Monday, July 25, 2011

New Walking Year Birds

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Bird Nest Soup

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

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

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

Walking Big Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Bicycle Big Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 29, 2011

What's New in the Neighborhood?

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Sand Spit Re-visited

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

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

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Another Montana de Oro Sate Park Walk

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Birthdays, Bad Weather and Busy at Work

Why can't it always be beautiful weather when I am off work and don't have family or other obligations.  And work is really an inconvenience. I know in this economy I should be glad to have a job, but after over 25 years of working I'm ready to retire!  Well, back to reality and birding on my off time.  I have also recently gone on two trips to L.A. and Santa Barbara for birthday celebrations for relatives and friends.  Most of my birding has been my morning walks in my neighborhood.  At least I live in a beautiful place with many birds!  The Spotted Towhee below is a common bird here, but I was just now able to get a decent photo of one.

The weather here has recently varied between warm spring like weather and cold stormy weather that has dusted the nearby hills with snow twice recently (see the photo in the column to the right). Spring migrants have been arriving such as many of the swallow species.  A young male Bullock's Oriole was in the neighborhood last week, but it is unclear if this was a wintering bird, an early migrant, or? A pair of Allen's Hummingbirds are likely nesting at the end of the street and I will post a photo if I can find their nest.  The waterfowl and shorebirds are still around, but they are starting to go down in number and the White Pelicans are all or mostly gone.  I can still find between 40 and 50 species on a 30 minute walk in the morning, so I can't complain.

I saw a banded Brant on the edge of the bay March 19, with a greenish (apparently faded blue) band on its left leg which read "2TV".  I checked with John Roser, who has monitored Brants in the past, and he found out that this bird was banded in the summer of 1995 near Liverpool Bay on the Beaufort Sea, Northwest Territories.  So, it is over 15 years old.  As it was starting to rain, I took the banding code as an omen and went home to watch "March Madness" (college basketball playoffs) on the television!  College basketball helps to keep my mind off birding when it is raining. The rain also provided an opportunity to update this blog.

Despite the rainy weather, birds continue to migrate through this area.  The Western Kingbird (left) came through my neighborhood on March 20 and stayed a couple of day before moving on.  They nest a few miles inland from where I live on the coast.

On March 25, orioles pushed through the area.  Three bright adult male Bullock's Orioles stopped at the end of my street before moving on.  One of our local breeding Hooded Orioles (adult male) returned to his nesting palm tree down the street from my house on the same date.  I could suddenly hear and see a large influx of Selasaphorus hummingbirds in the neighborhood starting on the 22nd, but I didn't see a male well enough to ID it till the 27th and it was clearly a Rufous with a solid rusty back.  Allen's Hummers had been around for over a month, so I had figured that this recent push was Rufous Hummers.

On April 5,  the weather had been mostly warm for a few days, and the migration continued, albeit slowly.  While walking along the bay, in the morning, a grosbeak called out from a nearby oak.  Sounding like a Black-headed, it finally showed itself flying from the tree - an adult male Black-headed (#255).  Near a friend's house, a tanager was singing repeatedly near the top of a tall cypress tree.  I finally located it when it flew across the street to another tall cypress and landed in the open.  I took the photos here of the molting male Summer Tanager - an early rare migrant to this area (#256).

Walking Montana De Oro State Park

On February 26, it was my birthday and I could not think of anything more fun to do than to take a long walk from home into the local state park to see what I could find on a beautiful day. I started off walking up the park entrance road (Pecho Valley Road) and turned into the park on Army Road, so named because the army shelled this part of the park during WW2. (It was later used as an entrance for off road vehicles!)  With these past abuses of such incredible property a thing of the past, I now was able to walk through a mostly recovered habitat on a soft sand trail.  I played my iPod (with external speakers), trying for Bell's Sage Sparrow (left), but had no responses.  The usual scrub species such as Bushtits, Wrentits, White-crowned Sparrows and California Thrashers were conspicuous.  Just as I was getting to the parking lot for the Sand Spit Road, I heard a Sage Sparrow singing from the slope above; another tick for my walking year list.

From here I hiked up the paved road and back to the paved entrance road.  As I walked farther south into the park I came into the large grove of eucalyptus trees (photo left), which are beautiful but belong in Australia!  The birding is slow amongst such stands of trees here.  I descended the road as it parallels the creek and I heard the double chip of a Pacific Wren (formerly Winter Wren).  I couldn't get this bird to come into view despite some active "pishing", but counted it as another new species for my walking year (see my list of species to the right and below this post).  At lower Hazard Canyon, I took the trail down along the creek and out to the rocky shore.  I hoped to find some of the rocky shore birds that I had not seen for my year yet because of the length of the walk from home (about 3 miles one way).
The habitat along the creek here can be birdy when the sun is shining down into this canyon, but on this day it was slow!  As I came out to the shore, I saw the uplifted layers of marine sediment that form the rocky shore here.  They provide the habitat for birds such as American Oystercatcher, turnstones, Surfbirds, Whimbrel, Spotted Sandpiper and our three species of cormorants.

It was a beautiful blustery day, but where were the rocky shorebirds?  Except for some Pelagic Cormorants, I didn't see many birds as I scrambled over the sometimes slippery rocks (left).  I took many pictures of the rock foundations (below and on my facebook page), but had to go about a mile south before I finally found a Whimbrel, some Black Turnstones and a pair of Black Oystercatchers (all three new for the year).  As for the Surfbirds I expected here, I got skunked.  I almost didn't see Spotted Sandpiper, but did flush one as I returned toward Hazard Canyon.  I always get a kick out of its odd looking stiff shallow wing beats whenever I see this species fly.  I found an adult Glaucous-winged Gull (below) as I walked north and several Harbor Seals (below) which slid off the rocks and into the water when I walked up to take their pictures.  I also saw a Gray Whale spouting offshore, but no pelagic species when I trained my scope onto the ocean on several occasions.

When I got to the end of the rocky shore I kept going north on the sandy beach, toward the trail back to Army Road and the way home. The total walk was about 10 miles.

Walking the Morro Bay Sand Spit

I sometimes run the paved neighborhood road, and then the sandy trail out to the dunes and over to the Morro Bay Sand Spit, but I seldom walk the same route.  On a beautiful Saturday morning, February 5,  my wife joined me for a walk along this route. I strapped my scope and tripod onto my back, and took my binocs and camera for the  6 - 8 mile walk from my house.  I wanted to enjoy a walk with my spouse, and also find some of the sandy beach birds I had not yet seen on my 2011 walking green year, such as Snowy Plover and scoters. From my house it's less than a mile to the sandy trails that wind through the coastal scrub of Montana de Oro State Park. A mixture of lupine, coyote bush, manzanita and other vegetation supports California Thrashers and Quail, White-crowned Sparrows, Wrentits, Bushtits and other permanent residents as well as winter visiting Golden-crowned Sparrows, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers (photo above) and Ruby-crowned Kinglets. I listened and looked for Sage Sparrows that used to  live in this habitat, but discovered none.

After about 30 minute's walk we came to the dunes that separate the coastal scrub flats from the beach. This line of dunes extends the length of the Morro Bay Sandspit that separates the Ocean from the Morro Bay estuary (photo below).  Morro Rock was visible just past the tip of the spit - about four miles away. South of the spit, the dunes run along the beach before gradually diasappearing into the bluff tops that overlook the rocky and sandy shore in most of the park. The way over these dunes is take-your-breath-away and fill-your-shoes-with-sand steep in many places, but we took the now required path that is a less steep route across the dunes and over to the usually cold and windy beach. The vegetation changes and becomes much more sparse on the beach;  low growing ice plant, verbena, sea rocket and other plants prevail in patches above the high tide line. Some were (already? still?) blooming and it was surprisingly warm!

Once we got to the beach shore we did not see many birds. It seemed deserted by the birds. In the winter this usually means dogs, ranger vehicles or a Peregrine Falcon. We saw none of these as we walked north.  Line after line of large breakers flattened out as they neared our footprints in the packed sand. After a mile or so we began to see flocks of Sanderlings feeding along the shore with gulls, and much larger groups of many shorebird species standing in the dry sand. This included a handful of Snowy  Plovers (new year bird) hunkered down into depressions in the sand  and running off, like little furry white tennis balls, if we approached too close. One had colored bands on it's legs (photo below) which indicated that it had been banded at Salinas Sate Beach where it had nested the summer before - over 100 miles to the north of where we were.  The large flocks included Dunlin, Western and Least Sandpipers, Sanderlings and the plovers (photo below).

