Monday, October 16, 2017

Red-shouldered Hawk on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail

I haven't seen too many Red-shouldered Hawks (Buteo lineatus) of late. The last ones I got pictures of seem to have been in 2015, and the only one on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail was a juvenile. So, maybe this is the same one, grown up now. I couldn't say. But it was a pleasant surprise to see it perched on the dead cottonwood tree below the water treatment plant.
The Red-shouldered Hawks have a strange distribution. They are common and widespread across the eastern United States and eastern Mexico, and then there is a broad swath across the Midwest, the Rocky Mountains, and Great Basin where they are almost never seen. And then in California, they are common. The separation has produce evolutionary changes, with four distinctive subspecies in the east, and one in the west.
The Red-shouldered Hawks are territorial, and unlike many in the east who migrate with the seasons, they remain in California year-round. That obviously means I need to pay better attention if I want to see this one again.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Snowy Egrets Foraging at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

One of the most beautiful birds to be found in our area (and one of my favorite blog subjects) is the Snowy Egret (Egretta thula). There is one that hangs outside my office at CSU Stanislaus and which is accustomed enough to humans to allow some fairly close shots.
They are a bit more cautious at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. They tend to fly off when our car approaches them on the auto-tour, but this pair didn't seem to care too much. It was a pretty quiet day, with few people wanting to put up with the windy conditions (that didn't stop us, of course).
These egrets are lucky to still exist. For a time a century ago, their feathers were worth twice as much as gold, ounce for ounce. They were used in hats and fashion ensembles. They were almost eradicated for this rather stupid reason (beavers would probably sympathize). Efforts to protect the species early in the 1900s were among the first of conservation laws in the United States.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Can't Escape the Feeling You Are Being Watched? Great Horned Owl at the Merced NWR

Have you ever had a feeling that someone...or some thing...was watching you? I did the other day at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. We were there to see what migrants from the Arctic had arrived, but we always watch for owls when we visit as well. Even though it has been dry for these last few drought years, the Bittern Marsh Natural Trail has usually provided views of one or two. The leaves are still on the cottonwoods, though, and so the owls tend to remain well-hidden.

Including this one! I stopped to look around and slowly realized this Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) was over my head and barely twenty feet away. I didn't want to startle it, but I had done so simply walking the trail, so before I could back off, it flew into some adjacent trees.
The owl was more comfortable 150-200 feet away, and I was able to get some decent shots with my zoom lens I guess that both of us were happier that way.
The Merced National Wildlife Refuge is about as ideal habitat for these owls as can be imagined. The pools provide waterfowl as prey, but so do the open grassy fields. Numerous mature cottonwood trees provide cover for nesting and roosting. We almost always see some, although not often close enough for decent pictures.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Sandhill Cranes Arrive at Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Let's face it. The Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) are one of our most charismatic local species, and the fact that they spend much of the year elsewhere makes their arrival a moment of celebration. I saw my first ones of the season more than a week ago, but they were hundreds of yards away, and the pictures were pretty fuzzy.
We headed out to the Merced National Wildlife Refuge this afternoon to see what was happening there, and we were pleased to see a fair number of migrants, including hundreds of Greater White-fronted Geese, a thousand or more Sandhill Cranes, and even five extra early Snow Geese
According to a gentleman at the viewing platform, there are 7,500 Sandhill Cranes at the refuge already. I had to believe him because he had an expensive spotting telescope and camera (snark), but he did have the look of a diehard birder (expensive equipment but trashy car). It was an exceedingly windy day, so the birds may have been sheltering elsewhere. Still, I was happy to get a few clearer shots than those I got last week.
The Merced National Wildlife Refuge is one of my favorite birding destinations in the Great Valley. The five-mile auto tour always provides plenty of viewing opportunities (I got pictures of at least seven species worthy of a post in just the two hours of our visit; we saw dozens of species total). It is south and west of the town of Merced on Sandy Mush Road (and I always wonder how that road got its name).

Saturday, October 7, 2017

A Not Exactly Black Brewer's Blackbird in Bishop, California


I guess the birds are where you find them. Brewer's Blackbirds (Euphagus cyanocephalus) are exceedingly common in my home territory, roosting by the thousands on telephone wires and trees around the city. But it's not all that often that I see one up close.

I was in Bishop, California last weekend on a short break from our geology field studies, enjoying breakfast at the Schatt's Bakery in the middle of town. With outdoor seating, it wasn't much of a surprise to see birds looking for a handout. A Blackbird seemed to own the post behind our table and I got a couple of shots of the iridescent feathers in the morning sunlight. It's obvious that "black" is only kind of an average for the color of this bird...

And the intensity of those eyes...

Thursday, October 5, 2017

A Bit of an Unusual Sight: Greater White-fronted Geese East of the Sierra Nevada

We were in the eastern Sierra Nevada and Owens Valley last weekend for a geology field study course, but of course I was on the lookout for interesting birds. We stopped at the Mono Lake County Park and I saw a flock of geese that got my curiosity up. They were clearly Greater White-fronted Geese (Anser albifrons), which is a species I normally expect to see back home in the Great Valley. I checked out the eBird Range map for the species, and saw that they are indeed a little unusual. There are sightings almost every year, but usually of just one or two at a time. Local birders have noted the unusual size of the group, more than two dozen.
I don't know if this flock is off course, or if they are just passing through on their way farther south. The great majority of this species winter in the refuges of the Great Valley, including the San Joaquin River NWR a few miles west of my fair city of Modesto. In any case, their presence is a sure sign that fall has arrived. They've spent the summer in the Arctic, but it's getting colder out there now.

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Sandhill Cranes are Returning to the Great Valley!

We were leaving the house to run some errands this afternoon. We heard an odd sound coming from the sky. We looked far and wide and couldn't pick out the responsible party, but the call was unmistakable: it was the trilling call of the Sandhill Cranes (Grus Canadensis). Their call carries for long distances, so it wasn't too odd that we couldn't see them, but it was enough to convince us to check out the Beckwith Road portion of the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge. We grabbed some In 'n Out burgers and headed west for a quick picnic.
The viewing platform won't be open for another week or two, but the road passes through a mile or two of refuge property, so we had a chance to look for arriving migrants. We didn't see any at first, but west of the platform, we saw three individuals in a plowed field. Once we knew some of them had arrived, we looked more carefully in the distance and saw several dozen of them off to the south near the refuge ponds (Miller Lake). The pictures are fuzzy from the thermal waves emanating from the ground. As more arrive, they will spend more time near the road, and pictures will get sharper.

Ultimately, the number of Sandhill Cranes at our local refuges will number in the tens of thousands! They are coming from their breeding grounds in the far northern parts of Canada and Alaska. It is an incredible sight, so if you get the chance, check out the San Joaquin, San Luis, or Merced National Wildlife Refuges for a dramatic vision of one of the great migrations on our planet (I've included a map for the San Joaquin Refuge at the end of the post).
The was a Black Phoebe standing guard at the not-yet-open viewing platform. He struck a defiant pose, and I only got the one picture, so it's a bonus shot for this post.

Here's how to get to the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge...

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Orange-crowned Warbler on the Tuolumne River


Sometimes you only get a single chance. I saw what I think was an Orange-crowned Warbler in a wild Elderberry bush on my walk today along the Tuolumne River. I managed a single shot before it vacated the premises, and though I walked past the thicket three more times, I didn't see it again. I don't know my warblers well, but I'm assuming it is an Oreothlypis celata because of the broken eye-ring and overall olive-yellow color. As always, I welcome gentle correction.

The Orange-crowned Warblers are found across North America, migrating from Mexico and the southeastern United States to Canada and Alaska for breeding. There are orange feathers on the head, but they aren't seen very often.

