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:

1 comment:

  1. You have a thing with those VT's! a totem bird watching over you on your adventures in the wild! Great post!