Sunday, July 9, 2017

Of Black-headed Grosbeaks, Warbling Vireos, Great Blue Herons, and Swainson's Thrushes


All season long, I've been enchanted by the "drunken Robin" arias of our old pal, the Black-headed Grosbeaks, whose vocal emanations euphoniously fill the sweet air with high-pitched whistles and squeaky chips. Roosting and feeding high up in hidden tree tops, whistling away while they work and play, these big-billed birds go after insects, seeds, berries, whatever they can get their beaks on, whenever and wherever the pickings are ripe. Currently, they seem to be feasting in the rich sylvan and riparian environs of  the Tilden Nature Area, a gem of the East Bay Regional Park District system of urban/wild parklands.

I tend to associate sightings of these birds with Springtime, not the middle of summer. (Not that I even see them all that often.) Well, birds are known to come and go at their whim, depending on so many factors, influenced by so many variables - it must make their tiny heads spin. Luckily, their bird brains have devised very successful survival strategies spanning unfathomable millions of years, going back to the dinosaurs, who, actually, did not die out as commonly presumed, but evolved into - you guessed it: BIRDS!

Well, as luck and timing, and circumstance and forbearance, would have it, the black-headed birds have eluded me this season . . . until just the other day.

Moments before, I had honed in on my first Warbling Vireo in two years, obsessed with a playful pair darting in and out of a clump of fragrant bushes springing up on a tiny islet created by Jewel Lake's diminished mid-summer water. Hanging on precarious stems, the handsome birds were in seed heaven sampling the bounty at hand - competing with a bold trio of Lesser Goldfinches and a whirling dervish of an adept insect-snatching Black Phoebe. With the characteristic white stripe above the eye, and a distinctive song and call set, the Vireos are otherwise drab in appearance, but I get excited every time I see one, because (in my estimation) the birds are noteworthy for their occult and furtive ways. Except, of course, when they're not shy to show themselves. But even then, I'd be lucky to snap a decent photo.

As I was delighting in watching the pair, I heard a ruckus in a nearby tree, looked up and instantly was rewarded with prime views of two low foraging Black-heads! A couple of males only, no female in sight, these boys meant business as they scrounged for caterpillars and cicadas and mantises and who knows what all from their tree top domain. They hung around for a minute or so, then vanished into the thick forest surrounding Jewel Lake. With its towering trees, bountiful canopy and dense understory, the birds have so much cover in which to hide and stay out of sight from anyone or thing intending to do them harm. Now, who would that be? Probably that little Kestrel that just flew by!

WHIZZZZIP! First time I've spotted a Kestrel at Jewel Lake! What evanescent beauty, this supreme hunting machine!

In our protected nature preserve on the doorstep of Berkeley, California, birds often are comfortable enough to just hang out in plain sight, like that Great Blue Heron across the way I spotted flying in. Attracted to the deep watery reflections from the other side of Jewel Lake, I was headed over that way and nearly botched the whole thing before stopping suddenly, a few feet away, to admire the Heron, ensconced at lake's edge amid psychedelic rippling patterns, frozen solid in a crouch stance, elongated neck curled and resting on the wide body, intense, beady eye fixed on something in the water. Eventually, tiring of his motionless stance, or unfavorable prospects, he unfurled his body, flapped his big wings and flew off in a straight low trajectory across the lake to gracefully land on an opposite sandbar to test the waters there for some - grub?

And then there's the Swainson's Thrush I first heard, then espied, in Wildcat Gorge early one morning last week. I think it was my first ever sighting of the pretty avian songster. The Gorge area is a hot zone for spotting all the rarish birds you don't normally see: Golden-crowned Kinglets, the Grosbeaks, Wilson's Warblers, Varied Thrushes, and now, finally, at long last, the Swainson's Thrush. What a vocal little creature just absolutely singing his heart out to draw attention from a suitable mate. Or maybe the little guy was just singing to unleash to the world his sweet, melodic madrigal of pure love and joy.

If you're looking for a quick, quiet get-away in the Berkeley Hills, you'll find it in the Tilden Nature Area. Here, in a pristine ecological setting, simple but stunning beauty disguises itself in pedestrian scenes, and small miracles abound but remain hidden in plain sight. I'm always adding to the many blessings counted apart from the birds to add to my ever growing Life List.

Bonus Footage:

Great Blue Heron

Warbling Vireo

Swainson's Thrush

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