Sunday, June 23, 2019

Notes From the Road: Bald Eagle at the Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve

It's summer as of yesterday, and so of course Geotripper and Mrs. Geotripper are on the road to parts unknown. We'll meet in a few days with our students and explore British Columbia and the Olympic Peninsula along with other fascinating locales. On the one hand, that means a chance to see some new birds, but on the other, blogging is likely to be spotty.

It didn't take us long to see a bird that is only occasionally seen in our region, but is relatively common in the Pacific Northwest: the Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). It was flying above the prairies of the Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve, a fascinating place with an interesting geologic story, soon to appear over at Geotripper.

More bird reports are expected to follow!

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

A Rare Sight Today on the Tuolumne River: A Rose-breasted Grosbeak

You just never know when it will happen. You walk the trail that you've been walking on more or less daily for months, dutifully recording bird species and pretty much seeing the same lineup of birds, and that's just fine because there are some really pretty birds. But once in a great while there is something new, and it comes as such a surprise that it takes your breath away for a moment.

The Grosbeaks are my story this week. I expected to see them arriving along the Tuolumne Parkway Trail more than a month ago, but aside from one quick glance of one through the trees at the river, and one surprising moment on our backyard birdfeeder, I haven't seen any in the area. That changed this morning.

I took a walk earlier this week at the Ceres River Bluffs Regional Park and got some fine shots of a pair of Blue Grosbeaks (post coming soon). Then today, I heard a familiar, yet unfamiliar song that made me think of Robins or Grosbeaks in the tree next to the stairway at the west end of the Tuolumne Parkway Trail where I do most of my walks. I started searching in the branches and finally spied a Black-headed Grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus). I got a couple of shots (see below), and then it flew towards me and on to the oak tree at the southeast corner of the parking lot. And then another grosbeak flew by, and then a third. The third one looked different somehow, and luckily it landed where I could get a few pictures. It turned out to be a Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus)!

I had to look it up to identify it, because it is a bird that is rarely seen in our county. According to the eBird records, it has only been seen in Stanislaus County four times, being last observed in 2014. The normal range for the bird is east of the Great Plains, but there are occasional sightings across California. It's known to sometimes hybridize with Black-headed Grosbeaks, so it's no surprise that I saw the birds together.

I'm including the Black-headed Grosbeak picture I got. There's not much similarity in their color pattern, but the short, thick beak is always distinctive.

What a thrilling and interesting day it turned out to be!

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Nature's Alarm Clock: Red-breasted Sapsucker in the Humboldt Redwoods

It was for all intents and purposes the perfect campsite. It was out on the edge of the campground next to a beautiful meadow at Albee Creek in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. The neighbors were quiet. It had been a serene night and I slept as well as I have in many months. The morning came gently, soft sunlight glistening through the trees.

And then all of the sudden someone was playing drums in the middle of the campground! My pre-conscious state caused me to rise suddenly in indignation as I prepared to confront the rude camper, but once awake I realized we were being greeted by a woodpecker of some sort.

It's a little frustrating to go birding in a deep forest if you are poor of hearing or not well-versed in bird calls, but woodpeckers are in a class by themselves. If they are at work, it doesn't take too long to locate them. I grabbed my camera and I sighted the bird almost immediately. To my great delight it was a Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber) drumming on the hollow shell of a dead redwood tree. I've only seen them a couple of times through the years.
You all know I exaggerate about everything, so I made a video of the woodpecker at work. Turn up the sound!

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

One of the Reclusive Ones: Marsh Wren at the Dean Creek Elk Viewing Area in Oregon

Some birds might be relatively common, but at the same time they can be very reclusive and hard to see. They can be even harder to photograph. I got lucky with one of those kinds of birds last week as we traveled through Oregon. It was a Marsh Wren (Cistothorus palustris). It was only the fourth time I've seen one, and only second time I've gotten pictures. We were stopped at the Dean Creek Elk Viewing Area just inland of Reedsport on the Umpqua River. We actually weren't looking for the elk because we have lots of pictures of elk. The meadow along the river is often a good place to look for birds.
I inadvertently drew the bird out of reeds and into sight. I could hear a bird singing in the thick vegetation but I'm not well-versed in bird calls. I suspected it might be a Marsh Wren, so I pulled out the smart phone to check the call. It played louder than I expected, and suddenly the Marsh Wren jumped out of the reeds wondering who the competition was. Calling birds this way is not really ethical, as it may upset the birds and cause them to use energy that they can't spare.
For more information about Marsh Wrens, I recommend an excellent post by fellow nature blogger Siera Nystrom at the Natural History Journal.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Let's Catch that Bird with the Broken Wing! The Killdeer of the Great Valley Museum Outdoor Nature Lab

