Sunday, December 6, 2015

Hot, Thirsty Birds Not Hot, Thirsty Anymore (Part 3)

Winter's creep and a weak (so far) El NiƱo have proffered up a few quenching sprinkles so far, barely enough to alleviate the scary dry conditions of the past few months. Still, the refreshing moisture is a reprieve for once hot, thirsty birds suffering from the aridity and heat that roasted the Bay Area and beyond last summer through the fall.

Fresh run-off from the small spring in Berkeley's John Hinkel Park spills melodiously over a volcanic rock shelf, a very modest discharge cutting a narrow channel through dew-tinged vegetation. This miniature tableau of "grand nature" is always a pretty and soothing sight. In a zen-simple way, being here connects me and grounds me to the raw earth in the concretized urban environment. I patiently wait for a bird to visit, rapt in the calming sounds of soft gurgling water, attuned to sweet tweets of birds high in the tree tops. When, snap, a pretty little Anna's Hummingbird appears and begins flitting in place where a miniature curtain of water whooshes over the mossy rock lip.
I'm fascinated by how this bejeweled little dervish dances and hovers in blurry motionlessness, then deftly alights and manages to grip the mossy surface and proceed to sip and dip, dip and sip, shake things off, repeat several times - very much enjoying her private little spa moment!

What unprecedented agility and ability, what a highly evolved talent, to just be able to hang in space like that! How does such a tiny creature generate and sustain the enormous expenditure of energy needed to accomplish such an everyday common "feat"? (And much more during mating outlays of energy and insanely arduous migration treks.) Imagine the tiny heart motor of this five gram bird beating a thousand times over to power her wings at 70 beats a minute during the half-second I'm able to capture her in action. It's who she is, it's what she does.

This special bird is one of just three hummingbird species out of 300 worldwide and 12 in North America native to our area. And hard to believe that for such a tiny being she possesses the largest brain capacity of any contender in the bird kingdom. (I've read many references to this body weight / brain weight ratio fact, but can it be true? This tiny being?) No matter, they're smart little suckers.

I can't take my eyes (or video cam) off her, watching her doing her unwatched thing, observing her operating unobserved in her magnificent hummingbird world .  . . except there's me, a voyeur with a video cam. Is Ms. Anna aware? Probably she is, and she also intuitively knows I bear no harm or ill intent; more likely, the draw of the water, the prospect of a bath and a drink, is too powerful a magnet to keep her away. When, like her appearance before, snap, she's suddenly gone like a quantum particle.

On the trail back, I thrill to the sight of a Hermit Thrush flying into a red-berried bush to perch and munch. Pretty little thing. Oh, and a Ruby-crowned Kinglet flashing his red crown for a nano-second. And a Winter, not Bewick's, Wren, I'm pretty sure, which would mark only a handful of sightings of the elusive wren. The three sightings are, in my experience, somewhat rare, or let's say not seen frequently. One other time I saw a Hermit Thrush eating red Toyon berries, and maybe I've seen the Kinglet's shock 'o ruby a dozen times, and the lovely (but very busy) putative Winter Wren, I can't remember when I last saw a local wren that was not a Bewick's.

A visit to John Hinkel Park always yields an interesting bird encounter or three. The park itself is small and quiet, usually absent of people, the air is clean and free from barbecue or chimney smoke, and its moist forest provides a sanctuary for birds, snakes, newts, skinks, and skunks, and no doubt who else. A night cam would reveal deer and possum, possibly coyotes and mountain lions passing through, right here in Wild Berkeley. Recently the carcass of a Great Horned Owl turned up with a mangled neck, probably self-inflicted by a collision with a fence while hunting for small songbirds. Yes, thank goodness for our city parks, with their sheltering forests and riparian ways, to slake this city dweller's thirst for a tiny taste of nature; to sate this bird lover's fix to be among such heaven sent creatures; to remind me of the deep connection with the spirit-that-moves-in-all-things, even here in our humble little city parks.


Monday, November 2, 2015

Sora! Sora! Sora! (Birdspotting @ Tennessee Valley)

Tennessee Valley, being one of the Seven Wonders of Bay Area Wild, is a super-popular destination in the Marin Headlands, attracting large crowds day in and day out, no matter the weather, owing to stunning coastal hill scenery, sublime littoral wonders, and an extensive network of trails connecting easy to moderate to difficult routes, through healthy forest and lovely meadow and up steep rocky trails to attain 360 degree lookouts of nonpareil beauty.

