Archive for California
Endless scanning of the Colorado River can produce a nice waterfowl list this time of year. I was most excited Sunday to see Common Goldeneye, a bird not often encountered here in southeast Arizona. And just above Parker Dam we had some great views of Lesser and Greater Scaup.
These three are Greaters, and I like the photo not just for that big lobe on the preening drake’s hallux, but also for the way that it offers three different perspectives on the species’ characteristic head shape. The bird on the right, facing away in a three-quarter view, actually shows a “notch” on the back of the head, formed by the intersection of full nape and puffy cheek; but that notch is lower than it would be on a Lesser Scaup. The things we have out there to learn!
Today’s long drive was to include the search for a “lifebird,” a California specialty I’d never seen before. I slept late, unfortunately (blame the dog and his ever so soothing morning snores), but decided to give Sacramento NWR a shot anyway, the midday heat notwithstanding.
Sacramento NWR is dry. Dry, dry, dry. True, there is enough water in some of the ditches for Marsh Wrens, which were singing by the pound–and that’s saying something when you’re talking about a bird the size, and a tiny fraction of the weight, of my thumb. And the puddle at the visitor center produced at least two Pied-billed Grebe chicks this year. But it’s a bad sign when Swainson’s Hawks and Western Kingbirds are hunting the bare, cracked ground between the widely separated patches of thirsty-looking rushes.
It was discouraging. As I neared the end of the tour loop (six miles in less than half an hour: that’s how many birds there were to see), something awfully (and uncharacteristically) like conventional notions of reason began to creep into my mind. Here I was, hundreds of miles from home (either one, take your pick), spending valuable travel time looking at hordes of one of the commonest birds in North America to find any individual of one of the rarest birds in North America, and really, honestly, truly caring about whether a blackbird’s median coverts were white or not. Is this the sort of detour a normal adult human makes on his way home for the summer?
At least the Red-winged Blackbirds I was scrutinizing were interesting. That species is always interesting, of course, but the male red-wings of parts of northern California differ from their conspecifics elsewhere in lacking, or almost lacking, yellow on the median coverts. What that means is that instead of having a big red “epaulet” bordered with clear yellow, these “Bicolored Blackbirds” have just the red shoulder patches, a difference that is startlingly obvious even from a moving vehicle. Several of the birds I looked at closely at Sacramento did show a bit of yellow in at least the outer medians, suggesting that there is intergradation with the neighboring, yellow-fringed taxa.
And you wondered why I don’t get invited to more parties.
Very nice indeed, and I was happy to see some Black Phoebes and a pair of Ash-throated Flycatchers–old southwestern friends–on my way out. But where was my target bird?
The answer came just a few miles south, at Delevan National Wildlife Refuge. A steady stream of Agelaius blackbirds was flying out of the marshes into the rice paddies, and among them were dozens of Tricolored Blackbirds, the males very smart with their white-edged wing patches. I followed the returning birds, and though most went out into the marshes, joining the White-faced Ibis in the middle distance, a few continued to the southeast edge of the area, along Maxwell Road, where a couple of dozen females were busy, I guessed, with the household and the kids. I didn’t take the time to learn how to identify them–the scope is packed too deep, the day was already too hot–but I wished them the great good luck this species needs, and can only hope they’ll be there still on my next traverse.