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24 May 2010

London Area Birds

I recently had a work trip to the London, UK area, and had about 2/3 of a day to get out and check the local wildlife. It was a generally successful day with 52 bird species seen, along with a handful of butterflies and a banded damoiselle.

First on the itinerary was Wraysbury, near London Heathrow airport. This spot has some wooded areas, sparser shrubs and grass areas, and a couple of large ponds. We spotted 32 species of birds, two butterflies (who would not stop for a photo), and a banded damoiselle:

Banded Damoiselle

One of the highlights of this stop was seeing a group of Red Kite fly by. Red Kites were nearly hunted to extirpation, but have been re-introduced to southern England and are quickly re-establishing themselves. This group was soaring very high, so photos were not exactly riveting.

Red Kite Flying

This Blue Tit was one of the more colorful birds at Wraysbury:

Blue Tit

The Blue Tit was typical of many of the passerines that were seen - very difficult to photograph either because they are so active (non-stop moving), or so well hidden.

There were a group of bird banders at Wraysbury collecting data and placing identification bands on birds. Here is a Common Whitethroat, which was probably the most common species of the day:

Common Whitethroat


And a Sedge Warbler:

Sedge Warbler

I was surprised to learn that much of this area has Ring-necked Parakeets breeding in the wild. Like Peach-faced Lovebirds in the Phoenix area, these are descendants of escaped birds, and form small gregarious flocks. Unfortunately, I didn't get any photos.

Next, we visited Staines Reservoir. There was quite a group of Black-headed Gulls at the Reservoir. Here is one fly-by gull:

Black-headed Gull

Tufted Duck, Shellduck, numerous Mute Swan, Pied Wagtail, Common Coot, and a few other species were also seen.

Last on the agenda was a trip to the London Wetlands Centre. This is a man-made habitat consisting of numerous interconnect ponds, wooded areas, and even a martin habitat.

The Lapwings loved the small islands around the ponds:

Lapwing

There were a handful of Great Tits in the shrubs nearby:

Great Tit

And a Long-tailed Tit:

Long-tailed Tit

The Grey Herons in England look a bit like the Great Blue Herons of the Americas:

Grey Heron
Grey Heron

There were numerous Moorhens around the wetlands. The Moorhen is the same as the Common Moorhen seen in the US, but for whatever reason these Moorhens seemed much more tame.

Common Moorhen

Unlike the Moorhen, which is the same species as seen in the USA, the Robin in Europe is totally different:
Robin

In the middle of the wetlands is a large observation tower. This made for a great spot to look for waders and other birds that tended to stay further away. Unfortunately, by mid afternoon the clouds were building up and it was beginning to sprinkle a bit. This combined with the distance made for some difficult photography. None-the-less, there were a few indentifiable photos:

Common Redshank:
Common Redshank

Pied Wagtail:

Pied Wagtail

Tufted Duck:
Tufted Duck

And on the way out of the preserve, this Jackdaw posed nicely:

Jackdaw

Thanks to Bill Haines for taking me to the above "hotspots".

For my quick trip I purchased the inexpensive Gooders Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland (Field guides). I really liked its compact size and its month-by-month abundance chart for every species covered. I highly recommend this field guide for those planning some light to moderate birding in London, or anywhere in the UK.

For serious birding across Europe, the "Collins Bird Guide" is the most widely recommended. This field guide is available in the USA as Birds of Europe: Second Edition (Princeton Field Guides). It is much larger than the Gooders guide mentioned above, and covers the entire continent. Many consider this guide to be one of the top field guides in production today.

23 May 2010

Saguaro Flowers

Our Saguaro produced flowers for the first time in its life this year - quite an achievement because it takes as much as 35 years before a Saguaro is old enough to flower.

We'd written off any chance flowers this year once it hit mid May, so it was a surprise to see the buds develop so late. Many more mature Saguaros already had many buds and some flowers by early May, before ours even showed any signs of buds. As it stands, it looks like our saguaro may produce about 7 flowers this year. When its more mature, we should expect 20-30, and when it gets arms, 20-30 more on each arm.

Saguaro Cactus Flower

It will be interesting to see if our Saguaro gets pollinated or not. In our neighborhood, there are only a couple other Saguaros old enough to flower, and none in the nearby desert (most of the nearby desert is actually farmland or cleared for development). The next closest saguaros are a mile or two away in some of the shopping areas. Additionally, Saguaros require cross pollination, and further compounding the pollination effort is that the flowers only last about a day.

Flowers tend to open at night, and rely heavily on bats for pollination. We do see an occasional bat in the neighborhood, but I've not taken the time to identify them and determine if they are the species that are most likely to pollinate.

The fruit produced after pollination is a bright red, and enjoyed by many birds (especially white-winged doves as in this photo I took a few years ago). Each fruit has thousands of seeds.

White-winged Dove Eating Saguaro Fruit

Our cactus has been in the ground at our house for 3.5 years, and was planted at a height of around 7.5 feet. Currently, it is close to 10 feet tall.

08 May 2010

Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge and Huntley Meadows - Virginia

While on a business trip to Washington DC, I took a side trip to Occoquan Bay NWR and Huntley Meadows in northern Virginia. Being April 25, it was a bit early for peak migration, but there were migrants trickling in.

Both locations were very nice with plenty of paths and natural habitat, and I'd highly recommend both for traveling birders or nature lovers.

Occoquan Bay NWR is on the Potomac (the Potomac is quite wide as you proceed southward from DC). It has meadows, forests, and some water habitat, though I didn't see any real shorebird habitat.

Osprey were the birds of the day at Occoquan, with numerous seen perching, flying, and fishing. This photo shows one near its typical large nest. I couldn't detect any young in the nest.

Osprey and its giant nest

There were a mix of warblers and vireos, too. Common Yellowthroat, Prothonotary, Northern Parula, and Yellow Warbler were all noted. This Prothonotary was singing on a prominent perch:

Prothonotary Warbler

Not many butterflies were seen (it was a cool day with an occasional sprinkle or shower). However, there were a few Eastern Tailed Blues:

Eastern Tailed Blue Butterfly

Oh, and while Turkey Vultures aren't exactly uncommon, this one was certainly uncommon in that it let me approach very closely.

Turkey Vulture Close-up


Huntley Meadows is an inland park south of Alexandria containing a mix of meadows, forest, and wetlands. The wetland area had a large boardwalk, and was the highlight of the park the day I was there. Along the boardwalk, several frog species, a turtle, and a raccoon were seen, along with numerous birds.

This raccoon was wondering towards me for a minute or two before finally realizing I was there - which startled it and caused it to run away.

Raccoon running away

This Great Egret confirms that yes, this is a wetland.

Great Egret

I found this head-on Common Yellowthroat photo interesting. It's not the classic look with an eye catch, but it shows the coloration in a unique way.

Common Yellowthroat

05 May 2010

Couch's Spadefoot

Last week, late one evening, I was returning home after a long flight. As I drove into my driveway, I was surprised to see a medium sized toad. For some reason, I assumed it was an out of season Sonoran Desert Toad. None-the-less, I grabbed my camera and took a few shots.

On inspection, it turns out it was a Couch's Spadefoot (Scaphiopus couchi). Like many desert toads, it is nocturnal and primarily resides in underground burrows.




This toad is also unique in that it lacks a boss and parotoid glands, making it look generally smoother than other toads.

This toad is one of five native frogs or toads that one could reasonably expect to see in the low desert in Pinal county. I've now see three of the five - Red Spotted, Sonoran Desert, and Couch's Spadefoot.

02 May 2010

White-Faced Ibis Migration

I was outside the evening of May 1 when my daughter pointed to the sky and said "what's that?". I turned around to see a flock of about 40 large-looking birds. Looking with the naked eye, they seemed to be some sort of shorebird.

I figured I'd missed my chance at identifying them as they disappeared into the distance. However, a couple minutes later, another flock; then another. The waves of birds kept coming every couple of minutes, giving me time to get my binoculars and camera. With my binoculars, I was amazed to see each bird had a large curved bill.

White-faced Ibis Fly-over

After some further inspection, it was clear these were White-Faced Ibis, a marsh bird that is a usual visitor to Arizona during migration. White-faced Ibis look very out of place in a desert setting, but they will land and even spend some time in desert wetland environments.

My only White-Faced Ibis pictures are those of very distance birds, so here is a free image from Wikipedia:

White-faced Ibis

Photographing a bird in the sky is always a challenge given the strong backlighting that often exists. This evening was no exception, however the setting sun did result in some interesting effects.

Sunlit White-faced Ibis
Sunlit White-faced Ibis

The above photos are the clinchers for this being White-Faced Ibis. When considering down-curved billed birds, Curlew and Whimbrel are also possibilities, but neither extend their necks as much as the White-Faced Ibis. Further, neither have bills as bulky, and neither demonstrate the short "finger" feathers on the tips of the wings. And I'm assuming these were not Glossy Ibis simply due to the numbers. Around 300 (conservative) to 500 flew over, while Glossy Ibis are very uncommon in AZ.