Sunday, March 26, 2017

Horned Lark in the California Prairielands near Knights Ferry

With the first days of spring, we are starting to explore the Sierra Nevada foothills and what's left of the California prairie in the eastern part of the Great Valley. On Saturday we were in the Red Hills, seeing many flowers but few birds, but then we headed down to Willms Road out of Knight's Ferry, a backroad providing access to the many ranches in the foothills. There's a stock pond that we like to check out every so often, and along the way we ran across several Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris) sitting on fenceposts and searching in the grass for tidbits of food.
In case there's any doubt about why they are called "horned" larks, the post-sitting bird turned his head and showed us the upturned feathers that give him his name. The Horned Larks are common birds, but fewer in number than they used to be (perhaps only 30% of their numbers fifty years ago). A likely suspect could be loss of habitat, either to development or to reforestation efforts.
It was a beautiful day on the prairie, perhaps the prettiest kind of day we get all year out here. It's been a wet year, finally, the grass is thick and green and the usually dry waterways are flowing. The foothill rock layers are composed of volcanic mudflows and ash deposits bespeaking a violent origin, but today all was serene.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Great Blue Heron on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon

It's a rainy day outside, so no walks along the river today, and it's been a few weeks since a birding trip, so I didn't have a lot of new material. I was going over some older pictures when I found a few bird shots taken during the greatest adventure of my life, a 17 day rafting trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. It was in August of 2013. I wasn't exactly birding at the time, but I was keen to observe any living things along the river as we floated along. On the third day out we passed a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) lurking in the grasses and sand along the riverbank.
The Herons are such stately creatures, and it seemed extra special to see one in such a dramatic setting. We were a mile or two downstream from Vasey's Paradise, a spot where small waterfalls burst out of the canyon walls. We were in the Redwall Limestone, a layer that is riddled with caverns and fissures. When exposed along the river, the groundwater flowed freely at the surface

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Western Kingbirds arriving in California: San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

One can tell when spring is coming around here in California's Great Valley. There's the greenery, of course, but (sorry, snowbound friends) it tends to be green most of the winter, the grass anyway. The real signs of spring are the comings and goings of the migratory birds. The geese and cranes are getting ready to start their long flights north to the Arctic while other birds, the tropical species, start moving in to spend the summer here.

One of the tropical birds is the Western Kingbird (Tyrannus verticalis). They spend the winter in southern Mexico and Central America, but spend the summers in western North America, with a few going as far as southern Canada.

Our excursion to the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge a week ago included several sightings of  Kingbirds. The sun was on the wrong side for sharp pictures, but I was pleased with the backlit shot above of one taking off. I'm sure we'll have several more opportunities this summer!

Monday, March 20, 2017

Wood Ducks on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail

Well, it's at extreme zoom, and a little bit fuzzy, but darn it I finally got a (semi)clear shot of the Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) that I know have been lurking about on my section of the Tuolumne River where it flows through Waterford. I was walking the Tuolumne Parkway Trail on the bluffs above the water treatment plant when I saw two large birds in the distance. They looked unusually dark for Mallards, so I zoomed in and saw that it was in fact the Wood Duck pair (the male is the colorful one).

I've seen them at least three times previously, but they've been hiding in the willows or so far away as to be impossible to clearly photograph them. Perhaps next time, we'll get some closer views.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Loggerhead Shrike Hunting at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

They're not uncommon, but it's rare for me to get close enough to a Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) for pictures (just twice, so far). I was at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge last week, and though the big and charismatic cranes, swans, and geese were there, they stayed far from the auto-tour road. We found ourselves concentrating on the smaller birds, most of whom are year-round residents. They included the owl chicks we saw, and this Shrike that was keeping an eye on things near the viewing platform at the entrance to refuge.

As I've mentioned in past blog posts, the Loggerhead Shrike is related to the songbirds, but behaves like a small raptor, eating large bugs, amphibians, small reptiles and mammals, and even other small birds. According to the Cornell Ornithology site, their population has been in a steep decline, perhaps due to ingestion of pesticides in their prey.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's an Owl! No, Wait, It's a Northern Harrier at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

We were at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge south of Turlock on Sunday, and saw a number of interesting birds, though not the migratory birds like the geese or cranes. Instead, we were seeing more of the year-round inhabitants of the refuge. The most interesting sights on that particular day were the half dozen Northern Harriers (Circus cyaneus) who were patrolling the grasslands. It's looking to be a pretty good year for the predators. The plentiful rains have produced a bonanza of grass growth and expansion of the wetlands, which in turn leads to rapid population growth of the small rodents who are prey for the Harriers.

At first the Harriers were a challenge to photograph. They were flying in large circles and were moving too fast to capture easily. We finally saw a gray male circling a thicket and his movements were predictable enough that I caught some fairly sharp pictures by letting him fly into the frame. The Harriers are remarkably similar to owls with their flat round faces. The shape gives them a better ability to hear the small rodents in the grass ahead of them.

As we approached the end of the auto-tour, one of the Harriers finally landed in the grass. It stayed still long enough to get a few more shots. The females are brown instead of gray.

The Harriers range from Central America to Canada and the Arctic, depending on the season, and are also found in Europe. They are year-round residents in the Great Valley. They are fairly easy to identify in flight because of the owl-like head, and a distinctive white band at the base of their tail.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Preparing for the Incredible Journey North: Greater White-fronted Geese at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge

In early October the birds numbered in the dozens or hundreds. By late November they were in the thousands and tens of thousands. And then, after a long winter, they are beginning to leave again, headed north to their breeding grounds in the Arctic. They include the Snow and Ross's Geese, the Cackling Geese, and the ones I saw yesterday, the Greater White-fronted Geese (Anser albifrons).
The Beckwith Road viewing platform will be closing soon as more and more birds abandon the refuge and fly north, so I made a last trip out yesterday to see who was still hanging around. There were perhaps a hundred or so of the Greater White-fronted Geese near the road.
Several thousand Snow Geese were visible as well, but they were down by the lake and not easy to photograph. All in all, in the warm sunny weather of the past week they felt like the last few hangers-on, reluctant to start the several thousand mile long journey to their summer home. Given the big storm scheduled for next week, maybe delaying a bit was a good idea...