Category Archives: Critters

Fine Feathered Friends – April 14th

Another new visitor. This one made their presence known first by their call. They’re LOUD and very distinctive. (Listen to the first song recording, credited to “Oklahoma, April 06, 2012 Recorded by Wil Hershberger | Macaulay Library“)

Given the volume, I spent a few days trying to hunt down a larger bird, maybe something the size of a robin or jay, or the California Towhee. No joy.

When I did find them I was delighted – they’re tiny. “Tiny” as in “smaller than the cute little chunky Juncos!” They’re barely bigger than the hummingbirds!

Now that I know what I’m looking for, I’m finding them all over the place. There might not be as many of them as the wrens or the juncos, but there’s at least a dozen or so, maybe double that.

They’re constantly flitting about through the bushes and hedges that separate our neighbors’ yards from ours, along with the juncos and finches and towhees. Those hedges are turning into quite the little aviary.

I’ve also seen them hanging out in the small bushes behind the roses that line the driveway. That was surprising. There’s not that much cover there, but they make the best of it. But at the slightest hint that I’ve seen them and might take a step in their direction – “poof!” There’s a cloud of them heading across the street into the big hedges in the neighbor’s yard over there.

Tiny, loud, with that BIG tail sticking up like a flag or the rudder on a 787 or C-5. Welcome to the aviary!


Filed under Birds, Critters, Photography

Grass Lizards

It’s starting to look like a bumper crop year for lizards at the Willett enclave. We have the usual suspects (although I’m starting to get worried again about Doctor Lizardo) – dark fence lizards, tan ones, tree lizards, and what might be an alligator lizard.

One new thing that I have rarely seen are lizards that go out onto the grass. Normally they’re on the sidewalk or porch, possibly in the dirt. When they’re sunning themselves they have a bush or some other kind of protection or hidey hole (like under the van) to duck back under or into in a heartbeat.

In this picture there are two reasonably large “grass lizards” who have been out there for several days. (Click to enlarge the picture and find them!) They’re always out on top of the grass, almost like they’re crowdsurfing on top of the grass blades to keep ventilated and keep their feet from getting too hot, while also maximizing their solar energy absorption. Which is all well and good, but it also would seem to leave themselves very exposed to birds, and a long way from cover if an avian predator cruises by.

Perhaps there’s some finer point of lizard habitats, psychology, and metabolism that I’m not grasping. But watch where you step if you go out on the grass in the afternoon sun!

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Fine Feathered Friends – April 07th

Last October, a small group of a new type of bird showed up in our back yard.

They’re distinctive looking and I’m pretty sure I hadn’t ever seen them before. We certainly hadn’t seen them at this house in what was at the time about two and a half years.

Cute little baby dinosaurs, they have a black head, a white underbelly, and they tend to be ground feeders.

We had a half-dozen or so of them at first, but soon there were more. They love the shrubs that we and the neighbors each have along our fence lines. And they loved whatever we had on our lawn.

It wasn’t long before we started putting out some bird seed for them. Word must have gotten around, because most of the winter we’ve had more like two dozen of them around.

They hop, they flit, they scurry, and then all of a sudden they simultaneously all bolt to the bushes. (The shadow of a hawk often immediately follows.)

With time I started to get better pictures, although they don’t hang out for long when I go out into the back yard. But with better pictures came an ID in the Cornell Lab Merlin app.

These are Dark-eyed Juncos, a type of sparrow. They apparently have a lot of color variation between different populations, which you can see in looking at these pictures. But the basic “chunky Junco” body, black head, white belly design is consistent. There just may be differences in detail in the grey areas.

When I found out what they are I was told that they’re migratory and won’t stay for long, so I expected them to be gone by now. But the steady food supply may have convinced them to sit tight for a while.

Fine by me! They’re now getting bold enough to come up onto the back patio (okay, seed gets spilled there and they’re voracious) and cute as can be, so they can hop around the back yard as long as they want!

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Easter Bunny

These were taken in the last week or so on two separate nights.

As I commented the other day to someone on Twitter, there are a surprising number of rabbits living in the Los Angeles suburbs. But there are also a surprising number of coyotes. It tends to balance out.

On the other hand, we live at the very top of a fairly high and very steep hill. And coyotes are lazy.

(Except, of course, for Wile E. Coyote. He was very much an ambitious and industrious fellow, even if the laws of physics did seem to always be breaking in such a way that he got screwed.)

So about dinner time and/or sunset, we’ll see one or two of these fluffbutts in the back yard.

Once it’s full dark there are usually anywhere from two to five or six in the front yard. It’s bunny paradise.

But they never leave eggs, colored or otherwise, just those little Raisinette-like things. (They’re not candy, taste like shit…)

If you celebrate, I hope you had a wonderful Easter!

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Fine Feathered Friends – April 03rd

There was a day a while back when I was out in the backyard and heard a woodpecker quite nearby, but couldn’t spot her.  She was a shy little thing.

Can you see her right in the middle of this picture, in this dead-ish tree in the neighbor’s yard?

I swear she was actively working to keep a branch or trunk of the tree between me and her.

And doing a really good job of it.

Over the next couple of weeks I would hear her banging away on some nearby tree every now and then, but rarely had a chance to even spot her at all, let alone get my camera and snap a picture. But eventually I caught her roosting and resting way, way up in that huge tree in our back yard:

Better, but not great. However, with a decent picture of her spots and plumage, I was able to get a positive ID in the Cornell Merlin app…

…and find out that she’s a female Nuttall’s Woodpecker!

She’s ID’d as female because there’s no red patch on top of her head. I’ll have to keep an eye out for a male companion. (And that is one SHARP looking little beak!)

Eventually I’ve caught her for some better pictures.

I’ve always loved woodpeckers, they’re so unique and colorful. I would love to have a couple of pairs of pileated woodpeckers, MUCH larger birds, but they don’t hang out in this part of the country. (But if you’re watching the Cornell Lab FeederWatch at Sapsucker Woods live webcam, you’ll see them there every day.)


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New Lizard – I Shall Call Him ‘Tux’

Spring is springing!

It’s gotten warm again. Dr. Lizardo has finally shown up again and is lording over the front yard from his spot underneath the van’s tires, as always. I was getting a bit worried, I hadn’t seen him in about two weeks, even though there had been dozens of tiny, young hatchlings running about. There are a bunch of little dudes in the back yard as well, but today I noticed this much larger, new guy lounging in the sun.

He was cool, chillin’ (or rather, “warmin'”) on the edge of this strip of wood. I figured this would be as good of a picture of him that I would get since I expected him to bolt as soon as I looked his way.

But he stuck around, and it was immediately obvious that he has some very distinctive markings on his belly.

His belly and the underside of his arms and throat are bright white, while the rest of him is quite dark.

He let me get several steps closer before he gave me the stink eye, so I backed off. But look at those long, LONG fingers!

He looks like he’s wearing a tuxedo, so I shall call him “Tux!”

Because I can.


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Fine Feathered Friends – March 20th (Birthday Birds)

We have hummingbirds, which are the neatest little buzzbombs around, even if they are sometimes assholes when it comes time to try to photograph them. There have been numerous attempts to wait them out or sneak up on them, which have resulted in a lot of blurry photos at the feeder.

At least it’s enough to ID what species we have. As expected, there are Roufous hummingbirds (above). They have a fan-shaped tail with orange, black, and white horizontal bands on the tail.

(If anyone actually knows more about hummingbirds and can spot me getting something totally wrong, please let me know.)

There are also several of these guys. I think they’re black-chinned hummingbirds, but the Cornell Lab Merlin app identifies it as an Anna’s Hummingbird. More data is needed, obviously. Their tail is more a compact wedge, iridescent green feathers on their backs, lighter white and green on their stomachs.

I also got a lot of pictures of hummingbirds perched waaaaaaaaaaay on the other side of the yard, or twenty-five feet directly above my head.

So, yesterday I was out with the camera trying to get pictures of a new bird that I hadn’t heard before, which had a very distinctive song. As usual, I was using my big telephoto lens and taking pictures of the very nervous, skittish bird on the other side of the yard. Suddenly I heard the unmistakable buzz of a hummingbird VERY nearby. I realized I was standing about five feet from the feeder, and the green (Anna’s? Black-Chinned?) hummingbird was feeding.

The first amazing thing was that I was juuuuuust far enough away so the big lens would focus. Any closer and it would have been out of luck again. The second amazing thing was that the little hummer sat there for two or three minutes, feeding, not flying away, even with me right there. I was moving very slowly as I focused and shot picture after picture, but the little hummer just stayed there long, long after I expected it to take off for the trees.

And the pictures are…amazing. I wish there had been just a bit more light under the awning, but they prefer it to be in the shade, so…

As it took off finally, there was a tiny bit of that long, thin tongue still hanging out.

I’m going to go with this being my birthday gift from the avian community in the back yard!

Now to see if I can get some better pictures of the roufous!


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Red Winged Blackbirds

We see them here, but not up by the house, although I can hear them sometimes. There’s a marshy area down at the bottom of the hill, about a quarter mile as the crow flies, a catch basin where a stream comes out of Bell Canyon behind Castle Peak and turns into what will become the Los Angeles River in a mile or so after it joins up with a couple other streams. It’s right across the street from the baseball and soccer fields and we always heard them there when the kids were playing.

In the last week they’ve returned to the Sapsucker Woods location where the Cornell Lab FeederWatch Cam is set up. I hadn’t seen any for the first two or three months I had been watching the feed (i.e., the depths of winter) but there are quite a few of them there now. In addition to the ones that you see at the feeder, sometimes four or five at a time, you can hear them sounding off in the background almost constantly.

(Video from Cornell Lab FeederWatch Cam at Sapsucker Woods)

It’s an extremely calming noise, harkening back to time spent relaxing or exploring while camping or hiking.

Next thing to watch for – when will the ice break on Sapsucker Woods Pond?


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The Great Cicada Fiasco

The cicadas are coming again this year (And Dr. Okorafor is a most wonderful writer, in case you’ve somehow missed her work):

I have memories of seeing cicadas when I was a kid, probably when we visited relatives on the East Coast when I was a pre-teen. I was freaked out a bit by their appearance, but mesmerized and enraptured by their singing.

Eight years ago we were in Virginia Beach during one of the cicada brood’s hatching and I wrote about going cicada hunting, unsuccessfully. And while that afternoon was pleasant (family, food, wine, chocolate) the somewhat hilarious memory that always comes back to me is how the Long Suffering Niece In Training #2, sitting in the back seat, kept asking every half hour or so, “Where are we going?” She hadn’t been in on the planning but had been invited along and figured we had some sane, rational, entertaining destination in mind.

I kept replying, “We’re going hunting for cicadas,” which while 100% truthful, when combined with my (well earned) reputation as “Funcle Paul,” someone who you usually took seriously at your own risk, combined to make the question on repeated iterations, “No, REALLY, where are we going?” The fact that everyone else in the car kept giving her the same answer probably had her ready to jump out and hitchhike home.

I guess it’s sort of a bizarre, humorous take on the Cassandra story combined with the little boy who cried wolf.

So, when we eventually bailed on my quest, found a place for a nice lunch at a winery, found a specialty chocolate store, and had a wonderful time, but all without ever seeing or hearing a single cicada, The Long Suffering Niece In Training #2 still to this day probably believes that my “cicada story” was all 100% bullshit from the beginning. Even though I would, in fact, still like to see and hear the cicadas.

Probably not this year either. I guess it will just have to be more chocolate and wine (socially distanced, of course).

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The Doctor Welcomes March

Because March is warm and sunny (so far, small sample size) and Doctor Lizardo loves it when it’s warm and sunny!

Doc L is adjusting well to having a different car parked in his favorite spot. He was very used to the Volvo being there, it was lower to the ground and afforded him some protection from the “Death From Above!” hawks and crows.

Now he’s a bit more exposed, but also getting a bit more sun, so it’s a tradeoff he’s willing to make.

As before, he seems willing to let me get closer than any of the other lizards in the yard will allow.

Granted, I’m using a big telephoto lens, so I’m still 7-8 feet away, but most of them scurry as soon as I come out the front door. Not the Good Doctor!

On the other hand, let’s get real! There are limits. Take that extra half step around in front and kneel down to get a closeup? That would be a big nope, he’s ready to duck under the catalytic converter for protection. My move…

I like Doctor Lizardo, he’s my favorite, so I backed up slowly and gave him his space in the sun. Who am I to be going and harshing his mellow?

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