Monday, November 30, 2015

Anna's Hummingbird at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

We've completed our Thanksgiving journeys through Northern California and Oregon, and we made our traditional stop at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge in the northern Great Valley. This is a marvelous time of year, with thousands of migratory birds stopping in for the winter (you can expect to see plenty of pictures in future posts), and quite a number of year-round residents as well. My first choice from the pictures of the day was this little Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna) taking shelter near the refuge visitor center. It's been a frigid couple of days (parts of California were colder than northern Alaska yesterday), and I would have worried about this little one. The metabolism of these birds is such that they are always within hours of starvation, and must consume a significant percentage of their body weight every day, especially in cold weather (they are tropical birds at heart). The refuge has planted some native shrubs outside the visitor center, so there were some flowers even in this cold weather to provide food for the hummingbirds.
The Anna's Hummingbird is more or less a California endemic with a historic range in Southern California and Baja, but it has expanded its range north to Vancouver with human habitation providing secure food sources for winter.

After seeing tens of thousands of geese, and dozens of raptors, it was such a shock to see this one little bird all by itself. I guess that made it stand out today.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Bald Eagle on the Umpqua River near Reedsport, Oregon

I guess this was my week for Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). I hadn't seen any for the better part of a year, and then I see two in the space of four days. This one was a lot closer than the bird I saw flying with the pelicans on Tuesday.
We were on our way to our Thanksgiving gathering in central Oregon, and stopped for a few minutes at the Dean Creek Elk Viewing area on the Umpqua River near Reedsport on the coast. We were there to see the elk, but there are almost always some birds about as well. We were leaving when I noticed very large bird in the tree down the highway. There were some Ravens nearby, but this bird seemed larger. Much larger. Although it was silhouetted in the sun, my zoom lens confirmed the shape of the beak and the white head. 
It's no surprise an eagle would be found here, as the river is a haven for salmon. The eagles are expanding their range in the lower 48 states after nearly being extirpated by DDT and illegal hunting. There are one of just a few conservation success stories.

It would have been a shame to drive our national bird to extinction...

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Bald Eagle among the Pelicans at the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge

I was out at the Beckwith Road Platform this afternoon, seeing how the Cackling Geese and Ross's Geese were faring in today's rainstorm. The rain had actually cleared out and I was treated to the awesome sight of thousands of the geese taking flight for some reason or another. But that's not what I'm writing about today.
I was talking to one of the Fish and Wildlife managers, and he hinted that I should be on the lookout for a Bald Eagle that had been hanging out at the refuge the last few days. As luck would have it, I saw a large bird in the distance, flying along with, or in front of, a flock of American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos). I thought it was a hawk with flying geese at the great distance, but the camera zoom showed different.
The birds seemed to be following a parallel pathway. Bald Eagles sometimes prey on Pelicans, or least their nestlings. They're also not averse to stealing fish from pelicans.
I wish the pictures were a bit sharper. The eagle was probably a quarter or a third of a mile away, so I really appreciate the zoom on my camera! A few moments later, I caught the eagle perching on a post in the distance. 
I have some closer shots of a Bald Eagle at Turlock Lake, and in a life and death struggle with Great Blue Herons in Victoria, British Columbia. Check them out!

Monday, November 23, 2015

First Sighting of Cedar Waxwings this Fall!

One if my favorite times of the birding year is the arrival of the Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) in our area. I saw a flock the other day on campus, but they were far away, as was my camera. This afternoon I took a short break at Fox Grove on the Tuolumne River between Modesto and Waterford.
I saw another flock of yellowish birds in the distance, and the telephoto confirmed it was a group of Cedar Waxwings. There were maybe two dozen of them in the dead cottonwood tree.

The birds come through the region while migrating between the tropics of Central America and Canada. They are year-round residents in the northern states. They feed primarily on fruits, which protects them from the nesting antics of cowbirds: the cowbird chicks can't live on the fruit diet and generally don't survive. The waxwings will supplement their diet with the occasional bug, however.
I'm hoping they'll return to the flowering pear in my front yard soon. They always surprise me when they arrive, because they are almost motionless and silent when they bed down for the night, and I therefore don't notice them except by chance. Then I feel a little creeped out as they stare at me...
Fox Grove is a 64 acre county park along the Tuolumne River between Modesto and Waterford. Some of the park is groomed (and ecologically barren) grass, and there is a large colony of feral cats. On the other hand, a lot of the park is recovering riparian habitat, and there are some good birding opportunities. I haven't spent a lot of time there, although I saw a Hooded Oriole there last spring.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Black-chinned Hummingbird on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail

I've hesitated putting these pictures up, because I'm not fully confident in my identification of these birds as Black-chinned Hummingbirds (Archilochus alexandri). We are only seeing them from the back, and Anna's Hummingbirds or others also have green backs. It's just that the only times I have seen them from the front, they were Black-chinned.
The picture above is one of the most unique angles I've ever caught of a hummingbird! The first two pictures are from one month ago, but I caught the picture below just this morning. I'm glad to see the birds survived through what we hope is the end of the drought. These birds are a true western species, and are not found east of the Rocky Mountains.
As always, please let me know if I've missed the species identification! I'm still new at this.

Western Meadowlark at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

On our visit to the Merced National Wildlife Refuge a few weeks ago, we were mostly on the lookout for the big arriving migrants like the Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese. But we also kept an eye out for some of the year-round residents, and along one stretch, we heard a familiar song. It was a Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) on the opposite side of the levee from the ponds.

The Meadowlarks are not necessarily endangered, but like many native birds, they have suffered population losses since the 1960s, due to habitat loss. The losses continue in our area as rangelands give way to almond orchards.

I didn't get any video this time out, but a few months back I caught a meadowlark singing in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Snowy Egrets at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Thousands of Sandhill Cranes are already in residence, but tens of thousands of Ross's Geese and Snow Geese have yet to arrive. So the Merced National Wildlife Refuge doesn't feel particularly crowded at the moment. As a result, the year-round denizens still stand out a bit, especially if they are pure white. The Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) is one of them.
The Snowy Egret is one of the most elegant and graceful birds to be seen in our area. Their beautiful delicate feathers were once worth more than their weight in gold, and that almost led to their extinction a century ago. They were one of the first birds to receive protected status back in a time when such things simply weren't done (the wild Turkey was another early benificiary of protection after being hunted to near-extinction).
When the other migratory birds arrive in a few weeks, the egrets will still be seen wandering alone through thunderous flocks of geese and cranes. They seem pretty unflappable, as I've seen tens of thousands of geese panic and take flight all at once, while the few egrets look up for a moment, and then resume feeding in the water.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Northern Flickers on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail

I sure enjoy seeing Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus). They are colorful interesting birds who don't mind perching where I can catch the occasional picture. The first three or four times I saw them, it was in dark or foggy conditions, but I've been getting luckier these days. There are some dead snags along the nearly complete Tuolumne River Parkway trail in Waterford where they've been dependable sights.
The Flickers are a kind of woodpecker, and they do drum on trees and the like, but they also like to forage for bugs on the ground, probing with their long beaks. They have a distinctive call that lets me know when they are close by. I've watched them on our west campus chasing around and dancing their unique "fencing duel" against potential breeding rivals.
I've walked along the river trail three times in the last week, and I saw a couple of them each time. I imagine they'll stick around after the trail is finished and more people spend time along the river. There is a relatively wide riparian environment that provides shelter for Flickers and the other birds, and there were never any plans to develop a grassy barren park along the river. The trail will preserve and promote the river habitat.
I had a surprise today (which is kind of stupid, really, for as many time as I've photographed the birds). They have really bright tail feathers! They're usually in a tight narrow bundle, but the bird I saw today was flaring its tail feathers. A beautiful sight!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Ruby-crowned Kinglet on the Tuolumne River

Work slowed a bit on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail in Waterford a bit last week, and for a fairly good reason. It was pouring rain! We picked up more than two inches in the last two weeks, nearly 20% of a complete water year. In other words, the rainy season is off to a good start. I hope it continues.

