Saturday, March 31, 2012

New Bird: Snow Goose

Snow Goose, Chen caerulescens, Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, Salton Sea, California. Snow geese nest and breed way up North up past the timberline in Greenland, Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. They Winter all the way down to Northern Mexico. Given that it is late March, these geese have all of April to cross the North American continent South to North, before they nest. Snow geese reportedly pair for life.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

American Avocet, Breeding Pair

A breeding pair of American Avocet, Recurvirostra americana at the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge where, for conservation purposes, fresh water and food was introduced into ponds separated from the salty, polluted waters of the Salton Sea by dirt berms. To mate, the male flies up into the air in a short hop and wing flap and attempts to land on top of the female bird, similar to ducks, but with a bit of aerial acrobatics involved. These two have full red-brown breeding plumage. Their normal Winter colors are grey, black and white. I will note, however, that some of the breeding pairs retained their Winter colors so the color change did not appear to be a prerequisite for Spring activity.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Greater Roadrunner, Geococcyx californianus

Greater Roadrunner, Geococcyx californianus, Salton Sea, California. These sleek, swift little birds can run at speeds up to 25 mph and earned their moniker for running on the road in front of cars, darting off to safety at the last minute. They have a varied diet including seeds, fruit, insects, small birds, rodents, snakes, lizards, spiders, scorpions, centipedes and millipedes. The have been known to bludgeon large prey against a rock to kill them or to hit the base of a rodent's neck with their significant beak. They will also occasionally hunt cooperatively.

Notably, there was something about these little birds that reminded me of the velociraptors in Jurassic Park. I don't know if they modeled the velociraptors in the movie after roadrunners or if it was the other way around (i.e., roadrunners being long lost relatives of the velociraptors). Either way, they are smart, lively birds to watch.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Power from the Desert

Huge powerlines, possibly carrying wind power from the Snoran desert windfarms to San Diego. Speaking of wind, you can see the dust of a large windstorm brewing as low white clouds in the distance and a large rainstorm up in the hills. Ironic to have both at the same time, separated by only a matter of a few minutes drive time.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Barn Owl - Tyto alba

Barn Owl, Tyto alba, snoozing the day away deep within the fronds of a large palm tree at the Salton Sea, California. Barn owls are the most widespread and successful owls worldwide and indeed, one of the most widespread of all birds in general. In fact, they are even found in Hawaii! Barn owls prefer open grassy hunting grounds on the edge of forested areas where they hunt for rodents and other small vertebrates. A nesting pair of barn owls may consume as much as 1000 rodents in a year.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Burrowing Owl - Athene cunicularia

Burrowing Owl, Athene cunicularia, near the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. This little owl has taken up residence in an old bit of drainage pipe. It's probably drier and cleaner than an old ground squirrel hole anyhow.

Burrowing owls can typically be found hanging outside the burrow during the day. They will forage for bugs during the day and for rodents at night; thus, their hours tend to depend on the food available at that time of year.

Hear a burrowing owl

Crotalus oreganus helleri - Southern Pacific Rattlesnake

Southern Pacific Rattlesnake, Crotalus oreganus helleri, Mission Trails Park, San Diego, California. This rattle snake was scooting across the road and barely even slowed as I shot this picture. He did, interestingly enough, pause to shake his rattle and coil just before he entered the tall grass as he appeared to scan the grass for a potential meal. Rattlesnakes will actively hunt on the move and I suspect this one was attempting to flush out any rodent or lizard that might have been hiding in the grass. They are also known to wait in ambush outside of critter burrows. People, however, are largely ignored unless you threaten or surprise them.

The Southern Pacific Rattlesnake is found along the Pacific Coast from Morro Bay, CA to the North, down to the middle of the Baja Peninsula on the South and as far East as Antelope Valley and Barstow, CA. Their diet consists of rodents and lizards as well as occasional birds, lizards, snakes, frogs, & insects. They will typically bite their prey and wait for the venom to take effect as they follow the weakened prey. Once the prey has succumbed to the venom, it is eaten whole.

Note, you can get some gauge of a rattlesnake's age by counting its rattles. The snake adds one rattle per molt. This one had five rattles and was, thus, fairly young.

Photographer's note: I would have loved to get a shot of this snake head on so you could get the effect of his whole body while still keeping good visibility and size on his head. However, he was moving across the road fast and woe be to the photographer who steps out in front of a moving rattlesnake. Needless to say, discretion won out over photographic valor.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

New Bird: Nuttall's Woodpecker

Nuttall's Woodpecker, Picoides nuttallii, Mission Trails Park. It's always fun to see a new bird. Woodpeckers are especially enchanting because you can hear the pock pock pock pock pock of their beaks pounding on the tree bark to ferret out grubs and beetles. This one was way up on the back side of a tree. Every now and then he would come around to my side of the tree and I would snap a few pictures before he would move off to the other side again.

How, you say, do they get away with pounding a tree with their heads without going totally bonkers? Sang-Hee Yoon and Sungmin Park of the University of California-Berkeley found that the woodpeckers had somewhat elastic beaks, spongy skully bones and a structure called the hyloid layer, attached to their tongues that, in combination, cushioned against the repetitive shock.

