Mother of all Mountain Quail

28 07 2016

Mountain Quail – Luke Tiller

Mountain Quail must be right up there with one of the most sought after species in Southern California, so when I took some friends from the east coast out birding today I had hoped that we might manage to have a brief encounter with a bird or two. Instead we had an incredible and prolonged encounter with at least a half dozen birds.


Mountain Quail – Luke Tiller

Even if you are lucky enough to run into Mountain Quail, views are generally brief as they dash across a road or disappear under brush as they scarper away up a nearby slope. If you are a tasty looking little chicken sized bird it is probably good to be pretty wary and these birds generally are.


Mountain Quail – Luke Tiller

It was interesting though to note that even in the relative open these birds blend quite nicely with their surrounds. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to show this beautiful species to numbers of tour participants in recent years but this encounter is probably the most spectacular. You can find out how to join me on my trips, tours and private guiding page.


Mountain Quail – Luke Tiller

Of course being friends with incredible photographers online means that I know that these shots aren’t perfect, but considering I have just a 300mm lens I’m pretty ecstatic with how they turned out. We also picked up a bunch of other goodies but after the quail experience it was hard to get motivated to take more photos. Amazing to think this is all just a stones throw from LAX!!!!


Mountain Quail – Luke Tiller

Pasadena Audubon Society Ode Walk

25 07 2016

Red Rock Skimmer – Luke Tiller

Following David Bell’s talk at the Pasadena Audubon Society monthly meeting this past May we decided it would be nice to follow that up with a walk introducing PAS members to the world of dragonflies and damselflies (odanata or odes). This trip was scheduled for 10:00am Sunday July 17th and lead by Kimball Garrett and David Bell.

Unlike birds, dragonflies are not early risers, so those that hadn’t spent their morning on the LA River (see previous post) got a rather more leisurely start time for a PAS walk than usual.  Participants met at the new (and rather attractively laid out) Oro Vista Park in Sunland/Tujunga and even prior to the official start David had managed to both point out and explain the differences between a couple of glider dragonflies (Wandering and Spot-winged) that were milling about near the park parking lot.


Flame Skimmer – Luke Tiller

After the group assembled we made a two minute drive down to Haines Creek a weedy, riparian area created by runoff from the local neighborhood. Here we picked up a few relatively common dragonfly and damselfly species that often inhabit these kind of habitats including a brief sighting of a Cardinal Meadowhawk before it was unceremoniously grabbed from its perch by a passing Black Phoebe! Among the common species we managed to work on a few basic ID challenges: Neon vs Flame Skimmer and Western Pondhawk vs Blue Dasher.

As well as having a nice mix of odes at Haine’s Creek we also had a couple of interesting  bird species to look at and listen to including a European Goldfinch (which I’d photographed here a few days before). Most exciting though surely was a Golden Eagle that was being initially harassed by a Red-tailed Hawk as it soared over us and slowly glided away. Haine’s Creek is an interesting riparian pond area that has hosted a number of interesting birds in migration and is one of those sites I’m contemplating for my series of local free walks this fall (details here).


Sooty Dancer – Luke Tiller


With a nice selection of odes under our belt our next stop was a at Wildwood Picnic area in the Angeles National Forest. Here we hoped to pick up a few species along the creek that required slightly different habitats and water. The initial immediate hit here were the incredible views of arguably the regions prettiest damselfly: American Rubyspot (images and information here). As well as the rubyspot we also managed to find a number of other species of damselflies including three species of dancer: Vivid, Lavender and Sooty as well as two species of bluet: Northern and Arroyo.

Some of these damselflies are much easier to ID in the hand than they are in binoculars and David managed to skillfully net a couple to show people up close in the hand. Even more impressively a couple of the PAS Young Birders Club were quick enough to carefully grab a couple from the rocks with their bare hands!

As well as the damselflies we picked up a few nice new dragonflies at our second stop including a Pale-faced Clubskimmer and a couple of Red Rock Skimmers.

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Serpent Ringtail – David Bell

Our last stop for the day was at Stonyvale Picnic Area a little further up Big Tujunga Canyon. Here we found two neat new odes for the day. Perhaps the hardest to find on the day simply because of its minute size: Desert Firetail, a truly tiny but beautiful little ode (more here) and the rather neat Gray Sanddraggon (photographed below).

