Sunday, September 15, 2019

Ospreys on the Tuolumne River

There's kind of a feeling of expectation along the Tuolumne River these last few mornings. The birds have been fewer in number, as the tropical species have started to disappear, and it's still early for many of the Arctic migrants to be appearing (but they're coming). On the other hand, some birds are here year-round, and one of the spectacular ones is the Osprey (Pandion haliaetus). Several of them have been hanging out along the Tuolumne Parkway Trail for the last week or two.
One can understand why they're around...the river is running clear, and it's full of fish, the favorite prey of the Osprey. I haven't had the chance to see one diving into the river yet, but the other evening we were on the bluffs waiting for the Harvest Moon to rise over the bluffs and saw one eating a meal.
Since it didn't fly off, I got a few moments of video as well...

Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Day I Thought I Finally Saw a Great Horned Owl on the Tuolumne River

I feel kind of bad for the Great Horned Owls that live along the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail. I've only seen them a few times, and one of those times, the owl was being mobbed by a bunch of angry crows. The other time, the owl constructed a nest in the top of one of the big oak trees, and I was anxiously awaiting a look at some owlets. Tragically, a huge windstorm hit and the entire nest was dislodged, and it plummeted to the ground.
The owls are nocturnal of course, and the hours for hiking the trail don't include the night, so I have to pin my hopes on seeing one sleeping up high in the trees. A week ago I thought I had finally spotted one. The outline was in the right kind of place, and looked to be the right shape, but when I got the camera on it and zoomed in, I had a real surprise. That was no owl!
So I got a quick education. During the plentiful times, a hive may be full of bees and honey, and space becomes a problem. A queen will lay some queen-type eggs, and then leave for a new home with thousands of drones in tow. Scout bees will look for a new hollow for the hive, and the bees will rest together in a large mass. They apparently will hang around for a few hours or days until the scouts have located an appropriate spot. The bees then start a new hive.

So much for my Great Horned Owl!

Friday, August 16, 2019

Biting Off More Than You Can Chew...Belted Kingfisher at Lake Washington

Here's a bird that was too successful. This Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) hit the pot of gold, enough fish to feed it for days, but...how to consume it?
I was on a walk along the shore of Lake Washington at Gene Coulon Park early one morning in June when I spotted the poor bird and its problem of too much in the way of riches. I wonder if there is some metaphor here about income inequality or something?
Most of the time the bird leaves while I'm snapping pictures. This time I watched and watched and videoed the poor bird and it never solved its conundrum. There was a Bald Eagle nearby...I'm sure it would have offered a solution to the problem.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Bald Eagles Nesting at Neah Bay, Washington

Our trip to British Columbia didn't have a great many chances for birdwatching. Teaching a field course is like that...time after time, I'll be talking to the students about rocks or something, and some bird, quite often an unusual species will be hopping from branch to branch behind the students. I want desperately to lift the camera and start snapping away, but I'm a professional, darn it. I grit my teeth and keep talking, and students never have any idea the inner struggle I'm going through.
In any case, I had a lucky moment on our first day of our trip, when we headed out to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. The gang was touring the Makah Cultural Center at Neah Bay and I stepped out for a moment. I heard a bit of a commotion outside the museum and I looked high into a fir tree just behind the museum and saw a pair of Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) attending to their nest. There was a lot of activity, but I never got a look at any young eagles.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Tanagers on the Tuolumne!

I'm trying to put together a few posts on the birds I saw while traveling in the Pacific Northwest, but I keep getting interrupted by beautiful birds more or less in my own backyard. I've been taking my customary walks early in the morning along the Tuolumne Parkway Trail, and there are plenty of pretty birds about, but not a lot of surprises this week. Well, except for this morning when I saw a Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana) in the oaks at the west end of the trail near the stairwell. I'm 90% sure I saw a female yesterday, but didn't get any pictures.

It's just a little bit unusual to see them on the valley floor at the height of summer. The tanagers tend to be a mountain species, and are more common in the forests of the Sierra Nevada at this time of year. They'll become more numerous next month as they start migrating south to Mexico for the winter. They are one of my favorite birds because, frankly, I'm attracted to bright coloration!

Friday, July 26, 2019

One Species or Two? The Grebes of the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge



One of these is not like the others. Can you tell which one is which?
The concept of a species has apparently always been a problem in biology. The definition I was taught, the idea that a species is a group of organisms that can produce viable offspring, is a real problem in my own field of geology and paleontology. How can we know if a species was capable of successfully reproducing from fossil evidence? We depend on the morphology a great deal, but it often produces problems. Consider what future paleontologists will think about fossils of all the dog breeds in existence...would a Chihuahua be considered the same species as a German Shepherd? There are debates about whether the large number of species of ceratopsian dinosaurs might actually be growth stages of a single species.
As we learn more, the idea of boundaries between species becomes even more uncertain. There are some species that are more closely related than others, and hybridization is a common phenomenon. Such hybrids may be a powerful driver of evolutionary change. Which brings us to these unique birds in the pictures today. They include a single picture of some Clark's Grebes (Aechmophorus clarkii), and some Western Grebes (Aechmophorus occidentalis). We saw them in the ponds of the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge near Willows, California, on the first day of our recent journey through British Columbia and northern Washington state. What criteria did you use to distinguish between the two?
Biologists considered them to be the same species until 1985, when they split them because they didn't tend to interbreed, had different calls, occupied slightly different niches in their wetlands environments, and on major differences in their DNA sequences. The Western Grebes are more numerous (~110,000 vs ~11,000), but both are threatened by loss of their wetland environments. The most visible differences are the eyes, which are surrounded by black in the Western Grebe and white in the Clark's Grebe. The beak of the Clark's Grebe is brighter yellow while the Western's is more olive in color.

The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge is one of our favorite birding spots. It has spectacular seasons in fall and winter when the migrant ducks, geese, and cranes arrive from the Arctic. The birds gather in flocks 10,000 strong, and few sights are as memorable as seeing all of the Snow or Ross's Geese taking off at once. Summer is much quieter, but is a good time to view the year-round species and the raptors. I noted 26 different species on our late June visit.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

The Babies are Growing Up! Hooded Oriole on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail

Time passes quickly when you're having fun...or you're traveling thousands of miles. I've been on the road for four of the last five weeks, and when I wasn't traveling, I was unpacking and packing again. Somehow it's been a month since I last posted any birds!

I've been thinking a lot about home since I was away so long. I've been watching a group of Hooded Orioles along the bluffs above the Tuolumne River since last spring. They had a nest somewhere in a group of palm trees, and I've seen at least three individuals at one time or another. This morning it was an immature male that I assume was one of the babies. Those palms were home for these birds, and so far for this male, it has been the only home it has ever had. But that will change in a matter of weeks. Hooded Orioles are tropical migrants, and they will soon be flying south for winter in their other home somewhere in Mexico or Belize.
But I'm pretty sure the birds will be back. Hooded Orioles are not common in our region, but this is the third year that I've seen the species, all within a few hundred yards of the palm trees on the bluff. Somehow they find this particular spot after a journey of a few thousand miles. I guess when you have a home, you never forget where it is.

I'll miss their bright colors when they leave!

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Notes From the Road: Bald Eagle at the Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve

It's summer as of yesterday, and so of course Geotripper and Mrs. Geotripper are on the road to parts unknown. We'll meet in a few days with our students and explore British Columbia and the Olympic Peninsula along with other fascinating locales. On the one hand, that means a chance to see some new birds, but on the other, blogging is likely to be spotty.

It didn't take us long to see a bird that is only occasionally seen in our region, but is relatively common in the Pacific Northwest: the Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). It was flying above the prairies of the Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve, a fascinating place with an interesting geologic story, soon to appear over at Geotripper.

More bird reports are expected to follow!

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

A Rare Sight Today on the Tuolumne River: A Rose-breasted Grosbeak

You just never know when it will happen. You walk the trail that you've been walking on more or less daily for months, dutifully recording bird species and pretty much seeing the same lineup of birds, and that's just fine because there are some really pretty birds. But once in a great while there is something new, and it comes as such a surprise that it takes your breath away for a moment.

The Grosbeaks are my story this week. I expected to see them arriving along the Tuolumne Parkway Trail more than a month ago, but aside from one quick glance of one through the trees at the river, and one surprising moment on our backyard birdfeeder, I haven't seen any in the area. That changed this morning.

I took a walk earlier this week at the Ceres River Bluffs Regional Park and got some fine shots of a pair of Blue Grosbeaks (post coming soon). Then today, I heard a familiar, yet unfamiliar song that made me think of Robins or Grosbeaks in the tree next to the stairway at the west end of the Tuolumne Parkway Trail where I do most of my walks. I started searching in the branches and finally spied a Black-headed Grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus). I got a couple of shots (see below), and then it flew towards me and on to the oak tree at the southeast corner of the parking lot. And then another grosbeak flew by, and then a third. The third one looked different somehow, and luckily it landed where I could get a few pictures. It turned out to be a Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus)!

I had to look it up to identify it, because it is a bird that is rarely seen in our county. According to the eBird records, it has only been seen in Stanislaus County four times, being last observed in 2014. The normal range for the bird is east of the Great Plains, but there are occasional sightings across California. It's known to sometimes hybridize with Black-headed Grosbeaks, so it's no surprise that I saw the birds together.

I'm including the Black-headed Grosbeak picture I got. There's not much similarity in their color pattern, but the short, thick beak is always distinctive.

What a thrilling and interesting day it turned out to be!

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Nature's Alarm Clock: Red-breasted Sapsucker in the Humboldt Redwoods

It was for all intents and purposes the perfect campsite. It was out on the edge of the campground next to a beautiful meadow at Albee Creek in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. The neighbors were quiet. It had been a serene night and I slept as well as I have in many months. The morning came gently, soft sunlight glistening through the trees.

And then all of the sudden someone was playing drums in the middle of the campground! My pre-conscious state caused me to rise suddenly in indignation as I prepared to confront the rude camper, but once awake I realized we were being greeted by a woodpecker of some sort.

It's a little frustrating to go birding in a deep forest if you are poor of hearing or not well-versed in bird calls, but woodpeckers are in a class by themselves. If they are at work, it doesn't take too long to locate them. I grabbed my camera and I sighted the bird almost immediately. To my great delight it was a Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber) drumming on the hollow shell of a dead redwood tree. I've only seen them a couple of times through the years.
You all know I exaggerate about everything, so I made a video of the woodpecker at work. Turn up the sound!

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

One of the Reclusive Ones: Marsh Wren at the Dean Creek Elk Viewing Area in Oregon

Some birds might be relatively common, but at the same time they can be very reclusive and hard to see. They can be even harder to photograph. I got lucky with one of those kinds of birds last week as we traveled through Oregon. It was a Marsh Wren (Cistothorus palustris). It was only the fourth time I've seen one, and only second time I've gotten pictures. We were stopped at the Dean Creek Elk Viewing Area just inland of Reedsport on the Umpqua River. We actually weren't looking for the elk because we have lots of pictures of elk. The meadow along the river is often a good place to look for birds.
I inadvertently drew the bird out of reeds and into sight. I could hear a bird singing in the thick vegetation but I'm not well-versed in bird calls. I suspected it might be a Marsh Wren, so I pulled out the smart phone to check the call. It played louder than I expected, and suddenly the Marsh Wren jumped out of the reeds wondering who the competition was. Calling birds this way is not really ethical, as it may upset the birds and cause them to use energy that they can't spare.
For more information about Marsh Wrens, I recommend an excellent post by fellow nature blogger Siera Nystrom at the Natural History Journal.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Let's Catch that Bird with the Broken Wing! The Killdeer of the Great Valley Museum Outdoor Nature Lab

It's an omen of sorts, or maybe a blessing by nature.

The Killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) is the mascot or icon of the Great Valley Museum, as can be seen on our various logos. There is a good reason for this: the bird survives quite well in the valley environment, both on the dry prairies and in the river/delta wetlands.

We had a major moment take place this week: after 35 years of proposals and dashed hopes, and after a year of fenced-off construction zones, the fences came down and yesterday people could walk freely along the paths of our new Outdoor Nature Lab. It is a marvelous microcosm of the environment of the Great Valley, with native vegetation and native rock exposures from the prairies at the confluence of the Great Valley and the Sierra Nevada foothills. Interpretive signs will soon be posted, and activities will soon be available for our local children to learn about their local natural environment.
Our local species are already responding to the newly completed environment, and in particular, the Killdeer, our icon. We noticed almost right away that a pair was moving around the grounds, and we suspected there might be a nest. Someone soon found it, but I don't know how they ever saw it.

How good are you at nest-finding? It's in this picture...can you find it?
The eggs will be incubated for 22-28 days, and when they hatch, the chicks will be able to walk as soon as their feathers dry off. Given such a vulnerable location, just sitting out on the ground, one has to wonder how they can survive out there in the open prairie.


It involves deception, of course. If the danger is from a browsing cow or deer, the parents will make a big display to cause the animals to graze in another direction. But if the danger is a predator that might eat the eggs and/or the parents, the birds will do a fascinating "broken-wing" dance that will catch the attention of the fox or raccoon and the birds will lead the animal away from the nest. We were subjected to the dance while we took a short look at the nest. Check out the video of the display below.

