Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Black-crowned Night-Heron at CSU Stanislaus



It's was time for final exams at CSU last week, but I arrived early enough to stroll around the campus to see what birds were out and about. Stanislaus is not a bad spot for seeing birds. There are lots of trees and ponds for habitat, so I tend to see a fair variety as I walk about.
Most of the ponds are carefully tended and the reeds are cut back to keep things "manicured", but Willow Lake lies between the two science complexes and adjacent to the outdoor laboratory area, so it is more overgrown and wild than the other water bodies (I'm pretty sure that's on purpose). It usually has the best variety of water birds and shore birds. There are always some Mallards around, a few American Coots, and some loud and obnoxious Canada Geese. In spring and summer there are Great-tailed Grackles to add to the cacophony. A Snowy Egret usually fishes quietly along the shore.
But until that night of finals, I had never seen an adult Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax). I've seen the Hawaiian sub-species, and I saw a juvenile once in 2016, but never a grown individual. It was in the weeds at the south end of the pond.
It seemed unconcerned about my presence (I was on the walkway along with dozens of other people). The pictures seem close, but that was the zoom-lens at work. The Night-Herons are common enough but are rarely seen because they usually forage at, well, night. They lay low during the daytime hours. Luckily I was out at sunset.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Western Tanagers on the Tuolumne River, and My Confession of Ignorance

There was a time not that long ago when I thought birding wouldn't be interesting because there didn't seem to be all that many kinds of colorful birds like those in the tropics, or on islands like Hawai'i. This was pure ignorance on my part, and I freely admit it. I've seen the same phenomena in my area of expertise (such as it is) in geology: people who don't know any better think that practically all rocks are gray and uninteresting (note: they are not).
Once I started paying attention, I was astounded at how wrong I was. One of the most shocking examples that shook me out of my ignorance was the sighting of a Western Tanager on a trip up Clark Fork of the Stanislaus River in the Sierra Nevada north of Yosemite National Park. Those pictures from 2014 were part of the inspiration that led to the start-up of this blog.
The Western Tanagers migrate from Central America to the American West as far north as British Columbia and Alberta. They are more commonly found in conifer forests like the Sierra Nevada where I saw that memorable specimen in 2014. When seen in the valley, they are often just passing through. And so it was that I did not expect to see any along my stretch of the Tuolumne River.
But then to my surprise I saw one or two of them in 2016, and then again in 2017. I was not happy with any of the shots I got at the time. Then in late April of this year I got yet another single crappy picture, but I posted it anyway thinking it would be the only one I would see this year. I was wrong.
Because I have been taking almost daily walks along the Tuolumne River this month, I've started to pick out the patterns and habits of several resident tanagers. I don't see them every day, but as you can see, I've managed to get a fair collection of half-decent pictures.

Now, if I could just get a handle on the habits of those beautiful Grosbeaks and Orioles....

Friday, May 25, 2018

Swainson's Hawks along Milnes Road

There are many diverse habitats for birds in our region, from lakes and ponds, rivers, forests, oak woodlands, and marshes. But the Great Valley is, or was, most notable for the vast prairie that stretched for four hundred miles from Bakersfield to Redding. It once hosted huge herds of elk and pronghorn, and was the winter home for millions upon millions of migratory arctic birds. But of course the prairie was uprooted and replaced by millions of acres of agricultural fields. It's less of a rich habitat for most animals, but it is still a good place for raptors. The fields provide plenty of rodents and large bugs like grasshoppers for food, and there is a veritable forest of power lines and telephone poles providing roosting and nesting sites.

Red-tailed Hawks are the "go-to" answer to the question "what kind of hawk is that?", but there are a dozen species of raptors that have been observed in our area. I was driving home along Milnes Road east of Modesto yesterday when I saw a pair of Swainson's Hawks (Buteo swainsoni) feeding on the ground in a cow pasture.

The story of the Swainson's Hawk is fascinating. They are migratory to an extreme. They spend winters in Argentina, and in spring they flock together by the thousands to migrate north to North America as far as Alaska, a round-trip of 12,000 miles. I've not had the privilege of witnessing it, but they migrate in kettles (flocks) of thousands of birds at a time. It must be something to see!

