Friday, August 16, 2019

Biting Off More Than You Can Chew...Belted Kingfisher at Lake Washington

Here's a bird that was too successful. This Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) hit the pot of gold, enough fish to feed it for days, but...how to consume it?
I was on a walk along the shore of Lake Washington at Gene Coulon Park early one morning in June when I spotted the poor bird and its problem of too much in the way of riches. I wonder if there is some metaphor here about income inequality or something?
Most of the time the bird leaves while I'm snapping pictures. This time I watched and watched and videoed the poor bird and it never solved its conundrum. There was a Bald Eagle nearby...I'm sure it would have offered a solution to the problem.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Bald Eagles Nesting at Neah Bay, Washington

Our trip to British Columbia didn't have a great many chances for birdwatching. Teaching a field course is like that...time after time, I'll be talking to the students about rocks or something, and some bird, quite often an unusual species will be hopping from branch to branch behind the students. I want desperately to lift the camera and start snapping away, but I'm a professional, darn it. I grit my teeth and keep talking, and students never have any idea the inner struggle I'm going through.
In any case, I had a lucky moment on our first day of our trip, when we headed out to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. The gang was touring the Makah Cultural Center at Neah Bay and I stepped out for a moment. I heard a bit of a commotion outside the museum and I looked high into a fir tree just behind the museum and saw a pair of Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) attending to their nest. There was a lot of activity, but I never got a look at any young eagles.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Tanagers on the Tuolumne!

I'm trying to put together a few posts on the birds I saw while traveling in the Pacific Northwest, but I keep getting interrupted by beautiful birds more or less in my own backyard. I've been taking my customary walks early in the morning along the Tuolumne Parkway Trail, and there are plenty of pretty birds about, but not a lot of surprises this week. Well, except for this morning when I saw a Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana) in the oaks at the west end of the trail near the stairwell. I'm 90% sure I saw a female yesterday, but didn't get any pictures.

It's just a little bit unusual to see them on the valley floor at the height of summer. The tanagers tend to be a mountain species, and are more common in the forests of the Sierra Nevada at this time of year. They'll become more numerous next month as they start migrating south to Mexico for the winter. They are one of my favorite birds because, frankly, I'm attracted to bright coloration!

Friday, July 26, 2019

One Species or Two? The Grebes of the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge



One of these is not like the others. Can you tell which one is which?
The concept of a species has apparently always been a problem in biology. The definition I was taught, the idea that a species is a group of organisms that can produce viable offspring, is a real problem in my own field of geology and paleontology. How can we know if a species was capable of successfully reproducing from fossil evidence? We depend on the morphology a great deal, but it often produces problems. Consider what future paleontologists will think about fossils of all the dog breeds in existence...would a Chihuahua be considered the same species as a German Shepherd? There are debates about whether the large number of species of ceratopsian dinosaurs might actually be growth stages of a single species.
As we learn more, the idea of boundaries between species becomes even more uncertain. There are some species that are more closely related than others, and hybridization is a common phenomenon. Such hybrids may be a powerful driver of evolutionary change. Which brings us to these unique birds in the pictures today. They include a single picture of some Clark's Grebes (Aechmophorus clarkii), and some Western Grebes (Aechmophorus occidentalis). We saw them in the ponds of the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge near Willows, California, on the first day of our recent journey through British Columbia and northern Washington state. What criteria did you use to distinguish between the two?
Biologists considered them to be the same species until 1985, when they split them because they didn't tend to interbreed, had different calls, occupied slightly different niches in their wetlands environments, and on major differences in their DNA sequences. The Western Grebes are more numerous (~110,000 vs ~11,000), but both are threatened by loss of their wetland environments. The most visible differences are the eyes, which are surrounded by black in the Western Grebe and white in the Clark's Grebe. The beak of the Clark's Grebe is brighter yellow while the Western's is more olive in color.

The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge is one of our favorite birding spots. It has spectacular seasons in fall and winter when the migrant ducks, geese, and cranes arrive from the Arctic. The birds gather in flocks 10,000 strong, and few sights are as memorable as seeing all of the Snow or Ross's Geese taking off at once. Summer is much quieter, but is a good time to view the year-round species and the raptors. I noted 26 different species on our late June visit.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

The Babies are Growing Up! Hooded Oriole on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail

Time passes quickly when you're having fun...or you're traveling thousands of miles. I've been on the road for four of the last five weeks, and when I wasn't traveling, I was unpacking and packing again. Somehow it's been a month since I last posted any birds!

I've been thinking a lot about home since I was away so long. I've been watching a group of Hooded Orioles along the bluffs above the Tuolumne River since last spring. They had a nest somewhere in a group of palm trees, and I've seen at least three individuals at one time or another. This morning it was an immature male that I assume was one of the babies. Those palms were home for these birds, and so far for this male, it has been the only home it has ever had. But that will change in a matter of weeks. Hooded Orioles are tropical migrants, and they will soon be flying south for winter in their other home somewhere in Mexico or Belize.
But I'm pretty sure the birds will be back. Hooded Orioles are not common in our region, but this is the third year that I've seen the species, all within a few hundred yards of the palm trees on the bluff. Somehow they find this particular spot after a journey of a few thousand miles. I guess when you have a home, you never forget where it is.

I'll miss their bright colors when they leave!

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Notes From the Road: Bald Eagle at the Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve

It's summer as of yesterday, and so of course Geotripper and Mrs. Geotripper are on the road to parts unknown. We'll meet in a few days with our students and explore British Columbia and the Olympic Peninsula along with other fascinating locales. On the one hand, that means a chance to see some new birds, but on the other, blogging is likely to be spotty.

It didn't take us long to see a bird that is only occasionally seen in our region, but is relatively common in the Pacific Northwest: the Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). It was flying above the prairies of the Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve, a fascinating place with an interesting geologic story, soon to appear over at Geotripper.

More bird reports are expected to follow!

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

A Rare Sight Today on the Tuolumne River: A Rose-breasted Grosbeak

You just never know when it will happen. You walk the trail that you've been walking on more or less daily for months, dutifully recording bird species and pretty much seeing the same lineup of birds, and that's just fine because there are some really pretty birds. But once in a great while there is something new, and it comes as such a surprise that it takes your breath away for a moment.

The Grosbeaks are my story this week. I expected to see them arriving along the Tuolumne Parkway Trail more than a month ago, but aside from one quick glance of one through the trees at the river, and one surprising moment on our backyard birdfeeder, I haven't seen any in the area. That changed this morning.

I took a walk earlier this week at the Ceres River Bluffs Regional Park and got some fine shots of a pair of Blue Grosbeaks (post coming soon). Then today, I heard a familiar, yet unfamiliar song that made me think of Robins or Grosbeaks in the tree next to the stairway at the west end of the Tuolumne Parkway Trail where I do most of my walks. I started searching in the branches and finally spied a Black-headed Grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus). I got a couple of shots (see below), and then it flew towards me and on to the oak tree at the southeast corner of the parking lot. And then another grosbeak flew by, and then a third. The third one looked different somehow, and luckily it landed where I could get a few pictures. It turned out to be a Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus)!

I had to look it up to identify it, because it is a bird that is rarely seen in our county. According to the eBird records, it has only been seen in Stanislaus County four times, being last observed in 2014. The normal range for the bird is east of the Great Plains, but there are occasional sightings across California. It's known to sometimes hybridize with Black-headed Grosbeaks, so it's no surprise that I saw the birds together.

I'm including the Black-headed Grosbeak picture I got. There's not much similarity in their color pattern, but the short, thick beak is always distinctive.

What a thrilling and interesting day it turned out to be!