The Prairie and the Neotropic

I have often said that birding is a type of madness. Even more so if it’s a county bird you’re after because this is a species that I have seen many times before but not in Santa Cruz County!

I had missed out on the wintering prairie falcon on the southern edge of Santa Cruz County near Riverside Road. I returned, for the third time, to see a sandy falcon with dark wingpits. I pulled off Riverside Road to scan the pastures, like I’d done three times before. The morning was sunny and clear with blue skies. It was very chilly with the temps hovering in the mid 30s. My hands where numb and for the life of me I couldn’t find my second glove. But what warmed me, was the large hawk circling above the pasture in beautiful morning light. It was the overwintering ferruginous hawk.

But there was no prairie falcon in the air or on any fenceposts so I moved east down the road towards the county line.

In the field, on almost every fence post, where turkey vultures, warming themselves in the morning sun. A lone red-tailed hawk was on a post. Further north, near the base of the hills, was a growing kettle of turkey vultures, rising in the air.

With the naked eye, I could see a bird circling with the vultures. It was much, much lighter compared to the vulture’s black livery. I raised my binoculars and here was my county bird: prairie falcon (Falco mexicanus)! The falcon stooped on a vulture below it, practice hunting I suppose. The falcon continued to circle with the vultures and then peeling off in powered flight as it headed towards the hills to the northwest.

Fence sitting turkey vultures in beautiful morning light.

With the prairie falcon in the bag it was now time to look for the extremely rare visitor that was first seen at Pinto Lake two days before. It was spotted again yesterday after some local birders rented a boat to head out into the lake (hopefully I wouldn’t have to rent a boat to add this bird to my county list). There was a report that the bird had been seen in the middle finger of Pinto Lake in the mid morning. At Pinto Lake, there where a hundred double-crested cormorants at any given time. This could be an exhausting search.

I arrived at the middle finger of Pinto Lake at about noon. I spotted one double-crested cormorant and not the southern visitor so I walked out to the point to scan the main body of the lake. There were a lot of gulls on the water but very few cormorants.

I headed back along the western edge of the finger. There were a few ducks, three hooded mergansers, and more coots but no cormorants. Just when I was about to end my search and head back to my car, three cormorants flew past me heading north up the finger. One of the cormorants stood out. It was much smaller and darker than the the double-crested cormorants it flew besides. The birds moved out of view but I had no doubt that they landed on the water.

I ran down the trail to an opening in the vegetation (birding is a kind of madness after all). There were the three cormorants on the water. One was much smaller and I noticed other details such as the white “V” that framed the base of the beak and the white “sideburns” of it’s breeding plumes. This was the neotropic cormorant (Phalacrocorax brasilianus)! A very rare county bird! In fact this was the first time that a neotropic cormorant had been seen in Santa Cruz County!

The cormorants stayed in view for about five minutes before taking to the air and flying back toward the open lake. I had been lucky with my brief encounter with a Santa Cruz County rarity.

One of these cormorants is not like the others.

Wintering Raptors

The winter in California, is the time of raptors.

Prairie falcon, merlin, rough-legged, and ferruginous hawk, bald eagle. These are exciting times to get out in the field, when raptors have replaced the neotropical migrants, who have headed south.

On a Saturday morning I headed east of Watsonville on the eastern edge of Santa Cruz County on Riverside Drive (Highway 129). Here was habitat like no other in Santa Cruz County, open rolling hills and pastureland. This was habitat like San Benito County, which was really just a mile down the highway. This was the perfect habitat for wintering raptors.

Recently a prairie falcon and a ferruginous hawk had been seen in the area. These are both birds that I look forward to seeing at this time of year. And a prairie falcon would be a county bird for me.

I pulled off Riverside Road at a dirt pullout. Across the road was perfect winter raptor territory. In the foreground was green pastureland with plenty of hunting perches and in the background where the green rolling hills, the realm of golden eagles. It is this view that is the featured field sketch.

To my left I saw some motion against the hillside. I put bins on the raptor and it was one of the prizes I had been looking for, our largest hawk: Buteo regalus! The hawk circled above the ground and then stooped down, landing of the ground. It returned to the air, a minute later, empty taloned. The ferruginous hawk crossed the road and flew above me, paralleling a line of eucalyptus trees. The hawk moved east and out of view.

I moved on down the road and a falcon being pursued by crows crossed the road in front of me. It could be the prairie falcon but I didn’t get a great look at the raptor. I tried to relocate the possible prairie but like most falcons they can be just seem to be passing through, very quickly. This was not enough to tick this bird off on my Santa Cruz County list.

A digitscope of the wintering ferruginous hawk and a Say’ phoebe. This is from a return visit to Riverside Road on Sunday morning.
It must be winter in the Bay Area. Here is a perched ferruginous hawk, our largest hawk, in Princeton near the Half Moon Bay Airport.


Cranes and Raptors

I headed out early, with Great Gray and Grasshopper Sparrow.  Our destination was Woodbridge Road just north of the town of Lodi. This road is well known amongst birders as a great place to see wintering sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis).

We made good time, traffic was light on a Saturday morning and after two hours of travel, we pulled off Highway 5 and headed along a frontage road until we came to Woodbridge Road. Our destination was the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve (Isenberg Crane Reserve), two units, north and south of Woodbridge Road, preserving 353 acres of sandhill crane habitat.

To the right was the North Unit and we pulled into the dirt parking lot and there were cranes in the fields as far as the eye could see and cranes in the air coming and going, their loud bugling calls filling our ears. This was a life bird for young Grasshopper (as many of the birds on this trip were).

IMG_7748I had been to Woodbridge Road a handful of times and there seemed to be more cranes around on this visit than in any other previous visit. The last time I was here, I was looking for the sulky, vagrant the brown thrasher, which I successfully added to my ABA lifelist on December 8, 2018.

After getting our fill of cranes (can you ever get your fill of cranes?) and doing a few field sketches,  we had an ever more amazing crane experience at the south unit. Across the road from the parking lot, in a green field, were perhaps a thousand sandhill cranes. A farm truck drove along the border of the field causing a mass of cranes to lift into the air. What an incredible sight! Hundreds of cranes in the air, their bugling calls, reaching us across the road.


We were surrounded by birds in all directions, thousands of ducks and coots to our south (and two tundra swans, another lifer for Grasshopper), cracking geese flying overhead in stretched out “V”s, and sandhill cranes everywhere!

We left the Reserve and headed back to Highway 5 South and then headed west on Highway 12 toward Rio Vista. Our destination was the dirt roads and open fields known to birders, collectively, as “Robinson Road”. This area is also known as “Raptor Heaven”.

We headed north on McCloskey Road onward to where the pavement turns to dirt. As we approached the T junction with McCormack Road, I saw a raptor hovering above the field, north of the road. It’s white tailbase blazed bright, identifying itself!


We rushed out of the truck and headed to the field edge. I told Grasshopper that I would help him find the birds but I wanted him to identify them. We were now looking at a raptor that is never guaranteed at Robinson. I have whiffed on this species many times but McCormick Road had always produced for me. When the hawk wheeled around showing it’s dark belly and carpal patches, Grasshopper said, “Rough-legged hawk!” And he was correct!

At the intersection of Robinson and Flannery Roads, Grasshopper spotted a large raptor on the ground. The bird flew up and we watched our largest hawk, the ferruginous hawk, ride the thermals with an adult red-tail.

Our best sighting of the trip was further down Robinson Road. I saw a large raptor perched near the top of the power tower to our right. We drove a little further down the road so we could get a better view of the raptor. I got the scope on the bird and asked if Grasshopper could identify it. He looked through the scope and after a short time proclaimed, “Golden eagle!”

We got great scope looks of the eagle before it to flew west across the road and caught  a thermal above the fields. It was soon joined by two other raptors that harassed the large eagle by dive bombing the golden from above. The eagle’s assailants where a ferruginous hawk and a prairie falcon! This was certainly a first and an amazing thing to witness. A golden eagle, ferruginous hawk, and prairie falcon, all in one scope view!

Grasshopper Sparrow’s spread of our fantastic day with sandhill cranes!