Monday, September 28, 2009

Three days to Texas

I'm finishing the last of my packing today and leaving for Texas early tomorrow morning. I'm leaving a lot of stuff at Matty's, in the hope that I'll either be back to stay or be back to pick it up and move elsewhere. I'll sure miss my Matty.

I'll be offline for the next few days on the road, so take care and thank you so much for all your good wishes. I'll be sure to take pictures of my trek through the desert southwest, and maybe I'll even see some birds!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Last view of the Pacific

make sure to click for bigger on all these, especially the little crab

If you read my other blog, you already know that this whole California thing isn't working out for me. I haven't been able to find work, and time (aka money) has run out. It's been a fun adventure (despite the constant stress of looking for work, money, bills, etc.), and I've seen a lot of new birds (22 lifers since leaving PA), but it's time to pack it in. California has always been my dream, but it's just not a good time for dreaming, I guess. I'll be moving back to Texas for a while to live with my parents (or perhaps my sister), which will be nice. I haven't seen my parents more than a handful of times in the last seven or eight years, so I'm looking forward to spending some time with them. My mom loves to go birding, and San Antonio should yield some amazing birding, especially during the migration, so watch for some exciting posts in the coming weeks. I'll also be driving down through the Central Valley of CA, through Arizona and New Mexico, and a long way across Texas, so I'm hoping to see some raptors and things along the way.

Today, I felt like I should see the Pacific one more time before I go, so I went down to Muir Beach near Muir Woods. I was tempted to do both, but I didn't have a lot of time so I chose the beach. I had been reading about tidal pools and the wealth of life one can find in them, and I'd read that Muir Beach and nearby Slide Ranch were two good places to go.

It turned out to be one of those occasions where the expectations way outdo the reality; that seems to be the theme these days. I'd seen pictures of starfish, urchins, live "eccentric" sand dollars, sea slugs, etc. in my Audubon California guide, but that's not what I saw at Muir or at Slide. Maybe it's the wrong time of year, but I saw only limpets, snails,seaweed, and such. It's possible that we're too far north here for the good stuff.

Still--it was beautiful out there among the rocks. Some highlights:
Muir Beach

a young gull -- Ring-billed?

I don't know what this green rock is, but I like it. Serpentinite?

After a few hours at Muir, I went north about a mile or two to Slide Ranch. Here, the cliffs were a little daunting but I was all over those rocks like a little mountain goat! (a little mountain goat with weak ankles, a banged-up knee, puny muscles, and a tendency to fall down a lot, that is--but I only fell once!)

That handrail and a rope (starts where the handrail ends) are pretty much the only reason I made it down (and back up) alive.

I knew the tide was going out all afternoon, and low tide was supposed to be around 7:30, so there was a little beach when I first got there around 6pm.
The "sand" was more like little crushed rock, blackish gray.
Here, you can see some of that tidal pool life -- snails.More of those purplish round snail things -- Periwinkle? Dogwinkle? They were round, though--not long and conchy like the periwinkle and dogwinkle things in my book. But they have this pretty little abalone-like pearlized bit right at the center of their little spirally shell. Very pretty.

I started to notice, as I watched all these individual gulls who would just land on a rock and stare out at the water, that a lot of them had pink legs and feet -- Herring Gulls?
I'd only seen one Herring Gull before (assuming these are more of them), back in Cape May 2007. It was interesting to watch them as they gazed out at the water; one of them tried perching on a low rock and perhaps trying to find a meal splashing by, but the water was too rough for him and he gave up.

And hey, I managed to get this terrible picture of a couple of Black Oystercatchers:

I couldn't believe it, but this Black Phoebe was down on the beach with me, hawking for insects then coming right back to its perch:I never imagined a little flycatcher would be down there, but he was. This is definitely the same bird Matty Boy and I saw in Oakland, and I'm positive (gulp--I hope) that it's a Black Phoebe. Look at this funny little pic:That's some attitude!

I also saw these guys near the parking lot at Slide Ranch--are they House Finches or Purple Finches? They look too plump and small to be House Finches, but I could of course be wrong:

For a brief moment, I thought I had something exotic like a Pine Grosbeak, but you can see the little finch bill on that guy on the left in the first picture. Let me see if I have a better one... this one's brighter but not much better.

This little guy was peaking out at me; some kind of hermit crab? A big one?

Look at all the little barnacles and limpets and tiny snails on this one rock. Which reminds me: I really your help to learn more about cameras so I can deal with the horrible backlighting (glow) issue that results from taking pics on foggy/cloudy days. It's distracting. I'd like to be able to capture some features of the sky behind things, but the auto setting certainly doesn't always work, and I don't know enough about all those manual settings. F stop? Aperture? (that doesn't seem right) Exposure? I don't know. Suggestions?

After getting back up the cliff:

Monday, September 21, 2009

Birding with Matty Boy!

Today I made the drive into Oakland (life city!) to see Matty Boy, teacher of all the maths. What a day we had! Oakland's quite a place, hosting such high-end storefronts as this one:Wow. Despite the fact that this place was on the next block! from his apartment, Matty Boy does not sport any gold teeth (best or otherwise) in his grillz. But Matty's neighborhood was nice, with a great little bar and a Chinese food place close by.

We had planned to walk around Lake Merritt, which turned out to be like a block away from Matty Boy's apartment, but he declared it not birdy enough after a reconnaissance mission by bike earlier this morning. We went instead to several other places, including Alameda's bayfront and "the famous" Arrowhead Marsh (at least that's what a lady birder we met called it). With the lifers I saw today with Matty Boy, and two I saw/heard last night, the list is at a whopping 223! I'm amazed.

The bayshore featured all sorts of gulls and terns, but sadly only the old Double-Crested Cormorants instead of the supposedly common Brandt's and Pelagic Cormorants. Still, between me and Matty's eagle eye, we spotted plenty of great birding action, including lifers Elegant Tern, Black Oystercatcher (creepy red eyes!), and what we thought was a Willet. I was impressed that near the Bay Farm area we found a bird sanctuary (where we saw the Willet from over the fence). A lot of the birds were basically posing on these little concrete structures:This pic was taken not at Alameda but while on my way to Matty's, when I pulled off I-580 near Richmond Point, at what was supposed to be some kind of beach but ended up (it's possible I might've taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque...) being a very tony and private beachfront community. Still, I drove in and illegally parked for a second, hoping to see something interesting. I just saw what look like a bunch of Ring-billed Gulls, CA Gulls and/or Western Gulls, and Double-crested Cormorants. I didn't have much time to gawk, being illegally parked and all.

Turns out, Port Richmond was quite the hub of activity back in the day:This was near the "Rosie the Riveter National Historic Place" (or something). I did not stop, nor did I see Rosie (or Sarah Palin, fortunately) the Riveter. Still, it was kinda neat to see a place that played a big part in such an important time in our history.

Anyway, for some stupid reason I left my camera in the car at the last place we stopped in Alameda, when we saw the Elegant Terns and Black Oystercatchers. Grrr.

After the Alameda shore, we drove on toward the Oakland Airport and stopped at a marshy area. It's always surprising to me how many birds one can see on the vast and empty lands that usually surround airports. Anyway, we drove to an especially marshy area called Arrowhead Marsh (thanks, birding couple we met!), and that's where we saw these:Check out those pink legs! Black-necked Stilts, baby. And here's more of what we thought were Willets, though smart and waterbirdy people may disagree:We also saw some Yellowlegs (Greater?), but these guys' legs and coloring and the white eyebrow looked to me and Matty Boy like those of a Willet in winter plumage. (Apparently, winter plumage is all the rage right now, as Yellowlegs are only here during the winter, according to my Peterson's--sure felt like summer to me, though). So--are these Willets? And are they ALL Willets?

We also saw a Black Phoebe (lifer!), which I mistook at first to be a Lark Bunting until I realized that (a.) they don't have those here and (b.) he had a white diamond on his belly and (c.) he had a little crest or tuft-looking thingie on his head. We looked through the guide and Matty spotted it: Black Phoebe. Cool! And bigger than I remember the Eastern Phoebes being.

One bird that I saw twice but Matty didn't see was a beautiful buffy one with a long down-turned bill: Long-billed Curlew! (That Mac's guide to coastal CA birds was INVALUABLE today.) While the Black-necked Stilts and (presumed) Willets and (some-sized) Yellowlegs were all rather public in their food searching and preening and general noise-making, the curlew was waaaay back in the taller grass, alone, both times I saw one. It's like he noticed I had the scope on him and hid before Matty could see him. Frustrating. But I got a great look at him! Beautiful.

So that was six lifers for the Oakland trip--I also got two lifers last night, while driving up on Sonoma Mountain (the mountain I see out of my bedroom window):

The first lifer was a Nuttall's Woodpecker, who was noisily tapping at a rather grizzled old oak:

He was about the size of a Hairy Woodpecker, but you can see that his red pattern and the horizontal striping across his back are way different. Sorry the pics aren't better, but it was getting pretty dark at the time. I also got some rather blurry pics (dying battery = autofocus not so focusy) of a beautiful Western Bluebird! and an Oregon-race Dark-Eyed Junco:

I realize the blur makes it almost impossible to see, but just check out that electric blue on the Western Bluebird. Amazing. I heard tons of wild bird songs and calls, but oy vey, I'm just clueless out here!

I did, however, distinctly recognize one rather wild call, that of a Spotted Towhee. It started with a couple of chips, then changed to a long trill, with other chips and noises. Thank to my sister Mary, I now own the Stokes bird song CDs for Western birds too, so I listened over and over and picked out this Spotted Towhee. It was an amazing call, like two or more different birds or something. The chipping and the trilling just didn't go together in my mind, but -- this great singer pulled it off. So, since we've determined that heard birds are lifers -- I will count this on the list. Begrudgingly. I'm not going to feel really good about it until I see the guy. I'm driving back up there tomorrow!

While driving home in the near darkness, I was lucky enough to see a flock of Wild Turkeys--I counted 11 but there could've been more! I LOVE Wild Turkeys, so I pulled off the road, ran about 200 yards, and snapped these hilariously terrible shots:

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?