Sunday, August 29, 2021

Why do they call it a White-Tailed Kite? And why do I take my camera EVERYWHERE?


Really, both of the questions in the title are easily answered. It's called a White-tailed Kite (Elanus leucurus) because it has a white tail, and it kites. If you are unfamiliar with the term, it's maybe more related to kites that you fly with a string and all because the appearance is much the same. Kites are known for their habit of flying in place without moving as if they were attached to a string, watching for prey in the grassy fields below. A few other birds do it, but these birds are real masters. And they are my favorite raptors.
Strangely enough, today's pictures happened because another bird was kiting in the pasture-lands along Bentley Road east of Modesto. I couldn't see it well because of the sun angle, so I stopped to get the binoculars. It turned out to be an American Kestrel, but then I noticed there was a Kite on the fence post not forty feet from my car.
The camera was on the seat beside me, but the windows blocked a good angle for getting photos. I inched the car forward and raised the camera, but just as I clicked it flew away. I said to myself "of course" because that's what always happens, but to my great surprise, it simply flew across the road and landed just a bit behind me, no more than eighty feet away. And it was contentedly munching on lunch, which was some kind of small rodent. I took around 35 pictures because no Kite has ever allowed me to be so close. These are the best pictures I've ever been lucky enough to capture. It actually took me several minutes to realize there were two more Kites out in the meadow beyond the first.
And that brings up answer to the second question: Why do I take my camera EVERYWHERE? Because you never know what will happen when you are out and about. I was simply out to get a few things at the grocery store. If I had not brought the camera, I would have missed these shots.

 

Saturday, August 14, 2021

A Real Gem on the Tuolumne River: A Lazuli Bunting

There's a semi-precious gemstone called lapis lazuli. It's actually a metamorphic rock containing a variety of minerals, but the intense blue is caused by a mineral called lazurite. It's often speckled with small grains of gold-colored pyrite. The gem has been mined for thousands of years, especially in Afghanistan, Russia, and Chile. I got to collect some once in one of the very few spots in California where it can sometimes be found. The intense blue of the mineral has led to its use as a pigment in oil paints in Medieval times (the color ultramarine), and is especially associated with the Virgin Mary.
I love the color blue, and I am lucky to have a number of bright blue birds that are common locally, including the Tree Swallow, California Scrub Jay and the Western Bluebird. But there are some blue birds that are exceedingly rare, at least in my experience, including the Blue Grosbeak and the subject of today's post, the Lazuli Bunting (Passerina amoena). They're real gems. If I am lucky, I'll spy them two or three times in a year. It's even rarer to get a half-decent picture.
I saw the first Lazuli Bunting of the year a few weeks ago after a good friend insisted she was hearing one near the trailhead for the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail where I walk nearly every day. Her observation was spot on as I got a brief look at a male. But the pictures were very grainy. Today though, I was walking along the river trail when I spotted a small bird in the distance. I thought it was another sparrow, but it was perched vertically which raised my suspicion that it wasn't a 'normal' bird. I got the binoculars out and saw the chestnut color on the breast, but I still couldn't see it clearly. I carefully drew near and the intense blue color became apparent. The bird was nice enough to hang out long enough to get some of the best pictures I've ever captured.
The Lazuli Buntings are summertime migrants in our region, and indeed across much of the western states and southernmost Canada. Come winter they'll be in Mexico. Although their Latin name means "beautiful sparrow", they are more closely related to the Cardinals and Grosbeaks.

 

Monday, May 17, 2021

Pileated Woodpecker at Castle Crags (a first for us!)

 

It's been a tough year for blogging about much of anything, but that doesn't mean I haven't been seeing some extraordinary sights as far as birds are concerned. A few weeks ago we had our first opportunity to actually travel anywhere at all, and our journey as the newly-vaccinated took us to visit family in Oregon. Along the way we hopped out of the car for a short break at Castle Crags State Park just off Interstate 5 near Dunsmuir and Shasta City. The park provides access to some simply awesome granite cliffs that rise above the deep forests of the Klamath Mountains.

I was anxious to get out and go birdwatching in a new place, and set off on a nearby nature trail, and after a mile I had seen a number of birds (reminder that zero IS a number). I was feeling a bit disappointed, but when I got back to the parking lot I found Mrs. Geotripper fiddling with her camera trying to photograph something in the tree above. I looked up and saw to my great shock and pleasure that she had found a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). It was a first for both of us. I got a single decent picture (above), but Mrs. Geotripper got a couple of moments of video showing the bird pecking the bark from the severely unhealthy tree.


