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:  

Dunes of Namibia

The other day, my nephew Grant, currently on school assignment in North Africa, sent me some photos he took while quad biking in Namibia. He and his family were on their World Cup vacation to South Africa back in 2010, when he was a mere lad of 14, stationed in Lusaka. Normally, I would expect a photo taken under these circumstances (quad biking? really?)  to be like a snapshot. Yawn. Ho-hum. Way to go, nephew, and all that. Nothing could be further from the truth. The photo (photos, actually; after I saw the first one I asked for more!) turned out to be inspiring. He (or someone) submitted one of them to the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, where it won a Gold Key. (Past winners of the award include Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Sylvia Plath—you know, moderately talented dudes and dudettes.) Check out how the light catches the drifting sands in the middle ground here, in the photo that DIDN'T win an award:
Dunes_2

Dunes. Namibia, June 28, 2010. Photo by Grant Madigan-Kolstad. Note how the light catches the sand blowing in the middle ground. Fabulous shot.

The award-winning photo is below. The gradation of tone from background to foreground and the ridge line running from the middle to the foreground promise great things to come from this young man:
Dunes. Namibia. June 28, 2010. Photo by Grant Madigan-Kolstad. Cick on the image for the full version. This photo won a Gold Key award for his region.

Dunes. Namibia. June 28, 2010. Photo by Grant Madigan-Kolstad. Cick on the image for the full version. This photo won a Gold Key award for his region.

Small Owls

I'm preparing a slide show for an upcoming talk on the Birds of India, and one of the most charming ones is Athene brama, the Spotted Owlet: Tiny little birds (hence the diminutive "owlet"), they are nonetheless mobbed mercilessly if they don't choose their daytime hiding place carefully. At the Okhla Bird Sanctuary where I snapped the above image, they roost in a giant banyan tree at the western end of a large weir, close by a house. They're almost always there, but the trouble with finding Spotted Owlets isn't knowing where they hang out: it's spotting them! They are very good at hiding: But once spotted, Spotted Owlet is sometimes fairly confiding. A good photographer would have had no trouble getting sharper images than these. There are 4 species in the genus Athene: Spotted Owlet, A. brama, found throughout India and Pakistan; Forest Owlet, A. blewitti, a much more range-restricted Indian species; Little Owl, A. noctua, widespread throughout Eurasia and into North Africa; and one New World species, Burrowing Owl, A. cunicularia. This last species has an extremely wide distribution across both American continents, with 20 subspecies recognized by some authorities. The Burrowing Owl should have a special place in the heart of any naturalist from Boca Raton: Athene cunicularia floridana is the mascot of the local public university, Florida Atlantic University. They live on the campus, which is located on the site of a former Army Air Corps training center (part of which lives on as an airport, Boca Raton Airport). I see them almost every time I ride my bike along the El Rio Canal, which runs along the eastern edge of the campus. They like to hang out on the berms of their burrows, or on the little T-shaped perches that the campus environmental scientists put up for them. They are perch hunters, so they appreciate the boost those little Ts give them. I've lived in Boca for ten years now, and I see these little guys almost weekly, but when I searched my photo files for pictures of burrowing owls, I came up completely empty. So I set out early this morning with my digiscoping rig to rectify the situation. The owls occupy precious real estate on the campus, but for now at least, many of the most accessible sites appear to be unthreatened by development, although the new football stadium on campus is going smack on top of one of their larger sites. Just as important as their living quarters, though, and much less protected by any state regulation, are their foraging grounds. We can only hope that the university will keep enough open space for these guys to hunt the bugs and small lizards and rodents that comprise their diet, otherwise there will be no burrowing owls on campus except the wingless, featherless kind! Here are a few of the better shots from this morning's session: The yellowish cast of the photos is an effect of the light; the sun had just risen when these shots were taken. Like many birds, these owls tend to be most visible at dawn and dusk. The Burrowing Owl is the only member of its genus that lives underground. The other three species all live in trees, as "proper" owls do. The specific epithet, cunicularia, means miner in Latin, borrowed from the Greek kúniklos, which has to do with another burrowing animal, the rabbit. (Coney-cunicularia. There's a whole branch of animal husbandry called cunicularium, which has to do with raising rabbits.) And in many parts of their range, these owls do take over abandoned rabbit holes, or prairie dog holes, or whatever is handy. (The decline of the prairie dog in the Midwest has been blamed for the decline of the Burrowing Owl there as well.) Here in the loose, sandy soils of Florida, they tend to dig their own holes, although they're not too proud to take over an old gopher tortoise hole if one is available.

Point Lobos

Last month on a Saturday following a business trip to Monterey, California, our host took us on a walk at Point Lobos State Reserve, some 550 acres of shoreline and over 5 square miles of submerged reserved lands at the northernmost reach of "el pais grande del sur" (much better known nowadays as Big Sur):
View Larger Map And it's probably, at least to my mind, the most beautiful place on the planet, as you can see from the aforelinked photos. This cellphone snapshot of mine uglies it up somewhat, but, well, you get the idea: We went to the southernmost portion of the reserve and hiked a gentle cliffside trail overlooking some extremely rugged, but incredibly beautiful, terrain. (We could have chosen from several more challenging hikes, but we didn't want anyone to get tired or hungry or lost or cold or...) Our first stop was at Hidden Beach, which is entirely made of wave-rounded pebbles. Small bits of marine plants show up in the wrack; here are a few I thought were worthy of note, even if I can't provide more than a rudimentary id on them: The next stop on the itinerary was the sand beach at China Cove, a popular sunning spot for tourists and locals alike. But if you visit during April or May, as we did, you might find that there's no room on the beach for you! Because that's when the local harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) population takes over, using the beautiful protected cove as a hauling-out beach and nursery: The staircase is cordoned off during this delicate time, so we enjoyed the scene from the cliffs overlooking the cove. We saw pups frolicking in the water and sunning on the beach, trying to get their lazier (smarter?) parents to pay attention to them and come on and swim! Harbor seal pups require only a few weeks of maternal care before they are on their own in the cold, rich waters of Monterey Bay and environs. From there, our group split up; some of us went on the Bird Island clifftop trail to get views of the water and beaches, while others went on to the wide sands of Gibson Beach. Both parties thought they got the better deal... Big Sur is one of a few places in the world where relatively high mountains meet the ocean abruptly. The geology of the area must be fascinating to those who understand more of it than I do. I've just read the chapter on geology in the Natural History of Big Sur, but without a better background in the subject I'd only lead you astray if I were to do anything more than show you a picture of this conglomerate rock: I conjecture that this is part of the Carmelo formation, based on this helpful description from the map/brochure:
Two contrasting rock types dominate the Reserve. The Santa Lucia granite, igneous rock that solidified underground about 80 million years ago, makes up the craggy landscape of much of the north shore, while the terrain of Sea Lion Point, the south shore, and Whalers and Moss Coves are comprised of the Carmelo Formation, a sedimentary rock at least 55 million years old. This more easily eroded conglomerate is recognized by its bumpy collection of water-rounded rocks deposited by ancient avalanches that occurred in an underwater canyon.
[For more on the millions of years of uplift that brought underwater canyons to the clifftops, see my comments on last year's visit to Montana de Oro State Park in San Luis Obispo county.] Over countless years the Pacific has carved out many small islands in the Big Sur. They begin as natural bridges, like this one that connects China Cove, where the harbor seals were hauled out with their pups, to Gibson Beach and Bird Island: For comparison purposes, here's a natural bridge forming in the Anastasia Formation on Florida's East Coast. As you can see, it's on a much smaller scale: Presumably Bird Island was connected to the mainland at some point by a similar bridge that has since crumbled into the ocean below, victim of the combination of brittle granite and relentless saltwater intrusion and pounding surf. With the isolation from the mainland comes a separation from terrestrial predators, making this and other islands in the area into perfect rookeries for seabirds. If you come at the right time of year (I didn't), you can find hundreds of Brandt's cormorants nesting on the large flat island. As at Montana de Oro State Park, Point Lobos has plenty of wavecut inlets to explore when the tide is right: I look forward to the day when I can arrange an extended trip to this area, complete with real photo gear and a picnic lunch!

Elkhorn Slough

Ever since I first saw it back in 1988, I've been captivated by the rugged beauty of the California coastline from the Monterey Bay south into the Big Sur area. Over the past couple of years I've been able to make periodic trips to the area; a day here, a weekend there, squeezed in around business. My wife's family lived in Pacific Grove for years, and I suppose I've developed a vicarious sense of home there. Certainly the scenery there corresponds to some sort of ideal in me; I can't help but feel at home there, even when I'm just passing through on my infrequent business trips to the area. Last month, for a couple of brief hours, I was finally able to accomplish a goal of mine: visiting the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve (and vicinity). This is a 2500-acre area (the reserve itself is 1400 acres) of marsh and tidal flats along the shores of, according to the brochure, "one of the few relatively undisturbed coastal wetlands remaining in California":
Over 400 species of invertebrates, 80 species of fish, and 200 species of birds have been identified in Elkhorn Slough.

