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The Smallest Gull at the River’s End

The world’s smallest gull had recently been spotted in a flock of Bonaparte’s gulls at the San Lorenzo River mouth.

It was a rare west coast gull and the one spotted on May 13, 2022 was only the 5th Santa Cruz County record.

This is the appropriately named little gull (Hydrocoloeus minutus). I had seen this rarity on June 9, 2004 at Pescadero March in San Mateo County but I had not seen the diminutive gull since.

My first attempt to add the little gull to my Santa Cruz County list was foiled by a foot race that closed access to the San Lorenzo River mouth. I would have to try again later. Luckily the gull hung around with the flock of Bonaparte’s gull.

I tried again the following weekend. The flock had moved from the river mouth, up river, just north of the railroad trestle. There were about 75 Bonaparte’s gull, so searching through the flock for a slightly smaller gull showing a brown “M” on it’s wings, proved to be a challenge.

I got fleeting and very unsatisfying looks of the gull as the gull flock burst into the air climbing ever higher into the sky, which made me want to come back another time to try to see the bird again. And to get good reference photos for a sketch. Which is exactly what I did the following Saturday morning.

I returned to the Riverway Trail, which is just north of the train trestle that crosses the San Lorenzo River. The Bonaparte’s gull flock had moved from the river mouth (south of the trestle) further up the river. I imagine the large amount of human traffic and off leash dogs on the main beach may have something to do with the relocation.

There where now just 21 Bonaparte’s gulls left in the flock and they were roosting on the western shore of the river, the same river that flows past my cabin, further up the San Lorenzo Valley. Because there where less gulls, picking out the world’s smallest gull would be much easier. It also helped that there was another birder on the trail, already looking at the little gull!

This time the little gull was roosting on a riverside rock 15 feet from the trail! The morning was foggy which was perfect flat, low-contrast light for getting great photographs.

The little gull was also roosting close to the Bonaparte’s, giving me a nice size comparison of the two similar species.

The little gull and the larger adult Bonaparte’s gull on the right.
Loose sketch of the little gull based on one of my photographs.
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Santa Cruz County Brown Booby

Whenever I’ve seen a booby, it is usually flying away from view or sitting still, like a statue. Of course I’m referring to a bird!

In Santa Cruz County, I have seen a red-footed booby at the Concrete Ship at Seacliff State Beach on November 3, 2018 but I have always wanted to add the more common brown booby but none have stuck around long enough for me to see it.

The red-footed booby at the Concrete Ship being harassed by a juvenile brown pelican.

Until an adult female brown booby had been spotted roosting on the cliffs just south of Fern Grotto on the Old Cove Landing Trail at Wilder Ranch State Park. I just hoped she would stick around long enough for me to get a look!

Wilder Ranch State Park is a 7,000 acre State Park that reached from the Santa Cruz County Coastline up to the peak of Ben Lomond Mountain. It is a popular destination for hikers, bikers, birders, nature loafers, and wave watchers.

On Saturday morning I was heading out on one of my favorite hiking/birding trails in the park, the Old Cove Landing Trail. After parking on Highway 1, I headed down a trail and into the historic farm site with contains houses and farm buildings.

It was here, in the and around the buildings, that Lindsey, Stevie, Christine, John, and Mick appeared in the video for “Little Lies”. It is from the album Tango in the Night (1987), which has sold over 15 million copies. “Little Lies” was the highest charting single from the album, reaching number 1. It is still played on 80’s hit radio stations today. Maybe Wilder Ranch had a little to do with it.

I headed through the farm buildings and I was about to crossed the railroad track to the Old Cove Trail when I spotted a California thrasher at the top of a coyote bush. They are more visible and more vocal at this time of year.

One of the many “California”birds I saw on my quest for the brown booby. The others where California towhee, gull, quail, and scrub-jay.

It is about a mile hike on the Old Cove Landing Trail to get to the place where the bobby had been seen. I arrived at the coastal bluffs just south of Fern Grotto Beach.

In front of me was a long flat rock. I scanned the rock: western gulls, lots of Brandt’s cormorants, a lone black oystercatcher, brown pelicans but no brown booby. It must be out to sea fishing or it was just gone. I had decided to give the bird an hour. So I waited for the brown booby to appear. I scanned the southern horizon looking for a booby flying towards my position. I saw none.

