Monday, June 23, 2014

More Insatiable Birding in the Berkeley Hills

Summer Solstice is a time of abundant avian appearances. Multifarious species are in transit, coming and going, out 'n about doing their thing in the bird rich forests sheltering the precious artery of Wildcat Creek and frolicking in force up on the sunburnt conifer / chaparral ridges near Inspiration Point where birds rule the roost. You're hoping against hope to spot and photograph a Lazuli Bunting, or maybe a Black-headed Grosbeak. Fat chance, but who knows. That's why you bird watch. For the promise of a simple but soul-satisfying reward. If you're into bird watching, that is.

Wildcat Creek is running dry early in the year, owing to the prolonged drought; still, it contains sufficient discharge - miraculous! - to earn special status as a perennial riparian environment in a protected watershed. A very special place in our urban midst - the Berkeley Hills and its 2000 acres of open spaces and wild places. Along Wildcat Gorge Trail, euphonious rifts of water chugging away on its journey to the Bay makes good company, while mellifluous melodies of golden-throated creatures emanate from the bushes and branches and tree tops. Birds galore! Singin' their sweet hearts out! Hidden and initially unseen, once you drop the bike, stop moving, and begin to pay attention, dozens of birds along a 100 yard stretch gradually come into being, popping into your consciousness like spirit guides, almost.

You're taken by a pair of frisky Wilson's Warblers, a couple of classic looking, yellow as yellow can be, very handsome black-tammed passerines. Soon  another of its kind crashes the party, a flitty little guy almost unrecognizable as a Wilson's Warbler were it not for the black crown. Perhaps, you wonder, the camouflaged breast spots or streaks or irregular patterning IDs them as juveniles. Otherwise, what gives?

You continue working your way upstream through the small, pretty gorge, stopping at a special nook for several minutes to admire and track the flirty movements of Bushtits, Chickadees, Juncos, Jays and Robins. Looking out at a dense copse backed by sandstone cave outcrops (yes), you spot way up there - can it be? Yes! You zero in just in time for a two-second glimpse of the seldom-seen, orange / cinnamon-colored Black-headed Grosbeak. Where have you been, my loverly little friend, perched so ephemerally, and then gone in a flash, never to be spotted again. It's been maybe two years since a last sighting, and the thrill ain't gone.

On your bike, if you wanted to, you could zip through the pretty little gorge in ten minutes - but think of how much you would miss! So how long does it take to cover the half-mile? One hour! But what better way to kill time than a lackadaisical sixty minutes of effortless locomotion up the trail, deeply intrigued with everything in your path. Stopping here to steal a glance down into the tangle of green, sinuous creek bed. Lollygagging there to investigate chirping choruses and furtive movement in the trees and bushes. When suddenly your attention is diverted to some minor ruckus in the creek - "nothing" at all to get excited about - "just" a Junco takin' a dip. But how cool is that!

During one dilatory stretch, you're stopped in your tracks, glued to the scene, entranced by the pretty little creek. Dreamy reflections of upside images of arching bay tree branches and redwood trunks melt into a leafy tableau of blue hints of sky. In this nothing little half-stagnant pool. Endless minutes pass, oblivious to time, absorbed as you are in desperate, futile attempts to photograph Ruby-crowned Kinglets feeding on gnats and Wilson's Warblers flitting all over the place. When suddenly one lands nearby, you get a sense of how tiny they are, how vulnerable they must be, how precious each one is - and, contrariwise, how resilient, tough, resourceful, ingenious and durable they are. One cute little cuss hops to a flimsy branch not four feet away, but you fumble and miss a picture perfect photo op and at the same time, being a lens-obsessive birder, you miss the visceral delight of just looking at the pretty wild creatures with your natural eyes.

Many families are walking the gorge trail on this beautiful first day of summer. Little kids taking delight in things (you suspect) their parents are missing. A four-year old approaches to ask what you're looking at. You say, "Birds. But you really have to be patient if you want to see them." The boy nods and seems genuinely interested in, not so much the birds, but with your fascination with birds. Some time later, the same curious little boy passes by again, smiling smartly, "Hey, you're still here! Cool, Mister! Are the birds still here?" You turn to address him, losing sight of a lovely Spotted Towhee, "Yep, lots of birds to see."

Difficult as it is to leave the forested creekside scene - so vibrant with bird life! - it's inspiring to ascend several hundred feet up to sunny (and windy, per usual) Inspiration Point, one of the East Bay Regional Park District's most - uh - inspirational - panoramas of a changed but still viably prehistoric landscape. New educational signs posted overlooking San Pablo and Briones Reservoirs, Briones Regional Park, and Mount Diablo State Park tell the fascinating geological story of a shifting, moving, living land shaped by earthquake activity and erosion. As you stand there gazing out at. . . by now dry thistle-infested brown hills.

