Author Archives: Bruce Aird

Recognizing The Seven Chickadee Species of North America

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.

Seven chickadee species regularly occur in North America: Carolina, Black-capped, Boreal, Mountain, Chestnut-backed, Mexican and Gray-headed Chickadee. Chickadees form a closely-related group, all belonging to the same genus (Poecile). Chickadees are members of the family Paridae, which also includes the titmice. European birders call chickadees “tits”, and tits include some of the largest and most colorful members of the family.

Chickadees are small birds with big personalities. Chickadees get their name from their songs, which sound as though they are saying “chick-a-dee-dee-dee”, or variations on that theme. They 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, sharp bills well-adapted for hammering open seeds or grabbing bugs out of crevices. Chickadees are gregarious, flocking birds except when nesting and fledging young each year. Then the flocks break apart and birds set up breeding territories. Chickadees frequently visit bird feeders across the continent, making them some of North America’s best known and 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  wonderful weird bird that breeds across the southern half of North America. Black Skimmers live and forage almost exclusively at coastal locations or within about 20 miles of the shore. They are primarily year-round residents here, though some winter as far south as the 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 bizarre asymmetric bill, longer below than above. 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 mandibles are of equal length. But by the time they fledge four weeks later, the lower mandible is a centimeter longer than the upper one. Continue reading

Pacific Ocean Puffins

A Horned Puffin getting airborne, Kachemak Bay, Alaska

A Horned Puffin getting airborne, Kachemak Bay, Alaska

All three species of puffin, Atlantic, Horned and Tufted, are native to the northern hemisphere. Currently, all puffins belong to the genus Fratercula, which is Latin for “little brother”. Rhinoceros Auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata) was once included in the same genus as the puffins. 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.  Tufted (Fratercula cirrhata) and Horned Puffins (Fratercula corniculata) are unique to the northern Pacific Ocean on both sides of the Bering Strait. This article focuses on the Horned and Tufted Puffins, it discusses Atlantic Puffins as well.  Continue reading

Deep Creek Dragonflies

Gray Sanddragon lifting off

Gray Sanddragon lifting off

When summer hits the doldrums set in after the migrants have flown north. Many of us then chase 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…

Recent reports of some first county record dragonflies in San Bernardino County took us up to Deep Creek. The United States Forest Service administers to this unit of the San Bernardino National Forest. Tom Benson discovered Bison Snaketails and Western River Cruisers on this relatively pristine creek in the San Bernardino Mountains. Tulare County previously had the southern-most records of Bison Snaketail. 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. Clubtails have oddly bulging tail segments and brilliant colors, making them some of the weirdest-looking dragonflies in California. Continue reading

Vermilion Flycatcher

Male Vermilion Flycatcher

Male Vermilion Flycatcher, Mazatlan, Mexico

The Vermilion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus) is a small tyrant flycatcher in the family, Tyrannidae. Vermilion Flycatchers live in the New World, ranging from central Argentina and covering much of South and Central America. Ornithologists recognize at least 12 sub-species of Vermilion Flycatcher. Some experts think the Galapagos Island Vermilion Flycatchers may be a full species on its own.

In the United States, we find Vermilion Flycatchers mostly in the desert southwest, where their range extends to southern Nevada.  Their California range includes much of the Mojave Desert, in San Bernardino County. Additionally, it extends across most of Riverside and Imperial Counties and into Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties. In coastal California, we see Vermilion Flycatchers increasingly often though more likely as winter visitors. However, their range is expanding and there are indications that their breeding range is expanding towards the coast. Here in Orange County, Vermilion Flycatchers often use edge habitat like golf courses and athletic fields. Continue reading

Olive-backed Pipit

Christmas arrived early in Orange County this weekend. Jeff Bray, a local birder, made the find of a lifetime: an Olive-backed Pipit (Anthus hodgsoni). Jeff found this bird at Yorba Regional Park. It may not sound like much, but it’s a really big deal.

Olive-backed Pipit – Previous Continental Records

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Olive-backed Pipit, Yorba Regional Park, 01-NOV-14

For starters, there were only 3 previous records of this species in North America away from Alaska. (Here, we define North America geographically as including Mexico – not the birding definition). Washoe, Nevada hosted the first continental Olive-backed Pipit in 1967. Subsequent records came from Baja in 1996, and on the Farallon Islands in California in 1998. So the take-home message is, these guys don’t show up very often! Whenever a call like this goes out, birders do their version of a ‘flash mob’! The Yorba Regional Park mob on Saturday was very impressive!

I was among the first 20 birders there, but soon birders began arriving from all over the map in minutes. And soon it was a who’s who of southern California birders. And why not? This little Olive-backed Pipit really put on a show! It led us a merry dance at first, flying from place to place within the park. Frequently, it landed in heavy cover and skulked around. Sometimes the only visible indication it was there was movement of the vegetation it was walking under. But eventually, it came out on the lawn between the picnic tables and fed calmly for about an hour. Everyone there got crippling looks! In fact, the bird was remarkably cooperative, seeming oblivious to the camera shutter whir and quiet conversation of excited birders. Continue reading

Rufous-backed Robin

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The Rufous-backed Robin at 29 Palms Inn

Last weekend, we drove out to Twentynine Palms, CA to look for a Rufous-backed Robin previously reported there. The bird had been present for at least a week on the lush grounds of the 29 Palms Inn resort. This resort is a 70-acre oasis of greenery and water for wildlife in the middle of the Mojave Desert, and the owners and operators of the inn are very birder friendly. Thus, it consistently draws in wildlife of all kinds from the surrounding desert. The 29 Palms Inn sits close to Joshua Tree National Park, in extreme south central San Bernardino County, CA. Continue reading

Lincoln’s Sparrow

Lincoln's Sparrow under shadow

Lincoln’s Sparrow in shadows

The Lincoln’s Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii) is a smallish member of the same genus as the familiar Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia). Lincoln’s Sparrows have nearly as broad a distribution as Song Sparrows. Lincoln’s Sparrows only appear in southeastern states like Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida during migration. They are migratory, breeding in far northern Canada and at upper elevations of the Rocky and Sierra Nevada ranges. Thus, Lincoln’s Sparrows abandon much of their listed range except as passage migrants.

Here in southern California, we see these beautiful little sparrows primarily in winter. Lincoln’s Sparrows do breed as nearby as the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains. The winter range of Lincoln’s Sparrow stretches almost all the way south to Panama. Sometimes you can find upwards of 20-30 Lincoln’s Sparrows in a large, loose winter flock.
Continue reading

Zeiss Victory SF Binoculars

Zeiss Victory SF Binoculars, top view

Zeiss Victory SF Binoculars, top view

Zeiss Victory SF Binoculars

Some of you may already have heard about the Victory SF binoculars, the new high-end binocular from Zeiss. Zeiss added a new binocular to the Victory line: the SF. Victory SF binoculars are a completely re-imagined roof prism design. Zeiss now says that Victory SFs will be available for purchase in January, 2015.

Conveniently, we have first-hand experience with this binocular. I participated in the official Zeiss Victory SF Experience press event in Europe in June, 2014 and got to bird with a pre-production Victory SF for a week (For a travelogue of the press event birding, see Zeiss Victory SF Experience Tour, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4). It’s a dirty job, but someone had to do it, so I happily took one for the team! We also had a pre-production Victory SF model in the store for a week this past August. Even though we haven’t seen a production model Victory SF, we can tell you already that it’s a spectacular nature viewing binocular. Continue reading

A Fall Pelagic Trip Out of Dana Point

Heermann's Gull, Fall Pelagic, 20-SEP-14

Heermann’s Gull, Fall Pelagic, 20-SEP-14

I recently took the fall pelagic birding trip out of Dana Point Harbor. Recent sightings of a Red-billed Tropicbird in the Santa Barbara Channel gave us hope. Hurricane systems south of us off the coast of Baja suggested that the fall pelagic might produce great birds. There had been greater than usual numbers of Craveri’s Murrelets in the channel. Many people were on the boat specifically looking for that species. Plus, September is the peak of Blue Whale occurrence in the channel. We knew beforehand that cetaceans rather than birds might dominate this trip. In the end, the trip met all of those expectations. Well, except for the tropicbird… Rats! Continue reading