The hike to the slice of pebbly brown beach - make that stroll - is an easy 1.8 miles, first along a paved thoroughfare of humanity, where stroller-pushing, jogging Marin Moms and gabbing groups of social hikers abound, mixing it up with equestrians, bladers, families, nature lovers, and, not yet banned ?, drone enthusiasts. (I encounter a kid with his family looking for his downed drone in a thicket.) Every and anyone is able to enjoy Tennessee Valley, owing to its proximity and accessibility - both a blessing and curse.

Veering off the main fire road, a single track trail is routed through sensitive terrain rife with wildlife - bumblebees bumbling, butterflies fluttering by, birds in paradise, the occasional skippin' coyote, and, if timed right or lucky enough, a lazy ol' bobcat. (One day we met a woman who told us with a straight-face of her nine recent mountain lion encounters.) This precious living meadow shelters alder and willow trees lining a secretive stream bank and restored and protected wetlands habitat. I love stopping at the small bridge, peering over the railing dropping my gaze into a small sky blue pool reflecting fractile fern patterns. I'm in no hurry for the "main attraction" - the beach, for now, can wait.

By-passed by most passers-by (in a hurry to get to the main attraction), I revel in the silence and solitude found in this small place where, undisturbed, I can engage in my time-honored activity of do-absolutely-nothingness. Dissipating unrecorded moments observing simple things in nature, watching for birds in the riparian edges, nothing more calming, nothing more rewarding, even if not a single bird appears. Once, long ago, I spotted my very first hummingbird nest, constructed in the branches above the bridge, long deserted, a remnant art installation of interwoven grass, moss and bits of discarded string.

Like the legions of visitors, birds naturally gravitate to and love Tennessee Valley. Birds of all kinds: raptors, shorebirds, songbirds, and secretive birds not otherwise easily spotted, such as the Sora and Northern Harrier. On a good day, up to 40 species might be observed, as Napa-Solano Audubon Society trip leader David Takeuchi racked up in 2010, including a sighting of the elusive Sora. Of course, I never come close to "bagging" that many birds in a single day, but over the years, I've seen my share of species in the avian-rich habitat of Tennessee Valley, including brilliantly plumed Turkeys, Quail and Hummingbirds.

On the doorstep of the great ocean a pretty lagoon commands attention, especially for birders. Here at the brackish lagoon, the ocean roaring a hundred yards away, I always stop for a lengthy pause to watch ducks, geese, cormorants, coots, flycatchers and other special visitors. Wolf Ridge looms high, an impressive backdrop to the valley gem.

Not too much cookin' today, but I continue looking for something I've not yet seen, and, voila, a Sora appears, or what appears to be a Sora!

Although in the moment, I don't even know it's a Sora! I'm too far away to ID it reliably, and I can't get closer as access is restricted along the shoreline of the lagoon. I can only watch from the trail, in itchy excitement, snapping a couple of distant, blurry, but ID-able photos, wondering which bird it is flirting among the reeds and stabbing at the water lapping up bugs and algae.

Later on, I scratch my head over descriptions of the Sora being one of the more common and widely distributed of North American Rails. Must be why, just the other day, I read my first-ever eBird report of a Sora sighting. I'm sure many people have spotted a Sora, but today marks a First Sighting for me of the common and widely distributed (quote unquote) bird. Perhaps I'm lucky to add the Sora to my Life List, because All About Birds admits that "actually seeing the little marsh-walker is much more difficult" than one would suspect!

Moments after spotting the Sora, I catch a teaser sighting of a heretofore unknown warbler darting in and among the reeds, but never alighting long enough to positively ID him, before - off he goes, alas - fluttering forever and ever away.

Still, I'm able to get one or two-second glimpses of the flighty fellow, enough to eliminate Townsend's, Wilson's, and Yellow (-rumped) as candidates. But while I fail to snap a photo, I remain wishful I saw a Tennessee (Valley) Warbler!

At the fabulous curve of beach, where a January 2013 landslide brought down the iconic 100 ft. archway (caught on film by California Institute of Technology graduate student Robert Wills) many shorebirds fly the skies and ply the water, with gulls soaring overhead or landing on the beach for crumbs with the crow bums. Pelicans fly by in formation, occasionally plunge diving for fishy morsels. Seals bob up and down in the surf. Terns skirt the breakers. Depending on tidal conditions, you can inspect the remains of the wreck of the SS Tennessee whose fate was sealed in the treacherous surf off the cove one stormy night in 1853. Stop to take it all in, ignore the crowds, have a picnic, soak it up, it's always a special feeling at Tennessee Valley, always a day to cherish and feel blessed by.

