A Much Needed POST!

Well, it has been some time since I have added anything to my blog. It is not because I haven’t been trying, I have, but the species just come much more slowly. Here are the most recent additions.

On Sep. 25th I FINALLY caught up to one of those dang, (yet well tailored) Black-throated Gray Warblers #225. Seems that everyone and their dog had been seeing them but I just couldn’t find one of these fine fowl. When I did see it, it was actually with another one, so it suddenly seemed that they were everywhere. Since that day, I have found them to be numerous.

My next addition came in the form of a truly rare bird. I got a call from Steve Howell when he was helping some PRBO, (Point Reyes Bird Observatory) folk on their “Bird-a-Thon”. He had located an Orchard Oriole and a Philadelphia Vireo at the Stinson Beach Parking Lot. This now well-known birding spot has played host to numerous rare birds and these were two more fine finds for the “patch”. The next day, (Sep. 30th), I decided that I would give them a try and see what I could come up with. I rode over at about 9:00 AM and was delighted to see not only David Wimpheimer, (who was doing his Bird-a-Thon by bike), but Jim White and Dave McKinsey as well. The cool thing about this scene was that each of us had come there in hopes of finding these birds AND we had all come long distances BY BIKE, carbon free. That was a first for me! David from Inverness, Jim and Dave from Muir Beach and myself from Bolinas. When I pulled into the parking lot they were already there and were grinning from ear to ear as they “high fived” and gave me the thumbs up! I thought to myself, I’ve got it locked up, they must have seen one or perhaps both of the rare birds. As it turned out they were looking at the Philadelphia Vireo just as I pulled into the parking lot. I went to work scouring the willows, pishing every bird in as well as I could and filtering through every single movement and sound that presented itself. No luck, seconds turned to minutes. Minutes turned to an hour and nothing. The others were getting anxious and wanted to continue on with their day, but I decided to keep at it. I was just about to give up when a Vireo flew across the road and lit on an Alder twig near me and I jerked the binoculars up quickly. It was a Warbling Vireo, the nearly identical cousin of the “Phili”. Right then a second bird flew in to join the first and once again… a Warbling! I climbed onto my bike and was saying my goodbyes to the gang when a THIRD bird came blasting in and that was the magic that I had been waiting for. Philadelphia Vireo! # 226. None of us were able to locate the Orchard Oriole but we all felt immensely satisfied.

My next addition came the next day, (Oct. 1st), at Pine Gulch Creek when Steve and I decided to give the spot a thorough going over. We found ourselves in a rather large feeding flock when Steve spotted a goodie. I looked up to see, realize, identify and enjoy a Nashville Warbler! #227.

Ten days later would find me adding my next species. Check this out! It was late in the day on Oct. 11th and I was getting ready to close up the gallery when I heard an odd “chip” note coming from the neighbors yard. It was a loud, incessant note that really was unusual to me. If I was to describe it, I would say that it was a flat “SHACK” note with a dry front, ending with a hard smacking end. I was intrigued, grabbed the video camera, my “binz”, (short for binoculars) and went into the back yard for a look see. I stood there for a moment not really knowing what to expect and began my repertoire of “squeaks”, “hoots” and “pishes”. Nothing popped up, stirred or responded to my wall of sound. After perhaps 5 minutes of these ridiculous sounds, I was about to give up when a large warbler flew past me of the genus “Oporornis”! I was stunned because this could have several ramifications. The only typically occurring Oporornis we have here in the western US is the MacGillivray’s Warbler and this bird, (assuming the odd sound that I heard was the same bird that I now found flying past my eyes) didn’t sound like any MacGillivray’s Warbler that I had ever heard! Typical of this genus, the bird made a headlong dive into the deepest, darkest patch of impenetrable, thorn shrouded blackberries. I froze solid, continuing to squeak, pish and pray to any GOD that would listen. Well, twas not to be. Knowing that this was in fact an Oporornis and realizing that I have yet to see any species of that genus this year, it will have to go officially onto the Carbon Free Big Year list as an “Oporornis sp.” (species) unknown. #228. My gut feeling is that this bird was a Mourning Warbler, a species that is on the California Bird Record Committee’s review list and is a heck of a rare bird. Oh well, ya can’t win them all!

My last addition was one for the books, that is if the book was entitled “Serendipity Birding”. On the morning of  October 12th, I was on my way to hit Pine Gulch Creek with a vengeance peddling past the row crops that border the road out of town. Suddenly, I spotted my friend and fellow Carbon Free Birding pal Burr Heneman, coming toward me on his bike. We stopped and found that the spot that we crossed paths was the exact spot that we typically meet in the morning when we DO set up plans to meet. Today, however was just fate and I asked if he was going birding or what? He was actually on his way to a breakfast engagement and had to keep moving. Right at that moment I happened to do a quick scan. Way off, (perhaps 300 meters away) I spotted an odd sized bird alone and out on a bit of brush. At that moment a loose flock of Western Meadowlarks sprinkled down around this bird affording me a size relation to this unknown bird. It was larger than any sparrow but not as large as the meadowlarks. I don’t know what came over me but I blurted out “That’s a BOBOLINK”! Burr kind of uttered something along the line of “Come on Keith”! I mean that this bird was quite a long ways away, the lighting was really bad and it is such a rare bird that I was kind of pushing the realm of reason. Burr was just kind of quiet after that. Without warning the mystery bird took wing and began to tower up, up and away. I thought this is not good, as migrants will sometimes stop for a moment or so and then continue on their journey. I noticed that this bird had very ling pointy wings with a short pointy tail to go along with its attenuated “look”.  Thankfully, the bird momentarily lost its wanderlust and dropped back down, but another 100 meters further out in the field, landing on a tall piece of weed. I said “Let’s BLAST over there and get a closer look”! There was some ground to cover and I think I saw Burr look at his watch as he was already late for pancakes and OJ at his friends house. I started moving as fast as I could in hopes that it would stick to its weed. We covered pavement, then dirt, had to slip through a large fence and run about 200 meters. The bird had moved and I was crestfallen. With unbelievable luck I spotted it again, only this time from much closer. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! It was in fact a Bobolink dressed in juvenile plumage! #229. Only a few moments later the need to move on sent this vagrant into the air and I never took my eyes off of it. It climbed up, Up, UP and away as it finally leveled off at around 100 meters and proceeded south-east toward San Francisco and points WELL beyond. Bobolinks don’t stop migrating until they reach southern South America. Burr and I “high fived” and laughed out loud at our luck. He had an appointment to keep and I had more birds to find.

A Willow and a Warbler, but NOT a Willow Warbler

I really wanted to try something a little different today. Sometimes when you do that, you gotta get your feet wet! Well. that’s what I did, jumping in with both of them. Pine Gulch Creek formed my path and like a two legged Salmon, I slogged, waded and headed upstream. I pulled myself through sheer veils of spiderwebs spanning the under surface of logs that I was forced to crawl beneath. Banks of Stinging Nettle, were gingerly parted while tendrils of Blackberries snagged and tore at my ankles. There is something so adventuresome about crawling through the dense and tangled riparian realm and getting scratched up, stuck by broken branches, wet up to your “clyde”, as my father would say, and generally roughed up! When you emerge through a narrow and maze-like green portal, it is simply, well… beautiful! The birds love these places as well as it’s wet, buggy, dappled with light and shadow and provides limitless cover.

Flushing a Green Heron, picking through the flocks of foraging insectivores, ie. warblers, tanagers, flycatchers and spooking Red-shouldered Hawks from their shady resting place were some of my treats for this hard work. At one point, I encountered a very large flock of birds foraging at all levels. The place was buzzing with life as birds sallied out snapping up this or that flying insect, Western Tanagers bathed and flew up to shake off a thousand glistening droplets from their lime green plumage. In the broad leaves of a very large White Alder I caught a movement. It was unfamiliar and familiar at the same time. My first hit was “what’s that white cock-tailed thing”? One second later, it was momentarily visible between translucent panels of green and WHAM! Chestnut-sided Warbler, my old friend! # 223. Here is a familiar face of pale ash with an “Robin hood green” crown and a crisp thin, white “Teddy Roosevelt spectacle” of an eye-ring. Its tail is held up and out, a curious under appreciated feature of this songster of the eastern woodlands. While it lacked the namesake chestnut sides of an adult male, this bird is quite lovely and one I will not soon forget.

I was feeling great after encountering this exquisite lost sole and wasn’t expecting to be treated again to such a face slam when a quick movement grabbed my eye in the next willow. With an audible snap of its bill and a speedy return to its initial foraging perch I knew I would be staring at a flycatcher. Imagine my pleasant surprise when the bird looked at me through eyes that were not encircled with an eye-ring! It could mean only one thing, a Willow Flycatcher, # 224. This threatened species in California is thankfully fairly regular in the fall in west Marin and I was expecting to be blessed by one any day. Today was my day!

Later there was a big lazy adult Bald Eagle that made its presence known in downtown Bolinas as it floated slowly back and fourth as happy folks flowed out of Smilies Schooner Saloon and gazed toward the sky!


One Gift From the North, One From the East, One From the West and one from All Around.

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!

# 218, A 2010 Model Hummer, (Not the Car)

Yesterday, my gallery was blessed with yet another cool hummingbird. It took the form of a Black-chinned Hummingbird! # 218. I am always so excited to have these birds show up that really are quite rare for Marin County. This was the 4th record for the gallery and was enjoyed by Dave DeSante who added it as anew species for his county list. This bird is an immature and showed all of the classic features for this species. Good things to look for are the blunt and broad outer primary flight feathers, especially the longest (10th) primary. In addition the flanks lack the spotted look that all Anna’s should show, but display an even wash of grayish with a touch of buff at the rear, near the legs. The bill is long and slightly curved. The crown is dark on the forehead and green at the hind crown. It was here today and was seen by a few other birders.

