Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Birducopia of Sightings as Fall Migration Seasons Winds Down (Or Picks Up?)

White-breasted Nuthatch
Fall season has been great for the birds of California, whether temporary visitors or year-round residents. Mild temperatures and abundant sustenance guarantee food, safety and shelter for hundreds of avian species dropping out of the skies around the Bay Area in world class birding locales from Point Reyes National Seashore and Mount Diablo State Park to endless miles of San Francisco Bay shoreline and this blog's favorite and much beloved Jewel Lake / Tilden Nature Area in the Berkeley Hills.

Recent reports on birding sites detail an embarrassment of avian riches everywhere around the Bay Area, including exotic sightings of Mountain Bluebirds off Patterson Pass Road, Tropical Kingbirds at Heather Farms in Walnut Creek, Lewis' Woodpeckers at Briones Reservoirs, and many of my own unheralded, miraculously small birding adventures in the Berkeley Hills, along San Pablo Creek, in Mitchell Canyon, and throughout west Marin County, including a super-hot spot for birds - Limantour Beach - and just about everywhere, anywhere, where there's a forest or brush for cover, it's a bonanza of birds. Aren't they blessed little souls!
Odd Bird Fellows, SF Bay Trail
Naturally, what's good for the birds is good for the birders, and throngs of 'em are out in force this season hoping to spot a wayward Northern Waterthrush or off-course European Finch. Many, including me, are hoping to up their Life List tally by a dozen species. It's that kind of year. And, for the proud and few, it might even be a Big Year . . . which, in any case, will have to wait, unfortunately.

Despite routinely spotting 20, 30 species in my side yard or local park, paradoxically, I've not seen one-tenth or twentieth, even, of the possible number of unique avian visitors to our great Bay Area, a mighty big place, and easily 300 or 400 species come and go and stay. Is it just me who hasn't seen, say a "common" Pine Siskin, Oven Bird, or Painted Bunting? Let alone a Tennessee Warbler, Cassin's Vireo, or Common Poorwill. (Thought: maybe I have spotted one and didn't know it.)
Odd-looking European Starling 'twist Red-winged Blackbirds
Still, it's a Big Year right in Berkeley's Back Yard. My list is growing of several fortuitous, serendipitous, but very fleeting sightings of many splendid (and not so common) birds. Some of whom I may not see again.

A Varied Thrush seen and well photographed at Mitchell Canyon, Mount Diablo State Park. Also spotted over twelve months in Codornices Park, the Regional Parks Botanic Garden parking lot area, John Hinkel Park in Berkeley, and on Thanksgiving Day, two in my side yard, a first ever sighting of the pretty thrushes showing up here.

A White-breasted Nuthatch spotted right off the bat at Mitchell Canyon, but not again after that.
Golden-crowned Kinglet

A Red-breasted Sapsucker, spotted for the first time in the Regional Parks Botanic Garden, and again elsewhere in Tilden Regional Park later. Strange, two sightings, apart, of a bird I had never seen before. (There's that thing again!)

A Black-throated Gray Warbler spotted at Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve. A magical encounter of a unique bird flitting into my life ever so briefly, in a place I had no business being. (Check out prior post on it.) I'll be lucky to ever see one again. And yet . . . it's considered "not so uncommon" to see one!

Killdeers along the San Francisco Bay shoreline - true, I've never before seen one! Have I just not been looking for them? Amazing little dudes, I had never been aware, let alone noticed them before.

Wigeons at the Albany Bulb - ditto. Why would I ever notice a Wigeon before, and know it was a Wigeon I was noticing?

Red-breasted Sapsucker
Hermit Thrushes - they're all over the place this fall, like I never can remember them being. (Could some of them be Fox Sparrows and/or Wood Thrushes I'm misidentifying.) Why did I not notice them as a "fairly common" bird before?

