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Hidden Beauty

Nightjars, also known as goatsuckers, rank pretty high up on the list of birds with unusual or silly names (other strange favs include Bushtits, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, and the tiny Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet).  One April my wife and I were on a beautiful Texas Gulf Coast beach.  Most people were sunning themselves in their swimsuits or splashing in the waves, but we were studying some distant seabirds through our telescope.  A woman came by and asked us what we were looking at.  I replied absently “Brown Boobies,” at which point she shot me this really disgusted look and stalked off.  By the time I realized what she must have been thinking, she was gone down the beach.

Anyhow, back to nightjars.  We have a number of different species in the US (including Whip-poor-wills, Chuck-will’s-widow, and various Nighthawks), but the only one commonly found in Texas in the winter is the Common Pauraque.  Pauraques, like other goatsuckers, are active at night – mainly feeding on insects.  During the day they find a place to roost on the ground, usually in or near some brush or undergrowth.  Of course, sleeping on the ground during the day can be highly hazardous to one’s health, particularly if you are a plump, tasty-looking Pauraque.  So they have evolved an incredible camouflage to blend in with the forest floor.

Here’s a shot of a Pauraque hiding from me in plain sight (from Estero Llano State Park).  Can you spot it?

Pauraque Hiding

Pretty tough to see, huh?  It was sleeping less than five feet from the trail, yet I totally missed it from this vantage point.  Ok, there are a few distracting sticks in the way.  Here is a less obstructed view:

Pauraque Hiding1

The Pauraque doesn’t blend in quite as well from this angle, and you probably saw it there on the left side of the photo.  With this in mind, can you go back to the first photo and find it now?

Here’s a close-up showing the exquisite plumage details.  Amazing.  I was careful to stay on the main path so as not to flush this sleeping beauty.

Common Pauraque

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Flammulated Wowl

Readers of this blog know that I have been able to capture photos of a great many owls this year, and that the photos themselves are often ridiculously bad.  The owl is usually underexposed, blurry, mostly hidden inside a tree, or largely obscured by branches.

Well, get a load of this beauty.

Flammulated Owl

This is a Flammulated Owl, so named for the ‘flame-like’ markings near the eyes (ok, use your imagination a bit!).  It’s about 6 inches long, and weighs about 2 oz (half the weight of the Least Grebe Quarter-Pounder).  Normally they winter in southern Mexico and points south, and come north to breed in summer in the Ponderosa pine forests of the American Mountain West.  In 15 years of birding, I’ve only see one other one – and that was at 3am along a deserted forest road in central Washington miles and miles from nowhere.  They are one of the most difficult North American owls to see.

This one is hanging out in some bushes, about 100 yards from the beach on South Padre Island.  What’s it doing here?  I didn’t have a clue.  Until I hung out on the beach myself for a bit … and then I began to see the appeal.

Flammulated Owl

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The Lower Rio Grande Valley

The Lower Rio Grande Valley is a thin strip of green that runs for 100 miles or so along the Rio Grande River through Mission, McAllen, Weslaco, and ending at the Gulf of Mexico near Brownsville and South Padre Island.  It’s not really a valley – it’s more like the ancient floodplain of the Rio Grande.  Of course these days the river has been penned in by a series of levees and water is removed for irrigation, so there aren’t typically seasonal floods anymore.

Still, the Rio Grande provides life-sustaining water to this otherwise dry region, which is one reason why it is so productive for birds (and for agriculture).  There are many places along the Lower Valley that you can walk along the Rio Grande, like this spot in Bentsen State Park.

Rio Grande at Bentsen

The birds here are a mix of wintering species who spend the breeding season much further north, and also tropical species from Mexico and Central America who reach the very northern edge of their distribution here.  Birds like Green-winged Teal and Cooper’s Hawk can be found at various times throughout much of the US and Canada:

Green-winged Teal

Cooper's Hawk

But the Valley also holds many species that are rarely or never found further north, like Least Grebe – the smallest grebe in the world:

Least Grebe

Weighing in at only 4 oz, you could put the whole thing on a bun and call it the Quarter-Pounder Grebe Sandwich.  People would probably complain, though.

My other favorite Valley birds include some colorful and charismatic ones, like Green Parakeets, Green Jays, and Great Kiskadees:

Green Parakeets

Green Jay

Great Kiskadee

I also love the many great expanses of nature that have been preserved in the Valley, from small spots like the Frontera Audubon Thicket to much larger tracts like Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge and Bentsen State Park.  Crossing the rope bridge between the hawk towers at Santa Ana with the tropical forest cloaking me on all sides always makes me feel a little like Indiana Jones.

