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.