Monday, July 29, 2013


Little Stint is a particularly nostalgic bird for me - and one of the reasons I got into birding. I'd always been fascinated by our yard birds - Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Green Woodpecker (wow!), Dunnock, etc. At age 12 or so I'd started birding local woodlands with some friends. That added some new species - Bullfinch, Jay, Blackcap, etc - but essentially an extension of what I was getting in the yard. Then we heard that people "birded" (or in those days it was the seemingly more passive "went birdwatching") at the local reservoir in Farmoor.

Farmoor Reservoir, just west of Oxford, was smelly, windy and frequently infested with biting flies. We loved it! I spent a large part of my teens - with Jon, Robert, Matthew and John - walking around that place looking for birds. As a land-locked county in the middle of the country, Oxfordshire wasn't exactly the best place to bird. Hence the joke "Farmoor Reservoir - Farmoor birds elsewhere!" But it's where I fell in love with birding. The feeling of walking out onto the causeway never knowing what you'd see - or walking into the sailing clubhouse and checking the well-worn logbook for bird sightings. And, during migration, Little Stint was an uncommon but reliable friend, scampering about on the edges of the water.

Before getting on Debi's boat yesterday, a report had come in of a Little Stint in the Central Valley - but it was on private land. Local birder Mark Stacy had organized a small and successful visit with permission yesterday. And as I was enjoying the day on Debi's boat, that Little Stint was pecking away at the back of my mind. The timing and location were perfect - but could I get to see it?

I spent the night in Fresno, arriving around midnight. I'd been in contact with Susan Steele who was hopeful that we'd get permission the following morning. I told her to call me anytime - however early. 

*Anytime* ended up being 6:49 am, which was early enough to wake me. Susan had permission to visit the site, and I would meet her there. Fantastic!

The Joaquin Valley is the southern part of the Central Valley - a wide, flat basin flanked by the Sierra Nevada to the east and the Coast Range to the west. It's one of the most productive agricultural regions in the country. The natural watersheds of this ancient prairie flow now through irrigation channels, the grassland now gridded into fields growing tomatoes, cherries, grapes, asparagus, cotton, and more...

The San Joaquin Valley - stop and smell the roses
(but not for too long - or you'll get hit by one of the many, many trucks!)

As I arrive at the flooded agricultural fields I'm greeted by thousands of shorebirds. Small shorebirds. Suddenly, the difficulty of picking out the one rare and different bird here dawns on me. It's going to be a long, hot day...

There are thousands of feeding shorebirds here. 
For some reason I managed to photograph the one part where there were none!

Susan and I split up and start searching through the birds. They're mostly Least Sandpipers, with the odd Western mixed in. Despite the heat (it's early morning and already 100F+) it's a relaxing task - sifting through these tiny birds, all running around looking for the next insect to snap up. Occasionally the flocks are spooked, fly around a bit and then return, the pack of birds newly shuffled. And the scanning - bird by bird - starts anew.

I'm not having any luck with the Least Sandpiper flocks. I know from Farmoor that Little Stints love the edges of water - much more so than the mud-loving Leasts. So I focus my attention there. And after a few false alarms (that's it! there it, that's not it) I spot one bird that jumps out at me. It's a small, stocky shorebird, with a tiny, straight bill, and lots of red on the face and neck. I double check before I call Susan - who, thankfully, agrees on the identification. Little Stint!

Little Stint (right most bird in top and bottom pics.)
Reddish wash on the face and neck, with spotting on the later. Faint supercilium and short, straight black bill. Black-centered coverts and scapulars edged in rufous. Black legs. White braces down the back.

What luck! I had today free and was traveling through here anyway. The birding stars really were aligned for this trip. And John Vanderpoel had a similar experience in his big year (see here) - just after getting off his pelagic trip in late July.

Tomorrow I'm meeting Bob Barnes who's helping me track down my nemesis bird - the Mountain Quail. These are pretty much "guaranteed" up in the Piute Mountains. But maybe Bob hadn't heard how desperately these birds were to not be seen (or heard!) by me. Who'd win out - Bob's experience or the quails' stubbornness?

Stay tuned...

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NEW YEAR BIRDS (1): Little Stint


  1. Good luck chasing the Mountain Quail. I had them in Yosemite last October and I felt lucky to see them. So, have you picked up both Sagebrush and Bell's Sparrow this year, the new ABA splits?

  2. Awesome stuff Neil, I wondered if you would chase this guy. Now I'm wondering if you'll be tempted by the Tamaulipas Crows supposedly sighted yesterday in Brownsville. Hadn't you just told me a few days ago that you had virtually no hope of seeing a Tamaulipas Crow?

    Rooting for you... only 6 more to 700!