Thursday, December 26, 2013

Off Course Painted Redstart Digging Berkeley Scene

Bird doo-doo! Talk about being late to the party. Last month, sharp-eyed scientific illustrator Katie Bertsche spotted a Painted Redstart (yes, a Painted Redstart!) coolin' his (or her?) migratory jets for at least three weeks by all accounts, comfortably hanging out in some trees, and openly for a time on a telephone wire, "actually pretty brave," as described and photographed by Cal Walters on November 17, near College Avenue. Previously, I wouldn't have known a Painted Redstart from a Western Kingbird, much less the ornithological mis-kinship to another bird I've never seen - the American Redstart. (Definitely a mystery to be sorted out later.)

No doubt the little fella is an outlier, a reverse migrator blown-off course during their semi-annual rounds from Arizona to Mexico and Central America and back again. Occasionally, a few stragglers end up in Southern California; only twice have they been spotted in Northern California (Auburn in 2010 and Point Reyes National Seashore in 2012). Amazingly, he (or she?) managed to find hospitable landfall - make that treefall - in Berkeley's arboreally accommodating Elmwood neighborhood. Called a "warbler of surpassing beauty" by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, he (or she?) is a first-time visitor to Alameda County (so far as we know). Certainly, a first-ever sighting for the area. Naturally, it was a big deal among local and not so local birding enthusiasts who flocked to glimpse the pretty wayward Wood-Warbler.

Last week, on a lark, hoping to spot the bird in "passerine," I ventured a few miles on my bike southeastward from North Berkeley and did reconnaissance for half an hour, to no avail. My first clue of the bird's absence should have been no sightings of binocular and camera toting bird watchers lurking and skulking about. My second clue should have been, humbling, I'm just a rank amateur. If you weren't there three weeks ago, you probably missed him (or her?), and, safe to say, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lay eyes on a Painted Redstart in Berkeley, California.

Bird gender mystery cleared up: according to Bob Lewis of Wingbeats, males and females are - love it! - identical. Begetting a further question for heuristic research: how common is this in avian species?

Photo courtesy of Cal Walters; check out Cal's website at

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Bird Walkabout in Berkeley Hills to Remillard Park and Pinnacle Rock

Temperatures dipped below freezing the past couple of nights, a record low ball-busting cold spell that caused several hypothermia-related deaths of homeless Bay Area men. Shameful. Should never be. Then I get to wondering, just how are little five gram birds able to withstand such extremes? Or even one pound crows. You'd think the ground would be littered with stiff frozen avian corpses. Thanks to natural selection, they are designed as self-contained bundles of built-in insulation (fat and feathers). Combined with their warm and snug nests, birds of all stripes have no problem surviving in Arctic conditions. Amazing creatures, birds are, having mastered evolution's secret as well as humans - possessing survival strategies and capabilities to enable them to spread to - and thrive in - every possible environment, habitat and ecological niche on earth.

With sun radiant over the Berkeley Hills, such a chill day warrants and welcomes a walkabout, see who's up and about. . .the birds are, if no one else is! We head up our usual way through Live Oak and Codornices Parks, up Tamalpais Path to check out a secluded waterfall, on up 183 steep steps to Shasta to Keeler, through tony North Berkeley Hills neighborhoods, where we find ourselves leaving pavement for a connector trail through forest and brush (Whitaker Canyon, it's called) to arrive at Remillard Park and imposing Pinnacle Rock.

Along our route, we encounter lively activity, a flurry of birds, chirpy and perky, so happy the sun is out, warming things up, with plenty of seeds and berries and insects and larvae to feed on in the amply forested and lushly landscaped gardens of the Berkeley Hills. I think more birds are spotted on neighborhood walks than in the wild parklands. One moment, I'm checking out a frenetic Ruby-crowned Kinglet - with a glimpse of his colorful crown - the next a troupe of flighty little Chestnut-backed Chickadees. Another moment finds me peering suspiciously (I hope not) into someone's yard trying to pin down (I hope not) a Townsend's Warbler. Over there, a Scrub Jay, here a Wood Thrush, everywhere Towhees and Juncos and Bushtits.

At Remillard Park, we're awed by the jutting chunk of volcanic reddish rock known as Pinnacle Rock, much older and different from the ten million year old Northbrae Rhyolite detritus more common to the Berkeley Hills. This is Jurrasic Park aged stuff, here when dinosaurs roamed, somehow upthrust in this spot from deep within the earth's mantel. It is a marvelous erratic, a little piece of Southwest Desert Redrock, a tiny place to escape into, taking a short trail down and around its bulk, pausing in sunlit patches to stare up and admire, feeling the special energy of a place where countless generations of Ohlone peoples gathered and held ceremonies. Looking out through the forest cover, San Francisco Bay shines like a beacon as roiling clouds bulge up. Berkeley native David Brower and climbing legend Dick Leonard pioneered techniques here in the thirties.

On the backtrack through Whitaker Canyon, we stop to soak up mid-afternoon, surprisingly warm rays while the birds continue to play. High atop a eucalyptus tree, a Red-tailed Hawk swoops on a branch and sits motionless for a while, then begins fussing with his tail, fanning it out and spreading it sideways like I've never seen before. Then some preening, picking and ear scratching before settling in for some hawk eyed surveillance of his little pinnacle kingdom.

You never know what you'll come across in the Berkeley Hills - tall Redwood trees, whimsical garden sculpture, quaint pathways winding ever higher into the hills, a rich Bernard Maybeck architectural heritage, thousands of years old Indian mortar holes, hidden waterfalls and creeks, and, guaranteed, lots and lots of birds!

Photo of Wood Thrush courtesy of WikiCommons.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Gobble Gobble Hiss Hiss Meow, Or. . .

. . .just another urban bird / cat sighting / encounter . . . the likes of which we, my wife and I,may never see again. During a stroll in fading daylight at 4:30 pm, we turn a corner a block up from our lovely neighborhood creek, Codornices, and come upon two mature male wild turkeys foraging in a curbside garden. To many, meh, what's a couple of dumbf**k turkeys - to a bird watcher, nature lover, this is totally COOL!

On the eve of this hallowed Thanksgiving holiday, their presence is a manifest symbol, a visible, visceral reminder of the sad treatment of the delightfully quirky birds, whose 16 pound bodies will sate the ornithophagus palates of nearly 90% of Americans tomorrow. Outnumbered 254 million (raised) to 7 million (wild) nationwide, the small wild turkey contingent of Berkeley, hallelujah, freely roams, is fully protected, and blissfully ignorant of the fate of 46 million of their overfed kind, most of them factory-farm produced, artificially bred with antibiotics and hormones, often mistreated, and pumped out as grotesquely deformed creatures for mass consumption. I guess you could say we're with the other 10%. . ."organic" and "free-range" carcasses notwithstanding.

Our turkey friends are nonchalantly browsing, perturbed by nothing, not  passing cars, not us, not even by a young black cat eyeballing their every move intently in semi-stalk mode. We stop to observe what might happen next. The too young to know better cat is entranced, probably first time in her little life she's seen the big ol' obstreperous Meleagris gallopavothinking, maybe, how delicious-looking, but forget about taking one down. . .

Suddenly emboldened, she pounces toward one, approaching shyly, then backs off the second ol' Mel - or is it Gallo? - raises a threatening head and furiously fans his tail as pretty as a peacock's. Retreating under a car, the cat maintains her intense vigil, twice emerging to confront the grazing turkeys, but never brave enough to engage in the deadly battle said little cute precious kitty would engage in, and win overpoweringly, with helpless and endangered songbirds. Finally, the Pavo brothers have had enough, and intimidate the cat into permanent retreat with feather-ruffling  histrionics and threatening pokes of their armored beaks. I know, I know, you probably had to be there. . .

. . .Still, you never know what you'll see on the streets of Berkeley, where wild turkey and deer forage, raccoon and possum prowl about, mountain lions stalk, Cooper Hawks lurk, and birds of many a feather flock together in don't matter weather. Next time, it would be nice to have my camera.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Of Birds Congregating in a Fall Migration Stop-Over (Perhaps)

On the other side of the Berkeley Hills, snaking down Wildcat Canyon Road, a tiny parcel of protected watershed land shelters, in the poetic words of Walt Whitman, "unseen buds, infinite, hidden well." And though tony suburban communities sprawl to the east, it's pretty much bird land in all other directions.

At the Orinda Connector Staging Area, off Bear Creek Road, I ditch my bike in a thicket and sign in at the East Bay Municipal Utility District's check station. (Please pay your fees, carry your permit, and always obey the rules.) Unbeknownst to most who pass this way (thousands of cyclists), some of EBMUD's 27,000 acres of vast and varied East Bay landscape lies hidden just below, encompassing recreational reservoirs (San Pablo and Briones) and old Salmon run tributary streams (Bear and San Pablo Creeks), accessed, courtesy of the District, by miles and miles of hiking and equestrian trails.

When in need of some good old-fashion soul-calibrating solitude, nothing beats a few hours alone in this small, rich, bio-diverse slice of habitat that instantly enchants with its deep, hidden riparian forest. A matrix of EBMUD trails connect to the great Bay Area beyond, out Old San Pablo Trail for five miles, or test your mettle hiking nearly 15 miles on Oursan and Bear Creek Trails, circumnavigating the 60,510 acre ft. flat-out (hilly-out?) beautiful Briones Reservoir.

Some may wonder, what's the fuss. And maybe they're right. After all, my sphere of exploratory wandering / casual go-nowhere investigations encompasses an area no larger than a couple of acres. But they really pack in a ton of stimuli! Ignoring the din of commuter traffic speeding toward the Bay on San Pablo Dam Road, I focus my attention on other things - like communing with tall, old sycamore, pine and oak trees, which provide high canopy for a myriad of unseen birds, infinite, hidden well. Secondary understory and dense shrubbery shelters sweet flowing San Pablo Creek. A short stroll reveals open meadow / scrubland, bordered by thickets of dogwood and remnant apple trees from an old homesteader's orchard. It all makes for a perfect bird sanctuary and all-around nature lover's intimate experience; notwithstanding, the few people I have seen here are always on the move, hiking, running or horseback riding.

Moi? I choose to stick close by in my little wondrous acre contained within an unnoticed miniature paradise. (What's the fuss again?) After signing in, I'm immediately stalled by furious bird activity! Vivacious Chestnut-backed Chickadees here, vibrant Ruby-crowned Kinglets there, with Juncos, Jays, and ground foraging Sparrows getting in the mix. Then - a novel sight! Can it be? Yes, (rare, in my book), it’s a Golden-crowned Kinglet, my first ever spotted in the Bay Area and only the second time I’ve ever seen the tiny, hard-to-spot bird. I'm truly amazed to see a Golden-crowned Kinglet making an appearance, and then hanging around for ten minutes flitting about and - dare I say? - flirting with me! What’s crazy about the bird’s “mystique”  is it’s a fairly common bird, one-hundred million strong, and is a frequent visitor to Bay Area coniferous and deciduous habitats. . .and yet, it's almost like a crypto-avian, this elusive little, seldom-seen bird!

After that thrilling sighting, what next, I wonder. . .here in the mixed forests of San Pablo Creek, you never know what surprises await. San Pablo Creek is a primeval water course that once channeled tons of salmon, which in turn attracted tons of Grizzly Bears and Bald Eagles, but, alas, no more, although San Pablo Reservoir is one of six sites in the forty square mile Bay Area supporting nesting Baldies, which gives you a good idea of this place's nature quotient.

