Monday, October 28, 2019

An Oxymoron and a Rare Bird: A White Black Phoebe at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

This was an extraordinary day. It's not all that often that you get to see a bird rare enough that you probably won't see it again in your life. But that's what happened. We were having another look at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge to check and see what new winter migrants have arrived. As we were getting ready to start the auto-tour loop, I saw a white bird in the bushes near the entrance sign.

Unless they are Snow Geese or Pelicans, white birds are kind of unusual in our area. It's not hard to figure out why...they can't hide from predators very well, seeing as how we never have snow. What made this bird even more unusual was that it was just the right size to be a flycatcher, and it was behaving just like a flycatcher, perching and then flying out for bugs and then returning to the perch. But flycatchers aren't white, especially the flycatcher known as the Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans). The picture below shows the normal appearance of a Black Phoebe.
I could barely understand what I was seeing, given that I am still a bit new at the bird-watching business. But when I got the angle in the picture below, I was strongly suspecting that I had found a leucistic Black Phoebe, even though I had never heard of such a thing in the past. I tried googling right then in the field the term for a white color in birds but mistook leucocratic instead of leucistic, and kept getting references to granitic rocks instead of anything having to do with birds (I figured it out later at home).
Leucism is different than albinosim. Albino animals lack melanin, a natural pigment that provides dark color. They are generally pure white, and their eyes will be pink (click here for an example of an albino California Scrub Jay). Leucistic birds have melanin, but they are inefficient at using it in their feathers, so they may show some color, as seen in the Black Phoebe I saw today.

I could find only a few references to leucistic Black Phoebes so I suspect that unless I see this particular individual on our future trips to the Merced NWR, I'll probably never see one again. They seem to be pretty rare. But "White Black Phoebe" makes for a great example of an oxymoron.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Say's Phoebe at Modesto Junior College

The college campus where I work is not the best environment to watch birds, but it's certainly not the worst. There is a sheep pasture with a heavily vegetated drainage pond, some open fields grazed by cows and horses, and lots and lots of diverse species of mature trees, both native and non-native. Overall the number of species I've seen there is about half what I've seen along the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail where I do most of my searches.

But there are still some neat species to be seen. One of the pretty little birds I occasionally run across on campus are Say's Phoebes (Sayornis saya). Say's Phoebes are members of the flycatcher family, and their behavior fits their name. They'll perch on a branch, sally forth when they see a bug, and return to their perch. I saw this one while walking between classes yesterday.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Been on a Snipe Hunt Lately? Wilson's Snipe at Merced National Wildlife Refuge

One of the more enduring pranks throughout the history of scouts and summer camps was the Snipe Hunt. The gullible victims were convinced that they could capture the elusive snipes in paper bags, and the snipe was described as all manner of strange birds, squirrels, rabbits and so on. We victims of the prank are sometimes surprised to find out that snipes actually do exist, although we are not likely to capture them in the dark in a paper bag on the night of a full moon. The birds are called the Wilson's Snipe (Gallinago delicata). The Wilson's Snipe is a shorebird with an incredibly long beak that gives them the ability to probe deep into the mud seeking worms and larvae.
My own personal snipe hunt last weekend at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge came to a memorable end as the quarry was hiding in plain sight not four feet from my car window. I was paying attention to the Sandhill Cranes and ducks off in the distance, and I happened to look down as I was turning the camera off only to see the bird relaxing in the grass at the edge of the pond. It never felt the need to move around at all while I took pictures.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Welcoming the Sandhill Cranes Back to California: Merced National Wildlife Refuge

It's always bittersweet when I see the last of the tropical migrants in our region. The orioles, the grosbeaks and the warblers head south when the temperatures start to drop a little bit. Life seems a bit less colorful. But that isn't the end of the story of course. It's getting a LOT colder in the far north, and millions upon millions of birds are leaving the tundra where they breed and spend the summer. The destination for a great many of them is the Great Valley of California, where the winters are mild, and food can be found that allows survival until the spring when they can again return north.
These millions of birds include many species of ducks and geese, but one of the most dramatic arrivals is that of the Sandhill Crane (Grus candensis). In the past few weeks thousands of them have arrived. I estimated that more than 1,500 of them were flying above us last week at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. We were back today for another look, and many hundreds were lounging about in the early afternoon.
Although somewhat similar to herons and egrets, there are only two species of crane in the United States, the Sandhill and the Whooping. The Whooping Cranes have been at the edge of extinction, with only 21 individuals in the wild in 1940. Intense conservation efforts have enabled their population to grow to about 600 individuals. The Sandhill Cranes are doing much better, with a population of around 500,000. There are subspecies that are threatened. The Florida population has been decimated by habitat loss and numbers around 5,000 individuals. The Mississippi subspecies is even more endangered, with only 129 individuals in a single refuge. The Cuba subspecies has only 300 individuals.
The Sandhill Cranes have a call that I find soothing (others may disagree). The low-pitched trilling call reminds me of cats purring. The call can be heard over great distances, and flocks overhead may be almost out of sight, and still be heard clearly.
All three of our local refuges are populated with thousands of Sandhill Cranes right now. I've seen them at the now-open Beckwith Viewing Platform at the San Joaquin NWR west of Modesto, the San Luis NWR south of Turlock, and the Merced National Wildlife Refuge where we explored today. If you've never seen these grand birds before, you should check them out!

