Saturday, June 20, 2009

Williamson's Sapsucker in Colorado!

Length: 23 cm (9").
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On Jun 5/09 I was in Rocky Mountain National Park near the Upper Beaver Meadow trailhead where I was able to catch this shot of a male Williamson's Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus thyroideus) at its nest hole! In most woodpeckers, the sexes have very similar coloring; but in this sapsucker, the male and female plumages are so different that they were once thought to be separate species! I waited awhile to get a picture of his mate, but It was already midafternoon and the sky was clouding over. I knew I would have to come back another day!
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About a week later (Jun 13/09) I was in the Park again and got this photo of the female Williamson's Sapsucker about to enter the nesthole with an insect! Note her brown head and the upperparts entirely barred black and brown. Very unusual!
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But before she could go in, he would have to come out! Note his beautiful jet black plumage, white face stripes, and bright red throat! Both sexes have the yellow belly. While I waited for a few more digiscoped pictures, I was able to watch these busy parents coming and going. They seemed to spend most of their day taking turns either foraging for prey or attending to the young inside their tree-trunk home!
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Williamson's Sapsucker occurs in the coniferous forests of the mountains in the western United States and is not common. It is reputed to be wary and shy, but this pair was nesting in a tree right beside a well-used park trail and did not seem to be disturbed by me or the hikers that came by quite frequently.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Great Horned Owl Family in Colorado!

Length: 46-63 cm (18-25"). Wingspan: 91-152 cm (36-60").
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Last Saturday (Jun 13/09) my wife Paula and I decided to go up to Rocky Mountain National Park for the day. Though it is only a 90-minute drive from our home in Westminster, we rarely treat ourselves to the fantastic beauty to be seen along Trail Ridge Road all year round!
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Spring, however, is the season for birding in the Park! In the Endovalley region, for example, where many park visitors were picnicking, we happened to notice a group of birders straining to get a better look at something high in the pines...
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...it was a male Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) that had just been spotted, sitting by itself. Though widespread across most of North America, this large owl species is not very common and is always an attraction...
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...especially if its mate is not too far away...
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...and even more so, if their two fluffy young are in the same tree as their mother! This youngster was in a specially good position to be photographed! (All owl photos were digiscoped using my Nikon P5100 and 30X Fieldscope.)

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Little Bee-Eater in Liberia!

Length: 15-17 cm (6.0-6.5"); no streamers.
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The Little Bee-Eater (Merops pusillus) is a fairly common (though irregularly distributed) breeding visitor to Liberia's coastal savanna belt during the dry season (Nov-May). It prefers quiet roadsides or semi-open grassy areas, often not far from water. Pairs or small groups are often encountered perched close to the ground, watching for passing insects in typical bee-eater style. It burrows into sandy roadside banks or even into nearly flat ground to make its nest.
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On my visit to Liberia two years ago, this picture taken at Fendel (Jan 11/07) was the best photo I was able to get of the Little Bee-Eater with my primitive digiscoping set-up (see my earlier posts about the Black Bee-Eater)! There had been a controlled grass fire in the area, and this pair was on a snag out in the open where I should have been able to get a better shot. I promised to do better the next time!
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This year I visited Fendel again (Jan 19/09) with my Nikon P5100 and got these digiscoped shots of the Little Bee-Eater near dense swamp vegetation. A long grass stem is one of its favorite perches. The green upperparts of this bird blend it in so well with its verdant habitat that occasionally I have been startled when a pair of these bee-eaters, resting quietly as I approach, has suddenly taken flight!
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Though the underside of the Little Bee-Eater is mostly bright yellow with rich shades of orange and brown, the dark neck band and the extension of the eye-line forward into the long black bill tend to break up the profile of this bird in the field, making it surprisingly difficult to see!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Orange Weavers... in Motion!

