photos and discussion by Don Roberson

and the story of a Kings Co. Big Day (story by Luke Cole, below)

Luke Cole (left) discovered a Glaucous-winged Gull Larus glaucescens on 22 Mar 1999 in southern Kings County, and I refound it on a 'Big Day' on 27 March with Luke, Rita Carratello, and Rob Hansen. It appeared to be in first-summer plumage, having molted in a gray back and replaced most head/body feathers, but retaining first-winter coverts and juv. wings and tail. The photos below show it (center or center-left gull in all photos) with Herring Gulls L. argentatus smithsonianus. It was a tad larger than Herring, with an essentially all-black bill (all first-year Herrings had variably pale bases to bill), and classic mocha-colored primaries uniform in color with the wing-coverts.

There were several points that I found interesting about this gull, beyond it establishing the first King Co. record of the species. First, to my eye, the mantle color seemed slightly darker than I would have expected, but I suspect this is an artifact of comparing fresh back/scapular feathers against worn coverts. The apparent contrast is less obvious (more "normal-colored") in the lower flight shot (all photos are rather distant as the gulls on the dike were quite skittish). Second, the bird had a slight secondary bar and a slightly darker tail in flight than expected (note paler bleached color to central rectrices, though), but I find these well within the range of variation shown by Glaucous-winged Gulls on the Monterey Peninsula (where I see them daily). To me the bill size, shape, and color were typical Glaucous-wing.

I found it interesting that the primaries and coverts -- although surely bleached somewhat -- were not nearly was worn and bleached-out as many Glaucous-winged Gulls on the coast at this date (not to mention really ratty California and Western gulls by now). The remiges were remarkably well preserved for late March. This recalls the same situation with a first-year Glaucous-winged Gull I discovered in Nebraska on 12 Apr 1995 (a first record for that state; text of article in Nebraska Bird Review is on line here). Could these birds have spent the earlier part of winter farther north (with less day-length to bleach feathers) than some of the local Glaucous-wings (and other gulls) that have been in central California since perhaps October?

-- Don Roberson, Pacific Grove CA


The story of the Big Day was posted to the "CALBIRD" & "County Lister" discussion groups on Sunday, 28 Mar 1999, by Luke Cole [and is reprinted below with permission]


Yesterday, Saturday March 27, the intrepid team of Rita Carratello, Rob Hansen, Don Roberson and I did a Big Day in that great under-birded county, Kings. Highlights included refinding a first county record of GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULL, refinding the wintering BROWN PELICAN (2nd county record), a very early WILSON'S PHALAROPE, 11 species of sparrow, 3 owls, and other fun birds for the Central Valley like GREATER SCAUP, GREAT-TAILED GRACKLE, and WRENTIT.  A confluence of events (access to private property on the west, east and south sides of the county) and good birds made for a great day and a county big day record which will be tough to best.

Don had suggested we do a trip in late March, rather than the more typical big day times in mid-to-late April, which turned out to be a great idea. We met in Kettleman City Saturday morning to make an assault on the Kings County big day record, of 108, set by Rob Hansen in September '97. I had had 107 in September '98 with Gerry Weinberger, but had never done a spring effort. I had carefully mapped out a route going roughly clock-wise around the county starting in the southwest, which I predicted would get us at least 113 species and could yield 120 if we had luck -- which we did...