The Elderberry bush where I saw the bird is kind of a unique spot. It's huge, with a trail of use running through the middle, like a bower. I can stand inside and it works like a bird blind. It's a favorite feeding spot in the fall, and I've seen Vireos, Phainopeplas, Scrub Jays, and all manner of Finches and Sparrows. The Elderberry is also habitat for one of our endangered species, the Valley Elderberry Longhorn Beetle (Desmocerus californicus dimorphus). I have yet to see one, but part of the program to protect them requires the preservation of native Elderberry plants. Since the shrubs make good environments for numerous birds, it's a win-win situation.
Source: https://www.fws.gov/sacramento/es_species/Accounts/Invertebrates/es_valley_elderberry_longhorn_beetle.htm
https://www.fws.gov/sacramento/es_species/Accounts/Invertebrates/es_valley_elderberry_longhorn_beetle.htm

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Our Campus Mascot, the Killdeer


The birding environment on my campus has not been all that conducive to species sightings of late. It's obvious why; there are students and faculty everywhere. Even the "mini-wilderness", the drainage basin on the edge of campus has been quiet. There's no water. Until the rains begin again, there's not much for the birds there. The other day, though, I had a reason to visit the campus on a weekend, and there was a bit more going on. With no one around, the birds were exploring the open spaces on the campus.

I was lucky enough to catch a couple of Killdeers (Charadrius vociferous) patrolling one of the empty parking lots. The Killdeer is kind of a mascot for our campus and the Great Valley Museum), being the only bird that appears on our logos.

The Killdeer is found across most of the North American continent and the range extends some distance into South America. They are members of the Plover family, which are usually shorebirds, but the Killdeer willingly spends lots of time in dry environments as well, eating a diet consisting mostly of insects.

They will raise their young in open fields, scraping out a nest directly on the ground.  They've nested in the vacant field north of our Science Community Center, the site of our future Outdoor Education Center, so hopefully the native vegetation that we intend to plant will continue to attract them. They are known for their practice of pretending to have a broken wing to draw predators away from their nests.


Monday, September 18, 2017

A California Scrub Jay Like You've Never Seen Before, at the Stanislaus Wildlife Care Center

For reasonably logical reasons, albino animals don't survive well in the wild. They might as well have a target painted on their bodies, for without camouflage they are easily detected by predators. The lack of melanin in their feathers is another problem: without it, the feathers are weaker and easily damaged. The birds can't fly as well, and lose insulation.
This particular bird, a California Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma californica), is a permanent resident and wildlife ambassador at the Stanislaus Wildlife Care Center, which rehabilitates injured animals and birds, and when possible tries to release them back into the wild. They do good work, and depend on donations from the public. We were attending an open house the other day.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Some "Great" Birds at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge: A Great Blue Heron, and a Great Egret

There's some anticipation in the air these days. The summer's heat is still lingering, although not so bad as before. Birds have been kind of scarce on my recent explorations, but I've been seeing a few
V-shaped formations high in the sky. The season is changing, and the winter migrants will be arriving soon. For no particular reason, we wandered down to the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge during the afternoon. No one promises much in the way of birdwatching at this time of year when the swamps and marshes are all dried up. But when we arrived, the feeling of anticipation was palpable. The water managers were just starting to flood some of the long-dry marshes. Few birds had yet discovered the water, but there were some.
I saw the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) first, perched openly on the dead snag. It actually took me a moment to notice that one of the roots below was not a root, but was instead a Great Egret (Ardea alba) standing in the reeds.

The San Luis National Wildlife Refuge is one of our treasures, tens of thousands of wetland acres managed in such a way as to mimic the wilderness prairie that existed for thousands of years before the arrival of humans. Millions of birds flock to the Great Valley for the winter, and these refuges, representing a mere five percent of the original landscape, allow them to survive and even thrive. The refuges are understaffed and starved of funds, and they deserve better. If you are ever in the Great Valley during the late fall, winter, or spring, the San Luis Refuge is an incredible place to visit. There are three auto-tours, and a number of hiking trails are available. The visitor center is new, and is a great place to start your exploration.

Red-tailed Hawks at Pillar Point near Half Moon Bay

The Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) is probably the most common raptor in northern and central America (it's also endemic here, being found nowhere else in the world). I certainly see them all the time at home, living as I do in the former prairies of the Great Valley in California. They are a long-lived species as well, with at least one known to have survived for thirty years.
This pair caught my eye last weekend when we exploring around Pillar Point north of Half Moon Bay on the California coast. They were perched on the fence surrounding the Pillar Point airfield and didn't fly off as we drove by, so I stopped and snapped a couple of shots.

Little known fact: Every hawk or eagle in the entire world sounds exactly like a Red-tailed Hawk. Well, o.k., not really. But just about every movie hawk or eagle sounds like a Red-tail. It's the stock sound effect. Like the Wilhem scream, or the screech of tires when an airplane lands. The call of the hawk in the real world is wonderful to hear, however.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Red-Breasted Merganser at Pillar Point Harbor

It could be the dog days of summer or something else entirely, but there just haven't been many birds out and about in the places where I've been wandering. The pond at the campus has been dry for months, so few species are hanging out there, and I've only had a few chances to walk the river trail on the Tuolumne, and the birds were scarce there as well. We had occasion to take a short trip to the coast this past weekend though, and when we checked out the Fitzgerald Nature Preserve and Pillar Point Harbor near Half Moon Bay, we saw a few species. One was new to me (I didn't say "uncommon", it's just I haven't seen one yet). It was a Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator). They are seen often enough along the coast of California, but almost never in the interior Central Valley (hence why I haven't noticed any before).
I saw the bird while I was walking the trail to Pillar Point along the shore of the harbor. The harbor is artificial, protected by several breakwaters and jetties. Because of the configuration of the ocean floor just west of Pillar Point, some fierce waves can develop during stormy weather in winter. The legendary Mavericks waves form offshore from Pillar Point.

As always, please let me know if I misidentify a bird. I'm still new at this!

Monday, September 4, 2017

Willow Flycatcher at Silver Lake, Washington

I've probably photographed a number of flycatchers, but there are many species, and I don't feel overly qualified to identify a lot of them (the Black Phoebe and the Ash-throated Flycatcher being the only exceptions for me). I was walking the nature trail at Silver Lake a few weeks ago when I saw this small flycatcher in the bushes. It stayed in place just long enough for a few pictures, and as best as I can tell, it is a Willow Flycatcher (Empidonax traillii).

Silver Lake is a natural lake produced by mudflows from Mt. St. Helens. The nature trail follows an old railroad line that crossed a portion of the lake. It's overgrown with shrubs and trees, providing a nice habitat for birds. I've posted a few other pictures of birds from the location.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Greater Yellowlegs along the Tuolumne River

Non-birding types of people (i.e. "normal folks") are often not aware that some of the best birding localities to be found in arid regions are...water treatment plants. Many such places expect, and even encourage birding, and birders get a chance to see dozens of species of shorebirds. The reason is pretty clear: the water treatment plants provide a secure source of water despite the dry conditions. It sounds gross perhaps, but by the time the water is in those ponds, it's already in a relatively clean state.

The best treatment plants for birding are those for larger towns, and that kind of leaves me out most of the time. My town is pretty small, so the treatment plant is small as well, and is situated next to the Tuolumne River, so it's not the only water source. I don't tend to see a great many birds there, but several shorebirds call it home. I saw several of them a few weeks ago, some Great Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca).

The Yellowlegs (Greater and Lesser) can be seen at one time or another across the entire American continent, north and south. They tend to winter in the south, and breed in the muskeg of Canada, which makes them hard to study...the muskeg swamps and their bugs are a great place for the birds, but miserable and impassable to humans.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Great Blue Heron at Silver Lake, Washington

I haven't posted on Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias) much of late, primarily because I haven't come across any. They are found around wetlands all over the west, and have shown up a fair amount on this blog, but the ones I've seen in my normal haunts have been kind of skittish and fly off before I can get any shots.

I've been all over the Pacific Northwest for the last week and a half, ostensibly to chase an eclipse (maybe you've heard about it somewhere), although the fact that we've visited various sets of parents, siblings, and a grandparent suggests other motives as well. In any case, we were on our way to the Seattle area, and decided to camp for a night at Seaquest State Park on the shore of Silver Lake. The lake came into existence around 4,000-5,000 years ago when a huge debris avalanche from Mt. St. Helens blocked a tributary to the Toutle River. The lake is about four miles long, but the western end is filled with water lilies and other pond vegetation, and thus is an excellent habitat for the herons. This particular individual was quite patiently feeding and hardly moved while I watched, so all the pictures had the same pose.

Silver Lake is a great setting for a quick look at Mt. St. Helens if you are traveling on Interstate 5. It's only five miles off the interstate, and there is an excellent interpretive center about St. Helens, and a the one mile long nature trail that we were following when I caught this picture.