Monday, April 28, 2008

Baby Phoebes! (WARNING: extreme cuteness ahead!)


I couldn't resist posting this. This evening, just after I had finished dinner, I went upstairs to my room to check my email. Suddenly, through the open window, I heard an unfamiliar peeping sound. I glanced out, and there was an extremely cute fledgling Black Phoebe perched on a branch I had nailed to the eaves as a perch for goldfinches visiting my thistle feeders! It dipped its ridiculously stubby tail like its parents. This, along with its obvious gape and cinnamon wing bars, indicated it had just recently left the nest.

A second baby Black Phoebe fluttered in and landed right next to its sibling on the branch. Very neat! They sat there for a couple minutes, giving their peeping calls, before an adult Black Phoebe shepherded them away.

These little guys made my day - I saw nothing else interesting out the window while doing homework and battling a cold simultaneously. Yes, I did spend twelve hours birding for the bird-a-thon on Saturday while I was sick, but it did actually make me feel better...

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Here, There, and Everywhere...


in Orange County, that is. Yesterday I raced around Orange County finding as many species as possible as part of Sea & Sage Audubon's annual bird-a-thon. I birded for more than twelve hours (I know, twelve hours isn't really a "Big Day", but...) and recorded 143 species, which isn't too bad considering I did hardly any scouting and I threw together the route late Friday night. I used the good ole bird-inland-areas-in-the-morning-and-coastal-areas-in-the-afternoon plan. With more scouting, better planning, and a more concentrated effort, 150-160 species would be attainable.

A singing Northern Mockingbird that woke me up out of a restless sleep at 2:23 a.m. was my first bird of the day. My dad was driving home from San Diego in the morning, so I had to set off on my bike. I quickly knocked off a few tough birds around the neighborhood, including Say's Phoebe and Green Heron. I then pedaled to Irvine Regional Park to join the other Junior Naturalists for a couple hours. I managed to find many of my targets, including Lazuli Bunting, Acorn Woodpecker, Oak Titmouse, Hutton's Vireo, Blue-gray Gnatcathcer, and American Robin, but the Lewis's Woodpecker was nowhere to be found. Must be gone. A fierce wind started howling through the trees and the temperature rose. There were virtually no migrants to be had. I left around 9:30 a.m. and biked to Peters Canyon. By the time I got there fifteen minutes later, the sun was beating mercilessly down and the wind whipped the trees around. There go my chances for my target birds, I thought as a hot gust of hot wind whipped dust into my face.

Surprisingly, I was wrong. The Yellow-breasted Chats chortled in the willow thickets; a variety of ducks, including my only American Wigeons and Ring-necked Ducks of the day, floated on the lake; a pair of California Quail trotted ahead of me on the trail; a Greater Roadrunner sang from the brush; and a California Gnatcatcher whined from a hillside. While not countable, I enjoyed watching a large (30+ birds) flock of Nutmeg Mannikins flitting around in the Black Mustard (an exotic species perched on an exotic invasive species... thrilling!).

I sped home and my dad and I set off for some coastal areas. We picked up Bob Scrimger on our way. Our first stop was Harriet M. Wieder Regional Park, delightfully cool with an ocean breeze. Lots of ducks and shorebirds were in the marshes below, including my only Redheads of the day. My list for the day passed one hundred at this point.

We visited Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve next. We hit it just right - the tide was low and hundreds upon hundreds of shorebirds were foraging on mudflats at close range. I quickly spotted about a dozen new species of shorebirds for the day, including Red Knots, a Snowy Plover, and Dunlins. Terns jousted in mid-air and screamed at each other with harsh voices. Among them were several Least Terns, my first ones of the year. A large flock of Lesser Scaups asleep on the deeper water included several breeding-plumaged Horned Grebes. Bolsa Chica is never boring, and it was now simply fantastic. We then battled the traffic down PCH towards Upper Newport Bay. In Huntington Beach, people and surf shops outnumbered birds. Coffee & Surfboards, Est. 1991 - that's like, older than me!