As we walked farther north we started to see large rafts of scoters on the ocean, in and beyond the waves. Scping fromn the low dunes on the beach, I could identify the common Surf Scoter but wasn't sure about any other scoters.  Then a jet ski came from the north and flushed the scoters.  The White-winged Scoters were now obvious as they flashed there white wing patch, and I counted 14 as they flew by in the flocks of several hundred scoters. Both of the scoters were new for my walking green year.  The White-winged can be difficult to find here, so I was happy with this addition.

On the way back we stopped at a couple of native Chumash (pre-European indiginous people) shell middens (garbage dumps) (photo below) which have discarded shells from long ago meals, cooking stones, bird bones, stone flakes and other pieces. If you are lucky you can find a spear point or other stone utensil.  We didn't see any such points this visit. I stopped to take photos on the walk back, but no additional birds species showed up.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Walking Big Day

The very rainy weather of December gave way to a much drier January. January 22 seemed like a good day to do my first walking big day since the days were too short for a serious cycling big day. After walking Nike along the edge of the bay first thing in the morning (52 species, including the California fanning its tail at the bottom of this post), I figured I would put my scope and tripod in a carrier on my back and walk east and north around the edge of the bay. Hopefully, I would get to the Elfin Forest Overlook at the correct tide for shorebirds, and then go on as time allowed. The Snowy Egret below was feeding along the edge of the bay. They have been quite active lately, and showing the breeding plumes for their upcoming courtship.

After checking Pecho Willows at the end of my street for a second time,  I stopped at several spots along the edge of the bay. The tide was coming in, with a scheduled high tide of 4.47 at 11:53 AM. (closer to 12:30 by the time the high tide got to the bay below the Elfin Forest).  There was still a muddy edge along the bay for shorebirds and herons.  I walked through the first of two local Audubon preserves,  Sweet Springs, where I added some common ducks, shorebirds and a few passerines.  I played my recordings of the two common rails (Virginia and Sora) as well as the possibly extirpated Black Rail. Virginia Rail answered with the "dirty old man laugh."

I took advantage of being on foot and cut across the new addition to Sweet Springs and on the paved road along the bay toward Baywood.  Just before the Baywood Pier,  I stopped to check the gulls where fresh water seeps into the bay.  In with the usual Ring-billed, Western and California Gulls, there was a surprise adult Glaucous-winged Gull (they are less common back in the bay then on the beach and adults are much less common than immatures in this part of California).  Since the tide was well up by now, I decided to head straight for the Elfin Forest.  I tried to pick a route that went by as many stands of pine trees as possible, but the heavy December rains had likely helped to push out unusual land birds including the many Red-breasted Nuthatches that had been here in the fall.

Unfortunately, by the time I got to the Elfin Forest overlook of the bay the tide was too high for shorebirds. I did spot Royal Terns out in the bay, which were intermediate in size between the Caspian and Forster's Terns that were present (closer in size to the Caspians, but with a thinner and less reddish bill and a different crest, as well as missing the large black under the primaries on the Caspians).  I heard a Marsh Wren's scratchy call along the edge of the estuary.  I tried for every imaginable rail here with my recordings, but only Virginia answered. I quickly walked over to the more easterly (inland) overlook, but was still to late for the shorebird masses.  I, therefore, hiked through the pygmy coastal oaks to the east end of the preserve and down to South Bay Boulevard. 

I birded the eastern end of the bay to see the shorebirds that should have been pushed up near the road by the high tide, but very little was present.  I saw the reason for this, as a Peregrine Falcon grinned down at me from his pole-top perch. He gave a characteristic second grin and then flew out to the bay.  I kept walking north along the edge of the bay to get away from the falcon no-fly zone.  After a couple of hundred yards of walking, I approached large flocks of ducks in the ponds and waterways formed by the high tide, and shorebirds on the few dry patches of pickleweed. Two male rusty headed Eurasian Wigeons stood out in the crowds of American Wigeons, Northern Shovelers (new), Green-winged Teal (new for the year) and other ducks (2 Gadwall were new for my year). The flocks of shorebirds  consisted mainly of godwits and willets.

                       I saw the resident flock of Canada Geese out in the bay and one white guy - by size I thought it was likely a Snow Goose. Then all hell broke loose - all the birds flushed, even the geese. I could not imagine that the Peregrine would flush the geese.  I looked up in time to see a third year bald eagle (pictured here) fly by. This was a green year bird for me, as was the goose (which I could positively ID by the black grin patch as it flew by).

After I worked the flocks in the bay with my scope, I walked back south along the bay and then east up Turri Road to check the wetlands, overgrown pasture, and willow riparian habitat which extends east from the bay.  I figured that a quick check might yield Western Bluebird, Western Meadowlark, Horned Lark, Sora, Virginia Rail, White-tailed Kite and Prairie Falcon. The bluebirds (new BIGBY bird) were numerous on the barb wire fence lines, Virginia Rails were many in the proper tule-lined wetlands (along with a couple of year-bird Soras) and the meadowlarks were surprisingly few (new for my BIGBY).  The lark, kite and falcon were absent.  I did enjoy watching a Cooper's Hawk chasing its smaller cousin,  a Sharp-shinned Hawk, for quite a distance before it lost interest (or stamina).  A single Tree Swallow (new for my year) called as it flew overhead, finally landing on a wire ands showing off its deep green back and clean white underparts.

I hurried back to the Elfin Forest preserve to see if I could find new shorebirds for my green year and the tide was at a perfect level. I could not, however, find the wintering Pectoral Sandpiper or the resident Red Knots in amongst the hundreds of shorebirds.  Before too long I had to head home, as I still had about 2 1/2 miles to walk home before it got too dark to bird.  I walked back along the edge of the bay and added Common and Red-throated Loons to my year list.  This California Towhee was spreading out its tail feathers near my house.  I and got back home at around 4:30 with 109 species including 15 new ones for my walking green year from this 10 mile walk.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Leading a Green Field Trip at the 2011 Morro Winter Bay Festival

Although my green big year was over, I wanted to continue to do green birding in 2011, and encourage others to do more green birding (it's nice to have company once in a while).  For both reasons, I approached the Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival organizers about leading a bicycling-birding trip.  After some initial concerns over logistics and liability, they agreed.  I had no idea if participants would sign up for such a trip and I had not led such a trip locally (I did lead one for the Kern Valley Festival the prior spring with low attendance).  I figured that I would design a trip that had minimal miles and hills, but still had a high number of species.  I thought that a 1/2 day trip would be enough for a first time trip like this.

Based on the amount of cycling and birding I had done locally, I had a fair idea where I wanted to go from the Morro Bay Community Center (festival headquarters, below).  My birding buddy, Ross Schaefer, and I got on our bikes and checked out the planned 8 mile route one week prior to the Saturday, January 8 trip.  We had a good time birding for a half day on our bikes, even if the birding was a little slow due to less than optimum tide levels.  We found nothing unusual, but had a fair variety of species - almost 70 species.  The only problems I could see were the really cold and windy conditions at Morro Rock and the time limit, which might severely limit the number of stops on the trip (I would have to limit the stops and not take my scope out every time).  I found out that the trip filled up early, so at least there was interest.

On January 8, I got up early so I could pedal the 30 minute ride from home to meet the participants at the community center before the 7:30 starting time. Although I was early, many of the 8 participants who signed up were not. By the time we got going it was about 8:00 AM.  Lesson # 1 - cycling trips take longer to get going than vehicle trips - plan accordingly.  It turned out to be a friendly and enthusiastic group of beginning to intermediate birders who were on this trip.  All of the group were decent cyclists with only one participant who lagged a bit due to having a bike he was unfamiliar with. When we started with a bright yellow Townsend's Warbler at the community center parking lot, the whole group seemed excited by the bird and I relaxed a bit since it was clear this group would be happy with the usual local birds and I didn't need to be preoccupied with finding rarities or particular target birds.  That was fine by me!

We practically coasted from the center down to Morro Rock where we were greeted by a variety of grebes, loons, gulls and scoters in the harbor mouth.  One of the resident adult Peregrine Falcons glared down at us from its perch up on a spire on this massive basaltic plug (the remains of a no longer active volcano).  A Canyon Wren gave its descending song from the rock and White-throated Swifts gave their grating "chittery" calls from above the rock, but we could not visually find either.  Pelagic Cormorants (some showing their winter white flanks on their otherwise all black body) sat on a large rock next to Morro Rock, where they breed in sheltered spots on its almost vertical face.  Larger Brant's Cormorants flew by occasionally.  Since I had frozen my rear off at the Rock the weekend before, I was relieved that it was warm for this festival trip to the rock.

From the rock we pedaled over to the nearby sandy Morro Creek mouth, where we found a variety of gulls , including Mew Gulls, which were distinguished by their smaller size and unmarked small yellow bill.  An adult male Northern Harrier tipped back and forth as it flew by low to the ground, giving everyone good looks at its silvery gray color and white rump.  It was starting out to be a productive trip, but a little slow to get the group moving.  Lessen # 2 - it takes a long time to get a group of people going at stops on a bicycle birding trip - stops have to be limited and attempts should be made to see some of the birds without getting off the bikes. ( I did not use a long cable I brought along to lock all of the bikes together, but would still bring it in case it was needed on future trips - since some of the birders did not bring a lock.)

From the vicinity of the Rock, we cycled around the edge of the bay, south toward the natural history museum, with a nice stop at the Bayshore Drive overlook of the bay and Grassy Island.  Here we saw a good variety of birds such as Spotted Sandpiper teetering along the shell strewn shore below us, Snowy Egret strolling the bay's edge, many shorebird species farther out on a tidally exposed sandy island and our second Osprey of the day perched on a mast.  The tide was better today (not too high or too low, just right) and many of the species were concentrated in a few areas.  When leading this cycling bird trip, I had to think about keeping the group together as well as where to stop and finding as many birds as possible, but stay on our time schedule.  It kept me preoccupied enough during the trip that I totally forgot to photograph the group despite the fact that my camera bag was strapped to my waist! Lesson # 3 - don't forget to take pictures.

We stopped to scope the bay from the point where the natural history museum is perched.  There are vantage points at this spot whence (I always wanted to use that word) birders can scope the bay to the north and the south.  We added a few more ducks, grebes and shorebirds from this point, but after the late start and the flat tire we were running short on time.  Lesson # 5 - birding with a group by bicycle is like birding in Mexico: itineraries are made to be broken "so go with the flow". At this point, we decided to split up, with one group going back to the community center and one group doing some more birding.

The remaining birders went on tho the Morro Bay State Park Campground where we saw a camouflaged Brown Creeper living up to its name on the trunk of a tall Monterey Pine, among a flock of "butterbutts" (Yellow-rumped Warblers) and other birds such as Downy Woodpecker. I was down to one birder at this point, so we checked some sparrow flocks on the way to the last stop, a small marsh on the way back to the center. We sat and played a rail recordings. Several Virginia Rails answered and one of them came to the edge of the reeds, where we saw it briefly - skulking through the vegetation. Other marsh birds such as Marsh Wren, Song Sparrow (above), Red-winged Blackbird and Lincoln's Sparrow seemed to be excited by the Virginia Rail calls as well.

We then returned to the center. The trip was a little rough around the edges since it was a first time trip. With a few changes next time, including a longer time and earlier start, it should be a smooth and even more enjoyable trip (as long as I have such friendly participants). We ended up with well over 80 species, including some fun sightings - not bad for a field trip by bicycle!

Snowy Egrets Feeding with Ducks, Grebes and Cormorants in Morro Bay

More than just ticking species off,  I like to see bird behavior that is new to me on my daily birding. For example, I have observed Snowy Egrets feeding with two species of ducks as well as cormorants and grebes in Morro Bay.  On 3/1/10, I watched a Snowy Egret feeding with an adult male Red-breasted Merganser (pictured). The merganser fed by swimming below or mostly below the surface of the shallow water and the egret followed it, apparently looking for animals stirred up by the duck. In turn, when the egret stirred up sediment by moving it's foot around, the merganser came over and appeared to be watching for anything brought up by the egret. Both were clearly following the other and feeding off the efforts of the other species (mutualism). I watched this for about ten to fifteen minutes in Cuesta Inlet before walking on.

Cattle Egrets feeding on insects stirred up by cattle is well known, but this was the first I had seen or heard of a Snowy feeding cooperatively with ducks. I did find an article on Little Blue Herons commensaly feeding with White Ibis (The AUK 95: 667-681, October, 1978). Eric Johnson, a friend and former Cal Poly ornithology professor, referred me to an article published in a late '60's ornithological journal (The Auk, Condor, or Wilson's Bulletin) on dozens of egrets and herons feeding with Red-breasted Mergansers in Florida.

