The Salton Sea: February 2018

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American Avocets and Coots

Burrowing Owls – I can’t seem to get these little guys. By ‘get’, I mean ‘add to my list’, not as in ‘I don’t understand them’. Although I don’t. Anyway, I’m determined on this trip — steely-eyed. The owls are ‘reliable’ in the intensely agricultural Imperial Valley south of the Salton Sea. It’s a curiosity, the Salton Sea. An accident. Sort of. Being below sea level the Salton is a sink soaking up seasonal runoff. Boy, that’s a lot of ‘s’s!

In centuries past, runoff created a lake, which the sun quickly evaporated away. Then about 1905 or so,  a water company goof let the Colorado River fill the basin and suddenly the folks in Palm springs and LA had a big beautiful lake to visit. Great! Resort communities sprang up; probably Bogie and Bacall spent time here. In the a 1950’s it was a Beach Blanket Bingo kind of a place. That was then. Nowadays, almost no new water comes in and the lake is shrinking under the hot desert sun. Did I mention the smell? It has an unusual bouquet and when the wind’s in the wrong quarter, it’s fierce. If nothing changes, all the fish will die within seven years — even the hardy African Tilapia. Birds will suffer too as water levels drop. Where will the migrating flocks go to replenish their energy when the Sea is gone? Who knows?

The change is happening now. Three years ago squadrons of White Pelicans cruised the Sea; today not a single bird. Maybe there just aren’t enough fish anymore. Maybe the Pelis are at the other end of the lake. Lots of birds still come – they have to –  but fewer and fewer every year they say.

But I need to lighten up. It’s not all doomsday. There are folks trying to get more water for the Sea. The birding’s still good. American Avocets, which don’t need the Tilapia, still work the retreating edge of the water picking up brine shrimp. They are tall, pretty shorebirds with their French lawyer robe colouring and upturned bills. I can vouch for the upturned bill, not the other.

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Waterfowl in Transit

The  Sonny Bono Wildlife Refuge has Burrowing Owls — or they’re close by at any rate. Just inside the Refuge, a Roadrunner ambles by and then darts off looking, I suppose, for a snake or lizard for breakfast. Some Gambel’s Quail chuckle their way through the undergrowth. On some ponds, huge numbers of waterfowl rest on their way north; on others amazing numbers of shorebirds, including dozens of Dowitchers.

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Roadrunner

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Gambel’s Quail

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Dowitchers

I stop at the Refuge office for tips and also to ask about Sonny. Politicians tack their names on projects in which they otherwise have little interest but Sonny, once mayor of Palm Springs, really cared. So, thanks Sonny, (though not necessarily for “I Got You Babe)! As for the owls – “just walk out to the end of the parking lot and look right.” Which I do. In the wild, they’d use the abandoned burrows of other animals as they don’t dig their own. Here people have installed nesting pipes. And there they are, right on their doorstep, taking in the morning sun. So easy. How come it took me so long to get ’em’?

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Burrowing Owls

 

California Birding – Central Valley February 2018

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Central Valley, California

Driving in from Eureka on the coast, I overnight in Redding. Next night, Colusa. Birding takes you to places you wouldn’t ordinarily go. Colusa, for example. Nice little town, tucked under the levees of the Sacramento River. Not terribly lively, in my opinion – the best restaurant in town closed at 5 last night. It was Sunday, but still. Never mind.

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Bald Eagle

I visit two big wildlife refuges, Colusa and Sacramento. Both have auto routes. It’s agricultural here in the Valley – big time. The almond trees are beginning to blossom. In a week, the hills should be white with them. The extensive marshes of the refuges attract wintering birds of many species – grebes, coots, lots of ducks. So critically important, these refuges, to them, to us.

I drive slowly, past sunning Western pond Turtles, past the evidence coyotes, otters and other predators leave. A gorgeous peach bellied Say’s Phoebe shows up and then a Black Phoebe in its black and white formal-wear. An American Pipit ambles up to my car – curious, I guess. Hundreds of Snow Geese use the ponds as do many of their smaller cousins, the snub-nosed Ross’s Goose. I spot a few Long-billed Curlews and a flock of White-faced Ibises. I’m fascinated by the long, curved bills – so Alice in Wonderland. The raptors are here too. Circle of life and all that. I pass a half dozen Red-tailed Hawks, a bald Eagle. a Peregrine scanning the feeding ducks. At the Nature Center, a great Horned Owl hoots.

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Long-billed Curlew

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Say’s Phoebe

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White-faced Ibis

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Western Pond Turtles

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Peregrine Falcon

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American Pipit

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Ross’s Goose

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Snow Geese

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Redtail Hawk

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Black Phoebe

 

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Sacramento Wildlife Refuge

 

 

Winter Birds

It’s damp and it’s been cold, which notwithstanding, I’ve been out birding. For listers like me, the new year means the start of the count again. I like that. And it’s easy to pick up species now — common birds are just as important as uncommon ones. I did try for several rarities – a Bullock’s Oriole, a Lesser Goldfinch and a Mountain Bluebird. I struck out on all counts until yesterday when I finally (after 6 tries) caught the Goldfinch at a backyard feeder. Such a thrill to finally ‘strike pay dirt’. Even so, just to be outside, looking for birds and listening to the sounds of nature is its own reward. The new year revives old challenges too. I hear my old nemesis, the Glaucous Gull has been sighted up coast – a life bird for me. Worth a trip? I’m thinking, I’m thinking…

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Steller’s Jay

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Northern Pintail

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Common Merganser and Bufflehead

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Redpoll

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Downy Woodpecker

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Ringneck Duck

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Lesser Goldfinch

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Barred Owl

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Northern Flicker

Owls

Lately a friend sent me a beautiful photo of a Barred Owl perched on his sun deck. Others see owls on balconies, shrubs, ‘the old owl tree’ — you name it. I never get anything like that. I searched for a Barred Owl five days in a row recently. Nada. It’s like that for me, except when it isn’t. Sometimes, you’re in the forest, wandering, looking for whatever and an owl appears. Thrilling!

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Mostly I spot owls after I’ve spent hours, or days, searching. They’re seldom ‘handy’; they’re seldom posed. Nine times out of ten, they’re half-hidden by branches, or in back of the one branch that the camera decides it must have in focus. And I have to work darn hard to get good bokeh, that nice blurred background we all like. Good bokeh – ah, if only. I’ll keep trying. But now I’m whining. No reason for it either. I’ve seen quite a few owls when I’ve been out birding and sometimes I even get good shots. Besides any day you get to see an owl, never mind photograph one, is a good day!

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Short-eared Owl – Boundary Bay, BC

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Eastern Screech Owl – Aransas, Texas

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Great Horned Owl – Saanich, BC

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Barred Owl – Victoria, BC

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Western Screech Owl – San Pedro River, Arizona

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Long-eared Owl – Delta, BC

 

 

South Texas

Normally I like to ramble on a bit, maybe even get philosophical. This time I think I’ll just stick to the photos, all of which I took when V and I were at the Rio Grande Birding Festival. Some great birds, including a Tamaulipas Crow, which was a life bird for me. Just like in the movie, The Big Year, we got it at the Brownsville Dump, even though Brownsville wasn’t part of the plan for the day. We just got lost and ended up there, like we were meant to see that small, rare, grackle-like crow. Isn’t birding fun?

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Altamira Oriole

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Tropical Kingbird

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Snowy Egret

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Long-billed Thrasher

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Harris’s Hawk

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Kiskadee

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Eastern Screech Owl

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Parauque

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Long-billed Curlew

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Green Jay

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Tamaulipas Crow (from across the Brownsville dump)

 

 

The Owl

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View from Observatory Hill

On a whim, we drive to the top of Observatory Hill to take in the views. It’s almost noon and the temperature is perfect, on the decal edge of hot. Nice weather for a walk. After a few minutes of searching, we relocate trail head, now obscured by creamy cascades of Ocean Spray. It’s not those slightly stinky blossoms that perfumes the air. The sweet, resinous scent results, likely, from the sun heating up volatile oils on the firs and glossy-leafed Arbutus. It’s lovely.

Aside from a curious juvenile Dark-eyed Junco with his speckled belly, we hear lots of birds but see nada. Anyway, I left my camera with its dead battery in the car. That’s okay. We came for the views and the walk. What are the chances of spotting a good bird at this time of year? Good, as it turns out.

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Plaskett Telescope Dome

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The Forest – Observatory Hill

It’s when we pause to admire a view of Prospect Lake, that the birds we haven’t seen suddenly appear. They’re excited, agitated, giving alarm calls and intermittently dive-bombing a stand of firs. A phantom takes wing, a raptor. It glides out of the grove and down the hill. We ease down the slope and spot the bird. A Great Horned Owl!

Of course, the Robins, Downy Woodpeckers, Yellow-rumped Warblers and Juncos want it gone. After a moment, the Owl cranks its head around, exasperation showing in big, yellow eyes, and departs. Its tormentors follow. A noisy gaggle tumbles down through the trees and, suddenly, the show is over. The lesson for me is clear. Always carry a spare camera battery! In lieu of the owl that got away, I have pics of this bird, seen in April, to remind me of what might have been.

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Great Horned Owl – Stand In

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Owleyes

Those Big yellow Eyes!

 

 

Observatory Hill-Pygmy Owl Hunting

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The Fog Clears

It was bright and clear at sea level when I left home this morning but by the time I get to the top of Observatory Hill heavy cloud is moving in and drifting down into the trees. Red-barked Arbutus, pale maples and the rocky bones of the mountain become ghostly, moss-draped forms; the boles of giant firs, alleys of indistinct columns. I take the trail past one of the smaller telescope-covering domes (the reason it’s called Observatory Hill) and go down into the mist. I can hear birds – nuthatches, drumming woodpeckers, kinglets, a Varied Thrush – but aside from a half dozen Ravens, an Anna’s Hummingbird and a few Dark-eyed Juncos, I see nada. I had hoped to luck into a Northern Pygmy Owl, my real goal this morning. They live up here reportedly and hunt in the daytime, and I have yet to get a picture of one of these fierce little hunters. Now, with the fog, I’m expecting I’ll be plumb out of luck today.

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Dark-eyed Juncos

I hike through the gloomy forest, being careful to stay on trails I know. I’ve been lost in forests before and I do not like the feeling. After an hour or so, a light breeze arrives, quickens, changes direction and begins to scour the cloud from my side of the ‘mountain’. I pause on a rock outcrop for a view of Prospect Lake. It’s so quiet, so peaceful. A young Bald Eagle cruises past, gives me the ‘hairy eyeball’ and carries on. Fine. I’m leaving anyway. After a couple of hours on a cold, foggy mountaintop, I’m ready for a cup of hot coffee and, just maybe, a donut.

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Bald Eagle

On my way back up through the firs, I hear something – the clear, repeated  ‘toots’ of a Pygmy Owl calling. And from the other side of the trail, a hundred meters or so away, another bird, ‘tooting’ back. I think they do this, male and female counter-calling. They might stand still for a photo if I could just find them. The mist lingers here and there and the sound seems to move around, making it hard to locate the Pygmy. I never do get a picture. My reward for stalking the birds is a brief flash of underwing, and those sounds. Still, the owls are here, on Observatory Hill. Next chance I get, next clear early morning, I’ll be up here searching.