I stopped by the SFBBO survey area along Matadero Creek during lunch today. When I arrived, a male Common Yellowthroat was being processed. Josh Scullen took measurements, a few photographs, and fastened a metal band on the bird's leg. The purpose of the survey is to document the presence of the "San Francisco" Yellowthroat (G. t. sinuosa), the local subspecies. SFBBO will continue the survey in other areas to determine where the boundary is for this local population ends, and that of the "Western" Yellowthroat (G. t. occidentals) begins. Eventually a map will be created using the data collected on this survey. Like the Song Sparrow two weeks ago, I was allowed to hold the bird for a moment before I released it. Having just seen the Common Yellowthroat at Cosumnes River Preserve over the weekend, presumably the "Western" Common Yellowthroat, I was impressed with the greater amount of yellow on the belly of today's bird, as well as the very golden-tan flanks. I wonder if these differences in plumage are dependable…. probably not. It seems that only careful measurements can absolutely separate these subspecies.
We've heard a singing WESTERN TANAGER somewhere in our back yard each morning for more than two weeks. Yesterday, he was joined by a second singing male a little farther away. There are several tall redwood trees around the townhouse property and in years past we have found them there, but we have yet to see either one this season.
I don't expect we'll see many Warblers in Trinidad and Tobago. Most are up here now... breeding. But I like the way the Yale University Press "Field Guide to the Birds of Trinidad and Tobago" lines up all the plumages. Most books attempt attractive compositions and more life-like poses, but I think it makes those stages in the bird's life a little harder to compare—not as pretty, but easier. By organizing the birds neatly in chronological order, I think the progression from age to age is quicker to see, and evaluate.
A larger, photo-assisted portrait of Red Phalarope females from the recent Monterey Seabirds voyag. When they return in fall, they won't look so bold, and ID will be a little more difficult. Right now, their plumage is about as smashing as they ever is!
I heard and saw a Yellow-breasted Chat 100 yards below the dam in a buckeye and willow patch across the river today around 11:30 at the Mokelumne Fish Hatchery. A first year Bald Eagle and several Common Mergansers were present as well as Black-chinned Hummingbird.
First bird of the day: Black-chinned Hummingbird outside kitchen window at Kaz and Aiko's home in Lodi. It's going to be a great day at the Cosumnes River Preserve!
We visited Cosumnes River Preserve yesterday with class. We go each spring in search of birds that are harder to locate on the Peninsula and South Bay. Among our targets were SWAINSON'S HAWK, of which at least 4 were seen, both light and dark morphs. BLUE GROSBEAK was easily located by the visitors center at the beginning of our walk. WILLOW FLYCATCHER was seen at two locations along the River Walk. Some folks also saw an AMERICAN BITTERN in the marsh, but all of us were treated to looks at GREEN HERON, WOOD DUCK, and WHITE-FACED IBIS. A WESTERN TANAGER was heard, but not seen along the River Trail.
We found BLACK-CHINNED HUMMINGBIRD during our term wrap-up potluck at Cricket's parents' home in Lodi.
After lunch, we visited White Slough very briefly, finding several more SWAINSON'S HAWKS, a BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAK, and our third WILLOW FLYCATCHER for the day.
Among the interesting birds for us was the valley subspecies of SONG SPARROW (M.m.maillardi) which is somewhat different in appearance than those we see every day in the South Bay. Dark, and saturated rufous on the coverts, crown and tail. As with this bird, we found great joy in watching the "Western" COMMON YELLOWHTROAT (G.t.occidentalis), again very different in appearance to us than the S.F. Bay populations. It struck us as paler grayish-green on the back, more lemony-yellow (not sunny banana color) with distinctly pale flanks—very different from the brownish-orange flanks of the salt marsh birds.
I want to thank everyone for the thoughtful gift you presented me with on Saturday at Kaz and Aiko's home. Your generosity astounds me, and I feel privileged to have you all as part of my life. Your friendship, and this class as a whole, has for 13 years been an enormous source of so much joy for me, and I don't think I can fully capture my feelings with words.
Regarding the book. For years, I have heard of it, as it is by far the most widely sited resource in any study of birds. It has been out of print since 1990, and existing copies were very expensive! I never thought I'd own a copy... No serious library can be without it, and so it is a priceless addition to the Dodder Library of Ornithology (The DLO)!
For those of you who are not familiar with Charles Sibley and Jon Ahlquist's "Phylogeny and Classification of Birds: A Study of Molecular Evolution", or more simply "Sibley-Ahlquist" it is a seminal work. Clocking in at just under 1000 pages, the two authors describe the methods they used to completely revise the classification of birds. It is the largest genetic study of any animal group, and consequently shifted everything about how we view relationships within the class Aves. The techniques have wide applications for studies beyond animal group relationships as well. But this is ALL about birds!
