Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Oh, To Soar Like an Eagle, or... To Kite Like a Kite!

You just never know when a moment of beauty and grandeur will happen. People look at me strangely whenever I go out the door on a mundane errand with my camera in tow, but I've missed too many such moments to ever want to be caught without the camera.
So today it was the pharmacy and the grocery store. We live in an outlying area where the locals refuse to wear masks and get vaccinated, so I headed into the big town, passing a local farm road called Bentley Road. It's still mostly ranching lands, so the prairie birds can often be seen there by birders. It was there that I spied my first White-tailed Kite (Elanus leucurus) of the year, and it was doing what Kites are famous for doing: kiting. That's the talent of hovering in place over the fields to catch the hard-to-spy movements of small rodents and other creatures. Birds in flight are pretty hard to photograph, but a kiting Kite at least stays in one spot while flapping its wings.
The White-tailed Kite is neither rare nor common in our area. The reports for the new year number fewer than ten. I'll see them a few dozen times this year perhaps, but nowhere near the number of times I'll see the Red-tailed Hawks. They have a limited range in the United States, extending through California, parts of the Oregon coast, and a bit of southern Texas. They are beautiful birds, and my breath catches just a little whenever I spy one.

The Kite was kind enough to stay motionless long enough for me to grab the camera and snap a few pictures. I didn't have the time to see if this particular hunt was successful.

I was thinking the Kite was behaving like a drone, but Kites have been around far longer than drones. The proper historical attitude would be that drones are just basically artificial Kites.


Sunday, January 23, 2022

There's No Place Like Home: Hermit Thrush in the Backyard

I really love Hermit Thrushes (Catharus guttatus). They are secretive birds, spending much of their time hidden away in the thick underbrush. They live along the Tuolumne River trail that I walk every day, but they are so hard to find that most of 2021 had passed before I saw the first one of the year. Any time I see one there, I'm thrilled, and I call it a good day.
So today I was mowing the lawn (yes, I live in California after all, and it rained a few weeks ago, plus I like to mulch the fallen leaves instead of raking). I was unplugging the mower and happened to look around the corner by the air conditioner, and I saw bird scratching in the leaves. I assumed it was a sparrow, but it looked odd. I quietly stepped back and went in the house for my camera.
I got back and was just astonished to find it was a Hermit Thrush in my own backyard! I am continually amazed the sheer variety of birds that can be discovered in urban settings. In observations from my backyard and short walks in the local neighborhood we've now seen 59 species of birds. Sure, some of them were flying high overhead. No Sandhill Cranes hanging out in the backyard yet for instance, although Great Egrets and Green Herons have in fact fished out of our lily pond a few times (RIP dear old goldfishes). But today counts as one of the most thrilling discoveries.


Monday, November 29, 2021

Some Close-Up Shots at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

Snow Goose (Chen caerulescens) with juvenile
One thing about having relatives in Oregon is that we get to travel north during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Doing so brings us in close proximity to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge near Williams in California's Great Valley. We usually manage to eke out a stop during our long drives between states, but we missed a year because of the accursed pandemic. 

Ross's Goose (Anser rossii)
We were thus especially looking forward to a tour of the auto-loop this morning and we were not disappointed. California's Great Valley (called by some uncreative souls the Central Valley) is a major wintering habitat for millions of migrating geese, swans, cranes, and ducks. 95% of the valley has been co-opted by agricultural development, so the few wetlands preserved as refuges are critical to the bird's survival. There were thousands of Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens) and Ross's Geese (Anser rossii) present in the ponds. They can be tricky to distinguish from a distance, but if you compare the photos above you can see the Snow Geese have a dark lining like lipstick on their beaks, which are also longer. The Ross's Geese are smaller overall as well.

When I mention that there were thousands, I was not exaggerating...they filled the skies, and the sound of their squawking in any other setting (for instance a horror movie) would be terrifying.

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)
There were some Great Blue Herons present, and they seemed rather accustomed to the large iron-clad beasts rumbling by on the road. I don't often get a chance to be so close to them.

