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!)

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