Saturday, May 30, 2015

Lark Sparrow in the Motel Wilderness, Cedar City, Utah

My bird discoveries can't all be Golden Eagles. I'm on the road and seeing a few new species during my travels. I prefer wilderness/natural settings, but sometimes you see things in the midst of urbanity. There was a lot of bird noise outside my motel window this morning, so I ventured forth into the Motel Wilderness to see who was out and about. The "wilderness" was a grass/sagebrush meadow behind the motel at the south end of town. Among the House Finches and English Sparrows I saw an unfamiliar sparrow. I got several decent shots and headed back upstairs to see who it was.
What does this expression mean?
It turned out to be a Lark Sparrow (Chondestes grammacus). It's not rare, and they live in California too, but this is the first one I've seen and identified. According to the Cornell guide, it is so distinctive that it is the only member of its genus in the United States. The head markings certainly caught my eye.
Look for a few more common birds in coming days. I've learned some lessons about the variety of those little gray birds lurking in the brush!

Friday, May 29, 2015

Golden Eagle in Kanab Canyon, Utah

Geotripper has been out of California for the last week, so the next few posts include some out-of-staters. We were driving on Highway 89 just north of Kanab, Utah when we saw an interesting looking detour, Angel Canyon Road. Midway down the scenic road we somehow spotted a raptor high up on the cliff. I got out the camera to zoom in, because it didn't look at all like the expected Red-tailed Hawk.
It was the legs. The feathered legs strongly suggested a Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), and the shape of the beak confirmed it. I took what pictures I could from the great distance, and it wasn't until much later that I noticed that we had interrupted the eagle's lunch.
We got one last shot as the eagle took off to the south. It was a neat surprise after a long day on the road.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Looking at the World for the First Time: Tree Swallow Chick at Cosumnes River Preserve

I was picking someone up at Sacramento Airport today, which gave me a chance to stop and wander a little at the Cosumnes River Preserve between Stockton and Sacramento.  Maybe this is a bureaucratic nightmare, but the preserve covers 50,000 acres and is managed by not less than seven agencies: The Nature Conservancy, Bureau of Land Management, California Department of Fish & Wildlife, Sacramento County Regional Parks, Department of Water Resources, Ducks Unlimited, and the California State Lands Commission. Their management meetings must be a lot of fun! Still, they've done a good job of protecting a wide swath of river bottomlands, ponds and grasslands along the Cosumnes. I took a three mile loop trail from the visitor center (off Twin Cities Road at I-5) that turned around at the Cosumnes River. There weren't an overwhelming number of birds out and about, but as I followed a trail down to the river I was buzzed by a few Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor). I didn't realize what the ruckus was about until I noticed a nesting box right next to the trail. Something was looking at me. And what a sour face!
I immediately realized the problem and backed off. The Swallows were concerned about their chick (or someone's chick, I couldn't be sure), who was looking out on the world, but wasn't quite ready to emerge from the nest and start exploring. 
It's the quiet season at the preserve as it transitions into the summer and much of the wetlands dry up. The river will be running all year though, so I'll check it out when I can. It's a pleasant place to hang out while waiting for a plane to land.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Yellow-rumped Warbler in the Yosemite High Country near Bridalveil Creek

The high country of Yosemite National Park is just beginning to come into spring. The snow melted early and the spring will be short, but the woods are starting to come alive with bird songs. We took a short camping trip last week, taking advantage of someone's canceled camp reservations, which gave us time to explore Glacier Point Road. There is a nice little meadow near Bridalveil Creek that is a nice stop to gather in the peace and quiet before braving the crowds at Glacier Point. It's a nice spot for spotting birds.
The most colorful bird we saw in the meadow was a Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata). It was hopping about in the forest duff, and eventually flew into the Lodgepole Pines lining the edge of the meadow. The birds are good at clearing out bugs in the forest, especially some of the beetles that are capable of killing the trees.

The Yellow-rumped Warblers are common birds all across North America, although they are only seen during the migration season in parts of the midwestern states. In their breeding season, they are one of more colorful birds you'll see in the region excepting maybe the Tanagers.
How Yosemite looks without granite cliffs!

Thursday, May 14, 2015

White-headed Woodpecker at the Mariposa Sequoia Grove in Yosemite. And Bears.

