29 March 2014


Cliff Swallows make their nests out of mud, in case you didn't know.  And that requires... well... mud:

And yeah, the first thing that came to mind was "Dennis, there's some lovely filth down here!"

As they gather the mud with their bills, their wings are constantly fluttering over their backs:

... and although that doesn't really serve a direct purpose, it DOES keep their wings from dragging around in the mud all day:

I took this photo over in the foothills of Eastern Sacramento County the other day and I later presented it as a quiz bird to some on FB:

It was a huge success, all of 3 people in the whole world commented.  It's not a particularly easy quiz but if you noticed the tiny sliver of white showing on the tip of the tail, that would point you towards this common spring/summer resident, the LARK SPARROW:

This is the new Large-bodied Short-billed Hermit.  Or curious goldfinch at the hbird feeder:

The warmer days continue to float butterflies around.  Especially abundant right now are the PIPEVINE SWALLOWTAILS:

Here's a PAINTED LADY, another common species:

The ID of medium-sized sulphurs around here is made simple by the fact that Clouded Sulphurs don't occur here.  Thus, it's easier to throw around the ID of Orange Sulphurs, like this one:

At Nimbus Fish Hatchery, the omnipresent COMMON MERGANSERS are still going strong (they breed in this county).  Here's a rather striking male:

Digiscoping with my new setup isn't as easy as I thought it would be.  Either way, here's a picture taken with my iPhone handheld up to my scope (the bird is a SPOTTED SANDPIPER):

In terms of numbers these days, I've added a few county year birds here and there; most recent was HOODED ORIOLE that had probably just arrived in the last week.  So all in all, I'm at 174 this year here in Sacramento County.

25 March 2014

Sacramento blues.... yellows and oranges

I haven't ventured far from home lately but that hasn't stopped a variety of springs sightings from coming to me.

On a weekend visit to Cosumnes River Preserve, we picked up new arrivals such as BULLOCK'S ORIOLE and CASPIAN TERN.  Although not a new arrival, this SONG SPARROW was too busy counter-singing a nearby male that it paid absolutely no attention to me:

SWAINSON'S HAWKS have really been streaming by in the last week or two.  The most reliable place, I'm finding, is simply at home.  I've tallied 17 so far.

Speaking of sightings from home, I've tallied 54 species in the yard so far this month.  Some quick math and it looks like I average 16 species per day.  One of those, the RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRD, has been seen on 4 different occasions so far.  Here is a male from earlier today:

A quick check at William Land Park (up in Sacramento) yielded this hybrid NORTHERN FLICKER:

... and this WESTERN TANAGER.  This park has been fairly reliable for tanagers this winter which is quite unusual given that they're rare at that season:

Along with the temps reaching 80 degrees, I've been enjoying the emergence of more butterflies lately.  A common species, often seen floating around town, is the WESTERN TIGER SWALLOWTAIL:

Another widespread species but less than half the size of the swallowtail is the GRAY HAIRSTREAK:

This distant COMMON RINGLET was up in Gates Canyon this morning (Solano County):

However, the highlight in Gates Canyon this morning (besides hearing MOUNTAIN QUAIL calling from the hillside) was this PACIFIC ORANGETIP:

I believe today was the first time I'd ever seen one of these butterflies perched!


20 March 2014


I hinted towards a review of yet another Crossley Guide a while back and today just so happens to be the day.  Aren't YOU lucky?  "The Crossley ID Guide: Britain & Ireland", by Richard Crossley and Dominic Couzens, was published in 2014 by Princeton University Press.  It is 301 pages and costs $27.95.

Right-off-the-bat, I have no qualms with saying that this is my favorite Crossley so far (I'll get to the reasons for that a bit later on).

By now, most of you are probably familiar with the typical layout of these guides.  In short, many photographs of the same species are edited and pasted into a one-page layout.  The idea is to show the reader the many types of views one might expect.  For example, here's the layout for European Goldfinch:

So, naturally, you might expect to see a flock on a fence, on thistles, or on feeder poles.  Well, you get the idea.

Here in North America, we typically don't take shortcuts in labeling bird names.  In Britain, though, be prepared for labels like Goldfinch, Wren, Avocet, Greenshank, Nuthatch, Waxwing, etc. etc.  Of course, this is because they typically only have one of those kinds present.  However, our American Avocets are American Avocets in our bird books too, even if we only have the one type.

In North America, we call birds in the Regulus genus "kinglets".  Not so in Britain.  Here's the text portion and range map for Firecrest:

I enjoy looking at the maps in this book, mostly because I'm so clueless as to what is where!  But, as you can see, they separate Ireland, Northern Ireland, England, Wales, and Scotland.

Oh yeah, what we call loons, they call divers:

You'll notice some numbers under the name and this is something I do like the idea of.  It first shows the estimated summer population of that species ("s") and then underneath it, it gives the estimated winter population ("w").  Even though they may be rough estimates, part of me wishes all bird books had those data on hand.

But back to the plates, here's another spread, this one for the Blue Tit, a relative of our chickadees:

Here's one to test your curlew skills:

The curlew on the right should look familiar, it's the Whimbrel, the same species we have in North America.  The curlew on the left, however, is the Eurasian Curlew.

Woah, I wouldn't mind seeing their Green Woodpecker!

I do say, I'd fancy myself a formal viewing arrangement of this dapper woodpecker along with my tea and crumpets:

Even though I've never seen a Redwing, I appreciated the chance to glance at a few here:

Cuckoos are easy there...

... because they like Cocoa Puffs:

Hmm, a Mediterranean Gull?  Cool beans.

