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Posts Tagged ‘Flocking’

I was out along the shores of Bucks Lake near Quincy, CA, last week, in the hope of getting some more of my field work done. Unfortunately, I did not think to check the weather report before I left. It has been so dry this summer that it did not even cross my mind that it might rain! Well, this was the day that rain it did. A lot! It started as I was driving up into the mountains, and did not stop all morning! When I got to Bucks Lake I parked near Haskins Creek and sat in my car for a while. I soon decided, however, that if I was going to up there, I might as well get out and do some birding. Maybe I would find some Evening Grosbeaks and see what they were up to in the rain.

Well, I did not find any Evening Grosbeaks, but I did get a good bit of birding in. I spent most of my time watching a big flock of White-crowned Sparrows, Golden-crowned Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos. Watching the birds forage in the rain was pretty cool. The lighter showers were not enough to bother most of the birds most of the time, and so they stayed along the roadside. It was only when a heavier downpour began that the birds would retreat into the cover of some dense willow thickets and wait until the rain lightened up again. I was struck, as I often am, by how dramatic an event migration is. Just last week, I was up in the mountains and saw my very first White-crowned, and Golden-crowned, Sparrows of the fall. Now, here is a flock of about 60 White-crowns and 20 Golden-crowns! Just like that, this synchronized wave of millions of birds has descended upon California!

As I continued to watch this flock, I started to pick out the odd birds that were mixed in. There was one Song Sparrow. A few Yellow-rumped Warblers flew in and out. Of these, two were of the Myrtle subspecies, which is generally the more eastern subspecies, so they were cool to find. I continued to watch through my binoculars, but suddenly the birds that I could see scattered. I took my binoculars down and saw that the whole flock was racing for cover! I looked up and found out the reason for the sudden panic. An adult Red-shouldered Hawk was flying right up the middle of the meadow and directly over the foraging passerines. The hawk did not actually make any directed move towards the small birds, but instead flew off into the trees. A little later, an adult Bald Eagle also flew, rather dramatically through the rain and mists, over the flock. This bird did not cause any reaction from the sparrows at all, and neither did a Common Raven a few minutes after the eagle. The sparrows can apparently tell the difference between various predators, and know which they should worry about. I thought this demonstrated some pretty fine ID skills on the part of the sparrows!

In spite of being cold and wet and not finding any Evening Grosbeaks and not getting any field work done, I really enjoyed that morning in the storm. It made me realize how much I have missed being out in the rain!

Here is my full species list:

Bald Eagle (1)

Red-shouldered Hawk (1)

Northern Flicker (2)

Steller’s Jay (11)

Common Raven (1)

Mountain Chickadee (3)

Red-breasted Nuthatch (3)

Golden-crowned Kinglet (5)

American Robin (8)

Yellow-rumped Warbler (3 Audubon’s, 2 Myrtle)

Song Sparrow (1)

White-crowned Sparrow (60)

Golden-crowned Sparrow (20)

Dark-eyed Junco (20)

Brewer’s Blackbird (1)

 

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On the morning of the 19th, I was out birding in the early morning along the Clarksberg Branchline Trail in West Sacramento. I was poking around the section of trail just north of Lake Washington Blvd. from about 6:20am to 7:30am. It was one of those morning where I decided to not worry about covering a lot of ground. Instead, I wanted to take my time, relax, and covered the ground thoroughly really investigating each bird I heard or saw and taking my time to enjoy it. I was rewarded by some lovely views and fun finds. My species list is at the end.

Right as I started my walk, I saw a long, slim animal run out from the edge of the blackberry tangle along the trail ahead of me. It stopped out in the open for a short moment and then continued on towards the large pond just east of the trail. To my surprise, I realized that it was a Mink! I have seen River Otters at this location before, but never a Mink. What was it doing here? As I scanned the pond, there were no birds swimming in the water except three domestic ducks that were probably dumped here to become feral. As I stood by the water’s edge, I head several birds in one of the willows that grow right on the bank. I walked that way, and found a Marsh Wren singing in the cattails and my first White-crowned Sparrow of the fall for West Sacramento! It was a really good looking  adult bird that was sitting in, and calling from, that willow. Soon the Central Valley will be covered in millions of White-crowned Sparrows back from their breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska to spend a comparatively warm winter in lovely California.

As the sun rose, beautifully tinged blood red by the smoke from the King Fire that is burning just east of Sacramento, I stumbled my way into a mixed insectivore flock. At this time of year, with migrants and vagrants wandering all over the country, mixed insectivore flocks are always worth spending some time with. Often, many birds will come together to forage, and this can attract individuals of species that you might not get to see otherwise. In this case, the bulk of the birds were Bushtits, maybe 25 of them, which were streaming from oak tree to oak tree giving their high pitched contact calls as they told each other where they were. As I watched these tinny birds, I started to notice the other species in the flock. A Western Scrub-Jay, a coupe of Northern Mockingbirds, and a lovely pair of Black-throated Gray Warblers which came low in some small trees and afforded me some great looks! The day ended with a total of 5 of these warblers which is a lot compared to what I am used to seeing in winter, which is just one or two.

After I left the mixed flock, I walked out into an open field that had been mowed and tilled. As I walked along the line of tree that marks the edge of this field I was treated to a fast triple-raptor encounter. First, a Swainson’s Hawk took off from one of the tree tops and doove down into the field. It pulled up before landing, apparently the prey animal it had seen got under cover in time to avoid becoming breakfast for the hawk, and returned to its perch. right after that a Red-tailed Hawk came barreling of the line of trees and cruised over the field and away. As I was watching the Red-tail, a Red-shouldered Hawk started calling behind me. It was circling at about tree top level and proclaiming dominion over this patch of ground. The Red-shouldered Hawk is a resident bird that I see almost every time I bird this area. The Swainson’s Hawk breeds nearby somewhere, but then leaves, with the rest of it’s species members, to head south in winter which is something that will be happening soon. The Red-tail could go either way in that it could be a resident or a migrant just here for the summer. How these different hawks interact and adjust to one another is a question that has long interested me. Take the Red-shoulder, for instance. It has a territory that it defends year-round. Suddenly, in mid-March this Swainson’s Hawk shows up trying to find a place to settle and nest. How does the Red-shoulder respond? Does it simply move out of the larger hawks way? Do the birds compete and adjust their territory boundaries to one another? Do these birds eat different enough foods that they don’t really care about each other? And then, how does the Red-tailed Hawk fit into all this? How resident birds adjust to the comings and goings of migrants is not something that has gotten a lot of attention and I think could make for a really cool research project.

Looking at the open field with the naked eye, I did not see anything out there, but just on a whim I decided to give it a scan with my binoculars. As I looked slowly across the field I saw no less than 15 Killdeer scattered about foraging. So much an empty field! It reminded me that a lot can be hiding and go unnoticed when only a cursory inspection is done.

This was a really nice morning birding. I saw some beautiful birds that got me thinking about interesting ideas and taught me a thing or two all at the same time.

Double-crested Cormorant (1)

Turkey Vulture (1)

Canada Goose (12)

Red-shouldered Hawk (1)

Red-tailed Hawk (1)

Swainson’s Hawk (1)

Killdeer (15)

Western Gull (3)

Rock Pigeon (70)

Mourning Dove (20)

Anna’s Hummingbird (3)

Belted Kingfisher (1)

Nuttall’s Woodpecker (4)

Black Phoebe (3)

Western Scrub-Jay (11)

American Crow (12)

Oak Titmouse (4)

Bushtit (25)

Bewick’s Wren (3)

Marsh Wren (1)

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (1)

American Robin (5)

Northern Mockingbird (2)

European Starling (30)

Cedar Waxwing (8)

Orange-crowned Warbler (5)

Black-throated Gray Warbler (5)

Spotted Towhee (2)

California Towhee (1)

White-crowned Sparrow (1)

Red-winged Blackbird (30)

Mink (1)

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This past weekend, my wife and I joined the rest of the graduate group that I am in for our annual retreat.  The retreat was a camping trip to Boca Spring campground.  It is a great campground in the eastern Sierra Nevada between Truckee and the Nevada State boarder at about 5900 ft in elevation, and set amongst Ponderosa Pines and the occasional Lodgepole Pine.  Each morning I got up early and went out to do some birding!  On Saturday morning, I walked along forest service roads through the pines and around the edges of wet mountain meadows amidst the sagebrush.  It was simply lovely.  And there was some great birding to be had!  At one point, I heard a Northern Pygmy Owl tooting away not far from me, though I was never able to actually see it.  On a small ridge line, I found a mixed flick that included Mountain Chickadee, Yellow-rumped Warbler, White-breasted Nuthatch, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Pygmy Nuthatch.  From what I can remember, this is only the second or third time I have had a three nuthatch species day!  I was quite thrilled!  This flock was moving through the forest along the ridge.  What really struck me was how unevenly the birds were scattered across the forest.  I had found this fair sized flock of birds all in one place, but before and after, walked through forest that looked the same to me and had the same topography, but had no such flocks.  What made that particular small ridge-line so much better than the one to the east or west of it?  On my way back to camp, I got an additional thrill when I heard, and then saw, Evening Grosbeaks in the area!  Back in the campground, there were White-headed Woodpeckers and a small flock of Western Bluebirds.  Also back in camp, a group of Evening Grosbeaks flew right into the trees above us.  There were about eight birds and all the flight calls that I heard were Type 2, which is the dominant Sierra type.
In the afternoon, we visited the Sagehen Creek Reserve.  This is one of the nature reserves run by the University of California.  We were joined by my advisor who gave us a introductory presentation on the birds and habitat of the high Sierra, and then we all went for a walk to see what we could see.  I added Red Crossbill, Pine Siskin, Hairy Woodpecker, and MacGillivray’s Warbler.  We also found an adult Caddisfly.  Not sure of what species, but I am sure that is this first adult caddisfly I have ever seen!  We also found a Comma which is a species of butterfly.

This was a great trip with great birds and other wildlife, and I even got some scouting done for my own research!  I will definitely be returning to the Boca Spring Campground in the future to find my Evening Grosbeaks.

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As I was exiting off one of the major freeways in Davis, I passed by a big group of Yellow-billed Magpies.  Around 35 or 40 of these birds were foraging on the ground in an open grassy space or sitting in some low trees nearby.  It turns out that, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a group of magpies is called a tiding!  These tidings tend to form at this time of year as hatch-year birds group together, and wander around looking for food and prepare to survive their first winter.  For most birds, the largest source of mortality is young birds not finding enough food or shelter in their first winter.  Some species have been found to have as high as 80% mortality in this period.  So by grouping together, Yellow-billed Magpies may be hoping to gain safety in numbers, and they may also be hoping to learn various tricks of the trade from one another.  Yellow-billed Magpies are endemic to central California and are non-migratory, so after they get through our wet winter, the tidings will break up as individuals go off to find mates and establish breeding territories.

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A friend sent me this video.  The huge flock of European Starlings is truly amazing, and they are in their native range!  The shear numbers alone would make this video worth watching, but the movement of each individual within each group, and the coordination of the different groups on top of that, makes this simply breathtaking.

P.S. A group of Starlings is called a murmuration.

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