Sunday, April 28, 2024

My Rare Bird Jinx and the Roseate Spoonbill

Let's understand first how rare this bird actually is. In California north of Bakersfield, it's been seen just once, near Moss Landing way back in 1978. This year there has been in the entire American West a single bird found near Bakersfield. It's a Roseate Spoonbill (Platalea ajaja), a bird more familiar to the tropics and the Gulf of Mexico coastline. So there was a flurry of excitement when Jody Smith, a local birder, saw one at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge here in Stanislaus County yesterday afternoon. Word spread quickly and perhaps a dozen birders got a look before sunset last night.
It was sunset before I saw the flurry of emails and online reports, so I was going to have to pin my hopes that it might hang around a little the next day. So I got up bright and early, arrived at the refuge at 6:45 AM, and of course...nothing. That's my kind of luck, my rare bird jinx. I scanned the area for some time, but then gave up. And besides, the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge is a special place for many reasons, so I spent the next hour recording nearly three dozen species. But in the end I returned to the spot where the bird had been sighted again, and....nothing.

I shifted strategy, and drove up the road to an adjacent floodplain where the Spoonbill could have gone. And nothing once again. I was being stubborn, so I decided to give it one last chance and go back to the original discovery sight, and found a couple of other birders hoping to catch a look. And...nothing.

I joked with the other birders that my jinx was such that the only way they could see the Spoonbill would be if I left, because, well, that's the way Murphy's Law works. I told them I would make the sacrifice for them and left.

But...I walked a bit slowly, and just as I was about to disappear from their sight they started yelling and waving their arms. The Spoonbill had arrived! And for once the jinx was broken, and I got to see a very rare bird. And it was pretty impressive even if the picture are a little grainy. It was pretty far away.

It's always a thrill to see a new and rare bird.

Saturday, March 30, 2024

A Trilogy of (Mostly) Black Birds at the Bear Creek Unit of the San Luis NWR

Yellow-headed Blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus)
After last week's discovery of Yellow-headed Blackbirds at the Bear Creek Unit of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, we couldn't resist going back to see if we could get a better view of the elusive birds. They generally like to remain hidden in the tule reeds of their favored wetlands and are more often heard than seen. That was still the case when we were there this afternoon, but we stopped the car for awhile to see what would happen. Much to my surprise, a Yellow-headed Blackbird jumped out of the foliage and onto the road not ten feet in front of the car. It started gleaning seeds from the edge of the roadway as if we weren't there. I managed to catch one of my better shots of the bird as a result.

But that wasn't the only unique black bird of the day...

Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus
Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) are common wherever marshes or grassy wetlands are found in North America, from Nicaragua to Alaska. They aren't usually hard to find, but I've always had the hardest time photographing them. The lighting has to be practically perfect in order catch the various features of these pure black birds (aside from the red wings of course). Most days I don't even try. But while we were photographing the Yellow-head, a Red-wing landed on a branch only eight feet out the window. It was taunting me, literally, to take its picture, so I did. So in that moment I got what may be the best shots I've ever managed of two different birds.
Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus)
The (mostly) black birds weren't done with their surprises though. I'm not the most observant person in the world, but I still miss things, and I've never once noticed Black-necked Stilts on a nest before. But we saw two of them today. They aren't exactly well-hidden nesting sites, but they are presumably safe from predators that don't like swimming. The Stilts form flocks which aid in the defense of nests, and they can become aggressive, even to humans. We didn't test the hypothesis and stayed in the car.
The Bear Creek Unit of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge includes a 2.25 mile auto tour and two trail loops, the Raccoon Marsh (1.3 miles) and Woody Pond (1.7 miles). The refuge is accessed from Highway 165 south of Hilmar and Turlock, and north of Los Banos. When the ponds are full, the area is a delight for birdwatching and nature observations. It's a small island of the Great Valley wetlands as they once were.

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Tracking the Elusive Yellow-headed Blackbird at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

It doesn't happen every year. Since Mrs. Geotripper and I have been birdwatching, we've found this incredibly beautiful bird only 10 times since 2018. So it's always a thrill when we catch sight of one. It's the Yellow-headed Blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus).
The birds are found in wetland environments all across the western states, but they generally aren't abundant in California according to the e-bird sightings maps. In our region they are generally migrating to breeding grounds elsewhere, mainly in the high plains of the Midwest and Canada.
I've only seen the species twice in Stanislaus County. Our best luck has been a particular stretch of road on the Bear Creek Unit of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge in Merced County a few miles south of Turlock. There's a 2.5-mile auto tour through some of the wetlands and we've seen the birds there six times over the last six years. Given that record we decided to give it a shot last week, and we were thrilled to catch at least nine of them preening and singing among the reeds.

One of the more unique traits of the Yellow-headed Blackbird is its song. It seems kind of like a trade-off with the beauty of the bird. It's described in several ways, but the screeching of torn metal works best for me. See what you think in the video that we captured...

Spring is a great time to see many of my favorite birds, which seem to be predominately yellow: Yellow Warblers, Bullock's Orioles, Hooded Orioles, Black-headed Grosbeaks (actually more orange I guess), and the Western Kingbirds. These Yellow-headed Blackbirds were special.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

It's the Owlet Time of Year at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge!

It's that time of year! We've been visiting the Merced National Wildlife Refuge every couple of weeks, hoping (among many other things) to catch a glimpse of Great Horned Owls (Bubo virginianus) building and tending their nests, and hatching out little owlets. This last weekend we were blessed to find no less than three active nests with a total of six new owlets.
The owls seem to build their nests and lay their eggs a bit ahead of other bird species. We found two owlets in each nest, although they were sometimes hard to pick out. I had the most success with the video function as can be seen below.
I'm glad to see some success with the Great Horned Owls babies! 

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Who Knew a Bird Day Would Have Headlines Everywhere? Happy Superb Owl Sunday!!

I know today is Superb Owl Sunday, but I was surprised to see all kinds of headlines about it in the newspaper and on the internet. And I'm really confused about what the San Francisco 49ers have to do with bird-watching. I mean, I could see it if we were talking about the Seattle Seahawks, or the Atlanta Falcons or some such. But in any case, HAPPY SUPERB OWL SUNDAY!

Here are some of my owl shots to celebrate with. The first one is a Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus). We were at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge where we almost always see some nesting owls at this time of year.

The second picture is a Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) that I saw a few years back on the north shore of Turlock Lake, in the midst of the California prairie. They are never abundant in our county
The last picture is a Hawaiian Short-eared Owl, or Pueo (Asio flammeus sandwichensis). To say it my most recent picture is technically correct, but it is also my only picture of a Pueo. I took it in 2009 while traveling with students on the island of Kauai. The owl is native to Hawaii, and is a subspecies of the widespread Short-eared Owl.

Have a great Superb Owl Sunday, and happy hunting for your own owls. I mean, what else are you gonna do today?

(Note: this is a replay of a blog that appeared the last time the 49ers were in the Super Bowl).

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Is it a Different Vermilion Flycatcher? Or has it Matured?

Vermilion Flycatchers (Pryocephalus rubinus) are rarely seen this far north. They are more common in subtropical environments like Southern California and Mexico. So their presence is enough to get local birders interested in having a look. 
Luckily, these are also birds of habit, migrating back to the same area year after year. One of the few ever seen in Stanislaus County returned to the same fence line for four years running, which is pretty much the known expected lifespan of these pretty birds.
The latest visitors have been sighted at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge in Merced County. We've been watching every fall for the female that likes to hang out on the west side of the auto-tour loop for at least three years so far (we saw it last fall, but others report that it is there this winter as well). On the southeast corner of the loop there has been a juvenile male for months now. it the same bird? We caught the first three images above a week ago. The last three images are from late October at the same location. A couple of birders have suggested that there might be two individual males at the refuge right now, but no one has reported seeing both at once.
I'm no expert at the developing maturity of these birds. I don't know how quickly they develop the bright red plumage of adulthood. So I leave it to these pictures represent one bird or two??

Friday, November 24, 2023

Red-Breasted Sapsucker at the Dunes

I don't get many chances to see Red-breasted Sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus ruber). They live in our area, and I've seen them at Modesto Junior College, Cal State Stanislaus, and on my beloved Tuolumne River, but only a few times at each spot. We are on the road for Thanksgiving up in Oregon along the Pacific Coast, and we were taking a short walk today at Holman Vista near the beautiful town of Florence.
At first we didn't see a single bird, but once we reached the vista point itself and stopped moving, the birds started making themselves known, including a Wrentit, some Northern Flickers, a Spotted Towhee, and a juvenile Bald Eagle soaring high overhead. But it was the bright red head of the Sapsucker that really caught our attention. It was moving around a lot, but settled on a tree trunk for a moment, allowing me to get a couple of shots.

Sutton Creek, which flows below Holman Vista, is part of a deflation basin. Historically this area was a dune system, but the planting of a European dune grass sort of "overstabilized" the dunes. The grasses trapped sand right along the beach forming the higher ridge seen on the left. Beyond the beach however, wind blew away the sand, leaving behind a basin in which trees and shrubs could take root. Occasional ponds and streams provide water and food, so a large variety of birds and other animals moved in.