Saturday, December 31, 2016

Juvenile Bald Eagle at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

Photo by Mrs. Geotripper
In all of the excitement of seeing the Bald Eagle yesterday, we almost missed another. While we were parked and snapping pictures of the adult, Mrs. Geotripper spotted another really large bird flying away off to our right.  She wondered if it was a vulture or some such, but it was flying in a very stable fashion (vultures tend to tip back and forth a bit while they soar). It landed a short distance away so we crept forward to see if we could get some pictures. As usual, Mrs. Geotripper got the best shot (above).
The Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is of course the national bird of the United States, and it seems ironic that we just about killed it off, as the state of California did with its mammal, the California Grizzly Bear. The eagles were hunted, for one, but they were also poisoned by DDT. Their numbers plummeted in the middle 1990s, but the ban on DDT and their listing as an endangered species allowed their numbers to recover. I fear we are entering another dark age, as the politicians who are taking power in a few weeks have stated their opposition to both the Endangered Species Act, and the control of poisons in our environment through the Environmental Protection Agency. We have so much to lose.

A short postscript. Mrs. Geotripper reminded me that I took a short video of the eagle! Here it is:

Friday, December 30, 2016

Bald Eagle at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge (and one in Oregon)

Photo by Mrs. Geotripper
I spent the better part of two weeks in the Pacific Northwest visiting relatives for the holidays, and I knew we had a good chance to glimpse some Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), seeing as they are more common up that way. We did in fact see a few, but few decent pictures emerged from my efforts. On the way home, we stopped, as we almost always do, at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, and wouldn't you know there was a Bald Eagle hanging out on a small island right next to auto-tour road in the refuge. Mrs. Geotripper got the best shot (above).
The Sacramento Refuge has a very scenic backdrop for bird viewing, with the highest part of the California Coast Ranges to the west, Lassen Peak and other volcanoes to the north, and the Sutter Buttes to the southeast.
We mentioned our excitement about seeing eagles on our Facebook page, and found out that two of them were sitting in a tree next to the Oregon house that we had just left! It's too ironic. Anyway, I did actually see one of those eagles in Oregon, but it was high above, and I got just this fuzzy shot of it soaring over my head.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Hermit Thrush at Cape Perpetua, Oregon

I don't see Hermit Thrushes (Catharus guttatus) very often, and catching photographs of them has proven difficult (although I have a few). I've been on the road, as is usual for this time of year, and we were stopped at Cape Perpetua on the central Oregon Coast to have a look at the pounding surf. I haven't been expecting to see all that many birds out and about in the winter environment, but I've been pleasantly surprised many times over. As we were leaving the visitor center at the Cape, I saw a bird lurking just over my head, and there was the thrush! It felt close enough to touch, but as you can see, the angle for pictures was very steep. 
For the most part, Hermit Thrushes spend the winter much further to the south, especially in the southern tier of American states and Mexico. The exception is the west coast of the United States, where they may winter as far north as Washington state. The climate stays warmer because of the moderating effect of the nearby Pacific Ocean.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

A Red-breasted Sapsucker in Washington for Christmas

Merry Christmas all! I didn't really expect to have a Christmas bird today, but later on in the afternoon I walked to a park in Renton, just south of Seattle, Washington. I heard a drumming in the pines over my head, and was lucky enough to spot a Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber) high above. I got a couple of shots before it disappeared.

The Red-breasted Sapsucker is a bird of the West Coast, ranging from Southern California to Alaska, but never ranging farther east than the Sierra or the Cascades. They prefer the lower elevations of coniferous forests. The "sapsucker" name refers to their practice of drilling a linear series of holes in tree trucks that starts sap running. The birds then can consume the sap itself (by lapping it up, not sucking) or feeding on the bugs that become trapped in the sap.
It was a pleasant Christmas surprise to see a new bird, the third new bird seen on this trip!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Very Small, Very Tough, and Fearless: Golden-crowned Kinglet below Mt. St. Helens, Washington