View Larger Map While at the headquarters area, with its extensive network of hiking trails, I saw the great horned owls nesting in the barn owl box on the site. Below is a picture of the barn: It was right after leaving the barn area that I chanced across one of the rare moments of naturalist living: a mammal sighting! A bobcat happened to be crossing the trail while I was walking along it, and we looked at each other for a moment, too brief, naturally, for me to snap a photo, before the cat strolled into the head-high (to me) foliage at the trailside. I find it ironic that in all the years I've tried to see the bobcats at my local haunts, I've had extremely limited success, and on my only visit to this place, I got the best sighting I've ever had. Even the naturalists at the park said that they'd not seen them much. Other sightings of note, of subjects that are a bit more photo-obliging, also occurred: here's some pickleweed (Salicornia virginica) in Kirby Park, one of the areas of the slough: As you can see from the map, there's lots of mudflat for the pickleweed to do its thing:
View Larger Map One of the interesting things about pickleweed is that its color depends on how much salt it's taken up, and if you're not using your cellphone camera as the result of a foolish attempt to pack lightly, you can take some interesting photos of this process at work. If, on the other hand, you're a dang fool, all you get are blurry snapshots like the one above. Later in the weekend, at Point Lobos, even using my cellphone, I got this great (well, usable) shot of my nemesis plant, Toxicodendron diversilobum: I'm still using calamine lotion for the bout of itching I picked up from its eastern cousin, T. radicans, on Easter Sunday, over a month ago. Leaves of three, leave 'em be! Here's a small gallery of the least dreadful cellphone pix from the slough: Next up: Point Lobos, one of the most beautiful places on the planet. And note to self: whenever you go to California, bring a real camera!

Parallel worlds

There aren't very strong geologic, climatologic, zoologic or botanic parallels between my two "home" states of Florida and California. True, both states have endemic scrub-jay populations (the Santa Cruz island scrub-jay and the Florida scrub-jay), and many of the plants and animals of Florida's "ancient islands" (scrub habitat) have western affinities, but beyond that, there's not a whole lot linking the two places. Oh, sure, there are some superficial parallels. I mean, when I was going to grad school at UCLA, I rode my bike through palm tree–lined streets, dodging expensive cars, with the sights and sounds of the ocean never too far away from consciousness. Here in south Florida, I ride my bike through, um, palm tree–lined streets, dodging expensive cars, and the sights and sounds of the ocean aren't too far away. We moved away from California in part because the housing prices had become unaffordable. Now we're in Florida where, it seems, housing prices had become unaffordable. In both places, it appears to have been a bubble. Geographically they're also superficially similar: Both are longer on the north–south axis than they are east–west. California covers close to 800 miles longitudinally and only around 250 in latitude, while Florida is around 450 miles N-S and surprisingly wide--360 miles from Pensacola to the Atlantic coast. Both of them also start out in the upper left and drift across the page to the lower right: But Florida, surrounded by water on three sides, is only much more recently, and perhaps temporarily, emerged from the ocean. Only those ancient island systems like the Lake Wales ridge date back more than a few thousands of years. California, on the other hand, is millions of years dry. The water offshore of the two states is remarkably different: the cold California Current keeps the Pacific waters quite chilly, even in summer; the warm Gulfstream, on the other hand, keeps our Florida waters comfortable, even in winter. And presumably, these differences account for a climatologic difference as well. As I've mentioned before, the clouds are different: in California, unless you're in the middle of June gloom (which, as a recent study has indicated, may be fluctuating or even decreasing over time, causing potential problems for California's signature redwood forests), the clouds are never that close to the ground. But in Florida, it seems like they're right smack overhead all the time: Both states have some interesting herpetofauna. Below, a west coast treefrog, Pseudacris species, which by range I assume to be Sierran treefrog (P. sierra): And here an east coast group of hylids, Hyla squirella (Squirrel treefrog): And, since this is basically a backyard nature blog, here's an introduced species, Osteopilus septentrionalis (Cuban treefrog), from my own (front) yard in Florida: So, what does all this mean? Yes, two states on opposite sides of the country have clouds that may or may not be the same; flora and fauna that may or may not be the same; people and cities and coasts that may or may not be the same. One has a coldwater current close offshore; the other a warmwater one. So what? Well, each state has a claim on my affections, and I'm going to make sure my family makes the most of each one:

Related Images:

How low are the clouds?

