Big Country

Yosemite – the name invokes images of magnificent scenery and, when you visit, you are not disappointed. Pity they let humans in though, along with their carelessly discarded detritus and their cars and their yells, but they do. Our visit, like so many other people’s, was mostly via the car windshield as we funnelled along the beaten track, marvelled at the vistas and shuffled off to beat the crowds and head for our one night in Groveland, CA. Below are a section of Sandra’s photos. Even with the crowds it is still a fabulous place, as you can see.

IMG_4577 (2) IMG_4564 (2) IMG_4552 (2) IMG_4500 (2) IMG_4496 (2) IMG_4493 (2) IMG_4479 (2) IMG_4477 (2) IMG_4476 (2)

We picked Groveland for the night because the next day we’d drive across the Sierras to Nevada. Derek wanted to cross the Rockies and crossing the sierra part was as good as we could do from our location. It was a steady drive with several stops for both scenery and birds, the most memorable for me being finding a feeding party of Clark’s Nutcrackers and getting great views and a limited photo op.

IMG_1263 (2) IMG_1245 (2) IMG_1234 (2) IMG_1223 (2)

Going back to Groveland, we ended up stopping at a house run by the Hotel Charlotte in a gated community and set in a forest. We had a nice wander and saw a good few birds including a flock of what eBird insists must be Oak Titmouse but that sounded very like Juniper and responded only to Juniper Titmouse calls. One garden had a ton of feeders and was bird central for us. Unfortunately the light was iffy but I managed a few ropey images.

IMG_1210 (2) IMG_1185 (2)

Western Scrub Jay hiding its nuts.

IMG_1167 (2) IMG_1097 (2)

Western Bluebird, one of many.

IMG_1069 (2)

Red-shouldered Hawk hunting frogs.

IMG_1109 (2)

Acorn Woodpecker – no respecters of wooden signs or the many wooden houses, attractivel studded with acorns.

Our time around Reno was limited but a tree I became familiar with when there last year had a young Barn Owl in it but the hoped for Pinyon Jays didn’t show up for drinkies. The next day we headed off to Phoenix, got the car and motored south to Tucson. It had been pleasantly warm in California and Nevada, now we were really cooking.


Stripe-tailed Hummer – nah!

Jumping forwards in the sequential story of our trip out west, this made me sit up at first.

Snapshot 1 (25-06-2014 09-57) copy

I’d been messing about taking short videos of Black-chinned Hummingbirds coming to feeders at our location, Canyon Wren Cabins, Oak Creek, AZ. The activity was frenetic and my view limited. On reviewing the footage I was a bit taken aback to see a hummingbird dive in for just seconds and showing broad white outer tail feathers. Although the glimpse was brief, nothing else in the clip suggested that the bird was anything other than a bird showing a degree of leucism. That the leucism on the tail was so specific just made it more fun.

I had to wait another day for an opportune moment to get a view and shot of the bird. I don’t doubt that it is a leucistic Black-chinned Hummingbird but when badly seen there is some resemblance to a fleeing Striped-tailed Hummingbird of Central America.

IMG_1998 (2) Stripe-tailed Hummingbird

Condor Moment

Our route around California included taking in the scenic drive along California 1 along the Big Sur. Rated as one of the top drives in North America, it was well worth the time spent following the rest of the cars, making multiple stops for photos. The scenery is stunning but my focus was elsewhere, I was hoping to see a California Condor.

The story is well known, condors were taken to the edge of extinction through the same stupidity that still exists to and that will surely lead to the loss of more species. The wild birds were captured and taken into care, the plan being to induce captive breeding and to try to ‘re-stock’ suitable condor habitats. There has been some success with the programme and condors, both birds from the released stock and their offspring can be found in a wild state. The question is, can you tick them?

Read for a local naturalists take on the issue, I for one agree that wild bred California Condor is a valid tick. By this point you have probably guessed that we saw some, two in fact. The birds were high over a hillside but showed well and we without tags as far as I could see. There was also a small group of Black Swifts taking insects forced up by the onshore wind, my second view of the species on the trip and I had them only on my maybe list.

IMG_1015 (2)

Because we were a party of four, two of whom are not birders, slipping off for a bit of birding was best done early in the day. One morning while still at Half Moon Bay we ventured inland a bit and it proved a good choice. We only had to go a short way to start seeing Black-headed Grosbeak, Pacific Wren (below) and a fine male Lazuli Bunting. Higher up we hit many Wren-tits, mostly located by their bouncing song. Further on we found a male Macgillivray’s Warbler, distant but offering a record shot.

IMG_0267 (2)

IMG_0318 (2)

One very common species all along the coast was Brewer’s Blackbird. In the spring I spent quite a few hours trying to see a female for my QC list; in CA they would be regarded as trash birds.

IMG_0210 (2) IMG_0834 (2)

When you out of your normal habitat, any tool that can point you at least in the right direction is invaluable. In the ‘good old days’ we carried hefty trip reports or site guides with us. Unfortunately trip reports date quickly and too many site guides focus on local rarities instead of local birds that visitors are looking for. Now we have eBird and I found a nice, unassuming local park in Pacific Grove, the George Washington. The park was easy to cover although the constant yatter of Acorn Woodpeckers tended to drown out the less strident songs and calls. Not that I’m complaining, Acorn Woodpecker is a great bird to enjoy.

IMG_0934 (2)

Other species in the wood were several Pacific-slope Flycatchers, Oak Titmouse, Spotted Towhee and Hutton’s Vireo. The juncos present were all striking ‘Oregon’ types, different plumage, different song, different species surely.

Time flew and eventually we moved out, heading inland for Yosemite. The next post will have a few scenery images too, promise!

Incidentally, I’ve just taken delivery of a birding book by a friend of mine, Stuart Taylor. The book, ‘Tales of the Wandering Warden’ is available from and I look forward to a humorous read. Lulu do print books to order and I’m very impressed by both the quality and speed of delivery. I’ll do a full review once I’ve finished it.

Albatross, Otters noses.

Readers of my recently published eBook (surely everybody reading this!) will recall that I saw a Black-browed Albatross sitting on Saito Outcrop, Unst, Shetland. I saw the same bird the following year doing exactly the same thing and so I`d never seen a flying albatross.

Skip forwards to June 15th and our phone call to book tickets for a Whale watching boat trip off Monterey, California. Inshore seabird watching is limited in June, except when it comes to Sooty Shearwaters. On the occasions that I was able to look at the sea, there were thousands of them filing through, a seemingly endless supply. The boat operators warned that the weather the following day might mean that the tour didn`t run, the tour seemed to be our best (only) chance of finding an albatross, a Black-footed Albatross to be precise.

We washed up at Fisherman`s Wharf bright and early and are were relieved to hear that we were on for the trip. Cash changed hands and we duly boarded the Pt Sur Clipper, full of hope and expectation that the next four hours of bouncing about on the sea would be productive. The boat naturalist thought we had a chance of an albatross, but only if we headed west more towards Moss Landing. At this point I flagged up our birding interest, if only to make her aware that birding was our main interest.

The reason Monterey is good for sea birds is that the sea drops steeply offshore and the colder water forces food upwards in the swell, the same swell that makes most trips off there a bit on the bouncy side. The clipper is a smallish boat and lacks the stability of the whale watching boats we’ve taken off Tadoussac, if anything this made it more of an adventure as we sat at the front eagerly scouring the waves.

IMG_0587 (2)

IMG_0657 (2) IMG_0490 (2)

About 30 minutes after we’d left harbour we started hitting the Sooty Shearwater flocks, with groups resting on the sea or shearing past the only way they know how. We hauled past a couple of floating blobs that morphed into Rhinoceros Auklets. Seeing them well in the bins was not too hard but taking their photo was a little more challenging.

