Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Why So Many Turkey Vultures on the Mokelumne River? Oh Yeah...

 Let's face it: Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) can be really creepy. Not so much when they're soaring on the thermals; that's when they are actually beautiful. No, it's when they are perched on the branches right over your head staring at you. It's like they're hoping you'll have a heart attack so they can have some lunch.
I was walking along the Mokelumne River this morning near the fish hatchery just below Camanche Reservoir. I had not yet reached the river and was looking for other birds, but I couldn't help but notice that nearly every tree had a Turkey Vulture perching on the top branches. They were all over the place. So yeah, a bit creepy.

As I got closer to the river I heard odd splashing sounds, and suddenly it occurred to me. It was the Chinook Salmon run! The spot where I was walking is the end of the road for the salmon, as Camanche Reservoir blocks their upstream progress. I wondered if there was a fish ladder, and there was, but it led only into the fish hatchery where workers collect the eggs for rearing in the complex. The fish ladder was closed, presumably because their holding tanks were full, so the upper pool of the river was full of Chinook trying to go farther upstream. And the vultures were waiting for a tasty lunch.

Here's a short video of the fish swimming in the Mokelumne River.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Getting Very Close to our National Bird

This might not be the right distance to meet a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). I grant you that. But my camera does have a pretty good zoom, but this is really close.
It's probably clear that we're not looking at a wild bird. Well, it's wild, but not in the wild. Unfortunately someone apparently shot its wing and the bird has been somewhat tamed and serves as a wildlife ambassador. We were at the Salmon Festival on Saturday at Knight's Ferry on the Stanislaus River.
Bald Eagles aren't at all common in our area but a few of them live here. I've seen them at Turlock Lake and near the Beckwith Platform in the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge.
But never this close!
Here's a more normal distance for a shot of an eagle...

Thursday, November 8, 2018

A Surprise Discovery at MJC: A Red-breasted Sapsucker

There's something I've learned with fossil and mineral hunting. If you haven't seen the thing you are looking for, you won't recognize it when you see it. But if you've seen an example of the fossil or mineral, you'll pick it out right away. I'm still a newbie at bird identification, but a few weeks ago I saw a Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber) in Yosemite Valley. I got all excited and got pictures and posted on my discovery that night.

Then, only nine days later, I was wandering the campus of CSU Stanislaus and much to my surprise I saw another Red-breasted Sapsucker! So I posted on the species again. Having seen it once, I guess I was primed to recognize it right away when I saw it again.

So here we are eight days later. I was taking a break between classes and wandered out to the sheep compound, my MJC "mini-wilderness", and saw another woodpecker deep among the branches of a dead tree. I focused in with the camera, and wouldn't you know it, there was another Red-breasted Sapsucker! I've never encountered one here before. So once again, I am posting. It the pattern holds, we should be hearing of the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail Sapsucker discovery any day now...

Saturday, November 3, 2018

A Head-spinning Tale...Do we need an exorcist? A Burrowing Owl at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Tell me when you see it...
Do you see it yet?
We were out at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge today and Mrs. Geotripper kept saying there was something...out there...

I kept insisting that it was just a couple of ground squirrels out in the grass, but she was sure that something was...watching us. I ended up focusing on what I was sure was an extra fat ground squirrel and found out that indeed something was watching us. It was a Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia). The east part of the auto tour at the Merced NWR traverses prairie and grassland. Other birders have often reported seeing Burrowing Owls there, so I've always been watching for them, but without success. This was a nice moment, not unlike the moment a few weeks ago when we were treated to a Burrowing Owl at Turlock Lake.

The Burrowing Owls have had a tough time of it, as their habitat has been seriously co-opted by human beings. The grasslands of California, especially in the Central Valley, have been largely taken over by agriculture. I'm truly ashamed to note that my own county has seen the conversion of around 40,000 acres of former prairie to almond tree orchards in just ten years or so. They will probably be abandoned with a decade or so because of water and irrigation conflicts. The string of national wildlife refuges in the valley provide critical prairie areas where the owls can thrive.

There are few things more eerie than an owl rotating its head to stare at you. Check it out in the video below...

Friday, November 2, 2018

Horned Lark near the Willm's Road Pond

I was on my way to collect some very big rocks today in the Mother Lode foothills when I passed by a familiar bird on a fencepost. It was a beautiful Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris) and unlike all the other birds today it didn't fly off as I drove by. So I got a couple of shots to share with you!

The big rocks, by the way, were VERY big rocks, several tons each, to be deployed at our Great Valley Outdoor Nature Lab at Modesto Junior College. The lab will be a microcosm of the Great Valley natural environment. Maybe one day some Horned Larks will be lured into visiting our campus...

Thursday, November 1, 2018

A Surprise at CSU Stanislaus: A Red-breasted Sapsucker

A few weeks ago I was in Yosemite Valley and saw a Red-breasted Sapsucker, and was properly thrilled to get a couple of half-decent shots. Since I've only seen them in the mountains, I wasn't thinking about them as I walked this afternoon on the campus of CSU Stanislaus. It's an urban campus of course, but there are two "sort-of" natural areas, a pond called Willow Lake that is heavily grown with cattails and tule reeds on one side. The other is the Trans-California Pathway, a kind of reconstruction of the native vegetation from the Sierra foothills to the valley. I was walking through the oak grove at the west end of the pathway thinking how I had not seen any woodpeckers in a long while.

And then I saw one!

I assumed it was the 'usual' Nuttall's Woodpecker or Acorn Woodpecker, but when I focused in I saw the red head and immediately realized it was something unexpected: a Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber). They've certainly been seen in the area (especially by fellow nature-blogger Siera Nystrom), but not all that often. It was a nice little surprise for the day.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

It's a Snipe Hunt! I Found Mine at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge

When I was a scout back in another era we often introduced the new guys to our trip by conducting a snipe hunt, chasing imaginary birds with paper sacks in the dark. For some reason we never caught any. I had no idea at the time that snipes actually existed, but they do.
I was out at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge the other day looking for migrant geese. I certainly found some at the viewing platform on Beckwith Road, several thousand Aleutian Cackling Geese, Sandhill Cranes, and even a handful of Snow Geese.
There is no open water at the Beckwith Viewing Platform except in the great distance, so it isn't the best place to be searching for shorebirds. But on the way east along the access road there are a few seasonal ponds that are good for birdwatching. This time around my search for a Wilson's Snipe (Gallinago delicate) was successful, although to be honest I didn't know I was searching for it. Six of them were feeding in the mud along the shoreline of the pond.
 One of the more noticeable features of the snipe is the location of their eyes in the middle of their skull. This arrangement allows them to see behind as well as ahead. They can see a predator coming from far off, which goes a long way towards explaining why our snipe hunts were never successful all those years ago.
Two Wilson's Snipes with a Greater Yellowlegs