American Pika – unmercifully cute alpine furballs

American Pika in Sierra Nevada Mountains

American Pika in Sierra Nevada Mountains

Finding American Pika
On a quest for the American Pika (referred to below as just Pika) we recently hiked above the tree line into the alpine zone of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. We chose the high elevation region near Conness Lakes just outside Yosemite National Park for our search. Our arduous hike to almost 11,000 feet was rewarded with the bustling activity of the Pika (Ochotona princeps), preparing for the rapidly approaching winter months. Continue reading

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Variegated Meadowhawks

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Female Variegated Meadowhawk

The Variegated Meadowhawk (Sympetrum corruptum) is a commonly encountered dragonfly in North America, being found across Canada from British Columbia to Ontario, through most of the United States and from California to Florida. Variegated Meadowhawks are medium-sized dragonflies, averaging 1.5 – 2 inches in length with a wingspan of 2.5 – 3 inches. Variegated Meadowhawks are highly migratory, and have been known to turn up on Caribbean Islands and even in eastern Asia. They are as likely to be found cruising over dry land as in the vicinity of ponds and streams. Variegated Meadowhawks are “sally hunters” which means that they often sit on a prominent perch, fly out on feeding sorties, and return to the same spot repeatedly, much like a Western Wood-Pewee. This has the delightful side-effect of making them easier to photograph than many subjects. And well worth it. Continue reading

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Wandering Skippers

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Wandering Skipper nectaring on Heliotrope Flowers

The Wandering Skipper (Panoquina errans) is a very small butterfly found only in coastal saltmarsh, from Point Concepcion in Santa Barbara County in southern California, south to northern coastal Baja and the eastern shore of the Sea of Cortez. The range is a narrow band close to the ocean because the larval food plant for this butterfly is Saltgrass (Distichlis spicata). Wandering Skippers fly in late summer and fall, usually in two broods. As it happens, one of the largest known Wandering Skipper colonies is right here in Orange County at the Upper Newport Bay Reserve. References said that they were present in the highest density in the vicinity of Big Canyon. So we started to look for them in late July. They weren’t easy to find! It wasn’t until August that we found a single individual, nectaring on the tiny purple flowers of European Seaheath (Frankenia pulverulenta). We went back several weeks later and found a fair few more of them, again feeding on the Seaheath. Continue reading

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Dance of the Reddish Egret

When people find out I’m a birder, one of the most frequent questions is “What’s your favorite bird?” Sometimes I’ll give a flippant answer such as “My next life bird.” Other times, I’ll say that I love all birds and can’t pick a favorite – that each is special in its own way. I do have an affinity for Magnificent Frigatebirds, because seeing an adult male flying fifteen feet over my head while standing on a dock on Key West was the experience that triggered my choice to actively pursue the hobby of birding. But there are in fact some birds that are definitely cooler than others, be they prettier, uglier, sweet singers, or just plain quirky. One of these is the Reddish Egret (Egretta rufecens).

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Blue-eyed Darner

Blue-eyed Darner in flight

Blue-eyed Darner in flight

The Blue-eyed Darner (Rhionaeschna multicolor), is a large and rather common dragonfly found throughout California. Blue-eyed Darners are members of the mosaic darner family, which contains at least 10 species of dragonflies of relatively similar size and coloration. The family gets its name from the beautiful pattern of coloration on the abdominal segments, which includes sky blue, copper and black. The Blue-eyed Darner has a large range, stretching from the Dakotas to the Midwest, up into central Canada, south to Texas and Oklahoma, west to the Snake River valley, and south through California all the way down to Panama in Central America. Blue-eyed Darners are distinguished from other mosaic darner species by their completely blue eyes, the absence of a black line horizontally dividing the face, the presence of a small bump beneath the first abdominal segment, and the shape of the abdominal appendages. Continue reading

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Orange Bishop

Male Orange Bishop along San Diego Creek in Costa Mesa, California

Male Orange Bishop

Since we recently wrote a post related to the unusual occurrence of a Yellow-crowned Bishop it seemed logical to also address Orange Bishop here too. Orange Bishop is also native to Africa, yet in the case of this species it is already well established and fairly common here in Southern California. Orange Bishop is certainly no less striking than the Yellow-crowned Bishop although its behavior is quite different. Fortuitously, Orange Bishop was in the same location along San Diego Creek as the Yellow-crowned Bishop. Continue reading

