Friday, May 25, 2018

It Must Be Flycatcher Week: Pacific-slope Flycatcher on the Tuolumne River


I've been on a steep learning curve this week regarding flycatchers. For the three years I've been following birds on the Parkway Trail on the Tuolumne River I've seen a fair number of flycatchers, principally Black Phoebes who stick around all year, and Ash-throated Flycatchers, who have been fairly common sights during the summer months. Then, in the space of just two and a half weeks, I observed not one, not two, but three new species of flycatcher. First there was the Western Wood-pewee on May 7. Then two days ago, I sighted an Olive-sided Flycatcher that I hesitated to even report out of insecurity over my identification skills (plus it's kind of rare down here in the valley).

And then there was this morning. I'm looking for Olive-sided Flycatchers, or Western Wood-pewees, or Ash-throated Flycatchers (I always know I'll see the Phoebes; I know where they live). But the bird that appeared was none of those. It had a different color scheme, and it had a white ring around the eye. I hit the books (again) and realized I had photographed a Pacific-slope Flycatcher (Empidonax difficilis). The picture is not great, but I'll catch better ones next time! Or maybe it'll be a Hammonds Flycatcher, or a Willow Flycatcher. Apparently it is that kind of a week.

As their name suggests, these flycatchers are found in the extreme west in a line that extends from Mexico to southern Alaska and Canada. They are closely related to the Cordilleran Flycatchers, which are found farther to the east. They were once thought to be the same species. They eat...flies (and other insects).




Wednesday, May 23, 2018

A Bit of a Rare One: Olive-sided Flycatcher on the Tuolumne River

Sometimes I feel like such an amateur (that would be because I am). I've gotten to where I can recognize a lot of the common birds to be seen along my favorite haunts, but I am still finding it necessary to try and get a picture of the more obscure species so I can use the guidebooks to nail down an ID of an unknown bird. I'm learning the flycatchers, having found Black Phoebes (all over the place), and the somewhat less common Ash-throated Flycatcher, the Western Wood Pewee, and Say's Phoebe. But yesterday I was photographing what I thought might be the Western Wood-Pewee, but later I had doubts. The breast colors were wrong, the wing bars weren't as prominent, and so on. But what was it? I finally settled on an Olive-sided Flycatcher (Contopus cooperi).
But there was a problem with that. A quick bit of research on eBird revealed that the Olive-sided Flycatchers aren't seen on the valley floor all that often (only in three spots in our county in the last month or so). They are more common in the hills and conifer forests in the mountains that surround the valley. And I don't feel comfortable claiming rarer birds even with pictures. So I started asking around and got some encouragement with the ID, and today I found that one of the county experts saw one on the same trail today, so I'm feeling a bit better with my discovery.

The Olive-sided Flycatchers have an extremely large range, spending winters in the Amazon Basin of South America, and migrating north to the Western United States and across a wide swath of Canada and Alaska. They like forest settings where they can find a good perch and sally forth to, um, catch flies (and presumably lots of other kinds of bugs, including bees). They've undergone a steep decline in population over the last fifty years (losing about 80% of their total numbers). According to eBird, the problem has a lot to do with habitat loss in their wintering grounds.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Warbling Vireo on the Tuolumne River

I learned in geology a long time ago that one finds what one is looking for but doesn't find what one is not looking for. Another birding naturalist reported seeing a Warbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus), on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail on the 9th of May. The Warbling Vireo is a bird I've never seen before, or at least never recognized during my walks along the trail. But less than two weeks after Siera's report, lo and behold I see three of the vireos in two days! I didn't even yet know what it looked like, but because of the eBird report, I was on the lookout for some new kinds of birds in the canopy overhead.

Warbling Vireos winter in Mexico and Central America. During the spring and summer they spread out across the United States and western Canada to breed. They are less common on the valley floor, but are widespread in the local hills and mountains. They prefer to hang out in the upper canopy of the forests and woodlands where they search for caterpillars and moths. They occupy enough different environments that six subspecies have been defined.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Pair of Ash-throated Flycatchers on the Tuolumne River

We greeted the Ash-throated Flycatcher (Myiarchus cinerascens) on this blog about a month ago as the spring migrants started arriving from the tropics. I've been seeing them off and on ever since along the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail on my morning walks. This time was a bit different because I was taking pictures of the one with the ruffled feathers (below), I realized that a second one had perched below and wanted to be in the picture too.
The spring has continued to bring more and more birds to the river trail. I noted in the last flycatcher post a month ago that the Tuolumne River Trail had reached 100 separate species of birds observed. The number now stands at 107! Fellow nature blogger Siera Nystrom sighted a Warbling Vireo, a Townsend's Warbler, and a Wilson's Warbler. I added a Western Wood-pewee, some Forster's Terns, and just yesterday I discovered some Black-necked Stilts in the recharge ponds across the river. L.D. Scott saw a Savanna Sparrow. Who knows what will be seen next time?

Friday, May 18, 2018

House Wren on the Tuolumne River

After some extensive travels last week, I'm finally getting back to the river trail that I love patrolling. The Tuolumne River is still running high, about 1,500 cubic feet per second as the snowmelt in the Sierra Nevada continues. I've seen a few new or unusual birds this week. I saw but didn't get pictures of a Great Horned Owl, and got pictures of a Vireo that I haven't seen before. But the nicest moment today was a quick photo opportunity with a small House Wren (Troglodytes aedon)
House Wrens are not all that uncommon (you can tell from the name) but I've only seen a couple of them along the trail. When I have seen them, they're usually up in the branches and hard to photograph. So I was surprised when this one landed on a thistle stalk right in front of me.

Addendum! I was out again a day later, and another House Wren was singing away. Here's the video (sorry for the shakiness). It was interesting that a pair of Ash-throated Flycatchers were sitting less than two feet away.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Great Blue Heron on Lake Washington

No close-ups of any birds tonight. This is just a very pretty moment on our last night in the Seattle area. We were walking along the shoreline of Lake Washington after sunset, looking for the beaver we saw the other day. Instead we had a peaceful view of a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) fishing in the twilight. 

The Great Blue Herons seem particularly common around the Puget Sound, which is no surprise given the widespread freshwater wetlands and saltwater habitats that they thrive on. They tend to range farther north than some of their relatives, especially the egrets. I watched them in an intense fight with a pair of Bald Eagles in Victoria on Vancouver Island a couple of years ago.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Dark-eyed Junco in Washington State

We have Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) back home in California, but I don't see them all that often. This is probably because they are more of a forest bird, and the eBird reports show them to be abundant in the foothills and highlands of our local mountains. On the other hand, if one travels to the Pacific Northwest like I did this week, the forests come right down to sea level, and the Juncos are far more readily seen.
They are certainly common. Some estimates put their North American population at more than 600 million, and as many as that may be, it is just half what their population was half a century ago. We've not done a stellar job of preserving bird habitats in this country.