Lolly-gagging along the surprisingly swift flowing creek and scrubby meadow edges for a couple of hours turns into a field day for birdspotting - all quite common but no less a joy to encounter, observe and admire as they go about their unseen, infinite, hidden well business:

Dark-eyed Juncos / American Robins / White-breasted Nuthatches / Northern Flickers / Lesser Goldfinches / Orange-crowned Warbler* (possibly an immature female Yellow Warbler) / Spotted Towhees / California Towhees / Ruby-Crowned Kinglets / Golden-Crowned Kinglet* / Woodpecker* (definitely not a Downy or a Ladderback) / Sparrows (always tough to nail down, don’t know why) / Townsend Warblers / Black Phoebes / Brown Creepers / Turkey Vultures / Red-Tailed Hawks / Varied Thrush / Wood Thrush / Anna's Hummingbird / Chestnut-backed Chickadees / Scrub Jays

*2 birds courtesy of WikiCommons. Thank you for usage!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Of First Sightings and Positive Identifications of Neornithes, Our “Modern Birds”

Over the past year, I’ve seen many birds come and go, and others stick around (not like a bad guest, either). The reality is Bay Area birds must always set off in search of new food sources or perhaps they’ve been pushed to marginal foraging areas by bigger, more aggressive competitor birds. Or maybe they’re just plain lost, blown off course during their 10,000 mile migratory marathons to alight on distant shores and inland forests. At any time of the year, a Berkeley backyard bird watcher can count on abundant dissimulations of murmurations and murders, of casts and charms, bouquets and bevys, and parliaments and exultations. Just in time for a first sighting. (If you can, one, spot ‘em, and two, ID ‘em.)

All in all, it’s still a mystery figuring out who’s who, what’s what, and when’s when. From multitudinous shore bird species on ocean, bay and marsh coastlines, to Oak / Bay woodland refuges of Nuthatches, Warblers and Grosbeaks, to chaparral hill country where a White Kite, Varied Thrush or Lazuli Bunting might be sighted, to urban settings where a Cooper’s Hawk has been known to alight on a tip top Redwood branch in the backyard, there’s never a shortage, to challenge my fledgling expertise, of great bird watching opps. (Know of any good bird watching apps?)

Fall and Spring, especially, are prime time for spotting Code 2 or rarer Code 3 birds for the first time, seasons to put a little swagger in my bragging rights. But, dozens of “common” Code 1 species still remain elusive, and  you're expecting me to spot a Band-tailed Pigeon or a Brown Booby? The crazy thing is, there have been many first sightings, as in (unscientifically), “I’ve just seen a new and different kind of bird,” (like a few weeks ago in the Berkeley Hills it seemed like an Ovenbird. . .) but alas, such pitiful non-confirmations are consigned to the fuzzy realm of half- or non-identification, and so they do not count. Still, the addition of nearly twenty more first-ever bird sightings since must bring my Life List up to 150 (an imprecise metric sporadically tallied in my Life List spreadsheet).

Here are some recent unequivocal first sightings and positive identifications of our Neornithes friends:

Castle Valley (April, 2013)

During early morning strolls along the rural main drag of this unincorporated community 17 miles outside of Moab, Utah, ‘neath the dramatic presence of Porcupine Rim, Round Mountain, Castleton Tower and 12,482 ft. Mount Tukunikivatz, four never before seen birds made their appearances. In an overgrown meadow, a full-throated morning crooner, the Western Meadowlark, made his dominion over things emphatically known; followed by a full-throttled, on a mission Juniper Titmouse; and then a “just takin’ care of business” Pinyon Jay; while the liltingly cute Mountain Bluebird handily stole my heart with a lovelorn song.

Pinnacles National Park (March)

I had previously spotted what I believed were a trio of California Condors in 2006, but a few months ago, I watched a pair circling over towering volcanic spires. New anti-lead in ammo laws will greatly contribute to the birds’ ability to procreate and thrive, in short – survive. (They eat the remains of hunters’ lead-tainted carcasses left behind.)

Elkhorn Slough (July)

Withstood the big trafficky drive down the most dangerous highway in America (the 880), on to the second most dangerous (the 17) to the most insanely backed up slowway (Pacific Coast Highway 1) near Moss Landing between Monterey and Santa Cruz, to tool around in Miggsy’s old-school canoe for a couple of hard paddlin’ hours in perfect weather on a sun-baked, kick-back down a few beers kinda day. We spotted (I spotted) Ruddy Turnstones, Caspian Terns, American White Pelicans, and, I’ll be – a friggin’ Whimbrel!

Las Trampas (June)

Taking a break from visiting my 92 year old mother in law, we headed up Elderberry Trail (not, alas, to ascend the 1900 foot ridge) and hiked up a mile, where patience and luck were rewarded with sightings of a Lazuli Bunting and a Lark Sparrow. (Admittedly, the Lazuli Bunting was not a first sighting, but it sure felt like one!)

Marin County Open Space District, Cascade Canyon (May)

Although one of those so-called pedestrian sightings, I had never seen a Pacific-slope Flycatcher before, so it was with real delight that I spotted a parent snagging in mid-air white moth after white moth to feed three hungry mouths sticking up out of a hole in a tree about eight feet up just off a main trail in this lovely preserve, Fairfax, California’s back yard. Then, wouldn’t you know, I started spotting them left and right, in my own back yard and in local parks. The question begs: had I been seeing them before but mistaking them for something else?

Tilden Regional Park (May)

Another one of those “Oh, is that right,” bland comments issued by some jaded birding nut on hearing, during a trailside chat, that I’ve never before, ever, not once, seen a Black-headed Grosbeak in all my days. Well, I finally spotted one, and then some others, in Tilden’s tree-dense, riparian biomes. Such a joy hearing their “drunken Robin” song from afar, and gradually coming upon the parrotlike (?) bird, sitting and preening and putting on a good show for several minutes.

Oregon (July / August)

In our road trip streaming live here - - we spotted so many birds it made my head spin (literally). Among those added to my Life List: Red Crossbills; Clark’s Nutcrackers; Black and White Warbler; Golden-crowned Kinglet (a gem); Lesser Nighthawks; Western Tanager (although on two North Fork American River expeditions with the late Russell Towle, we spotted the lovely bird); and Olive-sided Flycatchers.

Big Break (September)

This amazing Bay / Delta wonderland deserves more exploration, but canoeing around one day, my bud and I spotted many different birds, including an American Bittern, described by Jonathan Franzen as a bird whose “way was to lurk among the reeds, camouflaged by their fine vertical striping of buff and brown, and spear small animals with their bills. . .humble and furtive on the ground, near their marshy home, but lordly in the sky.” (I couldn’t have said it bittern than that!)

