Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Mute Swan Family on the Tuolumne River (and Swans in Europe)

There is a lake across from the Tuolumne Parkway Trail in Waterford that once served as a gravel pit or gold dredging pond. It's kept full by groundwater seepage, and is more or less inaccessible. There are two rich-looking estates along the shores. A few weeks ago, Mrs. Geotripper noticed that two swans were in residence, and photographs with the long zoom revealed that the swans had cygnets. They didn't get mentioned on the blog because at that distance, the pictures were a bit fuzzy. They were Mute Swans (Cygnus olor), and they are not native to North America. They are European, and they were brought to the continent in the 1800s to grace the palatial estates that were built in the image of the Old World architecture. The swans have done very well in urban environments, but can be a real problem at times with a voracious appetite and aggressive nature that can be a detriment to native species (not to mention kayakers and swimmers).
This morning I took a quick walk along the river trail and saw that the swans had come off the lake and were floating in the river itself, in a spot where I could get some pictures (if I didn't mind crawling through some willows, which I didn't). There were both adults (the species is monogamous), and four cygnets. They were a pretty sight!

Just because I saw this today on Twitter, I had to add in a picture from the flooded streets of Worcester, England, where the swans are native (courtesy of Weird History).


American Robins Nesting in St. Louis Area

American Robins (Turdus migratorius) are of course one of the most familiar birds in North America, although I don't see them all that often where I live in the Central Valley, with the exception of my MJC Mini-wilderness where more than a thousand wintered last year.  On my recent trip to the St. Louis area they turned up just about everywhere, and were the most visible bird I saw during my visit.
Two of them were nesting, one outside our hotel, and the other just outside the foyer where the wedding was taking place. If the bird was panicked about the dozens of people milling just below, it gave no sign.
A couple of posts are coming in quick order, as I am "clearing the decks" for my overseas journey to the Hawaiian Islands. There may be many birds to see, but probably little time to post!

Bald Eagles Nesting Near St. Louis

If you've been following my last few posts, you'll know that I was in St. Louis over the weekend for a wedding. Being not one of the bridal party, instead being just an uncle, I didn't have to get caught up in the maelstrom of wedding planning. The groom's father didn't have a lot to do on Saturday, so he took me kayaking on an 80-acre lake on the outskirts of St. Louis. One of the attractions, besides being my first kayaking "adventure", was a Bald Eagle nest along the shoreline.
I'm amazed, of course, that my camera didn't end up on the bottom of the lake, and we were able to float close enough for some good shots of the Bald Eagle family. Both parents were in attendance, along with one chick, which appeared to be getting reasonably close to being a fledgling.
Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) got treated rather shabbily for being our national bird. They were shot and poisoned almost to extinction in the lower 48 states, and the widespread use of DDT made things worse. They have recovered nicely, and are reclaiming much of their lost range. It was nice to see a thriving family in the Midwestern U.S.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

We Don't Have Blue Jays in California: Here's one in St. Louis

Even when I was young, I remember hearing from park rangers and others that California "doesn't have Blue Jays". California has Steller's Jays, Scrub Jays, and Pinyon Jays. But no Blue Jays. Which left me wondering what a Blue Jay actually was, and where a person could see one. Eventually I found that actual Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) are birds of the eastern United States and Canada. They are quite common, of course, but you have to be east of the Rocky Mountains to see them.

I'm in St. Louis this week, and so there are Blue Jays to be seen as easily as going into the back yard of my sis-in-law's place. It was dusk, and they barely ever stopped hopping from tree to tree, but here are some reasonable shots. 

Friday, May 20, 2016

When the Commonplace isn't so Common: Northern Cardinal in St. Louis

Certain birds are very common, so much so that it can be easy to "not see" them while looking for the other more unusual birds. Crows, for instance, or European Sparrows. And then there are birds that are interesting to look at even though they are common and easy to find. In our area of California, I would put Yellow-billed Magpies in that category. They can be seen by the hundreds on a given day, but someone who doesn't live in California's Central Valley would find them fascinating, even a great thrill to see for the first time. That's the situation I'm in this week. I have spent very little time east of the Rocky Mountains, and thus I haven't seen a great many kinds of birds that are common and widespread across the eastern United States.

So it was that I was standing in the back yard of a house in the St. Louis area today, when I saw a Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) up on the wire. My hosts weren't overly excited to hear that there was a Cardinal in their backyard, as that is something that happens pretty much every day. But it was the first actual Northern Cardinal that I've ever seen (in person anyway; they're on a lot of Christmas cards that I get!). And one can't deny that they are one of the showiest birds to be found anywhere.
It was dusk, so the shots a bit fuzzy, but I'll be here for a few more days, and I will try to get some sharper shots!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Ash-throated Flycatcher on the Tuolumne River

I guess I need to do more morning walks along the Tuolumne River. Yesterday's stroll yielded sightings of not one, but three birds new to my Parkway Trail list (up to 45 species now). One the birds was a first for me as well (the Bewick's Wren from yesterday's post). I've seen today's bird, the Ash-throated Flycatcher (Myiarchus cinerascens)  a couple of times, but not on the Tuolumne River (that doesn't mean it's rare, just that I haven't been observant enough to see them). This one stuck around enough for some pictures.

The flycatchers like open woodlands and riparian habitats, which means the Tuolumne is a pretty good place for them. Not surprisingly, they feed on bugs, but will eat fruits once in awhile as well. Like the Bewick's Wren, they are creatures of the American Southwest and Mexico.

I'm trapped in airport limbo for a bit, but I have a chance at some species from the eastern U.S. over the next few days. I'm sure I'll find time to post them if I see them!

Bullock's! Mrs. Geotripper Finds an Oriole

Durn it all. While I was busy conducting an outdoor business meeting for our upcoming field studies class, Mrs. Geotripper was serving as the official photographer of the event. But instead of taking pictures of her stunningly handsome husband holding the rapt attention of his students, she was catching a marvelous shot of a Bullock's Oriole (Icterus bullockii) that was taking in the proceedings from a high branch nearby.

We were out in the farmlands east of Turlock and Modesto. The Bullock's Oriole is a bird of open spaces in the American West, although they range south into Mexico.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Bewick's Wren along the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail

I took a stroll along the Tuolumne River early this morning, probably the final such stroll for at least a month. Field season has arrived, and I'm going to be in the air and on the road a lot for the next few weeks. I don't do morning walks all that often, and by golly if there weren't some new birds to be seen! I kept hearing a high-pitched trill in the willow-oak thicket, and I finally spied a Bewick's Wren (Thryomanes bewickii) singing away on a branch.
The identification was based on the beak size, the white eye streak, and the long barred tail (as always, I'll happily correct any mistakes. The Bewick's Wrens aren't exactly threatened, but they have gone into a steep population decline in the last few decades. They've essentially disappeared from the Eastern U.S. and Midwest. Their decline has been matched by the expansion of the range of the House Wren. The House Wrens will take over prime nesting hollows used by the Bewick's Wren.
The Tuolumne River Parkway trail follows two miles of the river where it emerges from the Sierra Nevada foothills onto the floor of California's Great Valley. It will have an opening ceremony on Saturday May 21st at 10AM if you are in the area. I'm already seeing an increase in foot traffic, and someone is almost always parked at the new lot at the western end of the trail. There's been more trash, too, unfortunately. People can be such slobs sometimes. I'm walking with a trash bag in hand these days. Most folks, though, are of the nice kind, and I mostly see people enjoying themselves.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Canada Goose Family in Tuolumne River Water (but not in the Tuolumne River)

It's a bit of an odd title, but I'll explain. This sweet little family of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) was feeding in the grass along a canal that feeds water from Don Pedro Reservoir into Turlock Lake Reservoir. They jumped into the fast flowing water as I walked over the bridge. So the water the geese were cavorting in was Tuolumne River water, but it wasn't the Tuolumne River. It was probably first diverted at Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park and sent through penstocks to produce electricity before stored once again in Don Pedro Reservoir. The water was then sent through the canal into Turlock Lake Reservoir before being divvied out to the irrigated fields of the Great Valley. Such is the complicated way we utilize our precious rivers.

Um...aren't Canada Geese supposed to be breeding far to the north in Canada? It seems there are more and more who like Central California during the summer and hang around rather than make the hazardous migration north. At times they become somewhat of a pest in parks and lawns. But those goslings sure are cute!

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Surprisingly Colorful Brewer's Blackbird at Mirror Lake in Yosemite Valley

Black is supposed to represent the total absence of color. It's white that can be broken up into the colors of the rainbow and all that. So I don't get quite as excited about totally black birds mainly, it should be said, because they are so hard to photograph. The black swallows color, perspective and depth. My apologies to Ravens and Crows, because I admire them greatly, being the most intelligent of birds. I also need to apologize to the Brewer's Blackbird (Euphagus cyanocephalus) for much the same reason. I see them by the thousands every day swarming over farmyards and cattle fields. They always seemed so totally black and plain.

That was until Sunday when I was walking along the shoreline of Mirror Lake at the upper end of Yosemite Valley. There was just one of them hanging around, and it landed right next to me on a fallen log. It's quickly apparent that up close the male Brewer's Blackbird is very colorful, with iridescent shades of purple, blue and green, set against those intense yellow-rimmed eyes. These birds are rather striking up close!
Mirror Lake is a good birding spot in Yosemite Valley. The "lake" is a ponded part of Tenaya Creek, caused by a huge rockfall a couple of hundred years ago. Tenaya Creek runs high during the spring and then practically disappears by fall. I've seen a number of different kinds of woodpeckers, Red-winged Blackbirds, and the ever present Stellar's Jay and Raven.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Northern Rough-winged Swallows on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail

I took my customary stroll on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail (still not completed!) this afternoon, and wasn't seeing a lot of bird activity, but the river was running clearer than normal, so I found spot where I could watch the water flowing from about 20 feet above. I finally realized that there were several small birds perched on a willow branch above the water. I zoomed in and got some pictures.

The pair of birds were unfamiliar to me, although their extremely long wings suggested that they were swallows of some sort. My best guess is that they are juvenile Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor), but as always I am pretty new at bird identification and would welcome an expert's judgement here [Postscript: Silver Fox is suggesting Northern Rough-winged Swallow (Stelgidopteryx serripennis), and I find it convincing; see comments].
They would occasionally fly out over the water, but the only quarry I saw them catch was a foxtail seed. Here's a short video; they were very cute.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Nuttall's Woodpecker, a California Endemic, on the MJC East Campus

I don't see them that often, but the Nuttall's Woodpecker (Picoides nuttallii) is a California original. There are a few rare sightings in southern Oregon, and a fair number of sightings in Baja California, but Baja is part of California anyway (international boundaries are human things). They are showy enough that they get sighted pretty often, but the total population is estimated at about 600,000 birds, with 99% of them in California state. They are mainly prefer oak woodlands, although they have fared well in urban settings as well. It was in fact an urban setting where I saw this one.
People wonder why I always have a camera close at hand, even when running mundane errands. In this instance I was rushing to join the graduation ceremony at MJC on Friday when I heard an odd sound in the tree above my parking spot. I looked up and saw the woodpecker practically over my head. So I put down the robes, and got my camera out! You just never know when you'll see something and wish you had a camera.