Monday, 24 April 2017
It was a good day for ducks. Not that it rained on us all that much. I mean, it did rain on us, some in the morning and more in the afternoon, and it was cloudy, with rain clearly visible in the distance pretty much all day, but what I mean really is that we saw a great number and variety of ducks that day. And I mean that it's a good day for duck species, because this winter is the wettest winter California has had since scientists started tracking rainfall data in 1895. This was a winter where dams eroded their spillways and rivers broke their banks and houses flooded right here in the South Bay, not to mention the rest of the state. A winter where roads closed due to downed trees and mudslides. A winter where the Sierra snowpack was measured in feet not inches and ski resorts planned to stay open until the Fourth of July. And that after an epic drought—the driest years ever recorded in California—where millions of trees died and reservoirs emptied and rain seemed a distant memory. A drought that the American Geophysical Union thinks was the worst in 1,200 years. What a contrast!
Our first bird on our journey was not a duck though. It was a Northern Mockingbird, singing its head off at 3:30am when our alarms woke us from too little sleep. We gathered our things and piled into our car and drove up Page Mill Road, where we saw our first mammal of the day: a jackrabbit who loped over to the berm to let us pass. Our first destination was Monte Bello Open Space Preserve, a park in the Santa Cruz hills where Stevens Creek begins. The creek starts as little seep springs and sag ponds within the park, collecting into a burbling creek that follows the San Andreas Rift Zone south, away from the San Francisco Bay. Then it makes two hard left turns and heads north into the Stevens Creek Reservoir, out the spillway and down through suburbia where it is tamed into a flood-control channel via levees until it eventually empties into the bay. This creek and the half-dozen other creeks and rivers that intersect Silicon Valley is part of the system that fuels most of our bird diversity, as well as mammals, fish, plants, trees, mushrooms...all of nature. The reservoir, when full like it is now, holds enough water to serve over 6,000 families for a year and is home to an array of wildlife including ducks, geese, hawks, cormorants, shorebirds and songbirds.
The first bird on our hike was a frog. Or rather we thought it was a frog, marked "frog" on our list and carried on into the darkness. We were listening for owls. It was only 5am. The sun would rise at 6:21am. Sometime in between the birds would start waking and begin singing what we affectionately call the Dawn Chorus. Since our ears were tuned for owls, we dismissed the possibility of another night-calling species. One that lives in sag ponds in the hills. We'll come back to that bird in a bit.
Hiking in the dark was made a little more challenging because parts of the Canyon Trail were still quite muddy, even though it hadn't rained in a few days. We heard streams trickling on either side of the trail, in spots we hadn't heard during the drought years. There were downed trees from the winter's storms, but they had all been cut and cleared from the trail. One of the side trails was entirely closed due to winter storm damage. We made our way about a mile in to an open hillside where we could listen down the valley. And there we heard our owls. A pair of Great Horned Owls called to each other in the night, slowly getting closer to one another as they returned from hunting to bed down somewhere in the Redwoods and Douglas-Fir trees. Soon after, birds started waking up: one American Robin, then two, then many. Mourning Doves, Spotted Towhees, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Wild Turkeys, Orange-crowned Warblers, Dark-eyed Juncoes, even a Western Tanager called in the valley as the sky began to lighten.
I'm particularly fond of Western Tanagers. The male tanagers are super bright yellow birds with impossibly bright red-orange heads and jet black wings. They are the common tanager west of the Rockies, but you still have to be in the right place at the right time to see one. They like the sunny tops of trees in what are called Cordilleran forests, which are mixed conifer forests on mountain ranges that are generally dry except for the winter rains. Their common cousins east of the Rockies are the Scarlet Tanager, where except for the jet-black wings the males are bright red from beak to tail. Why are the Scarlets common in the east and the Westerns common here? I'm not sure. Most birds are really picky about their habitat, so maybe the habitats are just different enough that the Westerns don't thrive there and the Scarlets don't thrive here, even though both species occasionally cross to the opposite side of the Rockies. Habitat pickiness means that preserving a diversity of habitats is important. It also means that by visiting a large variety of habitats during the Birdathon we can maximize the number of species we can find throughout the day. And that's what we do.
