Saturday, April 30, 2016

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher at Dixon Lake

Gnatcatchers are active tiny sprites with expressive long tails. They search for insects and spiders, crawling through low bushes and brush. They give incessant soft slightly-harsh sibilant calls.

There are three species of gnatcatchers in San Diego County. Besides having different songs, calls, and habitat preferences, they all differ in the amount of white on the underside of the black tail. The dusky-breasted California Gnatcatcher has a nearly all-black tail. It is an endangered species of the coastal sage scrub--found in the lowland hills where residential development is most intense. The gray-and-white Black-tailed Gnatcatcher has a bit of white in the tail, but is over half black. It is found only in the desert lands east of the mountains. [See my post on identifying gnatcatchers in southern California.]

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are found in the most diverse habitats--riparian bottoms, pinyon-juniper, chaparral, and live oak woods.

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Dixon Lake, Escondido, California. April 15, 2016. Greg Gillson.
This male Blue-gray Gnatcatcher is more bluish than the females. Females and winter males lack the black line that starts on the forehead and continues just over the eyes. The thin white eyering is obvious. The tail is mostly black with several white outer tail feathers. When the tail is closed, the outer feathers are folded on the bottom of the tail feather stack--thus the tail looks mostly white from below. From above, the tail looks black, unless it is fanned wide open. Then the white outer tail feathers are obvious.

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers

I heard this bird and its mate as I was driving slowly along the pot-holed road on the north shore of Dixon Lake, Escondido. I made a slight hiss with my tongue and the male popped up to investigate. I was able to shoot my photos from the car, using it as a blind. Remember to shut off the engine to remove vibrations that affect image quality. These ended up being my best photographs of this bird that always seems to peek out from behind a tangles of branches.

Friday, April 29, 2016

An eponymous Ring-necked Duck

Like the orange crown on the Orange-crowned Warbler, or the sharp shins on the Sharp-shinned Hawk, the neck ring on the Ring-necked Duck is usually not obvious to birders in the field.

That's what happens when the person that officially names the bird is the often curator of a distant museum where the dead birds were shipped for cataloging, and not the person who observed the bird in life. And, because of the rules of priority*, we cannot go back and rename the bird to something that makes sense.

* Well, actually, this only applies to the scientific name. Amateur zoologist, Edward Donovan found this duck in a local meat market in London (where this North American bird is accidental). He described the bird to science in 1809 in the journal British Birds. He named it Aythya collaris, which literally means "collared seabird (duck)" or "neck-banded duck." So, Ring-necked Duck is an appropriate English match for the scientific name.

This photo shows how the drake often looks in the winter...

Ring-necked Duck
Ring-necked Duck. Lake Dixon, Escondido, California. April 15, 2016. Greg Gillson.
The copper neck ring between the purplish head and the black breast is seen in this recent photo where the neck is stretched in an alert posture...

Ring-necked Duck
Ring-necked Duck showing copper neck ring. Kit Carson Park, Escondido, California. April 10, 2016. Greg Gillson.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

House Wren at Dixon Lake

House Wrens are quite common in San Diego County throughout the year. It is unknown, however, how many of the numerous wintering birds may migrate north to breed. Do any of the birds that spend the winter here stay and breed here in the summer, or do the breeding birds winter elsewhere?

House Wren
House Wren. Dixon Lake, Escondido, California. April 15, 2016. Greg Gillson.
House Wrens are most abundant in summer in coast live oak and also sycamore woodlands from sea level to highest mountains. In recent decades they have increased into residential areas for which they were named, as has been the case in the eastern half of the continent. Nesting records confirm that House Wrens breed an average of 2 weeks earlier now than a century ago, signaling a response to climate change (San Diego County Bird Atlas. Unitt. 2004).

The lively bubbling song begins with a distinctive harsh "churr" note.

House Wren

Winter birds are most common in coastal lowlands. Their wide variety of short harsh calls can sound like the calls of California Gnatcatchers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets that share the same winter habitat. I'm inclined to view this as mimicry rather than coincidence--even though calls in songbirds are generally hard-wired and immutable, while songs are learned while young.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Duck Test

Many non-birders look at the coot and think: "If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck."

American Coot
American Coot. Dixon Lake, Escondido, California. April 15, 2016. Greg Gillson.
A closer look however, reveals several characters that do not match a duck.

First, note the white chicken-like pointed bill with the frontal shield up the forehead. That is not at all like the spatulate bill found on most ducks.

