Friday, May 30, 2008

Bulletin #40 – Monterey CA birds

David McDonald Photography
Friendswood Texas
May 30, 2008

Bulletin #40 – Monterey California area birds

Hello friends,

There are fewer and fewer birds for me to photograph on vacation in the Monterey area, but still I always manage to find some or improve on photos that I had taken earlier.

The first birds I photographed when I arrived Saturday afternoon were some that I had heard on the Monterey rare bird alert the day before I left.

The Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster) is a member of the Sulidae family of large seabirds. There are 10 species of this family worldwide. This bird breeds in Mexico in the Gulf of Cortez, but some birds wander north up the California coast, but rarely as far as Monterey.

On the rare bird alert, a juvenile Brown Booby had been found on a large offshore rock just off the famous Pebble Beach golf course. It was reported 2 days before I left on vacation, so I headed there immediately upon arrival and he was sitting on the rock, just as reported. He was about 60-70 yards away, so I took the photo with stacked 1.4x and 2x extenders giving me an effective 1400mm lens.

Additionally on the rare bird report were a large number of Red Phalaropes (Phalaropus fulicaria). These birds are members of the sandpiper family, but mostly swim, picking food of the surface of the water. These birds normally migrate far out to sea, but several days of intense storms had blown thousands of the birds onshore all along the California coast. I found several ponds along the Pebble Beach golf course with dozens of the birds and got my photos.

As you recall from previous bulletins, the phalaropes are unusual in that the female is the brighter colored and the male tends the eggs and feeds the babies.

The first photo is the female and the second, the duller male – both in full breeding plumage. click ‘next’ once

Monterey harbor again produced some great birds for me.

Here is a Pacific Loon (Gavia pacifica) in full breeding plumage with gray head and black throat.

The Common Murre (Uria aalge) is a large alcid that you saw in previous bulletins, in winter plumage. All these birds appear to be black and white in the field guide, but after getting some close-up photos, the bird has a decidedly brownish color. I rechecked the Sibley guide and he does say ‘browner’ on the back in this breeding plumage with an all dark head.

Here are 2 photos of the same bird in early morning light beside a dock. The first was in the shadow of a boat and he looks black and white, but he swam under the dock and out into the sunlight and he is much browner! This is the same bird – just a change of lighting conditions and 4 minutes apart in time. click ‘next’ once

The Pigeon Guillemot (Cepphus columba) is another alcid that I have photographed before, but as they nest under the pier in Monterey harbor, several were swimming close by. This one was bathing and I caught him with his tail feathers fanned apart and water drops flying everywhere. His white flank patch and red feet are clearly seen.

I was hoping to get several of the grebes in breeding plumage on this trip, as we don’t usually see them in Houston in their fancy dress.

We drove north to Half Moon Bay (just south of San Francisco) along Highway 1 and had lunch beside the harbor. There was a long pier that pedestrians could use for fishing etc and so I went out after lunch to see what was out there as I had not found the grebes in Monterey.

Well both my target birds were there. The first is the breeding plumage Eared Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis). In Europe this bird is known as the Black-necked Grebe. He has a black neck and wispy yellow feathers over his ears. The bill is all black.

The other is the Horned Grebe (Podiceps auritus). He has a red neck, and a solid yellow patch behind ears that extend behind his head (horns). His bill is black with a white tip.

All comments and suggestions are welcomed and appreciated.

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

photos copyright 2006 - 2008 David McDonald

Friday, May 23, 2008

Bulletin #39 – Monterey Bay, California pelagic trip

David McDonald Photography
Friendswood Texas
May 23, 2008

Bulletin #39 – Monterey Bay, California pelagic trip

Hello friends,

Have a happy and safe Memorial Day weekend!

The last frontier for birders is the open ocean. There are many seabirds that inhabit the oceans of the world. These birds rarely come ashore except to breed usually on remote islands. Thus, they are relatively inaccessible to birders unless you go out on a boat. Most birders have never seen any of these birds.

This is tough birding, as you are out for 6-8 hours or more. There is no returning early for seasickness.

Photography on a boat rolling up and down on the waves is especially tricky. Thank heaven for the image stabilization lenses available now. The camera has to be hand held – no tripods, and they probably would be useless anyway.

Anyway, I went on a pelagic trip with Shearwater Journeys

( out of Monterey CA on May 11th. It was very rough with 4-6 foot seas and overcast for the morning. There were 25 birders on the trip and 3 or 4 got seasick very early and were miserable for most of the 8 hour trip. I took my seasick prevention medication as recommended, and was fine. This was my 3rd trip with Shearwater Journeys, but the first to do photography.

