Fall birding at Colusa

On the 26th of November, our family took a trip to Colusa National Wildlife Refuge. This nature area is in northeastern Colusa County, California and has over one million ducks and geese in winter. From where I live in Sacramento, the drive takes about 1.5 hours. On finding the correct exit and getting off, we discovered it still takes 20 minutes to get to our destination on surface streets. When we were finally on the outskirts of the refuge, a male Ring-necked Pheasant darted across the road directly in front of the car, down into a field and out of sight. We had not thought we would see any unexpected birds before we had even entered the refuge.

As soon as I opened the car door and looked outside, I knew there would be more surprising birds just around the corner. Half a dozen birders stood on a wooden platform overlooking a scene of flocks of ducks and geese. Each birder sported a high-quality camera mounted on a tripod and was photographing the shovelers, wigeons, and pintails only a few yards from the shore sitting on half-submerged logs or swimming with others of their species in and out of grass patches. Just behind them, stilts searched for food with their needlelike beaks drilling into the dirt just under the water, and in the distance, on the surface of the water, Snow and Ross’s Geese settled together in flocks of thousands.

These were spooked often, usually unintentionally by passing cars or airplanes that fly low to spray the tick-filled environment. They were said to jump from Colusa National Wildlife Refuge to Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, another amazing place to bird, when they were frightened by eagles and falcons looking for a meal. When they all flew into the air this time, it seemed like they were going to fly back to their breeding grounds in Alaska. Hundreds of thousands ascended into the air as the biplane buzzed into the middle of the flock stirring them up. A few birders aimed their cameras at the enormous billows of birds, but most continued looking at the ducks.

Photographing the waterfowl was simple, they usually stay well away from people, but these individuals were very tame. They sat in rows along logs, rocks and even in the water. Oddly, not even the teals minded the cameras pointing at them or the people observing them. According to the photographers, One very tame Eurasian Wigeon often sat on the ground directly in front of the platform, but at this time, it was not there.

The male Green-winged Teal shows off his green feathers hoping to impress the female.

Finally, after taking some last photos, we left the observation platform to drive on the auto tour road. The dirt road took us to Gilsizer Slough which passed through the reserve. Dense shrubs grew on either side of the slough. An undulating power line hung over the murky water.  Then I saw two birds on the power line, as we got closer, I could see the field marks white throat, a breast band, and a crest of indigo-colored feathers. They were Belted Kingfishers. A second rufous breast band confirmed that both were females. I wondered how they were able to see any fish through the brownish water. As we inched closer to get a better look, one took off flying quickly toward a part of the power line further down the road. Halfway to its destination, it rattled its distinctive call, then it decidedly landed on the distant part of the line. A few more feet and the second kingfisher took off like the first, but toward a field on the opposite side of the slough. I looked down again in time to see two male Ring-necked Pheasants hurry away from the road and into some brush on the other side of the slough. The kingfishers finally chose to fly to the wire behind us so the car would not pass them again. We were able to continue our tour of the refuge.

One of the two Belted Kingfishers hunting from the vantage point of the telephone wire.

The road then curved away from the slough, and White and Golden-crowned Sparrows flushed into roadside vegetation as the car drove past. We had entered a different habitat as was proven by these scrub-loving songbirds. Next to the road on the left was a short, open field and at the end of this stood tall reeds shielding the view of the water from onlookers. On the right, a large square-shaped expanse of open water with few plants made the perfect surroundings for American Coots trying to find greenery to eat.  I looked up and saw thousands of Snow Geese flying in formation over the protected area. I guessed they were heading for another refuge to lodge for the night. Just then, a large, brown bird flew over the road ahead of us. It was a female Ring-necked Pheasant.

Apparently, there were lots of them here. I had only seen a few individuals before, but they are common here, like any bird, because there is more good habitat. Where I live in Sacramento, there are only one or two places to find them annually.

First introduced in 1881, these European game birds have since spread from Port Townsend on the Washington coast to all of North America. The first populations, supported by boatloads of others brought in the following years, grew rapidly from 60 birds to millions. They are now an established species in North America and popular with hunters.

Many of these protected bird sanctuaries are also hunting grounds. I wondered if this one was suitable for that purpose because the unstinting population of sizable birds was one of the largest in California.

Then another Ring-necked Pheasant that we had missed earlier raised its head from the canal it was drinking from to reveal its iridescent golden, bronze, green and blue feathers with exposed red skin underneath each eye. It also seemed to have missed us as it became alert and started walking away from us. I rolled down the window and took a series of pictures as the pheasant walked past the car and started to walk into the reeds, but stopped and looked at us. After some time, we decided to continue on the road.

This Ring-necked Pheasant did not run away, so I was able to observe it more than the others.

Finally, just around one more curve, the road extended back into the parking area with the lookout. Most of the original birders were still there, but some had gone. I looked once more for a Eurasian Wigeon, but not seeing any, we decided to go back to the picnic area to have lunch.

After eating lunch in the car, we consulted what to do next which resulted in the conclusion of going back to Sacramento to spend the rest of the day doing activities around that area. As we left, I hoped to bird here again to learn about and observe other species undisturbed in their natural habitat.

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