A California Winter For the Birds

December 28, 2016

Male Allen's Hummingbird on a feeder

The museum's Nature Garden is a great place to see birds. Not necessarily one-in-a-lifetime type birds, but enough of a variety that beginners and photographers can find lots to appreciate. Here are some photographs I took on 20 December, 2016 to show that, at a time when much of the country is covered in snow or miserably shivering because of the cold, we here in Los Angeles have an almost unbelievable opportunity to observe colorful wildlife in the center of the city.

Male house finch
Male lesser goldfinch
Mourning dove
Male yellow-rumped warbler (immature)
Allen's hummingbird on palo verde flowers along the Living Wall
(Posted by: Brian Brown)


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Straighten Up and Fly Right, “Collective Wisdom” in Pigeon Flocks

September 27, 2016

 

Our fearless, GPS-tracked homing pigeon leader, poised to steer the flock astray. Photo by: Zsuzsa Ákos

In a recent study published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, researchers from the University of Oxford have discovered that pigeons have more reasoning capacity than urban-dwelling humans have ever credited them.

It was previously thought that “bad” flock leaders that made navigational mistakes would propagate their errors down through a hierarchical decision-making system in species that travel together, like the homing pigeon (above and below). 'Lo and behold, the researchers found that those fast but not necessarily competent avian captains can be overruled by the collective wisdom of the group. Yo, Aristotle!

Lead author Isobel Watts explains in the University's news release that the researchers were interested in how much control the “top” bird actually exerted over its inferiors. Flock leaders were in essence jet-lagged using a "clock-shifting" technique that scrambled their sense of direction, and then, with their flock study-group partners, fitted with GPS trackers. The study found that the “misinformed” leaders tended to lose their place at the top of the hierarchy, and the flock would generally correct its faulty homing instinct and stay on course. Watts says that “[t]he exact mechanism by which a flock is able to correct for misinformation coming from its leader is still unclear. However, we can speculate that it may be due to either misinformed flock leaders doubting their own abilities and paying more attention to what their flockmates appear to be doing, or the flock members recognizing weakness in the leader and taking more control themselves."
 

Clearly, this is not a confident-looking pigeon. Photo by: Zsuzsa Ákos

Co-author Dr. Dora Biro points out that the ability of the group to correct a mistake of a wayward leader would be “particularly important in migratory bird species, where getting lost during a trip could be a matter of life and death.” Collective wisdom is also the soul of our democracies, although the human experiment is ongoing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Posted by: Karen Klabin)


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Bird Counts and Mobile Apps—For Science!

February 4, 2016

 “Raise your hand if you think it is a Bushtit.”

“There are four by this feeder and five at that one, so that’s nine altogether.”

“I think it’s sparrow-sized or smaller”

“Are you sure that isn’t a fake bird?”

These are questions and statements made during the Nature Navigator program on Saturday, January 23. Jeff Chapman, Manager of Interpretation and Training, and Richard Smart, Coordinator of Citizen Science, were leading a group of kids, ages 10-12 years old, on a bird walk through the NHMLA Nature Gardens. The bird walk was a training to help the kids gain more experience looking for birds, identifying them, and reporting their observations. By honing these skills, we hope to get our Nature Navigators to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count.

The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) was first held in 1998, and was created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society. The GBBC is credited as being “the first online citizen-science project to collect data on wild birds and to display results in near real-time.” The goal of the GBBC is to gain a better understanding of bird populations throughout North America. By getting more people to participate in the GBBC, scientists have access to more data, which can add to their knowledge of bird populations at local, state, and national levels. Here at NHMLA, we see all of L.A. as our backyard. The GBBC allows us to contribute wherever we are birding, be it your actual backyard, a local park, the L.A. River,or L.A. City Hall.

GBBC PARTICIPATION IS EASY

Step 1: Count birds anywhere you like. GBBC recommends you spend at least 15 minutes counting. Keep track of the numbers and species of birds you see and how long you watched.

Step 2: Make your best estimate of how many birds you saw of each species.

Step 3: Enter your list(s) online at BirdCount.org.