I tried to turn a roosting brown pelican into a brown booby, it’s large bill was tucked into it’s back feathers but the feet color was wrong. No booby.

Below me a bird flew into view and landed on the cliff next to a Brandt’s Cormorant. It was the brown booby!! It must have been roosted out of view on the cliff I was standing on.

This is the angle where I first got looks at the brown booby.
I moved to a position directly above the booby, without falling over to join it, to get some better photos.
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Westcliff Kittiwake

The black-legged kittiwake has been on my Santa Cruz County wish list for sometime. You figure with 29 miles of coastline, this pelagic gull or more correctly, seagull (kittiwakes drink salt water), would be far easier to see in the county. But sadly, it isn’t. The kittiwakes keep to the offshore waters.

The winter is the time to see this gull on the California Coast. Every winter, a few kittiwakes stop for a rest on coastal beaches or cliffs. The county north of Santa Cruz, San Mateo County, can be a good place to see a kittiwake as it rests, bathes, or preens, at gull roosts, usually on a beach where a freshwater creeks flows into the ocean. But every season can be different with many kittiwake sightings on year but some seasons, hardly any.

Perhaps because much of Santa Cruz County’s coastline lies within Monterey Bay and not facing the open ocean, kittiwakes tend to be even scarcer than in counties to the north.

Many times I had searched gull flocks on the northern Santa Cruz coast with no luck. I could not find the smaller gull with the bowlegged walk, wearing black earmuffs with a yellow beak. Waddell Beach, the most northerly beach in the county, has been a good place for large concentrations of roosting gulls. I picked through these flocks in search of a lone kittiwake and had always come up empty.

Now there was another lone adult kittiwake being seen on the rocks at Westcliff Drive and Woodrow. And in the middle of May!

After getting another look at the scissor-tailed flycatcher in Davenport, I headed back to Santa Cruz and walked parts of Westcliff Drive in search of the kittiwake. No luck.

One early morning on the following day, a Sunday, I headed to the San Lorenzo River mouth to look for the recently reported little gull but the whole area was closed off because of a foot race. So I thought I would check Westcliff Drive to see if I could add a county kittiwake. I had missed so many times that I did not have high expectations.

I parked on Columbia Street and I looked east down Westcliff, toward the lighthouse and there was a large feeding flock of gulls, pelicans, and cormorants. I sure hoped the kittiwake was not amongst the hundreds of birds.

I turned and walked west, towards Woodrow and I soon saw a lone whitish bird perched on the rocks. It was a bit too far to identify conclusively but I had a hunch that this was the kittiwake. I picked up my pace and then stopped to raise my bins. It was most certainly a kittiwake! I was now almost jogging because I wanted to take a few photos before the bird flew.

By the time I was inline with the bird on the cliff, I was about 20 yards away and the kittiwake showed no signs of leaving anytime soon.

I was able to get some great shot of the kittiwake in the even gray morning light. It did not seem threatened by my presence, this was a bird that spent the majority of it’s life at sea after all. It then took to the air, circled around twice and them flew west.

Just then a local birder arrived and I gave him the news that he had just missed the bird. We stood around chatting about attempts to see kittiwakes in the county and he then turned to leave, heading towards his car parked on Woodrow. Just then, the kittiwake returned to the cliff and I called out “Kittiwake!” and the birder returned to confirm it’s existence.

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The Long-tailed Kingbird of Davenport

While Grasshopper and I were birding Mines Road and Del Puerto Canyon, a rare flycatcher for the West Coast was found on a barbed wire fence just north of Cement Plant Road in Davenport. I wasn’t going to able to look for it until the following Friday, that is, if it hung around.

This is arguably one of the most beautiful flycatchers in North America. This is Tyrannus forticatus, the scissor-tailed flycatcher. The flycatcher looks like a kingbird (it is actually related to the western kingbird) with a forked tailed that is twice the length of it’s body. In the book 100 Bird to See Before You Die by David Chandler & Dominic Couzens, the authors rank the scissor- tailed on the list at number 79, ahead of vermillion flycatcher, magnificent frigatebird, angel tern, paradise tanager, tufted puffin, and greater flamingo (all birds I have seen in the wild.)

The adult scissor-tailed was not where it was supposed to be (something all birders love). The bird summers and breeds in the southern middle of the United States, in Texas, Nebraska, eastern Colorado, and western Louisiana. But all this kingbird needs is an open pasture, some cows, lots of hunting perches( like a barbed wire fence), and a sky full of flying insects.

I got off work early because of a buy back day to pay us back for the extra hours of open house and I headed to the coast on Highway 92 and then south on Highway 1 toward Davenport.

Some birds are extremely hard to add to your life or county list such as rails, wayward warblers, and some thrashers but it is always nice to have a bird handed to you on a plate (a live bird of course!). This was the case with the “Long-tailed Kingbird of Davenport”. As I rolled up, five birders where already peering into the cow pasture along Cement Plant Road. The flycatcher was perched on barbed wire about 30 yards out. This was much closer than it had been seen by others over the past six days!

This is not only a beautiful flycatcher but it is also a pleasure to watch as it is in motion for most of the time, pursuing flying insects from it’s fence perch. It would also fly down to the grass to catch insects on the ground.

This was a wonderful and unexpected Santa Cruz County bird!

You don’t see this combo everyday: California quail and scissor-tailed flycatcher.
The anchor for my sketch was a field sketch of the cow pasture where I first spotted the scissor-tailed flycatcher. Full disclosure: while there were many more cows in the pasture, I only drew two. I try to follow a whole foods, plant-based diet after all! And don’t get me started about cow farts.

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Black-headed Seacrow

I guess I was destined to love birds from very early on in my life.

My one and only childhood home was(and still remains) a two story trackhouse built on the site of a former apricot orchard in Sunnyvale. I grew up on a court or cul-de-sac of sixteen family homes, built in 1970. We knew everyone on the court and are still friends with a fellow family. I still remember the single apricot tree in the backyard as a reminder of the ground’s agricultural past.

The street name was Cormorant Court. The developers named all the north-south streets after birds: Blackhawk, Albatross, Emperor, Crow, Eagle, Condor, Heron, Grosbeak etc. The west-east streets are mostly British place names: Inverness, Dunholme Jura, Liverpool, Lambeth, Londonderry etc.

There were many times in my youth where I had to spell “cormorant” for people who couldn’t arrange the consonances and vowels in right order and I also had to explain what a cormorant was. The Cambridge dictionary describes cormorant as: a large, black sea bird with a long neck and body. That seems just about right, although I might quibble with the word “sea”. The genus name, Phalacrocorax can be translated as bald-headed crow, referring to the dark plumage of most cormorants. The common name cormorants comes from the French meaning crow of the sea.

In honor of my home street I decided to do a spread about the cormorant. The cormorant is synonymous with water. Worldwide, there are 40 species of cormorants and shags. All cormorants feed on fish, by diving underwater from the surface where they catch their prey with large hooked beaks.

On the West Coast, there are three common cormorants: the double-crested, Brandt’s, and pelagic. Along with these three, there are three other species found in North America: the great, neotropic, and red-faced cormorant. The red-faced is not found in the Lower 48 but in coastal Alaska.

The double-crested cormorant is the largest cormorant in the west. It is commonly found inland, favoring freshwater. Brandt’s and pelagic are coast huggers and are almost always associated with saltwater. All three are common and easily seen.

I have recently seen a rare cormorant for the state of California. In fact I have seen two different individuals in two months. This is the Neotropic cormorant (Phalacrocorax brasilianus). The first I had added to my California and Santa Cruz County list on December 11 at Pinto Lake.

Then on an outing for winter raptors with Grasshopper Sparrow to Robinson Road in Solano County, we went for the Neotropic that was found on the Christmas Bird Count in December. The raptors and mountain plovers were very scarce at Robinson Road so we made the 20 minute journey to Brannan Island Road in Sacramento County, just over the Sacramento River.

The Neotropic had been seen perched on a ruined crane barge. We found the barge and cormorants perched on the cables. With a short search we found the Neotropic perched among the larger double-crested cormorants. Lifer for Grasshopper and a new county bird for me! This was a first record for this species in Sacramento County.

