Monday, January 30, 2017

Williamson's Sapsucker at Stonewall Mine

A few miles north of San Diego County the Williamson's Sapsucker is a year-round resident. However, in San Diego's lower mountains Williamson's Sapsucker is a rare annual winter visitor only. In fact, in many years only one bird is found by birders. One location that supplies frequent records is Stonewall Mine in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, at about 4700 feet elevation.

The male is a handsome jet black with yellow belly, white wing patch, and white stripes on its face--very striking. The female is brownish and barred somewhat like a Northern Flicker, but stills show the yellow belly of the other members of the sapsucker group of woodpeckers. Both males and females show up in San Diego County.

Sapsuckers aren't very active, generally. In the spring dawn they tap out their unique patterns of display drumming to declare their territories, but are otherwise hard to detect. In summer they fly back and forth to their hungry squealing young in a nest cavity. In the winter they can sit on the side of the tree for minutes or hours at a time, as they tend their sap wells. Sometimes a bird will be on the same tree at the same height seemingly for weeks on end, as they come back to a favorite winter feeding spot. This makes them easy to find if you know the exact spot, otherwise frustratingly difficult--an inconspicuous bump on a log, easily passed by.

Female Williamson's Sapsucker
Female Williamson's Sapsucker, Stonewall Mine, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, California. January 8, 2017. Greg Gillson.
In breeding mountains Williamson's Sapsuckers prefer open yellow pine (Ponderosa or Jeffrey pine). Most of their diet is sap from conifer trees, and insects (often carpenter ants) attracted to the sap wells.

A female Williamson's Sapsucker has been reported sporadically at Stonewall Mine this winter. I went there on January 8th to try to find it and other winter mountain specialties. After walking around the largest pines near the parking lot, I headed west, past the seemingly always-closed restrooms, and worked my way down below the mine. No luck. So I headed over to Lake Cuyamaca for a while.

After I came back to the Stonewall Mine area I was pishing nuthatches and chickadees in for photo-ops below the mine in an opening created by wind-fall black oaks. It was then that I noticed a woodpecker fly in high up in a pine above me. There it is! It was at least 80 feet up, and hidden by the branches of lower trees. I got a couple of photos and moved in closer for a better angle. I looked down to pick my step. When I looked up, it was gone.

Female Williamson's Sapsucker

I have 34 records of Williamson's Sapsucker in my eBird lists. All but 2 are from Oregon. This is my first for San Diego County, and second for California. Wait a minute! I also know I saw a male in the desert in western Arizona one winter. Looking, I see that entire trip is missing from eBird. Since I've transferred all my bird sightings notes into eBird, the notes from that trip must not have survived. I remember I attended a bird count near Phoenix and another near Parker that winter and remember several birds (Vermilion Flycatcher, Chipping Sparrow, White-tailed Kite, Inca Dove, Dunlin,...). I wonder if I can find those counts online and salvage a few of the birds I saw for my eBird lists? If I can even get the date that would help. December some time in the 1990's? Hmm....

Female Williamson's Sapsucker

All this from one little bird.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Painted Redstart at Crown Point Park

On January 11th Dave Povey found a Painted Redstart at Crown Point Park on Mission Bay. Soon many other birders had gone to see this rare winter visitor. Fortunately for me it remained in two carrotwood trees right along the parking lot. I was unable to get away to look for this bird until the afternoon of January 21st. It was a pleasure to find this bird quickly upon my arrival, as I had never seen this species before.

Painted Redstart in carrotwood tree. Colored pencil by Greg Gillson.
There are actually three known Painted Redstarts in San Diego County this winter. One bird has returned for its 2nd winter in a larger park at West Shepherd Canyon in Tierrasanta. Many people report taking an hour or more to find this one, or taking several visits to do so, which is why I never chased after this bird. A third redstart was discovered January 18th in a residential section of Mission Hills.

This is primarily a Mexican warbler of pine-oak forests, reaching the United States in Arizona and western New Mexico, as well as barely reaching west Texas. In winter most birds depart the US, but some remain in SE Arizona, and a few end up in southern California each winter.

The behavior of the bird I saw is apparently typical. It feeds from ground to tree top, but spends most of its time deep within the dense middle canopy where I caught glimpses of white tail edges or the large white wing patches when it flew, or spotted the deep red-orange breast through the green leaves. Fortunately, it sat still a couple of times, even in the open a couple of times. Otherwise, it was constantly on the move with not enough time in one spot for the camera to autofocus before it bounced to the next branch.

Painted Redstart. Crown Point Park, Mission Bay, California. January 21, 2017. Greg Gillson.
When I observed this hyperactive sprite it flew back and forth between the two carrotwood trees on the edge of the parking lot, but others saw it on the grass briefly with pipits, on the picnic table, and even a mud puddle at the edge of the parking lot. The flight was a bouncy, jerky, flap-bound. It occasionally gave a loud sweet house sparrow-like chirp, but is supposed to give a more musical and multi-syllabled call.

I was actually surprised how small this bird was. Perhaps the shocking black and red plumage in the field guide next to all the green and yellow warblers made me think it was larger. It was just a bit smaller than a Yellow-rumped Warbler, and shaped like it, with long full tail. Why did I think all redstarts were larger than that?

Friday, January 20, 2017

Little Blue Heron hunting posture

I was looking unsuccessfully in late December for a rare Tricolored Heron at the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge in Imperial Beach. The tide was unusually high and a group of Little Blue Herons were actively feeding up close to the road. There was one white immature and three adults--all at close range. Only the rainy weather kept me from getting even more photos.

There was also a white Snowy Egret feeding nearby. And I noticed that there was something different in the way these similar-sized birds hunted....

The Snowy Egret was quite active, high-stepping and taking short runs and frequent stabs at whatever was driven up out of the flooded estuary. Not as animated, certainly, as a Reddish Egret, but active nonetheless. Typically when hunting the neck was looped tightly with the head near the body.

The Little Blue Herons often held the same kinked-neck pose, but also did something different when hunting. For one thing, the Little Blue Herons were more slow and deliberate in stalking their prey.

A typical and apparently unique pose of the Little Blue Heron is to extend the neck fully, nearly horizontal to the ground. Then, keeping its head in the same position over the ground, it walks slowly forward until the rest of the body catches up with the head. The neck is now kinked and ready to strike.

This horizontal hunting posture may be a good identification mark for quickly finding immature Little Blue Herons among all the other white egrets in the marshes.

Little Blue Heron hunting posture
This particular pose is typical for a hunting Little Blue Heron.
Immature Little Blue Heron
The pale-based bill is a give-way that this is NOT a Snowy Egret.
Immature Little Blue Heron
Immature Little Blue Heron.
Little Blue Heron
Ready to strike.
Little Blue Heron
Looking for its next snack.
Little Blue Heron
Taking a moment to rest and look around.
Little Blue Heron hunting posture
This horizontal hunting pose may be an identification mark whether blue adult or white immature.
Nature Journal Little Blue Heron hunting posture
Nature Journal page based on photos, graphite and colored pencils. Greg Gillson.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Book Review: The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling

I don't know what caused my recent renewed interest in nature journaling. Maybe my bird watching had become superficial--see a bird, identify it, write it down, take a photo, move on. My link to enjoying birds, and thus nature, had simply become a game of tag--I was playing tag by just naming the birds I saw as fast as I could. I wanted something more meaningful; I wanted a deeper connection with not just birds, but all of the natural world.

However it started, by October of last year my decades-long latent interest in nature journaling reached a tipping point. I began watching nature journaling videos on YouTube and bought a couple of books on the subject. I dug through boxes and found the unopened set of quality colored pencils I had been packing around for years. I went to Michaels art supply store and bought graphite pencils and a sketchbook. I was hooked!

And then, toward the end of December, it arrived: The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling. 2016. John Muir Laws. 303 pages. Heyday, Berkeley, California.

Buy from the author.
Nature Journaling is observing and recording individual organisms in nature primarily by means of words and artwork. Record the date, location, and weather (metadata), and it becomes a simple scientific document. The nature journal can be the foundation for an educational curriculum, teaching science, art, writing and poetry, and mathematics. Or it can just be an enjoyable way to focus your nature observation activities.

