Thursday, March 28, 2019

A Long Distance Migrant...Swainson's Hawk at CSU Stanislaus

One of these days, there is something I would really like to see. I would like to stand in the migratory path of the Swainson's Hawk and watch them fly by the thousands on their way to and from Argentina. Their 6,000 mile twice yearly journey is pretty much the longest of any hawk species. In the meantime I'll have to be satisfied with their arrival in the region during the spring. I've several this year, but my photography success has been limited.

The other evening I was wandering around the campus of CSU Stanislaus when a large hawk flew over my head and into the trees up ahead of me. I didn't think I'd be able to see it again, but I saw a hint of gray in the distance, and the zoom confirmed that it was a Swainson's (well, actually Siera Nystrom assisted). I got a couple of shots, and then it took off again and I got a dark silhouette of the bird against the sky. With the help of some intense photoshop work I was able to bring out the wing markings and tail feathers.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Cooper's Hawk on the West Campus

I was walking the perimeter of my workplace, the West Campus of Modesto Junior College, when I spotted the fourth hawk species of the new year, a Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii). It joins a list that includes the Red-tailed, the Red-shouldered, and the Swainson's. The campus is a good environment for hawks, as there are a lot of open fields full of ground squirrels, snakes, and other food sources.

I saw this Cooper's Hawk a few times last year in the grove of trees on the east end of the campus near Carpenter Road, but I usually wasn't able to get many good shots. I took twelve shots today, but ten of them focused on the branches in the foreground (yes, I know there is a manual focus on my camera, but I didn't have time). I liked how this one turned out, though. Cooper's Hawks are very similar to Sharp-shinned Hawks, but I don't think I've seen one of them yet (although I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if I've photographed a few and misidentified them).

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Any Day that includes a Phainopepla is a Fine Day

So here's the story about this bird, a Phainopepla (Phainopepla nitens). They are one of my favorite birds, in part because I don't see them all that often. They are really birds of the desert southwest, a bird of arid regions. They don't even drink water, instead drawing their liquid needs from the berries that they eat. They are found in Northern California, but are not all that common. Months will sometimes go by between sightings on my favorite birding trail along the Tuolumne River in the lower Sierra Nevada foothills. That pattern was holding this year, as I hadn't seen one since December (except for this one on January 5 a dozen miles upstream).

The other day I was walking with a few friends, and on the spur of the moment I asked them if they had ever seen a Phainopepla. They hadn't, so I was describing them, their black color, their red eye, their crest, and so on, and we turned a bend on the trail. And there, for the first time in months, was a Phainopepla! Right next to the trail. I was just stunned. But also delighted, so I started snapping pictures.

And then, much later in the day, I was five miles downstream at Fox Grove on the Tuolumne River near Geer Road (actually I was supposed to be picking up dinner at the Fruityard). I was watching for birds of course, and what do you think I saw? Of course, it was the second Phainopepla in one day.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Long-billed Curlew on the Artificial Prairie of Bentley Road

Here's a beauty of the process of evolution. The general activity in ecosystems is that everything that is alive eats other things that are alive, and everything that is alive tries not to be eaten. Evolution favors those organisms that are best adapted to survive in a given environment, even if they end up looking "weird". There are lots of birds and other creatures that like eating insects and worms that live in the soil, and some soil-based organisms have adapted to this fact by burrowing deeper into the soil, where they can't be accessed. Except for birds like the Long-billed Curlew (Numenius americanus). The bill is so long as to look almost ridiculous, but those extra inches provide the Curlew with the ability to delve deep into the mud or soil that others can't reach.
A huge flock of Long-billed Curlews have been spending the winter in some pasture-lands along Bentley Road near the town of Riverbank in the Great Valley. It's one of those rare grasslands that hasn't been plowed up and planted with almonds. The few times I've seen them they've numbered in the hundreds, but some birders report seeing several thousand at a time. It's a pretty incredible sight.
I got a minute of video showing them working the grass. If I were a worm, I'd be terrified...

Monday, March 18, 2019

OMG! What is That...Thing? And Why is it Moving?

I was walking as I often do when I saw this "thing" hanging from some branches in an oak tree. I wondered for a moment what kind of strange fungus was growing in the tree, but then it moved! Was it some kind of alien pod? The imagination runs wild in such strange moments. I set the video to "on" and waited to see what would happen. You can see the results below...
Well, heck. It was just a little Bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus) working on its admittedly bizarre nest. The bag-like structure is composed of spiderwebs and plant materials, and can take a month to construct. Bushtits are communal birds, and several other Bushtits may assist in raising the young. They will sleep together inside the nest.
I enjoy watching the Bushtit flocks work their way through the branches of a tree seeking out bugs. But they are a pain to photograph because they barely ever stop moving. Here are some of my previous posts that show them in a better light!

