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The Undiscovered Country

2021 Merced County Species-to-Date (as of last checklist)
Life List = 186
Year List = 140

Whereas this title may bring to mind either Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Gene Roddenberry’s Start Trek VI, it is merely a reference to the Eastern Merced County grasslands that I had never ventured into before.

I again scoured eBird for recent reports for Eastern Merced County. I seem to be following in the footsteps of Dale Swanberg as he recently reported a couple of my target birds for this area, this time of year. Most of his reports were for areas that I had not seen before.

TARGET BIRDS FOR THE DAY

The following photos were all taken in Stanislaus County, but are the focus of my adventures today.

Ferruginous Hawk
Rough-legged Hawk
Golden Eagle
Lewis’s Woodpecker
Prairie Falcon
Vesper Sparrow

White Rock Rd. STOP #1

I started driving north and then east on White Rock Road enjoying almost zero traffic for the entire area. Almost immediately I spotted two adult Bald Eagles roosting in a tree.

A short distance later I spied another very distant adult Bald Eagle, and then an even more distant immature Bald Eagle. I reached the county line and turned back, inching along, looking at every sparrow in hopes of finding a Vesper. A very white hawk standing in the field caught my attention. I approached it carefully and noted that it was one of my target birds for the day, a Ferruginous Hawk. Unfortunately as luck would have it, a large cattle truck rumbled very noisily by scaring off my Kodak Moment. 😦

A consolation Burrowing Owl was hiding in the gravel and rock pilings. A barely recognizable photo shows the ID, but it’s not the kind of photo I would like.

https://ebird.org/checklist/S79929493

ONWARD TO STOP #2

Next up was E. South Bear Creek Dr. in hopes of re-finding the Vesper Sparrow reported by Dale Swanberg. There was literally no traffic and tons of sparrows to sort through. At the end of the road along the fence line was another Ferruginous Hawk, just a bit too far away for a good photo.

Ferruginous Hawk Along E. South Bear Creek Dr.

Once again, the Vesper Sparrow must not have returned from vespers last night because I didn’t find one here today.

https://ebird.org/checklist/S79932948

CONTINUING TO STOP #3 – Lake Yosemite County Park

Here I was hoping to find and photograph one of the continuing Vermilion Flycatchers, Mountain Bluebirds, or the Thayer’s Gull photographed by D Krajnovich. It was a sunny, cool and breezy spot, but unfortunately the only thing I succesfully photographed was a pair of Canada Geese at the entrance.

Canada Geese

There was also a nice osprey soaring overhead, but it never got close enough for a good shot.

Same thing for a distant Belted Kingfisher’

Belted Kingfisher

On the way out, I spotted a likely candidate for the female Vermilion Flycatcher so I turned around for a second pass. Unfortunately there was a lot of traffic and all I could do was slow down and shoot while driving past it. I then made the mistake of assuming it was my hoped for bird and I added “it” to my eBird checklist and closed it out. It wasn’t until I got home and had the chance to look at my images that it was painfully clear that my Vermilion Flycatcher was just a Say’s Phoebe. Oops!

Says Phoebe
https://ebird.org/checklist/S79936263

2021 Merced County Species-to-Date (as of today’s last checklist)
Life List = 187
Year List = 141

Birding Between the Storms

2021 Merced County Species-to-Date (as of last checklist)
Life List = 183
Year List = 122

Seeing a break between storms, I reached out to Rich Brown and Dale Swanberg to see if they wanted to explore the San Luis Reservoir State Recreation areas. I was hoping that something unusual would show up with the unsettled weather and strong winds the day before. We met up in Santa Nella and Dale lead us to Los Banos Creek Reservoir which is a part of the recreation area that I had never visited before. I noticed a couple of new year birds that went unrecorded for the time being as I’m sure I will get them at an actual birding hotspot later (Great-tailed Grackle and Yellow-billed Magpie).

25 Jan 2021 – FIRST STOP LOS BANOS CREEK RESERVOIR

At the bridge over the Delta Mendota Canal, both Rich and I stopped to quickly photograph a female Canvasback that was swimming away.

Canvasback (female)

We quickly caught up with Dale, who was wondering what we were doing. The entrance seemed to be lacking the usual entrance sign that most state recreation areas have. There was a sign at the base of the dam though.

Los Banos Creek Reservoir Dam

After getting our parking spot assignment, we parked near the entrance, searching for roadrunners that might be hanging out. We dipped on the beep-beep, but had an encounter with a very large pig and about 20 little porkers running behind her. The skies portended inclement weather and the water was choppy.

Los Banos Creek Reservoir

I was amazed at the number of Aechmophorus grebes hanging out around all coves and inlets of the reservoir. Aechmophorus refers to the genus name of Western and Clark’s Grebes that used to be conspecific until their split back in the late 80s. A quick count using my telescope of the birds I could see gave me a total of a little over 300 birds with the ratio of Western to Clarks at about 10:1.

Aechmorporus Grebes

For a comparison, Clark’s Grebes have an orangish-yellow tint to their bills and their eyes are entirely or mostly surrounded by white facial feathers.

