Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Bird of the Day: Surf Scoter on the Siuslaw River in Oregon

I spent some of the holidays at the mouth of the Siuslaw River along the central Oregon coast at Florence. The Siuslaw is a modest river by Oregon standards, especially in the upper reaches, but at the mouth it is a tidal channel several hundred feet across. I take walks along the shoreline whenever I can, and there are usually some interesting birds about (see the last post, for instance). Today's birds are Surf Scoters (Melanitta perspicillata), large ducks who inhabit coastal environments on both the east and west coasts of North America.
The males have some bold coloring on their heads that has earned them the informal name of "Skunk-headed Coot". The females, as can be seen in the photos above and below, are a bit more drab. They breed in the arctic, and migrate along the coast during the winter, as far south as Baja.
Hey dude, what are you staring at?

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Bird of Week? Great Blue Heron on the Siuslaw River in Oregon

I've spent most of the last week on the road and mostly out of internet access, but I have been seeing a few nice birds along the way. This morning I was walking on the tidal flats at the mouth of the Siuslaw River in Florence, Oregon, and spied a beautiful Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) in the mud. It seemed supremely unconcerned with my presence, and never changed position or moved.
In this stretch the river mouth is wide and is influenced more by tidal changes than river flow. The mudflats are exposed twice a day, providing lots of food for the resident birds.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Bufflehead at Clear Lake (on a not so clear day)

Buffleheads (Bucephala albeola) are small ducks that nest in the far north, and migrate to wetlands all over the United States for the winter.  They were overhunted in the last century, but stricter controls have allowed their population to rebound. They are considered a fairly secure species for the time being.
They forage by diving and searching for arthropods and snails of all kinds. They will dive for a few seconds at a time, which makes photography a slight challenge. I got several pictures of rippling water, although I was pleased to get one shot of a Bufflehead in the process of diving (above).
We saw the Buffleheads on the first day of our Christmas travels when we stopped at Clear Lake in the California Coast Ranges on our way to points north. A storm was brewing, one that led to some very high river levels across northern California and Oregon, but it hadn't yet started pouring. It was sure gray and gloomy though.

Clear Lake is the largest natural lake in California (Lake Tahoe is partly in Nevada, and Salton Sea is not natural). It formed in a basin produced by fault motions, and has had an interesting history in that it once overflowed eastward into the Sacramento Valley, then west into the Russian River drainage, and then back east again. The causes of these changes in outflow have been volcanic eruptions and large-scale landslides that blocked one outlet or another.
The level of the lake has dropped a lot during the drought. The level can vary as much as 12 feet or so, and it is definitely at the low end right now, as all the boat docks we could see were high and dry. The economy of the region has actually benefited a little from the intense drought because the lake is still mostly there; most reservoirs in the state are practically empty and not much fun for fishing and boating.

Did I mention the day was foggy and gloomy? The picture below actually would have contained the horizon if it had been visible. The Buffleheads provided a splash of color, even if it was just black and white!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Bird of the Day: Geese. Lots and Lots of Geese at the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge

You drive west of town, through the seemingly endless agricultural fields. The road gets more corrupted and full of potholes, and soon there is a sign saying "no outlet". Another mile brings you to a small dirt parking lot with a kiosk and a wooden viewing platform. You climb the short path to the top of the viewing area, and there it is: a field! The field seems empty except for a constant noise in the distance, and you finally realize that the sky is in motion, like white glitter, like a gigantic snow globe.
This is the Beckwith Road access point of the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge just west of Modesto, only about eight miles from the Vintage Faire Shopping Mall. The contrast between the parking lots crowded with shoppers and this empty field could hardly be bigger.
The Great Valley of central California was once the destination of millions, maybe billions of migrating geese, ducks, and other birds. Snow rarely falls on the valley floor and the temperature rarely reaches below freezing. Once the rains begin, the grass will grow all through the winter, providing a basic food chain with seeds, bugs, fish, amphibians and other creatures that feed the multitudes of birds when food is scarce elsewhere. The valley was a haven.
The value of the valley was apparent to humans. For thousands of years, people have lived in the valley alongside the birds and other animals, and drew sustenance from them. But in the last century and a half, the humans have changed the landscape, drying up the wetlands, and breaking up the prairie soils in favor of crops. Eventually only about 5% of the original landscape remained, and the birds no longer had many safe places to wait out the winter.

Over the decades, there were those who came to recognize the value of the birds, and eventually a series of wildlife refuges were established that allowed the health of the bird populations to be a priority. A visit to these refuges at the right time of year is a stunning introduction to the way the Great Valley used to be. There are birds here. Tens of thousands of Snow Geese, Ross's Geese, Aleutian Cackling Geese, and many others. In the evening, they start to settle in large groups, but occasionally something will startle them, a predator perhaps, and tens of thousands of birds will take to the air simultaneously. The sound of their wings is almost like a jet engine.
I still am in awe that I lived here for twenty years before I realized the treasure in my backyard. It is a wondrous experience to watch these huge beautiful birds flying so chaotically and yet with perfect timing and direction. Eventually they come drifting back to the ground, but the cackling never seems to stop.
How many birds are in this one picture alone? The flock we were watching was estimated at 30,000 individuals.

YouTube compression does awful things to my videos, but the short example below gives some hint to what it is like to see these birds in motion.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Bird of the Day: Ruby-crowned Kinglet at Stone Lake and San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuges

Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge was an interesting little discovery this last week, but one of the things I've discovered is that there are birds that are very difficult to capture on digital media. First, it was the Sora and Sandhill Cranes I featured yesterday. Today I am featuring one of smaller birds around that aren't hummingbirds, the Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula). They average 0.2-0.4 ounces which compares to the 0.15 ounces of the Anna's Hummingbirds I see around the house.
Before this week, I had captured pictures of a Kinglet only once before, but it happened twice this week, and it wasn't easy either time. The birds move through the underbrush and never seem to stop. I have a bunch of shots of reeds and brush containing no birds, because I took an extra half second to focus. Most of the rest of the pictures show only a blur as the bird hopped to the next branch.
Where's the Kinglet? No wonder these little beasties are hard to photograph.
Are they hard to see? Take a look at the picture above. Even with a sharper contrast, how long did you take to find it?

Because it is only eight miles from the edge of town, we stop in fairly often to see what is going on at the Beckwith Observation Platform in the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge. It was built to allow distant views of the geese and cranes, but a lot of brush has been planted around the parking lot, and the plants always have a bunch of smaller birds hanging out, including Phoebes, sparrows, and as I found out yesterday, Ruby-crowned Kinglets.
If you are wondering about the "Ruby-crowned" part of the name, look carefully at the very first photo. You can just make out a bit of red on the head. It usually isn't visible except when the males are trying to impress the ladies.

As usual, I'm doing my best at bird identification as an amateur. The Kinglets look really similar to Hutton's Vireos, for instance. The small bills and the red patch in the first photograph were the identifying characteristics for me.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Bird of the Day: A Sora at Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (and some bonus Sandhills)

It's been a busy week that left little time for blogging, but it's not for lack of finding birds. I was traveling from the Sacramento Airport when I noticed for the first time (out of my own denseness), that there is a National Wildlife Refuge practically in the downtown area (well, okay, out on the edge of town). It's called the Stone Lakes NWR, and it is one of the newer refuges in the system, established in 1994. I only had a few moments, but there was a nice parking area with three looping trails through some representative ecosystems called the Blue Heron Trails. Apparently it has been open for only a short time. I took a quick stroll along the accessible trails and saw a couple of interesting birds.

One of them was completely new to me, the new birder. Swimming birds to me used to be ducks or geese, so I was confused when I didn't find this distinctively colored bird in the duck section. It turns out to be a species of rail called a Sora (Porzana carolina). It is not an uncommon bird, but it apparently is very secretive and hard to see most of the time, which explains the fuzziness of the photos. It was at the far end of the pond and I was using the highest zoom setting.

The Soras range from Canada during the summer to the northern part of South America in winter, but according to Audubon, the Central Valley is one of the few places where they are resident year-round (along with the Las Vegas area and central New Mexico). Knowing that, I'll try to get some clearer shots next time!
The refuge is much larger than just the area around the Blue Heron Trails. The entire reserve encompasses more than 17,000 acres, and it is adjacent to the even larger Cosumnes River Preserve, with more than 50,000 acres.
I kept hearing Sandhill Cranes, and they sounded so close, but I couldn't see any at first. Their honking can carry a long way as it turns out. They were across the highway (Hood Franklin Road) about a quarter mile away. I zoomed in the best I could for a few pictures. Beautiful birds!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Finches of the Stormageddon

The biggest storm of the last three or four years arrived today with heavy winds and buckets of rain. There is flooding in the Bay Area already, and later on there was flooding at work. I didn't have any good reasons to go out into the mess, so there were no birdwalks or the like. Instead, I spent some time in the shelter of the back porch watching the birds that were awaiting their turns at the bird feeder.
By far the most common visitor was the Lesser Goldfinch (Spinus psaltria), a beautiful small yellow colored bird. The males have a black head, the females an olive-yellow.
The Goldfinches love the nyger seed, and I'm going through something like a whole sock each day. There are always two dozen or more finches hanging around in the Myrtle tree, waiting for me to refill the thistle sock.
In contrast, the House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) go nuts over sunflower seeds. I haven't seen a large number, but somehow the sunflower feeder empties out every day or two. There was one brave one this afternoon that ate even though I was on the porch and all the other birds were keeping their distance. The House Finches are one of the most common birds in the country.
Our third visitor was an Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna). Of all the birds that visit our yard, the hummingbirds are the most fearless. I've had them buzz my face on occasion. Look carefully and you can see the raindrops on the hummingbird's beak.
It's been an important storm, probably providing more rain in one day that we got in any whole month during the worst of the drought. It also reminds us that sometimes the birds will come to you if you give them a reason.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Bird of the Day: A very special Barn Owl

A common and widespread species, the Barn Owl (Tyto alba) is found across the United States and throughout central and south America as well. The setting for these photographs might look as wild as most of my pictures, and there is a reasonable explanation for that. The poor thing is dead and has been for thirty-five years. But this is one hard-working barn owl.

The unfortunate bird flew full speed into a large plate glass window at my parent's place in the 1970s. We weren't sure what to do with it, but my good friend and biologist Jon suggested that he needed practice with his taxidermy skills and offered to mount it. He did a great job, and a few years later, the owl went into service as a little bit of the natural world in Mrs. Geotripper's classrooms. The kids loved it.

Mrs. Geotripper is mostly retired from teaching, and we were thinking of what do with our faithful feathered friend, and we thought of the Great Valley Museum at Modesto Junior College, which is expected to open for business very soon. I asked around and they were quite delighted to give the owl a new home where children could learn about this important species. The museum staff was quite excited, because "it still had tail feathers", which their current specimens apparently do not!
And so our little Barn Owl begins a third life. Many thanks to Jon who did such a nice job all those years ago.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Bird of the Day: Through a thick fog, a Lincoln's Sparrow

You're right. I get no rewards tonight for excellent photography. Conditions were really dismal, with fog and heavy overcast, plus it was after 4:00 PM and the sun was going down. It was an atrocious time to be trying to photograph birds.

But...I got a new one today! I'm pretty sure today's little visitors are Lincoln's Sparrows (Melospiza lincolnii), although as always I am open to gentle corrections. I'm pretty sure I've seen them before, but it has taken some time to develop an eye that indicates to me that these aren't House Sparrows.
The birds (there were a fair number of them) were hanging out near the pond in our West Campus "mini-wilderness". There are some abandoned trees growing wild in a vacant lot between a continuation school and juvenile hall where I saw what I thought were stubborn leaves, but they were moving.
Lincoln's Sparrows are a common species, but they are also diminutive and like to hang out in the underbrush. They breed in the north, but range all the way from Alaska and Canada to Central America. And I've never knowingly seen one before. As I keep saying, it's fun to be an amateur, since one gets to see something new all the time.

Bird of the Day: A California Original, the Oak Titmouse

Diminutive and drab, it's not very Californian from an anthropomorphic point of view, but there are few birds that are as unique to the state as this little Oak Titmouse (Baeolophus inornatus). They range a little into southern Oregon and a bit into the northernmost part of Baja California, but mainly they populate the vast oak woodlands that characterize so much of California: the Peninsular Ranges outside of San Diego, the Coast Ranges, the Sierra Nevada foothills, and a portion of the Great Valley. A corner of the "mini-wilderness" on the west campus is composed of a dozen or so huge oak trees, and I've not spent enough time looking up. These pictures represent only the second time I've seen the species, but I expect to see a few more now that I know where to seek them out. I saw this one during a lunchtime walk through the oaks in our campus "mini-wilderness".
The fate of the Oak Titmouse is closely tied to California's oak forests, which have been under a great deal of pressure from urbanization, disease, drought and wildfires. The titmouse population has declined by nearly 50% over the last five decades or so, although they are not yet considered endangered.
The oak woodland in our campus "mini-wilderness"
The Oak Titmice are highly territorial, and mate for life. They prefer cavities in older trees for nesting, where the female tends the nest and the male provides food. They are preyed upon by a number of mammalian, reptilian and avian predators, but they are also known to chase some of the raptors.

The Oak Titmouse is closely related to a bird of the Basin and Range province called the Juniper Titmouse. The Sierra Nevada and other ranges serve as an evolutionary barrier that has led to the contrasting traits of the two species, and their ranges overlap only on the Modoc Plateau in the northeast corner of California.  The Oak Titmouse is somewhat darker and has a unique song.
One can call them drab, but these are beautiful little birds. Look to see more of them in the future on these pages!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Bird of the Day: Western Tanager along Clark Fork in the Sierra

I have been photographing birds seriously for a year now, so I will be occasionally digging into the archives for some interesting shots. Since we've reached the gloomy days of early winter, I thought a splash of color might be just the thing for today. This post appeared in Geotripper last May:

Seasoned birders won't be surprised at the excitement a rank amateur like myself feels the first time he or she sees an interesting bird up close. Western Tanagers (Piranga ludoviciana) are relatively common forest and woodland birds across the western United States and Mexico and I'm sure they are seen often by the experts.  I've only been seriously seeking out new species for the last five months (*12 months now*), so I still get to experience the joy of seeing something new and different on a fairly regular basis as I add to the list of observed species.
I've known about Western Tanagers for a long time, but I've never been close enough with an adequate camera to actually get decent photographs of one, but that changed today (*last May*). We were exploring the upper reaches of the Stanislaus River in the Sierra Nevada of California, and as I was driving down the Clark Fork Road at the end of the day, I saw a flash of yellow out of the corner of my eye. I hit the brakes, hoping against hope that I wouldn't spook the brightly colored male.
He didn't spook. I snapped a few distant shots, and then backed up the car hoping to get closer (I know that sounds like an odd way to do it, but from only forty or so feet away, getting out of the car would have spooked it more, I think). He hung around, as if he was observing me (a large rival in his territory?).
The tanagers are a large and diverse group of passerine birds centered mostly in the American tropics, but the Western Tanager ranges farther north than any other species, as far southern Alaska. For being so brightly colored, they are not often seen, as they tend to hang out in the upper canopy of the forest. I felt privileged to spend a few minutes observing this one, from basically all angles. Was he sending me a message with this last shot?

Brightly colored birds often carry the seeds of their own destruction because their feathers may be in high demand for one reason or another. Looking at the tanager reminded me of the large number of species of Honeycreepers that once existed in the Hawaiian Islands. A few of them are still hanging in there (two out of the original 51 species), but most of the others are extinct or nearly so, in part because Hawaiian royalty centuries ago demanded robes made out of their brightly colored feathers (habitat loss, malaria, and competition with invasive species and predators were major factors as well). The tanagers, with their wide range across all the western states avoided such a fate, but they were for a time considered agricultural pests and were poisoned or shot. They are protected today, and their numbers have grown to where they are a "species of least concern".

It was a privilege to see one up close and personal today.

PS: Mrs. Geotripper took a short video of the same bird...

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Bird of the Day: The Cedar Waxwings are Back!

I love the moment when I realize the Cedar Waxwings are back. They are pretty much the most colorful bird that ever visits my home neighborhood. Based on my extensive observations (of one year duration), they come through our village, eat up as many berries and fruits as they can find, spend a few nights in my flowering pear tree, and then move on.
The Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) breed in Canada and otherwise spend summers north of my Great Valley town. They will winter as far south as Central America, according to the Cornell range maps. The name "waxwing" derives from the bright red waxy deposit on their wingtips (best seen in the photograph above).
In a way, the Cedar Waxwings paved the way to my starting this blog. I've been blogging over at Geotripper for something like six years, and birds were beginning to make more and more appearances on a blog that I mostly devoted to geological subjects. I actually apologized in this blog post post about Cedar Waxwings for putting in too many bird posts (no one was complaining, mind you). As my catalog of avian photographs grew, I realized I wanted to start a separate blog for my new-found hobby. The nice thing about blogging is that you don't have to be an expert, so here you have it, an amateur bird journey. 
The Waxwings can pretty much survive solely on fruits and berries, which has two profound effects on their well-being. Cowbirds will sometimes lay eggs in Waxwing nests. Like many other birds, the Waxwings won't recognize that the big chick isn't one of their own, and will feed them. Unfortunately, the Cowbird chick can't thrive on fruit alone, and often dies. On the other hand, some fruits will start to rot and ferment. Cedar Waxwings have been known to get drunk, much to their detriment (just like human drunks!).
The Waxwings are gregarious and gather in fairly large flocks. There were at least sixty or seventy of them in the two trees I was standing under this morning. A similar number of them roosted in my flowering pear tree last January. I have to admit that they creeped me out just a little back then. I had pulled up in the driveway after a late evening at the lab when something made me glance up. They weren't making a single sound, or moving, but sixty or seventy birds were staring at me. I had a brief moment of Hitchcockian angst. All was forgiven the following morning when they gamely let me photograph them from a close angle.
I hope they'll hang out a bit longer and find their way two blocks to my front-yard tree. They are such gorgeous birds!