Friday, February 27, 2009

Change Is Good

I'm the sort of person who hates being stuck in the same routine. Unfortunately, been stuck in a rut all winter: eat, sleep, school, and some brief birding expeditions to the local patches. I love the entire concept of local patches, but after seeing the same individual birds for several months in a row, local birding gets wearisome. I decided to visit Santiago Oaks Regional Park this morning. I go there a lot, but I figured I could find some new areas to explore.

Instead of searching for the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and then wandering around the same general areas, I took a ramble up a couple trails I've only been up once before. However, I could not avoid bumping into the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker; it was calling and jumping around in a tree twenty feet from where I locked up my bike.

The new trails I checked out were the Windes and Pacifica Trails. These two trails wind up Rattlesnake Ridge, a tall hill at the west side of the park. This hill was hit badly by a fire a couple years back, but the recent rains have turned it into a green paradise covered with wildflowers. I was very surprised to find a Purple Finch singing from the top of a dead eucalyptus near the top of the hill. I've never seen one at Santiago Oaks before, and for a good reason: wrong habitat. Purple Finches generally like to stick to conifer or oak-conifer woodlands, not dead eucalyptus trees at the top of a bare hill. After a few minutes it took off high into the sky, headed north; it's probably to Kern County by now. It was a new Bigby bird for me - an encouraging start.

I reached the top of a cliff along the Pacifica Trail and spooked a Red-tailed Hawk. I'm convinced that a pair of Red-tails are nesting somewhere on this cliff face, because there's always a pair hanging around here and I even saw one carrying a stick in that direction a couple weeks ago. It was pretty neat to be looking down on a flying Red-tailed Hawk!

The view from the Pacifica Trail was gorgeous. Reaching the top of Rattlesnake Ridge, I could look to one side and see the coastal plain, albeit through a thick layer of haze. To my other side were the rolling hills, now coated with a fresh coating of grass and wildflowers.

I came across a small canyon with a bit of chaparral that had escaped the blaze. A big flock of sparrows was messing around in the bushes, and I soon found several Golden-crowned Sparrows - about six total. Embarrassingly, this is another new Bigby species for me. They are usually easy to find around my local patches (I've even seen them in my backyard!), but this winter they are inexplicably scarce.

I had some extra time to spare once I had finished birding the Windes and Pacifica Trails, so I decided to try to get some photos of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. I found him back on his favorite pepper tree, but the light wasn't very good. I'll have to try to go back in the afternoon sometime soon (emphasis on soon; he'll be leaving for where he belongs in just a couple weeks!)

As I was headed back to my bike, I didn't quite believe my ears when I heard the "kicker" calls of a Virginia Rail emanating from the overgrown creek bed. The bird called a few more times, confirming its identity. I've never had a Virginia Rail here before. There isn't much habitat - a small patch of cattails and some thick undergrowth along the creek. Another surprise new Bigby bird.

I got yet another surprise as I was cycling out of the park. A small bird flitted in front of my bike, looking oddly flycatcher-ish. I screeched to a halt and spotted the culprit: a Pacific-slope Flycatcher. They aren't supposed to show up for a couple more weeks, according to The Birds of Orange County and The San Diego County Bird Atlas. This species does occasionally overwinter in southern California, but I think it was an early migrant; it was singing, and I've birded this area all winter without seeing it. Yet another new Bigby bird!

I was in for one more pleasant surprise on the ride home. My route takes me past a pepper tree in some one's front yard. Sapsuckers are very fond of pepper trees, and a Red-naped Sapsucker spent the entire winter there last year. I checked all fall and winter, hoping it would return, but to no avail. I barely glanced at the tree as I pedaled past, but somehow I managed to spot a sapsucker tucked back in the tree. A quick binocular check revealed it to be the elusive Red-naped Sapsucker. This was another species conspicuously absent from my Bigby list. It was very tame - odd for a sapsucker - but it was so well buried behind branches and leaves that I couldn't get a decent shot.

I ended up at home with five new Bigby birds under my belt (Purple Finch, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Virginia Rail, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, and Red-naped Sapsucker.) I hadn't expected any! Talk about an awesome morning. In just a few more weeks migration will start in earnest!

1 comment:

Donna said...

(sigh) Neil, your blog makes me long for spring and summer. We got another snow storm last night. Easily 12 inches of the white stuff and now we are dipping down into the single digits, maybe even the minuses tonight! Good birding!

Donna R.