Saturday, July 25, 2009

Catching up!

Oh boy, I'm in trouble. I haven't posted anything for two weeks! As terrible as this is, I have a reasonable excuse. I've been helping with nature day camps for kids at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary all day every day for the last three weeks. I've accumulated a bunch of shots from the last few weeks - enjoy them, and hopefully I'll have more time to do more detailed posts in the near future.

One neat thing about helping with the camps at San Joaquin is the chance to bird the marsh every day. One morning, before camp began in the morning, one of the other junior naturalists and I ventured out in search of birds. We were shocked to see a Virginia Rail sauntered across the trail, occasionally standing out in the wide open.

Another surprise at the marsh was this leucistic Mourning Dove. It sure was a surprise to flush this guy out of the weeds!

After two years of regularly birding San Joaquin, I finally had a run-in with one of the notorious Bobcats that inhabits the place. The Bobcat, obviously acclimated to humans, sauntered ahead of us on the trail, only occasionally glancing over its shoulder to look at us. The next day we had brief views of a cub.

The dozens of Tree Swallow nest boxes at San Joaquin are producing lots of young swallows. The clueless fledglings had no idea I was a threat and let me approach closely for photos.

Last Sunday I birded Bolsa Chica with the Junior Naturalists in conjunction with a Junior Naturalist bonfire at the beach. Shorebird migration is obviously picking up, as we saw several different species; this Willet was the only one close enough to the boardwalk to allow photography.

Terns reign supreme at Bolsa Chica in the summer. By far the most conspicuous are the Elegant Terns, which swirl around in the air and congregate on the sandbars by the thousands. Smaller numbers of Royal, Least, and Forster's Terns also nest at Bolsa Chica. The Forster's Terns are by far the most photogenic of all the terns, often perching near the trail. This one looked so pretty in the evening glow!

Back to San Joaquin. Last week was the first week of Advanced Camp. As the name implies, Advanced Camp is more advanced than Marsh Camp and is aimed at slightly older kids. Most of the birds were the same as the previous two weeks, but some Long-billed Dowitchers treated us to close views early in the week.

The highlight of Advanced Camp was the pelagic trip on Thursday. Even though it was brief (only two hours) and only made it a few miles offshore, we saw some neat birds. Sooty and Pink-footed (above) Shearwaters were abundant, much to the delight of the kids.

Sooty Shearwaters were exciting for the kids, even though it is one of the most common summer pelagic birds off Southern California. Of the dozens (hundreds) that we saw, none were very cooperative for photos.

Even less cooperative were the Black Storm-Petrels. We saw many of these tiny seabirds during the entire trip, but all kept a safe distance from the boat.

Fast forward to today. After working myself ragged the last three weeks, I dragged myself out of bed at four to go bird banding at Starr Ranch this morning. We saw quite a few Common Poorwills on the ride back to the banding area, and I was able to obtain my first photo of this species.

It was a rather average morning of banding, with fifteen birds caught. Only some of the usual suspects - Oak Titmouse, Lesser Goldfinch, Bewick's Wren, Orange-crowned Warbler, and Wrentit - found their way into the nets. I pulled a female Black-chinned Hummingbird out of a net, but since we don't band hummers at Starr Ranch we had to release it without being banded.

The hummingbirds that nested near one of our nets have moved on, leaving an empty and rather corroded nest behind. Even though I knew precisely where it was, I had some trouble locating it. It was tiny!

That sums up fairly well my activities the last couple weeks. Only one more week of camp is left! Keep an eye out for new posts - I'll try not to kept you waiting so long for the next one.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Dragonfly Lifers #10-11

Dragonfly action is really picking up. The common species I've seen before have exploded in numbers, and a few new species have appeared on the scene recently. I've added two new dragonflies to my official list, and seen a few others that I can't positively identify.

My official dragonfly life list hit double digits last week when I spotted a different dragonfly zipping around one of the lakes in my neighborhood. After finally getting a cruddy photograph - the thing was flying around most of the time, and only rarely landing - I was able to identify it as a Red-tailed Pennant (Brachymesia furcata.) It is one good-looking dragonfly, and has a rather limited range in California. I was excited to see it almost in my backyard!

