Author Archives: Steve Sosensky

About Steve Sosensky

Steve was born at a very early age in New Haven Connecticut. His careers have included software engineer, fashion photographer, bird guide, and sales here at Optics4Birding. Steve emigrated to California in 1972 and lived in the Bay Area, Santa Barbara, San Fernando Valley before moving to Orange County.

Red-throated Pipits Return to SoCal

Red-throated Pipits

Red-throated Pipit

Migration of Red-throated Pipits

One of the most amazing migratory flights is that of the Red-throated Pipit Anthus cervinus. This pipit breeds primarily in eastern Europe and Asia, almost completely above the Arctic Circle, and on the Kamchatka Peninsula. There are also some breeding grounds in Alaska’s northwest coast, Bering Sea islands, and possibly also in the Yukon.

Most Red-throated Pipits migrate down the western Pacific and winter in China and as far south as Australia. Some of the more eastern breeders take a more easterly route. These 6-inch passerines fatten up on the islands in the Bering Sea and then head off on a 3,000 mile flight across the Pacific Ocean to the California coast. While annual each October in southern California in small numbers, mostly on sod farms, Red-throated Pipits are almost unheard of much north of the San Francisco Bay Area. This tells us that they rarely follow land and fly straight across the ocean. The Red-throated Pipits that migrate through SoCal winter in Baja California. eBird records show them wintering near La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico. Continue reading

Dance of the Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret preening

Reddish Egret preening

When people find out I’m a birder, one of the most frequent questions is “What’s your favorite bird?” Sometimes I’ll give a flippant answer such as “My next life bird.” Other times, I’ll say that I love all birds and can’t pick a favorite – that each is special in its own way. I do have an affinity for Magnificent Frigatebirds, because seeing an adult male flying fifteen feet over my head while standing on a dock on Key West was the experience that triggered my choice to actively pursue the hobby of birding. But there are in fact some birds that are definitely cooler than others, be they prettier, uglier, sweet singers, or just plain quirky. One of these is the Reddish Egret (Egretta rufecens).

Reddish Egrets, once rare in Southern California, have been moving gradually up the coast. They now inhabit estuaries from San Diego through Ventura. Recently, they are visiting Santa Barbara. At Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, they are breeding. Birders frequently report sightings of 2 or 3 individuals. Continue reading

Getting Close to Bugs

Painted Lady - getting close

Painted Lady

The old saying goes “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.” But we who study butterflies, dragonflies, or other small creatures, know that many other things need proximity. Getting close looks at and/or photographing them requires optics that let you see these beauties in enough detail. That means being able to focus at very short distances. On the Optics4Birding website, a binocular’s close focus distance must be less than 8 feet to be considered close-focusing. I photographed these butterflies with a lens that allows close focus as well. All these images are full frame. I have not cropped the photos, only resized them to fit our page format. The Painted Lady (above) was feeding on nectar from these flowers. Continue reading

Strange Things Revisited

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

We took a drive to Santa Paula in Ventura County to see this female Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forticatus). It had taken up residence in a park in the center of town. I digiscoped her through a Kowa TSN-884 spotting scope with a TE-11WZ eyepiece using a Panasonic G6 camera.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher Range

Scissor-tailed Flycatchers’ normal range is in the south central U.S. They are common in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and the western portions of Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana. In Southern California, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers usually show up in winter and leave in spring. Having one in summer is quite rare.

Strange Occurrence

The reason this female is still around is quite obvious: she is tending a nest. What’s even more interesting is there is not a male Scissor-tailed Flycatcher around and a male Western Kingbird seems to be watching over the nest when mom is out feeding herself. It will be interesting to see whether she fledges some interesting hybrids. Recent reports from Santa Paula question whether there are truly eggs in the nest. Some observers report seeing her “adjusting eggs”, while others say she is spending most of her time eating for herself and not tending the nest. Eggs would have hatched by now and no young have been seen.

