Posted by: atowhee | November 2, 2007

South toward (former) home

kite.jpgThe White-tailed Kite photo is by David Assman, taken in California’s San Joaquin Delta, January, 2007.

There’s some birding possible from a moving car.  On Halloween Day we drove south from Ashland to San Francisco.  Most of the route is on Interstate 5 through the Sacramento River Valley.  I’ve put together a birder’s itinerary for that trip now that it’s so familiar to me.  Here’s the link.

Of course, you miss nearly all the smaller birds.  You either see them as little moving shapes, or not at all.  Most frustrating to me: small bird perched on a strand of fence wire, just off the freeway.  We pass at 65 miles per hours, as allowed by law.  Could that have been a Savannah Sparrow?  A late migrating Brewer’s Sparrow?  Simply a Lesser Goldfinch, though they are usually in flocks in this season.  Just mark it down as an LBJ.  Even with blackbirds, you can pick the family.  In a pasture of sheep, likely that’s a Cowbird sitting on the ewe’s back.  But otherwise: Brewer’s?  Red-winged?  Tricolored?  I’ll never know.  Their meadowlark cousins are easier to spot: butter-smeared chests on a fenceline as they face the traffic or the brown backs and stubby, white-rimmed tails as they disappear into the grass beyond the fence.

But bigger birds can be satisfying.  Twenty-one Red-tailed hawks in the 365 miles.  Fifty-six Turkey Vultures.  They were most plentiful in wealthy Marin County just north of San Francisco.  Is that because of the density of road kill?  I can’t believe the TVs are drawn to the hot-tubs.  The Turkey Vulture always struck me as such a dour, dry old stick. Nature’s ultimate recycler.  There was a Golden Eagle on the dry volcanic plateau north of Mount Shasta.  No Bald Eagles or Osprey seen along the Upper Sacramentlo River this time, but they’re there.

We didn’t stop at the Sacramento Wildlife Resevre where hundreds of thousands of ducks and geese winter.  The largest flocks we saw in the Central Valley were Starlings in tight, dark waves over the rice fields.  There was one movement of White-faced Ibis as at least three hundred of the dark curved figures moved from east of the freeway to the rice fields on the other side. The body of a flying ibis is larger version of the bird’s beak, curved with the lower end being the feet dangling behind.  The beak itself curves below the body at its front end.  A few ibis had already settled down to walk the muddy tracks between the bright green lines of rice, which is just, after all, a very fancy form of grass.  From bamboo, to wheat and barley, we humans really need the grasses.

There’s only a small patch of Black-billed Magpie habitat on this route, and we passed one on a fence north of Weed, a truly named town if ever….  But we drove through two hundred miles of Yellow-billed Magpie range and never saw one.  Other worthy sightings: at least three Red-shouldered Hawks, a female Harrier, two Kestrel inclyuding one with prey in itsd talons, Great Egrets, a couple bands of Coot in flooded rice paddies, Lesser Scaup.  Between Vallejo and Novato the marshland was rich with birds.  Several thousand American Avocets, snowdrifts on the dull brown mudflats.
Smaller groups of Stilts, scattered Marbled Godwits making their stiff-legged walk through the shallow water. Uncountable numbers of brown peeps, probably Western Sandpipers.  In Petaluma Creek a few White Pelicans fished along the edge of the stream.  In the dryer areas, six White-tailed Kites and as many Red-tailed Hawks. Each on a low brush perch. 

One Tree Swallow was hunting over a pool.  All his competition long since gone south.  There is a population of several thousand Tree Swallows that winter over the Centsal Valley and occasionally find better feeding along the Bay.  I have been at Consumnes Reserve on a cold January day when gloves are requiring and there’ll be dozens of Tree Swallows hawking insects from the surface of the shallow pools there.  Somehow it looks okay in spite of the thousands of wintering ducks at the same time.

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