Friday, January 3, 2020

Getting to Know Special Places: An Invitation to Explore the Tuolumne River (And Birds! Lots of Birds)

Not all of you know that I actually have two blogs. Geotripper has been active since the late Paleozoic of cyberworld (2008), but I've also been producing Geotripper's California Birds since 2014. I came to love birds at first because of some journeys to the Hawaiian Islands where I was introduced to the unique native species there. Then I ended up with a pretty powerful camera lens that allowed me to see our local birds up close, and from then I was hooked.

I started writing (and just posted) a year-end summation of our bird discoveries this year on the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail, and by the time I finished, I realized I had written a fairly extensive description of my 'special place', the kind of place I wrote about in the previous post about seeing as much of the world as possible. So here is a description of my place, along with the absolutely fascinating birds that are found there.
The first bird of 2019 near the Tuolumne River

The Tuolumne is one of the most spectacular rivers in North America, with its headwaters in the alpine country of Yosemite National Park. It flows through a gorge as deep as the Grand Canyon, is trapped for a time in Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, and then flows free again for a number of miles before being trapped again in Don Pedro Reservoir. After that, the river flows unimpeded until it joins the San Joaquin River near the Sacramento Delta. The stretch I walk almost daily is a two mile trail (the Tuolumne River Parkway) where the river emerges from the Mother Lode of the Sierra Nevada into the Central Valley.
High water, 2017. At around 15,000 cfs, portions of the trail are underwater.

The river has many moods. Although the flow is controlled by the dams upstream, there are times when the dams have to open their spillways to prevent them being overwhelmed by floodwaters. For much of the year, the flow is artificially kept at around 200-400 cubic feet per second (cfs). During 'normal' years, there will be a few 'surge' flows to help the salmon runs, and the water will reach 2,000-3,000 cfs. But in emergencies, the flows will reach 18,000 cfs or more (the worst ever was 1997 when the flows reached a record 70,000 cfs). At 15,000 cfs, almost the entire floodplain is inundated and portions of the trail end up underwater (see above, from 2017).
The first Bald Eagle to be reported officially on the Parkway Trail
I don't see many mammals on my walks (squirrels of course, and the occasional river otter or fox), but the birds are an ever-changing drama, as you have no doubt noticed if you follow this blog. I have become a familiar sight to the river 'regulars' as the quirky old man who is always looking up and taking pictures of birds. I was astounded to discover the variety of birds who call the river home (or their migration stopover).
Western Tanager, a summer migrant along the river. One our most colorful species.
I have been counting all of the birds I've seen on my excursions. They get reported on e-Bird, which is one of the main citizen science birding organizations. With thousands upon thousands of reports daily, E-bird is able to track the numbers and movements of bird species all over the world, and the data is available online. When you enjoy numbers the way I do, you'll understand how easy it can be to get lost for hours on their website. It might seem overwhelming at first, but e-Bird encourages reports every day, and not just for unusual or exotic species. They also want to know what is happening in backyards and urban parks as well. Over time, we'll be able to see the effects of global warming on bird migration and populations, so the reports, however mundane they might be, are extremely important.
A Hooded Oriole. They nested on the bluffs this year and usually head south in the winter, but two of them remained in late November, the only ones reported in Central California
This was the first year when I have made at least one bird report of each week of the year, and my counts along with those of several other birders have revealed the diversity of bird life on this long abused river environment. In 2019, 116 bird species were reported. That placed the Tuolumne as the sixth most diverse birding "hot spot" in our county, behind only the Modesto Wastewater Treatment Ponds (!), and four sites within the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge (that's for the year; for all time, the river trail is tied for 20th out of more than 100 hot spots in the county).
A Rufous Hummingbird along the river. I saw only a couple this year as they migrated through the region.
Walking along the river, one becomes familiar with many of the individual birds. There are the year-round residents: California Scrub Jays, Northern Mockingbirds, European Starlings, Eurasian Doves, Yellow-billed Magpies, Belted Kingfishers, and Canada Geese. A different group hangs out at the water treatment ponds midway along the trail: Killdeer, Greater Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpipers, Least Sandpipers and Black Phoebes. There are three woodpecker species that can be seen nearly every day, Acorn Woodpeckers, Nuttall's Woodpeckers, and Northern Flickers. A pair of Mute Swans have raised several broods in the quarry lake across from the western trailhead.

A female Phainopepla. The males are entirely black.
Then there are the migrants, those that are resident for only part of the year. The spring and summer brings the colorful tropical birds from Mexico and Central America. They include the Western Tanager, the Black-headed Grosbeak, the Bullock's Oriole, the Hooded Oriole, and the Rufous Hummingbird. I'm a sucker for bright colors, so these are my favorite birds to see. I catch my breath every time I spot one of the them and I'm tense all through March and April waiting for their first arrival (although I had a tremendous shock in November, having two sightings of extremely unseasonable Hooded Orioles). The Phainopepla is another tropical favorite whose range is extending northward, and I've seen them at odd times throughout the year.
A male Bullock's Oriole. Like many birds, the females are less colorful.

The spring also brings the swallows, the Barn Swallow, Tree Swallow, Cliff Swallow, and Northern Rough-winged Swallow. The sky is sometimes filled with hundreds of them.

American White Pelicans occasionally fly over the Tuolumne River
The raptors are always around, including Red-tailed Hawks, Red-shouldered Hawks, Swainson's Hawks, Turkey Vultures (check this link for a 'cute' baby vulture 'smoking' a cigarette), Ospreys, Cooper's Hawks (see photo above), and American Kestrels. I had a single sighting this year of a Northern Harrier, and a Sharp-shinned Hawk.
The shallows of the Tuolumne provide good fishing for the Osprey (also known as the Sea Hawk).
There were the single sightings this year...a flyover of Sandhill Cranes, several kinds of duck passing through, including Ring-necked, and Buffleheads, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, a Red-breasted Sapsucker, and several flycatchers and warblers.
Red-breasted Sapsucker, seen just once this year along the Tuolumne.
What did I miss seeing the most? My most desired sightings are a pair of blue-colored birds: the Lazuli Bunting, and the Blue Grosbeak. I saw a Bunting in 2018, and I saw both birds this year along other parts of the river. But I didn't see any this year on the Parkway Trail. Anyone want to guess what I'll be watching for in a few months?
Lazuli Bunting at Ceres River Bluff Regional Park, downstream of the Parkway Trail

I saw a Blue Grosbeak several times, at the Ceres River Bluff Regional Park downstream from the Parkway Trail, and I was especially surprised to find the bird upstream at Robert's Ferry Bridge. To make the experience even stranger, I saw a bobcat a few moments later. Our region is at the extreme north end of the range of this tropical bird.
Blue Grosbeak at Ceres Bluff Regional Park, downstream of the Tuolumne Parkway Trail
The highlight of the year? I saw a bird seen in Stanislaus County only four times previously: a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. It's a bird whose range is really in the eastern U.S., but a very few wind up in California. I was tracking some Black-headed Grosbeaks, and this individual flew by and landed in a nearby oak long enough for a couple of pictures (which I'm glad I got; I don't think anyone would have believed me without them). It was a thrilling moment for me and the four other birders who made out to Waterford in time to see it.

If you are a glutton for punishment, here is the complete list of all the Tuolumne River's 116 birds seen in 2019 (the all-time list numbers 133 species). If you click on the name, you'll be taken to eBird description of the species. If you want to contribute to the 2020 list, you can find it here: I'm still an amateur at this, and would love the help of sharper-eyed people than myself. Who knows what we can find this year!
1 Canada Goose
2 Mute Swan
3 Wood Duck
4 Common Goldeneye
5 Eurasian Collared-Dove
6 Mourning Dove
7 White-throated Swift
8 Least Sandpiper
9 Greater Yellowlegs
10 California Gull
11 Great Egret
12 Red-tailed Hawk
13 Belted Kingfisher
14 Acorn Woodpecker
15 Nuttall's Woodpecker
16 Northern Flicker
17 American Kestrel
18 Black Phoebe
19 California Scrub-Jay
20 Yellow-billed Magpie
21 Ruby-crowned Kinglet
22 Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
23 European Starling
24 Northern Mockingbird
25 Cedar Waxwing
26 House Finch
27 White-crowned Sparrow
28 Golden-crowned Sparrow
29 Orange-crowned Warbler
30 Yellow-rumped Warbler
31 Ring-necked Duck
32 Wild Turkey
33 Spotted Sandpiper
34 Double-crested Cormorant
35 Great Horned Owl
36 American Crow
37 Lincoln's Sparrow
38 Pied-billed Grebe
39 Rock Pigeon
40 Anna's Hummingbird
41 Bonaparte's Gull
42 Bushtit
43 White-breasted Nuthatch
44 American Robin
45 House Sparrow
46 American Goldfinch
47 Dark-eyed Junco
48 Killdeer
49 Lesser Goldfinch
50 Sharp-shinned Hawk
51 Red-shouldered Hawk
52 Oak Titmouse
53 Downy Woodpecker
54 Northern Pintail
55 California Towhee
56 Spotted Towhee
57 Snowy Egret
58 American Wigeon
59 Cooper's Hawk
60 Hooded Oriole
61 American Coot
62 Western Bluebird
63 Green Heron
64 Northern Shoveler
65 Bufflehead
66 House Wren
67 Turkey Vulture
68 Hermit Thrush
69 Lesser Yellowlegs
70 Northern Harrier
71 Barn Owl
72 Phainopepla
73 Brewer's Blackbird
74 Great Blue Heron
75 American White Pelican
76 Hooded Merganser
77 Greater White-fronted Goose
78 Western Meadowlark
79 Mallard
80 Sandhill Crane
81 California Quail
82 Song Sparrow
83 White-faced Ibis
84 Osprey
85 Red-breasted Sapsucker
86 Western Wood-Pewee
87 Western Tanager
88 Warbling Vireo
89 Black-throated Gray Warbler
90 Wilson's Warbler
91 Barn Swallow
92 Black-chinned Hummingbird
93 Willow Flycatcher
94 Bullock's Oriole
95 Cattle Egret
96 Rufous Hummingbird
97 Cliff Swallow
98 Ash-throated Flycatcher
99 Western Kingbird
100 Black-headed Grosbeak
101 Northern Rough-winged Swallow
102 Tree Swallow
103 Wrentit
104 Swainson's Hawk
105 Forster's Tern
106 Rose-breasted Grosbeak
107 Brown-headed Cowbird
108 Cinnamon Teal
109 Townsend's Warbler
110 Olive-sided Flycatcher
111 Common Merganser
112 Black-necked Stilt
113 Savannah Sparrow
114 Bald Eagle
115 Say's Phoebe
116    Fox Sparrow

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Lovely photos. The diversity is stunning. In our snowy Okanagan BC yard, it was thrilling yesterday to see a red-breasted nuthatch inspecting the suet hanging from the birch tree. Once snow covers the ground here, we generally see only finches and sparrows, chickadees, woodpeckers, juncos, quail and magpies.