IMG_0734 (2) IMG_0560 (2)

We were the only birder passengers on-board, the rest being day tripper types, some with camera, others wearing the usual vacant expression you see on first-timers, as the next wave hits harder than the last. After a short while we started to see Humpback Whales, in fact the bay seemed full of them. We counted at least 20 and a few favoured us with a fluke (bottom photo, Blue Whale top). A little later we found the big ones, Blue Whales, and we naturally spent a good deal of time with them, even though all you get it a bit of back and fin at the best of times.

IMG_0783 (2) IMG_0752 (2) IMG_0746 (3) IMG_0734 (2) IMG_0707 (2) IMG_0701 (2) IMG_0699 (2) IMG_0689 (2)

Just as we found the second Blue Whale the tannoy announced that an albatross was approaching the front of the boat. In the same breath they announced that it had landed and I managed brief and wholly awful views of either the albatross or a bunch of floating Coconuts, drifting away in the distance. After ten minutes or so the albatross decided to stop messing around and did a fly past, just to check out the options. We were not chumming, well not in the usual fashion but one or two did try to add their breakfasts to the mix, and so the albatross didn’t linger too long. Torn between seeing the whales well and seeing the albatross better I chose the latter and did.

IMG_0443 (2)

The last Blue Whale signalled the time to return to port and we cruised in scattering Brandt’s Cormorants and several Pigeon Guillemots as we entered the sheltered bay of Monterey Harbour. If you are out Monterey way and fancy a good trip, I can recommend this particular trip with this company, everything about it was excellent.

OK, so nobody asked what the title of the post was all about – congratulations, you are a true Monty Python fan.

Best Western

Although our trip out west was ostensibly non-birding, there really is no such thing when you are joined at the neck by your bins strap. Perhaps the patience required for carting the scope through the 500 or so airport security checks is another clue as to where my particular focus lies. Yes the Golden Gate Bridge is neat, but the ABA tick Black Swift flying around it was way neater.

IMG_0162 (2) IMG_0145 (2) IMG_0143 (2) IMG_0071 (2)

IMG_0855 (2) IMG_0182 (2) IMG_0127 (2) IMG_0886 (2)

Our first couple of nights were based in Half Moon Bay, CA and from there we took a not unenjoyable three hour coach tour of downtown San Francisco where the highlights were several trip ticks in addition to the swift plus some buildings, some hippies and other non-bird related things. Fisherman’s Wharf was a great place to snap Western Gulls and a Heermann`s dropped by too. The Western Gulls were very bold, some even snatching food from plates and who would argue with them? Some militant Western Gulls were actively seeking out shiny cars to defecate on, revenge for loss of habitat one hopes. We also managed to find the odd California Gull in with the western mobs, including a bright bird in summer plumage.

IMG_0115 (2)

Half Moon Bay seemed to be full of Western Grebes, literally, with a couple of hundred at least. I did manage to find one that I could call Clark`s, there were likely many more beyond reasonable scope distance. Along the coast singing White-crowned Sparrows are liberally dotted about and sound very different to ours in Quebec, surely a solid split at some point? I also saw both Cassin’s Auklet and Marbled Murrelet in the bay. eBird has yet to quiver over the records, it did further south in Monterey Bay but more on that later. During our stay in Half Moon Bay we didn’t see any other birders, strange.

IMG_0081 (2)

The Savannah Sparrows we saw look and sound different to QC birds too, less clean and less buzzy.

IMG_0363 (2)

From dawn to dusk patrolling groups of western form Brown Pelicans are passing this way and that. Every now and then there would be a fish shoal located and frenetic activity would ensue, attracting Brandt’s and Pelagic Cormorants, Common Murres, gulls and the aforementioned alcids to the to the feeding party. The events seemed short-lived, with birds moving off after ten minutes or so, perhaps when the fish ran out or the brighter ones swam off pronto.

As this is the first true post for the trip, here is the itinerary. Half Moon Bay, CA, two nights. Monterey, CA, three nights. Groveland, CA, one night – this site was chosen so we could visit Yosemite (busy) and to drive the Sierra range over to Nevada. Reno, NV, one night. Tucson, AZ, two nights (I know!), Oak Creek Canyon, AZ (Sedona), three nights – handy for the Grand Canyon. Anthem, AZ, one night then fly home. This was a bucket list trip for Sandra’s folks but I still managed to winkle 205 species out of the trip, 13 lifers, 20 ABA ticks.