Clark’s Grebe
Clark’s Grebe

The Western Grebe lacks the orangish tone in the yellow bill and their eyes are surrounded by black facial feathers.

Western Grebes
Western Grebe

On the way out as we were fording the creek, off to our left was the big momma pig hiding quite effectively in the reeds.

A Ford Fording

https://ebird.org/checklist/S79902945

SECOND STOP MEDEIROS AREA

The winds had picked up as we reached the boat launch area and the birds were scattered quite a ways from where we were. Dale and Rich (socially distanced of course), searched every corner for something unusual or new for the year.

Dale Swanberg & Rich Brown

As we skimmed over the rafts of Ruddy Ducks and American Coots, we could see distant Canvasbacks, Buffleheads and Common Goldeneyes with nary a Barrow’s to be seen.

Up ahead something caught my eye. It was a small grebe, much smaller than either a Western or Clark’s and it had too distinctive of a white cheek patch to be an Eared Grebe. We pulled over, jumped out and got our binoculars on a nice Horned Grebe. This would be the first of this species to be recorded in the county this year. Horned Grebes are more of a coastal wetlands and bay bird with a few spotted in the valley each year. Not rare, but certainly uncommon.

Horned Grebe
Eared Grebe for Comparison

After checking off the Horned grebe on our eBird Mobile checklist, we focused on the many Scaup flocks, hoping to ID a Greater in with the Lessers. Greater Scaup are similar to Horned Grebes in that they are more usually found along the coast. The one spot they seem easier to find though is exactly where we were.

Greater Scaup

The Greater Scaup is slightly larger, has a rounded head without any peak and a bill tooth that is relatively wide at the distal end of the bill.

Greater Scaup

We decided to give the other side of the reservoir a check to see if the winds were a little less knock your hat off.

https://ebird.org/checklist/S79887168

THIRD STOP SAN LUIS CREEK AREA

We were treated to much calmer conditions at the San Luis Creek area and were treated to a flock of Lark Sparrows as soon as we started down the trail.

Lark Sparrow

We enjoyed lots of Juncos and sparrows and some offshore Bufflehead as we walked along the shoreline. There were plenty of kinglets, sparrows and Bushtits, but nothing else unusual or new for the year.

On the way out a nice Common Raven posed for me.

Common Raven

https://ebird.org/checklist/S79892274

2021 Merced County Species-to-Date (as of today’s checklists)
Life List = 186
Year List = 140

BIRDING THE MERCED RIVER

2021 Merced County Species-to-Date (as of last checklist)
Life List = 179
Year List = 99

HENDERSON PARK

Nestled next to the Merced River, surrounded by riparian trees and home to a myriad of ornamental evergreen and deciduous trees in an open setting, Henderson Park was our target for the morning.

COLLEGE CREDIT FOR BIRD WATCHING – WHAT?

Almost 36 years ago I first visited the Snelling area, (Henderson Park specifically), on a college field trip. I, along with 20 other college students, were getting credit for the requisite “Winter Term Course” for graduation and I was ecstatic that Winter Birding was an option. As a matter of random circumstance, I had to take Ornithology the previous spring as it was the only upper division science course I could fit into my fulltime working, two kid family, busy life. As a result of taking Zoology 4630 – Ornithology, I had become hooked on birding and it seemed surreal to get credit for going birding. The one thing I remember about that particular trip was seeing three species of goldfinch. I only recorded an X for the 32 species seen, so my eBird list doesn’t have numbers.

eBird Checklist Link for 2/19/1985

ABOUT HENDERSON PARK

Designed by county surveyor and architect William “Bill” E. Bedesen, Henderson Park is similar to Lake Yosemite which Bedesen also designed for the WPA. Henderson Park has a sister WPA-constructed park near Hillmar, called Hagaman Park. Both have cobble stone-faced entrances. WPA work at Henderson Park includes a clubhouse, comfort station and utility shed, as well as curved stone walls. All are built of concrete blocks with a cobblestone veneer of stones that were dredged from the Merced River. https://livingnewdeal.org/projects/henderson-park-snelling-ca-snelling-ca/

FOLLOWING FOOTSTEPS

Recent eBird reports by Dale Swanberg, Richard Brown, Sam Fellows and Gary Woods helped me set a target list, both for new species for my year list and for photos, always more photos! High on my lists were: Red-breasted Sapsucker, Chipping Sparrows, White-throated Sparrow, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Pine Siskin and the unusual Slate-colored Junco, a sub-species of Dark-eyed Junco.

Stalking my Prey – As can be seen in my eBird Mobile Tracks map above, I wandered around and around, going wherever I saw or heard birds.

TARGET BIRDS

Red-breasted Sapsucker
Red-breasted Sapsucker
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Brown Creeper
Brown Creeper
Pine Siskin
Slate-colored Junco
Slate-colored Junco
Dark-eyed Junco

BONUS BIRDS

Bushtit
American Robin
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Western Bluebird – Male
Western Bluebird – Female

eBird Checklist for 1/13/2021

THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY – ALMOST

After 2 1/2 hours of searching unsuccessfully for my last target bird, White-throated Sparrow, I headed home. I was determined to go back better prepared and with an expert! Two days later, Richard Brown accompanied me back to the park and he showed me the exact brush pile that he had photographed the sparrow on 4 days before.

