Tuesday, September 29, 2015

California Quail at the Tulelake National Wildlife Refuge

I don't know why, but the California Quail (Callipepla californica) makes me smile more than just about any other bird. Their style of bobbing and running just looks comical sometimes. And their chicks! I'm reminded of ping-pong balls rolling along the ground and bouncing off each other when I see new hatched chicks.
I'm sure they are just living to their own aspirations. We ran into a covey of Quail while following the Tulelake National Wildlife auto tour along the lake shore over the weekend. They were hanging out all over a wooden structure in the field next to the lake shore.
Tulelake NWR was established as a critical component of the western migratory flyway. Most of the Arctic birds that winter in the Central or Imperial Valleys pass through there, taking a break and feeding for a bit. As we saw in the last post, some Sandhill Cranes have already arrived in region.
The California Quail was declared the state bird of California in 1931. I wonder sometimes why the California Condor wasn't selected for the honor, but going by looks alone, the quail is a winner. They're also easier to see, being found all over the state.
In any case, the quail is photogenic. Enjoy!

Photo by Mrs. Geotripper

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Sandhill Cranes are Coming! On the Road in Northern California

The Sandhill Cranes are coming! These beautiful birds spend their summers in the Arctic, their winters in the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys, and they fly a long ways between the two. So far as I know, they haven't arrived at the Great Valley wildlife refuges yet, but I can assure you they are on their way!
We are at the Oregon-California border at the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge this weekend. It is a critical stop for more than a million migratory birds on their way to the Great Valley and points south, as it provides a reasonably safe resting and feeding locality before the winter snows set in. We saw tens of thousands of geese and ducks at Tulelake, and as we drove across Highway 161 on the state border, we saw perhaps four dozen Sandhill Cranes in the fields along the road. Mt. Shasta provided a dramatic backdrop.
More pictures from our adventures to come!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Land of the Lost: An Owl? In Hawai'i?

I opened this blog series on the birds of Hawai'i by discussing the nene, the Hawaiian goose species. The nene is descended from Canada Geese that ended up off course on their migrations south from Canada. It's not too surprising that they could survive the trip because the geese were strong fliers and could rest every so often. It is a great deal more surprising to see a native owl on the island. It's hard to imagine an owl surviving a journey of more than 2,000 miles over open ocean. But somewhere in fairly recent time it happened. A Short-eared Owl arrived. Accounts differ as to whether they were present when the Polynesians colonized the islands, but they were certainly present soon after. The Short-eared Owl is a common and widespread species across the planet, being found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. The native owl in Hawai'i, the Pueo or Hawaiian Short-eared Owl, is considered a subspecies of the widespread Short-eared Owls (Asio flammeus sandwichensis). In other words, the birds have not accumulated enough evolutionary changes to be considered a separate species, although there are differences with their continental cousins. The owls are revered by the native Hawaiians, and numerous stories are told about them.
The photos above are the only clear shots I've taken of this fascinating and poorly-known bird. 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 distance off the highway. I didn't know at the time that it was a rare opportunity, as they are not seen all that often, so much so that their numbers in the wild are unknown. They are considered endangered, though, because they nest on the ground and are subject to predation by mongooses, cats, dogs, and rats. They get hit by cars distressingly often, and they have been affected by the use of pesticides. Habitat loss is also a serious problem.

If you travel the islands, you may very well see another species of owl. The common Barn Owl was introduced to the islands in 1958 to help control the rodent population, especially in the sugar cane fields. As often happens in such situations, the owls made no quantifiable difference in the rat population, but instead developed a taste for some of the endangered native bird species. A controversial plan has been proposed to remove them from Hawai'i.

Say's Phoebe at the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge, and a Horrific Weed

Sometimes you only get one shot at a bird. I was really happy with this shot of a Say's Phoebe (Sayornis saya) at the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge. I was walking the Pelican Nature Trail in the heat of the afternoon, and there weren't a lot of birds out in the open, and even fewer that wanted to sit still long enough for a photograph. I got just one good shot of this one before it flew off.

