Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Say's Phoebe at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Here's a bird I haven't posted in awhile. Flycatchers are a challenge to photograph. The Say's Phoebes (Sayornis saya) constantly fly erratically from their perch, chasing down insects, and then land again. If I would ever just learn to just focus on the perch and wait for it to come back, I would do much better. These Phoebes range across western North America, from Central America to the Arctic. This one was hunting at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge last week.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Pied-billed Grebe at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

It doesn't take much of excuse to get Mrs. Geotripper and I outdoors. A hint of needed yardwork here, some house chores there, and rumors of a rare bird at some refuge will do the trick nicely. We were at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge yesterday and didn't see any of the rumored birds, but we got some nice sightings of the more common species. My best surprise and favorite shots of day were of this Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) that popped up in the water right next to our vehicle.
"Popped up" is literally what it did. Pied-billed Grebes have been described as part submarine, given their tendency to dive underwater rather than fly when dangers appear. This one was feeding in the reeds, came up for a moment, and disappeared as quickly as it appeared.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

A River of Ross's Geese at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Many years ago (1997) there was a record flood on the Walker River in the eastern Sierra Nevada. I knew folks who lived in the path of the raging waters, so I was there in the aftermath helping to clean up. The river had picked for itself a new channel on the valley floor, and the Army Corps of Engineers considered this to be an affront to their management, so they decided to put the river back. I was there when the big bulldozer made the cut that restored the river and I was mesmerized as the water first trickled and then fully flowed back into its old channel.

I realize that this is a strange opening for a blog post about birds, but I was reminded of that river rebirth the other day when we were at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. It was the end of the day, the sun already set, and we were at the last part of the auto-tour. We hadn't seen a great many geese except at a great distance. Usually we love to see the dramatic sight of thousands of geese taking flight all at once, but it's not really good for the geese, since the flights use a lot of energy and food sources can be limited in winter.
So the sight that met us in the dusk was much calmer. Thousands of what I think were Ross's Geese (Snow Geese are very similar in appearance and they sometimes comingle) were gathered into a single flock on the pasture. The Ross's Geese (Chen rossii) looked like a lake of geese, and then like a new river, a string of geese broke away and started "flowing". The line of geese even meandered across the plain like an undulating river. I caught a bit of the flow in a short video below.
Ross's Geese are a true North American species.. They breed in a few isolated parts of the Canadian Arctic tundra, including the shores of Hudson Bay, and they winter in the Great Valley and in a strip across Mexico, New Mexico and the Texas coast. Their migration routes allow occasional sightings across the United States.
The Merced National Wildlife Refuge and its five mile auto tour route is one of the best places to see a huge variety of migratory and resident species of birds and other animals. It's on Sandy Mush Road south of the town of Merced, and admission is free. There are three hiking trails and restrooms are available.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Snow Geese at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge (and a bonus volcano!)

The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge preserves wetlands and prairie environments in the northern part of the Great Valley between Williams and Willows. It's one of our favorite sites for birdwatching in the entire state, in part for the variety and number of birds, but as can be seen in these photographs, for the setting as well.

To the northeast the volcanic center of Lassen Peak looms over the valley floor. The volcano erupted only a century ago. To the west, the northern Coast Ranges form the background to pictures of flying geese.
The Snow Geese (Chen caeruescens) are present in the ponds by the tens of thousands. Much of the time they simply placidly float across the ponds grazing for food, but something (a raptor, tourists, coyote?) will cause thousands of them to take flight all at once, and it is a truly dramatic sight. It's also loud (check out the video below).

Like many other birds in the Great Valley, the Snow Geese are migrants. They breed in the far northern reaches of the Arctic in Canada and Alaska and spend their winters in warmer climates like the valley, and other refuges in the southern United States and Mexico.

The birds are monogamous for life and often travel in large family groups. Their numbers have increased greatly over the years and so they are hunted on other parts of the refuge system. There are reports that they are putting considerable environmental pressure on their breeding grounds as well. They do have a great many predators, both of the eggs and young, and also adults. No wonder they flock into the air so much...
This wasn't the biggest flock taking flight that day, but it was the only video I caught of them taking off. Enjoy...

