Saturday, February 28, 2015

Nuttall's Woodpecker at Horseshoe Pond on the Stanislaus River

I've been on somewhat of a tear with woodpeckers of late. There was the Northern Flicker along the Tuolumne River bluffs, as well as a Downy Woodpecker at Turlock Lake Reservoir, the first one I've seen on my bird travels (they're not rare; I've just not been observant). So, the other day we were exploring around Horseshoe Pond on the Stanislaus River, and one more kind of woodpecker made an appearance. It was a Nuttall's Woodpecker (Picoides nuttallii).
Horseshoe Pond appears to be an abandoned gravel quarry that is fed by groundwater. The Stanislaus River follows a bend on the south side of the pond. The site is shaded by cottonwoods and oak trees, with willow thickets as well. It was established as a park in the aftermath of the construction of New Melones Reservoir in the 1970s. The parks were to make up for the loss of a beautiful stretch of river upstream from the dam.
The Nuttall's Woodpecker is a California species, seen in oak woodlands from Northern California to Baja. According to Sierra Nevada Birds by David Lukas (my latest acquisition in the birding book department), the bird is not particularly well-known or well-studied, at least in the Sierra Nevada region. This is supported by the very limited information on the Cornell birding site, mostly single sentences about the bird's nesting feeding habits. Though the bird lives in oak habitat, it doesn't eat acorns. Instead it searches for insects in the bark of trees. Today's bird was a female; the male has a red spot on the head.

What will the next woodpecker be? The Stanislaus County bird list shows 3 more relative common ones (Lewis Woodpecker, Red-breasted Sapsucker, and Hairy Woodpecker), and two more that have been seen, but only rarely (Red-naped Sapsucker, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker). I'll be watching!

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Red-tailed Hawk (?) at the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge

I admit it. Hawks confuse the heck out of me. There are so many morphs and variations in the many kinds of hawks that I pretty much lose any confidence I had in identifying them. Take this beautiful bird, for instance. It was enjoying a meal of a snake or lizard on top of a pole on the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge along Beckwith Road west of Modesto. My default judgement for just about any dark brown hawk with a light breast is Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). But I didn't get a good look at the upper side of the tail (I understand it is often "red").
So I look around a bit, and realize that a Swainson's Hawk (Buteo swainsoni) has some morphs and variations that look a great deal like his bird. Take for example this shot from the Cornell bird site, upon which I depend on a great deal:
Source:, picture 4

My hawk is missing the white parts on the face and neck and the white edges on the shoulders, so I still lean towards the Red-tailed ID. But the chest and belly coloring...

Anyway, this would also be a bit early to be seeing the Swainson's Hawks, as they like to spend their winters in Central or South America, and migrate north more in the late spring season.

The funny thing, I fall into the same trap I try to teach my geology students to avoid. Don't depend on the pictures you find of minerals to identify them! Use the physical properties. The bird guides say don't depend on the pictures of the birds! Use the field markings. And I'm still learning those.

So basically, I'm no expert yet on bird ID, and need to work on my confidence. Is it a Red-tailed Hawk, or something else? Gentle corrections and derision are tolerated pretty well here. I'm mostly having lots of fun catching these photographs, and I know I'll get better over time....

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places...

Late last month I chronicled the sad quest of a Ring-necked Pheasant hen trying to break into the bird paddock on our west campus agricultural area. She has been pretty insistent, and was still hanging around as recently as last week.
I was surprised today to find a male Ring-neck trying to do the same thing! It wasn't having any better luck at joining the flock inside the cage as the hen did a few weeks ago. But it wasn't for lack of trying.
As I've mentioned before, the Ring-necked Pheasants (Phasianus colchicus) are an introduced species (in the 1880's), and they have spread all over the United States. They are one of the most popular of game birds, and it isn't unusual to see them in the grassy tussocks around the dairy farms I drive through on the morning commute.

But not this one. This one really wanted to meet the ladies on the other side of the fence, having gotten all dressed up for the event. I fear it was disappointed...

Monday, February 23, 2015

Downy Woodpecker at Turlock Lake Campground

Okay, I was half-joking when I said in the last post that I would try to capture photos of a Downy Woodpecker for the next post, but that turned out to be what happened. We made a short excursion out to Turlock Lake in the afternoon to see what was out and about, and down in the campground area there was a Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) in the tree above us.
The Downy Woodpecker is among the smallest of the Woodpecker family, and size is one of the ways one can distinguish it from the similar Hairy Woodpecker. The bill is shorter, too. It looks a bit like a Nuttall's Woodpecker, but the Downy has a white patch on the back, as today's did.
As is my usual pattern, I got a very fuzzy picture on the first attempt (two days ago), barely enough to identify it, and on the second try (today's attempt), I got sharper pictures, but not great ones (then again, do I ever?). Next time they will be marvelous!
The Downy Woodpecker is common and ranges widely across North America from Alaska to the Mexican border and the Eastern Seaboard. They are mainly missing in the deserts of the southwest. Which means I should have noticed them a long time ago!
Speaking of getting sharper, nicer pictures on the third sighting, check out the nice sharp sunlit photo of a Northern Flicker that was hanging out in the next tree over from the Downy Woodpecker. It was in interesting day, and a few more birds from this afternoon will make an appearance on the blog.

Northern Flicker on the Tuolumne River Bluffs

I was back down at the future river park on South Reinway Avenue, where the bluff overlooks the Tuolumne River. I've seen more than twenty species of birds in my few trips so far, and added two more today. But every time I've been down there, I've seen a Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus). Today there were two of them, a male and female.
The males have the red cheek spots, and the females don't. I didn't see them interacting, as they were on opposite ends of the park property. 
The Flickers are woodpeckers, but they don't search for much of their food in trees. They mostly consume ants and other insects on the ground (note the behavior in this previous post). They will peck at the ground in the way other woodpeckers peck at trees.
Like many other birds in North America, the Flickers, while still common, are in steep decline, due for the most part to habitat loss. There are approximately half as many as there were fifty years ago.

The Northern Flickers are beautiful colorful birds. I was pleased to be finally getting some sharper photos of them. There's a Downy Woodpecker lurking in the vicinity that I would like to catch next time.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Mute Swans on the Tuolumne River

I'm finding I might have a new favorite local birding site. A week or two back I was looking for some additional access on the Tuolumne River where it flows through Waterford. I knew that plans were on the boards for a two mile river trail, but I didn't realize there were plans for a park at the far end (I've spent a fair amount of time at Appling Park on the upstream side). But there it was on the GPS map: South Reinway Park just south of the town's high school. I went down to have a look.

It's not at all developed yet, so it consists of a large overgrown field, a smattering of oak trees on the bluff edge, and a steep cliff leading down to the floodplain of the Tuolumne River. There is fair amount of riparian habitat on the riverbed with lots of birding possibilities, but no access yet. The cliff is sheer. The view is nice, and extends across the river to a pond formed when a gravel quarry was abandoned. It filled with groundwater. I don't know if the Frantz Nursery allows access (their employee parking is adjacent), but I'll try to find out sometime.
I saw two Canada Geese the other day, but this morning the pair of water birds looked different, i.e. they were totally white. The zoom lens confirmed that they were swans, specifically Mute Swans (Cygnus olor). They are not native to North America, but have established breeding populations in many places. I don't know if these are escaped domestic swans, or feral ones.
In three quick visits to the site, I've seen a White-tailed Kite, a Red-tailed Hawk, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Western Bluebird, a Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, one or two kinds of Vireo, Yellow-billed Magpie, Northern Mockingbird, Scrub Jay, Turkey Vulture, European Starling, American Robin, Golden-crowned and White-crowned Sparrows, American Goldfinch, Crow, an Egret, and Canada Goose. A friend in the neighborhood reported a Bald Eagle a few days ago. Twenty-plus species in three short visits.

I expect there will be more in days and weeks to come!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Bird of the Day: What the Ground Squirrel Was Worried About...

We decided to avoid some traffic by parking along Dry Creek in downtown Modesto as the sun was setting. While we were there, we saw a bit of drama, although it was of the nuanced type. There were lots of Ground Squirrels living on the stream bank adjacent to the creek, and they were noticeably nervous, pacing, standing, and not going more than a few feet from their burrows. I looked around to see what was upsetting them, and eventually noticed a branch in the distant oak tree that didn't look exactly like a branch. I whipped out the camera (which I use in place of binoculars) and figured out what they were worried about.

How would YOU feel if you were only eight inches tall and saw this in the trees above you?
The Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus), as I've noted before, has a very strange distribution. They are widespread around the eastern United States from New England to Texas and into Mexico. Then there is a west coast population, confined to Alta and Baja California, although a few have been noted in Oregon and Arizona.
Dry Creek rises in the Sierra Nevada foothills south of Jamestown, and flows through central Modesto where it joins the Tuolumne River. Although it does not have a wide riparian forest, a string of majestic oak trees can be found along its course in the Great Valley, and I need to spend more time finding what birds live there.

Dry Creek is supposed to be dry as the name suggests, but during the summer season irrigation overflow tends to keep the channel wet. In winter it is prone to flash floods, as very little snow falls along its upper reaches, so water gathers quickly during storms. Last year the channel was dry throughout most of the winter season as we suffered the third year of drought.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Bird of the Day: Phinally, a Phainopepla! And a Phemale Too!

It's a little bit phuzzy, but I phinally got a phew pictures of a Phainopepla! Your bird-brained host blogger has been traveling in some isolated country the last few days, but I'm finally back on the internet today. There are some pretty nice bird habitats in and around Death Valley National Park, but we saw few birds during our journey, mainly Ravens, House Sparrows, and a few House Finches. It was a little worrisome to me. Death Valley has a surprising amount of water in the right places, and there should have been more activity.

