Sunday, January 17, 2021

Vermilion Flycatcher at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge: Finally One of the Males!

It's often true that when I post an adequate picture of a particular bird, I'll get even better pictures a day or two later. It hasn't been a day or two, more like nearly three weeks, but it happened again. I posted about the Vermilion Flycatchers (Pyrocephalus rubinus) of Merced and Stanislaus Counties on December 28 after I got some nice pictures of a female at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. But we missed out on finding any of the colorful males known to be at the southwest corner of the refuge. We didn't get back to the Merced refuge until today, but what a delightful surprise we had as we followed the auto route.
I've been looking for one of the males in hopes of getting some closer shots, as the mature male in Stanislaus County is always seen from hundreds of feet away. I knew roughly where to look, but had no luck in three or four attempts. But as we rolled up to the parking area for the Bittern Marsh Trail, the bird literally flew right in front of our car and landed in the tree next to us. That led to a few moments of pandemonium as we grabbed cameras and tried to locate the bird in the thick brush. What happened next was a scene probably familiar to most birders: snapping a series of totally unfocused shots just to have some kind of confirmation that we had indeed seen the bird. 
We and the bird finally settled down and I snapped the shot above, and I would have been perfectly satisfied with the result. A beautiful immature male Vermilion Flycatcher! We were blocking the road though, so we drove on and parked a few hundred feet away. I slowly walked back and saw that the bird was gone, but as I was looking around, another birder motioned to me and pointed. The bird had once again flown across the road and was now perched on a small tree next to the Bittern Marsh.
I now had a few delightful moments getting some very satisfying pictures of the young bird. If their range is indeed expanding (perhaps due to global warming), they will be a welcome addition to our region. 
And now, if I could only figure out where that mature male is hiding out...

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Wait, Why Are They Called "Ruby-crowned" Kinglets?

Want a challenge? Try to photograph a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula). They are brazen little birds, willing to get right in your face if you intrude into their territory, but they never seem to stop moving.

Want a real challenge? Try and capture why they are called "Ruby-crowned" Kinglets. The males have a red patch on their head, and if they are really upset about something, it can be raised, but that happens rarely in my experiences so far. But today I managed to catch a couple of shots so you'll know what to look for on your own attempts!


Monday, January 11, 2021

Someone Missed the Text about Migration: Black-headed Grosbeak on the Tuolumne River

You never, ever know what you'll see when you set out on an adventure, however modest. Today I was taking my normal birdwatching/exercise stroll on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail, and many of the normal birds were present. But I was about halfway through when a very unfamiliar sight appeared, one that made my jaw drop: a Black-headed Grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus). These birds are found along the river, and I've seen them a few dozen times...but never, ever in winter. These are tropical birds who spend their winters in Mexico and Central America. According to eBird there are a grand total of six of them in all of California at the moment.

I don't know why this bird is still hanging around. They have a diverse diet of bugs, fruits, nuts, and seeds, and maybe this bird has a secure food source, perhaps some neighborhood bird feeders. Maybe it was injured in some way and wasn't able to make the journey with the others. There have been other winter stragglers in this area...last year it was a Hooded Oriole pair that spent the winter along the trail.


Monday, December 28, 2020

Harbinger of Climate Change? The Vermilion Flycatchers of Stanislaus and Merced Counties

According to the eBird records, the first sighting of a Vermilion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus) in Merced County was in 2003, and the first in Stanislaus County was in 2012 (the official records may be different). They certainly aren't common. It appears only two individuals have ever visited Stanislaus. But the numbers in Merced are intriguing. Prior to 2020 the sightings have been of a single birds that caused quite a stir among the local birders. They were outliers in other words, accidental wanderers. But this year it appears that there may be as many as seven individual birds in the county: three at Lake Yosemite, and at least three but maybe four at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. Some are immature, suggesting that some local pairs may be breeding.
We saw our first female ever in late November at Merced NWR. It was on the west side of the auto route, and was a surprise to us because most of the sightings have been on the southeast part of the refuge. And it was perched right along the side of the road, hardly 20 feet from our car. The female  lacks the brilliant vermilion coloration, which can make it easy to miss. We didn't expect to see it again when we were there today, but there it was, almost in the same spot! It's more than a mile from where others have reported a mature male and female, and an immature male. I looked and looked but wasn't lucky enough to see the others.
The sole Vermilion Flycatcher in Stanislaus County is nothing if not consistent. He has occupied the same fence and shoreline along Dawson Lake (a small irrigation reservoir in the east part of the county) since late 2017, leaving during the summer months, but returning like clockwork in the fall. We saw him on December 16. The lake is on private property, so most pictures of this bird are from a great distance, as you can see below.
I cannot claim any specific knowledge as to why more of these birds have been sighted in the region lately, but it is a known fact that the climate is warming, and a great many species have been shifting to the north in response. The Vermilion Flycatcher is a subtropical species, being common in Mexico and Central America. Other subtropical species have become more abundant in the region, including the Blue Grosbeak and the Phainopepla. This is exciting for us local birders, but can be bad news for the species and the ecosystems they inhabit. Species move in response to availability of food sources and can cause disruptions in their new homes. The increasingly common Great-tailed Grackles for instance are aggressive feeders and have displaced other native species. In a warming world, there will be winners and losers, but mostly losers. Introducing aggressive new species into formerly stable habitats is rarely going to have a positive outcome.

Source: Vermilion Flycatcher Range Map, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
The Vermilion Flycatchers don't seem to be in the category of aggressive invasive species, at least not in the low numbers that have right now. As such, they are a wonderful and colorful surprise to see in our local region.

Postscript: Make that eight Vermilion Flycatchers in Merced County. Ralph Baker saw one at the San Luis NWR on November 1!

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Up Close and Personal with a Loggerhead Shrike

The Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) is an interesting bird. It is most closely related to songbirds, but in life is more like a small raptor, consuming a diet of large insects, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and even some smaller bird species. They prefer open grasslands with occasional trees or fences to perch and hunt from. I have yet to see one along the Tuolumne River Trail, but we see them fairly often at our local wildlife refuges. I've photographed them many times, but never quite this close.
We were on the Waterfowl Auto-tour at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge south of Turlock yesterday, avoiding all manner of human contact, but seeing lots of birds. The Shrike is often one of the first we encounter, with the fencing of the Tule Elk compound being a favored spot for the bird. Yesterday was no exception, but unlike past experiences this one didn't retreat when we stopped and rolled down the windows. These are the closest pictures I've ever achieved.


Friday, December 4, 2020

The Burrowing Owls Finally Make an Appearance!

As we get towards the end of the year, I start to review the lists and try and figure out which birds I love, but have not yet seen. Two weeks ago, the Phainopeplas arrived on the Tuolumne River Trail and I was finally able to check them off the list, and the next most favorite bird moved to #1: the Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia).
I was distressed about not seeing a single Burrowing Owl all year. I've been concerned about their welfare in our area because they are denizens of the prairie, and the prairies in our region are being dug up and planted with almond orchards, some 40,000 acres in our county in the last decade or so. We've made a number of trips through the seasons on Crabtree and Willms Roads in the Mother Lode foothills between the Tuolumne and Stanislaus Rivers. We've seen lots of interesting birds, but not a single owl was to be found anywhere.

The little owls sometimes dig their own burrows, but most of the time they take over the abandoned burrows of other creatures like badgers or ground squirrels. They hunt and consume a huge variety of small mammals, reptiles, and large insects, and hunt day and night. Almond orchards don't really provide that kind of habitat or food resource, so the birds get pushed east into the foothills.

So here it is, early December, and no Burrowing Owls anywhere. I had a few extra minutes this afternoon (it's been a loooong semester), so I drove out Crabtree Road, and finally saw two of them! They were several hundred yards away, and I don't know how I ever spied them. I was pleased, but there were no possibilities for pictures. I headed back home, and saw a bird ahead on the fence by the road, but it flew into a depression and disappeared. I slowed a bit and I saw it land on the fence behind me.. I rolled to a slow stop and very slowly opened the car door to get out and try for some pictures. Much to my surprise, the owl cooperated! Enjoy!


Saturday, November 28, 2020

Another Fine Day for Phainopeplas!

It often seems to happen this way. I don't post for a long time, then I finally do, and like the next day I get far better pictures than the ones that I posted earlier. And that's what happened. On two different days this week, I had some beautiful moments with the Phainopeplas (Phainopepla nitens) that have temporarily taken up residence on the elderberry bushes along the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail. I got decent pictures of a male (the black one), and the female (gray).
The Phainopeplas are really a desert species, most at home in the arid regions of the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico, especially Baja California. They have been seen more and more in California's Great Valley, presumably as drier and warmer climates begin to prevail as the average temperature of the Earth continues to rise. They are now breeding in the valley as far north as Redding.
Phainopeplas are in the family of the silky-flycatchers, but they are not closely related to other flycatchers found in the United States. According to Ebird, they are most closely related to the Cedar Waxwings.