Thursday, December 31, 2015

Sometimes Only For a Moment: Cedar Waxwings in the Backyard

Sometimes you only get the shortest moment. I was sitting in the backyard watching some small birds flitting among the branches when a small flock of five or six Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) landed in my Mulberry tree.
I got just a couple of shots, wondering if they were going to stick around. They didn't stay but maybe 10-15 seconds before heading west. At times during the winter, I've had flocks of fifty or more roost in our flowering pear tree overnight. They're kind of eerie at night because they don't make any noise at all. They just stare at you, if anything.
Obviously they are colorful and pretty birds. They love fruits and berries when they can get them, but will chase after bugs if they need to. Their chicks can survive on fruit alone which saves them from Cowbird parasites in the nest. The  Cowbird chicks can't live on the vegetarian diet.

The Flowering Pear didn't produce much fruit this year, so I don't know if I'll be seeing many of these birds in our yard this winter, but we'll see. You'll be the first to know!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Spotted Towhee on the Tuolumne River Parkway

Spottted Towhees (Pipilo maculatus) are another of those birds that drive me nuts by being hard to photograph. I've seen a fair number of them during my walks along the Tuolumne River near my home, but they are fond of hiding in the underbrush and rarely stick around when I walk by.

The Towhees are one of the largest members of the sparrow family. There is an Eastern Towhee species with a range in (surprise!) the Eastern U.S.that is very similar, but the populations were separated by the vast continental glacier that moved repeatedly into the midwest states during the ice ages. With different climate and habitat, the two groups diverged.
I was walking under a large oak tree along the River Parkway Trail in Waterford when I noticed the buff-colored bird. I thought it was a Robin at first but quickly realized the coloration was wrong. For once the bird remained still while I pulled out the camera and got a few pictures off. They aren't the best shots I could hope for (yet), but sunny days will come. One thing that doesn't come through in today's pictures are the incredible orange-red eyes. So you can appreciate them, I've included a shot from last November when I saw a Towhee creeping through the brush at the Joe Domecq Wilderness on the Tuolumne River.

Bushtit on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail

Bushtits (Psaltriparus minimus) are the essence of cuteness. It always cheers me to see them, and it always is frustrating to photograph them. They never, ever seem to sit still. There is an elderberry shrub along the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail in Waterford that forms a sort of bower. If I stand quietly in the middle of the bush, the birds will eventually ignore me and feed on the berries or bugs. That's how I got these pictures earlier in the month.
I got some pictures of Bushtits earlier this year in the same kind of bushes at Joe Domecq Wilderness Park. It never ceases to amaze me how diverse the birds are in this region. Prior to picking up my new hobby, I would never have noticed these diminutive little creatures.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Phainopepla on the Tuolumne River

I'm home form my Christmas travels, and immediately walked down to the Tuolumne River to see how the trail work was progressing. I wasn't expecting to see many birds in the middle of a cold gloomy day, but I actually saw several interesting species. Phainopeplas (Phainopeplas nitens) and I have a "rare" relationship. I like them and want to take sharp beautiful pictures of them, and they like to keep their distance. I got a distant shot when I was in the Death Valley region last year, and some decent shots of a female on the Tuolumne River in November. The only male I've caught on the river was hidden among the branches. So each time I see them, we've gotten closer to "that" picture. Not quite yet, but one of these days!

The male that I saw today was kind enough to stay perched in the tree top while I tried to hold the camera steady at full zoom. It worked pretty well, but a tripod would have been even better. They might be getting used to the geeky looking guy in the misshapen hat who keeps walking the river trail with a camera.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Black-necked Stilt at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge and a Hawaiian Cousin

I'm surprised to see that I haven't yet posted pictures of the Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanu) before. I see them often at the wildlife refuges in the Great Valley. They're also photogenic birds! With their long legs, they cast beautiful reflections in the water as they strut around, poking their beaks into the mud.
I guess it is the sheer richness of variety of the birds in our valley. I go to a refuge, collect a large number of images, and before I've posted them, I'm distracted by a different trip and images.