Length: 15 cm (6").
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This is the male Orange Weaver (Ploceus aurantius), hanging on the underside of its nest and displaying to the female inside with ritualized body-twisting and wing-flapping! Watch the video clip below...
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This short (40-sec) video (recorded using the "movie mode" on my Nikon P5100) shows the Orange Weavers at their nest, which is supported by reeds over a slow-moving stream. I digiscoped it at Buchanan (Jan 14/09), alongside what I thought at first was just another quiet dirt road on the edge of town! But as you watch, try to disregard the noisy motorcycle that came by! Apparently this species is not seriously threatened by human activity near its breeding area! (I apologize for the low resolution, which was further reduced when I uploaded this video to Blogger.)

Monday, June 1, 2009

Orange Weavers in Liberia... at their Nest!

Length: 15 cm (6").
.The Orange Weaver (Ploceus aurantius) builds its nest low over water, weaving it from the narrow green leaf "ribbons" it has stripped from the branches of nearby oil palms. This male and its mate (which flew in and out of the opening on the underside of the nest) were part of a small colony of these birds that I happened across while out birding the back roads of Buchanan (Jan 14/09). This species is locally common on the edges of lagoons, swamps, and streams in the coastal zone of West Africa, from Sierra Leone eastward, and inland along some major rivers.
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The female Orange Weaver, seen here exiting the nest, is a drab olive-gray above and whitish below, with a pale yellow wash around only its head and face. The male, by contrast, truly lives up to its name! Its jet-black bill and eye-stripe contrast beautifully with its rich yellow-orange head and bright yellow underparts.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The White-throated Bee-Eater Revisited!

Length: 19-21 cm (7.5-8.3") + streamers up to 12 cm (4.7").

This photo of a White-throated Bee-Eater (Merops albicollis) was taken on the same day (Jan 6/07) and at the same location as the pictures in my earlier post (see "The White-throated Bee-Eater in Liberia!", on May 25, 2009). This individual has the very long central tail feathers characteristic of the species. (Sorry, this is the best shot I've got showing the tail streamers!)
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The White-throated Bee-Eater doesn't normally perch this close to the ground, but here sits this cute pair in the early morning sunshine (Jan 6/09), ever watchful for a passing bite of insect "breakfast"! (I don't think the automatic white balance on my little point-and-shoot camera was working very well when I digiscoped this shot, but I've tried to color-correct it the best I can!)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Blue-cheeked Bee-Eater in Liberia!

Length: 24-26 cm (9.5-10.0") + streamers up to 10.5 cm (4.0").
. The Blue-cheeked Bee-Eater (Merops persicus) is an intra-African and palearctic migrant visitor (Dec-July) to coastal regions of Liberia (particularly from Monrovia westward). Most do not breed in Liberia. I found this species at several locations north of Monrovia between Fendel and Bentol; this individual was digiscoped at Bentol (Jan 20/09). The blue cheeks are barely visible and, like most of the other individuals I saw on my short January visit to Liberia, it lacks the long central tail streamers generally characteristic of this species. Perhaps the streamers tend to grow later in the dry season, just before the birds return northward to their desert-edge breeding grounds in Mauritania and elsewhere. However...
.I found this Blue-cheeked Bee-Eater 5 days earlier, further "doun the coast" at Buchanan (Jan 15/09). Though it was a considerable distance from me, on a power line over rank marshy vegetation, this digiscoped shot clearly shows the field characteristics, including the long central tail feathers!

In this photo taken at Bentol (Jan 20/09), the blue feathers--both above the eye and on the cheek below the eye--can be seen more clearly.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The White-throated Bee-Eater in Liberia!

Length: 19-21 cm (7.5-8.3") + streamers up to 12 cm (4.7").
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In January of 2007, when my wife Paula and I were in Liberia for a short two-week visit, we stopped by the old home place near Charlie Town in River Cess County where my family had once lived and where I had grown up.
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Sadly our house was gone, having been completely destroyed during the civil war; all that remained was this rather untidy "mound" of overgrown rubble, surrounded by a small clearing and then the secondary rain forest. Still, the air was filled with the familiar sights, sounds, and smells of a West African dry season, and these brought back a flood of pleasant childhood memories. For example...
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Resting silently on a leafless branch of the old “rubber tree” in the “front yard” was this watchful White-throated Bee-Eater (Merops albicollis). Periodically it would sally out to snatch an unwary insect from the air, then return to its perch to consume its snack and wait for another tidbit to come by. I figured I would have enough time to set up my tripod and camera to take a few digiscoped shots (Jan 06/07)!
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During the dry season, the White-throated Bee-Eater is an abundant non-breeding visitor to Liberia (and to the other rain forest and moist savanna zones of West Africa). During Liberia's rainy season (May-Oct), it migrates northward to the southern edge of the Sahara Desert where it breeds.
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The rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis), despite its tropical environment, is deciduous, dropping all its leaves for a brief week or two during the dry season. With only a few red leaves still clinging to this tree here and there, my view of the bee-eater was unobscured and taking these pictures was easy! (Natural rubber is a major export from Liberia, with several companies operating very large plantations of this tree.)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Perigrine Falcon on the California Coast!

