Harriers in Action

As we were leaving the Merced National Wildlife Refuge, we spent at least fifteen minutes watching three Northern Harriers demonstrate how they got their name. Usually Harriers will move on once they spot you, but these three must have been hunting something special because one by one they buzzed the same brushy area, totally ignoring us.

Despite their appearance these are not shots of the same bird, but I chose to put them in this order because they all seemed to be harrying above the same shrubs. The first shot is a classic ID shot, with that distinctive Northern Harrier head.

Here the Harrier seemed more intent on scaring something into running than actually catching something.

After a few minutes of hovering, this Harrier moved on,

but was closely followed by another Harrier that seemed to have spotted prey in the same bushes.

Once a Harrier dove into the bushes my camera had a very hard time deciding what to focus on.

While the ultimate shot is of the hawk actually catching a prey, this didn’t happen in the fifteen minutes we sat taking pictures; everyone of them left empty-clawed.

With the considerable number of rabbits and ground squirrels nearby in much more open areas, both Leslie and I wondered what the heck they were trying to catch. I wondered if these were young hawks who were still mastering their hunting techniques, particularly since I’ve never seen Harriers this close together before. That led me to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology where I discovered that “In winter, Northern Harriers roost in groups on the ground.”

Back to Merced NWR

Not only did I see the Snow Geese I missed at the Sacramento NWR at the Merced NWR, I also got to see Black-Necked Stilt that hadn’t arrived at Sacramento yet. Unlike the Snow Geese, they were spread throughout the refuge. I got some nice closeups of individual stilts foraging in the shallows

and some nice shots of small flocks hanging out with some Yellowlegs.

Of course, it only took two nervous stilts

to spook the flock.

Photographing birds is always a delicate balancing act as I want to get good shots but I don’t want to stress out birds, particularly at this time of year. As it turned out, I hadn’t even seen the two stilts that spooked the stilts I was photographing.

Expected and Unexpected

I used to see Pied Grebes a lot when I visited Waughop lake regularly, but I was reminded how seldom I’ve seen them lately when Leslie insisted that we weren’t seeing a Grebe at Spring Lake. She was sure that this little guy was too small to be a grebe, and it’s definitely smaller than all the other grebes we’ve seen recently. This one was a Pied-Billed Grebe in non-breeding colors

while this one we saw a little later was in breeding colors.

I was really looking hard for Acorn Woodpeckers at Spring Lake, and not finding them, but in the process of looking for them I found this Pileated Woodpecker,

a bird I often see at home but have never seen at Spring Lake before. Strangely, I think this is the closest I've ever gotten to one.

I’d almost given up hope of seeing an Acorn Woodpecker on this visit when one

flew right overhead, landing on a tree right next to me just as I was getting ready to leave for the last time.

As I was following it from tree to tree, I caught sight of an even rarer bird for me, this Oak Titmouse.

I’m always amazed at how many birds can be found at Lake Ralphine and Spring Lake despite the large number of people who walk there throughout the day.

Almost Like Home

Our recent whirlwind trip to California included a quick stopover in Santa Rosa which gave me a chance to walk around Lake Ralphine and Spring Lake and see some birds I haven’t seen recently here in the Pacific Northwest.

A Scrub Jay confronted me as I was walking down to the lake.

Although I had hoped to see the Green Heron I’ve seen there many times in the past, I was satisfied to take this Snowy Egret’s picture instead.

Unfortunately, Spring Lake was still recovering from recent flooding, and I wasn’t to able access many of the areas where I commonly see Green Herons and Night Herons. As a result, I saw less birds than usual.

When we returned to Lake Ralphine two swans that I’d seen out in the middle of the lake had moved closer to shore.

Perhaps my favorite shots of the day, though, were these shots of a female Common Merganser,

a male Common Merganser in breeding plumage,

proving Dan Gurney was right when he told me a few weeks ago that I could see them in California even if they were still rare here in the Pacific Northwest.

Colusa Great Egrets

Since discovering the Colusa NWR, we try to stop there after visiting the Sacramento NWR to check on the Night Heron rookery. Things didn’t go quite as planned this year, though. We had read about California’s heavy rains, but we didn’t get a real first-hand look until we headed toward Colusa where we discovered the road blocked by a semi that had gotten too close to the edge and sank in the weakened shoulder. After a officer directed us around the accident, we saw a car that had apparently tried to cross the flooded highway and ended up submerged in the canals next to the road. At the refuge we discovered the road tour was closed due to flooding.

All was not lost, though, because the field leading up to the refuge contained more Great Egrets than we have ever seen there, probably because much of their nearby hunting grounds were covered in water. Egrets stalked the reeds on the far side of the field.

Bolder Great Egrets hunted the grasslands next to the road.

This one came so close all I could get was a head shot with my 400mm lens,

only flying off when I had overstayed my welcome.

Since we seldom see Egrets in the Pacific Northwest, I wasn’t too disappointed in not seeing many other birds.

I Couldn’t Ask for Anything More

Although it’s the Harlequin Ducks that draw me back to Ft. Flagler and Port Townsend year after year, I’m also attracted by the shorebirds, like these Black-Bellied Plovers in non-breeding colors.

It’s the only place I see Brant regularly,

though they can be found throughout the Puget Sound during the winter.

I see Belted-Kingfishers nearly every time I visit Theler Wetlands, but none of them are nearly as accommodating as the one at the Fort Worden marine center.

Throw in an excellent restaurant or two, a few art galleries, and yarn and bead stores, and that’s what I’d call a special weekend.

Mergansers Flirting

I know I posted something like this last year when the Hooded Mergansers frequented the Port Orchard Marina, but I’ve been observing it for years and it still fascinates me. I first observed it in Goldeneye ducks, but apparently it's fairly common in ducks, though it took me 70 years to notice it.

I sure wish I spoke Merganser because I can never quite figure out the scene. I just know this a common way males try to attract the attention of a female that has caught their attention.

This is actually the first time I’ve ever seen a female mimic the actions of the male.


They actually seemed to be talking to each other,

and I thought this might be the beginning of pairing.

I was less sure of the supposition, though, when two other females started following the male after his display, while the original female moved back with a glassy-eyed look.

POSTSCRIPT: My friend John tells me that the one that looks like a female Merganser is probably an immature male, as indicated by the dark beak and yellow eyes. In which case, he's probably learning how to flirt rather than being the object of the flirtation.