Monday, March 28, 2016

The First Western Kingbird of the Season!

One of the first of our tropical migrants has arrived in our region (who knows when they really arrived, but this was the first I've seen). The Western Kingbird (Tyrannus verticalis) typically spends the winter in Central America, migrating north to breed across the western United States and even a bit into Canada.

I was walking the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail this afternoon, seeing few birds, but on the way back to my house, this Kingbird was posing on the fence in the pasture. Within a few weeks they should be present in large numbers. I'm already missing the Sandhill Cranes, who've headed north, but our tropical visitors go a long ways towards healing the sense of loss.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Ospreys Nesting on the Merced River

We made a quick afternoon trip a few weeks ago up the Merced River. We hadn't planned to, but we ultimately reached Yosemite Valley as the sun sank below the horizon. Along the way we stopped at Merced Falls, a Gold Rush era settlement built at the point where the Merced River flows from the Sierra into the Great Valley. It was nearly spring and we wanted to see if the Ospreys were doing okay.
Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) nest high in sturdy trees or on telephone poles. In many areas, platforms on poles have been built just for these birds, and there is one near Merced Falls. We didn't see any birds on the platform, but an old telephone pole near the bridge serves as a second nesting site in the area. Much to our delight, a pair of Ospreys were there. One was guarding the nest and the other was soaring over the area, keeping an eye on things.
Ospreys feed almost exclusively on fish, so the Merced Falls site makes sense. There is a forebay (a shallow reservoir) that provides some excellent fishing opportunities for the birds. We've seen them do their graceful dive into the water and they usually come up with a meal.

Ospreys are a recovering species. They were almost done in by DDT back in the 60s and 70s, but once the pesticide was banned, they started returning to their old habitats. It would have been a shame to lose them. They're a beautiful sight soaring over our local lakes and rivers.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Yellow-billed Magpies on the West Campus

One of the few birds that are truly endemic to California, the Yellow-billed Magpies (Pica nuttalli) are an elegant looking species. They have been showing up in larger and larger flocks on our west campus in the last few weeks, and making their presence known in a number of ways. Their squawking has been a nice welcome when I arrive on the campus just after sunrise. One landed this afternoon outside the window of my geology lab.

The Magpies used to flock together in the hundreds, but they were decimated a decade or so ago when the West Nile Virus arrived in California. They were especially vulnerable to the disease, and their flocking nature meant that it was easily passed from bird to bird. The population crashed in just a few years by 50%. Luckily, some birds possessed some resistance to the virus, and their numbers are beginning to recover. It's been obvious to me that the flocks near my house number in the dozens rather than only a dozen, which was the case just two years ago.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Western Bluebirds on the West Campus

I haven't seen many Western Bluebirds (Sialia mexicana) of late, more from not getting out enough as much as any other reason, but I got a few shots today. I was wandering on the west campus of Modesto Junior College. Practically all birds are pretty in one way or another, but I have a soft spot in my heart for the deep blues of birds like these (and the obnoxious Scrub Jays).
The local bluebirds may be winter visitors, and if so, they'll probably head back up in the hills before long. I have seen quite a few along the Tuolumne River in all seasons. I will no doubt post more shots when I see them again. They're irresistible!

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Great-tailed Grackles arrive at CSU Stanislaus

When some birds leave, other birds arrive. The Sandhill Cranes and Snow, Ross's, and Cackling Geese have left our region for their breeding grounds in the far north, but other species are arriving from the south. This week I saw that the Great-tailed Grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus) have arrived at the Outdoor Education pond at CSU Stanislaus (I wrote of their arrival last spring as well). The birds are native to Mexico and Southern California, but they have expanded their territory to the north. We are at close to the northern extreme of their range in California.They've done well with humans, thriving on agricultural food sources (and human garbage). In some quarters they are considered to be agricultural pests.
As is often the case with birds, the males are the showy ones. They are an iridescent black with a fabulously long tail (hence the name, of course), and a loud whistling cry ("piercing" is a good description).
The females lack the long tail and black color. They are more of a plain brown. Were it not for the yellow eyes and sharp beak, it would be hard to call them the same species.

The males were shouting for attention. Here's a short video of one of them calling out at the pond.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

A Bird Worth Its Weight in Gold: Snowy Egret at CSU Stanislaus

Fashion can be a horrible thing. Actually it kind of always is a horrible thing, especially as it applies to animals. Beavers were practically eradicated across the western United States because Europe decided beaver hats were fashionable. Ivory became fashionable so elephants have to die. And the Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) had to go nearly extinct because someone decided their feathers were valuable in hats a century ago. For a time, the feathers of the Snowy Egret were worth $32 per ounce, a price higher than gold in that era. It just about doomed the species.
Luckily a few visionary people began to work to limit the slaughter, and the egret populations recovered. They've adapted to human wetlands in some cases, such as the individual in today's picture. It does quite well foraging in the pond outside my office at CSU Stanislaus, where I teach a class. It's probably the same bird I've photographed before, given the nearly tame demeanor (it doesn't care all that much when I show up with a camera).

I'm thankful that the value of the bird today is aesthetic, not monetary.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Cedar Waxwings Gather in the West Campus "Mini-wilderness"

Oh, how I love the little Cedar Waxwings! They visit the region during their spring and fall migrations elsewhere, and will camp out on available perches. Sometimes the perches are in my front yard, along the Tuolumne River, or sometimes in our unofficial bird refuge on the West Campus of MJC, the "mini-wilderness".

The mini-wilderness is actually a drainage reservoir that often has a shallow pond, a cattail thicket, and a small oak and eucalyptus woodland. There is a dead cottonwood tree that seems to host a different flock of birds each evening. There has been a day of Red-winged Blackbirds, European Starlings, American Robins, Yellow-billed Magpies, and an occasional solitary Egret. But today I was thrilled to see a large flock of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum)

The pond has swelled in the last few days as a result of the intense storms of the first half of March. In addition to the roosting birds in the cottonwood tree (center of the picture), there have been Mallard Ducks and Canada Geese.

The Waxwings were high up in a tall tree, so I got no close-up shots. I got some nice ones a few weeks ago, so here is a replay of one of my favorite shots of one of my favorite birds...

Monday, March 14, 2016

Acorn Woodpeckers (and Spring Wildflowers) on the Tuolumne River Parkway

I've had a few chances to follow the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail in Waterford. It follows the river for about two miles at the point where the river leaves the Sierra Nevada foothills and flows into the Great Valley. The trail has been "almost complete" now for about 12 months (!), but it is walkable along its full length, although the surface has not been fully prepared yet (meaning there are pools and mud after a rainstorm).
I've seen the Acorn Woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus) most often in the oak trees on the upstream end of the trail, but they can be seen all along the trail where there are large trees. They are very nearly a California endemic, with a few being found south and north of the borders of the state in oak woodlands. They are comical looking birds, and their antics can be clown-like as well as they chase around the treetops.
Spring is arriving on the river, and a few wildflowers are poking up through the thick grass, including Golden Poppies, and Blue Dicks (Brodiaea)
With the rains of March, the river is up a little bit, although a lot of water is being held back in Don Pedro Reservoir upstream. We are still at a great water deficit, so this is probably not the year that we'll get a channel-clearing flood. The river is beautiful, though, and it is a privilege to have a nice stretch to explore within walking distance of my house.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Long-billed Curlews along Warnerville Road on the California Prairie

Sometimes you just see odd sights. We were visiting the California prairie a few miles south from where we saw and photographed the Horned Larks. We saw a flock of gray birds in the meadow, and from a distance I thought were maybe some doves, but as we drew closer we could see they had ridiculously long bills.
They were Long-billed Curlews (Numenius americanus)! I'm sure I've seen them before, but I can't find a single picture of one in my archives. It was a surprise to see so many of them out here, as I thought they were shorebirds. It turns out that they are, but they breed in grasslands, and will use their long bills to search for earthworms in the grass, as well as picking off larger insects like grasshoppers from the surface. They will migrate to coastal areas and wetlands and use their bills to dig for invertebrates in the tidal flats.
There were around sixty of them in the corner of the pasture. They didn't seem overly concerned about the traffic passing by (or the crazy couple in the car with the cameras).
We started down the road to look for the Great Horned Owls that we saw two weeks ago, and stopped a quarter mile away. By then something had spooked the flock and the entire group flew by, headed to places unknown.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Horned Larks Along Willms Road, Redux

It's the funniest thing. Once you've seen a thing, you'll always see a thing. Two weeks ago I noticed Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris) during our drive along the prairie on Willms Road south of Knights Ferry in the Sierra Nevada foothills. I took a couple of poorly focused photographs, and posted them at the end of February. I promised to try and get better pictures next time.
So "next time" was today. We drove the road through the prairelands very slowly, and the Horned Larks weren't just "out there", they were next to the road, and they didn't flee when we pulled out the cameras.
There were males and females both. The males are the brightly colored ones. The "horns" are formed by upturned feathers behind their eyes.
The female decided to jump into the grass to show of some of the wildflowers that have started to bloom out here.
The vernal pools had been rejuvenated by the recent rains, and flowers are beginning to show up in abundance. There is such richness right now in this "normal" rain year after four bruising years of drought.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Spotted Towhee at Knight's Ferry

It's that red-eyed sparrow that I keep trying to photograph! Spotted Towhees (Pipilo maculatus) are common enough, apparently, but I mostly see them hiding and rustling around in the underbrush, and flying away if I raise a camera. But it's getting to be springtime, and the males are earnestly looking for mates, so they're spending more time out in the open, singing their hearts out.
Knight's Ferry is a historic village that has the longest covered bridge west of the Mississippi River at 330 feet. The bridge is in this location because it is the last exposure of solid metamorphic bedrock along the Stanislaus River, providing a solid foundation for the structure. It's the second bridge that was built; the first was destroyed by the Great Flood of 1862.
The landscape surrounding Knight's Ferry is mostly flat and gently sloping, but along the river there are rugged cliffs. It provides a variety of habitats for birds of all kinds. Some of the spookier ones are the dozens of Turkey Vultures that like to roost in the high cottonwood trees.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Killdeer at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

There were lots of big "charismatic" migratory birds at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge a few days ago, but there were also some very nice smaller birds who tend to be found on the refuge all year round. One of them is the Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus). I see them at work and in my own neighborhood, but they are pretty skittish. For whatever reason, this one didn't retreat as we drove up, and I was able to get a few close shots.

They aren't called Killdeers for any murderous proclivities. They're named for their unique call, which is a "kill-deer", of all things. It's one of the most distinctive sounds on the California prairie. The Killdeer is the mascot of the Great Valley Museum of Natural History as well.
It's a beautiful bird!