Saturday, October 31, 2015

Yellow-rumped Warbler on the Tuolumne River

There are lots of Yellow-rumped Warblers (Setophaga coronata) out and about this time of year. Once I started watching birds a bit more carefully, I've seen them in a wide variety of environments across California and Arizona, including my own back yard. The latest sighting came with my strolls along the Tuolumne River where our town is constructing a parkway trail. At this site, the river flows out of the Sierra Nevada foothills onto the floor of the Great Valley.
There are wild Elderberries growing in small thickets along the river channel, and at this time of year the berries are providing some critical nutrition to a variety of bird species. In the space of a few moments I had four different birds land over my head, including Black Phoebe, Phainopepla, the Warbler, and some kind of Thrush or Vireo.
The Yellow-rumped Warbler is a common and widespread species, with a range that extends from Central America to the farthest reaches of Arctic Alaska. They have evolved the ability to digest some of the more waxy berries, which allows them to have the northernmost range of any warbler species.
Their plumage is somewhat muted at this time of year; they get much more colorful during the spring breeding season. They are pretty any time of year, though, which is why they've shown up on this blog more often than most other species.

Phainopepla on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail

This is a bird of the tropical southwest deserts, and as such is pretty close to the edge of its northernmost range here along the Tuolumne River. The Phainopepla (Phainopepla nitens) is not uncommon in our region, but until last week I had never seen one here (I've seen a few near Death Valley, at a great distance). I was standing quietly underneath an Elderberry bower and actually saw four species in the space of a few minutes. This was the one that surprised me the most. I didn't even recognize it right away, even though the crest on the head is very distinctive. I think of Phainopeplas as being pure black, but that is the color of the males.
The preferred food of the Phainopepla is mistletoe, and from it they derive not only their carbohydrates, but also their water. They rare drink any. The birds play a role in spreading mistletoe, as the sticky seeds can be transferred by their feet. This symbiotic relationship is great for the bird and the mistletoe, but not so much the trees. 

It's been a great year for mistletoe on trees across the state, and with global warming, I would not be surprised to see these birds expanding their range to the north. We can do without the drought and hot conditions, but seeing more of these grand birds wouldn't be so bad.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Cackling Geese Have Arrived at the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge!

Mind you, they may have been there for weeks. I've only had a handful of chances to check the Beckwith Road viewing platform. Two weeks ago I saw a few way off to the south. Today I saw a few dozen, maybe a hundred off in the distance. I turned back and started to look for Towhees and sparrows in the brush, but then a huge commotion broke out in the sky above. I looked up and there were thousands of birds overhead. It was astounding.
Cackling Geese (Branta hutchinsii) are a new species, having recently been thought of as a subspecies of the Canada Goose. They were one of the first species to be listed under the Endangered Species Act, but efforts to rebuild populations have been a success story, and they were taken off the list in 2001. A large percentage of their population spends the winter at the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge west of Modesto in the Great Valley.

There are Sandhill Cranes in the region, but we are still awaiting the arrival of the Snow Geese and the Ross's Geese. December and January are noisy times at our local wildlife refuges, and they are a reminder of the rich abundance of wildlife that existed here before 95% of the valley was taken over for agriculture. I'm looking forward to winter!

Monday, October 26, 2015

Northern Flicker on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail

I had an extraordinary walk by the river last week. Whether one gets pictures of birds can depend on so many things: the attention span of the photographer, the weather, the season, the time of day. I hadn't been seeing many birds on the last few walks, and I expected no different on this walk. I was mistaken. I ran across half a dozen species of birds in just one brush bower near the trail (I wrote about the birds in my blog Geotripper).
The first bird I saw on the river was a Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus). These members of the Woodpecker clan are one of the more strikingly colorful birds in our area. They don't act like woodpeckers all that often. They spend much of their time on the ground digging for insects in the dirt.
I've been learning a lot about birds during the last two years, but one area that I'm lagging is bird calls. I have problems hearing certain high-pitched frequencies, but I always know if there are Northern Flickers about. They have a distinctive call, and aren't afraid to utilize it.
The Tuolumne River is a treasure, and our town is building a two mile long parkway trail to highlight the value of the waterway here in the Great Valley of California. I'm looking forward to being able to walk the trail as a loop rather than an out and back walk past the sewage treatment center. The trail will probably be completed in the next three or four weeks. Come and check it out sometime!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Cassin's Finch at Medicine Lake Highland, California's Largest Volcano

Our recent trip to the Cascades of Northern California yielded several "first" bird sightings, including the Pinyon Jay I noted a few days ago. After we left Lava Beds National Monument, we headed up the flank of Medicine Lake Highland. The Highland is a huge shield volcano, a basalt edifice with gentle slopes, but great width. MLH is actually the largest volcano in the state of California by volume. We weren't really expecting to see much in the way of bird life, as it was late September and birds are usually starting to migrate to lower elevations in preparation for winter. We actually saw quite a few, including the Hermit Thrush I posted on earlier.
We stopped for lunch along the shores of Medicine Lake itself. The lake occupies the caldera of the volcano, where the summit collapsed inwards after a series of voluminous eruptions. Normally the water would have sunk into the ground, but glaciers of the last ice age left large amounts of clay that sealed off the lake floor and keep water present year-round. It's a popular recreation area, with campgrounds and a few cabins, but no resort developments. It's a pretty quiet place on a Sunday afternoon. Sitting under some Lodgepole Pines, I saw a Cassin's Finch (Haemorhous cassinii) for the first time. They live in our region back home but mainly in the upland forests, and I haven't seen them there. It checked me out for a moment, long enough for a couple of pictures, and then moved on. So did we.

NOTE: If you are one of the literally dozens of people who've read this post, you might remember it being about a Purple Finch. Upon reflection and a revisit of the pictures, I decided it was a Cassin's Finch.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Yellow-rumped Warblers at Lava Beds National Monument

It was almost surreal watching the parade of different species visiting the water spigots in the campground at Lava Beds National Monument. As has been mentioned before, there are few open sources of water in the park, so the birds congregate at the campground in the mornings. There was some sort of pecking order, as one species would be drinking, they would leave, and then another would appear. We've already seen the Pinyon Jays, the Townsend's Solitaires, the Red Crossbills, and the Robins. In today's post we see the Yellow-rumped Warblers (Setophaga coronata). Their activity that morning highlighted an unfortunate problem at the campground.
I can't find any clear record of whether they like to eat mistletoe berries, but the warblers I saw in the campground certainly seemed to be foraging in the mistletoe clinging to the Juniper trees in the campsite. The mistletoe was the problem.

A bunch of American Conservation Corps (or YCC, I can't remember) workers were planting trees in the campground. When I asked, they pointed out that mistletoe was killing off most of the Junipers that provided shade in the camp, and so they were planting native Ponderosa Pines that will someday replace the dead Junipers.
The mistletoe berries provide a nutritious food source for the birds, but the birds also spread the sticky seeds from tree to tree. I imagine that a balance is usually maintained, but during the drought, the trees may not be able to fight off the parasites. That's my speculation, anyway.  In the meantime, it was delightful following the brightly colored birds throughout the morning in the camp.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Sandhill Cranes in the Great Valley! A Visit at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

The Great Valley has never been overly kind to immigrants. One can interpret that in several ways, but since humans expropriated 95% of the natural environment of the valley for agriculture and urban development, the birds who migrate here for the winter have had a difficult life. Harassed and shot for invading agricultural fields, the birds were herded into wildlife refuges where there wasn't enough space and resources to maintain their health needs. Thousands could die from cholera and other diseases.
The managers of the wildlife refuges scattered up and down the valley have done what they could with the limited space and water they've been given, so the birds are able to survive, but certainly not in the numbers of a century or two ago.
Year after year, they return, and despite the stresses most make it through the winter and get enough nutrition to make it back to their Arctic breeding grounds. And when they are present, one can see a hint of the incredible spectacle of America's Serengeti plains that once existed here. That's what I got to see today at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge.
A few weeks ago I wrote of seeing some of the Sandhill Cranes at the Tulelake National Wildlife Refuge. Tulelake is one of their resting spots on their trip south (a few may breed there as well). That was in late September, but I understand that some were already arriving at Merced NWR. Today we saw thousands (the ranger said there are presently 9,000 of them in residence!).
They were reasonably close to the auto-tour route, so I managed to get a lot of shots I was happy with.
The Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis) is highly distinctive in its coloration and in flight (unlike the other cranes) it holds its neck straight instead of curved. They feed on grains and plants, along with the occasional bug. They roost at night in wetlands where they get cover from predators.
The drought has wreaked havoc on the environments where the Sandhill Cranes winter. Water is at a premium, and refuges are often at the bottom of allotment priorities. The managers have hard decisions to make this winter about what fields to flood, and how much space they can make available for the cranes and the tens of thousands of geese that are on their way as well. These are choices I wouldn't want to be making. I'm hoping that the current El Nino climate regime will give us a reprieve this year from the drought, but the long-term trends are not favorable. The choices we make about these animals will reverberate for decades to come.
They deserve our consideration. They travel thousands of miles, and now depend on us for survival.
Let's do the right thing. The refuges need our help, because they can't do it alone, and not without public support.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Townsend's Solitaire (but not so solitary) at Lava Beds National Monument

Water, or more accurately, lack of water makes for strange bedfellows. Lava Beds National Monument in Northern California is really a semi-arid climate, supporting a forest of Pinyon, Juniper and Ponderosa. But surface water is practically non-existent because precipitation sinks into the fissures and cracks that are characteristic of basalt lava flows.
As we've been finding over the last three posts, there is a secure source of water in the monument, at the campground faucets. We were awakened each morning of our recent visit at Lava Beds with the chattering of different kinds of birds waiting for a chance at the water. We've already seen the Robins, the Red Crossbills, and the Pinyon Jays. Today's bird is the Townsend's Solitaire (Myadestes townsendi), which I've only seen once before.
Sibley's guide had this to say about the Solitaire: "Usually solitary, perching inconspicuously in trees". The lack of water seems to have changed that metric. I counted at least half a dozen Solitaires perched conspicuously in the top branches of the Junipers in the campground waiting for their turn at the water.
The bird is also described as "uncommon", but they certainly seemed common enough that morning in the campground. They no doubt spread out widely during the day, looking for looking for juniper berries or mistletoe. 
There were lots of birds at Lava Beds and Tulelake National Wildlife Refuge. After a slow summer for birding, I've now got a serious backlog of bird sightings to share. More to come!

Friday, October 16, 2015

Pinyon Jays at Lava Beds National Monument

It was such an intriguing morning. There are few sources of water in Lava Beds National Monument, as what little water there is sinks into the fissures and cracks of the lava flows. One secure source is the collection pit beneath the water faucets in the park campground. When the sun came up, we were greeted with the cacophony of birds waiting their turn at the water. They seemed to follow a pecking order as the species seemed to change every few minutes. We've already seen the Robins and Red Crossbills. Soon after they took off, a large flock of boisterous Pinyon Jays (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus) arrived and took their turn at the water.
Pinyon Jays are creatures of the Pinyon-Juniper woodlands. They've been seen in our county, but not by me. This was my first encounter with them since I began birding. They're smart and social birds, often traveling in large flocks. They mostly eat pine seeds and spend a lot of time hiding them. They are a threatened species because their favored habitat is threatened. Hundreds of thousands of acres of Pinyon-Juniper woodland has been stripped and burned across the western United States in an effort to increase grazing acreage for ranchers.
The Pinyon Jays have some evolutionary adaptations that help them utilize their favored food supply. They have a long strong bill for probing cones for seeds, and lack feathers over their nostrils, allowing them to deal with sap in a more efficient manner.
They are beautiful birds. There were a few others that morning in the bird parade. Watch for future posts!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

A (Not So Very) Red Crossbill at Lava Beds National Monument

Continuing a short series around the campground water faucet, we are showing off the Red Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra). These are the birds who were making use of the only secure source of water in Lava Beds National Monument (there are no surface streams because precipitation sinks into the joints and fissures of the lava flows). The first post of the series featured an American Robin.
I've only seen the Red Crossbill once before, in the White Mountains of eastern California. I didn't recognize these birds at Lava Beds because they were far up the trees and they weren't red (these are juveniles and lack the bright red color), and I couldn't make out the crossed bills. I thought they were some kind of finch (they are actually in the finch family), but a birder in the campground mentioned their identity as he walked by.
The crossbills take their name from their uniquely evolved beak. It looks broken or offset, but it actually allows them to pry open conifer cones, allowing them to reach the seeds inside. They are completely dependent on cones for their survival, so they migrate to places where cones are ripening, and can breed at any time of the year if food is available.

Monday, October 12, 2015

American Robins at Lava Beds National Monument

Lava Beds National Monument in the far northern reaches of California is a unique park for many reasons, biologically and geologically. And sometimes both. The park is "nothing more" than a vast field of geologically recent lava flows (I say "nothing more", because to a geologist like me, that's all the justification one needs to make a park out of it). The lava flows are honeycombed with lava tubes and craters, cinder cones and pressure ridges, and historical sites dating from the Modoc Indian Wars.
There's one thing the park doesn't have: water. Although the region is semiarid, it gets enough snow and rain to support growths of Ponderosa and Pinyon pines. But the water that falls on the surface quickly sinks into the joints and fractures that are pervasive in the basalt flows. There are no rivers, streams or lakes. That can make life difficult for the various animals that would normally inhabit these environments. One of those species are human beings. The Modoc people were able to utilize the waters of Tulelake at the north end of the monument. The lake is gone now, converted to agricultural fields, but park visitors can find water at faucets in the campground. It's pumped from a thousand-foot well. The water spills to the ground, and the local birds know all about it. They gather in the morning at the monument campground and take turns getting a drink. I didn't know this until I heard the caterwauling early in the morning while I was trying to sleep.
I got my camera and took a seat near the water faucets and saw a parade of birds, some of which were new to me. But not this one. The American Robin (Turdus migratorius) is one of the most familiar birds in North America. But that doesn't take away from their attractive appearance.
These birds were high up in the Cascades in September when I took these pictures, but they might be part of a migratory group that will arrive in the Great Valley in the next few weeks. Hundreds of them wintered in the mini-wilderness on our campus last year.

There were three more species waiting for water those mornings at Lava Beds. Look for the others in future posts.