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.



  1. Most of us barely notice the birds, just take them for granted, like air and the sky. but you meditate on them with such love, they change the air and the sky into a magical wonderland. ah, to be free like a bird, indeed!

  2. In some transcendent tongue, they must speak with one another in a language "deeper than words." Indeed. It has been said that we lost our primal ability to communicate, telepathically and otherwise, when we began to speak and use word-language.