Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Those Tropical Kingbirds! A Fun Coincidence...

Tropical Kingbird, Florence Oregon, Nov. 2022
In October of 2020 during the height of the Covid epidemic, I was beginning the habit of walking the Tuolumne River Trail in Waterford every day for exercise and birdwatching. I saw many interesting birds, over 120 species that year, but on that day in October, the bird I saw was memorable, although I didn't know it in that moment. What I thought I saw was a Western Kingbird. It was a bird that should have been far away in Central America, being a long-range migrant. It was wildly out of season. So I took pictures to document it, and sent copies to some local birders. I was told immediately that it wasn't a Western Kingbird at all, but that it was instead a Tropical Kingbird (Tyrannus melancholicus), a bird I hadn't even heard of before, as it was a bird more native to Mexico and southern Texas. What's more, it was the first sighting of the species ever in Stanislaus County. So that was all very exciting at the time.

Jumping forward to the present day, I was up north in Oregon, in Florence for Thanksgiving. Although there was little time for intense birding, I kept my camera close by and while walking through Old Town Florence, I saw a bird on the wires above that seemed a bit out of place. It was more yellow than the species I was expecting to see. I snapped the picture above and realized it was a Kingbird. I checked for the tail markings that would have meant Western Kingbird, but they weren't there. Cassin's Kingbirds simply aren't found that far north, and it didn't have those tail markings either. I knew that despite their rarity, some Tropical Kingbirds were known to range pretty far north along the coast. So I checked the eBird records and found that one or two had been seen in the immediate vicinity over the last few weeks. I had found the second Tropical Kingbird I had ever seen!
Tropical Kingbird at CSU Stanislaus, Nov. 2022
I got back to the motel and reported the bird and checked my email. Much to my surprise I found that a Tropical Kingbird had been sighted in Stanislaus County that very day! It was on the campus of CSU Stanislaus, where I teach a couple of courses. It was only the second sighting ever in the county, and it stayed in the area long enough for half a dozen birders to catch a view. Being six hundred miles away, I felt I had little chance of getting a look, but I headed down there today to teach my classes. Wouldn't you know, there it was right outside the Science Building. I got just one lousy shot before it flew off, but I got to see the rare visitor.

An interesting convergence of sightings...
The Tropical Kingbird from the Tuolumne River in 2020

Monday, September 26, 2022

Lewis's Woodpeckers on the Tuolumne Parkway Trail

I had a real surprise on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail the other day. Several birders (myself and fellow blogger Siera Nystrom) were lucky enough to see the first Lewis's Woodpeckers (Melanerpes lewis) ever reported on the trail. The Lewis's Woodpecker is more a denizen of the foothills and mountain environments, and are rarely seen on the floor of the Great Valley. It's possible they were following the river corridor downstream to better food sources.
For being called 'woodpeckers', they don't seem to peck wood all that much, since they mostly eat insects that they catch on the fly, or nuts. They usually nest in hollows carved out by other woodpeckers. And their color scheme isn't all that woodpeckerish either, They have a dark green back and of all things, a pink breast. But they are interesting to see, especially when they are traveling out of their normal habitat.

Of course, when you see a new bird, you'll be fumbling with your camera to try to document its presence, and indeed that was the case with me. They were constantly moving and I only got a couple of fuzzy images, but at least you can see the odd color scheme. I sensed this small flock was on the move, but if I see them again, I'll try to get a few nicer shots and add them in!

Saturday, July 16, 2022

Anna's Hummingbird in the Back Yard

The birds of summer have been active in our backyard, letting us know in no uncertain terms when the food offerings are running low. The hummingbirds have been especially active, buzzing close to our heads if the sugar water is not up to their high standards. But if the water is fresh and full, they'll hang around for a picture or two. Today's visitor is an Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna). 

According to the Sibley guide, there are sixteen species of hummingbirds to be found in the American West, but in our county only six species have ever been noted. Of them only the Anna's Hummingbird is a year-round resident. Black-chinned Hummingbirds are relatively common during the summer, and Rufous Hummingbirds migrate through the region in the fall and spring. The other three are rarely seen. 

Overall the lack of diversity simplifies hummingbird identification at our feeder. The orange-colored Rufous can't be mistaken, and the Black-chinned will have purple iridescence around the neck. The Anna's are magenta, although it's off a bit in these pictures because of the reflection of the feeder.

I do wish they would get along at our feeder. They are territorial about their food supply and will spend more time chasing intruders than they do eating!


Saturday, April 30, 2022

Killdeer Babies on the Tuolumne River!

The pictures are not as clear as I would like, but you can see them! The Killdeer chicks were born this week!
It's always a bit scary for the Killdeer mama (Charadrius vociferus). They love setting their nests on rocky open ground, and the only such ground locally is around the concrete margins of the Waterford sewage treatment facility. The gravelly surface is traversed constantly by maintenance trucks. I do know however that the employees are careful when they know a nest is present, as they will put a pylon out nearby to warn drivers. But there was no evidence that they had detected this nest, so I just worried for weeks as mama tended to the eggs.

