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California’s Super Bloom 2019

Upon their return from a conference in Palm Springs, some of my colleagues shared how amazing the current wild flower bloom was. It so happened that we had a family trip planned to the Riverside area during Spring Break, so I thought, why not check it out?

WHAT CONDITIONS CAUSE A SUPER BLOOM?

A super bloom can occur when two environmental conditions occur at the same time: Above average rainfall and below average temperatures.

Above Average Rainfall: To date in 2019, the rainfall in the Coachella Valley stands at 4.34”, which is 227% above the last 16 year average of 1.91 over the same time frame.

Below Average Temperatures: The average temperature over that same time frame is 5 degrees cooler than normal (70 degrees vs. 75).

The higher rainfall allows the flowers to grow faster and bigger while the cooler temperatures allow them to stay in bloom much longer than in normal years.

GOOD LOCATIONS TO VIEW THE SUPER BLOOM

Doing a simple Google search for “Best locations to view the super bloom in California 2019” will provide many websites with helpful information. Here are a few locations that I have visited in the past.

A VISIT TO COACHELLA VALLEY PRESERVE

We drove down to Palm Springs from Corona and enjoyed a fabulous breakfast at Elmers Restaurant. The German pancakes were most excellent!

Breakfast at Elmer's in Palm Springs.

Breakfast at Elmer’s in Palm Springs.

After breakfast (and a stop at Starbucks) we headed to the Coachella Valley Preserve which was only 20 minutes away.

Map Link to Coachella Valley Preserve

As we approached the location around 9:00 am, we noticed many cars parked along the roadside leading up to the entrance. We were worried that parking was going to be an issue, but as luck would have it, a car pulled out of the main parking lot as we entered, giving us a prime spot. Before we got two steps away from the car I noticed a Phainopepla sitting atop a Creosote Bush and could hear a Cactus Wren calling in the distance.

Phainopepla

Phainopepla

I knew we were in for a great nature walk in the low desert.

Conditions at the Preserve

At first glance the groves of Desert Fan Palms looked very out-of-place compared to the rest of the dry scrub vegetation.

Desert Fan Palms

Desert Fan Palms

As we approached the visitor’s center we could feel just a light breeze and enjoyed the comfortable 80-degree temperature under a cloudless sky. We stopped and listened briefly to the preserve docents as they were explaining the conditions and history of the area but decided to venture out on our own.

The trail we took lead us along a boardwalk that descended to a wet area with a peculiar odor. We really didn’t see too much in the way of flower blooms in the immediate vicinity of the palm oasis, but the combination of Desert Fan Palms (tall and short), cattails and gurgling creek made for an interesting experience.

Coachella Valley Preserve

Coachella Valley Preserve

THE SUPER BLOOM FLOWERS

We left the grove of palm trees and headed towards the hill along the west side of the preserve. We left the easy to walk boardwalk and took a trail through the sandy wash where the first flowers, Desert Dandelions, were displaying a beautiful creamy white outer petal with a bold and bright yellow center. It kind of reminded me of the Tidy Tip flowers back home, only larger.

Desert Dandelions

Desert Dandelions

Wildflower Mix

Wildflower Mix

Soon the color and variety intensified with white, lavender and gold flowers coloring the landscape. We could make out Desert Chicory, Notch-leaved Phacelia, Desert Dandelions, Mojave Popcorn Flower and Desert Sand-verbena. (I have to admit that many of the flower names escaped me at the moment, but thankfully Nancy Jewett came to my rescue with the true names when we got back!)

Wildflower Mix

Wildflower Mix

Notch-leaved Phacelia

Notch-leaved Phacelia

For me, the true star of the bloom would have to be the Sand-Verbena. Its purple hues were so saturated and bold in the desert landscape.

Desert Sand-Verbena

Desert Sand-Verbena

Desert Sand-Verbena

Desert Sand-Verbena

Desert Sand-Verbena

Desert Sand-Verbena

The most abundant color by far was yellow. The Desert Sunflowers stretched as far as we could see.

Desert Sunflowers

Desert Sunflowers

Desert Sunflowers

Desert Sunflowers

WILDLIFE AT THE PRESERVE

Almost as inspiring as the Super Bloom, was the migration of butterflies through the preserve. Painted Ladies were the most abundant, with other species mixed in.

Painted Lady on Mojave Popcorn Flower

Painted Lady on Mojave Popcorn Flower

Painted Lady on Desert Sunflower

Painted Lady on Desert Sunflower

Queen Butterfly

Queen Butterfly

White-lined Sphinx Moth Caterpillar

White-lined Sphinx Moth Caterpillar

I also discovered a Desert Iguana that was warming itself in the sand.

