Sunday, August 30, 2015

Green Heron along the Tuolumne River Parkway

It was cooler the other morning, so I took a long delayed stroll down to the Tuolumne River Parkway trail, currently under construction (it's been really hot the last few days). There were quite a few birds down along the river, more than I have seen in many weeks. Lots of Scrub Jays, Mockingbirds, Yellow-billed Magpies, an Egret, several Black-chinned Hummingbirds, a high-flying hawk, and a California Towhee.
The best surprise of the day, though, was seeing a pair of Green Herons (Butorides virescens) fishing along the river. I don't see them often. I had one in my backyard trying to chase down our goldfish in the pond several years ago, but aside from that, not so many. And I've never seen them pulling the little Mohawk trick with their head feathers. I didn't know it was a Green Heron at first.
According to the Cornell Ornithology site, the Green Heron is one of the few birds known to use tools. They have been seen using worms, insects or twigs as lures to bring fish closer. That's a rather sharp tactic!
I'm looking forward to the completion of the River Parkway trail. The Tuolumne River in the Sierra Nevada foothills and on the Great Valley floor is a fascinating place, and deserves more attention. The parkway will be a great asset for the local schools to bring a little more nature into their learning environment.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Birding Overseas: Sulphur-crested Cockatoo in Sydney, Australia

 It's the Birdman of Sydney!

We continue checking out the photo archives of my bird adventures from earlier times. In 2004, we were on a geology field studies course in Australia and New Zealand. After visiting the Australian Museum of Natural History and Anthropology, we took a stroll through the Botanical Gardens nearby. There were lots of big white birds in the trees. I had to get a closer look.

The mysterious birds weren't all that mysterious. They were Cockatoos. Of course at the time I didn't know anything more than that, they were just big white birds that seemed unusually tame. And they really looked interested in my granola bar.

With a bit of searching, I found that the birds were Sulphur-crested Cockatoos (Cacatua galerita), and that they are most common species of Cockatoo found in Australia (there are 11 endemic species found there, as well as three introduced species). They normally inhabit rainforest, forest and woodland environments, but have done well in park and garden settings as well.

I had a seat in the grass, shared a few bits of my food, and soon had a number of fans. They were generally polite, but nipped my ear once or twice if I wasn't quick enough with my offerings.

My wife and daughter weren't as interested in the proceedings, and instead were quite sure that I was daft. They consented to take a shot of me with my new friends but the opening picture in the post was a selfie.

I've never "owned" any birds, so this was pretty much the closest experience I've ever had with the avian clan. I rather enjoyed it.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Birding Overseas: Mute Swan on Lake Lucerne, Switzerland

Bird activity is pretty quiet on my campus and in my neighborhood. I imagine it's nature catching her breath just before the migratory flocks begin arriving. So I'm digging into the archives to post a couple of birds I photographed on trips overseas over the last decade and a half. In the last post, we were introduced to Alpine Choughs on Mt. Pilatus in Switzerland. Today we have a bird that I've seen in my own neighborhood, the Mute Swan (Cygnus olor). In North America, these swans are considered an invasive species. When we saw them on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland, it was in their natural habitat.
The Mute Swans are one of the largest of the waterfowl, and being as big as they are, they preserve better as fossils than many other birds. The fossils of their ancestors can be found in rocks as old as the Miocene epoch, around 20 million years ago.
The town of Lucerne was one of the cleanest, most beautiful cities I've ever seen. It's on shores of Lake Lucerne, a huge glacially formed body of water in the foothills of the Swiss Alps. The town preserves much of its medieval heritage including some beautiful walls, towers, and covered bridges. It's a marvelous walking city.
And if you look carefully, you'll see that the picture above also has a swan with a couple of cygnets.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Birding Overseas: Alpine Chough on Mt. Pilatus, Switzerland

