Photos by Len Blumin
1. Red-eyed Duck
It's always striking to see a bird with a red eye. Iris color is quite variable in birds, ranging from
white or silver to deep black, with a rainbow of colors in between. It is unclear just what purpose
iris color serves, as it has little to do with vision. Perhaps something to do with species
identification, but I haven't seen any credible explanation for the variations. That aside, a red iris
is somewhat uncommon. We seen it in some Loons (Pacific, Comon) and Grebes (Horned,
Eared), and of course some passerines like the Red-eyed Vireo and Phainopepla. Others
include some Doves and Bulbuls. Among the ducks in North America, there are only three species with red eyes: Red-breasted Merganser (male), Cinnamon Teal (male) and Canvasback.
Here we have the unmistakable profile of the Canvasback, Aythya valisineria, with a graceful
slope from forehead to bill, and a traffic-stopping brilliant red eye.
Photo taken at Lake Merrit recently, which, by the way, if a great place to get close looks of
Greater and Lesser Scaup, along with Canvasback, Common and Barrow's Goldeneyes, and
2. American Bittern
One of the highlights of our recent Holiday Bird Count (I'm starting a politically correct trend
here) was the sighting of not one but two American Bitterns (Botaurus lentiginosus) at Muddy
Hollow Pond near Limantour Beach. Both birds were in the open for quite a while, providing
relaxed scope views for all, and a photo op for me. Bitterns are known for skulking amidst
Cattails and Bullrushes, and standing rigidly with bill pointed skyward to allow their striped
chests to blend with the foliage. Most books list them in the Ardeidae family (Herons, Egrets,
Bitterns), but I couldn't find them in Hancock's "Herons and Egrets of the World". Turns out that
a while back Bitterns were in their own family, and are still considered by some to be a "sub-family". They differ from Herons and Egrets by being shorter-legged and heavier bodied,
and by their reclusive behaviour. Some have a modified esophagus to produce booming calls at
dusk. American Bitterns look a lot like young Black-crowned Night-Herons. Note the green
legs, black tips of the underside of the primaries, and the suggestion of a black patch on side
of the neck, which would make it an adult. Taxonomy below.
Order: Ciconiiformes - Wading Birds.
Family: Ardeidae - Herons, Egrets and Bitterns - 65+ species in 21 genera.
Sub-family: Bitterns - 15 species in 4 genera. Besides the 4 below, we have Stripe-back,
Black-backed, Schrenck's, Black, Dwarf, Cinnamon, Yellow, Least, Little, White-crested and
Genus: Botaurus - Others here are the Great, Australasian and Pinnated Bitterns.
Species: Botaurus lentiginosus - American Bittern.
3. Hooded Mergansers
It's always good birding to find the more reclusive or less common birds. And then it's equally
rewarding to find and watch beautiful birds. Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) fill the
bill on both accounts. They seem to prefer small quiet fresh water, either ponds or streams. We
saw this pair in the slough that borders the south side of McInnis Park as you walk out the path
towards the bay. Ducks seem an apt symbol for the New Year. They are usually paired up, or
will be soon, and behave in charming fashion to each other. Oh, the males may squabble a bit
in a show-off way to each other to win a new mate, but mostly we see them in a sedate
courtship dance that varies with the species. But single or paired, the duck world seems to get
along well with each other and the creatures around them. Would that our species could
a Phainopepla hawking insects at Solano Park
the other day. Lot of mistletoe
5. Nuttall's Woodpecker (1)
Thomas Nuttall was an Englishman who traveled extensively in the U.S. during the period
1810-1836. Primarily a botanist, Nuttall also loved birds and ended up writing the first real field
guide for U.S. birds in 1831-32 ("A Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and
Canada"). William Gambel, who later traveled with Nuttall, collected a new woodpecker
species in California and named it Nuttall's Woodpecker, in honor of his renowned naturalist
friend. (See Mearns "Audubon to Xantu's" for a great profile on Nuttall, and see also this page.)
Nuttall's Woodpecker (Picoides nuttalli) is virtually a California endemic, living usually near oak
tree habitat from the coast to the foothills, and venturing barely into Baja California. Occasionally wanders to southern Oregon. Nuttall's Woodpecker stays year round in one area,
loosely associated with its mate. The male has a red cap at the back of the crown and forages
on the trunks of trees for insects, kind of like a Brown Creeper. The female forages on smaller
branches. More in the next photo.
Sorry for the tight shot, but I couldn't easily back further away without blocking the parking lot
entrance at Las Gallinas ponds.
6. Nuttall's Woodpecker (2)
John James Audubon was a colleague of Nuttall, and named 2 new species in his friend's
honor. The Common Poorwill (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii) was initially known as Nuttall's
Whip-poor-will. The other was our endemic Yellow-billed Magpie (Pica nuttalli).
Nuttall's Woodpecker calls with a distinctive chatter as it flies, perhaps to let the mate know of
its whereabouts. The fine black and white barring of the back is very similar to the
Ladder-backed Woodpecker, but at the upper extent of the barring we can see a broad black bar which connects to a black stripe leading to the crown. The Ladder-backed lacks the broad
black stripe. The ranges of these two Picoides species narrowly overlap in the southern
california foothills, where they have been know to interbreed.
Note the fine bill, almost as small of the Downy Woodpecker. Here we also get a good look at
the facial pattern, similar to that of some other Picoides.
7. Western Grebe
During the Christmas Bird Count this year we saw more Aechmophorus grebes than we could
count, so of course we made the best estimates that time permitted. Nice to see such healthy
populations of these graceful birds. There used to be just the "Western Grebe", with light phase
and dark phase races, as in the first edition of the National Geographic Guide to Birds of North
America. Not long thereafter the taxonomists decided that there were probably two distinct
species in this genus, so it was split into Western Grebe (Aechmophorus occidentalis) and
Clark's Grebe (A. clarkii). The Western Grebe shows less white at the waterline, sports a
yellow-green bill (Clark's is orange), and has the eye surrounded by dark plumage ("eye in the
black") most of the year. Sometimes we get a view of the rather interesting and crested-looking
head, perhaps the last view seen by many a soon-to-be-eaten fish. Taken recently at Doran
Beach, Bodega Bay, along the entrance road.
8. Barrow's Goldeneye
The extreme contrast between black and white on many ducks presents a technical challenge
for the photographer, but delights the eye of the birdwatcher. Didn't want to leave you with
blurred images of Goldeneyes, so I'll send this male Barrow's that we saw at Lake Solano
(Putach Creek) recently. Handsome ducks, these. And "yes", Barrow's and Common
Goldeneye can interbreed, but not frequently. Sibley shows such a hybrid. Other hybirds not
listed for Barrow's, but Common Goldeneyes have hybridized with a wide variety of ducks,
including Common Pochard, Greater Scaup, White-singer Scoter, Smew, Hooded Merganser
and Common Merganser (see Palmer). Hey, maybe the Common Goldeneye in onto something
with that "head-throw" thing.
(And I did consider the possibility that it is the female Common Goldeneye that is responsible
for all that interbreeding, but the experts did not opine on that possibility.)
9. Common Merganser
The Common Merganser (Mergus merganser) lives up to its name, in that it is probably the
most common of the six or so merganser species in the world. They estimate that there about
1.3 million mergansers in North America, and during the Christmas Bird Counts about 73% of
the mergansers tallied are Common. While Red-breasted Mergansers winter here in coastal
waters, the Common Merganser is more at home on lakes and large streams. When they
depart to breed, and they are one of the first ducks to leave in the spring, and head for forested
areas in northern U.S. and across Canada. They need trees because they are cavity nesters.
Identification of the male is easy, with a largely white body, white breast and a greenish head
that snows no crest. And of course that big red serrated bill that serves well to catch slippery
fish. The male Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator) has a crest, gray flanks, dark breast
and a thinner bill.
You can see the green sheen of the head better by looking at the reflection! The white is so
intensely bright that taking a decent photo in the sun is virtually impossible with my gear, even
with underexposing by 2 f-stops. Taken a few weeks ago on Putah Creek, Lake Solano.
10. Cormorant Portrait
Cormorants spend a lot of time roosting somewhere near the water, either just drying wings or
resting. Makes them good subjects for practising photographic technique. This one at Putah
Creek recently, Lake Solano Park.
The Cormorant family is the largest family within the order Pelicaniformes, with 37 species
worldwide. All are considered members of a single genus, Phalacrocorax. The larger ones
usually have "cormorant" as part of their common name, but some of the smaller species have "shag" in their name instead. The Anhinga ("darter") is a close relative. The taxonomy
discussion by Brinkley and Hannum in Sibley's Bird Life and Behavior, indicates that the
cormorant family may be split in several genera. I have checked photos of a number of
cormorant species and they all seem to have the same color iris, a beautiful turquoise that
looks like a shallow tropical lagoon. Above is a portrait of a Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritius).