Thursday, November 1, 2012

Of First Sightings and Life Lists Compiled of the Feathered Flitterati

In the spirit of childlike exploration and sans souci discovery, you set off hoping to spot a particularly elusive species. Nothing like the obnoxiously competitive birders in The Big Year of course - your grandest ambition is just to spot a few colorful birds, bring them up close and personal in your fancy new Trailblazer binoculars, see what you can see. That alone is motivation enough to unplug and hoof on over to the local park.

To be occasionally rewarded with a first sighting - an unequivocally identified genus and verifiably named species of a wild bird - is indeed a singular experience. But who would ever think to get excited about such a thing? Well, a birder. But who among you bird watches? Okay, some of you, but still, you have to admit that this business of first sightings is truly exciting, so stick with me.

But which bird? From whence did it manifest into this realm? What is it doing? From a human’s limited perspective, it is, after all, just a little old bird, an insignificant, barely noticed, hardly appreciated little creature, you hope not, a flighty little fellow so adept at camouflage and aerial legerdemain that heretofore he has remained unseen and completely off your radar. So when you begin to get interested in knowing who’s who in the bird universe, what’s what in avian parlance, seeing a particular little guy for a first time incites a sort of fervid glee, an ineffably marvelous sense that the world abounds in mysteries you never dreamed of. All over a little old bird. You want to shout it to the world – and you can, thanks to “YouTwitFace” – letting everyone know instantly about your uber-cool first sighting. But who really gives a bird turd?
In the forested city parks of Codornices and Live Oak, birds come and go, go and come, appear and disappear, and you’re hoping to see a familiar figure or hear a cheery chirp you recognize as - ??. Because you’re in the right place at the right time, and because you’re paying attention - voilĂ ! - your reward is a first sighting of a wonderful little Vireo, Wren or Warbler. Or Woodpecker, Flycatcher or Hummingbird. Or Nuthatch, Swallow or Shrike. (You wish.) Lately, you’ve been fortunate to catalog a number of first sightings to augment your Life List, an unattainable compendium of verified sightings of every single bird species on earth. Not to mention, the “rules” for qualifying a first sighting are stringent – no double ticking on gender differences, color morph variations, or subspecies. It gets even more complicated, but you always certainly know when you’ve spotted a bird for the first time – there is no feeling quite like the elation that overcomes you with the knowledge that the world just got a bit more interesting by the bird’s real, palpable presence in your consciousness.
Let’s break it down a bit by the numbers. There are an estimated 100,000,000,000 as in one-hundred billion birds, with total species numbering 10,000 worldwide, and about 925 seen in the United States and Canada. For Life List compilers, spotting half of that number would qualify as an outstanding achievement. The very best most fanatic birders in the US and Canada (an elite few) have fallen short by 150. In my lifetime, I’d be lucky to spot two or three hundred – I’d say I’m at about 100 now. But my list, currently being compiled in a somewhat organized, scientific fashion in an Excel spreadsheet, is growing by the month. Depending on breeding, migratory, and other habits, preferences, vagaries and vicissitudes, hundreds of different species come and go, pass through, do their brief thing, and then are gone. The window to spot some real gems and up your Life List count with a bounty of fly-by-night exotics, is tight. In the Berkeley Hills alone, in the extensive Monterey Pine groves off Inspiration Point, how many Band-tailed Pigeons, Great Horned and Northern Saw-whet Owls, Olive-sided Flycatchers, Violet-green Swallows, Pygmy nuthatches, Brown Creeper, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Swainson’s Thrushes, Orange-crowned and MacGillivray’s Warblers, Western Tanagers (!), Red Crossbill (!) and Black-headed and Evening (!!) Grosbeaks have I missed!?
Making up for lost time, in the past few months, my Life List has expanded to include a number of what are referred to as Code 1 species – relatively common and easy to sight, which makes it all the more remarkable that they continue to remain so elusive:
White-breasted Nuthatch - spotted on public utility watershed land near San Pablo Creek, high atop a centuries old oak tree.
Winter Wren - spotted in the Tilden / Berkeley Hills, in thick brush near the famous lone Monterey Pine that stands sentinel below Wildcat Peak and can be seen from the bridge coming across from San Francisco.
Yellow-rumped Warbler - spotted once before in side yard 100-year old Interior Live Oak, but last week, up in the Tilden / Berkeley Hills, at about 1100 ft. in a favorite place with long distance views of Mount Diablo on one side and Mount Tamalpais and the San Francisco skyline and bay on the other, a ton of them were feeding and playing in the brush and trees (along with a ton of Western Bluebirds, a Red-breasted Nuthatch, some Chestnut-backed Chickadees, and some other Warblers – perhaps gender variants – I couldn’t name). Sweet little rumps!
Cedar Waxwing - spotted a pair of the distinctive birds in a red berry tree in my neighbor’s yard – exotic-looking with a pretty wavy crest and red wing patch. Of all my first sightings, this one was most surprising, for surely I would have seen one at some point in my life, even my pre-ornithological interests. A very exotic looking guy.
Bewick’s Wren - In Codornices Park, a multi-tiered waterfall flows through a beautiful Redwood Canyon. I spotted Ms. Bewick hopping about in thick ground cover brush, occasionally pausing long enough between skittering antics for me to get a bead on the face and signature white stripes above each eye. A very cute little sucker.
Lapis Lazuli - I wrote about my first sighting of this beautiful, exotic bird (not really, but tough as hell to nail down) in my July post, “A Bonanza of Birds. . .”
Varied Thrush - A very interesting first sighting near a parking lot at the Botanical Gardens off South Park Road in the Berkeley Hills. A group was photographing and observing, so I stopped my bike and asked what the big deal was – a pair of showy thrushes staking their claim in a small preserved patch of woodland at an intersection of two roads and a golf course. Pretty little things, they’ve moved on by now.

