Thursday, December 11, 2014

Of Golden-crowned Kinglets Spotted in Tilden Regional Park (and Not Much Elsewhere)

The thing about common Golden-crowned Kinglets is, well - I'm gonna go out on a limb here and proclaim, they're actually pretty uncommon during this season or any time of year. In 15 years of "really noticing birds," I can count on one hand, and still have digits left over, the number of times I've spotted the bustling bundles of jittery joy.
Golden-crowned Kinglet

And yet others lay claim to seeing the bird regularly. At least I've read some recent online reports indicating such. So, it must be a matter of luck or timing, because the teensy occult foraging passerine completely eludes me for the most part. Which, on doing a bit of research, isn't so odd; according to the Tilden and Wildcat Canyon Regional Parks Bird Checklist, Golden-crowned Kinglets are listed as UNCOMMON winter visitors, RARE spring passers-by, and, again, UNCOMMONLY sighted during the fall. A 1940 report on frequency of birds sighted on the Berkeley Campus indicates that the bird is spotted very INFREQUENTLY during all times of the year. (Maybe things have changed for the better for the Golden-crowned Kinglet since 1940.)

So what gives - why are many people spotting Golden-crowned Kinglets in and around the Bay Area? And I'm left looking at way too many of the COMMON cousin, the Ruby-crowned Kinglet? (Well, there can never be too many.)
Golden-crowned Kinglet
I've catalogued a grand total of four Golden-crowned Kinglet sightings, a low number surely indicative of just how hard the little cusses are to spot. By way of comparison, I see the Ruby-crowned Kinglet so frequently that it's no big deal anymore (unless, of course, you get a shock of his flashy ruby crown).

But the golden crowned one, ah, this one's much more elusive. An insect foraging, edgy bird, barely bigger than a hummingbird, he's tough to spot, given a predilection for foraging high up "needle country" in recondite pine forest canopy. Your best bet for observing the Golden-crowned Kinglet is when they come down to riparian areas.

A few weeks ago, I experienced my most satisfying sighting to date. The bird, or maybe it was two birds, hard to tell - flitted and foraged for some thirty minutes in brush and small trees along Wildcat Gorge Trail in Tilden Regional Park. Adding to the lively scene were Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Oak Titmouses, Townsend Warblers, and the ever-present Ruby-crowned Kinglets. I also want to think I saw a Nashville Warbler. . . but, having failed to capture an image, I can't swear on it. But I can unequivocally state it was a Warbler-like bird I have never seen before. (Maybe a Vireo of some sort?) Regardless, it was a field day (rather a gorge day) for spotting a couple of birds rarely, if ever, spotted, by me, that is.
Golden-crowned Kinglet
My first Golden-crowned Kinglet sighting was at eerily cool Davis Lake in Oregon. I had no idea what bird it was that just flew like a quantum pellet disappearing into a bush. I had about a 5 second glimpse, just enough to later positively ID him as a GC Kinglet - who could forget that stunning orange vertical stripe on the head?

My second sighting was on Oursan / Bear Creek Trail on EBMUD land. I had just set off and was not quite down to San Pablo Creek, when a bird I instantly knew I'd seen only one other time flew into a tree near the trail, darting about, disappearing, but sticking around long enough to get a much better second look, but no photo, of this crypto-avian species. A thrilling moment only a birder in his own private idaho can enjoy and savor.

My third sighting occurred in a small meadow off Steep Ravine Trail in Marin County. Aromatic after a nice rain, dense brush edged up against lush forest commingling with sunny meadow, perfect bird habitat and weather. Emerging from the dankness of the ravine into the sunlit clearing, I felt a sighting coming on. Go ahead, laugh. Soon it came: a beautiful Golden-crowned Kinglet manifesting right before my eyes in a tree a few feet away. Then  - gone in a flash after a 15 seconds of acquaintance. It's been good to know you, Mr. GC Kinglet.

Townsend's Warbler
What makes the Wildcat Gorge sighting so special is how long the bird stuck around. For a full half-hour, I was absorbed in an almost OCD-like trance of obsessive birdspotting. But it was so beautiful after a fresh rain, with the creek burbling along, and the landscape glistening. Many hikers passing by with their dogs and kids, all looking up to the tree tops in wonderment at my insistent scrutiny though the binoculars. To one, I turned and said, "The birds! Ya gotta love them! You know they can count, right?" The kid's eyes roll and jaw spins - like you mean one plus one equals two? "Exactly!" I say (more to the kid's dad), citing a recent study with New Zealand Robins who "showed that they knew perfectly well when a scientist had showed them two mealworms in a box, but then delivered only one."

What can be more fascinating to the kid in all of us?

Nice vid here:

Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Birducopia of Sightings as Fall Migration Seasons Winds Down (Or Picks Up?)

White-breasted Nuthatch
Fall season has been great for the birds of California, whether temporary visitors or year-round residents. Mild temperatures and abundant sustenance guarantee food, safety and shelter for hundreds of avian species dropping out of the skies around the Bay Area in world class birding locales from Point Reyes National Seashore and Mount Diablo State Park to endless miles of San Francisco Bay shoreline and this blog's favorite and much beloved Jewel Lake / Tilden Nature Area in the Berkeley Hills.

Recent reports on birding sites detail an embarrassment of avian riches everywhere around the Bay Area, including exotic sightings of Mountain Bluebirds off Patterson Pass Road, Tropical Kingbirds at Heather Farms in Walnut Creek, Lewis' Woodpeckers at Briones Reservoirs, and many of my own unheralded, miraculously small birding adventures in the Berkeley Hills, along San Pablo Creek, in Mitchell Canyon, and throughout west Marin County, including a super-hot spot for birds - Limantour Beach - and just about everywhere, anywhere, where there's a forest or brush for cover, it's a bonanza of birds. Aren't they blessed little souls!
Odd Bird Fellows, SF Bay Trail
Naturally, what's good for the birds is good for the birders, and throngs of 'em are out in force this season hoping to spot a wayward Northern Waterthrush or off-course European Finch. Many, including me, are hoping to up their Life List tally by a dozen species. It's that kind of year. And, for the proud and few, it might even be a Big Year . . . which, in any case, will have to wait, unfortunately.

