Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Yellow Warbler (and a Western Tanager) on the Tuolumne River

A couple of weeks ago I saw a Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) for the first time, and posted a fuzzy picture. I said I'd work harder to get a less fuzzy photograph next time around, and that finally happened today. It's only one photograph, because the bird perched above me for only the most fleeting of moments, but that's what you get sometimes. I was on my normal walk on the Tuolumne Parkway Trail in Waterford.
The one I still need to work on is the Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana). In that same post a few weeks ago, I had a very poor shot of a Tanager along the same section of trail, and I saw one again about a week ago. Unfortunately it was almost completely silhouetted in the shadows, and I had to really work the contrast to bring out the colors of the bird (above). The image is sharper, but I'm still not happy yet. I guess I'll just have to keep walking...

Update 5/22/18: I'm pretty sure that's not a Yellow Warbler at the top, but I don't know exactly what it is: an Oriole? A female Tanager? Some help would be appreciated!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

A Pair of Belted Kingfishers on the Tuolumne River

It's been a battle of wits and tweets. I've known there were Belted Kingfishers (Megaceryle alcyon) on the Tuolumne River. As a species, the bird is common all across North America, and the Tuolumne River where I live is excellent habitat, providing good fishing, lots of riparian vegetation for perching, and high dirt banks that are perfect for digging nesting burrows. I've even seen them a couple of times, perched along the section of the river where I've seen otters a few times now. But so far there was nothing to show in terms of photography. They've been too far away and unfocused in the few pictures I've attempted.
I was back on the river today making my usual trek along the Tuolumne Parkway Trail, and I made my way down to the banks of the river to a favorite sitting spot (I've seen both otters and raccoons from here recently). There was a lot of chattering in the trees, but I couldn't quite see who was responsible.
This is the last thing a fish sees sometimes...
Before long it was clear that the noisemakers were a pair of Belted Kingfishers. I'm not sure they were excited about me in particular because they were patrolling a large section of the river downstream, flying back and forth, perching briefly, and then patrolling again.
Once in a while they landed close enough to snap a few okay shots from a distance of about 200-300 feet. The pair were male and female. Kingfishers are one of the few bird species in which the female is more brightly colored. The male has a plain white breast (with the black "belt" near the neck). The females (top photo) have some rusty bands as well.
I waited for some time, and they teased me by coming closer and perching in a nearby tree that made focusing a bit harder (it'll work one of these times!). Finally, I needed to get going so I started walking back downstream. As if to tease me, the female landed on the tree snag practically over my head and posed for a single shot, the one that appears at the top of the post. And then they flew off again, chattering and twittering away.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Cassin's Kingbird at Dana Point, California

We are still catching up with a summer of bird watching! I was in Southern California in early July, and we found ourselves at Dana Point along the Orange County Coast. I saw what I assumed was a Western Kingbird, which are common around my home region in spring and summer. It wasn't until much later looking at the photos that I noticed the slight green color to the back feathers, and the white patch under the throat. It was a Kingbird, but not one I've seen before. Cassin's Kingbirds (Tyrannus vociferans) have been seen back home in Stanislaus County, but so rarely that sightings cause some local excitement among birders.

Dana Point is a particularly beautiful stretch of California coast, with some nice cliffs and mountains nearby. We saw the Cassin's Kingbird at a gazebo that overlooks the small harbor.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Allen's Hummingbird in Costa Mesa (Maybe)

For today's post, we find out why I'm still an amateur at the birding game. I was touring the Sherman Gardens in Costa Mesa in Southern California at the beginning of July. In other words, I was on unfamiliar ground. The gardens were nice to tour, and there was a hummingbird. It posed for me. It just sat there waiting for me to finish snapping a few pictures. It was clearly a Rufous Hummingbird female (Selasphorus rufus), since the Rufous is the only golden colored hummingbird I know (from my area, anyway).
But I wasn't in my home area. So I looked it up, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology had this to say: "Female and juvenile Rufous and Allen's hummingbirds are nearly indistinguishable in the field - it's probably better not to try to identify them during migration, when their ranges overlap considerably."

