Thursday, April 27, 2017

Ospreys Nesting on the Tuolumne River

It's spring and the big birds are nesting. We've kept an eye on four or five Osprey nests that we know of in our region on the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced Rivers. One by the Roberts Ferry Bridge didn't have any occupants last we looked, but another nest between Turlock Lake and the Tuolumne River was certainly occupied last week. Both mom and dad were hanging out nearby. I'm sure we'll check up on the chick's progress as the weeks roll on.
The Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) is one of the few success stories in the bird world in the sense that we just about wiped them out with DDT last century and finally came to our senses. They have expanded their range and their population has grown, especially when posts have been provided where they can build their humungous nests.

It was certainly a pretty day last week when we went hunting birds in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The snowy high country contrasted strongly with the green slopes around the reservoir.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Northern Flicker Hard at Work on the Tuolumne River

I see Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) quite often along the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail in Waterford, but they are usually quite busy flying from one tree to another. For a woodpecker, they spend a lot of time on the ground instead of pecking away at trees. It turns out they like to eat ants and other insects and will peck at the ground to get them. That's what made today's sighting a bit interesting. This one was working very hard at a gash in the cottonwood. I'm guessing it was excavating a nesting hollow. I was getting frustrated trying to get a clear shot of the bird at work and finally realized I would maybe have better luck with a video, so here you go...

Monday, April 24, 2017

Phainopepla on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail

It's been a few weeks since I've been able to get down to the river trail on the Tuolumne. There've been business and field trips, and the last week of the semester, so things have been hectic. The river is still flooded as it has been for four months now. There's a lot of snow upstream. The river floodplain will be a much changed place when it's once again exposed.
In any case, I saw little of consequence during the first part of the walk upriver, but on the way back I saw yet another black bird fly off through the bushes. But it wasn't a Starling or a Brewer's Blackbird. It was moving wrong. I stopped and searched the branches of the Cottonwood, and there it was: a Phainopepla! Phainopeplas (Phainopepla nitens) are native around here, but it is the far northern edge of their range. They are really a desert species from Mexico and the southwest. They don't normally drink water, for instance, instead relying on moisture in the mistletoe berries that they love eating. I've only seen them here on the Tuolumne twice, but I've also seen them in the Death Valley region a couple of times.

I'm reasonably happy with the shots I got of this male (not perfect yet, but better than previous efforts). The females look much the same but are gray in color. I shot a few seconds of this male jumping along the branches on video. Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Great-tailed Grackles Invade Central California!

Something changed around here a couple of years ago. I teach an occasional class at CSU Stanislaus in Turlock, and there is a large pond adjacent to the Science Building. I had always noticed the egrets, ducks, and geese who took up residence there, but in the last few years I noticed a new arrival, a black bird with a ridiculously audacious tail and a piercing call. I found out eventually that they were Great-tailed Grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus) and that they were indeed a new species in the area, expanding their range from the south.
The Grackle barely ranged into southern Texas a century ago, but they do very well around irrigated fields, and thus have expanded north with agricultural development. The "official" range map doesn't even show them as residents in the north half of the Great Valley yet, but sightings have even reached northern Oregon and Washington.

I don't know why, but the grackles remind me more of theropod dinosaurs (the raptors and other meat-eaters) more than most birds. The theropods were indeed their ancestors, as they are for all birds. Something in their vivid eyes, perhaps.
The females barely look to be the same species. They are a dull brown color and are only half the size of the males. I got a shot of one that looked like it was collecting nesting material along the pond shore. The eyes, though. The dinosaurian eyes were the same. Thanks a lot Steven Spielberg!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Bushtit in the Joe Domecq Wilderness on the Tuolumne River

The Bushtits (Psaltriparus minimus) are not easy to photograph, in my experience anyway. They are small, hard to see, and they never stop moving. Nevertheless, I've captured some shots of the males on occasion, but today includes the first shots I've gotten of a female. The main difference is the pale eyes, which to me in my anthropomorphic style, makes me think the females are judging me. The males, with their totally black eyes look cute in the manner of stuffed animals...
"Judging you? No, my chirping is just constructive criticism of your birding skills"
We were wandering through the Joe Domecq Wilderness Park on the Tuolumne River near Old Basso Bridge, and I walked a half mile or so looking to see who was out and about and saw pretty much nothing. I got back to where Mrs. Geotripper was sitting, just watching one tree. It turned out to be a good strategy because after a few moments of standing, I had shots of the Bushtit as well as two other species, including the Ash-throated Flycatcher of the previous post.
The Bushtits are a bird of the western U.S. and Mexico. They are the only species of their family found in North America. According to Cornell, there are seven species in Eurasia. They build a hanging nest that Cornell describes as "remarkable", but I haven't spied one yet.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Ash-throated Flycatchers at Turlock Lake and on the Tuolumne River

