Monday, March 8, 2010

Final California birds

I'm in San Diego International Airport where they have free wi-fi waiting for my red-eye flight and taking this time to make some final observations.

It was cold and rainy today. After the conference ended in the early afternoon, my colleagues and I went to the San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park. We got caught out in two or three heavy rain showers. We could actually see our breath. This is not what any of us expected for our trip to San Diego. With all the rain they've had here the area is incredibly green and beautiful. My colleague found out from a telephone call to her husband that it is sunny and 60 degrees back in Detroit. That's certainly better weather than we've experienced here for the past two days.

Still managed to get out for a few more birds. On the walk to the beach this American Wigeon (Anas americana) was with a partner in an area near a small bit of water between resort buildings.

In all I saw about a dozen Marbled Godwits (Limosa fedoa) feeding along the sandy shores of the beach areas of our conference's resort island called Paradise Point.

There were also two Willets (Catoptrophorus semipalmatus). I chased this one around and finally got this photo. The above two birds stuck together along the shoreline.

After taking photos of the godwit and the willet I continued walking along the beach. Suddenly a large flock of big black and white birds flew in low over the water looking for a place to land. These were followed by a second large flock. When they finally settled down on a sandy point I estimated there to be about 130 Black Skimmers (Rynchops niger) - comical and completely enjoyable birds. These birds were migrating because their main interest seemed to be rest, not skimming.

The photo is fuzzy around the edges, but this Western Grebe (Aechmophorus occidentalis) was floating quite far out.

This loon was also quite far out into the water for this photograph. I was hoping it to be a Pacific Loon (Gavia pacifica), but when I downloaded the photo I saw that it was a Common Loon (Gavia immer) which also has a significant west coast presence.

I continued to walk along and suddenly this bird flew in seemingly out of no where - Long-billed Curlew (Numenius americanus). What a thrill! It didn't like me taking photos, however, because it flew away almost just as quickly. I had time to snap only a few shots.

Off to the San Diego Zoo this afternoon. Just as we walked in there was a large group of noisy flamingos - don't know which. Very red, very big. In their enclosure, which was essentially open, were a variety of waterfowl - not all property of the zoo. Free flying Mallards, Hooded Mergs, Wood Ducks, Northern Pintail and Cinnamon Teal, Great Egrets were just a few of the fly-in visitors hanging out. There were also two zoo-resident Scarlet Ibis. One of my favorite ducks was a zoo resident - White-cheeked Pintail (Anas bahamensis) - which I have seen in the wild in Peru. I think this is a completely charming duck. Mandarin Ducks (Aix galericulata) were in another enclosure and they are quite possibly the craziest looking duck I have ever seen. All of the zoo ducks were banded, but it was still difficult to discern what would prevent them from escaping.

Lots of non-zoo residents were in the zoo. Those that come easily to mind - Song Sparrows, California Towhees, Black Phoebes and none other than Anna's Hummingbirds were everywhere. Again, I'm struck by how different this Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) appears.

Back to Paradise Point for a final meal and to collect our luggage for the trip to the airport. I had just enough daylight remaining to capture this photo of a Heermann's Gull (Larus heermanni) in one of the resort ponds. My new favorite gull.

If I counted correctly, I saw 88 species, three of which were life birds. Successful trip. Good trip. Glad to be going home.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Border birding

On Friday morning I birded along the US-Mexico border in two different locations. The first was Dairy Mart Ponds. I selected this location secondary to being easy to find without an address to plug into my GPS.

I saw one bird of interest to me - Cinnamon Teal (Anas cyanoptera). This is a terrible photo but as I tried to move closer the sound of one snapped twig underfoot sent this bird flying. Dairy Mart Ponds is essentially a weedy and litter infested place that, I guess, is probably good during southern California migration. But, I probably wasted time here that could have been better spent as my next location - Tijuana River Estuarine NWR.

Here the bird of the morning was the Clapper Rail (Rallus longirostris). I was all by myself at the end of the trail and photographing a Snowy Egret when suddenly I saw different movement at the water's edge. I got many photos of this bird in various poses. Below is just one.

At one point the Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) scared the Clapper Rail back into the undergrowth. As soon as the egret passed the rail came into the open again.

Certainly not a great photo, but the best I got of a Say's Phoebe (Sayornis saya) doing a little advertising for the NWR. Again, I'm struck by the bird's dainty feet. This must be a phoebe feature.

I like this Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) photo because it shows the russet coloration in the wings that is found in the adult California coast bird. According to Sibley, they even get redder and darker than this.

These little guys were all around, but they are fast and hard to photograph. This is a Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis).

Tijuana River Estuarine NWR is definitely not the quietest place in the world being adjacent to a naval air field where helicopter training flights repeatedly took off and returned to the landing strip next to the NWR. I think they were practicing their take offs and landings.

