Sunday, March 30, 2008

Mormons and a Gopher

For me, new birds for my life list have become increasingly tough to find. I enjoy county listing, state listing, Bigbying, and other listing games, but I've found it really fun getting to know the local herps, butterflies, and plants. I don't go out actively seeking these things, but I keep an eye out for them while birding. Today, I found two lifers, but not of the avian variety.

This afternoon, while taking a short hike around some of the wilder areas of Irvine Regional Park, I found several small, dark butterflies (pictured above) flitting around despite the cloud cover and cool temperatures. They seemed vaguely familiar - I browse through my butterfly book occasionally - but I didn't know what they were. I was able to get some good photos of one of them by lying down in the middle of the trail (good thing no one came by while I was photographing the butterfly!). When I got home, I identified them as Mormon Metalmarks (Apodemia mormo). A butterfly species for me, and the first metalmark of any kind I've ever seen.

A few minutes later, I spotted an enormous snake stretched almost completely across the trail. I checked through binoculars to see if it was a rattlesnake - it wasn't, so I advanced closer. It was a very large snake - at least four feet long! It wasn't at all willing to pose for photos, and quickly slithered off into the brush. I'm no expert on snakes, but I believe it is a Gopher Snake (Pituophis catenifer). Please correct me if I'm wrong! If it is a Gopher Snake, it is a life herp for me.

By now you may be wondering what's wrong with me - I haven't talked about any of the birds I saw! There were few. Most seemed to be hunkered down out of the wind and cool temperatures. However, I found the Lewis's Woodpecker sitting down low in its favorite tree, giving good looks. An odd thumping sound emanating from a hollow tree near the lake turned out to be a White-breasted Nuthatch working on its nest cavity. Every now and then it would poke its head out of the crack, but I only caught the bill.

Yesterday afternoon, my dad and I were up in the vicinity of Brea, so we swung by Carbon Canyon Regional Park. I'd never been there before. We didn't see very many birds, probably due to the time of day, the crowds of people, and the wind. There is lots of scrub along a dry creek bed and some tall pines that look promising, so I'll definitely be visiting again. A pair of egrets - one Snowy and one Great Egret - were loafing in the shade of a tree overhanging the lake. This gave me the opportunity to finally get some egret photos that aren't horribly overexposed!

Lately, I've been noticing lots of birds carrying nesting material. I followed a California Towhee with a huge mouthful of dried grass to a partially-completed nest last week somewhere at Peters Canyon, and this week there was one egg in the nest.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Night Birding (and Toading)

This evening, my dad and I spent about an hour looking for night birds at Irvine Regional Park. We arrived around seven, just as the towhees, Wrentits, and Northern Mockingbirds were shutting down for the night. The wonderful smell of sage filled the cool evening air. It wasn't dark yet, but starting to get dim.

We headed across the wash at the far eastern edge of the park on foot. A pair of Lesser Nighthawks coursed through the air above the wash. It was just light enough to make out the white slashes on the undersides of the wings. As I watched them silently float around foraging, I realized that it was a new year bird. No Common Poorwills calling yet, which was what I really wanted to hear.

I realized that the poorwills might not be calling for a time yet, so we continued around the wash into the sycamore/oak woodland, playing recordings hoping to attract Western Screech-Owls. No luck. Large flocks of Common Ravens rustled through the treetops, settling in for the night. We encountered lots of Western Toads (like the one pictured above) hopping across the road, undoubtedly headed for the puddle in the middle of the wash. After awhile we gave up and headed back across the wash. I pulled out the iPod again, cranked the volume, and played the Common Poorwill's song. I kept playing it for several minutes, and... there! The mournful little whistle of a Common Poorwill wafted down out of the hills. It called almost constantly, and other one answered it from the other side of the wash. Unfortunately, they were both very distant. Still, a new state/county bird! I'll have to ride my bike over there some evening to get it for my Bigby list.

"Hey Neil, is that a bird in that tree?" my dad asked and gestured with his flashlight towards a lone tree in the middle of the wash. I switched on the spotlight,and sure enough, there was a beautiful Barn Owl sitting there! It remained there for only about ten seconds before lifting off to start hunting. A great way to end the evening.

Friday, March 21, 2008

I *heart* migration

Even though spring migration technically began in early January with the movement of certain swallows and hummingbirds, the last week has seemed very spring-like. The vegetation has grown even more green and lush, flowers are blooming, and the awesome rush of spring migration has started. Yellow-rumped Warblers (like the one pictured above) are still around, but are on the move. The males (like this one) are looking really spiffy in their spring plumage. I took this photo at Peters Canyon on Wednesday, where I also found my first Wilson's Warblers, Bullock's Orioles, and Violet-green Swallows of the year. I also encountered a Song Sparrow doing a flight display; it flew up about thirty feet, and while sailing to the ground belted out a lusty song. I've never seen that before! I also was temporarily stumped by an odd trilling song, which I tracked down to a Common Yellowthroat. Their song is quite variable, but this sounded almost like a Wilson's Warbler! I saw the bird sing. Later, when I have time, I'll try to post the recording I made. The White-crowned Sparrows are still around in droves. This scruffy-lookin' second-year (notice the brown head stripes mixed with black) bird was very cooperative.

On Tuesday I searched fruitlessly for the Brown Creeper that had been reported from the Holy Sepulcher Cemetery half a mile from my house. I've dipped on this particular bird probably about half a dozen times this winter... the fact that tree crews were busily butchering the trees where it had been seen didn't help my search either. I did find a singing Purple Finch, a new year and Bigby species for me. Last year they apparently bred in the cemetery, so I'll have to keep tabs on it. The adjacent flood-control basin has sprung to life - I could hear lots of birds in the now very green and moist riparian area below. I'll have to check it out!

Yesterday I set out early on my bike, headed for Bolsa Chica in Huntington Beach. I was disappointed by my route, the Santa Ana River Bike Trail; it burrowed through heavy industrial areas, concrete jungles that hosted no birds whatsoever. When I finally got into Costa Mesa, I was excited to spot a majestic Peregrine Falcon bathing in the trickle of water in the vast concrete ditch. I got excellent looks at it, but unfortunately it flew off before I could extract my camera from my backpack.

Fortunately, before I set out, I had noticed that the river trail cuts within half a mile of Estancia Park in Costa Mesa, where a Pine Warbler has been wintering. However, I hadn't seen any reports of it recently. As I rolled up, I heard it chipping in the same pine tree where I had seen it on January first! A bit of pishing quickly brought it out in the open. It was chipping almost the whole time I was there, and it even sang a couple times. That's one bird I won't get again on my Bigby!

I finally reached Bolsa Chica in the late morning. I found it to be rather birdless. The tide was high, and most of the birds were sitting on distant islands directly in the sun. Sigh. I came thirty miles for this? I thought as I walked down the trail. Suddenly, an American Bittern lifted out of the marsh, flew right over my head, and landed off in the distance. Worth thirty miles of hard pedaling. I also spotted three Brants, but they were too distant for photographs. I did a good sixty miles, and added seven new Bigby birds. Verrrrrry long day!!

This morning I birded Santiago Oaks Regional Parks in Orange for a couple hours. The usual suspects were out and about in large numbers, but I didn't see anything unusual. I couldn't find the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, but I didn't spend much time searching for it. I did see a newly-arrived Warbling Vireo, another new year and Bigby species. It was a beautiful morning!

Monday, March 17, 2008

Pedal Power...

There's the proof: my trusty steed carried me about sixty miles today, all the way to Crystal Cove State Park and back. I was lacking some key coastal birds from my Bigby list, ones that I couldn't find at Upper Newport Bay. I set off from home early and pedaled steadily until I reached Crystal Cove in the mid-morning. I locked up my bike and practically sprinted down the boardwalk to the rocky beach. I arrived, panting, and started scanning. Where were all the birds?! Nothing seemed to be in sight. However, I quickly noticed a team of tightly-packed Sanderlings running in and out of the waves. I smiled - one of my favorite birds, and a new Bigby bird at that. I scrambled through the slippery, sharp rocks looking for more shorebirds. A gaggle of Black Turnstones suddenly ran ahead of me in the rocks. They're amazingly well-camouflaged amongst the rocks!

As I continued on, I noticed a big Whimbrel resting on a large rock. He paid no attention to me as I crawled closer rather ungracefully through the rocks. A Black Turnstone joined him. I liked this shot of the "shorebird buddies".

