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Posts Tagged ‘Shorebirds’

A couple of weeks ago, I went out to the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area to see if I could spot the Marsh Sandpiper that had been hanging around for about a week before. Marsh Sandpipers breed in central Asia and migrate south to India and Africa, so finding one in central California is a rarity, indeed.

It was a lovely morning in the marshes of the bypass. I arrived at Parking Lot C around 5:45, well before it got light. I could hear Barn Owls over the open fields and American Bitterns in the tules and cattails. As dawn slowly began to spread her rose-red fingers across the sky, I began to be able to make out shapes in the marshland around me. At first, they were indistinct sandpiper and duck shapes, but as the light grew, they slowly morphed into Greater Yellowlegs and Gadwalls. These were soon joined by American Avocets and Cinnamon Teal, Black-necked Stilts and Mallards, Killdeer and American Coots. These birds were joined by a half dozen Long-billed Dowitchers, a Semipalmated Plover, and a lovely mixed flock of Least Sandpipers and Dunlin, the later sporting their breeding plumage replete with black belly patches. As I stood and watched the shallow water less than 20 feet in front of me fill with birds, I noticed a sandpiper that looked distinctly different from the rest. It was closest in shape and size to the Greater Yellowlegs but it was somewhat smaller, much lighter in color, and had a delicately refined and slender black bill.

Marsh Sandpiper by Douglas HerrIt was the Marsh Sandpiper!

A large, white pickup truck pulled into the parking lot. A figure stepped out and as he walked towards me, donning binoculars, the man asked, “Is it here?” There was no need to specify what “it” was. I happily told him yes, and that it was actually right in front of us. He told me that he had just driven all the way from San Bernardino in southern California to see the bird and was then going to be driving back down to be back home that evening!

I stayed for another 20 min or so, watching the Marsh Sandpiper forage and come and go along with the other birds. Having that many species of sandpiper right in front of me would have been a wonderfully special morning even without the Marsh Sandpiper. It is amazing to see biodiversity so obviously demonstrated. That many species coexisting translates into that many niches and that many food supplies, and the ripple effects continue.

On my way driving out of the bypass I passed a stream of vehicles on their way in. Many drivers gave me questioning thumbs up which I enthusiastically returned. Many others were focused on getting to their destination, and the bird they hoped they would find there. Hunkering low over their steering wheels, their eyes fixed on the road, I knew they were in for a treat.

It was fun watching all those birders coming in to see the Marsh, but I knew that I had gotten something special. I had been lucky enough to encounter the bird myself instead of having it handed to me by someone else. I had also been lucky enough to see the bird all alone for a while, not standing amongst a group.

This was one of those birding experiences that stay with me for a long time. I was walking on air all that day, and for several days after. It was one of those experiences in birding that explain why people will drive 400 miles each way to see a bird, and even now, recalling that morning in the marsh with the Marsh makes me smile.

Marsh Sandpipier by Gary Nunn

Marsh Sandpiper (Photo by Gary Nunn).

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I went out and did a bit of birding this morning around the wetlands along the shipping channels near where I live. It was a very pleasant morning. Still cool which is wonderful seeing as we are getting temperatures that are more and more in the 90s and 100s around here. I didn’t find anything unusual, but did have some really enjoyable sightings. In particular, I was treated to a flock of 17 Long-billed Dowitchers and 2 Spotted Sandpipers, all on their way north to their breeding grounds in the arctic. It was really cool to compare the individuals of each of these species. Most of the Long-billed Dowitchers were in their breeding plumage, which was looking bright, fresh and spectacular. A couple, however, still had a fair bit of the muted greys of their non-breeding plumage. The Spotted Sandpipers also showed a range of plumages, with one in full breeding plumage and one in full non-breeding plumage. Are these birds at different molt stages because of individual variation? Is it because some had an easier non-breeding season with lots of food and not much harsh weather, while others had a harder non-breeding season with less food and harsher weather like cold, wind, and rain? Might these differences in molt timing correlate with different arrival times on the breeding grounds and/or levels of success there? These kinds of carryover effects, as they are known, have always been of interest to me, but they tend to be quite challenging to study.

Other sightings of the morning included 3 Striped Skunks (one of which almost sprayed me and my dog!), Sacramento Cottontail, Red-winged Blackbird, Cooper’s Hawk, Green Heron, Gadwall, Cliff Swallow, Tree Swallow, several very pretty Song Sparrows, Ring-necked Pheasant, a Ring-necked Pheasant nest out in the midst of a wheat field that had been predated (by one of skunks, perhaps?), Belted Kingfisher, Great Egret, Great Blue Heron, House Finch, Killdeer, American Crow, Western Scrub Jay, Black Phoebe, Mallard, Canada Goose, European Starling, Morning Dove, American Avocet, American Coot, Bushtit, and a Pied-billed Grebe.

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A friend invited me to join him duck hunting this past weekend on the Sutter National Wildlife Refuge.  I have never hunted the Sutter Refuge, and was excited to explore some new ground.  Leaving West Sacramento at 2:30 am , I drove up to meet him.  In the darkness of early morning, long before dawn, we walked out into the marshes to find a place that would hopefully be very attractive to ducks.  We found a small island, scattered our duck decoys in the water around us, and nestled in to wait for dawn.  As the sky lightened, the birds started moving.  We had a few groups of ducks fly by, but the really impressive flocks were the White-faced Ibis!  Thousands of them flew over is that morning.  Big flock after bigger flock swept over us all heading to the south.  It was a very impressive show.  We also saw Ring-necked Duck, Northern Shoveler, Greater White-fronted Goose, Mallard, Bufflehead, Double-crested Cormorant, Belted Kingfisher, Black Phoebe, White-crowned Sparrow, Turkey Vulture, Savannah Sparrow, Lark Sparrow (my first of the fall), American Coot, Snow Goose, American Wigeon, Red-tailed Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk,  Northern Harrier, White-tailed Kite, Red-winged Blackbird, Marsh Wren, Great Horned Owl, Great Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, Great Egret, Tundra Swan, and Yellow-rumped Warbler.  By the end of the morning, my friend had shot a male Mallard, but that was the only bird of the day.  As I sat there, not shooting any birds, I was struck again by how many species benefit for these refuges.  While a large portion of their funding comes from the sale of hunting licenses and permits, hundreds of non-game species use the habitats that are preserved withing their boundaries.

The Sharp-shinned Hawk was an especially exciting encounter.  She (it was an adult female) was hunting the marshes as we were.  She was flying low to the ground or across the surface of the water, moving from stand of tule to brush covered island in the hope of startling some prey out of cover.  It was really amazing to watch how she used tall stands of plants as cover.  She would fly low towards one such stand and then, at the last possible moment, fly up and over it and drop down onto the other side.  One of the islands she decided to explore was the one we were sitting on.  She flew directly at me, and just saw me at the last second when she was only a few feet away.  She was rather surprised to see someone crouching in the plant cover, and flared up and over me to hunt elsewhere.  What great look!

On the walk out, I found a large growth of Oyster Mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) growing on a dead and fallen cottonwood tree.  I gathered some of them and brought them home, so at least I did not return completely empty handed.  These were the first mushrooms that I have collected this fall, and I am hoping that they signal that it is now wet enough to bring out many more.  The mushrooms ended up being part of dinner stir-fried with a little garlic, and also lunch the next day added to polenta (which was awesome).  Finding these mushrooms really drove home the point for me that it is not even just game bird species and non-game bird species that benefit from the National Wildlife Refuge system, but whole ecosystems filled with plant, animal, fungi, Bacteria and Archean species.  Thousands and thousands of them living their intricate lives so close to our own.

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At the edge of a parking lot, here in Davis, CA, my wife and I found a family of Killdeer.  The two adults were wandering around a patch of dry, exposed dirt and watched over their four young as they also wandered the dirt patch foraging for food.  Killdeers clutches are usually comprised of four eggs, so this looks like it was a very successful nest where all four eggs hatched and the young all seem to be doing quite well.  The young were tiny balls of fluff on legs that seemed too tall for them (it will be a little while before they grow into them).  Their coloration was an almost exact replica of the adults: brown back, white belly, and the classic black ring across the neck.  The young birds only had a single ring and will get their second when they molt into their first basic plumage.  At one point, one of the young gave a call that sounded exactly like that of an adult bird.  It was impressive to hear this bird, that could not have been more than a few days old, already able to produce fully developed vocalizations.

The young, being highly precocial and so able to walk as soon as their feathers dry, were wandering over a good sized area.  One in particular was exploring and foraging much farther away from its parents then its siblings.  I wonder if this more adventuresome behavior will be a consistent aspect of this bird’s personality, and also if this personality continue into adulthood?  Personality, or behavioral syndromes as they are often called, have been found in many species, but little work has been done on when these behavioral syndromes form or how they may change as an individual ages.

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