In the end we tallied an impressive twenty three species of dragonfly and damselfly on the day somehow missing perhaps one of the regions commonest: Variable Meadowhawk. You can see the PDF list put together by Kimball here: ODONATA FIELD TRIP DB edits. I think everyone had a great time, enjoyed seeing some beautiful insects and learned a great deal about our local odonata. Thanks to Kimball Garrett and David Bell for their expert guidance. If you want to learn more about dragonflies then Odonata Central is a good place to start (link here). David’s company put together their recently released  iPhone App which you can download for free!

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Gray Sanddragon – David Bell


LAR Peeps

17 07 2016
image (13)

Semipalmated Sandpiper

A couple of meh digiscoped pics of a couple of vaguely interesting shorebirds prior to the PAS Dragonfly walk today down on the Los Angeles River. A Semipalmated Sandpiper (I think we ruled out something more interesting) and a crazily bright Western Sandpiper. Why when I was looking on the East Coast didn’t all Western Sandpipers look like this? Talk about making life easier.

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Western Sandpiper – Luke Tiller


Summer of Snakes?

1 07 2016

A couple of days ago I was reading an article about an abundance of rattlesnake sightings in yards in Southern California . The suggestion in the article being that the drought is pushing them into closer contact with people? Perhaps mere coincidence, but in the last two days I have encountered two Southern Pacific Rattlesnakes in Eaton Canyon where in normal years I’m lucky if I see one anywhere.

At least one of my encounters was on a busy trail where I might have stepped on it without a little less care and attention. Though thus far they have seemed very docile, during interactions, it is making me more and more aware of where I and Possum the wonderdog are putting out feet while we are hiking.

The first one I ran into was pretty small – maybe 2 1/3 feet the other one was significantly larger. There’s loads of great info on local snakes on the California Herps website (here). They even have recordings of their rattle!


Pacific Southern Rattlesnake – Luke Tiller


Southern Pacific Rattlesnake – Luke Tiller


Southern Pacific Rattlesnake – Luke Tiller

These first three images are of the smaller individual that I found while hiking down from the bridge that goes across to the Mount Wilson Toll Rd. The images below are of a much larger individual found near the nature center. I’m sure everyone knows you can’t age rattlesnakes by the number of rattles, that’s just an old wives tale. Apparently size and perhaps darkness of coloration might be a better clue.


Southern Pacific Rattlesnake – Luke Tiller


Southern Pacific Rattlesnake – Luke Tiller


Southern Pacific Rattlesnake – Luke Tiller

Anza Borrego – Circle of life

20 03 2016

Swainson’s Hawk – Luke Tiller

This weekend I led an awesome trip for Pasadena Audubon Society to Borrego Springs in San Diego County. The trip was ostensibly to visit the Borrego Valley Hawkwatch but also just to enjoy some of the great flora and fauna that call this desert area home. Part of the Colorado Desert the nearby Anza Borrego State Park, at 600,000 acres, is the second largest State Park in the county behind the Adirondacks (more about the park here).

We started out our morning adventure pre-sunrise at the area that is commonly known locally as the mesquite sink or mesquite bosque. Here we picked up a host of regular desert species that are not commonly found in Pasadena: Verdin, White-winged Dove, Black-throated Sparrow and Black-tailed Gnatcatcher as well as one that is found almost solely in this little corner of California: Crissal Thrasher. Thrashers are difficult to see at most times of the year, but at least in the breeding season they tend to be relatively vocal. We stumbled upon at least two birds in this little breeding enclave thanks partly to the sharp eyes of Grace Wong who first spotted a bird while it perched low in a bush below a Sage Thrasher that we had been looking at.

We then endured a cat and mouse game of hide and seek with at least two birds while we tried to work a way to get clear views of the Crissals in good light. In the end most of the group enjoyed good views but unfortunately without a chance for good photos. We weren’t so lucky with Lucy’s Warbler though, another species that is hanging on in this rapidly dying mesquite bosque (thanks to water being pumped from the aquifer).


