A Non-Carbon Free Week in the Southern Central San Joaquin Valley

It has been far too long since I added a species to my Carbon Free Big Year. One reason for that dearth of species is that I have not personally been carbon free. I just returned from a week visiting friends and family in the great central valley. I had the great fortune to go birding at a wonderful location in Tulare County. On May 7th, My brother Rob and I set out for a morning of walking in and around The Creighton Ranch Preserve. This privately owned piece of land is located out in the middle of the south central San Joaquin Valley. In that area, it is quite simply the last large swath of “close to natural valley habitat” that still exists. With a lazy meandering river running through it, gigantic Valley Oaks and a wonderful mosaic of natural habitats as part of its character, this spot is a natural magnet for migratory and breeding birds. We started early in the morning and walked the entire area. The instant that we entered the preserve, it was obvious that something “was up”. As Swainson’s Hawks soared overhead a Lazuli Bunting flew alongside the car and stopped, adorning a bush with its “Caribbean” head and “terracotta” breast. Great-tailed Grackles and Tricolored Blackbirds flew by, leaving the preserve to forage in the limitless cotton fields that stretched out in all directions, ocean-like, to the horizon. Once we climbed out of our carbon producers, it was apparent that the last nights migration was a busy commute and the rest stop for this event was this large island of natural habitat. Birds seemed to be everywhere! We were seeing species of interest at all times. Willows were filled with Wilson’s and Yellow Warblers while Black-headed and Blue Grosbeaks were singing all around us. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet and a Dark-eyed Junco were late migrants while Wood Pewees and Olive-sided, Dusky and Ash-throated Flycatchers perched conspicuously snapping up insects in the cool morning air. A flock of 8, (of the more than 40 seen that day) male Western Tanagers blasted by as Bullock’s Orioles flew by in small groups. While looking at a Swainson’s Hawk that was passing over at a few hundred feet, I noticed a dot of a bird that was much higher. Putting the scope on the lofty mystery bird, which was itself another Swainson’s, I was surprised to see a “speck” that was even higher! And this bird was a speck in the stratosphere!!! A Black Swift was cutting a quick and steady path across the valley and was making incredible time as it pumped steadily west at a truly remarkable altitude! Rob called “Townsend’s and several Warblings”. I turned to see a Cassin’s Vireo as well as a Chipping Sparrow. House Wrens sang from the understory as several Swainsons Thrush called from the thicket with their watery, “bloip-bloip”? calls. Flocks of Whimbrel and White-faced Ibis added to the mix as Cinnamon Teal, Redheads and even a pair of covert Canvasbacks worked the edges of the slow moving river. “Off the hook” would describe what we were experiencing! Glancing this way produced Cedar Waxwings and a Willow Flycatcher resting at eye level, looking that way were still more Buntings and Blue Grosbeaks, suddenly a boldly patterned White-throated Sparrow popped up, one of a hand-full of valley records I have ever had the pleasure of laying my eyes upon. It was warming up and was time to go.

We drove a short distance near the town of Corcoran where several large ponds laid exposed in the valley sun. Still more avian discoveries laid before us as Wilson’s and Red-necked Phalaropes along with breeding plumage Dunlin, Western and Least Sandpipers and Long-billed Dowitichers fed actively. The always cute Snowy Plovers dashed and froze, dashed and froze while several Semipalmated Plovers stood very still. Black Terns flew buoyantly by on wings scimitar wings as Caspians, the grand daddy of the Tern family sat in the sun or copulated. Rounding one pond, we were stunned and pleased to see two Ruddy Turnstones, a bird typically encountered on surf pounded rocks of the coast. Breeding plumage Eared Grebes floated in large rafts and numerous Cattle Egrets moved back and forth between the “cells”. Shrikes and a Burrowing Owl worked the fence rows as Kingbirds snapped up dragonflies. My brother and I soon parted company and I needed to make my way back home to Bolinas, but not before connecting with my best friend, John Silvas for some more birding to the west of Corcoran. I met John at an impossibly desolate spot on the earth where any type of plant is the exception and not the rule. Fortunately this desolate intersection actually had some buildings that I would assume were housing for farm workers. Surrounding the well worn, sun bleached houses were a scattering of trees, bushes and one very productive Bottle Brush bush. Once again it was “migrant mania”. A Wood-Pewee, Tanagers, Kingbirds, Orioles, a male Lazuli Bunting, many Wilson’s and Yellow Warblers, and 2 very late White-crowned Sparrows came in to check me out. John showed up and off we went to “The South Wilbur Flood Area”. These massive cells each averaging 1 mile square were a cornucopia of diversity. In addition to many more of previously mentioned species, we enjoyed American White Pelicans, Clark’s Grebes, Forster’s Tern and simply grand numbers of birds like Ruddy Duck, Coot and Redhead. After an hour or so of poking around “The Wilbur”, we parted company and I headed west and toward Hwy. 5 and a long drive home. Twas a great day that I will not soon forget!


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