Monday, May 20, 2013

Back In The (Silver) Saddle

This is my FOY WEWP! Western Wood-Pewee is not often thought of as a beautiful bird...but now that you have seen my crush, I believe you think otherwise.

Ah, the desert. The desert means different things to different people. To average people, "the desert" screams boredom and dusty wastes. To climbers and hikers, the desert means adventure...dusty adrenaline mixed a unique flavor of peace and quiet. To birders, there are those who think of the desert birds...the thrashers, the sparrows, Verdins, Cactus Wrens and the like...and then there are those who think of migrants. California's deserts, from Death Valley to the Colorado River, offer excellent birding during migration, if you know where to look. Thousands of migrant songbirds pass through these areas and spring and fall, and where there is greenery, there will be birds. You show me a lawn and trees, and I will show you some goddamn vagrants....eventually. That's how this works.

Way back before I was the Number 7 birder in the nation, I used to go out to the Kern desert and scour the place for vagrants...I have many fond memories of Butterbredt Springs (Bay-breasted Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Hooded Warbler, etc.), California City (Golden-winged Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warblers, Gray Catbirds, Dickcissel, etc.) and Galileo Hill (Virginia's Warbler, Lark Bunting, Least Bittern, etc.). I lost track years ago of the number of lifers I stacked up out there as a young birder...but sadly, I have not been able to return to these sacred migrant traps since the good old days.

What's that? You want me to crush this helpless pewee even harder??? Cool, here you go.

Seriously guys, I think I'm almost beyond crushing here. I don't know if this bird can take being documented so well. And what's with the contrasting brown auricular patch? I don't understand it, but I like it.

When I accepted this job on Santa Cruz Island, one of the instant perks that I thought of was being within striking distance of the Kern County hotspots during spring migration. Aside from being rarity-magnets, these sites pull in so many birds that you actually get a sense that a major movement of songbirds is happening...nothing unusual for those on the eastern half of the continent, but for west coast birders this is a really big deal. And when you are deprived of such migratory goodness for much of the crave it.

And so I waited until early May, when I made my triumphant return to Galileo Hill and Kern County. I swear, when getting out of the car at Galileo Hill, I felt like MacArthur coming back to the Phillippines. Although Galileo failed to provide any birds with eastern flavors, the numbers of migrants were unlike anything I'd seen in California in years. Today's succulent content covers a few of the birds and unnervingly realistic dinosaurs of Galileo Hill.

Male Costa's Hummingbird is one of the coolest SoCal birds, I reckon. The head of a male morphs into a blob of indescribable brilliance in just the right light, and they have a long, weird and whimsical song that makes them easy to identify by ear.

Female Costa's Hummingbird, on the other hand, is a pretty tough ID, especially for those of you who don't get to see this bird very often. Without a good look, they can easily be mistaken for a female Black-chinned. But surely you own a field guide, and the likes of Jon Dunn and David Sibley can break down the ID process better than I.

This is Midnight the cat, who apparently lives there. Midnight took an instant liking to us when we arrived...Bird Police Officer Searcy and I were, of course, super stoked when it started following us around while we birded, meowing loudly. Nothing attracts rare birds like a large, black, noisy cat. So we had to call in the local cat control.

Help came in the form of a random Jack Russell terrier, who didn't seem attached to any human. He is stationed there to keep Midnight away from birders, according to Officer Searcy. After watching the dog and the cat try to kill each other for several minutes, we took advantage of the distraction to sneak off and go birding without small predators in tow.

Catharus thrushes were plentiful this day. Many of the Hermit Thrushes we came across had very gray upperparts, very different than the individuals that winter across the state.

Perhaps this is auduboni, or a very similar subspecies. Nice to this flavor of Hermit Thrush again, at any rate.

Swainson's Thrushes typically outnumber Hermits considerably during the spring months at many migrant traps in eastern California. Although Hermit Thrushes can vary in the amount of contrast they show between the tail and the rest of their upperparts, Swainson's always sport the same colors from the top of their heads to the tips of their tails.

Galileo Hill, where all of these photos were taken, also goes by Silver Saddle Ranch. It is private property, and you must sign in at the office if you wish to bird there. If you do anything stupid to threaten the access birders get to this unique site, the entire California birding community will hunt you down and make your life a living hell. The Bird Police will sit idly by and watch as you are bludgeoned with binoculars, tripods, and unimaginably large lenses...they are a corrupt and vengeful bunch.

It's probably best that I don't explain sure to show it to your kids before they go to bed though.


  1. You crushed it!

    The dino looks like it could too :-)

  2. Ha ha..I wish you would explain Dino! Looks like a fab outing..crept I don't like to see outdoor cats..oh well...

  3. Crushed that Pewee, made it a Puny. If you crushed that bird any more, it would reduce to a singularity and become a black hole, so ease off there cowboy.

    You were on a role though, with those Thrushes being pretty flattened as well.

    On a side note, you started with a description of desert birding, but this looks only like a super nice, lush park area. Are you shielding your readers from something??? Never thought you were one for censorship...

    1. I'm one of the desert=migrants people who seeks out random lawns in arid landscapes. The hummingbirds are in a creosote, doesnt that count?

      I think I'm about 80% uncensored. 100% and my readership would probably only consist of me.