The Annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC)

WHAT IS A CHRISTMAS BIRD COUNT?

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

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

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

Christian Science Monitor: Citizen science

FROM SIDE HUNT TO BIRD COUNT

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

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

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

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

CBC #1

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

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

Jump to CBC #119

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

Counts Completed in CBC #119

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

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

Species Counted: 2638

  • 661 from the United States,
  • 285 from Canada

Observers: 79,425 observers

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

Count Circle Species High Counts

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

A TYPICAL COUNT DAY

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

OWLING

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

Owling with Richard Taylor

Owling with Richard Taylor

KICK-OFF BREAKFAST

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

CBC Breakfast Kickoff

CBC Breakfast Kickoff

COUNTING: FROM ORCHARDS & ROW CROPS TO WETLANDS & FORESTS

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

CBC Birding

CBC Birding

COUNTDOWN DINNER

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

CBC Countdown Get Together

CBC Countdown Get Together

La Grange Waterford CBC Images on 12/21/2019

Are you a Birder or Bird Photographer?

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

Ash Canyon B&B

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

Bridled Titmouse
Elegant Trogon
Red-faced Warbler

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

Scott’s Oriole

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

Canyon Towhee

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


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

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

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

Green-tailed Towhee

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

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

Pyrrhuloxia

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

Hooded Oriole male & female

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

Western Tanager

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

Lucifer Hummingbird

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


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

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

California’s Super Bloom 2019

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

WHAT CONDITIONS CAUSE A SUPER BLOOM?

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

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

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

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

GOOD LOCATIONS TO VIEW THE SUPER BLOOM

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

A VISIT TO COACHELLA VALLEY PRESERVE

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

Breakfast at Elmer's in Palm Springs.

Breakfast at Elmer’s in Palm Springs.

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

Map Link to Coachella Valley Preserve

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

Phainopepla

Phainopepla

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

Conditions at the Preserve

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

Desert Fan Palms

Desert Fan Palms

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

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

Coachella Valley Preserve

Coachella Valley Preserve

THE SUPER BLOOM FLOWERS

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

Desert Dandelions

Desert Dandelions

Wildflower Mix

Wildflower Mix

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

Wildflower Mix

Wildflower Mix

Notch-leaved Phacelia

Notch-leaved Phacelia

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

Desert Sand-Verbena

Desert Sand-Verbena

Desert Sand-Verbena

Desert Sand-Verbena

Desert Sand-Verbena

Desert Sand-Verbena

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

Desert Sunflowers

Desert Sunflowers

Desert Sunflowers

Desert Sunflowers

WILDLIFE AT THE PRESERVE

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

Painted Lady on Mojave Popcorn Flower

Painted Lady on Mojave Popcorn Flower

Painted Lady on Desert Sunflower

Painted Lady on Desert Sunflower

Queen Butterfly

Queen Butterfly

White-lined Sphinx Moth Caterpillar

White-lined Sphinx Moth Caterpillar

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

Desert Iguana

Desert Iguana

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

Verdin

Verdin

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

Black-throated Sparrows

Black-throated Sparrows

Black-throated Sparrow

Black-throated Sparrow

Black-throated Sparrow

Black-throated Sparrow

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

Allen’s Hummingbird

Allen’s Hummingbird

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

SPECIES LISTS

Flowers

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

Reptiles

  • Western Whiptail Lizard
  • Desert Iguana

Birds

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

No Butts About it, Merced NWR is for the Birds

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

Map Link to the Merced NWR

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

Loggerhead Shrike on refuge sign

Loggerhead Shrike

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

Loggerhead Shrike on refuge sign

Loggerhead Shrike

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

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

Snow Geese flying over the refuge

Snow Geese

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

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

South Observation Platform

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

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

BIRD BUTT QUIZ – How many could you ID?

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

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


From the Merced NWR website:

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

Female Gadwall

Gadwall – female

Male Gadwall

Gadwall – male

Northern Pintail pair with Gadwall pair

Northern Pintail and Gadwall

Green-winged Teal

Green-winged Teal

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail

American Avocet

American Avocet

Black-necked Stilt

Black-necked Stilt

Killdeer

Killdeer

Northern Shoveler pair

Northern Shovelers

Great Egret

Great Egret

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

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

JIM! – Check your email…

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

Map Link to the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge

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

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

Photograph of birds in the wetlands

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

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

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

Photograph of a Marsh Sandpiper

Marsh Sandpiper – Photographed in Yolo County

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

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

Photograph of a Greater Yellowlegs
Greater Yellowlegs

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

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

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

Photograph of Sal Salerno and Daniel Gilman watching birds

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

Photograph of the Pelican Nature Trail
Pelican Rd Nature Trail

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

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

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

Photograph of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photograph of flying Green Heron
Green Heron

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exploring the Green Cay Wetlands

1/7/2019
Today was our traveling day to Orlando and we opted to stop at the Green Cay Wetlands on our drive north.
Green Cay Wetlands is a 100-acre nature preserve located north of Fort Lauderdale in Boynton Beach. The preserve was converted from farmland into a county water reclamation facility in 2004 and naturally filters millions of gallons of water each day.

Map Link to Green Cay Wetlands

Photograph of the Green Cay Wetlands

A raised boardwalk provides a 1.5 mile walk through several habitat types with outstanding access to many species of birds and close-ups of alligators and turtles.

Photograph of an American Alligator at the Green Cay Wetlands
American Alligator

According to ebird, over 250 bird species have been recorded here. The first bird we saw, a Wood Stork, was actually flying directly overhead.

Photograph of a Wood Stork flying
Wood Stork

As we started along the boardwalk, we were greeted by an Anhinga, a Green Heron, multiple Common Gallinules and a young Gray-headed Swamphen.

Photograph of an Anhinga
Anhinga
Photograph of a Green Heron
Green Heron
Photograph of a Common Gallinule
Common Gallinule
Photograph of a young Gray-headed Swamphen
Gray-headed Swamphen – young bird

The boardwalk was very busy with lots of senior citizens completing their morning walks. At one point we passed through a dryer spot with lots of trees and many warblers. I was most excited to get a decent photo of a PINE WARBLER, which was not a true “lifer” for me, but was a “life photograph” of one.

Photograph of a Pine Warbler
Pine Warbler

Other songbirds included Yellow-throated, Palm, Black-and-white, and Yellow-rumped Warblers, American Redstart, Northern Parula and Blue-headed Vireo. I think the Black-and-white Warbler image turned out quite well!

Photograph of a Black-and-white Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler

As we circled the wetlands, we were treated to more incredible views of Egrets, Herons, ducks, and ibis.

Photograph of the boardwalk and Visitor's Center at Green Cay Wetlands
Photograph of a Tricolored Heron
Tricolored Heron
Photograph of a pair of Blue-winged Teal
Blue-winged Teal – pair
Photograph of a Glossy Ibis
Glossy Ibis

The pièce de résistance had to be an adult Gray-headed Swamphen displaying its full brilliant coloration. Stunning!

Photograph of an adult Gray-headed Swamphen
Gray-headed Swamphen

On the way out we stopped to watch the birds around the bird feeders and got glimpses of White-winged Doves, Common Grackles and female Painted Buntings

Photograph of a White-winged Dove
White-winged Dove
Photograph of a Common Grackle
Common Grackle
Photograph of a female Painted Bunting
Painted Bunting – female

Looking for Snail Kites

1/09/19
So, we were in Orlando, as a family, with plans to take our son to play the new Kingdom Hearts III Demo at Disney Springs and had a little time to kill before they opened. So of course I took the opportunity to try and see if I could espy one of my target trip life birds; Snail Kite. According to eBird, there was a county park (Brinson Park) at the northeast corner of Lake Tohopekaliga that seemed to show regular sightings of it. So I plugged the coordinates into my Apple Play and off we ran. As we reached the park, it became obvious that this was not going to work today as it was closed due to construction. I was a bit angry as this was my only chance to look for one on this trip. But since I still had time to kill, I decided to see if there was some spot to pull over and scan the lake. I noticed a sign for Brownie Wise Park and decided to give it a shot. I did not see it listed on ebird so I was skeptical that it would be any good.

