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!