28 February 2015

Redhead & an early Barn

It's again been pleasant these last few days of February.  I wasn't the only one who thought so, this male ANNA's HUMMINGBIRD at a local patch of mine chatted up a storm to me about the weather.  Or maybe he just wanted me to go away.  Whatever.
An eBird report came in of a pair of REDHEADS at Cosumnes River Preserve.  You might not think it but this is a pretty rare species for Sacramento County (I had seen only one before).  I took the bait and headed down the next morning.  Gadzooks, there WAS a pair of REDHEADS.  Here's the male:

(I returned again that evening with Ash and they were still present.  A county bird for her and a year bird for both of us.  Good deal.)

I spent a good chunk of time at CRP that morning though and ended up with a decent 80+ species in about 3 hours (checklist seen here).  This WHITE-THROATED SPARROW, an uncommon species around here, has been present around the visitor center all winter and I chanced into it as I strolled by:
The sun was out and with temps around 70, the insects started flying.  Here's a CABBAGE WHITE:
I was more happy to see this PACIFIC FORKTAIL, my second damselfly of the year:
Just today we visited several hotspots here in Sacramento County to try to find some still-needed year birds.  Our first stop was East Lawn Cemetery; our target was TOWNSEND'S WARBLER which Ash still needed.  Fittingly, she spotted it after only 5 minutes of walking around.  Here's our checklist.

We then visited a park in Folsom where we had Violet-green Swallows last spring but it looked like they hadn't arrived yet.  Here's the quick checklist.

Our next stop was Michigan Bar Road, a favorite of ours, to see if many there were any swallows there.  Sadly, there weren't.  But who can complain with many LEWIS'S WOODPECKERS and even a flagged STELLER'S JAY?  Not to mention that Ashley picked up her year BHCO as well.  Here's our list.

Lastly, we swung into Meiss Road to scope the Meiss pond and to look for Mountain Bluebirds.  I was scoping through ducks and things when I instead started to focus on swallows that were flycatching above the pond.   Woah, a BARN SWALLOW was mixed in!  It's flagged in eBird because it's on the early side and, as luck would have it, it gained elevation and got closer to us, barely in range for my camera:
So that's what's been going on around here the last couple of days.  eBird has my Sacramento County year list at 176 species after only 2 months.  I compared this to my year list in 2014 and I am more than a month ahead of that pace!

See you in March.

25 February 2015

Hairy heat

February is already winding down and, at least here in the Central Valley, you can definitely tell spring is on the way.  It's getting light earlier and staying light later, more species are in full song, and many of the trees are in bloom.  Where I grew up, this weather is more befitting of April.  But considering my summers as of late have been chilly and drizzly, I won't complain about the warmth and the oddity of an early spring.

Although it's gotten warmer, that doesn't necessarily mean that the species composition has changed a whole lot.  Because of that, I haven't done that much birding in the past week or so.  However, one species has drawn me in a couple of times; the HAIRY WOODPECKER that continues to be seen along the shore of Lake Natoma.  Although I had already seen and gotten documentation pictures of this very rare Sacramento County woodpecker, I returned recently to see if it still was around.  It didn't take long and I soon traced the call notes down to the bird:
The bird wasn't as bold this time around but at least it was still present.  Because of its continuing presence and my seemingly good luck in finding it, I returned over the weekend but this time with Ashley who still needed it for county.  It again took a while to be cooperative but we eventually got to see and hear it in the same area as before.  Here's proof:
Another species we targeted that weekend was GREAT HORNED OWL which would have been a county year bird.  We used eBird to find all the recent GHOW records in the county, followed up on an eBird report of a nest on Elverta Road, and sure enough, there was a bird sitting in a nest high on the antenna/tower just to the west of Hwy 99:
Back home, I've continued to keep track of yard birds this month and eBird tells me I'm at about 46 species in February.  Some recent sightings include a young BALD EAGLE, newly-arrived CLIFF SWALLOWS, SANDHILL CRANES migrating north, and this continuing OSPREY:
Yesterday warmed up nicely into t-shirt weather and I visited Cosumnes with the sole purpose of seeing if any butterflies or other insects were flying.  I didn't see more than a couple of species of butterflies though and the only damselfly I saw was this one perching on flowers:
It looks to be either a Tule Bluet or Familiar Bluet.  The only problem is that females like this aren't easily differentiated (at least not by me!).

I did end up keeping a list of birds though; I ended up with 41 species in 39 minutes (checklist here).  I came across a pair of BUSHTITS attending their newly-made nest which was fun to watch.  The sock-like nest drooped down nearly a foot.  Here's a picture of the nest and, if you can spot it, the head of a BUSHTIT:
GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GEESE are still plentiful these days and I tallied more than 1.2k at this particular stop.  Other places in the Central Valley might be dominated by white geese but at least down here close to the San Joaquin Valley, it's the GWFG that dominate things.  And because I had nothing else to photograph, I even took a picture of one:

19 February 2015

Feel of Feb

In preparing this blog post, I thought back to the last 7 days and couldn't really recall anything that I thought was worthy of putting in a post.  But then I looked back through the photos and yes, they reminded me that I HAVE ventured outside.

I'll start with the annoying Swamp Sparrow that's been seen over in Yolo County on-and-off for several weeks.  Problem is, I've been there 3 times now and have missed the bird every time.  In a short-lived defeated stage, I took a picture of a SONG SPARROW instead:
I've been only minimally interested lately in cleaning up some county year birds that I've yet to see.   However, one day I did some looking around the Mather airport/wetlands and came up with my long overdue BURROWING OWL.  I then headed to the wetlands along N. Mather Blvd, a place where AMERICAN BITTERN has been reported from with some reliability.  But before I could even make it to the actual wetland, I found myself taking pictures of LESSER GOLDFINCHES for some reason.  Here's a male:
... and here's the much plainer female:
And yes, I succeeded in snagging AMERICAN BITTERN for the year.  This sneaky heron isn't the easiest species to bump into here in Sacramento County:
I also made a feeble attempt at finding a VESPER SPARROW along Meiss Road which turned out unsuccessful (but not surprising given they're rare in this county).  But the grasslands are still amazing and probably rank as my favorite place in Sacramento County:
It's not uncommon at all to see one or more FERRUGINOUS HAWKS on this stretch of expansive grassland.  Here's a light-morph:
The most common sparrow in those habitats right now is easily SAVANNAH SPARROW.  I tallied 94 of these little guys in a 7 mile stretch of road.  Here's one of them:
I had birded the road for more than 2 hours but only came up with 32 species (there just isn't much habitat diversity out there).  You can see the full checklist here.  However, the highlight of the morning came a few seconds after I had finished Meiss Road.  I had turned right onto Dillard Road and there within 0.25 miles was a nice male MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD on the powerlines.  This is flagged in Sacramento County and so I was sure to back up to back it up:
It turns out, birders followed up on this and some saw as many as 15 in the area! 

I've spent most of my life in the range of EASTERN TOWHEES; a chunky mixture of black, white, and orange markings.  Although I'm still surrounded by the similar Spotted Towhee, it was only when I moved to the Sacramento area that I lived around one of the "brown ones".  The CALIFORNIA TOWHEE is quite common in a lot of Sacramento County:
We were tootling along Scott Road when Ash mentioned "Hey, isn't this where those swallows were reported recently on eBird?".  Of course, she was right; someone had reported some pretty early CLIFF SWALLOWS at a bridge along that very stretch of road.  We found the bridge, pulled off, and watched ~15 CLIFF SWALLOWS making forays under the bridge and back:
Things got serious when I whipped out the iPhone to take a picture of a... mailbox:
Lastly, Ash and I hit up William Land Park in Sacramento the other morning (checklist seen here).  The highlight (and only thing flagged) were two BAND-TAILED PIGEONS that landed oh-so-briefly in the top of a tree.  By the time I got my camera on them, they had already flushed.  Here's one that's retoxing its perch:

11 February 2015

This is going to get hairy

The story begins yesterday morning.  I ventured north into town before the morning rush hour reared its ugly head and I arrived at the Young Wo access to Lake Natoma around 7:30.  My goal for this outing was pretty simple: I wanted to see one of the HAIRY WOODPECKERS that had been reported recently.

I should add some context about the target species.  Mainly, HAWOs are actually super rare here in Sacramento County.  So if you grew up in a part of the country, like I did, where all you had to do was to locate your nearest suet block to see them dripping off, you first have to wrap your head around that aspect.  How rare are they?  In eBird, they've only been seen in this county 3x in 2013, 1x in 2014, and then this February.

So, shortly after arriving on the shores of Lake Natoma, I heard geese overhead and when I saw them, I grabbed my camera.  They were indeed "Aleutian" CACKLING GEESE.  No biggie, right?  Well, if you check eBird, you'll notice they're actually quite rare along the American River.  I certainly had never seen them there and I'm not sure anyone has ever had them where I was.  Anyway, so I took a photo because I figured they were uncommon enough (and yeah, I think getting proof of EVERY uncommon bird you report is really important).  You can see the white collars on the necks:
After turning left on the bike path, it wasn't far down that I heard a male HAIRY WOODPECKER in the forest of Gray Pines to my left.  I got a quick glimpse but it was too distant for photos.  Then it vanished.  Mildly bothered by this, I decided I'd return and put more effort into this bird in a few minutes.  I wanted to continue down to the power pole with "26" on it, written in yellow stickers, because that's where folks had been seeing a female HAIRY lately.  Before I even got there, I heard a bright and jumbled song coming from an open, rocky area to the left.  It sang again.  Shoot, it sounded familiar, like a really fast House Wren.  Then it clicked... it was a RUFOUS-CROWNED SPARROW.  I tracked it down and watched two RCSPs forage in front of me at close range:
After leaving the sparrows in peace, I continued on.  Problem is, I really couldn't find any HAWOs near #26.  Oh well.  I gave it about an hour of poking around before I decided I'd head back to where I had the male.  But first, my path crossed with a big ol' herd of turkeys.  Maybe "herd" isn't technically correct but they rummaged around and looked at me so blankly that I thought "herd" was fair.  One particular male was going bonkers and displaying to anything that moved:
But seriously, look at this thing:
I'm kinda disgusted too.  I might have to put this cherry poptart down for a few minutes.

