Wednesday, September 19, 2018

How to Tell a Great Egret from a Snowy Egret (and others)

If you have trouble distinguishing between heron species, you are not alone! It helps though, if two of the species happen to be foraging next to each other. That happened today at Willow Lake on the campus of CSU Stanislaus. The Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) and Great Egret (Ardea alba) are similar in shape and coloration, but the details are definitely different. The Great Egret is larger, has a yellow bill, and black legs and feet. The Snowy Egret is smaller, has a black bill, has green legs and yellow feet. Cattle Egrets (the picture below is from Honolulu in Hawaii) are also white, but combine a yellow bill with yellow legs, and in breeding season, they have some buff-colored feathers on their head and back. The Great and Snowy Egrets are native to North America. The Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) arrived in the Americas in the late 1800s and spread to North America in the late 1940s. They are common now all the way north into Canada.

Also, as can be seen below, Great Egrets get the joke quicker than a Snowy Egret!

Monday, September 17, 2018

Dabbling in the Mud: Snowy Egret on the Tuolumne River

I was walking the Tuolumne River the other morning, and saw a Snowy Egret searching for food in the shallows. They have an interesting way of procuring food, shaking their feet in the mud to stir up crustaceans, fish, and insects.

I don't see them all that often on the Tuolumne River where I walk most mornings, only three times so far. They are beautiful graceful creatures who were almost driven to extinction early in the last century. Their wispy feathers that develop in the breeding season were once worth their weight in gold, which made them a huge target for hunters. The fight for their protection was one of the earliest environmental battles in U.S. history. It's nice that they made it.
I didn't get any closer to the bird on the Tuolumne, but there is a Snowy Egret that hangs out at Willow Pond on the campus of CSU Stanislaus, and I got a few closeups last week (it's a bit more acclimated to people than the ones I see in the wild).

Monday, September 10, 2018

One of These is Not Like the Others: Brown Pelicans (and odd friend) at the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge

It was an interesting day for the watching of flying things. We were at the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, which is a critical urban wetlands environment on the east side of San Francisco Bay. Much of the refuge is former salt ponds that are being reclaimed as natural salt marshes. It is an island of nature in the midst of an urban area that includes an approach to Oakland Airport so we didn't see just birds flying overhead. One surprise was the approach of the world's largest transport plane, the Antonov AN-225 Mriya. The wingspan is about the length of a football field. Then there was the overflight of some two dozen Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis), accompanied by a very small or very distant airliner.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Canada Jay on Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park

Here's a tough little bird. It lives in cold northern climates, going so far as to nesting in the depths of the winter season. I've only seen them a few times because I don't live in a place where they hang out, although they are common enough within their range. They're willing to eat any available food and will steal to get it (one of their nicknames is "Camp Robber"). It's the Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis), which only a year ago was officially called the Gray Jay (The American Ornithological Society is apparently empowered to do such things).

I saw this one while we explored the picnic areas on Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park. It's one of the most stunning viewpoints in the country, with the scenery made even better by the rich variety of wildlife species present.

Monday, September 3, 2018

A Near-California Endemic, the California Towhee on the Tuolumne River

Endemic that is, if we are talking about all of California, Alta and Baja, and also count a bit of southern Oregon. California doesn't have all that many true endemics, primarily the Yellow-Billed Magpie, and the Channel Islands Scrub Jay. It seems odd to me that this is so because of the great geographic barrier presented by the Sierra Nevada and Peninsular Range, as well as the harsh deserts that lie to the east. That's the way it is, but the California Towhee (Melozone crissalis) is an example of the isolation of a bird type that leads to speciation. There is a very similar bird that lives across the southwest, the Canyon Towhee, along with the Abert's Towhee. The Canyon was once considered that same as the California, but they are isolated from each other and have changed. There is also a very small population (~200 individuals) in the Argus Mountains near Death Valley (the Inyo California Towhee) that also show differences.

The California Towhee that I spied and photographed was hunting in the fig trees along the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail the other day. They are a large species of sparrow, and often hunt for seeds by scrabbling in the dirt, sparrow-style. That's what this one was doing until I bumbled along the trail and scared it up into the shrubs. But it was nice enough to pose for a few minutes.

Monday, August 27, 2018

The Flying Jewels of the Tuolumne River, the Hummingbirds

Our local environment hosts around five species of hummingbirds, although the Calliope or Costa's Hummingbirds have rarely been sighted (especially not by me). But hummingbirds are common in the area, as the moderate climate provides at least some food during the winter, and plentiful food during other parts of the year.
The Black-chinned Hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri) is a summertime visitor, and they've been regulars at our backyard feeders. I was sitting on the porch last evening and had this one checking me out. They are characterized by...a black chin! But it is the purple iridescence of their head and neck feathers that makes them look like flying amethyst crystals in the right light. I've only caught the color a few times in images.
The Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) is a fall and spring migrant in our region. The rich golden color is distinctive. They've been reported at only four other locations in our county so far this fall, but I've been following a small crowd of them in the wild tobacco shrubs near the Waterford water treatment plant, and a little ways downstream. I saw the first ones on August 7, and they are continuing to argue with each other right up through this afternoon. These flying gold nuggets will be missed when they move on south soon.
The Rufous Hummingbirds have a long migration, traveling from Alaska to Mexico with the seasons. When considering their size, their migration is the longest of any bird. Some birds go farther, but the Rufous travels 78 million body lengths; for a human, that would be just over three trips around the world!
The resident hummingbird in our region is the Anna's Hummingbird (Calpte anna). That makes hummingbird identification during the winter rather simple. They have a magenta iridescence when it is visible.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

The Fall Migrants are Arriving: Western Wood-Pewee on the Tuolumne River

It's still August, but there's the hint of a slight chill early in the morning, and some of the fall migrations are just getting started. On today's walk on the Tuolumne River, the sighting was of a juvenile Western Wood-Pewee (Contopus sordidulus). It seemed as curious about me as I was of it as it hopped around on bushes only 30 feet or so away.

The young bird has a long road ahead, as it will be migrating to South America. According to eBird, the Eastern and Western species of Wood-Pewee are definitely distinct genetically, but aside from their calls they are pretty much identical in appearance. They don't intermingle much in the areas where their ranges overlap in the north, but no one knows if they do so in their southern winter homes. And they don't sing much in the winter!