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