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.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Birds of Habit: The Vermilion Flycatcher is Back at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge!

There is a beautiful bird that inhabits Mexico and the extreme southwest of the United States. It's called the Vermilion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus) and it is one of my favorite birds. The reason certainly has something to do with the brilliant color (the name literally means "fire-head"), but it also has to do with rarity and experience. We live quite some distance outside of the bird's "official" range, but there have been a couple of stubborn individuals who have ventured far to the north, and returned year after year.

One of these was a male who visited Dawson Lake in Stanislaus County between 2017 and 2020. He patrolled the same fence-line during that time. Getting pictures was a little challenging, given that it was on private property and several hundred yards away. Sadly, Mrs. Geotripper and I were the last to see the bird in December of 2020 (they tend to have short lives; the oldest-known individual was less than five years old). 
Merced County to the south of our county has been host to a few more of the birds. Starting in 2020 we have gotten familiar with a female that has consistently foraged on the western leg of the Merced National Wildlife Refuge auto-tour. We heard that it has returned for 2023, but we were not able to locate it on our visit today (we'll be back!). The females are not as brightly colored as the male, but are beautiful in their own way.

But we were at the refuge because of two reports of Vermilion Flycatchers, not one. The other was of a young male that was seen at the southeast corner of the auto-tour. There have been males seen there for several years, and one was seen a week or so ago. We got out at the Bittern Trail, ran into fellow birder Sal, and commenced our search. It wasn't that hard because the birds are habitual. It turned out to be in the same oak where they've been seen in earlier years. After a few minutes I was able to get what I think are some of the best pictures I've been lucky enough to capture. Enjoy!

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Birding With Hearing Loss and my Blue Grosbeak

Hearing deficiency is a pernicious impediment to someone who wants to be a productive birder. As most any birder will tell you, it is often the bird's song that is the first clue to finding and identifying a species, as most birds have good reasons to remain hidden in forest foliage and other habitats. Bird songs are also one of the most beautiful aspects to appreciating the environment that one is living in. 

I've apparently lived all my life with a certain amount of hearing loss, especially at higher frequencies. I realized in my twenties that I could hear crickets in one ear but not the other. I suspect that hearing loss had other effects on my learning abilities, as I could not process words and language quickly and would quickly lose the thread of conversations and lectures if they were not accompanied by visual cues like subtitles (or more recently PowerPoint slides). I was hopeless at learning foreign languages, and I suspect the hearing disability was partly at fault (laziness may have been the other).

But birdwatching captured me. It started for geological reasons actually, when I was exploring the Hawaiian Islands. There are the volcanoes of course, but the stories of the native birds of Hawaii and their unique evolution caught my attention in a big way, and I started looking for the native birds with greater and greater interest. As a consequence, I began paying more attention to my unexpectedly diverse local species, and with the purchase of a camera with a high zoom, I was hooked.

It was frustrating at times. If I was birding with others, they would perhaps stop and say "there's a Downy Woodpecker singing", and I was clueless. I could hear many common birds, but hearing and identifying the rarer and more unusual birds was to me as incomprehensible as trying to listen to a conversation in Spanish or German.

Two things happened. The first was that after living for decades with undiagnosed hearing loss, I was tested and then fitted with some sophisticated hearing aids. As any audiologist will tell you, they don't entirely solve the problem of hearing loss, but they can help. Not by being louder, but by filtering out some extraneous noise so one can follow speech in noisy environments. It turns out that works well when trying to discern bird calls from the ambient sounds of the forest. My aural experience in natural settings was transformed.

The second was Cornell University's Merlin Sound ID app. I've been recording and reporting my bird observations on eBird for several years now, but didn't do much with the bird sound identifier. When I started hearing more bird species I came to realize that the sound app could be a great complement to a person with hearing loss. I cannot count the times that I left the bird app running while I walked a trail, and noticed that some interesting bird species were being recorded. I knew to start looking for them, even though I had not heard them for myself. I've been able to find and report new bird species as a result.

In June, I was using the Merlin app while listening for forest birds deep within Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park in northernmost California. The app was listing the expected birds like robins and other thrushes, but then it started listing a Marbled Murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus) repeatedly. It made no sense to me, since my limited knowledge placed murrelets as shorebirds and we were miles inland. I was curious enough to look it up to find that the bird spends the day fishing along the coast, but then flies inland, sometimes many miles, to their nests in old-growth coastal forests. Their nests were not discovered by ornithologists until 1974!

That brings us to our bird of the day, the Blue Grosbeak (Passerina caerulea). The Merlin app is of course not perfect, and may produce inaccurate results (I got a Northern Cardinal on the list the other day even though one has never been seen in the area). I have a personal rule that if the app gives me three repeated identifications of the same bird, I will start looking for it in earnest. And that is how I found the Blue Grosbeak on the Tuolumne River Parkway. It's only my third sighting this year of the species, and only the second on the Tuolumne, so it was a real thrill to capture its beauty on camera.
If there is a moral to this, it may be that if you have hearing loss, it can make a big difference in your life to have it checked. You may be missing far more than you realize.

Saturday, July 15, 2023

Summer Tanagers in Central California!

This one almost got past me. I pay close attention to new and unusual birds showing up in Stanislaus County, but I've missed some dramas in the adjoining counties. It turns out there has been a sighting of great interest on the county line between Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties along the Stanislaus River at Oak Grove Park in the city of Ripon. It was a discovery of a pair of Summer Tanagers (Piranga rubra) most likely nesting!

