Thursday, January 18, 2018

Chasing Rarities: A Vermilion Flycatcher in Stanislaus County

Or, I should say, the Vermilion Flycatcher in Stanislaus County; there is only one! 

From my point of view as a naturalist, experiencing any type of animal - bird or otherwise - in the wild is a moment to be cherished.  But like most birders, there are certain species and certain events that tend to rise above the mockingbirds and mallards and really cause a thrill.  Birds that are particularly rare, difficult to see, or especially beautiful generally make these moments shine in one's memory and stand out as treasured life experiences.

First spotted at Dawson Lake (near the small foothill town of La Grange) during a Christmas Bird Count on December 30th, this brilliant male Vermilion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus)* has been causing quite the stir in the local birding community.  And I certainly see what all the fuss is about!

Seeing this exquisitely beautiful little bird, unbelievably red against a background of winter grays and browns, is a sight I will never forget.

Though certainly not difficult to see (they're not exactly camouflaged), Vermilion Flycatchers are definitely rare this far north and are without question exceedingly beautiful!  This bird is only the fourth recorded Vermilion Flycatcher in Stanislaus County; the most recent Vermilion Flycatcher in the county was seen five years ago.  Currently there is one male Vermilion Flycatcher hanging out in Santa Clara County, another in Colusa County, a female all the way up in Humboldt County, and a female (that I've looked for a few times with no luck) in Merced County, at Merced National Wildlife Refuge.

All of these birds are well north of their expected range, which extends from Southern California and across the Southwest, through Central and South America.  (See their range map here.)  In Southern California, they are year-round residents.  It seems that most vagrants that show up in the north do so during the winter, between November and February.

For about 25 minutes, we watched this Vermilion Flycatcher "flycatching," the term for the typical behavior exhibited by flycatchers as they sally out from their perch to catch flying insects and return to the same perch.  (Perhaps more familiar, Black Phoebes behave the same way, and two were hanging out in the same area).  One of this male's preferred perches was about 50 yards away, another 100 yards, and the farthest approximately 150 yards from the side of the road where I was standing.  Private property prevents birders from getting closer, and accounts for the grainy, extremely zoomed-in photos!

In their regular range, Vermilion Flycatchers inhabit riparian woodlands, scrub areas, dry grasslands, deserts and even some cultivated areas, most common near water.  Here in Stanislaus County, a patch of oak savannah adjacent to a large stock pond (known as Dawson Lake) seems suitable enough!  Their prey consists of insects, which they snatch from the air while flying, swooping down low along the ground or rising up to about 30 feet in the air.

The Vermilion Flycatcher is fairly common in most of its range, and its populations are stable.  Habitat degradation or loss is a concern (as it is for most species!).  Numbers of Vermilion Flycatchers have dropped in the lower Colorado River Valley due to water use and land development, which is the story for many animals of that region.  However, there may be good news on the horizon, as this article from the National Audubon Society describes.

*A fun note about why I love Latin and "latinized" Greek in scientific nomenclature:
The Vermilion Flycatcher's Latin name is "Pyrocephalus rubinis."  It's too perfect!  Do you see why?

Broken down, it literally translates to "Fire-head red." 

"Pyro" = fire (Greek)  ...As in pyromaniac
"Cephalus" = head (Greek)  ...As in cephalopod (the group of mollusks that includes octopi and squid; the name literally means "head-foot")
"Rubinis" = red (Latin) ...As in Quercus rubra (Red Oak) and Festuca rubra (Red Fescue)

You'll never forget this "Fire-head red" flycatcher's scientific name now! 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The California Quail: Our State Bird

Beautifully colored, with dark, gentle eyes, the California Quail (Callipepla californica) is common across the state.  Though abundant, these shy birds tend to remain quietly hidden in the underbrush until approaching danger flushes them into the open.  A flock of quail, called a covey, can often be heard uttering soft calls to one another as they make their way through the chaparral.  Their three syllable call (often described as "Chi-ca-go") is a familiar sound throughout California and always brings a smile to my face. 

