Friday, January 30, 2015

Bird of the Day: Greater White-fronted Geese at the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge

Winter is marching on, and the winter migrants are having to work harder at finding food in the refuges here in the Great Valley. The Beckwith Road viewing platform at the edge of the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge has been a bit quieter of late as the birds have consumed much of the corn and other foods in the vicinity, according to a FWS manager I communicated with recently. I was able to get some nice shots of the Sandhill Cranes the other day because they were foraging a bit closer to the road which they avoided in previous weeks because plenty of food was available in more remote locations. Because we had some early heavy rains this fall, and fog ever since, I'm hopeful that the growth of grasses and marsh plants will be sufficient to give the birds enough energy to begin their northern migrations in a few weeks.

There were several other bird species hanging out with the cranes, including a few dozen Greater White-fronted Geese (Anser albifrons). These geese have one of the widest ranges in the world, being known from Europe, Russia and northern Asia, Greenland, and northern Canada. In North America, they have a divergent range, including the summer breeding grounds on the North Slope of Alaska and Canada, and wintering grounds along the Pacific Coast, and on the Texas plains leading into Mexico.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Bird of the Day: Does This Bird Look Sad?

Can birds be sad? I don't know the answer to that one, but I sure feel sorry for this particular Ring-necked Pheasant ( Phasianus colchicus). I've been seeing this female for a few weeks now, always outside the fencing of the Pheasant compound in our west campus agriculture area. The school has a small flock of pheasants, a few dozen, and this female has been trying to get into the compound.
The bird shocks me every time, because there is some low grass cover over the variably colored gravel, so she is always well-hidden. I feel like a hound dog, flushing it out every time I walk by. If I try to get a picture, it never flies away, but instead just runs around to the other end of the caged area.
Well camouflaged...
The pheasants are an introduced species (in the 1880's), and they have spread all over the United States. They are of course one of the most popular of game birds, and it isn't unusual to see them in the grassy tussocks around the dairy farms I drive through on the morning commute (saw one this morning, but in the heavy fog with nowhere to park, I didn't even try for a picture).

In any case, I hope this poor pheasant gets her wish (either, I imagine, to get sneak in, or to engineer a jail break for the rest of the flock to get them all out).

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Bird of the Day: Sandhill Cranes at the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge

What a sweet day. I've been hoping to get some close-up shots of the Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) that are wintering over in the San Joaquin and San Luis National Wildlife Refuges. They have (most appropriately) been wary of humans and have stayed at a distance at the times I've visited the refuges over the last few months.
There was just the smallest spritz of a storm today, no measurable rain, but the breezes blew out the fog and it turned into a mostly sunny day. I had an hour to spare in the late afternoon, so I thought I would head out to the Beckwith Road viewing platform at the north end of the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge just west of Modesto. 
There was little going on near the platform, but I could see a flock of the cranes off to the west right next to the highway. There was a pullout, and since I never got out of the car, none of the birds got spooked. The refuges point out that cars make fine bird blinds and it tends to be true. The cranes continued searching for tidbits among the cornstalks, and I finally had a chance to get some fairly close shots.
There were some clouds, and the sun was low in the sky, so there were still some challenges getting sharp shots, but I was pleased with most of the results today. If they were perfect, I wouldn't have a good excuse to head out there again!
There were several other geese foraging with the cranes (below). They'll probably get their own post before too long.
The Sandhills gather by the tens of thousands in our local refuges during the winter months (See a short video of some of them in this post). It's not that long before they start heading north again. I'm glad I had a chance to see them up close!
Beautiful elegant birds!
I will be missing them when summer comes around. All the years I've lived in this area, and I never knew until just over a year ago that they were living just a few miles away from my college. I hate being ignorant, and need to do whatever I can to avoid it!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Bird of the Day: Pygmy Nuthatch in the Bristlecone Forest of the White Mountains

