Posts Tagged ‘Actitis macularia’

April in the USA

All of the photographs on this page are linked to my online Flickr picture gallery. If you place your cursor over any photograph you will see the name of the subject; click on the photograph and you will see an enlargement of the picture.


Yesterday, the 5th April, Nancy and I arrived in Austin, TX, for a visit of around four weeks to the USA. We shall stay with family or have family with us for most, if not all, of that time. I have my camera and binoculars with me and I hope, from time to time during the trip, to record here some of the interesting things that I found and photographed on North America’s nature trails.


Texas Bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis)Texas Bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis)

Bluebonnets (above) are beautiful Spring wildflowers that make an awesome sight when they cover the green fields of Texas with a veritable sea of blue. A native of this southern American State, it is officially known as the Texas Bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis). It was adopted as the State Flower of Texas in 1901. It is most commonly found, and often in abundance, along roadsides, grassed areas and in uncultivated pastures throughout Texas from March to May. The name may come from the shape of the petals of the flower and their resemblance to the bonnets worn by pioneer women to shield themselves from the sun. However, it has also been suggested that the name is derived from the Scottish Bluebonnet, the traditional blue-coloured version of the Tam o’ Shanter hat.

Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja linariaefolia)This is an Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja ssp), one of around 200 species to be found in most of the western Americas from Alaska to the Andes. It is hemiparasitic since it obtains water and other sustenance from the roots of grasses and other plants to which it attaches itself. The flowers only of this plant are edible and sweet, and were in fact consumed in moderation by various American Indian tribes as a condiment. However, because of it’s Selenium content it is potentially very toxic, especially if the roots and green parts are consumed. The Chippewa Indians used a hairwash made from the plant to make their hair glossy and as treatment for rheumatism. Nevada Indian tribes used it to treat venereal diseases and to enhance the immune system, whilst various others used the plant as a paintbrush…hence the name.

Unidentified plant 1Unidentified plant 2Unidentified plant 3Unidentified plant 4

These four plants, all similar and all found within a short distance of each other in the grassed area of a north Austin backyard, are different varieties of the same species of plant, despite obvious differences between them. They are all named Carolina Anemone (Anemone caroliniana), a member of the Buttercup family found mostly in the southern United States. The flowers are quite large considering the small size of the plant and occur in various pastel colours, different sizes, and in the number of petal-like sepals (from 8 to 20).

Flowers growing from tree bark 1Flowers growing from tree bark 2 Have you ever seen flowers growing out of the bark of a tree before? Well, I hadn’t until I saw this tree was sprouting pink flowers from its bark. Apart from the flowers the only sign of life the tree seems to have are a number of pale green leaves on the tips of its branches (which can be seen in the enlargement of the extreme left picture). I don’t know what tree it is or why the flowers should grow in this way. If you have any ideas, I would be interested to have them.
Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos)Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger)Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus)White-winged Dove (Zenaida asiatica)

Photographs: Top left – Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos)
Top right – Fox Squirrel (Sciurius niger)
Bottom left – Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus)
Bottom right – White-winged Dove (Zenaida asiatica)


Well, I have arrived back in France without having been able to add more to this blog as I had originally hoped. Better late than never, here is my account of the second stage of our American journey.

After leaving Austin, Texas Nancy and I spent five days in San Diego, the ninth largest city in the United States and the second largest city in the State of California. We stayed on Shelter Island (flagged ‘A’ on the map below), located in San Diego Bay. Between the island and the city’s waterfront there is a large yacht harbour where, when the tide ebbs, extensive mudflats are revealed, ideal for waders and other shore birds. Across the island we looked out on to the Bay itself – perfect for watching seabirds – and to the North Island Naval Air Station, part of the extensive naval presence in San Diego.

Map of San Diego

Armed with a brand new 500mm lens for my camera (a very early birthday present from Nancy) I was ready for anything floating, flying or just hopping into view. I took quite a lot of pictures and there follows a few of them.

Western Gull (Larus occidentalis)Western Gull (Larus occidentalis)

——————The Western Gull (Larus occidentalis) is the most common seagull along the Californian coast and it was ever present in and around the city and the Bay. This bird is easily recognized because it is the only regularly occurring dark-backed gull along much of the western coast; back colour alone is normally sufficient to identify it. You will see that the adult gull in the middle picture above has a ring, probably with a number, on one leg. It was mostly likely attached to the gull during a bird-ringing (or bird-banding) operation carried out by ornithologists or other experts. The purpose of bird-ringing is normally to gather information on bird migration, longevity, mortality, populations, feeding behaviour and so on.

