Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Wordless Wednesday

Dragonfly Lifer #1: Variegated Meadowhawk

I've always had a casual interest in dragonflies, perhaps because they share certain traits with birds. However, this interest usually only involved snapping a few photos of dragonflies and then wondering what they were. That has changed.

For Christmas I received a copy of Dragonflies and Damselflies of California by Tim Manolis. Now I'll be able to put a name on some of those dragonflies! Unfortunately, adult dragonflies aren't out and about in December (they're all dead!), so I'll have to wait until next year to crack out the book. Or so I thought.

While birding at Santiago Oaks Regional Park this morning I spotted a medium-sized reddish dragonfly streaking around the open area near the Villa Park Dam. Very few dragonflies can survive this late into the season, and the majority of the ones that do are Variegated Meadowhawks (Sympetrum corruptum). I snapped some photos and checked my book when I arrived home - yup, Variegated Meadowhawk.

I know I've seen plenty of other species, and have even identified several. Tough. I'm going to have to find them again to count for my "official" list. I'll try to remember to post each one, so keep your eyes open starting in the spring!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Crystal Clear

I am fascinated by shorebirds, and therefore spend much time observing them. I am lucky to live Orange County in this dimension, since it is possible to observe thirty species in one day. To find the greatest variety and numbers of shorebirds, the experts recommend that you hit the coastal estuaries - Upper Newport Bay and Bolsa Chica are famous for their shorebird-observing potential. However, the birds are often distant, making photography and detailed observation difficult. When my dad and I visited Crystal Cove State Park this morning, it became crystal clear that this is one of the best locations for photographing shorebirds in the county.

Crystal Cove State Park is a lovely stretch of beach alternating between sand and rocks. Washed up kelp and seaweed is not removed, unlike many other beaches, much to the shorebirds' appreciation. Additionally, many people visit the beach so the birds are used to the presence of humans and often allow close approach.

Although Crystal Cove is best known for its shorebird and seabird-watching opportunities, it offers fine "dry-shore" birding a short distance inland. Even the stroll from the parking lot to the beach can be productive, as California Gnatcatcher, Bewick's Wren, Wrentit, and others inhabit the coastal bluffs. This morning as my dad and I were headed for the beach, this California Towhee gave excellent photo opportunities on the edge of the trail.

My favorite part of the beach is the northernmost part of the park, called Treasure Cove. We certainly found a treasure trove of shorebirds there today. The tide was high, so many of the shorebirds were up on the beach snoozing, like this Willet. He didn't mind at all as I slithered through the sand on my belly towards him.

A Black-bellied Plover (though at this time of year, the British name of "Grey Plover" is more fitting) was keeping the napping Willet company. Black-bellied Plovers are normally quite wary, but this individual did not seem alarmed as I clicked away.

Amazingly, the plover stood his ground as I manuevered closer. When I had wormed within eight feet of the bird he decided he had better wake up and keep a careful eye on me. Look at that enormous eye!

The numerous Sanderlings skittering through the surf proved harder to photograph. These hyper bits of fluff can sprint faster than you can track them in the viewfinder! I absolutely love watching Sanderlings race the waves. They inspired me to invent "The Sanderling Game," which I still practice occasionally. More details on that some other time.

Also running through the surf, though much less nimbly than the Sanderlings, were big burly Marbled Godwits. Unlike the Sanderlings, who try to avoid getting their feet lapped by the waves, the godwits often stride through the shallow water, plunging their ridiculously long bills deep into the sand in search of invertebrates.

Other species of shorebirds that I saw, but didn't photograph, included Whimbrel, Black Turnstone, Ruddy Turnstone, and Surfbird. We headed back to the parking lot mid-morning, satisfied with all the shorebirds we had seen. The only hazard of birding at Crystal Cove is stealth waves, which can easily sneak up on you and drench your shoes if you aren't paying attention, as my dad discovered. For those interested in photographing or getting close views of shorebirds, I can highly recommend a visit to Crystal Cove State Park.

Wild Goose Chase

I know it's a cliche, but "wild goose chase" accurately describes my travels yesterday. I decided to embark on possibly my last long Bigby ride of the year in search of a couple special geese on Saturday morning.

The story begins on Christmas Eve. On that day my dad and I drove around to do some last-minute Christmas shopping, and popped around a couple spots quickly to look for birds. One of those places was North Lake in Irvine, one of those nasty sterile urban lakes that is overrun with coots and domestic ducks. Interesting birds occasionally show up in these kinds of places, so they are always worth checking out. Sure enough, I spotted an interesting trio of geese - two Cackling Geese and a Ross's Goose. By no means are either of these species super-rare, but they aren't common in Orange County and were not on my Bigby list.

After an hour-long bike ride in brisk temperatures, I arrived at North Lake early on Friday morning and was greeted by the quacking of Mallards and grunting of American Coots. I circled the lake, carefully scanning the water and lawn for geese. After half and hour I convinced myself that the geese weren't there and continued on to San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, determined to find that accursed Northern Waterthrush that I seem utterly incapable of locating. Even more of the riparian area at San Joaquin was flooded, created more potential waterthrush habitat and thus making the search even more hopeless. After a couple hours of wandering around, carefully scanning the flooded forest floor and keeping my ears alert for calls, I gave up.

Upper Newport Bay was next on the list. I reasoned that something, perhaps the missing geese, might show up there. I rode into a headwind around the bay, found nothing unusual save a Eurasian Wigeon, and turned around to head back. Instead of the tailwind I expected, the wind had shifted and I was again laboring against the wind. Ugh.

Mason Regional Park is just off the bike trail I take home, so I deviated to scan the lake for the missing geese. There were plenty of Canada Geese loitering around the edge of the scummy lake, but they weren't the geese I was looking for. Hundreds of coots stormed in my direction the instant I started snacking on a granola bar. I also noticed a small group of Northern Shovelers doing what they do best (shoveling) nearby and sneaked up for a few photos.

I decided to take another look at North Lake on the way home, since it was only a couple miles out of my way. I'm glad I did, because just minutes after arriving I spotted the stray trio of geese grazing on the lawn on the opposite side of the lake. A tense five-minute whirlwind ride and I was there, watching two Cackling Geese and a Ross's Goose at point-blank range.

The Cackling Geese were true midgets, undoubtedly of the "Aleutian" race. This race is easily identified by the thick white neck ring and overall darkness. Unfortunately, the Ross's Goose had a knack for turning its head or moving just as I was taking the photo, so I didn't get any really great shots of it. This one would have come out nicely, if only I hadn't cut off the tail.

I was very happy to add these two species of geese to my Bigby list. They will likely be my last new Bigby species of the year, since I don't have any more long rides planned. I decided against riding to Bolsa Chica, because that is a fifty-two mile round trip and I would only have about nine hours of daylight to ride and also find my target birds. As alluring as that handful of new species is, I don't like the idea of riding through Santa Ana at night. With the geese, my Bigby list stands at 235. Just a few more days until it starts over again!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

That Was Easy!

Most serious birders spend large amounts of time "chasing" rare birds. I am no exception, but my ability to chase rare birds is somewhat handicapped by the fact that I lack both a driver's license and a car. Oftentimes, rare birds only hang around a day or two, and conning/begging/convincing/coercing/bargaining with my parents for a ride usually takes longer than that. It is entirely understandable why they are reluctant to drive forty-five minutes to see (or maybe not see) an obscure brown sparrow they've never heard of; only a rabid county lister would see the point of that.

But a Vermilion Flycatcher! This species occurs fairly regularly in Orange County, but, being new to the county, it wasn't on my county list. I convinced my mom that the little cemetery where it was wintering was "only a few miles" out of the way home from Starr Ranch and that it would take "only a few minutes" to find the bird.


For once, I was actually right on both counts. The cemetery - El Toro Cemetery in Lake Forest - was only about five miles off the two forty-one toll road we take home from Starr Ranch. On Friday afternoon, after a slow morning of banding at Starr Ranch (we caught exactly six birds, though I did see a couple Scott's Orioles which made things worthwhile), we glided into the cemetery and parked. It took all of about two minutes to located the female Vermilion Flycatcher hawking insects low in some trees nearby. It was rather unwary, almost tame, so I managed to shoot some decent photos. A nice new Orange County bird for me. Don't ask me what my current total is, as I do not know the precise figure... somewhere in the 270s, I believe.

It was nice to easily locate the bird I was seeking for once! Far too often have I chased a rare bird unsuccessfully. Some of the close misses are painful to remember, but some birders get in bragging matches about the birds they've missed ("Once I missed an Ivory Gull by two minutes." "Oh yeah? Once I missed a Bananaquit by thirty seconds!") I hope to boost my sub-par Orange County list past the three hundred mark by the time I leave home for college. It is possible, but it will take a lot more successful rarity chases like this one!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Wordless Wednesday

Perhaps I should change it to "Wordless Thursday"... sorry for the chronic lateness!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The End Is in Sight

I have put a lot of time and effort into my Bigby list this year, and recently I've had to face a terrible yet unavoidable realization: it is ending soon. I have only a couple more weeks left in the year to find a few elusive species that I haven't seen yet this year. I'll certainly be starting a new list on January first, but I suspect that I won't be able to beat this year's total. I've lucked out on many difficult species such as Tropical Kingbird, Pine Warbler, and Least Bittern. Of course, I've missed some possible species, including some embarrassing ones (Pectoral Sandpiper... grr!) One Saturday morning I stuffed my saddlebags with the essentials - camera, binoculars, food, and a map - and set off. My destination was San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in Irvine, where I had a few target birds in mind: Harris's Sparrow, Northern Waterthrush, and Common Ground-Dove.

All three of these species are exceedingly difficult to find in Orange County. Harris's Sparrow is the rarest of the lot. One had been reported from San Joaquin a couple days previously. A Northern Waterthrush has been present there most of the fall, but this skulky species is difficult to locate. The dove was perhaps my best chance - it is probably resident here, but this midget is shy and stays hidden most of the time. It was a major challenge, and not unexpectedly I failed. I did, however, find a completely unexpected species that also just happened to be a new Bigby bird.

After sorting through the vast sparrow flocks in hopes of finding the Harris's, I set off for the back area of the sanctuary. This area is seldom visited by birders, but it is an excellent spot for birding: extensive dense willow thickets, small ponds ringed by tules, and flooded areas. According to the rare bird alert, the waterthrush was in "the back area." That helps a lot, since the back area is acres and acres of moist forest perfectly suited for a waterthrush to sneak around in. I meticulously searched the area, walking every trail, ears tuned for waterthrush chips as I scanned the ground and undergrowth. I found the Lost Trail (ha, ha), still set on the waterthrush mode. I looked up from the flooded forest floor to see a medium-sized bird perched in a dead tree nearby. It looked too large to be one of the omnipresent Yellow-rumped Warblers... through binoculars it was mostly yellowish with a few random red blotches, and a thick bill. There isn't much that it could be, except a hatch-year male Summer Tanager! It was too distant for a good photo, but I got great looks at it before it flitted off an was swallowed by the willow forest. Summer Tanagers aren't exactly rare, as a handful show up in the county every year. I guess their status in Orange County is similar to that of the Plumbeous Vireo - a magrant. I had missed this species previously for my Bigby list, so I was elated to find it. Number two thirty-one!

I made the most of the rest of the morning at San Joaquin, but I couldn't find anything else of interest. The not-so-Common Ground-Doves remained out of sight. I came across this chilled dragonfly. I can't recall seeing one like this before, though most of them look the same to me (I need a dragonfly field guide badly!).

If you saw a bedraggled teenager sitting cross legged in a corner of the parking lot at San Joaquin eating a meager lunch late on Saturday morning, that was most likely me. I filled out my checklist while nibbling on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, raisins, and of course, the essential Quaker Chewy Chocolate Chip snack bars. I decided to continue on to Upper Newport Bay, where I hoped to find a Burrowing Owl. Some impressive bluffs tower over the west side of the bay, and Burrowing Owls alleged sometimes show up there in the winter. As always, I stopped at the far end of the bay near Jamboree Road. This spot often has hundreds of ducks and shorebirds foraging at close range. Saturday was no different, except for a sick-looking Pacific Loon casually paddling around with the coots and wigeons very close to the bridge. (This is also where I photographed the Whimbrel at the top of the post.

When I arrived at the Muth Center (where the owls supposedly are supposed to be), I found bluffs. Lots of bluffs. Most of them were riddled with ground-squirrel holes, with plenty of spots of the owls to be hiding. I wandered about, carefully scanning the open areas, but it was really a needle-and-a-haystack search. The fact that large areas of the bluffs were closed didn't help either. I poked around for roughly an hour before giving up.

On the ride home I found a lovely pair of Hooded Mergansers in the Peters Canyon Creek just south of Walnut Avenue in Irvine. The Peters Canyon Creek is a smelly, trashy little trickle at the bottom of a huge concrete ditch. Even so, interesting birds do occasionally show up here. This is one of my favorite ducks, and unfortunately they are decidedly rare in Orange County.

When I arrived home late in the afternoon, I had over thirty miles under my belt, and only one new Bigby bird to show for it. Oh well, I was lucky to even get that. I currently need only eight more birds to reach two hundred and forty (I got #232 yesterday at Irvine Regional Park - Varied Thrush). I'll be working hard over Christmas break trying to find eight more! Here are my predictions for my last eight birds (I hope I can find eight more!):

1. Reddish Egret (always at Bolsa Chica)
2. Common Goldeneye (Santa Ana River)
3. Snowy Plover (should find this at Bolsa Chica)
4. Pacific Golden-Plover (there's ONE at Bolsa Chica... needle in a haystack!)
5. Thayer's Gull (Bolsa Chica)
6. Snow Goose (Santa Ana River)
7. Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Lemon Heights - I found one on the Christmas Bird Count, but unfortunately I was in a car)
8. Northern Waterthrush (I'll find this tricky little devil at San Joaquin... it was seen on Sunday!)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Monday, December 8, 2008

Bark Bird

Many species of birds use bark in one way or another: foraging for food, using the bark for nests, or storing food in crevices in the bark. Brown Creepers, however, are the ultimate bark bird. They forage almost exclusively on tree trunks and place their nests behind loose slabs of bark. They are well-designed for a life of crawling up tree trunks: their mottled brown plumage hides them from predators, their sharp claws allow them to grip the bark, their stiffened tail feathers support their bodies as they hitch up trees, and with their fine, curved bills they probe for insects in crevices of the bark.

This makes Brown Creepers extremely difficult to locate. To make matters worse, they have weak voices, only occasionally uttering a high-pitched little squeak that is easily missed. I remember the thrill of finding my first creeper in my Michigan backyard many years ago. I spent hours watching with fascination the mouse-like birds jerking up the large tree trunks. I've always had a soft spot for Brown Creepers, and I've missed them since moving to California, where they are few and far between. So, I was understandably overjoyed to find one of these charming birds this morning at Irvine Regional Park.

This morning was a fairly standard winter morning at Irvine Regional Park. It was a bit nippy, but the birds didn't seem to mind; plenty of common species were frolicking through the treetops. This fall has been a bit disappointing there, as I've found little of interest despite carefully searching. I locked my bike to a light post and quickly located a colorful Red-breasted Sapsucker busily drilling away at the trunk of a sweet gum tree. I wandered about, enjoying the common birds (I get an intangible magical feeling whenever getting good looks at the residents such as Spotted Towhees and Western Scrub-Jays), but finding nothing unusual. It was shaping up to be one of those regular days that blend together.

A strange sight stopped my in my tracks as I was loping across the park: a small, dark chunk of bark crawling up the side of a sycamore trunk. This was another of those cases in which I knew exactly what the bird was before lifting my binoculars. It simply had to be a Brown Creeper. The bird edged out from behind a branch, revealing itself to be a very lovely Brown Creeper. I sprinted over, reminded of how much I love these guys.

I watched, enthralled, while it would probe around in a tree until it darted to the base of another, giving a few weak tsee notes as it flew. In flight, Brown Creepers show a bold buffy wing band. I was lucky enough to capture it with its wings spread, showing this band.

I spent fifteen minutes observing the creeper. Eventually, I was forced to turn my back on it and head home or face a ruffled mom. Brown Creepers defiantly (inside joke, not a spelling error, thank you very much) rank among my top ten favorite birds. Please don't ask me to name the other nine - I'll have a tough time thinking of the couple hundred other species that vie for that position.

To make the sighting even more exciting, Brown Creeper is a new Bigby bird for me. One was present at the Holy Sepulcher Cemetery a scant half a mile down the road from my house all last winter, but I never managed to find it after December 28th of the year before. Number two hundred and thirty. Only a handful of possible new species remain, and all these would require long bike rides and a lot of effort. We'll see how it comes out.

Friday, December 5, 2008

A Tale of Two Lakes

Bodies of water are understandably scarce in arid Southern California. Only a couple natural lakes exist in Orange County. However, dozens of man-made lakes have been built, from tiny ponds to massive reservoirs. When I first heard that my new neighborhood had a couple small lakes (more accurately, ponds), I was ecstatic. I thought I'd find lots of different waterfowl and other wonderful birds there. The lakes turned out to be a disappointment: concrete-lined sterile ponds with very few birds. I've persisted, and found some neat birds.

The only ducks that frequent the lake are a few handfuls of Mallards and a couple domestic ducks (formerly, there was a third domestic duck; I dubbed the trio "The Three Stooges"). Occasionally a different species will drop in for a day or two: I've seen Northern Shoveler, Ring-necked Duck, Ruddy Duck, American Wigeon, Green-winged Teal, Cinnamon Teal, and Wood Duck there. Interestingly, different species most often show up on very windy days, perhaps seeking less rough waters. Last winter a drake Gadwall showed up on the lower lake (the larger one) and spent several months seeking handouts from passersby with the resident flock of Mallards. A couple weeks ago, a drake Gadwall appeared in the Mallard flock and has been there ever since. It is impossible to say, but I suspect that it is the same individual - rare birds return to the same location winter after winter, so why not the common ones?

