Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Ospreys nesting near Turlock Lake

I did a brief little explore on Sunday to the area around Turlock Lake and the Joe Domecq Wilderness on the Tuolumne River in the Sierra Nevada foothills. There were a fair number of birds out and about, including Meadowlarks, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Western Kingbirds. The attention-getter of the day were the Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus).
The Ospreys are common in the area, as the Tuolumne River and Turlock Lake both provide plentiful fish. It's nesting season, and I saw two different nests as I explored.
The nests are massive. According to Cornell, they can reach 13 feet deep and 7 feet across. It makes one wonder how the trees or poles don't fall down (or maybe they do).

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Western Kingbird on the bluffs above the Tuolumne River

I wandered out to the future river park in Waterford today, and saw my first Western Kingbird of the season. They spend their winters in Central America and migrate north to breed across the western United States. I saw quite a few of them last year, so I've been watching for their return.
The Kingbirds are in the flycatcher family, and like to spend time in open fields with high perches. They'll dive down to capture bugs on the fly. They are very territorial during the breeding season, sometimes chasing away much larger birds like Kestrels and Hawks.
From its appearance here, it looked like it was about to chase me off! Or yawning...

Friday, March 27, 2015

Gadwalls at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

I've no real excuse for it, but I've been slower about learning my duck species than I have with other groups of birds during my continuing education about the bird world. It's possibly because I don't have a lot of them hanging out at my two work sites, or because I'm often distracted by other "glamorous" birds like cranes, geese, and herons. But I am starting to notice that there are ducks that aren't Mallards out there. Our recent visit at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge offered a few nice photographic angles on some Gadwalls (Anas strepera).
Some describe the Gadwalls as being not all that colorful, but to me the intricate complex pattern of their feathers is far more interesting than a flash of bright color. From a distance they may be gray or brown looking, but up close, their feathers form a fascinating maze.
If I were a duck hunter, of course I would know the Gadwalls right away. They are one of the most popular targets after Mallards and Green-winged Teals. Still, their numbers are rising as humans restore some of the wetlands that have been destroyed over the years.
The females Gadwalls are very similar to female Mallards, but this one was staying close to the male, so I won't stress myself over a precise identification.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Great-tailed Grackles Return to CSU Stanislaus

The pond outside my office at CSU Stanislaus was a great deal noisier this week. It didn't take long to find out why. The Great-tailed Grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus) have returned north from their winter homes. The region was feeling a bit empty after the geese and Sandhill Cranes left for the Arctic over the last few weeks, so it's nice to know that other species are coming here for the summer. They have a piercing whistling call that echoes across the pond.
You can tell they put their all into shouting at each other...
The Great-tailed Grackles are a newcomer in our region. Unlike many bird species, they have been vigorously expanding their range over the last few decades. In this case, they are not exactly an invasive species in the manner of Starlings or Eurasian Collared Doves. They are native to northern Mexico and the border states, and they do well in association with humans, especially their parking lots and garbage cans. This report (click here) outlines the nature and timing of their expansion.
The males are iridescent black and are much larger than the females, who are more of a buff color (above). And they have amazingly big tails that look out of proportion to their bodies. They breed in a number of environments, but seem to favor reeds and cattails like those that are found on the margin of the pond at the CSU. As such, they may compete with Red-wing Blackbirds. In any case, with their distinctive call, they have the effect of livening up the place.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Western Bluebird at the Future River Park in Waterford

This little Western Bluebird (Sialia mexicana) might look bedraggled, but I think it's actually quite happy (the Bluebird of happiness?). Things have been quite dry out here (in case you haven't heard, we are in the midst of a horrific drought), but some of the irrigation canals are being primed, and there was an inch or two of water in the bottom. He was preening in the old tree next to the canal.

The canal is the one that passes through the future river park in Waterford. The park will be situated on some bluffs that overlook the Tuolumne River, and a stairwell will descend to the floodplain with a healthy-looking riparian habitat. I'm looking forward to the completion of the project, as I think it will open up some excellent birding possibilities. We will see...

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Northern Flicker at the MJC Mini-wilderness

The Northern Flicker is such a lovely bird. I've been seeing more and more of them, and I am having a hard time understanding how I could have missed them in the past. I've seen them near my house, at Chaw'se Grinding Stone State Park, at the Joe Domecq Wilderness Area, on the bluffs above the Tuolumne River (almost every time I wander down there), and the Turlock Lake State Recreational Area. This week was a new locality, and it was somewhat of a surprise: it was on the west campus of Modesto Junior College, in my little "mini-wilderness". The area had been overrun with thousands of robins for several weeks during the week, but they've moved on, and other birds seem to be taking up residence. Up in the highest tree I spotted a unique shape and snapped a quick picture, and found upon closer inspection that it is the first Northern Flicker I've seen on campus.

I said yesterday that the Cedar Waxwings are the most colorful birds found in our area, but the Flickers give them a lot of competition.

They're Out There. They're Watching You. Silently...

