Shallow Thoughts : : birds

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Fri, 10 Mar 2017

At last! A roadrunner!

We live in what seems like wonderful roadrunner territory. For the three years we've lived here, we've hoped to see a roadrunner, and have seen them a few times at neighbors' places, but never in our own yard.

Until this morning. Dave happened to be looking out the window at just the right time, and spotted it in the garden. I grabbed the camera, and we watched it as it came out from behind a bush and went into stalk mode.

[Roadrunner stalking]

And it caught something!

[close-up, Roadrunner with fence lizard] We could see something large in its bill as it triumphantly perched on the edge of the garden wall, before hopping off and making a beeline for a nearby juniper thicket.

It wasn't until I uploaded the photo that I discovered what it had caught: a fence lizard. Our lizards only started to come out of hibernation about a week ago, so the roadrunner picked the perfect time to show up.

I hope our roadrunner decides this is a good place to hang around.

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[ 14:33 Mar 10, 2017    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sun, 05 Mar 2017

The Curious Incident of the Junco in the Night-Time

Dave called from an upstairs bedroom. "You'll probably want to see this."

He had gone up after dinner to get something, turned the light on, and been surprised by an agitated junco, chirping and fluttering on the sill outside the window. It evidently was tring to fly through the window and into the room. Occasionally it would flutter backward to the balcony rail, but no further.

There's a piñon tree whose branches extend to within a few feet of the balcony, but the junco ignored the tree and seemed bent on getting inside the room.

As we watched, hoping the bird would calm down, instead it became increasingly more desperate and stressed. I remembered how, a few months earlier, I opened the door to a deck at night and surprised a large bird, maybe a dove, that had been roosting there under the eaves. The bird startled and flew off in a panic toward the nearest tree. I had wondered what happened to it -- whether it had managed to find a perch in the thick of a tree in the dark of night. (Unlike San Jose, White Rock gets very dark at night.)

And that thought solved the problem of our agitated junco. "Turn the porch light on", I suggested. Dave flipped a switch, and the porch light over the deck illuminated not only the deck where the junco was, but the nearest branches of the nearby piñon.

Sure enough, now that it could see the branches of the tree, the junco immediately turned around and flew to a safe perch. We turned the porch light back off, and we heard no more from our nocturnal junco.

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[ 11:27 Mar 05, 2017    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sun, 05 Feb 2017

Rosy Finches

Los Alamos is having an influx of rare rosy-finches (which apparently are supposed to be hyphenated: they're rosy-finches, not finches that are rosy).

[Rosy-finches] They're normally birds of the snowy high altitudes, like the top of Sandia Crest, and quite unusual in Los Alamos. They're even rarer in White Rock, and although I've been keeping my eyes open I haven't seen any here at home; but a few days ago I was lucky enough to be invited to the home of a birder in town who's been seeing great flocks of rosy-finches at his feeders.

There are four types, of which three have ever been seen locally, and we saw all three. Most of the flock was brown-capped rosy-finches, with two each black rosy-finches and gray-capped rosy-finches. The upper bird at right, I believe, is one of the blacks, but it might be a grey-capped. They're a bit hard to tell apart. In any case, pretty birds, sparrow sized with nice head markings and a hint of pink under the wing, and it was fun to get to see them.

[Roadrunner] The local roadrunner also made a brief appearance, and we marveled at the combination of high-altitude snowbirds and a desert bird here at the same place and time. White Rock seems like much better roadrunner territory, and indeed they're sometimes seen here (though not, so far, at my house), but they're just as common up in the forests of Los Alamos. Our host said he only sees them in winter; in spring, just as they start singing, they leave and go somewhere else. How odd!

Speaking of birds and spring, we have a juniper titmouse determinedly singing his ray-gun song, a few house sparrows are singing sporadically, and we're starting to see cranes flying north. They started a few days ago, and I counted several hundred of them today, enjoying the sunny and relatively warm weather as they made their way north. Ironically, just two weeks ago I saw a group of about sixty cranes flying south -- very late migrants, who must have arrived at the Bosque del Apache just in time to see the first northbound migrants leave. "Hey, what's up, we just got here, where ya all going?"

