The Berry-Searching Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing in Madrone Tree, Calif.

Here’s a songbird we have in abundance in the U.S., and they are personally one of my favorite American birds. Always in search of berries, the cedar waxwing is often found flying in flocks.

 

They live and breed in North America, are also found in Central America and parts of South America.   See map below.

 

One of North America’s most stunning native birds, they have a sleek black eye mask, bright yellow tail tip, tidy crest, and a lemony belly. To add to their elegance, the feathers are silky-looking in gentle shades of tan and gray. They are named for the red tips that adults have on some feathers–look like they’re dipped in red wax.

 

Cedar Waxwing flock over San Francisco Bay

A medium-sized bird, with a diet of berries and insects, they can be found in gardens, orchards, suburbs, cities, towns, and rural countrysides…wherever there are berries.

 

Many people who are relatively familiar with common songbirds, have never heard of the cedar waxwing. That is probably because this bird does not visit feeders, and they are often quiet.

Cedar Waxwing flock

I have been enamored of cedar waxwings for over two decades, and I still stop in my tracks when I hear them overhead, look for the flock. Parking lots, town centers, berry-lined highways.

 

I like to point this bird out to friends who are not into birds. In response, the friend will look up, unimpressed, and say, “Hmm,” because all they’re seeing is another brown bird flying by.

 

Next I show my friend a close-up photo of the bird, and then they are wowed, and want to see the bird again. Often they say, “What’s it called again?” in earnest interest.

 

Cedar Waxwing juvenile

A gregarious bird, cedar waxwings are rarely seen alone. Sometimes you will see them foraging in small flocks, often in large flocks. Congregating in the sky much like starlings or blackbirds, small flocks join up  with other small flocks until there are hundreds of them flying in one graceful, swerving cloud.

 

Lately there’s been a flock of 500 that zooms by our balcony dozens of times a day. They like the cotoneaster shrubs in the landscaping.

 

More info at Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 

 

 

Other than a high-pitched thin whistle call that is out of hearing range for many people, they are quite silent as the flock synchronistically descends into a berry tree, shaking the branches, and plucking the fruit.

 

What a thrill to look up and see a bouquet of these chic birds dancing the skies.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Cedar Waxwing-rangemap.png

Cedar Waxwing range map. Courtesy Wikipedia. Yellow=breeding; Green=Year-round; Blue=Wintering

 

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The World of Bird Nests

Yellow Warbler adult on nest, Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin

When we think of bird nests, our minds often default to the typical cup-shaped grass nest. But there are many different kinds of nests, built at all times of the year, all over the world–here is a glimpse.

 

Some birds are obvious in their nest-building, like colonies of frigatebirds with their nests perched in shrubs on the protected Galapagos Islands. Colonies use the power of community for protection.

 

Nesting Frigatebirds, Galapagos Islands, North Seymour Island

Other birds are more stealthy in their nest locations, and nest individually.

 

One of the secrets to spotting bird nests is watching bird behavior–you may see them carrying nesting materials in their bills or talons, like grass or twigs.

Savannah Sparrow, California

 

Although spring is the typical time of year for nesting, some parts of the world do not have defined seasons, nesting occurs year-round.

 

Flightless Cormorant pair on nest with juvenile in center, Galapagos Islands

 

More info: Wikipedia Bird Nests

 

Every bird species nests differently, depending on the birds’ abilities and environments. Woodpeckers, for example, have sharp chisel-like bills and a cranium for withstanding powerful drilling; they carve holes in tree trunks. Conversely, hummingbirds collect spider silk and lichen in their pinpoint bills, and quietly weave a petite nest.

 

Grass is one material birds will use, but there are many other materials. Last week we looked at Mud-Nesting Swallows. Birds like the black noddy use guano, some use saliva.

 

Black Noddy guano nest, Heron Island, Australia

 

Cup nests consist of grass and other available materials like leaves, pine needles, moss, feathers, plant fluff, bark and twig pieces–and they come in all sizes.

 

American Robin nest, Wisconsin

 

Hummingbird nest, Costa Rica

 

Large birds, like raptors or swans, build platform nests. Grebes build floating platforms.