There are probably thirty birds in this tree...
Do you ever get the eerie feeling that you are being watched? I get it sometimes, and I'll look around and not see anything. At first. Can you see them? It's not the black things, those are old leaves. Or in the picture below. Can you see them?
And probably more than a hundred in these trees.
They can see you...they're watching you...

Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) are sweet little birds who grace my neighborhood only a few days or weeks at most out of the year. They're colorful and quiet and beautiful. But sometimes they freak me out just a little bit.
And more than a dozen here...
At sunset the other evening I really did feel like something was watching me as I got out of my car in my own driveway. I looked around and finally looked up into the flowering pear tree on our front lawn, and they were there. Dozens of them, none of them making a sound. I thought it was just a little eerie, like the birds in the movie "Birds". But really, they were just sleeping for all I could tell.
At least you can see these individuals. And they see you.
And then this afternoon I was walking and looking for birds, but somehow I just didn't see that they were filling a tree right in front of me. At least until the tree seemed to explode and fifty or sixty of them flew across the yard to another tree.
In any case, the Cedar Waxwings are back in the neighborhood for a few days, and I'm always happy to see them. I'm pleased that they like our pear tree so much that they'll spend a few nights there, creepy silence or not.
They may just be the most colorful bird found around these parts.
 You just have to try and not let that stare get to you...really, they're probably just sleeping...

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Wilson's Snipe at the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge

I've actually seen or identified several birds this week for the first time. One or two of them resulted from a first time trip over the Diablo Range on the "short cut" that leads from San Jose to Patterson in the Central Valley (note: it is, and never was, a short cut). The other was my quick trip out to the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge on Beckwith Road. There was little going on at the parking lot (they were plowing the fields, so no birds were hanging around). But there is a pond along Beckwith Road a half east of the viewing platform, and there were some unfamiliar birds hanging about.

I may have a picture or two in the archives of a Wilson's Snipe (Gallinago delicata), but I haven't gotten as far as identifying one yet, so this is a first. The Snipes are a mythical legend from my Boy Scout days of long ago. Our hazings were far less violent than any fraternities, and mostly consisted of "snipe hunts", going out in the darkness with a paper sack trying to convince the Tenderfoots that they could catch a snipe in their bags. I never suspected that the bird actually existed!

The Snipes are not uncommon, but they are shy and well-camouflaged, so are not seen all that often. With their incredibly long bill, they are obviously well-adapted for searching for tidbits in deep mud pools. Their eyes are set farther back in their heads, so they can in effect see threats coming from behind. Like your third-grade teachers, they have eyes on the back of their heads!

White-faced Ibis Flock at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge (and some geese too)

I took a short break at work this afternoon to see if anything was up at the Beckwith Road viewpoint for the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge. They have been plowing the refuge field where the corn feed was planted last fall, so I wasn't expecting to see many birds, especially since we are getting on into March. The Sandhill Cranes seem to be gone already, and the geese won't be waiting around much longer. Still, there are plenty of year-round resident birds, and I've learned that surprises can happen any time.

For instance, I stopped a few blocks short of the viewpoint because I saw a lot of birds at a different corner of the refuge and some of them were unfamiliar. I found a spot to park and walked to the fence and realized it was a large flock of White-faced Ibises (Plegadis chihi). I've seen ibises before, but mostly as individuals or in small groups. There were perhaps a hundred or more, heads mostly down feeding.
There were also several hundred geese visible in the distance. There were at least three species, the Greater White-fronted, Ross's, and maybe some Cackling Geese. It seems some of them still want to hang around.

I got frustrated trying to catch snapshots of the ibises (they kept their heads down while feeding), so I tried a short video instead. Enjoy!

Friday, March 13, 2015

An American Avocet and the Stages of Relaxation...

This is a bird that understands gravity. The American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana) is a common sight near freshwater ponds and marshes in the American west, although it suffered population declines during the 1960s and 1970s due to wetlands destruction, and the buildup of selenium in some areas. They are doing better these days.

I was watching this one working hard at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge the other day, and found myself fascinated by its long legs. It's gotta be tiring walking on stilts all the time. My attention was drawn to another bird that looked the same, but with much shorter legs. I realized it was another Avocet, but it was resting on its knees.
Finally there was a third bird that didn't look like the other Avocets, but that was because its bill was hidden. The bird was finally in a state of full relaxation, all folded up!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Great Horned Owls at Merced National Wildlife Refuge (and the 100th blogpost!)

Why do owls seem to scowl so much? In this instance, the reason is clear. Despite being on the road and in our car, the owl was not all that happy that we seemed to see her sitting in her nest. We were at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge providing a bon voyage for the geese that were still there, but of course we were looking for birds of any kind. As we drove through the barren trees of the eastern margin of the auto tour, we could see some large knots, but one of them resolved into a pile of sticks.
Sticks with eyes...
The Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) has proven to be a dependable sight at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge, as we saw them the last time we visited a month ago. But I've never seen one in a nest before. They tend to take over the nests of other birds and modify them to their own needs. It helps that they lay eggs weeks or months ahead of many other birds.
I guess the trees are leafing out soon, so we might not get the chance to see the nestliings on our next trip, but you can be sure we'll looking.

