Thursday, April 27, 2017

Ospreys Nesting on the Tuolumne River

It's spring and the big birds are nesting. We've kept an eye on four or five Osprey nests that we know of in our region on the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced Rivers. One by the Roberts Ferry Bridge didn't have any occupants last we looked, but another nest between Turlock Lake and the Tuolumne River was certainly occupied last week. Both mom and dad were hanging out nearby. I'm sure we'll check up on the chick's progress as the weeks roll on.
The Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) is one of the few success stories in the bird world in the sense that we just about wiped them out with DDT last century and finally came to our senses. They have expanded their range and their population has grown, especially when posts have been provided where they can build their humungous nests.

It was certainly a pretty day last week when we went hunting birds in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The snowy high country contrasted strongly with the green slopes around the reservoir.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Northern Flicker Hard at Work on the Tuolumne River

I see Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) quite often along the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail in Waterford, but they are usually quite busy flying from one tree to another. For a woodpecker, they spend a lot of time on the ground instead of pecking away at trees. It turns out they like to eat ants and other insects and will peck at the ground to get them. That's what made today's sighting a bit interesting. This one was working very hard at a gash in the cottonwood. I'm guessing it was excavating a nesting hollow. I was getting frustrated trying to get a clear shot of the bird at work and finally realized I would maybe have better luck with a video, so here you go...

Monday, April 24, 2017

Phainopepla on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail

It's been a few weeks since I've been able to get down to the river trail on the Tuolumne. There've been business and field trips, and the last week of the semester, so things have been hectic. The river is still flooded as it has been for four months now. There's a lot of snow upstream. The river floodplain will be a much changed place when it's once again exposed.
In any case, I saw little of consequence during the first part of the walk upriver, but on the way back I saw yet another black bird fly off through the bushes. But it wasn't a Starling or a Brewer's Blackbird. It was moving wrong. I stopped and searched the branches of the Cottonwood, and there it was: a Phainopepla! Phainopeplas (Phainopepla nitens) are native around here, but it is the far northern edge of their range. They are really a desert species from Mexico and the southwest. They don't normally drink water, for instance, instead relying on moisture in the mistletoe berries that they love eating. I've only seen them here on the Tuolumne twice, but I've also seen them in the Death Valley region a couple of times.

I'm reasonably happy with the shots I got of this male (not perfect yet, but better than previous efforts). The females look much the same but are gray in color. I shot a few seconds of this male jumping along the branches on video. Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Great-tailed Grackles Invade Central California!

Something changed around here a couple of years ago. I teach an occasional class at CSU Stanislaus in Turlock, and there is a large pond adjacent to the Science Building. I had always noticed the egrets, ducks, and geese who took up residence there, but in the last few years I noticed a new arrival, a black bird with a ridiculously audacious tail and a piercing call. I found out eventually that they were Great-tailed Grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus) and that they were indeed a new species in the area, expanding their range from the south.
The Grackle barely ranged into southern Texas a century ago, but they do very well around irrigated fields, and thus have expanded north with agricultural development. The "official" range map doesn't even show them as residents in the north half of the Great Valley yet, but sightings have even reached northern Oregon and Washington.

I don't know why, but the grackles remind me more of theropod dinosaurs (the raptors and other meat-eaters) more than most birds. The theropods were indeed their ancestors, as they are for all birds. Something in their vivid eyes, perhaps.
The females barely look to be the same species. They are a dull brown color and are only half the size of the males. I got a shot of one that looked like it was collecting nesting material along the pond shore. The eyes, though. The dinosaurian eyes were the same. Thanks a lot Steven Spielberg!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Bushtit in the Joe Domecq Wilderness on the Tuolumne River

The Bushtits (Psaltriparus minimus) are not easy to photograph, in my experience anyway. They are small, hard to see, and they never stop moving. Nevertheless, I've captured some shots of the males on occasion, but today includes the first shots I've gotten of a female. The main difference is the pale eyes, which to me in my anthropomorphic style, makes me think the females are judging me. The males, with their totally black eyes look cute in the manner of stuffed animals...
"Judging you? No, my chirping is just constructive criticism of your birding skills"
We were wandering through the Joe Domecq Wilderness Park on the Tuolumne River near Old Basso Bridge, and I walked a half mile or so looking to see who was out and about and saw pretty much nothing. I got back to where Mrs. Geotripper was sitting, just watching one tree. It turned out to be a good strategy because after a few moments of standing, I had shots of the Bushtit as well as two other species, including the Ash-throated Flycatcher of the previous post.
The Bushtits are a bird of the western U.S. and Mexico. They are the only species of their family found in North America. According to Cornell, there are seven species in Eurasia. They build a hanging nest that Cornell describes as "remarkable", but I haven't spied one yet.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Ash-throated Flycatchers at Turlock Lake and on the Tuolumne River

I seem to see these birds at one time of the year, as I posted on them last May, and a year earlier in late April. We were at Turlock Lake State Recreational Area and this Ash-throated Flycatcher (Myiarchus cinerascens) landed in the oak tree on the hill top hardly ten feet away from me. It sang for a fair amount of time (enough for the video below), and actually waited for me to wander away.
This species of flycatcher is really a desert species, with a range across the U.S. Southwest and winters spent in Mexico and the tropics. They aren't seen much north of Oregon. Being creatures of the desert, they don't need to drink, getting most of their moisture from their food.
Strangely enough, after not seeing them for almost a year, I saw a second Ash-throated Flycatcher just up the road at the Joe Domecq Wilderness Area along the Tuolumne River near Basso Bridge!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Canada Goose "Gang Brood" at Turlock Lake State Recreational Area

It was a beautiful spring day, so we headed out for a short excursion up the Tuolumne River. We hunted for birds at Turlock Lake State Recreational Area for a bit, and then headed east on Lake Road towards the Joe Domecq Wilderness (a county wilderness park developed on an old dredge field). On the way between the parks, we passed an overflow pond for Turlock Lake Reservoir and I saw lots of Canada Geese and a few goslings. We stopped for a few moments to have a look, and soon I saw a caravan of twenty goslings between two adults. I've never seen such a large group of young ones, but apparently the geese like to form "gang broods" of up to five individual families. It's sort of an avian kindergarten, I guess. Whatever it is, it was the cutest thing in my day!