Pink bird spotted in Stanislaus County? A local birder makes a rare discovery

“I saw a light bird that looked slightly pink. I thought perhaps it was an egret. But there were other egrets and they were bright white. I couldn’t really see it because his back was to me and then he lifted his head up and I saw this long 10-inch bill with this wide bill on the bottom, and I’m going, ‘Oh, my goodness! He’s a spoonbill.’”

On April 27, Jodi Smith was with a friend at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge west of Modesto. Though they weren’t there for birding, every outdoor moment is an opportunity for Smith to do so.

She got serious about birding in 2008 when her son was assigned a bird observation project in school, prompting her to join the Stanislaus Audubon Society. She has served on the board since 2018.

Around 3 p.m. that Saturday, Smith caught sight of a white bird with a pink hue toward the back of its plumage. As she looked closer through her binoculars, she wondered if it was a heron or an egret. But as it raised its head while feeding, she knew by the distinct spoon-shaped bill that she had just discovered something incredible. It was a roseate spoonbill.

Jodi Smith was with a friend at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge west of Modesto on April 27 when they spotted a roseate spoonbill.
Jodi Smith was with a friend at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge west of Modesto on April 27 when they spotted a roseate spoonbill.

Extremely rare in this region, the roseate spoonbill is commonly found in the coastal areas of Texas, Florida and Louisiana. Like the American flamingo, its pink plumage is a result of its diet. It is also because of the bird’s unique color that it was hunted to near extinction in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Conservation efforts restored the population and climate change has expanded the range of this bird’s habitat. But usually it’s not seen this far north. According to the California Bird Record Committee, last month’s is the only known sighting in Stanislaus County

Smith was overjoyed but quickly realized she was without a good camera to capture the moment. As many dedicated birders do, she started making calls to fellow enthusiasts, urging them to come quickly to capture the sighting.

Within 30 minutes, the word was out and the bird was still there, unaware of the excitement unfolding on the edges of the water as local birders arrived to observe and photograph.

A roseate spoonbill feeds at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge west of Modesto on April 27.
A roseate spoonbill feeds at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge west of Modesto on April 27.

With photo evidence, Smith could officially check the bird off her life list: The roseate spoonbill became her 212th bird sighting in Stanislaus County. “In our group, we have something called the 200 Club. I was excited when I got into the club two years ago, and this was my 212th bird.”

Smith said it is common for birds to return to their grazing areas, which is why the next day, droves of people once again went to the refuge hoping to catch a glimpse. And they did, because the bird returned to the same pool of water. Smith did not go back out, as she still was relishing the moment of her initial sighting.

Spring migration season is between mid-April and mid-May, making it the perfect time to go out to see birds uncommon in Stanislaus County. Smith suggests Knights Ferry, Jacob Myers Park in Riverbank, Dry Creek Park and even the La Loma Native Garden for first-time birdwatching. Sites like the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge and the ponds at the Modesto Wastewater Treatment Plant are some of her regular spots.

As for tips for burgeoning birders? “Get some good binoculars and a bird book and just go to a local park or anywhere out in nature.” She also uses apps like Merlin Bird ID, Audubon and eBird to identify and track. And of course, bring a camera.

For more information about bird watching and regional activities, visit the Stanislaus Audubon Society.

A roseate spoonbill feeds in a pond at the Bradenton Country Club in Florida in 2011.
A roseate spoonbill feeds in a pond at the Bradenton Country Club in Florida in 2011.