Entrance sign to Brownie Wise Park

WOW, WAS I EVER WRONG! As we were entering the park area we saw an adult Bald Eagle off to the side.

Photograph of adult Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle

I parked in the parking lot and walked a short distance to a platform and after 30 seconds of scanned, spotted a SNAIL KITE about 300 yards out, sitting in some vegetation.

Photograph of a distant Snail Kite
Snail Kite

It was too far away to get the kind of photo I wanted, but since it was a LIFER I was pretty excited. I waiting 20 minutes hoping it might fly in closer, but it never did. I could see two other quite distant Snail Kites across the lake. We left and headed in to Disney Springs where my son had a blast playing his video game demo

My son playing a video game demo for Kingdom Hearts III

After lunch we decided to head back down to Brownie Wise Park to see if we could get better looks at the kite. It wasn’t there at first, but shortly flew in and then lander. This time much closer!

Photograph of a Snail Kite
Photograph of a Snail Kite in flight

I spent the next hour wandering around the wetlands and inlets taking photos of Sandhill Cranes, Palm Warblers, Fish Crows and the Bald Eagle we had seen earlier in the day.

Photograph of a pair of Sandhill Cranes
Sandhill Cranes
Photograph of a Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Cranes
Photograph of a Palm Warbler
Palm Warbler
Photograph of a flock of Fish Crows
Fish Crows
Photograph of an adult Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle

The Stanislaus “Skulky” Swamp Sparrow Search

1/20/2019
It all started with a phone call from Harold. You know immediately when a call comes in from Harold on a Sunday that he’s got a good bird. The adrenaline kicks in, and my heart rate picks up as I answer, “Hey Harold.” And sure enough, he’s on a Swamp Sparrow over at the Ceres River Bluff Regional Park. I quickly posted the news on the Stanislaus listserve, not sure whether to run out to try and photograph it. So as I’m eating my sandwich, Maria asks what Harold called about (knowing that it had to be a “good” bird somewhere) and I explained “the bird” and that they are only seen about once every five or six years in the county and they are notoriously skulky (hard to see). She promptly replies with, “So, what are you doing just sitting here eating your sandwich? GO GET IT!” (I love how she supports my obsession!)

Ceres River Bluff Regional Park entrance sign
Ceres River Bluff Regional Park entrance sign

Map to the Ceres River Bluff Regional Park.

I pull in to the Ceres River Bluff Regional Park on Hatch Road, Ceres expecting to be able to drive down to the usual parking spot at the bottom of the bluff. This park got a lot of attention by birders lately when Harold Reeve discovered Stanislaus County’s first ever record of a Black-throated Sparrow here, as well as hosting a Chipping Sparrow which can be hard to find on the valley floor.

Photograph of a Black-throated Sparrow
Black-throated Sparrow – Photographed at the Park October 17, 2017

This time though the drive down to the lower parking area was closed, and as I parked, I noticed Ralph Baker’s car right next to me. I eventually caught up to him and Kathy Rasmussen and they were standing with Harold and Sherrie Reeve. They had been watching the bird off and on for a while and pointed out to us the different spots they had seen it at. After about twenty minutes of fruitless searching, they decided to head out and the three of us remained, quietly listening, watching, listening and watching in vain for another hour. The pond area is quite scenic with reeds, willows and oak trees.

The Pond

As we waited I photographed some of the Canada Geese that were swimming around us.

pair of Canada Geese
Canada Geese
Canada Geese swimming
Canada Geese

Eventually I commented that I would need to leave in 20 minutes. They jokingly replied, “Well, then we will leave in 25 because it will pop up right after you leave!!!” I played a few calls off my Sibley’s Bird app. Not realizing that I had stopped the audio, Ralph asks, “Are you still playing the calls because I can still hear it calling…” I wasn’t sure if what we were hearing was a muffled Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-rumped Warbler or our target bird. I walked out to the point and played the calls again. Ralph yelled out that a sparrow flew right over to where I was playing the call.

Swamp Sparrows belong to the Genus Melospiza which include the more locally common Lincoln’s Sparrow and Song Sparrow and can be a challenge to correctly identify. They are notorious for keeping in the shadows and “skulking” behind the vegetation.

Sure enough, the bird gradually walks out from the weeds, towards the back of a bunch of vegetation. I yelled at Ralph and Kathy and started trying to focus through the vegetation on the bird in the shadows. The angle was bad and the lighting poor, but I managed to get a couple of decent shots of the bird. It was a LIFER for Kathy and a Stanislaus County bird for Ralph.

Here’s a link to the list of the top Stanislaus County listers

Photo of Swamp Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Photo of Swamp Sparrow hiding in reeds
Swamp Sparrow hiding in reeds
Photo of a Swamp Sparrow on a branch
Swamp Sparrow
Photo of Swamp Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow

HOW TO ID A SWAMP SPARROW
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a winter, non-breeding (what birders refer to as basic-plumaged) adult has a white throat with a gray-washed breast and extensive reddish-brown in the wings (primary coverts). Here is an example of just such a bird from their website.

In Search of… Pink Birds

Today (January 10th, 2019) we were heading back down to Pembroke Pines and it would be our last opportunity for birding. One of my promises to Maria during our Texas vacation last year, was that we would see Roseate Spoonbills. When she and I had first visited Texas back in the late 90s, seeing Roseate Spoonbills was one of the most awesome encounters of the entire trip. Unfortunately, we struck out in TX. I was very hopeful that they would be present along the Black Point Wildlife Drive at Merritt Island NWR as they had been reported pretty much every day the past week.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge sign

As we turned on to the road, off to the side was a nice Tricolored Heron working its way slowly along the side of the road.

Photo of Tricolored Heron
Tricolored Heron

As luck would have it, barely a couple of minutes along the road was a single Roseate Spoonbill. I yelled out to Maria, “PINK BIRD ALERT, PINK BIRD!” We all jumped out of the car (me forgetting to put the car in park…) and got decent looks at one that wasn’t too far away, but it was directly into the sun.

Photograph of Roseate Spoonbill
Roseate Spoonbill

I am always looking for yet better images of birds that I already have an image of, but I am especailly looking for “Life Photograph” birds. Those birds that I have seen, but never photographed. The next target was a bird that I had fair photos of, but nothing I would feel comfortable sharing with anyone other than my mother. REDDISH EGRET. This bird was in perfect morning light, with the sun at my back this time, not in my face.

Photograph of Reddish Egret
Reddish Egret

The next bird on the road was actually one of those “Lifer photo” birds, a WOOD STORK. We watched it walk along the channel and then fly across the small pond.

Photograph of Wood Stork
Wood Stork

Then we hit the jackpot. I knew something was happening ahead because there were a dozen cars stopped and some folks with really big lenses pointing to some birds right along the side of the road. The next several images can say more than my words ever could.

Photograph of White Ibis and Roseate Spoonbill
Whie Ibis and Roseate Spoonbill
Photograph of White Ibis, Snowy Egret and Roseate Spoonbill
White Ibis, Snowy Egret and Roseate Spoonbill
Photograph of Roseate Spoonbill
Roseate Spoonbill
Photograph of White Ibis, Wood Stork and Roseate Spoonbill
White Ibis, Wood Stork and Roseate Spoonbill
Photograph of Roseate Spoonbill
Roseate Spoonbill
Photograph of Roseate Spoonbill flock
Roseate Spoonbills
Image of Roseate Spoonbill