Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Some birds of Stonewall Mine

Yellow-rumped (Audubon's) Warbler
Yellow-rumped (Audubon's) Warbler. Cuyamaco Rancho State Park, California. March 22, 2015. Greg Gillson.
In October 2003, California's largest historical fire, the 280,000 acre Cedar Fire, burned through nearly the entirety of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. (Cuyamaca is pronounced "KWEE-e-MAK'-e") This 26,000 acre park in the Laguna Mountains, 40 miles ENE of the Pacific Ocean and the city of San Diego, is between 4600-6500 feet elevation. It was extensively timbered in white fir, incense cedar, Jeffrey pine, Coulter pine, sugar pine, and black oak. That was before.

Though regenerating nicely with bushes and saplings, it will take 80-150 years before the forest will be similar to what it was. That's if the climate returns to the the wetter conditions of 20 years ago or more. There are only a few spots in the park that escaped the conflagration. Two locations where some pine, fir, and cedar still stand are at Paso Picacho Campground and nearby Stonewall Mine.

White-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Named for General Stonewall Jackson, the gold mine was active in the 1870's-80's. A town sprung up, then quickly disappeared when the gold ran out.

There is a very good recent (August 2014) hiking guide to this spot on the Modern Hiker web site, including Lake Cuyamaca, that I didn't hike to. My hike was only 1/2 mile around the mine trail. There is another trail that connects to Fletcher Island on the lake. Combining both hikes is 2.75 miles round trip with 315 feet elevation change described as an "easy" hike.

The eBird Hotspot page for this site lists 147 species, which is excellent for the high forest and meadows. Judging from the list of birds, that 147 species includes birds seen at Lake Cuyamaca, too, even though there is a separate Hotspot for that lake. My visit of 1 hour and 20 minutes in late March had a more typical 23 species of primarily forest birds.

Acorn Woodpecker
Acorn Woodpecker
I found the typical Acorn, Nuttall's, and Hairy Woodpeckers, Pygmy and White-breasted Nuthatches, Steller's Jays and Western Scrub-Jays, Mountain Chickadees and Oak Titmouses, Western Bluebirds, and Yellow-rumped Warblers. I also spied an adult Bald Eagle soaring high in the open sky above the nearby meadows.

Mountain Chickadee
Mountain Chickadee
Sapsuckers, including Williamson's, Red-naped, and Red-breasted, seem regular, especially in fall and winter. I didn't find any, though. The hawk-like screeching I chased down, that sapsuckers sometimes give, was actually a Red-shouldered Hawk.

Another bird found here is Wild Turkey. I glimpsed one running across the road down by the lake as I drove by.

Steller's Jay
Steller's Jay
Here is a very recent birding blog post (Part 1) about Lake Cuyamaca from Jo's Morning Walk.
Oh, and Part 2 is up now.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Brown Pelican off San Diego

Brown Pelican
Brown Pelican. At sea off San Diego, California. March 8, 2015. Greg Gillson.
Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Palomar Observatory

Palomar Observatory
Palomar Observatory. April 19, 2015. Greg Gillson.
I recently injured my shoulder. It is still recovering. One symptom is that I am currently unable to raise my arm. Thus, I am unable to hold my large camera and telephoto lens to take pictures. In fact, I have to use my binoculars one-handed. Adjusting the focus that way is slow and cumbersome, as you might imagine. So all the photos in this post were taken with my phone.

This past weekend Marlene and I got away for a few hours and headed up into the hills to explore the region around the Palomar Observatory. It was more exploration than birding--Oh, who do I think I'm fooling?--I am always birding! I visited many different areas for short periods of time while birding. That's exploring, right?

We started up on Palomar Mountain at 5600 feet elevation. That is higher than the highway passes over the Oregon Cascades. It is almost as high as Timberline Lodge on Oregon's 11,000 foot Mt. Hood.

Astrophysics is an interest of mine. I'd like astronomy a lot more if one didn't have to do it at night when my body really wants to sleep! And I don't like to be cold. But in order not to stress the telescope and cause focusing issues, the observatory is kept constantly at the night-time temperature of the mountain (after all, that's when the dome opens--at night). This time of year that is in the upper 40's or low 50's, but in winter that would be freezing or below.

The observatory is owned and operated by Caltech. The dome is as tall as a 12-story building. And architecturally is as wide as it is tall. The dome houses the Hale Telescope, a 200-inch telescope (16.7 feet lens width) that was the largest in world from 1949-1992. Tours are available daily, though Marlene and I just walked around the grounds and peered through the glass windows at the telescope. Photos through the glass didn't really turn out, with lots of glare from ceiling lights and reflections in through the window.

Observatory web site

Palomar Mountain
From smallest to largest: sage, manzanita, canyon live oak, black oak, incense cedar.
Common birds in the immediate area were Acorn Woodpeckers, Mountain Chickadees, Band-tailed Pigeons, Oak Titmouses, Steller's Jays, Western Bluebirds, White-breasted Nuthatches, Western Scrub-Jays, Common Ravens, and Spotted Towhees.

