Thursday, January 31, 2019

Close Encounters with a "Rare" Bird: Yellow-billed Magpie on My Campus

I sometimes have to remind myself that I'm privileged here in California to see a rare bird on a regular basis. There are hundreds of thousands of birders across North America and the world who never get to see a Yellow-billed Magpie (Pica nuttalli). I sometimes see dozens of them on a given day, since there is a good-sized flock on my campus of Modesto Junior College. The reason of course is that they are found in only one small part of the world, the Great Valley and Coast Ranges of California. They are one of the very few truly endemic birds in California. There are probably not much more than 100,000 of them in existence due to a devastating population crash brought about by the West Nile Virus a decade ago.

I can't say that I ignore them. They have a raucous manner and one usually knows they are near by, due to their constant chattering and arguing. But they are pretty skittish around humans so they keep their distance. For that reason I was kind of surprised the other day when I walked past a Magpie on the baseball field fence. It just watched me until I was just a few feet away, so I pulled out the camera and snapped a few shots.

Familiarity can breed complacence (I could never hold these beautiful birds in contempt), so it was a nice reminder of what a treasure we have in these birds and what a pleasure it is to be able to observe them.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Lincoln's Sparrow on the Tuolumne River

I still have trouble with sparrows. There are certain ones that I can identify from a distance, the Towhees, the White-crowned, the Golden-crowned, and just a few others. But I've really lagged on learning the others that are closely related and are similar in appearance. But I'm slowly working on it. I was seeing sparrows on my walks on the Tuolumne River that were clearly not the kind I was familiar with, so I kept trying to get pictures. The other day I finally got these and was able to use the streaking on the breast and head stripes to identify it as a Lincoln's Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii). It was pretty close to the spot where I first identified one four years ago.

It's taken me a long time to recognize these birds because they tend to stay near the ground and under cover. They range all the way from Central America to the Arctic Circle in Alaska and Canada.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Searching for the Sage Thrasher, Our Rare Visitor at CSU Stanislaus

There's a rare bird hanging out in the region (actually several, but this is the one I got to check on today). It's a Sage Thrasher (Oreoscoptes montanus), and it has spent at least six weeks (it was discovered on Dec. 11 by L.D. Scott) living in some elderberry shrubs along the Trans-California Trail on the campus of CSU Stanislaus in Turlock. I got some pictures back in December and looked for it again later, but I wasn't successful until this afternoon. CSU Stanislaus started classes this week and I needed to duplicate my syllabi, but I couldn't help but take Mrs. Geotripper with me to try and find the Thrasher.

It was shy at first. I didn't see it at all in the bush where it's been hanging out so I walked away to find other birds, and when I returned 15 minutes later it was foraging on the ground under the bush. I got one fuzzy picture and it disappeared again. I went to find Mrs. Geotripper and we wandered back and found the bird perched in a different shrub. This time it stayed put so we both got some nice shots.

As the name suggests, the Sage Thrasher prefers habitats more characteristic of the deserts east of the Sierra Nevada. Only a dozen have ever been seen in our county. They thrive on insects and the like but will also consume berries which explains why it chose to live in the elderberry bush at CSU Stanislaus.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

The Eye of the Bufflehead (or not)

Buffleheads (Bucephala albeola) are beautiful little diving ducks that I don't get to see all that often. They aren't all that rare, but the lack of really favorable habitat nearby (large lakes and marshlands) means they are all that common. So my pictures (when I can get them) tend to be far afield.
This time I was up north in Washington for the holidays. On my morning walks along the shores of Lake Washington I had some good views of a variety of shorebirds and the Buffleheads were close, but once again because of the dreary weather I didn't get their eyes.

All the guides to photographing birds say that catching the reflection of the eyes makes the picture, but Buffleheads have black eyes on a pure black face. One other feature that can challenge Bufflehead photographers is catching the iridescence of the feathers around the face. But one really needs sunlight for that. So the challenge remains for me. One of these days....
Buffleheads are among the smallest of the ducks, and they typically dive when they are foraging for food, spending a great deal of time underwater (that's an additional challenge in photography). They spend very little time on land other than nesting or leading nestlings from one body of water to another. They nest in the hollows of trees excavated by other birds, especially Northern Flickers.

Monday, January 21, 2019

You Never Know...Blue-gray Gnatcatcher on the Tuolumne (and number 250, but who's counting? Well, e-Bird is)

Yes, I count things. I count points in classes, students in classes, miles on the highway maps, days until payday, and lots of other things. And of course I count birds. When I began birding I was making lists of birds seen, but for the last year and a half I have been counting all of the birds I've seen on my excursions. They get reported on e-Bird, which is one of the main citizen science birding organizations. With thousands upon thousands of reports daily, E-bird is able to track the numbers and movements of bird species all over the world, and the data is available online. When you enjoy numbers the way I do, you'll understand how easy it can be to get lost for hours on their website.

