Thursday, May 23, 2019

Fiery Color: Six Weeks of Bullock's Orioles on the Tuolumne River

One of the really nice things about walking the same trail (the Tuolumne Parkway Trail in Waterford) three or more times a week is that one can get to know individual birds and their habits. As I hike along, I'm always watching out for the species that I know are rare or exotic (just today I saw Cinnamon Teal in a pond along the trail, the first time it's ever been reported on this particular stretch of the river). But there is also the privilege of getting to know the birds that are practically always around, because the river is their home.
The Black Phoebes have their favorite roosting spots, as do the House Wrens, and the American Kestrels. The Mute Swans are almost always floating on the pond across the river from the western trailhead. The raptors almost seem to have specific territories (or times) along the river; the Red-tails tend to be on the downstream side, and the Swainsons, Coopers, and Red-shouldered hawks more upstream. A particular dead cottonwood tree seems to be the territory boundary, as all the birds compete for roosting spots there. Underneath them, a pair of Acorn Woodpeckers are almost always drilling away at the trunk. A Green Heron likes to lurk in the pond below the irrigation canal "waterfall". If I don't see these birds when I walk, I get a feeling that something is missing.
Then there are the birds whose presence is a seasonal event. I always look forward to the spring migration because the tropical migrants who are arriving tend to be especially colorful. Their arrival was something I always seemed to miss in my ignorance before I started watching carefully a few years ago. Although they provide a splash of color, they tend to be fairly rare and inconsistent in their chosen roosting and nesting spots. If one doesn't know where to look, the birds can be very easy to miss.
One of my absolute favorites are the Bullock's Orioles (Icterus bullockii). I only saw a few of them last year and the year before. I wasn't walking the trail consistently, and I never found the area where they were nesting.
This year has been different. I haven't seen their nest yet, but I've seen a male and female consistently flying in and out of a particular palm tree on the bluffs above the water treatment plant (I hope the people living in the house there aren't too concerned about the strange man in the hat with a camera who comes and stands in front of their house every day).
Like many birds, the females are not so brilliantly colored, but they are very pretty nonetheless. I'm hopeful that there will be some fledglings to observe before long!
It's been about six weeks since I saw the first of the Bullock's Orioles on April 7, and I've noted their presence on my ebird lists twenty (!) times now. Some of the sightings included some nice shots that I wanted to post immediately, but six weeks of nothing but Bullock's Oriole on this blog would have maybe seemed...excessive.

So instead, I'm taking my favorite shots from the last six weeks in a "Best of" compilation. When I see young ones, maybe I'll post again (I don't really need excuses though). In the meantime, enjoy!

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Mute Swans on the Tuolumne River: The Baby is Alright

It's been kind of a bittersweet year for the Mute Swans on the Tuolumne River where I walk most days. They had four cygnets last year, and three survived to adulthood. The kids moved on, but the parents remained at the quarry lake that has been their home for a number of years. This year they had only two babies, but one disappeared after only a few weeks.

The pair took the surviving baby onto the big river today, and I admit I was a little concerned. The river is flowing twenty times normal, at 6,000 cubic feet per second, and the current quickly swept them downstream and out of sight. I worried that the baby wouldn't be able to fight the current back to their home pond.

I'm happy to report that when I returned from my walk 90 minutes later that the swans were back in the pond and the baby was with them.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Spring Arrivals Continue: Western Wood-Pewee on the Tuolumne River

The parade continues. The pattern is the same: a few days will pass, and I won't see any new birds on the Tuolumne River, and I'll start thinking that I've missed some of my favorites. Then I'll turn a corner on the Tuolumne Parkway Trail, and there will be another spring arrival. On Thursday, the new kid on the block was a Western Wood-Pewee (Contopus sordidulus). It simply landed on a branch about twenty feet in front of me, and we stared at each other for maybe two minutes, and then it took off. I've seen them here in previous years, as early as the first of May. I think they may be passing through because I haven't seen any during the summers, but in the fall they returned again for a few weeks on their way south to Central America.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Hey, That's Avian Harassment! When the Little Guys Get to Win

 Allow me a few moments to relate a story...

