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.