Monday, September 25, 2017

The Sandhill Cranes are Returning to the Great Valley!

We were leaving the house to run some errands this afternoon. We heard an odd sound coming from the sky. We looked far and wide and couldn't pick out the responsible party, but the call was unmistakable: it was the trilling call of the Sandhill Cranes (Grus Canadensis). Their call carries for long distances, so it wasn't too odd that we couldn't see them, but it was enough to convince us to check out the Beckwith Road portion of the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge. We grabbed some In 'n Out burgers and headed west for a quick picnic.
The viewing platform won't be open for another week or two, but the road passes through a mile or two of refuge property, so we had a chance to look for arriving migrants. We didn't see any at first, but west of the platform, we saw three individuals in a plowed field. Once we knew some of them had arrived, we looked more carefully in the distance and saw several dozen of them off to the south near the refuge ponds (Miller Lake). The pictures are fuzzy from the thermal waves emanating from the ground. As more arrive, they will spend more time near the road, and pictures will get sharper.

Ultimately, the number of Sandhill Cranes at our local refuges will number in the tens of thousands! They are coming from their breeding grounds in the far northern parts of Canada and Alaska. It is an incredible sight, so if you get the chance, check out the San Joaquin, San Luis, or Merced National Wildlife Refuges for a dramatic vision of one of the great migrations on our planet (I've included a map for the San Joaquin Refuge at the end of the post).
The was a Black Phoebe standing guard at the not-yet-open viewing platform. He struck a defiant pose, and I only got the one picture, so it's a bonus shot for this post.

Here's how to get to the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge...

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Orange-crowned Warbler on the Tuolumne River

Sometimes you only get a single chance. I saw what I think was an Orange-crowned Warbler in a wild Elderberry bush on my walk today along the Tuolumne River. I managed a single shot before it vacated the premises, and though I walked past the thicket three more times, I didn't see it again. I don't know my warblers well, but I'm assuming it is an Oreothlypis celata because of the broken eye-ring and overall olive-yellow color. As always, I welcome gentle correction.

The Orange-crowned Warblers are found across North America, migrating from Mexico and the southeastern United States to Canada and Alaska for breeding. There are orange feathers on the head, but they aren't seen very often.

The Elderberry bush where I saw the bird is kind of a unique spot. It's huge, with a trail of use running through the middle, like a bower. I can stand inside and it works like a bird blind. It's a favorite feeding spot in the fall, and I've seen Vireos, Phainopeplas, Scrub Jays, and all manner of Finches and Sparrows. The Elderberry is also habitat for one of our endangered species, the Valley Elderberry Longhorn Beetle (Desmocerus californicus dimorphus). I have yet to see one, but part of the program to protect them requires the preservation of native Elderberry plants. Since the shrubs make good environments for numerous birds, it's a win-win situation.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Our Campus Mascot, the Killdeer

The birding environment on my campus has not been all that conducive to species sightings of late. It's obvious why; there are students and faculty everywhere. Even the "mini-wilderness", the drainage basin on the edge of campus has been quiet. There's no water. Until the rains begin again, there's not much for the birds there. The other day, though, I had a reason to visit the campus on a weekend, and there was a bit more going on. With no one around, the birds were exploring the open spaces on the campus.

I was lucky enough to catch a couple of Killdeers (Charadrius vociferous) patrolling one of the empty parking lots. The Killdeer is kind of a mascot for our campus and the Great Valley Museum), being the only bird that appears on our logos.

The Killdeer is found across most of the North American continent and the range extends some distance into South America. They are members of the Plover family, which are usually shorebirds, but the Killdeer willingly spends lots of time in dry environments as well, eating a diet consisting mostly of insects.

They will raise their young in open fields, scraping out a nest directly on the ground.  They've nested in the vacant field north of our Science Community Center, the site of our future Outdoor Education Center, so hopefully the native vegetation that we intend to plant will continue to attract them. They are known for their practice of pretending to have a broken wing to draw predators away from their nests.

Monday, September 18, 2017

A California Scrub Jay Like You've Never Seen Before, at the Stanislaus Wildlife Care Center

For reasonably logical reasons, albino animals don't survive well in the wild. They might as well have a target painted on their bodies, for without camouflage they are easily detected by predators. The lack of melanin in their feathers is another problem: without it, the feathers are weaker and easily damaged. The birds can't fly as well, and lose insulation.
This particular bird, a California Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma californica), is a permanent resident and wildlife ambassador at the Stanislaus Wildlife Care Center, which rehabilitates injured animals and birds, and when possible tries to release them back into the wild. They do good work, and depend on donations from the public. We were attending an open house the other day.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Some "Great" Birds at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge: A Great Blue Heron, and a Great Egret

There's some anticipation in the air these days. The summer's heat is still lingering, although not so bad as before. Birds have been kind of scarce on my recent explorations, but I've been seeing a few
V-shaped formations high in the sky. The season is changing, and the winter migrants will be arriving soon. For no particular reason, we wandered down to the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge during the afternoon. No one promises much in the way of birdwatching at this time of year when the swamps and marshes are all dried up. But when we arrived, the feeling of anticipation was palpable. The water managers were just starting to flood some of the long-dry marshes. Few birds had yet discovered the water, but there were some.
I saw the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) first, perched openly on the dead snag. It actually took me a moment to notice that one of the roots below was not a root, but was instead a Great Egret (Ardea alba) standing in the reeds.

The San Luis National Wildlife Refuge is one of our treasures, tens of thousands of wetland acres managed in such a way as to mimic the wilderness prairie that existed for thousands of years before the arrival of humans. Millions of birds flock to the Great Valley for the winter, and these refuges, representing a mere five percent of the original landscape, allow them to survive and even thrive. The refuges are understaffed and starved of funds, and they deserve better. If you are ever in the Great Valley during the late fall, winter, or spring, the San Luis Refuge is an incredible place to visit. There are three auto-tours, and a number of hiking trails are available. The visitor center is new, and is a great place to start your exploration.

Red-tailed Hawks at Pillar Point near Half Moon Bay

The Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) is probably the most common raptor in northern and central America (it's also endemic here, being found nowhere else in the world). I certainly see them all the time at home, living as I do in the former prairies of the Great Valley in California. They are a long-lived species as well, with at least one known to have survived for thirty years.
This pair caught my eye last weekend when we exploring around Pillar Point north of Half Moon Bay on the California coast. They were perched on the fence surrounding the Pillar Point airfield and didn't fly off as we drove by, so I stopped and snapped a couple of shots.

Little known fact: Every hawk or eagle in the entire world sounds exactly like a Red-tailed Hawk. Well, o.k., not really. But just about every movie hawk or eagle sounds like a Red-tail. It's the stock sound effect. Like the Wilhem scream, or the screech of tires when an airplane lands. The call of the hawk in the real world is wonderful to hear, however.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Red-Breasted Merganser at Pillar Point Harbor

It could be the dog days of summer or something else entirely, but there just haven't been many birds out and about in the places where I've been wandering. The pond at the campus has been dry for months, so few species are hanging out there, and I've only had a few chances to walk the river trail on the Tuolumne, and the birds were scarce there as well. We had occasion to take a short trip to the coast this past weekend though, and when we checked out the Fitzgerald Nature Preserve and Pillar Point Harbor near Half Moon Bay, we saw a few species. One was new to me (I didn't say "uncommon", it's just I haven't seen one yet). It was a Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator). They are seen often enough along the coast of California, but almost never in the interior Central Valley (hence why I haven't noticed any before).
I saw the bird while I was walking the trail to Pillar Point along the shore of the harbor. The harbor is artificial, protected by several breakwaters and jetties. Because of the configuration of the ocean floor just west of Pillar Point, some fierce waves can develop during stormy weather in winter. The legendary Mavericks waves form offshore from Pillar Point.

As always, please let me know if I misidentify a bird. I'm still new at this!

Monday, September 4, 2017

Willow Flycatcher at Silver Lake, Washington

I've probably photographed a number of flycatchers, but there are many species, and I don't feel overly qualified to identify a lot of them (the Black Phoebe and the Ash-throated Flycatcher being the only exceptions for me). I was walking the nature trail at Silver Lake a few weeks ago when I saw this small flycatcher in the bushes. It stayed in place just long enough for a few pictures, and as best as I can tell, it is a Willow Flycatcher (Empidonax traillii).

Silver Lake is a natural lake produced by mudflows from Mt. St. Helens. The nature trail follows an old railroad line that crossed a portion of the lake. It's overgrown with shrubs and trees, providing a nice habitat for birds. I've posted a few other pictures of birds from the location.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Greater Yellowlegs along the Tuolumne River

Non-birding types of people (i.e. "normal folks") are often not aware that some of the best birding localities to be found in arid regions are...water treatment plants. Many such places expect, and even encourage birding, and birders get a chance to see dozens of species of shorebirds. The reason is pretty clear: the water treatment plants provide a secure source of water despite the dry conditions. It sounds gross perhaps, but by the time the water is in those ponds, it's already in a relatively clean state.

The best treatment plants for birding are those for larger towns, and that kind of leaves me out most of the time. My town is pretty small, so the treatment plant is small as well, and is situated next to the Tuolumne River, so it's not the only water source. I don't tend to see a great many birds there, but several shorebirds call it home. I saw several of them a few weeks ago, some Great Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca).

The Yellowlegs (Greater and Lesser) can be seen at one time or another across the entire American continent, north and south. They tend to winter in the south, and breed in the muskeg of Canada, which makes them hard to study...the muskeg swamps and their bugs are a great place for the birds, but miserable and impassable to humans.