This afternoon, when I walked up to the lake to check for dragonflies, it was as if the dragonfly floodgates had been let loose. Dragonflies of all shapes, sizes, and colors were zipping around everywhere! I was quick to notice dozens of small damselflies perched on downed reeds and zooming low over the water. It was a new species, I could tell - the previous week, none had been present, and now there were dozens! The closest I could get with these ones is Bluet sp. (Enallagma sp.) A few different species occur in Southern California, and all are very similar. To identify them, I'll have to take some as specimens and look at their abdomen tips under a microscope. Here's a photo of one of the mystery bluets (if you look closely, you can see he is munching on a gnat.)

Not all dragonflies are this difficult to identify, and I was happy to be able to instantly identify several Mexican Amberwings (Perithemis intensa.) These tiny, brilliant orange dragonflies were new to me. Despite their hyperactivity (they seemed to live just to pick fights with each other), a couple posed cooperatively for photos.

Blue Dashers, which had been previously represented by one a couple individuals at the lake, were swarming all over the place. The chalky-blue males were engaging in vicious dogfights, and I spotted a single female laying eggs in the water. It hovered in place as it laid eggs, so I was able to photograph it in flight.

Other species I saw today included Common Green Darner, Flame Skimmer, Variegated Meadowhawk, and Pacific Forktail. I'll be sure to get out dragonflying more in the next few days; it was truly a spectacular show for a tiny neighborhood lake!

Marsh Camp

I spent all last week volunteering at Marsh Camp, a bird-oriented day camp for children mostly nine and ten years old. The camp, organized and run by Sea and Sage Audubon, is based at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in Irvine. In addition to teaching kids about birds, I was able to do a lot of birding.

San Joaquin is only thirteen miles from my house, so I rode my bike there every morning. If I didn't stop to look at birds or slack off at pedaling, I could do it in fifty minutes. I still managed to spot a few interesting birds while cruising at twenty miles per hour, including Greater Yellowlegs, Common Moorhen, and White-faced Ibis. A brisk thirteen-mile ride in the early morning is a good way to start the day!

Most of the camp days followed a similar schedule. The main morning event was the bird walk. Every morning, I accompanied four campers and an adult naturalist around the trails, looking for birds and other interesting life forms. None of the kids in my group (top of post) were super-birders, but they knew their birds and were interested. We started with easily-observed species such as American Avocets, including this baby.

Even the plain old Mourning Doves provided good opportunities for the kids to study and sketch birds.

By the end of the week, the campers were eagerly seeking out more elusive species such as White-tailed Kite and Virginia Rail to add to their list for the week. They ended up with sixty-five species for the week, which isn't crummy for a bunch of beginning birders. It was encouraging to see a group of kids enthusiastic about birding - I hope they keep it up.

The afternoons were spent indoors, where I helped direct games and teach lessons. Some of the more interesting indoor activities including dissecting owl pellets, constructing bird feeders, and playing bird trivia.

On Thursday, the "raptor lady" from the Orange County Bird of Prey Center visited to show some raptors to the campers. It was bittersweet to see the injured raptors up close, knowing they could never be released back into the wild. Some had been hit by cars; others had been stolen out of nests and become imprinted on humans. Here are photos of two owls that were brought in, a Western Screech-Owl and a Great Horned Owl.

I had fun all last week, even though I was working hard most of the time. I'll be back all next week helping with another week of Marsh Camp, and then for two weeks after that I will be assisting with Advanced Camp. Hopefully I'll see some more interesting birds, and maybe even get a few Bigby birds!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

YBC: Day Five

The last day of any camp is always sad. Friends that are quickly made quickly leave; life returns to its boring old routine. We spent the last full day of the Young Birder's Conference birding the Laguna Mountains of southern San Diego County searching for species typical of higher elevations.

After yet another very early departure time, we arrived at Kitchen Creek Road soon after sunrise. This spot, along with the next few places we birded, were fairly low in elevation - two thousand feet at most. In the oak groves and boulder-studded slopes clothed in chaparral, we found species such as Phainopepla, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Rock Wren, Oak Titmouse, and Western Wood-Pewee. The out-of-staters were most excited by the Lawrence's Goldfinches. This normally elusive species was easy to find that day; we ran into them in several places.

When everyone had had their fill of the Lawrence's Goldfinches, we jumped back into the vans and drove higher into the mountains. Among the ponderosa pines a couple thousand feet higher, we found Mountain Chickadees, Pygmy Nuthatches, Violet-green Swallows, Purple Finches, and Steller's Jays. As the morning progressed and the sun rose higher in the sky, bird action dropped off only to be replaced by butterflies. Here's a Mormon Metalmark we found on a short hike.

We paused to enjoy a crude picnic lunch at a campground high in the mountains. I think I ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch every day of the conference. Fortunately, the leaders had purchased chunky peanut butter, which is, as we all know, far superior to creamy. While wandering the campground after lunch, someone spotted a Gopher Snake and we managed to grab it. I was involved in the capture of the snake, so I didn't get any photos of it. However, I did have someone take a picture of me holding it.

A stop to snap some landscapes at a random pullout along the highway after lunch produced some decent birds. At first, all was quiet. A Lazuli Bunting showed up, then a pair of Black-throated Sparrows, and then a Black-chinned Sparrow! These species were lifers for many of the participants. I had a cause to celebrate, also: all three species were new county birds for me, although the novelty of finding new county birds for San Diego had quickly worn off, since I found over sixty new county birds during the conference.

A number of practically microscopic butterflies were flitting about in the brush near this pullout. This one, which I incidentally photographed from about two inches away with my short lens, appears to be a Gold-hunter's Hairstreak.

We pressed on. Cuyamaca Lake was too close to the highway to skip, so we paused there. A quick foray along the lakeshore produced several dragonflies, including this Bluet Sp., probably a Tule or Arroyo Bluet.

Some strange whistling calls that sounded oddly like Say's Phoebes turned out to be some juvenile coots on the lake.

Our last stop of the day, Paso Pichacho Campground, was probably the highest spot in elevation of the day. We were hoping to find White-headed Woodpeckers here; unfortunately, none were found, much to the disappointment of the non-Californians were were eager to see this awesome species. However, a quick walk produced species such as Olive-sided Flycatcher, Hairy Woodpecker, Lawrence's Goldfinch, and Western Bluebird. On our way back to the vans, someone spotted this Wild Turkey (or, as I insist, a Not-So-Wild Turkey, since it is not native to California) wading across a meadow of deep grass.

Thus ended our birding for the day and actually the entire week. On the way home, I discovered why people do not eat Coke Floats as opposed to Root Beer Floats. I tried adding coke to some ice cream, and the result almost made me sick.

Instead of spending our last night owling, many of us decided to hang out in the lounge deep into the night. Long games of cards, air hockey, wrestling matches, and taping shut the mouths of certain hyper thirteen year-olds kept us occupied until two-thirty in the morning. It was a fitting end to an awesome week of birding and camaraderie.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Final Frontier

I'll take a break from my narration of the Young Birder's Conference to report on my day of biking and birding today. Last night, upon discovering that I had no plans for the next day, I decided to ride my bike down to the beach and try to get some sea birds for my Bigby list. Pelagics are awfully hard to get for Bigby lists, and prior to today I had only gotten Black-vented Shearwater and a few loons for a couple brief seawatching sessions.

One common misconception of seawatching is that it can be done at any time of day. This is simply not true. Seawatching is overwhelmingly more productive the first couple hours of day. This presents a problem for bigbying. The nearest beach is a twenty-one mile ride from my house, probably an hour and half of riding. To remedy this problem, I left my house very early, around five-twenty, and pedaled like the devil to the west. I didn't allow myself any stops; I didn't even stop when a Clapper Rail sounded off near the road at Upper Newport Bay. It was my first new Bigby bird of the day.

My relentless pedaling paid off; I reached Little Corona City Beach at ten til seven. Unfortunately, seawatching conditions weren't optimal; it was clear, and the ocean was as slick as glass. Under conditions like these, the birds are usually farther offshore. They were. After a few minutes of scanning, I managed to spot a couple Black Storm-Petrels way out over the ocean. A few Sooty Shearwaters began to trickle by several miles out. After an hour of staring out to sea, I finally spotted a bigger shearwater with lumbering wingbeats; when it banked, I could see its pale underparts. A Pink-footed Shearwater! To make matters even sweeter, an out of season Pacific Loon winged by. All these, along with Elegant Tern, were new Bigby birds for me. Also new for my Bigby list were these sea stars clinging to a rock below the overlook.

