Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Louisiana Waterthrush

I saw a little bird on the bird bath the other day. I don't know that I would have given it a second glance except that it started bobbing it's back end regularly. That got my attention. I only know of one other species that bobs it back end and it definitely wasn't a Spotted Sandpiper.

The other thing that it was doing was eating mosquito larvae in the bird bath. I have never seen any of our regular visitors show any interest in eating them.

So, I grabbed the camera. You can note all the markings on a bird and maybe come up with it's identification, but a picture, or several pictures, of it's different markings allows you to not have to depend on your memory. Plus, you can show it to other people and get their input - which is what I did - even though I thought I was pretty sure what it was after looking through a bird book.

Bill shape (at least to my way of thinking) is a big clue about the general family of birds of which the particular bird is a member. That, and the size of the bird. The breast is streaked (not spotted or plain), so that narrows down the choices. The white eye ring and eyebrow are also good clues. The general brown coloring on the back without any other visible markings is yet another clue.

I narrowed it down to an American Pipit and was pretty sure I had nailed it. I sent some of the pictures off to a very knowledgeable guy who has helped me numerous times in the past. I was surprised how quickly he got back to me and told me it was a Louisiana Waterthrush. He (and then later, another birder) was surprised that it came to the bird bath.  Neither had ever known one to do that. I seen it two more times in the last few days chasing bugs on the driveway. So, maybe it isn't just passing through the area like I originally thought. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Squirrels Acting Squirrelly

I think a posted this picture quite a while back where a couple of squirrels were doing a hip hop dance. I think it was called Mephis jookin. It demonstrates the limitation of the lens. I had the camera wide open, which with this lens, is a slow f/5.6 and the ISO set all the way up, so there was no more speed to be squeezed out of the camera. Despite that, their movement is blurred at a shutter speed of 1/350th second. You would think that was fast enough to freeze action, but it often isn't. That is why professionals use faster lens (f/2.8) and more expensive camera bodies where ISO can be set much higher. Think, lots of $$$.

I think this dance move is called jacking. Your guess is as good as mine as to what is really going on here. It is October, which is outside the normal mating season. So, are they... playing? They did NOT appear to be fighting.

I believe this move is called the electric boogaloo. Blurring is somewhat dependent on the direction of movement and this one has less blurring because they were pretty much "floating" in place. If you have ever seen a squirrel acting "squirrelly," you'll know where the term comes from. I have seen them doing some really crazy stuff, like back flips off a tree trunk over and over again. I think I mentioned how I saw two squirrels and a rabbit running in big circles in and out of the woods as though they were playing tag. Heaven only knows what that was all about!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Dance With Me

Taken at quite a distance and cropped, these aren't the sharpest photos, but I wanted to share them because of the behavior they depict.

The smaller bird on the left and the instigator in this series is probably a male. Seen side by side with a female, they are usually not quite as big.

This courtship display went on longer than many I have seen. This took place in early June, after the normal breeding season is pretty much over. I always have to wonder if they are choosing mates for the following year. 

The entire series lasted a little over three minutes. Sometimes they end much quicker when the female abruptly chases the male suitor off.

I have never seen a courtship display like this end in "consummation," if you know what I mean.

I can imagine the conversation between the two. Male: "Hey, you want to be my girl?" Female: "Let me think about it...  Okay." Male: "Cool."

Notice the female wood duck paying little attention to the suitors.

It looked as though things had cooled between the two love birds.

But, she took the initiative to go after him.

And that is pretty much how it ended with no definitive answer or hard evidence of success. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Black Vultures

This picture is like a visual oxymoron (the beautiful and the ugly) or maybe the vultures are just trying to improve their image. Notice, again, how the branches they have chosen to perch on do not have any fine branching. I have seen them perch on limbs with fine branches, but they prefer this type when they are available.

It is difficult to find something good to say about vultures. Their one saving grace is to remove dead animals from landscape which would otherwise make a lot of places stinky while a carcass rotted away. This vulture returned to a deer carcass along the edge of the river that had previously been picked clean.

The reason vulture legs are white is because they will defecate on their legs to take advantage of evaporative cooling. Like I say, it is hard to find something nice to say about them. Their heads lack feathers so that when they stick their heads inside carcasses, they don't get as messed up.

Black Vultures find food by using their eyesight whereas turkey vultures use their sense of smell. In this photo, several black vultures were interested in a fish an eagle caught. You may also have noticed a blurred osprey gliding by. It was so early in the morning that it was quite a bit darker than it appears to be in this photo. I could only manage 1/90th of a second - which is very slow, but fast enough as long as everyone stayed fairly still. The osprey couldn't and that is why it is blurred.

Here is a cropped section from the same photo where you can see the fish in the eagle's claw and how close that one vulture is standing.

Vultures will work cooperatively to tear a carcass apart, pulling in opposite directions, as I saw these two doing one morning. I've always thought it a little strange to see vultures soaring out over open water on the river since they cannot land in the water to pick up a carcass. In fact, unlike an eagle or hawk, they cannot grasp food with their claws, although they can hold something down while they tear pieces off as the one on the left is doing.
 Perhaps they multitask and scan both shores for something to eat at the same time.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Vulture Rookery

There has only been a couple of times I have been questioned about why I was taking pictures of someone or someones house. The people in this house on the street on which  I live saw me taking pictures and came out to question why I was doing it. I explained to him I wasn't taking pictures of his house, but of the vultures in the trees behind the house. He told me they had been gathering in larger and larger numbers over a few months, but I already knew that. They would return to his backyard in the evening to spend the night.

The attraction was the type of trees he had in his backyard - dead and dying. Notice how most of the trees they are roosting in lack the finer branches like some of the surrounding trees. That is because as trees die, they shed their peripheral limbs first, leaving the heavier limbs like stumps. Vultures prefer these types of limbs because their wings do not get entangled in them while landing or taking off or during the night when they are perched on a branch. I can't imagine what his backyard looked like.

There is a mix of both black and turkey vultures. I think I counted something like 72 birds in this picture at one time, but I know there were more in the surrounding trees outside the frame of the picture. I remember I came down with the flu the day after I took this picture and thought I was going to die. Thankfully, they didn't decide to take up watch in the trees around my house.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Gray Catbird

Thrashers, Mockingbirds, and Catbirds belong to a family of birds called Mimidae, which means mimics. Mockingbirds easily adapt to the suburbs and are not too hard to find over many types of habitat. Catbirds, on the other hand prefer dense, second growth vegetation. We have occasionally seen one in our yard, but it never stayed long. This spring, however, two young-of-the-year seem to have made our property part of their territory.

There is a good reason they are called Catbirds as their most common song sounds pretty much like a cat mewing. They are not as vocal as their cousins the Mockingbirds, but I did hear one the other day singing it's way through a repertoire of tunes.

All of these photos were taken at the river and I believe all are of the same bird although they were taken over a period of days if not weeks. It also was a young bird and, like all the other ones I have seen, do not seem to be intimidated by people. In fact, if anything, this one was quite curious and would stay very close by.

What they lack in coloring, they make up for in personality. They are uniformly dark gray on top and lighter gray beneath, except for the top of their head which is almost black.

Berries make up as much as fifty percent of the Catbird diet and may have been why this one was always in the area since there was a mulberry tree right next to this spot.

It would also pick around in the gravel along the shore, presumably looking for insects and small crustaceans stranded by the tide. I would almost believe you could train it to come to you if you had the patience to try.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


Carolina Wrens are the little birds with the big voice. They remind you of Brenda Lee. (I may be dating myself there.) Tundra Swans have a huge voice too, but you have to look close to see which one is calling because they barely open their mouths. Wrens, on the other hand, look like opera singers.

The flat head and bill of the Cactus Wren allow it to stick it's head into cracks looking for bugs. This Carolina Wren doesn't need to take advantage of that design to eat bugs found on this tree. He could probably use some longer legs, though.

They are so curious, they would come right in the house if the window was open. This one is looking inside from out on the porch. I have to make sure there aren't any in the tool shed before I close it up. They will go right in and check out it's suitability almost as soon as I open the doors. I wouldn't want to accidentally close one in there.

This one was waxing poetic about what a fine winter morning it was as it sat on the edge of a gutter. They love to sing. Sometimes it sounds like they are calling my wife as they call, "Judy, Judy, Judy." Or maybe they're saying, "Chewy, chewy, chewy."

This wren wanted to use a hanging basket (what else?) as a nest. It was partly full of sand with a few small rocks dispersed throughout it. The wren decided the rocks had to go and proceeded to remove any it found. Ultimately, though, they decided not to nest there.

I know this photo (and some of the others) isn't much. It is more the message it conveys about a little bird in the big woods, unintimidated and unafraid. Their philosophy is to remain joyful in all things.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Wrens Again

I had a few more Carolina Wren pictures I thought helped give an idea of their jaunty little personalities. In this winter shot, you can see the short, cocked tail and the relatively long, recurved bill. They will come to the feeder occasionally although I don't think it is for the seeds. They like peanuts. Only problem is they have to break them into smaller pieces and therein lies the rub. When they hammer a peanut with that beak, the peanut usually goes skittering off without breaking. But they are persistent and usually keep at it until they eat the entire peanut. That "pellet," by the way belongs to a squirrel or some other animal.

I have to wonder, Where do they get these awful bugs? I'm just glad she (or he) got it before it came in the house. That is a side benefit of having birds around the home. They eat lots of bugs. Think mosquitoes.

Bringing in more grub for the family. I have always liked the simple lines of this image. They don't mind being in close association with people, especially if you don't move around a lot. Carolina Wrens are almost the only wren I have ever seen around our house, although House Wrens are also suppose to be in this area. The white eye stripe is a good indicator of a Carolina. Last winter I did see a winter wren. They are considerably smaller in size.

A couple of years ago, my wife and I vacationed with my brother and his wife at a state park. We stayed in one of a couple dozen neat little cabins on a mountain lake. The light on the ceiling of the back porch attracted a lot of moths at night. Apparently the local wrens had learned that this was true.

The wren would fly up to the light and grab a moth, then land on whatever was handy and pick it apart.

It didn't like the wings, however, and would shake the moth and break them off. Probably a little too dry or dusty. It continued eating moths until there were none left.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Hummingbirds are the smallest of all birds and hard to mistake for any other species. This is a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Females lack the "ruby" gorget on the throat. Unless the lighting is right, you may not see the color on the male either. The iridescence is only visible at certain angles to the light.

Surprisingly, hummingbirds are only found in the Americas. There are no hummingbirds in Europe or Asia. Most photos of hummingbirds are flight shots, probably because it is so challenging to "freeze" the action of their wings. I thought I would post these photos of a hummingbird at rest which you may never have seen and which is much easier to take. You can see the iridescent feathers are not uniform. Hummingbirds are greedy little birds and will sit in a tree near their "honeypot," waiting to chase off any other hummers that show up.

My wife and I thought years ago that if we put up more pots, they would all share and get along. All it did was attract more hummingbirds and resulted in an exponential increase in fighting. They are actually more tolerant of humans standing near the feeder and, as long as you don't move, they will come in and feed (albeit warily) with you standing only a couple of feet away.

If you do feed them, don't overdo the sugar. The mix of water should be no more than 20% sugar - in other words, one part sugar to four parts water. Red food dye really isn't necessary either. The bright colors usually found on feeders are enough to attract them and, once they know where it is located, they have no trouble returning to a feeder, even after a long winter migration.