Saturday, January 30, 2010

Recent Stuff

My neglect of this blog continues. The culprits are, as usual, inordinate amounts of time spent on school and birding. Ah well. I figured I'd post up a few recent photos.

First of all, can you find the bird in the photo above? Probably not, because the picture is of a Brown Creeper, the master of camouflage. Though common fare back in my old home state of Michigan, they are scarce enough in Orange County to merit mention. I saw this one at Mile Square Park last Saturday. It wasn't the only decent bird I saw that day. I rode my bike a total of fifty-three miles that day, cleaning up on rarities around the lower Santa Ana River found on the Christmas Bird Count.

The first rare bird I chased that day (well, not exactly the first, since I stopped by Twin Lakes Park to tick the resident Ross's Goose) was a Palm Warbler wintering in a small nursery in Huntington Beach. It's not the kind of place you'd expect to find a rare bird (or any bird for that matter) wintering, but apparently the gravel and spindly potted plants are attractive to this particular Palm Warbler.

Even more interesting was an adult male Orchard Oriole which I managed to track down on sort-of-private property in Costa Mesa. It's one of those birds that combines rarity with good looks. Surprisingly, Orchard Orioles show up fairly frequently in southern California (Orange County gets one almost every year, and San Diego County has had almost a dozen this winter!), even though their normal wintering range is thousands of miles away. This photo is barely worth posting...

The Brown Creeper was not the only unusual bird I saw at Mile Square Park last Saturday. A suite of rare birds--Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Greater White-fronted Goose, American Redstart, and Black-and-white Warbler--had been found there on the Christmas Bird Count. I enjoyed excellent success, finding all except the sapsucker. None were terribly cooperative for photography--the Black-and-white was foraging very low in some pines, but it never emerged from the dark gloom of the interior of the trees.

To balance the terrible photos I've already posted, here's a half-way decent shot of a Black Phoebe from Mile Square Park. Though omnipresent in Orange County, it's one of my favorite birds.

Birding while sweating over calculus is always a joy. While wrestling with an integrating-by-guessing problem last week, I heard the distinctive clear call of a Northern Flicker resounding from the backyard. Flickers aren't very common in my neighborhood, so I took a peek out the window. The bird dropped out a tree and onto the backyard fence, but something was wrong--its wings flashed golden yellow, not red. Oooh, a Yellow-shafted Flicker? The bird turned its head, showing the red nape--a characteristic of Yellow-shafts. However, its face was mostly gray, and its malar was dark red. Hmmmmm. Looks like we've got an intergrade on our hands.

Saturday was devoted to bird banding. Or, more accurately, sitting around the kitchen at Starr Ranch wondering where all the birds were. It was an incredibly slow day. The only birds we caught were two Anna's Hummingbirds (which had to be released unbanded), singles of California and Spotted Towhees, and...a Turkey Vulture! The vulture provided the excitement of the day. It had swooped down into the meadow, around which our nets are situated, to feast on a putrid gopher. For some reason it decided to take the gopher somewhere else to eat, so it took off with the gopher in its bill and promptly slammed into one of our mist nets. The nets are designed to catch birds no larger than about a robin, so it quickly managed to tear its way out, leaving behind a juicy dead gopher and copious amounts of nauseating vulture vomit. The stench was so revolting that I nearly vomited myself; it ranks up there among the worst smells I've ever experienced.

With so few birds around to band, I puttered around the kitchen (our makeshift banding lab) with my camera. Acorn Woodpeckers are permanent fixtures on the telephone poles around the kitchen...

This plethora of woodpeckers is bad news for the poor telephone poles. Some of them have been nearly pecked to pieces!

Banding is always fun, even when there aren't any birds around to band! Starr Ranch is a beautiful place.

Well, those are the highlights of my last couple weeks. I'll try to do a better job keeping up in the near future, but I'm not guaranteeing anything.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Drip, drip

Rain! So many people in other parts of the country take it for granted, but here in Southern California, it is a welcome rarity. It rained most of last week (thankfully, clearing up so I could do some birding on Saturday) and today we've gotten more. So far, most of the county has gotten at least several inches of rain this year. I thought I'd stick up a few photos of the rain and what it did to some of the channels (including the normally tranquil Yellowthroat Creek) around here...

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Plumber

Several moments passed before my eyes fully processed what sat before me. A small, gray and white bird--dull and ordinary looking, save for a set of brilliant white spectacles giving it a perpetual look of astonishment. Perched only six feet above my head in a dead cottonwood, peering unconcernedly down at me through those shocking spectacles, it seemed not to care in the least about me or the sputtering pishing sounds I was producing. After cocking its head to take one last glance at me, the bird began sluggishly hopping through the low bushes along the bike trail. I chased after it, doing my best to ignore the queer glances from passersby.

Plumbeous Vireo. A strange name for a little gray bird, you might think. However, "plumbeous" means "of or like lead" in Latin. Makes sense now. What this species lacks in color it makes up in character. Often tame and curious, these vireos are delightful to watch. I saw this one (a bird returning for its third or fourth winter, if I'm correct) along the bike trail that follows the Upper Santa Ana River in Anaheim.

To sweeten up this sighting, Plumbeous Vireos are not very common in Orange County. Even though a generous scoop or two turn up in the county every winter, they are always fun to come across. Interesting, this species is on the increase in Orange County. According to The Birds of Orange County, small numbers (one or two) wintered in the county every year beginning in the late eighties; this winter, I can think of at least five birds wintering in the county offhand.

I generally think of Plumbeous Vireos as birds of tall trees, so I was surprised to watch it foraging below eye level in the bushes along the bike trail. I was even more surprised when it flitted down to the ground... snatch an enormous caterpillar! I couldn't believe the bird was going to try to eat this beast; the caterpillar appeared to be almost half as long as the bird! After five minutes of mercilessly beating the insect against a branch, the vireo managed to gulp it down.

Sure, it's not that rare. Sure, it's not that colorful. Sure, its song is burry and simple. Still, I like Plumbeous Vireos. I hope you do too.

Monday, January 4, 2010


The urge to start a new Bigby list got the better of me on Friday. Nothing audacious; I tallied my first ten or so species while lying half-asleep in bed, listening to birds through the open window. When I finally roused myself at the horrendously late hour of seven a.m., I quickly left and spent a few hours poking around the Villa Park Flood Control Basin on my mountain bike. It was for fun, more than anything else; the basin isn't too great for birding this time of year, so I wasn't terribly surprised to come up with only fifty-some species.

I spent the next couple days doing Christmas Bird Counts (Lake Elsinore on Saturday and Mile Square Park on Sunday), so nothing new for the Bigby list those days. Hopefully I'll get a post up about Mile Square sometime soon; as usual, I had fun and saw a few interesting birds (oh, and Irene's breakfast did not disappoint.) This afternoon I added Chipping Sparrow while out for my run in the neighborhood, and then this evening I stepped outside onto the driveway to add number sixty, a hooting Great Horned Owl.

As you've probably surmised by now, my Bigbying has been very low-key thus far. Sure... I could have a hundred and sixty species by now without too much effort, but what's the point? I'll get them eventually.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Bigby To End All Bigbys

Well, I ended my 2009 Bigby list with two hundred and eighty-three species. As satisfied as I am with this total, I can’t help but feel a bit sad. The year is over, and I doubt I will ever eclipse this total for a Bigby list. This year, I’m moving to college in the fall, cutting short the Bigby year. After that, who knows what will happen.

I suppose I should back up and review exactly what Bigbying is. Simply put, “Bigby” stands for “Big Green Bird Year.” Basically, it is a list of birds seen while birding under your own power. Walking, biking, snowshoeing, canoeing, sailing, and crabwalking are all acceptable forms of transportation for a Bigby list. Cars, planes, motorized boats, and motorcycles are not. Some birders count birds seen via public transportation for their Bigby lists, but I do not. Cheaters.

The traditional thing to do at the end of the year is to reflect on the villainous birds that you missed all year. Remarkably, I missed relatively few possible birds for my Bigby list. However, a few always get away. I’ll describe my ten biggest misses below.

1. Olive-sided Flycatcher—an uncommon migrant in both the spring and fall. I struck out during both migrations. It also breeds in Upper Silverado Canyon, which I biked to in December, but not over the summer. Lastly, and most frustrating, I found a wintering bird in Lemon Heights the one day I scouted for the Christmas Bird Count by car. I could not find it despite several intensive (and extensive) searches.
2. Wood Stork—an extremely rare bird in the county. The one that showed up in early December at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary was the first to be seen in the county since the seventies, I believe. I very stupidly decided not to skip my morning geology class at the community college to chase it. By the time I rolled into San Joaquin in the early afternoon, it was long gone.
3. Pacific Golden-Plover—this species is a sparse migrant and wintering bird in Orange County. It is possible at Bolsa Chica and Upper Newport Bay…and a couple were even seen the same day I visited Bolsa Chica in September, but I dipped.
4. Blackpoll Warbler—this is quickly becoming a big nemesis. Regarded as one of the most common eastern warblers to turn up in California, I really should have bumped into at least one after three falls of birding in Orange County. But no!
5. Stilt Sandpiper—a victim of laziness. One showed up at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary for a couple days in August, but the one afternoon I could have chased it, it was awfully hot and I opted out of riding down there. The next day, when I rode down, it was gone.
6. Red Phalarope—this species is at least irregularly visible from shore during migration and winter…I just never got lucky.
7. Gull-billed Tern—a species showing up in Orange County with increasing frequency, several were spotted in different locations this summer: Upper Newport Bay, San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, and Bolsa Chica. One at Upper Newport Bay in May stuck around for awhile—I just never got around to chasing it.
8. Clay-colored Sparrow—like Blackpoll, this is one of the more common eastern vagrants in southern California. However, this fall was a poor season for them in Orange County; only one was discovered, and it was well outside my Bigbying range.
9. Common Ground-Dove—far from being common in the county, this species is actually declining alarmingly. It could formerly be found at San Joaquin (indeed, that’s where I saw the only one I’ve seen in the county.) A small population is holding out near Rattlesnake Reservoir, which is off limits. I made one expedition and searched the surrounding areas but came up empty.
10. Calliope Hummingbird—a long-time nemesis bird for me. I finally got my lifer in Yosemite, but obviously I didn’t bike there. Apparently it is a fairly common spring migrant in the county, but after two springs of living in California I still have not seen one in Orange County.

Because that was so depressing to write, I’ll describe my favorite ten Bigby birds of the year.

1. Bar-tailed Godwit—how could this not take the top position? In addition to being a first county record, I was the one who originally found it…while I was Bigbying! I am still incredibly thankful that I turned around to take a second look at that weird pale godwit.
2. Great Crested Flycatcher—the godwit barely edges this bird out in rarity. I was lucky enough to see it, the third county record found by my friend Doug Willick along the Upper Santa Ana River. I was birding in Huntington Beach, a good twenty miles away, when Doug called to notify me of the flycatcher. So, I abandoned my birding there and pedaled like a maniac to look for the bird. Fortunately, the bird stuck around the rest of the day (and for a few more days afterward.)
3. Lark Bunting—another self-found bird, and particularly special because I was the only one to see it. Apparently a one-day wonder in the Villa Park Flood Control Basin, a mere two miles from my house. I had no idea exactly how rare it was in the county until I chatted with Doug Willick and found out that it was only about the sixth for the county.
4. Virginia’s Warbler—though an annual vagrant in the county, this bird was the only life bird I found while Bigbying this year. Found by Doug Willick along the upper Santa Ana River (where else?), it stuck around long enough for me to chase it the next day.
5. Sage Thrasher—though not nearly as rare as some of the other birds on this list (thirty or so records for the county), it was one of the most unexpected birds I found this year. I was innocently biking through the neighborhood when I flushed it from the side of the road…when I stopped to check what it was, I sure got a shock when I found a Sage Thrasher looking back out at me from the bush.
6. Baird’s Sandpiper—I’m including this bird on this list simply because it was a bad nemesis I finally managed to defeat. I somehow managed to miss this species the previous two summers, so I was delighted to find one at Peters Canyon in August. As Murphy’s Law dictates, after finding the first one, I ended up seeing nearly ten more over the rest of the fall.
7. Blackburnian Warbler—a fairly regular vagrant in the county, but this one was another special self-found bird found while poaching Doug’s local patch, the Upper Santa Ana River. Amazingly, later I saw a second bird found by Doug…also along the Upper Santa Ana River.
8. Dusky-capped Flycatcher—I definitely deserved this bird. One has wintered in La Mirada for the last three winters, so I decided to make the trek up there to see it. It’s only a twenty-five mile ride, but its entirely through urban areas. Oh, and it rained for most of the ride as well. Not a fun day…except for the few minutes I was watching the bird.
9. Zone-tailed Hawk—an incredibly lucky, needle-in-the-haystack find. One was found on the Christmas Bird Count near Rattlesnake Reservoir. Unfortunately, this place is off-limits. I decided to ride around some nearby roads and take a look around. Nothing…and then I got a flat tire. After replacing the inner tube, I looked up, and the hawk was right overhead!
10. Townsend’s Solitaire—possibly the least rare bird on this list, though one I had to work hard for. It’s an annual visitor high in the mountains. I had to bike up Silverado Canyon (with an elevation gain of around 2500 feet) and then hike three more miles up. A very rewarding experience.

I biked at least a couple thousand miles. According to my odometer, I’ve biked about 1,100 miles since late August. Add maybe another thousand miles to that from earlier in the year, and then a couple hundred more from my mountain bike. Just think of all those burned calories…

I’m keeping a Bigby list again this year, but it’s half-hearted. I’ll probably keep a separate one when I go to college, but neither that nor the one I keep for the rest of the year at home will be nearly as high as this year’s.