Sunday, December 30, 2018

Back From the Brink: Peregrine Falcon at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

I saw a particular bird species for the first time on Thursday after hoping to see one of them for years. It was a Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus), one of the iconic success stories of the environmental movement. The species was on the brink of extinction because of DDT contamination, but the banning of the pesticide allowed populations to slowly recover. Although they are no longer on the endangered species list, their total world population is only around 140,000 individuals. But for all my searching, I'd never seen one until last week when I visited family in Florence, Oregon for the holidays.

Now, I realize that Florence is not the location I mentioned in the title of the blog. That's the funny part. It was dusk and the bird was so distant that I only got a few fuzzy shots that were only good enough to identify the bird. The best shot, much photoshopped, is below.
Fast forward to Saturday. We were on the long drive home, but we can rarely resist the urge to see what's going on at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge in California's Great Valley near the town of Williams. There is a marvelous six-mile auto tour through the refuge. We were on the back half of the drive when I saw an unfamiliar bird up on of the trees. Very much to my surprise it was another Peregrine Falcon! And this time I got pictures!
It was a great trip through the refuge, but I was deeply bothered by one thing: no one was minding the shop. The visitor center and bathrooms were closed and there was no law enforcement anywhere. Technically people could have driven in and vandalized anything they wanted. They could even have shot birds There was in fact shooting going on in the distance, but I don't know if it was legal or not). It was the partial government shutdown of course. Trump has left our national parks, monuments and refuges unprotected because of his obsession with a useless wall. He has much to answer for.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

More From the Way-Back Machine: Hermit Thrush on the Tuolumne River

As noted in yesterday's post, I've had occasion to rifle through the tens of thousands of digital files of bird pictures from my trips and walks prior to 2017 when't filing carefully. In other words, there were some nice pictures of bird discoveries here and there that got lost in the shuffle. I was not so good at bird identification back then (and still am not today), so I missed some species. Today I discovered that I had snapped some shots of a Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail back in January of 2015. Unfortunately, I haven't seen one since, but Siera Nystrom, fellow nature blogger, saw one on the river in February of 2017.
I've posted about Hermit Thrushes three previous times, but they were not near home. It's nice to know I have a chance to see them here. The Tuolumne Parkway Trail winds for two miles along the riparian oak woodland of the Tuolumne where it flows from the Sierra Mother Lode onto the floor of the Great Valley near Waterford. Parts of the trail were constructed only as recently as 2015.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Out of the Way-Back Machine: A Ruby-Crowned Kinglet with a Ruby Crown

Sometimes you just forget. One of the joys of digital photography (after 18 years it still feels new and innovative; yes, I'm old) is that you can take hundreds of lousy pictures, find that one lucky wonderful shot, and post that one because it makes you look like a photographer. And it doesn't cost as much as paper prints. But when you have tens of thousands of pictures in the files, it's easy to forget just how lucky you got at one point. And so it is with today's offering, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula), a picture I took back in February of 2014.

During the right time of year I'll see Ruby-crowned Kinglets almost every time I walk along the Tuolumne River, but they are very active and hard to photograph. The ruby crown is even harder to see and photograph because it is only on the males, and it is usually hidden. I was going over some if the first pictures I took with my Lumix camera and came across this shot of a kinglet displaying the crown, and I realized that I had forgotten about it and had never posted it here on the blog. it is! One of my favorite shots of this "royal" kinglet.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Another Uncommon Bird: A Merlin at the Ceres River Bluff Regional Park

It's been a rather extraordinary week for me. I got to see a truly rare visitor to our region, a Sage Thrasher, on Friday. And then today it was an uncommon bird (at least for me as I have only seen one of them previously). It was a falcon species called a Merlin (Falco columbarius).

I was running some midday errands in town and thought a bit about where to walk today. I settled on the fairly new sports complex in the area called the Ceres River Bluff Regional Park. It's mostly a bunch of soccer fields along Whitmore Avenue in the town of Ceres, but the park property includes a lower terrace that was once a walnut orchard adjacent to the Tuolumne River. The walnuts are mostly dying away but natural riparian vegetation is taking the place of the trees. A pond (stocked for fishing, apparently) captures runoff from the fields above and provides habitat for birds, turtles and fish and other wetlands species. It's a productive birding spot, with more than 140 species reported so far.
There was some construction going on with the access road to the "wilderness" so I walked along the top of the bluff only to discover an alternate trail down to the river. I explored for awhile finding a fair number of birds, but it wasn't until I was walking back up the bluff that I made my special discovery. I saw the bird in the distance and from the silhouette assumed it was the much more common American Kestrel, but as I got closer I realized the color and spotting was all wrong. I started snapping pictures.
The bird was pretty much unconcerned with me other than the one stern look you can see in the picture below.

