Riding the Bluebird, seeing the geese: Migrators star in Audubon Society bus trip
Winter is a prime time to watch birds in the Central Valley. After autumn breeding, millions of migrators pour down the Pacific Flyway, stopping to feed and rest en route to southern climes.
On Dec. 9, Dan and I joined about 25 other birders on the Sierra Foothills Audubon Society’s annual “bird bus” trip to flooded rice fields near Marysville. We boarded a big yellow Bluebird at the Penn Valley Park and Ride with birders of all levels, ornithologists to novices, like Dan and me.
Through a bullhorn, leader Jim Groeser promised that we would see “tons of birds – into the thousands, tens of thousands, 20,000 big birds. This trip is a good way to get started in birding.”
He pointed out the road to Spenceville Wildlife Area with its 80-plus nesting species, the most in California for an area its size. As we passed the road to the University of California’s field station, Groeser said SFAS had posted 30 bluebird nest boxes there. He pointed out Canada geese, which “feed in short grass, not in ponds like other geese.” The beginners’ binoculars swiveled to each red-tailed hawk spotted on a phone wire.
Our first stop was off Loma Rica Road and part of the 10 square miles of rice fields that SFAS has persuaded farmers to keep flooded to save riparian nesting and feeding areas. Excited cries were emitted when we saw our first expanse of tundra swans and heard their deafening, high-pitched, kind of goofy yodeling.
The huge – up to 52 inches long – birds fly from Siberia to arrive in the Valley at around Halloween. Their peak numbers are Thanksgiving; by the middle of this month, only one-seventh of the migrators are still here. The big migrators’ average cruising height is 20,000 feet; tundra swans have been spotted at 29,000 feet over Ireland.
Back on the bus, we turned onto Woodruff Lane and saw our first snow geese in flight. The large waterfowl migrate from Wrangell Island northwest of Russia’s Bering Straits. Groeser pointed out their distinctive “flight silhouette” – “They have a different flap from the swans.”
Here we saw the colorful remains of a pheasant kill, plus coots, harrier and red-shouldered hawks, and white-fronted geese. An egret flew over with its prominent keel and yellow legs trailing straight out behind. As exciting as our first glimpse of the swan masses was the first bald eagle sighting of the day.
All binocs were turned on a big, non-moving duck until Groeser pronounced it a decoy: “We’ve been looking at plastic ducks!” We craned our necks up a small creek with trees filled with eerie, roosting black-crowned herons. Groeser said, “Last week, we saw a great blue heron here with a rat’s head in his mouth. We came back 15 minutes later, and he still couldn’t get that head down!”
At another flooded field, we saw northern pintail, shoveler and merganser ducks. Through Groeser’s spotting scope, we saw our second bald (“He’s hunting ducks”), and Dan found a nest of abandoned goose eggs. Groeser reminisced. “Last year, we saw 200 white-faced ibis in one big mass here.”
The bus spooked kestrels, meadowlarks, kingfishers, pippets and yellow-billed magpies. Because of their highly restricted range, people come from all over the country to add to this magpie species to their “life lists.” Groeser said, “Marysville is known as the crow capital of the state – it has more crows per acre than anywhere else.”
We looped around on Loma Rica back onto 20, then onto Hallwood Road. Groeser observed with a chuckle, “We just went by a pigeon – in the book here, they call ’em ‘rock doves.'” At a fruit stand, our last stop before heading back to Grass Valley, I hopped a barbed wire fence alone to get closer photos of swans. Shortly, they sensed my presence and wheeled away in a great white mass “like a snowstorm in reverse,” according to Tim Cullinan, director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society of Washington state.
As we headed back to the Park and Ride, Groeser mused, “My favorite time of day down here is sunset. You see kind of a golden color that reflects off the backs of these swans – it’s fantastic.”
BECOME A BIRDER
Sierra Foothills Audubon Society meets the first Thursday of every other month. The next meeting is Feb. 1. Call 432-1243 for membership information.
Pat Devereux is a copy editor for The Union and a member of the Nevada County Hiking Club. Contact her c/o The Union, 464 Sutton Way, 95945, or at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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