Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Black-chinned Hummingbird in the Backyard

I'm not done with my posts on Hawaiian birds; I finished with the natives, but there are lots of other birds to see there. But in the meantime, in the immortal words of Dorothy of Oz, "There's no place like home". I was told in no uncertain terms by the birds in the backyard to refill the birdfeeders. There was noise all day, but the most insistent individual was a little female Black-chinned Hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri). It quite literally flew by my face, landed on the mostly empty feeder, then perched in the nearby Crepe Myrtle tree and stared at me. The message was clear...

The Black-chinned Hummingbird is a western species with a range extending from Washington to southern Mexico and eastward as far as Texas. They do well in urban settings (they love feeders) so their population has been increasing. I've seen quite a few of them along the Tuolumne River.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

‘Alae ‘Ula in the Waimea Valley of Oahu

What, you may ask, was the rarest bird that I saw on my recent sojourn on the Hawaiian Islands? It was most likely this one, the 'Alae 'Ula, or the Hawaiian Gallinule (Gallinula chloropus sandvicensis). It is considered to be a subspecies of the Common Gallinule of the Americas. Endemic to Hawai'i, and found today only on Kauai and Oahu, there are probably no more than 750 individuals in existence. It is most definitely considered an endangered species.
The problem for the 'Alae 'Ula is that it is primarily a denizen of freshwater marshes, and of all environments in the Hawaiian Islands, these are perhaps the most completely altered by development and human incursions. It didn't help that it was the size of a small chicken and was hunted for food. It disappeared completely from the Big Island and Molokai, and reintroduction efforts failed. At one time it is thought that only 57 individuals remained.
They are usually rather secretive, but at Waimea Valley on Oahu there are several individuals who are used to crowds of people, and one or two wandered by while we waited at the entrance to the botanical gardens. It's always a good clue that a bird is endangered when it has a variety of leg bands.

The bird plays an important in Hawaiian mythology, being regarded as a deity that brought fire to the humans (the red shield is considered to have been caused by the scorching of the flames). Hearing one call at night was considered a bad omen.

Monday, May 29, 2017

‘Amakihi, One of the Hawaiian Honeycreepers, at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park

I'm making no claims whatsoever that these pictures are up to my own basic standards, but to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld's statements about armies, "As you know, you blog with the bird pictures you have. They're not the bird pictures you might want or wish to have at a later time." And these are the only ones I have of one of the unique Honeycreeper species of the Hawaiian Islands, the Hawai'i ‘Amakihi (Chlorodrepanis virens). They don't have the bright red color of the 'apanane, and thus aren't as obvious to me in the field. Their olive-green color is also very similar to the Japanese White-Eye, so I'm sure I've missed a few in the past.
There are populations of the 'Amakihi on the islands of Hawai'i, Molokai, and Maui, and they were considered subspecies, but recent genetic studies have caused them to be classified as separate species. They are common because they can survive in habitats ranging from sea level to 8,000 feet, and they have shown somewhat more resistance to avian malaria that has wiped out so many other species. Along with the 'Apanane, they are considered to be the least endangered of the remaining Hawaiian Honeycreepers (they evolved into around four dozen species in Hawaii, but only a third of them have survived to the modern day).

I saw the bird along the Byron Ledge trail near Kilauea Iki near the summit of the Kilauea volcano in Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island. It was perched in the upper branches of a dead Ohia tree (they often feed on the nectar of the flowers).

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Just a Bit of Searching and There They Are...'Apanane at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Redux

So...the other day I was all excited about FINALLY seeing and catching pictures of an 'Apanane (Himatione sanguinea) at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. The thing is, I wasn't birding at the time. I was participating in a geology field studies trip, and any birds I saw off in the distance were icing on the cake. I didn't have the time to watch quietly and carefully, nor was I in the best place to see them. But the other day was different. We headed up to Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park for the expressed purpose of checking out some of the best birding spots in the park, particularly the Moana Loa Road and the Kipuka Puaulu, the "bird kipuka". And the 'Apanane were quite evident! I probably saw a hundred or more, and some were close enough to capture some images.
What do you think these two are arguing about? One shouting and the other with its nose in the air!
To the extent that most people are not birders, and that the native birds of Hawai'i mostly live above 4,000 feet because of avian malaria spread by mosquitoes at lower elevations, and that only a small part of the human population of the islands live at that elevation, I suspect that even most Hawaiians don't get many chances to see these colorful birds. But in the right circumstances they are fairly common. Kipuka Puaulu is an ideal choice, as it is an isolated island of mature rainforest surrounded by young lava flows (that is the basic definition of a kipuka, an area missed by lava flows). The isolation helps to keep out the mongooses and feral cats who have destroyed many a bird population. Fencing has also kept out cattle and goats that would destroy the underbrush that supplies food and shelter to the birds.
I walked to the upper end of the loop where some ancient "grandfather" Ohia trees had died but left tall snags and I realized that dozens and dozens of birds were flitting around. I finally got some of the close-up shots I had been hoping for, and more.
There was another bird I got a couple of pictures of, but I was totally unsure of what species I was seeing. I downloaded the images and went to work with my bird guide, and came up empty. There was nothing that looked like the bird in the picture below. After I while I looked at the beak again and realized it was the same curving beak as the 'Apanane. This was a juvenile! They don't look very much like their parents...

