Friday, April 3, 2015

Green eBirding in My Neighborhood

     I had a lighter than normal workload today, so I thought I might take a walk with my dog around the local golf course, first thing in the morning. I also wanted to check the course for migrants and any other species that might be around (hopefully something not on my eBird list for my local patch). It was a bright and clear morning, so how could I resist? Also, due to a back injury, I have not been able to cycle since August of last year, so I do a lot of walking! (I have become a plodder!) Moving slowly, though, has allowed me to see things I might have otherwise missed!
     Cora and I started out at about 7:30. We worked our way around bushes in the coastal scrub, on trails, through eucalyptus groves, around adjacent neighborhoods and through some fences, in our circumnavigation of the course. It is not a regular route! But that's good, since it makes for more birds. The Sea Pines Golf Course is an eBird "hotspot", but it gets little attention compared to better known hotspots in the area like Pecho Willows and Sweet Springs Preserve. I am guilty of this inattention more than any of the local birders, since it is right in my neighborhood! Being unable to cycle has caused me to really concentrate on birding in my neighborhood (which is a good thing)!
     Spring migration has been going on for awhile here; the swallows and Hooded Orioles on our walk were evidence of that. There were surprises, however. About 1/2 way around the course, we were skirting the edge of a eucalyptus grove and walking on a path next to the golf course fence. I looked through the fence at two birds feeding on a green, like robins. But when I put my binoculars on them, it was two female Varied Thrushes. They have wintered in the neighborhood (and in good numbers coastally) this last winter (very unusual), but I didn't expect to see them out on the course acting like robins!
     Another surprise (I won't say "highlight") was a pair of Great-tailed Grackles. These were new for my local patch! But, they are nest parasites and not welcome to stay (not that I have anything to do about it). Other interesting sights were: about 250 coots (really a high number) on the golf course (the golfers now have to walk more carefully!); two very streaked and recently fledged White-crowned Sparrows that were begging for food from an unseen parent; courting Brown-headed Cowbirds (stretching their necks and pointing their bills up, as they strutted on a wire); and Cliff Swallows that were just starting their cup-shaped mud nests under eaves.
     The picture above is Cora and me, as we were finishing our days walk/bird trip. She's the one in green (she's camera shy!). I didn't bring my regular camera because it was too heavy to carry. This was taken on my smart phone by a guest at the golf course motel. I'll try to get shots of some of the birds we saw, and add them later. You can see my full day's list of birds on eBird. We walked 2 1/4 miles, to and from our home, and saw 46 total species. Two were new species for my local patch: the grackle and the House Wren.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Carbon Offsets and Green Travel Birding

(I hesitated to include this article on the blog, but I think it is relevant, so here goes.)

I had earned travel miles on my credit card and a great friend had offered to let my family and I  stay at his vacation home (left) situated adjacent to a Trent Jones Golf Course in a gated resort (Estrella del Mar) just south of Mazatlan. How could I say "no," when the whole family was able, and enthusiastic, to go? How could I refuse when Military Macaw, Tufted Jay and other "life birds" were only a short drive away?  But, how could I justify it environmentally? Maybe I should have just cashed in my credit card miles and politely declined?

I had heard of "carbon offsets" that companies promoted to cancel out the negative effects of travel by plane (the worst), automobile, train, or bus. I had heard that they made sense, or that they were a scam (for example companies had taken money and pledged to plant trees which was never done), or that they were well-intentioned but ineffectual. I understood the basic concept that one purchased a carbon offset which would theoretically take as much greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere as was produced by the form and distance of travel employed on a trip (or in daily life), but I needed more proof.

I did an internet search for the purchase of carbon offsets. I found websites which discussed carbon offsets and rated companies that sold offsets - based on complicated criteria that are explained on such websites: like These websites ranked Native Energy (a U.S. based company - my preference) as one of the top rated companies selling carbon offsets.

I checked out Native Energy's website,, and was impressed by the projects they funded, the success of those projects and the percentage of offset money that went directly to the funding of the projects. For example, when I took this trip, purchases of offsets helped finance the building of the Wewoka Biogas Project (Oklahoma). This project supported Commercial Brick Corporation's use of methane gas from an adjacent landfill, to replace the natural gas used by the company to fire the clay bricks and structural tiles they manufacture and sell. The burning of the methane had the added benefit of converting the methane to carbon dioxide - a less harmful greenhouse gas than methane.  The offsets I would buy, paid for the installation of vertical gas wells into the landfill, blowers to push the gas to brick kilns, and the retrofitting of the kilns to burn methane. This project was slated to be completed very soon.

