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