Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

A Panoply of Wetland Birds

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A Panoply of Wetland Birds
March 2-4, 2021
Merced National Wildlife Refuge, Merced, California

Although I went to Merced Wildlife Refuge specifically seeking the great wintering flocks of Sandhill Cranes and Snow/Ross’s Geese, I was also hoping to catch sight of the numerous other birds drawn to the Central Valley wetlands. The abundant damp grasslands, the stretches of shallow waters dotted with cattails and reeds, and the mowed agricultural fields are all attractive to many birds.

Driving through the wildlife refuge is, at times, an odd experience since you are instructed to stay in your car. There are only a few places where you are allowed to park and walk around. Here humans are restrained and, in a sense, caged, while the wild creatures are given free rein.

The car acted as a convenient blind where I could rest my camera on the ledge of the open window. I drove slowly, very slowly, with my camera safely in my lap, repeatedly lifting the heavy telephoto lens to the window when I stopped at spots with good views. It took me 3-4 hours to drive the 5 mile loop.

Below is a selection of photos representing most of the birds I identified. I chose the best photos of each. A few birds I have only subpar images but I still included them to prove I actually saw these birds. Some other birds were not photographed. I believe the total number of ID’d birds came to about 50 species. At least seven were new to my Life List.

Additional birds sighted but not photographed:
• Yellow-rumped Warbler
• Northern Harrier
• Loggerhead Shrike
• Ruby-crowned Kinglet
• Great Blue Heron
• Mourning Dove
• California Gull
• Least Sandpiper

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The Sandhill Cranes of California

The Sandhill Cranes of California
March 2-4, 2021
Merced National Wildlife Refuge, Merced, CA

I’ve known about the Sandhill Crane migration for a long time, having seen remarkable photos of the vast flocks gathered along the Platte River in Nebraska. Cranes filling the shallow waters, cranes along the muddy banks, cranes feeding in the corn fields nearby, cranes darkening the sky.

The first Sandhill Cranes I ever saw was during our year long drive around the US in late 2012 to late 2013. Cranes had gathered in the dunes at Padre Island National Seashore in Texas but I never got a good look at them. I could hear their continuous eager friendly calls as if they were consistently excited to see one another. I could see them – barely – in the distance, landing and taking off, jumping and hopping in their courtship dance.

A few weeks later I got my first up-close and personal look at a Sandhill Crane at Alafia River State Park in Florida. A few cranes calmly patrolled the campground, walking through with regal aloofness and little fear. This was a real treat! While driving south along the Florida coast we spotted a Sandhill Crane family, parents and chick, strolling through the parking lot of a Walmart, giving the impression that they, like many American families, shopped there. (See photo below.) These Florida cranes are non-migratory, spending the whole year in the wet warm climate of Florida.

But I did not know until I’d been in California a few years that there was also a major Sandhill Crane migration through California. In central California the cranes spend a few winter months in the vestiges of what was once vast wetlands, resting and feeding, before returning to the far north to breed. Only recently did I finally witness these large seasonal gatherings.

Merced National Wildlife Refuge (northeast of Los Banos, CA) is one of the many preserved wetlands where the Sandhill Cranes stop over. I traveled there in early March 2021 to see if they were still in residence, along with the huge white flocks of snow geese and Ross’s geese. To my delight I saw thousands of birds.

With 90% of the Central Valley’s wetlands gone to development and agriculture what we can witness now is only a tiny fraction of what the migratory bird population once was.

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A Pandemonium of Sea Otters

A Pandemonium of Sea Otters
June 2020
Moss Landing, CA

A few months ago, earlier in the pandemic, I was exploring one of my favorite haunts, Moss Landing, CA. This area has several wonderful beaches, an expansive harbor, and it leads to a large tidal estuary, Elkhorn Slough. It doesn’t disappoint when it comes to sightings of shore birds and marine wildlife, although I never know exactly what I will see at each visit. Season, weather, tides and time of day all influence the appearance of the diverse ocean-loving creatures.

Not surprisingly, one of my favorite animals to see (and photograph) are the sea otters. Usually, however, they are not close to shore so I view them, lovingly, from afar. On this day, I stumbled on a raft of resting, grooming, squirming otters gathered in a kelp bed right next to the rock wall of the harbor entrance channel. What a delight! I could get within 20-30 feet of them and watch their behavior and shenanigans. It is interesting to note that despite appearances, otters are not social animals (except for moms and pups) but gather to find safety in numbers. A group of otters is officially called a raft, but I prefer my own term, a pandemonium of sea otters.

Below is a slide show of still photos and a video of otters in action (Warning: includes some graphic otter pooping!)

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