We hiked the grassy hillsides and the Redwood forest and the Oak-Bay woodlands of Monte Bello Open Space Preserve, through some fog and a little drizzle until we had tallied over 40 species of birds, three mammals (California Vole, Mule Deer and distant calling Coyotes), and more than a dozen species of wildflowers. Then we headed back to the car. On our way back we passed a sag pond (official name: Sag Pond), a small bog filled with cattails and duckweed and a couple Song Sparrows calling. We paused and then something else called. It was the call we had heard earlier in the night. The frog. Only it wasn't a frog and this time we realized that. The gi-dik gi-dik gi-dik we were hearing was the call of the Virginia Rail, a large-but-secretive bird that hangs out in wetlands, especially freshwater marshes. Of course! This was a great bird to get, and it was probably thanks to the wet winter that we did -- the sag pond was fuller, wetter, more alive than it had been in the previous half-dozen drought years.
Our next stop was Arastradero Preserve, specifically the north side which is mostly open grassland, and Felt Lake which is visible from the preserve. Lots of new birds including Bullock’s Oriole, Red-shouldered Hawk, Vaux's Swift, Great Blue Heron, House Wren and Western Bluebirds. We also saw Western Kingbirds, a kind of flycatcher that is only here in the summer months. Felt Lake had Greater Yellowlegs (a shorebird), Killdeer (another shorebird) and Canada Geese. It didn't have much else, because a pair of scientists in a jeep were doing some sort of study along the shoreline.
Next we cut across the urban areas, thankfully after the morning rush, until we hit the bay. Palo Alto Baylands is where we started seeing the ducks. We found Green-winged Teal, Mallard, Ruddy Duck, Northern Shoveler. We even found a pair of Canvasback, Ginger’s favorite duck, and a Blue-winged Teal, neither of which we expected. Usually they've left for their northern breeding grounds by now. We found shorebirds and Forster's Terns and only one species of gull: California Gull. We were hoping that the Palo Alto Duck Pond would give us some gull diversity, but alas! California Gull was the only gull species we saw the entire day. It was a good day for ducks, but not gulls I guess.
Then we headed to Charleston Slough and Shoreline Lake. Just east of Shoreline is where Stevens Creek, whose headwaters marked the start of our day, makes its way to the bay, mixing freshwater with salt and providing more habitats for a great diversity of birds. We found a Northern Pintail in Adobe Creek, another duck that we thought might be gone by now. More shorebirds, some sparrows, a Belted Kingfisher and a few American Wigeon (another duck). The biggest surprise was a raccoon, hunting along the edge of Adobe Creek. I had put my binoculars up to identify a pair of Green-winged Teal when I noticed him moving along the edge of the cattails, foraging along the mud and water with his paws. He looked back at me, but seemed unconcerned with our presence.
Next up was Alviso. A street called Disk Drive has open grassland on one side and brand-new construction of multiple warehouse buildings on the other. The buildings will apparently be shipping centers, which is a bad thing, because the grassland side is one of the few locations left in the South Bay where one can find Burrowing Owls. We scanned the grasslands and found one owl, apparently sleeping next to a small grass-covered hillock. As we watched the owl with our spotting scope, a large truck rumbled down the street behind us. The owl perked up, walked to the top of the hill, and flew off. I'm worried that these new buildings are going to so disrupt the owls that they will fly off for good.
The suburban portions of Alviso gave us Common Grackle and Eurasian Collared-Dove, two relative newcomers to the Bay Area. And we found a Hooded Oriole, the less common of our two orioles. In the marsh that was once the Alviso Marina but is now a home for ducks, rails, hawks, swallows and shorebirds we found a Northern Harrier along with many birds we had seen earlier in the day. It was nearly 2PM and it was getting progressively harder to find new species. We went to the Environmental Education Center and New Chicago Marsh, all part of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. There we found more ducks: two Cinnamon Teal, and in Salt Pond A16 we found our first real rarity: a pair of Redheads. The Redheads were feeding out beyond the first man-made island. We immediately reported this bird on the South-Bay-Birds mailing list and through the week other birders came to see them and confirm our sighting. It's always fun when we see a bird that's unusual enough to get other birders out into the field!
