Friday, May 9, 2008

Lord Baltimore

Baltimore Orioles were just about the last thing on my mind while I was out for a walk around my neighborhood on Tuesday morning with my collie Chestnut. A big push of migrants had come through, and I was out looking for them. I quickly found lots of migrants: a Hermit Warbler (my first of the year), Western Tanagers, Black-headed Grosbeaks, and Wilson's Warblers.

Suddenly, a piping whistle accompanied by a harsh chatter broke its way into my thoughts. Now that, I said to myself, is most certainly a Baltimore Oriole. Of course, another little voice in my head said, You know that's impossible. You're hearing the echoes of the birds you heard in Texas.

I was determined to see that bird. It was calling from the adjacent neighborhood, so Chestnut and I sprinted down a nearby horse trail and managed to get right where the bird had been singing from. An entire chorus of dogs began barking and howling at us. The bird sang - but it was distant, back in our neighborhood! We ran back, binoculars bouncing on my hip and Chestnut's tongue lolling out as he panted. Some dogs make good birding companions, and Chestnut isn't one of them. He's a good walker, but he absolutely detests even the thought of standing around and staring into trees. He expresses his displeasure with extremely loud, strident whines (very much like Lassie, but a few times as loud). He was already tired, so I had to pull him along. We got back just in time to hear it singing, but farther away near the lakes. We followed it, and then it stopped singing. I cast around for a bit, but it remained silent. See? said the pessimistic voice in my head. Baltimore Orioles don't exist in California!

Just then, the bird sang again from a eucalyptus tree right above my head. I finally laid my eyes - definitely a Baltimore Oriole! The pessimistic voice remained silent as the bird continued to sing. I followed it for some time, attempting to take photos as it flitted high in the trees.

On Wednesday I decided to try my luck with migrants at Peters Canyon Regional Park. Thick clouds concealed the blue skies that California is so famous for. Light, misty rain fell. Fitful gusts blew through the trees. Despite these conditions, migrants were hopping! I don't think temperatures climbed above sixty degrees; in the last week, my friends from the Midwest have laughed at us Californians as we shiver in the freezing weather while they bask in seventy-degree sunny weather.

A scratchy warble coming from the sycamores turned out to be a beautiful male Hermit Warbler, the first of about ten individuals I saw over the morning. Wilson's Warblers swarmed in the willow thickets; I saw dozens. A small gray flycatcher just south of the dam turned out to be just that: a Gray Flycatcher. Since it is an uncommon migrant on the coastal slope of California, I followed it for awhile to confirm its identification. It wagged its tail almost constantly, a dead giveaway to its identification. Unfortunately, it was too fast for a photo. Nearby, I pished a female MacGillivray's Warbler out of the brush. It perched up on a cactus before flitting away - can't say you see that very often!

This morning I went out for another walk around the neighborhood to see if I could pull another rare bird out of the hat. I didn't, but I discovered a family of Great Horned Owls sitting up high in a pine tree. Three cute fuzzy owlets were perched up there with one attending adult. Last year, my family had a great time tracking the actions of a family of Great Horned Owls around the neighborhood - I hope they are as cooperative this year!