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.