Tuesday, February 26, 2019

What To Do With a Dinner Invitation When You're All Tied Up

First off, it really sucks to be the snake in this little narrative. It was on the losing end of the battles that occur in the "circle of life".  One eventually has to accept that everything in nature is ultimately trying to eat everything else in nature. Even the top predators are going to be consumed by scavengers eventually. We'll just hope that the reincarnation of the little snake has a better ending the next time around.
We were driving the Bear Creek Unit auto tour at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge last weekend when we spotted a Great Blue Heron with something hanging from its beak. After a few moments we realized it was a small snake. As a last defensive measure it seems to have tied itself into a knot, but it didn't work. As we watched, the Heron gulped down the entire snake, knot and all.
Great Blue Herons are large birds and are thus one of the top predators in the freshwater marsh environment. They eat fish, amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals. They have their own problems with predators, however. We witnessed a dramatic confrontation between Bald Eagles and Great Blue Herons in Victoria, B.C. a few years ago. They can presumably be attacked by wolves or coyotes as well.
And thus, the "tail end" of the drama, but actually the head went last. It was a somewhat stunning act to witness.

Friday, February 22, 2019

What's Everyone Yelling About? Cedar Waxwings at the MJC West Campus

Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) always strike me as quiet unassuming birds. I've had flocks of dozens in my flowering pear tree that were so quiet that I almost missed them entirely (it doesn't help that their call is so high-pitched that I can't hear them).

I was wandering around the northwest corner of the west campus of Modesto Junior College yesterday, near the "mini-wilderness" of the sheep pasture. There's a watering tank that birds often utilize, and yesterday was no exception. There were several dozen Cedar Waxwings flitting about in the trees, and eight or nine at a time were getting water. I snapped a few pictures from a distance and didn't notice until later that they looked as if they were yelling at each other.

What was that all about?

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Something New at MJC: A Nesting Pair of Red-tailed Hawks

Things have been afoot at MJC's West Campus over the last few weeks. A lot of birds have been agitated by the presence of some Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis). I've seen Red-tails there fairly often, but most of the time they've been soaring high above the campus and over the surrounding territory. Lately though, a pair has been loitering around the sheep pasture and pond on the northwest corner of the campus. The Yellow-billed Magpies and several other species have been rather unhappy about these unwelcome neighbors, and I've seen them trying to harass the Red-tails a couple of times.
I suspected that they might be nesting, but I was having a tricky time confirming it. There are two large nests in a Deodar and a Eucalyptus tree on the south side of the pond, but during the last two weeks I couldn't see any birds occupying either of the nests. Until this week. I spotted one of the hawks carrying nesting material, and it eventually alit in the Eucalyptus and seemed to be watching me.
I walked away towards the other end of the pond and eventually the bird hopped over to the empty nest and started to work on the lining. They are obviously getting ready for babies. That's a first for the campus, at least during the last three years that I've been paying attention to such matters. I'll keep an eye on things and see if I can get some pictures of the young ones....

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Gifts of the Day: Black-crowned Night-Herons at CSU Stanislaus

Some days are just gifts, and I can certainly say I've had more than my share. And this was one of those days for kind of a silly reason. I like to count things. It's just a quirk in my personality. I count the students in my classes. I count hits on blog meters. I count the days to pay day. I count all kinds of things. That's why birding was bound to eventually become an avocation (obsession?) for me, once I caught on.

So I record my bird sightings on eBird which has a whole bunch of neat ways to keep track of one's birding adventures. And one of those lists is the yearly tally, the birds one has seen since the first of the year (as opposed to the "life-list"). I've been dutifully keeping track of my bird sightings and the numbers mounted, with 98 birds sighted in the county since New Year's Day. And then I seemed to stall. There was the wonderful sight of the Bald Eagle two weeks ago, but there had been little movement since then. Lots of birds, but not new species. I was stalled at 98 and it bothered me in a "Monk" sort of way. I wanted to get to a nice even 100 and it just wasn't happening.
So I headed over to CSU Stanislaus for my evening course, and I decided to walk a little and see if I could find the rare Sage Thrasher that has been living on the campus the last few months. I found it and got a couple of pictures, but it wasn't bird 99 (I had seen it last month). But then another bird hopped into view and I recognized a Hermit Thrush! It was pretty, and it was bird 99. Now I was on a roll and I decided to search for the Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) that I knew was living in the reeds of Willow Lake. I couldn't find it but I decided to have a look at Warrior Lake too and there it was! A Black-crowned Night-Heron! And it was staying still. I got a bunch of close-ups from my spot on the bridge.
I was thrilled, but eventually I had to move on. And then from the other side of the bridge, I spotted another! This time it was a juvenile. And it cooperated for pictures too. So in the end, I got to see two of my favorite birds, but I also reached a nice arbitrary number as well, 100 birds so far this year in Stanislaus County.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Graceful Flight: American White Pelicans on the Tuolumne River

I've had some rare privileges of late during my walks on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail. A week ago a Bald Eagle paid a visit and hung out for the better part of the week. The eagle moved on, but the next day I was keeping an eye in the sky anyway and saw a pair of huge birds overhead.
I briefly thought "eagles", but quickly realized the smooth gliding and graceful turns meant American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos). It was kind of nice because this is only the third time I've seen them from this part of the river.
I'm not sure what drew them out here. They tend to prefer shallow waters where they can collectively herd fish. We've got a series of ponds generated by gold mining and quarrying, and I suppose they have healthy fish populations. Whatever their reason for visiting, it's always a thrill to see them flying overhead with such grace.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Bald Eagle on the Tuolumne River Update: It's Still There!

