Friday, March 30, 2018

Out of the Archives: Black-tailed Gnatcatcher at Joshua Tree National Park

I've been watching birds in a more serious manner for around five years now, ever since I came into the possession of a high-zoom camera. But the roots have been there for many years earlier, especially when I was exploring new and exotic places. In 2011, I was in Joshua Tree National Park for the first time in a number of years, and there were birds that caught my eye at the time.

I was looking through my photo archives today because of the terrible act of arson and vandalism that took place last week, when someone burned several acres of the Oasis of Mara at the north edge of the park. The palms were beautiful, and I'm sad that someone is so depraved as to want to destroy them (an arrest has been made, but it won't bring the palms back any time soon). As I worked my way through the shots, I came across these pictures of a bird I couldn't immediately identify. In fact, I flipped through my copy of Sibley's twice and still couldn't identify it. I thought maybe some kind of flycatcher, but I skipped past the single page of gnatcatchers, so it took the intrepid commenters of Birding California on Facebook to set me straight. It's a Black-tailed Gnatcatcher (Polioptila melanura).
The Black-tailed Gnatcatcher is a true desert denizen. It rarely drinks water, getting most of its moisture from the bugs it eats. They dwell in the native shrubs of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts, and thus are rarely seen in the cities. As such, their population level is a fair barometer of the health of the desert ecosystem.

It will be interesting to see what other birds are hiding in my photo archives...

One of Those Rarely Seen Little Ones: Marsh Wren at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

There are still a lot of common species out there that I haven't seen yet, sometimes because I am just not observant enough, but sometimes it's because the bird itself has an elusive lifestyle. The Marsh Wren (Cistothorus palustris) falls into the latter category. They live most of their lives creeping among the reeds, rarely coming out into the open where they can be photographed.

I saw this Marsh Wren a couple of weeks ago at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, and had a heck of a time catching images. It hardly ever stopped moving, and hardly ever emerged from the reeds in the little marsh habitat outside of the brand new visitor center. I was on an elevated boardwalk above the marsh at the time. That was interesting, because I later read eBird's advice for seeing Marsh Wrens:
"Seeing a Marsh Wren in its often impenetrable marsh habitat can be tough, but these few tips might help. First, find a marsh with an elevated boardwalk. These provide more of a bird's-eye view of the cattails, allowing you to scan across more of the marsh and look down into it."

The Marsh Wren thus joins my list of not necessarily rare birds that are hard to see (the Sora comes to mind as another example). It is was a privilege to see one!

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Holy Cow, What the Heck is That?? Oh, and Have You Ever Wondered Why They Call it Double-Crested?

Yikes, did I ever see something strange today. I've always noticed Double-crested Cormorants  (Phalacrocorax auritus) during our travels at the local bird refuges, but I have never gotten a really close look. They've always been off in the distance, or skittered away if we got too close. I had no idea what I was missing.

I was wandering around on the CSU Stanislaus this afternoon, and was distracted by the dozens of Canada Geese, American Coots, and Mallard Ducks, especially since there were some cute little chicks showing up with them. I was walking by about ten feet from yet another black-colored bird, and almost didn't notice it The long hooked bill and orange face immediately marked it as a Cormorant, but I had never seen such eyes before.
Then I noticed the odd feathers on the head and finally realized why it is called "double-crested" (I vaguely wondered, but never looked it up). During the breeding season, the males develop the head feathers, apparently because the lady Cormorants are impressed by such things. I'm glad to know that humans aren't subject to such strange whims.
So, yeah, I'm pretty impressed by a bird that I've noticed, but never seen up close. It's described in some guides as "primitive" looking, and I definitely get dinosaur vibes when I look at this individual.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Yellow-headed Blackbirds at the Bear Creek Unit Redux

It's true that we were just there last week, and that I posted pictures of the Yellow-headed Blackbirds (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus) only a week ago, but we went back to the Bear Creek Unit of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge the next weekend, and this time the sun was out, and the birds were a little closer to the car. We got better pictures this time.
They were in the same area as before, but we saw five of them this time, but no females (yet). The females are more brown in color and have only a bit of yellow coloration around the head. They have a yellow breast.

