Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Bird of the Day: Great Egret in the Mini-Wilderness on Campus

What a delightful day on campus. The cooler days seem to have brought out multitudes of birds in the "mini-wilderness" where I work. A short walk at lunch and another in the late afternoon resulted in the sighting of at least a dozen species, including a few I haven't seen in some time on campus. Look for them in future posts. Today's picture is the occasional visitor to the pond in the mini-wilderness, a Great Egret (Ardea alba). It is always wary of me, even though I am a good 50 or 75 yards away when I walk by, but today it was feeling secure up in the high tree. The Great Egret is similar to the Snowy Egret (Egretta thula), but is distinguished by the yellow bill and fully black legs (the Snowy has yellow feet).

Monday, September 29, 2014

Bird of the Day: A Mountain Chickadee at Lake Tahoe

It was only one quick picture. I was wandering down the trail to Chimney Beach on the east shore of Lake Tahoe, and I soon realized I was surrounded by small birds flitting among the branches. There were dozens of them, and I had trouble catching any of them standing still. There was a lot of motion up there. I got a few well-focused shots of the Nuthatches, Saturday's bird of the day. On my quick review of the picture files, I thought this shot was another Nuthatch, but on closer inspection it turned out to be a Mountain Chickadee (Poecile gambeli). Upon reading about their habits, I learned that they often flock with other species in the conifer forests where they forage for food.

The Mountain Chickadees are found all over the mountainous regions of the Western United States. They eat seeds and insects, and are occasionally found at feeders (but not mine...).

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Bird of the Day: California Towhee on the Mokelumne River

It was a pretty good weekend for birds in the Sierra Nevada. Saw around six new species (for me, anyway), including the White-breasted Nuthatch from yesterday's post. Today's bird was a California Towhee (Melozone crissalis) on the Mokelumne River at the Highway 49 crossing. Actually the crossing was a new discovery for me, as I did not know there was a parking area with river access. How long has that been there?
The Towhee was singing and lurking in an oak tree overhead, and I wasted a few pixels trying to catch a shot, but then it jumped down onto the parking lot for a few moments. It finally hopped onto a boulder and posed against a colorful backdrop of dry weeds and fall foliage. 

California Towhees can be considered a California endemic if you consider both Baja and Alta California (range extends just a little into Oregon). They're common enough, apparently, but I've only just started at this, and this little one was the first to pose for me.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Bird of the Day: White-breasted Nuthatch at Lake Tahoe

Once again, being a rank amateur has its benefits. I get to identify new birds all the time, and today was no exception. I was scouting out a trip I'm taking tomorrow to teach some geology at Lake Tahoe. We stopped at Chimney Beach on the east shore at Lake Tahoe State Park and I was wandering down the trail seemingly surrounded by birds, all of whom were darting quickly from one branch to another. I finally caught a few images of a White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis). The species is widespread across North America, but I've not seen them in my normal haunts yet.

According to my sources, the name comes from their practice of putting seeds or nuts into cracks in the bark of trees and pounding until they can get to the interior ("hatching" the seed).

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Bird of the Day: Red Crossbill in the Bristlecone Forest

Sometimes you get only a split second. I was wandering near the visitor center for the Bristlecone Pine forest at the 10,000 foot level of the White Mountains east of the Sierra Nevada when I noticed a gentleman with binoculars staring intently at the lower branches of tree. He motioned to me and said "Crossbill!". I looked, lifted my camera, got two shots before even framing and focusing, and it was gone. The only Red Crossbill I've ever seen, and I had all of five seconds to get any pictures.

I was happy to see that both shots came out, and even look kind of good with some judicious cropping. The Red Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra) is one of the most uniquely adapted birds around. The beak doesn't line up! Looking like a design flaw, it actually allows the bird to pry open pine cones while grabbing the seeds with its tongue.

Crossbills are found across the northern states and in southern Canada, and luckily for me, in the high mountains of California. I hope I get a few additional seconds to frame my pictures next time! Of course, I'll take any excuse to get up to the Bristlecones. The diminutive trees are the oldest living things on the planet, and they live in one of the most challenging environments possible: very dry and bitterly cold for most of the year. If you are ever in the Bishop/Big Pine region, be sure to make some time for the drive up into the White Mountains. There is a lot to see out there!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Bird of the Day: Anna's Hummingbird at Stanislaus

I saw some new bird species over the weekend, but I haven't processed the pictures yet (yesterday's Sage Thrasher was the exception). It was back to normal with the teaching schedule, so I was on the campus of CSU Stanislaus and took a short walk towards their Outdoor Education area, and noticed a little Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna) hanging out in the tree above me.

The late afternoon lighting was a challenge, but I got a couple of clear shots from several angles. I don't know how the hummingbirds are doing in the drought; the way I understand it, their metabolism rate is so high that they are constantly just a few hours away from starvation. It's no wonder they love our feeders so much!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Bird of the Day: Sage Thrasher at Mono Lake

The fun thing about being a rank amateur is that you still get the thrill of discovery on a regular basis. I was out visiting the tufa towers along the south shore of Mono Lake when I saw this bird running down flies near the lake shoreline. It turned out to be a Sage Thrasher (Oreoscoptes montanus), and it's the first one I've ever seen (that doesn't mean rare, it's just I haven't been at this long).

