Sandhill-cranes by-Tommye-Hite IMG 3823 web

Sandhill Cranes, Photo by Tommye Hite

Sandhill Crane Field Trip Pixley and Kern NWR

By Jim Moore, Field Trip Leader

Sandhill-cranes by-Tommye-Hite web

Sandhill Cranes in flight, Photo by Tommye Hite

23 birders gathered at town of Earlimart at 7:00 a.m., Saturday, February 15, 2014 for a full day of birding the southern San Joaquin Valley in search of local specialties.  Many had spent the night before in nearby Delano while a few early birds carpooled from Castaic, leaving at 5:30 a.m.  Earlimart is about 30 minutes north of Bakersfield on Hwy. 99 and was the beginning of full day trek taking us westbound to Interstate 5.

Pixley2-group by-Judy-Matsuoka web

Pixley by-Judy-Matsuoka web

Pixley, Photos by Judy Matsuoka

Even with our severe drought, there are still several water impoundments throughout the valley, mostly to support agriculture; however two support the Pixley and Kern refuges.  Pixley is 6 miles west of Earlimart, entered by a small dirt road to the north, marked by a small sign, often overlooked.

Pixley is known for its population of Sandhill Cranes. And, even before reaching the refuge we begin to hear the eerie gargling of the cranes, who, right on schedule were gathering in the alfalfa fields just short of the entrance. The refuge staff estimated that 6000 cranes wintered there this year and we had close up looks of at least 3000 flying overhead or foraging in the alfalfa fields.

group-of-cranes by-Thomas-Hinnebusch Web

Group of Cranes, Photo by Thomas Hinnebusch

Burrowing-Owls by-Thomas-Hinnebusch Web

Burrowing Owls, Photo by Thomas Hinnebusch

Besides the cranes, we saw two Snow Geese and a large number of Canada Geese also foraging the fields, and enjoyed the sight of a Burrowing Owl on the way in.  We took a mile walked from a parking area at the entrance past a flooded field to a viewing platform overlooking a large water impoundment which held a large number of birds.

All together we saw 48 species at Pixley.  Most notable were a large flock of Greater White-fronted Geese flying overhead, at least 40 Dunlin, and good studies of the bicolored morph of the Red-winged Blackbird.  It is found only in the San Joaquin Valley and is distinguished by showing only its red epaulet, without a yellow edge.  And, as a final bonus, on our way out we encountered two more Burrowing Owls which gave a good photo opportunity from a 20 foot distance.

On leaving Pixley, we caravanned west, stopping at a water impoundment near Alpaugh, and then onward to the turkey ranch north or the Kern refuge, to search for an early Yellow-headed Blackbird.  We were not disappointed, find one among a large flock of Red-wings and European Starlings.

Our next destination was the Kern NWR, located east of Interstate 5, northeast of Lost Hills.  The refuge includes a long auto tour route allowing good views of several water impoundments, some shallow to support dabbling ducks, and some deeper for divers.  The refuge includes a visitor’s center with flush toilets, open during the week (but apparently not on Saturday) and picnic tables where we took lunch.

The auto tour route is fantastic, particularly in the early afternoon when visibility is best and there is less chance of fog.  We had good looks at 45 species, including a flock of Greater White-fronted Geese, a photo close-up view of a male Redhead, several common gallinules and a couple of Peregrine Falcons.

Our final stop was the Tule Elk Reserve State Park, west in Interstate 5, south of Lost Hills.  On emerging from our cars we were greeted with a herd of eight bucks, grazing near the viewing platform.  Also seen were pairs of Great Horned Owls and Burrowing Owl.  Bill Moffat, the site manager, gave us and overview of the reserve and took us on a driving tour inside the refuge.  He mentioned that a Varied Thrush had been hanging around his house and we capped off our trip by getting good looks at the end of the tour.

Greater-Yellowlegs by-Thomas-Hinnebusch web

Greater Yellowlegs, Photo by Thomas Hinnebusch

We tallied 72 species, during a long day.  This is a highly recommend winter trip for intrepid birders who don’t mind leaving Los Angeles County.

Sunset by-Thomas-Hinnebusch 

Sunset,  Photo by Thomas Hinnebusch

Western Tanager Vol. 80 No. 5 May/June 2015