Thursday, March 6, 2014

Quintupling Down: 5 Sightings Over 5 Days of 5 Elusive Birds

"The bird is powered by its own life and by its own motivation."
 - A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, India's 11th President

The Bay Area is a great place to call home, and maybe 300 species of birds do so at any given time. During an extended holiday weekend, we pack in a vacation’s worth of adventure for the small price of five short drives to three nature blessed counties: Marin, Alameda, and Contra Costa. We wake up not knowing where each day will take us, but assured that no matter which direction we set off, a favorite, oft visited locale awaits, a cherished retreat never boring or reduced to the commonplace. . .each time drawn back by the hypnotic spell of water, from oceanic expanses and bay shoreline, to lakes, ponds and cascading creeks; lands of rugged beauty, Diablo Range and North Coast boundary country of grand skies, flower-dotted meadows, Redwood groves and green forests with healthy animal and bird populations.

Over five days, in five different places, five difficult to spot birds briefly reveal their presence. Difficult for me, that is. For whatever reason, these five birds remain elusive, rarely, if ever, seen, even though they’re classified as “common” Code 1 species. Compare, for instance, the 90 million strong, commonly spotted, fidgety, insect-eating dynamo, the Ruby-crowned Kinglet to the 100 million strong similarly temperamental Golden-crowned Kinglet. I see Ruby all the time, to the point where, unless he’s flashin’ that hint of red soul patch atop his little drab olive head, it’s hardly cause for celebration. But Goldy? I’ve seen this tiny songbird of “least concern” a grand total of three times. Three times. Doesn’t make sense, can’t explain it, but that’s my experience. How about you?

On day one, we squeeze into one of about six angled parking spots off Highway 1, at the Steep Ravine pull-out, near Marin County’s Stinson Beach. Located on Mount Tamalpais’ southwest flank, few places are prettier than Steep Ravine, especially when the water’s churning. A couple of Godsend downpours in February have revived Webb Creek’s discharge through the perennially gorgeous gully; we’re giddy and energized on the hike in the presence of frothy water swooshing melodiously over polished boulders, cascading down twenty foot ledges, singing merrily its bedrock song, snaking around bend after bend with enormous Redwood trees and gigantic Western Ferns accentuating the Northwest Rainforest feel to things. Downed  trees across the creek are natural, dangerously slippery bridges. Trillium and mushrooms are popping up left and right. Steep Ravine is a hugely popular trail, easily accessed and hiked, but today, an overcast Friday, things aren’t too (too) bad in terms of crowds. Hardly any birds at all, though, until we emerge from the damp fragrant gully into a bright meadow on the Dipsea Trail, edged by trees and dense shrubbery. Birds are out playing in force. I spot a half-dozen Ruby-crowned Kinglets, one of the them emblazoning his ruby patch for a split sec – only about the sixth time I've ever seen that; also a ton of Juncos, along with an angry Scrub Jay, a handful of my little Chickadees, blustering Crows, and ground pecking, Golden-crowned Sparrows, the usual suspects. . .when suddenly, OMG, a Golden-crowned Kinglet pops into view! I fumble with my binos, losing sight of the precious thing, but he’s sticking around just long enough for me to get in a couple of good looks – for about four seconds total. This crafty bird is way too flighty, and too far away, and soon disappears completely, for me to snap a photo or be able to hone in for some voyeuristic oohing and aahing. But this one’s in the books all the same – 1 for 1!

Next day we head out Mount Diablo way, to Contra Costa County’s famous State Park, where we bike up South Gate Road for several miles to Rock City, climbing upwards of 1200 feet. Thankfully, it’s a gradual ascent over 3 miles with drop-dead gorgeous views to keep us distracted from the rigors at hand (at foot). Here and there, and everywhere, I pull over to watch Red-tailed Hawks and Turkey Vultures gracefully circling over greening hills, and gaze out at tony mansion-dotted communities (e.g., Blackhawk), and that ever awesome Diablo Range country highlighted by stellar views of Mission and Monument Peaks and a jagged silhouette of the Ohlone Ridge beyond Livermore.

