Wednesday, March 30, 2011

More of the Summer Tanager - How does he catch the bees?

The Summer Tanager we reported on Monday of this week remains in Washington Park, Pacific Grove in the immediate vicinity of the Bee Tree. On Tuesday, March 29th we again visited the Park about mid-day. It was a sunny day with temperatures in the high 50's - a pleasant day for watching the "Birds and the Bees". We were not disappointed!

We set up with a different lens and tripod combination to try to improve on the shots we got the day before. This time we used a Nikon 500mm f/4 G ED AF-S VR II lens, a 1.4x Teleconverter and again used the Nikon D7000 camera with a Wimberley WH-101 tripod head and a Gitzo tripod. It was a functional test for this combination as we were hoping to improve the quality of the shots as well as the out-of-focus background appearance.

The results follow.

We were successful in spotting the Summer Tanager quickly as he was changing perches frequently in the immediate vicinity of the Bee Tree. He was never more than one or two trees away and always up 30' to 40' near the tree tops - usually finding a roost in the dense upper pine branches.

The Bee Tree colony remained very active as shown below. It's interesting to note the bees in all kinds of orientations while flying outside their hive entrance. The camera set-up has nicely stopped the bees in flight.

We captured shots of the Summer Tanager at three different locations and include examples of each below showing the various colors of his plumage. First on a shaded branch -

Then nearby at another location with a bit more sun -

And, finally on a broken branch just below the hive entrance. While on this branch the Tanager was watching the bee activity around him. Here we see him in a particularly nice pose looking up towards the hive opening.

The two shots that follow show him watching nearby bees -

Finally, just a few seconds later, he caught a bee in mid-flight. A nice reward for him and for us as well. We were pleased with the performance of the Summer Tanager and the new camera set-up. We will continue our visits to the Park and will report on any future unusual sightings.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Summer Tanager, Washington Park, Pacific Grove

A rare sighting on the Monterey Peninsula - Monday, March 28, 2011.
With  a lot of help from local expert Brian Weed and members of his birding class, we were provided with excellent location information. We were very fortunate to find the Summer Tanager near the reported "Bee Tree" in Washington Park. This tree harbors a very active bee colony that provides the food source for the Tanager during his frequent visits to the Park. It is reported that the many Acorn Woodpeckers also feed on the bees although we did not see that activity this day.

Don Roberson in his book "Monterey Birds" (fully revised second edition 2002) reports that since 1959 there have been at least 49 records of Summer Tanager sightings throughout the County. On the coast in Pacific Grove, there have been far fewer sightings over the years.
Roberson reports; "Rare vagrant, with peak in the winter, but records span the seasons."
The Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America describes the Summer Tanager as "fairly common" and that "young males acquiring adult plumage may be patched with red, yellow and green". The Peterson's range map (p 356) shows the more common central and south-eastern range - not the California coast.

The Smithsonian Zoological Park has very complete information on the Summer Tanager in this link. It is well worth looking at this fine detail. They describe the Summer Tanager as "The Bird that Loves Bees". You will also note on this same link that there is a female Summer Tanager posing at almost the same angle as the last shot included below. Although the female in the link has the green coloration, our sighting seems to show the young male acquiring his adult plumage as mentioned in the Peterson Guide, page 356.

Identification of this bird therefore seems to be a maturing male as he has the "patched" coloration unlike the female.

After several trips to the Park, we finally found the "Bee Tree". At first we were just not looking high enough. Actually, we found the tree after sighting and photographing the bird. The colony was active on this day and provides a great source of nourishment for the birds.

Very near the "Bee Tree" we first sighted the  Summer Tanager on a high branch consuming some kind of an insect. The photo below has been processed to maximize the detail resulting from the very shaded location. We can see some of the unusual rich coloration and a good profile.

The Tanager was very active and quickly moved to a sunny branch nearby where we could get much better detail of the coloration. The stripes across his back are a result of pine needle shadows just to the left of this shot.

An additional shot as he turned around on another nearby branch shows good detail of his coloration from the rear.

