Category Archives: Birds

Pacific-slope Nestlings 10 Days Old

July 21: As of yesterday the Pacific-slope Flycatcher nestlings are 10 days old. Their eyes are opening and feathers are starting to show. They also appear much more restless than in previous days and I’m a little worried that one might fall out of the nest. It’s more than 6 feet down to the concrete steps so a fall would, I imagine, be fatal.

The adult birds spend most of their time foraging and only at the nest for a few seconds every few minutes. So, I thought that I’d try to get a better between-visits picture of the nestlings with my Panasonic FZ-200 camera whose 24x optical zoom lets me fill the image whereas the Logitech 920 webcam, used for my videos, has no optical zoom so cropping is the only way to “zoom in” and that results in a lower resolution image. Here is the best picture that I was able to take:

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I had just focussed on the nestlings, who were alone in the nest, when the adult male flycatcher appeared in the foreground. Because of the low-light I was using a large aperture with poor depth of focus which put the adult bird slightly out of focus. It’s a nice subtle effect.

The camera picture also highlights something else not so nice. If you look closely at the vinyl siding behind the nest you can see a number of small black specks. Reviewing the webcam videos shows that these specks are actually moving around. They are concentrated around the nest suggesting that they are some form of parasite associated with nest and birds. I reviewed previous days’ videos but July 21 was the first day that the specks were visible. My suspicion is that they are bird mites which Doctor Google tells me would not be a good thing. More research needed.

Post Election Birding in Nanaimo

I made my first post-election birding trip yesterday.  A friend, who I’ll refer to by his initials LR, and I set our Nanaimo itinerary to take us on a loop including Neck Point, Pipers Lagoon, the Nanaimo River Estuary and Buttertub Marsh.

We should have known better as we only made it to Neck Point and Pipers Lagoon spending more than two hours at those two sites.  We did add the Linley Valley Drive Wetlands which is walking distance from our house.

As usual, I had both camera and binoculars at hand.  Birding was enjoyable and I did get a couple of nice pictures that I’ll share.

Neck Point

We arrived at Neck Point and had barely got out of the car when the buzzing (for an example play this recording of a Bewick’s Wren on Xeno-Canto) of a Bewick’s Wren was heard.  There was actually a pair flitting around near the parking lot and they were surprisingly unafraid bopping around in plain site.  Here is one checking me out:

Bewick's Wren at Neck Point, Nanaimo, 2015-11-05

Bewick’s Wren at Neck Point, Nanaimo, 2015-11-05

Note that I rely heavily on the auto-focus feature of my camera (Panasonic FZ-200).  When taking of pictures of fast moving birds, especially when they are in bushes the auto-focus does not always behave.  Here is an example:

Camera misfocus on Bewick's Wren.

Camera misfocus on Bewick’s Wren.

Apparently the camera liked the road-side pebbles better.

We saw a total of 14 species at Neck Point (eBird checklist)

Pipers Lagoon

Pipers lagoon was more productive producing a total of 23 species (eBird checklist).  The picture bird, a male Hairy Woodpecker,  was again located first by sound (here’s a recording of a Hairy Woodpecker on Xeno-Canto).  Here’s a picture that shows the long bill (compare with the shorter bill of its smaller look-alike cousin the Downy Woodpecker):

Hairy Woodpecker, Pipers Lagoon, Nanaimo, 2015-11-05

Hairy Woodpecker, Pipers Lagoon, Nanaimo, 2015-11-05

The final picture, while not of the highest quality because it was taken at full zoom, proved to be useful for the identification of a pair of gulls sitting on a small rock offshore.  The yellowish legs and plumage suggested a California or a Mew gull.  Studying the picture later suggested that it was a Mew Gull.  Check it out for yourself:

Mew Gulls at Pipers Lagoon, Nanaimo, 2015-11-05

Mew Gulls at Pipers Lagoon, Nanaimo, 2015-11-05

Linley Valley Dr Wetlands

A two minute walk from my house is a small wetlands  surrounded by housing developments in various stages of completion.  We spent about a half hour walking the path that runs along one side of the pond and saw some interesting birds (5 new species for the day) including a Hooded Merganser pair, Ring-necked Ducks, a Fox Sparrow, Chestnut-sided Chickadees (surprisingly not seen at the other two locations) and a Pied-billed Grebe.  The site total was 12 species (eBird checklist)

 

Watching a Family of Palila on the Big Island

[Updated December 10 2014 based on feedback.  Additional links on the Palila have been added.]

