Sunday, July 27, 2008

Birding the Border

I had a big surprise on Wednesday as I sifted through my cluttered email inbox. The email was from the San Diego County Birds list serve, and the title read simply "Red-necked Stint". That was plenty to catch my attention; I learned it had been spotted at Delta Beach in Coronado in southern San Diego County. One problem of not having a driver's license: not being able to spontaneously take off after rare birds in the area. I tried to convince my parents that this was a really rare bird that I needed to see, but my dad didn't really see the point of driving an hour and a half to see a little brown shorebird that looks a lot like a Western Sandpiper. I followed the list serves, and read posts every day that it had been seen. My chances of seeing it were slipping away...

That is, until I got an email from John Garrett informing me that he and his dad were driving down to see it on Sunday. Would I like to come along? I think you can guess the answer.

That's how I found myself walking briskly along the path to the overlook of the Delta Beach mudflats in San Diego County this morning. As we rounded a bend, we could see a little knot of half a dozen birders standing on the platform, chatting and occasionally glancing through their scopes and binoculars. We sauntered up and asked the birders, "Is it there?"

"Yup, the closest bird, in front of the yellowlegs," was their answer. I spotted the bird in my scope - a fat little sandpiper with a small head, short legs, short bill, and, of course, a faint reddish wash on its neck. We hung around for about an hour and a half, watching it as it trundled about on the mudflat. Eventually, it took a quick nap. It was quite distant and the sky was overcast, so I couldn't acquire any good photos. Still, I tried.

Naturally, this was a life bird for me. It is always amazing to see a bird on the wrong side of the world. Red-necked Stints nest in Siberia and spend the winter in Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. They are annual visitors to Alaska, but they rarely reach California; I believe it is only about the tenth state record. It is also the first record of Red-necked Stint for San Diego County. We focused mainly on the stint, but I also noticed Surfbirds (out of habitat), Red Knots, Ospreys, Royal Terns, and others in the area.

After we had our fill of the stint, we moved on. A short drive away is Imperial Beach Sports Park. A sleepy little urban park with a few trees and grassy areas, it may not seem a likely birding spot at first glance. However, it is the only spot in California where Yellow-crowned Night-Herons are reliably found. In fact, the night-herons have even nested there in recent years. We pulled up and began searching the trees. After a few minutes, I noticed a couple big lumps on a branch above the side walk. Binoculars showed them to be the Yellow-crowned Night-Herons! A life bird for John, and a state bird for me. They ignored us as we gawked up at them from below.

We decided to take a spin around Borderfield State Park, the extreme southwest corner of the United States. As we drove in, we noticed the rickety border fence on a nearby hill as well as several Border Patrol vehicles. The park truly does lie on the border between the United States and Mexico; we could reach through holes in the fence and touch Mexico!

We took a quick stroll down on the beach. The Mexican side was crowded; the American side was deserted. As a result, the birds were concentrated on the American side. Big flocks of Western and Heerman's Gulls were sprinkled over the beach. Shorebirds, including Whimbrel (really?!), Marbled Godwit, Willet, and Sanderling, were also present. We were surprised to see a few Gull-billed Terns (including a couple hatch-year birds) sitting among the shorebirds. Even more surprising was a lone bedraggled Surf Scoter hanging out with the gulls.

After locating a Subway (unfortunately, we couldn't find an IHOP, the traditional "celebrate-finding-rare-birds-restaurant") where we gorged ourselves on foot longs, we hit the road for home. It was a very fun day! The Red-necked Stint was definitely the highlight of the day, but the Yellow-crowned Night-Herons were also a good bonus. A big thanks to the Garretts for taking me down there and putting up with me most of the day!

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Beach Boys

Beach birding. Left to right: Chris West, John Garrett, me.

What is a birding trip to Orange County without a jaunt to the beach? Not much. That's precisely why I took Chris West, a visiting young birder from Wisconsin, to the beach and other coastal areas on Monday. John Garrett, a young birder from Pasadena, tagged along as well. As one might expect, coastal areas are home to a large number of species that are rarely, if ever, found inland.

Our first stop was Bolsa Chica in Huntington Beach. I go there very often, and for a good reason: it is a fabulous birding spot. One of the few remaining coastal estuaries in southern California, it attracts a wide variety of water birds. I've never had a bad day of birding at Bolsa Chica, and I've come to the conclusion that there is always something interesting to see there. Monday was no exception to this rule.