Having nests out in the open like the Killdeer prefers is also perilous because of the threat of all manner of predators. There are cats, foxes, otters, and rats in the area, as well as kestrels and ravens. The Killdeer eggs are well camouflaged among the stones, and the bird is famous for its broken-wing strategy of distracting predators away from the nest.

Still, I was distressed to see that the nest seemed to be abandoned in the last few days, and I worried, but today I saw the almost comically small killdeer chicks running around after their mother.


Thursday, April 21, 2022

What to do when you are stuck indoors? Why, look out the window!

I've been sidelined by the worst cold ever, and haven't been able to see my beloved river trail for several days. Spring has arrived and I have been looking hard for the spring migrants that have been arriving in the region, and really felt like I was missing out.
But wouldn't you know that backyards with feeders can actually attract some of those migrants? We've had them before in previous years, but it still takes your breath away when you actually see one of them. This morning it was a beautiful male Black-headed Grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus).
We also saw some intensely colored American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis). We've had them in the yard on rare occasions in the past, but never got good enough photos to post on the blog.
It was nice of the birds to come to me, since I couldn't get out to them!

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Just How Close Do You Want to Get? Western Bluebird on the Sabercat Trail

By color scheme alone they are one of my favorite birds. I'm just partial to blue that way, the darker the better (I've noticed this about favorite minerals as well: go azurite!). Western Bluebirds (Sialia mexicana) are not rare, but I don't see them nearly often enough.
I was walking on the delightful Sabercat Trail in Fremont the other day with my family, and a pair of Western Bluebirds were perched on tree stakes right next to the trail, and really didn't seem all that concerned about our presence. I was please to get a couple of up close and personal shots of both the male (above) and less colorful female (below).

Western Bluebirds are one of the arguments for not cutting down old snags and burnt dead trees. They are cavity nesters, but they don't have the ability to carve such nests like the woodpeckers. They instead let the woodpeckers do the work and take over after they have moved on. Bird boxes work well for them as well.
Such a nice moment on the trail!

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Finding that First "Special" Bird: Bullock's Oriole on the Tuolumne River

I've thought a lot about the fact that I have become "that guy" on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail. People can see me from a long way off, the guy in the silly-looking hat who always has binoculars and camera dangling off his shoulders, who can't walk in a straight line because his attention is always directed off to the side or above, essentially anywhere but the trail in front of him.
I have these conversations, sometimes imagined, sometimes real, where I feel just a little defensive and want to say "I'm not really a crazy birder, I'm just getting my regular exercise and I don't want to miss it if a really interesting bird or other animal shows up". But I actually am a crazy birder. But doing the same ritual practically everyday of walking at least two miles and counting birds along the way is not really that strange. Compare the strangeness of doing that with running on a treadmill in a gym every day. You run on top of the moving machine, and no scenery goes by. You maybe have a television on the side of the room to stare at, or you have earphones blaring music. To me that's pretty boring.
How cool is it that every single walk has the potential of becoming something wonderful? Like the dad said in Christmas Story, referring to his yet unopened grand prize, "Why there could be anything in there!" Sure, there are birds that one sees every single day throughout the year, the scrub jays, the doves, the mockingbirds, the starlings. But there are almost always little surprises, the birds you see only once in awhile: Spotted Towhees, Nuttall's Woodpeckers, Belted Kingfishers, or Cooper's Hawks. They add that little bit of spice that turns a mundane walk into an interesting one.

But then there are the migrants. They can only be seen during part of the year, some only during the winter, others in the spring and summer. New seasons bring the promise of that "first of season" sighting, the excitement of seeing a beautiful and spectacular bird after an absence of many many months. It's a neat moment that sometimes takes my breath away. It happened yesterday when I saw the first Bullock's Oriole (Icterus bullockii) of the new year. The bird is not totally rare, and I will probably see a few dozen of them over the next few months, but that first moment you realize what you are seeing is just plain special. Especially when they hang out long enough to get pictures.

There are many more such moments coming over the next few months and one never knows what day it will happen. There will be the first Hooded Oriole, Lazuli Bunting, Black-headed Grosbeak, Green Heron, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Phainopepla, Rufous Hummingbird, and about twenty others before the end of the year. Every single day is a potential adventure. 

Left unsaid of course is the even rarer potential of seeing a bird that you have never seen before, or one that no one in the county or state has ever seen. Climate change has resulted in some species ranging farther north than ever before, so the day may come when I will see something really special, like a Vermilion Flycatcher or Summer Tanager on the Tuolumne River. And that, my friends, is why I am "that guy" out there walking every day looking to the sky, instead of tromping on a machine at the gym.