Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Avian Dinosaurs: Bald Eagles at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

Sometimes I am reminded that the dinosaurs never actually went extinct. They were decimated certainly, and their present-day species don't look all that much like their ancient ancestors, but there are occasional clues to their dinosaurian past. The claws of a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), for instance. We were at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge just before Christmas, and saw several of birds at close quarters.
How close are the birds to the dinosaurs? Dinosaurs are classed as reptiles, but the reptiles we know today, the lizards, snakes, turtles, and crocodiles, were separate evolutionary lines in the Permian and early Triassic, before the dinosaurs even arose. The crocodilians are the closest of these ancient relatives, but they were already on their own evolutionary path during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods when the dinosaurs were dominating the terrestrial habitats of the planet.
The birds on the other hand developed from the dinosaurs, descending from small theropod carnivores similar to the Velociraptor or Deinonychus, monsters made famous in the Jurassic Park movies. Evidence has emerged in recent decades that many dinosaurs may have in fact sported feathers (which are modified scales). Many bird embryos support teeth that are later resorbed during development.
In any case, that's what I was thinking about as we came across at least three Bald Eagles while traveling the auto tour route at the Sacramento Refuge. There were a couple of immature individuals and one adult. They were accustomed to automobiles passing by so they didn't retreat as we passed by, enabling me to get a zoomed view of their claws.
One juvenile was still hanging out with mom, while the other was on its own. They were a sight to see in the rain (that's why they all looked a little scruffy; they were generally soaked).

Sunday, December 15, 2019

The Wonderful Woodpeckers of the Tuolumne River

One of the constant joys of birdwatching along the Tuolumne River along the Parkway Trail is the variety of woodpeckers who are almost ever-present along the walkway. Eight species of woodpecker have been reported in Stanislaus County. I see three of them on a constant basis, and I've seen two more species on rare occasions. The three I have yet to see are the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (very rare in our area), the Lewis's Woodpecker, and the Hairy Woodpecker.
Often the first one I will see or hear will be the Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus). A small colony of three or four of them live in a dead cottonwood tree near the west end of the trail. I often hear their distinctive call before I see them. They are usually busy hiding their precious acorns in the tree trunks, and spend a lot of time guarding their stores. Their faces make me think of clowns.
I often hear a chirp - chirp - chrrrchrrrrchrrrrr in the trees above the trail, high in the oak trees. It is a Nuttall's Woodpecker (Picoides nuttallii) which is about as close to being a California endemic species as a bird can be. They range just into the northern part of Baja, along with all of four sightings in Nevada, and a single sighting in Oregon. Although they are strongly associated with oak trees, they don't consume acorns. They are more interested in gleaning bugs from the furrows in the trunks of the trees.
The third of the common woodpeckers on the Tuolumne River is the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus). They look less like "normal" woodpeckers, and behave differently in many ways as well. For one, they spend much of their time foraging for ants and beetles on the ground. I almost always hear their piercing call before I see them.
The "rare" woodpeckers, the ones I only see occasionally, include the Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescents), and the Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber). I've only seen the Downy Woodpecker a half-dozen times in the past two years, and the Sapsucker only once, back in October. Across the entire county, there have only been a dozen or so reports of the Red-breasted Sapsucker this year (and none at all of the Yellow-breasted variety).

The sighting of Downy Woodpecker this morning was what got me thinking about how often I see woodpeckers along the Tuolumne Parkway Trail. I didn't get a clear picture this time, but I've included a picture from a few years ago. The Downy (and similar Hairy) Woodpeckers are similar to the Nuttall's Woodpecker overall, but the Nuttall's have bars across their back while the others have a vertical white band.

We've seen 116 species of birds on the Tuolumne trail this year. If you are patient (and willing the climb the stairway), it's a great place to practice your birdwatching skills.

A Well-Hidden White-Breasted Nuthatch on the Tuolumne River

One of the most elusive of the birds I search for on the Tuolumne River. It's not that they are rare. They're found throughout our county on a regular basis. And many savvy birders hear them before they find them, because they can be noisemakers. But I never seem to spy them on my daily walks, even though I know they are there, up in the big oaks along the river. It was June before I saw my first one of the year, and until today I hadn't seen one since September.
I've been running across all kinds of interesting birds over the last week or two, with three species reported for the first time ever (three kinds of ducks passing through the area), and a very rare winter visitor, a pair of Hooded Orioles. Today was a nice surprise, as I heard an unfamiliar ruckus in the oak tree. After a few minutes, I spotted the White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinesis) working its way down the trunk of the oak tree.

Now if I could just find that elusive Red-breasted Nuthatch!

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

At Least He Isn't Lonely...A Second Hooded Oriole This Winter on the Tuolumne River!

