Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Life and Death Drama at Beacon Hill Park, Victoria, BC

 The evening started out peacefully enough. We were in Beacon Hill Park, one of the most beautiful in Victoria, out for an after-dinner walk at sunset. We were strolling through the small Japanese Park and pond, when a man pointed out a juvenile Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) which he said was just learning to fly. It was perched just a few feet over my head, and was staying perfectly still.
It was marvelous having a chance to see such a grand bird up so close, even if its plumage made it look slightly ridiculous.
I've watched herons plenty of times before, and never really heard them make much noise. I wouldn't yet know their call if I heard it (you can follow this link to hear their normal call: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Great_Blue_Heron/id).
I walked under a conifer along the pond and saw a familiar white coating that looked like snow but most certainly wasn't. There was a heron rookery overhead. About this time we heard an ungodly screeching up in the trees. I figured it was some kind of domestic dispute, or maybe juveniles calling for food, but there seemed to be an urgency, or even panic in the calls. I was starting to realize that something was off, but I couldn't see what was going on clearly high overhead.
I could see now that there were adult herons perched strategically all around the pond, as if acting like sentries. The man I had talked to before said that he thought they were looking out for the juvenile, that it might be having trouble getting back to its nest. That seemed reasonable, and Mrs. Geotripper and I walked on.
Then, Mrs. Geotripper saw them, flying into the pines on the east side of the pond. There were two Bald Eagles on the prowl, and they looked like they meant business. And that business didn't involve their usual diet of fish.
The drought that has affected California is far more widespread. The snows of winter were a fraction of normal in the Pacific Northwest, and the salmon runs this summer have been disastrously low. Some of the eagles are looking to other prey, and heron chicks have been part of their diet. They were raiding the heron rookery.
Photo by Mrs. Geotripper
The drama hasn't been confined to this year, I later found. Eagles drove off the entire heron colony at Beacon Hill Park in 2007, and I haven't been able to find when they came back, but they were there, but clearly living with the constant threat of attack. What a stressful existence.
I know it's the circle of life and all that, but I was glad not to witness nature raw in tooth and claw this particular evening. The eagles were lurking, but the herons were harassing them, trying to drive them off. They weren't going to be surprised.
Two very different birds in one tree.
Postscript: Reading up on the Great Blue Herons of Vancouver Island, I found that they are a subspecies (Ardea herodias fannini), that live on the Pacific Coast from Alaska to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. Information about the subspecies can be found by clicking here.

Friday, July 10, 2015

A Bevy of California Quail on California's Lost Coast

We've been exploring the north coast of California this week, and while stopped for a picnic at Way Park in Humboldt County, we saw movement in the grass. It took a few minutes for them to expose themselves to us, but it was a huge bevy of California Quail chicks (Callipepla californica) and their babysitters.
I've been trying unsuccessfully to get a few shots of quail chicks over the last year, and I'm still not happy with these. They keep their distance, are very cautious, and are well-camouflaged in the tall grass. And they never stop moving! It's like watching a dozen energizer bunnies at once.

How well-hidden can they be? How many chicks can you see in the picture below?
I certainly had no idea how many there were. Check my video and see how an apparent small group of two or three chicks turns into more than a dozen. And notice how they never stop moving!

Way County Park is pretty remote. It's between the villages of Honeydew and Petrolia on the Mattole River at the north end of California's Lost Coast. The Mattole is one of California's truly wild rivers, with no dams along its length.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Western Bluebird Family at the Tuolumne River Bluffs

I was home briefly from my travels (a situation that will be rectified very soon as we hit the road tomorrow), and I wanted to see who was out and about at the future Tuolumne Bluffs Park in Waterford. I saw two kinds of woodpecker, but couldn't get adequate shots of them, but as I was leaving I saw three birds on the wires above. They seemed to be different from each other, and upon closer inspection they were, but the difference was from age and gender, not species.
All three birds were Western Bluebirds (Sialia mexicana), but only one of them was clearly blue from the view I had, the male. I don't know that it was specifically a family grouping, but three birds in close proximity like this made it seem likely. The female is above, and the juvenile is in the picture below.
I hadn't been to the future park in more than a month, so there were some big changes. The groundbreaking ceremony for the park took place about two weeks ago, and graders have begun leveling the dirt parking area on the bluff. I am feeling ambiguous about the park in the sense that they will be paving over what had once been an open field, but they don't seem hell-bent on destroying the old trees yet, and the finished park will provide access to the river trail via a metal stairwell. The walk will follow the Tuolumne River upstream for two miles to Appling Park, and I am really looking forward to some explorations along that route when it is finished.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Immature American Kestrel at Petrified Forest National Park

Our recent journey through the Colorado Plateau brought us to Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. There was plenty of geology and archaeology at the park, but when we reached the Puerco River Pueblo, I grabbed a sandwich and walked down the banks of the creek to see what kinds of birds were out and about. There were dozens of swallows flying about the river bridge, some ravens, and a few doves. But one bird was watching me. I felt uncomfortably like food. It was an American Kestrel (Falco sparverius). The spotted breast told me it was an immature bird.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Spotted Towhee at Grand Canyon National Park

We were having our last presentation at Desert View in Grand Canyon on our recent trip, and while the students were having stage fright about what their professor was thinking about their performance, their professor's attention was instead drawn to the top of the nearby Utah Juniper. The strange looking red-eyed bird perched on top is a Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus). It's actually a large member of the sparrow family, and is well adapted to southwestern deserts. They are beautiful birds, but I find those red eyes a bit disconcerting.

The Grand Canyon is a marvelous backdrop for bird watching. The Desert Watchtower is patterned after the towers of the Ancestral Pueblo people, but is much larger than any of the towers built in ancient times. Situated at the east end of the canyon, it fills a bit less crowded and busy than the main tourist centers of the park.