In addition to cushioned head structures, woodpeckers also have a different toe arrangement, with two toes forward and two back as opposed to three forward and one back as with most birds. This toe arrangement and bracing with stiff tail feathers helps woodpeckers cling vertically to trees for long periods of time while they peck for food.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

It's Springtime in Southern California: Brandt's Cormorant with Chicks

Brandt's Cormorant, Phalacrocorax penicillatus, feeding her chicks; La Jolla, California. It's Springtime in Southern California and there are babies everywhere. Baby birds, baby seals, baby sea lions! This mother cormorant certainly has a handful (beakful?)! Shown here, the mother cormorant is regurgitating food for her chicks. Many of the neighboring bird's chicks had not hatched yet so this bird had a substantial head start on the flock. Perhaps having chicks well ahead of the rest of the flock will help those chicks compete for food. In any case, it's truly a fun time of year.

Brandt's Cormorants are found along the Pacific coast of North America from Alaska down through the Gulf of California. They were named after Johann Friedrich von Brandt, who originally described the type species from preserved birds brought back to St. Petersburg. In California, they feed on rockfish which they pursue with great speed and agility, enabled by their broad, webbed feet and sleek bodies. The blue throat patch is only present during the breeding season.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Portugese Squill or Scilla peruviana

Portugese Squill, Scilla peruviana, blooming at Walter Andersen's Nursery. Despite the name, these are not native to Peru. In fact, they are natives of the Mediteranean region of Iberia, Italy and North Africa. The flowers bloom sequentially, allowing one flower stem to bloom for an extended period of time. While stunningly beautiful, they are not recommended as cut flowers as the bruised foliage reputedly smells of cat urine. If you're thinking of putting one of these beauties in a corner of your yard, they grow best in zones 8, 9 and 10.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Wisteria sinensis

Wisteria sinensis is one of the most widely grown members of the genus Wisteria. These beautiful vines are members of the pea family, fabaceae, and are tall growing, hardy, woody shrubs. The genus Wisteria contains 10 species that are native to the Eastern United States, China, Japan and Korea.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Sea Lions Looking On

California sea lions, Zalophus californianus, looking longingly back at the rock they were sunning on in La Jolla, California. Somebody walked out into the water near the rock they were sunning on and there was a mass exodus into the water. After the fact, the sea lions realized they could not get back onto their favorite rock until high tide, and so they sat, staring longingly at their rock.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Sea Lion Snuggle

California sea lion pups,Zalophus californianus,La Jolla, California. California sea lions sure like to snuggle! While seals normally keep a respectful distance from each other, you will find sea lions piled all over each other as they sun on a rock. In case you're wondering, the three easiest ways to tell a sea lion from a seal (no offense to any purists out there) are:

1) Sea lions have little floppy ears that look like floppy chihuahua ears; Seals have ear holes without the large flaps;
2) Sea lion's flippers angle downward and can be walked upon. This is particularly noticeable when comparing the rear flippers of sea lions to those of seals. A seal's rear flippers go straight back from the body while a sea lions go downwards; and
3) Because of the flipper differences, sea lions can, more or less, walk on their flippers. Seals undulate their body kind of like a big inch worm, using their flippers for traction.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Harbor Seal Tete a Tete

Mother and Baby Harbor Seal, Phoca vitulina v. richardsi, La Jolla, California. The seals were out on the beach in strength today, complete with many newborn pups, some with their umbilical cords still attached. This pup is greeting his mom with a little nose rub.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Five Spot or Buffalo Eyes

Five Spot or Buffalo Eyes, Nemophila maculata, blooming in the canyon in back of the house. These little California annuals re-seed every year and appear to be getting more profuse and a little bigger each year. They are a welcome sight each Spring.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Microcoelia stolzii

Microcoelia stolzii at the San Diego County Orchid Society Spring Show. These are leafless orchids that photosynthesize through their roots. These tiny, beautiful, Spring flowering orchids are native to the medium altitude rainforests of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

New Bird: Costa's Hummingbird

Costa's Hummingbird (male), Calypte costae, Anza Borrego State Park, California. It's always fun to see a new hummingbird. These beautiful hummingbirds are typically found in arid scrub, deserts and washes from the Southwest U.S. through N.W. Mexico. The males can be identified by the brilliant violet-purple gorget (mask under the throat) which projects out to either side like a fu manchu mustache. As with Anna's the color is only apparent when the sun is reflecting off of the gorget.

Ironically, we went to the Anza Borrego Desert looking for wildflowers and found only a few tiny wild flowers. The more fragile ones had already bloomed out with the multiple waves of hot and cold weather. On the other hand, the cacti were just starting. In spite of the disappointing dearth of wildflowers, there were a wealth of Costa's hummingbirds at the gently irrigated, bountiful wildflower garden at the Anza Borrego State Park Visitor's Center. There was even reputedly a hummingbird nest; however, it was well hidden and managed to elude us.

African Sacred Ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus)

The African Sacred Ibis, Threskiornis aethiopicus, was revered and often mummified by the ancient Egyptians. In legend, the sacred ibis was invoked upon the migration and invasion of "winged serpents," which it killed.