January 17, 2022

Bird Highlights of 2021

My nature-related interests span throughout all groups of organisms--from lichens to liverworts, and from slime molds to salamanders. However, birds are at the core of that interest, and I'll probably always be a birder at heart, no matter what I end up doing. In 2021, I actually beat my own record for number of species seen: by the end, I'd racked up 285 species, ~79% of the total number of birds I've ever seen. This was due to a variety of factors. For example, COVID restrictions easing up made travel a better idea, and my college graduation was timed in such a way that I got to experience birds' breeding season in Vermont and California, to name two. Regardless, to celebrate this milestone, I figured I'd draft a quick journal post with my top ten favorite life-list species from this past year.

First, an important caveat: except for number 10 (which should be number 1, but iNat auto-formats lists I guess), these won't be in any significant order. I love all birds too much for that! This first ranking concerns new lifers. Anyhow, on to the list!

  1. Common Redpoll (and Hoary Redpoll). These irruptive winter finches are really something. I'm including them both here due to their similarity, but also due to the fact that I'm not convinced they're distinct species (for more info, go here). Their confusing taxonomy is part of what makes them interesting, in my book. Either way, I love redpolls! It took a couple of expeditions for me to find even a Common Redpoll this past winter, but when I did, you can bet these adorable finches were present in large numbers! This was a good year for lovers of irruptive finches, including Pine Grosbeak and Red Crossbill, and clearly, redpolls were no exception. Thanks as well go to Allan Strong for allowing people to view the Hoary Redpolls at his house.
  2. Northern Fulmar. This was the first new species I saw on my first-ever marine pelagic, so of course this little tubenose is one of my favorites. This one was so close to the boat that I didn't need my big fancy lens, I could just use my cell phone to grab a pic!
  3. Short-eared Owl and Rough-legged Hawk. These two wintry raptors are a package deal because I saw them both on the same day, and I was equally stoked about both. They're also similar ecologically, being widespread Holarctic birds of prey that frequent open areas, are at least occasionally diurnal, and whose distribution can be somewhat hard to predict. They're both gorgeous birds as well, really leaving a solid impression on whoever sees them.
  4. Sabine's Gull. This one was another I saw on the pelagic trip, and as an avid gull enthusiast (for some reason), I couldn't help but mention it. Everything about them is just so weird for a gull! They're mostly pelagic, have slender black bills with yellow tips, and are in a genus all their own, Xema. Cornell's All About Birds compares them to terns, and with good reason. They fly similarly, and have similar overall lifestyles. Sabine's Gull is definitely distinct, though, and the number we saw out on the open sea was a pleasant surprise.
  5. Lesser Sand-Plover. By far the most far-flung and unusual bird I saw in 2021, an immature "Mongolian Plover" showed up on a beach just outside Santa Cruz and drew in birders from all around the Bay Area, if not farther. Indeed, a key field mark was the large group of scope- and camera-laden birders near the bird! The Lesser Sand-Plover was a charming little shorebird, chasing some of the nearby Snowy Plovers around and hunkering down on the sand. If not for this bird's wrong turn, I'm not sure I ever would have gotten to find one, so I'm grateful for the opportunity I had.
  6. South Polar Skua. I'm completely fascinated by the wildlife of Antarctica, so the name of this bird alone grabbed my attention. As it turns out, the name is well-deserved, as the breeding range encircles Antarctica. This skua seems like a big brute, especially compared to the jaegers I saw alongside it, but as it turns out, it's only around the size of a Western Gull, and is one of the smallest of the true skuas. Still, this veritable raptor of the sea is really cool, and I'm glad I was able to see one.
  7. White-winged Dove. I'm proud to say that this was a rarity I was able to find all on my own, and the first iNaturalist record from Santa Cruz County! Weirdly enough, I saw this on the exact same day I saw my first-ever White-winged Scoter! In any case, this vagrant dove showed up on a wire over a building, and I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw it. I can be quoted as saying, "Oh my god, is that a White-winged Dove?" It was unfortunately unable to be found by any other birders, but I'm glad that I at least got to get a look at this new species for my life list.
  8. Burrowing Owl. Ever since I was a youngster reading through the Guardians of Ga'Hoole books, I've been fascinated by owls, with the Burrowing Owl being a long-time favorite. Its unusual life history, living in burrows and being active at times other owls wouldn't, as well as its small size, combine to make a cute, interesting species I'm glad I've finally seen! In addition to my life bird, there was another individual found in Santa Cruz County, which I was able to get much better photos of. What a cool little owl!
  9. Varied Thrush. I can confidently say I haven't had this much fun with a lifer in a long time. At the end of a multi-hour car drive with a great friend of mine, we reached our stopover destination in Humboldt County and, as we had some extra time, arbitrarily decided to stop by Sequoia Park. Imagine my surprise when, mere minutes after leaving the car, I heard this eerie song echoing throughout the redwoods. It was a thrill, and not one I'll soon forget.
  10. Black-footed Albatross. How could I not pick this bird? Like the Burrowing Owl, albatrosses are something I've been hoping to see since before I started birding. Their huge wingspans and the grace with which they soar over the waves is simply incredible. The three(!) albatrosses I saw on my pelagic journey were the perfect capstone to an already amazing day, and I couldn't have asked for anything more from my trip.

