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Archive for September, 2014

On the morning of the 19th, I was out birding in the early morning along the Clarksberg Branchline Trail in West Sacramento. I was poking around the section of trail just north of Lake Washington Blvd. from about 6:20am to 7:30am. It was one of those morning where I decided to not worry about covering a lot of ground. Instead, I wanted to take my time, relax, and covered the ground thoroughly really investigating each bird I heard or saw and taking my time to enjoy it. I was rewarded by some lovely views and fun finds. My species list is at the end.

Right as I started my walk, I saw a long, slim animal run out from the edge of the blackberry tangle along the trail ahead of me. It stopped out in the open for a short moment and then continued on towards the large pond just east of the trail. To my surprise, I realized that it was a Mink! I have seen River Otters at this location before, but never a Mink. What was it doing here? As I scanned the pond, there were no birds swimming in the water except three domestic ducks that were probably dumped here to become feral. As I stood by the water’s edge, I head several birds in one of the willows that grow right on the bank. I walked that way, and found a Marsh Wren singing in the cattails and my first White-crowned Sparrow of the fall for West Sacramento! It was a really good looking  adult bird that was sitting in, and calling from, that willow. Soon the Central Valley will be covered in millions of White-crowned Sparrows back from their breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska to spend a comparatively warm winter in lovely California.

As the sun rose, beautifully tinged blood red by the smoke from the King Fire that is burning just east of Sacramento, I stumbled my way into a mixed insectivore flock. At this time of year, with migrants and vagrants wandering all over the country, mixed insectivore flocks are always worth spending some time with. Often, many birds will come together to forage, and this can attract individuals of species that you might not get to see otherwise. In this case, the bulk of the birds were Bushtits, maybe 25 of them, which were streaming from oak tree to oak tree giving their high pitched contact calls as they told each other where they were. As I watched these tinny birds, I started to notice the other species in the flock. A Western Scrub-Jay, a coupe of Northern Mockingbirds, and a lovely pair of Black-throated Gray Warblers which came low in some small trees and afforded me some great looks! The day ended with a total of 5 of these warblers which is a lot compared to what I am used to seeing in winter, which is just one or two.

After I left the mixed flock, I walked out into an open field that had been mowed and tilled. As I walked along the line of tree that marks the edge of this field I was treated to a fast triple-raptor encounter. First, a Swainson’s Hawk took off from one of the tree tops and doove down into the field. It pulled up before landing, apparently the prey animal it had seen got under cover in time to avoid becoming breakfast for the hawk, and returned to its perch. right after that a Red-tailed Hawk came barreling of the line of trees and cruised over the field and away. As I was watching the Red-tail, a Red-shouldered Hawk started calling behind me. It was circling at about tree top level and proclaiming dominion over this patch of ground. The Red-shouldered Hawk is a resident bird that I see almost every time I bird this area. The Swainson’s Hawk breeds nearby somewhere, but then leaves, with the rest of it’s species members, to head south in winter which is something that will be happening soon. The Red-tail could go either way in that it could be a resident or a migrant just here for the summer. How these different hawks interact and adjust to one another is a question that has long interested me. Take the Red-shoulder, for instance. It has a territory that it defends year-round. Suddenly, in mid-March this Swainson’s Hawk shows up trying to find a place to settle and nest. How does the Red-shoulder respond? Does it simply move out of the larger hawks way? Do the birds compete and adjust their territory boundaries to one another? Do these birds eat different enough foods that they don’t really care about each other? And then, how does the Red-tailed Hawk fit into all this? How resident birds adjust to the comings and goings of migrants is not something that has gotten a lot of attention and I think could make for a really cool research project.

Looking at the open field with the naked eye, I did not see anything out there, but just on a whim I decided to give it a scan with my binoculars. As I looked slowly across the field I saw no less than 15 Killdeer scattered about foraging. So much an empty field! It reminded me that a lot can be hiding and go unnoticed when only a cursory inspection is done.

This was a really nice morning birding. I saw some beautiful birds that got me thinking about interesting ideas and taught me a thing or two all at the same time.

Double-crested Cormorant (1)

Turkey Vulture (1)

Canada Goose (12)

Red-shouldered Hawk (1)

Red-tailed Hawk (1)

Swainson’s Hawk (1)

Killdeer (15)

Western Gull (3)

Rock Pigeon (70)

Mourning Dove (20)

Anna’s Hummingbird (3)

Belted Kingfisher (1)

Nuttall’s Woodpecker (4)

Black Phoebe (3)

Western Scrub-Jay (11)

American Crow (12)

Oak Titmouse (4)

Bushtit (25)

Bewick’s Wren (3)

Marsh Wren (1)

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (1)

American Robin (5)

Northern Mockingbird (2)

European Starling (30)

Cedar Waxwing (8)

Orange-crowned Warbler (5)

Black-throated Gray Warbler (5)

Spotted Towhee (2)

California Towhee (1)

White-crowned Sparrow (1)

Red-winged Blackbird (30)

Mink (1)

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It is almost here. The time of year when birds poise themselves on the brink of migration. The time of year when we birders poise ourselves on the brink of madness. That’s right, it’s Bird-A-Thon time!

