Monday, July 25, 2011

New Walking Year Birds

The rate of new birds for the year that I can see within walking distance of my home has really slowed down. There are some species I know I can see this summer that are a minimum 10 mile walk from home - "maybe next weekend!" I have had a few surprises on my morning walks with Nike, my trusty canine companion and the only one in the house who will go out every morning with me while I bird. My usual route is through the neighborhood (a variety of middle class homes) and out along the sandy edge of the bay and then by or through the local patch of trees - Pecho Willows. Occasionally, I lengthen the walk to include a local grove of eucalyptus trees or to include the nearby golf course or the local elementary school grounds.

On June 10, 2011, I heard a buzz and a short sharp call from a small passerine as it flew by me, near Pecho Willows. I assumed it was a late Lazuli Bunting, which is a very striking but common migrant (and breeder about 4 miles from home). I looked with my binocs and it was a bunting, but it was entirely dark blue - without the white and rusty underparts of a Lazuli. The Indigo Bunting is a breeder and regular migrant in the eastern part of North America, so when one strays into my neighborhood I get a little excited. I took the far away photo of this bird to document its presence (click to enlarge the blue blob top center). It shot through the neighborhood and I did not get a decent photo.  Another birder came by about a half hour later and could not re-find the bird.

On July 2, I had just gotten out of the front door with my dog, when I heard an unfamiliar bird song. It was a warbler that was not a regular singer in this part of California, so I grabbed my camera, my iPod with speakers, my binocs and my dog and ran after it. As it flew from the elderberry tree in my front yard to a hedge in my neighbor's yard, I saw a flash of orange on either side of the tail - a likely American Redstart (an "eastern" warbler). This bird was another guy in a hurry. I chased it down to the end of my block and played my iPod recording of its song.  It responded and gave me some good but brief looks. Jay, who lives at the end of the street, also saw the bird before it headed west toward the ocean. Again, I could only get distant photos as the bird would not stay in one place long enough to get close to it.

My last new walking green year bird was  Elegant Tern. This species had returned to the bay for its summer through fall annual stay and I finally found one on July 8. I heard several of these terns calling "kareek" and the younger ones calling a quieter less raucous call as they zig-zagged over the bay, diving at times for small sivery fish. This particular individual posed long enough for a decent picture. This species nests and breeds south of Central California, but wanders up here after breeding. All, or almost all, leave here before the cold of winter.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Bird Nest Soup

I sometimes struggle to get decent photos of birds and other wildlife for this blog. With all of the nesting birds in my area lately, I have been trying to find some of their nests so I could take photos of birds in and around the nests (as long as I don't disturb them).

I have looked for weeks for the nest of a pair of Allen's Hummingbirds at the end of my street, without success. I have found nests of Nuttall's and Downy Woodpeckers (way too high and hidden to photograph) and a bushtit (in the middle of a thick bush). I found a nest of an American Goldfinch in the open, but before I was able to photograph it, the birds were gone. I found a starling nest in the hollow left by a broken branch, but it was too high and starlings aren't the most glamorous species to photograph here since they are a introduced species that displaces native cavity nesters.

I found a Bewick's Wren's nest hole (top photo) about 15 feet up in a willow at the end of my block on May 28. I stood below the tree for about 30 minutes trying to get some photos of the wrens as they came and went from the nest hole. I watched as they fed and flew back toward the nest hole. They went so fast into the hole that I could only get a photo of the birds' rear ends as they entered (middle photo). I decided to wait and see if I could get a picture of one of the birds as it left the hole. Finally, one paused long enough for me to get the bottom photo, just before it flew away from the hole. (You can click on the blog photos for a larger format.)

Walking Big Day

Mike Stiles and I had talked for weeks of doing a walking Big Sit in the spring of 2011, but due to delays caused by family plans and bad weather, we decided that we better do it on May 7 (or not at all). I walked my dog next to the back bay before heading over to his house that day. The 2 1/2 mile walk is mostly along the edge of the bay. Although I had to get to Mike's house by 7:30 AM, I still was listening for birds and occasionally looking for them on the walk over.  For example, I flushed some Red-winged Blackbirds from a bayside wetland and in amongst them I heard a "chack" call, which stood out from the Red-wingeds. I put my binos. on it and saw a large dark brown blackbird with much yellow from the chest and throat - it was a female Yellow-headed Blackbird - a new BIGBY year bird for 2011! I also found a noisy flock of Cedar Waxwings, giving their high pitched continuous call from high in a grove of eucalyptus trees.  Hopefully, Mike and I could re-find these birds on the walk back along the edge of the bay, later in the day. 

