Friday, February 27, 2009

Change Is Good

I'm the sort of person who hates being stuck in the same routine. Unfortunately, been stuck in a rut all winter: eat, sleep, school, and some brief birding expeditions to the local patches. I love the entire concept of local patches, but after seeing the same individual birds for several months in a row, local birding gets wearisome. I decided to visit Santiago Oaks Regional Park this morning. I go there a lot, but I figured I could find some new areas to explore.

Instead of searching for the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and then wandering around the same general areas, I took a ramble up a couple trails I've only been up once before. However, I could not avoid bumping into the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker; it was calling and jumping around in a tree twenty feet from where I locked up my bike.

The new trails I checked out were the Windes and Pacifica Trails. These two trails wind up Rattlesnake Ridge, a tall hill at the west side of the park. This hill was hit badly by a fire a couple years back, but the recent rains have turned it into a green paradise covered with wildflowers. I was very surprised to find a Purple Finch singing from the top of a dead eucalyptus near the top of the hill. I've never seen one at Santiago Oaks before, and for a good reason: wrong habitat. Purple Finches generally like to stick to conifer or oak-conifer woodlands, not dead eucalyptus trees at the top of a bare hill. After a few minutes it took off high into the sky, headed north; it's probably to Kern County by now. It was a new Bigby bird for me - an encouraging start.

I reached the top of a cliff along the Pacifica Trail and spooked a Red-tailed Hawk. I'm convinced that a pair of Red-tails are nesting somewhere on this cliff face, because there's always a pair hanging around here and I even saw one carrying a stick in that direction a couple weeks ago. It was pretty neat to be looking down on a flying Red-tailed Hawk!

The view from the Pacifica Trail was gorgeous. Reaching the top of Rattlesnake Ridge, I could look to one side and see the coastal plain, albeit through a thick layer of haze. To my other side were the rolling hills, now coated with a fresh coating of grass and wildflowers.

I came across a small canyon with a bit of chaparral that had escaped the blaze. A big flock of sparrows was messing around in the bushes, and I soon found several Golden-crowned Sparrows - about six total. Embarrassingly, this is another new Bigby species for me. They are usually easy to find around my local patches (I've even seen them in my backyard!), but this winter they are inexplicably scarce.

I had some extra time to spare once I had finished birding the Windes and Pacifica Trails, so I decided to try to get some photos of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. I found him back on his favorite pepper tree, but the light wasn't very good. I'll have to try to go back in the afternoon sometime soon (emphasis on soon; he'll be leaving for where he belongs in just a couple weeks!)

As I was headed back to my bike, I didn't quite believe my ears when I heard the "kicker" calls of a Virginia Rail emanating from the overgrown creek bed. The bird called a few more times, confirming its identity. I've never had a Virginia Rail here before. There isn't much habitat - a small patch of cattails and some thick undergrowth along the creek. Another surprise new Bigby bird.

I got yet another surprise as I was cycling out of the park. A small bird flitted in front of my bike, looking oddly flycatcher-ish. I screeched to a halt and spotted the culprit: a Pacific-slope Flycatcher. They aren't supposed to show up for a couple more weeks, according to The Birds of Orange County and The San Diego County Bird Atlas. This species does occasionally overwinter in southern California, but I think it was an early migrant; it was singing, and I've birded this area all winter without seeing it. Yet another new Bigby bird!

I was in for one more pleasant surprise on the ride home. My route takes me past a pepper tree in some one's front yard. Sapsuckers are very fond of pepper trees, and a Red-naped Sapsucker spent the entire winter there last year. I checked all fall and winter, hoping it would return, but to no avail. I barely glanced at the tree as I pedaled past, but somehow I managed to spot a sapsucker tucked back in the tree. A quick binocular check revealed it to be the elusive Red-naped Sapsucker. This was another species conspicuously absent from my Bigby list. It was very tame - odd for a sapsucker - but it was so well buried behind branches and leaves that I couldn't get a decent shot.

I ended up at home with five new Bigby birds under my belt (Purple Finch, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Virginia Rail, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, and Red-naped Sapsucker.) I hadn't expected any! Talk about an awesome morning. In just a few more weeks migration will start in earnest!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Mi Amigo

I was meandering through Irvine Regional Park this morning when a Hermit Thrush perched on a low branch beside the road caught my eye. The fact that it was sitting out in the open was unusual in itself - Hermit Thrushes are usually rather shy birds that keep to the underbrush. I stealthily crept closer, not believing the bird was holding its ground. Eventually, I was faced with a problem: I was so close that I was practically shooting straight up at the bird (it was perched about eight feet off the ground). To get a better perspective, I managed to half balance, half wedge myself a few feet off the ground between two nearby sycamore trees. I managed to get several decent photos from just six feet away. The thrush filled the whole frame. That's one cooperative bird!

I have to keep this brief, since I'm leaving for Winter Camp with my church's youth group in a couple minutes. I found a few other birds of interest this morning at Irvine Regional Park, including a female Canvasback on the lake, a singing Rufous-crowned Sparrow at the far end of the park (new Bigby bird), and a rather funky-looking sapsucker. At first glance I thought it was a Red-breasted Sapsucker, but it has a strong face pattern showing through the red on the head, so it may possibly be a hybrid Red-breasted x Red-naped Sapsucker. Female Red-breasted Sapsuckers can be rather dull, and I'm not entirely clear on all the variation in this species... I'll research it all later. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to obtain any photos par with the Hermit Thrush, but here's my best shot anyway.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

See Ya at the Sea - Part III

I was awoken from my slumber by the chirpy calls of a Verdin. County bird, I thought as I groped for my watch. Six-thirty! Uh-oh, we overslept a few minutes. Turns out I forgot to set the alarm. I wiggled my way out of my cozy sleeping bag, shook my dad awake, and crawled through the tiny tent flap. It was a beautiful sunny morning, calm and crisp. A short distance away, on the glassy surface of the Salton Sea, flocks of American White Pelicans glowed in the sunlight.

I roused John by hurling clods of dirt at his tent, and we began breaking camp. It took only a few minutes to tear down the tents and stuff away the sleeping bags. John and I sprinted over the beach. The most obvious birds were the pelicans.

Other birds were present in large numbers: Eared Grebes, gulls of several flavors, and others. We found the third-cycle Lesser Black-backed Gull right where we left it at the southern end of the campground. It was accompanied by a Herring Gull, some California Gulls, and a Glaucous-winged Gull (another new county bird!)

We bade goodbye to our campground and headed north along the edge of the sea. We took a brief spin through the Salton Sea State Recreation Area Headquarters, where we found this first-cycle Thayer’s Gull (a rather dark individual.)

John spotted a very odd gull perched on a post in the marina. It had a strongly bi-colored bill like a Glaucous Gull, but the body and wingtips were dirty grayish brown, more like a Glaucous-winged Gull. John and I eventually came to the conclusion that it was a Glaucous x Glaucous-winged hybrid, an aberrant Glaucous-winged Gull, or something entirely different.

We decided to leave the Salton Sea entirely and stop at the San Jacinto Valley on the way home. John Garrett had guaranteed we would see Mountain Bluebirds around the Salton Sea, but he was wrong. We didn’t see a single Mountain Bluebird anywhere around the Sea all weekend. I knew of a small flock wintering at the San Jacinto Wildlife Area, conveniently just off the freeway on the way home. We spotted three (!) Ferruginous Hawks circling over a field soon after exiting the freeway. We ended up seeing at least a dozen in just a couple hours of birding the San Jacinto Valley.

As we were cruising down Davis Road through some nice fields, I spotted a sky-blue bird perched on a telephone wire right along the road. “Mountain Bluebird!” I shouted joyfully. There was actually a small flock of them. Lovely birds, and another new one for my life list (Mountain Bluebird was a rather embarrassingly absent from my list prior to the trip.)

