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11-31 October 2002

Part 11:  The Merced NWR Complex

    This had to be one of the most glorious days of the trip!  I planned to do all three driving loops described in the BBB for the Merced NWR complex, but only had time to thoroughly do Merced and San Luis.  But what a place!  I had visited Merced before, but it was miserable and rainy, yet today was bright and sunny, although nippy.  At the info kiosk had Greater Yellowlegs, stilts, and dowitchers noisily feeding away, and in the background you could hear the Sandhill Cranes calling!  Crawling around the auto tour gave great looks at all kinds of ducks (mostly Mallard, Gadwall, Shovelers, and Pintail), and more snipe than I think I've ever seen in one place; there had to be at least 30 birds scattered all over the marsh!  Pipits liked this stuff, too, along with the Killdeer.  The real treat was an American Bittern right next to the road!  He took off just as I snapped him, but what a look! 

 

 

 

 

 

                  

Wilson's Snipe and American Pipit at the marsh

        

L-R:  Sandhill Crane; fleeing American Bittern; Killdeer; Northern Harrier

Basically I got out every mile or so to scan: harriers were all over, and at one stop there were just tons of Tree Swallows swooping around and fluttering all over these little dead trees in the middle of the marsh.  Had a token female Green-winged Teal swim warily by (told by her vestige of a buffy side-butt patch), and great looks at several White-fronted Geese in the sun.  A few Snows were in, but way in the middle of the marsh, along with a small group of White Pelicans.  There were some beautiful Cinnamon Teal hidden away, and had both Virginia Rails and Soras in good numbers, too, although I never actually saw any (BTW, you know the old trick of clapping your hands to get the rails to vocalize?  I discovered that slamming the hatchback door works just as well...)

           

Auto tour route through the marsh hides Great Blue Herons and Tree Swallows

They have a little loop trail called the Meadowlark Trail, so I hiked that; it takes you through a tiny little grove of willows that had lots of American Goldfinches (they were all over both refuges, actually) and an Orange-crowned Warbler that came in to pishing.  Also had several Ruby-crowned Kinglets, one who actually showed me his ruby crown!  A female Yellowthroat popped up, but the best bird was one that I unfortunately didn't get the greatest look at before I spooked it: a hiding Short-eared Owl!  About all I could catch was the fact that it was a stripey owl, but way too slender for a Great Horned, with those dangly legs I've often seen on owls as they take off.

                                       

L-R:  Orange-crowned Warbler; Song Sparrow; Marsh Wren; Ruby-crowned Kinglet actually showing his ruby crown!

Got the token pheasant in the grassy area on the way out, and a Coyote sat in amongst the cattle!  A lone Sandhill Crane stood in the middle of the field bugling, and then suddenly started dancing!  That was great, although odd, as there was no one there to dance for (except me)!

                                   

Savannah Sparrow and backlit Great Egret on the way to the next stop...

Headed on over to San Luis, picking up more White-faced Ibis and Long-billed Curlews in some flooded fields (you wonder why those two like hanging around together so much, kinda like Marbled Godwits and Willets...).  This place was much more quiet (and dry for that matter; several of the marshes were no more than alkaline pits), but saw a family of White-tailed Kites on several occasions, as well as tons more harriers.  Finally picked up a Cooper's Hawk for the trip, although I also had a Sharpie that was giving a flock of Bushtits fits.  This area had a nature trail, too (two, in fact), taking you through much heavier willow riparian areas.  The one at the start of the auto tour was pretty quiet (got some California Quail in here), but the Winton Marsh Trail was great, with more trees to check out: got a flock of magpies on this one!  It takes you around more wetland area as well, where I kicked up a couple of night herons.  This was a good way to see the sparrows up close and personal, too: mostly Whiteys, Savannahs, and Songs, but there was the occasional Golden-crowned in with them, including a stunning adult.  The riparian areas were quite extensive in this refuge, so there were a lot more woodpeckers, mainly Nuttall's and Flickers.  Spotted Towhees liked these areas as well, along with the House Wrens.

           

More cranes and harriers along an unnamed nature trail at the start of the auto tour

      

Scenes along the Winton Marsh Nature Trail (great place for magpies!)

      

Song Sparrow at Winton Marsh  

They have a second auto tour called the Tule Elk tour, which takes you around the enclosure they have for the elk.  There's also a side road for fishing access, and I checked this out as well, hoping there might be a Burrowing Owl out in the fields where all the ground squirrels were.  Got a Say's Phoebe instead; Blacks were all over.  Did get to see the Elk: there were one or two males with huge racks surrounded by his harem of females lazing in the field.  Also had a mom raccoon and her baby in the mammal department.

That was about all I had time for, but I decided to go ahead and finish driving the loop, since I was staying in Los Banos.  The loop takes you up to highway 140 and then over to Santa Fe Grade; little did I know this was a bumpy one-laner through the wetlands!  It basically goes through several gun club properties, but you can stop and peek into the marshes (be sure you're pulled way over, though; it may be skinny, but big ol' pickups still barrel through there).  I couldn't help myself, and ended up stopping for Tricolored Blackbirds, and more duck flocks which added American Wigeon, Blue-winged Teal, and Ruddy Duck to the day list.

Finally made it into Los Banos for the night, and discovered to my delight that there's a Baskin-Robbins right next to the Best Western!

Continue to San Luis Reservoir

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