Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Tearing It up in Texas

Well, it's over. Yesterday afternoon I got back from birding the Upper Texas Coast for the Great Texas Birding Classic on the ABA Tropicbirds team. I'll try to write up a few more detailed posts, but for now I'll post some statistics of the trip

207--species of birds on the Big Day
2--boxes of Poptarts consumed
12--hours of sleep (spread out over three nights)
1--adult male Painted Bunting found stunned under a gas station window
26--species of warblers
8--life birds
1--Yellow Rail
1--Jalapeno/cheese/bacon burger from Whataburger
6--bags of jerky consumed
1--Fork-tailed Flycatcher missed by a matter of hours
1--expedition through poison oak, chiggers, and underbrush to see Bachman's Sparrow
3--Purple Gallinules
1--tree backed into

It's pretty easy to tell that I had a lot of fun. Not only was the birding spectacular, but the company of four other enthusiastic young birders (Andy Johnson, Harold Eyster, Marcel Such, and Spencer Hardy) and two excellent leaders (Chip Clouse and Charles Hesse) was unparalleled.

Missed your chance to support the American Birding Association's youth education program? It's not too late to support the Tropicbirds! Another team will be competing in the World Series of Birding on May 15th. If you're interested in making a pledge, please visit

Monday, April 19, 2010

It's Official

Yes, it's official--I've finally gotten around to deciding about college! I'll be entering Calvin College as a freshman at the end of August. Calvin is located in Grand Rapids, Michigan--only a couple hours from my old house outside Detroit. Needless to say, I'm super excited, especially since I already know so many people in Michigan!

For the geographically-challenged westerners who are probably reading this, Grand Rapids is on the west side of the Lower Peninsula, near Lake Michigan. Still clueless? Here's a map.

My mobility will be limited--I won't have a car or even a bike--though I'll do my best to mooch rides off other birders. However, the campus is very green (and there's a nice ecosystem reserve just across the street), so I should manage well on foot. Here's a satellite image of campus.

I'm going to enjoy my last few months of birding in California over the summer. My workload promises to be excruciatingly heavy, so I'll do less birding than I'd likely, but I'll get out--someway, somehow.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Canyonland Musings

Note: My incredibly busy schedule of late has forced me to do something I loathe to do--recycle essays! I wrote this piece for my AP English class. It's not specifically about birds, though it's awfully tough for me to write anything without mentioning birds...

I yawn. The car’s clock claims it is four-thirty. Early, very early. The headlights illuminate a couple dozen feet of the rough, steep road in sickly yellowish light. Otherwise, all is dark. The engine of my mom’s old Ford Windstar complains about the steepness of the grade. Swinging around a sharp curve, I swerve to the right to avoid scraping the encroaching chaparral. If you watch the news, you’ve seen chaparral. It’s the low, dense brush that cloaks California’s hills and mountains—and it catches fire very easily. The hood noses up sharply over a small rise, then down again. Stream crossing. I slow and savor the sound of the tires slicing through the shallow stream. Farther up, a large animal darts into the road just beyond the realm of the headlights. I hit the brights—a Bobcat! It quickly melts into the brush.

Orange County, best known for its beaches, bikinis, and surfboards, is a jungle of jammed freeways, high-rise office buildings, and sprawling housing developments. Precious few wild areas remain. One of these is Upper Silverado Canyon in the Santa Ana Mountains.

Dawn emerges slowly. Silverado Canyon seldom enjoys dramatic sunrises thanks to its steep slopes and frequent fog. Several Bigcone Douglas-firs—tall, shaggy conifers with dark, deeply furrowed bark—loom out of the gray mist. The Santa Ana Mountains are too low to harbor extensive conifer woodlands like some of California’s other mountain ranges—but nestled in the deep, moist canyons are a few stands of Douglas-firs and Coulter Pines. I coax the grudging minivan farther up the road, wincing as the car rumbles over washboards and jolts over loose rocks. Bigcone Springs is my destination.

Bigcone Springs lies three thousand feet above sea level, miles from the nearest town. Towering Douglas-firs shade the lithe young Bigleaf Maple saplings and Coast Live Oaks. Even on the driest, hottest July afternoons, water from the spring trickles down through the road, etching a labyrinth of dark paths through the dust. I pull the car to the side of the road and eagerly step out from the driver’s seat. The air is chilly and calm. I take a deep breath, enjoying the pleasant, clean aroma of pine needles and dust. The dust does not have the chokingly hot, dry smell of most dust. It smells cool and sweet, like a pantry.

The tall, sinister trees bustle with life. A cacophony of bird songs fills my ears—the spiraling whistle of a Purple Finch, the clownish laughing of a family of Acorn Woodpeckers, the muffled yelp of a Mountain Quail deep in the canyon. Grunting with approval, I fish the Cougar Stick out of the van’s backseat. A sturdy, six-foot wooden staff, the Cougar Stick gives me security when I hike in lonely places. The lucky adventurer may run into a Mountain Lion anywhere in Orange County’s foothills and mountains, though these great cats are notoriously elusive. When I encounter one for the first time, however, I don’t want to be unarmed.

My trusty Cougar Stick in hand, I boldly stride down a nearby path. It is not a long hike; only one or two minutes of walking bring me to a dead end. From here you can look down into the steep canyon or beyond to the flat, developed lowlands. On a smog-free day, the mighty San Gabriel Mountains jut up many miles to the north. There is no smog, so the angular blue ridges of the San Gabriels tower out of the low, dense layer of clouds that envelops the lowlands. Ironically, though the distant mountains are visible, the canyon itself is difficult to discern. Thick fog banks roll by, one moment allowing a glimpse of the chaparral-clad hillside opposite and the next concealing everything more than thirty feet distant.

Returning to the road, I opt to hike rather than drive farther up the canyon. The sun finally crawls over the dominating ridge that has been keeping the canyon in shadow for so long. A few stubborn fog banks persist, but as the sun climbs higher, they melt away as quickly as ice cubes placed on a sidewalk on a summer afternoon. I break free from the lush shade of Bigcone Springs to the hot, monotonous chaparral. No more tall trees, but the dusty road is lined with an abundant variety of wildflowers, much to the delight of the Anna’s Hummingbirds. They zip across the road in fierce chattering fights, squabbling over rights to the blooms.

Another mile or two of hiking brings me to a large stand of Coulter Pines. Big, muscular pines with husky trunks, broad limbs, and massive cones weighing up to eight pounds, Coulter Pines are truly spectacular. Sadly, many of the trees died in a recent fire. Only charred skeletons and the occasional clump of toasted needles remain of their former glory. In the wilderness, however, fire is rarely a bad thing. Several Hairy Woodpeckers gleefully tap the dead wood, occasionally giving sharp peak calls that echo through the canyon. A male Lazuli Bunting delivers his beautiful slurred song from a black snag, his brilliant blue, orange, and white feathers shining from the grim grove of pines. The ground beneath is carpeted with verdant young wildflowers and shrubs.

With a start I realize that I am too warm in my hooded sweatshirt. It is only eight-thirty—still early by most people’s standards—yet life in the canyon is winding down for the day. Fewer birds are singing. Even the air seems different—stiflingly dry, no longer possessing the dawn’s cool dampness. Wilderness runs on a different schedule from man. I turn and begin plodding back down the road to the car.

The car is in sight when I finally encounter another person. A mountain biker. His face red, his calves bulging from the strain, his bike inching up the steep dirt road—I can’t help but respect him. “You are a better man than I,” I exclaim, throwing him a salute. He grins and wheezes out a greeting. Back at Bigcone Springs, it is cooler, the dust still smells good, and a few birds are still singing. But it is not the same. My solitude has been shattered.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Support the Tropicbirds!

Do you care about the future of birding? I imagine it's safe to say that you do. The future of birding rests on the interest and participation of young people in the birding community. One could argue that many birders discover the joys of birding in adulthood, but it's no coincidence that many of North America's top birders--Jon Dunn, Kenn Kaufman, David Sibley, and Pete Dunne, to name a few--began birding as children.

Alright, we've established that young birders are crucial to the future of birding. Allow me to introduce the American Birding Association's (ABA) youth education program.

The ABA provides fantastic opportunities for young birders. I've benefited from many of them. Three main opportunities exist: the Young Birder of the Year Contest (YBY), camps geared for young birders, and publications about birding. The YBY encourages young birders to hone their skills in note-taking, photography, writing, and illustration. Its participants invariably come out as better birders. In addition to allowing young birders to travel and see new birds, the ABA's camps give young birders the chance to meet like-minded young people, often creating life-long friendships. Lastly, the ABA's publications--including Birding, Winging It, and North American Birds--allow young birders to learn more about birds and to connect with the birding community.

