17 April 2014

The 100 species checklist

There's been this idea inside my head lately (on the back burner and getting stinky).  You'll remember back to January 1 of this year (or maybe you won't) when I set out to find 100 species in a day here in Sacramento County.  Well, I rushed around and ultimately came up a few short.  Not a big deal... BUT I was close enough to get the gears turning.

Cosumnes River Preserve, which sits on the southern edge of Sacramento County, often provides some impressive variety when it comes to day lists.  Not surprisingly, the impressive variety of birds is due to the impressive variety of habitats found there.  From the flooded fields which are great for waterfowl, to the drawn-down fields that can be good for shorebirds, to the impressive remnant riparian areas and sloughs, Cosumnes is kinda where it's at.

I've topped 80 species on a single visit there a few times but the nagging question lingered: "Would 100 be possible during a single visit?"  I assumed it could be done but with careful planning.  Today was the day except... I had no careful planning; instead I just decided to wing it.

I arrived around 7:30 this morning and started by scoping shorebirds and ducks along Desmond Road and the Lost Slough areas.  A SEMIPALMATED PLOVER was one of the first to greet me:

It was quite evident that the floodgates had opened for WESTERN SANDPIPERS.  There were fewer than 5 a couple of days ago but now the numbers were 40+.  Note the black legs, bright rufous on head/cheek/scaps, and the longish/drooped bill:

One of the flooded units was being drawn down which made it an attractive destination for this SOLITARY SANDPIPER.  This was my best find of the day and was a county lifer for me:

Yep, and if the not-so-black back and the elongated look to the backend wasn't enough, I know it wasn't a Green Sandpiper by this shot of the rump:

All these ponds probably have actual names but I'll skip that step and put a pin exactly where the bird was:

View Solitary Sandpiper in a larger map

I continued on my trek and found several VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOWS bickering with TREE SWALLOWS for a potential nest site.  Well, I can't say for sure that these swallows will nest here but when a cavity-nester behaves like this, it's hard to assume otherwise:

It's a shame these two photos aren't a bit more in focus; I absolutely love the coloration on these guys:


But of course the TREE SWALLOWS weren't to be outdone.  If I were keeping track, this might be my best shot ever of a TRES head:

The afternoon sun (temps were in the 80s), brought out many butterflies.  This LORQUIN'S ADMIRAL was staring me down:

...and today yielded my first MYLITTA CRESCENTS of the year:

Nearing the end of my effort, I was in dire need of fluke additions to my checklist.  One of those occurred when I flushed an AMERICAN BITTERN along a stretch of boardwalk.  Although this species breeds at Cosumnes, it's not one you can expect to find when you actually want to.

Another fluke was this WHITE-THROATED SPARROW that is continuing to hang out by the Visitor Center.  And as you can see, I was dehydrated and hallucinating enough to not bother taking a half-decent photo:

I found myself at 97 species with a surprising list of misses:

Ring-necked Duck
Sora
Whimbrel
Dunlin
Rufous Hummingbird
Rock Pigeon
House Sparrow

It's uncanny how easy it is to see these species there when you don't give a crap.  However, it was nearing 2:00 PM and I needed to get out of Dodge.  I needed some birds... and pronto.  I returned to Desmond Road which seemed like a logical place to refocus on shorebirds.  Although DUNLIN was easy just a week ago, the numbers have really thinned out lately.  I trained my scope on a roosting flock of WESTERN and LEAST SANDPIPERS and, eventually, my scoping paid off when a couple of the roosting birds turned out to be DUNLIN.  Ok, two more, I needed two more bits of luck.  Fast forward a while.  Cruising slowly down the road, my mind started to wander.  "Is that a pure purple Golden Eagle?  With a jetpack?  Wait, is it diving... towards me?  Woah, this thing is going to hit my freaking car!  HOLY..." -snapping to reality-  I slammed on the breaks.  I had heard something.  I hopped out, looked up, and confirmed my suspicions; a WHIMBREL was flying over and giving its hollow series of notes.

I was on a roll, I just needed one more.  That'd be easy, right?  Or.... would I bake here in the sun all afternoon, slowly losing my mind?  Would the authorities find a sunburnt crispy in hiking boots wrapped around a tripod with the number 99 scratched in the dirt?

I'm not sure at what point I became desperate but it was probably about the time I started setting my scope up ON TOP OF my car.  Maybe this added height would pay off?  Way out in a flooded field, I spotted a distant white bird on the other side of a dirt berm.  After adjusting my car location 3 times, I could confirm what would be my 100th species of the day, a FORSTER'S TERN.  It wasn't on my radar but I'd take it either way!  I reveled in reaching the mark for about 0.003 seconds before I packed up and scrammed.

Anyway, it was fun having a target number and even though it ended up being a slog at the end, I'm happy I stuck with it.  A friend suggested what I did could be classified as a "Big Checklist".  In the age of Big Years, Big Days, why not limit yourself to one hotspot and see how high you can get your single-visit total to.  Have any of you tried this?  If so, I'd like to hear about it!

Oh, and before I forget, as soon as I got home, Ash and I returned to Cosumnes just to see if the SOSA was still present (and it was).  Here's a digiscoped photo taken with my phone and adaptor:

For those curious types, here's my final species list:

Greater White-fronted Goose
Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Gadwall
American Wigeon
Mallard
Blue-winged Teal
Cinnamon Teal
Northern Shoveler
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Ring-necked Pheasant
Pied-billed Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
American White Pelican
American Bittern
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Green Heron
White-faced Ibis
Turkey Vulture
White-tailed Kite
Northern Harrier
Cooper's Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk
Swainson's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Virginia Rail
Common Gallinule
American Coot
Black-necked Stilt
American Avocet
Black-bellied Plover
Semipalmated Plover
Killdeer
Solitary Sandpiper
Greater Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs
Whimbrel
Dunlin
Least Sandpiper
Western Sandpiper
Long-billed Dowitcher
Forster's Tern
Mourning Dove
Black-chinned Hummingbird
Anna's Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Nuttall's Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Black Phoebe
Ash-throated Flycatcher
Western Kingbird
Hutton's Vireo
Western Scrub-Jay
American Crow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Tree Swallow
Violet-green Swallow
Barn Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Oak Titmouse
Bushtit
White-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
Marsh Wren
Bewick's Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Wrentit
Western Bluebird
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
Northern Mockingbird
European Starling
American Pipit
Orange-crowned Warbler
Nashville Warbler
MacGillivray's Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Wilson's Warbler
Spotted Towhee
California Towhee
Savannah Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Golden-crowned Sparrow
Red-winged Blackbird
Western Meadowlark
Brewer's Blackbird
Great-tailed Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Bullock's Oriole
House Finch
Lesser Goldfinch
American Goldfinch

... as seen on this checklist.

15 April 2014

Recent migration

I've birded every day for the last week or so and the reason is pretty simple... migration is at an interesting point right now around Sacramento County.  New species seem to arrive daily and after the excitement of the MARSH SANDPIPER only 13 miles from my house, I felt like I had to go do my share of rarity hunting.

I found no rarities.

Moving on.  In terms of shorebirds, the best find were 3 SEMIPALMATED PLOVERS at Cosumnes River Preserve two days ago.  Although they're expected migrants, April 13 was quite an early date to see this species.  Here's a digiscoped photo taken with my phone:

BLUE-WINGED TEAL are uncommon winter residents around here and are far less expected than GREEN-WINGED TEAL and CINNAMON TEAL.  However, they're now flagged in eBird, probably because it's mid-April already.  Here are some at Cosumnes River Preserve:

Cosumnes, which is relatively loaded with potential, has yielded several nice songbirds lately.  Perhaps most exciting to me was this warbler skulking in the shadows:

You'll notice one important thing (two, actually); the white eye-crescents gleaming back at you.  This MACGILLIVRAY'S WARBLER was the earliest eBirded record ever for Sacramento County.  It was a little devil to pin down though and getting documentation photos took a while.

As a completely unrelated aside, I have to say that I really enjoy using the BirdLog app which allows me to make eBird checklists on my phone while I'm out birding.  This way, if I see a bird, enter it on my phone, and see that it's flagged, I know then and there that I should try to get proof.  Although that's not a big deal if you're birding somewhere where you know all of those details, it's great if you're traveling and have no idea of expected arrival dates, etc.

Anyway, a wheezy, sputtering call came from the slough at Cosumnes a couple of days ago and I eventually tracked down the culprit, a BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER:

And although it was my first ever for Cosumnes, it's not particularly rare for the county.  However, it looks like this was the first time one had been eBirded from Cosumnes in about 3 years.

I dragged myself away from Cosumnes long enough to check out William Land Park farther up the road in Sacramento.  There wasn't much of note other than a RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRD or two around the rock garden and this BLACK-THROATED GRAY WARBLER that flew down to a puddle:

I haven't ignored all of my other local patches quite yet; I did hit up Don Nottoli Park just down the road from where I live.  My first of the spring WILSON'S WARBLER was singing away:

... and today there were two ASH-THROATED FLYCATCHERS.  This was the first time I'd ever had them there (not so for Ash).  Here's one of the two:

Only recently have CATTLE EGRETS started to move into the region in force.  We counted about 20 of them on our last visit to Don Nottoli Park.  As you can see, they're in the height of their breeding plumage (notice especially the shade of the bill and bare parts around the face):

But alas, it wasn't long before I spent more time at Cosumnes River Preserve.  For being relatively close to where I live, there isn't a place with better habitat.  On this particular visit, I glanced up to see my first VAUX'S SWIFTS of the spring overhead.  And yeah, taking pictures of swifts on a cloudy day isn't likely to boost anyone's confidence:

A silent PACIFIC-SLOPE FLYCATCHER was my first for the year.  Getting pics of this bird buried in the slough vegetation wasn't easy either:

And remember the teal?  The BLUE-WINGED TEAL, that are now flagged, have still been reliable.  Here's a male (left) with two females (right):

Ash and I went on a year-bird searching spree yesterday.  One main target was tucked away in the lush and exotic vegetation found in some neighborhoods up along the American River.  It's here, amongst the palms, that you might find HOODED ORIOLES.  They're an uncommon breeding species and one we don't see very often down where we live.  A tip from the one-and-only Ed Harper put us in the right place.  Here's a male:

Another target actually required us to be out at last light.  We ventured to the grasslands along Meiss Road (far eastern Sacramento County) to see the reliable LESSER NIGHTHAWKS.  We weren't disappointed; we spotted 3 foraging as soon as we arrived (this is 2.8 miles east of Dillard Road):

This was many hours before the lunar eclipse started but I took a picture of the moon low on the horizon anyway:

It was getting dark but we weren't finished with our targets yet.  We ventured up the road to Latrobe Road for another target.  We arrived at the spot (0.5 miles east of the intersection with Stonehouse Road) and at 8:10 PM, the COMMON POORWILL started singing.  And although this spot is a reliable place to find this tiny nightjar, it was a new county bird for both of us.

So after this recent bout of birding, my county year list stands at 193.  Recent additions include:

Black-chinned Hummingbird (4/8)
Western Sandpiper (4/9)
MacGillivray's Warbler (4/11)
Wilson's Warbler (4/12)
Nashville Warbler (4/13)
Cassin's Vireo (4/13)
Pacific-slope Flycatcher (4/13)
Vaux's Swift (4/13)
Semipalmated Plover (4/13)
Ash-throated Flycatcher (4/14)
Lesser Nighthawk (4/14)
Common Poorwill (4/14)
Hammond's Flycatcher (4/15)

There are still some targets that have been reported that I lack.  High on my list include:

Black-headed Grosbeak
Brewer's Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow
Warbling Vireo
Western Screech-Owl

That's all for now.  I'm going to go out and enjoy the 80 degree temps.