The largest seabirds are the albatrosses. These huge birds (6-9 foot wingspan) spend their lives on the open ocean except to nest and breed on remote islands of the world. Most of them nest in the southern hemisphere. The Black-footed Albatross (Phoebastria nigripes) was my first ever member of this family of 13 species. We actually saw about 150 of them which is a huge number. Apparently a dozen or two is more likely on a trip.

They nest on Midway Island in the northwest Hawaiian Islands chain and fly to the California coast to feed and then return home to feed the chick.

So here is an albatross sitting on the water behind the boat. Notice the hump that the wings make along the back. These birds have their nostrils in tubes along the bill as can be clearly seen.

The adults have a white rump and the 1st year juveniles have a brown rump as can be seen in the next 2 photos. click ‘next’ once

Shearwaters and petrels are another family of seabirds. They are much smaller (12 -19”) than the albatrosses. We saw 2 members of this family. These birds are also ‘tubenoses’ as the albatross above.

The Sooty Shearwater (Puffinus griseus) I had seen previously and many were present on this trip. They are all dark sooty brown in color.

Most of these birds are seen gliding above the ocean, so the wing pattern, both top and underside are important to ID the birds.

Here are 2 photos showing the bird sitting on the water and top side of the wings. You can see the ‘tubenose’ in the first photo. click ‘next’ once

These birds have to ‘run’ along the surface of the water to get airborne. The next slide shows the bird doing just that and the underside of the wing.

The other shearwater was the Pink-footed Shearwater (Puffinus creatopus). This was a lifer for me. They are brown on top and white underneath. I have a couple of photos of the soaring birds, but none sitting on the water. The second photo actually has some white on the wings. This is a molting plumage. These birds breed on islands off Chile. click ‘next’ once

The third family of seabirds that we encountered was the storm-petrels. We had a fly by of some Ashy Storm-Petrels (Oceanodroma homochroa). Strom-petrels are small (6 – 9”) swallow-like birds come ashore at night only to breed. The birds were perhaps 50 yards away, but I pointed my camera in the direction and snapped some pictures. This was another lifer for me.

The bird has very long wings and a forked tail.

There were several interesting gulls following the boat as well.
The first is a 2nd year Glaucous-winged Gull. He has gray wings and lighter primary feathers.

There was also a single Sabine’s Gull. This is a gull of the arctic. In winter they are strictly pelagic in the Pacific Ocean. This was another lifer for me.

They have a distinctive wing pattern with black wing tips, white central patch and gray at the base of the wings. In breeding plumage, they also have dark gray heads. The bill is black with a yellow tip.

Here is the upperside of the wings to show the pattern.

The next photo isn’t too clear, but it shows the dark head, bill, and underside wing pattern.

There were several Pacific Loons (Gavia pacifica) in breeding plumage and I obtained my first photo of a loon in flight. I think it is rare to see a loon flying, as they usually just dive and swim away to avoid danger.

There were other birds seen, but I got better photos on shore, so they will appear in the future bulletins.

On the trip, we also saw lots of sea lions, several Sea Otters, and several Humpback Whales. The whales were breaching at times, but I never managed to get a photo of the whale jumping out of the water. By the time I got my camera around to the right direction, I just got photos of some huge splashes!

Here is an interesting photo of an adult Sea Otter with a large pup riding on its stomach. I had not seen this behavior before, despite seeing many otters over the last 25 years.

If this type of birding interests you, check out Shearwater Journeys web site. They have trip all year long, but most of the trips are in the fall and the cost is reasonable (about $150).

All comments and suggestions are welcomed and appreciated.

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

photos copyright 2006 - 2008 David McDonald

Monday, May 19, 2008

Bulletin #38 – Upper Texas Coast – misc. spring birds

David McDonald Photography
Friendswood Texas
May 19, 2008

Bulletin #38 – Upper Texas Coast – misc. spring birds

Hello friends,

The best bird of the spring migration wasn’t a migrant at all. This Pomarine Jaeger (Stercorarius pomarinus) was on the beach at Bolivar flats early on a Saturday morning 2 weeks ago. I saw him a long way down the beach, but I knew it was something special. I wasn’t sure what he was, but I knew to take a lot of photos as other experts would be able to ID the bird later. Jaegers are pelagic birds that chase other birds to steal their food. They usually come onshore only to nest in the arctic. Most observers see them from shore as a far off dark bird. On pelagic trips offshore, they may be seen at closer range, so it was most unusual to see it sitting on a busy beach!

This bird became an instant star as he was featured on the Texas Rare Bird Alert, along with being the Houston Audubon Society ‘bird of the week’ last week on their web site.

Jaegers have long central tail feathers and the Pomarine Jaeger has the feathers twisted at 90 degrees, so the end of the tail looks fatter than the more proximal portion.

Here are 2 photos showing him on the beach and flying away. The long tail feathers can be plainly seen in the second photo. click ‘next’ once

The other unusual bird was from the end of March. The Ross’s Goose (Chen rossi) was a very difficult bird for me to find. He is usually found in fields with Snow Geese. I looked for him 3 times west of Houston (50 miles from home) as well as on a trip to Monterey CA in February. On that trip, he had been staked out by my guide there, but when I got there, no bird.

As luck would have it, someone found one associating with domestic geese and ducks in a subdivision 7 miles from my house. The location was posted on the Texbirds web site. I went there and he was as tame as could be, because the homeowners were feeding all the waterfowl.

The Blue Grosbeak (Guiraca caerulea) is a little larger than the other blue migrant, the Indigo Bunting. He is also much less common to find. I finally got some good photos this year. The bird has a much bigger beak than the Indigo Bunting and the male Blue Grosbeak has 2 brown wing bars. Here he is in a mulberry tree.

Another bird I was able to get better photos was the Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurious). The beautiful male is chocolate brown with black head and wings with 2 white wing bars.
The first year male is yellowish with a black bib.

I found this Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus) eating a mulberry at High Island. Even though his name suggests they eat only insects, they will eat some fruit.

Lastly is the resident Barn Owl (Tyto alba) at Smith Oaks on High Island.

All comments and suggestions are welcomed and appreciated.

Happy birding and photography,David McDonald
photos copyright 2006 - 2008 David McDonald

Friday, May 9, 2008

Bulletin #37 – Upper Texas Coast

David McDonald Photography
Friendswood Texas
May 9, 2008

Bulletin #37 – Upper Texas Coast

Hello friends,

Well spring migration has come to a close and what a great time it was! There were 2 fantastic days for birds, with lots of opportunity for photographs.

I made a list of the birds that I had not photographed yet, and tried to spend more time, seeking out these specific species. I was able to get most of the list checked off.

Among the warblers, I found all the common ones and even 2 rarer species – Blackpoll and Cerulean. I’m still lacking Cape May and Black-throated Blue – but I don’t recall that either of them was mentioned this year from Texas anywhere until 2 days ago and I didn’t have time to go.

The shorebirds were going to be a challenge, as I wasn’t sure of my ID skills in the field, so I took lots of pictures of different birds and then sorted them out at home. I missed only 2 – Baird’s Sandpiper and American Golden Plover. But, I did photograph Stilt, Semipalmated, Solitary, Pectoral and Upland Sandpipers, Wilson’s Snipe, Hudsonian Godwit and Wilson’s Phalarope.

So, I have a much reduced list for spring 2009!

The Bay-breasted Warbler (Dendroica castanea) was in Bulletin #35, but it was a head on view. Here is a better profile of the beautiful male and the second photo is a female. Her colors are duller. click ‘next’ once

The Yellow Warbler (Dendroica petechia) is yellow warbler with no white anywhere. The male shown here has reddish breast streaks. The female lacks the streaks.

The Blackburnian Warbler is my favorite among the warblers. There were several birds at High Island last weekend and I was able to get many pictures. The male has a black back, white wing bars and breast and beautiful bright orange face, throat and breast. The popular name is ‘fire-throat’ and when you see one of these birds in the sun, he positively shines.

The Wilson’s Phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor) is the last of the 3 phalaropes for me to photo. Phalaropes are unusual in the bird world, as the female is the brightly colored of the sexes. She courts the male, lays the eggs, and then he incubates them and raises the young. Here are 2 photos of the female. click ‘next’ once

The Hudsonian Godwit (Limosa haemastica) is an uncommon shorebird, but fortunately, it migrates through Texas in the spring on its way to the arctic. I have only seen them at a distance in the scope. But this year when I wanted to photograph them, I managed to get to within 25 yards. Godwits are large sandpipers with a slightly upturned bill. The Hudsonian Godwit male has a brick red belly. The female is brown and gray as in the second photo. click ‘next’ once

The smallest sandpipers are popularly called ‘peeps’. There are 5 of them in North America – Least, Western, Semipalmated, White-rumped and Baird’s. They range in size from 6” to 7.5” and can be a daunting ID challenge to birders who aren’t expert. However, they can be sorted out.

The easiest to ID is the Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla). At only 6” in length, it is the smallest sandpiper in the world. His distinguishing feature is yellow legs. He has a short bill. All other peeps in North America have black legs. He is generally found on mud flats.

The Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers are generally found on beaches. They are similar in size and coloration except the Western is more reddish in breeding plumage.

The difference is the bill shape. The Semipalmated Sandpiper (Calidris pusilla) has a shorter straight bill. Semipalmated means partially webbed feet. This feature can be seen on the front foot.

