Long-billed Curlew, impressively big for members of the sandpiper family, were flying from west to east going to find breakfast. And, as I stood and listened to the wind, I heard the double tick and high trill of a Grasshopper Sparrow! I heard one on each side of the road, and then another one farther down on one side. As I searched the grasses for the bird, I saw one take off and land on a barbed wire fence and sing, right in front of me! It was quickly joined by another Grasshopper Sparrow and then yet another! The second and third birds were young ones coming to beg food from the first adult bird. And there was still a bird singing somewhere on the opposite side of the road for a total of at least four Grasshopper Sparrows! The three stayed in front of me for a while, moving from fence to ground to grassy tuft before moving farther into the field and disappearing in the grasses. I was not able to stay much longer, but as I walked back to my car, I could still hear the occasional double tick and trill song drifting to me across the breeze.

Getting to see these birds was a real treat for me, and I am definitely going to make a point of seeing some of the other North American species that I have never, quite crossed paths with. I think Sage Sparrow, another nemesis bird, will be one I will work on this summer.

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For the past few days, a fledgling Western Scrub Jay has been hanging out in the bottlebrush just outside my office window. It has been pretty fun to watch this bird get used to the world at large.

A lot of time is spent screeching for its parents who make frequent visits to the bottlebrush to deliver food items. I can always tell when one parent is getting close because the screeching gets much louder and more intense as the parent approaches. Both adults visit this bush a lot, and I have not seen them take food anywhere else, so I suspect this youngster outside my window is their only fledgling this year. Hearing the screeching over even this short period of time has been interesting because the bird has been getting better at it. Each day, this young jay is sounding less and less like a young and inexperienced bird, and more and more like a normal, adult Western Scrub Jay. It is cool to be able to actually hear the practice paying off.

While it waits for it parents to bring it food, the young bird with its greyer and fluffier feathers, spends a good bit of time jumping from branch to branch within the bush. It has a bit of an obstacle course set up for itself as it bounces around and around in circles all covered by the protective foliage of the plant. As it moves around, it does some practice flapping and a lot of very precise movements as it improves it fine motor control. It also is practicing hunting. When it sees an insect or other potential prey in or around the bush, it jumps after it and attempts to catch it. It is sometimes successful, but usually these successes are made against pretty easy to catch animals. It did really well catching a snail.

It and I did have one funny interaction. Most of the time, I am sitting at my desk and the bird does not seem aware of me at all. At one point, however, it saw something on the glass or at the edge of the window and flew right to it perching on one of the small dividers between panes of glass. When it landed, clinging with just the tips of its toes rather awkwardly it pauses a moment and looked through the glass and into the room. That is when it saw me and was very surprised indeed! Whatever brought it over to the window in the first place was forgotten as the jay jumped right back into the bottlebrush. It certainly learned that there are humans in the world!

Hopefully, this young bird continues to improve its skills and makes it through its first winter (the hardest part of a birds life) and can teach its own young some of the valuable lessons it is learning.

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