I took a careful walk earlier in the week, finding that portions of the trail were underwater. I saw several interesting birds, including a Northern Flicker, and a juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk. I also saw, for a split second, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula). I managed a single photograph before it flew away. I've seen them in the area a few times, but they move fast through the underbrush, so I was probably lucky to get the picture I did.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Great Blue Heron on the Tuolumne River

I was privileged last weekend to participate in a canoe trip sponsored by the Tuolumne River Trust, a short expedition from La Grange to Old Basso Bridge. We traveled about three miles of the river in the lower foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The TRT is a marvelous organization dedicated to protecting the integrity of the Tuolumne watershed from the headwaters in Yosemite National Park to the mouth of the river in the Great Valley and San Francisco Bay.
I was a bit worried about dunking my camera in the "raging" river (the turbulence resulted more from me rocking the canoe than any rapids on the river). But I couldn't resist getting some pictures of the very handsome Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) that we saw patiently hunting fish in the shallows. They are very statuesque birds.
There will be a write-up on the paddling trip before long over at Geotripper. In the meantime, enjoy our very large blue bird!

Monday, November 9, 2015

Juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk on the Tuolumne River

I'm looking forward to the completion of the Tuolumne Parkway Trail in Waterford. This new nature trail will follow the Tuolumne River for two miles where it flows from the Sierra Nevada into the Great Valley. I've been going out and back for months now on the trail route, but eventually a stairwell to the top of the bluffs will allow me to make a loop along the river.

This morning was a bit of an adventure, as we received nearly an inch of rain overnight, and the not-yet-surfaced trail was a bit of a mud track. I wasn't seeing many birds this morning, but at one spot overlooking the river I simply stopped and stood for awhile. Before long a variety of birds were fluttering into the shrubs around me. Most notably, up on the bluff a very large bird landed in a tree and started making a lot of noise.
I knew it was a hawk right away, but I couldn't identify it until later. It was a juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus). I was confused, since it didn't have red shoulders yet, but it was certainly a beautiful bird. The Red-shouldered Hawks have a very unusual distribution, with a wide range in the eastern United States, and a narrow range along the Pacific coast, with no overlap in between.

I took a short video of the bird calling. It was in no hurry to leave, and maybe was actually telling me to leave instead. I've seen a couple of Red-shouldered Hawks in the area, including an adult a few days ago. I only got a few shots, but one can make out the orange-red color on the "shoulders" (epaulets?). A family group?

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Can you Spot a Spotted Towhee? Here's one on the Tuolumne River

Do you ever get the feeling you're being watched? If you are exploring my part of the world, you may indeed be watched by a creature with reddish eyes, hiding in the brush. It's not a scary creature though, just a reclusive one. It's a Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus), a large member of the sparrow family. I've posted one picture of the bird previously, a breeding male (it makes them more brave, so they perch on high branches) in the Grand Canyon last summer. I've seen them in the brush at the Joe Domecq Wilderness on the Tuolumne River on lots of occasions, but they've always been too cautious and fly deeper into the forest before I can snap a picture.

The Joe Domecq Wilderness is a special spot on the Tuolumne River where it passes through the Mother Lode of California's legendary Gold Rush. The land here was subjected to gold dredging, which destroyed the riparian forest and left a barren pile of boulders. Time has softened the devastation a bit, and the small park and pond is now a nice spot for birdwatching. It's administered (somewhat) by Stanislaus County (hey folks, the picnic tables need to be replaced).
I was there this morning just prior to meeting a group from the Tuolumne River Trust for a canoe trip down the river for a few miles. It was a marvelous day, and I appreciated the chance to see a section of the river I've never seen before (there are lots of those, actually). The Towhee was darting in and out of the branches of a large oak tree, but it finally stopped long enough for a few relatively sharp shots.

