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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.
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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.

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Bird Dunes

On Sunday morning I headed to Watsonville, to worship at the Alter of Shorebird known as Pajaro Dunes.

Yes I know that June us not exactly shorebird central on the Central Coast but I had two shorebirds on my Santa Cruz County wishlist: American avocet, and black-necked stilt.

Pajaro Dunes is a coastal vacation community built on and over the Monterey Bay dunes. No doubt that this development has affected the original residents of these dunes and tidal flats: shorebirds. Their habitat here has been compromised, restricted, and expunged. That is one reason that birders are allowed access to this private community.

I do have a disclaimer: my family has spent much time at Pajaro Dunes when I was a kid. Once a year we rented a house at Pajaro with our neighbors on Cormorant Court. (Pajaro is the Spanish word for bird.) I somehow think that spending time here, as a child, made me appreciate this place and being a noticer, I noticed the natural world that was thriving here. I remember digging for sand crabs and catching lizards. And the brown pelicans that hugged the coast raised my eyes skywards.

On this Sunday morning, after checking in at the gatehouse, I kept my eyes towards the water channel, which was to my left. The tide was in, so water was much deeper, which would not be attractive to both avocet and stilt.

I headed to the bay where the Pajaro River becomes brackish. There where a large group of white pelicans, foraging in a raft and many double-crested cormorants drying their feathers. On the beach was a large flock of gulls, including about 40 Heerman’s gulls, one of the world’s most beautiful gulls, in my opinion.

The beautiful Heerman’s gull a Pajaro Dunes. The white-headed gulls are adults while gray-headed birds are juveniles. These gulls are newly arrived from Mexico or points south.

Since I was here last, a fence had been installed around the dunes to protect the breeding habitat of the threatened snowy plover. I have seen snowies here before in the winter where but they where not wearing the black headband and black epaulets of their breeding plumage. Some of the plovers were wearing colored bands on both feet so biologists can identify individual plovers in the field.

A child created sign on the fence placed around snowy plover habitat. Judging by the drawing and the capitalization (or lack of it) I would say it was done by a 3rd grader. It is funny that children draw the head like a separate circle plopped on the body when in reality there is usually a smooth transition from head to body. Sadly, most adults would draw birds in the same way because around this time, nine to tens years old, most realize that their drawing no longer captures realty and their artist development stops at that age.

I did see three snowy plovers. One was running circles around me looking like a windup toy dune-runner. This male was sporting jewelry in the form of four leg bracelets, known as bands in America or rings in Britain. I incorporated the bands in my plover drawing.

It was good to see the plovers on their breeding territory but I did note that there was a woman with her off lead dog that was crossing the fence line. She needed to read and internalize the 3rd graders’ message: “Please Stay away from The BiRDS.” Dog and dog owners vs snowy plover have been an on going conflict on beaches on the west coast where these plovers breed. They nest on the ground, making them vulnerable to walkers and dogs. For all of those whole claim to be “animal lovers” lets not forget about animals that don’t wear a collar, respond to their “given” name, and who are flying free. (I’m starting to sound like the Lorax here!)

I headed back towards the exit gate and I looked to the water channel, which was now to my right. I passed Avocet Circle (no avocets). As I passed the tennis courts and sports field, near Willet Circle, I spotted the undeniable form of a black-necked stilt, foraging on the the far bank. Santa Cruz County life bird!

Black-necked stilt.
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Birding Among the Dead

On a Saturday morning I headed to a Catholic cemetery on Highway 152, just east of Watsonville. I did not bring a bouquet to pay respects to a long lost relative (my family is not Catholic) but I had my bins, camera , and sketchbook. I was here at this cemetery to see a rare Santa Cruz County Bird. There were three of them, feeding on earthworms amongst the grave markers.

The cattle egret is a smallish egret than prefers grasses and lawns to aquatic environments. If is often in the presence of livestock, hence it’s name, where it may perch on the backs of cows, sheep or goats. Flocks follow livestock as the scare up bugs and insects.

When I arrived at the Catholic cemetery by mid morning, the place was full of families tiding up plots and replacing flowers. There were many cars parked along the roads that bisected the plots. I thought that with all the human activity, the egrets might have been scared off. I checked all the sections looking for the small white egrets. Finally in a section that was not being tidied up and there where the three cattle egrets, hunting earthworms in the still wet grass. Bingo! County lifer!

I pulled over to the plot and the egrets continued to feed showing no interest in my arrive. I got out, grabbed my sketchbook and pencil and sat in the passenger seat and sketched away. The three birds actually moved closer, after all they have associated with large mammals for centuries.

These birds were a perfect subject to sketch. They were unfazed by my presence meaning that they did not change their behavior because of my close proximity. A great way to spend a sunny Saturday morning in a cemetery.