I returned to the Gray Pine forest (near power pole #31) and slowly meandered in and around the big rock piles back in the trees.  At one point I jumped, a big white bird of prey was flying through the woods.  I had just accidentally scared a BARN OWL out of its daytime roosting spot (sorry buddy... but you WERE a year bird).  Anyway, the male HAIRY WOODPECKER was super active again and calling frequently.  I honed in and found him working one of the pines; here's proof:
It was neat being able to watch such a rare species for Sacramento County for so long.  While I was standing there though, some odd screeches filtered through the woods.  I turned to see a STELLER'S JAY zoom by and land to my right.  Super rare in Sacramento County during MOST winters, it's been fun seeing them this winter after many invaded farther downhill than normal and into Sacramento.  I had to do a double-take though when I saw 4 more flying by!  Five STJAs at once?  This was way more than I had seen in the county (and it turns out five tied the county high-count for this species):
Anyway, I ended my ~3 hour visit with 50+ species, a county lifer, and two county year birds.  You can see the checklist here.

09 February 2015

Rescoter and sap suck

Two weekends ago we ventured up to Alpine County to look around and to start our county list.  This past weekend we ventured to somewhere a little warmer, much more cloudy, and a lot more rainy.  Although I had made the round-trip to go see the COMMON SCOTER in Crescent City earlier in the week, that was only half of the household. 

Yep, I drove back to Crescent City, this time with my more attractive half, to see this first ABA record yet again.  However, I certainly didn't spend much time trying to better my photos from last time, I left that to the crowd of 15-20 birders.  Here's one of the few photos I did take:
It was fun seeing it mixing with other birds though (something it didn't do on my first trip).  Also in the area:

Harlequin Duck (1)
Long-tailed Duck (1)
Surf Scoter (200+)
Red-breasted Merganser (5+)
Common Loon (5+)
Red-throated Loon (1)
Horned Grebe (2)

Here's one of the COMMON LOONS loafing about:
While everyone was watching the scoter, I was being more entertained by the gulls roosting on the docks.  For example, here's a handy comparison; a GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULL sandwiched between two WESTERN GULLS:
On the GWGU, you can see the paler mantle, the dirtier head, and the gray primary tips that match the shade of the mantle.

Most birders knows that the darkness of a gull mantle can change drastically based on the angle at which you're viewing it from.  Here's a likely example; the standing bird is probably at a slightly different angle than the sitting birds:
Anyway, you can see our quick checklist from that stop here.

The next morning on our way back we stopped at the College of the Redwoods with only one thing in mind, trying to relocate the RED-NAPED SAPSUCKER that has been present since early January.  Everyone said it was very reliable and easy but having never tried, I couldn't speak from experience.  Ashley and I found the college, walked the mowed trail between the two ponds, turned left, and Ashley stopped dead in her tracks... the bird was right where it was supposed to be.  We watched it for a few seconds before it flew north into the woods and out of sight.  We waited a minute or two and soon it came zooming back to its favorite tree.  This time, however, it had a cherry-like fruit that it had brought from the woods.  We snuck around the tree and found that the bird had jammed the fruit into a column of sap wells and was chowing down on it:
It deftly removed the pit too before proceeding:
Anyway, it was a pretty sharp-looking bird:
So that worked well.  It was our first pure RNSA for California (they're more of an Interior West species).  Here's our checklist; we were only there for 18 minutes in total before the rain really set in and we hauled our satisfied selves back to the car and continued towards home.

06 February 2015

A not-so-common Common

In looking back at the past 5 days or so, a lot has happened.  Here's a quick attempt to bring my two readers up to speed.

I won't go in chronological order though, mostly because I'd like to start with the star of the show.  It started more than a week ago when Bill Bouton, a birder from southern California, was birding in Crescent City, California (northwest California).  He photographed a scoter in the "boat basin" in town (ok, where I grew up, we'd call this a marina).  About a week goes by, he gets back home and starts going through his photos.  It's then he notices how odd the scoter looked.  He got the word out shortly thereafter, it was indeed a COMMON SCOTER (Melanitta nigra).  If accepted by the state and ABA CLC, this would be a first ABA record of this Old World species.

For most of my life, there was just Black Scoter (Melanitta nigra) which had two subspecies, one found in North America and one found in Europe.  In 2010, the subspecies were split into distinct species; Black Scoter (Melanitta americana) and Common Scoter (Melanitta nigra).  This didn't affect us on this side of the pond because the then-new Common Scoter had never been seen in the U.S. or Canada.  Until now.

Although Crescent City is a decent drive from here (about 7 hours to the NW), I figured I had to catch up with this once-in-a-lifetime rarity.  When I arrived on the afternoon of 2 February, it was raining... REALLY raining.  I didn't care.  Besides, the COMMON SCOTER was there and waiting... and it didn't mind people at all:

In context, this is a rarer bird than ANY of the great rarities I saw on St. Paul last year (we didn't see any 1st ABA records; the Common Chiffchaff was about the 5th ABA record, the Wood Warblers were also the 5th ABA record).

I didn't stick around long in Del Norte County (pronounced "Del Nort").  However, I did venture up to Smith River to see the continuing BLACK-THROATED BLUE WARBLER but only because it was a state bird for me (I don't bother much with chasing county birds in those parts).  It was super rainy and dark though and my photos of the warbler are epically grainy:
With that Del Norte excitement aside, I can backtrack and mention some other recent happenings.

Last weekend we decided to venture to a part of the Golden State that we had never been to; Alpine County.  This was one of two counties that I had yet to visit and bird in.  We made the 2 hour drive up and enjoyed a quick hike to get our county lists rolling.  After being stuck in the valley for a while, it was so refreshing to be around a different suite of birds including MOUNTAIN CHICKADEES:
Also common were TOWNSEND'S SOLITAIRES.  Do a little squeaking or owl imitation and they zoom right in to check out the commotion:
It was there that the bird nerd in me really showed itself; I really wanted to find some of the WHITE-BREASTED NUTHATCHES but only because they're a different subspecies than the ones we have in the Central Valley.  As soon as we heard our first WBNU, we instantly knew; it sounded drastically different than what we were used to.  Here's a pic:
Up in the high country, CLARK'S NUTCRACKERS are commonplace.  Did you know that one nutcracker can cache 98,000 seeds per season?  They also have an incredible long-term spatial memory; they can remember seed locations, sometimes 9 months later, and even under three feet of snow.  Anyway, if they're around, just follow the raspy screeches:
Our final list from this hike wasn't huge but we were still happy with seeing different things.  Our checklist from that stop can be seen here.

The scenery was a nice change too!  Here's a mostly-open stream in Alpine County:
And since my phone takes panoramic photos, I gave that a try too:
Our next stop was near the south shore of Lake Tahoe.  We figured that seeing some different woodpeckers would be fun and so stopped at Taylor Creek to target some of those.

It took less than 5 minutes to find our first WHITE-HEADED WOODPECKER.  Such a cool species.  Here's a male (you can see red on the nape):
In fact, the 3 WHWOs we saw put on a great show and provided us with the best looks we've ever had of that species.  Pictures were ridiculous too; here's a female (no red on the nape):
Another woodpecker we were keen to see again was the WILLIAMSON'S SAPSUCKER.  We weren't sure how easy they would be to find but we were hopeful.  At one point we stopped dead in our tracks because we heard a woodpecker tapping.  We looked up and saw this nice male WILLIAMSON'S SAPSUCKER:
Turns out, this wasn't even the bird making the tapping sounds!  Those sounds were from another WHITE-HEADED WOODPECKER nearby (and yes, they were both visible at the same time).  In a way, we owe that particular woodpecker for our sapsucker sighting.  We were pretty happy to see a WISA again.  In fact, this was only the 5th time I'd ever seen this species in my life.

Although less flashy, the PYGMY NUTHATCHES were abundant too.  This is another species we don't have in the Central Valley.  I think this was my best shot of one from that day:
That last stop also included a venture out to the shore of Lake Tahoe:
There were a few waterbirds way out like BUFFLEHEAD, COMMON GOLDENEYE, and several COMMON LOONS.  In all, here's our checklist from that stop.

Back here in Sacramento County, we've been eying year birds that we still need.  One such species was EURASIAN WIGEON.  We decided to venture down to Cosumnes to check out some recent reports.  Ashley picked him out first:
Lastly, I found myself in the grasslands of Solano County yesterday looking at a flock of 92 MOUNTAIN PLOVERS.  In fact, this was only the 7th time I'd seen this uncommon shorebird species in my entire life.  This location, only 20 miles from where I live (as the bird flies), often has wintering MOPLs but I'd never seen that many OR that close.  Some of these plovers were probably only 20 meters away.  Enjoy: