The Laguna Madre Mudflats

Post #8 of The Great Texas Birding Adventure

Previous Post #7 A Convention Center for Birds and Birders

Just north of the Bird Center and Convention Center, the Bay Access provides easy access to the extensive mudflats of the Laguna Madre during low tide.

If one is cognizant of the nesting birds along the perimeter and of the ever-changing water levels, birders can drive out a good distance for easy access to the hundreds of gulls, terns and shorebirds during migration.

Least Tern
Least Tern in Flight
Black Skimmer
Royal Terns
Royal Terns and a Sandwich Tern
Black-bellied Plover
Sanderling

Next Post – Bolsa Chica and the SpaceX Facility

A Convention Center for Birds and Birders

Post #7 of The Great Texas Birding Adventure

Previous Post #6 Baa Baa Sheepshead, Have you any Birds?

About the Area

The South Padre Island Convention Center grounds include three main attractions for birders.

Laguna Madre Nature Trail

The Laguna Madre Nature Trail head starts right next to the whaling wall. This 1,500-foot boardwalk is spread across acres of marshland, where many coastal and migratory birds can be seen year around. The boardwalk allows birders and photographers to get up-close and personal to the birds. Birds here are generally accustomed to people walking near them.

Water Feature

With limited nearby freshwater, the water feature is a much visited spot for migrating birds.

Woodland Habitat

Providing a safe spot to rest and hunt insects, the clumps of trees in the back of the Convention Center can be hopping with warblers, flycatchers, buntings, orioles and vireos during migration.

Birding the Convention Center

A WARBLER IN MOURNING

As we walked from the parking lot (no fees, free parking), the first group of birders we encountered shared that there was a Mourning Warbler being observed in the back. My expectations for LIFE BIRDS on this trip was not very high and Mourning Warbler was one that I thought I might have a possibility of seeing. With adrenaline pumping I scurried towards the back while trying to get my binoculars strapped on correctly and getting my camera settings checked. As frequently happens in these situations, there were lots of people pointing in different directions and just as many people saying, “Where is it?“. Being a birder first, and bird photographer second, I NEEDED TO SEE IT FIRST, then try to photograph it. I got on the bird fairly quickly with my bins (SCORE #3 for the trip) and then attempted to get my camera to focus on this tiny, continually in motion, hiding behind twigs and leaves, bundle of yellow, green and gray feathers. I alternated between auto-focus and manual-focus trying desperately to get this treasure. After it finally flitted away, not to be seen (by me) again, I scoured through the images on the tiny LCD panel on the back of my camera. I was not very optimistic, but I hoped a little cropping and contrast adjustments might get me at least an identifiable shot of this life bird.

Mourning Warbler

We spent another 30 minutes looking through the trees to try and refind the Mourning Warbler and did manage to see some other species.

White Ibis
Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Next, we headed out the Laguna Madre Nature Trail boardwalk and immediately found a Northern Waterthrush creeping along the edge of the water.

Northern Waterthrush

As we watched the Waterthrush, a group of Black Skimmers flew right over us. We watched as they banked and flew right back again, skimming along the water. While I have seen hundreds of skimmers, I never get tired of watching them slice through the water in search of something tasty to eat.

Black Skimmer

As we walked along the boardwalk, we could see several shorebirds working through the exposed mudflats including Pectoral Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper and Stilt Sandpiper. The WRSA was lifer #4 for the day and trip and would be the last lifer for me on this adventure.

Other birds seen along the boardwalk included Neotropical Cormorant, Reddish Egret, Tricolored Heron and a couple of Least Terns.

It was hard to pull ourselves away from the Convention Center, but it was now low tide and we wanted to see the mudflats of Laguna Madre and access to it was just north of us.

Next Post – The Laguna Madre Mudflats

South Padre Island – Migratory Bird Mecca

Post #5 of The Great Texas Birding Adventure

Previous Post #4 Laguna Vista – A Nature Trail and Fish Tacos

After a most excellent fish taco lunch and short stroll in Roloff Park in Laguna Vista, we decided that we wanted to explore the other side of the bay. While there are a number of “Must Visit” birding locations in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, when it comes to seeing migrating birds from the tropics (neotropical migrants), none is higher on the list than South Padre Island.  

©Dr. Hal Needham
hal@marineweatherandclimate.com

THE ISLAND

Geologically speaking, Padre Island is a young island, having formed in just the last several thousand years. It is one of 300 barrier islands stretching from Maine to Mexico. These natural barrier islands act to protect the mainland from the direct onslaught of storms. Padre Island began forming as a submerged sandbar some 4,500 years ago, while the actual emerged island may be only 1,000 to 1,500 years old.

Image by heydere

The island is mostly prairie/grasslands with ephemeral marshes and ponds bordered on the east by the Gulf of Mexico and on the west by the Laguna Madre. The highest elevation is approximately fifty feet.

Most of the seashore is accessible only by four-wheel-drive vehicle. The Gulf beach is composed of white sand and is less than a hundred feet wide.Bordering the beach is a narrow dune ridge running almost the length of the entire island. West of the dune ridge are the grasslands and marshes. Few trees exist on the island. Those that do are mostly mesquite, live oak, or willow. On the western shore of the island are extensive mudflats.

THE MOTHER LAGOON

The Laguna Madre Bay is a “hyper-saline” bay meaning the salt content is higher than the rest of the ocean. It is one of only six hyper-saline bays in the world and is the largest with an average depth of only 3.3 feet. Laguna Madre is composed of extensive mudflats, which are considered environmentally sensitive. Because there is little flow of sediments along the Laguna shore, damage to the mudflats can last a long time. Tire tracks and footprints left over twenty years ago can still be seen in some parts.

HUMAN HISTORY

South Padre Island was a beautiful, desolate place where native Karankawa Indians, migratory birds, and sea turtles were the only residents. The Island was granted to Nicolás Ballí from King Carlos III of Spain in 1759 and later passed to Ballí’s grandson, Padre José Nicolás Ballí. Soon after, Padre José brought the first permanent settlers, establishing a church and teaching Christianity to the Karankawa Indians.

When Padre Ballí owned the Island, it was known as the Isla de Santiago. Due to the Padre’s reputation as a kind man, the people to whom he ministered affectionately referred to the Island as La Isla Padre – Padre Island. 

Five nations have owned Padre Island at different times. First the Karankawa people, followed by Spain until 1820, then Mexico until 1836, Republic of Texas until War with Mexico in 1848 and currently, the United States. Throughout these times, the island has been known by several names, with Padre Island being only the most recent. It has also been known as “la Isla Blanca” (White Island) and “Isla de los Malaguitas” (Island of the Malaquites, a band of the Karankawa people).

Today, tourism is the leading economical venture on the island, mostly confined to the south end of the island.

THE BIRDS

Bird species found on the island mostly fall into two groups; the Residents and the Migrants.

RESIDENT SPECIES – Resident species include various waterfowl such as Blue-winged Teal, Mottled Ducks and Redheads. South Padre Island is also home to several heron and egret species like Tricolored Heron, Reddish Egret and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. Also hundreds of Laughing Gulls, Elegant Terns and Black Skimmers can be found year round. Skulking around in the seasonal wetlands, the more secretive rail species may be encountered.

NEOTRIPICAL MIGRANTS – During the seasonal push of migrant birds from the tropics, the number of birds stopping along the island can be staggering, especially during fall out conditions. The list of Neotropical migrants is quite impressive with birds ranging from the Yellow-billed Cuckoo to the brilliant Indigo and Painted Buntings and 44 species of warblers. The list goes on and on.

WHAT IS A BIRD FALLOUT? Are we there yet?

