Western Tanagers & an “invisible” experience

I have seen western movies where an Indian felt safe, amid a battle, because he claimed to be invisible. This is a situation that I’ve often wished for and strangely enough it has seemed to have happened a few times during my pursuit of wildlife photos. There is no other way to explain it. After pursuing bird after bird, only to have them “spook” and fly away, sometimes a lucky situation will arise.

One time in late July, when camping at Lake Cleveland, we found a shallow pond at one side of the campground. It was the result of snow-melt and was receding quite rapidly each day. In a “devil-may-care” mood, I stuck a stick upright in the mud of that pond. I then proceeded to place my chair a scant 20 feet from the stick. It was as if I wasn’t there. Sixteen different species alighted, either on that stick, or at my feet, before moving in to drink. Hairy Woodpeckers, Pine Grosbeak, and others; but the most noticeable were Western Tanagers. If you would have told me that this would happen, I’d have said that you were crazy.

The tanager is one of my favorites and his red head makes for a breath-taking sight. The bird needs a good supply of carotene in its diet to enhance the red coloration. Slightly smaller than a Robin, it has a black back and tail and a bright yellow body and yellow wing bars. The female is colored like the male – minus the red head.

This bird prefers the coniferous forests of the western United States during the summer months, but winters in central Mexico and further south. In the early spring this species always pays a visit to our yard, where it is much attached to the sugar water we put out for the Orioles


If I could give another name to “Indian Summer” it would be “The
Time of the Flicker”. The late autumn months are full of much woodpecker
activity in our yard. Especially plentiful is our county’s largest one – the
RED- SHAFTED FLICKER (12 ½ inches long). It’s such an appealing bird with its
poke-a-doted belly, black chest crescent, and red moustache. When in flight, it
flashes the orange/red under parts of its wings and tail (thence its name) and a
conspicuous white rump patch.

As I step outside each morning in autumn, I’m greeted by these birds in
undulating flight – wings flashing color and that white rump patch bobbing up
and down as they scurry to a distant perch. The yard “teems” with an abundance
of these birds.

Flickers like open woodlands and suburban areas. Snags (standing dead trees)
or soft wood trees such as Aspen are preferred when drilling nest cavities.
Their long beaks and tongues facilitate the procurement of ants and other types
of insects – whether on or in the bark of a tree, or on the ground. They also
like fruit and we often see them feeding on our elderberry bushes. Their call is
a loud wik – wik – wik – wik and wick-er, wick-er, wick-er, and a single, loud

The eastern variety (Yellow-Shafted) has yellow under-parts, a black
moustache, and a red crescent on the back of its head.


The Great Horned Owl – Fighter or Lover?

It’s mesmerizing to fall asleep, or awaken, to a soft hooting in
the early evening, or in the wee morning hours. Such is a common occurrence at
our house. These love calls begin in late fall and result in the laying of four
eggs in late winter. Incubation is started at once and results in separate
hatching times for each egg. This situation is known as a “stairstep” family and
whether all, or part, of the young are raised depends on the food supply. The
biggest baby is always fed first and it will survive even if the others don’t.
When the young fledge, they are ½ again larger than the adults. This allows for
an adjustment period when they are learning to fend for themselves.

The GREAT HORNED OWL is not only “tender” with its own but is very formidable
with others. They can take prey as large as a skunk and I have seen young cats
(in our yard) that have been torn in half. A smack on your head with their
talons could be very injurious.

They are identified by size (22”), a white throat, and ear-like feather
projections. They are quite adaptable and wide spread across North America and
are important rodent controllers. Mice and voles make up the lion’s share of
their diet. Other bird species will often “mob” them during daylight hours. Our
yard and lower tree plots are to their liking and we get to witness the raising
and fledging of young each year.


Making Bird Photo Studios

by Dave Hanks

I sit in a blind on a Texas ranch. It is on a high spot overlooking a swale that has a large, bare tree branch set in the ground to serve as a bird perch – a bird photo studio – so to speak. A beef kidney has been attached as a lure for the hawks of southern Texas.

In our efforts to photograph birds, we have found it very useful to set the stage beforehand and wait for the birds to come to us. If a permanent blind is unavailable, I set up our portable one. It is like a small tent, which is supported by PCV pipes that I can quickly plug together to form a frame. Several perches are created from surrounding vegetative material – or we carry a couple of sticks for that purpose in case suitable items are unavailable in the area. Feeding stations, out of sight from the perches, draw the birds in. Seed eating and sugar loving species come readily to the feed – usually alighting on a perch to survey the scene before dropping down to eat. Creating a water source is even better than food, especially where water is scarce.

But, back to the Texas blind. A HARRIS HAWK comes in to the feast, almost as soon as I get situated. This is a Buteo that lives in the southwestern states. (Buteos are high soaring hawks with broad, rounded wings and broad tails.) He goes right to work on the kidney that is wired just below the perch.

Harris Hawks hunt in cooperation with other Harris Hawks – usually in pairs or trios. This mode of hunting allows them to bring down jackrabbits and other speedy, difficult to catch, prey. They surround the prey and one will flush it and another will make the kill. They will take turns at each role. This species defends its hunting territory as a group, which is unlike most birds where a single male fills that role.

Held Captive to Instinct

by Dave Hanks

How do animals know certain behaviors to perform when they have not been taught that behavior? How do butterflies and many birds know a migration route they have never previously followed? How do most animal mothers instinctively know what to do at birthing or hatching time? We humans are usually taught, and with the power of reason, we have the ability to think things out. Our DNA code is a powerful influence, but to an animal it is almost everything. They learn some things from their parents but are mostly controlled by their DNA – or in other words, with no chance for choices makes one a slave to each stimulus. The ROYAL TERN is a random example. Much of its behavior is programmed before hatching.

This is our second (next to the Caspian Tern) largest tern. It has a heavy, orange bill, a spiky, black crest and cap, a pale gray dorsal surface, and a white face, neck, and ventral surface. This tern summers on our southern coasts of both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. They are rarely found inland. Their fall migration route takes them to Argentina or Peru. Why migrate so far? – Their DNA requires them to.

This bird nests in large colonies and courtship involves the male offering a fish to his prospective mate. Why do they all do this? Their DNA requires it. Nests are in scrapes on the beach, and if washed away by a storm, they will make another attempt to nest. Royal Terns will defecate from the rim of their nest. It has been suggested that when the feces harden, the nest is reinforced against flooding. Once again, DNA is at work.

The chicks leave the scrape within one day after hatching and gather in a huge group called a CRECHE. Parents can recognize and feed their own chicks – differentiating them from others in the group. Evidently each chick’s call is recognizable. The adults are often seen hovering 20 to 30 feet above the water as they patrol for fish – their main food source.

A confrontation along the Texas coast.  Two Royal turns squawk at each other while standing in shallow water

A confrontation along the Texas coast)

Do you Eat like a Bird

by Dave Hanks

To eat like a bird is one of the most incorrect analogies I can think of. To most folks, it means that you don’t eat much – just nibble at your food. How untrue that analogy is! Any eagle or other large raptor can consume a whole rabbit at one meal. In fact, most species (large or small) consume half their body weight every day. As a comparison, a 130 pound woman would eat 50 to 70 pounds of food daily. “Great Scot”! Why do birds need that much food? Flight requires tremendous energy, both for body warmth and movement when aloft. When watching seed or insect eating species, notice that they rarely take a break from the task of obtaining their meals; and if feeding baby birds, the search becomes very intense. Not only must the adults feed themselves, but their young require even more than half their weight in daily nourishment.

The bird pictured is a BLACK PHOEBE. It is a southwestern member of the Flycatcher Family. It is a small songbird that is black with a white belly and a notched tail, which it wags, and is white underneath. This phoebe is always found in close proximity to water. The many insects that are found associated with wet areas, are important to fill its feeding needs.

Although it is primarily insectivorous, it will eat some berries, and also tiny fish – which it will also feed to nestlings. Insects are spotted from a low perch and then pursued. Hovering is another hunting method used. The nest is an open cup that’s made of mud, grass, and hair. The female is shown possible sites by the male hovering in front of spots for 5 to 10 seconds, but she makes the final decision – usually under an eave or under a bridge.

This bird is not colorful, but nevertheless attractive. It is also tolerant of people that come into its vicinity.

BLACK PHOEBE Perched and surveying the insect world

Perched and surveying the insect world

Goldfinch are July Nesters

by Dave Hanks

Why do goldfinch nest so late, when other birds are finishing up the raising of their broods? Goldfinch are thistle dependant birds and must wait until the thistle blooms. The plant matures in July, and the bird builds its nest out of the fibers and down of the thistle’s flower. The nest is usually built in the fork of a tree branch at 4 to 15 feet above the ground. The female does the work, and she does it so well that the cup will hold water.

Four to six pale bluish-white eggs require two weeks to incubate. The male will feed the female as she sits on the nest. When the eggs hatch, thistles have gone to seed. The parents eat those seeds and the partially digested seeds are milk-like (similar to dove’s milk) – and the chicks are nourished on this semi-liquid fare. Goldfinch are granivorous (grain or seed eaters), but they will feed insects to their young. They are not aggressive toward predators, but will give an alarm call. Snakes, hawks, weasels, squirrels, magpies, and feral cats all pose a threat to both the young and the adults.

Goldfinches are gregarious during the fall and winter, and gather in large flocks. At this time they have also lost their brilliant breeding colors – no longer the bright yellow that distinguishes their species.

American Goldfinch waiting for a turn at the nyjer (thistle) feeding sock

American Goldfinch waiting for a turn at the nyjer (thistle) feeding sock

Flight Patterns and Woodpeckers

by Dave Hanks

Have you ever seriously watched birds fly? Undoubtedly, you’ve watched the high fliers like geese, as they wing overhead. But have you ever paid attention to how smaller birds fly from tree to tree, or tree to bush, bush to ground? If you have, you realize that each type has a distinctive flight pattern.

Jays do what we expect, which is to fly straight to their next destination. Goldfinch will dip down deeply, ride up sharply, and then repeat the process. Ruby-Crowned Kinglets do a lot of zigzagging to finally get to where they stop. But it’s the woodpeckers that are the most recognizable in flight.

Undulating is the phrase that best describes their movement. A few wing beats that lifts them up, followed by a descending glide, and then a few more wing beats. I can always identify our large Red-Shafted Flicker, as I see his white rump undulating up and down across an open space.

The RED-BELLIED WOODPECKER is a comparable eastern cousin to our flicker. It may be seen doing an erratic flight pattern between trees, changing course sharply as it goes. It is believed that this is a method of teaching the young to be able to meet adverse conditions. It is a cavity nester that doesn’t always make its own cavity – taking over the nest holes of other birds. They will also wedge nuts into large cracks in tree crevices or fence posts to store for later use.

This most common woodpecker of the Southeast has a faint red wash over its belly – but its most noticeable trait is the bold, red stripe on the crown and neck of the male – the female has the red on the nape of her neck only. This bird can stick its tongue out 2 inches past the end of its beak. The tip is barbed and sticky. This woodpecker will readily come to feeders.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker At our feed trough in the Indiana woods

At our feed trough in the Indiana woods

Lawrence’s Goldfinch

by Dave Hanks

This goldfinch is colored differently from what you would expect from a member of the goldfinch group. Nevertheless it is attractive, and a species that we feel is important to have in our files. It is also a species that one would have to visit Southern California to see – and then it would require some luck to find.

Just north of Bakersfield is a valley – a valley at a much higher elevation than Bakersfield. It is the Lake Isabella/Kern River Valley. Many species of birds are there during the April/May spring migration. If you keep going up the Kern River road, which is on the west side of the valley, you will get into the mountains and forest campgrounds. Further up is the Sequoia National Park. On the east side of the valley is a bird research station. The station feeds birds and has nesting houses which House Wrens and Western bluebirds utilize. Many other species come to their feeding stations. A major reason that we went to this valley was to see Red-Breasted Sapsuckers and LAWRENCE’S GOLDFINCH. We thought the goldfinch would be at the bird seed – but no, they did not do what we expected them to do. They were there, but not at the feed. My wife saw them close up (without a camera), but they seemed to avoid me. Discouraged, we moved to a campground on the west side. There they were sitting calmly in a tree – just asking for their pictures to be taken.

Look for a small 4 to 5 inch gray bird with a black face, yellow breast, yellow lower back and rump, black wings with yellow bars, and a short forked tail.

This bird breeds in the woodlands of California and the Baja. Its nests are usually single but sometimes in colonies over 10 or more. While the female builds the nest, the male just follows her and sings. It’s amusing that many women would say: “That’s just like a man”. While the female is on the nest, the males will form small flocks and leave the rest up to her. This uncommon, small finch is highly erratic in its movements from year to year – which makes it difficult to study.

 Lawrence's Goldfinch perched on a limb

There he is – finally!

Blue Grouse: A Gift

by Dave Hanks

The Blue Grouse is a gentle and quiet bird of our western high mountains. The male’s deep booming call is subtle and hard to locate. This is a large chicken-like bird that is sooty gray, with a light band on the tip of a black tail, and a reddish/yellow eyebrow. When the male “booms”, you can then see a red air sac surrounded by a white ruff.

I have tried and tried to get a good photo of this bird, but he is hard to find. Finally, luck smiled on me! We were in the northeast mountains of Yellowstone Park. We saw some people parked on the top of a hill. Thinking that they might have spotted a bear or some wolves, we stopped. They were foreigners (German, I think). A man pointed to the ground a few feet down the slope, smiled, and said: “Puffed-up chicken”. There was my grouse! It was in front of a big log and in the shade. I took several shots, moved to have the sun behind me and took several more. I thought I had some good ones, but then I received a real GIFT. The bird went around the end of the log and jumped on top of it. He posed, displayed, and “boomed”. I was ecstatic! The last shots were so much better, that I erased all previous ones It’s rare that an animal cooperates so ideally – an A+ for him.

During the nesting season, the male will often perch on a log to give his call. The comb over his eyes will stand up; he will fan his tail, and fluff out his neck to display his air sacs. The female will lay 5 to 10 eggs in a scrape lined with pine needles and grass. She does the egg incubating, which takes 25 days to hatch, and then cares for the chicks – which are precocial. The Blue Grouse eats seeds, berries, and insects. In the winter they will eat conifer needles. The few times I have seen this species, has been in krumholtz zones (wind stunted trees that abut alpine meadows).

A Blue Grouse Displaying his white ruff: Red air sac underneath

Displaying his white ruff: Red air sac underneath