Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Just 20 miles south of the Central Valley city of Merced is a wildlife refuge that hosts the largest concentration of lesser sandhill cranes on the Pacific Flyway.

On Sunday morning I headed out into the cold Central Valley morning to one of the jewels of California’s wildlife refuges.

Twenty minutes later, as I neared the Refuge entrance, the field to my left was covered with geese and cranes.

There are a lot of geese, I mean a lot, at Merced National Wildlife Refuge.

I entered the the Refuge and scoped the flocks from the observation platform. Thousands of Ross’s, snow, and greater white-fronted geese and lesser sandhill cranes. I headed back into my moveable birding blind and started on the five mile auto route.

The rules of the auto route is that you have to remain in your vehicle. Your car acts as a moving blind allowing you to get very close to wildlife without scaring them away.

Lesser sandhill cranes below and lines of geese above.
The bugle call of sandhills overhead is a sound I look forward to every winter.

It was not just about observing feathered creatures. I also spotted a coyote trotting across a levy path with a white goose in it’s mouth. It is the circle of life after all. I also observed a scaled creature in the glassland area of a refuge. It was a beautiful four-foot gopher snake hunting in the ground squirrel burrows.


Santa Cruz County Birding

I’ve never been a huge county birder. County birding is keeping track of how many species seen within the boundaries of a single county.

County lines are a purely human made boundary that birds fly over but it is a fun challenge to try to see as many species in a chosen county. The three counties that I focus on are San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Cruz. I set the modest goal of seeing 200 species in each of the three county. Over the past year and a half I have tallied over 200 in each county.

But for Santa Cruz I wanted to see if I could become a member of the Santa Cruz Bird Club’s “300 Club”. To reach 200 took awhile and I knew to reach 300 species in Santa Cruz County would take time, persistence, patience, and luck. On the Martin Luther King Jr. three day weekend I thought I would attempt to add few birds to my Santa Cruz County list.

Now these birds were not especially rare nor were any of these lifer birds for me but they had somehow evaded my binoculars in the 831 area code. There are: snowy plover, snow goose, blue-winged teal, and American dipper.

I started my search at the very southern edge of Santa Cruz County at Pajaro Dunes. Pajaro Dunes is a private resort housing development. When I was growing up my family used to rent a house for a holiday so I have been familiar with the area from a early age. The development is gracious enough to allow access to birders.

Once I passed through the security gate I headed to the end of the road near the Pajaro river mouth after first checking the slough near the fire station for the rare long-tailed duck but the bird had flown a few days earlier and had not been seen again.

I wandered across the dunes toward the ocean looking for the small cryptic dune-plover. There were plenty of sanderlings running up and back with the tide. I checked all the flocks but no snowy plovers. I wondered how far down the beach I’d have to walk before I spotted the snowies.

I briefly checked out the backlit gull flock at the river mouth, just south of the river was Monterey County. I turned back and started walking north along the beach in Santa Cruz County. That’s when I spotted ten roosting snowy plovers which I must have walked right past.

This snowy plover is sporting jewelry. These are colored bands which helps researchers identify each individual plover. Snowy plovers are a threatened species because of habitat destruction and intensive use of their nesting grounds. Snowy ploverspopulations are declining with a recent survey estimating the total population of the Pacific Coast as 2,900.

My next stop was Struve Slough, just north of Highway One. This slough in Watsonville is a great winter hotspot for waterfowl. The waters were full of ducks, geese, and herons, but I was looking for five white snow geese. In the Central Valley, it is possible to see thousands and thousands of snow, Ross’s, and greater white-fronted geese in places like Gray Lodge Wildlife Area and Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. But on the Santa Cruz County Coast, snow geese are a relatively rare find.

The snow geese stood out like five shining stars among the surrounding Canada geese and ducks. Another county bird was mind! Now it was time to head east to an birding hotspot: Pinto Lake.

My main target at Pinto Lake was a duck I had overlooked on previous visits. This is the blue-winged teal. Without too much of an effort I found a drake and duck.

Male and female blue-winged teal at Pinto Lake. The much larger male gadwall provides an interesting size comparison.

The final bird on my county wish list was turning into a nemesis bird for me. I had seen this bird many years ago flying downstream on the San Lorenzo River but it is has not seen on this river a while. So I headed up the San Lorenzo Valley. (I had not added this bird to my list because I have no record of the time I saw the dipper).

I was headed towards Ferndell Falls at the confluence of Zayante and Bean Creeks. This has been the American dipper hotspot in Santa Cruz County for the past ten years or so. But as hard as I tried, looking up Zayante and Bean Creeks, on over three visits, I was not able locate a single dipper. Nobody said county birding would be easy, in fact it can be a form of madness!! It just makes me even more determined to add this nemesis bird to my county list!

A nice consolation on my dipper search of Zayante Creek was seeing the world’s most beautiful duck in morning light. A wood duck pair.
I have searched for American dipper on about ten separate occasions since last summer. Maybe the 11th time’s a charm. This spread was about my July expedition up the San Lorenzo River in search of former dipper sites. The dipper is an indicator of a healthy ecosystem because they prefer clear, clean streams and rivers. This is a sign that San Lorenzo is not so pure.


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.

Tundra study

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.


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.


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.

AMKE study

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.


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.