Once a year I lead a group out to Merced National Wildlife Refuge for Santa Clara Valley Audubon. Originally this trip was scheduled for January, but due to the government shutdown we had to move it later. Despite that, On February 23, seven birders joined me and we spent over 4 and a half hours along the auto-tour route, and the birds put on one heck of a show for us.

My final species count for the day was an amazing 56 species. The stars of the show, the geese and cranes were there in large numbers and put on a great show for us. My estimates were:

Ross’s Goose; 25,000+
Snow Goose: 5,000+
Greater White-Fronted Geese: 2,500+

Sandhill Cranes: 3,500+

The flocks made multiple mass flights for us. My guess from the repeated panic flights is that we probably had an eagle hunting the flocks, but we never saw it while we were there. We were able to locate and get good looks at a Blue Morph Snow Goose, and we found a few Sandhill Cranes already sporting their breeding colors. A nice bonus was a couple of short dances by a couple of cranes.

We ended the day with eight duck species: Northern Shoveler being most common, followed by Gadwall. Also seen were a few Northern Pintails (but the main flocks are clearly gone for the year), Mallard, American Wigeon, Canvasback, Bufflehead, Ruddy Duck, as well as Green-Winged, Cinnamon and Blue-Winged Teal.

The only Grebe found was the Pied-Billed Grebe, and only 2 of those were seen. No sign of Eared Grebe, which continues to be hard to find in the region this winter.

A big highlight was four Great Horned Owl, one on a nest, and a pair roosting together in a very distant tree.I also located another distant nest which had the look of a Great Horned type nest but who’s resident wasn’t an Owl. After much examination, I finally eliminated golden eagle and decided it was a red-tail standing on the edge of the nest — but the nest was significantly larger than red-tails build, so this seemd like a borrowed, not a built nest.

The commonly seen bird there were in good numbers, including Coot, Black-necked Stilt, Killdeer, Great and Snowy Egret (the latter showing early flocking and signs they’re moving into breeding mode), and Great Blue Heron. White-Faced Ibis were seen in small numbers. A few American avocets were seen in the shorebird flocks, some in full breeding color.

Other shorebirds seen included Long-billed Curlew, Dunlin, good numbers of Least Sandpipers and Long-billed Dowitchers, a few Wilson’s snipe, and a single Greater Yellowlegs.

There were only two gulls visible on the refuge, one that insisted on sleeping and never showing us our head, so it was lefts without an ID (but possible Herring or California), the other also sleeping, but with good looks at its back it showed the gray color instead of the black that indicated Glaucous-Winged.

Hiding inside the geese flocks we did find a group of American White Pelicans.

Raptors included five White-Tailed kites, two pairs interacting with each other. We also saw the fifth come in and argue with one of the birds in one pairing, only to be driven off. Also seen were a single Northern Harrier, multiple red-tailed hawks and American Kestrels.

Smaller birds seen included two Loggerhead Shrikes, one which sat up for good extended views, many Black Phoebe and two Say’s Phoebes, multiple loud Marsh Wrens, one of which sat up for some of the group for decent looks, Northern Mockingbird, American Pipit, and a pair of Ruby-Crowned Kinglets out near the back observation platform that were almost cooperative. We also had small flocks of Tree Swallows hunting the waters.

Sparrows included large numbers of White-Crowned and a couple of flocks of Golden-Crowned, Savannah sparrows (both younger birds showing no yellow and a few with strong yellow washes) and for me the catch of the day, a Lincoln’s Sparrow skulking in the reeds near the back observation platform (I also saw what I believe was a second along the route but didn’t get a definitive look).

Other birds seen included Mourning Dove, European Starling, House Sparrow, Yellow-Rumped Warbler, both Red-Winged and Brewer’s Blackbirds, and Western Meadlowlarks.

My ebird report is here: https://ebird.org/shared?subID=UzUzMDY3MzU2&s=t

I got there early, along with one of the other attendees, and that gave us some time to study the pond at the front observation platform. That added two species for the day above at Merced, House Finch (which hid the rest of the trip) and a Sora that occasionally popped out and then ran back into the reeds.

As far as I can tell, a good time was had by all, and I had a great time leading a great bunch of folks and showing off the refuge at its best.

After we broke up, I headed over to San Luis NWR to see what I could find and hopefully photograph the Tundra Swans, so of course I found zero swans there. I did add some species to my list for the day travelling the Waterfowl tour: Double-Crested Cormorant, Green Heron (a nice suprise), Turkey Vulture, Belted Kingfisher, California Scrub-Jay, and Song Sparrow. I closed the day in the late afternoon with a quick drive through the Elk tour and ended the day adding three more species: California Towhee, Northern Flicker and
my final bird, a Cooper’s Hawk.

Being able to get the group onto 56 species and ended the day with 67 on my own list, I have to declare the day both a lot of fun and a great success, adding 18 species to my personal year list.

Pictures? Leading a group, I need to focus on the group, so while I carried my camera, I never turned it on, even after we broke up.. it was nice to unwind after and just enjoy the birding. We did have a couple of really good photographers in the group, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they put online (and I’ll share it when I see it).