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!