On the return, back through the pretty meadow, I hear a barrage of screeching and look up to witness an aerial battle between two Northern Harriers over a snake dangling from steely talons. One of the handsome, elegant hawks suddenly swoops in to snatch the prize from the clutches of the other, victoriously flying off to a distant snag to gloat and pick the snake apart in peace. Always something amazing at Tennessee Valley, something unexpected that will change the way you see your world.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Hot, Thirsty Birds Attracted to Little Spring (Part 2)

I recently posted on hot, thirsty birds attracted to a small spring bubbling from beneath a city street trickling into a small ravine at John Hinkel Park in North Berkeley. Not exactly an ooooh aaaaah knock 'em dead amazingly beautiful kind of place, but still! A place worthy of attention and recognition - and yes, exultation! - because it is a place revered and sought out by many birds for its year-round water source in a precious baptismal fountain where they're able to find succor and relief in an oasis like setting of refreshing water in dry conditions.

As the spring trickles down a small rock face, water pools ever so gently in tiny basins that attract birds to come and cool off and dip in without fear. On a return visit to check if the spring was still flowing, I'm happy to report it is, with a seeming increase in its modest discharge.
I'm initially dismayed by the absence of bird activity, but things change real soon the quieter I am, the more patient I wait, the finer tuned my senses become. Tree top activity springs to life with, first, frantic activity by several Chestnut-backed Chickadees, then crashing the party a few Juncos, followed by a Scrub Jay, a Brown Creeper, and soon, a family of Lesser Goldfinches flies in above the spring's lower foliage. In a flash, I spot a mirage of a creature high up, resembling some kind of Warbler I can't zoom in on in time to identify. It might have been a Hermit or Chestnut-sided or Tennessee, but I'll never know.

Soon, a recognizable little guy pops into view - the black masked, yellow-faced Townsend's Warbler, always a joy to spot. And - surprise of surprises - a Black and White Warbler appears ever so fleetingly in the same tree, but chased off by a Spotted Towhee after a very brief glimpse and no photograph. Dang. First ever sighting of a B 'n W Warbler, though, in the Bay Area.

At the spring, the Warblers give way to the big Adult Male Greenbacked Lesser Goldfinch and his two female consorts. They perch at the lip of the spring, flick their feathers about, peck their beaks into the water, shake their little bodies free of excess moisture, and contentedly sit there for a good long while enjoying their private little bath while I capture it all on film (as I was able to do with the Townsend's Warbler the week before).

It's a special place, this woodland oasis in our urban midst, where city birds live a wild life, unnoticed, unmolested by all - except maybe a stealth raptor such as the predacious Red-shouldered or Sharp-shinned Hawk known to frequent the bosque in search of small unsuspecting songbirds. . .not this time, though, and the air fills with sweet tweets.


Townsend's Warbler bathing in small spring:

Lesser Goldfinches enjoying a nice dip:

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

ALBANY BULB Redux . . . and Geese and Pelicans and Tons of Other Birds

Long-neglected and abused, lately rehabbed, the tiny parcel of land dubbed the Albany Bulb is an endless source of amusement and adventure, offering up nooks and crannies of natural beauty and million dollar views every which way you look across the shimmering bay to San Francisco, Angel Island, and the Marin Headlands. Iconic Golden Gate Bridge and Mount Tamalpais punctuate the world-famous drop-dead gorgeous panorama.
For nature lovers, dog owners, casual strollers, and everyday out 'n abouters, the reclaimed peninsula is a haven for exploring and sight-seeing, a regular old slice of heaven and refuge on the edge of urban sprawl bordering factories, warehouses and a roaring ten-lane freeway of non-stop traffic, but mostly you'd never know it!

Fortunately, the Bulb sticks out into San Francisco Bay far enough where the noise and eyesores are not noticeable, but along the marsh and mudflats, where three East Bay creeks drain, the presence of so much negative energy is hard to ignore.

