Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Perfect Timing and Good Luck Required to Spot "Exotic" Birds in Botanical Garden

Cresting one final hilly stretch of Centennial Drive, I pull in, out of breath and all nicked up, at the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley. I lock my bike up and fetch camera and binoculars from my pack, happy to be here after a ludicrously mis-routed and insanely bodacious ride over, through, up, in and down a gigantic hill below the completely fenced in, security-heavy Lawrence Berkeley Lab. On sketchy single-track, meant strictly for deer and other competent four-legged creatures, me and my trusty Gary Fisher, seeking egress ended up tracing a tough, tough line along the endless perimeter of the fence, probably being laughed at by the security cam guys, to a dead-end, then down into a rough, rough gully cul-de-sac (me cursing and mostly off and pushing my bike), which meant a grueling I-can't-do-this slog back up the steep non-trail on slickery oak leaves, before having no choice but to descend a 100 ft. steeper-ass slope to the road in glissading fashion using my bike, on its side, in front of me, as a sort of snow plow (or leaf plow, if you will), as I slid on my ass precariously down the frictionless earth. First time in a long time I've done anything precarious. Hence, my being out of breath and all nicked up and not too, too badly out of commission to do a little bird watching.

I tell ya, what better day than today to be out doing something, to be here now? After weeks of horrible air quality, things seem fresh and aromatic again. In the jardin extraordinaire, a vibrancy of life overtakes the senses. (I can't help wonder, though, if weeks and weeks of air deemed "unhealthy for sensitive groups" hasn't taken a toll on our little canary in the coal mine friends. . .?)

Tucked away in a sun-plastered, west-facing nook of beautiful Strawberry Canyon in the hills bordering the world-famous campus, the gardens' 34 acres provide lush, attractive, serene settings showcasing every variety of flora imaginable. It is a place to explore, relax, and appreciate a treasure trove of rare, endangered, threatened, and unique plants from habitats the world over. With more than 12,000 different plants, shrubs, cacti and trees, it would take many, many visits to pay each individual its due.

Long ago I was last here. I don't get up Centennial Drive all that frequently, and when I do, I'm bustin' a lung up a challenging stretch of the "Berkeley Death Ride" to Grizzly Peak, and unless you're a plant freak, well, it's kinda like, been there done that. But once you become a bird freak, or a simple, "miracle in the moment" nature freak, well, 34 acres anywhere is as good as a meditative zen garden, and here in particular, owing to thousands of bio-diverse plants, it's an expansive 34-acre avian-attracting arboretum.

It's easy to while away the hours at the UC Botanical Garden, if so inclined, doing not much of anything but watching and watching for birds. Hoping to espy a Pacific Wren or California Thrasher. Just leisurely strolling around the beautiful landscaped grounds in a sort of pleasantly warped zoned out state of mind, not really caring if I do make the acquaintance of a White-throated Swift or Common Goldeneye (so common I've seen it exactly zero times since I really began noticing birds five years ago). Pausing here and there to rest on benches in tranquil, contemplative sylvan settings. Occasionally waving to a Jay or Thrush or Chickadee. Taking in iconic views of the Golden Gate strait and Marin Headlands - Westward Ho! Reflecting in silent reverie beside an artificially created but no less charming pool / cascade scene in the Asian section. And always, always, on the lookout for movement in trees, on the ground, and in the air for some bird or another, a Belted Kingfisher, perhaps, or a Pygmy Nuthatch, to make a surprise cameo appearance. Whether doing not much of anything, or not doing much of anything, bird watching (watching for birds) captivates you at every turn, enthralls your every sensory perception, makes the doing the being, the being the doing.

