Sunday, April 28, 2019

The Latest Arriving Tropical Migrant on the Tuolumne Parkway Trail: A Western Tanager

The colors remind me of tinted calendar pictures and postcards from the 1930s that I recalled seeing at my grandmother's house long ago. Back then, it was the very difficult problem of producing color photos of any kind. Today, it's what happens when you use a photo app to try and eliminate dark shadows from a digital photograph. But in any case today's photos show the latest arrival on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail from its winter home in the tropics: a Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana).

I admit I was feeling a tiny bit discouraged at the lack of any new migrants, since it had been a good two weeks since I had sighted some of the other "first of season" arrivals like the Bullock's and Hooded Orioles and the Ash-throated Flycatcher. I'm still watching out for Black-headed and Blue Grosbeaks, Lazuli Buntings, and a variety of flycatchers that should also be in the region by now. But today all those discouraging feeling were swept away. I had been walking for nearly two hours, and had seen a nice collection of different species, but I saw a flash of yellow in the upper parts of the last big oak tree along the trail. It took me several moments to locate it again, and I got a dozen really poor shots that would have served no purpose other than confirming my identification. Then I got a pair of half-decent shots aside from the dark shadows. After a moment it flew off, followed by another tanager! At that point I lost them.

If you are wondering about the original shots, here they are. You are welcome to judge which is actually better...

The Unsung Beauties of the West Campus: California Scrub Jay

I admit it. Sometimes when I'm out there looking for birds, I'm watching for the rare and unusual species. I have a tendency to ignore the birds that are always there, and yet are real beauties. I am, for instance, on the lookout for the first Blue Grosbeak and the first Lazuli Bunting of the spring, primarily because blue is pretty much my favorite color, especially with birds.
And so it is with the California Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma californica). I see them commonly on walks throughout the region, and I rarely lift the camera for a picture, and I dutifully count them on the bird list and walk on. But once in a great while, I stop and think about living in a place where one could never see one of these birds (and that actually includes everywhere except the Pacific Coast states). I'm then reminded how extraordinary this bird actually is. You would be missing out, never being able to see these birds.
They can certainly be obnoxious at times, carrying on continuous fights with the local Mockingbirds, and arguing among themselves. But they are extremely intelligent birds as well, and worthy of being enjoyed. And photographed too, when I finally think of it.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

More Tropical Spring Migrants: Western Kingbird on the Tuolumne River

I've been enjoying the arrivals of the tropical migrants in our region after the long winter. The Hooded Orioles, the Bullock's Orioles, the Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and the Rufous Hummingbirds have all shown up in recent weeks in our region. I've also seen Ash-throated Flycatchers, but don't have good photographs yet. But one of the first was the Western Kingbird, a tyrant flycatcher (Tyrannus verticalis). I actually saw the first one a month ago on March 23rd, but there were so many distractions as one tropical yellow bird after another kept showing up.
It's a thrill to see one the first time, but as the spring carries on, more arrive, and they become one of the more abundant species on the California prairie. They winter in Mexico and Central America, and migrate widely across western North America.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Well, I Never....Really? In my own Backyard? Hooded Orioles

It's been a week now since I reported seeing a Hooded Oriole in my backyard. It was an astounding moment, being that Hooded Orioles (Icterus cucullatus) have been one of my most challenging species to observe. In the three weeks since the first sighting in our county, only about five birders have reported seeing any at all.
It turns out, though, that as rare as they seem to be around the region, they're a common sight in my backyard. Our hummingbird feeder is not in an easily visible spot from inside our house. There's no place to sit and watch it. We have to notice feeding birds as we walk from one room to another, and despite this, I've seen an oriole at the feeder at least a dozen times now. And yesterday, the oriole visitors included at least one female!

Like many bird species, the female Hooded Orioles are not quite as showy and colorful as the males, but they are quite beautiful just the same. They are almost entirely yellow with black and white wings. The fact that there is at least one pair in the immediate vicinity leads me to wonder if there is a nest nearby. The orioles weave hanging nests constructed in part from palm leaf fibers, so our neighborhood palm trees are getting increased scrutiny these days...

Thursday, April 18, 2019

More Bird Babies to Report: Mute Swans on the Tuolumne River

I've been secretly a tiny bit worried for the past few days. There has been a pair of Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) living in the pond across from the west end of the Tuolumne River Trail for at least three years now. It's probable that they are domestic (Mute Swans are not native to North America; many are escaped "ornamental" birds), but this pair has been reproducing each spring, with four cygnets last year, three of whom survived to adulthood. For several weeks, the only swan visible was the male, who was doing a lot of territorial defense with the local Canada Geese, while the female presumably was nesting. But then even the male seemed to disappear.

This week my surveillance contact on the bluffs reported that the swans were back in action and they were trailing a little one! Mrs. Geotripper and I had to go down and check it out, zoom lenses in hand. At first we could only see the one cygnet staying really close to mama, but then then she turned and we saw the second little one.

We'll look in every so often to see how they are doing...

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The Red-Tailed Hawk Babies are Born! The Newest Raptors at MJC...

The Red-tailed Hawk babies have hatched! I've been watching the activity around the nest since late February when I first noticed the parent hawks building the nest. I feared the eggs might have been lost at one point during a particularly violent windstorm a few weeks ago. I was comforted when the parents were cursing at me in hawk language when I walked by a few days later. Today I thought I saw something move that wasn't "hawk" colored. It was downy white instead. Out came the camera, and there is at least one chick. There may be more...I'll be watching and reporting as I see anything. The hawk baby  (or babies) will be in the nest for around six weeks before they start flying and getting trained in hunting skills.

ADDENDUM: There are TWO chicks (so far)

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Second Sighting of a Hooded Oriole, on the Tuolumne River!

But the second sighting begs the question: "What happened to the first one?" And that's the story of the day.

Hooded Orioles (Icterus cucullatus) are one of the most attractive birds I never knew existed in our region. Once I started looking for new species around five years ago, I concentrated on the one place in the county that the local birding guide said they might be found: Fox Grove on the Tuolumne River east of Modesto. As it turned out, I finally saw and photographed them there (link here). I found them again at Fox Grove the following year (link here). By then I was wondering whether couldn't be found a few miles upstream on my favorite local trail, the Tuolumne Parkway Trail in Waterford. I started watching more carefully and got a single picture of Hooded Oriole in August of 2016. Ironically, I thought it was Bullock's Oriole at the time, but seeing the photograph later on set me straight (link here).

In 2017, I finally saw Hooded Orioles on the trail and got a selection of pictures. But I finally hit 'gold' in 2018. I found a family of the birds nesting in some palms on the bluff above the river.

So this year I've been watching the palms along my walking route (sometimes to the consternation of the homeowners), hoping to see the nest-building process and following the progress of any of the young. I have been watching carefully. With patience. With unceasing vigilance. And nothing. But then earlier this week I happened to glance at the hummingbird feeder in our backyard, and right there, 10 feet away, was a male Hooded Oriole posing for a picture. I called Mrs. Geotripper, and struggled to unpack my camera, but in the end the picture below is all I got to document the sighting, only the third or fourth in the county so far this spring.
And that is why the second sighting this morning down on the river trail was a bit more satisfying than the first one. I only got the one fairly sharp shot, but it was enough. The bird seems to have some nesting material in its mouth, and I saw it fly up towards the palm trees on the bluff where they nested the previous year. I can bet that I'll be watching more carefully in coming weeks!

ADDENDUM: Not two hours after posting this I was pulling weeds in the yard and sat to rest for a few moments. In perhaps 20 minutes I saw the Hooded Oriole twice. I got a fuzzy shot, but I have hopes now for better. Apparently this Oriole is in our yard more often than I thought.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Another Tropical Migrant! Yellow-headed Blackbird at the San Luis National WIldlife Refuge

Yesterday was pretty exciting as such things go. I started the morning with a discovery of Bullocks Orioles on the Tuolumne River, but Mrs. Geotripper wasn't with me, and she wanted to see some birds as well, so in the late afternoon we headed south into Merced County to have a look at the Bear Creek Unit of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. We hoped to repeat our February sighting of a White-tailed Kite, but other than that, I wasn't sure what to expect. The Arctic migrants have bugged out already, so we mainly expected the resident species of ducks, blackbirds and shorebirds. In the back of my mind, though, there was the hope of seeing a Yellow-headed Blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus).

We don't see these beautiful birds very often. They haven't even been reported in Stanislaus County as of yet this year, and there have been only a few in Merced County, mainly at the Merced NWR, and the main unit of the San Luis NWR. We've seen them twice previously, and in the same place: along the auto-tour of the Bear Creek Unit. I had reason to hope, and I wasn't disappointed! We passed dozens and dozens of Red-winged Blackbirds but I finally saw one that seemed bigger. It was silhouetted in the sun, but I was pretty sure I saw a flash of yellow around the head. I zoomed in and confirmed it; it was a Yellow-headed Blackbird!
We ultimately saw six or seven of them, all males. It's possible they were guarding their territories, with the females hidden on their nests, but they could also just be passing through. The birds spend the winter in Mexico and Texas and move north as far as Canada to breed.
The have a call that must be heard to be believed. If you were hoping for a lilting melody like their relatives the Red-winged Blackbirds, or say, a meadowlark, you are going to be bitterly disappointed. We tried to capture the sound but did succeed. Try to imagine the grating sound of metal on metal, like a damaged car door that doesn't shut right and scrapes the frame. You can hear it here:

Sunday, April 7, 2019

The Tropical Migrants Are Arriving! Bullock's Orioles on the Tuolumne River

Bullock's Oriole (Icterus bullockii)
There is a lot of anticipation in this bird-watching business. You know they're coming, you're anxious to see them arrive, but you just don't know when or where that first moment is going to happen. It's been that way for me for several weeks now, wondering when the tropical migrants are going to start arriving at the Tuolumne River, especially the Orioles and the Grosbeaks, a group of the most beautiful birds there are.
The first of them arrived a week or two ago when I spotted the first Western Kingbird (pictures soon), and then a Rufous Hummingbird. Then reports starting coming in from other parts of the county of the arrival of Hooded and Bullock's Orioles, and Black-headed Grosbeaks. When would they arrive at the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail?

