Sunday, November 30, 2014

Bird of the Day: A Sparrow that's not a Sparrow, and a Successful Immigrant

The House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) is one of the most common birds in existence, with a success that stems from a close association with human habitations. It's not a sparrow, at least in the American sense, and instead is part of a family called the weaver-finch in Europe where the bird is native. It was introduced to the North American continent in 1850 and has since spread to all the contiguous American states.
The birds are apparently evolving as they compete in different environments across the continent. They are showing differences in shading with paler colors in the southwest, and darker colors in more humid regions. 
I caught these images in Florence, Oregon in a small park along the Siuslaw River. I figured if I am going to post images of one of the most familiar birds in existence that I'd better catch them very close! I hope these pictures fit the bill (or the bill fits in the picture).
The House Sparrows originated in the Middle East, and have spread throughout the world along with the development of agriculture. They, like domestic cats and dogs, seem to have cast their lots with we humans, and will thrive as long as we do.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Red-winged Blackbird at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

On our travels north this week, we had the opportunity to explore a new (for us) wildlife refuge, the Sacramento complex just off Interstate 5 near Willows in the Great Valley. A six mile long auto loop allowed access to a variety of environments. Thousands upon thousands of birds were there, as well as a few deer.
The Snow Geese will undoubtedly be featured here before long, but today we have some Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) that were hanging out in the cattails and reeds.  Their wings weren't as red as they are in springtime, as they aren't trying to catch the eyes of the ladies so much.

The Red-winged Blackbirds are common across the United States, but although there are tens of millions of them, they have declined in number by about 30% over the last five decades, presumably because of habitat destruction. Their close relatives the Tri-colored Blackbird are in serious danger in our Great Valley, with only 300,000 of them left.

The last picture is a juvenile male. It's more of a brown color with buff wing tips. In a few months, the birds will be black all over, and competing with each other for territory and females.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Bird of the Day: What Else Could it Possibly Be?

Of course, the Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo). It's native to North America, but is mostly an introduced species in the western states. I was not aware that the Turkey was almost extirpated in the early 1900s when the wild population may have declined to as few as 30,000 individuals (hunting and habitat loss were the major culprits). It was the effort to bring the bird back from an endangered status that led to its introduction in the western states. The recovery effort has been successful and there are an estimated 7.8 million of them in the wilds of every state but Alaska.

As you enjoy your domestic version of the bird at the table tomorrow, give some thanks that there were those who made an effort to save the wild ones for posterity. The birds are an American original.

Have a great Thanksgiving!

Just for the fun of it, take a look at the antics of the Turkeys I ran into last year near Morro Bay...

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Bird of the Day: Yellow-rumped Warblers on the West Campus

A Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) has been seen on this blog before, when we saw a number of them at Chaw'se a few weeks ago. I've seen a few here on the valley floor on our west campus, and once even on our back porch.
 But I've never seen so many as I did today. I was walking past the sheep pasture on our west campus and saw a lot of small birds hopping on the fence and on the ground near a large walnut tree. Every time a car drove by, two or three dozen birds exploded off the ground and into the tree. I took a closer look.
There were at least three species, including White-crowned Sparrows and possibly a female Western Bluebird, but most of them had the yellow flash of color that gave them away as the Yellow-rumped Warbler. How would you like a name like that?
Beautiful little birds! I expect there will be more of them here in the future...

Monday, November 24, 2014

Bird of the Day: Sagebrush Sparrow in the Mojave National Preserve

Today's bird is a totally new one for me, and given the circumstances I'm not surprised that I've never seen it before. It's a Sagebrush Sparrow (Artemisiospiza nevadensis). They are apparently quite common, but hard to see, as they spend much of their time in the shrubs, and as you can see in these photographs, they blend in well with their surroundings. I wouldn't have even seen them except for the movement.
We were on our way home from a short trip in Arizona and stopped to stretch our legs at the Essex Road offramp on Interstate 40. This is one of the entrances to the Mojave National Preserve, one of the gems of our national park system. The park preserves a wide swath of the best parts of the Mojave Desert, with high mountains with relict fir forests, pediments with thick forests of Joshua Trees, and valley floors covered by some of the highest sand dunes in North America. The mountain range in the picture above is part of the Providence Mountains, which is famous for a number of cavern systems, including Mitchell Caverns. During the recent depression, the park was shut down, and vandals did their terrible work on the facilities. An effort is being made to reopen the caverns as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, the Sagebrush Sparrows were quietly moving along the shrubs near the freeway offramp. It was a while before I even noticed them. Although it won't surprise my birder friends, I have been astounded by the diversity of bird life in California that I've always overlooked in the past. There are a great many new birds out there to be discovered, some gaudy with bright colors, and others well-camouflaged in their drabness.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Bird of the Day: Great Blue Heron at Burro Canyon in Arizona

I was on the road this weekend in the Lower Sonoran Desert northwest of Phoenix, Arizona, and we made a short stop at Burro Creek Campground just off the highway about 60 miles north of Wickenburg. The canyon containing Burro Creek has steep walls of volcanic basalt and conglomerate and a more or less permanent year-round stream, though it was barely flowing when we stopped in.

