Wednesday, September 19, 2018

How to Tell a Great Egret from a Snowy Egret (and others)

If you have trouble distinguishing between heron species, you are not alone! It helps though, if two of the species happen to be foraging next to each other. That happened today at Willow Lake on the campus of CSU Stanislaus. The Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) and Great Egret (Ardea alba) are similar in shape and coloration, but the details are definitely different. The Great Egret is larger, has a yellow bill, and black legs and feet. The Snowy Egret is smaller, has a black bill, has green legs and yellow feet. Cattle Egrets (the picture below is from Honolulu in Hawaii) are also white, but combine a yellow bill with yellow legs, and in breeding season, they have some buff-colored feathers on their head and back. The Great and Snowy Egrets are native to North America. The Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) arrived in the Americas in the late 1800s and spread to North America in the late 1940s. They are common now all the way north into Canada.

Also, as can be seen below, Great Egrets get the joke quicker than a Snowy Egret!

Monday, September 17, 2018

Dabbling in the Mud: Snowy Egret on the Tuolumne River

I was walking the Tuolumne River the other morning, and saw a Snowy Egret searching for food in the shallows. They have an interesting way of procuring food, shaking their feet in the mud to stir up crustaceans, fish, and insects.


I don't see them all that often on the Tuolumne River where I walk most mornings, only three times so far. They are beautiful graceful creatures who were almost driven to extinction early in the last century. Their wispy feathers that develop in the breeding season were once worth their weight in gold, which made them a huge target for hunters. The fight for their protection was one of the earliest environmental battles in U.S. history. It's nice that they made it.
I didn't get any closer to the bird on the Tuolumne, but there is a Snowy Egret that hangs out at Willow Pond on the campus of CSU Stanislaus, and I got a few closeups last week (it's a bit more acclimated to people than the ones I see in the wild).


Monday, September 10, 2018

One of These is Not Like the Others: Brown Pelicans (and odd friend) at the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge


It was an interesting day for the watching of flying things. We were at the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, which is a critical urban wetlands environment on the east side of San Francisco Bay. Much of the refuge is former salt ponds that are being reclaimed as natural salt marshes. It is an island of nature in the midst of an urban area that includes an approach to Oakland Airport so we didn't see just birds flying overhead. One surprise was the approach of the world's largest transport plane, the Antonov AN-225 Mriya. The wingspan is about the length of a football field. Then there was the overflight of some two dozen Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis), accompanied by a very small or very distant airliner.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Canada Jay on Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park

Here's a tough little bird. It lives in cold northern climates, going so far as to nesting in the depths of the winter season. I've only seen them a few times because I don't live in a place where they hang out, although they are common enough within their range. They're willing to eat any available food and will steal to get it (one of their nicknames is "Camp Robber"). It's the Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis), which only a year ago was officially called the Gray Jay (The American Ornithological Society is apparently empowered to do such things).

I saw this one while we explored the picnic areas on Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park. It's one of the most stunning viewpoints in the country, with the scenery made even better by the rich variety of wildlife species present.

Monday, September 3, 2018

A Near-California Endemic, the California Towhee on the Tuolumne River


Endemic that is, if we are talking about all of California, Alta and Baja, and also count a bit of southern Oregon. California doesn't have all that many true endemics, primarily the Yellow-Billed Magpie, and the Channel Islands Scrub Jay. It seems odd to me that this is so because of the great geographic barrier presented by the Sierra Nevada and Peninsular Range, as well as the harsh deserts that lie to the east. That's the way it is, but the California Towhee (Melozone crissalis) is an example of the isolation of a bird type that leads to speciation. There is a very similar bird that lives across the southwest, the Canyon Towhee, along with the Abert's Towhee. The Canyon was once considered that same as the California, but they are isolated from each other and have changed. There is also a very small population (~200 individuals) in the Argus Mountains near Death Valley (the Inyo California Towhee) that also show differences.

The California Towhee that I spied and photographed was hunting in the fig trees along the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail the other day. They are a large species of sparrow, and often hunt for seeds by scrabbling in the dirt, sparrow-style. That's what this one was doing until I bumbled along the trail and scared it up into the shrubs. But it was nice enough to pose for a few minutes.

