Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Blazing a Fiery Trail of County Birds

As the sun sets on this Short-eared Owl (COUNTY BIRD!), so too does it set on another summer of relative birding slumber. For the rest of the year, the birding in Santa Clara should be quite good, and I hope to see more pleasant county birds like this one. Photographed at Coyote Valley Open Space Preserve.

September. Sweet, sweet September, how I've missed you. BB&B sings the praises of September each and ever year, and as long as my heart beats and about half my brain works, I will continue to do so. September just doesn't get old. In just a few short weeks, the state of local birding has gone from the hot, grim dirge of summer to that special time of year where anything can happen. September is gripping. We are no longer looking at a dim and distant light at the end of the tunnel, we are basking in the light of full bore fall migration. That holds true even here in humble Santa Clara County, where finding eastern-flavored rarities is a back-breaking (but not impossible!) task compared to the coastal counties.

I think I've said it before, but when I first moved to San Jose my main coping mechanism to unexpectedly find myself living here was getting really into birding Santa Clara County. Not obsessively, but semi-devotedly. Now, about 16 months in, I feel like I have a grasp of birding here. I know what my easiest needs are without consulting eBird, I have an inkling of where to be looking for what, and I'm very interested in checking out all the birding sites I haven't been able to visit yet.

Here are a few observations I've made about the birding here in general:

*There are lots of birders here, but not many regional or state rarities. Yup, there you have it. Since moving here, the only review bird I've seen was Will Brooks' Little Stint in August of 2017...that is over a year ago. The only other review species seen here since then that I am recalling was a Slaty-backed Gull in March, which I dipped on. Where are the vagues?

*Well I know where some of them are...they are probably flying right over my house. There are huge numbers of gulls in the county in winter, and thousands (mainly Herring, California, Glaucous-winged and Iceland) may go right over Rancho de Bastardos on some days. I suspect Slaty-backed Gull may actually be an annual bird here that just goes unseen or unidentified. There is high potential for other rare Larids, I reckon, review species and otherwise.

*Shorebirding in Santa Clara is simultaneously great and frustrating. We have numerous salt ponds but very limited access to tidal mudflats, despite being right on San Francisco Bay. This results in the weird scenario of me having seen 2 Little Stints in the county and just 1 Sanderling. Rockpipers stay further north in the bay, and we don't have any good grasspiper or Pluvialis spots. However, Santa Clara could easily be where California's next greenshank, redshank, Curlew Sandpiper, etc. shows up.

*Speaking of said salt ponds, I want to start biking around them...that way I could really cover some ground, see some shit, get to places I wouldn't normally be able to get to. The salt ponds cover a vast area and there is a lot of public access - I suppose that means I should get a bike. Or someone could get me vehicular access out there to do some shorebird surveys or something. Any takers? I am the #7 birder in the United States...and a biologist.

*Santa Clara has a number of species that other bay area counties lack or scarcely have, such as Swainson's Hawk, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Pileated Woodpecker, Yellow-billed Magpie, Canyon Wren (above, belting out its heartmelting song at Coyote Dam), Bell's and Black-chinned Sparrows and Lawrence's Goldfinches to name just a few. Although vagrants may be tough here, there is quite a good diversity of upland species overall.

*Alviso Marina may be one of the most reliable places for Black Rail in the entire country. After being relegated to the "heard only" list for years, I finally saw a Black Rail! I took a picture of a Black Rail! I have done the impossible! This wasn't a county bird like everything else photographed in this post, but who gives a shit? It's a BLACK RAIL.

So how have I done with the county birds this year? I started 2018 with 220 species in Santa Clara County. As of this writing, I've got 244 according to what eBird tracks. It ain't nothing to brag about, but I'm pleased with my progress. 250 is in my sights, a number which I see as evidence of established residency in Santa Clara County. And with fall migration now peaking for another month or so, it's possible I could get there before 2019, a year shaping up to be filled with mystery and intrigue. Since so much of my birding in the this year has not come up in BB&B, why don't we revisit some of these county birds?

