Blue-Violet Iris Interior

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Birds of May and June

May and June were busy months for birding, so busy that my plan to write one post about all the action has turned into a plan to post three! (You can see the first one, about baby juncos, here.) All of the rest of the baby bird activity going on in my yard will get a separate post, but first I'd like to showcase some birds that I'd never seen and/or photographed before, as well as some of my favorite bird shots from the past two months. First up: birds I've never photographed before. Remember, you can click on photos to enlarge them, which I highly recommend doing!

An evil-looking chicken. I've photographed chickens before, but never one so sinister-looking!
The first group of birds were photographed at a park that I love near Little Buddy's house. The park is home to a bunch of different farm animals, including sheep, goats, pigs, ponies, cows, chickens, rabbits, and geese, as well as a variety of wild birds. I did include a domesticated goose on the list, as I've never photographed one (who knew that they had blue eyes?), but everyone else is wild. I was especially pleased by the cowbirds, since I don't think I've ever seen them before. I was also very excited to get some closeup shots of barn swallows (in an actual barn!) because I've found that swallows are virtually impossible to photograph on the wing.

Male brown-headed cowbird.

Male brown-headed cowbird.

Female brown-headed cowbird.

Male house sparrow.

Female house sparrow with a beak full of bugs for her young.

Male house sparrow. They were nesting in the rafters of the pig shed.

Chinese goose (domesticated).

Barn swallow couple.

Barn swallow. This open-beak shot shows you how they are able to scarf up bugs while flying at high speeds!

Barn swallow closeup.

I scored a few more birds for my list at another park I visited while looking after Little Buddy. Among these are a pair of violet-green swallows that I hastily shot when they landed in the dirt a few feet away right as I was despairing of ever getting a good photograph of one as I watched them whirl and swoop over a wetland. I think they were gathering nesting material. I also got a photo of a house wren (which I've seen before) and a couple of sparrows that I hadn't.

Violet-green swallows.

You can see how they got their name!

House wren

White-crowned sparrow.

Savannah sparrow.

A third park is one of my favorite places to photograph. It has a bonanza of not only birds on and around its bay and wetlands, but things like frogs and turtles, too! I'm hardly alone in photographing there, as you will almost always encounter a pro with one of those $20,000 lenses as well as some hardcore amateurs. (I'm pleased to say that my new lens elevates me into the ranks of the latter group, at least in terms of equipment.) The colder months are actually the best time to get the widest variety of bird photos because quite a few species spend the winter there and the lily pads haven't blanketed the best cove for photographing, but it's always worth looking around. On my most recent trip, I scored a wood duck and a nesting grebe!

Male wood duck, eclipse (or non-breeding) plumage.

Female pied-billed grebe on a nest. 

And then there are the backyard birds. The hermit thrush is not one we've seen in our yard before. It spent several days hanging around, drawing a great deal of ire from the towhees. I see pileated woodpeckers every once in while around my house and they are common out at Cutie the Pyrenees' place, but I haven't had a good chance to take any pictures. I hope eventually to get better photos than the ones I got, but you can at least see what one looks like. I'm much happier with the rufous hummingbird photos--we haven't had a rufous around for the last few years, so these visits by a female are a delight. And I managed to score a photo of something you rarely see: a hummingbird catching bugs! Unbeknownst to most people, hummingbirds also eat insects to get the protein that nectar can't supply. I was taking pictures of the hummingbird slowly motoring around among the branches of one our cedars, but didn't know I was capturing an insect hunt until I looked at the images on my computer and saw the hummingbird with beak open, about to grab some little flying critter.

Hermit thrush.

Pileated woodpecker.

Female rufous hummingbird. You can see the rufous coloring on her sides. Males also have reddish feathers on their heads.

Female rufous hummingbird


Female rufous hummingbird catching an insect.

You can see another great photo of this hummingbird here.

The following photos represent an interesting case: I have neither seen nor photographed a Western tanager. However, my CAMERA has photographed a Western tanager. My parents spotted this striking bird visiting our backyard birdbath while I wasn't around and my father had the presence of mind to grab my camera (which is always kept near the back door for just this reason) and take several photos. It came around the twice that day, but if it's been back since, I haven't seen it. I could hardly keep these photos taken in my yard with my camera from you simply because I didn't take them myself!

Western tanager, non-breeding male. Breeding males have vivid red faces/heads.

Male western tanager.