The birds are getting restless and are already beginning to move, setting in motion that awesome event, the fall migration. It has been happening almost exactly the same way for millions of years, and it is still a feat that boggles the human imagination. Here are birds, far smaller than you or I. They have no machines to aid them, only muscle and sinew. They have no maps to guide them, only the stars. They go. Many of them will travel vast distances in the next few weeks, leaving their nesting grounds in the north and heading to warmer, food abundant climates to the south. And we will be there as witnesses.

Each year teams of birders ready themselves for the fall. These teams pick a day and go out in search of the avian wanderers as they pass by; keeping tallies of who stops to visit. On September 27th 2014, we will be doing just that. We are the Drake’s Beach Sanderlings, the youth Bird-A-Thon team of Point Blue Conservation Science (PBCS). This year will be the fourteenth year that the Sanderlings have taken to the field, and in the past they have been wild successes. This year the team will include Ellen Blustein, Aaron Haiman, Pierre Beaurang, Alexandra Beaurang, and Lyell Nesbitt.

As in past years, this is not only an opportunity to see beautiful birds, learn as much about migration patterns and identification as possible, and spend time in great company. It is also a time to give. The Point Blue Conservation Science (formerly PRBO) is a recognized leader in conservation of avian biodiversity and the ecosystems that they, and we, depend upon. To do this requires money. It takes money to keep the banding stations running as they monitor population trends. It takes money to assess the loss of habitat that urban development causes. It takes money to set aside critical habitat and so insure that future fall migrations will continue this millions-of-years tradition. Funding is often hard to come by, and so we ask you, birders, environmentalists, friends, to become sponsors of our team and PBCS. Now, don’t think we won’t work for those donations. You can pledge a fixed sum, or you can tell us that you will give a small amount for every species we see. That way we will have a large incentive indeed to try our hardest to find every last species we can. In the past we have seen around 150 species, so a pledge of $0.20 per species will mean a total donation of around $30. Any amount that you can give will be valuable and tremendously appreciated, and donating is easy. Just go to: https://www.kintera.org/faf/search/searchTeamPart.asp?ievent=1118295&lis=1&kntae1118295=89648BD5B2F64505AD1AABAC044E8624&supId=411570464&team=6077664 and click on the ‘Donate Now’ button on the right side of the page. Your donation will aid the cause of bird conservation throughout the western hemisphere, and you will help to inspire the birding leaders of tomorrow!

 Thank you for your support,

 Aaron Haiman and the members of the Drake’s Beach Sanderlings

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One hundred years ago today (September 1st, 1914) Martha died in her cage at the Cincinnati Zoo. She was the last member of a species that had once been the most numerous species of bird in the world, the Passenger Pigeon. Flocks of these birds would darken the sty when they passed, and streaming flocks of Passenger Pigeons could take days to go by. Martha’s death marked a moment that often goes unnoticed and unremarked. The moment of extinction. The moment when a lineage of organisms, children to parents to grandparents, through millions of generations, ends, never to continue. it is a sobering moment. A moment for reflection. What is the cost of a species going extinct? For the Passenger Pigeon, there were certainly economic costs. Many people gained their livelihoods by hunting huge numbers of these birds for sale to restaurants and individuals. Railways made money transporting these birds from the field to cities. Restaurants made money selling dishes of Passenger Pigeon to their customers. These economic venues might still be operating if the Passenger Pigeon had been harvest sustainably, and not wiped out as fast as the hunters could kill them. But there are other costs as well. You and I will never get to see a live Passenger Pigeon. My daughter will never get to see one. There is a cost to the limiting of experiences. An impoverishment of exposure. It is hard to impossible to put a dollar amount on this cost, but it is a cost none the less. And what did we gain? Aldo Leopold, speaking at the dedication of the Passenger Pigeon Monument, said “This, then, is a monument to a bird we have lost, and to a doubt we have gained.” The doubt Leopold went on to explain, was the doubt that the gains of human progress were always worth the costs. That increasing human demands, and the associated increasing pressures on wilderness and all other species, were worth it if the lives of humans became better. But what if those gains are not worth it? What if we could be happier with what we have and not strive for more, always more? Is there some point when making a few more things go a little bit faster is not worth the loss of a pigeon? I think there is. I think we need to remember Martha and the rest of her species and doubt the actions of our species a bit more.

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