Desert Iguana

Desert Iguana

As I got farther away from the main oasis, I started hearing more birds singing and calling from the Creosote bushes. Verdin were the loudest at first, but soon more Cactus Wrens joined in.

Verdin

Verdin

Finally, a pair of Black-throated Sparrows popped up. I was very delighted to be able to photograph the sparrows because their coloration is so bold and colorful at the same time with a buffy brown back and stark black-and-white chest and face.

Black-throated Sparrows

Black-throated Sparrows

Black-throated Sparrow

Black-throated Sparrow

Black-throated Sparrow

Black-throated Sparrow

On the way back to the visitor’s center I was able to spot both a Costa’s Hummingbird and an Allen’s Hummingbird to round out the checklist for the day.

Allen’s Hummingbird

Allen’s Hummingbird

By the time we left around 11:30, the temperature gauge from the car was reading 95 degrees, making for a true warm (almost hot) desert adventure.

SPECIES LISTS

Flowers

  • Desert Chicory
  • Desert Creosote
  • Desert Dandelion
  • Desert Fan Palm – the only native palm tree in California
  • Desert Sunflower
  • Desert Sand Verbena
  • Fremont’s Pincushion
  • Notch-leaved Phacelia
  • Schott’s Indigobush

Reptiles

  • Western Whiptail Lizard
  • Desert Iguana

Birds

  • Eurasian Collared-Dove
  • White-winged Dove
  • Mourning Dove
  • Costa’s Hummingbird
  • Allen’s Hummingbird
  • Cooper’s Hawk
  • Northern Flicker
  • American Kestrel
  • Say’s Phoebe
  • Common Raven
  • Verdin
  • Bewick’s Wren
  • Cactus Wren
  • Black-tailed Gnatcatcher
  • Phainopepla
  • House Finch
  • Lesser Goldfinch
  • Black-throated Sparrow
  • White-crowned Sparrow
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler

Cassin’s Kingbirds, Lawrence’s Goldfinch and Avian Eponyms

HUNTING FOR PHOTOGRAPHIC DOCUMENTATION

The chase began, as they usually do, with a rare bird email report from ebird on 3/14 by Emilie Strauss about a sighting of a pair of Cassin’s Kingbirds. Cassin’s Kingbirds are rare to uncommon in the county with a pretty limited distribution, mostly along the creeks that feed down from the east side of the Coast Range. In addition to being somewhat rare in the valley, they are also very similar in appearance to the much more common Western Kingbirds. As it turns out, Cassin’s Kingbird also happens to be a species that I clearly needed better photos of, so it became my target bird for this morning’s adventure.

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

Going back to when I first started birding the Central Valley over 30 years ago, Cassin’s Kingbirds were only known to be found at a handful of locations between Fresno and San Joaquin Counties with most observations coming from Panoche Valley and the Tracy Golf Course. My first sighing in Stanislaus County was along the lower entrance of Del Puerto Canyon and my dismal photograph barely shows the identifying field marks.

Cassin's Kingbird

Cassin’s Kingbird in Del Puerto Canyon 5/1/2001, Stanislaus County, CA

In recent years, in Stanislaus County, they have been seen at more locations and a little more frequently with multiple sightings along Orestimba Rd between Interstate 5 and the Orestimba Creek Bridge. It was in this general area that Emilie reported finding them 3-days prior and it was where I told my car’s GPS that I needed to go. I have visited the Orestimba Creek area before and it is a beautiful riparian setting with one of the largest groves of California Sycamore I know of.

Orestimba Creek

Orestimba Creek, Stanislaus County, CA

THE CHI-VRRRR GOT MY ATTENTION

The drive over there, on a spectacularly pleasant Spring Morning, had me enthralled with the green scenery and lulled into a peaceful state-of-mind as I listened to some Enya song and I enjoyed a slow drive with my windows down. I wasn’t quite to the spot I expected to find the target birds, but suddenly, my ears yelled to my brain “PAY ATTENTION, THEY’RE CALLING RIGHT NEXT TO YOU”! As I stopped quite suddenly, in the middle of the road, I could hear, not one, not two, but 4 Cassin’s Kingbirds earnestly calling back and forth, giving their rapid CHI-Vrrrr, CHI-Vrrrr, CHI-Vrrrr calls. In fact, there was one on the fence line about 40 yards away, behind me! Yes, I had driven right past it in LaLa land. I knew that given the light conditions, I was going to have to make a U-turn, go well past the birds, and then make another U-turn to get back facing the right direction.

Cassin's Kingbird

Cassin’s Kingbird

KINGBIRD FRATERNAL TWINS

As I had mentioned before, Western Kingbirds, the most expected kingbird for our area, is very similar, at a glance to the Cassin’s Kingbird, both in appearance and in behavior. They both are frequently seen sitting on barbed wire fence lines or electrical/phone lines where they sally forth to snag passing moths and other flying insects. They both sport a sunny yellow belly with grayish heads and backs and longish dark tails. But, as they say, the devil’s in the details. The gray on the Cassin’s Kingbird is darker, with a clearly visible white chin.

