Saturday, July 18, 2015

Summer Tanager and Brown-crested Flycatcher at Scissors Crossing

It took two days, but I finally found my primary target bird. I left the Inn in Julian each morning before dawn to drive 20 minutes over the winding mountain road to arrive at this desert creek bed at sunrise. After a couple of hours on the second day--there it is! Summer Tanager!

Summer Tanager
Summer Tanager in cottonwoods. San Felipe Rd, San Diego Co., California. July 5, 2015. Greg Gillson.
First discovered breeding here in 1998, Scissors Crossing contains the most nesting pairs of Summer Tanagers in San Diego County (up to 8 pairs in 2002). A few other nesting pairs have been discovered scattered about the county, but none are as regular. A few Summer Tanagers winter annually as vagrants in San Diego in ornamental shrubs along the coast. But these are the slightly smaller Eastern form with a smaller bill.

Scissors Crossing is a long ways from anywhere--especially when you want to arrive at sunrise, or before. It is 70 miles from San Diego, 50 miles from Escondido, on winding mountain roads, for the most part.


The exact birding location is north 1/2 mile on San Felipe Road [S2] from the intersection of CA-78. If you type it into your map app on your mobile phone it is: 21456 San Felipe Rd, Julian, California 92036. Really, though, it is 12.6 miles east of Julian, and takes about 22 minutes down the winding mountain road of CA-78 from Julian (at 4000 feet elevation). There aren't any public facilities nearby--no gas, food, drinks, restrooms. The only nearby homes are south back across highway CA-78 on S2 about 2 miles to the small unincorporated community of Shelter Valley (which does have a fire department and community center). It is 20 miles to Borrego Springs, on flatter roads and highway speeds.

Looking West across San Felipe Creek
Looking south across San Felipe Creek.
The first day I was there, July 4th, it was hot--88 degrees at dawn--and windy. The second day, July 5th, it was a wonderful 72 degrees and calm. That made hearing birds much easier the second day. For instance, the second day there were several singing Bell's Vireos in the river bottom woods. The first day I detected none.

Looking Southeast along San Felipe Creek
Looking southeast along San Felipe Road. The tall cottonwoods on the left are where you bird the (dry) creek.
My second target species came before the Summer Tanager. But actually identifying them was much harder and took more work.

There were about a dozen Ash-throated Flycatchers flying around the area, both in the desert scrub and in the cottonwoods and mesquite trees in the dry creek bed. On both days, about two hours after sunrise, a group of 3 or 4 Brown-crested Flycatchers started making racket high in the cottonwoods. Their calls were louder, liquid, and less harsh, but similar. And visually, they were almost identical, the Brown-crested with a slightly larger bill, yellower belly, and a hard-to-see slightly different pattern to the rust on the tip of the tail (rust reaching all the way to the end). Brown-crested Flycatchers are rare breeders here and at Borrego Springs, starting in 2000.

Brown-crested Flycatcher
Brown-crested Flycatcher in mesquite. San Felipe Rd, San Diego Co., California. July 4, 2015. Greg Gillson.
Okay, here's the deal. The creek bed and trees are fenced off. You have to park on the side of the road and watch (and listen) from there. There is really only one place to get close enough to the cottonwoods to see and hear these birds. Park off the road on the wide shoulder on the curve under the shade of a mesquite tree. Bird from there. The first day I parked at the San Felipe Monument. It is the little loop on the side of the road you can see on the left side of the satellite photo below. Then I birded along the road a half mile to the marked corner and the curve just beyond. The second day I stayed quite close to the marked area and saw and heard more birds (no doubt aided by calm winds).

Birding at Scissors Crossing
Birding at Scissors Crossing. Park where indicated.
My eBird list for July 4th.

My eBird list for July 5th.

When should you look?
Summer Tanager: May through August
Brown-crested Flycatcher: late May into August

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Flame Skimmer

I only occasionally photograph butterflies or dragonflies. But Marlene pointed a dragonfly out for me at Julian over an artificial stream and pond.

Flame Skimmer
Flame Skimmer. Julian, California. July 4, 2015. Greg Gillson.
I really know nothing about identifying these insects other than selecting one that looks like the correct size, shape, and color from the list of southern California dragonflies. If I am correct, this is a Flame Skimmer.

Anyone want to confirm or contradict?

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Book Review: Birding by Impression

Birding by Impression: A different approach to knowing and identifying birds. Kevin T. Karlson and Dale Rosselet. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Boston/New York. 2015. Hardcover. 286 pages.

There are many field usable clues to a bird's identity other than the patternistic "field marks" put forward by Roger Tory Peterson in 1934. Thus, this new entry in the Peterson Field Guide series, Birding by Impression tackles bird identification using size, shape, behavior, and then adding plumage patterns and general colors, as well has habitat and finally vocalizations.

Rather than covering all North American species, this book covers groups of bird orders, up to perching birds, then covers the various family groups in the passerine order. In each of these chapters some specific identification problem is solved using Birding by Impression (BBI).

One fun learning tool is the inclusion of 219 photo quizzes. Wonderful!

Having trouble separating juvenile Black-bellied Plover, American Golden-Plover and Pacific Golden-Plover? It's there on page 96-98, following the general Plovers information. Do you understand the concept? Turn to the appendix for the photo quiz answer to Figure 89.

This is an informative book. And if one really puts in the study, there is much to be learned here. For instance, I learned that the crown of Rusty Blackbird is more rounded than Brewer's Blackbird.

