Friday, October 17, 2014

Bird of the Day: Golden-crowned Sparrow on the Tuolumne River

We took an early fall stroll along our Tuolumne River in Waterford where it flows into the Great Valley from the Sierra Nevada. At this point the river is lined with huge oak trees with an undergrowth of some young Cottonwoods, Willows, and Trees of Paradise. It seems like it would be ideal bird habitat, but I don't usually see a whole lot of birds. It might be the feral cats, or the dogs on the adjacent properties. Or maybe I'm just not paying enough attention...
We were down in the river channel and I looked at the oak trees on both sides and realized they had all kinds of birds flying about. They were spending their time in the canopy where we couldn't see them well from below. There were lots of woodpeckers, scrub jays, mockingbirds, magpies, several kinds of finches, and a number of small birds I couldn't identify. An Egret flew above on its way upriver, and even higher a Red-tailed Hawk soared. When we finished our stroll, I saw a sparrow on the fence and realized it was not the usual House Sparrow. The yellow head with black streaks identified it as Golden-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla). I've only recognized it once before (remember, I'm still new at this!), and it stuck around long enough for pictures.

The Golden-crowned Sparrow apparently isn't a year-round resident around here. They breed in the far north and spend the winter in California and northern Mexico. They are closely related to the White-crowned Sparrows and are thought to have branched off from them in recent geologic time. The White-crowned Sparrows are found across North America while the Golden-crowned are mostly a west coast species.

The Tuolumne River is a real treasure. It has its more famous sections up in Yosemite National Park (Tuolumne Meadows and the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne), but it adds a thread of life to the arid floor of the Great Valley where I live. I could be accused of taking it for granted sometimes (though I disagree, mostly), but had a small realization the other day. Mrs. Geotripper was looking at some pictures a friend from southern California had posted, and asked "Do you know where this river is?" Her friend had called it a bit of paradise. I looked and realized she was talking about the river in our own backyard. The friend just happened to be visiting our town, and recognized just how precious the river was.
I expect there will be plenty of other birds to report on as the season progresses...

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