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April 2012 – Chris Llewellyn's "Birds Eye Views"
 

Month: April 2012

Baja birders face a land of snakes alive!

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Baja California Rattlesnake

It’s that time of year to be reminded of some Baja birding safety.  Besides remembering to bring water and sunscreen along to see the birds we see,  when the weather turns warm we need to watch where we step more than usual.  Sometimes it’s hard to keep looking down when what you’re looking for is often in the air or up in a tree.  This rattlesnake means you no harm so don’t bug him unless you know what you are doing.  Most snake-bites occur when snakes are miss-handled so don’t fool with them unless you are experienced like me.  See a snake?  Just slowly back off/away.  That rock or log you’re stepping over may have a rattler under the edge of it on any side.  Be careful!

I saw this  Western Garter Snake at the lagoon.  This snake is harmless.  Scared the bejeebers out of one of the locals fishing there with a net and he and the snake took off in oposite directions.  If you don’t know what you are doing, leave and please don’t kill them.

A lot of people don’t care much for snakes.   My mom always said I must have been born under a rock because from the time I could blink I was catching snakes, lizards, insects and “well” you get the picture. Next is a photo of a Lyre Snake.  Named so because it has a musical instrument, a Lyre, printed on it’s head and also, I think, because it lies.  This snake kinda looks like a rattler and it shakes it’s tail when disturbed.  Like a rattler with no rattle.  Stay away from this snake unless you know your stuff. It is rear fanged and mildly poisonous but not to humans.  I say this with experience because I have handled many.  This snake almost never bites when handled.  It has groved teeth at the back of it’s mouth which makes it VERY hard to damage anything large, like a human leg.  The venom is in it’s spit and slowly kills a lizard but is not known to be a problem with mammals like a mouse, which they have to squeeze to death.  It is unfortunate but many local people think this snake is a rattler and kill it on sight.  Like some believe Owls are devils and steal babies from the crib.

Lyre Snake

We also have some very speedy snakes around.  I saw this guy slithering across the yard and I had to give chase.   Here in Baja we have light and dark phases of Coachwhip Snakes and I had to get a closer look.  These snakes are non-poisonous to people but they will bite viscously when annoyed and have very sharp teeth.  All he wanted to do was get away.

Baja California Coachwhip Snake (ivory phase)

And then there’s the Patch-nosed Snake.  Yes, this snake does have a little “patch” on the nose.  I think this is a handsome snake.

Patch-nosed Snake

Now, I know snakes aren’t for everyone.  A lot of that is because what we don’t know about causes mis-understandings and sometimes fear. So just remember to watch where you are stepping and give these critters a wide berth.  Be safe and Happy Birding!

Bountiful Baja Birding

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Debbie crawling a Baja lagoon

Funny when you are a birder.  Some days can be uneventful and even downright defeating when you are all set to capture that “great shot” of a beautiful Baja bird and you come away with nothing.  Other days, you can’t shoot fast enough and you have birds coming at you from all directions, almost as tho they are competing to be the one displayed in the center of your camera lens.  Those are the “no bad days” of Baja birding.

We love sharing our bird photos with you and from your response, you love seeing them.  I think maybe we have a good thing going here.  We invite you to share your photos and any questions you may have on Baja birding in our forum.  If you go to the forum and register, you will automatically receive an email when we make a new post.  You can also select which posts you would like to follow.

We went back to the lagoons the other day.  Chris was bound and determined to capture a better shot of the snowy plover and I was bound and determined to help him!  Of course, I wanted to see what else we could capture with our trusty Canon lenses and cameras too.  I was crawling around in the sand while Chris was stalking the snowy plover over the three lagoons.

I hope I am successful in relaying to you what a peaceful experience Baja birding is.  Sometimes I get lost in the sights and sounds and sometimes I come away with so many questions it makes my head spin.

There is nothing like lying as still as possible beside a calming lagoon with your elbows dug in the sand propping for your camera, the tranquil Sea of Cortez lapping at the shore just over the fore dune, the Sierra de la Laguna creating the backdrop over the slightly swaying palm trees and many species of Baja birds flying over you seemingly oblivious to your intrusion of their space.  Does it get better?

Now, I will share with you my shots of the day, beginning with my sandy perch Baja birds.

Semipalmated Plover

 

Snowy Plover

 

Black Necked Stilt

 

Least Sandpiper
Snowy Egret

Getting up out of my sand everywhere pose, I’m thinking that I didn’t really capture much.  You just never know until you look at your photos on your computer to see what you have and if they are in focus.  Only then…I’m pretty satisfied with what I captured above.

I see Chris over near the car so I’m thinking he is probably ready to head out.  After all, the suns getting pretty warm and shooting conditions are deteriorating.  I start heading for Chris and the car but….wait a minute!  Check this out!

Osprey

Look closely for the head and eye in the center of the above photo.  Can you see it?  I love this shot!

Osprey

However, the Osprey came away empty, this time.  But…

Osprey

Not this time!  The Osprey snags a Trumpetfish.

Osprey

 

Osprey with Trumpetfish

Ah yes…another great Baja birding day.  I don’t know who’s happier, the Osprey or Debbie?  Let’s go honey bunny.

 

Every day is a new Baja Birding day.

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 Debbie and I were up with the sun as usual.  It was a double sunrise and was a sign to me the day would be a scorcher.  So, it just made since to head for the lagoons hoping a breeze would be blowin’.  Making sure we had plenty of water, both cameras and back-up batteries off we went to see the birds we see.

Debbie is still a little Bob-Cat shy but being the trooper she is, she found a place in the open where she could keep an eye out and left no cover for a mean and nasty wildcat to sneak up on her.  Besides, it’s great strategy to let the birds come to you sometimes.

I was really keen to get some photographs of a Snowy Plover I’d tried to shoot there the other day.  These little guys are quick on their tiny litte feet, much more so than me in my sandals.  So off I went looking for them where they had been a few days ago.

I’m just walking over a little sand dune and I hear a loud peeping squak.   I had accidentally surprised a bird and it flew a few yards and landed.  NEW BIRD!…………Large sized, black back and bright orange bill.  Well I be………..It’s an American Oystercatcher.  Not a Black Oystercatcher, which is mostly all black, but an American Oystercatcher which has a white underside.  After a little game of “let me get closer” which I was loosing, the bird stops walking away for a moment and struck a pose.

Oystercatchers are chunky birds that have laterally flattened, heavy bills that can reach into mollusks and pry open the shell.  They also probe for worms and crabs.  After the pose, this bird was outta there.

American Oystercatcher

Down the dune I go searching for a Plover.  I see some action at the lagoon’s edge.  A really fast flying small gull or tern-like bird is feeding minnows to another bird like itself on the ground.  Way too far for a photo so off I go trying to act like I don’t exist so’s not to scare the bird away.  It’s happening again!  Zowey wowey…….another NEW BIRD!  What a day!

At first I’m not sure what it is.  I take a far away shot just in case it flys off for good.  As I get a little closer, close enough for a possible decent shot, I can tell it’s a little Least Tern.  I’ve tried to photograph these birds we see at the lagoons before.  They are sooo quick.  This is the bird that was being fed, I guess by dad or a very generous mate.

Least Tern

Least Terns are the smallest North American Terns.  They are great fun to watch catching baitfish displaying amazing speed and acrobatics.  With a high-pitched dip and a chir-ee-eep they’re speeding overhead.

I look over where Debbie was and I see she’s up and around.  She’s busy photographing an Osprey that has a fish. (you’ll see these fantastic shots some other time).  I head for the car feeling kinda sorry I didn’t see any Snowy Plovers.  They seemed to be all over the place a few days ago.  Oh well, it is a great birding day.  Two new birds, weather is cool and gentle.

Here I am, poking along in the sand with my head down for no particular reason and I look up.  Gee-maneese…….I’m surrounded by Snowy Plovers!  Am I dreaming or something?  No, they are here.  Almost running me over.  I think I took more than 100 shots I was having so much fun.  Look at this cool (sorry) bird.  The Snowy Plover.

Snowy Plover

Snowy Plover’s calls include a Krut and a soft , whistled Kuwheet.  They inhabit sandy beaches and flats.

Baja Sur bird racket.

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A lot of time I don’t need to go far to get involved with birds.  Just the other day, around sun down, I hear a bunch of birds, Orioles, Finches, Cactus Wrens and others making a racket on the lot behind our casa.  It’s getting dark but I grab the camera anyway and go to investigate.  I’m facing West, where the sun in sinking and here comes this Great Horned Owl, it lands on a cardon.  I figured it’s mate must be on the ground with prey where all the noise is coming from.  Too dark to see.  So I take a few shots at the silhouette of this bird not too hopeful of what the results will be.  That’s the photo, top left.

The Owl takes off so I head for the barn.  I have the shot up on the computer and it’s way dark.  I shoot in “Raw” and this gives me the ability to work on a photo without making it look too “shopped”.  I add a little exposure and out comes some nice detail.  Nice for the lighting conditions for sure.  Check this out……

Great Horned Owls can vary in color from a reddish brown to a grey or black and white. The underside is a light grey with dark bars and a white band of feathers on the upper breast. They have large, staring yellow-orange eyes, bordered in most races by an orange-buff facial disc. The name is derived from tufts of feathers that appear to be “horns” which are sometimes referred to as “ear tufts” but have nothing to do with hearing at all. The large feet are feathered to the ends of the toes, and the immature birds resemble the adults.

One Of Our Favorite Baja Birding Areas

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We went birding at the lagoons today. Sorry, no photos from this chick….(no pun intended)!  It was our first time back since my bobcat incident a couple of months ago. I summoned up the courage to go back to the point of eye contact with the beautiful creature that put my heart in my throat. Well…..almost to the point.  Close enough.

I found myself continuously looking over my shoulder.  Instead of looking for birds, I was looking for bobcat. I was listening for bobcat sounds instead of sounds of the birds we see in Baja.  Now, I doubt very seriously if I would hear a bobcat stalking me but I was still looking and listening. So much so that I did not even fire off a shot.  Gotta get over it!

 

Water levels in the lagoons are way down.  Speaking with one local who was born and raised in La Rivera and in his late 30’s, he said he is seeing the lagoons water level drop continuously.  His father, also born and raised in La Rivera is in his mid 60’s and never saw the levels go down until recently.  I have heard reports that Baja is in its worst drought in the last 72 years.

There is evidence of careless and or uncaring humans all over the lagoons.   I didn’t take a photo because I like pretty things, like the male varied bunting.  You get the picture.  I’m going to ask our local rotary club if they would like to organize work parties to help keep the area clean.   They so kindly asked what they could do to help the wildlife when Chris gave his successful book, Birds We See in Baja California Sur, Mexico presentation last winter.   We now see a cause for concern. Speaking of our local rotary chapter, they work tirelessly for the  betterment of local families and the wonderful community in which we live here in Los Barriles and the surrounding areas. I’m amazed at what they accomplish.   Thank you Rotary Club of Los Barriles Cabo Este!

 

There is no longer an opportunity for capturing the sounds of silence, wildlife and the seashore here at the lagoons. I’m afraid it may be gone forever.  Sounds of heavy equipment roars steadily as construction of a very large development  continues to the south.  Not so long ago, this was a peaceful environment abundant with wildlife.  I feel it slipping away.

 

I remain hopeful that the developers will take responsibility to help restore and maintain the lagoons to their natural state of beauty and wildlife habitat. Just think how it would enhance sales if they featured a natural wildlife reserve right next to their resort.

 

Stopped at restaurant Mariscos La Costa for lunch in La Rivera after my not so great birding day (Chris had a great one….go figure).   I had the Shrimp Diabla in chipotle cream sauce and Chris had chicken tacos.  Both were superb.  Being the foodie I am, I asked for the recipe for the shrimp diabla and indeed, after a lot of hand motions, demos and Spanglish, I  came away with it.  This day of birding that wasn’t, instead turned into a superb pleasing of the palate.  I rate both of these activities very high.