It might seem overwhelming at first, but e-Bird encourages reports every day, and not just for unusual or exotic species. They also want to know what is happening in backyards and urban parks as well. Over time, we'll be able to see the effects of global warming on bird migration and populations, so the reports, however mundane they might be, are extremely important.

In any case, these musings about e-Bird happened because I quite unexpectedly hit a milestone of sorts. I was on my a regular morning walk on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail when I saw a diminutive bird in the underbrush that was an unusual shade of blue. It behaved like a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, but the kinglets are olive-green in color. I was uncertain what it was but I got a couple of pictures and suspected in the back of my mind that it was a gnatcatcher, and this was later confirmed when I got the Sibley's guide out. It was a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea). I knew the bird from lists and guides, but when I looked through my notes and photos, I realized I had never seen one in the wild. And when I input the species on e-Bird, it registered as bird number 250 on my life-list, a nice round number for a person obsessed with counting things.

If you are curious about how many birds have been observed in your region, e-Bird is a good place to start. Use the zoom tool on the "Hotspots" link and map and you'll see dozens of places near your home where birds tend to congregate. You can click on a hot spot to see the birding history for that location. The history of the Tuolumne Parkway Trail can be found here. There is a printable checklist, and even a page with all the photos of birds from that particular location. It's a marvelous place to learn something new about your home base.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

A Spectacular Duck: Hooded Mergansers at Lake Washington

I'm sure they've been around in the distance these last few years. They are not rare birds, but for some strange reason I never saw a Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) until late 2017 when I saw a few females in the distance on the Siuslaw River in Oregon. I saw no more until last November and December during my holiday travels, when I made seven separate sightings.
I saw them first on the Siuslaw River in Florence (again), but they were off in the distance and I wasn't able to get much in the way of pictures. But when we arrived in the Seattle area I had a chance to walk along the shores of Lake Washington each morning while we were there. And there was a flock of them that didn't scurry away while I walked past on the walkway. I finally got some half-decent shots.
There is a huge contrast between males and females of the species. The males are the ones with the big white spots behind the eyes. As can be seen, the feathers can be raised to form a very prominent crest. The females are a little more drab, but they can raise their feathers to form a crest the same way.
This was a female Common Merganser hanging out with the others
The Hooded Mergansers are rather famous for having precocious chicks. The ducks nest in hollows in trees up to 50 feet above the ground, and within 24 hours of hatching the chicks jump out of the nest, falling to the forest floor. At that point they gather and follow mom to the nearest body of water.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Being Stalked by an American Kestrel on the Tuolumne River

I've had some nice interactions with certain birds of late. Of course the goal in birdwatching is to avoid pestering the birds or changing their behavior because of your presence. But in the cases lately (the Red-tailed Hawk, and the Ring-billed Gull) the birds were perched just above the trail or walkway and I couldn't avoid walking by.

I see two or three American Kestrels (Falco sparverius) almost every time I walk the Tuolumne Parkway Trail where the river leaves the Sierra Foothills. Two of them seem to be a pair. And they are usually pretty skittish, flying off even when I am still far away. Today, the male watched me as I approached, but I kept my head down and didn't stop until I was past. I slowly turned around and got an eyeful from the small falcon. But it didn't fly away. I guess I lost that stare-down...

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Close Encounters of the Ring-billed Gull Kind

I absolutely love a good zoom lens. At times it allows me to identify an obscure bird from a quarter mile away, but there are other times when it allows a certain intimacy with a different species. Ring-billed Gulls (Larus delawarensis) are very common in human environments, choosing garbage dumps and parks as their habitat. As a result, they don't fear humans and will make a close approach. That's when the zoom lens brings out some bit of the personality of the bird.
I was on our holiday journey in the Seattle area, at Gene Coulon Park on the shore of Lake Washington when I came across this individual on the pier. It didn't move as I walked by, so I took it as an invitation to snap a few close shots. It was disappointed though...I didn't have any food with me.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Western Grebes at Clear Lake in Northern California

I'm only now getting through all of the pictures I got during my Christmas journeys. It started with the Tundra Swans that we saw near Williams. We were preparing to cross through the Coast Ranges to get to Highway 101, and Clear Lake offered the most interesting way, bird-wise and geology-wise. Clear Lake is partially dammed by lava flows, and the Mt. Konocti volcano looms over the waters. It's only a few thousand years old and magma chambers in the region are still simmering deep underground.
There is a pier and boat landing at Lucerne that is a favorite stop. We've almost always seen something interesting from there and we weren't disappointed. There were Bonaparte's Gulls by the hundreds, and lots of Pied-billed Grebes and the ever-present Mallards. And lurking close to the pier were several Western Grebes (Aechmophorus occeidentalis). I was able to get a few nice shots.

I always have to remind myself which grebe I'm looking at. The Western Grebe and the Clarke's Grebe were once thought to be the same species, but there were enough differences that they were officially separated. The main tell in the field is that a Clarke's Grebe has white around the striking red eye, while the Western Grebe has black.

A Little Cross-species Bathing...Not That There's Anything Wrong With That...

Mind you, I'm as tolerant as they come. I was running errands at CSU Stanislaus today and found that there were puddles all over the place from last night's rather intense storm. I could see in the distance that some birds were joyfully splashing around. As usual I had my camera so I focused in and saw that they were Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum). But something was off...the bird in back was a lot bigger.
A second later the two birds separated and looked my way. And if looks could kill, I would have been in trouble...that Cedar Waxwing was romping in the water with an American Robin (Turdus migratorious)! The scandal of it all!
 Ah, to each their own, I say. I carried on with my errands.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

For National Bird Day, a Phainopepla on the Tuolumne River

It's hard to choose a favorite bird to post on National Bird Day. I have lots of favorites and they change from day to day. So I'm going with the bird I was the most pleased to find during the first days of 2019. I was on the Tuolumne River at Old Basso Bridge when I spotted a black bird in a treetop. I assumed it was a blackbird (it was black, after all), but the crest became visible and I knew right away I was looking at a Phainopepla (Phainopepla nitens).

Phainopeplas are birds of the southwest deserts and they are not abundant in our area, as we are at the northern limits of their range. There have been a couple of them living along the Parkway Trail, but they may have moved on when the elderberries gave out last month.
I love them for the challenge they give me in spotting them, and for their intense red eyes. This last shot shows them pretty well. The challenge in this case was getting the camera to focus on the bird through all of the intervening branches.

Happy National Bird Day! What's your favorite bird at the moment?

Friday, January 4, 2019

Red-tailed Hawk Up Close: A Three Day Story...

I don't know what to make of this. I rarely get all that close to Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) on my travels. When I've gotten close-ups, it was because I was in my car at a wildlife refuge, in essence from a movable blind. When I'm on foot, they tend to give me a wide berth, spooking and flying off long before I approach. And they're usually perched up high, on telephone poles and in the highest trees.
But for the last three days that I've walked the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail, there's been an individual hawk (or several, I can't be sure) that has been perched close to the trail, and who really didn't care that I was there. It was great to get these two shots (above and below) on the first day...

But the next day, on New Year's morning, it happened again! It was perched just fifteen feet or so above the trail on one of the old snags. And it watched patiently while I took pictures again.
In some of the pictures I could see flecks of blood from its last meal.
But today was the most unusual. I saw the bird perched in one of the oak trees just ten feet above the trail. I had to walk by if I was going to get anywhere and I assumed that it would fly long before I approached. But it didn't. It just watched me as I padded closer and pulled up my camera. I was moving slowly of course, but I was amazed that it just watched me. I got the opening picture of the blog, and the one below. And the bird never moved.
It's hard to imagine getting any closer to a wild bird (without getting really scratched up). But that was the way of it. I know other people walked by without spooking it (but they didn't notice the bird either), but I'm still curious why this one didn't flee. It would be nice to know that it's seen me on the trail so many times that it doesn't see me as a threat anymore, but that seems unlikely. Then again, maybe it's thinking "If I could lure that one in, I wouldn't have to hunt again for a couple of weeks..." (cue the Jurassic Park dinosaur attack theme...).

First Tundra Swans for the Season

For me, anyway. But we had to travel to see them...

Tundra swans visit our home region occasionally, and we'll typically see a couple of them if we travel south to the Merced National Wildlife Refuge during the winter season. But there are never all that many. It was a bit different during our Christmas traveling. We were headed north in the Great Valley past Sacramento and the tiny town of Williams. We then turned west towards Clear Lake and started looking for Snow or Ross's Geese, as we have seen them often in the flooded rice fields in that vicinity. Indeed, we soon saw geese filling the sky by the thousands, and more white birds in the rice ponds.

The white birds were interspersed with Greater White-fronted Geese, and I realized with a start that these birds were huge. They weren't geese at all, they were Tundra Swans, and there were more than a hundred of them!
There were apparently families, as juveniles were dispersed among the adult birds. Tundra Swans are notable in that they mate for life. They breed in the far north Arctic and migrate south for the winter as do so many others. They find winter shelter in the relatively warm climate of the Great Valley. Flooded rice fields provide much of their food needs.

Seeing these majestic birds was a nice beginning to our journey. We saw a number of other beautiful birds along the way, but there have been few posts these last few weeks because we also, ahem, spent a great deal of time with treasured family members for the holidays. I'll try to get caught up before the new semester starts!

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

First Bird of 2019: A Cooper's Hawk! What was yours?

Of course I'm crazy, but there was a reason. We've got three cats in the house right now, and they have 5:45 AM. I tossed and turned for awhile after dealing with them and was wide awake, so I decided to make a first bird search for the new year. The sun was not yet up at 7 AM when I started looking for birds, expecting to see doves or crows or mockingbirds. Much to my surprise, the first bird I saw was not an overly common sight: a Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii). It was perched in a deodar tree near the trailhead for the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail where I make most of my birding ventures.

What was the first bird that you saw today?