Tuesday, March 20, 2018

White-tailed Kite on the Tuolumne River Bluffs

I had quite a surprise the other day while wandering through my usual haunts along the Tuolumne River in Waterford. I was having a relatively good birding day with more than twenty species sighted, although no new ones were noted. I struggled up the stairway (135 steps; it's a new favorite exercise spot in my town) and got in the car to go home when I noticed a large bird over the fallow cornfield at the north end of the parking lot.
It was white...and it was kiting! Kiting in this case does not involve bouncing checks (a fraud from the earlier non-digital banking days), but instead involves hovering, or gliding in place over a field, waiting for a rodent to make the wrong move. Northern Harriers do this to an extent, but the experts are the White-tailed Kites (Elanus leucurus). They are found in the westernmost states of California, Oregon and Washington, but they are not at all common (Texas hosts a few but most are in Mexico and Central America). I've only seen three of them so far in my travels, and this one was the first I've seen near the Tuolumne River.

The Kite never landed (I wasted about 25 digital images trying to get the few slightly sharp photos seen above), and eventually it flew off to the north. In case you want to know what they look like on the ground, here is a shot I got last November on Milnes Road while commuting to work. I was as surprised as the bird was when I hit the brakes.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Yellow-headed Blackbirds Make a Showing at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

The Bear Creek Unit of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge gets a great deal less attention than some of the other birding "hotspots" in Stanislaus and Merced Counties. According to the eBird Hotspots map, it's been visited 88 times by birders who took the time to report their sightings. They've seen 150 species at the unit. Compare that to the nearby Merced National Wildlife Refuge which has had around 2,000 reports over the years (and around 225 species).  The main unit of the San Luis Refuge where the visitor center and Tule Elk compound is located has more than 800 reports, and 200+ species.
I'm pretty sure that the size of the unit has something to do with the disparity. The auto-tour at Bear Creek is only 2.5 miles long and encompasses a much smaller area. The Merced auto-tour is more than five miles long. The pools in the interior at Merced allow for more isolation for the migratory geese and cranes that might want to avoid auto traffic and human beings with cameras (or guns). I have seen few of the Snow Geese or Sandhill Cranes during my visits to Bear Creek. Indeed, it is often an afterthought to stop there at sunset after we have spent hours exploring the Merced NWR or the San Luis Unit and visitor center. But still, it has its charms, and I've seen some interesting species when we've paid a visit.

A year ago, on March 18, 2017, birders reported that Yellow-headed Blackbirds had returned to the Bear Creek Unit. I was curious, having never seen the species before, so I headed out and much to my delight, I found a few, and posted photos last year last April. I was a little disappointed with the pictures because the birds were hiding among the reeds and I couldn't get a clear open shot.

So shoot forward a year to March 18, 2018. No one this year has yet reported seeing Yellow-headed Blackbirds at the Bear Creek Unit (7 visits so far), but I couldn't help but think about them. We had spent most of the afternoon at the main Waterfowl auto-tour at San Luis (and having an adventure with a coyote), but the sun was still up, and we decided to give the Bear Creek auto-tour a whirl. There were thousands upon thousands of Red-winged Blackbirds in residence, making quite the cacophony to catch the attention of the females. As we drove near, they would take flight in a panic, but from a distance I noticed that there were a couple of blackbirds that could care less that we were coming. I realized with a start that they had yellow heads! We ultimately saw at least four of them, although there could have been plenty more down in the reeds.

Between Fresno and Stockton this year the Yellow-headed Blackbirds have only been noted at the Los Banos Unit of the San Luis NWR, the Merced NWR, and the Bear Creek Unit. I'm hoping to see more of them in the surrounding areas soon as more arrive.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

An Argument for Looking Closer at Little Birds: Western Bluebirds on the West Campus

Before I  became a geologist, all rocks were gray, and there were a few crystals, but all of them were quartz. Then, a small bit of education intervened and my eyes were opened to a vast and complicated world inhabited by a dizzying array of rocks and thousands of kinds of beautiful and colorful minerals. It was a revelation that changed my life and led me into the career I've enjoyed now for more than thirty years.
Jumping ahead a few decades, birds have become my new minerals. A decade ago, I pretty much figured the birds I saw in the neighborhood and at work fell into a few categories: sparrows, pigeons, and crows. And they were little gray things, just like the rocks once were. So imagine my surprise when I found I lived in one of the more critical bird habitats in the country. Nearly a thousand bird species have been identified in the lower 48 states, and almost a third of them have been sighted at one time or another in Stanislaus County where I live. There are plenty of reasons for the biological richness: mild winters, providing shelter for many migrant species; and a wide variety of habitats, including foothills, prairies, rivers and flood plains, and mountain slopes. Despite being a rank amateur at bird watching, I soon had identified more than a hundred species.
One of my favorites of my new world are the Western Bluebirds (Sialia Mexicana), as evidenced by the fact that this is the 14th time I've posted pictures of them. They're irresistibly colorful. I saw these during my recent wanderings on the West Campus of MJC, which turns out to be a pretty good habitat for bird watching, with more than 60 species seen so far. They'll probably be headed for the hills very soon as spring arrives. They are actually more of a woodland bird in their breeding choices, and move into the Sierra Nevada or the Coast Ranges.
I'm not an expert, and my blog has become just the 300th most-read bird blog, but I've enjoyed writing about my discoveries, and I've appreciated hearing from those who have been along for the journey!