Cassin's Kingbird

Cassin’s Kingbird

Western Kingbird

Western Kingbird

Upon further inspection, the tails offer a different combination of buffy edging. While the Western Kingbird has a bold edge along the sides of the tail, the Cassin’s has the buffy coloration at the tips of the tail feathers. Oh, and as my ears pointed out to my brain, the Cassin’s offers a chi-vrrrr, chi-vrrrr, chi-vrrrr rapid call which is quite distinctive and different from the squeaky pidik pik pidik PEEKado call of the Western.

Cassin's Kingbird

Cassin’s Kingbird Showing Buffy Tail Tips

A ROSE, BY ANY OTHER NAME…

As I was photographing the kingbirds, a pickup drove up to me and asked what was special about the bird I was photographing. I casually mentioned the kingbirds and how they were similar and different at the same time (avoiding the “Rare” term), and he asked why the one was called “Cassin’s.” And I thought, “What a great question”! I got to thinking about the other “Cassin’s” birds I could think of… Cassin’s Finch, Cassin’s Vireo, Cassin’s Auklet and Cassin’s Sparrow.

Cassin's Finch

Cassin’s Finch at Virginia Lakes Resort, CA

Cassin's Vireo

Cassin’s Vireo at Foresta, CA

I knew that species were never named by the person that first discovered and wrote up the description of a new species, so that meant the folks in the field finding these “new species” must have had a reason to name their finds after John Cassin. So who was he and what did he do. I went to the interwebs and Googled “John Cassin”

AMERICA’S FIRST TAXONOMIST – JOHN CASSIN

I found an excellent article posted on the California Audubon’s Audublog called, “John Cassin: America’s First Taxonomist.” It is actually a reposting of an article from the Mount Diablo Audubon Society’s newsletter, The Quail. It gives a fascinating account of all the species that bear his name and how he became established as America’s First Taxonomist in the mid-1800s. In short, he was made the honorary curator of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences where he “discovered” nearly 200 species from the Academy’s collection of specimens.

John Cassin – Image from Wikimedia

A LESSON IN AVIAN EPONYMS

When George Lawrence discovered the yellow-bellied, white-chinned, very noisy flycatcher (Tyrannus vociferans) he gave it the vernacular name of Cassin’s Kingbird after his esteemed colleague, John Cassin. John returned the favor by naming a new Goldfinch he “discovered” at the Academy after George, the “Lawrence’s Goldfinch.”

Lawrence's Goldfinch

Lawrence’s Goldfinch at Del Puerto Canyon, CA

A Visit from the Gray-mantled Gull of Kamchatka

In French, it is known as the Gray-mantled Gull, Goéland à manteau ardoisé. In Spanish, it is the Kamchatka Gull, Gaviota de Kamchatka. In English, we call it the Slaty-backed Gull. For those of us living in California’s San Joaquin Valley, we call it the “Extremely Rare Gull”. So rare in fact, that it has only ever been seen once before in the entire San Joaquin Valley, and never in Stanislaus County.

SLATY-BACKED GULL WORLDWIDE DISTRIBUTION

The Slaty-backed Gull is a regular breeding bird along the coastal areas of the Western Pacific from North Korea, Russia (including the Kamchatka Peninsula) and just a tiny portion of the Seward Peninsula in north Alaska. It spends the winter mostly in the coastal areas of Japan, Korea and the Yellow Sea area of China and can show up unexpectedly in random locations in the US, from California to Texas. As of February 18th of this year, it can now be counted as a visitor to Stanislaus County.

Slaty-backed Gull Distribution Map

STANISLAUS COUNTY CHECK IN

If it were a FaceBook-using gull, on February 18th of this past week, it could have done a Check In from the Recology Grover Environmental Products facility north of the Westley Rest Area.

Facebook Check In

Or more precisely, hanging out with 6,000 of its Facebook friends along the California Aqueduct next to the Recology Facility.

A LITTLE CALIFORNIA HISTORY

According to the records from the California Bird Records Committee data base, the first ever accepted record for the state dates back to February 5, 1995 with the second ever record coming six years later in 2001. Over the past decade there have been a total of 36 accepted sightings. The increase in records could be due to an actual rise in the numbers of birds straying over here from Asia, or it could be that birders are more informed and knowledgeable on the identification of the bird. I suspect that it is a combination of both factors.

A FIRST RECORD FOR THE SAN JOAQUIN VALLEY

In February of last year, David Yee (aka birdmanyee) spotted and carefully recorded the first Slaty-backed Gull for the entire San Joaquin Valley, from Bakersfield to the Delta. The bird he recorded was found at the gravel pits along Koster Rd, San Joaquin County, barely a mile north of the Recology Facility on Gaffery Rd, Stanislaus County.

