I have had the remarkable privilege and life enriching pleasure to meet one of the worlds most acclaimed bird artist’s, Sweden’s Lars Jonsson. I received a call from my friend Peter Pyle asking me if I would like to meet Lars and his wife Ragnhild. They were traveling through California and wanted to meet with Peter to talk about various aspects of bird molt, which Peter is an expert on. I, of course said “YES”!!! As it turned out they came up the next day and my wife and I hosted them at our home in Bolinas. We were all joined by Steve Howell (who just came out with a new book on Molt in North American Birds) as well as Burr Heneman for a wonderful dinner. Lars, upon arriving at our place, quickly found a spot where he had a nice view of some Western Gulls, pulled out his sketch book and watercolors and began to paint an immature bird that was sleeping on the mud flat. In no more than 20 minutes, he had created the most beautiful image of a bird that I think most of us simply glance over.
The next day we all went birding down at Pine Gulch Creek on the edge of the Bolinas Lagoon. I couldn’t have been more excited to have spent time with these two delightful people. Upon entering the willow and alder forest that borders the stream, we quickly became aware that there had been some large movement of birds the night before. The trees were alive with the sounds of vireos, warblers and flycatchers. A Fox Sparrow popped up, the seasons first, followed by grosbeaks and tanagers. Suddenly Steve called out “CANADA WARBLER”! Sure enough, some 12 feet up in the alders was this subtly marked and quite “Wilson’s Warbler-like” bird with very subdued plumage. This gift from the north, #219 was a rare treat as I have seen perhaps 6 or 7 in Marin County. We moved through the trees and out on to the delta to look at the molt of gulls and waterfowl. Lars and the boys “dug deep” into some very interesting concepts, debates and theories on the subtle variations of birds plumages. After that we let Lars enjoy the serenity of the area by letting him go off on his own to sketch and paint. When he came home that evening he had some beautiful images of immature California Gulls and Elegant Tern.
The next morning they headed up to Yosemite and then beyond, out to the Rocky Mountains. Since that meeting with a master, I have been so inspired and have been enjoying the out of doors with an enriched and renewed spirit.
Yesterday the 13th of September, I headed back to my favorite patch and birded it hard. On the way past the large plowed field near the Bolinas Elementary School I decided to do some scanning and was rewarded with a bird that I had hoped to see there for many years. Way off in the distance I spotted a kingbird fly-catching from some old fence posts. I ditched my bike in the blackberry bushes, careful not to puncture the tires and made my way, way-away across this large field. As I got closer to this yellow bellied bird I quickly realized that its tail was missing! This presented a problem. Having a very pale ashy colored breast assured me that this was not a Cassin’s Kingbird, so it would be a matter of figuring whether the bird was a Western or a Tropical Kingbird. The problem is that the key feature for these two species lies in tail. The Western has a square black tail with crisp white outer tail feathers and the Tropical possesses a very dark gray, forked tail, with no white. There was only one thing that I could do to lock down the id. I had to get very close to determine the bill size. The Western has a rather small bill while the Tropical is blessed with a real honker. This bird was on the move and was covering ground. At one point a VERY large, lime green katydid sprang up from the weeds and made the fatal error of, well, being seen! The kingbird was on it like winged metal to a flying magnet, and BLAM, that was it. The leggy creature flapped and clawed at the predators head but with a few quick smacks, the squirming meal was dispatched. Next it was dismembered and consumed by a kingbird with a rather small bill. This gift from the west, a Western Kingbird was #220. Later that day I also had a Bairds’ Sandpiper on the tip of Sea Drift as well as a Parasitic Jaeger messing with Elegant Terns. A “funny” juvenile bunting has shown up at my gallery with marks that look as if it may be a hybrid between a Lazuli and an Indigo Bunting.
Today I winged my way back to Pine Gulch as this patch has been very good to me lately and it didn’t disappoint! I arrived at the multicolored bridge that crosses the creek and the VERY FIRST bird that I looked at was a gift from the east, Tennessee to be exact! This crisp lime green Tennessee Warbler # 221. I pushed on past many migrants as I birded hard to try and pull out something else that would be new. Although there were many migrants, it wasn’t until I reached the delta that I would be blessed with a gift “from all around”. This came in the form of a first year Common Tern, # 222! This tired looking sterna was out scaled by the gulls that crowded around. I got close enough to see the longer legs and bigger bill that ruled out Arctic Tern and then backed off without scaring it off. The quest continues!