Wednesday, August 31, 2016

An Annotated Bird Checklist to San Diego County

I have created a stand-alone page for an Annotated Checklist to the Birds of San Diego County.

The main purpose of this checklist is to answer the question:
"When and where is the best place to find each bird species within San Diego County?"

Use the comments section of this post to offer corrections or additions to the checklist. I will use your comments to keep the checklist up-to-date and as accurate as I can.

What, exactly, is an annotated checklist? Well, a simple checklist is a list of birds that have been found in the county. Most checklists also provide seasonal abundance. An annotated checklist provides additional information in the form of textual annotations.

Why is an annotated checklist needed?

518 species of birds have been found in San Diego County (counting the newly split Townsend's Storm-Petrel in July 2016). Only five states have recorded more birds: Arizona, California, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas. Of course, being far to the south and west, San Diego has recorded many birds that aren't expected very often. Of those 500+ species, how many can you be likely to see in a single year?

The authority on the birds of the county is the 600+ page book "San Diego County Bird Atlas" by Philip Unitt, published in 2004. This volume maps and discusses birds during a 5-year county-wide survey by hundreds of volunteer birders from March 1997 to February 2002. Like me, you can buy this book for $50 on (but only 6 left).

The San Diego Field Ornithologists provide a County Checklist. It lists every species of bird ever found in the county along with a rarity status code.

These two references suffer from opposite problems as far as birders seeking information on bird-finding. The checklist is too brief and the book too in-depth for quickly finding information.

The book is also starting to suffer from obsolescence due to two things: 1) Bird populations are constantly changing and the book is now a dozen years old. 2) 20% of the county has burned since publication, including 98% of the mountain conifer forest in the huge Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.

A new source of bird distribution information started in 2002: eBird. This citizen science web-based bird reporting database system really took off in 2010, growing since then at a rate of 20-30% per year. In May 2016 a record 11.8 million bird records from around the world were added to the database during just that one month! California has always been at the forefront of eBird, and San Diego bird records are well-represented.

How this annotated checklist came about

As I approach 3 years living and birding in San Diego County I have now seen most of the expected annual species. But there are still several species I haven't found. And I have yet to find over 300 species in any single year. So, rather than rely on chance and my own exploration, I researched both the Atlas and eBird to try to figure out when and where each species is most likely to be found.

Knowing that others would benefit from my research, I organized and preserved my findings on the page in this link:

I hope you find it useful.

A Costa's Hummingbird at my window

I think that female hummingbirds are an under-appreciated identification challenge. Throw in all the immatures at this time of year and it can be quite confusing. Allen's or Rufous? Broad-tailed or Calliope? Anna's or Costa's? Ruby-throated or Black-chinned?

Up until this past month I've only seen Anna's at my feeder. But then, what's that? Is that bird smaller? Oh, look! The breast is whitish, not green. That eliminates Anna's--it's something else. The flanks are grayish, not buffy, that eliminates Allen's, Rufous, Calliope, and Broad-tailed. The tail is very short tail with wings extending well past the end. That eliminated Black-chinned and Ruby-throated. That leaves Costa's, and the white eyebrow separating the crown from the ear coverts and the short slightly curved bill confirms it.

Costa's Hummingbird
Costa's Hummingbird. Escondido, California. August 12, 2016. Greg Gillson.
Costa's Hummingbird

This bird may be diminutive, but it is spunky. It chases away the much bigger Anna's from the window feeder. She has been hanging out now for over two weeks. Last week I noted a juvenile male a couple of times with a spot of dark feathers growing on the throat. I also noted an adult male Black-chinned Hummingbird twice last week at this "hidden" window feeder. The more exposed hanging feeder in the back yard is carefully guarded by an Anna's Hummingbird.

Costa's Hummingbirds follow the flowers--out in the desert during the winter and breeding in early spring, then westward into the coastal lowlands with all the non-native flowers (and hummingbird feeders!) in residential areas for the summer. So, even though this hummingbird is an uncommon resident throughout the year within San Diego County, it moves around.

Thank you for gracing the window just outside my desk!

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Brain Games

Well no wonder it's so good, it's by National Geographic.