 

Baja birders are back in town.

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And here comes one of our friends to welcome us home.  This is one of the birds we see quite often around the casa.  The endemic Gray Thrasher.  We’re trying to get “Birds We See” books and things unloaded from the car and here’s this little guy running around scolding us.

 

 

Where have you two been?

Next, we go out back to the south patio.  Also there waiting for us with a “where ya been?” kind of look is Mr. Costa’s Hummingbird.

Even the normally suave Xantus’s Hummingbird is showing his displeasure at us for being away.

It won’t be long before all is well.  The feeders are coming out today and our fine-feathered friends will be back to being their joy-filled selves.

The Gray Thrasher will be up in his tree singing for us.

 The Costa’s Hummingbird will fly around looking pretty for us.

Mr. Xantus will stick his nose in the air for a while, but even he will get over it.

Sometimes it’s good to feel missed!

These two Baja birders have been away.

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Debbie and I just spent a few days back home in Bandon this week.  I had some free time one day and noticed it was a low tide.  So I put on my snow-storm clothes (in the old days I would have worn a tee shirt) and braced to tackle the wind and sleet.  Down to the jetty I go.  When the weather is as bad as it was I figured I’d be all alone, the way I like it sometimes and I was right.

As soon as I arrive, I hear birds.  I spotted something bright orange moving around in the puddles that are tide pools.  Sure enough, a Black Oystercatcher.  Time for a shot.  That’s the bird in the first photo.

Next I see another one of my favorites, (they are all favorites for me). It’s a Marbled Godwit.  Check out this picture, it’s a dandy.

I can’t hardly believe the luck I’m having.  I hear a bird squak and turn towards the sound.  A new bird for me (and by-the-way so was the Godwit) a Whimbrel  is anouncing it’s presence and posing for me.  Holy smokes!  I raise the 100×400 and let him have it.  Look at the bill on this bird.

Then, just when I’m having a time of my life, all the birds freak out and fly away.  Man, I’ll tell you what.  If you ever have the chance to hear the racket of a bunch of mixed  shore birds taking off in a fright, don’t pass it up.  There is nothing like it .  I didn’t sneeze or anything so I new something was up.

 

 

And I was absolutely right.  I look up and see a raptor streaking by about 50 yards away.  No wonder the birds were scared off.  This bird is a Northern Harrier.

A beautiful Baja Buffle…….what?

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A Bufflehead, that is.  These little birds we see beauties are the smallest diving ducks in North America.  The name “bufflehead” comes from “buffalo-headed” due to the large-looking heads these ducks have.  Pictured here is a female with a tasty morsel she snatched up on a dive.

These ducks are strikingly beautiful.  As you can see from the photo, the female is dark brown on top with a small white cheek-patch and is lighter below.  The male has a large white head patch with a black and white body.  The black in the feathers refracts all sorts of colors from the birds surroundings.  WOW!

The Bufflehead is a diver and unlike other diving ducks can take flight from water without having to run along the surface. Buffleheads typically eat aquatic insects, snails, crustaceans and aquatic plants.  Buffleheads are usually seen in small groups.  As the others feed, one will stand watch for potential danger.

I guess Buffleheads aren’t known to be especially camera shy but the only time I can get close enough for a good shot is when there are only one or two present.  I wait for them to dive.  Then I sneak up a little closer to where they were and stop.  Up they pop, I stay still.  They always look at me so I don’t move.  These birds look at me out of one eye, turn around and look at me out of the other eye I guess to be sure they’re not seeing things.  They eventually give up and dive again.  I sneak a little closer and so it goes until I’m close enough.  Usually they’ll let me have a shot or two and they’re off like a shot.

