Coastal Saltmarsh Sparrows


Nelson's Sparrows at Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge

Nelson’s Sparrow, driven into view by high tides.

The brackish and salt marshes of California are an important and globally threatened ecosystem. At this point, a century plus of “civilization” has filled, polluted or otherwise destroyed over 95% of the historical expanse of California’s coastal salt marshes. These estuaries and marshes are incredibly important. Biologically speaking, they are some of the most productive acres of habitat anywhere, hosting tremendous species diversity, and acting as vital nursery grounds for many ocean-dwelling species. They serve as feeding and breeding resources for a variety of species, some endangered like the California Least Tern, the Western Snowy Plover and the Light-footed population of Ridgway’s Rail. They also provide wintering or year-round habitat for a number of interesting bird species. The focus of this article is three such species: Belding’s (Savannah) Sparrow, Large-billed Savannah Sparrow and Nelson’s Sparrows. Continue reading

North American Chickadees

Black-capped Chickadee, Kenai Peninsula, Alaska

This Black-capped Chickadee was a regular visitor to the yard of the guest house where we were staying.

There are seven regularly occurring chickadees in North America: Carolina, Black-capped, Boreal, Mountain, Chestnut-backed, Mexican and Gray-headed Chickadee (also called Siberian Tit). Our chickadees are fairly closely related to each other, all belonging to the same genus (Poecile). Chickadees are members of the family Paridae, which also includes the titmice. In Europe, many of what we would call chickadees are referred to as “tits”, and these include some of the largest and most colorful members of the family. Chickadees are small birds with big personalities. They are named for their songs, which sound as though they are saying “chick-a-dee-dee-dee”, or variations on that theme. North American chickadees are small birds (the largest are just 5.5 inches long) with proportionately large, round heads, variable amounts of white in prominent cheek patches, and always a black throat. All of our chickadees have short, but sharp bills equally well-adapted for hammering open seeds or grabbing bugs out of crevices. Chickadees are essentially gregarious, flocking birds except for a brief period of nesting and fledging young each year, when flocks break apart and birds set up breeding territories. Chickadees are frequent visitors at bird feeders across the continent, and are some of North America’s most beloved birds. Continue reading

The Black Skimmer

Sub-adult Black Skimmer close-up

A sub-adult Black Skimmer close-up over a pond at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in Irvine, California

The Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger) is a  wonderfully weird bird with a very broad distribution across the southern half of North America, where it is found almost exclusively at coastal locations or within ~20 miles of the shore. They are primarily year-round residents there, though some migrate to winter on shores of the Gulf of Mexico, some going as far south as the western Yucatan. A large population of Black Skimmers resides year-round in a range roughly corresponding to the entire Amazon drainage basin. Black Skimmers are easily recognizable by their long, pointed wings, black above and grayish under the flight feathers, grading to white below. Black Skimmers have clean white underparts, throat, neck collar (non-breeding only) and around the bill. Their feet and the inner bills are bright orange; the tips of both mandibles are black. Juvenile Black Skimmers are more brownish-gray on the upper surface, and have relatively dull orange feet and inner bill parts. At birth, juvenile skimmers bill parts are of equal length, but by the time they fledge in four weeks, the lower mandible is fully a centimeter longer than the upper one. Continue reading

Elegant Terns


Elegant Tern in flight

Terns at Bolsa Chica

Elegant Terns galore! In late spring and early summer, one of the birding spectacles in Southern California is the colony of terns at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Huntington Beach, Orange County. The pretty estuary (as its name translates from Spanish) has been host to twelve species of terns, with Common, Royal, Caspian, Gull-billed, Black, breeding Black Skimmer, Forster’s, Least, and Elegant, and rarities Sooty, Sandwich, and Bridled. Continue reading

Pacific Ocean Puffins

A Horned Puffin getting airborne, Kachemak Bay, Alaska

A Horned Puffin getting airborne, Kachemak Bay, Alaska

There are three species of puffins in the world, all confined to the northern hemisphere: Atlantic Puffin, Horned Puffin and Tufted Puffin. Currently, allpuffins all belong to the genus Fratercula, which is Latin for “little brother”. It is worth noting that a fourth species, Rhinoceros Auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata), is very closely related to the puffins and has at times, been included in the genus, Fratercula. Puffins are alcids – truly pelagic seabirds that feed by diving from the ocean surface and capturing small fish and zooplankton. Atlantic Puffins (Fratercula arctica) breed on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean in large colonies, but the Tufted (Fratercula cirrhata) and Horned Puffins (Fratercula corniculata) are unique to the northern Pacific Ocean on both sides of the Bering Strait. These two species are the main focus of this article, though information is presented about Atlantic Puffins too. Rhinoceros Auklet is also confined to the Pacific Ocean, but has more widespread breeding and wintering ranges. Continue reading

