When One Least Leads to Another

The Discovery

It was 6:30 am and I found myself, once again, at the southern part of the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge, west of Modesto. The previous morning I had started a run of point counts as a part of the Least Bell’s Vireo monitoring program with the US Fish & Wildlife Service. In 2006, Least Bell’s Vireos had been found to be breeding on the refuge after more than fifty years without records of breeding in the Central Valley. Since then, there has been a yearly effort to monitor and document their presence on the refuge.

Bells Vireo | Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren

I had made a mistake and missed a point count location the day before, so I had returned to pick up at the last correct spot. I had inadvertently left my map at home, so I was waiting for my wife to send me a digital copy. While I waited, I was standing outside my car, swatting away mosquitos and enjoying the sounds of the birds singing all around me.

There were lots of Marsh Wrens calling with their vociferous gurgling, rattling trill. Red-winged Blackbirds were singing their odd conk-la-lee call. Amongst the continuous chorus of these marsh birds was the occasional witchety-witchety-witchety call of the Common Yellowthroat and the odd, discordant squawk of the Common Gallinule. Then the bass section kicked in when the American Bittern began its deep booming pump-er-lunk, pump-er-lunk call. The combined orchestra was quite cathartic on this beautiful morning and I felt far from worries in the calming presence of nature.

Common Yellowthroat | Photo by Jim Gain

I had glanced one more time at my phone to see if the map had arrived when I heard it — a somewhat muted cof-cof-cof-cof-cof drifted across the marsh from several hundred yards away. My consciousness immediately questioned the veracity of what my ears were trying to communicate. Cupping my hands behind my ears like a big antenna, I strained all my senses for a second offering of that call. And then it repeated, more clearly this time, or perhaps because of the heightened state of my auditory receptors:  cof-cof-cof-cof-cof and again, cof-cof-cof-cof-cof.

The adrenaline surged through me as I realized that not one, but two males were calling from different locations. I crept carefully and quietly along the road, trying to get closer to my prey. And then I saw them! One flew up from the tules and then a second one chased after it quite closely, not 60 feet from where I stood: two LEAST BITTERNS. Somehow, while looking for one “Least” species, I had found another!

Least Bittern Pair | Photo by Jim Gain

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER

White Lake is a fragile habitat and is not currently open to public access. Please visit the Merced National Wildlife Refuge which has public access to a walking trail, appropriately called The Bittern Trail. Least Bitterns have been observed in this location during spring migration.

https://www.fws.gov/refuge/merced/

The excitement I felt came from knowing that the sighting of a Least Bittern anywhere in northern California has been extremely rare for decades. Birders eager to add the species to their checklists often had to venture to southern California, where the birds could be found at the Salton Sea and along the Colorado River.

Least Bitterns are a California Species of Special Concern whose numbers have declined severely in the Central Valley since 1945. They qualify as a Species of Special Concern due to their population declines and range retractions. There are only a handful of Least Bittern sightings in Stanislaus County, and a pair at this protected location at this time of the breeding season, screamed of potential nesting.

Least Bittern at the Green Cay Wetlands in Boynton Beach FL | Photo by Jay Paredes

The refuge manager Eric Hopson, was as excited as I was about the discovery, and immediately visited the location where he recorded video with the two males calling softly in the distance. He related that the 2 males continued to sing continuously for most of that day. My follow-up visits the next morning revealed that at least 3 Least Bitterns were currently exploring the rich habitat of the refuge but singing only sporadically. One week later the only sound coming from them was the kek-kek-kek call given while on a nest. Ironically, I was searching for the Least Bell’s Vireo, another threatened species, when I found the bitterns.

Least Bittern | Photo by Eric Begín

TAXONOMIC CONNECTIONS

Least Bitterns belong to the Ardeidae family that also includes herons, egrets and other bitterns. There are 68 bird species included in this family with 8 species found locally. They range from the giant Great Blue Heron, to the elegant Great Egret.

American Bittern | Photo by Jim Gain

The Least Bittern is not the only bittern species that occurs in the valley. The much larger American Bittern is much more likely to be observed in our nearby wetlands. The American Bittern however, is much larger than the diminutive Least. While their habitat is similar, their niches are quite distinct. While the larger American Bittern wades methodically along the shallow water and grassy edges, the Least Bittern discretely picks it way from tule to tule, grasping the reeds with its claws like a Marsh Wren as it squeezes its narrow body through the dense vegetation.