At Geotripper, I've been starting a series on the parts of the Sierra Nevada that aren't Yosemite, I've been going through the fall field trip files looking for pictures and remembered there were some birds that didn't make it onto this blog at the time. They included a fast-moving group of small birds at the Schulman Grove of Bristlecone Pines in the White Mountains across the Owens Valley from the Sierra Nevada.
I got the one semi-clear shot in the trees of the Pygmy Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis), and thought that was going to be it, so I went hiking for awhile. When I got back to the visitor center, I was surprised to see a small flock of them swarming the picnic tables. They weren't after crumbs. It had rained overnight, and they were drinking from the water droplets on the tables.
The Pygmy Nuthatch tends to live in deciduous and ponderosa forests at somewhat lower elevations, for instance on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. The Cornell site suggests they sometimes range up to 10,000 feet, which means these birds were behaving, as it was 9,846 feet at the visitor center.
I thought I had captured an adorable picture of two of them, but in the fine tradition of all attempts at portraits, they both blinked. I'll leave it as two friends laughing at a funny joke...
The last shot is one of them drinking.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Bird of the Day: White-headed Woodpecker at Calaveras Big Trees State Park

We headed out into the Sierra Nevada. We've really gone nuts in the gloom of fog, and had to see some sunlight. We ended up at Calaveras Big Trees State Park along Highway 4. While we wandered about the forest we could hear woodpeckers in the forest canopy above, so we were on the lookout. Finally one landed at the top of a dead pine.
The shots were difficult at the extreme zoom, but we got a couple of slightly less fuzzy shots of the White-headed Woodpecker (Picoides albolarvatus) as it pecked away at the treetop. I took a short video as well.

The White-headed Woodpecker is a bird of the western mountains, with a range extending from British Columbia to Southern California, but no further east than Idaho or western Nevada. They live pretty exclusively in montain forests. I've only seen them once before, with equally fuzzy photographic results, at the Columns of the Giants on the Stanislaus River in the Sierra Nevada, a few miles south of Calaveras Big Trees (below). I'll keep at until I get some sharp pictures!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Bird of the Day: Golden Eagle near Sonora Pass

Golden Eagle above Sonora Pass in the Sierra Nevada
The fog in the valley is gloomy and depressing and conditions aren't all that amenable for bird photography, so I'm digging into the archives for a few days, remembering sunny days on the road. I'm doing the same thing over at Geotripper, where I am exploring the Sierra Nevada beyond Yosemite, which is what our fall field trips did. And there were occasionally some birds to look at.

Twice on the Eastern Sierra Nevada field studies trip we saw what most of us agreed were Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos). The profile against the sky at least looks right, though as always I am open to gentle correction. The Golden Eagle is one of the largest and fastest of the raptors, capable of 200 mph dives. According to the Cornell birding site, the birds escaped most of the worst of the DDT poisonings in the 50s and 60s because their usual prey, small mammals, were less likely to consume the pesticide, unlike fish and birds. Their populations have been relatively stable, though they continue to die mostly at the hands of humans (they are protected by federal law).
Golden Eagle above Crowley Lake in the eastern Sierra Nevada

Monday, January 19, 2015

Bird of the Day: Northern Flicker on a Gloomy Day

Right up front I want to say that these are not the best pictures I'll ever post here. They're pretty fuzzy and gray, and that's after some heavy duty alterations in the brightness and contrast settings. This is life today in the Great Valley. We've had just enough rain to keep the ground moist and the fog thick, but not enough to break the drought. So life right now is a dull shadowy gray color with the rare late afternoon sun sometimes breaking through for a few moments before sunset.