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Winsome Little Warblers of the Yellow-rumped Kind in the MJC Mini-wilderness

I see that it has been an entire month since I've posted pictures of Yellow-rumped Warblers (also called Audubon's Warblers, latin name Setophaga coronata). It's hard not to. They are attractive little birds, and they are all over our campus in west Modesto. They are one of the most common species that I see in the central plaza area of the school.
We are getting on towards spring, so they may soon be leaving for their summer breeding grounds, which could be far to the north, or possibly in higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada (I've seen them on the road to Glacier Point at elevations of almost 8,000 feet).
In the meantime, it's fun to try and get decent pictures of these extremely active foragers. I got lucky in the last few trips around the campus and caught a couple of sharp shots I was happy with.

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Last Days of Winter in the Great Valley (and a Bald Eagle)

We spent part of the weekend out at the coast, but coming home in Bay Area traffic was no fun. As we approached the Great Valley, we decided to get off the main highway and check out things at the Beckwith Road Viewing Platform, part of the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge. At times during the winter season, tens of thousands of Aleutian Cackling Geese, White-fronted Geese, Snow Geese, and Ross's Geese will congregate in the fields around the platform. But winter is almost over and the huge flocks are beginning to disappear as they begin their northward migration.

We saw just a few dozen White-fronted Geese near the platform, and saw or heard little else. If the geese were there, they were well hidden. We spent some time enjoying the rabbits at the thicket around the platform and searched for Towhees and sparrows. We were finally ready to go, so we started driving slowly east along the northern boundary of the refuge.
Photo by Mrs. Geotripper

Then we heard a lot of goose noise, and stopped again to try and see why. It didn't take long to find out why...there was a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) lurking at the edge of the pasture. I don't know if they prey on the geese, but their agitation certainly made it seem so. It turned out that there were still a few hundred Snow Geese hiding out in the distant shrubs.
I've seen a number of Bald Eagles in the last few years, but most of them have been in the Pacific Northwest. They are resident in the local region, but not overly common. I've only seen one at this spot in the past, in 2015 (see the pictures here). A check of eBird indicates a sighting of two eagles in November of 2017, but no other reports since 2016.
Bald Eagles are big birds. Really big. Cows were strolling in front of the eagle, providing a sense of scale. Their wingspan can exceed six feet, which became apparent when it took off, again in front of the cow.
It was a great ending to our weekend!

Friday, March 9, 2018

Anyone Want to Guess How Many Blackbirds?

The last part of our late February tour of the Merced National Wildlife Refuge took us across the grasslands along the north and east part of the auto-tour. We were met with quite a sight, a huge flock of birds in flight. There were thousands of them, and for the record, I didn't even try to count how many are in the picture above. They were too far away for identification, at least by me (I am open to suggestions), but I would suspect Brewer's Blackbirds, European Starlings, or possibly Red-winged Blackbirds.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Ross's Geese at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge: Preparing for a long journey north...

They are still there by the thousands, but not for very much longer. The Ross's Goose (Anser rossii) spends winters at a few select refuges in California's Great Valley, but when spring arrives, they will migrate thousands of miles north to the Arctic. Their favored breeding grounds are on Baffin Island, the shoreline of Hudson Bay, and the shore of the Arctic Sea.

The Ross's Goose is smaller than most goose species but they are very similar in appearance to the Snow Goose. Both are completely white except for the black wing tips, but the beak of the Ross's is pink. The Snow Goose beak is pink on top, but with a black outline around the "lips". It doesn't help that they like to gather together with Snow Geese in huge flocks.

We got these pictures at one of our favorite places in the Great Valley, the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. There were hundreds of them visible from the autotour route, but there may have been several thousand hidden in the interior of the refuge. But not for very much longer. Like the Sandhill Cranes, they are getting restless, and ready to fly to their summer homes.


Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Great-tailed Grackle at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Great-tailed Grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus) were originally confined to semitropical environments, but they do very well with humans and irrigated fields, and their range has expanded northward even as many other birds have declined precipitously. Although our region is north of the "official" range of the bird, I've seen them regularly on the campus at CSU Stanislaus. Their arrival is an omen of spring. It was still late February when I saw this female at the Bittern Marsh Trail at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. They aren't the ones with the "great tail". It's just long. The tale of the male is just ridiculous (check it out here).

PS: I noticed that this is my 500th post at Geotripper's California Birds! It doesn't get nearly the traffic that Geotripper gets, but I appreciate everyone who stops by.