European Starlings spotted at McLaughin Eastshore State Park surprised me immensely for their otherworldly look and coloration. And besides, I don't think I could ever lay claim to actually positively ever having seen one. The photo here managed to stump a few experts for a while! (By the way, ME State Park is an amazing natural resource on our urban doorstep - rehabilitated, terraformed habitat in an upland area known as the Berkeley Meadows,)

Great Blue Heron and Minions
Golden-crowned Kinglets at Wildcat Gorge - or maybe it was just one, but he stuck around for twenty minutes in plain sight. My best ever sustained glimpse of the hardy little bird distinguished by an orange crown stripe emblazoned atop his little head. I consider it a rare thing to spot a Golden-crowned Kinglet, yet people report seeing them left and right. The EBRPD Bird Checklist, though, considers their appearance "rare" and uncommon" all year round. So, what gives?

Come to think of it, even what you might regard as a pedestrian sighting in a local city park of, say, a common bird, like the American Robin, can thrill the heart with a voyeuristic glimpse into the mystery world of birds, a world where each small bundle of feathers and fat is a special and perfect miracle of creation. If you doubt, believe this:

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Birdspotting @ Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve

Black-throated Gray Warbler
When in need of a dose of the desert Southwest, look no farther than the urban fringes of Oakland California. You heard right! Lost in the mist of Neogene time, a volcano exploded, tilted, and deposited a rugged debris field, wiping out a goodly swathe of vegetation and wild life. Ten million years later, the Preserve has rebounded into a geological and botanical wonderland, showcasing eroded mini-Pinnacles-like features in the East Bay Regional Park District's most unique park, fascinating generations of geologists, and attracting legions of nature lovers and birding enthusiasts since its founding in 1936 and probably well before. Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve is a favorite and easy get-away in the Oakland Hills, an amazing place, really. Round Top peak, 1763 ft., is all that remains of the tilted-over volcano. Before the explosion, long-necked camels grazed alongside saber-toothed tigers. The complex and varied land forms of the Preserve shelter Oak and Bay tree forests and extensive meadow, grass and shrub land, inviting safe harbor for countless bird species.

Mount Diablo from "Southwest" Sibley Area
Covering just 660 acres, the Preserve is big and rugged enough to work up a lather climbing the ridges and descending the canyons. With a recent trail system expansion, some real miles can now be covered by hooking up to the world famous Bay Area Ridge and East Bay Skyline National Recreational Trails. A once off-limits section has opened, giving the park a bit more breathing room. Spend some time here, and you'll see that the Preserve is a place to slow down, let your mind drift checking out sign posts on the self-guided tour, noting outstanding geological features or some remnant outcrop of a hard to imagine cataclysmic event. And always, always, on the look out for a cool bird. (Wow! Was that a Rufous-crowned Sparrow you just saw?)

Black-throated Gray Warbler
In the Preserve, along with lively bird animations, you'll see darting rabbits and scurrying lizards and sun-struck snakes. Maybe a fox if lucky. The meadows and rolling hill terrain of the Preserve provide ideal habitat for rodents to proliferate, tasty provender to sate the appetites of Red-tailed Hawks, White Kites, Golden Eagles, and, not unheard of, Bald Eagles, nearby nesters at San Pablo Reservoir. In a hidden "bowels of the earth" place, a small reedy pond is ideal for newt eggs to incubate, and, deep in this old quarry pit, you'll walk an inscrutable labyrinth, whose builders remain a mystery. Spend some quiet time listening to the wind whistling, meditatively walking the circular pathway to the center of this little universe, giving thanks and praise and wonder . . . and always, always, on the look out for a cool bird. (Whoa! Was that a Northern Shrike you just spotted?)