It Must Be Flycatcher Week: Pacific-slope Flycatcher on the Tuolumne River


I've been on a steep learning curve this week regarding flycatchers. For the three years I've been following birds on the Parkway Trail on the Tuolumne River I've seen a fair number of flycatchers, principally Black Phoebes who stick around all year, and Ash-throated Flycatchers, who have been fairly common sights during the summer months. Then, in the space of just two and a half weeks, I observed not one, not two, but three new species of flycatcher. First there was the Western Wood-pewee on May 7. Then two days ago, I sighted an Olive-sided Flycatcher that I hesitated to even report out of insecurity over my identification skills (plus it's kind of rare down here in the valley).

And then there was this morning. I'm looking for Olive-sided Flycatchers, or Western Wood-pewees, or Ash-throated Flycatchers (I always know I'll see the Phoebes; I know where they live). But the bird that appeared was none of those. It had a different color scheme, and it had a white ring around the eye. I hit the books (again) and realized I had photographed a Pacific-slope Flycatcher (Empidonax difficilis). The picture is not great, but I'll catch better ones next time! Or maybe it'll be a Hammonds Flycatcher, or a Willow Flycatcher. Apparently it is that kind of a week.

As their name suggests, these flycatchers are found in the extreme west in a line that extends from Mexico to southern Alaska and Canada. They are closely related to the Cordilleran Flycatchers, which are found farther to the east. They were once thought to be the same species. They eat...flies (and other insects).




Wednesday, May 23, 2018

A Bit of a Rare One: Olive-sided Flycatcher on the Tuolumne River

Sometimes I feel like such an amateur (that would be because I am). I've gotten to where I can recognize a lot of the common birds to be seen along my favorite haunts, but I am still finding it necessary to try and get a picture of the more obscure species so I can use the guidebooks to nail down an ID of an unknown bird. I'm learning the flycatchers, having found Black Phoebes (all over the place), and the somewhat less common Ash-throated Flycatcher, the Western Wood Pewee, and Say's Phoebe. But yesterday I was photographing what I thought might be the Western Wood-Pewee, but later I had doubts. The breast colors were wrong, the wing bars weren't as prominent, and so on. But what was it? I finally settled on an Olive-sided Flycatcher (Contopus cooperi).
But there was a problem with that. A quick bit of research on eBird revealed that the Olive-sided Flycatchers aren't seen on the valley floor all that often (only in three spots in our county in the last month or so). They are more common in the hills and conifer forests in the mountains that surround the valley. And I don't feel comfortable claiming rarer birds even with pictures. So I started asking around and got some encouragement with the ID, and today I found that one of the county experts saw one on the same trail today, so I'm feeling a bit better with my discovery.

The Olive-sided Flycatchers have an extremely large range, spending winters in the Amazon Basin of South America, and migrating north to the Western United States and across a wide swath of Canada and Alaska. They like forest settings where they can find a good perch and sally forth to, um, catch flies (and presumably lots of other kinds of bugs, including bees). They've undergone a steep decline in population over the last fifty years (losing about 80% of their total numbers). According to eBird, the problem has a lot to do with habitat loss in their wintering grounds.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Warbling Vireo on the Tuolumne River

I learned in geology a long time ago that one finds what one is looking for but doesn't find what one is not looking for. Another birding naturalist reported seeing a Warbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus), on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail on the 9th of May. The Warbling Vireo is a bird I've never seen before, or at least never recognized during my walks along the trail. But less than two weeks after Siera's report, lo and behold I see three of the vireos in two days! I didn't even yet know what it looked like, but because of the eBird report, I was on the lookout for some new kinds of birds in the canopy overhead.

Warbling Vireos winter in Mexico and Central America. During the spring and summer they spread out across the United States and western Canada to breed. They are less common on the valley floor, but are widespread in the local hills and mountains. They prefer to hang out in the upper canopy of the forests and woodlands where they search for caterpillars and moths. They occupy enough different environments that six subspecies have been defined.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Pair of Ash-throated Flycatchers on the Tuolumne River

We greeted the Ash-throated Flycatcher (Myiarchus cinerascens) on this blog about a month ago as the spring migrants started arriving from the tropics. I've been seeing them off and on ever since along the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail on my morning walks. This time was a bit different because I was taking pictures of the one with the ruffled feathers (below), I realized that a second one had perched below and wanted to be in the picture too.
The spring has continued to bring more and more birds to the river trail. I noted in the last flycatcher post a month ago that the Tuolumne River Trail had reached 100 separate species of birds observed. The number now stands at 107! Fellow nature blogger Siera Nystrom sighted a Warbling Vireo, a Townsend's Warbler, and a Wilson's Warbler. I added a Western Wood-pewee, some Forster's Terns, and just yesterday I discovered some Black-necked Stilts in the recharge ponds across the river. L.D. Scott saw a Savanna Sparrow. Who knows what will be seen next time?