To begin, Sibley-Ahlquist detail the structure and purpose of DNA, continuing with a description of the behavior of DNA when it is sheared, and reconstituted by alternating high heat, and slow cooling. The velocity, and completeness to which this reconstituting behavior occurs between the DNA of two species, allowed them to measure the relative similarities of their subjects. Over the course of years, they created a genetic tree of avian genetic similarities. This DNA-DNA Hybridization process, as it is called, changed EVERYTHING.
The first part of the book is incredibly beyond my limited college bio chem background, and filled with chemical properties that make my head spin, but even as I browsed, much was making sense and I know I will learn much. I look forward to learning more specifically about Sibley-Ahlquist's methods for quantifying relationships between groups, and what that tells us about the origins of peculiar American groups such as the monotypic Wrentit, Olive Warbler and Yellow-breasted Chat.
The second part of the book "summarizes" Sibley-Ahlquist's revised classification of birds, but most interestingly it chronicles ALL previous theories about avian relationships and describes in detail how/why each of these historic systematic theories were accepted, retained or discredited. It's a colossal account of ornithology throughout the ages. Sibley-Ahlquist's work allows biologists to suggest chronologies as well, such as when certain groups differentiated themselves.
Finally, a section toward the end, entitled "Patterns of Distribution in Space and Time" recalls the many geological, plate tectonic and oceanic influences on modern distribution of birds. The history of the Bering Land Bridge, the Interamerican Interchange, the History of the Atlantic Ocean.... WOW!
So you see, your gift to me is greatly appreciated. You could not have selected a more appropriate gift and it's a great compliment that you believe I will be able to grasp the information contained within it. In fact, I am overwhelmed by it. I look forward to spending months and years working through the knowledge represented in its pages. With any luck, I'll be able to communicate some of that in upcoming class presentations.
Thank you all for your wonderful gift, and your friendship!
A very rapid, lunch break sketch of nesting Bullock's Orioles at Palo Alto Baylands. It's been a while since I last drew in the field, so I feel a little out of practice. I fully appreciate the enormous gaps between one's eyes, the drawing hand, AND the paper! Anyway, this pair was busily attending chicks in the nest, while a first spring male attempted to get the female's attention. Both males were singing and chattering quite a lot, but appeared to ignore each other. One being a good father, the other one trying to get noticed. Any birds that dared approach the nest were quickly chased away by the male, including Northern Mockingbird and American Crow!
I am now officially an internationally published photographer... Funny thing, is the French websited didn't ask my permission until AFTER they'd posted the images. Oh, well. At least I'm international!
Interesting article about the critically endangered California Condors and their milestone of 400 individuals:
A little more expressive portrait of Barn Owl. I liked using dark around the bird to make the face pop.
Today, I found 4 WESTERN KINGBIRDS near the wind sculpture at Byxbee Park. The park has been greatly expanded so I explored the recently opened areas. Not many birds because there's little vegetation, but wildflowers were pretty nice. I expect the Kingbirds might be found along the fence line bordering the expansion area. A pair of BULLOCK'S ORIOLES made a brief appearance as they flushed from the mustard flowers and flew toward the restrooms.
Yesterday I was with Josh Scullen and Erika Takeda during an SFBBO project along the Bay Trail between Palo Alto Baylands and Geng Road. While we were there we spotted 2 WESTERN KINGBIRDS at the Palo Alto Airport.
Today I visited the San Francisco Bay Bird Bird Observatory team of researchers as they worked the San Francisquito Creek. They were searching for Song Sparrows and were particularly interested in locating the boundaries and micro-habitats for the two subspecies found there: M.m.pusillula and M.m.gouldii. I was very excited to accompany them as they took measurements and banded the birds they caught in the mist nets. We saw the threatened saltmarsh subspecies, but I look forward to joining them again as they move up creek and begin capturing the more widespread M.m.gouldii. I neglected to mention that a large part of this survey was dedicated to Common Yellowthroat populations and a refined understanding of their boundaries. Josh and Ericka had collected several individuals before I arrived, so all I witnessed was the Song Sparrow portion. I've birded this stretch extensively, and always focused my attention on the differences between M.m.gouldii and M.m.pusillula. At their extremes, the two ssp are fairly easy for birders like me to see, with gouldii having much more deep and warm rufous coloration on back, crown and coverts. M.m.pussilula is much duller gray overall, with cooler brown and lower contrast. Defining these for SFBBO's purpose however, must be supported by quantitative data. Josh and Erika Taketa were necessarily exact in their observations. As they held the bird's wing open, I noticed a feature I recalled in Marshall's paper, the pale yellow at the wrist, as well as the belly—marks that suggest the presence of M.m.pusillula in this saltmarsh section. Josh and Erika will search for intergrades with M.m.gouldii as they continue their survey up the creek and document where the saltmarsh birds' range ends. I can't wait to see their work completed. I hope to accompany them again as gather more data.
