Birds of Australia

I didn’t go to Australia to go birding – tennis, beach resort, Sydney sights and hiking were on the agenda – but I did take my binox and had some good moments. On Lord Howe Island I counted 24 of the species pictured in that island’s field guide, missing only four. Most were found feeding in the extensive grass fields in the island’s midlands, so it was just a matter of checking them off. A boat ride to Ball’s Pyramid added a few seabirds to the list, although I doubt I could’ve identified any on my own.
In the Blue Mountains I cancelled my bird guide, partly for logistical reasons but partly because after a morning hike with a naturalist I was discouraged about finding many birds in the rain-forest habitat. Instead, the next morning I went out on my own before breakfast, and in the park across from our hotel saw my first Laughing Kookaburra sitting calmly on a tree branch. Crimson Rosellas were conspicuous by their call as well as their bright red plumage, and I saw a pair of King-Parrots, which I’d briefly seen with our guide the day before. Walking down the road I saw a Crested Pigeon, a very obvious identification, sitting atop a TV antenna. Then, darting in and out of a dense bush, I spotted a Satin Bowerbird, a male along with an equally identifiable female. These weren’t a lot of birds, but being able to make the identification on my own made them memorable and thrilling. As we neared the end of our morning hike, we stopped at a lookout over one of the many falls at Katoomba. I spotted a White-throated Treecreeper working its way along a branch; then a Rose Robin with a striking pink breast and white forehead patch perched nearby.
There were, of course, the common birds that we saw in the cities: White Ibis, Silver Gull, Australian Magpie, Common Myna. It all goes to prove that I don’t need a lot of birds to keep me happy. I just like to know what it is I’m seeing.

Sands Beach Birds

As often as I go to Sands Beach at UCSB for Western Snowy Plover docent duty, I still get surprises. This Thanksgiving Matt Hall joined me for my 11-1 shift and we had a memorable outing. For one thing, the wind was fierce, making a 73-degree day bone-chillingly cold. Nothing could be seen floating, but flocks of shorebirds, including the Snowies, took off and swerved in unison over the heavy waves. A Killdeer greeted our arrival on the beach, and four Marbled Godwits were poking in the sand near the docent station. I can’t remember seeing so many Snowy Plovers nestling in the sand: the blackboard said that 225 had been counted recently. Of course, Black-bellied Plovers were massively abundant, but there were fewer Semipalmated Plovers than I expected. There was a Western Grebe, quite dead, sprawled on the sand; four Turkey Vultures took turns approaching their Thanksgiving meal.
While watching the Snowies, we saw one, then two, stockier, browner birds picking at the wrack: Dunlins. One smaller sandpiper with light legs wandered by, probably a Least Sandpiper. Vees of Brown Pelicans soared in the wind, and a lone Whimbrel joined other birds at the water’s edge. The day’s highlight was a majestic Peregrine Falcon that landed on a log in the protected area of the Slough and sat there as we approached the edge of the fenced-off area. Its black hood set off the bright yellow above the upper beak and on the powerful talons. It showed off its darting flight before re-alighting on the log, then eventually took off inland, scattering songbirds in front of it.
We headed down to Coal Oil Point where the exposed rocks held a mass of birds, mostly Western Gulls, but also a bunch of Willets and more Black-bellied Plovers. One red-billed Heermann’s Gull settled in, and four Royal Terns grandly faced into the wind, in front of eight diminutive, by comparison, Forster’s Terns. As we headed back, we saw a single, larger gull standing at water’s edge: a Glaucous-winged Gull, a treat.
As we drove out, something on the dirt road attracted both a Black Phoebe and a Say’s Phoebe, along with White-crowned Sparrows and a California Towhee. And Devereux Slough, which had been bone dry a week ago, had water from Wednesday night’s rain and ducks had descended – from where? – mostly Mallards but also American Wigeon, Coot, six Redheads and a single female Ring-necked Duck. One Domestic Mallard, slightly larger and white-fronted, stood out among the others. Double-crested Cormorants and Black-necked Stilts, regular Slough denizens, rounded out the company.
Back home on Lilac Drive I was happy to find Townsend’s and Orange-crowned Warblers mixing in with the Yellow-Rumps and Ruby-crowned Kinglets. Everyone seems to be pointing to the Christmas Bird Counts starting in three weeks.

