Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Spring Shines Through

It's darkest before the dawn, as the saying goes. That has certainly been the case here, with nearly-constant rain and headache-inducing gray skies for the past month. But despite all of the meteorological evidence pointing to the contrary, spring has still managed to break through.

One of the telltale signs of Old Man Winter's demise is the molt of the male American Goldfinch into its bright yellow and black breeding plumage (above). The individual photographed above was a sight for sore eyes on a dreadful mid-March morning. And to make things all the merrier, American Goldfinches have begun flocking in numbers of 15-20 over the past couple of weeks. The bright yellow flocks are a nice way to drive away the gray overcast skies. And speaking of plumage change, I was almost shocked to see an Audubon's subspecies Yellow-rumped Warbler in full breeding plumage hawking insects in the backyard a couple of weeks ago. I can't recall the last time that I saw one advanced this far into its molt before April. This individual is the third Yellow-rumped Warbler to hang out in our yard this winter.

This breeding plumage "Audubon's" Yellow-rumped Warbler has become a regular.

One of the more interesting plumage changes observed recently was that of a second-year White-crowned Sparrow. This individual has been hanging around on-and-off since January. The molt from juvenile to adult plumage is shown in the sequence below. Note the coloring of the crown...

March 12

March 19

March 23

Now, I didn't band this individual, so I can't tell you that it's the same individual beyond the shadow of a doubt. But given the relative lack of White-crowned Sparrows in my neighborhood, the odds of two different molting second-years frequenting my yard is pretty small. The above photos are most likely the same bird.

Of course, mid-March also kicks off the beginning of spring migration. A week and a half ago, a beautiful orange male Rufous Hummingbird was spotted in our butterfly bushes. This individual also visited one of our nectar feeders later that day. However, I have not seen a Rufous Hummer since, indicating that this individual may have been one of the earlier migrants to reach the area. Hopefully I will have multiple Rufous photos to show you next month. My wife may have spotted an Orange-crowned Warbler this afternoon, but couldn't confirm the ID.

One of the more prominent features of early migration season is local movement. That is, individual birds preparing to move to their breeding grounds (which may be several hundred miles away, or just a couple of miles away). Over the past week and a half, we've been visited by several species that were either infrequent visitors or completely absent in our yard this winter. The Lesser Goldfinch shown above was the first since November. Other recent infrequent visitors have included a Townsend's Warbler, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and a Golden-crowned Sparrow. This past weekend, a pair of Chestnut-backed Chickadees stopped in for a bite, presumably on their way to their coniferous breeding grounds in the foothills. And just this morning, a small flock of Cedar Waxwings briefly perched in the neighbor's apple tree. These latter two species had not been observed in the yard since October.

A recent arrival, this Golden-crowned Sparrow forages for bits of sunflower seed.

This transient Chestnut-backed Chickadee stops in for some peanuts.

A Ruby-crowned Kinglet briefly poses for a photograph.

The "regular" visitors have also been out in full force. Dark-eyed Juncos are still hanging around in double-digit numbers. Bushtit flocks have diminished to single-digit numbers, but they're still hitting up the suet feeders frequently. Red-winged Blackbirds have increased in frequency since early February, to the point where I'm typically seeing 2-3 per weekend. Downy Woodpeckers and Northern Flickers have also been visiting more frequently over the past month or so. Pine Siskins have also been regular in small numbers, mixed in with the goldfinch flocks. One of the three male Purple Finches that I've hosted this winter (the only completely healthy one) has also morphed into something of a regular over the past few weeks. I'm seeing him at least once a day now. This has definitely been a banner winter for Purple Finches. I've never hosted them this frequently before.

One of two "Slate-colored" Dark-eyed Juncos that wintered in our neighborhood

This second-year male Red-winged Blackbird has become a daily visitor.

Despite being sometimes pushed around by the more dominant Yellow-rumped Warblers, this "Myrtle" subspecies individual still frequently visits the suet feeders.

Our regular male Purple Finch hangs out in the neighbor's apple tree before feeding on sunflower.

A Pine Siskin feeds on a rare sunny afternoon.

Of course, movement works both ways. When some species visit, others go on their way. The two Song Sparrows that visited regularly and frequently this season are apparently gone now. I have not seen either for over two weeks. There has also been a slight drop-off in Varied Thrush numbers. They're still here frequently throughout the day, but I'm seeing more like 2-3 at a time now, instead of 4-5. That said, I can't complain, as this was easily the best Varied Thrush winter I've ever experienced.

At the risk of going too far off topic, this post is being brought to you by my new 13" MacBook Air (above). With my 2007 15" MacBook Pro experiencing several issues and providing a weak of 1.5 hours of battery life, I decided to spend my bonus money on a new laptop. Rather than pay $2,000 for one of the new MacBook Pros with a solid-state drive and a matte screen, I decided to scale down to a more reasonably-priced 13" model. I miss the extra real estate a bit when I edit photos, but the 13" screen is easily enough for everything else (especially since the Air's screen has the same 1440 x 900 resolution as the Pro). I was originally going to go with the new 13" Pro, but I'm not a fan of the highly-reflective glass screens and the inferior 1280 x 800 resolution. There are a host of other reasons why I went with the Air over the 13" Pro, but I don't want to get bogged down in that. What I will say is that the trade-off in raw power is more than compensated for by the far superior user experience of the Air. Despite it having no optical drive, no FireWire, and only two USB ports, my only real complaint is the lack of a backlit keyboard.

In terms of relevance to this blog, I've found the Air to be more than adequate in handling my primary photo editing apps, Lightroom 3 and Photoshop CS4. I am sure that the Pro's multi-core i5 and i7 processors load and manipulate large RAW files a lot faster than the Air's relatively dinky Core 2 Duo. And that may make a difference if you're a professional photographer and edit hundreds or thousands of files at once. But if you're a hobbyist/enthusiast, this likely won't be a problem for you. I dump my Canon 7D's 25 MB RAW files directly onto an external RAID system and edit them directly from that location via a USB connection. Sure, editing them directly from my laptop's hard drive would be faster, but the trade-off in speed isn't enough to overcome the inconvenience of having to move files to another drive after I edit them. (Incidentally, I noticed only a slight drop-off in throughput when editing RAW files via FireWire 800 and USB 2.0 connections on my old MacBook Pro.) This setup also allows me to get by with a smaller laptop hard drive, which is handy if you're paying top dollar for a solid-state drive. What you lose in processing power from the Air is also (partially) made up for in drive read/write speed. The Air's proprietary solid-state drives are blazing fast. Not surprisingly, the less processor-needy apps that I use at work (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Acrobat) all run extremely well on this computer. Oh, and did I mention that it only weighs 2.9 lbs? That comes in handy if you use it both at work and at home. So if you're looking for an affordable Mac (an oxymoron, I know) and aren't into gaming or hardcore HD video editing, definitely take a look at the Air. Despite its size, it's a legit primary computer. One piece of advice: definitely pay the extra $100 to upgrade to 4 GB of RAM. You can never have too much RAM.

OK, enough rambling for now. I'll see you next month, hopefully with more migrant photos.