The Black-necked Stilts are common on the mainland, and their numbers seem secure for the time being. They depend on freshwater wetlands, so their populations could be threatened by habitat loss. They feed on small fish and insects in the shallow waters.
Thousands of years ago, a few stilts were blown off-course, and somehow survived a 2,000 mile journey to the Hawaiian Islands. In the isolation they found there, they evolved ever so slightly from their mainland cousins, and are now considered a subspecies called an ae'o. With their favored habitat being in short supply on the islands, their numbers are not large. There are only about 2,000 of them, few enough that they are considered highly endangered. I've been privileged to see them a few times on my visits to the islands. One of them is in the picture below.
Ae'o, the endangered Black-necked Stilt of Hawaii


Thursday, December 24, 2015

Some Geese and Swans for Christmas Day

I was trying to think which birds are appropriate for Christmas day wishes, and I couldn't get much farther than "The Twelve Days of Christmas", with partridges, turtle doves, french hens, calling birds (colly birds), and of course, the six geese a-laying and seven swans a-swimming. There are some who think that all twelve gifts are birds out of Celtic legends. I'm in no position to analyze the veracity of the claim, though.
Out of the long list I was able to pick out the geese and swans, since they've arrived in our area for their winter sojourn in our local wildlife refuges. The first two pictures are Ross's Geese (Chen rossii), the smaller of the two white geese. All of them were hanging out at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge a week ago.
The larger Snow Goose (Chen caerulescens) has a longer beak with a black lip. The geese often flock together in huge numbers. There is nothing quite like seeing tens of thousands take flight all at once.
We will sometimes see Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus) at the local refuges as well.
Merry Christmas and a wonderful holiday season all around. May you find blessings as numerous as the birds who fill the skies! And here's hoping for a wonderful new year as well! Thanks for reading!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Long-billed Dowitcher at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

It's a new bird today! Not a rare bird, just a first for this beginner. We were at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge to see what the migratory birds were up to. They seemed to be mainly feeding and roosting elsewhere, as we only heard some distant Sandhill Cranes, and watched just a thousand or two Snow Geese along the auto tour. We weren't disappointed, because we don't visit just for the geese. We always see a wide variety of species, and today was no exception. Our birds of the day were a couple of Long-billed Dowitchers (Limnodromus scolopaceus).
These members of the sandpiper family have ridiculously long bills, which I suspect has something to do with the name they were given. They use their bills to probe for worms and bugs in the mud. The birds breed in the far northernmost lands of Alaska and Canada and migrate to Mexico and coastal areas of the southern and western United States for the winter.
The Merced National Wildlife Refuge is one of our favorite spots for bird spying. No matter the season, we've seen something of interest, though winter is especially interesting when the geese and cranes are around. We saw hundreds of geese at the viewing platform near the beginning of the auto tour.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Yellow-rumped Warblers in the Backyard

I've seen a lot of interesting birds in the last few months, both with traveling out of state and on local field trips. Sometimes it is easy to forget that there are times when the birds will come to you. I haven't had a lot of chances to sit in the backyard, but the falling leaves are forcing me to do some work out there. While I was doing the requisite yardwork, I remembered how surprised I was to find that there were some cute birds practically under my nose. In particular, a dozen or so Yellow-rumped Warblers (Setophaga coronata) spend the off-season in my Mulberry trees. I just don't see them as much until the leaves fall.
Of all the backyard birds, only the Mockingbirds seem less concerned with my presence. There are lots of finches and house sparrows, but they retreat if I come out on the porch. But the warblers don't seem to change their behavior. If anything, judging from the top picture, they are copping a bit of an attitude!

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

Hawks for me are skittish. Probably with good reason, they don't like it much when humans get too close. So, although I see them often enough, the pictures I get are often pretty distant and fuzzy. We were on our way home after Thanksgiving and made a stop at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge near the town of Willows in the northern Great Valley.
There were lots of birds out and about, as this is the big migration season, but some of my favorite shots were of this juvenile Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). It was perched in a tree only 20 or so feet away from our vehicle. Mrs. Geotripper had to point it out to me because I was focused on distant birds and simply missed it hiding in the foreground!
Actually, It's not such a surprise that I didn't see it right away. The color pattern on its breast was an almost perfect camouflage against the branches and leaves. 
As always, I'm always a bit unsure of my hawk identifications, so I happily accept corrections.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Anna's Hummingbird at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

We've completed our Thanksgiving journeys through Northern California and Oregon, and we made our traditional stop at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge in the northern Great Valley. This is a marvelous time of year, with thousands of migratory birds stopping in for the winter (you can expect to see plenty of pictures in future posts), and quite a number of year-round residents as well. My first choice from the pictures of the day was this little Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna) taking shelter near the refuge visitor center. It's been a frigid couple of days (parts of California were colder than northern Alaska yesterday), and I would have worried about this little one. The metabolism of these birds is such that they are always within hours of starvation, and must consume a significant percentage of their body weight every day, especially in cold weather (they are tropical birds at heart). The refuge has planted some native shrubs outside the visitor center, so there were some flowers even in this cold weather to provide food for the hummingbirds.
The Anna's Hummingbird is more or less a California endemic with a historic range in Southern California and Baja, but it has expanded its range north to Vancouver with human habitation providing secure food sources for winter.

After seeing tens of thousands of geese, and dozens of raptors, it was such a shock to see this one little bird all by itself. I guess that made it stand out today.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Bald Eagle on the Umpqua River near Reedsport, Oregon

I guess this was my week for Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). I hadn't seen any for the better part of a year, and then I see two in the space of four days. This one was a lot closer than the bird I saw flying with the pelicans on Tuesday.
We were on our way to our Thanksgiving gathering in central Oregon, and stopped for a few minutes at the Dean Creek Elk Viewing area on the Umpqua River near Reedsport on the coast. We were there to see the elk, but there are almost always some birds about as well. We were leaving when I noticed very large bird in the tree down the highway. There were some Ravens nearby, but this bird seemed larger. Much larger. Although it was silhouetted in the sun, my zoom lens confirmed the shape of the beak and the white head. 
It's no surprise an eagle would be found here, as the river is a haven for salmon. The eagles are expanding their range in the lower 48 states after nearly being extirpated by DDT and illegal hunting. There are one of just a few conservation success stories.

It would have been a shame to drive our national bird to extinction...

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Bald Eagle among the Pelicans at the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge

I was out at the Beckwith Road Platform this afternoon, seeing how the Cackling Geese and Ross's Geese were faring in today's rainstorm. The rain had actually cleared out and I was treated to the awesome sight of thousands of the geese taking flight for some reason or another. But that's not what I'm writing about today.
I was talking to one of the Fish and Wildlife managers, and he hinted that I should be on the lookout for a Bald Eagle that had been hanging out at the refuge the last few days. As luck would have it, I saw a large bird in the distance, flying along with, or in front of, a flock of American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos). I thought it was a hawk with flying geese at the great distance, but the camera zoom showed different.
The birds seemed to be following a parallel pathway. Bald Eagles sometimes prey on Pelicans, or least their nestlings. They're also not averse to stealing fish from pelicans.
I wish the pictures were a bit sharper. The eagle was probably a quarter or a third of a mile away, so I really appreciate the zoom on my camera! A few moments later, I caught the eagle perching on a post in the distance. 
I have some closer shots of a Bald Eagle at Turlock Lake, and in a life and death struggle with Great Blue Herons in Victoria, British Columbia. Check them out!

Monday, November 23, 2015

First Sighting of Cedar Waxwings this Fall!

One if my favorite times of the birding year is the arrival of the Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) in our area. I saw a flock the other day on campus, but they were far away, as was my camera. This afternoon I took a short break at Fox Grove on the Tuolumne River between Modesto and Waterford.
I saw another flock of yellowish birds in the distance, and the telephoto confirmed it was a group of Cedar Waxwings. There were maybe two dozen of them in the dead cottonwood tree.

The birds come through the region while migrating between the tropics of Central America and Canada. They are year-round residents in the northern states. They feed primarily on fruits, which protects them from the nesting antics of cowbirds: the cowbird chicks can't live on the fruit diet and generally don't survive. The waxwings will supplement their diet with the occasional bug, however.
I'm hoping they'll return to the flowering pear in my front yard soon. They always surprise me when they arrive, because they are almost motionless and silent when they bed down for the night, and I therefore don't notice them except by chance. Then I feel a little creeped out as they stare at me...
Fox Grove is a 64 acre county park along the Tuolumne River between Modesto and Waterford. Some of the park is groomed (and ecologically barren) grass, and there is a large colony of feral cats. On the other hand, a lot of the park is recovering riparian habitat, and there are some good birding opportunities. I haven't spent a lot of time there, although I saw a Hooded Oriole there last spring.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Black-chinned Hummingbird on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail

I've hesitated putting these pictures up, because I'm not fully confident in my identification of these birds as Black-chinned Hummingbirds (Archilochus alexandri). We are only seeing them from the back, and Anna's Hummingbirds or others also have green backs. It's just that the only times I have seen them from the front, they were Black-chinned.
The picture above is one of the most unique angles I've ever caught of a hummingbird! The first two pictures are from one month ago, but I caught the picture below just this morning. I'm glad to see the birds survived through what we hope is the end of the drought. These birds are a true western species, and are not found east of the Rocky Mountains.
As always, please let me know if I've missed the species identification! I'm still new at this.