One of the Song Sparrows, putatively identified as M.m.pusillula. Notice the rather dull brownish and grey coloration. M.m. gouldii tend to be much more saturated rufous, especially on the coverts.
One of the Song Sparrows, putatively identified as M.m.pusillula. Notice the very slight buttery-yellow color of the belly. If it isn't apparent here, it was slightly more obvious in the field.
One of the Song Sparrows, putatively identified as M.m.pusillula. Notice the pale yellowish color on the lesser coverts of the underwing.
The trouble with quick sketches done on scrap paper, is sometimes you like the way they turn out and you wish you'd waited until you had your nice paper, and better pencils… This Mercey Hot Springs Long-eared Owl sketch was supposed to be a study for a more refined color drawing. I wanted to show it in the stretched out posture it adopts when it's trying to be invisible.
North Grove at Calaveras Big Tree yesterday and today we had several White-headed Woodpeckers, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Red-breasted Sapsuckers, Pacific Wren, MacGilliray's Warber, Hermit Warbler, Cassin's Finch, Cassin's Vireo and heard-only Pileated Woodpecker, Mountain Quail and Mountain Chickadee. ...and of course, the ever present Western Tanager, and Black-headed Grosbeak. We also happened upon some breeding Lincoln's Sparrow, which you know I love!
At Stanislaus River in Calaveras Big Tree we watched a very cooperative Canyon Wren just before lunch.
Today at the higher elevations of Calaveras Big Tree we had fantastic looks at Northern Pygmy-Owl, Cassin's Vireo, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Dusky Flycatcher and Chipping Sparrow. Funny thing was, as we pulled into the lot, I said to my father-in-law, "this looks like a great place for Northern Pygmy Owl." Within minutes we heard it down slope and located the bird right over head. The area in the picture is where the Dusky Flycatchers were, providing a great opportunity to study the more open habitat, and lankier structure that differentiates the species from Hammond's.
Northern Pygmy-Owl at Calaveras Big Tree State Park. This portrait was done at home from memory as well as photographic reference. I wanted to show the bird glaring down on us from overhead, but it looks more like an eye level encounter. Oh, well... Still this little bird, less than 7 inches long has got to be the fiercest ball of fluff in the gray pine forest—at least he thinks so! I decided not to clutter the drawing with any pine cones or needles, but part of me still wants to indicate the habitat in which we found the bird.
As promised, the rundown of our annual Panoche Valley Tour. Beginning in Hollister, we work our way down Hwy 25 to the junction with J1, and continue into the valley. Eventually we head out to Hwy 5 and return home.
Blue Grosbeak, Costa's Hummingbird, Greater Roadrunner, Northern Pygmy-Owl, Lawrence's Goldfinch, Tricolored Blackbird, Lewis's Woodpecker, Phainopepla... just a few spoils from this week's class tour of
Del Puerto Canyon. San Antonio Valley and Mines Roads. At the risk of over-sharing, here is a rundown of our annual Del Puerto Canyon, San Antonio Valley, Mines Roads tour. Birds listed at various locations were not all seen in one trip, but over the years. Still most of what is mentioned is seen on our May trips to the area. Enjoy!
Alexander Wilson and the younger John James Audubon were not good friends. They repeatedly threw accusations at each other claiming plagiarism by the other. Their many friends rushed to support their claims. At times, it became quite ugly. Curious thing is, I like both their renditions of Bald Eagle, and I think they each have unique merit. The world is better for having both great artists. And after all, aren't all artists, authors, musicians, scientists perpetually looking for inspiration in the works of others before them?
Rex Brasher was a prolific artist who self published 100 copies of his 12-volume set of Birds and Trees of North America 1929-1932. Because he was not satisfied with color printing at the time, he opted to hand-color each copy of his books. Quite an accomplishment! One aspect that made his efforts especially noteworthy was his attention to subspecies. He wanted to portray ALL of them. For the Song Sparrow he rendered 20 different races for this one species. Multiply that by 100, and that's 2000 hand-colored illustrations for Song Sparrow alone (some of our ultra local SF Bay varieties as well)! Here is one image that caught my eye because of the recent report at Southeast Farallon.
The Northern Gannet returned to Southeast Farallon today, along with the suggestion that it might stay for a while. Perhaps long enough for a few more people to see this first California record! Click here.
As if the Northern Gannet were not amazing enough, a Red-tailed Tropicbird was spotted at Año Nuevo Island recently. It's hard to process what these two rarities might suggest about seabirding this season, let alone the larger possibility that we may see more of these extralimitals in our area as sea temperatures and climate changes... Click here
David Sibley publishes a great series of month-by-month drawings of American Goldfinch showing molt.