I managed to see quite a few other birds this year, beyond just lifers! I could mention some of my top favorites, like Hutton's Vireo, Western Gull, or Wrentit, but I think mentioning some noteworthy species would be much more interesting. Here are some birds that really stuck out to me, even though I'd already seen or heard them before. There are way more than ten worth noting here, like the Marbled Murrelet I saw at the wharf, the surprising and adorable pair of nesting Blue-gray Gnatcatchers at Missisquoi, or the lovely flocks of American Tree Sparrows I saw during the winter, to name just three. Despite this, I did my best to narrow all the species down to just ten.

  1. Northern Cardinal. Cliche and/or overdone? Sure, maybe. I can't deny this bird's charm, though. After all, it was one of the last birds I saw or heard before leaving Vermont, and I miss having these brightly colored birds around now that I'm back in California. Hearing them sing or even just call from my urban apartment was always a good reminder that nature is never too far away.
  2. Northern Waterthrush. Among my favorite warblers, ever since it was my first "rare" sighting back in 2016, this bird was a delight to see and hear. There's something that's just so cool about a little warbler that, instead of being in the treetops like its kin, prefers to stay on the ground near the water. I don't have a ton to say about this one, only that I look forward to the next waterthrush I can find!
  3. Red-winged Blackbird. Another kind of generic pick, but one that's worth noting. Winter 2020-21 was the first that I spent the entirety of in a truly cold climate, with no "breaks," for reasons I'll detail later. This, along with my daily iNat streak, gave me a whole new appreciation for spring, and the "renewal" that comes along with it. For me, nothing symbolized the upcoming arrival of spring more than this species. There's not much that can compare to finally seeing those males arrive on their breeding territory and practicing those familiar songs, konk-a-REE! In addition to its presence in Vermont, however, getting home and finding the nostalgic, familiar California Bicolored blackbirds was also a treat. The Tricolored Blackbird gets an honorable mention here, as these endangered birds are extremely interesting as well, and I was luckily able to see them a couple times in 2021.
  4. Parasitic Jaeger and Long-tailed Jaeger. Though they weren't new birds, these might as well have been, considering my only views of them prior to my pelagic trip were distant and brief ones on Lake Champlain when I was a "chum-chucker." As a result, it was exciting to see these two, as well as their relative the Pomarine Jaeger and the aforementioned South Polar Skua, in action over the ocean. They were flying acrobatically, chasing birds like terns and Sabine's Gulls in search of pirated food. Though I do feel somewhat bad for their poor victims, it's undeniable that the jaegers really put on a spectacle.
  5. Fish Crow. Being the obsessive birders we are, some friends and I decided to make a "graduation list" (for species we saw or heard during my graduation ceremony). This is the list, and Fish Crow is one of the species on it! More seriously, though, I enjoyed unexpectedly finding this species at a local cemetery I'd adopted as a "patch." I even heard some of the cemetery's resident starlings adopt the Fish Crow's nasally caws into their songs! Its relatively recent expansion into Vermont makes it something special, in my book at least.
  6. Fox Sparrow. This was a nice bird to start my year with! On my first Redpoll-seeking journey, I took something of a wrong turn, and ended up taking the longer way towards the meadow where they were reported. This took me through an admittedly lovely hillside forest, so no regrets there. Things got interesting when I saw a small sparrow hopping around a mostly-thawed stream. I initially thought it was a Song Sparrow, but closer investigation revealed it to be a Fox Sparrow—a rarity for that time of year, and my Vermont first, to boot!
  7. Hooded Merganser. A long-time favorite duck, this is another bird with a sentimental attachment for me. It was my first-ever lifer in Vermont, before I even started college there! Ever since that first sighting, coming across any Hoodies is something special. It took until 2021, though, for me to see any in California, or on iNaturalist in general! Now that I have found one, however, it seems almost like they're all over the place. I've seen them in Santa Cruz a couple times since that first sighting, and again when I went to visit my brother in Marin County! You won't hear me complaining, though!
  8. Surfbird. My favorite shorebird of them all, this "rockpiper" was lovely to see again upon returning to Santa Cruz. It's always fun to see it running around the jetties and rocky coasts here alongside its constant winter companion, the Black Turnstone, after all. As an added bonus, somehow I'd never gotten a photo of this bird on iNat before, so this was a personal first for the site as well.
  9. Hermit Thrush. I couldn't not mention this bird! As the state bird of Vermont and the 100th lifer I ever found on my own, Hermit Thrushes are in a perfect spot to be highly significant to me. Even if I didn't find too many in Vermont in 2021, I found more than enough singing in the Santa Cruz mountains in summer and hanging around wherever in the winter to make up for that. I'm lucky to be able to experience these incredible little thrushes all year long!
  10. Golden-crowned Sparrow and Townsend's Warbler. This one, like the cardinal, blackbird, and merganser, is more sentimental. I've always associated the lovely song of the Golden-crowned Sparrow with the onset of fall and winter here, and ever since I got into birding, Townsend's Warbler sightings have joined them in significance. During the winter of 2020-21, however, the pandemic resulted in me spending the holidays away from my family for the first time. Instead, I stayed in Vermont for the entirety of my winter break. Even if it was only for a year, I really missed these two birds, and it was absolutely wonderful to see them again after what felt like such a long time. Whether it's the Golden-crowned being absolutely everywhere or the Townsend's bringing a splash of color to the forests, it's hard to overstate how much these two in particular do to make the environment more "wintry." I love these two birds!