Late spring is a busy time for all birds, so I've had many opportunities to photograph the species that call my neighborhood home, as well as a few other familiar birds I've encountered on excursions.

First up are three photos from the latter category:

I highly recommend getting over the fact that pigeons are pigeons and instead marvel at their plumage. 

I've tried to take a lot of photos of male red-winged blackbirds since getting my birding lens, but their inky blackness make them hard to photograph well. I liked how this image captures the bird's rather cheeky expression.

"Don't mess with our nests!"
A pair of male red-winged blackbirds chase a crow away from their nesting site.

Our birdbath is extremely popular, so I take lots and lots of photos of birds bathing. The jay photo in the following group is among the very best birdbath photos I've every shot.

A VERY wet Steller's jay.

See more great photos from the jay's splashing bath here.

Red-breasted nuthatch.

The sapsuckers are wonderfully striking birds...

...but this one looks a bit ridiculous with the wet feathers exposing the skinniness of its neck! Note also the juvenile junco bound and determined to take a bath at the same time in the background.

You'll need to click on this photo to enlarge it to see the detail that I like best about this photo of a drinking red-shafted flicker. Flickers feed almost exclusively on ants and on this bird's red "mustache" is a little red ant that got away!

Here's are a few other photos from the yard:

This chestnut-backed chickadee is scolding me for accidentally getting too close to its offspring.

I caught this starling with its mouth opening unleashing a stream of brassy starling calls.

A crow picks a cherry from the neighbors' tree.

A robin gobbles mahonia berries.

This male robin spied me with my camera, flew to the back of a chair about six feet away from me, puffed himself up, and gave me a LOOK. I didn't need to speak robin in order to understand his meaning: don't even THINK about going near his newly-fledged children! 

During these past two months, I've been able to add the hermit thrush, the Western tanager, and house finches to our list of all the different bird species that have visited the yard over time. Just the other day, I went out with my camera to investigate an unfamiliar bird call and discovered it was being made by an osprey at the top of a nearby tree! If I can count (and I have) bald eagles as visitors to the yard since they periodically come by to sit in trees within a hundred feet of our house (three of them came calling one day a few weeks ago, two of them pictured below), I've decided I can count this osprey, too. What exactly it was doing here, I don't know, as they usually stick very close to the lake, but it was definitely a cool score. It's not the first time I've photographed an osprey, nor the best photo of an osprey I've taken, however. That would be one of the ones I shot in Florida when I came upon an osprey drying its wings on a branch just above my head. I've included it here because it's a cool picture.

A pair of adult bald eagles in the neighbors' tree. A third eagle soared high overhead, occasionally communicating in shrieks with the two in the tree.

Suburban Seattle osprey.

Rural Florida Panhandle osprey.

As you can see, it has been an exciting couple of months of bird photography, and I haven't even gotten to the baby birds yet! Avian activity will naturally die down a bit after all the little birds have grown up, but I look forward to taking more bird photos this summer, especially of hummingbirds. And who knows what will show up next in the yard or surrounding trees? It definitely keeps life interesting (I saw nineteen different bird species in the yard on a single day two weeks ago) and I will no doubt be posting more photos in the future!

Keep up with all the best and the latest in the bird photography department by following c.creativity on Facebook!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Baby Juncos!

A young junco plays with a pine needle.

It had originally been my intention to make a post at the end of this month covering all the new birds I've photographed, the best recent photos of birds I've photographed before, and photos of all the baby birds that have appeared in the yard in recent weeks. However, the level of juvenile Oregon junco activity has been so high and the pictures I've taken (more than 100 yesterday alone!) are so cute that I decided the little juncos needed their own post before the month ends.

"What's this?!" asks Abbey, alerting me to the presence of baby birds on June 4th.

