Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Last Stragglers at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge: Greater White-fronted Geese

I made one last quick visit to the Beckwith Road viewing platform on the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge this week. It's closed now, with the quite fair reasoning that no one is left to view! The many thousands of Sandhill Cranes, Cackling Geese, Snow Geese, and Ross's Geese have "flown the coop", heading back north to the Arctic for the summer season. The platform was closed, but the road follows the boundary of the refuge, and as I was leaving I saw the last stragglers, a half dozen Greater White-fronted Geese (Anser albifrons). I can practically see their thinking process..."Two thousand miles? Really? Surely this place isn't THAT bad during the summer. Maybe we'll hang around..."

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

More Signs of Spring: Tree Swallows Nesting at Two-Mile Bar Recreational Area

One of the surest signs of spring is the return of the swallows from their winter sojourn in the tropics. There are a number of swallow species in the Great Valley, but one of the earliest to arrive is the Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor). Like most swallows, they chase and consume insects, but the Tree Swallow can utilize other food sources if insects aren't yet abundant.
The Tree Swallows nest in the hollows of tree trunks, but are well-known for utilizing nest boxes. That's where we found the swallows last weekend. Two-Mile Bar Recreational Area is a rafting take-in site on the Stanislaus River between Knight's Ferry and Jamestown, downstream of the monstrous New Melones Reservoir and Tulloch Lake. Nesting boxes have been placed on the property boundary fences a few dozen yards apart for most of the length of the access road.
There was plenty to see of the emerging signs of spring, including the early blooming wildflowers like the Ithuriel's Spears in the picture above (the bees were certainly happy), and the intense green of the grasses and oak trees growing on the volcanic rocks of the Mehrten Formation above the Stanislaus River.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Horned Lark in the California Prairielands near Knights Ferry

With the first days of spring, we are starting to explore the Sierra Nevada foothills and what's left of the California prairie in the eastern part of the Great Valley. On Saturday we were in the Red Hills, seeing many flowers but few birds, but then we headed down to Willms Road out of Knight's Ferry, a backroad providing access to the many ranches in the foothills. There's a stock pond that we like to check out every so often, and along the way we ran across several Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris) sitting on fenceposts and searching in the grass for tidbits of food.
In case there's any doubt about why they are called "horned" larks, the post-sitting bird turned his head and showed us the upturned feathers that give him his name. The Horned Larks are common birds, but fewer in number than they used to be (perhaps only 30% of their numbers fifty years ago). A likely suspect could be loss of habitat, either to development or to reforestation efforts.
It was a beautiful day on the prairie, perhaps the prettiest kind of day we get all year out here. It's been a wet year, finally, the grass is thick and green and the usually dry waterways are flowing. The foothill rock layers are composed of volcanic mudflows and ash deposits bespeaking a violent origin, but today all was serene.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Great Blue Heron on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon

It's a rainy day outside, so no walks along the river today, and it's been a few weeks since a birding trip, so I didn't have a lot of new material. I was going over some older pictures when I found a few bird shots taken during the greatest adventure of my life, a 17 day rafting trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. It was in August of 2013. I wasn't exactly birding at the time, but I was keen to observe any living things along the river as we floated along. On the third day out we passed a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) lurking in the grasses and sand along the riverbank.
The Herons are such stately creatures, and it seemed extra special to see one in such a dramatic setting. We were a mile or two downstream from Vasey's Paradise, a spot where small waterfalls burst out of the canyon walls. We were in the Redwall Limestone, a layer that is riddled with caverns and fissures. When exposed along the river, the groundwater flowed freely at the surface

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Western Kingbirds arriving in California: San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

One can tell when spring is coming around here in California's Great Valley. There's the greenery, of course, but (sorry, snowbound friends) it tends to be green most of the winter, the grass anyway. The real signs of spring are the comings and goings of the migratory birds. The geese and cranes are getting ready to start their long flights north to the Arctic while other birds, the tropical species, start moving in to spend the summer here.

One of the tropical birds is the Western Kingbird (Tyrannus verticalis). They spend the winter in southern Mexico and Central America, but spend the summers in western North America, with a few going as far as southern Canada.

Our excursion to the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge a week ago included several sightings of  Kingbirds. The sun was on the wrong side for sharp pictures, but I was pleased with the backlit shot above of one taking off. I'm sure we'll have several more opportunities this summer!

Monday, March 20, 2017

Wood Ducks on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail

Well, it's at extreme zoom, and a little bit fuzzy, but darn it I finally got a (semi)clear shot of the Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) that I know have been lurking about on my section of the Tuolumne River where it flows through Waterford. I was walking the Tuolumne Parkway Trail on the bluffs above the water treatment plant when I saw two large birds in the distance. They looked unusually dark for Mallards, so I zoomed in and saw that it was in fact the Wood Duck pair (the male is the colorful one).