May Birds ’18-’19

Warblers were scarce in Central Park this spring (2019), although I hear that I missed the best day, May 16. I never came across a “wave”: I generally spotted isolated individuals and never saw more than eight species a day. If there was a highlight, it was coming across 2 Canada and 1 Mourning Warbler on a late trip to the park, May 29, and the continuing sound of Blackpolls the last week of May. The Mourning – which I’ve seen only once before, briefly, with Paul Egeland at 3610 Northome Rd – jumped up to the border fence along a path, then quickly flew off into the brush toward the lake. His gray head contrasting sharply with olive back was vivid. The first Canada I saw was a singing male, just west of Azalea Pond. Otherwise, the dominant sound, apart from the Robins, was the song of the Wood Thrush, back and forth through the woods. All month, the thrushes were prominent – Veery, Hermit and Swainson’s in addition to Wood, and I tentatively identified a Gray-Cheeked, based on its lack of eye-ring and any auburn coloring around the cheek and throat. There was one warbler that arrived en masse: the Ovenbird. At one point (5/14?) they were so underfoot it was hard not to step on them.

2018: May is, appropriately, the season for the May Apple in the Central Park Ramble, also the Virginia Bluebell. And May is the time the warblers, at least this year with its late spring, arrive species-by-species, with the males in the vanguard. On May 1 I counted four warblers, led by the easy-to-spot Black and White. The highlight of May 2 was watching three species in full song: Prairie, Black-throated Blue and Northern Waterthrush. Today the Park was alive with the song of the Northern Parula, which I pronounce by accenting the first syllable while the consensus seems to have settled on the second. Just like I say “Plover” rhymes with “hover,” while others prefer “clover.” The other new treats were close and prolonged views of the Magnolia and Black-throated Green, both quiet. You do wonder about warbler names: have I ever seen a Magnolia in such a tree? and where is the “green” on the Black-throated Green? So far, I’m up to 14 warbler species, with many obvious, and some less so, to come. Interestingly, the flood of Yellow-Rumps that usually precede the warbler wave by a week showed up just today.
In other bird news, today I saw my first Chimney Swift of the year. From my birding in the ‘60s I associate Chimney Swifts with Memorial Day and the end of spring. Great Crested Flycatchers, too. Maybe this fellow was early. Or maybe it’s climate change.
May 6 was cool and gray, and both birds and birders, despite its being Sunday, were sparse. I saw 10 warbler species, but for most it was a single example. The newcomer was the Chestnut-sided: there were a couple and they were singing. High in an oak I saw a Rose-breasted Grosbeak and an Indigo Bunting, but the wave, if there is to be one, is still to come.

Fall Birding in Central Park

Fall birding is not about numbers; it’s about the special birds you see when you’re not really expecting them. On my first two October visits to Central Park – October 2 and 7 – I logged 34 fairly predictable species, although a male Black-throated Blue Warbler was a bit of a surprise. A week later, October 13, the Park was quieter and leaves were falling away, but one-by-one I had special sightings. First was a Carolina Wren, high in trees above. I had seen his cousin, the Winter Wren, on bpth previous visits, but I was delighted to get another good view, as he hopped onto the fence along the path. Then, a pair of Blue-headed Vireos passing through. A Golden-crowned Kinglet – always a favorite – darted onto a tree in front of me. Those, plus possible Blackburnian Warbler and Cooper’s Hawk sightings, gave me a good day, I thought, as I departed the Ramble. On my way out I diverted onto Cedar Hill without further expectations, only to come across a flock of Chipping Sparrows with the season’s first Slate-colored Junco mixed in. Descending the hill I saw two birds jumping out of the grass: Palm Warblers! The numbers that day were low, but it seemed that almost each bird I saw was a new and special treat. Today, October 19, I made my last Park visit, a calm, sunny fall day. There were more White-throated Sparrows than before – and it seems the males migrate after the females/immatures – and again a lot of Hermit Thrushes, but not much else. As I was heading out, however, a Red-Tailed Hawk swooped onto a low limb above me, and a Brown Creeper, sign of approaching winter, climbed up the same tree.

