Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Farther Afield Fall Birds

Do I ride up or down the coast, or even inland, to maximize my chances for new species? Or do I bird close to home, where I have seen most of my year birds? (Or do I stay home and do the chores my wife has been after me to do? Who am I kidding?)

I am very fortunate in that I live within 5 miles of an incredible range of productive birding locations: from rocky shore, to sea bird lookouts, large tidal estuary, coastal vagrant traps, no less than 5 creeks that feed into the sea or Morro Bay, pastureland, oak forest, coastal scrub, remote sandy beaches, pine forest, and urban spots. Why should I ride 60 or more miles when I can often find better birds close to home? One reason is that I might find vagrant species in other parts of the county that I will likely not see close to home. A better reason is to go after resident species that are known to exist in other parts of the county which won't have left before I get there. Best yet, is when someone else finds a very rare vagrant somewhere else, and I find out with enough time to pedal there and back on the day it has been seen.

Since no new rarities were being seen, and I had birded my local patches over and over again, I decided to pedal 30 miles north up the coast to San Simeon State Beach. I went straight there so I could get there before the onshore winds (from the northwest) kicked up. I then could bird on the 30 mile return trip with the wind at my cycling back!  I first checked the beach and the lagoon at the mouth of San Simeon Creek (photo above).  It is sometimes good for shorebirds and waterfowl. The only thing unusual that I could find was a very tame flock of White-fronted Geese (photo above, taken from the highway 1 bridge) next to the lagoon - nice but not new for my year.

I then put on my waterproof Teva sandals and walked up the middle of the stream to look for flocks and any vagrants in the San Simeon Creek riparian habitat (left). Unfortunately, on this particular day, it was quiet with only a couple of small flocks and nothing out of the ordinary.

I then rode back down the coast with stops at Pico Creek (below), Moonstone Beach and Santa Rosa Creek. There were a couple of large chickadee, bushtit, warbler flocks at wooded path along Santa Rosa Creek and the usual large gull flock at the mouth of the creek at Moonstone Beach, but nothing noteworthy. It was good to get out on my bike and bird some spots I hadn't birded lately, but I had added nothing to my big year.

Oceano has traditionally been the best spot for fall vagrants in San Luis Obispo County, so on October 16, I rode down the coast 25 miles to bird that spot and other locations nearby. The Oceano area had produced only a few vagrants so far for this last fall, so I went down there with less expectations than I would usually have for the area in October.

I met Maggie Smith there and we walked around the lagoon, looking for a flock. After finding a small flock on the north end of the campground we then heard a much larger flock in the pines on the west side of the campground. Dozens of Yellow-rumped Warblers, Townsend's Warblers, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches, kinglets and other birds moved through the trees. We followed the flock, looking for the odd bird, which Maggie found. "Palm Warbler," she called out as I ran over with my binocs and camera bouncing. "Its just above eye level in the small tree below the pine in front of us." I found the bird and tried to keep up with the dull-colored Palm (a new BIGBY bird), trying to take a decent photo. (I did manage the straight-on shot shown below.) We continued to chase the flock as it broke up and seemed to disappear - about the same time that other birders arrived. We saw a female Summer Tanager which Maggie had found on an earlier date, and continued our walk around the lagoon without finding anything else unusual.

Maggie took off and I continued on to the open county park lagoon to the south where I searched through gulls and ducks. I then went further south to the willow riparian habitat along Arroyo Grande creek where I looked through the willows and a stand of pines. I found one flock along the horse trail which paralleled the creek and found my first Pacific Wren (formerly Winter Wren) for my green year. I headed back home against a slight wind, stopping a couple of times for brief bird checks.

In the evening of November 5, I heard about an adult Ivory Gull that had been found two days prior at Pismo Beach. It took two days for this distinctive bird to be identified! I was on my way to Pismo, on the following morning, to look for this amazing bird. After a quick 1 hour 40 minute ride, I ran out to the beach, pulling my bike through the sand. There was a large flock of birders (below) in the sand, but they were not looking at a bird (not a good sign)!!

"The bird was just here," several birders said as I approached. "It just flew down the beach to the Pismo Creek Mouth." I went down the beach with another birder and the small pure white gull was in with other larger local gulls. I had great looks and then it flew down the beach to where I had first started on the sand. I saw it feeding on a seal carcass at this spot. I took a far away shot and Dave Lawrence got a great close up (below)! This was an incredibly rare and beautiful gull for BIGBY # 310!  I stood on Pismo Beach in my bicycle shorts, among totally oblivious tourists, looking at a bird from the Arctic Circle - a bird that had only been seen in California once before!

I went on to nearby Oceano after I heard that a Harris' Sparrow and other rarities had been found there. Unfortunately, the rain started soon after and I not only missed the sparrow, but also failed to see a Northern Parula seen by a birder standing right next to me. I still didn't really mind the rain on most of the ride home from Pismo - how could I complain after seeing an Ivory Gull!

