Sunday, September 28, 2008

Humboldt County

My parents and I took a quick trip up to Humboldt County, California, this weekend. Humboldt County is right on the Pacific Coast in extreme northern California - it is within a hundred miles of Oregon. The main purpose of the trip was to visit Humboldt State University in Arcata, a college I am considering. Naturally, I hauled my optics along, and spent a good amount of time birding.

We landed in the tiny Arcata Airport late on Thursday night and immediately collapsed into bed upon arriving at our hotel. We spent most of Friday touring Humboldt State University, poking around the campus and gathering as much information as possible. Even though we weren't birding, I identified Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Golden-crowned Kinglets, and Townsend's Warblers. Late in the afternoon, instead of relaxing in the hotel, I struck out on foot to bird the vicinity of the hotel.

Most hotels aren't great birding spots, and the Comfort Inn in Arcata wasn't an exception to this rule. However, there was a brushy area near the parking lot where I found Fox Sparrows, Orange-crowned Warblers, Cedar Waxwings, and a few other species. I went beyond the hotel, checking out some nearby vacant lots. Song Sparrows were everywhere - they seemed darker up there than in Southern California.

I walked around a bit longer, dodging some rather rough-looking homeless guys and their fierce mutts. I heard Chestnut-backed Chickadees calling from a few stunted evergreen trees in another vacant lot, and got good looks at one sitting out in the open. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough light to capture a good image of this incredibly cute bird.

Early on Saturday morning, the sleek-sided alarm clock on the nightstand beside my hotel bed demanded that we wake up. We departed before dawn and headed north to bird Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. We arrived just after dawn. While driving in, several Roosevelt Elk were loitering by the roadside, but it was too dim for photography. We then headed deep into the redwood forest on a rough forest road, putting our little rental Mazda to the test. The trees were awesome, reaching sky-high with their crowns concealed in clouds of fog.

Birds were scarce among these giants, surprisingly. One would think that an old-growth rain forest with jumbo-sized trees would be chock-full of birds, but I only saw a few Steller's Jays, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, and Winter Wrens. At the end of the forest road, I could hear a few Varied Thrushes whistling eerily in the distance. They remained out of sight, much to my frustration - I needed it for my life list. As we were zipping back to the main highway, three Varied Thrushes flushed out of the middle of the road. We stopped, and they came back out into the open. We enjoyed great views as they hopped about on the carpet of dead needles. These gorgeous thrushes are superficially similar to American Robins, but are much more strikingly marked.

My other big target bird in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park was American Dipper. The place to look for these guys is around the parking lot of Big Tree right off the scenic parkway. We headed down the wrong trail at first, but were rewarded with a little group of Gray Jays. Eventually, we got on the right trail and found the creek, but not the dippers.

Dippers are bizarre birds - an aquatic songbird. Dumpy gray birds that haunt the edges of creeks and rivers like fleeting shadows, they seem most like a combination of a robin, a sandpiper, and a duck. We strolled along the Prairie Creek a short distance, and as I rounded a bend, there was an American Dipper floating in the middle of the creek! As soon as it noticed me, it buzzed under cover at the creek's edge. After a few minutes of waiting, it popped back out and put on a great show by wading and swimming in the shallow creek. It was too far for good photos, and the light was bad, so as a result the photo I got of it was baaaad. But hey, it's a dipper, and a life bird for me!

Satisfied, we left the park and cruised south along the coast. We poked around a few beaches and lagoons, finding birds such as White-winged Scoter, Red-throated Loon, Common Murre, Common Merganser, and Belted Kingfisher. Our next major stop was Patrick's Point State Park, a great little park several miles north of Trinidad. A short walk from the parking area led to a spectacular overlook of rocky cliffs and the Pacific Ocean.

Ah, the birds. First, I noticed this little guy nosing around in the rocks at my feet.

Wait - not a bird, but a California Ground Squirrel. Actual birds I saw from the overlook included Black Oystercatcher, Surf Scoter, Common Murre, Pacific Loon, and Pelagic Cormorant. It was a very scenic spot - I took lots of photos!

After a delicious lunch at a charming little eatery in Trinidad, we headed back to Arcata. I was looking forward to birding Arcata Marsh, a famous wetlands right in Arcata that is good for shorebirds, ducks, and many other birds. Unfortunately, we must have hit it at the wrong time of day (afternoon), because not many birds were out. The sun finally broke through the persistent fog, and a few butterflies appeared out of nowhere, including this Mylitta Crescent. I was surprised they could still survive - in the morning it was in the low fifties.

By this time, I had utterly worn my parents out, and they insisted on returning to the hotel. We ate a meager dinner in the room and turned in early, since our flight home left at six this morning. Ouch, now that's an early start.

