Friday, July 13, 2018

Rufous Hummingbird in Florence, Oregon

We are on the road again (that's what geo-tripping is all about). We're along the Oregon coastline finding a way to stay cool, and have found ourselves in Florence. I was walking to the Harbor Vista County Park when a hummingbird caught my eye. Hummingbirds are generally a tropical species, so I tend to expect just one or two possible species this far north, primarily an Anna's. But this one had gold tones, so I realized right away I had spotted a Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus).
The Rufous Hummingbird is a world-class migrant, traveling nearly 4,000 miles from southern Mexico to Canada and Alaska. I've seen them only a few times, once last spring on the Tuolumne River (definitely a migrant), once in Southern California (a winter shot), and now I can add a summer sighting in the Pacific Northwest.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Green Heron on the Tuolumne River, and a bit of "Where's Waldo?"

There are at least two Green Herons (Butorides virescens) who lurk along my section of the Tuolumne River where I walk most mornings. I've been observing them for three years now, but pictures are a bit rare because they tend to flush as I walk by on the trail. They're usually flying overhead.
Yesterday I was quietly stepping down to the river shore and saw one of them perched downstream maybe sixty yards away. It must have felt hidden from sight, because for once it didn't fly off. I got some nice zoomed shots before retreating into the brush.

I took an "establishing shot" and as I looked at it later, I realized how lucky I was to spot it. Can you see it in the picture below?

Say's Phoebe Babies at the Palm Springs Art Museum

It's kind of interesting that practically that only occupied nests I've seen lately were those of Say's Phoebes (Sayornis saya). I haven't seen any on the home trail yet this year, but I saw several on the Colorado Plateau trip last month, and both were attending to nests. This was also true the previous summer at Pecos National Monument in New Mexico. Then last week I had occasion to be in Southern California, and while touring the sculpture garden at the Palm Springs Art Museum I didn't see the nest, but I saw the recently fledged chicks badgering momma for food.
The birds did not seem overly concerned over our presence. It was a cooler day than normal in Palm Springs, just 103 degrees or so, and perhaps they were more concerned with enjoying the balmy weather.
Say's Phoebes are members of the tyrant flycatcher family. Their name describes them well, as they live almost exclusively on insects. Like the other flycatchers, they like to perch and fly out to capture their prey before returning to their perching spot.
The Say's Phoebes are tropical denizens for much of the year, although many migrate north in the summer for breeding. According to EBird, they range farther north than any other flycatcher. They are resident non-migrating birds in the desert southwest (which by coincidence is where I've seen a lot of them).

Friday, July 6, 2018

The Bird That I Don't Get to See: Green-tailed Towhee at Mesa Verde National Park

There are some birds, well, really a lot of birds that I don't get to see. At least not when I'm on the home turf along the Tuolumne River. Now, this makes a certain amount of sense, considering that the United States is home to more than 1,100 species of birds, and only 306 of them have ever been sighted in our county. But some species are more unfair than others. Take a look at the distribution map below. It's for the Green-tailed Towhee (Pipilo chlorurus). See how a long white barren strip runs down the Central Valley, but orange (breeding), and blue (non-breeding) areas completely surround our valley? I looked it up, and in 2013 one poor individual wandered down into our county and was immediately set upon by dozens of birders!

Luckily though, I've been given the opportunity to do a lot of traveling, and when we camped at Mesa Verde National Park last month, I was privileged to see a pair of the Green-tailed Towhees in our campsite. Apparently this was a rare enough sight as well since these Towhees more often hide deep in thick underbrush and aren't seen all that often.
One would think that such a distinctive bird with the rufous colored crown and the green tail would be a quick identification, but I am still pretty slow-witted when it comes to tracking down species names. I actually did guess that it was a kind of sparrow (Towhees are large sparrows), but I skipped right past the Towhees in the Sibley's guide. I'll know better if another one comes wandering out of the Sierra Nevada and pays a visit to the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail...

Thursday, July 5, 2018

A Gray-Headed Dark-Eyed Junco on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon

Our trip across the Colorado Plateau last month was a geology field studies course, not a bird-watching expedition. But when I could step away from teaching duties I found what birds I could. On Grand Canyon's North Rim, it's been a very dry year and I didn't see all that many birds, but there were a few. The most unfamiliar was the Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis), which is ironically one of the most common birds in North America.
The reason that this particular bird was unfamiliar to me is that it doesn't look much at all like the Juncos that I see elsewhere. There are quite a few regional subspecies of this bird, and the Gray-headed subspecies (Junco hyemalis caniceps) is not found in my region. The genetic code of these little sparrows must be rather malleable! One does wonder why the variants aren't considered separate species.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Finally Found Them! Hooded Orioles on the Tuolumne River

Some birds just don't want to be found, which is perfectly understandable. But a bird that is as brightly colored as a Hooded Oriole (Icterus cucullatus) seems to be begging to be seen, but the species simply isn't all that common around here. It's more of a tropical species, and something like 98% of them spend winters in Mexico, and only half of them come over the border to breed in the U.S., primarily in the southwest desert regions, especially places rich in palm trees.
I've seen Hooded Orioles on parts of the Tuolumne River, but despite keeping careful watch for the last few months, I had not seen any this year. It turns out that palm trees are the key to finding them, at least on the river trail. The palms are where they build their unique hanging basket nests. There aren't any palm trees on the main trail, but there are several in yards on the bluff adjacent to the trail near the water treatment plant. I saw the flash of yellow and the curved beaks, and realized I'd finally found an Oriole family. The immature male was chasing mom around like a hungry teenager.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Woodhouse's Scrub Jay at Zion Naitonal Park

All of my California friends will look at this bird and say that it's just a scrub jay, just like the ones in our backyard, and until 2016 this would have been true. The Western Scrub Jay was the name given these blue corvids, but there were some consistent regional differences, and in 2016 those who decide such things divided the species into two. One of them is the California Scrub Jay, the one that populates the Golden State and the other Pacific coast states (as well as Baja). But in the southwest states, the bird is now known as the Woodhouse's Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii).
We were at Zion National Park in early June, and saw this one at the Pa'rus Trail bridge over the Virgin River. The Woodhouse's Scrub Jay has been isolated from the California Scrub Jay by the coastal mountains and deserts, and the birds have evolved to utilize different food sources, with the California species preferring acorns, and the Woodhouse's species going after pine nuts (they all will eat insects and fruits at The Woodhouse's is a less intense shade of blue with a grayer breast than the California bird.