It's an omen of sorts, or maybe a blessing by nature.

The Killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) is the mascot or icon of the Great Valley Museum, as can be seen on our various logos. There is a good reason for this: the bird survives quite well in the valley environment, both on the dry prairies and in the river/delta wetlands.

We had a major moment take place this week: after 35 years of proposals and dashed hopes, and after a year of fenced-off construction zones, the fences came down and yesterday people could walk freely along the paths of our new Outdoor Nature Lab. It is a marvelous microcosm of the environment of the Great Valley, with native vegetation and native rock exposures from the prairies at the confluence of the Great Valley and the Sierra Nevada foothills. Interpretive signs will soon be posted, and activities will soon be available for our local children to learn about their local natural environment.
Our local species are already responding to the newly completed environment, and in particular, the Killdeer, our icon. We noticed almost right away that a pair was moving around the grounds, and we suspected there might be a nest. Someone soon found it, but I don't know how they ever saw it.

How good are you at nest-finding? It's in this picture...can you find it?
The eggs will be incubated for 22-28 days, and when they hatch, the chicks will be able to walk as soon as their feathers dry off. Given such a vulnerable location, just sitting out on the ground, one has to wonder how they can survive out there in the open prairie.

It involves deception, of course. If the danger is from a browsing cow or deer, the parents will make a big display to cause the animals to graze in another direction. But if the danger is a predator that might eat the eggs and/or the parents, the birds will do a fascinating "broken-wing" dance that will catch the attention of the fox or raccoon and the birds will lead the animal away from the nest. We were subjected to the dance while we took a short look at the nest. Check out the video of the display below.

What a wonderful welcome to the next stage of our service to nature education in our community!

Monday, June 3, 2019

Deep in the Woods of Del Norte, a Varied Thrush

In the 1960s there was an effort to select a place in the northern coast ranges to become Redwood National Park. Mill Creek, east of Crescent City, was considered, but in the end Redwood Creek to the south became the focus of the new national park, established in 1968. It was the death knell for the old growth Coast Redwoods in Mill Creek. From 1968 to 2002, tens of thousands of acres were logged, and there were only a few hundred acres left. At that time, the stricken drainage was purchased to become a huge addition to Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park. The purpose was to protect the redwood forests downstream in Jedidiah Smith State Park. The land will eventually recover and the redwoods may very well return, but not for many human generations.

Still, there is some fine second-growth forest in the park addition, just not redwoods. That's where we spent two nights last week on our journey to coastal California and Oregon. Mill Creek Campground was a beautiful and quiet place to stay (the first night anyway; there were rude drunks next door the second night).

One thing about birding in a thick forest is that it really requires a good sense of hearing, because the birds are well-hidden in the foliage. And I don't do well with bird calls for a number of reasons. Just the same, we saw some interesting birds, and today's bird was one of them, making a first appearance on this blog: a Varied Thrush (Ixoreus naevius). They are seen back home on occasion, but I haven't been that lucky. I'd previously seen only one before, in a rest area in northern Oregon a few years ago. But as we left the campground, Mrs. Geotripper pointed out the bird and wondered what it was. The colors are distinctive, so I was fumbling with a camera (hers, as it turned out), and finally got a couple of shots before it ran off.
The Varied Thrush is a true denizen of the deep forest. It's also a bird of the west, found mainly in the Coast Ranges of Canada and the Cascades. The loss of the western forests has been detrimental for the thrush. More than 90% of the original redwood forests are gone, and with them, something close to 70-80% of the thrushes are gone as well, at least since 1966. The rehabilitation of the forests will help their populations to recover.