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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Weekend Birding

For the last few weeks its been nice and sunny during the work week and gray and drizzly on the weekends. It's been the source of much grumbling on the island, but of course it's not enough to keep me from getting out and doing some birding - not this time of year!

The first year bird I have to report I actually saw on the drive home for work - an American kestrel (144) along Beaverton Valley Road. I had also been out trying to find a rufous hummingbird that so many others had been reporting, without much luck. If you can't go to the birds, I thought, why not try to bring the birds to you? I don't know why I hadn't done it earlier, but I put up our hummingbird feeder at home. It took just three hours for a pair of rufous hummingbirds (145) to stake it out! This male spent the better part of the next three days chasing away all other male hummingbirds. He's either moved on or given up since then, but I've still been seeing females visiting regularly.

My friend Katie also reported that the barred owl nest near her house is occupied again this year, after it was empty last spring. I got to go take a quick peak, adding another year bird (146) in the process:

Peek-a-boo! See the owl?
I also went to Three Meadows Marsh where as hoped I found lots of swallows - both violet-green (147) and tree (148). There were a couple hundred of them! I was also surprised to already see the first wood ducks (149) had arrived.

I thought I might find more swallows at False Bay Creek, but I only saw one - about a half a mile away! The after work stop (in the sunshine, being a work day) wasn't fruitless for the year list, however, as I did see one Wilson's snipe (150). I also heard a Virginia rail. I realized most people who drive by on Bailer Hill Road probably have no idea that rails are lurking in the reeds just a few yards away! I like things like that.

Yesterday I spent the day on Whidbey Island, where I did a little birding in Langley. Here's the view from the Langley marina, with the Cascade Mountains in the background and a flock of sea ducks in the foreground:

When I realized about half the ducks were goldeneye (the other half were scoters), I was hopeful I might find a Barrow's goldeneye among them. I was surprised when I got the binoculars up that they were ALL Barrow's goldeneye (151)! I did find a few common goldeneye off on their own. Most of the scoters were surf scoters, but I found a pair of white-winged scoters in there, too.

Barrow's goldeneye

In addition to the ducks, I saw a great blue heron, a pair of kingfishers, and about ten double-crested cormorants. A few of the cormorants were drying their wings - which I had never gotten a nice photo of until now:

The next few weeks should be exciting - the spring migrants will continue to arrive, and we're all hopeful the orcas will start spending some time here, too!

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Signature of All Things

There have been some great bird sightings on the island lately - unfortunately most of them have not been mine! The best of the bunch is a long-eared owl that has been seen at least twice near False Bay Creek, where I do monthly bird surveys. Unfortunately numerous visits out there both during the day and at night have not turned up any owls for me, though I have seen other neat species such as western meadowlarks and a northern shrike.

Flooded pasture along False Bay Creek

Lots of Canada geese, but no long-eared owl at False Bay Creek

I did see an American kestrel (144) one afternoon as I drove home from work, which was a nice find as it's an uncommon species here on the island. It's amazing how many species were in the first 50 on my year list the last bunch of years but aren't even on my list yet, simply because all my Pacific Northwest birding this year has been exclusively in the San Juan Islands. As a result, I still don't have black-capped chickadee on my list this year!!

This afternoon I went out for a one hour walk at English Camp, hoping to find a rufous hummingbird or some other early spring migrant. Not only did I fail to find a hummingbird, I hardly saw any birds at all! Excepting the 75 bufflehead and 25 surf scoters out in the bay, I only saw/heard 40 other birds - not species, birds! It may sound like a lot to non-birders, but when you're hiking well over a mile they are few and far between. Since an hour's birding only turned up 16 species, I started turning my attention to other things, because even when the birds are scarce there's always something to investigate! This time, in part because of the book I just finished reading, I noticed there were mosses everywhere!

The book in question is The Signature of All Things, a novel by Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame). Set primarily in the 19th century, it follows the life of Alma Whittaker, the daughter of a famous botanist. She follows in the footsteps of her father, becoming a plant expert, and in the early part of her life is able to study specimens from all over the world in her father's gardens and greenhouses. While part of her wants to travel the world and see all the amazing trees and orchids she has grown to love in their native habitats, circumstances dictate that she is confined to her family's estate in Pennsylvania. Frustrated, she feels like she already knows every tree and flower on thier property from her childhood explorations, when she makes an interesting discovery on a boulder she has passed thousands of times.

Alma put the magnifying lens to her eye and looked again. Now the miniature forest below her gaze sprang into majestic detail. She felt her breath catch. This was a stupefying kingdom. This was the Amazon jungle as seen from the back of a harpy eagle. She rode her eye above the surprising landscape, following its paths in every direction. Here were rich, abundant valleys filled with tiny trees of braided mermaid hair and minuscule, tangled vines. Here were barely visible tributaries running through that jungle, and here was a miniature ocean in a depression at the center of the boulder, where all the water pooled.

Just across this ocean - which was half the size of Alma's shawl - she found another continent of moss altogether. On this new continent, everything was different. This corner of the boulder must receive more sunlight than the other, she surmised. Or slightly less rain? In any case, this was a new climate entirely. Here, the moss grew in mountain rangers the length of Alma's arms, in elegant, pine tree-shaped clusters of darker, more somber green. On another quadrant of the same boulder still, she found patches of infinitesimally small deserts, inhabited by some kind of study, dry, flaking moss that had the appearance of cactus. Elsewhere, she found deep, diminutive fjords - so deep that, incredibly, even now in the month of June - the mosses within were still chilled by lingering traces of winter ice. But she also found warm estuaries, miniature cathedrals, and limestone caves the size of her thumb.

