Monday, October 27, 2008

Random Recent Photos

I've managed to get behind with blogging recently. I've got a lot of stuff going on, my school load is crazy, and I'm also trying to go birding as often as possible. That doesn't leave a lot of room for blogging, so I apologize for my lack of good posts the last couple months. I thought I should at least post up some photos from some of my unposted birding jaunts this month.

Wrentit at Peters Canyon Regional Park, 10/15/08. This little guy was obliging enough to hop out into the open, which is a very rare thing for Wrentits to do; they really like to stay berried under cover.

Townsend's Warbler in my neighborhood, 10/17/08. Yes, this photo is right side-up, and no, it is not cropped at all.

Osprey at Peters Canyon Regional Park, 10/15/08.

Western Fence Lizard at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, 10/20/08. Almost scary!

Cooper's Hawk at Mason Regional Park. It blasted in right over my head when I began "squeaking", and landed for several seconds just about a dozen feet away.

Lesser Goldfinch at Peters Canyon Regional Park, 10/19/08.

Ah, the worst photo of the lot. Eastern Phoebe in my neighborhood, 10/20/08. This species is quite rare in Orange County (only one or two per year), so I was really surprised to come across it. Thirty seconds after I found it, it flew off never to be seen again.

Well, that's it folks. October has been an interesting month, though the migration has been really weird. There seemed to be very, very low numbers of all migrants except Yellow-rumped and Orange-crowned Warblers. In the entire month, I saw only a handful each of Black-throated Gray and Townsend's Warblers, two Western Tanagers, and zero Western Wood-Pewees around my local patches, but certainly not for lack of trying. I'll be out looking the rest of the month to see what else I can turn up!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Familiar Faces

California birding is great, but it just isn't the same as good 'ole Midwestern birding. I've gotten used to looking at Wrentits, Black-vented Shearwaters, and other southern California specialties in eighty degree weather year round (actually, considerably warmer in the summer, and a bit cooler in the winter. I got a good fix of Midwestern birding this weekend in southeastern Minnesota while visiting Bethel University in St. Paul.

My mom and I flew into the Twin Cities on Thursday night. We spent most of Friday snooping around campus, gathering information. I won't bore you with dull, non-birding details about it, but it looks like a very interesting school. While outside walking around, I sneaked peeks at Blue Jays, Northern Cardinals, and Black-capped Chickadees, all distinctly eastern birds. It was also a relief to get out of the monotonous dry, hot climate of California; it was quite nippy, at least compared to what I've gotten used to in California. The natives were remarking on the "warmth" of the weather as we stood huddling in our jackets.

Saturday was devoted to birding. We bumbled around the roads in our rental Nissan (good brakes), scattering little tornadoes of leaves that the wind was swirling up. We began by birding in the Minnesota River Valley south of Minneapolis - A Birder's Guide to Minnesota suggested this was a good place to start. This book proved invaluable, since it gave good directions to every set of sewage lagoons in the state. We looked at ducks on ponds, eyes watering and fingers stinging because of the wind. We found American Wigeons, Gadwall, Green-winged Teal, and other waterbirds on the river and on several nearby lakes. We even saw two Bald Eagles perched side-by-side on a dead snag overhanging the river.

Once the sun began to peep out from behind the clouds, the temperature rose and birds became more active. We had some good luck at Cliff Fen Park on the south side of Black Dog Lake. A chattering flock of American Robins and Cedar Waxwings was roving around the parking lot, and their activity in turn seemed to attract other birds. Several Eastern Bluebirds - the first I've seen since moving - joined the flock, and I found a bunch of different sparrows in the brushy areas adjacent to the parking lot. In addition to White-crowned and Fox Sparrows, I found a few familiar eastern species that I haven't seen in quite awhile: American Tree Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, and White-throated Sparrow.

Naturally, insectivores were very scare because of the lateness of the season - I wish we could have gone a few weeks earlier so as to get a greater variety. However, I was surprised to find an Orange-crowned Warbler energetically foraging in the weeds among the sparrows. They are abundant in California most of the year, but this is getting a tad late for them in Minnesota (I have, however, seen them in November in Michigan).

We headed east after poking around Black Dog Lake a little more, and birded along the Mississippi River. Cruising around on some back roads in rural areas in the vicinity of Gray Cloud Island produced some other nice finds, including Northern Shrike, Wild Turkey, and even more sparrows. In one field I found Song, White-throated, White-crowned, Fox, Chipping, and American Tree Sparrows, plus Dark-eyed Junco. Some of the White-throats posed nicely for me.

We ran into lots of flocks of birds along these roads. Most were American Robins, but mixed in were Cedar Waxwings, juncos, and a Northern Flicker (good ole Yellow-shafted). I managed to get a few photos of a cooperative hatch-year Cedar Waxwing.

