Sunday, June 29, 2008

Bluebirds of Happiness

Doesn't Silas look happy? He has just entered an entirely different world. No longer is he confined to his safe and comfortable nest box, snuggled up with his siblings. The outside world, viewed through the entrance holes, was alluring and exciting as Silas waited for his parents to deliver meals. Instead, now he is balanced awkwardly on a branch, and the outside world comes up short of his expectations. The sun glares into his eyes, other birds stare at him and seem to laugh, and that big two-legged thing is standing over there...

Silas may not have been happy, but I was. I had spent a long time building the box, pounding and sawing and painting in the sweltering garage. I had watched as the female bluebird built the nest, I had checked on the eggs in the nest, and I had monitored the progress of the babies' growth. Now those babies were leaving the nest, to grow into adult bluebirds. Hopefully, some will stick around and use the vacant boxes next year. Silas could fly strongly, despite the fact that he was fresh out of the nest. However, he spent most of his time hunched over on the branch, peeping pitifully for food. Here's another photo of him, in which he looks somewhat less grumpy.

Silas's parents were hanging around, feeding and watching over not only Silas but also his siblings who were still peering curiously from the entrance holes of the nest box. I was standing a fair distance away, digiscoping the bluebirds; anyone walking along the sidewalk (which passes close to the box) would receive fierce dive-bombings from the adults. Here's a shot of the female, watching for insects to feed to the babies.

I was very surprised to see the young from the previous brood helping the parents feed the babies. I had noticed them hanging around during the incubation period, but I assumed they were teenagers bumming around in hopes of a handout. There were three, still sporting their baby spots (young bluebirds are mostly brown with pale spots). However, their tails have grown in (notice Silas's stumpy tail) and they have lost their fuzzy appearance. I know that other species of young birds (scrub-jays, among others) give their parents a hand with other broods, but I've never heard of bluebirds doing this. Strange. I guess you learn something new every day...

Monday, June 23, 2008

Somewhat Artistic Photography

Well, I am done writing about my recent adventures in the San Jacinto Mountains. I am, however, still sorting through and editing my photos. I took hundreds of photos, and it was difficult to choose which ones to include here on my blog. I ended up with many photos that I wanted to post, but just didn't fit in. So, here are some of my favorite shots from the weekend.

Suicide Rock:

Oak leaves:

Forest floor:

Pine bark:

Yucca in bloom:

Pine cone (Ponderosa, I think):

Lily Rock and Tahquitz Peak:

Pine needles:


Explanation unnecessary:

Montane Adventures - Part III

It was a beautiful day... the sun beat down. I had the radio on, I was drivin'. The trees went by... me and Del were singin'. Little runaway, I was flyin'.

Well, it was a beautiful day, the sun was beating down, and the trees were going by. Tom Petty, however, never said anything about birding, or, more specifically, searching for Pinyon Jays. My dad and I were drivin' along Highway 74, when a pale blue bird flew up from the side of the road. We stopped, and sure enough, there was a Pinyon Jay walking around in the road. Several others called from the pine trees along the road. We had nice looks at them, and heard Western Meadowlarks and a Black-chinned Sparrow while we were stopped.

Sunday was our last day of birding the San Jacinto Mountains. Per usual, we arose early (fortunately, the swallows did not disturb us during the night; either they weren't calling or they didn't wake us up) and quickly packed up and left. While driving through the Garner Valley, we spotted several Pinyon Jays. Our main target, however, lay some miles up the road. We were headed for some desert areas to search for birds of the desert. We reached the Cahuilla Tewana Overlook, located along Highway 74, around 7:30 a.m. As soon as we exited the car, we were hit by a wall of heat. Phew! The sun was really beating down now!

At first, all was quiet apart from some buzzing cicadas. Then a very sharp-looking Black-throated Sparrow popped up atop a yucca and serenaded us for several minutes. It stayed there long enough for me to find in in my scope and digiscope several shots.

After a short time, we decided to get out of there and leave the hot desert to the lizards (there were many, including California Whiptail), Black-throated Sparrows, and antelope squirrels (at least, I'm pretty sure that's what they were). We took a spin through Pinyon Flats Campground, which produced nothing other than a couple Western Scrub-Jays. On a whim, I decided to stop at the intersection of Highway 74 and Santa Rose Mountain Road to search for Gray Vireos. A long shot, but it can't hurt to look, I thought as we pulled over and stepped out into the heat. We were greeted by the song of a Gray Vireo drifting up out of the chaparral-clad canyon! I quickly whipped out my iPod and played Gray Vireo a couple times. A small gray bird popped up in a bush in front of us - there it was! It sat there and sang a few times, looking for what it thought was an intruder, before flitting back down into the canyon. Another life bird for me, and an exciting one at that; it is rare here and difficult to find.

By now, it was very hot and the birds were difficult to find, so we hit the road for home. It was a really fun trip; I saw five life birds, sixteen year birds, and nine state birds. Of course, the scenery was nothing short of incredible. I can't wait to go again!

Montane Adventures - Part II

Saturday morning was much like Friday morning, except that the Violet-green Swallows began calling at three-thirty instead of four-ten. As I lay there attempting to drift back to sleep, I heard a new voice. Who-who-who, whoooo-who! An owl! "Only" a Great Horned Owl, but I enjoyed lying there listening to it hoot. Another one answered back, and those two owls hooted back and forth the rest of the night. A Western Screech-Owl also called briefly from nearby.

My dad and I pried ourselves out of our sleeping bags at five-fifteen, enjoyed a quick breakfast, and then went out foraging for coffee. We quickly succeeded, and headed up to the trail head for the Devil's Slide Trail. The trail, starting from Humber Park a couple miles above Idyllwild, snakes up high into the mountains and even reaches Mt. San Jacinto (elevation 10,786 feet). That was too long of a hike for us, but we were determined to climb as high as possible on the trail. We started our ascent up the steep and rocky trail just as the sun was starting to peep over the high ridges. The trail is remarkably scenic. However, it is easy to get distracted from the scenery by the birds. We hadn't gone far before we began seeing higher-elevation species such as Yellow-rumped Warbler (looking very fine in alternate plumage), Red-breasted Sapsucker, and Brown Creeper.

Birds weren't the only animals out and about along the trail. Cliff Chipmunks and Western Gray Squirrels scampered over the rocks and scolded us from the tree branches as we passed by. This Cliff Chipmunk scurried up a log to check me out while I was trying to pish in some birds. I can't say I've ever pished in a chipmunk before...

As the temperature rose, lizards emerged from their lairs and basked on sunny rocks. There were quite a few similar to this one. My lizard identification skills leave something to be desired (if they even exist), and I'm not sure what it is. My best guess is Sagebrush Lizard (Sceloporus graciosus), but I am probably wrong. Thoughts?

After a long hike, we reached Saddle Junction, two and a half miles above the trail head. The idyllic pine forests and stunted vegetation here produced Pine Siskin, Cassin's Vireo, Dusky Flycatcher, Fox Sparrow, and Green-tailed Towhee. We decided to take a "quick look" up the Pacific Crest Trail toward the peak. We ended up hiking over a mile up the steep trail, hoping to find a Clark's Nutcracker or Williamson's Sapsucker. No luck. We had nary a sniff of a Clark's Nutcracker, and every sapsucker call note or drum I tracked down turned out to be a Red-breasted Sapsucker. The views, however, were spectacular. Lily Rock (pictured at the top of this post) loomed overhead when we began our hike, and now we were high above it.

After a pause for lunch, we began the descent back to the trail head. By now, the sun was high overhead and birds were not nearly as active. The walk down was much less strenuous than the hike up. I got lucky and spotted a Townsend's Solitaire, a gray bird that blended in well with the gray shadows of the sky-high pine trees. A state bird for me, and only the third I've ever seen (I've seen singles in Ontario and Michigan!).

We continued our way down, gulping gatorade and trying to stay in the shade as much as possible. We stared in horror at the crazy backpackers sweating their way up the trail, stooped under the weight of their enormous packs. We reached the trail head around 12:30 p.m., six hours after we started. It had taken us four hours to climb up and only two to come back down. It was roughly seven miles round trip. An awesome hike filled with amazing scenery and birds!

The rest of the afternoon we spent relaxing in the shade at our campsite. The Stellar's Jay was still hanging around, hoping for handouts, and he had brought some of his friends. We ended up with four Stellar's Jays squawking at us! As soon as I would toss a peanut, one would drop down, snatch the peanut, and go stash it somewhere. Repeat. Those jays certainly won't be going hungry any time soon.

Later in the afternoon, as it cooled down, I took a walk around the park. The large ponderosa pines sprinkled liberally throughout the park provide good habitat for species such as White-headed Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Pygmy Nuthatch, and Dark-eyed Junco. A small riparian area lines the tiny trickle of a creek that runs through the park. Here I found Black-headed Grosbeaks, Spotted Towhees, and others. A couple of very inquisitive Dark-eyed Juncos were very curious about my pishing and flew in very close.

