Our Wild Side: Birds and Bees

Words by Robert Siegel

Photos by Robert Siegel

Here on the Peninsula, natural wonders come in all shapes and forms. Whether it’s in your own backyard or the habitats around us, you’ll find countless discoveries when you get out and explore. In honor of Valentine’s Day, we offer this timely tribute to “the birds and the bees,” along with some pro tips for capturing the action. 

This is a male valley carpenter bee (Xylocopa sonorina) captured in flight in the Stanford Arizona Cactus Garden. By comparison, the female is black, so these bees exhibit an example of sexual dimorphism of color. Along with the knowledge that these bees often hover near the same area, this photo required making sure that the light was on the bee, a high shutter speed, a fair amount of patience and a lot of luck.
This striking cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) is happily situated in a Washington Hawthorn tree on the Stanford campus. The waxwings arrive in a large flock to gorge on the red berries that remain after the leaves have dropped. Given the amount of fruit that each bird consumes, it is amazing they can even fly away. Although the birds are fairly jittery, if I am still, they will eventually return, largely ignoring my presence. In my explorations, I find it helpful to think of nature as a clock. Having observed them a year earlier, I specifically went back to look for the waxwings here.
This western honey bee (Apis mellifera) is collecting pollen from the flowers of the succulent Sedum dendroideum in Stanford’s Arizona Garden. As important pollinators and honey producers, honey bees benefit humans in many ways. They are also very willing photographic subjects—ideal for practicing close-up photography.
The spotted towhee (Pipilo maculates) is a year-round native in the Bay Area. They tend to be a bit shy, foraging among the underbrush. Occasionally, they will loudly proclaim their presence from the top of a fence or bush, allowing the prepared photographer to grab a photo.
Anna’s hummingbird (Calypte anna) is the most common hummingbird on the Peninsula. It is named after Anna Massena, the Duchess of Rivoli, and you can often tell when it is around by its distinctive vocalizations. I spotted this minute nest in a tangle of wisteria branches just outside my back door. It’s a structural wonder woven of soft fibers and lichen and will become quite crowded before the chicks fledge.
Although not strictly a bee, the European paper wasp (Polistes dominula) is in a closely related family of insects. Like yellow jackets, this very successful invader uses distinctive “aposematic coloring” to announce: “Beware of me.” These wasps form social colonies, but unlike honey bees, not all of the members are genetically related.
The American avocet (Recurvirostra americana) can be found along the shores of the Bay, often sweeping their long bills through shallow water to forage for prey. As mating season rolls around, avocets undergo an impressive change in the color of their plumage. Within hours of hatching, the “precocial” chicks are up and feeding on their own.