Wednesday, January 31, 2018

A Secretive Sora at the Willms Ranch Pond on California's Prairie

California has some special landscapes that are not part of the usual tourist routes. One of those unheralded ecosystems is the prairie lands that form the edge of the Great Valley. The lowest part of the Sierra Nevada foothills have not yet been completely covered by almond orchards, and aside from the grazing of cows, the grasslands look much as they did hundreds of years ago. Much of the land is private, but parts can be seen from public roads, and a generous ranch owner provides some public access at a stock pond that is a local hot spot for birding. It's on Willms Road a couple of miles south of Knights Ferry on the Stanislaus River. I stopped by on the weekend while looking for Burrowing Owls (note the last two posts).
We saw the usual assortment of American Coots, Egrets, Pied-billed Grebes, Common Gallinule and Kestrels, but as we were preparing to leave, we got a little treat. I was looking back at the reeds and was surprised to see another bird lurking around the shadows. It turned out to be a Sora (Porzana Carolina). The birds, a type of rail, are said to be common but secretive, being heard more often than seen. The pictures show just how hard they were to photograph. This was only third time I've seen one (previous sightings were at Stone Lakes and the Merced National Wildlife Refuge).

The picture above provides an idea of the setting of the pond where we were exploring. We saw the Sora in the reeds to the left of Mrs. Geotripper.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

What? Another Burrowing Owl?

I don't usually post about the same bird on successive days, but it turns out that Mrs. Geotripper was not with me yesterday when I sallied forth and discovered a Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) in the prairies east of my town in the Sierra Nevada Foothills. The odd thing is, I've seen Burrowing Owls only three times, and the three sightings were within a hundred yards of each other, even while years apart. Mrs. Geotripper wanted to get pictures of her own so we headed back out to Willms Road near Knights Ferry.
The funny thing is, we saw a fourth owl in a different spot, on Crabtree Road. So the spell is broken. I'll probably finally start seeing them everywhere now. If it illustrates how hard they can be to detect in their home environment, see if you can locate the owl in the first picture. It's there, honest! Mrs. Geotripper got the clearest close-up, seen below.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Burrowing Owl on What Remains of the California Prairie

I don't know why this is...Burrowing Owls (Athene cunicularia) live all over North and South America, especially on grasslands of the western United States, but for all my searching I've only seen them three times, and those three times were within a hundred yards of the same spot. Go figure.
Can you see the owl in this picture?

It was a beautiful spring-like afternoon, despite being late January. We've had a little bit of rain, enough to bring on some grass growth, although it may fade early, as we are below 50% of normal precipitation and no storms are on the horizon. I decided to see what was happening at the Willm's Ranch stock pond, a prairie water hole that has provided some nice birding for us in the past.
I was on the road a mile or two south of the pond, where an ephemeral creek crosses the road. I first saw a Burrowing Owl there more than a decade ago. My pictures were limited by a 3x zoom on my primitive digital camera. The second sighting was much more recently, on April 2 of last year. My car startled the owl, which took off and landed a few hundred yards away in an alcove. I got a few less than perfect pictures, and put up a post anyway.

Today I spied the owl just a few dozen yards from the road, and it didn't move, much to my delight. I snapped lots of pictures this time around. Now to see if I can't locate a few elsewhere!

Friday, January 26, 2018

A Somewhat Rare Visitor on the Tuolumne Parkway Trail: Common Goldeneyes

Now just to be clear, I mean "rare" in the sense that they haven't been seen on this stretch of the Tuolumne River where it flows through Waterford. The Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) is certainly a common bird across the country, and has been reported upstream around Modesto and Turlock Lakes, and downstream around Modesto and the San Joaquin River. But in the last ten years at least (according to eBird), it hasn't been reported anywhere in between.
A Wood Duck (left) joined the flock on one day last week
I first saw just one of them swimming in one of the pools at the water treatment plant where I got the only close-up photo (above). That was on January 3. On subsequent walks I saw as many as five at once, but within a week the flock was up to 17 or 18, with a mix of males and females. Another birder (the only other one to mention Goldeneyes) reported six of them on January 10. At least three were still on the river today, but some may have flown off when I arrived in the area.
I couldn't look at the Goldeneyes and not think about the excitement among birders to the north on the Stanislaus River at Knight's Ferry. There has been a flock of Common Goldeneyes there since about Christmastime, and with them has been a Barrow's Goldeneye. That is a species that has only rarely been sighted in our county, as we are situated at the extreme southern edge of their normal range. It has not been reported since the 10th of January, so you can be sure I was watching carefully to see if it decided to fly just a bit further south!
There have been a number of flocks hanging out on my section of the river there were five Pied-billed Grebes downstream at the west end of the Parkway Trail. A gaggle of about twenty Canada Geese rested briefly near the slough today. And I saw a flock of five ducks, either Goldeneyes or Wood Ducks, taking off near the water treatment plant.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Sandhill Cranes and the Great Valley That Once Was, and in Places, Still Is

