Wednesday, November 22, 2017

American Pipet at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

I enjoy watching birds, but I have a long ways to go before I'm very good at identifying them. There are a great many small birds that can escape our notice and look vaguely alike (I've had many students say the same things about minerals, another bit of nature that people love but have trouble identifying). The American Pipet (Anthus rubescens) is one of those birds that I often miss while watching for larger, more familiar birds. From a distance, I mistake them for sparrows.
But not up close. The bill is an immediate identifier. It is thin, where the sparrow bill is stouter. So, slowly I learn. These pipets were running around next to the auto-tour route at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge in the foreground while I was watching for Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes off in the distance. They were right there, no more than 10-15 feet away, so I snapped a few pictures.

American Pipets are just that: American. They breed in the Arctic regions of Alaska and Canada, and migrate in the winter season to the southern tier of U.S. States and Mexico. They occasionally show up in Japan and Korea, where a closely related subspecies lives, the Siberian or Japanese Pipet.

Showing the Way to a Peaceful Thanksgiving Feast: Great Egret and a Great Blue Heron Share a Space


I don't why this made me think of Thanksgiving, but I was walking out at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge this afternoon when I saw a Great Egret (Ardea alba) and a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) sharing a branch on a tree by the slough. I saw two different, yet related species occupying close quarters, and doing so quite peaceably.
Doesn't the heron in flight remind you of a dragon?
There was plenty of other activity in the thickets below, and if you have ever heard herons arguing, you know it can be a shocking and unpleasant noise. Maybe that's what made me think of relatives arguing over a Thanksgiving table. I'm happy that I usually don't have that problem.

It's not the first time that I've seen egrets and herons in close proximity, but it always catches my attention. Although they share the same genus, the Great Egret has a range that extends to all the major continents, but mostly in tropical climes. They are very rarely found in Alaska, Canada, or Siberia, for instance. The Great Blue Heron ranges a bit farther north, but is restricted to northern and central America.
In any case, I saw these two enjoying the afternoon sunshine together, and thought about how nice it can be when folks get along with others. I'm going to be doing a lot of driving in the next few days, so if I don't get the chance later, I hope that you have many things to be thankful for, and that your time in these next few days is precious and memorable, wherever and however you spend it.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Black-necked Stilts at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

The Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus) is more of a tropical species. Their primary range is across Mexico and Central America, but during the summer they migrate into the United States to breed, mostly in the western states.
But California is different, of course, and our valley hosts a permanent year-round population, the northernmost in the country. So we were able to tour the Merced National Wildlife Refuge a few weeks back, and got to enjoy watching dozens of them exploring the shallows of the ponds that have been filled in preparation for the arrival of the Snow and Ross's Geese.
There are a number of subspecies of stilt, but the most interesting is the Ae'o (Himantopus mexicanus knudseni). Why? Because it lives in the Hawaiian Islands, 2,000 miles from any other populations. A few somehow made it across the ocean and survived in the strange new environment of the islands. Most stilt populations are stable and doing well, but the Ae'o is threatened because most of the Hawaiian freshwater marshes have been co-opted by development for agriculture or urban expansion (see a picture of one at the end of this post).
Put simply, the Merced National Wildlife Refuge is a marvelous place to see all manner of birds at all times of the year. It is a real treasure in our midst and yet is rarely crowded. If you are ever in our region, it is worth a look, especially in coming weeks as the geese arrive by the tens of thousands.

Monday, November 13, 2017

A Rarely Seen Sora at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Here's a bird that is common across North America. It summers in Canada and the northern United States, winters in Mexico and Central America, and migrates through the rest. It lives year-round in only one place: California's Great Valley. It is a Sora (Porzana Carolina).
It is also an extremely secretive bird, spending most of its time hiding in the reeds. I've seen it exactly once prior to this last weekend, at the Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge near Sacramento. On Saturday we were touring the Merced National Wildlife Refuge, and had stopped to try and catch some Stilts. I noticed a gray blob in the reeds, and for once actually thought "Sora", and tried to focus in. These aren't great shots, but they are better than my previous effort.
Any duck hunter would know that a Sora isn't a duck, but I'm not a duck hunter, and I haven't mastered my duck species yet. The first time I saw one, I was confused that I couldn't find it in the duck section of Sibley's. But I learn, however slowly, and maybe next time the pictures will be even better.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Great Horned Owl at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge (and a scene worthy of the Exorcist)