But, hey, the birds don't seem to mind one bit, so busy are they occupied by their industrious searches for food afforded when the tide recedes and exposes geometric patterns of textured raised mud beds - a veritable smorgasbord for thousands of individual birds, perhaps over 30 different species converging in the area to take advantage of the rich pickings.

Once a dumping ground for industrial detritus left over from the Bay Area's post-WW II construction boom, the Bulb has since been rehabbed and nurtured into a green splotch of elevated scrub land studded with trees and surrounded by rock strewn shoreline. The Bulb is also an outdoor art museum, littered with quirky sculptures and bizarre rock paintings, resembling a mini sandbox for creative Burning Man expressions.

More importantly, germane to this blog, the Bulb is a phenomenal place to observe birds. Here, shorebirds, perching birds, soaring birds, all manner of birds, congregate at the Bulb, in vast numbers along the shoreline, in dizzying murmurations over the mudflats, in frenzied flocks of finches in bushes and small trees, everywhere you turn, there are birds to see!

What follows are some of my favorite shots of the various birds I've been fortunate to encounter and photograph at the Bulb.

Adult Black-crowned Night Heron, just sitting on a cement embankment not a stone's throw from I-80, but looking every bit as content and at home in "the wild" as though spotted at Point Reyes National Seashore.

White-tailed Kite, a beautiful raptor I came upon perched in a treetop with some dead bit of provender. He later flew off with it clutched in his talons, perhaps headed to a high nest somewhere to nourish a young hungry brood.

Marbled Godwits and Whimbrels in flight lifting off from the mudflats where they'd been feeding on microbiota dredged up from tidal action.

Snowy Egrets wondering what to think about the Mallard encroaching upon their territory.

Great Egret stalking shallow waters of mudflats, exposing raised geometric patterns rich with worms, invertebrates, snakes and frogs.

Anna's Hummingbird in abstract motion with fan tail and wings in motion to create a special kind of uplift unique to hummingbirds.

Red-winged Blackbird waiting for mate to return. Usually they flock in droves creating spectacular murmurations turning and twisting in the sky flashing their red markings.

House Finch reaching for some tasty tidbit. The Finches love to flock in large bunches, flying about from tree to tree, bush to bush, seeking seeds and berries that abound at the Bulb.

Song Sparrows are fairly common residents at the Bulb, livening up things with their vocalizations - sweet whistling!

A funny looking bird with a scimitar like beak, a specialized curved "utensil" for foraging in tiny holes and cracks in the mudflats and beneath rocks.

A tiny Anna's Hummingbird against the dramatic backdrop of Mount Tamalpais.

Anna's Hummingbird with flaming purple gorget that extended to envelop his whole head - an amazing spectacle of polychromatic wizardry.

Juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron stalking, or learning the trade.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet - oddly, this tiny bird is not often seen at the Bulb, but today he was out 'n about, frisky as heck.

Once on the brink of extinction, a Brown Pelican in flight above water looking for a meal. They dive bomb, capable of descending 20 feet to scoop up fishy edibles in their big gullets.

Golden-crowned Sparrow, seen flocking in large numbers ground feeding for seeds and worms in rich habitat at the Bulb.

Finch mates perching atop brushy foliage. When the light strikes them, the males' red breast plates and heads reveal tropical like colors to an otherwise non-exotic but always pretty bird.

White-crowned Sparrow (Black-lored Adult) - flocking, ground-feeding pretty little guys, always a joy to spot them.

Mallard takin' it easy.

Canada Goose, posing in front of a tri-colored (natural) background.

American Avocets feeding on rich picking in mudflats, with (possibly) a Northern Shoveler in upper left.

Northern Mockingbirds love the Bulb. I have not seen more anywhere else in the East Bay Wild. These lively, mocking birds are often seen engaging crows and bullying smaller birds for rights to the best berry bushes. They sit atop their domain and tweet out to the world, don't mess with me.

Sandpipers (unidentified) gathering on rock in bay. Fantastic flocks of them - murmurations - can often be seen over the mudflats.

Black Phoebe perched on piece of rusting art installation along small inlet of bay.

Western Grebe plying the bay waters, later seen engaged in elaborate synchronized courtship display.

Couple of old coots.

Snowy Egret, familiar denizen of wetlands and marshes.

Anna's perched on a thin branch tip - like some extension of a colorful wand.

Gray Pelicans + Gull chillin
Great Blue Heron stalking in the golden light of pre-dusk.

Note: I think they're Sanderlings.