Those who've known me in my latter fatter days will have a hard time believing that I was once half the man I am today. I mean that literally; I was 6'2" and weighed 130 pounds. That meant that I was better adapted to competing on the cross-country team as opposed to, say, football. We did okay in those days, but the real winners among our high school teams were the water polo players. Big, heavy, but buoyant, those guys fought dirty underwater and made mincemeat of the other teams in the conference.

Somewhere along the way, someone suggested a tackle football game between the monstrous water polo players and the skinny, mostly short cross-country runners. To say we looked overmatched was an under(water)statement. But come the end of the season (when injuries wouldn't be as consequential) the game was on. If you consider that I was the main lineman and tackle, you can guess at the effectiveness of both defense and offense. It was going to be a bloodbath.

But it wasn't.

We were small, nimble, and fast. When they tried a run up the middle, we mostly got knocked over, but we got up and swarmed the ball carrier. They scored a few touchdowns. When we had the ball, we linemen got knocked over every time, but the quarterback could run fast, and so could the receivers. When the game was over, we prevailed. The little guys were victorious for once!

I remembered that game from so many years ago because of two pictures I took this week. They're grainy and out of focus, but they show hawks being harassed by much smaller birds. In the first picture, a Western Kingbird (Tyrannus verticalis) is chasing and attacking a Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) above the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail in Waterford. The other shows a Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) attacking a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensus) on the campus of CSU Stanislaus. The action is called mobbing, and the smaller birds are defending their nests from predation, or protecting their territory. The small agile birds are generally not in a great deal of danger because of their speed and mobility, not unlike a bunch of small thin cross-country runners playing football against big heavy water polo players.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Ugly-cute, or Cute-ugly? Another Kind of Spring Arrival at CSU Stanislaus

I can't decide if they are cute-ugly, or ugly-cute. In any case, these little technicolor chicks were hanging around Warrior Lake at the campus of CSU Stanislaus. They are among the other "spring arrivals" that I've been blogging about for several weeks now. Only they aren't tropical migrants, they are simply newborn chicks of some of the resident species.
I admit that if Mama hadn't been hanging out nearby, I never would have guessed the species of these little ones. The colors certainly give no hint, but their gangly legs sort of do. Do know their identity?

Ah, there's Ma. They're American Coots (Fulica Americana). Who knew they could be so colorful?

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Sometimes They Come to You: Black-headed my backyard.

I've been documenting the arrival of some incredibly beautiful tropical migrant birds in our region, species like Hooded Orioles, Bullock's Orioles, Blue Grosbeaks, and Lazuli Buntings. I've had to do a lot of walking along the Tuolumne River in order to see some of them. But one of the last of the special birds on my "list" (the species I really wanted to see again) surprised me but good; it came to me.

Two days ago I made a cursory glance towards the sunflower seed feeder on the back porch. It's usually populated by House Sparrows and House Finches, and occasionally by a California Scrub Jay. But that morning I did a double-take. It was a female Black-headed Grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus) grabbing a morning snack.

The Black-headed Grosbeak migrates out of Mexico and spreads throughout the western United States, and just over the border into British Columbia. I've seen them a fair number of times on the Tuolumne River over the last few years, and I saw one last week up in Yosemite Valley, but they've been scarce so far this year. It was nice to have one come to me for once

If the pictures seem to have a dark streak running across the image, it's because I was taking the pictures through some Venetian blinds.

The picture below is a male Grosbeak that I saw in Yosemite Valley last weekend.

And Another Surprise: A Lazuli Bunting, one of the Prettiest of Birds

It has been an extraordinary week. We are halfway through the spring season, and I've seen plenty of my favorite tropical spring migrants, especially the Hooded Oriole, the Bullock's Oriole, the Rufous Hummingbird, the Yellow-headed Blackbird, and the Western Tanager.  But as of a week ago I had not yet observed my "holy grails" of the spring: the Blue Grosbeak, the Black-headed Grosbeak, and the Lazuli Bunting (Passerini amoena). As of today, I have!

