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.

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