Really, both of the questions in the title are easily answered. It's called a White-tailed Kite (Elanus leucurus) because it has a white tail, and it kites. If you are unfamiliar with the term, it's maybe more related to kites that you fly with a string and all because the appearance is much the same. Kites are known for their habit of flying in place without moving as if they were attached to a string, watching for prey in the grassy fields below. A few other birds do it, but these birds are real masters. And they are my favorite raptors.
Strangely enough, today's pictures happened because another bird was kiting in the pasture-lands along Bentley Road east of Modesto. I couldn't see it well because of the sun angle, so I stopped to get the binoculars. It turned out to be an American Kestrel, but then I noticed there was a Kite on the fence post not forty feet from my car.
The camera was on the seat beside me, but the windows blocked a good angle for getting photos. I inched the car forward and raised the camera, but just as I clicked it flew away. I said to myself "of course" because that's what always happens, but to my great surprise, it simply flew across the road and landed just a bit behind me, no more than eighty feet away. And it was contentedly munching on lunch, which was some kind of small rodent. I took around 35 pictures because no Kite has ever allowed me to be so close. These are the best pictures I've ever been lucky enough to capture. It actually took me several minutes to realize there were two more Kites out in the meadow beyond the first.
And that brings up answer to the second question: Why do I take my camera EVERYWHERE? Because you never know what will happen when you are out and about. I was simply out to get a few things at the grocery store. If I had not brought the camera, I would have missed these shots.
There's a semi-precious gemstone called lapis lazuli. It's actually a metamorphic rock containing a variety of minerals, but the intense blue is caused by a mineral called lazurite. It's often speckled with small grains of gold-colored pyrite. The gem has been mined for thousands of years, especially in Afghanistan, Russia, and Chile. I got to collect some once in one of the very few spots in California where it can sometimes be found. The intense blue of the mineral has led to its use as a pigment in oil paints in Medieval times (the color ultramarine), and is especially associated with the Virgin Mary.
I love the color blue, and I am lucky to have a number of bright blue birds that are common locally, including the Tree Swallow, California Scrub Jay and the Western Bluebird. But there are some blue birds that are exceedingly rare, at least in my experience, including the Blue Grosbeak and the subject of today's post, the Lazuli Bunting (Passerina amoena). They're real gems. If I am lucky, I'll spy them two or three times in a year. It's even rarer to get a half-decent picture.
I saw the first Lazuli Bunting of the year a few weeks ago after a good friend insisted she was hearing one near the trailhead for the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail where I walk nearly every day. Her observation was spot on as I got a brief look at a male. But the pictures were very grainy. Today though, I was walking along the river trail when I spotted a small bird in the distance. I thought it was another sparrow, but it was perched vertically which raised my suspicion that it wasn't a 'normal' bird. I got the binoculars out and saw the chestnut color on the breast, but I still couldn't see it clearly. I carefully drew near and the intense blue color became apparent. The bird was nice enough to hang out long enough to get some of the best pictures I've ever captured.
The Lazuli Buntings are summertime migrants in our region, and indeed across much of the western states and southernmost Canada. Come winter they'll be in Mexico. Although their Latin name means "beautiful sparrow", they are more closely related to the Cardinals and Grosbeaks.