I walked up the beach, scattering hyperactive packs of Sanderlings everywhere. A movement among some dried kelp turned out to be a Black-bellied Plover. It was just starting to get some black on its belly.

As I picked my way back through the rocks, a small group of Surfbirds flew in. I couldn't help but let slip a loud "Woo-hoo!", much to the bewilderment of other people in the area. The Surfbirds were partially in breeding plumage and were very handsome. I had to wade through very chilly knee-deep water to get most of these photos...

Finally, I headed back up the stairs toward the parking lot. I paused at the nearby vista and scanned the ocean. It was almost as still as a bathtub, and it was very clear. I couldn't pick out any Black-vented Shearwaters, but I did see singles of Pacific Loon and Royal Tern. Butterflies distracted me on the way back to my bike, including this Western Pygmy-Blue (Bredphidium exile), the world's smallest butterfly.

On the way back, I stopped by Little Corona City Beach, which is located at the end of Poppy Avenue. It is a delightful little beach with lots of rocky shorebird habitat, but there were not very many shorebirds there. I did find a first-cycle Glaucous-winged Gull and several Surf Scoters there.

When I finally arrived back at home, I was stunned to find that I had seen 108 species. That tied my biggest biking day ever. I don't like tying records - I prefer breaking them. I had a couple hours of light left, so I ran over to Irvine Regional Park to find a few last species. I ended up finding nine more species for the day, giving me a total of 117 species for the day. Twelve of these were new Bigby birds: Surf Scoter, Pacific Loon, Brandt's Cormorant, Virginia Rail, Black-bellied Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, Black Turnstone, Surfbird, Sanderling, Glaucous-winged Gull, and Royal Tern. That gives me 165 for my Bigby list... only 35 more species to go to 200!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Quail at Last

"Chi-ca-go!" A California Quail trumpeted from the bushes at Peters Canyon. A couple scurried across the path in front of me, and others rustled and called in the brush. I tried to imitate their comical call, and a couple responded. One male even popped up onto a bush right next to the trail, and I was able to sneak up close to it for photo Strangely, today was the first time that I've seen a California Quail for my Bigby list. Last year, I would stumble across at least one covey almost every time I visited Peters Canyon.

I didn't see anything spectacular this morning. It was very pleasant though, with mild temperatures and extremely lush vegetation. Birds were very active and vocal. Wildflowers were abundant, and I found this interesting-looking one growing right along the trail. I really need to get a guide to wildflowers...

On Monday I hauled my scope over to Irvine Regional Park to try to get some good digiscoped photos. Unfortunately, it seemed that as soon as I got a bird in my scope, the bird would fly away. However, a couple Pied-billed Grebes on the upper lake made good subjects. Surprisingly, I had never photographed this very common but interesting species before.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Forty Miles, Five Birds

The only thing better than birding is birding by bike. I've really been enjoying Bigbying (birding under my own power - biking and walking) this year, though the pace is slowing down considerably. On January first, I biked/walked approximately ten miles and recorded sixty-nine new Bigby species. That's a respectable 6.9 species per mile. Last month, when I biked to Upper Newport Bay, I gained twenty-six new Bigby species for about 0.65 species per mile. Today, I biked to San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, Upper Newport Bay, and Sepulveda Vista Point, a total distance of roughly forty miles. I logged only five new Bigby species for about 0.125 species per mile. If one looks just at the numbers, it may seem as if my day was quite unproductive. On the contrary, it was fantastic!

I left home shortly after seven and headed straight down the mountains to sea trail, my sights on San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary. I was hoping to see the Tropical Kingbird again, this time for my Bigby list. Somewhere along the way I realized that the bird might leave its roost and wander away earlier than last week, since it was sunny and warm this morning. I pushed the pedals harder. I rolled into the entrance to San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary around 8:20 - I had made it in an hour and ten minutes. Never has the entrance road into San Joaquin seemed so long! Instead of stopping at the Audubon House, I continued straight on down the dirt path that follows the San Diego Creek. A birder visiting from England pointed out the Tropical Kingbird to me as it fluttered around in the same trees it had been in last Saturday morning. It put on a great show, chasing Cassin's Kingbirds away from its favored tree and calling. Around 8:50 it flew over the creek and landed over in the golf course. A couple Canada Geese in Pond Two nearby were also new for my Bigby list. About time!

Satisfied, I continued on to Upper Newport Bay. As I pedaled around the loop road, I saw birds everywhere - American Avocets, Marbled Godwits, and Willets resting on islands, Ospreys flying around, and a grand assortment of ducks floating on the water. The outlet at Big Canyon was hopping with activity. Most obvious was the resident flock of very noisy Black Skimmers loafing on the ground.

My heart jumped when I spotted a white goose swimming through the water nearby. I knew a Snow Goose had been reported from the bay. Yup - nice Snow Goose... but why does look so much like a Ross's Goose? Oh... because it is a Ross's Goose! But wait - why does it have that little "grin patch" and long bill? The answer: hybrid. From a distance, it actually did look very much like a Ross's Goose.

However, at close range, the thin black "grin patch" on its bill was apparent. Ross's Goose does not have this mark. Also, the bill was too long for a Ross's Goose, but too short for a Snow Goose. Overall, it was intermediate between the two species. Since it is a hybrid, it doesn't count for anything on my Bigby list. Initially, this frustrated me greatly since I am not likely to see either species on my bike this year, but it was the first hybrid "white goose" I have encountered.

Lots of birds were gathering at the outlet to drink the fresh water. I spotted a couple Greater Scaups amongst the Lesser Scaups nearby - another new Bigby bird. Here's a male American Wigeon threatening some American Coots that were approaching him too closely.

After gobbling up an elegant lunch of smashed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I started towards Sepulveda Vista Point, located near UCI. Earlier in the winter, a pair of Rock Wrens had been hanging out there. I toiled up a couple hills and finally arrived. I scanned the rocks - nothing. I jumped around in the boulder field, trying to find them. No luck. Lastly, I resorted to pishing and was met with a deafening silence. However, it was pleasant up there - the point is located on top of a hill and overlooks much of Orange County. I also kicked up a few Horned Larks, another new Bigby species for me. The photo at the top of the page was taken from here - it's quite scenic! I also found several singing Western Meadowlarks, a Lark Sparrow, and some Red-tailed Hawks here.

It was a fun day, filled with exercise and birds. I managed to pick up the Tropical Kingbird for my Bigby list, along with some others. My goal is to find two hundred species on my Bigby list this year, and I have only forty-some more to go. That'll take awhile...

Friday, March 7, 2008

A Birdy Week

I tried to go birding every day this week. I feel that I haven't been birding enough recently (though it is impossible to get enough!). I did manage to see plenty birds!

On Sunday afternoon, my family had a picnic lunch at Tri-City Park in Placentia. Or rather, they had a picnic lunch; I birded. Birding takes priority over eating. I was hoping to see and photograph the Ross's Goose that was there for quite a while earlier in the winter. I had already seen it before in January, but it was very uncooperative for photos. No sign of it, despite the fact I scanned every whitish looking domestic goose on the lake. There were hundreds of American Wigeons and American Coots in the lake, and among them I noticed one drake Eurasian Wigeon. It was cooperative for photos, but none of them turned out as well as I hoped they would. Here's a head-on shot, reminiscent of the infamous "Mad Bluebird", except it's a Mad Wigeon.

From there, we headed up to La Mirada to take a stroll around the campus of Biola University, where my brother will likely go to college next year. Again, I am lying when I saw "we". The rest of my family dropped me off at a vacant lot about a mile from the college while they visited the campus. It was my idea - a Dusky-capped Flycatcher had been spotted here a few days ago. It was early afternoon, just about the worst time to go birding. Still, I wandered around aimlessly, staring up into the tall eucalyptus trees while trying to avoid the stinging nettle in vain. After about ten minutes I hit the birds with my secret weapon: pishing, accompanied by my ear-splitting squeal call. Yellow-rumped Warblers, House Finches, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and Anna's Hummingbirds instantly were in my face, scolding up a storm. Another bird flew in - another House Finch? It landed on a dead branch, and through binoculars I could see the yellow belly, brownish upperparts, and largish black bill. The Dusky-cap! I managed to call over some other birders, and we all got fleeting glimpses of it as it flew to different trees constantly. A couple times, we got to hear its distinctive call. After everyone had seen the bird and it had flown off, I finally got to meet the birders. After introducing myself, one of the birders said, "Oh, you're the Neil Gilbert! Pleased to meet you."

My. I didn't know I was famous.

That ended Sunday's birding. On Monday, I biked over the the Hewes Quarries to see if anything interesting had shown up. I didn't seen anything really unusual, and nothing different from last time. However, I was very excited to see the Western Grebes doing their "chariot" courtship displays, in which a pair rears up on the water next to each other and patters across the water a surprising distance. On the way home, I stopped in at Santiago Oaks Regional Park to try to attain better photos of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Nope. I sat motionless on the trail near its favorite tree for over an hour, waiting for it to pose. It flew in a couple times, but always stayed under cover. I did get a decent shot of a lovely Red-shouldered Hawk sitting in a sycamore right above the trail. Very beautiful bird, and the first decent shot I've gotten of one.

I also encountered several Cassin's Kingbirds squabbling on a power line close to my house. One was singing almost constantly. I hear the "chi-beer!" call note all the time, but I have heard them sing only a few times previously.

I spent Tuesday afternoon at Irvine Regional Park. I didn't cover too much ground, since I worked on sketching some birds. I did see some interesting birds, though. It took me approximately three seconds to spot the trusty Lewis's Woodpecker on his favorite snag. It took an even shorter time to find the Red-naped Sapsucker; I biked under its tree, looked up, and there it was. (I did, of course, turn around and watch it for awhile). I also found a lone Red-breasted Sapsucker near parking lot four. The number of Ring-necked Ducks on the lake has dwindled to three. I worked on getting better Wood Duck photos for awhile. I was pleased at how this one of a female came out. Worth lying in the disgusting mud-debris at the edge of the lake, I'd say.

I finally got around to birding Peters Canyon on Wednesday morning. It has grown very green and lush, with many beautiful wildflowers. The lake had lots of Northern Shovelers, Buffleheads, American Coots, but nothing unusual. The riparian was loaded with birds, a welcome change from its usual state. The undergrowth was crawling with Song Sparrows and Common Yellowthroats! I also pished up a couple Fox Sparrows and a Hermit Thrush. Wildflowers were particularly abundant on the big hill near the dam, including this very handsome one. I couldn't come up with an identification after browsing online for awhile - anyone have an idea?

I strained my ears listening for Grasshopper Sparrows, which allegedly inhabit this area. No luck on those guys (it might be a tad early for them to be singing), but there is certainly a lot of nice grasslands for them!

On Thursday, I partially cheated. I had a busy day, but my mom and I stopped by Harriet Wieder Regional Park in Huntington Beach briefly after running some errands in the area. I racked up fifty-five species in half and hour. Highlights included a Sora that sounded off in the marshes, a Northern Harrier floating over the reeds, and a variety of ducks on the water. I struck out on the hoped for Hammond's Flycatcher.

Today? I haven't done anything yet except schoolwork and preparing my bike for another long ride tomorrow. Gotta get out...

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Tropical Visitor

This morning, I finally saw my first Tropical Kingbird in Orange County. I've dipped on this particular species three previous times this winter. My dad and I ran down to San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary this morning to search for it. As it turned out, we arrived too early. We wandered around, half lost, looking for the kingbird unsuccessfully for over an hour. Before leaving, however, I suggested that we walk down the dirt road that follows the San Diego Creek, since the bird had been seen along there. No kingbirds in sight. Suddenly, I heard a muffled "chi-beer!" of a Cassin's Kingbird. A good sign! Suddenly, a flock of about fifteen Cassin's Kingbirds flew in from nowhere. I heard the high-pitched twittering of the Tropical Kingbird, and seconds later spotted it squabbling with one of the Cassin's Kingbird. The light was awful (one of those gloomy, drizzly mornings), but I still tried to digiscope some photos.

Otherwise, San Joaquin was relatively quiet. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of swallows swirling around. Most were Tree Swallows, but there were some Northern Rough-winged and Barn Swallows mixed in, and I spotted my first Cliff Swallow of the year. Some of the Tree Swallows were already checking out the nest boxes!

A diminutive Sharp-shinned Hawk was perched right alongside one of the trails, hungrily eyeing the Song Sparrows that were boldly hopping about. It seemed smaller than a scrub-jay!