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.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Another Tropical Migrant Arrives: Western Tanager on the Tuolumne Trail

These weeks of spring are when my personal favorite treasures arrive in the vicinity of the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail, and every walk is a little adventure when one of those treasures might be seen for the first time this year. This week the treasures included my first Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana). For all their fiery color, they can be hard to spot because they prefer to hang about in the top of the canopy of the oak trees lining the trail. This one was no exception. You can't really tell from the camera perspective, but this male was almost directly overhead, craning his neck to look down at me.
The Western Tanager winters in Central America and Mexico, and in summer migrates farther north than any other tanager species. Very few other tanager species are ever even seen in my part of California. There are a lot of them that I am looking forward to seeing one day: Summer Tanager, Hepatic Tanager, maybe even a Scarlet Tanager. I'll have to spend time in Southern California or Arizona to even have a chance.

Meanwhile, the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail has finally been "discovered". The pandemic has of course (with great justification) severely limited people's ability to travel, and recreation opportunities have been highly restricted. Day by day I've noticed more and more people along the trail to the point that the parking lot that I thought was laughably large is almost full on weekends. The nice thing about the trail is that there are four or five different spots where people can go off the main trail and go down to the riverbank and spread out. Most people have been decent about maintaining the physical distancing. The only discouraging part is the increase in trash and garbage (come on people, you carried it in, you can carry it out), and the couple of airheads who think the trail is a motorcycle track, and that the river is appropriate for motorboats and jet-skis. It's so jarring to have one of those mechanical monsters go flying by (and not to mention extremely dangerous; I'm surprised no one has been hurt yet).