Cricket and I scoped the Bay from the west side of the Dumbarton Bridge today in the hopes of finding some lingering Red Phalaropes. We found none of them, but we did find a second winter Glaucous Gull on the mud flats between the new and old bridges. The pale, pale, ghostly-pale tan Gull was seated on the mud flat, affording nice comparisons with the nearby Western and Glaucous-winged Gulls of various ages. It was clearly a large Gull with very pale coloration and with absolutely no darkness on the wing tips. Its bill was also sharply demarkated pinkish with a black tip. Its iris was pale and legs were pale pink. We watched it as it flew over our heads to the north-east side of the bridge.
Cricket and I birded a bit in Solano County. We began on Flannery Road (off of Hwy 113), turning right to go east. Just after entering the dirt road be saw a Rough-legged Hawk foraging over a dried grassy field to the south. We continued east to the intersection with Robinson where we first began really looking for Mountain Plovers. No luck with the Plovers at that spot however many singing Western Meadowlarks a huge flock of Red-winged Blackbirds and several Loggerhead Shrikes were seen. We turned left (north) onto Robinson and then left again (west) at the small farm. We could see the line of breadfruit trees ahead, and the powerlines crossing the road. To our right, in the large short grass field, walking among the cattle, was a large group of Mountain Plovers. They stuck close together, and remained very low to the ground but we could see them clearly. We managed to get them in our scope for about two minutes before the entire flock took off toward the southeast, banking once and then flying directly overhead. They gave us a quite a show as the flock split into separate groups, reshaped itself and merged again. Their flight was very rapid, and despite the dividing and shape-shifting, seemed very decisive as they made their over the hill and out of view. My wife and I were both able to make a rough count of 200 birds in the flock (!) when they were more-or-less stretched out in a line. We could not relocate the group however, despite much searching, but we were excited to have seen so many at one time.
From there we continued along Robinson, finding a Prairie Falcon and a Ferruginous Hawk near the PG&E tower just before rejoining Hwy 113. The rain began to get very heavy at this point so we left the area, exploring Salem and Brown Roads for a while. Not much was seen there so we headed back south along Hwy 113. We made a right onto the west side of Flannery finding another Prairie Falcon (or perhaps the same one) near the intersection of Goose Haven and Lambie Roads.
Kelly and I visited Merced NWR outside of Los Banos today with her cousin Bruce Matsunaga and his wife Prescilla. It was their first time to the reserve so it was especially rewarding to see their excitement at all the Watefowl and Cranes. We found great numbers of Snow and Ross' Geeese, of course and several times the flock took flight creating the famous cloud of snow-flakes. A small number of Greater White-fronted Geese were also present as well as a few Sandhill Cranes and White-faced Ibis. Most of the expected waterfowl were seen, as well as a Lesser Yellowlegs in the first pond and by the second platform. The most surprising finds today were a House Wren along the entrance road, just before the bridge over the creek, and a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher near the small wooden bridge along the Willow Trail (I think that is the name of the trail near the second platform). A female Barn Owl was also flushed from the trees around the small pond. (We had earlier seen a Great Horned Owl along the loop on the far south side). A large group of Swallows, presumably Tree Swallows, was seen foraging over the far south marsh on the auto loop, but we had 5 Tree Swallows close enough to identify with certainty and a lone Cattle Egret flew by. A Sora fed in the open just beneath the observation platform by the main parking area, but both Soras and Virginia Rails were heard at every suitable location we stopped along the auto loop.
Cricket met me at work around noon so we could search for the White-throated Sparrow along the creek. She had not yet seen one as part of the "Big-15" challenge. Within 3 minutes of arriving at the spot, she spotted the bird among a small flock of Golden-crowned Sparrows and one Fox Sparrow. She observed the striking difference between our target bird and the more common birds around it, most especially the White-throats strong head stripes and golden tones on the back. Beautiful bird! A woman walked up to us and asked if we were looking at birds and we told her about the White-throat. She was obviously excited and interested to hear that we were looking at something uncommon, so I gave her my glasses so she could see it up close. It's so fun when you can talk to perfect strangers like that and there is an interesting bird nearby for them to admire.
