Winter offers birding opportunities in the Central Valley
By water birds I mean those that are attracted to marshes, ponds, lakes, rivers and coastal areas. Winter is a good time to see water birds in Plumas County and nearby areas.
When attempting to identify water birds on Lake Almanor, Sierra Valley, the Quincy water treatment ponds or the ponds east of the La Porte Road it is useful to have a spotting scope with 20 to 60 times magnification. Some places provide a closer view of water birds such that they can be identified with birding binoculars that have only eight times magnification. One such place is Hansen’s pond located at the north end of Quincy Junction Road just before the junction with Chandler Road. This winter I have seen hooded mergansers, ring-necked ducks, American wigeons, mallards, American white pelicans, tundra swans, great blue herons, great egrets, Canada geese and a greater white-fronted goose on or near this pond.
Recently I had a splendid afternoon birding in the Yolo Wildlife Area. I discovered that many water birds can be identified in this area using only birding binoculars. I will describe how to get there because the websites I checked are not clear on this point. Drive west on Interstate 80 from West Sacramento toward Davis. After you reach the causeway take Exit 78 to Road 32A, turn right at the T and then go under the highway and immediately turn left onto the levee to enter the wildlife area.
A six-mile-plus auto tour loop takes you around the wildlife area enabling you to use your car as a bird blind in that the birds stay close to the road as you drive slowly by. In addition there are walking trails.
The ponds were very shallow and I saw many shorebirds. There were large flocks of black-necked stilts that looked solid black when flying in one direction and then solid white when they turned in another direction. A flock of long-billed dowitchers in winter plumage were probing rhythmically through the water into the mud in a shallow pond. There were many killdeer and some greater yellowlegs foraging in the ponds. A whimbrel casually walked across a levee just in front of my Land Rover.
There were many dabbling ducks including northern shovelers, northern pintails, American wigeons, cinnamon teals, green-winged teals and mallards, which most of the time had their bottoms in the air. There was a small flock of tundra swans that were sleeping.
I saw wading birds including several great egrets, which are commonly seen along the roads of the Sacramento Valley, and a snowy egret. There were many gulls.
Several northern harriers were patrolling at low altitude and then diving into reed islands to catch prey. An American kestrel was hunting on the levees and a belted kingfisher was searching for food in the ponds.
On my return to Quincy, I visited the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, which is to the west of Highway 99 near Gridley. This wildlife area differs from the Yolo Wildlife Area in that it has some deep ponds and many more bushes and trees, which attract some different types of bird species. It also has an auto tour area and several walking trials. A spotting scope is very useful when birding this area because some birds stay far away at the center of the deep ponds.
I saw many snow geese and a few greater white-fronted geese. I saw some of the same dabbling ducks I had seen at the Yolo Wildlife Area and also many gadwalls and some diving ducks, such as ring-necked, buffleheads and ruddy ducks, that prefer deep ponds.
The trees provided roosting places for turkey vultures and many hawks. Most were red-tailed hawks but I also saw a beautiful red-shouldered hawk.
Warblers are now returning to northern California and I saw several Audubon’s yellow-rumped warblers in the trees and bushes in the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area. At Parking Lot 18 I found a rarer form of the yellow-rumped warbler — it was a first-winter male Myrtle yellow-rumped warbler that is more commonly seen in the eastern United States. A major difference between adult males in breeding plumage is that the Audubon has a bright yellow throat, whereas the Myrtle has a white throat. The first-winter male Myrtle yellow-rumped warbler that I saw was all white from the throat, along the chest and belly and under the tail with only a few black streaks on each side of the chest and at the end of the tail. I watched this bird for about 40 minutes flitting in flycatcher manner up in a tall tree and I was only able to clearly identify it when it flew down to a low bush and I saw it had a yellow rump.
My overall assessment is that the Yolo and Gray Lodge wildlife areas provide excellent opportunities for birding at this time. Their habitats are sufficiently different that they attract some different types of birds and thus are both worth visiting. Plan on staying a whole day when you visit either of these wildlife areas. You will have the opportunity to see many different water birds and also other types of birds such as hawks — you might even see an interesting warbler.