We are used to seeing many of these birds at the refuges in our own backyard, but the Sacramento refuge is a more dependable place for spying a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). Or should I say it spied us? This one was only 20-25 feet above us.

The adult was watching over two juveniles in the next tree. It takes them a few years to get "bald", but the huge beak is always distinctive.

Our biggest thrill was catching sight of a Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus). We had finished with the eagles and told ourselves we were out of time and that there weren't any birds that would stop us from finishing the loop, but of course only 200 yards down the road we had this falcon politely posing for us. Of course, we stopped and spent an inordinate amount of time taking pictures. We made it home in time to pick up our precious kitties from the kennel, but only barely.


Monday, November 1, 2021

A Very Intelligent Bird: Common Raven at Yosemite National Park


It's hard to imagine a more ubiquitous bird at my favorite national parks than the Common Raven (Corvus corax). No matter how harsh the climate, the bird has found a way to adapt. In the driest climate in the American West, Death Valley, the Raven has often been the only bird present. I've seen them in practically every environment I've explored. The birds have thrived alongside humans and are considered pests in a few quarters, but I've always admired their intelligence and creativity.

I was at Yosemite National Park this weekend and I saw dozens of them, but one stood out, the star in the picture above. It was at the edge of a meadow below El Capitan, and it allowed me to get some close shots before I realized it could care less about me and Mrs. Geotripper, because it turned out we were standing in front of a fast-food bag someone had left next to their car. As we moved on, the bird jumped down and started to work on the folded-up bag. It really wanted to know what was inside.

Photo by Mrs. Geotripper

Instead of just tearing it open, the bird used its beak and foot to unfold the top. It started to remove and inspect the trash within one piece at a time, but it felt uncomfortable putting its head all the way in for the deepest bits. Once again, instead of tearing it open, it simply grabbed a corner with its beak, and turned the bag upside down, spilling the contents. It scored a banana peel and one or two fries for its trouble. The bird displayed a rather organized approach to getting to its goal.

Some would insist the bird was spreading garbage about, but really, the humans had done the garbage spreading. It was just making sure that none of the food inside was going to waste...

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Why are they called Golden-crowned Sparrows?

We're not afraid of asking the tough questions here at Geotripper, and sometimes we might even answer them. Today it's about the Golden-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla): Why do we call them that? The answer: they are sparrows, and they tend to have golden crowns! It's a little more vivid during the breeding season, but the sparrow I ran into yesterday had one, however faded. I was on my normal walk along the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail.

It turns out that even though the sparrow is relatively common in our area, and I've been doing this blog since 2014, I've only once devoted a post to this attractive little bird. This individual decided to change that. The Golden-crowns are migratory birds, spending the summer in the far north. They only started arriving back in our region in the last few weeks. I'm really bad at remembering the songs of most birds, and heard a mostly unfamiliar song in the brush. I suspected it might be a Golden-crowned Sparrow, so I quietly played the song on my phone, and out came this bird, which perched at my eye level, and started at me. It didn't move while I took one shot after another.
Those of you who don't live on the Pacific Coast might not recognize this sparrow. It is closely related to the White-crowned Sparrow that is found across North America, but the Golden-crowned only occasionally wanders east of the Sierra Nevada and Cascades, although there have been rare sightings on the Atlantic Coast states and elsewhere. According to AllAboutBirds, the sparrow is one of the more poorly studied species in its Arctic summer home. Maybe there is a job for a budding ornithologist there...
"I'll thank you not to study ME, good sir"


Saturday, October 16, 2021

Flycatchers that aren't called Flycatchers at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

We've been journeying down south to the Merced National Wildlife Refuge every weekend for the last month, watching for the arrival of the winter migrants from the Arctic. The Sandhill Cranes and Greater White-fronted Geese have started to arrive in some serious numbers, but on the whole it has been relatively quiet. In a few weeks there will be tens of thousands of geese and the quiet reserve will become a cacophony of arguing squawkers. In the meantime we've been enjoying the serenity and the chance to catch some of the smaller birds who normally get lost in the chaos. Those include a couple of flycatchers who aren't called flycatchers, the Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans) and the Say's Phoebe (Sayornis saya).

The Black Phoebe is one of my dependable favorites. I see them often on my home turf, and they are tolerant of the bumbling human with the camera. They display typical flycatcher behavior, that is 'fly-catching'. They'll pick a perch, sally forth to acrobatically nail a fly or other insect, and then perch again in the same spot. The Black Phoebes are primarily southwestern birds who mainly live in riparian habitats. In 2019 I saw a particularly memorable individual, a leucistic Black Phoebe, meaning a Black Phoebe that wasn't black at all.

The other flycatcher that I see regularly at the refuge is a Say's Phoebe (Sayornis saya). I've probably been watching the same individual for the last month, since it has occupied the same fencepost every day we've visited the refuge. I see this species far less often back home, so it's always a treat to see one on the road. The species is far more widespread, with a range that extends into the Midwest, and all the way to Alaska. Errant birds have been sighted all the way to the Atlantic Seaboard. It ranges farther north than any other flycatcher.

So cue the big birds, the Snow and Ross's Geese, and the Cackling Geese. It's going to be a raucous party soon!

Thursday, September 30, 2021

A New Bird on the Tuolumne River! A Pectoral Sandpiper

I always seem to have to say that I'm really new at this birdwatching business, even though it's been going on for five or six years. The problem is that I get pretty good at identifying the birds I see often in my travels, especially along the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail that I walk almost every day. If I see something out of the ordinary, I usually know that it is something that I have to try and photograph and identify. But sometimes I miss things that are staring me right in the face. It's a case of seeing what you look for, and not seeing what you are not looking for.

For years, I've been watching the couple of species of shorebirds that hang out at the water treatment plant on the midway part of the trail. There are almost always Greater Yellowlegs, Least Sandpipers, Spotted Sandpipers, and Killdeers. I get to the point that I don't think other birds will show up, so I don't look for them. This is usually a bad idea in birding!

So it took another birder, someone more perceptive than I, to wander along the bluff, watching the shorebirds in the treatment plant ponds. Yesterday that person was fellow nature blogger Siera Nystrom (Natural History Journal) who walked the trail and noticed a bird that was not like the others. She got some pictures and reported that she had found a Pectoral Sandpiper (Calidris melanotos). It's a special find, as it is rare in the region. It's the first sighting in the county this year, and only the 12th sighting of all time on eBird in the Stanislaus region. The nearest other known bird of this species is presently at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge an hour to the south of the Tuolumne River. So all in all, quite an accomplishment for Siera, and for the bird itself, which happens to be on a very long journey.

The Pectoral Sandpiper is rare around here because the bird is only passing through on a very long migration, and the routes the species follows are mostly in the eastern United States. That migration is pretty extraordinary, as the bird breeds in the far Arctic north, but migrates in winter not just to Mexico or Central America, but into the southern parts of South America!

Source: Pectoral Sandpiper Range Map, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Once I saw Siera's species report, all I could do was sit on my hands and teach my courses all day. I waited very patiently while the students finished up the last of their labs, and I rushed out to the river trail, camera in hand, hoping against hope that the bird would still be hanging out at the treatment plant. Much to my relief, I saw it right away, because as I said above, "you see what you are looking for". I was able to get a fair number of decent pictures to share. If you decide to seek it out, it is a medium-sized shorebird with yellowish-olive legs. It's slightly bigger than a Killdeer (I think), and definitely smaller than a Greater Yellowlegs. The most distinctive coloration is the brown streaks that run down the breast, but abruptly change over to a white belly.

I tried to get a better shot, but this was a Greater Yellowlegs behind the Sandpiper...

There is one other point of distinction about the discovery of this Pectoral Sandpiper. It is the 150th species reported for the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail! It is also the 123rd species seen this year on the river, which is a one-year record, and we still have three more months to find a few more.