Instead of heading out on paved Nimitz Way - world-class views of San Francisco, Mount Tamalpais, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Marin Headlands - you ditch your bike in the weeds and enter the water district's (EBMUD) protected lands via Inspiration Trail to hang out a bit on a little slice of wild territory that you love and cherish. Despite a phalanx of electrical pylons clogging up the ridgeline view.You just block them out. Besides, you have to love them, because they provide ideal perches for Red-tailed Hawks, White Kites and American Kestrels, catching a breather or overseeing their bountiful domain to espy some tasty meal of vole, mole, rat, mouse, feral cat or - lost little dog.

And just why do you love this unknown, unheralded little "nowhere" place? Because! Because of stellar eastward views of Mount Diablo's massive double massif  juxtaposed with the 2000+ ft. rollicking ridges of Las Trampas Regional Wilderness and, beyond, the dark silhouettes of the Ohlone Range with peaks rising out of southeastern Alameda County at over 4,000 ft. Because of this place's anonymity, its sheer nowhereness and hiddenness (in plain sight). But mostly because the birds love it, and what's good enough for the birds is good enough for you.

In your lonesome element here, it's a lazy saunter up and down the trail hugging the half-forested, half-chaparral hillside. You love it because it's a real piece of undisturbed Mother Nature. And what fine bird habitat, and no doubt fox, coyote, cougar, and skunk territory, as well. Now operating in a purely sans souci, meditative frame of mind, in zero hurry, a quick hour slips by. . .doing not much of anything. . .except patrolling the little-trafficked trail spotting feisty Scrub Jays, darting Juncos, scolding Stellar's Jays, Ruby topped Finches, slowly circling Turkey Vultures, glittering Anna's Hummingbirds, rump-end glimpses of skittering off Northern Flickers, handsome Spotted Towhees, joyful Lesser Goldfinches, playful Black-capped and Chestnut-backed Chickadees, and Lark Sparrows, bursting with song. Other feathered crooners could be heard but not seen, forever unidentified. Oh, well. Still. Where else would you want to be?

Read more of Gambolin' Man's shout-outs of Wildcat Creek Watershed, Wildcat Creek, Wildcat Gorge Trail, the Tilden Nature Area, and Tilden Regional Park @

Black-headed Grosbeak photo courtesy of Alan Vernon. All other photos copyrighted by Gambolin' Man.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

ECCE AVE: Prime Time Bird Watching in the Wildcat Creek Watershed

Sharp-shinned Hawk
Small miracles and tiny wonders abound in a surprising sylvan / riparian paradise hidden nearly in plain sight. You are here. In your little canyon in your little park with your little creek running through it - Wildcat Creek in the Berkeley Hills. Without doubt, it's your favorite, don't need a car to get to place. Added bonus for bird aficionados: everywhere you turn, it's excellent avian habitat. Ah, to be a free flying bird.

Reposed on a nearly inaccessible stretch of the creek - no walk in the park approach - the world is hush hush but for purely natural sounds. Aural pleasantries of a gently wafting breeze, insects, possibly cicadas, buzzing and chirping, branches creaking and groaning, water trinkling, birds singing. A place down low, sheltering a realm of silence cocooned from ubiquitous urban noise pollution. A low-down place so quiet you hear the earth's tympanic hum, a living, breathing entity, syncopated with your own breathing. Perhaps you've slipped off into some dreamy meditation on a sun-splashed sandbar (very miniature) with sing-song water rippling over cut bedrock (very modest), where you feel a profound resonance with eerie W Wave tree communication (very cool), of which birds are expert in interpreting, for they are part and parcel of, and one with, trees, so intertwined is their existence and fate with their genial arboreal hosts who symbiotically provide most of their food and shelter. In some transcendent tongue, they must speak with one another in a language "deeper than words" as author and environmentalist Derrick Jensen intuited - "the language of bodies, of body on body. . .but we have forgotten this language. We do not even remember that it exists."
Brown Creeper
But - aha! - the birds and trees, they remember.

Springtime is the best. (Now behind us.) When temperatures are mild and wildflowers carpet rolling green hills and bug-eyed dragonflies flit to and fro like charismatic little drones. When gullies are flush with fast-flowing runoff and cottony cumuli caress azure skies. When birds of all stripes are in transit, on their way here and there and everywhere, boundaries, borders and private property be damned, never an obstacle to their comings and goings as they please. Ah, to have such freedom as a little high-flying bird.

The time of year when birds make their mercurial presence known in a variety of species-peculiar ways: exaggerated mating / dominance histrionics; territorial posturings; nest defending remonstrations; industrial doings; frivolous play; and preening exhibits of sheer coquetry. And the things they do, the lengths they go to, in their never ending search for sustenance. All of which makes it extra easy to be a successful springtime birdwatcher. They're practically putting on a show for you. But it's a tough ticket to scalp; the scene is easy to miss; and the Entr'acte, always a fine spectacle, but you can just as well forget it, unless you have the patience of a saint to stick around for a potential Bald Eagle sighting or - Heaven Allow - an Oven Bird identification.
Hermit Thrush

