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.


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.


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.

Eagle tree

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!


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!



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.


Winter skies above Gray Lodge are filled with snow geese.


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.


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.


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”.



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.


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.



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.