In a sense, I kind of knew it had to be today. I started out walking and my camera battery registered a single bar. It was almost dead. I always carry a spare, so I replaced the first battery only to find that the second one was dead. I had traded one out earlier in the week and forgot to charge it! I did a two-hour walk with a camera that was mere moments from dying, and Murphy's Law kind of dictates that if I was going to see any kind of rare or unusual bird (or Sasquatch for that matter), that my camera would be dead.
But I plugged along. A bird flew out of the foliage overhead that I assumed was a Starling, but my after-memory told me it had some yellow coloration. I couldn't find it, but then a second bird flashed yellow in front of me, and I knew I had one of them. I saw it land in a tree two hundred yards away, so I took a panicky first shot thinking I might not have another chance. Here's a challenge for you...can you see the Bullock's Oriole (Icterus bullockii) in the picture above?

I zoomed in and got the picture below, which is not a great shot by any means, but would suffice to confirm my identification of the bird. And then another pair of birds flew out. One of them was a female, and it landed in the middle of a tree, but I managed to get an ID shot (the second shot above). Then a male flew back to the shrubs they had originally come from and quite literally posed for its glamour shot, which turns out to be one of the best shots I've ever gotten of one of these beautiful birds.

Friday, April 5, 2019

First Rufous Hummingbird of the Year (for me)

I had quite the day on my birdwalk on the Tuolumne Parkway Trail. I saw a total of 41 species, the most ever from a single walk. But what was even better is that I had my first sighting of the season of a Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus). This one is a female (or an immature male). The mature males are bright orange all over (for pictures, see this post from last year).

The Rufous Hummingbirds are not seen in our area all that often, as they are actually on a long migration from Central America to Alaska and they are just passing through. I had a handful of springtime sightings last year, and saw even more in the late summer. They are said to have an excellent memory for feeding sites, which probably explains why I saw nearly all of them in the same Wild Tobacco bushes near the water treatment plant along the Tuolumne Parkway Trail. I'll be working to get better shots in the next few weeks while they are still around.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Life Sucks Sometimes. Let's Look at Some Baby Ducks.

Spring is breaking out all over. At CSU Stanislaus, the Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) have had their ducklings and eight or so were exploring the lawns near Warrior Lake today.
Momma was doing her stellar job of keeping all her ducks in a row, so to speak. There was one oddity today, and I wonder if other folks have ever seen this happen. A Canada Goose was assisting in the protection of the ducklings! It was following the family and when I approached on the sidewalk, it placed itself between me and the ducklings and made threatening noises.
All I could think of while watching the cute little babies trundling across the lawn was "life sucks", but this made things better for a moment. I made a short video for your enjoyment...


A Panoply of Phainopeplas in Ash Meadows

We headed out to Death Valley National Park last weekend, but our real destination was the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge a little farther to the east in Nevada. Don't get me wrong, I love Death Valley, and we spent time there too, but this was my first chance to see Ash Meadows in a couple of years, and I've never been there in the early spring, and I was hoping to see some of the desert migrants that use the meadows as a stopping point.
Birders report 200-300 species of birds at Ash Meadows, so one can maybe forgive me for expecting to see dozens and dozens of species, but the birds sightings are strongly seasonal, and some, actually many, have only been seen a couple of times. In the end, I didn't see all that many species, just over a dozen, but some were pretty special.
If you follow this blog at all, you know that I love Phainopeplas (Phainopepla nitens), a member of the silky flycatcher family. They are a desert species that I sometimes see in my home territory, but they are more emblematic of places like Death Valley or Ash Meadows. I was watching for them, but didn't see any until we were leaving our last stop, at the Point of Rocks Trail. I saw a single male (the black ones), and we started driving towards the exit of the refuge, and we saw another, a female. And then another male a few yards down the road.
In the end we saw more than a dozen of them patrolling their territories along the road. It was a great way to finish our visit to this fascinating place.
Ash Meadows is a truly unique site in the desert of western Nevada. Faulting has forced groundwater to the surface in dozens of warm springs that put out millions of gallons of water a day, providing an island of verdant vegetation in the middle of a barren desert. It was severely altered by agricultural development in the 1960s, but overpumping of groundwater threatened the existence of what turned out to be the highest concentration of endemic species in the continental United States. There are more than two dozen of them, including the extremely endangered Desert Hole Pupfish (which live in the midst of Ash Meadows NWR in an outlier part of Death Valley National Park). Court action ended the agricultural pumping, but then the region was threatened by a proposed housing development for 30,000 people. The lands were finally purchased and given to the federal government, and Ash Meadows NWR was established in 1984. It's a fascinating place to visit.