The above photo is just one look at the habitat. I was told that in the back corner of the fenced-in naval area there were Burrowing Owls (Athene cuniculaia), however, they were not out for me. If I had skipped the Dairy Mart Ponds and come earlier to the Tijuana River Estuarine I might have also seen the owls. I may also have had time to walk as far as the coast. By not walking out to the beach, I may have missed my best chance to see my other target shorebirds.

Today was also the first day of the San Diego birding festival sponsored by the San Diego Audubon. As I was leaving a huge bus dropped off about twenty-five birders who headed out to find the Clapper Rail.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Balboa Park, city center San Diego

I left Lake Hodges around 1:00 pm and needed my GPS to guide me to my next location. Not having a birding address, I tapped in the address of my next Motel 6 in downtown San Diego. True to form the trusty GPS guided me smoothly to 2nd Avenue.

Now, I don't know how many reading this are Motel 6 aficionados - well, that's probably not exactly the right word to describe people who, like me, stay in Motel 6s - but, when on a birding trip (and even when not birding) I'm not likely to splurge on expensive accommodations. After all, what does one need? A shower and clean sheets to collapse into. Needless to say, I've stayed in more than just a few Motel 6s. Some are just dreadful. Others are not too bad. I find that the further southwest one travels, the better they are. Anyway, I pulled into the parking lot and noticed that the building was new and built in a hotel-style rather than motel-style. I checked in and took the elevator to my room on the 4th floor. I opened the door and was dumbfounded. I was greeted by a completely charming, small, spotlessly clean, carpetless European-style hostel room. Oh, my gosh. I was thrilled. The bed was completely comfortable. I need to check out soon, but am staying to do this last blog entry. If traveling to San Diego, I do recommend this Motel 6 on 2nd Avenue for those who, like me, would enjoy this kind of room.

Anyway, what about the birds? From Motel 6 it was only a twenty minute walk to Balboa Park. I love birding in big, old cities. Often there is a large central park that is great for birding. Other cities where I have found this to be so - Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, St. Louis are those that come quickly to mind. I've never birded in New York City, but I suppose Central Park is the most famous big city birding park.

Balboa Park was just what I needed. As I walked I had an opportunity to check out a somewhat residential area of the city. The park was great. I didn't see a lot of species, but what I did see was completely fun.

Here he is again - Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna). By now you might think that this is my favorite bird. Well, not really, but I certainly have had the chance to get to know it.

Above, this basic plumage male Western Bluebird (Sialia mexicana) looks very much like a breeding plumage Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis). In fact, if it was not for the full blue hood and if I didn't know where I was, I would think this was an Eastern Bluebird. Also, it does not have blue on its belly - which is an Eastern field mark. Bluebirds are people pleasers no matter what kind they are.

Another California Towhee (Pipilio crissalis). These guys don't like anyone sneaking up on them.

I was thrilled to see this Townsend's Warbler (Dendroica townsendi) which are winter residents along coastal California. There were also been many of the western Yellow-rumped (Audubon's) Warblers (Dendroica coronata) around in various plumage stages.

Finally, another bird that's everywhere. As I walked to the park I even saw one in a little grassy spot between a building and a parking lot along 2nd Avenue.

Irresistable, the Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans) is a permanent resident of coastal and inland California. To me this is a completely cute bird. Check out the dainty feet.

How's this for a posing bird? Charming!

Finally, for the biggest bird of all ...

... this is how planes come into the San Diego airport - just over the trees and just above the buildings. Incredible!

After La Jolla, Lake Hodges ...

After La Jolla, I started out for somewhere else and the GPS took me west instead of north because I did not have the correct street. So, I got temporarily lost in the direction of Lake Hodges. I didn't have an address for Lake Hodges either, but a young employee of the Shell gas station where I stopped to fill up knew how to get there. In fact, the directions he gave matched exactly the cryptic directions on the San Diego Audubon website. I thought it was odd that he knew the directions, but it sounded easy so I went. More about this later.

I had been to Lake Hodges before - in April, 2008. I went with my Maryland birding friends, Steve and Mark, looking for California Thrasher and California Gnatcatcher. The area had had a severe wildfire in 2007 and most of the habitat was severely damaged for our visit. While we didn't see the thrasher or the gnatcatcher, I remember that we saw a lot of other good birds here, including Western and Clark's grebes - at the time, both life birds for me. It was an excellent opportunity to see the grebes side-by-side to evaluate their head field marks. (Unfortunately, I didn't start this blog until the October after that trip.)

This is a terrible photo of the White-tailed Kite (Elanus leucurus) but it was a great experience. I heard some squabbling in the sky and looked up to see the kite acting as an aggressor toward a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). The size difference was remarkable and the kite was the better flier.

