Thursday, March 30, 2006

41. Canada Goose

When I was in college, I went to my friend Rob's house. He lived right by a pond, and a goose came up to a sliding glass door in the back and began to tap on the window with its beak.

"Is it friendly," I asked.

"Sure," he said, "open up the door. You can pet it."

So I did, and the goose nearly took my hand off, while Rob stood behind me and laughed and laughed.

. . .

Today as I waited in the maze of cars to pay my toll and cross the Bay Bridge back into San Francisco, five Canada Geese flew overhead. I thought of Rob, and laughed.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

40. Long-billed Curlew


It's a big number. It's not 50, but it's nice and round and divisible by ten. You want your 40th bird of the year to be something special. Fortunately, mine was. It was one of my favorites, and a bird that always makes me think of California: the Long-billed Curlew.

The Long-billed Curlew can be identified by its long curved bill, and it lacks the head markings found on other curlews. It's a crazy-looking spectacle, the Numenius Americanus. A big, grand, American bird. The largest shorebird in North America. It is also, unfortunately, highly imperiled. Audubon notes that it is "one of the most threatened shorebird species on the continent."

But it's special to me for another reason, too. It was the first bird I ever identified in California (the first bird I formally identified anywhere for that matter). It was at the bird sanctuary in Alameda, when I was scared and alone and redefining who I was. I was a mess and a wreck and completely lost. I saw it with my friend Heath one evening, and I've never forgotten it.

I've longed to see one again for years, but haven't. To see it again today, with my beloved wife, when I am so much older, so much more sure of myself, so much more alive, absolutely thrilled me.

We saw it last, on our way out. And as we departed, so too did the Curlew, crying out as he took wing over the Bay.

39. Horned Grebe

At the far end of the marsh, mingling with some buffleheads and scaup, we saw one distinctive-looking little bird, diving and diving. It was hard to make out, as it spent more time underwater than above. It rarely surfaced long enough for us to get a good look. But several sightings and one above water grooming session were enough. It was a Horned Grebe

38. Killdeer

Hello, Killdeer. There were three of you, darting around the sides of the marsh. I think these birds are incapable of walking, knowing only how to run.

37. Red-breasted Merganser

Right as we arrived, I saw a merganser go darting across the lake, ignoring David Sibley's, er, cardinal rule, I stopped looking at the bird and whipped out my bird book. Too late. Gone.

I had to trek all around the marsh before I finally got a good enough look at the three individuals to be able to identify them all, Red-breasted Mergansers.

Mergansers are like racing ducks. They are streamlined, like formula one racecars. Small and sleek, they skim across the water effortlessly and much faster than the other ducks.

36. Snowy Egret

The Snowy Egret is distinctive by its black legs and yellow feet. Today one sat by edge of the marsh nearly the entire time we were at Crissy Field. The way egrets and herons can stand so perfectly motionless captivates me.

We also saw several Great Blue Herons today, at least three individuals, possibly four. When we crossed the street to get in our car, there was a heron standing right by it, watching us.

Crissy Fields is such a magical place. There, in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, beneath the Cyprus looking out at the Bay and the Ocean where container ships slip by, I fell in love with San Francisco all over again. There is no other big American city where you can get the same combination of nature and culture. I stood in a national park today watching birds, 1000 feet from the great domed roof of the Palace of Fine Arts and just a ten minute walk (if that) from the shops and restaurants of the Marina district.

If I want to drive, I can leave my house and in fifteen minutes be totally isolated in rolling hills, mountain lion country. Or, I can walk fifteen minutes downhill to see some of the nation's premeir bands and DJs, or to an art gallery. And from my city window I watch hawks, gulls and on one occasion an eagle as they fly from park to park, loving California just as much as I.

35. Belted Kingfisher

We got up early this morning and went to Crissy Fields to check out the early-rising birds. And what a great day, we saw so many birds, including one of my favorites, a Kingfisher. I love Kingfishers. I have ever since I saw this gorgeous one in Thailand and do all the moreso after today.

Standing on the bridge that crosses the marsh, we saw a little determined bird come flying low across the surface of the water, and land on the railing not 15 feet from us. Why didn't I bring my camera?!?

It was the Belted Kingfisher. I never knew they hovered, but we watched this little guy take off several times and hover over the marsh, looking very much like a giant hummingbird. Only once did I see it dive into the water, and as soon as it surfaced a gull attacked it.

Later today, I told my dad about it, and replied that he can identify them by song. "Really," I asked. "Yes," he said. "Once you hear it, you'll never forget it; it's a very distinctive call."

Friday, March 17, 2006

Ivory-billed woodpecker extinct after all?

I interrupt the regularly scheduled count here to bring you a bit of bad news: it appears the Ivory billed may be extinct after all. And this comes from none other than my main thug, David Sibley himself:
"The whole thing is sad," says the team's leader David Sibley, a bird illustrator from Massachusetts. "I wish we were reporting something different. But it is very important for the truth to be out there."

Sibley's team notes that the video shows the bird with a black edge to its wing, characteristic of a pileated woodpecker. Ivory-billed woodpeckers have white wing edges.
Yet all is not lost just yet:
"There is black there, but I think it is a shadow or video artefact," says John Fitzpatrick, an ornithologist at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, who led the project that captured the video.

And after analysing dozens of videos of pileated woodpeckers in flight, Fitzpatrick says that his team is sure that their videotaped bird, seen launching off a tree in woods near the Mississippi River, is not a pileated woodpecker. The critics ignore evidence that the bird is an ivory-billed woodpecker, says Fitzpatrick, and their analysis of woodpecker flight "is just false".
This bird story is still ongoing, and I hope (hope, hope!) that I can eventually add an Ivory-billed to my tally.

Monday, March 13, 2006

34. Brown Creeper

The Brown Creeper is a fascinating little bird. We saw several of them in the park over the weekend. They fly to the base of a tree, and then hop-hop-hop up it. They are quite well camoflauged, and I almost didn't notice them. As usual, it was Harp who saw it first.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

33. Black Phoebe

I was violating David Sibley's first rule. Instead of looking at the bird, I had my nose in a field guide, flipping through pages trying to find the bird in front of me. It was the third one I'd seen on a stroll around North Lake.

This stinks.

I madly turned page after page. Long tail. Flattened head. White underside. Charcoal and Black top. Who are you? I never did figure it out.

On the way out we stopped and talked to an older couple, who were also birder. We told them about the Townsend's Warbler (our second that day, in two different parts of the city) and young Turk of a Cormorant we'd seen. We mentioned the pair of Red-Shouldered Hawks we saw on the way in. All of us speculated on whether or not the herons are nesting at Stow Lake. They then tried to help us diagnose our mystery bird. They listed the species they had spotted, and one-by-one I flipped through the book and compared.

And there it was, plain as day. The Black Phoebe. What is David Sibley's last rule, again?

Oh, yeah. "Meet Other Birders." I can see how that might be helpful.

32. Double-crested Cormorant

Island rock displays
Double-crested Cormorant
Wings wide as a bat

31. Chestnut-backed Chickadee

We almost missed them. Walking around North Lake, the new lake, where once there was fencing and wire but now only paths built for strolling. And then there they were.

"Chickadees," she said, pointing at the birds in the brush. "Yes, Chickadees," I replied. But wait, those aren't the familiar Black-capped chickadees that come by our feeder. They have brown backs, brown flanks. "Why, I believe that's a different species," she said. "I concur," I cuncurred.

And so it came to pass that the Chestnut-backed Chickadee became my 31st bird.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

30. Townsend's Warbler

I walked out this morning to get some coffee. I've been up since way too early, calling Europe and writing. I awoke and started working before the coffee shops open, and before any decent human being could reasonably be expected to make coffee for themselves.

Shortly after seven, I headed out for a some caffiene. I needed a pick-me-up. Down the street, I saw somebody milling about on the sidewalk, looking up. It was Harper. She waved at me, motioning me to hurry.

I caught up with her, and was I ever glad I did. She was standing beneath a tree on Page Street looking up at a bird she had previously identified, but that I had never seen before, the Townsend's Warbler.

This is a Canadian and Alaskan bird, who only comes to California in the winter. Harper had seen this particular individual before, but I had not. SoI was glad to see him today. Another week or two and he might have been headed back up North again.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

29: Rufous Hummingbird

Walking on the Land's End Trail today, we spied a Rufous Hummingbird. It's really similar to the Allen's. But the bird we saw was orange across its back, and the flight pattern was right for the Rufous. It was fun to see this little bird, so different from the Anna's we see all the time, and we watched it for a while as it went from perch to perch on various trees.

28. American Coot

Indigenous. I am an invasive species. I like the Indigenous species. The American species. I saw one today.

Take it easy baby. Make it last all night. She was. An American Coot.

They are, the archetype American bird. As apt a national symbol as the Bald Eagle, or Wild Turkey. A patriot. "Conspicuous, noisy, and aggressively territorial."

And yet: "Since coots appear neither comical, vulnerable, nor inspirational, the public is often unsympathetic to their problems."