Well, that's great, but how can you help? It's simple. The ABA can't run these programs without financial support. Donating to the ABA's youth education program will enrich the lives of young people and help the future of birding.

That's where I come in. I've been selected to participate in the Great Texas Birding Classic on the ABA's Tropicbirds team. For the uninitiated, the Great Texas Birding Classic is a competitive birding event in which teams try to find as many species as possible in a day. The Tropicbirds, a team of five enthusiastic young birders, have the goal to raise funds for the ABA's youth education program.

If you have any interest in supporting the Tropicbirds, please visit the pledge page on the ABA's website for more details: You can pledge an amount per species we find on our Big Day, or just play it safe and donate a lump sum. Donating online is probably the easiest option. If you have any questions or do not wish to pledge online, feel free to email me at prairiemerlin AT


Sunday, April 4, 2010

Back by Popular Demand...PHOTOS

I've received so many half-serious complaints about my recent photo-free posts that I'm relenting and posting a few bird photos. The one above shows an Eared Grebe (at an awkward stage between basic and alternate plumage) at Mason Regional Park.

This is the main reason I biked to Mason Regional Park last week. Yeah, I know I just wrote a post awhile back bashing twitching, but the opportunity to add Eastern Phoebe to my Bigby list was just too alluring. At least I got to spend an hour with this delightful bird (it's been far too long since I've seen one!) and see some other neat birds at the park.

Ruddy Ducks definitely qualify as neat birds. I never tire of seeing the spunky males with their chestnut bodies and sky-blue bills. I don't mean to put the females down, either--I smile whenever I see one of those badger-faced female Ruddies.

Ruddy Duck--going down.

Hiking--I adore it, yet don't do it nearly often enough. On Wednesday, I set off up into the hills above Santiago Oaks Regional Park with my binoculars, camera, and walking stick. I ended up hiking eight miles that morning. One bird that usually requires a decent hike to see is the Rufous-crowned Sparrow. I heard at least a dozen of them, though only one cooperated for photography.

Another seldom-seen sparrow is the secretive Grasshopper Sparrow. In addition to being very shy, these beautiful sparrows are very local in Orange County. They require extensive grasslands--and extensive grasslands are very local in Orange County! I saw this individual in the fields above Irvine Regional Park. It was a treat to get such good looks (and even photograph it!) Usually, I just hear them off in the distance--and their song, a weak little buzz, is not impressive at all. Up close, however, it is a truly beautiful bird.

If you've spent any amount of time birding, you should recognize this snappy-looking bird--it's a Common Yellowthroat. Yes, they're abundant just about everywhere, but they rank among some of my very favorite birds. I love that bright yellow throat, that black mask, that perky song, that skulky yet curious attitude...

Saturday, April 3, 2010

This. Is. Crazy.

Yesterday, April 2nd, I ran a big day (an attempt to see as many bird species as possible in a day) on my bike in Orange County. It was overwhelmingly a success; I shattered my old big bike day by over twenty species.

Evening sunlight streamed into the idyllic meadow, illuminating the lush green grass with a golden glow. A gentle breeze kissed my face as I watched a mixed flock of Blackburnian Warblers, Sandhill Cranes, and Ivory Gulls dining on a nearby bird feeder. Suddenly, one of the gulls turned toward me, opened its bill, and began beeping.

I was so surprised that I opened my eyes. Darkness...I could still hear the Ivory Gull beeping, except that it sounded exactly like my alarm clock. That's because it was my alarm clock. Disentangling myself from the warm wool blanket, my eye fell to my watch glowing in the darkness. Four-thirty.

This. Is. Crazy.

Six hours of sleep really isn't enough for anyone, particularly a teenager. I had a reasonable excuse for waking up so early, however--a big day by bike. As I groggily climbed out of my bed, however, it didn't seem like such a reasonable plan. Slipping back under the enticing cover was much more reasonable...

Any successful big day needs strategy. You can't simply go out to the nearest park and go birding all day; you need to list all the species within striking distance and then plan a route that hits as many of those species as possible. My strategy was fairly simple: begin at the beach at dawn, hit Upper Newport Bay and San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in the morning, and then ride back in the direction of home and spend the afternoon birding several spots in the foothills--Santiago Oaks Regional Park, the Villa Park Flood Control Basin, and Irvine Regional Park.

Beginning at the beach at dawn. Simple enough, except for the little detail about dawn. The beach is twenty-one miles away--that's twenty-one miles of riding in the dark. This didn't seem like such a big deal until I was speeding down Jamboree Road in the dark at five in the morning, the cold night air blasting any remaining sleepiness out of my face.

This. Is. Crazy.

My first bird was neither the hoped-for Great Horned Owl nor the expected Northern Mockingbird. It was a Song Sparrow. As I sped along dark roads and bike trails, other birds started tuning up out of the darkness. Common Yellowthroat...Black Phoebe...Northern Mockingbird...

At this point, I must admit that I simply hate writing plain narratives of birding days. So, I'll spare you the gory details: that I saw a Brant at Little Corona City Beach, Greater Scaups at Upper Newport Bay, Hooded Mergansers in the San Diego Creek, and...

The morning had gone remarkably well, but...Red Knot! Ruddy Turnstone! Loggerhead Shrike! Bonaparte's Gull! Missed, all of them--and too many others as well. Misses plague every big day. No big day, no matter how innocent, can escape the scourge of missed birds. Nothing is guaranteed. I mulled over the missed birds as I began climbing the hills.

Hills, darn them! My detour through Lemon Heights took me over extra hills. I slowed to a crawl. Cranking my bike into lower and lower gear, I inched up the hill, my bike creaking, my thighs screaming. All this extra pain for a Western Tanager and a Rufous Hummingbird.

This. Is. Crazy.

Eventually, I victoriously gained the top of the hill. For a precious few moments I gleefully coasted downhill...until another uphill loomed...and another.

I wearily pulled into my garage at 2:20 p.m. "That's a pretty short big day," you might say. No, I wasn't finished yet--not nearly. After gobbling up a bowl of Wheaties topped with granola, banana slices, and dried cherries (by far the most delicious cereal combination I've ever encountered), I traded my biking shoes for hiking boots and embarked on my mountain bike.

Acorn Woodpecker...Oak Titmouse...Black-chinned Hummingbird...California Thrasher...within minutes of arriving at Santiago Oaks, I added at least half a dozen new species for the day. My momentum quickly petered out, as I ended up wandering the park for half an hour without finding any more new birds. The low point of the day (except perhaps for being awoken by my alarm clock) came when I had backtrack for a couple miles because of a flooded trail. As I made the bothersome detour, I couldn't help but think...

This. Is. Crazy.

As I continued on in the Villa Park Flood Control Basin, specialties like Rock Wren, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, and Canyon Wren surrendered themselves to my notebook. My favorite part of the day came, however, when I missed Ring-necked Duck.


Well, the Villa Park Flood Control Basin is a sure-fire spot for this species, or so I thought. I gazed in disbelief at the gently rippling lake at the base of the dam, its surface disturbed only by the occasional coot or shoveler. Only two days before I had seen a dozen Ring-necked Ducks at this very spot.

But they were gone.

Fine, they probably moved to a different part of the basin. Half an hour of poking around, however, failed to produce any. I was running out of time--I needed to get to Irvine Regional Park. I remembered that Peters Canyon Regional Park is another reliable spot for this species; however, it is also a couple of miles from Irvine Regional Park, and I did not have time to go gallivanting all over the place. So, I resignedly pedaled to Irvine Park, my bike caked with mud and my spirits down. One of the first spots I checked was the lake. It's a reliable spot for Wood Ducks.

Sure enough, a dozen or so Wood Ducks graced the ugly man-made abomination. And there, peacefully snoozing on the far side of the lake, was a perfect male Ring-necked Duck shining in the late afternoon sun. A gift, indeed.

The day was finally over. Fifteen hours after that first Song Sparrow sang, I was listening to nestling Barn Owls rasping inside a hollow sycamore. I finally reached home for good, ran upstairs to my room, and began checking off birds on a checklist. Neat black x's festooned the boxes next to bird names, though they grew progressively more sloppy toward the end of the checklist. The boxes next to some bird names remained tortuously empty. I cursed Northern Flickers, Hutton's Vireos, and California Quails as I breathlessly tallied up the numbers. The number seemed high, so I double-checked, but I got the same number:

One sixty-three.

This. Is. Crazy.