Female (left) and male California Quail, near Murphy's Ca. (Calaveras Co.)

California Quail are abundant in the foothills and oak woodlands of California, in coastal sage scrub and chaparral habitats, as well as in suitably wild habitats in the Central Valley, such as along riparian corridors and in National Wildlife Refuges.  It is not uncommon to see them living in close association with people, in suburban areas with adequate cover, bordered by wilderness.  In the Sierra Nevada, they are replaced by Mountain Quail (Oreortyx pictus) and in the deserts by Gambel's Quail (Callipepla gambelii).    

Male California Quail, San Joaquin River NWR (Stanislaus Co.)

California Quail are hardy, adaptable birds, often obtaining all the water they require from the foods they eat; only during periods of extended heat do they seek water sources.  Quail typically stick fairly close to the ground, scratching and foraging among the leaf litter beneath shrubs for seeds, acorns and berries.  When they venture into the open, they move quickly and cautiously, remaining close to protective cover.  When startled, quail explode upwards out of the brush with a great burst, flying short distances to take refuge in low trees or shrubs.  It's not uncommon to see a large family group foraging together, sometimes consisting of more than 75 birds!  A pleasant sight in spring and early summer is a family of quail out for a stroll, young chicks eagerly following their parents in a line.

Female California Quail, Lava Beds National Monument (Siskiyou Co.)

In 1931, the California Quail (sometimes called Valley Quail) was given the distinction of becoming California's state bird by a unanimous vote. 

Quail belong to the taxonomic order Galliformes, a group of stocky, chicken-like birds that are common game and domestic birds.  In this sense, relatives of the quail include grouse, pheasants, partridge, turkeys and domestic chickens. 

Male California Quail, Pinnacles National Park (San Benito Co.)

Friday, January 12, 2018

Gull ID Tips, Plus a Hybrid Gull (as if gull identification could possibly get more confusing)

A couple of weeks ago I spent a day birding in two of my favorite places: Pacific Grove and Moss Landing (both along the Monterey Bay on the central coast of California).  I was on the look-out for a number of specific species (as I always am) and was hoping to find a few interesting gulls mixed in amongst the numerous Western Gulls.  An Iceland Gull (formerly Thayer's Gull), Glaucous-winged Gull and Bonaparte's Gull were all on my list but evaded me.  I did see a few Heermann's Gulls, which are striking now in their winter plumage, brilliant white heads contrasting with slate gray bodies and bright red bills.  But my attention was drawn away from them, and the intriguingly pale bird in the photo below caught my eye and held my interest.

Would this gull have caught your eye?  It was noticeably paler than others around it, a clue
that it was something special.  (Monterey Bay, December)

This gull's pale gray back and wingtips (the "spotted" part sometime mistakenly referred to as the tail) puzzled me.  Not feeling that I had yet reached the level of expert in gull identification, I sought input from birders who are far more experienced than I am.  The consensus is that this bird is a Glaucous-winged x Western gull hybrid. 

That's right: some gulls hybridize.  (Because the wide range of plumage variations for one species of gull is not complicated enough, let's throw in the possibility that it's actually a cross between two species!) 
If you've spent any amount of time watching birds along the coast, I have little doubt that you too have wondered over the numerous varieties of gull that seem to be before you.  But really, there are only a small handful of gull species you must come to grips with, and a few tips to learn, in order to gain a fairly decent handle on gull identification along the California coast.
First, you must realize that the coloration of gulls' plumage changes wildly over the first several years of an individual's life, and also varies from season to season (breeding vs. non-breeding plumage, for example).  I'll use the Western Gull as an example, since they are abundant on California's coast and you can easily go out and see them for yourself. 
Western Gulls (Moss Landing, May)  Adult breeding plumage.  Note the brilliant white, unstreaked necks.
Western Gulls in their first and second winters of life are often (if not usually) mistaken for a completely different species by beginning birders, and it's an entirely honest mistake!  First winter birds are brown, with black bills (pictured below); by their second winter, they have acquired a little more white mottling in their brown feathers. 
Young Western Gull entering its first winter plumage (Carmel River State Beach, August)
These gulls were still begging their mothers to be fed; a definite sign that they are juveniles,
about to begin their first winter.  Note the entirely dark bill as well.
In their third winter, Western Gulls can look superficially like a Ring-billed Gull, except that the latter is significantly smaller, with yellow rather than pink legs.  It is not until about their fourth year of life that these birds take on the characteristics of a typical adult Western Gull: a dark gray back and virtually unstreaked white head and neck, pale or dark eyes (it varies), pink legs, and a heavy yellow bill marked by a red spot on the lower mandible.  

Western Gull (Monterey Bay, August)  Adult plumage.

Having told you all of that... be careful not to mix up Western Gulls with similarly-sized Herring Gulls and only slightly smaller California Gulls, which both spend winters on California's coast but also range inland (Western Gulls stick close to salt water).
Herring Gull  (Merced NWR, December) Adult, non-breeding plumage.  (Not a great photo, but the best I could find!)
In contrast to Western Gulls, Herring Gulls (pictured above) have pale gray backs and streaked heads and necks, pale eyes, pink legs, and a heavy yellow bill marked by a red spot on the lower mandible.  California Gulls (pictured below) have medium gray backs and streaked necks, dark eyes, yellow legs and both red and black marks on a yellow bill (be careful not to confuse them with Ring-billed Gulls... pictured two photos down).
California Gull (Monterey Bay, August)
When identifying gulls, it is helpful to note the color of their eyes (light or dark) and legs (pink or yellow), as well as marking on their bills.  The lightness or darkness of their backs and wing tips relative to each other is sometimes a good field mark as well.
Ring-billed Gull  (Moss Landing Harbor, May)
But there is far more to gull identification than just color.  Relative bill proportions are also important; is the bill very heavy, as in a Western Gull, or relatively short, like a Ring-billed Gull?  Knowing what species to expect in a certain place at a certain time of the year goes a long way in aiding positive identification as well.  This is especially handy when you begin to delve into the wonderful world of identifying gulls in their first, second, sometimes even third winter plumages, which are typically very different from the adult plumage.  For example, a typical gull scene on a beach looks something like this:
Carmel River State Beach, August

How many species do you see here?  In the photo above, the bird in the foreground is recognizable as a California Gull.  The dark birds are first winter birds; they appear to be Western Gulls, judging by their dark color and dark, heavy bills.  If you notice in the back, there are also a few gulls with very red bills: these are Heermann's Gulls.  The white-chested bird to the left of the Heermann's Gulls looks to me like a third winter Western Gull, based on the dark ring around its bill and pink legs.  But, I am open to correction!  (See, we're all learning together.)

Here's another one:

Carmel River State Beach, August
In the photo above, the large gull strutting in the foreground is clearly a Western Gull, based on its dark gray back, pure white neck and head, pink legs, and very heavy bill.  Behind it is a mixed flock of Heermann's Gulls and Western Gulls of varying ages.  But I think there are a couple of smaller, yellow-legged California Gulls here too.  Can you pick them out?
So you can easily see that while gulls are fairly large, conspicuous birds, not often overly shy and affording birders excellent chances for up-close viewing and photography, they can be deceptively difficult to learn at first.  I've been struggling for a few years to sort out my Western, Herring and California Gulls, and while by no means fail-safe, I have put together a little chart to help keep them all straight. 

Click on the chart above to make the image larger and clearer!

And of course, just when you think you have gulls figured out, you'll come across something new, like this Western x Glaucous-winged hybrid, and you'll want to throw your hands up in frustration!

Western x Glacous-winged Gull.  A hybrid of the two species.  (Monterey Bay, December)

But perseverance and practice always pay off.  I am certainly better at identifying gulls today than I was a year ago!  The more you familiarize yourself with gulls and spend time watching them, the more adept you will become at noticing their sometimes subtle differences, and the more comfortable you will feel identifying them.  And what better excuse to take a trip to the beach?

