Saturday 30 October 2010

Operation Autumn colour.

You will notice a slight change in style during this post. Redgannet has been invited to play with the big boys in the big rooms.
This is my first post for the mega-blog, 10,000 Birds
I will keep the name Redgannet, but write as the International Birder of Mystery to maintain my anonymity
My wife claims that the only mystery in our house is where all the beer goes.
The text appears slightly differently in each post as I cut and pasted from Word into 10,000 Birds which had the same effect as dropping a smoke bomb in the control room of the evil genius's lair, so I re-wrote.

Wish me luck.

Agent; Redgannet.
Mission; Capture autumn colours.
Theatre of operations; Boston.
 I had been specially selected for this operation.
  “Redgannet? We need you”. (See?).The call had come in the early morning.
It was ‘S’, the faceless, humourless, head of the department that assigns agents to important missions.
  “I promised I would send our best man,” she continued, “but he is already on a job. You will have to do.”
And so it was, I found myself jetting to Boston in the fall.

My mission objective was to experience the colours in New England during late October and to capture some of the spectacle on film. ‘Q’ from the technical gismos department had kitted me out with a fancy gadget that he called a polarising filter.
  “It enhances colours and reduces glare,” he told me.
  “Do be careful with it Gannet,” he continued.
I left the hotel under cover of darkness and arrived at the target site shortly after sunrise. The gates to Mount Auburn caused me no problems. They were open and unguarded. Today, I had chosen subtle shades of brown instead of my customary disrupted green camouflage. I slipped through the gates and melted into the background.
American Robins were noisy and obvious, but shy and kept their distance. Their red breasts looked splendid as a complement to the foliage. Blue Jays contrasted sharply with the autumn colours and would have made a superb photograph.

I found myself wishing that ‘Q’ had been able to get the big lens ready in time, but I was working with wide angle lenses today with emphasis on foliage pictures rather than birds.
Halcyon Lake looked stunning. Tufted Titmice and White-crowned Sparrows frequented the low bushes here as I tried to do justice to the magnificent vista.
The brief for this assignment had made no mention of any inter-agency co-operation. My usual contact was on a mission of his own this week, so who was the guy with the tripod mounted, 500mm outfit? CIA (Canon Inspired American)? Perhaps he had some information. His codename was Phil and he was FBI (Flickr Based Informant). His valuable local knowledge set me on my way to the tower on the highest point around. From here, a 360 view took in the whole of the cemetery, Harvard and Boston in the distance.
The Charles River was visible from here too. ‘W’ is in charge of running feints, decoys and distractions. He had done a great job in organising a huge regatta to ensure that the cemetery was dead quiet today and that my reconnaissance could be conducted without disturbance.

I ran into Phil again later on and in the spirit of cross-border relations, he lent me a trinket from the technical array in the trunk of his car. A fixed 400mm f4. His network of spies in the cemetery, in this instance, his wife Jen, had news of a young Red-tailed Hawk close to the gates. Phil bundled me into the car and off we sped.
The hawk is the survivor of two that fledged from a nest within the cemetery. It was very approachable and drew quite a crowd. Phil, Jen and I moved on, passing the feeder at the end of Auburn Lake. Black-capped Chickadees and American Goldfinches were feeding here. On the lake, a female Wood Duck tried to look inconspicuous among the Mallards.
A White-breasted Nuthatch was feeding in an evergreen nearby.
Ever alert and vigilant, the flash of a brown, low slung creature dashing for cover caught my eye. It was a Woodchuck and deserving of the red crayon as the first one I have ever seen.
We had arrived at a rendezvous point where all the informants meet up to share news. It was close to an evergreen bush which had been very productive of late. Blackpoll Warblers love the red berries from this bush and were showing well.
Other informants were gathering. John writes a diary blog of the cemetery and its wildlife in all seasons. Al is a security guard and designated spotter. He provides tip offs of any interesting action that he comes across on his rounds.
The cemetery had shown me its treasures and I had met a few contacts for the next time that I visit. All in all it had been a good day.
I would guess that many of the trees will continue to change and look spectaular through into November. But hurry, you wouldn't want to miss it.

My mission was accomplished and I must acknowledge Phil’s contribution to its success. Without the assistance of his technical department and the loan of his lens, the post would have been devoid of any bird pictures, which would have been a terrible shame in a bird blog article. I hope that if Phil’s agency ever sends him on an operation to the UK, I will be able to repay his trust and generosity. He seemed very pleased to have pictures of Blackpoll Warblers that slobber and drool, so this one is for you Phil. Thank you.

‘Q’ is on the case and working hard to repair the big lens in time for my next assignment. I don’t know where that will be yet, but that is the fun of the job.

Redgannet out.

 For those readers who don’t have the benefit of ‘Autumn Watch’, the BBC programme that documents British wildlife through the ’season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’, here is a taste of the kind of thing you are missing, though I am paraphrasing.

          Leaves have a number of pigments that colour them, but they are over-powered by the abundance of chloropyhll during the spring and summer and thus appear green. As autumn approaches and the days shorten, the chlorophyll production slows from lack of light and the other pigments are given their moment in the sun, so to speak. Raised sugar levels stimulate anthocyanins to produce the red colours and carotenoid pigments in their turn give us yellow leaves. The yellow carotenoids can be over-powered by the red anthocyanins, but when they are present in similar quantities a leaf may show as orange.

          Leaves are severed from the tree by means of a process called abcission. The nutrients in the leaves are reclaimed by the tree before special layers of cells in the abcission zone at the base of each stem, seal off the leaf and begin to disintegrate. (Suck ‘em and shed ‘em)

          The leaf drop in autumn or fall is the tree’s chance to excrete waste. Toxins build up in the leaves and are excreted when the tree sheds them. Leaves therefore have 3 purposes beyond looking beautiful. They feed and water trees as well as being the agents for waste disposal. They are excretophores and have the ability to remove toxins from polluted ground.

Bird species;

Mallard 18, Wood Duck 1, Red-Tailed Hawk 3, Cooper’s Hawk 1, Northern Flicker 1, Red-bellied Woodpecker 1, American Robin 80, Blue Jay 25,Tufted Titmouse 8, Black-capped Chickadee 20, White-breasted Nuthatch 2, Blackpoll Warbler 6, Yellow-rumped Warbler 2, White-crowned Sparrow 15, Song Sparrow 2, Slaty Junco 10, Northern Cardinal 5.

Mammal species;

Grey Squirrel 20, Eastern Chipmunk 4, Woodchuck 1.

A link to the previous Mount Auburn post with details and directions is below;

Other Boston posts are here;

Visit the dedicated page for posts from various locations in USA and Canada

Monday 25 October 2010

Yellow is the new Purple

Yellow is the new purple.
The meadow at Houston Arboretum and Nature Center was bedecked in purple when I visited last month. As late summer turns to fall, the fashion changes with it and outmoded purple has been replaced by yellow as the new couleur de la saison.  
This post is written to add to the article from last month;  

It is still hot during the day, though much cooler now in the mornings. Butterflies were warmed up sufficiently by 09.30 to be feeding in the meadow and turtles were hauling-out from the pond to sun-charge themselves for the day.
The forest had been sporadic this morning with the action coming in waves. The crests were busy parties of feeding birds which inevitably included Carolina Wrens. The troughs were quiet moments except for the wrens again. They gave a wide and varied performance today with a repertoire that kept me guessing for most of the morning. They are strident and exhuberant singers with an extensive range of phrases chatters and chuckles to entertain the aural birder.
The American Beauty Berries that had been so abundant are withering on the bushes now. Some look as if they have been fed on by birds. If I had thought at the time, I should have looked more closely at them. A mockingbird coughed up a bright red seed and it would have been interesting to know if it had been feeding on the beauty berries.
I took a couple of turns around the meadow and found an Eastern Phoebe on the second pass. I watched it hawking across the meadow and followed it to the pond where it posed on a fallen log.
In the meantime, I had been looking for some dragonflies. I mentioned Black Saddlebags Tramea lacerata in my last post here, but today I can confirm it in red after getting an incontrovertible view when one settled close enough for a photograph.The couple below are a male (top) and female Blue Dasher Pachydiplax longipennis.