We began at 5:30 at Kettleman City, knocking off House Sparrow, House Finch, E. Starling and WC Sparrow from the hotel parking lot. En route to Tar Canyon we picked up a Raven and Mourning Dove. Our first stop of the morning was TAR CANYON ROAD, a private road up into the foothills for which I had arranged access (the two metal gates across the road make it a rough 6-mile foot trip otherwise). Although it was lighter than we expected (we had hoped to reach the top in the dark, but it was becoming light even as we got to the gate!), we quickly picked up a Meadowlark, Red-tailed Hawk, Harrier, and singing Grasshopper Sparrow (by the second locked gate). A distant calling Great Horned Owl was heard by two. RW Blackbird, Cal Quail, Cal Towhee, Western Kingbird, Kestrel, Brewers BB, Scrub Jay, Shrike, Say's Phoebe (nesting at the rocky outcrop about 5 miles in), Spotted Towhee, Junco, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Rock Wren, Savannah and Lark Sparrows were all there as expected.  At the top of the road, Don urged us up a previously unexplored canyon, where we picked up singing California Thrasher and Wrentit, both unusual birds for the county, and Rufous-crowned Sparrow and a singing Roadrunner. Bewick's and House wrens vocalized, and a pair of Mallard overhead gave us our first waterfowl. Rob flushed a Barn Owl from its roost for an excellent morning score. On our way down the hill we lucked into a Ferruginous Hawk sitting in a field, and my staked out Tricolored Blackbirds were only a half-mile from where they had been on Monday. I had given us until 8 am to "do" the Canyon, and estimated we had to pick up at least 22 species there.  I locked the gate at 7:59, and we already had 36 for the day.

Our next stop was all the way across the county, almost an hour away, at Burris Park. En route Rob's eagle eye netted us Cedar Waxwings in Avenal, and we picked up Robin, Crow, Tree Swallow, WF Ibis, Black Phoebe and Whimbrel. As we passed a flooded field at 65 mph on the highway, Rita called out "Marbled Godwit" but we were already beyond it.  I said, "we'll pick that up at a couple of spots later..."

We got to Burris Park at 8:54, and quickly added its common attractions: Flicker, Coot, Killdeer, RC Kinglet, Acorn and Nuttall's woodpeckers, Bushtit, Mocker, GC, Fox and Lincoln's Sparrow, Orange Crowned Warb, American and Lesser Goldfinch, Greater Yellowlegs, PB Grebe and Red-shouldered Hawk.  Calling White-breasted Nuthatch and Wood Duck were nice additions, as was Snipe and Green Heron (I had several of these birds staked out later on in the day, and we saved time picking them up early).  A Hermit Thrush was a bonus. Rob heard a Downy Woodpecker call, but none of the rest of us could get on it and we could not refind it -- another bird that haunted us, as we never saw or heard one again.

My "sure thing" spot for Titmouse -- Kings Row, 1/2 mile south of Clinton on 6th -- was a bust, and we never saw one all day.  We were feeling good, though, as we were 4 (four) minutes ahead of schedule and while I had predicted 54 birds, we were already at 68 and counting by 10 am.

En route south we picked up Horned Lark. We stopped briefly by the ponds at 7th and Iona, which were very small (1/10 their normal size) but gave us GB Heron, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Cinnamon Teal, Great Egret, BB Plover, RB Gull, Least and Western sandpipers, Dunlin, Pipit, Avocet and Stilt, Ruddy Duck and Green-winged Teal. We were ahead of schedule, so a quick detour to the Hanford Sewer Ponds was decided on, which yielded us only Eared Grebe
(which we would have repeatedly throughout the day). En route we picked up Cliff and Barn Swallows.

By 11 am we were on private property off Nevada Avenue, scopes out in 10-15 knot breeze. Snowy Egret, Rough-winged Swallow, Lesser Scaup, Gadwall, Pintail, Shoveler, Clark's Grebe and Song Sparrow lifted our spirits as the wind picked up. Careful scoping (and a nice flight view) gave us Greater Scaup, a rare bird for the valley, and Rob had a Bufflehead.

We motored east on Nevada Avenue to the massive Corcoran Reservoir at 6th and Nevada, where my target birds of Double-crested Cormorant, White Pelican, Wigeon, and Canvasback were present, as were dowitchers. Rob's careful scoping picked us up a LB Curlew and a lone Canada Goose, the only goose we saw all day. We also had another pair of Bufflehead well seen by all. We were doing quite well -- according to my schedule, we needed to leave these ponds by 12:45, and have 90 species under our belt. Leaving these ponds at 11:58, we had 107 species -- just one short of tying the record, and before noon!  We stopped for gas, and a vain attempt to find hummingbirds, in Corcoran.

