Saturday, April 19, 2014

Of Furtive and Occult Birding Along (Say Where?) San Pablo Creek

The secret’s out (I hope not) about my go-to get-away spot for bird watching and all-around nature fix. I wrote about the special bio-diverse sanctuary of (say where?) the San Pablo Creek Watershed and my special love of this “miraculous small” riparian / woodland corridor, in a recent post at . . . mandatory reading before proceeding. (Well, stick around, read this, and then check it out.)
Unless you expend carbon fossil energy driving there, instead of devoting 59 year old human powered grit and gumption biking, it is not an easy, taken-for-granted proposition; some level of effort and sacrifice is required to get / be here, and then to muster up the gut-check for the return climb up the ridge to Inspiration Point overlooking the watershed lands, once pristine hill and prairie country carpeted in swathes of colorful native wildflowers mostly vanquished long ago by introduced exotic weeds and grasses. It’s a 15 mile round-tripper by mountain bike, making for a terrific way to get there and experience the San Pablo Creek ecosystem. At the big cyclist juncture of Wildcat Canyon / Bear Creek / Camino Pablo / San Pablo Dam Road(s), ditch your bike and leave the world behind to enter a forest sanctuary, charmed and enchanted by the “small miraculous” at every turn in the pretty creek side environment . . . at times reminiscent of a bend in the Clear Creek Trail in Siskiyou County, the next minute aromatic of piney Lake Tahoe, and the next, youthful visions of bucolic southern Indiana flooding my senses. How 
can it be? (Purist caveat / disclosure: the intermittent – ok, near constant - din of background traffic on San Pablo Dam Road – a main artery from Orinda to Richmond - can be disheartening, but just try to ignore it. For me, it is a small distraction, a minor defect, in the grand scheme of this place being a superb aviary / nature sanctuary.)

I sign in at the EBMUD kiosk at the (say where?) Orinda Connector Staging Area (Trail Pass #952841), and spend fifteen minutes stutter stepping down the trail flummoxed by flitty unidentifiable movements in the trees and bushes and ground cover. But no birds spotted in the dense forest understory. For another ten minutes, maybe it’s twenty, I lamely try to home in on a half dozen flighty birds whose quick and indiscernible movements elude me entirely. Nothing gives, nada single confirmed sighting.

That’s the general pattern of the outing / theme of the day. Avian no-shows and teasers. Birds remaining outta sight . . . but not outta mind or outta earshot range! On down winding Oursan / Old San Pablo Trail, I find myself waylaid another twenty minutes, maybe forty, fruitlessly trying to zero in on any number of melodious but unseen birds. I stop, look, and listen, tuning into soliloquy trills and quintet riffs I’ve not heard before. But today, no hope of figuring out who is who, what is what, given my severe shortcomings when it comes to aurally ID’ing abstract avian vocalizations. (Ain’t there an app for all this?) No luck today – just a “nothing to get excited about” Turkey Vulture darting across a corner of sky, and the barest glimpse of a “regular old” Spotted Towhee bush-diving into permanent obscurity. And don’t forget the pedestrian sighting of a Pacific-sloped Flycatcher making a very brief appearance.

So what to do? Just shambling along here and there, absorbed in the zen moment of doing nothing, really. Checking out the surprisingly fast-flowing creek, up close and personal. Exploring bird-rich thistle and grassy meadows, quickly turning umber shades. Lollygagging in shady pine forests. This is a bird haven. Bird heaven. Probably my favorite sylvan / riparian enclave in the East Bay, maybe. Ok, top 3. A wonderful day of furtive and occult birding, not all bad, when you think about it.

Wild Turkeys, first a big ol’ Tom exposing a silvery turquoise fan-tail, spotted way in the distance, barely photographable . . . and later a shy feller ducking in and out of a copse.

Sizeable Grouse-like bird flushed out of the underbrush, streaking across the creek to never be recognized . . .

Insanely symphonic House Finches, I presume, hoping against hope they’re Grosbeaks, but unseen all day, not a single singing male or red rump patch observed . . .

Big winged Raptor of some sort, rustled up from hoary perch, blitzing undetected through dense brush to a high, hidden branch a hundred yards away  . . .probably “just” a Red-tail . . .

Chestnut-backed Chickadees, chirping, unseen – how can that be . . . ?

A most fidgety Ruby-Crowned Kinglet, a nano-sec of “watching” him flirt from branch to branch. . .

Great Blue Heron, barely glimpsed, up and flying away from unsuspecting perch, thoroughly obscured by dense oak / sycamore / pine foliage . . .

Hard working Red-breasted Nuthatch hammerin’ away like a woodpecker. I’m able to ID the little bird at the last moment before he liltingly flies off. . .

Hard flyin’ Northern Flickers, bustin’ wing to alight on distant branch, espied for but a mere second or two . . .

Not a single hummer, can you believe it . . . ?

Beautiful notes high in pine tree tops, emanating from birds I can only imagine might be . . . which? Black-throated Gray Warblers? White-throated Sparrows? A Common Yellowthroat, perhaps? Frustratingly, I’ll never know, but whether seen or unseen, hidden or revealed, manifest or occult, the merest indication of the existence of these special beings amidst my own paltry, trespassing presence – that alone, sweet melodies heard, is enough for me.

Bonus Clip:

San Pablo write-up:

Common Yellow- and Black-throat photos courtesy of Wiki Commons. All others copyright by Gambolin' Man.


  1. how do you know the name of all these birds? Do you take a picture then look in a book, I guess by now you know half of them by heart no?

  2. Thanks for embracing two-wheeled transport for the journey! Half the wheels, twice the fun.

  3. Love that you take those zen meditations out there, good for the soul to hang in the birdsong by water, waiting patiently to make contact with your bird friends!