Eagles, Flycatchers and Cormorants, 12-11-20

I got up around 5:30 this morning so I could head out to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge with my friend Roxanne – and my dog Esteban! —  at 6:00 am.  We put Esteban in the back seat in his soft crate, and it seemed to fit just fine.

We stopped first for coffee and a breakfast sammich and then were on the freeway. When he wasn’t napping on his pillow in his crate, Esteban was whining… You can probably hear him in the background of every video snippet I took.

When we got to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, the sun was just coming up over the Sutter Buttes, all fiery red and orange, and Roxanne said it looked like Mordor. Hah! I tried to get a photo, but the image doesn’t do the scene justice.

Sunrise over the Sutter Buttes, AKA “Mordor”

Because the air was relatively calm for the most part and there was an overcast, the reflection of things off the water was lovely.  And we didn’t have to deal with harsh shadows or too much light. We stopped at the park-and-stretch areas to let Esteban out for potty.

Along the route, we saw lots of raptors: Red-Tailed Hawks, Red-Shouldered Hawks, American Kestrels, Northern Harriers… and Bald Eagles! We saw one in the “eagle tree”, and then Rox spotted another one in a eucalyptus tree just as we were exiting the auto tour route. The one in the “eagle tree” was almost in its full adult color, but it still had some dark streaks in its “hair”.  I guessed that it was probably about 3½ years old, and Cornell agreed:

“…The head undergoes changes with progressive molts, from dark brown in juvenile to white in adult. Older immature (i.e., 3.5 yr. old) may have a largely white head with brown-gray flecking extending posterior from the eye, giving the appearance of having an eye-stripe…”

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

What was kind of funny-gross about that one was while I was taking photos of it, it bent forward and pooped out onto the road. So much for being “majestic”. Hah! 

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus.When ya gotta go, ya gotta go.

CLICK HERE for the full album of photos from the SNWR.

There were lots of Coots out, of course, but we had one who stepped away from his buddies in the water, came upon a berm next to the road and walked right out toward the car. It stopped to rub its bill on the ground and, we think, take in some of the dirt and gravel with side-bill bites at the ground. I’d never seen that behavior before and I tried to get some video of it. Coots, like many birds, have crops and gizzards, and often eat fine gravel to help these organs “chew up” and process their food. That might have been what we were seeing – I just thought the side-bill scoop was unusual. We also used this opportunity to get some photos of the coot’s wonderful feet with those big lobed toes.

In the part of the slough nearest to the gate that opens onto the extension loop (which is now closed) we saw more Coots, several immature Common Gallinules, a Pied-Billed Grebe, a pair of Gadwalls… and a Sora! We were hoping to see some Bitterns, but no such luck.

We saw some small flocks of Lesser Goldfinches flitting through the weeds and thistles along the side of the auto tour route. They were quite adept at cracking off the spines on the Yellow Starthistles and teasels to get to the fluff and seeds.

As I was trying to get some video of them, Rox let me know that there was a giant truck coming up behind us on the narrow road carrying a load of porta-potties. She pulled the car off the road as far as she could, but it was still a pretty tight squeeze. We later saw the same truck trying to turn around at the viewing platform, but it didn’t drop any of its cargo as far as we could tell.

Further along the route, we saw some Red-Winged Blackbirds flitting up into a nearby tree with the burrs from the cocklebur plants. It amazes me how adept these birds are at getting what they want out of the hardest thorniest places.

 As we went along, we came across lots of Northern Shovelers, including several pairs that were doing the “vortex” thing.  They’d swim in tight circles on the surface of the water, churning up goodies from the bottom in little swirling tornado of water then feed.

Among the flocks of Snow Geese – which numbered in the thousands — we saw several juveniles, and some dark morph “Blue Geese” ones that have dark bodies and a white head.

We also found a small herd of Columbian Black-Tailed Deer. We stopped to get some photos of them, and noticed one of the park attendant’s trucks coming at a speed we thought was way too fast. The deer were at a bend in the road, and we were afraid the driver wouldn’t see them and might hit one of them, so both Rox and I yelled as loudly as we could out the open windows of the car, “STOP! LOOK OUT!” 

