Mines Road and Del Puerto Canyon

We met in Livermore, under the tall flag pole in the center of town. Dickcissel, Brown Creeper, and I were heading to the southeast on the legendary Bay Area birding route: Mines Road to Del Puerto Canyon.

We had a few target birds for the trip: golden eagle, Lawrence’s goldfinch, and Bell’s sparrow. These would all be lifers for BRCR and the Lawrence’s was a sought after near-endemic species in California and Dickcissel had wanted to tick this bird off for a while now. (I had added this bird to my list on June 6, 2002 but have not seen the finch since then.)

It was a beautiful morning and we pulled over from time to time, willing that far off raptor into a golden eagle but there were all red-tail hawks and turkey vultures. The California endemic yellow-billed magpie was a nice consultation.

Mines Road was relativly busy on this Saturday with a bike race and many weekend warriors taking either their covetable sports cars or motorcycles out for a spring spin. We seemed to be the only birders on this stretch of road.

Mines started to climb up into the green oak-studded hills giving us wonderful views in all directions and a wide panorama of the blue cobalt skies. Any large bird soaring caught our attention. At this point we had seen red-tails and turkey vultures, a few accipiters and a female American kestrel.

Between mile 11 and 12, I pulled over. Something seemed about right on this stretch of road. I scanned the skies and a very stable looking raptor caught my attention as it circled to our north. This bird was uniformly dark with “plank-like” wings with large primaries. We all knew what it was but we didn’t utter it’s name. Incredibly the bird flew south giving us an amazing rapturous flyby. “There’s your golden!”

We continued down Mines Road going from Alameda County to the the county of my birth: Santa Clara. Along the way we enjoyed views of California scrub-jay, acorn woodpeckers, California quail, ash-throated flycatcher, some randy cows, and western kingbird. At one pull out we had a scope full of a singing male lazuli bunting. Always a beautiful spring treat!

We then headed east at “The Junction” and stopped at Frank Raines Regional Park for lunch. Here is were we found all the other birders in the area with the same intention of having lunch and doing a bit of birding between bites. I talked with another birder and he noted that it was not too birdy. He had golden eagle and roadrunner but no Lawrence’s goldfinch (LAGO).

After lunch we headed to the Deer Creek Campground which was a noted hotspot for LAGO. This campground was very popular with off-roaders and their noise-polluting vehicles. This was not an ideal place to bird because it was noisy and full of families that incredulously looked on as our binocular-sporting trio wandered through their camp, looking up into trees.

In a tree above a campsite we heard a very finch-like song. We tried to locate the singer but with no luck. Two finches flew off towards the creek and we did not get very good looks. Not good enough to call them LAGOs. The finches soon returned and this time the male perched on top of the tree in full view. He sang giving us great looks. We noted his black cap and face, gray back, and his yellow ‘bra”. Lifer for Dickcissel and Creeper!

Dickcissel’s photo of the male Lawrence’s goldfinch, singing at the top of a tree in the Deer Creek Campground.


Handful of Wonder

“These are the days of miracle and wonder.” -Paul Simon, The Boy in the Bubble.  

Occasionally you have  moments in education filled with “miracle and wonder”. The morning of Friday April 21, 2017 was one such moment.

As I was walking down the hall, a few minutes before the morning bell, our librarian called my name. Something was up. She was standing at the doorway of the room next to the library that was used as our janitor’s office. There was a bird trapped inside.

At my school I am known as the Bird Whisper because if there is a bird, usually a dark eyed junco, trapped in a classroom, I’m the first person they call. I’ve liberated birds from many classrooms and once I freed a junco from our multipurpose room during an assembly. But the bird trapped in the janitor’s office was no junco. This rescue was a first for the Bird Whisperer: a female Anna’s hummingbird!

When I entered the room, the Anna’s was frantically skimming the ceiling, looking for any egress. A hummingbird ‘s tiny heart can beat 1,263 times a minute (compared to about 80 in humans). Who knew how fast this tiny creature’s heart was thumping now. I just knew I had to free her. And free her fast, before she hurt herself.

I first tried the basic trick in avian liberation: getting on one side of the bird, with arms raised, and coaxing it towards it’s path to freedom, in this case, the open doorway. This attempt failed because the extremely agile Anna’s just counted my plan by flying around me, further from freedom.

My next plan was to climb up on the counter and try to steer her toward the door. This failed as she repeated her agile maneuver.

I turned and my next plan was to coax her to the corner and gently capture her by hand. This plan worked as I left the Anna’s with no escape except in my warm embrace. I gently hopped off the counter with my prize safely in my hands.

The morning bell rang and I headed to where my class was lined up. I instructed them to gather round and sit down. What I was about to reveal was a complete surprise to all my students.

I opened my hands and the Anna’s sat, a little dazzed, perched on my left index finger. One of my students moved back in fear but then wonder filled his face. The Anna’s sat very still, prompting one student to ask, “Is that fake?” At that point, to prove she was real, the Anna’s lifted off and headed straight up. 

This moment is one of my greatest teaching moments. Not because it was linked to the Common Core Standards or an increase in standardized test outcomes from the previous trimester. This was a gain that is immeasurable, unquantifiable. This was a wonder. That pure undefinable moment that opens your student’s hearts and minds. The moment where some of the students you have struggled with to conform to what every fourth grader should know now raises their eyes in wonder at the green gem rising from my hand to the heavens!

This a wonder, beyond words. I remain in awe. 


South Texas Lifers

I though a successful haul of lifers from my five days in South Texas, would be between 15 to 20 new species. I just squeaked in at 15 new Life birds. It was not just about the number of birds but their quality.

And I certainly had quality in spades! My trip was bookended by two iconic Texas super specialties: whooping crane and hook-billed kite. These two birds would have been worth the price of airfare, lodging, and rental car alone!

Judging by the accents, both domestic and international, on the Whooping Crane Boat Tour and the Santa Ana observation tower, the whooper and hook-billed draw birders from both far and wide to add these relative rarities to their world life list.

I did miss a few birds on my target list: muscovy duck, Audubon’s oriole and Wilson’s plover but seeing these birds, as is the case with many species, can be a hit or miss quest and I just happened to miss.

I returned from Texas with a total of 527 species on my the United States (ABA) list and 651 species on my world bird list, but who’s counting?

Who doesn’t love a parking lot least tern? Rockport, Texas. 

Birding the border on my search for America’s largest kingfisher on the Rio Grande River. The “water bottle” hook on my tripod came in handy.

Birds on the wire. I must be on 10th Street in McAllen. Green parakeets and great-tailed grackles (the ubiquitous bird of South Texas).

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas. 



The Not So Plain Chachalaca

There is something mundane about a bird that has “plain” in it’s common name. But when that is paired with “chachalaca” now we are talking about a bird that birders will travel to the deepest depths of Texas to add to their life list, because of it’s very limited range in the US, confined to the lower Rio Grande Valley. The great news for birders wishing to add this species to their list is that it is very common and in some parts of Hidalgo County, it is a backyard bird.

The only thing plain about the plain chachalaca (Ortalis vetula) is it’s uniformly brown plumage. The name “chachalaca” is in imitation, according to the Nahuetl language, of it’s loud and raucous call, most often heard during the breeding season. And I was in southern Texas during it’s breeding season. When chachalacas call, they are very hard to ignore and worthy of a spread in my journal.

While I was hawk watching on the observation tower at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, it afforded views, down into the tops of trees. I would often see, and hear,  chachalacas calling from the tallest branches.

Looking down on yet another plain chachalaca calling from the top of a tree, Santa Ana NWR. Digiscope photo.

After my hawk watch I headed over to the National Butterfly Center to visit their feeders, and to look at butterflies. Here the chachalacas where so tame that they were within grabbing distance. (I kept my hands to myself.)

Getting up close and personal with a plain chachalaca at the feeders of the National Butterfly Center. No zoom or scope required.

A quick field sketch from the National Butterfly Center.

I sometimes wish all birds were this easy to identify. A plain chachalaca under a sign featuring the most common birds of the Rio Grande Valley. National Butterfly Center.


The Gem of the Valley

At 8:35 AM, I found myself 40 feet above Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge on top of the observation tower. This was my second hawk watch of the trip and my third attempt to add one of the most sought after birds in the entire Rio Grande Valley. This was and is the hook-billed kite (Chondrohierax unicinatus). 

This tropical treesnail hunter is only found in the United States in the wide Rio Grande Valley, between Falcon Dam and Brownsville but Santa Ana NWR is the epicenter for most visitor’s kiteless search.

To prove this point, an hour later, I was joined by two Twitchers (very committed bird watchers) from Essex, England. It’s always good to have witnesses!

Scope view from the Santa Ana NWR observation tower.

Two days before I had hawk watched for three hours and there was a prolific northern movement of hawks, coming up from South and Central America. The most numerous raptor was the broad-winged hawk (thousands) and a good number of Swainson’s hawks, the raptor with the longest migration on planet earth.

This day the hawk migration was more of a trickle, allowing me time to explore the treetops of Santa Ana. What immediately stood out was the local Harris’s hawks that were perched along the canopy.

A pair of the local Harris’s hawks (Parabuteo unicinctus). Two in one scope view!!

As the skies continued to be raptorless, I looked around at the treetops. A small black bird perched on a power pole caught my attention. What stood out, even at distance, was the birds intense red eyes, like it hadn’t gotten any sleep in a week or more. I focused my scope on the bird just to confirm lifer # 526, Bronzed cowbird!

Bronzed cowbird (Molothrus aeneus), flying from the power pole. 

There was plenty of downtime between raptors and, as always, I filled in the time with a sketch. This sketch is a birder peering off to the south, wearing his “birder’s bra”.

I noticed a mixed kettle of black and turkey vultures and broad-winged hawks. Then I saw a bird that clearly stood out, a bird that looked like no other. I trained my scope on the soaring raptor. I mentally ticked off the paddle-shaped wings, heavily barred underwing primaries, distinctive head and beak shape, lazy and deep wing beats.

“I got the kite!” I announce to the British birders and they were soon on the soaring Hook-billed. I was able to watch the kite in the scope for a good five minutes. The search for The Gem of the Valley was over!

One my way back from my triumphant kite watch, an added bonus was seeing the stunning scissor-tailed flycatcher (Tyrannous forficatus). I got great looks at this seasonally common kingbird and as I raised my camera to my eye, just as I pushed the shutter button, it flew.


Birding the Border

Birding takes patience, sometimes lots of patience. So here I was on the banks of the Rio Grande, looking across the river at our southern neighbor, Mexico. I had arrived at Salineño at sun up, the best time to see my target birds: red-billed pigeon, ringed kingfisher, and muscovy duck.

When I reached the river at the very primitive boat lunch, I saw an osprey on the Mexican side of the river, perched on a snag. I set up my scope, planning to get a close look at this “fish hawk”. While trying to locate the osprey through the scope I panned along the Mexican riverside looking for the base of the snag. There it was and I angled the scope up waiting for the osprey to appear in my field of view. But the bird did not appear at the top of the snag. I had gotten the wrong snag, instead of an osprey, peering intensely into the waters of the Rio Grande, I got a surprise, a true South Texas speciality: the red-billed pigeon. I had gotten the wrong snag, but maybe I had the right one all along.

Wrong snag, right lifer! Red-billed pigeon (Patagioenas flavirostris) perched on a snag about the Rio Grande. Digiscope photo.

Three birders arrived at the shoreline. I informed them that I had a red-billed in the scope. One birder ran over to look through the scope to see his lifer. Birding is always about sharing the feathery wealth, just to confirm that what you are seeing is the real McCoy. The group of two was being lead by a guide and she told me that if I wanted ringed kingfisher, I would have to wait a long time because the females were in their nesting burrows at this time of year so only a single male kingfisher would be flying up or downstream. The pigeon flew upstream and the trio of birders also headed upstream, looking and listening for white-collared seedeater ( I would pick up this sought after lifer later). 

I though I might have a long wait for the largest kingfisher in the Americas to appear so I unpacked my sketchbook, sat down on the banks, and started drawing the view looking upstream to the river that divided two nations. This sketch is a chronicle of a landscape and my experience in the landscape. Birding the border, watching a “Mexican” cow on the Mexico side, sounds very much like an American cow.

After about a 30 minute sketch, I set down my sketchbook and scanned the river for birds. Blue-winged teal, snowy egrets, a lone black skimmer, a soaring crested caracara (the bird represented on the Mexican flag), a pair of caspian terns, a low flying kingfisher. . . a kingfisher!!

The large, distinctive kingfisher flew upstream and perched on a low snag directly across from the boat launch! I got my scope on the beautiful male ringed kingfisher and was able to get a quick field sketch of the bird and took a few digiscope photos. The male gave me and the two sister Wisconson birders, who had just arrived,  a great look at a lifer!

Quick ringed kingfisher (Megaceryle torquata) sketch from the banks on the Rio Grande.

A post-Texas ringed kingfisher painting.



King Rail and the Texan Whistler

One of the benefits of birding is that it takes you to different parts of your home state (California), or other states you might never have visited (Texas and New Jersey) or the world (Extremadura, Spain).

And so it was that I was standing on a rural roadside beside a lake that ebird informed me was Tiocano Lake, located somewhere in Cameron County, northeast of my home base of McAllen.

I had two target birds that I was looking for: king rail and fulvous whistling-duck. I had whiffed on both of these species before, once in Florida and the other on a previous trip to the Rio Grande Valley.

A first sweep with the scope showed this lake to be very birdy. Black-belled whistling-ducks filled the air, neotropic cormorants, egrets and herons, black-necked stilts, killdeer, and the stunning roseate spoonbill.

Roseate spoonbill at Tiocano Lake.

I walked along the road to where it bends to the left. This was the spot where the king rails had been heard calling. As if on cue, at 5:35 PM, the king rail started to call from the reeds and I got an audio recording to confirm its existence. It was soon answered by grunts from another king (or perhaps queen) from the reeds across the road. I was now surrounded by rail!

I then turned my glasses towards the search for a South Texas speciality: fulvous whistling-duck. I was told by other birders that they would be hard to seen this time of year. I walked further down the road to find a gap in the reeds. I picked through the ducks swimming on the far shore. They looked very promising. I got the ducks in the scope. Bingo! Fulvous whistling-duck! Four of them!

Fulvous-whisting duck (left) and an American coot.

In the end, it paid off to schlep my heavy scope and tripod from the Golden State to the Lone Star State because it enabled me to pick out lifers from the hazy distance. My scope would bring me more sought after South Texas specialties on the following day as I birded the Rio Grande at the legendary birding hotspot in the small town of Salineño and a days later I would focus my scope on a true superbird of the Rio Grande Valley!


Spring Whoopers

“It’s time to light the fires and kick the tires!” Captain Jay announced and then he turned and headed up to the bridge to ease us out of Fulton Harbor. 

As the Skimmer headed out of port, for a three and a half hour tour, laughing gulls covered the docked boats and breakwater. It was funny to think that birders where picking trough large gull flocks at Pilarcitos Creek to find this extremely common gull on the Coastal Bend. It reminded me that even somewhere, every bird is rare.

Toto we’re not in Kansas anymore! Laughing gulls in the swimming pool in Rockport.

But the “power birders” on board where not here to look at common gulls of the Gulf Coast. We where here for a bigger and rarer bird. Everyone wanted to check off the elegant whooping crane (Grus americana) on their lifelists.

One reason that the whooper is such a desirable bird is because of it’s rarity. In 1941 there were only 21 cranes in existence. And today there are about 350 birds that breed in Canada and winter in the marshes of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Coastal Texas. The whoopers success has much to do with the efforts of biogists and the captive breeding programs. The Texas birds represent the only migratory, self-sustaining population of whooping cranes in the world.

The second reason that these birds are so desirable is that they are simply beautiful. Cranes are a revered group of birds the world over. These birds are known for their iconic beauty and grace and they are often represented in art and origami. Their haunting bulging call is know by many cultures. They are collectively known as “Birds of Heaven”.

After motoring across the bay we entered Dunham Bay, a wide intercostal waterway which is a watery boulevard for shrimp and oyster boats. The captain throttled down and he then explained that cranes were not guaranteed in the spring. The entire Texas population could be on the wing, headed north for their Canadian breeding grounds. We were going to keep our fingers crossed.

All eyes scanned the shoreline looking for the bird that Captain Jay affectionately called “the Marsh Cow”. Was that far off white bird a lifer?! No it was just a white egret. How hard could the tallest bird in North America be to find? You’d think they would stand out like two large, white sore thumbs. Two because mated pairs are almost always seen together and sometimes with a single juvenile.

From above came the shout, “Cranes!” And all binoculars where trained and focused on the port side. In the far channel, on the far shore, were two foraging whoopers! Within an hour into our cruise, we had out target bird!

“I love spring cranes!” Captain Jay enthused from the bridge.

Whooper field sketch from the steps of the Skimmer.

Overall we saw a total of ten cranes. We got close to one pair as Captain Jay drifted into one foot of water at the edge of the reeds. The two cranes, whose very existence today, was so dependent on the human species, paid no attention to us as they foraged and preened to the presences of the species who brought them back from the brink. But their presence in this marsh, on this earth, was thank you enough.

A pre-Texas Whooping Crane sketch.