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Rare Visitors Brighten Audubon Christmas Count

The Valley Citizen - January 5, 2013

Two rare birds were spotted in the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge. The Refuge is a major restoration project of River Partners since 1999.

Above: The Vermilion Flycatcher (Wikipedia)

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.


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.

Read the full article here.