Monday, December 28, 2020

Harbinger of Climate Change? The Vermilion Flycatchers of Stanislaus and Merced Counties

According to the eBird records, the first sighting of a Vermilion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus) in Merced County was in 2003, and the first in Stanislaus County was in 2012 (the official records may be different). They certainly aren't common. It appears only two individuals have ever visited Stanislaus. But the numbers in Merced are intriguing. Prior to 2020 the sightings have been of a single birds that caused quite a stir among the local birders. They were outliers in other words, accidental wanderers. But this year it appears that there may be as many as seven individual birds in the county: three at Lake Yosemite, and at least three but maybe four at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. Some are immature, suggesting that some local pairs may be breeding.
We saw our first female ever in late November at Merced NWR. It was on the west side of the auto route, and was a surprise to us because most of the sightings have been on the southeast part of the refuge. And it was perched right along the side of the road, hardly 20 feet from our car. The female  lacks the brilliant vermilion coloration, which can make it easy to miss. We didn't expect to see it again when we were there today, but there it was, almost in the same spot! It's more than a mile from where others have reported a mature male and female, and an immature male. I looked and looked but wasn't lucky enough to see the others.
The sole Vermilion Flycatcher in Stanislaus County is nothing if not consistent. He has occupied the same fence and shoreline along Dawson Lake (a small irrigation reservoir in the east part of the county) since late 2017, leaving during the summer months, but returning like clockwork in the fall. We saw him on December 16. The lake is on private property, so most pictures of this bird are from a great distance, as you can see below.
I cannot claim any specific knowledge as to why more of these birds have been sighted in the region lately, but it is a known fact that the climate is warming, and a great many species have been shifting to the north in response. The Vermilion Flycatcher is a subtropical species, being common in Mexico and Central America. Other subtropical species have become more abundant in the region, including the Blue Grosbeak and the Phainopepla. This is exciting for us local birders, but can be bad news for the species and the ecosystems they inhabit. Species move in response to availability of food sources and can cause disruptions in their new homes. The increasingly common Great-tailed Grackles for instance are aggressive feeders and have displaced other native species. In a warming world, there will be winners and losers, but mostly losers. Introducing aggressive new species into formerly stable habitats is rarely going to have a positive outcome.

Source: Vermilion Flycatcher Range Map, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
The Vermilion Flycatchers don't seem to be in the category of aggressive invasive species, at least not in the low numbers that have right now. As such, they are a wonderful and colorful surprise to see in our local region.

Postscript: Make that eight Vermilion Flycatchers in Merced County. Ralph Baker saw one at the San Luis NWR on November 1!

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Up Close and Personal with a Loggerhead Shrike

The Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) is an interesting bird. It is most closely related to songbirds, but in life is more like a small raptor, consuming a diet of large insects, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and even some smaller bird species. They prefer open grasslands with occasional trees or fences to perch and hunt from. I have yet to see one along the Tuolumne River Trail, but we see them fairly often at our local wildlife refuges. I've photographed them many times, but never quite this close.
We were on the Waterfowl Auto-tour at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge south of Turlock yesterday, avoiding all manner of human contact, but seeing lots of birds. The Shrike is often one of the first we encounter, with the fencing of the Tule Elk compound being a favored spot for the bird. Yesterday was no exception, but unlike past experiences this one didn't retreat when we stopped and rolled down the windows. These are the closest pictures I've ever achieved.


Friday, December 4, 2020

The Burrowing Owls Finally Make an Appearance!

As we get towards the end of the year, I start to review the lists and try and figure out which birds I love, but have not yet seen. Two weeks ago, the Phainopeplas arrived on the Tuolumne River Trail and I was finally able to check them off the list, and the next most favorite bird moved to #1: the Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia).
I was distressed about not seeing a single Burrowing Owl all year. I've been concerned about their welfare in our area because they are denizens of the prairie, and the prairies in our region are being dug up and planted with almond orchards, some 40,000 acres in our county in the last decade or so. We've made a number of trips through the seasons on Crabtree and Willms Roads in the Mother Lode foothills between the Tuolumne and Stanislaus Rivers. We've seen lots of interesting birds, but not a single owl was to be found anywhere.

