Friday, October 28, 2016

Cackling Geese and Sandhill Cranes Arrive at the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge

One of the pleasures of the fall semester is that short break I have between the afternoon lab and the evening class. That's just enough time to drive over to the Beckwith Road viewing platform for the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge (about ten miles west of Modesto). Tens of thousands of winter migrants shelter here, including Snow Goose, Ross's Goose, Greater White-fronted Goose, and today's visitors, Aleutian Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii), and Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis).
The Cackling Geese were once thought to be a small subspecies of the Canada Goose, but DNA analysis indicates they are a separate species. They breed in Arctic environments, then migrate to the United States for the winter. They have a wide range in the American Midwest, but tend to be concentrated into just a few refuges in California's Central Valley. The San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge is one of them. During the summer, the refuge managers grow crops of corn, and selectively cut the stalks during the winter so the birds can have a secure food source throughout the winter months. The birds were rather agitated when I was there Tuesday because tractors were mowing part of the pasture. I'm guessing there were around a thousand near the viewing platform.
There were hundreds of Sandhill Cranes at the refuge as well, but they were far away from the viewing platform. We saw them at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge during our visit a couple of weeks ago. They were far away, but their calls carried a great distance. They are gorgeous elegant birds. In a few months, as the corn starts to run a bit short, they'll be hanging out much closer to the road.
Look for occasional reports in coming months. I try to get out there at least once a week.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Barn Swallows on the Oregon-Washington Coast

There are several birds that I see often but have a hard time capturing in a photograph. The Steller's Jays in the last post are an example. Today we visit with another, the Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica). They are common around the irrigation canals around my home, and they are indeed abundant all over the country (in summer; in winter they are found all over South America). But they don't stay still! They swoop and soar all over the place, and only occasionally stop to rest.
I finally caught a few taking a break during my summer vacation along the Pacific Northwest coast. Several were perched on the roof of a house in Florence, Oregon, and a few days later I found another building a nest in the eaves of the restaurant at Kalaloch Resort on the coast of Washington in Olympic National Park.
The birds are great aerial acrobats, chasing myriad numbers of bugs in the air. Their flying ability also shows in their extensive migrations from South America to North America and back again. They are also adaptable. They once built nests primarily in caves, but fewer do so now. They've taken over eaves and bridges wherever humans develop a landscape.

They are beautiful colorful birds, at least when they sit still long enough for you to get a good look!

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Steller's Jay Family at Humboldt Redwoods State Park

When I'm traveling in the mountains, I never fail to see a Steller's Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri). More than just about any bird, they've adapted to the presence of humans in their habitat, and as such are common birds at every campground and picnic area. Despite their abundance, I've almost never managed to catch many good shots. They are in constant motion, so almost all my shots are bright blue blurs.
I've fallen so far behind in my bird postings that I forgot that I managed a few nice shots of some Steller's Jays at Albee Creek Campground at Humboldt Redwoods State Park in Northern California. We were on the first day of our Pacific Northwest vacation, and had discovered this quiet corner of one of California's most busy state parks. Albee Creek is a couple of miles off of Highway 101 in a forest of giant Redwood trees.
The jays were doing their usual thing, looking for scraps of food in the campsite. I realized after a while that two of the jays were smaller and were clearly juveniles getting trained in the art of campground scavenging. The birds are intelligent and resourceful, able to adapt to changing conditions. That's why they deal so well with human habitats.
Juvenile Steller's Jay
Albee Creek Campground is located along a meadow ringed by Redwood trees. It was an old homestead that was incorporated into the state park when it was established in the 1920s. Mattole Road, which provides access to the campground, winds over the ridges to one of the most isolated parts of the California shoreline, the Lost Coast around Cape Mendocino. It's a fascinating place to explore.

It Was a Sign: Northern Flickers!