What a wonderful welcome to the next stage of our service to nature education in our community!

Monday, June 3, 2019

Deep in the Woods of Del Norte, a Varied Thrush

In the 1960s there was an effort to select a place in the northern coast ranges to become Redwood National Park. Mill Creek, east of Crescent City, was considered, but in the end Redwood Creek to the south became the focus of the new national park, established in 1968. It was the death knell for the old growth Coast Redwoods in Mill Creek. From 1968 to 2002, tens of thousands of acres were logged, and there were only a few hundred acres left. At that time, the stricken drainage was purchased to become a huge addition to Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park. The purpose was to protect the redwood forests downstream in Jedidiah Smith State Park. The land will eventually recover and the redwoods may very well return, but not for many human generations.

Still, there is some fine second-growth forest in the park addition, just not redwoods. That's where we spent two nights last week on our journey to coastal California and Oregon. Mill Creek Campground was a beautiful and quiet place to stay (the first night anyway; there were rude drunks next door the second night).

One thing about birding in a thick forest is that it really requires a good sense of hearing, because the birds are well-hidden in the foliage. And I don't do well with bird calls for a number of reasons. Just the same, we saw some interesting birds, and today's bird was one of them, making a first appearance on this blog: a Varied Thrush (Ixoreus naevius). They are seen back home on occasion, but I haven't been that lucky. I'd previously seen only one before, in a rest area in northern Oregon a few years ago. But as we left the campground, Mrs. Geotripper pointed out the bird and wondered what it was. The colors are distinctive, so I was fumbling with a camera (hers, as it turned out), and finally got a couple of shots before it ran off.
The Varied Thrush is a true denizen of the deep forest. It's also a bird of the west, found mainly in the Coast Ranges of Canada and the Cascades. The loss of the western forests has been detrimental for the thrush. More than 90% of the original redwood forests are gone, and with them, something close to 70-80% of the thrushes are gone as well, at least since 1966. The rehabilitation of the forests will help their populations to recover.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Fiery Color: Six Weeks of Bullock's Orioles on the Tuolumne River

One of the really nice things about walking the same trail (the Tuolumne Parkway Trail in Waterford) three or more times a week is that one can get to know individual birds and their habits. As I hike along, I'm always watching out for the species that I know are rare or exotic (just today I saw Cinnamon Teal in a pond along the trail, the first time it's ever been reported on this particular stretch of the river). But there is also the privilege of getting to know the birds that are practically always around, because the river is their home.
The Black Phoebes have their favorite roosting spots, as do the House Wrens, and the American Kestrels. The Mute Swans are almost always floating on the pond across the river from the western trailhead. The raptors almost seem to have specific territories (or times) along the river; the Red-tails tend to be on the downstream side, and the Swainsons, Coopers, and Red-shouldered hawks more upstream. A particular dead cottonwood tree seems to be the territory boundary, as all the birds compete for roosting spots there. Underneath them, a pair of Acorn Woodpeckers are almost always drilling away at the trunk. A Green Heron likes to lurk in the pond below the irrigation canal "waterfall". If I don't see these birds when I walk, I get a feeling that something is missing.
Then there are the birds whose presence is a seasonal event. I always look forward to the spring migration because the tropical migrants who are arriving tend to be especially colorful. Their arrival was something I always seemed to miss in my ignorance before I started watching carefully a few years ago. Although they provide a splash of color, they tend to be fairly rare and inconsistent in their chosen roosting and nesting spots. If one doesn't know where to look, the birds can be very easy to miss.
One of my absolute favorites are the Bullock's Orioles (Icterus bullockii). I only saw a few of them last year and the year before. I wasn't walking the trail consistently, and I never found the area where they were nesting.
This year has been different. I haven't seen their nest yet, but I've seen a male and female consistently flying in and out of a particular palm tree on the bluffs above the water treatment plant (I hope the people living in the house there aren't too concerned about the strange man in the hat with a camera who comes and stands in front of their house every day).
Like many birds, the females are not so brilliantly colored, but they are very pretty nonetheless. I'm hopeful that there will be some fledglings to observe before long!
It's been about six weeks since I saw the first of the Bullock's Orioles on April 7, and I've noted their presence on my ebird lists twenty (!) times now. Some of the sightings included some nice shots that I wanted to post immediately, but six weeks of nothing but Bullock's Oriole on this blog would have maybe seemed...excessive.

So instead, I'm taking my favorite shots from the last six weeks in a "Best of" compilation. When I see young ones, maybe I'll post again (I don't really need excuses though). In the meantime, enjoy!