A DREAM BECOME REALITY

In an email communication with Eric Caine on January 29 of this year, I stated, “I’m going to find a Slaty-backed gull in February and I’ll call you when I find it!” Little did I know that less than 3 weeks later, this prediction would turn to fact. I got up early as usual on President’s Day and checked my email, looking for a reason to get out of house cleaning. I soon discovered that birdmanyee had reported another Slaty-backed Gull at the same spot, a year later, as the first record. Knowing that the gulls like to move between the gravel pond on Koster Rd to the canal along the Recology Facility, I jumped in my car and drove, as quickly as legally possible, out to the Recology canal. I have made this trip many times in the past only to find the canal completely empty. As I crossed the bridge over the canal, my adrenaline kicked in as I saw at least 5,000 plus gulls along both sides of the canal. The words came to mind, “Be careful what you wish for!”

Gull Flock
Video of thousands of gull off Gaffery Rd

SEARCHING FOR A NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK

So, how hard is it to find and identify correctly, a Slaty-backed Gull? For reference, the same CBRC database of Slaty-backed Gull records over the past decade, also shows that 40% of submitted sightings were not accepted due to the difficulty of identification. There have been 16 different species of gulls documented in Stanislaus County, 8 of which are in the same bird family, Larus. Of these 8 similar shaped and sized species, for adult birds, identification can be narrowed down by a quick look at feet and back color. Adult Larus gulls have a mostly solid mantle ranging from medium gray to dark gray to black. In the photo below the ranges are pretty visible from the medium gray-backed gulls in the middle to the black-backed gull on the upper right corner. In the case of the Slaty-backed Gull in this post, we are looking for one like that black-backed gull.

Larus Gulls

Larus Gulls

So as I scan the flock, I have a search cue set for birds with an obvious black back. The challenge is that the flock is in constant motion. Birds come and go and on occasion, the entire flock will burst upwards in unison, circle around and land back on the canal bank or gentle land and float in the water, completely mixing up which birds I had already scanned and which ones I hadn’t.

 Gulls in Motion

Gulls in Motion

I made one pass though the entire flock, taking about 45 minutes to do so. I turned around and started back. During my first pass, I noted at least 8 to 10 Western Gulls, which have the black(ish) back. They are actually somewhat rare in the county, but can be found here if the gull flock is large enough. I made my way slowly back down the canal, gently causing the birds to mostly just peel off a couple at a time and then fly behind the car and land. Most of them just walked out of the way. I was going very slowly and they practically ignored me.

 So many Gulls

So many Gulls

I was almost completely through the end of the flock again when I noticed a 1st year Glaucous Gull on the other side of the canal. That is another rare species, about as uncommon as the Western Gulls, but not an extreme rarity. I frequently glanced in my side-view mirror to make sure another vehicle wasn’t coming so I could focus on the gull across the canal. I noticed there were two “black-backed” gulls on the berm behind me. I thought to myself, “after I get shots of this Glaucous Gull, I can shoot the two Westerns behind me”.

 Glaucous Gull – 1st cycle

Glaucous Gull – 1st cycle

As a photographer, you can never get too many shots of a rare gull, so after shooting 2 dozen shots of the Glaucous Gull across the canal, I got out of my car slowly, so I could get some shots of the two Western Gulls. I zoomed in and took a shot of the closest Western that was right next to a common Herring Gull, with the other “Western” gull behind them both.

 Herring and Western Gulls

Herring and Western Gulls

As I focused on the front Western, I took a couple of shots and then decided to try and get all three birds in focus. It was the next focus in my viewfinder that knocked my socks off! The second “Western” gull was clearly NOT a Western Gull, it was THE Slaty-backed Gull.

 Slaty-backed Gull - Adult

Slaty-backed Gull – Adult

Suddenly, I couldn’t hold my camera straight, my hands started to shake and my heart beat went off the charts. But I knew that I had to get about a million shots of this bird AND I has to get it in flight. The absolute positive ID of this bird is cemented by the documentation of a series of white pearl spots along the primary flight feathers. The pattern visible on the extended wing shows a terminal white spot, a black spot and a second white spot above the black one. These spots are not present on the similar looking Western Gulls.

 Slaty-backed Gull - Adult

Slaty-backed Gull – Adult

Pretty soon, I calmed down because the bird simply could not be bothered by my presence. I slowly started walking towards it, click, click, clicking as I went. Not wanting to scare the poor thing, I just stood there clicking more shots. I even went to video mode and shot about 4 minutes of it just standing there doing nothing. At one point, part of the flock flew up and moved back about 40 feet, but the Slaty-backed just stood there. At this point, the gull was a mere 13 feet away and just watching me.