It's been a catastrophically dry year in the Great Valley, and the effects were clear at the San Joaquin NWR. The river was barely flowing, and invasive Water Hyacinth plants threatened to cover the river completely. The weed is extremely hard to control, and eradication is probably impossible. For the moment I think there are high hopes for flood runoff to just sweep them out to sea. They've got a "bloat" of hippopotami grazing on hyacinth in part of the river delta near Stockton. I guess they're bringing in some manatees, too.

Postscript: In case there are misunderstandings about the hippos and manatees, check the date of the hippo story...

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Sharp-shinned Hawk at the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge

The San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge isn't all that far from my campus, and I had an unexpected two hour break this afternoon, so off I went. I hiked the Pelican Nature Trail, a 3.8 mile semi-loop that travels through some rehabilitating river bottomlands and a section of the San Joaquin River itself. It was a hot afternoon, so there weren't a great many birds out and about, but I did see about ten species. The most special of the today (for me, anyway) was a Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) perched in a dead Cottonwood tree.
I'm still learning my hawks, and the Sharp-shinned looks a lot like the Cooper's Hawk, but one of the differences is the squared-off tail feathers in the former. The Cooper's tail feathers are usually rounded. This one's tail is pretty straight across. The experts out there are welcome to correct any incorrect identifications!

The San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge protects the lower reaches of the San Joaquin River west of Modesto. It provides habitat for tens of thousands of migrating geese and cranes during the winter, and for hundreds of local year-round species the rest of the year. It is a work in progress, as several thousand acres of former riparian woodlands that were cleared for agriculture are being replanted with native plant species. Some half million trees and shrubs have been planted in the last decade or so.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Land of the Lost: The Nene of Hawai'i

For the first-time traveler to Hawai'i, a word about the birds. There are two groups of birds, the species native to the Hawaiian Islands, and the introduced, or invasive species. There are also two groups of birds, the ones you are likely to see during your trip, and the ones you won't. It's unfortunate, but the two lists are pretty much the same. The native birds of the islands are under assault, and most of them never were a good fit for urban environments where island visitors spend most of their time. The natives have been decimated by disease (often transmitted by mosquito, another island invasive), habitat loss, predation by rats, mongoose, and cats, hunting, and competition from non-native birds. The state bird of Hawai'i, the nene (Branta sandvicensis), is the most iconic example of a native that was almost driven to extinction. A close relative, the Giant Hawaiian Goose, once lived on the island, but is now extinct. I wrote about the nene a few months ago, and the following is an abridged version of that post.

Perhaps 500,000 years ago, a pregnant Canada Goose, or a small flock of geese took a wrong turn. A really wrong turn. Somehow, flying along the coast of North America, the leader maybe decided to take a short cut, and it went poorly. Soon the shoreline was lost to view, and for days, not a single bit of land could be seen. I can imagine the flock becoming smaller and smaller as the weaker members fell behind and were lost.  After days of nothing but ocean, an island came into view. The tired geese landed and began looking for food. None of the plants were particularly familiar, but some proved edible and a few of the geese survived. For all we know, some of them rested up and left for further journeys, but a few stayed around. They took up residence on the volcanic island in the tropics of the Pacific Ocean, a vastly different environment than their summer home in the Canadian Arctic. The isolated volcanic edifices are today called the Hawaiian Islands.

During the millennia that followed, different flocks of geese took up residence in different ecological niches, such as lava flows, grassy slopes, and woodlands. Isolated groups began to diverge, and before long at least three species developed on the islands. One of them, the Giant Hawaiian Goose (species name not yet established), was big, almost four feet long. A lack of predators on the island made flight an energy-intensive but unneeded luxury, so the wings became smaller as the bird evolved to larger size. The goose was flightless. This worked fine for a long time, but humans ultimately arrived on the islands, and probably exterminated them, either by hunting, or by introduction of egg-eating rats, or by habitat destruction.

The second species was the nene-nui (Branta hylobadistes). It was also a big bird, but had larger wings so that it was still capable of weak flight. Like the Giant Hawaiian Goose, it became extinct soon after the arrival of humans on the islands. It has been characterized as a bird in evolutionary transition, in the midst of losing the ability to fly, but it went extinct first. Possibly because it couldn't fly well.
I didn't mean that as a flippant remark. Evolution is a process that has provided the incredible diversity on our planet, and isolated islands have provided the crucible in which much of the planet's diversity has arisen. But birds and other animals that have adapted to very specific situations are vulnerable when those situations are changed. The two extinct Hawaiian geese species were secure on the Hawaiian Islands, but the arrival of humans changed their environment too much and too fast. They were certainly easier to capture than a bird that could escape by flying.