After a short distraction by a Phainopepla…

Phainopepla

we crept carefully to the perfect position with the sun to our backs, moving ever so slowly and BAM! It popped up.

White-throated Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow

eBird Checklist for 1/15/2021

So after 2 visits to the park, my year-to-date totals for Merced County (now over 100), are sitting at 122.

Where to next???

2021 Merced County Species-to-Date (as of current checklist)
Life List = 183
Year List = 122

COVID-19 Birding – A Therapeutic Walk in Nature

Contact with nature benefits our mood, our psychological well-being, our mental health, and our cognitive functioning. For centuries outdoor enthusiasts have given testimony to the joy one can derive from a simple walk in nature.

“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”

― William Shakespeare
Isaac Gain

“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”

― Albert Einstein
John Harris

“In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.”

― Aristotle

BENEFITS OF BIRD WATCHING

Stress reduction

study from the University of Exeter in England found that people living in neighborhoods with more birds and tree cover are less likely to have depression, anxiety and stress.

The study, published in the journal BioScience, surveyed more than 270 people from towns throughout southern England. Researchers found a positive association between the number of birds and trees in a neighborhood and residents’ mental health, even after controlling for a neighborhood’s poverty level and other demographic factors.

Richard Taylor

“Evidence is there to support the conclusion that contact with nature benefits our mood, our psychological well-being, our mental health, and our cognitive functioning,”

Jonathon Gain

Improve cardiovascular health

Many may be shocked to learn that birding can count as a workout. But often, locations that offer the best opportunities for bird watching are located off of the beaten path and require a bit of a hike in order to reach. Getting your blood pumping with a moderately-paced walk is a great way to keep your heart healthy, and by taking part in an activity you enjoy, you won’t even notice you’re getting in a workout.

Harold Reeve

Hone patience skills

The payoff of bird watching isn’t always immediate, and usually requires time spent waiting for the much anticipated glimpse of the birds you’re seeking. Refining your patience skills isn’t only a practice that will improve your mental well-being, but also has physical health benefits. A 2007 study found that people that are more patient are less likely to experience headaches, ulcers, pneumonia, acne and other health problems.

Luis Gain

Obtain quicker reflexes

After a lengthy wait, a bird watcher has to be ready at any given second to grab their binoculars or camera to bask in and capture that long-awaited moment. Every birding opportunity gives you the chance to exercise your reflex speed, as well as improve upon it. Having fast reflexes not only allows you to be a successful bird watcher, but will prevent a barrage of small disasters from happening in your day-to-day life and help you better thwart off danger.

Eric Caine

SUGGESTIONS FOR PANDEMIC-SAFE BIRDING

With just a few social-distancing tweaks added to your routine, birding (ornithology sessions) can be safely practiced in most outdoor settings.

  • Don’t go with a group of your friends
  • Avoid public transportation
  • Keep at least 12 feet away from others not in your immediate family social bubble.
  • Have a mask at the ready in case others approach within the 12 foot limit.
  • Don’t share optics with others not in your immediate family social bubble
  • Have a bottle of disinfectant in your car and use it liberally as soon as you return to it.
Harold Reeve & John Harris

ORNITHERAPYTAKING BIRDING TO ANOTHER LEVEL

WHAT IS ORNITHERAPY?

Ornitherapy is a portmanteau of the terms ornithology (the study of birds) and therapy. Borrowing from “Our Guide to Ornitherapy – Getting Started” by Whitehawk Birding, “Simply put, Ornitherapy is the practice of observing birds to calm the mind, to ground or center yourself, or to help focus your thoughts on the present moment. 

Harold Reeve

Ornitherapy endeavors to transform the data-intensive, species listing science that is birding, into a sensory journey of the sights, sounds, smells and species interactions of nature. Ornitherapy is more about the sensory experience as one becomes enveloped by the sphere of life.

“The question is not what you look at,
but what you see.”

― Henry David Thoreau

Connecting to the natural world facilitates streams of creativity and learning, while providing benefits such as: stress reduction, improved focus, and a more positive mindset.

I Tried to Catch the Fog, but I Mist

Merced County 2021 Checklists 3, 4 and 5

2021 Merced County Species-to-Date (as of last checklist)
Life List = 178
Year List = 89

San Luis NWR–West Bear Creek Unit

As Benji and I approached the West Bear Creek Unit of the San Luis NWR, I knew it was going to be a challenge. Visibility was no more than 100 yards at best. The area had lots of water and the conditions seemed pretty good to attract wintering waterbirds.

While there were many White-crowned Sparrows feeding along the tour route and a good number of Marsh Wrens were vociferously stating their presence, there was almost no sign of waterfowl.

“I don’t know dad, I can’t see anything in this fog…”.

We left after 40 minutes with only 25 bird species observed. (On a side note, there were lots of Squirtles and Mudkips here – gotta catch them all.) Next Stop Santa Fe Grade!

eBird Checklist Link

Santa Fe Grade–Patman Grade Rd. to Hwy 165 (south end)

Santa Fe Grade is a 13 mile, mostly dirt road that runs from Hwy 165 up to Hwy 140. It is surrounded by rangelands and lots of hunting club marshes. Due to the length, eBird has a north and south separation for the two hotspots. Exploring this road on hunting days can be a bit disconcerting as the explosions of shotguns can come when you least expect it. Fortunately for me today, it was a quiet, although quite foggy cruise through the wetlands.

We were fortunate enough to see an adult Bald Eagle and a Peregrine Falcon literally on back-to-back telephone poles. Unfortunately one of the few cars to come along the entire route, happened to drive past as I was trying to get a photo of the Peregrine. The conditions were not conducive for stellar photographs, but I did get an identifiable shot of the eagle.

eBird Checklist Link for the southern segment

Santa Fe Grade–Hwy 140 to Gun Club Rd. (north of Gun Club Rd.)

Along the northern part of the drive we had a posing Red-tailed Hawk,

Red-tailed Hawk

A Killdeer

Killdeer

Some American Avocets sporting their winter attire

American Avocets

and a White-tailed Kite.

White-tailed Kite

By the end of today’s birding we had added 8 new species for the year bringing the total up to 97.

eBird Checklist for the northern segment

Merced County 2021 eBird Checklist #2 – Merced NWR

2021 Merced County Species-to-Date
Life List = 178
Year List = 76

After a delightful tour around the San Luis NWR – Waterfowl Tour Route, my next destination would be the Merced NWR. Infamous for its auto tour route that takes visitors on a loop through time with thousands of Snow Geese, Ross’s Geese, Greater White-fronted Geese and Sandhill Cranes, this refuge is a true valley treasure. At 226 species, eBird shows the Merced NWR Hotspot is tied with the O’Neill Forebay for the highest number of observed bird species reported in Merced County. The Merced Refuge actually hosts 6 separate eBird Hotspots with 4 for specific trails, one for just the auto tour route and one more general that covers the entire area.

The 4-mile auto route takes visitors through various managed wetland parcels with differing water levels. Following the route in a counter-clockwise navigation around the wetlands immerses us in an immense science lab full of ecologically-connected food webs. With the never-ending treat to life from above, the birds are usually quite nervous. Today would prove to be the exception.

With dark clouds overhead I knew it wouldn’t be long before the rain would fall. As we drove west along the north part of the tour route, a gentle rain began to wet my windshield. It was as if the dark skies and light showers calmed the birds. While the lighting made photography a challenge, the birds continued to feed as if I wasn’t there at all. A Black-necked Stilt probed first one spot, then another and another trying it’s best to stir up a morsel.

Black-necked Stilt

In between the scattered passing of light showers, I captured a few species that wandered within range of my lens.

Long-billed Dowitcher
Cinnamon Teal
Great Egret
Red-shouldered Hawk

I stopped next to a small patch of willows and a small cottonwood when I heard a small woodpecker hammering away at the trunk of the cottonwood. I could see at first glance that it was a Nuttall’s Woodpecker as it peered at me.

Nuttall’s Woodpecker

It seemed non-complused with my presence, pecking away at bark and probing each crevice it could get its bill into. As it came around towards the front of the limb, I could see that it was a female as the nape was not showing any of the bold red pattern that a male would have.

Nuttall’s Woodpecker
Nuttall’s Woodpecker – female
Nuttall’s Woodpecker – female

Continuing the journey towards the observation platform at the extreme SE corner, we came across several other interesting birds.

Gadwall – female and male
Northern Shoveler – female and male
Western Meadowlark
Ruddy Duck – male
Northern Harrier
Black Phoebe

Finally arriving at the platform that held the most expectations for me, we parked and explored the platform briefly. We both needed to stretch our legs.

I packed Benji back into the car and I went for a walk around the Bittern Trail. Of late, up to two Vermilion Flycatchers have been reported at the refuge, with the last sighting yesterday (1/3/2021). I walked slowly around the trail, taking long, silent breaks, listening and watching for the slightest movement. I noticed (squirrel moment…) a chunky sparrow doing a two-footed scrape-hop in the leaf litter and I just had to try and get a good shot of it. Fox Sparrows come in a variety of forms, or sub-species. The most likely one to be encountered here would be the Sooty Fox Sparrow and I intended on getting proof of which type it was.

Sooty Fox Sparrow
Sooty Fox Sparrow

As I searched for over an hour, I spotted a distant Great Horned Owl that flushed as I tried to get closer.

Great Horned Owl

I never did find my target Vermilion Flycatcher so I will have to come back again. As I was approaching the last leg of the auto route along Sandy Mush Rd., I remembered that a Lark Bunting had been reported last month along here. I was fortunate to find it after a short search as it was feeding at the edge of the road with other sparrows.

Lark Bunting
Golden-crowned Sparrow

I ended up doing a complete second tour around the refuge, enjoying the calming feeling that it gave me.

