Sunday, May 17, 2015

Backyard Birds Unseen, Infinite, Hidden Well in Their Private Little Universe

Adult Pacific-Slope Flycatcher
Of imminent springtime, Whitman penned, "unseen buds, infinite, hidden well." As with the birds, he might have added, for every move the little ones make is easy to miss. And that's when you're paying attention. When tuned out, the infinitesimal activity of birds might as well take place on a different plane.

Rufous Hummingbird
Yet the cute, ubiquitous creatures operate in plain sight, all about us, all day long. How is it possible to miss them? Yet we do. To appreciate their flitty comings and flighty goings, timing is everything. Noticing and paying attention is another. Then, and only then, will you be able to know and recognize birds as singular, wild creatures, special individuals of the earth who know no boundaries and owe no human a thing.

Now, of course, you also must really want to appreciate them in this vein - with an up close and personal, oft-single (or absent)-minded effort. Not study them so much as admire them. Not split feathers over lineage and genes, but to avoid the trap of "finding and booking it, lest life should have nothing more to show you" (Emerson to Thoreau).

Flycatcher inspecting her nest under stairwell
A simple matter of attuning to them by paying attention, looking for their presence, listening for songs, detecting movement, noticing birds doing bird things and behaving in uniquely bird ways. Then, and only then, will you become privy to the subtle rhythm of . . . unseen, infinite, hidden . . . bird life!

Thank goodness (say hundreds of thousands of birds) for the forested, creek-fed parks of Berkeley and attractive gardens and backyard stands of tall trees offering bounty and shelter for our avian amigos who go about their daily business largely unnoticed and ignored by most. And thank goodness (say a hundred thousand residents) for Berkeley's advocacy of the “City Beautiful Movement” in 1914 to create "nature parks," urban sanctuaries protecting what's left of what was once wide-spread wilderness in coastal bay hills. Steelhead running streams. Redwood forests. Canyon waterfalls. Bay shoreline. Microcosms of grandiose nature, right here in Berkeley.

Tongue aflicker, a beautiful hummingbird
It's anyone's guess how many species and individual birds call Berkeley home. Could be over one million. In my overgrown backyard, bedrock-cutting Codornices Creek runs through lucky neighbors' property. In a secluded nook harboring a mini-forest, I can hear the soft soul-soothing mellifluous whoosh of the creek. I crane my neck peering into high thick oak boughs, pausing to listen, ever attuned to some skittering or fluttering or flocking, some foraging or nesting or playful interaction. Brown Creepers, Cooper's Hawks, Nuttall's Woodpeckers, Hummingbirds, Finches, Juncos, Jays, Kinglets and Warblers, you never know who next will show up in my overgrown Berkeley backyard.

Inspiration for BerkeleyBackYardBirdBlog
The bucolic setting affords great birding opportunities. Over the past several weeks, I observe: a Rufous Hummingbird sucking nectar from Chinese Lanterns; an Anna's (?) with striking coloration paused on a charcoal grill; a Warbling Vireo for one second but enough to say, Wow! That was a Warbling Vireo!; a very brief sighting of a Wilson's Warbler, the first ever in the big oak tree of the pretty seasonal stop-over; a pair of nesting Bewick's Wrens; and a Pacific-slope Flycatcher family with a fledgling making its way into the cruel, harsh, scary world.

Fledgling Flycatcher in bush
The Rufous Hummingbird encounter surprises the holy crap out of me when the near weightless bird suddenly lands out of nowhere a few feet away and poses motionlessly for several priceless seconds, revealing an iridescent gorget emblazoned in orange, turquoise, lime and tangerine. I'm stunned by such uncommon beauty, mesmerized by the bold display of colors, but cursing myself for not having camera in hand for that million dollar shot. Still, it's a highly satisfying moment for this hummingbird lover - no different, say, from spotting a beautiful, brightly patterned diminutive cousin from the exotic tropics, it's that special.

Rufous finally zips off - but I have a feeling not for long, so I rush up to fetch my camera and rush back down, certain he's not finished with his posturing and nectar-gathering. I'm lucky and right, catching him darting in and out of the Chinese Lanterns, and finally landing on a wire strip of fence for some great looks, but with a different angle of light, his gorget is not quite as incandescently brilliant. Still. Amazing.

Rufous sucking nectar
The next day, I spot another hummingbird flitting around and landing for a few seconds, hair-strand thin tongue lashing out for a drop of water, perched in still-life with light refraction coaxing out the most exquisite pastel radiance ever to befeather a bird. I know, I have not seen ninety-nine point nine percent of the world's most beautiful exotic birds, but this one, and Rufous, ah, they are right up there with the prettiest of them. And exotic, in the sense that their color schemes are just out of this world. Right here in my Berkeley backyard.

Earlier in the week, I notice a Pacific-slope Flycatcher bumping up against the side of the house, then landing in a nearby bush, only to flip straight up, with a worm firmly gripped in beak, to a nest constructed beneath a stairwell! It looks like a sloppy stringy piece of work, but must be serving its purpose efficiently, as Mama seems quite comfortably ensconced raising her brood or protecting the prospects. I can't tell if it's just eggs at this point or if there are hungry little ones. She keeps flying in and out, back 'n forth, on endless forays returning with bits of food, so maybe there are nestlings, after all.

Anna's with tongue flickering
NEWS FLASH: the following day, I happen to see a baby bird frozen with fear in a bush. Who? Which? What? Turns out to be a fledgling Pacific-slope Flycatcher. Mama is egging him on to fly, fly away, my little birdie. He must have been pushed from the nest under the stairwell and landed in the bush. Now, he's faced with the challenge - daunting task - of flying up to a high tree branch to join Mama. Can he do it? I watch for several minutes. Sensing Mama's impatience, the little bugger finally successfully accomplishes the aerial feat, overcoming a deadly hurdle of survival so as not to be caught, mangled and eaten by that damn neighborhood fat cat stalking the premises.

My next door neighbor noticed a nest constructed in the jasmine of her trellis. I peek through the foliage, on my tip-toes, and see an upright wren-looking tail. Must belong to Ms. Bewick, for a few minutes earlier I watched a pair feeding on the ground nearby. For sure, it's not the House Finches, who are making their residence in deep crevices of roof top pipes.
Fledgling made it to branch
Very resourceful, our backyard birds, able to adapt traditional nest-building preferences, such as tree cavities for the Flycatcher, to suit a particular niche to ensure the propagation and survival of their young in our urban-cum-rural backyards. Now, if only I might be privy to the hummingbirds' nesting locations. Must be many, many of them, tiny and hard to spot, unseen, infinite and hidden well, no doubt.

Read about the small forest hawks who visited the backyard for half a day @

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Rare Visitor - a Hermit Warbler! - Sighted in Tilden Park

I'm on a routine outing to a place I've been to countless times - the overlook bench on Nimitz Way. About a mile in from the parking area at Inspiration Point, it's always worth a stop and short breather to take in the expansive beauty of the Berkeley Hills and beyond to Mount Diablo and Rocky Ridge. I commonly see Red-tailed Hawks, Turkey Vultures, Juncos, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, House Finches, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Spotted Towhees, Golden-crowned Sparrows, and Blue Jays spilling over into abutting EBMUD watershed lands. I've also seen one California Quail, one American Kestrel, three Tree Swallows, one California Thrasher, and the occasional Townsend Warbler. A relatively busy thoroughfare for thousands of hikers, strollers and group outings, the bench area is not an ideal locale to hope to see anything too, too exotic. But today, flying into my life, is my very first Hermit Warbler! Although at the moment I have no idea I'm looking at a Hermit Warbler. I just know the flighty little bird is one beautiful little bird I've never laid eyes on before. And I'm excited as a little boy in a magic shop.

At first I suspect it's another Wilson's Warbler, the precious, tiny, black-pated, brilliant yellow bird making the rounds this time of year in the park's forested and riparian areas along Wildcat Creek. I'm surprised when one flies onto a branch, since I've never seen one here. I'm afforded a good look and recognize him and his high-pitched CHIT CHIT CHIT instantly, before he disappears into thick vegetation. Moments later - maybe they're in concert - I espy subtle movement in higher branches and zoom in quickly before it's too late. Luckily, for a few jubilant seconds, I'm privy to witness the pretty bird's striking black-throat and all yellow head, but I manage only a poor shot of him looking up from behind. Perhaps an expert bird IDer could peg it from this, but the rest of you will just have to trust me that I saw who I saw, in the accompanying photo.

A fortuitous moment with a very elusive, never before spotted bird. The feeling can't be explained. Maybe like hitting a thousand dollar scratcher or something. Deemed "common" (but shy) by Wikipedia standards, around these parts a Hermit Warbler is considered a "rare" visitor, so I'm marking this one down on my slowly expanding Life List as a confirmed new sighting, my first since the Black-throated Gray Warbler spotted in Sibley Park a few months ago.

Top photo of Hermit Warbler: By [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Avian Sanctuary and Nature Refuge Along SF Bay Trail / McLaughlin Eastshore State Park

Near Emery Point, a small seaweed strewn beach is abuzz with dozens of Sanderlings devouring flies and gnats. Rhythmically attuned as a single organism to the ebb and flow of gently lapping waves, the frisky flock dances to and fro in concert with receding waters, hungrily stabbing at the exposed sand with their short black bills. Then an oblivious dog owner arrives and sets her pooch loose, creating panic and havoc as the small sandpipers lift up en masse, flying off to a farther shore in a flurry of bleeping disapproval.

Near busy University Avenue and Frontage Road, glistening mudflats attract hundreds of Gulls, Coots, Killdeers, Avocets, Willets, Whimbrels, Wigeons and Mallards - one and all convivially joining in on the "feast-ivities" of rich pickings upturned by roiling tidal action. Terns circle and dive bomb in the calm bay, surfacing with limp fish clutched in their beaks. Pole sitting Cormorants flash wings in garish displays of territorial bragging rights, or maybe they’re just airing things out.

A troupe of Gray Pelicans flies overhead in graceful V-formation, much prettier air-borne birds than they appear in their awkward terra firma mien. A motionless White Heron stalks near the freeway in stony silence next to a discarded old tire, hoping for a tasty meal of fish, frog or snake. I wait a full five minutes hoping to see the old boy strike, but the Heron remains laser focused on his phantom meal, a fixated and statuesque creature of the wild not a stone’s throw away from roaring 6-lane I-80 traffic.

North past the bird sanctuary (aka the Albany Bulb), on toward doggy heaven (aka Point Isabel), the bay’s mud-caked bottom glistens in provender-rich pasturage laid bare, hosting tremendous bird life. Hundreds of flying creatures enjoying nature’s bounty of insects, worms and micro-organisms. Three East Bay creeks converge here, draining into the bay to create an auspicious foraging habitat. When the tide's out, and conditions are right, an inconceivable 20,000 individual birds might be spotted.

One unexpected among them - a Peregrine Falcon! Imagine that, coming upon the regal bird, feathers unruffled as I pop off my bike nearly trembling, fumbling to shoot a few frames and reel off at least one decent shot. I have only seen a Peregrine - pairs of them - in flight, never under such intimate circumstances for close unfettered scrutiny. . .at least for ten to fifteen seconds, which seems like a very long time watching him perched on a rock with a mangled California Towhee clutched in his deadly orange talons. He flies off at last with his prized catch to another bay side rock 500 ft. distant to enjoy his meal in peace and quiet without a paparazzo bugging him!

Welcome, bird lovers, to the San Francisco Bay Trail! For views, history, recreation, and exemplary urban development in natural, sensitive areas, it can't be beat. Years of behind the scenes efforts by dedicated individuals have resulted in successful habitat reclamation up and down the Trail, providing sorely lacking foraging and breeding territory for Coyote, Fox, Deer, Bobcat, Skunk, Raccoon, and many reptiles and amphibians. Notably, birds and native plants have struggled to regain a foothold in once endemic nooks and crannies of the long abused shoreline. Despite set-backs and countless perils and innumerable threats to their existence, by all measures, the birds et al are doing a great job in and around San Francisco Bay. Viva Aves!

Still undeveloped patches of land - e.g. Berkeley's waterfront area known as The Brickyard - are good bird territory. Somewhere around here, you look for where Strawberry Creek drains into the bay. Opposite University Avenue and Frontage Road, an intriguing gateway exhibit welcomes visitors to explore a unique feature of California’s newest jewel, the 1854 acre McLaughlin Eastshore State Park. A diorama, commemorating the park’s namesake, co-founder of Save the Bay, Sylvia McLaughlin, tells the story of this unique natural feature once common along miles of bay shoreline but today exists as a mere remnant of salvaged habitat that once characterized shoreline ecology.

The Berkeley Upland Meadow, with it protected (fenced in) acreage of brush, swale, and copse, at first blush appears as relatively uninteresting, but on closer scrutiny you realize it’s a skillfully terraformed intervention of a land in crisis, aimed to restore its original character and once again attract raptors, Burrowing Owl, coyotes, foxes, deer and raccoons – an ecological treasure and birdspotting wonderland in our urban midst

Where water and coastline meet, edged by meadow and scrub brush, Mother Nature provides for and nurtures so much variegated bird life. All in all, a fine day to witness many small miracles of creation who call these salvaged gardens their home - American Pipits, Scrub Jays, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Lark Sparrows, Golden-crowned Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, European Starlings, Red-winged Blackbirds, Black Phoebes, California Towhees, Spotted Towhees, Red-tailed Hawks, and the usual assortment of Crows, Vultures, Robins and Chickadees.

Bonus Footage of Peregrine Falcon with Towhee: