Friday, October 31, 2014

Bird of the Day: Pueo, the Short-eared Owl of Hawai'i

My serious interest in birds started with my travels in Hawai'i a bit more than a decade ago. The Hawaiian Islands are a marvelous laboratory for understanding the process of evolution. Few places in the world are more isolated. Bird species that make their way to the island find themselves truly isolated, with new and different food sources, different (or no) predators, and a different climate than their place of origin. Those that survive the changes in their environment gradually adapt, both in habit and in morphology. There are dozens of native species on the islands, although most of them are under siege, and many have gone extinct. The problems began with the arrival on the islands of humans along with rats. Later on, more humans came, with cats, mongooses, and mosquitoes. Avian malaria, transmitted by the mosquitoes, has done in many. People have also introduced many other bird species, as escaped pets, and as purposeful releases. The natives have been driven into marginal environments, especially the high altitude rainforests that are too cool for the mosquitoes to thrive. Few of the natives are ever seen in the cities.

On a 2009 field trip with my students in Kauai, we were driving down the hill from Waimea Canyon (the Grand Canyon of the Pacific). I had been on the lookout for native birds all day, and had little success. As we drove by the lower end of the canyon, I was shocked to see an owl on a tree top just a short way off the highway. It was a Hawaiian Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus sandwichensis), a subspecies of Short-eared Owls found on all continents except Antarctic and Australia. Called Pueo by the native Hawaiians, the bird is revered as one of their ancestral spirits.

The owls are having a hard time of it. They nest on the ground and thus are subject to predation by the hated mongooses, rats, and cats. Mongooses were never introduced on the island of Kauai, so the owls are doing somewhat better there.

It was a thrill to see one relatively close, and willing to have a few photos taken. I hope to get back to the islands soon. I truly miss them (it's been four years...).

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Bird of the Day: California's Endemic, the Yellow-billed Magpie

Today's bird is one of my favorites. The Yellow-billed Magpie (Pica nuttalli) is found only in California, mostly in the Great Valley, making it one of the few truly endemic bird species in the state. Some of the others include the Nuttall's Woodpecker (whose range includes a bit of Baja), and the Island Scrub Jay which lives only on Santa Cruz Island in Channel Islands National Park.
The Yellow-billed Magpie closely resembles the Black-billed Magpie that is widely distributed across western North America, except that it has...a yellow bill (and yellow eye-rings). The birds are genetically close, but were isolated from each other by the Sierra Nevada Mountains during the ice ages, perhaps a few hundred thousand years ago.
The birds survived a near-miss a decade ago when the West Nile Virus arrived in California. Nearly half the population was killed off in just two or three years, dropping from an estimated 180,000 individuals to only 90,000 or so. The survivors had some resistance to the virus, so the population has rebounded in recent years. It would have been a real shame to lose these beautiful and unique birds. I've enjoyed watching the flocks in my neighborhood pasture and on the west campus as well.
The last picture is not a great one (I'm working on getting a better one), but the birds in flight remind me of one of the most ancient of bird species, the Archaeopteryx. There is no close relationship, but the long tail feathers make me think of the long boney tail of the Jurassic creature that resembled the transitional species that led from dinosaur to bird (the Archaeopteryx also had teeth, a trait that only appears in bird embryos these days). I guess I'm not the only one to notice, because when I referred to the Wikipedia article on the ancient birds, they also noted the resemblance.
The Magpies on campus and in the pasture are usually pretty suspicious of me (a good trait), so I was pleased when they hung around during my walk earlier this week in the pasture near my house, and again on Tuesday when I walked the West Campus perimeter. There are several dozen individuals in each flock, which is an improvement over the last few years. It had got way too quiet when the virus was destroying the flocks. I'm glad they're back. Look to see them again soon on these pages.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Bird of the Day: Red-shouldered Hawk in the Early Morning

Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus)
Today's bird isn't about the photography, though I like the picture. It was about the moment. I go into town early several days a week to avoid a bottleneck traffic jam at 8:00 AM over the freeway (I definitely don't live in L.A.!). This means I am often one of the first few people to arrive on campus, and it is always pleasingly peaceful and quiet.

