So on Saturday I led my first birding group, leading 11 on a exploration of Merced National Wildlife Refuge. This is something I’ve wanted to do for a few years, but this is the first year my schedule has cooperated. I did this trip through the Santa Clara Valley Audubon group that I do volunteer work for.

Since this was my first group outing, I wanted very much to make it a success for those coming to visit, so I did a lot of preparation. That included two scouting trips, one three weeks ago and one a week ago, to specifically study what was happening and where to focus our energies. And, of course, I had to hope the birds didn’t just up and leave for their summer grounds before the trip happened.

As it turned out, it was an almost perfect day on the refuge. The outing was scheduled for four hours and we went about five simply because of the time we were spending seeing all of the interesting birds. My final list included 49 species, which I think is quite good for that location, and included a few special birds I was happy we could find, including 6 Tundra Swan, a Sora, a couple of Wilson’s Snipe, a Great Horned Owl (sitting in her nest), a Peregrine Falcon (a very nice surprise) and three Ruby-Crowned Kinglets. We were also able to find a single Cackling Goose sitting on an island in among the thousands of other geese on the refuge. You can see my final species list on eBird.

The stars of the show at Merced, of course, are the Geese and Sandhill Cranes and they didn’t disappoint. The sounds of the geese and cranes moving around the refuge were ever-present. As I arrived early in the morning the massed flocks were all out on the pastures and later were seen all over the refuge.

When we made it to the back observation deck something spooked the geese, and we suddenly had 20,000+ birds in the air, circling and wheeling around and calling. What you aren’t expecting the first time that happens is that you also hear the sound of those 20,000+ sets of wings pounding the air as they push for altitude and fly. Everyone in the group just stopped and watched with these huge grins on their faces.

It looked a lot like the image at the top of this piece that I took on my first visit to this refuge, way back in 2007.And when I was on the refuge for the first time, we were standing on that back observation platform when the geese spooked, and I was hooked. So it was an awesome day for me being able to share that with them the way the leaders of my first trip did for me.

After that, we continued along the auto-tour route to where the corn is being mown, and we found a large flock of Cranes were in close and easy view.

I think overall the trip went well and everyone seemed happy. I think I can do a few things better on future trips — the biggest problem I think I had was not leaving enough room for the furthest back car in the group to get a good view reliably. Once I realized that, I tried to move forward enough so everyone had a good view of the area. Other than that, it went about as planned and as I’d hoped.

I’m happy how things worked; I’m going to plan to do it again next winter, but I should be able to do it with a single scouting trip the weekend before (better to overplan than the alternative!).

I’ve got two more outings planned in the coming months; I’ll be leading big sits for SCVAS during out annual birdathon at Shoreline and a new one down in Coyote Valley at Coyote OSP. Dates and other details as soon as we finalize and publish the schedule.