Thursday, November 29, 2018

MJC's Resident Rare Bird: Cassin's Kingbird on West Campus

You just never know. It's been a heck of a weather day with heavy squalls and wind lashing at our campus while I've been teaching. I really wanted to go out and get some exercise and look for a few birds but it didn't seem to be in the cards. But somehow the students finished their lab a bit early, and...the sun came out for a few precious minutes. I wandered over to the "mini-wilderness", the drainage pond and sheep pasture that is the nearest thing to a wild area on our campus. I noticed an oddly colored bird on a fence, and when I focused in I realized I was up closer than ever before to our resident rarity: a Cassin's Kingbird (Tyrannus vociferans). I posted pictures of the Cassin's Kingbird only a month ago, but I was thrilled to get such clear close-ups today.

It is a real surprise to see this bird here. Western Kingbirds flood into the region in the spring and are a common sight during the summer months, but it is a tropical species that migrates south to Mexico for the winter. The Cassin's Kingbird is a related species, but it rarely gets this far north, so this individual is a real outlier, especially since it's been staying here through the winter (I've been observing it off and on since the summer of 2016). I do wonder if we can expect to see more of them as the climate warms up and conditions here become more to their liking.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Fighting Flickers on the Tuolumne River

I don't absolutely know that they were fighting, but it sure looked like it. In the early spring and summer the males might participate in a "fencing duel", but this is the fall. There may have been a territorial thing going on. But in any case I got to witness the spectacle of a pair of male Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) chasing each other from tree to tree along the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail the other day.
The Flickers are woodpeckers, but they spend a lot of their time on the ground searching for insects like beetles and ants. They'll peck the ground to chase down their quarry. They'll also eat berries at certain times of the year.

I'll often hear them before I see them. Their call is quite distinctive.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Why Yes, I am the Center of the Universe: Yellow-billed Magpie on the Tuolumne River

Just a quick single picture tonight. This is a Yellow-billed Magpie (Pica nuttalli), one of California's
very few endemic bird species. Endemics are those species that are found in one place and nowhere else in the world, and this magpie fits the bill very nicely. It is common in California's Great Valley and the Coast Ranges, and is found nowhere else. We almost lost it a decade ago when the West Nile virus decimated the flocks. More than half the population was wiped out. Luckily a few seemed to have had some resistance to the virus and the populations have stabilized somewhat, although not yet to the number that existed prior to 2004 when the virus arrived.

I was thrilled to see a flock of more than a hundred of the Yellow-billed Magpies flying over the campus of CSU Stanislaus a few weeks ago. I've seen as many as two dozen or so at a time on the bluffs above the Tuolumne River in Waterford in recent weeks as well. There are also at least two dozen living on the west campus of Modesto Junior College.

This one that I saw today was obviously saying that it was the center of the Universe by making sure it was framed correctly by the barbed wire.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

American Kestrels on the Tuolumne Parkway Trail

One of the dependable birds that I see on my walks along the Tuolumne River are the American Kestrels (Falco sparverius). They are certainly not as common as Starlings or Scrub Jays, but there is a pair that consistently shows up in the treetops. I'm not usually close enough for good shots, but once in awhile one of them perches in near the trail keeping an eye on me. That's how I got this shot yesterday.

I caught the Kestrel pair last August in the top of one of the huge oak trees along the river. I have no idea if they had a nest this year or not, but I'll be watching more carefully as spring rolls around.

Monday, November 19, 2018

As Cute as They Get: Bushtit on the Tuolumne River

The Bushtits (Psaltriparus minimus) are busy little birds of the underbrush. They barely ever stop moving in their search for small insects, hopping from branch to branch like little Energizer Bunnies. And they are as cute as a bird can be, with their little beaks and furry looking ping-pong ball bodies.
The females have different-looking eyes and seem a little bit more stern (I featured them two months ago). The black eyes of the males make them simply look like toys. If you live in the American West, you have a pretty good chance of spying these birds, in any place with lots of open shrubs. They forage together in flocks of a few dozen individuals. But good luck getting pictures! They rarely pause in their work.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Decorating Christmas Trees, Avian-style: Cedar Waxwings on the Tuolumne River

It's getting to be the holiday season, and folks are thinking of trimming and decorating Christmas trees. The avian folks along the Tuolumne Parkway Trail had their own idea of how a tree should be decorated, using around 145 of themselves as ornaments. These beautiful birds are Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), who tend to show up around here in the fall and winter as they migrate south.

I couldn't get near enough for a close-up, so here's a shot from last January at MJC...

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Why So Many Turkey Vultures on the Mokelumne River? Oh Yeah...

 Let's face it: Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) can be really creepy. Not so much when they're soaring on the thermals; that's when they are actually beautiful. No, it's when they are perched on the branches right over your head staring at you. It's like they're hoping you'll have a heart attack so they can have some lunch.
I was walking along the Mokelumne River this morning near the fish hatchery just below Camanche Reservoir. I had not yet reached the river and was looking for other birds, but I couldn't help but notice that nearly every tree had a Turkey Vulture perching on the top branches. They were all over the place. So yeah, a bit creepy.

As I got closer to the river I heard odd splashing sounds, and suddenly it occurred to me. It was the Chinook Salmon run! The spot where I was walking is the end of the road for the salmon, as Camanche Reservoir blocks their upstream progress. I wondered if there was a fish ladder, and there was, but it led only into the fish hatchery where workers collect the eggs for rearing in the complex. The fish ladder was closed, presumably because their holding tanks were full, so the upper pool of the river was full of Chinook trying to go farther upstream. And the vultures were waiting for a tasty lunch.

Here's a short video of the fish swimming in the Mokelumne River.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Getting Very Close to our National Bird

This might not be the right distance to meet a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). I grant you that. But my camera does have a pretty good zoom, but this is really close.
It's probably clear that we're not looking at a wild bird. Well, it's wild, but not in the wild. Unfortunately someone apparently shot its wing and the bird has been somewhat tamed and serves as a wildlife ambassador. We were at the Salmon Festival on Saturday at Knight's Ferry on the Stanislaus River.
Bald Eagles aren't at all common in our area but a few of them live here. I've seen them at Turlock Lake and near the Beckwith Platform in the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge.
But never this close!
Here's a more normal distance for a shot of an eagle...

Thursday, November 8, 2018

A Surprise Discovery at MJC: A Red-breasted Sapsucker

There's something I've learned with fossil and mineral hunting. If you haven't seen the thing you are looking for, you won't recognize it when you see it. But if you've seen an example of the fossil or mineral, you'll pick it out right away. I'm still a newbie at bird identification, but a few weeks ago I saw a Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber) in Yosemite Valley. I got all excited and got pictures and posted on my discovery that night.

Then, only nine days later, I was wandering the campus of CSU Stanislaus and much to my surprise I saw another Red-breasted Sapsucker! So I posted on the species again. Having seen it once, I guess I was primed to recognize it right away when I saw it again.

So here we are eight days later. I was taking a break between classes and wandered out to the sheep compound, my MJC "mini-wilderness", and saw another woodpecker deep among the branches of a dead tree. I focused in with the camera, and wouldn't you know it, there was another Red-breasted Sapsucker! I've never encountered one here before. So once again, I am posting. It the pattern holds, we should be hearing of the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail Sapsucker discovery any day now...

Saturday, November 3, 2018

A Head-spinning Tale...Do we need an exorcist? A Burrowing Owl at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Tell me when you see it...
Do you see it yet?
We were out at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge today and Mrs. Geotripper kept saying there was something...out there...

I kept insisting that it was just a couple of ground squirrels out in the grass, but she was sure that something was...watching us. I ended up focusing on what I was sure was an extra fat ground squirrel and found out that indeed something was watching us. It was a Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia). The east part of the auto tour at the Merced NWR traverses prairie and grassland. Other birders have often reported seeing Burrowing Owls there, so I've always been watching for them, but without success. This was a nice moment, not unlike the moment a few weeks ago when we were treated to a Burrowing Owl at Turlock Lake.

The Burrowing Owls have had a tough time of it, as their habitat has been seriously co-opted by human beings. The grasslands of California, especially in the Central Valley, have been largely taken over by agriculture. I'm truly ashamed to note that my own county has seen the conversion of around 40,000 acres of former prairie to almond tree orchards in just ten years or so. They will probably be abandoned with a decade or so because of water and irrigation conflicts. The string of national wildlife refuges in the valley provide critical prairie areas where the owls can thrive.

There are few things more eerie than an owl rotating its head to stare at you. Check it out in the video below...

Friday, November 2, 2018

Horned Lark near the Willm's Road Pond

I was on my way to collect some very big rocks today in the Mother Lode foothills when I passed by a familiar bird on a fencepost. It was a beautiful Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris) and unlike all the other birds today it didn't fly off as I drove by. So I got a couple of shots to share with you!

The big rocks, by the way, were VERY big rocks, several tons each, to be deployed at our Great Valley Outdoor Nature Lab at Modesto Junior College. The lab will be a microcosm of the Great Valley natural environment. Maybe one day some Horned Larks will be lured into visiting our campus...

Thursday, November 1, 2018

A Surprise at CSU Stanislaus: A Red-breasted Sapsucker

A few weeks ago I was in Yosemite Valley and saw a Red-breasted Sapsucker, and was properly thrilled to get a couple of half-decent shots. Since I've only seen them in the mountains, I wasn't thinking about them as I walked this afternoon on the campus of CSU Stanislaus. It's an urban campus of course, but there are two "sort-of" natural areas, a pond called Willow Lake that is heavily grown with cattails and tule reeds on one side. The other is the Trans-California Pathway, a kind of reconstruction of the native vegetation from the Sierra foothills to the valley. I was walking through the oak grove at the west end of the pathway thinking how I had not seen any woodpeckers in a long while.

And then I saw one!

I assumed it was the 'usual' Nuttall's Woodpecker or Acorn Woodpecker, but when I focused in I saw the red head and immediately realized it was something unexpected: a Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber). They've certainly been seen in the area (especially by fellow nature-blogger Siera Nystrom), but not all that often. It was a nice little surprise for the day.