Gayle Madwin (queerbychoice) wrote,
Gayle Madwin
queerbychoice

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Tundra Swan Tour

In mid-November, I went with some relatives to photograph the tundra swans and other migratory waterfowl that descend upon my neighborhood each winter from the Pacific Flyway. The tundra swans are the largest and most visually obvious of the many birds that overwinter in the Sacramento Valley. Before the Gold Rush, the Sacramento Valley had a significantly higher water table than it had today; much of it was wetlands that amply supported these birds. Since then, people have drained much of the wetlands and filled the area with agriculture and cities. However, in recent decades, the rice farmers who cultivate many of the lowest-lying areas have agreed to flood their rice fields during their winter offseason so that migrating waterfowl can use the rice fields as habitat. These pictures are from the rice fields directly on the border of Marysville. The nearest of the flooded rice fields are within easy walking distance for me, and none of the pictures I took are from much farther than five miles from my house.

In this picture, the white birds are tundra swans (Cygnus columbianus) and the majority of the brown birds are greater white-fronted geese (Anser albifrons). There's a Northern shoveler duck (Anas clypeata) toward the left, with a green head, white breast, and brown underside; and a bit right of center, I can pick out a Northern pintail duck (Anas acuta), with a brown head, white breast, and grey sides.

Ellis Road: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans), Anser albifrons (greater white-fronted geese), Anas clypeata (Northern shoveler), Anas acuta (Northern pintail)


The tour began in the parking lot of the Mathews family rice dryers. The Mathews family has been rice farming in Marysville for six generations and is quite influential in the area. Their employees can be seen standing on top of the rice dryers and occasionally shoveling some rice over the sides. The swan tour group gathered here to collect birding pamphlets and discuss plans for the day. The most important rule to be discussed was, "Do not scare the birds!" The birds are very tired after flying here from Alaska and Canada; if people here scare them up into the air often, it impacts their health and can reduce their breeding success.

Mathews rice dryer


We then spent the duration of the tour (several hours) traveling in a small loop through the rice fields. This is another view of the rice dryers and a view of what the unflooded areas of land look like.

Mathews rice dryers


The steel cylinders with conical roofs are also part of the Mathews family rice drying facility.
Mathews rice dryer


As we walked out of the parking lot to the first of three stops on our tour, I walked a little ahead of the rest of the group and had a chance to photograph a great egret (Ardea alba) on the shore before the arrival of the rest of the group scared it off.

Ardea alba (great egret)


This was the flooded rice field just beyond the egret.

Mathews Lane: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans)


A few houses were scattered along the shore. The bits of brown debris in the water are bits of rice poking up from the ground not far below the surface of the water.

Mathews Lane: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans)


It must be nice to sit out in your back yard and see swans.

Mathews Lane: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans)


Different bird species prefer different water depths, so whereas the swans congregated around the house above, the water near the yellow house below was filled exclusively with white-faced ibises (Plegadis chihi), the dark brown birds you can barely see here. Don't worry: I got better shots of them later.

Mathews Lane: Plegadis chihi (white-faced ibis)


A third house was visible a bit farther off in the distance.

Mathews Lane: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans)


A tractor and other farming equipment could also be seen along the shore. The birds here are white-faced ibises.

Mathews Lane tractor


Mostly, though, we were here to look at the birds. So that's what I did. The occasional large grey birds you'll see among the swans are cygnets (young swans). Cygnets have pinkish and black beaks, whereas adult tundra swans have mostly black beaks, often with a bit of yellow at the corners. There's a cygnet in the picture below, as well as numerous tiny birds of some other species that I haven't been able to identify.

Mathews Lane: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans) and unidentified birds


Tundra swans can live to be at least 24 years old. Here are some more swans, cygnets, and unidentified tiny birds.

Mathews Lane: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans) and unidentified birds

Mathews Lane: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans) and Ardea alba (great egret)

Mathews Lane: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans)


Swans have rather large feet. Our tour guide brought some taxidermied body parts of various waterfowl to show us and used them to point out that a tundra swan's foot is about the same size as an adult human's hand. These are not small birds.

Mathews Lane: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans) and unidentified birds

Mathews Lane: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans)


Here's another picture with a few cygnets in it (smaller, grey, young tundra swans).

Mathews Lane: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans) and cygnets


And still more pictures . . .

Mathews Lane: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans) and unidentified birds

Mathews Lane: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans) and unidentified birds

Mathews Lane: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans) and unidentified birds

Mathews Lane: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans)

Mathews Lane: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans) and unidentified birds

Mathews Lane: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans) and unidentified bird


Mathews Lane: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans)

Mathews Lane: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans)

Mathews Lane: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans)


And two pictures with cygnets visible.

