Sunday, November 30, 2008

One Boy, One Bike, One Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Wonderful Wetness

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Cliffs of Coronado

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Wordless Wednesday (not), a Day Late

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

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

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Wind, Fire, Birds, Bikes...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Of Thrushes and Owls

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 9, 2008

There And Back Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 7, 2008

Behind the Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Crossing the Border

I do a lot of birding in Orange County, and as today approached I wasn't sure where exactly to go. Huntington Central Park? No, too default. Crystal Cove? Nah, I don't think there will be too much there. San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary? No... way too default. So, my dad and I decided to cross a certain border to bird a new and exciting place.

No, not the U.S./Mexico border (I wish!), but the border between Orange County and San Bernardino County. Only a little corner of San Bernardino County touches Orange County, but in that corner is Prado Regional Park. A Vermilion Flycatcher and a Ross's Goose had been seen here, and I was also interested in adding to my paltry San Bernardino County list.

After a short drive (it is less than half an hour away), my dad and I arrived at Prado Regional Park. Before we even parked the car, I had picked up a couple county birds: Yellow-rumped Warbler (yipee!) and Acorn Woodpecker. We stopped to check the lake first. There were plenty of American Coots, Ruddy Ducks, Mallards, and a smattering of other common species. We began wandering around the park, clueless about where to go, since we've never been there before. Without trying very hard, I racked up a few dozen species - passerines flitting in the trees and brush, ducks, herons, and egrets (Great Egret pictured at the top of the post) on the lake, and raptors soaring overhead. It wasn't long before I spotted the Ross's Goose loafing with a small group of domestic geese on the shore of the lake.

Suddenly, there was a flash of red, and a beautiful male Vermilion Flycatcher landed in a tree right in front of us! We watched this gaudy bird for quite awhile, and unsuccessfully attempted to photograph it. However, the bird was very active and difficult to sneak up on. Later, we also saw an immature male and then a female Vermilion Flycatcher, for a total of three Vermilion Flycatchers. A new state bird for me (What number? Man, I have no idea... three hundred something-or-the-other), and as always a spectacular species to see.

While watching the flycatcher, I began hearing a suspicious twitter some distance away. At first I barely noticed it, I was so engrossed in the Vermilion Flycathcer. I stopped to listen, and heard only House Sparrows. However, I decided to start heading over in that direction anyways. Suddenly, I heard it again: a harsh twitter that sounded very much like a Tropical Kingbird! I hustled over there, and sure enough I found a Tropical Kingbird hanging out with a few Cassin's Kingbirds. This species is rare here, though it is one of the more common vagrants to reach southern California (I know the words "common" and "vagrant" do not below together in the same sentence, but... what the heck). It was too skittish to approach closely, but I tried photographing it anyways. Check out that heavy bill - pity the name Thick-billed Kingbird is already taken.

We meandered around the park until late morning, when we headed for home. The park was very birdy, and in just a couple hours I found about thirty new county birds, bringing my San Bernardino county list up to seventy-eight. That is still very low for a county list, but I'll undoubtedly be back in the future to work on it more.