Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Year-Round Birding @ Jewel Lake & Tilden Nature Area

Warbling Vireo sporting "drab midsummer" look?
One writes about the places one loves and returns to time and again, more than those places rarely or never visited. I suppose that accounts for my numerous posts on the splendors and treasures of Tilden Regional Park.

The overlooked splendors, the inappreciable treasures, the small miracles, perhaps, of a gem of a "park" in our backyard. Accessible by bike from my North Berkeley home, I'm there in forty minutes, dialed in to endless trails for choice, secluded birding spots. There being grueling mountain bike rides to ridge tops hoping to spot Meadowlarks or Horned Larks, certain to see Red-tails circling or an American Kestrel perched on a fence post.

First sighting of Warbling Vireo - note seasonal (?) difference
There being a recondite bend in the small but rugged and infinitely charming Wildcat Creek, where I first spotted a Wilson's Warbler and, like any discovery, waxed childlike in my enthusiasm at having finally spotted the marvelous bird. There being Conlon Knoll, in a recent post, always a fun place to hang out in the vicinity where I saw my only Lazuli Buntings and Winter Wrens. And there being . . . Jewel Lake and Tilden Nature Area . . .where birding is a year-round, world-class prospect. Fanatic birders, nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts of all ages and abilities love the place.

In earlier times, I neglected to appreciate the hills above Berkeley, living as I did below the Oakland hills, always off to Redwood Regional Park or somewhere farther to the southeast. Today, it's a sanctuary, a get-away, a must-do / must have place of spiritual retreat where I go to wind down and just take a long slow look around. Instagram that! Perhaps my affinity owes itself more to proximity and ease of access than to - blasphemy! it being a very beautiful place and ecological wonderland. (After all, where else does a car-free couple have to go?) But now that I know what I know, and being a birder on top of it, I designate this little parcel of protected land, with a creek running through it, to be a V.S.P. - very special place!
See the two Flycatchers! Who / which?
Take yesterday, for example, where in a few short, quickly passing hours I spotted thirty different birds! Twitter that! Including my second sighting ever of a Warbling Vireo! I spot the little cuss in a tree near the Boardwalk - managing a decent snapshot! Oddly, this guy looks quite different in color and appearance from the less distinct image of the same bird I spotted - ecstatically - (in the same area) - a few months ago. Could be an "Adult, Eastern" variety, but probably not. AllAboutBirds, even though it's barely spring, writes, "Worn midsummer birds can be nearly entirely gray above and whitish below." Which describes my baby. See for yourself. Probably not an Eastern, but the difference is subtle, and my two sightings seem like two different birds.

Up close of one of the pair of unID'd Flycatchers
I'd heard Wilson's Warblers were out 'n about in force, but I only saw one or two, and for just a short time, on the Boardwalk - fabulous habitat for birds along Wildcat Creek in thick protected forest. Nothing doing for a photograph or hearing their sweet "chip chip" calls. Do see two Steller's Jays, which an elderly gentleman I meet soon thereafter - John Smayles, walking with his grandson - claims are imitating the cawing of a hawk. Never heard of it, I say, but he says, yes, it's true, and we go on to have an hour long conversation about birds, birding, "birdier than thou" people, and his association as one-time director of the Point Reyes Bird Observatory back in the seventies. Engaged in a story he's telling about the subtle nuances between certain species of terns, suddenly, high in the eucalyptus branches, two hawks cry out and begin to scuffle, one soon flying off. Turns out, they're Red-shouldered Hawks, and despite Mr. Smail's determination, I suspect they provided the earlier "imitation" Jay caws. . .but I could be wrong, and Mr. Smail sure seems intent on that as being the explanation. So, the appearance of the Red-shoulders, just a coincidence, perhaps, but I will defer to he who seems more expert, seasoned and wise than I.
Black Phoebe taking a rest from day's feeding activities

Also seen along Blue Gum Trail - several large male Toms; Anna's Hummingbirds; Crows; Spotted Towhees and - what Mr. Smayles referred to as "Rufous-sided" ones; Golden-crowned Sparrow flocks (ground-feeding as usual).

Around the lake, including the marshy pond area, I see the Wilson's Warblers; Ruby-crowned Kinglets; Steller's Jays; Red-shouldered Hawks; Varied Thrush (!);  Adult Male Green-backed Lesser Goldfinches; Black Phoebes; Warbling Vireo; Pacific-slope Flycatcher; Chestnut-backed Chickadees; Bushtits; Brown Creepers; Northern Flicker; Juncos; Mallards; Geese; Buffleheads; Acorn Woodpeckers; and some unID'd flycatchers performing aerial antics over the replenished lake surface, then landing to roost like a pair of love birds in willow branches. Who are you, my friends? I cannot ID you by the book.

