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!