Unusual Visitors

By Luke Matthews

Many are accustomed to seeing a certain group of birds based on the region they live in. However, there are some notable exceptions, including each year in Sacramento Valley rice country.

Generally speaking, there are four categories of birds that spend time in any given region due to their life history and migrations patterns: Year-round, wintering, summering (breeding), and vagrants (a biological term used when species are found outside of their normal range). Year-round species in the Sacramento Valley, such as California Quail and Red-winged Blackbirds, are those that maintain populations throughout the year. Wintering species, such as Snow Geese and Northern Pintail, migrate to our area in search of more favorable weather conditions during the winter. While summering or breeding species, such as Black Terns and Black-headed Grosbeaks, are absent in the winter months but arrive in the Valley in search breeding habitat for the summer. Additionally, there are some species that fit all three of the above categories. These species, such as Mallards and Red-tailed Hawks, maintain year-round populations with a mixture of resident, summering, and wintering birds.

Unlike the first three categories, vagrant birds are by definition both rare and unexpected visitors. These individuals can end up outside of their normal area for a variety of reasons linked to bad weather conditions, inexperience, human-released birds, as well as other factors. During their migrations, birds can get blown off course by inclement weather conditions, these birds may spend a few days in a specific area to rest and refuel before attempting to get back on course. Inexperienced or immature individuals have been known to simply fly the wrong direction or get lost. Finally, there are individuals that own or breed unique and rare birds. Unfortunately, it is common for these captive birds to either escape or be released.

While there are undoubtably more, a few of the vagrant birds that I have noticed in our region over the past few years are the Falcated Duck, Emperor Goose, Tufted Duck, Garganey, and Vermilion Flycatcher. No matter what causes these rare birds to show up, birders and wildlife photographers will often travel long distances just to catch a glimpse of these unusual visitors.

Luke Matthews is the Wildlife Programs Manager for the California Rice Commission