I seem to see these birds at one time of the year, as I posted on them last May, and a year earlier in late April. We were at Turlock Lake State Recreational Area and this Ash-throated Flycatcher (Myiarchus cinerascens) landed in the oak tree on the hill top hardly ten feet away from me. It sang for a fair amount of time (enough for the video below), and actually waited for me to wander away.
This species of flycatcher is really a desert species, with a range across the U.S. Southwest and winters spent in Mexico and the tropics. They aren't seen much north of Oregon. Being creatures of the desert, they don't need to drink, getting most of their moisture from their food.
Strangely enough, after not seeing them for almost a year, I saw a second Ash-throated Flycatcher just up the road at the Joe Domecq Wilderness Area along the Tuolumne River near Basso Bridge!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Canada Goose "Gang Brood" at Turlock Lake State Recreational Area

It was a beautiful spring day, so we headed out for a short excursion up the Tuolumne River. We hunted for birds at Turlock Lake State Recreational Area for a bit, and then headed east on Lake Road towards the Joe Domecq Wilderness (a county wilderness park developed on an old dredge field). On the way between the parks, we passed an overflow pond for Turlock Lake Reservoir and I saw lots of Canada Geese and a few goslings. We stopped for a few moments to have a look, and soon I saw a caravan of twenty goslings between two adults. I've never seen such a large group of young ones, but apparently the geese like to form "gang broods" of up to five individual families. It's sort of an avian kindergarten, I guess. Whatever it is, it was the cutest thing in my day! 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Western Bluebirds Continue as One of the Most Colorful MJC Birds

They're one of my favorite sights on the west campus of Modesto Junior College where I work, the Western Bluebird (Sialia mexicana). The campus has an unusually large greenspace with lots of mature trees, dating from the property's origin as a hospital for wounded World War II soldiers. I extended my evening walk to the far eastern reaches of the property where there are as of yet no buildings, just a large grove of trees including oaks, palms, eucalyptus, lemon (!), cottonwood, ash, and Monterey Pines. I've seen hawks and kestrels out that way, being no surprise when seeing the large concentration of ground squirrels in the grassy area below. I saw this male (the more brightly colored one) and female in a pepper tree near Bluegum Avenue.

I think this is my twelfth post on Western Bluebirds, which is about right compared to my pleasure at encountering them. They spend a fair part of the year elsewhere, most likely up the slopes of the nearby Sierra Nevada, so I'm catching all the pictures I can right now!

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

A West Coast Special: Anna's Hummingbird on the West Campus

One day, I'll get the perfect picture of the Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna). I know it's possible because Mrs. Geotripper got one on her first try (see it here). I got pretty close to one during my lunchtime stroll on the west campus at Modesto Junior College, but the day was gloomy and the bird was framed by the skies. It took a bit of obvious photo manipulation to bring out the color, although I'm happy with the details visible.

Anna's Hummingbirds are one of the rare success stories of the birding world. They were originally confined to Southern California and Baja, but with urbanization of the west coast and the attendant landscaping of delicious nectar-producing flowers, the birds have been able to expand their range far to the north into coastal Washington and British Columbia (inland would no doubt be too cold for them). Hummingbirds in general are only found in the New World. European colonizers thought for a time that they were some kind of strange hybrid of an insect and a bird ("flybirds").

Update: Almost everyone who usually reads these posts has already done so. However I ended up walking again at dinner, and wouldn't you know the hummingbird was still patrolling the bush! So I added another highly manipulated shot below...clearly the iridescence is not so visible from some angles!

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Sometimes I Miss the Little Ones: Savannah Sparrow on the California Prairie

It was a rich weekend for finding birds on the California Prairie. I think I'm finally starting to run short of species from my trip last Saturday, but it is rare that I post four new species in just one week. Today's featured species is the kind of bird that I constantly overlook because they are always sort of there in the foreground while I'm staring off in the distance looking for those larger "charismatic" types. They are the sparrows of course, and I'm only just beginning to learn to tell them apart. The bird above is a Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis; the species name is almost longer than the bird is). These are one of the common sparrows all across North America, with an estimated population of 180 million. They thrive in grassland prairies, although their name is based on the city in Georgia. The little yellow patch over the eye is one of their distinguishing characteristics.