These beautiful birds are among the reasons I took up bird photography a couple of years ago. I was astounded to find that Sandhill Cranes (Grus Canadensis) congregated by the tens of thousands very close to where I live, and I was not the least bit aware of it.

Living in the Central Valley of California (which I agree should always be called the Great Valley) is an exercise in frustration and futility. The natural environment, the greatest savanna environment in the United States, was almost completely co-opted by agricultural development, and then by urban development. It's not a great place for people to live...most of the jobs are poorly-paid manual labor, the soil, air and water are infused with pesticides, herbicides, and particulate air pollution, and health problems, especially asthma and related respiratory illnesses are rampant. Education is a low priority to those in power. We are consistently the first to suffer in economic downturns, and the last region to recover from them.
And yet there is still a greatness to this valley. In terms of the natural environment, dedicated people have worked tirelessly for decades to preserve the remnants of the rich ecosystem, and have worked even harder to rebuild some of the habitats as abandoned farmlands have come available. Thousands of acres of river floodplains have been replanted with native vegetation. There is now a string of wildlife refuges along the 400 mile length of the valley that provide shelter for the millions of winter migrants, the Sandhill Cranes, the Aleutian Cackling Geese, the Snow and Ross's Geese, and many others.
The Great Valley that existed hundreds and thousands of years ago is still available to observe and enjoy, and often only a few miles from the homes of everyone who lives here. In the Modesto-Turlock area, there are the San Luis and San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuges. The Beckwith Road viewing platform (part of the San Joaquin refuge) is only an eight mile excursion from Modesto's biggest shopping mall. I was there last night and had a real treat. The Sandhill Cranes are elegant large birds, beautiful to photograph, but they are a bit wary (with good reason) of human beings. They tend to stay towards the interior of the refuge, being heard more than seen off in the distance.
It's deep into winter now, and food stores are kind of low. The refuge managers grow fields of corn and other crops for the sole use of the birds, and they'll plow down the corn in sections so the birds can feed easily. Once those crops are gone, the birds make do, and last night they were roaming the plowed fields close to the road and viewing platform. I got some of my closest shots in a long time.

This is part of the valley as it once was, and still is. It belongs to all of us, and it is right in our own backyard. And to our coastal and urban center friends, don't forget that there are some incredible sights to see on the valley floor when you are on your way to Yosemite or to one of the Sierra ski resorts. For our international visitors, there are more places to see than the travel brochures hint at. If you are interested in the natural world want to see some of the real California, not just the tourist meccas, then check out these places. The refuges are worthy of a look.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

American Kestrels on the Tuolumne River Trail

The American Kestrels (Falco sparverius) have been out in force the last couple of weeks on the Tuolumne River Trail in Waterford. I've seen as many as three of them along a one mile stretch of the river, and as you can see, a couple of times they remained still enough for some reasonable pictures. It may be winter, but we finally got some rain and the green grass sprouting, which is bringing out some of the other members of the food chain, and the hunt for grasshoppers or lizards seems to be going well.

It's always a pleasure to observe them.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Off-season for the American Avocets at Merced National Wildlife Refuge

The Merced National Wildlife Refuge is much more than a wintering ground for charismatic migrants like the Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese. The pools, marshes, and riparian habitats preserve a precious rare portion of the original Great Valley, the vast savanna that once extended for 400 miles from the present site of Bakersfield to Redding. Today, more than 95% of the valley is given over to agriculture and urban development.
We get to the Merced National Wildlife Refuge whenever we can. There are a string of such refuges along the entire length of the valley, with some more amenable to public visitation than others. The Merced offers several hiking trails and a nice six-mile auto-tour that provides access to a variety of habitats. It's rare when we don't see some kind of interesting bird.
The American Avocets (Recurvirostra americana) we saw were in winter mode, lacking the tan or orange coloring around their necks and heads that advertises their readiness for breeding. We saw a number of them along the marshes, and several were kind enough to hold still for a few moments of photography.

