October at San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge

Autumn is upon us, that glorious season marked by the return of so many long-absent friends.  While we have bidden farewell to many of our last warm-weather friends, those birds who leave the Central Valley to spend the winter in the distant tropics, a whole new suite of avian life is arriving on our doorstep.  

I've been fortunate enough recently to be able to spend a couple of days out at one of my favorite local haunts, the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge, wandering the looping trails, watching the birds (and counting 70 different species), while soaking in the warmth and golden glow that is autumn in the Valley.  

Sandhill Cranes fly low over the wetland at San Joaquin River NWR.


Sandhill Cranes have arrived, their distinctive croaking trumpet call carrying on the wind and echoing across the wetland.  Flocks of White-faced Ibis number in the hundreds, intermingling with conspicuous Snowy and Great Egrets.  Noisy shorebirds, like Greater Yellowlegs and Black-necked Stilts, call across the water, and the strident cry of the Killdeer is never long absent.  Mallards, Double-crested Cormorants, American White Pelicans and the occasional small group of Caspian Terns fly by overhead, on their way to a pond of deeper water nearby.  Tree Swallows dart and swoop overhead, snatching mouthfuls of insects on the wing; these iridescent aerial wonders are our only swallow species to stick around through the winter in considerable numbers.  Meanwhile, clouds of chattering Red-winged Blackbirds lift off from one stand of tules, only to descend on the next.

A lone Great Blue Heron stalks in the shallows.


Long-billed Dowitchers probe methodically in the mud, while tiny Least Sandpipers scurry mouse-like across mudflats.  To see secretive Soras, Virginia Rails, Wilson's Snipes and Black-crowned Night Herons, look carefully along quiet, reedy wetland margins.  Great Blue Herons stalk the shallows for fish and other prey, their tall, thin form blending in with vertical vegetation. 

Great Blue Heron


And sometimes, on-lookers are lucky enough to see the master spear fisherman at work!

A successful catch!


Willow-lined wetlands are prime habitat for a number of small songbirds.  Marsh Wrens chatter incessantly to defend their territory, while Common Yellowthroats call and sing from the tules, their song lacking something of its spring fervor, but recognizable nonetheless.  Yellow Warblers, which will leave our Valley for warmer climes very soon, forage actively through the willows, accompanied by flittering Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Orange-crowned Warblers and Bushtits.  Song Sparrows favor this habitat as well, and sing throughout the year.  To me, theirs is the song of the marsh.  

Wetlands lined with tule reeds, cattails and willows are excellent bird habitat.


Newly arrived in the Valley from their breeding grounds in mountainous forests, Hermit Thrushes forage quietly and inconspicuously in the brush.  Berry-producing shrubs, like elderberry, are good places to look for these more subdued but oh, so beautiful relatives of the bluebird.  While the song of the Hermit Thrush is one of my absolute favorites, don't expect to hear it at this time of year; during the winter, listen for the thrush's soft tchup call.

The subtle beauty of a Hermit Thrush blends into the branches of an elderberry.


Check the oak, willow and poplar trees for several species of woodpeckers: both Nuttall's and Downy Woodpeckers are frequent, along with Northern Flickers and the occasional Red-breasted Sapsucker.  Northern Harriers course over the marsh, Red-tailed Hawks soar above the grasslands, White-tailed Kites and diminutive American Kestrels hover before dropping down on their prey, and Red-shouldered Hawks call from high in tall riparian trees.  Furtively scuffling in the leaf litter below coyote brush and wild rose, look and listen for Spotted and California Towhees, California Thrashers, California Quail, Bewick's Wrens and Fox Sparrows. 

A Fox Sparrow doing what Fox Sparrows do: scratching in the leaf litter.


In the open, shrub-dotted grassland pockets of the refuge, be on the lookout for even more sparrows!  White-crowned, Golden-crowned, Lincoln's and Savannah Sparrows are regulars in these parts, along with Lesser Goldfinches and Western BluebirdsBlack Phoebes, our dashing tuxedo-clad year-round resident flycatchers, sally out from their position on a twig to nab a passing insect, before returning to their perch with a characteristic bob of their tail.

Golden grasses and fluffy clouds of autumn.


The wild lands around the Great Central Valley are waking up after a quiet summer, bursting to life with the arrival of millions of migratory birds that rely on the Valley for overwintering habitat.  Autumn is just the beginning of the Valley's best season for birding!

Click here to see what winter will bring to the refuge, and here to come with me on a springtime birding walk around the San Joaquin River NWR!

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