Blue Swoon

In a remarkable coincidence of the sort that rare birds often go in for, a Blue Grosbeak was found in Québec yesterday. The coincidental part is that it was sharing a field with another QC rarity, the long staying Dickcissel on Montee Clinton, near Franklin.

My hands were full this morning but by feeding and watering (well coffeeing) Sandra’s folks and then putting ‘Hang Em High’ on the TV for entertainment I was able to slip out to try for it. I was optimistic, especially as it had been seen well that morning but when I arrived all I saw was an empty parked car and the Dickcissel blasting out its song.

After a short while a number of cars arrived, it seems that they had been off looking for an Upland Sandpiper nearby – the Blue Grosbeak had been missing for most of the day and they had taken a break from the search. I decided to try up the lane a bit, last week when I was watching Blue Grosbeaks in Arizona they seemed to like flying up into nearby trees then back to scrub to feed. As I approached I saw the object of our desires on a seed stem and so set about waving like a madman, my whistle is something of a disgrace.

The bird showed very nicely for everyone before drifting away into an orchard. I reviewed my shots and disaster. The over exposed setting I’d been using yesterday just flooded out the bird and were useless. I stayed a while after most had left but the bird stayed hidden so I made the short walk back to the car, it was 29°C and I was getting thirsty. I thought I’d drive up the road and turn around near to where we’d enjoyed the bird and voila, there it was again.

Montee Clinton is a nice and very quiet road with probably only one car per ten minutes. As I approached the bird in the car, a motorbike of the noisy dick variety thundered past and the grosbeak had gone. My shots are pretty dodgy to say the least, the latest ones of the Dickcissel in better light are a slight improvement on the last lot.

IMG_2590 (2) IMG_2604 (2) IMG_2608 (2) IMG_2619 (2)

Out for a Lark (Bunting)

Lark Bunting, neither one nor the other really making it even more interesting, which partially explains why I made the run down to Amherst Island in Ontario yesterday to see one. It was also a lifer or life bird and within my unofficial twitching range. You have to have some sort of parameters when you live in North America, otherwise you would spend your whole life on the road.

I had earmarked the day to try to catch up on everything I’d let slide while gallivanting around the western USA for two weeks on Sandra’s folks’ ‘bucket list’ trip. The lure of the lark proved too much but my dilemma was how to get to it, and back, and still be around for said ancients as they don’t go east until Monday. The answer was to take them with me on their first ever twitch!

The ferry to Amherst sails on the half hour and we were still cruising the 401 as the minute hour signalled the start of a fresh 11:00am. I therefore apologise to the caravan driver who I had to put behind me on the road down to Millhaven, you were right to invest in that stability bar after all! We made the ferry with a small window of comfort and the treat of a shortish cruise on Lake Ontario added to the seniors enjoyment of the trip.

We made our way somewhat more sedately across the island to the appointed place but the bird made us wait a good three minutes before resuming its unanswered song of summer. It has been described as vocally cardinal like and that is pretty accurate. It was at a fairly long range and didn’t come to feed on the road as it had for previous observers – it may have been the twitching mass that put it off, three cars including ours. Put this bird anywhere in the UK and the crowd would look like a re-enactment of Woodstock.

The photos below don’t really do it justice, not least because they are rubbish. It is a great bird and not one I’d expected to see for the first time on the currently charming Amherst Island. I say currently charming as there are/were plans to stick those awful wind turbines on there, not for the green power, just the dollars. I did write to the PM of Ontario about it, I never heard back but then I did mention the Q (Québec) word in my email and probably got snagged in her spam filter.

So far June has been a blast, even though my beloved odonata has barely had a glance. I have lots of other things to do too but for a couple of hours at least I can enjoy having seen a Lark Bunting, finally.

IMG_2467 (2) IMG_2486 (2) IMG_2497 (2) IMG_2515 (2) IMG_2525 (2) IMG_2529 (2)