The other day I posted about what I thought must be the loneliest bird in all of California. There was a male Hooded Oriole (Icterus cucullatus) hanging out near the oriole nesting site on the bluffs above the Tuolumne River, and they are not supposed to be here in the state right now. Literally all of them migrated to Mexico and Central America many weeks ago, and there have been no sightings of any in the state in the last month except for three birds in the far south part around San Diego.

So I was on my walk today and of course I was watching out for the Oriole and much to my surprise, there it was. Except something was different...it didn't have the prominent black chin patch that distinguishes the mature males. The one last week did. I can now say there are TWO Hooded Orioles in Central California, and they are probably hanging out with each other (the site was only a few yards from where I saw the other one last week). This one is either a female, or an immature male. I don't know why they are still here, but I've developed a complicated hypothesis...

I've been seeing all the "traditional" Christmas movies this week, "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation", "Elf", "Home Alone", "Die Hard", and so on, including the great classic (biting my tongue as I say that) "Christmas with the Kranks". If you aren't familiar with the premise, the Kranks were going to have their first Christmas without their daughter (who was in Peru), so they decided to skip Christmas and take a cruise in the tropics. Their daughter decided to come home, and hilarity ensued (sort of).

Regarding these two Hooded Orioles, I see kind of an opposite situation. I imagine I heard this conversation between them...

"Look, EVERYONE is migrating to the tropics for Christmas. They ALWAYS do, and it's a long way, and hard and dangerous. I think we should just stay put and skip Christmas this year."

"I don't know, Luther. There must be a reason everyone goes. But okay, if you think it's a good idea"

Four weeks later...thirty degrees and foggy outside.

"Luther, if you ever have a feather-brained idea like this again, keep it to yourself..."

Does anyone have a better idea?

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

The Bird That Shouldn't Be There: Hooded Oriole on the Tuolumne River

Today's walk along the Tuolumne River was extraordinary. I got there just as the latest storm ended, so there were no people on the trail, but lots of birds were enjoying the respite from all the hikers and exercisers. I counted 29 species, including one bird seen for the first time on this stretch of the river, a Bufflehead. There were also some that I haven't seen in a long time, including the first winter arrival of the Common Goldeneye, a flock of Northern Shovelers, and a Green Heron. It was actually kind of astounding.

But nothing surprised me more than the bird I saw on the top of the bluff at the east end of the water treatment plant. At first, I only saw the shape, and I thought it might be a mere Mockingbird, but something about it made me flip on the camera and take a closer look. I saw the bright yellow breast, the black chin, and my jaw dropped. It was a Hooded Oriole!

To understand just how odd this is, is to realize that the Hooded Oriole (Icterus cucullatus) is a bird of the tropics, and we are at the northern end of its range here in the Central Valley of California...in the SUMMER. They all migrate to Mexico and Central America for the winter. Literally all of them. There have been just three sightings of Hooded Orioles in California in the last 30 days, and all three were in southern California.

I don't know the story of this particular bird. It was hanging out just a few hundred feet from the palm trees where some Orioles nested last spring, so this could be one of the individuals that I photographed many times last summer. Maybe it was injured in some way and wasn't able to join the migration. Or maybe it just missed the bus. But in any case, I saw a bird today that shouldn't be there. Which explains the poor quality of the picture: I barely had time to focus before it flew away.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Red-Necked Grebe in the Siuslaw River Estuary at Florence, Oregon

Thanksgiving is not one of the times that I expect to see a great many birds. I'm usually traveling through the Cascades and Siskiyou Mountains in winter-like conditions, and this year was no exception. But then I arrive at my destination on the Oregon coast at Florence, and I have better luck. Florence lies along the estuary of the Siuslaw River. A lot of birds winter in the region where temperatures are more mild. The waters of the Pacific moderate the local conditions.
I saw some interesting birds over the holidays, but the last night I was watching the gulls and Buffleheads near the marina when I saw I different bird. I got pictures and realized I had come across a new bird for me, a Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena). It's a bird I have little chance of ever seeing back home. The last time anyone saw one in my county was in 2008.
Red-necked Grebes breed far to the north in the Arctic, but spend winters along the coast as far south as the LA/San Diego coast. They eat fish, amphibians, and invertebrates.

The Siuslaw River rises in the Coast Ranges of Oregon and flows 110 miles to the sea. The river is not particularly large, but it has a huge estuary that is influenced by the tides as far upstream as 26 miles. The lower river has miles of wetlands that provide critical habitat for birds and other wildlife. It is one of few Oregon rivers that is undammed, but logging has had a huge effect on the health of the river.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Catching Up With Our California Endemic: The Yellow-billed Magpie

I see them pretty much every day, so it's easy sometimes to forget that this is an exceedingly rare bird. There are less than 200,000 of them in the world, which is not all that many for a species that is faced with habitat loss, and an exotic disease. The Yellow-billed Magpie (Pica nuttalli) is also one of California's few endemic bird species.

