Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Hooded Oriole on the Tuolumne River

I got what for me is a rare sight on my morning walk today: a male Hooded Oriole (Icterus cucullatus). I've seen them nesting in the palm trees at Fox Grove where Geer Road crosses the Tuolumne several miles downstream, and I've seen one at the other end of the trail on a single occasion, but that's it.
There are a bunch of different bird species gorging themselves on wild elderberries along the trail lately: Bullock's Orioles, Robins, California Scrub Jays, Western Kingbirds, Starlings, and a few others. I've been finishing the exercise part of my walk, and then just standing under the oaks to see who's lurking nearby. Today's visitor was a pleasant surprise.

The Hooded Orioles are a migrant tropical species, and I live pretty close to the northern edge of their range. In a few weeks they will leave the area for their winter homes in Mexico.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Black-headed Grosbeak on the Tuolumne Parkway Trail

It's a real hit and miss proposition. As the summer wanes, I've been walking the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail almost every morning. On many of those days, the exercise is great, but the birds will be in hiding. On other days it will seem like every bush has an interesting bird perched in it. Three days ago I took nearly a hundred pictures. Yesterday I took none. Today was kind of a middle ground, with fifty pictures, of which about five are useful. But I was pretty thrilled with these. Apparently, the Black-headed Grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus) is not a particularly rare bird, but I've only seen it twice on previous walks, and these pictures show that I didn't get very good shots. Today I did a little bit better.
I was actually tracking some Belted Kingfishers across the Tuolumne when I noticed the female Grosbeak in the bushes of to my right only about thirty yards away. I got these pictures before it got bored with me and flew off. The grosbeaks will only be with us for a few more weeks; they are summer visitors who winter down in Mexico.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Bashful Western Tanager on the Tuolumne River

I know they are out there. I've seen them, fleeting glances as they flit among the treetops, studiously avoiding any opportunity to be captured on digital media. I'm talking about what is probably the most colorful bird found in our area (Wood Ducks notwithstanding): the Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana).  I had traveled all the way to Arizona and the Grand Canyon to catch sight of one a week or so ago, but then I was out walking along the Tuolumne River this morning, and saw that flash of color out the corner of my eye. It was feeding on elderberries on the slope covered by beavertail cacti.
I've seen them along the Tuolumne, but never got a good shot under decent light conditions. It could have been today, but the bird was feeling perfectly comfortable hiding behind the clump of elderberry leaves.

The tanagers will only be in the area for another month or so. Come winter, they will fly south into Mexico and Central America to spend the winter. Until then, I'll keep trying to capture an entire bird!

Monday, July 31, 2017

Common Nighthawk at Lava Beds National Monument

A little over 140 years ago, a bitter war was fought between the U.S. military and a small band of Modoc warriors over their desire to return to their ancestral homeland on the shores of Tule Lake in northeastern California. The Modoc people, around 50 warriors and another 100 elders, women, and children, faced off for six months against at least 600 heavily armed troops. They lost in the end, and much of their culture was lost in the ensuing forced migration to Oklahoma. It was a sad affair, and not nearly as well-known as it should be (I've written about the wars here and here).
The Modoc people spent months resisting the troops in a corner of what is now Lava Beds National Monument. The site is called Captain Jack's Stronghold, and it is a haunted place. We were there last June, looking at how geology influenced the nature of the battles that took place here. A fire burned through a couple of years ago, leaving behind only a few junipers in a copse at the trailhead parking area. I had a feeling there might be a few interesting birds hiding among the branches, and a bit of looking proved me right. There were at least two Common Nighthawks (Chordeiles minor) roosting in the trees.
One can tell from their appearance that they are not actually hawks. They have neither the talons or the beak of a raptor. I've seen a fair number of nighthawks over the years, but usually in flight at dusk or dawn when they are hard to photograph. They are real acrobats in the air, swooping and soaring after insects. They are graceful in the air, and relatively clumsy on the ground. When they are not flying, they hide out in heavy foliage where they blend in (and they were indeed hard to pick out among the shadows in the junipers. The nighthawks are summer visitors to North America. They winter all the way down in South America during the winter, which means they have one of the longest migrations of any American bird.

If you live in North America, you've probably seen the Common Nighthawk. They can fly in an erratic manner much like bats, but they are larger, and have prominent white bars on their wings.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Northern Flicker on the Tuolumne River Bluffs (along with an Acorn Woodpecker)

I was out walking on the Tuolumne River as usual this morning, and saw practically no birds until I finished and had returned to the parking area at the top of the bluffs at the west end of the hike. I was actually driving out when I saw a different bird atop the nearly dead oak (it was a Mockingbird earlier). It was a male Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus).

It didn't immediately fly away, since I was using the car as a blind. I snapped a couple of pictures, and then noticed a second woodpecker a few yards away. That was odd, because it was a different species, an Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus). I guess it was just kind of a woodpecker day.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Juvenile Western Bluebird at the Black Diamond Mine

I still catching up on the richness of birds that I've seen and photographed this summer. Back in May our Geology Club took a tour of the underground mines at Black Diamond Mine Regional Park in the Pittsburg-Antioch area of the Sacramento Delta.
As we walked up the valley towards the mine entrance, I saw a LGB (little gray bird) that I couldn't immediately identify (there are lots of little gray birds that I haven't yet learned to identify quickly). After watching it move around, I began to suspect it was a baby rather than an adult, so I started looking for the mother.
Pretty soon I spied momma, and realized that the little one was a Western Bluebird (Sialia mexicana), one of my favorites, judging from the number of posts I've put up (this is the 13th).

Black Diamond Mine was a source of coal and glass-making sands a century ago (California is not known as being much of a coal mining region, but the energy demands in the late 1800s led to the use of even marginal coal deposits). The park is a pleasant place for hiking and bird-watching. Many of the scars of the mining have faded away.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Western Tanager and Tourons at the North Rim of Grand Canyon

Photo by Mrs. Geotripper
Being in a national park can cause people to do things they normally wouldn't in any other place. For example, if you ever have the privilege to explore Yellowstone National Park, you will encounter people who are fine drivers everywhere else. But if an elk or bison is seen at the side of the road (or Heaven forbid, a Wolf or Grizzly Bear), they will screech to a stop, disregarding all other traffic, and get out to take pictures. It doesn't matter if they are blocking traffic, others will get out to see what the commotion is about anyway. After awhile, a ranger has to come along and break up the traffic mess. No wonder they've secretly adopted the term "touron". But at least I never do that kind of thing...
Can you see what caused me to stop in the middle of the highway? Photo by Mrs. Geotripper

I was at the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park these last few days, and there were thankfully no tourist traffic jams, the reason being that there were hardly any tourists (the North Rim gets only about 10% of the park's visitors; it's one of the great charms of that section of the park). And so it was that I was the one trying to start a traffic jam...and it wasn't for a wolf, or an elk, or a bison. No, it was for a bird. It happened to be the only bird that would have caused me to hit the brakes and stop in the middle of the highway: it was a Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana).
Photo by Mrs. Geotripper
There were actually two tanagers, a male and a female. It says something about the relative drabness of the female that neither me or Mrs. Geotripper caught a shot of the girl. We were under pressure though; we weren't stopping traffic, but we were on a blind curve. We grabbed our cameras and snapped as many shots as we couldn't in 45 seconds or so.

I was glad we got the pictures we did, but they can never add up to the tanager we saw back home in California on the Clark Fork of the Stanislaus River in the Sierra Nevada a few years ago. You can check out those pictures and a short video at this link: http://geotripper.blogspot.com/2014/05/up-close-and-personal-with-western.html