Unbeknownst to me, Cricket later went to Half Moon Bay to buy my favorite--cold smoked salmon from Creekside Smoke House along Hwy 1. After picking up the goods, she snuck to Princeton Harbor to see Surf Scoter, Black Turnstone, Surfbird, Black Oystercatcher, Willet, Sanderling, Marbled Godwit and Whimbrel, as well as a pair of Brant. She also noticed Savannah Sparrow by the parking lot and a Phalarope species, presumably Red Phalarope, on the small pond. All of this, while I was doing my own secret Christmas shopping...
The White-throated Sparrow was still present today at 1:30 however the flock of Golden-crowned Sparrows it hangs out with has moved closer to the three-way intersection with Poe, Bryant and Palo Alto Ave. It was foraging beneath the metal barricade that begins at the corner. Look for a yellow sign with reflectors directly across from the house on the corner which has a small wooden sign saying "Twin Oaks"
Other birds present were similar to yesterday with the addition of 3 Brown Creepers.
Today during my lunch hour walk along San Francisquito Creek in Palo Alto, I located a tan-striped White-throated Sparrow associating with a small flock of Golden-crowned Sparrow . The bird was in exactly the same location as last year, the year before that AND the year before that: right across the street from 320 Palo Alto Avenue (a condominium complex). I observed the flock from behind the green mail box and watched for the White-throat to appear from beneath the bush that grows between the tree stump and the yellow fire hydrant. As hoped, he did appear and foraged cautiously for a few moments in the open. Eventually the flock began to move left (twoard the intersection with Poe and Bryant), but in years past the flock has been found anywhere from the pedestrian bridge to the three-way intersection. It seems as if the White-throat is a little more wary than its associates, and it usually comes out only after several Golden-crowns have decided its safe.
A few minutes later, a very dark female Merlin came cruising downstream, low over the water, causing a great panic among the many small birds. Other species seen in the general area include Downy and Nuttall's Woodpeckers , Dark-eyed Junco , California and Spotted Towhees , Song and Fox Sparrows , Townsend's Warblers, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Hermit Thrush .
The Red-shouldered Hawk was not in the big conifer near the intersection of Emerson and Palo Alto, neither was the California Thrasher, but both of these birds were present yesterday.
Secret prisons in Eastern Europe? Rendition of supposed enemy combatants? Ciesure of library records with mandatory gag-order for library staff? NSA and CIA investigation of citizens with no knowledge of their crime?
Iraqi detainees held without access to family, personal lawyers or trial with jury? Reluctance to approve the McCain anti-terrrorism bill? Wiretaps and email evesdropping on americans?
I guess I just need to ask why more people are not calling for George W. to be impeached? The man is a menace and really must be relieved of office!
The Sharp-tailed Sandpiper continues along far edges of the pond just east of the railroad tracks at the Alviso Marina. Kelly and I spotted the bird at about 10:50 this morning. When we first arrived the bird was not among the small group of Least Sandpipers, but after about 45 minutes, the group grew significantly with the arrival of large group of new birds. A single Dunlin and a Western Sandpiper were among the new arrivals, as was the target bird, the Sharp-tail. It's larger size, honey-colored breast and rusty cap with wide white supercilium
made him/her relatively easy to spot. The flock repeatedly flushed and relocated, often splitting into 2 or three smaller groups, each of which was very skittish.
On the large pond north of the parking area, numerous Red-breasted Mergansers were present, and a Sora called from the marsh near the new platform. Fox Sparrows were hard to miss along the edges of the marsh.
Many of you know of my fondness for out of print natural history books and the past few years has seen my little collection grow, thanks in part to generous gifts from some of you. Grinnell and Miller's "Distribution of the Birds of California" (1944), Jepson's "Manual of Higher Plants of California" (1926) and of course Peterson's "A Fleld Guide to the Birds" are among my most prized books. As I open their covers, admire the formal typography and faded illustrations, I read the words of frontier naturalists, and catch the aroma of a book cherished by someone just like me, but years before. And I am thrilled.
Yesterday I found yet another wonderful book in the bird section of Bell's in Palo Alto. Ralph Hoffmann's "Birds of the Pacific States" (1927). It predates Roger Tory Peterson's monumental 1934 book by several years and is beautifully written. His species accounts are often more like colorful travel narrative than the clinical style of Peterson, and far more entertaining than the extremely cold writing of today's field guides. Still, using a book like his in the field must have been a challenge and it's easy to understand how Peterson's field mark method was so successful, making bird watching more accessible to the general public.
As we approach the time when some of you may be thinking of how you will locate the Black Rail for the "Big 15" challenge, I thought you might enjoy an excerpt from Hoffman's account of the species, at the time, it was also called the "Farallon Rail. His entry awakens a boyish sense of adventure within me:
"Few people have deliberately set out to see a Black Rail and still fewer have succeeded. There is probably no bird in the United States that eludes observation more successfully than this mouse-like inhabitant of the tangled salicornia. A meeting is usually entirely accidental; there is a brief view of a small black bird with short fluttering wings and dangling legs, that drops hurriedly into the nearest shelter."
No picture or map was included with the words, but I'm sure that any reader of the time, like I am today, must have been excited by the improbability of this mysterious little bird...
I made a morning dash to Half Moon Bay to scan the Gull roost at Venice Beach. I arrived at the lookout above the Pilarcitos Creek mouth this morning around 9. The Gull flock was reasonably good, until a service vehicle drove north on the beach scattering the birds. The south side of the creek contained mostly California Gulls, while the area north of the creek included Californias as well as Western, Glaucous-winged, Herring, Thayer's, Mew and a single Ring-billed Gull adult (rather surprising for that location, I understand). Needless to say, I was not able to relocate the Slaty-backed Gull, but perhaps thenext shift will have better luck. As I left the beach, a small flock of roughly 10 Horned Larks (1 point) flew north, toward Princeton.
On my way home, I stopped at Sky Lawn (the cemetery at the intersection of Hwy 92 and Skyline) to search the conifers for Crossbills, Pine Siskins or Purple Finches (all Big-15 species). No luck there, but Pygmy and Red-breasted Nuthatches (2 points) were vocal, and easily located near the headquarters. Western Bluebirds and Yellow-rumped Warblers fed on the upper lawn. I took a short break to sit in the warm sun, and to my surprise several dozen Townsend's Warblers came to feed on insects near where I rested. All around me, and to within 10 feet, the Warblers hopped in the short grass, picking insects from the ground, completely oblivious to me. I lost count after 24 birds, but the flock was much larger and stretched in all directions on the grassy hillside. I can't say I've ever seen that many Townsend's in one place, or feeding that densely. Another surprise was a Wilson's Snipe that flushed from the shaded lawn near the Chapel of Light. It flew a few yards and then landed again within view.
I accompanied Eric, Jody and Mr. Melnick on a mission to Big Basin in search of Pileated Woodpecker. We arrived at around 9:30 and found the park a little too cold for me and my shorts... We hiked the Sequoia and Shadowbrook Trails as far as Slippery Rock before looping back. We never did see or hear our target species, but Winter Wren and Varied Thrush (1 point) were both located as well as Townsend's Warblers and Pygmy Nuthatches. After saying goodbye to Mr. Melnick, who needed to get back home, the three of us drove to Santa Cruz to search for the Rock Sandpiper. As feared, it was not located either, but several species of interest were seen. Whimbrel, Surfbird, Black Turnstone, Black Oystercatcher, Thayer's, Mew and Bonaparte's Gulls. As well, a dark Merlin buzzed through as we prepared to leave, scattering a large flock of European Starlings.