Sunday, December 31, 2017

Just How Close Can You Get to a Wild Bird? Great Egret at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

Some of you no doubt saw my Facebook and Instagram post of a Great Egret (Ardea alba) at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge from last week. It's a phone picture, which is sort of unusual because as good as those phone cameras are these days, it's not often I can catch pictures of birds because I'm just never close enough, and I don't have enough zoom.
That wasn't the case on Saturday. We were following the auto-tour road at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge near Willows, and as we crept along, I saw this Great Egret alongside the road ahead and fully expected that it would be spooked by our passing and fly away. It didn't. I crept up to within three feet of the driver's side window, and still the bird stood there not caring whether I was there or not. I started fumbling for my camera fully expecting it to fly away, and still it didn't. I started snapping.
The detail is pretty amazing when you are only three or four feet away, and have a 60x zoom at your disposal. It's almost microscopic...for once I could look into the eye of an avian dinosaur and sense the creature within. Well maybe, anyway. I feel more affinity for mammals as a rule. These birds are pretty alien for the most part.
I took a bunch of pictures and the bird finally moved. It walked right around the car so Mrs. Geotripper could have her turn too! This was a defiant creature if I've ever seen one...

Monday, December 25, 2017

Christmas Crows in Issaquah

It's almost alliterative, Christmas Crows in Issaquah, but that's the best I can do! I'm snowed in at a hotel in Issaquah, Washington, and these American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) were the first birds we could see this morning. The Crow (making its first appearance today on this blog!) is ubiquitous across the United States and Canada.
The crows are intelligent and resourceful, and I have little doubt that they will take over after humans annihilate themselves. I wish them well!

From all of us at Geotripper's California Birds, we wish you a happy holiday, a merry Christmas, and a wonderful new year!

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Greater White-fronted Geese at the Consumnes River Preserve

The Cosumnes River in California's Sierra Nevada and Great Valley is unique in one very important respect: it is the only free flowing river left in the region. Although dams have been proposed at various times during the last century, none were ever built, so the upper river retains some of its primeval character (aside from the logging and gold mining, anyway). The lower reaches on the valley floor and near the delta were heavily modified for agricultural development, but a variety of agencies and organizations have cobbled together a unified protected area of 50,000 acres (nearly 80 square miles) called the Consumnes River Preserve. It is critical habitat for thousands upon thousands of migratory birds, as well as a great many year-round residents.
The Preserve's Visitor Center is easily accessed from Interstate 5 between Stockton and Sacramento, so it made for a pleasant first stop on our way north today for our holiday travels. A number of birds were about, including a small gaggle of Greater White-fronted Geese (Anser albifrons) feeding on an embankment near the end of one of the boardwalks.
The White-fronted Geese breed in the far north, and migrate in winter to a series of refuges along the length of the Great Valley, Texas, and on into Mexico. I often see them in massive flocks at the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge, but it is less often that I get to see them up close like I did today.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Cooper's Hawk at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

We were fighting the crowds at a couple of shopping centers in Turlock, saw that the sun was sinking in the west, and just simply decided we wanted some peace and quiet. The San Luis National Wildlife Refuge was just 15 or so miles to the south (specifically the Bear Creek Unit). We headed out of town and drove to the auto-tour and slowly crept along the road. The pools were all dried up so no migratory birds were present in that part of the refuge, but we did see a Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) perched in the trees along the east edge of the trail. The Cooper's is similar in appearance to the Sharp-shinned Hawk, but the tail was distinctive enough that I went with the former as an ID.
Those red eyes are intense!

Friday, December 15, 2017

American Kestrel on the Tuolumne River

If you happen to love American Kestrels (Falco sparverius), the last couple of weeks on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail have been good times to see them. There are at least three of them hanging out along the trail, including this one, which was perched on an oak at the edge of the bluffs at the top of the stairwell to the river. I had driven up to the trailhead, and literally took these shots from inside the car.
The name "American" Kestrel is about as true as can be: it ranges from the southern tip of South America to Alaska, with nary a sighting anywhere else in the world. They are relatively common, but their numbers have declined because of habitat loss and overuse of pesticides that have caused a sharp drop in some of the insects and small animals that are their prey.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Great Egret on the Tuolumne River Bluffs

Great Egrets (Ardea alba) are relatively common sights in our region on the floor of California's Great Valley. The pastures and riparian woodlands are ideal habitat for them, but for whatever reason I don't see a great many of them on my Tuolumne River walks. There is occasionally one hanging out on the river just downstream of the west end stairway up the bluffs, and sometimes I see one near the highway bridge. The last few times I've been down to the river, there has been one perched on the telephone pole at Reinway Park. I love their graceful posing, so I snapped shots on two different days, one of them at sunset. I'm presuming it is the same bird.

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.