For our Nature Navigators, counting birds and entering those counted online was simple. The most difficult aspect is identifying what birds they were looking at – a major obstacle for most people when asked to participate in a citizen science bird project. While there are many different field guides that people may use to help with bird identification, there is also mobile phone app designed to to help people of all ages with their bird IDs. It's called, Merlin!

Merlin Bird ID is a FREE app, for Android and iOS mobile devices, that people can use to help them make bird IDs. First you answer five questions:


  1. Where did you see the bird?

  2. When did you see the bird?

  3. What size was the bird?

  4. What were the main colors?

  5. What was the bird doing?


Then Merlin brings up a list of birds that you could be looking at (the list includes photos, names, and brief descriptions of the birds, and some birds have their calls uploaded to the app). The app was made by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and it earned its name since its accuracy is so high that people swear that it works like magic.

 

We worked with the Nature Navigators to practice using Merlin, and they were happy to have a tool that was simple to use, and that gave them information about the birds they were seeing. Quite often, when we take people outside, we want them to “unplug” when connecting to nature, but it was neat to see these kids using mobile technology to help them connect to nature. The app helped the kids become more involved in the bird walk since they weren’t relying on Jeff or Richard to make all of the bird IDs for them. Instead, they could find the answer themselves.

This year’s GBBC is being held Feb 12-15, 2016. Our Nature Navigators are motivated to help scientists by counting birds in their neighborhoods during this time frame. We hope that many of you will join them and participate in your own neighborhood. View the bird list that our Nature Navigators created on Jan 23. It contains 13 different types of birds. How many types of birds do you think you’ll see when you participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count?

References

Cornell Lab of Ornithology: http://gbbc.birdcount.org/about/

GBBC Toolkit, Instructions PDF: http://gbbc.birdcount.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/2016Updates_English_DownloadableInstructions.pdf

 

(Posted by: Richard Smart and Jeff Chapman)


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Museum Makes Room for Nesting Cliff Swallows

June 23, 2015

Cliff swallows have moved onto, rather than into the Museum! Last week, Kimball Garrett, Museum bird expert, reported finding a nest under the eaves of the building directly facing the historic LA Memorial Coliseum. As he got close enough to snap this photograph, Kimball observed a pair of young swallows peering out of their finely crafted mud dwelling.

Check out that architecture! The adult breeding pair work together to collect mud pellets from the immediate area and use their bills to transport and mold them into a viable nest.  

Cliff swallows, Petrochelidon pyrrhonota, have historically nested on our building–back in the 80s and 90s Kimball would see them every year–but recently they have been noticeably absent. We are not sure what has caused them to return, but we're definitely tracking their progress and hope they return next year.

As their name implies, before humans came along these birds would build their mud nests on vertical cliff faces. Today, they are just as easily found nesting under freeway bridges, and in the eaves of buildings. Locally, cliff swallows are remembered fondly as the, "famous Mission San Juan Capistrano birds." For two centuries a celebration has been held for the annual appearance of these birds at the mission. The story goes that like clockwork the birds would show up on March 19th, Saint Joseph's Day, to nest on the old church buildings. But recently, due to urbanization, the birds have been bypassing the mission and nesting elsewhere.

Although we don't have hundreds of swallows nesting at the Museum, we are an attractive enough site to host a nest–we have everything they need. A building where they can find good attachment points with physical protection from above, a decent supply of flying insects to eat, and mud for constructing their nest.

However, as Kimball points out life in the city isn't easy for a cliff swallow, there are aggressive animals to deal with. The two creatures of concern are house sparrows, Passer domesticus, and unfortunately, us humans. 

In the bird world, house sparrows are notorious aggressors. They steal nests, destroy eggs, throw baby birds out of nests, and generally wreak havoc on all manner of other birds. Because house sparrows are not native to North America (they were purposefully introduced to the US in the 1850s) and are such a threat to native bird species, some bird enthusiasts choose to actively deter them and/or remove them from their property. It is important to note that, because house sparrows are an introduced species and therefore not protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, people are allowed to remove house sparrows and their nests. Not true for the native cliff swallows. However, many home and business owners chose to illegally knock down swallows nests constructed on their buildings. 

We here at the Museum choose to celebrate our cliff swallows and all of the nature that calls our Nature Gardens home. 

 

 

 


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


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California Towhees in the Nature Gardens

April 7, 2014

Have you ever seen this bird?

California Towhee visits the Natural History Museum. Image courtesy of Kimball Garrett

Okay, so unless you are a birder type, you may look at this picture and think, "How the heck do I know? It just looks like a dull, brown bird to me." This is almost exactly what I thought when I saw the picture in my inbox recently. However, after reading the e-mail it was sent in, I realized this is a bird I see, and hear, in Griffith park all the time. You see, this bird can be much easier to identify when it is alive—scratching around in the leaf litter in front of your eyeballs, and chirping away close to your earholes.

First rule of bird nerd club, you gotta look at more than just color and pattern!

Kimball, teaches this and an array of other tricks and tips during the many birding trips he leads for the Museum, Audubon chapters, and other groups.

Another thing Kimball has been doing at the Museum is taking data on the birds of the Nature Gardens by conducting weekly "area search" surveys, counting all birds on the garden grounds. These surveys rely on his acute ability to identify birds quickly by sight and sound. He can accurately identify what, to you and I, looks like a black flying speck from 50 feet, or sounds like a small chirrup in the cacophony or urban sounds.

It was on one of Kimball's recent surveys that he took the image above of a California Towhee, Melozone crissalis, in the Nature Gardens' "urban wilderness." Unfortunately, since male and female California Towhees are identical visually and this one wasn't singing (only the males of this species sing) we'll never never know if this one was a boy or girl!

Here's Kimball to tell us a bit more about the significance of the sighting:

"Although this is a common and familiar bird in natural brushy habitats and in suburban residential yards and parks, it is largely absent from the most urbanized portions of the L.A. Basin.  As a ground-foraging species it is especially susceptible to predation by feral cats (etc.), collisions with automobiles, and other urban mortality factors. This towhee was high on my list of “target species” that the Nature Gardens might attract.  Even though one sighting of a single individual doesn’t mean much yet, it is a start and we might someday get a population of towhees in the park. The two previous sightings of California Towhee in Exposition Park (30 Aug 1982, and spring 1996) were of single birds that did not stick around, and those pre-date the establishment of any usable habitat for the species in the park."

Wow, so this is the first time a California Towhee has been documented in the park in over 17 years! The question is, will this towhee stick around? Unfortunately, as far as we know, the bird hasn't been seen since Kimball took the picture. He saw it fly off into the brush, and like that, it disappeared. Maybe, this individual towhee was just passing through, but I like to think that he (okay it could have been a girl, like I said above) was checking out our accommodations. Maybe he'll tell all his buddies about the garden, or if we're lucky he'll bring back a girlfriend and have babies, just like some Bushtits, Psaltriparus minimus, are doing.

Apparently, bushtits are quite partial to Hershey's Kisses! Come and visit the Nature Gardens so you can check out the nest for yourself, and of course keep your eyes open for the towhees!

 


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


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New Year: New Bird

January 3, 2014

"175," responds Kimball Garrett, the Museum's ornithology collections manager and resident bird nerd, when someone asked him how many birds he's documented around the Museum. In the last few days of 2013 Kimball checked off another bird that had never before been documented in Exposition Park, this brought Kimball's ever growing list to its current pinnacle.

Kimball behind the scenes in Ornithology

Although Kimball has been keeping track of birds in Exposition Park for 30 years now (WOW), this is nothing compared to his track record for Los Angeles. Kimball grew up in the Hollywood Hills where his parents had a bird feeder in their backyard. As a teenager Kimball would explore further and further afield, all the while documenting his bird observations in a journal.

