Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Snowbirds Return

Right now, I appreciate my time outdoors with birds more than ever. School started up again, and I'm teaching a ginormous, pathologically overenrolled general ed course, and, as I've been telling my friends, currently have more teaching assistants than I had students in some of my classes last year. And I've found that talking into a microphone to 400 people isn't nearly as scary as trying to figure out what to do with the 50-plus people on the wait list for my class, each of whom absolutely must take it this term in order to graduate in time. Aaargh!

Okay, back to the birds. Saturday morning, I woke up early, determined to find some cool migrant warblers. Glenn was recovering from some gnarly oral surgery, so it was just me again. I went back to Huntington Central Park, since I knew that Blackpoll Warblers and both American and Painted Redstarts had been seen there over the past week. Alas, I found none of these. But I did get to see some old winter friends again for the first time of the season: Yellow-rumped Warblers, White-crowned Sparrows, and a huge number of Townsend's Warblers. I also found a Hermit Thrush (with a very obviously reddish tail and grey flanks) flying out of the island and into a nearby thicket of bushes.

Saturday afternoon, I birded Talbert Nature Reserve and the bike path along the Santa Ana River between Talbert and Huntington State Beach. No interesting warblers (save something that could only have been an exceptionally large Yellow Warbler—bright yellow, dull wings, no eyering/eyeline, thin bill), but lots of other good stuff—a pair of Ospreys, a pair (male and female) of Northern Harriers, a juvenile Cooper's Hawk, lots of White-crowned Sparrows (again, the first I've seen there this season)). The most notable bird of the outing was the Reddish Egret I've been seeing there fairly regularly over the past few weeks—this time, I brought my little camera, and actually got a photo of the bird!

Yes, I know this is lame. (Glenn saw it and promised to set me up with one of his old cameras and a decent lens.) The bird was actually much closer to me than it appears in this photo.

This afternoon, I dragged Glenn out of the house to San Joaquin marsh—a very different place from last week. The river running parallel to Riparian View was nearly dry and free of birds (last week it was flooded and filled with dozens of herons and egrets), and the first two ponds by the front of the reserve had been drained. Still, there were a number of White Pelicans in Pond C, a Spotted Sandpiper and a Sora in Pond D, Redheads in Pond 1, and a pair of White-tailed Kites in the back area.

San Joaquin wasn't as birdy as I would have liked, but there's always something peaceful and sweet about being out there on an autumn Sunday afternoon. The air smells of sage, and the sun seems to hit the trees—now just turning from green to yiellow and red—differently than the rest of the year. No matter what East Coast expats say, there are definitely seasons in Southern California. If you can't tell from the angle of the sunlight off the trees, you can tell from the birds.

Monday, September 24, 2007


Sometimes birds can make you miserable.

My friends and family think I'm a pretty gung-ho birder, but there are still whole classes of birds I know nothing about, and even worse, whole classes of birds I haven't ever seen. And I have been determined to correct this situation.

So, when the summer Wandering Tattler came out and listed a pelagic trip among its upcoming field trips, I signed us up. Finally, I'll get to see cute little alcids and exotic shearwaters for myself! At last, someone will finally tell me how 'pelagic' is supposed to be pronounced!

We got our reservations, signed our waivers, downloaded some helpful articles sent along by the trip organizers, and I mentally prepared myself to handle my repulsion at waking up before 5 a.m. and my low-level fear of boats (augmented by a recent re-reading of A Perfect Storm). On Saturday, September 29, I'd be ready!

One small catch: The trip isn't on the 29th. It was on the 22nd. Which was LAST Saturday.


Once I realized this—around 8 a.m. on Saturday, a couple hours after the boat had left without us, I was heartbroken. We had been looking forward to this for months. And missing out was nobody's fault but our own. I selfishly hoped the trip would be rescheduled because of the rain, but I knew this wouldn't happen. Crap!!!

Still, we managed to console ourselves with the pleasures of fall migration on land. We took advantage of a break in the rain to visit Huntington Central Park, which was filled with really bright Wilson's Warblers. We also found a Swainson's Thrush and got a quick look at the American Redstart in 'the island' before the rain resumed.

