Saturday, March 17, 2018

An Argument for Looking Closer at Little Birds: Western Bluebirds on the West Campus

Before I  became a geologist, all rocks were gray, and there were a few crystals, but all of them were quartz. Then, a small bit of education intervened and my eyes were opened to a vast and complicated world inhabited by a dizzying array of rocks and thousands of kinds of beautiful and colorful minerals. It was a revelation that changed my life and led me into the career I've enjoyed now for more than thirty years.
Jumping ahead a few decades, birds have become my new minerals. A decade ago, I pretty much figured the birds I saw in the neighborhood and at work fell into a few categories: sparrows, pigeons, and crows. And they were little gray things, just like the rocks once were. So imagine my surprise when I found I lived in one of the more critical bird habitats in the country. Nearly a thousand bird species have been identified in the lower 48 states, and almost a third of them have been sighted at one time or another in Stanislaus County where I live. There are plenty of reasons for the biological richness: mild winters, providing shelter for many migrant species; and a wide variety of habitats, including foothills, prairies, rivers and flood plains, and mountain slopes. Despite being a rank amateur at bird watching, I soon had identified more than a hundred species.
One of my favorites of my new world are the Western Bluebirds (Sialia Mexicana), as evidenced by the fact that this is the 14th time I've posted pictures of them. They're irresistibly colorful. I saw these during my recent wanderings on the West Campus of MJC, which turns out to be a pretty good habitat for bird watching, with more than 60 species seen so far. They'll probably be headed for the hills very soon as spring arrives. They are actually more of a woodland bird in their breeding choices, and move into the Sierra Nevada or the Coast Ranges.
I'm not an expert, and my blog has become just the 300th most-read bird blog, but I've enjoyed writing about my discoveries, and I've appreciated hearing from those who have been along for the journey!

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Winsome Little Warblers of the Yellow-rumped Kind in the MJC Mini-wilderness

I see that it has been an entire month since I've posted pictures of Yellow-rumped Warblers (also called Audubon's Warblers, latin name Setophaga coronata). It's hard not to. They are attractive little birds, and they are all over our campus in west Modesto. They are one of the most common species that I see in the central plaza area of the school.
We are getting on towards spring, so they may soon be leaving for their summer breeding grounds, which could be far to the north, or possibly in higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada (I've seen them on the road to Glacier Point at elevations of almost 8,000 feet).
In the meantime, it's fun to try and get decent pictures of these extremely active foragers. I got lucky in the last few trips around the campus and caught a couple of sharp shots I was happy with.

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Last Days of Winter in the Great Valley (and a Bald Eagle)

We spent part of the weekend out at the coast, but coming home in Bay Area traffic was no fun. As we approached the Great Valley, we decided to get off the main highway and check out things at the Beckwith Road Viewing Platform, part of the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge. At times during the winter season, tens of thousands of Aleutian Cackling Geese, White-fronted Geese, Snow Geese, and Ross's Geese will congregate in the fields around the platform. But winter is almost over and the huge flocks are beginning to disappear as they begin their northward migration.

We saw just a few dozen White-fronted Geese near the platform, and saw or heard little else. If the geese were there, they were well hidden. We spent some time enjoying the rabbits at the thicket around the platform and searched for Towhees and sparrows. We were finally ready to go, so we started driving slowly east along the northern boundary of the refuge.
Photo by Mrs. Geotripper

Then we heard a lot of goose noise, and stopped again to try and see why. It didn't take long to find out why...there was a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) lurking at the edge of the pasture. I don't know if they prey on the geese, but their agitation certainly made it seem so. It turned out that there were still a few hundred Snow Geese hiding out in the distant shrubs.
I've seen a number of Bald Eagles in the last few years, but most of them have been in the Pacific Northwest. They are resident in the local region, but not overly common. I've only seen one at this spot in the past, in 2015 (see the pictures here). A check of eBird indicates a sighting of two eagles in November of 2017, but no other reports since 2016.
Bald Eagles are big birds. Really big. Cows were strolling in front of the eagle, providing a sense of scale. Their wingspan can exceed six feet, which became apparent when it took off, again in front of the cow.
It was a great ending to our weekend!

Friday, March 9, 2018

Anyone Want to Guess How Many Blackbirds?

The last part of our late February tour of the Merced National Wildlife Refuge took us across the grasslands along the north and east part of the auto-tour. We were met with quite a sight, a huge flock of birds in flight. There were thousands of them, and for the record, I didn't even try to count how many are in the picture above. They were too far away for identification, at least by me (I am open to suggestions), but I would suspect Brewer's Blackbirds, European Starlings, or possibly Red-winged Blackbirds.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Ross's Geese at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge: Preparing for a long journey north...

They are still there by the thousands, but not for very much longer. The Ross's Goose (Anser rossii) spends winters at a few select refuges in California's Great Valley, but when spring arrives, they will migrate thousands of miles north to the Arctic. Their favored breeding grounds are on Baffin Island, the shoreline of Hudson Bay, and the shore of the Arctic Sea.

The Ross's Goose is smaller than most goose species but they are very similar in appearance to the Snow Goose. Both are completely white except for the black wing tips, but the beak of the Ross's is pink. The Snow Goose beak is pink on top, but with a black outline around the "lips". It doesn't help that they like to gather together with Snow Geese in huge flocks.

We got these pictures at one of our favorite places in the Great Valley, the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. There were hundreds of them visible from the autotour route, but there may have been several thousand hidden in the interior of the refuge. But not for very much longer. Like the Sandhill Cranes, they are getting restless, and ready to fly to their summer homes.


Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Great-tailed Grackle at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Great-tailed Grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus) were originally confined to semitropical environments, but they do very well with humans and irrigated fields, and their range has expanded northward even as many other birds have declined precipitously. Although our region is north of the "official" range of the bird, I've seen them regularly on the campus at CSU Stanislaus. Their arrival is an omen of spring. It was still late February when I saw this female at the Bittern Marsh Trail at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. They aren't the ones with the "great tail". It's just long. The tale of the male is just ridiculous (check it out here).

PS: I noticed that this is my 500th post at Geotripper's California Birds! It doesn't get nearly the traffic that Geotripper gets, but I appreciate everyone who stops by.

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Sleeping Owl Awakes: Western Screech Owl at Enslen Park

Now that I know where it hangs out, it takes no time at all to check on the little Western Screech Owl (Megascops kennicottii) when I am running errands in town. I drove by today, and it was still in the same hollow, but this time it was awake.
I am struck by how well this little owl is camouflaged. I walked right by the tree the first time I was looking for the owl. I only barely saw it on the second try, and then only after having seen pictures showing the size and species of tree.