Birds of Coachella Valley

In 4-1/2 days of birding from Palm Springs to Brawley, the Norseman and I came across 100 (or so) species in terrain ranging from below sea level to 8,400 feet above, from arid desert to snow-covered mountaintop. But rather than the numbers, it was certain sightings that will linger in my memory, notable either for the unusual bird or the place we saw it. Herewith, in order of observation, are nine of my favorites:
Burrowing Owl. Any owl is a treat to behold, and the Burrowing Owl has to be one of the cutest. We were told to just turn down Kalin Road southwest of Niland and watch the side of the road. Nothing for awhile, then there one was, standing calmly on the roadside berm, looking straight ahead (watching us?). A little further on – now that we knew what to look for – we came across a pair. Finally, as predicted, a fourth owl sat atop an abandoned tire. Little sentinels, the color of the surrounding dirt, totally unperturbed.
Snow Goose. I had seen a handful of snow geese before, an even a small flock flying overhead at our Minnesota house, but nothing prepared me for the hundreds, thousands?, that flocked in the fields, in the ponds and that wheeled en masse against a dark sky. The stark contrast between white and black was stunning – and matched by the also numerous White Pelicans – but it was the impression of the multitude against the landscape that, no matter how many places we saw it, took my breath away.
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. After a day looking at big birds on and around the Salton Sea, it was refreshing to stop at a brush-lined canal and watch little land birds flitting. It became exciting when a male and female pair of gnatcatchers appeared and we saw the black cap, distinguishing it from the more familiar Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher.
Black-throated Sparrow. On a late-afternoon stroll through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park we were getting more exercise than birdlife when a chipping sound approached through the chaparral and a pair of sparrows came darting through the cactus-y scrub. Nothing is more exciting when encountering a sparrow than seeing a bold field mark, and this sparrow’s black throat was not only handsome but an undeniable mark of identification.
Sage Thrasher. Joshua Tree National Park was another site where natural beauty, not birds, was the object, but we pulled off the road at one “wash” to see what the desert might hold. As we chased a pair of Phainopeplas, wonderful in their own right, a small bird scurried along the desert floor, moving from one protective clump to another. It was its relative anonymity that marked it a Sage Thrasher, and we felt fortunate to have stumbled upon it in its predicted habitat.
Pinyon Jay. Go outside the park then back in to Black Rock to see a Pinyon Jay, the ranger at Cottonwood told us; so we headed there as the sun was setting on our day. We wandered the campsite, listening to House Finches and Cactus Wrens, then heard a jay-like call across a field, coming closer. Flashes of blue moved from distant tree to tree until we called one in to fly right over us. A lifer, for my last bird of the day.
Scott’s Oriole. From Palm Desert we climbed Highway 74 up into Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument. With my poor Volt tiring from the grade and altitude, we pulled over onto the first side road we came to, Carrizo Road. A half-dozen Scrub Jays and a few White-Crowned Sparrows caught our attention amid a small grouping of weekend houses before a liquid song caught my attention. Soon, popping out of a bush, I spied an oriole with a beautiful lemon hue and deep black bib. We watched it move around our area for maybe ten minutes before it took off. “Uncommon on open arid hillsides where agaves and yuccas mix with oak or pine woodlands,” says Sibley – just where we found it.
Rock Wren. Another bird that knew its place (Sibley: “Uncommon on talus slopes and other expanses of jumbled rocks”), we watched this otherwise unremarkable bird climbing up a rock face on Henderson Trail off the Visitor Center in the above park. He was about the only bird we saw on the trail and he seemed to own it, moving around, singing loudly.
Mountain Chickadee. This was my favorite sighting of the trip, first because it came in the snowy emptiness of Mount San Jacinto State Park atop the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, where we felt lucky to find any bird at all. Then because it was a chickadee, a friendly familiar of bird feeders all my life, but with a difference: a white “eyebrow” that made it resemble a European tit. (I also thought I saw a thin white line on its crown, although the guidebooks don’t show that.) It quickly flew off, way off, not to be seen or heard again; and I thought how fortunate we were to be in that spot at that moment, which is always one of the thrills of birding.