* With exception of Caspian Tern perched on stick pole and Ruddy Turnstones foraging on shoreline, all photos belong to the WikiCommons. Thank you Universe for their usage!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA: A Vibrant Manifestation of Birds in the Wild Urbanscape of an East Bay Neighborhood

Birds, birds and more birds – a charm of finches, a host of sparrows, a party of jays, a murder of crows and an unkindness of ravens. What next, a parliament of owls? The birds are highly evolved, ethereal beings and I enjoy watching them revel in primal joy in the one-hundred year old oak tree gracing our side yard. We live in an historic apartment building situated in a primo North Berkeley neighborhood just a couple of  blocks from where the first rises begin in the Berkeley Hills, a funky 17 unit building that looks like a stately Victorian married the Alamo. Back in the sixties, it was an acid dropping scene of ongoing bacchanalia, a Windowpane into a freaky world, a Mr. Natural crash pad, a Love Saves sanctuary of bliss, a Purple Haze haven of orgiastic parties with a gallimaufry of legendary Berzerkeley characters coming and going through the psychedelic revolving door. Before that, it was some rowdy boardinghouse, back in the vanquished day of horsemen and iron horses, when the old Berkeley Branch Railroad (a line of the Central Pacific) ran a few blocks away. Allen Ginsberg once lived in a cottage just up the street. And way before any of this, indigenous Ohlone people – Berkeley’s first natives - gathered not far from here at volcanic outcrops of rhyolite to grind acorns into mush in foot deep cylindrical mortar holes for many delicious and nutritious treats to sustain their journey through life. Over time, things settled down; we were informed that, several years ago, these very premises were spiritually graced with a visit by Vietnamese Buddhist monk, peace activist and writer, Tich Nact Hahn, who stayed here for several days, in our very own ‘umble apartment, right next to the one hundred year old oak tree that the birds (and many other appreciative critters) love so much. (And: Alice Waters!)

Berkeley is blessed with wonderland parks, home to spruce and redwood, bay, alder, big leaf maple, sycamore, madrone and manzanita, plus many oak varieties. Neighborhoods in Berkeley are lush and tree rich, perfect bio-sentinels to attract urban tree loving creatures on the prowl, such as possums, squirrels and raccoons. Deer browse and nibble in the simulacrum of a forest in our back yard. Free-flowing Codornices Creek is just one yard over. I’ve seen wild turkeys strutting nonchalantly down our street on deserted early mornings, and – a spectacular appearance ending in tragedy – a mountain lion was shot and killed by the Berkeley police right down the street a couple of years ago. Birds, too, are a natural and integral part of the eco-equation, and the fascinating, flitting, fugacious, freedom-loving feathered friends of the sky come in droves, frequenting the one hundred year old oak tree to engorge on bugs, larvae, grubs and acorn nuts.

Sprouting from a tiny seedling acorn of the Interior clan of arboreal wonders, our venerable Quercus wislizeni grows in a gnarled network of tentacled branches, elephant leg in girth, rising a hundred feet to form a dense, nutrition rich canopy, a woody and leafy world unto its own. From where I stand on my porch, binoculars affixed to eyes in an oft-futile effort to locate and identify the many birds that come to roost, peck around, and bounce from bough to branch, it seems a most unlikely place to watch for birds. Yet this mature, robust tree draws in like a magnet many avian wayfarers in search of abundant sustenance and tasty victuals - in the case of the stunning adult female Downy’s woodpecker I spotted last week – delicious pickings from the underside of rotting strips of bark, a technique she has down pat resulting in a notable absence of the repetitive rat-a-tat-tat knocking associated with Picoides pubescens and others of her ilk. The experience almost seems oxymoronic, watching a woodpecker engage in silent work.  I read in a bird book that an urban observer could spot up to 50 distinct birds in a given period. While perhaps a stretch, in the past several weeks, during a spell of some La Nina inspired superb Mediterranean weather, I must admit, I have spotted more species of birds from the vantage of my porch in one sitting than in far wilder places up in the hills. Lately, I’ve taken a greater interest in connecting with our resident and migratory bird population in the big old accommodating oak. Of an early morning, with the tree situated nearly within reach outside the bedroom window, I awaken to a clamor of sweet pitched melodies from several different, completely anonymous birds. Who are these little winged royalty announcing their joyful presence at my crepuscular window, I want to know. It’s the same ambition that drives any crazed bird lover (or bird lover crazy), such as Ted Floyd, author of  Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, who poses the abiding question: “What is the name of that bird?” He goes on to make a case for the importance of identifying / naming / classifying: “A name is a tool for organizing our thoughts, for making sense of the world around us. Knowing the name of something makes it more important. Giving a name to something immediately triggers a cavalcade of questions, of discovery, and of wonder.” And yet it’s hard to disagree with Walt Whitman, who counseled, “You must not know too much or be too precise or scientific about birds and trees and flowers and watercraft; a certain free-margin, and even vagueness - ignorance, credulity - helps your enjoyment of these things.” I’m divided on the issue. I’ve always been a rank amateur when it comes to knowing the Linnaean underpinnings and taxonomic fine points of flora and fauna, hence my broadly aesthetic and spiritual (as opposed to scientific minded) approach to my appreciation and understanding of plants and animals and natural history in general (perhaps characterized as the “Gambolin’ Man” world view?). I only hope that the discovery and wonder that Stevens writes of inspires a deep (organic) understanding and respect of our relationship to birds, all creatures and to the earth, and does not, at the same time, drain too much of the mystery and magic out of  birds’ fabulous existence.  The birds attracted to the big oak tree are unpredictable and, like most of nature’s comings and goings, usually go unnoticed – their “here one day gone the next” proclivities keep you guessing and on the constant look out. Migratory patterns may or may not matter. Birds, occasionally delicate little sailors, get blown off course and / or food and climate trends instinctually create revised flight patterns for many long distance winged trekkers. And yet, ecce arborus, behold this oak tree that has been on the scene for one hundred years and for another century or more will likely continue to be a bonanza of shelter, a cornucopia of food, and a smorgasbord of insect delights for many different avian species, such as, for example, the sweetest little peeper you ever saw, the handsome Black-capped Chickadee, a skittish, acrobatic little fellow often seen hanging upside down, clinging with the tiniest of talons to a shred of a branch, dangling ever so momentarily to pick clean the underside of a moldering leaf.

