Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Four California Christmas Bird Counts

It was an odd-numbered year, so I was not offering my wonderful Oaxaca at Christmastime tour in 2015 (and incidentally there is only one space left on the 2016 tour already). That means going all out to do many Christmas Bird Counts and that I can spend Christmas with family. Starting to look ahead already in October, I planned on spending Christmas in the Napa Valley with my aunt and family, so using Ali Sheehey’s wonderful compilation of California CBC dates, I searched for those occurring in the southern Northern California region on either side of December 25. First up was Marysville on December 22.

Early on the 22nd we met at the Carl’s Jr. about 50 minutes north of Fairoaks, a suburb of Sacramento, where I stayed with my old friend Todd Easterla, and got our assignments. I was joined by my friends Jim Tietz and Rebecca Green who live in the southern Sierra Nevada foothills. I had learned bird banding with Jim while we were both interns at the Big Sur Ornithology Lab at Andrew Molera State Park exactly 20 years ago. Our area today included parts of downtown Marysville as well as land along the Feather River.

We birded open fields, finding lots of White-crowned Sparrows.

American Goldfinches flew over here and there.

It was surprising to see a dragonfly active. This is a Sympetrum corruptum, Variegated Meadowhawk.

Not so incidentally, one thing that attracted me to this CBC was that the compiler is Tim Manolis, author and illustrator of the book Dragonflies and Damselflies of California. Yes, he’s also a birder. I met him and his wife at Cristalino Jungle Lodge when I assigned to them as their volunteer guide in October 2006 and hadn’t seen them since. He was prepared to collect odonates then, with permission from the owner of the property, and left his specimens with an odonatologist in São Paulo. One of the damselflies I showed Tim was one that David Nunallee and I had found in 2004, photographed, and sent around to experts who were stumped. Jump forward five years from my week with Tim and Annette, and in 2011 this damselfly is named Austrotepuibasis manolisi by Machado and Lencioni. They even erected a new genus for it. Here’s my photo of that critter from 2004, and as far as I know it’s not been found anywhere else. It could have been named Austrotepuibasis nunallee-hoyerorum.

We found a sole Phainopepla, not a guaranteed bird on this CBC.

Another bug is a surprise, as it really has been winter here, and the day before it really rained hard all day. But a bit disappointingly, this is the introduced Harmonia axyridis, Multicolored Asian Lady Beetle, though not a typical color pattern. Most have much more white on the pronotum.

We pished up a few Fox Sparrows, but they were strangely silent almost all day.

A crisp Lincoln’s Sparrow.

We had the sewage ponds where Lesser Yellowlegs was our best find.

Here are Jim and Rebecca, Jim dutifully entering every bird into his eBird app.

Snowy and Great Egrets at the junction of the Yuba and Feather Rivers

A Pacific subspecies of the Bushtit, with the brown crown and pale face. They are constantly moving, making them a very difficult subject to photograph.

This male Anna’s Hummingbird staked out a Tree Tobacco as his territory but wasn’t wasting any energy on singing or flying.

A Red-breasted Sapsucker, subspecies dagetti.

Near the end of our day we watched some 60 White-throated Swifts heading to their roost at the bridge over the Yuba River, and this Merlin was surely wondering if they were worth the challenge.

A male Purple Finch in a dense riparian thicket.

A waxing gibbous moon.

Then came a wonderful Christmas with aunts, uncles, cousins, and first cousins-once-removed.

I kind of went crazy with being in charge of baking the pies – one pecan,  two banana caramel coconut cream, one blueberry, and two apple.

Then on Sunday, December 27 came the Monterey Peninsula CBC. I birded the mouth of the Carmel River with Bill Hill.

California Towhee

This is the epicenter of the wintering distribution of the Queen Charlotte Islands population of Townsend’s Warblers.

Orange-crowned Warbler 

House Wren

In the afternoon I birded along Carmel Beach and the neighborhoods of Carmel-by-the-sea.

I found a Nashville Warbler in one yard, but my best find was this Black-and-white Warbler.

I then had a day off between CBC’s in San Francisco’s Noe Valley neighborhood, staying with friends.

After a fun reunion in the evening with six of the seven members of the group I led in Mato Grosso this past early August, I did the San Francisco CBC the next day (my fourth time doing this CBC, though so poorly organized it was perhaps my last for a while). But I left my camera at my friends Joe and Robbie’s house, so no photos. I covered Baker Beach and Lobos Creek in the morning and the Presidio Main Gate area in the afternoon, finding no rarities, but my best birds were two White-throated Sparrows and a Red-naped x Red-breasted Sapsucker hybrid in the Presidio.

Dawn on Wednesday, December 30 saw me at Shollenberger Park in Petaluma to meet up with the larger team covering the SW edge of the Sonoma Valley CBC circle. What a contrast in organization. I knew that the compiler was a veteran CBC organizer, though we had never met in person. Gene Hunn had compiled the Oaxaca Valley CBC for the nine years that I led or co-led that tour from 1997-2005, with me or my tour group being one of the CBC teams each year. And this year he had designated the super organized Peter Colasanti to head up the Petaluma Wetlands team. In the morning I was assigned to a team with three others to cover part of Tolay Regional Park, a former ranch in the Petaluma Valley and the adjacent foothills to the east.

We soon found one of our target birds, a couple pairs of Vesper Sparrows that had been staked out for a few weeks.

Another target for us was Golden Eagle, which we found perched in an oak tree on the hillside.

The weather wasn’t gorgeous today, but the extremely fine mist at times and cool air kept us from getting overheated on our hike up the hillsides.

These huge mushrooms under the oaks are Amanita calyptroderma, one of the edible species in this genus. The white on the cap is the remnants of the universal veil, distinctively thick in this species.

We flushed Savannah Sparrows, Western Meadowlarks, and Long-billed Curlews in this habitat.

On a similar open grassy slope with a little rock outcropping I flushed a Rufous-crowned Sparrow. It was interesting to see this species in a totally different ecoregion where they are rather local and rare from where I’m used to seeing them in SE Arizona at the epicenter of their abundance and distribution.

In the afternoon I had a change of habitat at the mouth of Ellis Creek. A flock of American White Pelicans flew over.

My friend Josiah Clark spotted this amazingly tame American Bittern.

We saw lots of duck species, lots of Song and Savannah Sparrows, gulls, and shorebirds, and I managed to get a vocal response from a Ridgway’s Rail. When we peered into the neighboring oxidation ponds (covered by a different group), we saw dozens of swallows feeding low over the water. It’s not uncommon to see a few overwintering Tree Swallows, but these birds were actually dominated by Violet-green Swallows, which normally winter in Mexico. I also spotted a single Barn Swallow, which we all saw well. Over the ponds on our side of the ditch I finally got a bad photo of one of the Violet-green Swallows just to show we weren’t making this up.


  1. Very nice - looks like some very successful hikes.

  2. You had what looks like a busy but fun holiday! Glad you got to get crazy with pie baking, that looks very festive. Beautiful photos as always.

  3. Austrotepuibasis nunallee-hoyerorum: the name they should have chosen. 🎶