Desert Sand Verbena – Luke Tiller

With at least one target bird under our belt and the sun starting to rise in the sky we headed out to the Borrego Valley hawkwatch with hopes that the Swainson’s Hawks that make up the bulk of the flight at the watch were starting to get active. With a brief stop to check out some Swainson’s that were lounging in a field en route (or maybe hunting some ubiquitous caterpillars) we got to the hawkwatch just in time to enjoy watching distant, but large numbers of Swainson’s Hawks kettling from out of their nearby roosts. You can read more about the watch, and check out the great photo opps provided by roosting Swainson’s, on their blog (here). You can check out daily migrant counts on their hawkcount page too (here).

Though the hawks always come through Borrego Springs in migration ,this year they were taking advantage of the caterpillars that were busily devouring an impressive desert wildflower show.  Millions of mainly White-lined Sphinx caterpillars (more on those attractive moths here) were eating everything in sight and were so thick in many areas it was all one could do to not to step on them. I’m sure the myriad of beetles and a impressive Northern Desert Iguana (useful CA herp info here) we found near the watch were making the most of this bounteous food supply too.


White-lined Sphinx Caterpillar – Luke Tiller

After enjoying the watch for a while we headed off to grab some refreshments, but a fortuitous stop to check out a couple of Swainson’s Hawks kettling by the roadside turned up a rather exciting and unexpected addition to the day’s sightings: a juvenile Zone-tailed Hawk (photographed by Darren Dowell). It put on quite the show and allowed for good views of it’s ability to mimic Turkey Vultures both in plumage and in flight style. There had been one juvenile reported in the area over two weeks ago but it wasn’t clear if this was the same bird (hard to believe the experts at the hawkwatch had missed if for over two weeks).

After a stop at the Roadrunner Club for a break we were on to our next couple of stops. With temperatures rising it was starting to become hard to find birds. There was however much to entertain including Costa’s Hummingbirds and lightning quick Western Zebra-tailed Lizards. We were also indebted to Rick Fisher for a wonderful introduction to desert wildflowers to keep us entertained. Even in the midday heat of a 94 degree day our intrepid group were still finding good birds (what is it they say about Mad Dogs and Englishmen…) and though stops weren’t exactly ‘birdy’ we were turning up some highly desirous species including both resident Le Conte’s and migrant Sage Thrashers inhabiting an incredibly bleak little portion of desert. Along with the thrashers we also turned up a rather neat, and endangered, Colorado Desert Fringe-toed Lizard too (photo).


Costa’s Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

After a welcome stop for lunch and an obligatory visit to the gift shop we headed to our last desert stop of the day: Tamarisk Grove Campground. The greenery of the campground and nearby Yaqui Wells seep (more here) offer a welcome respite for migrant birds in this rocky and desertlike environment as well as some shade to rapidly overheating birders. During the peak of migration who knows what you might find at these productive migrant trap sites? Previous years have yielded everything from Xantus’s Hummingbird, Kentucky Warbler and Red Phalarope!!!!!!

As it was mid-afternoon we avoided the hot hike out to the seep and birded the campground where we enjoyed a few nice desert specialties: Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Cactus and Rock Wren. Even more excitingly we managed to turn up a nice migrant of our own in the shape of a young male Vermilion Flycatcher. Best of all though we got to share that sighting with a young San Diego Birder and his parents.

The other highlight here was Rick again sharing his knowledge of the local succulents, and we enjoyed a variety of them in bloom including Beavertail Cactus, Hedgehog Cactus, Barrel Cactus and Ocotillo.


Beavertail Cactus – Luke Tiller

We ended our day wending our way back towards Pasadena. A final couple of roadside stops provided us with a number of nice birds including Tricolored Blackbirds (sadly declining precipitously in the state) and fittingly a bunch more raptors including White-tailed Kite, Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier and American Kestrel.

I think we can safely consider this inaugural Pasadena Audubon Society trip to Borrego Springs a success and I look forward to running it again next year. Thanks to everyone who came and made it such a fun and successful trip. If you want to see what other trips I have coming up locally and beyond check out my Trips and Tours Page (here). A couple more pics from the day are on my Flickr page (here).

Hawkwatching basics 3: Slang

19 09 2015

Peak Broad-winged Hawk season is almost upon us and many of you will be heading out to hawkwatches to catch the action. Are you up on hawkwatching slang and terms? Read on to make sure you know what to say and when, and avoid any unintentionally hilarious gaffs at your local hawkwatch.


ButtJam (Harlans) – Catherine Hamilton

The Birds:

Grey Ghost: (Adult male) Northern Harrier.  Weirdly I’ve heard people use Grey Ghost when talking about other grey raptors – WRONG!!!!!!!! If you want to suggest a slightly higher level of expertise, after seeing one, you might spend the next few minutes ruminating on why you see so few of them.

Buttjam: Red-tailed Hawk – Buteo jamaicensis. Weirdly I first heard this from someone who isn’t a hawkwatcher. If it isn’t in common use already it’s going to appeal to the puerile child in every hawkwatcher I know 😉 “Tail” is a more commonly used term among the knowing.

BDubs: Broad-winged Hawk. Not even sure where this came from, but all the cool kids use it. I’m guessing most hawkwatchers aren’t big fans of Dappy and North London rappers N-Dubz, so it can’t be that!

K-bird: Good old American Kestrel. Personally I like using AK – just cos it makes me think of that Da Lench Mob track – you know the one?!? Worth noting that hawkwatchers use the two letter codes from our data sheets not the four letter BBL codes – bird nerds and Richard Crossley you have been warned 😉

Blue Jack: (adult male) Merlin: after their top side coloration.

BDubs Kettle - Steve Beale

BDubs Kettle – Steve Beale

What’s happening/conditions:

Blue Skies of Death: My own little contribution to the vernacular – perhaps aging myself. Nicked from the description given to a crashed computer. This term describes those clear cyan blue skies that always seem to greet large movements of Broad-winged Hawks. Without contrasting pale clouds these skies make speck-watching hard work, frustrating and painful on the eyes. Ditto “Broad-wing Blue”.

Kettle/Kettling: When a bunch of birds get into a little thermal of activity and use it to soar to greater altitude. Why it’s called kettling I’m not sure – to me it looks nothing like a bubbling kettle (the explanation I’ve been given)? What constitutes a kettle is a whole different argument. Two birds is definitely not a kettle, three might be depending on your level of desperation, lack of birds and also on the species. Three Bald Eagles could be a kettle; three Bdubs (see above) not so much.

Chimping: Often used when referring to checking the screen of your camera on pelagics in order to arrive at an ID for a bird. This term seems to have gained some traction in the world of hawkwatching when it comes to going to get a better look at a difficult bird in your scope.


Chimping raptors

Conversely a couple of things you might not want to say:

Immature: Young raptors in fall are juveniles. In fact choosing to use the word immature when relating to describing raptors is rarely going to be a good choice. If you think you are seeing young birds, stick to using juvenile and you’ll rarely go wrong. I can envision experienced hawkwatchers eyes rolling whenever I hear this word.

Phase or Morph: The cool trend is now to just use “dark” or “light” when referring to the color of a specific bird that may come in a variety of colors, dropping the defining term. I must admit when I talking to or writing for intermediate hawkwatchers and birders I often use morph. I just think it makes things a bit clearer, cool or not!

There are plenty of other little bits of slang that get banded around at watches but often don’t more beyond the local watch. One of my favorites being Scamming: the act of scanning – but not very hard. Interestingly Jerry Liguori posted a slang term I hadn’t heard before on his recent blog post for HWI – check it out (here). feel free to share some of your favorites here in the comments!

Hybrid Hummingbird

22 08 2015

Anna’s x Costa’s Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

On August 10th 2015 I was shooting some hummingbirds in my yard when a bird popped in to check out the feeder that immediately struck me as somewhat odd. Initially the flash of the color in the gorget had me thinking about Costa’s Hummingbird, but something about it wasn’t quite right. Costa’s tend to be pretty uncommon in the yard themselves, so I was quite keen to try get a shot or two of the bird in question even if it just turned into a funky Costa’s. Though the initial view was quite brief the gorget coloration appeared to change somewhat as the bird changed angles, going from something almost typically Costa’s purple to something that took on a distinctly pinkish hue. Compare the color of the gorget of the hybrid bird above with the adult male Costa’s I photographed this spring below.

