California Birding – Central Valley February 2018

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Central Valley, California

Driving in from Eureka on the coast, I overnight in Redding. Next night, Colusa. Birding takes you to places you wouldn’t ordinarily go. Colusa, for example. Nice little town, tucked under the levees of the Sacramento River. Not terribly lively, in my opinion – the best restaurant in town closed at 5 last night. It was Sunday, but still. Never mind.

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Bald Eagle

I visit two big wildlife refuges, Colusa and Sacramento. Both have auto routes. It’s agricultural here in the Valley – big time. The almond trees are beginning to blossom. In a week, the hills should be white with them. The extensive marshes of the refuges attract wintering birds of many species – grebes, coots, lots of ducks. So critically important, these refuges, to them, to us.

I drive slowly, past sunning Western pond Turtles, past the evidence coyotes, otters and other predators leave. A gorgeous peach bellied Say’s Phoebe shows up and then a Black Phoebe in its black and white formal-wear. An American Pipit ambles up to my car – curious, I guess. Hundreds of Snow Geese use the ponds as do many of their smaller cousins, the snub-nosed Ross’s Goose. I spot a few Long-billed Curlews and a flock of White-faced Ibises. I’m fascinated by the long, curved bills – so Alice in Wonderland. The raptors are here too. Circle of life and all that. I pass a half dozen Red-tailed Hawks, a bald Eagle. a Peregrine scanning the feeding ducks. At the Nature Center, a great Horned Owl hoots.

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Long-billed Curlew

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Say’s Phoebe

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White-faced Ibis

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Western Pond Turtles

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Peregrine Falcon

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American Pipit

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Ross’s Goose

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Snow Geese

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Redtail Hawk

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Black Phoebe

 

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Sacramento Wildlife Refuge

 

 

Mittry Lake, February 2018

 

Mittry Lake

Mittry Lake

I need to head out from Yuma before daylight to have any chance of hearing a rare Black Rail at Mittry Lake. The lake is up in the hills and the tiny Rails stop calling before sunrise. I start of well enough but soon I’m in serious agricultural country and lost, dodging huge, road-straddling farm machines of indeterminate purpose, submerged in a sea of  dust and stabbing headlights. It’s rather like rather being part of some lost footage from Close Encounters. My GPS is no help whatsoever by the way. I’m that boxy car icon on the flat green background in a land where no roads exist, including the one I’m presently on. When I finally escape and luck my way up to the opposite end of the Mittry Lake road (which was not my destination) the sun is high and my chances for the Black Rail are now nil. Luckily other birds live here, Ridgway’s Rail for one — a life bird for me. Ridgways used to be just plain old Clapper Rail but recently got split off into its own species. For birders and their lists, splitting species is great, lumping (two Warblers into one species, for example) not so much.

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Killdeer

I’m not sure what I was expecting at Mittry but not this. Snowbird RVs occupy almost every access to the Lake, which kind of spoils the ambience for me, though it’s possible I’m just feeling cranky after the drive. Even Betty’s Kitchen, the protected wildlife area is not very ‘birdy’ right now — a Great Blue Heron, some Killdeer, one or two Anna’s Hummingbirds and a few squeaky Gila Woodpeckers. I see birds on the water — Ruddy Ducks, gorgeous Cinnamon Teal, Pied-billed, Eared, Clarke’s and Western Grebes but most too far away to photograph. The biggish white blobs I spot in the distance turn out to be Pelicans.

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Cinnamon Teal

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Anna’s Hummingbird

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Gila Woodpecker

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Great Blue Heron

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Pied-billed Grebe

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Eared Grebe

I drive along the shore stopping wherever I figure good rail habitat exists, those areas of dense rushes and cattails with just enough open water to allow me to spot the little guys should one decide to show itself. I’m stepping over a wet patch following a Gila Woodpecker when a Ridgways suddenly lets loose right at my feet, loud, like two rocks smacked against each other – clack, clack, clack, clack. Fast. I’m startled and almost fall backwards. Did I catch a fleeting glimpse of the bird? Maybe. Sometimes, I’m delusional. If I had got a photo, which I didn’t, it would have resembled a larger version of a Virginia Rail, like this one – sort of.

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Virginia Rail

 

 

Arcata Marsh

February 4

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Arcata Marsh, Humboldt, California

I’ve been to Arcata before. It’s one of the most productive birding sites in northern California. It’s too early in the year for migrants, in spite of what I might wish. I know because I’ve been checking ebird, hoping for some rarity. Not that I’m complaining. I’m happy to be in the marsh enjoying the late morning sun and the warmth. And there are plenty of birds around — Anna’s Hummingbirds glittering like emeralds, busy Yellow-rumped Warblers, Snowy and Great Egrets, Pied-billed Grebes. Lots of waterfowl too — Canada Geese, Northern Shovelers, Green-winged Teal, Gadwalls, Ruddy Ducks. As I finish my circuit, I spot the prize of the day in a row of distant Cottonwoods. It’s a beautiful Red-shouldered Hawk intent and focussed, glowing a lovely burnt sienna. With that it’s time to go. I’ve got mountains to cross and a long drive to Redding. Arcata marsh – I’ll be back.

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Pied-billed Grebe

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Ruddy Duck

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Anna’s Hummingbird

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Red-shouldered Hawk

Winter Birds

It’s damp and it’s been cold, which notwithstanding, I’ve been out birding. For listers like me, the new year means the start of the count again. I like that. And it’s easy to pick up species now — common birds are just as important as uncommon ones. I did try for several rarities – a Bullock’s Oriole, a Lesser Goldfinch and a Mountain Bluebird. I struck out on all counts until yesterday when I finally (after 6 tries) caught the Goldfinch at a backyard feeder. Such a thrill to finally ‘strike pay dirt’. Even so, just to be outside, looking for birds and listening to the sounds of nature is its own reward. The new year revives old challenges too. I hear my old nemesis, the Glaucous Gull has been sighted up coast – a life bird for me. Worth a trip? I’m thinking, I’m thinking…

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Steller’s Jay

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Northern Pintail

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Common Merganser and Bufflehead

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Redpoll

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Downy Woodpecker

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Ringneck Duck

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Lesser Goldfinch

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Barred Owl

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Northern Flicker

Birding Lake Erie 1

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Solitary Sandpiper

It’s early October (almost a month ago now). We leave Leamington, the ketchup factory and Point Pelee behind and head for Hillman Marsh. I once visited there in spring, when broad expanses of apparently deep sloughs were packed with waterfowl. The ponds are seasonal though as we now discover and two very loud tractors trail hay mowers over the once marsh, kicking up dust, screeching and clanking. Today, birding here seems out of the question. But then a surprise.

Seemingly unfazed by the heat and the racket, a Solitary Sandpiper works the edges of a tiny creek, slowly, stately. Such a beautiful bird. We keep our distance, snap a few pictures and leave her to her business. Other than the Solitary there isn’t much to keep us here. Besides, there’s been a flock of American Golden Plover reported at Mitchell Wetlands. It means a jog to the north but I need the bird for my list.

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Shorebird Heaven

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Mitchell Wetlands

Mitchell Wetlands are actually part of the town’s sewage complex. The last time I visited, a stiff breeze from the primary treatment ponds made my eyes water. Today, the light breeze is in our favour, thank goodness. It’s idyllic. The marsh is full of waterfowl. honking, hissing, quacking. Lots of shorebirds too —  Dowitchers, Yellowlegs, several Stilt Sandpipers, and scores of Killdeer. We spot the Golden Plover mixed in with, and noticeably smaller than, their Black-bellied cousins. Many of the birds are transitioning from their striking breeding plumage and into more somber garb. Interesting.

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Plovers

By now I’ve given up on getting good pictures. The light is as bad as it gets for photography and the birds are just too distant even for my FZ300 with teleconverter. With sewage ponds, it’s pretty well up to the bird to come to you as the reverse is just not possible — or desirable. After a couple of hours of birding the pond and the nearby woodlands, we move on to Stratford. It’s getting late. A non-fast food dinner would be nice and maybe a show — Guys and Dolls is playing. Tomorrow morning, we’ll be birding again, heading back to the Lake Erie and Niagara.

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How windy is it?

I can’t leave the topic of sewage lagoons without mentioning those at Exeter, Ontario, where I went in search of a White-rumped Sandpiper. As soon as I arrived, I realized the wind was not going to be my friend – it blew my hat off before I even got out of the car. Nevertheless, a target bird is a target bird and I soldiered on. On top of the dike, the northerly was so powerful that I could barely stand, let alone hold focus on my camera. And, good grief — what a stink!

There were birds though — most distant. Some are closer, like the dozen or more feeding Pectoral Sandpipers, with their abrupt bib lines and yellow legs. They’re one of my favourite shorebirds so it’s nice to see so many. That doesn’t happen where I live in BC. I did catch a glimpse of the White-rumped, and got another ‘tick’ for the year list but, gosh, I earned it.

 

Panama Flats

I like the name of this birding hotspot -Panama Flats. I’m surprised a blues artist hasn’t picked it up. And now, singing ‘How come my dog don’t bark when my best friend comes around?’ is the legendary Panama Flats! But I digress. This is a birding blog after all and the ‘Flats’ are, instead, a series of flooded fields that attract waterfowl and shorebirds in the spring and late fall. A very pleasant, quiet place to be on a warm May morning like this one.

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In a few months, the land will be dry, plowed possibly. Water birds that nest here, like Mallards and Canada Geese, have to getting cracking (sorry) early in the year. Today, dozens of ducklings and goslings are following their mums around, learning the ropes.

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Spotted Sandpiper

I’m here for a Pectoral Sandpiper, which I see briefly soon after arriving-on its way out, heading north I guess. Not so, the Spotted Sandpipers, actively displaying and chasing each other around the edges of the ponds, carried here and there by the staccato beats of their short wings. A Long-billed Dowitcher, stalking the perimeter surprises itself when it spots me, angling off into a swarm of young Mallards. I’m not fooled, not with that beak.

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Long-billed Dowitcher

I follow the dykes between the ponds, balancing on the planks and bits of scrap wood people have used to span the cross ditches. A Marsh Wren scolds me from the cattails, a complex series of chuckles and buzzes. Quite charming – if they did but know it.

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Marsh Wren

As the day warms, Barn Swallows appear, darting around after insects. A glossy Purple Martin crisscrosses the larger pond, the distinctive half flapping, half-gliding flight style an added giveaway. A Common Yellowthroat sings his ‘witchity, witchity, witchity’ nearby, looking handsome with his white forehead, black mask and lemon-yellow throat. Forget the blues. It’d be hard to write a good, downer song here, today.

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Common Yellowthroat

 

Malheur Memories

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The Road to Burns

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Malheur

I visited Malheur National Wildlife Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in the middle of the summer a few years ago – before the unhappy events there in 2016. I’m delighted to report that the temperature was moderate and I heard only a single mosquito – in spite of warnings of excessive heat and a plaque of bugs. Not surprisingly, with that kind of a rep, few birders visit here at the end of July.

The Refuge certainly wasn’t busy. I saw no more than a half dozen people, including rangers monitoring the narrow track that leads, ultimately, to less than teeming metropolis of Frenchglen. Of course, for wildlife, the fewer people the better. Young animals and birds seemed to be everywhere reminding me again how important Wildlife Refuges, like Malheur, are for breeding species, as well as being vital stopovers for migrating birds.

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Great Egret

Phalaropes

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Gadwall Family

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Loggerhead Shrike Family

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Eared Grebe Family

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Young Coyote on the track to Frenchglen

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Fawn at Malheur

 

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