And "quack"? Nope. The loud grating call could not really be called a quack.

It does swim. And it may appear to swim like a duck above the water. But below the surface are some "not duck" toes! Ducks have webbed feet--webbing between the front toes, but coot have individually flattened toes.

American Coot. Kit Carson Park, Escondido, California. April 10, 2016. Greg Gillson.
Coot toes
Coot toes.
Conclusion: NOT a duck.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

San Dieguito River Park -- Coast to Crest Trail

I often do quite a bit of "hiking" on my birding outings. But I don't care to walk far at a time. Even if I total 5 miles in a day, I only care to do about a mile at a time. The biggest hike I routinely do is around the Bernardo Bay end of Lake Hodges--about a 3 mile loop. But even calling these a "stroll" is being very generous, as I meander very slowly as I stop, and sometimes backtrack, to watch birds and take photos.

Recently I hiked portions of the Coast to Crest Trail in the San Pasqual Valley southeast of Escondido. One 10-mile long trail section starts just off Interstate 15 at the northeast corner of Lake Hodges near Kit Carson Park and ends at the intersection of State Route 78 and Bandy Canyon Road not too far east of the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

Coast to Crest Trail Pasqual Valley
A) Ysabel Creek Rd Staging Area. B) Old Coach Trail Parking Lot.
Rather than hike the whole trail, I selected the middle two parking access points. First I started at the Ysabel Creek Road Staging Area (A on the map) and hiked east about 3/4 of a mile to a bridge over the Santa Maria Creek. After returning to my vehicle I drove to the Old Coach Trail Parking Lot (B on the map) and caught a short linking trail where I walked north about a mile toward (but not reaching) Raptor Ridge.

Driving directions to Old Coach Trail Parking Lot from Hwy 78 and Interstate 15 intersection in Escondido: south on I-15 for 5.9 miles, exit W Bernardo Dr/Pomerado Rd, Right on Pomerado Rd 0.4 miles, left on Highland Valley Rd 2.4 miles to Trailhead parking.

Driving directions to Ysabel Creek Road Staging Area from Old Coach Trail Parking Lot: north on Highland Valley Rd 1.7 miles, left on Bandy Canyon Rd 1.7 miles to Ysabel Creek Rd, left on Ysabel Creek Rd and immediately right into parking area.

San Dieguito River Park: Coast to Crest Trail
Trail sign at Ysabel Creek Road Staging Area.
San Dieguito River Park: Coast to Crest Trail
View east at start of trail at Ysabel Creek Road.
San Dieguito River Park: Coast to Crest Trail
View south at start of trail at Ysabel Creek Road.
San Dieguito River Park: Coast to Crest Trail
View north at start of trail at Ysabel Creek Road.
The trail hugs the riparian zone. Generally, in this area, one side of the trail is willow thickets or farmlands and the other side is dryer chaparral or coastal sage scrub.

These trails aren't birded very often, mostly the spring and winter. (eBird checklist here)

You may see or hear Bell's Vireos, April-June, though I seem to be the only one to have recorded them. Cattle Egrets fly up and down the valley and visit the dairy farms (they nest at the San Diego Zoo Wild Animal Park). Watch for the rare Zone-tailed Hawk, most of which are spotted in winter at the Wild Animal Park across the valley. Cactus Wrens are resident in the thicker prickly pear patches on the drier edges of the valley. You might hear Yellow-breasted Chats in late spring and summer. Blue Grosbeaks have been reported, but not frequently. They may arrive in later spring when there are fewer birding visitors.

San Dieguito River Park: Coast to Crest Trail
Prickly pear cactus just east of Ysabel Creek Road parking area.
Frankly, however, it's more of an enjoyable walk than it is a must-bird location. Nevertheless, my spring bird walk has provided several good bird photos that I've been able to share recently.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Uncooperative birds on Stonebridge Trail

A Solitary Sandpiper spent 3 days, April 17-19, at a pond in the upper reaches of the San Elijo Lagoon. I went to look for it before work, early on the morning of the 19th. No joy. It was, however, seen an hour after I left by someone else. That's the way it works sometimes when searching for specific birds found by others. In fact, it works that way about 50% of the time for me.

But it was also an excuse to visit another location near where I go frequently, that I hadn't visited before.

It was not far "up river" from the excellent birding in the main lower San Elijo Lagoon of which I've written before ("Site Guide to San Elijo Lagoon"). I had also birded another access point quite nearby ("Some birds at San Elijo Lagoon (East)").

Getting there: I-5 to Solana Beach, exit on Loma Santa Fe Dr. If coming from the north go east under I-5 and take the first left; if coming from the south the exit ramp becomes Santa Helena after crossing Loma Santa Fe Dr. Santa Helena winds around and dead ends. There is free street parking here at the trailhead.

Here's what I saw when I arrived...

Stonebridge Trail
Stonebridge Trail trailhead
My birding would take me under the transmission lines to the bare little hill about 1/3 mile distant. Then follow the edge of the hill around to the left (west) and observe the ponds below.

I did find a couple of migrant Nashville Warblers right away. My photos just barely captured enough field marks to identify it, but it will win no prizes.

Nashville Warbler
Almost headless Nashville Warbler. Solana Beach, California. April 19, 2016. Greg Gillson.
Closer ponds...

Stonebridge Trail

White-faced Ibis
White-faced Ibis
You are up above the ponds on a ridge, so views are rather distant for photos... unless you want photo quiz-type photos...

Photo Quiz
Photo Quiz. Six birds. Can you find them all? Can you name the 4 species?
Farther ponds... See? You're up above the ponds here and can't search closely for shy and wary  species like Solitary Sandpiper hiding in the weeds...

Stonebridge Trail

I assume the target shorebird was in the shallows and mudflats of that farther pond with a group of dowitchers there. I spent about 20 minutes scanning, but the Solitary didn't come out of hiding in the pickleweed, I guess.

A rather distant photo of a Lesser Goldfinch is all I have to leave you with...

Lesser Goldfinch

I lied. I'm also leaving you with a link to my eBird checklist for the walk.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Homemade Batteries: a "prove it" experiment

Usually these homemade battery experiments are designed for 6th Grade science class to teach basic chemistry and electricity principles. But you know what? I had never performed this experiment. I mean, I know you can make a battery* by sticking different metals in acid such as lemons or potatoes. I "know it" because I read it or heard it somewhere from someone who was supposed to know what they were talking about.

Hearsay. I believed it to be true, but I had never proved it to myself. Just like the sun is 93 million miles away. You knew that, too, did you? Prove it. I can't.

But I was able to prove that I can make a 0.9 volt chemical battery using a copper-plated penny and a zinc-plated galvanized nail stuck in an orange slice. I didn't get the 1.4 volts I expected from the carbon graphite from a carpenter's pencil to that same nail (only 1.08 volts, see below). And the penny to nickel cell didn't work at all in the orange (perhaps I really do need to use vinegar). The rusty iron screw was in the middle as expected. And I found out that a brass screw (made of roughly 65% copper and 35% zinc) acted electrically more like zinc than copper.

Carbon, copper, nickel, zinc, iron, and orange. DIY battery.
I also proved that I could hook up two of my 1 volt "orange batteries" together in series and get 2 volts. I had no doubt it would work from my studies of electricity. But now I've proven it to myself.

I think it is important, for everything in life, to always know why you believe what you believe. Don't take someone's word for it. Prove it to yourself.

* - Technically, I created "cells" with metal electrodes and a catalyst. The term battery is more properly two or more cells linked together to give a higher voltage. Your car's 12 volt battery is 6 cells of 2.0 volts in series. Your flashlight "batteries" are 1.5 volt cells.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Pacific Orangetip on Fiddleneck at San Dieguito River Park

What's that little white butterfly flitting about?

Well, in this case (assuming my identification is correct), it's a Pacific Orangetip. Butterflies have great names!

The plant is a fiddleneck of some kind. It was the flower my first San Diego County Lawrence's Goldfinches were feeding on in Poway, last March.

Pacific Orangetip on Fiddleneck at San Dieguito River Park
Pacific Orangetip on Fiddleneck at San Dieguito River Park. April 3, 2016. Greg Gillson.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Trip report: All day birding the Tijuana River Valley and Imperial Beach area

My birding buddy, Tim, came for a 3-day visit at the end of January. I planned 3 full days of birding for us. The first day started along the Mexican border in the Tijuana River Valley and Imperial Beach and Chula Vista areas of the south end of San Diego Bay. Here's our route and some of the bird highlights we had.

I provide the timing and additional details, as this is a very desirable and repeatable route for birders visiting this area. eBird checklists are linked for complete species lists and maps. The daylight for our visit would be about the least expected for the year, so at any other time of year one could spend more time at some of the better locations.

Map for birding Tijuana River Valley, Imperial Beach, Chula Vista

Saturday, January 30, 2016

A) Dairy Mart Road, San Ysidro
6:51 AM, 1 hr and 16 minutes, walked 1.0 miles, 46 species
eBird checklist
Highlight species: 15 Black-crowned Night-Herons, 1 White-tailed Kite, 1 Common Gallinule, 1 Downy Woodpecker, 2 Hutton's Vireos, 4 House Wrens, 3 Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and 2 American Goldfinches.
Comments: We walked about a mile of trails around the 3 Ponds on Dairy Mart Road. The wintering House Wrens in San Diego make a wide range of sounds that are unfamiliar to Tim and I from decades listening to breeding House Wrens in Oregon. Calls that seem to mimic California Gnatcatchers are not given by breeding birds in Oregon. Other calls House Wrens make here seem half-way between California and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and gave us pause all day. This is the very south end of the range for Downy Woodpecker and American Goldfinch.

B) Bird and Butterfly Garden 
8:17 AM, 49 minutes, walked 0.1 miles, 28 species
eBird checklist
Highlight species: 4 Common Ground-Doves, 5 Hermit Thrushes, Black-and-white Warbler
Comments: I was able to show Tim some of San Diego's small, tame, crow-sounding Common Ravens. This area must have crows and ravens that are more alike than elsewhere in North America. We found a fairly rare Black-and-white Warbler. It was my county first. There were 2 or 3 other known birds wintering in the county, but I was glad to find a previously undiscovered one on my own at a place that is birded several times daily. This is a fairly reliable isolated location for Ground-Doves, otherwise they can be found in Borrego Springs or in avocado orchards in the North County. We did NOT find Black-throated Magpie-Jays, which are regular here. They are not "countable," as they are escaped cage birds from Tijuana, but they are still amazing to see. Their native range is several hundred miles farther south in Mexico.
Visit my birding site guide to the Bird and Butterfly Garden.

Lawrence's Goldfinch
Lawrence's Goldfinch
C) Sunset Avenue Ball Fields
9:08 AM, 28 minutes, walked 0.1 miles, 14 species
eBird checklist
Highlight Species: Vermilion Flycatcher, Lawrence's Goldfinch, Yellow Warbler
Comments: There are often rarities scattered around the Tijuana River Valley. On this day we chased two species known to be present for several weeks. We saw one of 2 Vermilion Flycatchers that had been here all winter, and a huge flock of nomadic Lawrence's Goldfinches that can sometimes be hard to find. We also found an unusual winter Yellow Warbler.

D) End of Seacoast Drive, Imperial Beach
10:40 AM, 53 minutes, walked 0.5 miles, 39 species
eBird checklist
Highlight Species: Little Blue Heron, Red Knot
Comments: After a brief breakfast we stopped at the Lemonade Berry bush where up to 5 Nelson's Sparrows had been reported during extreme high tides, but found nothing. So we went to the end of the road and walked out the dike and beach toward the north side of the mouth of the Tijuana River. This stop was all about species we didn't see, like Brown Booby or Snowy Plover. We did spot a couple of Red Knots flying over the surf and noted a Little Blue Heron in the channel.

E) Tijuana Slough Visitor Center
11:37 AM, 37 minutes, walked 0.1 miles, 17 species
eBird checklist
Highlight Species: None
Comments: We walked around the trails by the buildings hoping to spot a Green-tailed Towhee that has been wintering here for a couple of years, but no luck.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
F) Imperial Beach Sports Park
12:17 AM, ~5 minutes, 1 species of note
eBird checklist
Highlight Species: Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
Comments: A quick stop for the resident Night-Herons

G) Bayshore Bikeway, 7th Street, Imperial Beach
12:26 PM, 23 minutes, walked 0.2 miles, 21 species
eBird checklist
Highlight Species: 175 Marbled Godwits, 95 Short-billed Dowitchers
Comments: This is one location where the single Reddish Egret this winter has been found, but not this time. The shorebird flats here probably deserve more time with a scope, and earlier in the days so as not to look SSW into the sun.
For more information, visit my birding site guide to the Bayshore Bikeway for 7th and 13th Street access points.

