Sunday, April 22, 2018

Welcoming the Spring Migrants: Ash-Throated Flycatcher on the Tuolumne River

I love traveling, and I've been a lot of places in the last few months, but for me it always comes back to the home turf, and walks along our gentle stretch of the Tuolumne River as it flows through Waterford. Our modest river trail will never be a world destination (it passes by the water treatment plant, for heaven's sake), but it has some beautiful stretches through the riparian habitat, and is proving to be a rich environment for wildlife. In the past few days I've seen river otters, red foxes, lizards, and many, many birds. We passed a milestone this week. Other birders have been frequenting the trail, and they came up with six new first-time sightings, bring the total eBird roster to 100 separate species!

There have been some other "firsts" this week as the spring migrants begin showing up along the river. Yesterday I was out with Mrs. Geotripper on a section of the trail, and we saw a Western Kingbird, one of our spring arrivals, but I've been seeing them for several weeks now. But there was a second bird in the same tree that had a yellowish breast, but it looked different somehow, and I got one poor shot that gave me just enough hints to realize it was an Ash-throated Flycatcher (Myiarchus cinerascens), another spring arrival. These flycatchers are a desert species who get their water from the foods that they eat. They winter in Mexico, and move north into the southwestern states and California for the summer to breed. They are cavity-nesters who compete for old woodpecker holes in dead trees, but will nest in many environments such as eaves and drain pipes, so they've done well with the spread of humans across the southwest.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Mute Swans on the Tuolumne River have Produced Another Family

The Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) on the Tuolumne River have produced a family. I've been watching the swans for a couple of years; they live in an old quarry pond across the Tuolumne River at the west end of the Tuolumne Parkway Trail in Waterford. They have apparently always been a pair, and last year they had three or four cygnets. I think that only one survived in the end, and eventually it left for other places. Then, for the last couple of months I've only seen one swan. I assumed (or hoped) that the other was tending a nest somewhere in the thickets along the pond. It turns out that I was right because earlier this week both swans could be seen in river Tuolumne River next to the pond, and they were trailing cygnets! There were four of them.

Mute Swans produce ambivalent feelings among birders and ecosystem managers. They are beautiful birds, with many myths and legends, especially in European culture. That is because they are native to Europe. They were brought to America as domestic waterfowl, part of the landscaping for rich estates. But of course many escaped and established feral populations, and as such they have caused a lot of damage by eating up much of the available forage, and displacing other species. There have been many efforts in the eastern United States to control their populations. I don't know what they are doing in California about them. For the time being, there are only a few showing up on the EBird reports in the region (Dawson Lake has been another dependable spot for seeing them).

Monday, April 16, 2018

A Bird in Hand is Better Than Two in the Bush, But Why Not Both? Bullock's Oriole on the Tuolumne River


I don't see them often, and generally only at a distance, up in the tree canopy far above. The Bullock's Oriole (Icterus bullockii) is a tropical species, and is only in our area during the warmer months of the year. I've been watching for them for a couple of weeks, and was thrilled to see one yesterday up in an oak tree across the parking lot. I could barely see it except for the bright yellow orange color.

And that's why today was such a shock. I was standing under a much shorter tree along the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail, and this Bullock's Oriole simply landed in front of me, maybe only 20 feet away. It's going to be a long time before I again get a picture like the one above. It flew off up the hillside and got into a little chase with a second Oriole. What a privilege to see them up so close, and so unexpected.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Great Horned Owl Nestling in the Mother Lode Foothills


A few weeks back we were taking some back roads to Merced Falls to check on the Osprey nests. It was just a day or so after one of the intense thunderstorms that hit the region in March. The storm caused widespread flooding and several bridges were washed out (many haven't been repaired yet). We had to turn off our route because of one of the washouts, and passed what we thought was yet another hawk nest. But in the rear view mirror I saw the unmistakable profile of a Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus), and stopped to make sure.
Momma Owl flew off, but we had a look at the nestling. Today, we were driving the same road and noted that the young nestling was a fair bit bigger and a bit more curious about the goings-on in the world outside the nest. We didn't see momma today, but the baby is looking pretty healthy.


A Wood Duck, in the Woods, on the Tuolumne River

Yes, I just posted about Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) only a week ago, but of course I saw more on subsequent trips this week. This morning I saw two or three ducks flying over the Tuolumne River, and then unexpectedly they flew up into a tall cottonwood tree on the shore. I'm just not used to ducks landing in trees, even though I know that this is something Wood Ducks do. This is the closest I've ever gotten to these wary birds (it felt hidden from sight). Although the male was silhouetted against the sky, I was able to bring out some of the color in processing the photo.

UPDATED: Of course, the very next day I got even better pictures of the Wood Ducks, so I'm adding to this post from yesterday...
A male Wood Duck up in the Cottonwood

A female in the cottonwood

Here's a look at the male and female up in the tree.



A few days earlier I saw a pair of Wood Ducks perched on the snag over the river. Again, perfectly normal for a Wood Duck, but still unexpected for ducks in general.