The flying goose, the one that survived was the nene (Branta sandvicensis). The nene's wings were smaller than its Canadian ancestors, because it didn't need to migrate thousands of miles during the change of seasons. But it retained enough flying ability to escape from the island's human invaders. It differed from the Canada Goose in several other respects, including longer legs, reduced webbing between its toes, and a more erect posture. It is adapted to living on lava flows and grasslands, and was less dependent on wetlands than other geese.

It survived, but no longer thrived. Rats ate their eggs and chicks, and later on cats and mongooses were brought to the islands. The species was devastated, dropping from an estimated 25,000 when first European contact was made in 1778 to thirty individuals in 1952. A captive breeding program began, and populations were established on their ancient habitats on Maui and Kauai (where mongooses were never introduced). The wild population is now around 1,950 with another thousand or so in captivity. They are still highly endangered, but their prospects are slowly improving. They have been named the state bird of Hawaii.
I've seen the nenes (pronounced "nay-nay") on Maui at Hosner Grove (the top picture), and on the flank of Kiluaea in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island (the other two pictures). It is awe-inspiring to observe the descendants of a few very unlucky Canada Geese (or lucky?) who made a wrong turn 500,000 years ago and survived a terrifying journey over a very large ocean. I'm glad we're trying to help them survive, instead of driving them to extinction.

Are you interested in learning a bit more about these fascinating creatures? Here is a link for a National Geographic article on the evolution of the Hawaiian geese and their Canadian cousins, and the scholarly article of the research into the vanished species:



Friday, September 18, 2015

A Little Flycatcher along the Tuolumne River

I see a lot of Black Phoebes (Sayornis nigricans) in our region, and somehow I've only posted about them once. They are a member of the tyrant flycatcher family, one of the most diverse groups in the Americas, with more than 400 species. There are only three species of Phoebe in the United States, though. They are sweet little birds, perching on branches and fences near sources of water. They'll see a bug, soar down and catch it and sweep back to their perch. They are a western species, found primarily in California and the border states. Their range does extend south, though, all the way through Mexico and into South America as far as Argentina.

I saw this little one along the Tuolumne River Parkway, the short stretch of trail being built along the river in my little town at the boundary between the Sierra Nevada foothills and the Great Valley. It's marvelous that our community is recognizing the value of a beautiful stretch of river. It's going to be a nice place for relaxing, exercising, and learning about the natural history of this biologically rich environment. It's expected to be completed in the next month or two.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

American Kestrels in the Campus Mini-wilderness

It didn't take long to get distracted from the Hawaiian bird series that I started yesterday. I was on my lunchtime walk around the mini-wilderness that is slated to become part of our Outdoor Education Laboratory when I saw yet another bird species occupying the top of the dead snag. It's been a constantly changing cast of characters in the one tree. Last week it was a Red-tailed Hawk, and in previous weeks the top of the tree has been occupied by Great Egrets, Starlings, Red-shouldered Hawks, Robins, Yellow-billed Magpies, Eurasian Collared Doves, and Cedar Waxwings.
Seeing them perched from a great distance, I thought I was seeing a pair of doves, but the moment they took off diving at the pond I know they were something else. They were a pair of American Kestrels (Falco sparverius), and they were on the hunt. There's not much pond left, but they were swooping down and picking off dragonflies.
I got a couple shots of one of them enjoying lunch.

These aren't the best shots I've ever gotten of Kestrels, but I think these are the closest I've been to them here on our campus. It's nice to know they can find a home here (or at least a quick meal!).
The soon-to-be-constructed Outdoor Education Laboratory will complement the indoor exhibits of the Great Valley Museum at Modesto Junior College. There will always be value in having permanent displays of animals and plants to educate our children about the natural history of the valley that they live in, but nothing will quite compare to seeing the museum exhibits and then going outdoors, and maybe, just maybe, seeing one of those creatures in real life. It's certainly been enriching my life.