Around 925 of 10,000 known bird species have been noted in the US and Canada, almost four times fewer the number found in South America and half as many as are found in Australia. Still, 925 is a lot of species, and I doubt if any birdwatcher on the planet has seen all 925 of ‘em. Maybe 200 live in or visit Berkeley?  I suppose if you were determined and lucky enough, you might be able to spot 500 or 600 in a lifetime of traveling from the deserts of the Southwest USA to the tundra of Northern Canada and all points in between. I’ll be lucky and content enough to spot a 150. Bonus side note! Just today I added to my Life List a Varied Thrush, a beautiful orange / yellow/ bluish member of the Turdidae family spotted in Tilden Park in a dense entanglement of trees, brush and vines near the Botanical Gardens. I was zooming by on my bike when I noticed at the last second a group of intent observers with hi-tech binoculars and expensive camera equipment. I knew it was a serious sighting. I told the group, you made my day!

Birds are profoundly fascinating and are “among the most conspicuous forms of life on earth” writes Ted Stevens; they are profusely dispersed and insanely well-adapted around the planet and are undisputed master survival strategists. On the scene for perhaps 150 million years, they thrive by their ability to exploit every available niche imaginable (sound like anyone else you know?), from the harshness of arctic and desert climes to the unending riches and variation of rainforests, to a plethora of microhabitats in between: forests and woodlands, prairies and meadows, deserts and shrublands, alpine and arctic tundra, wetland and aquatic, swamp forests and boreal bogs, rivers, lakes and ponds, fresh and salt water marshes, ocean beaches . . .and everywhere humans dwell. The bounty of our urban neighborhood trees brings us a beautiful dissimulation of bird, birds, and more birds!

Birders, you see, are serious fanatics. There’s a ton of top quality bird related websites. People travel to the far ends of places like Arkansas and Siberia to spot unique birds. Birdwatchers go to conventions for bragging rights to life sightings. As scientific research (at the molecular level) continues to pry open the mysteries of genetic (“racial”) variability among songbirds, more and more species will “split” and become two, sometimes three, species – upping the birders’ life list number – while, of course the reverse can happen, too, where two species are “lumped” and become one, thus diminishing the birder’s life list tally. The super-odd thing about it is, why are some people bird-crazy and others just plain couldn’t give a gnat-catcher’s ass?

Until l I brought a couple of jocose birds into my immediate purlieus with the aid of binoculars, these tiny creations of hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary design had heretofore been nonexistent to me as individuals; they were aggregated in my mind as an abstraction - merely the “birds”, nameless, unknown, featureless entities. But get to know them, and their personalities jump out. And you want to get to know them better. No wonder bird lovers are so fanatic and passionate about their subjects, because birds are expressions of freedom and symbols of vitality, merry songmakers without a worry, care or regret - “little nimble musicians of the air, that warble forth their curious ditties, with which nature hath furnished them to the shame of art,” waxed Izaak Walton.

I think my love and attraction to birds stems from when I was twelve, still in the BB gun phase, I took a perverse delight in pulverizing into mud dime-sized frogs on pond shores and taking aim at a barn swallow or other bird dumb enough to get in my sights. One day, in the woods near by boyhood home in Oxford, Indiana, at a place called (yes) Slaughter’s Pond, I shot a little sparrow or some such bird, and down, down, down, the mangled bird fluttered to my feet, in writhing agony, not yet fully dead. Even at that tender age, I was stricken with a dreaded sense of having violated a major karmic rule – I killed a creature wantonly. Heart-broken and grievous, I knelt down to cradle her in my hands, but she died. From that day on, I put down the gun and never picked it up again. The only birds I would ever shoot from now on would be with a camera.

Bird watching, I’ve found, is a hobby requiring patience; no use getting fidgety or anxious or bored. You’ve just simply got to want to spot the colorful little firecrackers! And let me clue you in on a secret - spotting them is difficult, requires time and skill, like finding chanterelle mushrooms camouflaged in the loamy detritus of an oak forest floor. On the other hand, identifying and knowing birds should be as simple as James Whitcomb Riley’s commonsensical declaration: “When I see a bird that walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck.”

At the root or heart of birdwatcher fanaticism are the questions: Do you enjoy doing it – watching birds do things, engage in their sophisticated behavioral quirks? Does it bring you pleasure - being drawn into the peeping tom world of an unfettered birdie’s life? I’ve found that birdwatching brings a great sense of connection and accomplishment, and is an enjoyable way to add dimension and spice to a nature (or porch!) outing.  But sometimes there just aren’t any birds reporting. And so it’s easy to get distracted or lose interest. The process is akin to filtering water at the river – no sense in trying to strong arm the precious stuff through the mechanism into the bottle to get it done quicker. It’s a sacred thing – breathe, give thanks, and take it one steady pump at a time. Same goes with the art of observing birds in their natural habitat. With patience comes a sweet reward, an intimate glimpse of, say, a Common Yellowthroat Warbler. This dancing, preening specimen is so friggin’ common I didn’t even recognize the adult female first time I espied her. What – Who? – am I looking at, I kept saying, putting down the binoculars and running into the house to consult the omniscient field guide. Sounds ingenuous and overly earnest, I know, but I’m just enthralled with making the acquaintance. Thoreau once expressed a similar preference thusly: “I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment, while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance that I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn.” I’m still hoping to spot her dolled up companion, the adult male, a flamboyantly emblazoned character donning a black Zorro mask and a brilliant yellow throat and underbelly. How can such a tiny, insignificant creature – I’m the only person on the face of the earth aware of this particular bird’s existence - be so achingly beautiful? The name may be Common, but a sighting and positive identification is truly exotic. Often these birds seem fragile, neurotic, frantic, with barely a motionless moment to rest or preen. All the constant nibbling, pecking, hopping, bobbing, and flitting about makes it difficult to home in on them. You might be lucky to get a tenth of a second appearance. Try identifying that! When the diminutive specimens are viewed through binoculars, their bulk is magnified significantly; but when viewed up close, it’s astonishing how tiny they are! Like the time my little friend, the Townsend’s Warbler, landed in a bush right outside my window, surprising me with her Lilliputian frame. Checking in at ten grams and five inches on average, this chic little bird is a regular patron of the big oak. Not much to twirp about, but he’s become a constant companion and a beautiful one at that, almost like my little pet when I see him decked out in his feathery duds, with the dark cheek patch of nifty black radiating out from his eyes surrounded by yellow on the sides, a flitty chap on the constant qui vive. The littler the bird, it seems, the more frenetically paced it is, like wound-up dynamos, spunky engines of aerodynamic superiority and survival mastery, doing their thing in the one hundred year old oak. The ultimate legacy of the lumbering dinosaurs may be these very birds, descended from chicken-size therapods who didn’t die out at all, but morphed into flight masters of the empyrean realms giving them a superior evolutionary competitive edge.