Where to go from here? Well, I do have some hopes for 2022. Returning once more to the list format, albeit not in a top 10 this time, I'll write down a few.

  • Resighting a Black Swift, Bullock's Oriole, or Yellow-billed Magpie, among others. It's been at least half a decade since I've seen some species, and I'd love to see them again and especially add my sightings or recordings to iNat.
  • Finding one or two owl species I haven't seen or heard before. There are a few species I've yet to find that occur in my area of California: Western Screech and Northern Pygmy* spring to mind, with Spotted being not too far off. Flammulated and/or Great Gray are both possibilities, too, albeit very, very unlikely.
  • Tracking down some of my nemesis species, or at least birds I've been trying to find for a while! I've tried time and again to find Iceland Gull, shrikes, Red-necked Grebe, Lesser Yellowlegs, and a couple other species, but I'm still looking for them. Getting to see a bird I've missed before would be more than appreciated.
  • Finally, I'd like to bring this site and my "actual" life list closer to a balance. That is to say, I'd like to get audio or photos of species like White-throated Swift, Bell's Sparrow, or Rock Wren that I've seen before, but don't have any record of on iNaturalist.

*This one is in a bit of a weird gray area, so stay tuned!

That's it for now. I hope you enjoyed this read! It's unlikely this will spread around much, but if so, feel free to leave some of your favorite sightings from 2021 in the comments. Thanks for your time, and have a good day! Here's to some really cool species in 2022!

Posted on January 17, 2022 21:31 by thetorterra thetorterra | 0 comments | Leave a comment

June 26, 2020

Journal Post 1: Moore Creek Preserve

Today I'm in something of a writing mood, and I just went birding (or rather, exploring with birding as a focus? iNatting? I have no idea!) yesterday. As such, I figured I'd throw together a quick writeup of my birding at Moore Creek Preserve in Santa Cruz, California.

I wouldn't consider myself a competitive birder by any means, but I'm definitely something of a "lister." As I approach my 200th species in Santa Cruz County, I'm increasingly antsy about getting out there, and I'm often found checking my eBird needs alert. Today's goal: find a Grasshopper Sparrow, a species I'd seen with a Field Ornithology class in Vermont, but not yet in the Golden State. It would be species 199 for my county list.

I arrived at the preserve at 7:17 AM. The morning was foggy, as is usual for this time of year, and fairly chilly. Regardless, immediately upon exiting the car, I heard the calls of an American Crow, some House Finches, and a Chestnut-backed Chickadee. I then hit the road, noting every species of bird I could along the way. The entrance I used opened onto a field, with oaks to one side, and houses to the other. Signs at the front list information about the park, such as what is and is not allowed, endangered species that live there, and cattle. This will be relevant later. This field wasn't too notable, all things considered. It had your standard mix of native and invasive plants, which due to my own plant blindness, I unfortunately...didn't take much notice of. I'll definitely have to work more on that issue. There was a lot of rattlesnake grass, though, and a couple vibrant-looking mint plants in bloom. I managed to spot a juvenile Western Bluebird, which was neat. I also racked up sightings of common species for the area, like Lesser Goldfinch, Wrentit, and California Scrub-Jay. A few observations stood out to me in particular, though. One was a group of six Common Ravens in a pine tree. These birds seemed content to scream, or at least call loudly, every time I was near them. As such, I decided to use the opportunity to record the call, which you can listen to here. Second was a group of Coyotes that was making a bunch of noise. They weren't particularly close by, but they WERE pretty loud. I kept my eyes peeled for Grasshopper Sparrows in this area, because of their open-area proclivities, but no luck. As I moved on to the next area, I was bombarded by the loud scolding notes of Bewick's Wrens and an Oak Titmouse, as well as the song of a Spotted Towhee.

Moore Creek Preserve, as one might expect by the name, has a stretch of riparian forest. The foliage can get pretty dense, and the trail fairly narrow. Luckily, only two people passed me by, as social distancing is next to impossible here. Thickets of brambles and poison oak blanket much of the forest floor, occasionally broken up by ferns of various types, as well as some wildflowers. These surrounded more beaked hazelnut than I've ever seen in one place before. Long strands of lace lichen were draped from the coast live oaks making up much of the canopy. On the subject of lichens, there were typical species like shield lichens, sure, but I also took note of a couple more notable species, at least for someone like me with little knowledge on the topic. The birds in the area were pretty much what I expected. Some Red-shouldered Hawks gave off their almost gull-like screeches, as groups of chickadees and titmice flitted around. A Wild Turkey peeked its head over the side of a cliff face, and a western Purple Finch sang its typical song of jumbled notes. I noticed some Violet-green Swallows nesting in the sandstone cliffs. From what I can tell based on quick research, this isn't too uncommon. However, I've only ever seen them nesting in boxes or snags before, so this was a good find. That's about it for what I found in this area, though some of my other observations in the riparian forest are below.

After a surprisingly short time, the trees began to thin out, and grasses began to take over once again. I was coming upon what would be the last part of my trek, though the part that would take the longest. Soon after I stepped out of the woods, I noticed a fence up ahead, atop a hill. On one post, a Black Phoebe stood, vigilantly watching for prey and predator alike. On another, I spotted a female American Kestrel. Her size really stood out to me here: she only seemed a little bigger than the phoebe—fitting for one of North America's smallest birds of prey. As I walked up the hill, I noticed a strange brownish mass on the side of the path. I paid it little heed, and kept going, but its nature quickly became apparent as soon as I reached the top. As far as the eye could see, herds of cattle were roaming the meadows, grazing as they pleased. I was surprised, but not shocked, as I'd encountered "cow-scaping" before, at another local park. Essentially, the cattle will eat invasive plants (like the wild oats and rattlesnake grasses that seemed to spread across the fields), leaving native ones behind. This helps endangered species, but it also reduces the risk of fires. As I pondered this, the sign from the beginning of the trail came back to me. I realized that the brown mass earlier was, well, a cow pie, and that countless more were scattered all around the prairie path. Seriously, be careful where you step out there.

However, one thing proved quick to distract me from the bovines: the distinctive chips, buzzes, and trills of sparrows. Indeed, the coastal prairie provided excellent habitat for a couple of species in particular. One is the Savannah Sparrow, and the other is the Grasshopper Sparrow. I was excited to have finally observed the bird I came to look for, and took as many recordings and photographs as I could. I even managed to record a more complex song from a Grasshopper Sparrow, a mixture of twittering notes quite different from its typical high-pitched, grasshopper-like trill. As exciting as it was to finally hear my county lifer, there were plenty of other birds worth noting. Barn and Cliff Swallows swooped and dived over my head, and Olive-sided and Ash-throated Flycatchers gave their distinctive calls from nearby trees and shrubs. In a residential eucalyptus grove, a couple of Red-tailed Hawks decided to have a screaming match with one another. Excitingly, I heard a distinctively "vireo" song from a nearby shrub, leading me to guess that it was a Cassin's Vireo. The species is an uncommon summer bird in Santa Cruz, with a handful of in-county eBird sightings and iNaturalist observations to its name. Incidentally, this made me 3-for-3 on local vireos for the day, as I'd heard a couple Hutton's and a Warbling earlier (neither of which sound much like a "typical" vireo). As I neared the end of the trail and of my expedition, a few California ground squirrels and California towhees seemed to take residence on a hillside dense with French broom and pampas grasses. The trail ended at California Highway 1, as did my trip. I threw together an eBird checklist, which you can find here .

Overall, I had a fantastic time at Moore Creek. There were only two other people there, allowing more solitude and introspection than I usually get out of nature, especially these days. Don't get me wrong, more people spending time in and appreciating nature is fantastic, but sometimes you just want to be by yourself, to enjoy nature in your own way, and Moore Creek delivered. Beyond that, the preserve was diverse in the natural communities supported there, and the views (particularly from the forest and the prairie overlooking the sea) were quite beautiful. There were more trails than just the (relatively) straightforward path I took, which I wish I were able to explore further! I suspect there were a few bird species there, Brown-headed Cowbird in particular, that I didn't manage to pick up on while I was out there, too. I definitely missed a number of plants in particular, and likely some insects and other small animals as well. Perhaps I'll need to make a return trip sometime soon? I definitely look forward to the next time I can head out to Moore Creek Preserve.

Posted on June 26, 2020 01:14 by thetorterra thetorterra | 29 observations | 1 comment | Leave a comment

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