Most people wouldn’t give the shallow pond out near the San Joaquin River west of Modesto a second glance. But from a bird’s eye view, it’s like a table set with a holiday feast.
That’s why there were Black-necked Stilts, Greater Yellowlegs, and Long-billed Dowitchers feeding along its margins on December 30, when two participants in Stanislaus Audubon Society’s annual Caswell-Westley Christmas bird count came upon the site in the middle of property normally closed to the public.
The Stilts, Yellowlegs and Dowitchers were part of the “background” experienced birders learn to expect in proper habitat. There were also Black Phoebes hawking insects from low perches around the pond. One bird though, stood out.
Its behavior was like that of the Black Phoebes, but it was chunkier, with a broader head. Rather than the elegant black and white bibbed pattern of the Black Phoebe, its upper breast was dull white with dark smudges along its sides. The lower belly was a very faint yellow. The bird pumped its tail constantly.
One birder immediately recognized the strange bird as an Eastern Phoebe. The first count record had been established only last year, when Modesto’s Joe Devine had a banner day near Laird Slough by adding two first count records, including the Eastern Phoebe and the first Stanislaus County record White-winged Dove. Now the Caswell-Westley Christmas Count had another Eastern Phoebe, only the fourth recorded occurrence of this species in Stanislaus County. As it turned out, the Phoebe was not the only improbable visitor to the busy pond.
The Stanislaus Audubon volunteers were counting birds on portions of the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge and private property, much of which had been dedicated to conservation easements. The Refuge was established to provide wintering grounds for the Aleutian Cackling Goose. Once reduced to a population of less than six-hundred individuals, the current population numbers around 80,000, proof positive that the Endangered Species Act can have spectacular results.
Delighted as they are with the return of the Aleutian Geese, local nature enthusiasts are equally pleased with the expansion of the Refuge. Working with willing land owners, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has developed the Refuge through a program of purchases and conservation easements. The result is restoration of wetlands, grasslands, and the riparian forest that once typified Valley wildlife habitat.
The Christmas Count covers a “count circle,” a circle of territory with a fifteen mile diameter. Participants typically are assigned a segment of the circle. Stanislaus Audubon Society joined the national count, which is now in its 114th year, in 1975.
Rare birds are especially appreciated on Christmas Counts because they increase the possibility of a high number of count species. As the birders followed the Phoebe’s darting flights in hopes of getting a photograph, the bird covered the pond in increasingly wide arcs, feeding on the abundant insect population.
After several minutes, one birder split away from the chase in order to look for more birds elsewhere, while the other continued to stalk the Eastern Phoebe. At one point he lost track of the bird, and began scanning reeds and branches near where he’d last seen the bird. Seeing a flutter of movement, he followed it to the low-hanging branch of a bare cottonwood tree.
As he focused his binoculars, his initial thoughts were that the Phoebe appeared to have more yellow than he’d noticed at first, but he soon realized the bird he’d found wasn’t the Phoebe. This bird was tiny, barely larger than a dandelion, with a yellow lower belly and short, thin bill. It had thin streaks along its upper breast.
Racing through his mind’s inventory of images and field marks, the birder began considering the statistical odds against finding two extremely rare birds at the same small pond within a huge Christmas Count circle. At that point the Eastern Phoebe flew onto the same low-hanging branch as the as yet unidentified bird.
As one part of his mind told him the odds were statistically impossible, another part told the disbelieving counter that he was looking at a female Vermilion Flycatcher and an Eastern Phoebe in the same tree on the same pond on the same day, which just happened to be the day of Stanislaus Audubon Society’s annual Caswell-Westley Christmas Count.
Weighing in at half an ounce—the weight of your average Christmas card—Vermilion Flycatchers normally reside in southwestern deserts and southern tropics; they are very rare in northern California. The iridescent red male glows brightly even on overcast days, and almost every San Joaquin Valley record has been of a male, probably because the females are drab and tiny and hard to see. Stanislaus County had previously recorded only one occurrence of the Vermilion Flycatcher, some twenty-five years ago.
Eastern Phoebes breed in the north eastern United States to Canada, and generally winter south to Mexico. Texas is the westernmost state of their normal range. Out-of-range birds like the Phoebe and Flycatcher are prized by birders because they offer opportunities to add to the birders’ lists of birds seen and recorded, which are the way birders keep score in their birding game.
Out-of-range birds also add to scientific knowledge as they are often indicators of climate change, environmental disturbance, and habitat destruction.
Science aside, the miracle of bird migration is one of the more inspiring events on the planet, and the presence of tiny birds countless miles from their normal ranges bespeaks a wonder that tells us we have yet to discover all there is to learn from birds and nature. The Vermilion Flycatcher and Eastern Phoebe somehow negotiated torrential downpours, mountain ranges, high winds and freezing temperatures to rendezvous at a location designed to encourage and preserve the wonder of birds.
At the end of the day, it turned out the Vermilion Flycatcher and Eastern Phoebe did indeed push the Caswell-Westley Christmas Count toward a record, as did the many birds recorded by volunteers from other locations. Count compiler Harold Reeve’s preliminary total was 141 species, which tied the previous high count. At last report he was scouring late tally sheets for species that might have been recorded but not yet included in the final countdown.
Record or not, the Christmas Count, now a global event, adds an exciting dimension to the winter holidays, as well as provides a huge and important scientific data base. And for the lucky birders who saw the Vermilion Flycatcher in the winter light of the setting sun, the yellow glow of the bird’s one dab of color shone as brightly as anything in the tropical south.