I first set foot in Florida back in 1984, on spring break from my sophomore year of high school. I was accompanying my dad on a plane trip that was to take us from our home in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley, located in a basin between the San Gabriel and the Santa Monica mountains, all the way around the perimeter of the lower 48 states: from L.A. south along the Pacific Ocean all the way to the Mexico border, hang a left and go straight along that imaginary line until we hit the Rio Grande, then follow the natural geography of the unsubmerged portion of the continental shelf all the way to Maine, I guess. (As it turns out, I never found out how easy that would have been; we were delayed by thunderstorms in Florida and snowstorms in Connecticut, and we had to hustle back across the country, putting in some truly massive marathon daylight flights.) The itinerary was an exciting idea, and like many ideas, it's the conception, rather than the execution, that holds the true thrill. There's just no way to feel in one's viscera for 8 straight very long days the intellectual thrill of flying all the way around the country in the backseat of a VariEze. But the scenery was interesting, and once we left the mountains behind, it was all pretty much new to me. I wish that digital cameras had existed back then; I'd love to have some snapshots of this trip now, if only to serve as a photo gallery for this blog... At the beginning we flew fairly high, both to increase our fuel economy and our comfort. The ground was a long way down, but if you know anything about the skies in the West, you know that the sky was higher still. The air out there is dry, desert dry. Clouds simply cannot exist close to that much aridity; it's only high, high up that what little moisture there is is able to coalesce into clouds. The view from that high up over the West, where I'd grown up, was familiar, and while I hadn't actually been in all the places we were flying over (not much call to go straddle the line between Mexico and the U.S. then, and not much call now, unless you're a newfangled minuteman, in which case I advise you to get a grip), I could easily imagine having been there, since I'd been in many places that looked almost exactly the same. El Paso was our first stop; the Franklin Mountains, which come to an abrupt halt right in the middle of the city, made quite an impression on me (image from Wikipedia):

El Paso skyline, March 25, 2009. Image by LC Rogers, from Wikipedia.

If memory serves me, the airport was on one side of the mountains, and our overnight accommodations were on the other. But it was only a short drive, because we didn't have to drive over the mountains, just around them. The stop after El Paso was Houston--that's right, Texas is so big that even in our little airplane, it took all day to circumnavigate. One day to get from California through Arizona and New Mexico and just barely squeak into Texas, and then an entire days' flying and still in Texas. Whooee! On the way to Houston we followed the curves of the Rio Grande from El Paso, over Laredo, all the way to Brownsville (what I wouldn't give to be able to do this part of the trip again, on the ground! Birding the Big Bend!), which was conveniently located both close to our flight path and just in time for lunch. Brownsville is about as far south as you can get on the mainland of the United States (Key West, which is the southernmost point on the unsubmerged land-connected United States portion of the continental shelf, is of course, not on the mainland.), and as we descended from our high flight, we rapidly noticed that we had left the dry air of the West behind somewhere: it was getting hotter and hotter, and more and humid, as we got closer to the ground. Welcome to the East! On we pressed to Houston, and then, on the third day, we crossed through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and on into Florida. We had lunch at a little town in Mississippi (Gulfport, if I remember right, but I might not: I was 14 at the time, and am rapidly approaching the palindrome of that age). From there, it was supposed to be a pretty easy flight to our next stop: Somewhere in Florida. Around here, I lose the chronology a little (Florida will do that to you). The main thing I remember about the state in 1984 was how low the ceiling was. Practically as soon as we hit the Florida border, we had to start descending, because the cloud deck was so low. There's simply so much moisture in this state, even in April, that the clouds can form really, really close to the ground. I read somewhere (can't remember where) that, although the highest point of land in Florida is only 385 feet, the state does have mountains: our towering cumulonimbus thunderstorms. Seeing them through the lens of someone like Clyde Butcher encourages this idea, and I have to say that it has some merit, but I do miss the real mountains. And I have to say that my first impression of Florida's clouds wasn't anything like an amazing tower 50,000 feet high. It was just a bunch of little gray clouds with rain coming down from most of them. Not hard, driving rain, but enough to interfere with our enjoyment of the day. I had never seen so many clouds so low to the ground, without it looking like, well, fog. This wasn't fog, though; these were individual clouds, but so many, and so close together, and above all so low, that we had to do some pretty serious fudging of the rules of visual flight to enable us to get anywhere at all. As it was, we had to make an unplanned overnight somewhere on the peninsula (Pop would remember the spot, I hope). The next day we continued on around the tip of the peninsula, spying the condos and hotels of Miami Beach from the air, and continuing our route up to Cocoa Beach, Florida. Here I got another dose of difference: while the Atlantic Ocean in Florida resembles the Pacific Ocean in California in several respects (it's large, it's salt water, it has waves), there is a palpable difference between the two. The water in Florida is warm. Coming from the cold water of the beaches swept by the California current, where the beach is only marginally fun without a wetsuit for a few months of the year (July and August, maybe September if you could get to the beach instead of school), this was a shock, although a pleasant one. So, as I freeze here in the grips of the coldest spell I can remember (last year, right around this same time, we had some pretty cold weather), it's nice to think back to the time when I first met this unruly appendage of America we call Florida. No clouds in sight today.

Monterey Bay pelagic birding

I took a very brief business trip to California last week. Flew in late, had a late dinner at the best Chinese restaurant in the world (Golden Willow in Concord, if you're curious). Met clients in the SF Bay area on Thursday morning, then drove down to Monterey for Friday morning meetings. The entire trip was very short; I had only 45 minutes at Moe's, and barely enough time for dinner with Mom coming and going from SFO! Despite feeling rushed throughout, and having a mild case of sinus congestion and cold symptoms, there was no way I would have cancelled this particular trip. Because for once, in all my long years of journeying from Florida to California on business, I was able to end up in Monterey on a weekend that Debi Shearwater was running an all-day pelagic bird trip. So despite the cold (my own cold, and the coldish weather--I am now a Floridian, at least as far as my heat-shedding capillary layer is concerned), I was one of the eager crowd milling around in the dark on Fisherman's Wharf at 5 a.m. on a Saturday waiting to embark on a 12-hour tour (no wimpy Gilligan-style 3-hour cruises here!). Here is the approximate location of our cruise, thanks to Google maps. Look at that topography; maps like this make me wish I'd gone into ocean sciences:
View Larger Map As a result of the unique properties of the land/water interface here (underwater canyon, coldwater current, prevailing winds, etc.), pelagic birding in Monterey Bay is a Big Deal. People fly in from all over the country, and from elsewhere, for these trips; war stories fly thick and fierce in the cabin on the way out in the darkness. Tales from remote Alaskan islands like Attu, big years past and present (one lady told me about her big year starting out in the Everglades this year), reminiscences of pelagic trips of yore--all this and more can be overheard as the group attempts to ward off nervousness and anticipation, seasickness and excitement through conversation. I have little to add to this banter, being a veteran of no trips to Alaska, no Big Years, and just barely (now, after this trip) 500 bird species seen worldwide. I am content to take what birds may come (really, what choice does one have?), and perhaps go a little out of my way for those that won't come close by (10 business trips to India so far and I have yet to visit Bharatpur, although I have been to other bird refuges quite a bit less famous that happened to be on my business itinerary--Ranganathittu, near Mysore, and Sultanpur, in Haryana, along with "the" spot in Delhi, Anand Arya's stomping grounds, the Okhla bird sanctuary on the banks of the Yamuna). I plan my travel, when possible, around the opportunity to see birds, but I have yet to travel outside Florida exclusively to see them. So as the boat cruises out to the Albacore grounds, wherever in Monterey bay those might be--we went south, I understand, because the day was so calm--I listen more than I talk, and I go over the basics of pelagic birds, trying to remember how to distinguish pink-footed from flesh-footed shearwater (easy, it turns out: despite the confusingly similar common names, the all dark underwing of the flesh-footed looks nothing like the salt-and-pepper underwing of the pink-footed). In fact, though, most of the shearwaters we encounter on this trip are Buller's, with very clean white underwings; the rest are pink-footed, with much more dark intruding into the white areas. Late in the day we see the lone flesh-footed of the trip, almost entirely dark throughout, particularly in the fading light. Here, from top to bottom, are flesh-footed, pink-footed, and Buller's shearwaters, as seen by my camera: As we begin the cruise, though, I tick off other possibilities, too, wondering just how similar a light morph Northern Fulmar might be to Western Gull (not very, it turns out), or Black-footed Albatross to Short-tailed (never got the chance to find out, on this trip). And I freeze. Despite having geared up with "windproof" and (in Florida, anyway) warm rain gear before I left, and having purchased at the last minute a "Hot Peppers" thermal undershirt to complement it, and wearing tights under my jeans, I was just plain cold for most of the day. Fatigued from the trip, yes, sick, yes, so slightly more susceptible to the chill, but I  really did think that I had prepared appropriately--that I had in fact "geared up." And I was wrong. And this on a very mild day--no wind to speak of, except that generated by the boat, and almost no swell. No sun, either, which I hadn't counted on; the lack of light made picture-taking with my little non-VR 70-300 telephoto zoom something of a challenge, I can tell you (oh, for some real glass, or at least a bit more light!). While the main object of the trip was birds, perhaps the most exciting sight I encountered on the trip was on the way out, in the early gray light. I was one of the people situated almost perfectly to watch a Humpback Whale breach the ocean's surface vertically, pirouette on its tail, and flop onto its back. It was quite a ways from the boat, and I hadn't even gotten my camera out of the bag, so I was unable to snap any kind of shot at all, but so impressive an event was it that I'm sure I will carry the sight with me to the end of my days. Such enormous grace, combined with such enormous size! It's no wonder people fought so hard to protect these charismatic animals once their plight came to public attention in the 1960s. Below is a photo from Wikipedia that gives some idea of what I saw, although I was much farther away from the show than this; everyone on board who saw it erupted into applause and oohs and aahs:
Humpback Whale leaping. Photo by Whit Welles, from Wikipedia.