And then, it disappeared again.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Phoebes and Phainopeplas on the Tuolumne River

I feel like I'm only scratching the surface when it comes to identifying bird species along the Tuolumne River in Waterford where the river emerges from the Sierra Nevada onto the floor of the Great Valley. The Tuolumne Parkway trail is a few weeks from completion, so I have been checking on construction progress, and discovering as many species as I can. Some days I'll see no more than a few Scrub Jays, and other days I'll see a dozen species. This week offered up a fine shot of a Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans), and a fuzzy shot of the first male Phainopepla (Phainopepla nitens) I've ever seen around here (I saw a female a week or two ago). The males are pure black, while the females are gray.
It is amazing to see the variety of life that lies just beyond our backyards when an artery of wilderness passes through town. The variety of microenvironments (river, dry slopes, ponds, swamps, and woodlands) provides for a wide diversity of species of all kinds. I'll probably be seeing new things for years.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Thousands of Aleutian Cackling Geese at the San Joaquin NWR. They were thought to be extinct for 24 years.

This is a reposting of a column at Geotripper

I live in California's Great Valley, also known as the Central Valley. It's one of the most important agricultural regions on Earth, in that it produces around a quarter of the nation's produce. It's an extraordinary geological province, 400 miles of almost perfect flatness. When I moved to the valley nearly thirty years ago, I thought I was moving to a boring place, featureless, and bereft of the kinds of terrain that makes a geologist's heart go pit-a-pat. I was wrong...
I must admit that an exploration of the valley can be a bit monotonous. Traveling Highway 99 or Interstate 5 involves hundreds of miles of featureless fields and orchards, interrupted now and then by towns whose cultural attractions consist of gas stations and fast food restaurants (don't get me wrong, some of our towns have fascinating cultures, but you may have to work to find them at times).

The valley environment ranges from oak woodlands in the north through semiarid prairie in the middle reaches to barren desert to the south. The land is actually well-watered, as the adjacent Sierra Nevada feeds numerous rivers that flow into the valley. The rivers have been mostly diverted for use in irrigation, but about 30% of the water continues on to the sea. About 95% of the land surface in the valley has been converted to agricultural and urban development.
What has enriched my life in recent years is seeing the valley the way our migrant birds see it: a series of "wilderness" islands that allow me to imagine the valley as it once was, America's version of the Serengeti Plains. The prairies and wetlands once supported millions of grazing animals and migrating bird species (along with the year-round resident species). Most of these "islands" are part of the National Wildlife Refuge system, while others are preserves administered by a variety of federal, state and private organizations. These refuges allow the preservation and survival of the remnants of the incredible ecosystem that once existed here. It took a long time to recognize what we were doing to these animals as we took away more and more of their habitat to grow our food, but now there is a movement towards rehabilitating some of the wetland environments. We are trying to undo the damage we've caused over the last century and a half.
I was reminded of these efforts this afternoon when I drove over to a viewing area at the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge, one of the main centers of the efforts to rebuild the wetlands (something like 400,000 trees have been planted in riparian habitats that had been converted to farmlands, later abandoned). I saw an astounding sight.
There were perhaps tens of thousands of Aleutian Cackling Geese (Branta hutchinsii leucopareia) gathered in a plowed cornfield (planted by the refuge employees to provide food for the birds). The birds are closely related to the Canada Goose, but are considered a separate species based on DNA analysis. The species had gone into a steep decline due to hunting, the introduction of foxes on the island where they bred, and loss of winter habitat in the Central Valley. They were actually thought to be extinct for twenty four years, as none were seen after 1938, but a group of several hundred were found on some isolated islands in 1962. They were listed officially as an endangered species in 1967.
Aggressive efforts began to protect the birds from extinction, and in fifty years, the results have been successful enough that the bird has been removed from endangered status. From a population of less than 1,000 birds, there are now more than 120,000. And I was looking at a large percentage of the entire population of these birds at the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge this afternoon. It was stunning.
The birds certainly still face problems. They are crowded onto relatively limited lands, and drought years can limit the amount of maize and wheat that can be planted on their behalf. The drought also limits that available wetlands that they prefer for roosting. But still for a few moments this afternoon, I was reminded how the valley used to support millions of geese and cranes. It may still do so again. It's possible to share the bounty of our valley with the original inhabitants.

I imagine some people would think I was exaggerating a bit when I said there were thousands, maybe tens of thousands of birds at the refuge this afternoon. I certainly couldn't fit them all into a single picture, so I invite you to see a video I took, sweeping across the crowd next to the road. Enjoy!

More on the recovery of the Aleutian Cackling Goose can be read here: