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Conference Birding: Oakland and the Sacramento River Delta (1 Viewer)

MKinHK

Mike Kilburn
Hong Kong
This week's conference takes place in Oakland on the western side of San Fransisco Bay, and stepping off the redeye from Hong Kong I was met for a day's birding by Cedric Duhalde and taken straight to the steep coastal cliffs at Devil's Slide where we almost immediately found my first lifer - a greyish, long-billed Rock Wren singing in the morning sunshine from a horizontal cleft high on a rock face. Other birds here included a calling Peregrine and a soaring Red-tailed Hawk, a trio of Surf Scoters, including an adult male, four or five Common Murres a couple of Pelagic Cormorants, my first Red-necked Grebe in 25 years and several hundred Clark's and Western Grebes in a huge raft on the sea below. Walking back to the car a couple of Black Phoebes zipped about hunting insects and White-crowned Sparrows and a Bewick's Wren called from the chaparral scrub on the hills above the cliffs.

Our next stop was the edge of the golf course at Mori Point. On the way over we saw a roadside Belted Kingfisher, a couple of elegantly long-tailed Mourning Dove and several each of American Crow and the imposingly larger Common Raven, which I was surprised to discover was very much the city bird here - in sharp contrast to their more remote hideouts in the UK and mountainous Western China. A Collared Dove was somewhat less interesting but makes it's way onto the day list nonetheless.

Getting out of the car a House Finch was singing from overhead wires and a Chestnut-backed Chickadee was in the scrub by the roadside. Our target here was the splendid curve-billed California Thrasher and saving us a trek up a hillside path one had claimed ownership of a dead bush some 50 metres along the path, where it posed like a starlet desperate for attention from the paparazzi. Other easy to see birds included White-crowned, Golden-crowned and the smaller, neater Lincoln's Sparrow, a bulkier, longer-tailed California Towhee, Anna's and Allen's Hummingbirds, the latter performing a wonderful u-shaped display flight right above the path. A gaggle of Wrentits moved through the lower cover, two Tree Swallows went over and a Pygmy Nuthatch gave a frustratingly brief view as it disappeared into a conifer.

Rush hour having passed we headed north through San Francisco, and across into the Sacramento River Delta to a site in al large area of flattish fields where 40-odd Mountain Plovers had popped up on eBird a few days earlier. Despite searching hard we didn't find them, but there were plenty of other birds, starting with several Red-tailed Hawks, heaps of Western Meadowlarks, a couple of male Northern Harriers, and the first few of of what must have been 20 Loggerhead Shrikes on the day.

A moving carpet of black birds feeding on fallen grain turned out to be a mixed flock of Red-winged, Brewer's and Tricoloured Blackbirds, plus a few each of Brown-headed Cowbirds and Eurasian Starlings busily picking their way over a patch of ground next to a large eucalyptus tree. A couple of American Kestrels put them up in a swirling cloud, but they soon returned to what was obviously a rich source of food. A magnificent American Turkey puffed up in display to three or four females may or may not have been wild or attached to the farm on the other side of the wind break, but he was a fine sight nonetheless.

Other roadside birds included two Burrowing Owls, good numbers of Savannah Sparrows and a Sagebrush Sparrow, which turned out to be the first record for Solano County, which also had its first record of coronavirus a few days earlier.

More to come . . .

Cheers
Mike
 

MKinHK

Mike Kilburn
Hong Kong
Here's a few photos I did not have time to upload before jumping on the flight home:


1. Mixed blackbird flock
2. and 3. California Thrasher
4. Lincoln's Sparrow
5. Here be Rock Wrens (and also Pelagic Cormorants, Surf Scoters, Black Phoebes and a very large number of Clark's/Western Grebes)

Cheers
Mike
 

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MKinHK

Mike Kilburn
Hong Kong
Having dipped on the Mountain Plovers we crossed the Sacramento River and followed the levee road clockwise round the low-lying and distinctly estuarine Sherman Island in pursuit of two of my top targets - Snow Goose and Ross's Goose.

Before that a brief stop on the Sacramento River produced good numbers of Goldeneye, plus California and Mew Gull, Double-crested Cormorants and a few American Coot, plus a Northern Flicker in a roadside tree. We had another almost immediately on the levee road, plus a two more of what turned out to be six Northern Harriers on the day and a White-tailed Kite perched helpfully on a roadside wire.