 Slaty-backed Gull - Adult

Slaty-backed Gull – Adult

Suddenly once again, the gull flock took off, and this time the Slaty-backed Gull went with them. I tried to keep up with it amongst the swirling cloud of gulls, but most shots were either blurred or partially blocked by other gulls.

 Slaty-backed Gull – In Flight

Slaty-backed Gull – In Flight

AND NOW, THE REST OF THE STORY

After I had calmed down and was certain I had some decent photos, I reached out to David Yee to see if this gull had the same appearance as the one he had the day before. I sent two snapshots from my camera’s viewfinder via email and he promptly responded that it looked like it might be the same bird. I then texted a few local birders and sent Eric Caine an email with the information. He responded that he was running out the door and would get there as soon as possible. Notifications were then also sent to the local bird groups.

Queue the music… I Ran (So Far Away)”

Unfortunately, by the time Eric got out to me at the canal, THE gull was awol.

 Gull flock in the air

Gull flock in the air

When I got home, I proceeded to go through the 750 images and 5 videos I had taken and came up with a few shareable images. I then jumped online to social media and I posted on the North American Gulls and the California Rare Bird Facebook Groups. I had over 6,000 hits on my SmugMug site the first couple of days after I had posted them. As of today (2/22/19), while it has been seen at the Koster Rd Pond in San Joaquin County, no one else has seen the gull in Stanislaus County. Queue the music…”I Ran (So Far Away)”

Other Birds Photographed at Recology

 Herring Gull with Oiled Feathers

Herring Gull with Oiled Feathers

 Iceland Gull – 1st Cycle

Iceland Gull – 1st Cycle

 Iceland Gull – 1st Cycle

Iceland Gull – 1st Cycle

 Glaucous-winged Gull – 1st Cycle

Glaucous-winged Gull – 1st Cycle

 California Gull - Adult

California Gull – Adult

 Western Gull - Adult

Western Gull – Adult

 Iceland Gull and Herring Gull - Adults

Iceland Gull and Herring Gull – Adults

 Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret

No Butts About it, Merced NWR is for the Birds

I decided that today was a great day to drive down to the Merced National Wildlife Refuge to see what was hanging around there. The temperature looks a bit chilly (31 degrees) but there’s no fog and no rain until later on in the week. My target bird for the day was a reported and well-photographed Eurasian Wigeon a couple of weeks ago.

Map Link to the Merced NWR

As I pulled in to the refuge, the first bird that posed for me was a Loggerhead Shrike, sitting on a refuge sign.

Loggerhead Shrike on refuge sign

Loggerhead Shrike

These tenacious little predators can take on some pretty large prey, including snakes, insects and even other birds. They have earned the nickname “Butcher Bird” for their habit of impaling their prey on thorns and on the barbs on barbed wire. Their tiny perching feet just don’t compare in grasping efficiency to the other hawks and falcons. I edged a little closer to get a better shot, and as birds often do before taking flight, he let loose a white liquid nitrogenous deposit that is quite visible in this image.

Loggerhead Shrike on refuge sign

Loggerhead Shrike

I first learned about this refuge back in college while taking Biology courses at CSU Stanislaus (actually then it was just a college). I would tag along with Wally Tordoff and Dan Williams when they would come out the the refuge and to the greater San Luis Complex to meet up with the staff management and biologists, Gary Zahm and Dennis Woolington. It is one of my favorites to visit as there is no hunting in the vicinity of the auto tour route. It now sports two sets of outhouses (very clean and well maintained) and two observation platforms along its 4 1/2 mile driving route. A quick look at the sun’s position told me I needed to get to the south end of the loop so as to get the best lighting, looking north into the wetlands.

I could see lots of waterfowl way at the back and flying about the middle of the refuge, but there wasn’t much nearby, at first… I took an obligatory shot of the distant geese, because, why not?

Snow Geese flying over the refuge

Snow Geese

I noted more diving ducks than usual at this location; Canvasbacks, Ring-necked Ducks and Bufflehead.

As I looked up ahead to the south observation platform, I saw another stalwart photographer braving the cold morning air.

South Observation Platform

As I got closer, I took a few shots of American Wigeon, Black-necked Stilt and a pair of Northern Pintail.

I parked at the platform and tried walking quietly up the walkway, hoping to not scare away any birds this guy was photographing. Well, I did pretty much scare everything away and I was feeling kind of bad for the photographer. He was all bundled up for the cold weather with a camo jacket, hood and gloves. He looked kind of familiar, so I asked, “You from around here?” He replied, yes and I knew it was Gary Zahm, the refuge manager I met way back in the early 80s! We chatted a bit and I was glad that the birds started coming back in closer. I took a few shots of the waterfowl and seemed to be getting a lot of BUTT-SHOTS. I guess they call them dabbling ducks for a reason!

