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All The Ducks!

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On a recent birding trip to Merced National Wildlife Refuge, I tallied up a list of sixteen different species of ducks.  Only a few more species, around twenty in total, are expected in the Central Valley of California's freshwater marshes during the winter, so I consider that to be an excellent day for ducks! North American ducks are broadly separated into two categories, largely based on their methods of foraging for food.   Dabbling ducks , also known as "puddle ducks," tend to frequent shallow water, where they are commonly seen tipping bottoms-up to feed on plant matter and invertebrates in the water and on the muddy bottom.  They are most at home in water, but walk easily on land as well, as their legs are positioned near the center of their bodies.  The wings of dabbling ducks are relatively large, which allows them to take off from the surface of the water, straight up into their air.  Dabbling ducks almost all nest on the ground, near water.   Diving ducks are

The Case of the Missing Rough-legged Hawks

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Most of the time, I am prompted to write about birds and other wildlife that I have encountered recently while out and about exploring.  Today, I am writing about a bird precisely because I haven't seen it recently, or at all this entire 2023-24 fall-winter season. Rough-legged Hawks are special birds in California's Great Central Valley, and certainly one of my favorite raptors.  For one, they are simply gorgeous hawks.  But they're more than a pretty face: They are incredible migrants and amazingly hardy, nesting on cliffs and rocky outcroppings in remote tundra, boreal forest and alpine regions of the Arctic, where they spend the short summer breeding season feeding on lemmings and voles.     But every winter, the world's entire breeding population of Rough-legged Hawks leaves the Arctic behind to migrate south, where they spend the colder months feeding on the rodents of open habitats across much of the U.S., including prairies, fields, shrublands and semi-desert r

Birding in Adverse Weather Conditions: Wind and Rain

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Though I often extol the virtues and merits of winter in the Central Valley , especially when it comes to birding, the whole truth is that we experience "bad" weather also, just like anywhere else.  But even when the winter weather rolls in, the birds are still out there!  And sometimes, despite our best planning efforts, a birding day happens to coincide with crummy weather.   In that case, what's a birder to do?  Usually, we go birding anyway!   Birders far more intrepid than I regularly brave the ice and snow of northern winters to see their favorite birds, so perhaps you should look to them for real tips on winter birding!  For those of us in the valleys of California, the worst weather we see - wind and rain - is really comparatively mild.  Birding on an extremely windy day! I don't know of anyone who actually likes birding in the rain.  But I would argue that birding in the wind is just as aggravating as trying to bird in the rain!   Wind can be utterly infuri

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and the Gray Days of Winter

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Winter may be a cold and dreary time of year across most of North America, when trees are bare and skies are gray, but here in California's Great Central Valley, winter is an excellent time for birding and exploring the woods and wetlands close to home.  Because despite the cold, the birds are out there in abundance! Last week, while birding at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge, I was delighted to encounter quite a few Blue-gray Gnatcatchers out and about along the trail.  These little dynamos were out in force all day, calling emphatically from the shrubby growth as they flitted actively from twig to twig. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher These little birds' small size (they're only about four inches long), active habits and predilection for staying deep in their shrubby habitat can make them difficult to get good looks at, much less photograph!  (Just take a look at how unsuccessful I have been in the past !)  But this guy was pretty cooperative, moving about and foragi

A Conservation Success Story in the Making: California Brown Pelican

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With all the less-than-great news floating around out there these days about the future of the environment in general, and birds in particular, it's refreshing to pause and reflect on the success stories the world of conservation has seen in the fifty years since the implementation of the Endangered Species Act in December of 1973. While human activity has undoubtedly caused bird populations to decrease drastically in that span of time, (and sadly those numbers may continue to drop) conservationists across North America have managed to make some pretty incredible changes for the better for a number of species as well.  The Endangered Species Act has protected over 1,600 species in its fifty-year history, and is credited with saving nearly 300 species from extinction.     The California Condor is one such example, a species that would be gone today if it weren't for the incredible work of a massive team of researchers and conservationists.  Other success stories include those