Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Wordless Wednesday

Dragonfly Lifer #1: Variegated Meadowhawk

I've always had a casual interest in dragonflies, perhaps because they share certain traits with birds. However, this interest usually only involved snapping a few photos of dragonflies and then wondering what they were. That has changed.

For Christmas I received a copy of Dragonflies and Damselflies of California by Tim Manolis. Now I'll be able to put a name on some of those dragonflies! Unfortunately, adult dragonflies aren't out and about in December (they're all dead!), so I'll have to wait until next year to crack out the book. Or so I thought.

While birding at Santiago Oaks Regional Park this morning I spotted a medium-sized reddish dragonfly streaking around the open area near the Villa Park Dam. Very few dragonflies can survive this late into the season, and the majority of the ones that do are Variegated Meadowhawks (Sympetrum corruptum). I snapped some photos and checked my book when I arrived home - yup, Variegated Meadowhawk.

I know I've seen plenty of other species, and have even identified several. Tough. I'm going to have to find them again to count for my "official" list. I'll try to remember to post each one, so keep your eyes open starting in the spring!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Crystal Clear

I am fascinated by shorebirds, and therefore spend much time observing them. I am lucky to live Orange County in this dimension, since it is possible to observe thirty species in one day. To find the greatest variety and numbers of shorebirds, the experts recommend that you hit the coastal estuaries - Upper Newport Bay and Bolsa Chica are famous for their shorebird-observing potential. However, the birds are often distant, making photography and detailed observation difficult. When my dad and I visited Crystal Cove State Park this morning, it became crystal clear that this is one of the best locations for photographing shorebirds in the county.

Crystal Cove State Park is a lovely stretch of beach alternating between sand and rocks. Washed up kelp and seaweed is not removed, unlike many other beaches, much to the shorebirds' appreciation. Additionally, many people visit the beach so the birds are used to the presence of humans and often allow close approach.

Although Crystal Cove is best known for its shorebird and seabird-watching opportunities, it offers fine "dry-shore" birding a short distance inland. Even the stroll from the parking lot to the beach can be productive, as California Gnatcatcher, Bewick's Wren, Wrentit, and others inhabit the coastal bluffs. This morning as my dad and I were headed for the beach, this California Towhee gave excellent photo opportunities on the edge of the trail.

My favorite part of the beach is the northernmost part of the park, called Treasure Cove. We certainly found a treasure trove of shorebirds there today. The tide was high, so many of the shorebirds were up on the beach snoozing, like this Willet. He didn't mind at all as I slithered through the sand on my belly towards him.

A Black-bellied Plover (though at this time of year, the British name of "Grey Plover" is more fitting) was keeping the napping Willet company. Black-bellied Plovers are normally quite wary, but this individual did not seem alarmed as I clicked away.

Amazingly, the plover stood his ground as I manuevered closer. When I had wormed within eight feet of the bird he decided he had better wake up and keep a careful eye on me. Look at that enormous eye!

The numerous Sanderlings skittering through the surf proved harder to photograph. These hyper bits of fluff can sprint faster than you can track them in the viewfinder! I absolutely love watching Sanderlings race the waves. They inspired me to invent "The Sanderling Game," which I still practice occasionally. More details on that some other time.

Also running through the surf, though much less nimbly than the Sanderlings, were big burly Marbled Godwits. Unlike the Sanderlings, who try to avoid getting their feet lapped by the waves, the godwits often stride through the shallow water, plunging their ridiculously long bills deep into the sand in search of invertebrates.

Other species of shorebirds that I saw, but didn't photograph, included Whimbrel, Black Turnstone, Ruddy Turnstone, and Surfbird. We headed back to the parking lot mid-morning, satisfied with all the shorebirds we had seen. The only hazard of birding at Crystal Cove is stealth waves, which can easily sneak up on you and drench your shoes if you aren't paying attention, as my dad discovered. For those interested in photographing or getting close views of shorebirds, I can highly recommend a visit to Crystal Cove State Park.

