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.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Vermilion Flycatcher at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge: Finally One of the Males!

It's often true that when I post an adequate picture of a particular bird, I'll get even better pictures a day or two later. It hasn't been a day or two, more like nearly three weeks, but it happened again. I posted about the Vermilion Flycatchers (Pyrocephalus rubinus) of Merced and Stanislaus Counties on December 28 after I got some nice pictures of a female at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. But we missed out on finding any of the colorful males known to be at the southwest corner of the refuge. We didn't get back to the Merced refuge until today, but what a delightful surprise we had as we followed the auto route.
I've been looking for one of the males in hopes of getting some closer shots, as the mature male in Stanislaus County is always seen from hundreds of feet away. I knew roughly where to look, but had no luck in three or four attempts. But as we rolled up to the parking area for the Bittern Marsh Trail, the bird literally flew right in front of our car and landed in the tree next to us. That led to a few moments of pandemonium as we grabbed cameras and tried to locate the bird in the thick brush. What happened next was a scene probably familiar to most birders: snapping a series of totally unfocused shots just to have some kind of confirmation that we had indeed seen the bird. 
We and the bird finally settled down and I snapped the shot above, and I would have been perfectly satisfied with the result. A beautiful immature male Vermilion Flycatcher! We were blocking the road though, so we drove on and parked a few hundred feet away. I slowly walked back and saw that the bird was gone, but as I was looking around, another birder motioned to me and pointed. The bird had once again flown across the road and was now perched on a small tree next to the Bittern Marsh.
I now had a few delightful moments getting some very satisfying pictures of the young bird. If their range is indeed expanding (perhaps due to global warming), they will be a welcome addition to our region. 
And now, if I could only figure out where that mature male is hiding out...

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Wait, Why Are They Called "Ruby-crowned" Kinglets?

Want a challenge? Try to photograph a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula). They are brazen little birds, willing to get right in your face if you intrude into their territory, but they never seem to stop moving.

Want a real challenge? Try and capture why they are called "Ruby-crowned" Kinglets. The males have a red patch on their head, and if they are really upset about something, it can be raised, but that happens rarely in my experiences so far. But today I managed to catch a couple of shots so you'll know what to look for on your own attempts!


Monday, January 11, 2021

Someone Missed the Text about Migration: Black-headed Grosbeak on the Tuolumne River

You never, ever know what you'll see when you set out on an adventure, however modest. Today I was taking my normal birdwatching/exercise stroll on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail, and many of the normal birds were present. But I was about halfway through when a very unfamiliar sight appeared, one that made my jaw drop: a Black-headed Grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus). These birds are found along the river, and I've seen them a few dozen times...but never, ever in winter. These are tropical birds who spend their winters in Mexico and Central America. According to eBird there are a grand total of six of them in all of California at the moment.

I don't know why this bird is still hanging around. They have a diverse diet of bugs, fruits, nuts, and seeds, and maybe this bird has a secure food source, perhaps some neighborhood bird feeders. Maybe it was injured in some way and wasn't able to make the journey with the others. There have been other winter stragglers in this area...last year it was a Hooded Oriole pair that spent the winter along the trail.


Monday, December 28, 2020

Harbinger of Climate Change? The Vermilion Flycatchers of Stanislaus and Merced Counties

According to the eBird records, the first sighting of a Vermilion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus) in Merced County was in 2003, and the first in Stanislaus County was in 2012 (the official records may be different). They certainly aren't common. It appears only two individuals have ever visited Stanislaus. But the numbers in Merced are intriguing. Prior to 2020 the sightings have been of a single birds that caused quite a stir among the local birders. They were outliers in other words, accidental wanderers. But this year it appears that there may be as many as seven individual birds in the county: three at Lake Yosemite, and at least three but maybe four at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. Some are immature, suggesting that some local pairs may be breeding.
We saw our first female ever in late November at Merced NWR. It was on the west side of the auto route, and was a surprise to us because most of the sightings have been on the southeast part of the refuge. And it was perched right along the side of the road, hardly 20 feet from our car. The female  lacks the brilliant vermilion coloration, which can make it easy to miss. We didn't expect to see it again when we were there today, but there it was, almost in the same spot! It's more than a mile from where others have reported a mature male and female, and an immature male. I looked and looked but wasn't lucky enough to see the others.
The sole Vermilion Flycatcher in Stanislaus County is nothing if not consistent. He has occupied the same fence and shoreline along Dawson Lake (a small irrigation reservoir in the east part of the county) since late 2017, leaving during the summer months, but returning like clockwork in the fall. We saw him on December 16. The lake is on private property, so most pictures of this bird are from a great distance, as you can see below.
I cannot claim any specific knowledge as to why more of these birds have been sighted in the region lately, but it is a known fact that the climate is warming, and a great many species have been shifting to the north in response. The Vermilion Flycatcher is a subtropical species, being common in Mexico and Central America. Other subtropical species have become more abundant in the region, including the Blue Grosbeak and the Phainopepla. This is exciting for us local birders, but can be bad news for the species and the ecosystems they inhabit. Species move in response to availability of food sources and can cause disruptions in their new homes. The increasingly common Great-tailed Grackles for instance are aggressive feeders and have displaced other native species. In a warming world, there will be winners and losers, but mostly losers. Introducing aggressive new species into formerly stable habitats is rarely going to have a positive outcome.

Source: Vermilion Flycatcher Range Map, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
The Vermilion Flycatchers don't seem to be in the category of aggressive invasive species, at least not in the low numbers that have right now. As such, they are a wonderful and colorful surprise to see in our local region.

Postscript: Make that eight Vermilion Flycatchers in Merced County. Ralph Baker saw one at the San Luis NWR on November 1!