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County Birding in the New Year

It was a good omen to see a large raptor perched on a snag just after I crossed into Santa Cruz County on Highway 1.

I was not sure what the raptor was (hard to identify at 70 miles per hour) but it certainly was not a red-tailed hawk, it was much bigger. I was thinking more eagle-like.

I passed Waddell Beach and turned around at the soonest point. I headed back and pulled into the dirt parking lot at Waddell State Beach. Once I got bins on the bird, I had no doubt that I was looking at an eagle. Not a golden but a juvenile bald eagle. Perhaps a second or third year bird. Welcome to Santa Cruz County! What a great afterwork bird!

That large yellow bill screams: bald eagle!! This is a juvenile bird and the first I have seen at Waddell Beach.

The next morning, Saturday, I headed to Tryrrell Park, just behind the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History to look for a wayward warbler that had recently been spending the winter among the oaks and willows. Within about ten minutes I had the small, grey warbler, foraging in the willows with a Townsend’s warbler. A Lucy’s warbler. What a rarity and what a great county bird!

I then headed across town to the Natural Brides Overlook just off Westcliff Drive, to looked for a reported ruddy turnstone. It was not there but a local fellow Santa Cruz Bird Club member was there looking for the same bird with a scope. Together we found some nice birds: whimbrel, black turnstone, black oystercatcher, back-bellied plover, Heerman’s gull, and a close female white-winged scoter on the water.

We met a man with a large lens from Sacramento, our state capital, and he was photographing some birds on the rock. He was excited at adding Brandt’s cormorant and Heerman’s gull to his life list (these birds are not seen in the Central Valley). A father and son from the east coast walked up, telling use there was a hawk perched on a light post on Westcliff. What follows is the conversation:

Son: I think it’s a rough-legged hawk.

Me: Now that would be a great bird to see here. (I put the raptor in my bins) Peregrine.

Father: It’s too big to be a peregrine.

In the meantime my club member compatriot has put his scope on the bird in question. And he asks me to take a look. I looked.

Me: Peregrine.

Dad: They are smaller on the east coast.

Size is not a great measure for field identification because birds can often seem larger when they fluff up their feathers and in raptors occurs reverse sexual dimorphism, which simply means that females are larger than males.

A rough-legged hawk, no err, a peregrine, no, too big to be a peregrine. . . okay a peregrine! A nickname for this bird on Hawk Hill is “Elvis” because of it’s dark head and “sideburns”.

I got some beta from the club member about a bird in the county that I needed to add to my lifelist. I had lackadaisically searched for the Santa Cruz County resident with no luck. Why? First I was searching in the wrong place and secondly, the bird was an exotic species which had been introduced to California.

Exotic species are an odd one when it comes to listing. They could be escapees and normally you cannot count them but if they have a established and sustained breeding population, such as the European starling or the Himalayan snowcock, then they can be counted. With the ABA’s approval of course.

So I headed down Highway One towards Watsonville. My destination: Pinto Lake City Park. The bird in question, according to my beta, was to be found in the reeds near the picnic area, just to the right of the dock.

At the moment the dock was inundated with the Devil’s Bird: great-tailed grackle. There must have been about 30. I searched the reeds and got a brief view of my quarry before a flock flew to the other side of the dock.

I walked over and followed the sounds of the flock moving through the reeds. I final got great views of lifebird # 1,666 (a global pandemic really spoils a world life list). Here was a flock of 12 scale-breasted munias. This small sparrow-like birds are native to Asia and India. How they got here, no one really knows.

Gift of Eagle

Local San Francisco birder, Hugh Cotter, first gave me the Gift of Eagle.

Midmorning on the Friday January 23, Hugh was birding at Lake Merced, in the southwestern corner of San Francisco. He spotted an adult bald eagle flying in from the north. The eagle landed in some eucalyptus trees on the southern shores of Lake Merced. He reported this sighting on eBird.

What was unusual about his sighting is that the eagle didn’t continue on south into San Mateo County but instead, perched in San Francisco County. Most bald eagle sightings are of birds soaring above San Francisco before headed further south down the coast. I wondered if the eagle was going to stick around.