This morning I was walking towards my building when I heard an unusual bird calling out, echoing off the buildings around me. I wondered if it was a hawk, but it sounded a bit more melodious than most hawks I've heard (which aren't that many, really). I looked up and finally saw it in the Deodar tree on the east side of the parking lot. It was a Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus), quite likely the one I've photographed once or twice before.  It looked like it was greeting the sunrise, much as I was.

It was a nice moment in the quiet morning before things got crowded and hectic.
Source: Wikipedia (Tony Phillips)

Monday, October 27, 2014

Bird of the Day: Acorn Woodpeckers at Chaw'se

Sitting for two hours at Chaw'se (Indian Grinding Rock State Park) in the Sierra Nevada near Jackson is to watch a soap opera. Dozens and dozens of birds were flitting about in the trees, but the main cast of the day were the Acorn Woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus). They were raucous and very busy storing acorns in the trees and on wooden poles in the park.
I love watching these birds. We tend to improperly anthropomorphize animals, but how can you not think of clowns when you see their colorful faces?
The woodpeckers are a western species, with a range that extends from Central America all the way to southern Oregon. They prefer oak woodlands, which is not too much of a surprise, given that acorns are one of their main food sources. They'll also eat insects, but insects won't be around during the winter. So they store acorns.
No, this picture isn't upside down, the bird was.
They'll drill thousands of holes into any available wood surfaces, including trees, telephone poles, or buildings.They'll stuff acorns in the holes, and then jealously guard their food stores from squirrels and the like.
Their storehouse trees are called granaries, and may contain tens of thousands of holes. The picture below was just one post in the picnic structure at Chaw'se.
We had a delightful afternoon watching these colorful birds at work in the nearly deserted park. Next time I will catch them all in the sun and in focus. It drove me nuts (acorns?) craning my neck, waiting for them to sit still long enough for a perfect pose. It will happen sometime!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Bird of the Day: Northern Flicker at Chaw'se Grinding Rock State Park

Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) at Chaw'se

I've had four of the last five weekends taken up with field trip commitments. I would never complain about a job that sends me on the road with students, but it felt a bit hectic. So what did I do with my first free weekend in more than a month? I hit the road of course!

There was a difference this time. Mrs. Geotripper and I took a couple of folding chairs and set them up in the middle of the meadow at Chaw'se, the Indian Grinding Rock State Park in the Sierra Nevada above the Gold Rush town of Jackson. And we sat for two hours. We were at the park last week as one of the stops on our study of the geology of the Mother Lode, but the stop was short. This time we just wanted to sit and listen and watch for birds and whatever else might wander by.

I was rewarded with two new species, and a lot of other sightings. New species isn't much of a surprise, as I haven't been at this for long, but it's always fun, even if the bird is relatively common. I just haven't seen them for myself yet.

Today's bird is the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus), a member of the woodpecker family that wasn't spending much time pecking at wood. It was foraging on the ground, looking for ants or beetles. The colors and patterns of the bird are striking and unmistakable!
I had seen the bird once before, fleetingly and fuzzy in the picture, in my neighborhood. This was the first opportunity I've had to actually frame and try to focus on the bird. I'm not quite satisfied yet, as it stayed in the shadows and at the extreme distance and high zoom it was hard to get the feather patterns as well as I wanted. And that will be my perfectly good excuse for heading up there again as soon as possible!
Chaw'se, the Indian Grinding Stones State Park, was featured last week in this blog. There will be a few more birds featured here from today's expedition in future posts, I'm pretty sure.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Bird of the Day: Great Blue Heron at San Luis Wildlife Refuge

How can a bird look graceful and ungainly at the same time?  Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias) are beautiful birds, and I'm always delighted to see them when we are out and about. A few weeks back we traveled down to the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge near Los Banos in the Great Valley to see if there were any early migratory arrivals. We had a delightful time, but ironically we didn't see the Heron in the bird refuge. This one was hanging out in a plowed field just outside the refuge boundary.
They tend to be a little skittish when I'm around, but this one didn't seem too bothered by the head and camera hanging out of the car window. It waited patiently for us to take our pictures and continued watching for whatever was tasty in the field.

The herons are found all over North America, especially around wetlands. I've even seen them in my small backyard, but for an unwelcome reason. I looked out one day and saw one in our little fishpond. Before I realized what was going on, most of my goldfish had been consumed. There is a reason I fill the pond with 25 cent feeder goldfish instead of expensive Koi! Thankfully the fishapocalypse has only happened twice over the years.
One of their most amazing abilities is the flexibility of their necks. They can pretty much "coil" them up and strike like a snake, catching fish, frogs, gophers, and practically anything else in range.
We are looking forward to visiting the refuge again during the winter and spring seasons. It's a time when our "boring" valley is at its finest.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Bird of the Day: Killdeer in the Pasture and the West Campus

The Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) is one of the most distinctive and common birds I see out in the pastures near my house, along the irrigation canals, and on the West Campus of my school. They are a member of the Plover family, but given the arid nature of our valley, they are often a long way away from water.
I most often see them in the pasture among the livestock, or on gravel parking areas on our west campus. Sometimes they ignore me as I walk by and other times they walk ahead, complaining the whole way.
I just love their huge orange-rimmed eyes!
They build nests on the ground, which seems kind of precarious, but the birds are masters of distraction when predators come around. They do the "broken-wing" ploy better than just about any other bird.
The birds are abundant across the country, and do well in areas preempted by humans, so they are not considered endangered in any particular way, though their populations have declined by 30% or so in the last forty years.
Their distinctive call (a "kill-deer" sound) and their erratic movements make them among the most watchable birds I see when I am out walking. I think of them as one of the clowns of the avian world, but that's just me anthropomorphizing. Mostly, they are just beautiful birds.

The top picture was from yesterday, but the rest are collected from the archives of the last year from when I first started seriously photographing birds.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Bird of the Day: Nuttall's Woodpecker in the Pasture II

I was walking around the pasture this morning and the Western Bluebirds were out, hanging around on the fence that surrounds the pasture near my house. One of them didn't fit the color pattern and I realized it was a Nuttall's Woodpecker (Picoides nuttallii) searching the fenceposts for goodies. As I mentioned in the previous post on woodpeckers, Nuttall's Woodpeckers are pretty much an Alta California endemic, with a bit of their range slipping south of the border into Baja California. They hang out almost exclusively in oak woodlands but don't eat acorns. They are after insects and other arthropods and occasionally some fruit.
This might be the same individual I photographed at the beginning of the month, but I was unhappy with those shots.  Some of these are still just a bit fuzzy, but I liked catching these poses of the bird exploring and checking out the stuff on the fence.
I had sat down on the curb across the street to take the pictures, and he only acknowledged me once, staring from around the post.
He went along exploring and eventually flew up into the old Walnut tree and out of sight. My walk continued. It's been a good couple of days for birdwatching!

Birds of the Day: A Feathered Palette of Colors on the West Campus

Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus)
A little bit of a different post today, because I couldn't settle for just one bird. I was walking the perimeter of the west campus this afternoon, and saw a palette of different bird colors. As I was going over the pictures, I realized they all had color as part of their names as well, so the bird of the day is a five-way tie. A colorful tie.

The first is a Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) that I've seen a couple of times in the last few days. It was perched on a telephone pole at the northeast edge of the campus.
White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys)
The White-crowned Sparrow  (Zonotrichia leucophrys) is a common visitor on the west campus, enough so I don't try as hard to get the "perfect" shot. But sometimes they just sit there waiting for me to take one.
Western Bluebird (Sialia mexicana)

If it is red and white, then blue must be next. There have been dozens of Western Bluebirds (Sialia mexicana) on campus these last few days. They have been mostly around the cattle pastures, looking for bugs in the grass.
So...Purple or House Finch?
Here's where I show my general cluelessness with the most common of bird species. Is the bird above a House Finch, or a Purple Finch? I have House Finches at the feeders in my backyard all the time, and this one struck me as different. If it is a Purple, it is the first I've identified. If it's a house finch, then oh well, it's beautiful anyway.
Finally, there is a nice clear shot of a Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) in the cow pasture. I caught a few pictures the other day at Chaw'se in the Sierra Nevada foothills, but the ones I got on campus were pretty fuzzy. I liked this one.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Bird of the Day: Western Bluebird at the Kennedy Tailings Wheels in Jackson, CA

By my own self-imposed rules, I'm trying not to repeat a species on my "Bird of the Day" posts until I've run out of new ones. I've decided I can make exceptions for vastly better pictures of a species, and also those of a different gender. Thus, since the pictures I posted a few days ago of a Western Bluebird were fuzzy and indistinct, and also males of the species, we are seeing Western Bluebirds today, the females. Like many bird species, they are less vividly colored than the males.
Is this one of the Angry Birds?

These Western Bluebirds (Sialia mexicana) were at the Kennedy Mine Tailings Wheels Park in Jackson up in the Sierra Nevada Mother Lode. We were on a geology field studies trip, but had a few moments of spare time as the students explored the full length of the park.

The bluebirds eat insects and sometimes berries, living for most of the year in the mid-elevations of the mountains, up to 5,000 feet or so. Some will move to lower elevations in the winter, and indeed they have been showing up in the pasture back home, and on our west campus.

The site, the Kennedy Tailings Wheels in Jackson, is part of the history of the Gold Rush in California. The Kennedy Mine was one of the largest of the Gold Rush, ultimately producing 1.7 million ounces of gold from around 150 miles of tunnels reaching a depth of nearly 6,000 feet beneath the surface. The mine produced a great deal of waste material, and when a mishap occurred that sent poisonous waste through town and into the water supply (hey, accidents happen you know), they were compelled to send their wastes elsewhere. The giant wheels were designed with buckets that lifted the material to a flume at a higher level, and eventually over two ridges to a newly constructed reservoir. What was once a barren hillside in a mining/industrial complex is today a quiet corner of mature oak trees and ponderosa pines, with a nice collection of birds to watch for.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Bird of the Day: Yellow-rumped Warbler at Chaw'se State Park

To the surprise of perhaps no one, I was on the road again, this week with a field class studying the geology of the California Mother Lode. We made a stop at Chaw'se (Indian Grinding Rock) State Park near the town of Volcano to have a look at a gigantic slab of marble covered by more than a thousand grinding mortars.
It had rained a little in the last few days, so there were lots of small birds out and about, playing in what they must have assumed were little personal birdbaths. I identified eight or nine bird species, but these little Yellow-rumped Warblers (Setophaga coronata) did the best before the camera today.

The species is quite common, although I am chagrined to say that I had not noticed them prior to the start of my neighborhood odyssey of birding last November. I've now seen them up in the Sierra Nevada foothills, on the west campus of my college (see the last picture below), and one morning last winter, on my back porch, catching bugs around the porch light like a little bat.

They have a more intense coloration during the breeding season, as evidenced by this shot (below) of a visitor to my third floor corridor on the west campus. It held still long enough for three or four shots.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Bird of the Day: Golden-crowned Sparrow on the Tuolumne River

We took an early fall stroll along our Tuolumne River in Waterford where it flows into the Great Valley from the Sierra Nevada. At this point the river is lined with huge oak trees with an undergrowth of some young Cottonwoods, Willows, and Trees of Paradise. It seems like it would be ideal bird habitat, but I don't usually see a whole lot of birds. It might be the feral cats, or the dogs on the adjacent properties. Or maybe I'm just not paying enough attention...
We were down in the river channel and I looked at the oak trees on both sides and realized they had all kinds of birds flying about. They were spending their time in the canopy where we couldn't see them well from below. There were lots of woodpeckers, scrub jays, mockingbirds, magpies, several kinds of finches, and a number of small birds I couldn't identify. An Egret flew above on its way upriver, and even higher a Red-tailed Hawk soared. When we finished our stroll, I saw a sparrow on the fence and realized it was not the usual House Sparrow. The yellow head with black streaks identified it as Golden-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla). I've only recognized it once before (remember, I'm still new at this!), and it stuck around long enough for pictures.

The Golden-crowned Sparrow apparently isn't a year-round resident around here. They breed in the far north and spend the winter in California and northern Mexico. They are closely related to the White-crowned Sparrows and are thought to have branched off from them in recent geologic time. The White-crowned Sparrows are found across North America while the Golden-crowned are mostly a west coast species.

The Tuolumne River is a real treasure. It has its more famous sections up in Yosemite National Park (Tuolumne Meadows and the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne), but it adds a thread of life to the arid floor of the Great Valley where I live. I could be accused of taking it for granted sometimes (though I disagree, mostly), but had a small realization the other day. Mrs. Geotripper was looking at some pictures a friend from southern California had posted, and asked "Do you know where this river is?" Her friend had called it a bit of paradise. I looked and realized she was talking about the river in our own backyard. The friend just happened to be visiting our town, and recognized just how precious the river was.
I expect there will be plenty of other birds to report on as the season progresses...