Saturday, August 29, 2015

Anna's Hummingbirds near Julian

The identification of female and immature hummingbirds is tough. In the East one only expects Ruby-throated Hummingbird. But in the West there are 7 species and another dozen from Arizona to Texas.

Anna's Hummingbird
Anna's Hummingbird. Julian, California. July 3, 2015. Greg Gillson.
Most female and immature hummingbirds are a similar green. The color, design, and shape of the tail feathers when fanned are key for separation. And the shape of the primary wing feathers when perched are important for ID purposes, too. On such tiny, energetic speedsters, these field marks are not easily observed with only binoculars. Thanks to high speed digital photography in the past dozen years or so, many rare and out-of-range hummingbirds are being identified now that would not have been identified in the past.

For my own photos, too, I am able to gain more confidence identifying these oh-so-similar hummingbirds that might have gone unidentified in the past--even if my efforts so far have only verified that the birds I am photographing are the expected ones.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

California Thrasher at Scissors Crossing

Eastward over the Cuyamaca Mountains, right on the edge of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, I spied a large gray-brown bird in the mesquite. Slightly larger than a robin, plain breast, long curved bill, ample tail.

Nope. Not the rare Crissal Thrasher that one might expect in the desert mesquite trees just 20 miles farther east. Rather, it was the common thrasher of the coastal slope to the west--the California Thrasher.

California Thrasher in mesquite
California Thrasher in mesquite. Scissors Crossing, California. July 4, 2015. Greg Gillson.
It is especially common in dense chaparral, but also found in coastal sage scrub. These birds don't seem to care for human-altered habitats, and are quite scarce even in apparently appropriate habitat in urban areas.

They are harder to find in winter in their dense bushes and shrubs. But come spring they sing loudly from exposed perches. The songs are long and complex and slightly warbled, with both musical and harsh notes.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

On taking field notes

Guess what's in this blue tub?

blue tub

Van Remsen in American Birds September 1977 wrote an article that greatly influenced my birding: "On Taking Field Notes." Following this article I changed the way I kept track of birds I saw. In fact, I kept field notes based on this article faithfully for 28 years, until 1996. After that my field notes kind of sputtered and were irreglular until 2006. Then I started using BirdNotes online for some of my birding trip lists. 

tub full of field notes
A tub full of Greg's bird field notes dated from 1972 to 2006.
In 2010 I started using eBird and became a strong advocate (one might even say "evangelist") of this great program (click here for "What is eBird?" that I wrote in 2010). This real-time online checklist program allows me to take field notes in the way that Remsen recommended. Locations can be mapped precisely. Time and distance are recorded. I can note mere presence or exactly count numbers. Rare birds are flagged (and vetted) so that I must write a description before they'll be accepted into the database. One of the problems of my paper field notes is that I would underline rare birds on my day's list, but then not say anything more about them. Thus, years later, even I can't vouch for some of the sightings of rare birds that I listed but did not describe. I can even add photos to my lists.
birding field note books

The reason I bring this all up (again)? Just this week I finished a 5 year project of entering all those 37 years of my bird notes (1972-2010) into eBird. Yes, every bird that I've ever seen for which I have notes that contain exact locations and dates, are now in eBird. In total, including these old notes and bird lists directly into eBird from 2010 to date, they number over 7000 checklists. 4000 of those lists are complete checklists--every bird I saw at a particular location and date. All my notes, all those valuable data, all that hard work, is preserved and publicly available right now as long as eBird and National Audubon Society and the Internet exist. That's a lot better than sitting unused in a blue tub in my closet.

I think Van Remsen would be pleased.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Purple Finch at Julian

One form of Purple Finch breeds across the boreal forests of Canada and into the NE U.S. and winters in Eastern U.S. Another form is a resident down the Cascades and Sierra-Nevadas from southern British Columbia to mountains in extreme southern California. They prefer conifer and mixed forests. I don't know why they don't like the Rocky Mountains.

Purple Finch
Purple Finch. Julian, California. July 3, 2015. Greg Gillson.
As you can see, Purple finches are not purple, but red, paler pink on the breast. The back and wings are brownish, tending toward olivaceous (a dark greenish). They are similar to Cassin's Finches (which are found in mountain pine forests and do like the Rocky Mountains). They are also similar to House Finches that are common feeder birds in towns and lowlands. House Finches have the brighter red more concentrated on the forehead, rump, and upper chest. The lower belly of House Finches are whiter with brown stripes.

Purple Finch

This Purple Finch was photographed at a water feature near our inn in Julian last month. They are found in the higher wooded mountain areas of San Diego County which divide the county in half in a general northwest to southeast manner.

Purple Finch

Purple Finches sing a cheerful, sweet, rollicking song to match the bright coloration of the males. Females are brown striped--really pretty much as the male but with no red hue at all.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Hooded Oriole at Scissors Crossing

Hooded Orioles are common birds of palm and eucalyptus trees in urban and residential areas of southern California. In fact, they are spreading in such human-altered habitat nearly the length of California now. Nevertheless, they migrate south well into Mexico in winter and are quite rare in winter in southern California, perhaps averaging 2 birds per winter in San Diego County. For instance, in January 2015 there were 3 each of Orchard and Baltimore Orioles known in the county, at least 4 Bullock's Orioles, but apparently only one Hooded Oriole (eBird and San Diego Field Ornithologists newsletter).

Hooded Oriole
Hooded Oriole. Scissors Crossing, California. July 5, 2015. Greg Gillson.
Their historic "native" habitat in San Diego County was sycamore lined intermittent streams feeding into the Anza-Borrego desert and a few scattered oases with the rare native California Palms. This bird photographed above was along one such desert stream.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Movie Review: "The Big Year" Revisited

It has been several years since I last saw the movie: The Big Year (2011, Jack Black, Steve Martin, Owen Wilson). Trailer here. So recently I ordered it on Netflix. I think I enjoyed it more the second time--though both viewings were enjoyable.

This movie is not really about birds and bird watching. It is a movie about obsession.

It is a movie about how relationships are challenged when one is truly engrossed, totally absorbed, consumed in an endeavor to the point of self-damaging fanaticism. It simply uses birds and extreme bird watching as a medium to examine obsession.

Okay, yeah. Who am I fooling? This movie is about birds and bird watching.

Do you have a hobby, sport, or interest that you really enjoy? Is it getting out-of-hand (not according to you, but according to your friends and family)? Can you envision yourself taking an entire year to do nothing but your favorite activity to the exclusion of all else? If so, you might find yourself in this movie.

It's called a comedy. With the three primary actors you would think so. I think it is a comedy in the same way that Around the World in 80 Days (2004, Jackie Chan version. Trailer here.) is a comedy about travel or racing. Jules Verne wrote Around the World in 80 Days as a Science Fiction adventure in 1873.

Hollywood doesn't have a pigeonhole for this kind of a movie. It is humorous in the way that you might recognize yourself or a loved one in these obsessive behaviors (like taking your new (non-birding) bride to spend a week in the dorm hut with 20 other birders in the otherwise uninhabited Aleutian Island of Attu for your honeymoon--what's wrong with that?). It is an adventure story, friendship story, budding romance story, end of marriage story, happy story, funny story, sad story. It is based on a more-or-less real life story (I've never read the book). In other words, a box office dud.

The good thing about the movie, from a birding perspective, is two-fold. The activity of bird watching per se is not being made fun of, as has usually been the case in Hollywood TV and movies (see Miss Jane Hathaway in the TV show The Beverly Hillbillies).

Second, the birds are identified correctly and the soundtrack matches the birds. Compare this with ANY other movie. For instance, take the Finding Forrester (2000, Sean Connery. Trailer here.) Connecticut Warbler ID debacle. Okay, it is only a debacle to bird watchers. It is a "Huh? What's the big deal?" to anyone else. Let me put it to you this way. What if your new Mission Impossible movie had someone buy a bus ticket and the movie clearly showed a dollar bill with an image of Australian actor Hugh Jackman instead of American president George Washington? Could you keep following the story line? Me neither.

Anyway, that's my 4-years-too-late movie review for you.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Marlene takes control!

I'm now on Day 10 since my rotator cuff surgery. I'm happy to report that all seems fine--not even really any pain, just some stiffness and minor bruising. Nevertheless, my arm remains immobile in a sling (but notice I can still type...).

Marlene took me for a ride today! (Go for a ride? Go for a ride? Oh boy! Oh boy!) So we went to Oceanside where a family of Least Bitterns has been reported below the bridge over the San Luis Rey River mouth. Since I can't hold up a camera yet, Marlene took the photos here.

Great-tailed Grackle
Juvenile Great-tailed Grackle. Oceanside, California. August 9, 2015. Photo by Marlene Gillson.
Great-tailed Grackle
Male Great-tailed Grackle. Oceanside, California. August 9, 2015. Photo by Marlene Gillson.
Ruddy Duck
Ruddy Duck. Oceanside, California. August 9, 2015. Photo by Marlene Gillson.
Pied-billed Grebe
Pied-billed Grebe. Oceanside, California. August 9, 2015. Photo by Marlene Gillson.
Green Heron
Juvenile Green Heron. Oceanside, California. August 9, 2015. Photo by Marlene Gillson.
Great Blue Heron
Juvenile Great Blue Heron. Oceanside, California. August 9, 2015. Photo by Marlene Gillson.
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Juvenile Black-crowned Night-Heron. Oceanside, California. August 9, 2015. Photo by Marlene Gillson.
Snowy Egret
Snowy Egret. Oceanside, California. August 9, 2015. Photo by Marlene Gillson.
Snowy Egret
Snowy Egret. Oceanside, California. August 9, 2015. Photo by Marlene Gillson.
Red-necked Phalarope
Red-necked Phalarope. Oceanside, California. August 9, 2015. Photo by Marlene Gillson.
I was really happy when this Sora crept out from the sedges. This is the best view I've had in several decades of this normally shy water wader that hides in emergent vegetation. And Marlene got this great photo, too!