On November 14 I again headed north up the coast, all the way to Arroyo Laguna (75 mile round trip), and found nothing remarkable. I did manage to see an immature Moorhen at San Simeon and a good variety of birds on my way home, but nothing new for my BIGBY. I stopped at Pico Creek (below) on the way north and south to scan the wetland for bittern or other reed loving birds, without any luck.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Group Green

What's more green than getting out and birding without using any gas? The answer is to organize a group of people to get out and bird without using any gas. Started by John Himmelman and the New Haven, Connecticut Bird Club 15 years ago, the official "Big Sit" occurs annually on the second Sunday of October. Birders in North America (and a few worldwide) spend the day at their local big sit location - birding from a 17' diameter circle, listing all of the bird species they see and hear while staying in the circle. (Some have joked that it should be called the "Big Stand" since most birders spend the time standing at a scope and very little, if any, sitting.) Years ago, I asked John Himmelman why it was a 17" circle and he replied that the distance was arbitrarily picked so that people would scratch their heads over "Why 17 feet?" Bird Watcher's Digest now compiles the big sit's, and has past years results, rules, etc. This is at: http://www.birdwatchersdigest.com/bwdsite/connect/bigsit/index.php?sc=migration  .

Our local big sit has been going on for 13 years at the Elfin Forest in Los Osos, California. We count in shifts from a wooden platform on a sandy hill in the Elfin Forest, overlooking the Morro Bay Estuary below us, the sandspit that separates the bay and the ocean to our west, the basaltic vocanic plug "Morro Rock" to our distant northwest, the fields and scrubland to our east and the edge of the town of Los Osos to our south. It would be a beautiful place just to sit and pass the day - even without any birds. It fortuantely has a wide variety of birds like ducks (e.g. the Blue-winged Teal pictured), terns, gulls, and shorebirds following the tide below us, raptors soaring by at eye level or over the ridges to our east, thrashers and Wrentits calling from the scrub around us, and urban birds sitting on the wires at the edge of Los Osos.

I joined Mike Stiles while it was still dark at Bush Lupine Overlook for the start of this year's count (I rode my bike the 2 1/2 miles in the dark). A warm onshore breeze came down over the hills to our east and it was warm enough for shorts. Birds were vocal in the estuary below at 6AM, with night herons, Semipalmated Plovers and wigeon calling. The two of us had 41 species by 7AM. In the early daylight that followed, more shorebirds and ducks called as they moved with the incoming tide and land birds such as towhees, Hermit Thrush and sparrows woke up around us. The California Towhee pictured below spent much of the day near our platform.

As it got lighter we began to use our scopes to identify farther away terns, shorebirds, ducks, geese, grebes and herons (like the Great Blue pictured below). The tides were extreme for the day, ranging from a 6+ foot tide just after noon to a minus tide at about 7:30 PM. We had 94 species by noon, which was a little lower than usual despite the nice weather. Some grebes, ducks, loons and other species had apparently not returned to the area yet, and other common residents like Belted Kingfisher were just not moving to our part of the bay.

Birders came and went, with most staying well beyond their assigned times and some dashing off to see an unusual bird found elsewhere and then returning to resume looking for big sit birds. We had our usual variety of great food, including fresh fruit, brownies, chips, nuts, cookies and more. It was a social event as much as a birding one and most of the local long time birders showed up. We added two new species to our all time big sit list - Red-breasted Nuthatch and White-fronted Goose. We ended up with a low total - 101 species - because we missed usual "gimmee" species such as Pied-billed and Clark's Grebes, kingfisher, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and Golden-crowned Sparrow. Additionally, we had no swallows or swifts. It seems that our totals in past years were also lower when the tides were extreme.

Over the years of October Big Sits we have had a cumulative total of 174 species from this spot in the Elfin Forest. Our highest ever was 122 species in one day. Only Cape May New Jersey has exceeded that total, although locations in the tropics would undoubtedly be much higher. While it might seem boring to count in one spot for a day, a great location like the Elfin Forest is not boring and 2010 was no exception. It was a beautiful day of birding in an extraordinry location.

Birding with Beginning Birders (BIGBY Break)

Long-time birders sometimes talk about an obligation to bring new birders into birding or "giving back to birding", but the truth of the matter is that birding with beginners is fun!  Their excitement is renewing for jaded birders:  "Wow - a Double-crested Cormorant (photo left), what a cool bird!"  Starting birders regularly make such excited utterances about common species that I unfortunately often don't take a second look at, even though they really are pretty amazing. Surprises lurk around every corner on such an excursion and I can't help but get caught up in their enthusiasm.

It is even more fun when I can bird with a bunch of mostly beginning birders who are long-time friends (photo left). On September 25, I went out birding with a dozen friends who were all in Campbell for our Campbell High School reunion. This trip was obviously not part of my green year of birding since I drove the 200 miles to Campbell, but it did not have much of a carbon footprint since we were all in Campbell anyway. We birded at the Campbell Percolation Ponds (Los Gatos Creek Park - about 50 miles south of San Francisco), where I had fished as a child. I had not revisited since high school days and did not know what birds to expect. (I did take my bike around the ponds prior to meeting with the group so I would have a general feel for the place before leading the group.) These open aquifer recharging ponds are situated on either side of Los Gatos Creek and next to a freeway (Highway 17) in an urban area. There are walking/biking trails which get heavy use on weekends and fishermen still try their luck at the ponds. While we saw no other birders, it was quite birdy; we had 34 species including an Osprey, many Green Herons, 2 Common Morehens, and many more common birds like the cormorant above and the Great Blue Heron pictured below.