Monday, January 8, 2018

Bald Eagles at the Sacramento National WIldlife Refuge

We've never had a disappointing trip to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge between Williams and Willows in California's Great Valley. We usually make it there during our trips north at Thanksgiving and Christmas, but we sometimes drop in during the summer if we are traveling that way.
There was a lot going on when we came through at the end of December. I literally was stepping out of the car at the visitor center parking lot when someone pointed out the Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) sitting in the eucalyptus trees a few yards away. We saw four more of them along the six mile auto-tour route, two adults and two juveniles.
I know that folks farther north don't get quite as excited at seeing this interesting bird since they are more common up north, but I've only seen a couple of them in our region, so this is more of an event for me. I read interesting accounts of the hundreds of eagles that pester fisherman and residents of fishing villages in Alaska.
Still, these thieving lazy birds (by some accounts, including Benjamin Franklin) are interesting to watch. They do have that certain bearing...

Sunday, January 7, 2018

A Rare Sight: Vermilion Flycatcher at Dawson Lake

We did something today we've never done before. News had spread of an extremely rare sighting of a bird in our county, only the fourth time it's been seen here, and the first time it was seen in a publicly accessible place. So we did it. We went looking for it as if we were actual birders. It was a Vermilion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus).
Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology
The Vermilion Flycatcher is more of a tropical species, and we lie north of their normal range. Obviously, a few individuals get "lost" and end up outside their usual habitat, as happened with this one. I note that a female flycatcher has been reported this month at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. I imagine they are both feeling a bit lonely (the male has been hanging out with a Black Phoebe, a related species).
Mrs. Geotripper tried her hand at sharpening one of the shots
Our chances of actually seeing the bird weren't great. It was said to be patrolling a barbwire fence at the north end of Dawson Lake, but there are a great many such fences out there, and they weren't close to the highway (La Grange Road, just south of Highway 132). We lucked out though, because a birder was already parked there and he knew which fence to keep an eye on. It was a long ways off, far enough that I could not make out birds with the unaided eye. But after about fifteen minutes of scanning the slope with the camera set to highest zoom, I spied it. I snapped as many pictures as I could, but don't expect a whole lot of detail. But you can't miss a bird this colorful!
If you live in the area and want to have a look, drive east on Highway 132 to La Grange Road about 18 miles east of Waterford. Turn right (south) on La Grange and drive a mile or two until you see the Dawson Lake, a small irrigation reservoir, off to the right (west). Park at the bridge that crosses a corner of the upper lake. The fence is across the dry arm of the lake directly to the west (below). The bird patrols for bugs, going from fencepost to fencepost every 90 minutes or so, according to Rich, the birder we talked to. The lake property is privately owned, so don't jump the fence (bad form in any case to do that sort of thing).

Even if you don't see the flycatcher, don't be too disappointed. Dawson Lake is a local birding hotspot, and there are plenty of other birds to be seen. This afternoon we saw cormorants, mergansers, geese, Acorn Woodpeckers, egrets, and lots of small songbirds.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Cedar Waxwings on the West Campus of MJC

School has not yet begun at MJC (that's coming on Monday), so the West Campus quad has been particularly deserted throughout the holiday break. The campus has an attractive array of different kinds of trees, and when the students aren't milling about, the birds move in.

I was walking from one end of the quad to the other, delivering a print job to the duplicating office, and I saw seven species of bird in the 300 foot stroll. The others will show up as posts one of these times, along with all the birds from my visit at the Sacramento NWR a few days ago (yes, I've gotten behind).

It's probably clear that my favorite sighting was the flock of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum). The birds have such beautiful (and slightly comical) plumage, and their presence seems to be limited to just a few weeks in the spring and fall. Their name comes from the bright orange wax deposits that sometime appear on their wingtips. The function is unknown, but maybe related to attracting mates.
The birds were eating what I think were toyon berries, which are ripe right now, and which were probably the reason I saw so many birds in the quad. I was able to get some of these shots because they were perched in a tree next to the second floor of the building I was running errands in.