The gloomy weather didn't keep me from trying, though. I headed up along the Tuolumne River to the Joe Domecq Wilderness Park in the lower Sierra Nevada foothills to see what was out and about. I've seen Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) before, but it's been rare that I have caught sharp pictures (mainly these at Chaw'se). But there they were, a number of them flitting about through the trees. I took what pictures I could, as I slogged through the marshy grasses getting wet, cold feet.
We need rain and wind to break up the drought and the inversion layer. There's nothing on the horizon yet, but one can only be optimistic. At least with the fog the soil is staying wet, and perhaps there will be some better grass growth in the prairies in our region, a development that would be good for all of us, both humans and animals. In the meantime enjoy these beautiful birds.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Birds of the Day: Ravens at the Swinging Bridge in Yosemite

The Common Raven (Corvus corax) is hardly "common". I tend to think of them as rather extraordinary. They are one of the most intelligent and adaptable birds there are. I see them thriving in some very tough environments, like the dry deserts of Death Valley, and highest peaks of the Sierra.
They can be pests sometimes, in the sense that as an opportunistic scavenger, they do quite well at stealing food from picnickers, not unlike Yogi Bear. They take smaller prey when they can, but humans do such a great job of making food available that it's just easier to hang out where people eat, and take what isn't being watched.
Just the same, they exude a certain air of wisdom and they have interesting personalities. These Ravens were hanging around the Swinging Bridge picnic area in Yosemite Valley.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Bird of the Day: Yellow-rumped Warblers in a Surprising Place

Yellow-rumped Warblers (Setophaga coronata) are one of the most common warbler species found in North America. I've had to work pretty hard to photograph them though, once at Chaw'se, and another time on the west campus. I saw one in the backyard very early one morning catching bugs near the porch light, but I didn't think much of it, since the only birds we've ever seen consistently are the finches and sparrows around the bird feeders.
I was working with the feeders today, setting up a branch for the birds to perch on while they fight for space at the nyjer sock (oh, and making for more natural looking pictures). I finished and sat down in a lawn chair a few yards away to see how the birds liked it (they did). I slowly became aware of movement in the Mulberry trees behind me. I looked over my head and realized there was an entire flock of birds moving about that weren't using the feeders, and not mixing with the finches. It was a bunch of warblers! After searching for the cute little birds in the Sierra Nevada foothills and all over the west campus, they turned out to be hiding in my own backyard.
If you are wondering where the name of the bird comes from, check out the all-too-common bird butt picture that I got this afternoon. You can see just a bit of yellow peeking out between the wings. My shot of one of the West Campus warblers a few months ago shows the yellow patch a bit better.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Bird of the Day: Ospreys at Merced Falls

Ospreys are great hunters of fish. There is a pretty good spot in our area to see them at work. It's along the Merced River near the village of Merced Falls. This is the place where the Merced emerges from the foothills onto the floor of the San Joaquin Valley. There are four reservoirs along this stretch, huge New Exchequer Dam, forming McClure Lake, and three much smaller dams, McSwain, Merced Falls, and Crocker-Huffman. The smaller lakes are wide and shallow, offering some good fishing possibilities for the Osprey population. We saw them at work yesterday, not so much fishing, but enjoying the fruits of their labor. Every Osprey we saw had a fish (there were at least three of them). To judge from the picture above, they saw us too.

It was easy to see why the fishing was good. Merced Falls lake was way down so the water was shallow, and the resident fish had much less shelter to hide in. In the picture below all the rocks in the background are usually submerged.

The Merced River is currently the southernmost Sierra Nevada River that supports salmon, but as of 2007, they were not able to get past Crocker-Huffman dam about three miles downstream of our location. There was a feasibility study in 2007 that explored the possibility extending their range, but I don't know if anything was done about it. I'm sure the Ospreys would be in favor of it!

Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) are well-adapted to fishing, able to dive as much as three feet into the water to capture their prey (fish makes up 99% of their diet). They have barbs on their feet that allow them to grip their slippery targets.

The widespread use of DDT in the 1950s and 1960s nearly did in the Osprey. Their population crashed, and it was only after the use of the pesticide was banned that their numbers began to climb again. According to the Cornell Bird site, there are about 500,000 across North and South America.

There is a huge Osprey nest on a post near the reservoir. We'll be keeping an eye on developments there during the spring!