An Allen's? What's that? So it's an Allen's Hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin). Maybe. They live in the coastal areas of Southern California and Mexico. Or a Rufous Hummingbird, which has a much wider range across the American West, but the area we were in is a migration route rather than a breeding or wintering ground. So I settled on the Allen's for the title of the post. I welcome an identification from an expert!

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Female Black-chinned Hummingbird on the Tuolumne River

Female hummingbirds can be hard to tell apart. I'm going with the white eye spot and slightly curved beak to call this one a Black-chinned Hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri). I've also seen males on these same shrubs. The hummingbirds in general have been one of the most common birds I've seen along the Tuolumne Parkway Trail over the last few days. Some of the shrubs are flowering despite the dry conditions, providing a food source. There have been quite a few bugs flying in the air, and hummingbirds aren't at all averse to consuming bugs. They need the protein. They need the sugar too, given that their metabolism is such that they could starve in the space of a few hours or a day.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Black-headed Grosbeak on the Tuolumne River

It's another case of a bird species being relatively common, but not for me. I saw a Black-headed Grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus) a few days ago while I was strolling on the Tuolumne Parkway Trail where the Tuolumne River flows into the Great Valley. The Grosbeaks spend the summer in the United States and southernmost Canada, and migrate to Mexico and Central America for the winter. The males and females have kind of an egalitarian relationship, as they both will tend to the nest, sit on the eggs and feed the young.

I wasn't close, so the sharp focused pictures will have to come at a different time! I'll keep trying...

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Young Turkey Vulture (or a Vampire) on the Tuolumne River

I didn't see many birds on my stroll along the Tuolumne River this morning, and I'm not entirely convinced that this Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) would have seen its reflection in a mirror. This may be the same juvenile I ran across a few weeks ago. I've seen it several times now along the same section of the Parkway Trail. I'm going to start carrying garlic and a cross with me on these walks.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

California Thrasher at Crystal Cove Beach, Southern California

I grew up in Southern California, and had a good thirty years to learn something about the birds to be found there, and learned hardly a thing. I saw one of the last free-roaming California Condors before they were trapped for captive breeding (they were down to two dozen or so at the time, and now they are back in the wild). But that was about it. I could identify crows and mockingbirds, basically.
California is a good environment for birds, being at a cross-roads between the tropical environments to the south and the Mediterranean climate of the L.A. Basin. I don't have many chances to get back to the region, but I was at Crystal Cove State Beach early in the summer and had a chance to check out some local species. I walked out on the wilderness bluffs above the beach and didn't see much of anything. The drought has really put the hurt on the coastal chaparral. I walked back to the car, and there was a thrasher, not two feet from my front tires! I'm assuming it is a California Thrasher (Toxostoma redivivum). It is one of a fairly short list of California endemic bird species (I tend to group Baja and Alta California together). They've been noted in the Sierra Foothills and Coast Ranges in my area of Central California, but I've yet to see one there.
It was admittedly not the best day to be at the beach, given the overcast, but it was really nice to see an uncrowded beach in Southern California. Crystal Cove is a state park just south of Corona Del Mar in Orange County. Getting to the beach requires a walk of a few hundred yards, which is more than a lot of people want to do.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Green Heron on the Tuolumne River (with video)

Now that I've been home a few days, I've been patrolling the Tuolumne Parkway Trail, trying to maintain some semblance of health, and of course I'm always watching for birds and other animals (I finally saw some River Otters a few weeks back). I know that at least one Green Heron (Butorides virescens) has been living along the western stretch of the trail, because I've seen it lurking in the brush three or four times. Unfortunately, it's almost always at dusk, and pictures have been difficult. I caught some pretty nice shots almost a year ago (see them here), but there's been nothing since.
Today's walk was almost totally uneventful. No Orioles, no Tanagers, no raptors, just a pleasant stroll in the morning. I was about to start up the long stairwell at the end of the hike, and saw a bird fly through the underbrush out the corner of my eye. I took the chance to briefly avoid climbing the 146 steps and watch the brush at the irrigation outfall pond. You can see from the picture above how hard it was to see the heron, but it stuck around long enough for a couple of pictures (focusing was a real challenge). Actually, I was the one who gave up, because this heron was going to get one of the frogs jumping around in the pond below, and wasn't going anywhere.
I took a bit of video so you can observe the bird doing an inventory of the frogs in the pond below.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

White-rumped Shama on Kaua'i in the Hawaiian Islands

Back to Hawai'i! During our early summer trip to the islands, I had an opportunity to see quite a few new and different bird species. The native species were so decimated by the arrival of humans and invasive alien species that they are rarely seen, at least in urban areas where most tourists congregate. They tend to see instead a diverse group of tropical birds introduced from all over the world. The White-rumped Shama (Copsychus malabaricus) is no exception. It was introduced to Kaua'i in the early 1930s, and later to Oahu and Molokai.
The bird has been called the Shama Thrush in the past, but is said to be more closely related to the flycatcher family. They are native to southeast Asia. The species has a highly melodious song, and I hear them more often than I see them.
They like to hide in thick forest, but this particular individual did me the favor of hanging out in a tree next to the luau being held at our hotel in Kapa'a on the island of Kaua'i. Sure, I was taking pictures of our students all dressed up, and the dancers dancing, but I was rather easily distracted by this beautiful bird, too.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Greatest and Least (Yellowlegs and Sandpipers) along the Tuolumne

It sounds all wrong, but water treatment plants are good places for bird watching. The treatment plant at Waterford is hard to miss because it is on the Tuolumne River, and right in the middle of the Tuolumne Parkway Trail. The trail climbs to the top of the bluff to circumvent it. The thing is, the purpose of treating the water is to clean it, and the open water attracts birds. Local birders conduct trips to the treatment plants for Modesto and Ceres because of the dozens of species to be found there. It's simply not as bad as it sounds!
The Waterford treatment plant is smaller, and thus I don't see as many birds there (they have other choices in the area, like the Tuolumne River itself, and a number of dredging ponds), but there are some. For the last few weeks there has been a small group of Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca). They are very similar to Lesser Yellowlegs, especially to my untrained eye, but the bills of the Greater are longer than the skull, and that seems to be the case here (as always, I am open to correction!).
There were three or four smaller birds flocking with the Yellowlegs, and I first thought they were juveniles, but I think they are actually Least Sandpipers (Calidris minutill). I am far less confident about the species choice though, as I've come to understand that the sandpipers can be very hard to tell apart, especially in fuzzy pictures.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Bullock's Orioles (and others) on the Tuolumne River Parkway

Once you've identified them the first time around, you start seeing them more often. I saw a Bullock's Oriole (Icterus bullockii) a bit over a week ago on the Tuolumne Parkway Trail in Waterford, and then the other day I got a look at more of them. Mama was apparently feeding a young teenager in the fig trees that arch over the trail. I'll have to enjoy them while I can. In a few weeks they'll be migrating south for the winter.
A few moments later I saw a male Oriole a few yards away up in the cottonwood tree, but should have realized it was actually a Hooded Oriole (Icterus cucullatus). The yellow head is the giveaway. That of course makes me wonder if I misidentified the female and juvenile too, but my impression is that the bills aren't curved enough to be Hooded Orioles, and they have too much white coloring on their breasts. I'm open to correction!

Friday, August 5, 2016

Yellow Warbler and Western Tanager on the Tuolumne River

The pictures aren't up to my personal standards for non-fuzziness, but I was able to add some new birds to my tally of species seen along the Tuolumne River where it flows into the Great Valley at Waterford. Neither of the birds are rare, but it's the first time I've seen them along the Tuolumne Parkway Trail. My personal count is up to 55 species, and I know there are many more to be found.

There was a specific snag where I've seen a number of birds over the last two years, but much to my surprise, the snag was gone this morning. I worked my way through the brush and found the tree fallen into the ravine. And there on the branches of the fallen tree was a Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia). Yellow Warblers are common and widespread, ranging from Northern Alaska and Canada to the tropics of Central and South America. So why haven't I seen any before? I've gotta get better at this!
I will never get pictures of a Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana) that can improve on those that I took in May of 2014 (below), but up to now I've not seen a tanager along the Parkway Trail. In a sense, I still haven't, because I snapped the picture above thinking it was something else. It wasn't until I was going over the shots that I realized this bird had an orange head. Just so you can see what these beautiful birds look like, here is one of the 2014 pictures: