Knots at the Shell Bar

Sunday March 25, 2018 8:30 AM Foster City Shell Bar

On a Sunday morning as winter slowly slips into spring and the northern migration slowly starts in earnest, I headed to a birding hotspot, just south of the San Mateo Bridge known as Foster City Shell Bar. No this is not birding from the deck of a swanky seafood restaurant but a tidal beach composed of shells and sand.

I parked on Beach Front Boulevard and shouldered my scope and headed up toward the walking and biking path on top of the levy. As I reached the top of the levy and looked down, I was greeted with an eyeful of birds! From the narrow width of the shell beach to the water, the ground was covered with shorebirds.

A carpet of sandpipers.

I walked south, to get better lighting and I set up my scope and aimed it up the beach to see which birds populated the mixed flock. The flock was tightly packed and the most numerus species was the tiny western sandpiper. They were all shoulder to shoulder covering the beach in their carpet of grays, rufous, and black flecks.

I scoped the flock with many species in attendance: western sandpiper, black-bellied plover, dunlin, marbled godwit. Many birds where flying in from the south so I was near impossible to keep an accurate count. Wave after wave of marbled godwits were alighting on the beach.

Among the uniformity of the shorebirds in highest number, I looked for the few individuals that stood out. Like the diminutive semipalmated plover which was taking a bath in the bay. As I scanned to the left the large black and white terns stood out, the otherworldly black skimmer. I had a high count of 17 birds.

At one point, the entire mixed flock burst into the air and flew above the water in the tightly bunched group. After a circuitous journey, the mixed mass alighted back on Shell Beach. Time to rescan the flock.

I picked through the birds that were newly redistributed on the beach and I noticed a large sandpiper that was not a dunlin or dowitcher. This small group was feeding in a distinctive way. It was not playing tag with the tide like a sanderling but it was wading out into the surf, the water up to its belly. This sandpiper was picking food off of the surface and plunging its head into the water. I was looking at one of the most famous long-distant migrants: the red knot! Some red knots migrate 9,000 miles every year, from their breeding grounds in the Arctic to their summer grounds on the southern tip of South America.

Three feeding red knots, note the bird in the back is feeding in the “deeper” end.

Red knots use the San Francisco Bay as a staging area to refuel before they make the journey to their breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle. The birds before me where in their rather drab, winter plumage. A few individuals had a hint of red in their bellies. On their breeding grounds, red knots have a rufous-robin red on their faces, breast, and belly. Soon these bird would be gone and I was enjoying my time with them.


County Birding

As I slowly creep towards 600 ABA birds on my life list I have looked for other birding challenges in my home state of California.

California is a great place to bird because it has just over 600 species that have been found here, only Texas ranks higher in species total. It is also one of the most populated states which means more traffic, higher housing prices, and more expensive lattes but is also means more birders in the field, reporting more birds!

My latest challenge has been to increase my species totals by county. Three counties are the focus of my challenges: San Francisco (were I live), San Mateo (where I work), and Santa Cruz (where I relax). The goal for each county is to see 200 species in each county. Which means that previously a bird that is being seen in San Mateo County ( a black vulture, for instance) that I had already seen (in the Everglades, for instance), then I was less likely to chase it. But now I gave myself the challenge that if a rarity showed up in one of my three target counties, I would give chase, even if the bird was already on my ABA life list.

Which brings me to the subject of my featured sketch: the California thrasher (Toxostom redivivum). As the name implies, this mimid is endemic to California and I have seen this sometimes illusive and sulky bird in the North and East Bay Area and in Joshua Tree. In fact in it’s range it is listed as “common and widespread”. Normally if one is reported, I wouldn’t go but when one wintering individual was reported on a hillside off of  Diamond Heights in San Francisco, I grabbed my bins, and headed east! A California thrasher in San Francisco is considered rare for the county. A new bird to add to my City List was only 15 minutes away!


A journal spread about my issues with thrashers, from Joshua tree.

So 15 minutes later I was on the sidewalk on Diamond Heights, peering into the dense bushes on the hillside. Nothing. I looked up to the west and saw a large congress of ravens, circling over Twin Peaks. Before the 1980’s the common raven was not so common in San Francisco. Their population has risen since that time and they are now very common on the west side of San Francisco. Could the same thing be happening to the California thrasher? Too early to tell.

After twenty minutes of searching I was still having no luck. And then off to my left I heard the unmistakable song of California’s coastal thrasher. I ran over and found the bird singing, perched on top of a bush. I had great views of the songster for over five minutes before it finally dove down into the bushes.

A new San Francisco City and County bird!



Sea Watch: Northern Fulmar

On a Saturday morning in early March, I headed to the platform just below the Cliff House, I set up my tripod and scope to scan the Pacific to the west.

Before I focused my scope on the horizon, looked down at the tideline, sanderlings ebbing and flowing with the tide and a group of willets hung back and rested. I then scanned the rocks, just below my position. It didn’t take long to find the resident black oystercatchers who proclaimed their existence with their raucous calls, a call that carries above the din of the surf. A closer inspection revealed black turnstones and surfbirds working the inshore rocks.

I removed the lens caps from my scope and began to scan the waters beyond Seal Rocks. There was some movement of red-throated loons and cormorants but the bird I was looking for was a true pelagic species. A bird that remained on the outer range of most binoculars but in the winter of 2018, a number of northern fulmars had come closer to shore than in previous winters.

I continued to scan the water looking for something that stood out, something different from the roll of species that normally visited these waters. A 7:20, I caught a bird in my scope that was shearwater-like, flying low to the surface. A dark bird with a large head that was flap-flap gliding near the surface of the waters. This was it! Life bird #546, northern fulmar. toward the end of my sea watch I spotted another fulmar flying off to the south.


The Black Vulture of New Year’s Creek

I found myself, on a Saturday morning, stationed on an abandoned auto bridge in Año Nuevo State Park, not to look at the famed elephant seals, but to pick through every turkey vulture that flew over head. And there were many to pick through.

Plenty of turkey vultures. I count four.

I was here, in-between storm cells, to find the lone black vulture  (Coragyps stratus) that had been haunting the Santa Cruz and San Mateo coast.

I had seem plenty of black vultures in the Everglades and my most recent sighting was in a large kettle with turkey vultures and two impressive king vultures. This kettle was soaring above the rainforest of Costa Rica.

This lone and lost bird had first been seen on February 15 at Swanton Road in Santa Cruz County and then later above Wilder Ranch. In Late February the black had fallen in with a volt of turkey vultures (TVs). You see, the black vulture has great eyesight but their sense of smell pales in comparison to that of the turkey vulture. Black vultures soar high on thermals and look for a kettle of TVs. When the TVs locate a carcass, the black vulture make it’s appearance. It being a more aggressive bird, it will dominate the carcass, preventing the TVs from a place at the table.

After an hour and a half of searching, I was joined by three other birders on the bridge over Año Nuevo Creek. At the creek mouth, was a carcass of an elephant seal. Earlier I had seen four turkey vultures at the seal, joined by gulls and two ravens.

The clouds to the north look darkly ominous. Rain would be upon us in a short time. We saw a far off red-tailed hawk that we tried to turn into the south after scavenger. I looked up to the northeast and the bird seemed to appear out of the approaching black storm clouds. “There’s the bird!” I announced to the birders on the bridge.

12:58 PM. My first out of focus shot of the black vulture. The shape, the “flying coffee table” as Pete Dunne notes, is distinctive as well as the extremely short tail.

The vulture alighted on the top of the pine snag, a macabre Christmas Tree. It was soon joined by other turkey vultures filling in as ornaments.

We were able to enjoy the vulture for about 15 minutes before the rain started. Here the black is crowning they pine showing off it’s upright posture.

The pine snag full of vultures. The black vulture is on the near horizontal branch on the left, perched at the very end in it’s diagnostic upright posture.

The black vulture in the rain. Perching in the lone pine snag with turkey vultures.