Saturday, November 15, 2008
Wind, Fire, Birds, Bikes...
Just another average day in California. I rode my bike to Upper Newport Bay to search out some birds this morning - an especially high tide was scheduled to flood the marsh. High tide is generally not a good time for birding estuaries - most of the birds congregate on usually distant islands of higher ground. However, this tide was so high that it completely flooded the bay, forcing lots of birds out of cover. My mom and I birded Upper Newport Bay yesterday, and we saw a Short-eared Owl, Eurasian Wigeon, and other cool birds near the Muth Interpretive Center. I decided to ride down there to try to add the owl to my Bigby list, and also to see what else would show up.
Unfortunately, it was just about the worst day I could have chosen for a bike ride. Temperatures soared into the nineties, and Santa Ana winds - hot, dry winds blowing in off the desert - gusted all day, completely drying out the air. I merrily pedaled down there, a strong tailwind at my back. The air was so dry that I was thirsty before I had even left my garage. Still, I managed to get down to the bay in one piece, arriving just after eight a.m. at the traditional spot for scoping the bay at high tide - the end of the boardwalk near the center.
A few other birders arrived, and we chatted and scanned the marsh as the water slowly rose. After a short time, I spotted the Short-eared Owl sitting on a partially submerged stick. It was waaay out in the marsh, and it was little more than a speck. However, it took off after several minutes and cruised around on slow, buoyant wingbeats. Yes! A new Bigby bird, and a pretty nifty one at that. "Worth riding fifteen miles for," I mentioned to the birder next to me. He gave me a look of both admiration and horror and replied "No wonder you're so skinny!"
As the water rose even higher, it began revealing secretive marsh birds that are normally very difficult to find. Clapper Rails started popping out everywhere, standing in water up to their bellies, trying to wait out the high water. Someone spotted an American Bittern poking up out of the cord grass, and then another, and another... all in all we estimated there were at least SEVEN American Bitterns in this one relatively small area. This is an extraordinary count for Orange County! This is not a Bigby bird for me, but almost is; I've seen only one previously.
I started to feel sorry for a lot of the rails. They were being slowly pushed into the open by the water. There were many Soras in the area, many swimming to higher ground. Why, why why do they swim clumsily to higher ground when they could simply fly?? They slowly inched across the channel of deep water. One encountered a large reed floating in the water and attempted to dive under it. Soras are not very good at diving, and it got about half-way under the reed. It continued across the channel, dragging the reed along with it. After about two hours of watching, I counted about fifteen Clapper Rails, ten or twelve Soras, and two Virginia Rails.
Around ten forty-five, I started to head for home. The tailwind had helped me reach the bay very quickly, but now I was laboring into a very strong headwind that was constantly blowing dry air and dust into my eyes. I decided to stop at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, mostly just to get a Coke, but also maybe to check a few of the ponds. I walked around the first three ponds, finding nothing unusual. As I was scanning Pond C with my binoculars, I spotted a couple small brown ducks with brown crests. I instantly knew they were female Hooded Mergansers, and grabbed my scope to get a better view. This is a very suprising bonus - another new Bigby bird. I looked around to make sure no one was watching and whooped and did a little happy dance to celebrate.
Now it was time to head home in earnest. I gulped vast amounts of water, stopping at every single drinking fountain I came across to refill my bottle. I noticed an enormous cloud of smoke in the direction of home. A call home revealed that a wildfire had broken out near the Orange County/Riverside County border. The cloud grew larger and larger, looking eerily like a mushroom cloud.
When I walked in the door, exhausted, I was stunned to see my parents watching a news station showing frightening coverage of homes and buildings being devouring by gigantic flames licking up into the sky. The fire, named the "Freeway Complex Fire", has burned dozens of houses and is being driven by the fierce winds. Right now the fire is about five and a half miles from my house - I hope it stays away from my neighborhood and local birding patches! Good luck to the firefighters fighting this and other wildfires raging in southern California right now.