Wednesday, September 26, 2018

A Ping Pong Ball with a Long Tail: Bushtit on the Tuolumne River

EBird describes it as a flying ping pong ball with a long tail, and that's about right for the Bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus). They fail to mention that watching them is not unlike trying to watch the ball at pro ping pong matches. They never seem to stop moving. I've seen dozens of them on my recent walking trips in several environments, and I've wasted many minutes trying to get a reasonable picture.

I got lucky the other day on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail. For reasons unknown to me, one of the females stopped to consider my presence and sat still for a few seconds, long enough to snap a couple of pictures. The males of these cute little birds have black eyes, but the females are quite different, with a golden ring around the pupil. To me it makes the female like the mature serious one in the bunch.
The flock was exploring the same elderberry bower that I spied the Phainopeplas in a day earlier. As fall arrives, more and more bird species are utilizing the berries for food. The Bushtits are insect eaters, so they're probably after the bugs among the fruits.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Some Migrants are About to Leave: Western Tanager on the Tuolumne River

One of the great joys of fall is watching for the new arrivals and migrants who pass through our region. I've seen some beautiful warblers and flycatchers on my recent walks. But there are the wistful goodbyes as well. The Rufous Hummingbirds will be moving on, as will the Buntings and Grosbeaks. The sad part is that we never know if a particular observation will be the last view of a particular species for a whole season. That was the case yesterday with my sighting of a Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana). Will it be the last one for awhile? I'm secretly hoping that by saying so I'll get an even better sighting tomorrow.

The tanagers will be returning soon to the tropics of Mexico and Central America, but I got at least one last view of this female (the males are much brighter with flaming red heads). The top picture is about as close as I've ever gotten to one of these beautiful birds. It actually came to me, landing on the branches hardly six feet away, long enough for a single sharp picture, and then it headed up into the oak canopy where I got a couple more fuzzier shots.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

A Great Moment on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail: Phainopeplas!

It has been a couple of extraordinary days walking along the Tuolumne River. Two days in a row I saw new species of warbler for the first time, a Nashville Warbler, and a Black-throated Gray Warbler. I went out again this morning and spotted the Gray Warbler again, but as I was watching it I became aware of an odd looking bird in the elderberry thicket a short distance farther along the trail. It was very thin with a long tail, and a closer look in the zoom revealed a crest. It was a Phainopepla (Phainopepla nitens).

I've enjoyed seeing this unusual bird. It's actually a denizen of the tropical deserts and I see them rarely because the Tuolumne River lies close to the northern range of the species (although with global warming the range is expanding northward). I read a note just a day or two ago that birders in Washington state were thrilled to see a single Phainopepla at the north end of the Olympic Peninsula, the first such sighting in 24 years. Only a few have ever been seen even in Oregon (three sightings over the years).
Anyway, with the bird this you remember the scene in Top Gun where everyone is watching the radar at two bogeys, but then they turn to three, and then six (this was disconcerting to the two fighter pilots sent to intercept them). It was like that this morning. I was snapping one picture after another of the first bird I noticed and then I saw there was another perched just below. Then I looked again and there were two more! Some hikers came over the rise and startled the birds and they took off...all six of them! That's more Phainopeplas than I've seen total in three years of searching along the river.

It was a fine morning.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Another Migrant! Black-throated Gray Warbler on the Tuolumne River

The hunt continued this morning as I searched the trees along the Tuolumne River for migrant warbler species. I saw a Nashville Warbler yesterday for the first time ever, and I had the foolish hope that I might see some of the other warblers that have been showing up in our region in the last few weeks. For someone like me who lacks observational skills and patience, it is an exceptionally foolish hope, so imagine my surprise when I saw another new species of warbler for the first time. It was a Black-throated Gray Warbler (Setophaga nigrescens). I immediately pulled out the camera and took more than a dozen shots of the bird before it flew off, but in the end only the first picture turned out to be useful.

The Black-throated Gray Warblers are somewhat short-distance migrants, breeding in the western United States and wintering in Mexico. If the one in the picture above seems to be lacking a "black throat", it is a juvenile of the species. The black throat comes later.

Friday, September 21, 2018

New Bird Sighting on the Tuolumne Parkway Trail: Nashville Warbler

I've been keeping an eye out for warblers of late. It's nearly fall, and the migrants have been making their way south through the Great Valley. I need a lot of practice in their identification, because at least 16 species have been reported in our county, and some of them can be hard to tell apart. I'm hoping that's not the case here: the white eye-ring, the olive-gray head, and the bright yellow breast and neck are distinctive characters of the Nashville Warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla). I saw one this morning for the first time while hiking on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail.

The warbler clan shows the effect of isolation on the evolution of these birds. The western population of the Nashville Warbler is a brighter yellow than those found in the eastern United States, and it was once considered a separate species called the Calaveras Warbler, a name I find much more interesting. We can still call it by that name, since it is officially a subspecies called Oreothlypis ruficapilla ridgwayi.

Oh, and by the way, the bird has little to do with Nashville. It breeds in Canada and the Pacific Northwest and migrates in winter to the tropics. The ones seen in Nashville that gave the species its name were simply migrants passing through.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

How to Tell a Great Egret from a Snowy Egret (and others)

If you have trouble distinguishing between heron species, you are not alone! It helps though, if two of the species happen to be foraging next to each other. That happened today at Willow Lake on the campus of CSU Stanislaus. The Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) and Great Egret (Ardea alba) are similar in shape and coloration, but the details are definitely different. The Great Egret is larger, has a yellow bill, and black legs and feet. The Snowy Egret is smaller, has a black bill, has green legs and yellow feet. Cattle Egrets (the picture below is from Honolulu in Hawaii) are also white, but combine a yellow bill with yellow legs, and in breeding season, they have some buff-colored feathers on their head and back. The Great and Snowy Egrets are native to North America. The Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) arrived in the Americas in the late 1800s and spread to North America in the late 1940s. They are common now all the way north into Canada.

Also, as can be seen below, Great Egrets get the joke quicker than a Snowy Egret!

Monday, September 17, 2018

Dabbling in the Mud: Snowy Egret on the Tuolumne River

I was walking the Tuolumne River the other morning, and saw a Snowy Egret searching for food in the shallows. They have an interesting way of procuring food, shaking their feet in the mud to stir up crustaceans, fish, and insects.

I don't see them all that often on the Tuolumne River where I walk most mornings, only three times so far. They are beautiful graceful creatures who were almost driven to extinction early in the last century. Their wispy feathers that develop in the breeding season were once worth their weight in gold, which made them a huge target for hunters. The fight for their protection was one of the earliest environmental battles in U.S. history. It's nice that they made it.
I didn't get any closer to the bird on the Tuolumne, but there is a Snowy Egret that hangs out at Willow Pond on the campus of CSU Stanislaus, and I got a few closeups last week (it's a bit more acclimated to people than the ones I see in the wild).

Monday, September 10, 2018

One of These is Not Like the Others: Brown Pelicans (and odd friend) at the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge

It was an interesting day for the watching of flying things. We were at the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, which is a critical urban wetlands environment on the east side of San Francisco Bay. Much of the refuge is former salt ponds that are being reclaimed as natural salt marshes. It is an island of nature in the midst of an urban area that includes an approach to Oakland Airport so we didn't see just birds flying overhead. One surprise was the approach of the world's largest transport plane, the Antonov AN-225 Mriya. The wingspan is about the length of a football field. Then there was the overflight of some two dozen Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis), accompanied by a very small or very distant airliner.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Canada Jay on Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park

Here's a tough little bird. It lives in cold northern climates, going so far as to nesting in the depths of the winter season. I've only seen them a few times because I don't live in a place where they hang out, although they are common enough within their range. They're willing to eat any available food and will steal to get it (one of their nicknames is "Camp Robber"). It's the Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis), which only a year ago was officially called the Gray Jay (The American Ornithological Society is apparently empowered to do such things).

I saw this one while we explored the picnic areas on Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park. It's one of the most stunning viewpoints in the country, with the scenery made even better by the rich variety of wildlife species present.

Monday, September 3, 2018

A Near-California Endemic, the California Towhee on the Tuolumne River

Endemic that is, if we are talking about all of California, Alta and Baja, and also count a bit of southern Oregon. California doesn't have all that many true endemics, primarily the Yellow-Billed Magpie, and the Channel Islands Scrub Jay. It seems odd to me that this is so because of the great geographic barrier presented by the Sierra Nevada and Peninsular Range, as well as the harsh deserts that lie to the east. That's the way it is, but the California Towhee (Melozone crissalis) is an example of the isolation of a bird type that leads to speciation. There is a very similar bird that lives across the southwest, the Canyon Towhee, along with the Abert's Towhee. The Canyon was once considered that same as the California, but they are isolated from each other and have changed. There is also a very small population (~200 individuals) in the Argus Mountains near Death Valley (the Inyo California Towhee) that also show differences.

The California Towhee that I spied and photographed was hunting in the fig trees along the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail the other day. They are a large species of sparrow, and often hunt for seeds by scrabbling in the dirt, sparrow-style. That's what this one was doing until I bumbled along the trail and scared it up into the shrubs. But it was nice enough to pose for a few minutes.