A recent week-long vacation took us to the Hawaiian Islands (October 26 to November 1). Having previously been to the island of Kauai at the old end of the island chain, we decided to try the island of Hawaii at the other, newer end.  To prevent confusion with the state of Hawaii this is frequently referred to simply as the Big Island.  I had my Panasonic FZ-200 camera along to document the trip.

On the last full day, I signed up for a Rainforest and Dryforest Birding Adventure tour — a day-long outing put on by a tour group called Hawaii Forest and Trail.  They do many other tours too that are not just for birding.  The rest of our group, for instance, went on the Mauna Kea Summit and Stars Adventure trip which takes you up to the volcano’s summit to watch a sunset.

Our trip set out in search of 2 specific target birds.  In the dry forests on the side of Mauna Kea we would be looking for the Palila, a critically endangered species which lives in a single forested area on the volcano’s slopes.  This forested area is the source of the māmane plant which the Palila has adapted to be able to eat and which is toxic to other birds.

In the second part of our excursion, we would travel to some wetter forests where we hoped to find different endemic, the ʻAkiapōlāʻau.

While we were, unfortunately, unable to track down the ʻAkiapōlāʻau, we were extremely successful with the Palila and the rest of this article describes that encounter.

Mauna Kea and the Palila

First, a quick note and the Palila habitat on the slopes of Mauna Kea.

Mauna Kea is still considered to be an active, though dormant, volcano and even though it has not erupted in 4600 years there is still the slim possibility that a lava flow from a future eruption could wipe out this habitat leading to their extinction.  While this might make for a good story in Hollywood, the reality is that there are much more dangerous risks that could well see the Palila gone from these slopes long before they are touched by lava.  Forest fires, for instance could, in the right conditions, very quickly destroy the Palila habitat.  Other threats include introduced species of plants, animals, insects and disease.  The Hawaiian government’s Mauna Kea Forest Restoration Project has lots of good information here.  Finally, according to BirdLife International, the endangered status of the Palila in recent years is also related to rapid population declines as a result of drought that has affected its primary source of food, the māmane plant.

The Palila Plan

The plan was simple.  We parked in an area accessed by a hunter access road on the lower slopes of Mauna Kea.  The trip organizers allowed for up to 4 hours climbing the slopes to find and view the Palila after which time, win or lose, we would head for the second location.

Here is a picture taken near our parking spot and at the lower edge of the area expected to contain the Palila.  Note the sparse trees on fairly open grassland.Mauna Kea slope forest home of the Palila

Here is a second shot taken as we climbed a little further up the Mauna Kea slope.Mauna Kea slope Forest Home to the Palila

Found:  A Family of Palila

According to the guide, on one recent trip they spent most of the allocated time hunting for the Palila and only found them as they were about to quit and move on.  We got lucky and found one after about 15 minutes with another pair showing up shortly thereafter.  In fact it appears that we had found a family unit with male, female and juvenile foraging together.  The juvenile showed typical begging behaviour with fluttering wings and an adult was doing the foraging and feeding of the juvenile though regurgitation as described, for instance, in a Palila wikipedia article.  This article says that both adults will regurgitate to feed the young in our case the male was feeding while the female stood guard, presumably looking for predators.  If the wikipedia article is correct then perhaps they take turns feeding and guarding or perhaps the guarding behaviour only happens occasionally, for instance when a large number of two-legged, orange-vested homo sapiens are also foraging in the area.

If we only consider predators seen historically before the arrival of man on the islands the most likely candidates would probably have been the Hawaiian Short-eared Owl (Pueo) and the Hawaiian Hawk (ʻIo).  It is not clear what threat we birders posed to the Palila though it was clearly not enough to drive them away.  Whether or not the female would have stood guard where and when she did if we had not be there is unclear.

As mentioned earlier, introduced predators are currently one of the Palila’s biggest threats.  These include feral cats and black rats (see for instance this article on the Palila from BirdLife International (birdlife.org).  Mosquitos transmitting avian malaria have also proved very dangerous to the endemic populations of birds.  They are also threatened by habitat degradation especially if it affects the growth and spreading of their primary food sources, the peas from the seed pods of the māmane plant and certain types of caterpillar.  Introduced mammals such as sheep and pigs are particularly bad for disturbing the forest plants.  Through hunting and fencing the threat of these has been reduced.

First Sighting: An adult male processing a māmane pod.

Our first sighting of a Palila was that of an adult male who was processing a māmane pod in the middle of a bush that provided the bird with some protection.  The following 7 pictures, shown in the order that they were taken, cover a period of about 9 seconds.  All of these pictures were cropped from the original size of 4000 x 3000 down to about 1200 x 800.  The displayed images below are shown at a resolution of 640 x 400 though the full-sized cropped images can be viewed clicking on the image and following the link back to Flickr.

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Video of the Male Foraging

The following is a short video that was taken starting 10 seconds after the last picture (above) was taken.  You can hear the group leader describing the bird to some of the birders that were just then discovering it for the first time.  Initially you can see the Palila alternating between working on the māmane pod and raising it’s head up to check its surroundings.

You can also hear the Palila in between the periods where it is working on the māmane pod and also after it appears to be done having released the māmane pod.  Perhaps these calls were communications to the other family members that would be showing up in the seconds that followed the video.  There may even have been a specific message to the juvenile that he (the adult male) was full and that it was time to eat.  This might also explain why he dropped the pod.  It’s not clear why they moved to a different location for the feeding.  Perhaps it was because of our presence or perhaps because it is generally safer to keep moving.

Unfortunately there is a half minute gap between this series of pictures and the next series with adult feeding juvenile.  The only thing that I recall from this period is that the juvenile and adult female arrived to join the adult male and then the female left again.

Second Sighting:  A juvenile begging and being fed by the adult male.

The second set of 7 images were taken over a period of 13 seconds starting 63 seconds after the last picture in the first set or about 38 seconds after the end of the short video.  As mentioned, in these 38 missing seconds the male moved to a different perch and a juvenile and an adult female flew in to join the adult male.  Only the juvenile stayed to be fed by the adult male while the female flew off to, it appears, stand guard (see the third sighting section below).

The sequence between the adult male and the juvenile clearly shows the begging behaviour as well as the regurgitation and transfer of food from adult to juvenile.

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The final image was taken 5 seconds after the previous one and shows the juvenile left alone and somewhat hidden in the foliage while the adult male had moved on, perhaps to start a new cycle of processing māmane pods prior to the next feeding cycle at which point he would call the juvenile to join him there.

Third Sighting: An adult female on guard duty.

The third set of 5 pictures were taken over a period of 24 seconds starting 18 seconds after the last image in the second set.

The adult female Palila, which made a brief appearance off camera took up a position 100 feet or so from where the other two birds were positioned.  Her perch at the top of a bare branch gave her good visibility. She chose a bush that kept all of the birders, which had broken into several groups by this time, on one side of her, perhaps in order to be able to see all of them at once without continually having to look in opposite directions.  As the photos show, she still does look away from time to time, perhaps scanning for other possible threats.  As mentioned previously, the two historic threats where probably the Hawaiian Short-eared Owl (Pueo) and the Hawaiian Hawk (‘Io).  At this point in our trip we had already seen 5 of these owls hunting (one near where we found the Palila) and we had one unconfirmed hawk sighting.

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I was impressed by the fact that both adult Palilas were caring for what was clearly a juvenile bird.  The splitting of the task of feeing the young was split into roles of foraging and standing guard.  It would have been nice to know if they switched roles from time to time.  Many species, particularly migratory ones, leave their young to fend for themselves at a much younger age or only one of the adults take responsibility for the young.

 Final Thoughts

I acquired my Panasonic FZ-200 camera to help with bird identification but on several occasions it has proven useful in seeing behaviours that I would never have noticed using just binoculars.  The ability to capture large numbers of pictures and even videos with sound provides the opportunity to analyze different aspects of bird sightings that happen too quickly in the field.

It would seem that my camera is rapidly replacing my binoculars as my primary birding equipment.  Here are some things that I might change in the future that might lead to better results:

  • Take more pictures and make more use of burst mode.  You can always delete them later.
  • Take more video clips.  Images can be extracted from these videos though not with the same resolution.  Video also records sound which can be useful in understanding bird behaviour.
  • Bring a tripod.  A remote control cable might be useful as well for the still shots.
  • Make sure that the memory card is fast and has lots of space.  Bringing extra fast cards will encourage taking lots of pictures and videos.
  • Add a directional microphone that plugs into the audio in jack on the camera.
  • Get more people involved.  It would be interesting to see if better behaviour could be captured with a coordinated group of birders taking pictures and videos together.  The camera clocks would obviously need to be either calibrated or synchronized to help determine the order of various events.

It was a fun way to get introduced to a new bird and, while it took a lot of time post-processing, it was definitely more satisfying than a brief sighting and a simple pencil mark on a checklist.

For More on the Palila Check Out the Following Links

The Palila article on Wikipedia.

The Palila Status at BirdLife International (birdlife.org).

The Mauna Kea Forest Restoration Project website from the Hawaiian state government has much more detailed and accurate information on current status and threats to the Palila.

The Facebook page for “A Paradise Lost”, an animated movie about the Palila directed by Laurie Sumiye.

A Visit to Central Zürich

A business trip to Zürich in early June was extended by a few days before and after to accommodate a little sight-seeing. The before-business visit consisted of 2 days in Zürich. During the first of these we walked from our hotel (Hotel Krone) downtown wandering around looking at both architecture and birds.

Here is a visual summary of some of the more interesting things that we saw:

Near the Hotel Krone in Zürich
Tramway in the middle, cars and bicycles on the outside and no place for automobiles to park on the road.

Near the Hotel Krone in Zürich

Old Building near Zürich Hauptbahnhof
Interesting old building with a tower near the train station.

Alpine Swifts over Zürich
The Alpine Swifts were quite active at this building while we were there.

Rock Pigeon

Mandarin Duck
We saw and photographed this Mandarin Duck at a distance.

Common Blackbird
The common blackbird was snacking here. Just three-and-twenty more and we could make a pie.

Chaffinch
Pretty bird with quite a strong song.

Zürich Downtown Street
The narrow streets were interesting and each seemed a little different.

Red-crested Pochard
Male Red-creasted Pochard.

Red-crested Pochard
Female Red-creasted Pochard.

Red-crested Pochard
Returning from a dip this one’s back still had a sheet of water on it.

Red-crested Pochard
A fraction of a second later and the sheet of water had broken up.

Red-crested Pochard
Another instant and the duck’s back appeared dry again.

Narrow stair-walkway between buildings
One of my favourite stair pictures for the day.

Cobblestones, Stairway and Wooden Home
Yet another ramp/stairway climbing a hill.

Cobblestone Path Between Buildings

Singing Chaffinch
This bird was singing merrily away when…

Singing Chaffinch Noticing the Audience
it spotted a small audience forming behind its back.

Common Blackbird Singing

Hummingbirds at the Indian Canyons Trading Post

The city of Palm Springs lies nestled up against the northeast corner of the San Jacinto Mountains, the northernmost of the Peninsular Ranges, a group of mountain ranges that extend along the coast as far as the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula in Mexico.

Driving due South from Palm Springs along Palm Canyon Drive takes you into a pocket in the mountains that includes part of the tribal land for the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. This area is referred to as the Indian Canyons that is accessible for a number of activities. Numerous trails of varying length and difficulty are available for hiking and for equestrian use. Some good trail maps can be found at this Indian Canyons web site.

At the end of Palm Canyon Drive are several parking lots and The Trading Post that is the starting point for several of the trails. If you want trail advice or just a souvenir, you find it at the Trading Post.  And if, like me, you forget to bring a sun hat, they’ve got that covered as well.

The Hummingbirds

For those who like to watch hummingbirds, they have several feeders which have been quite active the two times that we have been there. During this visit, most of the hummers that we saw were Costa’s though the odd Anna’s was seen as well. This was actually not a problem since, being from the Vancouver area, we see Anna’s Hummingbirds all the time so I was more interested in the Costa’s hummingbirds anyways.  Because of the feeder locations, you can sit at one of the covered picnic tables to watch the hummers come and go.

The following two images show a male Costa’s with its lovely deep purple colouration on throat and head.  Depending on the direction of the light, I have seen the colour go from black to a deep blue.Costa's Hummingbird-1080137

Costa's Hummingbird-1080147

The hummers appear to be fairly used to the humans so you can approach to within a few feet of the feeders and get a good view without having them fly away. If you have a camera with a reasonable zoom capable of fast shutter speeds, you can get some pretty good pictures too.

One Feeder – Three Costa’s

The following sequence of pictures show 3 Costa’s hummingbirds, 1 male and 2 female, as they go after the nectar in one of the feeders. The sequence starts with 1 male and 1 female both perched with the second female arriving to join in. Both of the feeding hummers initially stopped feeding, I suppose to check out the new arrival.
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In the next 3 images you can see the seated hummer apparently ‘chirping’ at the new arrival when it gets too close. This appears to be successful at keeping the new bird away. The male seems content to let the females sort things out.Costa's Hummingbirds-1080118

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The entire sequence lasted only a few seconds.  The first 5 images (above) were taken over about 1 second using my camera’s burst mode which was set to take 5 pictures per second for a burst of up to 11 images.