The Quest Begins – 1/4/2021

THE FOCUS IS SET
Part way through last year’s San Joaquin County Birding Push, I began to consider what I would focus on for 2021. The answer was simple, focus on the southern adjacent county to Stanislaus, MERCED COUNTY. A quick check in eBird showed that I had a lot of work to do to get my species list up to a respectable number.

WHERE DO I BEGIN?
As happens frequently when I set out to go birding, the most difficult questions to nail down is where? There are so many options on where to go birding that just setting a starting point can be daunting. I always check the latest posts in eBird and on the listserves to see if something really unusual had been observed, but then it’s just a guessing game.

A CHOICE IS MADE – OWL HUNTING IT IS
As I headed down Hwy 99 enjoying the rousing chords of “Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf, I decided to try and nail down a Short-eared Owl at the San Luis NWR. I thought the conditions were perfect as the weather was cloudy with rain in the forecast. If I couldn’t find one there, I was pretty certain I would be able to find Tundra Swans. Tundra Swans aren’t particularly rare at the refuge, but… who doesn’t like to see Tundra Swans?


Merced County eBird Hotspot #1 for 2021 – San Luis NWR–Waterfowl Tour Route

2021 Merced County Species-to-Date
Life List = 178
Year List = 0

San Luis NWR
SUNRISE AT SAN LUIS NWR

SQUIRREL!
I think that I have something in common with many of my other naturalist friends, there’s always lots of “SQUIRREL” MOMENTS. Yes, I was focused on finding that Short-eared Owl, but who can resist Tule Elks posing in the low dawn sunlight?

TULE ELK

Oh, and also I might have forgotten to mention that I had my birding buddy along. Benji is my Bird Dog 2.0, replacing my BEST BIRD DOG EVER TOBY. I think we’re going to make a great team together!

BENJI

PLAN B – TUNDRA SWANS
Well, the Short-eared Owls were staying hidden from me today, so it was off to the Sousa Marsh at the extreme southeast corner of the refuge.

A … COOT MOMENT?
There was another squirrel moment (or should I say coot moment) along the way as a small flock of American Coots decided to ignore me and just swim right up to the side of the pond they were feeding in.

AMERICAN COOT

Soon we were off again, racing (not really…) to the Sousa Marsh were there were almost 100 TUNDRA SWANS were calmly swimming, feeding and flying across the Sousa Marsh.

TUNDRA SWANS

MOVING ON … ANOTHER SQUIRREL MOMENT
After enjoying the swans and other waterfowl for an hour I decided that I was off-schedule and needed to pick up the pace. I needed (wanted?) to get over to the Merced NWR next to try for the Vermilion Flycatchers that had been reported there. I quickly raced down the roadway at a blazing-fast speed of 20 mph, when my mind told my foot to press REALLY HARD on the brakes because another squirrel moment was unfolding. (It’s a good thing my bird buddy was strapped in securely in the back seat.) EGRETS & HERONS – How could I NOT stop and add more images to by collection of probably 3,000 egret and heron photos? But digital images are free (anyone remember the cost of Velvia slide film?) so why not?

GREAT BLUE HERON
SNOWY EGRET
GREAT EGRET

By the time I hit the end of the auto loop I had observed 76 species, giving my Merced County Big Year a great start. eBird Checklist Link Now it was off to the Merced NWR.

When One Least Leads to Another

The Discovery

It was 6:30 am and I found myself, once again, at the southern part of the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge, west of Modesto. The previous morning I had started a run of point counts as a part of the Least Bell’s Vireo monitoring program with the US Fish & Wildlife Service. In 2006, Least Bell’s Vireos had been found to be breeding on the refuge after more than fifty years without records of breeding in the Central Valley. Since then, there has been a yearly effort to monitor and document their presence on the refuge.

Bells Vireo | Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren

I had made a mistake and missed a point count location the day before, so I had returned to pick up at the last correct spot. I had inadvertently left my map at home, so I was waiting for my wife to send me a digital copy. While I waited, I was standing outside my car, swatting away mosquitos and enjoying the sounds of the birds singing all around me.

There were lots of Marsh Wrens calling with their vociferous gurgling, rattling trill. Red-winged Blackbirds were singing their odd conk-la-lee call. Amongst the continuous chorus of these marsh birds was the occasional witchety-witchety-witchety call of the Common Yellowthroat and the odd, discordant squawk of the Common Gallinule. Then the bass section kicked in when the American Bittern began its deep booming pump-er-lunk, pump-er-lunk call. The combined orchestra was quite cathartic on this beautiful morning and I felt far from worries in the calming presence of nature.

Common Yellowthroat | Photo by Jim Gain

I had glanced one more time at my phone to see if the map had arrived when I heard it — a somewhat muted cof-cof-cof-cof-cof drifted across the marsh from several hundred yards away. My consciousness immediately questioned the veracity of what my ears were trying to communicate. Cupping my hands behind my ears like a big antenna, I strained all my senses for a second offering of that call. And then it repeated, more clearly this time, or perhaps because of the heightened state of my auditory receptors:  cof-cof-cof-cof-cof and again, cof-cof-cof-cof-cof.

The adrenaline surged through me as I realized that not one, but two males were calling from different locations. I crept carefully and quietly along the road, trying to get closer to my prey. And then I saw them! One flew up from the tules and then a second one chased after it quite closely, not 60 feet from where I stood: two LEAST BITTERNS. Somehow, while looking for one “Least” species, I had found another!

Least Bittern Pair | Photo by Jim Gain

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER

White Lake is a fragile habitat and is not currently open to public access. Please visit the Merced National Wildlife Refuge which has public access to a walking trail, appropriately called The Bittern Trail. Least Bitterns have been observed in this location during spring migration.

https://www.fws.gov/refuge/merced/

The excitement I felt came from knowing that the sighting of a Least Bittern anywhere in northern California has been extremely rare for decades. Birders eager to add the species to their checklists often had to venture to southern California, where the birds could be found at the Salton Sea and along the Colorado River.

Least Bitterns are a California Species of Special Concern whose numbers have declined severely in the Central Valley since 1945. They qualify as a Species of Special Concern due to their population declines and range retractions. There are only a handful of Least Bittern sightings in Stanislaus County, and a pair at this protected location at this time of the breeding season, screamed of potential nesting.

Least Bittern at the Green Cay Wetlands in Boynton Beach FL | Photo by Jay Paredes

The refuge manager Eric Hopson, was as excited as I was about the discovery, and immediately visited the location where he recorded video with the two males calling softly in the distance. He related that the 2 males continued to sing continuously for most of that day. My follow-up visits the next morning revealed that at least 3 Least Bitterns were currently exploring the rich habitat of the refuge but singing only sporadically. One week later the only sound coming from them was the kek-kek-kek call given while on a nest. Ironically, I was searching for the Least Bell’s Vireo, another threatened species, when I found the bitterns.

Least Bittern | Photo by Eric Begín

TAXONOMIC CONNECTIONS

Least Bitterns belong to the Ardeidae family that also includes herons, egrets and other bitterns. There are 68 bird species included in this family with 8 species found locally. They range from the giant Great Blue Heron, to the elegant Great Egret.

American Bittern | Photo by Jim Gain

The Least Bittern is not the only bittern species that occurs in the valley. The much larger American Bittern is much more likely to be observed in our nearby wetlands. The American Bittern however, is much larger than the diminutive Least. While their habitat is similar, their niches are quite distinct. While the larger American Bittern wades methodically along the shallow water and grassy edges, the Least Bittern discretely picks it way from tule to tule, grasping the reeds with its claws like a Marsh Wren as it squeezes its narrow body through the dense vegetation.

Least Bittern | Photo by Steve Arena USFWS

The Least Bittern’s scientific name is Ixobrychus exilis.  Ixobrychus is from Ancient Greek ixias, a reed-like plant and brukhomai, to bellow. Exilis meaning little, slender.

DESCRIPTION

With 16 species of Bitterns worldwide, the Least Bittern is one of the smallest herons in the world. They’re stylishly attired in hues of chestnut, cream, and black, with the male more ornately colored than the female. Because of its habitat choice, it often goes unseen except when it flies, but its cooing and clucking call notes are heard frequently at dawn and dusk and sometimes at night. Like other bitterns, they eat fish, frogs, and similar aquatic life.

Least Bittern at Great Meadows NWR| Photo by Steve Arena

DISTRIBUTION & HABITAT

Least Bitterns migrate from their wintering grounds in Northern Mexico and Baja California in mid-April, with nesting starting in mid-May and fledglings appearing in early June.  Until very recently, Least Bitterns had become extremely rare in the San Joaquin Valley, primarily due to loss of their wetland habitat. Remnant populations have bred in the Sacramento Valley over many years, but recent breeding records for the San Joaquin Valley are extremely scarce. The San Joaquin County bird checklist shows the species as extirpated there. Least Bitterns niche of choice is along the edge of the vegetation over deep water because they mostly climb in reeds rather than wading. Restoration of habitat such as has taken place on the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge is thought to be a major factor in their return to the Valley.

Least Bittern on Nest | Courtesy of Missouri Department of Conservation

The Gem of the San Joaquin River – Refuge Extraordinaire

The vision of the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge is quite clearly stated in the Draft Comprehensive Conservation Plan.

“This Refuge will conserve and restore the area’s native habitats, maintaining its role as an important riparian corridor for natural resources within the state’s Central Valley. It will emphasize management of native wildlife and the necessary actions that focus on the recovery of Federal and State listed endangered/threatened species and other species of special concern, and protection and/or enhancement of migratory bird resources.”

White Lake Wetlands | Photo by Jim Gain

It was no accident that the Least Bitterns happened to choose this area to raise their young. Eric Hopson and his staff have worked closely with scientists and consultants to recreate the deep water permanent marsh habitat that once extended along the length of the San Joaquin Valley.