BIRD BUTT QUIZ – How many could you ID?

It was a truly beautiful morning with great views of snow on both ranges and lots of geese, ducks and cranes. In fact, the Sandhill Cranes were putting on a jumping contest.

Here’s a few more images of the bountiful wildlife easily observed on this natural oasis. In all I tallied 60 species in 2 1/2 hours of birding. Link to ebird species list.


From the Merced NWR website:

“Wild beasts and birds are by right not the property merely of the people who are alive today, but the property of unknown generations, whose belongings we have no right to squander.”
Theodore Roosevelt — American President, outdoorsman, naturalist, and leader of the early conservation movement.

Female Gadwall

Gadwall – female

Male Gadwall

Gadwall – male

Northern Pintail pair with Gadwall pair

Northern Pintail and Gadwall

Green-winged Teal

Green-winged Teal

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail

American Avocet

American Avocet

Black-necked Stilt

Black-necked Stilt

Killdeer

Killdeer

Northern Shoveler pair

Northern Shovelers

Great Egret

Great Egret

The Raven

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, …”

This post was supposed to be about Short-eared Owls, not about the embodiment of a symbolic metaphor for never-ending remembrance.

THE PLAN WAS…
Early yesterday morning as I saw that there was going to be a break in the storms, I thought it would be a great chance to photograph Short-eared Owls at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, near Los Banos. I thought the odds were stacked in my favor given the previous night’s tempest and their crepuscular propensities. I thought for certain there would be several out early enough in the evening to photograph in decent light.

Crepuscular is derived from Latin crepusculum (“twilight”)

I am a firm believer that luck is mostly preparation meeting opportunity. As I was heading out the door, my sister-in-law Julissa commented about the stormy weather. My response was , “it’s all about having clouds in the sky. They can turn a mediocre photo into an outstanding composition!”

I pulled in to the refuge a little before 3:00 PM and sure enough, there were lots of clouds. Large, foreboding nimbostratus clouds with drifting rain sheets were visible in the eastern sky with more coming in from the west.

Google Map Link to San Luis NWR

I initially took the Waterfowl Tour Route, heading first northeast and then circling around clock-wise. My plan was to head around to the Sousa Marsh first and then hit the Tule Elk Route closer to sunset. The sun would intermittently illuminate the landscape with an ominous, almost stygian cloud backdrops.

As I approached the Sousa Marsh at the extreme south east portion of the tour route, the clouds continued to add their own story to the beautiful wildlife narrative, which now also included Tundra Swans.

Well over a hundred of these long-necked, magnificent white birds were scattered around the wetlands. Against such a dramatic, dark background these birds practically glowed and proved to be a challenge to capture digitally.

I completed the Waterfowl Tour Route and decided to take a drive around the Tule Elk Route, as I still had some time to kill before sundown approached. As I drove around this route, the clouds again continually changed in appearance and brightness, at times darkening, and at other times, absolutely glowing as with some inner power or force.

I was able to spot the herd of Tule Elk, which appeared to be settling down for the evening.

After completing that first loop around the Tule Elk Route, I decided to make a second loop and to head  north along the route to parking lot 1, again earnestly searching for Short-eared Owls. This time, as I started the Tule Elk Route, there was a Raven cawing and croaking quite vociferously from the top of one of the giant posts on the Tule Elk enclosure fence line. Black-colored birds against light clouds can be tricky to photograph because feather details get lost. This is frustrating because through binoculars, the rods in our eyes have the ability to define much more detail than a camera can.

I used my car as a mobile blind, and the Raven was not at all bothered by my slow approach. Experience has taught me to bracket my shots, allowing variations in the exposures to hopefully find the best combination of shutter speed and aperture.

According to Wikipedia In photography, bracketing is the general technique of taking several shots of the same subject using different camera settings. Bracketing is useful and often recommended in situations that make it difficult to obtain a satisfactory image with a single shot, especially when a small variation in exposure parameters has a comparatively large effect on the resulting image.

I ended up taking over 60 shots of this obliging corvid. Looking at the images through the LCD panel on the back of my camera, I was NOT hopeful of a happy ending to this opportunity. The edges seemed sharp, but there was little detail in the feathers and around the face and eyes. Sharpness and detail around the face and eyes are very important to a quality bird image.

After my apparent lack of success with the Raven, I headed back north again, slowly driving through the grassland route, searching for a low-flying Asio flammeus (Short-eared Owl) and continuing to marvel at the changing clouds. One of my last shots was this colorful sunset.

Though I was unsuccessful in my effort to find and photograph the owl, this turned out to be an enjoyable jaunt through some marvelous scenery and cloud formations.

AND NOW, THE REST OF THE STORY…

Most bird photographers will admit that the home-processing of photos is as much (or more…) fun as the actual shoot is. As is my custom, I preview every image using a simple photo viewing application, where I zoom in to see if there is good subject placement and sufficient detail and sharpness to warrant an import into Adobe Lightroom. As I mentioned before, a camera does not have the ability to record the details that we can see with our eyes.

Tips and How-Tos

AUDUBON The Dos and Don’ts of Editing Bird Photos
End up with the best image possible—without compromising its integrity.

IMAGE DEVELOPMENT
My job, using Lightroom, is to make the image appear as similar as possible to what I could see with my eyes. I never add to or remove any content from my images (sometimes called photoshoping); rather, I enhance or reduce the highlights or shadows to bring out detail. I may adjust the contrast or add a smidge of vibrance to give an image a little more pop. It may be necessary to apply some luminance adjustments to reduce the amount of pixilation that can occur in low light. The last step of my photographic process is to make sure the subject is where I want it and that the horizon is level. This is done by a simple cropping and rotation.

Just as Ansel Adams was the master of the subtleties of negative development and photograph exposure, today’s photographers use processing tools to produce their masterpieces.

So I chose one of the images that looked like might have potential and looked at it using the Windows Photos app, and it looked exactly like this.

After a little cropping, adjustment of highlights and shadows, some honing of contrast and exposure with a fine-tuning of luminence, my image turned into this.

So once again, even though my hunt for the owls turned out to be fruitless, I ended up with a matchless experience in nature and found that Ravens are as entertaining as owls. Well, almost.

The Case of the Mysterious “Might-be-a-rare-bird”

Birders as a whole, can be quite passionate about their bird lists. While we still thoroughly enjoy the activities of our common sparrows and finches, it’s the rare birds that really fuel our obsession. We live for that next new addition to our beloved list. The subtleties and nuances that separate a rare species from the more common ones, can provoke a splendid detective case where every detail becomes a critical piece of evidence. As the case for a rare bird is built, the facts can sometimes be obfuscated by what we want to see. Sometimes the facts may be not be as relevant and we suspect them to be. This is especially true when photographic records are obtained second-hand.

JIM! – Check your email…

The game is afoot.
And so it began, a text with 4 short words. A text that would result in 3 1/2 hours of field work, and a few more hours of research and detective work behind the computer.

Map Link to the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge

Some birders, new to the obsession, had noticed an unusual bird mixed in with the usual suspects out at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge, west of Modesto. The bird in question superficially looked similar to a regular winter resident of any wet habitat, the Greater Yellowlegs. But this bird just didn’t look like the others nearby. It didn’t have the long, pointy-tail look, the legs were a bit off-color (peachy) and the base of the bill seemed pale. They knew enough to try and get some good photos of it and then to send them to someone that had more experience. And so, the novice birders sent their evidence to a veteran valley birder.

As in a court case, the images were now second-hand evidence, as the veteran birder had not actually seen the bird. While images of a bird can be quite helpful, there are some caveats to this value. Distant birds, combined with low quality lens’s or digital zooming can distort size and color. As can the position of the sun relative to the photographer and the subject. The experienced birder knows the importance of when to broadcast a rare-bird sighting and when not to. Birders have been known to immediately book flights to chase down the rarest of sightings and the miss-reporting of a rare species can deal a blow to the reporter’s reputation (not to mention the waste of money…). In this case, the evidence seemed sufficient to warrant a limited broadcast to some of the locals in hopes they might gather more evidence to support a potential rare bird.

Photograph of birds in the wetlands

With only the location known and two poor images, I raced out the door, yelling to my wife, “be back later…” In route to the refuge I got a phone call from Salvatore Salerno explaining a little more about “the bird.” First a little background about the usual “Tringa” sandpipers vs the rare ones.

Greater Yellowlegs belong to the Genus Tringa and are common throughout the valley in any wetlands, ponds, lake shore or flooded field from August through May. Less common is the Lesser Yellowlegs which is more of an uncommon spring and fall migrant, with a few individuals sticking around in winter. The rarest of Tringa shorebirds include the Spotted Redshank, Marsh Sandpiper and Wood Sandpiper, and it was the possibility of the mystery bird being one of the latter that got us all motivated.

Historical records of the three rare Tringa species are
– San Joaquin County has a record of Spotted Redshank (5 total CA records)
– Marsh Sandpiper (2 CA records) one in the valley, and
– Wood Sandpiper (3 CA records) with none in the Central Valley.

Photograph of a Marsh Sandpiper

Marsh Sandpiper – Photographed in Yolo County

There were three pieces of evidence from the photos that seemed to point to the possibility of a Spotted Redshank; short-primary projection, light-base of the bill and peach-colored legs. Fortunately, the weather was beautiful and it was a short walk from the parking lot to where the bird was seen. As a photographer, I have many “Squirrel” moments and am readily distracted by any bird that will pose long enough for me to snap a few shots. Today was no different and as I walked to the flooded field, I couldn’t help but stop and shoot a couple dozen images of the Sandhill Cranes as they were constantly flying around the area.

I made a mistake when I ran out the door to get here as quickly as possible, and I failed to grab my telescope. I knew instantly that this was going to be a tough stake-out. There were dozens of Greater Yellowlegs as well as one or two Lesser Yellowlegs. And they were all a bit too far out to get good photos of.

Photograph of a Greater Yellowlegs
Greater Yellowlegs

I scared up a flock of Green-winged Teal as I walked around the pond.

Photograph of Green-winged Teal in flight
Green-winged Teal

A short time later, Sal appeared (no telescope either) along with Daniel Gilman who fortunately did have one. As were continuously looked at first one yellowlegs, and then another, and another, we delved into a discussion about the possible rarities, and what we needed to observe to make a solid case of identification. Using the Sibley iPhone App, we looked at images and listened to each suspect’s call.

Photograph of Sal Salerno and Daniel Gilman watching birds

We never saw anything that resembled what we thought could be a rarity and after a bit, Sal and Daniel departed. I decided to take advantage of the gorgeous weather and I walked as far as I could along the nature trail. I was serenaded by California Towhees, California Thrashers and Wrentits.

Photograph of the Pelican Nature Trail
Pelican Rd Nature Trail

I couldn’t go very far down the trail as the refuge staff had posted closed signs a short ways down the trail. I’m not sure if this is permanent or a by-product of the government shut-down.

Photograph of the Pelican Rd Nature Trail with closed signs
Area Closed

On the way back to the parking lot I had a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher make its buzzy call right next to me and I got a decent shot of it.

Photograph of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

On the ride back into town, I got a call from Sal commenting that more in-depth analysis of the photos revealed that the mysterious “Might-be-a-rare-bird”, was after all, not quite so rare. It was deemed to be a first winter Lesser Yellowlegs. A winter sighting of a Lesser Yellowlegs was definitely uncommon, but not something to be added to the great list of rarities.
While I didn’t get to add a new rare bird to my list, I had a very enjoyable walk in nature, got a few photos and learned a lot about the rare Tringa shorebirds of California.

Photograph of the riparian woodlands on the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge

A Walk in Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Gardens with Chiggers

After a pleasant drive down from Miami, we stopped for an afternoon stroll through the beautiful Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Gardens. I have been there twice before and I remember it being quite an active birding spot with Black-whiskered Vireos, Swainson’s Warblers and more passerine species. The weather was slightly warm and muggy with patchy clouds. Initially it was very quiet with nothing much moving or calling. I decided to explore the furthest reaches of the back trails which were overgrown with exposed roots, grass and other vegetation wearing shorts and sandals.

Photograph of the overgrown trail at the Key West Botanical Gardens
The Trail

I ventured off the trail several times in pursuit of birds that were chipping out-of-sight.Gradually the bird activity picked up and I was able to see and/or photograph 23 different species. The first birds were at the big pond at the entrance with an Anhinga, some Common Gallinules and a pair of Green Herons. One of which flew across the pond and literally crashed-landed on the other side.

Photograph of flying Green Heron
Green Heron

Pretty soon I was able to see a Gray Catbird, Black-and-white Warblers, Northern Parulas, a Magnolia Warbler, multiple Palm Warblers, a Prairie Warbler and two Black-throated Green Warblers.

Photograph of a Northern Parula
Northern Parula
Photograph of a Palm Warbler
Palm Warbler
Photograph of a Prairie Warbler
Prairie Warbler
Photograph of a Black-throated Green Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler

On the way out we got good looks at the Anhinga again, as well as a Great Egret and some Common Ground-Doves.

Photograph of an Anhinga
Anhinga
Photograph of a Great Egret
Great Egret
Photograph of Common Ground-Doves
Common Ground-Doves

As the park was about to close, I looked up and saw a bird I have never seen before (referred to as a “Lifer”). Soaring slowly across the sky was a SHORT-TAILED HAWK. I snapped as many photos as I could and quickly texted Maria to look up. I caught up to her and made her look at it with my binocs!

Photograph of a White-tailed Hawk
Photograph of a White-tailed Hawk
Short-tailed Hawk

Now, the title of this post includes a reference to Chiggers. Apparently as I was traipsing through the vegetation, I was also collecting some microscopic Chigger larvae which all decided my legs and feet would make a great home. It made the next couple of days much more memorable, to say the least.

Photo of lower leg with multiple Chigger (insect) bites
Chigger larvae bites