Despite routinely spotting 20, 30 species in my side yard or local park, paradoxically, I've not seen one-tenth or twentieth, even, of the possible number of unique avian visitors to our great Bay Area, a mighty big place, and easily 300 or 400 species come and go and stay. Is it just me who hasn't seen, say a "common" Pine Siskin, Oven Bird, or Painted Bunting? Let alone a Tennessee Warbler, Cassin's Vireo, or Common Poorwill. (Thought: maybe I have spotted one and didn't know it.)
Odd-looking European Starling 'twist Red-winged Blackbirds
Still, it's a Big Year right in Berkeley's Back Yard. My list is growing of several fortuitous, serendipitous, but very fleeting sightings of many splendid (and not so common) birds. Some of whom I may not see again.

A Varied Thrush seen and well photographed at Mitchell Canyon, Mount Diablo State Park. Also spotted over twelve months in Codornices Park, the Regional Parks Botanic Garden parking lot area, John Hinkel Park in Berkeley, and on Thanksgiving Day, two in my side yard, a first ever sighting of the pretty thrushes showing up here.

A White-breasted Nuthatch spotted right off the bat at Mitchell Canyon, but not again after that.
Golden-crowned Kinglet

A Red-breasted Sapsucker, spotted for the first time in the Regional Parks Botanic Garden, and again elsewhere in Tilden Regional Park later. Strange, two sightings, apart, of a bird I had never seen before. (There's that thing again!)

A Black-throated Gray Warbler spotted at Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve. A magical encounter of a unique bird flitting into my life ever so briefly, in a place I had no business being. (Check out prior post on it.) I'll be lucky to ever see one again. And yet . . . it's considered "not so uncommon" to see one!

Killdeers along the San Francisco Bay shoreline - true, I've never before seen one! Have I just not been looking for them? Amazing little dudes, I had never been aware, let alone noticed them before.

Wigeons at the Albany Bulb - ditto. Why would I ever notice a Wigeon before, and know it was a Wigeon I was noticing?

Red-breasted Sapsucker
Hermit Thrushes - they're all over the place this fall, like I never can remember them being. (Could some of them be Fox Sparrows and/or Wood Thrushes I'm misidentifying.) Why did I not notice them as a "fairly common" bird before?

European Starlings spotted at McLaughin Eastshore State Park surprised me immensely for their otherworldly look and coloration. And besides, I don't think I could ever lay claim to actually positively ever having seen one. The photo here managed to stump a few experts for a while! (By the way, ME State Park is an amazing natural resource on our urban doorstep - rehabilitated, terraformed habitat in an upland area known as the Berkeley Meadows,)

Great Blue Heron and Minions
Golden-crowned Kinglets at Wildcat Gorge - or maybe it was just one, but he stuck around for twenty minutes in plain sight. My best ever sustained glimpse of the hardy little bird distinguished by an orange crown stripe emblazoned atop his little head. I consider it a rare thing to spot a Golden-crowned Kinglet, yet people report seeing them left and right. The EBRPD Bird Checklist, though, considers their appearance "rare" and uncommon" all year round. So, what gives?

Come to think of it, even what you might regard as a pedestrian sighting in a local city park of, say, a common bird, like the American Robin, can thrill the heart with a voyeuristic glimpse into the mystery world of birds, a world where each small bundle of feathers and fat is a special and perfect miracle of creation. If you doubt, believe this:

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Birdspotting @ Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve

Black-throated Gray Warbler
When in need of a dose of the desert Southwest, look no farther than the urban fringes of Oakland California. You heard right! Lost in the mist of Neogene time, a volcano exploded, tilted, and deposited a rugged debris field, wiping out a goodly swathe of vegetation and wild life. Ten million years later, the Preserve has rebounded into a geological and botanical wonderland, showcasing eroded mini-Pinnacles-like features in the East Bay Regional Park District's most unique park, fascinating generations of geologists, and attracting legions of nature lovers and birding enthusiasts since its founding in 1936 and probably well before. Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve is a favorite and easy get-away in the Oakland Hills, an amazing place, really. Round Top peak, 1763 ft., is all that remains of the tilted-over volcano. Before the explosion, long-necked camels grazed alongside saber-toothed tigers. The complex and varied land forms of the Preserve shelter Oak and Bay tree forests and extensive meadow, grass and shrub land, inviting safe harbor for countless bird species.

Mount Diablo from "Southwest" Sibley Area
Covering just 660 acres, the Preserve is big and rugged enough to work up a lather climbing the ridges and descending the canyons. With a recent trail system expansion, some real miles can now be covered by hooking up to the world famous Bay Area Ridge and East Bay Skyline National Recreational Trails. A once off-limits section has opened, giving the park a bit more breathing room. Spend some time here, and you'll see that the Preserve is a place to slow down, let your mind drift checking out sign posts on the self-guided tour, noting outstanding geological features or some remnant outcrop of a hard to imagine cataclysmic event. And always, always, on the look out for a cool bird. (Wow! Was that a Rufous-crowned Sparrow you just saw?)

Black-throated Gray Warbler
In the Preserve, along with lively bird animations, you'll see darting rabbits and scurrying lizards and sun-struck snakes. Maybe a fox if lucky. The meadows and rolling hill terrain of the Preserve provide ideal habitat for rodents to proliferate, tasty provender to sate the appetites of Red-tailed Hawks, White Kites, Golden Eagles, and, not unheard of, Bald Eagles, nearby nesters at San Pablo Reservoir. In a hidden "bowels of the earth" place, a small reedy pond is ideal for newt eggs to incubate, and, deep in this old quarry pit, you'll walk an inscrutable labyrinth, whose builders remain a mystery. Spend some quiet time listening to the wind whistling, meditatively walking the circular pathway to the center of this little universe, giving thanks and praise and wonder . . . and always, always, on the look out for a cool bird. (Whoa! Was that a Northern Shrike you just spotted?)