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Sleeping Owl Awakes: Western Screech Owl at Enslen Park

Now that I know where it hangs out, it takes no time at all to check on the little Western Screech Owl (Megascops kennicottii) when I am running errands in town. I drove by today, and it was still in the same hollow, but this time it was awake.
I am struck by how well this little owl is camouflaged. I walked right by the tree the first time I was looking for the owl. I only barely saw it on the second try, and then only after having seen pictures showing the size and species of tree.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Common Gallinule (an adult this time) at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Five or six weeks ago we were at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge and saw a Common Gallinule (Gallinula galeata) for the first time. It was a juvenile, which was why it took a little bit longer for me, the amateur, to identify it. Last week we were back, and this time we saw one all grown up.
The Gallinules look a fair bit like ducks, but are more related to Soras or Coots. They don't have webbed feet for one, and walk differently. They breed widely across the eastern United States but are primarily a tropical bird, with a range that extends through Central America and into South America. They live in California's Great Valley, but are rarely found any farther north in the western United States.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Let the Sleeping Owl Lie: Western Screech Owl in an Unusual Place

The local birding community is like those anywhere else in the sense that a new and rare bird will cause a lot of excitement, and people will drop everything to try and catch a glimpse. I've had a little bit of experience with the concept, having gone to Dawson Lake to try and glimpse a Vermilion Flycatcher that wandered into our county late last year.
Then there is a second category, birds that are relatively rare, but have established a territory or home over a period of time where the bird can be observed fairly easily. Today's bird, the Western Screech Owl (Megascops kennicottii), falls into that category. This one lives in Enslen Park in the town of Modesto. The birders mentioned stopping by the park to check on the owl, but provided little idea of where to look. I walked around the park a few weeks back and didn't see anything. But more recently I found a couple of pictures that birders had posted, and I could see the owl was perching in a hollow of a maple or ash tree, so I knew not to waste time on the numerous redwoods and oak trees in the park. I was on an errand this afternoon and parked at the southeast corner of the park, and very much to my surprise, I spotted the owl in less than a minute. Can you see it in the picture above?
The Western Screech Owl ranges all across the west (there's a surprise), but they prefer wooded areas and are thus not often seen in the Great Valley. Modesto loves her trees, and the parks and neighborhoods are full of good habitat for owls. This owl has been reported in the park since 2015, no doubt helping with rodent control around the trash cans.
The owl wasn't doing much, just sort of dozing. As I observed it seemed to take no notice of my presence. Only later when I was looking at the pictures I had taken did I notice that it was indeed keeping an eye on me (below).

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Sandhill Cranes are Getting Restless

I wonder sometimes which they consider "home". Is it the Great Valley of California where they spend the winter, thriving on the grains and grasses that grow all year? Or is it their breeding grounds across the northern tier states or farther north in the Arctic (see their complicated range in the map below from Birds of North America). The answer, from their point of view, is pointless. It's just where life for them happens. One can't go to far with anthropomorphizing birds like I'm doing here.

Still, I sense a disturbance in the force as I've watched them the last few weeks. They know they are going to be leaving soon. I don't know what signals the moment to leave...the angle of the sun in the sky? The temperature? If it is temperature, they are a little bit confused right now. A week or two back it was as warm as April, but the end of February brought freezing temperatures. But in any case, they'll be heading north soon.
There are still hundreds of them in the area if you want a last look. The first picture was taken last weekend at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. The other pictures are from a month ago at the San Joaquin National River Wildlife Refuge, but a visit last week confirmed that they are still there.
These are such grand and graceful looking birds, and though it seems strange to put it this way, their call is almost like loud cat purring. And the sound carries long distances. I've heard them flying high overhead, but couldn't locate them in the sky. If you live in a place where they visit for part of the year, they are worth an afternoon to see and observe. But if you live in the Modesto area as many of my readers do, your time is running out. They are preparing to leave soon.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Bow to Your Reptilian Overlords! Oh, Maybe Not Quite Yet...

The desert is filled with creatures that are dangerous and terrifying in their ways. Life is tough, and in short, everything that lives there is eating everything else, and everything else is trying not to be eaten. Life has evolved a huge variety of defensive adaptations, including spikes, spines, tough shells or out layers, poisons, and many others. We were in Death Valley last weekend, and early one morning I seemed to have discovered a terrifying new creature, one whose claws look almost dinosaurian.
Those terrifying claws actually are dinosaurs, although of the avian kind. Few birds were out and about during our visit, but the Common Raven (Corvus corax) was a constant presence. That they thrive in this harsh and barren world is a testament to their versatility and intelligence. If I had to predict the species that would evolve into the dominant organism in terrestrial environments after the humans obliterate themselves, my money is on the raven. Like humans, they are curious, they are opportunistic omnivores, they are toolmakers, and they are problem solvers. And they can live in a shocking range of environments from the icy shores of Arctic Canada, Alaska and Greenland, to the driest and hottest deserts of the American West. Their range extends into the rainforests of Central America.

Their black color sometimes makes them hard to photograph, but in a desert setting like Death Valley, it becomes more of a goal to place them within dramatic landscapes. From our camp at Stovepipe Wells, we had a beautiful morning view of the Cottonwood Mountains. A pair of ravens were flying in the distance.

Our last 24 hours in Death Valley National Park involved a violent windstorm. It briefly subsided while we packed to go home, but the wind started up again, and the dust storm rose over the Mesquite Dunes in the distance. A Raven seemed to be heading out to investigate...because that's just what our future overlords would be doing.