Marbled Godwit (Limosa Fedoa)Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla)Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularia)

Left to right:
Marbled Godwit (Limosa fedoa), Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla), Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularia)

Marbled Godwits and Least Sandpipers seemed to be permanent residents of the harbour since I found a good number of them busily searching the mudflats each time I went there. However, I came across this single Spotted Sandpiper once only.

I saw one other interesting Sandpiper. The Willet (Tringa semipalmatus) occurs all year round on the Gulf and southern coasts of North America but some (let’s call them the ‘eastern Willets’) winter on the Atlantic coast of South America and breed along the eastern coasts of North America, Mexico and South America. The others, which we’ll call ‘western Willets’, migrate to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts in winter and then breed on the Great Plains of western North America. The eastern and western Willets lead different lives and they look different, too. For example, the western Willet, which is regarded by some as a subspecies of the eastern Willet, is larger, longer-billed and longer-legged than its eastern counterpart. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that currently there is some confusion and considerable debate amongst ornithologists about this bird. Much to my surprise, I found single individuals from both eastern and western groups on the same mudflats on different days, adding to my own confusion! Below are pictures of the two of them, just look how different they are! Hold your cursor over the pictures to see which is which.

Willet (Tringa semipalmatus) (western form)Willet (Tringa semipalmatus) (eastern form)

——————–I also spotted a Western Grebe (Aechmophorus occidentalis) (below left) and an Eared Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis) (below right) in the harbour.

Western Grebe (Aechmophorus occidentalis)Eared Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis)——————-Note the deep red eyes of both birds and the rust-coloured ‘ears’ of the Eared Grebe.

It was, however, the blue waters of San Diego Bay that brought me my best birds, three of which – the Pacific Loon (Gavia pacifica), Surf Scoter (Melanitta perspicillata) (both pictured below) and White-winged Scoter (Melanitta fusca) -, I had never seen before. I also managed to capture a better shot of the Common Loon (known in Europe as the Great Northern Loon) (Gavia immer) (see below), which I saw for the first time on the Texas Gulf Coast last November.

Pacific Loon (Gavia pacifica)Surf Scoter (Melanitta perspicillata)Common Loon (Gavia immer)

————–Before ending this review of water and shore birds I want to show you a group of birds that I found on the rocks at Point Loma, a peninsula which, along with the Coronado peninsula, separates San Diego Bay from the Pacific Ocean (see map above). The Brandt’s Cormorant (Phalacrocorax penicillatus) occurs only on the west coast of North America and the most eye-catching feature of this bird during the breeding season is its bright blue throat patch. It’s not a close-up shot by any means but, despite the distance, you can clearly see the distinctive bright blue throat. Click on the picture to get an even better view.

Brandt's Cormorant (Phalacrocorax penicillatus)

Because I was concentrating so much on water and shore birds I did not take many photographs of the smaller, inland birds but here are three of them:

California Towhee (Pipilo crissalis)Orange-crowned Warbler (Vermivora celata)Brewer's Blackbird (Euphagus cyanocephalus)

Left to right:
California Towhee (Pipilo crissalis), Orange-crowned Warbler (Vermivora celata), Brewer’s Blackbird (Euphagus cyanocephalus)

The California Towhee (pronounced toe-hee) is a common bird native to the western coastal regions of North America, from Baja California (Mexico) in the south to Oregon in the north. The Orange-crowned Warbler does have an orange crown but it is usually not visible. It is best identified by the fact that it has no wing bars, olive-grey upperparts, yellowish underparts with faint streaking and a thin pointed bill. It also has a faint line over the eyes and a faint broken eye ring. Note that the bird in my photograph has no tail, probably due to an unsuccessful attack by a predator. The Brewer’s Blackbird is noticeable because of its distinctive bright yellow eyes. Although it is very similar to the Eurasian Blackbird it is not from the same family.

Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis)The Western Fence Lizard (left), also known as the Blue-Belly, is a common lizard of California and parts of the surrounding States. Its most distinguishing feature is a bright blue belly but this is faint or absent in females and juveniles, as in my picture, unfortunately. Interestingly, it is thought these lizards reduce the risk of Lyme disease by ticks because the disease is lower in areas where the lizards occur. Apparently, when ticks carrying Lyme disease feed on these lizards (which they commonly do, especially around their ears), the bacteria that cause the disease are killed. Currently, the Western Fence Lizard is an unprotected species.

White-tailed Jackrabbit (Lepus townsendii)

The White-tailed Jackrabbit, also known as the Prairie Hare or White Jack, is – according to Wikipedia – a common hare found in western and central North America, from the Great Plains of Saskatchewan and Alberta in Canada to Wisconsin and westwards to its southern limit of central California. This picture was taken in the elephant enclosure at the San Diego Wild Animal Park near Escondido, California. If it is a White-tailed Jackrabbit (I know of no other resident white-tailed hare in southern California that fits the description), it is out of its range and may have been imported by the owners of the Park. On the other hand, it may have extended its range and this fellow may be an unauthorised interloper at the Park.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

Along with the Bluebonnet and the Indian Paintbrush (see the beginning of this post) the Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) (above) is one of the most common plants to be found in Texas in the Spring. I was not able to photograph it whilst I was in Austin but I made up for it by capturing it on camera at Point Loma, San Diego. It is native to most of North America, and was adopted as the state flower of Maryland in 1918. Just like the Indian Paintbrush, the Black-eyed Susan was used by the Ojibwa Indians for medicinal purposes, in this case as a poultice for snake bites and to make an infusion for treating colds and worms in children.

Now it is time to move on to northern California, the third and final stage of our North American journey. The evening before we left San Diego we were given a final reminder of how beautiful San Diego and southern California can be: the sunsets are simply wonderful.

San Diego


Nancy’s son Adrien, and his wife Anne, took us north in their car to San Ramon in Contra Costa County, part of the San Francisco Bay area. We drove through the outskirts of Los Angeles, past Hollywood and the famous hillside sign (see below), on to US Highway Route 101, then US Highway Route 1, the scenic Pacific coastal route. This highway is also known as El Camino Real (The Royal Road) where its route approximates to the historic California Mission trail which once linked the old Spanish missions, presidios (fortresses) and pueblos (villages).


After an overnight stop at Grover Beach on California’s central coast we continued north until we reached Point Piedras Blancas, just a few miles north of San Simeon. We wanted to see the large Northern Elephant Seal (Mirounga angustirostris) colony which is resident there.

Northern Elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris)Northern Elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris)Northern Elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris)Northern Elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris)Northern Elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris)

Elephant seals get their name from their great size and the male’s large proboscis. The males are much larger (14 ft or 4m) and heavier (5,000lb or 2,300kg) than the females who average 11ft (3m) in size and 1,400lb (640kg) in weight. During the breeding season bulls will engage in dramatic, often savage, fights to determine territorial dominance and a harem which can number between 30 and 100 cows. The younger bulls are simply chased away. Because of this hierarchy practice few males are able to mate but some may try to sneak into the harem when the bull is otherwise occupied or sleeping. The young bulls are often engaged in mock battles to prepare themselves for future conflicts of this nature (top centre). The other pictures show the head of a young pup (top left), severely sunburnt females (bottom centre) and another female throwing sand over her body to protect her skin from the strong sunlight (bottom right).

Pacific Harbour Seal (Phoca vitulina richardsi)California Sea Lions (Zalophus californianus)California Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus beecheyi)

Apart from the elephant seals I also saw two other pinnipeds (walruses, eared seals and true seals) during the whole trip. Just north of San Diego, Pacific Harbour Seals, also known as Pacific Common Seals (Phoca vitulina richardsi), were present on rocks at La Jolla Cove and California Sea Lions (Zalophus californianus) were seen on rafts alongside Pier 39 in San Francisco harbour. A California (or Western) Grey Squirrel, (Sciurus griseus) was also seen at the elephant seal viewpoint at Piedras Blancas.

I also managed to add four more new North American birds to my photo collection during short breaks or, in two instances, through the car window whilst stuck in traffic! They are, starting from the left: Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri), American Crow (Corvus brachyrynchos), Red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) and Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater), female . The picture of the Steller’s Jay is a good one but, regretfully, I cannot take the credit for it. That goes to Adrien, my stepson, because I had just temporarily entrusted him with my heavy camera equipment when the bird came into view. I took the pictures of the Red-shouldered Hawk and the Brown-headed Cowbird from inside the car. The fifth bird is a tiny Bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus)that I managed to capture in a backyard at San Ramon.

