Saturday, December 28, 2013

All Glory and Glare

There are plenty of birds to see in California.  I don't want to say that "birding is easier than botanizing", but honestly- even with different plumages and dimorphism of the sexes- it is far less confusing than sorting thousands and thousands of native vs. non-native plants.

Western Grebes are as common as they are beautiful.
 Two grebes that I hoped to get on this trip were the Western Grebe and the very similar Clark's Grebe.  The major difference is the location of the eye in reference to the black plumage on their heads.  Western Grebe can be found in salt, brackish, and fresh water.  Clark's can be in the same locations- however they are much rarer.

Many Westerns were seen, but the Clark's eluded me.  In all fairness, my birding was all-take-it-as-it-comes.  Never once did we set out to see a Clark's Grebe, and if we had made more of an effort we would have had more "success".

Males Surf Scoter in breeding plumage.
 Scoters come in several forms and both Surf Scoters and Black Scoters were easy enough to see along the coastal beaches.  This particular bird was feeding in the shallow waters of Bolsa Chica Wildlife preserve.  Although we do see Surf Scoters in Ohio, we do not get them in this breeding plumage.  The Californians call these boys "skunk heads".  The outrageous clown-colored bills are used for foraging shellfish, i.e. clams.

American Coot and Cinnamon Teal (male)
Cinnamon Teal is a western bird and a real rarity in Ohio.  In fact, I have only seen one before- and it was a female.  To witness this attractive cinnamon colored male was just "duckie".  It is best to see birds where they belong and learn about their behaviors and foraging habits in their native range.  Outlier birds are fun to chase, but one should study a species in their normal range when opportunity allows,

Surfbird!  This is a western speciality.  Honestly, when I first saw this bird- I didn't know what it was!  What I did know: it was something I had never seen before.  A little diligence with a field guide soon made its identity clear.  The stubby, two-toned beak was the biggest clue for me.

Surfbirds foraging along the breakwalls.
Surfbirds forage the mosses and rocks along breakwalls.  My first thought when encountering them was how similar their shape and behavior is to Purple Sandpipers. However, purple pipers are not found on the west coast and Surfbirds are not on the east coast.

Black Oystercatcher
This bird was as obvious to identify as it was to locate! It is rather difficult to hide from birders and non-birders alike when one flies about with an orange beak and piercing golden eye.  Their loud piping calls draw attention as well. Black Oystercatchers- unlike their eastern counter parts, the American Oystercatcher- forage on break walls and rocks.

 My daughter took to calling them "Orange-beaked Flotsam Chickens." She is generally better at identifying fish species.

While this is by no means representative of all the birds we saw in and around Los Angeles, it is but an overview of the most memorable water-related birds. I am still trying to "recover" from all that sunshine and glare off the blue waters.  Thank goodness I am back in cold, cloudy Ohio!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Plant or animal?

 This could well be described as a "botanical" sea creature.  The most delicate member of the family  Syngnathida, a  group of tiny, whimsical horses-of-the sea.

Leafy Seadragon is the plant-camo king.
(Now turn the photo a 1/4 turn to the right.  They float along with their "snout" to the floor of the ocean.)
Of course this is no horse, or plant for that matter.  It is the Leafy Seadragon, an impossibly ornate 3-5 inch creature that lives in the sea  of the Down Under, Australia.  It is modeling the best sea weed camouflage ever created.  This species was first bred in captivity at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California.

Weedy Seadragon
Another beautiful sea creature found at the aquarium is the Weedy Seadragon.  One might imagine them to be the odd looking love-children of sea horses and plants.  A little less ornate than the "Leafy" shown in the first photo, they are members of the same family, but a separate genius.  Weedy Seadragons  have no clasping tail  to hold onto plants like their cousins the seahorse.  Therefore, they slowly drift along while feeding from the ocean floor.

The best known from this family of creatures is the Seahorse. There are over fifty separate species ranging from less than an inch long, up to 14 inches. Males bear live young, making them one of the most interesting fish in the sea.

JJ Soski at work, feeding sharks.
Special thanks goes to my favorite fish guide and daughter, JJ Soski.  I have been enjoying some time visiting with her in California. The personal tour of the Aquarium of the Pacific has been one of the best stops on this trip,  although the birding has been pretty amazing, too.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Birds in Paradise

Weedpicker has escaped the cold of Ohio for a week-plus trip to sunny California to visit Shark-girl, my daughter who is an aquarist working at Aquarium of the Pacific.  We toured around a bit in Santa Monica and enjoyed balmy 70 + degree weather.  Of course I am smitten with the botany, but have little knowlegde of California plants.  There may be more non-native plants growing in California than there are native plants.  These warm zones can be a botanical challenge.

Bird of Paradise
 Some plants I recognize from my years in the florist trade. Birds of Paradise, Strelitzia reginae, seem to bloom in every park and garden.
Santa Monica from Ocean Ave.
The traffic is rather intense, but I manage to head directly to the oceanfront parks and beaches.  There is much beauty to be found, even in these urban environments.

Fully equipped BSBO backpack.
A fully prepared urban birder takes a backpack equipped with layers of clothing, water, sunscreen and bird field guides. One surfer even commented on my nifty BSBO back pack, expressing some awe that I was a "birder" and continued to  ask me about warbler migration. 

Heermann's Gull
 The main order of business was to find a Heermann's Gull.  It is a west coast gull that I have been dreaming of seeing on this trip.  This stunning gull has a white head (in breeding plumage) and a distinctive orange bill with a black tip.  Juveniles are all smokey dark, with a back bill.  They are close in size to our common Ring-billed Gull.

Heermann's Gulls breed to the south of California in Mexico and migrate north for winter.  Their population is considered near threatened, and 90- 95 percent of them all breed on one island. Isla Raza has recently been protected in an attempt to stabilize their numbers. 

One Heerrmann's in a sea of Western Gulls

Another "life gull" (since I have never been on the west coast before) was the stately Western Gull.
It is a large-bodied bird with a dark mantle, yellow bill and distinctive pink legs.

It is of no small concern to me that I have arrived at a stage of birdiness that I enjoy sorting gulls on the beach.  Who knows what depravities I will succumb to next?

I am headed back to the beach today, maybe I will get better photos of the sea lion "surfing" just off shore. Maybe not. Either way, it is all an adventure to me.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Harlequin Duck a Delight.

Harlequin Duck at Bay Village, by Chuck Slusarczyk, Jr.
There is a seldom-seen-in-Ohio, rare duck which recently graced the jetty at Hunting Reservation's beach in Bay Village, Ohio.  Top notch Cleveland birder, photographer and all round good-guy, Chuck Slusarczyk, Jr. has been kind enough to loan this blog a few photos of this amazing visitor to the Greater Cleveland Area lakefront.  (Chuck's photos are the gorgeous close-ups, noted with his byline. The general snapshots found in this article are mine, and not to be blamed on him.)

The tower at Huntington Beach, Bay Village
 Harlequins are sea ducks.  They are born to rough waters and seek out pounding surf in their wintering grounds.  Occasionally the better birders will have "fly-bys" on their Cleveland Lakefront watches, but the bird that stays long enough to be seen well, now that is a rare duck. Recently, a Harlequin was seen at Huntington Beach in Bay Village.

View from the parking lot: birders have gathered on the beach to pay homage to our Harlequin.
The last time such a bird lingered in Cleveland was in 2008.  It is a sad story, as it ended in tragedy for the duck.  Although these unusual birds are protected in all of Eastern Canada and the US, they are not protected from hunting in our flyway. This loop-hole in hunting laws has probably been overlooked, as Harlequins are not commonly found in our area.

But first the gauntlet of icy stairs...
 Our recent bird was first  reported on the Ohio Birds list serve on Dec.5th.  Soon word got out that, again, hunters were taking an interest in this duck. The birders decided the safety of the duck was more important than reporting its location for birdwatchers. The Ohio-birds list-serve became silent on its whereabouts.

Harlequin Duck fears no crashing waves!  Bring on the sea-surf!
The Huntington Beach Harlequin Duck appeared on-and-off-again, for the next two days. The winds had gathered by my second trip to the beach, where we found the Harlequin gracefully bobbing in mighty Lake Erie's crashing waves. 
Inset: our little hero rides the waves.

Photographers and admirers lined the shore, a duck hunter would have to think twice.
It is nice to think this phalanx of birdwatchers may have created a "safe zone" for a duck of "conservation concern" from Canada's Northeast. It paddled about, fed and rested on the jetty.  We felt honored to witness this beautiful bird at close range.

If a hunter even thought about taking this "trophy," our numbers (and cameras) would have given great pause.

Male (juvenile) Harlequin Duck, photo by Chuck Slusarczyk,Jr.
 Harlequin Ducks have a fascinating life history.  They also breed in the Northwest and some parts of Montana, but are unprotected in these areas.  The Eastern Canada population is under close watch, as declines are attributed to habitat and water quality degradation.

Harlequin Duck, photo by Chuck Slusarczyk,Jr.
Three cheers for the Harlequin Duck!  We wish this one safety in its travels and appreciate the opportunity to learn more about ducks, hunting and conservation.  Perhaps it is past time to consider protecting these blue beauties in our Mississippi flyway.

Having spent a good bit of time researching hunting information on Harlequins, I can attest that the non-uniformity of the hunting laws on this species is confusing and disappointing.

It would be a tragic loss to have this duck species go the way of the Labrador Duck.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Bad Weather = Good Birds

If one is into balmy weather, Ohio has been less than ideal this last week.  However, if you are into winter birding, Ohio has been "Oh-wow-oh" so far this December.

Snowy Owl at Burke Airport. 
Snowy Owls have been the headliners.  This photo was taken off the backside of the City of Cleveland's Burke Airport lakefront, a couple of years past.  It is a good stand in for any one of the nine Snowy Owls now appearing in Cleveland. Most of the owls are at the airport or on a lakefront break wall, so take your binoculars.  You don't often get to see them up-close.

If you would like to read a bit about this irruption of  owls in Ohio (and states beyond) go here  to read a news article written by Todd Hill.

Northern Shrike at Killdeer Plains
If you are willing to risk the back roads in some pretty lousy weather, Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area is a good place to see yet another winter rarity, the Northern Shrike.  This "butcher bird" arrives in early winter to stake out a territory and add small birds and mice to its larder.  This one seems to have set up housekeeping in a hawthorn tree.  The thorns of the hawthorn become a food "holder" the shrike.  It is the shrike's habit to store food items by piercing them upon a thorn.  Later it returns to feed at this cache.  Having a powerful bill, the ripping and shredding of game proves to be no problem, however its undersized talons are better for perching than gripping prey items.  Hence the need to make a shish-kabob with the haw's-thorns.

Michael Godfrey at work on the back roads of Killdeer Plains
This last week it was my privilege to play hostess a videographer at work.  My photos were not the best, as I stand back and attempt to stay out of the way while he works.  But it was a joy to see so many fabulous winter birds all across Ohio, especially in naturalized areas. Other than providing for the occasional Snowy Owl or Snow Buntings, farmed lands of corn and bean stubble does not provide much habitat.

Northern Shrike at Killdeer Plains.

These northern visitors to Ohio, the Northern Shrikes, Rough-legged Hawks, Short-eared, Long-eared and Saw-whet Owls all need mice or other live prey available to winter through.  You'll find them near grasslands and pastures, the exception being the Snowy who is habituated to the vast open expanses of arctic tundra. A wide open field suits him just fine.

So get out your long-johns and snow-suits.  Bad weather can mean good birds!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Small offering

If you were interested in the lacewing larva in the previous post, here is an opportunity for a brief closer look.

 I video recorded  the bug moving about on a tree trunk.  My friend, Michael Godfrey, did a little editing for me and now we have a small offering of the bug in action. Actually, it is a VERY small offering as the bug is about the size of only the head of Lincoln on a penny. It is a tribute to Michael that anything was in focus, but watch for the bug's tiny feet in motion.

Here it is for viewers at home, unless you you are using an Apple product, in which case you will want to click on the Youtube version: Lacewing larva on the move

If you are interested in watching some real videos, you might want to mosey on over to Michael's blog at Birding on the Farm.  He has been watching and video recording the birds on his farm in Virginia and has some interesting insights to share. Michael was our featured guest at Greater Mohican Audubon's  Benefit for Bobolinks this year, and you will want to note his posts on grassland birds.