It's been a slow week for blogging, but a busy week where everything else is concerned. I've got plenty of bird backlogs, so I will start trying to catch up. Today's feathered friend is a White-headed Woodpecker (Picoides albolarvatus) who was busy exploring the forest at the Mariposa Sequoia Grove in Yosemite National Park. We were visiting the park on Sunday after I scored the single remaining campsite in Yosemite Valley (a lucky moment where someone canceled). We spent a few hours in the grove, listening to a large number of birds and enjoying the peaceful scene.
When we left the grove and started down the highway, we saw a touron traffic jam up ahead. A mother bear and cub had just crossed the road and were doing their thing in the forest, and of course everyone had to stop and take pictures. Including me, of course. I did have the good sense to find a safe parking spot, but I could be judged on the fact that I was standing on the edge of the highway with a steep drop on one side, a bear on the other, and traffic driving by. But, by golly, it was bears!
P.S.: Lest you think I was being totally too close to the bears, they were 150-200 feet up the hill from me being good and doing bear stuff. I have a very nice zoom on the camera.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Hooded Oriole at Fox Grove on the Tuolumne River

The Stanislaus Audubon Society publishes a guide called "The Birding Sites of Stanislaus and Merced Counties" (available through the website or from the store at the Great Valley Museum). It's a great resource for finding birding locations in our region, and it had one almost cryptic passage about Fox Grove, a fishing access park on the Tuolumne River between Modesto and Waterford. It mentioned only one kind of bird: the Hooded Oriole (Icterus cucullatus). I hadn't seen any yet in my birding adventures, so I stopped by the park for a few minutes this afternoon. I didn't really think I would see anything, but the sun was setting, the birds were chirping, and a hawk was screeching in the trees above. I saw a few other birds, but then I saw what looked like an oddly colored bird very high in the palm trees, and snapped a few shots. They are a bit fuzzy, but I realized a short time later that I had my first Hooded Oriole! I'll be working as I always do to get sharper pictures the next time around.
The brightly colored Hooded Oriole is more of a tropical species, spending much of the year in Mexico and Central America. During the summer they move north for breeding purposes, and we live pretty close to the northern margins of their range in California. They prefer desert oasis environments with their palm trees, but they have done well with the ornamental palms found in much of central and southern California. They build unique hanging nests among the palm fronds.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

A Doomed Romance in One Act, and Red-winged Blackbirds at the Willms Road Pond

Well, the romance was over quickly. One display of those bright red shoulder epaulets from the Red-winged Black Bird (Agelaius phoeniceus), and the Western Kingbird (Tyrannus verticalis) was completely unimpressed. Off to greener pastures for both of them.
We were on our short excursion on Willms Road near Knights Ferry in the Sierra Nevada foothills when we stopped at our favorite little stock pond out on the California prairie. There are usually some interesting birds hanging out, including the Kingbird in the above drama. We almost always see a crowd of Red-winged Blackbirds in the tules and rushes.
The Red-winged Blackbirds are hard to photograph. It's not so difficult to get the bright flash of the red shoulder epaulettes, but unless the light is just right the black body is featureless. I got lucky with a couple of shots this time, with the sunlight reflecting off the feathers of the breast and head of this individual.

The Blackbirds have a melodic song that is sometimes a high-pitched whistle. The males seem to always be busy trying to catch the attention of the ladies. I guess it is the equivalent of catcalls from construction workers in New York...
The stock pond on Willms Road (two or three miles south of Knights Ferry on Highway 108/120) is our local barometer for the severity of the drought. Most years in late April or May, the hills here are still green, but not so much this year. Compare how it looked in March. The pond has water, but perhaps not as much as it should (it's sometimes hard to judge, as the outlet has suffered some erosion damage so it may not be possible to completely fill the pond anymore). It's one of our favorite spots for a few minutes of serenity that's not all that far from home.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Close Encounter with an American Kestrel near Knights Ferry

We took one of our short excursions yesterday, into the low Sierra Nevada foothills near Knights Ferry on the Stanislaus River. The region is part of the fast-diminishing prairies and grasslands (almonds are the new gold in agriculture around here). We saw several birds here and there, but eventually we started home. We must have passed 200 Meadowlarks, Goldfinches, and Western Kingbirds perched on the fences, but as we approached Highway 108 I saw an unfamiliar shape and stopped down the road. I took a distant shot and realized it was an American Kestrel (Falco sparverius).
I wondered what it would do if turned around and came back up the road (slowly). To my surprise, it didn't seem to care that we were there and I was able to snap a series of extraordinarily close pictures. I've taken a few shots of Kestrels in the past, but never this clear. They are strikingly colorful birds.
The Kestrel is common across North and South America, but their numbers have declined by almost half during the last fifty years, due in part ot habitat loss, and from pesticides that kill some of their principle prey species such as grasshoppers. They are the smallest of the falcons, and sometimes fall prey to the larger raptors.