Monday, September 28, 2009

Booby Adventures

Water splashed up onto my outstretched legs. I dug deep into the water with my paddle, gingerly gripping the slippery handle to avoid blisters. Klack! Whoops, I hit my dad’s paddle with mine. We guided our rental kayak through small waves and not-so-small swells created by bigger boats that threatened to run us down.

By the time we reached the end of the outer jetty of Dana Point Harbor, my legs and shorts were soaked with water that reeked of salt and dead fish. As we glided toward the jetty, taking care not to get dashed against the boulders, I rummaged through my backpack until I found the familiar barrels of my binoculars by touch. I scanned the top of the jetty… Brown Pelican, Brandt’s Cormorant, another Brown Pelican, Heermann’s Gull, several dozen more Brown Pelicans… and then, the bird I was seeking: a Blue-footed Booby.

I carefully extracted my plastic-shrouded camera out of the bowels of my backpack and began firing away. Our kayak drifted past the end of the jetty and out of the harbor, so we wheeled it back around and strafed the jetty again. I wildly searched for the bird in the viewfinder. Photographing a bird from a wildly rocking and bobbing kayak is no easy task.

After drifting out into the ocean again, we made a couple more passes by the end of the jetty to get better views of the booby. I tucked my camera back into the safety of my backpack as another wave splashed over the side the kayak. Instead, I watched the booby through my binoculars, which are waterproof. The next day I found salt crystals on the binocular lenses.

By now we had had our fill of the booby, so we steered our trusty kayak back towards the harbor and paddled in, our shoulders only slightly sore. As rare as this bird is in Orange County (the number of records could be counted on one hand), it wasn’t a life bird for me – that day, at least. Two days earlier, I had driven down to Dana Point to chase the booby, but the closest I could get – at the end of the other jetty – was still probably a quarter-mile away. A bird this unusual deserves better views, hence the kayak escapade.

Rare birds… birders lust after them. All too often, however, they simply drive up, look at the bird for a moment or two, and then drive off. What can be learned from such a short encounter with a new bird? Not much. Many birders chase birds simply to tick them off for their list – be it a life list, a state list, a county list, or a year list. On Friday, when I first “visited” the Blue-footed Booby, I spent nearly two hours observing the bird, squinting through the scope and taking notes. Not satisfied with the view, I returned on Sunday afternoon with my dad for better views by kayak. I encourage you to do the same; next time you go chase a rare bird, spend some time with it and get good views.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Wild Ride

I had the crazy idea to ride my bike to Bolsa Chica in Huntington Beach on Saturday, a sixty-something mile round trip. I did this once before, and it almost killed me. However, the allure of new Bigby birds attracted me, so I set off at dawn on Saturday.

The ride takes me down the Santa Ana River. It goes right through some of the sketchiest parts of Orange County; thus, birds are scarce. The only notable bird I saw in two hours of riding was a Baird's Sandpiper in a small puddle in the riverbed. I arrived at Bolsa Chica in the late morning after a stop at Harriet Wieder Regional Park, where I saw nothing interesting save a Pectoral Sandpiper (my first new Bigby bird of the day.)

It didn't take me long to find two more new Bigby birds once I arrived at Bolsa Chica: Reddish Egret and Sanderling. Hundreds of shorebirds were around, most of them roosting up on the dry ground of the tern colony (it was high tide.) No matter how attentively I scanned, I couldn't pull out a Pacific Golden-Plover or a Snowy Plover. After several minutes of squinting at distant shorebirds, a chip note brought my attention to a life bird practically at my feet: a "Large-billed" Savannah Sparrow.

Though not its own species (yet), the "Large-billed" Savannah Sparrow is a very interesting and distinctive bird. It breeds along the shores of the Sea of Cortez and wanders northward in the winter, showing up at coastal places like Bolsa Chica and also at the Salton Sea.

A heavy fog bank that descended onto Bolsa Chica put an end to my birding. I grabbed some much-needed lunch at Subway before continuing on to Huntington Central Park. Once there, I pulled out my phone to find that I had a new voicemail. Hmmm...

Turns out it was my friend Doug Willick. He had found a Great Crested Flycatcher along the Upper Santa Ana River, a good twenty miles from where I was in Huntington Beach. Shoot! I had been considering birding the river on Saturday, but I had decided on Bolsa Chica instead. I briefly considered birding around Huntington Central Park for the rest of the afternoon and trying for the flycatcher the next day; however, the flycatcher was just too good of a bird to pass up, so I hopped on my bike, cranked it into high gear, and pedaled like a maniac upriver.

It took my only an hour and ten minutes to reach the flycatcher location, a line of trees along the bike trail just downstream from the Glassell crossing. In only a couple minutes I was looking at the bird as it flitted around some of the eucalyptus trees overhead. It was surprisingly unwary, allowing for some decent photos.

I watched it for about forty minutes. This is an extremely rare bird for the county; it is only the third to ever have been recorded. It was a very common bird in Michigan where I used to live, but this is California; I was very excited to see the bird. It was also a very nice addition to my Bigby list!

I had a couple hours of daylight left for birding after losing the flycatcher, so I called Doug Willick and arranged to meet him for some birding a bit farther upriver. On my way, I noticed a sparrow diving into the vegetation in the riverbed adjacent to the bike trail. I screeched to a halt and was quickly looking at a Brewer's Sparrow! My third for the fall! I didn't get any photos, but here's a picture of the one I found in my neighborhood last week.

Doug and I worked the row of trees and shrubs lining the bike trail, coming up with some common migrants. As we stood pishing at a clump of cottonwoods, I looked up and saw a Plumbeous Vireo staring right back down at me. While an annual migrant through the county (this bird is actually returning for its fifth winter in the same area along the river), it was yet another new Bigby bird for me.

We continued farther downriver (Doug wanted to see my Brewer's Sparrow.) A flash of yellow caught my eye in a flock of cowbirds in the riverbed. A Yellow-headed Blackbird! Yet another surprising new Bigby bird! I was beginning to wish that I had simply birded the Upper Santa Ana River instead of Bolsa Chica... unusual birds were coming out of the woodwork!

I finally headed home late in the afternoon so I could get home before dark. While pedaling downriver toward Katella Avenue I couldn't help but notice a juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper in the river. Wow. A great couple hours of birding along the river!

I ended the day with six new Bigby birds: Pectoral Sandpiper, Reddish Egret, Sanderling, Great Crested Flycatcher, Plumbeous Vireo, and Yellow-headed Blackbird. I rode sixty-five miles. An epic day.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

What the heck?!

I don't like birding in the afternoon at all. I still do it, though, out of a sense of duty. I spent a few hours this afternoon puttering around the Holy Sepulcher Cemetery and Santiago Oaks Regional Park by bike. Migrants, the very objects of my searching, were practically nonexistent. I finally pedaled home, hot and discouraged. I was riding through my neighborhood when a medium-sized, grayish brown bird with white tips at the end of the tail flushed off the side of the road and into some bushes. It reminded me of a Lark Sparrow, so I paused to take a second look.

What the heck?! Woah, that's no Lark Sparrow. The extensive streaking on the underparts immediately caught my eye. I quickly realized that it was a Sage Thrasher, a rare bird in the county! The bird flitted out of the bushes and flew into a nearby patch of bushes before flying out and landing on the arena fence near the end of my street.

Surprisingly, the bird allowed close approach and I got some decent photos as it rested in good light on top of the fence. It flew around the large grassy area at the end of my street for several more minutes before taking off for good. I could still barely believe my luck. This species is a rare migrant in the county; The Birds of Orange County lists only nine records in the county, though I'm sure several more have accumulated since the book's publication. Not unexpectedly, it was a new county bird for me, and also a new Bigby bird.

This just goes to show how important it is to keep your eyes open. Check any unusual-looking birds! I never expected to see a Sage Thrasher in my neighborhood (the habitat is all wrong), but one showed up anyway.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Quick Midwest Trip

I just got home from a whirlwind trip through a good chunk of the Midwest this last weekend. It wasn't a birding trip, but, not unexpectedly, I fit in a lot of birding. My parents and I left Thursday afternoon, getting into Grand Rapids late Thursday night. We spent all Friday visiting Calvin College in Grand Rapids. Saturday was my main birding day. I birded most of the day around Muskegon with Alison Village and Jonathan and Joseph Lautenbach, all young(ish) birders from Michigan. After a full day of birding, my parents and I headed home by way of Pennsylvania to visit my brother near Pittsburgh. We drove to Dundee Saturday night, and set off early Sunday morning for Pennsylvania. A two-hour pause at Crane Creek was in order, my last main birding of the trip.

I'll try to post more details sooner or later. In about a day of birding total, I found 122 species, including many eastern species that I haven't seen since moving. Unfortunately, the trip was all too brief and I didn't get the chance to see a bunch of old friends in the Michigan and Ohio area. Next time...

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Beware of Rattlesnakes

California is home to more snakes - particularly rattlesnakes - than Michigan. Still, I've had only a handful of encounters with wild snakes in the two years I've lived here, which is odd given that I spend so much time outside. Snakes seem to like to keep to themselves, so I suppose I could see more by actively seeking them out. Somewhat to my disappointment, I've seen only one rattlesnake in California, a South Pacific Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus helleri) that I saw briefly at Peters Canyon last fall. Last week, I had my second-ever encounter with this species, again at Peters Canyon.