A male Gadwall is a handsome bird indeed, and very worthy of being photographed. The ducks usually paddle over to you if you stand by the lake, hoping for bread crumbs. I walked up to the edge of the lake, and within thirty seconds I had about twenty Mallards, ten American Coots, and the one Gadwall drifting about expectantly a few feet away. Tossing pebbles in the water holds the ducks' attention for a few minutes before they begin to drift away, so I was able to get some great photo opportunities while lying on the edge of the lake. The Gadwall must have felt lonely, since he kept approaching female Mallards and displaying for them - dipping his bill in the water, rearing up, and giving a loud nasal quack. The hens were not impressed at all.

Gadwalls may not be brightly colored, but the fine patterns render them very pleasing to they eye. It always brightens up a quick walk around the neighborhood to see the Gadwall on the lower lake. I check the lakes several days a week just in case something interesting shows up. I'm also curious as to why the Gadwall hangs around this pitiful little lake; if I were a Gadwall, I'd rather spend the winter at a better place, with more food and cover. Over the winter, I'll work on obtaining some better images of this bird, since it is extremely cooperative.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Sunday, November 30, 2008

One Boy, One Bike, One Day

Nothing was on my schedule for Saturday, so I decided to take a crack at my record Bigby day (128). Finding this many species in one day requires covering lots of different habitats, such as seashore, estuary, freshwater marsh, and more. I ran my traditional biking route - down the mountains to sea trail to the coast. Unfortunately, days are short this time of year, so I was pressed for time. This difficulty is offset, however, by the diversity of birds around this time of year. I figured that the record would be fairly easy to beat, since I had made it without really trying.

It was a nippy fifty-two degrees when I pedaled out of my garage and down the street. Feeling only slightly ridiculous wearing a jacket and biking tights with binoculars slung around my neck, I sped towards the distant coast. I briefly paused at Peters Canyon, but after that I rode nonstop to San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in Irvine. On the way, I found White-faced Ibis, Common Moorhen, and others without even slowing my pace.

I blew a good chunk of prime morning time at San Joaquin. If I were to do it again, I wouldn't spend as much time there, but I wanted to look for some of the interesting birds that had been reported there recently, including a Northern Waterthrush. According to the rare bird alert, the waterthrush had been seen in the "back area" - a flooded swamp acres large. I did find some interesting birds back in there, including Red-naped Sapsucker, Hutton's Vireo, Northern Flicker, and White-throated Swift. I dawdled around more, and didn't get out of there until ten-thirty.

To make up for the lost time, I frantically raced around Upper Newport Bay. It was high tide, anyway - about the worst time to look for most birds there. I figured I could catch some of the birds I missed on the way home, when tide was lower. I couldn't resist making a few quick stops, during which I found birds such as Horned Grebe, Marbled Godwit, Loggerhead Shrike (undoubtedly the same one I saw a couple weeks ago), and Whimbrel. I continued on towards Little Corona City Beach, where I hoped to find some birds more typical of the seashore.

On the way, I had to stop at the 76 gas station at PCH and Avocado to pick up a king-sized Hershey chocolate and almond candy bar. I think this is becoming a tradition. I arrived at Little Corona City Beach several minutes later. I began scoping the ocean while munching contentedly on my candy bar. Through the haze I spotted flocks of Black-vented Shearwaters skimming the water, Pacific Loons, and a new Bigby bird, a Common Loon. I descended to the beach to check the rocks for shorebirds. I was specifically interested in finding Black Oystercatchers, a species that has eluded me on my previous visits and kept off my Bigby list. I found lots of the common rocky shorebirds - Black Turnstones, Ruddy Turnstones, Surfbirds, and even a Wandering Tattler - but not oystercatchers. I picked my way across the rocks (climbing slick rocks with a scope on the shoulder should become an Olympic sport) to get a look around a bluff that was blocking my view of the rest of the beach. I reached a nice solid rock, and set up my scope on the uneven slimy surface. I carefully inspected the distant rocks, finding lots of turnstones and Surfbirds, and then... three Black Oystercatchers came out of nowhere, as certain people would say. I was still on a Big Day schedule, but I stopped and watched the oystercatchers for several minutes. Satisfied that I had vanquished another nemesis Bigby bird, I hopped back on my bike and headed back the way I had come.

By the time I got back to Upper Newport Back, the tide was lower and the birds were easier to find. Careful scanning of the enormous flocks of ducks and shorebirds produced some interesting new species for the day, including Eurasian Wigeon, Blue-winged Teal, Long-billed Curlew, and Dunlin. After glancing at the sun's low position in the sky, I decided I'd better hustle along if I wanted time to stop a couple more times. A five-minute spin through Mason Regional Park quickly produced Canada Goose and Townsend's Warbler, both new birds for the day. I knew of a Yellow Warbler wintering in a patch of willows in the San Diego Creek right along the bike trail, so I stopped and aimed some full-caliber pishes in the direction of the trees where it is wintering. The poor bird never had a chance. It immediately popped up, chipping away, and I also immediately popped onto my bike and pressed on. It took less than ten seconds.

After a lengthy ride, I arrived at Irvine Regional Park. I furiously dashed around the park, picking up several species characteristic of the foothills: Acorn Woodpecker, Oak Titmouse, and Western Scrub-Jay. I headed for home as the sun sank behind the hills. When I finally arrived home, I immediately counted up my list to see if I had broken the record. I had, and by a decent margin - my total for the day was 136. That's a fairly impressive total for one day on a bike, though I missed quite a few possibilities: Red-breasted Sapsucker, Lark Sparrow, Red Knot, Fox Sparrow, and others. I biked roughly forty-five miles and found two new Bigby birds, bringing my total up to 229. One hundred and forty in one day is the next barrier to break, but I think that will have to wait until next year.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Wonderful Wetness

Cameras and water don't really mix, I thought as I glanced out the window on Thursday morning and saw rain dribbling out of the leaden skies. It would be pure folly to take a camera that cost a few arms and legs out in weather like that, so I left my trusty companion on the dining room table, grabbed my binoculars, and set off to look for a certain bird.

That certain bird is a bird I've keep a sharp eye out for all fall, but I missed it for my Bigby list. Plumbeous Vireos are rare but regular migrants in Orange County - not exactly a vagrant, since they occur too regularly, and not a migrant either. I suppose they could be considered "magrants". Anyways, I read online about one that Jim Pike and Doug Willick found in Lemon Heights earlier in the week, so I decided it would be worthwhile to spend my Thanksgiving morning biking through the rain in search of a new Bigby bird. Lemon Heights is only a few miles away from where I live, though it isn't called Lemon Heights for nothing: some decent-sized hills lie between my house and the place, Arroyo Elementary School.

Thankfully, the rain held off for a bit, but water and mud still managed to get flung up in my eyes from the wet pavement. I managed to find Arroyo Elementary School without a problem. The place was desolate and deserted; the trees across the street, however, were not. I could hear lots of birds chipping in the tall lush trees - Yellow-rumped and Townsend's Warblers, a Mountain Chickadee, and others. A few boisterous Red-lored Parrots seemed to be having a shouting match in the trees as well. I strode over, expecting to easily find the vireo. I experimentally threw out a vigorous phrase of pishes - lots of birds flew in to investigate, but no vireo. I walked around a bit, still searching for the vireo, when I began feeling raindrops on my bare head. The rain began lashing down furiously, so I scurried over to the closest cover available - a clump of dense bushes. From the relative dryness, I watched with detached interest as a swirling torrent of water swept down the street. I waited... and waited... and waited.

The rain finally tapered off, and I damply emerged from my lair. I meandered around more, half-heartedly pishing at the trees that were filled with Yellow-rumped Warblers and little else. I did find several Western Tanagers and a Bullock's Oriole, both uncommon species in the winter. I decided to give up, figuring the bird must have moved on. After all, I had carefully searched the area for nearly two hours with no luck. I called my mom to have her pick me up, since I didn't feel like riding the several uphill miles home in the drizzle. As I was trudging back to my bike, a grayish bird landed in a tree nearby. Somehow I knew it was the Plumbeous Vireo before I even raised my binoculars. I enjoyed nice looks at it at close range as it sluggishly foraged in the dripping tree tops. I called my mom again to tell her not to bother coming to pick me up... Plumbeous Vireo was a new Bigby bird, so I forced myself to face the wet uphill miles.

The ride home was actually easier than the arduous journey I had been conjuring up in my mind. The Plumbeous Vireo was a new Bigby bird (#227) for me, and a bonus one at that. I doubt that very many other people spent their Thanksgiving morning biking through the mud puddles in search of one little gray bird, but what else is there to do on Thanksgiving other than eating turkey?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Cliffs of Coronado

One of my favorite chapters of one of my favorite books is "The Cliffs of Coronado" in Wild America. Wild America, written by Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher, is a fantastic account of their epic journey across the American continent in search of birds. There have been plenty of books of this sort published - Kingbird Highway, The Feather Quest and The Big Year, to name a few - but Wild America stands out. It is older than the others - Peterson and Fisher staged their trip in 1953 - and thus more interesting (I suspect my parents would grimace if they knew I considered this "old"). At that time, much less was known about birds and where to find them, so they were truly out adventuring on their own.

Ah, but to get back to "The Cliffs of Coronado". The Coronados are a cluster of a few small islands off northwestern Baja, Mexico. The islands have long hosted large colonies of gulls and pelicans. When Peterson and Fisher visited the islands, they also saw storm-petrels, murrelets, and shearwaters, and had a grand adventure in the process. When I moved to California, I learned of pelagic birding trips run by Buena Vista Audubon that visited the islands. I was immediately interested, particularly because Brown Boobies have recently colonized the island. Unfortunately, I was never able to get on one of them... until yesterday.

After a wake-up time that was way too early yesterday morning, my dad drove John Garrett and me to the dock for the trip. Of course, we ended up being early, so we had to wait excitedly for the boat to leave. There was only one small problem: it was extremely foggy. Fortunately, the fog disappeared once we were a few miles out at sea. The first oceanic species to be spotted was Black-vented Shearwater. Dozens buzzed by the boat. The chummer (the person tossing popcorn off the back of the boat) did his job well, attracting a Black-legged Kittiwake close behind the boat.


The parade of pelagic birds became more and more interesting as we headed farther offshore. Fat little Cassin's Auklets flushed off the water as we approached, furiously beating their stubby wings in an attempt to become airborne. This is a very wary species, usually flying directly away from the boat and giving poor views. However, a few were so full of food that they couldn't take off and were forced to give decent views as we pulled up to them.

The boat nosed south across the border. John and I eagerly added some common seabirds to our paltry Mexico lists. Visibility was poor, because it was cloudy and hazy, so we didn't get our first view of the Coronados looming ahead until we were within a few miles of them. We cruised by North Island first, seeing Wandering Tattler, Black Oystercatcher, Peregrine Falcon, along with the expected gulls, cormorants, and pelicans. North Island is a beautiful place!

We continued on to Middle Rock, home of the Brown Boobies. As we approached the island, a small passerine, most likely a White-crowned Sparrow, flitted by the boat towards the island. It would have safely reached the island if a Peregrine Falcon hadn't casually swooped down and snatched it out of the air. Ouch. The Brown Boobies weren't hard to find - about a dozen were loafing on the cliff, occasionally taking short sallies out into the air. A life bird for me, and a very fun one to watch!

These long-winged aerialists have only recently colonized Los Coronados. They certainly were not there when Peterson and Fisher visited the islands. The boobies have successfully nested here, and previous trips have counted over thirty individuals! One has to wonder if they will eventually colonize any of the Channel Islands as well.

After we had our fill of the boobies, we continued on to Middle Island (the Coronados are so logically named!). Among the Black Oystercatchers prowling the rocks at the base of the cliffs were a couple American X Black Oystercatcher hybrids. The American Oystercatcher's range extends into northern Baja, though it stops fairly abruptly and is very rare in the United States and the Coronados. We found a group of California Sea Lions and Elephant Seals on a small rocky beach on Middle Island as well. The more agile sea lions dashed into the surf as we approached, but the slug-like Elephant Seals remained sprawled on the beach.

It was sad to watch the Coronados fade into the distance as we headed back for San Diego. They lived up to my expectations: large rocks jutting out of the ocean hosting great sea birds and mammals. I hope to visit them again in the future!

