Thursday, April 23, 2009

Theropods of Claremont, or, learning ornithology in front of a live audience

Every day between about 5:30 and 6:30 PM I have no scheduled obligations, my driveway is out of direct sunlight and there are lots of birds about. And, as luck would have it, I have a small Maksutov-Cassegrain which functions as telescope by night and a spotting scope by day. So I started photographing birds.

I won't lie to you: this started out as basically onanism with a telescope. You know, I couldn't get what I wanted (moon, planets, etc.), but I could still get something.... But against all odds I started to get interested in who's around. I finally knocked the dust off my copy of The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, which until the past couple of weeks had gotten about as much use as my copy of the complete works of William Shakespeare (i.e., it looked nice on the shelf, and implied erudition I don't actually possess).

This evening was particularly good; in an hour I saw and photographed five species. That's nothing by the standards of real birders, but for me it was a record. All were perched at one time or another in the top branches of a tree three houses down, or on the power lines at the end of the block. The tree is 70 yards from my driveway, and the power lines are a bit farther. I took all the photos with an Orion Apex 90 scope, Orion Sirius Plossl 25mm eyepiece yeilding 50x, and a handheld Nikon Coolpix 4500 digital camera. Many thanks to Alan Shabel for help with the identifications. Here they are:

A Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos. One of several in the neighborhood. I see them mainly when they come perch in the top of the target tree and scare off my intended quarry (see below).

A Band-Tailed Pigeon, Columba fasciata. I didn't know this was anything other than a feral Eurasian Rock Dove (i.e., regular pigeon) until I checked Sibley's. A strikingly beautiful animal, for a pigeon. I've seen these before, and just didn't know what I was seeing.

An Acorn Woodpecker, Melanerpes formicivorus. Today was the first time I'd actually seen one of these things around here, or ever identified a woodpecker to species. He spent quite a while tearing up our municipal infrastructure. Maybe I can score some stimulus bling for something called woodpecker monitoring.

Oh, now this little fartskin was a whole 'nuther kettle of fish. Didn't even sit still long enough for me to get the scope properly focused. Wham, bam, what the hell was that? I think, based on the reddish throat and face and black-and-white striped breast, that this is a Red-Throated Pipit, Anthus cervinus House Finch, Carpodacus mexicanus (thanks to Neil for the save, and for making my secondary title even more appropriate). But for all I know it might be a Rosy-Bummed Sky Kiwi or a Uruguayan Yaksucker, neither of which are covered by Sibley's. Perhaps I got the expurgated edition.

Those are all great birds, but the one that got me into this crazy pursuit is this little fellow, this particular individual, a male Anna's Hummingbird, Calypte anna, whom I spotted a couple of weeks ago buzzing about like a tiny helicopter or a slightly-larger-than-average bumblebee. Belying his clade's reputation, he does sit still from time to time, almost always on this exact spot on this exact branch of the same exact tree three houses down. You'd think that regularity of habit would make him easy to photograph. But he has a couple of traits that I'd never read about which make him a frustrating target. First, he's psychic; if I raise the camera to the eyepiece or, heaven forfend, call someone over for a look, he's gone. Sometimes for the rest of the day. Second, he's happy to show me his iridescent green back all day, but only rarely will he turn around and flash the iridescent red feathers that cover his face and neck.

Finally, finally today I got this shot. This is the same bird as in the shot above, about two minutes later. When the sunlight catches those feathers, the effect is unbelievable. One look at that and you might start to understand why a grown man would spend an hour every evening looking through a thermos-sized telescope at a thumb-sized bird half a block away. But when he turns around, away from the late afternoon sun, the effect is lost, and the feathers are a flat dark red, a bit like dried blood.

And like that, poof, he's gone.

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Blogger Mike Taylor said...

Perhaps I got the expurgated edition.The one without the gannet?

2:36 AM  
Blogger Neil said...

Nice shots. I think your yaksucker is a house finch Carpodacus mexicanus.

8:44 AM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...


Of course you are correct: the fat beak alone is enough to clinch it. Needless to say, I hadn't gotten a chance to run that one by Alan Shabel.

I will diminish, and go into the West.

8:51 AM  
Blogger Neil said...

Nice try turning a dirt common resident into a rare migrant though...I think you're getting the hang of this birding thing, just destroy the evidence next time!

4:52 PM  
Anonymous William Miller said...

*All* hummingbirds do that psychic trick of leaving their perch as soon as you get binoculars or a camera pointed. Our local ones are mostly Ruby-throated (Archilochus colubris), but they do the same.

4:33 PM  

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