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.

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!