Friday, May 18, 2018

House Wren on the Tuolumne River

After some extensive travels last week, I'm finally getting back to the river trail that I love patrolling. The Tuolumne River is still running high, about 1,500 cubic feet per second as the snowmelt in the Sierra Nevada continues. I've seen a few new or unusual birds this week. I saw but didn't get pictures of a Great Horned Owl, and got pictures of a Vireo that I haven't seen before. But the nicest moment today was a quick photo opportunity with a small House Wren (Troglodytes aedon)
House Wrens are not all that uncommon (you can tell from the name) but I've only seen a couple of them along the trail. When I have seen them, they're usually up in the branches and hard to photograph. So I was surprised when this one landed on a thistle stalk right in front of me.

Addendum! I was out again a day later, and another House Wren was singing away. Here's the video (sorry for the shakiness). It was interesting that a pair of Ash-throated Flycatchers were sitting less than two feet away.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Great Blue Heron on Lake Washington

No close-ups of any birds tonight. This is just a very pretty moment on our last night in the Seattle area. We were walking along the shoreline of Lake Washington after sunset, looking for the beaver we saw the other day. Instead we had a peaceful view of a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) fishing in the twilight. 

The Great Blue Herons seem particularly common around the Puget Sound, which is no surprise given the widespread freshwater wetlands and saltwater habitats that they thrive on. They tend to range farther north than some of their relatives, especially the egrets. I watched them in an intense fight with a pair of Bald Eagles in Victoria on Vancouver Island a couple of years ago.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Dark-eyed Junco in Washington State

We have Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) back home in California, but I don't see them all that often. This is probably because they are more of a forest bird, and the eBird reports show them to be abundant in the foothills and highlands of our local mountains. On the other hand, if one travels to the Pacific Northwest like I did this week, the forests come right down to sea level, and the Juncos are far more readily seen.
They are certainly common. Some estimates put their North American population at more than 600 million, and as many as that may be, it is just half what their population was half a century ago. We've not done a stellar job of preserving bird habitats in this country.

Wood Ducks on the Tuolumne River (But I had to go to Washington to see the babies)

I've had some marvelous views of Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) of late on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail. There are several pairs that have spent time up in the trees, and others that have been creeping about in the underbrush. I've seen as many as six in a day (unless they've been flying up or downstream to fool me). And I was especially pleased to the get the shot above, the clearest and most colorful that I've ever taken.

The one thing I haven't seen is Wood Duck ducklings. I don't know if they haven't bred yet, or if they are keeping their chicks well-hidden from predators, but I haven't seen any young ones. That changed today, but I had to travel all the way to Washington to see them. Lake Washington is a huge glacial lake that borders the east side of Seattle, and it is an urban nightmare. On the other hand, the local cities have put together a really nice nature trail that runs along the lower 17 miles of the Cedar River, on the of the main rivers that feeds into Lake Washington. I was exploring a short portion of that trail today, and the bird sightings were unremarkable, just three species, but one of the species was Wood Duck, and their were a fair number of them, mainly a pair of Wood Ducks, and a Mom with her ducklings making their way through a small swamp adjacent to the river. They were constantly moving, but finally settled for a nap on a floating log that was growing a bit of grass.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Acorn Woodpeckers along the Tuolumne River

If they took up residence in my yard, I would probably not like them as much. But they haven't, and so the Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus) remains one of my favorite sights when I walk the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail on most mornings. They are capable of doing a lot of damage to the eaves of a house, and they can be loud and raucous, but their clown-like faces and silly antics can be endearing.
The individuals that I've seen most often lately have been at war with European Starlings over nest cavities in an old dead cottonwood tree towards the west end of the Parkway Trail. I can't tell who's winning, but a number of times I've seen the woodpeckers hard at work producing a cavity while the Starlings watch and wait to take it over. There is a lot of flying, yelling and shuffling around. I've not posted pictures because my observation point is kind of distant, so pictures are so-so.
This morning I walked a bit further and took a careful look at some of the huge oak trees just east of the water treatment plant, and I heard the familiar calls of the woodpeckers, and one climbed out on a branch right in front of me and posed for awhile. I was honored to take a couple of portraits. I didn't see so many Starlings in the vicinity.
The shot below is typical of the woodpeckers at the west end war zone. The heavily zoomed photos are sometimes okay, but they don't convey much of the personality of the individual birds.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Another New Bird (for me) on the Tuolumne River: A Western Wood-Pewee

I was kind of excited to add two birds to my Tuolumne River Parkway Trail list this week. The first, and most exotic, was the Forster's Terns that I was able to get pictures of (finally). On the same day I saw the first tern, I also saw a bird that acted just like a Black Phoebe, chasing insects from a prominent perch and flying back. But it wasn't black. I realized eventually that I had come across a Western Wood Pewee (Contopus sordidulus). It isn't entirely unusual to see them here in the valley, but they are more common in hilly or mountainous terrain. They are also a summer migrant, and they've been seen at just four localities in our county thus far this year (according to eBird).
I have seen Pewees before, but in a far different and unusual place: Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, an oasis in the barren desert east of Death Valley National Park. They range across all the western states and Alaska as well as Central America and the northernmost part of South America. Their range ends across a north-south line in the Great Plains, a line that coincides with the western edge of the range of the Eastern Wood Pewee. The birds are pretty much identical aside from their songs, but according to eBird there is little evidence that the two species interbreed. This leads to an interesting mystery: they migrate south for the winter, but no one is sure about where they go. The birds don't sing often in winter, and are thus pretty much indistinguishable in their winter habitat. Wherever it may be.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

A Bird Who Didn't Want to be Seen: Red-Breasted Nuthatch on the West Campus

I'm a little behind on bird updates, as these pictures are from April 17. I'm not happy with the them, but then again I was lucky to see this bird at all. It's a Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta Canadensis), and it was deep in the foliage of a tree on the West Campus of my college. It was the last week of classes, and I was stretching my legs during a break from grading. It's the first time I've seen one so I'm looking forward to getting better shots some day.

The Red-breasted Nuthatchers usually search for insects in the summer and later in the year they may switch to nuts (kind of like their name). They are more of a conifer forest species and are typically found at higher elevations outside the Great Valley. They range across North America from the Mexican border to Alaska.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

A New Bird (for me) on the Tuolumne River: A Forster's Tern


Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! No, it's a plane! No, it's Superman! Oh, it's actually a bird. But it's a new one, one that I haven't noted before on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail. It started yesterday when I saw a white bird across the river over the pond at the west end of the trail. White birds on this part of the Tuolumne are almost always egrets, but this one was dipping and soaring like no egret I've ever seen. And it was a lot faster.

I then thought it must be a gull of some sort, but it still didn't seem right. I commenced taking a series of hopeless pictures from a quarter mile away hoping that I might figure out what it was. I struggled with the computer to try and bring out some diagnostic features out of the visual static, and finally settled on Forster's Tern (Sterna forsteri) as an identification. There are several similar-looking terns, but I thought I could see a long forked tail in the fuzzy pictures, and that was it. I figured I wouldn't see anymore since I've been walking the trail for three years and never seen one before.

So I went out this morning and there were five of them! And they weren't just over the distant pond, they were also soaring over the river itself, almost overhead. So I had the challenge of trying to focus the camera on fast-moving birds. I got a few shots, enough to confirm what I thought I saw the previous day.

Forster's Terns are a purely North American species, spending winters in Mexico, and migrating north across the United States to breeding grounds in the Pacific Northwest states and southern Canada. They've been seen all over California in shoreline and delta habitats, but are not particularly common in the Central Valley. They've been seen most often at the local reservoirs like Turlock Lake and Woodward Reservoir.

The Tuolumne Parkway Trail is sort of a new birding environment. A number of county bird experts have kayaked the river, but it wasn't until the city completed work in the trail two years ago that  birders could easily access the river habitat. To say I had no idea how diverse our habitat is would be a major understatement. In just two years, they've sighted 102 species! There have been 306 species sighted in Stanislaus County, so there is a lot of potential for future discoveries (the single most productive birding hotspot in the county is at the Modesto Water Treatment plant, with 229 species so far). I've seen 78 of the species on the Tuolumne Parkway Trail, so I've still got some work to do.

The orange and yellow invasion of migrant species is at a lull. I'm still hoping to see a Hooded Oriole or a Varied Thrush on some occasion, but in the meantime I'll keep my eyes open for more surprises.