Sunday, January 31, 2016

Mute Swans and Clearing Storm at Dawson Lake, Sierra Foothills

Another storm came through this morning, one of half a dozen this month that have dropped five inches of rain on the valley floor. That's not a complaint, not in the least. The drought remains, and every drop counts. We are actually ahead of normal rainfall and snowpack for the first time in five years.
The sun came out in the late afternoon, so we ran up the road to Dawson Lake near La Grange in the Sierra Nevada foothills. It was windy and cold as the last of the storm clouds drifted away, so not many birds were out and about. There were two Mute Swans (Cygnus olor, which translates to "swan - swan") on the lake.
Mute Swans are the birds of legend and myth in Europe and Asia, but they are not native to North America. They were brought here in the 1880s for the "enhancement" of ponds and gardens. Many escaped, and they have spread to various localities across the country. Because of their voracious appetites and aggressive nature, they have displaced native birds, including some rare and endangered species.
Just the same, there are just two of them at Dawson Lake, and they are graceful beautiful birds. They were a very nice complement to the rippling lake waters and setting sun. The storms are clearing out, for now.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Sandhill Cranes at the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge (and an unwelcome visitor)

One of the finest moments of my day comes on Tuesdays when I have a spare hour between the end of a lab and evening office hours. The Beckwith Road viewing platform on the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge is only about ten miles away.
In those few moments, I can drive out to the refuge just as the sun is reaching the horizon, and see what the migratory birds are up to. In the late fall, it began with the Aleutian Cackling Geese. They were there by the tens of thousands. In those first weeks, their honking was deafening.
Then the Snow Geese and Ross's Geese began arriving in large numbers. Few sights are more astounding than to see thousands of them taking off as one. During this time, the Sandhill Cranes were ever present, sometimes closer, sometimes farther away. The Department of Fish and Wildlife plants the fields with corn, and as the winter progresses, they will mow different parts of the crop, keeping up a constant supply of food for the hungry birds.
As the winter starts to drag on, the corn has been all mown, and the food starts to run a bit short. That's when observations become fun, because the birds start searching for corn at the edge of the field near the road. They became a great deal more tolerant of passing vehicles, and drivers using their cars as photography blinds. That's the way it was yesterday, when I was able to get quite a few shots of the Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis).  The are grand, elegant birds. Their strange call at a great distance almost reminds me of purring cats. It feels like the sound carries for miles (you can hear some here:
As I was leaving in the twilight, I saw something moving between the refuge and the Stanislaus River off to the north. It is clear that the birds sometimes have good reason to be vigilant and cautious!

Friday, January 22, 2016

Greater White-fronted Geese and Friends at the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge

Greater White-fronted Geese at the San Joaquin NWR
Between storms this week, I made the drive out to the viewing platform on Beckwith Road west of Modesto, on the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge. It wasn't easy! The roads were flooded in places, and mud covered parts of the access road. But the birds were certainly there.
Greater White-fronted Geese and Aleutian Cackling Geese
There were thousands of them, but unlike earlier visits, they were spread out and were intermingling with each other. There weren't the flocks of tens of thousands of a single species. It might have been the time of day, but I think there was an element of resources. Most of the maize fields have been cut down now, and they seem to have eaten most of the food. That may have caused them to spread out and graze much closer to the road, where the corn hadn't yet been completely consumed.
Greater White-fronted Geese. The name comes from the white patch behind the beak.
The birds I noticed the most were the Great White-fronted Geese (Anser albifrons). They are winter migrants, breeding far to the north in the Arctic. They were mingling with Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens), Cackling Geese (Branta hutchinsii), and Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis).
Greater White-fronted Goose and a Snow Goose

Conditions weren't the best for photography, given the overcast and late afternoon, so the pictures are a bit more fuzzy than I would like. But who cares, really? I was away from the hustle and bustle on campus for a few precious minutes, seeing beautiful creatures.
Sandhill Cranes at the San Joaquin NWR

It's still January, but I'm already feeling like they'll be gone soon, headed back north for the summer. I'll be hanging on to the precious moments while I can.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Cooper's Hawk on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail

The press of a new semester and other complications have kept the birding expeditions to a minimum of late, but I got down to the Tuolumne River today to check on the progress of the Tuolumne River Parkway trail. It's going slowly, but there have been some improvements at the western end at Reinway Park. With the stairway access completed, it's now possible to walk a loop instead of out and back.

I didn't see all that many birds, but I think I saw the same hummingbird three different times. I was concentrating on getting pictures, but I had that feeling that I was being watched, perhaps in the way I was watching the hummingbird. It took a while, but I finally saw the hawk perched in the oak tree on the slope above. To the best of my knowledge it was a juvenile Cooper's Hawk (the "best of my knowledge" is a limited thing; it could have been a Sharp-shinned Hawk or other species)
This Cooper's Hawk patrols the section of river between the water treatment plant and the stairwell. I say so only because I've seen this particular hawk a half dozen times, generally around the same three or four trees. It's certainly not a bad environment for a Cooper's, as there are many small birds (their main prey) living in the underbrush along the river.

The River Trail is certainly looking different these days. The trees are barren of leaves, but the grass is thick and green. It's been a while since things have been green like this. We have a few more storms on the way, and it would be nice if we could have an above-average year. The birds would appreciate a bit more growth along the river too.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Birds of MJC: A Bevy of Bluebirds

Happy New Year! May you be blessed by the Bluebird of Happiness this year!
It's taken a long time to post my first birds of the new year. There has been a lot going on, and none of it in the form of birding. But that changed a little bit today.
If you aren't one of my local readers, MJC refers to the school where I teach, Modesto Junior College in California's Great Valley. It's turned out to be a pretty nice place to watch for birds. There are the many normal urban birds, the gulls, crows, mockingbirds, and Scrub Jays. But there is also a drainage sump on the campus dating from World War II that has grown into a small woodland that approximates a pond ecosystem and wild bird habitat. I've identified more than forty species so far on campus.
I was on campus today preparing for the new semester that begins on Monday. There were very few people out and about, and in their absence, the small birds were active all across the campus quad. The reason was obvious: some of the decorative trees still had lots of berries to eat. What are those pink berries, by the way? I'm not a botanist (and many would say not a birder either).
"I don't know either, but you can't have mine"
I haven't seen Western Bluebirds (Sialia mexicana) in months around here (they may have been around, I just miss them). There were at least a dozen of them on the quad today. I was delighted. Without all the students walking by, they didn't seem to mind the tall guy with the camera.
I think they spend the summer in the Sierra foothills and higher mountains, and move down into the valley for the winter. 
The females are the more drab of the two sexes. They have a bit of a blue blush but are mostly gray on top. Both sexes have the buff and white in front.
It was so nice to see them again!