Monthly Archives: November 2011

A New Bird Species for San Joaquin WS

imagehawkOn a routine weekend in late November, we went to look at a Harris’s Hawk reported recently at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in Irvine, California. The Orange County Bird Records Committee is unlikely to accept this bird due to questionable origins. Even so, you just can’t miss a bird that cool in a location like this. We arrived at about 8:45 on a sunny Saturday morning. At least 200 Cedar Waxwings were calling from the parking lot as we set up and headed out. We walked to the end of the boardwalk, and there was the hawk, sitting regally in a bare branched tree.

After taking numerous photos of him, we headed back towards the main pond area. A nice male Sharp-shinned Hawk interrupted our walk. It posed obligingly in a sycamore some 200 feet away. Next up was at least 7-8 Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, all fussing away like tiny, angry felines. As we got back to Pond D, one of the birders with us asked “Isn’t that the Vermilion Flycatcher?” He was right! It was, and a nice bright male at that.


Unexpected BlackbirdBlackbird-Rusty-2011-11-26-012

While we photographed that bird, one of us noticed what appeared to be a Brewer’s Blackbird, walking along the shore of Pond D. Upon closer examination we noticed that this bird had cinnamon plumage on the crown, nape and saddle. It also had a bright pale supercilium extending well behind the pale yellowish eye, and pale gray between the wings and on the rump. This was an apparent female Rusty Blackbird. It was a first for San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary and only the third for Orange County. As we observed further we noticed the handsome rufous edging to the flight feathers contrasting with the shiny black wings. The bird showed a paler brownish gray chest with faint, short vertical streaking across the chest and belly, all consistent with a female Rusty Blackbird.

Rusty Blackbird is a species of special concern in the United States at large. Its population has been in precipitous decline in recent years.

Blackbird-Rusty-2011-11-26-042All images were taken with a Kowa TSN-884 spotting scope with 25-60x zoom eyepiece and a Nikon CoolPix P6000 camera attached using a Kowa TSN-DA-10 digiscoping adapter. The optics were mounted on a Manfrotto MT055CXPRO3 carbon fiber tripod with a MVH500AH pro fluid digiscoping head. The Rusty Blackbird photos are of the same bird. One is in direct sun at 160 feet. The other is in shade at about 40 feet. The difference in these two photos illustrates how much lighting can alter the appearance of a subject.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

It’s fall in southern California, so birders keep busy looking for the odd vagrants that show up in pocket parks. Some might stay long enough to become Christmas (count) presents. Fall is the time to look for sapsuckers here. In Orange County, CA, it’s possible to see all four species of sapsucker. Red-breasted Sapsuckers predominate here; locating a Williamson’s presents a challenge. We found an unreported juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in Canyon Park on Saturday, 20-NOV-11.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker versus Red-naped: the Difficult Species Pair

Yellow-bellied and Red-naped Sapsuckers resemble each other in appearance for much of the year. Typically in fall, a juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsucker stand out, due to a major difference in molt patterns between the two species. Juvenile Red-naped Sapsuckers molt into their first basic plumage prior to migrating while young Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers retain their juvenile feathering all winter, not beginning to look like adults until late March or even April. Thus, any primarily brown sapsucker in winter is likely a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Still, you might want to take a close look at it just in case. If it has a paler brown head, or no prominent white wing coverts, it might be a female Williamson’s Sapsucker.

Juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Veteran’s Park

We drove up to Veteran’s Park in Sylmar to look for a male Williamson’s reported there. After a long search, we found many trees bearing obvious evidence of sapsucker workings, but only two birds. A shy Red-breasted kept company with another unreported juvenile Yellow-bellied. This bird shows the characteristic stiff tail feathers that help the bird perch more stably on the trunk. The pale red fringe on the crown is not a photographic artifact. This bird hid red buried in the crown feathers, hints of color it will show more boldly later. We took this photo with a Canon S95 digital camera on a Kowa TSN-883 spotting scope using a DA-10 adaptor.

Cooper’s Hawk

A Cooper's Hawk checks out the Pancake Breakfast

A Cooper’s Hawk checks out the Pancake Breakfast

At a recent Sea and Sage Audubon Pancake Breakfast, we found this Cooper’s Hawk right on top of us! This year?s event on  got off to an inauspicious start with the rain pouring down at 6:15 am. Fortunately, the rain mostly stopped by 6:45 and a little later, dramatic clouds gave accent to beautiful blue skies. Evidently enjoying the warmth, this Cooper’s Hawk chose a sunny perch for itself. Since we already had the Leica Apo-Televid 82 spotting scope set up, it was a matter of 10 seconds or less to drop the Leica D-Lux4 digital camera into position and begin snapping away. As it turned out, haste was unnecessary as the bird sat quite obligingly for some time.

Cooper’s Hawks are relatively common resident raptors here in southern California. Though at this time of year, there is potential for confusion as Sharp-shinned Hawks  migrate through the area.

A Tricky Identification

Cooper's Hawk, dorsal view

Cooper’s Hawk, dorsal view

Unfortunately, a picture like this conveys little idea of scale, but there are a few clues. First, this bird has a relatively large head; Sharp-shinned Hawks have proportionately smaller heads. Second, this bird exhibits a mostly-rounded tail. While not an infallible field mark, generally “Sharpies” show more squared tails. This is because their tail feathers have more uniform length. This bird is clearly an adult, as attested by the rust-red barring on the chest. Note the bluish-gray color of the back and upper tail and the bright red eye. Juveniles are warm brown in their upperparts, with brownish streaking against a pale chest, and a yellow or yellow-orange eye.

When the hawk flew to the top of the sycamore before leaving, it presented exposure problems for photography. He sat only briefly, peering this way and that. After compensating for the bright background, I squeezed off a few more shots. This Cooper’s Hawk provided a lovely demonstration subject for the speed and versatility of this Leica digiscoping outfit, and when I showed off the photos, more than one person said “Wow!” That’s what we like to hear!