Anna’s, Rufous and Calliope: Hummingbirds of the West

Calliope Hummingbird Male

Here in Northern California I am fortunate to have at least three of the western hummingbirds of North America visiting my yard. The least common species of hummingbird I see here is the Calliope Hummingbird (Stellula calliope)(click on photos for full sized images).

Calliope Hummingbird Male

The smallest of the North American hummingbirds at just 3 1/4 inches, and with wings extending beyond its short tail, the Calliope Hummingbird is usually distinguishable from its larger counterparts by size alone. This is a photo of a male Calliope Hummingbird on the feeder next to the much larger male Anna’s Hummingbird.

Calliope Hummingbird and Anna's Hummingbird Male

Because of its shorter wing length, the Calliope also has faster wingbeats, making it sound more like a bumble bee. This also sets it apart from the larger hummers.

The male also has a unique gorget among North American hummingbirds. His iridescent gorget is divided into separate magenta-red rays, which can be elevated in an elegant star-burst display against the white background of his throat. This photo by Wally Rufous is the best photo I have ever seen of this phenomenon!

Calliope Hummingbird Male

Calliope Hummingbird Male Courtship Display courtesy Wally Rufous

This beauty is the female Calliope Hummingbird, she looks similar to the female Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) but she has dark and pale spots in front of her eye and a weak pale line over the base of her bill. She is the latest of our local breeders, not nesting usually until mid-May.

Calliope Hummingbird Female

The female Rufous Hummingbird has more rufous in her flanks and often has a few patchy orange-red feathers on her throat. She will begin breeding in April.

Rufous Hummingbird Female

The male is the only hummingbird in North America with a rufous back.

Rufous Hummingbird Male

He also sports a brilliant orange-red gorget.

Rufous Hummingbird Male

Enjoy this close-up look at this guy preening.

The most common hummingbird seen in my neck of the woods is Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna). The male is the only North American hummer with both a rose red crown and gorget.

Anna's Hummingbird Male

The female is the earliest breeder of all these species, arriving on breeding grounds shortly after the males in November. Here you can see the female collecting nesting material.

Anna's Hummingbird Female

The ability to take advantage of both nectar and insects allows Anna’s Hummingbirds to avoid competition from other hummingbirds by nesting in the winter. This is a photo of the female Anna’s Hummingbird in her nest.

Anna's Hummingbird Female on Nest

The male Anna’s can be heard for quite a long way when performing his courtship display known as the “dive display” discussed in one of my previous posts.

Anna's Hummingbird Male

If you haven’t seen a hover of hummingbirds around a feeder before, you may want to watch this video I filmed off my back porch. These little “jewels of the sky” are a blast to watch!

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Eggs Came First

Western Bluebird Hatchlings

Western Bluebirds

Eggs came first. There. Now you know. Eggs were around long before there were chickens, or any birds at all.

Egg-laying dominates the history of vertebrates, who appear in the fossil record in FARMB order: Fish, Amphibians, Reptiles, Mammals, and Birds. Of them all, only mammals regularly practice live birth. The other classes all lay eggs, and seeming exceptions of live birth are usually illusions—the mother actually makes eggs, but she retains them in her body until they hatch, and then delivers her wrigglers to the outside world.

That little evolutionary trick can be quite useful. Here in California, for instance, the southern alligator lizard lays eggs. The northern alligator lizard, however, keeps her eggs inside. This allows her to move them to warm spots throughout the day, spurring their development. Where the warm season is short, that accelerated development can mean the difference between the young growing up enough to endure the coming winter or perishing quickly.

Birds, of course, have a premium on light weight, so retaining eggs in their bodies is not a good option. Indeed, in the service of minimal mass, most female birds develop only their left ovary, and even that shrinks to a speck outside the breeding season. During nesting season, however, that ovary is full and busy, typically producing an egg a day several days in a row—what chickens have been bred to do year-round.

EGGS

Initial bird development is similar to that of humans. The ovary releases a protein-rich ovum which can then be fertilized.

