An Eastern Sierras Excursion
The Eastern Sierras are one of the benefits of birding in California. They have a wealth of breathtaking scenery that we get to visit or pass. They are easily the equal of well-known scenic wonders like Yosemite, Big Sur, Death Valley, and Lake Tahoe. And these are just a few of the places that inspire awe. Driving around the state, I’ve developed an interest in geology as well, but birding is the main focus of my travels.
Ridgeway’s Rail at Upper Newport Ecological Reserve.
Light-footed Ridgeway’s Rail (formerly known as Clapper Rail), are federally listed as endangered. They can be difficult to see here in Orange County California. Unless you know when and where to look, you will rarely get a close-up. They occasionally appear at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Huntington Beach. But until recently, they have been few and far between. They still are not seen at Bolsa Chica with the regularity, quantity, or visibility of Upper Newport Bay during winter high tides.
Even though this Ridgeway’s Rail had been reported, I was surprised to drive into the parking lot at Bolsa Chica and hear it calling loudly, looking for love almost continuously in early July. I could barely see him through the vegetation lining the parking lot, so I walked around to the far side of the mule fat to see if I could get a decent look. There he was, looking for love, at almost point blank range (about 20 yards from me and about the same distance from Pacific Coast Highway). What an opportunity to take some video to try out the new Kowa TE-11WZ 25-60x wide angle eyepiece on my Kowa TSN-884 spotting scope! You can see the rail’s body shake with every call, and if you look closely, you can see his tongue.
When someone found a Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) at Watsonville Slough, we knew we had to try for it. Common Cuckoo is an Old World species with a broad distribution in Europe and Asia, with some wintering in Africa. You’ll note though that none of those places include California! In fact, the species is regular if not annual on the islands of western Alaska. However, prior to the Watsonville bird, only one previous sighting in the lower 48 states existed. That bird graced Martha’s Vinyard more than 30 years ago. This Common Cuckoo may be common in Asia, but south of Canada, it’s decidedly uncommon. We anxiously watched the birding hotlines through Saturday. After the latest sighting in the afternoon, we decided to go for it. How do you resist a bird this good?!
Arriving in Watsonville
We arrived in Watsonville in the wee hours of the morning. We tried four different motels before finally secured lodgings for the little remaining night. Dawn came really early the next morning, and dragging ourselves out of bed was an act of will. But hey, we’re birders and Common Cuckoo is a killer bird so we did it. So did a lot of other people, as it turned out. Over 50 birders crowded Ramsay Park as we pulled up. And in something of an anti-climax, they already had the bird in view as we walked up. We decided we could live with that!
Sub-adult Common Cuckoo
This Common Cuckoo may only have been an immature, but it was already a veteran when it came to positioning itself. The bird frequented willows on the western edge of Watsonville Slough. There it expertly selected perches that invariably placed it right in front of the sun from the only available vantage points. It also chose spots where there were always intervening branches and leaves in front of it. That confounded all auto-focusing. We took many obstructed photos. These are some of the shots that were a little less so. Note the lovely orange orbital ring and the gorgeous barring to the chest. These images were captured through a Kowa TSN-884 spotting scope equipped with 20-60x zoom eyepiece and a Nikon CoolPix P6000 camera attached using a Kowa TSN-DA-10 digiscoping adapter. We mounted the optics on a Manfrotto 701HDV,055CXV3 carbon fiber tripod with a digiscoping head.
Desert Bighorn Sheep near Zzyzx.
The joy of birding doesn’t always include birds. We made a successful three hour drive to Baker, California to see a White Ibis. White-faced Ibis are the common species in California. Glossy Ibis is very rare. And this was the first White Ibis I’ve seen in the state in nearly 20 years of birding. We then decided to check some other local spots. We know of several in the area that can often be productive.
One of our favorite spots is the California State University Desert Studies Center at Zzyzx. Formerly a desert resort, this oasis has springs and accommodations that facilitate workshops of many kinds, and on a good day, can have lots of migrant birds refueling in the trees and ponds. Some desert residents even breed there. So, we drove in, parked, and walked around searching for some rare bird to tickle our fancy. We checked the ponds, the tamarisks, the palms, and the willows. We even scanned the rocky hillsides and the salt pan.
The place was virtually bird-less. But on our way out, we chanced upon this particular joy of birding, a flock of Desert Bighorn Sheep. These animals are very reclusive, so we stopped to get some photos and video. We shot some rewarding footage recording behavior that very few people get to see. I recorded the video with a Nikon CoolPix P6000 camera through a Kowa TSN-884 spotting scope.
We used digiscoping so that we could keep our distance and avoid spooking the sheep. Through digiscoping, we were able to record Desert Bighorn Sheep doing things that are not often seen. Be sure to follow along with the narration in the video. We point out such behavior as the ram asserting his dominance and insisting on submission from one of the younger males.
On a routine weekend in late November, we went to look at a Harris’s Hawk reported recently at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in Irvine, California. The Orange County Bird Records Committee is unlikely to accept this bird due to questionable origins. Even so, you just can’t miss a bird that cool in a location like this. We arrived at about 8:45 on a sunny Saturday morning. At least 200 Cedar Waxwings were calling from the parking lot as we set up and headed out. We walked to the end of the boardwalk, and there was the hawk, sitting regally in a bare branched tree.
After taking numerous photos of him, we headed back towards the main pond area. A nice male Sharp-shinned Hawk interrupted our walk. It posed obligingly in a sycamore some 200 feet away. Next up was at least 7-8 Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, all fussing away like tiny, angry felines. As we got back to Pond D, one of the birders with us asked “Isn’t that the Vermilion Flycatcher?” He was right! It was, and a nice bright male at that.
While we photographed that bird, one of us noticed what appeared to be a Brewer’s Blackbird, walking along the shore of Pond D. Upon closer examination we noticed that this bird had cinnamon plumage on the crown, nape and saddle. It also had a bright pale supercilium extending well behind the pale yellowish eye, and pale gray between the wings and on the rump. This was an apparent female Rusty Blackbird. It was a first for San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary and only the third for Orange County. As we observed further we noticed the handsome rufous edging to the flight feathers contrasting with the shiny black wings. The bird showed a paler brownish gray chest with faint, short vertical streaking across the chest and belly, all consistent with a female Rusty Blackbird.
Rusty Blackbird is a species of special concern in the United States at large. Its population has been in precipitous decline in recent years.
All images were taken with a Kowa TSN-884 spotting scope with 25-60x zoom eyepiece and a Nikon CoolPix P6000 camera attached using a Kowa TSN-DA-10 digiscoping adapter. The optics were mounted on a Manfrotto MT055CXPRO3 carbon fiber tripod with a MVH500AH pro fluid digiscoping head. The Rusty Blackbird photos are of the same bird. One is in direct sun at 160 feet. The other is in shade at about 40 feet. The difference in these two photos illustrates how much lighting can alter the appearance of a subject.
Horned Lark, Fiesta Island
Recently, we drove to San Diego in search of the three longspur species reported at Fiesta Island in Mission Bay. You wouldn’t think an off-leash dog run area would be a great place to bird, but this is not your average bark park. The area is huge, with very few trees over gently rolling terrain of grasses interspersed with bare areas. Hundreds of people were there with their dogs, but all were very well-behaved. In fact, neither of us can remember a single instance of barking the whole morning – there may have been some, but it was so unobtrusive it simply didn’t register. A bumper sticker on a car there offered this good advice for life: “Wag more. Bark less.” Continue reading