I clearly need to learn my sparrow species. About thirty different kinds have been sighted in my region, although just twelve of them are abundant. Still, size really doesn't count in this business. The little ones are sometimes the prettiest. Just ask any hummingbird...

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Lesser Yellowlegs in the California Prairielands near Willms Road

We had a rather productive trip to the prairielands east of our little village at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mother Lode. In addition to the Tricolored Blackbirds, the Burrowing Owl, the Western Meadowlark, the Horned Larks, Pied-billed Grebes, and a variety of Hawks were out and about. As we explored some of the vernal pools we saw a lone bird on one of the ephemeral creeks, and realized we could add a Yellowlegs to our tally for the day.
I'm the first to admit that I'm not very good at shorebird identification. There are two species of Yellowlegs, the Greater and Lesser. Part of the difference is the size, but a single bird gives no scale. The Greater is supposed to have a longer beak that is very slightly upturned, but I don't see that in these pictures, so I'm calling it a Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes). As always I am open to gentle correction!
It is the most beautiful time of the year out on our prairie. The flowers are starting to show in some of the vernal pools, and there is greenery everywhere. All of the creeks are flowing, and it's a good time for the animals and plants after five years of drought. I'm looking forward to a few more weeks of color on the hillsides!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Tricolored Blackbird at Willms Pond in the Prairielands

One has to start somewhere. I've noticed that the first chance I ever have to shoot a new species, it is usually under less than ideal conditions, and the pictures are not to my own "stringent" standards (really, I have pretty low standards for pictures). We were out on the prairielands last week, and I had some pretty nice results, between seeing a Burrowing Owl for the first time in years, getting close-ups of a Western Meadowlark, some Horned Larks, and some nesting Tree Swallows. I was on the lookout, however, for a new species.

Tricolored Blackbirds are very similar to the Redwinged Blackbirds, which range across North America, numbering in the tens of millions. The Tricolors are almost a California endemic, found outside the state only in northern Baja, and at some widely scattered nesting sights in eastern Oregon and Washington. Their population is estimated at a few hundred thousand at most and falling, in part because of an unfortunate nesting habit. They prefer to nest in large colonies in open grassy fields, with nests only a few feet apart from each other. In a number of unfortunate cases, those nests were in wheat or alfalfa fields, and the fields were mechanically harvested before the nestlings could escape destruction. The population dropped so precipitously that they were declared an endangered species in California just a few years ago.

Efforts to protect the birds included payments to farmers with large colonies in their pastures to delay the harvest a few weeks. Cooperation has helped to stabilize the population, but they are still in trouble.
Birders had reported that dozens of Tricolored Blackbirds had take up residence at the small stockpond on Willms Road where Mrs. Geotripper and I like to watch for wildlife, so we stopped and waited to see who was out and about. The blackbirds were making a lot of noise in the reeds across the pond, but they only occasionally popped out. It took the highest zoom and a bit of luck to get the pair of shots of unmistakable Tricolors. The white band under the red is the distinguishing feature.
The Redwinged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) were out in force as well, and they weren't nearly as bashful as the Tricolors. So, to make up for fuzzy and distant shots of my target species, I've thrown in a couple of close-ups of their close cousins.
The Willms Road pond is especially pretty this time of year, overflowing with water, and surrounded by grassy hills. The owners are kind enough to provide access for fishing and birdwatching, so if you check it out, please be courteous and pick up any garbage that you come across.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Western Meadowlark in the Prairielands above Knight's Ferry

After torturing you with fuzzy indistinct photos of the Burrowing Owl I saw on Sunday in the prairielands, I thought it only fair to share with you one of the sharpest shots I've gotten lately, that of a Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) that was perched on a fencepost only a few hundred yards from where I saw the owl. It was hardly bothered at all that we stopped the car just a few yards away, as it was far more interested in catching the attention of the ladies
We were driving Willms Road south from Knights Ferry to take in the vernal pools, the birds, and hopefully some wildflowers. We had the windows down, and the song of the meadowlark could be heard along the entire distance. They are out in force this time of the year.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Burrowing Owl on the California Prairielands at Willms Road

