Monthly Archives: June 2010

Ash-throated Flycatcher

Ash-throated Flycatcher carrying food

Ash-throated Flycatcher carrying food

During a recent Cactus Wren survey at the Starr Ranch National Audubon Sanctuary, I found a pair of Ash-throated Flycatchers. The Ash-throated Flycatcher, Myiarchus cinerascens, is a common breeding species here in Orange County. Ash-throats typically inhabit the open woodlands at the edge of scrub-land and the partially-wooded suburban areas. Ash-throats reach up to 8.5 inches in length, making them fairly large flycatchers. Flycatchers of this genus are particularly handsome, with reddish webbing in the outer wing and tail feathers. A yellowish wash to the belly and gray throats contrast with the brown back, cheek and crown. Like many flycatchers, they have a crest that they can raise or lower at will. This gives them sort of a punk look, as in this shot.

Ash-throated Flycatcher at nest cavity

Ash-throated Flycatcher at nest cavity

At the Nest

Ash-throated Flycatchers are cavity nesters. They require a nest hole, either natural, like a woodpecker hole or artificial, like a nest box. This pair used a hole in a massive old sycamore, which formed where a large branch broke off. This cavity was so deep that when the parent birds fed their young, they disappeared entirely in the hole. Typically, the birds were quite conspicuous, hunting and perching on exposed branches and vocalizing frequently with their loud “chi-beeer!” calls. They were often surprisingly unsubtle about the location of their nest. They flew in without hesitation and disappeared deep in the tree, only to reappear seconds later.

These parents were quite attentive to their young. They foraged rather successfully, as attested by the spider and unknown insect in their beaks. They were quite rude, frequently talking with their mouths full! But they were also cooperative, frequently posing on nearby perches and enabling photography.

Ash-throated Flycatcher emerging from the nest hole

Ash-throated Flycatcher emerging from the nest hole

Range

Ash-throated Flycatchers breed in Orange County, the only members of this genus that do so. Here, any other flycatcher in this genus is only visiting. That said, at least four other Myiarchus flycatchers show up in the county, including Dusky-capped, Brown-crested , Great-crested, and in winter of 2000, a Nutting’s Flycatcher. Of these, only the Great-crested Flycatcher doesn’t breed relatively nearby. Ash-throated Flycatchers are migratory, appearing between mid-March and the end of May and departing, from mid-August through September. Ash-throats over-winter in Orange County fairly regularly but are never common. Wintering birds average about one per year, according to “The Birds of Orange County California – Status and Distribution”.

Ash-throated Flycatcher with prey

Ash-throated Flycatcher with prey

Digiscoping

These pictures were taken with the Leica digiscoping rig comprised of the D-Lux4 digital camera attached to the Apo-Televid 82 scope with the D-Lux4 digiscoping-adaptor. One issue with digiscoping is that it takes longer to deploy than a regular camera set-up. Still, the high magnification of the Televid scope and great resolution of the D-Lux4 camera make for some good pictures. I snapped off perhaps 20 shots of these birds in the space of a few minutes. While not all were of publication quality, only one wasn’t in sharp focus. With the camera set on aperture priority, the exposures were pretty much spot-on every time. I’m not a great photographer, but this rig allows me to fake it pretty well! And with spectacular and willing subjects like these gorgeous Ash-throated Flycatchers, it’s pretty hard to go wrong.

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Big Morongo Field Trip

I recently led a field trip for the Sea & Sage Audubon chapter to Big Morongo Preserve in San Bernardino County, CA. Big Morongo Preserve sits upon the outflow of subterranean water that supports a marsh and cottonwood forest. Water anywhere in the Mojave desert always brings in migrant birds. Big Morongo is a place where desert inhabitants mingle with marsh and forest birds.

Yellow-breasted Chat singing at Big Morongo Preserve

Yellow-breasted Chat singing at Big Morongo Preserve

We arrived at Covington Park at 6:00 for some early birding before the official field trip began at 7:00. The park was awash in song as Yellow Warblers shouted from the cottonwoods. A Summer Tanager proclaimed his turf and Eurasian Collared-Doves (yes, they’re here too!) called from the tamarisks along the road. In the dryer areas, Gambel’s Quail sang their odd songs. Meanwhile, a California Thrasher added sweetness and endless variety to the morning chorus.

Lesser and Lawrence’s Goldfinches were flying back and forth between town and the park. Big Morongo and Covington are one of the most reliable places in southern California to see Lawrence’s Goldfinch in spring. They are a beautiful bird with their greenish wingbars, gray and black faces and yellow chests. At 7:00, we tore ourselves away from the birds and went to collect the larger group.

Brown-crested Flycatcher hunting at Big Morongo

Brown-crested Flycatcher hunting at Big Morongo

Big Morongo Preserve

I was fortunate to have with me Vic Leipzig, an experienced birder and field trip leader. We split the group of 20 birders in half so folks would have a better chance to see the birds. The often narrow and intimate trails of the preserve make this difficult for large groups. This worked perfectly. I took a group out on the Marsh and the Desert Loop Trails. Vic led his group on the Marsh, Mesquite and Canyon Trails.

The two groups found nearly identical lists of birds, with the exceptions being a calling Virginia Rail found by Vic’s group. My group caught fleeting glimpses of a gorgeous Cassin’s Vireo. Not everyone saw this bird, but all got to hear it’s halting, burry “elevator” song – “going up… going down…” Other highlights of the walk included great looks at the singing Yellow-breasted Chats, the Brown-crested Flycatchers and threatened Least Bell’s Vireos. We also got up close and personal with several Verdins in the mesquite trees.