Steller's Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri)American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus)Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater), femaleBushtit ((Psaltriparus minimus)

——————–Several more bird pictures were taken in and around San Ramon. Here are a few of them, starting with Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna):

Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna)Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna)The bird on the far left is most probably a female adult with a hint of a dark red central patch just showing on the throat. The near left picture shows, very likely, another female feeding at a rose bush. This view from the back gives the bird a lovely ‘crucifix-shape’ appearance which is not often captured on camera. Both pictures were taken in the same backyard in San Ramon. Up to 16 species of hummingbird can be seen in the USA but, strangely, I have only seen two species, the Black-chinned and Anna’s, and I have not yet taken a photograph of one of the brightly-coloured ones.

House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus)House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus)You will remember that the Willet can look different, depending on the area in which it lives and breeds. There are two other birds than can vary in appearance for one reason or another. The first is the House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus), a common finch that is found almost anywhere in the United States. As you will see from the two pictures above one has a red crown, face and breast (photo taken in San Ramon, northern California) whilst the other has an orange crown, face and breast (photo taken in San Diego, southern California). Individual birds of this species can be coloured red, orange or yellow, depending upon their diet, although the most common colour is red.

Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), red & yellow formRed-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), bicoloured form.The Red-winged Blackbird, which is also found throughout North America, normally has red and yellow wing bars (far left) but a bicoloured form with red and black bars (the black bar is not easily seen) (see left) is resident in much of California. Both birds were seen in adjacent fields at San Ramon.

Five other birds are of interest. The Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis) (extreme left picture below) is common throughout the United States.

The Wild Turkey (Meleagris galliparvo) (second left picture, below) can also be found across much of America, although it is less common in the western States. Most often encountered along forest roads or foraging in open fields this turkey was one of a number seen at the Sunol Regional Park in Alameda County, close to San Ramon.

The California Quail (Callipepla californica),(third left picture, below) is the State bird of California. It most common in western California but it can also be found in other areas of the American north-west. Best known for its plume of six feathers (black in males and brown in females), it is a very sociable bird that often gathers in small flocks known as “coveys”. This picture was taken at the Eugene O’Neill Historic Site in Danville, Contra Costa County.

If you have read my review of 2009 you will know that a very friendly drab adult Western Bluebird (Sialia mexicana), a member of the thrush family, flew up close to me and posed whilst I took photographs of it. The same thing happened shortly after taking photographs of the California Quail. A brightly plumaged male Western Bluebird flew up, landed on a nearby fence and stayed there watching me taking pictures of it (fourth left picture, below). This behaviour seems to be unusual because I have not yet found any evidence that the bird to known to behave in that way.

There are seven species of parakeet in the United States and all of them are found mainly in California. During our day trip to San Francisco I came across a large flock of Red-masked Parakeets (Aratinga erythrogenys) (far right picture, below) in Telegraph Hill Park, which leads down to the Bay.

Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)California Quail (Callipepla californica)Western Bluebird (Sialia mexicana),  Red-Masked Parakeet (Aratinga erythrogenys)

—————–The day before leaving for home I was lucky enough to return to the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge at San Jose which I visited last year (see 2009 Review). I took so many photographs in a few short hours that, again, I am posting only the best or most interesting ones. All of them are in the small square format to save space but you can enlarge any of the pictures by clicking on them.

American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana)Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax)Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus)Long-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus scolopaceus)Short-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus) ?
Northern Pintail (Anas acuta)
Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis)Forster's Tern (Sterna forsteri)
California Gull (Larus californicus)Snowy Egret (Egretta thula)
►►►►►Top row, from left to right: American Avocet (Recurvirostra Americana), Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus), Long-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus scolopaceus), Short-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus) (provisional identification).
►►►►►Bottom row, from left to right: Northern Pintail (Anas acuta), Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis), Forster’s Tern (Sterna forsteri), California Gull (Larus californicus), Snowy Egret (Egretta thula).

There are so many sparrows and other similar looking birds in the United States that, at first, I could only guess that this was a Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis). I submitted the picture to the Bird Help Identification Group on Flickr and was gratified to learn that my guess was correct!

Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)The Barn Swallow is as common in North America in summer as it is in Europe at the same time of year. Whereas the North American birds fly up from South America and other sub-tropical areas to breed, their European counterparts travel north from the African continent for the same purpose.

Unidentified lizardThis lizard was spotted at the Eugene O’Neill Historical Site, Danville, northern California and I don’t yet know which one it is. I think it may be one of the alligator lizard species. I have submitted it to Flickr’s “ID please” Group and as soon as I obtain a positive ID I shall give the lizard a name.

California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica)

I could not leave California without taking a picture of the State flower, the California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica). It is a beautiful, colourful reminder to Nancy and me of our stay in California and San Ramon, in particular. We shall be back!

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