Turtle's-eye view of things
Jewel Lake / Tilden Nature Area is a full of other wildlife surprises apart from "just the birds." On the trail to the ponds, a turtle inches along, but disappears by the time I circle back a few minutes later. I'm impressed with his quickness. Four deer crash through a woodsy curtain down a gully and out of sight. Minnows or tadpoles - which would a fourth grader say? - can be found in the muddy shores of the lake. Tiny green Pacific Tree frogs mate in season and can be seen clinging to sedge grasses in the marshes like tiny survivors holding on for dear life until big enough to retreat to the safety of the tall trees where they chirp up a cacophonous chorus announcing territorial and amorous intentions. Western Fence Lizards dart and scurry on rocks, posing languidly in sunny patches, or actively, doing "push-ups." Expect to see rattlesnakes now and again. One of these days, a mountain lion. That's how wild the Berkeley Hills are.
John Smail

Enjoy my other posts on Jewel Lake / Tilden Nature Area / Wildcat Creek @

September 4, 2002

June 3, 2014

July 25, 2014

November 17, 2014

December 11, 2014

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Bluebirds and Warblers Flash Mob Near Wildcat Peak in the Berkeley Hills

Western Bluebird looking south
Is one bird watching spot better than another? Is a riparian / woodland setting preferred over bay and pelagic shoreline viewing? Is meadow and range country more attractive than desert scrub or High Sierra sparsity? Does altitude matter? I suppose it all matters and depends on - many factors! Including seasonal migration patterns, weather conditions, climate influences, and birds' adaptability to varied ecosystems, which we know is infinite and shrewd.

The good news is that no matter where you find yourself, birds will be there, too, in all their physiological diversity, richness of behavior, and pure delightful quirkiness. It's why you love birding - birds! - so much.
Pine tree succumbed to unknown causes (?)
A rise of land in Wildcat Canyon Regional Park beckons up a final stretch of gravelly trail to attain a high plateau and eventually Conlon Knoll, as I call it. One of my favorite places for birds and more. Up here, maybe 1150 ft. elevation, fabulous near 360 views of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin Headlands, Angel Island, Mount Tamalpais, Briones and San Pablo watershed lands, Las Trampas wilderness, and Mount Diablo radiate, stretching as far south as the Santa Cruz Mountains to her 4000 ft. Bay Area visible peaks.

Yellow-rumped Warbler
Up here, it's a detour off the main path; few people pass through, despite a connector from Conlon Trail to Wildcat Peak and the Peace Grove Lookout. Up here, I've seen my only instances of Lazuli Buntings, Ash-throated Flycatcher and Winter Wrens. Up here, four Monterey Pines dominate in the shadow of 1250 ft. Wildcat Peak. A gigantic healthy tree stands alone on the bare ridge, an iconic natural feature seen from San Francisco's waterfront. Two other nice sized trees grow nearby, but, rather suddenly, it seems, a third tree has perished, for after many visits over the past few years, I'm only now noticing it is completely, one-hundred percent dead. But like all dead things in nature, it continues to provide life (or life-giving gifts) in countless ways.

Western Bluebird looking north
Why the tree died, while the other trees live on, is a mystery. Maybe it's older and naturally at the end of its life? If not that, I have my suspicions: climate change / drought drove the nail through the coffin of this great tree that was somehow already compromised. We're seeing this pattern of mortality throughout the American West, where aspens are being ravaged by beetle infestation and stately oaks in California are under severe attack by Sudden Oak Death. Climate change is probably to blame for this unprecedented dying off of the planet's most important living things - taking place before our eyes, and we wonder, are we powerless to prevent, is it too late to stop, the disappearance of trees. Well, for now our bird friends don't mind the tree's "non-living" status. They arrive in flocks to roost in the gnarled branches and roust up seeds and insects on the ground.

Yellow-rumped Warbler
Just passing time up here, lackadaisically, hoping for a bunting sighting, wouldn't that be something. So far, nothing much exciting: a few Juncos, solitary appearances of Hermit Thrush, Scrub Jay, and Northern Flicker. Above circle Red-tailed Hawks and Turkey Vultures, the usual stuff. When suddenly, leaving to go scout out a woodsier area, in fly a bunch of colorful birds, drawn to the dead tree and rich pickings beneath. It's the return of my little lovelies, Western Bluebirds and Yellow-rumped Warblers. They flit out and float in and aeroglide to the ground to find a seed or a nut or a worm, putting on an absolute show, adding dashes of avian spice and elan to the once quiet scene. Up here, that's why I love it, that's why the birds love it.

Living and Dead Triad of Trees on Conlon Knoll
The sociable, smart Bluebirds are delightful and very pretty. Males come in a shade of blueberryblue, with a handsome rust "vest" and white breast belly combo. The Warblers, of the Adult Male "Audubon's" variety, are handsome fellows adorned with yellow throats, yellow side streaks, yellow rump patch, and a pat of sunshine atop the pate. Fine birds, indeed, these precious, sensitive, vulnerable creatures. Make that as well the trees they depend on for their very survival and existence.