What’s Blue & Gray and Catches Gnats? # 217!

Early this morning I received a call from Steve Howell telling me that he had yet another, (or the same) Blue-gray Gnatcatcher visiting his yard. Well, he has them each year near his house in late August and early September and has called me perhaps 4 times with one coming over to his place for a visit. So, I just had to do it.

When I pulled up on my bike he laughed because the bird had simply disappeared. It had been there about 8 minutes before. Seems that a Cooper’s Hawk was perched in a Eucalyptus tree and the gnatcatcher didn’t take too kindly to that situation. Nobody likes having the harbinger of death in their space! So, the bird busied itself, harassing the hawk with scolds of disapproval and as William Leon Dawson once wrote said, “promising redoubled misbehavior”. By the the time Steve returned with his camera, neither bird was to be found. That’s right about when I pulled up on my bike, sweating from the rapid assent and the high temperature. We kicked around the “Euc” for a while but to no avail.

I needed to think like a gnatcatcher! I thought to myself, “Where would I go if I were a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher”? I looked around for their typical habitat which is usually scrub with a good representation of Coyote Brush, and the like. Wading through a few hundred yards of tinder dry, belly-high grass, found me in a nice patch of appropriate growth. I produced a loud “SQUEEK” sound by putting my hand to my lips and created something akin to, oh, let’s say, a mouse having its head taken off. WHAM! # 217. A divine little female popped right up in front of me and came in quick, pivoting this way and that with its expressive black and white tail cocked up at a 45 degree angle. With its high, thin and nasal voice, it proceeded to protest my presence. “Bzzzew, Bzzzzzew”, it said, looking at me through beady black eyes that were encircled with thin round white spectacles. What a fine bird I thought to myself!

A Friendly Redneck & 14 Hens

It has been a while since I have added a new post. That is for a number of reasons. One, is that I have encountered most of the species that have been “available” for someone on a bike. Two, is that there aren’t a lot of new species that show up late in August and three is that I have been quite busy on my book at the gallery. With that said, I have a couple to add to the Carbon Free Big Year.

I got a friendly call from the man who manages the Bolinas Water Treatment Plant who informed me of a Red-necked Phalarope he had seen working one of the ponds that make up this “migrant magnet”. I zipped up there and didn’t find the bird in all the regular haunts. Almost giving up I then changed my strategy and looked closer at the edge of the ponds rather than in the full view of the open water. Phalaropes typically enjoy the open water where they spin quickly in a tight circle, creating a liquid vortex that “vacuums” tiny critters up and to the surface where they pick them out of the water with quick jerking pecks of their slender bills. Scouring the edge of the pond paid off as I spotted the one and only bird actually foraging on foot, an unusual behavior for this species. #215

This morning I rolled out of bed and jumped on my bike and rode up to Point Reyes Station in search of one bird! I knew what I wanted and took a chance. Sure enough I was rewarded with not one, not two but 14 Common Moorhens! #216. These beautiful, coot-like “swamp hens” were located about 1/4 mile north of Point Reyes Station in a small pond. They are very unusual in Marin County, so a number of this size is very encouraging. In addition I rode around Five Brooks Pond where I was happy to see numerous migrant song birds such as Cassin’s Vireo, Townsend’ Warbler and Western Wood-Pewee. Getting back to my gallery by noon, I did a quick count of my mornings list and was happy to see that I had had 91 species in the “AM”.

# 213 A Good’n “N” Deed

Today I received a call from the caretaker of the Bolinas Water Treatment Plant. He informed me that he had seen 3 “phalaropes” today at the ponds. So, after a long day “over the hill” I headed up there on my bike to see what I could see. Well, there weren’t any phalaropes to be found but I was happy to see 1 Northern Pintail and 12 Northern Shovelers, my first back for the fall. So, I came back to the gallery. As I was locking up late this evening, at around 7:30, I saw a large and robust warbler fly low over the barn and dive into the neighbors backyard, but not before it gave a loud and distinctive “CHINK” note! Well, I had a pretty good idea as to what it was! I slipped around back and peeked into their back yard and heard the warbler calling repeatedly, “chink, chink, chink”. I gave a high “squeak” call and the bird came out into view after a couple of long moments. Sure enough, it was a Northern Waterthrush. The bird came very close to me and I kicked myself or not having my video camera. So, I bolted back to the gallery and snagged the magic box. Within a few seconds, I was back at the spot and the darn thing was still calling. So I repeated the squeaking and BAM, the bird blasted into a beautiful fruit tree and gave me a 2 or 3 minute view of it! I got some great video of the bird. The first thing that I wanted to do was to rule out the much more rare, Louisiana Waterthrush. The overall buff yellow and tapered eye-line and cream colored underparts, as well as the fact that it bobbed its tail more in an “up and down” fashion rather than in a “sideways, sashay swish”, were great features for Northern. In addition this bird did not have a large bill and the typical “bubble gum pink” legs of a Louisiana. This was the second one for my gallery and of course was a new carbon free species being #214 for the year.