After eight o'clock the sea birds thinned out, so I loaded my bike back down and retraced my steps. I actually stopped for birds on my return trip around Upper Newport Bay, but I didn't find much. A smattering of early migrant shorebirds - Willets, Western Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitchers, and others - were present, but otherwise it was very quiet. Even the large Black Skimmer colony, usually bustling with noisy activity, was deserted. Here's a shot showing a smattering of the birds present: Mallards, Snowy Egrets, Caspian Terns, Black Skimmers, Willets, and Marbled Godwits.

After the mandatory lunch stop at In-N-Out Burger, I birded around San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in Irvine for about an hour around midday. I wasn't expecting much, and indeed there weren't too many birds around. I did, however, find one exciting new Bigby bird. I was poking around the edge of one of the ponds looking for dragonflies when I heard the unmistakeable call of a Least Bittern from a nearby stand of tules. I crept forward, craned my neck, and peered into the tules, but it was buried out of sight. I walked around to the other side of the pond to scan the tules, and after a couple minutes of futile searching, the bittern suddenly burst from the vegetation and gave me a very brief view as it flew across the pond and melted back into the tules. This species is incredibly elusive and I was not sure whether I would get it for my Bigby list this year.

Birds may not have been overly plentiful at San Joaquin this afternoon, but dragonflies were. Unfortunately, since I had my scope, I couldn't bring my good camera to photograph them with. Several got away unidentified, including one that I'm fairly confident was a Spot-winged Glider. One dragonfly that actually cooperated for photos was this gorgeous Blue-eyed Darner. I digiscoped it from fifteen feet away... I can't say I've digiscoped a dragonfly before!

I headed for home around twelve-thirty. I took my time getting home, particularly going up the arduous hill along Jamboree Road, since it was hot and I was weary. I rode forty-four miles and saw seven new Bigby species - over six miles per bird! Despite this seemingly low number of new species, it will probably be the most new species I get in one day for the rest of the year. I will have to get back down to the beach by bike to get some more sea birds for my Bigby list - alcids and jaegers, perhaps?

YBC: Day Four

Last Thursday, on the YBC, we took the hottest (literally and figuratively) trip of the entire week. Like the trip out to Santa Cruz Island, it required a ridiculously early start time. The headlights of our vans burrowed through the dark mountains as we sped east toward the sea. The sun eventually rose, and through the smudgy van windows we spotted Burrowing Owls, Western Meadowlarks, and others.

By the time we finally reached our first destination, the Wister Unit, we were eager to jump out of the vans and begin to search for birds. Around the parking lot we found Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, White-winged Doves, Inca Doves, and Verdins. The most exciting bird here was a Bronzed Cowbird, a state bird for me.

The Salton Sea is also a rich area for dragonflies. Unfortunately, we had limited time and I spent most of my time birding rather than looking for dragonflies. Some of the species I noted in passing included Blue Dasher, Common Green Darner, Red Saddlebags (lifer), and Flame Skimmer. I paused to photograph this diminutive fellow and later identified it as a Rambur's Forktail (Ischnura ramburii.)

We worked our way along the southern edge of the sea, birding the entire way. The most exciting bird was a Wood Stork that flew over Davis Road, but unfortunately it kept flying and didn't land. Our next couple stops, the end of Schrimpf Road and Red Hill, produced many new species, including Snowy Plover, Cinnamon Teal, Laughing Gull, Yellow-footed Gull (a very exciting species for those who hadn't visited the sea before), and others.

The headquarters of the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge is always worth a stop. The desert scrub around the visitor's center is a good place to find Common Ground-Dove, Verdin, and Gambel's Quail. We easily found all these. I managed to creep many people out with my very accurate imitation of the guy at the visitor center who once offered to show me the resident Barn Owl that roosts in one of the palms next to the visitor's center. I asked, "YA WANNA SEE A BAHN-AWEL?" and led the rest of the participants to the base of the owl's tree.

After a quick stop at Obsidian Butte that yielded nothing save chunks of obsidian, we headed south to check Fig Lagoon and Sunbeam Lake before starting back for San Diego. Unfortunately, a monstrous fire blocked the road to Fig Lagoon, so we had to turn around. It looked like a controlled fire to burn a field that had gotten out of hand.

Fortunately, no inferno prevented us from visiting Sunbeam Lake. A Greater White-fronted Goose and a Cackling Goose have been living with the domestic geese here for a couple years, and we easily spotted them upon exiting the vans. There was little else to be had there, save a single Common Moorhen and some swallows, so we hit the road and made the long, hot drive back to San Diego.

I suppose I'm a glutton for punishment with respect to unsuccessful owling. Several of the other campers had heard of our wild but mostly unfruitful owling escapade of the previous night and wanted to look for owls too. So, we looked for Western Screech-Owls down in the wash again, this time prudently taking the nice trail down to the trees. We almost heard them again, but not quite. The Common Poorwills and Barn Owls were still easy to find, and we also saw the first and only Great Horned Owl of the trip. I also managed to almost completely destroy my big toe by scraping it against an unseen speed bump. It scraped a nice chunk of skin and flesh away, leaving a oval raw patch of flesh on the tip of my toe. Ouch. We ended up staying out even later, and I didn't hit the sack until around one in the morning.

Friday, July 3, 2009

YBC: Day Three

The leaders had wisely planned a slower-paced outing between the two biggest trips, to Santa Cruz Island and the Salton Sea. On Wednesday we spent much of the day at the San Diego Zoo, wandering through the aviaries and talking with some zoo employees about working with animals.

We had the option of sleeping in fairly late on Wednesday (until almost eight!) Many of the campers took advantage of the late start and caught up on sleep, but several of us got up bright and early and wandered around the campus in search of birds. We didn't find anything too different from other forays around campus, but we enjoyed looks at Red-shouldered Hawks (below), California Gnatcatchers, and Hooded Orioles.

The ten minute drive to the zoo felt like blink compared to the three hour drive of the previous day. We arrived at the zoo just as it opened. For the first couple hours, we met with a couple zookeepers who showed us a few birds (Laughing Kookaburra, Great Horned Owl, African Pygmy-Falcon, and Galahs) and talked about working with captive birds. It was very interesting, and it was fun to see all the interesting birds up close! Here's the African Pygmy-Falcon.

We spent the next several hours wandering the zoo at will. Aviaries were, of course, the main points of interest, put we saw other animals as well. I haven't been to a zoo for many years (last time I can remember visiting one was when I was eight - the Detroit Zoo.) I'm not a big fan of zoos, but I enjoyed seeing all the exotic birds, from California Condors:

to Flamingos:

to Green-and-gold Tanagers.

One of the more exciting aviaries was the hummingbird aviary, where dozens of brilliantly colored hummingbirds and tanagers flitted through the plants. Here's a Sparkling Violetear, a large hummingbird that completely dwarfed all the smaller hummingbirds that I was more familiar with.

Less brightly-colored, even drab, but placed in the hummingbird aviary, were several Sunbitterns. I can't wait to see these in the wild!

The most impressive birds of the day were the Harpy Eagles. Two of them, caged but still magnificent, ignored us from their high perches in their enclosure. Another species I wouldn't mind seeing in the wild...

My favorite exhibit was the arctic duck pool. Even though I'd seen many of the species it contained - Long-tailed Duck, Harlequin Duck, and Bufflehead, to name a few - it was fun to study the exquisite ducks from a few feet away.

We also saw some wild (i.e., non-captive) birds in the zoo. The zoo's lush plantings are a big draw for migrant and wintering birds, but not so much for the local breeders. This spunky female Anna's Hummingbird was feeding on flowers in the shadow of the condor exhibit.

House Sparrows are obnoxious and I generally ignore them, but I couldn't resist shooting some up-close and personal photos of some hopping around the sidewalk while waiting for the rest of the group who were buying snacks for outrageous prices at one of the restaurants in the zoo.

It was Wednesday night that we began to defy the scheduled 9:30 bedtime. Several of the participants wanted to see Western Screech-Owl, some more desperately than others, so I suggested that we go owling down in the wash adjacent to campus, where there are some nice oaks and sycamores that looked good for owls. After bushwhacking down a steep slope covered in dense brush, cactus, and thistle plants, we finally made it down into the wash. Unfortunately, we couldn't find any screech-owls, but we did hear Common Poorwills and Barn Owls. As we wandered down a trail through the middle of the wash, we discovered a nice paved trail that led right down the hillside. Had we walked just a bit farther along the top of the hill, we could have avoided descending the treacherous hill. Oh well, it was an adventure.