Read more about "Conlon Knoll" @


Monday, March 2, 2015

Sunol Regional Wilderness: Beauty and Bounty Bring Out Birds in Bunches

White-breasted Nuthatch working branch
Anytime is a great time to visit Sunol Regional Wilderness - an all-time favorite stomping grounds. Three years have passed since my last visit, after averaging half a dozen visits yearly for 30 years. Just as well, because over these past years crews had been repairing Calaveras Dam resulting in park closures, a rebuilt bridge over Alameda Creek, and lots of serpentine and asbestos dust flying around from the demolition and reconstruction. Today, though, is postcard picturesque with perfect temperatures. (Unlike back East where they've been in a month-long deep freeze. Ah, the price we pay to live in sunny, beautiful California!)
White-breasted Nuthatch ground-feeding
I can't recall a single other Sunol outing where the idea of birding might take precedence over another agenda. Instead of the usual big miles we put in exploring the sprawling park, I would be content to just slowly stroll a mile or two up and down along Camp Ohlone Road, birding. Pretty Alameda Creek,  flowing through a jumble of blue and green andesite boulders, is the largest watershed in the South San Francisco Bay, and a Neotropical bird hot spot where up to 40 species reside, half of which I may not have seen in my life, such as Western Wood-Pewee, Western Kingbird, Orange-crowned Warbler, Hutton's Vireo, and Bullock's Oriole.
Yellow-rumped Warbler

A recent study by EBRPD concluded that upwards of 60 variant species may be found in richer, higher elevation stretches of the creek where habitat is pristine and human activity limited. The study concludes, "Estimates are that up to 95% of Western riparian vegetation communities have been lost or degraded over the past century, and many of the bird species associated with these systems have been extirpated or have experienced severe declines." Not good. But thankfully, stewardship efforts are paying off big in countless urban back yards where riparian corridors have been disrupted, altered, compromised, or wiped out.

Sunol Backpacking Area
Today, ah, what a day of pure brilliance, of sheer unbridled joyful being, set loose in Diablo Range hill country for the 200th time . . . this time with birding heavily on my mind. But I hardly see any birds at all on Camp Ohlone Road out toward Little Yosemite Gorge. Just too many people out enjoying things, so the birds stay hidden or fly to higher ground. It's OK. The creek is running low anyway, and higher elevations beckon, where the birding is sure to be stellar. (Yes, saw several Steller's Jays!)

Gambolin' Man meets 4WheelBob
Not far along, I recognize the fellow in a wheelchair strongly propelling himself up a gently sloping grade that winds me pedaling my mountain bike. It's none other than Bob "4WheelBob" Coomber, out 'n about enjoying the immense beauty and fresh air of Sunol. I hop off my bike and say, "Hi Bob, it's Gambolin' Man!" Although we've met but once before on the trail, Bob immediately responds in kind; it feels like I've known Bob for years and been his best friend! 4WheelBob is amazing in his abilities, inspiration and determination to enjoy the great outdoors. He hikes to places most able bodied people can only dream of, including Mission Peak and Mount Diablo (no easy feat by feet), and, more incredulously, a belabored 11-hour assault up the 14,246 summit of Inyo County's White Mountain, the third tallest in California (not an everyday summit to bag).

Acorn Woodpecker
Rolling along, past Little Yosemite (barely worth a glance today), past the iconic Sycamore "W Tree" and the always fun Rock Scramble up a sharp defile of jumbled boulders, drop falls and pools, up beyond pretty rock strewn meadows and sylvan gardens to ascend a steep stretch for open views of the big Diablo Range. Then up Backpacker Road to drop our bikes and cross over the fenced area into the ecologically sensitive Sunol Backpack Area - a long-time favorite place especially prized for remote views and rolling hill beauty. Today, though, it looks like a bird's paradise. We hike up the steep path with a thick stand of gully brush to the left and wide open views of Sunol valley, eventually huffing and puffing our way to the top of the hill.

The gigantic knoll hosts five camps, all unoccupied. At Hawk's Nest, the views are all-encompassing and heady. We kick back in the presence of a totemic boulder and a rotted old tree trunk bullet hole riddled with old acorn caches.

Beautiful Sunol Scenery
We lounge around in a sunny patch of grass for a couple of hours, ticks be damned, enjoying the solitude, clean air, views and lively bird activity. Several different birds are busy working the branches and patrolling the ground - territorial Acorn Woodpeckers, a lone Western Bluebird, a pair of Yellow-rumped Warblers, and two or three White-breasted Nuthatches ground-foraging and feeding along branches. Watching the animated little avian hop along the ground is an unexpected sight. I almost don't recognize the bird because I've only observed White-breasted Nuthatches high in the trees.

Sycamore-lined Alameda Creek
I expend my remaining energy reserves hiking up to Eagle's Eyrie, and then to Sky Camp, perched on the edge of a small tor with a stunning overlook of expansive green rolling hills. A Red-tailed Hawk circles above, joined by a mate and disappearing over a ridge. It's an amazing place up here.

Eventually, with the day waning, it's time to pick ourselves up and head back to the staging area, of course taking twice as long to return owing to stops here and there to investigate pretty areas of the floodplain and creek, and, as always, delayed endlessly by birds, birds and more birds.

Video Bonus Coverage of White-breasted Nuthatch foraging on ground:


Read more about 4WheelBob @


Read more about Sunol Regional Wilderness at @



Check out complete Flickr album of this adventure @