Redrock style Boulder Outcrop
I'm solo biking the entire 660 acres of the Preserve, over extending myself a bit, but ineluctably pulled here and lured there by novel sights and long views and bird rich habitats - cool sightings of flocks of Mourning Doves clouding the skies, White- and Golden-crowned Sparrows ground feeding and bush-diving, and a lone Bewick's Wren hopping about. And always, Scrub and Steller's Jays squawking up a storm. This happens to be my first bird-focused outing to the Preserve, too. How such a "hot spot" for exotic birds has eluded me, I'll never know, but it was here several years ago when I spotted a pair of White Kites in a tree snag sharing a mangled rodent carcass, something I had never seen before. Kinda got me hooked.
Walking the Labyrinth
I'm all in at the Preserve today, thrilled by the tremendous variation in avian habitat, blown away by hugely scenic views I'd totally forgotten about. I circle up and down and all around, spending a solid hour exploring a back section I like to call my very own private red rock wilderness. In this once closed off area, reddish cliffs protrude above boulder-strewn, brush edged meadows - habitat par excellence for birds to hide in, or boldly hang out, such as the Western Bluebirds and Lesser Goldfinches, or circle high above nosing for prey like Turkey Vultures and Northern Harriers. I'm happy and heartened to spot dozens of "sundry" birds over the course of my peregrination - Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Juncos, Jays, and Towhees among the usual suspects. Each, still, in their own way, individually precious and miraculous.

"Redrock Wilderness" in Our Backyard
With my day winding down, a small reserve of energy enables one last reconnoiter to the top of the old quarry pit. Always, always, on the look out for a cool bird. I circle behind the ridge, out of sight to the world, dropping my bike at the Preserve boundary fence to climb over into district watershed land. Moments before, I had a thought of my 90 year old Mom - this blog's biggest fan! She was psychically directing me to this particular area, I felt, where I instinctively sensed an "exotic" bird would appear. Go ahead, laugh. I sure was! After extended, luxurious moments of silent time admiring big Diablo Range views in between neck-craning for birds, my patience - and faith! - is rewarded when suddenly I notice a most unusual and interesting looking bird flirting about in a small tree. I'm like - what the. . .? Scrambling to get a good bino view, while at the same time fumbling with my camera to get off a shot. Luckily, I'm able to capture a couple of poor quality photos, but proof positive of it being a Black-throated Gray Warbler! How cool is that, fellow birders? (The distinctive yellow eye dot is the tell-tale signature feature of the grayish-white bird.)

Scrub Jay
I'm humbled, amazed, and excited to bear witness for one minute to the doings, comings and goings of a Black-throated Gray Warbler! Also frustrated as hell, for he's now long gone, flown away to a far off tree down the hillside - never to be seen again, a once in a lifetime sighting. Have YOU ever seen one? Well, go ahead and pop my balloon, they're supposedly not all that unusual to spot. But I'll put cash money that I'll never see another.

In a recent post, I wrote about how once you see a bird for the first time, you will then, by some ineffable law of attraction, begin seeing that same bird over and over. It does happen. In the annals of Bay Area Birdspotting, how likely is it, I wonder, that I will ever again see a Black-throated Gray Warbler? Stay tuned.

For slide show of Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve's unique and fascinating scenery, check out

Monday, November 17, 2014

Birding Delights @ Jewel Lake / Wildcat Creek

Varied Thrush
Tilden Regional Park is a natural wonder on our urban doorstep just minutes away in the Berkeley Hills - even by bike! The lovely Tilden Nature Area is alluring any time of year, especially pretty now with dense brush and forest draped in autumn colors. A stroll around the Nature Area - if you're a birder - can soak up a few hours in no time just ambling around, checking for birds at the edges of the still-flowing creek, in the rich habitat of the winding boardwalk, and at the aviary otherwise known as Jewel Lake, where birdspotting becomes a special art. Often meeting fellow giddily enthusiastic birders, you're bound to see cormorants flapping their wings, mallards and other waterfowl gliding about, herons feeding, Black Phoebes and Anna's Hummingbirds flitting about, Kingfishers darting to and fro (if you're lucky), frenetic Ruby-Crowned Kinglets in their constant search for insects, and several types of Warblers, also single-mindedly engaged in the business of gathering sustenance for survival - and sustenance abounds in the Tilden Nature Area, which accounts for the plethora and diversity of avian visitors and residents.