10 April 2014

MARSH SANDPIPER - updated

--SEE BOTTOM FOR UPDATE--

"You've got to be kidding me"

That sums up the thought I had once I saw the listserve post last night.  Local birder Roger Muskat had found a MARSH SANDPIPER in Solano County and John Sterling was able to confirm it and get pictures.  The email didn't come through until after dark so, naturally, I suddenly had somewhere to be the next morning.

Marsh Sandpiper is a small and slender Tringa that belongs in the Old World.  It's related to yellowlegs, greenshanks, tattlers, Willet, etc.  There are about 10 other ABA records of this species but all in fall (most records from the Aleutians, also 1 record from St. Paul Island, and 1 record from southern California).

A look at a map shows that this mega rarity, only the 2nd one to ever be seen in the Lower 48, was found less than 14 miles from where I live (what are the odds of that)!  But since I'm no longer allowed to traverse the countryside in my Jetsons jetpack (too many regulations and paperwork), I'd have to follow roads to get there and that would take about an hour; yes, it's a long ways up and around the convoluted series of deep-water shipping channels, canals, wetlands, rivers, etc.

The yellow line spans from where I live (on the right) to where the bird was found (on the left):

I arrived at the spot this morning shortly after 7 AM.  There were already about 100 birders looking at the bird but it was distant and quite backlit (they were looking east longwise into the roadside drainage ditch where the bird was feeding).  I got on the bird and, honestly, it was easy to pick out based on relative size to the Greater Yellowlegs, the tall and spindly legs, and the extremely thin bill.  

The birder hoard was itching for some face-melting views of this mega rarity and decided to drive past the bird, stop beyond it, and look back towards the shorbs with better light.  It didn't work.  The whole flock got up and circled.  Eventually the Marsh Sandpiper landed out in the pasture along with a few Greater Yellowlegs.  Shortly after, the bird got up again and flew back towards the traditional ditch but because of a few birders/photographers parked and standing right next to the spot, the flighty shorebirds kept flying and, as luck would have it, directly past the rest of us.  I snapped a few photos:


We watched as it dropped down to the east but even after birders drove that way to investigate, it was MIA, no one could find it.  I left shortly thereafter.

Remember, normal civilians, a rare bird was found so birders now own the road (jest, people, only jest):

Either someone in the middle of this huddle has a donut for sharing or is letting people see a photo they took of the bird:

Cool bird though.  Major props to Roger who found the bird and to others who shared the news!


-UPDATE-

We returned to the spot yesterday afternoon (4/10) at about 3:40 PM.  It hadn't been seen since it flew away that morning but Ashley wanted to wait it out for a while so I reluctantly agreed.  Well, her persistence paid off!  At 4:43, it magically reappeared distantly in the ditch.  Speaking of the ditch, here's what we're dealing with:

People have talked about the water level a good bit online; it apparently fluctuates from just wet mud to standing water and then back again.  It'll be interesting to see what happens with that.

After the call went out that the bird had reappeared, the cookie-eating birders that were loafing in/around the cars returned to their scopes:

... and soon thereafter, most of them agreed to start creeping up towards the bird:

It was at this point we left.

09 April 2014

"Lawrence's of Arabia"

It was only a matter of time before I started venturing farther and farther from home to get my fill of birding.  Recently, I've spent a day here and there, mostly in the foothills on either side of the Central Valley.

For example, I returned to Michigan Bar and Latrobe roads (far eastern Sacramento County) in hopes of finding LAWRENCE'S GOLDFINCHES.  This species was one I had very little experience with before I moved to California and for good reason; they're by far the least common of the three normal goldfinches that breed here in North America.  I'm no expert on their biology but I do find them rather fascinating; they're found in open oak woodlands/grasslands in the foothills of California, especially grassy areas.

As luck would have it, I started having some success with them just in the last week or so.  They've been in the company of LESSER GOLDFINCHES just about every time and they're almost ALWAYS found in the vicinity of fiddleneck flowers (Amsinckia sp.).

Sexing this species is straightforward; males have a black face mask, females don't.  Here's a male from Latrobe Road: 

Here's a pair of LAWRENCE'S GOLDFINCHES, also on Latrobe Road.  The female, which is on the right, can still be identified as a LAWRENCE'S by the yellow edging on the wings:

There has also been a reliable male LAWRENCE'S GOLDFINCH on Michigan Bar Road about 2.4-2.9 miles north of Highway 16.  As is typical of this species, it's been feeding on fiddleneck along with LESSER GOLDFINCHES:



In this view, you can actually see the fiddleneck seed in its bill:

And hey, even OSPREYS can fly over when you're birding foothill locations.  For some reason, I've had a hard time finding a place around here that is super reliable for this species:

While I was out in the grassland areas of eastern Sacramento County, I also drove down Meiss Road.  This road is well known among the local birders for being a reliable spot for LESSER NIGHTHAWKS and GRASSHOPPER SPARROWS during the summer months.  I managed to find one of the latter despite it being a record early date for this location.  It actually flushed from a puddle in the road where it was bathing.  It preened on the fence for a few moments before flying off:

The endemic Central Valley race of HORNED LARK was also conspicuous and, at times, quite tame:

After my limited success, I decided to return the next day to see if both of us could relocate the targets.  On Latrobe Road we stumbled onto this singing but backlit sparrow on a fence post:

The big bold eyering gave it away though and after we got a better angle on it, it was clearly evident that this was a VESPER SPARROW:

This species is fairly rare here, I believe it's only my second county record.

After we left the grasslands, we thought we were done birding but on the drive home, this young GOLDEN EAGLE overhead caused us to do a U-turn and to snap some pictures:

It seems that in most places of the Central Valley, GOLDEN EAGLE is actually the more-likely eagle you'll encounter (yes, BALD EAGLE is quite uncommon out here).  However, the tables get turned here in Sacramento County; it's my opinion that you're more likely to see a BALD than a GOLDEN.  Anyway, this particular GOLDEN was only my 4th record for the county.

Fast forward to a different day, we headed up to some hill country but this time to the west of us, towards the Inner Northern Coast Range (drive west on I-80 to Vacaville and then head north; from there you can take a number of mountain roads leading up to the west).

On this particular visit, we ventured up Gates Canyon and then Mix Canyon, the latter being one of my favorite spots anywhere near here.  I like it so much because of how the habitat changes dramatically by the top; the thick chaparral on your way up is home to many species like WRENTITS, MOUNTAIN QUAIL, and CALIFORNIA THRASHERS.  We digiscoped this particular thrasher with my iPhone and scope adaptor:

A highlight for me were the several calling MOUNTAIN QUAIL we heard at various stops.  This uncommon species is another that I definitely didn't grow up with!

Once you arrive at the top of the hills, you'll quickly realize you're in some cool habitat.  In fact, the thin chaparral is home to the uncommon BELL'S SPARROW.  Just last year this species was split off from SAGE SPARROW (which was then changed to SAGEBRUSH SPARROW).  There was one tame pair of BELL'S SPARROWS along the road and the male, which was busy singing, was easy to photograph:

I also put the scope on the bird a few times and took some more photos and movies:

I uploaded a video I took of a BELL'S SPARROW singing onto my Flickr page.  Watch the video here.

All in all, it was a great day of birding.  Migrants were fairly obvious and species like CASSIN'S VIREO, WILSON'S WARBLER, and BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAK all put in appearances.

Today I wanted to stay closer to home so I instead ventured to Cosumnes River Preserve just south of where I live.  The highlight for me were two WESTERN SANDPIPERS, my first of the spring here in Sacramento County.

I also digiscoped this BLACK PHOEBE using my iPhone, Kowa adaptor, and scope:


Anyway, that's all I have for you at this point.  Sometime soon I'll have another book review for all 6 of you readers.