Monday, January 26, 2015

The Thing About Varied Thrushes, Part 4

Varied Thrush @ Redwood Regional Park
Who would think I could squeeze another post out of the commonplace (by now) Varied Thrush? Over the past few months, mysteriously, I have had copious encounters with Varied Thrushes, once considered (by me) a rare sighting. In three prior posts, I have written about these mysterious copious encounters precipitated by a widespread appearance of the species after a lengthy absence (I think). After my last two birding adventures, though, it cannot go unnoticed nor unrecorded that I "chanced upon" multiple Varied Thrushes! Once again. Make that thrice again, with an eye witness account of three individual specimens sighted foraging together at Redwood Regional Park. The day before, it was a frisky pair suddenly appearing out of nowhere to land on a branch and poke around on a sunny patch of loam along sweetly burbling Wildcat Creek Gorge Trail.

Golden-crowned Kinglet @ Wildcat Creek Gorge Trail
That's a first - spotting a Varied Thrush in the 5,000+ acre expanse of Redwoods above the city of Oakland. A bird hot spot, I was there hoping to spot one of four Owl species, whose vocalizations were reported a week ago by Bill Clark at Birding News (Northern Saw-whet, Western Screech, Great Horned, and Northern Pygmy). Amazing his ability to ID them based on their calls! In no time, I had experienced several cool sightings hiking up and down Golden Spike Trail / Dunn Loop, a long-time favorite. Saw a female Downy Woodpecker pecking away on dead branch; a Fox Sparrow motionless and mostly hidden in thickets; a very hard to pin down Golden-crowned Kinglet - only about my fourth sighting ever of the (still exotic) bird; and looping, pretty Western Bluebirds hanging out on a tall snaggy pine in full view of dozens of hikers, not one of whom looked up. (Explains my sore neck.) And then the Varied Thrushes, normally a skittish, furtive, fleeting, hard to spot and mainly solitary creature, but I have to tell you, this weekend, the Varied Thrushes were out and about taking care of business. Even my non-birder wife (Gambolin' Gal) got a glimpse of them each time, admittedly thrilling her but not enough to take up the habit.

Western Bluebirds @ Redwood Regional Park
The thing about seeing Varied Thrushes, or the Golden-crowned Kinglet - YES! - or a Band-tailed Pigeon, for example (also spotted in Redwood Park a few months ago) is that each encounter seems to be a happenstance, serendipitous event, a ninety-nine percent chance of never having occurred . . .and yet it occurred! Making it a one in a million event. Because birds are not there for your enjoyment or benefit to add to Life Lists; they're here and there, just for a while, and then gone like a whirring mirage, owned by no one, free as a . . .

Sure, some birds strike a prolonged pose or stick around in playful fits or hunt and peck mode, but in my experience, the Varied Thrush has always appeared suddenly, disappearing even faster. So what gives with them putting on such a show lately?

Finally, it will be interesting to see if and when they decide to fly the coop. Surely, they will join hundreds of millions of other migrating species to fly south, or north, or whichever direction their internal GPS takes them. Or maybe they're here to stay. . .for a while. We shall (hopefully) see.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Thing About Varied Thrushes, Part 3

This is getting ridiculous, seeing Varied Thrushes at every turn. Just today, I see two more, for cryin' out loud. The first one this morning, in the Oak tree in the side yard while trolling for wrens and warblers. A few months back, a Varied Thrush landed on the ground nearby, which hugely excited me at the time, but in six years I have never seen one in the tree. Until this morning when one lands on a branch, motionless for several seconds. Surely if I run to fetch my camera, he'll be gone lickety-split, but he was still striking a noble pose when I returned to snap, snap, just in time before off he flies.

Later on, tramping up and down unnamed knolls in the Berkeley Hills, places you'd never once think of visiting or find alluring. . .if it weren't for the pursuit of the birds that inhabit such places. Rarely, if ever, will you find a human being in these off-the-radar but right under your nose kind of places so close to popular roads and trails. If you're not a birder, though, there's "nothing there." Today, I spot Anna's Hummingbirds madly zipping about and a barely ID'd Red-breasted nuthatch busy at work, high up. Vultures and hawks circling, a leery Spotted Towhee dashing. Jay screeching. Golden-crowned Sparrows heavily feeding. Mind-blowing new perspective on Tilden Park's Big Springs Hills and Vollmer ridge.

I'm about to call it a day, when I catch sight of, that's right - ANOTHER VARIED THRUSH flying into thick brush. I cop a good look, but am unable to get a photo of the final bird to tick off my list today. Another Varied Thrush! With them being spotted in abundance everywhere, where previously they were rarely spotted, it makes me wonder how the species has managed to re-establish itself in the Berkeley Hills environs this season, how it's able to successfully re-assert a ubiquitous presence after such a long absence, or why in the first place they left and after years of being away decided to return. Who knows?

To see a Varied Thrush, the once elusive bird, no longer quickens my pulse or excites me in that tingly way when you see a bird rarely if ever spotted. While the thrill is not gone, I do my best to drum up some excitement still for the pretty brush thrush. Also, keeping in mind Gambolin' Gal's wise counsel: "Like all things, when new are fascinating, then become routine and commonplace to the point we hardly notice them anymore. Don't let your Varied Thrush become that, let them remain fascinating and wonderful no matter how many times one flitters into your purview."

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Thing About Varied Thrushes, Part 2

The ubiquity of Varied Thrush sightings around the Bay Area continues to amaze me. They're suddenly everywhere. Specifically, they've arrived in bunches in the Berkeley environs this season. On two outings since Part 1 of this topic, Varied Thrushes have haunted my every move, appearing fleetingly here and briefly there; other times showing up for bolder, longer stretches, ground-feeding or branch-hopping. It's kind of uncanny. How can it be that, unlike past years, I'm seeing Varied Thrushes everywhere, even literally dropping dead from the sky where I found one poor little limp corpse in a park. It's kind of crazy.
I follow Blue Gum Trail to Jewel Lake in the Tilden Nature Area, always a peaceful place, even when screaming kids and chattering schoolchildren shatter the silence with their play and excitement. I'm always amazed at the many different kinds of birds reported in this "hot spot." Me, I'm lucky to see one-tenth of what people see. I wonder how or why that is. Are they more observant? More patient? More serious? All probably true. Timing is another reason. I rarely find myself in nature during the crepuscular hours when many more birds and animals come out. Me, I'm content to see what I see, when and where the occasion strikes. Between the hours of 10 am and 5 pm, believe me, I've seen plenty of nice bird action here: a fearless Juvenile White-crowned Heron feeding a few feet away in shallow water; Great Blue Herons taking off and landing majestically; Kingfishers madly dashing across the lake surface; a Pied-billed Grebe tooling around happily; many Wilson's Warblers, Acorn Woodpeckers, a surprising Warbling Vireo, Cormorants, and countless ducks and other common sightings. And, naturally, a lone Varied Thrush spotted around six months ago, the first of its kind I'd sighted in two years, seemingly presaging the rash of recent sightings since then.
Cooper's or Sharp-shinned Hawk?

About half a mile from Jewel Lake, I stop to check out the forest above the creek - prime bird habitat. Several months ago, I spotted a Hawk's nest high up in the treetop. On a second visit / inspection, I met a fellow who said it was a Cooper's, but I said I thought it was a Sharp-shinned. He demurred and I deferred. Any takers? Here's the photo. The nestlings, I later discovered, did not survive the assault, evidenced by a mess of feathers layering the outer wall of the big stick nest, and no sign of Papa or Mama Hawk.

I enjoy a luxurious interlude of sweet silence, when - what's that movement through the thick foliage? Can't be, can it? Sure is! A pair of Varied Thrushes emerging from stillness, flying down to creek's edge in a heartbeat. They hunt and peck at the rich pickings under the forest canopy of Big Leaf Maple, Oak, Dogwood and fir trees.

Pied-bill Grebe
Soon I find a deer path leading down to a stretch of unknown creek for a wonderful adventure. Great birding amid the pure silence of nature humming along. A precious water setting, many birds. At the Rifle Range Road bridge, I stop to admire the creek's simple beauty, reflecting trees in still water and riffling over pretty blue rocks. This is our backyard - rolling hill country with meadows, creek and forest. It's also the birds' backyard!

My attention is soon captured by a buzz of activity in the brush and eucalyptus trees, where Orioles have been spotted (I was told). It's a dozen excitable Yellow-rumped Warblers. I'm fooled by some of the birds' streaky breasts and drab coloring into thinking I'm looking at a whole new bird, but no, they're just sundry non-breeding "Audubon's" sidekicks.

Nearby, back along the burbling creek, guess who shows up? Varied Thrushes! They're hanging out on the steep creek bank, hopping about looking for seeds and insects. One of them suddenly flies over to a twisted tree branch, right near me, and just stands there posing in the full light of day for several seconds for my best-ever up close glimpse of a Varied Thrush. But why such intimacy and serendipity, suddenly?

Next up, next day, Alvarado Park, at the mouth of Wildcat Gorge, a National Historic Place I've never explored, and therefore deserving of a few minutes, right. Turns out, I spend an hour and half making slow rounds, gravitated to the pretty bend in the creek new to me, and intrigued by the rife bird life. Surprisingly few people are here for a nice Saturday afternoon. Of course, the very first birds I spot here are a pair of Varied Thrushes! What is going on?
Non-breeding "Audubon's" Yellow-rumped Warbler
On Belgum Trail, I divert off a side path to visit the ruins - little of what remains of them - of the early twentieth century Grande Vista Sanitarium. Once a mansion, spa and beautiful grounds, staffed by doctors, psychiatrists and healers, it was the "crazy house" in the "remote" hills where rich city folk from San Francisco and Marin sent their loony, addicted and afflicted relatives. Not much to see today - a stone foundation and a few lengths of rock wall. But the imagination blossoms with visions and intimations of times past, almost a ghostly feel pervades the pretty palm-lined grounds where the robins and sparrows, juncos and jays, chickadees and doves play, and squirrels frolic the day away.

I decide to push it up Belgum Trail, one of Wildcat Canyon's most punishing trails up to the ridge. Not wise. I have to literally push it up and over three massive camel humps defining San Pablo's rolling ridge. I grunt and struggle mightily to make it up, and finally my reward - the best 360 views in the entire Bay Area. Taking it all in, catching my breathe, watching vultures circle and hearing a raptor cry far off, always in these high sloping meadows hoping to see a Horned Lark maybe.

From here, it's a rollicking five mile ride on Nimitz Way to Inspiration Point and the final stretch to the Brazil Room for a breather before the last downhill leg home. Of course, near the trash can in the parking lot, on a tiny patch of earth, a Varied Thrush looks over at me, tilts his head, then hops off nonchalantly.

BONUS FOOTAGE of Varied Thrush hopping up a branch:

BONUS GALLERY of the gorgeous gorge trail in Tilden / Wildcat Canyon:

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Thing About Varied Thrushes, Living and Dead

Quarry Trail Staging Area, Berkeley Hills
What is it about all the Varied Thrushes I've been seeing with uncommon frequency lately? And I'm not the only one. In the past couple of months, many reports have been posted on the bird's presence. Which makes me wonder - is there an upsurge in Varied Thrush activity around the Bay Area?

Does anyone know? All I know is that I had not seen (nor heard of) this pretty bird until three years ago when I pulled over during a bike ride to see what a group of people with binoculars and high-powered camera equipment were looking at in a swathe of copse adjacent to the East Bay Regional Park Botanic Gardens parking lot - two Varied Thrushes flying around and ground feeding. I must have watched them for an hour. For the next several rides whenever I passed by that area, I always stopped to see if I could spot the Varied Thrushes, and often did, but eventually they left and did not return.
Jewish Community Center property, Berkeley

In the intervening years, I spotted Varied Thrushes just a couple of times, each sighting an occasion of joy and wonderment at the exciting presence of this special bird emblazoned with an orange breast and eye stripes and slate blue body with a distinctive band running across the throat. But lately, just in the past few months, it's been nothing but Varied Thrushes! I can count a dozen sightings over the past month alone, mostly in Berkeley, to the point of finding myself less and less enthused with a Varied Thrush sighting today. I hesitate to call it a downgrade, but truly the Varied Thrush has gone from rare to downright common. Which is kinda sad, because the mystique (and thrill) is gone. . .

Codornices Park
These furtive birds mostly stick to the safety of dense woods where they remain undetected, but recently I saw one bold little guy ground-feeding in the Berkeley Hills near the Quarry Trail staging area, unconcerned with my encroaching presence to snap a half-way decent photograph. I saw one in the playground area of the Jewish Community Center, perched on a branch, backlit in high contrast for a perfect silhouette shot. Most of my sightings of the once elusive bird are in three woodsy Berkeley parks - John Hinkel, Codornices, Live Oak - and in Tilden Regional Park in the Berkeley Hills. Not too long ago, I saw one at Mount Diablo State Park on Mitchell Canyon Trail, ground feeding in the open. I even saw one early last autumn landing on the ground in my side yard!

Mount Diablo State Park, Mitchell Canyon Trail
But the weirdest thing of all was the one I saw the other day in Codornices Park while birding in an area I had never checked out before along the pavement circling Berryman Reservoir. I was absorbed in some busy bird activity - finches, towhees, juncos, jays - and then noticed lying there on the ground, shockingly, a dead Varied Thrush! Now, how can that be? Rarely, if ever, have I come upon a dead bird, but to have this one be a Varied Thrush was too much. I still don't know what to make of it, whether it's a meaningless coincidence or a happenstance encounter laden with deeper significance, whatever that may be.

And, I wonder, what or who killed the bird? I examined the fresh little corpse to glean any forensic clue I could about cause of death. Could a cat have mangled him? A forest hawk took him down? With no evidence of blood or mutilation, it doesn't seem likely the thrush was killed for a meal, else why was the corpse still lying there? Could it have been old age? Just fell from a tree top, dead. What about the idea the bird was poisoned somehow by berries or snail bait, or something like that? I may never know the mystery of the dead Varied Thrush in Codornices Park, but Viva Aves and RIP, little friend.