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South County a haven for birdwatchers
A close-up of a stray ostrich found years ago on property around Woodward Avenue. - photo by ROSE ALBANO RISSO

They are feathered friends and, on some occasions, foes.

Either way, they are always a delight to behold when they choose to be seen. There are a few that prefer to remain anonymous and out of sight and will make every effort to camouflage themselves among thick brackets, tall grasses or the heavy foliage of towering trees.

Those are just little tidbits pertaining to the avian population - both the migrating and native variety - that I’ve been fortunate to encounter and observe since the late 1990s when I became a serious bird watcher and photographer.

I did not just discover a new interest and passion - ornithology. The subject also opened my eyes to the number of breeds (I’m not sure if that’s the right term) that make their home in South San Joaquin County, or make this area a stop-over in their annual migration, like the Canada Goose and the Sandhill Crane. There are so many of them! I’m still trying to find out the names of some of the rare ones I’ve seen. I’m in the guessing stage, for some of them. The “White-Bonnet Duck,” for example. I was driving by the Teicheira dairy pond on the side of South Airport Way one drizzling early morning when I spotted something white and black moving in the raindrops-dotted water. I pulled over carefully and as quietly as I could so as not to scare the strange creature in the water and picked up my Canon camera with my ever-ready 50-500 zoom lens. I managed to capture a few photos before the rare bird made itself scarce behind the thick reeds. It was a black duck with a white bonnet on top of its head that reminded me of Little Red Riding Hood.

Years before that, I was on a bird-watching/photo safari around the confluence of the Stanislaus and San Joaquin Rivers in rural South Manteca. At the edge of the picnic area where the two rivers meet, I spotted two ducks in the water. One had textured-brown feathers. But it was its swimming partner that really caught my eye. The first thing that came to mind was a mallard. I called it by that name until one of the pictures that I took of that bird ran in the Manteca Bulletin and described it as such. One knowledgeable reader was very kind to contact me and let me know that the bird is not a mallard but a wood duck. She knew that for a fact, she said, because her husband is a hunter. The wood duck has since become one of my favorite waterfowls. The bad news: I have not seen another wood duck since that one beautiful morning at the Two Rivers RV Park’s riverside picnic grounds.

Other birds I’ve seen in and around the Manteca-Ripon-Lathrop areas: a family of California Quail, blue heron, egret, Cinnamon Teal, red-winged blackbird, red-tailed hawk and another with black-gray polka-dotted plumage, various finches of the yellow and red kind, bluejay, bluebird, mourning dove, Wilson’s Snipe, American Kestrel, different types of hummingbirds, Long-Billed Curlew, Cedar Waxwing, barn owl, European starling, black bird, burrowing owl, White Pelican, Kildeer, Common Moorhen, American Coot, Downy Woodpecker, Black Phoebe, Yellow-billed Magpie, barn and tree swallow, bushtit, American Robin, mockingbird, white-crowned sparrow, and the very common - at least, in these parts - brown-headed cowbird and black bird.

Among these, the European starling and the Canada Goose which have proven themselves to be serious enemies of farmers. Thousands of European starlings, so many they blackened the sky, were ruled by the San Joaquin County Farm Bureau as the culprit in the destruction of several acres of alfalfa owned by farmer John Teixeira on South Manteca Road. Other farmers south of Manteca always keep a close eye on their newly planted crops in the winter when migrating Canada Goose, by the tens if not by the hundreds of thousands, stop over for a feeding frenzy on their way to their winter destinations.

Since I became a serious bird watcher and photographer, I’ve accumulated a growing portfolio of feathered friends in the area which include the few I’ve mentioned, plus a few others that I’ve seen in other places around California that my husband and I have visited. These include the acorn woodpecker and Steller’s Jay at Pine Mountain Lake in Groveland, a singing sparrow at Asilomar in Pacific Grove, mean-looking vultures somewhere in the hills around Danville, and a kite hovering above the hills of Danville.

But you don’t even have to step outside Manteca to discover the wonders of the avian world. As I, myself, have found out, that world is just outside your window.