I've fallen into the habit of biking to Peters Canyon Regional Park several times a week to scope the lake to see what new waterbirds have arrived. One day last week, as I was jarring my way down the rough trail on my mountain bike toward a viewpoint of the lake, I looked down to see an enormous rattlesnake draped across the trail only a couple feet in front of my front tire! My mountain bike needs new brake pads, but I stopped on a dime despite my old brakes. The snake nonchalantly slithered off under some nearby bushes, and when I stuck my head down there to check it out, I spotted it coiled up, staring at me.

Eventually it came back out, quickly crossing the trail to another bush where in hunkered down to escape the small crowd that had gathered to watch the snake. I was down on my belly a few feet from the snake, avidly photographing it. The bystanders, obviously less educated about snakes, stood well over ten feet back, jumping whenever the snake made the slightest move.

This snake was surprisingly laid back, not appearing to mind when I joined it under the bush to photograph it from about a yard away. Some venomous snakes are much more aggressive, so don't try that with any old snake. After a couple minutes I left him in peace. All the birds I saw after that couldn't compare to this rattlesnake!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Bikes and Birds

Sixty-five miles. That may not seem very far to those who travel primarily by car – it’s an easy hour’s drive, provided you aren’t on California freeways. Sixty-five miles by bike, however, is an entirely different matter. I spent nearly all day Saturday biking (and birding), racking up just over sixty-five miles.

Long bike rides have become a nearly weekly occurrence in my life. Relatively few potential new Bigby birds remain lurking out there, but I decided to spend my whole day Saturday partly to look for new Bigby birds, partly to do a big day by bike, and mostly just to have fun!

I took my traditional route to Corona del Mar. Seawatching is most productive early in the morning, so I left my house before light and pedaled by moonlight part of the way until the day broke. When I’m hustling to reach the beach before the day progresses too far, I try not to make any stops. However, a treetop White-tailed Kite near San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, a Clapper Rail foraging on a mudflat at Upper Newport Bay, and some White-faced Ibis in the San Diego Creek demanded brief stops.

I reached the beach around eight. Unfortunately, it proved to be an awful day for seawatching. Very few birds were flying; twenty minutes of watching produced only a couple Sooty Shearwaters. A flock of five Black Oystercatchers on the jetty adjacent to the beach compensated for the paucity of seabirds. This species was new for my Bigby list, and finding it was a great relief, as this species is devilishly difficult to pin down. Other shorebirds at the beach included four Wandering Tattlers, six Surfbirds, and two Black Turnstones.

By mid-morning I saw no further purpose in lingering at the beach, so I hopped back on my bike and headed in the direction of home. Upper Newport was uncharacteristically dead, thanks to the high tide that flooded all the mudflats usually covered in shorebirds. The only notable birds were a Loggerhead Shrike, a small flock of Blue-winged Teal, and the continuing Surf Scoter.

I reached San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in the heat of the day. Most of the shorebirds have abandoned the sanctuary in favor of areas with better habitat, and passerines were inactive because of the heat. Still, in an hour of birding, I found my only Virginia Rail, Sora, and Ruddy Ducks of the day. Following the shorebirds’ example, I abandoned San Joaquin in favor of better habitat – In-N-Out Burger!

After a hearty lunch at my preferred habitat, I lazily pedaled over to Mason Regional Park, my stomach full of cheeseburger, fries, and chocolate shake. I drifted around, pishing at the overgrown clumps of bushes and trees in hopes of adding a few migrants to my day list. It took a lot of picking through the hyper-abundant Orange-crowned Warblers, but I finally came up with Wilson’s Warbler, Townsend’s Warbler, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, and others. I dreaded the long hot ride up to my area in the hot afternoon, and after puttering around Mason Regional Park for a bit longer I finally began pedaling home.

I pulled into my garage with forty-seven miles under my belt. It was late afternoon, and I was missing a lot of common foothill species – birds as easy as Acorn Woodpecker! I was on the road again after a quick break in the chill of the air-conditioned house. My first stop was Santiago Oaks Regional Park, where I found the resident Rock Wren on the Villa Park Dam after a ten-minute search. I also picked up Northern Flicker, Lazuli Bunting, and other birds.

A five-mile detour brought me to my secret Clark’s Grebe location – a couple old water-filled quarries. Not only did I get the Clark’s Grebes, I also found several Western Grebes. Both were new birds for the day. After watching the grebes awhile, I turned around and headed toward Irvine Regional Park. While riding to Irvine Regional Park, I made a short deviation up Cannon Road where it climbs a ridiculously steep hill. When I reached the top, gasping for breath, I was rewarded with a couple Cactus Wrens flitting around on an adjacent hillside. Mission accomplished, I coasted down the hill and continued toward Irvine Park.

