California Towhee

One of the more common birds in the hot interior of California is Melozone crissalis, the California Towhee. It's also one of the plainer birds you're likely to see, and would be the prototypical LBJ (little brown job), except that it's larger than most little brown birds. (It's in the family Emberizidae, which is the American sparrow family, but like most towhees, it's larger than the typical sparrow.) One birding site notes that "few birds are as uniformly matte brown as a California Towhee," although the crissum (the undertail patch) is a sort of cinammon brown instead of the dull brown of the rest of the bird.

California Towhee (Melozone crissalis). Atascadero, CA, July 9, 2017.

If you live near scrubby chapparal in California, you'll often hear it rustling in the leaf litter, looking for food. If you see it, you might notice the large, conical bill from the picture and this might lead you to suspect that it is a seed eater. You'd be right. One thing I hadn't known about it, though, is that it likes poison oak. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, "many towhees build their nests in poison oak and feast on the plant’s copious crops of pale white berries." And you know that if a bird eats poison oak berries, it's gonna spread 'em around. Yay, towhee? Etymology The specific epithet, crissalis, refers to the underparts of the bird, the bit between the anus and the tail (the crissum). Presumably the genus name, Melozone, has to do either with the song (from Greek melos, but none of the birds in the genus are particular songsters) or the fact that most of the birds in the genus are brown (from Greek melas, brown). The latter interpretation makes sense, as the group is also known as the "brown towhee" group. Interestingly, until just recently the genus name was Pipilo, to chirp/cheep, which made sense from the vocal point of view. Here's a quote from the blog "Earbirding" from back in 2010 when the AOU made this change:

“Brown” Towhees Move to Melozone

Abert’s, Canyon, California, and White-throated Towhees will move from the genus Pipilo to Melozone, where they will join the Rusty-crowned, White-eared, and Prevost’s Ground-Sparrows. This genus split makes sense when you listen to the songs: the “brown” towhees sing with unmusical high-pitched trills and squeals that are very different from the rich, musical series of the “true” towhees.

Sanderlings are media savvy, I guess

There was a daring flock of Sanderlings at Red Reef Beach this afternoon, darting in and out of the waves, barely ruffling their feathers when people would stroll down the beach. (They did all take flight simultaneously when a Fish Crow flew over testing its luck.) You'd never know the flock was there from my ability to document it, though. This is the best of the very few photos I was able to take:

Sanderling, Red Reef Beach

A few minutes later, the entire flock of at least a dozen birds moved to within three feet of me to mock me. They knew, with the instinctive knowledge that birds have, that I was currently seeing this message on my camera/phone:

Signs of spring: cardinal egg on the ground

It rained last night, and this morning I found a cardinal's egg on the front lawn. Not sure how related those two events are. I've been seeing lots of territorial behavior in the neighborhood avifauna lately.  

Northern Cardinal Egg, Boca Raton, FL, May 3, 2017

It might not show up on the 300-pixel-square image above, but if you click the picture, it'll take you to the full-size capture from my phone. I kind of like the moisture beads on the shell.

Christmas Eve birding in Texas

The family went west for Christmas this year, but only halfway. Spent the holiday just east of Dallas with family. Here are a few birds from Christmas Eve at the lake house and the farm:  

Just in time for Fly-day

A few flies I've seen this spring. A common hover fly, Toxomerus geminatus:
Toxomerus geminatus. Boca Raton, FL, March 19 2015.

Toxomerus geminatus. Boca Raton, FL, March 19 2015.

A less common drone fly, Eristalinus taeniops:
Drone fly, Eristalinus taeniops. Boca Raton, FL, March 20, 2015.

Drone fly, Eristalinus taeniops. Boca Raton, FL, March 20, 2015.

A common (in my garden) syrphid fly, Palpada vinetorum:
Palpada vinetorum, Boca Raton, FL, April 23, 2015.

Palpada vinetorum, Boca Raton, FL, April 23, 2015.

None of these flies would find my yard at all attractive without the flowers that grow in it. And I would probably find my yard a lot less attractive without these flies and their other insect friends in it. After all, where there are bugs, there are bug-eaters! This morning I saw (from too far away for a good picture) a Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) looking for prey:
Common yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas). Boca Raton, FL, April 23, 2015.

Common yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas). Boca Raton, FL, April 23, 2015.

Sometimes all the hard work to transform the landscape into a flowering and fruiting habitat seems worthwhile.

Green Herons in winter

Apparently Green Herons like to poke their long noses into everything in winter. I first found one hanging out in my yard a couple of Novembers ago; today, while searching for other things, I saw this one in a corner of the yard where the grass is longer. I'm guessing it's going after the lizards that litter the place.
Green heron (Butorides virescens). Boca Raton, FL, January 29, 2015.

Green heron (Butorides virescens). Boca Raton, FL, January 29, 2015.

Nice to see something other than the "typical" blue jay/cardinal/dove conglomerate.

New backyard bird: Downy Woodpecker, or why native plants love birds (and vice versa)

From time to time the native plants in my yard, which I do my best to foster, suffer from an overabundance of a certain tiny insect: scale. These insects aren't scary to most people—they don't bite, they don't fly up and startle you, they don't even move after they hunker down in their chosen spot to feed. But they are rather scary to the plants they parasitize. They latch onto a growing stem, use their piercing sucking mouthparts to penetrate the thin exterior walls, and suck up the vital juices that are supposed to be circulating through the plant and helping it grow. Soft-bodied scale also excrete (yes, excrete, not secrete) honeydew, which, in enough quantity, enables the fungus called sooty mold to grow on the plant. Sooty mold can cover the entire leaf surface, interfering with photosynthesis. So not only do the scale insects steal the plant's sap (literally sapping its energy), they also create an environment in which other plant pests can interfere with other important plant functions.

You'd think that scale insects would be pretty easy to defeat—after all, they can't move or sting, and they have no particular defenses at all apart from a waxy covering that prevents casual inspectors from noticing that they exist. Other insects, such as lacewing and lady beetle larvae, like to eat these little guys whenever they find them. But their honeydew buys them some serious protectors: ants. The sweet, nutritious by-product of their all-plant-juice diet is beloved by these social insects. Ant colonies will send out "cowboys" to tend the herd and to bring back their liquid excrement ("milk," if you will) to the nest. That's right, ants are scale and aphid ranchers.

I've spent the last few weeks out in the garden trying my best to remove these scale insects without damaging the plants, but it's tough sledding. There are dozens of insects per growing stem, and most of the shrubs and trees in my yard have dozens upon dozens of growing stems. Stripping the bugs off and squishing them makes your fingers sticky and smelly, and there's always the risk of pinching off the stem or leaf of the plant when you're just trying to scrape off the sticky gooey bug that's attacking it. There are about 175 armored species of this pest in Florida, and 60 "soft" scale species. The biology of the species goes like this, according to the UF/IFAS web page about them:
The armored scale life cycle is generalized as follows. The eggs are laid underneath the waxy covering and hatch over a period of one to three weeks. The newly hatched scales (called crawlers) move about over the plant until they locate succulent new growth. They insert their piercing-sucking mouthparts into the plant and begin feeding. Female scales lose their legs and antennae during the first molt. They molt a second time before reaching maturity and do not pupate. The cast skins (exuviae) are incorporated in the scale cover. Male scales go through two additional molts and pupate underneath the wax. Adult males are tiny two-winged, gnat-likeinsects without mouthparts. In some armored scales the adult stage is reached in six weeks, and there are several generations per year.

 In the females of the soft scales the antennae and legs are not lost, but are reduced to such an extent that though the adults can move about somewhat they seldom do. The wax when secreted, usually forms a sac at the rear end of the body enclosing the eggs, and the scale on the back of the insect becomes much thickened, forming a thick fluffy mass. The life cycle is similar to the armored scales except some soft scales require one year to reach maturity.

But sometimes, if you're lucky, you really can get help from mother nature, in the good old-fashioned food chain sense. And that's what happened the other day. I was soaking my feet in the pool while making sure my three-year-old stayed in his floatie—he can "swim" really fast in that plastic ring, but he tends to sink if he's not using it, which is a Bad Thing—when I heard some fast-paced, high-pitched bird calls somewhere nearby. Intrigued, I started checking things out when I discovered to my great astonishment and delight that a pair of Downy Woodpeckers were gleaning insects from the firebushes that were most heavily infested with scale. Upon further inspection it turned out that this wasn't a "pair" of woodpeckers so much as it was a parent and a young bird. And what was that dad (male downies have a red patch on the nape of the neck; female birds are white-headed) stuffing down baby bird's gullet to shut it up? You guessed it: a beak full of scale!
Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) gleaning scale insects from firebush (Hamelia patens). Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2014.

Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) gleaning scale insects from firebush (Hamelia patens). Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2014.

In case it's hard to see in that shot, here's a closer look:
Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescent with scale. Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2014.

Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) with scale. Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2014.

How's that for service? I get to see wildlife in action, and that action consists of helping me out in my gardening endeavors! While it's too soon for the plants to have regained their showy appearance after their battle with the sap-sucking, soot-making, honeydew cows, it's encouraging to see that garden ecology sometimes does work. Here are a few more shots of the birds doing their thing; I tried to stay inconspicuous for fear of frightening them off, but they didn't seem to mind my being about 20 feet away, hiding behind the kids' plastic slide and firing away with my zoom lens:
Downy Woodpecker feeding young. Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2014

Downy Woodpecker feeding young. Boca Raton, FL, May 1, 2014


Dad (bottom) shows scale on outside of beak; baby (top) displays a mouth full of bugs. Yum!

The next morning as I was out, sans camera, inspecting the handiwork (beakywork?) of these fine insect control service technicians, the same pair flew right up into the tree next to those firebushes and began their chipping/begging act again. You can bet I high-tailed it out of there, in hopes that they'd set about polishing off the bugs that survived the previous night's work. As it turns out, the woodpeckers appear to be husbanding their food supply rather than eradicating my pest problem, so I still have a lot of bug squishing to do. Oh, well. It's fun having the birds in the yard, and if I'm out there squishing the scale, at least I'm out and about with a chance to see more urban wildlife!

Early spring birding in the front yard

It may be only Presidents' Day on the calendar, but the weather down here in south Florida is nice and the birds are enjoying it. Was outside doing some early morning gardening on this blessed day off work and I heard the R2D2-like witchety watchety-doo of a White-Eyed Vireo across the street. Ran inside for my binoculars and picked up three warblers just in my front yard (palm, prairie, and yellow-rumped), along with Fish Crow and Green Heron. (The Green Heron loves our yard because we have such a rambunctious lizard population; I see him here most mornings prowling the fence line.) No pictures of my own this morning, but here's a White-Eyed Vireo from (photo by Johann Schumacher/VIREO) :

White-Eyed Vireo. Photo by Johann Schumacher/VIREO

Birds of Green Cay

Every Saturday after Thanksgiving for the last several years I've led the local Audubon Society's field trip to one of the constructed wetlands in central Palm Beach County: Green Cay. It's always fun to visit there because the birds know that the people never leave the boardwalk so they're very tame. Photographers, well aware of this phenomenon, crowd the boardwalk every day of the year. And even those of us who have decent gear but will never be more than a snapshot artist can get a decent snapshot now and then:
Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps), Green Cay Nature Center, November 30, 2013.

Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps), Green Cay Nature Center, November 30, 2013.

In this case, the bird is Podilymbus podiceps, the Pied-billed Grebe. It's a small water bird with lobed feet that enable it to swim incredibly well, but their position so far aft makes the bird clumsy, at best, on those rare occasions when it ventures on land. Speaking of clumsy birds, another marsh bird has such an awkward gait that it made it into its common name: Limpkin. These are the birds with the astonishingly loud voice; whenever you hear a jungle bird from a Hollywood movie of the pre-Internet era, it was probably this bird. And they too are quite tame at Green Cay:
Limpkin (Aramis guarauna), Green Cay Nature Center, November 30, 2013

Limpkin (Aramus guarauna), Green Cay Nature Center, November 30, 2013

  Etymology Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps). Although the picture doesn't show it because this bird is in its winter plumage, in breeding plumage there is a black ring around the tip of the otherwise grayish-silver bill, which explains the common name for this grebe. The generic name is a combination of two genera that both mean "grebe": Podiceps and Colymbus. The former is a current name for another genus of grebe (in North America, the Horned, Red-necked, and Eared), while the latter is a former name for a genus that comprised the grebes and loons. Limpkin (Aramus guarauna). The common name derives from its awkward gait (limp) plus the diminutive -kin, while the taxonomic name is a bit more of a mystery. Aramus is rarely credited authoritatively, although Holloway (2003) cites the Oxford Greek-English Lexicon derivation of Greek aramos as a form of herodios, heron, and then specifies that the species name comes from "the Spanish name of the region inhabited by the Guarauna (Warrau) Indians in Venezuela, where this bird is abundant." References Holloway, J. E. (2003). Dictionary of Birds of the United States. Boston: Timber.
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