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!


Monday, January 11, 2021

Someone Missed the Text about Migration: Black-headed Grosbeak on the Tuolumne River

You never, ever know what you'll see when you set out on an adventure, however modest. Today I was taking my normal birdwatching/exercise stroll on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail, and many of the normal birds were present. But I was about halfway through when a very unfamiliar sight appeared, one that made my jaw drop: a Black-headed Grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus). These birds are found along the river, and I've seen them a few dozen times...but never, ever in winter. These are tropical birds who spend their winters in Mexico and Central America. According to eBird there are a grand total of six of them in all of California at the moment.

I don't know why this bird is still hanging around. They have a diverse diet of bugs, fruits, nuts, and seeds, and maybe this bird has a secure food source, perhaps some neighborhood bird feeders. Maybe it was injured in some way and wasn't able to make the journey with the others. There have been other winter stragglers in this area...last year it was a Hooded Oriole pair that spent the winter along the trail.