Cricket and I were in our front room doing work and happened to look outside this morning. It was good timing because a Merlin flew past our window and alighted on the tall conifer just across the street at the corner of Clark and Ednamary. We rushed downstairs and were able to get beautiful scope views of this dark female before she dashed off again. That was our first for the season. Later in the day, when we went to the gym at San Antonio mall, we saw another female Merlin buzzing Rock Pigeons in the parking lot. This are is a mile and a half from our home, so it seems safe to assume that it was the same bird.
Having had quite enough of Christmas shopping and decorating for several lifetimes, Cricket and I made a late afternoon campaign to Shoreline Park. Entering through the main kiosk and parking near the golf course, we walked across the entrance road and scanned salt pond A2W. The surface was covered with several thousand Ducks of various species, but the highlights were three drake Eurasian Wigeon and roughly ten Redhead, both male and female. We searched through the hoards of birds looking for a Tufted Duck, but alas, none were seen. A female Northern Harrier made two close passes and continued hunting elsewhere.
Saturday, Cricket and I cut down our Christmas tree and strapped it to the top of the car. I always feel guilty after choosing a Christmas tree, and you might well be wondering how two environmentalists can live with themselves after cutting down a perfectly healthy Douglas Fir... I guess have the same question. All I can say is that by cutting down our own tree, we help reduce the demand for pre-cut trees. While all Christmas trees will eventually be thrown into the landfill, and this is indeed a great waste, they will be recycled in a manner of speaking so any Christmas tree is first destroyed and then recycled. It's both good and bad, but mostly bad. Cutting trees for the holidays is clearly not the best idea, but I don't want to deal with that right now. Sometime perhaps we may go the live tree route and plant our little conifer in the appropriate habitat after we take the ornaments off... That would be best, I think. But we haven't done that yet. My point is that if more people made the effort, to select and cut their own tree, the overall consumption might be drop and fewer trees would be cut for the holidays. This is because of the unfortunate truth that Christmas tree lots do a better business when they are overstocked. This means they actually expect to waste a good number of trees in the interest of profit. No one goes tree shopping in the lots with 3 or 4 lonely trees. We all seem to like a big selection of trees... So there is the real evil. To sell more trees, the lots waste more trees. This really makes me ill. Enough complaining. All I mean to say is there's no bigger selection than that of the tree farms along Skyline and the best thing about the farms is that the trees that are not chosen just keep growing... Maybe in a few years we will get to the point where the pre-cut lots are gone and we cut down only the trees we intend to use. It's a bit like taking only as much food as we want, not heaping it all on our plate and throwing away what we should have realized we would never eat.
Anyway, we made a quick stop at Skyline Ridge to explore the short trail around the pond. We left our Christmas tree on the roof of my car. A large group of Ring-necked Ducks was present and included about 35 birds. Brown Creeper was heard along the trail and Townsend's Warbler, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, American Robin and American Kestrel were seen quite clearly.
The next day, once more I made an effort to locate Pileated Woodpecker and Golden-crowned Kinglet in appropriate coniferous woodland. Cricket was working all day so only Brian and I went to Wunderlich Park from the Skyline entrance to begin our search. Walking two miles downhill in the fog to the "Crossroads" area, we stopped several times and eventually just sat and listened. Numerous birds were seen at our many stops along the way, including Hermit Thrush, Varied Thrush, Hutton's Vireo, Fox Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Townsend's Warbler, Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Brown Creeper, Red-breasted Nuthatch and Ruby-crowned Kinglet, but neither of our targeted birds were found. At several places we thought we hard the high-thin notes of the Kinglet, but that wasn't good enough to check off of our "Operation Locate" hit list. Still it was beautiful and well worth the effort to explore this park. The trees were stupendously tall and the fog creeping inbetween their huge trunks was really something to behold. I kept thinking the only music fit for these surroundings was the score from Twin Peaks.
After that it was down through Woodside, stopping to pick up sandwiches at the corner store, and then to Redwood Shores. There we hoped to find Redhead in the large pond behind the Nobb Hill Market. No luck there, but we didn't get too discouraged. Most of the expected Waterfowl were seen here including a small group of Canada Geese and a few Shorebirds, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Dowitchers and Dunlin. We proceeded to the Radio Road pollution control ponds to find a large flotilla of Canvasback, but not a single Redhead among them. American Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, Cinnamon Teal, Green-winged Teal were all present as well as two female Hooded Mergansers. Great numbers of Marbled Godwit and Long-billed Curlew were seen, and I mean thousands. They took flight all at once and formed two huge, swirling groups, perhaps on edge because of the two nearby Peregrine Falcons that kept watch from their tower.
There's been some traffic about Cooper's Hawks this week on SBB, so I thought I should throw this in...
Before I was married, I used to live in an apartment complex off of West Meadow that had a balcony overlooking a pool. Small birds such as Mourning Doves, House Finches, House Sparrows, "crowned" Sparrows and Juncos often gathered in the shrubs surrounding the pool to feed along the edge of the fence. Sometimes there was also California Towhee. One afternoon I saw a particularly bold Towhee foraging just outside of the fence that surrounded the pool. An immature Cooper's Hawk observed him as well. An instant later I saw the Cooper's Hawk cross the pool from the large tree on the other side, pass THROUGH the fence and capture the Towhee on the ground on the other side of the fence. As if this were not amazing enough, I went out a few minutes later to inspect the brown feathers that had been strewn all over the ground and noticed that the gap between the vertical bars of the steal fence was exactly 7 inches wide! I stood there, jaw opened for quite a while pondering the skill required to fly at full speed through a 7" gap when one has a wingspan of up to 30". It is perhaps as interesting as a Sharp-shinned Hawk catching a Yellow-rumped Warbler in mid air. But that's another story.
Finally, to keep this post on topic, I observed a Cooper's Hawk along the San Francisquito Creek today. It passed over the 300 block, briefly startling the Golden-crowned Sparrows feeding near the stump. The White-throated Sparrow among them was the first to take shelter from the threat overhead.
I wonder if this an unusually good year for White-throated Sparrow. Maybe we're just getting better at finding them, but it seems like they've been reported more than in previous years... both in this county and in neighboring counties. The Central Valley also seems to be experiencing good numbers this season. Cricket and I located two at Lodi Lake and our group found another at San Luis NWR on a class field trip. This is of course combined with the one along San Fransisquito Creek and another at Bayfront Park. It's also interesting to note the number of "white-striped" individuals that are being located. All the ones we have observed have been tan-striped but one had enough contrast to almost qualify as "white-striped". I'd love to see some data on the status of these two varieties in our area.
Is there any possibility that the same conditions that have caused the increase of Red Crossbills in our county have also caused an increase in White-throated Sparrows? Perhaps this is a stretch, but who knows? I'd love to hear from anyone who might have thoughts. (For that matter, the number of Eurasian Wigeons at SWPCP seems elevated. I think six in one day is our high count and I can't remember seeing that many before.)
It might also be interesting for people to make note of which sparrows the White-throats are foraging with. Most often it seems they prefer the company of their shade-loving cousins, the Golden-crowneds, but I've heard at least one report of them associating with White-crowneds in more exposed areas. I've also noticed that of the individuals Cricket and I have seen this season, they tend to be the last to emerge from cover, allowing the Golden-crowneds to go first, I guess to make sure the coast is clear... Is this what others have noticed?
On the way back from a company Christmas Party at Chamanade in Santa Cruz, Cricket and I did a bit of birding along the coast. We hoped to find Golden-crowned Kinglets and Pileated Woodpecker at Butano, but were not successful. We did hear the Golden-crowneds, but viewing them was not possible. They were quite high in the trees and the light was dimming in the afternoon. We were able to view Brown Creeper, Pine Siskin, Townsend's Warbler, Hutton's Vireo, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Winter Wren quite clearly however.