Operation PhotoTrogon

On Monday, 5/9/22, Rich Brown and I (Jim Gain) rendezvoused in Turlock, CA to begin Operation PhotoTrogon. Our target lay deep in the canyons of the Santa Rita and Huachuca mountains in SouthEast Arizona. With plans to traverse the most treacherous terrain filled with cold-blooded reptiles, sharp-spined Saguaro and crafty Coati we departed before the break of dawn.

Counting gas, food and restroom stops, the drive to Tucson is long and tedious and the route options are limited. With an eye for not over-exerting ourselves and getting into an energy deficiency before we even start birding, we opted to stay the first night in Buckeye, a suburb just west of Phoenix. Given that the traffic was best after the morning commute, we decided to leave Turlock at 6:00 am. Our non-stop conversation about all of the exciting target birds we hoped to encounter made the first leg pass quite quickly and after checking in at the Holiday Inn, we went exploring to see what desert birds might be nearby. Looking over the nearby eBird hotspots, we chose the Robbins Butte WA and headed south of town.

First bird was a Eurasian Collared-Dove, and then a Mourning Dove and then more Mourning Doves. Then a dove with bold white racing stripes on its wings came flying by, our first White-winged Dove of the adventure. Then a Phainopepla was spotted, and then another one.

And then the first of two Greater Roadrunners hopped up along the side of the road, gave us a wary look, and then flew across the road and into a nearby Mesquite tree. Thoughts of “Roadrunner, the coyote is after you” and “BEEP, BEEP!” went through my head.

We found a small group of songbirds which included two female Wilson’s Warblers. After an hour we headed back to the Sundance Golf Course by the hotel hoping to catch some Lesser Nighthawks cruising the pond as we did back in January of last year.

As expected just at sunset, three Lesser Nighthawks suddenly appeared at the far end of the pond and we watched them until it got dark. An enjoyable and relaxing first afternoon of birding Arizona.

Next Stop: Sweetwater Wetlands outside of Tucson.

700 o busto – Cuenta regresiva de Lifer

Con un BIP BIP BIP desagradablemente fuerte, mi alarma de las 5:00 am me despertó de un sueño profundo. La adrenalina se disparó instantáneamente y literalmente salté de la cama. Estaba seguro de que hoy me traería la especie Lifer número 700. Estaba en una visita de regreso a la mística península de Yucatán, que acababa de visitar un mes antes. Nuevamente solicité los servicios del experto en aves de Amar Aves, Miguel Amar Uribe y había reservado un tour de 6 días por la península. Miguel y Claudio López me habían recibido en el Aeropuerto Internacional de Cancún la noche anterior y manejamos (más bien Claudio manejó todo) hasta el pueblo de Río Lagartos para pasar la noche.

Rio Lagartos Malecón

Abrí la puerta y miré al otro lado de la calle hacia el malecón y observé los botes turísticos meciéndose suavemente con el agua y pude escuchar a las olas contra ellos. Me quedé con 683 lifer pájaros, siendo mi último lifer un Colibrí Garganta Negra en la Isla de Cozumel en diciembre del año pasado (2021). La lista de posibles aves de vida en esta área era asombrosa y con visiones de exóticos colibríes, coloridos trogones y extravagantes flamencos en mi cabeza, deambulé por el malecón, tratando de tener una idea de cuán espectacular sería el día. A las 5:30, Miguel, Claudio y yo nos unimos con “Chino” Santiago Contreras y salimos a explorar los bosques cercanos con planes de regresar para hacer un recorrido en bote por la bahía al mediodía. Además de ser uno de los observadores élite de aves de la región, Chino sería nuestro capitán del bote para el recorrido por el Parque Natural Ría Lagartos.

Avance rápido hasta nuestra llegada de regreso a Río Lagartos, después de haber marcado a los Lifers # 695 Matraca Yucateca (Yucatan Wren) y # 696 Colibrí Canelo (Cinnamon Hummingbird).

Matraca Yucateca (Yucatan Wren)

Nos detuvimos brevemente en la casa de los colibríes en la Calle 17 para ver docenas de colibríes mexicanos (lifer #697) y colibríes canela.

Colibrí Tijereta Mexicano Mexican Sheartail y Colibrí Canelo (Cinnamon Hummingbird)
Colibrí Tijereta Mexicano (macho) (Mexican Sheartail) (male)
Colibrí Canelo (Cinnamon Hummingbird)

Cuando abordamos el bote de Chino para comenzar nuestro recorrido por la bahía, teníamos muchas fragatas, cormoranes y gaviotas reidoras volando a nuestro alrededor.

Fragata Tijereta (Magnificent Frigatebird)

Navegamos alrededor de la bahía poco profunda adyacente a Río Lagartos observando una variedad de aves playeras y garzas con una breve vista de un Rascón Costero del Atlántico (Clapper Rail).

Ostrero Americano (American Oystercatcher) y Garza Rojiza (Reddish Egret)

Continuamos nuestro viaje lento a lo largo de las orillas del río cuando Claudio de repente grita “¡Garza Tigre Mexicana!” Chino guió hábilmente el bote mientras flotábamos hacia un hermoso pájaro que actuaba como si no estuviéramos allí. Después de varias docenas de fotos, salimos en busca de mi próximo lifer.

Garza Tigre Mexicana (Bare-throated Tiger-Heron)

En este punto, la bahía se estrechaba más como un río con vegetación que se elevaba a cada lado. Primero escuchamos, y luego vimos un Aguililla Negra Menor (Common Black Hawk) #699. Pudimos ver y fotografiar primero un pájaro inmaduro y luego un adulto. ¡CASI AL #700!

Aguililla Negra Menor (Common Black Hawk)
Aguililla Negra Menor (Common Black Hawk)

Cuando doblamos una curva, el paisaje se abrió y ante nosotros en la distancia había una veintena de pájaros vivos #700, también conocidos como FLAMENCOS AMERICANOS.

Flamenco Americano (American Flamingos)

Chino fue muy considerado en no molestar de ninguna manera estas magníficas maravillas de la naturaleza, pero mi lente de 500 mm me acercó lo suficiente como para tomar algunas buenas fotografías.

En ese momento, el sol comenzaba a ponerse bajo en el horizonte bañando a los flamencos en una cálida luz brillante.

Mientras nos dirigíamos de regreso a Río Lagartos, estaba exhausto y emocionado al mismo tiempo. ¡Qué gran aventura, y esto fue solo el primer día!

Finalmente, un gran agradecimiento y saludo a la amable gente de Mexico Kan Tours (enlace de Facebook), Amar Aves (enlace del sitio web), Miguel Amar Uribe, Claudio López (enlace de Facebook) y nuestro patrón “Chino” Santiago Contreras (enlace de Facebook).

700 or Bust – Lifer Countdown

With an obnoxiously loud BEEP BEEP BEEP, my 5:00 am alarm woke me from a deep sleep. The adrenaline instantly kicked in and I was literally jumping out of bed. I was certain that today would bring me lifer species number 700. I was on a return visit to the mystical Yucatan Peninsula, having just visited there a month before. I again requested the services of Amar Aves bird expert, Miguel Amar Uribe and had booked a 6-day tour of the peninsula. Miguel and Claudio Lopez had met me at the Cancun International Airport the night before and we drove to the town of Rio Lagartos to spend the night.

Rio Lagartos Malecón

I opened the door and looked across the street to the malecón and watched the tour boats gently rocking with the water and could hear the waves lap against them. I was sitting at 683 life Birds, with my last lifer being a Green-breasted Mango on the Isla de Cozumel in December of last year (2021). The list of potential life birds in this area was staggering and with visions of exotic hummingbirds, colorful trogons and flamboyant flamingos in my head, I wandered along the malecón, trying to get a sense of just how spectacular the day would be. At 5:30, Miguel, Claudio and I were joined by “Chino” Santiago Contreras and we headed out to explore the nearby forests with plans to return to take a midday boat tour of the bay. Besides being one of the elite birders of the region, Chino would be our skipper for the tour through the Parque Natural Ría Lagartos.

Fast-forward to our arrival back at Rio Lagartos, having just checked off lifers #695 Yucatan Wren and #696 Cinnamon Hummingbird.

Yucatan Wren

We stopped briefly at the hummingbird house on Calle 17 to get a look at dozens of Mexican Sheartails (lifer #697) and Cinnamon Hummingbirds.

Mexican Sheartail (female) and Cinnamon Hummingbird

Mexican Sheartail (male)
Cinnamon Hummingbird

As we boarded Chino’s boat to begin our tour of the bay we had lots of frigatebirds and cormorants and Laughing Gulls flying all around us.

Magnificent Frigatebird

We cruised around the shallow bay adjacent to Rio Lagartos viewing an assortment of shorebirds and herons with a brief view of a Clapper Rail.

