Category Archives: Critters

Mockingbird Invasion

Not an unknown bird, but not seen in our yard in such numbers, we’ve been invaded recently by mockingbirds.

They fly like demons, zooming and swooping all over the place, from tree to ground to chair to fence and then like a flash into the hedges.

I think there are at least two pair in the hedges separating us from the yard to our south, as well as a couple pairs in the big trees down the hill over the back.

During feeding time in the mid-morning and before sunset we’ll easily see eight or ten (or maybe more, they’re all over the place and it’s hard to track them) bombing around. This guy keeps sitting here and watching the lizards on the tree, but I’ve never seen him try to catch one.

As with the Black Phoebe we saw in July, they love the lawn chairs out on the grass. There are usually a couple on the ground and a couple up on the chair.

Some folks find their song, especially at night, to be loud and annoying. I find their ability to mimic sounds and sing incredibly complex songs for hours on end to be marvelous and musical.

Viva la mockingbirds!

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ID-ing A New Backyard Bird

It’s been a wild summer for backyard birding at the Willett compound! We had the finch nest to watch for months. We had a hummingbird nest earlier. Then came the weird call of an unknown bird, that turned out to almost certainly be a Northern Bobwhite Quail. (Never actually saw it, just heard it for a few days – haven’t heard it recently.) The owls were back a couple of nights ago, in the trees just outside our back yard, REALLY loud.

Then there are all of the other usual suspects out and about.

In the midst of all of that, a week or two ago I saw a newcomer. It took a couple of days to get some good pictures.

Slightly smaller than a mockingbird, but dark grey with an all white belly and a split tail.

Without a decent picture, the online searches and the Merlin Bird ID app can only make so-so guesses.

“About mockingbird sized, split tail, dark grey or black with white belly” comes up with a number of options.

Sometimes on the ground, often on that chair (a lot of birds are liking that spot), sometimes in the tree.

Patience is a virtue (not one of my strongest ones, for the record) and I finally got some good photos.

What are you, little guy?

Who knew, a flycatcher breed, a Black Phoebe to be specific! Not a lot of water around here, except for maybe the (usually empty) Chatsworth Reservoir a couple miles away, but maybe he wandered down from there.

Sweet! Am I supposed to be keeping a list?


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Never An Owl Around When You Need One

If it isn’t one thing, it’s another.

We’ve apparently got a gopher invasion happening. Makes it fun to wander around the yard in the dark taking pictures of comets and spacecraft.

It seems that their primary predators are coyotes, hawks, and owls, but they’re nocturnal, so I’m guessing that the owls are our best hope. We’ve got some around, so it’s time for them to get to work.

I’m “Team Silent Death From The Skies!” Where do I get the T-shirt?

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Hidden Dragon

The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft undocked from the ISS this afternoon and is on it’s way to splashdown off of Florida early tomorrow afternoon. Sometimes when the Shuttle would be coming or going from the ISS it was fairly easy to see it during a good ISS pass since it was fairly large and reflected a lot of light. The Dragon and Soyuz spacecraft are considerably smaller than Shuttle was, but if you have a good pass and they’re near the ISS, you might see them trailing along or leading, depending on their orbit.

There was a so-so ISS pass over SoCal tonight – low on the horizon, so we were seeing it through a lot of atmosphere at best, and our atmosphere is a bit hazy at the moment. While we don’t have any storms or clouds, we have plenty of smoke to go around. The fire near us from yesterday is out, but there are a handful of others around and one HUGE one that broke out this afternoon (way out in Riverside County), so the seeing is marginal.

Plus, there’s this monstrously huge source of “natural” light pollution up there tonight:

The moon is only a couple of days from full, and with that bright moonlight bouncing off of all of that smoke and haze, it’s ugly for star gazing. On the other hand, to the right of the moon is Jupiter and its moons, and to the left is Saturn and its rings, so even with binoculars it was nice to see detail in those objects.

But I did not see the Dragon. I saw the ISS and looked carefully, but couldn’t spot the Dragon. (I also looked to see if I could still spot the comet with binoculars, but struck out there also.)

While I had my Hidden Dragon, I did not see any Crouching Tiger. Which is just as well, because, you know, TIGER! The last thing I needed today was to be eaten and killed, or killed and eaten. (The order doesn’t matter to me, both are very bad.)

What I was constantly accompanied by during my astrophotographical quests of the evening were these guys:

These two finally got tired of running away every time I came out, especially since I wasn’t going to go under that honkin’ huge street light there, so they just decided to stay. There were another three or four who were just running wind sprints across the street and into the bushes every time I came out. More power to them.

Good luck coming home tomorrow, Doug and Bob! Go Dragon!


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Mystery Bird ID’d!!

Two days ago I posted an audio clip of a bird that I had never heard and it had baffled me to track it down.

The charming and wonderful and lovely Jemima Pett in the comments suggested a site that I had never heard of, Xeno-canto. I went there, made an account (it’s neat! it’s free! it’s full of bird geeks!!), uploaded my clip, and exactly as Jemima had predicted, in about three hours I had an answer. (Thanks a million, Daniel Parker!)

The unidentified bird is almost certainly a Northern Bobwhite Quail. Click on the “Sounds” tab there and listen to the first one, comparing it to mine. No doubt.

The odd thing is that the Northern Bobwhite Quail isn’t native to California, especially Southern California. In fact, they’re almost unknown anywhere west of Texas and Kansas.

That mystery was solved (probably) by Bruce Lagerquist of the Xeno-canto crew – he points out that anyone can by a couple dozen of Northern Bobwhite Quail chicks for less than $3 each. The most likely chain of events is that someone got some and this one (or maybe more) either escaped or were released.

It also answers another question – why couldn’t I see the mystery bird flying between the trees when it was obviously moving around while I was listening for it?

Because quail are ground birds, not tree perching birds. They can fly, but it was probably down running around or fluttering down on the ground in all of the pine needles, tall grass, and tumbleweeds on the hill below our house.

I’ve heard it again, off in the distance, in the last couple of days. I may grab a camera and go hunting. I have a better idea of what to look for now.

Thank you for the great suggestion, Jemima!


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Back To The Other Critters

With the finch nest empty, it’s time to note for the record that the yard is far from empty of critters.

We have so many freakin’ bunnies, it stopped being funny weeks ago. Step out of the front door about sunset and there will be at least four or five, plus the couple in the back yard. If I get lucky when I go out to stargaze after sunset, there might be eight or ten. They love the lawn – they hate me.

The lizards, however, are getting more friendly.

First of all, there are more of them. The first summer we were in here I noticed a few, which I liked, since we had dozens of them running around the yard at our old house. Last year, not so many, just a few. But this summer a lot more or back. On the 5th when I was out checking for the missing terrordactyl chicks in the bushes I must have spooked over a dozen lizard dudes.

At the old house I would always stop and talk to the lizards. Because… Whatever, either you get it or you don’t. Yes, I have friendly conversations with the lizards. They never laugh at my jokes, but neither do they diss them, so I figure I’m ahead on points. Real or not, it sure seemed to me that the lizards at the old house recognized me, realized I wasn’t a threat, and after prolonged exposure to my presence (or being stunned by my terrible Dad jokes) they wouldn’t run away unless I got really close or was somehow acting threatening.

Several of the current lizard crop seem to be displaying the same behavior. There’s one in the front yard that won’t skitter away until I’m within a yard or so, and if I stop he’ll sit there all day. (“Oh, god, not HIM again! Why is he talking to me? I just want to sit here in peace and sun my exothermic little butt! Is that too much to ask?”)

Another one in the back yard almost got stepped on by accident he was so reluctant to run away. Maybe he’s the one that likes the jokes? Or he was looking for a handout? What do you feed the lizard who has everything?

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More Bird Fun

Not necessarily with our recently departed terrordactyl chicks…


I was out in the back today, looking up in the trees at the end of our yard and into the trees down the hill. (This picture will be relevant later as well.)

There were crows out and about, at least a murder and a half, making a wonderful racket. Finches everywhere (along with the mockingbirds, humming birds, mourning doves, thrushes, sparrows, etc), with most of the finch activity being between trees and way, way up at the top of these. But I noticed a couple, maybe three, maybe more, that looked small, maybe without a full head of feathers, hopping and fluttering between branches about 25-30 feet up.

Could have been fledgling flight school. I’m just sayin’.

Meanwhile, the folks at Cornell who run the wonderful Merlin Bird ID app shared a couple of videos of their red-tail hawk fledglings, and while I don’t typically share other folks’ videos here, given the subject matter it seemed appropriate. Watch the reaction of the two siblings as gravity and a gust of wind win and life choices are questioned:

BTW, he was fine!

Back on this coast, while I was burning mean (too literally) on the Fourth of July BBQ, there was a bird call that I’ve never, EVER heard before. And it was *LOUD* and close, up in those trees that I showed you at the back edge of the hill.

I’ve condensed about five or six minutes of sound into just the parts where it was calling, about every 30-45 seconds. No clue.

But wait, there are apps that will ID bird song, right? (The Merlin app doesn’t.) So let’s run that through one of those! Right?

Canada Goose? REALLY? I mean, I’m not Audubon Society Hall of Fame candidate, but this bird was CLOSE, really LOUD, and moving around up in the trees. First of all, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Canada Goose in a tree, and if one was there and just twenty or thirty feet from me I sure as shit would have seen it!!

Shall we try again, maybe focus on that second set of calls that seem different from the first one?

Yeah, well, if I had somehow missed the Canada Goose, I still wouldn’t have missed the human being with the noise maker in the tree…

I checked the supplied sounds for the California Quail and they’re at least sort of close-ish to what I heard, but quail don’t perch in trees either.

The mystery continues…


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Empty Nest

Things happened so quickly in the last few days. They went from tiny, weird looking terrordactyls to almost full-sized birds in just a couple of days. Were they ready to leave the nest yet? I didn’t think so given what I was reading on the internet, but there’s always a large grain of salt to be taken there.

Yesterday started as normal, with three hungry mouths.

You’ll note however that “Alpha” was out of the nest completely, the first time I had seen that.

It didn’t take long before he found the limits of that ledge. And couldn’t get turned around to come back without falling off.

There was much flapping and terror, but he managed to get turned around.

Meanwhile, I know what Bravo and Charlie were telling Alpha. (I have siblings!) “You’re gonna be in SOOOOO much trouble when Mom gets back!”

By the time Mom got back, Bravo had managed to fall out of the nest and not be able to get back in. Mama Finch seemed unimpressed.

She started feeding Bravo and Charlie, which didn’t make Alpha too happy.

But she didn’t ignore him.

Eating and keeping his balance was an adventure. I kept waiting for him to fall backwards off the ledge, but he managed.

Eventually everyone got fed, but I don’t think any of the chicks EVER thought they had gotten “enough.” An alien concept to them.

Then I came out to the kitchen and saw that Alpha had lost his battle with gravity. Fortunately, there were plenty of vines there to grab on to.

But he had no idea what to do next, or where to hide when the big, bad human came out and got close with his camera.

He had a death grip on that vine and wasn’t going to let me grab him, but when I moved the vine up to be level with the beam he was happy to hop back off and sulk in his corner.

The last I saw them last night before the moonrise and fireworks, they were all back in the nest and waiting for dinner.

This morning when I got up, there was a notable absence of any fledglings in the nest. Or Mama Finch. Or any of the males.

I checked out the yard. Dozens and dozens of finches up in the trees, like there always are. They’re a long way from being an endangered species here. Along with the crows, hawks, hummingbirds, thrushes, mourning doves, mockingbirds, and seagulls.

But a quick check showed nothing in the nest except for egg #5 which never hatched. (And maybe a leg over on the left – is that what happened to egg #4?) And no activity anywhere near it all day.

I checked the bushes underneath the nest and surrounding the yard. No sign of any fledgling carcasses or fields of feathers from where a hawk or cat might have found an easy meal. I flushed out a LOT of my lizard dudes, asked them all if they had seen any birds on foot, hitchhiking by. None fessed up.

Were those three chicks ready to fly on their own? Maybe? Probably? They were pretty close, at least.

Did all of the commotion for the July 4th fireworks spook them out early? Maybe? Possibly?

This evening when the birds (and bunnies, and lizards) were all out on the lawn feeding, the birds hopping around, we didn’t see any that looked underdeveloped, but there was one that seemed smaller-ish, and he hopped off into the bushes instead of flying off. Was it one of ours?

We’ll never know.

But I’m going to tell myself that they were all ready, and the fireworks and our BBQ may have inspired them to find a safer-feeling spot in a tree, and now they’re doing their flight training and learning how to catch their own food and it’s all going to be abundant seeds and bugs (or whatever they eat) and gentle breezes and nests of their own one of these days.

Yep! That’s what happened!

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Stand For Your Dinner!

Talk about a freakin’ growth spurt!

I looked out this evening and everyone was out on the edge of the nest for feeding.

They literally look like they’re 50% bigger than they were just yesterday!

Definitely just three chicks. One unhatched egg that’s been seen, so the fate of #4 remains a mystery. We’ll see what’s in the bottom of the nest in a couple of weeks when everyone leaves.

I thought I might have spotted a fourth about two minutes later from another view, shooting through the screen door. (Thus the sort of funky quality to the image.) There were definitely four heads and everyone was looking at something over by the BBQ, so my first assumption was that Mama Finch had flown off and four chicks were waiting for her. But on closer examination, that’s obviously three chicks and Mama.

No clue was was going on at the BBQ. It wasn’t me – we’re doing our big holiday festival of fire and meat tomorrow.

(Oh, and go watch the “Hamilton” film – words can’t even describe how spectacular it is. At least, not my words.)

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Avian Domestic Dispute?

I came out of the “office” to the “break room” this morning at one point and found a whole lot of squawking going on.

These two were facing off up near the nest, with another female just below them on the vines, a male up on the crossbeam a couple feet to the right, and another on the refrigerator just outside the window I was shooting through.

I haven’t seen anything about finches raiding each others’ nests or attacking other finches’ nestlings, but that’s sure what seemed to be happening here. When they heard the clicking of the camera shutter one of the males tried to attack me and bashed himself a couple of times against the window before flying off with the third female. These two stared down each other for a minute before the one on the right flew off a couple feet.

The one on the left, presumably Mama Finch, approached the nest carefully and checked it out before hopping up and starting to feed the chicks.

Definitely looks like three chicks. There were several times today when I had a clear view of them being fed and I never saw a fourth.

They’re also starting to exercise those wings. The feathers there are almost full, while they’re still working on the rest of their plumage.

Another week before we start flying lessons? Ten days? They hatched around June 21st and it looks like 21 days “ish” is when the nestlings turn into fledglings and start to learn how to leave the nest.

Man, I really hope this COVID thing is over by then! I don’t know what I’ll do for entertainment if these guys all leave and I’m still stuck here in quarantine!

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