Castle Crags is a delightful small park with a decent campground and a spectacular viewpoint that takes in the Crags as well as nearby Mt. Shasta. Check it out if you ever find yourself traveling Interstate 5 on the way to Mt. Shasta or Oregon! Visitor details at: Castle Crags SP



Sunday, March 7, 2021

White-breasted Nuthatches on the Tuolumne River Trail

Few things make me happier than finding a White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) on the trail I walk most days along the Tuolumne River. One of those things is to find TWO White-breasted Nuthatches on the trail. That happened today and I even got a picture. Other people seem to have no trouble finding them, but for me it's fairly rare to see them.

There has been an increase in the number of the bird sightings these last few weeks as spring approaches, and so I've been paying more careful attention to movements along the trunks and branches of the Valley Oaks along the trail. Sometimes the birds turn out not to be Yellow-rumped Warblers (who are fairly common this time of year). The nuthatches spend much of their time upside-down as they search the nooks and crannies in the bark for delectable insects and spiders. They are beautiful birds.


 

Monday, February 1, 2021

It's Been Awhile: Bald Eagle on the Tuolumne River Today

My friends in the Pacific Northwest, Alaska and Canada might not be much impressed by a sighting of a Bald Eagle on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail today. But it was memorable. I saw not a single one on the trail last year (a good friend saw one, though). In fact, I only saw one anywhere in the entire county last year. The last eagle I saw here hung around for a few short weeks in 2019, and that was the first recorded sighting for that part of the river ever (although neighbors have told me of past sightings).

I had been seeing Turkey Vultures and Red-tailed Hawks (three of them!) soaring around the western part of the trail, but didn't think much of it. But then a large black shape soared overhead and I saw both a white head and white tail. I tried to get a picture but it was gone. Then I walked back upstream and saw it perched in a cottonwood across the river. Apparently the hawks and the vulture had been expressing a certain amount of concern because they were all circling the perched eagle. The eagle was unperturbed and was still perched in the same spot when I left towards home.


 

Friday, January 29, 2021

One Rock Wasn't Like the Others...

 



It was the biggest weather event of our year, in which we received about a third of our yearly precipitation in just two days. In the aftermath, it was a sunny afternoon and it seemed a nice time to check out Willm's Road in the prairies just east of our town. I've been a geologist for far longer than I've been a birder, so I also enjoy looking at the rocks. Passing an outcrop of metamorphic rock, I saw one that was a bit rounder than expected. I stopped the car and backed up and pulled out the binoculars. That was no rock!

The camouflage was almost perfect. It was a Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) watching over the roadway. It is always a thrill to see one of these inscrutable birds, and I rarely see them more often than two or three times a year if I am lucky.



Monday, January 25, 2021

Someone Else Missed the Text on Migration: Hooded Orioles in my Backyard

Spring is such a wonderful time along the Tuolumne River as I eagerly await the arrival of my favorite tropical migrants: the Black-headed Grosbeaks, Blue Grosbeaks, Bullock's Orioles, the Lazuli Buntings, and perhaps my all-time favorite, the Hooded Oriole (Icterus cucullatus). But the birds have not entirely cooperated this year, as I discovered that a Black-headed Grosbeak was in fact wintering along the Tuolumne River. But even in that context, today was a real shocker.
I just happened to look out the window at the hummingbird feeder this morning and saw an unusually large bird perched there. I realized with a shock that it was a Hooded Oriole! Such things need documenting, so I grabbed my camera and got a few shots before it flew off. I thought it might come back after a bit, so I kept the camera handy and sure enough a few minutes later it came by again, and gave me a sharp stare. But then, the another surprise...

A few minutes later the Oriole had come back, but when I looked at the tail, I realized it was not the same bird. The tail was yellow, not black. This was a second Oriole, and it was a female! I never got  shot of the head, so a picture of a bird butt will have to suffice. The birds came back about five hours later, and I got a more convincing look at the female, but no pictures.

This is actually the second time that I've witnessed a Hooded Oriole pair over-wintering near the Tuolumne River. There was a pair that spent the 2020 winter in some palm trees overlooking the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail, and I am curious as to whether these are the same birds. If they have a secure winter food source, why make the perilous journey to Mexico and Central America? My yard is only a half mile from the palms where last year's birds stayed.