Least Bittern | Photo by Steve Arena USFWS

The Least Bittern’s scientific name is Ixobrychus exilis.  Ixobrychus is from Ancient Greek ixias, a reed-like plant and brukhomai, to bellow. Exilis meaning little, slender.

DESCRIPTION

With 16 species of Bitterns worldwide, the Least Bittern is one of the smallest herons in the world. They’re stylishly attired in hues of chestnut, cream, and black, with the male more ornately colored than the female. Because of its habitat choice, it often goes unseen except when it flies, but its cooing and clucking call notes are heard frequently at dawn and dusk and sometimes at night. Like other bitterns, they eat fish, frogs, and similar aquatic life.

Least Bittern at Great Meadows NWR| Photo by Steve Arena

DISTRIBUTION & HABITAT

Least Bitterns migrate from their wintering grounds in Northern Mexico and Baja California in mid-April, with nesting starting in mid-May and fledglings appearing in early June.  Until very recently, Least Bitterns had become extremely rare in the San Joaquin Valley, primarily due to loss of their wetland habitat. Remnant populations have bred in the Sacramento Valley over many years, but recent breeding records for the San Joaquin Valley are extremely scarce. The San Joaquin County bird checklist shows the species as extirpated there. Least Bitterns niche of choice is along the edge of the vegetation over deep water because they mostly climb in reeds rather than wading. Restoration of habitat such as has taken place on the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge is thought to be a major factor in their return to the Valley.

Least Bittern on Nest | Courtesy of Missouri Department of Conservation

The Gem of the San Joaquin River – Refuge Extraordinaire

The vision of the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge is quite clearly stated in the Draft Comprehensive Conservation Plan.

“This Refuge will conserve and restore the area’s native habitats, maintaining its role as an important riparian corridor for natural resources within the state’s Central Valley. It will emphasize management of native wildlife and the necessary actions that focus on the recovery of Federal and State listed endangered/threatened species and other species of special concern, and protection and/or enhancement of migratory bird resources.”

White Lake Wetlands | Photo by Jim Gain

It was no accident that the Least Bitterns happened to choose this area to raise their young. Eric Hopson and his staff have worked closely with scientists and consultants to recreate the deep water permanent marsh habitat that once extended along the length of the San Joaquin Valley.

And Now, the Rest of the Story

Thus far, with barely a week’s worth of observations, it’s exciting to see how this will play out. Based on the lack of mating calls and the observance of several on nest kek calls, it is possible they are incubating eggs. Stay tuned for a follow-up report at the end of the breeding cycle in mid-July. It’s the “Least” I can do!

IMPORTANT REMINDER

White Lake is a fragile habitat and is not currently open to public access. Please visit the Merced National Wildlife Refuge which has public access to a walking trail, appropriately called The Bittern Trail. Least Bitterns have been observed in this location during spring migration.

A Visit from the Gray-mantled Gull of Kamchatka

In French, it is known as the Gray-mantled Gull, Goéland à manteau ardoisé. In Spanish, it is the Kamchatka Gull, Gaviota de Kamchatka. In English, we call it the Slaty-backed Gull. For those of us living in California’s San Joaquin Valley, we call it the “Extremely Rare Gull”. So rare in fact, that it has only ever been seen once before in the entire San Joaquin Valley, and never in Stanislaus County.

SLATY-BACKED GULL WORLDWIDE DISTRIBUTION

The Slaty-backed Gull is a regular breeding bird along the coastal areas of the Western Pacific from North Korea, Russia (including the Kamchatka Peninsula) and just a tiny portion of the Seward Peninsula in north Alaska. It spends the winter mostly in the coastal areas of Japan, Korea and the Yellow Sea area of China and can show up unexpectedly in random locations in the US, from California to Texas. As of February 18th of this year, it can now be counted as a visitor to Stanislaus County.

Slaty-backed Gull Distribution Map

STANISLAUS COUNTY CHECK IN

If it were a FaceBook-using gull, on February 18th of this past week, it could have done a Check In from the Recology Grover Environmental Products facility north of the Westley Rest Area.