White-crowned Sparrow - November 4, spotted in high coastal hills above Muir Beach, Marin County. Amazing to have never seen this little guy before in my life. Or maybe I have always seen this bird, but never was truly paying attention, which helps to explain their invisibility.

Photos belong to the WikiCommons. Thank you Universe for their usage!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Leisurely Birding in the Meadows and Riparian Corridors of Briones Park

With a car on hand, and a couple of hours to spare, we decide to head to a place I call Brionesland, about 30 minutes away down winding Wildcat Canyon Road in the Berkeley Hills, and then five more winding miles up Bear Creek Road. (Read all about it in a post from 2007 @

At Briones, you can always be assured of seeing deer, coyote, the occasional bobcat, and once, the only mountain lion I have ever seen in the wild. (Read all about it!) Also, birds of all kind abound in the thistly meadows and riparian corridors, with their lush understory and sheltering canopy of many varieties of trees. Raptors and vultures ply the cerulean skies.

Bear Creek Loop is an easy trail that takes us through shaded forest of curveous bay, stout madrone and green acorn bearing oak trees. Occasional openings afford excellent bird habitat to witness the comings and goings, hoots and calls, of sparrows, warblers, vireos, chickadees, hawks and turkeys. Lots of poison oak in through here, too, fading to crimson and adding an autumal quality to things. Bear Creek itself, the major artery which contributes to the impoundment of Briones Reservor, is not even a trickle at this rainless time of year, yet a patch here and there of water remains - a life-sustaining gift, these important drinking holes for thirsty residents and passers-by.

After a leisurely mile of hiking, with some pushing uphill, we come to the tinderbox dry meadows of Homestead Valley. This area, where Seaborg Trail splits off from Crescent Ridge Trail, is open range. Tons of yellow starthistle grows in these parts - the bane of park ecologists - but the pernicious non-native weed also provides a highly nutritious food source to sustain large populations of several different species of birds. During a  half-hour observation period, I reel in dozens of Western Bluebirds flitting about and feeding, as well as Song Sparrows and Lincoln's Sparrows, Purple Finches, immature female Yellow Warblers, and a creme de la creme sighting of a resplendent breeding female taking up perch on a dead thistle two inches away from a breathtaking specimen of Sialia mexicana spotting up on the same weed. The contrast of a bright yellow, 4-inch Warbler matched against the indigo-orange vestment of the 7-inch sleeker bluebird is remarkable for its brilliance of color on display as well as unlikely juxtaposition of two disparate birds. Too bad I'm not equipped for some professional up close photography. Oh, well, this one's a keeper in my forever imagination.

Up a steep hill we climb, surprised at the sun's heat, now fully exposed on the slope at a  hot 4 pm, with a patch of shade every so often from a lone tree, until we finally make the crest, where we sit down under a copse of oak trees and take in the view. The Briones hills are, par excellence, stunning in their voluptuous unendingness. Brionesland is truly an amazing wild natural area, considering that on all sides the park is surrounded by industry, residential sprawl, and highways. It's large and deep enough to make you forget every last bit of it. Thank Heavens, for these preserved 6,000 acres of bounty and beauty!

Retracing our steps to the staging area, we dilly-dally for another twenty minutes in the expansive meadow, hoping to spot a tanager or bunting, but no such luck. A couple of cluckety old Wild Toms emerge from nearby underbrush and scurry across for shelter on the other side. A hawk swoops low. Many bluebirds, warblers, and an occasional Black Phoebe. It's hard to pull away from the show, but the sun is getting low, and it's time to go.

At the car, I find excuses to delay getting in and driving away. Someone once said, near the parking areas is where you'll find all the birds. I hear two or three calls I cannot identify. I trace one particularly pretty melody toward the expanse of hills, but it quiets at my approach - the silence is golden in the dying light. Looking about, I lock eyes with a bobcat hiding in tall brown grass, looking down on the parking area. He's skittish at every sound, but sits there patiently for several minutes, letting me observe him unabashedly, before scampering off at the unnerving blare of a baby crying.

And so concludes our beautiful outing in Brionesland, where you can always count on seeing animals in their natural habitats, especially at those right times of day. At Briones, as I write in my post, I’ve seen bobcats. . .raggedy-ass coyotes, a grey fox. I witnessed the noble spectacle of a nine-point antlered buck leading a family of four across a hillside, and once espied a doe and her newly born fawn learning how to walk in a misty morning meadow.  Commonplace sightings of birds include turkey vultures, various hawk species, quail, black birds; I’ve seen kingfisher, golden eagle, and once, a Great Horned Owl; along with a cornucopia of waterfowl and shorebirds -- ducks, egrets, herons, terns, cormorants. I’ve seen baby rattlesnakes curled up like little turds on the trail, and more than one very large Mother Western Diamondback sunning on a rock, and first time ever - California Kingsnake! Newts, frogs, skunk, raccoon, Western pond turtles, and the truly patient and lucky can hope to see the California Tiger Salamander and the Alameda Striped Racer. (I’ve encountered neither.)

