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ZEISS DTI thermal imaging cameras. For more discoveries at night, and during the day.

California, 2024 (1 Viewer)


Well-known member
1 January 2024

I have set a birding goal for 2024: I shall try to see 400 species of birds in California during the year. I think it is quite possible. Possibly some people do it every year. Without particularly trying, I came close to that mark with in 2022 with 380 species. That year I did not visit the far north of the state, or sagebrush habitats, or do a pelagic trip in Southern California, each of which could have produced at least a few species that I missed, and I missed some species in places that I did visit. The real question may be: Can I do it without blowing up my carbon footprint trying to chase down every vagrant that wanders into the state?

I had a good start today. I was awakened at 3:00 AM by the sound of a Great Horned Owl calling. When I left the house hours later it was still calling, as were Wild Turkeys. At Aptos Creek Mouth, on the beach south of Santa Cruz, there have been two rare (for California) gulls: Black-headed and Laughing. I went to look for them this morning. The Laughing Gull was quite cooperative, but the Black-headed was moving around and I could not catch up with it. The beach was very busy on this holiday morning. No swimmers, but a few surfers and many people walking their dogs or children, and many probably checking on the damage done and the debris cast-up by recent storms. The dogs, especially those off leash, kept the birds from settling too long in one place. There were a variety of other gulls there (Western, Glaucous-winged, California, Ring-billed, Short-billed, and Iceland) and 20 other species to put on the year list.

I then went to West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz where there is some lovely rocky shoreline that usually has most of the local rockpipers this time of year, but the tide was very high, the rocks mostly covered with water, and the birds mostly elsewhere. The sea stack at Natural Bridges State Beach did host Brown Pelicans; Brandt’s, Pelagic, and Double-crested Cormorants; more gulls (including Heermann’s); and a couple each of Black Oystercatchers and Black Turnstones. Out on the water were some of the local oceanic species: Surf Scoter, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Goldeneye, Common and Red-throated Loons. A Forster’s Tern flew by.

I decided to head inland next and went to Quail Hollow County Park for some terrestrial birding. It was rather slow there, but I did pick-up some of the common land birds of the region. Back home in time to watch some college football. That’s American football to those of you in the rest of the world, and the college version of the game is a big deal here. The good guys won.

In all I ended up with 61 species for the day: Canada Goose, Mallard, Surf Scoter, Common Goldeneye, Common Merganser, Red-breasted Merganser, Wild Turkey, Red-throated Loon, Pacific Loon, Common Loon, Horned Grebe, Western Grebe, Brown Pelican, Brandt’s Cormorant, Double-crested Cormorant, Pelagic Cormorant, Snowy Egret, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Turkey Vulture, Red-tailed Hawk, American Coot, Black-bellied Plover, Black Oystercatcher, Willet, Marbled Godwit, Black Turnstone, Sanderling, Laughing Gull, Heermann’s Gull, Short-billed Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Western Gull, California Gull, Iceland (Thayer’s) Gull, Glaucous-winged Gull, Forster’s Tern, Rock Pigeon, Great Horned Owl, Anna’s Hummingbird, Belted Kingfisher, Acorn Woodpecker, Nuttall's Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Black Phoebe, Steller’s Jay, California Scrub-Jay, American Crow, Common Raven, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Bewick’s Wren, American Robin, Wrentit, European Starling, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Spotted Towhee, California Towhee, Song Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Brewer’s Blackbird, and House Finch. If I had not spent so much time chasing the Black-headed Gull I would surely have added to this list, but anything I missed today I should be able to see in the days to come.


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Interested to see how you get on - you've already brought back good memories of one site I went to back in August last year.
2 January 2024

Today the main destination was Monterey, but I stopped briefly again at Aptos Creek mouth, which was only a little out of the way, and was able to quickly view the Black-headed Gull. When I arrived, several birders were on a footbridge over the creek and said the bird was just up the beach, out of sight. That area was closed for clean-up of the storm debris, but walking down to the sand gave a better view along the shore and the bird was easily visible. No dogs there to chase it away today.

Monterey harbor is always worth a visit, and with recent reports of Long-tailed Duck, Black Scoter, and Franklin’s Gull there, now seemed a particularly good time for a looksee. It did not disappoint. All three, as well as a White-winged Scoter, and many Surf Scoters, were visible from the commercial wharf. Along the California coast Surf Scoters are everywhere in the winter, and often in substantial numbers, but Black and White-winged Scoters are much harder to find. To have them all at one location is quite unusual. Adding a Long-tailed Duck too, rarer than any of the scoters, is a real treat. To the year list I was able to also add Whimbrel – one on the beach with some Marbled Godwits – and Horned Grebe. That’s Slavonian Grebe to those in foreign parts. Can I count it twice if it has two names? Birders from other areas sometimes seem to think that Herring Gulls are ubiquitous, but I will note here that over the last two days I have seen hundreds of gulls of ten different species, and none of them a Herring Gull. There are a few around, and I am sure I could find one if I tried, but they often one of the rarer gulls on the coast here.

A short stop at Point Pinos had lots of cormorants, but Common Murre was the only new species for the year.

Laguna Grande Regional Park straddles the border between the cities of Monterey and Seaside. It has a lake surrounded by lawns, a playground, and some riparian vegetation. In the autumn it often hosts some rarities, and recently there have been reports of a Tropical Kingbird, a Lucy’s Warbler, and a Nashville Warbler there. I failed to find any of those. I was able to add Western Bluebird, Townsend’s Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Oak Titmouse, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Bushtit, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Ruddy Duck, Pied-billed Grebe, and Red-shouldered Hawk to the year list.

It was on to Hollister for the night. I stayed at the SureStay by Best Western. Not fancy, but clean, with a good bed, good wi-fi, and good tv channel selection; a bit noisy from traffic; about $103 for the night. Dinner was some leftovers I brought with me, heated in the microwave. They offer a breakfast, but I was gone in the morning before it was served.

Nineteen new species this day: White-winged Scoter, Black Scoter, Long-tailed Duck, Bufflehead, Ruddy Duck, Pied-billed Grebe, Eared Grebe, Red-shouldered Hawk, Whimbrel, Black-headed Gull, Franklin’s Gull, Common Murre, Oak Titmouse, Bushtit, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Western Bluebird, Orange-crowned Warbler, and Townsend’s Warbler. The total for the year stands at 80.


