Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Birding Site Guide: Los Jilgueros Preserve in Fallbrook

At the edge of the town of Fallbrook is a small hiking park called the Los Jilgueros Preserve (eBird Hotspot here). The preserve follows a little creek alongside South Mission Rd. There is a pond or two and some drier upland areas and oaks.

It wouldn't be a birding destination in itself--it's smaller and is not known for unusual birds. But it's worth a stop for an hour or two if you are in the Fallbrook/Bonsal area.

Here are some birds I photographed in August 2016.

Bewick's Wren
Bewick's Wren
Bushtit
Bushtit
Orange-crowned Warbler
Orange-crowned Warbler
Costa's Hummingbird
Costa's Hummingbird
Bell's Vireo
Bell's Vireo

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Western Meadowlark

A sunny yellow bird to brighten your rainy day! (Yes, even here in San Diego.)

Western Meadowlark
Western Meadowlark. Ramona, California. October 30, 2016. Greg Gillson.
Western Meadowlarks were once much more common than they are today. They are most common in native grasslands in North America--a habitat that is mostly gone. Such grasslands have been converted to strip malls, cattle ranches, and agricultural lands. As ground nesters, they need larger tracts of grasslands to hide their nests from coyotes, foxes, dogs, and cats, or being stepped on by cows and sheep. They can breed in most grasslands--it doesn't have to be native--as long as it is undisturbed from March to August. So fields of grain harvested in May or June as well as urbanization eliminates these pretty birds from former breeding areas.

In my lifetime I have seen these wonderful birds with their loud and joyously bubbly songs virtually eliminated as breeding birds from the Willamette Valley of western Oregon. I know this is true because even the European Starlings in western Oregon don't imitate Western Meadowlarks any more as they frequently did in the past--the last starlings to have heard meadowlarks have evidently all died of old age.

Western Meadowlark

Meadowlarks can be found breeding still in the sagebrush and open ranch lands of eastern Oregon, and found in western Oregon in winter.

Here in San Diego they breed in some native grasslands in the foothill. Such is the case at the Ramona Grasslands Preserve where I photographed this bird. Admittedly, though, this bird is likely a visitor from elsewhere that had joined the large flocks gathered here for winter. Birds in the center of the continent migrate south into Mexico, but many more move west to winter in milder areas, such as coastal dunes and lowland pastures along the West Coast.

So even though they are less common now, you can still see them if you drive the roads through open farm country, especially in winter.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Index to my bird identification articles

I'm getting enough bird ID articles in this blog now, to warrant an index to find them. Plus I've written some other ID articles in various blogs over the years that I think are worth pointing out. As I add more identification articles to my Greg in San Diego blog, I'll add them to the top of the list.

Vireo frustrations ("Solitary" Vireos)  October 2016

ID: Leach's Storm-Petrel split: Ainley's, Leach's, and Townsend's  July 2016

Red-crowned Parrot  June 2016

ID Challenge: Mew Gull NOT!  November 2015

Winter Sage Sparrow dilemma: Sagebrush or Bell's Sparrow?  December 2014
Winter Sage Sparrow identification redux  November 2016

ID: Elegant, Royal, and Caspian Terns  November 2014

Large-billed Savannah Sparrow  September 2014

Belding's Savannah Sparrow  April 2014

Hybrid Audubon's x Myrtle Warbler  April 2014

ID: Western, Cassin's, and Tropical Kingbirds  March 2014

Storm Wigeon  March 2014

ID: Gnatcatchers of California  February 2014

ID: Female Blue-winged and Cinnamon Teal  January 2014

ID: Long-billed Dowitcher and Short-billed Dowitcher in winter  January 2014


You may also be interested in my bird identification articles I wrote from 2009-2013 in my Pacific NW Birder blog (no longer updated). These were tailored for the beginning birder identification challenges of Oregon and Washington, but also apply to southern California in most cases.