It was a fun weekend jaunt. It was great to gather more information about Humboldt State University - it seems very promising, and the birding in the area can't be beaten! I recorded about ninety species in our brief stay, including two lifers (Varied Thrush and American Dipper), and several other state birds. It was also enjoyable to get away from the craziness of Orange County and LA to this tranquil and sparsely-populated corner of the state.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Oceanic Adventures

The ocean is surely the final frontier of California birding. It is amazingly vast, and inhabited by the most amazing birds and marine mammals. Though I've been on very few pelagic trips, I enjoy them immensely. Unfortunately, they are usually pricey and require a long drive to get to the dock (it is difficult to convince my parents to drive to San Diego, let alone Monterey, for a pelagic trip). So, I was delighted to learn that Sea & Sage Audubon was running a trip out of Dana Point for fifty bucks on Saturday.

There is a reason why very few pelagic trips are run out of Orange County. Compared to other areas, Orange County is rather dismal for pelagic birding (the ocean floor is just too flat). Still, I hoped we'd find something of interest.

Early on Saturday morning, before most of Orange County was awake, about fifty other birders and I chugged out of the Dana Point Harbor on The Sea Explorer, a vessel owned by the Ocean Institute. We saw several Black Oystercatchers on the jetty as we departed. Soon we had a swarm of gulls following us, fighting over the chum in our wake. Chumming is important on pelagic trips. The birders bribe the gulls to follow the boat by tossing popcorn, bread, and other food off the back of the boat. Pelagic birds see and hear the feeding gull flock and will often swing by to investigate. These gulls gave me a chance to hone my photographing birds in flight skills (or lack thereof). Here's a shot of a first-cycle Western Gull, one of many that were following the boat.

Surprisingly, chumming also attracts lots of Brown Pelicans. They probably expect the gulls to be feeding on fish, and seem disappointed to find popcorn.

We hadn't gotten very far out when we spotted the first Black-vented Shearwaters of the day. This species is fairly common off southern California in fall and winter, often within sight of shore. They skim the water, frantically beating their narrow wings stiffly and occasionally gliding. The boat scattered dozens of these small shearwaters, and they were in sight most of the day.

After enjoying the Black-vented Shearwaters (affectionately known as "Blackies") for a short time, we headed farther offshore in search of other more unusual species. Once we were several miles out, we added a new species to our list for the day: Pink-footed Shearwater. Only a handful were present, and they did not approach the boat as closely as the Blackies had. A Sooty Shearwater blasted by, but did not slow down. Three species of shearwaters in a day in Orange County isn't bad. A Pomarine Jaeger winged by in the distance, way too far out for a photo. A few small groups of Red-necked Phalaropes bobbed around among the swells, like vagrant ping-pong balls. It is difficult to believe that such a small, delicate-looking bird can survive at sea. We also encountered a small pod of friendly Risso's Dolphins.

After a long "dry spell" of few sightings - even our attendant flock of gulls had abandoned us - action began picking back up. Someone shouted "Sabine's!", and sure enough, two Sabine's Gulls were resting with a few Western Gulls behind the boat. These dainty gulls are pretty, for a gull; unfortunately, they were skittish and did not allow close approach. They are quite rare in Orange County - a new species for my county list. This species has a very distinctive wing pattern, with a large white triangle on the trailing edges of otherwise black and gray wings.

Our course took us back closer to land, and as a result we began seeing more birds. We got back into the Blackie zone - they were zooming by the boat constantly. A small, dusky bird swimming on the water turned out to be a Rhinoceros Auklet. Amazingly, it held its ground and allowed very close approach, to the point where I was hanging over the trail to get close-up photos! Believe it or not, this photo was taken on the Pacific Ocean, and not my bathtub!

Everyone was so busy studying the Rhinoceros Auklet that no one noticed a surprising bird fly by. When I got home and looked at my photos, I was surprised to see another bird had sneaked into the frame.

The other bird (the blurry one in flight) is a Common Murre! Later on we saw a single Common Murre, so at least we didn't miss seeing one in person. Despite its name, Common Murres are very uncommon in southern California. It was a county bird for me. Careful scanning of the large flocks of Red-necked Phalaropes (there were hundreds) revealed a few Red Phalaropes, yet another new county bird for me.

However, perhaps the best sighting of the day was to come. We were cruising back towards Dana Point in the late morning (we had gone north all the way to Huntington Beach), when suddenly someone yelled "WHAAAAAAALE!!" The skipper quickly stopped the boat, and a gorgeous BLUE WHALE surfaced nearby. It came up several times to breathe before a dive, and we were able to approach extremely closely - it was practically under the boat. It was rather small for a Blue Whale ("only" about sixty feet), but still magnificent to see. Blue Whales are the largest creature to ever have lived on earth - you don't get to see something like that every day, do you?

It came up for breaths several more times before diving. It stayed under for about seven minutes before surfacing nearby. The nice thing about Blue Whales is that they don't move around a lot when they dive. It continued to put on a great show at close range for several more minutes.

Reluctantly we left the whale - we had to head back, or be late. We couldn't find anything else that could beat a Blue Whale, but it was exciting to see a Black Tern traveling with a small group of Common Terns. It was another county bird for me.

The Sea Explorer pulled into the Dana Point Harbor, and we reluctantly filed off the boat. It was an excellent day of pelagic birding, especially by Orange County standards. I didn't see any bird lifers, but I had never seen a Blue Whale before. I can't wait to get back on a boat headed to sea for birding!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Worth a Thousand Words...

This morning I biked to a San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary and Mason Regional Park in Irvine for some birding. I didn't find anything too exciting, but I spent a lot of time playing with my camera. So, I'll let the photos tell the story instead of my words! (Incidentally, who can identify the bird at the top of the post?)

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Rocky Adventure

Life is frustrating. The last couple days, when I've been sitting around indoors blowing my nose off and coughing my lungs out, the first major wave of migrants have come through. I was too sick to do much more than make an abbreviated sally outside, and I got tantalizing glimpses of migrants - Wilson's Warblers, Orange-crowned Warblers, Yellow Warblers, Warbling Vireos, and more. I was feeling a bit better this morning, so I decided to take a quick hike at Santiago Oaks Regional Park to see if there were any migrants left and also to chase a Rock Wren that had been spotted on the Villa Park Dam at the south end of the park several days before.

I've heard rumors of Rock Wrens around the dam in the past, but I had never found them there despite searching several times. Just getting to the dam this morning was an adventure in itself; as we rounded a bend in the trail, we were confronted with a raging torrent of water gushing over the trail. I quickly skipped across the makeshift bridge without a thought, but my half a century year-old dad was reluctant to fjord the creek. I guess they weren't kidding when they said the trail was "washed out".

We reached the dam at last. We poked around, scanning the crevices and boulders for Rock Wrens. Nope, no Rock Wrens, and very little else. After loitering around for awhile, I heard a suspicious-sounding scratchy little song drifting over from the dam. I trotted over there and found a Rock Wren perched on top of a large mound of dirt and stones near the dam. It was rather distant (and behind a fence liberally plastered with "Trespassing and Loitering Forbidden By Law" signs), so decent photos were impossible.

After several minutes, the wren popped down behind the mound and we started the hike back to the parking lot where we had locked up our bikes. Rock Wren was a new Bigby bird for me (#217), and it was the first I've seen at Santiago Oaks. Hopefully, I'll be able to get out and find some more interesting birds before the end of the weekend. I also hope to get over my illness before the new week starts - I know, I probably should not have exerted myself so much chasing that Rock Wren, but you've gotta do what you gotta do...

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Killing Time

I'll admit it is difficult to keep my mind off birds while wrestling with my schoolwork - after all, would you rather spend your days blissfully wandering the great outdoors birding, or cooped up indoors all day studing AP Chemistry, Precalc/Trig, and other wonderful subjects? I'm sure you can guess what I'd rather do. Still, I do the best I can and try to fit birding into my ever-narrowing cracks of open time.

My heavy load of schoolwork, in addition to a pestering cold that keeps me sniffling constantly, has not kept me from slipping out for quick birding jaunts around the neighborhood. In these few moments of respite this week, I've found my first MacGillivray's Warbler, Willow Flycatcher, and Wilson's Warblers of the fall. However, I got my most exciting bird on Sunday.

I've gotten into the habit of biking over to Peters Canyon Regional Park with my scope early every Sunday morning - I've convinced myself that something like a Baird's Sandpiper will show up at the lake. Every week, after diligently scanning the entire lake without a sign of a Baird's Sandpiper or anything else terribly interesting, I would bike home and think "Next week it will be there." Well, it was there last Sunday, but it wasn't what I expected.

It was a dreary morning, and after I rode up I began scanning the lake with bleary eyes. I dutifully scanned through the same Western and Least Sandpipers scampering over the mudflats, when something different popped out. No, not a Baird's Sandpiper; I've never seen an all-black Baird's Sandpiper with a yellow head. There isn't really another bird that looks like a Yellow-headed Blackbird, so I instantly recognized it. I eagerly tracked with my scope as it flew about and joined a little flock of Red-winged Blackbirds foraging on the mudflats. Yellow-headed Blackbirds are by no means common in Orange County, though they do show up annually. It was my first in the entire state, and a Bigby bird that I was definitely not expecting.

Still, as I pedaled home, I cursed Baird's Sandpipers under my breath and thought "Next week..."

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Worth It All?

Little black and white bodies busily bobbing in the calm water
Worth the bother?
Now picking, now plucking
My pencil I be sucking

I know I'm a terrible poet - blame it on my literature class. The little black and white birds busily bobbing about in the water of Pond C at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary were Red-necked Phalaropes. I dashed down there on my bike this morning to add them to my Bigby list (#215). If you wish to hear of the arduous ride home in the heat of the day, please refer to the previous post.