Tuesday, December 12, 2017

10,000+ Geese Taking Flight at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge

Three Sandhill Cranes soar against a backdrop of hundreds of geese
I lived here for a quarter century absolutely ignorant of the dramatic scenes taking place just west and south of my home. Each winter tens of thousands of Snow Geese, Ross's Geese, Cackling Geese, and White-fronted Geese as well as Sandhill Cranes take the long journey out of the Arctic Circle and head for California's Great Valley. They converge on a series of wildlife refuges that wind up and down the valley like a string of pearls. They bide their time through the winter and then when spring comes they head north again to breed.
They once ranged across the entire valley, but agricultural development has stolen away 95% of their habitat, leaving precious little living space. Refuge managers will often grow fields of corn to provide food for the hungry birds.
They spend their days foraging around the region but as the sun sets low on the horizon they start to settle into a large field where they can bunch together. This evening the flock was pretty close to the viewing platform on Beckwith Road about 10 miles west of Modesto. When I first arrived about 25 minutes before sunset, there were just a few hundred birds in the field, but more were arriving by the minute. Soon there was a thousand, and then ten thousand. The noise was deafening (the amount of gossiping going on was appalling!).
Occasionally something would startle the birds and many of them would take flight all at once, circling like a bird tornado over the field until whatever got them going resolved itself. Who knows what it might have been. I've seen coyotes lurking in the area, as well as Bald Eagles.
Soon an entire sector of the pastureland was covered with thousands of birds settling in for the night, but as I was turning to go, there was one more disturbance. There was a sound like a jet plane throttling upwards to take off and thousands of birds were once again in the air.
I caught a short video of the moment. Sorry for the shaky cinematography. I've been watching too many crime procedurals lately. Or else I was just kind of excited...



Monday, December 11, 2017

Female Phainopepla on the Tuolumne River

I've only seen them a few times on the Tuolumne, but it is always a delight to see a Phainopepla (Phainopepla nitens). When you walk a trail every other day or so, you may get familiar with the habits of individual birds, and you find yourself watching particular bushes very carefully. That was the case the other day, although I wasn't specifically looking for the Phainopepla. The native elderberry bush has been a good spot over the last few years for a variety of species who feed off the ripe berries. The Phainopepla usually consumes mistletoe berries, but I've seen both a female and a male in this particular shrub (really almost a tree, it's 12 feet high). I also have seen a male in the nearby cottonwood tree (where there is plenty of mistletoe).

Of course it was late in the day and there was no sunlight so I only got a silhouette in my photos, and I couldn't even tell whether it was a male or female at first. The prominent crest is the giveaway that it was a Phainopepla, but the males are a silky black color while the females are gray. I slowly walked past the bush until I could look back and see the gray color of the female. I used the photo-editing program to extremes to bring out the features of the bird in the picture below. I still couldn't bring out the striking red eye of the bird, but you can see that in some of my earlier posts.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Elusive Ruby-crowned Kinglet on the Tuolumne River

When I say "elusive", I don't mean rare. I see Ruby-crowned Kinglets (Regulus calendula) quite often when I hike the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail where the river flows from the Sierra Nevada foothills onto the floor of the Great Valley in Waterford. The elusiveness comes from the difficulty of actually catching the diminutive but very active bird on digital media. These little birds never stop moving. Ever. The moment I get the camera focused, the bird is already in the next bush.

It took me two days to get these two shots. I hiked the river twice in the last two days, and saw these birds (or single bird twice) in bushes about fifty yards from each other. The bird didn't seem too concerned about me, but it was hungry and stayed on the move. I finally got lucky when I started to anticipate where the bird would land next and had the camera focused on that spot. I think the picture above is my best so far (compare to my others here; you be the judge!). The one below was the best from my efforts yesterday.