The San Jacinto Wildlife Area has a very enjoyable auto loop through some nice freshwater ponds and marshes. We were pressed for time, but the loop produced some great birds for us: Blue-winged Teal, Hooded Merganser, Prairie Falcon, and Yellow Warbler. There were thousands of other ducks present. The only other marginally-decent photo I obtained here was of a Loggerhead Shrike stationed on a bush beside the road.

It was now nearly midday, and we needed to be home by mid-afternoon. We made a brief stop at Lake Perris to search for Glaucous Gull, which John Garrett direly needs for his life list. We had no luck finding it, but did get a few new species for the trip: Common Merganser, Ring-necked Duck, and Forster’s Tern.

All of us were saddened to pull into the driveway back at home. It was an amazing trip. I personally saw three life birds (Mountain Plover, Chestnut-collared Longspur, and Mountain Bluebird) and a bunch of new species for the state and Riverside and Imperial Counties. I look forward to visited the Salton Sea again in the future!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

See Ya at the Sea - Part II

Our trusty Ford Windstar jolted its way down the rough gravel road and into the parking lot of the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters (say that twenty times really fast.) John Garrett, my dad, and I piled out of the car, followed by a cascade of maps, food wrappers, and goldfish crackers. As we squinted in the bright sun of the early afternoon, we were greeted by the calls of Gambel’s Quail, Verdin, and Common Ground-Dove. John and I proceeded to poke around the bushes, attempting to photograph the ground-doves and quail.

I realize that we didn’t drive all the way to the Salton Sea to look at Mourning Doves, but I came across this incredibly cooperative Mourning Dove sitting on the ground (thus making it a ground-dove) near the parking lot.

As productive as the headquarters can be for birding (a Cave Swallow had been spotted here earlier this winter), we decided to move on because there didn’t seem to be a lot of birds around (or, at least not as many birds as we could find elsewhere.) Our next destination was Obsidian Butte. This place is aptly named, since it is a genuine butte scattered with hunks of obsidian and pumice from an extinct volcano. Obsidian Butte also happens to be one of the best spots for gulls around the Salton Sea. We were excited to see the swarms of gulls as we drove up. John quickly spotted our second (!) Lesser Black-backed Gull of the trip on a rock just offshore, and I answered by pointing out two Yellow-footed Gulls hanging out with some pelicans on another rock.

After sifting through the gulls at Obsidian Butte for roughly a half-hour more, we continued to work our way south, hugging the shore of the Salton Sea as closely as possible. We found a Surf Scoter at the end of Young Road, a decent bird for Imperial County.

The extensive mudflats near the end of Bowles Road produced thousands of shorebirds: lots of Black-bellied Plovers, Western Sandpipers, and Stilt Sandpipers (another new state bird for me), along with lesser numbers of other species. By now it was mid-afternoon, and we realized that we’d better hustle along if we wanted to hit all the places we wanted to.

Several miles later and we were driving down Vendel Road, the entrance to Unit One of the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge (another tongue twister!) We began seeing small parties of Snow Geese flying over the road up ahead, but we didn’t realize exactly how many geese there were until we passed a field full of them. There were thousands of Snow and Ross’s Geese!

The cries of the geese exploding into the air were deafening. Geese were everywhere I looked – in the fields, swimming in the ponds, and flying overhead. I merrily clicked away at geese flying over while John looked on in jealousy, since his camera had run out of battery.

A roar of another goose flock behind us caused us to turn, and we were astounded to see a white tornado of geese rising out of a field on the other side of the road.

Recovering from the sight, we looked around at the other species in the area. Two Tundra Swans were foraging in a pond nearby. These two individuals have been present most of the winter in this same pond. Tundra Swans are relatively rare in southern California, and it was yet another new state bird for me.

We continued to the end of Vendel Road, where there is a small parking lot and observation platform. Hundreds of assorted ducks were floating around in the ponds surrounding the tower, and several Clapper Rails (of the “Yuma” subspecies) and a Sora sounded off from the cattail-choked pond adjacent to the parking lot. A young Bald Eagle flew by, much to our excitement.

