A Christmas Lifer

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.

The White-winged Scoter, a nonbreeding adult male.

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.

One of the Turkey Vultures flew up and sat on this snag when it saw me approaching.

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.

This is an immature Glaucous-winged Gull. I think the others in the photo are the same species.

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.

These Barrow’s Goldeneyes were seen from the same walkway that I saw the White-winged Scoter from.

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 wooden ridge in the water waiting for the fish to come near. It looked like a past visitor had left the door open and a Green Heron had found the fish. I made sure to close the door when I left.

This Green Heron was stealing fish from the fish hatchery.

When I looked for the scoter again, it was in better view. I watched it for a few more minutes, then it was time to go. The Scoter had been my 280th life bird and seeing it on Christmas Day had made it even more special. Also, seeing some other birds that live in this unique habitat was a good opportunity to observe them in their wild condition.


6 thoughts on “A Christmas Lifer”

  1. The photography on your website is amazing!!! I learned so much about birds from this one blog post alone. Keep up the great posts.

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  2. I learned so much reading this post. Thank you for taking the time to put this together. The photography and illustrations are just beautiful.

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  3. Hello Ronan, my mom read about your recent award in the school newspaper…. CONGRATS!!! We’re students at the same charter. Oh, by the way, I’m Aury. I’m 12 years old and your work is a total inspiration. I love your illustrations. My favorite birds are the Stellar’s Jay, Rock Pigeon, and Scarlet Tanager (though I’ve never seen one in real life). You’re super talented. Keep up the good work!

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  4. Hi Ronan, my name is Bowen. I’m Aury’s little brother. 🙂 I think what you do is really cool. I’ve been studying animals and some of them have been birds: the eagle, owl, duck and sparrow. I’ve also gone birding with my mom. I love your photos and drawings. Your journal is amazing too! Congratulations on your award! My favorite bird is the Peregrine Falcon.

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  5. It was very nice to meet you and your dad today at Bridgeway Lakes while we watched the Garganey.
    We’ll see you again in the field and upcoming bird conferences, like Western Field Ornithologists annual meeting, this year in August in Albuquerque.

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