You guys know I'm partial to shorebirds so it's no surprise that I find these plates a bit more interesting than the plates I'd find in Crossley's Eastern guide.  Here's the Ruff page:

... and the cattle.. errr... Wood Sandpiper page:

And even though there are multiple species of greenshank in the world, I'm perfectly at ease checking out a few details from that page:

Ok, so what do I think of the book?  Well, it's a Crossley ID Guide (see my previous reviews of these books for more thoughts).  The book intro says that it's geared towards beginners and intermediates, so remember that.

I DID say that this was my favorite Crossley ID Guide so far and that's true (bar height not specified).  See, I've never been to Europe and there is something distinctly more interesting in looking at birds you've never seen before.  Pick up an Asian bird book and flip through that for a while; pretty crazy, right?  Well, the same thing applies here for me; I liked it because I got to look at species I had never even heard of before.  I mean, Twites, Woodchat Shrike, Red-rumped Swallow, Crested Tits, Dartford Warblers, Montagu's Harrier, etc?

So, will I be taking this book when I finally go birding in Europe?  Well, no, obviously.  I MUCH prefer something... say... by Svensson, Mullarney, and Zetterstrom?  Yes, BUT, this might be a great starter book for a beginner or anyone who just wants to ogle some photos.

If you'd like to learn more about this book, visit the Princeton University Press website.

I received a complementary copy from the publisher for review purposes, 
but the viewpoint expressed in this article is entirely my own.

16 March 2014

Michigan Bar birds

We decided to enjoy the 82 degree spring day with a trip up to Michigan Bar Road in eastern Sacramento County.  The trip up the road wasn't overly productive but we did see 4 LEWIS'S WOODPECKERS amongst the oaks and a young GOLDEN EAGLE near the top of the grasslands.  On our way down, though, we stumbled onto an early WESTERN KINGBIRD:

This turns out to be tied for the third-earliest arrival date ever for Sacramento County (according to eBird).  This particular kingbird was feeding west of Michigan Bar Road, about 0.8 miles north from Hwy 16/Jackson Road.

Even closer to Hwy 16, we found a pair of MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRDS feeding on both sides of the road (this was only 0.1 mile north of Hwy 16).  Here's a crummy picture of the male (left) with a Say's Phoebe (right):

And here's the female:

Earlier in the day we birded at Sailor Bar along the American River in Sacramento.  Our goal there was to find BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER for the year and we luckily succeeded in finding two.  It was difficult to ignore the butterflies though; there were probably hundreds of PIPEVINE SWALLOWTAILS swarming the hillsides.  Included was this SILVERY BLUE:

... and this distant ANISE SWALLOWTAIL:

Now stop reading and get outside!

14 March 2014

Hummers of home

After we moved into our current place near Sacramento, I remember being ecstatic when we had hummingbirds at our feeders within an hour.  After all, it was late in the season and I honestly didn't know what to expect; back in the Midwest, where we moved from, hummingbirds obviously clear out during the winter.  Would they here?

I took a bunch of photos of that first hummingbird imagining it was a big deal; Anna's.  Turns out, Anna's Hummingbird is the most reliable species of bird BY FAR here in our yard.  Other species of birds, well, you have to wait until they fly by, or you hear them, or whatever.  But Anna's, they're staring us in the eye as soon as we open the blinds every single morning.  I'm honestly not sure if I've ever NOT seen them in a given day here but hey, I'm not arguing because the male is, well, a sharp looking bird:

In fact, we've been able to get up close and personal with our resident Anna's.  For example, here is the female on a nest visible from our patio.  Notice how she stuck bits of lichens to the nest for camouflage:

And later in the season, after the young have fledged, you might see a female feeding a youngster:

And yes, it turns out that they're year-round residents here so we get to enjoy hummingbirds for longer than anyone back in the Midwest (not to mention use more sugar than ever before).

I was happy to find that Anna's wasn't the only hummingbird species we would see at our urban patio.  For four summer months, Black-chinned Hummingbirds breed in the area and are regular visitors (although never quite as abundant as Anna's).  The quickest way to tell the difference between the females of these two species is simply by size; you'll notice right away that Black-chinned are NOTICEABLY smaller than Anna's and that they habitually pump their tails in flight.  You may not think of Anna's as being a macho hummingbird but they really are (at least away from Arizona; land of the giants such as Magnificent and Blue-throated).

Male Black-chinned:

Female Black-chinned:

Regarding their seasonality at our feeders, I've seen Black-chinned only between 18 April and 6 August.  We'll see if I can pull-back on the early date this spring.

There is another regular species that visits our feeders and this one is feisty, even smaller still, and recognizable at an instant.  Rufous Hummingbirds are SPRING-ONLY migrants here at my apartment.  Here's a male perched in the tree right off the patio:

You might wonder about the very similar Allen's Hummingbirds that are found in California; are those a possibility here?  Well, the short answer is "not really".  Ok, technically it's remotely possible but they generally stay to the west of us and I have yet to see one in the Central Valley.

So far, we've seen Rufous Hummingbirds at home only during a 55-day span between 13 March and 6 May.  In fact, that is the reason for this post, I photographed this female which passed through the yard the other day:

However, the biggest surprise for us was finding that Calliope Hummingbirds also migrate through!  And when they visit, man, what a stunner:

As far as I can tell, Calliopes are a spring-only migrant as well (I've seen them in the yard only between 15 April and 7 May).  I will certainly post if more come through this spring.

So there you have it, a quick rundown of the hummers of home.  Four species isn't bad, especially considering I grew up with only one.  Now it's on to hoping for a Costa's to show up, an even rarer visitor to the area.  Until then....