Thursday, July 31, 2014

Arid Mitchell Canyon In Mount Diablo State Park a Comfortable Home for Birds

With California burning through a drought plagued summer, the rugged, dry, hot as Hades, sun-baked hills of Mount Diablo State Park don't exactly beckon. Even in the park's dulcet canyons, normally perennial creeks chugging along in late August are now fossils of their once burbling selves. Mitchell Creek is one-hundred percent stone dead dry - a desiccated artery in an inhospitable place, you'd think. And yet birds flock here in sizable numbers. Throughout the 3,849 ft. Mount Diablo's 20,000 bio-diverse acres encompassing several distinct climate and eco-zones, an astonishing 200 birds species have been identified, with 150 species spotted in the vicinity of Pine Pond alone. Naturally, Mount Diablo is a world-renowned Top Birding Destination.

The birds who call Mitchell Canyon home are protected in heavy forest cover of Oak, Madrone, Manzanita, Big Leaf Maple, Alder, California Buckeye, and Gray Pine ("Diggers"), sheltered from burnt auburn high sloping, open chaparral hill country, perfect habitat not just for birds, but for all kinds of insects, mammals, amphibians and reptiles. All need water, of course, so most are transient Canyon dwellers, but the specially equipped masters of the aerial realm, the birds, they're able to easily find water in the summertime desert throes of the devil mountain, in hidden springs, remnant tinajas, hard to get to ponds and otherwise inaccessible seeps, so birds can afford to take up residence in the provender-rich forests, riparian, and lower chaparral zones of truly lovely Mitchell Canyon. You gotta hand it to the birds for their evolutionary-resolved supremely capable self-sufficient capacity to thrive and survive in any environment on the planet.
Despite the heat and utter lack of moisture, Mitchell Canyon supports elegant, mature Fremont Cottonwoods, stately trees requiring deep wellsprings for their roots to suck up threads of water to survive in times like these. Just beautiful, yellow leaves shimmering in the breeze in a wedge of blue sky. Every which way you turn just beautiful. The first mile or so of the easy trail parallels shady tree-lined Mitchell Creek, making for a pleasant slow stroll rife with distractions at every turn, and always attentive to any and all bird activity:

Bold-faced Acorn Woodpeckers working gnarled Blue Oaks.

A Ladderback hammering away up top.
A lone, elusive Hummingbird, un-ID'd.

(What? No California Quail?)

Northern Flickers skirting away with their prominent white ass spot showing.

Teeming, energetic Juncos.

Oak Titmouses looking so different from Oak Titmouses I have seen and known. Why such variation?

Scrub and Steller's Jays carrying on some aggressive business.

Turkey Vultures lazily circling (what else is new?)

(What? No wild Toms?)

Bushtits hanging upside down like fruit bats.

A Red-tailed Hawk heard and seen perched on a telephone pole on exiting the park.

Crazily delightful Chestnut-backed Chickadees feeding on leafy undersides.

Even the "bland" California Towhees enchant momentarily.

(What? No Spotted Towhees?)

Then, what I think is a Bewick's Wren completely baffles me during several minutes of intense observation, when I simply cannot get a bead on his characteristic white eyebrow stripe. Based on pinkish-brown "camo" streaking on pale underbelly, my guess is that he's a juvenile Bewick's. Juvenile anythings always  mess with me!

Then comes the sighting of the day: a pair of handsome flycatchers feeding a young one through a hole drilled 50 ft. up in a dead tree. I watch their down-pat routine for almost an hour, their expert back and forth flying off missions to return posthaste with a insect morsel. In an unforgettable, lamentably unphotographed moment, one lands on a branch, stationed there for three precious seconds, with a big silvery dragonfly clenched in mouth. What a thing of beauty!

Birds, through gender, seasonal and age differences, are highly nuanced in color, size, feather pattern, and other indicators of natural variation - hell, there must be a half-dozen or more different kinds of flycatchers in the Mitchell Canyon vicinity to distinguish among. After some close up encounters, I can now positively ID a Pacific-slope Flycatcher, but even the "common" Ash-throated variety can throw me off, which goes to show my lame ID skills. This pair undoubtedly are Ash-throated, thanks to the ID prowess of Caribbean resident Mr. Binkie Van Es. But for all I (don't) know, they could be Great-crested, Hammond's, Willow's, Least, Olive-sided, Dusky, or Gray Flycatchers. 