Despite the massive quantities of birds, we were forced to move on, since I wanted to bird Brawley before sundown. One could easily spend a full day birding each individual place we stopped, so just one day to bird the south end of the Salton Sea isn’t sufficient. As we were driving out of the refuge along Vendel Road, we had to stop to avoid a big flock of Eurasian Collared-Doves that were walking around in the road for some reason. There was one much paler bird among them: a Ringed Turtle-Dove.

The last birding spot of the day was Cattle Call Park in Brawley. This unassuming little park tucked in the middle of Brawley has hosted a few notable birds recently, included Gray Flycatcher, Red-naped Sapsucker, and Vermilion Flycatcher. It is also one of the most convenient places in the entire state to find Gila Woodpeckers. We managed to quickly locate the Gray Flycatcher despite a loud and obnoxious family picnic right where the flycatcher usually hangs out.

It didn’t take much longer to find the Gila Woodpeckers. We located them by their squeaky calls, a sound I hadn’t heard since my trip to Arizona over two years ago. Two were fussing around in some trees in the park, but unfortunately they didn’t come out into the open.

We found Cactus Wrens, Abert’s Towhees, Verdins, American Kestrels, and even a Great Horned Owl in the half-hour we puttered around the park. By now it was nearly dusk, and we were hungry for dinner. Our breakfast was a meager affair – mini-muffins and granola bars. Our lunch wasn’t much better. So, there were three hungry birders to feed! We attempted to stop at a steakhouse in Westmoorland, but an ominous sign on the door reading “Reservations Only” made us think that they wouldn’t cater to mud-splattered and soot-coated birders. After a long search, we finally found a little steakhouse at the Calipatria Inn in Calipatria (surprise, surprise) where we dined on decent tri-tip steak before driving north to our campground for the night.

Thus ended our birding on Saturday. It was a really awesome day of birding; we saw many great birds, included two lifers for me: Mountain Plover and Chestnut-collared Longspur. Stay tuned for part three!

Monday, February 16, 2009

See Ya at the Sea - Part I

Two happy birders...

The Salton Sea, while relatively unheard of among non-birders, is famous among birders. However, the Sea’s fame is mostly caused by its population of non-breeding Yellow-footed Gulls. This hulking, dark-backed gull has a rather limited range, being found mostly in the Sea of Cortez. The Salton Sea is the only spot in the United States where this species can be found reliably.

Unfortunately, the Salton Sea is often passed off as a one-species hotspot. This could not be farther from the truth. The area around the Salton Sea is an excellent birding destination at any time of the year. I was keen on visiting sometime this winter, and after convincing my dad that a camping trip to the Salton Sea would be fun, we scheduled a weekend trip to the Salton Sea the second weekend in February. I dragged my friend John Garrett along, even though he was terrified of getting bogged down in the mud wallows of roads around the south end of the Sea.

We left my house in the afternoon on Friday. The horrific traffic through Riverside slowed us down a little, but we made it to Mecca Beach Campground at the north end of the Salton Sea in about three hours. The choice birding areas are around the southern end of the Sea, but Mecca Beach, an hour from the southern end, was the closest civilized campground. Before we even exited the car, I spotted the previously reported Lesser Black-backed Gull loafing on the beach. The presence of this bird was one reason why I chose this particular campground. John and I abandoned my dad as he registered and sprinted down the beach to the gull as light was fading.

John and I realized that it might be a good idea to get the tents erected before it grew completely dark. We managed to do so, even though a strong wind was whipping in off the sea. The tents firmly staked down, we joined my dad as he prepared our dinner of kebabs and beans. I discovered that it is possible to toast bread over an open fire. Plain toast isn’t very appetizing, but to my delight I found that toast slathered with pork and beans is downright delicious.