That evening, after a nice dinner at a local Mexican restaurant, we attempted to find Flammulated Owls around the parking lot at Humber Park near Idyllwild. It was in vain. The only night creatures we could find were the bats swooping around over the parking lot, the mosquitoes that whined in our ears, and the ants that crawled up our legs. It may take a while, but I will find a Flammulated Owl. Eventually.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Montane Adventures - Part I

I was suddenly jerked out of my restless sleep. I yawned, and burrowed deeper in my sleeping bag. Then I heard the sound again - the sound that had woken me up, a twittery chatter. I groggily sifted through the possibilities in my sleep-deprived head. No, it wasn't an owl... or a nightjar. Then it clicked - Violet-Green Swallow. But why was it calling in the middle of the night, when the only light came from the soft silver glow of the moon? I sat up, confused, and groped for the alarm clock. Four-ten. I groaned and fell back on my pillow. Sleep, however, was elusive. The combination of the incessant twittering of the swallows, the squeaks of bats fluttering around the tent, and my building excitement simply made sleep impossible. I laid there, listening my dad snoring next to me and also waiting for other birds to wake up. As the darkness gradually changed to pre-dawn gray, birds other than those crazy swallows started calling. Western Bluebird. Mountain Chickadee. Stellar's Jay. Western Wood-Pewee.

This was how my Friday morning started. My dad and I were camping at Boulder Basin Campground, a remote campground located high in the San Jacinto Mountains in Riverside County. After a spartan breakfast, we immediately set about the business of finding birds. One of the first birds I laid my eyes on was a beautiful male Cassin's Finch singing from the top of a dead pine tree. A lifer, and a promising start the the trip. As we wandered around the campground (which was deserted except for a handful of other campers), we encountered a variety of other mountain birds, such as Pygmy Nuthatch, Band-tailed Pigeon, and Brown Creeper. I was excited to see a pair of Red Crossbills fly over. Another lifer. Red Crossbill has always been something of a nemesis bird for me, so I was happy to pin it down.

My dad's urgent need for coffee forced us to depart early (remote campgrounds on top of mountains generally aren't good habitat for coffee shops). On the way down the dirt road from the campground to the highway, we found birds such as Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-throated Gray Warbler, and Ash-throated Flycatcher. Incidentally, the road (4S01) was rather rough and dusty; it wasn't until the next day that I read "Low-clearance vehicles are not recommended on Forest Road 4S01." We were driving a Ford Taurus.

After the mandatory coffee stop, we took a short hike along the North Fork of the San Jacinto Creek. We were greeted by makeshift signs warning us to stay away from the creek because of the endangered Mountain Yellow-Legged Frogs that reside there. We had to keep at least ten feet away from the water so as not to disturb the frogs. After a short stroll, a male Mountain Quail scurried across the path ahead of me. Instead of disappearing into the brush as I expected it to do, the bird climbed up on a large rock above the trail, peered down at us, and gave churring calls. We had excellent looks and I snapped a few decent photos. Another lifer! While concentrating on the quail, I did not notice the numerous mosquitoes until I glanced down and saw about a dozen merrily sucking the blood out of my legs. We quickly bade good-bye to the quail and got out of there.

We headed towards the town of Idyllwild on the ridiculously scenic Highway 243. Our next stop was Idyllwild County Park, a delightful natural park filled with massive pines. The nature center boasts a large array of feeders, which attract lots of birds. Band-tailed Pigeons squabbled and waddled all over the place. I spotted a White-headed Woodpecker working a pine trunk right off the deck. A cracking bird!

By now we were nearly hungry enough to chase the birds off the feeders and gobble up the seed, so we paused for lunch. Like our camping breakfasts, our camping lunches border on barbaric. A few hastily made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, perhaps with some granola bars or an apple on the side, serve for lunch. Can't beat it!

Satisfied, we wandered around the Garner Valley for some time. A scenic area of meadows and pinyon pine forest, the Garner Valley is home to the highly sought-after Pinyon Jays, among other birds. We cruised around, windows rolled down, listening for birds. The birds were smarter than we were - it was hot, and the birds seemed to be taking a siesta. Suddenly, I spotted a feeder covered with birds. We stopped, hoping the people who lived there didn't mind two rather suspicious characters peering into their yard with binoculars. Lesser Goldfinches, House Finches, and a black-faced finch with yellow wing bars munched seed out of the feeders. Wait - black face?! Yellow wing bars?! Lawrence's Goldfinch! We enjoyed fine looks of this stunning bird as it fed and battled the masses of Lesser Goldfinches on the feeder. Another life bird, and one I'm very happy about; I was rather embarrassed not to find any this spring. I couldn't get any good photos, but here's a horrible one just to show certain people (*ahem* Mr. Garrett) that I did actually manage to find one.

With that, we headed to the campground at Idyllwild County Park to set up camp. We spent the rest of the afternoon lounging in the shade. Birds were not particularly plentiful, but a very brash Stellar's Jay demanded handouts of peanuts from me. I was happy to oblige. A few American Robins were hanging around as well. This species is not nearly as common in California as back east.

Later in the afternoon, as it cooled down, we took a short walk around the park to look for other birds. There were lots of Black-headed Grosbeaks, Mountain Chickadees, Spotted Towhees, Stellar's Jays, and Pygmy Nuthatches along the small creek that runs through the park. I at last managed to get a shot of a Pygmy Nuthatch - these guys are tiny, hyperactive, and very difficult to photograph.

Ah, dinner. No going out to fancy restaurants for us. Instead, we cooked up a delicious and elegant supper of beans, potatoes, and hot dogs. Mmmmmmmmmm.

Monday, June 16, 2008

This Is The West

One year. That may not seem like a very long time to most people, but my life has changed so drastically in the last year that it seems to stretch way back into the distant past. I haven't always lived in California; in fact, I am a relative newcomer to western birding. However, the previous fourteen years of my life suddenly seem slightly blurred as I look back upon them.

Exactly one year ago, June 16th 2007, I was standing on a roadside near Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was late in the day, about the same time of day as it is right now as I write this. The sun was slowly sinking beneath the horizon, bathing the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher perched on the wire above my head in golden light. I spent several minutes photographing it. I remember cars rushing past a few feet away, throwing walls of wind into my face. Where were they going? Undoubtedly most were locals rushing home after work. Maybe there was another family moving cross-country going by even as I was standing there...

Since I'm a birder, the drive from Michigan to California was undoubtedly more interesting to me than it was to the rest of the family. I noticed subtle changes in the bird life as we traversed the country, east to west. As we rolled out our long driveway in Beverly Hills, Michigan, for the last time, I could hear Black-capped Chickadees, Blue Jays, and Northern Cardinals through the open windows. On the second day, I saw the first Northern (a misnomer - the mockingbird is generally a southern bird) Mockingbird in southern Ohio. Indiana and Illinois dragged by; endless miles of corn fields seemed to stretch to the horizon in all directions. I did, however, see Blue Grosbeaks and Dickcissels. I picked off my life Scissor-tailed Flycatcher as we sped down an interstate in southern Missouri at seventy miles per hour. Oklahoma was the next state. In retrospect, Oklahoma was the best part of the trip. In under twenty-four hours, I observed sixty species of birds. And not just the plain old eastern birds; novelties such as Bell's Vireo, Bewick's Wren, Mississippi Kite, and Western Kingbird.

Birding around the parking lots of hotels is generally dull. Our hotel somewhere in the heart of New Mexico was an exception to this rule. Located on the edge of a virtual ghost town and surrounded by desert grassland, the hotel was a great spot for birding. Noisy groups of Western Kingbirds called and squabbled among themselves constantly. A thrasher - Bendire's Thrasher! - skulked in a line of bushes around the edges of the parking lot. Eurasian Collared-Doves, Swainson's Hawks, Say's Phoebes, Cassin's Sparrows, and Western Meadowlarks all showed up right around the hotel parking lot. That's what I call high-quality hotel birding!

Arizona proved hot and birdless; California turned out to be much the same. On our last day of driving, we passed through Riverside and Corona. The smog was so thick that we could hardly read the road signs! This made me feel sick inside... we're moving here? Oddly, I have never since seen smog nearly that thick. Finally, we reached Orange County. I was practically bouncing out of my seat by now. Driving down Chapman Avenue... turning right into our new neighborhood... and finally wheeled around a corner onto our street. Thus started a new chapter of my life. I birded nonstop the next several days, finding all kinds of amazing birds: California Towhee! Wrentit! Pacific-slope Flycatcher! California Gnatcatcher! Nuttall's Woodpecker! Oak Titmouse!

I find it strange how my attitude has changed. A year ago, I was excited and nervous about moving, but I was looking forward to the new experience. Now, I sorely miss Michigan and the east. Sometimes I catch myself wishing I could go back forever... but now I know that if I did that, it wouldn't be too long until I started missing California and all the once exotic, but now familiar, birds.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Sage Wisdom

It all started yesterday morning, when Justin Shew (the ornithologist at Starr Ranch) offhandedly mentioned he had seen a "weird sparrow" while out hiking last week. "I think it was a Sage Sparrow," he said. This snatched my attention - I desperately wanted to see one. I riddled him with endless questions of what it looked like, what it sounded like, where he saw it...

Fortunately, Justin had photographed the bird. Sure enough, it was a Sage Sparrow. That's why I found myself laboring up the rough San Juan Trail in extreme southern Orange County this morning. The trail wasn't steep, but there were lots of switchbacks and blind curves that potentially crazy mountain bikers might be swerving around at any moment. We had gone only a few hundred feet when this Western Scrub-Jay posed for me atop a bush.

Birds abounded along the trail, but mostly the usual suspects: Wrentits, Spotted Towhees, Ash-throated Flycatchers, and Rufous-crowned Sparrows. We were surprised by the numbers and diversity of wildflowers, including these nice ones that appear to be some sort of Mariposa lily. Because I'm a hopeless procrastinator, I still don't have a wildflower book...

I found this cicada in the middle of the trail shortly thereafter. It obviously had just emerged - a hole in the trail and an old cicada shell nearby brought me to this conclusion. I moved it into a bush off the trail so it wouldn't get squished.

Justin had said to look for the Sage Sparrow about four miles up the trail. We had gotten past the three mile marker. The scenery is spectacular up there! It is difficult to believe that this remote and rugged area is part of Orange County. We pressed on, occasionally dodging speeding bikes. After about two hours, we had gotten about four and a half miles up the trail. I strained my ears, hoping to catch the song of a Sage Sparrow. Wow, what was that?! I listened again. Oh - a Bewick's Wren. Those tricky Bewick's Wrens gave me multiple false starts all morning. The sun was starting to beat down on our unprotected heads, and the birds began to fall silent as time ticked away. That's the problem with birding chaparral - the birds quiet down early. Discouraged, we started down the trail back towards the car. No Sage Sparrow.

In the distance, I heard the distinctive song of a Black-chinned Sparrow. "It's a long shot, but we can try calling him in with the iPod," I told my dad. Not really believing it would work, I hit play. Within seconds a very belligerent Black-chinned Sparrow was providing great views as it investigated what it thought was a rival Black-chinned Sparrow. This made me happy - I've never really had a good look at one, and this was my first for Orange County.

Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch. Our feet carried us back down the trail. CRRRUUUNNCH SCRAAAPE CRUNCH... crunch. I looked around, and saw my dad regaining his balance. "Walk much?" I inquired. "No, I meant to do that!" he replied. Uh-huh. The descent back to the car was forty minutes shorter than the climb up the trail. Gravity sure helps.

I was disappointed to miss the Sage Sparrow, but we saw a lot of other great birds, including the Black-chinned Sparrow. It was a great hike, and the scenery was fabulous. I'd highly recommend it for those who are fit enough to attempt it. I'll try to find those Sage Sparrows again next year, hopefully earlier in the year when they'll be more conspicuous.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Beyond Cute

I think it would be impossible for any person with a heart to walk past this bird without exclaming "Awwwwww... it's so cute!" There is, in fact, a reason for that. The bird is cute. Majorly so. What defines its cuteness? Those wide, black eyes? The tiny size of the bird? Don't ask. It's just cute. Very unscientific, but it's true.

But... what is it? It wouldn't take very long for the average birder to come to the conclusion that it is a flycatcher, more specifically one of those cursed empidonax. Some of the species in this tribe are olive-gray, and several others are gray-olive. The sensible birder would shrug and turn away. The foolish one would actually attempt to identify it, doomed to eternity of staring at wing bars, tertial fringes, emarginated primaries...

Fortunately, it isn't quite that bad. Subtle differences between the various species exist, but it takes the observant birder to find them. Thankfully, almost all of the species have unique calls. Range can also narrow down the options. In southern California, the default empid in the lowlands is the Pacific-slope Flycatcher (incidentally, I find this a very cool name. I always think of a little flycatcher sliding down the hypotenuse of a 30-60-90 triangle into the Pacific Ocean... I need to take it easy on the geometry!) These diminutive balls of fluff are adorable and harmless in our eyes, but in the eyes of small insects they are terrible predators. In the hand, they try to intimidate the bander by snapping their bill loudly. The only result of this action is usually laughter from the bander.

Right - I banded this bird today at Starr Ranch. Its wing was 59 millimeters long; it weighed 9.4 grams; it had a fat score of one. I aged it as a hatch-year - those wing bars aren't just buff; they're pumpkin buff. This feature, along with the overall fuzziness of the bird (especially around the undertail coverts and belly), the brownish wash over the upperparts, and the slightly swollen gape (dubbed the "baby-gape") aged it as a hatch-year. I wondered how long it will live. Will it make it to the end of the day? A year? Five years? Who knows. That's one reason why we're banding them.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Sharp Eyes and Talons

One of those monstrous two-legged creatures - a human, Bobby's father had labeled it - stood beneath the pine tree that Bobby's family called home. Bobby glared down at it, while the human pointed a tube in his direction. Nothing new. This same human came and gawked at Bobby and his family nearly every day, sometimes accompanied by a gaggle of other humans and a large furry creature, a dog. "Dogs," Bobby's father had stated, "are stupid. See how it wanders around aimlessly sniffing the grass?" Bobby slowly slid his eyes shut, trying to block out the din of the colony of shiny black birds. Oh, right - they were called grackles, or so his father said. Bobby was confused. There was so much to learn!

A few moments later, Bobby coughed up a pellet containing the indigestible fur and bones of a rat that he had eaten yesterday. The pellet fell, bounced a couple times, and then came to rest among the pine needles and grass. The human dashed to it and picked it up. Bobby looked on with amusement as the human placed the pellet in a plastic bag. I guess those humans are pretty stupid too, after all, he thought. I don't know why it would want a pellet... maybe it is hungry.

The human loitered under the tree until dusk fell. Bobby hopped up to another branch, feeling alert and hungry. He hoped his father could catch another rabbit - they were more juicy and sweet than rats. His father regaled Bobby and his siblings with tales of delicacies he had enjoyed in the past - skunk, house cat, duck. As the grackles quieted down for the night in the reeds, Bobby's father glided soundlessly from his perch high in the pine tree amd across the lake. Bobby followed him, giving a shrill ssshhhreeep! begging call in flight. From his new perch on the other side of the lake, Bobby watched as the human walked away along the long, smooth rock - no, sidewalk - occasionally stumbling or stubbing its toe. What weaklings! Bobby thought. They can't fly, can barely even walk, and are nearly blind! Bobby chuckled to himself as he swooped after his father.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


Dead grass pricked through my clothing while ants and flies danced along my bare legs. Nope, birding isn't always pleasant, even short afternoon excursions around the neighborhood. I brushed the various life forms off my legs and looked up from my drawing pad - there was the Yellowthroat Creek. California Towhees chinked and shuffled around in the underbrush, a Green Heron sailed in for a landing on the creek's edge, and a pair of Bushtits busily foraged in a bush in front of me, twittering nonstop. Oh right - the Bushtits. I was supposed to be taking notes on them. I raised my binoculars and watched the male as he hung upside-down from a branch and probed in a dead cluster of leaves. I furiously scribbled down notes, trying to keep my eyes on the birds constantly. After several more minutes, both birds flew away, looking like little dust bunnies attempting to fly.

Scratch-scratch... scratch. No, that wasn't quite right; the head needed to be a bit smaller. Erase-erase. There, that's better. Within a couple minutes I had a rough sketch of a Bushtit. Most of my field notes are like that - rough and quick. I've found that the more I work on a field sketch, the more I screw it up. Field notes are, after all, not supposed to be great works of art, at least in my book. I take field notes to force myself to closely observe birds and learn more about them. Sure, Bushtits are common birds that I see every day, but the more I learn about them, the better. Unfortunately, I've slid out of the habit of regularly taking field notes, but hopefully I'll change that over the summer.

I did a quick pencil drawing of a female Great-tailed Grackle yesterday. I spent roughly twenty minutes on it; the first ten minutes I spent composing the picture and making a rough sketch (the frustrating part), and I spent the last ten minutes filling it in (the fun part). I do almost all of my artwork with a regular pencil; I have some grimy Crayola colored pencil stubs that are about as old as I am, but I never use them. Color always seems to ruin my artwork, so for now I'll stick with regular old pencils. I really should invest some money in a good watercolor set, but I am too miserly to do so.