Look at this COUNTY BIRD. It's not just any county bird, it's a Pileated Woodpecker, and this one gave the best looks I've had of one in my whole stupid life. I have no idea how long I stood there staring at it like an idiot. I couldn't believe my luck. It gave neither two shits, nor a fuck, about my presence. I stood as close to it as the intervening terrain and vegetation would allow. It was so engrossed in digging into this tree trunk that it wouldn't even look at me...probably because I looked like a total wanker just standing there with jaw agape. Photographed at Sanborn County Park.

With a bit of eBird sleuthing, I was able to figure out where to find a day-roosting Western Screech-Owl! I love it when piecing vague details from eBird comes together to coalesce into a COUNTY BIRD! This is only the second WESO I've been able to have truly leisurely looks at, and it was as invigorating as you would expect. There is something about the patterning on screech-owls that I find mesmerizing...fuck mossy oak, camo makers should be putting out screech-owl.

Willow Flycatchers pass through the bay area in appreciable numbers in fall. Rare breeders in California, I presume these birds are mostly coming from breeding grounds in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, but perhaps they include individuals from further east as well. For most species, we really don't know shit about migration, do we? Anyhoo I am grateful for the existence of Willow Flycatchers because they are easy to identify compared to other western Empids, unless you are trying to turn one into an Alder, in which case you are fucked. This was not only a COUNTY BIRD, but a satisfying addition to the 5MR ledger as well.

Hermit Warbler was a recent COUNTY BIRD, the last holdout of the west coast warblers. The autumnal diaspora of Hermits mostly occurs in August and September...hopefully this won't be my last of the year. This one was at Ulistac Natural Area, which seems to be the premiere (publicly accessible) migrant trap in the county. Fingers crossed this won't be the last new warbler I see in Santa Clara this fall. That would suck.

One of the best birds seen in Santa Clara in 2018 was the Anderson Lake Zone-tailed Hawk. I didn't see it. In fact, I didn't even bother looking for it, and saved myself many hours of fruitlessly standing around a parking lot in the process (most birders dipped on it). Why? My best self-found bird in the county since moving here was an immature Zone-tailed Hawk last November on Laguna Road in Coyote Valley. It is the second county record in eBird, and first photographed. Here is a classic crappy photo. COUNTY BIRD! And the first I've had the pleasure of seeing north of Santa Barbara, it is a solid rarity north of there.

Whether you give a damn about getting county birds or not, I hope you all have a good September. Bay area birders, please find something like Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Gray-cheeked Thrush or Cerulean Warbler. Those would be STATE birds...


  1. Anything is possible™

    My first thought when you said you should ride a bike around that area was "does Steve actually have a bike? How unexpected." But then you clarified so phew.

    Do you have to get to #7 to unlock photograph-able Black Rail?

  2. I last owned a bike about 12 years ago. It was a nice bike but the seat post got stolen by some piece of shit and then I lost my enthusiasm for it and gave it away. But when I was on Midway, I won the annual bike race out of everyone there, just so everyone knows I am extremely fit and an expert cyclist.

    About the rail, no, but I think you captured exactly how I feel about it.

  3. Damn you're good. I've only had a few glimpses of pileated in the SC Mtns. And black rail? Ridic. The Palo Alto Baylands down to Shoreline Park is all part of Santa Clara County, and probably the easiest places to access mudflats in the county. That said, if you see areas you'd like to bird that are public lands, but currently closed, drop me an email and I'll see if I can connect you up with the local biologists / resource managers. Most of the land managers in the area are open to giving permits to folks that can help them document and better understand the parks/preserves.

    1. I need to go check out the Ravenswood Preserve and Cooley Landing at some point, that looks like good access as well. Unfortunately most of the shorebirds at Palo Alto Baylands are usually too far out to see well - I bet you could see a lot from a kayak though.

      I'll send an email your way at some point RT.

    2. Ravenswood does have good access, but it's in San Mateo County. San Francisquito Creek is the border. Think you're right that kayaking would be the way to go. Seen folks do that around Bair Island. Although, it might not be as easy to do when the tide is low and the mudflat birds are at their best.

    3. Doh! Well at least the Palo Alto Baylands boardwalk is supposedly getting fixed starting this month.

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