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Spot the Bird: horizontal napping bark the second

spotthebirdlogocopyIn anticipation of a major and photogenic meteorological event, I went out just now to photograph the storm.  With the exception of some dramatic skies, the whole mess skipped over us (we need the rain, but I can’t say I miss dust and wind). But I caught something else brooding and unpredictable. It shouldn’t be hard for you to spot it, its eye is partly open. Horizontal napping bark.* (See HNB the first here.) Once you’ve found it, click to enlarge, I’ve uploaded a generous-sized file.

LENIroost For readers unfamiliar with the group of birds called nightjars, this is a Lesser Nighthawk (Chordeiles acutipennis, a member of the caprimulgid family or goat-suckers, along with Whippoorwills and kin). It’s hunkered parallel to a mesquite branch with its tail pointed at the camera. The bird flew up off the ground as I was watching the sky, did a lap of the neighbor’s yard, and settled on a branch where it will stay until it’s dark enough to launch on an aerial forage. Even though the bird is facing slightly away from the camera and behind some twigs, you can see the distinctive white throat patch, and the white mark on the primaries neatly folded over its tail. This is one of a pair of birds who nested on the gravel of a neighbor’s front yard. In an effort to keep wildlife out, the homeowner created a stir along the block (it’s not a very pretty fence) and also a really good habitat for ground-nesting birds. I look at the unpopular fence a little differently, knowing that a pair of nighthawks has fledged nestlings inside its confines for each of the last three years, at least. (Photo A.Shock)

*Vertical napping bark would be, of course, an owl. This concept inaugurated the Spot the Bird feature here on Three Star Owl blog.

Posted by Allison on Jul 15th 2013 | Filed in birds,natural history,spot the bird,yard list | Comments (0)

Spot the Bird, the beauty of color vision edition

Here’s a photo of a bird in a tree, in black and white:


With a little bit of searching, you’ll find the tiny bird, made less obvious by its dark-and-light values breaking up its birdy outline.  This helps it blend well with the aspen leaves and bark. It also helps it to be invisible to any predator with weak color vision, such as nocturnal birds.

Evading hungry owls searching for songbirds on night roosts is a good thing, but during the day this male Red-faced Warbler (Cardellina rubrifrons) needs to be able to advertise his presence, so that rival boys RFWA colorbeware and girls know he’s there. His song does this, but so does his high-contrast red and black face.

Fortunately, most songbirds’ eyes are well supplied with color receptors, so what they (and we mammals) see is this >>

(Photo A.Shock, June 2013, Veit Springs, Lamar Haines Memorial Wildlife Area, San Francisco Peaks, AZ. Click either version to enlarge)

Together with his song and active, flitting movement through the trees, his bright colors make this tiny organism a known presence to anyone walking, flying, or trotting through high-altitude mixed deciduous/coniferous forests of Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico. It’s a risky gambit: while we were at the Springs, an immature accipiter (most likely a Cooper’s hawk) flew through — a bird-eating predator whose retinas are well-supplied with color-sensing cones.spotthebirdlogocopy

For a close-up image of a Red-faced Warbler and a recording of its peppy song, click here.

Posted by Allison on Jun 5th 2013 | Filed in birds,natural history,spot the bird | Comments (0)

Spot the Bird: Horizontal Napping Bark

Some birds really do not want to be seen, like certain mothy-plumaged nocturnalsspotthebirdlogocopy.  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) areLENInestingcloser 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.

treeLENIkeyIf you need a bit of help finding the Horizontal Napping Bark/Kipping Cobble in the photos, here are the keys, with the birds inside the wavery yellow boxes. 


They’re both large files, so click to enlarge (both photos A.Shock).

And, watch your step!

Posted by Allison on May 23rd 2013 | Filed in birds,natural history,spot the bird | Comments (1)

Spot the Bird: horned edition

spotthebirdlogocopyIt’s Spot the Bird without a bird.  No clues, except that it’s all elbows.  Answer below the fold.hiding



Adult Desert Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma platyrhinos) hiding under a shrub, Joshua Tree National Park (photos A.Shock March 2013)


Posted by Allison on Mar 27th 2013 | Filed in close in,field trips,natural history,reptiles and amphibians,spot the bird | Comments (1)

Spot the Bird, Shadow edition

spotthebirdlogocopyTime 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).

COHUshadow (female Costa’s Hummingbird perched on a creosote twig, photo A.Shock)

Posted by Allison on Mar 4th 2013 | Filed in birds,hummingbirds,spot the bird,yard list | Comments (0)

Spot the Bird

mawrI’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!)

Posted by Allison on Feb 16th 2013 | Filed in birds,field trips,natural history,spot the bird | Comments (1)

Spot the Bird, canine edition

Our fence had some extra height this morning, and a glorious tail.  Do you see the fur anomaly?  I’m pretty sure it sees you.

It was obliging, and let itself be fully revealed.  Such a kitty-dog!  That’s a 6-foot wall it leaped upon with little effort.  They regularly use the block walls in the neighborhood like geometric trails, navigating nimbly with neat-nailed feet, safely above the jaws of coyotes and the hubbub of dogs.

So — finally! — photos of the neighborhood Gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus).  E was in the right place at the right time, or the fox was, depending on your viewpoint.

Here’s another shot.  LOOK AT THAT TAIL!!!!!

The tail is key — here’s a bit reposted from an earlier post on our gray foxes:


Foxes are canids, but not Canis, the genus of dogs, wolves, coyotes, and jackals. The Gray fox has its own genus: Urocyon, which is from Greek ὀυρά, tail, and κύων, dog. Its species is cinereoargenteus, from Latin cinis, ash, plus L. argenteus, of silver. Put them together, and its name means “silvery ashy-black dog-tail“. In case you’re wondering, the genus of the Red fox and other “true foxes” is Latin Vulpes, meaning “fox”, which does NOT give us our word “fox.” That is said to be derived through Old English from Old German fukh (the modern German word for fox is fuchs), derived from the Proto-Indo-European root puk- which means “tail.”

Posted by Allison on Aug 16th 2012 | Filed in furbearers,natural history,spot the bird,yard list | Comments (5)


A few weeks ago, we discovered that one of our local Gambel’s quail pairs had nested in an aloe bed at the foot of the back garden wall.

The pale, speckled eggs were tucked deep into a hollow among the spiky aloe leaves — real Spot the Bird material — they’re barely visible inside the red circle on the photo. (click to enlarge) >>

The hen had scraped a shallow depression, lined it with bits of dry vegetation and a few feathers, and settled hennily onto the eggs.  She had hidden her nest well, but unfortunately it was while we were out of town and the garden was quiet.  Once we came home and started watering and raking and making a human kind of tidying fuss, she flushed when we passed near. If she hadn’t flown out of cover each time with a clapping wing burst, we might never have discovered her and her trove.  On the other hand, these skittish, explosive escapes were as much distraction as alarm, designed to draw a predator’s attention towards herself, and away from her helpless, immobile egg cache.  But we kept away as much as possible and did the math, looking forward to seeing the little cloud of downy chicks swarming uncountably behind her before long.

For more than a week we avoided her part of the yard as much as possible in order to keep from disturbing her, but occasionally we had to Pass the Nest.  At those times, when she flew, or if she wasn’t at home, we’d peek briefly into her green hollow to see what was new.  We counted ten eggs, which is about average for Gambel’s quails.  If the clutch had been out in the open, it wouldn’t have looked significantly different from these Cadbury Mini Eggs (photo by William Warby from Wikimedia Commons) — if they’d been a bit rounder, larger, and not delicious candy-coated chocolate.  No pink or yellow ones, either: they all look like the white ones with cinnamon speckles and blotches.

Here’s a slightly better view of the genuine eggs, enlarged from the photo above right >>

For a week nothing changed: hen, aloe, eggs.  Late one afternoon I passed by, and when she didn’t flush I peered down into the hole.  I didn’t see eggs — just some miscellaneous checkering and speckles.  Since quail babies follow mom right out of the nest the minute the last chick has pipped, never to return, my first thought was that the chicks had hatched and I was seeing eggshells. But it didn’t look quite right for that. I bent closer in, peering, and saw bright eyes staring back.

A young gopher snake had found the nest.  All I could see was elegant coils of yellow and brown snakeskin draped over the eggs in the shallow scrape.

>> the gopher snake in the hen’s nest.  It looks like it’s eating an egg, but it’s just the angle of the photo

After managing a few blurry cell phone photos in very low light, I moved away, not wanting to spook the snake.  Since I didn’t know whether the quail hen was going to come back to the nest or not, it would be a shame if the eggs went to waste: the gopher might as well have them.

Would the snake eat all ten eggs?  Would the hen abandon the nest in agitation?  Did she even know she’d been robbed (possibly not if the snake came and went while she was away, because unlike ravens, quail can’t count).  We didn’t know.

What happened was that the young gopher ate five of the eggs, and departed.  The hen came back, and continued to incubate the remainder.

But only for two days.  After that, she didn’t return to the nest and none of the remaining five eggs hatched.  We don’t know if she abandoned the nest because of the snake, or because the eggs weren’t viable, or if she met her own fate (probably not to the egg-robbing adolescent snake, which wasn’t big enough to eat her).  There were five eggs for a while, then four, and now there are two — somebody’s coming back periodically for a snack.

<< today, two remaining eggs

It seems like a terrible loss for the hen, and it made us sad to not have a batch of fresh quailets swarming around the yard (and we still haven’t seen any quail hatchlings this season, which is unusual).  But a moment’s reflection provides reassurance.  The eggs went to a native predator, and weren’t wasted by some other pointless loss like being stepped on, eaten by a well-fed pet dog, or crushed by our neighbor with a dropped branch as he lopped mesquite limbs on our side of the wall.  Even if the eggs had hatched, the odds are that some of the chicks would have been lost to predators anyway, perhaps to the very snake that scored the egg bonanza.  I’m pleased to have gopher snakes and coachwhips (or even the occasional problematic other) working the yard, keeping less appealing scurrying neighbors in check. It means there’s some vestige of a natural system at play here, so I can’t truly begrudge them a baby cottontail or a quail egg, or eight.

With luck, experience, and efficient gene expression, the hen is sitting on another clutch right now under the watchful eye of her baby-daddy rooster, in a nest better hidden from foot traffic, human disruption, and snake-sense.

(All photos and illustration by A.Shock, except where noted)

Finding Birds in Paris (Spot the Bird, Île de France edition), Part 2

Our recent visit to Paris was shaped to some degree by the insistence of April on barging into May: cool temperatures and showers persisted for much of the trip.  We were prepared, and rain is not a problem that sweaters, umbrellas, and sturdy footwear can’t handle — except on the one morning we had determined to devote entirely to birding.  That was pretty much a washout, since the rain was heavy and steady.  Birding in significant rain offers specific challenges: wet, fogged eyeglass and optics lenses, using binox with one hand while juggling an umbrella in the other, soaked field-guide pages, and draggled birds whose plumage colors are impossible to determine, for instance.

<< The pine plantation at the northern end of le Bois de Boulogne was recommended for conifer-loving species such as Firecrest; however, the rains had rinsed the pines clean of birds the morning we visited (photo E.Shock).

We stuck with it because frankly it was such an outré experience to have the huge Bois de Boulogne to ourselves, except for a dogwalker leading at least a dozen dogs, the occasional die-hard jogger, two working women still on the job well into daylight, and a very few very wet birds, including what must have been a female pheasant daintily treading around condom wrappers along an obscure side-trail we’d stumbled on.  No sun = no bearings, and we walked in soggy circles until lunchtime, finally heading for the Porte Dauphine exit to search for a café (a goal that oddly matched the difficulty of finding birds in the park in the rain).

>> Sometimes you have to set aside these guides for Michelin’s Guide Vert, or the equivalent.

The weather made real birds a bit harder to come by than May sunshine would have done (see part 1 here, concerning real birds), but fortunately there are many birds to be found in a city as ancient and well-stocked with ornament as Paris.  The unexpected female pheasant above provides a good starting point for our sightings of grouse-like and ground-loving birds who weren’t driven to shelter by a few raindrops.

It’s not always possible to positively ID species in artwork, but it’s clear the four sturdy birds shown below are intended to be Red-Legged Partridges (Alectoris rufa), Perdrix rouge en français. Prominently displayed in the Cluny Museum, the panel is stained glass, separated from its building, where it was probably once the lowest element of a church window in Normandy, dated to “around” 1500 CE.

I’ve read that the partridge is common in medieval Church iconography on account of certain aspects of its lifestyle, as asserted by early chroniclers of natural history.  They believed that the female partridge steals eggs from other hens, and will incubate them with her own clutch.  Little good it does her, the story goes, because upon hatching the purloined chicks recognize the voice of their real mother and run swiftly back to her, making partridge life-history an optimistic allegory for the Devil stealing souls who flock faithfully back to the Church.  Odder still are the old beliefs that the mere passage of air from a male partridge’s wings onto a hen could cause her to be impregnated, and that male partridges forced vanquished rival males to submit to sex. These morally slack tendencies, along with the oft-repeated etymology of the word Perdix from Greek perdesthai (πέρδεσθαι) “to break wind” referring to the birds’ clapping wing-noise, were enough to brand the species as impure by experts such as Isidore of Seville (<< left, perhaps relying on Pliny the Elder for his natural history), and are said to explain why partridges appear in religious art as emblems of reprobate behavior.

In an admittedly brief search through modern ornithological resources, I couldn’t find much evidence for any grouse habits that would give rise to these beliefs, except perhaps the fact that a Red-legged partridge female lays fairly large clutches — on average about a dozen eggs — which might look to some like the result of theft stemming from matronly covetousness; or that the wing-clapping, oddly vocalizing lek behavior of male grouse of many species (see Capercaillie link below) might account for the air-born insemination story.  However, according to modern ornithologists, Red-legged partridge are among the most monogamous of the gallinaceous birds, and longer-term pair-bonding has been observed among these partridge pairs than in other notoriously promiscuous members of the grouse clan.  You would think this gap between nature and natural history might limit the usefulness of the species as a bad example, except no doubt the clergy, through instructive sermons and eye-level stained glass panels, was able to ensure that their version reached the popular ear.  Nevertheless, I suspect Partridges were of interest to the pragmatic people of the Gallic countryside less for their christian symbolism than for their tasty flesh.

People’s abiding enthusiasm for the succulent aspects of France’s fauna is made plain on this building, at 134 Rue Mouffetard in the 5th arrondissement (photo E.Shock, click to enlarge). >>

Rain may have caused us to set aside our bird guides, but not our binoculars — I carry my small ones on trips like this because they’re handy for getting good looks at architectural detail like frescoes, stained glass on high, and gargoyles. With them I could see more clearly the partridges and other game animals found perched on flourishes and vegetal motifs in the ornate painted façade on the residence above what is now a celebrated cheese shop.  Originally the ground floor shop was a charcuterie-traiteur run by Facchetti, a butcher, who commissioned the frescoes in 1929 from the Italian artist Eldi Gueri.  He depicted bucolic pastel scenes of country life between the windows of the first floor, while the upper floors bear elaborate brocade-like brown and white patterns in the “style of the Italian renaissance”. They show game animals, including a pig, wild boar, deer, and a variety of birds, perhaps reflecting the varieties of saucissons and charcuteries Facchetti offered.

Among the birds are woodpeckers, pheasants, and grouse, including what must be a Capercaillie (upper bird to right >>) — a showy, giant, black grouse of Old World coniferous forests, depicted here with his tail fanned in courtship display, like his North American relative the Wild Turkey.  Capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus), le grand tétras en français, although a seriously excellent bird (check out its absurd courtship display here), is not now — nor ever was — native to the Paris metro area, except for the two mirrored images dwelling here in tinted plaster as idealized icons of the tasty abundance of the woods.  And the lower bird? — it has me stumped: perhaps a wood pigeon, with its longish tail and straight bill.  It’s not unlikely: one wood pigeon would make several meaty pies.  It appears to be paired with the bird below it (only partly visible in this edit) which is a dove, perhaps a turtle dove, to judge by the scaley pattern of its dorsal feathers.

On the same façade, the balcony birds look like woodpeckers, especially the one on the right with its crested head.  Are woodpeckers included here because they are a jaunty, spirited design presence, or does it mean they were considered fair game for the table?  I haven’t been able to discover an answer to this, although ornithologists and conservationists have for decades been working to diminish the long-standing Continental tradition of song-bird consumption by humans. These painted images are the only woodpeckers we saw on the trip, except for one quick glimpse of a real pic vert — the Green woodpecker (Picus viridis) — the Eurasian equivalent of our Flicker except largely green.  (Perhaps the green ones taste like mint?)

I remember from earlier travels in France that woodpeckers can be hard to find; they appear when they appear, or not — like woodpeckers anywhere. But unexpected sightings are one of the joys of birding, like this one: a two-foot tall street-art roadrunner.  Popularly known in France as “Bip Bip” after the familiar Chuck Jones cartoon character, the roadrunner’s French common name is Géocoucou, a more accurate handle than the folksy English name “roadrunner”, since phylogenetically the bird is actually a ground-dwelling cuckoo.

We wondered why a street artist had wheat-pasted the photo-image of a southwestern bird to a wall under the half-timbered shelter of a medieval Parisian alley.  No explanation was evident (to us) as to why it was posing among the sprayed graffiti.  As with ecclesiastical stained glass partridges, a viewer would just have to know what it meant, or be told.  But no St. Isidore of street art proposed to illuminate it for us.  How odd that of all of the bird imagery we’d encountered, the most recent one was the one whose significance I least understood. Still, I was happy to have spotted this bird.  It was as far from the desert as we were, yet it had found a home — even a temporary one, until the rain melted the soluble wheat-paste, or someone painted over it — in the heart of Paris.

(All photos A.Shock except where noted)

Etymological note: Choate, in his Dictionary of American Bird Names, primly avoids the earthy perdesthai etymology twice: first, in his entry for “Partridge”, by releasing nothing more airy than a fussy list of spelling variants in various European languages over time, and then again under the genus name “Perdix”, by reciting the tale of the youth of that name, Daedalus’ too-clever nephew, whom the craftsman nudged off a tower as unwanted competition.  But the boy was saved by Minerva (according to Ovid), who turned him into a bird — in fact, a partridge — just before he hit the ground.  Choate diminishes the force of this explanation by quoting MacCleod (of The Key to the Names of British Birds fame) who commented that the youth was more likely named after the bird than vice-versa, which seems to leave us inescapably with perdesthai, “to fart”, as the source for perdix, the Greek and Latin word for partridge, after all.

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