Humpback Whale leaping. Photo by Whit Welles, from Wikipedia.

Many another marine mammal was seen on the trip as well: among the cetaceans, fin whales, Arnoux' beaked whale, and some common dolphins. A few pinnipeds as well: Harbor seal, California sea lion, Northern fur seal, and of course the sea otter. A few snapshots below to give an idea of the diversity. In the photos, I can't even ID the whales, though, so I've included a few shots of pinnipeds from other trips, just to round it out: But, as I said, the main point of this trip was birds. Birds, birds, birds! A partial list of the birds seen from the boat, including all 22(!) lifers, appears below. And then is the gallery, such as it is. For better pictures, I recommend visiting Abe Borker's website; he saw all the birds we had on the trip, and has some lovely shots of previous trips; I assume he'll be posting shots from this trip sometime soon.* Species seen: ALBATROSSES Black-footed Albatross SHEARWATERS AND PETRELS Northern Fulmar Pink-footed Shearwater Flesh-footed Shearwater Buller's Shearwater Sooty Shearwater Black-vented Shearwater STORM-PETRELS Black Storm-Petrel Ashy Storm-Petrel Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel PELICANS Brown Pelican CORMORANTS Brandt's Cormorant SANDPIPERS Red-necked Phalarope Red Phalarope JAEGERS AND SKUAS South Polar Skua Pomarine Jaeger Parasitic Jaeger GULLS Heermann's Gull California Gull Western Gull Sabine's Gull TERNS Elegant Tern Arctic Tern Common Tern AUKS, MURRES AND PUFFINS Common Murre Xantus's Murrelet Cassin's Auklet Rhinoceros Auklet Tufted Puffin WOOD WARBLERS Yellow-rumped Warbler Black-throated Gray Warbler SPARROWS Spotted Towhee * Many another photographer was in the boat as well. They were all sporting long telephoto lenses and seemed to take great delight in showing me camera-back displays of lovely clear, sharp photos of all the birds I was only able to capture as fuzzy dark blobs. 400+ photos I took, and fewer than 30 are fit to appear in the gallery, and those only because I processed the bleep out of them. I'm starting to save my pennies... It's a poor workman who complains of his tools, but I'm not a workman here. I'm an amateur, pursuing this out of nonpecuniary interest; I can't "invest" in a good quality lens. I have to "indulge" in it, or forgo it.

