Thursday, May 12, 2016

Winter Ends Icily...Not Your Golden Guide's Swallow...Screech...Carnage at Heather Farm

It was the end of February. Winter Vague Runt season was drawing to a close, and March loomed large...March is traditionally not a particularly rewarding month in the bay area, unless one can squeeze out a juicy amount of pleasure from returning swallows and Selasphorus hummingbirds. Rare birds are few and far between, and the bulk of spring My Grunts have yet to arrive. But I feel like I go on and on about this every year so I'll leave it at that.

The end of winter (as North American Birds defines it) was ushered in by a ponytailed visit to Stafford Lake in Marin, where a Tufted Duck had stopped in. I like year birds, particularly Siberian ones. After walking around a bit and spending time with the drake Tufted, it was off to Lucchesi Park in Petaluma, a famed gull spot. I hadn't been there before so thought it could be a good time to squeeze in some gulling at the close of the season. Turns out Lucchesi Park is a pretty shitty place, but it did cough up one interesting bird for me...a bird that bore more than a passing resemblance to a first cycle Iceland Gull (kumlieni of course, one of the most hated subspecies on Earth). It wasn't a white, no-brainer of an Iceland Gull, but a very convincing bird nonetheless. More photos are here...its fate is in the hands of the Bird Police now.

At Coyote Hills in Fremont, the Glaucous Gulls that occasionally show up were predictably nowhere to be found, but a large swarm of newly arrived Tree Swallows were fun to hang out with.

Tree Swallows...are they the Blue-and-white Swallows of the north? Or are Blue-and-white Swallows the Tree Swallows of the south? These are the questions that keep no one up at night.

A gaggle of Barn Swallows tripped the eBird rarity alert. This is usually something birders brag about. Make no mistake, seeing Barn Swallows is not worth bragging about. I did enjoy getting to see so many different plumages at once though...standard model adults, intermediate birds, and a young brown and white bird that ignores the field guides.

That bird on the right is not what people think about when they think of a Barn Swallow. Note the new dark blue feathers coming in on the wings and head.

The best bird in March, for me, was not a Vague Runt or a newly-arrived My Grunt, it was a lowly permanent resident...this Western Screech-Owl. I haven't seen one of these in a long time...a long time. And never in daylight. And never at don't-give-a-fuck range, which is my preferred range for viewing birds. My luck with owls, which is traditionally terrible, has really turned around since Mexico...lifer Great Gray, lifer Saw-whet, successfully ignoring a Snowy Owl, and now my first look at WESO in years. Chuffed I am, just chuffed.

This confiding bird had been using this hollow as a roost for many weeks. I dipped on it a couple times, but on the third try the bird was right where it was supposed to be. Fantastically, I did not have to endure the company of other photographers in order to hang out with the bird. It mostly slept (shocker), but did some enthusiastic scratching and preening. If you have not seen the ears of a screech-owl before, this is what they look like. If you have not seen the underside of a screech-owl foot before, this is what that looks like.

Owls are goofy. For a moment, ignore the less-than-inspiring look on the bird's face. Note the lack of any thick horizontal marks on the breast...that is meaningless here in the bay area, but is a very good field mark to look at when in places where Whiskered Screech-Owl is found.

Occasionally a birder will make the always questionable decision of betraying an owl roost or nest to the public...which is how I got to see this bird. Questionable because birders, and especially photographers, will often show up in masses. People love owls. Attention often does not bother the birds very much, but sometimes it does, and can lead to a bird choosing a new roost site, or abandonment of a nest. What is a constant in these situations nowadays is that someone will publicly condemn whoever reported the bird, which is what happened to this screech-owl. While I think the concern is valid, it was not justified in this case...the bird's roost is right next to a paved trail, and hundreds of people walk, jog and bicycle past the bird every day.

After leaving the peaceful screech-owl, I found myself birding Heather Farm Park in Walnut Creek. I'd never been here before and didn't know what to expect. The last thing I expected was a Black Phoebe cutting loose an unearthly bellow directly above my head. Enduring such sonic power is not something the human body is built for...I thought my brain was beginning to seep out of my ears. No worries though, it was just blood.

You wouldn't think that a Black Phoebe is a bellower, but check out the width of that bill. Built to bellow.

The carnage continued after the phoebe. Here is something all you hybrid fetishists can get off on. That is not fighting. That is fucking.

Eventually things subsided when this docile Cackling Goose distracted me from the brain seepage and large fowl raping.

If you don't live in a place with many Cackling Geese, here is a crush to hold you over until next year.

While walking around the pond, I heard a foreign but familiar twitter in the distance. Could it be? Though the bird didn't call again, I listened to my instincts (Obi-Wan has taught me well) and eventually tracked down the source...a Tropical Kingbird! Not a bad bird at the end of March, especially at a relatively inland site.

TKs are a low-end Vague Runt in the region in fall and winter, but they typically don't linger this late into the spring. I wonder where the bird is now...Mexico? El Salvador? Let's say Guatemala and call it a post.

1 comment:

  1. Screech-owl number 3 is quite endearing. It's been years since I've seen one in the daylight, and even then never in full blown sunshine.