Monday, August 27, 2012

Out of Sorts: A Naturalist in Another Place

Pacific Birds of Opportunity                   14 August 2012

Gulls are opportunists, no doubt.  So are ornithologists and bird photographers.     For now, in my flight of fancy, I wish to share a few images from this day.  Since my own “rules” for the blog is that each day in nature is devoted a single entry, this is one blog entry that will grow.   It was a very big day, so come back again and stay tuned! 

Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula!  We enjoyed a day of beauty and great luck.  Hurricane Ridge provided a spectacular show as Pacific Ocean sea fog rolled into the valleys and ascended as cloud cover into the high country, wrapping and embracing snow-capped mountain peaks and glaciers.   Broad-leafed alpine lupines and magenta paintbrush flowers were in full bloom, and Sitka black-tailed deer fawns made appearances in protective woodlots.

A lunchtime hike and a day of “making miles” by car put us (delightfully) behind “schedule.”   What, in all of the beauty of Washington, especially in vacation, could dictate a schedule?  Actually, that would be a ferry schedule.

We were the last car of the last ferry before sunset.  We made it.  As our ferry finished the short crossing and we were called to return to our vehicles, I noticed a rock pile full of gulls.  Sprinkled along the white-washed rocks were Western Gulls, Glacous-winged Gulls, and, more exciting to a Wisconsinite, the Heermann’s Gulls so unique to the area.    The sun dipped low on the horizon, warming the photography light and making my heart skip a beat.  How great it would be to get to those rocks!  That’s when I noticed the parking lot and easy access.  It would be a reality!

Within minutes, I found myself sauntering along through a diverse group of gulls, shooting images and feeling very lucky.  

A strange, high-pitched squealing or screaming soon caught my attention.  While I had first thought it may be young gulls, my taxonomist’s brain quickly placed the sound as “new and unknown.”  This was weird.  I knew it was a bird, but it wasn’t anything remotely close to what I knew!  I searched the rocks and quickly found the answer.  Pigeon Guillemot! Alcid seabirds!  While this may not be exciting for somebody living on the coast, this is bird Heaven for a Great Lakes mid-continent land lubber.  

I sat on a rock and took on a low profile, waiting to see what would happen.  Within minutes, Pigeon Guillemots were flying from open water to rocks and perching on their hocks just a few meters away!  Here, before my eyes, one ecological lesson played out in grand fashion—Phosphorus cycling.  As phosphorous, a valuable and limiting nutrient is extracted from the sea through the food web, it is the birds that fly the phosphorous high and above the sea.  In their droppings, they deposit the valuable nutrient back along the edges of the sea where it slowly erodes from rock faces, back to the beginnings of the food web.  It is the wings of sea birds that cycle the Phosphorus and so contribute to the continuity of life’s webs. Bird guano whitewash is beauty on the rocks.

I had always known from pictures that pigeon guillemots were black and white seabirds, but I never appreciated how unique they are.  Bright red feet, to my sudden surprise, were complemented by a bright red mouth.  In the evening light, these birds glowed. 

Wildlife images were made with my favorite combination: Canon 40D and 300mm f4 IS lens.  I shot Aperture Priority, but I worked the exposure compensation a bit.   Landscapes were made with the Canon Powershot SX230HS, a camera that continues to surprise me with its quality as a “point and shoot.”

Friday, August 3, 2012

Breakfast with a Tanager

A Young Bird Reveals Volumes About Feeding Niche                    3 August 2012
Scarlet Tanagers are tropical birds, spending most of their lives there.  But they are hatched in the temperate portions of eastern North America, and the beginnings of a journey to the tropics are hinged on the successful exploration of a feeding niche in northern climates.  This Scarlet Tanager was likely a Wisconsin nestling just a few weeks ago, and it is on its way to Central America. 

I shared my breakfast with the tanager this morning.  This, of course, requires clarification.  I did not share food with the bird, and we did, in fact, have different feeding niches to occupy.  But the simple fact remains that, while I was perched on my deck, the young tanager was perched in an elm at the corner of the deck.  I got a front row seat into this bird’s search for food while I enjoyed some good grains.  I am glad I didn’t eat what the tanager found.   

The tanager seemed obsessed with a strategy of staring obliquely along the decurved leaves of the elm boughs.  If you haven’t peeked ahead at the images, perhaps you can spot the bird’s meal before it does.  The meal is clearly visible in one of these images!   A sharp eye is part of the tanager’s exploration of leaves for insect prey.   

The beak of a tanager is a piece to the puzzle, defining an opportunistic life building a diet rich in insects and fruits.

August has arrived, and tropical species of birds have already begun their southerly waves of migration.  Despite the sometimes oppressive heat of the “dog days” of summer, a hint of autumn is in the air in the changing hues of tree leaves, in the ripening of late berries, and on the bustling wings of chatty fledglings and migratory birds.  Everywhere, food abounds!

These images were made in lightly overcast, even light with a 300mm lens (Canon f4, IS) and a Canon 40D.   I shot at ISO 200 and ISO 400 to keep shutter speeds high.  The young bird was somewhat tame.  A fluffy white line along the bird’s wing left some doubt as to the bird’s identity, so I crept back into the house to get the camera.  My initial efforts were to simply document a “Western Tanager” in Wisconsin.  As it turned out, the bird was a Scarlet Tanager common to my locale, but the role of the camera quickly changed from species documentary  to behavioral documentary.