Friday, April 13, 2018

A First Sighting (for me) on the Tuolumne: A Rufous Hummingbird

I had quite a surprise the other day on my walk along the Tuolumne River. It was a Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus), a bird I have probably never seen before (the confusion of that statement is explained in this post). This incredibly beautiful hummingbird does not stay in our area year-round. We instead are on their migration route to Alaska, so they only pass through the region in the spring and fall. They breed farther north than any other hummingbird species.
I usually have to look pretty closely to identify hummingbirds, but the Rufous is hard to miss. I was watching several Anna's Hummingbirds in the flowering shrubs, and the bright orange-brown color of this male really stood out. It cooperated by remaining relatively still for a couple of minutes until I got tired of snapping pictures.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Mallard Duck Family at CSU Stanislaus

It turned into "Duck Week" here at Geotripper, and as I got to the end of the list of the more rarely seen species, I realized that in four years I had never posted on the most common duck of all. We have a truism in geology that you could spend a field season in a place collecting all the rare and unusual rocks and minerals, and somehow never pick up the single most common rock in the area. Apparently I do that with birds, too.
In any case, I wondered how to do something original with a duck that is seen at virtually every park and pond in North America, the Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) I was going through the small handful of pictures that I've ever taken of them, finding little to work with. Then the answer became as obvious as the nose on my face, in the sense that I looked up and beyond the end of my nose, there was a Mallard family walking right outside my office at CSU Stanislaus. I got up and snapped a few shots of the insufferably cute chicks, and that was that.

One More Duck, a Scaup...or is it???


It's another duck for my duck week. This time the picture is not at all very good, but it is a first of sorts. Greater and Lesser Scaups (Aythya marila and Aythya affinis) are occasionally seen in the area, especially at the wildlife refuges, but I haven't identified them for myself until last week. Strangely enough, once I identified one individual on the Merced River, I saw another on the Tuolumne River only a day or two later. The male that I saw on the Tuolumne was in the groundwater recharge basin across the river from the water treatment center. I was a good quarter mile away, which explains the fuzziness of the shot. It looked vaguely familiar, and then I remembered a somewhat famous picture of a creature from Scotland or somewhere like that...

So maybe the Loch Ness Monster is a really long-necked duck, or our recharge basin has a large plesiosaur swimming around inside. In any case, the other Scaup that I saw was a female. I figured it to be a Lesser Scaup because of the rounder head, and because others had reported Lesser Scaups at the same location a few days earlier (and no Greater Scaups at all).

Duck week continues, with just one more (I think).

Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Wily Wood Ducks of the Tuolumne River

I guess it is turning into duck week on the blog! Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) live on the Tuolumne River where I live, and I see them almost every time I walk along the trail near the water treatment plant. But they are among the most skittish birds as well, so most of the pictures I have of them are at extreme zoom, because they flee as soon as I appear.
Today the river was running at almost 5,000 cubic feet per second, and it was loud. So I almost had a chance to get some close-ups, because the river covered my noise as I approached. Except the darn camera briefly malfunctioned, so they took off as normal, but unlike most times, they just crossed the river and went back into the water, so I had a chance to get a couple of shots. There is room for improvement, so I will keep at it!

Friday, April 6, 2018

Green-Winged Teal at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

My duck education continues. As I noted in my last post, duck identification has lagged many other species, since I haven't seen too many kinds along my river walks. But I continue to visit the local wildlife refuges, and I keep seeing new species (not rare species mind you, just species I haven't noted before). Today the species is our smallest duck, the Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca). The second, rather poorer photo shows the reason for their name.
The Green-winged Teal is a winter visitor to the region. They migrate into Canada for breeding, so it's probably not that many weeks before they will disappear from our region.

I need to remind myself every so often what a remarkable place this is that I live in. The wildlife refuges of the Great Valley either preserve, or are attempting to reconstruct, the original savannas and wetlands that were the original heritage of our valley. 90-95% of the original landscape has been transformed into agricultural fields. Wandering through the grasslands and marshes, one is seeing a part of California that was almost eliminated. It is a privilege to wander these lands.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Northern Pintails at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

That's an American Coot in the foreground
Birding is not the easiest new hobby to get into. The rewards begin early, it is true, as one discovers that there are far more species in a given area than one ever expected, and the discoveries and first sightings come fast and quick. But then one realizes that there are dozens of species, there are hundreds of them, and more than a few of them are hard to tell apart from one another. And then there is the inexperience that comes of not seeing a particular environment enough to get familiar with the species found there. I'm getting pretty good at identifying most of the birds I see along the Tuolumne Parkway Trail where I go three or four times a week, but the nearby bird refuges, which I might see only once every three or four weeks, are overwhelming. There are so many birds. I'm good with most of the geese species now, but the ducks bedevil still me. In any case, I'm slowly learning, and one that I have little trouble identifying, the Northern Pintail (Anas acuta), is one of my favorites.
eBird starts their description of the bird as "elegant", and it's true. They have such a formal bearing, and the males have gorgeous lines and colors. They winter all across the United States and Central America, and in the summer they head north in large numbers to breed on the tundra. Not all of them move north. The Central Valley of California is one of the southernmost places where they can be found all year. Once the tens of thousands of geese leave to go north, the Northern Pintails seem to become more visible in the open water.

I saw these on the Waterfowl Auto-tour at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. I was surprised to find that even though I've seen them a number of times over the last three years, and even got pictures, I've never actually posted any of them on the blog. So enjoy their stunning debut!

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Belted Kingfishers at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge and the Tuolumne River

I don't get a lot of sharp focused pictures of Belted Kingfishers (Megaceryle alcyon). Just like any smart bird, they like to steer clear of humans (or at least me), especially those that patrol the Tuolumne River along the Parkway Trail in Waterford. I hear them constantly, chattering and complaining about me disturbing their territory. But I rarely get close enough for pictures.
We were at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge on two successive weekends, and along the Waterfowl Auto-tour, I saw the same Kingfisher perched on the wires above the irrigation canal at the south boundary of the refuge. The first weekend was overcast, and the picture (as usual) was a bit fuzzy, but the next weekend was sunny, and I finally got a picture I liked (at the top). The chestnut band across the chest marks this one as a female.

Later that week, I was on my usual river walk when I heard the familiar chatter coming from the inaccessible thickets at the western end of the trail. I spotted the male from the top of the stairwell and got this one relatively good shot, but by the time I got to the base of the stairs, it had flown away downstream.