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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

34 Birds: April Edition

Note: This post has been edited as of 12/14 to reflect changes in identification, adding another bird to the list.

My ornithological assistant.

I had the pleasure of spending three weeks in April at the house of my collie friend, Mr. Gorgeous. This was right after I had purchased my new telephoto lens for birding and I started the gig off looking forward to photographing the various birds to be found around his house because his lakefront property draws birds that will never be found in my own yard. I ended spending quite a bit of time hanging out in the yard, head back, ears cocked for birdsong, camera at ready, while Mr. Gorgeous settled himself nearby. As the number of birds I photographed began to grow, it occurred to me that it would be fun to photograph every single species I saw and create a blogpost about it. Thus, it became my goal to not just get great bird photos, but all the bird photos.

There is a bushtit on the left and a hummingbird on the right (both out of focus, alas) in this photograph.

The property.
While the size and features (ponds, grass, trees, lake) of the property attract plenty of birds, they also presented some challenges for getting the shots I wanted. For one, Mr. Gorgeous' house is located on a steep slope. That meant I was often having to hike up the hill to photograph a bird I saw in the distance or hustle down the hill to take pictures of birds on the water. Twice, for example, I spotted goldfinches from the house on the upper pond, but by the time I was able to get there, they had dispersed. Similarly, I couldn't get close to the kingfishers fast enough or stealthily enough when they landed in the trees around the lower lawn. These distances would become additionally problematic at dusk or on gray days, when my camera's zoom couldn't stretch far enough to pick out details in the murk. Also, while the property is nearly two hundred yards long, it is comparatively narrow and heavily fringed with trees and shrubs to screen it completely from the neighbors. All this cover meant that I heard far more birds than I actually saw. It also meant that I had very little time to spot, focus on, and photograph birds that flew across the yard, rather than the length of it. I twice saw an accipiter (a category of small, long-tailed hawks), but each time it surprised me and I didn't have time to photograph it before it had sailed on. It's also why I have a photograph of an osprey flying away, but not of its face! Another issue I confronted was that I found that the birds at Mr. Gorgeous' house were much more flighty and "wild" than ones in my more prosaic suburban neighborhood, where they are accustomed to having people about, making it difficult to stalk birds even when I didn't have to negotiate the steep length of the hills or the dense cover of the property boundaries. So I worked hard to get these photos, and since I decided my ultimate goal for this post was to be variety over quality, some of these images are not up to my usual standard, serving, instead, to say: I saw this!

These trees lining the property are full of warblers. There's a five foot fence down there at the bottom if you want to get a sense of scale...

Without further ado, here are the thirty-two bird species I spotted either in the yard, flying over the yard, or swimming (or flying) just offshore of the yard during the month of April at Mr. Gorgeous' house, presented in the order that they appear in the Golden field identification guide, "Birds of North America." As always, I recommend you click on photos to enlarge them!

1. Mallard Duck

For the first week or so, the mallard couple that I'd seen daily on the lower pond during March continued to frequent it. They then disappeared and the only ducks that came around were the occasional bachelor drake. Toward the end of my stay, on a day when the lake was very choppy, I saw a mother mallard with ducklings swimming just offshore while the male kept watch on the dock. I don't know if it was this same couple, but I was mighty glad to get a glimpse at the downy, buoyant babies. 

A male mallard takes a drink before slipping into the pool.

When a eagle flew over, the female mallard discretely faded into the grass while the male duck stayed valiantly in view.


A few of these ducklings are not like the others... I think some domesticated duck DNA ended up in this gene pool.

2. Common Goldeneye

Goldeneyes are ducks that feed by diving under the water to feast on mollusks. With a sleek arching movement, they dive underwater, first one, then another, then another, until the whole flock has disappeared and the lake is empty save for some ripples on the surface. Eventually, some distance away, first one goldeneye will pop up, then another, and another, until the whole flock is once again bobbing on the surface. The black-and-white males are quite striking even from a distance. I have edited this post, as I initially thought these were Barrow's goldeneyes, but upon further study, I realized that the purple-headed male in these photo is a young bird. During their first winter, male common goldeneyes may more closely resemble mature Barrow's males than those of their own species.

A male flanked by two females. You can see where they get the name "goldeneye."

There are usually a couple of males and a lot of females in the groups that came around. 

The male has striking black and white plumage.

They often dove for clams near the dock, but never when I was on it--I had to hunker down in the bushes by the shore to get this shot! Otherwise, they would drift away without seeming to make any particular effort, but away they did go.

3. Barrow's Goldeneye

The females of common and Barrow's goldeneyes are strikingly similar and to further complicate identification, the two species will sometimes flock together. The most obvious difference between the female common and Barrow's goldeneyes is the beak color: female Barrow's have an all yellow beak during the spring/summer, while common goldeneyes have a black bill with a yellow tip. It's this clue that has led me to say that there is a Barrow's Goldeneye lurking in the flock.

The female in the foreground has an all yellow bill, unlike the goldeneyes in the background.

4. Bufflehead

Like the goldeneyes, buffleheads also dive for mollusks and, though smaller, are similar in appearance--from a great distance, the white facial patch on the females looks rather like the white facial crescent of the male goldeneye. They are more often seen in a nearby bay; I only saw buffleheads swim by only once.

Female buffleheads.

The males have impressive crests, but I only saw females while at the house.

5. Common Merganser

Mergansers are big diving ducks that hunt for fish underwater. The female common mergansers have a rusty head and gray plumage, while the male is gleaming in black and white with a blackish-green head.

The female common merganser sports a russet crest.

I was mightily pleased when one hopped up on the dock for a spell.

One evening, a merganser couple settled in on the dock for a snooze.

This is not a great photo, but I like how goofy the female merganser looks when the face is viewed head-on.
6. Bald Eagle

Bald eagles are common along the lakeshore. A pair of adults nest nearly every year in a park down the road just to the south while the juvenile eagles, told from the adults by their mottled brown plumage without the white head and tail, seem to have a base camp at a park just up the road to the north. I saw mostly juveniles on this stay and when they came around, they were usually harassing the ducks down by the dock.

The young eagles seemed to particularly like to come around to dive-bomb ducks off the dock when the weather was too horrid to make decent photos possible.

An eagle harassing goldeneyes on a dismal day.

A pair of juveniles sweep over the lake as rain begins to clear.

One day, a pair of adult bald eagles circled over the yard as they sought to gain altitude.

They are an impressive sight.

7. Osprey

I've occasionally seen osprey at Mr. Gorgeous' house before and I'm please to have gotten a photo of one, though, truth be told, I didn't know that's what it was for sure until I was able to look at the picture on my computer. The white underbelly, the black bill, and difference in the head size/shape make it distinguishable in this image from the immature bald eagles. Whenever I see a big bird, I grab my camera and take whatever shots I can get and hope it is something good!

I ran outside with my camera as soon as I saw it, but the osprey was on its way elsewhere and the only photo I got was this.

8. Eurasian Collared-Dove

This was a surprise: I'd seen what I'd assumed were white pigeons flying in a small flock over the yard on numerous occasions and so hadn't paid them much attention. It was only after one landed in the yard one afternoon and I photographed it that I realized the colors and proportions were not that of a rock dove's. ("Rock dove" is the actual species name for the birds we know simply as "pigeons.") My otherwise indispensable "Birds of North America" does not contain Eurasian Collared-Doves, but the internet helped me make the identification.

The Eurasian Collared-Dove: I'd never heard of such a thing! You can see a bit of the black "collar" on its neck that gives the species its name.

One of the white doves on the wing.

9. Anna's Hummingbird

The hummingbirds were busy this April, zooming about like iridescent green bumblebees, occasionally adding their creaky little voices to the general swell of birdsong. For some reason, the local hummers where uninterested in the feeder put out for them just outside the kitchen window, so I had to photograph them where I could find them: resting, usually only briefly, atop various trees.

I saw them zooming here and zooming there, but rarely did one of hummingbirds settle.

This female DID settle at the top of a tree almost directly overhead, where the angle of her iridescent feathers made them appear blue.

10. Belted Kingfisher

Seeing the kingfishers was probably my top birding experience during my stay with Mr. Gorgeous. I'd seen them once or twice before on previous visits, but never a pair of them. They are utterly distinctive in appearance with their big, crested heads, swift plunges headfirst into the water after fish, and harsh, rattling call, but they also proved disinclined to allow me to approach near enough to get decent photographs.

I was incredibly excited when I spotted the kingfishers, but struggled to get good photos. Here, the male sits atop a distant fencepost.

You can see my difficulty: this is shot from the outside the house with my lens zoomed out as far as it can go. The kingfishers were wary and didn't allow me to get very close. One would warn the other when I approached.

Here's the female belted kingfisher in a similar shot to the one above, but cropped to zoom in. I did get to see her fishing!

I got this photo when they settled briefly in a neighboring yard. I listened in vain for the rest of my stay for the distinctive "kackkackkackkack" sound they make while flying, but they didn't return again.

11. Red-Shafted Flicker

Red-shafter flickers, a member of the woodpecker family, are common around both my house and Mr. Gorgeous'. They principally feed on ants on the ground, but nest in tree cavities. I got to watch a flicker excavating a cavity in a large tree not far from the back deck.

A flicker spent a week or so excavating a nest cavity in this tree.

Here it can be seen sticking its head deep into the hole.

Red-shafted flickers are very handsome birds!

12. Downy Woodpecker

The photo I got of a downy woodpecker is very poor (though the colors are pretty!) and only shown here for documentation purposes! I happened to see them just once on this visit, but these small woodpeckers are relatively common.

A pair of downy woodpeckers scaled this tree as I sought to focus on them through the vegetation. This was the only semi-decent picture I got. At least you can see the red of the patch on the back of the head!

13. Swallows

There are often swallows swooping high above the house and lake, but on rainy days, they tended to fly closer to the ground, sometimes below the level of the house. They were difficult to photograph except for in silhouette, so I don't have the information needed to make a definitive identification in regards to species.

On one dark, drizzly day, an enormous flock swirled over the property. The sky was thick with them! My photos don't do justice to how many there were.

These are probably tree swallows, but they are mere silhouettes in all of my photos, with no visible distinguishing marks. It was fascinating to see so many birds whirling about at the same time!

14. Steller's Jay

Steller's jays are handsome, wary birds that seemed to favor the yards to the north of the property, from where I often heard their raucous jeers or saw them flying about. They are difficult to approach even at my house and were more so still at Mr. Gorgeous', but on one day I did manage to discretely photograph a jay that landed some distance away to go hunting in the grass.

I love the two vertical blue lines on the front of a Steller's jay's head.

It was looking for snacks in the grass.

They have black heads and shoulders and beautiful blue bodies with black bars. We don't have many truly blue birds around here, which makes them seem extra special!

And away it goes!

15. American Crow

I think crows are really cool. I admire their intelligence, their social bonds, and their black plumage. I found, however, that all of that black plumage was difficult to photograph. I took a great many photos of the crows and in most of them they appeared pitch black with no visible details. These are the best.

This photograph managed to capture a lot of feather detail!

Various crows were always flying about and calling and landing in the trees. When on the ground, they usually went about in pairs, overturning the moss in the grass. Here, a crow tosses a piece of moss aside.

A crow sits atop a pole with a beak full of nesting material.

During the final week of my stay, the behavior of the crows changed as the incubation of eggs began. I would hear a crow (the female) giving an occasional croak from a fixed position (the nest) while a solitary crow (the male) would sit at the top of a tree nearby, watching but not moving. One day, one of the nests (if my ears didn't deceive me, there was a nest on the far side of the vegetation on both borders of the yard) was attacked by some kind of raptor (too small to be an eagle) that I only saw partially in silhouette. The female on the nest sent out a distress call that brought crows flying at high speed from every direction.

Glossy black and very handsome!

17. Black-Capped Chickadee

Chickadees, particularly the black-capped variety, are found throughout most of North America and are doubtlessly familiar to many people. They would move through the yard several times a day in small flocks, making their signature call. Fun fact: the more dee's in the "chickadee-dee-dee" call, the higher the threat level being signaled by the bird!

A black-capped chickadee calling on a branch. There was a bird feeder nearby in the adjacent yard where they always made a stop during their rounds.

A chickadee explores the twigs of an apple tree while searching for insects.

This chickadee makes a quick survey of the territory before flitting off to the next meal site.

18. Chestnut-Backed Chickadee

Chestnut-backed chickadees are smaller than black-capped chickadees and are found almost exclusively on the West Coast, with a small population in the Rockies. They often flock with other small birds, including black-capped chickadees, especially in winter. I think they are even more handsome than the black-capped variety!

Like all individuals north of San Francisco, this chickadee has chestnut sides in addition to a chestnut back.

It is on the search in this cedar tree for little critters to eat.

Chickadees are known for hanging every which way on branches while feeding.

18. Bushtit

Bushtits are similar in many ways to chickadees: they move among trees in highly social flocks while constantly twitter to one another, engaging in acrobatics while searching for tiny insects and spiders to eat. Unlike chickadees, bushtits are drab in appearance. Nonetheless, I found them very charming little birds and was pleased to get quite a few good shots, as they are always on the move, most often in thick vegetation.
A good profile shot of a bushtit.

An itty-bitty bushtit singing from a branch.

One evening I had the very good fortune to photograph a bushtit on an apple blossom.

A trio of bushtits flit from twig to twig.

I often encountered a group of them in a particular stand of conifers, making it easier to be in a position to get shots.

The conifers provided a fantastic backdrop in this image.

19. Bewick's Wren

Bewick's wrens are frequent visitors at my house, but as they like to feed by hopping from stem to stem inside our shrubs, they've been impossible for me to photograph. Thus, I was overjoyed to discover that a Bewick's wren was building a nest in the heat vent for the gas fireplace at Mr. Gorgeous' house. These little birds seem to consist mostly of a tail and a voice: they are capable of producing incredibly loud calls, especially considering their size. The one nesting on the side of the house had a call reminiscent of car alarm in both volume and sound: a patter of notes followed by a ringing "WEEOOWEEOOWEEO!" When I heard it from inside, I'd grab my camera and sneak around the side of the house, getting pictures like the ones that follow.

The Bewick's wren and its novel nest cavity.

Males and females are identical in appearance and both participate in nest building. It is difficult to know the sex of the bird that is better arranging these materials in its beak before transporting them to the nest.

The Bewick's wren: a scarp of a thing consisting mainly of beak, tail, voice, and feet!

Bewick's wrens are told from most other wrens and similar small brown birds by their white eye stripe.

Head tilted back, this little wren unleashes a big song!

20. American Robin

Robins are hardly need an introduction. They were present at Mr. Gorgeous' house just as they are present virtually everywhere, running about in short bursts on the ground, calling from treetops at dusk, and generally doing what robins do.

"Worms, anyone?"

"Look, I found another!"

21. Ruby-Crowned Kinglet

Kinglets are tiny birds (an inch shorter in length than the diminutive chestnut-backed chickadee!) that often are found flocking with chickadees and warblers. The ruby crowns on the males can be difficult to spot as they often only display them during breeding season or while agitated, so I've learned to look for the white eye ring and the white wing bar. Otherwise they are very drab and easy to overlook, especially as they are quick-moving birds. I probably saw more of them in the treetops while photographing warblers than just the two pictured here but didn't realize what they were.

The diagnostic eye ring and wing bar are both visible here.

I originally passed over this image in the middle of my warbler photos without registering it was a kinglet until I was adding species' keywords. That's when I noticed the general lack of color and the white eye ring and added it to my slim collection of kinglet photos.

22. European Starling

The non-native starling, that oily-looking weed bird, was an unfortunate regular presence, though not in huge numbers. They flew above in small groups and fed in the grass, though I often encountered them aurally rather than visually, as they made trees shimmer with their weird array of songs from invisible perches. Their dark, iridescent plumage made them even more difficult to photograph than the crows; it was as if the feathers sucked in all the light, leaving only a silhouette.

A starling displays some of its iridescence while perched atop a tree.

They have long, yellow bills they use for finding food in the grass.

23. Yellow-Rumped Warbler, Audubon's Race

I'd never seen a yellow-rumped warbler before they spent several days foraging in the tall deciduous trees lining one side of the property. I was enamored by their handsome blue-gray and yellow plumage and spent hours staring up into the canopy as I tried to capture them feeding forty feet above my head. The particular group I saw are of the Audubon race, meaning they have yellow throats instead of white ones. 

This photograph shows what a yellow-rumped warbler looks like at 200mm without any cropping to zoom in. Sometimes I struggled to find the birds among the leaves in the images I captured!

This photograph reveals a glimpse of the warbler's yellow crown.

Because I was photographing birds high above me, most of the pictures show their undersides.

I don't see many warblers in my own yard, and certainly not ever in big flocks, so it was a treat to observe these striking birds as they chatted and foraged!

I once spotted a warbler down at one of the ponds and was able to get this photo, but I never had an angle that would allow me to photograph the yellow rump after which this species is named.

24. House Finch

If the most ubiquitous bird at my house is the junco, during spring, at any rate, the most ubiquitous bird at Mr. Gorgeous' place is the house finch. (I only learned to identify them by song this spring, so there may have been more of them around in the past than I realized.) I couldn't step outside without hearing the male's song, which always ended with a phrase the reminded me in rhythm and rising intonation of a teenage girl saying, "I know, right?" They could often be seen flying from tree to tree and cheeping to one another as they hopped about in the grass, feeding on dandelion seeds.

The males sport a red head and breast.

The females have no red at all, though are similarly barred and streaked.

I saw (and heard) the house finches everywhere on the property.

A female finch with a mouthful of dandelion seeds.

Another view of a male perched in a tree.

25. American Goldfinch

Twice I saw goldfinches collecting around the upper pond and twice I failed in my attempt to photograph the flock there. I did manage to catch a few in the trees, but my camera and I disagreed about what we were focusing on amid all of the foliage, so those photos were poor. I was definitely disappointed not to get better pictures of them.

A couple of goldfinches can be seen sitting on the grasses surrounding the pond; the rest of the flock was down drinking at the water's edge.

A pair of male goldfinches perch in a cedar tree after a crow spooked the flock gathered around the pond.

26. Rufous-Sided Towhee

Towhees are one of my favorite local birds because of their bold coloring. They are also very shy and consequently hard to photograph. There was at least one pair that frequented Mr. Gorgeous' yard; often, one bird would sit guard in a tree while the other foraged on the ground, calling back and forth to one another almost continuously.

Western rufous-sided towhees have white spots on their wings; eastern races do not.

I love that their eyes are rufous in addition to their sides. The towhees often hunt in fallen leaves, making a great racket as they vigorously kick and toss them about.

This towhee and I seemed equally surprised to see each other when it suddenly burst out of the surrounding trees and landed on this shed roof. Fortunately, I had time to snap a few photos from this closer-than-usual distance before it retreated.

27. Oregon Junco

I made little effort to photograph the juncos I saw at Mr. Gorgeous' because I have oodles of juncos at home where I can take much better pictures in much closer quarters. Here's one seen on one of the cedars; the juncos that visited the yard seemed to spend most of their time foraging within them.

Why take photos of back-lit juncos from a distance when I can take nice photos from a few feet away at home?

28. Golden-Crowned Sparrow

Another species that was new to me that I saw during my gig was the golden-crowned sparrow. A flock of them was feeding on the dandelion off the back deck when I surprised them (and they me, by flying up in a big rush of wings) one evening. One of the sparrows was kind enough to pose for me on a nearby railing, allowing me to get clear photos of its features.

A golden-crowned sparrow among the dandelions.

Profile looking left.

The golden crown that gives the species its name.

Profile looking right.

29. Song Sparrow

I'm very fond of song sparrows, which are common around Mr. Gorgeous' place, though I most often photograph them in a park nearby. I find their cinnamon-and-clay feathers attractive and they aren't too wary, which, as a photographer, I appreciate. They seemed to favor a particular hedge along the side of the property just before it plunged down to the lower lawn; I don't think I ever saw one on the uphill side of the house. 

A song sparrow perched in a tree above its favorite hedge.

It had, naturally enough, been singing when I spotted it.

30. Seagulls, 31. Great Blue Heron

Now we come to the species I saw while dog-sitting but did not photograph on the property. Gulls regularly flew by, but none of them seemed like they would make interesting images, so I passed. The picture shown here was taken a few weeks earlier at a nearby park. A great blue heron settled on the dock at dusk one evening, but as I had taken some excellent heron photos earlier that day at (different) nearby park, I didn't bother to take a poor one of a much more distant bird; I didn't decide to create this blogpost with a  photo of every species until a later date.

Immature ring-billed gull. It's possible I saw other types of seagulls as well, but I DO know I saw gulls just like this one.

Great Blue Heron at a nearby park.

32. Gadwall, 33. Sharp-Shinned Hawk

And then there were the birds that I did not photograph at the house and that I have never photographed. Gadwalls are a type of duck, smaller than a mallard, though the female resembles the female mallard in appearance. The male is a blend of subtle browns and grays. A pair of them took to spending the night on one of the ponds, but they always arrived after dusk. I would have had to use a flash to photograph them and opted not to disturb them. The Sharp-Shinned Hawk is not a sure ID, as the bird I saw on a couple of occasions could also have been a Cooper's Hawk, which is very similar in appearance but larger. What I do know is that I saw a small hawk with a long, banded tail swiftly gliding over the property while scanning the ground below for prey and that it always disappeared before I could get my camera/bring it into focus.

Photo credit: Bill Thompson, 2010

Sharp-Shinned Hawk
Photo credit: Steve Berardi, 2011

34. Canda Goose

I've titled this post "33 Birds," but I'm also including a 34th. It seems inconceivable that I went three weeks without seeing a Canada goose either on the lower lawn, on the dock, or swimming just offshore. I know I heard them and saw them flying at a distance, but all I can say for sure is that I didn't bother to photograph any that came near. Since a flock of Canada geese spends part of each day in the winter feeding and resting on the lower lawn and you can see them swimming around or resting on the dock at other times, it hardly seems right to leave them out. So here is a picture of a pair of geese that I took two weeks prior to my April stay with Mr. Gorgeous. Close enough, right?

Canada geese on the march.

I hope you've enjoyed this overview of birds found in suburban and lakefront Seattle environs during three weeks in April! Of course, there were likely other birds that visited Mr. Gorgeous' property that I missed, but if you pay attention, you may find that you're surrounded by far more birds than you imagined. If you've enjoyed these pictures, be sure to become a fan of c.creativity on Facebook, as I often post other bird photos there. But fear not, more blogposts on birds are sure to follow as I train my new lens on the birds this summer!

And for the record, while the "Birds of North America" field guide is what I reach for when I see a species I don't recognize, I highly recommend as a great resource for identifying birds (and particularly on telling one similar-looking species from another) and learning more about them! Because not all birds of the same species look exactly alike or birds in your region may differ somewhat in appearance from the individual depicted in the bird book, internet sites like All About Birds and Google Images are extremely handy for verifying identification. Happy birding!

Previous bird posts:
Hummingbirds in Action
Backyard Birding
Addendum to Backyard Birding
Just Ducky

All photographs © 2014 c.creativity