Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Unexpected Hummingbird

UPDATE: we have heard back from a hummingbird bander who has identified the bird as an immature male Rudy-throated hummingbird. Hope he has survived the recent cold weather and this was jsut a refueling stop on his way to warmer climes. It's been a great experience learning more about hummingbird identification.

This past weekend my wife saw a hummingbird in our back yard. It is exceedingly late for our normal ruby-throated hummingbirds to still be migrating through. So maybe it is one of the selasphorus genus that sometimes winter on the east coast. But we are struggling to come up with a definitive identification. Any thoughts are most welcome and I'll post updates as we get them. So far we have a a few people suggest that it is a late ruby-throated, and at least one thinking it is a rufous hummingbird.

Here is my wife's write-up and thoughts on what species it might be.

Here is what we noticed:
-buffy wash on sides, meeting in a line across the chest
-grayish spotting on throat; together these give an impression of a double necklace
-back is all green with no observable rufous
-did not get views of splayed tail; no rufous on closed tail; upperside of closed tail gives consistent impression of a white terminal band with a black band above it.
-tail is longer than wings, but just a little bit
-bill is yellow - just kidding - it's covered in a thick coating of pollen, really pretty cute!
-face pattern has white chin and dark above that: white spot behind eye, dark smudge in front of eye, dark smudge behind/below eye, no white above the gape
-apparent dark streaks on green head, but we think this is no so much a field mark as the dark spaces between the feather tracts, since the bird seemed to be holding its crest feathers erect the whole time
-two thin lines of yellow or buffy above and behind the eye.  Again, not sure if this is actually a field mark (some selasphorus have an "orange" eyebrow line) or just more pollen

But what species (or even genus) is it?  Our field guides do not show any dark marks on the throat for a ruby-throat, but then looking online, I did see some photos of immature males with it.  Apparently this can be the immature gorget feathers just beginning to come in.  No rufous coloring seems to suggest it is not Allen's or Rufous, but apparently it can be hard to see on some individuals.  The tail has us really stumped; all the selasphorus (and ruby-throated too) have white on some of the outer tail feathers but not the central feathers.  In images I can find of selasphorus, at least some dark shows at the terminal end of the middle of the tail.  The only images I can find with the appearance of an all-white terminal band are ruby-throats.  I don't know if this is because the outer tail feathers are longer than the inner ones, maybe?  On the other hand, images of ruby-throats seem to have the tail sticking out farther compared to the wingtips than on this individual.  The relatively shorter tail seems better for immature Rufous or Allen's (or even Calliope, which would also be consistent with lack of rufous on the back, but in that case the tail is supposed to be actually shorter than the wings).  The face pattern does not have the extra white above the gape that a Calliope should have, but the white behind the eye and dark in front appears to be common to all of these species.  An expert could probably tell more by size, shape and bill length, but we are not experts, with very little experience identifying hummers, so help would be much appreciated!
More photos at http://www.pbase.com/gbheron/2014_hummingbird. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Black-and-yellow argiope

While it is not uncommon to see these black-and-yellow argiope spiders in our yard, this past weekend I found this quite large one buried in amongst our ginger lilies. While I didn't stick a ruler in there, the spider must have been close to an inch and a half in body length.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Unusual Chincoteague Sightings

This weekend I had to make a short trip up to Philadelphia. I left there early Sunday morning and had time to stop by Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. For late July, there was a lot going on there; and I don't just mean the crowds looking for ponies. This coming week is the annual pony swim and I guess the crowds are starting early.
But anyways, the birding was good too. Since it wasn't planned as a birding trip, I didn't have the spotting scope with me; but, I did have my camera and binoculars. So many of the birds were just too far out of reach. I concentrated on getting pictures of those kind enough to be close to the edges.
In the second pool on the north side of Beach Access Road I saw a dark ibis in the distance. Glossy ibis wouldn't be unusual this time of year. So that's what I thought. But I took a picture anyways just to document the sighting. Well, when I got home I saw an email on the va-bird listserv that a white-faced ibis was being seen at Chincoteague and it was the only dark ibis that that group had seen today. So I pull up my picture and what do you know? A white-faced ibis.
The image isn't that good but you can definitely see the white on the face.

I had also stopped at the Tom's Cove visitor center. I was going to go in and see if anything unusual had been reported and look around but I scanned the birds on the exposed flats first. And I'm glad I did. In among a lot of common terns and black skimmer was this smaller, all dark bird. A little study and a photo confirmed it was a black tern.
 Again, not a pretty picture but definite proof. I could see a photographer behind these birds next to one of the beach parking lots (P-1). So I skipped the visitor's center and drove around to the beach hoping to get a better photograph. I was definitely closer but I couldn't find the black tern again. Most of the rest of the terns were still there so just bad luck this guy flew. The other photographer had also seen it but then was focused on a bird much further out (he had a much larger lens).
There will be more to come from this trip as I got some good photographs of egrets and the black skimmers skimming. But I wanted to get these out while they were hot.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Sunny with a chance of ...?

Sunday here was a nice, sunny day. Just like the weatherman predicted, nary a cloud in the sky and temperatures in the low 80's. I had been working in the yard making some cages to protect our plants from deer and was just walking back toward the house. I looked up, as birdwatchers are apt to do, and saw a large but odd-looking bird flying towards the house. It took a second to realize it was a bald eagle. It was diving down towards the top of the house with wings fully spread and talons out.
Now, I feel back about this with it almost being Independence Day here and the Bald Eagle is out national symbol, but eagles aren't the kindest of birds. They enjoy themselves some good carrion and aren't afraid to take something another bird has caught.
And back in the yard, as I'm watching the eagle come in, clearly trying to intimidate someone. That someone was an Osprey. I saw it appear out from behind the house and they both quickly disappear behind some trees as they head down the street.
So I continue on around the house to where my wife is working in the garden to see if she saw any of this. When I walk around the house she is standing out by the street looking up at the house. Thinking something unusual had happen I ask what she is looking for. And here is her side of the story.

I was in front of the house weeding when I was startled by a sound like a thump.  I realized I'd been hearing an osprey calling excitedly but had been too focused on what I was doing to pay attention to it.  So, looking up and seeing the osprey flying away wasn't too much of a surprise, but the eagle right behind it, only maybe 15 or 20 feet above the roof of the house was a pretty cool sight.  Then, a red-tailed hawk rocketed down towards the eagle screaming all the way.  Three different raptors in one sighting, very cool.  But what was the thump?  Bryan hadn't heard it from the backyard but it had sounded really close, like something hitting the house.  I had an inkling of what it might be, but we were both pretty incredulous....  Still, Bryan got out the ladder and I went up on the porch roof to take a look.  Sure enough, there was a foot-long fish in the rain gutter!  If I hadn't seen it happen, I never would have believed it.  Good gracious, what if we hadn't seen it?  How many days of enduring the stink every time we went in and out of the front door would it take before anybody would think to look in the rain gutter for a dead fish!

My field guides to fish did not include a chapter on gutter fish. But some poking around suggested that it was probably Atlantic menhaden. It was commonly used in pre-Colonial times as fertilizer. [Side Note: it is now a major commercial fish used for Omega-3 tablets and fertilizer.] So we buried the fish in our veggie garden. If the raccoons leave it alone, we'll see if the plants in that area grow larger.

Monday, May 5, 2014

First vernal pond mapping

This afternoon I took some time off work and joined the Peninsula Master Naturalists mapping and monitoring vernal ponds at Newport News Park. This was the first time I had been able to join since we got our monitoring permits. Seven of us trekked out today trying to beat the rains. When we pulled up to the planned trail head there was a park ranger and animal control person already there. Apparently there was a lost dog in the area. So we headed back to another entrance.
The last time the group had been in this area they had run out of time before finding the end of one of the larger ponds. So that is where we started. We also took some water samples to see what was in there. The first pond had some tiny fish in it. It also was being fed by a drainage ditch so may not actually qualify as a vernal pond. But we did find some american toad tadpoles.
At the second pond we found a few more tadpoles but also a lot of water insects. The coolest for me was a little red worm.

Some other views of the ponds and insects we found.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Vernal Pool Training

This weekend I did my first serious Master Naturalist training. A large group from my local chapter went to learn about vernal pools in preparation for a research project we are starting. Vernal pools are temporary pools that usually form during winter and spring rains and then mostly, or totally, dry out during the summer and fall. This cycle prevents fish from taking hold; thereby, reducing the number of predators on the amphibians that use the pools to breed. This makes vernal pools key habitat for a number of species. Locally, the common amphibians in vernal pools are the spotted and marbled salamanders. These pools also hold frog eggs and tadpoles, and the larvae of many insects.
Training started with an introduction to the ecology of vernal pools and the main species we would expect to find in them. We then headed out into the field to explore two pools. It was a beautiful day to be out. Probably the warmest day so far this year and most of us soon lost our jackets. 

At the first pool, Anne, our instructor, showed us several specimens in bottles of what we might encounter. All but one, the fairy shrimp, had been collected in the pools we were visiting.
Fairy Shrimp, not so common in the pools we will be monitoring

There was a wide range of weird creatures, mainly insects, that Anne showed us. There were crustaceans, a tiny freshwater clam, dragonfly larvae, midge larvae, and water beetles that live in the leaf litter at the bottom of the pools. After the showing us the bottles, Anne waded out into the pool and quickly found egg masses of the spotted salamander.

Anne, our instructor, collecting a salamander egg mass 
 As the eggs mature, a symbiotic algae appears. The algae photosynthesizes and produces oxygen which the embryo uses and expels carbon dioxide that the algae needs for photosynthesis.  This helps the growing embryos grow faster. Then in 2010, scientist discovered that the algae is actually in the embryonic cells where they photosynthesize and provide energy directly to the salamander cells. Making the spotted salamander the first vertebrate species known to have a photosynthesis symbiotic relationship. In the picture below the upper egg mass is several weeks old and has the algae already growing. The lower egg mass was probably laid in the last two weeks and the algae isn't apparent yet.

Spotted salamander egg masses; with and without symbiotic algae
 The spotted salamanders come to the pool during late winter on a cold, rainy night to mate and lay eggs. The males generally arrive first and set out little mounds of sperm on leaves or other debris. The female then follows and captures the sperm to fertilize her eggs which she then attaches to vegetation in the pool.

The egg masses are held in a very gelatinous mass. The one below probably has about 70-100 embryos.

In one of those ways that species vie for resources, the marbled salamanders come to the dried pools in late fall to lay their eggs so that their larvae emerge in the spring when the spotted salamanders are just coming to lay their eggs. In both species, the larger larvae will eat the smaller ones as they emerge. Below is a larval marbled salamander that we caught.

 At the second pool we came across frog eggs. They look like the salamander eggs but a bit smaller and the egg mass is much looser. As seen above, the salamander eggs stayed in a tight clump when picked up, the frog eggs almost "run" through your fingers.

 At this pool we also picked up a leech. The first I've ever seen.
A leech in the net is worth none on the leg
The leech really changed its body shape as it moved around. As shown in the net above, when still, it would pull itself tight together, sometimes almost becoming a ball. But when it would swim, it would stretch out to several inches long. The movie below shows it swimming around in a bag.

Also in this pool we find a newt, below, and several more insect larvae.

Our final find was a pair of leopard frogs that were surprisingly engaged with each other (snicker). They jumped out of the net onto Elisabeth's arm.

It was a quite interesting class and now I'm really looking forward to starting our project. More about that in a future post.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

San Luis NWR

California has been suffering from severe drought this year. When I spent a couple of weeks in the southern Bay region it was a topic every morning on the local news. Lucky for them, it did finally rain over the weekend that I was there. That made some small changes to my plans. I had heard a lot about the shorebirds and waterfowl that winter in the Central Valley. I had two locations as options for my weekend get away. The weather forecast was for several inches of rain to the north and only about an inch to the south. So I headed south to the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge complex. And then luck for me, the rain dropped off around noon on Saturday and stayed away for the rest of the weekend.

Here are a few of the shots from San Luis Refuge.

Although some of the ponds were rather dry due to the drought, these Northern Shovlers were abundant. These two were flushed by a passing Northern Harrier (also very abundant).

San Luis is a wintering spot for Sandhill Cranes. I came across this group of about 25 birds feeding in the grain fields. There were a lot of little battles between birds. Not sure if they were setting a pecking order or fighting over food.
There was a small pond near the entrance to San Luis that in the morning had a few Black-necked Stilts, like this one, and a Greater Yellowlegs.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

A Snowy Video

Finally we had a storm during the day this year. During the last few storms, the snow has all come once it is dark out so I got no videos of them. But this time it started around 1:00 pm local. There was still a few inches that fell over night but at least there is something.
The images were captured by my BirdCam on the time lapse setting. Then combined in Photoshop Elements.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A winter Storm

In coastal Virginia we don't normally get heavy snows. Two to three inches is enough to shut things down for the day like they did just last week. But yesterday a big storm formed off the coast and dumped significant snow on us. Something we see maybe every three to five years. The National Weather Service reports 8 inches near us and that is consistent with what we see. There were drifts that are probably pushing a foot or higher. The storm left the yard very pretty.

Early this morning the birds were out filling up to stave off the cold. The high today was only 24F; again something that we only see a few times a year. This White-throated Sparrow was picking seeds that had fallen on top of the snow.

In late morning we saw our neighborhood fox again. This is the third time this month we have seen it up in the main part of the yard. We had only seen a fox a couple of time prior to this year and back in the wooded area. The fox was too "sly" for me to get a good picture but here it is up on the sandbags that I use for flood protection when hurricanes hit. You can see the tail behind the ladder on the side of the shed.

My wife and I bundled up and went out for a walk in the yard. There were a lot of animal prints and I tried to get photos of them.
This is bird prints near the feeder. Obviously there has been a lot of activity today.

The birds were even wandering over the top of the barrel garden. This is the same barrel as in third photo above.

And here is an interesting one that I can't quite tease the story out of. There is a wing print to the left of the feet prints. This would suggest a bird, maybe a dove, trying to take off. But it is only on one side. And the foot prints continue on for quite a while with no more wing prints. So maybe it was just a single flap of the wings. But then there is a pair of small prints to the right that are unconnected to anything else. They differ from the main line of prints and there is nothing in front of or behind them. So maybe another bird landed her to harass the first? Maybe they are from different times and are unrelated? It will remain a mystery to me for now.

Below are the prints of the fox. These were made when we saw it run across the yard just before the picture of the fox tail above.

I was surprised by how deep the prints were. The go almost all the way to the ground. I would have expected the fox to be lighter than that.

And I wrap-up with a few pictures of the marsh. The first is the snow on the pier. The wind did some weird things and cleaned most of the snow off, or never let it accumulate in the first place, but not all of it.

And parts of the creek were frozen but not all of it. Surprisingly, the wider part was frozen, as was the small canal across from us. But the creek was free-flowing at our dock which is in between the frozen spots.

And then, in spots in the marsh where water runs, the snow had collapsed; presumably as the tide went out. It created some interesting visual patterns.

Monday, January 27, 2014

More unusual visitors

We have had a couple of almost reasonable weather days since the last snow storm and that has brought it's own group of unusual birds. Sunday as we were watching the birds come and go to the feeders, my wife noticed a Chipping Sparrow sitting on the bird bath. And then a second on the ground near the butterfly garden. And then another. And another. And another. I'm sure you are getting the picture by now. I ended up counting 20 Chipping Sparrows. And there might have been more as they barely stuck up above the grass and I probably missed some of them. Several White-throated  and Song Sparrows joined in the fun and the whole lawn and alive with their movement. And while scanning for more sparrows, Sharon saw a Woodcock sitting in the garden.  It was sitting for about 30 minutes but during that time it would occasionally start vibrating its body up and down without moving its head at all. It then started probing the garden dirt and stayed for at least another hour.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Winter visitors

For the past day we have had a winter storm come through. Forecasts as to its impact varied widely yesterday but we ended up with a modest 1-2 inches of snow over night. I had set up my time lapse camera in hopes of making a video of the storm. I was foiled on two fronts. First, the snow didn't start until after dark and second, when it did snow, some collected on the front of the lens and blocked the view. So there isn't even a picture of the yard after the snow fell.
But the storm did bring a load of birds to the backyard. There were almost 30 House Finches running back and forth between the shelter of the pine trees covered with vines and the feeder. It got so busy at times that I started a reservation system.
There were also a full range of sparrows. We had several of the typical White-throated and Song Sparrows plus a Swamp Sparrow, uncommon this far up in the yard. And a Chipping Sparrow; to the feeder, no less.

As the birds were preparing for the storm last night we had a visit by a pair of Northern Flickers.
This morning before breakfast we saw an Eastern Red Fox walking through the back of the yard. It wandered to one side and back to the other, then towards the way back of the yard and then back down the path. Later in the day we went out and could see the prints left in the snow.
And when we continued our walk out into the marsh we had a yard-first: a pair of Eastern Meadowlarks.