Saturday, February 22, 2014

This Week's Crops & Clips: Brown Thrasher

It's best not to get too close the nest of a bird. There is the risk that they may abandon it or the nestlings may be frightened and leave before they are ready to fly. Your path may leave a scent trail or disturb foliage, inviting predators to explore your track. As a youngster already interesting in bird life I was not aware of these issues. However, I will never forget the fire in the bright yellow eyes of a Brown Thrasher that threatened me as I approached its nest in a low bush. It never touched me, but flew at me and really gave me a scare!

I'm not afraid of snakes or spiders or bats, but every time I see those thrasher eyes they threaten to rekindle an atavistic fear somewhere deep within me.

Brown Thrasher 20140212

On February 12, at the entrance to Chapel Trail Nature Preserve near our South Florida home, I heard the distinctive double phrases of a thrasher's song. Similar enough to that of the related mockingbird's, it might be overlooked, but this bird's song seemed to overwhelm the sounds of its much more common relatives.

If the 30-second video does not appear in the space below, follow this link

A few Brown Thrashers nest in our general area but so far they have appeared locally only during migration and winter. 

Brown Thrasher 3-20140212

Alert and often secretive, their brown backs sometimes look so red that when one flashes by I can mistake it for a cardinal.

Brown Thrasher 3-20100428

Thrashers are more often heard than seen, either because of their distinctive loud song and calls, or by the noise they create while "thrashing" about in leaf litter, scratching with both feet to uncover insect prey. It is nice to find one out in the open...

Brown Thrasher 2-20111107

...but in many of my photos they are obscured by foliage.

Brown Thrasher 20121009

Actually, the thrasher may have gotten its name, not because of any wild and violent movement on its part, but from an old English word, "thresher" or "thrusher," meaning a thrush. REFERENCE 

Indeed, mockingbirds, catbirds and thrashers are grouped in the family Mimidae, or Mimic Thrushes. Their body and bill profiles are all quite similar. 

Northern Mockingbird:

Northern Mockingbird 20121213

Gray Catbird:

Gray Catbird 20111024

Before I took up photogrpahy I saw Long-billed Thrashers in south Texas, Crissal and Bendire's Thrashers in New Mexico, and California Thrashers in (where else?) California. Here is a Curve-billed Thrasher photographed in New Mexico:

Curve-billed Thrasher 4-20111114

Sage Thrasher in the Texas Panhandle:

Sage Thrasher 2-20111112

I did bring a pocket camera to California, and though I did not capture any thrashers, my favorite shot was of two of our granddaughters checking out a Redwood tree in Muir Woods.

Muir Woods 20100624

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Birds and backgrounds

Too often, I strive for the perfect "field guide" photo of a bird, side view, in perfect light devoid of shadows and showing all pertinent plumage features. I crop away the surroundings, which often could have added beauty and told more about the bird.

Including a bit of habitat adds texture, color and more information. Even a plain bird such as this Palm Warbler seems to glow. Its long legs are an adaptation to terrestrial foraging habits, as seen here in the shade under a Cypress tree that has dropped most of its needles.

Palm Warbler in cypress litter 20140124

Although common and raucous, this Blue Jay is beautifully juxtaposed to the dark recesses of the dried fronds and fruit as it moves secretively near the crown of a Royal Palm.

Blue Jay on Royal Palm 20140127

Is this a photo of an American Goldfinch, or of the graceful willow branches?

Goldfinch on wilow 20110803

While the side view of a Gray Catbird is monochromatic, the bird provides a bit of vibrant color as  it faces away. Look closely to see the Trema berries that attract so many birds during the Florida winter.

Gray Catbird 20140102

Adding a bit of habitat balances the beauty of a Great Egret in the still water.

Great Egret 20131224

The soft light and the out-of-focus Palmettos enhance the image of a Tricolored Heron in flight.

Tricolored Heron at Green Cay 20131210

Sepia tones predominate in this image of an immature Red-shouldered Hawk in early morning flight.

Red-shouldered Hawk 20131117

A Great Horned Owl in a bare tree is silhouetted against the dying sunset.

Owl at sunset 20130906

Despite lack of cover, this American Bittern freezes in place, perhaps believing itself  to be invisible.

American Bittern Botaurus_lentiginosus 20121218

A Green Heron is perfectly at home at the edge of a small clearing in the marsh.

Green Heron 20121216

This Great Blue Heron is almost invisible against a backdrop of herbicide-killed Melaleucas that were taking over the wetland. They will no longer provide it with nesting places.

Great Blue Heron vivid 20140118

White Ibises enjoy the shade on man-made perches in our next door neighbor's yard.

White Ibises next door 20120608

Even close up, not only its habitat, but my own image are reflected in the eye of a squirrel.

My reflection in squirrel eye 20131215

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Pride and Joy in an eagles' nest

The first hatched of the two eaglets in the nearby Pembroke Pines nest is four weeks old this weekend (February 8). I try to get out to the nest as often as possible to monitor their progress. We do not have the luxury of a nest camera, so we must do our watching the old-fashioned way.  See a "Family Album" of all the known eaglets over seven breeding seasons.

This morning (February 7) it was cool (68 F), very foggy and drizzling. The eaglets were hunkered down and I never caught sight of them. Only the female parent was present, drying her wings on a Melaleuca snag near the nest tree.

Bald Eagle female 2-20140207

She then flew to a dead tree along the road where the light was better and also the fog was lifting, so she looked more presentable.

Bald Eagle female 3-20140207

Bald Eagle female 5-20140207

Two days earlier, arriving at the nest a little before 9:00 AM I was joined by several others including local nest watchers Millie, Phil and Mary, as well as Deborah, a newcomer visiting from Illinois who hosts the Evanston Peregrine Falcon Watch, a Yahoo group that she started in 2009.  

At first no adults were present and  the older eaglet, the twelfth we have observed since 2008 (whom we designate as P Piney 12), was sitting high up in the nest and her little sibling was hunkered down on the other side. 

The eggs hatch sequentially in the order they were deposited, about 2-3 days apart. We really do not know the sex of the first hatchling, but Bald Eagles selectively produce a female chick first in up to 2 out of 3 successful nestings. Female Bald Eagles are larger than males at all ages and also "resource intensive,"needing more food to survive.

The ordinary gender sequence in good years is equally FM, FF or MM, which results in a 50-50 sex ratio.  If a male hatches out before a female this produces conflict, especially if prey is scarce. The female grows more rapidly and struggles to dominate her older sibling. 

Over a 17 year period on two lakes in Saskatchewan, females were the first or only hatchling in 97 instances versus 67 males. The tendency towards producing females from the first egg was more pronounced during years when food was abundant: 68 females to 32 males. (Reference).

Bald Eaglets P Piney 13 and 12 20140205

At about 9:03 AM the female parent (the eagle watchers know her as Joy) flew in from the east carrying a large long-legged bird. Bald Eagles have adaptations for catching fish, including bare lower legs, very sharp claws and rough scales on their feet. They are generally grouped with sea eagles or fish eagles, but are very adept at capturing other prey and also eat carrion. This pair seems to catch as many Cattle Egrets and White Ibises as it does fish. 

Bald Eagle female brings bird 20140205

Within seconds, the male (Pride) flew in from the west. The second eaglet, P Piney 13, now on the right, is noticeably smaller and has more natal down than his older sibling. 

Bald Eagle male joins female and eaglets 20140205

Pride appeared to want to either share in the meal or to feed the eaglets. I think the latter as he has been an excellent provider. However, Joy spread her wings over the prey and rebuffed him.

Bald Eagle female defends her catch 20140205

Pride retreated to a perch just above the nest, but continued to protest loudly. Joy screamed back in a wailing call that I had not heard before.

Bald Eagle screaming match 20140205

The eaglets kept low during their parents' confrontation, and Joy turned to resume feeding.

Bald Eagle female turns to feed the eaglets 20140205

Joy tore at the prey as the eaglets waited.

Bald Eagle female tears at prey 20140205

She continued feeding the eaglets.

Bald Eagle female continues feeding 20140205

P Piney 12 appeared to be trying to grasp the prey with her huge yellow foot! Like little puppies, they grow into their feet.

Bald Eaglet with big yellow foot 20140205

The eaglets suddenly seemed to be begging to be fed by Pride!

Bald Eaglets beg from male parent 20140205

Pride returned to the nest but Joy again protected the prey. Note the smaller size of the male, and also his very low forehead, helping us distinguish him from his mate.  

Bald Eagle male returns to nest 20140205

They all posed for a family portrait but the eaglets seemed distracted.

Bald Eagle family 20140205

As Pride prepared to fly off, Joy continued to feed her brood, making sure that both got attention.

 Bald Eagle female feeds as male preapare to fly 2-20140205

Mother and daughter provided me with a tender photo op.

Bald Eagle mother-daughter portrait 20140205

Only 20 minutes later, Pride returned with a fish.

Bald Eagle male returns with fish 20140205

The eaglets engaged in a brief confrontation that appeared rather hostile. The older chick suddenly moved towards her sibling, who retreated as the older one seemed to peck at him.

Bald Eaglets hostile confrontation1 20140205

Bald Eaglets hostile confrontation 2 20140205

Joy belatedly became aware of their conflict.

Bald Eaglets hostile confrontation 3 20140205

Identifying the eagles by name probably helps watchers and the many others who visit our FORUM take a greater interest in them as individuals. Over the years we have noted some distinguishing traits and idiosyncrasies such as dominance, favoring certain perches and Pride's avid care and feeding of the eaglets. There is a danger of romanticizing and anthropomorphizing, as it is often difficult or impossible to know the meaning of certain behaviors. The larger eaglet is not a bully or mean-- she is doing what gives her and the species the best chance of survival.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

This Week's Crops & Clips: Life in a puddle

Sometimes a rain puddle can hold a pleasant surprise. On my way back from observing the Bald Eagle in our neighborhood I noticed a heron flying towards a vacant area in front of a school along the busy boulevard. Since school was not in session, I pulled into the driveway.


Despite the traffic noise and all the distractions of power poles and traffic signals, I found a bit of solitude. A Tricolored Heron was foraging in a large rainwater puddle in its seemingly haphazard yet purposeful manner.

 Tricolored Heron leaving wake 20140125

Tricolored Heron actively foraging 20140125

Tricolored Heron actively foraging 2-20140125

It was accompanied by a Snowy Egret that likewise moved rapidly about in search of prey. The reflection of a red stop sign outlines its head.

Snowy Egret 2-20140125

Snowy Egret 20140125

A lone Lesser Yellowlegs appeared, and waded out to the middle of the puddle. Like the other species, it was catching and eating prey of some sort, possibly small insects.

Yellowlegs 2-20140125

Yellowlegs 20140125

Although this puddle has been present since midsummer, it almost dried up a couple of times and also has swollen during rainy periods. It does not connect with other wetland areas, so it is unlikely to harbor fish. Both of these heron species are known to eat insects, amphibians and crustaceans, all of which are likely living here. The recent dry spell has concentrated the prey.

Watch this one minute video of the herons' active feeding habits. See how the egret stirs the water with its "golden slippers" to scare up prey. If the video does not show in the space below, click on this link.