Monday, July 31, 2017

Common Nighthawk at Lava Beds National Monument

A little over 140 years ago, a bitter war was fought between the U.S. military and a small band of Modoc warriors over their desire to return to their ancestral homeland on the shores of Tule Lake in northeastern California. The Modoc people, around 50 warriors and another 100 elders, women, and children, faced off for six months against at least 600 heavily armed troops. They lost in the end, and much of their culture was lost in the ensuing forced migration to Oklahoma. It was a sad affair, and not nearly as well-known as it should be (I've written about the wars here and here).
The Modoc people spent months resisting the troops in a corner of what is now Lava Beds National Monument. The site is called Captain Jack's Stronghold, and it is a haunted place. We were there last June, looking at how geology influenced the nature of the battles that took place here. A fire burned through a couple of years ago, leaving behind only a few junipers in a copse at the trailhead parking area. I had a feeling there might be a few interesting birds hiding among the branches, and a bit of looking proved me right. There were at least two Common Nighthawks (Chordeiles minor) roosting in the trees.
One can tell from their appearance that they are not actually hawks. They have neither the talons or the beak of a raptor. I've seen a fair number of nighthawks over the years, but usually in flight at dusk or dawn when they are hard to photograph. They are real acrobats in the air, swooping and soaring after insects. They are graceful in the air, and relatively clumsy on the ground. When they are not flying, they hide out in heavy foliage where they blend in (and they were indeed hard to pick out among the shadows in the junipers. The nighthawks are summer visitors to North America. They winter all the way down in South America during the winter, which means they have one of the longest migrations of any American bird.

If you live in North America, you've probably seen the Common Nighthawk. They can fly in an erratic manner much like bats, but they are larger, and have prominent white bars on their wings.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Northern Flicker on the Tuolumne River Bluffs (along with an Acorn Woodpecker)

I was out walking on the Tuolumne River as usual this morning, and saw practically no birds until I finished and had returned to the parking area at the top of the bluffs at the west end of the hike. I was actually driving out when I saw a different bird atop the nearly dead oak (it was a Mockingbird earlier). It was a male Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus).

It didn't immediately fly away, since I was using the car as a blind. I snapped a couple of pictures, and then noticed a second woodpecker a few yards away. That was odd, because it was a different species, an Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus). I guess it was just kind of a woodpecker day.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Juvenile Western Bluebird at the Black Diamond Mine

I still catching up on the richness of birds that I've seen and photographed this summer. Back in May our Geology Club took a tour of the underground mines at Black Diamond Mine Regional Park in the Pittsburg-Antioch area of the Sacramento Delta.
As we walked up the valley towards the mine entrance, I saw a LGB (little gray bird) that I couldn't immediately identify (there are lots of little gray birds that I haven't yet learned to identify quickly). After watching it move around, I began to suspect it was a baby rather than an adult, so I started looking for the mother.
Pretty soon I spied momma, and realized that the little one was a Western Bluebird (Sialia mexicana), one of my favorites, judging from the number of posts I've put up (this is the 13th).

Black Diamond Mine was a source of coal and glass-making sands a century ago (California is not known as being much of a coal mining region, but the energy demands in the late 1800s led to the use of even marginal coal deposits). The park is a pleasant place for hiking and bird-watching. Many of the scars of the mining have faded away.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Western Tanager and Tourons at the North Rim of Grand Canyon

Photo by Mrs. Geotripper
Being in a national park can cause people to do things they normally wouldn't in any other place. For example, if you ever have the privilege to explore Yellowstone National Park, you will encounter people who are fine drivers everywhere else. But if an elk or bison is seen at the side of the road (or Heaven forbid, a Wolf or Grizzly Bear), they will screech to a stop, disregarding all other traffic, and get out to take pictures. It doesn't matter if they are blocking traffic, others will get out to see what the commotion is about anyway. After awhile, a ranger has to come along and break up the traffic mess. No wonder they've secretly adopted the term "touron". But at least I never do that kind of thing...
Can you see what caused me to stop in the middle of the highway? Photo by Mrs. Geotripper