The view was nice from the top of the bluff. After a long dry summer, the recent rains have brought some greenery to the pond area and the water level was up. There were Canada Geese, American Coots, and a Pied-billed Grebe hanging out in the water.

Friday, December 14, 2018

A Truly Rare Sighting at CSU Stanislaus: A Sage Thrasher

The Grackles that I saw on Wednesday were a little bit unusual for this time of year, but today's sighting is truly rare: A Sage Thrasher (Oreoscoptes montanus). This is only the thirteenth sighting of the bird in Stanislaus County ever according to eBird, and is only one of four seen in Northern California in the last month.

I certainly can't take credit for finding it. Another birder, L.D. Scott, saw it for the first time on the Dec. 6 and identified it. He showed me where to look on Wednesday (an elderberry bush along Monte Vista Avenue on the "Trans-California Trail"), but I didn't see it until today when I had a last pre-Christmas errand on campus. I saw L.D. and several others gathered in front of the elderberry, and I joined them in getting photographs.

As the name implies, the Sage Thrasher is more a denizen of the Intermontane West, the high sagebrush prairie that extends across the Basin and Range Province of Nevada and Utah. It migrates as far north as the Canadian border and winters in the southern part of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas as well as northern Mexico. I've seen them once before, but in a more normal habitat in the sagebrush flats around Mono Lake. It was a privilege to have one pop up in my local neighborhood.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

An Odd Late Season Sighting: Great-tailed Grackles at CSU Stanislaus

I haven't seen too many birds at CSU Stanislaus of late. Ever since Daylight Savings, I've been arriving on campus after dark, which is good for seeing the Black-crowned Night Heron in Willow Lake, but not much else. It is finals week, so I arrived a few minutes before sunset yesterday to get the exams ready and I decided to take a quick stroll. I noticed a pair of blackbirds that seemed larger than expected. I then saw how they were holding their heads (beak pointed towards the sky) and realized they must be Great-tailed Grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus).

In a world where most birds are under severe stress from habitat loss and other problems, the Grackles are thriving. They've "invaded" much of the United States from the south (they were originally a tropical species), but they aren't invasive in the usual sense of the word (they are not an unnaturally introduced species like the Starlings or European Sparrows). They do well in human habitats, and the warming climate allows them to thrive at higher latitudes. They've spread naturally.

Still, it was a bit odd to see them yesterday. They usually arrive in the spring and hang out during the summer months and then disappear again, but these two apparently like the accommodations at the University and have lingered into the colder months.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

The Joy of Being Drab: California Towhee on the Tuolumne River

Can you see it?
Maybe we can look a little closer, with a bit of photoshopping...
There it is!

A lot of birds are very colorful for a variety of reasons, but others are rather drab. If you are a California Towhee (Melozone crissalis), your habitat is on the ground in the shrubs and chaparral, and I imagine that bright coloration might work against your continued survival in such environments where cats and foxes might be lurking (although that doesn't explain its close cousin, the Spotted Towhee).

The bird is a California native, practically an endemic species as long as one includes the Baja portion of landscape (and a very small piece of southern Oregon). I saw this one during my morning walk on the Tuolumne River flitting about in the thickets near the bottom of the dreaded stairway at the western end of the Parkway Trail (the 130 steps have become one of the most popular exercise spots in the town). I almost sent the picture at the top of this post to the recycle bin because I didn't see the bird right away. I would make a poor fox...

Sunday, December 2, 2018

California Condors at Pinnacles National Park

We had a geology field trip to Pinnacles National Park today. We spent most of the time on the rocks, of course, but I couldn't help but keep an eye out for birds, especially the elusive California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus). The nation's newest national park is one of the new homes for a bird that only thirty years ago was extinct in the wild.
The Condor once soared over much of the continent, but the extinction of the megafauna 12,000 years ago was the beginning of their decline. By the time of European occupation of the western United States, the population may have been down to a few hundred individuals. Habitat loss and ingestion of lead shot from dead carcasses decimated the remaining population and by the 1980s the entire population was down to a mere 27 individuals. The last of the wild population was captured in a desperate attempt to propagate the species through captive breeding.
The survival of the species hung by a thread, but very slowly the captive population grew and by the mid-1990s, the first of the captive-bred birds were released back into the wild. Populations were established in several widely separated localities in California, Arizona, and northern Mexico. The first Condors were released at Pinnacles National Park in 2003. In 2017, the total world population was 463, and there were more birds in the wild than there were in captivity.
As I noted before, I was watching for Condors, but I wasn't seeing any. It wasn't until we were gathered at the vans in the late afternoon preparing to leave the park that one of my students pointed up above, and there were five of them wheeling and soaring in the sky almost overhead. It was the closest I've been to them in California (I've had some close encounters at Grand Canyon National Park). It was a fine ending to a very nice day!