I really enjoyed the company and the birding. The ponds were a perfect place to catch up with friends and enjoy nature. We saw many of the birds with my spotting scope, including a Pied-billed Grebe with a chick on its back. Two and a half hours "flew by". So, thanks friends for a fun morning and for re-opening my eyes to common species of birds. Let's do it again, but not wait decades to do it this time!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Los Osos Lallapalooza

September and October are the best months for rare land birds where I live and the California coast seems to concentrate such seemingly out-of-range birds. Therefore, I have spent a lot of time looking for these birds on the nearby coast recently. I had two choices on how to do this - concentrate on birding in my immediate area or cycle for longer distances along the coast to cover a larger area.

On the weekend of September 11 and 12 I decided to concentrate my birding within a 5 mile radius of my home. September birding had started slowly in the county and no one seemed to be finding many good birds anywhere on the coast. I was covering Pecho Willows - a stand of trees at the end of my street (see the link to my google map) - almost daily. On Saturday, after finding nothing there, I cycled to a couple of close spots - Montana de Oro and Morro Bay State Park. I usually check Islay Creek Mouth at Spooner's Cove (photo left) first, before the beach-goers show up. It can be a good spot for Clay-colored Sparrow in the fall as well as other unusual passerines. I searched through the White-crowned, Song and Lincoln's Sparrows but found no unusual sparrows. I scanned the hillside for warblers like the Prothonotary that showed up there last fall. Other than the usual warblers like Wilson's, Yellow and Common Yellow-throats, I could find no other warblers or anything else unusual.

I was about to move on to the campground when a drab fly-catching bird swooped out from the willows along the creek. Like other regular resident and migrating empidonax flycatchers to this area, it nervously twitched its tail upwards and was fairly drab with two clear wing bars on each wing. The very indistinct eye ring, white throat, entirely orange lower mandible, and "whit" call note identified it as a Willow Flycatcher - a species I had seen in the spring in Kern County but a new one for my county green year list. As I moved away from the Willow, I saw a bird come out of the cover and up into an open branch up on the slope. Its bright yellow chest was clear to my naked eye and when I looked with binoculars this warbler had a streaked back, yellow chest, throat and face except for a large dark triangular ear patch and bright white wing bars. This Blackburnian Warbler almost glowed in the morning light.  Unfortunately, it flew off before I could get my camera on it.

 I also was fortunate to see the rare Cuban Gull depicted below (the cigar is the diagnostic mark) (actually it appeared to be some hybrid gull holding a stick for some unknown reason).  

After the Blackburnian, I checked the area around the ranger headquarters and the campground with only the usual western migrants before pedalling back home for lunch. In the afternoon I biked over to Chorro Creek and the campground at Morro Bay Sate Park. In the back of the campground, in the pines and nearby trees at the amphitheater and ranger residences, there was a large flock with the usual Townsend's and Yellow Warblers as well as a number of Western Tanagers - nice birds but nothing unusual.

On Sunday, the 12th, I again went through Pecho Willows, which was quiet except for a "chink" call note from the bay side where there are channels of standing water and fairly dense cover. My dog and I crashed through the thick vegetation in search of the bird that made this familiar call note, excited because it would be a good green year bird for me. I finally saw a bird bouncing its butt up and down as it walked along the mud. I could see the light eyebrow and dark streaks below on this waterthrush. Given how much more common they are (than Louisiana), and given the date (Louisianas tend to be earlier) I assumed it was a Northern. I had seen this rare species at this same location a few years prior. This was confirmed when I could find no buffy wash on the flanks and the eye line was not bright white behind the eye. Still, Northern Waterthrush  was a new green year bird!

On September 18 and 19, I again checked all of the local spots I had checked on the prior weekend, as well as Lower Hazard Canyon and Turri Road. My best find was a Hermit Warbler in a flock in Morro Bay State Park. It was feeding in a tall pine - showing off its bright yellow face. No one else was finding much along the coast in our county on this weekend either! So, I was reduced to taking photos of flowers like these alien Nasturtiums shown below. Allen's Hummingbirds like them and they are edible as well as attractive, so they aren't all bad.

I knew things would have to pick up the following weekend, but I was gone to northern California for my High School reunion (see my blog on that trip). I called birder friends Saturday night and found out I had missed an Eastern Phoebe along Turri Road (just north of Los Osos), a Tropical Kingbird in Los Osos and a Clay-colored Sparrow at Islay Creek mouth (all new green year birds!).  I got back home at about 1 AM on Sunday morning and was back on my bike at 7 AM, chasing after the phoebe. I did not find the phoebe (or later on four other occasions during the period when it was sporadically seen). Fortunately, I had better luck at Montana de Oro State Park where I found another Tropical Kingbird (pictured above)at Islay Creek mouth. It practically landed on my head at one point and I had to back off to get a photo. I also saw a dull colored young male Indigo Bunting. Both new for the year list. I could not find the Clay-colored Sparrow seen there the day before, but found one (the same?) about a half mile inland along the creek (photographed below by Roger Zachary). It posed for us before disappearing into the bush.

