Monday, April 6, 2015

Birdlicious Beauty Abounds in Sibley "Badlands"

Lark Sparrow hiding in bushes
In the hills above Oakland, a geologic wonderland and nature lover's delight awaits in a unique East Bay Regional Park District land holding with a blasted history - Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve.

A gouged out ridge system on the mend after decades of quarrying activity, Sibley looks like a land tortured not only by the "hand of man" but by Mother Nature's ravaging forces. A ten million year old volcano, Round Top peak, has eroded and been laid bare, tilted on its side eons ago by shifting fault lines and crushing pressure to expose ancient bedrock. Sibley's protruding boulders, rocky bluffs and steep scree slopes give the place a veritable red rock desert look and feel. As for the birds and animals, Sibley's biodiverse ecosystem provides safe haven in a rugged nature refuge abutting a large metro area. What more could our urban nonhuman animal friends ask for.
Western Bluebird Most Happy Couple
A car-free (and carefree) approach to Sibley requires no small effort grinding up steep Claremont Canyon Road on a hard tail mountain bike. Along the way, the birding is fantastic at Claremont Canyon Preserve, perfect for a breather before tackling the short but wicked thousand foot stretch to crest at Grizzly Peak and Fish Ranch Roads.

From there, it's zoom zoom down to the Old Tunnel Road entrance in a fairly unfamiliar area. The main Skyline entrance to the park is about a mile up the gorge trail, with a final leg to choice viewing spots with interesting geology, labyrinths, and poppy painted hills.

Varied Thrush Busy Seeking Sustenance
I'm hoping to see the magical Black-throated Gray Warbler again on the eastern flanks of the park's large hills. Why I think this whimsical little creature will appear in my life for a few brief moments, when I know I'll never see the bird again, utterly captures the marvelous sense of "I must do it anyway" futility that defines the hopeful wishing and optimistic pursuit of the quixotic birder. Against all odds, Nec Aspira Terrent - Difficulties Be Damned!

Suddenly, I'm aware of all the "bird energy" emanating from the brush and copse, in the canopy and hillside and high above. Instantly enthralled, I pass through the gate onto Skyline Trail, following the gentle course of unpretentious Round Top Creek, on first glance one of those nothing little piss-ass ditches of a gully crick. But on more intimate communion soon reveals her true hidden nature of small miracles, subtle charms and nuanced beauty. Never fails.

Subtle beauty of Round Top Creek
No particular hurry, no agenda today, except to spot some birds in the lush sylvan surroundings. Exhausted though I am from a recent bout of something, I persevere, determined to do justice exploring this "new" territory in my back yard. In the process, expending reserves of energy by needlessly bushwhacking up a bone dry drainage and stumbling around down on the creek. My every step is tuned to miniature, barely spotted movement in the trees and bushes, immersed in a private quiet world, absorbed in a never ending quest to bear witness to a unique or rare bird. An interesting assortment soon begin making their appearance: Jays and Juncos, Warblers and Bluebirds, Kinglets and Thrushes, Quails and Sparrows, Hawks and Vultures. I'm lovin' it, the birds are lovin' it!

A couple of weeks ago, along Wildcat Creek, repeated high-pitched "CHIT CHIT CHITS" of Wilson's Warblers fooled me, and they're fooling me again with their recondite ruckus in the trees edging Round Top Creek. Preferring to sing and play in heavy foliage, and being minute creatures who blend in to the point of disappearance - they're hard as heaven to spot! So when you do manage to connect on some level with this bird's secretive existence, it's a joyful revelation of "unseen birds, infinite, hidden." Still, a 2-second glimpse of a playful pair of Wilson's high in an oak tree is enough to cry triumphant, but that's it, except for their invisible presence and constant calls and responses that keep merry company.
Quarry Pit bluffs & trail to "back side"
In this unseen world, I lose my self to the birds bein' birds. Their nonstop scurrying and skittering. Their obliviousness to the world and the passing of time. Their indefatigable fluttering and flittering. I'm just standing around staring into dense foliage when a flicker of movement catches my eye in distant brush. Quick to the draw with the binos, I immediately zero in on the bird's imperceptible doings and am luckily rewarded with a half-second glimpse of the very lovely (and, for me, very rarely seen) Golden-crowned Kinglet! Now darting instantaneously out of sight with the grace and mystery of a quantum particle - Ping! - the very lovely little bird is gone.

Lark Sparrow 
I could while hours away soaking up the atmosphere of Round Top Creek, birding, photographing pretty remnant pools and bizarre sculptured trees, observing the minutiae of the natural world about me. This stuff takes time, and patience, but now, after nearly two hours exploring the small riparian canyon, it's time to get my blood flowing again. There's more work to do. My end destination is still three miles and five-hundred feet of elevation away.

Back on my bike, I pedal and push up the tough single track to the Staging Area, where, for the umpteenth time, I dutifully read each informational display on the geology and natural history of the Volcanic Preserve, always mindful of and impressed by the vast scale of history and extinction unfolding and on view here.

Quarry pit with ancient rock exposed
Now bumpety-bumpin' down Sibley's cobbly-ass trail, respectfully slowing down for hikers and dogs. Amazed at the popularity of the place, but I'm headin' where they ain't - to the park boundary on the back side of the whacked out cliff. Not a soul in sight, I can assure you. I drop my bike and hop over the fence to enter a new and different world - all mine and the birds'! It was right over there, in that tree, where I spotted the Black-throated Gray Warbler.

I love the private "out of bounds" setting for the beautiful rolling hills, ample forest cover and open meadows edged by brush, for the extensive Diablo Range views of the 3,849 ft. mountain and Las Trampas and Rocky Ridges, rising to over 2,000 ft. I kick back in silence, hoping, hoping, for the magical cameo of Black-throat, but only Anna's Hummingbird and Bewick's Wren show. Still appreciative. In the forest gully, it's a Hobbit's world of bent over trees with eyes and faces and gnarled roots. I rouse a pair of deer who hastily retreat up a steep ravine and out of sight. No birds in here, though, where you might expect to see a Varied Thrush or Band-tailed Pigeon maybe.

Black-throated Gray Warbler spotted 11/2/14
On the climb out, I stop at the overlook. A California Quail is vocalizing loudly on a brush twig, stumping me - what an amateur! Even my non-birder wife recognizes the unique trilling of Quail! The pretty tousled bird flies out into the open for a couple of seconds, but, no fooling me now, babe, I see you! And then, next thing I know, a startling whoosh right over my head of a pack of fast-flying doves bustin' butt to the safety of tall firs across the way. I remember large flocks of them from last time. And, up there, who's that? Moving in closer, I espy a pair of Western Bluebirds resting in a fallen tree. Just the two of them, perching lovebirds. And then, in quick succession, a Varied Thrush, of all birds, and a few odd looking crashers gliding in for a landing around some bushes dropping their tiny seed pods for their benefit. (Both the plants' and birds'.) I'm stumped yet again, unable to identify what kind of sparrows they are, until back home, when I learn they're Lark Sparrows, surprisingly, and representing a first ever sighting of the masqueraded bird at that! Turns out, I've been confusing Lark Sparrows with some other kind of sparrow all this time! Now, if I can just remember what the other sparrow was. How could I possibly have confused the very distinct Lark Sparrow from another, more pedestrian, drabber one?
Sibley impressive faux Desert Southwest look
Nothing to muse on for too long, not with the last vestiges of Big West scenery to chew on - sacred Tuyshtak filling the sky and the purplish Ohlone range so alluring. And when you're dead tired from it all. One last longing lovelorn look before heading back for good, a full day of birdlicious biking, and truly thankful it's all downhill from here.

Read about my other Sibley adventure when I spotted the Black-throated Gray Warbler @

See slide shows of "exotic" Sibley and volcanic heritage @