Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Migration Takes Off

School started on Monday. I haven't let the beginning of school foil some quick birding forays, though. On the contrary, I've seen some really great birds this last week. I hope to keep up my daily doses of birding, but I've haven't even started two of my classes, so I may be pressed for time. If that's the case, I'll have even less time for blogging, so expect a dry period.

Last week I got a surprise email from my good friend Chris West. He's been "working" as a bird guide in Southeastern Arizona this summer, and he was coming out to California for a week. So, last Friday, he showed up at my house and we spent literally all day Saturday birding Orange County. We birded along the coast in the morning, beating the beach crowds and the head, and then foolishly birded some inland areas in the heat of the day. We ended up with over a hundred species for the day, including one lifer for Chris (Wandering Tattler) and a bunch of other year birds for him. Other neat birds we saw included a Black Tern at Bolsa Chica, two Solitary and a Semipalmated Sandpipers at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, and others. Our morning visit to the beach included a round of the Sanderling Game, a long-time tradition that Chris and I began several years back.

Chris had to leave Sunday to head up to Monterey to catch a pelagic trip. After our quick visit to Peters Canyon Regional Park on Saturday afternoon, I decided to go there every day to comb through the shorebirds for a Baird's Sandpiper. The lake is rapidly drying up, creating excellent shorebird habitat.

It only took a couple days. On Monday evening, I spotted a gorgeous juvenile Baird's Sandpiper on a dry mudflat near the lake. I was excited enough to make a few loud outbursts and dance a little jig. This species, a rare but annual fall migrant in California, has eluded me the past two summers. It was a state, county, and bigby bird for me!

So far this summer, I have recorded an astonishing total of fifteen shorebird species at this lake. This is hardly impressive if you compare it to Orange County standards; a day of birding along the coast can net a couple dozen shorebird species. Fifteen species for a small lake twenty miles inland, however, is quite good. Other interesting species of shorebirds I've noted there include Willet, Solitary Sandpiper, Wilson's Phalarope, and Semipalmated Plover. The summer is hardly over, either. I hope to find a few more shorebird species there before shorebird migration is over.

One bird that I missed for my bigby list this spring was Willow Flycatcher. A rather common spring migrant in Orange County, Willow Flycatchers are considerably less common in the fall, so I had low hopes of crossing paths with one. Yesterday morning, while birding at Santiago Oaks Regional Park, a soft whit called my attention to an empid foraging in some low brush along the creek. It remained frustratingly hidden for several minutes, but after it finally emerged I was able to confirm it as a Willow Flycatcher. Bigby bird number 230!

Two bigby birds in two days late in the year is good. Three in three days in a row is even better. I biked over to Peters Canyon again this evening in hopes of seeing the Baird's Sandpiper or some other shorebirds. I was walking through a weedy area to get to a good observation point for scoping the mudflats when a slim sparrow flushed and landed in a nearby bush. It was obviously different from all the Song Sparrows I had been seeing, and it gave a Spizella call. I managed to find it in my scope and carefully studied it, particularly the face pattern, for several minutes before the bird disappeared for good. It was immediately obvious that it was no Chipping Sparrow, the default Spizella. Fortunately, the bird stuck around long enough for me to jot down some quick notes on the face pattern. My gut instinct was that the bird was a Brewer's Sparrow, and a quick check in my field guide back at home (I don't have too much experience with non-Chipping Spizellas) confirmed my impression. Brewer's is a decent bird for the county (one one or two are seen most autumns.) It was a new county and bigby bird for me.

The Brewer's Sparrow detracted from some of my shorebird studying, but my few quick scans revealed nothing more unusual than some Wilson's Phalaropes and a couple Semipalmated Plovers among the more common shorebirds. I also noted a single White-tailed Kite and four Vaux's Swifts.

I hope my lucky streak continues. Three Bigby birds in a week in September is not crummy at all. My total now stands at 231. I'll try to keep this blog updated, but school promises to bog me down pretty soon.

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