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

 

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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

Travel Birding

I’m driving from British Columbia to southeastern Arizona to spend time with my kid brother, Steve. I’m birding as I go, checking rarity reports daily, which is how is how I ‘got’ the Garganey in Waller Park in Santa Maria, California, a life bird for me. The little Eurasian teal touched down a few months back and now ambles about with the locals filling up on handouts. Easy. I almost don’t see her in the crowd of Mallards and Swan Geese. She’s tiny. She’s also one of the easiest rare birds I’ve ever found. Properly rare too. Most species on the reports are common at other times of the year so finding them is no biggie. Not to me anyway. In a few months the Garganey will likely lift off and head for home, thousands of miles away.

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Garganey – Santa Maria

But I’m skipping ahead. I left home three days ago. Bright and early on the second day, I stop at a tiny community park in Washington state where a Mandarin Duck has been hanging out. Another visitor from Asia – if it isn’t an escapee from a zoo or suchlike. There are lots of fantastically beautiful Wood Ducks but not its kin, the Mandarin. I never found it but I notice it’s back on the rare bird list. So, another miss.

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Wood Duck

The morning air is still and bright. A pair of Redtail Hawks engage in their mating dance, gliding acrobatically through the branches of the bare cottonwoods. They seem playful. Not so the fierce looking young Cooper’s Hawk across the lawn, scanning for prey. The intensity in her bright eye! Awesome.

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Cooper’s Hawk

As I stare at the pond, a very handsome muskrat ambles out and pauses a few feet away and we both take in the same scene. It’s as if he (?) hopes to help out by spotting the elusive Mandarin. After a minute or so, he shakes his head and carries on. Charming. One of the attractions of birding is the likelihood that often you’ll end up in places you would otherwise never visit. And see new things too. It’s the experience that’s rare.

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Muskrat

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Redtail A-courting

Meanwhile I have many miles ahead of me. I’ve checked the pass through the Siskyou mountains and there’s snow on I-5. To avoid it, I have to head to the coast, to Gold Beach, before I cut back across to central California. I’m lucky, the warmish spring weather continues. I leave the mountains and almost immediately the Pacific comes into view. Surf, sun, the stacks and the other features of Oregon’s remarkable coastline, Beautiful. Not every detour makes going out of one’s way seem worthwhile. This one did. Meanwhile, that Garganey I’m fated to see is still 800 miles away, cadging snacks.

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The Oregon Coast

Cabo Birding

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The Arco at Cabo San Lucas

Los Cabos — the brightness and warmth is nice after some very gloomy months plus I finally get a chance to visit a location that figures prominently in the historical novel I’m writing. The story involves the capture of the Manila Galleon by the English privateer, Thomas Cavendish in 1587,  Cavendish seized a vast treasure and then left half of it behind with his mutinous second ship, the Content, which almost immediately disappeared from history. It all took place right out there.

On the birding side, Baja Sur has species found nowhere else, such as Belding’s Yellowthroat, Xantus’ Hummingbird and Gray Thrasher. Our hotel is right beside a major bird sanctuary — the Estero San Jose. Coincidence? I think not. Spectacular Hooded and Scott’s Orioles are among the first birds we see.

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Scott’s Oriole

So, a successful, combined research and birding trip all in all.  Did I mention the glorious sun and sparkling blue water? Never mind. For a week it’s been birding in the morning and composing galleon action scenes and  treasure stories in the afternoon. Not a bad thing – birding in sandals, imagining history on the beach. Later, a Baja Birding tour will help me get the Xantus’ and the Gray Thrasher, both life birds, as was the Yellow-footed Gull I saw at the ‘Arco’.  Great!

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Damage from Hurricane Odile (2014)

As for the Sanctuary, at the moment it exists, it seems, in name only. No one to blame, I suppose, economics being what it is. Hurricane Odile smashed through here in 2014 and the effects are still visible. Littering and illegal dumping are a problem too and dogs and horses roam the trails. One can only hope that conservation efforts will revive once Odile and its costs slide into the more distant past.

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Yellow-footed Gull

Otherwise, the Estero is fantastic. Happily, birds don’t seem to mind many of those things that irritate us humans. Water birds are abundant and relatively easy to find — Cinnamon and Blue-wing Teal, American Coots and Gallinules, Herons and Egrets. Glossy, black White-faced Ibises gather like mini conventions of funeral directors. Lots of stuff here. I particularly like watching the numerous Reddish Egrets as they dash about and pounce in the peculiar way they do. It’s like it just occurred to these birds that they are supposed to be working! It’s a fishing strategy that seems to me, well, goofy. It must be successful but I think they’re hilarious.

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White-faced Ibises

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Reddish Egret

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Hooded Oriole

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Female Belding’s Yellowthroat

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Eared Grebe

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Gilded Flicker

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Lark Sparrow

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Crested Caracara

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Gray Thrasher — a supercilious look methinks!

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Verdin

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Xantus’ Hummingbird