H) Bayshore Bikeway, 13th Street, Imperial Beach
12:54 PM, 9 minutes, stationary, 1 species
eBird checklist
Highlight Species: 125 American Avocets
Comments: Construction was going on and all birds were extremely distant. Only a huge distant flock of American Avocets were identifiable--barely. At different times of the year it may be worthwhile to walk eastward on the Bikeway a half mile or more to scan the Saltwork Ponds through the fence.

I) Poggi Creek Greenbelt, Chula Vista
1:45 PM, 25 minutes, walked 0.1 miles, 9 species
eBird checklist
Highlight Species: None
Comments: A Thick-billed Kingbird has spent the past 6 winters in trees in an apartment complex here. Although someone else spotted it earlier in the morning, we did not. We grew impatient and left after sweeping through the area twice. This stop is probably best skipped as part of the route. It didn't help that I drove past the road I was supposed to take and had to wind my way back to it, taking an extra 20 minutes getting there!

Snowy Egret
Snowy Egret
J) Chula Vista Bayfront Park (J Street mudflats)
2:25 PM, 44 minutes, walked 0.4 miles, 30 species
eBird checklist
Highlight Species: Brant, Herring Gull, Peregrine Falcon
Comments: We were hoping for the rare Reddish Egret, Snow Geese, Laughing Gull, or Lesser Black-backed Gull which had been seen here during the winter. But no such luck. I'm not sure what tide stage is best for birding here, but whatever it is, we weren't at it.

K) Bayside Park, G Street, Chula Vista
3:16 PM, 29 minutes, walked 0.3 miles, 19 species
eBird checklist
Highlight Species: Red-throated Loon
Comments: This was a quick stop on the north side of the marina we had just visited to check for another location frequented by the rare Laughing Gull that had been recently reported.

J again) Chula Vista Bayfront Park (J Street mudflats)
3:57 PM, quick untimed stop (maybe 10 minutes), 1 species recorded
eBird checklist
Highlight Species: Thayer's Gull
Comments: We made another quick stop to try to find Reddish Egret for Tim. I scanned the gulls again and picked out an uncommon Thayer's.

Well, that was our birding trip. We had 112 species for the day on this route with 11 stops, even though no one stop had even 50 species.

[We actually stopped on the way home for a half hour at Kit Carson Park in Escondido, ending at dusk about 5:10 PM. There we picked up a pair of Wood Ducks and a nearby Merlin and ended our day with 118 species.]

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Anna's Hummingbird at San Dieguito River Park

There are 6 regularly occurring hummingbirds in San Diego County. Anna's is the most widespread and abundant... and photogenic.

Anna's Hummingbird
Anna's Hummingbird. Escondido, California. April 3, 2016. Greg Gillson.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Cactus Wren at San Dieguito River Park

Southeast of Escondido is the San Pasqual Valley. Highland Valley Road skirts the south side of the valley, and the San Pasqual Valley Road (Hwy 78) follows the north side of the valley. Bandy Canyon Road cuts through in the middle, and Ysabel Creek Road bridges the gap.

At the intersection of Bandy Canyon Road and Ysabel Creek Road is the Ysabel Creek Road Staging Area for part of the San Dieguito River Park trail. Just east of this parking area is an acre or so of thick prickly pear cactus.

prickly pear cactus
Prickly pear cactus. Ysabel Creek Road, Escondido, California. April 3, 2016. Greg Gillson.
And, where you find this much cactus you find Cactus Wrens...

Cactus Wren
Cactus Wren. Ysabel Creek Road, Escondido, California. April 3, 2016. Greg Gillson.
At the other end of Ysabel Creek Road, perhaps a mile away, is the San Pasqual Battlefield Monument and a huge hillside of prickly pear cactus where I've found Cactus Wrens regularly (see this previous post).

So between these two locations you should be able to easily view Cactus Wrens in western San Diego County (at least in the North County). Of course, you may drive eastward over the mountains to the Anza-Borrego Desert and find Cactus Wrens in the cholla cactus there (see this previous post).

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Northern Rough-winged Swallows are second only to the Cliff Swallows in breeding distribution in San Diego County. They are found throughout the county west of the deserts and below the highest elevations. However, while they are found in more places, they are less numerous than Tree and, perhaps, Violet-green Swallows. They winter in small numbers and are very early migrants, so chances are there are some on most of your day's birding lists.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow. Ramona, California. March 27, 2016. Greg Gillson.
And what about those rough wings? The outer vanes of the primary feathers have recurved hooks or serrations. My references aren't clear, but it may only be the outermost primary wing feather and only males. Here's more about it from the Eastside Audubon newsletter of July 2014.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow
It is mentioned in some texts, but here's something I just noticed recently. The white undertail coverts wrap up on the sides of the rump in flight. Again, it may just be just the males in display flight, but it almost appears as if there are short white outer tail feathers just at the base of the tail. There is a photo of this, here, on the American Bird Conservatory's "North With Spring" blog.

