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!

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