Saturday, October 12, 2019

A Deceptive Name: White-faced Ibis at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

The deceptiveness is temporal and seasonal. None of the White-faced Ibis individuals I saw today had a white face. The overall color of the bird is black from a distance, but up close and in sunlight, the bird is like a black opal, with a play of multiple colors from the iridescence of the feathers. The white face appears in the breeding season. The birds pick up some reddish tones as well.
We were making our first foray of the fall into the Merced National Wildlife Refuge off of Sandy Mush Road south of Merced. We weren't expecting to see a great many of the fall migrants (the Greater White-fronted Goose, the Snow Goose, the Ross's Goose) who will arrive in a few weeks, but we did see several thousand Sandhill Cranes (look for them in a post soon), and around a hundred of the White-faced Ibis (Plegadis chihi).
The Ibis family is found in warm environments all over the world. There are three species that are commonly found in North America, and there were one or two species in Hawaii until about 1,000 years ago when they went extinct. Only one is found in the American west, the White-faced Ibis. It is clearly related to the Glossy Ibis of the southeastern United States, as they are nearly identical in appearance. Isolation of the populations led to their differences.

I am constantly reminded of how ignorant I was of the incredible diversity of birds in our region. Before I took up birding and discovered the amazing wildlife refuges in our region, I thought the local bird species numbered in the low dozens instead of the hundreds, and that birds like the Ibises, Sandhill Cranes, and Snow Geese were seen on nature documentaries, not in my own backyard. If you live in the Merced-Modesto region, seek out the San Luis, Merced, and San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuges. You'll be shocked at the sheer numbers and diversity of the bird life in our region.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Elusive Quest: Finally, Pictures of a Red-Breasted Nuthatch

What a week! Back from a trip across the Sierra Nevada, I arrived home and made some interesting personal discoveries, including a Red-breasted Sapsucker on the Tuolumne, and the first sightings of Snow Geese and Greater White-fronted Geese on the same day. And then there was this morning...
Some birds are very rare, and I'll never see them at all, and there are some birds that are around, but I just never catch them. The Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) is one of those birds. Prior to this year I had only seen one, a chance sighting in 2018 at Modesto Junior College. Ever since, I've been trying to see another, hoping to get better pictures than the fuzzy ones I got last year. My interest was piqued when local birders starting using the term 'irruption' in discussing the nuthatches. It seems that when major food sources fail in the normal home range of the bird, they will spread into new areas, and some suspected that we were in the midst of one based on a fairly high number of local sightings. So my 'spidey-sense' was on high alert.

I finally spotted one two weeks ago on campus, but I was victimized by a failing zoom lens on my camera (since replaced), and I only got two very poor pictures that served only to prove the identity of the bird. But this morning I was following the movements of some Cedar Waxwings when my eye caught movement in the deodar tree at my side. My new camera was working, and I finally got some reasonably sharp pictures of the beautiful little bird.

The nuthatches gained their name from their habit of jamming nuts into the bark of trees, and breaking loose the edible parts ("hatching" the seed). They also spend their time walking up and down the trucks of trees searching out bugs and spiders. They are found all over the United States and Canada, except by me; I don't find them very often. But on this day I got lucky!

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Two First Fall Arrivals on the Same Day: Snow Goose and Greater White-fronted Goose

One thing about the fall migration of Arctic geese into our region: when they are here, the geese tend to lose their individuality. There are tens of thousands of them, all looking alike. It's a spectacular sight to see tens of thousands of geese taking off all at once with the beating wings sounding like a jet plane. But the individuals don't ever stand out in the massive crowds.
But for a few days in the early fall, there is a moment when the first vanguards of the vast flocks begin to arrive, and for those few short moments, the individual birds, the first pioneers stand out. That was the happy circumstance this morning when I started my walk on the Tuolumne Parkway Trail. There is a big cornfield adjacent to the parking area of the west trailhead, and a week or two ago they harvested the corn and chopped up the stalks. That's goose paradise. The Canada Geese have been hanging out in large numbers and so I wasn't surprised to see nearly a hundred of them this morning. But one of them was white, and that wasn't normal.