The Bear Creek Unit is part of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, and the short auto tour is readily available from Highway 165 (Lander Ave) south of Turlock. The route is only 2.5 miles long, but several walking trails are available.

The sunset was just spectacular as we rounded the final bend of the auto-tour. I'm a sucker the pretty ones like this.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

A Sure Sign of Spring! FOS Western Kingbird at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

I don't usually post bird blogs back-to-back, but I was working on the last one with the Spotted Towhees yesterday and didn't quite finish because we went birding today. It took just a few minutes to post the Towhee, and I wanted to get this one posted as well, since the spring equinox occurred just four days ago. One of the sure signs of impending spring around here is the arrival of the Western Kingbird (Tyrannus verticalis). Around here, melting snow is not an issue, and the grass has been green since the rains fell in January. So the Kingbirds are it. We were driving along the auto-tour at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, and we saw a lone bird perched on the fencing for the elk enclosure. It never turned around to give us a better view, but the yellow breast and black narrow bill pegged it as a Kingbird. I posted the sighting at eBird, and realized just how few have been seen so far. Note in the screen capture below that there are only eight sightings in the entire region (and pretty much none north of Sacramento).
Western Kingbird sightings in 2018 so far.
Compare that sparse distribution with the total number of sightings for the whole year. There are a lot more Western Kingbird on their way north from the tropics!

PS: FOS - First-of-Season

Spotted Towhee at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

Photo by Mrs. Geotripper
The Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus) is actually a large sparrow that is relatively common across the American West and Canda, but is not often seen (at least by me) because it spends a lot of time in the underbrush. Many of my first pictures of the species have been mysterious red eyes looking out from among the leaves.
These pictures, which I think may be the best I've taken (Mrs. Geotripper took the lead picture above), were captured along the Souza Marsh Trail at the southeast corner of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. We had just had a close encounter with a beautiful coyote, and had almost gotten back to the car when we spotted the Spotted Towhee (you see what I did there?), and we froze. Fortunately it did too and didn't disappear into the thicket, so we both had a chance to get some decent shots.

There is a similar related species, the Eastern Towhee. The two groups overlap and sometimes hybridize in the Midwest, and were once even considered to be a single species. The populations were separated by glaciers during the Ice Ages and diverged, as they were living in different environments that required different traits to survive and thrive. The "spots" are unique to the western species, who live in drier environments.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Photo-bombed by a Double-Crested Cormorant

We were at the end of a day of birding along the Waterfowl auto-tour at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. There was one last pool I was watching for, as it is a favorite roosting spot for Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets. What found instead were a couple of Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) who were seriously showing off as soon as pulled out the camera. It really looked like they were mugging for us. It's more likely that it was drying its wings, something they do after diving for fish. Still...

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

White-tailed Kite on the Tuolumne River Bluffs

I had quite a surprise the other day while wandering through my usual haunts along the Tuolumne River in Waterford. I was having a relatively good birding day with more than twenty species sighted, although no new ones were noted. I struggled up the stairway (135 steps; it's a new favorite exercise spot in my town) and got in the car to go home when I noticed a large bird over the fallow cornfield at the north end of the parking lot.
It was white...and it was kiting! Kiting in this case does not involve bouncing checks (a fraud from the earlier non-digital banking days), but instead involves hovering, or gliding in place over a field, waiting for a rodent to make the wrong move. Northern Harriers do this to an extent, but the experts are the White-tailed Kites (Elanus leucurus). They are found in the westernmost states of California, Oregon and Washington, but they are not at all common (Texas hosts a few but most are in Mexico and Central America). I've only seen three of them so far in my travels, and this one was the first I've seen near the Tuolumne River.

The Kite never landed (I wasted about 25 digital images trying to get the few slightly sharp photos seen above), and eventually it flew off to the north. In case you want to know what they look like on the ground, here is a shot I got last November on Milnes Road while commuting to work. I was as surprised as the bird was when I hit the brakes.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Yellow-headed Blackbirds Make a Showing at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

The Bear Creek Unit of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge gets a great deal less attention than some of the other birding "hotspots" in Stanislaus and Merced Counties. According to the eBird Hotspots map, it's been visited 88 times by birders who took the time to report their sightings. They've seen 150 species at the unit. Compare that to the nearby Merced National Wildlife Refuge which has had around 2,000 reports over the years (and around 225 species).  The main unit of the San Luis Refuge where the visitor center and Tule Elk compound is located has more than 800 reports, and 200+ species.
I'm pretty sure that the size of the unit has something to do with the disparity. The auto-tour at Bear Creek is only 2.5 miles long and encompasses a much smaller area. The Merced auto-tour is more than five miles long. The pools in the interior at Merced allow for more isolation for the migratory geese and cranes that might want to avoid auto traffic and human beings with cameras (or guns). I have seen few of the Snow Geese or Sandhill Cranes during my visits to Bear Creek. Indeed, it is often an afterthought to stop there at sunset after we have spent hours exploring the Merced NWR or the San Luis Unit and visitor center. But still, it has its charms, and I've seen some interesting species when we've paid a visit.

A year ago, on March 18, 2017, birders reported that Yellow-headed Blackbirds had returned to the Bear Creek Unit. I was curious, having never seen the species before, so I headed out and much to my delight, I found a few, and posted photos last year last April. I was a little disappointed with the pictures because the birds were hiding among the reeds and I couldn't get a clear open shot.

So shoot forward a year to March 18, 2018. No one this year has yet reported seeing Yellow-headed Blackbirds at the Bear Creek Unit (7 visits so far), but I couldn't help but think about them. We had spent most of the afternoon at the main Waterfowl auto-tour at San Luis (and having an adventure with a coyote), but the sun was still up, and we decided to give the Bear Creek auto-tour a whirl. There were thousands upon thousands of Red-winged Blackbirds in residence, making quite the cacophony to catch the attention of the females. As we drove near, they would take flight in a panic, but from a distance I noticed that there were a couple of blackbirds that could care less that we were coming. I realized with a start that they had yellow heads! We ultimately saw at least four of them, although there could have been plenty more down in the reeds.

Between Fresno and Stockton this year the Yellow-headed Blackbirds have only been noted at the Los Banos Unit of the San Luis NWR, the Merced NWR, and the Bear Creek Unit. I'm hoping to see more of them in the surrounding areas soon as more arrive.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

An Argument for Looking Closer at Little Birds: Western Bluebirds on the West Campus

Before I  became a geologist, all rocks were gray, and there were a few crystals, but all of them were quartz. Then, a small bit of education intervened and my eyes were opened to a vast and complicated world inhabited by a dizzying array of rocks and thousands of kinds of beautiful and colorful minerals. It was a revelation that changed my life and led me into the career I've enjoyed now for more than thirty years.
Jumping ahead a few decades, birds have become my new minerals. A decade ago, I pretty much figured the birds I saw in the neighborhood and at work fell into a few categories: sparrows, pigeons, and crows. And they were little gray things, just like the rocks once were. So imagine my surprise when I found I lived in one of the more critical bird habitats in the country. Nearly a thousand bird species have been identified in the lower 48 states, and almost a third of them have been sighted at one time or another in Stanislaus County where I live. There are plenty of reasons for the biological richness: mild winters, providing shelter for many migrant species; and a wide variety of habitats, including foothills, prairies, rivers and flood plains, and mountain slopes. Despite being a rank amateur at bird watching, I soon had identified more than a hundred species.
One of my favorites of my new world are the Western Bluebirds (Sialia Mexicana), as evidenced by the fact that this is the 14th time I've posted pictures of them. They're irresistibly colorful. I saw these during my recent wanderings on the West Campus of MJC, which turns out to be a pretty good habitat for bird watching, with more than 60 species seen so far. They'll probably be headed for the hills very soon as spring arrives. They are actually more of a woodland bird in their breeding choices, and move into the Sierra Nevada or the Coast Ranges.
I'm not an expert, and my blog has become just the 300th most-read bird blog, but I've enjoyed writing about my discoveries, and I've appreciated hearing from those who have been along for the journey!

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Winsome Little Warblers of the Yellow-rumped Kind in the MJC Mini-wilderness

I see that it has been an entire month since I've posted pictures of Yellow-rumped Warblers (also called Audubon's Warblers, latin name Setophaga coronata). It's hard not to. They are attractive little birds, and they are all over our campus in west Modesto. They are one of the most common species that I see in the central plaza area of the school.
We are getting on towards spring, so they may soon be leaving for their summer breeding grounds, which could be far to the north, or possibly in higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada (I've seen them on the road to Glacier Point at elevations of almost 8,000 feet).
In the meantime, it's fun to try and get decent pictures of these extremely active foragers. I got lucky in the last few trips around the campus and caught a couple of sharp shots I was happy with.

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Last Days of Winter in the Great Valley (and a Bald Eagle)

We spent part of the weekend out at the coast, but coming home in Bay Area traffic was no fun. As we approached the Great Valley, we decided to get off the main highway and check out things at the Beckwith Road Viewing Platform, part of the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge. At times during the winter season, tens of thousands of Aleutian Cackling Geese, White-fronted Geese, Snow Geese, and Ross's Geese will congregate in the fields around the platform. But winter is almost over and the huge flocks are beginning to disappear as they begin their northward migration.

We saw just a few dozen White-fronted Geese near the platform, and saw or heard little else. If the geese were there, they were well hidden. We spent some time enjoying the rabbits at the thicket around the platform and searched for Towhees and sparrows. We were finally ready to go, so we started driving slowly east along the northern boundary of the refuge.
Photo by Mrs. Geotripper

Then we heard a lot of goose noise, and stopped again to try and see why. It didn't take long to find out why...there was a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) lurking at the edge of the pasture. I don't know if they prey on the geese, but their agitation certainly made it seem so. It turned out that there were still a few hundred Snow Geese hiding out in the distant shrubs.
I've seen a number of Bald Eagles in the last few years, but most of them have been in the Pacific Northwest. They are resident in the local region, but not overly common. I've only seen one at this spot in the past, in 2015 (see the pictures here). A check of eBird indicates a sighting of two eagles in November of 2017, but no other reports since 2016.
Bald Eagles are big birds. Really big. Cows were strolling in front of the eagle, providing a sense of scale. Their wingspan can exceed six feet, which became apparent when it took off, again in front of the cow.
It was a great ending to our weekend!

Friday, March 9, 2018

Anyone Want to Guess How Many Blackbirds?

The last part of our late February tour of the Merced National Wildlife Refuge took us across the grasslands along the north and east part of the auto-tour. We were met with quite a sight, a huge flock of birds in flight. There were thousands of them, and for the record, I didn't even try to count how many are in the picture above. They were too far away for identification, at least by me (I am open to suggestions), but I would suspect Brewer's Blackbirds, European Starlings, or possibly Red-winged Blackbirds.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Ross's Geese at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge: Preparing for a long journey north...

They are still there by the thousands, but not for very much longer. The Ross's Goose (Anser rossii) spends winters at a few select refuges in California's Great Valley, but when spring arrives, they will migrate thousands of miles north to the Arctic. Their favored breeding grounds are on Baffin Island, the shoreline of Hudson Bay, and the shore of the Arctic Sea.

The Ross's Goose is smaller than most goose species but they are very similar in appearance to the Snow Goose. Both are completely white except for the black wing tips, but the beak of the Ross's is pink. The Snow Goose beak is pink on top, but with a black outline around the "lips". It doesn't help that they like to gather together with Snow Geese in huge flocks.

We got these pictures at one of our favorite places in the Great Valley, the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. There were hundreds of them visible from the autotour route, but there may have been several thousand hidden in the interior of the refuge. But not for very much longer. Like the Sandhill Cranes, they are getting restless, and ready to fly to their summer homes.