Thursday, March 14, 2019

The Stages of Birding: Yellow-rumped Warblers on the West Campus

I've been at this birding thing for about five years now, which marks me as a rank amateur, but by now I've started to recognize that there are "levels" of birding that for me run something like the following:

1) Total Ignorance: One is vaguely aware that birds are out there, but they're all pigeons, sparrows, crows, and mockingbirds. Birders are strange alien-like people with strange obsessions related to "life-lists" and "first-of-season". Colorful birds are interesting, but known to only live in other places.

2) First Stage Amateur: Somewhere along the way, one sees a very unusual bird, and has no good way of finding out what it was. They then take that tentative first step in birding by asking someone they know to be an expert what the species is, and are surprised to find that bird is actually common in the area, if one knows to watch for it. Experienced birders are still considered strange, but a little less so, in an eccentrically wise sort of way.

3) Second Stage Amateur: Having learned that there are many more birds in the region besides pigeons and sparrows and crows, one takes that ominous and tentative step of buying a bird book (by the time you've asked the expert about seven or eight times you realize you could try doing it yourself). Even though the book may be introductory in nature, one is shocked to find that bird species in the region number in the hundreds. This is a perilous moment, as some are overwhelmed by this complexity, give up, and fall away. Realizing the full breadth of the knowledge base of experienced birders, they are now considered demigods.

4) Tertiary Stage Amateur: One buys a camera with a good zoom lens. And binoculars. And a real bird book, like Sibleys or Audubon's. One starts altering the itinerary of vacations to include potential bird discoveries. But one isn't like those other birders with their life-lists and all. One just happens to like taking pictures of birds. Thousands of pictures of birds.

5) Quaternary Stage Amateur: One finds that he/she is keeping track of observed bird species, sometimes on a random sheet of paper, or perhaps even on a downloaded list of birds from the county or state. One day this person looks at the list and thinks "that's a lot of birds I've identified"...and they count them. They have passed into the realm of "life-list". This stage is completed when they start recording their finds on eBird or similar sites on the internet. Friends and family start asking them about the identity of some unusual bird they've observed. And the amateur knows many or most of the species...

6) First Stage Expert: I have no idea. I haven't reached that stage. And they're demigods anyway, something that we mere mortals cannot aspire to.
All in fun of course, but I started thinking about this amateur/beginning birder thing because of the Yellow-rumped Warblers (Setophaga coronata) I saw today in the sheep compound on the West Campus of Modesto Junior College. I was remembering how rare they seemed to be when I was just beginning to pay close attention to bird species, and how shocked I was to find that they were living by the dozens in the Mulberry tree in my own backyard. I ultimately realized they were a very common bird in the region at the right time of year, and I started to pay a bit less attention to them as I searched for rarer species. They were so flighty and active that I had trouble getting good photographs of them anyway.
But this afternoon I was standing next to a fence watching an Oak Titmouse build a nest, and I was so motionless that the birds came out of hiding, and a couple of the warblers perched on branches only a few feet away. They were just begging to be photographed, so I did. The opening picture of this post is by far the closest I've ever been to these birds. They are mostly going to be gone in a few weeks, moving up into the mountains to breed, and I'm realizing how much I'll miss them.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

A Wily Belted Kingfisher on the Tuolumne River

The effort continues...these are hard birds to catch in a photograph! I see Belted Kingfishers (Megaceryle alcyon) on a fairly regular basis during my walks on the Tuolumne River, but they are extremely skittish around human beings. They will stay in place if they happen to be across the river from me, but they don't stay at all still if I happen upon them on the north shore of the river. They'll fly away immediately, unleashing a torrent of bird profanities that make my ears burn and sailors blush (really, you should hear them chattering in anger).

In any case, I had a lucky moment last week and saw the Kingfisher before it saw me, and I was able to get one of the better shots that I've achieved. It's still a bit fuzzy, so I'm going to keep at it. This one is a female, as evidenced by the presence of the chestnut banding.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

The Most Colorful of Ducks: Wood Ducks on the Kern River

As usual life gets hectic in fits and starts, and blogging is always somewhere way down the list, so these pictures aren't exactly current. I was on a field studies class to Death Valley National Park in the middle of February, and while we didn't see all that many birds, there were certainly a few, and one of the species was just spectacular. It was a pair of Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) in our camp on the Kern River at the south end of the Sierra Nevada.
Wood Ducks are one of the few duck species with sharp enough claws that they can perch in trees, and that's where I've seen a fair number of them in my travels along the Tuolumne. They nest in cavities in trees (or bird boxes), and when the ducklings are ready, they'll jump out of the nest, falling as much as 50 feet to the ground without injury.
The Kern River drains a huge region of the southern Sierra Nevada, flowing into the Central Valley near Bakersfield. Historically the river ended in a huge lake (Buena Vista Lake) and the waters never reached the sea, evaporating in the desert environment instead. Diversions of river water for agriculture caused the lake to dry up as well. The lake had provided habitat for vast numbers of migratory birds, who have few alternatives today for winter shelter aside from a few wildlife refuges. The Kern River (and nearby Ming Lake) provides a little bit more.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

That Freaky Weird Eye...Double-crested Cormorant at CSU Stanislaus

It is one of the most alien-like eyes in nature, in my view. I mean, sure, there's reptilian eyes with their cold emotionless stare, and goat's eyes with their horizontal slits, but nothing can quite compare to turquoise stare of a Double-crested Cormorant. I rarely get near enough to them in the wild to get closeup pictures, but there is one that lives in Warrior Lake at the campus of CSU Stanislaus, where I teach part-time. It is much more acclimated to people and so doesn't retreat as I walk by.
The Double-crested Cormorants, like all their cousins, are consummate fish hunters. Unlike most fishing birds, they dive into the water and chase their prey under the surface. To do so, they can't be overly buoyant and thus they have fewer oils in their feathers. They can get sort of waterlogged, in other words. As a consequence, they will spend a portion of their day drying off, like this one was doing when I happened by.

Mountain Bluebirds on the California Prairie

I've had some pleasant finds of late on our birding journeys of late. We ventured out on Monday to the prairies that lie east of our town in the Great Valley. We ended up on Willm's Road near Knight's Ferry on the Stanislaus. There were quite a few birds out, but have I ever mentioned that blue is my favorite color? I saw a flash of blue on the fenceposts in the distance and realized I was seeing a Mountain Bluebird (Sialia currucoides) for the first time in my county. I've seen them only twice before, once in Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park, and last summer in Mesa Verde National Park.
These are some of the most beautiful birds there are, but their habitat is locally under siege. They prefer woodlands at the edge of the prairie, the trees providing nesting sites, and the prairie providing the insects that they eat. But the prairies out here are being converted to almond orchards at a furious rate. There are lots of difficult issues involved here, but it seems a shame to be losing so much of one of California's unique and rare environments and the animals that live there.
Mrs. Geotripper caught this shot of the Mountain Bluebird giving us "the look".

Sunday, March 3, 2019

The Problem of Scale and Zoom: What is That Up There?

I went out to Robert's Ferry Bridge on the Tuolumne River today to see if the Ospreys had returned to their platform on the south side of the river. It felt like time was passing without any Osprey sightings and I was worried whether they would be back at all. I was also curious if there were any birds nesting in the bridge structure, since I knew of several stick pile nests, but I couldn't tell if any birds were present.

It was really difficult to see the nests because they were in the eaves and framed by very bright skies. I had to depend on the camera to lighten up the darkness up in the eaves and I snapped a couple of shots. On the small screen of my camera the pictures seemed to show a bit of bird tail, and there was some kind of yellow thing, but I couldn't make out what it was, maybe part of the bridge superstructure, or a piece of plastic in the nest perhaps. It wasn't until I saw the pictures on my computer that I realized that my sense of scale was way off. It wasn't a bird tail at all! But at least I know who's on the nest ("who" you see what I did there? Do you get it?).

So, add a Great Horned Owl to the list of nesting birds in my area. Oh, and the Ospreys? They were there, both of them. They didn't seem too concerned about the herb garden growing in their nest. Now we watch and wait for all the babies to hatch!

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Spotted Towhee on the Tuolumne River Parkway and a Few Thoughts on Diversity

Spotted Towhees (Pipilo maculatus) are a colorful sight, although they tend to be a little shy when I see them on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail. Many times I've been able to only see a mysterious red eye staring out of the shrubs. So it was a bit of a treat this week to have two of them just sitting out there just a few feet off the trail. Given that they were singing their heart out, I'm guessing it's springtime, and love is in the air.
The Spotted Towhee is one of those birds I had no idea existed in the world, and much less that it lived in the river environments close to my own home. I can still remember those days fifty years ago when I thought there were just a few kinds of rocks and minerals, and then I discovered the incredible world of geology that changed the trajectory of my life. In the same way, I found out only five years ago that there were more than just pigeons and sparrows that lived in my immediate neighborhood. I could not have conceived that with the completion of the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail that after two or three years, myself and another couple of birders would discover more than 120 species living along the walkway, with more being sighted every month. I was amazed by the diversity of species I could see.
And the really neat part? This is pretty much true no matter where you live. Would you believe that the most diverse county in California for bird species is Los Angeles, with 544? Followed closely by San Diego with 542? It's true that there are more eyes looking in the skies in those urban landscapes, but the sightings are real. If that seems unlikely, get out and have a look in any open spaces where you live: parks, rivers, refuges, even school yards. You might be amazed.