Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Mourning Cloaks

These butterflies are now a common sight all over the place. In Europe they are called Camberwell Beauties.

They are Nymphalids, which is the same family as the Painted Lady, Red Admiral and Tortoiseshells. Out of all of these, it is most like a Tortoiseshell regarding shape of wings and its habits, though it glides quite a lot more than a Tortoisehell.

Big Bear Lake (12th)

This is a bit belated due to my SD card holder in my PC messing up.

                                                                            Big Bear Lake

Up in the mountains of San Bernadino lied what seemed to be a popular tourist destination; Big Bear Lake.

I wasn't sure what to expect from this location, because birdwise there was literally nothing on the internet apart from a photo of a Bald Eagle and a Steller's Jay, both found at the location. The latter was the most interesting to me because it was something I was after. A mountain habitat tenatively had the opportunity for some other birds that are endemic to the high altitudes i.e. Pygmy Nuthatch, White-headed Woodpecker etc.

The first bird I saw at the Best Western hotel was actually a Bald Eagle. The hotel was surrounded by a decent stand of pine trees and in between the gap I saw a white-headed and dark bird of prey. It disappeared behind the forest in a flash, so no pics. In the sky around there were some Violet-green Swallows and a few Cliff Swallows, the latter of which were nesting around the hotel itself. House Finch was here too.

The first bird of interest was a little agile bird in the garden out the back. It hung on the trees yet it would dart out and catch insects on the fly too; it was almost as athletic as the Restless Flycatchers back in Australia. To my surprise it was a Pygmy Nuthatch. Definitely not the behaviour I expected from a nuthatch. While most nuthatches scour up and down tree trunks, this one, while minorly dabbling in that act too, was much more focused on the insects flying past. The other nuthatches were sitting on the sofa all day compared to this little bird. I was also surprised that they were here. This region of Big Bear was pretty developed and urbanized.

There were a couple of American Robins, too. The female had sticks in its beak, so it seemed like there was a nest being built somewhere.

I also had a Red-shafted Flicker, many Band-tailed Pigeons (they are surprisingly big) and some Pine Siskins at the garden.

The lake itself was kind of a let-down. For one it was entirely man-made, which takes away the point of this being a wilderness. Secondly the lake is entirely commercialized. Want to walk around the lake? Well you can't because it is all private docks and homes.

                                                                            Big Bear Lake Discovery Center
This center was situated on the other side of the lake. I thought that if I saw any Steller's Jays this would be the place. While driving past the lake I saw only Mallards and American Coots as well as one Pied-billed Grebe, but more interestingly there was one Eared Grebe in full breeding plumage, which I should have had my camera out for.

At the center there were even more Violet-green Swallows, including some visiting nest boxes. I think the strangest thing was all the dry Sagebrush. It looked more like a chaparral habitat with pine trees than true mountains, even though the elevation was higher than Jasper National Park of Alberta.


A lizard. That's all I know.

The picture directly after the previous.

At the feeder was a jay, though a Western Scrub-jay. When I came back minutes later, however, a Steller's Jay had taken its place. Its a real shame about the shade!

Some chipmunk-like mammals were running around in the scrub, though I have no idea what they were. There was a pair of Red-winged Blackbirds that also came to the feeder here, similarly a single Cowbird hung around, though made no actual attempt to feed from it. Elsewhere there was a trio of Western Bluebirds. Around the sage were some very pale sulphur butterflies. As the Common Sulphur was not found here, I assumed it was the only other sulphur around here which was the Hartford's subspecies of Queen Alexandra's Sulphur. However, on examining the images, it seems that they were Southern Dogface. 
There was a Coyote in the brush at the far end in the car park.
And this nestbox was home to a Mountain Chickadee.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Annular Solar Eclipse of May 20th 2012

Annular not meaning annual as in each year, mind you. An annular eclipse is where the moon is at a point in its orbit where it is not "large" enough to cover the sun, thus you get an orange ring. Though in California we only got a 86% eclipse at its highest point.

It was certainly troublesome to photograph. No matter how dark the camera setting the sun would always come out as a bright light where you could not make out any of the sun itself. On the display screen (not the viewfinder, obviously) the sun appeared as a black disc, though this was not the eclipse itself, but the light tampering with the sensors. When I actually took the picture, it just came out as a white flash of light. I attach an image taken with my other camera of the view on the screen. The black crescent below is the sun; in a total eclipse it would be the moon that is black, but again this is what bright light does to a camera. I probably shouldn't have even been pointing it up there.

From the festival today at Paramount Ranch, we did get solar viewers, and I managed to take pictures through those:

This image was taken through a solar filter, a specially modified piece of dark translucent
paper. This eliminates all of the sun's glare. Note the sky was actually blue in life; in order to
single out the sun in the image above you have to remove pretty much all light.
There was a slight ashy tint of duskiness to the light, but as it was 6:30pm it would have gone pretty much unnoticed if you were not aware there was an eclipse. Though, the shadows were quite hard to miss. In dappled lighting you get all these neat mini crescents:

And trust me, I was looking hard to find a bird that would perch in the shadows but there was nothing around at all apart from a few Bushtits.

There were two other neat features about the eclipse. One is that it creates a perfect "starburst" lighting without the need of a specialized lens. The second is that the lens flare, those sometimes annoying orbs of light you see when angled to the sun, was made up of crescents too.

Starburst light.

Crescent lens flare as seen in the left side of the image.

In this one there is a complete reflection of the sun on the right.

At 4000/s shutter speed and f-42; the darkest I could make it, and even then you can't
 make out the sun. 
And actually, I did manage to get a shot of the sun that indicated something of the eclipse:

Friday, May 11, 2012

Paramount Ranch~ INDIGO BUNTING

This trip to Paramount Ranch started earlier than normal; at 9am. Indeed today was a friday, and I was clearly sick *cough cough*, so hopefully there would be something to be seen here.

The main purpose of coming here was for my parents, at least my mother. She has started to get into nature, and now carries binoculars and a sketchbook. Flowers are her main thing.

And indeed unlike the visit here only a week or two ago this place was overflowing with wildflowers. House Wrens were strangely common and their song, the same song that lies in the background of many American TV programmes, filled the air throughout nearly the entire trip. A Yellow Warbler was heard singing in the trees above the creek just by the car park.  I saw it perched on an open branch; it is a regular sound in the creek and riverine habitats, but actually seeing them is another story. There were 3 Band-tailed Pigeons flying overheard, not that unusual but only the third or fourth time I have seen this species.

In the eucalyptus at the back of the village I heard a familiar call, that of a Black-headed Grosbeak. I almost thought it was a Downy Woodpecker, but the bill on this bird showed otherwise. It was a female. We started off along the Coyote Trail, and instantly I found this interesting Assassin Bug, Apiomerus californicus.

A. californicus is a relatively newly described species, originally considered conspecific with
A. crassipes. It was only offically  recognized in 2011; just last year. It is a predator
of bees, syphrid flies and wasps.
 Another Grosbeak promptly appeared; another female. The male could be heard singing nearby, but it didn't yield any views.

Don't normally get as good views as this; most birds hang out in the shady canopy of trees.
There are very few trees here, only bushes.
A pair of Turkey Vultures soaring overhead were joined by an almost invisible pin-prick in the sky, which later after going through my images turned out to be a White-throated Swift. It was only just identifiable To give an idea, here is one of those images. I'm surprised I even managed to see it with the naked eye. The picture below is zoomed in quite a bit, too.

Several looks at wildflowers later, we came to a little field. A swallowtail was cruising around this area; a very pale one at that. It flew closer and I saw that the stripes were pretty bold. I instantly lost interest in whatever I happened to be taking pictures of at the time (which was a flowering Yucca) and was taking pictures hoping that one of the shots in flight would be focused. But it didn't matter, because the next best thing happened: it actually landed:

While not that rare, the Pale Tiger Swallowtail is very hard to come by and is scarcely seen that

There was a pair of Grosbeaks this time, including one male. While somewhat fleeting, at least I got a look at the male before they left. I was more interested in some brownish nondescript birds in the bushes, however. I thought they were Empidonax at first, being dullish, having white wing bars and a white eye-ring, but a few seconds later I recognized them as Hutton's Vireo. And here I was thinking they looked similar to Ruby-crowned Kinglets. I take that statement back now, because they are nothing like them.
Two lizards were up the path ahead. The first doesn't seem to be a Western Fence, but I don't know what it is without consulting a guide.
The second is a surprisingly large Tiger Whiptail:

The sound of cicadas was quite consistent during the walk thus far. It wasn't the obstreporous metal grinding or the incessant droning, instead being a single click repeated every few seconds, something pretty regular with the small inconspicuous Tibicen cicadas. Of course it was near impossible to a get a good look at them in such dense shrubbery, but while walking I heard one exceptionally close to the path. And sure enough I actually saw this impossible insect. It even sat still for several minutes.

*Note, Tibicen is referring to Tibiceninae as in the family, not the genus Tibicen.

Tibicen cicadas are very numerous and diverse, though at the same time are pretty much
impossible to tell apart, so I have no hope in even putting this to genus level.

A Tibicen family Cicada is a lot smaller than it's noisier Cicadine cousins.
A further walk up the path and I ended up retracing my steps at the call of a Wrentit. The "ping-pong ball" song of this bird is common, but they are one of the hardest birds to physically see. This particular bird was in a low tree just over the path, and I did manage to get some good, though brief, glimpses of it.
While not a good image, with Wrentits you can't hope for anything.
It shows the face, though, which in my personal bird photography terms makes
this a success.
Another male Grosbeak appeared and sung vibrantly in the path ahead, and a few more flower stops later I caught sight of an unknown orange-black Checkerspot butterfly just as it was flushed by my mother in te yellow flowers on the side of the path. Checkspots are quite uncommon, and it was quite unfortunate as I never saw it again and remain with no photos of it, making it the first species I have ever actually "missed" in any country. A second Tiger Whiptail was seen near the intersection with the Medicine Woman trail, and it also meant the 10 minutes Coyote trail took us 1 hour to traverse due to constant stops.

Along the Medicine Woman trail was another orange-and-black butterfly, though too big for a Checkerspot. It was a Fritillary of some sort, I assume Callipe by looks but I am not familiar with the local species. Luckily it co-operated and I got a picture of the underside, which in Fritillary terms is the only sure-fire way to identify most species. It was one of the "Brown-underside" Fritillaries, a self-proclaimed group which the Callipe is a member of.

 There was not much else to note for a while. After the boardwalk at the apex of the Medicine Woman trail things started to appear again. This male American Kestrel was the first thing seen, and yet another House Wren was singing. Bullock's Orioles started appearing; I had two, at least one was a male. This was the spot I saw a single male a few weeks ago.

At the lone oak tree at the top of the semi-hill, yet another Bullock's male flew out of the tree. What I was more interested in was a flash of blue in a large oak tree on the opposite side of the path. It instantly went into the canopy and I did not get a good look, but it eventually flew out and I saw it was completely blue on the back, so it obviously was not a Lazzy. I thought maybe it was a Blue Grosbeak.

As it was about to perch it was chased off by another identical bird, also bright blue, which meant there was at least two. They continued to fight eachother for a while, and it was getting kind of frustrating; I just wanted to see them sit still. Eventually one of them did:

It wasn't just blue; it was completely blue. And its beak was thin. There was only one thing that could be, but it would be quite rare for this side of the United States. It wasn't a Lazzy Bunting or a Blue Grosbeak, but an Indigo Bunting. And there were two of them. A couple of similarly-behaving brown birds at the back may have been females, meaning a tenative four birds. The only thing better than a rare bird is lots of them.

After the view pictured, it disappeared completely, though it did make a final passby before disappearing into the oaks. The birds were completely mute, and even when I played the songs and calls on my Ipod there was no response. Since they had disappeared, there was not much else to do but continue the walk, though nothing could mellow the excitement of seeing a rare bird in full breeding plumage; most Indigo Bunting sightings are of dull brown juveniles.

The remainder of the walk was spent teaching my mother how to tell the difference between Cabbage Whites and Chequered Whites in flight, and surprisingly she managed to pick it up very quickly.

There was an immature Say's Phoebe in the village area. It perched on the wooden fence and flew under the eves of the houses.
And soon I found myself back at the carpark, having undertaken a very productive walk. It was an example of how wildlife fluctuates greatly in the early hours of the morning. My 1pm walks have never been like this.

Around the house recently

The Cliff Swallows are everywhere at the moment. Some of them are nesting in buildings around Agoura High School, and the roof on some of these buildings can be reached by standing on tiptoes. I managed to get some extremely close shots of the adults in the nests (though they do not have eggs yet; too early).

I am used to seeing countless Cliff Swallows now, but on the way back at Chumash Park these swallows caught my eye. The brown back was the first thing I saw, but then I found the lack of head colouring. They appear to be Northern Rough-winged Swallows. The pictures are far better than that one dark picture I had at Santa Cruz.
They were flying very low, within metres of me. Migrants like these are
typically not so tame.

Another bonus the day before was this White-throated Swift just over my house. The shape was enough to rule out a swallow. Unfortunately I only managed to get one shot before it flew off. At least its better than the pin-prick sized images I had before.

Also of interest was this Western Skink in the hedges near the creek. It is the first "lizard" I've seen here which isn't a Western Fence Lizard.

This ladybird larva was putting on its best Long-horned Beetle/Cerambycid impression with the help of a prop. It had me fooled for a while.