Many of your favorites are out and about: Nuthatches, Warblers, Accipiters, Woodpeckers, Wrens and Sparrows, Ducks and Geese, but alas, only the meanest of their kind. Even in this bonanza of opportunities, I've yet to sight ("even") a White-breasted Nuthatch, American Kestrel, or Downy Woodpecker, let alone a Prothonotary Warbler, Black-headed Grosbeak, Lazuli Bunting, Great Horned Owl, or, personal favorite, Golden-crowned Kinglet. Proving that, even more than the time of year, it's the timing of the day that counts. Finding yourself in the right place at the right time, and then having your antennae attuned to the moment, because, believe me, it's a very fleeting moment. A vanishing window of time to barely observe furtive movements in the tree canopy. Nano-seconds to hone in on some dazzling flash of color skirting across the sky. Robbed visions of easily overlooked, flitting movements of, say, could it be a Lawrence's Goldfinch, perhaps? A moment in time, if you're lucky, to be privy to the over, gone, and done with world - of birds bein' birds. So when you do have a cool sighting, a sustained voyeuristic glimpse of some relative exotic avian denizen or visitor, it's usually by accident rather than plotting accomplishment and concerted effort.
Pacific-slope Flycatcher
Such as when you head out on the Gorge Trail in Tilden Nature Area to see what's up. You take Blue Gum Trail past Laurel Canyon to Jewel Lake (where you spot dozens of sunning turtles, many ducks, and a Great Blue Heron presiding over all), always a fav, always a superb slice of nature! Just beautiful! Right here in the 9-county, 7 million population Bay Area. You stop to take it all in, and the next thing you know, a half hour passes in a bird watching blur. The furious activity makes you dizzy, a flurry of Wilson's Warblers, Juncos, Lark Sparrows, and Anna's Hummingbirds ruling the roosts of big eucalyptus and oak trees. Loud, melodious whistlers (House Finches? Black-headed Grosbeaks? Robins?) lurk unseen. Your main focus is on the Wilson's Warblers, tiny yellow birds with a black "tam" gracing their pates; not rarely seen - you've seen the little guy, individually, any number of times - but never in such droves, in such beautiful groves.
Great Blue Heron

Out on Wildcat Gorge Trail, just past Jewel Lake, you drop your bike to sneak a peek through an unnoticeable opening in the forest, just for a quick look-see down at the creek maybe 50 ft. below. You part the woodsy curtain, trod delicately on the squishy floor made up of hundreds of years of accumulating layers of humus. The forest aura is simple, sublime, primal, even. Oh, how you love Wildcat Creek, one of the East Bay's grooviest streams - literally, as is evidenced by cut bedrock channels carved by millennia of run-off originating from seeping swales up near Grizzly Peak at 1759 ft.

Suddenly, a sharp kik-kik-kik" erupts and you instinctively duck to avoid a big bird, soon identified as a Sharp-shinned Hawk. Gender unknown, this gorgeous bird, the smallest hawk in North America, and ferocious songbird-eating forest acrobat, swoops down in a kamikaze arc and then swoops back up to land on a high branch, where s/he continues to shriek and remonstrate. A moment later, another The Birds-like swipe before alighting on a branch. Looking up, you spot a big stick nest harboring eggs or maybe hatchlings and experience an "oh duh" moment. Not wishing to cause further stress, you skulk out, but not before snapping a mediocre photo. Most definitely it's a WOW moment in the annals of your avian-grokking avocation.

A little ways down the trail, you ditch your trusty ol' Gary Fisher hard-tail mountain bike in a patch of weeds and cow parsnip in full bloom interspersed with artichoke thistle and foxtail grasses (where you spend 30 minutes looking for it on the way back out). Making your way down to the creek, the nasty foxtails really mess with your shoes and socks. (They must be good for something, right?) The water level is low, somehow managing to pool in reflective mirrors and gently rifting on its way to the Bay. Elsewhere, it's dried up in places, filtering underground, re-emerging downstream like oases. Everywhere, the forest is alive with birds bein' birds - a Stellar's Jay fiercely davening at a foe; a pair of Morning Doves skittering off somewhere; a troupe of Bushtits descending in a Big-Leaf Maple; a Downy or a Ladderback, can't tell which, hammering high up in the branches of some cool barked tree you can't ID but should know. Ah, to be a bird, down on the creek, free as a . . . well, bird.

Mourning Dove Along Wildcat Gorge Trail

One of the great things about bird watching is you never know which of the numerous famous feathered flitterati you'll have the pleasure of making the acquaintance of . . .Hello, Christopher Wren! Nice to meet ya, Russell Crowe! What up, Ethan Hawke? Gimme five, Jay Leno! Chuptoo, Robin Williams! Good meetin' ya, Walter Pidgeon! Aloha, Charlie Bird! 'sup Gil Scott Heron! Hi, Bob Crane! Mission Accomplished, George W. Bushtit! Hugs 'n Kisses, Taylor Swift! Yo, Mick Jaeger! Sing her pretty, Phoebe Snow! Well, I'll be, Dan Quayle! Hats off to you, Merlin the Magician!

Bonus Video:

Hard to believe, but the sound has not been turned down or altered in any way for this 30-second clip filmed in a hard-to-get-to stretch of Wildcat Creek. . .where beauty and silence reign, as you'll see.