Length: 38-51 cm (15-20"); females 13-20% larger than males.
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Ten days ago, my wife and I were on the West Coast for our daughter's graduation from USC at Los Angeles. We stayed in a nearby city on the coast, at a small motel just two blocks from the sea and within easy walking distance of where our daughter lives!
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On this trip to California I was not expecting to have a lot of time for birding (much less photography), but I had brought my optics along... just in case! The first morning, while we were strolling through a small park at the top of the sea cliffs and enjoying the vastness of the view of the Pacific Ocean below, a local jogger saw my scope and stopped to ask whether I was looking for the Peregrine Falcons (Falco peregrinus). What falcons? I had not heard that there were any in the area! That day I could not find them, but the next morning (May 16/09) I was out at the park again (you can be sure!)... and this time I was able to locate the pair without much difficulty!
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This Peregrine Falcon was perched near the top of the cliff, where I could easily get a photograph from the park sidewalk! After taking a series of shots, I thought I would risk moving in a bit closer with my tripod and digiscoping set-up. No problem! Apparently these raptors are quite used to the early-morning joggers and other passers-by who frequent the park!
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On a third visit to the cliffs, I learned from another birder that this pair had been introduced from farther down the California coast. Though this photo clearly shows the bird's long powerful talons, I am glad that the identification ring on its leg is not visible! Sure looks like a very wild bird, on a very inaccessible cliff, somewhere in a very faraway wilderness!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

More Pictures of the Black Bee-eater!

I thought I would post a couple more digiscoped shots of the Black Bee-Eater (see last week's post on April 11, 2009: "How I Digiscoped the Black Bee-Eaters!"). All pictures of this bird were taken in Liberia (River Cess County) on January 5, 2007. The habitat was secondary forest edge bordering on "coastal savanna", 1 km southeast of the mouth of the Cess River.

The Black Bee-eater (Merops gularis) is found in the rain forest zone across equatorial Africa, but its status varies from scarce to locally common. An African migrant breeder, its numbers in Liberia are highest during the dry season (Nov-Apr). This first photo clearly shows the beautiful blue forehead and supercilium, characteristic of the nominate western race Merops gularis gularis which occurs from Sierra Leone to Nigeria. (The eastern race M. g. australis, from Cameroon to eastern Uganda, lacks this fieldmark.)

Many bee-eaters are gregarious, but the Black Bee-Eater is usually encountered only in pairs. In typical bee-eater style, however, it spends considerable time on the same prominent perch, watching for the occasional passing insect, which it then flies out to catch and (almost invariably) bring back to the same spot to consume! This rather predictable behavior (which tends to make any bee-eater a fairly good subject for digiscoping!) gave me lots of time to focus my scope and fumble with my camera settings, and then...

...when this Black Bee-eater flew off, I didn't have to change a thing! Only a moment later, it was back in my scope's field of view, ready for another shot!

One of my field guides says that the scarlet throat is sometimes hard to see in poor light! On this occasion I guess the light was more than adequate!
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DIGISCOPING NOTE: There seems to be some slight "vignetting" in this shot, with the corners of the photo, especially toward the right, appearing darker. This problem can sometimes occur in digiscoping if the camera lens and telescope eyepiece are not the ideal distance apart and/or are not perfectly aligned. Considering my crude camera-to-scope adapter (made from a large plastic bottle cap!), I'm just glad the vignetting was not any worse!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

How I Digiscoped the Black Bee-Eaters!