Just the same, we made a short gas and restroom stop for the students at Shoshone, California, a small village just east of Death Valley National Park. Despite the dry desert conditions, the area is a marshy oasis due to groundwater being forced to the surface. The spot is used as a stopover spot by migratory birds, but there are year-round residents as well, and one of them is the Phainopepla (Phainopepla nitens). It is a member of the silky flycatcher family, and is the most north-ranging of the group. They have been recorded in my area of the Great Valley, but I have yet to see one there.
Shoshone has several signed bird trails, and I really need to find some time to roam there more freely. I literally had just ten minutes to get these pictures, which may explain their fuzziness. The birds were keeping their distance from the manic looking guy with the camera who was running and snapping pictures at the same time!
A female Phainopepla

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Bird of the Day: I Don't Know, But Don't Really Care Anyway

So here are two birds. I couldn't identify them, although I suspect they are geese, based on the way they were flying. They are probably of the Canada sort, although thousands of Snow Geese, Ross's Geese, and Greater White-fronted Geese are wintering in the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge, which is only about eight miles away as the goose flies.
 Of course, I was actually taking a picture of the rainbow this afternoon after a real gully-washer roared through town, the first rainstorm of any sort in six weeks. The drought is not over yet.
The setting was hardly idyllic. We were in a Walmart parking lot in town, but we had literally four minutes to do what we could with photography before it faded.  There was no running out to a pasture or bird refuge this time, although I would have loved being out at the Beckwith Road viewing platform at a time like this!
The photo below might be a first for me, a nearly complete rainbow. My new camera has a pretty wide field of view. Enjoy

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Bird of the Day: Red-shouldered Hawks on Superbowl Sunday

More birds from an extraordinary day of bird-watching, last Superbowl Sunday. We decided to head out of town, and hadn't even made it to the bridge over the Tuolumne River when I spied a colorful looking hawk on a telephone pole. I don't see a lot of hawks inside the town limits, so I stopped and got a couple of pictures. It's a Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus), a medium-sized raptor with a very strange distribution. They are widespread around the eastern United States from New England to Texas and into Mexico. Then there is a west coast population, confined to Alta and Baja California, although a few have been noted in Oregon and Arizona.
We continued down the road to the Bear Creek Unit of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge near Los Banos, passing dozens of hawks on the highway, but at the refuge, there was another Red-shouldered Hawk posing for us. It turned out to be quite a day for raptors (except the ones from Seattle...)

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Bird of the Day: American Kestrels at the Merced and San Luis National Wildlife Refuges.

Superbowl Sunday turned out to be a great day for seeing raptors and other hunters at the local bird refuges. I got a few shots of some American Kestrels (Falco sparverius) at two different locales, the Merced National Wildlife Refuge (above), and the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge (below). The bird, which has been called a sparrow hawk, is actually a falcon, the smallest of the American species.

The kestrels have been struggling, with only about half the population they had in the 1960s. Most of the decline comes from habitat loss, including the clearing of fields with tree snags that they prefer for nesting.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Bird of the Day: Tundra Swans at Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Winter in Central California is a special time. We never see the beautiful snow crystals covering the land in a wondrous blanket of white, unless it happens to snow in the mountains and we go up to visit it. And that's fine with me. I have no desire to shovel snow off my driveway!

No, winter is special for a different reason. The tundra and muskeg of northern Canada and Alaska serve as the breeding grounds for an astounding number of migratory birds. During the long days of summer there is plenty of food, and they are adapted to deal more or less successfully with whatever predators are around. But for obvious reasons, the birds and their young don't stick around to see what it's like in the cold dark days of winter.

Instead, they make their way thousands of miles to the south and spend the winter along the Pacific Coast and southwest states. By the hundreds of thousands they spend their days in a string of Central California wildlife refuges including the San Joaquin River and San Luis National Wildlife Refuges near my home base at Modesto. One of the most special to me is the Merced Unit, because in six different visits over the last year, we've never failed to be awed by the number and variety of birds to be found there. Sunday was no exception.

I had already watched the Superbowl ads online, and had no emotional attachment to either team in the big game (unlike some of my Seattle-area relatives; sorry, y'all), and Mrs. Geotripper wistfully noted that she has never seen a wild swan. I thought about it and figured that of all the places we might look, our best chance would be the Merced refuge. It has not let us down yet.

We took a brief drive through the Bear Creek unit of the San Luis NWR where we saw a lot of raptors, but then we drove a few miles more to the Merced NWR auto tour, a six mile gravel road that traverses part of the refuge. A mile in I saw a huge pillow sized "thing" floating in the water off in the distance. After a seemingly long time, it's neck came up and I realized we had found what we were looking for: the Tundra, or Whistling Swan (Cygnus columbianus).
Don't these two look like they are bowing to each other?

After a moment, a second swam into view, and around the next corner we saw half a dozen more.  It occurred to me that we've probably seen them in the past, perhaps missed among the tens of thousands of Snow Geese and Ross's Geese that winter at the refuge. They are beautiful, graceful birds.