Acorn Woodpecker
The other day I watch gangs of Acorn Woodpeckers in the marsh ponds flit back and forth from their high perches in the Eucalyptus trees to nearby Oaks to gather their bounty and issue forth chiding aaack aaack aaack calls. On Blue Gum Trail, a troupe of two dozen Wild Turkeys crosses my path, only mildly frightened by vain attempts to film them. At the edge of a dried out pond, I think a Varied Thrush is hiding in dense understory, but can't verify it until returning an hour later just to see. My patience - or timing - is rewarded within a few seconds with a fine glimpse of the handsome thrush, crouched in typical hard to spot, camo'd, secretive pose amid a tangle of branches. No hiding from me this time, but definitely it's not the easiest bird to photograph. (The representative photo you see here was taken the week before at Mitchell Canyon Trail in Mount Diablo State Park.)

Wild Toms
Now how is it that with multiple dozens of visits to the Tilden Nature Area / Wildcat Creek Watershed, I continue to be dumbstruck by the many different birds seen here . . . that I have never seen! Not one! Not once! It makes no sense! Writing for Mount Diablo Audubon Society, Steve Glover casually reports varied sightings of birds spotted in this very area that have thus far completely eluded my sphere of awareness:

Swainson' Thrush (0 sightings)

Allen's Hummingbird (0 sightings)

Nuttall's Woodpecker (0 sightings)

Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Red-eyed Vireo (0 sightings)

Tennessee, Chestnut-sided, Hooded, Black-throated Blue, Black-and-White, and Worm-eating Warblers (0 sightings)

Northern Parula (0 sightings)

Northern Waterthrush (0 sightings)

American Redstart (0 sightings)

Western Wood-Pewee (0 sightings)

Pine Siskin (0 sightings)

Winter Wren (0 sightings)

Red-tailed Hawk
Song Sparrow (0 sightings)

Purple Finch (0 sightings)

Lazuli Bunting (1 sighting in higher park area)

How can this be? Am I not paying attention? Are the birds determined to not pay attention to me? Is my timing off? Do I not know a Swainson's from a Hermit? A Vireo from a Kinglet? A Lark from a Song? Surely not. Like my chanterelle hunting bud of old who had an uncanny ability to magically spot barely popping up fungi, it must take another kind of talent, some preternatural connection, to stand there silently, patiently - expectantly? - until an American Redstart or Northern Parula happens to show up. Maybe, has to be, like I said, about timing. These birds must be early morning or late evening appearing birds, and I'm always, or mostly, here from 10 am to 3 pm. In any event, I could also certainly benefit from instructions, lessons, camaraderie, if only I weren't such a maverick and lone wolf about things.

Tilden Nature Area
I'll settle with my own wonderful sightings recently - of a juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron; an unflappable Great Blue Heron; an exciting first ever sighting of a Warbling Vireo, barely ID'd owing to a last-sec snapshot I managed to capture; and the Varied Thrush I had seen earlier on this day. I decide to making a last-minute detour hoping to see something different, something special. What are the chances? I head up a path through the big Lone Oak meadow paralleling Wildcat Creek, coming to a picnic area where a heretofore unknown pathway leads down a ways to the Nook Pool area. On the opposite side from the usual approach on Wildcat Gorge Trail, everything seems so unfamiliar, exotic even, with unrecognizable grand Redwood and Bay trees and a thick blanket of forest to discover the secretive world of not one, not two, but three Varied Thrushes! Unphotographable as usual, I still manage to witness these pretty burnt-orange striped and tinged birds darting and hopping for several minutes, unaware of the voyeur looking in. A perfect capper to a day that also included sightings of frisky Chestnut-backed Chickadees, a lone Townsend's Warbler, blitzing Scrub and Steller's Jays, many Dark-eyed and Pink-sided Juncos, a slew of Ruby-crowned Kinglets, one Downy and half a dozen Acorn Woodpeckers, two dozen Wild Turkeys, several Vultures, two Red-tailed Hawks, one Bewick's Wren, one Hermit Thrush, a few California Towhees, two Black Phoebes, one Mourning Dove, lots of Bushtits, and a pair of really pretty Adult Male Green-backed Lesser Goldfinches! Much to write home about.

Read more about the Nature Area @