Sora. Oceanside, California. August 9, 2015. Photo by Marlene Gillson.
It was at this point that Marlene's promised cup of coffee could wait no longer. So she took the camera back to the car and I followed a "cuk-cuk" call back over the bridge. There! Two fuzzy-headed Least Bitterns clinging to the rushes!

Can I? Nope. Can't manage to take a photo with my phone through my binoculars. Can't digi-bin with one hand. Drat. Okay, phone pic only...

Photo by Greg Gillson   :-(

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Lawrence's Goldfinch at Julian

I finally got my first photos of Lawrence's Goldfinch. This bright male was at a water feature at our inn in Julian last month.

Lawrence's Goldfinch

My first sighting of these striking little birds was in Kern County, California on June 15, 1980. In fact, there were 45 alone at a place called Toad Springs Campground. In the 1980's I saw them a dozen more times in Ventura County, California and once in Arizona at Crystal Hill near Quartzsite. --As an aside, I notice that Quartzsite, Arizona in 2010 had a human population of over 3600, which is triple the number there in 1980. I don't know why, as the average daily high temperature June-September is triple digits!

Lawrence's Goldfinch

It was 32 years from my last sighting of Lawrence's Goldfinch in April 1983 to my next sighting in March 2015. We spent 1985 to September 2013 back in Oregon, where these birds do not occur--except as extremely rare vagrants. So this March, since I didn't have any records for San Diego County yet, I chased down a report of Lawrence's Goldfinches not too far away in Poway. Then I found them again, on my own, at Kitchen Creek in June, and then again at two locations at Julian in July. And finally! I got a photo of my 20th sighting of Lawrence's Goldfinch. Here are the photos!

Lawrence's Goldfinch

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Wrentit near Julian

I suppose I could choose two different birds. After all, the 70-mile wide by 70-mile long county has recorded well over 500 species of birds. But to me, the two birds that represent the entirety of San Diego County are these: Verdin and Wrentit. There is almost no overlap in their ranges, but together one or the other is found over the entire county. Verdin is a widespread resident of the Anza-Borrego desert in the northeastern part of the county. Wrentit is resident in the rest of the county, from the mountains to the shore.

Wrentit. William Heise County Park, Julian, California. July 3, 2015. Greg Gillson.
Homebodies, a pair of Wrentits average a territory of just one acre in size (range 0.5-2.7 acres). That means that a pair of Wrentits (who mate for life), on average, spends their entire lives within an area smaller than a football field.

Their preferred habitat is not very glamorous--chaparral, oak understory, and coastal sage scrub--low, brushy, dry, evergreen shrubs. They hop and crawl from bush to bush. They are loathe to fly more than a few inches, and always keep to the dense bushes, never out in the open.

Secretive in actions, but both sexes sing--and very loudly. It is a piping whistle that speeds up into a trill. It is described as a bouncing ball. peet peet peet-peet-peet-peetpeetpeettrrrr....


Insects (beetles, caterpillars, bugs) are their primary food. They also eat seeds and small berries--including the berries of poison oak!

Wrentit in a favored shrub--poison oak!
The Wrentit is different from all other birds. It is neither a Wren nor a Tit (chickadee-like birds). It is often included in the Old World Warbler or the Babbler families. In either case, there are no other New World representatives of either of these bird families. The Wrentit is truly unique.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

UFO's near Julian

Birding often slows down in the heat of summer. That's when I tend to notice other colorful unidentified flying objects.

I appreciate all forms of life, but my identification skills have concentrated primarily on birds, whales, western pines, and edible plants. My knowledge of butterflies is quite limited. I think I regularly see swallowtails, monarchs, admirals, sulfurs, and whites. But getting more specific than that has not been a priority for me.

So I offer these photos and tentative ID's to butterflies I photographed in early July near Julian, California at about 4000-4600 feet elevation. Oh, and one very interesting flower, too.

Mylitta Crescent
Mylitta Crescent. Julian, California. July 4, 2015. Greg Gillson.
Checkered White
Checkered White. Lake Cuyamaca, California. July 4, 2015. Greg Gillson.
Lupine Blue
Lupine Blue. Lake Cuyamaca, California. July 4, 2015. Greg Gillson.
Humboldt Lily
Humboldt Lily. William Heise County Park, Julian, California. July 3, 2015. Greg Gillson.