Facebook Check In

Or more precisely, hanging out with 6,000 of its Facebook friends along the California Aqueduct next to the Recology Facility.

A LITTLE CALIFORNIA HISTORY

According to the records from the California Bird Records Committee data base, the first ever accepted record for the state dates back to February 5, 1995 with the second ever record coming six years later in 2001. Over the past decade there have been a total of 36 accepted sightings. The increase in records could be due to an actual rise in the numbers of birds straying over here from Asia, or it could be that birders are more informed and knowledgeable on the identification of the bird. I suspect that it is a combination of both factors.

A FIRST RECORD FOR THE SAN JOAQUIN VALLEY

In February of last year, David Yee (aka birdmanyee) spotted and carefully recorded the first Slaty-backed Gull for the entire San Joaquin Valley, from Bakersfield to the Delta. The bird he recorded was found at the gravel pits along Koster Rd, San Joaquin County, barely a mile north of the Recology Facility on Gaffery Rd, Stanislaus County.

A DREAM BECOME REALITY

In an email communication with Eric Caine on January 29 of this year, I stated, “I’m going to find a Slaty-backed gull in February and I’ll call you when I find it!” Little did I know that less than 3 weeks later, this prediction would turn to fact. I got up early as usual on President’s Day and checked my email, looking for a reason to get out of house cleaning. I soon discovered that birdmanyee had reported another Slaty-backed Gull at the same spot, a year later, as the first record. Knowing that the gulls like to move between the gravel pond on Koster Rd to the canal along the Recology Facility, I jumped in my car and drove, as quickly as legally possible, out to the Recology canal. I have made this trip many times in the past only to find the canal completely empty. As I crossed the bridge over the canal, my adrenaline kicked in as I saw at least 5,000 plus gulls along both sides of the canal. The words came to mind, “Be careful what you wish for!”

Gull Flock
Video of thousands of gull off Gaffery Rd

SEARCHING FOR A NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK

So, how hard is it to find and identify correctly, a Slaty-backed Gull? For reference, the same CBRC database of Slaty-backed Gull records over the past decade, also shows that 40% of submitted sightings were not accepted due to the difficulty of identification. There have been 16 different species of gulls documented in Stanislaus County, 8 of which are in the same bird family, Larus. Of these 8 similar shaped and sized species, for adult birds, identification can be narrowed down by a quick look at feet and back color. Adult Larus gulls have a mostly solid mantle ranging from medium gray to dark gray to black. In the photo below the ranges are pretty visible from the medium gray-backed gulls in the middle to the black-backed gull on the upper right corner. In the case of the Slaty-backed Gull in this post, we are looking for one like that black-backed gull.

Larus Gulls

Larus Gulls

So as I scan the flock, I have a search cue set for birds with an obvious black back. The challenge is that the flock is in constant motion. Birds come and go and on occasion, the entire flock will burst upwards in unison, circle around and land back on the canal bank or gentle land and float in the water, completely mixing up which birds I had already scanned and which ones I hadn’t.

 Gulls in Motion

Gulls in Motion

I made one pass though the entire flock, taking about 45 minutes to do so. I turned around and started back. During my first pass, I noted at least 8 to 10 Western Gulls, which have the black(ish) back. They are actually somewhat rare in the county, but can be found here if the gull flock is large enough. I made my way slowly back down the canal, gently causing the birds to mostly just peel off a couple at a time and then fly behind the car and land. Most of them just walked out of the way. I was going very slowly and they practically ignored me.

 So many Gulls

So many Gulls

I was almost completely through the end of the flock again when I noticed a 1st year Glaucous Gull on the other side of the canal. That is another rare species, about as uncommon as the Western Gulls, but not an extreme rarity. I frequently glanced in my side-view mirror to make sure another vehicle wasn’t coming so I could focus on the gull across the canal. I noticed there were two “black-backed” gulls on the berm behind me. I thought to myself, “after I get shots of this Glaucous Gull, I can shoot the two Westerns behind me”.

 Glaucous Gull – 1st cycle

Glaucous Gull – 1st cycle

As a photographer, you can never get too many shots of a rare gull, so after shooting 2 dozen shots of the Glaucous Gull across the canal, I got out of my car slowly, so I could get some shots of the two Western Gulls. I zoomed in and took a shot of the closest Western that was right next to a common Herring Gull, with the other “Western” gull behind them both.