On Saturday January 24, I was going to find out. I headed over to the Boathouse on Lake Merced so see if I could spot the adult bald eagle. I began by eBird checklist at 9:04 AM.

I scanned the eucalyptus trees to the south and the white head of the adult eagle stood out like a shining light. A San Francisco County bird!!

I recorded my sighting on eBird, took a few crappy photos, and continued birding other parts of the lake.

Now it was my turn to pass on the Gift of Eagle.

Across the Bay, Jim Lomax saw my post, confirming that the eagle had overnighted. Jim Lomax is an epic California county birder. He is the first birder to see over 200 species of bird in every one of California’s 58 counties!

Jim wrote on the birding listing service, Sialia:

Read Hugh Cotter’s report last night but these birds never stay . . . Then got to my emails . . . and saw that John Perry saw the same bird this morning and suddenly I was out the door. Wearing shorts and flip flops. . . for more than 15 years I have wanted to see this bird in San Francisco but if you read about it, you missed it. They are always flyovers. Most of the San Francisco resident birders have seen more than one, but sadly (snif) . . . not me. UNTIL TODAY!

There perched in the eucalyptus trees . . . was an adult BALD EAGLE . . . I have now seen a Bald Eagle in all 58 counties.

The stars are aligned today.

Wow, what an achievement to see bald eagles in all of 58 counties! That is true birding dedication! And I was glad to play a very small part in making it happen.

To remember the gift, I did a spread which almost looks like an illustrated diary entry. The sketch is from one of my crappy photos and Jim’s Sialia post is on the facing page.

Here is one of the crappy photos I took of the adult bald eagle at Lake Merced. The white head and tail and the yellow beak says: bald eagle!
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Christmas Birding: The Gift of Eagles

It is my Christmas Day tradition to wander down to the Central Valley to do some wintering waterfowl birding in the amazing Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, just north of the Sutter Buttes.

The weather forecast told of rain but that wasn’t going to turn me away from seeing the thousands of wintering waterfowl. Besides, the birds don’t mind the rain, they are covered in feathers after all.

I turned off Highway 99, heading west, at Live Oak. The houses soon became fewer and fewer as I made my way from small town to the rural farmlands on my way to Gray Lodge. In the fields bordering Almond Orchard Road I saw one of my expected species: sandhill crane. This is always an amazing bird, a “Birds of Heaven” as Peter Matthiessen called them.

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I soon turned into Gray Lodge and I looked out towards the Sutter Buttes and the expanse of water that contained hundreds, if not thousands, of ducks: mallard, American widgeon, pintail, cinnamon, blue-winged, and green-winged teal, bufflehead, gadwell, and northern shoveller. Greater white-fronted and snow geese filled the grey skies.

I started on the auto route. The majority of birding is done by car at Gray Lodge. Your car really becomes a moving blind or hide and as such, doesn’t seem to bother the birds too much.

One species that I always look forward to seeing at Gray Lodge is out National Bird, the bald eagle. These large raptors follow the wintering waterfowl and every time they lift off into the air, a mass of ducks and geese rises in their bow wake. I had seen a few far off eagles, perched in trees off to my right. I spotted a few immatures but as I neared them on the auto route, the eagles were jumpy and flew further off over the waters to a tree on the opposite point from where I was.

IMG_9134The unmistakable heft and upright posture of a bald eagle, in this a case an immature. This bird did not allow a close approach. An eagle takes five years to gain it’s iconic “outfit” that most people would recognize: white head and tail, yellow beak, and dark chocolate-brown body.

I came back to the start of the auto route and wanted to take another ride. As I neared one of the parking lots I saw an adult bald eagle flying to my left.

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An iconic adult bald eagle flying to my left. Four northern pintails fly above, and probibly away from the large raptor.

The eagle turned towards me and then headed away and landed in the top of a tree with an immature eagle. I raced forward along the route, hoping that the adult would stay.

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The adult landed and held it’s wings up as a group of American wigeons take to the air in all the excitement. The immature is to the lower right.

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As I moved toward the tree, which was just to the left of the road, the immature took off and headed off. Let’s hope the adult was not as jumpy. Every 20 yards of so, I would angle the car to the right to take a few photos through the driver’s side window.

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I finally stopped the car near the base of the tree. The adult was now about 40 yards away. The eagle surveyed the waters and presumably waterfowl, and I was able to enjoy the bird for about 5 minutes. Just as I reaching for my sketchbook and pen bag, the adult flew off across the waters, causing the ducks to lift up into the air and scatter. Now this was my kind of Christmas gift!

IMG_9282An adult bald eagle is distinctive, even as it’s flying away from you. It’s bright white tail is a beacon that tells you what you just missed!

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Bald Eagles of Yuba County

One of my favorite winter birding destinations is in Yuba County, just off Highway 20, northeast of Marysville. The country roads of Woodruff, Mathews, and Kimball are great backwater roads to see the abundance of wintering waterfowl consisting of snow and greater white-fronted geese, tundra swans, white-faced ibis, and wintering raptors.

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Study sketch of a tundra swan. The area around Highway 20 is one of the best places to see large numbers of this beautiful swan.

There is nothing in the natural world quite like seeing a sky full of snow geese. The sight and sounds fill the senses like few others experiences.IMG_7972

Thousands of snow geese erupt into the air near Kimball Lane.

The thousands of waterfowl that winter in the Central Valley also attracts a predator: the bald eagle. On Thanksgiving morning, in partly sunny and partly rainy weather I spotted an adult bald eagle perched in a field just to my left on Kimball Road. So I got out an took a few pictures, the eagle was jumpy and soon flew off across the road. This was a clean adult bird with pure white on it’s head and tail and chocolate-brown body feathers. This was a beautiful specimen of Haliaeetus leucocephalus.

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Even a non-birder would be able to identify this large raptor.

IMG_8120I headed down Kimball Lane with a wintering wonderland of waterfowl on all sides and thousand of stretched out “V”s in the air. I came to the junction of Jack Slough Road and I turned right. As I headed down the road on this Thanksgiving morning I saw three wild turkeys off in a field to my left. I pulled over to get some photos, but the birds had disappeared into the brush. This was a good day to be skittish if you are a turkey! That’s when I saw my an immature bald eagle fly over. Then an adult appeared, soaring over the powerlines and then coming to rest in a field to the right.

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This was another adult from the one I saw earlier. The white head feathers appeared more “dirty” round the eye.

The bald moved around some more before finally landing in the center of a field. The eagle walked around and appeared to be eating some sort of waterfowl that was hidden in the undulating rifts of the plowed but fallow field.

I figured the eagle was going to be here for a little while so I pulled out my sketching bag and did a field sketch (featured sketch). One issue I have had with sketching bald eagles from life is that I either make their head too big or their bright yellow beak too large. In this sketch, I made the beak a tad too long. Oh well, I learn something with every field sketch that will guide me when I make future field sketches.

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Here is one of our smallest raptors, a male American kestrel, perched on a sign on Kimball Lane. It  has been said that if this falcon was the size of a bald eagle it would surely be our National Symbol.

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The Klamath Basin

Why would anyone drive to the California-Oregon Border with daytime highs perching precariously in the low 30’s and drive on a muddy road in the middle of no where with visibility down to 50 yards? The answer is simple: Winter raptors!

I started my trip at Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. President Teddy Roosevelt established this refuge in 1908, becoming our Nation’s first waterfowl refuge. The Refuge was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965. The refuge contains 50,912.68 acres, which straddles the border of Oregon and California.

The winter raptorland that is the Lower Klamath Wildlife Refuge. Looking south east from the auto route.

One the first day I arrived the visibility was down to 50 yards, making raptor spotting very difficult. My scope would remain in the truck, I didn’t need a closeup view of wintry gray.  Luckily there were a few raptors perched by the roadside of the auto route. None was more wintery than the raptor with leg warmers: rough-legged hawk. This Arctic breeder winters in Northern California and I was lucky to encounter one perched on a road sign, which allowed a close approach in my moveable blind.

Buteo lagopus vacating a roadside sign showing two identifying field marks: feathered legs and a carpal patch. Note the “wonderful” visibility in the background.