Marlene pointed out a small bird hopping in a tree and I spotted it--a Cassin's Vireo. It was my first record for San Diego County. New for the year was Black-chinned Hummingbird.

eBird Hotspot information.

Coulter pine cones on Palomar Mountain
Coulter pine cones are 10 inches long, dwarfing my full-sized 8x42 binoculars.
Palomar Mountain
Scenic view looking west.
After we were done here we drove through some of the campgrounds and Palomar Mountain State Park (first and second hills, respectively in the photo above). We drove into Fry Creek Campground. We drove up to the fire lookout on Boucher Hill. Then drove through the State Park (Chipping Sparrow was new year bird). We walked around Doane Pond where I found another new County Bird--Red-breasted Sapsucker. New birds for the year here included Brown Creeper, Warbling Vireo, Hammond's Flycatcher, and Pacific-slope Flycatcher.

Then we drove down Nate Harrison Grade. It only travels horizontally about 1/2 mile, but drops 3500 feet or more--zigzagging back and forth scores of times on tight switchbacks. Much of the road is single-lane gravel/dirt. Several areas were deeply rutted and washed out. I think it was worse than last year. I did spot another new Year Bird on the way down, an Olive-sided Flycatcher.

Anyway, a good day getting away from work for a while.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Thrasher search, Part 3: Clark Dry Lake

Ocotillo in bloom. Clark Dry Lake, California. March 22, 2015. Greg Gillson.
My search for Crissal Thrasher was finally successful at the Mesquite Bosque. So now I wanted to find LeConte's Thrasher. This thrasher hides successfully in sandy soils with scattered bushes. You'd think it would hard to hide in a such dry, sparse, landscape, but there aren't very many of these birds, and there is a lot of places they could hide.

First, I went over to the Old Springs Road Open Space Preserve and edge of the landfill. [See map for the Borrego Springs area in the site guide to the Borrego Springs waste treatment ponds and Mesquite Bosque.] LeConte's Thrashers have been found here in the past. However, as is often the case, no birds whatsoever after 20 minutes.

Leaving, I turned onto Peg Leg Road and immediately found other bird watchers viewing the Swainson's Hawks feeding on caterpillars and kettling into the sky. After a few minutes here I continued on S22 past Henderson Canyon Road, then turned left (north) into the Clark Dry Lake area.

I drove through the dry-camp area along the west edge of the dry lake bed heading north. I stopped just before the main road heads across a portion of the alkaline flats, maybe about 3 miles in.

Clark Dry Lake

I walked the edge of the dry lake bed where creosote bushes were sparse and the soil sandy. No luck on the LeConte's Thrashers. I'm not sure if I was in the best place, or not. Birds often sing at dawn; after the sun rises over the horizon, however, singing soon ceases. They may also sing again at dusk.

I did find two Sage Thrasher's, though, a rather uncommon wintering bird. I also found a new County Bird for me, Brewer's Sparrow. And I got a better photo of Loggerhead Shrike than I got at the Mesquite Bosque earlier in the morning.

Sage Thrasher
Sage Thrasher. Clark Dry Lake, California. March 22, 2015. Greg Gillson.
Brewer's Sparrow
Brewer's Sparrow
Loggerhead Shrike
Loggerhead Shrike
Well, I still didn't find the LeConte's Thrasher or the Lucy's Warbler. Theoretically, I do have until early May to keep looking, I guess. Then the summer heat arrives and breeding (and singing) season is over again for this year. Realistically, my chances of seeing these yet this year are poor; I'll have to try again next year.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Thrasher search, Part 2: Mesquite Bosque at Borrego Springs

Black-throated Sparrow
Black-throated Sparrow. Borrego Springs, California. March 22, 2015. Greg Gillson.
I had arrived right at dawn at the Waste Treatment Ponds. After an hour I left, without finding any of my target species. [See Part 1] Next stop was the Mesquite Bosque at the end of Yaqui Pass Road. [Site guide to Borrego Springs WTP and Mesquite Bosque]

There were two species I was really hoping to find here: Crissal Thrasher and Lucy's Warbler. I also hoped to possibly find Ladder-backed Woodpecker.

Loggerhead Shrike
Loggerhead Shrikes.
The mesquite had fresh new yellow-green leaves and were much greener than when I last visited in December. A family of Loggerhead Shrikes flew around making noise, but didn't allow close approach for frame-filling photography.

My directions from the site guide were as follows: "From the end of Yaqui Pass Rd, walk the dirt track "road" that starts west and then immediately turns NE about 1/2 mile to an abandoned cabin. From there follow the dirt road another 1/2 mile East to the densest part of the woodland. Here, somewhere, is an abandoned yellow van that is in the best birding spot."

I actually found the yellow van. It is about 1/10th of a mile East of the cabin. Go north past the cabin, then leave the road and head East.

Shack in Mesquite Bosque
Cabin in Mesquite Bosque
Guess what? Singing from the top of a mesquite right over the yellow van was a Crissal Thrasher! The light wasn't good right then. Better overcast and 85F than clear and 100F, I guess.

Crissal Thrasher
Crissal Thrasher! Mesquite Bosque, Borrego Springs, California. March 22, 2015. Greg Gillson.
I then heard a weak trill that I thought might be Lucy's Warbler. Unfortunately, no. It was the Black-throated Sparrow that introduces this article.

Next, try to find LeConte's Thrasher....

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Thrasher search, Part 1: Borrego Springs WTP

Hooded Oriole
Hooded Oriole, first-year male. Borrego Springs, California. March 22, 2015. Greg Gillson.
Last month I headed over to the Anza-Borrego Desert specifically to attempt to find Crissal and LeConte's Thrashers, Lucy's Warblers, and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers. These are missing from my San Diego County bird list, along with some other less-likely desert birds.

First stop, the waste treatment ponds outside of Borrego Springs. [Map and site guide] Besides one pond there is some mesquite here and it is always quite birdy. Crissal Thrasher had been reported here a week or so earlier, singing away. I arrived at dawn. The only thrasher-like songs were those of half-a-dozen Northern Mockingbirds.

Borrego Springs waste treatment ponds
Borrego Springs waste treatment ponds.
I photographed several of the common desert birds here and moved on.

Costa's Hummingbird
Female Costa's Hummingbird.
White-winged Dove
White-winged Dove.

Next, Part 2...

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Low-angle photography technique: Redheads at Oceanside

A drake Redhead. Oceanside, California. February 22, 2015. Greg Gillson.
Last winter I posted photos of Redheads on Mission Bay, with their heads tucked, resting ("Redheads").

Here are some recent photos of more alert ducks from Libby Lake Park in Oceanside. The photo above has a very low angle obtained by laying on my belly on the grassy shore--with the camera only a few inches above the water. The other photos were taken from a kneeling position to get down on the same level with the subject. The low angle brings the viewer (you) down to the same height as the swimming duck. It is supposed to make the subject more intimate; taking the viewer into the bird's world. [Here's a link showing technique and results of low-angle bird photography.]

Hen Redhead.

A pair of Redheads.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Western Sandpiper at Mission Bay

Western Sandpiper semipalmated toes
Western Sandpiper showing semipalmated toes. Mission Bay, San Diego, California. February 16, 2015. Greg Gillson.
On the East Coast, one of the most abundant little shorebirds of the beaches and tidal flats in migration is the Semipalmated Sandpiper. This species is decidedly rare on the West Coast, though annual in small numbers.

Instead, we on the West Coast have two similar small shorebirds. The Least Sandpiper is the smallest of the "peeps" (so named for their peeping calls). The Western Sandpiper is larger, but only 6-1/2 inches long from bill tip to tail tip.

As you might guess from the name, Semipalmated Sandpiper has something called semipalmations. What are those? Partial webs between the toes. It is similar to the flap of skin between your thumb and forefinger.

However, the Western Sandpiper also has semipalmated toes, as you can see in the photo above. Many other shorebirds do too. Scientists who name birds aren't always the most original.

Western Sandpiper

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Allen's Hummingbird in San Marcos

Allen's Hummingbird
Allen's Hummingbird. San Marcos, California. February 22, 2015. Greg Gillson.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Pelican photobomb!

pelican photobomb
Wooohoooo! Pelican photobombs Heermann's Gull. Off San Diego, California. March 8, 2015. Greg Gillson.
While taking photos of Heermann's Gulls last month off San Diego, this brash pelican jumped in front and stole the shot.

The popcorn feeding frenzy in the stern of the pelagic birding boat creates a dizzying swirl of gulls. Other seabirds often join, at least briefly, looking for a meal. Imagine, hoping for a fish dinner and the only thing there is popcorn. Yuck!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Heermann's Gulls off San Diego

Heermann's Gull
Heermann's Gull off San Diego, California. March 8, 2014. Greg Gillson.
Heermann's Gulls breed in Baja California in late winter and early spring. When finished, they undertake a post-breeding wandering along the immediate coastline to the north. They regularly reach British Columbia in mid-summer, and return to Mexico by mid-November.

Young birds, which don't breed until 3 years of age wander the farthest. Thus, most of the birds that reach the shores of the Pacific Northwest are all-dark immatures or grayish second cycle birds. There are few adults.

Off southern California, however, adults are always plentiful. Thus, I get many opportunities to photograph these handsome birds on pelagic trips from San Diego. These photos of adult Heermann's Gulls are from my last trip, on March 8th.

Heermann's Gull

Unlike other gulls, adult Heermann's Gulls have gray bodies with a white head, and a black tail. The bill is dark red and the feet and legs black. Again, different from most other gulls with orange bills and pink or yellow legs.

Heermann's Gull