Speeding down 6th avenue south, we picked up Swainson's Hawk to tie the record, and our cooperative, staked out Brown Pelican was waiting for us at the corner of 6th and the Homeland Canal to take us to 109 and a new county big day record (at 12:38 pm!). The pelican, first found in September, has remarkably survived the winter in Kings County.  It is only the 2nd record for the county, with 3 birds present way back in 1983. (Those wishing to look for it should drive 6th Avenue south of Utica and look along the canal to the west, and, if it isn't there, drive the Homeland Canal levee west of 6th).

Heading up the Homeland Canal levee toward the South Wilbur Flood Area, we had Caspian Tern and Western Grebe, and at the tiny wetland at the corner of 10th and the Homeland Canal, Marsh Wren, Sora and Virginia rail. We headed south around the Wilbur, picking up BC Night-heron and Forster's Tern.  At this point we again headed into private property for which Rob had arranged access, which yielded us Willet, Snowy Plover and Herring Gull.  We also (luckily!) refound a gull which I had seen on Monday and tentatively identified as a GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULL -- we got good looks at the bird, photographed it, and confirmed it for a first county record of that coastal species. Farther south we saw Redhead and Common Moorhen, and Rita's eagle eyes picked out a soaring Golden Eagle -- an excellent bird for our day. Rob then found us a Sage Sparrow (of the race cannescens), and we had a Burrowing Owl flying from Kings into Kern County (for a twofer).

Our prodigious efforts had already brought us to 124 species by this time, and we were able to scrap several planned stops which I had scouted but which would yield us no new species, so we headed back north along 6th. It was now 3:15. Rita pulled a Ring-necked Pheasant (#125) out of a field of alfalfa for us.

We headed back to the spot where earlier Rita had seen the Marbled Godwit, as we hadn't found another one all day. Unfortunately, the godwit was gone, but we carefully identified a migrant of flock of a half-dozen Short-billed Dowitchers (we had seen LB earlier)(#126). We then headed through Lemoore where Don had staked out (in Nov!) a Great Horned Owl, and we had a family of 4 (3 hatching year birds -- early nesters!) there, so everyone on the team now had GHOW.

Heading out Grangeville Boulevard, we checked out Summit Lake, where Don's expert scoping found a very early Wilson's Phalarope (#127). We then went to a spot along 26 1/4, north of Elgin, where I had staked out a Great-tailed Grackle. This bird is rapidly establishing itself in the southern Central Valley, but there is not yet a reliable spot in Kings County for it, so I was stoked to find one male the previous afternoon in my scouting.  As we pulled up to my stakeout, I saw a male GT Grackle flying over the pond and away from us, and quickly got the other three on it as it flew beyond the pond and out of sight -- a minute later and we would have missed it.  #128.

We then took the road along the Elgin ditch (the north dike along the canal off of 26 1/4), and had a Sharpie fly across the levee in front of us, #129. A Kingfisher a few minutes later made it 130, at 5:50 pm.  That would be the last new bird we would see.

As sun set, we headed back toward Kettleman City (and Rob's and my cars), still trying to eke out that last bird, resorting to driving through trailer parks looking for ornamental plantings that might have a hummingbird.  These efforts were in vain.

We spent 13 hours at our task (5:30-6:30), and covered 278 miles. All in all, a great day in the field, exploring some of the nether reaches of this underbirded county. I had predicted 120 species, but we hit 130 -- smashing the record of 108 by a 22 species. 128 species were seen or heard by all. We had several big misses: Turkey Vulture, White-tailed Kite, Anna's Hummer, and Titmouse. However, the combination of the great team of Don, Rita, and Rob, and Rob's and my knowledge of the county and the access we had to private property make this big day the standard to beat in Kings County!

-- Luke Cole, San Francisco, CA  <>