Sunday, December 30, 2018

Back From the Brink: Peregrine Falcon at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

I saw a particular bird species for the first time on Thursday after hoping to see one of them for years. It was a Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus), one of the iconic success stories of the environmental movement. The species was on the brink of extinction because of DDT contamination, but the banning of the pesticide allowed populations to slowly recover. Although they are no longer on the endangered species list, their total world population is only around 140,000 individuals. But for all my searching, I'd never seen one until last week when I visited family in Florence, Oregon for the holidays.

Now, I realize that Florence is not the location I mentioned in the title of the blog. That's the funny part. It was dusk and the bird was so distant that I only got a few fuzzy shots that were only good enough to identify the bird. The best shot, much photoshopped, is below.
Fast forward to Saturday. We were on the long drive home, but we can rarely resist the urge to see what's going on at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge in California's Great Valley near the town of Williams. There is a marvelous six-mile auto tour through the refuge. We were on the back half of the drive when I saw an unfamiliar bird up on of the trees. Very much to my surprise it was another Peregrine Falcon! And this time I got pictures!
It was a great trip through the refuge, but I was deeply bothered by one thing: no one was minding the shop. The visitor center and bathrooms were closed and there was no law enforcement anywhere. Technically people could have driven in and vandalized anything they wanted. They could even have shot birds There was in fact shooting going on in the distance, but I don't know if it was legal or not). It was the partial government shutdown of course. Trump has left our national parks, monuments and refuges unprotected because of his obsession with a useless wall. He has much to answer for.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

More From the Way-Back Machine: Hermit Thrush on the Tuolumne River

As noted in yesterday's post, I've had occasion to rifle through the tens of thousands of digital files of bird pictures from my trips and walks prior to 2017 when't filing carefully. In other words, there were some nice pictures of bird discoveries here and there that got lost in the shuffle. I was not so good at bird identification back then (and still am not today), so I missed some species. Today I discovered that I had snapped some shots of a Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail back in January of 2015. Unfortunately, I haven't seen one since, but Siera Nystrom, fellow nature blogger, saw one on the river in February of 2017.
I've posted about Hermit Thrushes three previous times, but they were not near home. It's nice to know I have a chance to see them here. The Tuolumne Parkway Trail winds for two miles along the riparian oak woodland of the Tuolumne where it flows from the Sierra Mother Lode onto the floor of the Great Valley near Waterford. Parts of the trail were constructed only as recently as 2015.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Out of the Way-Back Machine: A Ruby-Crowned Kinglet with a Ruby Crown

Sometimes you just forget. One of the joys of digital photography (after 18 years it still feels new and innovative; yes, I'm old) is that you can take hundreds of lousy pictures, find that one lucky wonderful shot, and post that one because it makes you look like a photographer. And it doesn't cost as much as paper prints. But when you have tens of thousands of pictures in the files, it's easy to forget just how lucky you got at one point. And so it is with today's offering, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula), a picture I took back in February of 2014.

During the right time of year I'll see Ruby-crowned Kinglets almost every time I walk along the Tuolumne River, but they are very active and hard to photograph. The ruby crown is even harder to see and photograph because it is only on the males, and it is usually hidden. I was going over some if the first pictures I took with my Lumix camera and came across this shot of a kinglet displaying the crown, and I realized that I had forgotten about it and had never posted it here on the blog. it is! One of my favorite shots of this "royal" kinglet.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Another Uncommon Bird: A Merlin at the Ceres River Bluff Regional Park

It's been a rather extraordinary week for me. I got to see a truly rare visitor to our region, a Sage Thrasher, on Friday. And then today it was an uncommon bird (at least for me as I have only seen one of them previously). It was a falcon species called a Merlin (Falco columbarius).

