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!
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.
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.
In between the scattered passing of light showers, I captured a few species that wandered within range of my lens.
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.
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.
Continuing the journey towards the observation platform at the extreme SE corner, we came across several other interesting birds.
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.
As I searched for over an hour, I spotted a distant Great Horned Owl that flushed as I tried to get closer.
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.
I ended up doing a complete second tour around the refuge, enjoying the calming feeling that it gave me.
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?
2021 Merced County Species-to-Date Life List = 178 Year List = 0
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?
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!
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Gem of the San Joaquin River – Refuge Extraordinaire
“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.”
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!
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 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,”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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…
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…
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
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…
The activity was picking up and I heard the unmistakable
sound (like a bumblebee) of a Lucifer Hummingbird behind us. Click, click,
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
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.
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
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.
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.
I knew we were in for a great nature walk in the low desert.
Conditions at the
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
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
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
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!)
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
The most abundant color by far was yellow. The Desert
Sunflowers stretched as far as we could see.
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 Desert Sunflower
White-lined Sphinx Moth Caterpillar
I also discovered a Desert Iguana that was warming itself in
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.
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.
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
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.
Desert Fan Palm – the only native palm tree in
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.
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 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, 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.
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.
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 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 at Virginia Lakes Resort, CA
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.
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
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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)”
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.
As I pulled in to the refuge, the first bird that posed for me was a Loggerhead Shrike, sitting on a refuge sign.
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.
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?
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.
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.
“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.