Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Why So Many Turkey Vultures on the Mokelumne River? Oh Yeah...

 Let's face it: Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) can be really creepy. Not so much when they're soaring on the thermals; that's when they are actually beautiful. No, it's when they are perched on the branches right over your head staring at you. It's like they're hoping you'll have a heart attack so they can have some lunch.
I was walking along the Mokelumne River this morning near the fish hatchery just below Camanche Reservoir. I had not yet reached the river and was looking for other birds, but I couldn't help but notice that nearly every tree had a Turkey Vulture perching on the top branches. They were all over the place. So yeah, a bit creepy.

As I got closer to the river I heard odd splashing sounds, and suddenly it occurred to me. It was the Chinook Salmon run! The spot where I was walking is the end of the road for the salmon, as Camanche Reservoir blocks their upstream progress. I wondered if there was a fish ladder, and there was, but it led only into the fish hatchery where workers collect the eggs for rearing in the complex. The fish ladder was closed, presumably because their holding tanks were full, so the upper pool of the river was full of Chinook trying to go farther upstream. And the vultures were waiting for a tasty lunch.

Here's a short video of the fish swimming in the Mokelumne River.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Getting Very Close to our National Bird

This might not be the right distance to meet a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). I grant you that. But my camera does have a pretty good zoom, but this is really close.
It's probably clear that we're not looking at a wild bird. Well, it's wild, but not in the wild. Unfortunately someone apparently shot its wing and the bird has been somewhat tamed and serves as a wildlife ambassador. We were at the Salmon Festival on Saturday at Knight's Ferry on the Stanislaus River.
Bald Eagles aren't at all common in our area but a few of them live here. I've seen them at Turlock Lake and near the Beckwith Platform in the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge.
But never this close!
Here's a more normal distance for a shot of an eagle...

Thursday, November 8, 2018

A Surprise Discovery at MJC: A Red-breasted Sapsucker

There's something I've learned with fossil and mineral hunting. If you haven't seen the thing you are looking for, you won't recognize it when you see it. But if you've seen an example of the fossil or mineral, you'll pick it out right away. I'm still a newbie at bird identification, but a few weeks ago I saw a Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber) in Yosemite Valley. I got all excited and got pictures and posted on my discovery that night.

Then, only nine days later, I was wandering the campus of CSU Stanislaus and much to my surprise I saw another Red-breasted Sapsucker! So I posted on the species again. Having seen it once, I guess I was primed to recognize it right away when I saw it again.

So here we are eight days later. I was taking a break between classes and wandered out to the sheep compound, my MJC "mini-wilderness", and saw another woodpecker deep among the branches of a dead tree. I focused in with the camera, and wouldn't you know it, there was another Red-breasted Sapsucker! I've never encountered one here before. So once again, I am posting. It the pattern holds, we should be hearing of the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail Sapsucker discovery any day now...

Saturday, November 3, 2018

A Head-spinning Tale...Do we need an exorcist? A Burrowing Owl at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Tell me when you see it...
Do you see it yet?
We were out at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge today and Mrs. Geotripper kept saying there was something...out there...

I kept insisting that it was just a couple of ground squirrels out in the grass, but she was sure that something was...watching us. I ended up focusing on what I was sure was an extra fat ground squirrel and found out that indeed something was watching us. It was a Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia). The east part of the auto tour at the Merced NWR traverses prairie and grassland. Other birders have often reported seeing Burrowing Owls there, so I've always been watching for them, but without success. This was a nice moment, not unlike the moment a few weeks ago when we were treated to a Burrowing Owl at Turlock Lake.

The Burrowing Owls have had a tough time of it, as their habitat has been seriously co-opted by human beings. The grasslands of California, especially in the Central Valley, have been largely taken over by agriculture. I'm truly ashamed to note that my own county has seen the conversion of around 40,000 acres of former prairie to almond tree orchards in just ten years or so. They will probably be abandoned with a decade or so because of water and irrigation conflicts. The string of national wildlife refuges in the valley provide critical prairie areas where the owls can thrive.

There are few things more eerie than an owl rotating its head to stare at you. Check it out in the video below...

Friday, November 2, 2018

Horned Lark near the Willm's Road Pond

I was on my way to collect some very big rocks today in the Mother Lode foothills when I passed by a familiar bird on a fencepost. It was a beautiful Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris) and unlike all the other birds today it didn't fly off as I drove by. So I got a couple of shots to share with you!

The big rocks, by the way, were VERY big rocks, several tons each, to be deployed at our Great Valley Outdoor Nature Lab at Modesto Junior College. The lab will be a microcosm of the Great Valley natural environment. Maybe one day some Horned Larks will be lured into visiting our campus...

Thursday, November 1, 2018

A Surprise at CSU Stanislaus: A Red-breasted Sapsucker

A few weeks ago I was in Yosemite Valley and saw a Red-breasted Sapsucker, and was properly thrilled to get a couple of half-decent shots. Since I've only seen them in the mountains, I wasn't thinking about them as I walked this afternoon on the campus of CSU Stanislaus. It's an urban campus of course, but there are two "sort-of" natural areas, a pond called Willow Lake that is heavily grown with cattails and tule reeds on one side. The other is the Trans-California Pathway, a kind of reconstruction of the native vegetation from the Sierra foothills to the valley. I was walking through the oak grove at the west end of the pathway thinking how I had not seen any woodpeckers in a long while.

And then I saw one!

I assumed it was the 'usual' Nuttall's Woodpecker or Acorn Woodpecker, but when I focused in I saw the red head and immediately realized it was something unexpected: a Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber). They've certainly been seen in the area (especially by fellow nature-blogger Siera Nystrom), but not all that often. It was a nice little surprise for the day.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

It's a Snipe Hunt! I Found Mine at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge

When I was a scout back in another era we often introduced the new guys to our trip by conducting a snipe hunt, chasing imaginary birds with paper sacks in the dark. For some reason we never caught any. I had no idea at the time that snipes actually existed, but they do.
I was out at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge the other day looking for migrant geese. I certainly found some at the viewing platform on Beckwith Road, several thousand Aleutian Cackling Geese, Sandhill Cranes, and even a handful of Snow Geese.
There is no open water at the Beckwith Viewing Platform except in the great distance, so it isn't the best place to be searching for shorebirds. But on the way east along the access road there are a few seasonal ponds that are good for birdwatching. This time around my search for a Wilson's Snipe (Gallinago delicate) was successful, although to be honest I didn't know I was searching for it. Six of them were feeding in the mud along the shoreline of the pond.
 One of the more noticeable features of the snipe is the location of their eyes in the middle of their skull. This arrangement allows them to see behind as well as ahead. They can see a predator coming from far off, which goes a long way towards explaining why our snipe hunts were never successful all those years ago.
Two Wilson's Snipes with a Greater Yellowlegs

Monday, October 29, 2018

The Second Wave Has Arrived, With Harbingers of a Third: The Aleutian Cackling Geese at Beckwith Road

Momentous things are happening in the Great Valley this month! Wave after wave of migratory birds are starting to arrive at the string of national wildlife refuges up and down the valley floor. The Sandhill Cranes arrived in large numbers several weeks ago, constituting the "first wave" (this, by the way, is my entirely made-up description; I'm no biologist. I'm just reporting what I've been seeing). We saw hundreds and hundreds of them last week in the Merced National Wildlife Refuge, and I saw a few hundred of them at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge. There were also a few dozen Greater White-fronted Geese at both refuges, but not in large numbers.
But this week there was a big change at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge. I stopped by on Tuesday and again on Saturday to find a huge flock of several thousand Aleutian Cackling Geese (Branta hutchinsii). The corn in the section near the viewing platform on Beckwith Road had been cut so the birds were foraging for food.
The Cackling Goose strongly resembles the Canada Goose and was once classed as a subspecies. Subsequent studies showed enough differences that they are considered separate species today. They are noticeably smaller and their necks are short than those of the Canada Goose. They breed on just a few of the Aleutian Islands and most of them migrate to just a small area of the Central Valley, primarily the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge. The birds were actually thought to be extinct for a few decades after 1938, due to over-hunting in the valley and the introduction of foxes in their breeding grounds in Alaska. A few hundred individuals were discovered on an isolated island and the bird was placed on the endangered species list soon after in 1967. The foxes were removed from the breeding islands and hunting was controlled and the birds rebounded. They now number more than 120,000.
There was a harbinger in the crowd of Cackling Geese which you may have noticed in some of the pictures above. It was the presence of seven or eight Snow Geese. They are another Arctic breeder, and they are on their way south too. In another two or three weeks there will be tens of thousands of them at the refuges (my official "third wave").
The viewing platform on Beckwith Road is about eight miles west of the Vintage Faire Mall in Modesto. It's open now and free to visit. If you want the challenge of a hike you can go across the San Joaquin River on Highway 132 and go a few miles south to another section of the refuge. The Pelican Trail is about 4 miles total with a variety of different riparian habitats. It's not unusual to run across three dozen bird species or more.
The Great Valley is often thought of as a dusty, flat and boring place. It often is. But there are treasures hidden here. A visit to the national refuges during the winter migrations is as spectacular as a trip through the African savanna, especially in those moments when tens of thousands of geese take flight all at once. It is well worth your time if you ever happen to be passing through.

Here's a video of the flight...

Friday, October 26, 2018

A Rare Visitor to the Region Returns to West Campus: Cassin's Kingbird

You just never know. One of the joys of my new hobby (well, four years now) is the possibility that any day there can be something new and unexpected. I was roaming the west campus on my lunch break and it seemed like the birds had all left to have a siesta somewhere other than where I was at. But then I saw movement in the dead cottonwood tree in the sheep pasture and discovered a Say's Phoebe. It's not an overly rare bird, but it is the first time I've seen one on campus. But that's not what I'm talking about today!
While I was trying to catch a shot of the Phoebe, another bird fluttered into the branches above. I saw yellow and thought "warbler" but I zeroed in and discovered that it was actually a Kingbird. And it wasn't a Western Kingbird that floods into our region in the spring and summer. They're all gone now, having migrated south back into Central America. I could see the white tips on the tail feathers, the white "moustache", and the gray head and realized it was a Cassin's Kingbird (Tyrannus vociferans). This is remarkable because not only are we at the extreme northern edge of its range, but it should have migrated south by now along with the Western Kingbirds.
This may very well be the same bird that I discovered on campus last year. I haven't seen it in almost a year so it is kind of a mystery about why it is here.
Range of the Cassin's Kingbird, from Cornell's All About Birds

Thursday, October 25, 2018

American Dipper in Yosemite Valley

John Muir said it well:

"He is the mountain streams’ own darling, the humming-bird of blooming waters, loving rocky ripple-slopes and sheets of foam as a bee loves flowers, as a lark loves sunshine and meadows. Among all the mountain birds, none has cheered me so much in my lonely wanderings, —none so unfailingly. For both in winter and summer he sings, sweetly, cheerily, independent alike of sunshine and of love, requiring no other inspiration than the stream on which he dwells. While water sings, so must he, in heat or cold, calm or storm, ever attuning his voice in sure accord; low in the drought of summer and the drought of winter, but never silent." The Mountains of California, 1894

I've seen Water Ouzels, known officially today as American Dippers (Cinclus mexicanus) on a few rare occasions, but not recently, and none that I've been able photograph. Only one has made an appearance in my county (Stanislaus), which caused a stir in the birding community in the winter of 2017-18. I never got a chance to look for that individual, but I finally got to see one this last weekend up in Yosemite Valley. I was walking along the Merced River near the Curry Village tent cabins when I saw some strange movements of a bird. It was, well, dipping.
The dippers are one of the most aquatic of birds, spending most of their time swimming, walking underwater, and dipping in mountain streams of unpolluted water. They don't migrate, staying in the same general area winter and summer, but they range over an immense region, from northern Alaska to Central America. They mostly eat aquatic insects and their larvae.

I only got two half-decent pictures, but the video came out a bit better. Enjoy!


Monday, October 22, 2018

Phinally a Phine Photo of a Phemale Phainopepla on the Tuolumne River!

Yes, I've used that joke before, in 2015, but memories are short, right? And I blogged about Phainopeplas just a month ago when I saw them again for the first time in almost a year on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail. But darn if they don't keep beckoning me to try and get that perfect photograph. I've seen them a couple of times now in the elderberry bower along the west part of the Parkway Trail, but today's female (the males are nearly pure black) wasn't too concerned that I was snapping pictures. They are members of the silky flycatcher family and that's exactly what this one was doing, sallying forth from her perch to snag a bug out of the air before returning to the branch.