Land of the Lost, the Birds of Hawaii: A Blog Series

Hawai'i is one of the most isolated landmasses on planet Earth. Surrounded by thousands of miles of open water, it's kind of amazing that any animals or plants thrive there at all. Instead, the islands have an incredibly diverse and complex ecosystem. Most of the endemic species in the United States occur on these small islands (endemic species are those that are found nowhere else in the world) . When plants and insects are included, the number of species are in the thousands.
How did all these species get here? The answer is...strange. They didn't all get here. A few of them got here, and the survivors changed and evolved into new species better adapted to the new environment they faced on the islands. Hawaii as a laboratory for evolution is in many ways the equal of the more famous (to biologists and geologists) Galapagos Islands.
Hawaii truly is the land of the lost. The animals that reached these islands prior to human colonization were blown off course and somehow survived a harrowing journey of several thousand miles over the unforgiving sea. Millions of birds of birds have become lost over the oceans through the endless years, and only a vanishingly small percentage are ever lucky enough to make landfall. The rest perish. By one estimate I've seen, a new bird species arrives by natural processes only once every 20,000 years.

The birds of Hawai'i were one of the nicest discoveries of my six visits to the islands. I can point to my Hawaiian experiences as the beginning of my interest in birding. I find their stories to be fascinating, and I am looking forward to seeking them out again. I'll have a chance (and so will you) next summer, as we will be offering a field studies course on the islands from June 1-14, 2016. To celebrate the coming trip (and I guess to celebrate one year of bird blogging), I'm going to be offering a series of posts on the birds of Hawaii, both the native species and some of the interesting invaders as well.
It being my habit to be easily distracted, the series will be off and on as I get the time. I hope you'll enjoy! Aloha!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Brown Pelicans at Half Moon Bay

Is there a goofier bird than a pelican? I'm sure there are some good candidates, but I don't see much of anything around here that fits the bill (literally...). And yet...is there a more graceful flyer anywhere? There are few experiences more beautiful than watching pelicans gliding over the sea, wingtips just inches over the waves. It's strange to think that we almost lost them all just a few decades ago.
The Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) is one of the great success stories of the environmental movement of the 1970s. Many take it for granted today that our air and water are relatively clean and clear, not realizing what a mess things were 30-40 years ago. Pesticides were in wide use with no regard whatsoever to the effects on non-target species. DDT was among the worst. It nearly did in a great many bird species, including especially the Brown Pelican. The bird was nearly extirpated because the pesticide accumulated in the body tissues and caused eggshell thinning. The eggs cracked simply by being sat upon. The pesticides were banned (and businesses complained about how terrible the ban was on their profits), and the birds began to slowly recover. The pelican was the state bird of Louisiana, but it had to be purposely re-introduced there in the 1970s. 

We briefly escaped from the smoke of the tragic wildfires burning in the state interior regions by driving out to Half Moon Bay. We found a few new sites to explore, including the new coast trail at Devil's Slide, the Fitzgerald Marine Refuge, and the Pillar Point Salt Marsh. We observed pelicans at each spot.

At the Fitzgerald Marine Refuge, the pelicans were flying past the napping Harbor Seals. It was a dramatic sight. Brown Pelicans can live to be more than forty years. It's strange to think that some birds living today may remember a time when they couldn't find others of their kind (not that I would be anthropomorphizing again).

I hate to think that we almost made a world that had no pelicans.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Black-chinned Hummingbird on Tuolumne River Parkway

My walk last week along the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail at the edge of the Sierra Nevada netted what has become a dependable species. Despite the drought, a few shrubs are flowering at this late date, and this little Black-chinned Hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri) was taking advantage of the situation. I'll see two or three individuals every time I walk down the hill to the river shore. The bird is common across the Southwest and Mexico,
As always, I'm not great at identifying some kinds of birds, including the hummingbirds. I will cheerfully acknowledge your assistance!