I met Mike at his house, and we took the short path from near his house out to the overlook at the Elfin Forest (so called because of the stunted oaks and other low vegetation that grow in the mostly sand soil and in the face of the prevailing northwest wind off the nearby ocean.) The tide was out (photo above) and not many birds could be seen out on the bay. (Many of the shorebirds and herons follow the water's edge as the tide ebbs and flows.)  We did hear Marsh Wren and picked up the birds of the coastal scrub such as Spotted Towhee, California Quail and Wrentit.

From the Elfin Forest we took the path over to South Bay Boulevard, the road that roughly follows the bay edge to the north of Los Osos.  We headed straight over to Turri Road to check the salt water ponds that form in the pickleweed flatlands (for shorebirds) and then along Los Osos creek riparian habitat on our right and pastureland on our left.  Greater Yellowlegs was one of the few shorebirds still around in the ponds. The riparian had nice additions for our day like the bright blue, rust and white Lazuli Bunting and the larger and even more blue Blue Grosbeak.  In a flock of swallows we found a couple of Vaux's Swifts, standing out with their stiffer wingbeats and longer winged look. Interestingly, a couple of Cooper's Hawks were flying in with the swallows, but we saw no swallows being taken by the raptors.

Further up the road we found grassland birds such as American Kestrel, Western Meadowlark, Western Bluebird and the Grasshopper Sparrow pictured above. A Lark Sparrow (left) gave its complicated song with buzzy notes and more musical chips and warbles.  I played a recording of rail calls as we passed wetlands along the road, but nothing answered from marshes that had many rails  not much more than a month before. We went back to the Elfin Forest hoping that the returning tide had pushed up some shorebirds and water fowl. A loose flock of Canada Geese were out in the low vegetation along the edge of the mudflats.

When we got back to the overlook at the Elfin Forest, where we ate a slightly late lunch we had packed. The tide was at a good level, but the shorebirds were on the opposite side of the inlet of the bay we were looking down on from our bluff top perch!  We could identify a few of the larger shorebirds, like Long-billed Curlew, from a distance.  It was frustrating because there were likely many species of shorebirds out in the bay, but most were too far away to identify by sight or even sound. It was warm enough for butterflies to be around, including this unidentified Blue.

After the Elfin Forest we made our way along the edge of the bay toward Baywood Park.  We took advantage all day long of being on foot - we took paths along the bay edge that you could not take except on foot, which allowed more birding opportunities within a short distance.  We found this flock of  Band-tailed Pigeons (below), a species which usually tends to hang out in oak forest. In Los Osos, they summer out of their usual habitat, probably because of the number of people who put out bird seed.

Other than the Yellow-headed Blackbird, the biggest surprise of the day was a Black Skimmer (year bird) feeding out over the bay.  This is an unusual species this far north in California (except maybe in San Francisco Bay). They are always a treat to find in Morro Bay, especially when they are feeding by dragging their over sized lower mandible along the surface of the water. We did re-find the waxwings, which are not rare here but are unpredictable. The Yellow-headed Blackbird was gone when we got to the spot he had been earlier in the morning before I met up with Mike. The wind was also coming up at that point.

We finished at the end of my block at around 3 PM because the wind had gotten very strong and the birding was difficult.  We finished with 82 species. This total is very low for a walking big day - mainly because of being too late in the spring, and due to the wind getting too strong in the afternoon.
Next time we will do the walking big day on an earlier date and hopefully have better luck with the weather.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Bicycle Big Day

I had originally planned to do my bicycle big day on the previous weekend, but was rained out.  So, on Friday April 30, I rode my bike (with my camping gear - about 45 extra pounds with camera and scope) to Cerro Alto Campground (about 15 miles from my house in Los Osos).  I camped here alone in an isolated camp site in a canyon at about 1,000 feet in elevation.  Sycamores, willows and oaks line the bottom of the canyon, on either side of the East Fork of Morro Creek and chaparral grows above this riparian corridor.  For dinner, I ate the burrito I had picked up at a Mexican restaurant on the way to Cerro Alto.  At night, my head was cold as I had forgotten my wool cap and I did not use a tent (so I could hear owls better). 