 Herring and Western Gulls

Herring and Western Gulls

As I focused on the front Western, I took a couple of shots and then decided to try and get all three birds in focus. It was the next focus in my viewfinder that knocked my socks off! The second “Western” gull was clearly NOT a Western Gull, it was THE Slaty-backed Gull.

 Slaty-backed Gull - Adult

Slaty-backed Gull – Adult

Suddenly, I couldn’t hold my camera straight, my hands started to shake and my heart beat went off the charts. But I knew that I had to get about a million shots of this bird AND I has to get it in flight. The absolute positive ID of this bird is cemented by the documentation of a series of white pearl spots along the primary flight feathers. The pattern visible on the extended wing shows a terminal white spot, a black spot and a second white spot above the black one. These spots are not present on the similar looking Western Gulls.

 Slaty-backed Gull - Adult

Slaty-backed Gull – Adult

Pretty soon, I calmed down because the bird simply could not be bothered by my presence. I slowly started walking towards it, click, click, clicking as I went. Not wanting to scare the poor thing, I just stood there clicking more shots. I even went to video mode and shot about 4 minutes of it just standing there doing nothing. At one point, part of the flock flew up and moved back about 40 feet, but the Slaty-backed just stood there. At this point, the gull was a mere 13 feet away and just watching me.

 Slaty-backed Gull - Adult

Slaty-backed Gull – Adult

Suddenly once again, the gull flock took off, and this time the Slaty-backed Gull went with them. I tried to keep up with it amongst the swirling cloud of gulls, but most shots were either blurred or partially blocked by other gulls.

 Slaty-backed Gull – In Flight

Slaty-backed Gull – In Flight

AND NOW, THE REST OF THE STORY

After I had calmed down and was certain I had some decent photos, I reached out to David Yee to see if this gull had the same appearance as the one he had the day before. I sent two snapshots from my camera’s viewfinder via email and he promptly responded that it looked like it might be the same bird. I then texted a few local birders and sent Eric Caine an email with the information. He responded that he was running out the door and would get there as soon as possible. Notifications were then also sent to the local bird groups.

Queue the music… I Ran (So Far Away)”

Unfortunately, by the time Eric got out to me at the canal, THE gull was awol.

 Gull flock in the air

Gull flock in the air

When I got home, I proceeded to go through the 750 images and 5 videos I had taken and came up with a few shareable images. I then jumped online to social media and I posted on the North American Gulls and the California Rare Bird Facebook Groups. I had over 6,000 hits on my SmugMug site the first couple of days after I had posted them. As of today (2/22/19), while it has been seen at the Koster Rd Pond in San Joaquin County, no one else has seen the gull in Stanislaus County. Queue the music…”I Ran (So Far Away)”

Other Birds Photographed at Recology

 Herring Gull with Oiled Feathers

Herring Gull with Oiled Feathers

 Iceland Gull – 1st Cycle

Iceland Gull – 1st Cycle

 Iceland Gull – 1st Cycle

Iceland Gull – 1st Cycle

 Glaucous-winged Gull – 1st Cycle

Glaucous-winged Gull – 1st Cycle

 California Gull - Adult

California Gull – Adult

 Western Gull - Adult

Western Gull – Adult

 Iceland Gull and Herring Gull - Adults

Iceland Gull and Herring Gull – Adults

 Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret

The Raven

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, …”

This post was supposed to be about Short-eared Owls, not about the embodiment of a symbolic metaphor for never-ending remembrance.

THE PLAN WAS…
Early yesterday morning as I saw that there was going to be a break in the storms, I thought it would be a great chance to photograph Short-eared Owls at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, near Los Banos. I thought the odds were stacked in my favor given the previous night’s tempest and their crepuscular propensities. I thought for certain there would be several out early enough in the evening to photograph in decent light.

Crepuscular is derived from Latin crepusculum (“twilight”)

I am a firm believer that luck is mostly preparation meeting opportunity. As I was heading out the door, my sister-in-law Julissa commented about the stormy weather. My response was , “it’s all about having clouds in the sky. They can turn a mediocre photo into an outstanding composition!”

I pulled in to the refuge a little before 3:00 PM and sure enough, there were lots of clouds. Large, foreboding nimbostratus clouds with drifting rain sheets were visible in the eastern sky with more coming in from the west.

