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Sunday, January 8, 2012

In search of the Falcated Duck at Colusa National Wildlife Refuge

A few days ago on the news there was a story about an extremely rare Asian duck that showed up at a wildlife refuge in Colusa, CA. Normally the Falcated Duck is found in China, North Korea, Russia and Japan, but one was spotted in Northern California back in December. Since then bird enthusiasts from as far away as the East Coast have flocked to Colusa in the hopes of seeing this one duck out of the quarter of a million birds that winter at the refuge. This is only the fourth time this species of duck has been seen in California (in the wild). It's unknown if it somehow migrated here or perhaps escaped from a private collection.

We didn't see the Falcated Duck but we did see a Cinnamon Teal

So hubby and I drove up to Colusa in the wee hours of the morning in the hopes of photographing this unique bird. After all, the news said it was seen almost every day near Refuge's observation platform. I was a little bummed that it didn't make an appearance while we were there but I can't say I was disappointed because we did see a Cinnamon Teal. It was gorgeous. I thought it was even prettier than the Falcated Duck. I took plenty of pictures so you be the judge.

Pictures from our road trip.

And when I said wee hours of the morning I meant before the break of dawn. That's right hubby and I drug ourselves out of the house at 6:30 AM on a Saturday morning to drive to Colusa, 2.5 hours north of San Jose.

We arrived at the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge at 9:00 AM.

Entering the Refuge is free, as is parking. Once there you park and walk a very short distance to the observation deck.

This is where I took pictures using my 14-140mm zoom lens.

For the most part I spent the morning to the right of the deck, along the road that leads to it. I thought it was a better location that allowed for nicer close up shots of some of the birds with a very nice backdrop.

While we hoped we would be able to see Mr. Celebrity Duck, he was not around. Probably because though the weather report said it would be 61º that day, it felt like it was 35º with 40 mph gale force winds. It was sooooooo cold and windy most of the birds laid low for the day. I had to put Kleenex in my ears and thank goodness my Yeti hat was in hubby's trunk because I would have ended up with a bad ear ache for sure had I not been able to stop the wind from blowing into my ears.

It was so neat being at the Refuge. I'd never seen Pintailed Ducks before. Here, two pairs of Northern Pintails greet an American Coot. There were lots of coots. They're like the pigeons of the marsh. They were everywhere!

The Pintails were lovely.

The male Northern Pintails have a beautiful blue and black beak.

There were also plenty of Northern Shovelers. They look similar to Mallards but I think they are larger and the males have more white on their breasts and bodies.

There were many pictures I wanted to take but at this point I was so FROZEN I had to stop. I had to get out of the wind so I decided to check out the 1 mile Hiking Trail behind a windbreak of trees.

This is where I photographed all of the ducks you see in this post.

It was a great idea. The moment I stepped onto the trail there was no wind. And with no wind it was actually rather warm. It was amazing how different the temperature felt just a few yards away.

Dogs are welcome to walk on the one mile trail as long as they're kept on leashes.

After warming up during my short walk I headed back to the marsh shoreline and immediately noticed a new bird. . .

What a surprise to see the pale blue feathers on this teal's forewing.

He was small but hard to miss because he was STUNNING. I asked a lady (with a big camera surmising she must be a bird person to have that nice of a camera) nearby if she knew what kind of bird he was and she said he was a Cinnamon Teal. She pointed out that he had a mate and chatted with me about the birds. The male (or drake) was the most beautiful and vivid cinnamon color you can imagine with eyes as bright red as red can be. He alone made the trip worthwhile.

Their large bills are used for skimming the surface of the water for bugs.

His mate was drab, just like a female Mallard Duck but perhaps even a bit more plain. The lady I spoke with is a regular at the refuge and said while the Cinnamon Teal is not an uncommon bird to see there, she and another man were shocked that this pair had come in and lingered so close to shore. They said it almost never happens. Lucky us!

BTW bird people are some of the nicest people around. All day I chatted up whoever was nearby for help identifying the species I was looking at to save me from having to Google for them later on and they were all so nice and helpful.

What do you think? I think while the Falcated Duck might be more rare, the Cinnamon Teal is more beautiful so I wasn't disappointed at all that we didn't see the duck we came to see.

I read teal rarely "tip up," but this pair doesn't seem to know that.