[Addendum, 4/20/2016: Bob Archer also recently posted about this display on his blog "Out and About Oregon Birds." It includes some neat photos of this display.]

Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow. Escondido, California. April 3, 2016. Greg Gillson.
These swallows nest typically in burrows they dig in sandy bank cuts on the edges of small streams. They don't nest in large colonies like the similar bank nesting Bank Swallows. However, Rough-winged Swallows have adapted to nesting in storm drains on the undersides of bridge overpasses. This likely accounts for the increase in numbers in San Diego in recent decades.

Three years ago I wrote an identification article on brown swallows for my now discontinued Pacific NW Birder blog.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Bell's Vireo at San Dieguito River Park

In the 1980's the California population of Bell's Vireo (the Least Bell's Vireo) was down to only about 300 pairs. Two causes of the decline of this once abundant species are really one cause: Man.

Clearing of riparian woodlands in California was a direct attack on the habitat of this small bird. Clearing of forests in general allowed the Brown-headed Cowbird to expand from its historic habitat of Great Plains grasslands to spread across North America. The cowbirds parasitize the nests of smaller songbirds, laying their eggs in the smaller bird's nest to be raised by their foster parents.

In just 15 years of protection as an endangered bird in 1984, the population rebounded by a factor of six (Unitt 2004). And now another successful 15 years have elapsed. How are they protected? Remaining habitat is protected and enhanced. Cowbirds in their habitats are trapped and destroyed. Not an ideal or permanent solution, but necessary now.

Least Bell's Vireo
Least Bell's Vireo. Near Escondido, California. April 3, 2016. Greg Gillson
Bell's Vireos need a dense canopy with a dense understory in damp stream bottoms. So the San Dieguito River bottom is perfect for them.

Least Bell's Vireo

The Least Bell's Vireo is a drab gray above and whiter below, different from the Eastern Bell's Vireo, which are more greenish above and yellower below. They have rather faint "spectacles," a white eye ring with attached pale lores to the bill. The wing bars are likewise faint, often only one bar is obvious.

Males give two husky song phrases, one following the other immediately. The first ends with a rising inflection, the second is the same but ends with falling inflection. Thus it sounds as if it is asking, and then answering, a question. Here's a wonderful YouTube video of a singing bird by Don DesJardin.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Western Bluebirds at San Dieguito River Park

The Western Bluebird is a fairly common bird in San Diego County. It is a secondary cavity nester, meaning it relies on nest holes dug by woodpeckers or other species. It also readily nests in man-made nest boxes.

The core of abundance is in the montane pine and oak forests, especially about meadows, but they can be found all the way down to the coastal lowlands where they compete with European Starlings for nest holes.

Male Western Bluebird
Male western Bluebird. Escondido, California. April 3, 2016. Greg Gillson.
Female Western Bluebird
Female Western Bluebird.
I photographed this pair of bluebirds on a recent hike out of Escondido.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Monster Under My Bed

There was a monster under my bed when I was a child. Actually, it was more of a large, horrible, disembodied claw, reaching up to seize me, dragging me down with it. I'd turn out the light from across the room and then leap to my bed. Then quickly get under the covers, lie on my back, and keep perfectly still.... Then the appendage would slowly sink, farther, farther, to the center of the earth. After a few minutes the monster would be deep enough I could afford to roll over and get more comfortable even as it came rushing upwards toward me. Then, quick! lie still again and wait for it to gradually sink to the unfathomable depths below my bed--a portal to an unimaginably terrifying abyss.

That monster disappeared as I grew older. Died.

But it has returned.
Steven Moffat, the writer of Dr. Who (Series 8, Episode 4, 2014) "Listen," reached into my darkest childhood horrors and exhumed the monster under my bed.

"You wake up—or you think you do—and there’s someone in the dark, someone close. Or you think there might be. So you sit up, and turn on the light. And the room looks different at night. It ticks and creaks and breathes. And you tell yourself there’s nobody there. Nobody watching, nobody listening. Nobody there at all. And you very nearly believe it. You really, really, try. And then… {a hand reaches out from under the bed}."