Redrock style Boulder Outcrop
I'm solo biking the entire 660 acres of the Preserve, over extending myself a bit, but ineluctably pulled here and lured there by novel sights and long views and bird rich habitats - cool sightings of flocks of Mourning Doves clouding the skies, White- and Golden-crowned Sparrows ground feeding and bush-diving, and a lone Bewick's Wren hopping about. And always, Scrub and Steller's Jays squawking up a storm. This happens to be my first bird-focused outing to the Preserve, too. How such a "hot spot" for exotic birds has eluded me, I'll never know, but it was here several years ago when I spotted a pair of White Kites in a tree snag sharing a mangled rodent carcass, something I had never seen before. Kinda got me hooked.
Walking the Labyrinth
I'm all in at the Preserve today, thrilled by the tremendous variation in avian habitat, blown away by hugely scenic views I'd totally forgotten about. I circle up and down and all around, spending a solid hour exploring a back section I like to call my very own private red rock wilderness. In this once closed off area, reddish cliffs protrude above boulder-strewn, brush edged meadows - habitat par excellence for birds to hide in, or boldly hang out, such as the Western Bluebirds and Lesser Goldfinches, or circle high above nosing for prey like Turkey Vultures and Northern Harriers. I'm happy and heartened to spot dozens of "sundry" birds over the course of my peregrination - Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Juncos, Jays, and Towhees among the usual suspects. Each, still, in their own way, individually precious and miraculous.

"Redrock Wilderness" in Our Backyard
With my day winding down, a small reserve of energy enables one last reconnoiter to the top of the old quarry pit. Always, always, on the look out for a cool bird. I circle behind the ridge, out of sight to the world, dropping my bike at the Preserve boundary fence to climb over into district watershed land. Moments before, I had a thought of my 90 year old Mom - this blog's biggest fan! She was psychically directing me to this particular area, I felt, where I instinctively sensed an "exotic" bird would appear. Go ahead, laugh. I sure was! After extended, luxurious moments of silent time admiring big Diablo Range views in between neck-craning for birds, my patience - and faith! - is rewarded when suddenly I notice a most unusual and interesting looking bird flirting about in a small tree. I'm like - what the. . .? Scrambling to get a good bino view, while at the same time fumbling with my camera to get off a shot. Luckily, I'm able to capture a couple of poor quality photos, but proof positive of it being a Black-throated Gray Warbler! How cool is that, fellow birders? (The distinctive yellow eye dot is the tell-tale signature feature of the grayish-white bird.)

Scrub Jay
I'm humbled, amazed, and excited to bear witness for one minute to the doings, comings and goings of a Black-throated Gray Warbler! Also frustrated as hell, for he's now long gone, flown away to a far off tree down the hillside - never to be seen again, a once in a lifetime sighting. Have YOU ever seen one? Well, go ahead and pop my balloon, they're supposedly not all that unusual to spot. But I'll put cash money that I'll never see another.

In a recent post, I wrote about how once you see a bird for the first time, you will then, by some ineffable law of attraction, begin seeing that same bird over and over. It does happen. In the annals of Bay Area Birdspotting, how likely is it, I wonder, that I will ever again see a Black-throated Gray Warbler? Stay tuned.

For slide show of Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve's unique and fascinating scenery, check out

Monday, November 17, 2014

Birding Delights @ Jewel Lake / Wildcat Creek

Varied Thrush
Tilden Regional Park is a natural wonder on our urban doorstep just minutes away in the Berkeley Hills - even by bike! The lovely Tilden Nature Area is alluring any time of year, especially pretty now with dense brush and forest draped in autumn colors. A stroll around the Nature Area - if you're a birder - can soak up a few hours in no time just ambling around, checking for birds at the edges of the still-flowing creek, in the rich habitat of the winding boardwalk, and at the aviary otherwise known as Jewel Lake, where birdspotting becomes a special art. Often meeting fellow giddily enthusiastic birders, you're bound to see cormorants flapping their wings, mallards and other waterfowl gliding about, herons feeding, Black Phoebes and Anna's Hummingbirds flitting about, Kingfishers darting to and fro (if you're lucky), frenetic Ruby-Crowned Kinglets in their constant search for insects, and several types of Warblers, also single-mindedly engaged in the business of gathering sustenance for survival - and sustenance abounds in the Tilden Nature Area, which accounts for the plethora and diversity of avian visitors and residents.

Acorn Woodpecker
The other day I watch gangs of Acorn Woodpeckers in the marsh ponds flit back and forth from their high perches in the Eucalyptus trees to nearby Oaks to gather their bounty and issue forth chiding aaack aaack aaack calls. On Blue Gum Trail, a troupe of two dozen Wild Turkeys crosses my path, only mildly frightened by vain attempts to film them. At the edge of a dried out pond, I think a Varied Thrush is hiding in dense understory, but can't verify it until returning an hour later just to see. My patience - or timing - is rewarded within a few seconds with a fine glimpse of the handsome thrush, crouched in typical hard to spot, camo'd, secretive pose amid a tangle of branches. No hiding from me this time, but definitely it's not the easiest bird to photograph. (The representative photo you see here was taken the week before at Mitchell Canyon Trail in Mount Diablo State Park.)

Wild Toms
Now how is it that with multiple dozens of visits to the Tilden Nature Area / Wildcat Creek Watershed, I continue to be dumbstruck by the many different birds seen here . . . that I have never seen! Not one! Not once! It makes no sense! Writing for Mount Diablo Audubon Society, Steve Glover casually reports varied sightings of birds spotted in this very area that have thus far completely eluded my sphere of awareness:

Swainson' Thrush (0 sightings)

Allen's Hummingbird (0 sightings)

Nuttall's Woodpecker (0 sightings)

Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Red-eyed Vireo (0 sightings)

Tennessee, Chestnut-sided, Hooded, Black-throated Blue, Black-and-White, and Worm-eating Warblers (0 sightings)

Northern Parula (0 sightings)

Northern Waterthrush (0 sightings)

American Redstart (0 sightings)

Western Wood-Pewee (0 sightings)

Pine Siskin (0 sightings)

Winter Wren (0 sightings)

Red-tailed Hawk
Song Sparrow (0 sightings)

Purple Finch (0 sightings)

Lazuli Bunting (1 sighting in higher park area)

How can this be? Am I not paying attention? Are the birds determined to not pay attention to me? Is my timing off? Do I not know a Swainson's from a Hermit? A Vireo from a Kinglet? A Lark from a Song? Surely not. Like my chanterelle hunting bud of old who had an uncanny ability to magically spot barely popping up fungi, it must take another kind of talent, some preternatural connection, to stand there silently, patiently - expectantly? - until an American Redstart or Northern Parula happens to show up. Maybe, has to be, like I said, about timing. These birds must be early morning or late evening appearing birds, and I'm always, or mostly, here from 10 am to 3 pm. In any event, I could also certainly benefit from instructions, lessons, camaraderie, if only I weren't such a maverick and lone wolf about things.

Tilden Nature Area
I'll settle with my own wonderful sightings recently - of a juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron; an unflappable Great Blue Heron; an exciting first ever sighting of a Warbling Vireo, barely ID'd owing to a last-sec snapshot I managed to capture; and the Varied Thrush I had seen earlier on this day. I decide to making a last-minute detour hoping to see something different, something special. What are the chances? I head up a path through the big Lone Oak meadow paralleling Wildcat Creek, coming to a picnic area where a heretofore unknown pathway leads down a ways to the Nook Pool area. On the opposite side from the usual approach on Wildcat Gorge Trail, everything seems so unfamiliar, exotic even, with unrecognizable grand Redwood and Bay trees and a thick blanket of forest to discover the secretive world of not one, not two, but three Varied Thrushes! Unphotographable as usual, I still manage to witness these pretty burnt-orange striped and tinged birds darting and hopping for several minutes, unaware of the voyeur looking in. A perfect capper to a day that also included sightings of frisky Chestnut-backed Chickadees, a lone Townsend's Warbler, blitzing Scrub and Steller's Jays, many Dark-eyed and Pink-sided Juncos, a slew of Ruby-crowned Kinglets, one Downy and half a dozen Acorn Woodpeckers, two dozen Wild Turkeys, several Vultures, two Red-tailed Hawks, one Bewick's Wren, one Hermit Thrush, a few California Towhees, two Black Phoebes, one Mourning Dove, lots of Bushtits, and a pair of really pretty Adult Male Green-backed Lesser Goldfinches! Much to write home about.

Read more about the Nature Area @

Monday, October 20, 2014

Of Unexpected Additions to My LIFE LIST . . . and Other Mysterious Avinomena

After a lengthy absence this dry summer, our bird friends have returned. Or perhaps they never left. Who knows. Maybe some are reclusive winter stay-overs. Hard to tell, when you're just a hack birder. One thing's for sure - they're now dropping down like confetti into tree tops as fall migration season kicks in.

No matter your approach to birding, it's sheer joy to have birds around, to be around birds in their ennobled company, watching them engage in sophisticated actions, curious antics and quirky activities. Much can be learned in the patient art of just watching - perhaps more about oneself than about the birds. Certainly, without our perennially popular perambulators of the skies, the parks and woodlands do seem lonely, a bit prosaic, even. And with their adored presence skittering and flashing about, they liven up a quiet scene, and a much missed connection with the natural world is re-established by tuning in to the birds.

Over the past several weeks, I've had a fortuitous combination of good luck, timing, location and patience to add a passel of cool confirmed sightings to my Life List. It's hard to describe the transcendent feeling of intimate discovery that overcomes you when - at that precise, precious moment - you realize you've laid eyes on a creature of delicate beauty and rare appearance. The funny thing is, once you've spotted a bird for the first time, you suddenly begin spotting said bird all over creation. How is it that previously unseen birds, once sighted, are then seen many times in quick succession? (Thought: maybe they've just heretofore gone unnoticed?) Well, this odd avinomenon has happened to me with the Pacific-slope and Ash-throated Flycatchers, Brown Creeper, Black-headed Grosbeak, Warbling Vireo, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Varied Thrush, Sharp-shinned (possibly Cooper's) Hawk, Rufus Hummingbird, and Banded-tailed Pigeon. Who next? I hope the Western Kingbird. . .

The Band-tailed Pigeon is probably the only "Code 2" bird I've spotted - Code 2 being the American Birding Association's designation for birds occurring in low numbers and mysteriously elusive. . .that is, until first spotted. Hiking last April on an ecological reserve near Bonny Doon, Jessica Vaughan Powell pointed out a trio of them roosting in high pine branches, and since then, I've seen Band-tailed Pigeons two more times, in Redwood Regional Park, and Samuel P. Taylor State Park, heavily wooded and protected areas for this bird whose population is in decline. A pretty pigeon - as all pigeons are - his feathery iridescence and bold white stripe on the nape clearly mark this as the one and only 13 oz., 15 in. long Band-tailed Pigeon, a bird, admits the ABA, " that may be harder to spot than some species that have higher codes."

Warbling Vireo - oh, what a story! I'm in the Tilden Nature Area at Jewel Lake when a guy stops and wonders what I'm looking at it. He volunteers, "You see the Northern Waterthrush?" The Who? What? Apparently, the East Coast dweller got off course and ended up here, hanging out by the spillway in September, prompting birders to come out for the chance to see a bird spotted in the Bay Area once or twice in twenty years, if that. Earlier, I had spotted a warbler like vireo or vireo like warbler, hard to tell - with a distinctive white eye stripe and sweet cry. But I confuse this bird for the Northern Waterthrush when the guy adds, "Yeah, he's got a white eye stripe, unmistakable." AHA! So, I excitedly chase down this lovely elderly couple we often see at Jewel Lake (we call them Hubert and Magda), beside myself with excitement, exclaiming that indeed, we had seen the Holy Grail of Off Course Birds - the Northern Waterthrush! (Being highly interested in the natural world about them, Hubert and Magda are notably impressed.) But once home, checking my bird guide, I'm disappointed to learn it was merely some other bird and not the Northern Waterthrush, but later on I was delighted to find out that I spotted the somewhat rare (for the Bay Area) Warbling Vireo! And, of course, since that day, I've seen Warbling Vireos on two more occasions! (Shout out to Steve Gallup for helping to make the positive ID on the poor photo I managed to snap of the methodical branch hopping insect and berry eater.)

SAY'S PHOEBE (I dare say)
Now take the American Pipit - a fairly common bird I'd never before seen until I happened to spot a bunch of them ground feeding in an enclosed area at Point Isabel on October 18. Crazy that in all my outings, the Pipit has never been seen! How can it be? (Or that the "common" Horned Lark has been seen but once in 35 years, quashing my theory of seeing a bird many times after the initial sighting. That and the Merlin.) With the Pipit, it remains to be seen. . .if the Pipit will be seen forthwith. (Postscript: while reviewing photos for this post, I came across one of a Pipit taken at the Albany Bulb a year ago! Just goes to show you don't know what you don't know . . .)

(Slightly off-topic mention: how about the equally never before seen White-headed Woodpecker, although spotted farther afield on the Tahoe Rim Trail in mid-September. OK, bring it on, Whitey! Show your face again!)

In between all these new first sightings, I've also had several glimpses of exotic looking flycatchers hangin' out on a barbed wire fence near Wildcat Knoll and in the Burrowing Owl habitat at Albany Bulb. I'm guessing they're Ash-throated and Say's Phoebe's, mebbe. Throw in a raft of unID'd sightings of vireo/warbler type birds, plus a slew of strange goings-on with the elusive California Thrasher, and you've got the makings of a perfect storm of know-nothingness. But the Thrasher is now a familiar friend, an interesting - nay, charismatic - bird I've seen just a handful of times over the past few months, most recently a last-minute sighting the other day at the Albany Bulb when I turn into an area just to see, and sure enough, I see the curve-billed bird, well-camo'd, flushing out of underbrush to alight on a branch for a few moments of posing, minus the singing, like one day up on Wildcat Knoll when I hear a lilting song emanating from a bush, but seeing nothing, I leave frustrated by my complete lack of bird song ID skills. Minutes later, near Conlon / Nimitz Way juncture overlooking the San Pablo Reservoir and Mount Diablo, I hear the unmistakable song again, and - there's the Thrasher singing it. Bada Bada Bing!
This befuddling bird business is inexplicable. Why birds remain elusive until the moment of discovery, and then immediately thereafter begin appearing here and there and everywhere like special cameos in your life, is a head-scratching, unsolvable conundrum. Until you know what you don't know, it's all a Black Swan of assumptions, narratives and pretend expertise.

And still the question goes unanswered. How is it that previously unseen birds, once seen, are then seen many times in quick succession? Is it a principle of physics? Some twist of morphic resonance? Or deep natural laws of attraction at work? Maybe it's merely odds, timing, just a symptom of my utter naivete and whimsical approach to birding, with a modest underpinning of academic rigor and taxonomic certainty. It's an enduring mystery that will continue to delight the serious, casual, or obsessed birder, take your pick.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

BerkeleyBackYardBirding @ Live Oak Park

OK, so it's technically not my backyard, but a five-minute walk there ain't bad. Long considered one of North Berkeley's premier urban sanctuaries, Live Oak Park contains within a few modest acres magnificent oaks, tall redwoods, elegant pine and sweeping bay trees. Add in the kicker of a year-round flowing creek - miraculous! - and you've got a place deserving of a resounding WOW, a place where wild creatures, unfazed by urban distractions, carry on in their natural rhythms.

Live Oak Park is a place to easily gravitate to, whether your thing is lounging on sunny lawns, picnicking in shady groves, playing with your dog, or wandering aimlessly watching for birds in the park's varied avian habitat. On routine outings, I've spottted more varieties of birds here than in wilder, natural areas of the Berkeley Hills. A sampling of over 30 different birds in the past couple of years:

Brown Creepers - Pacific-slope Flycatchers - Willow Flycatchers - Chestnut and Black-capped Chickadees - Adult Pink-sided, Slate, and Dark-eyed Juncos - Steller's Jays - Black Phoebes - Hermit Thrushes - Wilson's Warblers - Yellow-rumped Warblers - Townsend's Warblers - California Towhees - Spotted Towhees - House Finches - Anna's  Hummingbirds - Sharp-shinned Hawks - Red-tailed Hawks - Turkey Vultures - Lesser Goldfinches - Oak Titmouses - Ruby-crowned Kinglets - American Crows - American Robins - Bushtits - Bewick's Wrens - Cedar Waxwings - Sparrows (?) - Downy Woodpeckers / and, a gorgeous Scarlet Macaw, whose proud owner let me photograph to my heart's content.

Over the past few months, these many birds show up in the park's venerable Interior and Canyon Live Oak trees, to delight, enchant and offer up one cool sighting after another in our bird friendly urban park. One day it's a frisky Pacific-sloped Flycatcher, dripping wet and shaking off from a dip in the creek; another day, a Hermit Thrush frozen on a branch for a perfect viewing; and last week, an Anna's Hummingbird pausing (and posing) just long enough for a couple of my best snapshots of the hard to photograph bird. Last year, I watched as the diminutive, elusive creature flew in to her carefully concealed nest, constructed in a wedge of supportive branches over Codornices Creek adjacent to Live Oak Park on a daylighted stretch of property belonging to the Jewish Community Center. For many days, I watched her zip invisibly in for a smooth landing on the tiny nest, but never saw any young 'uns, and eventually, she disappeared completely. But, they know and love the place, so they always return. Just like me, to Live Oak Park to see and appreciate our feathered friends again and again.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Arid Mitchell Canyon In Mount Diablo State Park a Comfortable Home for Birds

With California burning through a drought plagued summer, the rugged, dry, hot as Hades, sun-baked hills of Mount Diablo State Park don't exactly beckon. Even in the park's dulcet canyons, normally perennial creeks chugging along in late August are now fossils of their once burbling selves. Mitchell Creek is one-hundred percent stone dead dry - a desiccated artery in an inhospitable place, you'd think. And yet birds flock here in sizable numbers. Throughout the 3,849 ft. Mount Diablo's 20,000 bio-diverse acres encompassing several distinct climate and eco-zones, an astonishing 200 birds species have been identified, with 150 species spotted in the vicinity of Pine Pond alone. Naturally, Mount Diablo is a world-renowned Top Birding Destination.

The birds who call Mitchell Canyon home are protected in heavy forest cover of Oak, Madrone, Manzanita, Big Leaf Maple, Alder, California Buckeye, and Gray Pine ("Diggers"), sheltered from burnt auburn high sloping, open chaparral hill country, perfect habitat not just for birds, but for all kinds of insects, mammals, amphibians and reptiles. All need water, of course, so most are transient Canyon dwellers, but the specially equipped masters of the aerial realm, the birds, they're able to easily find water in the summertime desert throes of the devil mountain, in hidden springs, remnant tinajas, hard to get to ponds and otherwise inaccessible seeps, so birds can afford to take up residence in the provender-rich forests, riparian, and lower chaparral zones of truly lovely Mitchell Canyon. You gotta hand it to the birds for their evolutionary-resolved supremely capable self-sufficient capacity to thrive and survive in any environment on the planet.
Despite the heat and utter lack of moisture, Mitchell Canyon supports elegant, mature Fremont Cottonwoods, stately trees requiring deep wellsprings for their roots to suck up threads of water to survive in times like these. Just beautiful, yellow leaves shimmering in the breeze in a wedge of blue sky. Every which way you turn just beautiful. The first mile or so of the easy trail parallels shady tree-lined Mitchell Creek, making for a pleasant slow stroll rife with distractions at every turn, and always attentive to any and all bird activity:

Bold-faced Acorn Woodpeckers working gnarled Blue Oaks.

A Ladderback hammering away up top.
A lone, elusive Hummingbird, un-ID'd.

(What? No California Quail?)

Northern Flickers skirting away with their prominent white ass spot showing.

Teeming, energetic Juncos.

Oak Titmouses looking so different from Oak Titmouses I have seen and known. Why such variation?

Scrub and Steller's Jays carrying on some aggressive business.

Turkey Vultures lazily circling (what else is new?)

(What? No wild Toms?)

Bushtits hanging upside down like fruit bats.

A Red-tailed Hawk heard and seen perched on a telephone pole on exiting the park.

Crazily delightful Chestnut-backed Chickadees feeding on leafy undersides.

Even the "bland" California Towhees enchant momentarily.

(What? No Spotted Towhees?)

Then, what I think is a Bewick's Wren completely baffles me during several minutes of intense observation, when I simply cannot get a bead on his characteristic white eyebrow stripe. Based on pinkish-brown "camo" streaking on pale underbelly, my guess is that he's a juvenile Bewick's. Juvenile anythings always  mess with me!

Then comes the sighting of the day: a pair of handsome flycatchers feeding a young one through a hole drilled 50 ft. up in a dead tree. I watch their down-pat routine for almost an hour, their expert back and forth flying off missions to return posthaste with a insect morsel. In an unforgettable, lamentably unphotographed moment, one lands on a branch, stationed there for three precious seconds, with a big silvery dragonfly clenched in mouth. What a thing of beauty!

Birds, through gender, seasonal and age differences, are highly nuanced in color, size, feather pattern, and other indicators of natural variation - hell, there must be a half-dozen or more different kinds of flycatchers in the Mitchell Canyon vicinity to distinguish among. After some close up encounters, I can now positively ID a Pacific-slope Flycatcher, but even the "common" Ash-throated variety can throw me off, which goes to show my lame ID skills. This pair undoubtedly are Ash-throated, thanks to the ID prowess of Caribbean resident Mr. Binkie Van Es. But for all I (don't) know, they could be Great-crested, Hammond's, Willow's, Least, Olive-sided, Dusky, or Gray Flycatchers. 

What else - oh, yeah, the kill site! Mess of brown and white striped tail and wing feathers scattered about, soft white down plucked violently out, evidence of the death of a young hawk, presumably, having been attacked and killed by a bigger red in tooth and claw hawk . . .

Although it's a great day of birding in Mitchell Canyon, you can't help but feel a bit let down considering how little you actually saw of the bird world of Mount Diablo. According to the Mount Diablo Interpretive Association - get your head around this:

33 varieties of Warblers can be spotted! (I've probably seen just five varieties in my days.)

Never-before seen (by me) Scarlett and Summer Tanagers.

Phainopepla, for heaven's sake!

Yellow-breasted Chats, Painted Buntings, and Northern Parulas, are you kidding me!

Two dozen kinds of mostly indistinguishable Sparrows.

And many other "exotic" (to me) bird species who occupy, frequent, pass through, take up residence, visit,  and drop in on Mount Diablo's immense welcoming bosom. As for me, I've seen a grand total of zero of these birds, and that includes non-sightings of 7 Wren species, 11 Finches, and 70 distinct breeding and migratory waterfowl. Mind-blowing, even if you're not a birder, and if you are, well, then, it's obvious you don't know jackdaw when it comes to the multifarious, mysterious birds of Mount Diablo.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Two Small Forest Hawks Crash Scene, Make Ruckus in Branches

I've written about the Interior Live Oak gracing our side yard, an arboreal specimen of great stature attracting diverse bird life, and apparently humans as well. A while ago, two guys from Boston were out front peering into the branches. I greeted them and they said they were staying with friends around the corner and had read about this "famous" tree on some blog.

We had a good laugh and proceeded to spot, in ten minutes, a dozen birds, including a Bewick's Wren, Ruby-Crowned Kinglet, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, and some kind of sparrow. I've seen Northern Mockingbirds, Downy Woodpeckers, Lesser Goldfinches, and Sharp-shinned Hawks. Or so I suspect. Over a year ago, what I thought was a Sharp-shinned came zooming in to land on a branch, perching there for several minutes. Come to think of it, he may have been a Cooper's Hawk. Tough to tell, but yesterday, two small forest hawks appeared and flapped and squawked about for several intermittent hours in the big thick branches of the 100 year old tree.

The two hawks - Sharp-shinned and Cooper's - should be easy to differentiate in theory, but in practice, it's tough to tell them apart, at least in my practice. The pair were definitively juveniles - so where's mom and pop? - so that's one level of distinction between the two species, as well as the Sharp-shinned being smaller, tucking in his head, sporting a squared off tail, and blotched with broad streaks; whereas the (juvenile) Cooper's is larger, has a rounded tail tip, and has finer streaks on white breast. Still, knowing all this, positively identifying these two visitors took twenty minutes of perusing two hard-bound field guides and two web resource sites before concluding, what may have been obvious to YOU all along, that they were a pair of juvenile Cooper's Hawks.

Can anyone prove differently?

I wonder if these guys were out on a foray on their own, learning the ropes, told to go kill something to eat? Or that transmitted instinct telling them it's time to do so. The adults were nowhere to be seen, so this was a real pop quiz for the boys. Presuming they were boys, the two small, handsome accipiters put on quite a show throughout most of the morning and early afternoon, emitting high-pitched caws and flopping about from branch to branch. Eye and ear candy for the sweet-toothed urban bird fiend.

Friday, July 25, 2014

One Fine Day of Birding at Jewel Lake

Jewel Lake in Tilden Regional Park is a tranquil, bucolic setting ideal for any number of activities, not least of which is birding and observing natural rhythms of the small, pretty lake, which is really Wildcat Creek impounded. In the heart of the Tilden Nature Area, young and old alike delight in watching turtles sun on logs, spotting occasional snakes and frogs, and wading into swarms of minnows. This rich bio-diverse ecosystem has even attracted river otters from afar. How they make it to Jewel Lake is a thing to ponder. Birds, too, naturally, flock here for good feeding and shelter. It's not uncommon to see Great Blue Herons skittering in for a landing on a fallen tree trunk, or shiny black Cormorants spread-eagling their wings in showy displays of - what exactly? I've seen Belted Kingfishers here, too, but not in two or three years. And, as usual, Steller's Jays are on the prowl looking for picnickers' crumbs. Today's highlights are a juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron feeding on minnows, and a spiffy pair of Black Phoebes snatching gnats and damselflies out of thin air. Each is absorbed and deeply engaged in their uniquely respective stalking ways.

The Night Heron, perhaps due to youthful indiscretion, is not afraid or intimidated by my presence, but I stay at a respectful distance. Mom 'n pop must be near by, I'm guessing, unless this guy is old enough and independent / competent enough to do without parental care. Anyone know? Well, he's a stunning bird - I probably take two dozen photographs, for he just keeps on giving the gift of posing perfectly for me for one up close and personal shot after another. Rare indeed.

Nearby, in the willowy brush lining the muddy reed-lined shore, two Black Phoebes sit side by side, then fly off in unison on a reconnaissance mission, and then return together to their sweet love perch. I watch them flit and flutter, masterfully and aesthetically whirly-looping over the shimmering water, then popping back again to sit side by side to survey their world in (what appears to me to be) contented satisfaction. Back now to the Night Heron, who's flown to the other side of the lake to see if pickins are any better over there.

Adding to the lively avian scene are colorful Mallards and other ducks swimming about; a pair of Wilson's Warblers; and emboldened Jays, Juncos and Chickadees. It's a beautiful place to go for a short, quick, get-away to experience some "real" nature. Take the elevated boardwalk winding through a bird-lover's forest, to spot snakes entangled on sun-baked logs and a Northern Flicker or two, among other feathered friends.

Bonus Video: Juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron Feeding on Minnows, Jewel Lake, Tilden Nature Area, Tilden Regional Park.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Main Reason You're Here - Some Sweet-ass Birding

It’s a middle of the summer Bay Area triple play weekend. Ideal conditions to spot an abundance of birds out and about, making frisky cameo appearances here and there - in densely forested Oakwood Valley in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area; along lovely Stream Trail in Redwood Regional Park; and in Cascade Canyon Open Space’s creek-fed willow-the-wispy sylvan enclave of Elliott Nature Preserve. Three very different, very alluring places to enjoy challenging hiking or chill strolling, limited biking, bountiful nature appreciation, and – the main reason you’re here – some sweet-ass birding.

But more often than not there are no birds to watch. It’s a big waiting game, requiring the zen-like patience and stillness of a stalking Heron (well, maybe). Idling away minutes on end for a chance appearance, hoping for a prolonged glimpse of some rarely spotted bird or another. Often, even a relative “commoner” (like a Golden-crowned Kinglet?) can be as elusive to spot as some Holy Grail bird (like an Ash-throated Flycatcher or American Pipit?). Honestly, you’ve probably seen any number of these guys during fledgling moments of observation, but just didn’t recognize or know it at the time. Or even now. Won’t you sometimes look at an Oak Titmouse or Bushtit, or a Lesser Goldfinch, or oddly splotched Bewick’s Wren, and think – that’s not an Oak Titmouse or Bushtit or Lesser Goldfinch or Bewick’s Wren . . . or is it? That’s birding for you. Always room for doubt and mystery.
Oakwood Valley’s proximity to the enormously popular Tennessee Valley trailheads near Marin’s Pacific Coast renders it – literally! – a mere backwoods, an overlooked third or fourth choice for an area hike. But you’ll take this slice of woodsy respite any day of the week! You’ve always noticed cars parked here, so someone knows something you don’t. Hard to believe, though, in dozens of trips to Tennessee Valley, it’s the first real stop over at Oakwood Valley, which turns out to be immediately enchanting (well, you’re a birder). The narrow trail winds through open brush then enters thick forest to gently ascend along an unnamed creek before steeply climbing to the aptly named Alta Trail, where big-time, world-class views await, in a stunning arc of thousands of square miles of natural wonders: Mount Tamalpais, Richardson Bay, Angel Island, San Francisco and beyond to the East Bay where iconic Mount Diablo, at 3848 feet above sea level, is a teensy triangle on the horizon.
A slow saunter through the woods makes for an enchanting day’s outing. Warm, patchy sun, clearing skies, pillowy clouds, scruffy meadows, and a bonanza of birds! First thing you know, a frisky, bold Black-headed Grosbeak hops up on an exposed branch to bare his orange-breasted escutcheon for several seconds. It’s only the third or fourth time you’ve sighted the interesting, colorful, quasi-exotic and rarely-spotted bird (in your estimation), precipitating excited albeit exaggerated outbursts of wonderment, but alas, too much fumbling in between bino views, so no photos to be had . . .

 Oakwood Valley Trail is flat-out lovely; no hurry to put territory in front of or behind you. Surely, your partner – no birder fanatic – is itchin’ to keep the pace up, but today it’s business as usual in your birding world: slow, aimless ambling, with many detours and distractions. Drying up creek bed splotched with leafy color. Magic mushroom eye patterns on a butterfly’s purple brown wings. A small mud hole ringed with horsetail and reeds, a frog’s haven, mosquitos love it, too. Constantly stopping every five seconds to ascertain the indiscernible provenance of a certain cry, whistle, peep, tweet or shriek. No dice. No luck. That’s how many birds are diggin’ this place! Often, their musical notes are the only clue to their presence. Consider yourself fortunate, if able to coax a trilling Oven Bird out from the underbrush, or espy a kaa-kaa-kaaing Ferruginous Hawk fleeing treetop cover for the open skies.
In such a varied environment - meadow, grassland, sylvan, riparian – you’re able to rack up 20 confirmed sightings, including the now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t Grosbeak, playful Wilson's Warblers, down to business Spotted Towhees, frisky Dark-eyed and Adult Pink-sided Juncos, whirring Rufous, Allen’s and Anna's Hummingbirds, circling Red-tailed Hawks, curious as hell Scrub and Steller's Jays, whistlin’ while they play House Finches, peepin’ California Quail, peckin’ away Downy Woodpeckers, fidgety Ruby-crowned Kinglets,  soaring Turkey Vultures, and acrobatic Chestnut-backed Chickadees . . . enough bird action to keep you busy for several – years!
Next up: Redwood Regional Park in the Oakland Hills, always a great place to while away the hours. Today marks a first, though, with some serious birding on the agenda. In the shaded interior of the forest, third generation Redwoods soar 150 feet tall. Stream Trail runs the length of deep-cut Redwood Creek, by now quite dried up, but still emanating a special quality of beauty and sweet respite from the heat. The cathedral-like forest and pretty stream that runs through it enchant, where Rainbow Trout were first identified, categorized and eventually introduced to other parts of the world. The impressive progeny of old-growth Redwoods, the biggest and tallest in the world at one time, lend a Jurassic Park feeling to things. Naturally, the birds love it here!

You leave the parade of strollers for a side-winding trail above the forest floor, cresting 50 feet above, stopping to take in – lovely birdsong? – no, just lovely wafting violin music! Three musicians are playing folksy bluegrass tunes under a grove of Redwoods! You drop pack and plop ‘er down  right there on the dusty trail and enjoy twenty minutes of the impromptu concert from on high. . . a complement to the music of birds you hear all about.

While investigating an oxbow bend in the creek, where tiny fish are able to survive in shaded pools, a big flap on the opposite bank turns out to be a big-winged bird landing on a branch for some good viewing long enough to identify the Band-tailed Pigeon! It’s just your second sighting of a "Code 2” bird, which elicits howls of histrionic delight. (Code 2 means a bird’s range is “restricted but regular in the American Birding Association area.”). Might not seem like any big deal . . .but the Band-tailed Pigeon makes your day! Him and a half-dozen other feathered brethren seeking respite along Redwood Creek’s hospitable artery: Juncos, Hermit Thrush, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, American Crows, Steller’s Jays, Brown Creepers, and the always pretty Spotted Towhees. Obviously, a birder’s paradise – make that a bird’s paradise.

Day 3, you’re off to a favorite place: Marin County’s Open Space District, a wildlife sanctuary, a retreat for humans, a place you love no matter the time of year, when varying seasons bring dramatic changes to the landscape. Now, dry as dry can be, still you find, along Cascade Creek lovely surviving pools harboring fingerling trout, water striders, bugs, and you even spot your first Blue Skink in four years. Stunning little guy. Along sheltered San Anselmo Creek, you’re amazed to actually find flowing water in the shady setting, so peaceful and cool and beautiful contrasted against the stark, harsh, burnt golden glare of arid hillsides and gone to seed meadows. The main wide artery of San Anselmo Creek is stone dead dry. And still, the birds are enamored of this place! Everyone from Black-capped Chickadees and Spotted Towhees, to Pacific-slope Flycatchers, Hummingbirds and Turkey Vultures. Throw in a few oddly splotched Juncos, pairs of high-pitched trilling House Finches, and call it a day. A day of supremely superb birding, thank you, my bird friends!