Sunday, January 20, 2019

A Spectacular Duck: Hooded Mergansers at Lake Washington

I'm sure they've been around in the distance these last few years. They are not rare birds, but for some strange reason I never saw a Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) until late 2017 when I saw a few females in the distance on the Siuslaw River in Oregon. I saw no more until last November and December during my holiday travels, when I made seven separate sightings.
I saw them first on the Siuslaw River in Florence (again), but they were off in the distance and I wasn't able to get much in the way of pictures. But when we arrived in the Seattle area I had a chance to walk along the shores of Lake Washington each morning while we were there. And there was a flock of them that didn't scurry away while I walked past on the walkway. I finally got some half-decent shots.
There is a huge contrast between males and females of the species. The males are the ones with the big white spots behind the eyes. As can be seen, the feathers can be raised to form a very prominent crest. The females are a little more drab, but they can raise their feathers to form a crest the same way.
The Hooded Mergansers are rather famous for having precocious chicks. The ducks nest in hollows in trees up to 50 feet above the ground, and within 24 hours of hatching the chicks jump out of the nest, falling to the forest floor. At that point they gather and follow mom to the nearest body of water.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Being Stalked by an American Kestrel on the Tuolumne River

I've had some nice interactions with certain birds of late. Of course the goal in birdwatching is to avoid pestering the birds or changing their behavior because of your presence. But in the cases lately (the Red-tailed Hawk, and the Ring-billed Gull) the birds were perched just above the trail or walkway and I couldn't avoid walking by.

I see two or three American Kestrels (Falco sparverius) almost every time I walk the Tuolumne Parkway Trail where the river leaves the Sierra Foothills. Two of them seem to be a pair. And they are usually pretty skittish, flying off even when I am still far away. Today, the male watched me as I approached, but I kept my head down and didn't stop until I was past. I slowly turned around and got an eyeful from the small falcon. But it didn't fly away. I guess I lost that stare-down...

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Close Encounters of the Ring-billed Gull Kind

I absolutely love a good zoom lens. At times it allows me to identify an obscure bird from a quarter mile away, but there are other times when it allows a certain intimacy with a different species. Ring-billed Gulls (Larus delawarensis) are very common in human environments, choosing garbage dumps and parks as their habitat. As a result, they don't fear humans and will make a close approach. That's when the zoom lens brings out some bit of the personality of the bird.
I was on our holiday journey in the Seattle area, at Gene Coulon Park on the shore of Lake Washington when I came across this individual on the pier. It didn't move as I walked by, so I took it as an invitation to snap a few close shots. It was disappointed though...I didn't have any food with me.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Western Grebes at Clear Lake in Northern California

I'm only now getting through all of the pictures I got during my Christmas journeys. It started with the Tundra Swans that we saw near Williams. We were preparing to cross through the Coast Ranges to get to Highway 101, and Clear Lake offered the most interesting way, bird-wise and geology-wise. Clear Lake is partially dammed by lava flows, and the Mt. Konocti volcano looms over the waters. It's only a few thousand years old and magma chambers in the region are still simmering deep underground.
There is a pier and boat landing at Lucerne that is a favorite stop. We've almost always seen something interesting from there and we weren't disappointed. There were Bonaparte's Gulls by the hundreds, and lots of Pied-billed Grebes and the ever-present Mallards. And lurking close to the pier were several Western Grebes (Aechmophorus occeidentalis). I was able to get a few nice shots.

I always have to remind myself which grebe I'm looking at. The Western Grebe and the Clarke's Grebe were once thought to be the same species, but there were enough differences that they were officially separated. The main tell in the field is that a Clarke's Grebe has white around the striking red eye, while the Western Grebe has black.

A Little Cross-species Bathing...Not That There's Anything Wrong With That...

Mind you, I'm as tolerant as they come. I was running errands at CSU Stanislaus today and found that there were puddles all over the place from last night's rather intense storm. I could see in the distance that some birds were joyfully splashing around. As usual I had my camera so I focused in and saw that they were Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum). But something was off...the bird in back was a lot bigger.
A second later the two birds separated and looked my way. And if looks could kill, I would have been in trouble...that Cedar Waxwing was romping in the water with an American Robin (Turdus migratorious)! The scandal of it all!
 Ah, to each their own, I say. I carried on with my errands.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

For National Bird Day, a Phainopepla on the Tuolumne River

It's hard to choose a favorite bird to post on National Bird Day. I have lots of favorites and they change from day to day. So I'm going with the bird I was the most pleased to find during the first days of 2019. I was on the Tuolumne River at Old Basso Bridge when I spotted a black bird in a treetop. I assumed it was a blackbird (it was black, after all), but the crest became visible and I knew right away I was looking at a Phainopepla (Phainopepla nitens).

Phainopeplas are birds of the southwest deserts and they are not abundant in our area, as we are at the northern limits of their range. There have been a couple of them living along the Parkway Trail, but they may have moved on when the elderberries gave out last month.
I love them for the challenge they give me in spotting them, and for their intense red eyes. This last shot shows them pretty well. The challenge in this case was getting the camera to focus on the bird through all of the intervening branches.

Happy National Bird Day! What's your favorite bird at the moment?

Friday, January 4, 2019

Red-tailed Hawk Up Close: A Three Day Story...

I don't know what to make of this. I rarely get all that close to Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) on my travels. When I've gotten close-ups, it was because I was in my car at a wildlife refuge, in essence from a movable blind. When I'm on foot, they tend to give me a wide berth, spooking and flying off long before I approach. And they're usually perched up high, on telephone poles and in the highest trees.
But for the last three days that I've walked the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail, there's been an individual hawk (or several, I can't be sure) that has been perched close to the trail, and who really didn't care that I was there. It was great to get these two shots (above and below) on the first day...

But the next day, on New Year's morning, it happened again! It was perched just fifteen feet or so above the trail on one of the old snags. And it watched patiently while I took pictures again.
In some of the pictures I could see flecks of blood from its last meal.
But today was the most unusual. I saw the bird perched in one of the oak trees just ten feet above the trail. I had to walk by if I was going to get anywhere and I assumed that it would fly long before I approached. But it didn't. It just watched me as I padded closer and pulled up my camera. I was moving slowly of course, but I was amazed that it just watched me. I got the opening picture of the blog, and the one below. And the bird never moved.
It's hard to imagine getting any closer to a wild bird (without getting really scratched up). But that was the way of it. I know other people walked by without spooking it (but they didn't notice the bird either), but I'm still curious why this one didn't flee. It would be nice to know that it's seen me on the trail so many times that it doesn't see me as a threat anymore, but that seems unlikely. Then again, maybe it's thinking "If I could lure that one in, I wouldn't have to hunt again for a couple of weeks..." (cue the Jurassic Park dinosaur attack theme...).