In case it's not clear (and it isn't in these pictures), there are red/ruby colored feathers on the head of the males. They are usually folded down and not easily visible, except during the breeding season. The birds don't weigh even an ounce, and their eggs are also small...50 of them would add up to a single ounce. There will be up to a dozen eggs in a brood. Mama must be very tired...

Friday, December 8, 2017

Osprey Enjoying a Meal on the Tuolumne Parkway Trail


I'm seeing more birds along the Tuolumne Parkway Trail these days. I'm not sure of the reason, but I'm happy enough to try and photograph them. This Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) has been a fairly uncommon sight on this part of the river where it exits the Sierra Nevada and rolls into the Great Valley. They aren't rare as such. I've been monitoring a number of nests just upstream, so I know they are always around. I just don't see them on this section of trail.
This one had been successful at catching a fish of indeterminate species and was enjoying lunch in one of the dead cottonwood trees on the north side of the river. It kept an eye on me as I walked by, but didn't care enough to fly away (it was perched farther away than it looks; I was zooming in).

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Hooded Mergansers on the Siuslaw River Estuary in Oregon


I've had a couple of new birds show up on the blog in the last couple of posts, including the White-tailed Kite that surprised me last week a few blocks from home. On the other hand, I did some heavy-duty traveling and found myself in Oregon for Thanksgiving. I was visiting family in their home on a bluff above the Siuslaw River estuary.

The Siuslaw River marks the northern boundary of the Oregon Dunes National Recreational Area, which extends south for forty miles along the coast. The north bank of the river is preserved as Harbor Vista County Park, which was a short walk away through the neighborhood. I walk there whenever I visit, and something interesting is usually happening on the tidal flats. When the tide is out, there are several acres of mud, and various shorebirds will be hanging out. When the tide is up, the water birds show up. When I got there the tide was in, and I saw some Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) for the first time (it's been three years of bird-watching, but I'm still getting started).

The pair of them were hunting for prey in the flooded tidal flat. While I watched, one of them caught some kind of crustacean and gobbled it up.

I think they were a couple of females, but as always, I accept corrections. They are ducks that nest in cavities in trees, and when the ducklings are only 24 hours old, they jump out of the nest onto the ground, falling 50 feet or more. They follow mom to the nearest water source.

I'll be back in Oregon in a few weeks for the holidays. I hope to see a few more interesting birds then!

Sunday, December 3, 2017

A California Endemic, A Nuttall's Woodpecker on the Tuolumne Parkway

Sometimes I am just being a snot, by posting pictures of birds that no one outside of California can see unless they come here. There aren't that many birds that are endemic just to California, really just two (the Yellow-billed Magpie, and the Channel Islands Scrub Jay), but the Nuttall's Woodpecker (Picoides nuttallii) is one as well, as long as we count the northern end of Baja California as part of California (and why not?). There is a single record of one in Oregon.

This one was on the Tuolumne River the other day in its characteristic habitat of an oak woodland. Although they live almost exclusively among the oaks, they don't consume acorns. They mostly eat insects that they dig out of the bark, and occasionally they will eat native berries, like elderberries or poison oak.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Happy as an Acorn Woodpecker in an Acorn Woodpecker Tree (with apologies to Randy Newman)

Really really sorry, Randy. It just doesn't flow like "Happy as a monkey in a monkey tree", but I kind of think of that song when I watch Acorn Woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus) hard at work storing their acorn riches in a "granary tree". Granary trees are the storage warehouses for a flock of the very sociable woodpeckers. A single chosen tree might hold 50,000 of them, and a woodpecker is almost always there guarding it.
I was just starting a hike at Pinnacles National Park a few weeks ago in Bear Gulch when I heard the familiar waka-waka of the Acorn Woodpeckers over my head. There were three or four of them.
Acorn Woodpeckers are almost the textbook definition of socialists. They share in the work of food storage, but they also share in the raising of young. Females will even lay eggs as a group in a single next. They are a truly western species, being found in the coastal states in oak woodlands, ranging into Mexico and Central America.

