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.