Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Life birds highlight California trip
August 18, 2007
Margo and I spent last week visiting friends in California. This was primarily a birding trip, with a number of targeted life birds in mind, as our host, Joan, was an avid birder. Our plan was to take two pelagic boat trips – a new experience for us on the West Coast. We, therefore, expected a number of new shearwaters, storm petrels, alcids and perhaps an albatross. The first trip was out of Sausalito on Sunday and took us to the Farallon Islands, a group of tall rocks where gulls, murres, puffins, guillemots and cormorants nested. It was past nesting season, so many birds were dispersed, but there were still many birds in the area.
It was a cold, raw morning, typical summer weather for San Francisco, but after we cleared the Golden Gate Bridge, the skies brightened, and we saw our first pink-footed and sooty shearwaters and a few black-footed albatross. We encountered a few tufted puffins, rhinoceros and Cassin’s auklets. Once at the Farallons, in addition to the large numbers of gulls and cormorants, there were hundreds of pigeon guillemots and common murres, a few tufted puffins and, the surprise of the trip, a pair of brown boobys. The other thrilling encounter was with a giant leatherback sea turtle whose dwindling numbers make them a rare find.
We spent most of the week birding south of San Francisco. We found a Nuttall’s woodpecker for me and an oak titmouse for Margo in the Stanford University Arboretum. We found wandering tattlers, black turnstones, black oystercatchers and elegant terns as life birds for both of us along the rocky coasts of Santa Cruz and Monterey. Our searches for surfbirds and rock sandpipers came up empty, as it was a little early in the season for them. We did see Pacific loons and Western and Clark’s grebes along the coast, and many red-necked phalaropes, long-billed curlews and western sandpipers that we don’t see often here in Massachusetts.
Traveling in from the coast, we found tri-colored blackbirds, which are similar to our red-winged blackbirds, but have a whiter edging stripe to the deeper red epaulet on the wings, for our life list. The regular “redwing” in that area was actually a “bi-colored” blackbird with no yellow edging to the red epaulets.
We also searched several areas for Lawrence’s goldfinches, which are not as striking as our American goldfinch or the more common lesser goldfinch out there, but they do have yellow in the wings and black on the face. We were unsuccessful in that search, as we were with the elusive sage sparrow. We did encounter many western bluebirds, scrub and Steller’s jays, bushtits, chestnut-backed chickadees, Oregon juncos and a few life wrentits for Margo.
One of the inland highlights was our search for the American dipper, a life bird for Margo and the only passerine (or songbird) that swims underwater, submerging itself completely. Dippers are birds of fast-moving streams, and it has been a dry year in California. However, Joan had seen one a week prior while hiking at Los Padres Dam. We hiked in about a half-mile to the dam, and Margo immediately found the bird at the base of the spillway. The thrill was that the bird jumped into the water and completely submerged itself, enjoying the cool water on such warm afternoon. It had been decades since I last saw a dipper and don’t recall ever seeing this display.
The last day was spent on a boat trip out of Monterey where were saw more shearwaters and alcids. We added Buller’s shearwater to our life list, and Margo added the beautiful Sabine’s gull to hers. We both thrilled to the sight of the huge black-footed albatross feeding on popcorn chum within a few feet of the boat! It was a great ending to a fun-filled trip.
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