Wednesday, October 31, 2018

It's a Snipe Hunt! I Found Mine at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge

When I was a scout back in another era we often introduced the new guys to our trip by conducting a snipe hunt, chasing imaginary birds with paper sacks in the dark. For some reason we never caught any. I had no idea at the time that snipes actually existed, but they do.
I was out at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge the other day looking for migrant geese. I certainly found some at the viewing platform on Beckwith Road, several thousand Aleutian Cackling Geese, Sandhill Cranes, and even a handful of Snow Geese.
There is no open water at the Beckwith Viewing Platform except in the great distance, so it isn't the best place to be searching for shorebirds. But on the way east along the access road there are a few seasonal ponds that are good for birdwatching. This time around my search for a Wilson's Snipe (Gallinago delicate) was successful, although to be honest I didn't know I was searching for it. Six of them were feeding in the mud along the shoreline of the pond.
 One of the more noticeable features of the snipe is the location of their eyes in the middle of their skull. This arrangement allows them to see behind as well as ahead. They can see a predator coming from far off, which goes a long way towards explaining why our snipe hunts were never successful all those years ago.
Two Wilson's Snipes with a Greater Yellowlegs

Monday, October 29, 2018

The Second Wave Has Arrived, With Harbingers of a Third: The Aleutian Cackling Geese at Beckwith Road

Momentous things are happening in the Great Valley this month! Wave after wave of migratory birds are starting to arrive at the string of national wildlife refuges up and down the valley floor. The Sandhill Cranes arrived in large numbers several weeks ago, constituting the "first wave" (this, by the way, is my entirely made-up description; I'm no biologist. I'm just reporting what I've been seeing). We saw hundreds and hundreds of them last week in the Merced National Wildlife Refuge, and I saw a few hundred of them at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge. There were also a few dozen Greater White-fronted Geese at both refuges, but not in large numbers.
But this week there was a big change at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge. I stopped by on Tuesday and again on Saturday to find a huge flock of several thousand Aleutian Cackling Geese (Branta hutchinsii). The corn in the section near the viewing platform on Beckwith Road had been cut so the birds were foraging for food.
The Cackling Goose strongly resembles the Canada Goose and was once classed as a subspecies. Subsequent studies showed enough differences that they are considered separate species today. They are noticeably smaller and their necks are short than those of the Canada Goose. They breed on just a few of the Aleutian Islands and most of them migrate to just a small area of the Central Valley, primarily the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge. The birds were actually thought to be extinct for a few decades after 1938, due to over-hunting in the valley and the introduction of foxes in their breeding grounds in Alaska. A few hundred individuals were discovered on an isolated island and the bird was placed on the endangered species list soon after in 1967. The foxes were removed from the breeding islands and hunting was controlled and the birds rebounded. They now number more than 120,000.
There was a harbinger in the crowd of Cackling Geese which you may have noticed in some of the pictures above. It was the presence of seven or eight Snow Geese. They are another Arctic breeder, and they are on their way south too. In another two or three weeks there will be tens of thousands of them at the refuges (my official "third wave").
The viewing platform on Beckwith Road is about eight miles west of the Vintage Faire Mall in Modesto. It's open now and free to visit. If you want the challenge of a hike you can go across the San Joaquin River on Highway 132 and go a few miles south to another section of the refuge. The Pelican Trail is about 4 miles total with a variety of different riparian habitats. It's not unusual to run across three dozen bird species or more.
The Great Valley is often thought of as a dusty, flat and boring place. It often is. But there are treasures hidden here. A visit to the national refuges during the winter migrations is as spectacular as a trip through the African savanna, especially in those moments when tens of thousands of geese take flight all at once. It is well worth your time if you ever happen to be passing through.

Here's a video of the flight...

Friday, October 26, 2018

A Rare Visitor to the Region Returns to West Campus: Cassin's Kingbird

You just never know. One of the joys of my new hobby (well, four years now) is the possibility that any day there can be something new and unexpected. I was roaming the west campus on my lunch break and it seemed like the birds had all left to have a siesta somewhere other than where I was at. But then I saw movement in the dead cottonwood tree in the sheep pasture and discovered a Say's Phoebe. It's not an overly rare bird, but it is the first time I've seen one on campus. But that's not what I'm talking about today!
While I was trying to catch a shot of the Phoebe, another bird fluttered into the branches above. I saw yellow and thought "warbler" but I zeroed in and discovered that it was actually a Kingbird. And it wasn't a Western Kingbird that floods into our region in the spring and summer. They're all gone now, having migrated south back into Central America. I could see the white tips on the tail feathers, the white "moustache", and the gray head and realized it was a Cassin's Kingbird (Tyrannus vociferans). This is remarkable because not only are we at the extreme northern edge of its range, but it should have migrated south by now along with the Western Kingbirds.
This may very well be the same bird that I discovered on campus last year. I haven't seen it in almost a year so it is kind of a mystery about why it is here.
Range of the Cassin's Kingbird, from Cornell's All About Birds

