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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Baby Birds

On the first of this month, I shared a blogpost featuring pictures of all kinds of different birds I photographed in May and June. Two weeks before that, I had published a post devoted solely to baby juncos. After considerable delay (it was hot! and stuff!), here is the third and final blogpost of the series, this one devoted to all of the baby birds I photographed during this year's breeding season. (Remember, you can click on photos to enlarge them!)

Big baby.

So let's start first by picking up where I left off with the juvenile juncos. When I last posted about them more than a month ago, the little juncos were starting to pretend to forage, but were still very much dependent on their elders. Within the next week, the families that were raising youngsters around my house joined up with a larger flock of juncos and their babies, presumably the same big group that they fly around with in the winter. Instead of the same few families canvassing the yard several times each day, the big flock would come around twice a day, filling the yard with little juncos at various stages of development, some still in the more helpless baby stages and others virtually independent and starting to show their gender-specific plumage. It wasn't long before the juvenile juncos were totally independent, showing up on their own and foraging for themselves. In recent weeks, aside from regular visits to the birdbath by various adult birds, almost all the junco activity in the yard has died down.

Newly independent!

If you look carefully, you can see that these siblings are starting to develop sex-specific plumage--the one of the left is a lighter-colored female, while the one on the right is sporting the darker feathers (especially on the head) of a male junco.

An adolescent male junco.

An adolescent female junco.

These little dudes had a great time taking very splashy baths that left their feathers in sodden disarray.

This is complete and utter anthropomorphizing, but when a young female junco landed on the birdbath for a drink looking very sleek and put-togehter, this little guy, with his feathers going every which way, looked over with surprise and made me think of a sixth grade boy being caught totally off-guard by the appearance of a mature and polished seventh grade girl.

A baby junco in the previous post experimented with pebbles and pine needles as it prepared for a future of foraging for itself; this juvenile junco has turned that practice into actuality.

This young male junco, photographed on the first week of July, is well on his way to adulthood!

And now on to the rest of the birds with babies!

We've had at least two rounds of baby chickadees among the local chestnut-backed variety and I feel lucky to have managed to take a few photographs of them. I know I'm dealing with separate clutches because the first set of photos were taken in mid-June and the second exactly one month later. Chickadee parents usually only feed the youngsters for two to three weeks after they leave the nest, so these must be different little ones. All of our abundant cover makes chickadees difficult to photograph while they hunt for food in our trees, so the fact that I stumbled upon two opportunities to capture images of the babies was really a matter of luck--that, and keeping my camera handy! I can hardly go outside without hearing chickadees calling to one another as they forage in the firs and cedars, but I found that chances to photograph the discretely concealed young ones were rare.

If it hadn't been for this scolding chickadee parent...

...and the presence of a second adult with a grub in its beak...

I would have walked right by this vine maple without realizing a baby chickadee (two, in fact) was in it. That is the adult on the right, having just fed the little one.

Unlike adults, little chickadees, I discovered, are very good at staying very still and very quiet,.

By the next day, the young chickadees were able to follow along as their parents searched for food, and while I seldom saw them, I would hear their wheezy little "eee-bee!" calls.

This is another young chestnut-backed chickadee, photographed in July. The fluttering "feed me!" posture was the giveaway, but I observed that it and its two companions were very quiet, did not forage, and, for the most part, stayed still, just like the little ones I saw in June.

I noticed in this photo that the juvenile chickadee has a yellow edge to its bill. I double-checked it against my other photos and photos of young chickadees online and compared it to adult chickadee photos, with the result of concluding that the yellow is only found on juveniles. That will be helpful for telling little ones from adults in the future.

I know that a red-breasted nuthatch raised a family of at least two in or around the Douglas-fir in our backyard. I saw them once they were learning to fly on their own and I may have photographed them on occasions other than the ones pictured here, but the juveniles look very much like the adults and I only wanted to post photos of the ones I was sure were youngsters!

This is a juvenile red-breashed nuthatch. It was hard to get good photographs of them and also hard to tell them from the adults after the first day or so out of the nest--the only difference is the beak is slightly shorter and has more yellow on the underside.

One this gray day, the young nuthatches were trying out their wings and flitting from tree to tree.

Lamentably, starlings are abundant around our backyard during their breeding season. We seldom see them the rest of the year, but they know that, come June, the large cherry trees in yards adjacent to ours are positively loaded with ripe fruit. It is, simply put, a bonanza. The starlings make full use of this fortuitous food source and stuff themselves and their children, making a dreadful racket all the while. Now that the cherries are gone, the starlings have gone, too!

Young starlings lack the dark iridescent plumage of the adults.

The starlings are not the only birds to take advantage of the cherry trees. The robins are every bit as busy gorging on the fruit and feeding cherries to their little ones. I, for one, think the spotted breasts and more ornately patterned feathers of the juveniles make them more attractive than their parents!

A handsome young robin.

This male robin (on the left) has just fed his child. The male robins seemed to do most of the feeding.

Everyone wants to be just like their dad when they grow up...

Still sporting the spotted breast of babyhood, this juvenile robin is now old enough to forage and bathe without assistance.

Like the nuthatches, the young jays are very hard to distinguish from the adults. I knew we had juvenile Steller's jays around because I saw one make a very clumsy attempt to land in one of our vine maples, crashing into leaves and bouncing off of twigs in the way only an inexperienced flyer can. Attempting to photograph that one was impossible because of all the foliage in the way, so I was left to photographing all the jays that visited the birdbath and then scrutinizing the images on the computer for clues to each bird's age.

A juvenile Steller's jay. I was glad to get a photo of one because it's not easy to tell them from adults at a glance.

So how do I know this is a young jay? The mottled plumage on the breast (adults have a smooth transition from black to blue) and the incomplete stripes on the front of the head. I've also never seen an adult jay with pink corners at the edge of the beak.

While it's hard to distinguish adult female flickers from young juveniles except when the latter acts in a clumsy manner or is seen being fed, as the adolescent males grow older, they start to get traces of their future distinctive markings, making them readily told from the unmarked females of any age or the boldly marked adult males.

Even if it hadn't looked less sleek and polished than an adult, the pale beginnings of this juvenile male flicker's "mustache" and crescent on the nape of the neck were a giveaway of its age.

He may still be an adolescent, but this young flicker was sure enough of himself that he chased off an adult male robin who also wanted to use the birdbath!

Even as a bumbling youngster with only a ghost of the bold red markings on the head that will define it as an adult male, it's still a very striking bird.

An interesting side note: northern flickers come in two distinct colorations, the red-shafted western race and the yellow-shafted eastern race. "Shafted" refers to the color of the flight feathers, only just visible in the photos above. The other major difference between the red-shafted and yellow-shafted races is that red-shafted males have a red malar (or mustache) and no coloration on the nape, while yellow-shafted males have a black malar and a red nape crescent. But wait, you say, this little guy--and his father, pictured at left--have both a red malar AND a red nape crescent! Which is true, and surprising. While the red-shafted and yellow-shafted races interbreed where their ranges overlap in the middle of the country, it's interesting to me that I have flickers here in my yard on the edge of the continent that display traits of both!

While we're on the subject of anomalies in coloration among local birds, we also see an unusually large Steller's jay (pictured at right) that is completely black on the front and doesn't have the blue stripes on the forehead. I did some research and learned that there are many regional variations in coloration (Steller's jays of the interior have a white eyes stripe!), some distinct enough to be considered subspecies. In our own backyard, how far down the breast the black of the head extends varies from bird to bird, but this was the first I'd seen that had no blue on the front of the bird at all. That's the kind of thing you learn to notice after you've been watching your local bird population!

This crow has just dropped a piece of
bread in the birdbath.
At the moment, the only bird species besides the chickadees around my house whose young that I can definitely verify as still being cared for by the adults is the crow. As intelligent social animals, crows have a lot to learn and take a long time to grow up. Although long out of the nest, the juveniles are still tended to by their family group. I can hear the plaintive baby crow "feed me!" call resonating from all corners of the neighborhood as the adults roam in search of food. Unfortunately, although I can hear the young crows being attended to, I seldom have opportunities to photograph them. This is because a few years ago, the resident crows decided that our birdbath would be the perfect place to soak food for their young. At first it was just a messy annoyance that meant regularly emptying out the birdbath whenever there got to be too many bread crumbs and swollen, mushy dog food in it, but we drew the line the day that the partial remains of a dead rodent were added to the stew. After that, we made a point of going outside and chasing the crows off whenever they landed on the birdbath with something in their beaks to soak in it. Soon, all we had to do was catch a crow's eye (and they were looking very carefully) from inside the house and they would fly away. They have taught this caution to successive generations and now we seldom see crows in the backyard at all. It's nice for the other birds, since they don't have to swim around in sodden food particles, but it does make it harder to get a closeup of a young crow. (And yes, I have actually army-crawled across my family room floor with my camera in an attempt to avoid detection while moving to a spot where I have a clear shot from a discrete position, but they are very, very good at spotting people in the house!) Thus, I present you with only two photos, one taken of a young crow in a tree almost directly overhead and at least thirty feet up and the other taken through the screen of an upstairs window when an adult and a juvenile briefly visited the birdbath for drinking purposes.

How do I know this is a young crow? The blue iris that is just barely discernible in this awkward photo. The yellow corners of the beak are also a clue. Adult crows have black/brown irises and all-black beaks.

The light iris and yellow beak edge are visible in this image (taken through a screen, hence the abysmal quality) as well.

Juvenile kinglet wing.
I might add that I saw but was not able to photograph a Bewick's wren with her young ones and can safely assume, even though I did not see them, that, given all the chatter, the local house finches, black-capped chickadees, hummingbirds, and other regular yard visitors raised families, too. Sadly, I was able to photograph a young kinglet, but only because the dog found it dead in the yard. I'm leaning toward ruby-crowned kinglet (we get both those and golden-crowned kinglets in our yard), but couldn't make a definitive ID because the head, alas, had already been picked clean by scavengers. (I do know it was a juvenile because of the beak color.) It was only as long as my thumb, a mere wisp of a bird with yellow-edged feathers, a fragile reminder that mortality is high among young birds.

I also saw some juvenile birds while out with my camera away from home, including these birds in thicket in a field...

I first spotted this young house finch puffed up on a branch, sound asleep.

When it noticed my presence, it drew itself up and assumed a more normal form!

I didn't see any adults around to verify this ID, but I believe this is a juvenile yellow warbler.

...this red-winged blackbird youngster in a wetland...

I thought I was looking at two adult female red-winged blackbirds until one of them (on the right) adopted the open mouth and fluttering posture of a baby bird begging to be fed and the other popped something into the waiting beak!

...and ducklings on various bodies of water.

Back in April, I posted a photo of a mother duck with some very young ducklings.

This group, part of a different brood, were older, though still young enough to enjoy piling together for a snooze in a partially concealed spot. I wasn't able to see clearly enough count them all, but this family, which included other ducklings not visible in this photo, was huge!

The reason ducks have huge families is because there are many predators that love nothing better than a duckling for lunch. This mother mallard stands with what remains of her nearly-grown brood--all two of them.

Nearly full grown, these juvenile ducks are big enough that they can lead the way with their mother trailing in the rear.

And so, as July draws to a close, it can safely be said that the 2014 breeding season has come to an end. It's been an fascinating journey since I spied that junco nestling last year and my photographic interest in birds was piqued. I'm glad I got my new lens in time to help me capture a new generation among the birds that call my yard home!

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!

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