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?