Owls have been frustrating for me. I have yet to see one in my normal haunts on the Tuolumne River Parkway trail, my campus, or almost anywhere else I go. But one place has proven dependable over the last few years: the Merced National Wildlife Refuge between Los Banos and Merced in the Great Valley. We almost always see a Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus), either at the Bittern Marsh, or the Cottonwood Trees along the eastern section of the autotour.
The last sighting was exactly one month ago. We headed out to the refuge this afternoon, and I walked the same Bittern Marsh trail that I walked last month, and to my surprise, I saw another Great Horned Owl, quite possibly in the same tree. I would say that it is the same individual, but this one seems a bit thinner (maybe it's the angle).

Today was another case of being closer to the bird that is comfortable, but I didn't see the bird until I was actually walking past it (about 40 feet way), but this time it didn't scare or fly away. It just kept an eye on me (well, two eyes...two very intense eyes).
I was about to walk on when the owl looked away. I had a feeling it might look back at me again, so I turned on the video and true to form, the head swiveled 270 degrees. I immediately thought of Megan in "The Exorcist".  It works great for them when they need to keep an eye out for potential prey without moving around a lot.


The Merced Refuge has several nice walking trails in addition to the six mile auto-tour. It is already full of all kinds of birds, especially thousands of Sandhill Cranes. There are hundreds of Snow Geese, but thousands more are on their way. If you find yourself anywhere near Merced in the next few months, be sure to check it out. It is always interesting, and when tens of thousands of birds take flight all at once, it is spectacular.
The owl is just about in the center of the picture.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Cassin's Kingbird on MJC's West Campus: a bird out of place and out of time

I don't see rare birds all that often. Call it a combination of inexperience and impatience, and maybe lack of persistence, but I've only had one legitimate discovery of a bird that was unexpected or rare for our region. It was a Cassin's Kingbird (Tyrannus vociferans) that was hanging around the pond area on west campus last January. I didn't even recognize it as a Cassin's. I thought it was the more common Western Kingbird, but even at that, the Kingbirds in general are tropical species and they don't spend winters this far north. Members of the local Audubon Society pointed out the correct identification.

So...I was out for my normal lunchtime stroll, and was looking for a small raptor that I've seen hanging out in a dead ash tree at the north end of Parking Lot 209. I noticed another bird in the upper branches and turned on the camera to get a closer look. It had the characteristic yellow underside and the charcoal colored head with the white neck stripe of a Cassin's. I got these pictures, did a quick check with the local Audubon folks and confirmed that my identification was correct. So now I've seen two rare birds, even though they could be the same individual. There have been four reports of Cassin's Kingbirds in our immediate region over the years.

The distribution map below gives an idea of how unusual sightings actually are this far north (and keep in mind that most sightings are in spring and summer). In other words, our campus Cassin's is quite a bit out of place, and out of time.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Gray Jay at Mt. Rainier National Park

Today's bird is probably well-known to folks in the Pacific Northwest, but the species doesn't live down in my area. The Gray Jay (Perisoreus Canadensis) is found across Canada and Alaska, and is found in California only as far south as Lassen Volcanic National Park.

I'm trying to catch up with a summer's worth of bird pictures. This was late June during our journey through the Pacific Northwest. We were making our sole stop at Mt. Rainier National Park near Chinook Pass (everywhere else was still covered in snow), and this little bird I have never seen before showed up out of nowhere and was watching us carefully for any dropped food particles. It apparently has a reputation for being kind of obnoxious about securing food this way.
The Gray Jay survives in snow country better than most birds, in part because it can eat a wide variety of foods, and has a habit of storing food for the winter. It doesn't migrate out of region in winter, and actually nests in wintertime. Few other birds do that.
Seriously, this was the latter part of June! The passes had just opened up.