Saturday, March 28, 2020

The Natural World Goes On: The Bullock's Orioles Arrive!

These are interesting weeks in the bird world. As spring ramps up many of our winter "snowbirds" have left, on their way to Arctic regions to breed for the summer. It would feel like a real loss, but at the same time we are starting to see the arrival of some colorful migrants out of the tropics. I saw the first Western Kingbirds earlier this week, and yesterday I had a pleasant surprise of coming upon a Bullock's Oriole (Icterus bullockii) feeding in the wild tobacco plants by the Tuolumne River. They're among my favorites (although I'm really partial to blue; I am really hoping to run across a Blue Grosbeak or Lazuli Bunting soon).

Shades of yellow and orange are breaking out all over. Golden Poppies are blooming right now along the river.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The Natural World Goes On: Western Kingbirds arrive on the Tuolumne River

Life is uncertain right now, and things are chaotic, but it is sometimes nice to know in the midst of sadness and troubles that the natural world continues, and beauty is still all around us. I've been trying to keep some balance by getting out on the Tuolumne River Trail (usually by myself of course), and today including a treat.

It's always a pleasant surprise the first time you see them. They will be here by the thousands in a week or two, but there are always those few leaders who arrive before the others. When you see one for the first time you might mistake it briefly for a mockingbird until you see the bright flash of yellow on their frontside. These are the Western Kingbirds (Tyrannus verticalis), and they've arrived on the Tuolumne River this week. I saw two of them this morning. It's a sure sign that spring has arrived (the first one seen in our county was literally on the day of the spring equinox).

The birds have been wintering in Mexico and Central America, but soon they will be all over the United States and southernmost Canada to breed during the summer.

Stay healthy all. Hiking and walking while maintaining physical distance is still allowed, and is safe if you avoid any crowds.

Friday, March 13, 2020

The Bashful Great Horned Owl at Robert's Ferry Bridge



There's a beautiful covered bridge on the Tuolumne River a few miles upstream from my town called the Robert's Ferry Bridge. It's not the original, which was damaged in the 1997 flood, but it is nicely designed complete with walkways on both sides. It's a nice spot for birdwatching, and in the spring it is a great spot to look for nests. Ospreys, Black Phoebes, and Cliff Swallows raise their young there, but the one I look forward to the most is the arrival of the Great Horned Owls (Bubo virginianus). They've used the same corner for a couple of years, and so I've been watching for their return.

I finally saw one of them today, and it clearly saw me, but I sure didn't see much! Were it not for the eye, I would have missed it entirely. I hope to see some babies in a few weeks.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

An Irruption of Red-breasted Nuthatches in Modesto

Well, maybe or maybe not. Irruption is not a terrible geologist misspelling of what volcanoes do, but is instead the rapid migration of a group of birds into an area where they are not commonly seen. They can be caused by many factors, most notably a seed or cone failure in areas where the birds normally range. Several birders in our county (Stanislaus) have noted a relative increase in sightings of Red-breasted Nuthatches (Sitta canadensis), which I can confirm because I actually saw one for myself this week on the campus at Modesto Junior College. Looking at the eBird map of Red-breasted Nuthatch sights this year does show a cluster of sightings in the town of Modesto.

The Red-breasted Nuthatches are pretty little birds, and I am thrilled every time I'm privileged to see one. They are found all over the United States and Canada, but they tend to prefer conifer forests of the north, and large-scale irruptions may involve many thousands of the birds invading the southern states. Ours probably are originating in the Sierra Nevada, and I suspect that when they invade our valley habitat, they are expressing a preference for the conifers that are often used for landscaping in our city environments.

In any case, this is the second time I've seen this individual in a week, high up in a pine tree next to the sheep enclosure on our west campus. Today was the first time I was able to catch a clear shot.

Friday, February 21, 2020

It's Back! Or it Never Left...Hooded Oriole on the Tuolumne River

Hooded Orioles (Icterus cucullatus) are beautiful birds that winter in the tropics and visit our region for the spring and summer, adding a bright splash of color to our river environment. There is a set of palm trees where they nested for at least the last two years, and I was delighted every time I spied one of them during my walks.

So it was that last December 4, and again on December 11 I saw a male and female in the palm trees, at a time when only three Hooded Orioles were known to be anywhere in the entire state of California. It was a shock, but then I didn't see them again all through January and most of February. At least until today. I actually searched the palms pretty carefully hoping the orioles were still around with no luck, but then mere moments later I saw the male on a tree in a backyard just down the street. It stayed still long enough for pictures, and then as it flew off I thought I saw a second one, but I couldn't be sure.

These could be super early spring migrants, but I suspect these are the same birds I saw in December, and that they stayed in the region. But if they did stay, they hid well because I watched for them every day as I walked the trail.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Preparing for a Long Journey...The Sandhill Cranes of the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge


These last few days have been truly beautiful in the Great Valley of California. A couple of weak low pressure systems blew out the dust and pollution and we've had a series of gorgeous sunrises and sunsets. I had a few minutes after a lab today, and decided to see what was going on at the viewing platform at the north edge of the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge. One never really knows what to expect...last week there were around 10,000 Snow and Ross's Geese gathered in a single gigantic flock near the road. It much different tonight. The Snow Geese were off in another part of the refuge, and the fields were being patrolled by hundreds and hundreds of Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis).
The cranes have been here since September, wintering in the mild climate of the valley. But the season is starting to feel more and more like spring, and the birds are getting restless. Within a few short weeks they'll be gone, headed north towards the Arctic to breed and fatten up during the summer months.
Sandhill Cranes are one of the most dramatic species to grace our local environment. They are large birds, standing almost four feet tall, and they have a unique style of dancing when they are flocking together. I'm going to miss their purring call when they're gone, but it's nice to know we can look forward to their return once the weather starts to turn cold again.


Sunday, February 2, 2020

Who Knew a Bird Day Would Have Headlines Everywhere? Happy Superb Owl Sunday!!

I know today is Superb Owl Sunday, but I was surprised to see all kinds of headlines about it in the newspaper and on the internet. And I'm really confused about what the San Francisco 49ers have to do with bird-watching. I mean, I could see it if we were talking about the Seattle Seahawks, or the Atlanta Falcons or some such. But in any case, HAPPY SUPERB OWL SUNDAY!

Here are my latest owl shots to celebrate with. The first one, above, is from last Friday. It's a Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus). We were at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge and had completed most of the auto loop. There is one last group of trees that we always check out because there are often a few owls hanging out and Friday was no exception.

The second picture is a Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) that I saw last November on the north shore of Turlock Lake, in the midst of the California prairie. They are never abundant in our county, and none have been noted yet this year.
The last picture is a Hawaiian Short-eared Owl, or Pueo (Asio flammeus sandwichensis). To say it my most recent picture is technically correct, but it is also my only picture of a Pueo. I took it in 2009 while traveling with students on the island of Kauai. The owl is native to Hawaii, and is a subspecies of the widespread Short-eared Owl.

Have a great Superb Owl Sunday, and happy hunting for your own owls. I mean, what else are you gonna do today?