Columbian Black-Tailed Deer, Odocoileus hemionus columbianus

The gal driving the truck slammed on her brakes and ended up parallel to Rox’s car. She was so startled an apologetic, we kind of felt sorry for having yelled at her. We told her about the deer, and she understood our concern… and continued forward on the road going much slower.

Around 11 o’clock, we stopped in the refuge parking lot and had some lunch, before heading over to the Maxwell Cemetery in the little town of Maxwell. We’d been over there a couple of times before looking for the famous little Vermilion Flycatcher that lives there. The previous times, we had no luck at all, but today we were able to see quite a bit of him. Rox spotted him first, sitting on top of one of tombstones.

Vermilion Flycatcher, Pyrocephalus obscurus

CLICK HERE for the full album of photos from Maxwell and Colusa.

These gorgeous little guys are normally only seen in Central and South America, and there are a few in Southern California, so to see one up this far north is a real treat. This little guy has been around for a few years now, and is probably one of the most-photographed birds on Facebook. I think we saw a female one, too, but I’m not experienced enough to really tell them from Say’s Phoebes.  I believe it was a Say’s… it looked “too dark” to be a Vermilion flycatcher to me, but who knows.

The bird at the cemetery is bright red and black, but very small, and very fast, so it was sometimes difficult to keep track of him. He exhibited the “flycatcher” behavior we’ve come to recognize in the Black Phoebes: perching, then flitting to the ground, then flitting up back to the perch again. When we lost track of him, a gal who was out there with her boyfriend pointed the bird out to us again.

When I posted photos of the little bugger on Facebook I was surprised it got over 475 hits in just one day, and 14 shares within a few hours.  There were also these stand-out comments:

Rachael C: Were you there? I must have just missed you!  [She’s the former volunteer coordinator at Effie Yeaw.]

Cassie C: I saw you two today, I was the person who pointed out this little cutie! What a great day for birding! Beautiful photos

Tiffany W: How funny! I was there on the same day. I stopped by once in the morning with no luck but I did briefly see a barn owl. I stopped by again in the afternoon and the caretaker actually pointed him out on a tombstone. He must be used to all the crazy birders showing up all the time 😁

Tiffany mentioned the barn owl.  I’d heard he was out there, too, day-roosting in the cedar trees. I looked for him, but didn’t find him. Timing is everything, I guess.  It drizzled a little bit while we were there, but we’d stayed pretty much ahead of the rain that was predicted for the afternoon.

After about an hour there, we headed over to the Colusa Wildlife Refuge, our last stop of the day.  Among the usual ducks and geese, we also saw a couple of deer, a blue-billed Ruddy Duck (at a distance), and a Turkey Vulture that had found a good carcass to eat from. While it ate, a second vulture flew in to try to join in the feast. When the first vulture shooed him away, the second vulture kept trying to sneak up to grab some leftovers.  

In the long agricultural ditch along the auto tour route, we saw a Double Crested Cormorant swallowing down a fish. I lamented that I hadn’t gotten any photos of it. Then just a few seconds later, the same cormorant appeared in the same place with a second larger fish! Here’s what I was able to get… Rox was driving and was backing up the car to try to keep pace with the bird while I filmed it. She did great!       

What a great fisherman that bird was… I think he was eating a carp. And I couldn’t believe he got that thing down his throat!

We also saw a Great Blue Heron, several hawks and a pheasant along the side of the same ditch.  In another area, we saw a second Great Blue Heron but he was all hunched down and sitting in the water. He looked so cold!

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

The large flock of Black-Crowned Night Herons was back at the end of the auto tour route, after being absent for a couple of months. There must’ve been a couple of hundreds of them, juveniles and adults. It was nice to see them all back again – even though they were all asleep.

In one pond, we were watching some Pintails trying to feed from the bottom of one of the ponds.  Pintails are dabbling ducks, not diving ducks, so we were impressed by those that dove right in and fully submerged. One of them was trying to dive further, but was too buoyant, and he sat, tipped butt-up on the surface, kicking at the water. Hah!

It was starting to get colder and darker by the time we finished the tour. We stopped near the exit to reaffix our seatbelts, take a potty break, and bring Esteban up into the front seat with me. I laid the seat back a bit, so he could sit on my chest instead of me painful thigh. (I had to take pain meds twice while we were out, but didn’t mind because the trip was so much fun.)

What we didn’t see today that we expected and normally do see were a lot of the little shorebirds, like the Greater Yellowlegs, and the turtles. We even saw far fewer Killdeer than we normally see.

In the late afternoon, it started to rain in earnest and we drove through that all the way home, arriving at the house in the dark around 6:30 pm. That was a long day for us, about 13 hours — and over 1400 photos taken!  Thanks for being my chauffeur, Roxanne!

Species List:

  1. American Coot, Fulica americana
  2. American Kestrel, Falco sparverius
  3. American Wigeon, Anas Americana
  4. Arundo, Giant Reed, Arundo donax
  5. Azolla, Water Fern, Azolla filiculoides
  6. Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus
  7. Black Phoebe, Sayornis nigricans
  8. Black Walnut, Eastern Black Walnut, Juglans nigra
  9. Black-Crowned Night Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax
  10. Black-Necked Stilt, Himantopus mexicanus
  11. Blessed Milk Thistle, Silybum marianum
  12. Brewer’s Blackbird, Euphagus cyanocephalus
  13. Broadleaf Cattail, Bullrush, Typha latifolia
  14. Bufflehead Duck, Bucephala albeola
  15. Bullock’s Oriole, Icterus bullockii [nest]
  16. California Towhee, Melozone crissalis
  17. Canada Goose, Branta canadensis
  18. Cinnamon Teal, Anas cyanoptera
  19. Columbian Black-Tailed Deer, Odocoileus hemionus columbianus
  20. Common Gallinule, Gallinula galeata
  21. Common Teasel, Dipsacus fullonum
  22. Double-Crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auratus
  23. Floating Water Primrose, Ludwigia peploides ssp. Peploides
  24. Fremont’s Cottonwood, Populus fremontii
  25. Gadwall duck, Mareca Strepera
  26. Golden Crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia atricapilla
  27. Goodding’s Black Willow, Salix gooddingii
  28. Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias
  29. Great Egret, Ardea alba
  30. Greater White-Fronted Goose, Anser albifrons
  31. Green-Winged Teal, Anas carolinensis
  32. Herring Gull, Larus argentatus 
  33. House Sparrow, Passer domesticus
  34. Killdeer, Charadrius vociferous
  35. Lesser Goldfinch, Spinus psaltria
  36. Lincoln’s Sparrow, Melospiza lincolnii
  37. Mallard duck, Anas platyrhynchos
  38. Marsh Wren, Cistothorus palustris
  39. Narrowleaf Cattail, Cattail, Typha angustifolia
  40. Narrowleaf Willow, Salix exigua
  41. Northern Harrier, Marsh Hawk, Circus hudsonius
  42. Northern Pintail, Anas acuta
  43. Northern Shoveler, Anas clypeata
  44. Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Picoides nuttallii
  45. Pied-Billed Grebe, Podilymbus podiceps
  46. Red-Shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus
  47. Red-Tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis
  48. Red-Winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus
  49. Ring-Necked Duck, Aythya collaris
  50. Ring-Necked Pheasant, Phasianus colchicus
  51. Rio Grande Wild Turkey, Meleagris gallopavo intermedia
  52. Ross’s Goose, Chen rossii
  53. Rough Cocklebur, Xanthium strumarium
  54. Ruby-Crowned Kinglet, Regulus calendula
  55. Ruddy Duck, Oxyura jamaicensis
  56. Savannah Sparrow, Passerculus sandwichensis
  57. Say’s Phoebe, Sayornis saya
  58. Smartweed, Persicaria lapathifolia [white]
  59. Snow Goose, Chen caerulescens
  60. Snowy Egret, Egretta thula
  61. Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia
  62. Sora, Porzana Carolina
  63. Tule, Common Tule, Schoenoplectus acutus
  64. Tumbleweed, Salsola tragus
  65. Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura
  66. Vermilion Flycatcher, Pyrocephalus obscurus
  67. Western Kingbird, Tyrant Flycatcher, Tyrannus verticalis [nest]
  68. Western Meadowlark, Sturnella neglecta
  69. White Ash Tree, Fraxinus americana
  70. White-Crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys
  71. White-Faced Ibis, Plegadis chihi
  72. Yellow Starthistle, Centaurea solstitialis