Posts Tagged ‘Urban Birding’

About a year ago, we had a bit of an invasion in our yard. Rats, in ever growing numbers, were eating the birdseed from the feeders in our backyard (and also eating just about everything else they could find). So, to make the area less hospitable, we decided to take down the bird feeders and so remove the birdseed as a food source. Let me me tell you, I really missed having birds frequenting the yard to eat!

But it worked! We removed all the food sources we could find and trapped the rats like crazy for quite a while, and we have not seen a rat in a couple of months. So we, tentatively, refilled the bird feeders and rehung them in the yard.

Once the feeders were rehung, I was curious to see how long it would take for them to be rediscovered, and which species would be the first to notice and take advantage of this food source. For the first two days the feeders went ignored, but on the third day a flash of feathers dropped onto the pole that the feeders hang from.

It was an Oak Titmouse!

Oak Titmouse (Photo by Aaron N.K. Haiman)

The titmouse looked the feeders over from its perch on the top of the pole, and then flew off without dropping down to actually take a seed; its exit just and sudden and purposeful as its arrival. Just a few minutes later the flash of feathers appeared again, and once again there was an Oak Titmouse on the top of the pole. This time the titmouse did drop down to one of the feeders, grabbed a sunflower seed, and rapidly departed. A few minutes after that, the flash of feathers occurred once again, and again there was a titmouse on the pole. This time, it only paused there a moment before going for a seed, and while it did so, a different flash of feathers appeared! A second Oak Titmouse joined the first on the feeder, each bird took a sunflower seed, and both flew off. The two birds, very likely a mated pair, visited the feeder numerous more times that afternoon and evening.

Watching these birds appear to drop out of nowhere so suddenly is such fun! They are so filled with character and curiosity that watching them investigate the bird feeders and the rest of the surroundings is a constant source of entertainment, and they fly in so fast and with so little warning, and then leave so abruptly, that each flight coming or going is a surprise and gives me a thrill of excitement.

The Oak Titmouse pair has continued to be frequent visitors to the feeders. They have been joined, so far, by a handful of House Finches, a California Scrub-Jay, a pair of Mourning Doves, and a pair of Lesser Goldfinches.

It is hard to put into word just how happy I am to have birds back in the yard! I just hope the rats stay away.

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A few mornings ago, I was sitting at our kitchen table eating breakfast with my family. As we eat and talked, I looked out through the sliding glass door toward the bird feeders we have hanging out there. This time of year, our feeders get some pretty good activity. As I watched, the usual House Finches, White-crowned Sparrows, Golden-crowned Sparrows (a lot of them this winter), and Mourning Doves were poking around eating sunflower seeds.

But then something amazing happened! A bird hooped up to the top of the wall that defines one side of our yard. This bird was new. This bird was slightly smaller than the White-crowned Sparrows (which are themselves slightly smaller than the Golden-crowned Sparrows). This bird had a clear, white triangular patch at its throat. This bird was a White-throated Sparrow!

Photos - White-throated Sparrow - Zonotrichia albicollis - Birds of the  World
A tan morph White-throated Sparrow like the one I that visited my yard (Photo credit: Birds of the World).

White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia ablicollis) are a mostly eastern species. A spattering spend their winters on the west coast, but not many and finding one is always a real treat. This is the first White-throated Sparrow I have ever seen in our yard making the 75th bird species to be added to the yard list!

This species has a bunch traits that make it a bit odd and very interesting. One is the there are two different color morphs, one with white stripes on the head, and other has tan stripes. A related oddity is how these color morphs (which are genetically determined) are maintained in the population. Males of both morph prefer females that have white stripes, but females of both morphs prefer males with tan stripes. A final oddity is that White-throated Sparrows sometimes breed with Dark-eyed Juncos! The two species are not particularly closely related, nor do they look or sound alike. I have never seen one of these hybrids, but I really want to.

Like I said, a really odd and interesting bird, my favorite member of the genus, and a very exciting visitor!

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Phoebes 02

A Black Phoebe

I have been writing a monthly article for a set of three neighbor magazines for the past couple of years now. These magazines are distributed to a handful of east bay neighborhoods. I have shared one or two of the articles in previous posts, and am thinking of doing so more regularly, so here is the article on Phoebes that I wrote for the November issue of Berkeley Hills Living, Monclair Living, and Piedmont Living magazines.

Berkeley Hills Living – November 2019 Issue

Phoebes 01

A Say’s Phoebe

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I have been spending a decent amount of my birding time, recently, going to local spots near my house and seeing what is flying and hopping around there. In so doing, I have been thinking a lot about how much time it takes to really know a place.

While looking at eBird, the worldwide birding database run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, I found that it has some really interesting and fun ways of depicting the data that birders have entered. One such was are the bar charts that eBird will generate for any birding site. If you do so, you will see that eBird lists what species have been seen at a particular location (Yellow-rumped Warbler, Swainson’s Hawk, etc.) and also the frequency that this species is encountered (every list submitted has Yellow-rumped Warbler, but only a quarter of the list submitted include Swainson’s Hawk, etc.). By looking over this type of data you can get a sense of when birds show up and how often they do so. You would be able to see that at some of the sites near me in West Sacramento, CA, that there are a lot of Yellow-rumped Warblers that are seen very frequently in the non-breeding season, but that they leave in the breeding season. You would notice that in the breeding season there are Swainson’s Hawks around, but not as many individuals as Yellow-rumped Warblers, and that the Swainson’s Hawks leave in the non-breeding season.

Having all this information at our fingertips is pretty awesome! But, when you start to look at what it takes to get this data, you will notice that it is a lot of work! You will also notice how many holes there still are in these datasets.

Picture, if you will, a favorite birding spot. Some place that you go to often and feel that you know quite well. Hold that favorite spot in your mind as we go forward. EBird organizes a lot if its data by week. So there are four weeks in each month. That means that to create a compete record of birds with a full set of data points on the chart for your special spot, you will need to go once per week for a year, or 52 times. And even that will only give you one observation for each of those weeks. To really get a sense of the bird community at your favorite birding spot, you should probably go more than once. So, if you want a more realistic picture of the birds at your favorite birding spot, you will need to go something like 100 times! And that is just to a single location. How many birding spots out three have you visited 100 times? I have a few, but not many.

To really know a place requires a significant effort. Sure, after a visit or two, you may have a pretty good idea of the kinds of birds you might find there, but in any detail. That does not come easily. That requires time and energy. But it is so eminently worth the time and energy! If you know a place in all its seasons, in all its moods, you will develop a special bond with that piece of land. You will have a better understanding of that particular corner of the world than any other. And that is no small accomplishment!

So go out to your local, special, favorite birding spots, and go often. Forge your bonds!

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The Great Backyard Bird Count is fast approaching! Every year, birders take to their yards and have a look around. This is the essence of the Great Backyard Bird Count, or GBBC as it is sometimes referred to. The idea is that, like a Christmas bird count or breeding bird survey, individuals can all contribute to a snapshot of bird activity over a large geographic area. This year, the dates are between February 12th and 15th. By comparing these snapshots over time, a lot of amazing observations can be made.

One of the great things about the GBBC is that it is so easy to participate in. You do not need to drive far, there is no difficult terrain to overcome, you don’t even have to get in touch with an organizer in advance and tell them you are coming! All you need to do is go to your backyard and count birds for as long or short a period of time as you like, and then post the list of what you saw online. That’s it!

One of things that makes the GBBC special is its place in the history of birding. In 1988, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society got together and launched a project where individual birders could individually count birds and then put them online. Now remember, in 1988 birding was not very digital. This was actually the first time that a nation wide attempt like this had ever been made! It was a huge success, and the GBBC took off. Even larger efforts like eBird may not have happened if not the pioneering idea of the GBBC. The rise of citizen science was likewise fueled by the success of the GBBC.

This year, the GBBC has a theme: Take someone birding! The idea this year is to share birding with someone else. Maybe it is someone who has never birded before. Maybe it is someone how birds, but does not add sighting to online databases. Maybe it is someone how is a serious birder who you simply don’t go birding with very often. Whatever the case may be, this year (starting tomorrow) go out and bird with someone!

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As the first part of a longer trip, I recently spent a few days in Dublin, Ireland. My wife, daughter, brother, sister-in-law, and I rented a nice little apartment in the Portobello neighborhood. Portobello is a small, cute, and up-and-coming section of the city south the River Liffey. It is bounded by South Circular Rd. to the north and the Grand Canal to the south. The spot we were staying in was right along the Grand Canal near the Camden St. bridge. As soon as we unloaded our luggage from the cab, I spotted a Pied Wagtail foraging on the other side of the street. It then turned and flew right past my head, so I figured we were in for some fun birding!

The small square just outside our apartment. The Grand Canal is just in front of the buildings in the background.

The small square just outside our apartment. The Grand Canal is just in front of the buildings in the background.

It was a lovely neighborhood to get to explore, and explore we did! Jetlag took its toll as did the loud revelers that spilled from the pubs each morning at between 2 and 4. This meant that some of the exploring we did was much earlier than we might have otherwise planned. Dublin is much farther north than central California, and so I was very impressed to find dawn brightening the sky at 4am on these excursions! These early morning walks were not in vain in terms of wildlife. My wife and daughter and I watched a Grey Heron hunting in the canal and catching some surprisingly large fish for how urban the area is. We also were surprised to see a Red Fox walking along the edge of a nearby house. It was no less surprised to see us and dashed around a corner and into a garden. We saw Jackdaws every day, and these attractively proportioned birds with there subtle dove grey napes quickly became my favorite life-bird of Ireland. Something about having a crow the size of a pigeon also made them especially endearing to me.

The corvids in general were pretty amazing along the Grand Canal. In addition to the Jackdaws, we saw Rooks with their dramatically long thin bills along with European Magpies and Hooded Crows. They all tended to hang around the groups of Rock Pigeons (cool to see them as native species), European Herring Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls waiting from someone to come along and drop bread crumbs for them.

When we got away from the canal and into the neighborhoods, there were many beautiful gardens which produced a delightful array of new bird species. Grey Wagtails, Blue Tits, a whole family of Great Tits, Dunnock, a family of European Wrens, European Blackbird, Woodpigeon, European Swifts cutting the air to pieces over our heads, and a family of Coal Tits foraging in a bush at eye level and not ten feet away!

A view up Harcourt St. looking north.

A view up Harcourt St. looking north.

We also got away from the Portobello area to explore more of central Dublin, St. Stephen’s Green, Grafton Street and Harcourt Street, and the very birdy Merrion Square. If you spend some time in central Dublin, definitely plan on spending some time birding Merrion Square. It has more dense  and varied vegetation than the larger St. Stephen’s Green and had much denser and more varied birdlife. And then go and have a wonderful Irish breakfast at the Grove Road which is a terrific café just across the Grand Canal.

One thing that really surprised me about birding in Dublin was the complete lack of raptors. In most cities in California, I am used to seeing the occasional bird of prey go zooming by. Granted, there may not be a lot of raptors in many cities, but I am pretty sure that after spending three days in San Francisco or Sacramento, I would be just about guaranteed to see at least one individual. But in Dublin, I saw not a one. It was a little weird. Even after we got out of the city, there were surprisingly few raptors on this trip.

Overall, I was pretty pleased with my first trip to Ireland and the time spent in it’s capitol city. I only wish we had had more time there.

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Early March is a wonderful time in the central valley of California. It is becoming warmer, although this year it never really got that cold. A few rain showers bring welcome and much needed moisture to a region entering its fourth year of drought. The calla lilies are blooming and the first jasmine blossoms give the air the faintest hint of their wonderful, soft fragrance, a fragrance that will become much stronger over the course of the month. A few days ago, I saw my first Swainson’s Hawk of the year. These birds are just returning to the area after flying from as far a way as Argentina, and will be setting up their territories soon. Another first of spring that occurred a few days ago was my first Valley Carpenter Bee. It was a beautiful black female flying from flower to flower. Soon there will be lots of these large friendly bees zooming around. As my two-year-old daughter and I play in our front yard, yesterday, we watch a pair of Bushtits searching through one of the oaks that line the edge of the lawn. A pair of Bushtits (the same birds?) have built their hanging pendulum of a nest and raised a clutch of babies in this same oak tree for the past two years. Will this be year number three? Laying on the lawn, we find the remains of last year’s nest which has only now fallen from where it hung. The long sock-like construction of moss and lichen and feathers all held together by spider silk is soft to the touch and impressively flexible and elastic! We also see American Crows starting work on their nest. The pair, and a few helpers, have chosen to nest near the top of one of the redwood tress in a neighbor’s yard. Some crows (again, maybe the same ones?) nested in this same tree two years. Last year they moved about 100 meters away and nested in a pine, but now they are back to their redwood tucking sticks together just a few feet from the top of the tree. While this breeding activity is ramping up, there are still many winter birds readying themselves for their vernal migration away from the central valley. Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Yellow-rumped Warblers call as they forage in the trees finding insects and building up energy reserves for the trip to the breeding grounds and the marathon that is a birds breeding season. Cedar Waxwings are also still around in fairly high numbers. Recently, there have been so many in the sycamore trees right outside our door that their high-pitched calling becomes a constant background noise behind any other activity. So much to watch and enjoy. I hope early March where you are is just as fascinating and enriching.