We cruised around the loop at Upper Newport Bay, finding few birds. The only new species for my list here was a Blue-winged Teal. We maneuvered our way around PCH, avoiding most of the traffic, and then stopped at Little Corona City Beach in Corona Del Mar. Too bad I forgot that this is a very popular beach - people swarmed everywhere! A scope scan of the inaccessible rocks just offshore revealed a few rocky shorebirds, including singles of Wandering Tattler, Surfbird, and Black Turnstone. A few Brandt's Cormorants were loafing on the rocks as well, and a Pacific Loon winged by. All these were new birds for the day

On a whim we decided to hit Sepulveda Vista Point in Irvine. This turned out to be a good decision, since we picked up several new species. As we drove up, I noticed the extensive fields and wondered out loud if there were Grasshopper Sparrows in there. Sure enough, soon after stepping out of the car, the feeble buzz of a Grasshopper Sparrow greeted us. A Lark Sparrow flew in and landed in a nearby tree, and just as we were leaving I spotted a Horned Lark sitting on the sidewalk right next to the car. Encouraged, we stopped by San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, where we added three new species: Wilson's Phalarope, Black-crowned Night-Heron, and Western Tanager.

It was a very tiring but fun day. Will I be doing it next year? Yep. Will I scout and plan better, and therefore find more species? We'll see...

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Support the Tropicbirds!

A week from Wednesday, I will be lifting off in a jet from LAX headed for Harlingen, Texas. The reason? Well, birding of course, but there's more to it than that. I was selected to be on the American Birding Association (ABA)/Leica Tropicbirds team, a team of four young birders competing in the Great Texas Birding Classic. The Great Texas Birding Classic is a famous twenty-four bird-a-thon. Our purpose is to raise funds for the American Birding Association's youth education program. The ABA runs a fantastic youth education program. They run the Young Birder of the Year Contest, in which young birders are encouraged to take field notes, draw birds, write about birds, and photograph birds; they publish A Bird's-Eye View, a student newsletter written by young birders; they organize Young Birder Conferences in prime birding locations around the country; and they provide scholarships to young birders to attend birding camps and conferences. Sponsoring the Tropicbirds helps fund all these good causes.


Some of my old issues of A Bird's-Eye View.

The ABA's youth education program has greatly encouraged and influenced my birding over the years. Three years ago, I won the Young Birder of the Year Contest, and two years ago I was awarded a scholarship to attend Camp Chiricahua in the birding paradise of southeastern Arizona. Now is my chance to give back and support the program!

So far, I've raised about $1,850 for the American Birding Association's youth education program. I'm still about $150 short of my goal of $2,000 - please donate and help me reach my goal!


Will your name be added to my pledge form???

How to donate: If you wish to donate, please send me an email at prairiemerlin@gmail.com. Include your name, full address, and pledge amount, and I will add you to my pledge form. In mid-May, after the competition, I will mail you a report and bill with payment instructions. There are two different ways to pledge: flat rate and amount per species that we find on our big day (we'll probably see around two hundred species). You can also pledge online at http://www.americanbirding.org/. I'd much rather you pledge directly to me so I can keep better track of how much money I've raised. If you do pledge online, please check the "Great Texas Birding Classic" box and write "Through Neil Gilbert" in the comments field. Thanks!

Also, a BIG thanks to everyone who has already donated. I greatly appreciate it! Look for the report in your mail in mid-May.

Our route on May 3rd will take us along nearly one hundred and fifty miles of the Rio Grande from Salineno to South Padre Island . We will bird such famous birding spots spots such as Bensten-Rio Grande Valley State Park, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, and South Padre Island.



The Lower Rio Grande Valley of southern Texas is the only spot in the United States to find many Mexican species that barely push over the border into Texas. Some of these include Green Jay, Ringed Kingfisher, White-tipped Dove, and Common Paraque. We will be looking for these, and many others as well. I've never been to Texas before, so many of these will be life birds for me.

Our drivers and mentors will be Jeff and Liz Gordon, two extraordinary birders from Delaware. Our team consists of the following young birders:

Saraiya Ruano, 17, of Colorado Springs, CO. Team Captain
Hope Batcheller, 16, of Petersburgh, NY.
Neil Gilbert, 15, of Orange, CA. Me!!
Nico Sarbanes, 14, of Baltimore, MD.

Please consider sponsoring me and pledging. Thank you!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Kayak Karma


I've always been amazed at how normally skittish birds are very bold when you approach them in a kayak or canoe. This afternoon, my dad and I paddled around Upper Newport Bay in Newport Beach in a rented two-man kayak. The kayaks can be rented from the Newport Aquatic Center at a reasonable hourly price.

As soon as we shoved off we started seeing birds. Terns flew back and forth, and a lanky Western Grebe swam out of our path. We came across a little flock of Least Sandpipers scampering around at the water's edge. They paid us no heed while we drifted by less than ten feet away.

We encountered lots of terns - mostly Elegant(pictured above) and Forster's Terns, but also a few Caspian Terns. Lots were sitting on partially submerged pipes at the edge of the channel. If we sat motionless and let the kayak drift along the pipe, they'd allow us to approach within about five feet. This Forster's Tern was very cooperative as well.

Shorebirds were not abundant, but there were fair numbers of the more common species. Marbled Godwits and Willets were the most common, but we also found dowitchers, Least and Western Sandpipers, Whimbrels, and Killdeer.

Birding by kayak is a lot of fun. It is awesome just being able to get so close to even the common birds. I'll definitely be doing more!

Yesterday, I found more Lazuli Buntings. I first heard a couple singing on a weedy slope in Irvine Regional Park, and then tracked one down. It was very active, but I managed to capture this photo. Not a good photo, but it IS a photo!

Monday, April 14, 2008

Lazuli at Last


I had an awesome hike at Santiago Oaks Regional Park this morning before school. I managed to conquer one of my most major nemeses, Lazuli Bunting. When I first started flipping through field guides at age five, I wished I could see one of those brilliant sky-blue and orange birds. Today, ten years later, I did.

Last summer, I searched high and low for Lazuli Buntings with no luck. They are a slightly unpredictable species, and are famous for being "fire followers"; that is, they inhabit recently burned areas. Now, Santiago Oaks Regional Park burned last spring, so I thought it would be a good spot to start looking. Apart from some charred trees, it is difficult to believe that it burned just a year ago!

As I was walking down one of the trails, I heard an unfamiliar buzzy yet sweet song that sounded vaguely like "Sweet sweet sweet little milkshake". I couldn't place it. Just then, I spotted a small bird on top of a nearby oak just as it flitted away. I caught white wing bars and a flash of blue just as it flew away. In that instant, I knew what it was - a Lazuli Bunting! I ran after it, and was rewarded with stunning views of the gorgeous songster. Unfortunately, I couldn't get a photograph of it. I heard several others singing elsewhere in the park afterwards, since I now know their song.

The park was very birdy this morning. The resident breeders were out in force, either building nests, carrying food to nestlings, or feeding fledglings. A high-pitched twittering had me bewildered until I spotted a cute, stubby-tailed fledgling Orange-crowned Warbler being fed by one of its parents. Lots of California Towhees were carrying food to nestlings, but I did see one family group that included four fledglings.

I also found a female Mallard shepherding a unruly group of eleven tiny ducklings around the small pond near the historic dam. The babies were so small - they must have been only a couple days old!

Migrants were also out in numbers. I encountered many little pockets of warblers, and found Nasvhille, Orange-crowned, Yellow, Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Gray, and Wilson's Warblers, along with Common Yellowthroats. Black-headed Grosbeaks were singing lustily everywhere. I was delighted to find Ash-throated Flycatchers, a new Bigby species for me. I also found a single Western Tanager, another new Bigby bird for me.

Butterflies were also frolicking in the warm temperatures. I wasn't concentrating on them, but I found Painted Ladies, West Coast Ladies, Red Admirals, Cabbage Whites, Checkered Whites, Western Tiger-Swallowtails, and several other kinds that slipped away unidentified. This swallowtail was so kind as to alight on a leaf right next to the trail. Looking at the photo, you'd finding it hard to believe that I was balancing precipitously on a log above a large patch of poison oak to snag this shot...

Friday, April 11, 2008

Somewhat humorous bird photos...

I've been really busy the last couple weeks, so my birding time has been limited. Right when migration is kicking up, too. I managed to play hooky temporarily on Wednesday morning to take a look around Peters Canyon Regional Park, hoping to find the Lawrence's Goldfinches that had been seen there. Nope. I've come to the conclusion that they don't exist. I did find lots of migrants, including Cassin's Vireo, Warbling Vireo, Black-throated Gray Warbler, and Nashville Warbler.

Because I was too lazy to shoot some photos to go along with this post, here are some previously unpublished funny pictures of birds...


That's a whale of a yawn. Unfortunately, I cut off the cormorant's bill. Still, a funny posture with the neck all scrunched in.


Here's something you don't see every day. A sting ray with legs out of the water standing on its head. It's actually a Great Blue Heron sunning itself - it looks downright ridiculous!


Ouch... my eye itches!


S-t-r-e-e-e-e-e-e-t-c-h...


Talk about a bad hair day! We banded this rumpled Wrentit at Star Ranch. It's also a messy eater - notice the berry stains on the chin!

Friday, April 4, 2008

Owl Night


Owls are certainly among the most fascinating birds on this planet. They're nocturnal, they fly silently, and are usually quite mysterious. My dad and I had a wonderful night of owling at Irvine Regional Park this evening.

It all started at dinner when I suggested that we ride over to Irvine Regional Park to look for Common Poorwills to add to my Bigby list. We arrived at the extreme eastern end of the park just as the sun was setting. Several Lesser Nighthawks swooped through the crisp air, undoubtedly enjoying a feast of insects. We loitered around, listening to The Beatles, Van Morrison, and Led Zeppelin on my dad's iPod while we waited for the poorwills to start calling. A large mammal crossing the road up ahead of us turned out to be a coyote, and not a Mountain Lion as we feared. My dad spotted a Great Horned Owl sitting atop a dead snag in the middle of the wash, the very snag that the Lewis's Woodpecker frequents. Finally, around eight p.m., I heard a Common Poorwill w-a-a-a-y out there, over the ridge. This and the Lesser Nighthawk were new Bigby birds for me, jacking my list up to 185.

As we were cycling out of the park, my dad heard the distinctive bouncing-ball call of a Western Screech-Owl coming from near the road. We turned around and started searching, and tracked it down to a sycamore tree growing right alongside the road. However, we couldn't spot it despite the fact it was calling almost constantly. Huge sycamore leaves blocked our view of most of the tree. Finally, my dad found it wedged in a crevice on the far side of the trunk. It sat there, a mere fifteen feet away. I was able to get some decent photos, and we had amazing looks at it. Finally, we left, and as we turned our back on the owl it started calling again. Just as we were leaving, a large moth-like bird fluttered around above the trees. I nailed it in the spot beam; it was a Barn Owl, our third owl species for the night. Sweet!

This morning, I birded at Peters Canyon Regional Park before school. I had an excellent couple hours, racking up seventy-three species and adding one new Bigby species, a Sora that sounded off from the marshy vegetation around the lake. Warblers, ducks, and sparrows were all plentiful. Some of the more interesting species that I saw included Canvasback, Nashville Warbler, Bell's Vireo, Golden-crowned Sparrow, and Lincoln's Sparrow. This nice male Anna's Hummingbird posed nicely for photos.


The thistle feeder that I placed a couple feet outside my bedroom window has been attracting lots of finches lately - American Goldfinches, Lesser Goldfinches, Pine Siskins, and House Finches. By standing very still with the camera poked out the window, I can photograph the birds from only a few feet away! Here are shots of male Lesser and American Goldfinches - nice comparison!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A Welcome Sight


That's right - I love seeing a nice big patch of weeds. The birds do too! Yesterday afternoon, my dog Chestnut and I went on a nice ramble along the Yellowthroat Creek near my house. We came across this weedy field (or rather, some person's abandoned backyard), and there were lots of birds in there. A bright Nashville Warbler popped up, pumping its tail. My first for the spring. A Lincoln's Sparrow scolded me out in the wide open at close range - I kicked myself for not bring a camera. As we battled our way through the weedy brush at the creek's edge, we found more interesting birds: a Black-throated Gray Warbler, Hooded Orioles, and Common Yellowthroats (the creek's namesake, and one of my favorite birds).

Today, we went back. This time I had my camera. Naturally, all the birds were uncooperative. I'm still quite surprised that this brushy drainage ditch hasn't been cleared out and lined with concrete. Unfortunately, tree crews hacked a lot of the scrubby willows and brush way back in one section of the creek, and there are far fewer birds in that part now. Hopefully, it will grow back as thick as it was before. The area unaffected by the trimming lies mainly outside of my neighborhood, in an adjacent community. I saw five Wood Ducks and singles of Wilson's Warbler, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, and Bullock's Oriole along there today, along with many of the birds I saw yesterday. I'm hoping the creek will prove to be a hot spot for migrants close to home...