Brionesland is one of the richest biotas in the entire Bay Area. For bird lovers, it's a treasuretrove of avian activity. In-the-know birders can espy at various times of the year Osprey, Bald Eagle (I kid you not!), Chipping Sparrow, Lazuli Bunting, Purple Martin, Lawrence Goldfinch, Northern Shrike, Acorn Woodpeckers, and many other common oak-bay bird species too numerous to mention. It can't get much better (is what the birds are thinking). . .

Bird shots from Wiki Commons - thank you!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Of Insignificant But Titillating Espionage of Busy Birds Doing Unseen Things Along “Hidden” Wildcat Creek in the Berkeley Hills

Seems lately all the birds around my neck of the woods have up and fluttered away from their Spring hang-out in the high camouflaged branches of the big 100 year old Interior Live Oak. Apart from mama crow feeding her juvenile minion something red, seedy and pulpy, and sporadic appearances of industrious and at times flirtatious Oak Titmice, the more exotic songbirds that once frequented my urban aviary have flown the coop during these dog days of summer.

Just the other day, though, I happened to catch the juvenile crow napping in the tree with two other crows, presumably the parents, who were also snoozing! They soon woke up, keeping a low-key vigil while the juvenile continued sleeping, holding on fast with clenched talons, adopting a most interesting posture, erect but for his head twisted inward, furrowed deeply in the feathered tuft of his breastplate, giving the appearance of a headless harbinger. At an opportune moment during my on again / off again observation, I happened to catch him waking up and yawning. Wow, seriously, I don’t ever recall seeing a bird yawn before!
If I’m to see birds, I’ve got to go where the birds are. One of my favorite places is nearby Tilden Park (it may be nearby but it’s worlds away), in a protected preserve of streamside habitat, an urban oasis of sheltering riparian woodland. What’s not to like about it, especially if you’re a bird stakin’ claim to this pretty little back stretch of Wildcat Creek - the Berkeley Hills’ perennial stream now flowing like a desert trickle in late summer. Sourcing from deep subterranean natural cisterns, this creek will not dry up. It is a life-sustaining gift. And so throughout the hot hazy summer days, a certain secretive off-trail spot will attract quite a few birds feeding on rich insect life teeming in the air, in the thick tree cover and ample streamside vegetation, and on the water’s surface.
I love this place I call “my secret spot” but all of Wildcat Creek is near and dear to me for its simple beauty of place, humble spirit of being, power of expressive natural rhythms and forces at work (think ten million year old lava flow and cut bedrock stream). I come here to let the gentle flow of water soothe my aching senses; to watch blue and green dragonflies swoon over red damselflies, and lizards doin’ their lounge act, and especially I derive great joy and pleasure from simply watching birds do their thing. Few tread here, amazingly enough. Especially around Lake Anza, Tilden Park is heavily people impacted, but here we have a little back stretch behind the lake where you can spend the whole day and not interact with another human being. Surely I can’t be the only bird watcher to know of this spot – I imagine you’d have to be a bird watcher to hang here, because otherwise, there’s “nothing” to do, “nothing” of any particular interest. Well, my secret spot is just big enough and just comfortable enough to hang out for a while, soak my feet in the chill water of a small basin, and listen to the meditative tinkling of Wildcat’s late summer devotional song of simplicity.
I notice as a pair of – got me! - come to the water’s edge, thinking they’re hidden beneath overhanging foliage. A perfect voyeur moment - two vireos, I believe they are, warily sating their thirst with dainty sips and occasional dips followed by a very cute display of shaking off water. Ever cautious, nearly to the point of paranoia, these two mates conduct efficient business and do not linger very long. Mark it down as today’s dopest sighting!

Whiling away the next enjoyable hour, I spot a pair of Yellow Warblers perched side by side for a fleeting moment; then, a diligent Wilson’s Warbler pops into view suddenly, immodestly baring her crown’s black “tam” if but for a few parsimonious seconds. Willie’s a favorite bird I haven’t seen since I don’t know when. Soon, I’m entertained for minutes by several enterprising Chestnut-backed Chickadees flying acrobatically from tree to tree gathering bits of stringy moss and spider webbing for constructing their nests. And then, not to be outdone, a surprise appearance (to me) of a Red-breasted Nuthatch, an interesting looking, attractive insectivorous bird I’ve seen maybe once or twice before in Live Oak Park down in the flats. And a lovely little Brown Creeper and a Black Phoebe make cameos, which is totally cool and adds to today’s Life’s List Checkoff of the Famous and Not So Famous Flitterati I have known.
We’re not even finished! The usual suspects also chime in with their excitable ruckus - Jays and  Juncos; Anna’s and Rufous Hummingbirds, the latter much rarer (to me) to sight; a couple of crows; and a handsome Spotted Towhee, which at first I can’t name thinking it must be something infinitely more exotic than “just” a Spotted Towhee – but, my, what a pretty bird! No excuses, though, for my ineptness at bird identification, despite John Muir Laws’ reassurances, “Do not worry if you cannot identify a bird. . . .in spite of your best efforts, you may not be able to. . .remember, birds are not always where they should be and do not always look how they should look.” (Trust and verify, I think he’s saying.)
Few places are more inviting for bird watching than Wildcat Creek. Along any number of “secret” stretches of the 11 mile long artery, you will more often than not find your special spot, a secluded nook or off-trail vantage point, where you can catch busy birds in action, engaged in a variety of behaviors and doing their unique thing. It is not far from paradise, if you’re a human. And no doubt for the birds, it’s an edenic haven of survival, a natural refuge for the earth’s freest creatures – free to come and go as they please, to wherever and always to return to roost, feed, mate and frolic.

The 2 bird photos are from the Wiki Commons.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Of Inadvertent & Fortuitous Bird-in-Action Sightings Here & There

Catching birds in the act of doing something is a cool (and highly serendipitous) aspect of watching birds as they engage in their largely undetected but multifarious daily activities. Bird doings. As Ted Floyd writes in his introduction to the Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, "Birds do things. Their behaviors are sophisticated." No small surprise, given they've been around for a hundred million years or so. And, of course, they can do a whole lot more than feather their nests or find a worm in the ground. (Go ahead and try; it's not all that easy to feather one's nest or come up with a subterranean annelid on the spot.) Birds, as Floyd points out, are never "quite ordinary to us." They "inhabit a realm of diversity and complexity, of fecundity and commotion." Birds "sing richly and gloriously, and some birds make astonishing annual migrations." (Try the 40,000 miles logged yearly by the Sooty Shearwater.)

Any and all birds qualify as "never quite ordinary" but some birds seem a bit more exotic, a bit more rare, somehow different from the usual, mostly urban (but never pedestrian) sightings of pigeon / crow / junco / mourning dove / towhee. So when you're graced with the infrequent spectacle of, say, a life and death struggle between a Great Egret and a Corn Snake, or the precision blitztkrieg strike of a Blue Jay taking down a dragonfly, then you know you've been witness to something truly momentous in some small miraculous way. Even so, despite making it look easy, birds must work hard for their efforts. P.D. James acknowledged, "God gives every bird his worm, but He does not throw it into the nest."

How many such moments have you experienced? That instantaneous turning of the head to barely glimpse the Lazuli Bunting or the well-timed stop near the Botanical Garden to join a group of admirers homing in on a somewhat rare passer-by: the Varied Thrush. All of which could just as easily have been missed because your head was turned the other way. . .imagine how many instances of bird behavior are simply not catalogued in the human sphere of cognizance. . .perchance to dream of seeing a Hummingbird hatch out of a Good 'n Plenty shaped little white egg; a mother Hawk feed her fledgling pieces of a hapless snake; a mating dance of excited Warblers; Queen Quail hurriedly ushering her half dozen little charges across an open trail; Wild Toms stalked and killed by hungry coyotes.

Over the years, I've had a few head-turning moments where by felicitous chance I happened to catch birds in action doing their thing - mostly common activities, like hunting, mating, nest building, playing or feeding, but even so, the vast majority of such activity goes unnoticed (even if in plain sight!). . .so to catch one of the wildest, most elusive creatures that nature ever designed - the bird - in the act of swooping down on a vole and bringing it back up or a Seagull swallowing a starfish. . .why, it's a revelation of the magical interconnectedness of the natural world, binding you deeply to its innermost secretive workings. Ecce avis!

Below are some of my favorite sightings ever of birds acting naturally in the San Francisco Bay Area. Each sighting occasioned a unforgettable moment of awe, reverence, giddy joy.

Osprey: seen flying away clutching an 8 inch long fish in talons, on Coast Trail, Pt. Reyes National Seashore. Another time saw her swoop down to grab a fish victoriously, Alpine Lake, Marin Municipal Water District. Fun Fact: will completely submerge in the water during dive bomb for fish and still be able to come away with a prized canape.

Great Egret: seen flying off with a 3 ft. long snake clamped in her mouth, at marsh near Pacific coast, Steep Ravine, Marin County. Fun Fact: they can live over 20 years.

Great Horned Owl: spotted on four occasions barrelling through overhead: once in a backwater on Bear Valley Trail, Pt. Reyes National Seashore; once careening away into thick woods at Briones Regional Park; another time in a secluded woodland area of Wildcat Creek Canyon; and another time at Tennessee Valley in the Marin Headlands roosting in the hollow of a large Eucalyptus tree branch. Fun Fact: they are known to eat scorpions, rattlesnakes and - gulp! - skunks! Also, those "horns" are not ears or horns, but tufts of feathers called Plumicorns.

Bald Eagle: ecstatically spotted on two separate occasions for a few brief moments soaring the skies over water district land while hiking Sea View Trail in Tilden Regional Park, and over a different area of water district land while hiking McDonald Trail in Anthony Chabot Regional Park. Bald eagles, while having bounced back nicely from the brink of near extinction over the past several decades, are still rare in the Bay Area with six total nesting sites. I know of three in the East Bay, two on water district land separated by twenty air miles and the third nesting pair being observed in Chabot Regional Park's forest. Fun Fact: they can live for up to 30 years in the wild, and their reusable nests can weigh up to - get this! - 4,000 pounds!