The Western Sandpiper (Calidris mauri) has a longer bill that drops down at the tip. The reddish-brown on the face and head is brighter than on the Semipalmated above.

The last 2 peeps – White-rumped and Baird’s both have very long wings that extend beyond the tail.

The White-rumped Sandpiper (Calidris fuscicollis) feeds on mud flats and wades into deeper water. He has gray and rufous back, straight bill and a reddish area on the base of lower mandible. Both the white rump, seen when flying, and this reddish spot on the mandible are diagnostic for this species.

I don’t have a photo of the last peep – Baird’s. But I hope that these close-up photos of the other 4 will help you to sort out these small sandpipers.

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

photos copyright 2006 - 2008 David McDonald

Friday, May 2, 2008

Bulletin #36 - Upper Texas coast warblers & sandpipers

David McDonald Photography
Friendswood Texas
May 2, 2008

Bulletin #36 – Upper Texas Coast – warblers & sandpipers

Hello friends,

Here are a few more warblers from various locations this spring so far.

There are several ground dwelling warblers, in addition to the Swainson’s Warbler that was shown in Bulletin #34. They are all brownish to blend in with the leaf litter and muddy areas where they feed. All 3 are in the genus Seiurus.

The first is the Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla). He has a striped head with a central orange stripe. The breast has streaking. It is named for the round oven like nest that it builds on the ground. The sexes are similar. The second photo shows the orange stripe better. click ‘next’ once

The next two are very similar and for many people very confusing. The Louisiana Waterthrush (Seiurus motacilla) is distinguished by a long white stripe above the eye that extends to the neck. The eye stripe is wider and longer than the stripe on the Northern Waterthrush. Also, it has a longer bill, pinkish legs, and buffy flank patch which is perhaps the most important ID differentiation. Also, generally it has a white breast and clear, unstreaked throat.

So here is a Louisiana Waterthrush.

The Northern Waterthrush (Seiurus noveboracensis) (NOWA) normally has a thinner buffy eye stripe that doesn’t extend as far down the neck. Also, it is usually buffy to yellowish on the breast. The legs are generally dark, but may be pink.

The first photo is a pale breasted NOWA with pink legs. The second photo is a rather yellowish bird and lastly is another bird caught with wings up and tail flared as he was ready to fly off. The latter two have darker legs. click ‘next’ twice

The next warbler is an uncommon migrant through the upper Texas coast. The Blackpoll Warbler (Dendroica striata) is similar to the Black-and-white Warbler, but it has a solid black cap and white face. The first photo is the Blackpoll and the second is a Black-and-white for comparison. The Blackpoll Warbler has bubblegum pink legs that confirm the ID. click ‘next’ once

The next warbler is the pretty Bay-breasted Warbler (Dendroica castanea). He has black face, back and wings with 2 white wing bars. There is also a rufous cap and rufous throat and breast stripes. This is a male.

The last warbler is the Magnolia Warbler (Dendroica magnolia). This is known as the black and white and yellow warbler. The male has a gray cap, yellow underparts with black streaks and black upperparts with white wing bars.

Shorebirds also winter on and migrate through the upper Texas coast. Here are a several migrants that I photographed in Galveston in April. Sandpipers are moderately easy to ID in breeding plumage in the spring, but can be difficult in non-breeding plumage the rest of the year. Fortunately, these are all breeding plumaged birds.

First is the Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria). This bird has a white eye ring, yellow legs, dark spotted wings, and streaked breast. It is the only North American sandpiper to nest in trees, making use of abandoned nests of other birds. Interestingly, the white eye ring is the eyelids and when the eyes are closed, the eye ring disappears as shown in the second photo. click ‘next’ once

Next is the Stilt Sandpiper (Calidris himantopus) (STSA). This is a long yellowish legged sandpiper with slightly downcurved bill. It has a white stripe above the eye, and brownish cap and face. The breast is heavily streaked. The second photo has a bird scratching his neck. This shows his long legs. click ‘next’ once

It feeds like a dowitcher and often intermingles with flocks of them. The guide books state that they can be differentiated as the STSA has longer legs and shorter bill, so he has to bend over or ‘tilt up’ to a greater extent than dowitchers. Here are a couple of photos of a STSA tilting up so much that their head is completely underwater. The second photo, the bird was standing in chest deep water and when tilted up, is almost completely underwater! He looks more like a duck than a shorebird. As I watched a flock of about 10 of these birds, I saw them do this many times. I haven’t noticed any other sandpiper submerge his head so often as these STSAs did. click ‘next’ once

The last photo is another STSA that I caught just as he plunged his head down. Interestingly, there is an air column formed, before the water closes in
around him.

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

photos copyright 2006 - 2008 David McDonald