If sagebrush is a good environment for Sage Thrashers, Mono Lake is an excellent place to be finding them. The Mono Lake basin has hundreds of square miles of sagebrush, as well as Mono Lake itself, a huge salty lake filled with fairy shrimp and brine flies. It is an important stop on the migratory routes of millions of birds. The lake environment was threatened by the diversion of its feeder streams into the Los Angeles Aqueduct in the 1940, but a 1994 legal agreement means that the situation has stabilized, with a new goal of establishing a lake level 25 feet higher than its 1982 low point.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Bird of the Day: Black Phoebe at Stanislaus

You may see this particular bird more than once on this blog. It hangs out in the same spot outside my office at CSU Stanislaus near a cottonwood tree in the Outdoor Education Lab. It's a Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans). I've seen them at all of my bird hunting spots around town, but this individual has been the most consistent, hunting for insects around the pond by the Science Building. It's a variety of flycatcher, found near water sources all over the southwestern United States.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Bird Watching in (Semi) Urban Settings, Part Two: The Campus Drainage Pond/Mini-Wilderness

The primordial Great Valley of California must have been a fascinating place. I can only imagine the large herds of Tule Elk, Pronghorn Antelope, the Grizzly Bears and Mountain Lions, and the migratory birds. Vast prairies would have stretched for hundreds of miles from the present site of Bakersfied to Red Bluff, but because of the adjacent Sierra Nevada, plentiful river water would have been available in the near-desert environment. The snow-free winters and available food supplies would have made the valley a magnet for migrating birds.
Beyond the baseball field lies the "mini-wilderness"
Not much is left of the original environment, no more than 5% or so. It began with a wave of agricultural development, followed by creeping urbanization. The effect on the uncounted millions of birds who wintered in the valley was devastating. Hundreds of thousands of birds are able to survive because of a patchwork of isolated wildlife refuges that preserve some small part of the original prairie/wetlands, or which have utilized abandoned and purchased farmlands that are being returned to a semi-natural state.
I teach at a community college (Modesto Junior College), and I have come to realize that campuses and parks in urban settings provide a small but maybe critical piece of bird habitat. I spent the first 25 years of my teaching career on the highly urbanized "east campus" near the middle of the city. The campus has some very nice trees, but nothing resembling decent bird habitat. It's simply too crowded and too paved over. But we have a strange property situation with our campus.

Hammond Army Hospital in the 1940s (Source here). The barren drainage pond is just left of dead center of the photograph.
Years ago, the federal government established a hospital complex west of town center to treat World War II wounded. Years later the property became a mental hospital, but when "reform" kicked many mentally ill people onto the streets in the 1970s, the land was given to our college district, and it developed into a "west campus" just three miles from the east campus. True to its origin, our campus has a "split" personality.

Obviously few trees had been planted in the 1940s as the hospital was hastily constructed, but some were eventually planted, and now after 60-70 years, many of the trees are mature, and some are even dying. The diseased and dying trees are quickly removed in the populated parts of the campus for obvious reasons, but in the isolated corners, the trees go through the entire process of life and death without intervention. In particular there is a drainage pond on the northwest corner of the property that has become a sort of mini-wilderness over the years.
A small oak woodland, with a few Deodars and Eucalyptus trees.
Part of the "mini-wilderness" is fenced off, as the agriculture division occasionally has sheep grazing in the compound. Otherwise the site is generally undisturbed. It has developed into an admittedly artificial ecosystem that is surprisingly robust. There are a variety of adjacent environments: a meadow, a lake/pond, a swamp/wetland, and a mature hardwood forest. There are sheep as occasional grazers, rodents, and even a few predators: a fox (see below) and at least two feral domestic cats.
And lots of birds. Since I started exercising by walking the perimeter of the campus (about 2 miles), I've photographed around three dozen species of birds. Many have been temporary visitors, but some have been around continuously, including a beautiful Great Egret, and some cute Black Phoebes. And of course the usual mockingbirds, sparrows and mourning doves (like the young one that was hanging out next to my third floor classroom the other morning, in the first picture).
From some angles, the pond is positively beautiful, especially in the evening sunset. That's the observatory dome in our Science Community off in the distance.