And Now, the Rest of the Story

Thus far, with barely a week’s worth of observations, it’s exciting to see how this will play out. Based on the lack of mating calls and the observance of several on nest kek calls, it is possible they are incubating eggs. Stay tuned for a follow-up report at the end of the breeding cycle in mid-July. It’s the “Least” I can do!

IMPORTANT REMINDER

White Lake is a fragile habitat and is not currently open to public access. Please visit the Merced National Wildlife Refuge which has public access to a walking trail, appropriately called The Bittern Trail. Least Bitterns have been observed in this location during spring migration.

The Annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC)

WHAT IS A CHRISTMAS BIRD COUNT?

The Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is a census of birds in the Western Hemisphere, performed annually in the early Northern-hemisphere winter by volunteer birdwatchers and administered by the National Audubon Society. The purpose is to provide population data for use in science, especially conservation biology, though many people participate for recreation. The CBC is the longest-running citizen science survey in the world.

But data-gathering isn’t the only benefit of bird counts.

“Voluntary citizen-based platforms are not only tools for collecting great amounts of data, they also engage the public, something that forms a basis for future interest in biodiversity and conservation,”

Christian Science Monitor: Citizen science

FROM SIDE HUNT TO BIRD COUNT

In the late 1800s, an unfortunate holiday tradition was hastening the extinction of bird species all over North America. The Side Hunt, held each year on Christmas Day, was a festive slaughter whereby armed participants wandered the countryside shooting at every bird and small animal they saw. At the end of the hunt, teams tallied their kills to find out which side won.

The Christmas Bird Hunt had its origins in the Christmas Side Hunt, which challenged hunters to harvest all the birds and animals they could collect in one day.

Needless to say, birds were not among the winners – and conservationists, including famed ornithologist Frank M. Chapman, became increasingly alarmed at the resulting destruction. In 1899, as a member of the staff of the American Museum of Natural History, he created an illustrated bi-monthly magazine devoted to the study and protection of birds called Bird Lore. Bird-Lore was the immediate predecessor of Audubon magazine.

As editor of Bird-Lore, Frank uses the very first issue to propose a new kind of Christmas side hunt, in the form of a Christmas bird-census. Frank writes, “We hope that all our readers who have the opportunity will aid us in making it a success by spending a portion of Christmas Day with the birds and sending a report of their ‘hunt’ to Bird-Lore before they retire that night.”

CBC #1

On Christmas Day, 1900, twenty-seven bird lovers from New Brunswick, Canada, to Monterey County, California—a total of thirteen states and two provinces were represented—went afield.

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They found 90 species and 18,500 individual birds, but most importantly, these bird lovers discovered each other. The first continental birdwatching network was born.

Jump to CBC #119

Source https://www.audubon.org/news/the-119th-christmas-bird-count-summary

Counts Completed in CBC #119

  • 1974 from the United States,
  • 460 counts are included from Canada, and 
  • 181 from the Caribbean, Latin America, and Pacific Islands
  • 4 counts from Stanislaus and Merced Counties
    • CALW – La Grange-Waterford
    • CALS – Los Banos
    • CAMR – Merced NWR
    • CACW – Caswell-Westley

Birds Counted in the current year: 48,642,567

Species Counted: 2638

  • 661 from the United States,
  • 285 from Canada

Observers: 79,425 observers

  • 60,392 from the United States
  • 14,816 observers from Canada
  • 4217 in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Islands.

Count Circle Species High Counts

  • World – Yanayacu, Napo, Ecuador 491 species
  • US – Matagorda County-Mad Island Marsh, TX 237 species
  • CA – San Diego, CA 217 species
  • Stanislaus/Merced Counties – Caswell-Westley   140 species

A TYPICAL COUNT DAY

A typical CBC spans a full 24-hour day must be held between December 14 and January 5 each count year. Each count area encompasses a 15-mile diameter circle and is broken up into segments, with an experienced birder that oversees their segment participants. 

OWLING

Some intrepid participants opt to go out well before sunrise to census nocturnal species such as owls. This level of commitment is usually accompanied by lots of clothing layers and a large thermos of hot coffee. 

Owling with Richard Taylor

Owling with Richard Taylor

KICK-OFF BREAKFAST

This tradition varies from count to count and may not occur in some counts. When it is a part of the count tradition, participants may opt to meet together at a nearby restaurant for an early breakfast. This engaging social activity involves lots of exciting predictions of the species that will be encountered throughout the day and by the end of the meal, count areas are assigned and census materials distributed. 

CBC Breakfast Kickoff

CBC Breakfast Kickoff

COUNTING: FROM ORCHARDS & ROW CROPS TO WETLANDS & FORESTS

CBC participants look for birds in every nook and cranny of their territory. This may include backyard bird feeders, dairies, canals, and wildlife refuges; every location has a potential bird to count. While each area has at least one experienced birder, the CBC welcomes birders of all ages and experience levels. Even if you know nothing about birds, if you can see movement or hear a bird making noise you can be an excellent spotter.

