Saturday, April 30, 2022

Killdeer Babies on the Tuolumne River!

The pictures are not as clear as I would like, but you can see them! The Killdeer chicks were born this week!
It's always a bit scary for the Killdeer mama (Charadrius vociferus). They love setting their nests on rocky open ground, and the only such ground locally is around the concrete margins of the Waterford sewage treatment facility. The gravelly surface is traversed constantly by maintenance trucks. I do know however that the employees are careful when they know a nest is present, as they will put a pylon out nearby to warn drivers. But there was no evidence that they had detected this nest, so I just worried for weeks as mama tended to the eggs.

Having nests out in the open like the Killdeer prefers is also perilous because of the threat of all manner of predators. There are cats, foxes, otters, and rats in the area, as well as kestrels and ravens. The Killdeer eggs are well camouflaged among the stones, and the bird is famous for its broken-wing strategy of distracting predators away from the nest.

Still, I was distressed to see that the nest seemed to be abandoned in the last few days, and I worried, but today I saw the almost comically small killdeer chicks running around after their mother.


Thursday, April 21, 2022

What to do when you are stuck indoors? Why, look out the window!

I've been sidelined by the worst cold ever, and haven't been able to see my beloved river trail for several days. Spring has arrived and I have been looking hard for the spring migrants that have been arriving in the region, and really felt like I was missing out.
But wouldn't you know that backyards with feeders can actually attract some of those migrants? We've had them before in previous years, but it still takes your breath away when you actually see one of them. This morning it was a beautiful male Black-headed Grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus).
We also saw some intensely colored American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis). We've had them in the yard on rare occasions in the past, but never got good enough photos to post on the blog.
It was nice of the birds to come to me, since I couldn't get out to them!

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Just How Close Do You Want to Get? Western Bluebird on the Sabercat Trail

By color scheme alone they are one of my favorite birds. I'm just partial to blue that way, the darker the better (I've noticed this about favorite minerals as well: go azurite!). Western Bluebirds (Sialia mexicana) are not rare, but I don't see them nearly often enough.
I was walking on the delightful Sabercat Trail in Fremont the other day with my family, and a pair of Western Bluebirds were perched on tree stakes right next to the trail, and really didn't seem all that concerned about our presence. I was please to get a couple of up close and personal shots of both the male (above) and less colorful female (below).

Western Bluebirds are one of the arguments for not cutting down old snags and burnt dead trees. They are cavity nesters, but they don't have the ability to carve such nests like the woodpeckers. They instead let the woodpeckers do the work and take over after they have moved on. Bird boxes work well for them as well.
Such a nice moment on the trail!

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Finding that First "Special" Bird: Bullock's Oriole on the Tuolumne River

I've thought a lot about the fact that I have become "that guy" on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail. People can see me from a long way off, the guy in the silly-looking hat who always has binoculars and camera dangling off his shoulders, who can't walk in a straight line because his attention is always directed off to the side or above, essentially anywhere but the trail in front of him.
I have these conversations, sometimes imagined, sometimes real, where I feel just a little defensive and want to say "I'm not really a crazy birder, I'm just getting my regular exercise and I don't want to miss it if a really interesting bird or other animal shows up". But I actually am a crazy birder. But doing the same ritual practically everyday of walking at least two miles and counting birds along the way is not really that strange. Compare the strangeness of doing that with running on a treadmill in a gym every day. You run on top of the moving machine, and no scenery goes by. You maybe have a television on the side of the room to stare at, or you have earphones blaring music. To me that's pretty boring.
How cool is it that every single walk has the potential of becoming something wonderful? Like the dad said in Christmas Story, referring to his yet unopened grand prize, "Why there could be anything in there!" Sure, there are birds that one sees every single day throughout the year, the scrub jays, the doves, the mockingbirds, the starlings. But there are almost always little surprises, the birds you see only once in awhile: Spotted Towhees, Nuttall's Woodpeckers, Belted Kingfishers, or Cooper's Hawks. They add that little bit of spice that turns a mundane walk into an interesting one.

But then there are the migrants. They can only be seen during part of the year, some only during the winter, others in the spring and summer. New seasons bring the promise of that "first of season" sighting, the excitement of seeing a beautiful and spectacular bird after an absence of many many months. It's a neat moment that sometimes takes my breath away. It happened yesterday when I saw the first Bullock's Oriole (Icterus bullockii) of the new year. The bird is not totally rare, and I will probably see a few dozen of them over the next few months, but that first moment you realize what you are seeing is just plain special. Especially when they hang out long enough to get pictures.

There are many more such moments coming over the next few months and one never knows what day it will happen. There will be the first Hooded Oriole, Lazuli Bunting, Black-headed Grosbeak, Green Heron, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Phainopepla, Rufous Hummingbird, and about twenty others before the end of the year. Every single day is a potential adventure. 

Left unsaid of course is the even rarer potential of seeing a bird that you have never seen before, or one that no one in the county or state has ever seen. Climate change has resulted in some species ranging farther north than ever before, so the day may come when I will see something really special, like a Vermilion Flycatcher or Summer Tanager on the Tuolumne River. And that, my friends, is why I am "that guy" out there walking every day looking to the sky, instead of tromping on a machine at the gym.

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

A Merlin on the Tuolumne River, for the Second Time This Year

I didn't post about this back in January for plenty of reasons, too busy with school starting, and lousy pictures, but Merlins (Falco columbarious) have been visiting the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail this year. I saw one on January 6 which was gloomy and dark and not conducive for picture-taking, but the only other time was way back in 2018. But today was perfect weather, and the Merlin was cooperating by perching out in the open where I could get a few decent pictures.

Merlins are the 'Lady Hawks' of Medieval times, but they are actually falcons, and like other falcon species, they have been used by falconers for years for hunting and hobby purposes. They underwent a severe decline because of the use of DDT in the fifties and sixties, but they have recovered nicely since the pesticide was outlawed. 

It was a pleasant surprise to see one today.

Thursday, March 3, 2022

New Bird on the Tuolumne River Trail! A Peregrine Falcon

It's always such a great moment when one sees a bird for the first time, or sees one the "home turf" for the first time. I had one of those marvelous moments today during my customary walk on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail. There is a long-dead Cottonwood snag on the western part of the trail that is kind of a roadhouse inn for many kinds of birds. The high branches provide a wide-ranging view of the surrounding terrain so on a given day I might see American Kestrels, Ospreys, Red-tailed Hawks, Turkey Vultures, and on less common occasions, Red-shouldered Hawks and Merlins. The tree is also the nighttime roost for several dozen European Starlings, and home for a family of at least five Acorn Woodpeckers.
I was a bit pressed for time, and conditions were overcast and gloomy, so I wasn't expecting to see all that much, but as I approached the snag, I saw a bird larger than a starling but smaller than a hawk. I always assume it will be a Kestrel, but something seemed "off" about it. It was darker than expected, and I couldn't see the black face bars that distinguish Kestrels. I got the cameral out and took a few pictures, then tried to move closer, but alerted by a loud family on the trail, the bird bolted up the river. I thought it might be Merlin since I saw one there just a few weeks ago, but as I studied the photos on the camera I realized it wasn't that species either. I zoomed in and realized I had a Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus). It is the first one ever reported on the trail, making a total of 150 species now known from the "Parkway" (it's not totally uncommon in the county, but the Tuolumne Parkway has only been watched carefully for the last five years or so)
Seeing the falcon reminded me of my other sighting last year. A friend of mine who works for the local irrigation district had alerted me to the fact that Peregrines had a nest in the cliffs above a small dam on the Tuolumne River at the east end of the county. I was given permission to enter the property to have a look and I wasn't disappointed. The falcons were busy discussing something or another, and were flying from perch to perch on the high rock cliffs.
I've only seen the Peregrine Falcons in a few other places, in Oregon and at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. It was great to finally see one in my own "backyard".

Sunday, February 13, 2022

It's Superb Owl Sunday! Here's a Western Screech Owl.

Superb Owl Sunday has arrived at last! I offer up this Western Screech Owl (Megascops kennicottii) that a few lucky folks discovered in downtown Modesto near my college. I had the opportunity to find it back in November.
I understand that there is some kind of major athletic contest being played somewhere today. If that's really your thing, I hope your selected team emerges victorious. But how could you not like owls?

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Energetic Balls of Feathers: Bushtits along the Tuolumne River Trail

I haven't posted much about Bushtits (Psaltriparus minimus) lately. It's not that I don't love them. I adore them, and I love watching flocks of them work their way through the brush nibbling small insects and the like. They will flit by practically in front of my face hardly caring that a gigantic monster could almost reach out and grab them. But they never stop moving! I just can't seem to find the energy to try and track them, get them in focus, and snap a picture before they jump to the next branch.
But then today I was wandering along the Tuolumne River trail as I often do, and a small group of them perched on a bush just a short distance away. And waited. And waited. Until I decided to pull out the camera and snap a few pictures, and then they twittered away to the next bush. But then they really did let me take a couple of shots before disappearing again.
They breed along the trail. I haven't found any nests yet this year, but they are truly unique and often well-hidden in plain sight. They are sock-like bags made of webs and fibers that look like random plant debris. It is a little unsettling to see the mass moving and squirming, but then it's better when the cute little bird sticks its head out the top to look around.