Long-eared Owl roosting at Big Morongo

Long-eared Owl roosting at Big Morongo

Covington Park

Next, we led the participants over to Covington Park for great looks at Bullock’s and Hooded Orioles. Summer and Western Tanagers, Black-headed Grosbeaks, and several pairs of Vermilion Flycatchers also lurked there. A Lark Sparrow was a pleasant surprise for the group. But the absolute glory of this stop was the pair of Long-eared Owls that. For the second year in a row, they raised a brood of chicks in the greater Morongo area. Our visit produced both adults and the youngest two of the five chicks they had this year.

We stopped to watch the bird traffic at the feeders across the street from the park. With a waterfall going, many of the birds from the park would fly across to this yard to bathe and drink before returning to the park. We had a group lunch there under the canopies in Covington Park. Some of the group left after that, but many continued with us to the Black Rock Canyon Campground unit of Joshua Tree National Park, roughly 20 miles further east near the town of Yucca Valley.

Red Diamondback Rattlesnake

Red Diamondback Rattlesnake

Black Rock Canyon

We visited Black Rock for a chance at some of the desert specialties and it paid off handsomely. The Black-throated Sparrows practically stepped on our feet while singing to us. A pair of Scott’s Orioles was a bit more shy. But the male did give us extended views from a not-too-distant yucca plume. Additionally, there were singing Cactus Wrens, displaying Gambel’s Quail and calling Ash-throated Flycatchers. As a crowning touch, some Great Horned Owls were nesting in a large Joshua tree. Everyone got excellent looks at one very pale adult and three rather fuzzy chicks.

The snakes were also fabulous that day. We found this Red Diamondback Rattlesnake crossing the road, and it allowed close approach while scarcely even rattling at us. Near the Great Horned Owl nest, I caught a placid 5-foot Gopher Snake, giving people great views of it.

White-headed Woodpecker at Humber Park

White-headed Woodpecker at Humber Park

San Jacinto Peak

By this point, we were down to just 9 people, but they were game for more. So we drove up to Idyllwild for a bit of mountain birding. We made a series of short stops, starting at Lake Fulmor, with a Hairy Woodpecker and several raucous Stellar’s Jays. Joining them were bunches of Mountain Chickadees and a host of Violet-green Swallows. Humber Park netted us Band-tailed Pigeons, Brown Creeper, singing Purple Finches. Finally, after a long search, a White-headed Woodpecker flew right over the cars! At Idyllwild County Park we finally found the Pygmy Nuthatches that had teased us all day. We also added Oak Titmouse and American Robin there. The day ended with a total of 78 species and a large group of happy customers.

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Yellow-billed Magpie

Yellow-billed MagpieFor Memorial Day weekend this year I went up to visit my family in Paso Robles. Cooking and visiting with family consumed most of my time. I got very little time to look at the birds and animals. I did though run across a few birds and managed to take a couple photos. One of the local birds that is fairly common near my folk’s ranch is the Yellow-billed Magpie. Yellow-billed Magpie is one of California’s two truly endemic birds the other being the Island Scrub-Jay of Santa Cruz Island.

Yellow-billed MagpieNacimiento Road to the north of town is a very good place to find this bird. In the morning on Memorial Day I took a very quick look for these unique and beautiful birds. Declining populations due to such factors as West Nile Disease and loss of habitat has caused great concern lately. They are quite vocal and their distinctive plumage makes them easy to find in the oak habitats that they frequent. The Black-billed Magpie is almost identical. Yellow-billed Magpie has always been my favorite of the two because of their striking yellow bill.

Barn OwlIn my brief birding time I also took a walk one night in my brother’s vineyards. This was just irresistible since I could hear Great Horned, Barn and Western Screech-Owls at night. This young Barn Owl, who did not yet fly very well, fluttered out of a nearby tree and onto the ground right in front of me. It is such a pleasure to see so many Barn Owl boxes in the agricultural areas in the Central Valley of California.

Many places across the US have seen tremendous declines in Barn Owl populations due to loss of habitat and in particular nest site availability. In a drive through the Central Valley of California you can see that many of the vineyards have put up Barn Owl nesting boxes on poles about 10-15 feet high dispersed throughout the fields. Ranchers and vineyard owners like to attract the Barn Owls because they help to control rodent populations.

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Owling Yosemite

A Quick Trip to Yosemite

Yosemite Coyote

Yosemite Coyote with thick winter coat

On Saturday/Sunday May 22-23 two of us made a quick trip to Yosemite National Park to do some spring owling. This is generally a very good time to go to Yosemite because the Flammulated Owls are calling. I usually try to head up to Yosemite the weekend before Memorial Day. This way I don’t hit the big crowds. This is also the perfect time to find Flammulated Owls.

This year, it proved to be the wrong time for this because of cold weather. The Flammulated Owls were calling. Although it was only 35˚F at night and often snowing. This is far too cold for this Southern California boy to be out owling! This does not include the curve it throws into taking pictures. As a brief summary we did find a lot of Flammulated Owls, as I would expect. Unfortunately, the owls seem to be much more secretive in the cold weather and I didn’t manage any good photos. We also saw a Great Gray Owl but once again did not get good pictures. He (actually she!) flew in very close, I think just to tease me, and then continued on into the forest to call at us from a distance. As a last owl for this quick trip we heard Northern Saw-whet Owl.

Try Again Soon

I generally expect to find and take pictures of Flammulated, Great Gray, Northern Pygmy, and Spotted Owls. On a good trip, or if I am looking to find species, I will add Northern Saw-whet, Great Horned, Western Screech and Long-eared Owls. This means I will return in the next few weeks so stay tuned. I don’t often miss, look for photos here soon! This handsome coyote above gives a feel for the weather and was taken with my Canon 7D camera using a 100-400mm lens.

 

 

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