The really star of this raptor wonderland is our National symbol, the bald eagle. The Klamath Basin holds the largest winter concentration of bald eagles in the Lower 48. Winter counts can be between 500 to 1,000 individuals. Their peak numbers were still a few months away in late February to early March, a time that coincides with the northern migration of waterfowl.

All of us in the United States are familiar with this bird, indeed it must be the most recognizable bird to all North Americans (yes I also mean youth, dear Canadians). It is on our stamps, posters, trucks, mudflaps, flags, paintings, sculptures, etc. But to see one, let alone a convocation of eagles, is a life experience that all Americans should have. That also includes you, Central and South!

On the first day, full of chilling ground fog, I saw five eagles. But what a difference a day would make.

After a nighttime roost in Oregon at Klamath Falls, I parted the curtains to find the dense ground fog had flown. I changed plans and headed back to the Klamath Basin.

On my second day, the roads and vistas were clear. Perfect for winter raptor spotting. And I had many.

This day can be summed up with one location: Tule Lake. A binocular search made it clear that I needed to set up my scope for a closer look across the frozen surface of Tule Lake. In one 180 degree scan, from the north to the south, I counted 30 bald eagles!

Not the best photo, but this digiscope photo confirms the most bald eagles seen in one view: four! 

Here is the total raptor count for both Lower Klamath NWR and Tule Lake on the morning of December 27:

50 Bald Eagle

33 Red-tail Hawk

14 Northern Harrier

7 American Kestrel

3 Rough-legged Hawk

1 Peregrine Falcon

1 Cooper’s Hawk (being harassed by a kestrel)

An adult bald keeping watch at Tule Lake, Klamath Basin.

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Gray Lodge, Christmas Day

I took my annual Christmas Day trip, down from the foothills, into the wintering waterfowl wonderland of the Central Valley to Gray Lodge Wildlife Area.

If this experience can be summarized in one photo, then here it is:

Thousands and thousands of wintering waterfowl. In this case snow geese at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. When you have high numbers of ducks, geese, coots, and swans you also have raptors and it is always a treat to see our National Bird: an adult bald eagle.

In the past few years, Gray Lodge has always produced a few of these emblematic species. It only took reaching the halfway mark on the auto route that I spotted two large shapes in a marshside tree.

Bald eagles at Gray Lodge on Christmas Day, check and check!

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Digisketching

On Christmas morning, with a temperature of 25, I headed down from the foothills of the Gold Country to the flats of the Central Valley. My goal was to practice digisketching: the act of sketching with the aid of a spotting scope. I also wanted to experiment with digiscoping, which is the art of  capturing an image with a camera through a spotting scope. I failed and succeeded in equal measures.

The area around my mother’s house offers many sketchable vistas. The epicenter is Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, just north of the Sutter Buttes. I headed there with scope, tripod, journal, watercolors, and pencils.

The advantages of using a scope for field sketching are numerous, including bringing wildlife much closer than binoculars, providing richer details, and  creating the ability to sketch animals in  a more “natural”, relaxed posture (because you are so far removed from your subjects).

As I neared the wildlife area, the fields and skies filled with birds. As the the retort of shotgun blasts punctuated the soundtrack of the mew of tundra swans and the bugle of flying Vs of snow geese, I attached my scope and tripod on a turnout of a two-lane country road.

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Winter skies above Gray Lodge are filled with snow geese.

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Thousands of snow geese over-winter in California’s Central Valley. It is estimated that a million ducks and half a million geese spend the winter in the valley. This is a mixed flock of snow and Ross’s geese at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.

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Digiscope shot of an adult bald eagle at Gray Lodge. The field sketch of this eagle is the featured image of this post. The spotting scope brought the far off eagle close so I could add the bird to my sketchbook.

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Practice makes perfect. Digiscope shot of a group of sandhill cranes in fields south of the Colusa Highway.

Wildlife field sketching is really about letting go of the pretty picture. These are drawings that are not intended to be framed and displayed or even shown to friends. The end goal of these sketches are self knowledge and improving the eye and the hand when representing an animal in real time. It is a pursuit where mistakes are an opportunity to learn and improve. As I tell my students, “Always make new mistakes”.