Eastern Sierras – Handling the Expanse

An Eastern Sierras Excursion

The Eastern Sierras are one of the benefits of birding in California. They have a wealth of breathtaking scenery that we get to visit or pass. They are easily the equal of well-known scenic wonders like Yosemite, Big Sur, Death Valley, and Lake Tahoe. And these are just a few of the places that inspire awe. Driving around the state, I’ve developed an interest in geology as well, but birding is the main focus of my travels.

Minarets

Continue reading

2014 Orange County Spring Bird Count

The Spring Count

California Quail on the Orange County Spring Count

Male California Quail on the Orange County Spring Count

May 9th-11th, was the weekend of the 2014 Orange County Spring Bird Count. This event attempts to cover the entire county within a 3-day period. It  is conducted in synchrony with hundreds of such counts on the weekend of International Migratory Bird Day (IMBD), IMBD is always the second weekend of May. Annually, birders census birds on as many of the county’s birding hotspots as possible. Coverage of the entire county is not a feasible objective. Each count area submits data to eBird, so they are available to birders and researchers across the country almost instantaneously. The Orange County Spring Count is managed by Sea & Sage Audubon each year.

Conditions

This year’s Count featured many interesting hits and misses. Owing to the drought conditions, we saw few non-urban raptors, Many experienced pairs simply aren’t even attempting to nest. Owl numbers were way down. Even though nesting boxes are available, Barn Owls are failing to nest. We had low numbers of Western Screech-Owls and Great Horned Owls, and couldn’t raise a single Barn Owl in areas where they are usually numerous. Thus the most numerous night bird in Silverado Canyon was the Common Poorwill.

Western Toad

Western Toad

In Limestone Canyon (access granted by the Irvine Ranch Conservancy and Orange County Parks), the most common night bird was the Western Screech-Owl. We did have at least five of the large California subspecies of the Western Toad (Anaxyrus boreas halophilus) crossing the road in front of us. This is the middle of their breeding season, but with water levels so low everywhere, one wonders how much success they will have. In any case, there were plenty out and about.

High Counts

Pacific-slope Flycatcher

Pacific-slope Flycatcher

But it wasn’t all about what was missing either. There were still plenty of vireos, flycatchers and warblers about in both the foothill canyons and coastal green spaces. This Pacific-slope Flycatcher (Empidonax difficilis) is a common resident breeding species in much of Orange County. Some areas like Serrano Creek Park hosting multiple pairs within a short distance. It seems to be a big year for Canyon Wrens (Catherpes mexicanus) down on the coastal plain. We had three singing birds on a 7-mile hike through Laurel Canyon of the Laguna Coast Wilderness, and another one near Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary in Modjeska Canyon.

Hermit Warbler

Hermit Warbler

Wilson’s and Orange-crowned were the most numerous warblers, in that order, but there were good numbers of Hermit Warbler (Setophaga occidentalis) still moving through, including some in unlikely locations. This handsome male was one of a group of 3 driven into scrubby vegetation by powerful winds on the Harding Canyon truck trail on Sunday. All photos were taken with a Canon EOS Rebel T3 camera using a Canon 100-400 mm zoom lens.

Wildlife Photography is Full of Surprises

Female Flame Skimmer

Female Flame Skimmer

To paraphrase Forest Gump’s mother, wildlife photography, especially video, is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get. Animals do things on their own volition, so it always pays to wait and watch.

After looking at shorebirds along the Los Angeles River last fall, we walked back to the car through a park along the river. It was late morning and butterflies and dragonflies were quite active. Although we are primarily birders, we are interested in all of nature. So, we stopped to see what we could find.

Dragonfly Feeding Behavior

Dragonflies have two main methods of getting food: hawking and patrolling. In hawking, the dragonfly perches on the end of a branch, stump, or rock and waits for its prey to come flying by. In patrolling, the dragonfly flies up and down an area, often a path or road, and searches out its prey. Patrolling dragonflies are notoriously difficult to photograph because they are hardly ever stationary.