Can you see which one of these cormorants is different from all the others?
The Neotropic cormorant on the right and a double-crested on the left.
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The Sea Elephant, the Laughing Gull, and a Tsunami

After work, on my way down to Santa Cruz, I spotted a male elephant seal resting on Waddell State Beach. On the previous Friday I had seen a juvenile bald eagle perched above the beach. Waddell Beach had been good to me.

This weekend, on Saturday morning, I returned to Waddell Beach to see if the elephant seal was still there and if so, I intended to sketch it. But I found so much more!

I pulled into the dirt parking lot at about 7:30 AM. And there was the male elephant seal on the beach looking like a massive piece of driftwood. The seal’s stern was pointing toward the tide and it bulbous snout, facing east. This is only the second elephant seal I have seen on Waddell State Beach.

I planned to search the gull flock that usually rests and bathes in Waddell Creek on the beach near the creek mouth. At the end of the beach I could see the flock of about 100 gulls. I was hoping to find a black-legged kittiwake, a gull that I have been wanted to add to my county list for a while. But before I got to the flock, there were a few gulls foraging around the elephant seal. Indeed, they seemed to be in orbit around the massive mammal.

The dark gulls where juvenile Heermann’s gulls but there was one daintier gull that was actively foraging in the surfline. This gull really stood out. And that’s always a good thing when you’re gulling. The first thing that called out to me was the shape, size, and color of the beak. Now where had I seen that beak before?

This gull was smaller than the nearby Heermann’s gulls. I checked off the fieldmarks: dark bill, darkish smudge behind the eye (clearly one of the hooded gulls), dark eye with a white broken ring, grey back, brownish wing coverts, white undertail coverts (seen when in flight), dark wing tips, and dark legs. This could be only one gull, a gull I had seen on the Texas coast; even taking a dip in a hotel’s swimming pool. This was a first winter laughing gull (Leucophaeus atricilla)! A rare gull on the west coast of California.

Three laughing gulls in the hotel swimming pool in Rockport, Texas. The gull in the center most resembles the gull I found at Waddell Beach. The two other hooded gulls are in adult breeding plumage.
A pinniped piece of driftwood. A battle-scarred male elephant seal, master of Waddell Beach.

After taking some photos of the very active laughing gull, I pulled out my Stillman and Birn Beta hardcover panoramic journal, picked a position, and started sketching the elephant seal. He was very accommodating by just doing his driftwood impression. I looked north towards the parking lot and I noticed that a park ranger’s truck had just pulled in.

My field sketch of the male elephant seal at Waddell Beach.
The first winter laughing gull of Waddell Beach. What a great find! A Santa Cruz County lifer!

The ranger got out of his truck and he began walking towards me. Here I was, about to get a lecture about being too close to the elephant seal, when I was keeping a 25 foot buffer from the pinniped. Or so I though. When the ranger came within hailing distance, (when masked this seems to be about eight feet), he told me there was a tsunami warning and the surge was predicted to hit the coast right about now. I looked at my watch and it was just after 8 AM. He recommended that I leave the beach, which I did. I asked him if there had been and earthquake and he told me that and underwater volcano had erupted!

The undersea volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, 40 miles from the island of Tonga in the South Pacific, had erupted. A tsunami warning had been issued along the entire west coast of the United States as well as across the Pacific in Japan. The only evidence of the tsunami I witnessed was a swell running up Waddell Creek which causing the mallards to take to the air. At the time I really thought nothing of it. Winter waves I though. (I later found out that the surge damaged boats in Santa Cruz Harbor).

When I made it back to the parking lot I encountered two local birders who where looking for the recently reported black scoters. It is always great to have fellow witnesses when you find a rare bird. I showed them where the gull was, just to the right of the elephant seal and further down the beach. They got on it and then put word out on Monterey Birds of it’s presence. The more witnesses the better! Birders in Santa Cruz County love to share.

Thank you Lois, for getting the word out. And thank you for the very uncommon cuckoo in Watsonville!

