Forgive me for a moment while I stray from the usual subject matter of this site, it just gets to be too much sometimes... I don't really need to reiterate my opion of George Bush and his administration. Anyone who knows me or visits my news section is aware of my feelings. I just need to ask... with all the recent news that has surfaced recently, such as any of the following items:
- Secret prisons in Eastern Europe
- Rendition of supposed enemy combatants overseas
- Ciesure of library records with mandatory gag-order for library staff
- NSA/CIA investigation of American citizens with no knowledge of why they are being investigated
- Iraqi detainees held without access to family, personal lawyers or trial with jury for unlimited time
- Bush's reluctance to approve the McCain anti-terrrorism bill
- Bush's public admition that he believes the McCain bill is non-binding for the Executive branch
- Allegations of conspiracy and money laundering by the Republican Majority Leader
- Non-warranted wiretaps and email evesdropping on American citizens (that means YOU and ME.)
Why aren't more people talking about impeachment?
Aren't the above headlines enough to give everyone pause?
Is this the United States or is it a monarchy??
The world awaits our answer. http://www.congress.org/congressorg/home/
Dark-eyed Juncos and both Lesser and American Goldfinches are singing in full voice everyday as I park in the residential area of downtown Palo Alto. Combine this with the recent report of Snowy Owl, Northern Shrike and Slaty-backed Gull and the northly flight pattern of Waterfowl in the Central Valley, and you have an entirely perplexing situation. What in Darwin's name is going on here? The global warming trend may be held partially responsible for the early migration north, but how can we reconcile this with the irruption of so many northern species in our area. And while we're talking about irruptions, where are all the Pine Siskins of last year?
After an hour-and-a-half of driving rain and wind, we had to scrap the class trip to Princeton Harbor. Cricket and I returned to the harbor, thinking maybe we'd just have a look around the Maverick's Beach area. Maybe the weather would clear in a little while... Maybe not. Maybe we could buy some smoked salmon at Creekside Smokehouse... We needed something to go well.
Somewhat defeated, we called the Rare Bird Alert as we made our way back to the harbor and learned the Snowy Owl had been refound in Solano County, not far from where we had seen the Mountain Plovers a month earlier. I clicked off the cell phone. There was silence and staring at the dotted yellow line ahead. I tightened my grip on the wheel. More silence. "I'm getting a strong restless feelling," I said to Cricket. "What do you think?" I asked as I stared. After a pause, "Let's do it!" she pronounced with great authority.
We were just pulling into the gravel lot on the north end of the harbor. "Let's think about this for a second." I continued. "Ok, We know basically where that area is... we have a few hours before we need to be home. We have water and Snapple. Do we have enough food?" The questions came like they would if you were preparing to jump out of a plane, at least that's the way I thought they sounded. Do you have your parachute... Check. In short, the questions were mechanical but necessary, and while all the uncertainties needed to be addressed, they seemed remarkably trivial in the face of a vagrant, pure white Owl. We needed to jump. We had to go. We could both see that now. Rather quickly we decided again to go for it! It was a frenzy of "let's do its".
In the gravel lot we also saw the Leightons, Eric Goodill and Jody McGeen, and the Diengers. They were curious what we were planning, and we were curious about what they thought, so we told them. What do you guys think? "Yeah, we're in!" So we distributed the radios, sped through the combat style coordinates and expected travel time. Gas, food... It was all decide in about 65 seconds. Yeah, let's go! Black car, White car, Green Car and Gray.
And so it began, a two hour drive to eastern Solano County, a quarter mile south of the Liberty Island King Road intersection to be exact, and in the same day we had seen the very worst the Pacific could throw at us, we might be seeing the very best the cold arctic wind could bring to us! It was a long shot, but worth it. Evenutally we rolled up to the crowd of 15 or so other birders that had already gathered. It wasn't hard to know where to look... Then, almost immediately after setting up the scope we had in view a remarkably beautiful Snowy Owl straight from the Arctic--a species I hadn't seen since February 1980 in Plum Island, MA. People had come from great distances to see the Owl. Some from even from San Diego County! Several observers had big lenses and digital cameras, others with more modest equipment. But all of us were amazed! Below are a couple of digiscope images that I was lucky to get. I'm still vibrating from the excitement!
Little could impress after such an amazing bird as this, but for the record it must be said we also had a Merlin in the general area of the enclosure shown above. It flew behind the corral but was quickly gone. And after admiring this bird for about 30 minutes, our little group continued to the Robinson/Flannery area where we had a Ferruginous Hawk and a large flock of Mountain Plovers (say roughly 180 birds!) and easily as many Horned Larks. Imagine that, a trip where these four species get second billing...
Yesterday morning I saw a small group of 5 Western Bluebirds on High Street in Palo Alto between Lytton and the fire station. They were feeding in a tree next to the Palo Alto Daily News office. It's been a while since I've seen Bluebirds that close to University Avenue. With them were several Cedar Waxwings and a Northern Mockingbird. I've also noticed that local birds have transitioned into their spring song mode with Lesser Goldfinch and Dark-eyed Juncos belting out love songs with increasing conviction. This combined with the news of northward bound Waterfowl in the central valley seems to indicate an early breeding season.
I made a dash to the Santa Cruz this morning in an effort to grab one or two birds on the Big-15 list. I arrived around 11:15 and within a few minutes was able to relocate the Rock Sandpiper on West Cliff Drive. Apparently it moves around quite a bit depending on where the surfers are and which rocks are exposed and suitable for foraging. I found it today on the rocks below the intersection with Stockton.
I then stopped at Calero Reservoir on my way home to see if the Bald Eagle was around. No luck there, but I did see a pair of Golden Eagles, however, that were mating on one of the power towers. They remained on the tower for several minutes before moving down the road toward another tower with a large collection of twigs piled together toward the top. Also, a total of 36 Common Mergansers, and also a Peregrine Falcon were seen at the reservoir.
Finally, at the Santa Clara Valley Water Reclamation ponds along Almaden Expressway there was another Peregrine Falcon at around 2:30. Both this bird and the one at Calero were adult birds, so I couldn't tell if they were the same individual or not.
This morning I attended an event at Charleston Slough, where Karen Hoit and co-worker Lisa at Animal Rescue were releasing a Peregrine Falcon back into the wild. I had only a few minutes to enjoy the release because of morning meetings with clients back at the office. But this seemed important enough to make time... Karen and Lisa explained to the small audience, which included birders, naturalists, photographers and at least two news crews with film cameras. They both did an excellent job of explaining to everyone about the status of both this particular bird, which had been recovered after an impact at Palo Alto High School some 6 weeks earlier, and the entire species of Peregrine Falcons. The group was very interested and there was much applause when Lisa finally let the male Falcon loose. It took off over the water, turned back toward the hills and landed in a nearby conifer close to the parking lot. Several of us were able to see the bird perched as it stretched and exercised it wings, undoubtably preparing for its next flight.
Later in the day,
at the 3-way intersection of Palo Alto, Waverly and Poe Avenues in Palo Alto, there was a male Hooded Merganser today around 1:00 pm. There were also two calling White-breasted Nuthatch and the tan-striped White-throated Sparrow remains in the bush across the street from 320 Palo Alto Avenue. Golden-crowned and Fox Sparrows forage witht he bird and a Hermit Thrush made a brief appearance.
I relocated the White-throated Sparrow again across the street from 320 Palo Alto Avenue along the San Francisquito Creek today. I reparked my car at around 3:00 (just when the metermaids stop issuing tickets in the 2 hour zone...) and found the bird foraging with several Golden-crowned Sparrows, two Song a single Fox Sparrow beneath the shrub next to the tree trunk.
Kelly and I birded Point Reyes for a few days, arriving on December 29 to be in position for the three high tides, and returned today. The whole concept was a romantic getaway for New Years as well as a little birding during the daylight hours. We stayed at the Golden Hynde just ouside of Inverness and brought all kinds of leftover holiday foods so we could essentially cut ourselves off from civilization and all the trappings of telephones or computers. It was wonderful! What we didn't expect was the dismal weather that cut everyone else off from the incredible natural events we were about to witnes...
Our first afternoon (12-29) we arrived late and chose to visit Limantour Beach which we neither one of us had seen in several years. We birded Limantour Spit, finding a Eurasian Wigeon about halfway down the sheltered side as well as great numbers of Snowy Plovers near the estero mouth. Brant were also present near the end of the of the trail. As beautiful and isolated as the beach was from the rest of humanity, somehow we neglected to take any photographs, so you'll just have to imagine a long beach with hardly a soul in sight, an incoming storm and the waning light of a sun dimmed by bluish gray clouds. Beautiful!