I was running some midday errands in town and thought a bit about where to walk today. I settled on the fairly new sports complex in the area called the Ceres River Bluff Regional Park. It's mostly a bunch of soccer fields along Whitmore Avenue in the town of Ceres, but the park property includes a lower terrace that was once a walnut orchard adjacent to the Tuolumne River. The walnuts are mostly dying away but natural riparian vegetation is taking the place of the trees. A pond (stocked for fishing, apparently) captures runoff from the fields above and provides habitat for birds, turtles and fish and other wetlands species. It's a productive birding spot, with more than 140 species reported so far.
There was some construction going on with the access road to the "wilderness" so I walked along the top of the bluff only to discover an alternate trail down to the river. I explored for awhile finding a fair number of birds, but it wasn't until I was walking back up the bluff that I made my special discovery. I saw the bird in the distance and from the silhouette assumed it was the much more common American Kestrel, but as I got closer I realized the color and spotting was all wrong. I started snapping pictures.
The bird was pretty much unconcerned with me other than the one stern look you can see in the picture below.

The view was nice from the top of the bluff. After a long dry summer, the recent rains have brought some greenery to the pond area and the water level was up. There were Canada Geese, American Coots, and a Pied-billed Grebe hanging out in the water.

Friday, December 14, 2018

A Truly Rare Sighting at CSU Stanislaus: A Sage Thrasher

The Grackles that I saw on Wednesday were a little bit unusual for this time of year, but today's sighting is truly rare: A Sage Thrasher (Oreoscoptes montanus). This is only the thirteenth sighting of the bird in Stanislaus County ever according to eBird, and is only one of four seen in Northern California in the last month.

I certainly can't take credit for finding it. Another birder, L.D. Scott, saw it for the first time on the Dec. 6 and identified it. He showed me where to look on Wednesday (an elderberry bush along Monte Vista Avenue on the "Trans-California Trail"), but I didn't see it until today when I had a last pre-Christmas errand on campus. I saw L.D. and several others gathered in front of the elderberry, and I joined them in getting photographs.

As the name implies, the Sage Thrasher is more a denizen of the Intermontane West, the high sagebrush prairie that extends across the Basin and Range Province of Nevada and Utah. It migrates as far north as the Canadian border and winters in the southern part of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas as well as northern Mexico. I've seen them once before, but in a more normal habitat in the sagebrush flats around Mono Lake. It was a privilege to have one pop up in my local neighborhood.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

An Odd Late Season Sighting: Great-tailed Grackles at CSU Stanislaus

I haven't seen too many birds at CSU Stanislaus of late. Ever since Daylight Savings, I've been arriving on campus after dark, which is good for seeing the Black-crowned Night Heron in Willow Lake, but not much else. It is finals week, so I arrived a few minutes before sunset yesterday to get the exams ready and I decided to take a quick stroll. I noticed a pair of blackbirds that seemed larger than expected. I then saw how they were holding their heads (beak pointed towards the sky) and realized they must be Great-tailed Grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus).

In a world where most birds are under severe stress from habitat loss and other problems, the Grackles are thriving. They've "invaded" much of the United States from the south (they were originally a tropical species), but they aren't invasive in the usual sense of the word (they are not an unnaturally introduced species like the Starlings or European Sparrows). They do well in human habitats, and the warming climate allows them to thrive at higher latitudes. They've spread naturally.

Still, it was a bit odd to see them yesterday. They usually arrive in the spring and hang out during the summer months and then disappear again, but these two apparently like the accommodations at the University and have lingered into the colder months.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

The Joy of Being Drab: California Towhee on the Tuolumne River

Can you see it?
Maybe we can look a little closer, with a bit of photoshopping...
There it is!

A lot of birds are very colorful for a variety of reasons, but others are rather drab. If you are a California Towhee (Melozone crissalis), your habitat is on the ground in the shrubs and chaparral, and I imagine that bright coloration might work against your continued survival in such environments where cats and foxes might be lurking (although that doesn't explain its close cousin, the Spotted Towhee).

The bird is a California native, practically an endemic species as long as one includes the Baja portion of landscape (and a very small piece of southern Oregon). I saw this one during my morning walk on the Tuolumne River flitting about in the thickets near the bottom of the dreaded stairway at the western end of the Parkway Trail (the 130 steps have become one of the most popular exercise spots in the town). I almost sent the picture at the top of this post to the recycle bin because I didn't see the bird right away. I would make a poor fox...

Sunday, December 2, 2018

California Condors at Pinnacles National Park

We had a geology field trip to Pinnacles National Park today. We spent most of the time on the rocks, of course, but I couldn't help but keep an eye out for birds, especially the elusive California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus). The nation's newest national park is one of the new homes for a bird that only thirty years ago was extinct in the wild.
The Condor once soared over much of the continent, but the extinction of the megafauna 12,000 years ago was the beginning of their decline. By the time of European occupation of the western United States, the population may have been down to a few hundred individuals. Habitat loss and ingestion of lead shot from dead carcasses decimated the remaining population and by the 1980s the entire population was down to a mere 27 individuals. The last of the wild population was captured in a desperate attempt to propagate the species through captive breeding.
The survival of the species hung by a thread, but very slowly the captive population grew and by the mid-1990s, the first of the captive-bred birds were released back into the wild. Populations were established in several widely separated localities in California, Arizona, and northern Mexico. The first Condors were released at Pinnacles National Park in 2003. In 2017, the total world population was 463, and there were more birds in the wild than there were in captivity.
As I noted before, I was watching for Condors, but I wasn't seeing any. It wasn't until we were gathered at the vans in the late afternoon preparing to leave the park that one of my students pointed up above, and there were five of them wheeling and soaring in the sky almost overhead. It was the closest I've been to them in California (I've had some close encounters at Grand Canyon National Park). It was a fine ending to a very nice day!

Thursday, November 29, 2018

MJC's Resident Rare Bird: Cassin's Kingbird on West Campus

You just never know. It's been a heck of a weather day with heavy squalls and wind lashing at our campus while I've been teaching. I really wanted to go out and get some exercise and look for a few birds but it didn't seem to be in the cards. But somehow the students finished their lab a bit early, and...the sun came out for a few precious minutes. I wandered over to the "mini-wilderness", the drainage pond and sheep pasture that is the nearest thing to a wild area on our campus. I noticed an oddly colored bird on a fence, and when I focused in I realized I was up closer than ever before to our resident rarity: a Cassin's Kingbird (Tyrannus vociferans). I posted pictures of the Cassin's Kingbird only a month ago, but I was thrilled to get such clear close-ups today.

It is a real surprise to see this bird here. Western Kingbirds flood into the region in the spring and are a common sight during the summer months, but it is a tropical species that migrates south to Mexico for the winter. The Cassin's Kingbird is a related species, but it rarely gets this far north, so this individual is a real outlier, especially since it's been staying here through the winter (I've been observing it off and on since the summer of 2016). I do wonder if we can expect to see more of them as the climate warms up and conditions here become more to their liking.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Fighting Flickers on the Tuolumne River

I don't absolutely know that they were fighting, but it sure looked like it. In the early spring and summer the males might participate in a "fencing duel", but this is the fall. There may have been a territorial thing going on. But in any case I got to witness the spectacle of a pair of male Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) chasing each other from tree to tree along the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail the other day.
The Flickers are woodpeckers, but they spend a lot of their time on the ground searching for insects like beetles and ants. They'll peck the ground to chase down their quarry. They'll also eat berries at certain times of the year.

I'll often hear them before I see them. Their call is quite distinctive.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Why Yes, I am the Center of the Universe: Yellow-billed Magpie on the Tuolumne River

Just a quick single picture tonight. This is a Yellow-billed Magpie (Pica nuttalli), one of California's
very few endemic bird species. Endemics are those species that are found in one place and nowhere else in the world, and this magpie fits the bill very nicely. It is common in California's Great Valley and the Coast Ranges, and is found nowhere else. We almost lost it a decade ago when the West Nile virus decimated the flocks. More than half the population was wiped out. Luckily a few seemed to have had some resistance to the virus and the populations have stabilized somewhat, although not yet to the number that existed prior to 2004 when the virus arrived.

I was thrilled to see a flock of more than a hundred of the Yellow-billed Magpies flying over the campus of CSU Stanislaus a few weeks ago. I've seen as many as two dozen or so at a time on the bluffs above the Tuolumne River in Waterford in recent weeks as well. There are also at least two dozen living on the west campus of Modesto Junior College.

This one that I saw today was obviously saying that it was the center of the Universe by making sure it was framed correctly by the barbed wire.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

American Kestrels on the Tuolumne Parkway Trail

One of the dependable birds that I see on my walks along the Tuolumne River are the American Kestrels (Falco sparverius). They are certainly not as common as Starlings or Scrub Jays, but there is a pair that consistently shows up in the treetops. I'm not usually close enough for good shots, but once in awhile one of them perches in near the trail keeping an eye on me. That's how I got this shot yesterday.

I caught the Kestrel pair last August in the top of one of the huge oak trees along the river. I have no idea if they had a nest this year or not, but I'll be watching more carefully as spring rolls around.

Monday, November 19, 2018

As Cute as They Get: Bushtit on the Tuolumne River

The Bushtits (Psaltriparus minimus) are busy little birds of the underbrush. They barely ever stop moving in their search for small insects, hopping from branch to branch like little Energizer Bunnies. And they are as cute as a bird can be, with their little beaks and furry looking ping-pong ball bodies.
The females have different-looking eyes and seem a little bit more stern (I featured them two months ago). The black eyes of the males make them simply look like toys. If you live in the American West, you have a pretty good chance of spying these birds, in any place with lots of open shrubs. They forage together in flocks of a few dozen individuals. But good luck getting pictures! They rarely pause in their work.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Decorating Christmas Trees, Avian-style: Cedar Waxwings on the Tuolumne River

It's getting to be the holiday season, and folks are thinking of trimming and decorating Christmas trees. The avian folks along the Tuolumne Parkway Trail had their own idea of how a tree should be decorated, using around 145 of themselves as ornaments. These beautiful birds are Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), who tend to show up around here in the fall and winter as they migrate south.

I couldn't get near enough for a close-up, so here's a shot from last January at MJC...

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Why So Many Turkey Vultures on the Mokelumne River? Oh Yeah...

 Let's face it: Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) can be really creepy. Not so much when they're soaring on the thermals; that's when they are actually beautiful. No, it's when they are perched on the branches right over your head staring at you. It's like they're hoping you'll have a heart attack so they can have some lunch.
I was walking along the Mokelumne River this morning near the fish hatchery just below Camanche Reservoir. I had not yet reached the river and was looking for other birds, but I couldn't help but notice that nearly every tree had a Turkey Vulture perching on the top branches. They were all over the place. So yeah, a bit creepy.

As I got closer to the river I heard odd splashing sounds, and suddenly it occurred to me. It was the Chinook Salmon run! The spot where I was walking is the end of the road for the salmon, as Camanche Reservoir blocks their upstream progress. I wondered if there was a fish ladder, and there was, but it led only into the fish hatchery where workers collect the eggs for rearing in the complex. The fish ladder was closed, presumably because their holding tanks were full, so the upper pool of the river was full of Chinook trying to go farther upstream. And the vultures were waiting for a tasty lunch.

Here's a short video of the fish swimming in the Mokelumne River.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Getting Very Close to our National Bird

This might not be the right distance to meet a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). I grant you that. But my camera does have a pretty good zoom, but this is really close.
It's probably clear that we're not looking at a wild bird. Well, it's wild, but not in the wild. Unfortunately someone apparently shot its wing and the bird has been somewhat tamed and serves as a wildlife ambassador. We were at the Salmon Festival on Saturday at Knight's Ferry on the Stanislaus River.
Bald Eagles aren't at all common in our area but a few of them live here. I've seen them at Turlock Lake and near the Beckwith Platform in the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge.
But never this close!
Here's a more normal distance for a shot of an eagle...

Thursday, November 8, 2018

A Surprise Discovery at MJC: A Red-breasted Sapsucker

There's something I've learned with fossil and mineral hunting. If you haven't seen the thing you are looking for, you won't recognize it when you see it. But if you've seen an example of the fossil or mineral, you'll pick it out right away. I'm still a newbie at bird identification, but a few weeks ago I saw a Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber) in Yosemite Valley. I got all excited and got pictures and posted on my discovery that night.

Then, only nine days later, I was wandering the campus of CSU Stanislaus and much to my surprise I saw another Red-breasted Sapsucker! So I posted on the species again. Having seen it once, I guess I was primed to recognize it right away when I saw it again.

So here we are eight days later. I was taking a break between classes and wandered out to the sheep compound, my MJC "mini-wilderness", and saw another woodpecker deep among the branches of a dead tree. I focused in with the camera, and wouldn't you know it, there was another Red-breasted Sapsucker! I've never encountered one here before. So once again, I am posting. It the pattern holds, we should be hearing of the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail Sapsucker discovery any day now...