A few more photos: Rosy-finches (and a few other nice birds).

We also have a mule deer buck frequenting our yard, sometimes hanging out in the garden just outside the house to drink from the heated birdbath while everything else is frozen. (We haven't seen him in a few days, with the warmer weather and most of the ice melted.) We know it's the same buck coming back: he's easy to recognize because he's missing a couple of tines on one antler.

The buck is a welcome guest now, but in a month or so when the trees start leafing out I may regret that as I try to find ways of keeping him from stripping all the foliage off my baby apple tree, like some deer did last spring. I'm told it helps to put smelly soap shavings, like Irish Spring, in a bag and hang it from the branches, and deer will avoid the smell. I will try the soap trick but will probably combine it with other measures, like a temporary fence.

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[ 19:39 Feb 05, 2017    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Mon, 08 Feb 2016

Attack of the Killer Titmouse!

[Juniper titmouse attacking my window] For the last several days, when I go upstairs in mid-morning I often hear a strange sound coming from the bedroom. It's a juniper titmouse energetically attacking the east-facing window.

He calls, most often in threes, as he flutters around the windowsill, sometimes scratching or pecking the window. He'll attack the bottom for a while, moving from one side to the other, then fly up to the top of the window to attack the top corners, then back to the bottom.

For several days I've run down to grab the camera as soon as I saw him, but by the time I get back and get focused, he becomes camera-shy and flies away, and I hear EEE EEE EEE from a nearby tree instead. Later in the day I'll sometimes see him down at the office windows, though never as persistently as upstairs in the morning.

I've suspected he's attacking his reflection (and also assumed he's a "he"), partly because I see him at the east-facing bedroom window in the morning and at the south-facing office window in the early afternoon. But I'm not sure about it, and certainly I hear his call from trees scattered around the yard.

Something I was never sure of, but am now: titmice definitely can raise and lower their crests. I'd never seen one with its crest lowered, but this one flattens his crest while he's in attack mode.

His EEE EEE EEE call isn't very similar to any of the calls listed for juniper titmouse in the Stokes CD set or the Audubon Android app. So when he briefly attacked the window next to my computer yesterday afternoon while I was sitting there, I grabbed a camera and shot a video, hoping to capture the sound. The titmouse didn't exactly cooperate: he chirped a few times, not always in the group of three he uses so persistently in the morning, and the sound in the video came out terribly noisy; but after some processing in audacity I managed to edit out some of the noise. And then this morning as I was brushing my teeth, I heard him again and he was more obliging, giving me a long video of him attacking and yelling at the bedroom window. Here's the Juniper titmouse call as he attacks my window this morning, and yesterday's Juniper titmouse call at the office window yesterday. Today's video is on youtube: Titmouse attacking the window but that's without the sound edits, so it's tough to hear him.

(Incidentally, since Audacity has a super confusing user interface and I'm sure I'll need this again, what seemed to work best was to highlight sections that weren't titmouse and use Edit→Delete; then use Effects→Amplify, checking the box for Allow clipping and using Preview to amplify it to the point where the bird is audible. Then find a section that's just noise, no titmouse, select it, run Effects→Noise Reduction and click Get Noise Profile. The window goes away, so click somewhere to un-select, call up Effects→Noise Reduction again and this time click OK.)

I feel a bit sorry for the little titmouse, attacking windows so frenetically. Titmice are cute, excellent birds to have around, and I hope he's saving some energy for attracting a mate who will build a nest here this spring. Meanwhile, he's certainly providing entertainment for me.

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[ 11:10 Feb 08, 2016    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sun, 20 Dec 2015

Christmas Bird Count

Yesterday was the Los Alamos Christmas Bird Count.

[ Mountain chickadee ] No big deal, right? Most counties have a Christmas Bird Count, a specified day in late December when birders hit the trails and try to identify and count as many birds as they can find. It's coordinated by the Audubon Society, which collects the data so it can be used to track species decline, changes in range in response to global warming, and other scientific questions. The CBC has come a long way from when it split off from an older tradition, the Christmas "Side Hunt", where people would hit the trails and try to kill as many animals as they could.

But the CBC is a big deal in Los Alamos, because we haven't had one since 1953. It turns out that to run an official CBC, you have to be qualified by Audubon and jump through a lot of hoops proving that you can do it properly. Despite there being a very active birding community here, nobody had taken on the job of qualifying us until this year. There was a lot of enthusiasm for the project: I think there were 30 or 40 people participating despite the chilly, overcast weather.

The team I was on was scheduled to start at 7. But I had been on the practice count in March (running a practice count is one of the hoops Audubon makes you jump through), and after dragging myself out of bed at oh-dark-thirty and freezing my toes off slogging through the snow, I had learned that birds are mostly too sensible to come out that early in winter. I tried to remind the other people on the team of what the March morning had been like, but nobody was listening, so I said I'd be late, and I met them at 8. (Still early for me, but I woke up early that morning.)

[ Two very late-season sandhill cranes ] Sure enough, when I got there at 8, there was disappointment over how few birds there were. But actually that continued all day: the promised sun never came out, and I think the birds were hoping for warmer weather. We did see a good assortment of woodpeckers and nuthatches in a small area of Water Canyon, and later, a pair of very late-season sandhill cranes made a low flyover just above where we stood on Estante Way; but mostly, it was disappointing.

In the early afternoon, the team disbanded to go home and watch our respective feeders, except for a couple of people who drove down the highway in search of red-tailed hawks and to the White Rock gas station in search of rock pigeons. (I love it that I'm living in a place where birders have to go out of their way to find rock pigeons to count.)

I didn't actually contribute much on the walks. Most of the others were much more experienced, so mostly my role was to say "Wait, what's that noise?" or "Something flew from that tree to this one" or "Yep, sure enough, two more juncos." But there was one species I thought I could help with: scaled quail. We've been having a regular flock of scaled quail coming by the house this autumn, sometimes as many as 13 at a time, which is apparently unusual for this time of year. I had Dave at home watching for quail while I was out walking around.

When I went home for a lunch break, Dave reported no quail: there had been a coyote sniffing around the yard, scaring away all the birds, and then later there'd been a Cooper's hawk. He'd found the hawk while watching a rock squirrel that was eating birdseed along with the towhees and juncos: the squirrel suddenly sat up and stared intently at something, and Dave followed its gaze to see the hawk perched on the fence. The squirrel then resumed eating, having decided that a Cooper's hawk is too small to be much danger to a squirrel.

[ Scaled quail ] But what with all the predators, there had been no quail. We had lunch, keeping our eyes on the feeder area, when they showed up. Three of them, no, six, no, nine. I kept watch while Dave went over to another window to see if there were any more headed our way. And it turns out there was a whole separate flock, nine more, out in the yard. Eighteen quail in all, a record for us! We'd suspected that we had two different quail families visiting us, but when you're watching one spot with quail constantly running in and out, there's no way to know if it's the same birds or different ones. It needed two people watching different areas to get our high count ot 18. And a good thing: we were the only bird counters in the county who saw any quail, let alone eighteen. So I did get to make a contribution after all.

I carried a camera all day, but my longest regular lens (a 55-250 f/4-5.6) isn't enough when it comes to distant woodpeckers. So most of what I got was blurry, underexposed "record shots", except for the quail, cranes, and an obliging chickadee who wasn't afraid of a bunch of binocular-wielding anthropoids. Photos here: Los Alamos Christmas Bird Count, White Rock team, 2015.

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[ 14:21 Dec 20, 2015    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Mon, 06 Apr 2015

Quickly seeing bird sightings maps on eBird

The local bird community has gotten me using eBird. It's sort of social networking for birders -- you can report sightings, keep track of what birds you've seen where, and see what other people are seeing in your area.

The only problem is the user interface for that last part. The data is all there, but asking a question like "Where in this county have people seen broad-tailed hummingbirds so far this spring?" is a lengthy process, involving clicking through many screens and typing the county name (not even a zip code -- you have to type the name). If you want some region smaller than the county, good luck.

I found myself wanting that so often that I wrote an entry page for it.

