Saturday, June 14, 2008

Sage Wisdom

It all started yesterday morning, when Justin Shew (the ornithologist at Starr Ranch) offhandedly mentioned he had seen a "weird sparrow" while out hiking last week. "I think it was a Sage Sparrow," he said. This snatched my attention - I desperately wanted to see one. I riddled him with endless questions of what it looked like, what it sounded like, where he saw it...

Fortunately, Justin had photographed the bird. Sure enough, it was a Sage Sparrow. That's why I found myself laboring up the rough San Juan Trail in extreme southern Orange County this morning. The trail wasn't steep, but there were lots of switchbacks and blind curves that potentially crazy mountain bikers might be swerving around at any moment. We had gone only a few hundred feet when this Western Scrub-Jay posed for me atop a bush.

Birds abounded along the trail, but mostly the usual suspects: Wrentits, Spotted Towhees, Ash-throated Flycatchers, and Rufous-crowned Sparrows. We were surprised by the numbers and diversity of wildflowers, including these nice ones that appear to be some sort of Mariposa lily. Because I'm a hopeless procrastinator, I still don't have a wildflower book...

I found this cicada in the middle of the trail shortly thereafter. It obviously had just emerged - a hole in the trail and an old cicada shell nearby brought me to this conclusion. I moved it into a bush off the trail so it wouldn't get squished.

Justin had said to look for the Sage Sparrow about four miles up the trail. We had gotten past the three mile marker. The scenery is spectacular up there! It is difficult to believe that this remote and rugged area is part of Orange County. We pressed on, occasionally dodging speeding bikes. After about two hours, we had gotten about four and a half miles up the trail. I strained my ears, hoping to catch the song of a Sage Sparrow. Wow, what was that?! I listened again. Oh - a Bewick's Wren. Those tricky Bewick's Wrens gave me multiple false starts all morning. The sun was starting to beat down on our unprotected heads, and the birds began to fall silent as time ticked away. That's the problem with birding chaparral - the birds quiet down early. Discouraged, we started down the trail back towards the car. No Sage Sparrow.

In the distance, I heard the distinctive song of a Black-chinned Sparrow. "It's a long shot, but we can try calling him in with the iPod," I told my dad. Not really believing it would work, I hit play. Within seconds a very belligerent Black-chinned Sparrow was providing great views as it investigated what it thought was a rival Black-chinned Sparrow. This made me happy - I've never really had a good look at one, and this was my first for Orange County.

Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch. Our feet carried us back down the trail. CRRRUUUNNCH SCRAAAPE CRUNCH... crunch. I looked around, and saw my dad regaining his balance. "Walk much?" I inquired. "No, I meant to do that!" he replied. Uh-huh. The descent back to the car was forty minutes shorter than the climb up the trail. Gravity sure helps.

I was disappointed to miss the Sage Sparrow, but we saw a lot of other great birds, including the Black-chinned Sparrow. It was a great hike, and the scenery was fabulous. I'd highly recommend it for those who are fit enough to attempt it. I'll try to find those Sage Sparrows again next year, hopefully earlier in the year when they'll be more conspicuous.


Parus said...

Too bad about the Sage Sparrow. You'll have one staked out by the time I get there right? ;)

Keith said...

You are right, the wildflower is a Weed's Mariposa lily:

Birdnerdguy said...

Oh well, Sage is a pretty hard bird for Orange County...Just wait until we get to the Antelope Valley and they'll be like trashbirds.