Vocalizations are first on my list of how I both notice and then identify birds. However, it is included last in this book. The statement that "duck vocalizations rarely play a role in the ID process" is simply not true for puddle ducks. Mallard, gadwall, pintail, wigeon, shoveler, Green-winged Teal, Wood Duck all have unique calls that give them away as they fly overhead in the morning fog or sound off from their concealment in the marsh. Visit any hunting store and find duck calls for each of these.

Flying is the defining means of locomotion for most birds. We see more birds in flight than sitting still. Yet many birders have not been taught to identify birds in flight. So the nearly complete lack of flight style information (except for storm-petrels) was just sad. The description of the difference between crows and ravens in flight was right on. But there was really nothing on the differences between swallows in flight that help make their high-in-the-sky animated silhouettes instantly recognizable to species. And nothing on the distinctive flight styles of the different sparrows as they flush away from you off the road edge. Not only were descriptions of flight style lacking, but there were no instructions or terminology. It's as if the authors think that birds cannot be identified in flight.

In many ways, this book is preceded by the works of Kaufman's Field Guide to Advanced Birding (2011) (size and shape, habitat, behavior), Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion (2006) (habitat, behavior, flight, vocalizations), and Alderfer and Dunn's Birding Essentials (2007) (size, structure, shape, plumage pattern and color, behavior, flight, typical movements, feeding behavior, voice).

The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America (2010) uses to good effect shape perched and shape in flight, as well as plumage, habitat, and voice. This under-appreciated work gives one a good idea of what is possible in a field guide that uses Birding by Impression in combination with traditional plumage descriptions.



I have thought quite a bit about the technique or methodology that I personally use to identify birds. First and foremost I locate and identify more than half the birds I encounter by voice (exceptions being seabirds, gulls, diving ducks, and distant shorebirds and raptors) Then I observe shape. Thirdly, I use flight style to identify flying birds before using any plumage characters. I guess its time to organize all my notes and finally create that "how to" manual for identifying birds in flight.

Birding by ImpressionGreg's methodology
1SizeVocalizations and other sounds
2ShapeShape
3BehaviorFlight style
4Plumage patterns and colorsSize
5HabitatBehavior
6VocalizationsHabitat
7Plumage patterns and colors
8Status and distribution

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Lizards at Torrey Pines Reserve

On a recent visit to the Torrey Pines Reserve I was able to photograph a couple of lizards.

The Western Fence Lizard is quite common in the West. They are 5-8 inches long, including the tail. The blue throat and sides of adult males are quite striking. The blue is lacking in females and immatures. Instead, for identification, the backs of the legs show quite a bit of yellow, as in the photo below.

Fence Lizard
Fence Lizard
The next lizard was quite small. The little yellow dots all over the torso were striking, but the barely discernible dark spot behind the front leg is the clinching identifying mark for Side-blotched Lizard.

I have just learned (Wikipedia) that there are 3 color morphs of males and 2 color morphs of females, all with different breeding strategies. If I am identifying it correctly, the lizard below is a yellow-throated female.

Side-blotched Lizard
Side-blotched Lizard. Torrey Pines Reserve, California. June 21, 2015. Greg Gillson.
Because of the high predation rates, these lizards are prolific breeders. The 1-inch long immatures are abundant--and very fast if, in fact, those are what I am seeing in the desert lands darting everywhere. The males can grow up to 6 inches long, but most are much smaller.

In recent weeks I've also seen Horned Lizard and Alligator Lizards, and perhaps others that were just too quick for me!

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Torrey Pines State Reserve

San Diegans love to hike. No matter how remote and rugged the trail, I find hikers and joggers (and dog walkers where permitted) and bikers wherever I go--beach, mountains, or desert. That's the advantage (curse?) of living in the perfect climate, I guess. There was a section of the San Diego County coastline that Marlene and I had not explored, between San Elijo Lagoon and La Jolla. So recently we headed to Torrey Pines State Reserve. And the trails and road edges of Torrey Pines were filled this day with happy groups and families of hikers and walkers, including evidently many vacationers speaking a multitude of different languages.

Even the $15 entry fee seemed not to be off-putting. There was quite a line of cars backed up to get into the already full parking lots.

The draw? Ruggedly beautiful coastal scenery on a hillside hosting North America's rarest pine trees.

There are only about 3000 Torrey pine trees here, restricted to the central San Diego County coastline. Here, in the coastal sage scrub habitat, they get just enough summer fog and winter and spring rains to endure. They naturally grow only 26-56 feet high here (though in cultivation to almost 150 feet tall), and are often twisted from coastal winds. The needles are in groups of 5 and about 10 inches long. The cones are stout and about 5 inches long. The gray bark is scaly-looking.

Sadly, aided by drought, an infestation of bark beetles is killing pine trees throughout southern California. The only way to stop the spread is to cut down the affected trees. One hundred Torrey pines had to be destroyed this winter.

Marlene and I walked a half mile of trails from the Visitor Center to Red Butte. We spent a little over an hour here. My cell phone photos are below.

Birds were sparse. The only species I saw with more than one individual represented were Common Ravens and Wrentits. Otherwise I saw or heard singletons of California Quail, Mourning Dove, Anna's Hummingbird, Nuttall's Woodpecker, and Lesser Goldfinch.

Torrey Pines Website

Torrey Pines State Reserve
Torrey Pines State Reserve, California. June 21, 2015. Greg Gillson.
Torrey Pine tree

Torrey Pines State Reserve

Torrey Pines State Reserve

Torrey Pines State Reserve