I got the camera out and had a closer look. It took only a moment to see the red legs and pink beak that proved the bird was a Snow Goose (Chen caerulescens). I noticed it was holding its wing at an odd angle, making me wonder if it was injured in some way. If that was the case, it's possible this individual isn't a returning migrant, but instead was forced to stay behind last spring. I did notice that when I came by again 90 minutes later, all the birds were gone, so maybe it was able to fly after all.
But while I was scanning the flock I noticed a pair of other birds that didn't fit. They looked like Greater White-fronted Geese (Anser albifrons) at first glance, but they seemed to lack the distinctive coloration on their breasts. I got pictures and checked the books and realized I had found a pair of juvenile Greater White-fronted Geese, who lack the distinctive streaking.
You can come looking for them if you want to see them, but be reassured that in a few short weeks there will be tens of thousands of them arriving as winter approaches. Our local bird refuges will be spectacular!

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

In Praise of the Normal Every Day Birds: Black Phoebe on the Tuolumne River

There are rarer birds, like the Red-breasted Sapsucker I saw a few days ago, or the really rare birds like the Rose-breasted Grosbeak that I found last June. But sometimes it is nice to simply enjoy the stalwarts, the birds that I see almost every time I hike the Tuolumne Parkway Trail.

I saw a few Black Phoebes (Sayornis nigricans) yesterday, but this one gave me pause because it didn't fly away when I pulled the camera out. I don't usually get this close to them. I was pleased with the result because the eyes can often get lost within the black feathers on the head and breast. Today the bird's eye caught the late afternoon sun.

The Black Phoebes are members of the tyrant flycatcher family, and they are fun to watch as they flutter from their perch to catch bugs. Unlike so many other flycatchers, they are not migratory, and instead are resident species all year round.

Monday, October 7, 2019

A New Bird on the Tuolumne Parkway Trail: A Red-Breasted Sapsucker

Every walk is a potential discovery, and you never know when it will happen. I've been walking the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail around four times a week for the three years since it opened, carefully recording the bird species that live there. At the beginning I would never have suspected that the total would exceed 100 species, but to date there have been 125 species recorded. After three years, discoveries of new species are rarer events, but they still happen. There were three new species seen during the summer.
I was walking yesterday evening and the Acorn Woodpeckers and European Starlings were in their normal places on the two dead cottonwood trees near the west end of the trail. The birds often squabble among themselves and chase around the branches, and I almost walked on, but the coloration on one of the birds seemed off. I took out the camera and scanned and saw a woodpecker, but it wasn't the Acorn variety. It was a Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber).
The Red-breasted Sapsucker isn't a totally unexpected sight in the valley. I've seen one at Modesto Junior College, and another at CSU Stanislaus. But there have only been five sightings of the bird in the county so far this year.

The Tuolumne Parkway Trail runs for two miles along the river where it flows from the Sierra Nevada foothills into the Great Valley at Waterford. The trail, with an eighty foot stairway, has become a popular exercise spot for the community, with some fine fishing as well. But it is also a marvelous place for birds!

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Living Life Upside Down: White-breasted Nuthatch on the Merced River

This best picture of the day is courtesy of Mrs. Geotripper
Some birds are a real challenge to photograph, for all kinds of reasons. In the case of the White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis), its a case of a bird in constant motion. Mrs. Geotripper and I were out and about this morning, exploring the lower reaches of the Merced River where it flows into the Great Valley. We stopped at Merced Falls and Henderson Park near Snelling, a section of river that was devastated by gold dredging activity in the first half of the 1900s. Most of the riparian habitat was ripped out in the search for the elusive metal.
Luckily, seventy years has brought about a return of some of the native vegetation, and a few areas along the river could even be called scenic. The birds were a bit scarce, but when we were leaving Henderson Park, I spotted a small whitish bird in the corner of my eye. We stopped and realized there were two White-breasted Nuthatches chasing about in the trees. I took the one on the left, and Mrs. Geotripper sought out the one on the right. She was closer and got the better shot.

I'm amazed how little time these birds spend right side up. They walk up and down tree trunks looking for small insects, and breaking open nuts of various kinds (an action from which they derive their name). The birds are found all over North America, including Mexico and southern Canada. Good luck catching them not moving though!

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Black-crowned Night Herons in the Daytime!

Busy days! I've found precious little time to post pictures in the last few weeks with the start of school and a major field studies trip, but things are slowing down just a little bit, and I've had a few quiet moments. I just took a stroll around the CSU Stanislaus campus before a class this evening.
I saw a few first arrivals of the fall migrants, mainly White-crowned Sparrows and Yellow-rumped Warblers, but the attention-getter of the evening was the pair of Black-crowned Night Herons (Nycticorax nycticorax) hanging out on the bridge over Warrior Lake.
I see them often enough, but it is somewhat rare for them to be so available for photographs. I'm glad they were feeling visible today! They are beautiful birds.