Deep Creek Dragonflies

Gray Sanddragon lifting off

Gray Sanddragon lifting off

When summer hits and the doldrums set in for a few weeks after the migrants have left to breed up north, many of us turn to chasing butterflies and odonata (dragonflies and damselflies, or “odes”). Odes are particularly fun because they make such great photography subjects with their wild colors, spiky appendages and weird shapes. Even the names are awesome! The only bird names that can even compete are mostly hummingbirds… Anyway, recent reports of some first county record dragonflies in San Bernardino County took us up to Deep Creek, a unit in the San Bernardino National Forest, administered to by the United States Forest Service. Tom Benson recently discovered a population of Bison Snaketails and Western River Cruisers on this beautiful and relatively pristine creek near Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino Mountains. The previous southern-most records for Bison Snaketail were from Tulare County, so this find significantly extends the known range of that species. Likewise, the southern-most known range of Western River Cruiser was up in Kern and Inyo counties. These two species belong to the clubtail family, which, with their oddly bulging tail segments and brilliant colors, includes some of the most colorful, large dragonflies in California. Continue reading

Owls in the Everglades

Eastern Screech-Owl in the Everglades

Eastern Screech-Owl is about the same size as an European Starling (same length and 2/3 the weight)

Southern Florida and the Everglades is home to five different species of owls. On a very quick trip to Southern Florida and the upper Keys we went in search of the owls in the Everglades. Of the twenty species of owls found in North America the Eastern Screech-Owl is the only species that is exclusively found east of the Rockies and would be primary in our searches. Barred Owl, rare in the west, would be our second target. With a new upcoming release of our sister website, Optics4Birding sent me off to the east coast to document the owls in the Everglades. It’s a tough job but someone has to do it! Continue reading

Winter Birds of Calgary Canada

Gray Partridge

♫ and a partridge in a pear tree ♪ … oops no pear trees.

I took a very brief trip (5 days) to see the winter birds of Calgary Canada at the end of January and beginning of February. My primary reason for traveling to this area was to look for Snowy and Hawk Owls since these two owls are not overly common in the continental U.S. even though small numbers usually show up most years in the northern states. Hawk Owl would be the most uncommon of these two species and the one I had most wanted to find. Along with the owls, the mammals and winter birding this far north promised to offer other species that I would not find in Southern California and some that may not be very common in the lower 48 states at all. New to me, I was pleased to run into several coveys of Grey Partridges while in the area. They are fairly common this far north but I had never seen one. Since I have been singing 🎼 “and a partridge in a pear tree” ♫ every Christmas since I was a kid it was a pleasure to actually have a picture in my mind of how they really act and what they look like. They seemed quite similar to our quail being in groups running around on the ground (missed any in pear trees!). I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity bring a pair of Zeiss Victory SF 10×42 Binoculars with me for review. For now all I will say is “WOW, The views through these binoculars are incredible”.

Continue reading

Kowa TSN-EX16 Extender Review

Kowa TSN-EX16 Extender exploded

Kowa TSN-EX16 Extender (exploded view)

Kowa TSN-EX16 Extender

Kowa America recently released the Kowa TSN-EX16 Extender. The extender is placed between the body of a Kowa TSN-880 or TSN-770 spotting scope body and the eyepiece and multiplies the standard magnification by 1.6x. This is analogous to photographic lens extenders that mount between a camera’s lens and body. With the current 25-60x zoom eyepiece (Kowa TE-11WZ) that fits these spotting scopes, the resultant magnification becomes 40-96x!

But what about the historical downsides of extenders? How does the optical quality hold up? Is there much loss of light? What about sharpness and clarity? I took out my trusty TSN-884 and Panasonic Lumix G6 to find out. An accommodating Peregrine Falcon stayed long enough for me to get some test shots. Continue reading

Filigree Skimmer 3rd record in CA


Filigree Skimmer face on

When the dog days of summer become the birding doldrums, some birders turn to other flying creatures. The most accessible of these are butterflies, dragonflies, and damselflies, all of which require binoculars with excellent close focus. It was unusual recently that a birder birding San Timoteo Creek in Redlands, Riverside County, CA discovered a pair of Filigree Skimmer dragonflies (Pseudoleon superbus). As the species has only recorded twice before in California, we went to take a look. Continue reading