Thursday, October 25, 2018

American Dipper in Yosemite Valley

John Muir said it well:

"He is the mountain streams’ own darling, the humming-bird of blooming waters, loving rocky ripple-slopes and sheets of foam as a bee loves flowers, as a lark loves sunshine and meadows. Among all the mountain birds, none has cheered me so much in my lonely wanderings, —none so unfailingly. For both in winter and summer he sings, sweetly, cheerily, independent alike of sunshine and of love, requiring no other inspiration than the stream on which he dwells. While water sings, so must he, in heat or cold, calm or storm, ever attuning his voice in sure accord; low in the drought of summer and the drought of winter, but never silent." The Mountains of California, 1894

I've seen Water Ouzels, known officially today as American Dippers (Cinclus mexicanus) on a few rare occasions, but not recently, and none that I've been able photograph. Only one has made an appearance in my county (Stanislaus), which caused a stir in the birding community in the winter of 2017-18. I never got a chance to look for that individual, but I finally got to see one this last weekend up in Yosemite Valley. I was walking along the Merced River near the Curry Village tent cabins when I saw some strange movements of a bird. It was, well, dipping.
The dippers are one of the most aquatic of birds, spending most of their time swimming, walking underwater, and dipping in mountain streams of unpolluted water. They don't migrate, staying in the same general area winter and summer, but they range over an immense region, from northern Alaska to Central America. They mostly eat aquatic insects and their larvae.

I only got two half-decent pictures, but the video came out a bit better. Enjoy!


Monday, October 22, 2018

Phinally a Phine Photo of a Phemale Phainopepla on the Tuolumne River!

Yes, I've used that joke before, in 2015, but memories are short, right? And I blogged about Phainopeplas just a month ago when I saw them again for the first time in almost a year on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail. But darn if they don't keep beckoning me to try and get that perfect photograph. I've seen them a couple of times now in the elderberry bower along the west part of the Parkway Trail, but today's female (the males are nearly pure black) wasn't too concerned that I was snapping pictures. They are members of the silky flycatcher family and that's exactly what this one was doing, sallying forth from her perch to snag a bug out of the air before returning to the branch.

I hope they'll be sticking around for the winter. They are one of my local favorites.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

That Quiet Tapping You Hear? It's a Yosemite Red-Breasted Sapsucker

It was the quiet tapping that threw me. I was in Yosemite Valley on Friday, leading a geology field studies course. I had a bit of free time, so I walked along the Merced River in the vicinity of the Camp Curry tent village. I wasn't seeing or hearing very many birds. But then, as I was stepping up the banks of the river to meet my students, I heard a quiet tapping noise.
If I was in the dark house of a horror movie, the tapping would have been terrifying, but out in the woods it was just curious. I thought "woodpecker" of course, but I'm used to the sound of woodpecking being very loud. I started searching the trees overhead, and soon found the source of the noise: a Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber). I saw one of these when I was in Washington some time ago, but this was the first I've seen here in California.
The bird comes by its name righteously. It punches horizontal lines of shallow holes in the trunks of trees, causing them to bleed sap, which the Sapsucker laps up. The sap also traps bugs, so several other kinds of birds will find sustenance from the Sapsucker's handiwork.

I was pleased that the bird could care less that I was standing beneath the tree. I even had enough time to get a few seconds of video of the bird at work.

Monday, October 15, 2018

A Late-afternoon Surprise, a Burrowing Owl near Turlock Lake

I don't see a lot of owls because they are mostly active at night, and I'm not. Mostly they are a ghostly presence on fences in the farmlands that I travel through on the way home from work. There are exceptions: the Great Horned Owls at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge are usually visible when the trees lose their leaves in winter, and there is a singular Burrowing Owl that hangs out on Dry Creek that we'll sometimes see when taking the backroads to Knight's Ferry on the Stanislaus River. But today we had a nice surprise. We were out on a spur-of-the-moment birding trip at Turlock Lake State Recreational Area, which is an irrigation reservoir in the Sierra Nevada foothills just east of Modesto. We saw a fair assortment of bird species, but as we were leaving I saw one more bird perched on a fencepost and I knew right away that it was too stocky to be another Meadowlark. It was a Burrowing Owl (Athene cuicularia) only about fifty yards from the highway. I got a couple of decent shots before it took off into the adjacent field.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

What's For Dinner? For the Red-tail, it's Something Reptilian...

Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) have a rather strained and tenuous relationship with the other birds on the West Campus of Modesto Junior College. As often as not I see them being mobbed by crows or magpies, and I'm sure they are guilty of consuming the occasional unsuspecting or careless bird. But tonight it was rather clear that they enjoy reptiles in their diet as well. I was standing by the sheep pond on the northwest corner of the campus, which is pretty much the most wilderness-like part of our campus. I sensed a large bird soar over me and the hawk landed in the tree in front of me with dinner hanging out of its mouth. It was a strange sight, to say the least. It gave me a few quizzical looks and took off for a tree a little farther away to finish dinner without the paparazzi snapping pictures...

