Readers’ wildlife photos

December 14, 2022 • 8:15 am

Today’s batch of photos comes from ecologist Susan Harrison at UC Davis. The narrative and caption are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.

Farm Field Fauna

The novelist Jane Smiley, who wrote the best-ever satire of an agricultural university, was once asked what she’d learned about the world by relocating from Iowa to California.  She replied, “How big and how evil agriculture can be.”

The painter Wayne Thiebaud, on the other hand, found beauty in the California Central Valley’s patchwork of giant farms and curving waterways (as you can see in this nice 4-minute documentary).

In homage to both these wonderful artists, these photos illustrate birds amid the flooded fields, recently mowed or plowed fields, and even almond orchards of the Central Valley.

Alfalfa fields are said to be especially rich in grasshoppers, attracting large numbers of egrets, herons, shorebirds like Long-Billed Curlews and even raptors like Swainson’s Hawks.


Long-Billed Curlews (Numenius americanus) in an alfalfa field:

Long-Billed Curlews and a Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsoni) in an alfalfa field:

Great Egrets (Ardea alba) and Swainson’s Hawks (Buteo swainsoni) in an alfalfa field:’

Red-Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) in an alfalfa field:

Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) in a cattle pasture:

Mountain Bluebird (Sialia currucoides) in an almond orchard:

Snow Geese (Anser caerulescens) in a flooded field:

Greater White-Fronted Geese (Anser albifrons) and Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus) in a flooded field:

Short-Eared Owl (Asio flammeus) hunting as the sun sets:

Rough-Legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus) in a freshly plowed field:

Black-Crowned Night-Herons (Nycticorax nycticorax):

Night Heron closeup:

Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) and Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus).

Closeup of Sandhill Cranes, a Tundra Swan, and a huge Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator):

Note to photographers:   In processing these, I used Photoshop to reduce scattered light (‘dehaze’) and to try to achieve balanced exposure on different parts of the picture (bird, sky, and land).  It’s a new experiment for me.

17 thoughts on “Readers’ wildlife photos

  1. Cool pictures! Reminds me of the farmland we have in Skagit County in Washington State or near my mother in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Resourceful animals taking advantage of disturbance.

    1. Thank you! That was the intention, to show how biodiversity can flourish even in such a human-dominated setting.

  2. Wonderful photos, I am lucky enough to live in the area and enjoy seeing thousands of birds in the flooded rice fields this time of year. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Thank you for this entry, Professor Harrison, and the link to the Smarthistory video. My cousin married into one of the original almond-farming families north of Sacramento toward Wheatland. So they changed the nature of the land over a couple of generations with their orchards, and by the mid-nineties, when I visited them, were selling off their acres of treees to developers, who would grow acres and acres of houses…I do not know what the next stage for this land will be.

    The link to Jane Smiley’s “Moo” reminded me that moo u was what kids at the U of Michican call Michigan State University in the mid 60’s when I spent a year there. Indeed msu was among the original federally promoted land grant universities created under the Justin Morrill Act to apply scientific and engineering know-how to mining and agriculture for the economic development of the nation. Many of These ag and mining schools in each state developed into major research universities over the next hundred years supporting engineering schools and large basic science research departments. They also were the impetus for the 1892 Committee of Ten which the federal government appointed to develop a high school curriculum that could be used in all of the states to prepare a hopper of students who were academically prepared to attend these new universities. It all started with the land.

  4. These are great! We have a lot of open land where I live (Ottawa, Canada) but, while it can be picturesque, I don’t usually find it very productive for birding. You can drive for miles and miles and not see anything other than the most common birds. I have to admit that other birders seem to have better luck than I do.

    The photo with the Tundra Swan next to the Trumpeter Swan is gold! I find distinguishing these two tough. It doesn’t help that they’re both rare here, so I don’t get much practice.

    By the way, the close night heron is actually a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias), and I assume the others are too, though they’re a bit hard to make out. I would not expect night herons to be found in an open field. Even for great blues to feed in such a habitat would be unusual (here in Ottawa, at least).

  5. Great photos!

    Are you sure about the ID for the black-crowned night heron closeup? It looks more like a great blue heron (Ardea herodias) to me. I also can’t seem to enlarge the distant shot, so couldn’t check the picture in detail, but could there be one or two greater blue herons in that picture too?

  6. Uh-oh, thank you for catching that mistake!
    I’m not sure about the distant shot — should’ve brought a spotting scope. It’s typical for the night herons to be in groups and the great blue herons to be solitary, so I jumped to the conclusion they were all night herons.

    1. They’re all great blue herons. It is unusual to see so many together—and in a field to boot. I guess the feeding’s very good there. Or perhaps there’s a shortage of their usual watery habitat? They’re pretty adaptable birds, which is why they’re common and widespread.

      I can’t imagine night herons congregating in a field, though I guess almost anything’s possible.

      1. Truly, it happens quite often around here that flocks of Night Herons feed together in a field. I’ll strive to find good photographic evidence!

        1. Given that Black-crowned Night Heron is a species that occurs almost worldwide, I should probably be careful about extrapolating its behaviour in the relatively few places I’ve encountered it to birds in places I haven’t visited. Sometimes birds of the same widespread species can have very different behaviours and occupy different habitats in different parts of their range. I just read in Wikipedia that Black-crowned Night Herons occur throughout the downtown area of Oakland! Although this is a species that has increased a lot in Ottawa over the past several years, to the best of my knowledge they have yet to colonize the downtown. I did see one at my local suburban park once.

          In short, I believe you, and I shouldn’t have been so categorical.

  7. Very informative post. The documentary on Thiebaud is terrific. He is one of my favorites. I would never have looked at the Thiebaud painting in the film with the information given. I just didn’t know about that agricultural area and the impact on the natural environment.
    Thank you.
    The photos are so lovely. My favorite is the Mountain Bluebird so delicate in the almond field.

  8. Lovely that you got a photo of that Burrowing Owl — those are on my ‘to see’ wishlist.
    Like others noted, I am pretty certain those all Great Blue Herons in the distant photo — Black-crowned Night Herons are less than half the size of a Great Blue and have a much stockier body.

    1. Is there such a thing as “eating heron” or will I have to eat crow for that egregious mistake? 🙂 🙂 🙂 Seriously, thanks!

      1. Hah! I would not recommend eating crow or heron!
        This is one of many reasons I love birding — it constantly reveals to me the limitations of my perceptions and makes me strive to observe the world with greater care. Beware of the overconfident birder!

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