Juvenile Spotted Sandpipers masquerading as Solitary Sandpipers!  September 2013

ID: Brown Swallows  July 2013

Telling Swallows from Swifts  June 2013

No Swainson's Thrushes before May!  April 2013

Song Sparrow or Fox Sparrow?  January 2013

Western Sandpiper or Dunlin? Winter ID challenge  November 2012

Empid ID in 3 easy steps  June 2012

Separating first year Thayer's Gull from "Olympic" Gull  January 2012

Not a Slate-colored Junco! The Cassiar Junco  April 2011

Greg's white-cheeked goose rant... I mean, primer  February 2011

Dabbling Duck silhouette quiz  January 2011
Dabbling Duck silhouette quiz: Answers  February 2011

ID: Little green bird: Kinglet or Vireo?  December 2010

ID Challenge: Horned and Eared Grebes in winter  December 2010

ID: Yellowlegs  September 2010

Identification: Clark's and Western Grebes  July 2010

Lincoln's Sparrow ID  April 2010

A tale of two White-crowned Sparrows  April 2010

ID Challenge... Western Sandpiper and Semipalmated Sandpiper  August 2009


Oh, here's one that I think you'll like: a guest post I wrote for the Birding is Fun! blog (this blog is also retired).

Ten most misidentified birds in the Pacific Northwest  February 2013

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Northern Mockingbirds at Borrego Springs

After Phainopeplas, Northern Mockingbirds are the second-most obvious birds at the Borrego Springs waste treatment ponds in winter. They are constantly singing and chasing through the mesquite there. And even if there are less than 10 total birds in the immediate area, they make themselves known by their loud calls, songs, antics, and penchant for perching up high and exposed.

Northern Mockingbird
Northern Mockingbird at dawn. Waste treatment ponds, Borrego Springs, California. October 29, 106. Greg Gillson.
Northern Mockingbird

Mockingbirds are pretty much found throughout San Diego County except the unbroken chaparral of the foothills and above 4000 feet in the higher mountains. Thus, the range in the county is cut in two by the north-south running mountains.

West of the mountains these are common resident birds in urban and agricultural areas throughout the coastal lowlands.

East of the mountains they breed widely throughout sage, scrub, and cactus habitats, as well as oases and towns. Interestingly, they breed noticeably less widely in the desert in drier years, retreating into desert towns then (Unitt, 2004). And they are less widespread in winter--concentrating near settlements and oases.

Another thing that is interesting about Mockingbirds is that they have a prolonged breeding season. They may breed twice, or sometimes thrice, in a single breeding season. Nests with eggs have been noted in California from late February to the beginning of September.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Phainopepla at Borrego Springs

My favorite desert bird...

Phainopepla
Phainopepla. Borrego Springs, California. October 29, 2016. Greg Gillson.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Rock Wren at Borrego Springs

I visited the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park visitor center late one afternoon on a recent hot day. I came away with a Costa's Hummingbird, a migrant Black-throated Gray Warbler, a heard-only House Finch, and this Rock Wren. The bird activity was definitely slow.

The wren was crawling around on these granite boulders and these two photos turned out pretty well.

Rock Wren

Rock Wren
Rock Wren. Borrego Springs, California. October 29, 2016. Greg Gillson.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Photographic Nature Journaling: Part 2

In my previous post (click here) I discussed Nature Journaling basics and how I altered it for photography rather than drawing. How did I do in actual practice? Let's find out. For convenience the journal entry proper will be with black font and my self-critique will be with this blue font.
Birding and nature around Lake Hodges
November 13, 2016

It was jacket weather when I started at 7:20 am--55F and wispy clouds covering the sun, but nowhere else. I knew it was going to warm up fast, so I birded near the Rancho Bernardo Community Park and near the car to start. That way I could shed the coat for my longer hike.

Looking south. A view of the partly hazy sky. Cirrus clouds? My meteorology studies in high school were long ago.
Black Phoebe
Black Phoebe on parallel bars. Rancho Bernardo, California. November 13, 2016. Greg Gillson.
Slightly out-of-focus male Townsend's Warbler. It spent most of its time in the pines and shade.
Orange-crowned Warbler sordida
Orange-crowned Warbler
Orange-crowned Warbler sordida
Olive-colored chevrons on undertail coverts are exclusive to the Channel Islands breeding race of Orange-crowned Warbler-- Oreothlypis celata sordida.
Okay, a decent start. I provide the metadata--date, time, location and the weather--photo and description.