The Avocets range from Central America (winter) to the northern United States and southern Canada (summer breeding). The Merced refuge seems to be a local hot spot for viewing them, according to the eBird reports. Their health in Great Valley refuges was threatened for a time by selenium poisoning from agricultural runoff (exacerbated by natural sources). Mitigation efforts have allowed the bird populations to rebound.

California's Only Ibis Species at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

The Merced National Wildlife Refuge never disappoints. There are always interesting birds to observe, even if the charismatic migrant cranes and geese are wandering about on other parts of the reserve. We only saw one on our recent trip, but a White-faced Ibis (Plegadis chihi) is hard to ignore. For one, there is the ridiculous looking, but incredibly efficient beak. It's used for digging deep into the mud for crustaceans and worms.
And then there is the plumage. From a distance, it may look like some sort of dull green or brown, but in the right light, it takes on a colorful iridescence. The "white" refers to the sometimes white color right around the beak.

The White-faced Ibis ranges widely across the American West, seeking out any freshwater marshes. It is the only ibis found in the west. It closely resembles the Glossy Ibis of the southeast US and Florida, the minor differences probably the result of isolation. A year-round population also inhabits the southern part of South America.

Friday, January 19, 2018

A Lady Hawk on the Tuolumne River Trail! That's a Merlin to You

I had a new surprise today. On Wednesday it was about a flock of Common Goldeneyes and fresh beaver sign, and today it was a sighting of a totally new bird for me. It was a beautiful sunny day after what seemed like weeks or months of gloomy gray weather (I know, it was just a couple of days). But still, the sunshine was nice so I headed down to the river for some exercise and to see who was out and about. I almost immediately saw an American Kestrel who stopped long enough for a couple of pictures (maybe in a near-future post). Being perched on trees right over the trail, it must have thought I was chasing it.

It finally disappeared but then I saw another kestrel-shaped bird, but I realized almost immediately that the coloration was wrong. I started snapping pictures and wondered what it might be. It was too small for a hawk, and so my inexperienced bird brain said "Merlin". Out came the smart phone, and the pictures seemed to confirm it (as always, I'm open to gentle corrections). A search on eBird indicates only one previous sighting on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail in Waterford (they range all over the west, and have been recorded both upstream and downstream of my favored trail).
The Merlin (Falco columbarius) is a member of the falcon family that ranges across the northern hemisphere, in Europe and North America. They winter in our region and head north during the summer for breeding. They are fast and agile fliers who prey mainly on small songbirds (as can be seen in my pictures). They went into a steep decline during the DDT years, but have recovered very well, although they are listed as uncommon in our county.

The term "Lady Hawk" refers to the use of Merlins by noblewoman in Medieval times to hunt small birds. They are still used by falconers today.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Common Gallinule at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge (and a not-so-common Hawaiian connection)

A new species debuts here on the blog today. During our excursion to the Merced National Wildlife Refuge last weekend we saw an unfamiliar "not-quite-a-duck" bird. I had a feeling that I should have known what it was, and finally realized it was a juvenile Common Gallinule (Gallinula galeata). It may be "common", but I think it is the first one I've photographed in California.
The Common Gallinule has been called a Common Moorhen in the past, and the species ranges from Chile to the Canadian border in North America. Strangely enough, while common in the summer across the eastern states, it rarely travels beyond the north end of the Great Valley in California.
The eBird archives indicate that many birders have seen the Gallinules at the Merced Refuge, but few of them report seeing more than one or two individuals at a time. I'll be watching more closely to see if some mature individuals are around next time. They are colorful unique birds.
Hawaiian Moorhen ('Alae 'Ula) on Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands.