 

Cooper’s Hawk nest, California

 

Mute swan on marsh nest with cygnets

 

Nest Overview. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Pendant nests are another interesting architecture. Oropendulas and caciques design their nests to hang from trees.

Montezuma Oropendola on nest, Belize

Oropendola nests, Peru

 

Yellow-rumped Caciques on nests, Trinidad

 

Cavity nesters prefer to nest in a hole. This can be achieved in a number of ways: using the abandoned tree hole of a previous nest, or crafting a new one, or taking up residence in a human-provided nest box.

Western Bluebird at nest box, California

Many birds nest in cavities–woodpeckers, chickadees, bluebirds, to name a few. In North America there are about 85 cavity-nesting species.

Article: Birds that Nest in Cavities

 

In the United States, house wrens are known for taking up residence in all sorts of unusual places.

House wren with nest (under rusty globe)

 

I have watched birds build the perfect abode, but have also seen sloppily-made nests yielding disastrous results. One year this beam (below) worked well for the Pacific-slope flycatcher; another year the defenseless nestlings came tumbling out onto the deck. So the next year we provided her with a nesting platform box, which was a resounding success.

Pacific-slope Flycatcher on nest

Pacific-slope Flycatcher mother nesting in platform box we put up for her.

 

Many birds prefer tree trunks, limbs, snags, or other natural venues.

Great Horned Owl and owlet on nest, California

 

And then there are birds who do not use nests at all. Penguins keep their eggs nestled around their feet, preferring mobility and en masse body heat for nesting in harsh temperatures.

 

Many seabirds, who often only spend time on land for breeding, build their nests in rock crevasses, or ledges, or on remote ocean islands. I have spent many vacations trekking to isolated places to observe breeding seabirds.

Common Murre nesting colony, Alaska

 

Blue-footed Booby on nest (note the egg), Galapagos Islands

 

There are birds who simply lay their eggs on the ground,  called “scrape” nesting. It is usually a shallow depression, sometimes (but not always) lined with a little vegetation. There are a surprising number of birds who lay eggs in this precarious manner–most shorebirds and terns, many ducks, and more. Many eggs are shaped to not roll.

Western Gull on nest, California

 

Flamingos nest on mounds, to keep their brood above fluctuating water levels. Kingfishers, bee-eaters, and others prefer ground burrows.

White-fronted Bee-eater, burrow nests, Zambia, Africa

 

Wedge-tailed Shearwater chick on burrow nest, Kilauea Point, Kauai, Hawaii

 

Bowerbirds build bowers to attract mates–elaborate monuments. Found in Australia and New Guinea, they are known for gathering all kinds of curious objects to attract a mate. Satin Bowerbirds find blue items attractive, and the male sprinkles whatever blue he can find around his bower. After the female and male pair up, they build a nest, separate from the bower.

Satin Bowerbird bower, Queensland, Australia

 

Weaver birds are some of the most remarkable nest builders, often displaying craftsmanship to attract a mate. A finch-like bird found primarily in sub-Saharan Africa, weavers are named for their magnificent nest-building talents.

 

A post I wrote: Weaver Nests.

Donaldson-Smith Sparrow Weaver and nest, Samburu, Kenya

Weaver nest, Zambia

Wherever we are in the world, with whatever kind of bird, we see parents working away at building a safe place for their offspring. This is a vital role, and a sweet and heartwarming event to observe.

 

Written by Jet Eliot

All photos by Athena Alexander

 

Pacific-slope flycatcher nest with eggs, California

Pacific-slope Flycatcher nestlings, ten days later from above-photo.  California

 

The Misunderstood Turkey Vulture

Turkey vulture

The most abundant vulture in the Americas, the Turkey Vulture is often misunderstood and even feared. But this bird is a friend of the earth, cleaning up carrion and ridding the ground of bacteria and decay.

 

Often seen soaring in open landscapes, Cathartes aura have a large wing span of 63-72 inches (160-183 cm). A gregarious species, the flocks (aka kettles) use air thermals to gain height, perspective, in their hunt for carrion.

Turkey vulture pair on fence, drying wings

As scavengers, they feed almost exclusively on carrion. When not soaring, they fly closer to the ground, using their keen olfactory sense to detect the smell of gas (ethyl mercaptan) produced by a dead, decaying animal.

 

For many years they were mistakenly thought to spread disease; over-hunting of this bird caused its near extinction. The population has recovered admirably, due to the legal protection of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, and similar protections in Canada and Mexico. Vultures in Africa are still misunderstood, and some species currently face steep decline.

Turkey vulture, adult

More turkey vulture (“TV” to birders) info at Wikipedia.  Range map below.

 

So they are misunderstood as carriers of disease, when in reality they are cleaning up the bacteria that can cause disease. Other misunderstood facts of the turkey vulture include:

  • Their name. They’re not buzzards. North Americans often call them buzzards, but that’s a mistake. In the Old World there are true Buzzards, in a different genus.
  • Their diet. They don’t eat live animals. I have a friend who was convinced that the turkey vultures soaring near his hilltop home were going to carry away his beloved lap dog. It’s possible he watched the flying monkey scene in “The Wizard of Oz” one too many times.
  • Their intention. If you see a group of them flying overhead, it doesn’t necessarily mean there is something dead they are circling. Sometimes they are just riding the thermals.
  • Their identification. Due to their population prevalence, you will usually see turkey vultures above you more than any other raptor. People often look up, see a turkey vulture, and think it’s a hawk or eagle. While turkey vultures have big wing spans and cruise quietly above, they are not at all related.

Turkey vulture nestling

 

There are two easy ways to know you’re looking at a turkey vulture. One is  their dark-brown-and-white feather pattern and featherless red head, as you see in the first photo. Other raptors have more nuanced patterns, and feathered heads that are not bright red.

 

Secondly, they are the only raptor to fly with their wings in a “V” shape; hawks and eagles fly with their wings flat across. This V-shaped flying causes the turkey vulture to teeter and rock in flight, which is identifiable from hundreds of feet away.

 

Their name Cathartes means “purifier.” What they eat and have the stomach acids to digest prevents other animals from consuming unhealthy decaying critters, making the earth a cleaner, safer place.

 

Next time you look up and see a big bird teetering in flight, salute this purifying super flyer.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Turkey vulture, immature

Turkeyvulturerange.jpg

Cathartes aura range. Courtesy Wikipedia

 

 

Wildlife on the Galapagos Islands, Part 2 of 2

Frigatebird, male display, Galapagos

In 1841, Herman Melville came to the Galapagos Islands aboard the whaling boat Acushnet. He described the islands as having “emphatic uninhabitableness.”

 

I find this uninhabitableness part of the charm of Galapagos.

 

Welcome to Part 2. If you missed Part 1, click here.

 

Giant Tortoise, Galapagos

 

On Santa Cruz Island, we had the thrill of observing Giant Tortoises in the wild. At the Charles Darwin Research Station we visited the breeding station where they raise the young in their first five years. After that, the tortoises are released and monitored.

 

We also hiked up into the highlands, found what looked like large boulders–the tortoises. The largest living tortoise on earth, they can live to be 100 years old.

 

Oh how very slowly they moved. When those old eyes looked out at me, I was immediately struck by the wisdom and reverence of these venerable creatures.

 

Giant Tortoises, Santa Cruz Island

 

In addition to the large body, head that retracts into the scraped-up shell, and their freaky slowness…they hiss. They are simply letting air out of their lungs.

 

This video I found is a good representation:  YouTube Video by lauramoon.

 

Previously posted: Giant Tortoises of The Galapagos

 

Not to be outdone by the ancient tortoise, the Land Iguana is another reptilian island wonder.

 

Land Iguana, Galapagos

 

Endemic to the Galapagos, this large lizard is 3-5 feet long (0.9-1.5 meters), inhabits several islands. Their lifespan is 50 years.

 

This is not a flitty gecko in your presence; it is a huge, lumbering, prehistoric-looking behemoth.

 

Herbivorous, we found them eating, always. Due to their large size and short legs, they ate whatever was on the ground. They like prickly-pear cactus for the moisture, and eat low-growing plants and fallen fruits.

 

Land Iguana, South Plaza Isl., Galapagos

Previously posted: Land Iguana. 

 

For a week we lived and slept on a boat, the most common tourist method of accommodation here. Every night we sailed to the next island. Every day we boarded inflatable boats, and ventured onto a new island.

 

Often we saw sea turtles, whales, and other marine life.

 

Sea Turtle, Galapagos

 

Whales, Galapagos

 

When we came to Floreana Island we were treated to a look at flamingoes. With their specialized beak for straining food, they ate shrimp and made circuitous paths in the mud.

 

Flamingo, Galapagos

 

Flamingo feeding, Galapagos

 

Galapagos cormorants are one of the rarest birds we have in the world. Although cormorants live all over the planet, the Galapagos cormorants are especially unique. These birds are flightless.

 

They evolved without wings because there was plenty of food on shorelines, and no ground predators. With stumps for wings, these blue-eyed beauties hopped among the lava rocks.

 

Previously posted: Galapagos Cormorant

 

 

Galapagos Cormorant

 

North Seymour Island. It was very windy on this small and unprotected island in the middle of the Pacific, where sand whipped us and you could not hear the words of the person next to you.

 

We hiked to the frigatebird colony, something I had been dreaming about doing for years.

 

This is a remarkable sea bird that we only see in tropical ocean areas. They soar with their incredible wingspan of 7.5 feet (2.3 m), sometimes for weeks. It was an unusual sight to see frigatebirds up close, perched on branches; for they are usually high above, only recognizable by their expansive silhouette.

 

But the most striking aspect was the complete chaos. Frigatebirds were screeching, whining, rattling, whistling, and drumming.

 

Frigatebirds, Galapagos. Male with chick on left has deflated pouch, male on right has inflated it.

 

 

Male Magnificent Frigatebird displaying

 

With the most dramatic display of all the seabirds, the male frigatebird’s red gular pouch inflates to attract the females, is used as a drum to punctuate the message. He beats his wings against the pouch, creating a deep, low, booming sound. When the dance is done, the throat deflates.

 

Previously posted: Breeding Frigatebirds.

 

Galapagos Sea Lion

 

Herman Melville called it uninhabitable, Charles Darwin changed the world with his findings here.

 

Thanks for visiting this remarkable, other-worldly place with me.

 

All photos: Athena Alexander

Land Iguana, Galapagos

 

San Cristobal Island Harbor, where we boarded our boat

 

Wildlife of the Galapagos Islands, Part 1 of 2

Swallow-tailed Gull, Galapagos

An archipelago located 600 miles off South America’s coast, the Galapagos Islands are a cluster of volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean. Due to their remoteness, the islands have been difficult to access for hundreds of years, rendering the life that does exist to be unique, like nowhere else in the world.

 

Without significant predators present, the wildlife have evolved differently than what we see on mainland continents. It is here where Charles Darwin’s observations in 1835 led to the inception of the theory of evolution.

 

I recently read there are seven wildlife species tourists most want to see on the islands, so I have covered them all in this two-part series (not in this order), plus more: tortoises, sea turtles, marine and land iguanas, penguins, blue-footed boobies, and sea lions. (National Geographic June 2017)

 

Galapagos Island Wikipedia overview

 

Situated in a confluence of ocean currents, and influenced by extreme weather patterns and trade winds, the islands host a variety of habitats.

 

Life here is like being on a different planet.

 

Marine Iguana, Galapagos

Marine iguana, a fascinating and prevalent species on the islands. They are the only lizard on earth that hunt under water.

 

We were lucky one day to find two males gnawing at algae on the rocks under water with us, where we were snorkeling. Much of the time, however, you see their colonies lazing upon the lava and boulders, numbering in the hundreds; for they have to soak up the sun to move.

 

They range in color, depending on the island where they reside; and their sizes range too. The ones we saw averaged about 4-5 feet long (1.2-1.5 m) including the tail.

 

Marine Iguana, Galapagos

Previously posted: Snorkeling with a Lizard.

 

Though sources vary somewhat, the Galapagos have 18 major islands, 13 smaller islands, and 42 islets.

 

Espanola Island is the southernmost island and often the first stop for arriving birds. Here there is an unusual landscape of breeding birds. Among the craggy rocks, hard lava, and windy flats are the nesting colonies of two seabirds: blue-footed booby and waved albatross.

 

Gifted with the bluest feet you will ever see, the blue-footed boobies populate this island in various stages of breeding and nesting. One half of all breeding pairs in the world nest in the Galapagos.

 

Blue-footed Booby, Galapagos

 

Previously posted: Blue-footed Booby.

 

Waved albatross, usually only seen at sea, also nest here. Listed as critically endangered, it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be so close to this remarkable bird.

 

Waved Albatross pairs, Espanola Island, Galapagos

 

Previously posted: Waved Albatross.

 

Blue-footed Booby mating dance, Galapagos

 

Keep in mind these birds are endlessly mesmerizing to a birder like me. But the harsh sun and sour, fetid smell of hundreds of nests at your ankles can be off-putting to some people.

 

Another day while snorkeling, we came upon Galapagos penguins, also an endangered species. They are the second smallest penguin on earth, and because of their small stature, they are preyed upon by a long list of land and sea animals.

 

Speed is their lifeline. They shot past us in the water like bullets.

 

Galapagos Penguins

 

Wikipedia Galapagos Penguin

 

Sea lions abound on the Galapagos. They frequent the beaches, traverse the lava, and are seen gracing every island. But the most thrilling day was when we tumbled over the side of the inflatable boat and into the deep water.

 

Sea Lions, Galapagos

 

As if we were their favorite playmates, the sea lions came bounding over to us–spinning and circling and ready to frolic. A social and playful mammal, they gave us the warmest welcome these chilly waters could offer.

 

Looking forward to continuing the wildlife adventures in Part 2, next Friday. Stay tuned, fellow earthlings.

 

All photos: Athena Alexander

 

Marine Iguana, Galapagos

 

Galapagos Islands, center. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

New Cooper’s Hawks

Adult Cooper’s Hawk, in mid-March in the oak tree

Hawks are fierce hunters; they fly and perch noiselessly, hunt swiftly and quietly. But the chicks, of course, are not that way; they haven’t learned how to be  warriors yet.

 

Dependent, hungry, and inexperienced, the chicks have squawky voices and incessant demands: “feed me feed me feed me.”

 

Cooper’s Hawk fledgling, early July

 

It was the Cooper’s Hawk chick that gave away the secret of the well-hidden nest I found, high up in a madrone tree.

 

Just as I looked up to examine the unusual sound, a parent swooped into the nest with food. This quieted the chick. The little guys hadn’t learned stealth yet, and the parents know too well the importance of it.

 

Stealth is the key to survival in nature.

 

This coyote, in the vicinity of the hawk nest, would find a hawk chick tasty

 

Accipiter cooperii are medium-sized hawks, native to North America.  They live and breed primarily in forests, preying on birds and small mammals. Adult pairs breed once a year, and live in the wild as long as 12 years.

 

Cooper’s Hawk info. 

 

It was back in mid-March when I began noticing the Cooper’s Hawk here every day.  Temperatures were in the 30s and 40s (F.), there was even snow. The hawk perched every day in the same bare-leafed oak tree. Quiet and still, it mostly watched.

 

Eventually the cold days gave way to spring, and leaves started to bud and unfurl on the hawk’s oak tree. The raptor apparently preferred bare trees, because he or she moved, began perching on a nearby dead pine tree.

 

Once in awhile a bold hummingbird would harass the hawk, rather ridiculously, scolding it to move on. But nothing ever happened.

 

Then in June things changed. The hawk moved from that favorite spot in the pine tree–began perching near the bird feeders, instead. There were close-calls when the hawk nearly got a pigeon or mourning dove; and more frequently we were finding signs of a kill, evidenced by gray dove feathers scattered in the yard.

 

California Quail

 

Then there was the breakfast incident.

 

We were eating breakfast outside when a terrified California quail, sounding his alarm call, flew by us. Just behind him, the Cooper’s Hawk sailed effortlessly by, gaining on the quail.

 

Quail are heavy ground birds and don’t fly much. Cooper’s Hawks are agile fliers, silent and fast, bearing down dramatically on their prey.  When they reach the prey, they capture it with the talons and squeeze the bird to death.

 

The two birds disappeared around a bend.

 

Ten minutes later, during tea and scones, the hawk flew over our heads with the plucked prey in his talons.

 

When a raptor is taking food away from the kill-site, it usually means there are hungry chicks waiting in the nest.

 

Cooper’s Hawk nest in madrone tree

 

It was the next day when I found the nest in the treetop, spotted the noisy chicks.

 

There were two chicks, and they were pretty big, nearly adult size. One was still in the nest; the other sat perched in a nearby tree. Neither could fly, but the older one could hop around.

 

Cooper’s Hawk fledgling, early July

A few weeks have passed and the nest is abandoned. But the chicks are still here.

 

The parents are quiet and hidden, there’s no evidence of them being around, but that’s the way it should be.

 

The chicks, well, they’re still learning. They hunt together, and I always hear them at dinnertime. The two siblings have high-pitched whistling calls, and they never stop making noise.

 

Instead of perching quietly and watching, they fly around conversing with one another through the trees. And yesterday they landed together on our deck railing.

 

We all have things to learn, even ferocious raptors.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

Caribou of Denali National Park

Caribou, Denali NP, Alaska

The great state of Alaska boasts a healthy population of caribou. During a visit to Denali National Park in central Alaska, we saw caribou several times.

 

A large ruminant mammal in the deer family, Rangifer tarandus are the North American species; they occupy a substantial range in Alaska and Canada (see maps below).

 

Denali NP, Alaska

Equipped with large antlers for shoveling snow and specialized nasal passages that warm incoming frigid air, this mammal lives in the coldest areas of North America.

 

Upon first setting eyes on the caribou, it is the antlers that command your attention–an impressive rack. The caribou shed the rack very year, so the Denali Visitor Center had discarded racks out for viewing; they were so heavy I could barely pick up one by myself.

 

In this species, unlike all the other mammals in the deer family, both genders grow antlers.

 

Other interesting facts about the Denali caribou:

  • Their color varies, the coat changing with the seasons
  • Their coat consists of two layers, for thorough insulation
  • Size: 4′ tall at shoulder (1.22 m); 8′ in length (2.5 m)
  • Weight: Bulls 350-400 lbs (159-182 kg); Cows 175-225 lbs (80-120 kg)
  • They migrate in large herds, usually through adverse conditions

 

Denali NP

 

Denali herd info here

and

Wikipedia overview here. 

 

We occasionally came upon them while hiking, and although their size is intimidating, the caribou are gentle animals. We let them graze, and they let us marvel at their beauty and strength.

 

Some caribou subspecies have gone extinct or are diminishing for various reasons. In America, for example, it is very rare to see a caribou unless you go to Alaska.

 

According to Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game, there are 32 herds in Alaska/Canada, estimating 950,000 individuals.

 

In Denali National Park, the 2013 census count recorded 2,230 caribou. In the park they are, in general, protected.

 

Other parts of Alaska, however, allow regulated hunting and harvesting of caribou.

Denali Alaska

While caribou live in many parts of the world, we call them different names depending on where one lives. In the U.S., this mammal is called a caribou; unless they are domesticated, in which case they are called reindeer. In Europe, caribou are called reindeer.

 

Whatever you call them, they are a strikingly beautiful mammal with a hardy lifestyle and elegant antlers.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

North America Caribou Range Map, courtesy Feldhamer, Thompson, Chapman; Wild Mammals of North America

 

World Caribou/Reindeer Range Map, Courtesy Wikipedia