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Celebrating Life: Happy Easter!

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 Life.   As a naturalist, it's what I study.  Biology, ecology, the environment, the entire natural world around us: it's all about life.  And there is no better season to celebrate new life than spring, as buds break open, wildflowers bloom, the hills turn green and adorable baby animals pop up all over the place!   Life is being resurrected, miraculously reborn, all over Creation! On Easter, Resurrection Sunday, it is appropriate to celebrate this new life.  But let's not forget the One who makes it all possible, the One who paid the penalty and defeated death, once and for all, so that those who believe in Him can experience both abundant life now and eternal life in the future. Jesus tells us, "I am the way and the truth and the life."  (John 14:6) This spring, this Easter, as you celebrate new life, remember our Creator and Savior, the One who gave us life, sustains life, and offers us the gift of eternal abundant life with Him and through Him.   In Him is li

Spring at San Luis NWR

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It is a wonderful time of year, probably the best time of year, to be a naturalist in the Great Central Valley!  Spring has arrived, bringing with it ample sunshine and mild temperatures, and the wild lands are leafing out and bursting forth with new life.  Rainfall was low this year, so the wildflower displays won't be anything above average, but the flowers are certainly out there, blooming away and making the most of their short growing season. On the bird front, this is a time of great transition, a changing of the guard as overwintering birds begin to depart for their breeding grounds, and birds that have been absent, wintering in Central and South America, begin to return.  At the end of March, we are perched right on the brink of that delightful time in the birding year known as spring migration. A year-round marsh resident, this Red-winged Blackbird shows off his impressive red epaulettes.  A couple of days ago, we spent a beautifully warm, sunny day out at San Luis Nationa

Hermit Thrush: Ushering in Spring

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While it may seem like I've spent most of my birding time in the past few weeks concentrating on sparrows, the truth of the matter is, when out in nature one never knows what will turn up - and every wildlife encounter is special!  It seems that nearly everywhere I've looked this winter I have found Hermit Thrushes, quietly going about their business in the underbrush.   The particular individual featured here popped up in front of me while I was birding around the campus at Stan State the other day, allowing me to snap a few decent photos.   Though brown in color, plain and drab at first glimpse, I think the Hermit Thrush ( Catharus guttatus ) is one of our most beautiful birds, with its large, liquid eyes, equal parts soft and expressive, and completely endearing spotted breast.  Anthropomorphizing, the Hermit Thrush brings to mind adjectives like shy , quiet , and gentle , one of the introverts of the avian world, a true kindred spirit! Like other thrushes, the Hermit Thrush

Rare Birds: A Harris's Sparrow in Yolo County

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The sparrow streak continues!!  After the White-throated Sparrow on Sunday and Clay-colored Sparrow on Tuesday, I thought I had a good chance at seeing yet another lifer sparrow, a Harris's Sparrow that has been seen reliably since its discovery on February 22 near Putah Creek, in Yolo County.  Eric and I were able to take the day yesterday to search for this continuing rarity, as well as explore a couple of birding hotspots in the area that I have been wanting to see. Once again, I owe this find to the good folks on eBird, fellow birders who have kindly described the exact location of this rare Harris's Sparrow.  For the last couple of weeks, it has been seen daily, foraging on the ground along a small country road on the campus of UC Davis, beneath a row of olive trees.  Specifically, beneath the first three olive trees at the south end of the row, on the east side of the road!   We arrived at the spot just as a Sharp-shinned Hawk shot off like a bullet through the understo

Rare Birds: A Clay-colored Sparrow in Stanislaus County

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Since I wrote earlier this week about the tendency for unusual sparrows to stick around in the same area for a number of days, thus making it fairly easy for birders to re-find them in subsequent searches, it seems fortuitous that a Clay-colored Sparrow, rare in California, was discovered by a local birder over the weekend.  The bird was seen for three days in a row, loosely associating with a flock of Chipping Sparrows, to which Clay-colored Sparrows are closely related, at the entrance to Creekside golf course in Modesto.  On the fourth day, Eric and I had some free time in the morning, so we scooted up to Modesto (a 25 minute drive away) with high hopes of spotting this rare bird and would-be lifer. Happily, we were not disappointed! When we arrived at the "sparrow spot," which had been well described on eBird by other birders, the trees and lawn were absolutely swarming with small passerines: Yellow-rumped Warblers by the dozen, Western Bluebirds, Pine Siskins, three Purp

A White-throated Sparrow on a Sunday Afternoon

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California is home to over 400 species of breeding birds, with another couple hundred seen regularly during migration and winter, making it first in the nation in terms of avian diversity.  (Texas, it must be noted, is a close second!)  But that doesn't mean we quite have it all, here on the West Coast!  There are plenty of species exclusively found in the East, and even more that are considered common birds in the eastern United States, but only occasionally turn up here in California or are present seasonally in relatively small numbers. The White-throated Sparrow ( Zonotrichia albicollis ) falls into this category. Every winter, a comparatively small number of White-throated Sparrows, which are common in the Eastern U.S. and Canada, find their way to the West Coast, and a handful turn up in the Central Valley.  But until yesterday, I had yet to see one in my own county, Stanislaus.   The neat thing about sparrows is that, although they might be considered a confusing group of l

Grasslands Ecological Area: A Wetland of International Importance

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Last February, I wrote a bit about the plight of wetlands worldwide , their many values, and what is being done to protect and restore them.   Today, as spring begins to unfold across the Great Central Valley, I'd like to introduce you to a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance , right here in Central California: Grasslands Ecological Area. But Grasslands Ecological Area is not just any wetland of international importance: This is my home wetland!  And don't you think we should all have our own home wetland, a quiet patch of marsh to visit, take pride in, connect with, and protect? My relationship with Grasslands Ecological Area started some twenty years ago, when my parents began taking me out to the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge on weekends to wander and roam, exploring the trails through wetlands and grasslands in search of wildlife.  (There's a great photo of my eleven-year-old overall-clad self, sitting in the mud at marsh's edge, grinning and pointing to