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Red-tailed Hawk on the West Campus "Mini-wilderness", Where Big Plans are Afoot

Unlike many colleges and schools, our campus has been blessed with a lot of land, and some of it has been kept as undeveloped habitat. I've mentioned quite a few times the mini-wilderness that sits on the northwest side of Science Community Center. It is a drainage pond that has been ignored more or less since the 1940s. It is thick with cattails, and the trees include mature Valley Oaks, Cottonwood and Elms. Sheep occasionally graze the plot, but most of the time it serves as wildlife habitat. I've noted three dozen species of birds hanging out on the little section at one time or another. Last year more than a thousand American Robins wintered in the trees there.
We had some good news about the pond and mini-wilderness last month. We are developing an outdoor education area adjacent to our Great Valley Museum, a facility that will include native vegetation, geological displays, and natural animal habitats. It was to include a pond, but the ongoing drought put that out of the planning. We instead are planning for a vernal pool, a dryland environment that will illustrate one of the Great Valley's most unique habitats. But we'll still get a pond, because one is already in place. We'll be adapting the pond in the mini-wilderness into part of the educational experience with some walkways and an access point for collecting water samples.
I often walk around the pond during my breaks, and today I got a rare treat. A Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) was patrolling the area and making the other birds a bit nervous. It soared around the campus a couple of times and moved off to the west into the farmlands beyond, but not before perching for a few minutes. I don't see them on campus often, but it's good to know they are around.

Monday, September 7, 2015

It's Jay Day! But Don't Call Us "Blue": The Jays of California

Western Scrub Jay on the Tuolumne River Parkway
Blogging doesn't evoke much in the way of mysticism and supernatural signs and that sort of rubbish, but I had signs that I was finally supposed to post pictures of two of the most common kinds of birds in my region, the jays. I was exploring the upper reaches of the Stanislaus River near Sonora Pass when smoke from the Kings Canyon fire chased us back down the hill. In consolation, I took a walk along the Tuolumne River Parkway at sunset. In the whole day I saw only jays. I haven't mentioned them before on this blog, so this must be the day.
Western Scrub Jay on the Tuolumne River Parkway
The birds were the Steller's Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri) up in the mountains, and the Western Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma californica) down in the valley. Notice in these pictures that they are blue in color, but they are not "blue". The actual Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) is mainly an eastern species found mostly beyond the Rocky Mountains, although they are occasionally found in the Pacific Northwest and northernmost California. But not around here.
Western Scrub Jay on the Tuolumne River Parkway
There are two other species of jay in California. One is really special: the Island Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma insularis) is a rare species found on Santa Cruz Island off the California coast and nowhere else in the world. There are perhaps 2,500 of them in existence. Isolated from its relatives on the mainland, it has evolved into a unique species that is bigger, with a larger bill, blacker cheeks, longer legs and deeper blue color.
Western Scrub Jay on the Tuolumne River Parkway
The other jay is the Pinyon Jay (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus). It lives mostly in the Basin and Range province east of the Sierra Nevada. I haven't had the pleasure of seeing them yet, although they have been seen in the Central Valley on very rare occasions.
Western Scrub Jay on the Tuolumne River Parkway
The Western Scrub Jay is a common bird in my neighborhood, and one of those birds that don't really care what humans think. They'll go about their business in my backyard or by the river, not caring whether I'm watching them or not. On many mornings I can be awakened by their pounding of acorns or pecans on the roof. I'm constantly digging up tree sprouts that came from seeds they have inadvertently left lying on the ground in our yard.
Sunset view of the Tuolumne River from the new parkway trail
The Steller's Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri) lives primarily in the conifer woods above the valley floor, but they will venture onto the valley floor during the winter at times. They are another "in your face" species, inhabiting campgrounds and picnic areas loudly and in large numbers. The one I saw today was being sneaky, though, because I was nibbling on a sandwich looking one way while it was sneaking about in the tree behind me waiting for some crumbs to fall.
Steller's Jay in the upper headwaters of the Stanislaus River north of Yosemite
I have surprisingly few good pictures of Steller's Jays. As common as they are, they've never remained still enough for me to get sharp pictures. The picture above is from this afternoon, but I had to go back to a trip in Big Sur in 2008 for some adequate shots of the species. That's like two cameras ago!
Steller's Jay at Big Sur
So...two jays down, and two to go, unless I go far afield. I'll have the best chance on our Cascades Volcanoes trip in a few weeks when we go into northeastern California and the pinyon country. I'll be looking for Pinyon Jays. I don't know when I'll have a chance to reach Santa Cruz Island to see the Island Scrub Jay, but I'm really looking forward to the day when that can happen.
Steller's Jay at Big Sur