The story of the Black-headed Grosbeak is coming in a future post, and the Blue Grosbeak was the subject of yesterday's post, but it's today that surprised the heck out of me. I was changing up my walking location by exploring the Ceres River Bluffs Regional Park. The park is primarily a soccer field complex, located on the high terrace above the Tuolumne River. But tucked away at the northern end of the park, down on the old floodplain, is an abandoned walnut grove and a drainage pond that may have once been a quarry. The floodplain is reverting to its original riparian environment, and native birds have been returning to the floodplain. One birder has reported Lazuli Buntings at the park once or twice a year since 2009, but few others have seen any there. But...the sole report for this year was on May 5. If I had any chance at all of seeing one, the day after a previous sighting seems a reasonable bet.
I saw a pair of Lazuli Buntings during the summer of 2018 on the Tuolumne Parkway Trail, but only at an extreme distance, and my pictures served only to identify the birds and nothing more. This afternoon I was walking on the north shore of the pond and I saw a flash of blue. I zoomed in and much to my delight, it was a male Lazuli Bunting, and it was only 30-40 yards away. I started snapping pictures, and after a moment I realized there were two birds, one a lot more drab in color. It was a female!

It may be a function of the rarity of sightings, and I realize that beauty is a highly subjective thing in any case, but this is one pretty bird. It's no surprise that Sibley selected it as the cover bird for his authoritative guide to birds of the American West.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Surprise After Surprise: Blue Grosbeak on the Tuolumne River

It's one of rarest and most precious of my local bird sightings: A Blue Grosbeak (Passerina caerulea). Until yesterday I had only seen three of them, all in one place, Ceres River Bluff Regional Park, over a period of just three days last summer. And someone else actually found the birds; I was following field directions just for the chance to see them. And that's it. Until yesterday, only two individuals had been sighted in Stanislaus County this entire year.

It's not hard to understand why. My county (Stanislaus) is relatively close the northern boundary of their normal range (although warming climate seems to be allowing them to expand their territory northward). The bird is a tropical migrant, so they are only around during the spring and summer.

So yesterday was the Global Big Day, where about 30,000 birders searched out and identified about two-thirds of all the bird species in the world (in case you wonder, that's around 6,700 out of 10,500 known species). I was out doing my part; Mrs. Geotripper and I set out into the prairies north and east of our town and identified birds at seven different locations (that's what we do for "recreation"). We found 47 species in total, but the biggest surprise was close to the end of the day. We were at the Robert's Ferry Bridge on the Tuolumne River in the Sierra Nevada foothills. We were checking on the Osprey and Great Horned Owl nests that we had seen several months back (Ospreys were there, the owl was not), when I saw a Bobcat wandering the bank of the river. I got one shot (below), and calmed down for a moment (I've only seen them in the wild three times). I then started counting birds again when a blue and chestnut colored bird flew through my field of view. The colors said "Western Bluebird", but I wanted to confirm, so I zoomed in on the bush, and my jaw dropped. It was a Blue Grosbeak!

The bird seemed to be having an argument with a Western Kingbird, and I got a shot of the two of them together. After a few moments it flew off westward (hopefully about 8 miles, so I can see it along the Tuolumne River Trail too).

Those were the two biggest surprises of a day that was filled with some neat surprises. It was a lot of fun contributing to citizen science efforts like the Global Big Day. The additional vigilance added to the number of Blue Grosbeak sightings. There are now 5 or 6 known individuals in the county.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

The Spring Migrants Continue to Arrive on the Tuolumne River: Ash-throated Flycatcher

I'm a little late on posting about one of our recently arrived migrants, seeing as how I first saw them on the Tuolumne Parkway Trail two weeks ago, but it has taken time to successfully photograph any of them. Today's migrant is the Ash-throated Flycatcher (Myiarchus cinerascens).
 The Ash-throated Flycatcher is a denizen of the desert, rarely drinking water. They get their needed water from the bugs and spiders that they eat. They winter in Mexico and Central America and fly north to the western states as far north as Washington to breed. They're cavity nesters, utilizing the holes punched out by woodpeckers.