Available on Netflix. Sweet dreams!

Friday, April 15, 2016

A secret eBird function: most-recently seen


I've been after the eBird development crew for a few years to add an option to sort lists by the most-recently seen, in addition to the first-time seen (Life Bird).

The way it is now, if you create your life list and then sort by date, the first bird on your list will be your very first bird ever recorded for eBird. In my case, it is a Red-breasted Sapsucker seen in Oregon in 1972.

I've seen lots of Red-breasted Sapsuckers since that first one. The question I really want to ask now is, "What is the bird that I haven't seen in the longest time?" In my case, as far as eBird records go, it is a Black-billed Cuckoo on my grandfather's farm in Minnesota in June 1977. In all my 40 years since then, I have never seen another Black-billed Cuckoo.

Why would you want this feature? Well, if you were doing a County Big Year you might want to know which species you haven't seen in years, and concentrate on finding those. Even if you are not into Big Years or listing, per se, wouldn't it be nice to have eBird make you a list of birds you haven't seen in a very long time? Then you could plan some trips to look for them--perhaps in an area or habitat you haven't visited in a while.

eBird Most Recent
A section of my "Most-recent" list of birds I've seen in Washington County, Oregon. These aren't the first time I saw these birds in the county, rather, the last time I saw them there!
It is true that many of the birds you haven't seen for a long time are likely to be rarer. But perhaps you'll find there are a few that are common enough that you just haven't seen in a while. It's time you became reacquainted!

Recently, I stumbled upon the answer when I was researching the Hotspots in eBird. One of the lists for birds in the Hotspots is most-recently-seen birds!

Ready? Here's how:

In eBird go to "My eBird"
Click on the link for number of birds you've seen in "My Life List"
Your life list now appears
In the web browser bar (the one beginning "" go to the end of the link and add the following characters with no spaces: "&rank=mrec"
Hit ENTER or click the reload page button to send the command.

There's your list of the very last time you've seen each species!

This works with any of your lists: Life, Country, State, County.

NOTE: when all done, do it again with "&rank=lrec" this time to bring it back to the default order, or your lists will be stuck with most-recent first.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Black Canyon Bridge

I recently posted photos of a Brewer's Sparrow and a Black-chinned Sparrow on Black Canyon Road. These add to the little trip report/site guide last spring of Birds of Black Canyon Road, Ramona.

From Hwy 78 east out of Ramona, turn north on Magnolia Avenue. After a mile or so this becomes Black Canyon Road. This road is well-maintained gravel, but one-lane wide in places. Heed the signs that say "use horn at one-lane curves.”

The road travels through extensive, but low and sparse south-facing chaparral, climbing gradually. At the low summit, the chaparral becomes denser with more brush and small trees as it descends northward toward the Santa Ysebel Creek below. For passenger vehicles that aren't too low you can pull off the road and park here for decent birding.

Another mile-and-a-half or more and 7.3 miles from Hwy 78 you reach Black Canyon Bridge. This is great riparian habitat with lots of birds. There are some pull-offs to park and bird this area before crossing over the bridge. A new bridge in 2010 replaced the structurally deficient 1913 bridge at the intersection of Black Canyon Rd and Sutherlin Dam Rd.

Black Canyon Bridge
Black Canyon Bridge, old and new.
I don't know much about historic bridges. This one is built on the Thomas Three-Hinge System as designed by William Thomas. I think I read that the largest span is 60 feet and the whole bridge is about 150 feet in length. But walking over this bridge gives good birding views at tree-top level for those trees growing 30 feet below in the creek bottom. And for at least the past two years, and perhaps the past 103 years, Canyon Wrens have nested under this bridge.

Canyon Wren nesting under the Black Canyon Bridge
Canyon Wren carrying food under the Black Canyon Bridge, Ramona, California. March 27, 2016. Greg Gillson.
Just across the bridge is a rough road down to the former Black Canyon Campground, Cleveland National Forest. The campground was closed about 30 years ago, evidently to curb the wild parties and increasing crime. The campground is right on the Santa Ysabel Creek and there are supposed to be waterfalls. I think I'll walk down there the next time I visit.

