Category Archives: Video

Unlike still photographs, videos of nature can help us study behavior and learn more about our environment.

Featherless Joy of Birding

Birdless Joys of Birding - Desert Bighorn Sheep near Zzyzx.

Desert Bighorn Sheep near Zzyzx.

The joy of birding doesn’t always include birds. We made a successful three hour drive to Baker, California to see a White Ibis. White-faced Ibis are the common species in California. Glossy Ibis is very rare. And this was the first White Ibis I’ve seen in the state in nearly 20 years of birding. We then decided to check some other local spots. We know of several in the area that can often be productive.

One of our favorite spots is the California State University Desert Studies Center at Zzyzx. Formerly a desert resort, this oasis has springs and accommodations that facilitate workshops of many kinds, and on a good day, can have lots of migrant birds refueling in the trees and ponds. Some desert residents even breed there. So, we drove in, parked, and walked around searching for some rare bird to tickle our fancy. We checked the ponds, the tamarisks, the palms, and the willows. We even scanned the rocky hillsides and the salt pan.

Big(horn) Surprise

The place was virtually bird-less. But on our way out, we chanced upon this particular joy of birding, a flock of Desert Bighorn Sheep. These animals are very reclusive, so we stopped to get some photos and video. We shot some rewarding footage recording behavior that very few people get to see. I recorded the video with a Nikon CoolPix P6000 camera through a Kowa TSN-884 spotting scope.

YouTube video

We used digiscoping so that we could keep our distance and avoid spooking the sheep. Through digiscoping, we were able to record Desert Bighorn Sheep doing things that are not often seen. Be sure to follow along with the narration in the video. We point out such behavior as the ram asserting his dominance and insisting on submission from one of the younger males.

Season of Shorebirds – Summer 2011

The summer of 2011 is shaping up to be a fabulous season of shorebirds in California. The season kicked off with the appearance of the Lesser Sand-Plover in Orange County, CA, a cooperative bird that stayed a total of 8 days in late June, delighting many observers.

Shorebirds to the North

Little Sting season of shorebirds

Little Stint

July has been even better with the appearance of two Little Stints, both in northern California. On the 23rd, Kimball Garrett discovered another one at Piute Ponds on the grounds of Edwards Air Force Base in northern LA County. On the same day, a Wilson’s Plover was found at the Carpinteria Salt Marsh Reserve in Carpinteria. Unfortunately it was in a restricted area where only a limited few could get access.

The Little Stint was too good to pass up, so a group of us got up before dawn the next day and made the trek north, arriving on the site by 7:15. The bird was re-found within minutes of our arrival and we began watching this rather reddish adult shortly after. After about an hour of digiscoping pictures and video, one of the observers got a phone call saying that Guy McCaskie had found an adult Curlew Sandpiper on the salt basin at Imperial Beach, south of San Diego. You could look at the birders around you and just see the wheels turning as they all began calculating time and distance, or perhaps gauging spousal approval.

YouTube video

Shorebirds to the South

Curlew Sandpiper season of shorebirds

Curlew Sandpiper

For us, it was a no-brainer: we were going! Even with a stop or two along the way, we made it to the site just a bit before noon. We pulled together the cameras, scopes, tripods and binoculars and made the ¼-mile trek out to the site. As we arrived, we could tell something was off from the assembled crowd of birders. Strange and angry mutterings like “!*^$&% Peregrine Falcon!!” and worried bits of encouragement like “It’s got to be here somewhere!” suggested the nature of the problem. With over 20 birders searching, no one found the bird for at least an hour.

At that point, we decided to break for lunch and come back later, so we drove off in search of fast food. As it turned out, the food wasn’t fast enough: it had just been delivered to the table when the phone rang. The bird was back! Unlike the stint, this wasn’t a life bird for either of us, so we opted to hurriedly finish our sandwiches before charging back out there. Apparently everyone had heard. The crowd of birders had more than doubled, and the mood was ebullient. The bird itself was calmly feeding on the near edge of the water, evidently oblivious to the mob of admirers mere yards away. It put on quite a show, feeding and preening and occasionally lifting its wings.

YouTube video

Season of Shorebirds Continues

Since then, two more great shorebirds have shown up, although both are way further north again. On the 26th, a Red-necked Stint appeared in Coos County Oregon. On August 5th, Ryan Merrill found a Wood Sandpiper at Samish Flats, WA. For those of you on the left coast, you might want to hit any marsh, lake, bay or beach with any kind of suitable habitat. And for those of you from more distant locales, you might want to check your opportunities for standby flights. Who knows what could show up in a year like this!