In January of 2007, my wife Paula and I made a two-week visit back to Liberia to see how our friends were getting along after the civil war. We especially wanted to make a trip "down the coast" from Monrovia to Po River Beach in River Cess County, where we had taught high school during the 1980s. To get there from Monrovia was a two-day effort: 90 miles on an unimproved paved road, 60 miles on a very unimproved dirt road, and then 7 miles as a hike along a bush trail!
. Here we were at the town of River Cess on the Atlantic coast, waiting for "a lift" across the Cess River in the large fishing canoe that can be seen behind us! Note the powder-blue haze in the air, due to the Harmattan winds that reach the Liberian coast from the Sahara Desert each year in early January. Several Black Kites (Milvus migrans), also typical of dry season, could be seen overhead, patrolling the beach and silently waiting for a fish to be discarded from a fisherman's net.

It was already afternoon, but I was not in a hurry to continue our journey... while we waited, a seasonal specialty just might show up! [I could remember when, back in the 1980s, an Egyptian Plover (Pluvianus aegyptius) was spotted once or twice at low tide along this very stretch of sandy river bank!]
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Eventually we got across the river. It was mid-afternoon and we still had a strong two-hour hike ahead of us (well, let's call that a very leisurely 6- or 7-hour unhurried walk, with lots of back-tracking if necessary, especially if there's a birder anywhere around who is thrilled to be back in familiar tropical territory!). Besides all the local birds we were sure to see along the trail (and for which just about any day of the year would have been a good day to see them), we might also be lucky enough today to spot a Rufous-crowned Roller (Coracias naevius). This was just the sort of dry-season weather that might have brought one in from the north in the last day or two. It might already be along the trail up ahead somewhere, perched quietly on the nearly leafless limb of some tall distant tree (as I had once seen it before!). I was getting excited! This could be a day of surprises--perhaps not surpise surprises, but just pleasant surprises--and indeed it was going to be!
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Down the trail a turn or two, I knew we would break out of the low forest into a stretch of moist "coastal savanna", where (due to the very sandy soil) the forest gives way in many places to large stretches of open grassland. If my memory was serving me right, up ahead on the left, we should be able to find a pair of Black Bee-Eaters (Merops gularis) along the forest edge of this more open habitat. Sure enough, after only a little searching, there they were in an acacia tree just off the trail! (Of course, this was probably not the very same pair I remembered from this location more than a decade earlier, but they could easily have been their descendants!) The hour was late and there was still high forest down the trail for us to get through before dark; however, I was elated to have found these rather uncommon birds and vowed to take pictures of them when I returned.
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Two days later (Jan 5, 2007), when I arrived back at the same spot, the sun was high in the hazy Harmattan sky--ideal conditions for bird photography! There the Black Bee-eaters were, in perfect pose on an open branch at the forest edge, as if they had made an appointment to sit for a family portrait! I fumbled to set up the Nikon Fieldscope and my small digital camera attached to it with a homemade rig using velcro and the plastic top from a laundry detergent bottle! I knew from experience that getting the focus precisely right with this primitive set-up was going to be simply hit-or-miss! To make matters even more difficult, I had no cable release, and so for each shot (in order to prevent camera movement) I had to reset the 3-second timer, push the shutter release, and hope that the birds would be looking the right direction (or would not have flown off!) when the camera took the picture! Digiscoping for me had never been so uncertain, yet so full of prospect! I took as many shots as my limited time schedule would permit. Here is one of those pictures (the one that I cropped for the blog header):
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In bee-eaters, the sexes are similar. This pair proved to be totally cooperative, showing off in one picture almost every Black Bee-Eater plumage characteristic you would want to see! (This picture is not a "photoshopped" composite!) Though the birds themselves are rather small in this photo, they certainly look good here in the larger context of their tropical forest-edge habitat. I was also very fortunate to be shooting slightly downhill, so that the birds were not hopelessly silhouetted against the bright sky!
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When I was thinking of starting a blog that would focus on my birding experiences in Liberia, my mind immediately went back to these Black Bee-Eaters, and it was not difficult to decide which African bird species should be featured in the header photo and blog title!