Monday, November 29, 2021

Some Close-Up Shots at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

Snow Goose (Chen caerulescens) with juvenile
One thing about having relatives in Oregon is that we get to travel north during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Doing so brings us in close proximity to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge near Williams in California's Great Valley. We usually manage to eke out a stop during our long drives between states, but we missed a year because of the accursed pandemic. 

Ross's Goose (Anser rossii)
We were thus especially looking forward to a tour of the auto-loop this morning and we were not disappointed. California's Great Valley (called by some uncreative souls the Central Valley) is a major wintering habitat for millions of migrating geese, swans, cranes, and ducks. 95% of the valley has been co-opted by agricultural development, so the few wetlands preserved as refuges are critical to the bird's survival. There were thousands of Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens) and Ross's Geese (Anser rossii) present in the ponds. They can be tricky to distinguish from a distance, but if you compare the photos above you can see the Snow Geese have a dark lining like lipstick on their beaks, which are also longer. The Ross's Geese are smaller overall as well.

When I mention that there were thousands, I was not exaggerating...they filled the skies, and the sound of their squawking in any other setting (for instance a horror movie) would be terrifying.

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)
There were some Great Blue Herons present, and they seemed rather accustomed to the large iron-clad beasts rumbling by on the road. I don't often get a chance to be so close to them.

We are used to seeing many of these birds at the refuges in our own backyard, but the Sacramento refuge is a more dependable place for spying a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). Or should I say it spied us? This one was only 20-25 feet above us.

The adult was watching over two juveniles in the next tree. It takes them a few years to get "bald", but the huge beak is always distinctive.

Our biggest thrill was catching sight of a Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus). We had finished with the eagles and told ourselves we were out of time and that there weren't any birds that would stop us from finishing the loop, but of course only 200 yards down the road we had this falcon politely posing for us. Of course, we stopped and spent an inordinate amount of time taking pictures. We made it home in time to pick up our precious kitties from the kennel, but only barely.


Monday, November 1, 2021

A Very Intelligent Bird: Common Raven at Yosemite National Park


It's hard to imagine a more ubiquitous bird at my favorite national parks than the Common Raven (Corvus corax). No matter how harsh the climate, the bird has found a way to adapt. In the driest climate in the American West, Death Valley, the Raven has often been the only bird present. I've seen them in practically every environment I've explored. The birds have thrived alongside humans and are considered pests in a few quarters, but I've always admired their intelligence and creativity.

I was at Yosemite National Park this weekend and I saw dozens of them, but one stood out, the star in the picture above. It was at the edge of a meadow below El Capitan, and it allowed me to get some close shots before I realized it could care less about me and Mrs. Geotripper, because it turned out we were standing in front of a fast-food bag someone had left next to their car. As we moved on, the bird jumped down and started to work on the folded-up bag. It really wanted to know what was inside.

Photo by Mrs. Geotripper

Instead of just tearing it open, the bird used its beak and foot to unfold the top. It started to remove and inspect the trash within one piece at a time, but it felt uncomfortable putting its head all the way in for the deepest bits. Once again, instead of tearing it open, it simply grabbed a corner with its beak, and turned the bag upside down, spilling the contents. It scored a banana peel and one or two fries for its trouble. The bird displayed a rather organized approach to getting to its goal.

Some would insist the bird was spreading garbage about, but really, the humans had done the garbage spreading. It was just making sure that none of the food inside was going to waste...

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Why are they called Golden-crowned Sparrows?

We're not afraid of asking the tough questions here at Geotripper, and sometimes we might even answer them. Today it's about the Golden-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla): Why do we call them that? The answer: they are sparrows, and they tend to have golden crowns! It's a little more vivid during the breeding season, but the sparrow I ran into yesterday had one, however faded. I was on my normal walk along the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail.

It turns out that even though the sparrow is relatively common in our area, and I've been doing this blog since 2014, I've only once devoted a post to this attractive little bird. This individual decided to change that. The Golden-crowns are migratory birds, spending the summer in the far north. They only started arriving back in our region in the last few weeks. I'm really bad at remembering the songs of most birds, and heard a mostly unfamiliar song in the brush. I suspected it might be a Golden-crowned Sparrow, so I quietly played the song on my phone, and out came this bird, which perched at my eye level, and started at me. It didn't move while I took one shot after another.
Those of you who don't live on the Pacific Coast might not recognize this sparrow. It is closely related to the White-crowned Sparrow that is found across North America, but the Golden-crowned only occasionally wanders east of the Sierra Nevada and Cascades, although there have been rare sightings on the Atlantic Coast states and elsewhere. According to AllAboutBirds, the sparrow is one of the more poorly studied species in its Arctic summer home. Maybe there is a job for a budding ornithologist there...
"I'll thank you not to study ME, good sir"


Saturday, October 16, 2021

Flycatchers that aren't called Flycatchers at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge

We've been journeying down south to the Merced National Wildlife Refuge every weekend for the last month, watching for the arrival of the winter migrants from the Arctic. The Sandhill Cranes and Greater White-fronted Geese have started to arrive in some serious numbers, but on the whole it has been relatively quiet. In a few weeks there will be tens of thousands of geese and the quiet reserve will become a cacophony of arguing squawkers. In the meantime we've been enjoying the serenity and the chance to catch some of the smaller birds who normally get lost in the chaos. Those include a couple of flycatchers who aren't called flycatchers, the Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans) and the Say's Phoebe (Sayornis saya).

The Black Phoebe is one of my dependable favorites. I see them often on my home turf, and they are tolerant of the bumbling human with the camera. They display typical flycatcher behavior, that is 'fly-catching'. They'll pick a perch, sally forth to acrobatically nail a fly or other insect, and then perch again in the same spot. The Black Phoebes are primarily southwestern birds who mainly live in riparian habitats. In 2019 I saw a particularly memorable individual, a leucistic Black Phoebe, meaning a Black Phoebe that wasn't black at all.

The other flycatcher that I see regularly at the refuge is a Say's Phoebe (Sayornis saya). I've probably been watching the same individual for the last month, since it has occupied the same fencepost every day we've visited the refuge. I see this species far less often back home, so it's always a treat to see one on the road. The species is far more widespread, with a range that extends into the Midwest, and all the way to Alaska. Errant birds have been sighted all the way to the Atlantic Seaboard. It ranges farther north than any other flycatcher.

So cue the big birds, the Snow and Ross's Geese, and the Cackling Geese. It's going to be a raucous party soon!

Thursday, September 30, 2021

A New Bird on the Tuolumne River! A Pectoral Sandpiper

I always seem to have to say that I'm really new at this birdwatching business, even though it's been going on for five or six years. The problem is that I get pretty good at identifying the birds I see often in my travels, especially along the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail that I walk almost every day. If I see something out of the ordinary, I usually know that it is something that I have to try and photograph and identify. But sometimes I miss things that are staring me right in the face. It's a case of seeing what you look for, and not seeing what you are not looking for.

For years, I've been watching the couple of species of shorebirds that hang out at the water treatment plant on the midway part of the trail. There are almost always Greater Yellowlegs, Least Sandpipers, Spotted Sandpipers, and Killdeers. I get to the point that I don't think other birds will show up, so I don't look for them. This is usually a bad idea in birding!

So it took another birder, someone more perceptive than I, to wander along the bluff, watching the shorebirds in the treatment plant ponds. Yesterday that person was fellow nature blogger Siera Nystrom (Natural History Journal) who walked the trail and noticed a bird that was not like the others. She got some pictures and reported that she had found a Pectoral Sandpiper (Calidris melanotos). It's a special find, as it is rare in the region. It's the first sighting in the county this year, and only the 12th sighting of all time on eBird in the Stanislaus region. The nearest other known bird of this species is presently at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge an hour to the south of the Tuolumne River. So all in all, quite an accomplishment for Siera, and for the bird itself, which happens to be on a very long journey.

The Pectoral Sandpiper is rare around here because the bird is only passing through on a very long migration, and the routes the species follows are mostly in the eastern United States. That migration is pretty extraordinary, as the bird breeds in the far Arctic north, but migrates in winter not just to Mexico or Central America, but into the southern parts of South America!

Source: Pectoral Sandpiper Range Map, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Once I saw Siera's species report, all I could do was sit on my hands and teach my courses all day. I waited very patiently while the students finished up the last of their labs, and I rushed out to the river trail, camera in hand, hoping against hope that the bird would still be hanging out at the treatment plant. Much to my relief, I saw it right away, because as I said above, "you see what you are looking for". I was able to get a fair number of decent pictures to share. If you decide to seek it out, it is a medium-sized shorebird with yellowish-olive legs. It's slightly bigger than a Killdeer (I think), and definitely smaller than a Greater Yellowlegs. The most distinctive coloration is the brown streaks that run down the breast, but abruptly change over to a white belly.

I tried to get a better shot, but this was a Greater Yellowlegs behind the Sandpiper...

There is one other point of distinction about the discovery of this Pectoral Sandpiper. It is the 150th species reported for the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail! It is also the 123rd species seen this year on the river, which is a one-year record, and we still have three more months to find a few more.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Why do they call it a White-Tailed Kite? And why do I take my camera EVERYWHERE?

Really, both of the questions in the title are easily answered. It's called a White-tailed Kite (Elanus leucurus) because it has a white tail, and it kites. If you are unfamiliar with the term, it's maybe more related to kites that you fly with a string and all because the appearance is much the same. Kites are known for their habit of flying in place without moving as if they were attached to a string, watching for prey in the grassy fields below. A few other birds do it, but these birds are real masters. And they are my favorite raptors.
Strangely enough, today's pictures happened because another bird was kiting in the pasture-lands along Bentley Road east of Modesto. I couldn't see it well because of the sun angle, so I stopped to get the binoculars. It turned out to be an American Kestrel, but then I noticed there was a Kite on the fence post not forty feet from my car.
The camera was on the seat beside me, but the windows blocked a good angle for getting photos. I inched the car forward and raised the camera, but just as I clicked it flew away. I said to myself "of course" because that's what always happens, but to my great surprise, it simply flew across the road and landed just a bit behind me, no more than eighty feet away. And it was contentedly munching on lunch, which was some kind of small rodent. I took around 35 pictures because no Kite has ever allowed me to be so close. These are the best pictures I've ever been lucky enough to capture. It actually took me several minutes to realize there were two more Kites out in the meadow beyond the first.
And that brings up answer to the second question: Why do I take my camera EVERYWHERE? Because you never know what will happen when you are out and about. I was simply out to get a few things at the grocery store. If I had not brought the camera, I would have missed these shots.


Saturday, August 14, 2021

A Real Gem on the Tuolumne River: A Lazuli Bunting

There's a semi-precious gemstone called lapis lazuli. It's actually a metamorphic rock containing a variety of minerals, but the intense blue is caused by a mineral called lazurite. It's often speckled with small grains of gold-colored pyrite. The gem has been mined for thousands of years, especially in Afghanistan, Russia, and Chile. I got to collect some once in one of the very few spots in California where it can sometimes be found. The intense blue of the mineral has led to its use as a pigment in oil paints in Medieval times (the color ultramarine), and is especially associated with the Virgin Mary.
I love the color blue, and I am lucky to have a number of bright blue birds that are common locally, including the Tree Swallow, California Scrub Jay and the Western Bluebird. But there are some blue birds that are exceedingly rare, at least in my experience, including the Blue Grosbeak and the subject of today's post, the Lazuli Bunting (Passerina amoena). They're real gems. If I am lucky, I'll spy them two or three times in a year. It's even rarer to get a half-decent picture.
I saw the first Lazuli Bunting of the year a few weeks ago after a good friend insisted she was hearing one near the trailhead for the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail where I walk nearly every day. Her observation was spot on as I got a brief look at a male. But the pictures were very grainy. Today though, I was walking along the river trail when I spotted a small bird in the distance. I thought it was another sparrow, but it was perched vertically which raised my suspicion that it wasn't a 'normal' bird. I got the binoculars out and saw the chestnut color on the breast, but I still couldn't see it clearly. I carefully drew near and the intense blue color became apparent. The bird was nice enough to hang out long enough to get some of the best pictures I've ever captured.
The Lazuli Buntings are summertime migrants in our region, and indeed across much of the western states and southernmost Canada. Come winter they'll be in Mexico. Although their Latin name means "beautiful sparrow", they are more closely related to the Cardinals and Grosbeaks.