One of the birders was Lois, the finder of the common cuckoo in Watsonville in the fall of 2012. That was an extremely rare bird that brought birders from across the United States to see it. I was glad to partially repay the favor with this humble, wayward, hooded gull. We seemed to be almost even.

Well, almost.

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County Birding in the New Year

It was a good omen to see a large raptor perched on a snag just after I crossed into Santa Cruz County on Highway 1.

I was not sure what the raptor was (hard to identify at 70 miles per hour) but it certainly was not a red-tailed hawk, it was much bigger. I was thinking more eagle-like.

I passed Waddell Beach and turned around at the soonest point. I headed back and pulled into the dirt parking lot at Waddell State Beach. Once I got bins on the bird, I had no doubt that I was looking at an eagle. Not a golden but a juvenile bald eagle. Perhaps a second or third year bird. Welcome to Santa Cruz County! What a great afterwork bird!

That large yellow bill screams: bald eagle!! This is a juvenile bird and the first I have seen at Waddell Beach.

The next morning, Saturday, I headed to Tryrrell Park, just behind the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History to look for a wayward warbler that had recently been spending the winter among the oaks and willows. Within about ten minutes I had the small, grey warbler, foraging in the willows with a Townsend’s warbler. A Lucy’s warbler. What a rarity and what a great county bird!

I then headed across town to the Natural Brides Overlook just off Westcliff Drive, to looked for a reported ruddy turnstone. It was not there but a local fellow Santa Cruz Bird Club member was there looking for the same bird with a scope. Together we found some nice birds: whimbrel, black turnstone, black oystercatcher, back-bellied plover, Heerman’s gull, and a close female white-winged scoter on the water.

We met a man with a large lens from Sacramento, our state capital, and he was photographing some birds on the rock. He was excited at adding Brandt’s cormorant and Heerman’s gull to his life list (these birds are not seen in the Central Valley). A father and son from the east coast walked up, telling use there was a hawk perched on a light post on Westcliff. What follows is the conversation:

Son: I think it’s a rough-legged hawk.

Me: Now that would be a great bird to see here. (I put the raptor in my bins) Peregrine.

Father: It’s too big to be a peregrine.

In the meantime my club member compatriot has put his scope on the bird in question. And he asks me to take a look. I looked.

Me: Peregrine.

Dad: They are smaller on the east coast.

Size is not a great measure for field identification because birds can often seem larger when they fluff up their feathers and in raptors occurs reverse sexual dimorphism, which simply means that females are larger than males.

A rough-legged hawk, no err, a peregrine, no, too big to be a peregrine. . . okay a peregrine! A nickname for this bird on Hawk Hill is “Elvis” because of it’s dark head and “sideburns”.

I got some beta from the club member about a bird in the county that I needed to add to my lifelist. I had lackadaisically searched for the Santa Cruz County resident with no luck. Why? First I was searching in the wrong place and secondly, the bird was an exotic species which had been introduced to California.

Exotic species are an odd one when it comes to listing. They could be escapees and normally you cannot count them but if they have a established and sustained breeding population, such as the European starling or the Himalayan snowcock, then they can be counted. With the ABA’s approval of course.

So I headed down Highway One towards Watsonville. My destination: Pinto Lake City Park. The bird in question, according to my beta, was to be found in the reeds near the picnic area, just to the right of the dock.

At the moment the dock was inundated with the Devil’s Bird: great-tailed grackle. There must have been about 30. I searched the reeds and got a brief view of my quarry before a flock flew to the other side of the dock.

I walked over and followed the sounds of the flock moving through the reeds. I final got great views of lifebird # 1,666 (a global pandemic really spoils a world life list). Here was a flock of 12 scale-breasted munias. This small sparrow-like birds are native to Asia and India. How they got here, no one really knows.

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The Prairie and the Neotropic

I have often said that birding is a type of madness. Even more so if it’s a county bird you’re after because this is a species that I have seen many times before but not in Santa Cruz County!

I had missed out on the wintering prairie falcon on the southern edge of Santa Cruz County near Riverside Road. I returned, for the third time, to see a sandy falcon with dark wingpits. I pulled off Riverside Road to scan the pastures, like I’d done three times before. The morning was sunny and clear with blue skies. It was very chilly with the temps hovering in the mid 30s. My hands where numb and for the life of me I couldn’t find my second glove. But what warmed me, was the large hawk circling above the pasture in beautiful morning light. It was the overwintering ferruginous hawk.

But there was no prairie falcon in the air or on any fenceposts so I moved east down the road towards the county line.

In the field, on almost every fence post, where turkey vultures, warming themselves in the morning sun. A lone red-tailed hawk was on a post. Further north, near the base of the hills, was a growing kettle of turkey vultures, rising in the air.

With the naked eye, I could see a bird circling with the vultures. It was much, much lighter compared to the vulture’s black livery. I raised my binoculars and here was my county bird: prairie falcon (Falco mexicanus)! The falcon stooped on a vulture below it, practice hunting I suppose. The falcon continued to circle with the vultures and then peeling off in powered flight as it headed towards the hills to the northwest.

Fence sitting turkey vultures in beautiful morning light.

With the prairie falcon in the bag it was now time to look for the extremely rare visitor that was first seen at Pinto Lake two days before. It was spotted again yesterday after some local birders rented a boat to head out into the lake (hopefully I wouldn’t have to rent a boat to add this bird to my county list). There was a report that the bird had been seen in the middle finger of Pinto Lake in the mid morning. At Pinto Lake, there where a hundred double-crested cormorants at any given time. This could be an exhausting search.

I arrived at the middle finger of Pinto Lake at about noon. I spotted one double-crested cormorant and not the southern visitor so I walked out to the point to scan the main body of the lake. There were a lot of gulls on the water but very few cormorants.

I headed back along the western edge of the finger. There were a few ducks, three hooded mergansers, and more coots but no cormorants. Just when I was about to end my search and head back to my car, three cormorants flew past me heading north up the finger. One of the cormorants stood out. It was much smaller and darker than the the double-crested cormorants it flew besides. The birds moved out of view but I had no doubt that they landed on the water.

I ran down the trail to an opening in the vegetation (birding is a kind of madness after all). There were the three cormorants on the water. One was much smaller and I noticed other details such as the white “V” that framed the base of the beak and the white “sideburns” of it’s breeding plumes. This was the neotropic cormorant (Phalacrocorax brasilianus)! A very rare county bird! In fact this was the first time that a neotropic cormorant had been seen in Santa Cruz County!

The cormorants stayed in view for about five minutes before taking to the air and flying back toward the open lake. I had been lucky with my brief encounter with a Santa Cruz County rarity.

One of these cormorants is not like the others.
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Wintering Raptors

The winter in California, is the time of raptors.

Prairie falcon, merlin, rough-legged, and ferruginous hawk, bald eagle. These are exciting times to get out in the field, when raptors have replaced the neotropical migrants, who have headed south.

On a Saturday morning I headed east of Watsonville on the eastern edge of Santa Cruz County on Riverside Drive (Highway 129). Here was habitat like no other in Santa Cruz County, open rolling hills and pastureland. This was habitat like San Benito County, which was really just a mile down the highway. This was the perfect habitat for wintering raptors.

Recently a prairie falcon and a ferruginous hawk had been seen in the area. These are both birds that I look forward to seeing at this time of year. And a prairie falcon would be a county bird for me.

I pulled off Riverside Road at a dirt pullout. Across the road was perfect winter raptor territory. In the foreground was green pastureland with plenty of hunting perches and in the background where the green rolling hills, the realm of golden eagles. It is this view that is the featured field sketch.

To my left I saw some motion against the hillside. I put bins on the raptor and it was one of the prizes I had been looking for, our largest hawk: Buteo regalus! The hawk circled above the ground and then stooped down, landing of the ground. It returned to the air, a minute later, empty taloned. The ferruginous hawk crossed the road and flew above me, paralleling a line of eucalyptus trees. The hawk moved east and out of view.

I moved on down the road and a falcon being pursued by crows crossed the road in front of me. It could be the prairie falcon but I didn’t get a great look at the raptor. I tried to relocate the possible prairie but like most falcons they can be just seem to be passing through, very quickly. This was not enough to tick this bird off on my Santa Cruz County list.

A digitscope of the wintering ferruginous hawk and a Say’ phoebe. This is from a return visit to Riverside Road on Sunday morning.
It must be winter in the Bay Area. Here is a perched ferruginous hawk, our largest hawk, in Princeton near the Half Moon Bay Airport.

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A Sunday Morning Twofer

The Westside of Santa Cruz has been recently active with fall migrants, including a few species that are considered rare in California.

I set out early on Sunday morning and the most challenging part of my migrant search was getting to the Westside of Santa Cruz. Streets where blocked off because of a bicycle race which made getting to the Homeless Garden and Antonelli Pond a chore. Highway One was blocked off at Western Drive and I was hoping the two rarities seen the day before would still be in the area. Now I waited, a bit impatiently, as a CHP officer let in a trickle of traffic at Western Drive, in between clumps of cyclists.

I finally made my way across the intersection and turned left on Shafner, which was also blocked off by a CHP officer. Here was where two passions collided: birding and triathletes. And the triathletes were winning.

I found parking at the end of Shafner and crossed the rusted railroad tracks and headed into the Homeless Garden. The garden was already occupied by five birders, with their large lens, looking for the first of the rare migrants on my list: bobolink.

After wandering around for ten minutes, I noticed a triad of birder-photographers with their lens pointed at a row of tall purple flowers. This is always a good sign because I reckoned they where not photographing a white-crowned sparrow or a lesser goldfinch but a rarer visitor called a bobolink.

What’s in a name? Well bobolink is onomatopoeic of it’s call. Other birds whose common name is derived from the sound of it’s call are: chickadee, whip-poor-will, dickcissel, bobwhite, chachalaca, hoopoe, killdeer, poorwill, willet, kookaburra, and of course the cuckoo.

The bobolink with it’s attending birding paparazzi at the Homeless Garden.

And now back to the Homeless Garden in western Santa Cruz: it turns out that the bird all the birders where looking at was the bobolink. The bird was very accommodating as it perched up on the vegetation and held relatively still.

Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) at the Homeless Garden in Santa Cruz.

Now I was going to try for the second county bird (and third for the weekend) and this bird was much rarer. This bird had only been recorded in Santa Cruz County once before. I had first seen a white-eyed vireo in Southern Texas in 2013. Now one was out on the West Coast.

I headed east down the railroad tracks and I could see about ten birders peering into the bushes on either side of the track. I had passed two birders who had already given up on the bird and where heading to the garden to look at the bobolink.

Now sometime magic happens in birding. Where you happen to be at just the right place at just the right time. Such was the case as I approached the group of birders and was just about to ask if they had had any luck with the vireo when one of the birders exclaimed, “There’s the bird!” And pointed into the top of a rail side tree. Some of the birders and been searching for the vireo for over two hours and here I come, Johnny- Come-Lately, and the bird seems to appear out of nowhere.

I got bins on the foraging vireo, two white wing bars, yellowish wash, white throat, and a distinctive white eye with a dark pupil. This was the bird all the birders were here to see. White-eyed vireo!

The vireo moved from tree to tree and at one point was foraging with a mixed feeding flock in a pine. Beside the white-eyed, the flock included warbling vireo, pygmy nuthatch, Townsend’s warbler, chestnut-backed chickadee, dark-eyed junco, Bewick’s wren, oak titmouse, both downy and hairy woodpeckers, and bushtits.

As we searched the feeding flock in the pine, we where joined by more birders. I could only gesture to the place where the white-eyed vireo used to be but had not been seen in the last few minutes. We where joined by more and more birders and a tallish, bespectacled man stood to my left peering into the pine. And here is where I used my odd and often under-appreciated superpower: identify obscure “celebrates”.

Low and behold, the birder standing next to me was none other than the acclaimed novelist, Jonathan Franzen. He is the the author of the National Book Award winner, The Corrections (which I have not read). He is also a birder and has written essays about birds and birding (one essay is titled “My Bird Problem”). Franzen now lives in Santa Cruz, which explains why he was here on a Sunday morning, attempting to get a glimpse of the wayward vireo. I’m not sure he got that glimpse because I returned to my car shortly afterwards with a county twofer.