Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas Pocket Count

What has it got in its pocketses? --Gollum, The Hobbit

Now that Christmas Bird Count (CBC) season is nearly over, I thought I'd begin a new count circle--my jacket pockets. This important habitat area is sadly under-appreciated by birders, so I decided that starting a new counting tradition would help raise awareness of this threatened habitat type.

My jacket has three basic functions: (1) to carry various items that I might need on a daily basis, (2) to act as a trash can when no real trash can is around, and... oh yeah, (3) to keep me warm.

This morning, December 28th, 2009, from 10:30-10:45 a.m., I conducted the first Christmas Pocket Count (CPC) under cloudy skies, calm conditions, and temperatures in the upper fifties. I found mostly just the usual residents, though a few vagrants found their way into my pockets. Here is my list for the effort.

(3) Sandwich Bags--all containing crumbs of bread and traces of Jiffy Chunky Peanut Butter.
(1) Chapstick--before you begin lecturing me about how unmanly Chapstick is, try doing two consecutive CBCs in hot, dry, windy weather. Then tell me how your lips feel. This particular species has a close affinity to mankind.
(1) ABA Checklist--a hatch-year containing the latest changes in taxonomy.
(1) Lens Cloth--very worn individual (dark smudges covering most of its body) very far from its usual haunts in the camera case.
(1) Empty Pretzel Bag--the one-hundred calorie Synder's pack, which makes bad eating. It tasted like a Coot.
(1) Crumpled-up Paper Bag--another very worn individual that formerly contained doughnuts.
(1) Kleenex--basic plumage (very wrinkled and covered with a very viscous yellowish liquid.)
(1) Wad of Foil--closely related the the previously mentioned Sandwich Bags. Currently considered separate species; possibly just a subspecies.
(1) Plastic Water Bottle Cap--very far from its normal range...the recycling bin.
(1) iPod Earbuds--ah, that's where those went! The first record for my jacket pockets.
(4) AAA batteries--very young individuals (i.e., they have not yet fledged.)
(17) Clementine Peels--all very worn. Some individuals seemed to be suffering from a white and green skin parasite.
(1) Digital Voice Recorder--I was wondering where this one went. I had it staked out on my desk shelf; apparently it wanders.
(7) Granola Bar Wrappers--three different subspecies were represented: (2) Quaker Chewy Chocolate Chip, (2) Nature Valley Oats & Honey, and (3) Nature Valley Maple Brown Sugar.
(1) Uneaten Granola Bar--of the Quaker Chewy Chocolate Chip subspecies.
(3) Quarters--very rare and endangered species. Always at risk of being sacrificed to vending machines; this species should be immediately protected before it goes extinct.
(1) Nickel--surprisingly scarce.
(2) Pennies--one hatch-year of the Log Cabin subspecies, and a very worn, dark-morph TFY (thirty-fourth year) of the Lincoln Memorial subspecies.
(2) Gum Wrappers--two different subspecies represented: Stride Winter Blue and Orbit Wintermint.
(1) Raisin--oddly, a single individual. This species is normal found in large, dense flocks in cardboard nests.
(1) Twist-tie--a nearly annual vagrant to jacket pockets; normal range is restricted to the kitchen.
(4) Receipts--the taxonomy of this species is hotly debated. Some think it should be split into dozens of species. Two were of the Subway subspecies, one of the Carl's Jr. subspecies, and one of the Albertson's subspecies. I aged all as after hatch-year by the extensive wrinkling on all individuals.
(1) Scantron--a much-hated invasive species that is most frequently spotted during finals.
(1) Pen--sadly, this species is declining precipitously. Its last few strongholds are several dark drawers somewhere.
(5) Maps--formerly rare in the region, this species has invaded the region from a place called The Google.
(1) CBC Tally Sheet--This species is generally only found in the region during CBC season (i.e., December 15th-January 5th)
(1) Slip of Paper--plumage variant...this individual had the email address of a birder interested in several CBC rarities written on it.
(~800) Granola Bar Crumbs--a very harmful and dangerous species. The only way to combat it is with a strange creature known as a vacuum cleaner.

I wish you luck in your CBCs and CPCs. Until next year!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Mission Impossible

I’m a creature of habit. Most of my Bigby rides are to places I’ve visited many times before—San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary or Upper Newport Bay, for example. Very few potential Bigby birds remain to be found in the county, and most of them are in out-of-the-way spots, not my patches. In particular, the Santa Ana Mountains housed several birds I needed for my Bigby list, so I finally bucked down on Christmas Eve and biked up there.

My fear of big hills has previously prevented me from Bigbying in the mountains. As I discovered, they’re not called mountains for nothing. Surprisingly, I survived.

I embarked early on the morning of Christmas Eve. I pedaled out of my normal biking range when I continued past Jamboree Road onto Santiago Canyon Road. The hills began, but I pressed on. After six miles of very hilly and cold (there was ice and frost along the road!) riding, I made it to the Silverado Canyon Road. The real hills began.