Mathews Lane: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans)

Mathews Lane: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans)


Are you sick of looking at swans yet? Well, too bad, because I'm nowhere near done showing you pictures of swans. But I will give you a short break from them. Here are some white-faced ibises instead. You may notice that despite their name, their faces are not actually white. At certain times of year they do have a thin band of white on their faces, but it's never all that prominently visible and isn't present at all at this time of year.

Mathews Lane: Plegadis chihi (white-faced ibis)


Wikipedia indicates that white-faced ibises live about nine years in the wild but can live up to fourteen years. They eat "many invertebrates such as insects, leeches, snails and earthworms" and also "vertebrates such as fish, crayfish, newts, and frogs." But Wikipedia also says that their winter range extends south from southern California to Chile. This is definitely not southern California, and they overwinter here regularly.

Mathews Lane: Plegadis chihi (white-faced ibis)

Mathews Lane: Plegadis chihi (white-faced ibis)

Mathews Lane: Plegadis chihi (white-faced ibis)

Mathews Lane: Plegadis chihi (white-faced ibis)


Are you sick of looking at white-faced ibises yet?

Mathews Lane: Plegadis chihi (white-faced ibis)

Mathews Lane: Plegadis chihi (white-faced ibis)

Mathews Lane: Plegadis chihi (white-faced ibis)

Mathews Lane: Plegadis chihi (white-faced ibis)

Mathews Lane: Plegadis chihi (white-faced ibis)

Mathews Lane: Plegadis chihi (white-faced ibis)


Okay, that was the very last picture of white-faced ibises that I'm going to show you.

At this point we carpooled to our next stop on the tour, about a mile away. I really need to make clear to you just how far away we were from these birds. See the extremely thin white line at the horizon? Those are the swans. There was nothing to see without a telescope or binoculars.

Kimball Lane panorama


So you can see why I'm madly in love with my camera's 30x zoom lens. This location made me wish I had even greater zoom capacity on my camera, but 30x will have to do. Who would have guessed, from looking at the panorama above, that there were swans here at all? Or giant bales of hay? None of it can be seen without a zoom lens.

Kimball Lane: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans)


There's also a barn.

Kimball Lane: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans)


And a farmer (at the far left in the picture below), trudging out to check on the fields.

Kimball Lane: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans) and farmer

Kimball Lane: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans)

Kimball Lane: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans)

Kimball Lane: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans)


Being this far away makes it difficult to identify any bird species smaller than a swan. Most of the darker-colored birds, though, are white-fronted geese.

Kimball Lane: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans)


Sometimes it seemed easier just to photograph birds in the sky, because they were somewhat closer. But they were moving targets, and they were usually moving away.

Kimball Lane: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans)


Most of the time, the birds seemed calm and quiet.

Kimball Lane: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans)


Occasionally, though, people - not in our group, but people far off on the other side of the birds - would startle the birds, and the birds would take flight by the hundreds.

Kimball Lane: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans)


At our third and last stop on the tour, a row of tall grasses partially blocked our view of the birds, which were once again a thin white line on the horizon, but not quite as thin a line as before.

Ellis Road panorama


There was more of a mixture of bird species at this stop. The white birds are of course tundra swans, and the large gray birds among them, with pinkish beaks, are the cygnets (younger swans). The majority of the smaller, brown birds are greater white-fronted geese, but there are also other geese and various ducks mixed in among them.

Ellis Road: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans), Anser albifrons (greater white-fronted geese)

Ellis Road: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans), Anser albifrons (greater white-fronted geese)

Ellis Road: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans), Anser albifrons (greater white-fronted geese), Anas acuta (Northern pintail)

Ellis Road: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans), Anser albifrons (greater white-fronted geese), Anas acuta (Northern pintail)

Ellis Road: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans), Anser albifrons (greater white-fronted geese)

Ellis Road: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans), Anser albifrons (greater white-fronted geese)

Ellis Road: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans), Anser albifrons (greater white-fronted geese)

Ellis Road: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans), Anser albifrons (greater white-fronted geese), Anas acuta (Northern pintail)


I'll end with some shots of swans in flight. Two:

Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans)


Three:

Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans)


Four:

Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans)


Four again:

Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans)


Four swans plus two greater white-fronted geese:

Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans) and unidentified birds


Six:

Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans)


And then the numbers started getting confusing.

Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans)


And large.

Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans)

Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans)

Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans)

Kimball Lane: Cygnus columbianus (tundra swans)
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