Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Identifying Individual Hummingbirds

I had a comment the other day regarding how I tell the difference between the different hummingbirds in the yard. It is somewhat true that they look alike. However, we have been fortunate enough to have a small group of resident Allen's hummingbirds. While some of the marking are slightly different between individuals, especially females, behavior is the main clue to the individual identity of these tiny birds.

The Allen's hummingbirds have divided up the yard into specific territories.

This is "P" (Patio) on her nest. She was a resident for one summer.

Each male has a specific home tree and 3 or 4 specific places that it perches to watch over its territory. Fik was rescued as a fledgling. He knows me and trusts me. I can approach him and get quite close, he in turn will come up to me. He has perched on the same branch, in the same tree, since the first day he learned to fly. Bif perches on the tip of a succulent, he's the only one in the yard that will do that. Canyon is the most timid of the males and rarely comes down in the lower part of the yard.

The females are specifically territorial about nesting sites. These Allen's hummingbird females will nest in the same tree / shrub time and again, especially if they are successful. If it isn't the same tree, it usually is within 10 feet of that tree. One female, DR, (DRiveway) tends to rebuild directly on top of her old nest. She is the only female that has shown this behavior in my yard.

If I saw Fik a block away feeding from some flowers, would I recognize him? Probably not. Coloration can change on birds, from juvenile to mature, from breeding to molting. I have a small group of eight very enigmatic Allen's hummingbirds that live in my yard. They each have their own personalities and behaviors in the yard, that is how I tell them apart.

My friend has 30-50 hummingbirds visiting her feeders during the day. Telling them apart, without bands, would be a completely different matter.

Monday, November 29, 2010

California Native Plants Flowering in Late Autumn

While cold weather and snow are settling in across the country, late autumn is awakening the California natives.

The native wild currant has burst its first blooms. Our rain comes in autumn and winter, so now is the time for our native plants to produce fruit or blooms for a summer crop. Many like the toyon have been holding their fruit in a green stage for months and are now ripening just in time to feed winter migratory birds.

The wild currant lost its leaves in the summer heat and now has regained its green adornment. The natives are bursting to life while the exotic plants are dropping their leaves and going dormant. It is a strange mixture really. Perhaps this is why so many people don't think we have seasons in California, they don't realize that the green of summer and the green of winter are provided by completely different plants.

On New Year's Day, people see our green hills rising behind the Rose Parade and they think that we have beach weather all year round. The reality is that we have cold winter days, but this is the only time we have real rain. Plants that want to survive in our climate have to be frost and cold tolerant. The cold season is the only time they can really grow.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Allen's Hummingbirds Staking Territory

Brisk days have ratcheted up the territorial behavior of the Allen's hummingbirds. Each feeder has its own despot determined to possess its liquid energy.

We have had a complete change over in most of our backyard Allen's hummingbird population. "A," who nested in the yard for several years and was hatched here, has either moved on or has vanished (A's nest). Three of the four feeders are now the domains of resident males. That means that females are battling over one feeder. I'm afraid that we may see fewer nests this coming spring, because the females are competing with the males for resources. 

For years we rarely saw males, now they are the dominate characters.

Fik is entering his third winter. He has been the dominant male since 2009. (Fik as father; Rescuing Fik) He is growing older and sometimes I worry about his sons pushing him out of his territory. Fik was so busy breeding this spring that by summer he was nearly worn out.

Bif and Canyon, his two sons were both hatched in 2009. This is Canyon at his feeder.

The weather has been warm then cold, warm and then cold. Already Bif has been performing breeding displays. If the females are convinced to breed this early, they may lose nests to erratic weather and rainstorms. Last year, we documented the first successful nest in North America. (DR's Feb. nest). Unfortunately other early nestings were not successful. I'm hoping that the weather stays consistent so that the females will resist starting their families too early and losing their chicks to an unpredictable climate.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving Toyon

There is a special reward for planting native plants: watching habitat being restored in front of your eyes.

Five years ago I planted a 3 gallon toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia). It started out just 2 foot tall. Today it is about 8 foot tall. The dark green leaves are prickly and in late autumn its berries ripen to a brilliant red. It's no wonder European immigrants to California were reminded of holly and called it "California holly" or "Christmas berry."

In fact this is the holly that gave the name to "Hollywoodland" and therefore Hollywood. (Decorating with toyon)

The native Chumash, Ohlone and other coastal peoples in California roasted or dried the berries and ate them. They also used the strong, rot-resistant wood for a variety of implements and ceremonial markers. But people weren't the only species that depended on the toyon. Numerous animals eat the berries as well, rodents, foxes (including the endangered island fox), probably the extinct southwestern grizzly bear did as well. A wide range of birds also look for this easy-to-spot, chaparral delicacy. 

Sunday morning I watched the hermit thrush picking one red berry at a time and swallowing it down. A hermit thrush has been coming to my yard every winter for the last seven years. I believe it is the same bird, but I don't absolutely know that for sure. For the second year in a row it arrived with a friend. I wonder if the thrush has been waiting for the toyon to grow up and become the beautiful berry-producing plant that it is now?

One thing is for sure, the toyon has created a valuable source of winter food for the hermit thrush, cedar waxwings and other berry-eating birds. The hermit thrush seemed to be thankful for its bountiful meal and I was heartened that I had made a positive difference for the local wildlife and migratory birds.

Now is the season in California to plant native plants, they are the Foundation of Habitat. Plant a few natives and help make a positive difference.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Discovering Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Refuge

great egret and coot by Michael Lawshe
Take a mini-bird walk through Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Refuge.
Click on the link below for a 4 minute video that was shot for "One Day On Earth" 10/10/10. Video courtesy of Michael Lawshe and  Eclipse-1 Media.

Mini-Bird Walk

Turkey Vultures at Sepulveda Basin

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Something Lurking in the Garden

 The warm autumn weather has brought a few surprise encounters. The photo shows a pair of mating praying mantises. Notice how the male (on top) is slightly smaller and measurably slighter in build. He also appears to have much longer antennae.

I came across this pair at dusk as I was running out of the house. I wasn't the only one startled by the large insects. Fik, one of our male Allen's hummingbirds, was quite disturbed to have the pair on his feeder.

I'm not sure why the large female praying mantises tend to hang out on the hummingbird feeders. Are they hunting insects that might come to the feeders or are they really set on grabbing a hummingbird? Fik wasn't taking any chances, he stayed on the far side of the feeder.

I know you are probably wondering, did the female mantis consume her male companion following mating? I don't know. I took the photo and had to run. I saw the female the next evening, but have yet to locate her egg casing. I wonder if she is one of the offspring that emerged in the back yard in June. Praying mantises.

Meanwhile a new mother-to-be has attached her tan-colored egg sac to the scented geranium, a green lynx spider. This is the second year that one of these free-living predators has stopped to have a family on the geraniums in the garden. Last year, winter storms destroyed the egg sac despite the mother's attempts to keep the nursery safe and dry. It will be interesting to see what happens this year. 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"Alex and Me" by Irene M. Pepperberg

Alex and Me; How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence–and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process

Irene M. Pepperberg. (2008). HarperCollins Publishers. NY

Did you know Alex? If you saw this intelligent African gray parrot on television or read about Irene Pepperberg’s avian cognition studies with this amazing bird, you may have felt that you did know Alex. I know I did. Apparently thousands of other people did as well because Pepperberg’s book opens with the outpouring of affection and communal loss expressed when Alex died suddenly in 2007.

If you didn’t know Alex, the combined personal emotion plus the attention from international media upon his death creates a basis for you to understand the importance of this bird; not everyone has their obituary published on the front page of the Economist.

When you sit down with Alex & Me, it is as though you are sitting down with a friend telling you about her work with an insightful colleague. Pepperberg takes you through the origin of her interest in avian intelligence and weaves her scientific findings with Alex into the story. While I occasionally wanted more specifics about the science, the story format allows Pepperberg to include examples of Alex’s understanding and intelligence that occurred outside of structured research.

One thing is certain, if you think “bird brain” means dumb or unable to use higher cognitive powers Alex and his avian colleagues will challenge your assumption. Humans frequently hold up the size of our brains as proof of our intelligence, but not all brains function in the same manner and the researchers are always a step behind with structuring studies to delve the capabilities of Alex and his “walnut-sized brain.”

What made Alex so unique was his ability to vocalize his thoughts and understanding in a way that humans could comprehend. When the hermit thrush and the ruby-crowned kinglet reappear each October in my small yard in Woodland Hills, I am always struck by the fact that they have found their way back. Do I know these are the same individual birds? Yes, because both of them announce themselves to me specifically upon their return. This year the kinglet came right up and nearly perched on my hand. Where did they spend the spring and summer? What did they see and experience on the trip? How did they navigate their way back?

Unfortunately these birds can not speak in a language I can understand. But there is intelligence here that goes unexplored. Alex was not bred to be an avian genius, he was just taught to speak clearly so that humans could have insight into his avian intelligence. Alex & Me will make you laugh and cry, it also will challenge you to appreciate the intelligence of non-human animals.

Other Book Reviews:
The Geese of Beaver Bog
Survival of the Sickest

Monday, November 08, 2010

Amphibians of Autumn

A cool autumn day and a nighttime shower, this is my favorite time of year and a time for California’s precious amphibians.

We think of cold-blooded or ectothermic creatures as sun lovers, but amphibians must balance temperature with moisture. Summers in California are hot and dry, but our autumn and winter climate is moderate with occasional showers.

On these mild nights rain invites amphibians out of their hiding places to frolic. This California toad has been visiting a friends’ yard.

We’ve spotted our young garden slender salamanders born last spring. And students of mine have seen Pacific tree frogs and a different species of slender salamander in their yards. 

This species of slender salamander has distinct rings along its body giving it a striking resemblance to an earthworm. It is much larger and stockier than the garden slender salamanders in our yard.

Amphibians are part of our local wildlife, but too frequently they disappear first when development or human impacts alter nature’s delicate balance. Frogs, toads and salamanders eat insects and other arthropods. They also are an important food source for mammals and birds. An ecosystem without amphibians is missing a main pillar of balance.

There is something remarkably resilient about amphibians. They have evolved from an ancient line of creatures that first left the primordial seas to live on land. They’ve survived major cataclysms including the end of the dinosaurs. Shouldn’t your yard be safe for them?

The next time you reach for insecticide or herbicide, pause for just a moment. If your yard isn’t safe for amphibians, is it safe for you and those you love?