Willows, California, is not Costa Rica

How I miss Costa Rica!  But, since I’m banished here to Willows, just north of Sacramento, California, I have to make the most of it.  How to connect the two places, even through birdwatching, is a bit of a stretch, but here goes with a comparison of the two wildly different locations.  I propose inserting photos only of species, or near-relatives perhaps, that occur in both places.

The first thing that struck me on arrival in Willows, in winter, was the vast difference in numbers of birds.  Although California can also offer many individual species of birds, it’s the sheer scale of the huge numbers of waterfowl here that makes the biggest contrast with my patch in Costa Rica.  Of course, the comparison would be much more direct if my Costa Rican home were near Caño Negro, for example, but there is very little good water habitat around the village of San Antonio.

Willows is a small town located just off the main north-south interstate about an hour’s drive north of Sacramento.  Geographically, it’s at the northern end of the great California Central Valley, with the Coastal Range about 15 miles to the west and the northern end of the Sierra Nevada about 25 miles to the east.  About 30 miles to the south east is a self-contained mountainous outcrop called Sutter Butte, which would make a great birding location if I had a car. However, since everything else in the valley is almost totally flat, I can cycle quite easily to portions of the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge nearby.  The Sacramento River, flowing north to south is a boundary to the east before you reach the Sierra Nevada.

The birding community is very active here, and I really don’t need to contribute much in the way of sightings.  The internet gives access to incredibly detailed information regarding the wonderful birding to be had here.  My interest for today’s post is simply to make a birder’s comparison between the two normalities, before I return to my beloved San Antonio.

The broad streets of Willows are studded with pines and other trees, in winter mostly bare though festooned with mistletoe.  In early morning and late afternoon throughout January and February, I had daily close-up looks at a Merlin (Falco columbarius) (actually there was a pair) as it tossed sparrow feathers into the from the bloody little corpses that it pinned to the bare branches of the tree right outside the door.  I did manage to get a reasonable photo, so here it is even though the nearest that I’ve seen one to San Antonio was on the slopes of the Irazú Volcano.

Merlin with prey

Across the road at Mr. Lopez’s place, a pair of Red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) are busy constructing their nest.  This is a really common bird throughout the area, and the dark-phase Harlan’s hawk is also present.  Also easy to find are American kestrels (Falco sparverius), Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii), and Red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus).  I also had great views of an Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) that was fishing in some small lakes just ten minutes’ bike ride away.  Of all these, the Red-tailed hawk is the only one that has also appeared in San Antonio.

The same location has several American bitterns (Botaurus lentiginosus).  I have rarely had the chance to see this species, but now I see that it’s difficult to confuse it with an immature Night-heron, despite the stripes of both species.   The ones located at the junction of Roads 47 and 48 enjoy strutting around in fairly low vegetation.  Karel was therefore able to get some nice photos.

American bittern shows off his stripes


On alert!

In my first days here, Bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) were also present, though I only got distant views.  In general, raptors can be spotted all over the area, in big numbers compared with the Turrialba area.  As Patrick O’Donnell has pointed out, our Costa Rican raptors tend not to soar but rather they hide out in thick vegetation and ambush their prey.  Of the species that I have seen here in Willows, only the Red-tailed hawk has ever appeared on my home patch in Costa Rica.

I did once see a small falcon at San Antonio disappearing into the distance but couldn’t get a good look.  As for vultures, the Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) is seen easily at both locations, and actually it’s one of the few birds that my neighbour, Fabio, would recognize from San Antonio if he were to come here to California for a visit.

Soaring Turkey vulture – a typical sight in both California and Costa Rica

The only herons present at San Antonio are the Green heron (Butorides striatus) and the Cattle egret ((Bubulcus ibis).  Here, so far I have seen only one or two Cattle egrets, and we are now in spring migration.

The invader! Even a Cattle egret can be beautiful

The Green heron, a fairly common resident, has not yet appeared here to my great surprise.   The town of Willows supposedly has a big problem with a heronry in Memorial Park in the centre of town.  The area looks much too developed to sustain a heronry but they have pruned the trees heavily and a local citizens’ group is preparing an action day to fend off would-be nesters when they arrive.  I am told that they will be Snowy egrets (Egretta thula) and Black-crowned night-herons (Nycticorax nycticorax), both of which can be found close by, but I suspect that a majority will be the returning Cattle egrets.  We’ll see.

Grebes, ibis and even pelicans can be found here very close to Willows, but not  in San Antonio, and of course the lack of water habitat at San Antonio means that one of the biggest differences between the two places is the huge numbers of geese, ducks and swans that spend winter in the Sacramento valley.  I think you can get the general picture if I tell you that Willows High School American football team is called the Honkers!

Actually, Fabio is reporting a duck from San Antonio at the moment, as the area is suffering very heavy rains, but I haven’t a clue what it can be.  (Turns out to be a Green Ibis (Mesembrinbis cayennensis)!)

The Green ibis is a very rare visitor to San Antonio

Another (or perhaps the same one) was reported during the last huge downpour.  Costa Rica has been able to add considerably to its species list this year, thanks to the arrival of several North American ducks that had never made it south of Honduras before.  Here the skies were full of tremendous numbers of geese, ducks and ibis, until they began to head north for the summer in March.  The big sensation when I arrived here was the presence of a Falcated teal, an Asian species, at the Colusa section of the Sacramento Wildlife Refuge, about 20 miles south of here.  I only had transport for a single day and unfortunately the bird was nowhere to be found.  An impressive array of birders with all the latest high-powered camera equipment was installed at the single viewing platform at Colusa.

In San Antonio the only representative of rails through shorebirds and gulls is the White-throated crake, whose picture adorns my blog. Here, the habitat supports large numbers of these species, adding considererably to a list of 127 different species that I have been able to compile in a very short time.

The local pigeon in town is the Collared dove (Streptopelia decaocto), an introduced Old World species that seems to be in every town in the area.  The commonest local native pigeon is the Mourning dove (Zenaida macroura), which I have seen a few kilometers from San Antonio in Capellades, but not on my home patch.

Great horned owls (Bubo virginianus) hoot nightly just outside the house, a very different sound to that of San Antonio’s Bareshanked and Tropical screech-owls.

Strangely, Vaux’s swift (Chaetura vauxi) has popped up in both locations, but my sightings here are a little unusual.  I saw a flock of 15 or so just north of Sacramento in the first week of February, which seems ridiculously early.  One individual subsequently appeared in a flock of Violet-green swallows (Tachycineta thalassina) just to the south of Willows earlier this month of April.

As for hummingbirds, there is no overlap since the feeder outside has just Anna’s (Calypte anna) with its stunning pink head.  Other species are tipped to appear in spring migration, but the Anna’s is the equivalent of our Rufous-tailed hummingbird, because it seems to be everywhere.  It overwinters here.

Woodpeckers are a very interesting group here, but again there is no overlap with my Costa Rican patch.  Nuttall’s woodpecker (Picoides nuttallii) , Downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) and the Northern (Red-shafted) flicker (Colaptes auratus) are all easy to find, and so too is the Acorn woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus) once you leave the valley floor.  Best woodpecker of all, however, is the Lewis’ woodpecker (Melanerpes lewis), which I have now seen several times in the foothills.

Flycatchers provide only one bird (so far) that is found in both localities: Black phoebe (Sayornis nigricans), but here in California the white of the belly extends much higher up.  Western kingbird (Tyrannus verticalis)has now arrived and is everywhere.  It looks and behaves like our Tropical kingbird, but its call and its white-edged tail dispel any confusion.

The equivalent of the Brown jay, our Piapia, is probably the Western scrub-jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens), noisy and conspicuous almost everywhere, but crows and their ilk are of course completely absent from Costa Rica.

Swallows are now here in Willows en masse, but the only one familiar (though uncommon) in San Antonio is the Barn swallow (Hirundo rustica).  Here, the Tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) is the only one to spend the winter so far north and then only in small numbers.

Wrens:  I’ve never seen (or rather, heard) so many Marsh wrens (Cistothorus palustris)  in my life.  The edges of any water habitat seem to contain one every few yards.  This species is not found in Costa Rica, but my House wrens and Plain wrens sing just as loudly and more in tune.  Strangely, I have not yet found the House wren (Troglodytes aedon) and Bewick’s wren (Thryomanes bewickii) in the immediate vicinity of Willows.

From the thrush family there is an immediate striking parallel.  Our yigüirro is matched here by the much more beautiful and equallly prominent (at this time of year) American robin (Turdus migratorius).  Small, squeaky flocks are everywhere.

Warblers: Here, the Yellow-rumped warbler (Audubon’s) (Dendroica coronata)is king.  It flutters in almost every tree.  There’s no sign of it in San Antonio, where the variety of warblers is fairly extensive during part of the year at least.  Wilson’s warbler (Wilsonia pusilla) has now arrived, however, giving me one species common to both locations.

One of the most interesting groups for the birdwatcher in California is the sparrows, as they are everywhere and there are many different species.  It’s fun to distinguish one from the other, and many are quite pretty too.  The ones hopping around in front of me at the moment are Golden-crowned (Zonotrichia atricapilla), a speciality of the west coast, White-crowned (Zonotrichia leucophrys), and the dainty Lincoln’s sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii) with its constantly alarmed look.  I can put out seed and be guaranteed a flock almost instantly, whereas in San Antonio we have only the Rufous-collared sparrow with its crest and pretty rusty brown.

Blackbirds and orioles give us another good parallel, since Bullock’s oriole (western version of the Baltimore oriole) but still Icterus galbula, is now here.  No other species in this group coincide!  No, despite the huge numbers of blackbirds, we don’t have zanates (Great-tailed grackle) here in Willows, at least not yet.  Its function is taken over by the equally bright-eyed Brewer’s blackbird (Euphagus carolinus), while the Brown-headed cowbird ((Molothrus ater) replaces our Bronzed cowbird.  We do have meadowlarks here, but it is the Western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) rather than the Eastern that we find in San Antonio.

The final family for discussion would be the finches, but, alas, San Antonio is much lacking in seed-eaters in comparison with Willows.  We can offer only the Yellow-faced grassquit and the Variable seed-eater, while here I attract beautiful flocks of American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) with a simple hanging feeder filled with sunflower seeds.

2 thoughts on “Willows, California, is not Costa Rica

    • Hello Paul Pickering! We have a few coincidences here, though not the Bar-headed goose. Congratulations on your fine name! I don’t imagine we’re closely related, since I’m from Yorkshire. It seems that both species, Peregrines and Pickerings are making a come-back. I am now back in Costa Rica, so drop in for a beer when you get here. We can talk about Afghanistan as well as birds.


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