A look at the range map for Summer Tanagers shows why this is a pivotal discovery. The orange shows their breeding territory that includes much of the southeastern part of the United States, but very little in California (although rare vagrant sightings have happened as far north as the Canada border in Washington). There have apparently been only two individuals ever sighted in Stanislaus County

That this is a breeding pair is doubly extraordinary. I can't help but hope that they are successful, as these are beautiful birds that would brighten the local ecosystem.

In any case, I was ignorant of the whole affair until local bird expert Jim Gain mentioned the pair on his Facebook page. I don't often follow the influx of birders to see a rare species outside the county, but I've always wanted to see a Summer Tanager, and there was never a nearby opportunity. So this morning, before the sun started blazing, I headed out to Oak Grove Park in Ripon, just over the county line. 

The park itself was a revelation. Stuck between the town's water treatment plant, and a dog food factory, it doesn't seem to have much promise, but as soon as I parked and started walking, I realized the park was a treasure. It is a mature oak forest adjacent to the Stanislaus River, and is managed as a wilderness, with no facilities of any kind. It was quiet and peaceful, and filled with bird songs. I saw Acorn and Nuttall's woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, White-breasted Nuthatches, Oak Titmouse, Bushtits, Ash-throated Flycatchers, Black Phoebes, and many others. But after wandering for more than an hour, no tanagers. I checked the coordinates some birders had provided, and stood and watched and listened. Another birder showed up, and he confirmed that I was in the right place

I was about to leave, when a bird flew right over my head and disappeared into the canopy. I thought it was yellow (like the female tanager), but I wasn't sure, but then I noticed that the Merlin app on my phone was now recording a Summer Tanager call. I began looking more carefully, and before long I spotted the male in the tree above. It stayed long enough for a few pictures and a video (below). I was thrilled beyond measure (as was the other birder).

Not that anyone is counting such things (I however do), but this was my 300th life bird.

Monday, May 22, 2023

Two Uncommon Birds on the Tuolumne River Parkway Today

It was a delightful day on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail. I was on the trail early, so it was cool, and the river is still running at flood stage (a controlled flood, given the presence of a giant dam a few miles upstream), so there was more river noise than traffic. I've always had trouble hearing birds, but with hearing aids and the Merlin bird app, I've been making headway in learning some of the calls. I was at the western end of the trail when the app said there was a Blue Grosbeak (Passerina caerulea) calling. I get false alarms on the app quite often so I started it again, and the Blue Grosbeak popped up, again and again. I finally realized I was hearing it on my own too (not used to those hearing aids yet).

But I couldn't see it. It had to be close by, but aids boost sound, but don't necessarily provide directional capability. I finally caught it at the very top of a nearby oak tree, and caught a few pictures like the one above.

Why was this special? They are at the top of my list of favorite birds, but I don't see the Blue Grosbeaks very often. There've only been six or seven of them seen in the entire county so far this year, and I've only seen them on the Tuolumne Trail once before, in 2020. So that made for a fine moment.

But it wasn't the only one. There was another rare visitor on the trail today. It's also uncommon because we are on the migratory path between their wintering areas in Central America, and their breeding areas in the Artic and northern tier US states (although a few seem to breed locally). It was an Olive-sided Flycatcher (Contopus cooperi). Unlike the Blue Grosbeak, it is a dependable visitor, having shown up along the Tuolumne Trail at least once in each of the last six years. But I will typically see it no more than a few times in a season, so it was kind of neat to see both birds on the same day. And to have them both pose for a few pictures (especially the flycatcher with the nice tuxedo vest)!
The Olive-sided Flycatcher has suffered a huge drop in population since 1970, nearly 80%. Habitat loss seems to be the heart of the problem, as forests have disappeared in the bird's wintering grounds. I'm glad that parts of the Tuolumne River corridor remain for them to hopefully thrive into the future.

Monday, April 17, 2023

A Rare Treat on the Tuolumne River: Lawrence's Goldfinches

It's a bird I had seen only one time previously, and there was a good reason for it. The Lawrence's Goldfinch (Spinus lawrencei) is a fickle species. They have a somewhat limited range, mostly across central and southern California, southern Arizona, and northern Mexico.

They tend to be a nomadic species, following the availability of water and seeds, so they are rarely a sure thing if you happen to be looking for them. I saw them once at Turlock Lake in 2020, but nowhere else since then. Until late March that is.
Most of the bluffs above the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail where I walk most days are covered with a thick carpet of non-native grasses and weeds, but when they completed work on the Hickman Bridge last year, the new bridge abutments were planted with some native shrubs and wildflowers, and I had noticed a great many Lesser and American Goldfinches hanging out there, so I took a closer look. I wasn't really expecting to see any Lawrence's Goldfinches, but I knew it never hurts to look. And then I saw some strange coloration: gray.
The other goldfinches tend towards bright yellows and olive-green colors, so I started snapping pictures. I kind of knew I might not get another chance, given their nomadic ways. But a week later I was back, and so were the Lawrence's Goldfinches. There were at least three of them and possibly more, and they seemed happy with the site.

I don't know how long they will be sticking around, but I'll be enjoying watching them while they're here. It would be interesting to see if they'll nest in the area this summer.

I have a sense that bird numbers are up this year, no doubt due to the huge amount of precipitation with the accompanying growth of grasses and availability of insects (it has been a bit buggy on the trail these last few weeks, and the swallows and swifts are especially loving it). 
If you live in the area and want a chance to see them, it's not too hard to access the spot. They've mainly been around the planted areas beneath and on both sides of the new Hickman Bridge in Waterford. The River Park (Appling Park) on the east side of the bridge offers the closest parking, with a walking distance of only a hundred yards or so on level ground. They are supposedly the most active in the morning and evening hours (I've mostly seen them in the afternoon).

More info about these beautiful birds can be found at


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