Gary Zahm did a double-take when he saw an Eastern Kingbird on private pastureland west of Modesto. When he was stationed in Oklahoma and Kansas he saw plenty of these handsome flycatchers, but this was the first he’d seen in California. Though he assumed other birders had seen the species in Stanislaus County, he had the presence of mind to grab a quick photograph with his trusty Canon camera.
Eastern Kingbirds are, as one would expect, an eastern version of our Western Kingbird. A few wander to California once in a while, where they are more likely to be seen on the coast than anywhere in the San Joaquin Valley.
Zahm is an internationally known wildlife photographer, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist, and a respected consultant on water and wildlife habitat. He’s probably best known for breaking the selenium poisoning story on Kesterson Wildlife Refuge back in the 80s, but he was also a prime mover in establishing the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge and its extensive grasslands, among many other career accomplishments.
These days he offers his considerable expertise to duck hunters, nature lovers, conservation organizations, and others who seek to restore and maintain habitat for birds, especially waterfowl and shorebirds. He’s in the enviable position of seeing living results of his work in the form of the many species of birds that visit places he’s helped restore and enhance.
When Zahm alerted some of Stanislaus County’s hard-core birders about last Tuesday’s find, he learned it was the first time anyone had recorded the presence this species in the county. In fact, a quick search of records for nearby counties, including San Joaquin, Merced, Madera, and Fresno counties showed that they, too, had never recorded the presence of an Eastern Kingbird.
In addition to the photograph, Zahm provided written details of his observation, including how the bird appeared while in flight. Rare birds are often confused with more common birds that look somewhat similar, so it is always appreciated by the keepers of local natural history when an observation is supported by photographs and written details.
When Zahm last saw the bird it was flying south. Birds this rare are known as “vagrants” and who knows when or even if anyone else will see it during its wanderings. For Stanislaus County, the Eastern Kingbird is species number 318 on the county’s bird list. For Gary Zahm, it’s all in a day’s work.