Sunday, April 30, 2017

Northern Rough-winged Swallows on the Tuolumne River

These birds had me fooled last year, but never again (yeah, sure...). The Northern Rough-winged Swallows (Stelgidopteryx serripennis) I photographed looked to me like juveniles of something else, but I was quickly corrected, and I figured out their identity right away this week when I walked the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail in Waterford (in retrospect I wonder if last year's birds could have been Bank Swallows?). They've been soaring over the raging Tuolumne (and I'm not kidding about that; it's been at flood stage for 4 months now), but a number of them seem to be nesting in a high embankment over the river about midway along the trail between Reinway and the water treatment plant. I can't tell for sure; the cliff is sheer, and there is nowhere to get a view below without having a very good chance of plunging into the river.
I worry about the embankment a little. It's a steep drop of 15-20 feet to the river, and the base has been soaking in the flood for four months now, so sapping is causing nearly continuous collapse of the cliff. If they are using burrows there, I wouldn't be surprised if some nests have been lost.

The Northern Rough-winged Swallows are bit less colorful than their swallow cousins, but they are the equal of the others in every other way. They are fabulous aerial acrobats, flying inches above the water chasing bugs. They are relatively common across the United States during the spring and summer, but like the others they migrate to Mexico and Central America during the winter months.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Hooded Orioles at Fox Grove

After my unsuccessful attempt at sighting Hooded Orioles in Hemet last week (I found Acorn Woodpeckers instead), I wanted about the closest thing to a sure thing as I could get. That would be Fox Grove on the Tuolumne River between Waterford and Modesto. They regularly nest in the palms around the Wildlife Center, and I've seen them there a few times in past years.
The Hooded Orioles (Icterus cucullatus) are a species of the southwest and Mexico, coming north in spring to breed. They build interesting hanging nests out of fibers of the palm fronds (of which I haven't yet captured images).
I was picking up dinner at the BBQ joint up the highway and stopped in and found a couple of the Orioles flitting from palm to palm. As usual, I have yet to capture a sharp shot, but these are among the best yet that I've gotten.
The females are not nearly as showy as the males, but I did manage to catch a shot of one of them.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Acorn Woodpecker in a Not Expected Tree

Sometimes bird-hunting happens when we're not expecting it. I was briefly in Southern California last week and we were in downtown Hemet waiting for dinner to be packed up at a Greek delicatessen. Palm trees of course are the iconic tree of Southern California, and there were a dozen or so in the vacant lot across the street. I was watching the birds, expecting Starlings, hoping for Hooded Orioles, but seeing something else entirely: Acorn Woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus).
Of course in retrospect, a palm tree isn't a bad location for a woodpecker. The bark is soft, perhaps allowing for the easy storage of acorns gathered elsewhere, and as it turns out, for quarrying nest openings. I first noticed the birds hanging upside down where the nest was apparently located.
Acorn Woodpeckers are common in oak woodlands across the Pacific Coast states and Baja, so they aren't an unusual sight. It was just a bit odd to see them on a tree that makes dates rather than acorns...
Southern California, where the tropical mingles with the alpine (San Jacinto Peak is nearly 11,000 feet high and covered with snow in winter).

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Ospreys Nesting on the Tuolumne River

It's spring and the big birds are nesting. We've kept an eye on four or five Osprey nests that we know of in our region on the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced Rivers. One by the Roberts Ferry Bridge didn't have any occupants last we looked, but another nest between Turlock Lake and the Tuolumne River was certainly occupied last week. Both mom and dad were hanging out nearby. I'm sure we'll check up on the chick's progress as the weeks roll on.
The Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) is one of the few success stories in the bird world in the sense that we just about wiped them out with DDT last century and finally came to our senses. They have expanded their range and their population has grown, especially when posts have been provided where they can build their humungous nests.

It was certainly a pretty day last week when we went hunting birds in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The snowy high country contrasted strongly with the green slopes around the reservoir.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Northern Flicker Hard at Work on the Tuolumne River

I see Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) quite often along the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail in Waterford, but they are usually quite busy flying from one tree to another. For a woodpecker, they spend a lot of time on the ground instead of pecking away at trees. It turns out they like to eat ants and other insects and will peck at the ground to get them. That's what made today's sighting a bit interesting. This one was working very hard at a gash in the cottonwood. I'm guessing it was excavating a nesting hollow. I was getting frustrated trying to get a clear shot of the bird at work and finally realized I would maybe have better luck with a video, so here you go...

Monday, April 24, 2017

Phainopepla on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail

It's been a few weeks since I've been able to get down to the river trail on the Tuolumne. There've been business and field trips, and the last week of the semester, so things have been hectic. The river is still flooded as it has been for four months now. There's a lot of snow upstream. The river floodplain will be a much changed place when it's once again exposed.
In any case, I saw little of consequence during the first part of the walk upriver, but on the way back I saw yet another black bird fly off through the bushes. But it wasn't a Starling or a Brewer's Blackbird. It was moving wrong. I stopped and searched the branches of the Cottonwood, and there it was: a Phainopepla! Phainopeplas (Phainopepla nitens) are native around here, but it is the far northern edge of their range. They are really a desert species from Mexico and the southwest. They don't normally drink water, for instance, instead relying on moisture in the mistletoe berries that they love eating. I've only seen them here on the Tuolumne twice, but I've also seen them in the Death Valley region a couple of times.

I'm reasonably happy with the shots I got of this male (not perfect yet, but better than previous efforts). The females look much the same but are gray in color. I shot a few seconds of this male jumping along the branches on video. Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Great-tailed Grackles Invade Central California!

Something changed around here a couple of years ago. I teach an occasional class at CSU Stanislaus in Turlock, and there is a large pond adjacent to the Science Building. I had always noticed the egrets, ducks, and geese who took up residence there, but in the last few years I noticed a new arrival, a black bird with a ridiculously audacious tail and a piercing call. I found out eventually that they were Great-tailed Grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus) and that they were indeed a new species in the area, expanding their range from the south.
The Grackle barely ranged into southern Texas a century ago, but they do very well around irrigated fields, and thus have expanded north with agricultural development. The "official" range map doesn't even show them as residents in the north half of the Great Valley yet, but sightings have even reached northern Oregon and Washington.

I don't know why, but the grackles remind me more of theropod dinosaurs (the raptors and other meat-eaters) more than most birds. The theropods were indeed their ancestors, as they are for all birds. Something in their vivid eyes, perhaps.
The females barely look to be the same species. They are a dull brown color and are only half the size of the males. I got a shot of one that looked like it was collecting nesting material along the pond shore. The eyes, though. The dinosaurian eyes were the same. Thanks a lot Steven Spielberg!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Bushtit in the Joe Domecq Wilderness on the Tuolumne River

The Bushtits (Psaltriparus minimus) are not easy to photograph, in my experience anyway. They are small, hard to see, and they never stop moving. Nevertheless, I've captured some shots of the males on occasion, but today includes the first shots I've gotten of a female. The main difference is the pale eyes, which to me in my anthropomorphic style, makes me think the females are judging me. The males, with their totally black eyes look cute in the manner of stuffed animals...
"Judging you? No, my chirping is just constructive criticism of your birding skills"
We were wandering through the Joe Domecq Wilderness Park on the Tuolumne River near Old Basso Bridge, and I walked a half mile or so looking to see who was out and about and saw pretty much nothing. I got back to where Mrs. Geotripper was sitting, just watching one tree. It turned out to be a good strategy because after a few moments of standing, I had shots of the Bushtit as well as two other species, including the Ash-throated Flycatcher of the previous post.
The Bushtits are a bird of the western U.S. and Mexico. They are the only species of their family found in North America. According to Cornell, there are seven species in Eurasia. They build a hanging nest that Cornell describes as "remarkable", but I haven't spied one yet.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Ash-throated Flycatchers at Turlock Lake and on the Tuolumne River

I seem to see these birds at one time of the year, as I posted on them last May, and a year earlier in late April. We were at Turlock Lake State Recreational Area and this Ash-throated Flycatcher (Myiarchus cinerascens) landed in the oak tree on the hill top hardly ten feet away from me. It sang for a fair amount of time (enough for the video below), and actually waited for me to wander away.
This species of flycatcher is really a desert species, with a range across the U.S. Southwest and winters spent in Mexico and the tropics. They aren't seen much north of Oregon. Being creatures of the desert, they don't need to drink, getting most of their moisture from their food.
Strangely enough, after not seeing them for almost a year, I saw a second Ash-throated Flycatcher just up the road at the Joe Domecq Wilderness Area along the Tuolumne River near Basso Bridge!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Canada Goose "Gang Brood" at Turlock Lake State Recreational Area

It was a beautiful spring day, so we headed out for a short excursion up the Tuolumne River. We hunted for birds at Turlock Lake State Recreational Area for a bit, and then headed east on Lake Road towards the Joe Domecq Wilderness (a county wilderness park developed on an old dredge field). On the way between the parks, we passed an overflow pond for Turlock Lake Reservoir and I saw lots of Canada Geese and a few goslings. We stopped for a few moments to have a look, and soon I saw a caravan of twenty goslings between two adults. I've never seen such a large group of young ones, but apparently the geese like to form "gang broods" of up to five individual families. It's sort of an avian kindergarten, I guess. Whatever it is, it was the cutest thing in my day! 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Western Bluebirds Continue as One of the Most Colorful MJC Birds

They're one of my favorite sights on the west campus of Modesto Junior College where I work, the Western Bluebird (Sialia mexicana). The campus has an unusually large greenspace with lots of mature trees, dating from the property's origin as a hospital for wounded World War II soldiers. I extended my evening walk to the far eastern reaches of the property where there are as of yet no buildings, just a large grove of trees including oaks, palms, eucalyptus, lemon (!), cottonwood, ash, and Monterey Pines. I've seen hawks and kestrels out that way, being no surprise when seeing the large concentration of ground squirrels in the grassy area below. I saw this male (the more brightly colored one) and female in a pepper tree near Bluegum Avenue.

I think this is my twelfth post on Western Bluebirds, which is about right compared to my pleasure at encountering them. They spend a fair part of the year elsewhere, most likely up the slopes of the nearby Sierra Nevada, so I'm catching all the pictures I can right now!

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

A West Coast Special: Anna's Hummingbird on the West Campus

One day, I'll get the perfect picture of the Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna). I know it's possible because Mrs. Geotripper got one on her first try (see it here). I got pretty close to one during my lunchtime stroll on the west campus at Modesto Junior College, but the day was gloomy and the bird was framed by the skies. It took a bit of obvious photo manipulation to bring out the color, although I'm happy with the details visible.

Anna's Hummingbirds are one of the rare success stories of the birding world. They were originally confined to Southern California and Baja, but with urbanization of the west coast and the attendant landscaping of delicious nectar-producing flowers, the birds have been able to expand their range far to the north into coastal Washington and British Columbia (inland would no doubt be too cold for them). Hummingbirds in general are only found in the New World. European colonizers thought for a time that they were some kind of strange hybrid of an insect and a bird ("flybirds").

Update: Almost everyone who usually reads these posts has already done so. However I ended up walking again at dinner, and wouldn't you know the hummingbird was still patrolling the bush! So I added another highly manipulated shot below...clearly the iridescence is not so visible from some angles!

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Sometimes I Miss the Little Ones: Savannah Sparrow on the California Prairie

It was a rich weekend for finding birds on the California Prairie. I think I'm finally starting to run short of species from my trip last Saturday, but it is rare that I post four new species in just one week. Today's featured species is the kind of bird that I constantly overlook because they are always sort of there in the foreground while I'm staring off in the distance looking for those larger "charismatic" types. They are the sparrows of course, and I'm only just beginning to learn to tell them apart. The bird above is a Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis; the species name is almost longer than the bird is). These are one of the common sparrows all across North America, with an estimated population of 180 million. They thrive in grassland prairies, although their name is based on the city in Georgia. The little yellow patch over the eye is one of their distinguishing characteristics.

I clearly need to learn my sparrow species. About thirty different kinds have been sighted in my region, although just twelve of them are abundant. Still, size really doesn't count in this business. The little ones are sometimes the prettiest. Just ask any hummingbird...

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Lesser Yellowlegs in the California Prairielands near Willms Road

We had a rather productive trip to the prairielands east of our little village at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mother Lode. In addition to the Tricolored Blackbirds, the Burrowing Owl, the Western Meadowlark, the Horned Larks, Pied-billed Grebes, and a variety of Hawks were out and about. As we explored some of the vernal pools we saw a lone bird on one of the ephemeral creeks, and realized we could add a Yellowlegs to our tally for the day.
I'm the first to admit that I'm not very good at shorebird identification. There are two species of Yellowlegs, the Greater and Lesser. Part of the difference is the size, but a single bird gives no scale. The Greater is supposed to have a longer beak that is very slightly upturned, but I don't see that in these pictures, so I'm calling it a Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes). As always I am open to gentle correction!
It is the most beautiful time of the year out on our prairie. The flowers are starting to show in some of the vernal pools, and there is greenery everywhere. All of the creeks are flowing, and it's a good time for the animals and plants after five years of drought. I'm looking forward to a few more weeks of color on the hillsides!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Tricolored Blackbird at Willms Pond in the Prairielands

One has to start somewhere. I've noticed that the first chance I ever have to shoot a new species, it is usually under less than ideal conditions, and the pictures are not to my own "stringent" standards (really, I have pretty low standards for pictures). We were out on the prairielands last week, and I had some pretty nice results, between seeing a Burrowing Owl for the first time in years, getting close-ups of a Western Meadowlark, some Horned Larks, and some nesting Tree Swallows. I was on the lookout, however, for a new species.

Tricolored Blackbirds are very similar to the Redwinged Blackbirds, which range across North America, numbering in the tens of millions. The Tricolors are almost a California endemic, found outside the state only in northern Baja, and at some widely scattered nesting sights in eastern Oregon and Washington. Their population is estimated at a few hundred thousand at most and falling, in part because of an unfortunate nesting habit. They prefer to nest in large colonies in open grassy fields, with nests only a few feet apart from each other. In a number of unfortunate cases, those nests were in wheat or alfalfa fields, and the fields were mechanically harvested before the nestlings could escape destruction. The population dropped so precipitously that they were declared an endangered species in California just a few years ago.

Efforts to protect the birds included payments to farmers with large colonies in their pastures to delay the harvest a few weeks. Cooperation has helped to stabilize the population, but they are still in trouble.
Birders had reported that dozens of Tricolored Blackbirds had take up residence at the small stockpond on Willms Road where Mrs. Geotripper and I like to watch for wildlife, so we stopped and waited to see who was out and about. The blackbirds were making a lot of noise in the reeds across the pond, but they only occasionally popped out. It took the highest zoom and a bit of luck to get the pair of shots of unmistakable Tricolors. The white band under the red is the distinguishing feature.
The Redwinged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) were out in force as well, and they weren't nearly as bashful as the Tricolors. So, to make up for fuzzy and distant shots of my target species, I've thrown in a couple of close-ups of their close cousins.
The Willms Road pond is especially pretty this time of year, overflowing with water, and surrounded by grassy hills. The owners are kind enough to provide access for fishing and birdwatching, so if you check it out, please be courteous and pick up any garbage that you come across.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Western Meadowlark in the Prairielands above Knight's Ferry

After torturing you with fuzzy indistinct photos of the Burrowing Owl I saw on Sunday in the prairielands, I thought it only fair to share with you one of the sharpest shots I've gotten lately, that of a Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) that was perched on a fencepost only a few hundred yards from where I saw the owl. It was hardly bothered at all that we stopped the car just a few yards away, as it was far more interested in catching the attention of the ladies
We were driving Willms Road south from Knights Ferry to take in the vernal pools, the birds, and hopefully some wildflowers. We had the windows down, and the song of the meadowlark could be heard along the entire distance. They are out in force this time of the year.