Monday, November 27, 2017

White-tailed Kite in the Farmlands of the Great Valley

Sometimes Mrs. Geotripper (well, everybody, really) gently derides me for hauling my camera everywhere I go, and I always say one never knows what one will see, even while doing mundane errands. Such was the case today as I was picking up some things at the CVS in town, and picking up our kitties from the kennel after the holiday. I was driving down Milnes Road, which runs through orchards and pastures east of Modesto, when I saw something with the colors of a gull, but the bearing of a raptor. I finally had a chance to get some half-decent shots of a White-tailed Kite (Elanus leucurus). I've only seen them once before, and this is their first appearance on this blog.
White-tailed Kites are not all that common, and in the United States are mostly found along the west coast and in Texas. Far more of them (96%) live in Mexico and Central and South America. They are known for their hunting habit of hovering in place over grasslands ("kiting"), waiting for something to appear.

Friday, November 24, 2017

A Thanksgiving Feast: Ticks on Elk...Brewer's Blackbirds at Dean Creek

 Well, that was a strange enough sight. We were driving north into Oregon for the holiday weekend, and stopped for a few moments at the Dean Creek Elk Viewing Area on the Umpqua River near Reedsport. The Roosevelt Elk were there in fair numbers, but one seemed to have some black warts or something (picture below). They turned out to be birds.
At the distance it was hard to tell the species, but I suspect they were Brewer's Blackbirds (Euphagus cyanocephalus). The Cornell Bird Site does mention that they will pick bugs off the backs of livestock, but it is possible that they are Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater). I welcome corrections; both species are reported from this location.
As is usually the case, the elk didn't seem to mind having birds walking around on their backs and hindquarters. If the birds were after ticks and that kind of pest, it would be a relief to have the birds working hard to remove them. Still, it was an odd sight.

The Dean Creek Elk Viewing Area is on Highway 38 just two or three miles upstream from the town of Reedsport. Parking is free.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

American Pipet at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

I enjoy watching birds, but I have a long ways to go before I'm very good at identifying them. There are a great many small birds that can escape our notice and look vaguely alike (I've had many students say the same things about minerals, another bit of nature that people love but have trouble identifying). The American Pipet (Anthus rubescens) is one of those birds that I often miss while watching for larger, more familiar birds. From a distance, I mistake them for sparrows.
But not up close. The bill is an immediate identifier. It is thin, where the sparrow bill is stouter. So, slowly I learn. These pipets were running around next to the auto-tour route at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge in the foreground while I was watching for Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes off in the distance. They were right there, no more than 10-15 feet away, so I snapped a few pictures.

American Pipets are just that: American. They breed in the Arctic regions of Alaska and Canada, and migrate in the winter season to the southern tier of U.S. States and Mexico. They occasionally show up in Japan and Korea, where a closely related subspecies lives, the Siberian or Japanese Pipet.

Showing the Way to a Peaceful Thanksgiving Feast: Great Egret and a Great Blue Heron Share a Space


I don't why this made me think of Thanksgiving, but I was walking out at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge this afternoon when I saw a Great Egret (Ardea alba) and a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) sharing a branch on a tree by the slough. I saw two different, yet related species occupying close quarters, and doing so quite peaceably.
Doesn't the heron in flight remind you of a dragon?
There was plenty of other activity in the thickets below, and if you have ever heard herons arguing, you know it can be a shocking and unpleasant noise. Maybe that's what made me think of relatives arguing over a Thanksgiving table. I'm happy that I usually don't have that problem.

