In Search of a 5-Star Rated Vermillion Flycatcher Photo

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

ABOUT THE PARK

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

Lake Yosemite Park Entrance
Lake Yosemite

VERMILLION FLYCATCHER BACKGROUND

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

Vermillion Flycatcher at the Merced NWR 1/17/2021

THE DIGITAL MEDIA EXPLOSION

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

RATING A PHOTOGRAPH

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

eBird Ratings

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

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

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

Drab, common 5-Star Northern Mockingbird

Key Points to Consider When Rating a Photograph for eBird

From the eBird Support Site “How to Rate Media

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

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

HUNTING MY PREY

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

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

1-Star Record of Vermillion Flycatcher

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

REJECTS VS KEEPERS

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

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

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

Cassin’s Kingbirds, Lawrence’s Goldfinch and Avian Eponyms

HUNTING FOR PHOTOGRAPHIC DOCUMENTATION

The chase began, as they usually do, with a rare bird email report from ebird on 3/14 by Emilie Strauss about a sighting of a pair of Cassin’s Kingbirds. Cassin’s Kingbirds are rare to uncommon in the county with a pretty limited distribution, mostly along the creeks that feed down from the east side of the Coast Range. In addition to being somewhat rare in the valley, they are also very similar in appearance to the much more common Western Kingbirds. As it turns out, Cassin’s Kingbird also happens to be a species that I clearly needed better photos of, so it became my target bird for this morning’s adventure.

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

Going back to when I first started birding the Central Valley over 30 years ago, Cassin’s Kingbirds were only known to be found at a handful of locations between Fresno and San Joaquin Counties with most observations coming from Panoche Valley and the Tracy Golf Course. My first sighing in Stanislaus County was along the lower entrance of Del Puerto Canyon and my dismal photograph barely shows the identifying field marks.

Cassin's Kingbird

Cassin’s Kingbird in Del Puerto Canyon 5/1/2001, Stanislaus County, CA

In recent years, in Stanislaus County, they have been seen at more locations and a little more frequently with multiple sightings along Orestimba Rd between Interstate 5 and the Orestimba Creek Bridge. It was in this general area that Emilie reported finding them 3-days prior and it was where I told my car’s GPS that I needed to go. I have visited the Orestimba Creek area before and it is a beautiful riparian setting with one of the largest groves of California Sycamore I know of.

Orestimba Creek

Orestimba Creek, Stanislaus County, CA

THE CHI-VRRRR GOT MY ATTENTION

The drive over there, on a spectacularly pleasant Spring Morning, had me enthralled with the green scenery and lulled into a peaceful state-of-mind as I listened to some Enya song and I enjoyed a slow drive with my windows down. I wasn’t quite to the spot I expected to find the target birds, but suddenly, my ears yelled to my brain “PAY ATTENTION, THEY’RE CALLING RIGHT NEXT TO YOU”! As I stopped quite suddenly, in the middle of the road, I could hear, not one, not two, but 4 Cassin’s Kingbirds earnestly calling back and forth, giving their rapid CHI-Vrrrr, CHI-Vrrrr, CHI-Vrrrr calls. In fact, there was one on the fence line about 40 yards away, behind me! Yes, I had driven right past it in LaLa land. I knew that given the light conditions, I was going to have to make a U-turn, go well past the birds, and then make another U-turn to get back facing the right direction.

Cassin's Kingbird

Cassin’s Kingbird

KINGBIRD FRATERNAL TWINS

As I had mentioned before, Western Kingbirds, the most expected kingbird for our area, is very similar, at a glance to the Cassin’s Kingbird, both in appearance and in behavior. They both are frequently seen sitting on barbed wire fence lines or electrical/phone lines where they sally forth to snag passing moths and other flying insects. They both sport a sunny yellow belly with grayish heads and backs and longish dark tails. But, as they say, the devil’s in the details. The gray on the Cassin’s Kingbird is darker, with a clearly visible white chin.

Cassin's Kingbird

Cassin’s Kingbird

Western Kingbird

Western Kingbird

Upon further inspection, the tails offer a different combination of buffy edging. While the Western Kingbird has a bold edge along the sides of the tail, the Cassin’s has the buffy coloration at the tips of the tail feathers. Oh, and as my ears pointed out to my brain, the Cassin’s offers a chi-vrrrr, chi-vrrrr, chi-vrrrr rapid call which is quite distinctive and different from the squeaky pidik pik pidik PEEKado call of the Western.

Cassin's Kingbird

Cassin’s Kingbird Showing Buffy Tail Tips

A ROSE, BY ANY OTHER NAME…

As I was photographing the kingbirds, a pickup drove up to me and asked what was special about the bird I was photographing. I casually mentioned the kingbirds and how they were similar and different at the same time (avoiding the “Rare” term), and he asked why the one was called “Cassin’s.” And I thought, “What a great question”! I got to thinking about the other “Cassin’s” birds I could think of… Cassin’s Finch, Cassin’s Vireo, Cassin’s Auklet and Cassin’s Sparrow.

Cassin's Finch

Cassin’s Finch at Virginia Lakes Resort, CA

Cassin's Vireo

Cassin’s Vireo at Foresta, CA

I knew that species were never named by the person that first discovered and wrote up the description of a new species, so that meant the folks in the field finding these “new species” must have had a reason to name their finds after John Cassin. So who was he and what did he do. I went to the interwebs and Googled “John Cassin”

AMERICA’S FIRST TAXONOMIST – JOHN CASSIN

I found an excellent article posted on the California Audubon’s Audublog called, “John Cassin: America’s First Taxonomist.” It is actually a reposting of an article from the Mount Diablo Audubon Society’s newsletter, The Quail. It gives a fascinating account of all the species that bear his name and how he became established as America’s First Taxonomist in the mid-1800s. In short, he was made the honorary curator of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences where he “discovered” nearly 200 species from the Academy’s collection of specimens.

John Cassin – Image from Wikimedia

A LESSON IN AVIAN EPONYMS

When George Lawrence discovered the yellow-bellied, white-chinned, very noisy flycatcher (Tyrannus vociferans) he gave it the vernacular name of Cassin’s Kingbird after his esteemed colleague, John Cassin. John returned the favor by naming a new Goldfinch he “discovered” at the Academy after George, the “Lawrence’s Goldfinch.”

Lawrence's Goldfinch

Lawrence’s Goldfinch at Del Puerto Canyon, CA

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 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

The Stanislaus “Skulky” Swamp Sparrow Search

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

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

Map to the Ceres River Bluff Regional Park.

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

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

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

The Pond

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

pair of Canada Geese
Canada Geese
Canada Geese swimming
Canada Geese

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

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

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

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

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

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