On my previous visit I passed by the bridge (without crossing over it) and took the Sutherlin Dam Road a couple of miles to Lake Sutherlin and back into Ramona. On this most recent visit I drove north across the new bridge and headed up past the Mesa Grande Reservation and came out at Lake Henshaw--a longer, but enjoyable ride.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Electronics workstation on the cheap

My new living quarters happened to come with an overly large tool shed, complete with lights and electricity. It also came with a bit of junk, including a broken vacuum cleaner, a large plastic Christmas tree, and two old TV's.

What better time to set up an electronics work bench! Since my layoff in 2010 from Tektronix I haven't done anything with electronics. I've changed careers (a couple of times). But I've had this hankering lately--an itch, a yen, a desire--to get back into it a bit.

So last weekend I went to Fry's and bought about $120 worth of soldering and rework tools. If I can find an inexpensive scope someday, I'll have everything I need. But, until I start designing something complex, I can get by with only my DMM. As for electronics components, desoldering parts from those old TV's I "inherited" are going to be my first contributors to my parts bin--once I actually have a parts bin, that is. I guess a visit to Dollar Tree is in order.

electronics workbench

My interests at the moment (now that computers have morphed into single-chip throw-away phones) include sensors, batteries, solar cells, and robotics. And the web is full of DIY projects for ideas, including a new favorite: Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories. You can't go wrong with a name like that!

My goal was to do this as cheaply as possible, yet get the best value I could. I pre-priced all the items ahead of time at Fry's and pretty much stuck to my list that originally had a total price of about $93, plus tax.

Velleman VTSS4N Solder Station$22.99
MG Solder 0.5LB$18.95
MG Solder Wick$3.15
ECG Desoldering pump$6.89
4-1/2 inch Tweezers$3.99
Hakko Wire Cutter$4.99
Jonard Wire Stripper$7.99
Eclipse Glue Sticks$4.99
Round Hole Breadboard$8.69
NTE 5-Pair Alligator Clip set$5.99
EZ-Hook Miniature Alligator Clips$4.19
HBC Electrical Tape$1.79

The extras I couldn't resist...
Heat Shrink Tubing Kit$8.99
Extension cord, 3 outlets$7.49
Vacuum Base Vise$5.99
Cable Ties$2.99

And, what I already have: DMM, Jewler's set of screwdrivers, needle nosed pliers, Philips screwdriver, slotted screwdriver, pliers, Xacto knife.

If I start working with integrated circuits I'll need an anti-static wrist strap. I could use a dispenser for rubbing alcohol and a brush to clean solder flux off components. But this basic set of tools is a good start. A "new" 2014 Rigol DS1052E 50MHz 2-Channel scope is $348 on Amazon, with 2 Hantek 100 MHz probes for $17. This is out of my budget right now, but I'll keep my eyes open for a deal on a used scope. If I start into radio, audio, digital, or computers I'll need a scope.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Black-chinned Sparrow on Black Canyon Road

Chaparral. This plant community consists typically of dense woody evergreen shrubs with waxy leaves in hot, dry habitats. Various sages, ceanothus, and chamise are the most common plants. Chaparral makes up 35% of San Diego County. A lot of it is on the slopes of hillsides away from human disturbance. Fires must be frequent enough that trees don't develop, but not so frequent that it becomes a fire-climax grassland.

Chaparral along Black Canyon Road
Chaparral along Black Canyon Road.
Typical birds in chaparral include Wrentit, California Thrasher, Spotted Towhee, California Towhee, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, and California Quail. Many other species can be found as well. One species found only in the chaparral is the Black-chinned Sparrow.

On March 27, 2016 I drove out Black Canyon Road, north from Ramona. The chaparral on the south-facing slopes here is sparse compared to some, and only about waist-high. The chaparral is more dense and impenetrable on the north-facing slopes closer to the Santa Ysabel Creek.

Previous postings:

May 11, 2015: Birds of Black Canyon Road, Ramona.

May 2, 2014: San Diego Year Bird #206: Black-chinned Sparrow.

The Black-chinned Sparrow is a handsome little gray bird with brown back, wings, and tail. It has pinkish-orange bill and legs and, of course, a black chin. Because it is found primarily in dry, treeless, and rather barren landscapes where I don't frequently spend much time, I only found my first ones in April 2014. So I took the opportunity to photograph one that was singing away here recently.

Black-chinned Sparrow
Black-chinned Sparrow. Black Canyon Road, Ramona, California. March 27, 2016. Greg Gillson.
Black-chinned Sparrow

Black-chinned Sparrow

Black-chinned Sparrow

Black-chinned Sparrow

Black-chinned Sparrow