Unusual Vagrants in Southern California

Unusual vagrants made the first half of November, 2012 extraordinary for mega-rarity bird sightings in southern California. From the 4th-7th of November, an Ivory Gull visited Pismo Beach. Then on the 8th, a Black-tailed Gull appeared in Long Beach. On the 9th, someone found a Taiga Bean Goose at the south end of the Salton Sea. The Ivory Gull was only the second one seen in California. The Black-tailed Gull was a third state record and the Bean Goose is a first. Of these unusual vagrants, the latter two are normally found in east Asia. Are these just random occurrences or are they part of a larger pattern, perhaps resulting from climate change?

Ivory Gull

YouTube video

Ivory Gulls are native to the far arctic where they live on pack ice and feed mostly on the carcasses of dead mammals such as seals. As the name implies, the adults are almost pure white. The only coloration is their black legs, feet and eyes, and their bill, which is greenish with a bright yellow tip.

In the 20th Century, Ivory Gulls reached the US in the Lower 48 and southern Canada in only 20 of 100 years. Few of these years had more than one bird, and most were first winter birds. Since then, Ivory Gulls have “vagrated” to the Lower 48 and southern Canada in 8 consecutive winters, and most were adults. In fact, the Pismo Beach bird was the 8th for 2010 alone, and ALL of them were adults. The vast majority of North American records are from the northeast, but recent records from Tennessee (1997), the Alabama/Georgia border (2009) and Pismo Beach are unusually far south. The Pismo Beach record is the earliest fall/winter sighting ever – typically, sightings occur between December and March with the bulk of those in January and February. See “Patterns from E-Bird” at for more complete sighting details.

Ivory Gull

Ivory Gull

Ivory Gulls normally stay close to the Arctic Circle and are quite comfortable in that harsh environment. They have long claws, adapted for traction on the ice, but the claws are of little use on a beach where people wade barefoot in the ocean. The availability of multiple seal carcasses along the beach certainly helped keep this Ivory Gull fed. While we were there, it spent most of its time feeding.

Vagrancy among juveniles can be attributed to a successful breeding season, but among adults, it is more difficult to explain. Perhaps because Ivory Gulls rarely see humans, they are often relatively tame. At Pismo Beach, birders frequently surrounded the gull. Joggers and dog walkers passed by, but the gull seldom flew in response to close approach. The dramatic changes in vagrancy patterns may be cause for concern about this already endangered population of Ivory Gull. Seeing one this far from the pack ice was incongruous, but delightful.

Black-tailed Gull

"<yoastmarkBlack-tailed Gulls are native to eastern Asia but are casual visitors to coastal Alaska and northeastern North America. They are accidental in California. Neither of the two previous records were chase-able. The first bird visited San Diego Bay in 1954. It was collected. A visiting birder photographed the second one at a public beach in Half Moon Bay (12/29/2008). Many birders searched, but never refound the gull.

Black-tailed Gulls are larger than Ring-billed Gulls and smaller than California Gulls. Adults have a bright yellow bill with a red spot followed by an uneven black ring and a bright red tip. The face shows bright white eye crescents above and below the yellow eyes with their red orbital ring. They also have yellow legs and feet. Despite the name, the tail is not completely black, featuring a broad black sub-terminal band between a white rump and narrow white terminal band. The mantle is slate gray, and their wing tips have much smaller white mirrors than other medium to large white-headed gulls.

YouTube video

The Long Beach Black-tailed Gull remained through at least the afternoon of the 10th. It stayed in its general location all day, moving only between the beach, the water, and some buoys. The bird was absent when we arrived pre-dawn on the 9th and only a few gulls were on the beach, but it flew in at 6:15 AM to the delight of about 30 birders, some of whom came from as far away as the Sacramento area. While on the beach, the it spent much of its time preening in the midst of a flock of Ring-billed, California and a few Western Gulls.

Taiga Bean Goose

In 2007, the AOU split Bean Goose into Taiga Bean Goose and Tundra Bean Goose, based on breeding habitat: forest bogs in the subarctic taiga or on the arctic tundra. The Taiga Bean Goose has a black bill with a yellow-orange tip. It lacks the white at the base of the bill of the Greater White-fronted Goose (which has an orange bill).  A longer bill, and narrower at the base, distinguishes it from Tundra Bean Goose. Bean Geese have a habit of grazing in winter bean field stubble, hence the name. Bean Geese are native to Eurasia, and the Taiga is the largest species.

This individual showed up at the south end of the Salton Sea at Unit 1 of the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge on Vendel Rd. This Taiga Bean Goose is of the Middendorf race from eastern Siberia, which may merit separate species status itself. There are only about 5000 Middendorf’s Taiga Bean Geese. This goose associates with a huge flock of mostly Snow and Ross’s Geese that also includes three Greater White-fronted Geese. Other North American Bean Goose records were mostly from coastal Alaska, along the Aleutians or in the northeast (US and southeast Canada). There are also two 2003 records from the state of Washington.

Why the Vagrancy?

The question many California birders ask is: why are we seeing these mega-rarities all in southern California in early November? Could these occurrences be due to climate change? Some evidence may support that conclusion in the case of the Ivory Gull. However, there is as yet no causal connection between climate change and the vagrancy of the other two birds. Regardless of the reasons, it sure is an exciting time to be birding in southern California!

Western Screech-owl calling

Western Screech-Owl with the Canon 7D Camera

Western Screech-Owl

Western Screech-Owl

Last month a couple of us went into Silverado Canyon to try and capture video of a Western Screech-Owl with the new Canon 7D camera. Since we found this cute little screech-owl right next to the road we used him as our test subject for our night-time video skills.

Night photography is always a challenge but with this camera in video mode, it was surprisingly simple to get great footage “fresh out of the box”. We set out this evening with only a small flashlight, camera, and tripod. Our results were very pleasing since this was our first attempt using so little equipment.

Canon 7D Camera

First of all the Canon 7D represents a big technological jump in digital photography. This camera delivers video and photo capabilities that give professional results at a reasonable cost to any amateur photographer.

We have now spent enough time with this camera to know that the rave reviews we hear about it are well justified. We took this video in the field at low light levels with minimal equipment, thus limiting the impact on the subject. The Canon 7D did a great job, producing high-quality video of Western Screech-owl under compromising conditions.

Western Screech-Owl

Western Screech-Owl has the highest population density in the foothills of our local area. In oak habitat of the Western United States this owl is a common resident. He is very similar to the other three species of screech-owls found in the US. The most obvious and defining characteristic of all owls is their call. The “bouncing ball” call of the Western Screech-Owl is very distinctive and make his identification very simple. The birdwatchers often miss actually seeing this owl even though he is fairly common. This owl lives in dense wooded habitat. Furthermore his very well camouflaged plumage makes him very difficult to locate by voice.


YouTube video


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Digiscoped Video – American Oystercatcher

On Saturday, May 22, 2010, I followed up on a report of an American Oystercatcher at a few locations in Laguna Beach. I tried Crescent Bay first, and was fortunate to find five Oystercatchers on the rocks below the point. There were three Black Oystercatchers, while the other two looked pretty good for Americans.

What are they?

Black and American Oystercatchers interbreed and their hybrid offspring can be anywhere on a cline from pure Black to pure American. We had to evaluate these birds for purity. J. R. Jehl, Jr. developed a rating system used by ornithologists to determine where on the cline a given bird falls. Because there are several genetic variations that are involved, we use ten different characteristics to judge the birds. Nine of them have a score between 0 and 4. The belly coloration goes from 0 to 6. A bird with a score of 0 to 9 rates is a pure Black Oystercatcher. One scored from 30 to 38 is pure American, and everything in between is a hybrid.

I took this video with a Nikon CoolPix P6000 attached to a Kowa TSN-884 spotting scope at a distance of 96 yards measured by a Zeiss Victory PRF laser rangefinder.

YouTube video

Is Either an American Oystercatcher?

The Oystercatcher in the center of this video has white upper tail coverts (Jehl’s score 4), basal half of all retrices were white (4), chest sharply delimited black to white on upper chest (4), belly entirely white (6), undertail coverts entirely white (4), thighs entirely white (4), greater secondary coverts 6-15mm (3), white present on some of inner primaries (3), underwing coverts entirely white (4), axillaries entirely white (4). The Jehl’s score for this American Oystercatcher is 36 out of 38.

The hybrid Oystercatcher, seen on the left as the video starts, has upper tail coverts black (Jehl’s score 0), retrices mainly black with some white in the vanes (1), black chest bordered by jagged edge on upper chest (3), belly entirely white (6), undertail coverts mainly white (3), thighs entirely white (4), greater secondary coverts 6-15mm (3), white present on secondaries but not primaries (2), underwing coverts mainly white (3), axillaries entirely white (4). Jehl’s score is 28 out of 38, so close, but not close enough.