Wild Goose Chase

I know it's a cliche, but "wild goose chase" accurately describes my travels yesterday. I decided to embark on possibly my last long Bigby ride of the year in search of a couple special geese on Saturday morning.

The story begins on Christmas Eve. On that day my dad and I drove around to do some last-minute Christmas shopping, and popped around a couple spots quickly to look for birds. One of those places was North Lake in Irvine, one of those nasty sterile urban lakes that is overrun with coots and domestic ducks. Interesting birds occasionally show up in these kinds of places, so they are always worth checking out. Sure enough, I spotted an interesting trio of geese - two Cackling Geese and a Ross's Goose. By no means are either of these species super-rare, but they aren't common in Orange County and were not on my Bigby list.

After an hour-long bike ride in brisk temperatures, I arrived at North Lake early on Friday morning and was greeted by the quacking of Mallards and grunting of American Coots. I circled the lake, carefully scanning the water and lawn for geese. After half and hour I convinced myself that the geese weren't there and continued on to San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, determined to find that accursed Northern Waterthrush that I seem utterly incapable of locating. Even more of the riparian area at San Joaquin was flooded, created more potential waterthrush habitat and thus making the search even more hopeless. After a couple hours of wandering around, carefully scanning the flooded forest floor and keeping my ears alert for calls, I gave up.

Upper Newport Bay was next on the list. I reasoned that something, perhaps the missing geese, might show up there. I rode into a headwind around the bay, found nothing unusual save a Eurasian Wigeon, and turned around to head back. Instead of the tailwind I expected, the wind had shifted and I was again laboring against the wind. Ugh.

Mason Regional Park is just off the bike trail I take home, so I deviated to scan the lake for the missing geese. There were plenty of Canada Geese loitering around the edge of the scummy lake, but they weren't the geese I was looking for. Hundreds of coots stormed in my direction the instant I started snacking on a granola bar. I also noticed a small group of Northern Shovelers doing what they do best (shoveling) nearby and sneaked up for a few photos.

I decided to take another look at North Lake on the way home, since it was only a couple miles out of my way. I'm glad I did, because just minutes after arriving I spotted the stray trio of geese grazing on the lawn on the opposite side of the lake. A tense five-minute whirlwind ride and I was there, watching two Cackling Geese and a Ross's Goose at point-blank range.

The Cackling Geese were true midgets, undoubtedly of the "Aleutian" race. This race is easily identified by the thick white neck ring and overall darkness. Unfortunately, the Ross's Goose had a knack for turning its head or moving just as I was taking the photo, so I didn't get any really great shots of it. This one would have come out nicely, if only I hadn't cut off the tail.

I was very happy to add these two species of geese to my Bigby list. They will likely be my last new Bigby species of the year, since I don't have any more long rides planned. I decided against riding to Bolsa Chica, because that is a fifty-two mile round trip and I would only have about nine hours of daylight to ride and also find my target birds. As alluring as that handful of new species is, I don't like the idea of riding through Santa Ana at night. With the geese, my Bigby list stands at 235. Just a few more days until it starts over again!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

That Was Easy!

Most serious birders spend large amounts of time "chasing" rare birds. I am no exception, but my ability to chase rare birds is somewhat handicapped by the fact that I lack both a driver's license and a car. Oftentimes, rare birds only hang around a day or two, and conning/begging/convincing/coercing/bargaining with my parents for a ride usually takes longer than that. It is entirely understandable why they are reluctant to drive forty-five minutes to see (or maybe not see) an obscure brown sparrow they've never heard of; only a rabid county lister would see the point of that.

But a Vermilion Flycatcher! This species occurs fairly regularly in Orange County, but, being new to the county, it wasn't on my county list. I convinced my mom that the little cemetery where it was wintering was "only a few miles" out of the way home from Starr Ranch and that it would take "only a few minutes" to find the bird.


