Yellow-billed Magpie

California Oak Woodland

I started birding in the 1990s, and there were always places we could reliably find the yellow-billed magpie. They like the oak trees in California’s Central Valley, and could easily be found in oak woodlands and pastures. As non-migratory birds, they don’t stray far from their communal roosting spots.

 

We have 673 bird species in California. Only two are endemic, i.e. unique to California. This bird is one of the two endemics. It occurs nowhere else in the world. (Island Scrubjay is the other). Range map below.

 

A large bird in the Corvidae  family, Pica nutalli make a splashy appearance with a tail longer than its body, and a bright yellow bill. Their black and white markings exhibit a flashing effect in flight. In addition, when they perch just right in the sunlight, the light changes their black wings to turquoise.

 

Yellow-billed Magpie, Lodi, California

 

The black-billed magpies, their close relative, have this black-to-turquoise feature, too. We saw a flock in Montana a few years ago.

 

Black-billed Magpie, Montana

Black-billed Magpie, Montana

The magpies are raucous, much like their cousins the crows and jays–squawk a lot. They are easy to spot because of their big size, flashy colors, and vocal presence.  Click here to listen to one. 

 

But then in 2003 a mosquito-transmitted disease, the West Nile Virus, struck the North American corvid family and other bird species too. Humans and horses were also victims. (One percent of humans develop severe symptoms.)

 

Many birds suffered a precipitous decline, especially in the years 2004-2006. The yellow-billed magpie population fell by 49%.

Yellow-billed Magpie. Photo courtesy 10000birds.com

After a few years, some bird species made a comeback, built immunity. But others, including the yellow-billed magpie, continued to decline.

 

For years whenever we were in the Central Valley, we repeatedly returned to the same oaks with hopes of finding our old friends the yellow-billed magpies. But there were none.

 

You can imagine the plethora of scientific studies and surveys that were conducted for this unique, endemic bird. There were heightened efforts to understand and turn around the decline of this rapidly disappearing bird; they still continue today. Their conservation status is listed as Vulnerable, some say it should be Endangered.

 

Last month, while birding in the Central Valley, we did our usual cruising around the oaks looking for the yellow-billed magpies where we formerly saw them. We have been doing this every year,  to no avail, since the early 2000s.

 

And guess what?

 

Three flew into the oak tree just as we were driving by. They only stayed for about five minutes, but it was enough time to slam on the brakes, hop out of the car with all our gear, and go wildly running to the oak trees.

 

It was pure joy to see this rowdy bird again. They flew in as if nothing had ever happened.

Yellow-billed Magpie, Lodi, California

A showy bird, found only in California, one that can change colors from black to turquoise merely by standing in the sun. Add to their remarkableness, their declining population is making a recovery.

 

That’s an incredible bird. Now let’s just hope they can continue recovery.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

 

Yellow-billed Magpie, Lodi, California

 

Range Map for Yellow-billed Magpie

Range map for Yellow-billed Magpie. Courtesy allaboutbirds.com

 

Wildlife Auto Tours

Great Egret at Sacramento NWR Auto Tour Entrance

In the U.S. we have wildlife auto tours all over the country. They are useful for close-up viewing and photographing of wild birds and mammals, especially in inclement weather. Associated with national wildlife refuges, the routes are one-lane roads traversing the refuge.

 

I have been on auto tours in many parts of the country in every season. We’ll focus here on one of my favorites, the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Auto Tour in California’s Central Valley. This complex covers 10,819 acres (43.78 km2).

American Bittern

Every year in the Central Valley, migrating birds descend from the frigid northern climes. The birds overwinter here, in the Pacific Flyway corridor, from November to February. There are 5 million ducks, geese, and swans that overwinter in California, and 1.5 million shorebirds. It is not uncommon to experience flocks of snow geese numbering in the thousands.  Wikipedia overview. 

 

I have visited the Central Valley every winter for 27 years, and each year I am freshly enchanted by the avian visitors. There are over 300 species of birds and mammals.

Red-tailed Hawk, Sacramento NWR

Flock of White-faced Ibis

The auto tour is self-guided, costs a few dollars to enter. Visitors are allowed to get out of their car only at the designated “Park-and-Stretch” spots, where there is a small parking lot, viewing deck, and bathroom facility.

 

By staying in the car, visitors are essentially driving around in their own viewing “blind.” Birding and photography are done through your car window.

Athena photographing, Sacramento NWR

All the photos here (except one, the sunny one) are from our visit last winter to the Sacramento and nearby Colusa auto tours. It was a very rainy day. You can see how unperturbed even the most skittish creatures were, like the bittern and the brush rabbit.

Brush Rabbit

 

The Sacramento auto tour is six miles (9.6 km) long, and we usually spend about six hours here, averaging one mile per hour.

Loggerhead Shrike preying on a praying mantis

Pintails at Sacramento NWR

Snow geese, Sacramento Nat’l. Wildlife Refuge, CA

Winters here are relatively mild, so we don’t get snow; but there is often rain. Some years the rains are so torrential that getting out of the car is like stepping into a tornado. Other years there are mild winters; the sun is shining, all the windows are open and not only can we bird by ear, but there is great visibility.

 

Auto tour passengers include elderly and pre-school ages, and all ages in between. This is great for people who cannot walk far, too. Some people drive through for a pleasant afternoon with the family. Others–geeks like us–are equipped with all the opticals we own, field guides, snacks and meals, and we linger at every turn.

Flock of White-faced Ibis, Colusa NWR

 

Whatever American state you’re in, look up the national wildlife refuge or Fish and Wildlife services for the nearest auto tour.

 

It’s a wonderful way to enjoy wildlife in the worst weather of the year.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified

Black-crowned Night Herons, Colusa NWR

Jet (L) and Athena (R), Sacramento NWR