A common activity among serious birders is the Big Day when a birder goes out and tries to see as many species as possible in one day.
Yesterday I went out on what I call one of my “long days” — which isn’t exactly a big day, because my focus isn’t on maximum species but on covering a lot of territory and seeing what happens. I do this once or twice a year as a way to get out to the central valley refuges for some intense photography and exploration.
Yesterday’s trip took me north and I started the day at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge near Willows. This is one of the larger refuges in the central valley. It’s also 150 miles from the house, which is why this is the first time I’ve made it to that refuge, and it’s as far north as I’m willing to travel on a day trip instead of scheduling an overnight visit.
I wanted to get up to that refuge to see it (duh!), but also to do some preliminary research on this refuge project I’ve started, and to scope out how much time to plan for the refuges of that complex when I start writing about them. The plan (such as it was) was to start at Sacramento, visit Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, and then if there was time, visit some of the other birding areas in the Sacramento area.
The alarm went off at 5:30, reminding me that I am not a morning person. I minimized how much I annoyed Laurie’s attempt to sleep and got out the door right at 6AM and hit the road. Traffic cooperated, and that got me to the refuge a bit before 9AM. Not a bad start.
I ended up spending 2 hours at the refuge; I could have put in the entire day, but I found it was more interesting from a birding mindset than a bird photography one, so I decided to head south and explore (okay, to be honest. it was a decision of spending the time at Sacto/Delevan/Colusa, or timing things to make sunset at Isenberg. Isenberg won).
The visit was not wasted. There was a large and nervous flock of white geese (primarily snow, I think), 20-30,000 birds that was nervous and flew multiple times in the distance. Being new the the refuge I had no idea how to get in position for decent shots (but having run the course once, now I have a better idea), but it looked a lot like this:
A couple of highlights, either of which would have made the trip worth it:
A beautiful peregrine that sat for a portrait session, which you’ll see once I have time to process the images.
As I was nearing the end of the auto tour, I heard a raptor call, and I was in the middle of thinking to myself ‘That’s not a red-tail, that sounds like a….’ when a full-adult bald eagle sprang from a branch literally 25 feet in front of the car and flew off to go harrass a flock of greater white-fronted geese. Much hilarity ensued, unless you were a goose. The eagle didn’t catch anyone, though, and it flew off to a stand of trees on the far side of the flock and I heard it complaining mightily for a while.
If you’ve never had the opportunity to watch an eagle fly at close range, it’s a stunning sight. I know how big those birds are (seven feet wingspans, 10-15 pounds of bird for the females) but size is one of those things that gets lost when viewing birds at a distance, unless there’s something to compare them to. Seeing one close up like that is just amazing.
A reality of trips like these for me is that they can have many birds, but few photography opportunities, and this trip was about photography. I decided to check out Colusa, which has also had reports of bald eagles. And as it turns out, I had an immature bald eagle flying in a field about two miles west of the refuge as I was heading in, but not in the refuge itself. I think I made the right choice skipping Delevan, as someone I talked to said there were lots of birds and some good activity, but it seemed to be fairly distant. I really do need to get back up here for a weekend so I can schedule in fly-in and fly-out times and some extended exploring, as well as add a visit to Grey Lodge, but not going to happen this year. Next year I want to plan a trip up into Tule Lake and Klamath, so maybe I’ll do this area as part of the trip home by adding a day or two to the trip.
Colusa has both a big pond with an observation platform and an auto route. The platform can be awesome for flight shots, especially of Greater White-Fronted Geese:
and the same was true of this visit, but I found I wasn’t really getting images I didn’t already have, so I hit the auto tour — the problem wasn’t the birds, but the wind, which was blowing into our faces, which meant the birds were landing and taking off with butts facing the platform. I’m just not a big fan of photos of bird butts for some reason…
The auto tour was a lot like Sacramento — lots of birds, interesting action, but little real photographic opportunity. I finally realized I needed food, so I headed out, refilled the car with gas, refilled myself with munchies, and drove south to Cosumnes and Staten Island. Cosumnes River Preserve is an open space area patched together with land owned by seven different organizations (including the Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited and various governmental departments) and under joint management for various purposes including acting as a winter refuge for various bird species including geese, sandhill cranes and ducks. Staten Island is one of the delta islands now owned by the Nature Conservancy and leased out for farming and managed to act as wintering acreage for sandhill cranes and other species; one of its more notable residents are large flocks of cackling geese. Both are notable birding areas near Lodi and well-known to birders and one of the reasons why Nature Conservancy is one of the organizations I donate to every year.
Staten Island is also a location that’s been targeted as a drilling point and construction staging area as part of the currently-being-argued-over California water tunnel plan. This is despite the Nature Conservancy’s objections. Allow me to defer discussion of that particular issue for today, but trust me that it’ll be back soon.
Staten Island is a working farm which birders have access to. There’s about a five mile road down the middle with fields on both sides; half of that road is gravel. In the winter, the fields are set up to be used as feeding areas for the sandhill cranes and there are pastures that are popular with the cackling geese. there are also areas set up to be usable by shorebirds and some duck habitat. It is for me one of the more reliable places to find Tundra Swans as well down in the parts of the central valley I haunt.
It did not disappoint, a couple of thousand cacklers and about a thousand cranes were hanging out.
(you can title that image “hey, we just thought we’d stop by and help fertilize your pasture. you mind?”)
I wandered Staten Island, took some shots, but nothing better than what’s already in my collection. For some reason there were zero shorebirds (not even a killdeer) and few ducks. I did have a nice opportunity with a small mixed flock of cacklers and greater white-fronted feeding at the end of the road, and even got the car in place for some shots, but for reasons only geese can explain, driving a car up near the flock was okay, but turning off the engine spooked the entire group and they all took off and headed elsewhere. Kind of summed up my day.
So I wandered off to Consumnes. When I got to Cosumnes I realized I was going to start losing my light, so I cut my stop there short and merely ticked off a couple of teal species I’d missed further north, then headed out to Isenberg instead. Isenberg Crane Refuge is another area near Lodi, located on Woodbridge road. Isenberg is a converted gun club acreage, and the entire road is working agriculture which in winter helps support the cranes and geese, but be aware that if the farmers are working to stay out of their way.
Isenberg is most famous for the evening fly-in. The sandhill cranes spend their day in the fields around the region, but this reserve is set up to act as a night roost. Cranes sleep in shallow water as a predator protection, since any predator trying to reach them has to walk through the water and will make noise. This means the birds fly out at dawn to forage and fly back in the late afternoon and evening to roost together and sleep.
It’s also a place that can show off one heck of a sunset.
So I put away the camera, hauled out the camp chair, sat down and decided to just watch the show. I wasn’t disappointed. The fly-in started somewhat slowly, but we ended up having about a thousand cranes fly in, plus large flocks of snow/ross’s geese, a couple of thousand cacklers, greater-white fronted and even seven tundra swans came in, long after the light dimmed beyond decent photography, so my hope for flight shots of tundra swans will continue to a future visit…
stats for the day: 450 miles driven, 14 hours out on the road, half of that driving, half on the refuges. 300 shots taken (a low number for a day like this). Keepers? too early to tell, but some that make the trip worth it. 62 species, 14 year birds, and a nice (if long) day out away from email, work, and all that other stuff… But having said that, doing the Sacto/Colusa area as a day trip from silicon valley is not one I expect to do too often. That’s right on the edge of my range of “too much fun” for one day…