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.


  1. Okay, I have to get up there. Twelve years here and haven't yet. Really get the feel of that climb, Tom!

  2. I know those wildlands surrounding LBL well --- me and a couple other high school fools attempted a long-range "ticketless ninja" mission way back in 1980s up there, trying to get to back fence of the Greek Theater to see the good ol' Grateful Dead!

  3. I thought your "guerilla training" days were long gone! but, not so ... anything for a good bird sighting, even if so-called everyday flutterers! lovely post with heart and soul as usual!

  4. ohmygod, what a bike ride from hell. jesus! you deserved to see your whole entire list of wanna-sees after that. unbelievable.

    good write-up. thanks for sharing