Rock City is a popular picnicking and rock climbing area, a beautiful Southwest-style terrain of rugged hills and gulches, numerous and extensive sandstone formations, carved out wind caves, oddly shaped and positioned boulders, and many trails to hike in a mixed habitat of chaparral, riparian, oak / bay / woodland / and manzanita. We stop to check out some heavily graffitied rocks, with scrawled initials, dates, bizarre images and other crypto-symbols defacing these ancient bones. (Modern-day petroglyphs?) We pounce around like cats on these traction-perfect surfaces, no wonder that any yahoo with a knife can approach the boulders and carve away. One particular stunning view looks down at two Brobdingnagian Madrone trees unprecedented in girth and presence. I’ve not seen grander specimens anywhere. Lingering in this spot, entranced by the Mama Madrones, amused by the frolicking play of a Bewick’s Wren, Black-capped Chickadees, Lark Sparrows, and Anna’s Hummingbirds.

We leave pavement here for a flat and easy ride on a fire road portion of Summit Trail, where by and by we stop for lunch. We’re just over a short ridge from McMansionville, and yet we might as well be miles away, so thoroughly are we immersed in what I will call wilderness. Some high pitched Titmouses are stirring up a ruckus in an oak tree, and other unseen birds are chittering up a storm, when a novel vocalization catches my attention: a lovely lilting, inexorably pure song of “churrick churrick.” It’s at once excitable and maddening not to see or be able to identify the owner of this rolling, trilling melody previously unheard. Then in a flappy flutter, the bird soars over to a thin branch, in open brush, for some mighty fine extended viewing from a distance of about 75 feet. I’ve got him in my sights at last! A newly spotted bird, rustically handsome, with a big ol’ curved beak handy for picking out grasshoppers and beetles off leafy floors. It’s a California Thrasher, by Jove! My first ever sighting! No biggie for you, maybe, but for me it’s hard to believe I’ve never seen one in my life in all the times I've tramped around in his territory. Until now, this magical moment. Mark it down: 2 for 2!

Our third day of consecutive outings finds us lured back to irresistible Marin County, this time to lovely Carson Falls, a rocky gorge of cascades and falls fed by Little Carson Creek, an unimposing waterway cutting a brushy swathe through pristine meadowland and hill country on Marin Municipal Water District lands. At the base of the falls, Little Carson tumbles down a sharp gully to eventually be captured in one of MMWD’s reservoirs. Carson Falls is always a great hike, especially when accessed via the easily overlooked Liberty Trail off Bolinas-Fairfax Road. The trail wends through a temperate rainforest along gushing Liberty Creek. A tiny thread of water, nothing to get excited about, but we’re excited nonetheless. Smoky mists from sun beams poking through arching canopy lend a magical ambiance; aromas of musky earth drift upwards; and giant Western Ferns adorn the creek banks alongside stately redwood trees and whimsically shaped crooked alders. Suddenly, having climbed a hundred feet, we emerge into a brightly lit, open area with Mount Tamalpais dominating the watershed view. Beyond, to the East Bay and Mount Diablo, 30 miles distant, the Bay Area unfolds. Hummingbirds, Warblers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and Chestnut-backed Chickadees abound on the tree lined, brushy fringes. But where’s my “unique” bird sighting? Patience, my dear fellow. On the return, back in the secreted copse of Liberty Creek, I’m in the right place at the right time for an evanescent – and rare - glimpse of – are you ready? - an Adult Female Varied Thrush! It’s only the second one I’ve seen. Where have they been all my life? Make it a hat trick: 3 for 3!

Our fourth day, tireless for adventure and a nature fix, we haul our bikes out to a beloved destination – at least when the cows haven’t grossly mucked up the place. Briones Regional Park, in Contra Costa County, is a land of ululating hills, open brush, grass and meadowlands, Bear Creek’s riparian corridor, healthy forests - a birder’s (or a bird’s?) paradise! And do I ever have a field day, even though no sign of any Horned Larks, the pretty Old World birds native to the open spaces of Alhambra Creek watershed. (I’ve seen them a grand total of one time over the years.)

We set off on Old Briones Road, but not before a just-this-side-of-senile Old Timer pigeonholes me in the parking lot for fifteen minutes reminiscing (mostly to himself as I busy myself getting the bikes ready) about how he used to drive this road to Martinez every day. Genuinely interested, I engage him for a few, then bid adieu. From OBR, we veer onto Valley Trail and encounter a tough mother of a slog up short but steep hills, impossible to ride, so we push our bikes up in places until we’re on the Crest Loop, out of breath and relieved it’s all roller coaster fun from here on out. We stop here and there, and everywhere, to observe: an octet of Ravens chillin’ on tree snag; a Great Blue Heron stalking in a pond; bursts of brightly hued Western Bluebirds feeding and frolicking in a field; Juncos galore; Scrub Jays; Turkey Vultures; Chestnut-backed Chickadees; a half-dozen Northern Flickers on the wing; Robins streaking across the sky with a sense of urgency; Cedar Waxwings roosting in a Dogwood; pretty little House Finches; emboldened, good-looking Golden-crowned Sparrows; a top flight sighting of an American Kestrel; flocks of male and female Lesser Goldfinches, sweet lil things; a couple of curious Yellow-rumped Warblers; a Northern Harrier being chased and harassed by a dive-bombing Red-tailed Hawk; AND, ta da, high above, a finale cameo of none other than a regal White Kite, treading air in the wind, legs suspended, eyes fixated on the vole and snake rich terrain below. I’d seen the Kite here on just three other past occasions, so this is a notable experience. 4 for 4!

It’s our last day of gettin’ out and about. We opt for a real local, real easy ten minute drive to Tilden Nature Area in the Berkeley Hills - always a beautiful place with plenty of birds to see, hills to climb, a wonderful boardwalk stroll through great birding territory, and an endless matrix of trails to hike. On Blue Gum Trail (named after the pernicious Australian eucalyptus brought over in a futile money making scheme in the 1800s), a mile out ‘n back to pretty Jewel Lake, we watch Cormorants deep dive and Mallards waddle about, and Black Phoebes feeding and Downy Woodpecker pecking away. Piles of turtles are sunning on logs. I've got my eyeballs peeled for a Belted Kingfisher, which I have seen here once or twice, as well as on a handful of occasions seeing the Green or Night Heron (same?). You can’t go wrong here, finding deep connections with nature on your doorstep, even though all we’re doing is. . .not much anything! On the return loop, a Rufus Hummingbird affords the briefest of glimpses, but that makes 5 for 5! It’s been ages since I’ve seen this teensy nectar-sucking bird, and I’m amazed to see him again, landing on a filament of a branch, remaining motionless for a nano-second like a glistening tree ornament before flitting away with tremendous precision and speed – first here – then disappearing there – in a quantum-like illusion of being in two places instantaneously! (Or is that simultaneously?) Whatever, sure made my day! 5 for 5, baby!

Doubtless, other one of a kind, infrequently espied birds are out there, all around me, all the time, hidden in dense brush or high tree tops, just waiting to be spotted. I may never see an Ovenbird, or even be able to ID a Western Wood-Pewee, but the promise of potential future sightings of these and other elusive “common” birds I’ve never seen – Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, California Gnatcatcher, Nashville Warbler, Merlin – is what keeps my pursuit alive and fresh. It’s what powers and motivates a rich aspect of my own life.

- All photos copyright by Gambolin' Man, with exception of Universal Commons image of Golden-crowned Kinglet

Notable update on Thrasher sighting + bonus photo:

Unbelievably (to me at least), two days after writing about seeing the California Thrasher for the first time, today I'm up in Tilden Park, pausing at a favorite bench stop on Nimitz Way - a place I've stopped at tens of dozens of times to rest, admire Mount Diablo and Las Trampas' Rocky Ridge, and to watch for birds. At the exact instant that I'm reminiscing about my first Thrasher sighting described above, one and the same bird flies into my view about fifty feet away and lands on a brushy twig for a good five minutes of fine observation. It's uncanny, having never spotted the bird here, in this frequently visited place, and only once before in the encounter described above, and then to have it show up at the exact second I'm thinking of it, blows my mind. . .and then, the attraction continues. . .later the same day, on a neighborhood stroll down a most familiar street, I stop at an adobe style dwelling and notice a stain glass window of bird images of - yep! California Thrashers! C'mon, what does this all mean? Is it indicative of the oneness of the connection we all share; that nothing is random, that everything is inter-related, and this is but a simple reminder of that, and that we are all "hitched to everything else in the Universe"?