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3 January 2024

Today I participated in the annual Christmas Bird Count at Panoche Valley. For those who may be unfamiliar with CBCs, this is a tradition, begun in 1900, of having a group of people count all the birds they can find in a circle with a 15 mile (about 24 km) diameter. An effort is made to count the same circles every year, but new circles are added every year too. It is organized by the National Audubon Society and counts are done across the US and Canada, and to a lesser extent in several countries further south in the New World. Counts are done on one day, which must fall from 14 December to 5 January. A compiler organizes the count to make sure the area is covered consistently from year-to-year. Debi Shearwater, who many birders know from the pelagic trips she conducted for many years, is the compiler for the Panoche Valley count. Some birders do several counts; I usually participate in the Santa Cruz and Panoche Valley counts.

The Panoche Valley count circle is mostly in an area of southern San Benito County, but includes a bit of Fresno County too. Panoche Valley itself is a broad, flat expanse of grassland surrounded by hills with oak woodlands or scrublands. The area is rural and much of it is heavily grazed, but there is a small (by California standards) vegetable farm, a creek that has some streamside willows and cottonwoods, and some ranch homes with planted trees. A few years ago a large solar energy facility was built, covering a significant fraction of the valley. The large area of short grass habitat is unusual for this part of California. It attracts some birds that are hard to find elsewhere in the region, including Mountain Plovers, Ferruginous Hawks, Prairie Falcons, and Mountain Bluebirds, and so has become a birding destination.

I was assigned to count a part of the valley floor with two birders from Fresno, Brandon and Alya Hill. Good birders and amiable company. We ended up with a total of 38 species. Highlights included lots of Mountain Bluebirds, a Ferruginous Hawk, and a Prairie Falcon. Stomping our boots on some concrete, to try to knock off some of the mud on them, startled two Barn Owls out of a nearby box. Brandon got us on a Greater Roadrunner, always fun to see, and this one ran as fast and as far as any I ever have. In terms of overall numbers, we had lots of Tricolored Blackbirds, Horned Larks, House Finches, European Starlings, and Long-billed Curlews. Frustration for the day was a very distant flock of shorebirds flying about – they may have been Mountain Plovers, but I could not be sure they were not Killdeers. Our list for the day: Northern Harrier*, Red-tailed Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk*, American Kestrel*, Prairie Falcon*, Killdeer*, Long-billed Curlew*, Rock Pigeon, Eurasian Collared-Dove*, Mourning Dove*, Greater Roadrunner*, Barn Owl*, Anna’s Hummingbird, Northern Flicker, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Black Phoebe, Say's Phoebe*, Cassin's Kingbird*, Loggerhead Shrike*, Common Raven, Horned Lark*, Rock Wren*, Mountain Bluebird*, Northern Mockingbird*, European Starling, American Pipit*, House Sparrow, Lark Sparrow*, Savannah Sparrow*, Dark-eyed Junco (Oregon), White-crowned Sparrow, Golden-crowned Sparrow*, Spotted Towhee, Western Meadowlark*, Brewer’s Blackbird, Red-winged Blackbird*, Tricolored Blackbird*, and House Finch. Twenty-four new species for the year, marked with asterisks, bringing the list to 104.

After the count, I drove to Los Banos to spend a couple days birding in the San Joaquin Valley. I spent the night at the La Quinta hotel. I had a larger room than the previous night; clean, good wifi, limited tv channel selection, and reasonably comfortable though the bed had a thick pillow top that I did not like; a bit noisy from traffic; about $118/night, including tax. I had dinner at Espana’s Southwest Bar and Grill - ate a chimichanga verde, which was good and very filling; about $24 if I remember correctly.


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4 January 2024

I left Los Banos early this morning for a visit to Merced National Wildlife Refuge. This is one of the highlights of California birding. The numbers of geese and ducks here can be very impressive, and then there are also cranes. The main access is the Auto Tour, a 5 mile (8 km) loop around a series of ponds and grassy fields. The area can be very foggy on a winter morning, but today there were only high clouds. At the start of the Auto Tour is an observation platform, and that was my first stop. It overlooks a pond, and I was surprised that the first bird I put my binoculars on was a Blue-winged Teal. I have seen them here before, but never more than one or two. This morning a quick look around produced 14 at this one spot. Cinamon Teal, Green-winged Teal, Northern Shovelers, and a few Mallards filled out the ducky delights from the platform. Dozens of Greater White-fronted Geese and a few Snow and Geese were also in the pond. Many other geese flew overhead, the Snows in neat Vs and the GWFG in less organized mobs. Also flying about were Sandhill Cranes, in pairs or groups of a few birds. A White-faced Ibis flew in and landed in the pond. Some American Coots and Black-necked Stilts completed the waterbirds. Other than a bunch of House Sparrows and one each of Say’s and Black Phoebes, there were few passerines around. A walk around the area finally turned up a very few White-crowned and Golden-crowned Sparrows. In years past I have always seen dozens of sparrows at this site. My impression, and that of other birders, is that the numbers of sparrows is way down this winter in the Santa Cruz area, and I wonder if that is also true here. One bit of excitement here was a coyote trotting past carrying a white goose; don’t know if it was a Snow or Ross’s Goose, or if the coyote killed it or scavenged it.

The first stretch of the tour has been hosting a Vermillion Flycatcher this winter, but I failed to locate it. I did find more ducks, geese, and shorebirds. On the first half of the tour, up to a second observation platform, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, and Ring-necked Ducks were added to the list, along with Ross’s and Cackling Geese, and Long-billed Dowitcher, Dunlin, and Least Sandpiper. I finally saw a few Herring Gulls. One or two Northern Harriers and two or three Red-tailed Hawks were the only raptors. Passerines included Marsh Wren, Northern Mockingbird, Tree Swallow, American Pipit, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Red-winged Blackbird (the males with both red and yellow on the wings, unlike the California Bicolored ones I usually see that have only red), Western Meadowlark, House Finch, and American Goldfinch. I did see more White- and Golden-crowned Sparrows, and added Song and Savannah Sparrows, but the numbers of all of these continued to be low. At the second observation platform there is a short walking trail. I walked it, flushing a Wilson’s Snipe and encountering less dramatically an American Kestrel and Northern Flicker.