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Last week, on my birthday, I went out to bird along the Clarksberg Branchline Trail in West Sacramento, Ca. I was out on the trail at 6:30 just before dawn and wandered around for about an hour. The section of the trail that I was birding is really close to my condo and as such is a spot that I bird pretty frequently. This morning was one of those mornings that reminded me of why it so special, and important, to get out to places close to where you live and see what is happening in the world.

It was a great morning of birding. I saw a Red-breasted Sapsucker searching for food high in a oak, found many Varied Thrushes foraging in the leaf litter for insects and worms, watched a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks as they flew screaming across an open field straight towards me to land in a tree right over my head, and found a White-throated Sparrow (an unusual winter visitor to the west coast and my favorite member of the genus Zonotrichia) hanging out with a group of Golden-crowned Sparrows! The birds were wonderful, and I was right around the corner from my house, and only there for an hour! You do not need to work hard for great birding.

These small, local birding explorations are not grand adventures. They are not exhilarating chases to see some incredibly rare species. They do not generally produce stupendously high species totals. But what they are is the bread and butter of birding experiences. They keep us in touch with the movements and pulses of the natural world right around where we live. Pulses that can go unnoticed all too easily in our modern busy lives. These local explorations give us the one-the-ground knowledge of what creatures are living next door, of how the environment changes from season to season and year to year, of exactly where a given bird can be found and what they like in a habitat. This is not knowledge that can be obtained easily, and it is knowledge that can be of great import. So get out to visit the local spots that are close to you and keep an eye on what is going on. you never know what you are going to find!

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I was walking along the edge of a plowed field along the Clarksberg Branchline Trail in West Sacramento a couple of days ago when I saw a hatch year Northern Harrier quartering back and forth, low over the ploughed earth. The raptor was not very far from the edge where I stood, so I was able to get a really great view as I watched it coursing along and staring at the ground intently as it hunted for its breakfast. Suddenly, it made a sharp turn, almost flipping over itself, and dove for the ground. It landed on something and after a moment standing on the ground, it took off. As it did so, I saw a small, brown object in its talons. I assumed at first that it was a small mammal, and that the Harrier had made a successful hunt, but when the bird was about 20 feet off the ground, it dropped the brown object. As the thing dropped back to the earth, I was able to see that it was not an animal at all, but was actually a clod of dirt.

What had happened here? Did the Harrier make a mistake and attack a mouse-shaped bit of dirt thinking that it was, in fact, the makings of a meal? Given how amazingly keen the eyesight that raptors possess this seems unlikely. And it seems especially unlikely given that the bird was only about 20 or 30 feet off the ground when it started the dive. Making that big a mistake at that close a range is hard to believe. So what was the hawk doing? Was it practicing? This was a young Harrier. Perhaps, not seeing any actual voles or mice at that moment, it decided to do a little target practice. I don’t think of raptors needing practice, but of course that is probably kind of silly. Young songbirds need to practice their song, and often sound amusingly bad at first. However, of the course of a few weeks, they practice and hone their vocal abilities and end up producing songs that sound like the other adults of the species. So, raptors practicing their hunting skills seems pretty understandable. The amount of skill required to be a predator is rather impressive, and even when you consider that many of these skills are hard-wired instinct, that still leaves a lot of room for learning and improvement: practice. Here was a raptor that, perhaps, just picked a particular earth clod on the ground and wanted to see if it could hit it at high speed, just to see if it could. It did, so that practice run was successful! Practice does make perfect!

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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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