Then Alma lifted her face and saw what was before her - dozens more such boulders, more than she could count, each one similarly carpeted, each one subtly different. She felt herself growing breathless. This was the entire world. This was bigger than a world. This was the firmament of the universe, as seen through one of William Herschel's mighty telescopes. This was planetary and vast. These were ancient, unexplored galaxies, rolling forth in front of her - and it was all right here!

In the book, Alma goes on to study the stories that play out in the world of mosses. That may sound like a boring task, but only when you are caught up in the fast, loud pace of day-to-day human life. In the moss world, things move much more slowly, but are no less dramatic. There are wars waged over prime territories, and she documents their advancements and retreats. There are clear winners and losers, which leads Alma to begin wondering why certain species are successful, why others are not, and what causes some mosses to succeed where others fail. Mosses, after all, are an amazingly diverse and hardy lot. They can thrive in areas where nothing else can even begin to grow, as we can still see today wherever we look:

Mosses can make a living where other plants can't - such as on wood, stone, or nowadays, pavement

As she continues her life as a bryologist, Alma does eventually get the chance to travel beyond Pennsylvania, and in the process meets an interesting cast of characters. While she wants to explain everything in terms of science, she meets others - such as artists and missionaries - that are convinced that not all the amazing things we witness can be measured and that some of the most compelling discoveries come when we leave the world of science behind.

The book is a captivating one from start to finish, as Alma is a naturalist who lives at a time when the worlds of science and religion are both starting to change drastically, and it's all due to looking carefully at the world right beneath our feet.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Birding North of San Diego

It took a day or two to recover from our time in Mexico - there was a lot of sleeping and a lot of shaking sand out of everything, but what small price to pay for the experience of a lifetime. What was most amazing about our first full day back is that that evening we saw a gray whale breaching off our hotel at Moonlight Beach! It was a pretty spectacular sunset, too.

We still had several more days to spend in the San Diego area, and we visited with some family and friends while we were there. On February 15th we went for a hike at Los Penasquitos Canyon. I didn't have my camera with me, but my eyes and ears (and binoculars) were enough to add California quail (131), western scrub-jay (132), Say's phoebe (133), acorn woodpecker (134), and red-shouldered hawk (135) to the list. The acorn woodpeckers were the most amazing - there were several dozen of them cackling away all over the park!

On the 17th I got to visit a very special place to me - Batiquitos Lagoon. This place, not too different from several other lagoons along this part of the coast, isn't too far from where my grandpa used to live. I used to visit here regularly as a kid, when I was just getting into birding, and as a result I probably got more life birds at this one spot than any other single location I've ever been! I remember another birder with a scope here teaching me the difference between western and least sandpipers at this lagoon when I was probably 12 or 13 years old.

Since my grandpa passed away, I hadn't been back to this lagoon, so it was awesome to visit again after about a 12 year absence. It was much like I remembered it.

The birding was like I remembered, too - excellent! While walking here I added Nuttall's woodpecker (136) and white-tailed kite (137). We saw the kite on our way up the trail, but on our way back we saw it again, this time harassing a peregrine falcon! The kite is flying through the trees here, agitating a the perched falcon:

 I even found another life bird - an Allen's hummingbird (138) in with all the Anna's hummingbirds. 

Another Batiquitos life bird, 12 years later: an Allen's hummingbird
There were lots of people enjoying the lagoon, but we only saw one other birder - appropriately a young girl, probably about 12 years old! She was impressive and reminded me in several ways of a young version of myself. She also gave us a tip about some American white pelicans that she saw the day before, and that gave me enough of a head's up to drive around to the far side of the lagoon where we saw half a dozen of them (139).

Being so close, I wanted to drive by my grandpa's old house, where I also saw lots of amazing birds over the years, including my first great horned owl perched on a lamp post on his street, a hooded oriole in his backyard, and a roadrunner on the hillside behind his house. Looking down this same hill, I saw a pair of Cassin's kingbirds (140), not only another tally for the year list but a life bird, as well.

We headed then to Carlsbad, where we camped for a couple nights with some friends from San Juan Island who work up here in the summer and camp host down there in the winter. We weren't there long before we met their resident osprey, who flew overhead several times carrying the largest fish I've ever seen an osprey carry!

Our first morning there, we spent half an hour doing an informal sea watch. In addition to some bottlenose dolphins cruising the surf, we saw, I kid you not, about 5000 black-vented shearwaters (141). They flew by in a steady stream that took about 10 minutes to pass! We also got some great eye-level views of some brown pelicans cruising the cliffs:

We also visited the Oceanside Pier, where in addition to seeing a very vocal great-tailed grackle (142), we got an even closer look at some brown pelicans:

They weren't being intentionally fed, but they were stealing fish from the fishermen! I tried to get an even closer look, but I couldn't get my binoculars to focus...

After a tour of Stone Brewery, a beach walk back at camp yielded the last year bird of the trip - a couple nice flocks of sanderling (143). Finally, on the 19th, after nearly two weeks in California and Mexico, it was time to head back to the comparatively chilly northwest. It was such a memorable trip - I hope you enjoyed virtually traveling along via my blog posts!