Saturday, February 5, 2022

Winter Days at the National Wildlife Refuges of the Great Valley, and Remembering What Once Was

Cross-posted from Geotripper (it's about California birds after all)  What's the largest number of birds you've ever seen from one spot?

The Great Valley of California is a great place to see a lot of birds in one place. In pre-colonist days, the 400-mile-long valley was a prairie that was watered by a series of rivers flowing from the adjacent Sierra Nevada. There was enough water that even in historical time there were two immense lakes between Bakersfield and Fresno, Tulare Lake and Buena Vista Lake. Before water diversions for irrigation caused it to dry up, Tulare Lake was the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi.
Source: Quora
The mild winter climate of California led to the adoption of the wetlands and marshes of the Great Valley as the favored seasonal home of millions upon millions of waterfowl and other migratory birds of the arctic and far north. I can hardly begin to imagine what a wintertime journey through the pre-European Great Valley must have been like.
The ecological role of grazer in the refuges is occupied by a handful of deer and lots of sheep and cows to make up for the now-extinct megafauna

But historical accounts and paleontology can provide us some idea. In addition to birds, the vast prairies supported huge herds of tule elk, deer, antelope, and even bison. Prior to 12,000 years ago, the plant-consuming animals included giant ground sloths, mammoths, mastodons, horses, and camels. The birds and grazing animals were the prey of an imposing array of predators including the recently departed California Grizzly Bear, black bears, wolves, mountain lions, coyotes, and foxes. The pre-12,000-year crew included saber-toothed cats, dire wolves (bigger than wolves of today), American Lions, jaguars, and the immense Short-faced Bear, an animal that would have made a Grizzly think twice about a confrontation. The reason for the almost simultaneous extinctions of the species of the so-called 'mega-fauna' is a subject of contention among geologists, paleontologists and anthropologists (the role of humans has not been ruled out).
This cuddly little Short-faced Bear can be seen at the Fossil Discovery Center near Madera
I was thinking about this as we made our customary winter journeys to the local national wildlife refuges in and around Modesto and Merced. The main units open to visitation include the Merced, the San Luis (including the separate Bear Creek Unit), and the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuges. Although the boundaries of these refuges tend to be very square or rectangular and they are crisscrossed by maintenance roads, they are the only places that come close to recreating the primeval landscape that once existed.
The national wildlife refuge system grew out of a number of motives, some noble, others not so much. When wetlands of the valley were drained and planted with crops, millions of birds found their ancestral winter homes gone. With nowhere else to go, many of the geese and others began to forage on the tilled fields to the distress of the farmers. Instead of massacring untold numbers of birds, a series of refuges were established up and down the valley to provide a haven and food for at least some of the migrants. Of course, the refuges were also designed to preserve populations of the birds so they could be shot. Much of the refuge funding comes from the sales of hunting permits.

Snow Geese at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

So that is where are today. The refuges provide forage for millions of migratory cranes, geese, swans and ducks (in many they grow fields of corn for the singular purpose of feeding the birds). The birds are too crowded, and diseases can spread if the flocks are not managed properly, but it is a better situation than having no refuges at all. Some species, especially the Aleutian Cackling Goose, have been brought back from the brink of extinction (once down to just 300 or so birds, the population is more than 100,000; they mostly shelter at the San Joaquin NWR just west of Modesto). And yearly, more and more abandoned farmlands are being converted to the original riparian habitat to allow for population growth. 

I don't do video often, but the one at the top seemed necessary because I was looking at what I believed was the largest single grouping of birds I've ever seen (and I've been exploring these refuges for 7-8 years now). It required about a 180-degree pan. On the other hand, there is nothing in the world quite like watching thousands of geese taking flight all at once. When we were at the San Luis NWR last week, the serene view was of several thousand Snow Geese and Tundra Swans. It's not really a good thing for the birds to be scared into the air, as it uses precious energy, and they could get hurt. But a helicopter flew overhead at a low elevation, and it spooked the geese (the swans seemed like they could care less) and several thousand took flight. I caught the flight on video, and you can clearly hear the helicopter. I took a picture of the craft thinking to report it, but it turned out to be medi-flight out on an emergency call.  

The number of birds and the variety of birds at the local refuges is truly astounding. We saw 50 species at the San Luis Refuge last week and 46 at the Merced Refuge yesterday. The really good birders will report 60-65 in a single trip. And the birds are beautiful. Here are some that caught my eye this last week.
This Great Egret was at the San Luis NWR. Both refuges offer "auto-tours" where visitors stay in their cars (kind of like those African savannah tours, but there aren't any lions trying to eat you). The cars serve as blinds, startling birds far less than humans bumbling around.
We were looking for swans and saw large white birds off in the distance. They turned out to be American White Pelicans. They may be the most ungainly-looking birds on the ground but are positively graceful in flight. And they are huge.
The blue bill of the Ruddy Duck is rather distinctive.
The prize for wildest beak goes to the Long-billed Curlew. I guess they can reach bugs and worms in the mud and soil that other birds can only dream of.
The Greater White-fronted Goose may be one of the more unfamiliar goose species around the valley. I've seen only a few in urban settings. Like the others, they are long-range migrants.
One of the special treats for the last two or three years has been a female Vermilion Flycatcher that decided to spend winters at the Merced NWR. This is the extreme north end of their range, and only a few are ever seen on a yearly basis in Stanislaus or Merced counties. Global warming may be allowing them to expand northward, and it may be only a matter of time before the scattered males and females find each other and start making little flycatchers.
This is an American Avocet, another bird that has a crazy bill that is good for probing deep in the mud.
There are a goodly number of raptor species that live in the refuges. One of the most beautiful is the White-tailed Kite. We thought we were done with photo opportunities when we reached the open grasslands at the end of the auto-tour at Merced, but this kite was perched on the sole tree eyeing the ground squirrels (and they were eyeing it).
The last bird of the day was the biggest surprise of all because it was the first time I had seen it in several years. It's a Black-bellied Plover, and it's not all that rare. It's just that I don't always know to look for it or recognize it when I see it. And it doesn't have a black belly. The males grow it when breeding season comes along.
Sunset at the Merced NWR
We here in the Great Valley sometimes forget that it is indeed a great valley, and that there are treasures that lie just beyond the boundaries of our cities. The auto-tours at Merced and San Luis provide opportunities for all, but those who want to walk will find a number of nice level trails. I especially recommend the Pelican Trail at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge. It passes through a series of diverse habitats and offers the greatest diversity of birds outside of the Modesto Water Treatment Plant (seriously, sewage ponds attract a lot of birds!). Check it out sometime, or any of the others up and down the valley.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Oh, To Soar Like an Eagle, or... To Kite Like a Kite!

You just never know when a moment of beauty and grandeur will happen. People look at me strangely whenever I go out the door on a mundane errand with my camera in tow, but I've missed too many such moments to ever want to be caught without the camera.
So today it was the pharmacy and the grocery store. We live in an outlying area where the locals refuse to wear masks and get vaccinated, so I headed into the big town, passing a local farm road called Bentley Road. It's still mostly ranching lands, so the prairie birds can often be seen there by birders. It was there that I spied my first White-tailed Kite (Elanus leucurus) of the year, and it was doing what Kites are famous for doing: kiting. That's the talent of hovering in place over the fields to catch the hard-to-spy movements of small rodents and other creatures. Birds in flight are pretty hard to photograph, but a kiting Kite at least stays in one spot while flapping its wings.
The White-tailed Kite is neither rare nor common in our area. The reports for the new year number fewer than ten. I'll see them a few dozen times this year perhaps, but nowhere near the number of times I'll see the Red-tailed Hawks. They have a limited range in the United States, extending through California, parts of the Oregon coast, and a bit of southern Texas. They are beautiful birds, and my breath catches just a little whenever I spy one.

The Kite was kind enough to stay motionless long enough for me to grab the camera and snap a few pictures. I didn't have the time to see if this particular hunt was successful.

I was thinking the Kite was behaving like a drone, but Kites have been around far longer than drones. The proper historical attitude would be that drones are just basically artificial Kites.


Sunday, January 23, 2022

There's No Place Like Home: Hermit Thrush in the Backyard

I really love Hermit Thrushes (Catharus guttatus). They are secretive birds, spending much of their time hidden away in the thick underbrush. They live along the Tuolumne River trail that I walk every day, but they are so hard to find that most of 2021 had passed before I saw the first one of the year. Any time I see one there, I'm thrilled, and I call it a good day.
So today I was mowing the lawn (yes, I live in California after all, and it rained a few weeks ago, plus I like to mulch the fallen leaves instead of raking). I was unplugging the mower and happened to look around the corner by the air conditioner, and I saw bird scratching in the leaves. I assumed it was a sparrow, but it looked odd. I quietly stepped back and went in the house for my camera.
I got back and was just astonished to find it was a Hermit Thrush in my own backyard! I am continually amazed the sheer variety of birds that can be discovered in urban settings. In observations from my backyard and short walks in the local neighborhood we've now seen 59 species of birds. Sure, some of them were flying high overhead. No Sandhill Cranes hanging out in the backyard yet for instance, although Great Egrets and Green Herons have in fact fished out of our lily pond a few times (RIP dear old goldfishes). But today counts as one of the most thrilling discoveries.