We offer sincere thanks to the friends and fellow birders without who's cooperation these shots would not be here for us all to enjoy.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Revisiting the Western Grebes Along the Pacific Grove Shore

First, we show a fine example of a Double-crested Cormorant on his posing rock. The wind was blowing from just the right direction and the afternoon sun showed the fine feather detail as well as the eye and face color. How about those crests!
Then, below we report on the wintering Western Grebes.

The group of wintering Western Grebes remains in their offshore Pacific Grove shore location. There were 42 birds in the group - mostly Western Grebes. We did see two male and two female Red-breasted Mergansers in the group as well as one male Surf Scoter. Apparently the group provides some added measure is safety from predators.

The shot below shows a few of the Western Grebes in differing behavior as well as the Surf Scoter to the right of center. I waited almost half an hour for him to stick out his head so I could get this shot. These birds were about 200 yards offshore. The extreme distance makes it difficult to make ideal observations but it does illustrate the group behavior.

This cropped shot shows the typical Western Grebe resting behavior but note the watchful eye - ever on the alert. They certainly are not sleeping.

And, nearby the Song Sparrow was singing for all the hear. We always enjoy the ever-changing wildlife activity along the ocean shore.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Monday Bird Walk, Pacific Grove Shore & Washington Park

We have been having rain for a few days, but the weather cooperated on Monday this week.  We experienced three quite different habitat locations; ocean shore, near ocean pond and inland park-like settings with different observations in each location.
We began our tour at the ocean shore with local expert Brian Weed and immediately saw an immature Black-crowned Night Heron on the rocks by the ocean. It was early morning and the birds were catching the warming rays of the sun - not seen for days.
The Seattle Audubon group does a fine job of giving us detail on each of the Western birds. Find their information on the Black-crowned Night Heron here.

Nearby, a Whimbrel was sunning with a gull on the same rocks. A moment later they were all gone - off for the days search for food most likely. The Seattle Audubon information for the Whimbrel can be found here.

Then we were off to Crespi Pond, a fresh water pond about 100 yards inland from the sea, where the sea birds enjoy the quiet protected area. Although we have not seen Heermann's Gulls for many days, this immature example was enjoying the early morning sun. It is interesting that the Heermann's Gull changes plumage so dramatically from the immature example shown to the adult that we have shown previously. More information showing the adult plumage can be found here.

We also found this fine lone example of the Northern Pintail, sometimes on the bank of the pond and sometimes swimming with a group of local Mallards. More information about the Northern Pintail can be found here.

We then moved south along the shore to an area called Cozy Cove where we expected different sea birds. Not disappointed, we immediately saw this fine example of a Killdeer standing motionless in the sun. We got several shots - this one was the best. More information from Seattle Audubon here.

Nearby we were fortunate to have this example of a Snowy Egret land on the rocks in the protected cove. We got him just as he landed. Snowy Egrets are quite common along the coast year-round, but always a fine sighting with their distinctive plumage and "fishing" behavior. The Cornell Lab has a bit better information on the Snowy Egret here.

Then as he was getting settled this somewhat different pose shows some of the fine feather detail but not his characteristic yellow "Wellies".

After spending some time at Cozy Cove, we went inland to Washington Park in Pacific Grove where we encountered an entirely different habitat. It was cool and very humid but the birds were very active.
We were hoping to find a Summer Tanager which has been sighted in the park within the last few days. This day we were not rewarded but we will keep visiting the park frequently to see if we can get his unusual sighting.
The Acorn Woodpecker, true to his name, was busy removing this acorn from the "storage tree" with an idea apparently to find a better location. Below we see the typical "storage tree" where the Acorn Woodpeckers keep their food supply. The Seattle Audubon site has much more information on the habitat and social behavior here.
Note the acorns stored in the holes - Acorns for the next meal anyone?

Some other examples of the early morning activity at the park included this Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Again, the Seattle Audubon information is very complete and is found here.

This California Towhee. Cornell Labs information here.

This Dark-eyed Junco. Seattle Audubon information here.

And a special treat was finding the Pygmy Nuthatch in someone's feeder just at the edge of the Park. We will try again to get this shot outside of the cage. More information here.

The dense foliage in the Park included a lot of Poison Oak bursting with new growth and given a wide berth by everyone, as well as this specimen identified as a Wild Cucumber. It doesn't look particularly inviting but certainly a nice example of the diversity of nature.

