County Birding: San Mateo and San Francisco Counties Part 2

On Sunday I decided to head to Lake Merced and its environs.

I started at the Vista Grande Canal which is just south of the Concrete Bridge. This concrete canal can have some nice species including the continuing swamp sparrow. I found the sparrow shortly after arriving and enjoyed watching it foraging in the water with excellent mid-morning light.

The continuing swamp sparrow and it’s relflection. The reflected green makes this scene look like a May Morning instead of early February.

Above my head, on a power line, a California scrub-jay perched with an acorn in it’s mouth. This intelligent species is an avian gardner, responsible for oak trees “growing” uphill because of the jay habit of caching thousands of acorns in the ground.

In the distance, toward the lake, I could here the unearthly song of a male great-tailed grackle. This “Devil bird” has been slowly making it’s way north.

My next stop was the Boathouse and docks. This is where I had seen an adult bald eagle a few weeks before. The docks can sometime yield interesting gulls.

I first checked, quiet hopefully, the eucalyptus for the adult bald eagle but this bird had flow weeks ago. With the naked eye, I could see a lone gull on the nearest wooden dock. It’s grey mantle and white underparts said, “small adult gull”.

I put bins on the bird and I realized that this was no ordinary gull for this location. What I was looking at was a wintering pelagic gull that rarely comes ashore excepted when pushed towards land, ahead of a storm front. And there had not been a storm in the past week. The bird I was looking at was an adult black-legged kittiwake!

I grabbed my camera and headed down to the docks to get a better look. Yes the yellow-green bill and dark “ear muffs” put this in the kittiwake category. I took some photos for documentation for this was indeed a rare bird at this location. Most kittiwakes in San Francisco, are seen by scope when birders are doing a seawatch. The last two eBird reports of black-legged kittiwake from Lake Merced where from 2001 and 1977!

One of the first photos I took of the wayward kittiwake. The indentation just under the breast seemed off. When the kittiwake turned to face me I could see the reason this pelagic species had been forced ashore. There was a deep indentation under it’s breast and a large, open wound in it’s chest. The kittiwake was injured.

The kittiwake had come ashore to rest and die.

I watched the kittiwake as it repeatedly drank water. It occasionally sat down but then stood up again and took another sip of water.

This angle shows the open wound, perhaps caused by a fishing line.

I put word out to local birders of my find. I wanted other birders to witness this pelagic rarity on the shores of a San Franciscan lake before it flew off or passed away. In all about 11 birders reported seeing the kittiwake that Sunday.

One report, from mid afternoon, noted that animal control attempted to net the kittiwake but it was well enough to fly off towards the gull flock in the middle of the lake. It eventual returned to it’s favored place on the wooden dock.

The last eBird report of this bird was just after 4 PM and then it was seen no more.

The adult kittiwake taking a sip of water. This photo is bittersweet. While is was amazing to see a new San Francisco County bird but also realizing that I was probably witnessing the kittiwake’s last day on Earth.

Gift of Eagle

Local San Francisco birder, Hugh Cotter, first gave me the Gift of Eagle.

Midmorning on the Friday January 23, Hugh was birding at Lake Merced, in the southwestern corner of San Francisco. He spotted an adult bald eagle flying in from the north. The eagle landed in some eucalyptus trees on the southern shores of Lake Merced. He reported this sighting on eBird.

What was unusual about his sighting is that the eagle didn’t continue on south into San Mateo County but instead, perched in San Francisco County. Most bald eagle sightings are of birds soaring above San Francisco before headed further south down the coast. I wondered if the eagle was going to stick around.

On Saturday January 24, I was going to find out. I headed over to the Boathouse on Lake Merced so see if I could spot the adult bald eagle. I began by eBird checklist at 9:04 AM.

I scanned the eucalyptus trees to the south and the white head of the adult eagle stood out like a shining light. A San Francisco County bird!!

I recorded my sighting on eBird, took a few crappy photos, and continued birding other parts of the lake.

Now it was my turn to pass on the Gift of Eagle.

Across the Bay, Jim Lomax saw my post, confirming that the eagle had overnighted. Jim Lomax is an epic California county birder. He is the first birder to see over 200 species of bird in every one of California’s 58 counties!

Jim wrote on the birding listing service, Sialia:

Read Hugh Cotter’s report last night but these birds never stay . . . Then got to my emails . . . and saw that John Perry saw the same bird this morning and suddenly I was out the door. Wearing shorts and flip flops. . . for more than 15 years I have wanted to see this bird in San Francisco but if you read about it, you missed it. They are always flyovers. Most of the San Francisco resident birders have seen more than one, but sadly (snif) . . . not me. UNTIL TODAY!

There perched in the eucalyptus trees . . . was an adult BALD EAGLE . . . I have now seen a Bald Eagle in all 58 counties.

The stars are aligned today.

Wow, what an achievement to see bald eagles in all of 58 counties! That is true birding dedication! And I was glad to play a very small part in making it happen.

To remember the gift, I did a spread which almost looks like an illustrated diary entry. The sketch is from one of my crappy photos and Jim’s Sialia post is on the facing page.

Here is one of the crappy photos I took of the adult bald eagle at Lake Merced. The white head and tail and the yellow beak says: bald eagle!

Lifer #504

The Blackburnian warbler had been seen on October 11th in Ft. Mason just before the rainy weekend and I didn’t get a chance to add it to my North American list. I assumed the storm would have washed the bird out of the city and I didn’t see any postings of a continuing Blackburnian so I didn’t venture out during one of the rain windows.

It appears that the storm didn’t wash the warbler out of the city limits completely. A Blackburnian, very similar in appearance to the Ft. Mason young male, was found at 11:45, Monday morning at South Lake Merced, within a few wing beats of the San Francisco/ Daly City border. And just south of the Bufano penguin sculpture, very near where I had a black and white warbler in October of 2012.  Now if the warbler could satisfy itself in the trees of South Lake Merced and stay around for another few hours, I might have an after work lifer.

And so it was that I found myself, a little bit before 4 o’clock, in front of some myoporum trees full of  yellow rumped warblers and cedar waxwings, scanning the green for a flashing flame. A local birder had just seen the bird and now it was just about patience. The patience paid off as the Blackburnian appeared at eye-level, right in front of me at 3:57!

The Sketch

I started this spread with the lettering: Blackburnian LB# 504. To create the lettering I used a Parchment 1” plastic stencil and a black Faber-Castell PITT big brush pen. The anchor for the spread is the adult male warbler in the lower left. This sketch was started with pencil and then layered in watercolor. I intentionally avoided using pen, instead attempting to define and contain shapes with brush work with a Winsor & Newton Series 7  number 3 brush. This is not the warbler that I saw but I think sketching a bird at it’s absolute apex (male breeding plumage), I am able to understand and internalize the bird’s appearance. The breeding male’s foil is a loose, Chinese brush style, fall male, based on a photograph of the bird that first seen on October 11 at Ft. Mason. The overall color scheme of the sketch of black, white, and yellow-orange is dictated by the breeding male’s plumage.


I saw this life bird on October 17, the  27th anniversary of the Loma Prieta Earthquake that rocked the Bay Area, which I experienced when I was a senior in high school. To crown this sketch I included a quote by John Muir that I re-read in the book I am currently reading, Landmarks by Robert Mac Farlane. Muir wrote:

The strange, wild thrilling motion and rumbling could not be mistaken, and I ran out of my cabin, near Sentinel Rock, both glad and frightened, shouting, ‘A noble earthquake!’ feeling sure I was going to learn something.