Foam Lake Birding No. 159

No. 159
            Finally, our first frosts have come and with the yellowing of the leaves signifying an end to our nice summer.  Not that many are eagerly awaiting the coming of winter but the fall is very nice unto itself.  Thankfully, the frosts have not been severe enough to freeze over any sloughs so many of our water birds are still with us even though a few, like the Blue Winged Teal, have already headed south.  We might as well enjoy them while we still can. 
            One of our most widespread "water birds" on the planet is not exactly the kind that one associates with ducks and geese.  The Osprey, a member of the hawk family, is dependent on water because its diet consists entirely of fish.  Because of this characteristic, to me, it makes it a kind of water bird as it were. 
            The Osprey is a large hawk just slightly smaller than our eagles.  Although there is only one species of Osprey it is found just about throughout the entire planet where there are trees and fish present.  It does not exist in places like the Tundra because there are no trees on which to build its nest.  Their nests are large bulky affairs made of sticks and twigs built atop large trees near streams and lakes. 
            The Osprey is a pure fisher catching rather large fish that are just under the surface of the water.  It does not dive in but drops down on the fish feet first catching the fish crosswise.  Often the Osprey will be completely submerged during the process.  With powerful wing beats the Osprey  rises out of the water and just as it clears the water it turns the fish around in its claws so that the fish is pointing head first in the direction it is flying.  This orientation reduces the amount of drag making it easier to fly with the fish. 
            Some twenty years ago two of our children attended summer camp at Crystal Lake near Canora which happened to have an Osprey's nest nearby.  Needless to say I spent a considerable amount of time watching the parents bringing fish in for the youngsters to eat.  It is too bad that I did not have a camera with me at the time as I could have taken some super pictures of an Osprey flying with a fish.  It is fortunate for the Osprey that it does not often take "game fish" like pike and pickerel thus not incurring the enmity of man.  Rather, it usually takes suckers and mullets which are considered inferior for human consumption.  Bald Eagles like to force Ospreys to drop their fish and keep it for themselves.  Lazy eagles?   
            Ospreys are quite easy to identify.  They are very vocal and constantly make high pitched squealing sounds that do not seem to befit such a majestic bird.  In flight their wings are usually bent backwards noticeably making the bird look like a flying W.  Whether perched or in flight the Osprey is white headed somewhat resembling a Bald Eagle save for the tail which in the eagle is all white.  One other marked difference is the eagle's head is all white while the Osprey's white head has a very prominent black eye line.  When perched Ospreys show a slight crest at the back of the head.  Males and females are the same. 
            I have occasionally seen an Osprey fly over our house but have never been able to photograph one locally.  This week's picture was taken in Carlsbad, CA at the Batiquitos Lagoon.  It is eating a freshly caught fish on a pole that was left there specifically for that purpose.  This arrangement also provides humans with a good vantage point to observe the bird in iits natural setting.  The picture was taken at very long range so it is not as sharp as I would have liked but the field marks are clearly visible.

Foam Lake Birding No. 158

            No. 158
            More fall birds have visited our yard with more soon to follow.  Fall warblers, like the Magnolia, Yellow Rumped and Wilsons, are starting to arrive.  In the spring warblers with their bright plumage are quite easy to identify, but in the fall with their drab winter plumages identification is quite difficult.  All are brownish with varying degrees of yellow.  Here, one has to be familiar with subtle field marks.  Another helpful tool is distribution.  For example, Yellow Warblers are gone for the year, therefore, any yellowish warbler has to be something else.  Two such warblers are the Magnolia and the Wilsons.  Both are yellow but the Magnolia has a yellow rump while the Wilsons has a black cap.  This is the time of year to test one's birding skills. 
            With the fall game bird hunting season underway I started to focus on a game bird, in particular, the Sandhill Crane.  While planning the article I remembered something that happened about forty years ago.  It was the time when the crane season had just opened for the first time and bird hunters were eager to try their hand at crane hunting.  Because of their lack of knowledge of birds some hunters shot a similar bird, the Great Blue Heron, by mistake.  Being an illegal act everybody kept quiet about it. 
            The goose sized Great Blue Heron is grey with long legs and neck giving it an overall length of almost four feet - one of our largest birds.  The easiest way to distinguish a heron from a crane is when the bird is in flight.  A heron flies with its neck coiled back so that the back of its head rests on its shoulders; a crane flies with its neck stretched straight out.  Another characteristic is that cranes often feed on grain in fields; herons never do.  Sandhill Cranes are social birds usually seen in flocks; herons are solitary.  During breeding season the reverse is true.  Cranes nest in isolated pairs; herons nest in large colonies called rookeries.  Cranes nest on the ground in marshes; herons nest high in mature trees.  The one and only rookery that I ever saw was one at Marean Lake near Greenwater Lake.  Unfortunately, human development caused the herons to abandon the site.  The good news is that both cranes and herons are plentiful. 
            The Great Blue Heron does not eat plant food but feeds entirely on fish and other water creatures.  It does so by standing motionless in shallow water waiting for something to swim by at which point it strikes with amazing speed to grab the luckless creature.  Because of its feeding habits it is usually found in quiet waters of larger sloughs and lakes. 
            It is actually quite easy to distinguish the Great Blue Heron from the similar Sandhill Crane.  Both are grey but the Sandhill has a bright red bald patch on its forehead; the Great Blue Heron has a white crown with a black eyebrow line that extends backward into a long plume.  It reminds me of a bald headed man sporting a pony tail.  Males and females are the same. 
            This week's photo of the Great Blue Heron was taken several years ago in Carlsbad, CA at the Batiquitos Lagoon.  The Wilsons Warbler was taken in our backyard this past week as it was preening in the morning sun.  The sharpness of the photo of the warbler is not that good as it was in a continual state of motion during its preening, but the black crown patch is clearly visible. 

Foam Lake Birding No. 157

No. 157
            The summer weather is still holding providing farmers with some great harvesting conditions.  Let's hope it holds.  It also provides for some good warm weather birding. 
            In last week's article one of the pictures showed a Clay Coloured Sparrow sitting beside a Brown Headed Cowbird.  This commonly overlooked sparrow is actually quite common and any effort to find and observe one will usually be successful.   They are more rural than the Chipping Sparrows but are often seen in towns in spring and on occasion will even nest there if there is a fairly decent size clump of trees and shrubs. 
            The Clay Coloured Sparrow is quite nondescript and requires a bit of practice to identify it readily.  In the summer time it looks a lot like a Chipping Sparrow except it does not have the red cap nor black eye line.  Instead, it has a brown cap with a whitish line running through it and a black "mustache" rather than an eye line.  Upon closer examination with binoculars the clay coloured nape clearly stands out and is a definitive field mark.  To my way of thinking it might have been better to have named it the Clay Collared Sparrow.  In the fall the Clay Coloured Sparrow looks very much like a juvenile Chipping Sparrow so care must be taken when identifying the birds.  In the summer time the best field mark is the song.  Its song is a rather long (tow or three seconds) buzz in one pitch that sounds much like a very loud grasshopper.  No other bird has a song like it.  Males and females are the same. 
            This week's photo was taken in our back yard a few years ago.  In a colour photo the clay coloured nape is clearly visible.