I returned home on my bike and walked over to Pecho Willows where a young female American Redstart (pictured left) was hyperactively swooping from branch to branch, spreading its tail and occasionally calling with a rich single note. This was not a new bird but I am always entertained by their habits when they show up locally.

On the 29th I was walking Nike on her daily walk through Pecho Willows, when a different warbler suddenly appeared in the middle of the grove, where local birders and kids had made trails. The white patches on either side of the otherwise dark tail immediately tipped me off on its ID. As I followed it I saw bright yellow underparts, dark streaks on the sides, a gray head with an eye ring, and white wing bars on the gray wings of this Magnolia Warbler. It was an exciting find, but a little frustrating because, as soon as I had it ID'd, I barely had time to call some other local birders and get off to work since it was a Wednesday. I never did get decent photos of it although it stayed around for over a week and others got great photos.

Two days later, visiting birder Dick Norton was after the Magnolia Warbler and also found an Orchard Oriole on the back (coastal) side of the willows which I seldom birded. I looked for it late Saturday afternoon, October 1. As soon as I had seen the Magnolia Warbler I got a call from local birder Mike Stiles. I thought, 'Oh crap, where does he have a good bird that I will have to pedal over to try and find before dark?' "Where are you Mike?," I said, dreading the answer. "I'm at Pecho Willows." "What do you have?," I said relieved at his answer. "I think I'm looking at a Yellow-throated Warbler - a life bird!" Adrenalin was pumping. "Well, I'm at Pecho Willows too - don't lose that bird, it's a new county bird for me! Where exactly are you?" "I'm at the back, looking up into a pine tree where the bird is! "I'll be right there," I said, already running with my dog the less than 100 feet to where Mike was. "It was right here a second ago", said Mike, trying to sound hopeful. 'Oh s--t, not again!,' I thought to myself, since I had barely missed this bird in the county by seconds at Oceano years earlier and when you have seen over 400 species in the county, new ones are hard to come by! "I don't see it now, but it was up inside this pine," offered Mike as I looked discouraged.  I tried to get my dog Nike to lie down so she wasn't making noise, but she was excited because I was excited and she didn't want to lie down.  Mike and I both looked for awhile and finally we relocated the bird in the same pine tree, where it fed inside as we looked up from right beneath it. We had very close looks, but due to the low light inside the thick pine I could not get any identifiable photos within the tree. I decided to wait outside the tree for it to pop out and I got the photo here in the fading light.

The next morning I returned and got photos of the Orchard Oriole (pictured). The young Orchard Oriole is a tough ID for me here as they are frequently not calling and in plumage very similar to a Hooded (our local breeder). The more eastern Orchard is smaller and shorter tailed - a quick look from a distance and it might briefly seem like a large Yellow Warbler which I have never thought of a Hooded. The yellow in the underparts seems warmer yellow (less greenish) on the Orchard than a Hooded. The bill is smaller but young Hoodeds can have smaller bills than adults (not as small as an Orchard though).

My time for the following weekend (October 10 and 11) was fairly committed - to birding, but not cycling after rarities. On Saturday I was leading a morning walk in the Elfin Forest for a local land preservation non-profit group ("SWAP") and Sunday was the "Big Sit" (all day at that same location.) I cycled the 2 1/2 miles to the Elfin Forest for the field trip which had 70 species but nothing new. I got no birding phone calls, so I spent the rest of Saturday at home.

The Elfin Forest Big Sit, on Sunday, lasted all day and I was there for most of it. I did take a brief break at about 11:00 AM for a nearby Mountain Plover that had been found by one of the counters on her way home. I sprinted on my bike the mile to the plover (a new BIGBY bird if I could find it). Fortunately, Kaaren (who had found it) and Brad were still looking at it.  It was in and out of cover, but after about ten minutes I saw this very light largish plover well. I could not get a photo as it was too far and on the other side of a large flock of peeps, so I hurried back to the "sit".

At around noon I got a call from a friend from Santa Barbara who was birding at the end of my street. He had a Canada Warbler! I asked the other big sitters if they would mind if I took a break and zipped home for awhile. I went straight for Pecho Willows and some other local listers met me there, but no Canada Warbler. After about an hour of searching I "threw in the towel" and pedalled back to the Elfin Forest, knowing other birders would see the bird while I was away. (They didn't and the next day was a holiday!) One of the last species added for the big sit was chasing terns out in the bay - a Parasitic Jaeger. This was the second BIGBY bird of the day and one I had missed before despite numerous hours spent scoping the ocean this fall! (The sit ended up with 101 species, but that is the topic of another post.)

On Monday (Columbus Day, or Indigenous People's Day in Berkeley) several of us re-found the Canada Warbler at Pecho Willows. It was a beautiful gray backed warbler with bright yellow underparts, a dark necklace of streaks across the chest, and a yellow eye ring. An American Redstart and a Black-and-white Warbler were there also (see photos above and below).

After seeing the Canada, I did some more local birding at Montana de Oro, where I ran into local bird photographer, Dave Keeling. He and I both showed up at Islay Creek mouth, where it was very quiet birdwise. (I had passed Bill Bouton on the way up the hill to the park. He had warned me that it was dead at the beach and the campground, but since I was most of the way up the hill I decided to keep going.)  Dave and I went up to the campground which was, surprisingly, very birdy. First, there was a flock along the creek near the ranch house. Besides bushtits, it had several warblers including a Nashville Warbler and several vireos including one that was quite gray. I initially called it a Plumbeous Vireo, then decided it was likely a more common Cassin's due to some yellow on the flanks (I had already called some local birders!) Looking at photos by Dave and finding out that Plumbeous Vireos can have some yellow in the flanks, I later decided it was a Plumbeous Vireo due to the uniform grayish back, nape and crown, the bright white wingbars, the gray sides and the large bill which showed in the photos (this was a year county bird for me!). Walking further into the campground there was another flock and the first woodpecker we saw was the Red-naped Sapsucker shown here (green year species # 305). Nearby, were the two Chipping Sparrows shown below, displaying their gray rumps in the sun - making identification easier for this new county year bird for me. I finally headed home for lunch and went into town for a half day of work.

I have established a habit of birding first thing almost every morning with my dog when we walk from our house a couple of blocks to the edge of the bay. We then walk along the bay to Pecho Willows and back home. It is a great way to unwind before a day of work and occasionally I find a good bird. On Monday the 18th I was checking godwits, willets and other shorebirds scattered along the edge of the bay, when I found a lone plover sitting in the low vegation - away from the mud where the other shorebirds were feeding. The amount of contrast in the patterning in the face and a smaller bill made me take out my camera and get closer. I saw that the primaries extended beyond the tip of the tail and was about to snap a photo when it flushed, showing no white rump and no black axillaries of a Black-bellied. It was not golden colored like most Pacific Golden Plovers in the fall and not as delicately built. This American Golden Plover was a new BIGBY bird.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Hurts So Good

On Saturday,8/28, I rode up the coast to Old Creek, but there was little on the beach there or between there and home - people and dogs had already scared everything away.  I returned home and after lunch, I decided to do something to get away from the crowds and see if I might find something new. So, I rode my bike a mile out to Montana de Oro State Park and locked it to a gate at the start of a sand trail (old Army Road) out to the beach and the start of the sand spit which runs north between Morro Bay and the Pacific Ocean. (This stretch of sand is only accessible by a long run, hike, horseback ride or by boat.) I had my running shoes and shorts along with a fanny pack holding my binocs. I was set to run the 2k out to the beach and a couple of kilometers along the beach to look for shorebirds, gulls and jaegers.

As I ran along the sandy shore north toward imposing Morro Rock, the birding got better the farther I ran north. I went beyond where I had planned to turn around (I figured I could walk back if I got too tired) and checked the scattered shorebirds and gulls. Then I stopped in my tracks as I spotted a godwit which was noticeably smaller, shorter legged and smaller billed than the Marbled Godwits with it. I knew what I probably had, but wanted to see the bird in flight before I decided for sure that I had found the county's first Bar-tailed Godwit. Sure enough, as the bird flew it had a light rump, a nicely barred tail and was grayer than the Marbleds.

I did not have my camera or my cell phone! I ran back down the beach to try and find someone. After a couple of kilometers, I found a person, but he did not want to let me use his cell phone. I continued to run back to my bike, packed and rode home where I got the word out. (I was hurting from my sand workout, but adrenalin had gotten me home fairly fast.) A group went out to re find the Bar-tailed later that afternoon, but I was too tired to join them. This group, including expert birders Brad Schram, Brian Daniels and Jon Dunn, did re find the bird and took photos. I could now definitely count BIGBY Bird # 290!

I went out the next morning with a bunch of birders who could not go out the night before, to try and re-find the bird. Despite walking out to the spit and all the way to the breakwater (over 6k one way along the beach) we saw no Bar-tailed. We did see about 200 Semipalmated Plovers, 30-40 Snowy Plovers, several hundred Sanderlings, a Ruddy Turnstone, 2 Black Turnstones,and 2 Baird's Sandpipers (BIGBY # 291). We saw some big flocks of terns, pelicans, gulls, and shearwaters birds off shore, but could find no jaegers. In all, we walked about ten miles in the sand. My legs were shot and I was sore for a couple of days after these two days of running and walking in the sand.

Two days later Bill Bouton (his beautiful photo of the Bar-tailed is to the left) and Marlin Harms re-found the Bar-tailed near where it had been originally found, but closer to the trail head! Maybe I will go out again to see if I can photograph the bird now that the soreness is almost gone.
(I later returned, but so did the fog. I re-found the bird with several other birders, but the fog was so thick that my photos were terrible.)

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Challenge Night

Wednesday night is "challenge night" for squash at the gym in San Luis Obispo, where I work out. Squash players can play against any other squash players between 5 and 8 PM. This last Wednesday, 8/25, I was trying to get out of the office so I could drive over to the gym to play; I was looking forward to playing since I had been out with a torn calf muscle for a couple of months.

Then, at about 5:30, I got a call from Kaaren Perry. She had found a White-winged Dove in her backyard in Morro Bay. This was a species I had missed on two trips to Pismo and a couple of searches in Los Osos for reported individuals. Do I go after the bird (was there enough daylight to drive home, change, ride to Morro Bay, find the bird, and ride back home?) or do I hope it sticks around and go to the gym to play squash and lift? I figured if I left work right away and drove home I would have about 20 - 30 minutes to find the bird and still make it home before dark. "Challenge Night" developed a new meaning for me that evening!

By the time I got home and ready for my ride it was almost 6:15; I couldn't stop at all to see if there were any shorebirds on the way there since it was about a 30 minute ride and it was getting dark at about 7:45. I got to Kaaren's neighborhood in about 25 minutes and looked around for doves in trees and on wires. For some reason, the White-wingeds that stray north to this area hang out with Eurasian Collared Doves (not Mourning Doves) and often sit on wires or perch in large eucs. or pine trees. I was hoping I found the bird before it bedded down for the evening in one of the large pine trees in Karen's neighborhood. I had only checked a couple of dove groups when I saw a likely candidate on a wire behind some houses. The light was already fading in the foggy evening and I confirmed the diagnostic white strip on the wing and took a couple of photos in the dwindling light. I couldn't savor the bird for long as the light was going and I still needed 25 minutes to get home! I did meet the people who lived in the house where the dove was perched.  They wondered what I was looking at with my optics.  I showed them the dove and explained its significance and they seemd to be satisfied I wasn't a Peeping Tom. They even said I could climb up onto their roof for a better photo (!), but I declined.  I got home before dark and still had time to go to the gym.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Something Different

On Sunday, Aug. 22, I wanted to try some different birding to turn up some new species for the year. I got up early to cycle over to the trail which winds along the edge of the bluffs, high over the ocean, just north of the Spooner's Cove beach at Montana de Oro State Park. This has been a good place to scope the ocean and it was a nice clear morning with good visibility. I got there and set up my scope by 8 AM. It was quiet birdwise. I stood and searched the visible ocean for birds. There were a few scattered Sooty Shearwaters flying by, flashing their silvery wing linings as they stiffly travelled back and forth, low to the water. A few alcids also passed by, mostly heading south. At least a couple were Common Murres. I also found some Pacific Loons, Red-throated Loons, a Red-necked Phalarope, Surf Scoters and other assorted common species. Then I saw something exciting - a new sighting for the year even if it was not a bird. I saw a big high blow of a whale and saw a very large dark shape on the surface. I watched it in the scope for several minutes and it was not the shape of a Humped Back or Gray Whale. Then I saw it begin to dive - its body kept coming and coming and then a very small dorsal fin and no fluke (tail) showed. It was a huge Blue Whale!!!! I had only seen one once before and this was really exciting! (Birds, what birds?!)

I left after about an hour of sea watching since the birding was a little slow. I went home to pack for kayaking and then cycled over to the Morro Bay State Park Marina to meet Ross Schaefer for some paddling on the bay and hopefully some different species. We were on the lookout for different shorebirds, terns, and herons. The terns were present in number - Caspian, Elegant, Royal, Forster's, and Common. The shorebirds were frustrating as we could not get close to many in the kayak due to the tide. Just as we had almost returned to the marina Ross spotted a grayish looking godwit, but it was such a quick look that we could not definitively say that it was a different species of godwit than the usual Marbled. Common Tern was new for my BIGBY, so it was not a total waste of kayaking and birding.

"It's Where?!"

On August 21, I had sufficiently recovered from my Hawaiian vacation so I decided to work my way up Highway One along the coast to Arroyo Laguna on my bike: checking sandy shorebird spots along the way. I had to start early to beat the summer hoards of tourists and locals with their unleashed canines, all of which scare the shorebirds off the accessible beaches. After quick stops at the nearby ponds at Turri Road, and the mouth of Torro Creek, I stopped at the mouth of Old Creek which disappeared into the sand on the beach at the south end of semi-touristy Cayucos. I had been hoping for Baird's Sandpiper, a usually fairly common migrant in the latter half of August and September. The mouth had shrunk to a pitiful pond with a few peeps and several curlews and Whimbrels. Joining them was the usual loud and obnoxious Killdeer - the one that always seems to take pleasure in flushing rare birds at the drop of a hat (or the raise of binoculars or camera).

Despite the Killdeer's best efforts at getting all the birds agitated upon my arrival, I still found 2 Semipalmated Sandpipers, with Semipalmated Plovers (pictured) and Western and Least Sandpipers. Most years I would be excited by this species, but this season I had already seen several and I still needed Baird's Sandpiper for my BIGBY list. I photographed the Semis and made sure they weren't some rare stint before heading north. I made a couple of quick stops along the way, to look for Ruddy Turnstones - my year's nemesis bird, the one I was convinced everyone was lying about since I had missed reported Ruddies at least 8 times since January 1st. At the first spot - an overlook of the sandy beach just north of the Cayucos pier I counted over 40 Black Turnstones picking through beached kelp. And then the unexpected occurred - I actually found an adult Ruddy Turnstone, just before a person, and its dog owner, flushed it. A new BIGBY species and one I had almost given up on!

I didn't want to stop anymore on the way to San Simeon Beach because in my mind I could see the tourists with their rock-throwing kids scurrying along the edge of the lagoon at San Simeon - scaring every winged creature to oblivion. I rushed up there and locked my bike under the highway bridge and its now mostly empty (I would not have parked my bike there otherwise) Cliff Swallow nests (photo) and got to the lagoon where the tourists were already in force (photo).

I found a few common peeps and my first-of-the-season Northern Pintail (photo). I also saw Snowy Plovers, hiding in footprints in the sand, in a spot they hoped would be less traveled by the weekend warriors. Just as I was leaving the lagoon to eat lunch at the park's parking lot picnic tables, I received a call from fellow Los Osos birder, Mike Stiles, that a nice adult male Chestnut-sided Warbler was in Los Osos at the end of the block where I lived - 31 miles from where I was!

Since warblers migrate at night, and the spot where it was found often holds birds till there is a clear night and they continue their migration, I felt hopeful that the bird would stay and I could re find it. Mike noted that it was even calling, which should make it easy to re find. I stopped at the mouth of Santa Rosa Creek on the way back, to go through the large flocks of gulls and a few shorebirds. I put my Tevas on, to walk the creek to check for migrant land birds. I found nothing unusual and so I headed south only stopping for a couple of cookies at the Cayucos gas station/deli/bakery (not the overpriced yuppie cookie store less than a block to the north).

When I got back to my neighborhood, I went straight to the willows at the end of my street and parked my bike just as I ran into a couple of local birders also looking for the Chestnut-sided. The bird was not calling or otherwise being cooperative so after almost an hour of looking I went home to eat a 3 PM lunch. I walked back to the willows at the end of my street at about 5:30 and finally found the still silent and solitary bird. I snapped a couple of terrible photos including the one here which, if you look closely, shows the chestnut side (really!).

Monday, August 23, 2010

Forgive Me Mother, I Have Sinned

Not only did I break my green birding "vows" for the year during a one week period of birding and hiking by car (Aug. 12 - 18), but I did it in Hawaii (which I reached by airline since I couldn't figure a way to cycle there). I couldn't resist the offer from family to stay with them on Maui and to use airline miles earned on a credit card. Hopefully, Mother Nature will forgive me as I continue my Big Green Big Year, now that I am back home.

One other sacrilege - if I had lived in Hawaii I would have not been a birder as likely as an avid snorkeler, watching fish, turtles and marine mammals ("fisher", "fish watcher",?). In Hawaii, the creatures in the water are a lot more fascinating to me than what is left of the land creatures (since they have been annihilated by rats, mice, pigs, mongooses, habitat loss, alien plants, grazing, avian malaria, etc.)  I love to snorkel there and swim with green turtles, watch incredibly beautiful fish like Moorish Idols, Pennantfish, tangs, and the Pinktail Triggerfish pictured here.

So, I spent 2 days on Oahu and 5 on Maui - hiking, sightseeing, birding, swimming, snorkeling, visiting with family, and photographing. Of all the sights I saw, the fish, turtles and dolphins were the highlights. The Red-tailed Tropicbird pictured was common on the east end of Oahu near Makapuu Point and it was great to see, along with the Red-footed Boobies, Great Frigatebirds and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters there. I had mixed feelings about all the alien bird species which were so numerous everywhere on land - interesting and sometimes beautiful (like the Shama Thrush pictured), but out of place. Somehow, it was OK to see some of my bird friends from the states that had made it there on there own, such as the coot, moorhen and Black-necked Stilt. I saw no native passerines on Oahu and had to hike out of Hosmer Grove on Maui (into Waikamoi Preserve, which is not a very pristine native forest) to see Amakihi, Apapane, Iiwi and Maui Creeper. Additional sea birds showed up on the Hana side of Oahu, such as Black Noddy next to Black Sands Beach and White-tailed Tropicbird on the way there.

The birds paled in comparison to the huge groups of native coral reef fish on Maui: at Black Rock, Molokini, and Lanai. They were fantastic, but they also face threats such as coral damage, pollution, sedimentation, and out of control collecting by those who sell to aquarium owners. Some alien fish have even been introduced!

I'm still tallying up my fish species, but am glad to get back to my local birds. I have resumed my march toward 300 species for my green big year! (for more photos of my trip and other birds see http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1797189452&v=photos .

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Shorebirds Are Back!

The shorebirds are back in full force as their southward "fall" migration is going "great guns". I saw my first adult migrating shorebird (only oystercatchers, Snowy Plover, Killdeer, and maybe Spotted Sandpipers nest near the coast here) on July 4 when some Western Sandpipers stopped at San Simeon Creek Mouth (see the above photo of a defensive postured adult Western from there on 7/18). (Some years the southbound shorebirds arrive as early as the last week in June!) Adult Leasts and other adult shorebirds arrived within days of the first Westerns. (see the photo of an adult Whimbrel and the very rare Double-decker Dowitcher below, taken at Old Creek Mouth on 7/11.) The juveniles start to arrive later, with my first sightings being juvenile Willet and Whimbrel on July 18.

The "fall" shorebird season (which extends into October) started off with a bang. I found an adult Stilt Sandpiper (the bird in the back, behind the adult G. Yellowlegs in the photo above) at Turri Road Ponds (tidal ponds near the edge of Morro Bay estuary) which was only the fourth record for the county. While looking for the Stilt, Bill Bouton and Maggie Smith found an adult Red-necked Stint in a nearby part of the bay on 7/10 - a very rare vagrant for all of California, from Asia/Alaska! When I got the call for the stint, I was sitting on my living room couch, eating chocolate and watching the re-broadcast of the day's Tour de France Stage (I was thinking it would be interesting if each cyclist had to find a set number of bird species before finishing each day's stage. I could hear the announcer Phil Liggett saying, "Alberto Contador may be a great hill climber and time trialist, but he really needs to work on his recognition of bird song if he expects to win the Tour.") I ran to change my clothes, pack the bike and tear on over to the edge of the bay about 3 miles pedal away. As I got there, people were walking slowly away from the location where the bird had been (not a good sign) and shrugging their shoulders. Apparently, a vulture had flushed the bird which disappeared over the bay to the west, just 5 minutes prior! (Expletives deleted!)

Local birder, Kaaren Perry found an adult Pectoral Sandpiper on 7/20 at the same location as the Stilt Sandpiper, called me, and waited for me. This bird was nice enough to be there after another hurried cycle from my house; I only had to go up and look through Kaaren's scope at this bird! I had seen an adult Pectoral in this county once before. (I took the photo to the left of the Pec. from far away and blew it up many times bigger.) Summer early evening high tides were really good for shorebirds at this location and the adjacent part of the bay.

Semipalmated Sandpipers are an unusual shorebird species in California - we see maybe one or two most each year in this county. This shorebird migration produced many around the state, but I was still excited to find one at Oso Flaco Creek Mouth on 7/24. I called other birders about this juvenile (photo left) and learned that while I had one, there were two at San Simeon! (At least I didn't have to cycle over 60 miles to the north to see them for my BIGBY!) There were 15 species of shorebirds at the creek mouth including 2 Wilson's Phalaropes, Snowy Plovers, an out-of-place looking Black Turnstone, and many Semipalmated Plovers. I also saw several Least Terns (yes, I know its not a shorebird) at Oso Flaco Lake, but had problems photographing them in flight as they were too quick. (See my not so sharp photo below)

On 7/25, I again cycled out to the Turri Road Ponds and found a sharp looking juvenile Lesser Yellowlegs, joined by a couple of adult Greater Yellowlegs for comparison and a female Wilson's Phalarope. Also on 7/25, Tom Edell had a Wandering Tattler at Estero Bluffs beach, but I did not have time to cycle there. This was a species that I had missed a number of times already for the year. So, when Kaaren called me at work on 7/26 to tell me that she had two tattlers there, I planned to ride my bike there after work (work certainly gets in the way of birding and other fun). By the time I got home and ready for my ride, however, I only had 2 1/2 hours of daylight left to cycle the 16 miles to the bluffs, park my bike, transfer valuables to my pack, change my shoes and shirt, hike out to the beach, find the bird, and then ride home. With a headwind in parts, it took me a good hour to get to the trailhead for the bluffs trail. Rather than take the time to change and lock my bike, I took my bike out to the beach. (Bikes are prohibited from this trail, but no one else was on the trail and I saw no harm in pedalling out as long as I stayed on the trail.) This gave me the extra time I needed to find a tattler (see the photo below of a tattler that was hiding on the back of a boulder.) It took me 25 minutes to find this bird, so I had to jam back to the highway and then cycle home. I didn't stop on the 16 mile pedal home and barely made it home before dark. I got a new BIGBY species and a good workout.

On 7/31 I headed up the coast to stop at several shorebird spots between Los Osos (where I live) and Villa Creek Mouth (18 miles to the north). My third stop was at Old Creek Mouth, where I ran into Aidan Briggs. He was on all fours in the sand and mud, sneaking up to some peeps for a good picture. I saw that one was a juvenile Semiplamated Sandpiper, the fourth in the county in the last week! I waited and when he was done I looked more carefully at the Semi.(below). He said he would call me if he saw the Red Phalarope he had found down the beach a couple of days earlier. I pedalled north and realized after about four miles that he had left me a message, which indicated that he had re-found the phalarope. I turned around and rushed back to see and photo the bird (below), BIGBY # 285 for 2010. It was tame and I got close photos. I later continued up to Villa Creek where I had another adult Pectoral Sandpiper that would not let me get close enough for a photo. I also hiked Estero Bluffs trail and found a couple of Wandering Tattlers and Spotted Sandpipers that were spotted (usually when I see them they are plain). I had a total of 19 species of shorebirds for the day, but missed Sanderling which would have been number 20.

I have posted a photo to the right of a partially breeding plumage Sandering taken at Villa Creek Mouth on 7/11 because it is in a plumage that could cause an overeager birder to identify it as a Red-necked Stint, or some other rarity, when it is actually a very common local species.

Juvenile Birds

Young birds can be confusing both in the way they look and the way they sound. It makes it much easier to identify them when an adult is nearby, but the lone youngster can sometimes be confusing. I have often chased after a bird sound which I don't recognze just to find that it is a common species, but a young individual. When I see these juveniles, they can be harder to ID or just as obvious as the adults, depending on the species. The young Cliff Swallow (San Simeon Creek, 7/4) and Pygmy Nuthatch (Cambria, 7/4) above are still obvious, but the turkey (Poly Canyon, 7/16) and the White-crowned Sparrow (Morro Rock, 6/20) below might demand a second look before identifying them. It is a fun challenge for me to ID the calls of such young birds.