I've been missing in action as usual, and I wasn't sure what bird to feature next. I've got a backlog. One of the top choices I was looking at was a set of pictures that I caught of a Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) that I took while on my usual walk along the Tuolumne Parkway Trail last week. I kept getting distracted with work and study and neglected to post anything for most of last week.
Then, this morning I was walking towards my office when I saw a bird perched far above on the fourth floor. It was a little weird to see a bird up there period but this one looked different from the usual dove or starling. I got out the camera and zoomed in to see what it was. It was a flicker! I finally realized it was a sign: post the pictures of the here they are.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Acorn Woodpecker at Sequoia National Park

I have such a backlog of bird pictures accumulated in the last three weeks. I've been to the Cascades of Northern California, the Merced National Wildlife Refuge, and Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks, and there are riches at each. And I have so little time available, having reached the middle of the semester...

The Sequoia trip was the most recent, and we didn't actually see a great many birds, but at our first stop in the park, one of my students noticed the Acorn Woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus) in the trees above our vehicles. We were at the Foothills Visitor Center in the lower elevations of the park where the vegetation is dominated more by oak trees and chaparral. That's the ideal habitat for the woodpeckers. They have plenty of acorns, and lots of large "granary trees" where they drill thousands of holes to store their nutty treasures. They are very social birds, and generate a lot of noise as they chase through the tree tops. They are among my favorites.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Loggerhead Shrike at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

While we were driving past the Tule Elk enclosure at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge last weekend, a Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) landed on the nearby fence to see what we were up to. I don't see them that often, and it is rare for me to get any decent shots of any (there was this one time last year, though).

The Loggerhead Shrike is related to the songbirds, but behaves like a small raptor, eating large bugs, amphibians, small reptiles and mammals, and even other small birds. According to the Cornell Ornithology site, their population has been in a steep decline, perhaps due to ingestion of pesticides in their prey.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

It's Fall! The Cedar Waxwings are Passing Through

It's one of the signs of the changing of the seasons: every fall and spring, the Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) migrate through our region on their way to Mexico and Central America (fall) or the Pacific Northwest and southern Canada (spring). I was walking along the Tuolumne River this afternoon when I saw an unfamiliar bird flit through the oak tree. I tried to see where it was perching and slowly realized that there were quite a few of them hidden among the branches. I got these couple of pictures before a flock of 20-25 took off and headed east.

They've perched occasionally in my flowering pear tree in the front yard allowing me to get some close-up photos. I'll keep you posted!

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Sandhill Cranes Are Back in California!

It's a moment I enjoy, the first journey out to our local wildlife refuge to see the returning Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis). The first few hundred have arrived at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge in California's Great Valley. Within weeks they will number more than 10,000. The cranes have been spending the summer in northern climes, as far away as Alaska.
They are grand birds with a huge wingspan. They graze in the grasslands looking for seeds and grains, but are not averse to the taking of an occasional amphibian or invertebrates.
The birds are famous for their complex mating dances. I got a few moments of some of them at practice this afternoon. It was pretty far away so there are heat waves and all, but it was fun to watch.

The Merced National Wildlife Refuge is a valuable part of the system of refuges that line the Central Valley. 95% of the original environment of the Great Valley has been consumed by agricultural and urban development with the attendant loss of habitat for millions upon millions of birds.
The refuges provide critical food resources and protection from predators and accidents. It's not just for the 15,000 or so cranes. Tens of thousands of Snow and Ross's Geese spend the winter in the refuges. There are hundreds of year-round resident species as well. Those are Black-necked Stilts in the foreground of the picture above.
The Sandhill Cranes mate for life, and they can live a long time. According to the ever-useful Cornell bird site, they can live in the wild for more than thirty years.
The birds are doing well overall, but some individual populations are threatened by habitat loss.
The call of the Sandhill Crane is hard to describe, sort of a low-pitched trill, but it can carry for a long distance. I've heard them clearly, and looked for them, only to find that they are thousands of feet up in the sky, or half a mile or more away across the fields.
It was wonderful to see them at home today!