By the time I reached Irvine Regional Park, I had hit sixty miles for the day. I also had two hours before dark. I lazily cruised through the park on my bike, doing my best to dodge the numerous noisy family picnics. I found about a dozen new species without much effort. Some of the more interesting birds I found included White-breasted Nuthatch, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, American Robin, and California Quail. I loitered until sundown, hoping for a screech-owl. I staked out a particular patch of oaks that a particular screech-owl favors, but the squawks of the ravens coming in to roost drowned out everything else. After ten minutes of waiting and whistling, a Western Screech-Owl finally replied to my imitations. I headed for home, hearing a Barn Owl while riding through my neighborhood, and rolled into my garage with sixty-five miles on my odometer.

It was a long and satisfying day. Though I only tallied one new Bigby bird (Black Oystercatcher), all that riding was still worth it. I ended up with 121 species for the day, which isn’t bad considering I didn’t have particularly good luck at any point – I had almost no seabirds or migrants, and I hit the tides wrong at Upper Newport Bay. This is still twenty short of my record for number of species by bike in a day, though I could have reached 135 with better planning and with more migrants.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Migration Takes Off

School started on Monday. I haven't let the beginning of school foil some quick birding forays, though. On the contrary, I've seen some really great birds this last week. I hope to keep up my daily doses of birding, but I've haven't even started two of my classes, so I may be pressed for time. If that's the case, I'll have even less time for blogging, so expect a dry period.

Last week I got a surprise email from my good friend Chris West. He's been "working" as a bird guide in Southeastern Arizona this summer, and he was coming out to California for a week. So, last Friday, he showed up at my house and we spent literally all day Saturday birding Orange County. We birded along the coast in the morning, beating the beach crowds and the head, and then foolishly birded some inland areas in the heat of the day. We ended up with over a hundred species for the day, including one lifer for Chris (Wandering Tattler) and a bunch of other year birds for him. Other neat birds we saw included a Black Tern at Bolsa Chica, two Solitary and a Semipalmated Sandpipers at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, and others. Our morning visit to the beach included a round of the Sanderling Game, a long-time tradition that Chris and I began several years back.

Chris had to leave Sunday to head up to Monterey to catch a pelagic trip. After our quick visit to Peters Canyon Regional Park on Saturday afternoon, I decided to go there every day to comb through the shorebirds for a Baird's Sandpiper. The lake is rapidly drying up, creating excellent shorebird habitat.

It only took a couple days. On Monday evening, I spotted a gorgeous juvenile Baird's Sandpiper on a dry mudflat near the lake. I was excited enough to make a few loud outbursts and dance a little jig. This species, a rare but annual fall migrant in California, has eluded me the past two summers. It was a state, county, and bigby bird for me!

So far this summer, I have recorded an astonishing total of fifteen shorebird species at this lake. This is hardly impressive if you compare it to Orange County standards; a day of birding along the coast can net a couple dozen shorebird species. Fifteen species for a small lake twenty miles inland, however, is quite good. Other interesting species of shorebirds I've noted there include Willet, Solitary Sandpiper, Wilson's Phalarope, and Semipalmated Plover. The summer is hardly over, either. I hope to find a few more shorebird species there before shorebird migration is over.

One bird that I missed for my bigby list this spring was Willow Flycatcher. A rather common spring migrant in Orange County, Willow Flycatchers are considerably less common in the fall, so I had low hopes of crossing paths with one. Yesterday morning, while birding at Santiago Oaks Regional Park, a soft whit called my attention to an empid foraging in some low brush along the creek. It remained frustratingly hidden for several minutes, but after it finally emerged I was able to confirm it as a Willow Flycatcher. Bigby bird number 230!

Two bigby birds in two days late in the year is good. Three in three days in a row is even better. I biked over to Peters Canyon again this evening in hopes of seeing the Baird's Sandpiper or some other shorebirds. I was walking through a weedy area to get to a good observation point for scoping the mudflats when a slim sparrow flushed and landed in a nearby bush. It was obviously different from all the Song Sparrows I had been seeing, and it gave a Spizella call. I managed to find it in my scope and carefully studied it, particularly the face pattern, for several minutes before the bird disappeared for good. It was immediately obvious that it was no Chipping Sparrow, the default Spizella. Fortunately, the bird stuck around long enough for me to jot down some quick notes on the face pattern. My gut instinct was that the bird was a Brewer's Sparrow, and a quick check in my field guide back at home (I don't have too much experience with non-Chipping Spizellas) confirmed my impression. Brewer's is a decent bird for the county (one one or two are seen most autumns.) It was a new county and bigby bird for me.

The Brewer's Sparrow detracted from some of my shorebird studying, but my few quick scans revealed nothing more unusual than some Wilson's Phalaropes and a couple Semipalmated Plovers among the more common shorebirds. I also noted a single White-tailed Kite and four Vaux's Swifts.

I hope my lucky streak continues. Three Bigby birds in a week in September is not crummy at all. My total now stands at 231. I'll try to keep this blog updated, but school promises to bog me down pretty soon.