The little owls sometimes dig their own burrows, but most of the time they take over the abandoned burrows of other creatures like badgers or ground squirrels. They hunt and consume a huge variety of small mammals, reptiles, and large insects, and hunt day and night. Almond orchards don't really provide that kind of habitat or food resource, so the birds get pushed east into the foothills.

So here it is, early December, and no Burrowing Owls anywhere. I had a few extra minutes this afternoon (it's been a loooong semester), so I drove out Crabtree Road, and finally saw two of them! They were several hundred yards away, and I don't know how I ever spied them. I was pleased, but there were no possibilities for pictures. I headed back home, and saw a bird ahead on the fence by the road, but it flew into a depression and disappeared. I slowed a bit and I saw it land on the fence behind me.. I rolled to a slow stop and very slowly opened the car door to get out and try for some pictures. Much to my surprise, the owl cooperated! Enjoy!


Saturday, November 28, 2020

Another Fine Day for Phainopeplas!

It often seems to happen this way. I don't post for a long time, then I finally do, and like the next day I get far better pictures than the ones that I posted earlier. And that's what happened. On two different days this week, I had some beautiful moments with the Phainopeplas (Phainopepla nitens) that have temporarily taken up residence on the elderberry bushes along the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail. I got decent pictures of a male (the black one), and the female (gray).
The Phainopeplas are really a desert species, most at home in the arid regions of the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico, especially Baja California. They have been seen more and more in California's Great Valley, presumably as drier and warmer climates begin to prevail as the average temperature of the Earth continues to rise. They are now breeding in the valley as far north as Redding.
Phainopeplas are in the family of the silky-flycatchers, but they are not closely related to other flycatchers found in the United States. According to Ebird, they are most closely related to the Cedar Waxwings.


Saturday, November 14, 2020

Finally a Few Phainopeplas on the Tuolumne River Parkway!

I really miss blogging. I miss the freedom and creativity that comes with writing these posts, but the COVID pandemic has affected my output in the worst way, for the sole reason that I have been spending all my time preparing classes for our online teaching environment. There is creativity sometimes involved with it, but not in a fun way.
In any case, they finally arrived! I have a lot of favorite bird species, and I see some of them every day, but some stand out because of their relative rarity or spectacular plumage: the Orioles, Grosbeaks, and Buntings come to mind. But for whatever reason, the birds I really look forward to sighting for the first time each year are the Phainopeplas (Phainopepla nitens). And they were a long time coming this year. In 2020, I saw the first Phainopepla on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail only three or four days ago. The first gave me fits, because the only picture I achieved that first day was the one above. Can you even see it?
I had better luck the next day, catching a male (the black ones) out in the open. I had trouble figuring out just how many there were, either two or three, including a female.
Today was the best, as a female broke away from the Elderberry thicket and landed on a Russian Olive only a few yards from me. The only difficulty was the blowing wind. The bird stuck around for at least five minutes in perfect range for photos, but was a moving target the whole time.
The Phainopeplas are actually a desert species more likely to be seen in the Southwest states. Apparently they have been expanding more to the north, perhaps related to the changing climate. In any case, a day with Phainopeplas in it is always a fine day!

Saturday, October 3, 2020

The Tale of Really Lost Bird: A Tropical Kingbird (probably) on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail

There was this bird this morning. It was way out of place, but for more reasons than I realized at the time. I'm really familiar with our summertime visitors from Central America, the Western Kingbirds (Tyrannus verticalis). They love our local prairies and I see them all the time by the dozens when I drive around. But they are a migrant and they spend winters down in Mexico and Central America. So imagine my surprise when on the 3rd of October I see a familiar yellow and gray bird on the powerline munching on a dragonfly. I knew it was the wrong time of year, so I pulled out the camera to get some documenting shots for my eBird post.

But as I was snapping the  photos, I  realized something was missing. Western Kingbirds usually have a white strip on the flanks of their tail feathers, and this bird didn't have those. So in my intimate knowledge of the local bird possibilities (rolling of eyes allowed here), I thought of a Cassin's Kingbird (Tyrannus vociferans). This would be kind of exciting because although they've been found in other parts of the county (even the MJC campus), they've never been sighted on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail. So I took more pictures looking for the white-tipped tail feathers that identify the Cassin's. 

They weren't there. So that was kind of quandary, but I have learned that late in the season the birds feathers can become worn with use and the white coloration might not be visible. I reported the sighting on eBird as an out-of-season Western Kingbird and sent the pictures to a few birders for advice, and moved on to other things. It bothered me though that I couldn't nail down the identification.

A few hours later I get an email telling me that I had photographed what is most likely a Tropical Kingbird (Tyrannus melancholicus). This is even more exciting because not only has it never been seen on the Tuolumne River, it's never been seen in the entire county! This is a bird that is native to South and Central America, Mexico, the southernmost tip of Texas, and the southeastern corner of Arizona. Vagrants wander into California every year, but they stay almost entirely along the coastal zone. 

I've been wondering where this bird came from, and it occurs to me that this could be one of the sad effects of the California wildfires. I can imagine birds being driven from their habitats by these terrible and extensive fires, looking for food and water. That's my hypothesis, in any case. 

The only reason it isn't absolutely, positively a Tropical Kingbird is because there is a practically identical bird called the Couch's Kingbird, which has been seen in the state of California only about three times. The only real way to tell them apart is by hearing their song, which is very high-pitched, meaning I couldn't have heard it even if it was singing. Understandably there will be a group of birders on the trail tomorrow hoping for a sight (and a listen). I hope it's still there!

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Two of the Blue Favorites in One Day! A Lazuli Bunting and a Blue Grosbeak on the Tuolumne River

Ever since spring, and really for two years now I've been waiting to catch sight of a Lazuli Bunting (Passerina amoena) on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail that I walk most days. I saw a plain-colored female a few months back, but I never saw a male in all of 2019.

It's nice to have good friends in any case, but it's great to have friends who also love birds and live in a place where they can clue you in to new sightings. Jeanne lives near the trail, and has had a bunch of birds singing in her trees of late, and she sighted the Lazuli Bunting AND a Blue Grosbeak (Passerina caerulea). These quite literally the holy grails of my trail travels (well, okay, along with Hooded Orioles, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Phainopeplas, and a few others). But I don't think I've seen both of the blues on the same day before. I went over and we found the Bunting and heard the Grosbeak, but none was being photogenic.
I tried again this morning, and the first bird I saw was the Blue Grosbeak in an oak north of the trailhead parking lot. It was too far for good pictures, but I can't complain because just moments later I saw a small bird perched in the sun, and there it was. The first opportunity for a good photo of a Lazuli Bunting on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail (well, trailhead anyway).
I was actually beginning to feel like there hadn't been much happening for a couple of weeks on my birdhunts, seeing the "common" species for the most part, and not much that was new. I've been cured of that in the last few days.

The bunting stayed put long enough to provide us with a little concert (if you turn up the sound). It's a pretty song.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

My Favorite "Summer" Visitor: Hooded Orioles on the Tuolumne River

There are not a lot of places to see Hooded Orioles (Icterus cucullatus) in our county in the Great Valley of California. We are pretty close to the northern edge of their range in the United States, although they are being seen farther and farther north as the climate warms.
I followed the advice of local birders and searched the palm trees at Fox Grove a few miles downstream to find them for the first time. Not long after I discovered that some were nesting in palms along the Tuolumne Parkway Trail, a fact that thrilled me to no end.
This year offered a big surprise, as a pair seemed to have not migrated to Mexico last winter, and stayed in the palms along the river. For a time they were the only Hooded Orioles reported in the entire Great Valley, and one of only four in the entire state of California. They've continued to hang out this summer, so this is a compilation of pictures I've managed to capture over the last few months during my daily walks. The more plainly colored individual is a female.
They are one of my favorite birds, as you might guess!