When I Googled to find out the difference between a teal and a duck I learned there are two types of ducks: Divers and dabblers. Teal (along with the well known Mallard) are dabbling ducks meaning they will skim the pond surface or duck their heads just below to forage for food. Particularly the Cinnamon Teal are said to be "skimmers" who don't put their entire heads beneath the surface of the water to feed and don't "tip up." Clearly this pair didn't get that memo. LOL

The diving ducks are larger than dabblers using their extra weight to literally dive deeply beneath the water's surface which means they also have larger feet to propel themselves underwater.

A quick action shot of a duck taking off right in front of me with lots of geese in the background. Oh my gosh there were so many geese. Literally there were thousands of them!

We were cold again and giving up on the Falcated Duck so we decided to hop in the car and take the 3 mile auto tour. At first we didn't realize that you aren't supposed to park and get out of your car. You can park, you're just not supposed to get out. A very nice game warden stopped and told us so the rest of the time I shot photos from the passenger seat and through the sunroof of hubby's car.

This was amazing. I've always wanted to see an egret with its breeding plumage and there it was, a Great Egret standing along the shoreline. He was beautiful! I only wish I had a stronger zoom lens for my camera so I could have captured more details of his showy, plumes.

As we drove along the marshes you could see the Sutter Buttes in the distance. I didn't realize it at the time but they are old, eroded volcanoes.

As we continued along the loop we spotted a huge gathering of white geese. They could have been Ross or Snow Geese. Unfortunately they were too far away for me to be able to distinguish between the two.

And then I spotted the cutest little bird. It was a Pied-billed Grebe that looked like a teeny, tiny duck. But it was so small, like a quarter the size of a Mallard Duck or even smaller. It was floating amongst some vegetation. Soon I spotted another, but the next one wasn't nearly as cute as the first. . .

In fact the next one had caught a fish! And was trying to swallow it whole! Oh my word. It was straight out of Wild Kingdom. I can't believe I was able to grab these photos from the passenger seat of our car!

It was like watching a snake swallow its prey whole only the Grebe eats a lot faster. The poor fish didn't appear to stand a chance of escaping.

Hard to believe I thought these were super cute miniature ducks! By the time this Grebe finished its meal I was thinking they were more like teeny, tiny, velociraptors with feathers!

Not all of the birds were easy to photograph. We saw several Red-tailed Hawks but they were usually obscured by tree branches like this one.

This was another very exciting bird to photograph mostly because it was so camouflaged when I first spotted it I still can't believe I saw it! It's an American Bittern. It was standing in some tall marsh plants with it's beak pointed almost straight up towards the sky making it very thin looking. I'm sure they must hang out near the shoreline around plants like cat tails and reeds which would make the vertical stripe pattern on its neck blend in perfectly with their surroundings.

As we neared the end of the auto tour we also spotted a large bank of bushes, and nestled among them were approximately 30 of these Black-crowned Night Heron. Just like the Cinnamon Teal and the American Coot the Night Heron's also has bright red eyes. I'd seen one before in San Jose but I'd never seen another, let alone dozens all together.

The last bird we spotted on our way out was this juvenile Great Egret just strolling along. I'm guessing its a juvenile because it lacked the elegant and showy plumage the earlier bird had.

After that we swung by the observation deck but still no Falcated Duck so we decided to call it a day.

We drove into town and had lunch at Tommy's Market Grill. I had a delicious vegetarian deli-style sandwich. It was the best veggie sandwich I'd had in a long time. I'd recommend it for sure! I was lucky to be able to take a picture of the interior with no people in it. Just a few minutes later the place was so packed there were people everywhere.

If you want to visit the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge here's how you get there from San Jose.

Their website describes the refuge this way:

"The 4,507-acre refuge primarily consists of intensively managed wetland impoundments, with some grassland and riparian habitat. The Sacramento Valley is one of the most important wintering areas for waterfowl in North America. Colusa Refuge typically supports wintering populations of more than 200,000 ducks and 50,000 geese."

Colusa National Wildlife Refuge - Visit their website by CLICKING HERE
  • The best wildlife viewing time is in the early morning and late afternoon
  • Wildlife observation is best during mid-November - January
  • The refuge is open one-hour before sunrise to one-hour after sunset year-round
  • 4,567 acres, including seasonal marsh, permanent ponds, and uplands
  • CLICK HERE for a list of abundant, common, uncommon and rare wildlife sightings
  • Restrooms are available near the parking lot
  • In the winter dress in layers and bring a warm hat and gloves
  • How to get there from San Jose: Take I-5 to the “Highway 20, Colusa” exit. Turn east on Highway 20. The Refuge is about 6.5 miles on the right. (Note: you will pass the Colusa Hunter Check Station turnoff a few miles before the Refuge.)
Hubby took this picture of me on the Hiking Trail

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