At sea with the birds

I'm getting ready for a pelagic trip in California in October, so I've raided the shelves at Broward County's downtown library for reading material about seabirds. What I know so far:
  • Seabirds have evolved various strategies for excluding/excreting the salt that is an inevitable part of a life spent at sea. The most familiar such strategy is the development of tubes on the outside of the bill that seem to function as salt excreters and sense-of-smell enhancers.
  • Seabirds all look like gulls, and all gulls look alike. I'm joking, sort of. I've gotten pretty good at separating some gulls (ring-billed from laughing here in south Florida; Heermann's from everything else out in California), but all the books say that Northern Fulmar superficially resembles a gull, and from the photos I've seen, some of the shearwaters look a bit like dark gulls as well. I'm sure that once I've seen a few for myself the separation will be easier to make, but for now, I'm, well, at sea.
  • Many seabirds don't have to work too hard, once they get airborne, because the ocean provides plenty of opportunities for soaring on the prevailing breezes, or for strategies to "create" wind without needing to flap (dynamic soaring, slope soaring, etc.). Getting into the air is another matter, though, as anyone who's seen the opening sequence of David Attenborough's The Life of Birds can attest. If you haven't seen it, it's worth getting it from NetFlix for the opening 5 minutes alone.
  • Northern Gannets plunge dive from great heights in order to reach great depths. I've seen them doing this from the shore at Cape Canaveral, and even from a friend's condo in Boca Raton. Unfortunately, there is no regularly occurring equivalent species on the Pacific Coast; According to my Harrison, the only members of their family (the Sulidae) to have been sighted there are (1) the Blue-footed Booby, which normally hangs out in the Galapagos; (2) the Masked Booby, and the Brown Booby. All such occurrences are starred in his maps, not part of their normal range...
Nevertheless, boobies (and gannets) are so much fun to watch, that I've embedded a YouTube video of gannets diving off the coast of New Zealand: In an effort to bring book learning to bear to supplement my lack of personal experience, I'm returning to Leslie Scott's Sea and Coastal Birds of North America (2008, Key Porter Books; previously mentioned here and here) for its relatively informative (compared to a standard field guide), but still brief, species accounts. Trouble is, it only covers 50 "representative" species, so it's no help if you want to learn the difference between, say, Sooty Shearwater, which it describes, and Buller's Shearwater, or Pink-footed Shearwater, or Flesh-footed Shearwater, none of which are in the book. Still, for its small size and thorough discussion of the 50 species it does include, I like it very much. Looking for more in-depth information, I'll turn to Anthony Gaston's Seabirds: A Natural History (2004, Yale UP/Christopher Helm) which covers in 10 chapters just about all you'd want to know about them: types of seabirds, adaptations that suit them to pelagic life, plumage, distribution, feeding behavior, migration & movement, breeding, population dynamics, etc. Don't know how useful it will be for ID purposes, but as background knowledge it looks wonderful. A third title I picked off the shelf on a whim is Ronald M. Lockley's Flight of the Storm Petrel (1983, Paul S. Eriksson) which, according to the dust jacket copy is "the first book to look at all 21 species" of this "smallest and most fascinating of sea birds." A few chapters are devoted to individual species (Leach's fork-tailed storm petrel; Wilson's storm petrel), while others are more general. I hope to get some good background knowledge from this title as well. More, and more informed, commentary on these titles to come in October.

If it weren’t for all the rain…

When my wife and I visited Scotland more years ago than readers of this blog are invited to think about, we got great enjoyment from a weather reporter reminding us, in her bonnie Scots burr: "Remember--if it weren't for all the rain, there wouldn't be so many rainbows." As tourists, we were still able to enjoy the spring showers, pedaling up Arthur's Seat on rented bikes, gazing out over the Firth of Forth, wishing we had the budget to rent a car and really get a feel for the countryside. The rain didn't dampen our spirits at all, even though it did curtail our activities a little bit. And I got a reminder of that time this morning, driving in to work. The morning drizzle had the freeway backed up, but at least the cars were moving. The sun was out, playing peekaboo through the clouds, the rain was coming down through that delicious sideways illumination you can only get early in the morning or right before sunset, when the rays from the sun shine horizontally through the cloud deck. And even though I was a bit late for work, once I did arrive, I got to see a sight that always brings a smile to my face: a rainbow! Seems I only ever get a chance to snap rainbow shots with my cellphone camera, through some seriously reflective glass! This shot is taken from the plane as I'm about to return from Boston last year: potogold For more on rainbows, see my earlier post. For those of you who are technically minded, you might enjoy this page with a Java applet demonstrating the physics of rainbows, or this one that provides a narrative account of those physics.
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