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:  .

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.