I was privileged to catch sight of some Golden-crowned Kinglets (Regulus satrapa) today. We were at Silver Lake in Washington state. The lake was formed by mudflows from nearby Mt. St. Helens thousands of years ago.
The sense of privilege comes from the fact that I've never seen any before, and because their preferred habitat is way up in the canopy of conifer forests, where they search for bugs. In these winter days, the bugs are less prevalent, so these kinglets had come down to the pavement in the parking lot for the Mt. St. Helens Visitor Center, looking for seeds or bugs on the ground.
Fearless? Yes, they danced around the pavement less than 10 feet away from me. Frenetic? Yes! They never stopped moving while I was watching them and trying to get a few photographs. I took 30 shots or more, and only four or five came out at all. Look below to see an average shot...
A real-life Angry Bird?
Tough? Yes. It is the beginning of winter, and these birds weren't messing around with migration to warmer climes. According to the Cornell Ornithology website, they can survive temperatures of -40 degrees, sometimes huddling together for warmth. It's amazing that they don't freeze; they're barely bigger than hummingbirds!
Very small, very tough, and fearless. But also quite beautiful!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

If It's a Common Bird, Make Sure It Has Attitude: Song Sparrow at Yachats, Oregon

I haven't covered that many sparrows on this blog so far. I'm still pretty new at this game, and have limited confidence when it comes to telling them apart. It doesn't help that the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) has 24 recognized subspecies! But I posted one today because it had some serious attitude. And comes from a highly varied background.
We were driving along the Oregon coast near Yachats when we got out for a view of the waves (which were pretty intense today due to an approaching storm). I was looking far out to sea, but this little sparrow was on the bush right in front of me singing its heart out, and pretty much daring me to take pictures.
The Song Sparrows are a widespread North American species, with a range that extends from southern Alaska and Canada into northern Mexico. There is an additional isolated population in central Mexico that is 900 miles from any other Song Sparrows.

The many subspecies and regional differences are emblematic of how evolution proceeds. The birds are common and widespread, but encounter different environments at the margins of their range. These different habitats favor different adaptations, such as size or coloration, or different food preferences. If populations become isolated, they may become differentiated enough to be classified as separate species.

If you've ever wondered about how Darwin's 13 species of Galapagos finches came about, or the 56 species (living and extinct) of Honeycreepers of Hawai'i, then these very common North American birds provide some insight. Variation is the key to evolutionary change.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Northern Harrier at Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area

I haven't had many chances to catch pictures of Northern Harriers (Circus cyaneus). It's not that we haven't seen any, it's just that when we do, they are flying and swooping some distance away. It looked like it was going to be another of that kind of day today as well.

We were headed out towards the South Jetty of Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area to have a look at the pounding surf, and we saw a pair of birds flying low over the prairie grasses inland from the coast. I took them to be gulls out the corner of my eye but then realized they were flying differently.

In war movies, there's the occasional reference to flying beneath the radar, with planes skimming the surface and all, and that's what these birds were doing. They hardly ever went more than 10 feet off the ground as they soared across the landscape, appearing and disappearing around the high shrubs. I finally saw the flash of white at the base of their tails, and I knew they were Northern Harriers.
Still, it wasn't easy getting any pictures. One of them was actually paralleling the road, so we were able to follow it for more than a mile before losing it in the distant brush. We argued about whether to back down the road to see if it had circled back behind us but then I looked across the road through the window, and there was a Harrier perched on a log just a few yards away from us.
A bit fuzzy, but this was my best shot showing the owl-like face of the Harrier Hawk.
They have a short round face that strongly resembles an owl. In an evolutionary sense, this is an adaptation that enables the owls to hear sounds better, and the Harrier Hawks also depend a great deal on hearing for their hunting as they soar close to the ground. This sort of thing is called convergent evolution, when totally different organisms evolve similar features. Sharks and dolphins are examples of the same sort of convergence.

POSTSCRIPT (7/6/17): The scientific name of the Northern Harrier has been changed to Circus hudsonius

Monday, December 19, 2016

Western Grebe at Clear Lake (and some neat ripples)

I wasn't actually out birding or anything like that today, I was just taking a short break from a long drive. But we stopped for the break at Clear Lake, an interesting natural lake in the Coast Ranges north of the Bay Area. It is the largest natural lake entirely in California (Tahoe is larger, but partly in Nevada; Salton Sea is larger, but was an accident). According to Wikipedia, the lake covers 68 square miles and averages 27 feet in depth (greatest depth is 60 feet). It is in an area of active volcanism, with magma-related geothermal developments nearby, and some volcanoes that are only 10,000 years old  (Mt. Konockti, see picture below). The volcanism is kind of a surprise, since there are no subduction zones or divergent boundaries nearby.
The Western Grebes (Aechmophorus occidentalis) and the closely related Clarke's Grebe are pretty much purely aquatic birds (their legs are set so far back that they are extremely clumsy on land). They live and breed in inland freshwater lakes in summer, and spend winters at sea along the Pacific coast. The two species were once thought to be one, but there are physical and genetic differences, and they very rarely interbreed.