Perhaps the most noticeable residents of Bolsa Chica are the ever-present Elegant Tern. Thousands of pairs nest there, and white clouds of terns covered the islands and hovered over the water. The shrill cries of the distant birds blended together into a deafening roar, and birds flying directly overhead gave harsh ker-ick! calls. Chris gawked at them, and for a good reason; he had never seen one, let alone ten thousand. John and I chuckled, but it is impossible not to be amazed by them no matter how many times you see them.

Another denizen of Bolsa Chica is the Snowy Plover. These tiny plovers are much less noticeable than the Elegant Terns; the pale sandy color of their upperparts closely matches the color of the sand they live on. I was very surprised to find two Snowy Plovers - one a fuzzy chick, and the other an adult - running around in the small sandy area by the end of the boardwalk, out of the fenced off nesting area for the plovers and terns. The juvenile, impossibly cute with those huge ebony eyes, was running around like a little wind up toy.

The adult Snowy Plover was just as entergetic as it attempted to keep the kid in order. It seemed to be keeping a wary eye on a couple Black-crowned Night-Herons loafing nearby - a juicy baby plover would make a good meal for a big, bad night-heron.

Finally we tore ourselves away and walked over to the first overlook. Teenage Least Terns were still bumming around their nests, impatiently waiting for their meals to be delivered to them by their hardworking parents. Some of the juvenile Least Terns decided that the trail made a very comfortable spot to wait for their meals, and they wouldn't budge until we were within a few feet of them. This provided an excellent photo opportunity for us.

The adjacent mudflats were teeming with shorebirds. Western Sandpipers swarmed over the mud like tiny mice, chittering at each other and squabbling over the best feeding spots. Lesser numbers of other shorebirds, including Greater Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitcher, Black-bellied Plover, and Least Sandpiper were also present. A handful of Long-billed Curlews strutted amongst the smaller shorebirds, reaching deeply buried food inaccessible to the shorter-billed shorebirds.

At last we managed to tear ourselves away from all the wonderful shorebirds and terns and headed for other birding spots. Next on the agenda was Talbert Marsh, an obscure little saltmarsh tucked away near the mouth of the Santa Ana River. A Gull-billed Tern had been hanging around here, and we were anxious to see it. Gull-billed Terns are rare visitors to Orange County. Happily, I spotted it resting on a mudflat after only a few minutes of scanning. We all enjoyed quick looks before walking back to the car.

A quick spin through Upper Newport Bay didn't produce much, so we hit Crystal Cove State Park. Crystal Cove boasts an exquisite stretch of beach, alternating between rugged rocky areas and beautiful sandy spots. Chris was excited to see his first Heerman's Gulls, while John and I yawned and scanned the beach for something more unusual. They are neat-looking gulls, however common they are along the beach.

A walk up the beach produced a mixed flock of Black Turnstones (lifer for Chris) and Ruddy Turnstones foraging amongst the washed-up seaweed. After scouring the ocean a bit more in hopes of seabirds, we cruised down Pacific Coast Highway a bit farther to Laguna Beach. A lone Black Oystercatcher loafed on the beach below Crescent Bay Point Park, and sea lions and Brandt's Cormorants rested on the tall rocks offshore. With the aid of my scope, I picked out a couple Sooty Shearwaters far offshore, but they were mere dots shimmering in the heat waves.

In the mid-afternoon we headed back for home. Chris picked up six life birds: Western Gull, Elegant Tern, Heerman's Gull, Black Turnstone, Black Oystercatcher, and Brandt's Cormorant. The coast nearly always has some interesting birds - if you are in Orange County and don't know where to go, go to Bolsa Chica. Heck, the beach is always fun. Perhaps I should start a "Birds seen from boogyboard" list. That could be interesting...

Thursday, July 24, 2008

More Mountains

I am a relative newcomer to southern California, but I've learned one thing very well. Birding in the mountains in the summer is a blast. Last weekend I had the opportunity to slip back up to the San Jacinto Mountains with my dad and Chris West, a young birder visiting from Wisconsin.

After battling rush-hour traffic on Friday evening, we finally arrived at Boulder Basin Campground at the north end of the San Jacinto Mountains after dark. Instead of looking for owls as we should have done, we set up camp and collapsed in our sleeping bags.

Morning came, and the birds woke us up early. After gobbling up some muffins and doughnut holes, Chris and I climbed up on top of a nearby hill, scrambling over the immense boulders. We quickly found typical mountain birds such as Mountain Chickadee, Pygmy Nuthatch, Stellar's Jay, Brown Creeper, and Violet-green Swallow. I also spotted Chris's first White-headed Woodpeckers, a family going about their business in the crown of a tall pine tree. Some of the boulders we climbed offered commanding views.

After we broke camp, we explored Forest Service Road 4S01 for several miles past Boulder Basin. In the Fuller Ridge area we found exciting birds such as Rock Wren, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Cassin's Finch. The road also gave spectacular views of the desert over a mile below. After wandering around a little bit more (and finding Chris's life Green-tailed Towhees in the process) we descended the mountain back to Highway 243. On the way down, a flock of Mountain Quail scurried across the road. We managed to track them down as they ran off into the brush. Another lifer for Chris, and always a fun bird to see.

In the early afternoon, we set up camp at Idyllwild County Park. We sought shade under the towering pine trees; the sun was warm. We spent most of the afternoon resting in the shade, chasing butterflies, and showering. Chris managed to catch this California Dogface, a life butterfly for me. If you have a vivid imagination, perhaps you can see the profile of a poodle head on its wing. The tops of the wings are gaudily colored.

We befriended a couple Stellar's Jays around the campsite, bribing them with tasty peanut snacks. The jays were very tame, and would eat peanuts on a stump five feet away as we watched and clicked away with our cameras.

As the temperatures cooled in the evening, we drove to the Garner Valley area to search for other birds. Lake Hemet produced a lone Western Grebe and a few Caspian Terns. We found a flock of Tricolored Blackbirds in the small marshy creek on Highway 74 past Lake Hemet. This interesting little wetland produced not only the Tricolored Blackbirds but also Black-crowned Night-Herons, American Coots, Lawrence's Goldfinches, and Great-tailed Grackles. The Tricolored Blackbirds and Lawrence's Goldfinches were both lifers for Chris.

Here is a view of the creek, with the hills in the background.

We raced around the Garner Valley as the light faded, hoping for Pinyon Jays. The jays outwitted us, and we returned to our campground disappointed. Chris and I vowed to look for owls that night, but weariness won again. However, I did hear a Western Screech-Owl calling above our tent, so the night wasn't completely owl-less.

We were in for a surprise on Sunday morning. Rain! I had assured Chris that it never rained in the summer in southern California and that we didn't need rain fly; Chris reminded me of this as we frantically tore down our tents and shoved them in the car as the rain pelted our backs. The rain tapered off, and we decided to try hiking up the Devil's Slide Trail. Everything was fine at first; we hiked up, trying to ignore the ominous gray clouds hanging over the mountain.

The weather finally defeated us. Rain began dripping out of the sky, and thunder clapped in the distance. The clouds seemed to get darker, and much of the forest was concealed by mist. We turned around and headed back for the car. I paused on the way down to photograph the misty forest below.

What to do? I had planned to spent the whole morning hiking up the Devil's Slide Trail, and we were supposed to pick up John Garret (fellow young birder) in Idyllwild early in the afternoon. We spent the rest of the morning birding the Garner Valley. We still couldn't find any Pinyon Jays, but we located a cluster of at least thirty Lawrence's Goldfinches foraging by the roadside. We ended up seeing over fifty that morning. This photo shows ten Lawrence's Goldfinches.

Some two hours of cruising random roads in hopes of Pinyon Jays later, I spotted a few large blue birds walking around on the side of the road. Pinyon Jays! We were greeted by their nasal calls as we leaped from the van. It was quite a large flock, perhaps twenty strong. It included many begging juveniles. They were utterly uncooperative for photos, but I couldn't help including a photo here because they are such neat birds.

We celebrated our success by feasting on sandwiches (I discovered that grape sandwiches are delicious) at Lake Hemet. I tossed a few peanuts to a loitering Western Scrub-Jay; soon we were surrounded by nearly ten scrub-jays screaming for food.

After picking John Garrett up in Idyllwild early in the afternoon, we headed for home. It was a fun jaunt - I didn't pick up any lifers, but I found quite a few for Chris. I also managed to find several county birds. And, of course, mountain birding is always fun. It makes a nice break from all those California Gnatcatchers...

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Tour de Los Angeles County

Los Angeles County has always been there for me, yet prior to this weekend I had seldom ventured there. Sure, I sneaked across the border a couple times to chase select birds (Arctic Warbler, missed; Dusky-capped Flycatcher, found), but my county list barely topped fifty. This is a pitifully low number for any county, but especially for a coastal Californian county that boasts a county list of four hundred ninety-eight.

After a couple hours of unsuccessfully battling traffic, construction, and other delays, my mom and I finally arrived at John Garrett's house in Pasadena on Friday afternoon. John (a serious young birder about my age) and I had been plotting this trip for quite some time. After enjoying fine looks of an exotic Red-whiskered Bulbul in the Garretts' front yard, we (John, John's dad, and I) set off, headed for the east side of the San Gabriel Mountains. Our ambition was to find every possible bird in the San Gabriel Mountains and the Antelope Valley. Immediately upon arrival at the Garretts' cabin in Wrightwood, John and I began roaming about the montane forest surrounding the cabin. Birds weren't terribly active, since it was the middle of the afternoon, but we found typical high-elevation birds such as Steller's Jay, Mountain Chickadee, and Western Wood-Pewee. Merriam's Chipmunks and Western Gray Squirrels were common.

Birds may have not been active, but the butterflies were enjoying the warm afternoon sun. I identified two life butterflies: Golden Hairstreak (Habrodais grunus) and Juba Skipper (Hesperia juba).

Golden Hairstreak:

Juba Skipper:

Later in the afternoon, we drove up high in the mountains. Our first stop was Blue Ridge Campground (elevation: 7,900 feet). Up here we found a new mix of higher-elevation birds, including Brown Creeper, Fox Sparrow, and Green-tailed Towhee. I was watching a couple Chipping Sparrows when John began wildly gesticulating at a large pine tree. I raced over, and there climbing up the trunk was a young male Williamson's Sapsucker! We got excellent looks, and I managed to capture some not-so-excellent photos. A life bird for me, and I got a laugh out of the fact it was a county bird for John. Practically every time I raised my binoculars, I got a new county bird!

We happily left, bumping down dirt roads and coming perilously close to tumbling off sheer cliffs. Our next stop was Grassy Hollow. We parked and took a quick hike up the Pacific Crest Trail. John and I decided it would be fun to walk to Canada, but Mr. (Excuse me, I mean Doctor Garrett) didn't seem too thrilled about this.

Birding along the trail was decent. A noisy family of White-headed Woodpeckers were hanging around near the trail, along with Green-tailed Towhees, Chipping Sparrows, Dusky Flycatchers, Lazuli Buntings, and an Olive-sided Flycatcher. A Mountain Quail even popped up on a snag, but it was too distant for any photos.

In the evening, we looked for owls and nightjars, but quickly got distracted by insects and the night sky. I've never been much of an astronomer (I'll leave that to my brother), but it was impossible to ignore the almost blindingly-bright glow of the moon.

I arose early on Saturday morning after a fitful night of alternately listening to John snore and dogs barking. First thing is first, for us; we stepped out on the back deck of the cabin and heard a Common Poorwill and a couple Great Horned Owl. We quickly packed up and left, munching on what could not be called breakfast as we sped toward our first birding stop of the day. A Bobcat running the road ahead of us was a good omen; it was the first I had ever seen.

We first searched for birds found very locally in Los Angeles County at a place called Bob's Gap, an unimpressive shrubby area. It is, however, the only spot in the county to find Black-throated Sparrow and Scott's Oriole. We found both of these, plus Rock Wren, Bewick's Wren, and others.

We descended into the Antelope Valley proper shortly thereafter. The Antelope Valley is perfectly flat, and virtually free of vegetation excluding desert scrub and Joshua Trees. We ticked off Inca Dove in a residential area without even exiting the car. It was difficult to believe that this rather nondescript, dusty neighborhood is the only spot to find Inca Doves in the county.

One would not expect to find lush wetlands in the heart of the dry, desolate Antelope Valley, but that is exactly what the Piute Ponds are. The ponds are located on the Edwards Air Force Base, and are not open to the public. Fortunately, the Garretts had a pass and we were able to bird the ponds. The ponds are legendary for having attracted a wide variety of rare birds, particularly shorebirds. We were there a tad early to hit the main shorebird migration, but we still found lots of Western Sandpipers, American Avocets, and Black-necked Stilts, a handful of Wilson's Phalaropes, Long-billed Dowitchers, and Greater Yellowlegs, and also a single Whimbrel. Ducks were abundant, and we even found singles of Northern Pintail and American Wigeon, unusual in the summer.

The Piute Ponds are surrounded by inhospitable desert. We walked through some of the desert, hoping to kick up a Leconte's Thrasher, a pale little desert rat of a bird. Not surprisingly, we didn't have any luck. However, Sage Sparrows were plentiful. Another life bird! We also flushed a Great Horned Owl from a small strip of trees and made fun of it for going back to the same perch twice and getting flushed a total of three times (the trees were right next to the road, and the owl flew off every time we drove by).

Once we finished up at Piute Ponds, we were just about done birding the Antelope Valley. It wasn't even noon, and we still had plenty of birding time left.

"Who's desperate to see Spotted Owls?" asked Dr. Garret.

That's a no-brainer. Everyone! We swung by Placerita Canyon, located in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains near Santa Clarita. A family of Spotted Owls has been here since May, but we had no idea if they'd still be around. We hiked up the canyon, finding Lawrence's Goldfinch, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, and Purple Finch. We carefully scanned the branches overhead for owls, but we hadn't spotted a Spotted Owl by the time we reached the waterfall, the supposed limit of the owls' range. Well, that's what we expected. They hadn't been reported for at least a month. Oh well. Good thing I was still watching the branches on the hike out - there was a big dark lump in a tree right next to the trail. Yup - Spotted Owl! A juvenile. I called John, and he came over and looked even though he didn't believe me. Very cool bird. Unfortunately, it had carefully chosen its perch so that it was blocked by branches from every possible angle.

Doctor Garrett suggested that we hit the coast, to which John and I readily agreed. We walked out on the jetty at Playa Del Ray and found lots of new species for my county list. A plethora of terns and gulls swooped through the air overhead, and loafing on the jetty were Brown Pelicans and Brandt's Comorants, along with singles of Pelagic Cormorant, Ruddy Turnstone, and Black Oystercatcher.

It was then that I recalled reading postings on the internet about a Little Blue Heron that had been seen at the nearby Ballona Freshwater Marsh. We stopped there and walked around the perimeter of the marsh, peering through the thick vegetation in hopes of spotting the heron. No sign of it. Suddenly, as we rounded a bend, a patchy grayish and white bird flew up from the water's edge and landed farther out in the marsh. The Little Blue Heron! It was very motley-looking, since it was in the process of molting from its white juvenile plumage to its bluish-gray adult plumage. This species is rare in Los Angeles County.

The heron was a great way to cap the trip. In two days, we made a large loop around Los Angeles County, birding the mountains, the desert, and the coast. Accordingly, our species count was high - almost one hundred and forty. I got two life birds - Williamson's Sapsucker and Sage Sparrow. My Los Angeles County list jumped from about fifty to over one hundred and fifty. And, best of all, it was great to get to know John and his dad. I hope to go birding with them more in the future!

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Heron Days of Summer

Summer. Many kids my age are overjoyed when summer begins, since it means the end of school. Well, my schooling goes straight through the summer, and I'd personally rather have spring or fall, due to bird migration. Sure, summer has its good qualities - swimming, root beer floats, and birding. Birding? How can summer be bad (I guess I shouldn't use "bad" to describe summer. How about "less enjoyable"?) if it involves birding? Birding in early July in Orange County is less exciting than the rush of migration, but certainly still productive. I've been doing a lot of local birding, and I've been keeping tabs on a family of Green Herons in my neighborhood.

I can still remember my first sighting of a Green Heron, way back on June 18th, 1999. I was hunting for frogs with some friends at a little pond in Franklin, Michigan, when a little heron flushed from the pond's edge and landed in a nearby tree. I looked it up later in our battered copy of Peterson's A Field Guide to the Birds. This was pre-Sibley!

Nearly a decade later, I found myself staring at a feisty brood of Green Herons hanging out at the little lake in my neighborhood. They could undoubtedly forage for their own food, but they opted to laze around on the little wooden dock and wait for their parents to bring food for them. They awkwardly jostled for ideal spots on the railing; it isn't being agile when you are shaped like a football with legs!

I edged closer. Green Herons are normally wary birds (certain people have dubbed them "Fly-up-the-Creeks"), but these ones paid me no mind as I sneaked toward them, trying to keep my balance on the steep slope. It's hard being agile when you are a human, too. I believe the nest was in the large patch of tules at one end of the lake; I've seen Green Heron nests in trees before, but never in tules or cattails. I watched as one started acting like it was choking; for a good reason, because it was ejecting a pellet. (Herons, like owls, usually swallow their food whole. Later, they cough up the bones and other indigestible parts).

The sun began to shine down directly on my subjects, killing the soft morning light I was working with. I packed up my scope and began to walk for home. When I glanced over my shoulder, the three adolescent herons were still sitting on the railing, awaiting a meal. I was happy to get good photos of them - I ended up digiscoping over ninety photos. I never can resist the urge to photograph a cooperative bird...