Friday, February 29, 2008

The Sapsucker Saga Continues...

This winter has produced higher than normal numbers of sapsuckers in Orange County. Normally, only a handful of Red-naped Sapsuckers are found every year; this year, I alone have seen at least eight different individuals in Orange. Red-breasted Sapsuckers, the most expected sapsucker species, have also been quite common (I saw one out my bedroom window a couple days ago). Today, I found a third species: a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker! I saw it at Santiago Oaks Regional Park.

The whole story behind this sapsucker is rather bizarre. Back in late December, it was rumored that someone had seen four Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers at Santiago Oaks Regional Park. Naturally, no one believed it. One Yellow-bellied Sapsucker would be extraordinary - let alone four! I went sapsucker hunting there in January, and found only a single Red-naped. Case closed, I thought, until Bob Scrimger emailed me a beautiful photo of an obvious Yellow-bellied Sapsucker that he had seen a week ago at Santiago Oaks Regional Park. As I pedaled over there this afternoon, I wondered why no one had reported to OrangeCounty Birding; other birders had definitely seen it, and it had been seen all winter. Things like this frustrate me to no end; oftentimes I'll read in the "Sightings" section of the Wandering Tattler (Sea & Sage Audubon's newsletter) about some rarity that was seen, but never reported. I, of course, can understand some situations in which a bird shouldn't be reported, like a rarity in a private backyard. However, all too many of these rare birds are seen at public parks and the birders just don't report them. Grr.

As I rolled into the park, the prospects didn't look good. A tree-trimming company was butchering some trees around the parking lot (where the bird was supposed to be), and bird activity was low. Still, I found some Hutton's Vireos and a very handsome Northern (Red-shafted) Flicker. I also noticed this rabbit crouched under some bushes nearby.

After I had wandered around a bit, the chainsaws and chippers were silenced. Suddenly, birds seemed to be everywhere. No sign of any sapsuckers, however. As I was circuiting the lot for the second time, I noticed a couple pepper trees up on a slope nearby. My strategy for finding sapsuckers is simple: find pepper trees, and look in them. I crossed the creek, and managed to find the trees. One of them was riddled with sapsucker holes and -- THERE!! Hanging ten feet above the trail on the underside of a branch was a sapsucker. Peering through my binoculars, I could see the classic Yellow-bellied Sapsucker field marks: a whitish nape, with no red; fairly wide white lines on the face; no red on the auriculars; full black frame around the red throat; and fairly messy back pattern. It had lots of wells in the pepper tree, and a few in a nearby willow as well. Here's a zoomed in shot, showing the head pattern:

The bird was wary, and after I had watched it for several minutes and taken a few photos it flitted away. As I was walking back to my bike, I spotted a couple Sara Orangetips (Anthocharis sara) fluttering around. A life butterfly for me!

In the parking lot, while unlocking my bike, a little female Selasphorus hummingbird (Allen's is most likely) landed in a bush just feet away. I fumbled with my camera and snapped off one shot before she zoomed off.

I set out for Irvine Regional Park to try to find Red-naped and Red-breasted Sapsuckers to make it a three-sapsucker day. Oddly, I couldn't find either. While searching for the elusive Red-breasted Sapsucker near parking lot six, I heard an oddly familiar chattering noise coming from a nearby tree. I looked - a gorgeous male Hooded Oriole! It seemed early - sure enough, it was, according to the San Diego County Bird Atlas. It says they are rare in early March and become common by late March. After giving up on the sapsuckers, I visited the Lewis's Woodpecker. I immediately saw a large birding sitting atop the woodpecker's snag - a Merlin. Bad news for the woodpecker, I thought, as I jogged up for a closer look. However, after the Merlin took off, the Lewis's Woodpecker popped out of the shadows on the opposite side of the trunk where it had been sitting motionless. Smart bird!

As I rode by the lake, I couldn't help but notice the ducks in the lower lake; about a half-dozen Ring-necked Ducks, the single female Lesser Scaup, several Wood Ducks, and of course lots of Mallards. All were very cooperative as soon as I bribed them with granola bar crumbs.

I was also excited to finally get some half-way decent shots of a drake Wood Duck. I've been trying since last June! All of my previous shots were either out of focus, in bad light, or blocked by the obnoxious Mallards.

All in all, a very productive day of birding. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker was a county bird; Hooded Oriole and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker were new year/Bigby birds; the Lewis's Woodpecker and Merlin are always cool to see; and I was happy to get some decent duck photos.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Winter Doldums

Here in southern California, winter seems to just be an extension of summer. Many trees still have their leaves; plants grow and flower; butterflies and lizards are active when it is warm enough; and the birding is generally fantastic. Unfortunately, it's easy for me to take fantastic birding for granted - the same old Lewis's Woodpecker and Red-naped Sapsuckers always on their respective trees, the same mockingbirds, Black Phoebes, and Allen's Hummingbirds flitting through the neighborhood, and the same California Gnatcatchers whining in the brush at Peters Canyon. I haven't been able to do any really serious birding the last week, which makes me feel terribly guilty. It's strange - if I don't get some birding in every day or so, I start feeling queasy. Maybe I'm too obsessed! ;)

This afternoon, I ran (or rather, pedaled) over the Holy Sepulcher Cemetery, looking for those Brown Creepers that I haven't seen since December but I still desperately need for my Bigby list. I wandered through the cemetery, dodging cemetery workers and mourners. Birds were scarce. However, a few started to slowly show up; a Mountain Chickadee called from a row of pines at the back of the cemetery, and I came across a mixed flock that included House Finches, Chipping Sparrows, Lark Sparrows, and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Ruby-crowned Kinglets were surprisingly commonplace; one or more seemed to be ticking from every pine tree. A Sharp-shinned Hawk swooped through, silencing all the other birds. I noticed a pair of White-tailed Kites persistently dive-bombing an indifferent Red-tailed Hawk in the adjacent Villa Park Flood Control Basin. There was quite a bit of water down there; I should check it out.

The butterfly at the top of the page is a Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui). It was taking advantage of the sun-warmed gravestones. I saw several Painted Ladies, a Monarch, and one Buckeye. It's nice to see butterflies in February!

Red-crowned Parrots have been very widespread the last couple weeks. A flock has come to feed on the flower eucalyptus behind my house every morning for the last few days, and I frequently see them flying around. I saw these ones at Irvine Regional Park on Saturday (not really birding, since we were walking the dog... but I had binoculars and camera!).

Saturday, February 16, 2008

New Territory

I love finding new places to bird, especially when they're close to home. However, I'm a bit embarrassed about this latest one.

It's hard to miss seeing the old quarry filled with water along Santiago Canyon Road when driving through Orange. I've driven past it dozens upon dozens of times - but I always put off looking for birds there. This afternoon I hopped on my bike with my scope on my back to check it out for the first time. It's about two miles - some hills and a lack of a good route make it an interesting ride. As I rolled up, I could hear the reedy calls of Aechmophorus grebes drifted up out of the quarry. After I set up my scope and started scanning, I was amazed by the numbers of the grebes. There were dozens of Western and Clark's Grebes, hundreds of Eared Grebes, and a handful of Pied-billed and Horned Grebes. Even with a scope, it was tough to get good looks at birds. The whole quarry is surrounded by a barbed wire fence plastered with "No Trespassing" signs.

Some of the other birds I saw included about ten female Common Mergansers, an Osprey, Great Egrets and three American Wigeons. Grebes outnumbered everything else. I wonder why - at Peters Canyon, only a few miles away, ducks far outnumber grebes. Now I wish I had gone there sooner - it has a lot of potential!

Crystal Cove

This morning I went to Crystal Cove State Park, along with Bob Scrimger and my dad. It was the first time I had ever been there! There's an absolutely beautiful beach there that is part rocky with tidal pools and part sandy. The beach was littered with dozens of tame shorebirds. Most of them were very cooperative for photography. Black Turnstones were the most numerous. I was surprised to see them trundling around on the beach, because they normally stick to rocks. Unfortunately, I only managed one decent photo of a Black Turnstone.

Ruddy Turnstones were also very common. The turnstones were constantly churring and squeaking to each other, and it was fun to watch them fight over scraps of seaweed. The Ruddy Turnstones were a bit more cooperative than the Black Turnstones - here's a shot of one taking a break from foraging.

My dad noticed a banded Ruddy Turnstone - not only was it banded, but it was also color banded! The left leg had a yellow color band over a red color band, and the right leg had a regular aluminum band over a while color band. Banders band birds with unique color combinations like this so they don't have to be recaptured to determine where it was banded. It may look like this bird is loaded down with bands, but these bands are extremely light-weight and are no more noticeable to a bird than a human wearing a bracelet. I'll do some research and report this sighting so I can find out where it was banded!

There were quite a few Black-bellied Plovers wandering the beach as well. They were more skittish than the other shorebirds, but this one posed well for one shot.

Several Surfbirds flew in and put on a great show by preening on some rocks at close range. Here's a profile shot of a Surfbird:

By wading through some tidal pools and clambering over slippery rocks, I was able to get closer the Surfbird in better light. They are handsome birds! They are more dumpy and heavy-looking than turnstones.

Of course, Willets were very common along the whole beach. They are one of the most widespread shorebirds along the Orange County coastline and in the tidal marshes. This one paid no attention to be as I stalked it over the slick rocks.

Next time I go to Crystal Cove (which will hopefully be soon!) I will wear a swimsuit - kneeling in the sand and wading through water to get close-up shots of shorebirds gets messy!

I can highly recommend Crystal Cove State Park to anyone interested in shorebirds or photography. Even if you don't have a camera, it's amazing to watch shorebirds at such close range! The beach is very beautiful as well.

Thursday, February 14, 2008


It is very easy to take common birds - the ones you see daily - for granted. Despite being common, these birds are extremely interesting to observe. Many common species are in fact very cool-looking, but we see them on such a regular basis that we seem to forget how stunning these birds really are.

One of my favorite species is the Say's Phoebe. I like the way the muted grays, browns, and salmon-pink colors blend together. It is fun to watch them hover and dart for insects and their whistled calls are delightful as well. Normally they keep to open fields, but there are a couple that live in the neighborhood. I took my scope and camera out in the neighborhood this afternoon and found this one perched atop of post at the end of my street. This one was very tolerant of me (usually they are a bit skittish), so I was able to stalk right up to it for photos. Here's a profile shot:

Later in the afternoon, I again went out to try to get more photos of it in better light. It was nowhere to be seen. I jogged up to the neighborhood lake with light starting to fade to see if there were any photogenic birds around. Sure enough, three Double-crested Cormorants were lined up on the edge of the lake like statues. By stalking at an agonizingly slow pace, I got close enough to get head shots. I love those turquoise eyes!

Yesterday, I helped out with the MoSI bird banding at Starr Ranch. We set a new MoSI record - fewest individuals caught and fewest species caught. We banded five new birds, recaptured three, and released two unbanded. The species and numbers are as follows: Hermit Thrush, 7 (four banded and three recaptured); Fox Sparrow, one; Anna's Hummingbird, one released unbanded; and Spotted Towhee, one released unbanded. Dismal. It was still a fun day though - there were Band-tailed Pigeons flying around and vocalizing, and I heard a Rufous-crowned Sparrow. The Spotted Towhee that we caught had bumblefoot (a disgusting warty growth on the feet and legs), which prevented us from banding it. I did snap a couple shots before releasing it.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Long Ride

Yesterday morning I set out on a great adventure. Originally, I had been planning on birding the Santa Ana Mountains, but my dad came down with a cold. So - what to do? Bird Irvine Regional Park for the third time this week?

No! I decided to be a bit more adventurous. While studying my Orange County Bike Trails map, I noticed there was a bike path - a mountains to sea route - from Peters Canyon all the way to Upper Newport Bay. It was a long way - a good fifteen miles - but I had no plans for the day. I still needed a lot of coastal species, mainly shorebirds, for my Bigby list. So, I set out early Saturday morning.

I was happy to see that the trail followed both the San Diego and Peter's Canyon Creeks for fair distances. Along these creeks I found some interesting birds - a smattering of Least Sandpipers, Long-billed Dowitchers, and Greater Yellowlegs; a gaggle of Wilson's Snipes roosting behind the Irvine Civic Center; and most surprising, a trio of female Common Mergansers.

The ride went very smoothly. As I rolled under the Jamboree Road bridge over the San Diego Creek, I had my first glimpse of Upper Newport Bay. Excited to have finally made it, I raised my binoculars. A few Western Grebes floated out on the open water, a flock of American Avocets and Willets rested on the shoreline, and a tern - yes, a Forster's Tern - flew through the air. All were new for my Bigby list. I quickly added several other new species to my Bigby list, and then continued around the east side of the bay on Back Bay Drive.

Ducks abounded. I found Blue-winged Teals to be surprisingly numerous - I saw probably at least twenty. Green-winged Teal, Cinnamon Teal, and American Wigeon were also very common. Marsh Wrens, Common Yellowthroats, and Song Sparrows were omnipresent. As I approached the Big Canyon outlet, I could hear the low murmur of a big flock of birds - the yips and skimmers and the soft muttering of shorebirds. Sure enough, there was a big flock of Black Skimmers and shorebirds resting on the shoreline.

There were Marbled Godwits, Long-billed Curlews, and a few Whimbrels mixed in amongst the Black Skimmers. A large flock of dowitchers nearby contained both Short-billed and Long-billed Dowitchers - I distinctly heard both species calling. Closer inspection revealed several Dunlins, Least Sandpipers, and Western Sandpipers sprinkled amongst the dowitchers. American Avocets and various ducks were also present. Here's a photo showing a mixed flock of American Avocets, dowitchers, a couple Willets, and a single Dunlin.

I biked all the way to Newport Dunes, located at the south end of the bay. I contemplated pedaling to the beach, but I jettisoned that idea because of the lack of a good route. I biked back up Back Bay Drive. I stopped to scan a small flock of American Wigeon feeding nearby in the marsh, hoping for a Eurasian Wigeon. Suddenly, a beautiful drake Eurasian Wigeon jumped out at me - very neat bird to see, especially on a bike! The bird was slightly out of reach for my pathetic little camera, but I tried to get photos anyways.

After wolfing down a quick lunch, I pointed my bike homewards and started back up the San Diego Creek. Fortunately, the route was very flat except for the last couple miles. On the way back, I briefly stopped at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary. I checked the sightings board, expecting nothing out of the ordinary, but someone had reported a Tropical Kingbird! I checked the date - it was from today! I grabbed a map and rushed over to where it had been reported. No dice. I scanned treetops and strained my ears, but the only kingbirds I could find were the resident Cassin's Kingbirds. A consolation prize was a nice adult Black-crowned Night-Heron, another new Bigby bird.

After struggling up the Tustin hills, I stumbled around Irvine Regional Park for forty-five minutes to add to my day list. I logged 108 species for the day, which breaks my previous high total for a day of biking (102). It's hard to say how many miles I pedaled, but it was at least forty miles. I think I did quite well, considering I've never done a really long ride before, and I was only a tad bit sore today! ;)

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Freaky Sapsucker

Yesterday afternoon, while birding at Irvine Regional Park, I came across a hybrid sapsucker, almost certainly the same individual I saw a couple weeks ago about a quarter mile away. I believe it is a Red-naped x Red-breasted Sapsucker hybrid - as you can see in the photo above, its head pattern is almost exactly intermediate between those two species. Its throat is all red, but with a black border. The white lines on the face and the Red-naped face pattern are distinctive, but smudged with red. It had a wash of red across the upper breast. Interestingly, this bird was on the same pepper tree that the female Red-naped Sapsucker hangs out in. Apparently, it was "poaching" the Red-naped Sapsucker's wells, since later I saw the Red-naped back working on her wells. Here's another shot of the hybrid, showing the breast pattern. This bird was quite tame, allowing good photos.

In the morning, my dad and I birded several various places in Huntington Beach - Huntington Central Park, Harriet M. Wieder Regional Park, and Bolsa Chica. We dipped on most of the birds we were looking for - a Tropical Kingbird at Huntington Central Park, a Hammond's Flycatcher at Harriet Wieder, and two Common Goldeneyes at Bolsa Chica. However, we did have some nice consolation prizes - the "Red" subspecies of Fox Sparrow, found mostly in the east, at Harriet Wieder; and singles of Greater Scaup, Pacific Golden-Plover and Reddish Egret at Bolsa Chica. Bolsa Chica was loaded with shorebirds - there were thousands of Western Sandpipers spread over the flats, and large numbers of many other kinds. I also spotted a Merlin near the tide gates. A very nice day all in all. Here's a shot of a Marbled Godwit at Bolsa Chica, with a couple Short-billed Dowitchers in the background.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Peters Canyon Scenery

This morning I spent a couple hours birding at Peters Canyon Regional Park before school. It was my first visit in a few weeks - the trails were closed for awhile because of the rain, and the ever-tightening choke hold of homework is keeping me indoors more than I would like. The rains have done a lot of good at Peters Canyon - everything is green and alive, as you can see in the photo above. A welcome change from the burnt brown landscape!

It was a nippy forty-three degrees when I arrived shivering on my bike. I wasn't the only one who was cold - the birds weren't active until the sun peeked over the ridge and warmed things up. The lake had lots of Northern Shovelers, but low numbers of just about everything else. The massive flocks of Ring-necked Ducks, Lesser Scaups, and Redheads are things of the past - not a single Ring-necked Duck was in sight today. A lone Great Blue Heron stood hunched on the lakeshore, and a few Least Sandpipers consorted with the resident Killdeer. I've given up hope of finding a Hooded Merganser for my Bigby list, at least until next fall.

I walked through the dead silence of the Willow Trail. I can't wait for the Bell's Vireos and Yellow-breasted Chats to come back and liven things back up around there. I did eventually manage to dig out a couple Hermit Thrushes and a Fox Sparrow. I continued around the lake, finding only one California Thrasher, until I arrived south of the dam. I climbed to the top, scanned the lake, and came up with a pair of Canvasbacks. A cute little male (he was starting to get a black cap) California Gnatcatcher whined the whole time I was there, flitting around in the bushes. This interesting image is the result of my breathing on the lens to get rid of a water droplet that had found its way onto the lens. Pretty cool, huh?

I found a bunch of Say's Phoebes along the Cactus Point Trail, but little else. The highlight of the morning was a White-tailed Kite atop a snag right next to the trail. While certainly not rare, they are always a thrill to see. My only new Bigby bird of the morning. This is the kind of situation that I wish I had a DSLR with a nice long lens...

On Wednesday afternoon I pedaled over to Irvine Regional Park for a little while. The Lewis's Woodpecker continued to put on a good show on his favorite snag. A very cool bird! Definitly worth the trip out there to see it, even though I've seen this same individual bird countless times over the months. Other birds of note included two species of sapsuckers, and the Nashville Warbler that I originally found last week near the pony rides.

I also was lucky enough to witness a Red-tailed Hawk courtship display at the far end of the wash. I watched as one Red-tail circled higher, occasionally doing stalls and draw-ups. Finally, after it was so high as to only be a speck in the sky, it turned on its back and did a very steep, fast stoop straight down towards earth. It then drew out of the stoop and completed a loop while I watched amazed. Then it started flying in formation with another Red-tailed Hawk, presumably a female. I once saw a Northern Harrier "sky-dancing", but never a Red-tailed Hawk. Neat!!