Sunday, February 28, 2016

A Different Kind of California Snow: Geese Getting Ready to Fly at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

A juvenile Snow Goose

Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens) are a big part of winter here in California. They shelter in the string of national wildlife refuges up and down the valley, and in those refuges they can cover the ground like snow.
I was at the San Joaquin NWR a week earlier, and saw few Snow Geese (two, to be exact), so I could be forgiven for thinking they had already started north on their migration, but yesterday at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge, I realized they are still here, by the thousands.
They won't be here much longer, of course. They've been storing up energy for the long flight ahead to their Arctic breeding grounds. It's going to be a lot quieter on the refuge.
The gray birds in the foreground are Sandhill Cranes
There is nothing quite like seeing thousands of Snow Geese taking to the air all at once. One can't always see what causes the mass flights, a marauding hawk, a coyote, or an idiot tourist, but if you are nearby, it sounds like a jet plane. Somehow they invade the sky without knocking each other down.

I didn't catch the moment of liftoff, but here is a short video of Snow Geese filling the skies at Merced yesterday.

Horned Lark on Willms Road in the California Prairie

I saw a bird the other day for the first time. As usual, it's not because the bird is rare, but because I'm not the most observant birder out there, with only two years of careful watching. It was a Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris), a denizen of one of the most endangered of California habitats: the vernal pool prairie.

Better pictures will have to wait for another day. They were far out in the grasslands, and I was at extreme zoom. I thought we were seeing Meadowlarks, but realized that something was different about them. The Horned Larks consume mostly insects, which makes the grasslands an ideal place for them. They are found from sea level to 13,000 feet, and range across all of North America, from southernmost Mexico to the northernmost arctic barrens. Despite their adaptability, their numbers have been plummeting over the last fifty years.
The California prairie is an endangered habitat because it has been mostly converted to agricultural fields. 95% of the Great Valley is under the plow, for instance, and the less fertile lands of the Sierra Nevada foothills have been given over to grazing. The lands are for the most part are privately owned. The area we were exploring is currently being used for grazing, but tens of thousands of acres just to the west have been ripped up and planted with almond trees. The water used for irrigating the trees is coming from irreplaceable groundwater.

In these foothill environments, an impermeable clay layer prevents some rainwater from percolating underground, forming vernal pools that will persist for weeks at a time. Numerous endemic plants and animals have adapted to wet-dry environment. Animals hatch, grow and breed quickly, leaving eggs than can lie in the soil for years sometimes. Flowers have an equally quick life cycle. They were just beginning to bloom when we passed through.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Sandhill Cranes taking flight at Merced National Wildlife Refuge

I haven't mastered "birds-in-flight" pictures. There are sports settings on my camera, but I never think of them when I'm outdoors shooting at everything in sight. That being said, there were majestic things happening in the skies above the Merced National Wildlife Refuge today. 
I was at the San Joaquin NWR a few days earlier, and it seemed on the verge of empty, as if the big migratory birds like the Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese were already on their way north. I was mistaken in my perception it turns out. When we arrived at Merced, there were thousands upon thousands of geese and cranes out and about. Many seemed to be doing some flight workouts, getting ready for the big journey north that will begin very soon.

Knowing that they'll be gone soon makes every moment precious. The Sandhill Cranes are such graceful beautiful birds, and all the more so when they are soaring through the skies.

Lest the Snow Geese feel slighted, here are a few of them as well
The big northern journey begins in a few weeks. The refuges will be quieter, but other migrants from the south will be arriving to take their place. The refuge is interesting in all seasons.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Great Horned Owls on the California Prairie on Warnerville Road

It's been a rich week for birdwatching. I made it back to the Tuolumne River after a month long absence, I got out to the Beckwith Road viewing platform at the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge, and then yesterday, Mrs. Geotripper and I headed out to the California prairie and vernal pool habitat, a unique landscape in the Sierra Nevada foothills. I've ended up with week's worth of posts, including some new birds. But this moment on Warnerville Road was pretty special.
There's a spot where an intermittent creek crosses road, and there is a high terrace of volcanic tuff (the Valley Springs formation) which many animals call home. Last March I got a picture of a raccoon in one of the holes dug out the cliff, and there are usually lots of swallows and finches near by. I always watch for Burrowing Owls, but I haven't been too lucky with them yet.

It looked like someone had put a log or something in the top hole along the cliff, but I was immediately sure it was something else. When I zoomed in with the camera, I saw this extraordinary sight...

There were two Great Horned Owls (Bubo virginianus) in there! I seen Great Horned Owls on any number of occasions, but I've never had them completely disregard my presence. I didn't even have to get out of the car to get a series of nice shots.
Great Horned Owls have one of the widest ranges of any bird in the Americas, being found as far south as Argentina and Urugway and as far north as Canada and Alaska. I've featured them twice on this blog, but not with pictures as nice as these.
I'm assuming this is a mated pair, maybe even with their chosen nest site.
I know we aren't supposed to anthropomorphize birds, but owl expressions sure seem to cover the gamut of emotions, even if they don't. I see perturbed, surprised, bored, curious, and unconcerned in these pictures.
It was a privilege to spend a few moments with them, even if at a distance.

