Saturday, September 20, 2008

Back on the mainland

After five days of chasing mega-rarities all over Southeast Farallon Island, I'm back in SF proper. Friday morning at Sutro Heights Park one of the first birds I looked at was a basic plumage American Redstart (a lot of those around!). Overall things seemed pretty quiet though. I went to work in the Presidio. Just as I was about to leave the office at Fort Scott, I glimpsed a little bird hovering below a pine. I got my binoculars and checked it out--a dull emidonax flycatcher. I followed it around and got some pretty good looks. Notoriously difficult to identify, North American empidonax flycatchers comprise around 10 species of non-descript neo-tropical migrants best id'd by their calls. This one was grayish and silent. Having just seen a few Least Flycatchers on the Farallons I thought this was a good candidate. Pacific-slopes Flycatchers are the most common around here and this bird did not look like one to me. It was dull grayish green, not the bright yellow and olive of a Pac-slope. And it's eye ring was not tapered to a point in behind the eye. Neither did it look right for a Hammond's or a Dusky Flycatcher, both of which have a mostly dark lower bill and a grayer head that contrasts with a green body. Also the pale edging on the wing feathers, best seen from behind, contrast markedly with the overall dark color of the wing feathers. So I guess it could have been a Least. I'm going to let some folks weigh in on the photos before I call it. Click on images for a larger view.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Magnolia Warbler

After that last weekend's spate of good birds I seem to have worn out my birding mojo, and I was unable to add a new bird to the list since Monday. This despite going out of my way to check for the Northern Waterthrush that Josiah found at Mountain Lake every day before and after work. Today the drought finally ended when I saw a MAGNOLIA WARBLER at El Polin springs in the Presidio. The famous Black-throated Sparrow of last weekend is still around too!

I got a surprise call from the Farallon Islands today. They need temporary help doing bird monitoring and banding for the next five days--a short stay like that is almost unheard of. So that's where I'm going. I won't be able to add any new birds to my BIGBY list from the trip because we'll be motoring out there in a boat. I'll bike to the Marina to catch the boat if that helps though--if it's not carbon free birding it's at least very carbon efficient.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Urban Birding

The great thing about San Francisco is that it's small enough to cover by bike and for birding the natural areas are so limited they really compress the birds into a few spots. The terrible thing about San Francisco is that biking across vast stretches of it is like biking across a terrible bird desert where House Sparrows, European Starlings, Rock Pigeons and increasingly Eurasian Collared Doves are the only species you are likely to see. And there are big hills and exhausting wind. I charged into this inhospitable realm today, as I have many times this year and rode from my house in the NW part of the city to the SE part of the city. I even went into San Mateo county for a brief few blocks.

I did pick up some birds eventually. I spent an hour watching the sea at the southern edge of San Francisco near Fort Funston. It was fairly clear today so I thought I had a decent chance of spotting a distant shearwater. There were good flocks of Elegant Terns, Heerman's Gulls, Brown Pelicans and even a Common Loon--but nothing new.

I moved on to Lake Merced which always has good birds but I never really enjoy being at. This is mainly because they built major traffic thoroughfaires all around the lake so anytime you are listening for or watching a bird you have about a dozen cars 15 feet behind you zooming by. And of course, there's the shooting range, yep even in San Francisco; so you have to filter out the noise of gunfire. Nevertheless, there were a lot of birds, mostly Yellow Warblers a few Townsend's. After looking through about 100 Yellow Warblers I did eventually find a single hatch year Black-throated Gray Warbler. I looked a little harder in that area and out popped a hatch year Chestnut-sided Warbler. An expected, but pretty rare fall migrant. And a new year bird! They are irresistably cute with a white eye-ring and a bright irridescent green cap and back.

The next part was the hardest: I crossed the breadth of the city from Lake Merced on the west to Heron's Head on the east. I always get lost out there and it ends up taking me a long time. Really about the least appealing landscape for a birder too, barely any vegetation let alone birds, just cars, garbage cans, densely packed houses, bright stucko walls, freeway overpasses.

It was like a breath of fresh air to see the open bay and the sliver of marsh at Heron's Head. It wasn't very birdy though, I hit it on to high of a tide. I was about to leave when I checked one of the last little ponds and found two long winged sandpipers--possible Baird's? They were always a pleasure to see these super long-distance migrants. These two birds were juveniles or hatch year birds (had hatched that spring). They had never before been this far south, they were hatched all the way up in the high arctic, maybe even the eastern tip of Siberia. Now they are heading south site-unseen to Chile and Argentina.

Now I had to slog back home through the urban maze of traffic and potholes to the other corner of the city.

Hey the little Black-throated Sparrow is famous, it's on the whose who of hot birds at Joseph Morlan's recent rarities page.

Good Birding

The fall migration is really starting to kick in here in San Francisco. On Saturday I found the bird above, a BLACK-THROATED SPARROW, above El Polin in the Presidio. It turns out this is a new record for the city of San Francisco! It's definitely the best vagrant I've ever found--and it's a new year bird by bike! It's actually shown up on the Farallons (in SF county) 24 times in the fall, I saw one there last fall, but never in the City proper. It spent all morning hopping around a three year old's birthday party including giant inflatable castle. Very odd how it was not scared off by all the little kids.

Later that afternoon I checked back in on the Rose-breasted Grosbeak spot and found instead an adult male AMERICAN REDSTART--another new year bird!

Yesterday I travelled around San Francisco and found another American Redstart at Lilly Pond, more common than I thought I guess. I heard about a Pectoral Sandpiper on the rare bird alert found by William Legge up on Rodea Lagoon in the Marin Headlands. So I decided to make my first bike trip outside of the city since our big tour to Mono Lake. Sure enough, I did find the bird and got some digiscope photos. PECTORAL SANDPIPER: another new year bird!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Migration Begins

Fall migration is well under way here on the West Coast. August brought a steady trickle of common western species including this Western Tanager (left) at El Polin Springs in the Presidio.

I added some new birds to my San Francisco Bigby list including House Wren, Lark Sparrow, and White-breasted Nuthatch. I also added a few new species to the year list. First was an early migrant, or summering Black-and-White Warbler in the Presidio in mid-August. Then I added a Parasitic Jaegar dramatically swooping down on the flock of Elegant Terns on Ocean Beach. I made it out to Land's End to see one of the three (!) Eastern Kingbirds that showed up in San Francisco in August. I also rushed down to Lake Merced right after work to find a Solitary Sandpiper that was reported last week. When I arrived it was already in the air calling loudly and circling above the small beach north of the concrete bridge. I checked back in a few minutes and there it was on the beach. I tried to get a little closer and take a photo but it flew off and again circled above me. Unfortunately this time it didn't come back to the beach.

Yesterday I added my first new birds of September. There was a Willow Flycatcher at North Lake in Golden Gate Park and another at the Presidio Community Garden. At the Buffalo Paddock in Golden Gate Park I had close looks at a really cleanly marked Clay-colored Sparrow. No luck scanning the ocean for shearwaters or jaegers in the afternoon.

This morning I refound the Black-and-White Warbler in the Presidio at Kobbe and Upton. I haven't seen it, despite checking this same spot, for three weeks! It's really been hiding.