Saturday, 29 September 2012

Great Discovery in California!

In a year where I have been searching for all the bird species I can find, which now stands at 535, I have also been cataloguing what I call Rodent-y Things, such as Pine Martens, Snowshoe Hares and California Ground Squirrels, I had counted over a dozen of these cute and fuzzy beasts.  But there was one that I had not come across, and didn't expect to.  The Code 5 of Rodent-y Things!

It is a mythical being, or so adults might think, but children know that this little guy is real.  And I found him in the Pinnacles National Monument camp grounds.

Yes folks, I found The Easter Bunny.

Ha you say.  How can that be?  How would you know the Easter Bunny from Bugs Bunny, or the March Hare?

Simple.  You will know you have found the one, real Easter Bunny when you find the one and only bunny that taste tests the candy before delivering it to the children on Easter Morning.

And I have photographic proof.  Of course, without a photograph, no one would believe you've found a Code 5 anything.  So, submitted for your approval, these three, un-retouched photographs of The Easter Bunny eating an M&M this past week, as I wandered the campground in search of California Quail, whom I believe are the sworn protectors of this most famous and no longer mythical bunny.

scroll down to see the photographic proof:




Thursday, 27 September 2012

Target Birding

We had targets and we went after them with near military grade precision.  Sure, I'd have loved a glance at a California Condor or had found, to my satisfaction, a Lawrence's Goldfinch,(probably did see one, but the glimpses were too fleeting to count).  However, the next day, on a lovely outing with my friends and master San Francisco bird guides, Eddie and Noreen, we targeted a handful of birds in the greater San Francisco area.

We started, at the Arastradaro Preserve where we had a lovely morning walk, and found in quick succession, a Nuttall's Woodpecker, Oak Titmouse and after a bit of searching, a lovely little Wrentit.  I guess the name comes from the fact that it is a Babbler that combines the the relative size of a Titmouse, with the tail of a Wren.  Or the guys that named it were just a little weird.

Our next stop, oddly enough,(though I am never surprised at these nice coincidences, or where I end up anymore), was at Mount Davidson, where I had inadvertently driven to a week early when I arrived in San Francisco.  Our targets for the mountaintop were very pacific, as in Pacific Wren and Pacific-Slope Flycatcher.  But as we were walking up the mountain trail we were rewarded with a lovely Warbler Show that included a Hermit Warbler, which I had been too early for during my first trip to California in January.  After that we had good looks at a Pacific Wren and finally, both at the top of the mountain,(where the fantastic views of San Francisco were obscured by a low fog), and on the way back down the trail, a Pacific-Slope Flycatcher.

We birded a couple of other locations looking for some tougher birds without success, including the wonderful Heron's Head, where they served a wonderful vegetarian lunch, but on our last stop were able to get amazing looks at Clark's Grebes,(I had seen them from the Boat in Half Moon Bay,but my photo was out of focus), including a couple of babies, being fed by mommy Grebe.

Eddie and Noreen, of, are wonderful birders, have great ears for bird calls and are fantastic at locating birds in tough places, and know the Bay area like few others.  If you're in San Francisco, please look them up for a great day.

Before we parted company Eddie gave me directions to the brickyards in San Rafael, where Vaux's Swifts were putting on shows, nightly, as they came back to roost in the chimneys.  I got there after surviving San Francisco rush hour traffic, just as the sun was going down.  It was an amazing show.  Thousands of them, estimated at times to be over 12,000 in fact.  At times it appeared as though bats were flying out of a cave at night, going out to hunt, or even a funnel cloud of a tornado.  Or a gigantic swarm of bees.  Either way it was impressive.  Lot of other birders had come out for the show as well, including three guys who were doing a nightly count.  One of them does banding at the Hawk Watch and another just started birding this January, just like me.

It was a cool way to end up the trip out west and left me with a Big Year total of 535, having added 37 new species the past week.  That leaves me 37 species short of Roger Tory Peterson's 1953 total of 574, which has become a real number to strive for.  Of course, 600 would be a Great Big Year and I am just 65 short of that total.  96 days left in the year.  I need to find just 0.68 birds a day the rest of the way.

Scroll down to the bottom for a video of the Vaux's Swifts.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Photos from the Mountain Top to the Valley

The amazing View from Glacier Point:

El Capitain:

Just Hanging Around:

I won't be doing this, next year:

Monday, 24 September 2012

Yosemite Majesty

I could have gone with a movie title riff, such as O Lucky Bird Man, or Yosemite Bob, say.  But truly, Yosemite National Park in California was majestic in every sense of the word.  The mountains are a sight to behold.  Not that they are that high, compared to say, what I saw in Alaska, but you are so darn close to them.  You stand at the base of El Capitan and stare up to the top, where climbers are actually hanging from the wall camping overnight.  I don't seem so crazy anymore!

But I was there for the birds, even though I spent a lot of time gawking at the scenery and even more time driving.  A 15 mile drive can take 45 minutes at times, due to the slow speeds necessary to keep from driving off the side of a cliff.

The first day I drove up to Glacier Point, stopping along the way to look for Black Swifts, which were not present any of the three times I searched for them at the waterfall.  At the top of Glacier Point the views are indescribable, and even the photos I will share tomorrow can not replace actually being up there.  I spent a couple of hours wandering the paths looking for Sooty Grouse and Mountain Quail and though I heard the Quail a couple of times, I could not see them hiding in the scrub.  I did, after a hotdog lunch at the pavilion, find a family of Sooty Grouse who were happy to ignore me and let me take photos.

I searched a little more, birded a little more, stood at the base of El Capitan for a while just admiring those who hung from the cliff face, hundreds of feet above the ground.  By then it was getting late and I needed to get dinner and find a place for the night.  Though I didn't know where I was going to stay, I DID know where I was going to eat.  Edna, my birding pal from New Jersey, had told me to eat at the Mobile Station at the other end of the park.  Dinner at a gas station?  Edna promised it would be great and she didn't let me down.  Now, to be accurate, the restaurant is not in the gas station, but in the building next to it.  However, it provides well cooked and presented gourmet food in a very casual environment.  If it hasn't been, it should be on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.

After I missed out on the Quail at Glacier Point, a ranger instructed me to come back early in the morning, saying that the Quail are all over the place before the sun gets high in the sky and tourists start tromping around.  After that they are well hidden, as I found out.  So I was up at 4:30 this morning, it takes an hour and half to drive there from outside the park, and was at that top of the mountain by 7:00am and wouldn't you know it, the Mountain Quail were basically right where I was told they'd be, enjoying their breakfast.  They scampered about as I took a lot of photos and then vanished as mysteriously as they had appeared.

Quails out of the way, I searched for more birds and was glad I did, as Glacier Point had one more bit of magic up it's sleeve, a White-headed Woodpecker high in a tree.  I got great looks at it, took some photos and even a video.  It was great.  And time to run.

I had a very long drive ahead of me if I was going to make it to Pinnacle National Monument, south of San Francisco in time to search for Yellow-billed Magpie and Lawrence's Goldfinch.

If it wasn't so late and I wasn't so tired and I didn't have to get up early to drive to San Francisco to bird with Eddie and Noreen in the morning, I would stretch this story out and amuse you for a few more paragraphs, building the suspense until you couldn't take it anymore.

Instead, I found the Magpies, flying back and forth between farmer's fields on the way to Pinnacle, and I don't think I found the Lawrence's Goldfinches, though I heard goldfinches and I saw some that might have been female Lawrence's.  I just wasn't sure enough to count them and there was no photograph to refer to.

I spent much of the afternoon fending off flies while walking around the campgrounds, also looking for the Lawrence's, but I did make up for missing that bird with the addition of three California specialties, my last three of the day, in order:

California Quail, California Thrasher and California Towhee.

How about that.  Viva California!

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Skua! South Polar Skua!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Now, you'd have to be on the boat to understand the above explanation marks: !!!!!!!!!!!!

On Friday when the Hawaiian Petrol flew by the boat and yesterday when the South Polar Skua did the  same, all hell breaks loose amongst the guides.  They yell, they shout in unison the name of the bird and which direction it is flying so that everyone on the boat can get a look at, in the case of the Hawaiian Petrol, a great code 4 rarity, or in yesterday's case, the South Polar Skua, that does not appear on every Pelagic.

The Skua was one of 4 birds I added to my list yesterday, giving me 14 new additions for the two boat rides.  Even better, I was prepared with a good night's sleep, a full tummy from breakfast, carbonated beverages and crackers, just like Debi had said to do in her notes she had mailed me months earlier: "Don't follow Debi's rules, suffer the consequences."  Even had it circled.

So I didn't get sick and had the opportunity to sit and bird with John Hargrove, who is also doing a Big Year.  It was fun to swap stories, share birds we have or haven't seen this year.  In fact, I actually have seen about 5 birds he hasn't and he is at 650.  He's having a pretty big year, in fact.  Of course, he is retired, has more money than me and has birded over 30 years, so I don't feel at all bad about my number.  Great thing about Big Years, it is a competition where there are no losers.  Of course that might change if I am ever next to someone with 650 and I have 649.

I drove, last night up to Yosemite.  Yikes.  What is with the twist-y, turn-y, rollarcoast-y mountain roads.  It was like a carnival last night, in the pitch black on these wind-y roads.  It was both fun and very scary.  Turns just jumped out at me at the last second and great thing the rental has very nice handling and a small turning ratio.

I slept in, as I have been up at 4:30 am each of the last few days.  I will spend a leisurely day birding Yosemite and see what tomorrow brings, when I add up the results of today.

Some photos:   Two of a Sabine's Gull that flew very close to the boat and another of me, Debi Shearwater and John Hargrove, each of us in our requisite funny hats, naturally; and Debi looking not a thing like Angelica Houston, though Debi can be as tough as Annie Auklet if you don't listen to her.  Of course, John and I are doing Big Years, but it is Debi the Queen of the Sea, without whom, no one could do a Big Year, including the one and only Sandy Komito.

Friday, 21 September 2012

I See Great Birds. I Get Great Seasickness

Yet again. The spirit of Al Levantin lives yet again in my stomach. I admit I slept not enough and ate not enough and had to beg water off a fellow passenger.

But it was all worth it for the addition of 11 Year and Life birds, including the Mega-rare seabird of the day, a Hawaiian Storm Petrel. I will post the full list at a later time in my September page.

Not many good pictures, as I was too sea sick and the boat too rocky. I will share a few nice ones tonight, prior to bed. I should get a good 7 hours and a good breakfast at Ihop next to the hotel, and hope for a less stressful day with even better birds on tomorrow's Half Moon Bay Pelagic.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Just Humming Along

So, 500 species has come and gone and I am still the same, humble bird obsessed guy I was when I hit 499, an hour or so earlier.  Now, when I say humble, take that with a grain of salt, as I am pretty darn stoked about reaching a number that I had not even pretended to think I could reach, when I fool-hardedly decided that I could do a Big Year, even though I knew pretty much nothing about birding, let alone traveling the country to bird.  Sure there are oh, maybe 15 people ahead of me, but they are actually real birders.  So, no, today I am not humble.

Here I sit in the Las Vegas airport awaiting my flight to San Francisco and a drive up to Bodega Bay for what I hope will not be a cancelled pelagic with Shearwater Tours.  I missed by a week birding with Greg Miller, as he was a special guest leader on the boat for the Monterey Birding Festival.  Now that would have been fun.

Not that birding on Tuesday with Matt Brown wasn't fun.  We had a great time.  We drove up to Madera Canyon with the hopes of finding Elegant Trogon and Arizona Woodpecker.  We didn't.  After a quick stop at Madera Kubo for the Magnificent Hummingbird, we hiked the Carrie Nation Trail to nearly the top without finding much of anything.  Matt was down on himself, as he really wanted me to get those birds.  It seemed to be the curse of number 500.  Just like a baseball player who gets to 500 career home runs and takes weeks to get number 500, we spent hours not finding a bird.

However, on our way back down the trail we had our first stroke of luck, a Northern Pygmy Owl calling.  And, since Matt is so good at finding owls, I never doubted I'd get to see a bird I had counted as "heard only," on my last trip to the desert.   It didn't take long for Matt to find the bird and that turned things around.  Soon after, we both heard a woodpecker thumping and hoped it was the Arizona.  As Matt went down into a little valley to see if he could spot it, I looked up and there was the woodpecker we had been hearing.  Matt rushed back up the hill as I took photos.  Once he got eyes on it,(sounds so CIA-ish), he identified it as an early-bird Red-naped Sapsucker.  And thus number 500 was mine and I had found it myself, which made it just a little extra special.

And so we headed up to Whitewater Draw for the possible Barn Owl and Wilson's Phalarope.

By the way, after I typed that last sentence, I had to board my Southwest Airlines flight to SF and am now typing on my iPad at 30,000 feet, using a very nicely priced $5.00 Internet connection. Oh the wonders of the modern world.

Right, where was I? Loaded question, as these days sometimes I don't even know. We were on our way to look for the Barn Owl when Matt spotted something white in a farmer's field. We pulled over and were rewarded with our third year bird of the day, a lovely White-tailed Kite.

As we continued on, I noticed that Tombstone, Arizona was directly ahead and we would have to pass through too get to Whitewater Draw. How perfectly serendipitous. Only a few weeks ago I read "The Last Gunfight: The True Story of the Gunfight at the OK Corral. We had to stop. It was like a little trip back in time with a little Disney magic mixed in. I got to see the vacant lot where the gunfight actually took place, adjacent to the actual corral. We spent about half an hour walking the "old" streets before heading out to Whitewater Draw Wildlife Management area, where the first order of business/play was finding our sixth species of owl together.

As we bushwhacked into the owl's territory, Matt casually mentioned to watch out for Rattle Snakes. Snakes? Why'd it have to be snakes? Anyway, I let Matt take the lead in order to lessen the risk to me and though we managed to avoid the snakes we did, at times, get caught up in some sort of devil's prickly plant, that was very scratchy, but worth it to get to the bird.

And a magnificent bird the Barn Owl was. As we rounded a tree it flushed briefly and flew into another tree, but Matt - The Owl Whisperer - quickly located it just as plain as the nose on Carl Malden's face, and nearly as big, not 20 feet from where we stood.

We missed out on the Wilson's Phalarope but did get to enjoy a huge flock of Yellow-headed blackbirds flying to and fro from some high grass. Seemed like about 50 females and one adult male with a lovely yellow head.

Back on the road again to head back to Tucson we scanned the skies for Swainson's Hawk, the last bird that Matt was sure we could get. However it wasn't to be seen in the flight. With time running out on our day, I spotted a football shaped lump atop a yucca plant. I pulled over, made a fairly acceptable u-turn and we headed back. Matt got his scope on it and yes, it was Swainson's Hawk. Actually, it was my hawk and I humbly take full credit for it.

Pretty good day of birding. I had wanted to finish up with the Plain-caped Starthroat at Ash Canyon Bed and Breakfast, home of Mary Jo's carnival of hummingbirds, but it was too late and dark to see anything. Mary and I sat and talked until the owls begn hooting and I returned this morning and saw the Starthroat right away when I arrived. With Mary and another visitor's, Richard from Orange County CA, I was also able to add Lucifer's and Calliope Hummingbird before heading back to the airport.

Now, through the power of airborne Internet, I have learned that the Bodega Canyon trip is GO for launch tomorrow.

Good night, and Good birds from 30,000 feet.

A Picture is Worth 500 Birds

#499  Magnificent Hummingbird,(larger hummer on the right):

#500  Red-naped Sapsucker,(female, and I spotted it):

#501  White-tailed Kite,(on a post in a farmer's field):

# 502  Barn Owl,(as big as life, after bushwhacking through rattlesnake infested grass):

#503  Swainson's Hawk,(I found it and we circled back for the identification:

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Hawk Hill

Darn! I should have got there earlier. Hawk Hill is the San Francisco version of Ontario's Hawk Cliff or Minnesota's Hawk Ridge. I arrived mid-afternoon, after meandering around San Fran and down to Sausalito for lunch. Had I arrived earlier I'd have seen migrating Black Swifts and White-tailed Kites.

As it was, I still had an eye-full of various raptors that were called out: in coded short forms, Coops, Tailed, Sharpie, TV and so on. As for getting to Hawk Hill, one must cross the Golden Gate Bridge then drive up a long, steep, winding road. The same road, I suspect, that Carl Malden in "The Streets of San Francisco" would have been speeding down when his breaks went out, way back in the '60's.

Once parked at what seems like the highest point you could possibly reach, you must then hike through tunnels, up dirt inclines and stairways, to the very top where a team of professional and I say with affection, very geeky hawk watchers scan the skies.

I enjoyed their company and instruction on how to tell the raptors from one another, and was doing well with Red-tailed, Sharp-shinned and Kestrel, but not the others. They wrapped up at 3:30, with no further Kites coming through.

I finished my fine day of SF birding on Golden Gate Park and now sit in yet another airport lounge awaiting yet another delayed flight. Tomorrow I bird Madera Canyon and other Arizona Hot spots and shall finally pass 500 for the year. I wonder what number 500 will be? Elegant Trongon, Magnificent Hummingbird? Or perhaps the legendary Montezuma Quail.

Some photos from today: