Monday, May 30, 2011

Western Tanager


You get a lot of junk photos with a BirdCam.  You often end up discarding 80%, and sometimes an entire day's collection of shots is completely useless.  These include blanks, blurs, butt shots and birds you have captured 1,000 times already.  How many House Finch photos can anyone use?  This might even go on for several days.  Maybe it's time to change the lure.

Then, once in a while, something special happens that makes it all worthwhile.  The photo above was my first glimpse of a Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana) at the BirdCam.  In fact, it was the first time I had ever seen one.  Does an automatic photo count as a sighting?  Do you know the feeling of the thrill that will run down the middle of you when something exciting is happening?


The first photo is of a male, and this is the female.  It is interesting that I got several shots of this pair on May 14th, then they never appeared again.  Apparently they were just passing through and traveling together.  They form into pairs where they winter in the tropics or during migration.  It would be great to see them again.  That would indicate they could be nesting nearby.  They breed in open coniferous forests and we can provide that here, but this neighborhood may be too developed for their liking.


The male, here seen with a Chestnut-backed Chickadee (Poecile rufescens), is one of the flashiest birds around.  It was chosen as the cover bird for the Western Edition of iBird Explorer, no doubt, because of its colorful beauty.  The head feathers are not actually red.  This is stain caused by carotenoids acquired and concentrated through its diet of insects.  This is also the source of the red or pink colors in House Finches and Flamingos.  This begs the question why female House Finches and Tanagers lack the red staining.  I assume both males and females share the same diet.  There must be something unique about the feathers of the males.


I lived in Iowa for a few years and saw Scarlet Tanagers there.  The females of Scarlets and Westerns are very similar.  The main difference is white or yellow bars on the wings of the Western females a bit like the Western males.  Western Tanagers were first described by Europeans during the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1803-1806.


May 14, 2011 was a very good day at the BirdCam.  I caught some nice photos of a bird I had never seen, both male and female.  Apparently they don't normally forage for food this low to the ground, so these may have been very lucky shots.  The rhododendron in the background, by the way, is Nova Zembla which is now in full bloom:

Saturday, May 21, 2011

BirdCam Raison D'être

Pileated Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)

I know, I know, it's a terrible photo.  But for me, it's a very important photo.  Last summer, the suet feeder in my front patio was visited by a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus).  It was both startling and thrilling to see such a large, impressive bird coming to the feeders.  I watched him through the blinds, and regretted not being able to get a photo.  If he had spotted me, he would have been gone in a flash.  This bird's visit was the inspiration for installing a Wingscapes BirdCam 2.0.

I now have two BirdCams set up in the yard.  One is in the front yard which is a meadow-like habitat.  The second is in the backyard which approximates a forest edge habitat.  While there is some overlap, I am seeing different species at the two locations.  This is not just explained by which lure is in place.  I believe the surrounding habitat also plays a role in which birds will be seen visiting a feeder.

Though barely adequate, the woodpecker photo represents an accomplishment for me and justifies the installation of the automatic BirdCams.  Then, this past week there was this:

Western Tanager
Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana)
In 23 years, I have never seen a Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana) in my yard.  In fact, I have never seen one in my entire lifetime, so imagine my delight.  This is another advantage of the BirdCam, encountering the unexpected.  This migratory bird only visits Washington during the spring and summer breeding season.  As it happens, they like the coniferous forest edge habitat provided by my backyard.  I have more photos and I will be publishing a separate post on the species soon.

Finally, there is a bird I see a lot, but never expected to catch at the BirdCam:

Northwestern Crow
Northwestern Crow (Corvus caurinus)
The Northwestern Crow (Corvus caurinus) is our local beachcombing Corvid.  They are distinguished from the American Crow (Corvus brachyrhychos) by a deeper voice, slightly smaller size and a preference for living around beaches.  Many of us share that inclination.  Like the Gulls, I have watched them fly up and drop mussels onto the beach rocks to crack them open.  These intelligent birds may have learned this skill from the Gulls.  Beginning last summer, there is pair that flies up to my patio feeders from the beach almost every day.  They politely take turns at the platform feeder, while the other checks out the planters.  Despite their size and reputation, these are charming and gentle visitors.

A fascinating book about the complex and intelligent Corvids is In the Company of Crows and Ravens by John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell.  The accompanying PBS Nature documentary "A Murder of Crows"  is also worth checking out.  By the way, "murder" is the term for a group of crows.