It was pretty exciting to see a Bald Eagle in our neck of the woods last Wednesday. And I was pretty sure it was a one-time sighting given that I've been walking the trail non-stop for three or four years, and I never saw one before two days ago. I figured it was on the way to Turlock Lake where the fishing might be better.

I was busy with errands today, but as the sun was setting and the rain was starting to fall I decided to do a quick check of the river. And it was there, just a few hundred yards farther upstream. Even better, it was just across the river from the trail. I had the chance to get a few more pictures, from a closer vantage point.

It may be gone tomorrow, but it would sure be interesting to see how things change around here if it decides to hang out for a while...

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

New Bird Today on the Tuolumne River: A Bald Eagle!

Sometimes a new bird discovery is a quiet affair. The other day, for instance, I saw my first Fox Sparrows along the Tuolumne Parkway Trail (I've seen them elsewhere, but not on the home trail). They were quietly scratching away in the dirt looking for food while I took a few pictures.

But sometimes things are a little more dramatic. I was out on my normal walk on the river trail checking out the hawks and an uncharacteristically large grouping of Double-crested Cormorants, meaning the day was already a success in my mind. Then I saw the hawk take off and my attention shifted for moment when a very large bird appeared close by, flying low over the river. I had the impression of a light hindquarter and overall dark color, and even thought "Bald Eagle?" but I hadn't gotten a good look at all.

Suddenly there was some shouting above me, from the top of the bluff. "Garry, did you see that?" I don't usually expect to hear my name coming from up in the sky, but I quickly remembered a friend who lives in a house on the bluff overlooking the river. I asked if it was a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and they said yes. I headed upstream as quickly as I could in the vain hope that the eagle had landed somewhere, but it eluded my careful search.

I returned to the trailhead vacillating about whether to report the eagle on eBird. It occurred to me to check with my friend on the bluff when I finished hiking, and it turned out that they watched it land in a tree up the river. It was right next to where I had been searching, but I had missed it entirely. They mentioned that I might get a better view from the access road for the Water Treatment Plant. I drove over, and there it was! I went home and got Mrs. Geotripper and we headed back and got some pictures of the first Bald Eagle reported on the Tuolumne Parkway River Trail (the first time it's been officially reported anyway; my friends tell me they've seen an eagle fly by once in a while during winter).

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Flying Kites at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge (Bear Creek Unit)

No, not those kite things on a string. These were White-tailed Kites (Elanus leucurus) at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. We were thrilled to see not one, but two of them, and even better, I got the best pictures I've ever managed to take.  I don't see the White-tailed Kites very often, maybe only four or five times, and so they've only made two appearances on this blog. I even got the eyes, and that hasn't happened before.
The San Luis National Wildlife Refuge is one of the premier places in California for bird watching. The main visitor-related portions of the refuge include a new visitor center and two marvelous auto-tour routes along with a number of hiking trails. There's even a large compound where visitors can see one of the few herds of California's unique Tule Elk. On eBird, more than a thousand bird counts have been conducted here.

But there's sort of a step-child at the refuge. It's called the Bear Creek Unit. It's northwest of the main part of the refuge, but is easily accessed from Highway 165. There is a two-mile long auto-tour, but only just over a hundred birding reports have ever been conducted there. I'm not sure why, but the area just didn't get the visitation. Sometimes there is a simple lack of water in the wetlands so few birds are around. Yesterday we had the place to ourselves aside from one other car. And there were quite a few birds out and about, including several thousand Red-winged Blackbirds. And...two White-tailed Kites!
The refuge system in the Great Valley preserves in some cases and works in others to reconstruct the native ecosystem that existed here in the millennia before colonizers established the vast network of farms and ranches. The valley is critical winter habitat for millions of migratory birds, and they survive only because of the string of refuges up and down the landscape. It was marvelous to experience the sky and prairie yesterday during a break in the huge storm that slammed into California this weekend.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

The Most Soothing Birdcall: Sandhill Cranes at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge

They don't call them songbirds for nothing. Many birds produce wonderful melodies that lift the heart and all that kind of thing, but for a soothing calming moment few birds can match the purring of the Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis).
The Sandhill Cranes spend their summers far to the north in Canada or Alaska, but in winter they come to the Great Valley by the tens of thousands. For the past two weeks more than a thousand of them have been grazing and foraging in the cut cornfields visible from the viewing platform on Beckwith Road (the corn is grown specifically to feed the geese and crane who winter here). The platform is part of the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge and the birds have been quite close during my last few visits. And they are beautiful to photograph.
This afternoon some of them were hanging out in the fallow field near the viewpoint that is (already!) starting to bloom.
I've never managed to capture their soothing song before, but this week I got some pretty good video, and the birds were quite vocal.

The viewing platform is located near the west end of Beckwith Road out of Modesto, about 8 miles west of the Vintage Faire Mall. It will be open for another month or so while the geese and cranes await the thawing of the lands up north. It will be very quiet without the Sandhills!