Monday, September 14, 2009

Swifts' night out

Healdsburg, a city about a half-hour north of Rohnert Park, holds the distinction of having one of the largest roosting sites for Vaux's Swifts on the West Coast. The site, a fat chimney about thirty feet high, is located on the Rio Linda Adventist Academy campus. The school's officials are nice enough to allow groups of people onto the campus to watch the Vaux's nightly gathering and roosting, which a faculty member first noticed in 1989 after the chimney was no longer being used.

I made my way up to Healdsburg Saturday, arriving rather early -- about 2pm -- in order to have the opportunity to look around the place. My first stop was the bank of the Russian River on the edge of town. Not a whole lot to see there, just a Killdeer, a few American Crows, some Brewer's Blackbirds, and a couple of Mallards. It was the hot middle of the day, so I didn't see much; I did hear the constant screaming of Steller's Jays, however. Do they ever stop squawking? I also visited the downtown area and saw the usual trendy and expensive shops.

I then drove up a beautiful mountain road to the campus. I was still woefully early, but I didn't want to get lost and I was impatient to get up on the mountain. I spent about three hours birding in the afternoon sun; while I didn't see a wide variety of birds, I saw some beautiful plants, trees, rocks, and other wildlife. The mountains are staggeringly beautiful, an education on the flora, fauna, and geology of this area. With the help of my Audubon guide to California, I was even able to ID some of the life I saw. The area at the top of the mountain:

I saw an Osprey, soaring on thermals along with the many TuVus:

Hadn't seen one of those in a while, so that was nice. Speaking of birds I hadn't seen in a while:
These were the first American Robins I'd seen since moving out here -- weird. In the east, they're everywhere, year-round.

I also saw a lot of these rather pale little butterflies:I couldn't find them in my field guide to California; the guide sticks to the showier species.

This tree's bark is a deep brownish-maroon and is smooth, with flaky layers serving to protect the tree:

The Common Manzanita is simply beautiful; I couldn't stop photographing it and running my hands along its smooth trunks. The trees were curiously structured, with dead limbs and trunks clinging to the living portions of the trees. I wonder if all those lichens and mosses are constantly after the living portions, slowly killing each tree even as the trees reproduce themselves with fruit and seeds each spring.

I heard a few birds calling, but I couldn't recognize any of the calls -- very frustrating. My sister Mary is getting me the Stokes guide to Western birds for my birthday, so soon I'll be able to bird by ear again. (I hope I'm better at it with Western birds than I was with Eastern ones, anyway!) At any rate, it'll be nice to learn at least the more common birds; I feel like I'm missing so much out there, and with all these leaves, I never see them!

Frustrated by the birds, I looked down and saw lots of cool rocks:

Those last rocks reminded me of turquoise, but I'm guessing it's something a lot more common and a lot less valuable. Oh well.

I also saw this little guy, whom I've tentatively ID'd as a Western Fence Lizard--but it's open to debate:

I like that blue spot on his throat.

By now it was about five in the afternoon, and I saw my first Vaux's Swift:Cool! Lifer number 215. These birds seemed different from their East Coast pals the Chimney Swifts in that they didn't make as much noise (but then they weren't over a city and navigating the buildings of downtown Bellefonte) and they seemed to flap less and glide more. Maybe they were digging on the thermals like the dozens of TuVus I saw. I also wondered if the Osprey I'd seen earlier would've tried to peg one of these guys; I think they stick to fish, though, don't they?

I watched their numbers increase for a while and noted the increasing traffic into the school's gate as well--there was nothing else up here on the hill; we were at the end of the road. So, completely forgetting about my water bottle and the nice fleece pullover I'd brought and stashed in the car, I walked onto the campus and found the chimney in question:There were already people there, as well as a woman from the Madrone Audubon Society. She was just answering questions and stuff. A guy had a little specimen:

By 7:15ish, the birds' numbers had greatly increased:

By 7:30ish, I was getting pretty excited--the estimates for this time of year range from 1,000 to 10,000 birds. By now I was also getting cold--why didn't I remember that fleece, dangit!?How many more birds would we see?

At this point, I should comment on the difference between East and West as seen in the people around me that evening. Despite Susan's hatred of the bird-nerd stereotype, I've always found that it was easy to spot birders, if not by their nerdiness, then by their gear: binoculars, cameras, field guides, birding-related t-shirts, birding vests -- everyone on the East Coast had at least some birding accountrements that gave away their love of birds. As a normally shy person, I always feel comforted by these outward signs, by my ability to recognize a kindred spirit and immediately strike up a conversation about whatever birdy topic is floating around my brain at the moment.

These people--well, let's just say they were different. I was glad to see there were a lot of kids, but none of them seemed at all interested in the birds, even as their numbers increased to awe-inspiring levels. Why were they there? Were parents trying to get them interested in birds and/or nature? That's great, but then why let the kids run around screaming, especially right next to the chimney? The Audubon guy had to go over and tell them to get away or they'd scare the birds. The parents did nothing; they were also distracted. Many had brought food, lawn chairs, blankets--bear in mind that the Audubon lady's brief presentation started around 7 and the whole thing would be over by 8ish. Was food really necessary?

Was WINE really necessary?

Yes, you read that correctly--one group of rather hipster-looking 50-somethings had a bottle of white wine AND STEMWARE. Glass stemware! I guess it's just not cool to drink out of a plastic travel cup or something, or for that matter to just bring water, for pete's sake. Were these people even birders? My birder-radar wasn't making a blip.

I imagined their last moments before getting into the car to come here. "Bring the correct wine glasses, Cynthia! We're having an oaky chardonnay with pear and citrus overtones! I think it'll be the perfect complement to swift-viewing!"

Welcome to birding in the Wine Country.

My birding-radar must've been on the fritz, or it was being jammed somehow. A few people had binocs, but most didn't. Okay--not a problem. I mean, we were right across the street from the chimney, so it's not like we'd have to strain to see the birds. Still, these people were like those annoying folks I used to see at Texas Rangers' games at The Ballpark in Arlington. Beautiful ballpark, stunning views of an immaculate field, and decent baseball--yet many "fans" were basically there to see and be seen, gossipping and paying no attention to the game or the unfortunate people around them who had to contend with their inane (and always loud) conversations. Here, though, the talk was decidedly West Coast:
"Oh, there's my acupuncturist; he's waaaay cool." (Do 50-somethings really say "way cool?" Yes, apparently they do.)
"Did you talk to Kevin about Andrea's brother? Treatment center."

There were a few quiet loners (like me) there, and we shared the occasional comment about the gathering flocks, how many they had last year, and so forth--so it wasn't completely repellent. Still, I'm just not used to seeing birders wearing a $200 pair of designer jeans, pointy-toed heels, and a (probably Prada) leather jacket.

What I wouldn't have given for the company of some Flock members!

Okay--I'm over it now--back to the birds. As the sky darkened, they really started to get hyper, swirling in rapid circles around the chimney and a nearby pine:

Finally (by now I was freezing), they started pouring into the chimney:I also took video but I can't get it off my camera for some reason--stupid Mac. Maybe later I'll try on Matty's PC.

We were told that the counting-as-they-enter estimate is 6 birds per second, and they took over 10 minutes to go in, so we saw at least 3600 birds!

The Audubon woman told us that this week/weekend should be even better, but I doubt I'll go back--I saw the spectacle of it all, and I really enjoyed it. It was an awesome sight, like seeing tens of thousands of Tundra Swans and Snow Geese in Middle Creek, PA, last fall.

There's just no better time each year than migration time.

P.S.--I didn't mean to offend any West Coasters who might be reading this. If I did--sorry! But the wine WAS a little much, no?


Elizabeth said...

OMG, yes!!! Your description of Californians is so dead-on. I have experienced the same type of culture shock.

I recently started using a GIANT lens, which must identify me as a bird person because people have started asking me detailed birding questions. So I've had a couple nice conversations with the shy types you mention. It's a nice beacon.

That lizard is fantastic! I've seen tiny two-inch lizards around. No blue throats, though.

Anonymous said...

Healdsburg is the best place I know of to see the Swifts. It is a very cool sight. If it was not for all the people I would wish I still lived out there. :)

Susan Gets Native said...

Oh, hell yeah. You needed some Flock members..
...with a case of BEER, muddy hiking boots, one of us showing off her new bra, someone yelling something about HERPES, lots of cackling, giggling and pointing at the pointy shoes and the uppity white folks.
And if I were there with you, I would absolutely be wearing my "Birding Slut; Anytime, Anywhere, Any Bird" T-shirt.

Rabbits' Guy said...

I suppose it was an "event" for lots of folks ... same thing up here .. I have some pix on our blog of the Vaux Swift Fest up this way last weekend .. sort of like going to a parade.

Great picture of the birds going in!

Our Jays shut up for a peanut!

Matty Boy said...

I'm a Californian, and I have to say, if there weren't any people like that out here, it wouldn't be a stereotype.

The old saying still applies: Land of fruits and nuts and good things to eat.

Matty Boy said...

No offense to my many fruity friends.

dguzman said...

Elizabeth--of course you agree, you're an East Coaster as well! But I'm glad to know I'm not the only one. This lizard's body was probably 3 inches, then another 4-5 for the tail!

Rick--it was amazing. I still need to meet you (and Elizabeth) so you could take me to see more West Coast birds!

Susan--OMG, I need that shirt! You would not have been able to contain yourself--these people were pretty funny.

Rabbits' Guy--I'll check out those pics, and that's exactly what it was like: a parade. That explains a lot!

Matty Boy--I'll say. My Matty told me we need to design and sell t-shirts that say "Granola State University" instead of "Sonoma State" -- and on the back, it could say "Crunchy or Chewy?" He said all his students would buy them.

dguzman said...

Rick--NOW I remember why I don't know anything about you--your profile's private! Email me at dguzman1964 at gmail, okay?

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