For once, I was actually right on both counts. The cemetery - El Toro Cemetery in Lake Forest - was only about five miles off the two forty-one toll road we take home from Starr Ranch. On Friday afternoon, after a slow morning of banding at Starr Ranch (we caught exactly six birds, though I did see a couple Scott's Orioles which made things worthwhile), we glided into the cemetery and parked. It took all of about two minutes to located the female Vermilion Flycatcher hawking insects low in some trees nearby. It was rather unwary, almost tame, so I managed to shoot some decent photos. A nice new Orange County bird for me. Don't ask me what my current total is, as I do not know the precise figure... somewhere in the 270s, I believe.

It was nice to easily locate the bird I was seeking for once! Far too often have I chased a rare bird unsuccessfully. Some of the close misses are painful to remember, but some birders get in bragging matches about the birds they've missed ("Once I missed an Ivory Gull by two minutes." "Oh yeah? Once I missed a Bananaquit by thirty seconds!") I hope to boost my sub-par Orange County list past the three hundred mark by the time I leave home for college. It is possible, but it will take a lot more successful rarity chases like this one!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Wordless Wednesday

Perhaps I should change it to "Wordless Thursday"... sorry for the chronic lateness!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The End Is in Sight

I have put a lot of time and effort into my Bigby list this year, and recently I've had to face a terrible yet unavoidable realization: it is ending soon. I have only a couple more weeks left in the year to find a few elusive species that I haven't seen yet this year. I'll certainly be starting a new list on January first, but I suspect that I won't be able to beat this year's total. I've lucked out on many difficult species such as Tropical Kingbird, Pine Warbler, and Least Bittern. Of course, I've missed some possible species, including some embarrassing ones (Pectoral Sandpiper... grr!) One Saturday morning I stuffed my saddlebags with the essentials - camera, binoculars, food, and a map - and set off. My destination was San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in Irvine, where I had a few target birds in mind: Harris's Sparrow, Northern Waterthrush, and Common Ground-Dove.

All three of these species are exceedingly difficult to find in Orange County. Harris's Sparrow is the rarest of the lot. One had been reported from San Joaquin a couple days previously. A Northern Waterthrush has been present there most of the fall, but this skulky species is difficult to locate. The dove was perhaps my best chance - it is probably resident here, but this midget is shy and stays hidden most of the time. It was a major challenge, and not unexpectedly I failed. I did, however, find a completely unexpected species that also just happened to be a new Bigby bird.

After sorting through the vast sparrow flocks in hopes of finding the Harris's, I set off for the back area of the sanctuary. This area is seldom visited by birders, but it is an excellent spot for birding: extensive dense willow thickets, small ponds ringed by tules, and flooded areas. According to the rare bird alert, the waterthrush was in "the back area." That helps a lot, since the back area is acres and acres of moist forest perfectly suited for a waterthrush to sneak around in. I meticulously searched the area, walking every trail, ears tuned for waterthrush chips as I scanned the ground and undergrowth. I found the Lost Trail (ha, ha), still set on the waterthrush mode. I looked up from the flooded forest floor to see a medium-sized bird perched in a dead tree nearby. It looked too large to be one of the omnipresent Yellow-rumped Warblers... through binoculars it was mostly yellowish with a few random red blotches, and a thick bill. There isn't much that it could be, except a hatch-year male Summer Tanager! It was too distant for a good photo, but I got great looks at it before it flitted off an was swallowed by the willow forest. Summer Tanagers aren't exactly rare, as a handful show up in the county every year. I guess their status in Orange County is similar to that of the Plumbeous Vireo - a magrant. I had missed this species previously for my Bigby list, so I was elated to find it. Number two thirty-one!

I made the most of the rest of the morning at San Joaquin, but I couldn't find anything else of interest. The not-so-Common Ground-Doves remained out of sight. I came across this chilled dragonfly. I can't recall seeing one like this before, though most of them look the same to me (I need a dragonfly field guide badly!).

If you saw a bedraggled teenager sitting cross legged in a corner of the parking lot at San Joaquin eating a meager lunch late on Saturday morning, that was most likely me. I filled out my checklist while nibbling on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, raisins, and of course, the essential Quaker Chewy Chocolate Chip snack bars. I decided to continue on to Upper Newport Bay, where I hoped to find a Burrowing Owl. Some impressive bluffs tower over the west side of the bay, and Burrowing Owls alleged sometimes show up there in the winter. As always, I stopped at the far end of the bay near Jamboree Road. This spot often has hundreds of ducks and shorebirds foraging at close range. Saturday was no different, except for a sick-looking Pacific Loon casually paddling around with the coots and wigeons very close to the bridge. (This is also where I photographed the Whimbrel at the top of the post.

When I arrived at the Muth Center (where the owls supposedly are supposed to be), I found bluffs. Lots of bluffs. Most of them were riddled with ground-squirrel holes, with plenty of spots of the owls to be hiding. I wandered about, carefully scanning the open areas, but it was really a needle-and-a-haystack search. The fact that large areas of the bluffs were closed didn't help either. I poked around for roughly an hour before giving up.

On the ride home I found a lovely pair of Hooded Mergansers in the Peters Canyon Creek just south of Walnut Avenue in Irvine. The Peters Canyon Creek is a smelly, trashy little trickle at the bottom of a huge concrete ditch. Even so, interesting birds do occasionally show up here. This is one of my favorite ducks, and unfortunately they are decidedly rare in Orange County.

When I arrived home late in the afternoon, I had over thirty miles under my belt, and only one new Bigby bird to show for it. Oh well, I was lucky to even get that. I currently need only eight more birds to reach two hundred and forty (I got #232 yesterday at Irvine Regional Park - Varied Thrush). I'll be working hard over Christmas break trying to find eight more! Here are my predictions for my last eight birds (I hope I can find eight more!):

1. Reddish Egret (always at Bolsa Chica)
2. Common Goldeneye (Santa Ana River)
3. Snowy Plover (should find this at Bolsa Chica)
4. Pacific Golden-Plover (there's ONE at Bolsa Chica... needle in a haystack!)
5. Thayer's Gull (Bolsa Chica)
6. Snow Goose (Santa Ana River)
7. Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Lemon Heights - I found one on the Christmas Bird Count, but unfortunately I was in a car)
8. Northern Waterthrush (I'll find this tricky little devil at San Joaquin... it was seen on Sunday!)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Monday, December 8, 2008

Bark Bird

Many species of birds use bark in one way or another: foraging for food, using the bark for nests, or storing food in crevices in the bark. Brown Creepers, however, are the ultimate bark bird. They forage almost exclusively on tree trunks and place their nests behind loose slabs of bark. They are well-designed for a life of crawling up tree trunks: their mottled brown plumage hides them from predators, their sharp claws allow them to grip the bark, their stiffened tail feathers support their bodies as they hitch up trees, and with their fine, curved bills they probe for insects in crevices of the bark.

This makes Brown Creepers extremely difficult to locate. To make matters worse, they have weak voices, only occasionally uttering a high-pitched little squeak that is easily missed. I remember the thrill of finding my first creeper in my Michigan backyard many years ago. I spent hours watching with fascination the mouse-like birds jerking up the large tree trunks. I've always had a soft spot for Brown Creepers, and I've missed them since moving to California, where they are few and far between. So, I was understandably overjoyed to find one of these charming birds this morning at Irvine Regional Park.

This morning was a fairly standard winter morning at Irvine Regional Park. It was a bit nippy, but the birds didn't seem to mind; plenty of common species were frolicking through the treetops. This fall has been a bit disappointing there, as I've found little of interest despite carefully searching. I locked my bike to a light post and quickly located a colorful Red-breasted Sapsucker busily drilling away at the trunk of a sweet gum tree. I wandered about, enjoying the common birds (I get an intangible magical feeling whenever getting good looks at the residents such as Spotted Towhees and Western Scrub-Jays), but finding nothing unusual. It was shaping up to be one of those regular days that blend together.

A strange sight stopped my in my tracks as I was loping across the park: a small, dark chunk of bark crawling up the side of a sycamore trunk. This was another of those cases in which I knew exactly what the bird was before lifting my binoculars. It simply had to be a Brown Creeper. The bird edged out from behind a branch, revealing itself to be a very lovely Brown Creeper. I sprinted over, reminded of how much I love these guys.

I watched, enthralled, while it would probe around in a tree until it darted to the base of another, giving a few weak tsee notes as it flew. In flight, Brown Creepers show a bold buffy wing band. I was lucky enough to capture it with its wings spread, showing this band.

I spent fifteen minutes observing the creeper. Eventually, I was forced to turn my back on it and head home or face a ruffled mom. Brown Creepers defiantly (inside joke, not a spelling error, thank you very much) rank among my top ten favorite birds. Please don't ask me to name the other nine - I'll have a tough time thinking of the couple hundred other species that vie for that position.

To make the sighting even more exciting, Brown Creeper is a new Bigby bird for me. One was present at the Holy Sepulcher Cemetery a scant half a mile down the road from my house all last winter, but I never managed to find it after December 28th of the year before. Number two hundred and thirty. Only a handful of possible new species remain, and all these would require long bike rides and a lot of effort. We'll see how it comes out.

Friday, December 5, 2008

A Tale of Two Lakes

Bodies of water are understandably scarce in arid Southern California. Only a couple natural lakes exist in Orange County. However, dozens of man-made lakes have been built, from tiny ponds to massive reservoirs. When I first heard that my new neighborhood had a couple small lakes (more accurately, ponds), I was ecstatic. I thought I'd find lots of different waterfowl and other wonderful birds there. The lakes turned out to be a disappointment: concrete-lined sterile ponds with very few birds. I've persisted, and found some neat birds.

The only ducks that frequent the lake are a few handfuls of Mallards and a couple domestic ducks (formerly, there was a third domestic duck; I dubbed the trio "The Three Stooges"). Occasionally a different species will drop in for a day or two: I've seen Northern Shoveler, Ring-necked Duck, Ruddy Duck, American Wigeon, Green-winged Teal, Cinnamon Teal, and Wood Duck there. Interestingly, different species most often show up on very windy days, perhaps seeking less rough waters. Last winter a drake Gadwall showed up on the lower lake (the larger one) and spent several months seeking handouts from passersby with the resident flock of Mallards. A couple weeks ago, a drake Gadwall appeared in the Mallard flock and has been there ever since. It is impossible to say, but I suspect that it is the same individual - rare birds return to the same location winter after winter, so why not the common ones?

A male Gadwall is a handsome bird indeed, and very worthy of being photographed. The ducks usually paddle over to you if you stand by the lake, hoping for bread crumbs. I walked up to the edge of the lake, and within thirty seconds I had about twenty Mallards, ten American Coots, and the one Gadwall drifting about expectantly a few feet away. Tossing pebbles in the water holds the ducks' attention for a few minutes before they begin to drift away, so I was able to get some great photo opportunities while lying on the edge of the lake. The Gadwall must have felt lonely, since he kept approaching female Mallards and displaying for them - dipping his bill in the water, rearing up, and giving a loud nasal quack. The hens were not impressed at all.

Gadwalls may not be brightly colored, but the fine patterns render them very pleasing to they eye. It always brightens up a quick walk around the neighborhood to see the Gadwall on the lower lake. I check the lakes several days a week just in case something interesting shows up. I'm also curious as to why the Gadwall hangs around this pitiful little lake; if I were a Gadwall, I'd rather spend the winter at a better place, with more food and cover. Over the winter, I'll work on obtaining some better images of this bird, since it is extremely cooperative.

Thursday, December 4, 2008