Brain Games pic

Marlene and I have been watching this show on Netflix. It's great! I love how they show us our brain can be fooled--even when we know it's happening--and we can't stop it. Example? An evenly pale gray rectangle appears to have the bottom paler than the top when divided by a border that makes it appear the bottom is in shade. Similarly, on a Rubik's cube a square appears to be orange when placed on the "shaded" side, but brown when on the "lighted" side. Concentrate intently by counting the number of times a ball is bounced on the ground and you don't even notice the chicken/clown dancing through the scene. You can't tell the inverted side of the face mask as it twirls--your brain turns both sides of the mask into a lifelike face.

The opening words of each 20 minute show is, "Stop! Pay attention!" Even trying to pay attention we are often fooled (just like the card that host Jason Silva is holding above). Each show has interactive "games" for you to play along with, as well as groups of "contestants" that often think they are present for a different reason. It is now in its 7th season on the National Geographic Channel, and even has shows on its website.

Many of the "tricks" would make great party games. There is a board game, but reviews are that it isn't re-playable once you know what to look for (like the annoying person who has memorized all the Trivial Pursuit cards).

I like this show because it makes you question just how much of the world is "real" and how much of it is a brain construct. Take, for example, color vision. Objects don't really have "color." Our brains create the color. Don't believe me? One of the interactive activities has you stare at a pattern and after a few seconds the black-and-white scenic photo above it suddenly becomes brilliantly colored! Until you look directly at it, then it appears black-and-white again, as it truly is.

Our eyes, ears, and other sense organs take in too much information for our brains to process in real time, so the brain takes shortcuts, throwing away "reality" in order to give us a "fantasy" we can handle. I find it a fascinating look into my own thought processes. As a bird watcher I know that we sometimes see what we want to see and our memories can be easily manipulated--that's why eyewitness accounts of a crime are so unreliable and contradictory!

Just what is reality?

Highly recommended!

Friday, August 26, 2016

Wrentit at Black Mountain

A few weeks back I chased a rare Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in a small city park in Rancho Peñasquitos. I found it, along with two recent fledglings that appear to be half Scissor-tailed Flycatcher and half Western Kingbird--a known hybrid pairing when the flycatcher can't find a mate of its own species. ("Chase" is birder talk for dropping everything to go see a rare bird someone else just recently found before it flies away. In my case I didn't go as soon as it was reported, but several days later when it was obviously still in the area and at a time I could get away.)

It was an overcast morning before work, and the birds were high in the trees and strongly backlit. So the photos weren't very good (you can see diagnostic photos [= "poor"] on my eBird report, here).

On my way home I checked out some trails on nearby Black Mountain. I walked a third of a mile on Miner's Ridge Loop (eBird checklist here).

I finally got one photo worthy of sharing--this Wrentit in chaparral (a toyon shrub, I believe).

Wrentit. Black Mountain, Rancho Peñaquitos, California. July 31, 2016. Greg Gillson.
It's a bit bedraggled, with lots of wear on the tail. That suggests that this bird has spent lots of time on a nest, recently, perhaps feeding its young.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Orbit sprinkler review

Here's something different for you.

As Maintenance Manager of our mobile home park, one of my many duties is replacing irrigation sprinklers. ["Manager" loosely means that I'm responsible whether I assign someone else or do it myself.]

Last week I bought a bunch of Orbit pop-up sprinklers from Home Depot, since the corporate office provides a Home Depot credit card for our use. My Maintenance Man and I replaced many old sprinkler heads and I just grabbed a bunch of the "nearest to what I wanted," as Home Depot often runs low on parts during the day and often doesn't have exactly what I want.

Orbit pop-up sprinkler with brass head

It ended up I bought both brass and plastic spray heads on the 4 inch pop-up sprinklers. Turn on the water to try them out and sss...snap! off the heads fly. So this is a reminder never to buy the plastic heads with the cut-outs that seem designed to fail on first use. Brass sprayers are the way to go.

Broken Orbit sprinklers

Oh, here's another tip. It seems about 10-15% of the sprinkler heads at Home Depot have been previously used and returned to the store and restocked. You can find them full of dirt and bugs sometimes. So many people paw through and mix up the bins that you really have to be careful what you're pulling from the box is what the box is labeled. So, while you are looking that the body is correct and not previously used, you miss something else (and by "you" I mean me). The spray heads are interchangeable. Wouldn't you know it, while the bodies were "half-pattern" the spray heads were different!

Orbit pop-up sprinkler with brass head and plastic head sprayer

So the lesson is, no matter how rushed you are, no matter how long you were searching unsuccessfully for the right parts--and thought you finally found them, and no matter how many dozens of each part you need to buy, carefully inspect each and every one!