What else - oh, yeah, the kill site! Mess of brown and white striped tail and wing feathers scattered about, soft white down plucked violently out, evidence of the death of a young hawk, presumably, having been attacked and killed by a bigger red in tooth and claw hawk . . .

Although it's a great day of birding in Mitchell Canyon, you can't help but feel a bit let down considering how little you actually saw of the bird world of Mount Diablo. According to the Mount Diablo Interpretive Association - get your head around this:

33 varieties of Warblers can be spotted! (I've probably seen just five varieties in my days.)

Never-before seen (by me) Scarlett and Summer Tanagers.

Phainopepla, for heaven's sake!

Yellow-breasted Chats, Painted Buntings, and Northern Parulas, are you kidding me!

Two dozen kinds of mostly indistinguishable Sparrows.

And many other "exotic" (to me) bird species who occupy, frequent, pass through, take up residence, visit,  and drop in on Mount Diablo's immense welcoming bosom. As for me, I've seen a grand total of zero of these birds, and that includes non-sightings of 7 Wren species, 11 Finches, and 70 distinct breeding and migratory waterfowl. Mind-blowing, even if you're not a birder, and if you are, well, then, it's obvious you don't know jackdaw when it comes to the multifarious, mysterious birds of Mount Diablo.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Two Small Forest Hawks Crash Scene, Make Ruckus in Branches

I've written about the Interior Live Oak gracing our side yard, an arboreal specimen of great stature attracting diverse bird life, and apparently humans as well. A while ago, two guys from Boston were out front peering into the branches. I greeted them and they said they were staying with friends around the corner and had read about this "famous" tree on some blog.

We had a good laugh and proceeded to spot, in ten minutes, a dozen birds, including a Bewick's Wren, Ruby-Crowned Kinglet, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, and some kind of sparrow. I've seen Northern Mockingbirds, Downy Woodpeckers, Lesser Goldfinches, and Sharp-shinned Hawks. Or so I suspect. Over a year ago, what I thought was a Sharp-shinned came zooming in to land on a branch, perching there for several minutes. Come to think of it, he may have been a Cooper's Hawk. Tough to tell, but yesterday, two small forest hawks appeared and flapped and squawked about for several intermittent hours in the big thick branches of the 100 year old tree.

The two hawks - Sharp-shinned and Cooper's - should be easy to differentiate in theory, but in practice, it's tough to tell them apart, at least in my practice. The pair were definitively juveniles - so where's mom and pop? - so that's one level of distinction between the two species, as well as the Sharp-shinned being smaller, tucking in his head, sporting a squared off tail, and blotched with broad streaks; whereas the (juvenile) Cooper's is larger, has a rounded tail tip, and has finer streaks on white breast. Still, knowing all this, positively identifying these two visitors took twenty minutes of perusing two hard-bound field guides and two web resource sites before concluding, what may have been obvious to YOU all along, that they were a pair of juvenile Cooper's Hawks.

Can anyone prove differently?

I wonder if these guys were out on a foray on their own, learning the ropes, told to go kill something to eat? Or that transmitted instinct telling them it's time to do so. The adults were nowhere to be seen, so this was a real pop quiz for the boys. Presuming they were boys, the two small, handsome accipiters put on quite a show throughout most of the morning and early afternoon, emitting high-pitched caws and flopping about from branch to branch. Eye and ear candy for the sweet-toothed urban bird fiend.

Friday, July 25, 2014

One Fine Day of Birding at Jewel Lake

Jewel Lake in Tilden Regional Park is a tranquil, bucolic setting ideal for any number of activities, not least of which is birding and observing natural rhythms of the small, pretty lake, which is really Wildcat Creek impounded. In the heart of the Tilden Nature Area, young and old alike delight in watching turtles sun on logs, spotting occasional snakes and frogs, and wading into swarms of minnows. This rich bio-diverse ecosystem has even attracted river otters from afar. How they make it to Jewel Lake is a thing to ponder. Birds, too, naturally, flock here for good feeding and shelter. It's not uncommon to see Great Blue Herons skittering in for a landing on a fallen tree trunk, or shiny black Cormorants spread-eagling their wings in showy displays of - what exactly? I've seen Belted Kingfishers here, too, but not in two or three years. And, as usual, Steller's Jays are on the prowl looking for picnickers' crumbs. Today's highlights are a juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron feeding on minnows, and a spiffy pair of Black Phoebes snatching gnats and damselflies out of thin air. Each is absorbed and deeply engaged in their uniquely respective stalking ways.

