Winter had just begun and so had the rare birds in Sacramento. A late Western Tanager had been observed eating fruit, its winter diet, in a backyard and a Band-tailed Pigeon had gotten lost on the American River. But the most unusual bird listed today was a White-winged Scoter who felt at home on the Gold River near Nimbus Fish Hatchery.
This scoter had been reported nonstop since the 15th of December. And today, nine days later, as I checked the most recent rarities seen in California, sure enough, the White-winged Scoter was on the list. It was likely that the surrounding flocks of black and white goldeneyes that were also reported closely resembled the large rafts that dozens of scoters form on open ocean. Also, there are lots of tasty fish who cannot get past the dam conveniently placed just down the river.
For these reasons, the bird had been seen regularly every day. Most birders went to see the scoter as soon as they could because it could leave unexpectedly during the following weeks. I hoped we could take the time to see it before it flew off to rejoin its flock.
The next day was Christmas morning. We unwrapped gifts and opened our stockings, and after breakfast, we decided to go to the Stake-out. Once there, I walked across the parking lot and down the stairs to the salmon run from where the river could be seen. I did a quick scan, but the only birds visible were a few mergansers and lots of goldeneyes. I hoped the Scoter had not left yet and walked to the end of the path to look upriver. Then I saw it. Underneath the Hazel Bridge, swimming near the opposite bank of the river, was the White-winged Scoter.
It was an unusual duck. It looked larger than the goldeneyes and was almost black. There was a white “nike swoosh” behind its eye and a thin white patch on its wing. On its bill was a black knob which added to its strange appearance. Needless to say, this duck was very different than the others; but it was clearly built for seafaring. Like most seabirds, it lacked vertical height while swimming and was streamlined so the rough sea wind would not have much effect on it. Also, its strong bill helps it catch and hold slippery fish.
I took out the camera and took a few photos. Then, I observed it as it swam and dove with the other ducks. I then noticed a walkway leading underneath the bridge at a higher elevation than the path I was currently on. I followed it to its start, at the entrance of the parking lot, then, I walked on the path to where it curved around the base of the bridge. From there, I could see lots of birds.
An island made of gravel was in the middle of this part of the river. Turkey Vultures sat on piles of rocks on the ground. A group of gulls perched on rocks jutting from the water around the island and a shallow stream separated one side of it from the rest. Low grass and bushes grew on the banks of the stream. I stayed on the path and found that what looked like an island was actually a peninsula. The path led to the spot where it meets the shore. I walked onto the gravel peninsula and saw why the vultures were there. Dead fish were scattered on the ground. I guessed the raptors were scavenging the remains of the gulls’ past meals. I looked at the gulls closer, hoping to find a different one. Then I saw the field marks I was looking for; monotone wings, pink legs, and a speckled head. These marks identify a Glaucous-winged Gull.
This species is pretty uncommon in Sacramento County. It winters irregularly in the area. The places to find it have many birds of the same family, a clean water source and is visited infrequently. This place had all the features necessary to attract Glaucous-winged Gulls.
Another species that relies on this habitat is the Barrow’s Goldeneye. I had seen a flock of these resting on the stream earlier and they were, now that I was closer to them, swimming away into the mass of goldeneyes that had formed 10 yards away from the tip of the peninsula. This was a good chance to compare both species.
The male Barrow’s Goldeneyes had a white comma-shaped patch on its cheek and a purplish sheen on its head. The male Common Goldeneyes had a circle patch on its cheek and its head had greenish iridescence. The male Barrow’s Goldeneyes had thick black streaks on its back, but the streaks on the Common Goldeneyes were thin. The female Barrow’s Goldeneyes had a yellow bill, but the female Common Goldeneyes had a mostly black bill.
As I walked back up the path toward the parking lot, I heard a familiar “Rek? Reka! Rek?” I looked up into a leafless tree and saw on an exposed limb, an Acorn Woodpecker hitching to the tip of its branch. Then I heard another woodpecker answer its calls, “Rek? Rek!”. This one was somewhere in a tree with lots of leaves. I took a picture of the one in view and hurried back to the parking lot.
That is when I noticed a large cage with a wire door in it. I went in and saw hundreds of young fish swimming around in rows of troughs filled with water. There were so many that lots of splashes came out of the water. This was where the hatchery put all the baby fish to eventually release into the river. But as I looked down one trough. I saw a strange bird. I looked at it through my binoculars. A Green Heron sat on a