Screech Owls started their low whistled trill in the early morning hours all around my campsite and a surprise Saw-whet Owl's higher pitched single repeated whistled call note could be heard coming from across the creek.  At dawn, Poorwills answered my whistled call and called on their own a few minutes later.  I ate my whole-wheat cinnamon roll and gatorade breakfast, packed my bike and started hiking up the canyon, looking and listening in the early morning light.  The expected birds such as Mountain Quail, Olive-sided and Ash-throated Flycatcher, MacGillivray’s Warbler and Western Wood-Pewee called or sang as I walked along the entrance road.  I did not find a good migrant flock until I was up on the trail, about a half mile past the campground.  Here, I heard and saw many birds such as Cassin’s Vireo, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Western Tanager, and Townsend’s Warbler.  After I worked this flock for awhile, I turned around and walked back to my campsite, satisfied with my finds and heard some late risers such as Band-tailed Pigeon and Purple Finch. 

I pedaled my bike slowly down the campground road and stashed my camping equipment in some bushes near the campground, before I rode up to the summit of Highway 41 and down into Atascadero.  I heard and saw birds along the way including Purple Martins (going to nest holes in sycamores in three locations!), Wild Turkeys gobbling, and White-throated Swift chattering above me.  Atascadero Lake was my first stop in that city.  I found the raucous sounding Great-tailed Grackle there.  At the wastewater treatment plant I found the expected but always striking Wood Ducks, and teetering Spotted Sandpipers, as well as a pair of unexpected Lawrence’s Goldfinches.  As conspicuous as they look, Yellow-billed Magpies still took some time to find and I realized I was way behind schedule!  I hurried over to some other ponds in Atascadero and struck out on expected Phainopepla, Green Heron, Marsh Wren and ducks except for Ruddy.  I did get a Sora response to my rail recordings.

I went back by Atascadero Lake on my way back to Highway 41 and heard the "sweet, sweet, I'm so sweet" of the Yellow Warbler that I missed the first time.  I rode back to pick up my gear at Cerro Alto and heard a Rufous-crowned Sparrow from the chaparral, along the way.  I was tempted to bird again at Cerro Alto, but I was still way behind on my schedule and wanted to get down 41 to Morro Bay before the onshore wind started up. Unfortunately, I did not beat the wind and it slowed my descent toward the coast. I did get some extra birds on the way down such as the Western Kingbird pictured above. 

When I got to Highway One on the coast, I headed north a short distance to North Point. I scoped off this point and had rocky shorebirds, scoters and loons, but I had very few gulls and no pelagics.  I next cycled over to Morro Rock, birding along the harbor mouth on the way.  After a wait, I saw one of the resident Peregrines.  I then scoped from the base of the Rock - above the breakwater - finding Pigeon Guillemot and Rhinocerous Auklet between lines of breakers.  A kite (the kind with a string attached) festival nearby made for a lot of noise and people, perhaps causing my miss of Canyon and Rock Wrens at the Rock.

I birded back along the bay edge in Morro Bay and found much less that was new for the day than I had expected. I did find several breeding plumaged Eared Grebes.  At some bottlebrush, near the state park campground, I found both of the usual Selasphorus hummingbirds. The biggest surprise of the day was a Hammond’s Flycatcher near a ranger residence there. This is a rare bird on the coast in California and I carefully looked at its proportions, bill size and color, tail pump and other marks.
After a brief stop at Chorro Creek, I continued my birding along the edge of the bay - toward Los Osos.  Due to my being behind, I skipped the ride to Cuesta College and Ranch El Chorro (a big mistake that cost me 5 or 6 species).  I was shocked that the bay had no ducks other than Mallards!  (A week or two prior I could have found at least 6 other duck species.)  I did find White Pelicans. 
I rode up Turri Road away from the bay, along some brackish ponds, followed by riparian habitat and pastureland.  No Savannah Sparrows were singing from the pickleweed around the ponds, so I played a recording. Nothing responded in the early afternoon, but I saw that a Savannah had come up right next to me in some bushes!  I left my iPod on and reached for my camera.  Just as the track ended, a loud rock and roll song came on.  The bird hurdled off to the pickleweed before I could get a photo! (I really do have to separate the bird songs from the rock and roll on my iPod!) Further up the road, I found a bright blue, white and orange Lazuli Bunting, Grasshopper Sparrow and Cassin’s Kingbird (photo above).  The kingbirds flew out form some eucalyptus trees that they breed in and were really upset with my recording.  I didn’t play it more than once, but they were still calling and posturing on the barb-wire fence as I left. 

Next, I worked the edge of the bay in Los Osos on the incoming tide.  I also stopped at the Elfin Forest for the birds of the coastal scrub, like California Thrasher and Wrentit (above).  From the Audubon Overlook, I checked the edge of the incoming tide and found several shorebirds new for the day such as Semipalmated Plover (100+!) and black-bellied Dunlins.  I added Caspian and Forster’s Terns, as well as a single Black Skimmer unsuccessfully trying to blend in with the perched flock of terns.
Following the bay edge, I continued onto the Baywood Pier, Sweet Springs, and Pecho Willows.  At Pecho Willows (one block from home), I found a Nashville Warbler and a stake-out Yellow-breasted Chat.  I also saw the Anna's Hummingbird and a male Western Tanager checking each other out (photo below).  I then went home to unload the camping gear off my bike and look at my list for what I could still get. I then realized the mistake of not riding to Cuesta, but didn’t have the energy to backtrack and ride south on Highway 1.  I didn’t think I could find much new at Montana de Oro, so I quit birding with about 3 hours of daylight left!  My total stood at 146 species.  I had recorded 156 species on the same route before and knew I could not top it on this day, and I was beat!  
Next year I will try to count a couple of weeks earlier and will not skip Cuesta and Montana de Oro. I’ll also do more riding before the count day, so I am in better shape.  The extra weight on the bike took its toll on me.  I had found some good birds, but the absence of many ducks and dipping on common raptors such as Cooper’s, Sharp-shinned, harrier and kestrel hurt my big day total.  It was still a good day of birding!  My total miles biked on this big day was about fifty.

Friday, April 29, 2011

What's New in the Neighborhood?

Not only do I enjoy the arrival of  migrants and summer breeders in the spring, but I also enjoy breeding behavior of common permanent resident bird species.  The California Towhee (left) was involved in an apparent courtship display as it lengthened its neck, cocked its tail and fluttered its wings as another towehee was nearby.  The other bird was doing similar behavior and since I cannot tell the male from the female I don't know for sure if this was a male/female pair or not.  I assume it was, but I suppose it could have been two males squaring off?  This happened at Pecho Willows on April 25.  On the next day I observed a California Towhee running along the ground with its tail up and fluttering its wings.  It was working it, but i did not see another towhee nearby.

This Yellow-breasted Chat (left) was in the "migrant just passing through" category as they don't nest in my neighborhood.  Usually I find this species by hearing its loud and varied repetoire of calls, but this bird was silent.  It popped into view on April 25 when I chattered for orioles.  (You can click on the picture for a closer view.)  I only see this species about once a year in my home territory, so it was a treat and definitely a new green year bird!  It is usually a secretive bird so I was unable to get a better shot.

On April 30, the wind shifted from the usual on-shore direction to a warmer off-shore direction.  This often brings more migrants to the coast and this morning was no exception as I had my first Western Tanager singing in the trees at the end of my street and Lazuli Buntings were flying by with their buzz call note.  My third green year bird was an Olive-side Flycatcher, new for my neighborhood, that posed long enough in a couple of trees near the edge of the bay for me to get this far off shot (left) before it took off.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Sand Spit Re-visited

On April 9, Ross Schaefer and I walked out to the sand spit in hopes that there might be some different shorebirds or sea birds.  It is a long long walk on a sandy trail: out to the sandy beach and north to the breakwater.  From my house in Los Osos it was a ten to twelve mile walk that felt much worse due to the sand! The way out was fun - we stopped frequently to look, at and photograph, flowers and butterflies.  The usual birds of the coastal scrub - towhees, thrashers, gnatcatchers and sparrows called and sang in the sunlight.

Once we got out to the beach it was quiet, bird-wise.  We did see a couple of American Pipits (photo above), and Snowy Plovers were numerous. We walked several kilometers before we saw  flocks of shorebirds other than plovers.  We did stop occasionally to scope the ocean and Ross picked out a Pigeon Guillemot as it flew by, showing its white wing patches contrasting with its otherwise all black plumage (new green year bird). An occasional Common Murre flew by as well.  The only rare birds we found were two Common (not so common) Ravens spotted by Ross, feeding on a sea lion carcass on the beach (new bigby species).
This species is very rare in the coastal portion of San Luis Obispo County for some unknown reason.  It is common south and north of the central coast in California.
The birding was otherwise very slow and so Ross and I were looking at other creatures, like the rove beetle (Thinopinus pictus)
(above) - a wingless beetle that lives on beaches from Alaska to Baja.  It was feeding on beach hoppers (sandhoppers or sand fleas), a terrestrial amphipod crustacean that feeds on detritus that washes up onto the beach. (Click on the photo for a larger image).  The ravens, the rove beetle, and many wild flowers (beach primrose left) were the highlights of the walk, which was much more tiring on the way back!  A green big year on foot seems like more work than one on bicycle, at times. Also, I can only range so far from home on foot and the addition of new species is much harder!  I cannot complain about two new year birds, with the ravens being an unexpected surprise!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Another Montana de Oro Sate Park Walk

On March 31, it was a holiday (Cesar Chavez Day) and unseasonably warm, so it seemed like the perfect day to skip work and walk from home into the nearby state park. I first took an extended 50 minute walk around Cuesta Inlet (Morro Bay) and my neighborhood, with my dog.  I tallied 61 species, including two BIGBY addition: a fly over male Great-tailed Grackle and a family of Wild Turkeys across the back bay at the Morro Bay Golf Course (through my scope).  I then dropped off Nike at home, packed my lunch and my scope on my back and headed to Montana de Oro State Park, via Sea Pines Golf Course.  I wanted to try and find over 100 species and see what recent spring migrants could be added to my year's list.  The nearby golf course sometimes has various geese and ducks, but the extra walk there this day only yielded coots and mallards.

  From the golf course came a hot one mile uphill walk to the top of the state park entrance road and the descent through coastal scrub habitat and exotic eucalyptus forest toward lower Hazard Canyon.  The definite highlight of the day's walk occurred just before reaching Hazard Canyon, when a bobcat ambled across the pave road in front of me.  It walked casually uphill of the road, to a horse trail that parallels the main road and I went after it (after I pulled out my camera).  I followed the cat at a comfortable distance on the trail and it stopped at a gopher hole to look for a meal. (Gophers seem to be one of the cat's staple meals here.)  I took this shot as it dug for gophers, without luck.  It then went up the trail and disappeared off the trail, and I headed back toward Hazard Canyon. I also heard numerous Pacific-slope Flycatchers in the trees and Wilson's Warblers along the creek (new green year birds) at this location.

 I followed the horse trail which curved away from the main road and down to the creek at the wooded canyon bottom.  After crossing the creek, I went up a side canyon and found several slow flying Margined White Butterflies (pictured below), which seemed to be attracted to the Milk Maids pictured here (mustard family).  This early White butterfly most likely feeds on the Milk Maids given the frequent visits by the bugs to this plant, and the fact that no other mustard family member seemed to be in the vicinity.

I then returned to the main road and walked along the road to the ranch house at Spooner's cove.  I was hoping to find Pigeon Guillemots that I figured had returned because one had been reported from Morro Bay Harbor Mouth.  As I took the scope off my back, to scan the ocean beyond Spooner's Cove, I realized that the eye piece was gone - it had fallen off somewhere on the 4 1/2 mile walk here (expletives deleted)!  I decided to eat my packed lunch here, before checking the campground for birds and then retracing my steps home to look for the eyepiece.  I did locate several new BIGBY species here, including Cliff and Rough-winged Swallows.

I took one side trip on the way home, out to the rocky coast where I saw the usual rocky shore birds such as this Black Oystercatcher and I took photos of the rock formations here (e.g., the photo below).  I never did find any Surfbirds, Ruddy Turnstones or Wandering Tattlers that I needed for my year's walking list.  I did notice that flocks of  up to 15 Whimbrels and 30 or more Semipalmated Plovers had formed, signaling the spring migration for these two species.  Spotted Sandpipers also seemed more numerous than they had a few weeks earlier.

The walk back home was frustrating as I never did find the missing eye piece.  My final tally for the day was 104 species and about 12 miles of walking.  My legs were tired from the long hilly walk.  (The soreness in my calves lasted for a couple of days after this walk!)  I also passed 150 species for my walking big year, with a my running total for the year up to 154 species.