But at that point, where humans will feed their young placentally, birds must prepare a self-sustaining egg. The ovum gathers its golden protein-rich yolk, which in turn is joined by albumen, the egg white. The albumen consists of water and more protein for the developing chick. Uterine cells squirt that eggy blob with calcium carbonate, which hardens into the smooth shell that curves round the birds’ precious hope of life. Egg farmers know that sufficient calcium in the mother’s diet is vital to forming viable eggs. Where calcium is lacking, a mother bird may donate up to 10% of the eggshell from her own bones.

With the egg formed, other cells squirt the species’ pigmentation onto its surface. Only two pigments, a blue-green and a red-brown, create all the variety of patterns and colors on birds’ eggs.

American Robin Nestlings

American Robin Nestlings

Like reptiles, who often bury their eggs, birds that nest in cavities and burrows usually have white eggshells. More exposed eggs are often speckled into camouflage. But some, like robin’s baby blues, are strikingly uncamouflaged even though exposed to the world and its predators. This presents another chicken-and-egg question: Which came first, the parenting or the color? Can protective parents like robins simply afford colorful eggs because they are dutifully present to shield their young, or did colorful eggs come first, with their demand for attentive parents? Does care, then, create beauty, or does need evoke care in successful species?

Killdeer Eggs

Other questions abound. Some eggs are oval, even round; others are conical. The hypothesis that conical eggs roll in a circle, and therefore are more likely among cliff-dwelling birds, isn’t really supported by the evidence. Another hypothesis is that since round eggs require less calcium to coat them, while pointier eggs can pack more tightly for incubation, the two shapes offer competing advantages; or perhaps it’s just that birds with more streamlined bodies can more readily lay thinner, pointier eggs.

Northern Mockingbird Nest

Northern Mockingbird Nest

This time of year, the most numerous bird on Earth, the domestic chicken, supplies the goods for more questions that many of us enjoy: How did you dye your eggs? Where did you find that one? What’s for breakfast? Or the worthy observation: aren’t eggs amazing and beautiful!

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Osprey Nesting Platform Install

Osprey In Flight

The Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) at Anderson River Park in Shasta County have been nesting atop a soccer field light stand for over 17 years. The problem is that they build the nest right on top of the field lights. This becomes an issue when, every four or five years the light bulbs need to be replaced and the nest can be destroyed in the process.

Osprey Nest

One of my wildlife rehabber friends had received a legacy gift and contacted me regarding the prospect of building a nesting platform to place at the top of the utility pole. This would allow the Osprey to safely nest above the bank of lights, thereby keeping their nest intact year after year, with no interference from the maintenance crew.

I, of course said, “what a great idea!” I found an excellent plan for the platform (shown below) from the International Osprey Foundation and built it in less than a day. It is a 40 x 40 inch box which I modified using all 2 x 6 inch pressure treated lumber.

Osprey Nesting Platform

Before building the platform I contacted the Anderson City Public Works department to discuss the possibility of actually putting up the platform and got the OK. We obviously wanted to get it up before the Osprey arrived and were able to install it on January 31st.

Osprey Platform Lift

This is an 86 foot utility pole so a lift was rented and the excellent workers from the City of Anderson Public Works department generously gave their time and expertise to the project.

Having never seen an Osprey nest close up, I asked one of the installers to take some photos of the nest before removing it and placing the nesting material in a bin to be put back into the new platform.

Osprey Nest

The shape of the Osprey nest changes during the breeding cycle. During incubation the nest is distinctly bowl-shaped. After hatching the nest flattens out, but a rim of sticks is maintained, sometimes by the young themselves, while the young are beginning to move clumsily about the nest. In the last weeks of the nestling phase, the nest often becomes completely flat1. Note the large sticks and bark.

Osprey Nest

Here’s a shot of one of the installers placing the nesting material back into the newly installed nesting platform.

Osprey Nesting Material

About four weeks after the install I went back to the park to see if Osprey had shown up. I found one bird perched inside the platform!

Osprey In Nest

However, there were also a pair of very vocal Red-Shouldered Hawks (Buteo lineatusin) in a nearby tree.

Red-shouldered Hawk Pair

Apparently they were interested, for whatever reason, in the nesting platform as well.

Red-shouldered Hawk

A week later when I returned, the platform was now occupied by a pair of Osprey!

Osprey Pair

I observed them for over an hour but never saw them bring in nesting material, although there is obviously new sticks in the nest. The Red-shouldered Hawks were still hanging around but this day, the Osprey pair were involved in mating and the hawks were vigorously chased away by the male Osprey.

Osprey Copulation

Osprey pairs copulate frequently, on average 160 times per clutch, but only 39% of these result in cloacal contact. Pairs average 59 successful copulations per clutch, starting 14 days before, and peaking a few days before, the start of egg-laying1.

Osprey Copulation

Pairs copulate most often in early morning, at the same time as egg-laying1.

Osprey Copulation

As I returned a couple of weeks later, the first thing I noticed is that there has been much more nesting material placed into the platform and the male was bringing in more and arranging the sticks.

Osprey Building Nest

After trimming and arranging these large, long sticks, the male Osprey took off and the female did some rearranging.

The male soon returned to a nearby utility pole on the opposite side of the soccer field with a rather large, what looks like a trout.

Osprey With Fish

He ate about half of the fish, starting at the head, before carrying the remaining portion back to the platform to share with his mate.

Osprey With Fish

References: 1Birds of North America Online

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New Bluebird Trail Goes Up In Redding

Girl Scout Troop 70173

March 6th we were contacted by Heather McNeal, the leader of local Girl Scout Troop 71073, to help with creation of a new Western Bluebird Trail in the Redding area. Heather had already done the groundwork for the project and simply needed some help with the specifics of how to construct the nest boxes and where to place them. We were happy to help!

Girl Scouts Installing Bluebird Boxes

There are fifteen enthusiastic girls in troop 71073 and each girl, with a little help from some handy adults, put together fifteen quality nest boxes that were ready to install on Saint Patrick’s Day, March 17th.

When these girls found out that cavity nesting birds needed help, they were all in on putting up birdhouses on the Sacramento River Trail.

Girl Scouts Installing Bluebird Boxes

The troop did a great job installing the fifteen new nest boxes and will now begin monitoring the trail for nesting birds. We are excited about the addition of these birdhouses and the variety of species they will help. These nest boxes can be used by:

  • Western Bluebird
  • Oak Titmouse
  • Tree Swallow
  • Violet-green Swallow
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Ash-throated Flycatcher
  • House Wren

Stay tuned for updates!

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Several Blue-winged Teal Were Seen at Gray Lodge Wildlife Area

Blue-winged Teal Drake

The Blue-winged Teal (Anas discors) is not that common in California except along the coast, so we were pretty excited to discover several pair at Gray Lodge Wildlife Area on Saturday. Click on photos for full sized images.

Blue-winged Teal Drake

Of course the drakes get all of the glory in the duck world but I think the females are just as beautiful in their own way with their heavily patterned feathers. This is the female Blue-winged Teal. Note the blue on the top of the beak.

Blue-Winged Teal Female

Blue-winged Teal breed over a large portion of North America but occur irregularly or at low densities in many portions of their range. The highest breeding densities occur in mixed-grass prairie and parklands of north-central U.S. and the prairie provinces of Canada, where the species is often the most abundant breeding duck1.

Blue-winged Teal Range Map

It was a gorgeous day at Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, even though it was pretty windy and fairly cold, the sun was out.

Blue-winged Teal Drake

And just so you know…

Blue-winged Teal Drake

these photos were all taken at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge…

Blue-winged Teal Drake

from one of the photo blinds there…

Blue-winged Teal Drake

not at Gray Lodge Wildlife Area.

Blue-winged Teal Drake

Once every feather is clean and in place, it’s time to relax and enjoy a little shut eye.

Blue-winged Teal Drake

I was able to shoot some video of the Blue-winged Teal pair preening and foraging at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. A couple of Green-winged Teal drakes shared in the activity. You will also hear several Marsh Wrens in the background. They were seen and heard all over the refuge wherever bulrush was found.

This short video shows the head shaking behavior Blue-winged Teal exhibit just before they take flight when they feel uneasy or threatened. It also includes Black-necked Stilts, Green-winged Teal, and American Coots. You can also hear Red-winged Blackbirds, Western Meadowlark and more Marsh Wrens singing.

References:1Birds of North America Online

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