The Night Heron, perhaps due to youthful indiscretion, is not afraid or intimidated by my presence, but I stay at a respectful distance. Mom 'n pop must be near by, I'm guessing, unless this guy is old enough and independent / competent enough to do without parental care. Anyone know? Well, he's a stunning bird - I probably take two dozen photographs, for he just keeps on giving the gift of posing perfectly for me for one up close and personal shot after another. Rare indeed.

Nearby, in the willowy brush lining the muddy reed-lined shore, two Black Phoebes sit side by side, then fly off in unison on a reconnaissance mission, and then return together to their sweet love perch. I watch them flit and flutter, masterfully and aesthetically whirly-looping over the shimmering water, then popping back again to sit side by side to survey their world in (what appears to me to be) contented satisfaction. Back now to the Night Heron, who's flown to the other side of the lake to see if pickins are any better over there.

Adding to the lively avian scene are colorful Mallards and other ducks swimming about; a pair of Wilson's Warblers; and emboldened Jays, Juncos and Chickadees. It's a beautiful place to go for a short, quick, get-away to experience some "real" nature. Take the elevated boardwalk winding through a bird-lover's forest, to spot snakes entangled on sun-baked logs and a Northern Flicker or two, among other feathered friends.

Bonus Video: Juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron Feeding on Minnows, Jewel Lake, Tilden Nature Area, Tilden Regional Park.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Main Reason You're Here - Some Sweet-ass Birding

It’s a middle of the summer Bay Area triple play weekend. Ideal conditions to spot an abundance of birds out and about, making frisky cameo appearances here and there - in densely forested Oakwood Valley in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area; along lovely Stream Trail in Redwood Regional Park; and in Cascade Canyon Open Space’s creek-fed willow-the-wispy sylvan enclave of Elliott Nature Preserve. Three very different, very alluring places to enjoy challenging hiking or chill strolling, limited biking, bountiful nature appreciation, and – the main reason you’re here – some sweet-ass birding.

But more often than not there are no birds to watch. It’s a big waiting game, requiring the zen-like patience and stillness of a stalking Heron (well, maybe). Idling away minutes on end for a chance appearance, hoping for a prolonged glimpse of some rarely spotted bird or another. Often, even a relative “commoner” (like a Golden-crowned Kinglet?) can be as elusive to spot as some Holy Grail bird (like an Ash-throated Flycatcher or American Pipit?). Honestly, you’ve probably seen any number of these guys during fledgling moments of observation, but just didn’t recognize or know it at the time. Or even now. Won’t you sometimes look at an Oak Titmouse or Bushtit, or a Lesser Goldfinch, or oddly splotched Bewick’s Wren, and think – that’s not an Oak Titmouse or Bushtit or Lesser Goldfinch or Bewick’s Wren . . . or is it? That’s birding for you. Always room for doubt and mystery.
Oakwood Valley’s proximity to the enormously popular Tennessee Valley trailheads near Marin’s Pacific Coast renders it – literally! – a mere backwoods, an overlooked third or fourth choice for an area hike. But you’ll take this slice of woodsy respite any day of the week! You’ve always noticed cars parked here, so someone knows something you don’t. Hard to believe, though, in dozens of trips to Tennessee Valley, it’s the first real stop over at Oakwood Valley, which turns out to be immediately enchanting (well, you’re a birder). The narrow trail winds through open brush then enters thick forest to gently ascend along an unnamed creek before steeply climbing to the aptly named Alta Trail, where big-time, world-class views await, in a stunning arc of thousands of square miles of natural wonders: Mount Tamalpais, Richardson Bay, Angel Island, San Francisco and beyond to the East Bay where iconic Mount Diablo, at 3848 feet above sea level, is a teensy triangle on the horizon.
A slow saunter through the woods makes for an enchanting day’s outing. Warm, patchy sun, clearing skies, pillowy clouds, scruffy meadows, and a bonanza of birds! First thing you know, a frisky, bold Black-headed Grosbeak hops up on an exposed branch to bare his orange-breasted escutcheon for several seconds. It’s only the third or fourth time you’ve sighted the interesting, colorful, quasi-exotic and rarely-spotted bird (in your estimation), precipitating excited albeit exaggerated outbursts of wonderment, but alas, too much fumbling in between bino views, so no photos to be had . . .