One day a pair of Cedar Waxwings – who? huh? – took up residence for a day in the dense foliage of our neighbor’s unidentified red-berry producing tree; seeing them has to count as a special sighting. These rather unusual looking birds are normally seen in flocks, not just two lovebirds by themselves. So seeing just the two of them for the first time ever caught me off guard, especially since their plumage is of a more exotic nature and I couldn’t be sure I wasn’t hallucinating a tropical bird or something. How is it that I had never heard of, much less noticed, these Code 1 birds (commonly sighted) in my entire life? Because if I had seen one, I surely would have marveled at the distinctive red stripe at the base of the tail, and appreciated as though from the palette of an old master, the subtle splotch of yellow where God spilled a bit of paint on the lower wing, and would have been taken in and charmed by the little crest of a wave of feathers in her head. How, I ask again out of sheer disingenuous implausibility, had I missed the Cedar Waxwing in my lifetime of ??? – well, never being a serious birdwatcher.  . .

Sadly, songbirds are taking a beating, have been for a long time, at the hands (paws and claws, rather) of domestic and feral cats; by their own kind, the maligned cowbird being a notorious example of aggressive behavior displacing songbirds from their nests and habitats (the bird equivalent of Manifest Destiny); and sadly but not surprisingly by destructive human activity, including illegal egg gathering and mass poisoning by power plants. In a report just released by the Biodiversity Research Institute they’re finding, according to a New York Times report, “dangerously high levels of mercury in several Northeastern bird species, including rusty blackbirds, saltmarsh sparrows and wood thrushes” causing reproductive and other health and well-being problems that threaten their existence as a species. And that’s just one species at risk. Oddly, Audubon does not mention a thing about mercury poisoning caused by coal burning power plants on its website. What does it mean not to be able to hit a high note anymore? How can a marginally competitive bird avoid the risk of extinction if x-percentage of surviving hatchlings continues to plummet? These and other pressing questions plague me, as they did the doyen of birders, Roger Tory Peterson, who wrote that birds are “sensitive indicators of the environment, a sort of ‘ecological litmus paper’ and hence more meaningful than just chickadees and cardinals to brighten the suburban garden, grouse and ducks to fill the sportsman’s bag, or rare warblers and shorebirds to be ticked off on the birder’s checklist. The observation of birds leads inevitably to environmental awareness.”

So far, I’ve compiled a list of over twenty birds who’ve come to visit the one-hundred year old oak tree in our yard. Dramatis ornithonae include: Black-capped Chickadee; Dark-eyed Junco; Slate Junco (immature female); Bushtit; Lincoln’s Sparrow; Common Pigeon; Morning Dove; Northwestern Crow;  Raven; Townsend’s Warbler; Yellow Warbler (immature female); Unidentified warbler (w/ tiny patches of yellow on underwing, otherwise drab color); American Robin;  California Towhee; Anna’s hummingbird; Common Yellowthroat Warbler (adult female); House finch; Purple Finch (adult male and female); Yellow-rumped Warbler (adult male); Downy’s Woodpecker (adult female); Steller’s Jay; Blue Jay. I’m always enchanted by each and every one of them, even the “prosaic” and “common” ones. (How about the pedestrian ones? –  a passel of pigeons clucking up and down the sidewalk the other day.)

The minute an unindividualized bird become familiar to you, you will never regard it again with detached disinterest – lo, Stevens is right! Wonder and discovery does spur excited inquiry into other matters of their nature, like their mating habits and rituals, their lifespans, where do they go in the dead of night, where are their hidden nests and shelters, what are their survival strategies against competitors, how do they make a living, and do they do the things they do for fun and enjoyment? The magic and mystery will always remain, because they are eternally unknowable, all their unseen secrets, infinite, hidden. . . And so let me better understand corvine family behavior  - the amazingly intelligent crows, ravens and jays. (Crows are a Top Ten Intelligent Species.)  With more knowledge, more sightings, you suddenly want to know everything about birds, because ironically, they are the canaries in the coalmine, or coal power plant in this case, harbingers of our own future; we are inextricably linked to birds; our welfare is their welfare, or vice versa. An eco-visionary ahead of his time, Roger Tory Peterson foresaw the interconnectedness of the fabric of life, the fragile bond that holds it together, the fatal consequences of our continued misguided acts in the mirror of birds held up to humans’ image: “Alas, we are linked with them: Birds are indicators of the environment. If they are in trouble, we know we'll soon be in trouble.” And so you yearn to glean an understanding of the complete natural history of all the birds you’ve met so far. Maybe to save yourself and the earth. Deep down, you really grasp and appreciate what Emily Dickinson meant when she penned, “I hope you love birds too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven.”
Original essay published on February 6, 2012, @

Images from WikiCommons.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Of Peculiar Behavior, Odd Doings, and Other Curious Observations of Unusual Avian Activity

Steller's Jay, Yosemite National Park
In the world of birds, you never know who you might see – if you’re paying attention! And even if you are (tuned in to the world of birds!), it’s easy to miss catching some twist of normalcy in a bird’s actions. An occasional eyebrow raising activity. An eccentric (rarely observed) display of mercurial personality. Something, anything resembling a behavioral aberration, a departure from the norm. But what does it even mean? Do such hopelessly anthropocentric comparisons afford an understanding of multifarious avian behavior and protean characteristics? Or merely a tidy attempt to explain unexplainable aspects of quirky birds? There is another explanation, though – perhaps nothing at all unusual is happening, and it’s all totally normal, and I’ve just not been paying attention.

I’m shambling along in a North Berkeley park hoping to spot the usual suspects in the taller oak trees. Codornices Creek, enchants with a lazy shimmery flow, a perennially small miracle considering how dry things are. Near where an old oak recently fell (opening up a big swathe of blue sky), I suddenly become aware of some positively crazy antics of (what turns out to be) an Adult Pink-Sided
Goose in Flight, Briones Regional Park, Bay Area

 Junco engaged in decidedly bizarre behavior. Or so I think. Check him out, though – excitably perched on a tiny ledge of space on a car door, facing the rear view mirror, dancing, hopping, and jumping in a neurotic (?) display of . . .I’m not quite sure of what. The frantic, flighty fellow is so thoroughly absorbed in a desperate and utterly futile attempt to penetrate the everlasting mystery of his reflection that he’s risking physical injury from repeatedly colliding with the glass mirror. Whether preening, attempting to ward off a threatening competitor in a mano-a-mano (pata-a-pata?) confrontation, or just hoodwinked by a sudden burst of self-awareness of his bird identity, the blockage engenders extreme frustration and anxiety in the Junco. I observe this excitable activity for a good ten minutes, thinking never again will I see THAT! Well, the next day, presumably the self-same Junco is back at it (can two identical-looking Juncos exhibit identical histrionics?), having retained a memory of returning to the same car’s perch (still parked there) and repeating his confounding attempt to establish contact with. . .or repel. . .his unrecognized image.
Great Blue Heron, Pt. Reyes National Seashore, Visitor's Center
Many instances crop up where I’m in the right place at the right time, fortunate to witness peculiar behavior, behold odd doings, and observe unusual activity.
I’m watching a small Cooper’s Hawk – gotta be a mini Coop, don’t it? – in full pursuit of two frantic crows, swooping mere feet from me at low altitude in a blur and screech of black and brown feathers. (From my front porch in North Berkeley.)
A flock of 20-something turkeys are strutting like nobody’s business through a busy crosswalk, no less, on car crazy Buchanan Street near San Pablo Avenue in Albany. I surmise the Toms and Marys are scuttling over to an agricultural plot on the Bay side of the avenue for some fine dining on the Gill tract of land owned by U.C. Berkeley.

I’m sitting on my porch steps, when a cute as can be, stubby little Ruby-crowned Kinglet suddenly flies down to the sidewalk right at my feet, with his “ruby crown” exposed like an orange-red tam - when Ruby-crowned Kinglets were still somewhat of a mystery. I’m like WOW! The little guy proceeds to
 Wild Tom, Tilden Regional Park, Bay Area

 peck and hunt around under the rose bushes. Now, why would a skittish, flighty Ruby-crowned Kinglet decide to land right at my feet, bare his colorful head patch, and not even – is bat an eyelash the right term?

Observations of avian aberrations (enough already!) from previous posts are worth repeating:
Yawning crows – no murder, just boredom. (Side yard in 100 year old Interior Live Oak.)
A sea gull taking 30 minutes to devour a starfish, throwing it up and catching it every so often to soften another side of it for easier slippage down the gullet. (San Simeon, Pacific Coast, California.)
A beat up old Harlan’s hawk staring me down five feet away on a low bush, then, almost drunkenly (perhaps he had been poisoned, or was merely dying), flying off with a haphazard landing in a nearby tree. (Tilden Regional Park.) (I’m like WHAT THE HELL?)
 A Bald Eagle in kamikaze combat mode stickin’ it to three hysterical Ospreys (Marlette Lake, near Lake Tahoe).
A Great Blue Heron devouring several fish over the course of an hour in small park in Walpole, Massachusetts, watching the Nature Channel from a bench with my mom – Ora Lora Spadafora - who had never before seen such a thing.
Ground-feeding Junco acting like a flycatcher, acrobatically jumping and snatching insects in mid-air. (Is this unusual?)
Speaking of flycatchers, I am thrilled to spot my first ever Pacific-Slope Flycatcher at Cascade Canyon Open Space District in Marin County – a very nice-looking bird I know instantly I’ve never seen before. Or maybe I have and always thought it was a Vireo or something. This babe’s picking off white moths, one by one, totally five I count, to feed her hungry hatchlings, ugly things sticking greedy triangular shaped mouth-throats out of a hole in the tree right off the trail. In plain sight. So easy to miss. (What’s so odd or peculiar about this?)
A Bewick’s Wren taking a dry bath in the garden, dusting himself up big time, no doubt to foil mites and other parasites. And for the sheer feel good pleasure, I imagine. (C’maan! This is totally normal!)
No dummies, our friends the birds. Gotta give ‘em kudos and props, for they are evolution’s pre-eminent expression of physical dexterity, native intelligence, and soul-satisfying freedom. (Wouldn’t you say.)

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Chickenscratch Musings on the Science, Art and Joy of Birding

Do you ne’er think what wondrous beings these?”

Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Nothing beats stealing away to a favorite birding haunt in the Bay Area’s meta-urban forests, creeksides and meadows. Places where birds congregate copiously. Places where you can observe an infinite variety of amazing stealth creatures operating in their natural habitats, whether foraging, feeding, frolicking, mating, hunting, or otherwise highly engaged in some unique activity or singular behavior. Places like that little stretch of “hidden” Wildcat Creek, or that sweet spot atop the knoll near Wildcat Peak thirteen stories above sea level. Places like the aviaries of the Albany Bulb, the reclaimed spit of land jutting into the Bay. Anywhere anyplace anytime Briones, or the nearby “in plain sight” yet secretive San Pablo Creek. The other day trolling about there in idyll leisure, I spotted two unable-to-identify warblers, along with a pair of cute nuthatches, a White- and Red-breasted. Places like “taken for granted” Live Oak and Codornices Parks in North Berkeley, my veritable backyard, where the latter harbors an overgrown, little traversed upper area, a perfect spot to warm up in sunny splotches of grassy wild-onion smelling splendor, spotting Cassin’s Vireos, Yellow and Townsend’s Warblers, Bewick's Wrens, Spotted Towhees, Wood and Hermit Thrushes, Northern Flickers, Black Phoebes, Anna's Hummingbirds, Crows, Jays and Juncos, unnamed varieties of Sparrows, Red-Tailed Hawks, and Turkey Vultures.
Scrub Jay
I love birdwatching because always, invariably during these outings, I’m confronted with the irreducible mystery of things, reminded of the magnificent fact of our ignorance of a world that exists and operates right under our noses, yet is beyond our understanding and knowing, outside the purlieus of our apperceptory capacities. . unless you stop, look and listen! By paying close attention, the world comes to your senses, influences your realm of experiential interspecies connection. . .even though, of course, birds are paying you not one whit of attention. True? False! Birds, keen individuals, are doubtlessly tuned in to your presence, wouldn’t you think?

Northern Flickers
I love watching birds because it tests, challenges and confounds me owing to a seeming intractability / inability to get things right in the ID department. Thus I am humbled. Whether it’s a futile endeavor to recognize and distinguish among highly subtle and nuanced song patterns, or a frustrating fumbling over the finer points of wing designs and parts, it seems that no matter how hard I try, I will spot a bird that I swear looks like a warbler or a wren, but it more often than not will remain unidentified and unidentifiable. (How can that be? And is it that the same thing?) Yes, I proclaim my utter ignorance, mostly, when it comes to the finer points of field ornithology, such as identification skills, avian calls, anatomy, migration patterns, quirks and habits – in short, just about everything one needs to know about birds to make sense of them. Birds, plainly and simply, operate in a higher, hidden realm.

Birding connects me more deeply to Nature's intimate workings – easy to pay no mind to - the oft’ unseen and hidden world, tho’ busy busy busy with the comings and goings of 
Turkey Vulture
hundreds if not thousands of birds. Their activity is of paramount importance to Earth’s ecological balance. Birds sublimely manifest Mother Nature’s harmonic intertwining of energies in an age-old world evolved and removed from human pretense and folly. Which is why it’s so hard to pin them down. (Not that I’d ever want to actually pin one down!)

You’re humbled, or should be, as a member of a supposed paragon species – Homo saps – by birds’ infinite capacities and multifarious talents. Miracles of being, agents of highly evolved creation, adapted to every possible niche on the planet, birds are capable of performing seemingly impossible aerodynamic feats of athleticism and astounding displays of short burst and long stamina endurance. But sadly, birds are also highly vulnerable beings, stalked and maimed by feral and domestic cats, victims of illegal hunting and trade in southeast and central Europe (where songbirds are smuggled to Malta and Italy and consumed as delicacies). Birds are killed en masse in wind turbine engines, and they die painful deaths at sea and ashore from ingesting plastic detritus mistaken for food and from ingesting “vermin” poisoned by horrendously toxic rodenticides. 

The more time I spend birding, the more attuned I become to my more meditative self, my more reflective being. It takes an unlearning of our normal hectic approach to life; a shedding off of our day’s mental distractions in order to focus, concentrate and attentively observe birds, but even then, as Smithsonian editor Ted Floyd writes, “to the novice, it often seems more like wizardry.” The great part about the 
Northern Mockingbird
activity (hobby?) (pastime?) (obsession) – is that I don't have to leave my house to enjoy birds’ joyful presence and interesting activities. From my front porch I’m able to daily take in a bonanza of birds! Just now, I look up to see Townsend's Warbler dipping into a bush after a good drenching to snatch up tasty larvae. Descending on the road just now is a murder of crows. A pair of Mourning Doves is perched on a high wire. Ms. Hummingbird comes in for a suckling sample of nectar. All right here in my urban neighborhood. How can you not love that.

The real fun part about birding is you’ll never know when or where another bird will be added to your Life List of First Sightings. What bird is that that just alighted in the magnolia tree? Who, my tiny friend, are you, appearing out of nowhere for a most delightful encounter. For the life of me, I should be able to ID both of these visitors, but cannot. Turning to my field guide, I’m able to correctly conclude that the magnolia tree bird is a Mockingbird! A Mockingbird! It’s one of those inexplicable things, where you think, Oh, a Mockingbird, a common ol’ Mimus polyglottos, resident of many large U.S. cities, so you surely must have seen one of the gray, lanky and long-tailed guys before. Hasn’t everyone seen a Mockingbird? Well, I hadn’t, until now, or maybe I had, but just hadn’t noticed, like with most things in life (regarding birds!)

Hermit Thrush

While on the subject of Mockingbirds, who can say why are they called Mockingbirds? Seems obvious, but my brain was stumped at first. Floyd explains: “. . .high-fidelity mimic, single birds recognizably incorporate songs of 25+ species into seemingly endless song.” And so, there you have it, the low-down on a seemingly common but heretofore largely and completely unseen “pre-adapted” species (meaning capable of expanding into varied eco-niches by adopting a survival strategy of exotic omnivorism.) The second sighting mentioned above happened to be a Ruby-crowned Kinglet! One of the smallest songbirds in North America, weighing just five to seven grams, this precious bird landed in my front garden and poked around in underbrush for several minutes before I lost sight of him. The whole time his red crown was exposed, which is awesome because it’s usually kept concealed. The adult male was so tiny and stubby, but inordinately beautiful. Seeing this rare creature, and so close-up, was like spotting a gold nugget in the creek and just leaving it there, admiring its intrinsic beauty, a precious, priceless thing to behold but not own or control or even know very well at all.

Photos belong to the WikiCommons. Thank you Universe for their usage! (Scrub Jay & Turkey Vulture soaring are the blog's author.)