Seagull: observed swallowing a pink starfish south of the Big Sur coast (admittedly outside of the BerkeleyBackYardBirdBlog's purview) . . .but included here owing to the utter bizarreness of the mastication and ingestion process. How many of you have ever seen a Seagull swallow a starfish? I watched in fascination for twenty minutes while the gull just sort of stood there with the thing in his mouth; then every so often would rotate the spiral armed creature around and around, until it softened up enough, I guess, with gull saliva and enzymes, to enable him to gull-p it down in one fell swoop, but it really looked awkward and painful, and completely untasty, and not worth the effort. But perhaps the Seagull thought differently. Fun Fact: most of the world's Seagulls are born in California.

Golden Eagle: ten minutes of observation as this stealth creature engaged in a demonstration of sheer thrilling acrobatic hunting prowess in the rolling hills of Big Springs Trail in Berkeley's Tilden Regional Park. Fun Fact: they eat tortoises by picking them up and dropping them on rocks.

Belted Kingfisher: numerous sightings at Briones Regional Park, Del Valle reservoir (one of the nesting sites of the Bald Eagle), and little old Jewel Lake in our own little old Tilden Regional Park.
Fun Fact: the only perching bird that dives for its food.

Horned Lark: watched them feeding in a hillside meadow at Briones Regional Park. I had never noticed them before. Fun Fact: they walk instead of hopping!

Brown Creeper: spotted at Codornices and Live Oak Parks in Berkeley. An interesting little guy resembling a sparrow, except with a curved scimitar-like beak to enable easy peckings to get at insects trapped in small crevices in tree bark. The skittery little bird scampers up and down tree trunks and branches like a little wind-up toy. Fun Fact: with wings flattened against the tree trunk, it makes for perfect camouflage against predators.

Sharp-shinned Hawk: observed hanging out on a branch of the 100 year old Interior Live Oak in the side yard. (See prior post.) Fun Fact: often seen chasing down songbirds in urban areas at backyard feeders.

Varied Thrush: seen foraging in a thicket of woods near a parking lot next to the Botanical Garden of the East Bay Regional Park District. Just passin' through for the good pickins. Fun Fact: wandering individuals regularly turn up far from home.

Mute Swan: encountered this regal creature swimming around our canoe in Lake Chabot, attending to and defending her cygnets. Fun Fact: they are considered to be an "ecologically damaging exotic species." Not to mention a bully and a nuisance. (According to who?)

Brewer's Blackbirds: three baby blackbirds and their mama spotted in a dead tree nest living in a hole in the trunk. Mama'd fly off occasionally to snatch up some grub and return to parse it out to three wide open mouths at the hole entrance clamoring for more. Fun Fact: seen in full sunlight, this so-called common bird is "a glossy, almost liquid combination of black, midnight blue, and metallic green."

* With the exception of Seagull soaring angelically, all photos belong to the WikiCommons. Thank you Universe for their usage!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Of Intermittent Sightings of White-tailed Kites in the East Bay Hills

Not long ago, poking around in a back stretch of Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve, fortune rewarded me with a first-ever sighting of a White-tailed Kite ( Elanus leucurus). Make that White-Tailed Kites, as in a nesting pair! What elegant, stealth flying machines they are, possessing an unsurpassed evolutionary competitive edge in hunting prowess and survival skill. Nearly driven to extinction in California in the 1930s and 1940s by an even badder predation machine - the trigger-happy, egg-collecting human - their ranks have rebounded nicely since those days. In California, White-tailed Kites are found in just a handful of specialized habitats, including the San Francisco Bay Area. Actually, this unique accipiter is pretty scarce outside of a small swathe of the world, inclusive of California, stretching from southern Texas to eastern Mexico.

In all my word botchin' days, I've never seen a White-tailed Kite! Fascinating how they seem to preen, almost vainly, surveying their vast domain from the snag of an old tree. I watch their every move from a mere fifty feet away, magnified 10x. For an easy twenty minutes, I watch them engage in all sorts of White-tailed Kite behavior. One of them goes off hunting, disappearing for a few seconds, then returns to deftly circle-hang over the meadow, suspended in the embrace of a thermal updraft, before suddenly drop-diving to snatch up a rodent and bring it triumphantly to the roosting snag and, without regard to her partner, begin to tear it apart and eat it greedily.
From my own perch on a rise of ground above a hidden labyrinth, I can look eastward and see ever-dominant Mt. Diablo, and northeastward to take in Brionesland, and west across the shining bay to Mt. Tamalpais. Behind me is the blown out caldera of a ten million year old volcano – yep, right here in the Berkeley Hills. People – who and when precisely is not known – built several complex circular walkways up in Sibley, as offerings (?), gifts (?), geodetic spiritual markers (?), a magical mystery tour to the center of the cyclone (?). . .

The two kites are gorgeous, specialized hunters, decked out in white chests, black shoulder streaks on gray white plumage, with sharp yellow talons and slanty piercing black eyes. I’m struck by their air of kingly superiority, calm detachment, and utter control over their dominion. The one begins to tear apart her mouse, pecking, jabbing, fiddling with it, dropping a stringy piece of gut and slurping it up like a noodle, then more picking apart in stabs and jabs, more gobbling down, all the while ever vigilant, looking around in head-swiveling 360 degree surveillance, all the while seemingly totally enjoying herself, the one feasting.

Her partner, evidently, is unsated, and goes off searching for his own morsel. He takes off to hunt in the low open country of this small but expansive canyon. I watch as he hovers, balancing with his long fan-shaped tail, as sunlight glints off outspread wings. His death swoop is exhilarating – he disappears for a second then veers back up and heads to the tree snag in an amazing several seconds of inhuman maneuvering to join his mate still licking her chops and ruling the roost.

But I don’t see anything warm, furry and dead in his clutches. Where’s dude’s meal? Before I can answer my own question, I do a double-take through the binoculars as the hawk stretches upward and splays opens his big, plumy breast in a series of flapping histrionics to reveal, like a magician, voila -  a little vole. Did I really just see what I think I saw? Which is him flying back with a rodent stashed in his breast plumage and then unfurling it back on the roost. I’ve not found anything written on the subject, and as such would be an easy thing to refute, especially given my questionable IDing talents. No matter, this is truly a special moment to witness my very first ever White-tailed Kites doing their natural thing.

On another day, I’m exploring the intricacies of a lagoon in the John Muir Nature Area in Briones Regional Park. I love the natural setting and remote feeling of Briones, despite its manifest “ills” –  rude mountain bikers, cows and cow shit galore. In this fenced-in sanctuary, you look east and see the rising bulwark of beloved Mount Diablo, and all around you’re surrounded by big, rolling hills. The lagoon is a seasonal body of water, sometimes full and other times desiccated to a slathering layer of cracked mud. Today, plenty of water attracts teeming frogs and swarms of red-winged blackbirds; splashy ducks and nectar-happy hummingbirds. Up there - can it be? - a White-tailed Kite? Yes, it’s her roosting in the snag of a dead tree. It makes me wonder – is the kite new to the area or am I just now noticing her presence after at least a dozen visits to this very spot.

My other White-Tailed Kite sightings have been in the biotically rich Berkeley Hills. From my 1250 ft. purview atop Wildcat Peak in Tilden Regional Park, I once saw a kite in a pine tree 100 ft. below – a striking white figure against the evergreen. Another time, I watched an elegant specimen patrol over low hills in Wildcat Canyon up on Nimitz Way at the Conlon Trail turn-off. And then there was the time finishing up a bike ride on Wildcat Canyon Road, near the five-junctures, when I just happened to look up and see a beaut circling and swooning. I pulled over to watch that huntress ply her trade for five minutes adjacent a residential area above a small hillock off the busy road.

Such are the unexpected treasures to enjoy and cherish right in your own back yard. But, as my dear ol’ departed dad used to always admonish, “keep your eyeballs peeled” if you expect to see anything.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Bonanza of Birds in Tilden-Wildcat Hills

In the dry hills around Wildcat Peak, about 1150 feet up, I'm guessing, I've found an elevated plateau situated atop a cow dung splattered knoll with fabulous 360 degree views of the Bay Area. I'm surrounded by oak, pine, scrub brush, and big-West views of the twin mountain eyes - Diablo to my right, and Tam to my left.

Into this powerful setting, I unknowingly enter an outburst of heavy bird activity and raucous chatter.  Two hours effortlessly elapse, as I walk round 'n round in circles and note over a dozen different species of birds in this impromptu outdoor aviary. I'm able to identify many of the flittery fluttery flying creatures, but other individuals have me stumped. Even if I know it's a wren or a sparrow or a warbler, that's no longer enough to sate my curiosity. Now, I'm intrigued to know, precisely, which Wren, which Sparrow, and which Warbler it is with whom I am making a most special acquaintance!
Ah, the frustrations of an aspiring, "serious" birder when it comes to reliable IDing. Even the "experts" get stumped and make wrong calls. (Think Ivory-Billed Woodpecker.)  It's because those elusive birds in the bush are often so very difficult to get to know; that is, until you get to know them. Then, they're like old friends almost! Most of the time "in the field" though, you're unprepared. Where's your pen and moleskin and bird book? At least you have the good sense to bring binoculars, which help you home in on a dazzling hummingbird, gazing for a mere fleeting instant at a literal mirage, certain it's not the pedestrian "Anna's" but some other  exotic variety you've never seen before, such as Allen's, but alas you can't be sure because now she's gone like a fart in a hurricane and you'll never remember, you'll never know. That's remedial birding.

Other times, if you're lucky, a previously unseen songbird will come into your ocular purviews for but a few vanishing seconds - as did a very special visitor today - and your job, while simply trying to enjoy the sublime moment, is to keep the details in your head for later IDing. It mostly turns out my IDing skills are deficient. I always have said if I had to give an eye-witness description of a criminal to the police, I'd fail miserably. Seems my bird observation skills, if I'm to plead my case for being a "serious" birder, need to be ratcheted up a notch. And then, apart from physical IDing, what of the musical aspects of their character? As with my shortcomings in visual inspection and reportage, I can't carry a tune in a bucket, either, so aurally trying to figure out which bird is which based on subtle note variation and intricate melodies presents a great challenge. Which I intend to take on. But, then again, once you know a bird's song, it's recognizable as belonging to such-and-such little bird. It's good know who "such and such" is, because ultimately nothing is more of a let down than to spot a newcomer to your Life List and coming up short not knowing precisely which kind of bird you just encountered.

Such avian antics all around on this hot July day, with a plague of grasshoppers scattering about at my every shuffle. The presence of thousands of the insects is part of why so many birds are congregated in this spot about the size of a football field - it's an orgiastic feeding frenzy on the grasshoppers and the abundance of tasty popped out seedlings of thistles, wildflowers and grasses. In response, the birds, being no dummies, are coming out of the proverbial woodwork! (That'd be the trees?)

The excitement of the day surmounts when I happen to espy a never before espied before bird - a six-second glimpse of the notoriously hard to pin down Lazuli Bunting, dancing up and down on rusty strands of barb wire. I'm certifiably stunned. How can it be that I have never before set eyes on this tropical-looking couldn't be more beautiful member of the Cardinal family? This breeding male Lazuli Bunting (Passerina amoena). Wow. Wow. Wow! For two of those seconds, Laz stops to preen and I catch a decent frontal view of bright blue upperparts and red-orange breast, and white wing bars. Then, before you can react, that bird is so gone from your world, so disappeared into his own flighty realm, he might as well have entered a different dimension such are the remote chances that you'll ever be lucky enough to spot a Lazuli Bunting again. Ironic though it may be, as with the "common" kingsnake - so common I've seen a grand total of three in my life! - Laz is considered a "Code 1" specimen, widely distributed and "common". So I guess that explains why in all my countless outdoor experiences over 50 years I've seen so much of Laz! But what an incredible, amazing, astounding, all too ephemeral sighting of a rare bird, Code 1 or no! And, let me tell you, I really want to see that bird again! Against all hope, before setting off, I sit under a tree and face the fence,  visualizing the mythic (in my mind!) bird coming my way again, replaying in my mind's youtube his fugacious flashing vanishing brilliance. But, look, aha! He's back - there he is, playfully jostling on the fence, flitting about on the rusty barb wire strands - for a full ten seconds! An eternity in bird observation-dom. Then off he flies, bouncing up and down in a lilting fluttering ethereal dance, a magical, lithe being of first-rate beauty, skill and stealth.
It is truly a field day for doing nothing but watching our feathered friends. Yeah, I should have hiked farther and harder. But when I found this place, I stopped dead in my tracks. This birding, it's not for everybody, though. You have to strive for zenlike patience, and embrace an ardent, near fanatic, desire to want to understand and know birds. And for what? They're "just" birds, after all. But just wait - you'll find that it can get obsessive. You'll discover it can border on the voyeuristic. You will feel it feeding your escapist propensities so you can simply stop. . .interacting with the human world. . .and begin more fully engaging with the secret, intimate world of birds and nature all around you.

Birds spotted atop knoll near Wildcat Peak, Tilden Regional Park:
* indicates new addition to Life List

Lazuli Bunting*
Spotted dancing on barb wire fence

Cooper's Hawk*
Spotted roosting atop a 75 ft. dead treetop snag

Black-headed Grosbeak*
Spotted in plain view of dozens of Nimitz Way strollers, resting on a branch above the hiking trail near the parking lot of Inspiration Point

European Starlings
"Nuisance" birds nesting heavily in this area

Yellow Warblers
Spotted a pair of them sitting primly on the barbed wire fence, occasionally exchanging positions

Wilson's Warbler
Spotted along Wildcat Gorge Creek Trail, first WW in a long time!

Spotted Towhees
Spotted Towhees here there and everywhere

Black-capped Chickadees (or were they Chestnut-backed Chickadees? Ah-ha, there's the rub!)
Spotted along Wildcat Gorge Creek Trail

Winter or House Wren
Spotted in thick brush, characteristic fan-tail action

Brown Creeper
Spotted along Wildcat Gorge Trail. Up until two months ago, never saw a-one of them, now see them all the time. Explain that.

Spotted 'ol Wild Tom while laying against tree waiting for Laz to show up

Spotted several circlin' the skies, ridin' the currents

Red-tailed Hawk
Spotted in a branch on ride

Anna's Hummingbird
Spotted several of them zipping and spinning about

American Robin

Dark-eyed Juncos

Other types of Juncos (had to have been!)

Unidentified Wrens and Sparrows

* All photos with the exception of the Cooper's Hawk in tree snag and Wild Tom belong to the WikiCommons. Thank you Universe for their usage!

Friday, July 6, 2012

Of Sharp-shinns, Red-shoulders and Harlan's Dark-Morph - Rare Hawk Sightings in Unexpected Places

An impossible encounter in the urban jungle of North Berkeley? Or merely an improbable (near) tete-a-tete? How else to explain a recent sighting of an exquisitely beautiful Sharp-shinned Hawk, adorned in fine white splotched plumage with a sublime orange toned breast, perching there on a branch, statuesque at 11 inches high,  appearing suddenly, alighting like a phantasm in the 100 year old Interior Live Oak gracing the side yard. I'm chagrined to have to run into the house to get my binoculars, but when I return, she's still there, in full view, about twenty yards up and away from me. I watch her every twitch, her every move with rapt(or) attention. She's very attuned - tuned in! - to her surroundings. A car door slams in the distance, and she jerks her little head in slight shock, what passes as verifiable concern. A crow cackles loudly, and she cocks inquisitively. She preens a bit, and hops from one leg to the other before finally settling on a stance that makes her appear to be standing one-legged. She rotates her head at one point and glares at me with fierce yellow eyes. What an interesting and intense bird! The guide book says they're "widespread but thinly distributed," which, echoing the root question, translates into a rare sighting sans encore any time soon. I casually mention the sighting to a neighbor who "yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah-yeahs" it off as though it's an everyday occurrence to spot an elegant Sharp-shinned Hawk in your side yard tree in the city, up close and personal. I can feel the moment slipping away; after what seems like a two-minute interval of intimate observing, she flies off in fine fashion carving a sharply delineated trajectory and demonstrating amazing dexterity and athleticism on her raptorian slingline through a dense maze of tree canopy and foliage lining Codornices Creek in our back forty. Sharp-shinns, you soon find out, are keen urban raptors who prey on the lovely little cosmopolitan songbirds that bring me so much simple joy throughout the day. All that dexterity and athleticism to better wage its shock and awe campaign of terror through the songbirds' boroughs as he swoops in and down in a blitzkreig of hunting prowess in search of several tasty chickadees or bushtits. My feelings toward this powerful top of the food chain bird? (Who eats a Sharp-shinned?) Admiration. Respect. Awe. Wonder. Despite their highly evolved proclivity to stalk and kill small, cute, helpless and innocent songbirds. There are human beings on this planet who stalk and kill endangered songbirds for food purposes as well. I guess there's no second-guessing or wishing away nature's "red in tooth and claw" reality. IIWII. It is what it is.

One recent afternoon, riding in the Berkeley Hills near Inspiration Point in Tilden Regional Park, I pull off for a moment and notice, about ten feet down a little incline, what turns out to be a polymorphic Harlan's Dark-Morph (Western Adult) - a variety of Red-tailed Hawk. At first, I'm thinking - who the heck? This one's an unsual bird, seemingly a bird in distress. Not a whiff of fear or concern about my presence. Even when I approach to within five feet, the dim-witted bird just stands there perched on a skinny branch, stupidly alert but conscious, oddly incapacitated, maybe I begin thinking, almost as though toxified by a recently eaten mouse or rat killed by some well-meaning person intent on ridding the environment of vermin but whose unseen collateral damage is death by the thousands to birds of prey. I watch and watch, wave my arms, make noises, throw a clump of dirt off to the left, but ol' Harlan doesn't flinch. He stands his ground, which is a barely supportive branchling poking off a scruffy three foot high bush, an almost comical impression on his face as he bobs up and down on the thin branch with commendable dexterity despite his malingering condition.

Harlan's mouth is strangely crooked open, revealing a slender pink tongue and yellowish maw. (First time I've seen the mouthparts of a hawk so close up.). I can't figure out if Harlan is sick or just silly, or maybe distracted. He's definitely exhibiting odd behavior, at the very least his not being ruffled by my presence. I wave again, fake a caw, and he rears his head back and stares me down, a mean-looking thing with a beady inquisitive eye bulging out like an eruption. He remains ensconced on the pathetic perch, occasionally fluffing up his feathers. It doesn't seem right that he's not getting scared or annoyed or flying away like any normal bird would under the circumstances.

After about ten minutes of observing ol' Harlan, I suddenly become aware of a high-pitched screech - the hungry mewling of a juvenile raptor. I look up into the eucalyptus tree, and about fifty feet up (in full amazement mode) I watch an adult Red-shouldered Hawk hammer away at a snake - a really cool sighting in my pantheon! I watch her deftly pin what looks to be a fairly large gopher snake against the branch and jab at it repeatedly with her blood-sotted beak. I watch her flip the snake up and catch it mid-air, gobbling down her tight gullet a couple of hefty morsels of flesh. I watch her famished little minion scream for his share. I watch Mama Hawk fork over the half-eaten snake, still two feet long, to her hungry little juvenile. (Mistake, I'm thinking.) I watch the nervous little guy awkwardly chew, bite and attempt to slurp it down like a spaghetti noodle. I watch the bloodied carcass being carelessly dropped from his jaws into the brush below. I watch the noticeable chagrin of Mama Hawk. I half-expect her to dive down and retrieve the tasty slim-jim, but she stays put. I watch her peck at her kid in a manner to suggest she's mad. I'm amazed at how much I'm able to watch ("just by observing.").

Just after the snake carcass goes spiraling down fifty feet in the brush, ol' Harlan makes his move. I watch him fly off his precarious perch. I watch him land clumsily, almost drunkenly, in a branch fifty feet away. I watch him stabilize. I truly believe the old boy's been poisoned.

The question remains, too, if today's sightings of a deranged Harlan's Red-tail and two snake chomping Red-shouldereds are separate but related events, or related but separate events. What does it mean to simultaneously witness two rare sightings? Or is what I saw rare? Perhaps these sights and events in "unseen" nature are happening all the time, everywhere, simultaneously, and I'm only just beginning to pay attention. That's what birding does. It makes you pay attention. It connects you more deeply to the magical and mysterious workings of Mother Nature.

Photos courtesy of Wikipedia Commons