Sunday, April 26, 2009

Beware of Grosbeaks

If you plan on birding at Peters Canyon Regional Park anytime soon, you must take into account certain dangers of the place. I don't mean the commonplace dangers - Mountain Lions, rattlesnakes, or poison oak - I'm talking about Blue Grosbeaks. They can be vicious!

While birding at Peters Canyon Regional Park on Friday, I was surprised to notice a male Blue Grosbeak perched on the side mirror of a car in the parking lot. The bird was savagely attacking the mirror and shiny windows of the car, flapping against the mirror and viciously pecking its own reflection.

If you are sensitive about having your car mirrors smudged and pooped on, I would strongly advise avoiding Peters Canyon Regional Park. The Blue Grosbeak methodically attacked the mirrors, windows, windshields, and even hoods of the innocent parked cars. It was so intent on dirtying the cars that it ignored me as I sneaked up.

I edged closer until I was only six feet from the beautiful blue bird. He only stopped when his lady friend came by. He serenaded her from a nearby tree before they flew off together. However, I'm sure he is still lurking out there. Your car is in danger!


The car rolled to a stop on the narrow road up Silverado Canyon, and through rolled-down windows I and my teammates for the 2009 Sea & Sage Audubon Birdathon, Leigh Johnson and Vic Leipzig, heard the faint whooping of a Spotted Owl drifting down the canyon. We whooped with excitement ourselves. This was to be a common theme of the day: finding uncommon species, but missing expected ones.

Birdathon is a spring day when teams of birders go out and find as many species of birds as possible in an attempt to raise funds for Sea & Sage Audubon Society. Many teams spend all day, and most of the night, in search of birds on Birdathon. Vic and Leigh picked me up at three thirty in the morning and we headed up into the mountains to listen for owls. The Spotted Owl was the first bird of the day, as good a start to the day as I've ever had. It was a good night (actually morning) for owling; we also heard Great Horned and Long-eared Owls, plus Common Poorwill. As dawn began to break, a Purple Finch burst into song, an unexpected voice in the dark. It was our only one of the day. We also heard a Green-tailed Towhee, a very difficult bird to find in Orange County, while it was still mostly dark.

We were already behind schedule by six thirty in the morning, but by deleting a couple stops on our route we made up time. The coast was next on the agenda. We hit a number of spots between Newport and Laguna Beach, finding species such as Pacific Loon, Black Oystercatcher, Parasitic Jaeger, and Wandering Tattler.

After spending too much time seawatching, we cut inland. We picked up Costa's Hummingbird, Phainopepla, Cactus Wren, Green Heron, and Western Meadowlark at a few quick stops along Laguna Canyon Road. Peters Canyon, Santiago Oaks, and Holy Sepulcher Cemetery, all local patches of mine, produced a bunch of new species for us, including Blue Grosbeak, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Wood Duck. Unfortunately, it became clear to us at this point that it was definitely an "off" day for migration, as we struggled to find even some basic migrants.

We breezed out to Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary in Mojeska Canyon around midday. It's a long drive out there, but it has some "must-have" species. In the brief time we spent there, we found a number of new species such as Band-tailed Pigeon, American Robin, and Northern Flicker. We cruised out of the mountains and whirled through San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary and Mason Regional Park in Irvine. The Green-winged Teal, Black-crowned Night-Heron, American White Pelican, and Sora that we found at San Joaquin were the only ones we got all day of these species. We had less luck at Mason, finding only one new species: an American Redstart. However, this species is rare in California, making a nice bonus.

It took only five minutes to tick off Grasshopper Sparrow and Horned Lark near UCI in Irvine. These two species can often pose problems on big days. From here we headed to Huntington Central Park. As I said before, we were having very little luck with migrants. We were hoping to get some at here, but the wind kicked up and the park was rather desolate. After much hard work, we managed to dig out a handful of new species - Western Tanager, Black-throated Gray Warbler, and Olive-sided Flycatcher.

Bolsa Chica was next. We were counting on finding a bunch of new species here, and we did. We had seen very few ducks and shorebirds all day, and within minutes of arriving at Bolsa Chica had spotted over a dozen new birds. Some of the more interesting ones included Brant, Glaucous-winged Gull, Snowy Plover, and Horned Grebe.

We still had a decent amount of daylight left, so we cruised around Upper Newport Bay and were rewarded with some species we had missed all day: Osprey, Northern Harrier, Clapper Rail, and Virginia Rail. As sunset loomed on the western horizon, we madly raced through a couple parking lots in Irvine and finally managed to get Brewer's Blackbird. We also made a very quick stop at San Joaquin and immediately found our target Common Moorhen in the creek along the entrance road.

We sped up to Irvine Regional Park as day faded into night. We arrived just in time to see an American Kestrel as it was going to bed. Kestrels are becoming alarmingly difficult to find in Orange County, and we hadn't seen one all day. A Lesser Nighthawk zoomed by, almost hitting Vic in the face, but he didn't see it until it was almost a quarter-mile away. It was another new species.

In the morning we had found three species of owls; now that it was dark we were looking for three more. Two of these, Western Screech and Barn, can be found at Irvine Regional Park. The Screech-Owls were uncharacteristically silent. It took several minutes of whistling for one to give a few chirring calls. The Barn Owls, on the other hand, were calling loudly and flying around conspicuously.

The last possible owl, Northern Saw-Whet, required more work. This species, along with Spotted and Long-eared, is very uncommon in Orange County and can only be found up in the mountains. We cruised back up Silverado Canyon and after a short search heard one whistling. It was our last species of the day, and a good cap to the day; the owls began and ended our day, like bookends.

This is the paragraph where I say "Oh, it was an amazing day!" Well, it was an amazing day. We were on our feet (or rather, on our rear ends in Leigh's car) for nineteen hours. Our final tally came to 168 species. That's not crummy for a big day in Orange County, especially considering we did very little scouting. As with any big day, we missed a number of "easy" species, including Long-billed Curlew, Rufous Hummingbird, White-crowned Sparrow, and Peregrine Falcon. Migration was also very slow, which didn't help matters one bit. With a better migration day, and more scouting, we could have easily knocked off another dozen species. However, it was still a very fun day, and I got four county birds: Spotted Owl, Long-eared Owl, Saw-whet Owl, and Green-tailed Towhee. It doesn't get much better than that folks.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Back from Michigan

I got back on Monday night from a week-long trip to Michigan and Ohio. The main focus of the trip wasn't birding (visiting a couple colleges was the real reason for the trip), but I fit in a lot of birding around the edges. Even though mid-April is a pretty awkward time to bird in the Midwest - many wintering species such as ducks have departed and most migrants have not yet arrived - I managed to scrape together a little over one hundred species for the trip. This total surprisingly included two life birds, but I won't spoil it for you!

Unfortunately my schedule is absolutely crazy right now as I spent practically every spare moment preparing for my AP exams in a couple weeks, but I'll try to make a couple more thorough posts with photos from the trip. Just thought I'd post so everyone would know I didn't drop off the face of the earth!

Saturday, April 11, 2009


Much to my chagrin, I haven't been able to get out birding much recently. To remedy this I biked to Santiago Oaks Regional Park today and spent the entire morning wandering around and searching for birds, particularly migrants. I haven't biked anywhere recently for various reasons, so I expected to pick up a few new Bigby birds. Within a minute of dismounting my bike I had found three new Bigby birds: Black-headed Grosbeak, Black-throated Gray Warbler, and Warbling Vireo.

Birds were out and singing everywhere despite the cloudy skies and cool temperatures. Many of the wintering species such as Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Hermit Thrushes, and White-crowned Sparrows are beginning to fade away. They are quickly being replaced by breeders and migrants. A bit farther down the trail I found a Hammond's Flycatcher and an Ash-throated Flycatcher sitting in the same tree. Both were new for my Bigby list.

Normally, I bird Santiago Oaks for only a couple hours before school in the morning. However, I had several hours to burn, so I covered most of the park. I traipsed out to the Villa Park Dam and easily located a singing Rock Wren. He serenaded me from the top of a fence while I stalked closer. It will be interesting to see if Rock Wrens try to breed here. This little patch of jumbled rock is one of the few places to reliably find this species in the county.

Hundreds of swallows were swirling around by the dam. At first they all appeared to be Cliff Swallows, but I noticed there were a lot of Northern Rough-winged Swallows mixed in as well. Even more careful inspection revealed smaller numbers of Violet-green, Tree, and Barn Swallows merrily zipping around feeding on insects. I finally tore myself away from the cooperative Rock Wren and swallows and turned back to the main part of the park. I found my last new Bigby bird of the day, a Nashville Warbler, back near the parking lot. I also came across a very cooperative Sara Orangetip.

I decided to climb the Pacifica Trail, a steep narrow path that winds to the top of Rattlesnake Peak. I don't usually see much along this trail, but it's a neat hike and I figured it might be a good spot to look for Lawrence's Goldfinch. No luck with that, but I did come across a band of Western Scrub-Jays jumping around in the bushes next to the trail.

I finally made it to the top. Numerous White-throated Swifts, which were tiny specks in the sky from below, zoomed around at eye level. In fact, bands of these winged bullets, chattering demonically, nearly hit me a few times. They were so close I could hear the wind rushing through their wings. Photographing them proved to be a challenge!

A Red-tailed Hawk circled lazily below, offering a unique perspective.

I spent a few more minutes watching the swifts before descending the trail so as not to be late for lunch. For a few hours at the local patch, it wasn't bad at all. The six new Bigby birds I found (Hammond's Flycatcher, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Warbling Vireo, Nasvhille Warbler, Black-throated Gray Warbler, and Black-headed Grosbeak) pushed my total to one eighty-four. Hopefully I'll be able to get out more soon to add more migrants to my Bigby list.