Common Valley Phalaropes

By Jim Gain

Learn 100 Common Valley Birds is a photo blog series highlighting the 100 most common Valley bird species.

Post #26 in the Learn 100 Common Valley Birds series. (Species 42, & 43/100)

Red-necked Phalarope #42

The Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus) is a small migratory bird that can be observed in the Central Valley of California during the spring and fall migration seasons. Like other phalaropes, it is a polyandrous species in which sex roles are reversed; breeding females are distinguishable by brighter plumage than males and by slightly larger body size. This bird measures around 7 inches in length and has a distinctive appearance, with a dark back, white belly, and reddish neck and throat. During the breeding season, the female takes on a brighter plumage than the male, with a more intense red neck and a darker back.

The Red-necked Phalarope is a highly specialized bird that spends most of its life at sea. It is known for its unique feeding behavior, where it spins in circles on the water’s surface to create a whirlpool, which draws in small prey, such as crustaceans and plankton. During migration, these birds can be found in shallow wetlands, flooded fields, and other areas with shallow water, where they forage for food.

In Basic (nonbreeding) plumage of both sexes includes a white head with a conspicuous black line through and behind the eye, a dark patch on the back of the crown or nape, white underparts that occasionally have gray smudges on the sides of the breast and flanks, and gray upperparts with white fringes along the scapular and mantle margins.

Red-necked Phalaropes breed in the Arctic tundra and migrate long distances to their wintering grounds in the Pacific Ocean. The Central Valley of California serves as an important stopover site for these birds during their migration, providing a critical source of food and habitat as they travel between their breeding and wintering grounds.

Wilson’s Phalarope #43

The Wilson’s Phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor) is a unique and beautiful shorebird species that can be found in the Central Valley of California during its annual migration. Adults have a distinctive plumage with a grayish-brown back and wings, white underparts, and a reddish neck and breast. However, during breeding season, the females become more colorful, with a bright rusty-red back and wings.

Wilson’s Phalaropes are well-adapted to their wetland habitats, where they feed on small aquatic invertebrates by spinning in circles on the water’s surface, creating a vortex that draws prey towards their bills. They are also notable for their breeding behavior, where females take on a more dominant role, courting and defending multiple males while the males incubate the eggs and care for the chicks.

While the Central Valley of California provides important stopover habitat for Wilson’s Phalaropes during migration, this species faces threats from habitat loss and degradation due to agriculture, drought, and climate change. Conservation efforts such as wetland restoration and protection are crucial to ensuring the survival of this unique and fascinating bird.

Previous posts from the Learn 100 Common Valley Birds series:

Pigeons and Doves

By Jim Gain

Learn 100 Common Valley Birds is a photo blog series highlighting the 100 most common Valley bird species.

Post #25 in the Learn 100 Common Valley Birds series. (Species 39, 40 & 41/100)

Mourning Dove – Species #39

The Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) is a medium-sized bird that is widespread throughout the Central Valley of California. It is a slender, tan or grayish-brown bird. It has a long, pointed tail that is often held up in a distinctive “V” shape when the bird is in flight.

Mourning Doves are commonly found in open grasslands, fields, and desert scrub habitats, and are known for their distinctive mournful cooing calls. They are primarily seed-eaters, but also feed on fruits, insects, and snails. They typically build their nests in trees, shrubs, or other vegetation, and may lay up to six eggs per clutch.

Mourning Doves are non-migratory, and can be found throughout the Central Valley of California year-round, although their numbers may increase during the breeding season in the spring and summer. They are a popular game bird and are also enjoyed by birdwatchers for their peaceful and soothing cooing calls.

Rock Pigeon – Species #40

The Rock Pigeon (Columba livia) is a common bird species found in the Central Valley of California. They are medium-sized birds, typically measuring around 12-14 inches in length and weighing around 9-13 ounces. Rock Pigeons have a plump body with a small head, short neck, and broad wings. Their feathers are typically gray with iridescent green and purple tones on their necks and wings, and two black bars on each wing.

Rock Pigeons are highly adaptable and can thrive in a variety of environments, including urban and rural areas. They are known for their ability to navigate and find their way back to their roosting site even from great distances. They typically breed throughout the year and can lay up to six eggs per clutch. Their diet primarily consists of seeds and grains, but they may also eat insects and small invertebrates. Due to their adaptable nature, Rock Pigeons have been introduced to many parts of the world, becoming one of the most widespread bird species globally.

Eurasian Collared-Dove – Species #41

The Eurasian Collared-Dove (Streptopelia decaocto) is a bird species that has rapidly expanded its range across North America in recent decades, including the Central Valley of California. They are easily recognized by their distinct features, such as a buff-colored body, a black crescent-shaped collar on their nape, and a long, square-tipped tail. Adults measure about 12 inches in length and weigh around 6-8 ounces.

These doves are known for their adaptability and resilience, which have allowed them to thrive in urban and suburban environments. They feed on a variety of seeds, fruits, and grains, and can often be found foraging on the ground or perching on rooftops or telephone wires. They also have a unique courtship behavior, where the male performs a series of flights and calls to attract a mate.

The Eurasian Collared-Dove’s natural history in the Central Valley of California is still being studied, but they are believed to breed throughout the year, with peaks during the spring and fall. Their nesting sites are typically located in trees or shrubs, and both parents take turns incubating the eggs and caring for the young. These birds are considered a non-native invasive species in California, and their rapid expansion has raised concerns about their impact on native bird populations and agricultural crops.

Previous posts from the Learn 100 Common Valley Birds series:

Tree-creeping Birds

By Jim Gain

Learn 100 Common Valley Birds is a photo blog series highlighting the 100 most common Valley bird species.

Post #24 in the Learn 100 Common Valley Birds series. (Species 38/100 + 2 BONUS birds)

White-breasted Nuthatch – Species #38

The White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) is a small songbird with a distinctive black, gray and white coloration; a blue-gray back, and a white face and belly. The males and females are similar in appearance and can be difficult to distinguish without close observation. The bird’s bill is relatively long and straight, which helps it probe for insects and other small prey in tree bark.

In the Central Valley of California, the White-breasted Nuthatch can be found year-round in oak woodlands and mixed-conifer forests. It is a non-migratory species, so individuals do not typically leave their range during the winter months. The birds are known for their acrobatic foraging behavior, often creeping upside-down or sideways along tree trunks and branches in search of food.

They primarily feed on insects and seeds, but will also take advantage of suet and other backyard bird feeders when available. The White-breasted Nuthatch is a cavity-nesting species and will excavate its own nest in dead or decaying trees.

BONUS BIRDS – The following two bird species share very similar behavior characteristics as the White-breasted Nuthatch but are Uncommon in occurrence and therefore not official members of the 100 Common Species club.

Red-breasted Nuthatch – Species #38b

The Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) is a small bird with a distinctive appearance and behavior that can be observed in the Central Valley of California. They are approximately four and a half inches long with a blue-gray back, a white face, and a rusty red breast. They have a short, straight beak that is perfect for extracting insects from tree bark, which is one of their primary food sources. These birds also have a habit of clinging upside down on tree trunks, using their sharp claws to support themselves as they search for food.

In terms of natural history, the Red-breasted Nuthatch is a year-round uncommon resident of the Central Valley, although they are more often seen during the winter months. They tend to nest in tree cavities, where they lay their eggs in a bed of bark, moss, and other soft materials. These birds are also known for their vocalizations, which include a distinctive yank-yank call that can be heard echoing through the trees. Overall, the Red-breasted Nuthatch is a charming and interesting bird that adds color and personality to the Central Valley’s natural environment.

Brown Creeper – Species #38C

The Brown Creeper (Certhia americana) is a small, slender bird found in the forests of North America. In the Central Valley of California, Brown Creepers are typically found in mature deciduous and mixed-coniferous forests, as well as in riparian woodlands. These birds are easily identified by their mottled brown plumage, which blends in perfectly with tree bark, allowing them to remain concealed while foraging.

Brown Creepers are insectivores and primarily feed on small insects and spiders found on tree trunks and branches. They use their long, curved bills to probe crevices and under loose bark for prey. Brown Creepers also use their stiff, pointed tail feathers to help them climb trees in a spiral motion, much like a woodpecker.

Previous posts from the Learn 100 Common Valley Birds series:

LBBs – Little Brown Birds

By Jim Gain

Learn 100 Common Valley Birds is a photo blog series highlighting the 100 most common Valley bird species.

Post #23 in the Learn 100 Common Valley Birds series. (Species 36, & 37/100)

Oak Titmouse – Species #36

The Oak Titmouse (Baeolophus inornatus) is a small, non-migratory bird species native to the oak woodlands of California’s Central Valley. These birds are known for their distinctive gray-brown plumage and prominent black eyes. They also have a small crest on their head which they can raise or lower depending on their mood.

The Oak Titmouse feeds on insects, seeds, and acorns, which it forages for in the trees and shrubs of its habitat. The Oak Titmouse is a cavity nester and typically nests in old woodpecker holes or other natural cavities in trees.

It is known for its loud and distinctive calls, which include a buzzy “peter-peter-peter” and a whistled “see-see-see.” The Oak Titmouse is a non-migratory bird and does not typically travel far from its nesting site. The bird is considered an indicator species of the health of oak woodlands and is of conservation concern due to habitat loss and fragmentation.

Bushtit – Species #37

The Bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus) is a small, round bird found in the Central Valley of California. They have a distinctive appearance, with fluffy, grayish-brown plumage that covers their entire body, except for their black eyes and tiny, stubby beak. Their tail is relatively short, and their wings are rounded, allowing them to maneuver easily through dense vegetation.

Bushtits are highly social birds, living in flocks of up to 40 individuals. They are also highly active, constantly flitting and hopping through bushes and trees, in search of insects, spiders, and other small invertebrates. They build intricate, hanging nests made of spider silk, lichen, and other plant materials, often in clusters of up to a dozen, with each nest being occupied by a single breeding pair.

Bushtits are also known for their fascinating cooperative breeding behavior. In some cases, adult offspring from previous breeding seasons remain with their parents to help raise younger siblings. This helps to increase the survival rate of the entire family, and it also allows the older siblings to gain valuable experience for their own future breeding efforts. All in all, the Bushtit is a fascinating and charismatic bird, and it is an important part of the rich biodiversity of the Central Valley of California.

Previous posts from the Learn 100 Common Valley Birds series,

Coots and Gallinules

By Jim Gain

Learn 100 Common Valley Birds is a photo blog series highlighting the 100 most common Valley bird species.

Post #22 in the Learn 100 Common Valley Birds series. (Species 34 & 35/100)

American Coot – Species #34

The American Coot, (Fulica americana), is a common waterbird found in the Central Valley of California. These birds have a distinctive appearance with a rounded, chicken-like body, black plumage, and a white beak. They also have unique lobed toes, which help them swim and dive in the water.

American Coots are social birds that gather in large flocks on freshwater lakes, ponds, and marshes throughout the year. They are omnivorous and feed on a variety of aquatic plants, invertebrates, and small fish.

During breeding season, they build floating nests in dense vegetation near the water’s edge and lay a clutch of 8-12 eggs. The chicks are precocial and able to swim and dive within hours of hatching. Overall, American Coots are an important part of the Central Valley’s ecosystem and a common sight for birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts alike.