If you are a non-Californian, you might look at this species and think it is just a magpie (the Black-billed Magpie), but it is a distinct species, and the ranges of the birds rarely overlap. The Sierra Nevada is the barrier that has provided the isolation allowing the species to diverge.
I live and work in prime magpie habitat. They range over the Coast Ranges and Central Valley of California, living off of bugs, grains, and pretty much any kind of food they can find. They are gregarious, often flying about in flocks, and engaging in boisterous arguments. A day at work would be lonely without their calls going on in the background.

The arrival of the West Nile Virus was nearly their undoing in the early 2000s. They were particularly susceptible to the viral infection because of their gregarious nature, and more than half of them were lost. The few birds with natural resistance have survived and have allowed the population to slowly rise again.
These pictures are some I've collected this year from the MJC West Campus and the along the Tuolumne Parkway Trail where I most often see the birds. I'm glad they survived their version of the bubonic plague. The state would be a less interesting place without them.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Wild Day With a Northern Harrier at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

The Northern Harrier (Circus hudsonius) is quite a challenge to photograph. They search for prey in marshes and wetlands by flying low over the vegetation listening for small mammals or birds. Their hearing is enhanced by their owl-like faces that direct sound to their ears. The problem is that they only seem to stop when they are pouncing on something down in the brush. We don't get many chances to see them up close. That's what made today so fun. Today the Harrier came to us.
We were following the auto-tour at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge when we noticed a bird in the water that was most un-ducklike. It was a half submerged Harrier! I've never seen one in the water like that before, but a little research revealed that they sometimes subdue their prey by drowning them. I don't know if that was what was happening, but it was a thrill to have it so close by (only 30-40 yards away). Then it surprised us even more by taking off and landing on a post even closer to the road. It pretty much didn't care that three cars were parked only a few yards away.

I never saw it carrying anything, but after a few moments it flew into some rushes and appeared to be eating something.

It's the closest I've ever been to one of these beautiful birds.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Burrowing Owl on the Prairie!

We been really hunting for owls on our last few trips. We haven't seen many this year, and had become curious if there are actually fewer of them around. I've been watching our "owl trees" at the Merced and San Luis National Wildlife Refuges without success, and last spring we searched our known owl nests and didn't see much there either. I've had a few fleeting views of Barn Owls while driving home in the darkness, but of course photography was out of the question. I've heard a few Great Horned Owls at night. But our favorite, the Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) remained elusive. About four days ago we had a quick glance of one on Willms Road in the late twilight, but it wasn't until tonight that I got a good look at one.

I was taking a roundabout route to the CSU Stanislaus campus in the late afternoon and decided to check the north shore of Turlock Reservoir, a spot where I've seen Burrowing Owls before. Out of sheer habit I check a particular barbwire fence along Lake Road where I had seen one a year ago, and much to my surprise, there it was, perched in almost the same exact spot. I guess we recognized each other because it didn't up and fly away when I pointed the camera.

It's nice to see them out and about.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

European Starling Murmuration at the West Campus of MJC

Sometimes the unexpected happens. I was a little frustrated with daylight savings cutting into my evening walking time between classes, but I went walking anyway and was treated to a fascinating sight: a Starling murmuration. Several thousand birds were doing an acrobatic flyover near the Briggsmore Ave/Highway 99 overpass, and it was hypnotizing (which was probably the intended effect, but in regards to predators wanting to pick off an isolated bird). Despite the very poor light conditions, I was able to get two minutes of video (below).

It's amazing how the birds can fly in such coordination, creating strange patterns in the sky, looking almost like a single organism. At times I imagined single cells separating and coming together again, and a bird tornado. Studies suggest the birds maintain their coordination by concentrating on the activity of the nearest seven birds around them.

European Starlings are an anathema to many birders and ecologists. They are native to Europe (hence the name), but a few were introduced to Central Park in New York City more than a century ago as an effort to establish all the birds mentioned in the works of Shakespeare. The idea went awry and the birds spread across the continent by the tens of millions. They are often the most numerous birds I record on my birding explorations, and they have displaced native species in many habitats. All bad, but forgotten in a moment of pure natural art.

Monday, November 4, 2019

A Hard Bird to Catch: Ruby-crowned Kinglet on the Tuolumne River

I look back on my half-dozen posts showing the Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula), and in practically all of them I complain about the difficulty of capturing their picture because the birds don't hold still very often. They don't stop moving. That was true today as well. I've been seeing the kinglets for a week or so during my walks on the Tuolumne River, but I have had little luck capturing any pictures.

