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.