On the website, I entered my plane flight from the U.S. to Mexico and back, as well the approx. miles driven in Mexico. They calculated the atmospheric carbon produced by each of us on the plane flight (.829 tons! ).  We would fly from L.A. to Mazatlan on June 12 and return on June 18. It all looked good. I decided to do the trip! (We drove 660 miles in Mexico and the atmospheric carbon carbon produced by driving 660 miles in Mexico was .323 tons. The cost of the total carbon offset was $60.)

It was a relaxation trip for the family, but how could I not bird as much as comfortably possible while there? I started with the drive from Mazatlan,  where we saw the spectacular Black-throated Magpie Jay. At the resort, I found Mangrove Swallow, Cinnamon Hummingbird and Rufous-bellied Chachalaca. A walk to the nearby river mouth had Yellow-crowned Night Herons eating crabs in the sand, American Oystercatchers, and nesting Least Terns. I took a harrowing drive over and up into the nearby mountains, which offered up real treats like Flammulated Flycatcher, Sinaloa Wren, Tufted Jay, Red-headed Tanager, Brown-backed Solitaire, Golden-crowned Emerald, Blue Bunting, Golden Vireo and my "target bird" - Military Macaw! A family trip down to the wonderful birding site of San Blas offered a whole group of new birds, including Boat-billed Heron (pictured) along the river, Plain-capped Starthroat, Masked Tityra, and others. This may not have been true green birding, but the purchased carbon offset did lessen the impact!

     The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society jointly launched eBird ( in 2002. Since then, it has slowly taken off with many serious birders. With the advent of smart phone birding apps, it has become even more popular. I recently started contributing bird checklists to eBird and I'm really enjoying it.
     This bird-sighting website can be very consistent with green birding. For example, it encourages local birding by designating bird "hotspots" (a spot approved by eBird, based on the number of bird species seen there, proximity to other such hotspots, etc.).  Each hotspot includes adjoining lands/neighborhoods as well. I have a half dozen such hotspots within walking distance of my home. I am especially lucky because my house is within one! (I counted the Pine Siskin below, at my house, on an eBird checklist.) Most people should have (or can establish) one or more hotspots within walking distance of their home. (See the website above for details on how to do that.)
     The eBird program further encourages green birding by allowing participants to designate local "patches." I have designated the hotspots in my small town as my local patch. I then compete with other patches for total number of species for all time, the current year, and the current month. At the time of this writing (March 28, 2015) I have 116 species for my local patch, for the month of March. (Some participants have designated really large areas (e.g. Orange County) as a local patch!) But you can still see how you rank with other local patches by deleting such huge "patches".
     The eBird website basically works like this: You bird for whatever distance and time you want on each occasion (in a designated hotspot or your own personal location which is not a designated hotspot). You then submit your bird sightings, which are reviewed by an eBird expert for accuracy before being posted on the website. Others can access your sightings of birds made at the hotspots. You can share your sightings from your personal locations (not eBird hotspots) with people you so designate.
     I find that it's especially easy to use a bird app, on my smart phone, when preparing an eBird checklist. I open my app (BirdLog North America), which then lists the local hotspots and my personal spots. I pick the one I want to bird at, and a checklist of birds for that location comes up automatically. I list the numbers of each bird species I find, as I bird. When I am done birding, I go through the list once to make sure it is accurate and complete. I then add some other quick information, and I submit the list to the website. I can later review my data on the website and make any additions or corrections, if necessary. (Some long-time birders are not using the app, but I can guarantee that it saves much time when compared to the traditional method of taking notes on paper and later sitting down at your computer to enter the information!)
     While eBirding is fun, it also serves a very important purpose. The data submitted makes for a sort of national bird data base. The numbers so acquired over time, can then be used to map the occurrence and the dates of bird species (which might be helpful, for example, to show the effects of global warming). The data can be used to track of the number of each species, to see how a species is doing, and so on. It is much like the annual Christmas bird count, in that the bird data can be used to show many things. Unlike the Christmas counts, though, eBird data covers the entire year. Therefore, it is potentially a much more complete and valuable set of bird data than the traditional Christmas counts!
     So have some fun green birding, and contribute to science!

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.