Birds on the water to the southeast of the island included Bonaparte's Gull, a flight of 15 or so White faced Ibises, More California Gulls, and a distant party of American Wigeons. More exciting for me was the discovery of a few hundred Snow and White-fronted Geese on a pool in the middle of the island as well as a more distant stand of Sandhill Cranes. A long-awaited lifer for which I've never really been in range, the flights of Snow Geese rising and dropping onto the pond and a nearby field were a great sight. However from this angle the light was not great, so we moved further south in search of better views as waves of geese flew over us and onto the fields for what was clearly their night-time roost. This was truly magical. We don't get geese in Hong Kong in anything except single figures, so to see waves of birds flashing white and black against a deep blue sky, underlit by the late afternoon sun as they came directly overhead just a few tens of metres above us and drift down to join the flock made for a fabulous spectacle.

We still had unfinished business. Within the flock lurked the smaller but otherwise very similar Ross's Goose, which occurs in significantly smaller numbers among the thousands of Snow Geese in the Sacramento Valley each winter. Picking them out in the arriving flocks got easier with practice - they are substantially smaller, shorter -necked and shorter-billed, and on the ground they lack the black 'grin line' on the bill and have a more rounded hand shape. We were able to see this best when relocating to our final view point - a road that ran within 20 metres of the edge of the flock from where the sun was directly behind us and illuminating the flock to perfection. At close range we could see the fine channels on the neck feathers, the rusty staining on the head of many of the Snow Geese - but curiously not the Ross's Geese and, more obviously, a couple of "blue" phase Snow Geese.

From here we headed back towards Oakland, adding a Cooper's Hawk as we crossed the hills and dropped back into the Bay Area. A pair of Western Gulls bathing in the fountain outside the hotel were the final bird of a terrific day's birding.

Cheers
Mike

Pix to come
 

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Scridifer

Registered User
Supporter
Bulgaria
A terrific day's birding indeed Mike! So pleased you got your geese, I look forward to the photos!

Chris
 

MKinHK

Mike Kilburn
Hong Kong
Thanks Chris, Pete and James.

Bushtits they were Nutcracker.

We still had unfinished business. Within the flock lurked the smaller but otherwise very similar Ross's Goose, which occurs in significantly smaller numbers among the thousands of Snow Geese in the Sacramento Valley each winter. Picking them out in the arriving flocks got easier with practice - they are substantially smaller, shorter -necked and shorter-billed, and on the ground they lack the black 'grin line' on the bill and have a more rounded hand shape. We were able to see this best when relocating to our final view point - a road that ran within 20 metres of the edge of the flock from where the sun was directly behind us and illuminating the flock to perfection. At close range we could see the fine channels on the neck feathers, the rusty staining on the head of many of the Snow Geese - but curiously not the Ross's Geese and, more obviously, a couple of "blue" phase Snow Geese.

From here we headed back towards Oakland, adding a Cooper's Hawk as we crossed the hills and dropped back into the Bay Area. A pair of Western Gulls bathing in the fountain outside the hotel were the final bird of a terrific day.

Cheers
Mike
 

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Larry Sweetland

Formerly 'Larry Wheatland'
Wow,what a day Mike!

I had a similar experience on my first day in the US in about '93. Got picked up by an old friend at 'Frisco airport, and we birded the area all day from dawn. I was blown away by lifer after lifer. Think the Biggie if the day was a staked out Northern Saw-whet Owl, which remains the only one I've seen.
 

MKinHK

Mike Kilburn
Hong Kong
A cracking day indeed and the geese were the icing on the cake. Cedric offered the opportunity to look for Varied Thrush (which I very much still need!)on the way back, but I decided that seeing the geese in such perfect conditions - as opposed to the roaring hoolie in which I normally see them was too good to pass up.

One more morning's birding to come . . .

Cheers
Mike
 

wolfbirder

Well-known member
love that Thrasher Mike - like a Hoopoe Lark on steroids!
I'm yet to see a thrasher-species frustratingly despite having had 2 trips to North America,

Those geese, what a lovely sight!
 

MKinHK

Mike Kilburn
Hong Kong
Thanks Nick

Wednesday morning just worked - a bit of online research suggested the Martin Luther King Jr shoreline as a good area within a few minutes Uber ride south of my hotel in the port district of Oakland. The sun was rising over the hills behind me, there was little wind, the tide was about forty minutes short of topping out and I'd unexpectedly been dropped right next to a high tide roost just as the waders were arriving. It was so promising I wondered when the local birders, who presumably have a far better likelihood than this random punter of anticipating ideal conditions, would arrive.

Looking out across the water towards Arrowhead marsh and Oakland airport I could see large numbers of ducks, but was immediately distracted by a pair of American Wigeons and five or six Green-winged Teals feeding almost at my feet on the last reaches of exposed mud amongst the tufts of rough grass. As I watched them four regular Canada Geese swam out towards the open water followed by the coolest single goose I've ever seen - a dark, petite and perfectly formed minutaCackling Goose. Having been awed by the large numbers of Snow and Ross's geese yesterday this solitary tiny-billed beauty - appearing all black but for the reduced chin strap and white vent - demurely following its larger cousins out of the shadows and across the still water of the lagoon was quietly, but utterly bewitching. As it emerged the scalloped dark brown of the wings and back became clearer, but it always looked darker than the Canadas, especially across the dark smoky, possibly maroon-tinged breast.

A minute of two later one of the Canada Geese began honking away as if furiously angry about something. As the pic shows it stretched its neck forward and rolled its tongue for the full donkey-bray effect. The pic also shows cinnamon-brown blob behind it in the grass, which I was delighted to realise was my first Ridgeway's Rail - a bird that, following DNA work has been split from Clapper Rail and is considered endemic to the Bay Area Southern California, Arizona and western Mexico.

Cheers
Mike
 

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Scridifer

Registered User
Supporter
Bulgaria
Lovely images Mike, that Cackling Goose is absolutely delightful, I can see why you were so enamoured by it! congratulations on the Ridgeway's Rail too!

Chris
 

MKinHK

Mike Kilburn
Hong Kong
Thanks Chris. It's always special when a bird unexpectedly grabs your attention. I also feel a strong sense of privilege when connecting with a bird that breeds in some impossibly bleak and remote corner of the globe I'll probably never see - in this case the Yukon delta. A bit of digging found these clips from the breeding range on eBird from none other than Josep del Hoyo of HBW fame.

As the waders arrived - a 200-strong flock of Marbled Godwits, 300+ Dunlin, 100-odd American Avocets, a Black Oystercatcher, fifteen or so Willets, 25 dowitchers sp., a scattering of Grey Plovers and Western Sandpipers, and a solitary Greater Yellowlegs - I realised that many of the birds were obscured by the salt marsh grass so I wandered a couple of hundred metres northward to a small promontory that offered a better angle.

On the way I came across California Towhee, White-crowned and Song Sparrows, a flyaway Northern Mockingbird and a wonderful Anna's Hummingbird catching the first rays of sunshine from a prominent twig. As I moved the scope into position to look at the waders a movement at the edge of the water turned out to be a second Ridgeway's Rail, feeding with complete confidence no more than eight feet away! To my astonishment it continued to do this over the next twenty minutes, providing amazing views of what I assumed would be a typically secretive rail.

Cheers
Mike
 

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MKinHK

Mike Kilburn
Hong Kong
The rail was an absolute trooper, and continues a good run of Conference Birding rails that rather improbably includes Bogota Rail and Sora in November, and Plumbeous Rail in Lima in May.

Out on San Leandro Bay I was pleased to find both Black-necked and Slavonian Grebes - that latter identified by the first tinges of red on the neck as well as the traditional well defined cap, and closer in an elegant Western Grebe. They were scattered amongst several hundred Ruddy Ducks as well as a scattering of Greater Scaup and a few Buffleheads and American Coots.

Further investigation would I'm certain have revealed more species, but with my deadline approaching I headed back to the road at Damon Slough Staging Point, picking up California, and Ring-billed Gulls and some sort of gopher on a patch of bare ground, several Yellow-rumped Warblers in a small flowering tree and a House Finch perched on the wires above, before knocking it on the head at 0815 and Ubering back to the hotel and conference land.

Cheers
Mike
 

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