Although I'm mostly seeking out birds to photograph, the other night I saw the fox for the first time after hearing rumors about it for more than a year. I was astounded to see it, and appreciated that it stood still long enough for a couple of pictures.
So this has been an introduction to my second bird observation spot, which I will always be calling the "mini-wilderness". It'll be our secret, because I hope the powers-that-be will continue to ignore it and not develop this little wild corner of the campus. In a lot of ways, I think it has an ecological importance as an environmental "island" that far outstrips its modest size.
A Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) that I saw in the mini-wilderness for only the first time a week or so ago.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Bird Watching in (Semi) Urban Settings, Part One: The Pasture

I don't live in a very interesting place, especially for a geologist. It's a flat valley floor (a corner of California's Great Valley) given over to agriculture and urban development. It might have once been an open prairie, but today it consists of a small farming town east of Modesto surrounded mostly by almond orchards and corn fields. On the whole, it isn't much of a place for finding birds.
When I started my new hobby of photographing bird species, I wasn't expecting much in my own backyard. When I was walking around the neighborhood for exercise I started to realize that a surprising number of birds were living within a few blocks of my house, especially in the pasture between my house and the local elementary school. It was once slated to become a housing development, but the recession put an end to those plans, so a small herd of cows continues to graze there.
Orchards, with row after row of the same kind of tree, don't make for particularly good habitat, and neither do houses. But the pasture offers grasses and insects, and a variety of trees around the edges (walnut, oak, sycamore, and a few ornamental sequoias) provide shelter. An irrigation canal runs through the middle of the pasture, providing water through the summer (rainfall leaves puddles in the canal during the winter).
The number and variety of birds varies with the seasons. The migratory species pass through occasionally, and I saw the greatest variety in the spring. The fewest birds were in the driest dustiest part of summer. I'm looking forward to seeing the changes coming up this fall (and hoping for some early rainstorms to break up the horrific drought).
I've seen six bird species at the feeders in my yard: House Finch, Lesser Goldfinch, Western Scrub Jay, Western Mockingbird, and Anna's Hummingbird. Within a week or two of walking through the pasture and along the irrigation canal the species count for my neighborhood was up to more than twenty.

What's the take from this? No one could ever mistake my little suburban pasture as an exciting place (notice how I picked sunset shots to dress it up). But it is a wonderful thing to know that an adventure of sorts lies just beyond my neighborhood block, and such a principle is probably true for most people wherever they may be living. Urban jungles still have some green space, and some hint of the original diversity of birds species may be found there. I have two or three other sites that have revealed some interesting bird sightings. I'll review them shortly in another post.

I'm intending to follow up with what I've been doing to my poor friends on Facebook and make a nearly daily posting of the latest bird sightings, which will include oftentimes the same birds (I'm actually starting to recognize some of them). So here are two of yesterday's birds, common visitors in the pasture: Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus). There were a dozen or more searching for bugs in the flooded corner of the pasture. Their call has become a familiar sound on my walks.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Welcome to Geotripper's California Birds!

Yellow-billed Magpie (Pica nuttalli), possibly California's only endemic bird species.
Welcome to Geotripper's California Birds! You possibly know me from my long-running blog Geotripper, which covers geological topics in California and across the American West. As many of my friends know, I have taken up bird photography for the total fun of it, and I have amassed thousands of images of our feathered friends during my travels. I make no pretenses of being an expert on ornithology, and can barely be described as an avid birder (my life list is laughable), but I enjoy the challenge of learning about the rich world that exists around us, even in our own neighborhoods.
Western Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma californica) in the local pasture.
No birder would be surprised at this, but I was astounded to find there was a rich and diverse bird population within walking distance of my home in a small farm town in the Central Valley of California. In my ignorance I thought the bird ecosystem consisted of crows, mockingbirds, mourning doves and sparrows. I started walking and photographing the birds in my neighborhood  and local region and soon amassed a list of 70 species. There are lots more to be discovered, as the bird list for my county (Stanislaus) is around 300 strong.
A Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) in my front yard.
So what's ahead? What am I trying to accomplish with this blog? I've been doing this long enough over at Geotripper to know how things will work. My primary goal is educational. I want to get lots of pictures out there that can be used for school projects and teaching. So if you discover this site, feel free to use the pictures in your projects on birds. Like any author/photographer, I would appreciate knowing that you found the site useful, and that my pictures are correctly attributed. If you are seeking pictures for texts or other profit-making objectives, please contact me privately.
A Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana) in the Clark Fork of the Stanislaus River in the Sierra Nevada
My second goal is also educational but in a different sense. The old adage "canary in a coal mine" was a real thing. The canaries were more sensitive to bad air than the miners, so if the canary stopped singing, the miners knew to get out of the mine. Birds are very sensitive to changes in the climate and changes to the landscape. California's Central Valley was once a critical part of the North American migratory flyway. Agriculture and urbanization have co-opted 95% of the original landscape, and bird species have been severely impacted. A system of wildlife refuges and natural waterways remain, and so millions of birds still winter in the valley, though only a fraction of what once was. In the larger sense, all ecosystems are being impacted by global warming. We may be on the verge of an extinction event on par with that which destroyed all but the avian dinosaurs. 50% of all bird species are at risk in the coming decades. Let's learn about this together.
The California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus), a bird on the verge of extinction
My third goal is simply to have fun. I have been driving my Facebook friends crazy with daily updates about the birds in my region, and I look forward to sharing my avian adventures more widely.
A slightly younger Geotripper, with friends in Australia.
I hope you will enjoy the adventure. As I said at the outset, I'm no expert, so I welcome any comments or corrections, especially where bird identifications are concerned.