Monday, August 27, 2018

The Flying Jewels of the Tuolumne River, the Hummingbirds


Our local environment hosts around five species of hummingbirds, although the Calliope or Costa's Hummingbirds have rarely been sighted (especially not by me). But hummingbirds are common in the area, as the moderate climate provides at least some food during the winter, and plentiful food during other parts of the year.
The Black-chinned Hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri) is a summertime visitor, and they've been regulars at our backyard feeders. I was sitting on the porch last evening and had this one checking me out. They are characterized by...a black chin! But it is the purple iridescence of their head and neck feathers that makes them look like flying amethyst crystals in the right light. I've only caught the color a few times in images.
The Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) is a fall and spring migrant in our region. The rich golden color is distinctive. They've been reported at only four other locations in our county so far this fall, but I've been following a small crowd of them in the wild tobacco shrubs near the Waterford water treatment plant, and a little ways downstream. I saw the first ones on August 7, and they are continuing to argue with each other right up through this afternoon. These flying gold nuggets will be missed when they move on south soon.
The Rufous Hummingbirds have a long migration, traveling from Alaska to Mexico with the seasons. When considering their size, their migration is the longest of any bird. Some birds go farther, but the Rufous travels 78 million body lengths; for a human, that would be just over three trips around the world!
The resident hummingbird in our region is the Anna's Hummingbird (Calpte anna). That makes hummingbird identification during the winter rather simple. They have a magenta iridescence when it is visible.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

The Fall Migrants are Arriving: Western Wood-Pewee on the Tuolumne River


It's still August, but there's the hint of a slight chill early in the morning, and some of the fall migrations are just getting started. On today's walk on the Tuolumne River, the sighting was of a juvenile Western Wood-Pewee (Contopus sordidulus). It seemed as curious about me as I was of it as it hopped around on bushes only 30 feet or so away.

The young bird has a long road ahead, as it will be migrating to South America. According to eBird, the Eastern and Western species of Wood-Pewee are definitely distinct genetically, but aside from their calls they are pretty much identical in appearance. They don't intermingle much in the areas where their ranges overlap in the north, but no one knows if they do so in their southern winter homes. And they don't sing much in the winter!

Monday, August 20, 2018

Hairy Woodpecker in the Hoh Rainforest of Olympic National Park


There's this problem with rainforests and birding. Quite a few bird species can be found there, but the green stuff gets in the way. On a given morning walk in my home territory on the Tuolumne River I'll see twenty or more species, because there are large open areas and shrubs and spindly trees for perching. But in the rainforest, in this case the Hoh Rainforest of Olympic National Park, I saw a mere five species. I heard a great many more, but they weren't making themselves visible and I'm not good at bird calls yet. Three of the five were familiar species, a robin, a crow, and a junco, but the other two are rare or nonexistent on my home turf of the Central Valley, a Canada Jay, and a Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus).

Hairy Woodpeckers are found across North America, and I would have a fair chance of spying one in the Sierra Nevada or Coast Ranges back home, but this one on a barren snag in the midst of all the green stuff happens to be the first I've ever seen. Most of the Hairy Woodpeckers are sharply defined black and white colors, but eBird points out that there are regional variations in the species, and that those found in the Pacific Northwest look "coffee-stained". I guess that's appropriate enough...

Saturday, August 18, 2018

The Migrants are Starting to Arrive: Pacific-Slope Flycatcher on the Tuolumne River


Sometimes I'm just really lucky. I'm no expert, not by a longshot, and though I can recognize most of the common species in our area, I'm at a loss when some of the rarer migrants come through. I learn most by repetition, and if I've seen a bird only once or twice previously, I won't be able to pick it out readily. I have to get pictures and pull out the field guides.

That's what happened yesterday. I was keeping a careful eye out for Buntings and Grosbeaks, my most exciting recent discoveries, when another bird landed in the branches in front of me long enough for two quick shots. The distinctive shape of the eye-ring and the bi-colored bill nailed it: a Pacific-slope Flycatcher (Empidonax difficilis). I've only seen it once before, during the spring migration.

Pacific-slope Flycatcher might seem a slightly clumsy name, but how about Cordilleran Flycatcher? Those are fairly modern terms for a bird that was first described in 1858. Until 1989 the two species were considered to be one: the Western Flycatcher, a more normal-sounding name. The problem is that the species split was based on vocalizations and breeding habits, and in practice the birds are very difficult to tell apart from each other. Some sources on the web suggest that the species split was premature.

In any case, I was lucky to identify this bird as a flycatcher, period. But I was really happy to get a fairly sharp picture (compare it to my last image here), and maybe next time I'll recognize it on sight!.

Friday, August 17, 2018

A Belted Kingfisher Duo on the Tuolumne River


Belted Kingfishers (Megaceryle alcyon) have been a regular sight on the Tuolumne Parkway trail over the last couple of years, but they have been very skittish. I might be a hundred yards away, but they'll take off and start hurling Belted Kingfisher obscenities in my direction. Photography has been really tricky.

This morning, though, they weren't nearly so upset when I appeared on the section of the trail overlooking the river. A pair of females were perched on a large tree branch, and even though I was maybe only 150 feet away, they hung around. They didn't fly off until I turned to walk on down the trail.

The rust colored feathers on the breast indicate the female. The males have a white breast.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

The Orange-crowned Warblers That Aren't Very Orange-crowned

I am a slow learner. I've gotten to the point where I can recognize most of the common bird species along the trails I walk most often, but the rarer birds and seasonal migrants throw me for a loop every darn time. In the spring it was the flycatchers (although I saw three new species back then). But now it is August and some of the earliest fall migrants are starting to pass through. And it is the warblers giving me fits. So far, no warbler is giving me more trouble than the Orange-crowned Warbler (Oreothlypis celata).
The more experienced birders have been very patient with me. I keep taking fuzzy pictures of warblers I can't identify (like the one above), and once again they tell me it's an Orange-crowned Warbler, and in my mind I say "but where's the orange crown??" The males do in fact have some orange-colored feathers on their head, but they are rarely seen.
That identification immediately led me to realize that I had photographed this species a few other times, but was frustrated by my failure to accurately identify the birds. I went searching and found even better pictures in the archives. I just need to remember that if I see a yellow-olive colored bird with a thin bill and half-arcs around the eyes, and NO ORANGE, it logically must be an Orange-crowned Warbler!

Monday, August 13, 2018

A Kettle at Kewin: Acorn Woodpeckers on Dry Creek


I don't know who is responsible for the names of the different flocks of birds, but somehow a grouping of woodpeckers is a "kettle". I was running errands today in the La Loma area of Modesto and passed Kewin Park, a notable birding spot in the middle of town. Dry Creek runs through the park, and a nice riparian habitat has been maintained along the length of the creek which ironically is often not dry (miles and miles of irrigated fields upstream provide runoff during the dry summer). I saw a gathering of Acorn Woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus) so I jumped out and snapped a few pictures.

The woodpeckers live in communal groups in the oak woodlands of the west from Oregon to Central America. As their name suggests, they consume acorns. They store vast numbers of them in holes that they drill into tree trunks that are called granaries. Single trees can have tens of thousands of these stored acorns, and they are carefully guarded. One can often hear their distinctive 'waka waka' long before seeing them.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Osprey on the Tuolumne Parkway Trail

Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) are a regular sight on the foothill rivers coming off of the Sierra Nevada, but it's always kind of a thrill. I was walking along the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail the other day watching for small songbirds in the trees and all of the sudden I was aware that some kind of very large bird was staring at me. And they have very intense eyes. Luckily, they are far more interested in fish than they are in me!

The river runs low this time of year as the operators at Don Pedro Reservoir upstream are very sparing with their water releases. The water is shallow and clear, so I guess the fishing is pretty good for the Ospreys (and the salmon run will be starting soon).

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Rufous Hummers 2.0: Of course the next day I get better pictures!


Whenever I see a new or unusual bird, I go with whatever pictures I'm able to get. Take for example the Lazuli Bunting I saw this morning for the first time. I have no idea if I'll ever get a chance to take better pictures, so the ones I have get posted. Well, yesterday I saw a Rufous Hummingbird as I was walking and I got some okay pictures, so they got posted yesterday. Then today, one of them landed right in front of me, wondering, no doubt, whether I needed to be chased away (they are highly pugnacious that way: they take on much bigger birds at times). I snapped a couple of close-up shots, and here is the best one. I suppose tomorrow it will land in my hand or something...

My First Sighting! Lazuli Bunting on the Tuolumne Parkway Trail

The 2nd edition of Sibley Birds West is my go-to book for bird identification. The bird on the cover always captures my attention: it's a Lazuli Bunting (Passerina amoena). It's such a beautifully colored bird, and I have wanted very much to find one in the wild. They have been seen locally, but are not common. The most recent sightings have been at the Ceres River Bluff Park a few miles downstream and I've been walking there more often in hopes of seeing one (that's where I saw a Blue Grosbeak a few weeks ago as well).
There's a dead cottonwood tree at the western end of the Tuolumne Parkway Trail that has been kind of a Grand Central Station for the local bird species. On a given day there will be four or more species perched at different levels. Most often I see European Starlings, Western Kingbirds (in season), Acorn Woodpeckers, American Kestrels, Tree Swallows, California Scrub Jays, and Northern Flickers. Sometimes some large raptors will be perched up there. I generally expect any dark colored birds to be the Starlings, but the one I saw this morning seemed a bit different. I zoomed in and saw a blue head, and realized I had at long last spotted a Lazuli Bunting! I'm sorry I can't offer better pictures, as I was hundreds of feet away, but sometimes that's what you get.

Eventually the male Bunting flew off. Another bird perched near the same spot, and at the distance I thought the male had returned. I snapped a few more pictures and found it was not the male after all. I suspect this is a female, but I would appreciate some expert opinions from those who are more familiar with these birds than I am.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Rufous Hummingbirds on the Tuolumne River

Rufous Hummingbirds (Selasphorus rufus) were the subject of a post only a few weeks ago, but that was because I was in an exotic location (i.e. the Pacific Northwest) where the birds spend the summer season. I've only seen them a couple of times on my home turf as they migrated through the region last spring. So I was surprised to see three or four of them this morning on my morning walk on the Tuolumne River Parkway trail. They were immature males.

I guess they may be starting to move south for the winter (there have only been three sightings in Stanislaus County in the last 30 days). I couldn't help but notice they were in the same wild tobacco bush where I saw them last spring. The Cornell Lab mentions that the birds have an excellent memory for location.

Monday, August 6, 2018

We Aren't the Only Ones to Give Up Living in Caves: Barn Swallows in Southwest Washington


Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) are one of the most widespread species on the planet, with a range that includes North America and Eurasia in the summer season, and Africa and South America in the winter season. Only Antarctica (for obvious reasons) and Australia lack large permanent populations. I see them often at home, but on our recent trip to the Pacific Northwest we saw them at many of our stops, but at Willapa National Wildlife Refuge in Washington State one cooperated with photography efforsts by landing on a parking lot sign.

There were also a number of them resting on the entrance station at Cape Disappointment State Park in the southwest corner of the state.
Barn Swallows are one of those species that have altered their behavior in response to human activity. Their natural tendency is to nest in caves, but with the expansion of barns and other human habitations throughout their native environment, they now almost exclusively build their nests in human structures.

It will be a sad enough day when they disappear from our region in the fall, but it's nice to know that they will be back next year.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Steller's Jay "Anting" at Humboldt Redwoods State Park


I saw some new bird behavior a few weeks ago on our Pacific Northwest trip. We were seeking cooler and cleaner air, and found it at Humboldt Redwoods State Park. We made a brief stop at the park visitor center and had a look around, keeping an eye out as always for interesting birds.

Steller's Jays (Cyanocitta stelleri) aren't rare, but the one we saw at did something a bit odd. It spread out its wings and flattened itself onto the fence. I didn't understand what was going on at the time, but I later found that it was probably "anting". The bird may be spreading ants on its wings as a way of making a chemically hostile environment for mites and other parasites.

Steller's Jays are a familiar sight in western conifer forests, with a range that extends from Central America to Alaska. They are almost never found at my home in the Central Valley, but it is a rare trip to the local mountains that doesn't have a sighting or two or a dozen. They are the most common nuisance bird at campgrounds and picnic areas with the possible exception of Common Ravens.

Humboldt Redwoods State Park preserves some beautiful old-growth Redwood forests along the so-called Avenue of the Giants (an old section of Highway 101 repurposed into a tourist route). It's a wonderful cool destination when the temperature soars in other parts of the western states.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Western Bluebirds (and babies) at Humboldt Redwoods State Park


We're continuing our journey to cooler places (two weeks ago...I'm baking right now). We spent our first night at Albee Creek Campground, a quiet little campground off the main highway in Humboldt Redwood State Park in Northern California. Albee Creek is a former homestead that is now a break in the forest with a meadow and even a small grove of apple trees.

There were a number of birds about, but the prettiest were the Western Bluebirds (Sialia Mexicana). There was a family, or several families, and I was able to get pictures of some of the slightly plainer looking females who were busy feeding some fledglings (above, with the spotted breast). The males are a showier bright blue, but in this instance I didn't get clear shots (check the archives to the right if you want to see a few; they are a favorite of mine to post).
The apples weren't quite ripe, so we didn't see any bears like we did last year, but Mrs. Geotripper heard one right outside our tent in the middle of the night. I of course slept through the whole thing.