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Ohmigosh It's Happened! A Blue Grosbeak on the Tuolumne River Trail!

Sometimes there are just eerie little things about birdwatching. I'd think it was almost supernatural, but I think it has more to do with subconscious observations that rise to the conscious level. It's this: sometimes I'll think about a bird, and it will appear. I know the other day it happened because I heard the bird's song. I have a lot of trouble with hearing certain pitches so I am not able to depend on songs as a way to find and identify birds (it helps a lot to have Mrs. Geotripper along; she hears them, I see them!). So I heard a distinctive song in the thickets and I compared it to the song for a Black-headed Grosbeak on my phone, and the bird suddenly appeared, wanting to know what bird had invaded its territory.

The other time it was about playing the odds. It's spring, and flycatcher species are arriving in the region, so I'm paying more attention to the particular trees and branches where I've seen them in years past, and thus I discovered an Olive-sided Flycatcher on the trail a day or two ago.

But today was strange because I've never seen a Blue Grosbeak (Passerina caerulea) on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail. Not once in the four years that I've been watching for them. I've seen them eight miles upstream at Robert's Ferry, and I've seen them ten miles downstream, but no closer than that. It stands to reason that they would come through the area, but I've just not had the ability to pick them out up until now.
So I was walking the trail this morning. It was pleasantly cool and the air was fresh and clean following yesterday's storm. I saw a bunch of interesting birds that I don't see all that often, including a Hooded Oriole, a White-breasted Nuthatch, and a Green Heron. I was getting to the end of the trail, and I stopped and thought to myself that I still haven't seen the wily Blue Grosbeak. And there it was! It was just 30-40 feet away, and it held still long enough for a couple of decent shots. I have a feeling that I saw it out of the corner of my eye, saw the blueness, and thus began thinking about grosbeaks. Or maybe it was just ESP....

The Blue Grosbeak is a tropical migrant that spends winters in Central America and Mexico. They come north to breed, and our valley is near the northern edge of their range (although their range is expanding). It is one of the prettiest birds I've ever come across, and it was such a thrill to finally see one in my "backyard".

Friday, May 15, 2020

An Oddity at Old Basso Bridge: A Possible Melanistic Ash-throated Flycatcher

Sometimes one sees the strangest things out there. I was busy social distancing with Mrs. Geotripper up the Tuolumne River a few miles where a hundred-year-old bridge was replaced by a modern span back in the 1980s. Old Basso Bridge remains at its original location, but only pedestrians are allowed to cross it. The bridge is a good spot for birding, being a high observation deck for spotting avian creatures in the adjacent underbrush and trees. We are especially drawn there in the spring because Ospreys have adopted the bridge as a nesting locality and because it is a fairly dependable place to spy Phainopeplas.

I saw a dark shape in the Russian Olive thicket, and thought I had found a Phainopepla, but noticed  that it had no crest or red eye. The problem is that I didn't know what it was. The more I studied the pictures, the more I realized it looked in all but color like an Ash-throated Flycatcher (Myiarchus cinerascens). I searched the internet, and played with photoshop to see if I could turn it into a normal flycatcher, but had to give up. I made inquiries on the Flycatchers of North America and Birding California groups on Facebook, and most of the speculation coalesced around it being a melanistic Ash-throated Flycatcher.

Melanism is a genetic mutation that results in additional pigmentation in the feathers. It happens in a number of different birds and has been documented in several species of flycatchers. I couldn't find anything about melanistic Ash-throated Flycatchers, so unless there is some more documentation from those who know more about birds than me, I will leave this as a hypothesis. But an intriguing one.
I went out two days later to see if I could find the bird again and was unsuccessful, but I did find one or two normally pigmented Ash-throated Flycatchers, which I've added here for comparison's sake.

This has been a strange year for me and strange-colored flycatcher species. Last October I discovered a leucistic Black Phoebe at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge (leucism is a mutation causing a lack of sufficient pigmentation leading to light coloration). I've seen both ends of the gray spectrum!
Leucistic Black Phoebe at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge in the Central Valley of California, 10/18/19.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Is There a New Mute Swan Family or Not?

There is a mildly silly meme going around on Facebook about how many ducks are in the picture. Back in the real world, I've been watching the Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail for weeks now. The pair have produced a family for each of the last three years, and I've been watching their progress this year. A month or two ago they chased off their progeny from 2019, and the female disappeared for many weeks, no doubt watching her nest. The male spent most of his time chasing and harassing the Canada Geese who also inhabit the pond.

Then two days ago, the female reappeared, but I couldn't make out any young cygnets. It was the same when I saw the pair again today, but I took a picture anyway. Later I looked at the picture again, and now I ask, "Is there a new Mute Swan family this year or not?"

As far as the silly duck meme is concerned, it's sixteen. Really.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Baby Killdeer on the Tuolumne River Trail

 A first for me: a baby Killdeer (Charadrius vociferous). I was watching for the Killdeer eggs to hatch last year at our Outdoor Nature Lab at the Great Valley Museum, but I was out of town when they were born, and they were gone by the time I got back. I've been watching a nesting Killdeer along the trail for the last few weeks, but those babies haven't hatched yet. But tonight I was walking near the eastern end of the water treatment plant when I saw a couple of shorebirds in the distance. One was big, and the other wasn't. I focused in and realized it was a young Killdeer following its parent. There's no telling precisely how old it is. They are able to walk as soon as their feathers dry after hatching.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

One of the Hidden Ones: A Hermit Thrush on the Tuolumne River

I'm often reminded on my walks through the river woodlands just how many birds and other animals  I don't see. I know good and well that there are myriads of creatures watching me, but I almost never see them back. The reminder in this instance came when I saw a Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) for only the second time on the trail (the first time was way back in 2015). And as is usual for me, I only barely realized what it was.

There is a particularly lush green section of the trail with overhanging oak and fig trees, and lots of underbrush. If I see any birds at all among all the shrubs, they tend to be California Towhees, which are kind of a drab brown with a reddish rump. So I wasn't too excited when I saw the drab brown bird, but something seemed a little different about it so I snapped some pictures and waited for to turn around. When it did I realized it was actually a Hermit Thrush (the spots gave it away). It's a pretty bird with a nice song. I would love to see them more often!

Sunday, May 3, 2020

A Lazuli Bunting on the Tuolumne Trail! Only it's not lazuli....

There are just a few birds that are the "Holy Grails" of my birding adventures. They are those birds that are both rare and incredibly beautiful that when I set eyes on one I catch my breath in the most literal sense. And then there is the fumbling about trying to focus enough to catch some record before the bird flies off. And today I saw one of them! It was a Lazuli Bunting (Passerina amoena), a bird so beautiful that it graces the cover of one of the most popular birding books.

But did my breath catch in my throat? Did I fumble around with the camera with excitement? Well, no, none of those things happened. In fact I didn't know that I had found a Lazuli Bunting. All I knew was that there was another "sparrow" on the grassy slope above me on the Tuolumne River Trail, and it looked a bit odd, and not like any sparrows that I'm familiar with. So I decided to snap a couple of pictures with the intention of figuring out which sparrow it was.

It wasn't until a few hours later when I downloaded the photos that I realized this wasn't a sparrow at all. You'd think I'd learn from earlier experiences, but no, I'm not like that. This was the more plainly-colored female Lazuli Bunting. I've seen them once or twice, but not enough to remember their appearance. But I got the ID, I got some nice sharp pictures, and I was happy and content.

Of course when I get on the trail tomorrow you know I'll be looking for that female's companion. I've included one of the few nice shots I've ever captured of the male below, so you can see why I love these little gems. It was taken almost exactly a year ago at Ceres River Bluffs Wilderness Park a few miles downstream on the Tuolumne River.