Friday, January 31, 2020

The "Common" Yellowthroat: Not so common for me...

Here's one of the prettiest birds one can see in our region, a Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas). But just how common is it? If my experience is any guide, it is exceedingly rare, as I have seen it just once previously. I've been looking for them ever since with no success, although it is telling that I have stood next to people who could see them, and I couldn't
Mrs. Geotripper and I were out at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge today, the site where I saw it  one previous time way back in 2015. I would love to tell you that I discovered it all by myself in the manner of a talented birder, but actually I saw a pair of birders concentrating on a bush, and asked them what they were looking at.
Luckily the bird was patrolling the same section of bush in a repeating manner, so after a few moments the bird appeared, and then hopped into the grass for a few moments. My heart was melting; I love these birds, even if they are "common".
Later on as we traveled the auto loop, Mrs. Geotripper saw several more, but...I didn't! It's par for the course, but I was elated to finally have some half-decent pictures of these wonderfully colorful birds.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

A Pop Quiz...How Many California Quail in the Picture?

Just a fun little moment on the Tuolumne River the other day. I was walking on an embankment above the river flood plain and heard some kind of bird commotion down below. I couldn't see much of anything until I zoomed in and picked up a California Quail (Callipepla californica) in front of the shrubs. And then I saw, well, a nice example of camouflage in nature. So here's your pop many quail are in this picture??

Monday, January 27, 2020

I Wonder Why They Call Them That? The Ruby-crowned Kinglets of the Tuolumne River

Every so often I have to post some pictures of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula), mostly out of a sense of accomplishment for having captured them at all. They are one of the most active birds I ever encounter on my strolls along the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail.
They range widely across the North America from the southern reaches of Mexico to the extreme north of the Arctic in Canada and Alaska. They winter in our region, and I see several every time I walk. But one thing I don't usually see is...a ruby crown.
It's pretty much the only difference between the males, who have it, and the females who don't. And the males almost always keep it hidden. They have to be excited about something, mainly during the breeding season in spring and summer. So here in winter, I don't see much ruby...
A few days ago, one was really upset with me for one reason or another and was flying circles around me and displaying some color. I took a lot of pictures, and finally got a couple of usable shots.
I don't know if these birds have emotions as such (the Corvids certainly seem to), but this one was rather expressive, an effect highlighted by the white patches around their eyes. Now that I have the ruby crown in pictures, I'll have to work all the harder to catch the crown lifted up.
Now, if I could only figure out why they call its close relative the Golden-crowned Kinglet...

Saturday, January 25, 2020

The Worst Picture of the Loneliest Bird in Stanislaus County

But I got the picture! It's a Vermilion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus) and it is indeed the loneliest bird in Stanislaus County.

How lonely is this bird? He's been at this spot on the north shore of Dawson Lake in eastern Stanislaus County each winter season since at least December of 2017 when he was discovered by Ralph Baker and Xavier Sandoval. He patrols the same barbwire fence flying from one fencepost to another, and when he finishes he repeats the operation. No other Vermilion Flycatcher has been seen in the county since 2012.
November of 2019

I've been lucky enough to see this bird on four previous occasions, and this was of course possible because of the bird's habitual patrols along the same fence line. I have achieved better imaging results, but only marginally (see above). To give you a sense of how challenging photographing the bird can be, know that the picture below is the bird's fence at about a 10X magnification. The bird is actually in the picture...can you see it?

The bird is not totally lonely, if birds feel such emotions. I've seen it twice now only one fence post away from some Black Phoebes, who are also members of the flycatcher family. If the bird lives long enough (the oldest ever recorded was just over four years old), it may finally have company of its own species. It is a tropical bird, adapted to warmer climates. As average temperatures continue to rise from global warming, the edge of their range will continue to creep northward, and more of the birds will find conditions in the region to their liking. There are at least three Vermilion Flycatchers in Merced County just south of us, and at least one of them is a female. Others individuals may remain yet undiscovered.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

One of Nature's Most Awesome Displays, and only 10 Miles from my College

I find it staggering sometimes that I lived in the Modesto area for more than two decades before I discovered that one of the most awesome displays of nature was taking place only a short distance away. I've watched plenty of nature documentaries about the vast bird flocks of the Serengeti Plains of Africa, and dreamed of seeing such incredible sights for myself, all the while not realizing that a similar drama could be seen only ten miles outside of my town.

The Great Valley of California is a 400 mile long trough of agricultural fields that once were grassy savannahs and wetlands that support millions upon millions of migratory birds. When the region was colonized, the prairies were erased by agricultural fields and orchards, and the refugia for the migratory birds disappeared. Environmentalists and conservationists began to lobby for preserving and rebuilding some of the wetlands resulted in the establishment of a string of wildlife refuges up and down the valley. They amount to 5% or less of the original landscape, and are not really enough to support the huge bird populations, but it is better than what existed a half century ago. Each winter the refuges host hundreds of thousands of geese (Snow, Ross's, Aleutian Cackling, and Greater White-Fronted), as well as Sandhill Cranes, and millions of ducks.

I went out to the Beckwith Road Viewing Platform west of Modesto to have a look tonight at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge. The platform overlooks hundreds of acres of land planted with corn solely meant to feed the geese and cranes. Every evening during the fall and winter, thousands, maybe tens of thousands of geese fly in for the night and gather into a single gigantic flock, a sea of white Snow and Ross's Geese, with an outer ring of Aleutian Cackling Geese. It's best when they are not disturbed so they can conserve their energy, but occasionally something will happen and the entire flock will take flight all at once. That happened while I was watching. I don't know if it was a coyote, or an eagle, but something startled the birds and off they went. It was stunning.

I was taking video, and as the birds began to settle back in, I noticed a single goose, an iconoclast, a loner, who had refused to take off like the others. You can see it at the end of the video. I wonder what it was thinking...

Saturday, January 18, 2020

I Wonder Why They Call Them That? Common Goldeneyes on the Tuolumne River

Yes, it's a mystery for the ages...why do they call them goldeneyes?
In actuality, I rarely get the chance to investigate the answer to the question because Common Goldeneyes (Bucephala clangula) are among the most skittish birds I encounter on the Tuolumne River. Over the last three winters there has been a flock of 15-20 of them spending time on the river near the Tuolumne Parkway Trail in Waterford, but they do not like humans very much at all, and probably with good reason: they're a favorite of hunters. I see them fairly often over the winter, but mostly as a sudden flash of wings, or a ripple of water where they have dived out of sight.
I got lucky the other day because I was approaching the pond where these two were hanging out from below an embankment. All they could see of me was a hat, and they didn't spook while I got a couple of images. I think I have solved the mystery of the name!
I caught the rest of the crew on the river where they were foraging. These pictures were on a long zoom because I was much further away. The females have the brown heads and lack the white facial spot. But they both have...golden eyes!

Monday, January 13, 2020

The Birds of Del Puerto Canyon - A Place That Could Soon Be Damned

This portion of the canyon would be inundated by the proposed reservoir.

The Diablo Range is one of the principle "sub-ranges" of the California's Coast Ranges, running more than 100 miles from Highway 46 at Polonio Pass to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. There are only a few major highways that cross the range, principally the Altamont Corridor and Pacheco Pass at San Luis Reservoir. There are a handful of state parks that preserve a portion of the range, mainly Henry Coe and Mt. Diablo, but for the most part the lands are privately owned and are given over mainly to grazing and ranching. Only one paved road provides access to the interior of the range north of Pacheco, and that is the winding route of Del Puerto Canyon.
Loggerhead Shrike

Del Puerto is the only public access to the mountain range in Stanislaus County, and as such is one of very few places where anyone can study the unique bird life (and many other animals) in this intriguing place. But now there are plans afoot to eliminate much of that access, and indeed to severely impact the natural environment. There are plans to build a large dam that will inundate five miles of the extraordinarily scenic canyon.
Savannah Sparrow

The canyon is one of the most important bird habitats in Stanislaus County, offering a significant variety of ecosystems, including riparian wetlands, grassland prairies, oak woodland, and a unique serpentine soil-based gray pine habitat. The eBird archives record more than 160 species of birds in the canyon
These pictures, some better, some worse, record two trips in the last year up into the canyon, when I didn't actually have a lot of time for actual birding. They serve to show the wonderful opportunities the canyon has for learning about the fascinating natural history of our region. The proposed dam would have a profound impact on the environment of the lower canyon.
Bullock's Oriole, a summer migrant in the canyon

Black-headed Grosbeak, another summer migrant

Western Tanager

Say's Phoebe in the lower canyon
Northern Harrier in the proposed dam site

Western Kingbird in the lower canyon

There will be many reasons offered as to why this reservoir is SO necessary, and how there will be SO many benefits. But the question needs to be asked, what is this taking away from all of us?

