Posted by: atowhee | November 15, 2007

Two days afield in Central California


Thispicture of Yellow-headed Blackbirds and Tricolored in a tree is by Mary Flett. 

The Browns of Britain are accomplished birders from Manchester. My wife and I were guiding Jan and Dick Brown around the Bay Area on their first trip to California. It was early November. They’d birded elsewhere on the West Coast so their list of wanted species was limited and well thought-out.  Sandhill Crane.  Tundra Swan.  Tricoloured Blackbird (please note the spelling).  Thayer’s Gull.  Wrentit.  Yellow-billed Magpie.  California Thrasher.  Some owls.  Mountain Plover.

The Browns were staying with friends in Mountain View.  By the time we met up for our first day in the field, they’d been in California a couple days.  They’d already picked up four lifers in the garden there in Moutain View: Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Golden-crowned Sparrow, California Towhee, Chestnut-backed Chickadee.

We headed east from Mountain View to Livermore.  That city sits in a dry valley where the creeks are lined with sycamore, willow and valley oak. Summers are sunny and dry. Vineyards and cattle ranches offupy the open spaces beyond the suburban fringe of LIvermore. Perfect habitat for the magpies.  We found them on land owned by the Wente Winery. This was just south of Tesla Road, not far from where Mines Road begins it climb up the north slope of Mount Hamilton. The Yellow-billed Magpies are gregarious, garrulous gang members.  Not one but several were about.  Their rough stick nests showed high in the nearly leafless sycamores. Each tree would contain a single nest, but nearly every tall tree had its nest strung out like a row of houses in a small town.

Next we stopped along a narrow dirt road that leads to Murietta’s Well Winery.  The trees and brush were full of birds. Through the air floated tiny motes of dust or bits of dried leaf. The air was still making the motion of the small particles truly mysterious, riding tiny currents too faint for human skin to register.  More Magpies.  Ruby-crowned Kinglets.  Fox Sparrow.  American Goldfinch. California Towhee. Yellow-rumped Warblers. Mourning Dove. Scrub-jay. In spring this road’s alive with the calls of Bullock’s Oriole and Black-headed Grosbeak.  Those two have long since departed for southern climes.

From there we headed upslope along Mines Road. A few suburban ranches, then real ranches. Magpies, Wild Turkey in the shade of the valley oaks, Hawks including a Sharp-shinned.  Then up the steep road into Del Valle Park which surrounds a resevoir below rolling hills and oak forest.  Here the birding really picked up.  On the mudflats at the upper end of the half-empty lake: Both Yellowlegs species fed side-by-side. The Lesser destined for further migration before winter though the Greater may stay in the area.  Nature’s needs defy mere human logic: the smaller species flies the furthest on its annual migrations. Also around the lake: Bonaparte’s and Ring-billed Gulls, Eared Grebe, Western Sandpiper, Short-billed Dowitcher, Spotted Sandpiper.  In the forest next to the parking lot: they got their second view of a Nuttall’s Woodpecker.  Then: a pair of Red-breasted Sapsuckers circling first a large sycamore, then hiding in a short live oak.  It was the Browns’ first American sapsucker of any species.

Further up Mines Road we failed to find any thrashers at several likely spots. But at one pull-out the visitors spotted a Wrentit before they could even open their car doors.  Outside good views were had as the pair (always a pair) moved through the ceanothus and other short brush on their territory.  Before we rejoined I-580 and headed toward the CentraL valley we’d seen Spotted Towhee, Say’s Phoebe, Band-tailed Pigeon, White-tailed Kite, Kestrel, several Harrier and Western Meadowlarks.
We hit I-5 and headed north toward crane country.  As the freeway crossed a bridge near Stockton, Jan spotted dozens of White-throated Swifts crossing the freeway overhead.  On Woodbridge Road, north of the I-5 and Highway 12 juntion we found their first Sandhill Cranes…by the hundreds.  Newly arrived they must have been particularly hungry as they had little of the caution and distance I noticed in numerous January visits.  These cranes stood near the road, not flinching as we got and viewed from forty feet away.

American Pipits.  A Peregrine.  More Meadowlarks.  Numerous Calfiornia ground-squirrels. Killdeer.  Pintails. Shoveler.  Green-winged Teal.  Long-billed Dowitchers.  Wilson’s Snipe. Savannah Sparrow.  But we saw not a single swan.  Most of the Woodbridge Road fields were still dry.  At the east end of Woodbridge Road we carefully scanned a flock of “blackbirds” looking for Tricoloureds.  Brewer’s, Starlings, Cowbirds.  Somewhere during the day we added Common Yellowthroat and Marsh Wren. Egrets, Blue Herons. I cannot tell you where in a blur of fourteen hours on the road. 

On to Consumnes Preserve where we added some ducks and some crucial information.  Bufflehead. Black-necked Stilt, Canvasbacks, Blue-winged Teal, Lesser Scaup, zillions of Coots, a few of their secretive brethren, the Moorhen.  This is the same Moorhen species which is so common and unsecretive in Britain. No swans but the woamn in the visitors’ center told us there were Tundra Swans along Skaggs Island Road.  Off we went.

And at the end of the road we spotted long, low snowdrifts at the back of the flooded fields.  These were the Tundra Swans merely a half mile away, small rounded lumps with slender necks atop each one.  We never got a closer look.  The fields, now turned into squarish lakes, held more ducks and coots.  Lots of Canvasback. Then at the very end of the navigable section of the dirt stub of Skaggs Iland Road we hit the Icterid perfecta: Brewer’s and Red-winged Blackbirds, Brown-headed Cowbvirds, Starlings (I know, but the Brits can think of them as nearly blackbirds*).  Ho, what’s this?  One, two, four, six–Yellow-headed Blackbirds.  Perhaps first-year males, not gone south yet.  Yellow throats brightly visible when they faced the late afternoon sun.  Then along one edge of the levee-top road: a flash of white on a black wing, then another.  We did manage to get several fleeting glances at the smaller Tricoloured Blackbirds mixed in the swirling avian stew.  Just as we thought we had one pinned in our scope, a shambling flock of sheep slouched up the road and sent the hundreds upward, thousands actually, a winged whirlwind above the dust.  Well, we knew they were in there, but the looks were less than satisfying.

The Second Day

Our first stop was the marshland on the north edge of Alviso.  Forster’s Tern.  Stilts, a few gulls but no Thayer’s.  A Yellowthroat, Eared and Western and Clark’s Grebes.  Then north to Charlseton Slough in Sunnyvale.  More of the same ducks we’d seen before.  Manhy fine looks at Cinnamon Teal.  Gadwall were APLENTy.  One Night-heron flew over while several others could be seen trying to sleep in the tules.  Here the American Avocets were abudant. White-tailed Kite pair in a tree.  Two White Pelicans, then two smaller Brown Pelicans glided in for a landing.  At Shoreline Lake we added Surf Scoter, within thirty feet of the shore and that was a thrill for the visitors.  They’re used to seeing scoters a half mile off the Welsh coast, not eye-to-eye in a calm pond where you could watch them dive for the clams on the muddy bottom. Canada Geese, Common Goldeneye, Canvasbacks, Willet, Golden-crowned and Song Sparrows.  Still no sign of a Thayer’s Gull.

Finally at the round cement duck pond at Palo Alkto Baylands we found our juvenile Thayer’s Gull, surrounded  by numerous Ruing-billed, Mew and California Gulls.  It was a subtle but clear contrast.

We heaed inland to the intersection of Alpine Road and I-280.  There we had permission to bird ona private farm.  we did not see their first Golden Eagle as we’d hoped.  But there were fine views of numerous Wesztern Bluebirds fly-catching from wires and fences.  Then several very clear and close views of Tricoloured balckbirds, far more satisfyuing than the previous day’s glances.  These guys posed in bright sun and one female even perched next to a female Red-winged so the size comparison was cear to see.

It was to be our last big hit of the day.  Though we tried both upper Sneath Lane beneath Sweeney Ridge and Edgewood Park above Redwood City, we could find no thrasher.  We added a few ingteresing land birds, but nothing new for the Browns: Bewick’s Wren, Hairy Woodpecker, Oak Titmouse, Steller’s Jay.

For information on some of the naturalists for which these birds were named:


* In Europe the “Blackbird” is actually in the thrush genus of Turdus which it shares with its near cousin the American Robin. The European Blackbird and American Robin share no plumage coloration but much besides. Both are stout, ground-feeding, lawn-loving, urban thriving thrushes with loud, melodious songs.  As in the Beatles’ song lyric, it is the European “blackbird singing in the dead of night.”

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