Backyard Birding

[fusion_text]Inspired by a chance encounter with a Pacific Coast Flycatcher in the olive grove next to our guest house I decided to head outside before breakfast – not that early, but, at 7:30, before the neighborhood chain saws and power drills whirr into action. From the back terrace I was rewarded with the sight of two black-capped Wilson’s Warblers hopping around some echium bushes. I wandered down to see the flowering agave in the cactus garden and the four or five Anna’s hummingbirds flitting in and out. To my pleasant surprise a male and female Hooded Oriole landed on the agave spike. They quickly departed, but I was thrilled with their visit. I had seen them in the two tall palms that came with our house, but since the palms’ removal I hadn’t seen any orioles here. The sighting of these unusual species, after watching a blue-grey gnatcatcher in my bottlebrush tree the week before, convinced me to start my Yard List, which I will do once I determine where to keep it.

A short p.s. on the Wilson’s Warblers: seeing a pair together, I assumed they would be male and female, but seeing bold black caps on both I wavered, thinking the cap was exclusive to the female. Turning to Sibley for elucidation, my uncertainty continued. He pictures a first-year female without black cap but says or shows nothing about a mature female. My other guides are similarly vague, leaving me to conclude that the female may or may not have as bold a black cap as the male, and thinking it probably was both hanging together in my echium.[/fusion_text]

Birding in Cuba

My claim to never have had a bad day birding was sorely tested a couple times during our ten days birding in Cuba, particularly when I had to get up at 5 a.m. so we could wait in the woods more than an hour – or was it two? – for a quail dove to cross the path. This was my first experience with a group birding trip and it was also my first experience of target birding. Each day we were told what the target birds were we were meant to see, and if they didn’t show up we had to return a second time or move the target to another day. Our target birds were principally the 26 Cuban endemic species, and indeed for those compiling a life list this was their only chance to check them off. For those who just wanted to see a lot of birds, which was most of us, I think, the overall experience was more important.

As for the endemics, because we had two of the best birders in Cuba leading us, the group ticked off all 24 that are considered findable. I missed one because I chose to sleep in one morning, and only our leader was confident he saw Gundlach’s Hawk, although we all spent several hours staring at its nest. Two of the endemics were owls, and we saw four owl species in all, rather remarkable, but again there is a caveat. These birds were all served up to us on platters; it was at the opposite end of going into the woods, finding and identifying a bird on your own, which is the kind of birding I like. The guide for another group found the Stygian Owl asleep in a tree and called all of us over to look. Our own local guide found the Bare-legged (Screech) Owl for us by tapping on dead palm trunks until he located their roost and they popped up to see what was happening.

Since I was not going to discover and identify a rare bird on my own, my enjoyment came from learning the new bird, so that I could find and identify it when we came across it again as the trip went on. The Western Spindalis (a tanager) and Cuban Oriole were prime examples. It was also great fun to run into 21 species of warblers, 18 of which were on winter vacation from the East and 2 of which, the charming Oriente and Yellow-Headed Warblers, were Cuban endemics. And as for trademark Cuban birds, I was quite happy with the Cuban Tody, Cuban Trogon and Bee Hummingbird.

As for Cuba itself, though, I found little to recommend. I suspect the art scene and the music scene, both centered in Havana, can provide more interesting destinations. They weren’t on our itinerary. (Havana itself was, in a one-day extension, and our city tour was certainly worthwhile.) Out in the country we stayed in hotels that were spartan and, in one case, not ready for international travelers. Cayo Coco was ready; international travelers were all that was there, and it provided a cheap Caribbean beach vacation for Canadians and Europeans on a budget. The food and entertainment, however, were below the standards of other resort islands, and there was nothing particularly “Cuban” about the hotels or the location, which was linked to the mainland by an 18km causeway. The towns we drove through, and even Havana, gave off a third-world feel, and the countryside was not particularly attractive. For most of the places we birded, you wouldn’t want to go there except to see a particular bird. We weren’t exposed to much Cuban culture or history, but we did visit the Bay of Pigs Museum, the Che Guevara Memorial and a tobacco store. The Hotel Nacional, where we spent our first night in Havana, is also historic: it seemed proudest of hosting a major Mafia sitdown.

As time goes by I will probably remember more fondly the birding highlights, including the 50 “lifers” – species I saw for the first time. But while I was in Cuba I was counting down the days, looking forward less to the next cement-block hotel than being back in Santa Barbara.

Pelagic Birding

Took my first, and perhaps only, pelagic birding trip with the LA Audubon Society out of Santa Barbara Harbor on April 30. I found out later that this is the notorious rough-water trip. I also discovered as we returned to harbor that half the birders were on scopalamine, scopase or dramamine. The other half, I heard, including me, got seasick. The first hour, as we motored up the coast toward Point Concepcion, past Sands Beach where I watch snowy plovers and Rancho Dos Pueblos, where Serin will be married, I was fine, except for my surprise at seeing the ocean surface coated with oil slicks, allegedly from seeps in the ocean floor. As we turned out to the open ocean, however, the ups and down soon made me queasy, and a lot more was going up than down. After breakfast left me, the man behind the snack counter gave me a garbage bag, which was my trusty companion the rest of the trip. We left at 7 a.m., got back at 8 p.m., so I would say I was sick for 12 of the 13 hours, much of it spent lying on my back on a bench, half-dozing, but generally in suspended animation.
That said, the birds were, to my mind, amazing. The boat would cruise at speed until it found a slick, whatever that was, where birds were feeding. We would then float down the slick, feeding chum off the stern, and the loudspeaker would call out sightings. Having never seen ocean birds before, I didn’t know what to expect, but I was surprised at the good views we had of most species. Admittedly, there were some that excited people that I may have seen but couldn’t tell, because they were spots on the waves or were flying with other, equally nondescript varieties. The big find of the day was a Murphy’s Petrel – a lifer even for the man at the microphone. I was at the rail when people were talking about it, but, not knowing what I was looking for, I can’t say I saw it.
Easier, and more exciting for me, were the few birds that were distinctively marked, which usually meant having some white on them. Laysan’s Albatross, for one, was unmistakable, both due to its size and its color. But my favorite of the day was the Sabine’s Gull, a bird I had never even heard of before, which flashed beautiful black-and-white stripes on its forewing as it fly. Other seabirds were generally muddy – e.g., the Rhinoceros Auklet and Sooty Shearwater – but the Sabine’s Gull was crisp and handsome.
By far the most numerous birds were the Phalaropes, both Red and Red-necked. I have no idea which there were more of, because for the most part the flocks took wing as the boat approached them; but there were sharp individuals of each species that floated close by. In all, we saw hundreds of them, dainty little birds for such a big ocean. Another easy-to-identify find were the black terns. Having seen these in Minnesota I was not as excited as the Santa Barbara birder who said he had never seen so many – seven – at one time.
In all, I’d say the birds are most interesting to life listers, as they are largely drab, don’t do much and all inhabit the same environment. But what magic there is comes from that environment – being totally out of touch with land, sitting in an endless, infinite expanse of ocean, and coming across birds, like the albatross, that make this their home.

Birding in Texas

If I feel justified in placing an entry on birding in my Sports column, along with thoughts on baseball, soccer and football, It is due to the competitiveness that has crept into this hobby since my youth, when it was a quiet, generally solitary way to spend some time in the woods or at your window watching the bird feeder. Now birders compete for who sees the most, who sees the first, and people compile lists of birds seen in one day, in one year, in one lifetime, in one place, in one state, in one country. Thus, almost every conversation we had in three days of birding in south Texas (February 23-25), consisted of, “Did you see the white-throated robin, the crimson-collared grosbeak, the blue bunting, the black-vented oriole?,” for these U.S. rarities were deemed the only species worth pursuing, and the competition to add them to one’s life list was palpable.
When Gary and I bird, we do keep a running list of what we see on a trip, but the list disappears as soon as we return home. We like to see as much as we can, of course, but we’re hardly crushed if we don’t encounter some bird we’d never heard of before. Finding, identifying, and observing are what we are there for. That sounds simple, but in birding along the Rio Grande Valley it was not that easy, largely because birding the sport has taken over from the hobby.
Every sport has its stadiums, and in south Texas these are the parks – national, state and local – where admission is charged, visitor centers have opened, and lists of birds seen are posted daily. Nine “World Birding Centers” have been set up to lure birders, even though some are as small as a backyard. The odds of a casual birder “finding” something on his own are practically nil, let alone identifying it before someone in the group calls out its name.
Ah, the group. So many of the bird sites we visited consisted of a collection of bird feeders, with birders sitting to one side. It’s better than seeing something in a zoo, and there is still a chance nothing will show up, but the feeders constitute a heavy human hand on the operation. It is just not the same as observing a bird in the wild, in its native habitat, feeding on the worms or thistle that nature provides.
We went to Roma Bluffs, in the middle of a city, because we were told that’s where we could find the buff-bellied hummingbird. Sure enough, at the feeder behind the office, there was the buff-bellied hummingbird. Audubon’s oriole? For that, we were told, you have to go Salineno. A bird-loving couple lived there in their trailer and had set up a gold mine, for the birds, of suet feeders, tray feeders, oranges and grapefruits, and a peanut-butter mix that went on the branches. Among the other regulars at the station were five Audubon orioles, to the delight of visiting birders, who sat in folding chairs and threw money in the jar when they left.
The center of the action, though, was Bentsen Park, which was a trailer park when last we visited ten years ago but is now a birder’s version of Disneyland, with a tram passing by every half-hour to take you to another attraction. (Admittedly, the transportation was welcome in the 94-degree heat.) Perhaps it wasn’t such a great coincidence that on one tram ride we ran into birding friends from Minnesota! Anyway, the attractions here were the blue bunting (“tropical species, very rare and irregular in southern Texas”) and the black-vented oriole (“resident from central Nicaragua to northern Mexico”). We ran into more than one person who had sat at one feeding station several hours in order to catch a glimpse of either bird. On Thursday, we were sitting with a man and his daughter we had met the day before in Santa Ana when I spotted two very plain, very brown birds in a bush. These, we all agreed, were female blue buntings, a view we confirmed when they flew onto a higher branch for a closer, unobstructed look. They ignored the feeder and were quickly departed, so I felt pretty good about the sighting. The next afternoon, after the tram and most visitors had gone home, we stopped back at the same place and had no sooner sat down that the black-vented oriole flew in to the suet feeder and poked around, giving us good looks, for 30 seconds.
These birds hadn’t been our goal, so we didn’t feel particularly triumphant, but at least we didn’t feel left out. Far more satisfying and memorable moments came a bit later, as the sun was setting and we had wandered off from the feeding stations. As I looked across the resaca I saw in the distance a bird hovering in the air – a white-tailed kite. And when I turned around Gary told me to look up at the power line: there was my first vermilion flycatcher of the trip, bringing our total to 95 – not quite the century one always shoots for, but pretty close. Seeing beautiful birds without other people around us and without artificial lures bringing them to us beats the advertised black-vented oriole for me.