Buffleheads live by lakes, rivers and bays. Most breed in the northwestern part of North America.  As winter nears, Buffleheads migrate to coastal water on the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts as far south as parts of Mexico.  The average number found in Texas, both on the coast and in the interior, has been recorded at 4,300.  This is the largest winter count of Buffleheads of any state.

Male and female Buffleheads

Fascinating story on one of our Baja birds

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Whimbrel

Too cold to bird outside in the Northwest today so I did a little birding inside, playing catch up on my reading, which consists of, yeah, you guessed it….birding magazines.  When I got to my Audubon magazine, I was so enthralled with this article on one of our Baja birds, the Whimbrel, that I thought I must share it with you.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I.  I will give you a few “Whimbrel facts” before the story which can be read in it’s entirety at http://www.audubonmagazine.org/articles/birds/unlocking-migrations-secrets

The Whimbrel is one of the most widespread of the curlews.  Adults are very defensive of their nesting area and will attack humans who come too close.  Some migrating birds make a nonstop flight of 2500 miles from southern Canada or New England to South America.

Wingspan Range: 31-33 inches

Breeding:  Breeds in the Arctic and winters in Africa, southern North America, South America, and south Asia.  Preferred habitats include tundra, marshes, prairies, shorelines, and mud flats.

Foraging and Feeding:  Feeds on insects, snails, slugs, crabs, shrimp, mollusks, and worms.  Probes deeply into mud and moves as it feeds.  Also picks off food found on the ground.  Sometimes takes large prey, tearing it into pieces small enough to eat.

I was also fascinated to learn that prior to 200 B.C., the Romans transmitted messages by tying them to a swallow’s foot.  The earliest known instance of this appears during the Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.)  In 1595 the earliest record of a metal band being attached to a bird’s leg:  Henry IUV’s tagged peregrine falcon, lost in France, shows up 24 hours later in Malta, about 1,350 miles away.

I’ve often wondered about this tagging and attaching geolocators.  Wondering if our whales, sharks, birds, etc. are aggravated by it.  Does it interfere with their day to day life and their very existence?  Is it a trade off to gain the knowledge of their migrations?  In Lake Tahoe one year, I saw a foot tag on a Canada goose that caused it to limp around and not behave normally.  This kind of set in my mind as I really didn’t like this tagging thing but here I am….so enthralled with this information from this practice that I had to share it with you!  I just don’t know…..I’ll keep thinking on it and weighing the pros and cons in my mind.  I wish the birds and the animals could talk.  I mean…where’s Dr. Dolittle when you need him???!

UNLOCKING MIGRATION’S SECRETS

FOR CENTURIES THE STUDY OF BIRD MIGRATION HAS BEEN RIDDLED WITH MYSTERY AND UNANSWERED QUESTIONS: WHERE DO BIRDS GO IN WINTER? HOW FAR DO THEY FLY? CAN THEY NAVIGATE A HURRICANE? SCIENTISTS ARE TAPPING NEW TECHNOLOGIES TO FIND THE ANSWERS, AND TRANSFORMING EVERYTHING WE KNOW—OR THINK WE KNOW—ABOUT BIRDS.

BY SCOTT WEIDENSAUL/PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOEL SARTORE
Published: March-April 2012

Last August a female whimbrel took off from the treeless tundra of Southampton Island, which guards the iceberg-choked entrance to Hudson Bay in the Canadian subarctic, and set a course southeast.

Long-limbed and gray-brown, she was the size of a small duck, bearing the field marks that make this shorebird instantly identifiable—dark stripes on the crown of her head, and a long, thin, drooping crescent of a bill. It gives the whimbrel its genus name: Numenius, Greek for “new moon.”

Southampton had merely been a way station for her; some weeks earlier she had arrived there from her breeding grounds on the Mackenzie River delta in the Northwest Territories, some 1,500 miles and 52 hours of flying time to the northwest. Now her bill was stained purple from weeks of gorging on the autumn tundra’s bounty—blueberries, crowberries, and cloudberries, all of which her body had converted to thick layers of fat, fuel for the incredible journey ahead.