The California prairielands used to extend in an unbroken band across the lower reaches of the Sierra Mother Lode and the four-hundred mile long Great Valley. Today 95% of the prairie has been plowed or paved over, and much of the rest has been preserved intact only because ranchers use the land for grazing. Such is the case for the Willms Ranch area south of Knights Ferry on the Stanislaus River, and east of Oakdale. It's privately owned, but the grasslands stretch for miles, and a handful of country roads provide access. It's a favorite spot for Mrs. Geotripper and me to go birding.
The funny thing about today's trip is an ongoing joke (but not really a joke) where I insist that this is the day that I'm finally going to see a burrowing owl and get pictures. I saw a Burrowing owl out there perhaps a decade or two ago, and we can't pass the spot without looking for another. But we never saw one again, despite birder reports of their presence in the area. Until today, that is.
I stopped as I always do at one of the ephemeral creeks that crosses the road, and I inadvertently flushed out a bird that I didn't immediately recognize. It was larger than any of the sparrows or meadowlarks we had been seeing, but was too small to be a hawk. I kept an eye on the bird and saw it land in the distance under an alcove. It was a hundred yards or more away, so the chances of seeing anything weren't great, but I upped the zoom and scanned the alcoves, and there it was: a Burrowing Owl!
The pictures aren't of my preferred quality, but they were enough to confirm the bird's identity. The Burrowing Owls (Athene cunicularia) range the length of the western United States all the way into South America. They prefer open grasslands, and their population has suffered as the grasslands have given way to development, either of the orchard kind, or the urban kind. Their name comes from their preference for burrows, either excavated by themselves, or the various other denizens of the prairie.
So next time, I'm going to be more careful about scaring birds! Maybe there will be some clear shots...

Saturday, April 1, 2017

House Wren Defending a Nest Site on the Tuolumne River

It's spring in the Sierra Nevada foothills, and life should be exploding along the Tuolumne River where it flows into the Great Valley of California. But this isn't a normal year. We've been suffering through five years of the worst drought ever recorded in the state, but this year was the polar opposite. We've had near-record precipitation, the mountains are coated with deep drifts of snow, and the rivers are swollen with runoff.

The impressive runoff is a positive development in so many ways, especially for the agricultural economy downstream, and most ecosystems, from the alpine meadows to San Francisco Bay. But there is one ecosystem that is getting adverse effects: the Tuolumne River floodplain. The problem is the presence of Don Pedro Reservoir upstream. It filled early in the season, but the flood-producing rains of January and February caused lake levels to rise too high, and the dam threatened to run over in an uncontrolled fashion. In response, water has been released from Don Pedro at or just above flood level ever since January 4. This means that the floodplain, an important habitat for uncounted animals and plants, has been underwater for nearly three months, and the prospect exists that it will continue to be flooded until well into the summer. I saw evidence of this last month on the lower reaches of the river where hundreds of rabbits were trying to subsist on the bit of grass growing on the river levee. Their normal home was under ten feet of water.

Under normal circumstances, the floodplain ecosystem is superbly adapted to flooding events, but a six-month long continual flood is not something that happens in nature. Tree roots are inundated, soil and plant seeds are washed away, and the river is likely to change course in many places. The loss of hundreds or thousands of acres of river bottomlands has to be having a detrimental effect on the wildlife of the river. I've noticed a relative lack of bird activity, and some of my walks have been come up empty in the photograph area.

I'm happy to say that activity picked up a bit today as I wandered through the oak woodland. I saw half a dozen small songbirds in the branches, although I had a hard time catching photos of most of them. But one kept coming back to the same perch on a dead snag. I got a fair number of sharp pictures, and then I noticed the hole in the trunk of the tree with a head peeking out. The bird, a House Wren (Troglodytes aedon), seems to have been defending a nesting hole. I'm pretty sure it was the bird I saw driving several others into the underbrush before returning to its perch and singing.

House Wrens are common birds, and their range extends from the south end of South America to southern Canada. They can also live in a wide variety of habitats, from sea level to alpine elevations. It once again tells me that my observation skills still need some work, because this is the first one I've seen on the Tuolumne River (although I saw a Bewick's Wren there last year).

The House Wren has a pretty call. I took a video of the wren singing, although you'll have to turn up the sound. I was a fair distance away, using extreme zoom to get the video. Enjoy!