CBC Birding

CBC Birding

COUNTDOWN DINNER

At the end of the day, many CBCs end with a social get together for a warm meal, lots of story-sharing and a countdown of the species observed in each area. The anticipation of who got which rare bird builds as teams fill-out rare sighting documentation with lots of whispering and note comparisoning. There are typically lots of oohs and awes, as well as a few (hopefully only a few) !*%#& misses. 

CBC Countdown Get Together

CBC Countdown Get Together

La Grange Waterford CBC Images on 12/21/2019

Are you a Birder or Bird Photographer?

I had the opportunity to sit and chat last week for an hour with a couple of bird photographers in southeast Arizona. We were seated next to a photography blind at Mary Jo’s Ash Canyon B&B outside Hereford, AZ. All three of us had cameras with really long lenses and were sitting next to the Mecca of feeding stations that included dozens of hummingbird feeders, flowers, seed feeders, suet feeders and jelly feeders.

Ash Canyon B&B

Our initial polite introductions soon turned into an engaging conversation about birding and bird photography. Our chatting evolved into a story-telling conversation about some of the most memorable bird photographs we had each shot in southeast Arizona. In hushed voices we commented on birds like Bridled Titmouse, Elegant Trogon, and Red-faced Warbler. Each bird with its own unique coloration, behavior and voice. We discussed our next target birds and what we especially hoped to photograph while we were at that spot.

Bridled Titmouse
Elegant Trogon
Red-faced Warbler

Suddenly the quiet conversation was replaced by a chorus of rapid-fire shutter clicks from three different cameras, shooting 12 frames-per-second, at a Scott’s Oriole that perched right above us, in perfect light. “Wow” and “perfect shot” and “awesome” were unconsciously vocalized by the three bird photographers present. Click, click, click…  This oriole was not a rare bird but was certainly a beautifully-colored bird.

Scott’s Oriole

The conversation turned back again to what our “target” bird subjects were. More birds were named, including Pyrrhuloxia, Lucifer Hummingbird, Rivoli’s Hummingbird, and Lazuli Bunting, but the primary bird of interest was the Montezuma Quail. The conversation again suddenly went silent as a Canyon Towhee emerged from the shadows and hoped towards us, eventually perching on a branch not 15 feet away. Again, the rapid-fire sputter of shutters erupted as we tried to catch the perfect shot. Click, click, click…

Canyon Towhee

While the towhee was a very common bird to that spot and not particularly striking in appearance, it was a “life photograph” for me so I was especially excited. I asked the couple if they had photographed one before and they kind of chuckled and responded, “We have been here dozens of times and probably have hundreds of images of a Canyon Towhee.” I asked them if they would be disappointed if the Montezuma Quail was a no-show. The response simultaneously surprised me and comforted me. “We’re really just happy being here. If we walk away with good Canyon Towhee and Scott’s Oriole photos, it was worth it.”


“We’re really just happy being here. If we walk away with good Canyon Towhee and Scott’s Oriole photos, it was worth it.”

We talked about how our paths led to bird photography and agreed that we more closely aligned now with the title of “bird photographer” over “birder”. While we had started off as bird watchers, then birders/bird listers, we had evolved into bird photographers. Along the evolution from bird watcher to birders, we had also become nature enthusiasts and more knowledgeable about the interactions between all species in an ecosystem.

Conversation pauses as a Green-tailed Towhee pops in for a moment.
Click, click, click…

Green-tailed Towhee

Our passions are centered more around capturing good images of birds in their natural settings, than in getting high species counts on a bird survey. Yes, we do bird surveys and are active in our local Audubon chapters. We all complete eBird checklists and carefully annotated numbers and descriptions, but we are most interested in getting a good image that tells a nature story about the bird and its environment.

The conversation again hushed as she quietly mentioned that a Pyrrhuloxia was calling. Soon, the bird landed on a fence line a ways off and gradually worked its way closer. Click, click, click…  

Pyrrhuloxia

As we were clicking away I heard the call of a Hooded Oriole and I managed to find it (a pair) and grabbed a shot or two before they flew away.

Hooded Oriole male & female

The husband then mentioned that a Western Tanager just called. We got on it and it landed right where the Scott’s Oriole had landed earlier. Click, click, click…

Western Tanager

The activity was picking up and I heard the unmistakable sound (like a bumblebee) of a Lucifer Hummingbird behind us. Click, click, click…

Lucifer Hummingbird

A newly arrived pair of birders were happy to check off the Lucifers Hummingbird and then were off to their next target bird up Carr Canyon, barely staying at that location for 15 minutes. They had a list of birds to check off and time was running short.


In the end, it’s the enjoyment of the experience that feeds our souls, refreshes our minds and creates meaningful experiences to reflect on and share with others.

Over the course of the next three hours, birders and bird photographers came and went. Some staying 15 minutes and others, like myself, stayed for hours. Each one getting something different from their visit. I am reminded of the famous Indian fable, “The Blind Men and the Elephant” where the blind men learn that they were all partially correct and partially wrong. While one’s subjective experience is true, it may not be the totality of truth. In the end, it’s the enjoyment of the experience that feeds our souls, refreshes our minds and creates meaningful experiences to reflect on and share with others.