The next morning (12-30) we located Waldo's Dike, which until recently was known to only a small number of birders, but had long been rumored to be the best place in Northern California to see Black Rail. We found other birders already searching for Rails in the raised section beyond the concrete dam. A few Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets and Great Blue Herons were gathering as well, as the incoming tide promised an easy meal for hungry predators. All the skulking marsh inhabitants including mammals as well as Rails, would have to avoid the hungry jaws of the assembling Herons and Gulls. It was a little frightening actually, as we found ourselves identifying with the defenseless Rails who would soon be in a panic to find cover. We sludged through the mud to join the other birders. We went for a hundred yards or so until we began to make the our way toward the right turn. As the drama unfolded before us, we saw a total 4 Black Rails that morning, mostly in flight, as well as a Virginia Rail, and hundreds of Red Phalaropes. All the marsh birds, Savannah Sparrows, Song Sparrows, Marsh Wrens and Common Yellowthroats seemed driven by a deep sense of urgency. Find cover! Get out of view! Predators are near!! One Black Rail was taken by a Great Egret as another birder directed our attention to where he was looking. By the time we got our scope on the bird, all we saw was a lump in the long white neck of the Egret as it slowly lowered toward the stomach... The storm and wind were now intense, of almost biblical proportions, and we were very uncomfortable. It seemed like this would be a storm not soon defeated. It was only getting worse!
After a while we walked back to the road, finding 2 Hermit Warblers that foraged near the barbed wire gate, and a Swamp Sparrow feeding in relative safety. We cast a backwards glance toward the carnage of mice, rats, Rails and merciless Egrets feeding with abandon. We also saw a small flock of Heerman's Gulls heading toward Tomales Point, which seemed a bit out of season, but perhaps not completely out of the question. An increasing rain, a harsh sideways-driving rain and a sinking sense of loss forced us to leave just before the peak of the tide, in addition to that, the trail was now completely wet and we felt a bit vulnerable ourselves. The way was still intact however, but we felt it prudent to leave before things got any rougher. We drove toward the outer point, finding many roads already experiencing mudslides so we decided to call it an early day. Kelly was completely soaked and cold, as pitiful as a wet kitten. Not happy... We returned to our room to find that the heat would not come on. Wouldn't you know... A quick call to the lobby got the maintance guy to our door with a space heater, an extra large order of duraflame logs and a new thermostat. He was a tall man, almost too tall for the door, and had long gray curly hair--like a 50ish hippie. He was wet from the weather and very casual. He fixed the heater and proceeded to talk a lot about his move from San Diego to Northern California. "I used to do work for a billionaire down south, but moved up here for a change of pace. I also did some work for another billionaire in Silicon Valley but he was an a real abusive man and you just can't work in that kind of atmosphere for very long. So here I am", he said as he stood there with his tools gathered and ready to take back to his shop. "Oh, also, Barnaby's will be open for dinner. I'm going to do some keyboard and guitar work, you know, back ground music...." I thought to myself, you can go now. "Thanks for helping with the heater, looks great. Yeah, we'll see you later." Kelly was still shivering but getting warmer by the fire. Outside, the wind howled and the windows were buffetted by spray from the Tomales bay which was right outside our door. Sleep was not easy infact because of the moaning winds. It was only in the morning that we realized how serious the situation was.
The following day (12-31) we returned to Waldo's about three hours before the peak of the tide because we could see from the hotel that the flood waters were already pushing levels higher than the day before. Many mudslides made even the short passage from the Golden Hyde and Inverness difficult, and all but impossible from anywhere south of Inverness Park. At the dike the water was already breeching the concrete wall and we could not pass as we had before, in fact, to do so seemed quite dangerous as the water was rushing in at a very fast rate! The flow was difficult to understand... It was rushing in from the ocean, and yet we could see a current swelling out from the hills. We surmised that the outgoing water would soon overtake the incoming waters and we were soon proven correct. At about an hour before the tide was supposed to peak the flow seemed to stop at the dam and soon began to flow OUT. We were puzzled and found ourselves basically blocked a just few yards from the road, unable to continue on the trail from the previous day. No one else was present unfortunately because we saw a total of 6 more Black Rails some in flight, others dashing into cover on the ground to escape the Egrets that were visibly frenzied on the remaining exposed dike that we viewed across the water. Fortunately we did not see any fall victim to the hungry predators, but there were many small mammal casualties. One Black Rail crossed the trail just 15 feet ahead of us and paused for us to admire for what seemed an eternity, but in reality was probably no more than 10-15 seconds.
We were still on the first section of the trail, just yards from the barbed wire fence when from about 5 feet from our boots a pale colored Rail flushed up, flew along our side and crossed the trail behind us, closer to the gate. It must have been crouching there while we scoped across the tide. We watched as it flew into cover again and noticed the large white secondary feathers. It was a Yellow Rail ! For the next 10 minutes we walked slowly, crouched and peered into the tangle, and tried to view the bird again. Kelly and I separated to increase the search area when she saw it again, very near where it had flushed from earlier. As I struggled to find exactly where she was focusing, she quietly gave me directions. Apparently, the bird had somehow worked its way back without us seeing it cross the trail and now stood there on the trail edge, completely exposed. It would have been obvious but for its cryptic coloration which made it virtually invisible until it moved its head. Finally, I got a look at it and we both managed to get it in our binoculars. We noticed the heavy golden and black stripes on the back and dark facial patch, and then, an instant later, it flew. This time, the golden straw-coloration was even more striking against the muddy water and the white squares on the trailing edge of both wings were positively shocking. It took cover in the dense tangle of tree roots and fallen branches parallel to the road where we had seen the Swamp Sparrow. Again, we searched, hoping to see it, but it did not reappear. At all...
After that excitement we felt absolutely adrenalined-out. I jumped and bounced like kids. We yelled so loudly I'm sure they could hear us back in Inverness and I fell down on the ground, laid on my back laughing and cheering. Kelly was right there with me laughing and shouting too. Neither one of us would ever have imagined we would see such a rare and secretive bird. Not in a million years. We would never forget that moment, and ever since I've played the sequence of events in my mind like an endless video loop. Yes, it was real and we had seen the Holy Grail of Rails! Our only regret was that no one else was present to enjoy the bird with us... Well, at least we had a great story to tell, and with any luck, the tides in January would give others a reasonable chance to see it too. We hoped others would experience our joy at some point too.
So, struggling to think of what we should do next, we drove out to Chimney Rock and had fabulous views of dueling Peregrine Falcons and we managed to scope a Red-necked Grebe in Drakes bay from the road before the parking area. What a day!
That was New Years Eve! We decided to celebrate but found our meal at Barnaby's, the restaurant at the Golden Hynde unequal to the task. The steak was overdone and the carpaccio was frozen. The chioppino was an ernest effort though, as was the grilled asparagus with goat cheese on a bed of organic greens, but I guess nothing would be an adequate meal in celebration of a Yellow Rail. But you know, that back ground music, was kind of nice. Lots of instrumental versions of Beatles classics...
The next morning, we found the roads somewhat better, but still had to stop and wait for a crew to clear a new mudslide on Bear Valley Road. That's ok... we though, we've seen Yellow Rail, everything's cool...
Slowly we made our way home, but called the BirdBox while we were still on Hwy 280. After listening to Al Eisner's report of Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow in San Mateo, we made the turnoff at Hwy 92 toward the bay. It's a good thing we did too! Leonie Batkin from class was already in position when we arrived. She was exploring the outer area of the narrow marshy trail, (wearing tennis shoes!) and seemed to be very intent on her mission. We marched out to meet her and learned she and another birder, Eric, had not yet seen the bird. We searched for quite a while and then retreated as the waters rose to cover the incoming trail. Eventually, we found 2 Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrows still present on East 3rd Street at the intersection with Anchor as reported by Ron Thorn and others. The marsh was completely flooded however exploring the narrow raised area was possible with our shiny new mud boots and pants, at least for a while. The bird finally appeared as the tide was beginning to lower and it appeared with a second Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow beneath the power tower close to the paved levy. Apparently, Al Dimartini had suggested there might be two birds, but I'm not sure if anyone had actually confirmed this until our little group saw both birds perched together. A Swamp Sparrow, at least two Fox Sparrows and several Lincoln's Sparrows were also present and well seen by myself and Kelly, Leonie, as well as several birders whose names have unfortunately escaped me. Eric was the first to find the second Sharp-tail, which I neglected to mention on the BirdBox. Sora, Clapper Rail and Virginia Rail were also seen.
It was definitely time to go home and rest. We'd had an incredible few days, seeing so many wonderful birds and some incredibly dramatic weather. We felt very badly for the many people in Marin county, especially the owners of the Inverness store and other nearby businesses, who had to deal with the consequences of the storm. With any luck, perhaps the rest of winter will be a little less destructive.