I was hopeful that we'd get a baby junco in the yard again this year after being charmed by last year's little junco, whose appearance was my primary impetus for photographing birds and for wanting a telephoto lens that would allow me to get good shots of birds from far enough away not to startle them. I was pleased, therefore, when one day Abbey plunged her head into the shrubs, tail wagging, and I heard a little rustling something flee from her. Juncos nest on or near the ground and the babies may leave those nests a few days before they fledge (i.e., grow feathers strong enough for flight), which is why I got a picture of a junco still sporting baby down last year. Even though they may no longer be confined to the nest, they still can't fly beyond some spurting hops and therefore keep under cover. I kept Abbey away from the shrubs, but the behavior of the adult juncos as well as Abbey's new preoccupation with sounds or smells detectable only to her led me to believe that there was a baby junco whose primary territory was under our deck. On June 9th, I got my first glimpse of a baby as it darted to the fringe of the bushes lining our deck to be fed by an adult. After that, I was on full alert, watching the behavior of the adults and familiarizing myself with the junco feeding call. As soon as the first junco youngster got old enough to venture beyond the protective cover of the shrubs, I was able to get a photograph. I was delighted when I figured out that there wasn't just one baby, but perhaps as many as four based around our yard. I've found it highly entertaining to watch as they've grown strong enough to fly short distances up into the trees, then to follow their parents out of the yard, and as they are starting to clumsily learn the skill of foraging for themselves.

Our various banks of viburnums make a great habitat for little juncos to hide in while getting big enough and strong enough to fly.

First baby junco photo of the season! June 11, 2014.

I had been watching an adult fly in and out of these bushes to feed what I presumed was one baby that would dart just beyond the edge of the overhanging leaves when the parent left. I was delighted when I looked at my photos on the computer and saw a second baby in the shadows!

I think there was some variation in age among the little ones: this young junco was flying around with its parent on the same day that I photographed the two who were still in the phase of hiding under cover, though they did change locations: later that day, they moved from the viburnums to the shelter of a hydrangea out in the yard.

Having achieved my first goal of simply photographing a juvenile junco, my next goal was to photograph a juvenile junco being fed. This proved much more difficult, as the abundant cover that makes our yard so attractive for raising junco babies also means it isn't easy to catch a little one being fed out in the open. Also, the feedings are FAST. In this photo, I've just missed the moment.

At last! I managed to capture a male junco feeding his offspring at just the right moment AND the photo is in focus!

The baby junco immediately demanded more.

The young juncos quickly got better at flying around--this one is sitting on limb up in a large tree while adults forage in the vicinity.

They got bolder, too. A little junco looks in the through the sliding glass door after being fed on the open expanse of our deck. 

This was the first day (the 14th) that I saw the little juncos mimicking their elders and attempting to forage. I counted three juveniles hanging out in the leaf litter under these evergreen shrubs; you can see how well camouflaged they are!

I have yet to get another decent feeding photo, though in this one (where my camera decided to focus one inch in front of the male junco) you can see that the adult has something like an earwig in its beak that the baby is rushing over eat.

Raising a baby junco seems to be the work of more than just two parents, with various other adults keeping watch from high perches, though I could find no information supporting the idea that other flock members not raising young might assist in this manner. Perhaps all the young frequenting our yard are from different breeding pairs, but the ratio of adults in the vicinity of the little ones usually seems higher than simply 2-to-1. Incidentally, the males seem to do almost all if not all of the feeding. Sometimes, the adult males will fight, especially if one gets too close to the other's youngster, and I got to see one pair of males engage in a ritualized battle (right) where they puffed up their plumage and shrilled at one another.

Young juncos reach full independence between three and four weeks after leaving the nest, and since it has been at least one week for those around my house, the little juncos, in addition to practicing their foraging skills, are now spending more time exposed and alone. Yesterday, a youngster hopped up on one of the deck benches while his father made use of our bench-top birdbath. The adult then flew away, but the little one stayed and explored its surroundings for quite some time. It's possible that the bird's parents were watching from the roof or some other high perch, but there were no adults on the ground or in the shrubs nearby. At any rate, the baby junco seemed to have a good time and my family had a very good time watching the little junco!

"Is this something I can eat?"
The little one picked up and played with several pine needles, likely attracted by their worm-like shape.

"What happens if I peck at this plant?"

"What happens if I pull on this leaf?"

"Let me stretch this wing...

...and that wing."

"Standing up tall and looking like a goofball!"

"Hi!"

"Is this pebble edible?"

"What's up there?"

"Scratchin' myself..."

"I'll stretch my wings!"

"I'm a beautiful, juvenile dark-eyed junco of the Oregon race!" 

There will undoubtably be more junco photos as the babies grow up, but these images should give you a sense of all the activity going on in our yard right now. Stir in some juvenile robins, jays, crows, starlings, nuthatches, and chickadees, to name a few, and you'll start to understand why I'm spending large chunks of each day sitting in the kitchen doorway or out on the back deck, enjoying the sights and sounds of baby birds growing up. And stay tuned: the end of the month post, with photos of all of the above, should be a fun one!