The trip wasn't over yet, however. We still had to get back to San Diego! Everyone kept a careful watch of the ocean as we cruised back. We found a few things that we hadn't seen on the trip down: a couple Humpback Whales, Mola Mola (aka Ocean Sunfish), Pomarine Jaeger, and some "dark" shearwaters (read: Sooty/Short-tailed Shearwaters). I believe the experts decided that one was a Short-tailed and the other couple were Sooty Shearwaters. One "dark" shearwater was repeatedly swooping through the boat's wake to check out the gull flock feasting on popcorn. This individual was quite cooperative for photography. I'm no expert on seabird identification, especially for such a tricky one as this, but I believe this is a Sooty Shearwater because of its extensive pale "blaze" on the underwings and a long bill. Comments appreciated!

The boat pulled into the harbor late in the afternoon, and some thirty of us tired but happy birders piled off the boat. John and I caught a ride to the Amtrak station with a couple birders and rode the train home. It was an inexpensive (twenty bucks) and easy way to get back home - my parents didn't want to make to trips to San Diego in one day.

It was an awesome trip. Pelagic birding is always a thrill, but this one was extra-exciting because of the added lure of the Coronado Islands. I had always wanted to visit them since reading "The Cliffs of Coronado". I netted one life bird (Brown Booby), though I see even the most common pelagic birds only occasionally, so I enjoyed every Cassin's Auklet and Pink-footed Shearwater we came across. I upheld my record of not ever getting seasick on a pelagic trip, though John didn't; I'll have to remember not to talk about cat food with him on pelagic trips. Hah.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Wordless Wednesday (not), a Day Late

Argh. What a good little blogger I am. I let an entire day of birding with the Sea and Sage Audubon Junior Naturalists and Jon Dunn on Sunday go entirely un-blogged. I don't have the time to fully recount that wonderful day of birding - I'll just say we had a blast birding around Orange County. We even found a new county bird for me - Yellow-throated Vireo at Huntington Central Park.

I'm introducing a new blogging feature - Wordless Wednesday. It seems pretty self-explanatory... I post a photo on Wednesday, without accompanying words. Yeah, I know, today's Thursday, but I couldn't wait until next week. Enjoy.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Wind, Fire, Birds, Bikes...

Just another average day in California. I rode my bike to Upper Newport Bay to search out some birds this morning - an especially high tide was scheduled to flood the marsh. High tide is generally not a good time for birding estuaries - most of the birds congregate on usually distant islands of higher ground. However, this tide was so high that it completely flooded the bay, forcing lots of birds out of cover. My mom and I birded Upper Newport Bay yesterday, and we saw a Short-eared Owl, Eurasian Wigeon, and other cool birds near the Muth Interpretive Center. I decided to ride down there to try to add the owl to my Bigby list, and also to see what else would show up.

Unfortunately, it was just about the worst day I could have chosen for a bike ride. Temperatures soared into the nineties, and Santa Ana winds - hot, dry winds blowing in off the desert - gusted all day, completely drying out the air. I merrily pedaled down there, a strong tailwind at my back. The air was so dry that I was thirsty before I had even left my garage. Still, I managed to get down to the bay in one piece, arriving just after eight a.m. at the traditional spot for scoping the bay at high tide - the end of the boardwalk near the center.

A few other birders arrived, and we chatted and scanned the marsh as the water slowly rose. After a short time, I spotted the Short-eared Owl sitting on a partially submerged stick. It was waaay out in the marsh, and it was little more than a speck. However, it took off after several minutes and cruised around on slow, buoyant wingbeats. Yes! A new Bigby bird, and a pretty nifty one at that. "Worth riding fifteen miles for," I mentioned to the birder next to me. He gave me a look of both admiration and horror and replied "No wonder you're so skinny!"

As the water rose even higher, it began revealing secretive marsh birds that are normally very difficult to find. Clapper Rails started popping out everywhere, standing in water up to their bellies, trying to wait out the high water. Someone spotted an American Bittern poking up out of the cord grass, and then another, and another... all in all we estimated there were at least SEVEN American Bitterns in this one relatively small area. This is an extraordinary count for Orange County! This is not a Bigby bird for me, but almost is; I've seen only one previously.

I started to feel sorry for a lot of the rails. They were being slowly pushed into the open by the water. There were many Soras in the area, many swimming to higher ground. Why, why why do they swim clumsily to higher ground when they could simply fly?? They slowly inched across the channel of deep water. One encountered a large reed floating in the water and attempted to dive under it. Soras are not very good at diving, and it got about half-way under the reed. It continued across the channel, dragging the reed along with it. After about two hours of watching, I counted about fifteen Clapper Rails, ten or twelve Soras, and two Virginia Rails.

Around ten forty-five, I started to head for home. The tailwind had helped me reach the bay very quickly, but now I was laboring into a very strong headwind that was constantly blowing dry air and dust into my eyes. I decided to stop at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, mostly just to get a Coke, but also maybe to check a few of the ponds. I walked around the first three ponds, finding nothing unusual. As I was scanning Pond C with my binoculars, I spotted a couple small brown ducks with brown crests. I instantly knew they were female Hooded Mergansers, and grabbed my scope to get a better view. This is a very suprising bonus - another new Bigby bird. I looked around to make sure no one was watching and whooped and did a little happy dance to celebrate.

Now it was time to head home in earnest. I gulped vast amounts of water, stopping at every single drinking fountain I came across to refill my bottle. I noticed an enormous cloud of smoke in the direction of home. A call home revealed that a wildfire had broken out near the Orange County/Riverside County border. The cloud grew larger and larger, looking eerily like a mushroom cloud.

When I walked in the door, exhausted, I was stunned to see my parents watching a news station showing frightening coverage of homes and buildings being devouring by gigantic flames licking up into the sky. The fire, named the "Freeway Complex Fire", has burned dozens of houses and is being driven by the fierce winds. Right now the fire is about five and a half miles from my house - I hope it stays away from my neighborhood and local birding patches! Good luck to the firefighters fighting this and other wildfires raging in southern California right now.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Of Thrushes and Owls

I was happily sweating through my chemistry homework yesterday afternoon when my cell phone in my pocket buzzed. I dug it out of my pocket, glanced at the screen, and saw that it was Doug Willick calling. Oh, goody. Whenever Doug calls, it's usually about some unusual bird that has showed up in Orange County, so I eagerly answered. And yes, I was right - an unusual bird, a Varied Thrush, had been found at my local patch, Irvine Regional Park. Ah, someone has been poaching my patch! I glanced outside to see if I had time to madly race over there before dark, but dusk was beginning to fall. Drat, I'll have to wait for tomorrow.

Following some vague directions (this was a second or third hand report, after all; Doug hadn't found it), I wandered around Irvine Regional Park in search of the Varied Thrush this afternoon. I knew the general area where it had been seen, but Varied Thrushes are shy and difficult to find. I probed around in thickets of berry bushes and scanned the grassy edges the brushy woods in search of it, but I never could find it. When I bird Irvine Regional Park, I don't normally search the undergrowth so thoroughly, so I found more Spotted Towhees, Bewick's Wrens, and Hermit Thrushes than usual. One Hermit Thrush was very tame and let me photograph it from six feet away. Well, it's a thrush, but not the one I was looking for.

As I was rambling along, I heard a band of Oak Titmice making a fuss in a nearby tree. They seemed to be congregating around a cavity in the tree trunk, occasionally landing on the edge and peering in. This is always a good sign that there is an owl around, but I didn't see anything in the hole. Hmm. The titmice were still very agitated, so I climbed up on top of a handily-situated picnic table and managed to see a Western Screech-Owl ear-tuft sticking up!

Eventually the titmice stopped harassing the owl and went on their merry way. It's strange how small birds get so angry at small owls. They will pester these poor owls that are just trying to get a wink of sleep, even though the owls are obviously not a threat to them at the moment. Of course, screech-owls do sometimes prey on small birds, though they much prefer rodents. It is very difficult to find day-roosting Western Screech-Owls, since they like to hide deep in cavities, completely out of sight. I would have walked by, a mere twenty feet below the owl, if it had not been for the scolding titmice. I spent the rest of the afternoon scouring the park for the thrush, but I still came up empty.

As dusk approached, I decided I'd better start heading home unless I wanted a scolding more severe that that of the titmice from my mom. I decided to cruise by the Western Screech-Owl, to see if it had come out any farther. As I approached, it seemed that the hole had suddenly shrunk. I looked again, and realized that the owl was sitting at the entrance of the hole, blending in almost perfectly with the bark! I took more photos; the owl bobbed around, preened, and seemed to be getting ready for a night of hunting and adventure. I'm sure that's what it is doing right now, swooping amongst the old oaks and sycamores of Irvine Regional Park in search of rodents even as I type these words.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

There And Back Again

The old bike creaked and complained as I labored up the hill. It endured several years of loving abuse by my eldest brother, followed by a couple years of dormancy in a dusty corner of the garage. I have recently begun using it instead of my newer mountain bike because it is a road bike with skinnier tires, which means there is less friction between the tires and the road, and as a result you can usually pedal the bike faster between birding spots. Plus, it has a back rack perfectly suited for carrying a tripod, binoculars, and other small items. It does, however, have its downsides. The whole thing seems to be slowing falling apart, one of the brakes hardly works (I'll have to invest in new brake pads), and the chain scrapes annoyingly against the gear shifter. Despite these shortcomings, the bike managed to carry me and all my birding gear forty miles to some coastal birding spots and back yesterday.

I left home early in the morning, gulping the chilly air as I zipped by Peters Canyon and down Jamboree Road. I reached San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in roughly an hour and fifteen minutes. I was mainly interested in finding the Pectoral Sandpipers that everyone except me seems to be finding there this fall - two had been reported earlier in the week. I stalked around the ponds, scanning all the shorebirds, but I was too late yet again. My only consolation was this lovely Northern Harrier that was coursing low over the water, harrying all the ducks and shorebirds.

Disgusted at having missed Pectoral Sandpiper for the fourth time this fall at San Joaquin, I continued on to Upper Newport Bay. My spirits rose as I arrived at the north end of the bay. Shorebirds and ducks were everywhere. I sat down to scope the flocks spread over the bay, ignoring the curious glances from the gaudily-clad bikers streaming by. Most of the common duck species were well-represented, as well as shorebirds. I was happy to note a single male Eurasian Wigeon mixed in with the hoards of American Wigeons in the shallow water of the bay. Interestingly, I also saw a completely albino American Coot and a weird American Wigeon with a very white head - "without a tan".

I continued on, hoping to reach the beach before the lighting became problematic. As I rounded a bend, I was presented with a familiar sight at Upper Newport Bay: a group of binocular-bearing birders. I slowed myself to a halt with my slightly-defective brakes and inquired if they had "seen anything good".

"Oh, we're watching birds," came the reply.

"Yeah, me too," I said, nonchalantly raising my binoculars to study some ducks out in the bay.

"Well, there are two Clapper Rails down there," a man replied, waving a hand in the direction of some cord grass by the road.

I peered down, and sure enough, there was a pair of Clapper Rails lurking in the thick cord grass, occasionally popping out into the open. The group wandered away, and I watched as the rails foraged briefly on an open path of mud. One of them began bathing in the shallow water nearby.

I turned to a birder I knew who had stayed behind to watch the rails with me and asked "So, have you guys seen anything else interesting around here today?"

"Not really, though there's a Loggerhead Shrike out there," he casually responded.

Wow. Wait. Loggerhead Shrike?! This species has declined because of extensive habitat destruction throughout the county over the last few decades to the point that it is quite rare. I never expected to add it to my Bigby list, yet there was one perched on a snag far out in the marsh, scanning for small rodents or other tasty morsels. I thanked the birder, and spent several more minutes watching the rails and the shrike before continuing on.

I managed to reach Little Corona City Beach unscathed a short time afterwards, barely avoiding a couple idiots who almost ran me down. I began scoping from the top of the bluff, searching for Black Oystercatchers, loons, or interesting gulls. A friendly old lady, a local most likely searching for conversation, came up to me and when I explained I was "birdwatching" told me she pitied those poor blind pelicans, gesturing towards about a dozen Brown Pelicans loafing on the rocks below the overlook. Blind pelicans? I inquired. Yes, she said, don't they become blind from the cataracts they get from diving in the water? I stifled a laugh and told her that the pelicans could see perfectly well. After a few more minutes of chatting, she left and I set about the serious business of scoping the ocean for seabirds.

This got boring after a couple minutes (and no, I don't even have A.D.D.) - there were hardly any birds. A few Black-vented Shearwaters were doing what they do best, shearing the water, a mile or two offshore. The only other bird of interest was a single Red-throated Loon that flew by, a new species for my Bigby list. I descended to the beach, toting my scope on my shoulder and nibbling on my lunch as I hopped and slid around the slick rocks in search of Black Oystercatchers. I walked down the beach quite a ways, finding Black Turnstone, Ruddy Turnstone, Willet, Whimbrel, and Black-bellied Plover, but no oystercatchers. Huh, I thought to myself, I came all this way for a single lousy Red-throated Loon? Apparently so.

I began drifting home. I rewarded myself with a Coke and a candy bar (I enjoy eating healthy lunches when I go out for bike rides), and finished the rest of my lunch. I mostly ignored all the birds as I rode back around Upper Newport Bay, since I had already looked at them on the way and knew that they were all Marbled Godwits and Willets (well, mostly...). I debated stopping at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary again, but decided to let Pectoral Sandpiper go without a fight. I did, however, swing by Mason Regional Park, where someone had seen a Clay-colored Sparrow a few days before. It was just about the worst time of day to be looking for passerines - they all seemed to be taking a siesta. I wearily pedaled home, arriving late in the afternoon with sore muscles, sunny cheeks, and an appetite the size of my bird list of the day. Oh yeah, the bird list. Without really trying, I tallied one hundred and twenty-eight species. Not bad for a day of biking - it beats my previous record by about ten. One hundred and forty is possible with a bit of route-tweaking. That will be for another day, however.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Behind the Times

Recently, I've been consistent in only one thing: neglected my blog. While it may seem as if I've dropped off the face of the earth, I am still here, alive and well. School takes up roughly 98% of my waking hours, and the other 2% I spend birding. That leaves 0% of my time for blogging, so technically I really shouldn't be typing this right now. I've finished my work for the week, so I'll try to catch up.

Precisely one week ago, I made an interesting discovery, but hardly an unexpected one. Last winter, I heard rumors of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker at Santiago Oaks Regional Park, but I didn't actually get around to confirming the bird until late February. The bird departed a few weeks later. I was surprised to learn that last winter was the sixth winter in a row it had wintered in the same tree. Six years is a long time in the bird world, but I hoped it would be back. So, last Friday, I rode my bike to Santiago Oaks Regional Park, walked to the pepper tree it favored last winter, heard tapping, raised my binoculars, and spotted the bird. It doesn't get much easier than that. Incredibly, this is the seventh winter this same individual bird has gone hundreds, if not thousands, of miles out of its way to winter in the same tree at Santiago Oaks. Wow. Hats off to you, Mr. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

I spent another hour or so wandering around Santiago Oaks Regional Park, and in that short time I found two more species of sapsuckers: Red-breasted and Red-naped. The Red-naped Sapsucker was my first for the fall. Santiago Oaks nearly always is alive with birds, and last Friday was no exception. In addition to the sapsuckers I found Northern Flickers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Hermit Thrushes, Fox Sparrows (photo at top of post), and multitudes of others.

Fast-forward to Wednesday. I rode my bike to Irvine Regional Park for a while in the morning, shivering a little as I rode (temperatures in the low fifties!). The mowers and leaf blowers were out in force, but I birded around them the best I could. I moseyed around, finding nothing extraordinary (another Red-naped Sapsucker and three Red-breasted Sapsuckers were nice... I'm already loosing count of how many sapsuckers I've seen this fall). The Lewis's Woodpecker still has not returned, much to my dismay. As I stared at its vacant snag, my mind conjured up images of the unfortunate woodpecker being nabbed by a hawk, or being hit by a car.

As I was biking along one of the roads in the park, I noticed a big dark bird in the top of a sycamore tree. Now, most big dark birds at Irvine Regional Park are Common Ravens; hundreds pour in late in the afternoon to roost in the tall trees. Dozens loiter around the park all day, raiding garbage cans and getting in all kinds of trouble. However, this bird wasn't a raven - it was a Turkey Vulture, and a young one at that. Turkey Vultures aren't very exciting for most people, but I hardly ever see them perched at close range. As I watched, it spread its wings to warm up.

Here's where the weird stuff starts. I circled around behind the vulture to try for an artistic backlit shot. This is what happened.

I have no clue how this happened, but it's pretty neat. This is picture right out of the camera - no photoshopping or anything. I couldn't replicate this effect either, no matter how long and hard I tried.

Also at Irvine Regional Park was a cooperative Say's Phoebe. This species is a fairly common wintering bird in the area, and this bird has been sitting on the same post the last three weeks I've birded Irvine Regional Park. Talk about a homebody.

Lastly, this morning I took a hike around the lake at Peters Canyon Regional Park. It has been interesting to compare the numbers and variety of waterfowl on the lake this year with what I saw last year. This year, water levels are much lower, and waterfowl numbers are also way lower. At this time last fall, there were hundreds of Ring-necked Ducks on the lake. Today there was one. This is undoubtedly not a drastic decline of duck numbers - I'm sure roughly the same number of ducks are around this fall, but they're just in different places. The lake probably had better food resources and habitat last fall, so the ducks moved on to try to find somewhere better. Still, I'm hoping that more will show up.

The lack of ducks today was made up by the presence of a couple Bonaparte's Gulls. I've seen this species only once or twice here, and surprisingly enough this was a new Bigby bird for me (#222). Somehow it eluded my grasp all of last winter. I was glad to finally snare it, since I was getting a bit worried about missing it.

Speaking of Bigbying, that's what I'll be doing tomorrow. I plan to ride down to the coast, birding Little Corona City Beach, Upper Newport Bay, San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, and Mason Regional Park. There have been some nifty birds reported around that area, including Clay-colored Sparrow, Pacific Golden-Plover, and Pectoral Sandpiper. All three of these would be new for my Bigby list, and there are also a few others that I could potentially find. We'll see...