Yard Birds

King of the perch

The Western Kingbirds arrive in the spring like college freshmen – in large, noisy groups. They mob the acacia tree in the backyard next door, raising a racket and swooping through the yard on their way to another neighbor’s tree. The Hesper aloe stalks that we leave undisturbed next to the stream are a favored perch (the better to see you, my pretty flying insects …). Members of the flycatcher family, they sally forth in looping flight patterns, snatching prey mid flight before landing, often in the place from which they took off.

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Field marks: Gray head, flycatcher bill, pale yellow abdomen, narrow white feathers at edges of tail.

They stick around the neighborhood through the fall, but when the heat slams down like a sledgehammer they pretty much disappear from the yard. Maybe they have other campsites that they like better in summer. Or, maybe their behavior changes! The bird that visited the stream this morning made me wonder about that. Why was he alone? Is flocking a breeding behavior?

After moving these images from camera to Photoshop, I noticed that this bird looked a little bedraggled.  The feathers are missing in a spot on his upper abdomen, under his left wing, where there appears to be a wound. Before I grabbed the camera, I watched him with binoculars as he bathed in the waterfall, then preened his feathers in the fan palm at the back of the yard. Those would have been beautiful shots: wing feathers spread like fingers, beak combing through chest plumage. But maybe part of that grooming ritual was wound care. That’s when the thought occurred to me: was he alone because Kingbirds disperse after nesting? Or was he alone because he was injured?

He appeared strong, so I’m hoping that he’s recovering and will be ready to fly with his mates to Southern Mexico and Central America in October.

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Wound under the left wing

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Watching for insects from his perch above the pool at the top of the waterfall

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Happy Hatchday

Last Friday husband Steve noticed that the big pot outside of our front door had been transformed into a nursery. Sheltered by the French lavender, a Gambel’s Quail couple had made a nest for about a dozen eggs.  Two years ago, one of the pots on our back patio was home to a similar family, and we watched it for weeks, anticipating the birth day. This year we didn’t have long to wait.

The eggs hatched the next day, and one by one, the tiny fluff balls hopped to the lip of the pot and threw themselves over. It’s a big pot – three feet high – but these two-inch babies didn’t hesitate to leap and no one appeared to be hurt on impact. After a minute of confused scrambling, they ran to meet Mom, who was calling to them from a bush. With our kitchen under construction, workmen were coming and going through the front door, until we noticed the father quail frantically herding his chicks to the side. After that the door was closed for the couple hours it took for the family to move on.

These quail are a good example of precocial birds. Precocial (the word shares its root with precocious) birds emerge of the egg at least partially self-sufficient, in contrast to altricial birds, who are naked and helpless at hatch. Gambel’s Quail still need their parents for protection, but they can run and find their own food immediately after birth. It’s not an easy childhood, though.

Gambel’s Quail are monogamous, and I’d like to think this is the same pair we hosted two years ago, although probably not. The front door was a superior nesting site compared to the patio, because the bushes across the front of the house provide cover. Two years ago, the chicks born on our patio made a perilous dash across the pool deck to join their parents, a display that caught the attention of the neighborhood grackles. I watched, horrified, as a grackle flew to their hiding spot, strutted boldly in and flew away with a chick in his bill. By the next morning, the family had moved on, but there were still nine chicks left in the pot.

Chicks have one opportunity to leave the nest and join their parents out in the world. Late hatchers and the timid get left behind, and unless they are lucky and are rescued, they die. Fortunately, we were watching over them and we located a wildlife rehabilitator in the neighborhood who took them under her wing. All but one survived to grow up and get released on South Mountain. I love happy endings!

This year seemed to go much better, although dangers lurk for the first weeks. Our brood is down to six. One of our workmen witnessed a woodpecker snatch a baby and fly off to a tree yesterday.

Unfortunately, my camera was in the shop getting its nails done on hatching day, so the baby book is incomplete. But I got it back yesterday, and this morning I caught Dad with the brood, moving around the yard looking for bugs. If they stick around I’ll post more photos as they grow up.