Santa Ana Hawk Tower

You can hear the Chachalacas screaming their name at dawn, before they venture out of the brush to say hello.  Anyone who has seen both the movie Jurassic Park and also real-life Chachalacas can’t help but notice these little critters behave exactly like mini-Velociraptors.


I’m pretty sure these Chacha’s would tear me to shreds and gobble me up if they could.  It’s an interesting reminder that birds are basically the living descendants of the dinosaurs.

Other highlights from my first few days in the Valley include ducks that perch in trees (Black-bellied and Fulvous Whistling Ducks),

Black-bellied Whistling-duck

A few rare birds, like this Clay-colored Thrush, the tropical cousin of your backyard American Robin,

Clay-colored Thrush

Sleeping Yellow-crowned Night-Herons,

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

And a panoply of cool butterflies and other insects, all of which I remain blissfully ignorant about both their identities and life histories.


Hey, one thing at a time, ok?


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Ridiculously Cold Pronghorns, Cacti, and Trogons

Yesterday I complained about how cold it was here in southern Arizona.  Mother Nature read my blog last night, and wrote a comment that said “You think THAT was cold?!  Just wait ’til tomorrow, sucka!”  Here’s what my thermometer read about half an hour after sunrise.

9 F

And I was in a warm part of town, apparently.  The guy on the radio said it was only 8 degrees.  My car engine did (finally) start, and I was on my way to the San Rafael Grasslands southeast of Patagonia.  The grasslands (and surrounding hills) are beautiful, but there weren’t many birds out.  Perhaps they were still in bed with the covers pulled over their heads.  I headed to a spot where Baird’s Sparrows had been reported the week before, but the only bird around was a Kestrel perched in the top of a tree.  Kestrels are bird-eaters, so all of the little sparrows had fled the area and it was otherwise deserted.

On the way back I passed a small herd of Pronghorns.  Pronghorns are sometimes called antelopes, but although they look a lot like real antelopes found in Africa and Asia, they are not closely related.  These are not introduced animals.  They are native to the Americas – endemic, in fact, to the western US and tiny adjacent pieces of Canada and Mexico.


The males develop impressive ‘pronged horns’ in the summer and fall, but they drop them in winter so none of the animals I observed had any horns.  They did display their amazing speed and leaping ability, however.


Leaving the Proghorns, I drove to Patagonia Lake State Park.  I originally intended to stay only an hour or so there, but I kept seeing good stuff and ended up spending most of the rest of the day there.  This Anna’s Hummingbird sat in a mesquite tree next to the Visitor’s Center and complained loudly that the sugar water in the hummingbird feeder was frozen solid.  

Annas Hummer

[Bonus question for my Honors Chem students: what is the freezing point of sugar water that contains 1 cup of sucrose dissolved in 4 cups of water?  The freezing point constant for water is 1.8 C*kg/mol and the density of sucrose is 1.6 g/mL.]

I meandered down by the lake, and was surprised by this stunning male Elegant Trogon.

Elegant Trogon

Trogons are fairly common in the canyons of southeastern Arizona in the spring and summer, but almost all of them retreat back to Mexico in the winter.  So this was a real treat.  The trogons I have seen in the past have been somewhat shy, but this bird seemed totally unconcerned with my presence.  He posed for quite some time so that I could get photos of his beautiful reddish-orange belly, brilliant yellow bill and eye ring, and bright green back.

Elegant Trogon2

And then he wanted to make sure I got a close-up of his coppery tail.  Do these iridescent green feathers make my butt look big?

Heading back to the car, I was taking pictures of cacti and some other plants.

Fruiting cactus

That’s when I found owl #11 for the year, a Western Screech-Owl.  They live in King County (where I live!), but I just haven’t managed to come across one in Washington state yet.  I scored a sleeping one in Arizona though, and here is the obligatory bad picture of the owl snoozing away in deep cover.

Western Screech Owl

I’m going to look for Thrashers tomorrow, and then maybe Nutting’s Flycatcher on my last day in Arizona.  Unless it’s below -15 F.  In which case I’m cranking up the heat and watching TV in bed.

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Emu Composting

I am taking full advantage of my sabbatical by spending as much time as possible on the Olympic Peninsula, one of my favorite places in Washington.  I love the wild confluence of the Olympic Mountains, the Hoh Rainforest, and the Salish Sea.  And all just a short ferry ride away from my home in Kirkland.

Near the Dungeness NWR north of Sequim, I ran into two more Tropical Kingbirds.  Are they more lost souls, or the vanguard of a coming Tropical Kingbird invasion force?  I’m betting on the former, although I will check to see if my insurance covers flycatcher damage.  Here’s one of today’s Tropical vagrants:

At Ediz Hook in Port Angeles, I watched shorebirds and seabirds as the sun set behind the mountains a little before 4pm.  Sanderlings (the lighter ones in the picture below) and Dunlin (the darker ones) fed nearby.  They are some of the most common sandpipers in the County in November.

Much more rare in these parts was this Rock Sandpiper that my wife spotted under the Pilot House:

This was a new bird for my Big Year, and one that I thought I’d have to drive back out to Ocean Shores to do some more jetty walking to see.  They had not yet arrived for the Winter when I was last at the Point Brown Jetty.

Finally, adding to my collection of unusual signs, I offer this one – seen near Hansville on the Kitsap Peninsula.  I have composted many things in my life: leaves, sticks, fir needles, vegetable peels, pizza boxes, and moldy jack-o-lanterns.  But I have never had the need to compost 6-foot tall Australian birds.  Now I know where to go when the need arises:

I wonder if they take Ostriches, too?



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The Mystery of the Diving Emerald-Hooded Quackaneer

Saturday’s brilliant afternoon sunshine lured me down to the Kirkland waterfront.  My kids were busy at a play date and a birthday party, so I had a few hours of fading daylight to wander through my local patch.  Many birders have a regular park or wildlife area that they visit frequently, observing how this familiar “patch” of land changes throughout the seasons.  While I don’t have an official patch, the place I visit most often (especially when I only have an hour or so free) is Juanita Bay Park (and nearby Juanita Beach Park) in Kirkland, about five minutes from my house.  This little green space hugging the shores of Lake Washington always has some interesting wildlife present.  It’s one of the best places near my house to see a Wood Duck:

Although not uncommon, Wood Ducks are often shy and retiring birds.  But the boardwalk between Juanita Bay Park and the adjacent Beach Park is a great place to see them, as they seem to have become accustomed to people walking through their habitat.  I almost never fail to see them there, often at close range, and they always make me smile.

There were many other species of ducks present on Saturday: small black and white Buffleheads, rafts of Scaup, and a couple hulking Canvasbacks.  And of course Mallards.  Mallards are almost an afterthought.  They are abundant throughout almost all of North America, and often quite tame.  They beg for bread at many small urban and suburban ponds, loaf in the puddles of parking lots, munch grass on the lawns of homes and office buildings, and paddle through the shallow water of roadside ditches.  Most birders don’t pay much attention to Mallards.  They are neither rare nor hard to see nor a challenge to identify.  I guess they are a bit like a piece of common granite to a rock hound, or a 2010 quarter to a coin collector – “I’ve seen a million of ’em.”

Of course, if you’ve ever bothered to looked closely at a 2010 quarter, they are quite spectacular.  I used to be a small-time coin collector as a kid (mostly pocket change), and I love to study the new designs.  There are several different versions of the 2010 quarter, but here is the Mount Hood one (showing the reverse, image courtesy of the US Mint):

I think these quarters are quite beautiful, and worthy of appreciation – even if over 68,000,000 of them were minted, and they are only worth 25 cents each.

As with the new quarters, Mallards are spectacular and under-appreciated.  They are large and elegant ducks.  The male sports an iridescent green head that literally sparkles in the sunlight, a chestnut breast, golden bill, silver sides and back, and a cute curly tail.

The female is more understated, but she is a beautiful mottled brown with a flash of teal and white in the wing (this colorful wing patch, present in many ducks, is called the speculum).

Why do so many birders dismiss these gorgeous creatures as “junk birds”?  Why do so many people ooh and aah over Wood Ducks while ignoring nearby Mallards, which are almost as flashy and charismatic?  I suspect if Mallards were rare, or at least shy and hard to see, birders would pay them a lot more attention.  It would also help if they had a more exotic name, like maybe Emerald-hooded Quackaneer.  Wouldn’t you be a lot more interested in seeing the extremely rare and reclusive Emerald-hooded Quackaneer than the Mallard who comes to untie your shoelaces looking for a handout?

Anyhow, I was enjoying my walk in the park, admiring the Canvasbacks and ignoring the Mallards, when a duck that had been swimming underwater suddenly popped up next to me.  I did a double take.  And then a triple take.  It was a Mallard.  And with a small leap forward it disappeared again under the surface of the lake.  I was a bit dumb-founded.  This was no ordinary Mallard.

To explain my confusion, it helps to know that birders often separate ducks into two convenient groups: dabblers and divers.  Dabbling ducks usually forage by working their way along the surface, munching on floating plant matter and small invertebrates.  Or they use their feet to tip their heads and necks under the surface, leaving their rear ends bobbing high in the air.  Diving ducks, as their name suggests, submerge themselves completely using their feet to propel themselves under the water in search of plants and small animals.  David Allen Sibley, in his terrific book The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, shows a diagram (from page 197):

Mallards, as shown in Sibley’s diagram (the middle duck), are dabblers.  You can see them feeding in their characteristic manner at your local pond or lake.  They look like this:

They are not divers.  They are dabblers.  My field guide says so.  In the class that I taught for Seattle Audubon last month, *I* said so.  Mallards don’t dive underwater.  Except, apparently, this one does.  The Mallard re-surfaced close by, and eyed me to see if I was hiding any bread in my coat.  “Mallards don’t dive underwater,” I informed him.  He responded by jumping back under the water.  This was not a quick dip; he stayed underwater for at least 10 seconds, going down several feet.  I whipped out my iPhone, suddenly realizing that I should capture this amazing moment on video.  I can’t embed video on this blog, but I did upload a short clip to youtube.  The quality isn’t great, in part because I cleverly used one fat finger to cover half of the lens – but you can see the video of the incredible diving Mallard here.

When I got home, I researched the matter a bit more.  Several reference books said things like “Mallards typically feed at the surface, and only very rarely dive underneath the water.”  Very rarely, huh?  I have watched birds pretty seriously now for about 13 years, and I’ve never seen a diving Mallard before.  Is this a one-in-a-million event?  Or is it an uncommon but regularly occurring one, an event that I arrogantly ignored because I wasn’t paying attention to the lowly Mallards?  Perhaps it is the former, and I should feel very lucky to have witnessed such an extraordinarily rare and unusual behavior.  But I’m actually betting on the latter.  In any event, the diving Mallard was an instructive reminder that amazing things are all around us, if we just take a minute to actually notice them.


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Crex Meadows

Wisconsin!  It’s not all cow pastures and cheese making.  I’m up in northwest Wisconsin to spend a few days at Crex Meadows state wildlife area.


Some people call this area the “pine barrens” – which is a rather unfortunate term.  It’s far from a barren landscape – the area is filled with shallow ponds, wet meadows, marshes, and stands of trees.  Marsh birds love it!  I counted over 60 Wood Ducks and over a dozen Trumpeter Swans today.


The weather has been unsettled, with clouds, showers, and thunderstorms.  It has made for some dramatic lighting, though.


I met the little guy below on the side of the road.  He’s a Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel, and he was munching on some grass seed.


This area is called Crex Meadows, and it gets its name from a type of native wire grass (Carex stricta).  In fact, in the early part of the 20th Century, there was a huge carpet-making factory here that used this wire grass to make carpets.

Swans are a real highlight of summer on the refuge.  Here are a couple of them floating on one of the many shallow lakes.  The black and white smear on the left of the picture near the top is a Black Tern on fly-by just as I snapped the photo.


On the way back to my hotel (in downtown Siren, WI – population 187), I passed this Bald Eagle perched on an old sign in a field.  It was a bit of an odd sight for someone who is used to Bald Eagles perching in 100-ft Western Hemlocks, snagging fish out of Puget Sound, and soaring past Mt. Rainier.  This fella was just chillin’ in the middle of this marshy swamp.


More from Crex tomorrow!

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Passing Through the Twin Cities

Driving back from the prairies, I stopped by the Twin Cities to do a little more birding and spend the night.  I’m headed to Wisconsin, but since there’s only one of me I decided to break up the driving.  Besides, it gave me a chance to stop at one of my favorite parks in the Twin Cities area, Murphy-Hanrehan.  I love this place.  It has great trails through fields, forests, and along the shores of a lake.  I spent a couple hours in the evening and the next morning exploring. 


Henslow’s Sparrow and Cerulean Warbler were the avian highlights.  I also stopped to watch this turtle dig a hole and lay some eggs.


This morning I also spent some time at Falls Creek State Natural Area, which was just beautiful.  The running creek and the abundant bird song made for a magical soundtrack to my walk through the woods.  I also saw Louisiana Waterthrush, Acadian Flycatcher, and a mama (or daddy) Wood Thrush feeding a begging baby.


Heading east, I came to the mighty Mississippi River at the Minnesota-Wisconsin border.


The geology of this area is just incredible.  Those of you back in Washington state might be familiar with glacial lake Missoula, and its role in creating ice age era flows that carved and sculpted the landscape of Eastern Washington (e.g. Dry Falls, for one spectacular example).  Ancient Minnesota also was glaciated (most recently about 12,000 years ago) – with glacial lake Duluth serving a somewhat similar role here in MN/WI.  As the glaciers melted, the resulting ginormous floods carved out many unique geological features here, including these potholes – also called giant’s kettles.  The potholes are deep round depressions (up to 30 feet across) carved in the rock due to the action of the water at the bottom of a glacial river.  When these enormous rivers surged past giant boulders, eddies and whirlpools formed in the wake.  These eddies over time carved out circular depressions in the soft sandstone. 


Some of them are large enough to climb down inside!


On to Wisconsin!  Next: Crex Meadows…


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