Eventually the late arrival moves off and re-appears at an empty spot on the far side of the feeder.  In fact, as this image was taken 6 seconds after the first 5, this could be a fourth hummer coming for a sip.Costa's Hummingbirds-1080122

Costa’s meets Anna’s

The next picture shows both a male Costa’s and a female Anna’s facing each other on opposite sides of the same feeder. You can clearly see the larger size of the Anna’s Hummingbird.  Another difference between the species is visible.  In the Anna’s, when perched, the tail extends noticeably past the wingtips whereas in the Costa’s the wingtips and tail end at roughly the same point.
Male Costa's and Female Anna's Hummingbirds-1080151

An interesting observation that is clear in this image is that when the two hummers are perched face-to-face, it appears that the center of balance of both is outside of the perching ring.  In effect they are leaning backwards using their grip to prevent them from falling off of the perch.  Why wouldn’t they just sit with their centre of balance over the perch?  One reason that I can think of is that this allows for a quick escape by, in effect, ‘falling’ off of the perch.

The staring contest ended with the Anna’s departure.  Note that the Anna’s departure is low, below the feeder consistent with a “quick getaway by falling off the perch“.
Male Costa's and Female Anna's (disappearing) Hummingbirds-1080152

Final Thoughts

The dynamics of hummingbirds competing for spots on a feeder is always entertaining.  These birds move so quickly, however, that capturing the details would be all but impossible without a camera having a high-shutter speed, burst mode and a good optical zoom.  A tripod would be useful though the above pictures were all taken with the camera hand-held.  The built-in image stabilization no double helped create sharp images without a tripod.

The progress of camera technology is impressive.  A few years ago, taking the above images would probably have required thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment.  I took them all using a Panasonic DMC-FZ200 which currently goes for well under $1000.

 

Leucistic Dark-eyed Junco (and Friends)

We spent the past weekend on Saltspring Island. The front yard feeders where we were staying attracted a good crowd of birds about 90% of which were Dark-eyed Juncos. One particular bird was there most of the time and sported some discolouration on its head which I attribute to Leucism. The first two pictures are views from left and right showing that the discolouration is not symmetric.

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The following view with the junco looking almost directly at the camera also clearly shows the left-right asymmetry.
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There was also a small group of American Goldfinches that showed up occasionally. Some of them posed nicely for the camera too:
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The back yard had some bird activity as well including a Chestnut-backed Chickadee, a Fox Sparrow and an American Robin.
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Greater Sage-Grouse Granted Emergency Protection Order in Canada

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By Pacific Southwest Region U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from Sacramento, US (Greater Sage GrouseUploaded by Snowmanradio) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

This story was brought to my attention through a post on the BCVIBIRDS forum.

Earlier this month the Greater Sage-Grouse, now almost extirpated from Canada, was granted a first ever emergency protection order by the federal government.  One direct effect of this order is that a number of existing and planned oil and gas projects will be either curtailed or preventing on some 1700 square kilometers of provincial and federal crown land in both Alberta and Saskatchewan.

While an important precedent for species protection, it is not clear that this order will be in time to save the Canadian populations of Sage-Grouse.  The numbers in Canada are currently estimated at around 100 birds, down by as many as 25 from the year before.

In the US there is still a significant population but, at least in some areas, local populations are decreasing rapidly mostly due to habitat loss.  The US government is considering listing the Greater Sage Grouse as endangered in both Nevada and California.

References and Further Reading

Nature Canada, Endangered Species, Species Spotlight: Greater Sage-Grouse.

Nature Canada, Newsroom, 2013-12-04: Nature conservation organizations across Canada applaud emergency order protecting endangered species, caution more action is neededNature conservation organizations across Canada applaud emergency order protecting endangered species, caution more action is needed.

gazette.gc.ca, 2013-12-04:  Federal Government Gazette with original order.

Associated Press, foxnews.com, 2013-10-25:  Feds propose listing sage grouse sub-population as threatened, angering energy developers.

Schroeder, M. A., J. R. Young and C. E. Braun. 1999. Greater Sage-Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/425; doi:10.2173/bna.425

Bob Weber, globalnews.ca, 2013-12-04: Sage grouse protection plan released.