Costa's Hummingbird - Luke Tiller

Costa’s Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

I was aware of the possibility of hybrid hummingbirds as the week or so before, local birder, John Garrett had photographed an interesting hummingbird which he’d identified as an hybrid Anna’s x Costa’s (photo here) just a mile or so from where this one had appeared. To my eye his bird essentially looked much like an Anna’s Hummingbird with a Costa’s colored gorget and a white upper breast and line down the belly which hints at it’s mixed parentage. The admixture of colors in my bird had me wondering whether I might have another potential hybrid, but this time leaning more heavily towards Costa’s in appearance.

After about ten minutes, which felt much longer, thankfully the bird returned. This time it allowed me to gather a few admittedly poor photographs. At least now though I had something to send people to show the gorget coloration. As the bird continued to return over the afternoon I managed to gather a few decent shots of the bird and started to note a few interesting features beyond the gorget coloration including what appeared to be an important one – the length of tail. Though in the process of replacing many of its tail feathers the birds outer retrices extended notably past the wings. This is a good feature for Anna’s Hummingbird (note this feature in this linked picture), but problematic for Costa’s which are notably short tailed/long winged (see link). Costa’s wing tips reaching the tip of their tail or extend beyond the tail tip (compare the longer two outer retrices extending distinctly beyond the wing tips on the picture of the bird below).


Anna’s x Costa’s Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

The bird certainly had many Costa’s features to it. I noted that the bird was distinctly white-breasted on the upper breast with a white line down the central breast down to the vent almost creating a vested appearance which is much more in line with Costa’s Hummingbird (features you can see quite nicely in the link on this bird I photographed in spring). Compare this to Anna’s below which typically shows a dingy upper breast and no central white stripe (you can also compare the gorget coloration to the hybrid). Speaking to local birders it seems that this white breasted and vested look is one often exhibited by suggested Anna’s x Costa’s hybrids and is hinted at in John Garret’s shot. The gorget shape with the long ‘tails’ is more suggestive of Costa’s Hummingbird than it is of Anna’s Hummingbird, though it is not as extensive on the crown or on the back of the head as it seems to be on most adult Costa’s.

One of the main things in favor of Costa’s was the overall size of the bird. Though it is not completely evident in the pictures the bird was noticeably on the small side. There are admittedly only 0.5 inches separating Anna’s and Costa’s in size, but that 0.5 inches is pretty noticeable at close range (down to ten feet or less) on a feeder.


Anna’s Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

Though there is a lot that weighs heavily in favor of Costa’s Hummingbird (more than one correspondent suggested it was perhaps just a young male) I and most other birders I have had contact with believe that there is enough admixture in the gorget, as well as the odd tail/wing length, to suggest this is a hybrid Anna’s x Costa’s. Interestingly the same day the hybrid appeared I first noticed and photographed a female type Costa’s Hummingbird in the yard. This one I only saw briefly and managed to take a quick record shot of while it was perched in pretty marginal lighting (see photo below). It then seemed to disappear for a few days but it (or another very similar looking bird) showed up again  a few days later. The female type was seemingly generally reluctant to come in to the feeders so it may be that it has been around but passed unnoticed at times.

Talking to local birders the timing of the arrival of the hybrid and this female wasn’t at a time generally associated with movement of Costa’s Hummingbirds, so where these birds came from and why, who knows. Unfortunately I never knowingly heard the hybrid bird vocalize so I’m not sure what it sounded like, it would have been useful to hear it and even better to have a recording.


Costa’s Hummingbird – Luke Tiller

Though there are only a few records of this particular hybrid on eBird (see link) at least one local birder thinks that it is probably relatively common within the world of hybrid hummingbirds. The two species are both in the genus Calypte and are closely related. There are at least two other records from LA County both from the San Gabriel Mountains and the San Gabriel Valley. It was a neat experience and I’m certainly glad I managed to capture a few decent photographs of it over the next couple of days before the bird departed on August 13th. You can view those other pictures on my flickr account (here).