Monday, May 17, 2021

Pileated Woodpecker at Castle Crags (a first for us!)


It's been a tough year for blogging about much of anything, but that doesn't mean I haven't been seeing some extraordinary sights as far as birds are concerned. A few weeks ago we had our first opportunity to actually travel anywhere at all, and our journey as the newly-vaccinated took us to visit family in Oregon. Along the way we hopped out of the car for a short break at Castle Crags State Park just off Interstate 5 near Dunsmuir and Shasta City. The park provides access to some simply awesome granite cliffs that rise above the deep forests of the Klamath Mountains.

I was anxious to get out and go birdwatching in a new place, and set off on a nearby nature trail, and after a mile I had seen a number of birds (reminder that zero IS a number). I was feeling a bit disappointed, but when I got back to the parking lot I found Mrs. Geotripper fiddling with her camera trying to photograph something in the tree above. I looked up and saw to my great shock and pleasure that she had found a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). It was a first for both of us. I got a single decent picture (above), but Mrs. Geotripper got a couple of moments of video showing the bird pecking the bark from the severely unhealthy tree.

Castle Crags is a delightful small park with a decent campground and a spectacular viewpoint that takes in the Crags as well as nearby Mt. Shasta. Check it out if you ever find yourself traveling Interstate 5 on the way to Mt. Shasta or Oregon! Visitor details at: Castle Crags SP

Sunday, March 7, 2021

White-breasted Nuthatches on the Tuolumne River Trail

Few things make me happier than finding a White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) on the trail I walk most days along the Tuolumne River. One of those things is to find TWO White-breasted Nuthatches on the trail. That happened today and I even got a picture. Other people seem to have no trouble finding them, but for me it's fairly rare to see them.

There has been an increase in the number of the bird sightings these last few weeks as spring approaches, and so I've been paying more careful attention to movements along the trunks and branches of the Valley Oaks along the trail. Sometimes the birds turn out not to be Yellow-rumped Warblers (who are fairly common this time of year). The nuthatches spend much of their time upside-down as they search the nooks and crannies in the bark for delectable insects and spiders. They are beautiful birds.


Monday, February 1, 2021

It's Been Awhile: Bald Eagle on the Tuolumne River Today

My friends in the Pacific Northwest, Alaska and Canada might not be much impressed by a sighting of a Bald Eagle on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail today. But it was memorable. I saw not a single one on the trail last year (a good friend saw one, though). In fact, I only saw one anywhere in the entire county last year. The last eagle I saw here hung around for a few short weeks in 2019, and that was the first recorded sighting for that part of the river ever (although neighbors have told me of past sightings).

I had been seeing Turkey Vultures and Red-tailed Hawks (three of them!) soaring around the western part of the trail, but didn't think much of it. But then a large black shape soared overhead and I saw both a white head and white tail. I tried to get a picture but it was gone. Then I walked back upstream and saw it perched in a cottonwood across the river. Apparently the hawks and the vulture had been expressing a certain amount of concern because they were all circling the perched eagle. The eagle was unperturbed and was still perched in the same spot when I left towards home.


Friday, January 29, 2021

One Rock Wasn't Like the Others...


It was the biggest weather event of our year, in which we received about a third of our yearly precipitation in just two days. In the aftermath, it was a sunny afternoon and it seemed a nice time to check out Willm's Road in the prairies just east of our town. I've been a geologist for far longer than I've been a birder, so I also enjoy looking at the rocks. Passing an outcrop of metamorphic rock, I saw one that was a bit rounder than expected. I stopped the car and backed up and pulled out the binoculars. That was no rock!

The camouflage was almost perfect. It was a Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) watching over the roadway. It is always a thrill to see one of these inscrutable birds, and I rarely see them more often than two or three times a year if I am lucky.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Someone Else Missed the Text on Migration: Hooded Orioles in my Backyard

Spring is such a wonderful time along the Tuolumne River as I eagerly await the arrival of my favorite tropical migrants: the Black-headed Grosbeaks, Blue Grosbeaks, Bullock's Orioles, the Lazuli Buntings, and perhaps my all-time favorite, the Hooded Oriole (Icterus cucullatus). But the birds have not entirely cooperated this year, as I discovered that a Black-headed Grosbeak was in fact wintering along the Tuolumne River. But even in that context, today was a real shocker.
I just happened to look out the window at the hummingbird feeder this morning and saw an unusually large bird perched there. I realized with a shock that it was a Hooded Oriole! Such things need documenting, so I grabbed my camera and got a few shots before it flew off. I thought it might come back after a bit, so I kept the camera handy and sure enough a few minutes later it came by again, and gave me a sharp stare. But then, the another surprise...

A few minutes later the Oriole had come back, but when I looked at the tail, I realized it was not the same bird. The tail was yellow, not black. This was a second Oriole, and it was a female! I never got  shot of the head, so a picture of a bird butt will have to suffice. The birds came back about five hours later, and I got a more convincing look at the female, but no pictures.

This is actually the second time that I've witnessed a Hooded Oriole pair over-wintering near the Tuolumne River. There was a pair that spent the 2020 winter in some palm trees overlooking the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail, and I am curious as to whether these are the same birds. If they have a secure winter food source, why make the perilous journey to Mexico and Central America? My yard is only a half mile from the palms where last year's birds stayed.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Vermilion Flycatcher at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge: Finally One of the Males!

It's often true that when I post an adequate picture of a particular bird, I'll get even better pictures a day or two later. It hasn't been a day or two, more like nearly three weeks, but it happened again. I posted about the Vermilion Flycatchers (Pyrocephalus rubinus) of Merced and Stanislaus Counties on December 28 after I got some nice pictures of a female at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. But we missed out on finding any of the colorful males known to be at the southwest corner of the refuge. We didn't get back to the Merced refuge until today, but what a delightful surprise we had as we followed the auto route.
I've been looking for one of the males in hopes of getting some closer shots, as the mature male in Stanislaus County is always seen from hundreds of feet away. I knew roughly where to look, but had no luck in three or four attempts. But as we rolled up to the parking area for the Bittern Marsh Trail, the bird literally flew right in front of our car and landed in the tree next to us. That led to a few moments of pandemonium as we grabbed cameras and tried to locate the bird in the thick brush. What happened next was a scene probably familiar to most birders: snapping a series of totally unfocused shots just to have some kind of confirmation that we had indeed seen the bird. 
We and the bird finally settled down and I snapped the shot above, and I would have been perfectly satisfied with the result. A beautiful immature male Vermilion Flycatcher! We were blocking the road though, so we drove on and parked a few hundred feet away. I slowly walked back and saw that the bird was gone, but as I was looking around, another birder motioned to me and pointed. The bird had once again flown across the road and was now perched on a small tree next to the Bittern Marsh.
I now had a few delightful moments getting some very satisfying pictures of the young bird. If their range is indeed expanding (perhaps due to global warming), they will be a welcome addition to our region. 
And now, if I could only figure out where that mature male is hiding out...

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Wait, Why Are They Called "Ruby-crowned" Kinglets?

Want a challenge? Try to photograph a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula). They are brazen little birds, willing to get right in your face if you intrude into their territory, but they never seem to stop moving.

Want a real challenge? Try and capture why they are called "Ruby-crowned" Kinglets. The males have a red patch on their head, and if they are really upset about something, it can be raised, but that happens rarely in my experiences so far. But today I managed to catch a couple of shots so you'll know what to look for on your own attempts!