I provide some bird photos, two "pretty," two of lesser quality equivalent to quick sketches with comments on behavior, plumage and identification, habitat. Is a jungle gym in a park habitat? I guess it is.
The leaves on the native sycamore trees were turning golden yellow, orange, and brown and beginning to shed. So I decided to look a bit more closely.

Playground with sycamore trees
Playground with sycamores. Many of the leaves have already shed.
Sycamore bark
Sycamore bark is a mottled collage of white, brown, and gray patches.
sycamore leaves
A minority of sycamore leaves are still green. The three to five pointed lobes remind some of maple leaves.
sycamore seed balls
The spiky seed balls of sycamore
This native tree looks superficially like a widespread ornamental, the sweet gum or liquidambar that is native to the SE US, but planted widely in California. The sweet gum has ridged bark and even spikier seed pods--and, a more colorful red fall leaf display.
The above section does well with a habitat photo, zooming in on the bark, leaves, and seeds. Then I talk about another tree that it reminds me of. This is very definitely what I had in mind as similar to natural history drawings.
The clouds gone and temperatures rising, I left my jacket in the car and continued on.

Looking west from the parking area. Coastal sage scrub habitat.
It has been very dry, with only a couple of brief showers since April. Now that we've reached mid-November, most plants are dead or showing signs of stress from prolonged drought. A few bushes have drying flowers.

One bush was especially proliferous with its cottony flowers. After some research I think it may be Coyote Brush.

Coyote brush?
Close up of flowers
Landscape, bush, flowers--varying the focus on the same item. And I may have identified the previously unknown-to-me shrub.
An archeological discovery here are boulders covered with 500 year old doodles. I couldn't make out any designs, but could see the red ochre color added to the rocks.

Piedras Pintadas rock art sign

500 year old rock "chalk board."
I found a natural piece of colorful art.

Colorful lichens on a rock.
Not everyone considers archaeology part of natural history. But there are some traces here of organisms to pass this way long ago--people. The lichen is a comparison--native rock art versus natural rock art.
Here is a giant thistle-like plant, chest tall and 4 inches across or so.

Unknown flower gone to seed
I noticed and recorded this. I don't know what it is, other than big. Something to watch for later.
I didn't have the trail to myself, but that was okay.

Tracks
I was purposely looking for an example of beauty in nature--light, color, pattern, shapes. I found them here on the trail.
So, here's a question. What's with the microscopic clam shells? This is an old river bank and new lake. Is this dredge spoils from the lake and the clams only are here since the lake was formed? Or are the shells from elsewhere?

Teeny, tiny shells. 1/8 to 1/4 inch.
Ooh, ick! My sand has clams in it!
Jimson Weed? The flower bud is 3 inches long.
Questions are definitely the first part of eventually understanding nature. "A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but without a name it is simply a flower" (Jim Wright and Jerry Barrack, In the Presence of Nature). The correct identification and naming is also essential to understanding nature. Did I name the plant correctly? Perhaps, and I'm building a catalog of plants and other items I've never noticed before. Or perhaps I did notice, but never wrote it down, and soon forgot.
There are patches of prickly pear cactus on the hillsides. But recently several slopes have been planted with prickly pear. In a year or two it may grow thick enough for Cactus Wrens to colonize on this side of the lake the way they have on the north side.

Prickly pear cactus alongside the trail. Looking west across the Bernardo Bay arm of Lake Hodges.
Prickly pear cactus
Mourning Dove
A Mourning Dove was sitting along side the trail here. Perhaps I interrupted its feeding, but it just sat and looked at me.
Chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum) is a common plant of the chaparral. It appears dark reddish brown from a distance now, as the flowers are mostly dried up and the plant nearly dormant.

Chamise
Chamise
The endangered California Gnatcatcher is frequently found in the heavier chamise along the Bernardo Bay section of the trail.

California Gnatcatcher in chamise

California Gnatcatcher in chamise
I observe spider webs. Do the gnatcatchers eat the spiders, or do the bird and spider compete for the same insects? Such questions lead to science happening!
California Gnatcatcher in chamise
California Gnatcatcher actively crawling and fly-hopping through the bushes, the long tail flipping about. The undertail is black with thin white edges on the side and tips. It is a diagnostic field mark for identifying this gnatcatcher species--one of three species in San Diego County.
I found a couple more California Gnatcatchers down the trail a ways. This time in other weeds.

California Gnatcatcher
These weeds look like barbed wire!
California Gnatcatcher in flight
By varying the view I have observed a connection from the landscape/cactus patch on through to the dove and chamise and then to the gnatcatchers and spider webs. From there I went on to a species account with poses, identification, and behavior. Most of the gnatcatcher photos are not pretty pictures that could stand by themselves. In the past I would have thrown them away (deleted). But as diagrams that illustrate behaviors and plumage characters, they tell an interesting story. And leave many unanswered questions.
Farther down the trail I came upon several oak trees. These are live oaks, either coast live oak or canyon live oak. They are very similar. A list of plants here (see reference footnote) lists only coast live oak.

live oak
Live oak along the shore of Lake Hodges.
live oak leaves
The leaves are about 1-1/2 inches long, twice as long as they are wide, and rather oval, with sharp points along the edge.
live oak bark
The bark is gray and rough and the trunk gnarled
At another live oak tree I noticed an adjacent smaller oak shrub with little tiny fingernail-sized round leaves. Is this, perhaps, a scrub oak?

The live oak in the center of the frame is about 25 feet tall. The scruffy little bush to the right, barely 8 feet tall is another kind of oak, perhaps scrub oak.
Tiny little round oak leaves. Scrub oak?
Here's another set of tree, bark, leaves including a scenic landscape/habitat view for context.
All along the trail I had been seeing these little piles....

Coyote scat
Scat. Feces. Excrement, Poo...
This particular pile of coyote scat included fur, perhaps of rabbit or ground squirrel, plus these fruit pits. Every pile included lots of these pits. But I couldn't see any plants with berries that these could be from. Finally, after hiking about 2 miles, I found such a bush along the riparian edge. Superficially the bush looked like a willow, but with leathery, thick, serrated leaves,... and the berries. Still don't know the name. [11/27/16--This plant is toyon Heteromeles arbutifolia.]

Berries on unknown bush

Unknown bush

Unknown bush

I cut open the fruit with my thumbnail and tasted. It had no real taste that I could discern. Many non-edible fruit are very bitter. This was not. So, this is what the coyotes are eating this time of year... whatever it is. [11/27/16--The shrub is Toyon.]
There are many signs of animal presence in nature without actually seeing the live animal. Tracks, trails, scat, browsing or kill signs, marking signs, dens, shed antlers, dead bodies--all these and more indicate that an animal has passed this way. The dog-like droppings with fur and berries? Coyote. The undigested parts gave a clue, and the fact that it was widespread, yet the source was not immediately evident, made it a mystery to be solved.
So that's it. Or so I thought. I had walked about 3 miles and was back to the car 3-1/2 hours later just about 11:00 am. It was up to 92F, about where the temperature would peak for the day. Then I saw the flowerbeds at the parking lot when getting into my car. I had seen a sign on my hike about endangered local plants. One of them was a kind of mint. Could these flower beds be cultivating endangered mint? I mean, when's the last time you saw mint as a flowerbed ground cover?

Mint flowerbed
Mint

This ends with more metadata--distance traveled, time, temperature. And then ends with a mystery: is this mint a deliberate planting of a local rare endangered plant, or just a coincidence?
That's the end then. I thought several of the ideas and photo series lent themselves very well to the Nature Journaling theme and practice. The post is more interesting than simply a single pretty picture or two, but likely too long for a single post. I'm sure it could be broken up into themes. Then again, I won't always devote 3-1/2 hours in the field to this Nature Journaling idea. But I can take a nature break any time when I'm out--especially when I notice nature telling me a story. I now have a methodology to use photography as the main art form for Nature Journaling.
References:

Plants of Piedras Pintadas Ridge, Lake Hodges. James Dillane, May, 1997.

My eBird list for the hike.

My previous site guide to this part of Lake Hodges.