I believe the installation of the BirdCams has been justified.  These have turned out to be more productive and more fun than I imagined.  Based on these shots, I will be making some adjustments in the focal length and setup of the backyard station. My goal now is to get a really clear shot of the Pileated Woodpecker.  Stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Wiley Slough Song Sparrows

Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)

Last January, I discovered a place called Wiley Slough.  This is a vast wetland on Fir Island, Washington bordering Skagit Bay.  Fir Island is the delta of the Skagit River and as the river approaches Skagit Bay, it divides into a myriad of sloughs and marshes.  A system of dikes protect the farmlands on Fir Island from both tidal action and flooding by the Skagit River.  The wetlands of Wiley Slough are made accessible using the dikes as trails.

Wiley Slough Spur Dike Trail

The Spur Dike Trail is used by birdwatchers, hikers, hunters and dog trainers.  Today, the wetlands of Wiley Slough were alive with birdsong.  Every voice in the choir was singing.  The sopranos were led by Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia).  Northern Flickers made up the alto section, Red-winged Blackbirds sang tenor and Great Blue Herons filled out the bass section.  The Song Sparrows, of course, were the stars of the show.

Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)

Sunday, May 8, 2011

American Robin

American Robin (Turdus migratorius)

Of all the birds in North America, the iconic American Robin (Turdus migratorius) is perhaps the most familiar.  They are so familiar, in fact, that we rarely get excited when spotting one.  This is a shame because they are terrific birds.  Robins are large, attractive songbirds, easy to identify.  At the crack of dawn, they will be the first birds heard singing in long repeating phrases.  These are appropriately referred to as "dawn calls."  They will repeat the concert again at dusk.

American Robin (Turdus migratorius)

My neighbor Dan Codd took all the photos here and kindly shared them for this post.  They chronicle a pair who raised three young in his yard in a nest about seven feet/2 meters off the ground.  In the breeding season, the males will grow black head feathers to attract females.  Once the pairs have formed, they will remain monogamous through the season.  Three to seven eggs are laid in a color we have come to call "robin's egg blue."

American Robin (Turdus migratorius)

Typically, American Robins will raise two broods every season.  My neighbors should not be surprised if the pair comes back to raise a second family.  Enjoy this springtime family album courtesy of my neighbor Dan.  Hopefully, these photos will reveal how admirable and enjoyable even ordinary birds can be.

American Robin (Turdus migratorius)

American Robin (Turdus migratorius)

American Robin (Turdus migratorius)

The habitat preferred by Robins is open forest, forest edges, meadows and back yard gardens which may account for their familiarity.  My local birds stalk me when I am gardening.  They have learned that I kick up worms and bugs when I am digging and planting.  The minute I step away, they come right in to gobble up the goodies.

American Robin (Turdus migratorius)
American Robin (Turdus migratorius)

American Robin (Turdus migratorius)
American Robin (Turdus migratorius)

Locally, American Robins are year around residents, but the birds that breed here will head south for the winter.  The birds that breed in Alaska and Canada will spend the winter here.  A group of Robins is called a "worm."  Don't ask me why.  On gentle winter days, worms of several dozen birds will gather in my yard to forage.  It's always an amazing sight.

American Robin (Turdus migratorius)

American Robin (Turdus migratorius)

This has been a very wet and chilly spring for us.  Naturally, under these conditions, the attentive parent will serve as both blanket and umbrella:

American Robin (Turdus migratorius)

American Robin (Turdus migratorius)

The three baby Robins grew quickly and the conditions in the nest became quite crowded.  Still in the nest, this young trio is already showing panache and attitude.  They have all fledged successfully and Dan notes having seen the parents in the canopy.  We'll report back if they return to the nest for a second brood.

American Robin (Turdus migratorius)

Photos:  Dan Codd

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Family Outing

Canada Geese

It must be Canada Day at Cranberry Lake in Deception Pass State Park, Washington.  Several families of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) were taking advantage of the nice early May weather.  When I took this photo, I was focused on the group in the water.  I didn't even notice the birds behind the picnic table.  The aunts and uncles were swimming nearby:

Canada Geese

These picnic tables are taken:

Canada Geese

After lunch, it's time for a swim:

Canada Geese