And finally returning home after a productive morning we spotted this fine example of a Willet feeding along the shore near Cozy Cove. Apparently in the Washington State area, the Willet isn't as common as in Northern California but they have excellent information on the species here.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Recreation Trail, Ocean Drive, Pacific Grove

Nesting season has begun in our Northern California area and we observed this pair of House Finches gathering nesting material earlier this week along the Recreation Trail from our favorite ocean overlook.
The House Finch is quite common and is found throughout the US except for the central states. It was interesting to see that the Cornell site suggests that they are so common the comment included an observation of the vivid male coloration along with them being as common (apparently) as European Starlings. We find the House Finch far more attractive. Read the  additional information from the Cornell Labs site here.

Individual shots of the Male and female from a different perspective are included below. It is always a welcome sight to see their nesting behavior in the springtime.

Offshore were the usual wintering Western Grebes along with their companion Red-breasted Mergansers. We saw two male Mergansers in their fine plumage shown well here. We did not get good photos as the flock gathers too far offshore for the 500mm lens combination we use. We have reported on this wintering behavior in a previous Blog and observed about 60 individuals in their usual location.

Garland Ranch, Carmel Valley

Garland Ranch Regional Park in Carmel Valley is a popular spot for leisure hiking. Breathtaking views lie around every corner of this 4,462-acre park, with trails varying from easy to strenuous. Notable features at Garland Ranch Regional Park include the Carmel River, Garzas Creek, a redwood canyon and a charming waterfall. Historic buildings dot Garland Ranch Regional Park, allowing visitors to experience Carmel Valley as it once was.
Much more detail about the Ranch in this web site.

We encountered a pair of Bluebirds on the Lupine Loop trail as they were busy perching on last seasons dried weed stalks. This male was particularly beautiful in his mating plumage.

This female was a bit farther away in this shot but you can see her more muted coloration. More information about Bluebirds can be found at the Cornell Labs web site here. And from the North American Bluebird site here.
We also got this comparison shot of the male Bluebird on this same bush which shows his coloration from about the same orientation.

We often see Hummingbirds on our walks and we were not disappointed this day. This Anna's Hummingbird was perched on a high branch (as is often the case). We were interested to note from the Cornell Labs site that the Anna's Hummingbird nested only in Baja California in the first half of the 20th century but are quite common in Northern California.
Now a common bird of urban areas of the far West, the Anna's Hummingbird makes itself conspicuous by its behavior as well as its choice of habitat. The male sings frequently from exposed perches, and makes elaborate dive displays at other hummingbirds and sometimes at people.  This information is from the Cornell web site which also describes the unusual "diving display" in detail here
You can find more information about all varieties of hummingbirds at the site here.

We saw Red-shouldered and Coopers Hawks as well as an American Kestrel on our walk as they were on watch for their next meal from their usual high perches. We didn't include photos as we were too far away to do justice to them.
We did see several Acorn Woodpeckers together on a dead tree and got this portrait. Wikipedia has some very good photos and information about the Acorn Woodpecker here.

We plan to return to Garland Ranch about every month to observe the seasonal changes. Look forward to more entries from this unique area.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Sea Otters of Monterey Bay - Revised: March 23, 2011

REVISED:  March 23, 2011- see four revisions below.
Although the California Sea Otter remains classified as endangered today, we feel fortunate to be able to experience them almost every day along the coast of Monterey Bay. They are usually well offshore feeding or resting on their backs but sometimes are seen in the harbor (as we have reported in previous blogs) or far less often, feeding close to shore.
The coastline in this area presents an ideal habitat for the Sea Otter but life is not easy for them. After almost being wiped out in the 1800's by the fur trade and presumed extinct by 1900, a few were discovered along the Big Sur coast just south of here in 1938. It was assumed at the time there were fewer than 20 or perhaps 30 individuals. Sea Otters have made a come-back since then but are still far from having established a thriving population. Legal protections were established in the early 1900's and the population recovered to 2400 individuals by 1995 before mysteriously beginning another decline. Today there are estimated to be about 2600 individuals along the California coast. The population is still far from a thriving population. An unusually high rate of deaths has been reported  recently by the US Geologic Survey. A preliminary count tallied 304 Sea Otters  found dead along the California coast in 2010.
Sea Otters feed on a large variety of marine invertebrates including clams, mussels, urchins, snails and abalone. Because they do not have fatty insulation like Harbor Seals, they have to consume between 20 to 30 percent of their body weight daily to maintain their body heat. 
This information is adapted from the material found in The Otter Project web site.
The other day we found a pair feeding very close to shore and our vantage point was well above the water so we had an ideal view. At first we were attracted by the sea gulls that are constantly on the lookout for food and got this shot of a scavenging sea gull attempting to snatch a tasty morsel. The gull was not successful.

Closer to shore we could see what we presumed to be a mother and her pup feeding and cavorting very close to the rocky shoreline. We became aware that one of the Sea Otters had a very red nose which we assumed to be an injury. This observation made it clear that living in the sea is no easy matter. Imagine bringing up and feeding an infant while constantly in the water. Sea Otters do come ashore but only in very secluded locations - not along the Monterey or Pacific Grove shore. This first shot shows the injured mother with her white ID tag on her right foot. Note the very red nose.

We have received feedback from sources that identify the behavior we see here as tyoical Sea Otter mating behavior - NOT a mother and pup. It is known that the male Sea Otters will grab the females by the nose during mating. Apparently injuries like we have included here are common. The females certainly have a tough life.

As the pair moved along the shore I got this shot of the mother and her pup - actually quite large - almost adult size but still apparently dependent on the mother.

REVISION: Note the size difference in the shot below. It is certainly the male at the rear with the injured female in the foreground.
The final shot shows the close contact the mother has with her pup. We observed the usual constant feeding activity that is done while on their backs - often using a rock as a "tool" to open or crush a hard shelled morsel.
Note again the size difference between the injured female and the male.

We can appreciate the hard life of the Sea Otter even to this day when they are legally protected. This mother certainly has lost a "chunk"  of her nose that must be painful. We hope she doesn't become one of the statistics when the Sea Otter deaths are tallied this year.
Now we can further appreciate the difficult life of the Sea Otter and perhaps some reason for their slow recovery from near extinction.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Laguna Grande Park, Seaside, CA

Laguna Grande Park is a small park with a fresh water lake in the city of Seaside, adjacent to Monterey and very near Monterey Bay (less than a mile from the Bay). We have visited here several times through the winter and have see many of the birds you will see below. All the photos below were taken on March 7, 2011 with a Nikon D7000 camera and a Nikon 300mm lens with 1.7x teleconverter.
It was a cold and blustery day as we dodged the rain showers sweeping in off the Bay while observing in the park lake habitat.
We saw both male and female American Goldfinches feeding on the newly sprouting leaves and flowers on the shrubbery along the lake. Goldfinches are common during the winter along a narrow band of coastal shrub. The female is shown first with the brightly colored male below. More information on the American Goldfinch can be found here.

Several male American Goldfinches in their bright yellow breeding plumage were also feeding on the new flower blooms. More information from Cornell Labs here.

We saw one Red-throated Loon in the lake. This species breeds in the far north arctic region from Alaska across the most northern Canadian territories, beginning their migration in April. This one was the only one we have observed here this winter season. More information about the Red-throated Loon can be found here.

There were several Pied-billed Grebes on the lake. It is interesting that they are very common in lakes but rarely seen flying. We saw them only diving and paddling. More information can be found here.

There were also several Ruddy Ducks on the lake. They are a common winter resident in the lakes, ponds and estuaries in Monterey County. We saw both males and females diving often, resting briefly and diving again. We got these shots of both the males and females (male shown first).  The Ruddy Duck is an interesting bird, more information can be found here.

There were many Canada (Cackling) Geese on the lake and one relatively rare Greater White-fronted Goose had joined the flock. The White-fronted Goose is smaller than the far more common Canada Goose.  More information about this species can be found here.

And finally, a  unique shot of a Black-crowned Night Heron. I missed the shot of this one flying by but did manage a shot from the rear as he was on his way to another roosting location. Black-crowned Night Herons are frequently seen on-the-watch from a tree at the edge of a body of water as seen in the typical pose in this link. This photo conveys the symmetry of nature and the elegance of flight. Note the crest feather centered over the birds back - also in view on the link photo.