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.

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