If you are on Facebook, check out

Read the Environmental Impact Report at this link. If Del Puerto Canyon has significance to you, please respond and be active in the opposition! If you have expertise in any of the areas that will affected, you need to be heard from.

There are several important meetings and deadlines coming up very soon:

1/15 3:30pm Protest. Corner of Ward and Sperry
1/15 4:00pm Public Meeting. Hammon Senior Center 1033 West Las Palmas, Patterson
1/21 6:30pm City Council Meeting. 1 Plaza Circle. - request they take a stand, voice concerns
1/27 5:00pm Public Comments DUE. OR Anthea Hansen PO Box 1596 Patterson CA 95363
1/28 9:00am Board of Supervisors Meeting 1010 10th St Modesto CA - voice concerns, they have final decision

Thursday, January 9, 2020

The Acorn Woodpeckers are Busy on the Tuolumne RIver

The Acorn Woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus) have been very busy this new year. There is a small colony (four or five) of them on the dead cottonwood trees near the west end of the Tuolumne Parkway Trail, and in the new year I've seen them numerous times storing away acorns. The one above had a mouthful!
If I don't see them on a given day, I almost always hear them. Their strange "waka-waka" is one of the more distinctive calls in the riparian forest.

The Acorn Woodpeckers range across the southwest and into Mexico and Central America, living in oak woodlands. They carve out cavities for their nests, but often must compete with invasive European Starlings and other bird species to maintain ownership. It gets noisy at times!

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

From Crummy to So-So: Great Horned Owl on the Tuolumne River

Just a quick follow-up to my last always, if a post pictures of a particular bird species, I invariably get better pictures the next day. In this case, we went from crummy pictures to so-so pictures. The Great Horned Owl was in the same tree, but this time it was better situated, and it was actually looking my way!

Sunday, January 5, 2020

1st Bird of the Year: Great Horned Owl on the Tuolumne River

I'm starting out with the most crummy pictures I'll post all year, but of course there is a story. I was up before sunrise on New Year's Day to find out what the first bird of the year would be. Last year I was surprised that the first bird was a Cooper's Hawk, and this year, the first bird was even more unusual: a Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus). Only I didn't see it, I heard it. As far as bird compilation sites like eBird are concerned, hearing a species counts just as well as a sighting. But not seeing my first bird was a little frustrating, as you might imagine.

Last year, I never saw a single owl on the Tuolumne River Parkway trail. In November I heard a Barn Owl, but never saw it either. A Great Horned Owl tried unsuccessfully to nest in an oak along the trail in 2018. But I hadn't seen any since.

So today, I saw the Great Horned Owl! On only the fifth day of the year. But of course, it wasn't nearby. It was across the river, way up in a tree, and looking the other way. But I got pictures! And that's why these pictures are the worst you'll probably see all year.

Happy birding this year!!

Friday, January 3, 2020

A Bird Year on the Tuolumne River

I've talked many times in my blogs about getting to know the Earth, to see as much of it as one can given the circumstances of one's life (for instance, this blog post on a New Year's Resolution). I do a lot of traveling, and I fully appreciate the gift of that opportunity, but I do have a place that is in my backyard that is that 'special' place, the one that I get to several times a week. It's a short section of the Tuolumne River that flows through Waterford.
The first bird of 2019 near the Tuolumne River

The Tuolumne is one of the most spectacular rivers in North America, with its headwaters in the alpine country of Yosemite National Park. It flows through a gorge as deep as the Grand Canyon, is trapped for a time in Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, and then flows free again for a number of miles before being trapped again in Don Pedro Reservoir. After that, the river flows unimpeded until it joins the San Joaquin River near the Sacramento Delta. The stretch I walk almost daily is a two mile trail (the Tuolumne River Parkway) where the river emerges from the Mother Lode of the Sierra Nevada into the Central Valley.
High water, 2017. At around 15,000 cfs, portions of the trail are underwater.

The river has many moods. Although the flow is controlled by the dams upstream, there are times when the dams have to open their spillways to prevent them being overwhelmed by floodwaters. For much of the year, the flow is artificially kept at around 200-400 cubic feet per second (cfs). During 'normal' years, there will be a few 'surge' flows to help the salmon runs, and the water will reach 2,000-3,000 cfs. But in emergencies, the flows will reach 18,000 cfs or more (the worst ever was 1997 when the flows reached a record 70,000 cfs). At 15,000 cfs, almost the entire floodplain is inundated and portions of the trail end up underwater (see above, from 2017).
The first Bald Eagle to be reported officially on the Parkway Trail
I don't see many mammals on my walks (squirrels of course, and the occasional river otter or fox), but the birds are an ever-changing drama, as you have no doubt noticed if you follow this blog. I have become a familiar sight to the river 'regulars' as the quirky old man who is always looking up and taking pictures of birds. I was astounded to discover the variety of birds who call the river home (or their migration stopover).
Western Tanager, a summer migrant along the river. One our most colorful species.
I have been counting all of the birds I've seen on my excursions. They get reported on e-Bird, which is one of the main citizen science birding organizations. With thousands upon thousands of reports daily, E-bird is able to track the numbers and movements of bird species all over the world, and the data is available online. When you enjoy numbers the way I do, you'll understand how easy it can be to get lost for hours on their website. It might seem overwhelming at first, but e-Bird encourages reports every day, and not just for unusual or exotic species. They also want to know what is happening in backyards and urban parks as well. Over time, we'll be able to see the effects of global warming on bird migration and populations, so the reports, however mundane they might be, are extremely important.
A Hooded Oriole. They nested on the bluffs this year and usually head south in the winter, but two of them remained in late November, the only ones reported in Central California
This was the first year when I have made at least one bird report of each week of the year, and my counts along with those of several other birders have revealed the diversity of bird life on this long abused river environment. In 2019, 116 bird species were reported. That placed the Tuolumne as the sixth most diverse birding "hot spot" in our county, behind only the Modesto Wastewater Treatment Ponds (!), and four sites within the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge (that's for the year; for all time, the river trail is tied for 20th out of more than 100 hot spots in the county).
A Rufous Hummingbird along the river. I saw only a couple this year as they migrated through the region.
Walking along the river, one becomes familiar with many of the individual birds. There are the year-round residents: California Scrub Jays, Northern Mockingbirds, European Starlings, Eurasian Doves, Yellow-billed Magpies, Belted Kingfishers, and Canada Geese. A different group hangs out at the water treatment ponds midway along the trail: Killdeer, Greater Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpipers, Least Sandpipers and Black Phoebes. There are three woodpecker species that can be seen nearly every day, Acorn Woodpeckers, Nuttall's Woodpeckers, and Northern Flickers. A pair of Mute Swans have raised several broods in the quarry lake across from the western trailhead.

A female Phainopepla. The males are entirely black.
Then there are the migrants, those that are resident for only part of the year. The spring and summer brings the colorful tropical birds from Mexico and Central America. They include the Western Tanager, the Black-headed Grosbeak, the Bullock's Oriole, the Hooded Oriole, and the Rufous Hummingbird. I'm a sucker for bright colors, so these are my favorite birds to see. I catch my breath every time I spot one of the them and I'm tense all through March and April waiting for their first arrival (although I had a tremendous shock in November, having two sightings of extremely unseasonable Hooded Orioles). The Phainopepla is another tropical favorite whose range is extending northward, and I've seen them at odd times throughout the year.
A male Bullock's Oriole. Like many birds, the females are less colorful.

The spring also brings the swallows, the Barn Swallow, Tree Swallow, Cliff Swallow, and Northern Rough-winged Swallow. The sky is sometimes filled with hundreds of them.

American White Pelicans occasionally fly over the Tuolumne River
The raptors are always around, including Red-tailed Hawks, Red-shouldered Hawks, Swainson's Hawks, Turkey Vultures (check this link for a 'cute' baby vulture 'smoking' a cigarette), Ospreys, Cooper's Hawks (see photo above), and American Kestrels. I had a single sighting this year of a Northern Harrier, and a Sharp-shinned Hawk.
The shallows of the Tuolumne provide good fishing for the Osprey (also known as the Sea Hawk).
There were the single sightings this year...a flyover of Sandhill Cranes, several kinds of duck passing through, including Ring-necked, and Buffleheads, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, a Red-breasted Sapsucker, and several flycatchers and warblers.
Red-breasted Sapsucker, seen just once this year along the Tuolumne.
What did I miss seeing the most? My most desired sightings are a pair of blue-colored birds: the Lazuli Bunting, and the Blue Grosbeak. I saw a Bunting in 2018, and I saw both birds this year along other parts of the river. But I didn't see any this year on the Parkway Trail. Anyone want to guess what I'll be watching for in a few months?
Lazuli Bunting at Ceres River Bluff Regional Park, downstream of the Parkway Trail

I saw a Blue Grosbeak several times, at the Ceres River Bluff Regional Park downstream from the Parkway Trail, and I was especially surprised to find the bird upstream at Robert's Ferry Bridge. To make the experience even stranger, I saw a bobcat a few moments later. Our region is at the extreme north end of the range of this tropical bird.
Blue Grosbeak at Ceres Bluff Regional Park, downstream of the Tuolumne Parkway Trail
The highlight of the year? I saw a bird seen in Stanislaus County only four times previously: a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. It's a bird whose range is really in the eastern U.S., but a very few wind up in California. I was tracking some Black-headed Grosbeaks, and this individual flew by and landed in a nearby oak long enough for a couple of pictures (which I'm glad I got; I don't think anyone would have believed me without them). It was a thrilling moment for me and the four other birders who made out to Waterford in time to see it.

If you are a glutton for punishment, here is the complete list of all the Tuolumne River's 116 birds seen in 2019 (the all-time list numbers 133 species). If you click on the name, you'll be taken to eBird description of the species. If you want to contribute to the 2020 list, you can find it here: I'm still an amateur at this, and would love the help of sharper-eyed people than myself. Who knows what we can find this year!
1 Canada Goose
2 Mute Swan
3 Wood Duck
4 Common Goldeneye
5 Eurasian Collared-Dove
6 Mourning Dove
7 White-throated Swift
8 Least Sandpiper
9 Greater Yellowlegs
10 California Gull
11 Great Egret
12 Red-tailed Hawk
13 Belted Kingfisher
14 Acorn Woodpecker
15 Nuttall's Woodpecker
16 Northern Flicker
17 American Kestrel
18 Black Phoebe
19 California Scrub-Jay
20 Yellow-billed Magpie
21 Ruby-crowned Kinglet
22 Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
23 European Starling
24 Northern Mockingbird
25 Cedar Waxwing
26 House Finch
27 White-crowned Sparrow
28 Golden-crowned Sparrow
29 Orange-crowned Warbler
30 Yellow-rumped Warbler
31 Ring-necked Duck
32 Wild Turkey
33 Spotted Sandpiper
34 Double-crested Cormorant
35 Great Horned Owl
36 American Crow
37 Lincoln's Sparrow
38 Pied-billed Grebe
39 Rock Pigeon
40 Anna's Hummingbird
41 Bonaparte's Gull
42 Bushtit
43 White-breasted Nuthatch
44 American Robin
45 House Sparrow
46 American Goldfinch
47 Dark-eyed Junco
48 Killdeer
49 Lesser Goldfinch
50 Sharp-shinned Hawk
51 Red-shouldered Hawk
52 Oak Titmouse
53 Downy Woodpecker
54 Northern Pintail
55 California Towhee
56 Spotted Towhee
57 Snowy Egret
58 American Wigeon
59 Cooper's Hawk
60 Hooded Oriole
61 American Coot
62 Western Bluebird
63 Green Heron
64 Northern Shoveler
65 Bufflehead
66 House Wren
67 Turkey Vulture
68 Hermit Thrush
69 Lesser Yellowlegs
70 Northern Harrier
71 Barn Owl
72 Phainopepla
73 Brewer's Blackbird
74 Great Blue Heron
75 American White Pelican
76 Hooded Merganser
77 Greater White-fronted Goose
78 Western Meadowlark
79 Mallard
80 Sandhill Crane
81 California Quail
82 Song Sparrow
83 White-faced Ibis
84 Osprey
85 Red-breasted Sapsucker
86 Western Wood-Pewee
87 Western Tanager
88 Warbling Vireo
89 Black-throated Gray Warbler
90 Wilson's Warbler
91 Barn Swallow
92 Black-chinned Hummingbird
93 Willow Flycatcher
94 Bullock's Oriole
95 Cattle Egret
96 Rufous Hummingbird
97 Cliff Swallow
98 Ash-throated Flycatcher
99 Western Kingbird
100 Black-headed Grosbeak
101 Northern Rough-winged Swallow
102 Tree Swallow
103 Wrentit
104 Swainson's Hawk
105 Forster's Tern
106 Rose-breasted Grosbeak
107 Brown-headed Cowbird
108 Cinnamon Teal
109 Townsend's Warbler
110 Olive-sided Flycatcher
111 Common Merganser
112 Black-necked Stilt
113 Savannah Sparrow
114 Bald Eagle
115 Say's Phoebe
116    Fox Sparrow