Thursday, January 26, 2006

13 - 19 = 1 afternoon in Marin

My dad is in town visiting. He, of course, helped spark my interest in birding. We rode over the bridge to Marin county, and went out to Hawk Hill. We climbed up to the top, and took in the tremendous view of the Bay. It's one of those vistas that makes you realize how small you are--how small San Francisco is, for that matter--compared with the whole of creation.

We scrambled around the batteries, which Dad seemed to really enjoy. And the whole time, there were hawks, crows, and vultures overhead. We drove down the hill, and around into Rodeo Lagoon and Beach, where we saw quite a few ducks, not all of which we could identify. There was also a roadside Heron--I've rarely not seen Herons by the side of the road in the Headlands. And a Great Egret was fishing in the lagoon by the bridge.

All in all, a great day. Oh, and I checked off a few birds, too:

13. Turkey Vulture
14. Red-Tailed Hawk
15. Common Goldeneye
16. Great Blue Heron
17. Greater Scaup
18. Great Egret
19. Red-Winged Blackbird

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Why birds don't come to our feeder anymore

Once, our feeders were the place to be. If you were a bird, that is. All the cool kids from the neighboring parks came by to hang out, eat, and splash around in the standing water on our neighbors roof.

But then, suddenly, everything stopped.

The Hummingbirds were the first to split. Not only were they not coming by the feeder anymore, but they quit their nests and perches on the two trees on our street.

Then we noticed that our feeders were staying full longer. And during the morning, when it had been bird central, our bird bar was virtually vacant.

The reason for this has now become self-evident. The hawk Harper saw earlier seems to have taken up a post at our house.

I saw him last weekend sitting on the telephone wire across the street, looking our way. And a few times now, he's been perched in the tree in our neighbor's backyard, just 50 feet or so from our feeders.

The first time I saw him there, I tried to run him off. I yelled and hollered and shook my rake from the yard down below. I could have been inside making baked Alaskas for all he cared.

Now he comes by every day. He's been out there twice this morning already. He left the second time to go after a dove. I don't know if he got it or not.

I've kind of given up on running him off, but I feel conflicted about him. On the one hand, it's a juvenile hawk and I want it to grow up healthy and strong. I hope he finds a permanent niche in our city ecosystem. And how many people get to have a pet hawk?

On the other... Dude! Stay away from our birds! With Harper being essentially trappped in our apartment until her back is better, the birds that stop by our feeder are one of her few sources of pleasure. Find yourself another niche!

I want him to eat, I want him to grow strong. But not off of our birds.

Oh, nature.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

12. Mallard

I saw a Mallard today. More than one actually.

I was walking home from picking up a late lunch from the taqueria. It was a gorgeous day. I called Rob on the walk home, to hear about life in L.A. He was at the beach. They'd seen dolphins and just missed a whale. The beach! Good God how I'd like to be at the beach. And before I even walked in the door it hit me, I could go to the beach.

I'd already filed my story that day for Playlist, and handed in all my fact changes to Wired on the story I was working on there. The beach; the beach is out there waiting.

I ran it by Harper, who has barely been out of the house for the past eight month. She was more than down. I loaded her leg wedge into the car, and she rode to the beach lying down on her back on the Thermarest, stretched out across the folded down seats.

When we arrived and parked the car, I saw a big splash offshore, and at first thought it was a whale. And then I looked again at the mighty Pacific; it had been a long time.

We strolled along the beach on the boardwalk--or whatever you call the concrete path running parallel to and above the beach. Two women stopped us.

-We saw a whale!

-A whale? I thought I saw one too!

-Yes, right there, look!

And we did, and after a few minutes, there it was! A spout! And another! Then it breached, and we could see it's bulk above the waterline. It was the first time I'd seen anything other than a spout. The first time Harper had seen a whale at all.


I wanted to look for a bird or two while we were there. I didn't bother with the gulls. I'm not at the stage yet where I can single out various types of gulls. But I did see several cowbirds along the beach, co-mingling with the Brewer's Blackbirds. I even took a few pictures. I was proud of myself for knowing what they were without a field guide.

On the way home, I decided to drive through the park, so that Harper could see the trees. Doing so, I drove past a pond, where several mallard swam.

You, I thought, I'll save for later. I've got my bird today already.

And of course, when I got home I realized I'd been looking at a female Brewer's.

But I still had my mallard. And the whale. I'm calling that a Baker's Dozen.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006


I was just heading out the door when Harper screamed. It was a loud, throat-rattling number.


Naturally, I stuck around.

"A hawk almost got our birds!"

They are our birds now, apparently. The ones that come to the feeders we set out.

I've always wondered about hawks. There was the merlin that landed on our roof once before. And hawks are circling about daily in the Panhandle below, and Buena Vista above. I didn't see this one swoop down (and miss), but I did spy him flapping about up the hill in the tree-tops in Buena Vista, trailing a ragtag militia of angry crows.

It was too far away to make anything out as to what type. (But truth be told, twenty feet would have been too far. Hawkeye I am not.)

Harper, worried with furrowed brow, says "Oh, I hope the hawks don't get any of our birds, because I really love them now, but I won't anymore if they kill one of our birds."

Sunday, January 15, 2006

11. Brewer's Blackbird

What to say about this bird? You see them everywhere. It's very much an urban bird, equally comfortable hopping around in street-side gutters and beneath benches in the park. The beggars come bouncing up to your feet, cocking their heads to peer at you with a bright yellow eye, demanding your sandwich. Just a bite. Just one. Come on. Seriously, please. Just one.

It is, I thought when I tried to think of what I would say about it, an utterly unremarkable bird. But it counts all the same. And I thought maybe I would just note where I saw it--on Fell Street in a pack of five or six, nosing around in a heap of leaves at the edge of the street opposite the ATM.

And so that's what I'll do. I'll just note where I saw it and when. What is there to say? And besides, there are so many left to catalogue, what could I possibly say about such a mundane wallflower. Who contemplates grackles?

But of course, they weren't grackles at all. They were Brewer's Blackbirds. Only I didn't know that until I went to check it off in my field guide. Grackles are much larger--ten to twelve inches--and are only occasional on the Pacific Coast.

And when I found that there was something to this bird, after all. A case of mistaken identity, for one. I'd been calling it by the wrong name for as long as I can remember. In my mind, it took me back to the fields of Marin county, where the Brewer's red-winged cousins swarm fence-rows come Springtime. And I wonder if I'll ever see these little birds again without thinking of the Beatles and Charles Manson.

Sometimes a grackle is just a grackle, but in this case it was something more.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Hoot Hoot

Last night, as we were going to bed, we distinctly heard an owl hooting. Not once,but repeatedly. It seemed to be coming from Buena Vista Park.

We saw an owl on Angel Island, a few years ago. It flew spellbindingly silent across the trail ahead of us, like feathered fog. I wouldn't imagine that it's a far flight, for an owl, from here to Angel Island. But I never would have expected an owl in the middle of the city.

It made me wish, however, that I could identify birds by their songs, or calls. Numerous birders use birdsong to identify birds in lieu of visual confirmation. Indeed call identification was integral to confirming the Ivory-billed's existence.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

10. Northern Flicker

This morning, while there were a bunch of Juncos, Finches, and Dove around the feeders, I noticed an odd-looking bird sitting two houses over, on the peak of the neighbors' roof. It didn't look quite like a dove, and I alerted Harper, but she didn't know what it was either. As I scrambled for my field guide, it flew to the roof of the house next door, just outside our window, and began drinking some of the standing water left there from the recent rainstorms. I snapped a few pictures--zoomed in with the digital zoom--and made a conclusive ID. A Northern Flicker.

The head confused me somewhat, and has kept me from identifying the particular sub-species. It has red markings in the back of its head like a Yellow-shafted Flicker, but also in the front, where none should appear. Furthermore, the Yellow-shafted variety should only appear East of the Rockies. However, the marking on the back--which should be visible in this photo--is indicative of the Yellow-shafted variety, and is not found on either the Gilded Flicker (a southwestern subspecies) or the Red-shafted Flicker (found West of the Rockies).

My suspicion is that this is a hybrid or "intergrade" of two different subspecies, which my field guide notes are regularly seen in the Great Plains and Southwest. Either that, or it's a subspecies not listed in my field guide.

Either way, I'm confidant of the species identification, and was excited to come across a bird I'd never seen before on my 7th day into this attempt.

Update: This is most likely a hybrid variety of the Red-Shafted Flicker.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

About this site

There are more than 10,000 species of birds in the world. You can see more than 800 of them right here in the United States. One of the better books I read last year was The Big Year. It's the story of three birders who all attempt to see as many of those 800 or so species as they can in the course of a year. As the writer Mark Obmascik explained it to the NewsHour:
[T]he Big Year is a contest with no referees and few rules. The idea is, who can see the most species of birds in North America in one year. So you can see them however you want. You can fly to see them, ride a bike to see them. In one case, they even took a helicopter to see them in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada.
Due to climate change and habitat destruction, The Big Year chronicled in Obmascik's book is likely to stand for the ages. Every year, there are fewer and fewer species to identify.

Now, I'm not going to try a big year--I haven't the time, money, knowledge, or even inclination. But it did get me thinking. What species have I seen that I might not see again? Do I even know? Migration patterns are changing rapidly and radically due to global warming. We're on a major flyway here in our little apartment. Our feeder--situated directly between two parks and on a flight path through the city--is a stopover for all kinds of birds on their way up the coast. What am I seeing that's unusual for my area?

I've been a casual birder since the late 1990s. My parents were both birders, and my grandmother is a birdus obsessivenious. Even at 92, when she can't remember where I live or what I do, she can still tell me which birds she's seen out her window today. I set feeders out myself, and love watching the hawks and crows that circle outside our apartment, or even the falcons that land on our roof. But I hesitate to call myself a birder.

I formally identified my first bird--that is too say I recorded it in the field guide my father gave me--at the bird sanctuary in Alameda, with my friend Heath on August 6, 1998. It was a Long-billed Curlew. Over the years I've added others to my guide. A Black-Shouldered Kite here; a Belted kingfisher there. Yet I've never been systematic about it. And if you were to glance at the back pages of my field guide and examine my species checklist, it would appear that I've never seen a Blue Jay or a Blackbird or even a common Cardinal.

Oh, but I have.

Nor am I very good with identification. Especially when it comes to raptors, which we have here in the Bay Area like most places have sparrows. Is that a Coopers or a Sharpshinned Hawk? Red-tailed, Red-shouldered, or what?

So this year, one of my two New Year's resolutions(A) is to identify and catalogue 100 species of birds. I don't care if I've seen it before or not. It can be a crow or a crake; it's all the same to me. I just want to try to nail down 100 of them and definitively check them off on my list before the year's over.

This year, I'll identify 100 birds.

I expect the first 30 or so should be pretty easy, and that after that it's going to get exponentially more difficult. Living by the water makes it easier, but at some point, I assume I'm going to have to begin to leave the city with the express purpose of seeing more birds. I'm going to start off with the easy ones that I see daily at our feeders, all of which I've observed today. Here goes nothing.

1. Anna's Hummingbird
2. House Finch
3. Mourning Dove
4. American Crow
5. Scrub Jay
6. Oregon Junco (sub-species of Black-Eyed Junco)
7. Black-capped Chickadee
8. American Robin
9. Rock Dove (Commonly known as a pigeon in urban areas)

(A) The other being to train for, compete in and complete a triathlon.