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Hairstreak Butterflies

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Gray Hairstreak, nectaring

On a recent birding trip to Big Bear in the San Bernardino Mountains, our trip got hijacked by hairstreaks! Hairstreaks are common butterflies found in a variety of habitats here in southern California. On this particular trip, we found two species: the relatively common Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus) and the more uncommon Great Purple Hairstreak (Atlides halesus). Gray Hairstreaks are one of the most widespread butterflies in North America, being found in all lower 48 states, southern Canada and northern Mexico. Like most hairstreaks, the Gray tends to fold its wings when landing. This butterfly is easily recognized by the flat light gray coloration, a prominent orange rectangle on the underside of the hind wing, and a line of dark spots outlined in white and orange the parallels the wing margin on both fore and hind wings. The “hair” for which hairstreaks are named are little hair-like extensions on the rear margin of the hind wings. On Gray Hairstreaks, the hair is fairly prominent; it is much less so on some other members of the family, like the Elfins or the Hedgerow Hairstreak. Continue reading

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Long-billed Curlew

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Female Long-billed Curlew feeding

The Long-billed Curlew (Numenius americanus) bears several distinctions among North American shorebirds, being the largest regularly occurring sandpiper on the continent, as well as the one with the largest bill. The bill size of the Long-billed Curlew is quite variable, with females generally having notably longer bills than males. The two genders have different shaped bills as well. The male Long-billed Curlew has a bill that shows nearly continuous curvature along its length, while the female’s is overall flatter but with a sharply hooked tip. Note how this bird’s lower mandible is distinctly shorter than the upper, falling short of the often sharply curved tip. Long-billed Curlews are common wintering birds in southern California, gathering in huge numbers on the agricultural fields of Imperial County, and in smaller numbers at Bolsa Chica Preserve and Upper Newport Bay here in Orange County. A certain small number of Long-billed Curlews do not migrate north to their breeding grounds each year, meaning there are some individuals present year round at locations like Bolsa Chica. Continue reading

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Salton Sea Dragonflies

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Female Roseate Skimmers are common Salton Sea dragonflies

We took a trip to look for Salton Sea dragonflies and birds during the first week of August. Stop and think about that. The Salton Sea in August! Are we nuts?! Probably, but there are some things you can only find there in the summer, and the Salton Sea seems to always be good for odes (dragonflies and damselflies). Mindful of the fact that it can easily top out over 120°F there in the summer, we took a lot of sunscreen and water, started well before dawn, and planned on leaving early. By 7:30 it was unpleasantly hot. By 8:30 it was sweltering. But we were finding birds and bugs so it was all good. We had the company of our good friend, Bob Miller, a local birding and odes expert who lives in Brawley, and who knows where to find everything worth seeing in terms of local wildlife at the Salton Sea. Continue reading

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Yellow-crowned Bishops

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Male Yellow-crowned Bishop in San Diego Creek

There’s been a male Yellow-crowned Bishop (Euplectes afer) making news in Orange County lately. Part of what makes this unusual is that Yellow-crowned Bishop isn’t a wild bird – it is a certainty that this is a released or escaped cage bird. Yellow-crowned Bishops are native to Africa, and can be found in nearly every sub-Saharan country. So what’s all the fuss about? Well, for starters, he’s a cracking bird! Moreover, this bird is just fun to watch! Present in San Diego Creek just upstream of Audubon House at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, this Yellow-crowned Bishop is very territorial. He perches high in clusters of sedge and aggressively chases virtually anything that comes near – Scaly-breasted Munias, Common Yellowthroats, House Finches… whatever! He doesn’t just chase them though; he puts on a show! First he puffs his feathers up and half opens his wings, about doubling in size. Then he launches at the intruders with rapid shallow wing beats looking like an angry little quail in hot pursuit. All the time, he utters a high-pitched, metallic, plinking call. His turf protected, he returns to his previous perch high in the sedge. Lastly, in any area of the southern United States, today’s exotic escaped cage bird is tomorrow’s introduced species. People who said the Pin-tailed Whydah would never become established in California are looking a bit foolish right now! You just never know. Continue reading

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