Monday, May 22, 2017

'Apapane (at last!) at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park

Several million years ago, a small finch species, either pregnant or part of a small flock, got blown off course and somehow survived a tortuous passage over two thousand miles of ocean to land on the newly emergent Hawaiian Islands. The circumstance seems unlikely, but it only had to happen once. The birds discovered some kind of food that kept them alive, but over time, the populations became isolated as they searched for different food sources. Some were scattered on other islands. Over time they evolved, eventually diverging into four dozen or more species. These so-called Honeycreepers were more diverse than Charles Darwin's celebrated Galapagos finches. Time (and human intervention) was not kind to most of the species, and many went extinct. Today there are only a dozen or so left, and some of them are exceedingly rare (as in less than a dozen birds remaining). The reasons are many, but the biggest cause in recent time has been the spread of avian malaria, caused by introduced species of mosquitos. Today, most of the Honeycreepers survive in high-altitude forests where it is too cold for the mosquitos.

I've only seen a few of the Honeycreepers, perhaps just three species, and I've captured decent shots of none, which explains their absences from these pages so far. I'm on the Big Island this week, however, and I spent the last two days in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. We were exploring the edge of an intriguing pit crater called the Devils Throat when I saw a bird soaring on the far side. It landed for a few moments and I was able to confirm: it was a Honeycreeper called the 'Apanane (Himatione sanguinea). These are the pictures I got, at extreme zoom from about 150-200 meters away.

The bright red plumage of the 'apanane found its way into many robes of royal Hawaiians, but the birds were prolific enough to escape extinction when the islands were colonized. They are considered secure for the time being as long as an "island" of cooler air remains above the 4,000 foot level where mosquitos can't thrive (some of the birds may be developing resistance to malaria as well). Their current population on the islands is estimated to be just over a million individuals. And I finally photographed one of them!
The Devils Throat lava pit. I love my camera; the pictures above were on a bird in the shrubs on the opposite rim several hundred feet away.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

'Auku'u, the Black-crowned Night Heron in Hilo (the Return!)

I'm back in the Hawaiian Islands this week! It explains the relative lack of blogging anywhere, and I have precious little time for hunting birds (the topic of the week is geology, and the excuse for being in the islands is a conference and conference-related field trip). But still, I watch for them when I can, and I had a good opportunity early this morning.
I was last here about a year ago, and I had a short post showing the 'Auku'u (Black-crowned Night Heron; Nycticorax nycticorax) at night searching for fish in Hilo Bay in front of the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel. I never got a good luck of the bird in the daytime. That changed this morning. I spied him from my window hanging out with the fishermen along the shore, and went downstairs to see if I could get a closer look. It didn't seem too concerned about humans, given that some were standing just a few yards away.
The 'Auku'u is of a special breed, that of a bird that is native to the Hawaiian Islands.  The ancestors of this bird arrived by chance thousands of years, maybe tens of thousands of years ago and established populations here. Unlike other species which have undergone intense evolutionary change, the Heron is more or less indistinguishable from its mainland relatives. If you have good adaptations, you stick with them!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

More Migrants on the Tuolumne River: Cedar Waxwings!

I mentioned in the last blog how much I love our migrant bird species. The Orioles have arrived, and so have a number of others. I saw a couple of yellowish birds flitting in the trees at the Tuolumne River Parkway trailhead the other day, and caught a few fuzzy images, but not really good enough to post. It was enough to identify them as Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum).

A day or two later I was out walking again and saw a flock of birds fleeing a hawk and eventually they settled down in a dead cottonwood tree along the river. I got some much sharper shots, though at some greater distance.

The Cedar Waxwings are colorful birds, with yellow breasts and distinctive "raccoon" masks around their eyes. They can make noise, but I rarely hear them vocalize (A year or two ago I had an entire flock in my front yard tree and I didn't notice them for hours).
I live roughly at the northern boundary of the bird's winter range (from here all the way to Central America), and they migrate north for breeding, so I've mostly seen them during the spring and fall migration.

They are called waxwings for a bright orange or red waxy secretion on the end of some of their wingtips. I didn't get any good shots of the wingtips the other day, but you can check some of my earlier posts to see them.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Bullock's Orioles on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail

One of the pleasures of the coming summer season is the arrival of the tropical species in our region. Many of them are colorful, and as a beginning birder, I was surprised by how many could be seen in our region. I was on my river walk the other day, and I went an extra half mile to the trail that extends along the River Pointe development. There's a nice line of ancient oak trees along the river, but I've not seen a lot of native birds there (mainly lots of sparrows and house finches at the backyard feeders).
This time around, I spotted a yellowish bird in the oaks that I didn't immediately recognize. I immediately thought of female orioles, but wasn't sure. I got a couple of shots and started searching more carefully. I realized there were a number of birds flitting about high in the branches. Some of them were Cedar Waxwings, but then suddenly I saw a bright flash of yellow high over my head, and there it was: a male Bullock's Oriole (Icterus bullockii).
I did something unusual for my walks...I sat down! The birds weren't particularly upset by my presence, and there was a bench anyway, so I enjoyed watching the activity above.
I got a couple of half-decent shots and a short video. Enjoy!

I don't know, maybe he was irritated with me after all...

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Western Meadowlark at the San Luis National WIldlife Refuge

I don't know what it is about springtime (well, maybe I do), but the Western Meadowlarks (Sturnella neglecta) are very visible these days. We were touring the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge to see who would still be hanging about after the Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese left for their Arctic breeding grounds, and found that the meadowlarks were guarding their breeding territory.
This one was camped in a bush right next to the road, and didn't really care that I rolled down the window and picked up a camera. As long as I didn't invade his territory, he seemed fine with my presence. Being only 20 or so feet away, it's about as close as I ever get to a bird.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Pied-billed Grebe (and trailing flock) at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

During the winter, bird watching at our Great Valley refuges is relatively straightforward. There are thousands, even tens of thousands of migratory geese and cranes, and one can look practically any direction and see all manner of large charismatic bird species. At other times of the year it can be a bit of a challenge. A great many summer residents have arrived and they are having babies, and it makes sense that they would want to be inconspicuous until the chicks are grown enough to fend for themselves.

We were at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge last week and made a stop at the nature trail near the visitor center. At first glance not much was moving. At that point the value of binoculars or a powerful zoom lens became apparent. I saw something moving in the brown vegetation in the center of the picture above. I could barely make it out.
It looked like some strange aquatic beast periscoping out of the water. Then there were more of them, and then momma appeared. She was a Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) with a flock of four chicks!
The Pied-billed Grebes are described as half-bird, half-submarine, given their penchant for constantly diving. They can be very frustrating to photograph for that reason. Invariably, the moment I have one in focus it disappears and reappears somewhere far away.
It's moments like this that I really appreciate a 60x zoom. I was able to see these cute little chicks from probably 150 yards away, get some almost-focused pictures, and I didn't have to disturb them.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

My First American Bittern! At the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

There are lots of birds out there that are reasonably common, but for one reason or another I haven't seen a fair number of them yet. The American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) is an example. They are reasonably abundant in the wetlands of the Great Valley, but they are also solitary and secretive in their habits.
We've been exploring our local refuges for a few years now, and on Thursday we were following the Waterfowl Auto Tour at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. I spotted a large bird who was too busy concentrating on dinner to run and hide as we drove by. I almost missed it entirely, as its colors blended in so well with the vegetation. I got the camera in position quickly enough to see the evening's dinner menu: crawdad. It swallowed the thing whole.
It shook off any remainders, and we moved on. I thought I had been watching a juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron. It wasn't until I was working with the pictures later on that I realized I had spied a new bird for my list. Next time I'll make sure the pictures are sharper!

Thursday, May 4, 2017

California Towhee in Battle on the Tuolumne River

I got a single good shot of a California Towhee (Melozone crissalis) on my walk along the Tuolumne River the other day and it reminded me of a picture I got sometime back. The Towhees don't like competition, but they also misunderstand mirrors. I caught one last year in a vicious fight with himself at the water treatment plant. The picture looks like it's a mutual admiration society, but it kept striking at the image. I guess the nice thing is it can't lose, but it can't exactly win either.

The California Towhee is aptly named. Except for some populations in southern Oregon, it is a California endemic, with a range throughout California and Baja, but nowhere else (The Canyon Towhee is very similar and closely related, but inhabits the Four Corners states and Texas).