Tapered wings pumping without pause or rest, she flew east across Hudson Bay, passing thereafter over the rugged Ungava Peninsula of northern Quebec, then above the trackless boreal forests and wild rivers of Labrador. After 1,500 miles of unbroken flight, averaging 43 miles per hour, she left land behind, flying out into the open ocean somewhere south of Newfoundland.

 

Connectivity Map

Illustration by Peter Hoey
High Hope: A Whimbrel’s Migration

 

It was here that she ran into trouble. Her flight path brought her into the remnants of Tropical Storm Gert, which was roiling its way up the north Atlantic. Fighting ferocious headwinds, the bird struggled to stay aloft as she plowed ahead at a painful crawl; for the next 27 hours her average ground speed slowed to a mere nine miles an hour.

Finally she broke through to the storm’s far side. Now, with the gale at last at her back, she rocketed along at 92 mph. In little more than 90 minutes she flew 150 miles to make landfall at Cape Cod—her first rest since she’d taken off from Southampton Island four days and 2,325 miles earlier.

That we know about this migratory drama at all, much less in such extraordinary detail, is thanks to a small satellite transmitter nestled among the feathers on the whimbrel’s back—part of a transformation in wildlife tracking that is making it possible for scientists to understand the movements of migratory animals with a level of precision unimaginable even a few years ago. They can comb through the chemical isotopes in a bird’s feather and learn where it spent the winter, sift the DNA in its genes to tease out how migratory populations are related to one another, attach minute devices that faithfully record its location for years at a stretch by just observing the time the sun rises and sets each day, or track threatened eagles in the Appalachians by tapping into the ubiquitous cell phone network (and thus help planners avoid conflicts with new wind farms). They have found that neighboring populations of the same species may take wildly different routes to far-flung wintering areas, and that many birds show an almost incomprehensible degree of fidelity to particular stopover and wintering sites.

With that new knowledge has come a recognition of what we’ve badly underestimated: the profound, almost universal role that migration plays in virtually every aspect of a wild bird’s life—and, with it, a new effort by dozens of researchers, agencies, and organizations like Audubon to better map these movements, better understand their significance, and harness this greater understanding for the benefit of birds.

“This new generation of telemetry has enormous potential for understanding bird biology and conservation,” says Steve Kress, Audubon’s vice president for bird conservation, and the founder of Project Puffin. “The new data loggers and transmitters could be far more important than bird bands, and future ornithologists may someday think of placing metal rings on bird legs as being as primitive as we might think of John James Audubon’s method of tying a silver thread to a phoebe leg. This is because these new devices give us the ability to track individual birds throughout the year—something that a band was never intended to do.” (To learn about the migratory secrets of some other individual species, from long-tailed ducks to pink-footed shearwaters and golden eagles, go to audubonmagazine.org.)

But by lifting the veil that has masked much of where and when birds travel, conservationists not only realize how little they know about migration. They’ve also learned, sometimes to their grief, that they have badly underestimated, too, the dangers facing these global wanderers—birds like the whimbrel named Hope.

This article also left me wondering about the pattern of this migration shown in the illustratiuon above.  Note that the 2010 Fall Migration differs from the 2009 Fall Migration.  Why did the Whimbrel not stop in Virginia in 2009 like it did in 2010?  Weather?  What are your thoughts?  Has anyone seen a Whimbrel in our Baja birding areas?  We haven’t yet and therefore, no photo!

It’s the Least I can say about Baja Birds.

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The Least Sandpiper.  These are the smallest of American shore birds or “peeps“.  Brownish above with yellow or green legs and short thin bills.  They greet us with a treep and a chuckle when we visit the estuary.

 

 

Least Sandpipers are found in mud-flats, marshes and estuaries much more so than any kind of open ocean beach habitat.

They feed on insects, crustaceans, mollusks and marine worms.

Least Sandpiper

Least Sandpipers breed from Alaska east across Canada to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.  They spend the winters along the south coasts.  Hard to imagine these little birds migrating such a distance. 6″