Depending on the season, you'll be lucky to experience the thrill of what I call a "dream sighting" - of oh-so-many birds I've never seen and can only hope to see: Lazuli Buntings, Barn Owls, Swainson's Thrushes, Loggerhead Shrikes, Bullock's Orioles, Say's Phoebe, Greater White-fronted Geese, and Setophaga occidentali, the Hermit Warbler, a tough to spot little guy whose name suggests residency West of the Rockies, where they nest exclusively in tall conifers, easier heard than seen. The promise of sighting over 100 species of birds - about one-fifth of that recorded at the 71,000 acre spread of Pt. Reyes National Seashore - is pretty darn impressive, even if you aren't a bird freak. So to a bird freak, this is like ground zero, scratch that image - this is like Jeffrey Kimball's enjoyable documentary "The Central Park Effect", where a great swathe of greenbelt (800 or so acres of Central Park) draws down tens of thousands of "exotic" migratory birds, over 100 species, every spring. So, 34 acres vs. 71,000 and 800, ratio of species to acre = ?? Help me here with my math, folks, but seriously, this is a magnet for birds.

Whether it's too late in the fall migration cycle (or too early in the spring), or my timing and luck are just off, on this lackadaisical day of strolling and lolling, I don't have a single "dream sighting" -  not of a Gray Catbird, not of a Red-breasted Sapsucker, not of a Golden-crowned Kinglet, or forty other birds who have eluded me. But how can I complain when so many of the "usual suspects" - delightful, quirky, cute every time - revealed themselves to my voyeuristic eye:

Yellow-rumped Warblers (Adult Male, "Audubon's")

Wood Thrushes (or were they Hermit Thrushes?)

Dark-Eyed and Adult Pink-sided Juncos

Steller's Jays

Black-capped Chickadees

Ruby-crowned Kinglets (no sign of their ruby red pates)

Hummingbirds (probably Anna's)
Small Hawk circling overhead (perhaps an American Kestrel)

Turkey Vulture circling overhead (don't disparage them!)

Red-tailed Hawk circling overhead

Some kind of woodpecker (most likely Downy's)

Northern Flickers

2 un-Id'd birds (I hate that!)

And, this just in  . . . a beautiful Sharp-shinned Hawk! Just two days ago, I spotted one in Codornices Park and wrote about it in the prior post. Today, making my last rounds with the promise of sighting a Lark Sparrow or a Western Kingbird (yeah, right), I'm thinking about and sensing the hawk's presence (don't ask me why), when, sure enough, flighty movement in a nook of well-guarded habitat reveals the hawk landing on a snag, a brief glimpse of the beautiful hunter before he disappears in a tangle of brush to perhaps pounce on rodentia prey or snatch out of thin air an unsuspecting songbird. The boy's gotta eat something, so why not a pretty little yellow and black Warbler.

Bird photos are from Wiki Commons. Thank you Universe for their usage. Botanical Garden photos copyright Gambolin' Man.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Of Urban Redoubts, Refuges, Havens and Sanctuaries for the Wild Birds of Berkeley

Berkeley is renowned for many things - a world-class academic institution, a first-rate arts scene, unparalleled diversity and culture, and wacko trend-setting politics. But thank Goddess for the beautiful Berkeley Hills. Topping out at 1905 ft. above sea level (Vollmer Peak), the Berkeley Hills offer up boundless recreational opportunities, with over 10,000 acres of mostly undeveloped (heavily managed) park lands to explore - Tilden, Wildcat and Briones. On this side of the ridge, though, the neighborhood side, what may be known only to Berkeley's residents (who have included a veritable Who's Who of the Famous and Infamous), one finds (if one looks) a trove of hilly, forested, veritably wild city parks (if one looks). Mini-nature getaways, Berkeley's parks offer up abundant but small miracles, places where one experiences, as I wrote in a post on Codornices Creek, "a bonk on the head reminder that you don't have to venture far afield to partake of the glorious pageantry of Mother Nature unfolding in undisturbed, timeless rhythms, however small or hidden."