I've been overseas a couple of times, but not since my intense entry into the birding world. And yet, I can see that I had an interest in birds, as they show up among my pictures of the rocks. In 2007, we were on a journey studying the geology of Italy and Switzerland. One of the highlights (and frustrations), was a gondola ride to the top of Mt. Pilatus near Lucerne, Switzerland, and the subsequent ride down on the what was said to be the steepest cogway in the world. I'm inclined to believe the claim.
The frustration resulted from a perfectly clear day, a first gondola ride part way up in sunshine, and then a terrifying ride in another gondola that disappeared into fog that seemed to appear out of nowhere. At least after an hour or two on the summit, there were enough holes in the clouds that we got a sense of the view, and then it was sunny on the cogway ridge down!
When the clouds were at their worst, I was amused by a flock of birds that hung out along the walkways around the summit. They were crow-like, but obviously not quite the same, given the yellow beaks, and orange legs. I wondered what they were, but no one seemed to know. I was sorting through the pictures the other day and saw the birds, and finally looked them up. They're called Alpine Chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus), and they are indeed members of the crow family. They are a truly alpine species, possibly nesting at higher elevations than any other birds. Their range extends from the high mountain environments of Spain through Europe to the Middle East and into the Himalaya. They have been noted by Everest climbers at elevations as great as 8,200 meters (26,900 ft), and have nested at 6,500 meters (21,300 ft). All of this information is courtesy of Wikipedia, of course.
Mt. Pilatus is kind of a foothill peak next to the Swiss Alps, reaching an elevation of  2,128 meters (6,982 ft), rising steeply above the shores of Lake Lucerne. The peak is either named after Pontius Pilate, who was rumored to be buried there (that seems kind of unlikely), or from the term Pileatus (meaning "cloud-topped"), which seems far more likely, based on my experience.
Pilatus is composed of limestone and other sedimentary rocks that have been pushed up by compressional forces related to the convergence of Africa with Europe. Folds and thrust faults are visible in the cliffs on the upper slopes of the mountain.
It was a fascinating day, made more so by an unusual new bird species...

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Acorn Woodpeckers on the Tuolumne River

It's been a while since Acorn Woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus) have graced these pages. I see them often, flying from tree to tree along the my walks on the Tuolumne River, but only occasionally do they perch low enough for some half-decent pictures.
We took a short drive upriver today to Turlock Lake State Recreational Area, a complex that includes the fairly barren lake itself, and a nice campground in a separate property on the Tuolumne River about 10 miles downstream of La Grange.
I was pleased to see the campground full, as our state parks are often an under-utilized resource in our state. The river was low, but that made it easier for kids to play in the water (and of course not one of them had a life jacket; shame on their parents). I must have been a sight among all the swimsuits, an old guy with a camera looking nowhere but up.
The Acorn Woodpeckers are creatures of southwest oak woodlands. They live, work, and breed cooperatively, knocking thousands of holes into old snags (granary trees), and filling the holes with acorns for food storage. Sometimes they will drill into eaves for the same purpose, causing a lot of damage. Some members of the group will stand guard over the granary trees, keeping out the troublemakers who would steal their food. They have a very distinctive waka-waka cry.
The Acorn Woodpeckers are fascinating birds that are holding their own against human encroachment. Where granary trees are removed, they simply start using buildings for storage. Oak woodlands themselves have been declining in California, as many of the oaks are not regenerating well. That could be a future problem for these interesting acorn hoarders.

Friday, August 21, 2015

American White Pelicans (and a bonus Cormorant) at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

We were on a long trip to the Pacific Northwest, and on our last day of our journey we were covering a lot of ground, nearly 600 miles. Such long slogs require a few rest breaks, and the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge beckoned as we traveled south down the Great Valley. The refuges find their greatest mission during the winter migrations of Geese and Sandhill Cranes, but some birds are resident all year.
The most visible birds were the American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) and Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus). The two birds often share the same habitat, but tend to seek different prey at different water levels. Pelicans aren't above stealing fish from the smaller Cormorants once in a while. Things were pretty peaceful during our visit, though.
Pelicans are huge heavy birds and they seem so ungainly on the ground, but they are incredibly graceful in flight. Their huge beaks aren't used to store fish, just to catch them. They don't dive like Brown Pelicans. They tend to dip their beaks in the water while swimming instead.
The pelicans generally breed on inland lakes and islands, but will spend winters along the coastlines, where they share the environment with the Brown Pelican. A large rookery exists at Pyramid Lake in Nevada and a few parts of northeastern California, but according to this report, they don't breed to any great extent in the Great Valley anymore because of habitat destruction.
I guess they like hanging out with the local ducks. As you can see, they are huge birds, the second largest in North America. They have a wingspan of 8-10 feet!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Red-tailed Hawks, Summer Residents at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

It was not necessarily the best time of the year to go to a wildlife refuge devoted to protecting winter migrants. In this drought year, there is very little water to spare for the wildlife ponds, and water is life in the Great Valley. But there was indeed life at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. There was one shallow pond near the auto tour road, and there were egrets, herons, and some sandpipers. There were several owls lurking in the shrubs and cottonwoods. But what we saw more than anything else were the hawks.
The default species around here is the Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), and that's mostly what we saw. There may have been some Swainson's Hawks soaring overhead, but I didn't get good shots of them (they kept refusing to hold still while flying about).

There is a wildlife blind in the middle of the auto-tour route, but it was obvious that these two were having none of that skulking around bit. It's like they were saying "You're kidding, right? We know you're there".
Merced National Wildlife Refuge is going to get very busy over the next few weeks. Flocks of Sandhill Crane, Snow Goose, and Ross's Goose, and many other species will be arriving for their winter sojourn. We will certainly be back!
I always try my best, but I do make amateur mistakes in bird identification. I'm never insulted by corrections!

Monday, August 17, 2015

Dark-eyed Junco (Red-backed/Gray-headed) at Grand Canyon, North Rim

The Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) is one of the most common birds in North America (so why has it taken me so long to photograph one?). If the name of today's bird seems a little strange (Red-backed/Gray-headed), it's because the classification of the species is a bit muddled. There are more than a dozen subspecies or races, and some of these are considered separate species by some bird researchers. They range from northern Alaska and Canada to central Mexico. Although I've seen the Oregon Junco subspecies in my neighborhood, these were a first for me. These birds were hanging around our camp at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon during our late May journey across the southwest. I didn't even know they were Juncos at first.
Today's bird is either the Red-backed subspecies (Junco hyemalis dorsalis), or the Gray-headed subspecies (Junco hyemalis caniceps), or both (figure that out!). It's interesting that they are all generally considered a single species, based, I assume, on DNA similarities. I've seen other bird species that were literally identical in appearance, but were not only separate species, but different genera. This kind of thing is probably the reason I became a geologist rather than a biologist!
They may be one of the most common birds in North America, but it was a privilege to see them in such a spectacular setting. The North Rim is the uncrowded side of the canyon, receiving only about 10% of the visitation in Grand Canyon National Park. It is 1,000 feet higher, and therefore cooler and greener than the south side.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

White-breasted Nuthatch on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail

Just two pictures today, of a White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) on the Tuolumne River Parkway trail that's under construction in my little town on the edge of the Sierra Nevada. It's only two pictures (and only one that's clear), because the small bird never stops for a moment as it searches the branches for tidbits of food. I love how they tend to defy gravity as they walk upside down on the tree branches, but I wish they would stop and pose for a moment.

It's funny how I'll see birds in some exotic location, in this case up in the Sierra Nevada at Lake Tahoe, and at Mammoth Lakes, and then come home and a few weeks later see the same bird practically in my own backyard.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Say What? Oh, a Say's Phoebe at Pecos National Historical Park

The flycatcher family has to be a favorite with beginning birdwatchers. It probably has to do with their habit of perching over and over on the same post or branch waiting for bug to come by. They swoop out, capture their bug, and perch again. That makes them a lot easier to photograph!
That's what made these Say's Phoebes (Sayornis saya) a little bit unusual. They weren't really chasing bugs. They had already caught their bugs and just seemed to be waiting around. We were at Pecos National Historical Park on our recent field studies trip to New Mexico. They were hanging out around the entry doors for the visitor center for some reason.
Pecos was one of the most important of the New Mexico pueblos hundreds of years ago, standing as it did at a pass between the Great Plains and the Rio Grande River valley. It was a center of trade, and a strategic target. It was even a battlefield during the Civil War. The battle at Glorietta Pass was fought more or less to a draw until the Union forces were able to burn the supply wagons of the Confederate troops. The Southerners were forced to retreat back to Texas, and New Mexico remained under the control of the United States.
In any case, the pair of Phoebes kept lurking by the door, and someone finally pointed out to me the reason.
Doesn't this one seem to be saying "Duh, isn't it obvious?" (but I never anthropomorphize birds...)?
They had a nest on top of the light fixture near the entrance! Once people were inside, the birds would swoop in and feed their very young nestlings (I took this shot from a fair distance away with a zoom, in case you were wondering).