It's not the first time that I've seen egrets and herons in close proximity, but it always catches my attention. Although they share the same genus, the Great Egret has a range that extends to all the major continents, but mostly in tropical climes. They are very rarely found in Alaska, Canada, or Siberia, for instance. The Great Blue Heron ranges a bit farther north, but is restricted to northern and central America.
In any case, I saw these two enjoying the afternoon sunshine together, and thought about how nice it can be when folks get along with others. I'm going to be doing a lot of driving in the next few days, so if I don't get the chance later, I hope that you have many things to be thankful for, and that your time in these next few days is precious and memorable, wherever and however you spend it.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Black-necked Stilts at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

The Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus) is more of a tropical species. Their primary range is across Mexico and Central America, but during the summer they migrate into the United States to breed, mostly in the western states.
But California is different, of course, and our valley hosts a permanent year-round population, the northernmost in the country. So we were able to tour the Merced National Wildlife Refuge a few weeks back, and got to enjoy watching dozens of them exploring the shallows of the ponds that have been filled in preparation for the arrival of the Snow and Ross's Geese.
There are a number of subspecies of stilt, but the most interesting is the Ae'o (Himantopus mexicanus knudseni). Why? Because it lives in the Hawaiian Islands, 2,000 miles from any other populations. A few somehow made it across the ocean and survived in the strange new environment of the islands. Most stilt populations are stable and doing well, but the Ae'o is threatened because most of the Hawaiian freshwater marshes have been co-opted by development for agriculture or urban expansion (see a picture of one at the end of this post).
Put simply, the Merced National Wildlife Refuge is a marvelous place to see all manner of birds at all times of the year. It is a real treasure in our midst and yet is rarely crowded. If you are ever in our region, it is worth a look, especially in coming weeks as the geese arrive by the tens of thousands.

Monday, November 13, 2017

A Rarely Seen Sora at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Here's a bird that is common across North America. It summers in Canada and the northern United States, winters in Mexico and Central America, and migrates through the rest. It lives year-round in only one place: California's Great Valley. It is a Sora (Porzana Carolina).
It is also an extremely secretive bird, spending most of its time hiding in the reeds. I've seen it exactly once prior to this last weekend, at the Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge near Sacramento. On Saturday we were touring the Merced National Wildlife Refuge, and had stopped to try and catch some Stilts. I noticed a gray blob in the reeds, and for once actually thought "Sora", and tried to focus in. These aren't great shots, but they are better than my previous effort.
Any duck hunter would know that a Sora isn't a duck, but I'm not a duck hunter, and I haven't mastered my duck species yet. The first time I saw one, I was confused that I couldn't find it in the duck section of Sibley's. But I learn, however slowly, and maybe next time the pictures will be even better.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Great Horned Owl at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge (and a scene worthy of the Exorcist)

Owls have been frustrating for me. I have yet to see one in my normal haunts on the Tuolumne River Parkway trail, my campus, or almost anywhere else I go. But one place has proven dependable over the last few years: the Merced National Wildlife Refuge between Los Banos and Merced in the Great Valley. We almost always see a Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus), either at the Bittern Marsh, or the Cottonwood Trees along the eastern section of the autotour.
The last sighting was exactly one month ago. We headed out to the refuge this afternoon, and I walked the same Bittern Marsh trail that I walked last month, and to my surprise, I saw another Great Horned Owl, quite possibly in the same tree. I would say that it is the same individual, but this one seems a bit thinner (maybe it's the angle).

Today was another case of being closer to the bird that is comfortable, but I didn't see the bird until I was actually walking past it (about 40 feet way), but this time it didn't scare or fly away. It just kept an eye on me (well, two eyes...two very intense eyes).
I was about to walk on when the owl looked away. I had a feeling it might look back at me again, so I turned on the video and true to form, the head swiveled 270 degrees. I immediately thought of Megan in "The Exorcist".  It works great for them when they need to keep an eye out for potential prey without moving around a lot.


The Merced Refuge has several nice walking trails in addition to the six mile auto-tour. It is already full of all kinds of birds, especially thousands of Sandhill Cranes. There are hundreds of Snow Geese, but thousands more are on their way. If you find yourself anywhere near Merced in the next few months, be sure to check it out. It is always interesting, and when tens of thousands of birds take flight all at once, it is spectacular.
The owl is just about in the center of the picture.