Some birds really do not want to be seen, like certain mothy-plumaged nocturnals. With their barred and mottled markings, owls and nightjars can blend in day or night with any old thing: bark, stump, or rock. Owls are inclined to hide by perching upright against a trunk — Vertical Napping Bark — while nightjars (nighthawks, whip-poor-wills, and their relatives) often lie flush along a branch — Horizontal Napping Bark.
Below is some prime Horizontal Napping Bark for you, a Lesser Nighthawk E and I flushed off a desert trail early one morning while hiking. As we approached unknowing, it flew a scant dozen meters away and settled motionless in the middle of a mesquite tangle. We’d seen it land, otherwise we’d never have known it was there. Go ahead, Spot the Bird! Click on the image to enlarge it — it’s still hard to spot.
Lesser Nighthawks (Chordeiles acutipennis) are so confident in their camo that they nest out in the open, on rocky desert ground. Here’s one >> trusting to her mottliness to keep from being discovered incubating two eggs in Papago Park. Nesting sites must be chosen carefully to minimize the risk of being accidentally stepped on. Like other camo-reliant ground-nesters such as Killdeer, a Lesser Nighthawk mama will sit tight until the last minute of interloper’s approach (“crouch concealment”), than launch into a wing-fluttering display (“distress simulation”) to distract and draw away the looming threat. If distraction isn’t possible, they will become threatening, by puffing up and gaping their large pink mouths while hissing like a snake.
They’re both large files, so click to enlarge (both photos A.Shock).
And, watch your step!
I heard a sharp “pik” in the backyard this morning, so I grabbed the long lens and went out to look for the male Black-headed Grosbeak I’d heard and briefly glimpsed at dawn from the comfort of bed (birdwatching from bed is one of the things I love about the big sliding door in our bedroom — I should keep a bed-list: Harris’s hawk, Cooper’s hawk, three species of hummers, two owls heard, Gray fox, raccoons, etc, etc. Really, it’d be a pretty good list for mattress-based observation). Unfortunately, later in the day, no Grosbeak could be found.
Instead, the generator of the “pik” call was a male Ladder-backed Woodpecker (Picoides scalaris) being shown the door by a Gila Woodpecker. Because the squabble was moving swiftly west across the yard, I managed only two or three shots and none of them were great.
The subject birds were in the shade with a brightly lit background, and because of the action, low light, and distance nothing was terribly sharp. But the Ladderback had perched fetchingly on a saguaro skeleton, and I decided to try to salvage the shot.
The result is above, a manipulated photo-based digital image, “overedited” for sure but pleasing nevertheless, with a painterly quality that captures the gist of the little woodpecker and his eponymous barred back. Not to mention his hilarious spiky red chapeau!
Below is the undistinguished original image for comparison, with the Gila Woodpecker off to the left:
The process was hit or miss, and I don’t recall each step. But I started by cropping the shot heavily, then I ran it through a few filters (including the canned Orton filter effect) and stopped tweaking when I liked the look.
Apparently, it’s spelled Wood-Pewee. And, no, it’s not that the American Ornithological* Union has changed its mind (although that’s been known to happen) — it’s that after decades of birding, I just learned how to spell “Pewee”. All this time I thought it was “Peewee”.
That’s a good thing about birding: refresh, reset, renew.
Even if it’s only orthographic renewal.
>> right, Migrating Western Wood-Pewee (Contopus sordidulus). Below: same bird with a bee for lunch. (Photos A.Shock, digiscoped with a 65mm Zeiss spotting scope and my ancient Canon G7 point-and-shoot)
And speaking of needing refreshment, this little guy (or gal) has come from his winter home in Ecuador (or elsewhere in northern or western South America) to rest in our yard for a day, and to tank up on flying insect fuel. He’s on his way to his woodland breeding grounds north and uphill from here, and he could be almost there if he’s headed to Arizona’s Mogollon Rim. Or he could still have a long way to go, if his destination is inland Alaska. I asked him where he was going, but he was too polite to answer with a beakful of bugs.
All the way from South America! I think we can spare him a bee or two.
*Oh, and by the way, it’s “American Ornithologists‘ Union”, not “Ornithological“. Apparently, spelling pewee isn’t the only new thing I learned today.
There are places like this in the garden and around the house:
Laissez faire places, where neglected green wagons fill with garden miscellany, well-worn gloves are left out in the dust, empty peach flats perch forlornly on footstools. These neglected corners are golden places — especially in spring, when things are looking for private spots to nest. The three opportunities above were discovered by hens of one sort or another, females looking for somewhere to hole up with their young, to tuck in their larvæ, to get uninterrupted rest.
<< Nid the First. The small red arrow points to where a Gambel’s quail hen has been sitting tight in the debris in our garden wagon for a few days. She’s easier to spot in the photo below, a tight telephoto of her wary eye from the same angle. I wish her luck: although she’s well-hidden from bumbling humans, we’re not sure how the youngsters will find their way over the sides of the wagon once they hatch. We have a policy of non-interference in these circumstances, but at some point, a ramp may have to be constructed. Update: while the hen was away briefly, it was possible to count 9 eggs in place.
Nid the Second. In the desert, it’s advisable to always look into a shoe before slipping your foot in. The same goes for gloves left outside for a week: E tried to put on a work glove this morning, and found that his fingers didn’t go all the way in. Looking inside, he discovered that a female leaf-cutter bee had found the interiors of the stiff leather fingers just right for stashing her eggs (along with food for the eventual larvæ) between individually-constructed layers of soft leaves — three green tubes and one purple. The colors of the tubes depend on the bee’s plant selection. A spare pair of gloves in the garage that no one was using enabled E to get the yardwork done, and the nest-glove and its contents were left to hatch or be scavenged.
Nid the Third. The final nesting location is more domestic, and will not be news to anyone with cats: it’s the simple miracle of a box spontaneously generating a cat of precisely equivalent volume. Here Miss B has condensed in the peach-flat we call the “Summer Palace” since it sits by the sliding glass door, allowing the sights and smells of the back yard to be taken in at leisure, even in sleep.
With all of these casual nesting choices being made in objects intended for another purpose, I’d like to point out the irony of the fact that the deliberate, pricey nest box we set up for woodpeckers and/or screech owl is unused, so far. Of course: it’s the wildlife correlation to kids ignoring the toy, but playing with the box it came in.
(All photos by A.Shock)
When you get out, you see things.
On a recent drive through a favorite stretch of desert mountain backroad, we saw a small thing that I’ve always wanted to see, ever since reading about it. We saw it. And I got a picture of it. It’s this:
A tiny bird in a tiny hole in a big desert-dirt wall above a desert dirt road. (Photo A.Shock)
That’s a Rock Wren — Salpinctes obsoletus — standing at the entrance to its nest cavity. It’s not the bird itself that I’ve been hankering to see, because I’ve seen a few Rock Wrens: in the right place and time, they’re largely (or small-ly) unavoidable in craggy arid regions of the western US, Mexico, and Canada. We even have them in our neighborhood occasionally. What I was so excited about is the small expanse of rock chips to the left of the bird: the Rock Wren’s very rocks!
It’s not actually a pile, please, it took more effort than that. It’s a pavement. A mysterious pavement. Rock Wrens are known to construct paved areas leading to their nests, and sometimes to lay a foundation of flat stones under the cup nest they construct in a crack, crevice, hollow, split boulder, or other rocky vug. But no one knows why, exactly.
Building this pavement requires a lot of time, energy, and effort. Each bird of a nesting pair carries stone after stone in its beak from its source to the nest — sometimes as many as two or three hundred, then deliberately sets them in front of its chosen inaccessible and hidden location. Both males and females have been seen doing this, although some observers report that it’s mostly the females who pave. The stones are flat, and though they’re small by our human scale, they can weigh up to a third of the bird’s body weight. Theories about why they go to the trouble lie as thick on the ground as wren-rocks, ranging from pair-bonding to mate-evaluating activities, to nest and nestling thermoregulation, to steep site soil stabilization, to landing pad or sign-post or defensive barrier. Ornithologists studying an unrelated old-world species, the Blackstart, hypothesized that stone pavements or ramparts built by their subject birds could function as a predator defense system, providing early warning of a predator as it moves rocks aside to get into the hidden part of the nest. (In this case, the study was done in Israel in the Ein Gedi Nature Preserve, and the Blackstart pairs closest to the archæological sites there employed potsherds along with rocks to build their ramparts — how Bronze-Age is that?)
I watched this pair of Rock Wrens for twenty minutes as they fed their nestlings in the deep dark of the niche. The babies were concealed in shadow, but mom and dad called frequently — Rock Wrens are very vocal — and took turns flying in and out of the small adit, their curved bills full of insects pried from crevices in nearby rock and streamside boulders.
(I should add that it wasn’t necessary to get close the nest site to watch the parents and take photos: this location was in a road-cut about 15 feet above the dirt road at a creek crossing, so I just walked up the road a bit to get an eye-level observation spot away from the nest, and watched quietly with binox and a telephoto lens. I don’t need to remind you how important it is to never agitate nesting birds, or wasps, mountain lions, or your sleepless neighbor with a new baby, right? It’s rude and at best stressful for everyone, if not potentially harmful.)
Time to play Spot the Bird! Here you go: clearly, there’s a bird nearby, large — or rather, small — as life, casting its shadow. Look closely, though, and the dinky girl throwing shade is in the shot, warming her tiny bones in the winter sun, whose heat radiates off of our lovely pink block wall (never mind the awful hue, the quail and foxes who use it as a thoroughfare above the gaping jaws of neighbors’ dogs and the occasional coyote don’t care what color it is).
(female Costa’s Hummingbird perched on a creosote twig, photo A.Shock)
I’ve entered this as the first Spot the Bird of the new year, but, having set it in the text, I can see that it’s not much of a challenge. So I made the image small — like the bird itself. That might slow you down. (Once you’ve spotted the bird, however, do click on it to enlarge to see it better, I’ve uploaded a largish file.)
It’s a tiny, jauntily barred Marsh Wren, Cistothorus palustris, rummaging around in the winter cattails at the Needle Rock picnic area on the Rio Verde northeast of Phoenix AZ. As usual with these skulky wrens we heard it before we saw it: it was rattling the dry stems and giving its harsh scold note as it foraged. The wren, a Song Sparrow and two Black Phoebes were taking advantage of an abundance of flies, picking them off the surface of the river where they were swarming right before sunset.
How amazing to see a little organism so dependent on water living its entire life in a dense but narrow strip of cattails within 20 yards of an arid, saguaro-studded thornscrub landscape.
(Photo by E Shock, who somehow managed to capture a very small moving target in fading light!)