I've seen them at least three times previously, but they've been hiding in the willows or so far away as to be impossible to clearly photograph them. Perhaps next time, we'll get some closer views.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Loggerhead Shrike Hunting at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

They're not uncommon, but it's rare for me to get close enough to a Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) for pictures (just twice, so far). I was at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge last week, and though the big and charismatic cranes, swans, and geese were there, they stayed far from the auto-tour road. We found ourselves concentrating on the smaller birds, most of whom are year-round residents. They included the owl chicks we saw, and this Shrike that was keeping an eye on things near the viewing platform at the entrance to refuge.

As I've mentioned in past blog posts, 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.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's an Owl! No, Wait, It's a Northern Harrier at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

We were at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge south of Turlock on Sunday, and saw a number of interesting birds, though not the migratory birds like the geese or cranes. Instead, we were seeing more of the year-round inhabitants of the refuge. The most interesting sights on that particular day were the half dozen Northern Harriers (Circus cyaneus) who were patrolling the grasslands. It's looking to be a pretty good year for the predators. The plentiful rains have produced a bonanza of grass growth and expansion of the wetlands, which in turn leads to rapid population growth of the small rodents who are prey for the Harriers.

At first the Harriers were a challenge to photograph. They were flying in large circles and were moving too fast to capture easily. We finally saw a gray male circling a thicket and his movements were predictable enough that I caught some fairly sharp pictures by letting him fly into the frame. The Harriers are remarkably similar to owls with their flat round faces. The shape gives them a better ability to hear the small rodents in the grass ahead of them.

As we approached the end of the auto-tour, one of the Harriers finally landed in the grass. It stayed still long enough to get a few more shots. The females are brown instead of gray.

The Harriers range from Central America to Canada and the Arctic, depending on the season, and are also found in Europe. They are year-round residents in the Great Valley. They are fairly easy to identify in flight because of the owl-like head, and a distinctive white band at the base of their tail.

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

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Preparing for the Incredible Journey North: Greater White-fronted Geese at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge

In early October the birds numbered in the dozens or hundreds. By late November they were in the thousands and tens of thousands. And then, after a long winter, they are beginning to leave again, headed north to their breeding grounds in the Arctic. They include the Snow and Ross's Geese, the Cackling Geese, and the ones I saw yesterday, the Greater White-fronted Geese (Anser albifrons).
The Beckwith Road viewing platform will be closing soon as more and more birds abandon the refuge and fly north, so I made a last trip out yesterday to see who was still hanging around. There were perhaps a hundred or so of the Greater White-fronted Geese near the road.
Several thousand Snow Geese were visible as well, but they were down by the lake and not easy to photograph. All in all, in the warm sunny weather of the past week they felt like the last few hangers-on, reluctant to start the several thousand mile long journey to their summer home. Given the big storm scheduled for next week, maybe delaying a bit was a good idea...

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

For Pi Day, A Pied-billed Grebe at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

No, I wasn't original enough to think of this for myself (U.S. Fish and Wildlife got there ahead of me), but the Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) was already scheduled as my next bird post, and 3/14, Pi Day, is the perfect day to do it.
We were at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge on Friday, and it was delightful spring day, even though spring is technically still a week away. We saw several Pied-billed Grebes, but had a challenging time getting sharp pictures. They're described as "bird submarines", and it's true enough. At just the moment they would come into focus, they would suddenly disappear, and reappear someplace far away.
The desire to submerge makes a great deal of sense in most situations. Most of their predators, like hawks or eagles, are excellent flyers, and the grebes aren't. If they try to escape by flying they'll be picked off readily. In diving, they aren't as likely to be followed (all bets are off in alligator country, though). They are common birds, found in freshwater environments across North and South America.

Have a great Pi Day!

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Owl Babies! Great Horned Owl Nesting at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

We're at that brief moment in time between the hatching of Great Horned Owl chicks and the leafing out of  the trees in which they build their nests. It seemed to be a good time to go check out the Merced National Wildlife Refuge, so we headed there yesterday to see who was around.
We weren't disappointed! On the south section of the auto-tour we could see a large nest and the bird atop the nest had the characteristic "horns" of a Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus). We couldn't allow ourselves the hope of even seeing the chicks, but as we zoomed in we could make out gray balls of fuzz.
From a different angle we could clearly see two chicks. If they would just turn around!
And they did! I would love to have achieved some close up shots but no one wants to disturb the nestlings, and we weren't allowed out of the car anyway. Just the same, it was a neat moment on a fine day.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Northern Shovelers at the Merced National WIldlife Refuge

It's probably the fault of Walt Disney, or maybe Warner Brothers cartoons, but ducks are kind of comical. It could be their ungainly waddle when they are on land, or their odd shaped beaks. It could be the way many of them dabble for their food, putting their rumps high in the air. They always seem vaguely ridiculous. But as funny as they might seem, the ducks are keenly adapted to their environment. They may be ungainly on land, but they are superb swimmers. Their beaks may be oddly shaped, but they are ideal for getting the kinds of foods available in the watery environments where they live. Dabbling is a good strategy for food gathering in shallow water.

Truth be told, the dabbling ducks probably think humans are one of the strangest looking creatures in all of existence.
In any case, I found the pictures above particularly comical, seeing the look of the colorful male as kind of clueless while the female behind him seemed perfectly satisfied. I wonder what conversation just took place? Is there a caption we could add?
These beautiful ducks are called Northern Shovelers (Anas clypeata), and I see them quite often in the wetlands around our valley. I got these pictures today during our exploration of the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. The Snow and Ross's Geese are still there, as are the Sandhill Cranes, but they were gathered in the interior marshes at the refuge, leaving the pools along the auto-tour to the American Coots and the Shovelers.
The Northern Shoveler is one of the more common ducks, with a range that includes most of the northern hemisphere, though they are mainly found in North America, Europe, and India. Their population has remained stable while many other species have declined in abundance over the last half century.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

A Bird That Doesn't Get Much Respect: The American Coot

Here's a bird that doesn't get very much respect: the American Coot (Fulica Americana). After all, what is that we call an eccentric or crotchety person, especially an old man? I was mildly shocked to go down my list of blog posts to find that I've never done one about the coots. Still, they are versatile birds that do very well in aquatic environments. I see them often when we tour our local refuges, but maybe because they are common, I find I've taken few pictures of them. I did take a few, though, when we stopped in at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge during our holiday travels. They have very interesting red eyes.

The coots are not ducks, but are instead more closely related to Sandhill Cranes and rails. They don't have webbed feet, for one thing, and aren't the most graceful of flyers. They consume vast amounts of vegetation, but are also opportunists who will eat bugs and crustaceans at times. They are common in any bodies of water from Central America all the way to Canada.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Bird-watching in the Yard? Nah, Never Anything Interesting...What?

Sometimes one might think that birdwatching in the yard is slightly monotonous. I've found that's not actually true, as I've probably seen two or three dozen species in my own, but I've never seen this in my 26 years at this address. Two snakes, yes. An occasional possum, yes. But leaving for work this afternoon, it was a Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo). It had been in my front yard, but got up and wandered off down the street (unnoticed by quite a few neighbords!).

We had been working in the back yard a little earlier in the day and heard some odd vocalizations that we couldn't identify or locate, but I'm thinking it might have been the Turkey hiding out behind the fence.

The lesson? Don't sell your yard short as a place to see interesting birds!

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Speaking of California Endemics, Here Are Some Yellow-billed Magpies, Found Nowhere Else in the World

The Sierra Nevada is a barrier to more than just humans. Magpies "invaded" the western United States from Asia perhaps 3-4 million years ago, but the populations became isolated as the Sierra rose to higher and higher elevations, separating the Great Valley and Coast Ranges from the rest of the west. Eventually there were two races of magpie, the widespread Black-billed Magpie found across the western states from Canada to Mexico, and the Yellow-billed Magpie (Pica nuttalli), endemic only to California. There is very little mixing of their ranges.

They are entertaining to watch, and are easily seen in my area. I saw these two apparently having a quiet argument on top of a street light ("I'm not speaking to you!") on the west campus of Modesto Junior College (actually, they were just sitting and watching things; I'm not supposed to anthropomorphize animals). Most of the time they are kind of raucous.

They used to be more numerous, at times forming large flocks, but they were decimated, almost catastrophically, by the West Nile Virus. Beginning about 2005, between 50-75% of the population was killed off, until the few resistant ones could begin to reproduce in larger numbers. The birds are making a fairly decent comeback. It would have been a terrible shame to lose them.

Monday, March 6, 2017

A California Endemic, Nuttall's Woodpecker on the Tuolumne River

The Tuolumne River Parkway Trail has been closed for a couple of weeks while the operators of Don Pedro Reservoir try to build up some storage space by flooding the lower river. The waters have been flowing at around 10,000 cubic feet per second since early January. The emergency spillway was open for several days, increasing flows to 18,000 cfs, and putting portions of the trail underwater, but the spillway closed a few days ago, so the river level has fallen a little. I got down to the trail this afternoon, and except for one makeshift detour past a flooded stretch, I was able to follow the whole trail. And no one else was there. Except for lots of birds.
The most striking discovery of the day were several Nuttall's Woodpeckers (Picoides nuttallii) exploring the old cottonwood trees above the river. I haven't seen any since May of last year, so it was a bit of a delight. I wasted a lot of shots trying to hit fast-moving targets.
Along with the Yellow-billed Magpies and the Santa Cruz Island Scrub Jay, the Nuttall's Woodpecker is endemic to California (at least as long as you count Baja; about 1% of the population is found there). They live in the oak woodlands and chaparral zones of the state, although they don't consume acorns. They mostly spend their time search the crevices in tree bark for insects.