After the Baylands we headed for the East Hills. We birded all around Ed Levin County Park and got a chance to see the beautiful Western Tanagers that we had only heard in the dawn hours. We also found a selasphorus hummingbird (probably Rufous Hummingbird) and a late-in-the-day Brewer's Blackbird, but the most unexpected sighting here was a Hoary Bat, out in daylight, hunting over Spring Valley Pond in upper Ed Levin park. You know, when we lift our binoculars up to identify a bird, we don't expect to discover that it's actually a large bat swooping and dipping and turning over the water! It stayed long enough for me to get a couple pictures and some good looks with binoculars.
Now we were near the end of the day. The sky was still gray and the rain clouds looked like they were low enough that the hilltops were embedded in them. We headed up toward those hilltops. Along the way we found an American Kestrel, several Yellow-billed Magpies and a Loggerhead Shrike. All great birds to get, especially the Shrike, which is another one of those birds that's here in the winter in fairly small numbers and leaves usually well before we do our Birdathon.
Sure enough, Sierra Road and the Sierra Vista Open Space Preserve were solidly inside the rainclouds. We had rain and wind and cold and only two birds: Western Meadowlark and Horned Lark. Horned Lark was new for the day though, so we were happy.
We drove down into the valley. We were losing light as the sun was close to setting. We stopped at Ulistac Natural Area, which is nestled along the edge of the Guadalupe River in Santa Clara and we hunted as long as the remaining daylight would let us. The sun shone briefly between the clouds and the western hills just before setting as we hiked. The curving marshes in Ulistac used to be bends of the Guadalupe River, where a native tribe now known as the Ohlone once had a small village; the river currently runs straight along the edge of the park, on the other side of a tall levee. In these reed-filled horseshoe ponds as our daylight disappeared we found our last bird of the day. A Common Gallinule who called, only twice, from within the reeds. Although he is a close cousin to the Virginia Rail, we did not mistake his call for another frog! This was a good bird on which to end our adventure.
All in all we drove 170 miles all within Santa Clara County, hiked 12 miles, birded for 15 1/2 hours from before dark to after sunset and saw 115 species total, including 12 species of ducks.
You can find all our photos on my pbase site.
And here's the writeup we did for the South-Bay-Birds Mailing list. This version is much more about the birds, written for birders.
Here's the list of what we saw and when we saw it:
Timeline: Woke up 3:30am. Out the door at 4:25am. Cloudy, little wind (under 5mph). 55°F. Home √ Northern Mockingbird 04:12 AM Driving to Monte Bello OSP 04:28 AM (1 Jackrabbit) 04:40 AM At ridge top- 46°F, light wind, cloudy 05:01 AM Not foggy! Well maybe a little foggy (1 Frog...no, Rail!) 05:09 AM Made it to dawn chorus spot on Canyon Trail- no birds calling yet 05:26 AM √ Great Horned Owl 05:35 AM √ American Robin 05:44 AM √ Mourning Dove 05:51 AM √ Western Tanager 05:53 AM In the dawn chorus. Photographed at Ed Levin √ Spotted Towhee 05:55 AM √ Wild Turkey 05:56 AM √ Song Sparrow 05:57 AM √ Orange-crowned Warbler 05:59 AM √ Bewick's Wren 06:01 AM √ American Crow 06:02 AM √ California Quail 06:02 AM √ Steller's Jay 06:04 AM √ Wrentit 06:04 AM √ California Towhee 06:05 AM (1 Mule Deer) 06:14 AM √ Oak Titmouse 06:16 AM √ Black-headed