I was at the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park these last few days, and there were thankfully no tourist traffic jams, the reason being that there were hardly any tourists (the North Rim gets only about 10% of the park's visitors; it's one of the great charms of that section of the park). And so it was that I was the one trying to start a traffic jam...and it wasn't for a wolf, or an elk, or a bison. No, it was for a bird. It happened to be the only bird that would have caused me to hit the brakes and stop in the middle of the highway: it was a Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana).
Photo by Mrs. Geotripper
There were actually two tanagers, a male and a female. It says something about the relative drabness of the female that neither me or Mrs. Geotripper caught a shot of the girl. We were under pressure though; we weren't stopping traffic, but we were on a blind curve. We grabbed our cameras and snapped as many shots as we couldn't in 45 seconds or so.

I was glad we got the pictures we did, but they can never add up to the tanager we saw back home in California on the Clark Fork of the Stanislaus River in the Sierra Nevada a few years ago. You can check out those pictures and a short video at this link:

Friday, July 14, 2017

Violet-Green Swallow at the Black Diamond Mines (and a Mono Lake bonus)

Tropical birds are so colorful, and I don't really know why (I'm sure display has a lot to do with it, but what about defensive camouflage?), but when they visit our region, I sure appreciate the splash of color. The Violet-green Swallow (Tachycineta thalassina) is one of those tropical visitors in our region in the spring and summer.
I saw this swallow on a geology club field trip to Black Diamond Mines Regional Park back in May. If you are wondering about the name of the park, it refers to coal, not gemstones. It may seem strange that an old coal mine (they also mined sand for glassmaking) should be a park, but time heals many scars. There are underground tours in the old mines, but the oak woodland and wildflowers are wonderful as well.
As I was going through the pictures from last May, my mind was jogged. I had seen these birds before, long before I really was doing any kind of birdwatching. I was at Mono Lake in the eastern Sierra Nevada in 2010, and the swallows were catching flies and perching on the tufa towers.

I was fascinated at the time, and for all I know, these pictures may have had something to do with awakening my interest in the birds that were sitting around on my beloved geological outcrops.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Wood Duck on the Tuolumne River

Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) are one of the most colorful birds I ever see when I walk the Tuolumne River for my exercise sessions, but they are also one of the most wary. I know of one or two spots where they would hang out during quieter pre-flood days, but no matter how quiet my approach on the trail, they would shoot off before it was possible to get a picture. I've trying to catch up with my bird picture archives since last spring, and I realized that I had captured a couple of almost-clear pictures. The difference? The much higher river had pushed the birds higher on the banks, and the rushing waters masked my approach. These shots may look fairly close, but I'm guessing I was at least fifty yards away, using the zoom lens.

I don't know the ducks all that well yet, so it was a surprise to me to see the duck perched on a tree branch. It turns out that the Wood Ducks have stronger claws than most duck species, and are quite comfortable in trees, often building nests there. Once I learned that, I remembered the videos I've seen of ducklings jumping out of high trees on their first journeys to water. Here's an example from National Geographic:

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Western Kingbird on the Tuolumne River

Western Kingbirds (Tyrannus verticalis) make quite a few appearances on my blog. I think it is because they are a migrant, and their appearance and disappearance coincides with the change of seasons (they spend winters in the tropics). There is nothing so special as a change of seasons in today's post, just what I thought was a pretty nice picture. I've been sticking to my commitment to walk nearly every day, and put in three miles along the Tuolumne River. In contrast to yesterday's cornucopia of interesting species, today I saw nothing of particular interest. Yesterday's Kingfishers, for instance, were nowhere to be seen, and neither were the Red Foxes. I got back up the stairwell at the parking area, and in fine OCD manner saw that I had taken 5,063 steps, and I could make it a nice even 5,280 (three miles) if I did a lap around the parking lot. So I did, and finally saw an interesting bird in one of the trees lining the parking area.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Belted Kingfisher on the Tuolumne River

I've been having a battle of wits (twits? tweets?) this week with a pair of Belted Kingfishers (Megaceryle alcyon). I've been waking up earlier than usual this week (a residual of my recent field trip), so I've been heading down to the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail to see what kinds of birds and other animals might be about (I had a nice encounter with a Red Fox yesterday). For three days in a row, I inadvertently flushed out a pair of Kingfishers who flew away downriver to places unknown (I don't like to harass birds, but I was just walking the trail). Each successive morning I approached more slowly with the camera ready, but they were just too wary. It happened again this morning and they flew off and I walked on. A few minutes later though, I heard that staccato call of a Kingfisher in the tree above, and for a split second, the bird was yelling at me, and I got one shot before it flew off.
Later, at the end of my hike, I was approaching the area where they've been hanging out, and once again I crept ahead slowly and saw the Kingfisher again. I squeezed off about eight shots, one of which was sharp enough to use. Of all the birds I've seen on the Tuolumne, the Kingfishers have been among the most challenging to photograph.

That's not to say that I don't have other challenges. It was quite a day...I saw a Western Tanager, a Bullocks Oriole, an Oak Titmouse and a Green Heron, and of them all, I got exactly no pictures. So I shall sally forth, again and again, until I get the perfect picture of all of them!

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Most Hated Bird in Hawai'i? Tale of Two Invasive Species

What's the most hated bird in Hawai'i? I have no idea. I don't live there and I don't think there's an official designation for such a thing. I don't even know the most hated bird where I live for that matter (Pigeons? Crows?). In any case, the Common Myna (Acridotheres tristis tristis) might be a plausible candidate. Here are some observations from the Bishop Museum"generally vilified for its noisy habits, "quarrelsome" and opportunistic nature, disturbance to domestic pigeons, fruit-eating and nest-robbing habits, and the possibility of its adversely affecting native bird populations". Also, a song "about as musical as a cat-fight". And, somewhat mysteriously, "later writers again castigated the myna in Hawaii, pointing out its role in spreading noxious weeds including Lantana, serving as a host for parasites and avian diseases, predating seabird nests, setting buildings afire with lighted cigarettes, and perhaps competing with 'o'os for cavity nest sites". The Myna has even managed to make the list of 100 of the world's worst invasive alien species (the list has only three birds, and two of them are presently in Hawai'i).

I guess success breeds contempt. As an occasional visitor to the islands I don't have anything in particular against the bird, other than knowing of its possible impact on native species, which is debated. They are ubiquitous and loud, but also intelligent and comical. They were introduced to the islands in 1866 in an effort to control an insect pest, the Cutworm Moth. Apparently they did so, but once the pest was under control, they started to eat everything else and spread widely.
I photographed this individual in Liliuokalani Gardens in Hilo, Hawaii on the Big Island. Almost in the same moment I had a rare chance to get some close up photos of what might be the other most vilified invasive species (excepting possibly the rat): the Asian Mongoose. It's obviously not a bird, but its history is entwined with the native birds of Hawai'i. Like the Myna, it was introduced to some of the islands in an effort to control a pest, in this case the rat. The mongoose will eat rats, but it isn't their priority, since the rats are nocturnal and the mongoose is not. They instead went after the eggs and chicks of the native birds. They were quite the biological disaster, and like the myna birds, they are found almost everywhere. They never made it to Kauai, and preventing their introduction is one of the highest priorities of wildlife officials in the state.

But really, aren't they just so cute?

Saturday, July 8, 2017

A Bunch of Bulbul: Invasive Species on Oahu

Yes, you can think of this blog post as being a bunch of bulbul, because it has pictures of not one, but two species of Bulbul, an invasive species that arrived illegally on Oahu in the 1950s, and quickly established itself as an agricultural pest. It has not managed to spread to the other Hawaiian Islands yet, although a few individuals have been sighted on Molokai and the Kona Coast of the Big Island. The two species are the Red-whiskered Bulbul (Pycnonotus jocosus), and the Red-vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus cafer). I think the bird in the picture above is a juvenile Red-vented Bulbul. It's the only good picture I've managed over the years, taken at Waimea Valley in 2010.
The rest of the pictures are from my most recent trip, and are also from Waimea Valley on Oahu. Above and below are some shots of the Red-whiskered Bulbul, while the last shot below is a Red-vented variety.
So on an island where most of the birds are non-native species, why does this one stand out as a pest and a dangerous invasive species? The state of Hawai'i gives three reasons: They are pests of agriculture and gardens, feeding on fruits, vegetables, flower buds, and insects; they spread the seeds of invasive plants, including miconia, ivy gourd and false kava; and they aggressively chase other birds and compete with them for food and space. There is concern that they may compete with native birds where they co-exist. The Red-vented Bulbul has actually achieved the dubious distinction as being one of the World's Worst Invasive Alien Species.

Let's hope they stay put...

Friday, July 7, 2017

Spotted Dove in Waimea Valley on Oahu

In my other life as a geologist, we have a long-standing adage that you may spend an entire season collecting samples in your study area, and finding at the end that you have not collected a single specimen of the most common rock. That happens with birds too, I have found, and the picture above sort of proves it. It's pretty much the only decent shot I got of a Spotted Dove (Streptopelia chinensis) during my recent journey to the Hawaiian Islands (and of my previous 6 visits as well).

It's not for lack of trying. Upon arriving at the islands we had a three hour layover in Honolulu, and bored, I tried photographing the Spotted Doves running around the airport waiting areas. No dice. They never stopped moving. It wasn't until our last day at Waimea Canyon on Oahu that I finally found one that was still enough for a half-decent shot.

The Spotted Dove has been on the islands for a long time in human terms. They arrived in the 1850s from China, possibly as a food source for Chinese laborers. Some escaped and quickly spread to all of the main islands. Unfortunately they may have been the vector for the bird malaria that wiped out so many of the native species. They also seem to have aided in the spread of the invasive lantana plant. The damage was done long ago however, and since they are mostly found in urban areas, they don't seem to have much of an impact on the remaining native ecosystem.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Zebra Doves in Waimea Valley, Oahu

If you travel to Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands, there are certain birds you will absolutely see. There are the European Sparrows and House Finches that I also see at home all the time. Then there are the Spotted Doves and Myna Birds, which I never see back home. But probably the most common will be the Zebra Dove (Geopelia striata), which seem to be everywhere, starting with the airport lounge and baggage pickup areas (parts of Hawaiian airports don't have doors or walls due to the nice climate).

As I have mentioned previously, the birds are quite polite as a rule, hanging around for food that might drop, but aren't pushy (in my experience anyway; I have heard they'll land on tables). The doves are native to Malay Peninsula, the Philippine Islands, and Indonesia. As adept island colonizers, they didn't take long to spread to the other Hawaiian Islands after they were introduced in 1922.

It's odd, but despite the ubiquitous nature of these little doves, I've had only fair luck in photographing them. They can be very active, and sometimes I miss opportunities because in being so common, I ignore them. In any case, I got these up close and personal shots during our visit to Waimea Valley on Oahu on our last full day in the islands. Waimea used to be a high adventure amusement park kind of place, but is now maintained as a botanical garden (with a dandy waterfall and swimming hole at the upstream end).

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Cattle Egret in Downtown Honolulu

I'm back from another long trip, this time across the Pacific Northwest, and Wi-Fi was hard to come by in the wilds we were exploring. But now I can continue our exploration of the birds of Hawai'i, and then move on to the Pacific Northwest species I was able to photograph during the last two weeks. Today's species is the Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) that I was able to shoot while strolling through a coastal park in downtown Honolulu.

The Cattle Egrets have an uncomfortable history with Hawai'i. They originated in Africa, spread to north and south America, and were introduced for pest control purposes in Hawai'i in 1959. They did their job, inhabiting pastures and fields, picking off flies and other biting pests. But as agriculture has decreased, and interest in preserving the native species increases, the Cattle Egrets have become a problem, as they compete for food resources, and pick off the eggs and chicks of native species on the islands, especially the Stilts and Coots.