At this point I realized that Wisconsin was nearly a stone's throw away, so we jumped across the Mississippi and tooled around Prescott, Wisconsin, for a few minutes. In the few minutes we drove around Wisconsin, I found eleven species for my state list. Maybe one of these days I'll actually visit Wisconsin properly.

My mom and I had a couple hours to spare in the afternoon, so we drove up north of the twin cities and checked some lakes for waterfowl. We had our best luck at White Bear Lake, a gigantic (2400 acres) lake north of St. Paul. There were thousands of birds there, though most were American Coots. Other species I noted here included Canvasback, Common Loon, Northern Shoveler, Green-winged Teal, and even a few lingering Greater Yellowlegs and Wilson's Snipes. We hit Vadnais Lake on the way back to our hotel in Roseville, and found it nearly devoid of waterfowl. A family of Trumpeter Swans were putting on a nice show right by the road. Technically, they aren't fully "wild", since this species has been recently reintroduced in parts of the state, and they ignored me while I photographed them from ten feet away.

That pretty much ended my Minnesota birding. It was wonderful to get a glimpse of all those great eastern birds again - I miss even the most common ones, the Blue Jays, the cardinals, and the chickadees. It was also nice to escape the blistering weather of Orange County for a weekend (it was in the mid nineties when we left last week.) Ironically, someone found the second county record of American Tree Sparrow today at Huntington Central Park, just when I got back from Minnesota where I saw dozens. I was pleased to find fifty-eight species in Minnesota in those couple days. This is a low number for just a morning of birding in California, but for late October in the northern Midwest, it is a decent total. Bethel University looked great, and we'll probably be back next fall to take a closer look. Until then, I'll sweat as I search for birds in southern California!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Hit and Miss

Not a Sprague's Pipit, but still a pretty nifty bird!

On Thursday I was surprised to read a posting about a Sprague's Pipit at Santa Fe Dam Recreation area in Irwindale. This is in Los Angeles County, but not too far away. I was a bit skeptical of the report until I viewed photos of the bird, and that convinced me that the bird was indeed a Sprague's Pipit. The bird was seen Friday, so I figured it would stick around. So, my mom and I drove up there this morning to look for it, making a slight detour to Pasadena to pick up John Garrett on the way.

Our first problem was actually finding the place. Last night, the printer ran out of ink and I was too tired to look up directions. After casting around a bit, we managed to find the place. The bird had been seen at a specific spot at the base of the dam, but when we walked over there, it was nowhere to be seen. We joined several other birders as they walked along the dam, searching for the bird. Other birders passed, their dejected faces clearly showing their lack of sightings before we even asked them if they had seen "the bird". We explored a little bit, finding several Rock Wrens and lots of sparrows. The small lake nearby had lots of birds, including a Ross's Goose (resident - showed up one day and never left), three Greater White-fronted Geese, Wood Duck, and Common Moorhen. As we wandered back towards the car, John and I bumped into a couple Plumbeous Vireos (singing!) and Lark Sparrows.

We abandoned the Sprague's Pipit and hit Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas. This interesting park has hosted a Painted Redstart for the last several winters, the bird faithfully returning to the exact same tree. Once we arrived, it took us less than thirty seconds to find. It's nice to have a cooperative bird for once! Though it is not nearly as rare as a Sprague's Pipit in California, it certainly is more spectacular. I've seen them before in Arizona but never in California. See the photo at the top of the post!

A Red-breasted Sapsucker was also in the area, tapping the branches of a nearby pepper tree and shyly ducking away from the camera. Sapsuckers are always neat to see, and it was another new bird for my Los Angeles County list.

We had some time to spare after viewing the redstart, so we birded other areas of the park. The lake was liberally sprinkled with coots, Western, Clark's, Pied-billed, and Eared Grebes, American Wigeons, Ruddy Ducks, and others. John also tried to buy a block of ice from the ice cream man, which was quite hilarious. Just as we left the park, a nice juvenile Red-tailed Hawk circled above the parking lot as if to wish us farewell.

Even though we couldn't find the Sprague's Pipit, it was a nice morning of birding. I found nineteen new county birds, bringing my total for Los Angeles County to one seventy-three. That serves to indicate how little I go birding in Los Angeles County - I really should get up there and bird more.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Too Much Fun

All good things must pass. Drat. Like every other good thing, the Western Field Ornithologist's (WFO) conference in San Mateo, California, ended way to early for my liking. I flew up there on Wednesday night, and enjoyed several straight days of birding and hanging out with incredible birders. Unfortunately, I do not have the time to write up a full account of the trip, so I will write about my favorite three experiences of the trip.