My Bird Maps page is meant to be used as a smart bookmark (also known as bookmarklets or keyword bookmarks), so you can type birdmap hummingbird or birdmap golden eagle in your location bar as a quick way of searching for a species. It reads the bird you've typed in, and looks through a list of species, and if there's only one bird that matches, it takes you straight to the eBird map to show you where people have reported the bird so far this year.

If there's more than one match -- for instance, for birdmap hummingbird or birdmap sparrow -- it will show you a list of possible matches, and you can click on one to go to the map.

Like every Javascript project, it was both fun and annoying to write. Though the hardest part wasn't programming; it was getting a list of the nonstandard 4-letter bird codes eBird uses. I had to scrape one of their HTML pages for that. But it was worth it: I'm finding the page quite useful.

How to make a smart bookmark

I think all the major browsers offer smart bookmarks now, but I can only give details for Firefox. But here's a page about using them in Chrome.

Firefox has made it increasingly difficult with every release to make smart bookmarks. There are a few extensions, such as "Add Bookmark Here", which make it a little easier. But without any extensions installed, here's how you do it in Firefox 36:

[Firefox bookmarks dialog] First, go to the birdmap page (or whatever page you want to smart-bookmark) and click on the * button that makes a bookmark. Then click on the = next to the *, and in the menu, choose Show all bookmarks. In the dialog that comes up, find the bookmark you just made (maybe in Unsorted bookmarks?) and click on it.

Click the More button at the bottom of the dialog.
(Click on the image at right for a full-sized screenshot.)
[Firefox bookmarks dialog showing keyword]

Now you should see a Keyword entry under the Tags entry in the lower right of that dialog.

Change the Location to http://shallowsky.com/birdmap.html?bird=%s.

Then give it a Keyword of birdmap (or anything else you want to call it).

Close the dialog.

Now, you should be able to go to your location bar and type:
birdmap common raven or birdmap sparrow and it will take you to my birdmap page. If the bird name specifies just one bird, like common raven, you'll go straight from there to the eBird map. If there are lots of possible matches, as with sparrow, you'll stay on the birdmap page so you can choose which sparrow you want.

How to change the default location

If you're not in Los Alamos, you probably want a way to set your own coordinates. Fortunately, you can; but first you have to get those coordinates.

Here's the fastest way I've found to get coordinates for a region on eBird:

Then look at the URL: a part of it should look something like this: env.minX=-122.202087&env.minY=36.89291&env.maxX=-121.208778&env.maxY=37.484802 If the map isn't right where you want it, try editing the URL, hitting Enter for each change, and watch the map reload until it points where you want it to. Then copy the four parameters and add them to your smart bookmark, like this: http://shallowsky.com/birdmap.html?bird=%s&minX=-122.202087&minY=36.89291&maxX=-121.208778&maxY=37.484802

Note that all of the the "env." have been removed.

The only catch is that I got my list of 4-letter eBird codes from an eBird page for New Mexico. I haven't found any way of getting the list for the entire US. So if you want a bird that doesn't occur in New Mexico, my page might not find it. If you like birdmap but want to use it in a different state, contact me and tell me which state you need, and I'll add those birds.

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[ 14:30 Apr 06, 2015    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Thu, 18 Sep 2014

Mirror, mirror

A female hummingbird -- probably a black-chinned -- hanging out at our window feeder on a cool cloudy morning.

[female hummingbird at the window feeder]

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[ 19:04 Sep 18, 2014    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Wed, 18 Jun 2014

Fuzzy house finch chicks

[house finch chick] The wind was strong a couple of days ago, but that didn't deter the local house finch family. With three hungry young mouths to feed, and considering how long it takes to crack sunflower seeds, poor dad -- two days after Father's Day -- was working overtime trying to keep them all fed. They emptied by sunflower seed feeder in no time and I had to refill it that evening.

The chicks had amusing fluffy "eyebrow" feathers sticking up over their heads, and one of them had an interesting habit of cocking its tail up like a wren, something I've never seen house finches do before.

More photos: House finch chicks.

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[ 14:40 Jun 18, 2014    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]