Monday, October 20, 2014

Of Unexpected Additions to My LIFE LIST . . . and Other Mysterious Avinomena

After a lengthy absence this dry summer, our bird friends have returned. Or perhaps they never left. Who knows. Maybe some are reclusive winter stay-overs. Hard to tell, when you're just a hack birder. One thing's for sure - they're now dropping down like confetti into tree tops as fall migration season kicks in.

No matter your approach to birding, it's sheer joy to have birds around, to be around birds in their ennobled company, watching them engage in sophisticated actions, curious antics and quirky activities. Much can be learned in the patient art of just watching - perhaps more about oneself than about the birds. Certainly, without our perennially popular perambulators of the skies, the parks and woodlands do seem lonely, a bit prosaic, even. And with their adored presence skittering and flashing about, they liven up a quiet scene, and a much missed connection with the natural world is re-established by tuning in to the birds.

Over the past several weeks, I've had a fortuitous combination of good luck, timing, location and patience to add a passel of cool confirmed sightings to my Life List. It's hard to describe the transcendent feeling of intimate discovery that overcomes you when - at that precise, precious moment - you realize you've laid eyes on a creature of delicate beauty and rare appearance. The funny thing is, once you've spotted a bird for the first time, you suddenly begin spotting said bird all over creation. How is it that previously unseen birds, once sighted, are then seen many times in quick succession? (Thought: maybe they've just heretofore gone unnoticed?) Well, this odd avinomenon has happened to me with the Pacific-slope and Ash-throated Flycatchers, Brown Creeper, Black-headed Grosbeak, Warbling Vireo, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Varied Thrush, Sharp-shinned (possibly Cooper's) Hawk, Rufus Hummingbird, and Banded-tailed Pigeon. Who next? I hope the Western Kingbird. . .

The Band-tailed Pigeon is probably the only "Code 2" bird I've spotted - Code 2 being the American Birding Association's designation for birds occurring in low numbers and mysteriously elusive. . .that is, until first spotted. Hiking last April on an ecological reserve near Bonny Doon, Jessica Vaughan Powell pointed out a trio of them roosting in high pine branches, and since then, I've seen Band-tailed Pigeons two more times, in Redwood Regional Park, and Samuel P. Taylor State Park, heavily wooded and protected areas for this bird whose population is in decline. A pretty pigeon - as all pigeons are - his feathery iridescence and bold white stripe on the nape clearly mark this as the one and only 13 oz., 15 in. long Band-tailed Pigeon, a bird, admits the ABA, " that may be harder to spot than some species that have higher codes."

Warbling Vireo - oh, what a story! I'm in the Tilden Nature Area at Jewel Lake when a guy stops and wonders what I'm looking at it. He volunteers, "You see the Northern Waterthrush?" The Who? What? Apparently, the East Coast dweller got off course and ended up here, hanging out by the spillway in September, prompting birders to come out for the chance to see a bird spotted in the Bay Area once or twice in twenty years, if that. Earlier, I had spotted a warbler like vireo or vireo like warbler, hard to tell - with a distinctive white eye stripe and sweet cry. But I confuse this bird for the Northern Waterthrush when the guy adds, "Yeah, he's got a white eye stripe, unmistakable." AHA! So, I excitedly chase down this lovely elderly couple we often see at Jewel Lake (we call them Hubert and Magda), beside myself with excitement, exclaiming that indeed, we had seen the Holy Grail of Off Course Birds - the Northern Waterthrush! (Being highly interested in the natural world about them, Hubert and Magda are notably impressed.) But once home, checking my bird guide, I'm disappointed to learn it was merely some other bird and not the Northern Waterthrush, but later on I was delighted to find out that I spotted the somewhat rare (for the Bay Area) Warbling Vireo! And, of course, since that day, I've seen Warbling Vireos on two more occasions! (Shout out to Steve Gallup for helping to make the positive ID on the poor photo I managed to snap of the methodical branch hopping insect and berry eater.)

SAY'S PHOEBE (I dare say)
Now take the American Pipit - a fairly common bird I'd never before seen until I happened to spot a bunch of them ground feeding in an enclosed area at Point Isabel on October 18. Crazy that in all my outings, the Pipit has never been seen! How can it be? (Or that the "common" Horned Lark has been seen but once in 35 years, quashing my theory of seeing a bird many times after the initial sighting. That and the Merlin.) With the Pipit, it remains to be seen. . .if the Pipit will be seen forthwith. (Postscript: while reviewing photos for this post, I came across one of a Pipit taken at the Albany Bulb a year ago! Just goes to show you don't know what you don't know . . .)

(Slightly off-topic mention: how about the equally never before seen White-headed Woodpecker, although spotted farther afield on the Tahoe Rim Trail in mid-September. OK, bring it on, Whitey! Show your face again!)

In between all these new first sightings, I've also had several glimpses of exotic looking flycatchers hangin' out on a barbed wire fence near Wildcat Knoll and in the Burrowing Owl habitat at Albany Bulb. I'm guessing they're Ash-throated and Say's Phoebe's, mebbe. Throw in a raft of unID'd sightings of vireo/warbler type birds, plus a slew of strange goings-on with the elusive California Thrasher, and you've got the makings of a perfect storm of know-nothingness. But the Thrasher is now a familiar friend, an interesting - nay, charismatic - bird I've seen just a handful of times over the past few months, most recently a last-minute sighting the other day at the Albany Bulb when I turn into an area just to see, and sure enough, I see the curve-billed bird, well-camo'd, flushing out of underbrush to alight on a branch for a few moments of posing, minus the singing, like one day up on Wildcat Knoll when I hear a lilting song emanating from a bush, but seeing nothing, I leave frustrated by my complete lack of bird song ID skills. Minutes later, near Conlon / Nimitz Way juncture overlooking the San Pablo Reservoir and Mount Diablo, I hear the unmistakable song again, and - there's the Thrasher singing it. Bada Bada Bing!
This befuddling bird business is inexplicable. Why birds remain elusive until the moment of discovery, and then immediately thereafter begin appearing here and there and everywhere like special cameos in your life, is a head-scratching, unsolvable conundrum. Until you know what you don't know, it's all a Black Swan of assumptions, narratives and pretend expertise.

And still the question goes unanswered. How is it that previously unseen birds, once seen, are then seen many times in quick succession? Is it a principle of physics? Some twist of morphic resonance? Or deep natural laws of attraction at work? Maybe it's merely odds, timing, just a symptom of my utter naivete and whimsical approach to birding, with a modest underpinning of academic rigor and taxonomic certainty. It's an enduring mystery that will continue to delight the serious, casual, or obsessed birder, take your pick.