The second half of the Auto Tour did not produce any new species for the day, but I did finally see a few Sandhill Cranes that were on the ground and easily visible. Back at the first platform, I walked the Meadowlark Trail. This goes through some creek-side riparian forest habitat and open fields. A Red-shouldered Hawk, Nuttal’s Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Fox Sparrow, and Spotted Towhee were the new species seen. After eating a lunch of cheese, crackers, and fruit salad I decided to go around the auto loop again. Just around the first bend two other birders flagged me down to show me the Vermillion Flycatcher. Unfortunately, I had only a brief view as we were blocking the road and a California Highway Patrol car came up behind us. It seemed polite and perhaps prudent to clear the way. Shortly after this a young Bald Eagle flushed up hundreds of the ducks and geese and sent them flying off. I think the only other new species for the day were a Great Egret, a few Greater Yellowlegs, and a Sora, but by the time I reached the second platform about 3000 white geese had settled nearby and that was well worth the second circuit. They were, at least those closer in, mostly Ross’s Geese with smaller numbers of Snow Geese mixed in.

With that it was back to Los Banos. There I made a quick pass by the airport, finding a single Western Cattle Egret on the lawn in front of it. Sometimes there are dozens there, but their occurrence at the site seems to be highly variable. Dinner was at M&M’s Italian Restaurant, next to the hotel. I had a dinner salad and chicken marsala with linguine, which was quite good. About $30 if I recall rightly. I really should save receipts.

Thirty-three new birds today: Greater White-fronted Goose, Snow Goose, Ross’s Goose, Cackling Goose, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Blue-winged Teal, Cinnamon Teal, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Ring-necked Duck, Great Egret, Cattle Egret, White-faced Ibis, Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier, Sora, Sandhill Crane, Black-necked Stilt, Greater Yellowlegs, Least Sandpiper, Dunlin, Long-billed Dowitcher, Wilson’s Snipe, Herring Gull, Downy Woodpecker, Vermilion Flycatcher, Tree Swallow, Marsh Wren, Common Yellowthroat, Fox Sparrow, and American Goldfinch. The year total is now 136.


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Excellent reports and pics, love hearing about Gulls and others that I'm probably never going to see!!! Are you resident in California or on Holiday?
Excellent reports and pics, love hearing about Gulls and others that I'm probably never going to see!!! Are you resident in California or on Holiday?
Thanks. I am a resident of California. I live in the Santa Cruz Mountains, north of Santa Cruz and southwest of San Jose. These are perhaps not strictly Vacational Trip Reports, but it seemed easier to present the my quest on this form than on the Blogs forum.
Thanks. I am a resident of California. I live in the Santa Cruz Mountains, north of Santa Cruz and southwest of San Jose. These are perhaps not strictly Vacational Trip Reports, but it seemed easier to present the my quest on this form than on the Blogs forum.
Yes always.difficult to know which forum to post in!! Maybe in "your birding day" bit further up the column, might get a bit more coverage!!
5 January 2024

As I was heading east-bound on Pacheco Boulevard early this morning three flocks of Western Cattle Egrets, about 20 birds in each, passed overhead west-bound. I was heading to San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. I do not know where the egrets were heading. My plan today was to head for San Luis NWR, then maybe head up Sante Fe Grade, then hit my secret Yellow-headed Blackbird spot, and finally visit the O’Neill Forebay.

San Luis NWR has many of the same birds as Merced NWR, but they are less concentrated and often harder to see. It is best known for a herd of Tule Elk, kept in a very large enclosure. This is a small subspecies of the widespread American elk (for our European friends, these are similar to your red deer), endemic to California. They were hunted to near extinction, but have now been reintroduced in several areas with the San Luis herd serving as a source for some of the animals released. I was going there primarily for a different species: Tundra Swan. I stopped first at the Visitor Center and birded around the area for a few minutes. A modest variety of passerines were present, but the only new species for the year was California Quail. It was on to the Waterfowl Auto Tour Route, which at this refuge is about 8.5 miles (about 14 km) and passes by some ponds, marshes, grasslands, water-filled channels bordered by trees. I covered most of the route without encountering any birds I had not seen yesterday at Merced NWR.

Nearing the end of the route there is a side road that leads to the Sousa Marsh area. A large pond near the end of this road holds the greatest waterfowl concentration on the refuge, usually including dozens of Tundra Swans. Today there were no swans. At the very end of the road is a walking trail that leads to Sousa Marsh. I decided to walk that, not so much because I thought I would find lots of birds, but in hopes that in the time it took to do it some swans might return to the pond. On the walk I did add Wood Duck, Cooper’s Hawk, and Hermit Thrush to my year list. And when I got back to the pond a single swan had appeared. Initially it had its neck curled around and head tucked down in that way that only swans seem to be able to manage, but I sat in the car and ate my crackers and cheese, and eventually it raised up its head, allowing me to confirm that it was indeed a Tundra Swan, rather than some less likely possibility. On the way out of the refuge, a Great Blue Heron.

I decided to skip Sante Fe Grade today. This is a narrow gravel road that is mostly lined on both sides by hunt clubs. It has some great habitat for many kinds of birds and on days when there is no hunting happening it can produce some very pleasant birding. Even during hunting season there are days of the week when the hunters do not shoot. I had seen some hunters heading out earlier, however, so I assumed this was a day when people would be shooting lots of guns, and that would certainly diminish the birding pleasure.

Heading out Henry Miller Avenue, on the way to the Yellow-headed Blackbird spot, there were several cattle feed yards with lots of blackbirds. It occurred to me that there might well be Yellow-heads among them. Slowing down as I passed one, I could indeed see some. I stopped, took a few photos, then headed on to the forebay, skipping the Yellow-headed Blackbird spot. Which is not really a secret; I have posted at least one ebird report from it.