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Digiscope shot and digisketch of a juvenile bald eagle seen and sketched on Matthews Lane.  It was later joined by another juvenile for a little duck hunting. They both returned empty-taloned. The vignetting on the left is a downside to the process but this image provides great visual notes that can be used to create studio sketches.

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An easy lesson learned, sketch a bird at rest, they make obliging subjects. This is a common merganser resting on a pond near my mother’s house.

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The stunning tundra swan overwinters in flooded fields in the Central Valley. The top sketch was of a bird off Matthews Lane and the digiscope shot was of a swan off of Jack’s Slough near Marysville.

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Cape May, New Jersey: The Known Center of the Birding Universe

As a contrast to Washington, The City of the Dead, I headed to a point that is directly east, as the fish crow flies, from our Nation’s capital: Cape May, New Jersey. This town is recognized as the oldest beach resort in the United States but I was not here in October for the beaches, unless they contained American oystercatchers or black skimmers, or the hundreds of beautiful Victorian homes that populated the city. Cape May is really for the birds. And that’s what makes a man rent a car, and drive three hours to the end of the Garden State.

American Oyster catcher

Cape May is the mecca for American birding. It is called “the Known Center of the Birding Universe” by Pete Dunne (more about him later). Unlike other migration sites that are surrounded on three sides by water, thus channeling birds, dragonflies, and butterflies to one point, Cape May is flat. The lack of hills or mountains means that you have clear 360 degree views of the migrations happening all around you. At one point you can see monarch butterflies, merlins, Cooper’s hawks, and cormorants and waterfowl in a tight Vs. Every bush and tree seems loaded with warblers, mainly yellow-rumps aka butter butts.

The epicenter of Cape May birding is Cape May Point State Park with it’s own exclamation point: the 157 foot Cape May Lighthouse, built in 1859. It does seems to be a beacon to migrating birds and birders alike.

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Everywhere you walk in the state park, the lighthouse is always in view. It is the reference point for ships and for birding land migration ( and it also helps you find your way back to the parking lot).

Birding With a Birding Legend

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Every Monday in the fall there is a birding walk sponsored by New Jersey Audubon. The meet up time is 7:30 AM in the parking lot of the birding hotspot know as “The Meadows”. It was not hard to location the leader of the walk, he was the white haired guy in a camo jacket that everyone was standing around. He loudly announced to the crowd: “It’s another good day to be a birder!” This man is Pete Dunne. This man is a bonafided birding legend.

Dunne is credited with putting Cape May on the birding map. Clay and Pat Sutton write in Birds and Birding at Cape May, “Pete Dunne is eponymous with modern birding, and he has helped change bird-watching forever, both at Cape May and elsewhere.” Not only has Dunne done so much for birding, he’s one hell of a birder, the best I’ve ever birded with. Dunne has spent years in the field, looking at birds; telling the difference between a distant green-wing teal from a wood duck from a American black duck flock. This was like the equivalent of kicking the ball around with Pele, sketching with Picasso, or playing guitar with Django.

He is also not the stuffy, social idiot, that keeps his bird knowledge safely locked neath his multi patched bird-nerd vest that you sometimes encounter in the birding community. He is one funny guy willing to share his vast knowledge with everyone within earshot.

We had a grand day out, birding the marshes, trails and beach. A huge mass of ducks took to the air and Dunne directed us to search the skies above for a raptor. I soon spotted a large raptor heading south above the water. “Eagle!” I shouted. The bird turned, took a dive into the ocean ( returned empty taloned), and headed towards us. It was an adult bald eagle!

Later in the day I caught up with Dunne in the Cape May Bird Observatory. He signed two books for me (he’s written over twenty books). Then he said, “Your a damn-good birder.” Wow, I can only hope I can live up to his blessing!

Coda

On the my last day in Cape May before driving back to Washington DC, I birded Cape Map Point one last time. My last bird was the best sighting of the trip. I was on the boardwalk and rounded the corner as Lighthouse Pond came into view. Just above me, 25 yards away was an adult bald eagle, fighting a mean headwind. I got great looks as the eagle seemed to still in the air, finally peeling off to my right to give a group of birders a show. A fitting final bird for a trip to Washington DC.