Common Gallinule – Species #35

The Common Gallinule, (Gallinula galeata) formerly known as the Common Moorhen, is a medium-sized waterbird found in the wetlands and marshes of the Central Valley of California. This species has a dark, almost black plumage with a distinctive red frontal shield and yellow-tipped bill. The legs are long and greenish-yellow, with large toes that enable them to walk on floating vegetation. They are a highly adaptable species that can be found in a wide range of aquatic habitats, including lakes, ponds, marshes, and rice fields.

During breeding season, Common Gallinules are highly territorial and will defend their nesting sites aggressively. They build nests from floating vegetation and lay clutches of 6 to 10 eggs. The chicks are born precocial, meaning they are capable of walking and swimming shortly after hatching. The diet of Common Gallinules consists of a variety of plant and animal material, including seeds, insects, snails, and small fish.

Despite being common throughout much of their range, habitat loss and degradation have caused declines in some populations, making conservation efforts important to ensure their survival.

Previous posts from the Learn 100 Common Valley Birds series,

Swainson’s Hawk

By Jim Gain

Learn 100 Common Valley Birds is a photo blog series highlighting the 100 most common Valley bird species.

Post #21 in the Learn 100 Common Valley Birds series. (Species 33/100)

Swainson’s Hawk #33

Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsoni) is a migratory raptor that breeds in North America and winters in South America. In the Central Valley of California, Swainson’s Hawks typically arrive in mid-March and depart by the end of September. During the breeding season, they prefer to nest in tall trees and hunt for prey in open fields and grasslands.

Swainson’s Hawks have three distinctive plumage variations (called morphs); pale morphs, intermediate morphs and dark. Pale morph birds show a dark breast-band, or “bib,” between a lighter belly and throat.

Intermediate morphs show a pale forehead at close range and an evenly colored backside.

The darkest morph adult Swainson’s Hawks lack a sharp contrast between wing-linings and flight-feathers, and their entire breast and belly can be nearly uniform dark brown.

In the Central Valley of California, Swainson’s Hawks primarily feed on small mammals such as voles, gophers, and ground squirrels. During the non-breeding season, they also consume insects, reptiles, and birds. Swainson’s Hawks are known for their soaring flight, often flying at high altitudes in search of prey or during migration. They also perform aerial acrobatics during courtship displays, where they spiral and dive in a display of agility and strength.

In recent years, Swainson’s Hawk populations have faced threats from habitat loss, pesticide exposure, and electrocution from power lines. However, conservation efforts have been successful in protecting breeding and wintering habitats, reducing pesticide use, and installing “raptor-safe” power poles. As a result, Swainson’s Hawk populations have been stable or increasing in some areas of their range.

Previous posts from the Learn 100 Common Valley Birds series,

Common Valley Swallows

By Jim Gain

Learn 100 Common Valley Birds is a photo blog series highlighting the 100 most common Valley bird species.

Post #16 in the Learn 100 Common Valley Birds series. (Species 21, 22 and 23/100 + 2 BONUS BIRDS)

Tree Swallow Species #21

The Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) is a small, insectivorous bird species found throughout the Central Valley of California. These birds are known for their sleek, iridescent blue-green plumage on their backs and wings, contrasting with their white underparts. They have a forked tail and a short, pointed bill, which they use to catch insects on the wing.

Tree Swallows are migratory birds that breed in North America, with some populations wintering in Central and South America. They typically arrive in the Central Valley of California in late February or early March and start breeding in April. These birds are cavity nesters, and they often compete with other species, such as Bluebirds and House Sparrows, for nesting sites. They build their nests in tree cavities, birdhouses, and even nest boxes provided by humans. Tree Swallows lay 4-7 eggs per clutch and raise 1-2 broods per year.

Their diet consists mostly of insects, which they catch on the wing, but they may also consume small fruits and berries. Tree Swallows are an important part of the ecosystem, controlling insect populations and serving as prey for larger birds and mammals.

Cliff Swallow Species #22

The Cliff Swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) is a migratory bird species that is found in the Central Valley of California during the breeding season, typically from March to September. They are known for their unique mud nests that they build on vertical surfaces such as cliffs, bridges, and buildings. These nests can be quite large, sometimes housing hundreds of birds, and are a common sight in many areas of the Central Valley.

The Cliff Swallow is a highly social bird and is often found in large flocks, both during the breeding season and during migration. They feed mainly on insects, which they catch while in flight, and are known for their acrobatic flying abilities. The breeding cycle of Cliff Swallows begins in early spring, with males arriving first to establish nesting sites and attract females. Once paired, the birds build their mud nests and raise their young, typically producing two broods per season.

Despite their adaptability and success in the Central Valley, Cliff Swallow populations have declined in recent decades due to habitat loss, pesticide use, and other factors. Efforts are underway to monitor and conserve this important bird species, which plays an important role in controlling insect populations and maintaining the ecological balance of the region.

Barn Swallow Species #23

The Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) is a common passerine bird species that can be found in the Central Valley of California during the breeding season, which typically lasts from March to September. These birds have a distinctive appearance, with a long forked tail, blue-black upperparts, and reddish-buff underparts. The male and female are similar in appearance, but the male typically has longer tail feathers.

Barn Swallows are known for their acrobatic flight and can often be seen darting and swooping over open fields and bodies of water in search of insects, which make up the bulk of their diet.

They build their cup-shaped nests out of mud and grass and attach them to the underside of structures such as bridges, eaves, and cliffs. Barn Swallows are also known for their impressive migratory abilities, with individuals traveling thousands of miles each year to their wintering grounds in Central and South America.

In recent years, the Barn Swallow population in the Central Valley of California has been declining due to factors such as loss of nesting sites and pesticide use. Conservation efforts are underway to protect these birds and their habitat, including the installation of artificial nesting structures and the reduction of pesticide use in agricultural areas.

BONUS BIRDS – The following two swallow species are excluded from the 100 Common Valley Birds list due to their somewhat lower occurrence levels in the valley.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

The Northern Rough-winged Swallow (Stelgidopteryx serripennis) is a small passerine bird found throughout the Central Valley of California, typically inhabiting riparian areas, wetlands, and other bodies of water. This species gets its name from the rough edges on the leading edge of its wings, which help it to grip onto rough surfaces when perching.

Northern Rough-winged Swallows are sexually monomorphic, meaning that males and females look similar. They have a brownish-gray back and wings, with a slightly paler underbelly. Their wings are relatively short and pointed, and they have a short, slightly notched tail. This species is known for its aerial acrobatics, often seen swooping and diving over water to catch insects.

During breeding season, which typically occurs from April to September, Northern Rough-winged Swallows build nests in burrows, crevices, or other suitable sites in natural or artificial vertical surfaces, such as the banks of rivers, cliffs, or man-made structures. They lay 4-6 eggs per clutch, and both parents participate in incubation and feeding of the young. Northern Rough-winged Swallows are migratory and spend the winter months in Central and South America.

Violet-green Swallow

The Violet-green Swallow (Tachycineta thalassina) is a small passerine bird species belonging to the swallow family. This species measures around 11-14 cm in length and has a wingspan of approximately 25-30 cm. The males have shiny iridescent green upperparts, a white underbelly, and a violet patch on their rump, while females have less iridescence and a less distinct violet rump patch.

In the Central Valley of California, the Violet-green Swallow breeds in open woodlands, riparian forests, and oak savannas. They typically build their nests in tree cavities, rock crevices, or nest boxes. Their diet primarily consists of flying insects, which they catch in mid-air. During the breeding season, the males perform aerial acrobatics to attract females, and both parents feed and care for their young. Violet-green Swallows are migratory birds and typically spend their winters in Mexico and Central America before returning to their breeding grounds in the Central Valley in the spring. Overall, the Violet-green Swallow is an important and charismatic species of the Central Valley’s avifauna.

Previous posts from the Learn 100 Common Valley Birds series,

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.

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.


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.

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.