Monday, August 1, 2016

Birds to know in San Diego: Cuyamaca Rancho State Park

This is the final post of the monthly series of common San Diego birds. We head into the oak-covered foothills of the mountains, south of the town of Julian.

Lake Cuyamaca
Lake Cuyamaca
Stonewall Mine
Over 95% of the conifers in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park were incinerated by the 2003 Cedar Fire. The few pines remaining, such as at Stonewall Mine and Paso Picacho Campground, host some pine mountain birds such as found at Palomar Mountain: Steller's Jay, Pygmy Nuthatch, Hairy Woodpecker, Mountain Chickadee. [Pronunciation: kwee-ah-MAHK-ah]

Vegetation has started returning to the burned upper reaches of the mountains, first with grasses, small bushes, and then oak trees. Even pine and cedar are beginning to sprout. Oaks in some of the lower valleys were spared. But it will be decades or even a century before the forests return to their glory, assuming rainfall amounts of the past return from the recent decades of drought. The cycle of fire keeps changing woodlands and forests back to grasslands. Then a succession of plant communities grow back until the next fire. A general warming climate, though, means larger and more frequent fires and less woodlands.

Most of the birds featured in this post are especially common in the open oak foothills throughout the county, now typified by Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.

Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk. Rancho Bernardo, California. December 8, 2013. Greg Gillson.
Red-shouldered Hawk
That hunch-backed hawk sitting on the telephone line is a Red-shouldered Hawk; Red-tailed Hawks rarely perch on telephone lines. The California subspecies has this rusty orange chest and barred belly as an adult; Eastern birds are paler and less marked on the underparts. Frequently the loud keer-keer-keer-keer-keer-keer-keer-keer call attracts your attention to this bird. Similar San Diego birds: Red-tailed Hawk.

Nuttall's Woodpecker
Nuttall's Woodpecker. Lake Hodges, California. February 2, 2014. Greg Gillson.
Nuttall's Woodpecker
This little woodpecker is widespread throughout San Diego County except for the desert. Indeed, it is found throughout most of California wherever there are oak trees. However, except for birds in extreme northern Baja, it is entirely restricted to California. It often gives its brief rattly call when as it flies to the next tree on its feeding route. Similar San Diego birds: Downy Woodpecker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker.

Western Bluebird
Western Bluebird. Julian, California. July 3, 2015. Greg Gillson.
Western Bluebird
The friendly little Western Bluebird may be found in some open residential lawns and city parks chasing bugs, but is most abundant in grasslands edged with oaks. Bluebirds nest in old woodpecker cavities. Is it more than coincidence that bluebird numbers in San Diego have increased along with Nuttall's Woodpeckers in the past 25 years or so? Similar San Diego birds: Western Scrub-Jay.

Wild Turkey
Wild Turkey. Julian, California. July 5, 2015. Greg Gillson.
Wild Turkey
Introduced unsuccessfully to the county several times in the past, a release of birds from Texas in 1993 finally took hold. These huge birds are now widespread in the mountains and inland foothills. Rather than being really "wild" they are more self-domesticating--thriving in parks and at the edge of residential areas where they cannot be hunted. Similar San Diego birds: none.

Oak Titmouse
Oak Titmouse. Hot Springs Mountain, California. April 13, 2014. Greg Gillson.
Oak Titmouse
Well named, this little relative of the chickadee is found throughout the county foothills where there are extensive larger native oaks. Its former name was Plain Titmouse. And, except for a little crest, that is an apt name, too, for this plain little pale gray-brown bird. It gives husky chickadee-like calls, in addition to clear whistled song notes, thus sometimes it's a bit tough to tell whether you are hearing the titmouse or the Mountain Chickadee unless you actually see the calling bird. Similar San Diego birds: Bushtit, Mountain Chickadee.

Turkey Vulture
Turkey Vulture. Ramona, California. February 1, 2015. Greg Gillson.
Turkey Vulture
Soaring unsteadily across the summer skies, the vulture is a familiar bird across North America. Feeding on roadkill or other dead animals they do look like black turkeys when on the ground. While widespread in summer, nests are hard to find because they choose to nest in caves and rocky crevices on steep mountain slopes. In winter they are more restricted to the interior of the county, away from the desert, high mountains, city, and immediate coastline. Similar San Diego birds: Red-tailed Hawk.

This is the last post in this series. To view all of them from the start click on this link...
Birds to know in San Diego: introduction