O’Neill Forebay is a place I had not been before. I am not sure what makes it a forebay; it is actually a lake below the big dam that restrains the San Luis Reservoir. The lake is surrounded by grasslands. There have been reports of multiple Swamp Sparrows here, which can be a tough species to find in California. Even if I failed to find a Swamp Sparrow, I thought I should at least be able to pick-up a Clark’s Grebe and who knew what else. My first stop was at the San Luis Creek North Beach area. There was nothing there that looked at all like habitat for a Swamp Sparrow. Out on the lake though, there were some of the expected Clark’s Grebes. In winter, in California, both Clark’s and Western Grebes may be found on the ocean and on inland waters, but Western tends to predominate on the ocean and Clark’s more so inland. Here it seemed to be all Clark’s. Also out on the lake were both Greater and Lesser Scaup and a few other ducks. There was a large flock of gulls, too far away for me to identify them. Equally far, but easy to identify, was an American White Pelican. A walk around the area turned up a few White-crowned Sparrows, but no Swamps.

I started back out, saw a road heading to the north, and decided to try that. What followed was one of those frustrating experiences that happen sometimes when you are birding. Shortly after turning onto the road a group of sparrows flushed up from the roadside. One of them had white outer tail feathers: a possible Vesper Sparrow. I parked and looked around, but I could not find it again. Following the road, it came back to the lake shore near the San Luis Creek RV Campsite. Here the habitat looked much better for Swamp Sparrows: a shallow, marshy border with scattered willows and cottonwoods. I parked, and before getting out of the car saw a Cassin’s Kingbird, a large flock of American Goldfinches, and some White- and Golden-crowned Sparrows. I turned on the Merlin Sound ID app on my phone. I have seen the app suggest too many very unlikely species to rely upon it, but it sometimes hears things that my old ears miss. Today, along with species that I readily saw, it claimed several that I did not see or hear for myself, including Vesper Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Black-capped Chickadee, and Lawrence’s Goldfinch. The chickadee was one of those things so unlikely I did not worry about it. Both of the sparrows and the goldfinch seemed quite possible, but I could not locate any of them. And I could not find a Swamp Sparrow. Eventually I gave up and went back home.

Twelve new birds today: Tundra Swan, Wood Duck, Greater Scaup, Lesser Scaup, California Quail, Clark’s Grebe, American White Pelican, Great Blue Heron, Cooper’s Hawk, Hermit Thrush, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Yellow-headed Blackbird. The year total is 149.


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7 January 2024

After spending yesterday taking care of things around the house, it is back to birding today. The plan today is to head up the bay side of the San Francisco Peninsula, starting in Palo Alto and going at least as far as Foster City. There are ducks and shorebirds to be seen. I hope.

Today I am after Aythya ducks. Having already seen both scaup species at the O’Neill Forebay makes the task somewhat easier. Canvasback, Redhead, and Tufted Duck are the remaining targets. Canvasback is easy, Redhead may take a bit of searching, Tufted Duck is known at one location – you go there and either you see it or you don’t. The shorebird targets are American Avocet (easy) Western Sandpiper (easy), Red Knot (fair chance), Curlew Sandpiper (need to be lucky), Spotted Sandpiper (fair chance), and Ruddy Turnstone (may take some luck). There are chances for some other new birds as well: Black-Skimmer, Boneparte’s Gull, Ridgeway’s Rail, Virginia Rail, Peregrine Falcon, Merlin, Tropical Kingbird, Palm Warbler, Swamp Sparrow, and whatever else may turn up.

My first stop is at the Palo Alto Flood Control Basin. Redheads have been reported a few places in the area, though not here. I have known this in the past to be a fairly reliable spot for them, however, and indeed there are a few on one of the ponds right by the road. Canvasbacks and American Avocets are here as well. On to the Palo Alto Baylands. The problem here is the tides. The only Curlew Sandpiper known to be in the Western Hemisphere is back here for the third winter, and the best time to see it is on a rising tide, not yet full. A very high tide is the best time for the rails and Swamp Sparrow that should also be here. This morning there is a rather high tide. It turns out to be too high for the Curlew Sandpiper, which is perhaps sleeping somewhere among the crowds of Dunlin, but is impossible to spot. The tide is too low to push-up the rails or Swamp Sparrow into easy view. There are still good looks at lots of beautiful birds, including Western Sandpipers, a Peregrine Falcon, and a surprise Osprey.

I move on to the Nob Hill Pond in Redwood Shores. I don’t know if anyone other than birders call it the Nob Hill Pond; birders call it that because it is behind a Nob Hill supermarket. I buy a sandwich for lunch at the deli in the supermarket. A fairly average sandwich for $8. This is the spot for the Tufted Duck. The bird is a female, hard to pick out among the Lesser Scaup. I search diligently, but am unable to do so. I want to catch the falling tide at the Foster City Shellbar, and move on again. There the tide is still too high; I head back to the Nob Hill Pond. The Tufted Duck is easily seen, its spindly little crest giving it away.

The Foster City Shellbar is along a streach of Bay Park Boulevard in (as you might guess) Foster City, and when I return there again the tide is just right. Thousands of shorebirds are covering the mudflats, in close at this tide level. Right away I pick out a Red Knot among the Willits, Marbled Godwits, Long-billed Curlews, Dowitchers, Dunlins, Western Sandpipers, Least Sandpipers, Black-bellied Plovers, and others. A group of Black Skimmers is resting on a bit of exposed mud. There are some rocks along the waterline toward the north end of the area, and in the past I have had good luck with Ruddy Turnstones there. Black Turnstones are widespread on the ocean coast in winter, but Ruddies are becoming increasingly scarce. Today I can find none of either species here. Out in the bay there are both Greater and Lesser Scaup, so among the North American Aythya I have missed only Ring-necked Duck today.

Back I go to Palo Alto. Near the Baylands part of San Francisquito Creek can be accessed from the end of Geng Road. A Tropical Kingbird and a Palm Warbler have been seen here recently, and it has been good for Spotted Sandpiper in the past. Arriving, I realize that I must have left my notebook somewhere back in Foster City. (Yes, I still use notes written on paper as my initial record keeping tool. I prefer to do it this way so that I can enter my data and photos into ebird at the same time. Since I have not updated ebird for several days, this loss means my records for the year so far will never be entered there.) I walk along the creek further than I would have wished without finding any of the recent goodies. Shortly before getting back to my car, I am compensated by having a Merlin zip by.