American Oystercatcher and Reddish Egret

We continued our slow commute along the banks of the river when Claudio suddenly yells out “Bare-throated Tiger-Heron”! Chino guided the boat skillfully as we floated towards a beautiful bird that acted as if we weren’t there at all. After several dozen photos, we were off in search of my next lifer.

Bare-throated Tiger-Heron

At this point the bay narrowed to more like a river with vegetation towering along each side. First we heard, and then we saw a Common Black Hawk #699. We got to see and photograph first an immature bird and then an adult. ALMOST TO #700!

Common Black Hawk – Immature
Common Black Hawk – Adult

As we rounded a bend, the landscape opened up and before us in the distance was a score of lifer birds #700, otherwise known as AMERICAN FLAMINGOS.

American Flamingos

Chino was very considerate as to in no way bother these magnificent wonders of nature, but my 500mm lens brought me plenty close enough to get some good photographs.

By this time the sun was starting to get low on the horizon bathing the flamingos in a warm glowing light.

As we headed back towards Rio Lagartos, I was exhausted and exhilarated at the same time. What a grand adventure, and this was only the first day!

Finally, a big thank you and shout out to the kind folks at Mexico Kan Tours (Facebook Link), Amar Aves (Website Link), Miguel Amar Uribe, Claudio Lopez (Facebook Link) and our skipper “Chino” Santiago Contreras (Facebook Link).

A 4 “Yucatán” Bird Day

As I looked ahead to the list of birds that would be “lifers” (never observed before) for me in the Yucatán peninsula there were upwards of 100 species that I thought I had a fairly decent chance of seeing. This list of 100 species was composed of mostly common to fairly common regional birds with ranges from central Mexico down to South America. However, that group of 100 species also included a subset of around 20 endemic birds that are only found in the Yucatán peninsula. These endemic species ranked highest on my Want-to-See List. And at the Tip-Top of that endemic list were those 8 species with “Yucatan” in their name.

Yucatán Nightjar

Our first day of birding found us driving country roads long before sunrise in hopes of getting either or both members of the Nightjar family, technically called Caprimulgidae. We saw many nightjars on the road that flew up before we could get very close and most of those were clearly Common Pauraque. However I did manage two shots of a Yucatán Nightjar. The two images I have are horrible terrible no good bad photos, but they were enough to show that the bird had no white in the wings or tail and did not have a prominent white throat stripe.

Here is a link to a great image on eBird https://ebird.org/species/yucnig1

Here is my really bad image.

Yucatán Nightjar

Yucatán Flycatcher

The second bird with Yucatán in its name happened to be a Yucatán Flycatcher. This bird very closely resembles the Dusky-capped Flycatcher that is also found in this area. Identification by their calls is the easiest, but this bird was not giving voice lessons this morning. Photographs however, clearly show the pale gray coloration that encircles the eye and what appears to be a relatively smaller bill.

Yucatán Flycatcher

Yucatán Woodpecker

A short time later in the same general area as the Yucatán Flycatcher, we encountered the Yucatán Woodpecker. Once again, this is one of those birds that closely resembles a another bird that is much more widespread. Ranging from the southern US down to Central South America, the Golden-fronted Woodpecker has the same general color patterns as the Yucatán.

Golden-fronted Woodpecker (bigger bill)

The Yucatán woodpecker is smaller with a more slender bill usually with golden feathers circling the base at the bill. As with the Yucatán Flycatcher, its calls ensure its identification. Fortunately for us, this bird cooperated in giving us its beautiful call.

Yucatán Woodpecker (smaller bill)

Yucatán Wren

The final “Yucatán” bird species for the day turned out to be the Yucatán Wren. After spending the morning cruising the back roads of the upper Yucatán Peninsula, we stopped at an intersection with a safe spot to park just outside of Rio Lagartos. There was lots of cactus in the area and before we could get 10 yards from the car, Chino was calling out, “Yucatán Wrens here!”

The Yucatán Wren has a very limited range, only occurring in the dry coastal scrub along north coast of the Yucatan Peninsula.

Yucatán Wren Distribution from eBird

To me, this species looked almost identical to the common Cactus Wren of the southern US.

Cactus Wrens in SE Arizona

In the images below, a parent Yucatán Wren is feeding a young bird.

Yucatán Wren
Yucatán Wren
Yucatán Wren

Holy Batcave – Batman

Taking a slight deviation from my theme of Yucatan Birds, one of the biggest Holy Guacamole moments was actually of a different kind of flying vertebrate – bats. Deep in the forests of southern Campeche is a unique natural protected area known as “Zona Sujeta a Conservación Ecológica Balam-Kú” in Calakmul Municipality. This ecological area is home to “El Volcán de los Murciélagos”.

There are seven bat caves known in Mexico, but this is the only one featuring a visual volcano of erupting chiropterans. In fact, it is one of only two know to exist in the entire world. The second one being in Malasia.

There have been 9 bat species identified in this cave with one being nectivorous,

  • Pallas’ Long-tongued Bat – Glossophaga soricina,

and the others insectivorous.

  • Davy’s (lesser) Naked-backed Bat – Pteronotus davyi,
  • Big Naked-backed Bat – P. gymnonotus,
  • Parnell’s Mustached Bat – P. parnellii
  • Wagner’s Mustached Bat – P. personatus
  • Ghost-faced Bat – Mormoops megalophylla
  • Mexican Funnel-eared Bat –Natalus stramineus
  • Hairy-legged Myotis Bat – Myotis keaysi 
  • and Broad-eared Bat –  Nyctinomops laticaudatus).

Over the years a 130-feet-deep landslide has formed due to rainfall and erosion. At the bottom of this landslide there is a cave with an entrance 400 feet wide and 500 feet deep, at its longest with a depth of almost 2,000 feet. Every afternoon, approximately between 5 and 6 pm, “the volcano”, erupts with between three and four million bats as if they were lava. From the first handful of emerging bats, the eruption can last up to 90 minutes until the last bat leaves its roost.

SENSORY OVERLOAD

Hushed conversations in Spanish, French, English and German coming from the small group of ecotourists that were gathered with much excitement in anticipation of this living volcano of bats. Standing on the edge of this expansive grotto, the quiet conversations seemed to be absorbed by the mysterious and beautiful setting. Suddenly the talking stopped as the first handful of bats flew right past our observation point – “Here they come!”

My mind tried to envision what the guide said would be almost 8 million bats erupting from the cave. At first, a few dozen began to circle around the opening, slowly rising higher and higher. Gradually the numbers grew, slowly at first and then increasing almost exponentially. Dozens became hundreds became thousands became MILLIONS. ABSOLUTLEY INCOMPREHENSIBLE.

Soon, the cave walls resonated with the sound of a million tiny bat wings flapping mightily to rise into the jungle sky. Creating their own mini-weather system, the circling bats generated a funnel of rising winds, laden with the sulphureous odor of uncountable tons of bat guano.

Links to more details

Conservación de Murciélagos en Campeche

Cueva de los murciélagos en Calakmul, Campeche

Reserva de Balam Kú: El “volcán” de los murciélagos

Let’s Groove Tonight

Groove-billed Ani – Crotophaga sulcirostris

Ranging from the tip of Northern Chile to the lowlands of Southern Texas, the Groove-billed Ani is a member of the Cuculidae Family that also includes Roadrunners and Cuckoos. It can be found throughout the Yucatán Peninsula often found foraging on the arthropods flushed up from ant swarms.

In Search of…

After getting a great night’s sleep in Rio Lagartos, Yucatan, the four Pajareros left before dawn in search of any number of Lifers for me.

We ended up walking along a very quiet dirt road listening and watching for cooperative birds.

Miguel, Claudio and Chino, Pajareando

One of the three amigos called out rather casually, “Groove-billed Ani.” Unbeknownst to them, the Groove-billed Ani was on my list of US birds that I did not have a photo of. Miguel Amar quickly pointed out a distant Ani and I snapped off a dozen shots of the VERY distant bird. Even though it wasn’t something I’d ever share in a presentation, it was a decent record shot and clearly showed its most unusual bill. Miguel chuckled and commented, “Don’t worry, we’ll see many more. And much closer!” (Yeah right, I thought to myself, I’ve heard that before…)

Groove-billed Ani

Well, it only took another 20 minutes to prove Miguel right! We came upon a swarm of ants and the birds started coming in. 25-minutes and 140 images later, I landed a few really decent images of the GROOVE-BILLED ANI.

Groove-billed Ani
Groove-billed Ani
Groove-billed Ani

In Search of a 5-Star Rated Vermilion Flycatcher Photo

After seeing several recent excellent photos of the returning Vermilion Flycatcher by Doug Krajnovich at Lake Yosemite County Park In Merced County, CA., I decided I ought to try and track it down and shoot it. Digitally that is!

ABOUT THE PARK

Lake Yosemite is a freshwater reservoir built in 1888 for irrigation purposes and is currently owned and operated by the Merced Irrigation District. It is located about 5 miles east of Merced, CA.

Lake Yosemite Park Entrance
Lake Yosemite

VERMILION FLYCATCHER BACKGROUND

Doug Krajnovich first discovered a first fall male Vermilion Flycatcher on 10/10/2019 at the south end of the park along the Fairfield Canal. Generally, they are rare across the Central Valley, but they seem to be occurring more frequently in Merced County over the past 20 years. At one point last year in the winter of 2020/2021 up to 3 were seen at the same time at Lake Yosemite County Park.

Vermillion Flycatcher at the Merced NWR 1/17/2021

THE DIGITAL MEDIA EXPLOSION

When I first started photography, shooting images often came at a steep price and as a beginner I found myself in a quandary. Did I use Ektachrome 100, Kodachrome 64, or Fujichrome Velvia 50 when in the field? It was expensive to buy and then develop. And the worst part was not knowing if you nailed the shot or not until you got them back several days later. With the advent of more reasonably priced equipment and an almost endless number of images that can be captured on one SD Card, I often take upwards of 500 images in a morning’s outing. The challenge then becomes one of which image is the best.

RATING A PHOTOGRAPH

As a birder turned photographer, I strive to both capture an image that will serve to document a bird sighting and to satisfy my artistic expectations of a high quality reproduction. This typically involves taking the first image at a distance and steadily getting closer and capturing more and more images.

eBird Ratings

eBird is an online database of bird observations providing scientists, community scientists, researchers and amateur naturalists with real-time data about bird distribution and abundance. Today, the vast majority of birders record their location sightings using eBird. Along with recording numbers of each species encountered, users can submit images, audio recordings and video snippets to help document what they found. Each image that a user submits can be rated to help with the greater community science needs. According to their website, “Ratings increase the utility of Macaulay Library media for everyone, enabling the best images, audio, and video to be discovered and used in projects such as Merlin and Birds of the World, as well as Illustrated Checklists and external research applications.

From my perspective, getting a good image has helped me to either cinch or reject the identification of a challenging or unusual bird species.

They use a 5-star rating system, with 5 stars being the highest quality. They specifically state that the ratings should be strictly technical in nature and not to take in account the rare status of a species. A great photo of a common, drab bird should still be 5 stars and a poor photo of a very rare or hard-to-photograph bird could still be only 1 or 2 stars.

Drab, common 5-Star Northern Mockingbird

Key Points to Consider When Rating a Photograph for eBird

From the eBird Support Site “How to Rate Media

Sharpness: Is the primary subject in focus? Is the image blurred or grainy?
Visibility of bird: How well can you see the bird? If the bird is very small, partially obstructed from view, or backlit in the photo, the rating should be lower than it would be otherwise.
Size of photo: Lower your rating of any photo that has a noticeably small resolution. Uploading full resolution files is always encouraged.

Descriptions of star ratings for photos: (Remember the rating is a technical rating and does NOT take into account the rarity of the bird.)
1 Star: Very poor quality. Very low resolution or very poor focus; bird may be very small or obscured in the frame or have extremely bad exposure. In general should only be uploaded as record shots, if still identifiable.
2 Stars: Poor quality. Could be a good image but at a noticeably low resolution, or high resolution but with significant flaws. Lighting might be severely backlit or poorly exposed. Image might be good but the bird is extremely small in the frame or mostly obscured.
3 Stars: Decent quality. High or medium resolution with decent focus. Lighting might be less than ideal; bird might be smaller in frame or somewhat obscured. Might have several factors that prevent it from being rated higher.
4 Stars: Very good quality. High resolution and in good focus, at least decent lighting, and bird reasonably large in frame. One or two of these factors may be less than ideal and prevent from achieving 5 stars.
5 Stars: Excellent quality. High resolution and in sharp focus. Lighting should be good and the bird at least fairly large in the frame and not significantly obscured.

HUNTING MY PREY

After downing my morning latte, taking the dog out to use the front lawn and double-checking that I actually had a charged battery this time… I was off to the park. I made a brief circle around to the back of the park and then parked near the entrance. I soon spotting the famous, aforementioned Doug Krajnovich peering intently into a tree not far from the Fairfield Canal. We exchanged salutations and he promptly informed me that he had not yet found the target bird, but he was full of optimism that we would find it eventually. We split up a bit and I went east and he west. I took photos of a California Scrub-Jay, an Osprey and a Black Phoebe while I worked my way back towards Doug.

Soon I could see him waving frantically at me. Alas, the hunt was afoot! As luck would have it I heard those too often vocalized words, “You just missed it!” SIGH… But the morning was young and I was keen on capturing my prey. Barely 5 minutes passed and I saw movement in a tree about 60 yards away and I was certain that I had seen a flash of red! Now the adrenaline was kicking in and I promptly noted the best sun angle and I slowly crept at an angle with my back to the sun while I scanned the tree for further movement. Then I saw it. For certain this time! As most birders that are photographers do, I wanted to get that first 1-Star, record shot. Something that would prove that I had seen it. Click, click, click and I was sure I had to have gotten some type of record. Well, I did, but as you can see below… YUCK!

1-Star Record of Vermilion Flycatcher

Before I could get closer, it flew off, caught an insect and moved farther away. Using my most predator-like stealth techniques, I slowly and quietly moved in for the kill. Killer shot I mean. It allowed me to get a little closer and I snapped off some more images (OK, so maybe a lot more!). But hey, they’re free.

REJECTS VS KEEPERS

When I post an image online, viewers don’t ever see how many never make it to the Keepers folder on my computer. In reality, I may only edit 5 % of the images I capture. However, for your entertainment, here are a few of the typical shots that viewers will never see.

So Far Away… 2-Star Rating
Baby got Back
Peek-a-boo
Peek-a-boo From the Other Side – 3-Star Rating
I’m Hiding – 4-Star Rating

FINALLY – I GOT MY 5-STAR PHOTOGRAPHS – Click to view full-size

Baa Baa Sheepshead, Have you any birds?

Post #6 of The Great Texas Birding Adventure

Previous Post #5 South Padre Island – Migratory Bird Mecca

Smallest of the South Padre Island (SPI) Big Three birding spots, the Valley Land Fund Lots on Sheepshead Dr. seems to have the biggest concentration of birds. The fact that the dense vegetation is at the southern end of the island and birds would head for it first.

preservation efforts of The Valley Land Fund and its volunteers. These wooded lots serve as an oasis to the birds struggling to make it across the Gulf of Mexico during spring migration.

The Valley Land Fund

South Padre Island is located at the confluence of two major flyways: migration routes on which birds travel during Spring and Fall to and from North, Central, and South America.. In the Spring, SPI is a crucial first landfall – a lifesaver – for birds making the arduous cross-Gulf migration. For many years, the 12 lots owned by the Valley Land Fund and private landowners between Pompano and Sheepshead along Laguna Blvd., have been a crucial location for these worn out migrants to stop, rest, feed and regain their energy. Serious birders have long known what an important area this is, and flock there to view some of the 350+ species of birds which have been identified in South Texas. – From The Valley Land Fund Facebook Page

The Birds…

Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Summer Tanager – male
Summer Tanager – female
Magnolia Warbler
American Redstart – male
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Great Kiskadee
Dickcissel – male
Indigo Bunting – male
Orchard Oriole – male
Orchard Oriole
Baltimore Oriole
Scarlet Tanager – 1st year male

Over the course of the next 4 days, we visited Sheepshead Dr. location 6 times.

eBird Species Link for South Padre Island – – Valley Land Fund (45 species over 6 visits)

The Undiscovered Country

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

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

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

TARGET BIRDS FOR THE DAY

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

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

White Rock Rd. STOP #1

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

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

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

https://ebird.org/checklist/S79929493

ONWARD TO STOP #2

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

Ferruginous Hawk Along E. South Bear Creek Dr.

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

https://ebird.org/checklist/S79932948

CONTINUING TO STOP #3 – Lake Yosemite County Park

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

Canada Geese

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

Same thing for a distant Belted Kingfisher’

Belted Kingfisher

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

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

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

Birding Between the Storms

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

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

25 Jan 2021 – FIRST STOP LOS BANOS CREEK RESERVOIR

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

Canvasback (female)

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

Los Banos Creek Reservoir Dam

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

Los Banos Creek Reservoir

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

Aechmorporus Grebes

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

Clark’s Grebe
Clark’s Grebe

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

Western Grebes
Western Grebe

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

A Ford Fording

https://ebird.org/checklist/S79902945

SECOND STOP MEDEIROS AREA

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

Dale Swanberg & Rich Brown

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

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

Horned Grebe
Eared Grebe for Comparison

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

Greater Scaup

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

Greater Scaup

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

https://ebird.org/checklist/S79887168

THIRD STOP SAN LUIS CREEK AREA

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

Lark Sparrow

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

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

Common Raven

https://ebird.org/checklist/S79892274

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