I was a bit luckier today, getting two usable shots out of twenty attempts. I'm guessing this is a female because it doesn't seem to have the "ruby" crown, although the crown can be hard to see in the males as well except maybe in breeding season. The birds aren't around here in summer...they head north or up into the Sierra Nevada for breeding. Their return is one of many harbingers of the coming winter.
Just because I posted these pictures today, I'll probably see a male with a ruby crown tomorrow, but in the meantime, here is one of the best shots I ever got of the crown, taken in February of 2018.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Sandhill Cranes at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge (+Video)

I discovered a leucistic Black Phoebe at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge last week, and that distracted me for awhile from the actual reason we had gone down there. We were actually wanting to check in and see which winter migrants had arrived. The most dramatic of the Arctic species arriving in the last month are the Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis), and they were at the refuge by the thousands.
I posted a few pictures two weeks ago after our first visit, but some of the birds were closer to the road this time, so I got some nice closeups. These birds have a lot of personality at times.

I think they have a rudimentary understanding of yoga exercises if the picture below is any guide.

I mentioned in the last post how much I love the "purring" of their call. At one of our stops, a few walked nearby vocalizing, so I caught some video of the moment. Enjoy!

Monday, October 28, 2019

An Oxymoron and a Rare Bird: A White Black Phoebe at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

This was an extraordinary day. It's not all that often that you get to see a bird rare enough that you probably won't see it again in your life. But that's what happened. We were having another look at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge to check and see what new winter migrants have arrived. As we were getting ready to start the auto-tour loop, I saw a white bird in the bushes near the entrance sign.

Unless they are Snow Geese or Pelicans, white birds are kind of unusual in our area. It's not hard to figure out why...they can't hide from predators very well, seeing as how we never have snow. What made this bird even more unusual was that it was just the right size to be a flycatcher, and it was behaving just like a flycatcher, perching and then flying out for bugs and then returning to the perch. But flycatchers aren't white, especially the flycatcher known as the Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans). The picture below shows the normal appearance of a Black Phoebe.
I could barely understand what I was seeing, given that I am still a bit new at the bird-watching business. But when I got the angle in the picture below, I was strongly suspecting that I had found a leucistic Black Phoebe, even though I had never heard of such a thing in the past. I tried googling right then in the field the term for a white color in birds but mistook leucocratic instead of leucistic, and kept getting references to granitic rocks instead of anything having to do with birds (I figured it out later at home).
Leucism is different than albinosim. Albino animals lack melanin, a natural pigment that provides dark color. They are generally pure white, and their eyes will be pink (click here for an example of an albino California Scrub Jay). Leucistic birds have melanin, but they are inefficient at using it in their feathers, so they may show some color, as seen in the Black Phoebe I saw today.

I could find only a few references to leucistic Black Phoebes so I suspect that unless I see this particular individual on our future trips to the Merced NWR, I'll probably never see one again. They seem to be pretty rare. But "White Black Phoebe" makes for a great example of an oxymoron.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Say's Phoebe at Modesto Junior College

The college campus where I work is not the best environment to watch birds, but it's certainly not the worst. There is a sheep pasture with a heavily vegetated drainage pond, some open fields grazed by cows and horses, and lots and lots of diverse species of mature trees, both native and non-native. Overall the number of species I've seen there is about half what I've seen along the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail where I do most of my searches.

But there are still some neat species to be seen. One of the pretty little birds I occasionally run across on campus are Say's Phoebes (Sayornis saya). Say's Phoebes are members of the flycatcher family, and their behavior fits their name. They'll perch on a branch, sally forth when they see a bug, and return to their perch. I saw this one while walking between classes yesterday.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Been on a Snipe Hunt Lately? Wilson's Snipe at Merced National Wildlife Refuge

One of the more enduring pranks throughout the history of scouts and summer camps was the Snipe Hunt. The gullible victims were convinced that they could capture the elusive snipes in paper bags, and the snipe was described as all manner of strange birds, squirrels, rabbits and so on. We victims of the prank are sometimes surprised to find out that snipes actually do exist, although we are not likely to capture them in the dark in a paper bag on the night of a full moon. The birds are called the Wilson's Snipe (Gallinago delicata). The Wilson's Snipe is a shorebird with an incredibly long beak that gives them the ability to probe deep into the mud seeking worms and larvae.
My own personal snipe hunt last weekend at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge came to a memorable end as the quarry was hiding in plain sight not four feet from my car window. I was paying attention to the Sandhill Cranes and ducks off in the distance, and I happened to look down as I was turning the camera off only to see the bird relaxing in the grass at the edge of the pond. It never felt the need to move around at all while I took pictures.