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!