After a fitful night of alternately dozing lightly and listening to trains roaring by on the nearby tracks, I awoke at five fifteen. We hurriedly gathered our things and departed the campground, burrowing south through the darkness towards the south end of the Salton Sea. Our first stop was Davis Road and the Wister Unit. We weren’t looking for anything in particular, but instead marveled at the thousands of ducks, shorebirds, pelicans, cormorants, gulls, and swallows. John and I couldn’t resist photographing a massive tornado of swallows that were swarming on the telephone wires along McDonald Road. Look carefully – there are three species of swallows on that wire!

I had no solid itinerary for the day, so we decided to move on to some areas around Calipatria. As we were cruising south along Highway 111, John and I simultaneously noticed a burned field full of shorebirds. I fumbled with my binoculars, attempting to identify them. “Uhhh…” I mumbled as I signaled to my dad to pull over. John was faster. “Mountain Plovers!” he shouted as we rolled to a halt on the muddy shoulder of the highway. We tumbled out of the car and enjoyed fine looks at these classy little plovers foraging in the field. Life bird for me. The entire field was sprinkled with them – I estimated there were at least three hundred birds present. John and I intrepidly started crawling through the field, attempting to approach the birds for photos.

Unfortunately, the plovers were rather skittish and wouldn’t allow us to slither any closer than about thirty feet. This isn’t close enough to obtain good photos with our little three hundred millimeter lenses, but we still filled up lots of space on our memory cards with plover photos. We ended up with dozens of distant plover pictures and really sooty jeans.

Our next major stop was the Calipatria State Prison, or rather a big field adjacent to the prison. A handful of Sprague’s Pipits have been wintering in this particular field. This is one vast field, so we were faced with a needle in a haystack search. The only way to get a glimpse of these elusive little brown birds is to walk them out of the field, so we set off, trudging through the short dead grass. We immediately began kicking up Savannah Sparrows and Horned Larks, but no pipits. John and I made a couple passes through the field, which was at least half a mile long, with no luck. We couldn’t spend the entire day walking around a barren field, since there were plenty of other birding spots waiting to be visited, so we reluctantly aborted the mission. The only consolation prize was a quick sighting of a small flock of Chestnut-collared Longspurs, another life bird for me. I had fun photographing a big flock of Cattle Egrets that flew in just as we were leaving.

As we were speeding down Sinclair Road toward the actual seashore, my dad suddenly swerved the car to the side of the road. The reason? Two absolutely stunning Burrowing Owls, perched beside their lair like two little statues. Traffic was nonexistent along this road, so we slowly backed up along the road and John and I began clicking away at the two owls through a rolled-down window.

This was the best look at a Burrowing Owl I had ever had. We saw only a few others throughout the rest of the day, despite John’s promise that they would be “all over the place.” Here’s a shot of the second owl.

By now it was lunchtime, so we dined on peanut butter and grape sandwiches at Red Hill. Red Hill, located right at the edge of the sea, is an excellent spot for finding shorebirds, gulls, and others. During our brief visit we spotted Common Goldeneye, Yellow-footed Gull, and dozens of others.

The whole story of our Salton Sea trip is too long to fit into one blog post, so I’ll leave you hanging here. So far, it’s been an excellent trip. Look for part two in a few days!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Nothing Much

Lack of birding time can easily make a week rather dull. I've known this for a long time. Instead of my usual four or five (or six or seven...) outings a week, I succeeded in slipping away only twice all week. Horrors. However, I am immensely glad that I live within a few miles of several prime birding spots, even if I only visited Irvine and Santiago Oaks Regional Parks.

I spent a couple hours at Irvine Regional Park before school on Monday morning. I quickly found a new species for the year - not a bird, but a butterfly: Sara Orangetip. At first glance, this classy butterfly might be mistaken for one of those obnoxious Cabbage Whites, but when I glimpsed that little flash of orange as the butterfly flitted by, I knew what I was seeing. Unfortunately, it was wary, hence the detestable photo.

After circling around the "Picnic Loop" at the front of the park, I pedaled over to the small lake in the heart of the park. Despite its small size, this lake occasionally attracts an unusual duck. Vast numbers of Wood Ducks of questionable origin reside there (my high count for the park is one hundred forty-one!), and among them was this lovely male Mandarin Duck. A decidedly flamboyant species native to Asia, it is popular in collections that it often escapes from.

Genuine wild ducks were present as well. An impressive fifty-two Ring-necked Ducks were floating amongst the battalions of Mallards. They were accompanied by three Redheads that have been present for weeks, along with a brace of female Bufflehead. A few American Wigeons were grazing on the edge of the lake. That's a pretty impressive variety for this tiny lake. The lake's tininess makes it an ideal spot for waterfowl viewing; the birds are extremely close, to the point where I could easily see the fabled neck rings on the male Ring-necked Ducks!

I resumed my tour of the park. The usual residents of oak woodland - Oak Titmouse, Acorn Woodpecker, Nuttall's Woodpecker, and others - were out in full force, along with common wintering species. I stumbled across a very confiding pair of Western Bluebirds that already seemed to be thinking about starting housekeeping. Here's the male.

And the female. The female is a muted version of the male, though she has her own air of loveliness.

Fast forward to Wednesday morning. After winding through the streets of Orange Park Acres (a convenient way to avoid the treacherous hill along Santiago Canyon Road), I cruised into Santiago Oaks Regional Park. I never fail to be struck at the noisiness of the place - scrub-jays screshing to each other, titmice whining, and Acorn Woodpeckers laughing maniacally. My first mission was to find my dear friend the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a bird that is half my age and has been present so long that no one really cares about him any more (*sniff*). I easily found him tapping new wells into his favorite pepper tree while religiously guarding old wells from thieving Yellow-rumped Warblers. Unfortunately, this bird is rather shy and simply refuses to emerge from the shadows, so photography is virtually impossible.

My visit with the faithful old sapsucker over, I poked around the labyrinth of trails that wind through the park. I nearly tripped over a bold California Thrasher int he middle of the trail. Upon noticing me, the bird scurried into the brush by the trail and popped up to serenade me. That was nice of him.

I should have known better, but once I was finished photographing the thrasher I walked backwards without turning to see what was behind me. A tiny branch somehow managed to tangle my feet together and I fell quite substantially on my hindquarters. I stood up, dusted myself off, and rebuked the branch for being so unkind (yeah, right). Thankfully, no one was around to witness my antics. I looked up just in time to notice an abnormally large and dark Mourning Dove shooting overhead with a small bird gripped in its talons. Wait. Something is wrong here. Turns out that the bird was actually a Merlin! For some reason or another, this species has eluded my Bigby list, so I was happy to see it. I've been receiving quite a bit of grief from certain people about Merlin's absence from my Bigby list.

Heartened, I made the trek out to the Villa Park Dam, perhaps a half-mile distant. Despite several hikes back there, I hadn't seen a Rock Wren this year. Rock Wrens are quite tricky to find in Orange County, and the bird or two that has been wintering here (and perhaps resident) are the easiest to access for me. I managed to cross the flooded creek on a "sketchy" bridge composed of a few rocks and began scouring the area for Rock Wrens. Moments later I spotted a little brown thing jumping around a nearby rock pile, and I excitedly brought my binoculars to bear on a Rock Wren. Unfortunately, the bird was on the other side of a fence, so I couldn't approach very closely (normally, a fence wouldn't deter me very much, but this one was plastered with imposing "No Trespassing" signs.) Another new Bigby bird.

I was pressed for time, so I hustled back in the direction of my bike. I couldn't resist stopping to photograph some clownish Spotted Towhees engaged in a little domestic scuffle over perching rights.

Now facing the real danger of getting home late (theoretically, I could be out all day, but schoolwork doesn't do itself), I jogged the trails to the parking lot. Again, I got delayed by a photo opportunity: sycamore bark. Nothing too exciting about that, but I thought it looked pretty neat - it resembles dried, cracked mud.

That rounds out my week quite nicely. I spent a good chunk of today slouched at a desk in a classroom sweating over the ACT. Fun. At least it was raining today - birding would not have been very pleasant. Maybe I'll be able to slip out for a bit tomorrow, and hopefully I won't be as busy next week!