Shallow Thoughts : : birds

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

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 ]

Fri, 21 Mar 2014

Flicker Morning

[Northern Flicker on our deck] "There's a woodpecker sitting on the patio", Dave said, shortly after we'd both gotten up. He pointed down through the gap where you can see the patio from upstairs. "It's just sitting there. You can go down and look through the door; it doesn't seem to mind."

Sure enough, a female northern flicker was sitting on the concrete patio deck, immobile except for her constantly blinking eyes and occasionally swiveling head. Definitely not a place you'd normally expect to see a woodpecker.

Some twenty minutes earlier, I remembered, I'd heard a couple of thumps on the roof outside the bedroom, and seen the shadow of wings through the drawn shades. I've heard of birds flying into windows and getting stunned, but why would one fly into a roof? A mystery, but I was sure the flicker's presence was related to the thumps I'd heard.

I kept an eye out while I made coffee and puttered around with normal morning chores. She wasn't budging from that spot, though she looked relatively alert, keeping her eyes open even while sitting immobile.

I called around. (We still don't have internet to the house -- Comcast keeps giving us the runaround about when they'll dig their trench, and I'm not entirely convinced they've even applied for the permit they said they'd applied for three weeks ago. Maybe we need to look into Dish.) The Santa Fe raptor center had a recorded message suggesting that injured birds be put in a cool dark box as a first treatment for shock. The Española Wildlife Center said if I thought she was injured and could catch her, they could take her in.

I did suspect she was injured -- by now she'd been there for 45 minutes or more, without moving -- but I decided to give her some time to recover before going for a capture. Maybe she was just in shock and needed time to gather herself before trying to fly. I went on with my morning chores while keeping an eye out for coyotes and ravens.

For two hours she remained there. The sun came out from behind the clouds and I wondered if I should give her some shade, food or water, but decided to wait a while. Then, as I was going back to the bird book to verify what kind of flicker she was and what gender, she suddenly perked up. Swiveling her head around and looking much more alert than before, she raised herself a little and took a few steps, to one side and then the other. More head swiveling. Then suddenly, as I was reaching for my camera again, she spread her wings and flew off. A little heavily and stiffly, but both wings looked okay.

So our morning's flicker adventure has a happy ending.

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[ 11:46 Mar 21, 2014    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sun, 18 Aug 2013

Learning to Sing

[House finch] I was awakened at 6:30 this morning by what sounded like a young house finch learning to sing, just outside my window. It got me thinking.

Every fall, songbirds which have stopped singing during high summer start up again, briefly, to sing for a few weeks before weather gets cold. A discussion several years ago on a local birding list concluded that nobody knows for sure why birds sing in autumn -- are they confused about the weather and think it's spring again, hoping for a last fling before the cold weather sets in, or what? There's a a wonderful ditty about it, "The Autumnal Recrudescence of the Amatory Urge", apparently written in the 1970s by Susan Stiles.

It's too early in the year right now for autumnal anything -- it's still quite warm. But lying there in bed listening to the exploratory notes of a bird clearly not yet confident in his song, I got to thinking about how birds learn their songs.

In most birds it's not innate: young male birds learn singing while still nestlings from listening to their father sing, much like human babies learn the rhythms of their native language from hearing their parents talk; and if you raise a songbird in a nest of another species, they will often learn the wrong song, or end up with some hybrid song that doesn't attract females of either species. (A good overview: The Development of Birdsong on Nature.) More recently, there have been all sorts of interesting studies on how young birds learn their local dialect, since a species' song varies quite a bit from one location to another.

But ... not all birds sing much once the eggs are laid, do they? They sing their hearts out while acquiring a territory and trying to attract a female; but once nesting starts, I don't remember hearing much activity from the house finches. Mockingbirds are an exception: I've seen mockers singing day and night even after they're feeding nestlings, though not all male mockers are quite so industrious. But I thought most species stopped singing much once the nest was built and eggs laid.

But if that's true, when do the young males learn their songs? Even if the father does sing a little, off and on, while the nestlings are being raised, that's not very much time to learn. Suppose the adults started singing again in the fall before the family disperses. Wouldn't that be an advantage to the young males who are just learning their songs? If a fledgling, off the nest and mostly able to care for himself, is "babbling", trying exploratory notes while learning what sounds he can make, wouldn't it be helpful to have a few nearby males who occasionally burst into song even if it's out of season?

Maybe the "Autumnal Recrudescence" isn't birds being confused about the weather at all. Maybe it's an evolutionary aid to help the young birds crystallize their songs before heading into their first winter. By singing in autumn, the males help their sons crystallize their songs for the next year, which helps the sons be more successful when it's time to look for a mate next spring.

Just a theory ... but I think it makes some sense, and I'll be listening to this autumn's chorus with new interest.

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[ 11:57 Aug 18, 2013    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Wed, 07 Jul 2010

Huge brood of wild turkeys at Rancho San Antonio

[Wild turkey chicks scuffling] Late last week in the field next to the parking lots at Rancho San Antonio we had a chance to watch a wild turkey family foraging in the dry grass. Two adults and twenty chicks -- that's quite a brood!

Two of the chicks got into a scuffle and kept it up the whole time we watched them. The adults didn't seem interested, but some of the other chicks gathered round to see what was going on.

Photos: Wild turkeys.

Meanwhile, in other nature news, the hot weather has brought the odd unidentified chlorine smell back to the redwood forests. On the weekend, when we were having 90-degree days, the smell was very noticable around Purisima and El Corte de Madera, and on a few parts of Highway 9. Today, though the weather is cooler, the smell was everywhere on the Skyline trail at the top of Sanborn. Still no idea what's producing it.

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[ 20:23 Jul 07, 2010    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Fri, 30 May 2008

The falcon, the owl and the chickadees

We went for a little afternoon walk at RSA yesterday. I was out of the car and waiting for Dave when I saw motion out of the corner of my eye and heard a thump! of something hitting the ground a few feet away. Maybe something fell out of that tree? It sounded like it fell right ... there ... what's that? It looks almost like ... a bird? But why would a bird fall out of a tree? Is it dead?

And then the bird came to life, stretched its wings, and turned into a kestrel that exploded off the ground and flew away. I never did see if it caught whatever it was after, but I'm happy to have had the chance to see the little falcon make a strike so close to me.

[small owl, maybe a young screech owl?] Later, on the trail, a spotted towhee burst out of a tree and flew past us. Then a small woodpecker emerged from the same cluster of branches the towhee had just left. As we drew nearer we could hear quite a commotion up in the branches ... a dozen or more small birds, mostly chickadees, chattering and darting in and out like bees around a hive. It seemed centered on ... that unmoving spot there ... wait, doesn't it look a bit owl-shaped to you?

I snapped a few pictures, but none of the small owls in the bird guides have a facial pattern like this. It was smaller than a screech owl, but young screech owl is still my best guess.

[bullfrog] And as long as I'm posting nature pictures, the bullfrogs are back at the Walden West Scum Lake. Just floatin' there, though ... they weren't making any noise or moving around.

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[ 23:18 May 30, 2008    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Mon, 12 May 2008

Oak wants to be a quail, or maybe a wren

[young mockingbird who thinks he's a quail or a wren] The young mockingbird fledgelings have decided they like us. Oak in particular took a liking to our backyard, and particularly the lawn. It seems he wants to be a quail when he grows up: he loves to run (not hop) around the yard, and flies only when threatened (though once he gets going, he flies quite competently). When he's not being a quail he practices being a wren, cocking his tail up the way wrens do. I managed to get couple of pictures of Oak.

Cedar likes the backyard too, but stays above ground in the chinquapin or the orange tree. In the evenings, they sing a duet, somewhat lower EEPs from Cedar and higher ones from Oak (Oak can sing two notes, but when Cedar's singing Oak takes the soprano line). Holly remains in the front yard, a distant third EEP. [goldfinch and two house sparrows at the thistle sock]

Meanwhile, I've finally managed to attract some goldfinches to the thistle sock hanging outside the office window. Photos (not good ones) here.

Update: Oak continued to play quail in the backyard for the next week, gradually spending more time flying and less time EEPing for his parents. The turning point was when Oak and Cedar discovered the sweet petals of the guava tree's flowers. It takes some flying skill to get into a guava tree: you have to hover a bit while you pick your entry spot, then power your way in. The chicks begged their parents to get them guava petals, but when the petals didn't materialize fast enough they got motivated to improve their flying skills to get their own petals. By May 22 they were pretty much fending for themselves, emitting an occasional half-hearted EEP but mostly foraging for themselves. I see them both most evenings, but I never see three chicks at one time; I may have been wrong about there being a third chick, though it certainly seemed that way on that first day.

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[ 21:46 May 12, 2008    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Thu, 08 May 2008

Feeding Fledgelings

After I wrote about the mockingbird fledgelings the other day, someone asked me how long the parents keep feeding them. I checked past blog entries -- that year they fledged on June 25, were still being fed on July 10 and were still EEPing but no longer being fed on July 20. A little over two weeks.

Two of this year's chicks, who fledged four days ago, can fly pretty well now for short bursts, but they tire very quickly and can't stay up for a long flight.

Just now, at sunset, Oak (I'm naming them for to the trees they ended up in when they fledged) flew from the oak over to the back porch roof and spent ten or fifteen minutes begging from there, in nice view of my office window. He was EEPing louder than the other chicks, and both parents were feeding him as fast as they could find bugs. Oak is as big as a towhee, and fat and fluffy, with a spotted breast and a short stubby tail less than two inches long. He still has some of that scrowly wide yellow bill that says "Feed me, mama!"

At one point a parent showed up with a pyracantha berry, but Oak was already being fed. The parent tried a little squawk, maybe to see if Cedar wanted anything, but almost dropped the berry in the process. So with an air of "oh, what the heck!" it swallowed the berry.

Then Cedar started crying from the chinquapin (or whatever the weird tree in the backyard is) and drew the parents' attention away from Oak. After another few minutes of fruitless eeping Oak decided to get some of that action and joined Cedar. Then they both flew down to the lawn, where for the first time I could see both at the same time. Cedar is a lot slimmer than Oak, but with a longer tail, maybe half the length of an adult's.

Oak was in the wildflower bed, actively hunting for food and occasionally finding something to swallow, though I don't have a lot of confidence that they were insects rather than dirt clods. Cedar wasn't hunting for food very actively, but took a few desultory pecks at the pavement and once picked up and swallowed something (a piece of a leaf, I think). Every now and then one parent would glide in from the front yard, and whichever chick noticed it first and eeped would get fed.

I haven't seen Holly today. I thought I heard some eeping from the direction of the holly in the front yard, but never definitely located the third chick.

The evening wore on, though, and the chicks have found trees to roost in for the night and have finally stopped eeping. Mom is taking a well-deserved break while Dad sings the family a lullaby.

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[ 22:00 May 08, 2008    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sun, 04 May 2008

Chicks everywhere

It's definitely spring now! The air is filled with the cheeping of baby birds demanding feeding.

I thought we didn't have a nesting mockingbird pair this year, because there's been almost no singing. I've heard chicks cheeping from the yard across the street, but nothing in our yard.

Until today, that is. This morning, there's a mocker chick in the holly tree in the front yard and another one in the red oak in the back yard, both making noisy demands to be fed. The parents are having a hard time, between hunting and flying back and forth between the two chicks.

The chicks are staying too high up for any good photos, but they're easy to see in binoculars. They're a bit bigger than house sparrows, but still very baby-like, with short tails, fluffy spotted downy chests and big wide yellow bills. They can flutter from branch to branch pretty well, but aren't comfortable going farther than that, especially on this windy morning. I wonder if the wind explains how the two fledgelings ended up in trees so far apart?

(Update a couple of days later: turns out there are actually three chicks. One of them is confident enough to fly in the open and perch on power lines; the other two haven't moved from their respective trees.)

I'm hearing lots of California towhee pings, too (they make a noise like a submarine sonar ping) and there's a towhee pair foraging more actively than usual in the garden, so I'm pretty sure there are some towhee chicks somewhere nearby, getting ready to fledge.

After watching the fledgelings in the yard for a while, I decided to take a peek at some Peregrine falcon webcams. The IndyStar falcon-cam is easy -- two views to choose from, and it pops up a window with an image that refreshes every 30 seconds. Works everywhere. The San Jose falcon-cam is a lot trickier, since their page is loaded with elaborate "pop up the Microsoft Windows Media Player plug-in, and if you don't have that, you're out of luck" code. But Sarah and I and some folks in #linuxchix worked it out a few months ago before there was much to see: it's actually a Realplayer stream, which realplay itself can't play but vlc sometimes can: vlc rtsp://bird-mirror.ucsc.edu/birdie-sj.sdp

It doesn't work every time -- I have to try it five or six times before I get anything. I'm told that this is a common problem -- RTSP streams are notorious for having problems with NAT, so if you're anywhere behind a firewall, keep cheeping with vlc and eventually the server will feed you some falcon images.

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[ 13:24 May 04, 2008    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]

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