My first target was Canyon Wren. A couple had been found in lower Silverado Canyon on the Christmas Bird Count. I barely had to pull off the road to hear one’s spiraling whistle drifting down from an imposing cliff face overlooking the town of Silverado. Check.

The real climbing began once I entered Silverado. Santiago Canyon Road had been an almost pleasant ride, with its mix of up-hills and down-hills. Silverado Canyon Road, on the other hand, was one brutal, continuous climb. I arrived, panting, at the gate into upper Silverado Canyon after several miles of climbing through the charming town of Silverado.

My plan was to lock up my bike at the end of the pavement (my hybrid really isn’t intended for heavy off-road use, and the road gets even more steep once the pavement ends) and continue up for a few miles on foot. The three miles to the end of the pavement from the end of the gate was simultaneously arduous yet tremendously fun. Unlike the other places I bike, there were no cars zooming past me, leaving me in clouds of hot, reeking exhaust. Instead, a crisp mountain breeze whisked down the canyon, Hermit Thrushes darted across the road in front of me, and only the occasional dirt biker roaring past marred the experience.

Miraculously, I made it to the end of the pavement without losing my breakfast (it almost happened… once.) I quickly gathered up the essentials (bins, camera, water, Chewy Chocolate Chip granola bars) and began hiking up the road. Within fifteen minutes I had found my second new Bigby bird of the morning: a Lewis’s Woodpecker puttering around some burned-out Coulter pines, which I found when I drove up there on November 20th.

Lighting never strikes twice…and neither do Painted Redstarts. You may recall that I also found a Painted Redstart up there on November 20th. It was seen the next day, but never again. Instead of refinding the bird, I loitered near the place, enjoying the usual nuthatches and chickadees while reminiscing about the redstart.
The only two remaining targets I had were Townsend’s Solitaire and Hairy Woodpecker. Once again, the Christmas Bird Count tipped me off to the solitaires’ presence. Unfortunately, they were much farther up in the canyon—at least a couple miles beyond the redstart place. I plodded uphill, enjoying the scenery and the occasional bird that flitted across the road ahead of me (Silverado Canyon can be incredibly barren for long stretches.)

I did not have very precise directions to the solitaire spot, and I was just thinking of giving up and heading back down when I rounded a bend and flushed a gray bird from the roadside. It landed in a nearby pine—a Townsend’s Solitaire! I didn’t have much time to enjoy it, since a second solitaire quickly chased it off. Several more showed up and began feeding in a couple Toyon bushes near the road.

Engrossed in the solitaires (a new county bird in addition to being a great new Bigby bird), I barely noticed when a Hairy Woodpecker called from the nearby stand of burned pines. When the call finally registered, I quickly located the bird working a charred pine. I could barely believe my luck. Both these species are very scarce in the county, and they certainly justified the pains I suffered to find them.

After drinking in my fill of solitaires, I turned around and wearily began the descent. One favorable aspect of birding this area is the friendliness of the other people—nearly everyone, whether biker, hiker, or driver, exchanged a friendly wave, greeting, or smile. No fewer than three people in cars offered me a ride down the mountain, but that would violate the rules of Bigbying, so naturally I refused.

When I finally reached my bike, patiently waiting for me at the base of the mountain, I thought my adventures for the day were over. They weren’t. After only about a quarter-mile of coasting down the hill, I noticed a strange knocking sound coming from my bike. I slowed to investigate, and—BOOM! My rear tire exploded, nearly knocking the entire bike over. Hmm, that’s not good. After a minute of inspecting the situation, I found the culprit of the explosion—one of the brake pads. Somehow, it had slipped slightly and had been rubbing against the tire until it became so hot the inner tube exploded.

Replacing the inner tube only took a few minutes (I carry several spare inner tubes and the trappings to replace one at all times.) Fixing the brakes, however, was tricky. I still hadn’t gotten them adjusted perfectly after fifteen minutes of wrestling with them, but I tightened the pads enough so they wouldn’t hit the tire and cause another blowout. That done, I hopped back on my bike and coasted the entire way down. I barely had to pedal at all!

The odyssey had a happy ending. I safely returned home without being crushed by a truck, as my parents had been so convinced would happen. In retrospect, the ride was one of my favorite Bigby trips I’ve ever taken. It combined great birds with beautiful surroundings (oh, and the blowout added some adventure, too.)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Bad Photos of Good Birds

Well, I've fallen overwhelmingly far behind blogging about my birding adventures. The insanity of finishing school before break plus scouting for Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs) left me very little spare time. I'll give you some pictorial highlights of the CBCs.

This is the third year I've participated in the Inland CBC. Each year, I've helped with the Peters Canyon/Lemon Heights section of the count. Lemon Heights has always intrigued me. A lush, hilly neighborhood boasting numerous old trees, the place nearly always turns up something interesting. I spent the week prior to the count biking as much of the area as possible. By far the most interesting bird I found was this one: an Olive-sided Flycatcher. Though common during migration in the county, it is extremely rare in southern California in the winter, and for a good reason: at this time of year, they're supposed to be in South America! Unfortunately, the one day I drove instead of biking was the day I found this bird, which I still need for my Bigby list.

A species I was hoping to bump into while scouting in Lemon Heights was Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Rare in the county, but annual. So, I was pleasantly surprised when I found this hatch-year male Rose-breasted Grosbeak at Arroyo Elementary School last Sunday. Bigby bird #273.

Unfortunately, Arroyo Elementary School (actually the lush estate across the road) has a history of having rare birds disappear and never be seen again. This was exactly what happened with the Rose-breasted Grosbeak. We couldn't find it on the CBC a week after I originally found it. HOWEVER...on count day, I ran into a different Rose-breasted Grosbeak a couple miles away, this one a female! Talk about luck!

Golden-crowned Kinglets are annual in small numbers in the winter in Orange County. They can be tricky to pin down for CBCs, however. I turned up a total of eight in Lemon Heights, though only two stuck around for count day. Only ones for the count circle!

Lemon Heights is known for its numbers of wintering Western Tanagers, a tough bird in the winter in the county. So, when I heard a tanager-like rattle while birding along Brier Lane, I assumed that was what I had. When the bird popped up, however, it was a female Summer Tanager!

All empids are notoriously rare in the county in the winter--any empid would be a great bird for a CBC. So, I was surprised to find TWO Pacific-slope Flycatchers while scouting Lemon Heights. I could find only one of them on count day, though.

Possibly the most surprising bird I found on count day was this Rock Wren. While not unheard of in the Peters Canyon section of the circle (I had one on a rocky hill in Tustin on Friday, and others saw one in the park itself), I was not expecting a Rock Wren sitting in a driveway in Lemon Heights, at least a couple miles from suitable habitat!

In addition to the unusual birds discussed above, I found two Hermit Warblers, two Red-breasted Nuthathes, two White-breasted Nuthatches, fifteen Western Tanagers, one Costa's Hummingbird, and several Mountain Chickadees in Lemon Heights.

The only unusual bird I saw on the South County CBC on Saturday was this Red-necked Grebe in Dana Point Harbor. Tom Benson, John Fallan, and I covered the harbor and pelagic areas within the circle on John's boat, and the grebe was one of our targets. Sure enough, we found it puttering around the channel.

This last bird isn't within any CBC circle, but it's still a decent bird. Gray Flycatcher is a annual wintering bird in Orange County in small numbers, and prior to today I needed it for my Bigby list. Unfortunately, I knew of none within reasonable biking distance of my house. Happily, Doug Willick saved the day by finding one along the Santa Ana River in Yorba Linda. After sleeping in horrendously late (until 8:30 a.m.!), I headed out in the late morning and arrived at the spot in the around midday.

After an hour of searching the perimeter of the small citrus grove the bird had been frequenting, I finally located the small, gray, tail-wagging empid. Though hardly a pretty bird, I find myself strangely attracted to them. It was a new Bigby bird--#274.

That, in a nutshell, is the last week of my birding life. Now that I'm on Christmas break (woohoo!), I'm going to bird as much as possible, and look for as many new Bigby birds as possible. Two eighty or bust!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Wild Card

Last night around eight o'clock, I decided to ride my bike to Bolsa Chica and some other coastal places down that way the next morning. It's amazing how casual my decisions to embark on lengthy bike rides have become; today, I rode nearly sixty miles after only a couple hours of planning. When I first began pedaling long distances, I planned the trips out at least a week in advance. I was actually planning on riding out to Chino today to look for a few lousy birds I needed for my Bigby list (Eurasian Collared-Dove, Gray Flycatcher... bleh), but when I realized last night that I'd need more than an hour to plan out this route (I've never ridden there before), I spontaneously decided to go to Bolsa Chica instead. I'm glad I did.

Riding to Bolsa Chica is a long and boring way to spend a couple hours. The route dives right through some of the nastiest urban jungle imaginable; it is possible to ride a mile and only see a dozen House Sparrows and a pigeon or two. The promise of a few new Bigby birds was alluring, however. Most of the potential new birds were wild cards--scarce, not guaranteed. Amazingly, I managed to find just about every possible new bird.

My luck began at Estancia Park in Costa Mesa. A Pine Warbler has wintered here the previous three winters, so I decided to pop over (the park is only a half-mile from the bike trail) to see if it was back. To be honest, I wasn't expecting anything. I scouted out the place a few weeks back and came up empty. I rolled up to the patch of pines the bird preferred, pished, and within five seconds, a small yellow bird flitted toward me. Eventually, it showed its face, and I was delighted to see that the Pine Warbler had returned for its fourth winter in a row. Additionally, it was a new Bigby bird for me.

The next wild card was Common Goldeneye. Contrary to its name, Common Goldeneyes are downright rare in Orange County. The Santa Ana river mouth has been a dependable place from them in the past, so I carefully scanned the ducks as I rode along. After looking through endless flocks of scaup, Bufflehead, and Red-breasted Mergansers, I found two female Common Goldeneyes. Sweeeet! Second Bigby bird of the day.

My next destination was Bolsa Chica. Well, not really. I talked myself into walking to the end of the Huntington Beach Pier to sea if there were any pelagic birds to be had. A visit of a few minutes turned into an hour and a half vigil. The birding was amazing.

First, a Northern Fulmar flew by. I wasn't expecting this one at all; not only was it a new Bigby bird, it was a new county bird! Next, after picking through the gobs of Surf Scoters bobbing around in the swells for several minutes, I stumbled across a female Black Scoter. Another new county and Bigby bird, and one that I hadn't thought I'd ever get. Just as I was thinking the day couldn't get any better, a Pomarine Jaeger flew by. Bigby bird #5 for the far. These birds were the highlights of a whole mess of nearshore birds: loons of three flavors, Parasitic Jaegers (including one mercilessly chasing a tern up over the beach), Black-vented Shearwaters, Brant, and Western Grebes.

I hugged the beach as I continued northward to Bolsa Chica. As it turned out, this paid off. I bumped into some impressive flocks of gulls. Most of them were the expected Western, California, Ring-billed, and Heermann's, but one of the flocks contained no fewer than six Mew Gulls.

The gull flocks also contained numbers of Royal Terns. A common bird, to be sure, and one of the more numerous tern species in California in the winter. However, I don't usually get to see them up so close.

Interestingly, one of the terns seemed to be begging from another! The bird's behavior, plus its paler-colored bill from the other birds, makes me think it's a young one clinging to one of its parents. It's grown up and undoubtedly capable of catching his own fish, but still, a free meal from Dad beats working for your own dinner.

I finally got to my main destination of the day, Bolsa Chica. After quickly scoring the only sure new Bigby bird of the day, Snowy Plover in the back part of Bolsa Chica, I headed down the boardwalk to see what was around. Unfortunately, I hit it just about right at high tide, the worst time to bird Bolsa Chica. Shorebirds were nearly absent, undoubtedly trying to find somewhere that wasn't submerged. That was fine with me, though. The bird I was really looking for was Thayer's Gull, the next wild card of the day.

Prospects were looking good when I rounded the bend and found a couple thousand gulls roosting near the first overlook. California, Ring-billed, Western, Herring, Glaucous-winged...repeat. After fifteen minutes of laboriously sorting through the gulls, I managed to pick out not one but two Thayer's Gulls: an adult and a first-cycle. Happy with my seventh new Bigby bird of the day, and yet another wild card, I left Bolsa Chica.

At this point I experienced the lowest part of the day. While packing up my bike in the Bolsa Chica parking lot, I couldn't find the two little bungee cords I use to fasten my tripod to my bike rack in the pannier bag where I usually put them. I thoroughly rummaged through the bag without success. Next I checked the other pannier bag, and then my backpack, and then my pockets, and then the ground around my bike. They had disappeared. I was crushed. Those were my special tripod bungee cords! I secured my tripod with my belt instead. It worked... the tripod didn't fall off.

With about an hour left before I had to head home, I decided to pop over to the beach again to see if I could pull out a White-winged Scoter and make the Scoter Sweep. After locking up my bike and trekking over the broad beach, filling my shoes with even more sand. When I crested the small rise, I shaded my eyes and gazed upon flocks of scoters as far as the eye could see in both directions. It was overwhelming. There were thousands of scoters! I was surprised when the first non-Surf Scoters I found were three more Black Scoters, generally considered to be the most uncommon of the three. It was difficult to know where to start. Scoters were bobbing in the swells everywhere, some diving, some sleeping, some just sitting. To get a better view, I clambered atop a lifeguard tower (there was no one around to care) and began scanning. After half and hour of combing the flocks, I finally found a female White-winged Scoter, my last new Bigby bird and wild card of the day.

I had a long ride ahead of me, so I swung by subway and picked up the best sandwich ever: a sweet-onion chicken teriyaki sub on wheat bread with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and banana peppers. Mmmmm. Fueled up, I did the long ride home in about two hours, arriving just around dark. Whew. Fifty-seven miles, and eight new Bigby birds. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Give Me a Break

...and see how much time I'll spend birding!

Thanksgiving. The fall has been a blur of school, college applications, and maybe a bit of birding here and there. A few days without school (or college essays!) gave me the chance to get my fill of birding.

In four days of intense birding, I found at least a hundred and fifty species of birds (including six new Bigby birds: Mountain Bluebird, Northern Waterthrush, Summer Tanager, Ross's Goose, Cackling Goose, and Burrowing Owl), biked at least a hundred and twenty miles, and had an unmeasurable amount of fun. Tracking down the waterthrush was my favorite experience of Thanksgiving break, so that's the one I'll recount.

At some point on Wednesday evening, I realized that I had no plans for the next day. Sure, it was Thanksgiving, but... what does one do all morning on Thanksgiving? The logical answer seemed to be "go birding," so that's what I did. To be more specific, I went birding by bike. Big surprise.

San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in Irvine was deserted, except for birds and Brian Daniels. It was a beautiful morning. Ducks and shorebirds in the ponds, pelicans and cormorants flying overhead, and passerines chipping in the willows. Brian and I quickly found the previously-mentioned Mountain Bluebird, a female.

The sun climbed in the sky nearly as quickly as our species count. After circling most of the ponds (and seeing many more birds, including a male Vermilion Flycatcher), we turned our steps to the extensive riparian "back area" of San Joaquin. "Let's go get that waterthrush," Brian proposed, referring to the Northern Waterthrush that was wintered at San Joaquin the last few years. Last winter, I spent many futile hours searching the swampy woodland for that waterthrush.

As their name implies, waterthrushes love water, particularly nasty stagnant water with plenty of vegetation. We checked channels of water and wooded ponds to the best of our ability, but came up empty. Plenty of other birds kept us amused, particularly warblers. There were Yellow-rumps and Yellowthroats, of course, but also small numbers of wintering Wilson's, Townsend's, Black-throated Gray, Yellow, and Orange-crowned Warblers.

I became more and more disoriented as we meandered deeper and deeper into the riparian area. Fortunately, Brian knew his way around. We eventually stumbled across a flooded area adjacent to the Lost Trail. "Waterthrush country," Brian announced, and began pishing.

Above Brian's garbed pishing, I heard it. Chhip!....chip!....chip! I crunched several feet forward through the dry leaf litter at the edge of the swamp. Peering into the flooded undergrowth, I spotted it: a small, brownish bird walking along a partially submerged branch, vigorously bobbing its tail. I called Brian forward and we enjoyed the waterthrush for a few brief seconds before it darted back into the dark undergrowth.

"County bird," I stated dully to Brian as we walked away. In fact, it was much more than that. Northern Waterthrushes aren't all that rare in Orange County. One or two show up just about every year. However, I was holding a grudge against this bird. I don't know how many times I looked for this individual bird last winter--six, seven times--but I do know that I didn't ever see it. Finally finding it gave me an immense feeling of satisfaction that still faintly glows as I remember the experience.

The waterthrush and the five other Bigby birds I found over Thanksgiving break pushed my Bigby list up to 261. I wish Thanksgiving break happened more often. At least I have Christmas break to look forward to!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Paint Me Amazed

I enjoy birding obscure, underbirded spots. Sure, it's fun to find rare stuff at overrated places like Huntington Central Park, but it's even more fun to find some rare bird miles from the nearest parking lot (I, mounted on my bike, can probe much more deeply into large chunks of habitat than the birder stuck with a car.) So, when I called Doug Willick to tell him about the Painted Redstart I found yesterday, I said, "Bet you can't guess where I found it."

"Ummm... Holy Sepulcher Cemetery?" Doug guessed.

"Nope... Upper Silverado Canyon." I replied.

"What are you doing way up there?" Doug demanded.

Fact is, I was innocently going about my business in Upper Silverado Canyon, trying to get Townsend's Solitaire for my county list, when a Painted Redstart popped up right in front of me. It was about the last thing I was expecting to see up there. Painted Redstarts, which barely extend up into the United States into Arizona and New Mexico, show up annually in California. Orange County has a decent number of records--fifteen or so. However, all those (I believe) were from the lowlands, in boring places like Huntington Central Park.

On a late date like Novemeber 20th, I would expect that the bird would be wintering here. That would certainly make sense if the bird were in the lowlands, but temperatures in Upper Silverado Canyon dip below freezing, and some winters snow falls. Painted Redstarts aren't the hardiest birds in the world. Will it stay? We'll see.

I must say, this Painted Redstart was one of the more satisfying rare birds I've found this fall. It combines rarity with stunning looks. Who couldn't love those flashy, contrasting reds, whites, and blacks, combined with the redstart's flamboyant personality? Put this beautiful bird in an absolutely stunning setting that very few people ever bird, and you get an awesome rare bird experience.

I've done more birding than is healthy the last couple days. I'll try to get some photos of the other birds I've seen up soon.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

In Praise of Satellite Images

If you're anything at all like me, you quickly get bored with the standard birding locations. After half a dozen visits, most places become boring, even dreary, to bird. You could range farther afield and bird new locations, but that takes time and money. Others opt to bird some local spot day after day. A good way to find rarities, but I get sick of seeing the same Yellow-rumps and juncos at Irvine Regional Park after a few futile visits. Satellite images, I've discovered, provide an way to discover new birding nooks and crannies close to home.

When I look at satellite images to scout out birding spots, I look for green patches--trees and other vegetation--particularly in urban areas. Islands of habitat in the city can be excellent birding spots. Bodies of water are also worth investigating in such water-starved places as Orange County.

The image at the top of this post shows my newest satellite image discovery. This square of green in eastern Orange immediately caught my attention as I explored the area online, imagining myself a tired bird flying overhead looking for somewhere suitable to stop. This spot is an apartment complex a couple of miles from my house. I rode my bike there last week, and was pleasantly surprised to find it a very lush place, vegetated with many pines and ornamental trees. Good sign.

I stepped up to a line of trees and began pishing. Immediately, several Western Tanagers (fairly rare in the winter), Townsend's Warblers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and others popped up. In the thirty minutes I wandered around the place, I was struck by the numbers of birds--nothing unusual, but fun all the same. I'll have to keep tabs on the place.

My recommendation to you? Get onto, punch in your address, and scan the satellite images for interesting little birding places within a few miles of your house. Who knows what's waiting to be found?

Saturday, October 31, 2009

"Sounds like a Bar-tailed Godwit!"

Probably nothing. Nothing at all. Just a weird Marbled Godwit. My brain screamed at me to keep going and look for those Burrowing Owls that I was so desperate to see on the other side of Upper Newport Bay, but something made me turn around and take one quick look.

The bird stood there, looking so much like a Marbled Godwit that had gone through the wash. HOLY RABBIT FEMUR, THAT'S NOT A MARBLED GODWIT... IT'S A FLIPPING BAR-TAILED!! I immediately began trying to convince myself otherwise. I know next to nothing about Bar-tailed Godwits; it's an Asian bird that I've seen exactly one of. I barely knew what they looked like.

No, it's gotta be a weird Marbled, I thought. My mind raced. Leucistic Marbled. Bleached, been out in the sun too much. What do juvenile Marbled Godwits look like?

But if it was a Marbled, why did it have a bold supercilium? Why was it all grayish, with no buffy or cinnamon coloration anywhere? Why did have such strongly patterned upperparts, with almost silvery coverts? And, why did it have a barred black-and-white tail?

Because it was a Bar-tailed Godwit. I panicked.

I pulled out my phone and called Doug Willick. Apparently he has gotten so acclimated to me calling him about rare birds that he answered his phone with a terrified-sounding, "Uh-oh!" After listening to my description, Doug said, "Sounds like a Bar-tailed Godwit!" Doug also surprised me by saying it would be a first county record. I knew they were rare, but not that rare! I was nervous about calling it a Bar-tailed, given my lack of experience, so I chalked it up as a "possible Bar-tailed" until I could get expert confirmation.

Doug was about half and hour away, birding along the Upper Santa Ana River (where else? I probably woke him up from his sleep under his favorite bridge!) He spread the word to other Orange County birders--Brian Daniels, Jim Pike, Leo Ohtsuki, Robert McNab, and even Jon Dunn, who happened to be in town. They all converged on the spot. At the moment, my job was to stay on the bird.

I had at least half and hour until people started showing up, so I called my friend John Garrett with some questions about godwit identification. Fortunately, he had some shorebird books handy. "Sounds like a Bar-tailed Godwit!" he said after I finished my description.

The bird moved up the San Diego Creek under the Jamboree Road bridge, but I kept close tabs on it until Doug showed up. Doug doesn't know much more about Bar-tailed Godwits than I do, so together we puzzled over the bird. Sure, it looked good for a Bar-tailed, but neither of us had enough experience with the species to call it for sure. Fortunately, others started trickling in, including several birders who were very familiar with Bar-tailed Godwits. It was quickly confirmed. Handshakes, high-fives, and back-pounds all around.

More and more birders accumulated. It was turning into an informal meeting of the county's top birders. We followed the bird out from under the bridge into the open at the edge of the bay, where it gave excellent, close-up views to everyone. Discussing raged about primary extenstion, tertails, and the color of the fringing on the scapulars. Me? I could (barely) follow the conversation, but I enjoyed soaking in the bird, glad that I hadn't screwed up the identification. After a couple hours of watching the bird, we alternately gazed at the bird through our scopes and chatted about Bar-tailed Godwit records in southern California (this was only about the 6th in Southern California), that Painted Redstart at Mason Regional Park, and how Orange County needs a Hudsonian Godwit next. People began drifting away, only to be replaced by excited newcomers.

I finally drifted away myself after about three hours of watching the bird. I wish I could have stayed longer, but (1) I was starving (no food save one of those life-saving Chewy Chocolate Chip Snack Bars since breakfast), (2) I wanted to check Mason Regional park for that Painted Redstart on my way home, and (3) I had to be home by dark. As I pedaled away, I could barely believe what had just happened. I found a Bar-tailed Godwit. A Bar-tailed Godwit!

Not a bad day at all.

Here are some more photos:

Bar-tailed (front) and Marbled (back) Godwits

My best photo.

Bar-tailed (right) and Marbled (left) Godwits.

Bar-tailed in flight.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Life And Death of A Birding Blog

Whee, I've gone half a month without blogging, and I feel great. Actually, that's a lie. Before you begin accusing me of being a lazy, good-for-nothing teenager, listen to what I have to say.