Here's one of my favorite stories as recounted recently by Kimball:

"Growing up just a stone’s throw from Griffith Park’s Brush Canyon, I regularly escaped into that nature-filled canyon as a young teenager.  Among my many memories of watching birds and other wildlife in that area, one stands out in my mind. Winding my way up a narrow trail in the canyon bottom, not far below what I called “the waterfall” (I doubt it was more than about 8 feet high, but it seemed impressive at the time), I came around a bend and staring down at me from a dead oak snag was a King Vulture! Menacing, big, and very much out of place.  I assume this bird had escaped from the Los Angeles Zoo (just a couple miles north, over Mount Hollywood), and I couldn’t have known then it portended an interest I would develop in the non-native bird species (including parrots, mannikins, and doves) that are now among our most commonly encountered birds in urban habitats in the region."

Unlike the out of place vulture, the bird Kimball found on December 27 is a not that uncommon in our region. It was a Golden-crowned Kinglet (GCKI), Regulus satrapa, flitting around in a deciduous tree next to the pond. Unfortunately the bird was too fast for Kimball, and he was not able to snap a recognizable photo. However, he recorded the find and went back to his office. When he checked his Exposition Park bird list, he found that this was the first sighting of a GCKI! Though according to Kimball, we've had lots of sightings of its very close cousin, the Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Regulus calendula, which "is a common fall migrant and winter visitor to the park." In comparison the GCKIs are "scarce and irregular winter visitors to the lowlands of Southern California; this has been a better than average winter for them in the region."

This is what a Golden-crowned Kinglet looks like, photo courtesy of Dick Daniels.  

Maybe you can spot your own GCKI if you go out birding this weekend! Or if you are a novice, you could join a FREE L.A. Audubon bird walk this weekend and get some help.

Happy Birding in 2014!

 

 


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


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What's Up Goatsucker?

October 26, 2012

Yes, the first Goatsucker has been found in our new wildlife gardens! No, I'm not talking about a weird new species of goat parasite, I'm actually talking about a type of owl-like bird. Goatsuckers, a.k.a. nightjars, are members of the family Caprimulgidae, which comes from the Latin word Caprimulgus, literally meaning goatsucker. The Latin name came about because of the mistaken belief that these birds would swoop under milking goats to steal milk from the teat!

 



Common Poorwill, Phalaenoptilus nuttalli,

found on North Campus

  

Here's what Kimball Garrett, our awesome Ornithologist, has to say about the Common Poorwill (the specific type of Goatsucker) we found:

 

"It certainly appears that October is the month to find Common Poorwills (Phalaenoptilus nuttalli) around here.  The previous two Exposition Park records are for 1 October 1973 (a specimen in the collection), and 12 October 2005 (a bird seen by me and some of my volunteers along the NW wall of the Rose Garden),

 

Poorwills catch insect prey (mainly moths and beetles) by sallying from the ground up into the air, especially from dusk through the evening.  They’re often seen on paved roads on warm summer and fall evenings – presumably taking advantage of the warmth retained in the asphalt and perhaps elevated numbers of insect prey in that warm microenvironment.  The species is named after its call, often heard on warm evenings on the breeding grounds.

Although some individuals seem to be year-round residents, others individuals (especially those from more northerly or interior breeding populations) are migratory.  Observations and specimen evidence suggest that the main fall movement into/through the lowlands of the Los Angeles Basin occurs in October.  The nearest breeding areas are on dry chaparral slopes of Griffith Park and elsewhere in the Santa Monica Mtns. (and poorwills are even more common in rocky desert and mountain areas farther inland).  In some parts of their range poorwills are known to undergo torpor on cold winter nights, some even hibernating for extended periods."

Whoa! Did Kimball just say these birds hibernate? Remember that tidbit for your next trivia contest!

But wait there's more! Did you know birds pant sometimes, to keep themselves cool just a like dogs do? To be more precise, scientists call it gular fluttering and Sam Easterson caught a video of it:

Wow, that's an impressive gular you have there

Mr. Goatsucker!


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)

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First Canada Warbler Spotted in Exposition Park

October 6, 2012

This week I got another e-mail from one of our scientists. This time it was from Kimball Garrett, our amazing Ornithology Collections Manager. He found another bird for our Exposition Park bird list, and my isn't it cute? Here's Kimball's communique from October 3rd at 1:24pm:"All,Canada Warbler, Cardellina canadensis [= Wilsonia canadensis] along the south edge of the Rose Garden just now.  First for the park, and brings the wood-warbler (Parulidae) list for the park up to 22 species and the park list to 171 species.  Sorry, no photos obtained."But wait, Kimball, never to be outdone by a bird, sent me this e-mail at 4:38pm that same day:"Lila,I went back out late this afternoon and had much better studies of the Canada Warbler and managed to get a few (lousy) photos. Here's one:"

 Wow look at that eye ring! Thanks Kimball.


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


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What's that Bird of Prey Eating?

August 31, 2012

We've had another visitor at the pond. Since it's a bird, Kimball was kind enough to write this week's post!

"Cooper’s Hawks, Accipiter cooperii, such as this adult, have frequently been recorded by Sam Easterson’s “camera traps” as they drink and bathe at the Natural History Museum’s North Campus pond.  These hawks are among the most conspicuous vertebrate predators in urban Los Angeles – a significant turn of events given that this species was on the National Audubon Society’s “Blue List” as recently as the 1970s.  The “Blue List” – a sort of early warning list of potential endangerment – included species “suffering population declines or range diminution in all or parts of their range.”  Cooper’s Hawk populations have rebounded spectacularly in part because of reductions in the use of certain pesticides, but also because they are now rarely persecuted as the pest their nickname “chicken hawk” alludes to.  But the increasing population of Cooper’s Hawks in our region is not without ecological consequences.  These hawks, and other species in the genus Accipiter, are bird-eaters – they catch songbirds, doves, and many other kinds of birds by ambushing them with short flights over and through vegetation.  We don’t know the extent to which declines in populations of some urban bird species (such as the introduced Spotted Dove, which is now virtually gone from southern California, or the Inca Dove, whose population in the Tucson, Arizona region has plummeted) can be attributed by increased predation pressures by Cooper’s Hawks.  Careful observations by scientists and citizens – and Sam’s technological wizardry – may help us better understand the role of predators such as the Cooper’s Hawk in regulating populations of their prey species."Thanks Kimball! Finally, here's some footage Sam's trap captured of the hawk taking a bath in the pond!


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


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Another New Bird for Our Bird List

June 8, 2012

170 and Counting...

Late last week, Kimball Garrett, NHMLA's Ornithology Collections Manager, spotted a new species for our Exposition Park bird list...drum roll please!

It was an Indigo Bunting, Passerina cyanea. Although Kimball had his camera with him, he was unfortunatley unable to snap a picture. Here is an image of a male Indigo Bunting, so you can at least get a sense of what they look like.



Wow, those are some seriously blue feathers!

 

You can also check out what they sound like from the Fish and Wildlife Service.

If your browser does not support HTML5 audio, you should upgrade. In the meantime, you could listen to it here instead.

 

 

Here's what Kimball has to say about these birds:

 

The Indigo Bunting is a migratory songbird that breeds commonly in the Central and Eastern United States and adjacent Canada, and in small numbers west to Arizona. A few have summered and bred in Southern California, but the handful of Indigos that turn up annually in Los Angeles County are presumed to be off-course migrants.

 

A male seen in the xeric garden south of the California Science Center on June 1, 2012 was the first to be found in Exposition Park; the Indigo’s close relative, the Lazuli Bunting (P. amoena), is occasionally noted as a migrant in the park, mainly in August and September (as can be seen from the seasonal bar charts based on data from the eBird website). A third member of the genus Passerina, the Blue Grosbeak (P. caerulea) has been recorded only once, in May.

 



Seasonal bar charts from eBird

 

In addition to the brilliant blue plumage of the male, Indigo Buntings gained fame as the subject of pioneering studies of celestial navigation by night-migrating songbirds by Stephen Emlen in the late 1960s . Emlen placed caged buntings in a planetarium setting to study the directionality of their migratory responses when exposed to both accurate and manipulated celestial cues. Although we now know that star patterns are important in the navigation of such migrants, the occasional appearance of an individual well away from its normal geographical range shows that such navigation is not without errors!

Thanks Kimball, that was fascinating!


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


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