Because I can't always get to Tilden / Wildcat / Briones, I've been forced (poor me) to take advantage of exploring our city parks, a cluster of them within walking distance from my North Berkeley neighborhood, including Codornices, Live Oak, Mortar Rock, Indian Rock, Grotto Rock, Remillard, Cragmont, Great Stoneface, and John Hinkel. And have discovered they are places of understated natural beauty, perfectly wonderful habitats aflutter with transient and permanent bird species, owing to the parks' rustic settings among volcanic boulders, redwood trees, streams, waterfalls, and pockets of hidden forest and brush. For us humans, the parks provide much needed respite from jarring city life and the madding crowd, but for the birds . . .well, these places truly are for the birds.

Take Codornices Park. I've spent the past few days observing Juncos, Jays, Titmice, Chickadees, Crows, Vultures, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Spotted and "regular" Towhees, unidentified Sparrows, Morning Doves, Northern Flickers, Anna's Hummingbird, Bushtits, Robin, Wood Thrush, Bewick's Wren, Townsend's Warblers, Adult Male Green-backed and Female Lesser Goldfinches, and - at the end of a two-hour bird watching session - a beautiful Sharp-shinned Hawk, North America's smallest. Only once before had I espied one so up close and personal, amazingly, in the 100 year old Interior Live Oak tree out my bedroom window. Both, wonderful and unexpected surprises, and no small miracle.

So I'm hangin' out watchin' for birds in my usual place - the upper reaches of the hilly park - where only dog walkers and teen stoners pass by - when I'm struck by an urge to explore more, as though there's any more exploring to do in the very delimited park boundaries hedging up against tall redwood fencing abutting spacious back yards. But indeed, a deer trail leads into sylvan pockets of dense tree cover and brush, promising areas I'd peered up into from below, but never checked out until now. Stooping to clear some tangled foliage, I startle a big bird from his hiding place in thick brush. Emerging into the open, I glance up at a nearby tree branch and see the perching hawk, busy with his freshly killed meal, which, I realize, is probably one of the little songbirds I'd just been admiring. I can't really tell, but I do see a red and white gloopy glob of something fall from his sharp yellow beak to the ground, to no great apparent concern.

These handsome Accipiters, with their sturdy squared-off tails that act as rudders, swoosh and swoop through dense forest cover in deadly assaults on songbirds and mice. The stealth creature's diet consists of 90% of their avian kind, but they're not secretive for nothing - they themselves are subject to being preyed upon and eaten as a tasty meal by larger stealth creatures, such as the Northern Goshawk.

Oak Titmouse
Specialized "pursuit hunters" such as the Sharp-shinned Hawk chase down and snatch songbirds out of thin air, or pounce on mice from perches just 36 inches from the ground. To be lucky enough to stumble on one them in wild feasting mode, in a local city park, reaffirms the necessity of preserving our urban redoubts, refuges, havens and sanctuaries for the wild birds and animals (and weary humans).

Certainly, this Sharp-shinned Hawk is a regular nester, somewhat known (among the avianscenti in North Berkeley) for its uncharacteristic frequent appearances over the tree-tipped skies (often harassed by a swarm of crows). But, surely, permanent residency is to be expected, for Sharpies are no dummies, attracted to easy pickings in the urban-cum-woodsy setting of North Berkeley where bird feeders attract a year-round smorgasbord of songbirds (warblers, robins, thrushes, sparrows, poor little things).

The unexpected sighting in Codornice Park of a gorgeous Sharp-shinned Hawk reminds me of a chance sighting I had in the same area of another rarely seen and pretty bird - a Varied Thrush. I spotted him flapping from branch to branch, then landing and remaining still for a nice look. I happened to take a shortcut through an area where a homeless person was encamped, and was pleasantly surprised (rewarded) when the bird flushed out of the brush, revealing a flurry of impressions of burnt orange, sooty black, a flash of turquoise, it seemed.

Crazy fact: 11,000 (!) Sharp-shinned Hawks were spotted on a single day in October on Cape May Point, New Jersey.

Read my post on Codornices Park and Creek @