Thursday, December 27, 2007

Hammond's Flycatcher!

Today I got a lifer - a Hammond's Flycatcher! I saw it at Harriet Wieder Regional Park in Huntington Beach, at the south end of Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve. I first saw it teed up on a chain link fence, and thought "Hey, that looks like a Hammond's!". The bird promptly dove into a nearby ravine filled with willow thickets, but eventually came out and gave great views back on the fence. Brian Daniels, who was there today, first found the bird Monday. I didn't know it was there, so I was really excited to see it! Hammond's Flycatcher is very unusual during the winter in southern California. Now I've seen all the regularly-occurring empids in the ABA area!

There were other interesting birds around Harriet Wieder Regional Park this morning - a single Pacific Golden-Plover still hanging out with the huge flock of Black-bellied Plovers, a Yellow Warbler in "Fisher's Gulch", and flocks of American Pipits and Western Meadowlarks. Brian also found a "Red" Fox Sparrow in the parking lot the other day, but I couldn't find it. Earlier in the morning my mom and I birded Bolsa Chica proper for a little while - some of the more interesting birds we saw there included a single Reddish Egret, lots of Surf Scoters, Ruddy Turnstones, and several Glaucous-winged Gulls.

Yesterday, while my mom and brother were shopping for textbooks on the UCI campus, I wandered around San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary for awhile. I birded the front three ponds. The first pond had low water levels and held Western, Least, and Spotted Sandpipers, plus Long-billed Dowitchers. The second pond was quiet except for a few stilts, avocets, ducks, and a Green Heron. The third pond held a good variety of ducks - lots of Northern Shovelers, Cinnamon Teal, and Ruddy Ducks, along with small numbers of Green-winged Teal, Blue-winged Teal, Bufflehead, and Lesser Scaup. Here's a photo of a "feeding circle" of Northern Shovelers.

I returned to the parking lot after a while and turned up a few Hermit Thrushes, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Song Sparrows, and more. Here's a picture of a Hermit Thrush - unfortunately it wouldn't come out of the shadows.

Suddenly, a new bird appeared on the scene:

Huh? What? I got quite a shock when I first saw this bird, but quickly I realized it was some sort of exotic/escapee.

I was puzzled even after flipping through the few foreign guides I own. I posted a photo and description on, and the helpful birders there helped me identify it to a weaver, probably a Taveta Golden Weaver (Ploceus castaneiceps) or a Golden Palm Weaver (Ploceus bojeri). Both of these are native to Africa! Obviously this bird escaped from captivity. Still, it is a very cool bird and really interesting to see!

We also swung by the Irvine Civic Center on Wednesday morning to check out if the Wilson's Snipes that had been reported on and off the last month or so were still there. After scanning for awhile, I spotted a single snipe sitting on a small berm in the middle of the river - then I spotted several more, and then even more! I counted at least thirty, and there were undoubtedly more. A state/county bird for me!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

White Christmas

This photo proves that it can snow in California! There has been a little bit of snow in the upper San Gabriel Mountains the last few weeks. Down in the lowlands, however, I was enjoying an awesome birding day - sunny skies and temperatures hovering around seventy. I spent literally all day today biking around places near my house birding (what else is there to do on Christmas Eve?)

I knew it was going to be a great day before I even got out of bed. At six a.m., just as I was dragging myself out from under the warm covers, I heard a Western Screech-Owl out my window. Suddenly I was wide awake. It called several more times before the roosters starting crowing (yes, some crazy people in my neighborhood keep roosters). After getting ready, I headed out to Peters Canyon Regional Park first. I arrived just after seven and started birding. The lake had lots of ducks - including a female Common Goldeneye which gave great views at close range. One by one, I picked out different species of ducks - a few Hooded Mergansers and Redhead, singles of Green-winged Teal and Northern Pintail, and more. I worked my way around the lake at a good pace, picking up new birds constantly. I heard a sapsucker calling from the edge of the nearby neighborhood, but couldn't spot it. Fox, Golden-crowned, White-crowned, Song, and Chipping Sparrows were all around. California Quail and Cactus Wren, usually tough birds to get, fell into my lap with no trouble at all. I was out of Peters Canyon by ten a.m. with over seventy species in the bag.

On the way to Irvine Regional Park, my next destination, I stopped at Subway to pick up lunch and my only Great-tailed Grackles of the day. Irvine Park was nearly devoid of people but was teaming with birds. Near the entrance I found a flock of Lark Sparrows (usually tough to find), Acorn Woodpeckers, and trees FULL of finches. Pine Siskins were everywhere. At one point, I started pishing to try to pull some more finches into view. I immediately was surrounding by a swirling flock of about a dozen Pine Siskins! They flitted around right above my head, only a couple feet away. One even briefly landed on top of my cap! I was able to slowly raise my camera and snap this shot while this curious Pine Siskin sat about four feet away.

I was wandering around a nearby open park-like area when I noticed a tree riddled with sapsucker holes. I stopped, listened, and sure enough, I heard soft tapping. Then I spotted it - a female (I think) Red-naped Sapsucker! The light was bad, but I still tried to get some photos.

A few minutes later, I found two Red-breasted Sapsuckers. I ended up seeing about half a dozen sapsuckers (plus a couple unidentified ones) - the one Red-naped and the rest Red-breasted. I found a few more new common species for my list for the day and moved on. As I biked behind the stables, I spotted a dark bird with large white wing patches flying overhead. Screeching to a halt, I was treated to fine views of a lone male Phainopepla. Very nice bird! I continued onwards towards the Lewis's Woodpecker location. It took less than ten seconds to find the bird as it sat atop its favorite snag. I wish it always worked like that! After watching it for a few minutes I cycled by the Barn Owl tree. There he was, staring down at me from the depths of his hollow tree. I hit the lakes next, and easily found the resident Wood Ducks. I decided to "waste" some time photographing ducks. They were easily bribed with offerings of a crumbled up granola bar. I was surprised to see a few Ring-necked Ducks coming in within six feet of me, diving to get the food.

I blew about an hour in a fruitless search for Hutton's Vireo. I've had days when I see a couple dozen at Irvine Park, so it was extremely frustrating to not find any. I was able to find Brewer's Blackbird and Brown-headed Cowbird in the stables (good location for those birds!) I also found a tree full of Amazonia parrots, including this confiding individual that looks like a Red-crowned Parrot.

Around 2:45 p.m. I left Irvine Park, after finding nearly every possible target bird (with the exception of Hutton's Vireo, of course). I biked up to the Holy Sepulcher Cemetery to search for the Brown Creepers I saw there a few days ago. I found a couple Mountain Chickadees soon after arrival. There were so many people around that I ended up stashing my binoculars in my backpack - relying on my ears to find birds -since I didn't want to get kicked out. A big bonus was a calling Red-breasted Nuthatch near the back of the cemetery. I hadn't seen it there before. I biked through the entire cemetery several times, and criss-crossed it on foot, but I couldn't find any Brown Creepers. As I was about to leave, however, I heard a vireo scolding - yep, you guessed it, the Hutton's Vireo I had been looking for all day. I left the cemetery and arrived back in my neighborhood as the light was failing. I found the wintering Yellow Warbler along the Yellowthroat Creek in my neighborhood in about three seconds. Inspired, I tramped along the creek trying to flush out a Green Heron, and found a few Cedar Waxwings. My last new bird species of the day.

I ended up birding straight for about ten and a half hours. I never strayed more than a few miles from home, and I was limited to my bike and legs for transportation. Despite these limitations, I tallied 102 species for the day! My biggest biking-birding day ever.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Genuine Ring-necks!

Many birders wonder how the Ring-necked Duck got its name (honestly, wouldn't Ring-billed Duck be better??). There isn't a ring on that duck's neck! Was the name a mistake? Well, actually, it isn't. Ring-necked Ducks do indeed have a subtle brownish-orange neck ring, but it is completely invisible most the time. Today at Irvine Regional Park there were roughly fifty Ring-necked Ducks on the two small lakes there. I haven't seen them there before. They were so close and the light was so good that I could see the rings on the necks of the males! Here's a shot that shows the neck ring.

There were a few Lesser Scaup and a single female Canvasback on the lower lake as well. Really strange! I think they came from Peters Canyon, since we didn't see as many ducks there on the CBC Sunday. We also saw the Barn Owl in his hollow tree by parking lot thirteen, but didn't see the Lewis's Woodpecker in the five minutes we spent looking for it.

Earlier in the morning my dad, my dog (Chestnut), and I birded Yorba Regional Park along the Santa Ana River in Yorba Linda. Yorba Park isn't too large, but it has a few small lakes, large grassy areas, and lots of big trees. Today, there weren't too many ducks on the lakes, but quite a few herons and egrets, including this cooperative Great Blue Heron.

There was also a large flock of American White Pelicans fishing in one of the shallow lakes. They kept in a tight group, dipping their heads under to feed.

I noticed an adult Black-crowned Night-Heron tucked in amongst some rocks on the edge of one of the lakes. By slowly, stealthily zig-zagging my way towards it, I was able to get close enough for a few decent shots.

We walked all the way to the eastern end of the park, birding along the way. We didn't find anything extraordinary land birds, but a couple Mountain Chickadees were nice. We also found lots of Yellow-rumped Warblers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a Lark Sparrow, two White-breasted Nuthatches, and more. I was also pleased to see lots of Cedar Waxwings eating crab apples - one of my favorite birds. I like this shot with the two waxwings tucked away amongst the colorful leaves.

Yesterday I biked over to the Holy Sepulcher Cemetery, which is close to my house. The cemetery was jamming with people putting Christmas decorations on graves, which limited my birding. One has to be very careful not to annoy people while birding in cemeteries. I found two calling Brown Creepers hanging out together and flitting from tree-to-tree nonstop. There were also several Mountain Chickadees and a few Western Meadowlarks around. While I was at the back of the cemetery, I spotted a large clump of pines out in the middle of the adjacent flood control basin. There are pines in the cemetery, but this was a large, mysterious-looking clump of pines that looked like it could house anything. It appeared to be about a half-mile distant. It ended up being over a five-mile round bike trip. Just before I got to where the pines were, I hit a fence plastered with "No Trespassing" signs. Rats! I did find Greater Roadrunner, California Thrasher, and California Gnatcatcher, though.

On the way home I stopped by the small lakes (people in Michigan would call them "ponds", but in California they are considered lakes) in our neighborhood. A Gadwall has been hanging out all week there, and I tried to get some pictures of it. It was fairly tame, but the light wasn't too great. I'll have to keep trying...

Monday, December 17, 2007

It's that time of year...

Yep, that's right, it's the time of year for Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs)! This weekend I participated in two CBCs: on Saturday, the South County CBC and on Sunday, the Inland CBC. An amazing weekend!

On Saturday morning I helped out with the pelagic section of the South County CBC, along with Kaaren Perry, Tom Benson, and Dave Raetz. We spent the whole morning out on a boat looking for pelagic birds. A BIG thanks to Mel and Linda who happily let us use their boat and "drove" us around. On the way out of the harbor, Tom spotted a Horned Grebe, which is a decent bird for the CBC.

We also spotted a couple Glaucous-winged Gulls and a Herring Gull in the harbor. Once outside the harbor we began to chum for the gulls. There were a few shorebirds on the jetty, and a Pacific Loon was also floating right by the jetty. We weren't very far offshore when we spotted our first Black-vented Shearwaters of the day. I was thrilled, since it was a lifer for me. Throughout the course of the day several flew through our attending gull flock at close range, giving great looks. We also began seeing Rhinoceros Auklets in good numbers; by the end of the day we had tallied about thirty! Singles of Pomarine Jaeger and Sooty Shearwater also put in brief appearances, and we saw several more Pacific Loons. Orange County generally has poor pelagic birding, but we had a fantastic morning, especially considering we didn't go more than three miles offshore!

This photo doesn't look like much, but those dorsal fins sticking out of the water belong to a couple Risso's Dolphins. We also had a good morning for dolphins, with three species seen: Risso's, Common, and Bottlenose Dolphins. All three were "life" dolphins for me. We also observed California Sea Lions and Harbor Seals.

In the afternoon we covered Saddleback College in Laguna Niguel. Since we had taken on this area at the last minute, we didn't really know where we were going and ended up wandering around the campus counting birds. I didn't see anything spectacular, but I did see a Pine Siskin and a Mountain Chickadee. As the sun sank, THOUSANDS of American Crows flew in to campus to roost. It was impossible to get an accurate estimate on the numbers, since there were so many. They blanketed the ground and filled the trees. The light was really bad, but here's a shot to give you an idea of how many there were.

I awoke at a ridiculously early hour on Sunday morning to go owling at Peters Canyon Regional Park for the Inland Count. Linda Oberholtzer, Brad Dawson, my dad and myself listed for a couple hours before dawn and were rewarded with a couple Great Horned Owls, a Virginia Rail, and a Marsh Wren. Once the rest of the group arrived (Linda had recruited an entire army of help), we split up and covered the park in the morning. Oddly, duck and coot numbers were down on the lake from a couple weeks ago, but the diversity remained high. For example, there was ONE (just one!) Green-winged Teal there, and just TWO American Wigeon. Shorebirds were plentiful (for Peters Canyon) - I saw Long-billed Dowitcher (7), Least Sandpiper (3), Killdeer (2), Spotted Sandpiper (1), and Greater Yellowlegs (1). I spotted a late Barn Swallow swooping over the lake, and while taking a breather on top of a large hill we saw a Merlin whip overhead. In the late morning we returned to the parking lot for lunch and to compile the list.

In the afternoon, several of us counted birds in the Lemon Heights area adjacent to Peters Canyon. Bent Tree Park was loaded with birds, especially Hermit Thrushes; there were at least twenty thrushes there. We wandered around a few residential areas, finding a Red-breasted Nuthatch, Hutton's Vireos, Townsend's Warblers, and more. After finding another Red-breasted Nuthatch at a nearby elementary school, we headed back to Peters Canyon in the late afternoon. Singles of White Pelican and Osprey had arrived at the lake - we had missed them in the morning. It was a lot of fun and we had a great day!

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Southern San Diego County

Yesterday my dad and I spent the entire day birding southern San Diego County. We had an excellent day! We birded from Point Loma to San Ysidro. The above photo was taken at the Tijuana Estuary, a coastal salt marsh in Imperial Beach. The ridge in the distance is Mexico!

We started our day at Friendship Park in Chula Vista. A Pine Warbler had been reported there a couple weeks ago, and had been hanging around ever since. Within five minutes I spotted the Pine Warbler hopping around in a... yep, you guessed it, pine tree. We also saw a Brown Creeper there, as well as Townsend's Warblers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and more. We then briefly stopped at the J-Street Marina, also in Chula Vista. A Eurasian Wigeon had been sighted there, but we couldn't find it. There was a large flock of over a hundred Brant spread across the protected bay, and a large assortment of ducks.

After we finished up in Chula Vista, we headed down to Imperial Beach. We dipped on the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron that roosts in the eucalyptus trees in Imperial Beach Sports Park, unfortunately. Next, we swung by the Tijuana Estuary. There wasn't a whole lot around, but we saw some ducks, shorebirds, and a Clapper Rail. The rail was sticking its head and neck up out of the marsh vegetation. A very cooperative "Belding's" Savannah Sparrow posed atop a large rock in great light near the parking area of the estuary. I couldn't resist digiscoping it...

The Imperial Beach Pier was our next destination. A female Black Scoter had been seen there recently, and I was eager to see it. We walked out to the end of the pier, but didn't spot the scoter. We did see a couple jaegers off the end of the pier, including a Parasitic that put on a good show by flying around at close range. I also spotted several Pacific Loons way out in the distance being tossed around by the waves - a lifer for me (finally!). As we were about to leave, I spotted the Black Scoter with a few Surf Scoters a fair distance off the pier. While not a big deal back in Michigan, Black Scoters are rare in southern California, so I was excited to see it. A quick drive by the end of 7th Street was our last stop in Imperial Beach. We didn't see much save a Little Blue Heron.

We spent a couple hours birding the Tijuana River Valley. There were some good birds reported from that area - Crested Caracara, Common Ground-Dove, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Black-and-white Warbler, and Snow Goose. We dipped on all of them. We actually didn't see too much at all except a few Eurasian Collared-Doves. However, at Border Field State Park, I found a Green-tailed Towhee along the entrance road. This was a good consolation prize for missing the other birds - they are rare visitors outside the mountains. Otherwise, Border Field State Park was almost completely dead.

Our last stop was the San Diego River in Pt. Loma. The river was loaded with ducks and shorebirds. I was surprised to find quite a few Blue-winged Teal amongst the more common ducks. We also found our first and only Ruddy Turnstones, Dunlin, Long-billed Dowitchers, Western Sandpipers, and Whimbrels of the day. There were also several Little Blue Herons hanging around, but I couldn't get any great shots because the sun was mostly hidden behind clouds.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

A second county record!

I nearly hit the roof last night when I read a report of an immature ROSEATE SPOONBILL along the upper Santa Ana River in Orange, not far from my house. Spoonbills occur occasionally at the Salton Sea in Imperial County, but are extremely rare in the coastal counties. Orange County has only one other record; three birds together at San Joaquin Marsh over the summer of... 1977!

My mom and I chased it in the late morning, encouraged by a couple early-morning reports that the bird was still present and the identification was confirmed. The bird was hanging around in a small section of the Santa Ana River, just south of the Tustin Avenue bridge. As soon as we pulled up I jumped out of the car, grabbed by scope, and ran! A couple birders pointed it out to me on the opposite side of the river. We enjoyed good looks for just a couple minutes before the spoonbill disappeared behind a small dike in the middle of the river. Over the next hour it was elusive, occasionally poking its head up above the dike but out of view most of the time. Finally, it hopped over the dike and gave us fantastic looks while it fed. It was interesting to watch its strange behavior of walking through the water while swishing its bill back and forth. The light was very bad (by this time the sky had become completely overcast with thick, dark rainclouds - there's a b-i-i-i-g storm coming even as I write this), but I still managed to get a couple decent pictures.

Eventually the Roseate Spoonbill stopped foraging and climbed up onto the dike to preen and take a short rest. Here's a shot showing the "spoon bill".

There were lots of other interesting birds along the river - shorebirds, ducks, and raptors. It was amazing to watch a pair of Peregrine Falcons - the big female and the smaller male - chase each other around and engage in incredible aerial acrobatics. The female, at least, was unbanded. They eventually landed on a wire stretching across the river. Here's a shot of the female (I wish I could have gotten a photo showing the difference of size between the two sexes, but they were sitting too far apart).

Monday, December 3, 2007

Birding the North Pole

This afternoon I spent several hours birding Irvine Regional Park (aka The North Pole) after school. The area around the the railroad track has been decorated extravagantly with lights - twinkling, flashing, and shining Christmas lights of every color of the rainbow. The birds didn't seem to mind too much though. Indeed, the park was nearly deserted; there were very few people around except for a few workers installing more Christmas lights. It was a nice contrast with the weekends when pishing brings not only mobbing birds but also curious people.

My Lewis's Woodpecker was still faithfully hanging around the cluster of dead sycamores near parking lot number sixteen. During the twenty minutes I spent watching it, it didn't leave the tallest dead sycamore. "Old Reliable" the Barn Owl was still in his hollow sycamore near parking lot number thirteen. Today he was sitting up higher up than usual in the hole, probably enjoying the late afternoon sun.

I saw a total of three Red-breasted Sapsuckers. One was alone near the train ride parking lot area, and the other two were hanging out together near group area number four. The two were chasing each other around and calling a lot. One was much duller than the other - maybe a male and a female hanging out together? Very neat birds to watch. Here's a shot of a sapsucker-hole-riddled eucalyptus tree near parking lot number thirteen.

Compare the sapsucker's neat, small holes in organized rows with the untidy granaries of the Acorn Woodpecker. The Acorn Woodpeckers drill these holes everywhere - in trees, in buildings, and in telephone poles. They then tap acorns into the pre-drilled holes to store them. It seems like a smart idea, but the birds go overboard, filling whole trees and telephone poles with acorns. Why? They surely can't eat all of them, and there are plenty of other food sources available year-round in Orange County's mild climate. Lisa Bender sums up the answer to this question quite well in my opinion in her article about Acorn Woodpeckers in the latest issue of Birding: "They [the woodpeckers] are obsessive-compulsives, senselessly repeated an inane activity."

Otherwise, I saw mostly the usual Yellow-rumped Warblers, Dark-eyed Juncos, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and others. I noticed a single female American Wigeon at the lower lake while I shared my snack bar with the tame domestic ducks.

Sunday, December 2, 2007


It rained almost all day Friday. After months of beautiful, cloudless weather, it was very welcomed and needed. The rain started in the wee hours of the morning Friday, and continuously fell until late afternoon. It started up again for a few more hours during the night. At times, it rained very hard, transforming the Yellowthroat Creek from a small, gentle stream to a wild raging river! The water rose quite a bit, carrying debris and litter downstream. There weren't many birds out, but I spotted a drenched Green Heron stalking around on the creek bank, apparently flooded out of the creek. Even the drainage ditches were filled with rushing water.

I spent most of Saturday morning scouting out Peters Canyon Regional Park for the Inland CBC with several other birders. We met at 8:30 a.m., and walked the Lakeview, Willow, and Cactus Pt. Trails. We finished up by 12:30 p.m. Soon after arriving, I noticed a Bald Eagle soaring over the lake. I was happy to see it, since Bald Eagles aren't nearly as common in southern California as they are in Michigan. A state/county bird for me. We were pleasantly surprised to find at least four (two male and two female) Hooded Mergansers on the lake. Other interesting waterfowl on the lake included Canvasback, Redhead, Green-winged Teal, and more.

This afternoon I went to Peters Canyon Regional Park again, partially for mountain biking, and partially for scouting out the southern half of the park, which I had never visited prior to today. I biked all the way to the retarding basin and back. The southern half of the park was really birdy, especially along the creek. The habitat in the southern part is quite different from around the lake - there are a lot more trees, there's a creek with marsh vegetation, and there are several large groves of eucalyptus trees. It looks fantastic for migrants. Wish I had gone there earlier in the fall! I also found lots of sapsucker wells in the eucalyptus - a couple trees were completely covered with the wells - but I didn't actually see any sapsuckers.