I hope they'll be sticking around for the winter. They are one of my local favorites.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

That Quiet Tapping You Hear? It's a Yosemite Red-Breasted Sapsucker

It was the quiet tapping that threw me. I was in Yosemite Valley on Friday, leading a geology field studies course. I had a bit of free time, so I walked along the Merced River in the vicinity of the Camp Curry tent village. I wasn't seeing or hearing very many birds. But then, as I was stepping up the banks of the river to meet my students, I heard a quiet tapping noise.
If I was in the dark house of a horror movie, the tapping would have been terrifying, but out in the woods it was just curious. I thought "woodpecker" of course, but I'm used to the sound of woodpecking being very loud. I started searching the trees overhead, and soon found the source of the noise: a Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber). I saw one of these when I was in Washington some time ago, but this was the first I've seen here in California.
The bird comes by its name righteously. It punches horizontal lines of shallow holes in the trunks of trees, causing them to bleed sap, which the Sapsucker laps up. The sap also traps bugs, so several other kinds of birds will find sustenance from the Sapsucker's handiwork.

I was pleased that the bird could care less that I was standing beneath the tree. I even had enough time to get a few seconds of video of the bird at work.

Monday, October 15, 2018

A Late-afternoon Surprise, a Burrowing Owl near Turlock Lake

I don't see a lot of owls because they are mostly active at night, and I'm not. Mostly they are a ghostly presence on fences in the farmlands that I travel through on the way home from work. There are exceptions: the Great Horned Owls at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge are usually visible when the trees lose their leaves in winter, and there is a singular Burrowing Owl that hangs out on Dry Creek that we'll sometimes see when taking the backroads to Knight's Ferry on the Stanislaus River. But today we had a nice surprise. We were out on a spur-of-the-moment birding trip at Turlock Lake State Recreational Area, which is an irrigation reservoir in the Sierra Nevada foothills just east of Modesto. We saw a fair assortment of bird species, but as we were leaving I saw one more bird perched on a fencepost and I knew right away that it was too stocky to be another Meadowlark. It was a Burrowing Owl (Athene cuicularia) only about fifty yards from the highway. I got a couple of decent shots before it took off into the adjacent field.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

What's For Dinner? For the Red-tail, it's Something Reptilian...

Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) have a rather strained and tenuous relationship with the other birds on the West Campus of Modesto Junior College. As often as not I see them being mobbed by crows or magpies, and I'm sure they are guilty of consuming the occasional unsuspecting or careless bird. But tonight it was rather clear that they enjoy reptiles in their diet as well. I was standing by the sheep pond on the northwest corner of the campus, which is pretty much the most wilderness-like part of our campus. I sensed a large bird soar over me and the hawk landed in the tree in front of me with dinner hanging out of its mouth. It was a strange sight, to say the least. It gave me a few quizzical looks and took off for a tree a little farther away to finish dinner without the paparazzi snapping pictures...

Does anyone know what reptile the victim is?

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The Babies are All Grown: Mute Swans on the Tuolumne River

There was something new in the sky above the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail this morning. Large graceful birds were gliding over the water, and it took me a moment to realize who they were. The baby Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) have taken to flying!
I've been following this bird family ever since the late winter or early spring when the cygnets made their first appearance on the pond across from the western trailhead off Reinway Avenue in Waterford. The original brood included four babies, but one disappeared as the weeks rolled by. The other three thrived and are now nearly fully grown.

There is a certain ambivalence about the presence of Mute Swans here in the valley. They are not native to the region and are instead the offspring of European ancestors who were brought to America to be accessories in the landscaping of rich estates. The escapees have caused problems because they are voracious consumers of water plants (pounds per day) to the detriment of other freshwater bird species. I've suspected that the parents of these birds have clipped wings simply because I've never seen them flying except for a semi-gliding motion when chasing off of Canada Geese.
My last picture of the "teen-agers" was a chance capture of them flying above their water-bound parents. That's got to be a metaphor for something or another.