I'll admit it. The element of laziness does have something to do with it. However, a terrible thing called school is the chief reason I haven't been blogging. I probably spend ninety percent of time eating, sleeping, or doing homework; I prefer to spend my little sliver of free time actually birding, rather than sitting on my butt and wasting time on my blog.

So, in this post, I'll try to sum up half a month of my pathetically small amount of free time. Even with my heavy school load, I've managed to get out and fine a few decent birds.

Way back on October 17th, I pedaled down to the beach for a bit of seawatching. A great idea; I needed some jaegers for my Bigby list. However, a thick fog bank foiled my efforts. I puttered around the rest of the day, finding nothing unusual, but doing a lot of photography. This very cooperative Black-bellied Plover was at Upper Newport Bay.

I guess I was not really telling the truth when I said I found nothing unusual. This beautiful juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper just barely enters the realm of unusualness. Really a very good-looking bird.

Perhaps even more unusual than the Pectoral Sandpiper was a nocturnal Eurasian Wigeon. Trying to make a bike day out of it, I drifted around Irvine Regional Park until dusk, finding a few new birds for my day list. While riding past the little lake in my neighborhood in the dark, I decided on a whim to stop and spotlight the duck flock on the lawn. My flashlight beam revealed a Mallard, a Mallard, a Mallard...Mallard, Mallard... EURASIAN WIGEON?! I don't know about you, but I think it's cool to have a Eurasian Wigeon a stone's throw from my house.

Last Sunday afternoon, I had two options: I could stay home and get a head start on the week's homework, or I could go bird the Santa Ana River. After a very (emphasis on very) short time of thinking, I decided to bird the river. After a forty-minute ride, I arrived, pulled out my phone, and found a message from Doug Willick.

Oh boy.

Turns out Doug had found a Blackburnian Warbler a couple miles upstream. Ho-hum. Seen one of those already this fall. Don't care.


Well, I guess the urge to chase it wasn't as strong as it would have been had I not found one along the river earlier in the month, but I still wanted to see it. How many people can say they've seen TWO (I repeat: TWO) Blackburnian Warblers this fall in Orange County? Exactly one. And that's me.

The bird was actually quite difficult to find. Doug, Doug's brother-in-law Phil, and I searched for about an hour before finding it quietly feeding in the top of Chinese Elm near the bike trail. Incidentally, I saw a Baltimore Oriole nearby literally seconds before Doug and Phil walked up. I felt bad about that one. It was another new Bigby bird.

I've done some low-key birding locally this week. Nothing unusual, and I mean it this time. Unless you consider a Merlin ripping the guts out of a Yellow-rumped Warbler unusual.

Western Bluebirds aren't unusual. In fact, they're downright common. Scum. However, they are beautiful, and that makes up for their banality. One of my favorite common birds.

Double-crested Cormorants aren't unusual. But this one was. When my mom reported a cormorant at the neighborhood lake that allowed her to walk within two feet of it, I was so intrigued that I had to investigate. Sure enough, as I walked up, the cormorant just sat there, asleep. It must have been sick. I crawled within a foot of the bird, shooting from various angles, and it barely even woke up. I wouldn't be surprised to find a cormorant carcass up there next time I go for a walk.

So, that sums up most of October for me. I'm still birding. I'm just not blogging.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Meet Maggie

A Yellow-rumped popped out from behind the leaves of the Chinese Elm, quickly followed by another. House Finches swirled down from the sky, perching precariously at the tips of branches and enquiring what was happening with up-slurred ‘sleeps? I kept pishing, doing my best to ignore the curious stares from the passing bikers and joggers.

Non-birders just don’t understand pishing. Thankfully, most of them don’t take offense.

Toward the back of the tree, a patch of leaves began dancing, betraying the presence of a bird. Through a gap in the offending leaves, I spied a small gray and yellow warbler with black streaks on the flanks and… MAGNOLIA WARBLER!

I’ve seen hundreds, thousands, of Magnolia Warblers during my birding career. I’ve seen scores during migration at Pt. Pelee in Ontario, I’ve seen them on their breeding grounds, and, above all, I used to see scads of them every spring and fall in my old yard.

This one was different.

It looked just like the Maggies I used to see in fall migration in my old yard. Indeed, had I seen it in my old yard, it would have been nothing special. But this particular Magnolia Warbler, flitting about over my head as I straddled my bike, was in Orange County, California. Not in Michigan, or anywhere else in the eastern half on the continent.

So, how did it end up on the wrong side of the country? The Magnolia’s reputation as an eastern bird is something of a fallacy. Check the range map in your field guide, and you’ll notice that the Magnolia’s breeding range extends westward well into British Columbia. However, much to the sorrow of California birders, Magnolias (and other “eastern” warblers) have the treacherous habit of flying eastward before forging south.

Fortunately for those warbler-deprived Californians, a few stupid and clueless young warblers head south instead of east, ending up in California. Digging these few waifs out from the hordes of Yellow-rumps is an annual headache for Californian birders, but it is one of the most fun parts of fall migration in California.

Most birders descend on well-known coastal vagrant traps such as Huntington Central Park to seek these vagrant warblers. Others never seem to have luck at these hotspots.

I just might be one of those luckless birders.

Another of those luckless birders is my friend Doug. He and I are the only ones who regularly bird the Upper Santa Ana River. I felt obliged to inform him about the Magnolia Warbler, since I was technically poaching on his local patch. I’ve only been consistently birding the river this past fall; Doug’s been birding it for an unspecified number of decades. I whipped out my phone and called Doug.

The phone rang. Good sign.

“Oh, hey Neil,” Doug answered.

“Hey. I just found a Magnolia Warbler along the river between Glassell and the Orange-Olive Railroad crossing,” I replied in one breath.

“That’s great!” Doug said. “My car’s in the shop right now but I’ll try to…”

Doug rambled for several minutes on end about the status of Magnolia Warblers in the county. If you’ve ever asked Doug a question about bird status and distribution in the county, you can relate. After all, he wrote the book on this subject… literally. Coauthor of The Birds of Orange County: Status and Distribution, he could tell me that Magnolias are one of the rare but regular (e.g., about one record per fall) warbler vagrants to the county and that several other Maggies had shown up at this exact spot over the years.

I talked to Doug for a few more minutes before hanging up. The warbler eventually flitted back into the bowels of the tree, shaking me off its track. I mounted my bike and continued on, inspired to scour the never-ending flocks of Yellow-rumped Warblers more attentively.

Since then, I’ve found only Yellow-rumps. I’d like a Tennessee Warbler next, please.

I wouldn’t grumble about a Blackpoll, either.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Rugged and Crazy Birding

I had the entire morning to run free, so I decided to do some exploring by mountain bike in the Villa Park Flood Control Basin a couple miles from my house. Several weeks ago, while flying home from Michigan (I know, I haven't posted more about the trip... *sigh*), I noticed that the lake bed behind the dam was completely dry and filled with weeds. Interesting. Any big patch of weeds is bound to have some neat birds.

After about an hour of weaving through the labyrinths of paths through the flood control basin, I finally found my way to the edge of the dry lake bed. Literally the first bird I flushed as I began walking through the weeds was a Vesper Sparrow; this species, now rather rare in the county, was a new Bigby bird. I continued on, flushing scores and scores of Song, White-crowned, and Savannah Sparrows ahead of me.

I headed straight toward the tallest, densest vegetation in the middle of the basin. That, I thought, looks perfect for a Bobolink. Within ten minutes, I flushed a bigger, buffy bird covered in stripes - a Bobolink! Several minutes later I kicked up another Bobolink, and was able to watch both at the same time. Bobolinks are rare but annual visitors to the county; usually only one or two show up every year. Needless to say, I was very excited to find them.

Vesper Sparrow and Bobolink are both great birds. How could it get any better?! I quickly found that it could. I noticed a big, chunky sparrow with white in the wings teed up on a nearby weed stalk as I floundered through the thick vegetation, trying to scare up more sparrows. I looked at it for a few seconds, confused, until it clicked - Lark Bunting! The chunky body, thick bill, and white wing bars all fit. I was shocked; this bird is downright rare in the county. This represents something like the sixth county record. I stealthily inched closer, firing away.

Though not overly impressive looking to the uninitiated ("Just another sparrow," as my grandma would say), I was very excited to see it. I've only seen one Lark Bunting before (in Texas.) This bird confirmed my growing suspicion: the lake bed is excellent for birding. In addition to the rarities I've already mentioned, I also saw a Plumbeous Vireo and hundreds of more common sparrows.

After about two hours of wandering through the lake bed, I still felt that I hadn't covered the entire area thoroughly. It is a large area, and there are lots of birds. Anything could be out there. I'm going to try to bird there at least once a week and see what else I can turn up.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Rare Stuffs

This afternoon I took a bike ride to the Upper Santa Ana River to chase a Virginia's Warbler found by Doug Willick yesterday. Vagrant warblers have a reputation of not sticking around, so I was happy to find the Virginia's without too much trouble in the same tree described by Doug. I actually ran into Doug there; I seem to see him every time I bird the river. If he's not careful, I'll start rumors that he sleeps under the bridges there...

In addition to the Virginia's (which, incidentally, was a life bird) I found some other good birds. Best of the bunch was a Blackburnian Warbler, actually a rarer bird in the county than Virginia's Warbler. Other notables included three Pectoral Sandpipers, a Hermit Warbler, and a weird wigeon that was either a Eurasian Wigeon or an American x Eurasian Wigeon hybrid.

Weird wigeon. Eclipse male Eurasian Wigeons are very similar to this, though the head stripe was very strong, more like an American. I know a hybrid has wintered near here recently, so I am hesitant to call it anything other than weird.

Blackburnian Warbler.

Hermit Warbler.

Virginia's Warbler

Warbling Vireo