The Renewal of Life

Marin Headlands-Sunday March 24, 2019

This morning I spent a few hours in one of my favorites places in the Bay Area, the Marin Headlands. For 14 seasons I spent each fall as a volunteer hawk bander for the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory (GGRO) but now I was here in the early spring.

The signs of spring were all around. Especially with the avian fauna of this open space, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

When I pulled in to the parking lot of the visitor’s center, a quarter of a hour after eight, I heard the call of a northern flicker, followed by rapid drumming on metal. This was a sign of a male proclaiming his place in the breeding world and he was using a roof vent  on one of the old military buildings to help amplify his announcement. Shortly afterwards I saw a pair flying from tree to tree. This was followed by an American crow flying overhead with a twig in it’s beak, a sure sign of nest building.

Spotted towhee at the Marin Headland Visitor’s Center.

Another sign of spring was the shear depth of bird song. Spotted towhees were calling from the coyote brush and a hidden purple finch was letting loose his fluid song from the top of a eucalyptus. Juncos trilled from the roof and as I walked west along the eastern shore of Rodeo lagoon with Dickcissel, a first of season (FOS) song made me dig into the depths of the catalog of bird songs in my head to identify a singing male Wilson’s warbler, recently arrived from the south.

A FOS singing Wilson’s warbler.

Along the trail, bushtits, normally found in large groups, were now only found in pairs as they foraged and prepared for nesting season. Orange-crowned and Wilsons’s warblers sang from the upper branches of trees. Ravens playful harassed a red-tailed hawk (ravens seem to do this all year long, to the annoyance of red-tails).

We came upon a chestnut-backed chickadee excavating a nesting cavity in a tree, prepared for a future brood of birds. The chickadee would disappear into the tree cavity and reappear with tiny bits of wood in it’s beak. Time for some spring cleaning!

A spring cleaning chestnut-backed chickadee.

Spring was certainly here and the biological clock proclaimed the hour. This is the time of growth and renewal!


Birding Among the Dead

On a Saturday morning I headed to a Catholic cemetery on Highway 152, just east of Watsonville. I did not bring a bouquet to pay respects to a long lost relative (my family is not Catholic) but I had my bins, camera , and sketchbook. I was here at this cemetery to see a rare Santa Cruz County Bird. There were three of them, feeding on earthworms amongst the grave markers.

The cattle egret is a smallish egret than prefers grasses and lawns to aquatic environments. If is often in the presence of livestock, hence it’s name, where it may perch on the backs of cows, sheep or goats. Flocks follow livestock as the scare up bugs and insects.

When I arrived at the Catholic cemetery by mid morning, the place was full of families tiding up plots and replacing flowers. There were many cars parked along the roads that bisected the plots. I thought that with all the human activity, the egrets might have been scared off. I checked all the sections looking for the small white egrets. Finally in a section that was not being tidied up and there where the three cattle egrets, hunting earthworms in the still wet grass. Bingo! County lifer!

I pulled over to the plot and the egrets continued to feed showing no interest in my arrive. I got out, grabbed my sketchbook and pencil and sat in the passenger seat and sketched away. The three birds actually moved closer, after all they have associated with large mammals for centuries.

These birds were a perfect subject to sketch. They were unfazed by my presence meaning that they did not change their behavior because of my close proximity. A great way to spend a sunny Saturday morning in a cemetery.


After Work State Bird

There is nothing like ending the day with a little birding. Especially after a day of rainy day recess and rambunctious ten year olds! Also I had looking for a rare bird in the pouring rain on the previous Saturday and had whiffed.

I was determined to try again so I headed to Twin Peaks, a vista that provides some of the best views of downtown San Francisco.

The view of San Francisco from Twin Peaks, looking straight down Market Street.

I pulled into the dirt parking lot, right in between the peaks, it was just after 3:30. I replaced my work shoes with my mucking boot (always in the trunk) and grabbing my car binoculars (ditto) and headed towards the drawn where my target bird was being seen.

I reached the edge of the road and looked down on the chaparral draw, and immediately I saw a bird flying away down around the curves of the hill and stopping in a coyote brush. This bird did not seem to be a local, something looked off. I walked 20 yards along the road and looked down where I found the bird in my binoculars. Here was my target bird: eastern Phoebe, a very rare bird in San Francisco.

I got great looks at the lost visitor as it hawked from its perch and then returned moving its tail in circular motions which shouted out it’s name, this behavior being very diagnostic of this energetic flycatcher.

I watched the bird for about five minutes then some movement off to  my right caught my attention, just a congress of ravens circling above the South Peak, and then I return my gaze back to the coyote brush and the flycatcher it was gone. Other birders had previously noted that this bird can appear and then suddenly disappear and not be seen again for hours.

Luckily for me I only had to wait for another five minutes before I spotted the bird flying across the road up towards the South Peak where it got in a light tussle with the residence Black Phoebe, two species of Phoebes in one bush is not a bad day’s sighting. And it certainly is a great way to end the day!