Friday, February 22, 2013

Berkeley Burrowing Owl (Lifer!) and a White-tailed Kite

I saw my first-ever burrowing owl last weekend, finally, in Berkeley, California, while visiting my family there. There is a popular bayside park where a few come each winter, even though they are just a few yards from where people and dogs regularly walk and run.

The area is chained off from visitors during owl season (I believe it's roughly October to April). Signs advise viewers not to watch too long, which stresses the owls, nor to point at them, which might alert raptors. The area is riddled with ground squirrel burrows, which are just what burrowing owls like, though they are also apparently quite capable of digging their own holes.

The photo below shows the setting. It's not really what you'd expect, is it? -- although actually, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, burrowing owls are notorious for showing up on golf courses, air fields, college campuses and other open grassy areas quite close to human activity. One even tried to take up residence on a cruise ship's mini-golf course a couple of years ago.

The little owl (they stand only about 8 to 9 inches high) is barely visible as a pale speck in front of a boulder close to dead center in the photo above. Can you see it? (Click on it to see it bigger.)

At the same park, we saw a beautiful white-tailed kite, which I've seen here before, perhaps the very same bird, as described as a highlight of the birds I saw in 2011:
My first white-tailed kite, seen hovering over dunes in a Berkeley, CA, bayside park in August -- a beautiful, medium-sized white hawk that at first I took to be yet another gull but whose hovering behavior caught my eye as something very different. This is a coastal bird, in the U.S. generally only to be seen along the west coast, the southern Texas gulf coast and the tip of Florida.

I wish these cropped photos were clearer, but though hovering the bird was still moving. The first time I saw it (presuming it's the same bird as in 2011, which of course it might not be), the dark tips to the wings and its raptor head helped me identify it. There is also a distinctive black spot near the bend in each wing, visible above.

The Cornell Lab describes the kite's distinctive hovering:
While hunting, the White-tailed Kite characteristically hovers up to 80 feet off the ground and then drops straight down onto prey items [almost entirely small mammals]. This ability to hold a stationary position in midair without flapping is accomplished by facing into the wind, and is so characteristic of these birds that it has come to be called kiting. White-tailed Kites also perform ritualized courtship displays in which a male offers prey to a female prior to egg laying. In an often spectacular aerial exchange, the female flies up to meet the male, turns upside-down, and grasps the prey.
The word kite, which nonbirders mostly associate with the colorful toys we fly on the end of long strings, was used for the bird first; the toy very likely got its name from the way it hovers like a kite. (See, e.g.,

I came to this park in August 2011 with my son, both of us keen to see the burrowing owls we had read were to be found here. (They can be found in a few places in the western prairies of Minnesota, at the eastern edge of their range except for some outliers in Florida, but they are a state endangered species according to the Minnesota DNR.) Sadly, we learned that we were there at the wrong season; we had no chance of seeing a burrowing owl in Berkeley in August. So when I had an opportunity to go again last week, I had to see if I could finally see my lifer burrowing owl. I hope my son gets to see his before too long.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Snowy Afternoon with Woodpecker

A downy woodpecker visited our suet log during the heaviest of Sunday's snow. I liked the image.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Birds with Their Mouths Full

The title of this blog post captures the theme of today's post about birds seen at our feeders last weekend.

As I noted in a recent post about the dark-eyed junco, juncos most often eat on the ground and aren't commonly seen at our hanging feeders. Last weekend I happened to capture this junco's visit to a snow-covered fruit-and-seed block. At this angle the bird appears to be straddling that cage and the nearby wreath-style feeder we use for peanuts in the shell. A sunflower seed is in its beak.

The lighting's not great on this photo of a white-breasted nuthatch, but I liked the face-on position and the half-peanut in its beak.

Here's a male cardinal with a sunflower seed.

It's interesting to watch the different ways birds get seeds and nuts out of their shells. Birds with heavier beaks that are suited to the task, like cardinals and finches, will hold the seed in their beak, manipulate it with the tongue to get it in just the right position to crack the shell between their upper and lower mandible, and then eject the shell halves while retaining the seed. Other birds, like the black-capped chickadee, will hold the seed between their feet and crack the shell by pecking at it until they can get the seed out. And nuthatches get their name from their habit of tucking a nut into a crevice in the bark of a tree and then hacking, or "hatching," it out.

I found a kid-friendly website that does a nice job of showing the various beak adaptations and corresponding eating styles, as well as a lot of other information about bird physiology and behavior: Project Beak (the link shows the "cracking" beak of cardinals, sparrows, grosbeaks and finches; there is a dropdown menu from Beaks on the side menu to see other beak styles). They also have a nifty Build a Bird feature, where you can select different styles of wings, heads, feet and habitats to put together a proper bird or one of your own invention. Here's mine:

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Pileated Sighting!

Just two days after writing in my previous post, "We've never seen a pileated woodpecker here," I saw one in flight this morning, probably no more than four blocks away, flying right over my head as I drove to work. Okay, it wasn't actually on our property or at our feeders, but there is hope. A friend who lives less than half a mile from me has reported seeing one regularly at her feeders as well.

How did I know I was seeing a pileated woodpecker in flight? Though I couldn't see the red crest on its head, it was virtually unmistakable: a large black bird (nearly as big as a crow) with a large white area bordered with black on the underside of each wing. Here's a nice video I found on YouTube. The bird I saw was flying overhead, not this low, but you can see the markings plainly, as well as the flap-glide pattern of flight I saw today.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Good Weekend for Woodpeckers

This weekend we saw a lot of woodpecker action at our suet feeders and in the big maple tree out front. Our new suet log is popular. We'd had a smaller one the last couple of winters, but it got chewed so much that one of the holes was completely open on one side. This one is much thicker and should be useful much longer.

Red-bellied Woodpecker - male

The first sighting that made me grab my camera was the red-bellied woodpecker (above) - always a beautiful and welcome sight for its large size and dramatic markings. This is a male; the female also has red on her head, but it doesn't extend all the way over the top of the head as it does here. (You can see a female I spotted a couple of months ago here.) This bird stayed around for a long time, visiting the suet occasionally but mainly spending time on an upright dead branch, or "snag," in the upper portion of the maple tree (below).

Red-bellied Woodpecker in tree

Look closely (click on any of the photos to see them larger) and you can see the signs of larvae leaving wormy trails across the wood. That's what the woodpeckers are after.

Let me put in a good word here for leaving dead branches, and even dead trees, in place, where it is safe to do so. In our world of tidy gardens, pristine lawns, and formal landscapes, dead branches or trees are often considered unsightly, and removed. This practice has reduced habitat for cavity-nesting birds, including woodpeckers as well as birds that make use of old woodpecker holes, like bluebirds. One of my resolutions this year is to learn more, and blog more, about gardening with wildlife in mind, sometimes called ecosystem landscaping. Shelter, water, native plants, a variety of natural food sources, and varied nesting habitat are important elements of bird-friendly gardens. If you think about the benefits provided by a dead branch or tree, you may consider it a beautiful part of your landscape. (Note, however, that increased woodpecker activity at an ash tree may be a sign of emerald ash borer infestation.)

Hole in tree -- made by whom? 

The photo above shows a large hole in a good-sized branch of the tree, located much lower than the snag shown above. We first noticed this hole after the leaves dropped this past fall. I'd estimate the hole is three or more inches high. I've tried to keep an eye on it this winter. It's not being used for nesting, of course, at this time of year, but it might certainly be used as a sheltered roosting spot, possibly by smaller birds than the one that excavated it. The only bird I've seen approach it and look in was a white-breasted nuthatch, for which the hole is a huge entry point. During the breeding season, leaves block our view of this branch, so I don't know if we'll learn whose nesting hole it is, although the the two larger woodpeckers we occasionally see here, the red-bellied and the hairy, would seem reasonable guesses given the size of the hole. We've never seen a pileated woodpecker here.

Hairy Woodpecker - female

Speaking of the hairy woodpecker, one showed up this morning. Hairy woodpeckers are about the same size as the red-bellieds, though they apparently have more size variability. They are very similar in appearance to the noticeably smaller and more commonly seen downy woodpecker.

This female (it has no red spot on the head) hairy woodpecker hung around for a while today, so I took advantage of the opportunity to look for clues that quickly tell a watcher that a bird is a hairy woodpecker rather than a downy, since size can be deceiving from a distance. The beak size is a standard distinguishing point -- the downy's beak is small and stubby, less than half as long as the bird's head is deep (from the base of the beak to the back of the head). The hairy's beak is markedly longer -- almost as long as the depth of the head. (The angle of the photos above and below don't show the beak's full length.)

Also, it's my impression that downy woodpeckers move like small birds, with quick, darting movements, while the hairy woodpecker moves in a bit more stately fashion, like the larger bird it is. You'd readily describe a downy woodpecker as "cute," while a hairy woodpecker is a bit more formidable looking. Also, the tail seems to me to give the impression of greater prominence in the hairy. The Cornell Lab describes hairies as having "a somewhat soldierly look, with their erect, straight-backed posture on tree trunks and their cleanly striped heads."

Hairy Woodpecker - female

The suet log is a good point of reference for size. In the two photos above, you can see that the hairy woodpecker covers just about the distance from the top of one suet plug to the top of the one directly below it, a distance which is about four suet-plug diameters in height. In comparison, the downy, below, covers only about three suet plugs in height.

Downy Woodpecker - female

Except for a brief spell a few weeks ago, when we suddenly had a drop-off in birds visiting our feeders, a pair of downy woodpeckers have been regulars at our feeding stations for months. Below are a couple of close views I got of the male downy yesterday at a hopper-style feeder that has suet cages on the sides. He rested on the ledge, then approached the suet from the side. More commonly he and his mate fly directly to the suet cages -- usually, of course, the one we can't see from inside the house.

Downy Woodpecker - male

My friend Dan Tallman has pointed out that while downy woodpeckers tend to have black spots in the white outer tailfeathers, the hairy's outer tailfeathers are unspotted. Note a hint of a black spot on the outer white tailfeather, immediately above, in comparison to the all-white outer tailfeathers of the hairy woodpecker in the two photos earlier in this post. A better view of the tail (and beak) of the hairy can be seen in this post from August 2011, when a hairy visited the tube feeder right outside one of our windows.

Downy Woodpecker - male

It was definitely exciting to get good views of all three of these woodpeckers this weekend. There were even a few times when I could see all three at once. Now I know where to look for the red-bellied woodpecker at the snag near the top of the tree, perhaps I will notice him there more often.