It's an odd thing, but I've seen and photographed more Gallinules in Hawai'i than I have in California. Thousands of years ago a few errant individuals survived the long flight to the islands, took up residence in some of the few freshwater marshes on the islands, and evolved over time into a unique subspecies, the 'Alae 'Ula, or Hawaiian Moorhen. They are highly endangered on the islands because of habitat loss (the freshwater marshes have proven expendable in the face of intense development on Oahu and the other islands). There are less than a thousand of them today, and at one point they had declined to 57 individuals.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Say's Phoebe at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Here's a bird I haven't posted in awhile. Flycatchers are a challenge to photograph. The Say's Phoebes (Sayornis saya) constantly fly erratically from their perch, chasing down insects, and then land again. If I would ever just learn to just focus on the perch and wait for it to come back, I would do much better. These Phoebes range across western North America, from Central America to the Arctic. This one was hunting at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge last week.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Pied-billed Grebe at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

It doesn't take much of excuse to get Mrs. Geotripper and I outdoors. A hint of needed yardwork here, some house chores there, and rumors of a rare bird at some refuge will do the trick nicely. We were at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge yesterday and didn't see any of the rumored birds, but we got some nice sightings of the more common species. My best surprise and favorite shots of day were of this Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) that popped up in the water right next to our vehicle.
"Popped up" is literally what it did. Pied-billed Grebes have been described as part submarine, given their tendency to dive underwater rather than fly when dangers appear. This one was feeding in the reeds, came up for a moment, and disappeared as quickly as it appeared.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

A River of Ross's Geese at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Many years ago (1997) there was a record flood on the Walker River in the eastern Sierra Nevada. I knew folks who lived in the path of the raging waters, so I was there in the aftermath helping to clean up. The river had picked for itself a new channel on the valley floor, and the Army Corps of Engineers considered this to be an affront to their management, so they decided to put the river back. I was there when the big bulldozer made the cut that restored the river and I was mesmerized as the water first trickled and then fully flowed back into its old channel.

I realize that this is a strange opening for a blog post about birds, but I was reminded of that river rebirth the other day when we were at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. It was the end of the day, the sun already set, and we were at the last part of the auto-tour. We hadn't seen a great many geese except at a great distance. Usually we love to see the dramatic sight of thousands of geese taking flight all at once, but it's not really good for the geese, since the flights use a lot of energy and food sources can be limited in winter.
So the sight that met us in the dusk was much calmer. Thousands of what I think were Ross's Geese (Snow Geese are very similar in appearance and they sometimes comingle) were gathered into a single flock on the pasture. The Ross's Geese (Chen rossii) looked like a lake of geese, and then like a new river, a string of geese broke away and started "flowing". The line of geese even meandered across the plain like an undulating river. I caught a bit of the flow in a short video below.
Ross's Geese are a true North American species.. They breed in a few isolated parts of the Canadian Arctic tundra, including the shores of Hudson Bay, and they winter in the Great Valley and in a strip across Mexico, New Mexico and the Texas coast. Their migration routes allow occasional sightings across the United States.
The Merced National Wildlife Refuge and its five mile auto tour route is one of the best places to see a huge variety of migratory and resident species of birds and other animals. It's on Sandy Mush Road south of the town of Merced, and admission is free. There are three hiking trails and restrooms are available.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Snow Geese at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge (and a bonus volcano!)

The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge preserves wetlands and prairie environments in the northern part of the Great Valley between Williams and Willows. It's one of our favorite sites for birdwatching in the entire state, in part for the variety and number of birds, but as can be seen in these photographs, for the setting as well.

To the northeast the volcanic center of Lassen Peak looms over the valley floor. The volcano erupted only a century ago. To the west, the northern Coast Ranges form the background to pictures of flying geese.
The Snow Geese (Chen caeruescens) are present in the ponds by the tens of thousands. Much of the time they simply placidly float across the ponds grazing for food, but something (a raptor, tourists, coyote?) will cause thousands of them to take flight all at once, and it is a truly dramatic sight. It's also loud (check out the video below).

Like many other birds in the Great Valley, the Snow Geese are migrants. They breed in the far northern reaches of the Arctic in Canada and Alaska and spend their winters in warmer climates like the valley, and other refuges in the southern United States and Mexico.

The birds are monogamous for life and often travel in large family groups. Their numbers have increased greatly over the years and so they are hunted on other parts of the refuge system. There are reports that they are putting considerable environmental pressure on their breeding grounds as well. They do have a great many predators, both of the eggs and young, and also adults. No wonder they flock into the air so much...
This wasn't the biggest flock taking flight that day, but it was the only video I caught of them taking off. Enjoy...