Google Map Link to San Luis NWR

I initially took the Waterfowl Tour Route, heading first northeast and then circling around clock-wise. My plan was to head around to the Sousa Marsh first and then hit the Tule Elk Route closer to sunset. The sun would intermittently illuminate the landscape with an ominous, almost stygian cloud backdrops.

As I approached the Sousa Marsh at the extreme south east portion of the tour route, the clouds continued to add their own story to the beautiful wildlife narrative, which now also included Tundra Swans.

Well over a hundred of these long-necked, magnificent white birds were scattered around the wetlands. Against such a dramatic, dark background these birds practically glowed and proved to be a challenge to capture digitally.

I completed the Waterfowl Tour Route and decided to take a drive around the Tule Elk Route, as I still had some time to kill before sundown approached. As I drove around this route, the clouds again continually changed in appearance and brightness, at times darkening, and at other times, absolutely glowing as with some inner power or force.

I was able to spot the herd of Tule Elk, which appeared to be settling down for the evening.

After completing that first loop around the Tule Elk Route, I decided to make a second loop and to head  north along the route to parking lot 1, again earnestly searching for Short-eared Owls. This time, as I started the Tule Elk Route, there was a Raven cawing and croaking quite vociferously from the top of one of the giant posts on the Tule Elk enclosure fence line. Black-colored birds against light clouds can be tricky to photograph because feather details get lost. This is frustrating because through binoculars, the rods in our eyes have the ability to define much more detail than a camera can.

I used my car as a mobile blind, and the Raven was not at all bothered by my slow approach. Experience has taught me to bracket my shots, allowing variations in the exposures to hopefully find the best combination of shutter speed and aperture.

According to Wikipedia In photography, bracketing is the general technique of taking several shots of the same subject using different camera settings. Bracketing is useful and often recommended in situations that make it difficult to obtain a satisfactory image with a single shot, especially when a small variation in exposure parameters has a comparatively large effect on the resulting image.

I ended up taking over 60 shots of this obliging corvid. Looking at the images through the LCD panel on the back of my camera, I was NOT hopeful of a happy ending to this opportunity. The edges seemed sharp, but there was little detail in the feathers and around the face and eyes. Sharpness and detail around the face and eyes are very important to a quality bird image.

After my apparent lack of success with the Raven, I headed back north again, slowly driving through the grassland route, searching for a low-flying Asio flammeus (Short-eared Owl) and continuing to marvel at the changing clouds. One of my last shots was this colorful sunset.

Though I was unsuccessful in my effort to find and photograph the owl, this turned out to be an enjoyable jaunt through some marvelous scenery and cloud formations.

AND NOW, THE REST OF THE STORY…

Most bird photographers will admit that the home-processing of photos is as much (or more…) fun as the actual shoot is. As is my custom, I preview every image using a simple photo viewing application, where I zoom in to see if there is good subject placement and sufficient detail and sharpness to warrant an import into Adobe Lightroom. As I mentioned before, a camera does not have the ability to record the details that we can see with our eyes.

Tips and How-Tos

AUDUBON The Dos and Don’ts of Editing Bird Photos
End up with the best image possible—without compromising its integrity.

IMAGE DEVELOPMENT
My job, using Lightroom, is to make the image appear as similar as possible to what I could see with my eyes. I never add to or remove any content from my images (sometimes called photoshoping); rather, I enhance or reduce the highlights or shadows to bring out detail. I may adjust the contrast or add a smidge of vibrance to give an image a little more pop. It may be necessary to apply some luminance adjustments to reduce the amount of pixilation that can occur in low light. The last step of my photographic process is to make sure the subject is where I want it and that the horizon is level. This is done by a simple cropping and rotation.

Just as Ansel Adams was the master of the subtleties of negative development and photograph exposure, today’s photographers use processing tools to produce their masterpieces.

So I chose one of the images that looked like might have potential and looked at it using the Windows Photos app, and it looked exactly like this.

After a little cropping, adjustment of highlights and shadows, some honing of contrast and exposure with a fine-tuning of luminence, my image turned into this.

So once again, even though my hunt for the owls turned out to be fruitless, I ended up with a matchless experience in nature and found that Ravens are as entertaining as owls. Well, almost.