Saturday, October 2, 2010

Bulletin #123 – Carmel CA Lagoon Preserve - rails etc

David McDonald Photography
Friendswood Texas 
October 2, 2010

Bulletin #123 – Carmel CA Lagoon Preserve - rails etc

One of my favorite places to bird on the central California coast is the Carmel River Mouth and Lagoon Nature Preserve. This area has a nice freshwater lagoon and marsh as well as a great beach on the ocean. I have birded here often and was here again in September.

What makes it special for me is the ability to see 2 rail species in the marsh. Rails have a special fascination to birders. Like owls, they are very difficult to find and see well. The Black and Yellow Rails are 2 of the most difficult birds in North America to see.

I have seen Soras and Virginia Rails here on previous trips and photographed them, but this time I wanted to spend some time and really get a good look at them and their behavior.
The best time to look for them is at dawn and dusk. They usually aren't out in the open during the day as there are many people on the beach with children, dogs and lots of noise. For photography, late afternoon is best as you have the sun at your back. When the water is low in the lagoon, as is usually the case, there are several patches of sand exposed at the edge of the marsh and the rails walk out of the reeds into the open.

If you have heard the expression 'thin as a rail', it pertains to these birds, who are so thin, that they walk between the reds in a marsh with ease.
Over the course of several trips to the lagoon, I saw 6-7 Soras and probably 3 Virginia Rails with 2 visible once.

This Sora (Porzana carolina) crossed to the beach where I was standing and walked to within about 15 feet from me. Soras are IDed by the brown body and short yellow bill. He is a non-breeding adult plumaged bird by the small amount of black on his face. They are about 9" long.

As you may know rails do occasionally swim. I have only once seen this with a Clapper Rail last December in Texas. Well on this trip, I saw a Sora swimming on 5 occasions, so it isn't a rare event by any means. Here is the same Sora swimming back to the marsh.

Here is another in the late afternoon sun. 

And for you artists, who like to paint birds with reflections, here is a Sora and his double. 

The Virginia Rail (Rallus limicola) is less common there and this was my first time to see them repeatedly in the open. I was even able to take about 90 seconds of video of him walking along the sand. It is IDed by the brown body, long red bill and size of 9.5". This one was in perfect afternoon light. 

When something would startle the rails, they would immediately run into the reeds and disappear. Well something upset this one and he extended his wings. I didn't know I had even gotten this photo until reviewing them later. 

I watched their feeding habits while taking their pictures. The short billed Soras just dabbed at the water's surface or the sand. The longer billed Virginia Rail probed deeply and even submersed his head like a dowitcher or Stilt Sandpiper.

Again, I was able to get a photo with a nice reflection of this rail. 

 Many other expected marsh birds were there as well. Here is a juvenile Kildeer (Charadrius vociferus). It is a juvenile by the beige edging of the brown feathers.  

Here is a Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca). He has a long beak that is slightly upturned. The upturned beak distinguishes him from the Lesser Yellowlegs. 

The usual warbler to be found in marshes is the Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas). This warbler is olive backed with a bright yellow throat and breast. There are no wing bars. The male has a beautiful black facial mask. I call him the Lone Ranger. One of these males was repeatedly out on the sand foraging. 

As this lagoon holds the only fresh water for miles, many other birds come here to drink and bathe. Here is a juvenile American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis). Notice the dark brown wings rather than the jet black of an adult bird. According to the National Geographic field guide, they only have this plumage until October or November. I don't recall seeing a juvie before. When they arrive in the Houston area in December, the wings are black. 

 All comments and suggestions are welcomed and appreciated.

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald
photos copyright 2010 David McDonald

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