The Wildlife Photography Surprise

As we walked along, I noticed a Flame Skimmer. It was sitting perched on a stick in the middle of a planted area. Fortunately, Flame Skimmers are hawking dragonflies, so I decided to digiscope some video through my Kowa TSN-884 spotting scope with my micro four thirds camera. I set up, zoomed in, and started recording, waiting for something interesting to happen. The first few times the skimmer flew off its perch, I stopped recording, but it kept returning. Interested in showing that behavior, I started a new clip and decided to let the video run until it came back. Was I ever surprised and happy.

YouTube video

Letting the video run really paid off. When the Flame Skimmer returned to its perch, it was chewing away on a gnat! I never expected that. What a surprise! Isn’t wildlife photography fun?

Gone Fishin

Green Heron gone fishin at UC Fullerton Arboretum

Green Heron at UC Fullerton Arboretum.

We can learn a lot by watching animals. Unlike humans, they remain focused on their task at all times. This Green Heron, gone fishin at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in Irvine, California was no exception.

Green Herons, like most members of the heron and egret family, fish and crustaceans for a living. They have to get good at it to survive. Of the family members that occur in North America, the Great Blue Heron and the Cattle Egret eat land-based critters. The Great Blue Heron will eat anything it can fit in its mouth including rodents and birds. The Cattle Egret eats mostly insects, but also frogs and worms.

Continue reading

Looking for Love – Is This the Right Place?

Ridgeway's Rail at Upper Newport Ecological Reserve.

Ridgeway’s Rail at Upper Newport Ecological Reserve.

Light-footed Ridgeway’s Rail (formerly known as Clapper Rail), are federally listed as endangered. They can be difficult to see here in Orange County California. Unless you know when and where to look, you will rarely get a close-up. They occasionally appear at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Huntington Beach. But until recently, they have been few and far between. They still are not seen at Bolsa Chica with the regularity, quantity, or visibility of Upper Newport Bay during winter high tides.

Even though this Ridgeway’s Rail had been reported, I was surprised to drive into the parking lot at Bolsa Chica and hear it calling loudly, looking for love almost continuously in early July. I could barely see him through the vegetation lining the parking lot, so I walked around to the far side of the mule fat to see if I could get a decent look. There he was, looking for love, at almost point blank range (about 20 yards from me and about the same distance from Pacific Coast Highway). What an opportunity to take some video to try out the new Kowa TE-11WZ 25-60x wide angle eyepiece on my Kowa TSN-884 spotting scope! You can see the rail’s body shake with every call, and if you look closely, you can see his tongue.

Continue reading

Black-headed Grosbeak: Swarovski ATX 85

Black-headed Grosbeak

Black-headed Grosbeak: Aliso and Wood Canyon Regional Park, 04/13/13

Aliso and Wood Canyons Regional Park in Laguna Niguel, California is a wonderful place to go in the spring. Summer resident breeding birds are often perched up and singing. The habitat is a combination of coastal sage scrub with willow and cottonwood riparian areas. A road parallels the creek that runs down the center of the canyon. Late March and early April is the perfect time to visit, because you can see and hear Greater Roadrunner, Least Bell’s Vireo, Yellow Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Blue Grosbeak, and Black-headed Grosbeak. Therefore, I headed there to try digiscoping with my micro 4/3 format camera through the Swarovski ATX Modular Eyepiece with the Swarovski 85mm Modular Objective. The Chats weren’t in yet. I saw one Blue Grosbeak but it was high in a willow against marine layer clouds – a difficult background to work with.

Digiscoped Video

YouTube video

As luck would have it, I found this Black-headed Grosbeak Pheucticus melanocephalus posted up and singing. The bird sat low enough that there was foliage in the background. The Grosbeak was so vivid and sang beautifully. Therefore, I immediately decided to take a video. Fortunately, it was easy to mount the camera to the scope, thanks to the Swarovski TLS-APO SLR camera adapter, and I was rolling seconds after I had focused on the Black-headed Grosbeak with the ATX 85 spotting scope.

The pale downy feathers are the Grosbeak’s insulation system. He was fluffed-up because the chill from the previous night had not yet left the air.