I was photographing the birds for their own sake, of course, but later I noticed the incredibly symmetrical ripples around the bird in the first two pictures. I don't know how I missed them at the time I was snapping the pictures.
I did take a moment to photograph the volcano. It was a pretty sight today (previous trips had been in bad weather). Clear Lake has a few problems, but it is an underrated treasure in the natural landscape of California.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Victorious Hunter, an American Kestrel on the Tuolumne Parkway Trail

I'm getting to know this particular American Kestrel (Falco sparverius). It has a favorite perch near the western end of the Tuolumne Parkway Trail in Waterford, and even made an appearance on this blog previously (at least I assume so, given the repeated appearances on the same treetop). Today, it was giving a victory call after procuring an unfortunately lizard (I felt bad for the lizard, but "circle of life" and all that; Kestrels themselves get preyed on by larger birds like hawks and owls).
The Kestrel along the Tuolumne River rarely lets me get close enough for a sharp picture (these shots are with a 60x zoom).  I'll probably never get as good a chance to photograph a Kestrel as I did last year in May along Willms Road. You can check those pictures out here:

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Western Bluebirds on a Foggy Cold Morning

We'll get back to the ducks from the Sacramento NWR shortly, but I was getting out of my car this morning when I realized that there were warblers and bluebirds flitting about in the deodar tree under which I had parked. I've been missing these little songbirds this year, so I grabbed the camera. A few of the Western Bluebirds (Sialia mexicana) were nice enough to land on the signs nearby and pose (or stare balefully).
It was a cold morning, and we're starting to see our hated foggy days. Such gray days can get old quickly, so it was nice to see a flash of color in the gloom!

Monday, December 5, 2016

Gadwalls at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

I have to learn birds one group at a time. I've been pretty slow at getting around to the ducks because I don't see all that many in my bird travels. So I still have to take the picture and then look it up, although the Gadwall (Anas strepera) has appeared on these pages before. They aren't flashy like the Mallards and the Cinnamon Teals, but I find the intricate pattern of the feathers on their breast to be fascinating. Any duck hunter knows of them; they're the third most hunted of the ducks.
We had made a stop last week at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge near Williams in California's Great Valley, and the ducks were kind of center stage (the Snow Geese were in another part of the refuge). We also saw a great many Cinnamon Teals (see this post from last week), Green-winged Teals, and Northern Pintails (more posts to come). The 6 mile long auto tour is one of our favorites (along with the one at the Merced NWR).

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Snow Geese, Cackling Geese, and Ross's Geese at the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge, Pt. 2

It's an incredible sight to see the migratory geese making their winter home in the Great Valley of California. As noted in the previous post, we were watching the geese swirling into the fields for the night at the Beckwith Road viewing platform in the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge. The first video showed them arriving. They're a fractious bunch though, and it takes some time to settle. Once in a while, thousands of birds will suddenly take flight, only to land a few moments later. That's what the second video shows. If the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz gave you nightmares in your childhood, you might want to cover your eyes! There is some extraneous noise on this one; a couple of teens decided to practice skateboarding on the platform while I shot the video. Oh well...


Snow Geese, Cackling Geese, and Ross's Geese at the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge, Pt. 1

I fell for the ruse. I was duped into Christmas shopping on a Saturday, because it included a quick trip out to the Beckwith Road viewing platform at the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge west of Modesto in the Great Valley. It was a decent trade-off. When we pulled up, it looked like we would be disappointed, as the fields were almost empty of birds. But then the magic started...the sky filled with geese coming from all directions, all spiraling towards the field west of the viewing platform. There were dozens, then hundreds, and then thousands of them.
The Cackling Geese arrived first, and the few Ross's Geese looked a bit confused and lost, but the tornado of white birds expanded, and more and more of them arrived. It was an astounding sight. I took a few videos. The first is below. I'll post the second in a few moments.