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Bird of the Day: Rock Wren at Turlock Lake

Turlock Lake State Recreation Area is a reservoir that stores irrigation water for the valley floordownstream. It consists of low hills composed of gravel and sand washed down ancient rivers of the Sierra Nevada. The site is mostly composed of grassy hills with occasional oak woodlands, and some landscaped trees and shrubs around the parking areas. We've not fully explored the birdwatching possibilities of the park, but we occasionally stop by, especially since seeing the Bald Eagle there last November. We stopped in for a few minutes the other day, and saw a Rock Wren (Salpinctes obsoletus) on the fencing along the high ridge above the reservoir. It was kind enough to stay still for several shots.
I got to know wrens in another place and time. Canyon Wrens were a constant companion during my journey down the Colorado River in the summer of 2013. Their lilting song was one of the most beautiful and haunting sounds I have ever heard. This Rock Wren wasn't singing for us, but it was nice to see one up close. As their name suggests, they usually live in rocky settings like talus slopes. There weren't a lot of rock piles where we were at, so I wasn't completely sure of my identification, but they apparently will use buildings for nesting at times, and we were near a few structures.
As usual, I am open to gentle corrections in my identification of birds!

Friday, January 9, 2015

Bird of the Day: Bushtits, too cute for words

We found a new place to search for birds yesterday. We had gone east on Highway 132 into the Sierra Nevada foothills near Turlock Lake looking for a Bald Eagle that we first saw a few weeks ago (we found it too, but it was too far away for any really good pictures). We decided to explore a bit further and found a wilderness area administered by Stanislaus County. It's called the Joe Domecq Wilderness (yes, that's spelled right). It was sort of a surprise because we had been in the area many times in the past and had never noticed it, despite an obvious sign. I knew it was there somewhere, but for various reasons kept looking for it on the wrong side of the road, again, despite an obvious sign! I would have trouble finding the nose on my face if it came down to it.

In any case, we got out and wandered through the reclaimed gold dredging site, which included a pond, tule swamp, cottonwood trees, and a eucalyptus grove. Birds were all around us although they didn't necessarily make it easy for us to photograph them. Except for the Bushtits.

There were several dozen of them working their way through a brushy thicket. As long as I stood still they didn't seem too concerned about my presence, and eventually some of them were hopping on branches only about five feet away from my face. The only problem is that they couldn't stay still! For every picture you see here, there are ten discarded photos showing bird butts, out-of-focus wing blurs, and empty branches. A few of them came out, so we get to see these very small, very cute birds up close.

The Bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus) is a bird of the American West and Mexico, with a range that extends from Washington to Mexico, and from Colorado/New Mexico to the California Coast. They build hanging nests that are described as remarkable (although we didn't see any this time), and will sometimes communally raise their young.

I don't know if serious birders are allowed to say "ah, cute", but I certainly couldn't help myself. I should add my usual disclaimer: I'm new at this game; I'm pretty sure it's a Bushtit, but the hooked bill makes me worry that this could be a flycatcher or some other "little gray bird". I welcome gentle corrections!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Bird of the Day: Wondering Where Your Robins Went For the Winter? They're Here!

I was back on campus this week preparing for the new semester. I haven't had many opportunities to check up on the activities in our little campus mini-wilderness, a drainage pond in a small pasture and oak/eucalyptus woodland that is sometimes used for grazing sheep, but which is usually ignored. It's been a pretty good site for seeing birds during lunchtime walks, but today it was positively hopping with bird life.
I thought from a distance that the swarming flocks were Brewer's or Red-winged Blackbirds. As I got closer I realized that they had red breasts. The hundreds, maybe thousands of birds were American Robins (Turdus migratorius)! I've never seen so many in one place.

The American Robin is of course one of the most common birds in North America, with an estimated population of around 300 million. Many of those from the north country migrate into the southern states and California for the winter. Apparently this crew likes our area for overwintering, or at least a brief stop. We'll see if they're still around in the coming weeks.