Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Acorn Woodpecker at Sequoia National Park

I have such a backlog of bird pictures accumulated in the last three weeks. I've been to the Cascades of Northern California, the Merced National Wildlife Refuge, and Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks, and there are riches at each. And I have so little time available, having reached the middle of the semester...

The Sequoia trip was the most recent, and we didn't actually see a great many birds, but at our first stop in the park, one of my students noticed the Acorn Woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus) in the trees above our vehicles. We were at the Foothills Visitor Center in the lower elevations of the park where the vegetation is dominated more by oak trees and chaparral. That's the ideal habitat for the woodpeckers. They have plenty of acorns, and lots of large "granary trees" where they drill thousands of holes to store their nutty treasures. They are very social birds, and generate a lot of noise as they chase through the tree tops. They are among my favorites.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Loggerhead Shrike at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

While we were driving past the Tule Elk enclosure at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge last weekend, a Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) landed on the nearby fence to see what we were up to. I don't see them that often, and it is rare for me to get any decent shots of any (there was this one time last year, though).

The Loggerhead Shrike is related to the songbirds, but behaves like a small raptor, eating large bugs, amphibians, small reptiles and mammals, and even other small birds. According to the Cornell Ornithology site, their population has been in a steep decline, perhaps due to ingestion of pesticides in their prey.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

It's Fall! The Cedar Waxwings are Passing Through

It's one of the signs of the changing of the seasons: every fall and spring, the Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) migrate through our region on their way to Mexico and Central America (fall) or the Pacific Northwest and southern Canada (spring). I was walking along the Tuolumne River this afternoon when I saw an unfamiliar bird flit through the oak tree. I tried to see where it was perching and slowly realized that there were quite a few of them hidden among the branches. I got these couple of pictures before a flock of 20-25 took off and headed east.

They've perched occasionally in my flowering pear tree in the front yard allowing me to get some close-up photos. I'll keep you posted!

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Sandhill Cranes Are Back in California!

It's a moment I enjoy, the first journey out to our local wildlife refuge to see the returning Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis). The first few hundred have arrived at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge in California's Great Valley. Within weeks they will number more than 10,000. The cranes have been spending the summer in northern climes, as far away as Alaska.
They are grand birds with a huge wingspan. They graze in the grasslands looking for seeds and grains, but are not averse to the taking of an occasional amphibian or invertebrates.
The birds are famous for their complex mating dances. I got a few moments of some of them at practice this afternoon. It was pretty far away so there are heat waves and all, but it was fun to watch.

The Merced National Wildlife Refuge is a valuable part of the system of refuges that line the Central Valley. 95% of the original environment of the Great Valley has been consumed by agricultural and urban development with the attendant loss of habitat for millions upon millions of birds.
The refuges provide critical food resources and protection from predators and accidents. It's not just for the 15,000 or so cranes. Tens of thousands of Snow and Ross's Geese spend the winter in the refuges. There are hundreds of year-round resident species as well. Those are Black-necked Stilts in the foreground of the picture above.
The Sandhill Cranes mate for life, and they can live a long time. According to the ever-useful Cornell bird site, they can live in the wild for more than thirty years.
The birds are doing well overall, but some individual populations are threatened by habitat loss.
The call of the Sandhill Crane is hard to describe, sort of a low-pitched trill, but it can carry for a long distance. I've heard them clearly, and looked for them, only to find that they are thousands of feet up in the sky, or half a mile or more away across the fields.
It was wonderful to see them at home today!

Friday, September 30, 2016

American Kestrel and California Scrub Jay on the Tuolumne River

Lots of travels lately, so I haven't had many chances to explore the river in my own backyard, much less post pictures of birds in general. But this morning I got the chance and almost immediately noticed an American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) in the top of one of the dead oak trees. That wasn't unusual, but it was being mobbed a bit by two or three California Scrub Jays (Aphelocoma californica). I don't know what they were arguing about, but they all flew away when I walked under the tree.

You haven't heard of a California Scrub Jay before? That might be because it has only been a species for less than a year. Those in charge of such things decided in 2016 that two races or subspecies of the Western Scrub Jay were actually distinct species. The California Scrub Jay ranges across the coastal mountains of Baja, California, Oregon and Washington, while the Woodhouse's Scrub Jay ranges across the interior states of Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. The California Jays have a slightly hooked beak that allows for attacking acorns while the Woodhouse's beak is straighter, allowing them to dig out pine nuts from cones.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Sharp-shinned Hawk on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail

I got back out on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail this morning. There weren't many birds out, or otters for that matter, but I stopped a moment in a big clump of Elderberry bushes. I've probably found seven or eight species of birds feeding on the berries, but there didn't seem to be any birds today. I backed out and was startled by an unexpectedly large bird bursting out of the far end. I saw the barred tail and knew it wasn't a Red-tailed Hawk. It was also too small for that.

It landed in the big cottonwood downstream and I got a couple of shots. Cooper's and Sharp-shinned Hawks can be very similar in appearance, especially the juveniles. My best conjecture is that it was a Sharp-shinned Hawk because the end of the tail is straight instead of curved. I'm always open to correction, however. It's the first one I've seen on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail (I saw one a year ago on the San Joaquin River).

Monday, September 12, 2016

Mountain Quail at Columns of the Giants

We took a short trip up the Stanislaus River this afternoon, taking a short hike to the Columns of the Giants. The columns are volcanic in nature, similar to Devil's Postpile, or the Giant's Causeway in Ireland. Along the way, we spotted a new bird (to me). It was fairly large, moving through the underbrush. I thought immediately of California Quail, but I thought maybe we were a bit high for them (a check of the e-bird map confirmed this).
It was only a moment before I realized that I had encountered a covey of at least a dozen of them. Later, I was able to identify them as Mountain Quail (Oreortyx pictus). Like the California Quail, it is a bird of the far western United States, with a range from northern Baja to the Canadian border and only barely extending into Idaho. Their habitat includes shrubby vegetation in mountainous areas. It has not been reported in my home area in the Great Valley.
They crept slowly up the granite boulders above the trail, and several kept an eye on us from the top of the small ridge. Then they disappeared into the trees, but called out for a while longer. We moved on up the trail.