On 2/21/10, and again on 3/3/10, I observed a Snowy Egret (the same one?) standing next to a group of Blue-winged Teal (pictured below) at Cuesta Inlet. It was clearly watching for anything it could eat as the teal moved their bills through the sediment both below and slightly above the water level.  It was a low tide both times. The teal appeared to ignore the egret both times I observed the egret feeding next to the teal. It appeared to be a very one way relationship (commensalism) as the egret ate things stirred up by the teal, but it contributed nothing and the teal appeared to be oblivious to the egret's presence as they were concentrating on their feeding in the muck.

On May 23, 2010,  I observed a Snowy Egret feeding with two Double-crested Cormorants. I was at the Audubon Overlook in Los Osos at low tide and numerous birds were feeding in or around the channels of water that snaked through the exposed mudflats at low tide. The Snowy Egret appeared to be following the cormorants as the cormorants swam in the channels. The Snowy would follow on the dry land next to the channel (walking and flying to keep up with the cormorants) and occasionally go into the water after something near the cormorants. There were Great Egrets nearby that were not behaving in this manner. I watched this for about twenty minutes and then I left.  It appeared that the egret benefitted from the cormorants, but I did not see the cormorants follow the egret at all.

On February 11, 2011,  I watched a Western Grebe follow a Snowy Egret around as it stirred up sediment with its feet.  The grebe would watch and occasionally go under water in the direction of the egret, when it was actively moving a foot under water. The grebe was totally submerged or partially so when it was under water in the vicinity of the grebe. This was at Cuesta Inlet in Morro Bay and at a higher than average tide. It went on for about ten minutes and then the Western Grebe stopped following the egret.

On March 14, 2011, I again observed a Double-crested Cormorant and a Snowy Egret interacting. I was on my morning walk along Cuesta Inlet (Morro Bay) when I saw an adult Snowy Egret and an adult Double-crested Cormorant following each other around at low tide in a tidal channel at about 7:45 AM.  The cormorant would swim under water and the Egret would follow.  The egret would stir up sediment with its foot and the cormorant would come over and feed.  They both fed several times during this behavior.  This lasted about ten minutes and then they went their separate ways.

On March 26, 2011, at about 9:30 AM, an adult Snowy Egret was feeding with two female Red-breasted Mergansers in the water near the edge of the main channel from Cuesta-by-the-Sea into the bay. The mergansers and the egret seemed to be following each other around, all three feeding.  After about five minutes the egret flew over to another egret and left the ducks.  After a minute or two of crest raising and flapping of wings by the egrets, the same egret went back to one of the mergansers and they resumed feeding together.  The merganser and the egret started going up a shallower side channel.  It was shallow enough that when the merganser swam under water you could always tell where she was by turbulence on the surface above her.  As the merganser worked further up the channel, the second egret joined them - one egret would feed on either side of the merganser, sometimes snagging fish within inches of the side of the duck.  It looked like the egrets were harassing the duck, but several times when he got away from the egrets the merganser would return to them. The egrets were walking around in the water, but I saw none of the foot shaking feeding technique often used by Snowies.

They all seemed to be doing well at catching fish and two more Snowy Egrets flew in.  Now the merganser was really surrounded as she worked further back in the shallow channel.  The egrets mostly stayed within two feet of the merganser.  The duck seemed to be doing most of the work of stirring up fish from the bottom and then the egrets and the duck would feed.  This went on for about ten minutes, with one of the egrets leaving and the remaining three following the merganser about 50 yards back to the main channel, where the merganser went into deeper water and the joint feeding ended.  All of this observed behavior occurred in a twenty minute period. Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets were in the vicinity, but they were not feeding with the mergansers or any other birds.

On April 5, 2011, Snowy and Great Egrets were out in number near and in Cuesta Inlet of Morro Bay.  Tide was low and egrets and Double-crested Cormorants were feeding in the channels.  Starting at about 7:30 AM I watched three Snowies feeding as they followed three cormorants as they dove and fed while swimming under water in the channel.  This went on for about ten minutes, during which time one cormorant flew off and two egrets continued their pursuit (pictured).  About two hundred yards away, five different Snowies followed a single cormorant as it fed in another channel.  Five nearby Great Egrets did not join the pursuit, although one flew over the cormorants and another Great Egret landed nearby.  So, at least eight Snowies in Morro Bay engage in this type of behavior and Great Blue herons and Great Egrets are in the vicinity during such joint feeding, but they do not appear to join.  I watched for about ten minutes before I had to go.