Grosbeak 06:19 AM (1 Coyote) 06:20 AM √ Nuttall's Woodpecker 06:32 AM √ Chestnut-backed Chickadee 06:34 AM √ Band-tailed Pigeon 06:34 AM √ Northern Flicker 06:35 AM √ Dark-eyed Junco 06:38 AM √ Acorn Woodpecker 06:41 AM √ Hermit Thrush 06:43 AM √ Pileated Woodpecker 06:53 AM Two different directions. One followed by loud drumming. √ Anna's Hummingbird 06:55 AM √ Black-throated Gray Warbler 07:02 AM √ Bushtit 07:14 AM √ Yellow-rumped Warbler 07:32 AM Singing √ Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 07:38 AM √ Common Raven 07:41 AM √ Golden Eagle 07:45 AM √ California Scrub-Jay 07:46 AM √ Ash-throated Flycatcher 07:48 AM (1 California Vole) 07:56 AM √ Golden-crowned Sparrow 08:01 AM √ White-crowned Sparrow 08:01 AM √ Virginia Rail 08:14 AM √ Western Bluebird 08:21 AM √ European Starling 08:25 AM √ Red-tailed Hawk 08:35 AM √ Red-shouldered Hawk 08:45 AM Arastradero Preserve 08:45 AM √ House Wren 08:50 AM √ Turkey Vulture 08:55 AM √ Violet-green Swallow 08:56 AM √ Red-winged Blackbird 09:02 AM √ Barn Swallow 09:07 AM √ Vaux's Swift 09:07 AM √ Brown-headed Cowbird 09:09 AM √ Bullock's Oriole 09:09 AM √ Great Blue Heron 09:12 AM √ Rock Pigeon 09:12 AM √ House Finch 09:14 AM √ Purple Finch 09:18 AM √ Cedar Waxwing 09:20 AM √ Lesser Goldfinch 09:21 AM √ Cooper's Hawk 09:26 AM √ Greater Yellowlegs 09:34 AM Identified by voice √ Killdeer 09:35 AM √ Canada Goose 09:35 AM √ Cliff Swallow 09:37 AM (California Ground Squirrel) 09:40 AM √ White-tailed Kite 09:45 AM √ Western Kingbird 09:49 AM √ Mallard 10:08 AM √ Tree Swallow 10:11 AM √ Northern Rough-winged Swallow 10:19 AM √ White-throated Swift 10:22 AM Headed to Palo Alto Baylands 10:28 AM √ Snowy Egret 10:35 AM √ Forster's Tern 10:35 AM √ Double-crested Cormorant 10:35 AM √ Black-crowned Night-Heron 10:36 AM √ Ruddy Duck 10:36 AM √ American Coot 10:39 AM √ California Gull 10:40 AM √ Northern Shoveler 10:41 AM √ Green-winged Teal 10:41 AM √ Willet 10:43 AM √ Canvasback 10:49 AM √ Blue-winged Teal 10:51 AM Pair √ Whimbrel 10:53 AM √ Dunlin 10:59 AM √ Western Sandpiper 10:59 AM √ American Avocet 11:01 AM √ Black Phoebe 11:14 AM Headed to Coast Casey Forebay 11:15 AM √ Common Yellowthroat 11:26 AM √ Green Heron 11:26 AM √ Marsh Wren 11:29 AM √ Surf Scoter 11:34 AM √ Great Egret 11:34 AM √ Marbled Godwit 11:38 AM √ Savannah Sparrow 11:46 AM √ Gadwall 11:56 AM √ Northern Pintail 12:00 PM √ American Wigeon 12:00 PM Flyover √ Semipalmated Plover 12:08 PM √ Black-necked Stilt 12:08 PM √ Long-billed Dowitcher 12:14 PM (1 Raccoon) 12:15 PM √ Belted Kingfisher 12:31 PM √ Pied-billed Grebe 01:08 PM √ American White Pelican 01:21 PM √ Great-tailed Grackle 01:22 PM √ Eurasian Collared-Dove 01:26 PM √ House Sparrow 01:27 PM √ Hooded Oriole 01:38 PM √ Northern Harrier 01:41 PM √ Western Meadowlark 02:11 PM √ Burrowing Owl 02:23 PM Resting at the side of a ground Squirrel mound. A truck came by and he woke up, ran to the top of the mound, and then flew away. √ Cinnamon Teal 02:42 PM √ Redhead 03:01 PM Submitted notes to eBird. Leaving Alviso; headed to Ed Levin 03:21 PM 67°F, only a little windy. Some light rain 03:36 PM √ Selasphorus Hummingbird sp. 04:06 PM √ Brewer's Blackbird 04:44 PM (Hoary Bat! 05:01 PM Feeding over Spring Valley Pond at upper Ed Levin) √ American Kestrel 05:28 PM On Marsh Road (off Felter Road) 05:41 PM √ Yellow-billed Magpie 05:47 PM √ Loggerhead Shrike 05:59 PM Sierra Vista Open Space Preserve Colder, drizzly and windy √ Horned Lark 06:40 PM Ulistac Natural Area √ Common Gallinule 07:55 PM Home again Listened for Barn Owls, no luck Finished around 9pm