Does anyone know what reptile the victim is?

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The Babies are All Grown: Mute Swans on the Tuolumne River

There was something new in the sky above the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail this morning. Large graceful birds were gliding over the water, and it took me a moment to realize who they were. The baby Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) have taken to flying!
I've been following this bird family ever since the late winter or early spring when the cygnets made their first appearance on the pond across from the western trailhead off Reinway Avenue in Waterford. The original brood included four babies, but one disappeared as the weeks rolled by. The other three thrived and are now nearly fully grown.

There is a certain ambivalence about the presence of Mute Swans here in the valley. They are not native to the region and are instead the offspring of European ancestors who were brought to America to be accessories in the landscaping of rich estates. The escapees have caused problems because they are voracious consumers of water plants (pounds per day) to the detriment of other freshwater bird species. I've suspected that the parents of these birds have clipped wings simply because I've never seen them flying except for a semi-gliding motion when chasing off of Canada Geese.
My last picture of the "teen-agers" was a chance capture of them flying above their water-bound parents. That's got to be a metaphor for something or another.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

They're Back! The Return of the Sandhill Cranes

Some very beautiful birds are back from their summer sojourn in the wilds of the far north. The Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) have been sighted over our county for the last two weeks, but this weekend was our first real chance to see if they are back in large numbers at our local wildlife refuges. They are! We saw at least 260 of them at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge and another 400 at the Merced National Wildlife. That's only a fraction of what is to come, however. In a few weeks there will be on the order of 15,000 cranes overwintering at the San Joaquin, San Luis, and Merced refuges. They'll be sharing the refuge with tens of thousands of Snow Geese, Ross's Geese, Greater White-fronted Geese and others who are still on their way, but have yet to arrive. The winter is a fascinating time in the Great Valley of California.

The birds have a unique deep-toned bugling call that can be heard over several miles. There have been times that I've heard them high overhead, but so far away that I couldn't find them in the sky. It's one of the harbingers of the fall season around here.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Yellow-billed Magpie, One of California's Truly Endemic Species

We have a particularly beautiful bird inhabiting our campus, but unless you live here in California, you don't get to see it except in pictures. It's one of the few true California endemic bird species, the Yellow-billed Magpie (Pica nuttalli). It is related to the Black-billed Magpie that is common across the country, but the two populations are isolated from one another by the Sierra Nevada and they've been separated since the Ice Ages. In general, the Yellow-billed Magpie is better adapted to hot temperatures like those in the Great Valley. Besides the yellow bill, the California birds have yellow around their eyes.
The Yellow-billed Magpies are gregarious, historically gathering in huge flocks and around 2008-2009 it was almost their undoing. The West Nile Virus reached the Great Valley and the magpies were particularly susceptible to infection, which was deadly much more than 90% of the time. Their populations crashed, from more than 200,000 to around 90,000. Even though I was not watching birds carefully at that time, the sudden quiet was disconcerting. It was a real tragedy. Instead of flocks of dozens or hundreds, one would see half a dozen birds at a time.

Luckily, the bird seems to be making something of a comeback. Some of the birds may have developed some immunity to the infection, and my impression is that there are more of them on our West Campus. The flock seems to be about 25 strong. I've been having problems getting close enough to them for photography, but today one landed just outside my classroom and I just happened to have my camera at that moment. I'm hopeful for their future; the world would be a dismal world without them.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Because the Ice Machine Broke, Here's a Townsend's Solitaire...

I guess that title requires a little bit of explanation. Townsend's Solitaires (Myadestes townsendi) are birds of the conifer forests of the montane west of the United States and Canada. I don't get to see them very often since I live near sea level on the floor of the Central Valley. Last weekend I was at Lava Beds National Monument in the far north of California near the border with Oregon (south of Klamath Falls), which is one of the few places I've seen them regularly.

The problem with Lava Beds is that the monument and the lava flows it protects has no surface water. Rain and snowmelt drain into fractures and fissures in the basalt, so with the exception of some ice pools in the bottom of a couple of lava tubes, birds have no water unless they fly several miles to the Tulelake basin. I've therefore had some great birding experiences in the park campground near the water spigots because the birds gather there in the morning for a drink. This time, though, I was at the visitor center and I didn't expect to see many birds out and about.
But there were. There were at least a half dozen Townsend's Solitaires flitting about, and I soon realized why. The ice machine outside the building was broken, so the park staff had taken the bags and blocks of ice and scattered them into the sagebrush next to the building to melt. And the birds loved it. I was standing there waiting to speak with a ranger about something, and the birds were landing all around me getting drinks, barely heeding the fact that I was only 6-7 feet away.