Tuesday, February 25, 2020

An Irruption of Red-breasted Nuthatches in Modesto

Well, maybe or maybe not. Irruption is not a terrible geologist misspelling of what volcanoes do, but is instead the rapid migration of a group of birds into an area where they are not commonly seen. They can be caused by many factors, most notably a seed or cone failure in areas where the birds normally range. Several birders in our county (Stanislaus) have noted a relative increase in sightings of Red-breasted Nuthatches (Sitta canadensis), which I can confirm because I actually saw one for myself this week on the campus at Modesto Junior College. Looking at the eBird map of Red-breasted Nuthatch sights this year does show a cluster of sightings in the town of Modesto.

The Red-breasted Nuthatches are pretty little birds, and I am thrilled every time I'm privileged to see one. They are found all over the United States and Canada, but they tend to prefer conifer forests of the north, and large-scale irruptions may involve many thousands of the birds invading the southern states. Ours probably are originating in the Sierra Nevada, and I suspect that when they invade our valley habitat, they are expressing a preference for the conifers that are often used for landscaping in our city environments.

In any case, this is the second time I've seen this individual in a week, high up in a pine tree next to the sheep enclosure on our west campus. Today was the first time I was able to catch a clear shot.

Friday, February 21, 2020

It's Back! Or it Never Left...Hooded Oriole on the Tuolumne River

Hooded Orioles (Icterus cucullatus) are beautiful birds that winter in the tropics and visit our region for the spring and summer, adding a bright splash of color to our river environment. There is a set of palm trees where they nested for at least the last two years, and I was delighted every time I spied one of them during my walks.

So it was that last December 4, and again on December 11 I saw a male and female in the palm trees, at a time when only three Hooded Orioles were known to be anywhere in the entire state of California. It was a shock, but then I didn't see them again all through January and most of February. At least until today. I actually searched the palms pretty carefully hoping the orioles were still around with no luck, but then mere moments later I saw the male on a tree in a backyard just down the street. It stayed still long enough for pictures, and then as it flew off I thought I saw a second one, but I couldn't be sure.

These could be super early spring migrants, but I suspect these are the same birds I saw in December, and that they stayed in the region. But if they did stay, they hid well because I watched for them every day as I walked the trail.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Preparing for a Long Journey...The Sandhill Cranes of the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge

These last few days have been truly beautiful in the Great Valley of California. A couple of weak low pressure systems blew out the dust and pollution and we've had a series of gorgeous sunrises and sunsets. I had a few minutes after a lab today, and decided to see what was going on at the viewing platform at the north edge of the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge. One never really knows what to expect...last week there were around 10,000 Snow and Ross's Geese gathered in a single gigantic flock near the road. It much different tonight. The Snow Geese were off in another part of the refuge, and the fields were being patrolled by hundreds and hundreds of Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis).
The cranes have been here since September, wintering in the mild climate of the valley. But the season is starting to feel more and more like spring, and the birds are getting restless. Within a few short weeks they'll be gone, headed north towards the Arctic to breed and fatten up during the summer months.
Sandhill Cranes are one of the most dramatic species to grace our local environment. They are large birds, standing almost four feet tall, and they have a unique style of dancing when they are flocking together. I'm going to miss their purring call when they're gone, but it's nice to know we can look forward to their return once the weather starts to turn cold again.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Who Knew a Bird Day Would Have Headlines Everywhere? Happy Superb Owl Sunday!!

I know today is Superb Owl Sunday, but I was surprised to see all kinds of headlines about it in the newspaper and on the internet. And I'm really confused about what the San Francisco 49ers have to do with bird-watching. I mean, I could see it if we were talking about the Seattle Seahawks, or the Atlanta Falcons or some such. But in any case, HAPPY SUPERB OWL SUNDAY!

Here are my latest owl shots to celebrate with. The first one, above, is from last Friday. It's a Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus). We were at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge and had completed most of the auto loop. There is one last group of trees that we always check out because there are often a few owls hanging out and Friday was no exception.

The second picture is a Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) that I saw last November on the north shore of Turlock Lake, in the midst of the California prairie. They are never abundant in our county, and none have been noted yet this year.
The last picture is a Hawaiian Short-eared Owl, or Pueo (Asio flammeus sandwichensis). To say it my most recent picture is technically correct, but it is also my only picture of a Pueo. I took it in 2009 while traveling with students on the island of Kauai. The owl is native to Hawaii, and is a subspecies of the widespread Short-eared Owl.

Have a great Superb Owl Sunday, and happy hunting for your own owls. I mean, what else are you gonna do today?