On Saturday afternoon, after the storm had passed, we went to San Joaquin marsh. In the reeds lining the edge of Pond D, we spotted a Least Bittern; we later heard two Least Bitterns calling each other in the pond, but couldn't see them. The front pond had been drained, and the river, which was swollen from the rain, was filled with egrets and herons. Over a dozen Black-crowned Night Herons, both adults and juveniles, were feeding in the shallows across from the parking lot, along with dozens (literally) of Snowy Egrets. These were joined by single-digit numbers of Great Egrets, Green Herons, and Great Blue Herons.

The birds were active and bold, which delighted Glenn and the other photographers exploring the marsh. He joined them at the water's edge, shooting away for hours.

On your marks, get set...GO!

Sunday morning was gorgeous, so I went back to Huntington Central again while Glenn slept in. Both birds and birders were out in full force—a lot of familiar faces were out there. The Wilson's Warblers were still going strong, along with a few Yellow Warblers. I also saw several Western Wood Pewees, and had a quick view of what looked like a Warbling Vireo (slim, greenish-beige, strong white eyeline).

The various little clusters of birders were spreading news of the sighting of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak near the island, but no one I had talked to had actually seen it—they just heard that somebody did. I didn't find it, either.

But the American Redstart was seen by several people—but today, not by me. But I did get to see the Northern Waterthrush, which was foraging in the underbrush of the northern edge of the island.

So I didn't get any lifers this weekend. As a great Englishman once said, "You can't always get what you want." But I still got some pretty good birds—and that's all that I need.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Points North (Part 2)

Morro Rock at sunset

The Central Coast town of Paso Robles is known for only one thing: wine. It has some nice Victorian architecture and pleasant weather, but all of this is in service to the acres of vineyards surrounding the town, and the tourists who come to taste the local vintages.

Since we were now tourists in Paso Robles, and planning on spending the morning there before taking off for San Francisco, we did the logical thing: we birded the town's historic central park. No stinkin' Merlot for us!

(Our reasons for not indulging were purely logistical: none of the tasting rooms opened until 10:30, we were planning on leaving town at noon, and neither of us relished the idea of drinking right before a 3-hour drive.)

The mature oaks in the central park yielded Acorn Woodpeckers, White-breasted Nuthatches, and yet more Bushtits and Chestnut-backed Chickadees. Even stone sober, we had great fun watching the reactions of others passing through the park: Why is that dude pointing a camera into that stupid tree? And what is she looking at with those binoculars?

Better than booze: A White-breasted Nuthatch in Paso Robles

It made me glad we didn't have kids; they would have been unspeakably embarrassed.

Our stay in San Francisco was great fun, and worthy of a break from birding. Favorite rhetorical party question posed by my sister: Are you a pie or a cake? My new favorite rhetorical question: If your Patronus were a bird, what bird would it be? (My brother-in-law chose an excellent bird I had never heard of: a Bower Bird.)

On the way down the coast, we stopped at our favorite secret place to find a Central Coast specialty, the Yellow-billed Magpie. If you've ever driven to San Luis Obispo, you've seen the place: the rest stop a few miles from Camp Roberts, on the southbound side of the 101: the Magpies like to hang out near the oaks in there and eat junk food left behind by travellers.

Our southbound Central Coast stop was Morro Bay. At Morro State Park, we saw a pair of Peregrine Falcons hunting, our first White-crowned Sparrows of the season, and a flock of Lesser Yellowlegs (about 7) feeding near the marina. I had never seen so many of these together before.

I had heard that the campground at Morro State Park was a good place to look for migrants, and it was. On Monday morning, we returned to the park for a few hours before returning to Orange County. Glenn went back to the beach to get some sunrise shots of the sandpipers and pelicans, and I explored the campground. There, I saw Hermit Warblers, as well as Townsend's Warblers, more Chestnut-backed Chickadees—and my second life sighting of a Brown Creeper.

I felt simultaneously sad, mad, and smug that Glenn wasn't there. Sad because he missed the pleasure of what would have been a lifer for him. Mad I couldn't get my little point-and-shoot camera out of my purse in time to get a shot of the Creeper. And smug because I got to see it while Glenn was off taking his billionth perfectly composed money shot of a Western Sandpiper. Ha, ha!

Alas, we could only bird for a couple of hours before heading home—we wanted to be sure to beat the rush-hour traffic when returning to OC. We wished our vacation could have been longer—but who doesn't?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Points North (Part 1)

We finally got around to taking a real summer vacation: we took advantage of a longstanding open invitation to visit my sister and brother-in-law in San Francisco, and turned the trip into three days of Central Coast birding broken up by two days of wine, food, and scintillating conversation in the Bay Area. (They know us all too well—their longstanding bribe to get us to visit: "We've got a lot of weird birds in our yard!")

We planned to break up the 7-hour drive to San Francisco by stopping overnight both coming and going, and birding along the way. Before leaving, I e-mailed the Morro Coast Audubon Society to ask about good mid-September birding spots on our route, and was pointed to Oso Flaco Lake and Oceano Lagoon—both lovely spots we probably wouldn't have found on our own.

Oso Flaco Lake in particular is an undiscovered gem. To get to it, one has to travel several miles along a nearly unused portion of Highway 1, though a tiny farming town whose buildings apparently haven't been painted or altered since Steinbeck's time. From this isolated stretch of highway, you then have to drive three miles along a 'street' that's basically a service road cut through the center of a field.

Just when you conclude that both Mapquest and Morro Coast Audubon have totally screwed up, there it is: a tiny parking lot manned by friendly rangers, and a narrow path leading to the treasures within.

The first part of the path cuts through a shady wooded area loud with the squeaks and twitters of birds. A Black-and-white Warbler had been spotted there the week before, but I couldn't find it. A lot of the calls and songs I heard were unfamiliar, so I knew the area was filled with potential lifers—but the foliage was so thick it was difficult to find any of the birds that were so obviously nearby. The only birds we managed to nail down definitively were a Downy Woodpecker, a Song Sparrow, and a Townsend's Warbler.

Further along, the woods gave way to a large lagoon, and the path became a boardwalk crossing the widest part of the lake. No sooner had we taken our first steps onto the boardwalk than we heard a commotion underfoot: a Sora and a Virginia Rail dashing out from under the boardwalk into some nearby reeds.

To add to the fun, a pair of young raccoons was also lurking in the area.

On the other side of the lake, the path wound through sand dunes and sage scrub, and ended at a prisine, viritually unpopulated beach that housed (yet another) Least Tern and Snowy Plover breeding area. Dozens of pelicans swooped along the shore in straight lines, and gulls and sandpipers preened attractively in front of Glenn's camera.

This was all very nice, but I had yet to see anything I couldn't see back home. Driving four hours to gaze at Willets feels a little like landing in Paris and finding out the only restaurant open is McDonald's.

But this was about to change. About 10 miles up the coast was Oceano Lagoon, our second spot of the day. There, we followed a tree-shaded path lined with prodigious quantities of poison ivy, and encountered dozens of warblers: Common Yellowthroats, Wilson's, Townsend's, and a Nashville Warbler were all darting through the trees and bushes.

Even better, we found our first not-available-in-Orange-County bird: a Chestnut-backed Chickadee, or rather, several of them, mingling with the local Bushtits.

We were soon to find that Chestnut-backed Chickadees were almost as common as Bushtits up there, but no matter. They were novelties to us, and cool-looking little buggers too.

We ended the day in Paso Robles, where dinner and a room in a historic hotel awaited us. This left us with the dilemma of what to hunt for in the morning: Cabernet, chickadees, or an ungodly mixture of both?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Maybe I Won't Go for a Swim Right Now

My apartment complex features a system of tasteful artificial streams, which are the year-round home to a flock of Mallards. But every fall, the Mallards seem to be attracted to the swimming pool. I have no idea why—but here they are.

The pool is really too short to do laps in, anyhow.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

"You Saw a Lucy's Warbler? Well, Isn't That Nice!"

I got a lifer this weekend, with the help of Robert McNab—a Lucy's Warbler. (He describes the sighting in detail here.) But this treat was overshadowed by the realization that some people think I'm crazy.

My adventures began on Saturday morning at Laguna Niguel Regional Park. Glenn had decided to sleep in, so it was just me, sans big camera for documentation shots. I camped out as usual by the fenced-off area near the entrance of the park, which was—just as I had hoped—filled with birds.

The catch was most of them were in their aggravatingly neutral fall/immature coloring, and none of them would stop moving—the air was filled with little feathered blurs zooming from tree to tree, three stories overhead, or darting furtively in and out of thick clusters of vegetation. Keeping the birds in my sights was like playing some crazed shoot-em-up video game ratcheted up to the highest level of difficulty—a moment's lapse in concentration, and whatever it was I was looking at would be gone.

After much effort, I managed to ID a Common Yellowthroat and a juvenile Lazuli Bunting, both of which managed to stay perched in one spot for about 3 seconds each. Laguna Niguel during fall migration is definitely a double-black-diamond birding spot—endless potential for thrills combined with endless opportunities to wipe out.

Then it occurred to me that birding spots ought to be coded, like ski runs, so birders of various levels of ambition and expertise will know what they're getting themselves into. Places with lots of big, slow-moving, boldly patterned critters easily viewable with the naked eye (like the front ponds of San Joaquin marsh) would get green circles. Places with a slightly more challenging array of birds and environments would get blue squares. And so on.

As I contemplated this, I ran into Robert, who told me about his recent sightings of the possible Lucy's Warbler. As he started describing it to me, we saw a tiny gray bird zoom into a nearby tree. I noticed it was grayish with no streaking, and had no eye ring, but I had no clue what it was.

"That's it!" Robert exclaimed, and the chase was on. The bird hopped around in the tree and in a few nearby trees for the next several minutes, as we tried to take in as many of its details as we could. It was definitely a warbler, and definitely smaller than the Yellow and Orange-crowned Warblers in the same trees.

It stayed high off the ground, making it impossible to see its rump or the top of its head, but we managed to put together a pretty good picture of the rest of it. I was both sorry that Glenn and his big lens weren't there, and relieved: this is precisely the sort of scenario that pisses photographers off to no end.

After the bird took off, I birded alone for another couple of hours. Then I ran into a vaguely-familiar looking pair of birders, who greeted me by name. (I'm terrible with names and faces—something I make a point of warning my students about at the beginning of each term.) The female member of the pair asked me what birds I had seen, and I told her.

"Oh, you saw a Lucy's Warbler? Well, isn't that nice!" she said sweetly. Then—this is weird—she patted me on the head! "Nice seeing you again, dear."


Let's deconstruct this: I'm tall for a woman (almost 5'7); she was a bit shorter than me. Patting me on the head, therefore, was not an ergonomically convenient gesture for her. She had to have made a conscious decision to do this. But why? Did she think that finding a Lucy's Warbler was a total no-brainer at Laguna Niguel? Did she not believe me? Or did she just think I was weird and scary for some other reason?

This bothered me for the rest of the afternoon. Not even a gorgeous sunset and the discovery of three Black Oystercatchers at Crystal Cove could raise me out of my funk. "Am I really that weird?" I lamented to Glenn.

"Well, yes."

"No, really."

"Well, you can be a bit...enthusiastic."

This was ironic. Normally, I'm the most introverted, unexpressive person alive. The only time I knowingly overcompensate for this is when I'm teaching: teaching large lecture classes in an obscure and technical academic field is essentially like doing a long sales pitch, and teaching large groups effectively means throwing yourself headlong into the material with evangelical fervor. And I was throwing myself into the birds of Laguna Niguel the same way I normally throw myself at, say, the relation between c-command and the distribution of negative polarity items.

Then I realized I care as much about birds as the stuff I'm actually paid to think about.

The difference was my current audience didn't have 4 units riding on their weekend bird sightings. So they didn't feel obliged to even pretend to be polite to me. And I couldn't get my revenge by flunking them out.

But as they walked away, I noticed that between the two of them, both apparently serious birders, they had only one pair of binoculars. NOW who's crazy?

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Summer Vacation, Fall Migration

This morning I decided to play hooky, and headed out to Huntington Central Park. There, fall migration was on in full force: warblers were everywhere. I spotted my first Townsend's and Black-throated Grays of the season, along with several Wilson's Warblers and endless flocks of Orange-crowned Warblers and Common Yellowthroats.

I returned to the fig tree by the island, where Glenn and I had spent some time over the weekend, and it was even birdier than before. About half a dozen Black-headed Grosbeaks, most immature, were flitting in and out, pecking away at ripe figs. Western Tanagers, Bullock's Orioles, House Finches, and a Nuttall's Woodpecker also darted in and out.

On this outing, I also experimented with the little point-and-shoot camera Glenn got me for Christmas: I don't think I'll ever want or need a lens the size of a shoulder-mounted missile launcher, but I do want to be able to get simple documentary shots of birds I see when Glenn is not around. And today I did! Well, sort of:

There are two Black-headed Grosbeaks in this tree! No, really!

Not far away from the fig tree, a Red-shouldered Hawk perched on a bare branch in the middle of the island—contemplating, perhaps, a snack of fattened grosbeak with fig relish? In any case, the birds in the fig tree didn't seen terribly worried.

A few other birders were in the area, and one of them—a friendly older gentleman—showed me a Nutmeg Mannikin nest. It was a large flattish ball of woven grass, with an opening at its bottom. We didn't see any birds coming in or out, but he said he had seen some there earlier in the week.

I didn't see a huge number of birds, but this was the most fun day of birding I've had in a while. When I finally left the park around 1:00, I had that totally great, mellow feeling—kind of like the feeling you get when leaving a spa after a long massage.

Warblers as therapy—you heard it here first.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Labored Days

                         This Oriole survived the Civil War!

This weekend's sticky heat ruined my plan for three back-to-back marathon birding days, but we managed to get some quality birding in anyways. We limited most of our outings to the peripheries of the day and spent our late mornings/early afternoons hunkered down indoors.

On Saturday morning, we went by Huntington Central Park to see if any fall migrants were passing through. We stayed near 'the island' behind the library, which was quite active: a fig tree near the edge of the water was a popular feeding spot for orioles (I admit, I'm not sure if the one pictured above is a Hooded or a Bullock's), Western Tanagers, and a pair of Black-headed Grosbeaks. Nearby, Nutmeg Mannikins were picking LONG blades of grass (well over a foot in length) and flying off with them.

I also spotted a Wilson's Warbler and some other warbler I couldn't identify—it seemed to be solid grey on the top, with a yellow breast and white belly. Perhaps the Northern Parula spotted last week? Or more likely, a female Common Yellowthroat that happened to look grey on top because it was in the shade? Alas, too far away for me to tell—and too far away for Glenn to photograph.

We were lucky to see as many birds as we did, as the park was filled with flocks of other strange birds:

           The South will rise again! (At 1:30 and 4:00 Saturday and Sunday)

Apparently, this humongous Civil War reinactment is held yearly in HCP. Someone in a hoopskirt asked Glenn, in a fake Southern accent, if he was there to photograph the battle. It wasn't our original plan, but those guys are a lot easier to shoot than warblers.

Sunday afternoon, we went back to San Joaquin marsh to see if we could re-find the American Bittern that Glenn had spotted and photographed during one of his after-work trips last week. We couldn't find it, but we heard a Least Bittern, and saw three Soras. The Solitary Sandpiper from last week was still there, as were the Nutmeg Mannikins and Orange Bishops:

Today, we got up at the crack of dawn to meet one of Glenn's photographer pals at Crystal Cove. We got there shortly before 7, and spotted a couple of California Thrashers on the trail out of the parking lot. On the beach, where the guys spent the morning shooting, we saw Black and Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderlings, Black-bellied Plovers, Heerman's and Western Gulls, Brown Pelicans, and not much else. But the beach was gorgeous and (for the first few hours) cool.

And I really couldn't ask for much more than that.