Friday, October 27, 2017

Pygmy Nuthatches in the Bristlecone Forest

I don't see Pygmy Nuthatches (Sitta pygmaea) all that often. This is only the second post about them, and they are both from the same place: the Bristlecone Forest in the White Mountains east of the Sierra Nevada and Owens Valley. It's almost a cheat to see them here for one particular reason: water. Specifically, there isn't very much of it.
The White Mountains are a huge mountain range, as high as the adjacent Sierra Nevada, but just as they are overshadowed in public perception by the Sierra, they are "rain-shadowed" too. The Sierra Nevada gets several times the precipitation from Pacific storms, and the only forest trees in the White Mountains are the drought resistant Pinon Pine, the Utah Juniper, the Limber Pine, and the ancient Bristlecone Pines, the oldest living trees on the planet. There are few sources of water in the high ridges where the Bristlecones survive, but there is a visitor center at the end of the paved road. The staff usually has a bowl of water set out, and that is enough to bring out a number of birds and small mammals.
If you are ever visiting the Owens Valley, find a half day to visit the Bristlecone Pine forest. It's incredible just to see the birds and the trees, but at 10,000 feet, the views are beyond belief.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Western Meadowlark in the Volcanic Barrens of the Sierra Nevada Foothills

The western foothills of the Sierra Nevada are one of the least-known parts of the range. Every year, millions of tourists drive quickly through the grasslands on their way to Yosemite Valley or the recreational lakes towards Sonora Pass. They pay little heed to the barren landscape, but in so doing they are missing out on one of the most dramatic parts of the geological story of the Sierra Nevada.

Nine or ten million years ago, the Sierra Nevada was a different place. The range was lower, and Cascades-style volcanoes were active in the summit regions around Sonora and Ebbets Passes. There may not have been large-scale glaciers, but the volcanoes may have been covered with snow at times, and erupting ash would have produced volcanic mudflows (lahars) that traveled dozens of miles down the western slopes. The mudflows came to rest in the foothills where today the deposits are called the Mehrten Formation.

In some circumstances, the volcanic muds could produce rich soils, but yearly rainfall is only enough for prairie grasses to grow. It's not a desert, but it's not a woodland either. The grasslands do provide excellent habitat for the Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta), and it's a rare trip when I don't see one in the area. These pictures are from a short excursion a week or two ago on Willms Road near Knights Ferry on the Stanislaus River. One can just make out the bird on the rocks in the foreground of the first picture, but zooming in I got a better view. I love the colors of the lichens on the rocks.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Horned Lark on the California Prairie (what's left of it, anyway)

Although I no doubt had seen them, I didn't recognize Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris) until early last year during my travels through the remaining prairies of Central California. At a distance I mistook them for Meadowlarks. I was on a work errand in the Sierra Nevada foothills a few days ago, helping to select rocks (well, really giant boulders) that will become part of our Outdoor Education Laboratory next to our Science Center. I was near Knights Ferry and Willms Road, so I took ten minutes to check out the prairie off to the south. It didn't take long to find a few of the Horned Larks (and some Meadowlarks too).
The birds have declined in the last few decades, to only about 30% of their former population. There are probably plenty of factors, but humans are behind most of them. The biggest factor is probably loss of habitat as more and more prairie is plowed under in service to nut orchards (in our area at least), and the essentially unrestrained use of pesticides that has caused the insect population on our planet to plummet drastically (recent reports suggest that 70-80% of bugs have disappeared in recent decades). There's the cliché of the canary in the coal mine to describe the harbinger of things to come, but a new version would be the disappearing Larks of the prairie.

I've been kind of depressed lately that we really have arrived at the Silent Spring that Rachel Carson wrote about half a century ago.
In case you were wondering why they are called "horned" larks...

Monday, October 23, 2017

One of the Obvious Ones: The Northern Mockingbird at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

There are some birds you just can't miss. They are in your neighborhood. They're in your yard. Maybe you see them where you work, especially if you work outdoors. And if you can't see them, you probably hear them. They sing incessantly, and it doesn't matter if it's day or night. Some individuals will sing 200 different songs over the course of their lifetime. On top of everything else, they are territorial, and will be perched in obvious places, making sure they are seen. And they'll fight with other birds. There's a virtual war that takes place in my backyard between them and the Scrub Jays.
It is of course the Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), a bird that is almost unique to the United States (there are quite a few in Mexico, almost none in Canada). They've been found in all the lower 48 states, and are now common in Hawaii where they are an introduced species. They've also been seen in Alaska, but only very rarely. When I walk my neighborhood, I tend to ignore them. But when I toured the Merced National Wildlife Refuge a few weeks back, this individual was there to great me at the entrance to the auto-tour, literally perching on the welcome sign. I took it as an invitation, and snapped a number of close-ups.
As common as they are, the Northern Mockingbird almost disappeared from the eastern United states because they were cherished as songbird pets. They were enshrined in literature as well, being part of story of Scout and Atticus Finch. I guess Mockingbirds were on my mind this week as yet another misguided school districted decided to remove the book "To Kill a Mockingbird" because it made people "uncomfortable". From the movie version:

Atticus Finch: I remember when my daddy gave me that gun. He told me that I should never point it at anything in the house; and that he'd rather I'd shoot at tin cans in the backyard. But he said that sooner or later he supposed the temptation to go after birds would be too much, and that I could shoot all the blue jays I wanted - if I could hit 'em; but to remember it was a sin to kill a mockingbird.
Jem: Why?
Atticus Finch: Well, I reckon because mockingbirds don't do anything but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat people's gardens, don't nest in the corncrib, they don't do one thing but just sing their hearts out for us.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

White-faced Ibis at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

The White-faced Ibis (Plegadis chihi) certainly has one of the more interesting beaks in the bird kingdom. Everything in evolution has (or once had) a purpose, or the adaptation would have disappeared. The thick curved beak of the ibis is an excellent tool for probing deep into the mud of shallow ponds. We saw this one on a brief tour of the Merced National Wildlife Refuge last week.
The "white face" part appears during the breeding season, which as can be seen is not right now. The Ibis is more of a tropical species, and we have one of the northernmost winter populations in the country. Most of those seen in western North America are headed to winter roosts in Mexico.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

An Oak Titmouse, the Quintessential California Bird, in my Backyard

I don't report on birds from my backyard very often. I have several feeders, but for the most part they attract California Scrub Jays, House Finches and European (House) Sparrows. But once in awhile a more unusual bird will show up. The White Crowned Sparrows have arrived on their fall migration, for instance, and today there was a Black Phoebe in the yard, which I've only seen there once before. But the other bird was a surprise, because I've never seen one here ever: an Oak Titmouse (Baeolophus inornatus).

It was fairly cautious, waiting until the other birds left the feeder, and quickly grabbing a bit and then retreating to the Mulberry tree. It came back four times, and I tried to be ready, but only got these couple of slightly overexposed shots. I'll have to spend more time back there "relaxing".

The Oak Titmouse is about as close as a bird can be to being a California endemic species without actually being one. Like the Acorn Woodpecker, it ranges through the California oak woodlands that extend from the northern edge of Baja California to the hills and mountains of southern Oregon. There is a closely related species in Nevada called the Juniper Titmouse. They were once considered to be a single species, but there are differences in their coloration, and also in their songs. They are almost completely isolated by the Sierra Nevada with only a small area of overlap in northwest corner of the state.
A bonus shot of a White-crowned Sparrow, which also visited this morning

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.