Today’s new species are Canvasback, Redhead, Tufted Duck, Osprey, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, American Avocet, Red Knot, Western Sandpiper, Black Skimmer, and Lesser Goldfinch; eleven in all, bringing the total to 160.


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8 January 2024

I found myself this day needing four species of ducks to complete the set that may be found in California this winter, and three of them were in Santa Cruz. I started on the lower stretch of the San Lorenzo River. The river is partly dammed by a sandbank at the river mouth and a lagoon forms behind it. This makes some good habitat for diving birds, and two of these are Hooded Merganser and Barrow’s Goldeneye. The Hooded Merganser was easy to find, I saw it as soon as I reached the top of the levee. It was a gorgeous male, wonderful bird. There were also a Common Merganser and three Red-breasted Mergansers. This may be the first time I have seen all three at the same time. The Barrow’s Goldeneye was more elusive. I walked up and down the levee; there were several Common Goldeneyes, but I could not pick out the Barrow’s (a female) among them. The light was bad – I was looking into the sun – and some of the birds were sleeping, heads down, making it impossible to see the distinguishing features. A flock of Cedar Waxwings flew up from a fruiting tree on the levee, giving me another new species. They have always been one of my favorites, but they did not stay around for me to admire them. An ebird report of all the birds seen is here: https://ebird.org/checklist/S158689773.

I headed the short distance to the Santa Cruz Harbor. This is small, strictly for small craft, the large majority of which are recreational. A Harlequin Duck has been here for several weeks. She has been up and down the harbor, but lately seems to favor the area near a dredge at the harbor mouth. I could not find her there, or anywhere.

After stuffing myself at the buffet at the Royal Taj restauraunt ($19, decent food, not as many dishes as they had before COVID), I went back to the lower part of the river. Most of the same birds as in the morning were still there, but still there was no Barrow’s Goldeneye. Two Spotted Sandpipers squabbling over which of them would occupy which side of the river gave me another new species for the year. An ebird report is here: https://ebird.org/checklist/S158690668.

Three new species, Hooded Merganser, Spotted Sandpiper, and Cedar Waxwing, bringing the year list to 163.


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9 January 2024

Back to Santa Cruz. I started at Lighthouse Field State Beach. This does have a small beach, but most of the coast here is cliffs and rocks, and the park is really mostly a large field. Around the field are clumps of trees: willows, cypresses, and eucalyptuses. Among birders the location is best known for having hosted a Red-flanked Bluetail last winter, only the fourth known for California and one of only about a dozen for North America south of Alaska. I was not expecting anything that rare today, but the spot is often good for migrants in the fall and a variety of passerines stay the winter. The morning started out with high clouds and I was enjoying not having to deal with the glare of the sun, but it kept getting darker and darker and it was drizzling by the time I left. There were lots of birds. Some of the eucs were in flower and attracting Anna’s Hummingbirds and various other species, particularly warblers. Yellow-rumped and Townsend’s Warblers were easily seen. I kept hearing the repeated “tsuk” of a Palm Warber, but for a long time could not spot it. Eventually I found it low in the interior of the canopy of one of the eucs, pumping its tail as they always do. In my previous experience, Palm Warblers have almost always been out in the open, so that is where I had been searching. In the autumn vagrant warblers from the east appear in California and sometimes they stay the winter. Palm Warber is the most common of these, but it is always nice to see one. This fall several species have spilled down out of the mountains and visited the coast. Red-breasted Nuthatches and Golden-crowned Kinglets are two of these, and I found both here. A Pygmy Nuthatch and Hairy Woodpecker were also new to the year list. I was perhaps most happy though, to finally see sparrows in some numbers. About 60 White-crowned Sparrows were in one flock, and Dark-eyed Juncos; California and Spotted Towhees; and Golden-crowned, Song, and Lincoln’s Sparrows were also present. A full list of the birds is at: https://ebird.org/checklist/S158691579.

I went to West Cliff Drive again to check the rocky shore. This time I got the tide right and Black Oystercatchers, Black Turnstones, a Whimbrel, and, new for the year, Surfbirds were working the rocks and dodging the waves. A Boneparte’s Gull out on the water gave me one the only common local gulls I was still missing. See https://ebird.org/checklist/S158693198 for the full species list.

After a fish taco plate at Taqueria Vallarta ($9, good), I went back to the lower San Lorenzo River. This time I quickly found the female Barrow’s Goldeneye – stubby orange-yellow bill and all – under the Riverside Street Bridge. The bird being at a distance and under the dark bridge on a dark day, I did not even try to take a photo.

Finally, back to the harbor. This time I went to the north side of the harbor mouth, which was closer to the dredge. I walked all the way to the far end of the dredge before spotting a little brown duck with a stubby dark bill and two white spots on its head: the Harlequin Duck. I just had time to get my binoculars on her before she ducked behind the dredge and out of site. One could hope for a better view, but I can add it to the list. The rest of the birds there can be found here: https://ebird.org/checklist/S158693583.

For the day then, nine new species: Harlequin Duck, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Surfbird, Boneparte’s Gull, Hairy Woodpecker, Pygmy Nuthatch, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Golden-crowned Kinglet, and Palm Warbler, bringing the total for the year to 172.


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11 January 2024

At this point there was one species of waterfowl that was anywhere near by that I had yet to see this year. That was a Eurasian Wigeon. For years a reliable place for them has been Porter Marsh in the upper part of Elkhorn Slough, in northern Monterey County. It took searching through a lot of distant American Wigeon, but eventually I found a handsome male. There were a variety of other ducks here, including almost 100 Lesser Scaup. The full accounting is here: https://ebird.org/checklist/S158696487.

Proceeding along Elkhorn Road in the direction of Moss Landing, I came to Kirby Park. This area can be good for shorebirds, but with a high tide prevailing, not at this visit. There were many Ring-billed Gulls and Ruddy Ducks in the marshes. Continuing along, I soon reached Strawberry Road where there is a pond cut off by the road from the rest of the slough. For reasons known only to themselves, this is a place where Blue-winged Teal sometimes congregate. Though I saw some earlier at Merced, I stopped here to see what I could see. There were a few Blue-winged Teal, and they even let me get some decent photos. There were not a lot of birds altogether, except for the ever present American Coots. The list is here: https://ebird.org/checklist/S158696727.

Continuing along, with a couple turnings, I reached Moss Landing. Jetty Road here is another excellent place for shorebirds, but still the tide was too high. A couple more turnings got me Zmudowski State Beach. This is a wide sandy beach where you can often walk for miles and encounter only a few other people, but today I stick to the area landward of the dunes that border the beach. There is a marsh, a pond, and some agricultural fields here. It was pleasant birding, but did not produce anything new for me. The ebird list may be found here: https://ebird.org/checklist/S158697252.

Back I went to Jetty Road. This road separates a tidal marsh from a tidal basin, then runs between the basin and the dunes backing the beach. It ends at a jetty on the north side of the entry of Elkhorn Slough into the ocean. There is a small craft harbor in the basin. South of the basin is another, deeper basin with docks for more recreational boats, commercial fishing boats, and the research vessels of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. There is also a jetty on that side, with a channel between the two jetties. The tide had dropped faster than I had expected; now much of the basin was mudflat, uncovered by water and covered by birds. There were dozens each of the birds I most wanted here: Snowy Plovers and Semipalmated Plovers. They were joined on the mud by Least and Western Sandpipers, Dunlin, Sanderlings, Willits, Long-billed Dowitchers, Marbled Godwits, Long-billed Curlews, and Black-bellied Plovers. A roost on a sandbar held Brown Pelicans and Western, California, Herring, Iceland, and Ring-billed Gulls. A group of harbor seals was also hauled-out there. A few more harbor seals and a few sea otters were in the slough. Also in the waters of the slough were Surf Scoters, Buffleheads, Red-breasted Mergansers; Common and Red-throated Loons; and Eared, Horned, and Western Grebes. I was quite happy to find, in the channel between the two jetties, a Red-necked Grebe. This is by far the least common grebe in the area, and it can take a good deal of searching to find one. On the rocks of the jetties and in the water were lots of Brandt’s Cormorants and a few Double-crested Cormorants. In the dune and marsh shrubs, and in the parking lots, were a few Song and White-crowned Sparrows, and Brewer’s Blackbirds. All of these and more can be found on the list here: https://ebird.org/checklist/S158698138.


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13 January 2024

The UCSC Farm, or, as it is properly known, the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is an organic farm that has an internship program for people who want to learn about how to run an organic farm and other educational and research programs. It is on a relatively flat location on the hill below the main part of the UCSC campus. It has lovely views to the south, across Monterey bay. The farm has both hand and mechanically worked fields that grow a variety of vegetable and fruit crops. At this time of the year some of the fields are fallow, but with the mild climate others are growing leafy vegetables even in midwinter. There are no animals, except a few chickens in a children’s education area. Early on this Sunday morning, I had the place to myself.

There was a good variety of birds. Most of the local sparrows were present, including a White-throated Sparrow. White-throated Sparrow is a species that breeds across the northern forests from the Atlantic to British Columbia and regularly winters in California in small numbers. It is not too hard to find one, but, unless you have one coming in to your bird feeder, it is not a species you see every day. Other new year-birds are a Hutton’s Vireo, a House Wren, and Pine Siskins. Of the three vireos that breed in the area, Hutton’s is the only one that stays here year around. They are pretty quiet in the winter and the one today gave just a few calls, but in couple more months they will be singing all over the mountains and remind me how many there really are. Their song is just two notes, repeated many, many times. You would think they would get bored with themselves. House Wrens breed locally, but only a small number stay around for the winter, so I am happy to get it on the list. Pine Siskins are variable in abundance at all times of the year. Sometimes birders will see a few and think it the best bird of the day, but this day a flock of well over 100 moved around the farm. The ebird list is here: https://ebird.org/checklist/S159094386.

My next stop was at the Lighthouse Community Garden. The garden has just a few allotments for gardeners. It is a tiny little place, but has managed to attract several uncommon birds over the years. A report from the previous day had three species of orioles here: Bullock’s, Hooded, and Orchard. The Bullock’s and Hooded Orioles are rare in winter, but breed in the area and will be easy to find in a few months. It was the Orchard Oriole I was most interested in. These breed in eastern and midwestern North America, but are only irregular fall and winter visitors to California. After a bit of looking around I got lucky: the Hooded and Orchard Orioles appeared side by side in the top of a bottlebrush bush in a neighboring garden. This was particularly fortunate because the two species look very similar, but Orchard Orioles are smaller. I get some poor photos of them, but good enough to confirm that one is indeed measurably smaller than the other. Here is the full list of species: https://ebird.org/checklist/S159094858.

On the way home a roadside flock of blackbirds included some Brown-headed Cowbirds. That makes seven new species today (Hutton’s Vireo, House Wren, White-throated Sparrow, Brown-headed Cowbird, Orchard Oriole, Hooded Oriole, and Pine Siskin) and 183 in all.


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15 January 2024

A rarity has come to the Santa Cruz Mountains, not too far away from me. It is a Louisiana Waterthrush. Waterthrushes do have an affinity for water, but they are actually warblers rather than true thrushes. Its cousin the Northern Waterthrush is one of the more common eastern warblers in the autumn in California, and I see at least one most years. Louisiana Waterthrush is much more rare here. Only about seven have been seen in the state in the last ten years, and I have only seen it here once. This one seems to be spending the winter along Zayante and Bean Creeks, by the Mount Hermon Conference Center, near Felton. I spent most of this morning looking, along with many other birders, in the area where it had been spotted. We did not see it. I gave up a little after noon. Others who stayed longer said it was not seen in the afternoon either. The whole forest was very quiet, and I tallied only 10 species. Two of those, however, were Common Merganser and Hooded Merganser. A pair of Common Mergansers did some displaying toward each other, and it was cool to see them foraging underwater in the clear Zayante Creek. The Hoods were also a pair, further up the creek. As I watched, the male caught a large crayfish. He had a difficult time subduing and swallowing it. An ebird list is here: https://ebird.org/checklist/S159163242.

I went next to Westlake Park, a small city park on the west side of Santa Cruz. It is a good place to photograph birds, and I thought might add a couple species to the year list. There is so much human activity there that the birds have become habituated to it. I watched a dog on a leash walk within a meter of resting ducks, and they did not even stand up. I did pick up two new species, Green Heron and Great-tailed Grackle, and did get some nice pictures. The bird total can be found here: https://ebird.org/checklist/S159163639.

The UCSC Arboretum is not far away, and it is another good place to photograph birds. Among birders it is best known as a place to look for hummingbirds. The Arboretum has an extensive collection of southern hemisphere plants that bloom in our winter, providing an abundance of nectar. In another month or so I will likely return looking for migrating Allen’s and Rufous Hummingbirds, but today the only hummers present are the resident Anna’s. There has been a long-term population study of Golden-crowned Sparrows here, and many of that species are color-banded (I suppose that would be colour-ringed to the British) for individual identification. The numbers and diversity of birds in general were low this afternoon. I encountered my fourth coyote of the year, causing me some concern for the birds and bunnies. One new species, California Thrasher. You can probably guess what you might find at this link: https://ebird.org/checklist/S159164132.

Driving home I picked-up another new bird for the year: Band-tailed Pigeon. This species was overdue. Most of the time I can see some flying-by if I just spend a few minutes on my deck at home, but I have missed them since the start of the year. Four new species today: Green Heron, Band-tailed Pigeon, California Thrasher, and Great-tailed Grackle. I am up to 187 for the year.


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17 January 2024

I had planned to stay home again today, but a report of the Louisiana Waterthrush back at its previous location inspired me to go look. It took me about 45 minutes to get there. Walking in, I met the birders who had seen it walking out. After spending most of the morning in easy view, it had just flown away. Several other birders were still there, but we could not refind it. After about an hour and a half I gave up, thinking it had probably gone off to where ever it went when people could not find it, and likely would not be back soon. In the evening I checked reports online. It had reappeared minutes after I left.

18 January 2024

I got a late start today and did not want to spend a lot of it driving, so I decided to go to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in Felton. This is one of the more reliable spots for Varied Thrushes and Red-breasted Sapsuckers. Varied Thrushes are like American Robins done up fancy. They are a similar size and shape, but have rusty-orange markings on their wings and over their eyes, and a black or gray band across their breasts. There are always at least a few around here in the winter. Their numbers vary; sometimes there are many, sometimes only a few, probably depending on food supplies further north, nearer their breeding grounds. They tend to keep more to dense forests than do American Robins. I have seen them occasionally at my house and formerly I found them reliably on a road close to my home, but that area burned in a big fire in 2020 and the birds are no longer there. The picnic area at Henry Cowell is the place to look for them now.

Red-breasted Sapsuckers breed in small numbers in the region, and their numbers are increased in winter by birds coming here from places to the north. A few Red-naped and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers can sometimes be found in the area in winter too. The Red-breasted are the most colorful of these, with heads and breasts almost entirely red, while the others have some black and white stripes in those areas. They all present an unusual situation when it comes to looking for them. They tend to be quite quiet; you can listen for a soft tapping, but often you will not hear even that. However, they do sip tree sap, and to feed on the sap they make grids of small wells in tree bark. The wells, if attended and kept open, will keep producing sap for a long time, so the birds stay in the area of their workings all winter long. You can find the birds by looking for fresh sapsucker workings.

The picnic area at Henry Cowell does not get a great deal of use in the winter. It is under a canopy of tall, dense trees and a bit gloomy. Today there were a couple groups of playing children and a few dog walkers, but much of the area was quiet. I covered most of it, hearing a few jays and crows, but finding no thrushes or sapsuckers. There were some old sapsucker workings, but nothing fresh. At one end the picnic area is bordered by the San Lorenzo River, and a trail along the river goes through more open habitat. Here I encountered many birds. Townsend’s Warblers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Pine Siskins, and Hutton’s Vireos all foraged through the trees. California and Spotted Towhees, and Fox, Song, and Golden-crowned Sparrows worked through the undergrowth and on the ground. Dark-eyed Juncos split their time between the various microhabitats. I saw Hairy Woodpeckers, Downy Woodpeckers, and Northern Flickers, but no sapsuckers. A rather muddy puddle inspired several of the birds to bath.

Walking back through the picnic area, several birds flew up from the ground. Just shapes through the leaves, but they were about the right shapes for American Robins or Varied Thrushes. These birds were silent; robins would likely have been clucking, so I thought there was a good chance these were the thrushes. Scanning through the trees, I spotted a bird. It was not a Varied Thrush. It was a Red-breasted Sapsucker. Sweet. Some more birds flew up, and one of them landed where I could get a look at it. It was a Varied Thrush. I wanted to look for more birds on the ground in the area from which they were flushing and maybe get some pictures, but at this point I had a small problem. A bicyclist on the other side of the birds chose this moment to start off. Seeing me, he stopped. I am sure he was trying to be considerate, but, as the birds would see it, they now had predators on either side of them. That sort of situation makes birds nervous; they can’t keep their eyes on both of us. If I approached any closer, they almost surely would have all taken off. I waited. After a few minutes the cyclist rode away, I approached, there were some more thrushes, but I did not get any photos of them. The ebird list may be found here: https://ebird.org/checklist/S159283744.

There had been no reports of the Louisiana Waterthrush today, but the site was only about 2 km from Henry Cowell, so I decided to go back there. I found only two birders present. David had been there since about 8:00 in the morning - at this point it was about 2:30 in the afternoon. Pat had been there less long, but still hours. They had not seen the bird. I stayed a little while, but soon gave up again. I had to cross a little footbridge over Zayante Creek just before reaching my parking spot. As I stepped onto the bridge a little bird flew under it and into some streamside vegetation about 40 meters away, out of sight. Had it been the waterthrush? I could not tell with such a brief view. I waited for it to emerge. After maybe 15 minutes I decided it had likely been something else that had crept away without me seeing. I took three steps onto the bridge, and it flew out, down to the stream. It was the waterthrush. I regretted that I had not exchanged phone numbers with David or Pat, but sent off an update to the local birders list-server. I waited and studied the bird. It was cool. Not the fanciest bird in appearance: solid grayish-brown above, striking white lines over its eyes, white with dark steaks on the breast, and buff on its flanks. Fun to watch though. It worked along the edge of the creek, some times on a small rock, sometimes splashing in shallow water. It picked things off of the water’s surface and things below the surface. At frequent but irregular intervals it dipped its tail, or whole rear end, down. After perhaps 20 minutes Pat and David came down the trail. They had not seen my post, they were just giving up, going back to their cars. They were thrilled when I showed them the bird. David had a spotting scope and with it we all got beautiful views of the bird. Ebird here: https://ebird.org/checklist/S159284978.

Three new species today: Red-breasted Sapsucker, Varied Thrush, and Louisiana Waterthrush, a total now of 190.


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Today at the Elkhorn Slough I saw a Snow Goose, Western Bluebird, Hairy Woodpecker, Dark Eyed Junco, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Bewick's Wren, Song Sparrow, Common Raven, Long billed Curlew, long billed dowitcher, Clark's Grebe, Snowy Egret, Great Egret, and White-tailed Kites. An unusually low tide brought in many more shorebirds than has been the norm in this location.
Today at the Elkhorn Slough I saw a Snow Goose, Western Bluebird, Hairy Woodpecker, Dark Eyed Junco, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Bewick's Wren, Song Sparrow, Common Raven, Long billed Curlew, long billed dowitcher, Clark's Grebe, Snowy Egret, Great Egret, and White-tailed Kites. An unusually low tide brought in many more shorebirds than has been the norm in this location.
It can be a great place. I have so far missed White-tailed Kites this year, I am glad to hear there are some still there.
23 January 2024

After a few days of rain (I am generally a fair-weather birder) I went back to the Monterey area this day. I began at Laguna Grande Park; most of the birds I missed here on 2 January should still have been here, though the Lucy’s Warbler had not been reported in over two weeks and I expected it was gone. Right out of the car Mallards, Ruddy Ducks, Pied-billed Grebes, a Clark’s Grebe, and a Double-crested Cormorant were seen on the lake. A Virginia Rail called from the marshy lakeshore. This species has probably been present in all of the wetlands I have visited this month, but this was the first one that called for me. These birds stick to thick, wet vegetation, and birders rarely actually see one; a vocal identification was good enough to add it to the year list.

The Monterey side of the park is bordered by Virgin Avenue, and the northwest part of the park is known to birders as “the Virgin Avenue Patch”. (Word is questioning the punctuation at the end of the previous sentence. If my punctuation is an idiosyncratic mix of British and American usage, blame it on my having spent a year of grammer school in London, England. I pick and choose, sometimes consciously.) The Virgin Avenue Patch is a thick mix of willows, cattails, bulrushes, blackberries, and ivy, crossed by a network of trails. It is often the most productive part of the park. I headed in, and was immediately into a flock of warblers, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, and Ruby-crowned Kinglets. The warblers were mostly Townsend’s, but there were also a few Yellow-rumped, and pretty quickly I found the Nashville Warber. This is a species that should be easy to find in the Sierra Nevada in summer, but I was glad to add it to the list. And then a surprise: the Lucy’s Warbler was still here. This is a species that should be fairly easy to find in the southern California desert in spring, but I am also glad to add it to the list. Song Sparrows were singing, calling, and squabbling with each other constantly. Pine Siskins and American and Lesser Goldfinches were feeding and roosting up in the willows.

After two or three passes through various parts of the patch, I continued on around the lake. A Tropical Kingbird was sallying out over the lake from perches in the rushes at the north end. The closest place this species breeds is in southern Arizona, but every fall some of them head for the Pacific coast, a few going as far north as south-east Alaska. As I was watching it, I got distracted by a Peregrine Falcon flying overhead. They nest on the nearby Embassy Suites hotel and can often be seen here. There was a time, when I was much younger, when I wondered if I would ever see one in the wild. The banning of DDT and reintroduction efforts have been remarkably successful at bringing the species back. This was the second I saw this year, but it would not be the last I saw on the day. I continued all around the lake and up the trail at the southern end of it. I had a good time and saw several new species for the day, but no new species for the year. An ebird checklist is here: https://ebird.org/checklist/S159698173.

After a burger and fries at In-N-Out Burger ($9, the burger maybe slightly better than McDonald’s, the fries slightly worse) I went to Point Pinos. The tide was quite low – I had stayed too long at Laguna Grande. There was a birder doing a sea watch there. He pointed out to me a Black-vented Shearwater offshore. This was a nice bird to see; they are irregular in northern California. I thought well of him until I saw his ebird report later. He had not mentioned to me several other species I would have stayed longer to try to see had I known that he had seen them. The local birders in Monterey are not known for their helpfulness. Even birders who live there have said so to me. I stayed about a half hour, then went the short distance to what is known as the south gull roost. There was nothing new there except a first-of-the-year Barn Swallow flying up the coast. There was nothing new at all a little further south at the shoreline at Asilomar State Beach. A Pacific Golden-Plover and Ruddy Turnstones were said to be somewhere in the area, but at the very low tide there were just too many places hidden in the rocks where they could be feeding or roosting, and I could not find them or even the much more common Black Turnstones or Surfbirds. Ebird reports are here for Pt. Pinos: https://ebird.org/checklist/S159703360, and here for the gull roost: https://ebird.org/checklist/S159703516.

Heading back toward Santa Cruz, I made a quick stop on Dolan Road at an overlook for Moro Coho State Marine Reserve. This actually overlooks an area of fields and freshwater wetlands. A Eurasian Green-winged Teal has been seen here. It is regarded as the same species as the American form, but males do look a little different and I had hoped to see it. No luck. I violated the “always keep your camera with you” rule, and regretted doing so when a Peregrine Falcon flew directly over my head, the closest I have ever been to one. One last stop was at Kirby Park. This time the tide was too low for optimal birding, but I did add a Lesser Yellowlegs to the list.

The list now stands at 197, with the new additions being Black-vented Shearwater, Virginia Rail, Lesser Yellowlegs, Tropical Kingbird, Barn Swallow, Nashville Warbler, and Lucy’s Warbler.


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