By the way, which photograph do you prefer? I couldn't choose my favorite.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Anna's Hummingbird on the Tuolumne River

Spring is springing on the Tuolumne River! I saw quite a few birds on my recent stroll down the Parkway Trail where the Tuolumne flows into the Great Valley. There was a blooming fruit tree along the trail, and I thought I could see something up in the top, and the zoom lens caught the small hummingbird sitting in the luxurious growth of flower petals. It must be a relief to have flowers blooming after the hard times of winter.

I think it's an Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna), based on the shape of the dark feathers across the breast, but I couldn't make out any other identifying marks. I'm open to correction if I am wrong!

Monday, February 22, 2016

Away from the River Too Long: Nuttall's Woodpecker on the Tuolumne

A combination of extensive travels and orthopedic problems have kept me away from my own backyard wilderness along the Tuolumne River. It's been a month or more, so I headed down today to see how the spring bloom was progressing.

I saw more than the normal number of birds, including a first time sighting of this one, a Nuttall's Woodpecker (Picoides nuttallii). I've seen them in the area, but not on the river before. Nuttall's Woodpeckers are very nearly one of the few California endemic species, with a range that extends just over the Mexican border (1% of their population lives there), and maybe just a little bit into Oregon. They prefer the oak woodlands that are so prevalent in the state, although they don't eat acorns. They're usually chasing down insects, and occasionally some fruits.

The River Parkway Trail is "nearing completion" as they have been saying for months now, but it is walkable, and spring is beginning. Some of the nut trees are reawakening, and the grass is knee-high. A few flowers are starting to appear here and there. It was a delightful return to strolling along the Tuolumne River.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Great Blue Heron at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

Some birds are just plain majestic. We were at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge a couple of weeks ago, and while we watched for beavers in the Salt Slough a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) landed a few yards away.
The herons are a familiar sight in wetlands all across North America, but I never fail to be impressed by their grace and beauty. Except when they are chasing my goldfish in the backyard pond (which thankfully has only happened once).
The San Luis National Wildlife Refuge is part of a nationwide network of wetlands and other habitats that protect hundreds of species of birds and other animals. Their very existence is a recognition that we are stewards of the planet, and all creatures that live on it. That philosophy is under attack in some quarters, and the armed takeover of the Malheur Refuge in Oregon was a horrible and repugnant example of the mindset of a small minority. I wrote about this a short time ago at Geotripper:

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Cedar Waxwings on the Modesto Junior College West Campus

I was just too busy to take my usual Tuesday quick drive out to the San Joaquin Refuge this afternoon, so I settled for a walk around the campus. I haven't done it in a while, and I realized that spring was well underway. I saw something like 15 bird species in the space of 20 minutes or so. One of my favorite discoveries today was a pair of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum). They pass through our region on their migrations, so it is a treat when they stop for a bit.

The name "waxwing" derives from the orange spot on the wings. It's a waxy secretion that may have something to do with attracting mates, but who actually knows? (not Cornell anyway).

Double-crested Cormorants at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. Would Hitchcock be Proud?

It was a beautiful evening at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge between Turlock and Los Banos. We were along Salt Slough, a tributary to the San Joaquin River, watching beavers or muskrats and various small birds flitting thorough the trees. But we couldn't shake the feeling that we were being watched...
I looked harder into the trees to find that we were being watched. I had a momentary thought of scenes from a Hitchcock movie concerning avians instead of aliens, but it was clear the birds were simply settling in for the night.
They were a flock of Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus). They are the most common Cormorant in the United States, with a range that includes the entire lower 48 states and Alaska.
These birds probably could be forgiven if they harbor anti-human impulses a la "The Birds". They were hunted and shot in large numbers a century or more ago, and in the sixties they were nearly done in by the use of DDT. They've rebounded and are generally doing well in most places.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Western Meadowlark at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge - Their Land and Ours

These Western Meadowlarks (Sturnella neglecta) were out and about yesterday at the Tule Elk enclosure at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. Spring is just around the corner; the grass is already green and growing, and the trees can't be far behind.
 We were out on a 'lark', and ended up at the refuge. As we drove along the autotour, I was reflecting on the horrible events at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, where armed thugs took over the park headquarters and threatened to kill anyone who tried to root them out. It angered me beyond words, but I wrote words anyway over at Geotripper (link here). But as the bird songs continued I relaxed and ended up thoroughly enjoying the afternoon sojourn.
The Western Meadowlarks were singing for mates, and it seemed that practically all the other birds were as well. After four years of drought and dryness, it was so nice to see an explosion of life.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Sandhill Crane Heads at the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge

Does it seem like there have been a lot of Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) in my blogs of late? There's a reason for that. They're going to be gone pretty soon.
Oh, not from extinction so far as I know. But gone from this area. It's February and spring is coming soon. They will be moving north back to their breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska. I'm going to miss them.
I'm still getting cloudy afternoons on Tuesdays when I can get out to the Beckwith Road platform overlooking the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge so the zoomed shots are still a bit unfocused. But the birds have been roaming closer and closer to the road. The reason is, of course, food.
The cornfields have long since been mowed down, and the voracious cranes and geese have eaten a lot of the food in the refuge. They've avoided the cobs remaining near the road, but now that area is one of the "good" spots for foraging, so they have been close enough for some detailed shots of their faces and heads. And thus today's post.
Since taking up birding, the cranes have been one of my favorite local "discoveries". I had no idea that they spent winters here in the Central Vally, just a short drive from my workplace. By the tens of thousands!
I wish them well on their arduous journey. In the meantime, I'll keep shooting and posting until they're gone!
Arduous journey? Say what?