As the end of the odonata flying season approaches, tattered individuals like this one are making their last attempt to prolong their dynasties. He was a little shorter and slimmer than the dasher, with a dark face. I suspect that it may be a Little Blue Dragonlet Erythrodiplax miniscula. Males of this species develop a blue thorax to replace the brown of early adulthood. If anyone can confirm, please let me know, thanks.
Blue Jays were noisy too. In the swamp area, they were persistently scolding a large female Cooper’s Hawk and succeeded in driving her away. Later, in the loblollies, they were screeching with fury at something on the ground. I was hoping that they might be warning of a snake, but I couldn’t see one.
Tufted Titmice were more tuneful and the Carolina Chickadee calls were sufficiently higher and faster than their black-capped cousins to allow me to identify them before they came into view. This was a feat made much easier by being beyond the normal range of the Black-capped Chickadee.Woodpeckers were well represented today with three species, Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, joining various mixed flocks.The biggest party contained many of the above as well as some Northern Cardinals, a Brown Thrasher, and a Northern Mockingbird.
Weekends at Houston’s Memorial Park are extremely busy. There is a picnic area east from the arboretum along Memorial Drive. The forest is much thinner inside the looped access road. The birds are much easier to see and photograph here, but a Sunday morning brings out Houston picnickers like soap addicts to an Eastenders omnibus. The looped road is a favourite with cyclists on an astonishing range of velocipedal contraptions. Mix in runners training for the imminent Houston Marathon and you have good reason for staying in the much quieter arboretum.
If any one has any ideas what this beauty, found beside the pond, might be, please do tell. The Brewer’s Blackbirds and Great-tailed Grackles were seen outside of the arboretum and are included to give as full a picture as possible of the ornithological potential of Houston in the middle of October.

Birds species; 19

Cooper’s Hawk 1, Mourning Dove 4, White-winged Dove 6, Ruby-throated Hummingbird 1, Red-bellied Woodpecker 3, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 1, Downy Woodpecker 1, Eastern Phoebe 2, Carolina Wren 25, Northren House Wren 2, Northern Mockingbird 2, Brown Thrasher 1, Carolina Chickadee 8, Tufted Titmouse 15, Blue Jay 10, American Crow 10, Northern Cardinal 12, Brewer’s Blackbird 150, Great-tailed Grackle 5.

Odonata species; 6

Common Green Darner Anax Junius 25, Black Saddlebags Tramea lacerata 10, Blue Dasher Pachydiplax longipennis 5. Variegated Meadowhawk Sympetrum corruptum 1, Eastern Meadowhawk Erythemis simplicicollis 2 Little Blue Dragonlet Erythrodiplax miniscula 3

Monday 18 October 2010

LA River, Long Beach, California, USA, LAX

Regular readers will recognise a post from the LA River and a few might even ask about Callie the naked lady ( ). She is still there, where Del Amo Blvd crosses the drain and she is still naked.

Perhaps she had been skipping through the shallows this morning as there were no birds in this part of the drain, but plenty either side.

As usual, Black-necked Stilts made up the bulk of the biomass as I walked downstream. Small flocks of Least Sandpiper held a few Western Sandpiper.

After long consideration I have decided upon Long-billed Dowitcher among the “peeps”. Most of the short-bills would have passed through by the end of September, with the long-bills over-wintering in greater numbers. A few juvenile birds showed relatively un-patterned tertials with narrow edges. Some of the winter plumaged adults showed broad edges and appeared to have a shorter bill, but there is too much overlap to distinguish between non-breeding adults. So despite having seen 200-plus dowitchers, I was only able to be sure about very few of them.

It is quite possible that the Short-billed Dowitchers inhabit the upper reaches of the drain in the open areas while the Long-billed Dowitchers prefer the extra cover provided by the little islands in the lower stretches. If I had known that I was coming to LA, I could have brought an appropriate field guide to help, but I was called at very short notice from standby, so I couldn’t predict which book to pack. Since carrying my full collection of guides would produce a few tonnes of emissions through fuel burn, I prefer to leave them behind and put myself to the test.

Dragonflies were already up and flying when I arrived this morning. The weather is still very warm and was forecast to top the 90’s today. Not bad for the second week of October. I followed Dominguez Gap for a while and noted five types of heron, Pied-billed Grebe and a Belted Kingfisher.

Double-crested Cormorants were sunning themselves on low snags. I was hoping that there might be a snake warming itself on the sunny bank, but there was no sign of any this morning.

Back on the drain, the highlight of the day was an Osprey that made a couple of low passes before landing in the shallow water.
It was great to be on an elevated bank and able to look down on an Osprey as it flew by.

Beyond Wardlow Rd, is a spot that the gulls seem to like as a roost. You can often see a few different species here and today there were 3 types. Conveniently, they all got together for a group picture with the Ring-billed Gull at the left, a California Gull, with the dark spot on its bill, in the middle and the larger, darker-backed Western Gull on the right.

Just up from Willow St., sediment has settled enough to form little islands. The greater concentration of birds here seems to indicate that they like this feature.

Ducks here included Cinnamon Teal, Blue-winged Teal and Mallard. A few American Avocets were joined by one or other of the dowitchers.

Downstream from Willow, the drain becomes a proper river with deeper water and probably a tidal influence this close to the ocean. Beyond this point one might find a few Kildeer, but most of the waders will remain upstream in the shallow water of the overspill from the main channel.

On reflection, I think that I would be best to start from this point in the future. Walking upstream from here in the morning would keep the sun over my right shoulder and behind me as the day progresses and I work my way upstream. Google coordinates for the section are are;

From Del Amo Blvd, 33*50’ 47”N, 118*12’16”W to Willow St., 33*47’18”N, 118*12’16”W

The Metro tram station at Del Amo is 750m to the west of the river on Del Amo Blvd.

Bus 181 runs north and south on Magnolia which is 600m east of the river on Willow.

Both tram and bus can be caught from the  Transit Mall at 1st St., Long Beach.

Today, I returned to Del Amo to take the Metro tram back to Long Beach. On the way back, I passed through Dominguez Gap, hoping to find a few dragonflies to photograph, but my lens had suffered a prolapse. The focussing element came loose from its guides and was clunking around inside. It was possible to achieve a limited range of focus by pointing the camera downwards and shaking the element to the end, but I would have to adjust my own position rather than rely on zooming or refocusing on a moving subject.

I only stopped once for a picture of a Bushtit as it had become fearfully hot and even Carrie had headed for the shade.

For other posts about Redgannet in California, follow these links;
Los Angeles, Ca.
LA River
El Dorado Nature Center
Orange County and Santa Anna Mountains
Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve,
Long Beach

San Francisco, Ca.
Palo Alto Baylands

For more posts from other sites in America try the USA and Canada page tab at the top of each post.

Birds Seen; 42
Pied-billed Grebe 3, Double-crested Cormorant 20, Great Blue Heron 6, American Great Egret 18, Snowy Egret 1, Green Heron 4, Black-crowned Night Heron 5, Mallard 30, Blue-winged Teal 8, Cinnamon Teal 15, Turkey Vulture 2, Osprey 3, American Coot 80, Black-necked Stilt 400, American Avocet 12, Grey Plover 1, Killdeer 30, Long-billed Dowitcher 6, Greater Yellowlegs 4, Western Sandpiper 60, Least Sandpiper 300, Dunlin 2, Ring-billed Gull 4, California Gull 25, Western Gull 12, Mourning Dove 8, Belted Kingfisher 1,Black Phoebe 7, Say’s Phoebe 1, American Barn Swallow 8, Northern Mockingbird 6, Bushtit 25, Western Scrub-jay 4, American Crow 60, Lesser Goldfinch 1, Common Yellowthroat 2, Song Sparrow 4, White-crowned Sparrow 4, Red-winged Blackbird 1, Brewer’s Blackbird 35, Great-tailed Grackle 1, Scaly Munia 1.

Friday 15 October 2010

El Dorado Park, Area III, Long Beach, California, LAX, USA

Perhaps it is time that I started reading my own blog; after all, the post describing El Dorado Nature Center clearly states that it is closed on Mondays. I felt very foolish on this Monday morning as I stood outside the gate, but was determined to salvage something from the day.
El Dorado Park, Areas II and III are directly across the road from the Nature Center and, more importantly, they were open. So I took a chance and I’m glad I did.
Another gamble that paid off was bringing the camera with me. My big lens had broken the day before, and only had a very limited range of focus and zoom but with a bit of shaking and jiggling, I might be able to use it.
I began by following an American Great Egret which was stalking the edges of a lake near the entrance. I was intending to circle it anti-clockwise, which coincidentally appeared to be the Egret’s plan too. It was very approachable and never strayed more than about 5 meters ahead of me.
Most of the duck on the lake were Mallard which looked acclimatised to picnickers. A single American Wigeon was much shyer.
On a grassy slope in the distance, a Great Blue Heron was standing very still and watching the ground intently. It was still there when I reached that side of the lake and I noticed that it had its eye on a gopher hole. A plug of darker, damp earth had been pushed out onto the spoil heap of excavated dirt, indicating an active gopher beneath.
I was later told that the herons love them and that Black–crowned Night Herons could also often be seen staking out the gopher holes in the early morning hoping to catch one.
Comment received from Liz gives a link to gopher-chomping egret. Don't go there if you are squeamish. 
The lake by the entrance is fed by a stream that crosses the road at a ford. The birds were enjoying a sunny bathe in the shallow water. Western Bluebirds, House Finches and American Goldfinches made a very colourful soup.
An alien Scaly-breasted Munia brought some earthy brown tones to the palette.
I was happy to see that a couple of the drivers who were visiting the park were considerate enough to stop and glance in my direction to check that I had finished shooting before crossing and putting the birds to flight.
I didn’t mind them driving through the water as the birds returned very quickly and it was very pleasing that strangers could be so thoughtful.
I met a few other people in the park and they were universally polite. Merri even offered me breakfast!
A photographer named Jeff (Geoff?) was generous with his information, telling me about the Ospreys that liked to fish in the other lakes within the park. Apparently, when the weather cools off a little, the Parks team stock the lakes with trout which attracts the Ospreys. This attracts photographers too who line up at the lakeside hoping to capture that classic “talons out” picture.
I followed the stream up to the next lake which was surrounded by a concrete path. There was no vegetation or features in the lake which left me feeling a little empty until I found the next lake across Wardlow Rd.
This lake had a more natural feel to it with tule beds along the bank. There was still a concrete path, but it was much nicer than the other one. 3 Ospreys circling overhead added to the ambience.
I have another trip to Los Angeles rostered for November. Perhaps if it has cooled down enough and my lens has been fixed.....

Areas II and III are markedly different to Area I. The El Dorado Nature Center is sited in Area I and is thickly wooded with a stream meandering through the woods to connect 2 mature lakes. There are managed trails and an interpretation centre. Area II is across the road on the north side of Spring. Area III is the furthest north after crossing Wardlow. These areas are parkland with pine and mixed plantings of deciduous trees. A couple of lakes have a natural look to them, but the fishing lake in the middle of Area II is very sterile in appearance.
There is an issue with this site in that it is sometimes used as a film shoot location. When the cameras are in, the park is often closed to the public. I don't know where to check for filming schedules and I am told that they can over-run and the park will remain closed as long as the cameras are rolling.
But....., if you are the type that never tires of bluebirds, then this park is the one for you. In every tree, on every snag and on every patch of lawn, there were Western Bluebirds. I was wondering if this was a seasonal abundance, but am not sure about bluebirds' migrating habits. Perhaps they were coming down from the hills as the days grow shorter? Yellow-rumped Warblers were abundant too with their "chip"s coming from all directions it seemed. 
I wished that I had brought my field guide when I came across a yellow flycatcher. Cassin’s and Western Flycatchers are superficially very similar. I had been called to do this trip while I was doing standby from the airport. So I had elected to leave my vast collection of guides at home and to rely on my skill and experience, both of which proved inadequate. I used my dictaphone to note down as many field notes as I could, but the only mark that really separated the two was the pale outer tail feathers, a distinguishing characteristic of the Western Flycatcher. Cassin’s Flycatcher has pale ends to the tail feathers.

I caught the 173 bus from stop F at the temporary transit mall in Long Beach. About 30-40mins later, shortly after passing the pyramid at University of California Long Beach, we arrived at Studebaker and Spring. There is parkland and a golf course on the right as the bus drives along Studebaker. Get off at the intersection, turn east onto E Spring St and walk with the park and golf course on your right. Cross the drain after 700m. The fenced area on the right is El Dorado Nature Center. The entrance is 400m further on (at Google Earth ref; 33*48'35"N, 118*05'09"W). On the other side of Spring you will see archery butts and then the entrance to the El Dorado Park, Area III.

For other posts about Redgannet in California, follow these links;

Los Angeles, Ca.

LA River
El Dorado Nature Center
Orange County and Santa Anna Mountains
Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve,
Long Beach

San Francisco, Ca.

Palo Alto Baylands

For more posts from other sites in America try the USA and Canada page tab at the top of each post.

Birds seen; 31

Pied-billed Grebe 1, Double-crested Cormorant 4, Great Blue Heron 3, American Great Egret 1, Black-crowned Night Heron 4, American Wigeon 1, Mallard 60, Ruddy Duck 4, Turkey Vulture 2, Osprey 3, American Kestrel 1, American Coot 3, California Gull 3, Mourning Dove 4, Downy Woodpecker 1, Black Phoebe 3, Western Kingbird 7, Northern Mockingbird 3, Western Bluebird 40, Western Scrub-jay 4, American Crow 15, Common Raven 2, House Finch 20, American Goldfinch 1, Yellow-rumped Warbler 30, Black-throated Warbler 1, Common Yellowthroat 3, Western Tanager 1, Chipping Sparrow 1, Brewer’s Blackbird 25, Scaly Munia 1.