1. Racing around Point Reyes, with Nora Papian and Scott Wieman, two other young birders who were at the conference. The wind was whipping in off the ocean constantly, probably up to sixty miles per hour. This didn't stop us from finding great birds, however; they were everywhere in spite of the wind. By far the most exciting bird was a beautiful Prothonotary Warbler that I spotted working a few windswept cypress trees right on the coast.

2. Lying amongst jagged rocks, sand, and rotting seaweed at the Half Moon Bay harbor photographing shorebirds. I crawled (or, more accurately, slithered) through the smelly mess, scattering swarms of flies, and soon found myself enveloped in a flock of chittering Sanderlings. I also got great looks at Marbled Godwits, Black Turnstones, Dunlins, and lots of other shorebirds.

3. Standing at the edge of a large pond at Redwood Shores on one of the field trips and watching hundreds and hundreds of shorebirds and ducks take flight when a harrier swooped through.

I shot over a thousand photos during the four days of the conference. A lot were destined for the garbage bin, but many more came out well. Here are some more photos from the trip.

Female Brewer's Blackbird at Redwood Shores.

Snowy Plover at Half Moon Bay.

White-crowned Sparrow at Point Reyes.

Juvenile Long-billed Dowitcher at Redwood Shores.

Red Knot and Black Turnstones at Half Moon Bay Harbor.

White-tailed Kite at Point Reyes.

Green-winged Teal at Redwood Shores.

Yellow-rumped Warbler on the jetty (!) at Half Moon Bay harbor.

Marbled Godwit at Half Moon Bay.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Headed North

Well, my backpack sits on the ground at my feet, stuffed with the essentials of life: binoculars, camera, Quaker Chewy Chocolate Chip Snack Bars (the king of birding food), and maybe a few clothes too. An engorged backpack is usually a pretty good sign that I'm traveling somewhere.

In a couple hours, I'll be leaving for the airport to go to the Western Field Ornithologists annual conference in San Mateo, California. It isn't just any old boring meeting; there are plenty of field trips, including to Point Reyes, a famous birding spot just north of San Francisco. There will be some pretty big dogs there, too - if you don't know who Steve Howell, Jon Dunn, or Kimball Garrett are, then you aren't a birder. This should be interesting!

I'll be arriving home late on Sunday, hopefully with plenty of photos and interesting sightings to report. I don't expect to find any lifers, but I've never birded the Bay area, so it will be something new and exciting.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Surprise, Surprise!

I'll admit it - before Tuesday, I was a bit down on birding in Orange County. I was stuck in a sort of birder's hell; some nifty birds were being reported from other areas that I couldn't visit, and my local patches were practically dead. However, I managed to turn that around and find a couple nifty birds of my own this week.

On Tuesday afternoon, I finished up my schoolwork fairly early, so I decided to ride over to Peters Canyon Regional Park to search the lake for something out of the ordinary. I've utterly lost hope of ever finding a Baird's Sandpiper in Orange County, much less Peters Canyon, but I was holding out for a Pectoral Sandpiper. To make the Baird's situation even worse is the fact that a certain friend of mine seems to take delight in recounting all his Baird's Sandpiper sightings he had over the summer in certain parts of Los Angeles County. Ugh.

I was training my scope along the edge of the mudflats at the lake's edge when a gigantic black and white bird flashed through the field of view. Huh, that Osprey looked weird, I almost said aloud. This goes to prove how horrible I am at birding; adult Bald Eagles are considered to be unmistakable by just about everyone. Wait, Bald Eagle?! It swooped across the lake and landed in some trees for several minutes before dropping down to the edge of the dam to take a drink. Way cool! A truly majestic bird... I know everyone says that, but there's a reason why. Back in the Midwest, Bald Eagles weren't that exciting, since they were all over the place. Here in Orange County, however, they are quite rare. It was a new Bigby bird for me.

This unexpected sighting inspired me to bike over the Irvine Regional Park on Wednesday to see what was around. I coasted down the hill into the park at an alarming speed, locked my bike to a tree, and promptly spotted a Chestnut-sided Warbler hopping around on the grass nearby (see photo at top of post). Stunned, I watched as it grabbed an unlucky Fiery Skipper and barely managed to swallow it.

I followed it around for several minutes as it associated with a swirling mass of Yellow-rumped Warblers before loosing it high in the trees. A very nice surprise! Additionally, it was another new Bigby bird for me. Chestnut-sided Warblers are rare, albeit annual vagrants to Orange County. Interestingly, I saw one last October in my neighborhood... I guess I'm just talented at locating Chestnut-sided Warblers.

These two interesting birds were a nice break from the monotony of the general lack of migrants that I've experienced this fall. I haven't even seen a Black-throated Gray Warbler this fall... last fall by this time, I had seen dozens. Still, I won't complain. I guess the moral of the story is to get out and look for birds, even if the birding is slow!