Monday, January 8, 2018

Oak Titmouse: "The Voice and Soul of the Oak Woodlands"

I prefer to think of these little birds as humble, modest, or unassuming rather than dull, drab or plain, as the Oak Titmouse (Baeolophus inornatus) is often described.  Though its name literally means inornate or unadorned, this bird is bedecked with a jaunty little crest and packs a lively personality into its small frame.  Until recently, the Oak Titmouse was lumped together with the Juniper Titmouse and considered a single species, the Plain Titmouse; this is how you will find them listed in field guides and other sources pre-1996. 
As its common name would imply, the Oak Titmouse is inextricably linked with the oak woodlands of California.  Indeed, it is nearly endemic to our state, as the vast majority of breeding populations occur within California.  (A few birds do stray into the dry oak woodlands of southern Oregon and northern Baja.)
One male Oak Titmouse has several songs in his repertoire, but a common and distinct song you may become familiar with is a repeated "tweedy tweedy" (or so it sounds to me; some describe it as "peter peter" and Sibley phonetically spells it "tuwituwi").  Male titmice use their musical prowess to enthusiastically defend their territory from neighboring birds.  Oak Titmice are non-migratory and stay on the same territory year-round.  Research indicates that Oak Titmice are one of the few small songbirds that actually mate for life and remain monogamous until one partner dies. 
The Oak Titmouse feeds on seeds and insects gleaned from the leaves and bark of oaks, as well as from the floor of the woodland.  They are a delight to watch as they hop about the leafy canopy or scratch through leaf litter in search of tasty morsels.  Oak Titmice are also known to hold acorns with their feet and hammer them open with their beak. 
Despite their small size (adult titmice weigh about half an ounce) these birds are fierce!  They are known for ganging up against predators to scold, mob and even chase them away, at times teaming up with other small songbirds of different species.  Enemies of the titmouse include snakes, squirrels and jays, all of whom steal eggs and nestlings, and raptors, such as owls and Cooper's hawks, which are notorious for preying on small birds. 

Oak Titmice are cavity nesters, and begin searching for the following spring's nest location as early as the preceding October.  They favor naturally rotted cavities in oaks, but will make use of woodpecker holes as well.  The nest constructed inside the cavity is lined with soft plant material, fur and feathers.  Because competition for suitable nest sites is fierce among cavity-nesting birds, one hole may be occupied in turn by titmice, followed by swallows, all in one season. 
Because mature oak trees are critical for the success of Oak Titmice as a species, and oak habitat has been steadily declining over recent decades, this small, unassuming species is on the National Audubon Society's WatchList.  They are said to favor Blue Oaks (Quercus douglasii), the common oak of the foothills that surround California's Great Central Valley in an almost perfect ring.  While they are most common in oak woodlands of the foothills, I regularly see Oak Titmice in the few remnants of Valley Oak (Quercus lobata) woodland that line the rivers of the valley floor - specifically, the San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Tuolumne Rivers.
To hear "the voice and soul of the oak woodlands" (as the Oak Titmouse was called by prominent California ornithologist Dave Shuford) for yourself before venturing out to find this special bird, visit Cornell's website:

Friday, January 5, 2018

Lesser Goldfinches

I wrote recently about American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) and think it's time to introduce you to their slightly smaller but my no means "lesser" cousin, the Lesser Goldfinch (Spinus psaltria).  They could be called "lesser" because they are less widespread across the United States than American Goldfinches and therefore less well-known.  Or maybe it's because they are slightly less brilliantly yellow (but only slightly).  Or it really could just be that they are half an inch shorter than their American Goldfinch kin (which is basically impossible to tell in the field where size can be deceptive).
Whatever the reason for the moniker, Lesser Goldfinches are a California bird you absolutely must get to know!  They are more common in California year-round than the American Goldfinch, and therefore more likely to delight you with their brilliant plumage, lovely song and seed-eating antics, wherever your travels take you. 
Like other finches, Lesser Goldfinches adore seeds and feed almost exclusively on plant matter (though they may occasionally supplement their diets with tiny insects as well).  They perch on dried seed heads and can often be seen clinging to a stem and hanging upside down to pick at the seeds.  Favorite food plants include members of the aster family, like sunflowers and thistles, and are generally found in open areas containing an assemblage of these plants.  They readily visit backyard feeders stocked with black oil sunflower seeds and nyjer (thistle) seed and are a familiar face in the suburbs.  I've seen quite a few flocks of Lesser Goldfinches feeding on the seeds of ornamental Crape Myrtles and Liquidambar trees during the winter.  Be sure to keep an eye out for these little finches during neighborhood walks and other wilderness explorations this winter!

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Rufous-crowned Sparrow

Sparrow identification can be tricky - they're quick, they're small, and for the most part, they're almost all brown!  Some insist that they all look the same, and that may be true at first glance.  But closer study will begin to reveal striking color patterns and subtle differences between species.  Soon you will realize what a wealth of different sparrows we have in the west!
Last week while hiking along the Stanislaus River near the town of Knight's Ferry, I was able to snap a few photos of a little flock of Rufous-crowned sparrows.  These small passerines have bright reddish crowns and distinct white eyerings, characteristic features of this species.
Rufous-crowned sparrows are birds of the arid southwest, inhabiting rocky hillsides covered in sparse vegetation.  Boulder-strewn canyons in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada seem to be favorable habitat for these sparrows.  They are nonmigratory and tend to stick to their own territory, so even during the blazing heat of our central California summers, they can be found scuttling among the rocks under the scant cover of nearly see-through shrubs.

Rufous-crowned sparrows forage on the ground for insects, seeds and herbaceous shoots, generally staying beneath the cover of scraggly shrubs.  Interestingly, they seem to avoid areas of dense vegetation and benefit from periodic fires that maintain their favored open habitat.  Though of course they can fly, Rufous-crowned sparrows are not very good at it; according to one source, the farthest distance an individual has ever been recorded flying is 540 feet!  They typically stick pretty close to the earth, running from predators rather than flying, and even build their nests on or very near the ground, usually hidden in vegetation or under rocky overhangs.

For information on a few more of our native sparrows, follow these links:

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Common & Barrow's Goldeneyes

Last week, on the day after Christmas, I was given a surprise gift from the birds themselves: one beautiful Barrow's Goldeneye hidden amongst a flock of a dozen Common Goldeneyes.  Barrow's Goldeneyes are by far the less common of the two species, and I had pretty much given up any hope of seeing one in 2017.  But there in my e-mail inbox, on December 26th, was a rare bird alert from e-Bird for a Barrow's Goldeneye that had been seen on the Stanislaus River near the town of Knight's Ferry.  Serendipitously, my dad called me up to see if I had time to do a little birding that afternoon, and away we went, headed for the hills. 

Sure enough, we found one beautiful male Barrow's Goldeneye mixed in with a flock of Common Goldeneyes, swimming placidly in a quiet pool along the Stanislaus River.  From the cliffs above, we had an excellent view and watched the flock for quite some time.  See if you can spot the Barrow's Goldeneye in the photo below; it's a little like playing one of those "which one of these is not like the others" games!

Flock of Common Goldeneyes, with a surprise: one Barrow's Goldeneye, the second duck from the left in this photo.

Goldeneyes are diving ducks, feeding on fish and aquatic invertebrates.  They typically forage in water that is less than 20 feet deep, and whole flocks often dive underwater simultaneously (a behavior I have witnessed).  Both goldeneye species breed and spend their summers in North America's boreal forests (primarily in Canada and Alaska), with the Barrow's Goldeneye restricted to the west. 

Like Wood Ducks and mergansers, goldeneyes nest in tree cavities along the edges of bodies of water and are known to use man-made nest boxes.  After breeding, goldeneyes migrate south for the winter, from northern forests to the continental United States where they spend the coldest months on lakes and rivers as well as in coastal waters.  The Barrow's Goldeneye stays in the west, while the Common Goldeneye ranges across the country.

Less than ideal photos... due to maxing out the zoom capacity of my camera!

If you get the chance to go birding this winter (and I certainly hope you do - more than once!) keep an eye out for these beautiful winter visitors.