Bird fallout or migration fallout is the result of severe weather preventing migratory birds from reaching their destination. This can occur while birds are traveling south or returning to their breeding grounds. Due to the distance travelled, birds will not have enough energy to continue flight when encountering high winds. This exhaustion results in many birds resting in one area. While South Padre Island isn’t the answer to a bird’s Are we there yet? question, it often is a much needed pitstop along the way towards their final destination.

TOP EBIRD HOTSPOTS ON THE ISLAND

Isla Blanca State Park

  • 212 Species Observed
  • 386 Complete Checklists (as of 6/19/21)

Valley Land Fund lots – Sheepshead Dr.

  • 291 Species Observed
  • 5,666 Complete Checklists (as of 6/19/21)

Birding and Nature Center

  • 360 Species Observed
  • 7,398 Complete Checklists (as of 6/19/21)

Convention Center

  • 365 Species Observed
  • 10,957 Complete Checklists (as of 6/19/21)

Bay Access mudflats

  • 236 Species Observed
  • 1,607 Complete Checklists (as of 6/19/21)

As one advocate put it, Padre was a “vast wilderness of sea, sand, and surf where it is possible to escape the anxieties, tensions, and complexities of our time.”

Next Week’s Blog Post #6 – Baa Baa Sheepshead, Have You Any Birds?

Laguna Vista – A Nature Trail and Fish Tacos

Post #4 of The Great South Texas Birding Adventure

Previous Post #3 What a Dump!

After a brief, but successful stop at the Laguna Atascosa NWR Bahia Grande Unit, AKA Apolmado Falcon Viewing Area for the … Aplomado Falcon, we headed to a little spot that came highly recommended from the Rio Grande Valley Birding facebook Group. It really was a hidden gem and we weren’t really sure we were at the correct location until we saw the entrance sign.

The Nature Trail is nicely set up and very clean.

It has several rest benches and 3 observation blinds, each with its own water feature.

Green Jays

In addition to many new birds, there were a couple of reptiles lurking nearby.

Texas Horned Lizard
Yellow-bellied Eastern Racer
White-tipped Dove
Golden-fronted Woodpecker – female
Long-billed Thrasher
Olive Sparrow

eBird Checklist for Laguna Vista Nature Trail

By the time we finished up exploring the Nature Trail, we began the search for something to stop the rumblies in our tummies, it was time for food! We happened upon what was perhaps the best lunch of the entire adventure, The Bay B Boomers Bar & Grill in Laguna Vista, 717 Santa Isabel Blvd, Laguna Vista, TX 78578. Best fish tacos EVER!

Bay B Boomers Bar & Grill

Feeling fully restored and anxious to keep rolling, we spotted Roloff Park and beyond it, the famous Laguna Madre.

Image of Laughing Gulls, Caspian Tern and Elegant Tern
Laughing Gulls, Caspian Tern and Royal Tern

With a few more species checked off at the park, we succumbed to the lure of the famous South Padre Island and headed east.

Next Week Blog Post #5 South Padre Island – Migratory Bird Mecca

Merced County 2021 eBird Checklist #2 – Merced NWR

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.

Black-necked Stilt

In between the scattered passing of light showers, I captured a few species that wandered within range of my lens.

Long-billed Dowitcher
Cinnamon Teal
Great Egret
Red-shouldered Hawk

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.

Nuttall’s Woodpecker

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.

Nuttall’s Woodpecker
Nuttall’s Woodpecker – female
Nuttall’s Woodpecker – female

Continuing the journey towards the observation platform at the extreme SE corner, we came across several other interesting birds.

Gadwall – female and male
Northern Shoveler – female and male
Western Meadowlark
Ruddy Duck – male
Northern Harrier
Black Phoebe

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.

Sooty Fox Sparrow
Sooty Fox Sparrow

As I searched for over an hour, I spotted a distant Great Horned Owl that flushed as I tried to get closer.

Great Horned Owl

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.

Lark Bunting
Golden-crowned Sparrow

I ended up doing a complete second tour around the refuge, enjoying the calming feeling that it gave me.

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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Description generated with very high confidence

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