 Oakwood Valley Trail is flat-out lovely; no hurry to put territory in front of or behind you. Surely, your partner – no birder fanatic – is itchin’ to keep the pace up, but today it’s business as usual in your birding world: slow, aimless ambling, with many detours and distractions. Drying up creek bed splotched with leafy color. Magic mushroom eye patterns on a butterfly’s purple brown wings. A small mud hole ringed with horsetail and reeds, a frog’s haven, mosquitos love it, too. Constantly stopping every five seconds to ascertain the indiscernible provenance of a certain cry, whistle, peep, tweet or shriek. No dice. No luck. That’s how many birds are diggin’ this place! Often, their musical notes are the only clue to their presence. Consider yourself fortunate, if able to coax a trilling Oven Bird out from the underbrush, or espy a kaa-kaa-kaaing Ferruginous Hawk fleeing treetop cover for the open skies.
In such a varied environment - meadow, grassland, sylvan, riparian – you’re able to rack up 20 confirmed sightings, including the now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t Grosbeak, playful Wilson's Warblers, down to business Spotted Towhees, frisky Dark-eyed and Adult Pink-sided Juncos, whirring Rufous, Allen’s and Anna's Hummingbirds, circling Red-tailed Hawks, curious as hell Scrub and Steller's Jays, whistlin’ while they play House Finches, peepin’ California Quail, peckin’ away Downy Woodpeckers, fidgety Ruby-crowned Kinglets,  soaring Turkey Vultures, and acrobatic Chestnut-backed Chickadees . . . enough bird action to keep you busy for several – years!
Next up: Redwood Regional Park in the Oakland Hills, always a great place to while away the hours. Today marks a first, though, with some serious birding on the agenda. In the shaded interior of the forest, third generation Redwoods soar 150 feet tall. Stream Trail runs the length of deep-cut Redwood Creek, by now quite dried up, but still emanating a special quality of beauty and sweet respite from the heat. The cathedral-like forest and pretty stream that runs through it enchant, where Rainbow Trout were first identified, categorized and eventually introduced to other parts of the world. The impressive progeny of old-growth Redwoods, the biggest and tallest in the world at one time, lend a Jurassic Park feeling to things. Naturally, the birds love it here!

You leave the parade of strollers for a side-winding trail above the forest floor, cresting 50 feet above, stopping to take in – lovely birdsong? – no, just lovely wafting violin music! Three musicians are playing folksy bluegrass tunes under a grove of Redwoods! You drop pack and plop ‘er down  right there on the dusty trail and enjoy twenty minutes of the impromptu concert from on high. . . a complement to the music of birds you hear all about.

While investigating an oxbow bend in the creek, where tiny fish are able to survive in shaded pools, a big flap on the opposite bank turns out to be a big-winged bird landing on a branch for some good viewing long enough to identify the Band-tailed Pigeon! It’s just your second sighting of a "Code 2” bird, which elicits howls of histrionic delight. (Code 2 means a bird’s range is “restricted but regular in the American Birding Association area.”). Might not seem like any big deal . . .but the Band-tailed Pigeon makes your day! Him and a half-dozen other feathered brethren seeking respite along Redwood Creek’s hospitable artery: Juncos, Hermit Thrush, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, American Crows, Steller’s Jays, Brown Creepers, and the always pretty Spotted Towhees. Obviously, a birder’s paradise – make that a bird’s paradise.

Day 3, you’re off to a favorite place: Marin County’s Open Space District, a wildlife sanctuary, a retreat for humans, a place you love no matter the time of year, when varying seasons bring dramatic changes to the landscape. Now, dry as dry can be, still you find, along Cascade Creek lovely surviving pools harboring fingerling trout, water striders, bugs, and you even spot your first Blue Skink in four years. Stunning little guy. Along sheltered San Anselmo Creek, you’re amazed to actually find flowing water in the shady setting, so peaceful and cool and beautiful contrasted against the stark, harsh, burnt golden glare of arid hillsides and gone to seed meadows. The main wide artery of San Anselmo Creek is stone dead dry. And still, the birds are enamored of this place! Everyone from Black-capped Chickadees and Spotted Towhees, to Pacific-slope Flycatchers, Hummingbirds and Turkey Vultures. Throw in a few oddly splotched Juncos, pairs of high-pitched trilling House Finches, and call it a day. A day of supremely superb birding, thank you, my bird friends!