I have another favorite bird. Here is my second life bird of the day and just a thrill be see. This California Thrasher (Toxostoma redivivum) just sang and sang. That's how I found him. I was able to get quite close and he never did stop singing. I couldn't leave. I just stood there and watched and listened and took pictures. A completely charming bird.

Taking a rest from singing for just a moment. Look at that bill!

Even when the wind tossed him around he continued to sing.

Another view of Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna). They're everywhere. Again, a poor photo, but the short, straight bill is clearly evident.

A distant California Towhee (Pipilo fuscus). These guys have a very loud, sharp call note that is unmistakable.

Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus) was calling and responded to my pishing by perching on this limb just long enough for me to take this photo. Its call is very similar to the Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus), but buzzier. Once I heard it, and saw who it belonged to, it was easy for me to hear the towhee.

Lake Hodges

While I did not get a photo, I did also see the California Gnatcatcher (Polioptila californica) - my third life bird of the day.

Lake Hodges habitat seems to be recovering nicely from the 2007 wildfire. There were signs everywhere reminding visitors that important habitat rejuvenation was ongoing for sensitive breeding birds - meaning, I'm sure, the thrasher and the gnatcatcher. The area seems to attract many visitors, walkers primarily.

As I was returning to my car, I met a fellow on the trail who asked, "how does it look?" I said that I thought it looked great, thinking he meant the habitat re-growth following the fire. I explained that I was a visitor and didn't really know what the area looked like immediately following the fire. "Oh, I don't mean that," he replied. He was speaking of the 17 year old girl who was found buried in a shallow grave only a couple of days earlier. Apparently, she was abducted while jogging around the trails of Lake Hodges and the site of her shallow grave was at the lake's edge where I walked out to see if I could find the Virginia Rail that was calling. Earlier I had seen two women walking very slowly on the trail. They weren't birding and their deliberative pace made it clear they were not walking for exercise. At one point the women perched on the split rail fence and stared at the lake. Now it made sense to me. Walking on further, a television reporter and cameraman stopped two teenage girls to interview them. I thought back to the kid at the gas station who knew the directions to Lake Hodges. Again, it became clear to me. He probably thought I was interested in Lake Hodges to visit the scene of the crime. I was just there to see birds.

La Hoya? That sign says La JOE-lla!

The title of this blog comes from a funny story an Iraqi physician colleague told when he learned I was going to San Diego for a conference.

This morning, again, the GPS worked beautifully. Thank goodness!

Brandt's Cormorants (Phalacrocorax penicillatus) were the first birds I saw at the start of the long coastal park that has runners, walkers, homeless people and people who sit in their cars and stare at the ocean.

Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis), in their beautiful breeding plumage, were also everywhere. These hadn't taken to the sky yet.

The apparently controversial Harbor Seals had a nice sleeping spot on a large flat-surfaced rock elevated well above the pounding surf.

Western Gulls (Larus occidentalis) were also everywhere.

I was so disappointed that this photo did not turn out better. I was able to get quite close. Five Heermann's Gulls (Larus heermanni) stood together and took turns sleeping, preening or just keeping an eye on their surroundings. When I go to Niagara Falls my favorite gull is the Iceland Gull. But, Heermann's Gull may become my new favorite. This is the first time I've seen them in breeding plumage. I think it is a completely beautiful gull.

I did see my first life bird of this trip at La Jolla this morning. Two Black Turnstones (Arenaria melanocephala) were in the corner of a cove working the rocks for food. I saw them well from the walkway above, but they were too far away for a photo. Plus, they blended in very well with the color of the rocks. Curiously, the only other shorebird I saw this morning was a Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius) working the rocks in the same area as the Black Turnstones.

The La Jolla ocean front. It is beautiful.

The La JOE-lla story goes like this. My colleague, Dr. Haythem Ali, came to the US after the first gulf war. He was a physician in Iraq, but had to repeat his residency to obtain his licensure here. He is an amazing scientist, researcher, physician and colleague. On his first trip to California, also for a conference, he was driving in a rental car and looking for La Hoya. Not being acquainted with Spanish pronunciation, he drove up and down the I-5 until he finally figured it out. He's also a good story teller and we all had a great laugh. The thing is, though I didn't admit it at the time, I also thought that La Jolla was La JOE-lla and La Hoya was La Hoya. And, I have no excuse. Though I don't speak Spanish, I've learned bits and pieces over the years and I am well-acquainted with pronunciation. The truth comes out.

Anyway, I now know how to pronounce La Jolla. It was a great birding spot this morning and the Black Turnstones were the icing on the cake. However, I probably would not have gone there had my friend from England, Cliff, not suggested it.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Driving in California ...

... is not for the faint-hearted. But more about this later.

Day 1 - Anza-Borrega Desert State Park

Click on any image to enlarge

Black-throated Sparrow
I drove two hours northeast because I had been told that I might be able to find all three thrashers - LeConte's, Crissal and California - here. I'll cut to the chase; I did not find the thrashers. But I did find a number of other very enjoyable birds. The Black-throated Sparrow (Amphispiza bilineata) was the first bird I saw at the state park. Look how completely charming this little sparrow is.

White-crowned Sparrow
This perched White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophyrys) was one of many that were moving around in a sizable mixed sparrow feeding flock. Amongst these were Golden-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia atricapilla) that were completely uncooperative for photos.

California Quail
California Quail (Callipepla californica) were everywhere. They are very funny as they scramble around together. I heard the male birds' put way doo call all morning. They do not like to be separated from their flock. They run from bush to bush very quickly and I gave up thinking that I would get a photo. Then, walking along, I split a small flock. Three went one way and this solo bird went the other. It didn't know what to do separated from his friends. I'm sure this is how I got such good luck for this photo.

Flash back to my Arizona-California trip in April, 2008. Gambel's Quail (Callipepla gambelil) were everywhere on that trip. One could not get away from them. In the three days we spent in California, however, when I thought I would see many California Quail, I say only one - briefly, when it hopped up on a log and just as quickly hopped down. This was a treat to see so many California Quails.

Loggerhead Shrike
I was hearing a new call that pulled me off my track to photograph a singing Cactus Wren (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus - how's this for a name?). It didn't sound like the call of one of my sought after thrashers, but I had to chase it down just in case. It turned out to be the Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) above. I've seen Loggerhead Shrikes in a variety of locations but I'm not really sure I've every heard one before.

Femaile Lesser Goldfinch
The female Lesser Goldfinch (Carduelis psaltria) was flitting about in a tree near the state park visitor's center with her male counterpart. They look, sound and fly very much like our American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis).

Male Lesser Goldfinch

Rock Wren
Another very nice encourter thrilled me. Earlier in the morning I had heard a singing Rock Wren (Salpinctes obsoletus) and was able to sneak up on it for many photos, at least one or two of which I thought would turn out well.

I went to the Culp Valley area of the state park. I heard a rather mournful call repeatedly and it sounded close. I followed the call and found this little Rock Wren clinging to the edge of a hugh rock surface. It was very wrapped up in its calling because I was able to get very close for some excellent photos. When I downloaded my photos this bird was especially rewarding because the photos from the first Rock Wren were all out of focus.

Also, at Culp Valley, this completely charming Phainopepla (Phainopepla nitens) would not be ignored. His wurp call was very clear and made it hard to walk away from him. Finally, he perched as above and presented me with my photo op. What I have found to be a successful strategy is to use the desert bushes as a blind to sneak up on perched birds. I still need to be quick as I'm sure the bird(s) are not fooled, but in many instances it has given me an opportunity to get closer.

Anna's Hummingbird
It's not a good photo but needs to be included because these little guys are everywhere. Anna's Hummingbirds (Calypte anna) are year round residents in California and, frankly, it's hard to be somewhere where they are not. I'm not very good at hummingbirds. I'm one of those who goes to a feeder station (like those in southeast Arizona) and waits for the experts to call out the species. But, I've had to become acquainted with Anna's because they are ubiquitous - and they're singing, too.

Brewer's Sparrow
Saving the worst photo until last, I include it because I ran into a whole flock of these singing birds at the Palm Springs (not be be confused with the Palm Springs) area in the state park. I think Brewer's Sparrow (Spizella breweri) are probably the plainest and drabbest of all our sparrows. But, they are inspired singers and they can really get going with their buzzy, trilling and long vocalization. Unfortunately, none would cooperate for a good photo.

Finally, back to the beginning.

I rented my car from Alamo and the guy doing my paperwork suggested that I rent a GPS system. He even offered it to me for two days at $12 each day instead of the three that I'll have the car. When I return the car, I feel like asking this guy to marry me. Two days into my trip it has been a blessing and absolutely essential.

Birding in southern California is not easy. If a bird can be found elsewhere, I would recommend going to some other location to see it. But, it can be tolerable with the GPS. Having said this, the GPS works best with a full address - city, number, street. Birding locations, however, are not frequently given addresses. Still, I learned to trust the GPS - it got me to the Anzo-Borrego Desert State Park which is all the way across the county - without a hitch. If I had not had the GPS, it would have been a nightmare.

No life birds on day one. It was long with lots of driving and I was exhausted when I returned to San Diege, but overall a very successful and completely enjoyable day.

Anzo-Borrego habitat