March 25, 2011

Flickr Friday: Le Conte's Thrasher

Le Conte's Thrasher in song, Elkhorn Plain, Carrizo Plains National Monument, San Luis Obispo County, CA. March 10, 2011. Photo by Brad Schram on Flickr.

Today's featured photographer is Brad Schram, who in addition to being a terrific photographer and world-class birder is also the author of A Birder's Guide to Southern California. A most excellent book and a must-read, not just for those planning SoCal birding trips, but for locals as well. This book is a gold mine of information for Southern California birders, if you ask me.

Check out Brad's Flickr photos here.

For more information on the Carrizo Plain, see these sites:
Carrizo Plain National Monument [Bureau of Land Management]
Carrizo Plain [Wikipedia]

March 23, 2011

Lawrence's Goldfinches at San Timoteo Creek

"Striking in appearance and enigmatic in behavior": Lawrence's Goldfinch, Carduelis lawrencei, a photo by Bill Bouton on Flickr.

On Sunday my buddy Linn, a.k.a. Hawkeye, called with an invite to bird Hulda Crooks Park in Loma Linda before the storm arrived. Local birder Tarik Townsend had seen Lawrence's Goldfinches at the park, and selasphorus hummingbirds [pdf] had been spotted there too, so we bundled up against the cold and headed off with those species in mind.

From the Cornell Lab's All about Birds:
A handsome and uncommon small finch, Lawrence's Goldfinch breeds across a small range in the woodlands of California and Baja California. Its highly erratic movements from year to year make assessment of its population trends very difficult.
They migrate east/west — how cool is that?

I'd seen one at Cal State San Bernardino in early February when Tom Benson led a beginner bird walk there — Tom wrote that it was the earliest in the year he'd seen one on campus by about a month. Linn hadn't seen one yet this year.

The clouds were pitch dark and spitting rain, but we did get some good looks at a selasphorus hummingbird [he had a brown back and a bland throat, so I'm thinking hatch-year male Rufous...?] right before the storm began in earnest.

Or we thought it began in earnest. But it only poured for five or ten minutes, and then quit.

So after a quick Starbucks run we drove down Fern Avenue to San Timoteo Creek and a little marshy area off San Timoteo Canyon Road. We hadn't been there for more than a minute when Linn found four, count 'em, four Lawrence's Goldfinches in a dead tree just north of the creek. Quite awesome — two handsome males and two females. After a minute they flew off to the northwest, but we stuck around a bit longer to check out the resident Yellowthroat, a few swallows [no Cliff Swallows yet - they nest under the nearby bridge], the ubiquitous Yellow-rumps, and the Red-winged Blackbirds. Then we quit, because it was about 50F freezing cold. The storm hit later that night, flooding area roads and bringing tons of birds to my feeders the next day, as rainy weather tends to do.

San Timoteo Creek between Fern Avenue and Alessandro Road is a good place to bird: see more here and here [map, pdf].

The Flickr photo above was taken by Bill Bouton at Chimineas Ranch in San Luis Obispo County, California.

See also:
Davis, Jeff N. 1999. Lawrence's Goldfinch (Spinus lawrencei), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:

March 22, 2011

Aurora Borealis

Terje Sorgjerd of Norway writes on Vimeo:
I spent a week capturing one of the biggest aurora borealis shows in recent years.

Shot in and around Kirkenes and Pas National Park bordering Russia, at 70 degree north and 30 degrees east. Temperatures around -25 Celsius. Good fun.

H/T: Jessica Wapner/PLoS.

March 18, 2011

Flickr Friday: California Gnatcatcher

California Gnatcatcher in the river wash north of Mentone, CA on March 13, 2011. Photo by Sandy Remley on Flickr.

There was once a time, and I'm old enough to remember it, when our little corner of Southern California had just one small subdivision nestled in a sea of orange groves. And there were no freeways! The mind reels. At least the flood plain of the Santa Ana River north of town hasn't changed too dramatically. Access to the wash is more restricted, it's true, but that just means walking a bit farther through the boulders and the chaparral, or finding someone with the right kind of vehicle who knows the dirt roads and the lay of the land. And what a payoff: I was out in the middle of the wash one bright morning last week just eight or ten feet away from a California Gnatcatcher.

These beautiful little birds live only in Southern California and in Baja California, Mexico. Our north-of-the-border subspecies "has been listed as a Species of Special Concern in California and was listed as Threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1993." Here's the science.

From 1960 to 1990 there were just four recorded sightings of this species in San Bernardino County. There were seven more sightings in the 1990s, and to the left you can see what the eBird map looks like for the years 1998 - 2011 [click for big].

Sandy Remley is this Friday's featured photographer. Sandy also happens to be one of the region's best birders, and this year she's doing some chasing. Her goal for 2011: 300 species in San Bernardino County. [It's been done before — once.] Sandy has 174 species so far and is #1 on the 2011 list of San Bernardino's Top 100 eBirders, so I'd say she's well on her way. You can check out Sandy's Flickr site here.

Last weekend Sandy asked if I'd like to go after a few local species with her, and we were bird magnets — it was a good day birding. It was also a reminder for me of the diversity of habitat in our valley and its importance for birds [and birders].

We heard the handsome male California Gnatcatcher pictured above calling from the moment we arrived in the wash, and we heard another calling close by. Cactus wrens were chasing each other, a California Thrasher made an appearance, towhees [California and Spotted] were there, and several Blue-gray Gnatcatchers dodged around the salvia and the yerba santa on the opposite side of the road. Rabbits and California Quail slipped through the sage scrub, and a Cooper's Hawk flew overhead. Always makes me think of a remark by master birder Gene Cardiff: "The best thing about birding is that it gets you out into some beautiful country." Amen.

Not too far away: A runner approaches the end of Opal Avenue. Photo by JudyRutRider.

See also:
Atwood, Jonathan L. and David R. Bontrager. 2001. California Gnatcatcher (Polioptila californica), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:

Mock, P. 2004. California Gnatcatcher (Polioptila californica). In The Coastal Scrub and Chaparral Bird Conservation Plan: a strategy for protecting and managing coastal scrub and chaparral habitats and associated birds in California. California Partners in Flight.

US Fish & Wildlife Service Species Profile

10,000 Birds: Finding and Identifying a California Gnatcatcher

What we talk about when we talk about love

Nico feeding the birds, by Ian Muttoo [Nico's dad] on Flickr. This is quite possibly the best photo ever.

[Man, I should carry a copy of that photo around, just to show people why teaching can be the best job on the planet.]

Nature never became a toy to a wise spirit. The flowers, the animals, the mountains, reflected the wisdom of his best hour, as much as they had delighted the simplicity of his childhood.
~ Emerson

I took a group of middle school kids birding the week before last, and a very yellow, very cooperative Lesser Goldfinch on a low branch at the park had them so wide-eyed that you'd have thought it was Kevin from Up. The same thing happened last month when we found a young Cooper's Hawk at school, perched on a fence twenty feet away, looking awesome. The kids were spellbound. You can't pay for moments like that, I'm telling you.

Anyhow, that photo made me think of the time my little sister and I hand-fed chickadees up at the cabin, and oh, how I wish my parents and my great-aunt were still alive so I could hug them and thank them for those days, for the quail that came to be fed each afternoon, for the walks in the forest, for the binoculars and field guides that were always there... thank them for everything.

Over at Punk Rock Big Year, Paul Riss has a beaut of a post up about parents and kids and moments like the one above.
I took my kids to dance class. Now, my father never took me to dance class that I'm aware of but who knows. I barely remember the last ten minutes, never mind the last 30 years. What my dad DID do was take me to a conservation area with an old pair of binoculars to see a few birds. I really have no recollection of how it went leading up to the moment I became insanely obsessed by birds. I don't remember standing in the woods with my hand held out, waiting. I don't remember the type of seeds in the palm of my hand. I don't remember what time of year it was or what time of day it was. I don't even remember what car we drove there. What I do remember with intensity, is exactly how heavy (or rather not heavy) a Black-capped Chickadee was. How it's impossibly small silver-grey legs looked, and how the tiny claws at the ends of it's toes felt on the palm of my hand.
I wish I was able to see my face at that moment. I bet dad remembers my expression. If there's one thing you tend to remember, its when your child is ecstatic about something you did for them...
Head over to Punk Rock Big Year and read the whole thing.

See also:

[H/T for the photo: Wildlife Garden.]

March 5, 2011

Well written

Wolf in West Central Alberta, by Eyestalk on Flickr.

Jessa Gamble had a close and unforgettable encounter along a frozen lake in Canada’s Northwest Territories: read A Dead World at Sunset over at the science blog The Last Word On Nothing.

H/T: the most excellent and awesome science journalist Ed Yong, whose most excellent, awesome and totally addictive blog is essential reading in these parts.

March 1, 2011


Mike San Miguel on a pelagic trip out of Bodega Bay, California, September 9, 2009. Photo by Kristen Olson on Flickr.

There were many reasons to admire ardent conservationist Mike San Miguel, who died last year while conducting owl surveys for SoCal Edison in the San Gabriel Mountains. For one thing, Mike "offered his time and energy as a volunteer data reviewer for San Bernardino County, California," to quote eBird's tribute, and that was a big deal for me, because I happen to live and bird in San Bernardino County. For another thing, Mike led field trips for L.A. Audubon, offering his time and his considerable birding expertise to bring people closer to the life of the skies.

Mike's generosity of spirit meant that run-of-the-mill, garden-variety birders like me had the opportunity to go birding with one of the best field ornithologists in North America — except that I never did get the chance to go birding with him, because birding with Mike San Miguel was a Special Thing that I was saving for the future, when my birding skills would be better. And now it's too late.

"He was one of those guys that made you feel better when he was around. Because he was so full of the right stuff."*

Kimball Garrett reported Mike's death to the online community of California birders the day after the tragedy occurred, and handled the somber task with skill and eloquence. If I were ever faced with such a heartbreaking responsibility, it would be a miracle if I managed to write a message half as fine and heartfelt as Garrett's post about Mike. The folks at eBird weighed in with tributes of their own, and Mike's son and daughter added beautiful posts that speak volumes about their dad. All are very worth reading. His daughter writes:
I ask one favor of Dad's dear birding friends; next time you chase a great bird, get it in your sights and get a good look, take a moment to think of Dad. That way I'll know he's still out there birding with you.
Mike San Miguel was a beloved family man, a citizen scientist of the highest rank and an inspiration to more people than he could ever have imagined. My eBird-list-per-day resolution this year is in memory of Mike. "Birding with a purpose," Kimball Garrett called it — all our small lists and Mike's vastly more extensive ones helping people learn more about birds and the environment, now and a hundred years from now. A friend calls it "birding in the spirit of Mike San Miguel."