Mr. John Muir Laws ("Jack") truly lives up to his famous namesake. And his new book? Fantastic. I studied it cover to cover. And by "study" I mean every day for 21 days I underlined and took notes on every page and followed his art instruction as it pertains to graphite and colored pencils, saving watercolor and gouache for a future time.

Mr. Laws promotes the call to "slow down, observe, discover, and see" with "intentional curiosity." Record your observation in order to...
Notice something you would not have seen;
Remember details you would have forgotten;
Stoke the fires of curiosity and have a tool to explore;
Fall more deeply in love with the [natural] world.

The first 69 pages discuss the nature journaling concept. It discusses different projects one could choose to investigate in their journal, as well as prompts and ideas one could include. Each person's journal is unique, depending upon what they notice in nature and how they respond to it. Mr. Laws stresses that you do not have to be a naturalist or an artist (there's no such thing as an "art gene")--just record and draw what you see and your nature knowledge and art skills ("pretty pictures") will come as an eventual result of practice and prolonged observation and questioning. I love the thought of turning a not-so-good-as-art drawing into a wonderful diagram by adding notes and arrows to it, taking both the attention and the pressure off the drawing, adding density and clarity of information. Every page of Laws' book is packed with examples from his own journals.

Mr. Laws stresses that he struggles with dyslexia. But he doesn't let the sometimes resulting misspelled words shame him from writing in his journal and sharing with others his journal page entries. He thus encourages others to overcome their fear of putting writing or sketches on paper--the writing and artistic skills will develop with practice--anyone can do it.

Page 70 starts a section on the supplies you might want to add to your nature journal field kit--as differentiated from what you might have at home in your "art studio." The emphasis is on easy, quick, and light weight. This allows and encourages you to make quick sketches and notes in the field that you can finish or improve upon later.

Page 84 starts the chapters on nature drawing--an art class! How to draw: Posture, Proportions, Angles. Shading. Color theory (forget red, yellow, and blue as primary colors, it's cyan, yellow, and magenta--just like in your printer). Details. Depth. Contour drawing. Gesture drawing. Negative shapes. Measured drawings. Constructed drawings. Composition.

Then, on page 126 starts media-specific techniques for graphite, colored pencils, ink, water color, and gouache. Laws counsels to find a medium you enjoy and then practice--you don't have to master each medium, though they all begin with a drawing of the underlying basic shape.

Next up, starting on page 154, is How to draw animals, from bugs to salamanders to birds and bears. He covers foreshortening and has many step-by-step instructions. He shows how to create dull and bumpy or smooth and shiny or even iridescent beetles. Slimy salamander skin. Transparent dragonfly wings. Snake scales. Birds from all angles. How to hint at feather groupings rather than drawing every feather so that your bird doesn't turn into a pine cone drawing. He delves into anatomy to show how skin overlays muscles and creates shadows on mammals. How to draw longer fur.

How to draw wildflowers starts on page 220. Trees near and far starts on page 250. Both are covered with the thoroughness of the section on how to draw animals.

Landscapes starts on page 266 with his concept of "Landscapitos," thumbnail landscapes that are fun and fast to add habitat references to your other plant and animal drawings on the page. Rocks. Mountains. Water. Waves. Sky. Clouds. Sunsets. It's all here.

I highly recommend this book!

Who would want this book? Those wanting a closer intimacy with nature, whether already active nature observers or not. Those artistically inclined, wanting to depict the natural world more realistically. Those wishing to receive basic art instruction in nature drawing. Parents of home-schoolers. Grandparents wanting to share art and nature activities with their grandchildren.

Will I keep up this life-changing nature journaling that I have begun? I think so. I hope so. And if I do, I'll have Jack Laws to thank.

Want to explore the Nature Journal idea further? Mr. Laws has a website with blog posts, including many videos of classes he has taught. Nearly everything in the book is in one of these tutorials or videos, but new blog posts and videos are being added constantly. Check it out:

Monday, January 9, 2017

Hidden truth: the mystery of the median secondary coverts

I learned something new about birds while watching a bird drawing instructional video by John Muir Laws (here).

I'll do some research and present it below. But the gist is that the overlapping feathers of the wing--where the feathers closer to the back overlap the next, then the next, and so on, all the way down to the outer primary--doesn't always apply to the median secondary coverts.

Perhaps you would only care about this when drawing the wing feathers. This particular video was about suggesting the wing feathers, rather than drawing everything you know. Feather edges tend to blend smoothly on a bird's body. Wing feathers are stiffer and more individually obvious. As Laws says, however, if you draw every feather individually you'll end up with a bird that looks like a pine cone.

Here, take a look at the wing feathers on this Vermilion Flycatcher (magnified, so there is some pixelation to the photograph).

Flycatcher wing feathers labeled

Notice that the feathers labeled 1, 2, 3 are overlapping from top down on the folded wing? One is on top, it overlaps 2, which overlaps 3. Those are the three inner secondaries, often called tertials when obviously different from the rest of the secondaries. This pattern of overlap is repeated on the primaries and the greater secondary coverts. Watch the above referenced video to easily learn these and additional wing feathers (hidden from view in this photo).

If the greater and median secondary coverts are broadly tipped with white we call them wing bars. Wing bars are only hinted at on this Vermilion Flycatcher. Notice that the greater secondary coverts repeat the overlapping pattern of the primaries and secondaries (top down or left to right in this view). But what's going on with the median secondary coverts? They overlap from the opposite direction (right to left in this view)! Apparently this is the norm for flycatchers, but not(?) other perching birds. Laws also mentioned that the secondary coverts on hawks are more complicated.

I had no idea!

Now I need to go research this.

Where to look?

Reversed covert feathers is not discussed in my ornithology text book, Ornithology in Laboratory and Field, fourth edition, 1970, Olin Sewall Pettingill, Jr. And it's not in Molt in North American Birds, 2010, Steve N. G. Howell. Nor, is it in my go-to reference, The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds, 1980, John K. Terres. Therefore, this information is not in any book in my personal birding library. Reversed covert feathers is not a topic in Wikipedia ("covert feathers"). If it's not in the de facto "Encyclopedia Galactica," then where is this secret knowledge kept? Time to search the index of all knowledge--accurate or not--Google.

"flycatcher median secondary coverts"

"median secondary covert variation"

"median secondary covert overlap"

Nope, it's no good. But I did see reversed median secondary coverts on a Song Thrush and Lincoln's Sparrow photo. That goes against what I heard in the above video. So now I'm confused and interested. I guess I'll be looking closely at bird photographs for a while... even if I am the only one.

I'm going to start at the Slater Museum of Natural History Wing & Tail Image Collection.

After looking at several families and orders of birds it appears that perching birds may all have reversed median secondary coverts, pigeons seemed to have matching order, and ducks appear to have some with the overlap as expected with a mid-wing change to reversed. It is very difficult to tell on many of the wing specimens--some are slightly messed up, others are fluffy so that it is hard to see the edges. I don't know, on some specimens it appears that all the median, lesser, and marginal coverts are reversed.


I had this post written in late December and saved to publish about the first of January. Since then, however, my copy of The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling (John Muir Laws, 2016) arrived. On page 12 I found his mention of this mystery in the 1886 Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London in the article: "Observations on the Disposition of the Cubical Coverts in Birds" by J. G. Goodchild. Is this 130-year-old scientific journal article really the most-recent discussion of this anatomical structure in literature? ["Cubical coverts?" That term has zero Google references. But it will when this post is published and indexed!]

Again, unless you are a bird artist striving for super-detailed accuracy--or an avian systematicist, you may never need to know this. But that doesn't mean this phenomenon doesn't exist!

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Oh-fer: A summary of my county bird listing in 2016

It has been my goal to see over 300 species in a year in San Diego County for each of the past 3 years. I'm not trying overly hard; I'm not chasing any but the most nearby rarities. But still, others are finding over 350 species in a year. And I'm finding the regular residents and migrants and "regular rarities." I'm just not driving 45 miles to view one bird at one location when a rare bird pops up. So occasionally I make a day-long trip to see a bunch of the long-staying rarities on a circuit. Sometimes it works; other times not so much.

On November 26, 2016 I posted this message on the San Diego Region Birding list.

It sums up my rare bird chasing for 2016.

Subject: Oh-fer

Spent the whole day chasing this week's reported rarities.
Started at the Bird & Butterfly Garden where I did NOT see the Gray Flycatcher, Black-and-white Warbler, or Blackburnian Warbler.
Then over to the Sunset ball fields where I proceeded NOT to see a Lapland Longspur or Red-throated Pipit.
Down the road at Nestor Park I easily found the shady characters, but was UNABLE to find the Pine Warbler.
After a nice lunch I drove to the San Diego River mouth where there was NO sign of Burrowing Owl, Palm Warbler, Eurasian Wigeon, or Greater Scaup.
Finally, as the sun set, there was NO Franklin's Gull at Mission Bay.
My luck is 100%.
A wonderful and very typical birding day.

Greg Gillson

Is it any wonder I don't like chasing other people's rare birds, but would rather find my own? But like my favorite sports team, I'm always enthused as the new season (or year) starts with encouragement that is somehow crushed as the year nears its end.

So I'm both excited and depressed that I started 2017 with these two birds on a brief stop after the January 1 pelagic trip...

Eurasian Wigeon
Eurasian Wigeon. STILL at San Diego River mouth, January 1, 2017. Greg Gillson.
Burrowing Owl
Mocking my 2016 listing prowess,.. and preparing me for 2017's eventual listing disappointment, this Burrowing Owl is STILL right out in the open and STILL at San Diego River mouth, January 1, 2017. Greg Gillson.
And on January 2nd, while outside at work, a rare Plumbeous Vireo inexplicably landed in a tree right beside me at eye level!

This great start to my year's bird list means only one thing about 2017... crushing disappointment lies ahead.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The "Art Weekend"

Marlene and I had a 3-day weekend off, with one caveat--we had to cover emergencies at our mobile home park, should any come up. Our maintenance man was in Mexico on vacation, so Marlene and I had to stay near home, just in case. The forecast was for showery and cool, so this seemed a great time to do something fun at home.

So we planned an "art weekend." Thursday after work we went to the craft store and bought colored pencils and acrylics and canvases and sketchpads and added cheese and wine and crackers and chocolates. On Friday we set up a bunch of how-to videos and began a few projects that we worked on through Saturday.

The mail Saturday brought me The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling, which was my focus. Marlene completed an acrylic painting following an online You-Tube video that guided her through an ocean sunset.

Marlene's painting.
On Sunday we decided to take advantage of the sunny day and have a field trip to La Jolla to observe waves and clouds and the colors of sea and sky, plus plants and animals for ideas. I'm still too slow and uncertain of making field sketches--and perhaps too self-conscious with the crowds of people, so I took lots of photos. Even the out-of-focus photos worked for posture and proportions and coloring for my drawings done later in the day at home.

Sea Lions, Brandt's Cormorants, and crashing waves set the theme for the day.
Scratching your back on a rock feels so good! Made serpentine movements back and forth, bending at shoulders and hips, as flippers waved in the air.
Sea Lions laying in rows. Each row of Sea Lions all face the same direction! Why?
A large bull sunned himself all alone away from all the other Sea Lions. The fur on the sunny side has a golden halo.
Crashing wave. The flatter parts of the ocean reflects the sky. The waves are darker, but turns green as it thins to break. The foam turns from horizontal to more vertical as it climbs the wave.
The rumbling wave is not just white, but many shades of gray.
Looking toward Scripps Pier. The flatter bottom of the cloud is shadowed a purplish gray. The cloud looks very similar to the wave in the above photo.
It's late December and a few of the Brandt's Cormorants are already gathering nesting material and beginning courtship. Notice the clump of newly-delivered green seaweed.
The purplish and greenish-coppery iridescent scapular feathers are outlined in black. The bird throws its head back and flutters its aqua blue throat pouch and makes a gargling wail as it also flutters its wings with tail raised vertical.
Looking west over Shell Beach to the Childrens Pool.
Even in white the feather tracts around the eye, ear covert, and malar are apparent with lines or subtle shading.
A Peregrine Falcon made several passes along the cliffs exciting the pelicans and gulls into flying off. Why is it wasting effort chasing birds too large to be prey?
Very few of the people even noticed the strafing falcon a few feet over their heads. The peachy breast indicates the anatum subspecies.
An Osprey wings by...
Rock Doves (domestic pigeons) are resident here.
A view of Point La Jolla and La Jolla Cove.
A page from my nature journal. Click for larger view.