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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

Owls

Lately a friend sent me a beautiful photo of a Barred Owl perched on his sun deck. Others see owls on balconies, shrubs, ‘the old owl tree’ — you name it. I never get anything like that. I searched for a Barred Owl five days in a row recently. Nada. It’s like that for me, except when it isn’t. Sometimes, you’re in the forest, wandering, looking for whatever and an owl appears. Thrilling!

Owleyes

Mostly I spot owls after I’ve spent hours, or days, searching. They’re seldom ‘handy’; they’re seldom posed. Nine times out of ten, they’re half-hidden by branches, or in back of the one branch that the camera decides it must have in focus. And I have to work darn hard to get good bokeh, that nice blurred background we all like. Good bokeh – ah, if only. I’ll keep trying. But now I’m whining. No reason for it either. I’ve seen quite a few owls when I’ve been out birding and sometimes I even get good shots. Besides any day you get to see an owl, never mind photograph one, is a good day!

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Short-eared Owl – Boundary Bay, BC

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Eastern Screech Owl – Aransas, Texas

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Great Horned Owl – Saanich, BC

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Barred Owl – Victoria, BC

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Western Screech Owl – San Pedro River, Arizona

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Long-eared Owl – Delta, BC

 

 

October Pelagic

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Race Rocks Light

It’s an easy cruise today – a flat sea and mild temperatures. I’m not expecting to see anything remarkable as it’s late in the year for migrants and we’re not going very far from shore. The October day is gorgeous. Our dry summer and fall have resulted in more leaf colour than usual this year, a beautiful backdrop for the old Fisgard Light.

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Fisgard Light

We smell Race Rocks almost before we see it. The island is a wildlife sanctuary, home to many California and Steller’s Sealions, as well as a few Elephant Seals. Dozens of very large marine mammals cohabiting a small island really do perfume the air! The Californias are noisy too, barking at each other constantly, even when they’re in the water catching salmon. We motor on, trailed by Glaucous-winged, Bonaparte’s and pretty Heermann’s Gulls picking off the dog chow we’re using as chum.

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The Salmon I wish I’d caught

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Heermann’s Gulls

Circling the rocks, we spot Marbled and Ancient Murrelets, Common Murres, a single Sooty Shearwater, and a few dozen Rhinoceros Auklets. Above Beachy Head, Turkey Vultures and Redtail Hawks ‘kettle’ ready to make the short flight across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Washington State. On the way home, a couple of Humpback Whales appear. One sounds, flukes up and the other moves off. As I put down my camera and pour a coffee another whale breaches not far from the boat. It would have made for a spectacular shot. It was ever thus!

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Ancient Murrelet

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Sooty Shearwater and Common Murre

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More Sealions

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Humpback Whale

Point Pelee Raptors

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Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk (or Sharpie)

Point Pelee in autumn – it’s a first for me. I’ve been here twice in spring; once at the peak of the northward bird migration; the second time a week or two too early, which meant that sighting a warbler of any kind was a thrill. I’m not sure what to expect this time. We’re nearing the end of September and a little late for many species. And the weather has been very warm. We need a cold front to get the stragglers moving and that won’t happen for a few days yet. With trees and shrubs still in full leaf and birds more secretive, finding the little guys will be a challenge — very challenging as it turns out. Certain other birds are heading south. Raptors are everywhere today and the woods are silent.

Sharpies Overhead

Point Pelee is famous for ‘funnelling’ Sharp-shinned Hawks and other raptors as they head across Lake Erie. There may be some Cooper’s Hawk in the mix too but they are hard to distinguish from Sharp-shinned Hawks at the best of times. Dozens and dozens of birds of prey pass overhead, singly and in scattered groups. In the space of an hour, we see over fifty Sharpies. Other raptors are on the move too. A Kestrel perches on a distant snag; a Peregrine rockets by; a Harrier floats past. There’s even a Bald Eagle sitting at the very tip of Canada! A songbird would have to be feeling suicidal, or just plain dumb to show itself. No late warblers for us today!

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Kestrel

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Peregrine Falcon

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Bald Eagle at Point Pelee tip