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.
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.
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.
Once again, the Vesper Sparrow must not have returned from vespers last night because I didn’t find one here today.
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.
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’
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!
2021 Merced County Species-to-Date (as of today’s last checklist) Life List = 187 Year List = 141
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Western Grebe lacks the orangish tone in the yellow bill and their eyes are surrounded by black facial feathers.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
2021 Merced County Species-to-Date (as of last checklist) Life List = 179 Year List = 99
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.
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/
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.
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…
we crept carefully to the perfect position with the sun to our backs, moving ever so slowly and BAM! It popped up.
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.
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)”