This has been the 100th blog of Geotripper's California Birds, a purely amateur birding site that I've been doing simply for fun. Part of the purpose is educational, of course, but mostly it's for the fun of getting exercise and exploring some of the corners of our valley that I did not know existed. I've posted photos of 80 different species of birds so far, and since beginning the blog in the middle of September of last year, I've had 8,600 page views. The most viewed posts were the Yellow-rumped Warblers in my back yard (323 views), the Anna's Hummingbird that Mrs. Geotripper photographed in our front yard (192 views), and the Killdeer I photographed at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge (155 views). I don't know why the warblers were the most popular, but I suspect it had to do with the name itself (but maybe someone learned something anyway). I have plenty of pictures in the archives and have no plans to stop our weekend excursions, so I may keep at this for awhile. I'm getting better at bird identification, but as always I appreciate any corrections and comments you have. But more than anything else I want to thank the small cadre of friends who read regularly!

Monday, March 9, 2015

Loggerhead Shrike at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

We headed out to the Merced National Wildlife Refuge for what we thought would be a final bon voyage to the Snow and Ross's Geese before they head back north to their Arctic breeding grounds. We did in fact see hundreds, maybe thousands of white geese taking flight in the evening, and they did not return while we were there. On the other hand we saw a great many beautiful birds of other kinds. It was a nice day.

The greatest thrill of the day for me was the sight that met me as we pulled up in the parking area at the far end of the auto loop. A pair of gray birds flitted past, and one of them was clearly a mockingbird. The other seemed similar yet different. It landed right in front of me, and I recognized it as a Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus). I got a pair of shots before it took off again.
It's not that it is a truly rare bird or anything like that, but it's only the second time I've seen one with camera in hand, and last time the picture was very fuzzy. 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. I felt lucky to have one so close yesterday.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Rock Wren at Turlock Lake State Recreational Area

It's the same place and maybe the same kind of bird, and it seems like Turlock Lake State Recreational Area is the place for me to see wrens. I'm relatively sure this is a Rock Wren (Salpinctes obsoletus), since the head is not as flattened as a Canyon Wren, but as always, I appreciate corrections.
It's too bad that it costs $11 to visit Turlock Lake. I suppose the entrance fee is high because of the boat traffic during the right season, but the lake is so low this year that boating isn't really feasible. On the other hand, we almost never see anybody else at the park. We went down to the campground in the park a little later, and the host seemed grateful for a bit of company. She made me feel like a bit of an expert (ha-ha) since I knew a fair number of the birds that she asked about.
It was sweet of the wren to hold still for awhile for pictures. I still note the lack of rocks for the wren to live in, but the notes suggest they use buildings sometimes as well. I'll be listening for the song as well the next time I can afford to visit!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Snowy Egret at CSU Stanislaus

We've met this beautiful bird before. It's a Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) that lives in the pond outside my office at California State University at Stanislaus. It's an irresistible photography target. It doesn't worry too much about people strolling by with cameras, and it's plumage is very showy.
Their feathers nearly brought about their extinction, as they were popular in 19th century fashion, and they were brutally hunted (according to Cornell, the feathers were twice as valuable as gold, ounce for ounce). They've been protected since the early 1900s and their numbers have rebounded. They are found all over South America, and across the warmer United States. The northern boundary states like Washington, Montana, the Dakotas, and Michigan don't get many chances to see them.
We're into March, and the bird migrations are beginning. I'm expecting to see some other exotic species making appearances in the ponds around the area soon. I'll keep you posted.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Western Meadowlark on the California Prairielands

One of the most beautiful of bird songs is that of the Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta). I have seen few of them during the winter months, when they spend a lot of time on the ground looking for bugs. They'll sing, but they won't show themselves all that much.

As the spring season arrives they become more visible as the males perch on fence posts and treetops to advertise for love and companionship. We took a drive out into what I call the California prairielands, an increasingly precious region that is losing ground to rapidly expanding (but unsustainable) almond orchards. One might notice the irony that our singing individual is perched on a young almond tree. We were on Warnerville and Willms Road east of Oakdale, are part of the prairie that is particularly beautiful right now (look for some views in a soon to be posted Geotripper blog post).

The Meadowlarks are beautiful birds (aren't most of them?) that range all across the west and midwest of North American continent. There is an Eastern Meadowlark that is barely distinguishable in appearance, but differs in song and feeding style. It is the state bird of six different states: Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, and Wyoming.

The Meadowlarks have powerful jaws and sometimes feed by using a method called "gaping" where they stick their long bills in the soil and open their beaks to access seeds and bugs. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology offers additional information about these fascinating birds.

Our bird stayed still long enough to catch a few seconds of singing. Enjoy!