It was the middle of the day so we didn't expect to see much in the way of birds, with only a few photos of a Say's Phoebe to show for our trouble (it's like fishing, of course, the serenity and peace being the real point of our exploration whether we see birds or not).
Then I saw a huge bird flying down the canyon, and then it turned and started flying back towards us. I was able to get a few slightly grainy shots of the beautiful bird in flight, and then I could see where it landed in the distance. It was a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias).
Where's Waldo the Blue Heron?
Our previous shot of a Great Blue Heron was at pretty close range at the refuge near our home. This individual was a bit more wary of us, never coming close. However far, it's an amazing bird to see.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Bird of the Day: Say's Phoebe on the West Campus

I haven't seen one of these in a few months. I assume they're moving back south after breeding in Arctic regions. It's a Say's Phoebe (Sayornis saya), a little flycatcher that is doing pretty well, because it adapts well to human developments (nesting in and around houses and other buildings).
They may be common, but I've only seen them around the little pond on our west campus, usually in the same places I often see the Black Phoebes.  I'd like to get a few more pictures on a sunny day, as these are just a bit fuzzy in the gloomy gray conditions we had today (but I don't mind the rain! We really need it out west).

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Bird of the Day: Bald Eagle at Turlock Lake State Recreational Area

I finished a pile of grading and the sun was still up this afternoon, so Mrs. Geotripper and I headed a few miles east to Turlock Lake State Recreational Area. The park lies along the Tuolumne River in the Sierra Nevada foothills, where it serves as a storage unit for irrigation water. We drove along the shore looking to see what birds might be around (answer: not many). I was glancing upwards at the power lines when I saw something I've not seen all that often around here: a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus).
The Bald Eagle is, of course, our national bird, and we showed how proud we were of our national symbol by almost poisoning them out of existence. The heavy use of DDT in the last century caused metabolic changes in the eagles (and probably we humans too) so that they laid eggs with brittle shells that could not withstand the weight of the parent. At one point the eagle population in the lower 48 states was less than 500 breeding pairs. Once DDT was outlawed and shooting of the birds made illegal, their population rebounded and today they are found across the United States. I've seen them three times in the last year or two. But not this close (I was probably 200 feet away with a zoom).
Like most reservoirs in California, the water level is very low. I hope the rains come and fill the lake soon, but not too soon because a former student of mine and a fellow professor are researching the Mehrten Formation that makes up the rock around the lake. They are hoping to find the remains of late Cenozoic creatures in the sediment, including mastodons, horses, camels, and if they are lucky, the remains of the saber-toothed salmon, an eight foot long fish that once existed here!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Bird of the Day: Budgerigars in the Pastures!

This morning's walk had a big surprise. For a year I've been walking around the pasture a few blocks from my house looking for native species to photograph. I've seen 35-40 species so far, but today there was such a bright flash of fluorescent green and blue that I knew I as seeing something new.
It was immediately evident that I was not looking at a native species, because the only native parrots in the United States were extirpated nearly a century ago (the Carolina Parrot and the Thick-billed Parrot). There is a chance we may one day see the Thick-billed Parrot in the wild again, but the Carolina Parrot is gone forever. The birds in the pasture today are obviously Budgerigars (Melopsittacus undulatus), or the Common Parakeet. They are clearly escaped or released pets, because they are native to Australia.
I have no idea if this pair is naturalized or feral. It seems to me I would have noticed if they'd been around over the last year. Normally I'd be concerned about feral non-natives, but as many birders point out, these are birds that are occupying habitats made by human intervention. The native birds are already gone for the most part in the urban environment, and the parrots would disappear if we did.
In any case, the two birds I saw today provided a bright splash of color on an overcast gloomy day. I was cheered because the two were together. They are social birds, and I have a lot of empathy for any creature that is alone and separated from others of its kind.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Bird of the Day: Hermit Thrush at Pinnacles National Park

THIS was a hard shot. We were in a deep canyon in the very late afternoon. We were tracking a small bird lurking in even darker bushes. I have no idea why this shot came out at all, because there were sixteen attempts that were blurry or unfocused.
Seriously, the bird was in that thicket...
The bird is a Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) that was foraging in the brush and poison ivy near the entrance of lower Bear Gulch Caves in Pinnacles National Park. Pinnacles is located in the central California Coast Ranges south of Hollister. It is our nation's newest national park (established in 2013), but it was one of our oldest national monuments, having been declared by Teddy Roosevelt in 1908 (parks are established by Congress, monuments by presidential proclamation).

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Bird of the Day: Anna's Hummingbird in Our Front Yard

Digging into the archives today, I came across what I feel is the finest picture of a bird taken by a member of my household, and it wasn't me. Mrs. Geotripper was getting out of her car one afternoon when she noticed an Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna) sitting on some Freesia blooms. She couldn't have been more than a few feet away, but those hummingbirds are fearless.
People wonder why I carry my camera with me everywhere, and this is why. You never know what opportunity will arise.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Bird of the Day: Killdeer at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

With the very charismatic large migratory birds arriving at the wildlife refuges in our valley this month, it is easy to overlook the beautiful year-round residents. I'm always happy to see the Killdeer at the wetlands, and was pleased with the shots I got last Monday.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Bird of the Day: Yellowlegs at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

I learned a little about muskeg last summer as we traveled through British Columbia and Alberta. I didn't really see any of it, but it sounds like a challenging place for human beings. The muskeg is made up of bogs and swamps, frozen over in winter and mosquito/black fly paradise in summer. The bogs are full of water and mud, and have been known to swallow heavy equipment. If I were an ornithologist, which I am not, I would rather study birds on a tropical Pacific island like Hawai'i. So it doesn't surprise me to read that the breeding habits of the Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca and Tringa flavipes) are not all that well known because their breeding environment is deep in the arctic muskeg of Canada and Alaska.
Luckily for us, they come south for the winter, and a number of them show up locally. I've seen them at the mini-wilderness on campus, in the irrigation canals near the home pasture, and at the local bird refuges. Today's pictures are from the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge a few miles south of Turlock in the Great Valley. I visited in mid-October.
I'm still no expert, but the guides say that the Greater Yellowlegs are distinguishable from the Lesser Yellowlegs (what an insulting name...) by a longer beak that has gray color at the base in the nonbreeding season. The Lesser has a straighter and sharper beak. I'm uncertain, therefore, as to which kind I have photographed here. Which species are these?
They are attractive birds (aren't most of them?), and they weren't too concerned about us driving by on our driving tour of the San Luis Refuge. It is a real privilege to have such wonderful bird habitats so close by...

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Bird of the Day: Sandhill Cranes at the Merced Unit

Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) were my bird of the day only a few weeks ago, but these extraordinary birds will no doubt show up often on these pages. They are intriguing residents at the Merced Unit of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. There will be 20,000 of them here in a few weeks, and thousands have already arrived.
The Great Valley for the most part little resembles the valley that existed here prior to agricultural development, but the ancestral environment is being reconstructed in a few places to provide and maintain wintering grounds for the rich variety of migratory birds who come here each year. The Merced Unit is a marvelous introduction to the birds with a five mile long auto loop providing excellent access. We'll be visiting often through the winter and coming spring, so expect more updates!
I'm going to keep trying to get some quality shots of the Sandhill Cranes. They keep their distance from the road and trails and are fairly skittish when tall humans like me are around (no, I don't go chasing them; these shots are from the viewing areas or from the inside of the car). All of today's shots are at an extreme zoom (60x), so they continue to be a bit fuzzy.
The cranes are an ancient line of birds, with a fossil record extending back at least fifty million years. Thirteen species are known today, with seven others that have gone extinct. The Sandhill has features that suggest that it most closely resembles the ancestors to all the cranes. There are six distinct subspecies, including the Lesser Sandhill Crane, which was the type we were seeing yesterday at the Merced Unit.
Birds are generally recognized as a subset of the dinosaurs, the only group of dinosaurs that survived the great extinction event of 65 million years ago. Many of the dinosaurs even supported feathers (but they didn't fly; the flying pterosaurs were not closely related to dinosaurs or birds).
I look at these avian dinosaurs in the meadows of the Merced Unit and can't help imagining their much larger forebears. We've come to understand that dinosaurs traveled in large herds or flocks, and that they cared for their young the way present day birds do. I'm just glad there aren't Velociraptors and Tyrannosaurs running around after them!
In the waning hours of the day, more and more of the cranes were taking flight and disappearing somewhere. I didn't give a whole lot of thought about where they were headed, but as we drove up the road we heard a lot of noise coming from the other side of the Cottonwood wind break. We stopped and looked over to see a truly stunning sight, thousands upon thousands of Sandhill Cranes grazing in a large field.
This is not the finest video I've ever taken, so I suggest keeping it small so you won't get dizzy. The mechanical noise is coming from a groundwater pump we needed to stand behind. It shows the full extent of the flock of grazing cranes at the Merced Unit. It is an astounding sight, especially for those of us (me) who took our Great Valley for granted while exploring other flashier places. This is one of those places that can be called America's Serengeti...