Monday, July 30, 2018

A Surprise from the Archives: Hermit Warbler and Juvenile at Cape Perpetua, Oregon

Sometimes the birdwatching surprises come when one is going through the archives, and makes a discovery from a couple of years back in time. That happened today as I was going though the pictures of a Pacific Northwest trip in the summer of 2015 and came across a set of pictures I had forgotten I had taken. I never followed up at the time to try and identify this bird, but it didn't take long to find that it was a Hermit Warbler (Setophaga occidentalis), This beautiful female was hopping through the trees at Cape Perpetua on the Central Oregon Coast, accompanied by a fledged chick.
The warblers have been a real challenge for me. They are mostly migrants in our area, so I've only had a few opportunities to see them (with the prominent exception of the Yellow-rumped Warbler which is common in our area). There are more than forty species (I've recorded just six of them), and some of them display a lot of variation within a single species. I look forward to the fall season!

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Blue Grosbeak on the Tuolumne River in Ceres

This is one I was really excited about. Blue Grosbeaks (Passerina caerulea) are not all common in our area, as we are pretty close to the edge of their range. I've been watching the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail like a hawk hoping to see one, but the only dependable sightings this year in our county have been farther to the west, at the Ceres River Bluff Regional Park, and at the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge in the western part of the Great Valley. They've been seen elsewhere in the county, but not for years at a time.

So I delved into the records at eBird and found that some Blue Grosbeaks were seen at the Ceres park for the first time in three weeks, so I passed on my normal morning walk on the Parkway Trail and headed to Ceres on the off-chance that I would actually manage to see one. I haven't had much luck in situations like this, and the first results weren't promising, just a lot of Eurasian Collared Doves, California Scrub Jays, House Finches, and Rock Pigeons. I saw one bird across the river and snapped a picture, but figured it was just a European Starling, and I hiked on.
Ceres River Bluff Regional Park is actually an athletic field complex, but there is an undeveloped section of the park on a terrace just above the river. It used to be a walnut orchard, but the land was purchased by the city and is being returned to a native state. There are some ponds on the site, so it provides excellent bird habitat.

I was walking along the river and reached the northwest corner of the property and saw another dark colored bird in the distance, but this time the sun was at my back and when I zoomed in I saw blue, but not the blue of a California Scrub Jay. It was a Blue Grosbeak. I started snapping pictures like the one below, thinking that it might be my only chance to get any pictures at all. But then to my surprise it flow towards me and overhead, landing in the top of a young sycamore tree only 100-150 feet away. I was able to get the pictures above before the bird moved on.

The European Starling that I mentioned earlier? When I downloaded the picture at home, I found much to my surprise that it was also a Blue Grosbeak. I'm glad I saw the second one, because it would have been rather frustrating to think of a single sloppy shot as my only record of this incredibly beautiful bird.

The birders report that there are females in the park as well so I hope they are breeding and that they'll move on upstream to my daily walk on the Parkway trail.

ADDENDUM: Got a few more pictures the next day. Here is the best one...

Friday, July 27, 2018

Bald Eagles at Cape Disappointment State Park in Washington

A unique viewpoint of a Bald Eagle at Cape Disappointment, WA. Photo by Mrs. Geotripper
We don't see Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) all that often in the Central Valley. They're around, but usually over the wetlands and reservoirs where we spend less time. They are more abundant far to the north since, more or less by definition, there are more wetlands and coastlines. So we get inordinately excited when we get to see them.
We spent a couple of weeks in the Pacific Northwest, and saw them in a few places. We spent a night at Cape Disappointment State Park in Washington, and saw our first eagle in the pines along the shoreline of the Columbia close to the river's mouth.
The next morning we set forth in the unending search for coffee and food, and went out on the beach at Seaview, just a few miles up the coast from Cape Disappointment. There were a lot of large dark-colored birds gathered on the beach with this eagle just down the shoreline a bit. The birds turned out to be Turkey Vultures working on some kind of carrion, and the eagle had either finished with its share, or was waiting for a chance at the mess, but was outnumbered by vultures.
I've been reading how Bald Eagles are a major nuisance in parts of Alaska, especially Dutch Harbor where the fishing boats dock. Some people have even been injured when they have gotten between an eagle and some kind of food source. But here in the lower 48 states, they are less populous and more fun to observe.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Birding from 18 Inches Away: Baby Mockingbird out the Kitchen Window

 Sometimes birders will travel the lengths of the world to get close to our feathered colleagues, but sometimes they appear, well, REALLY close to home. Like outside the kitchen window. There was a commotion this morning in the front yard, a region of our neighborhood mostly given over to Northern Mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos). It appeared to involve a pair of the aforementioned Mockingbirds and a local cat (not ours, although ours was watching carefully out the window. I checked out the kitchen window and saw this very young chick perched 18 inches away outside the window, pretty much unaware of our presence. I couldn't tell it there was a problem, or if this was just the normal progression of exploring outside the nest (the adult birds have chased the cat away).

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Wilson's Warbler at the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge in Washington State

You go to blog with the picture you have---not the picture you might want or wish to have a later time (extra credit if you recognize the political allusion I just made). I'm home from another epic trip, this time to some cooler climes across the Pacific Northwest. As a bird-watching trip, results were mixed. At any one place I didn't see the twenty or so species I regularly see in my excursions on the Tuolumne River, which at home I attribute to my knowing where specific birds like to hang out. But over the two weeks I added ten birds to my life list, and some of them were quite interesting.

One of our campsites was at Cape Disappointment State Park, and we hit the road headed to Olympic National Park. Almost immediately we passed the signs pointing to the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge and we decided to see what there was to see. The small visitor center includes a unique nature trail that includes nature-related artistic sculptures. It was a nice break. I was watching for birds, noting several Song Sparrows and White-crowned Sparrows, but in the shadows of an alder I caught sight of a yellow bird that I didn't immediately recognize. It was darting through the underbrush so quickly that I only got this single shot. I checked the guidebooks and asked at the visitor center, and we figured out it was a Wilson's Warbler (Cardellina pusilla). These warblers are seen at home (other birders have even seen them on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail), but it's a bit more difficult because we have to catch them as they pass through on their migration in spring and fall. I have yet to see any back home.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Rufous Hummingbird in Florence, Oregon

We are on the road again (that's what geo-tripping is all about). We're along the Oregon coastline finding a way to stay cool, and have found ourselves in Florence. I was walking to the Harbor Vista County Park when a hummingbird caught my eye. Hummingbirds are generally a tropical species, so I tend to expect just one or two possible species this far north, primarily an Anna's. But this one had gold tones, so I realized right away I had spotted a Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus).
The Rufous Hummingbird is a world-class migrant, traveling nearly 4,000 miles from southern Mexico to Canada and Alaska. I've seen them only a few times, once last spring on the Tuolumne River (definitely a migrant), once in Southern California (a winter shot), and now I can add a summer sighting in the Pacific Northwest.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Green Heron on the Tuolumne River, and a bit of "Where's Waldo?"

There are at least two Green Herons (Butorides virescens) who lurk along my section of the Tuolumne River where I walk most mornings. I've been observing them for three years now, but pictures are a bit rare because they tend to flush as I walk by on the trail. They're usually flying overhead.
Yesterday I was quietly stepping down to the river shore and saw one of them perched downstream maybe sixty yards away. It must have felt hidden from sight, because for once it didn't fly off. I got some nice zoomed shots before retreating into the brush.

I took an "establishing shot" and as I looked at it later, I realized how lucky I was to spot it. Can you see it in the picture below?

Say's Phoebe Babies at the Palm Springs Art Museum

It's kind of interesting that practically that only occupied nests I've seen lately were those of Say's Phoebes (Sayornis saya). I haven't seen any on the home trail yet this year, but I saw several on the Colorado Plateau trip last month, and both were attending to nests. This was also true the previous summer at Pecos National Monument in New Mexico. Then last week I had occasion to be in Southern California, and while touring the sculpture garden at the Palm Springs Art Museum I didn't see the nest, but I saw the recently fledged chicks badgering momma for food.
The birds did not seem overly concerned over our presence. It was a cooler day than normal in Palm Springs, just 103 degrees or so, and perhaps they were more concerned with enjoying the balmy weather.
Say's Phoebes are members of the tyrant flycatcher family. Their name describes them well, as they live almost exclusively on insects. Like the other flycatchers, they like to perch and fly out to capture their prey before returning to their perching spot.
The Say's Phoebes are tropical denizens for much of the year, although many migrate north in the summer for breeding. According to EBird, they range farther north than any other flycatcher. They are resident non-migrating birds in the desert southwest (which by coincidence is where I've seen a lot of them).

Friday, July 6, 2018

The Bird That I Don't Get to See: Green-tailed Towhee at Mesa Verde National Park

There are some birds, well, really a lot of birds that I don't get to see. At least not when I'm on the home turf along the Tuolumne River. Now, this makes a certain amount of sense, considering that the United States is home to more than 1,100 species of birds, and only 306 of them have ever been sighted in our county. But some species are more unfair than others. Take a look at the distribution map below. It's for the Green-tailed Towhee (Pipilo chlorurus). See how a long white barren strip runs down the Central Valley, but orange (breeding), and blue (non-breeding) areas completely surround our valley? I looked it up, and in 2013 one poor individual wandered down into our county and was immediately set upon by dozens of birders!

Luckily though, I've been given the opportunity to do a lot of traveling, and when we camped at Mesa Verde National Park last month, I was privileged to see a pair of the Green-tailed Towhees in our campsite. Apparently this was a rare enough sight as well since these Towhees more often hide deep in thick underbrush and aren't seen all that often.
One would think that such a distinctive bird with the rufous colored crown and the green tail would be a quick identification, but I am still pretty slow-witted when it comes to tracking down species names. I actually did guess that it was a kind of sparrow (Towhees are large sparrows), but I skipped right past the Towhees in the Sibley's guide. I'll know better if another one comes wandering out of the Sierra Nevada and pays a visit to the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail...

Thursday, July 5, 2018

A Gray-Headed Dark-Eyed Junco on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon

Our trip across the Colorado Plateau last month was a geology field studies course, not a bird-watching expedition. But when I could step away from teaching duties I found what birds I could. On Grand Canyon's North Rim, it's been a very dry year and I didn't see all that many birds, but there were a few. The most unfamiliar was the Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis), which is ironically one of the most common birds in North America.
The reason that this particular bird was unfamiliar to me is that it doesn't look much at all like the Juncos that I see elsewhere. There are quite a few regional subspecies of this bird, and the Gray-headed subspecies (Junco hyemalis caniceps) is not found in my region. The genetic code of these little sparrows must be rather malleable! One does wonder why the variants aren't considered separate species.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Finally Found Them! Hooded Orioles on the Tuolumne River

Some birds just don't want to be found, which is perfectly understandable. But a bird that is as brightly colored as a Hooded Oriole (Icterus cucullatus) seems to be begging to be seen, but the species simply isn't all that common around here. It's more of a tropical species, and something like 98% of them spend winters in Mexico, and only half of them come over the border to breed in the U.S., primarily in the southwest desert regions, especially places rich in palm trees.
I've seen Hooded Orioles on parts of the Tuolumne River, but despite keeping careful watch for the last few months, I had not seen any this year. It turns out that palm trees are the key to finding them, at least on the river trail. The palms are where they build their unique hanging basket nests. There aren't any palm trees on the main trail, but there are several in yards on the bluff adjacent to the trail near the water treatment plant. I saw the flash of yellow and the curved beaks, and realized I'd finally found an Oriole family. The immature male was chasing mom around like a hungry teenager.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Woodhouse's Scrub Jay at Zion Naitonal Park

All of my California friends will look at this bird and say that it's just a scrub jay, just like the ones in our backyard, and until 2016 this would have been true. The Western Scrub Jay was the name given these blue corvids, but there were some consistent regional differences, and in 2016 those who decide such things divided the species into two. One of them is the California Scrub Jay, the one that populates the Golden State and the other Pacific coast states (as well as Baja). But in the southwest states, the bird is now known as the Woodhouse's Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii).
We were at Zion National Park in early June, and saw this one at the Pa'rus Trail bridge over the Virgin River. The Woodhouse's Scrub Jay has been isolated from the California Scrub Jay by the coastal mountains and deserts, and the birds have evolved to utilize different food sources, with the California species preferring acorns, and the Woodhouse's species going after pine nuts (they all will eat insects and fruits at The Woodhouse's is a less intense shade of blue with a grayer breast than the California bird.