Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Zaagkuildrift Road, JNB, South Africa

Take a run up. If you stumble, it’s OK. If you can get close to the pronunciation, most Gauteng birders will know what you mean. Zaagkuildrift Road, at Pienaarsrivier, was veiled with a soft mist when I arrived at first light this morning.
Reports by G.L. from earlier in March of Lesser Moorhen, Baillon’s Crake, “…hundreds of Black-winged Pratincole” and a total of 148 birds made this a very tempting outing.
The dirt road runs east (Google Earth; 25.11.55 S / 28.17.39 E) to west for nearly 30 kilometers through prime thornveld habitat to the village of Kgomo Kgomo and a flood plain at the confluence of 3 rivers, where a raised road bridge gives a good view out onto the marsh (Google Earth; 25.09.54 S / 28.04.59 E). See http://www.sabirding.co.za/ for directions and a good site description.
The first birds were shrikes and the family was well represented today. A Lesser Grey Shrike perched on a wire fence, a Long-tailed Shrike was calling from the top of a dead tree and a Red-backed Shrike was watching for his breakfast from a snag in an acacia tree.
Acacia was very much the theme of the day with thornveld species predominating for the drive to Kgomo Kgomo. For the first kilometre or so acacia bushes dot expanses of grassland. Record rainfall this year has left the grass tall and lush, concealing all kinds of avian treasures. The bushes become larger and more concentrated as I progressed west.
A dam which I knew to be out to the left was out of view in the mist, but White-faced Whistling-ducks could be seen flying over and an African Fish-eagle called through the fog. A pair of Hamerkop flew off as another car went by.
For much of the day, I was alone on the road. It would be easy to fall into a sense of isolation and forget about traffic. Occasionally another car would hurtle past, reminding me that I was on a public highway and not to stop in the middle of the road.
I parked up and decided to bird on foot for a while. It was easier to pick out birdsong and movement in the mist which was dulling the sound as well as the light. Immediately, this approach paid dividends with a couple of Burnt-eared Eremomelas which were sharing the leafy crown of an acacia with a Long-billed Crombec and a Red-billed Hornbill. Across the road, the fluty song of the White-browed Sparrow-weaver contrasted with the coarse chatter of a small group of Southern Pied Babblers. A tuneful whistle came from a White-throated Robin-chat.
Weaver nests, hanging from the thorn trees, accessed from beneath and without an entrance tube were made by the Village or Spot-backed Weaver. One was in the process of construction by a bird that had lost his breeding plumage. The summer is almost over in Southern Africa by March. Nearby, a Diederik Cuckoo watched. The cuckoo parasitizes Spot-billed Weavers, but it was possibly a bit late in the season for it to take this bird as a serious proposition for a step-dad.
Crested Francolins ran along the verge in front of the car rather than ducking into the vegetation. Swainson’s Spurfowl preferred to fly to evade on-coming traffic.
As the bush became thicker, Crimson-breasted Shrikes would dart out into the road to catch insects from the dirt surface.
Fences that run the length of the road on both sides are unintrusive on a birders experience. The shrikes seemed especially fond of them as hawking perches. Mariqua and Spotted Flycatchers appeared to approve too. Occasionally a bigger, sturdier fence would indicate a game reserve and larger mammals such as Blesbok or Kudu might be seen.
The birdlife was certainly prolific and my list was growing with Chestnut-vented Tit-babbler, Black-crowned Tchagara and Crested Barbets among the thorn trees and Glossy and Burchell’s Starlings on higher perches.

A flash of blue and black was a Woodland Kingfisher. It was perched above a tiny puddle which was far too small to contain fish. The Woodland Kingfisher though, does not plunge-dive like many of it’s family, it more commonly prefers insects, small reptiles and amphibians. Occasionally it will take fish and even small birds. It sat for a picture before flying off into the woodland. Before I could set off again small birds started arriving at the puddle to drink and bathe. Perhaps they had been holding back from the potential threat of the kingfisher. First came Red-billed Firefinches and Blue Waxbills, then Violet-eared and Common Waxbills. A male and a female Jameson’s Firefinch were followed by

Mr and Mrs Melba Finch and finally a small flock of weavers. In their non-breeding plumage, but with their large bills, I suspect that they were Spot-backed Weavers.
Shortly before the village, the acacias thinned out allowing the grass to take hold again. A small pool held Greenshank, Wood Sandpiper and a couple of Hamerkop. A spotted Flycatcher watched for insects on a gate close by. Beyond this was the village and a wide area of shorter grass. This is where I was expecting to find “…hundreds of Black-winged Pratincole.” Sadly there were none. I stopped regularly, scanning the whole area on both sides of the road, but all I could see were Crowned Plover.

There were “hundreds” of them, but I must give G.L. more credit than that.
The fences in the village were productive with Red-headed and Scale-feathered Finch.
I turned left on to the tarmac road and parked on the verge on top of the bridge. In The UK, this would be deemed poor roadsmanship. Here however, it seemed accepted by the limited traffic.
Before me was the marsh remaining from the contracted floodplain. It should have been the scene for a sighting of the Lesser Moorhen and Baillon’s Crake. Again though, I had been “gripped” by G.L., as I found neither. But sitting patiently waiting brought it’s own rewards. From my vantage point on the bridge, I was able to look down on a tangle of reeds and lilies in the marsh. There were Common Moorhens and Blacksmith Plovers feeding here and larger wetland birds in the distance. Yellow-billed Storks shared the marsh with herons and egrets. Most notably a good number of Black Egrets.
Back in the foreground, a skulking presence in the edge of the reeds caught my eye. As I watched, an African Rail crossed an open patch into the reeds on the other side. Just above it resting on a reed stem were 2 Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters. They were a little distant, but just about worth a shot.
As a logistical operation, it may have been worth me getting to the marsh much earlier to give myself a good chance of the moorhen and crake. The vantage point from the bridge looks directly in to the rising sun however, so I would probably still prefer to bird the road with the light behind me in the morning.
Retracing my steps in the afternoon put the sun over my shoulder again as I returned to the eastern end of Zaagkuildrift Road.

A double-banded Sandgrouse was hunkered down in the roadside grass, Shortly before I reached the end of the road, a small bird of prey caught my attention from the top of an acacia. It was completely dark with the only apparent colour being a red cere on a small beak and long red legs. Red-footed Falcon occurred to me but the long legs ruled this out. My best guess was a melanistic Gabar Goshawk.
The biggest spectacle of the day came as I was driving back to the hotel. Just north of Pretoria, on the N1 driving south, was a big flock of Amur Falcons (I was driving, not the falcons). A short way beyond was another flock and then another. A bloom of insects had attracted them to this spot and they were catching them and feeding in mid-air. Again my roadsmanship was called into question as I stopped on the side of the motorway to watch. At a guess, I would say that as many as 600 falcons were feeding within a distance of 400meters.
I didn’t get close to G.L.’S 148, but a great day was had just the same.

Bird species; 98

Long-tailed Cormorant 10, Grey Heron 2, Black-headed Heron 5, Great Egret 3, Black Egret 12, Intermediate Egret 6, Cattle Egret 4, Squacco Heron 3, Striated Heron 1, Hamerkop 8, Yellow-billed Stork 20, Sacred Ibis 8, Hadeda Ibis 1, White-faced Whistling-duck 200, Egyptian Goose 12, Spurwing Goose 15, Comb Duck 4, Red-billed Duck 8, African Fish-eagle (heard) 1, Black-shouldered Kite 15, Gabar Goshawk 1, Shikra 1, Steppe Buzzard 1, Amur (Eastern Red-footed) Falcon 600, Crested Francolin 30, Swainson’s Spurfowl 15, Helmeted Guineafowl 8, African Rail 2, Black Crake 1, Common Moorhen 3, African Jacana 7, Blacksmith Lapwing 35, Crowned Lapwing 180, Wattled Lapwing 4, 3-banded Plover 1, African Snipe 1, Common Greenshank 3, Wood Sandpiper 10, Curlew Sandpiper 1, Double-banded Sandgrouse 1, Speckled Pigeon 3, Red-eyed Dove 20. Ring-necked Dove 10, Laughing Dove 4, Namaqua Dove 2, Grey-go-away bird 20, Diederik Cuckoo 1, Burchell’s Coucal 2, Little Swift 4, Speckled Mousebird 15, Red-faced Mousebird 40, Woodland Kingfisher 2, Malachite Kingfisher 3, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater 8, Southern Red-billed Hornbill 15, Crested Barbet 3, European Swallow 2, Grassveld Pipit 1, Cape Wagtail 1, White-throated Robin-chat 1, Rattling Cisticola 2, Levaillant’s Cisticola 2, Tawny-flanked Prinia 2, Black-chested Prinia 2, Lesser Swamp Warbler 3, Icterine Warbler 1, Burnt-necked Eremomela 3, Cape Crombec 2, Rufous-vented Warbler 1, Mariqua Flycatcher 12, Spotted Flycatcher 8, Southern Pied Babbler 7, Arrow-marked Babbler 35, Red-backed Shrike 20, Lesser Grey Shrike 4, Common Fiscal 2, Magpie Shrike 60, Black-crowned Tchagara 1, Crimson-breasted Gonolek 4, Fork-tailed Drongo 30, Pied Crow 6, Common Myna 6, Cape Glossy-starling 15, Burchell’s Glossy-starling 18, Southern Grey-headed Sparrow 1, Red-billed Buffalo-weaver 8, Scaly Weaver 30, White-browed Sparrow-weaver 12, Southern Masked Weaver 60, Spot-backed Weaver 80, Green-winged Pytilia (Melba Finch) 3, Red-billed Firefinch 40, Jameson’s Firefinch 2, Blue-breasted Cordonbleu 50, Violet-eared Waxbill 2, Common Waxbill 2, Red-headed Finch 2, Pin-tailed Whydah 1.

Mammals seen;

Slender Mongoose 1, Ground Squirrel 1, Black-faced Vervet-monkeys 8.

Another early morning found me on the predictable pilgrimage to Marievale. This post is my experience of the reserve. I refer you again to the excellent http://www.sabirding.co.za/ for a detailed write-up.
I was hoping for some gratuitously pretty pictures of Malachite Kingfishers, but ended up chasing terns instead.
As ever I started along the road which bisects the reserve from west to east and arrived at the same time as the sun poked through the low cloud.
White-winged Terns were already up and scanning the water’s surface for titbits. A couple of Black Crakes were feeding on a mat of weed watched by a grumpy African Swamphen who would chase them off if they came too close.
The left turn at the junction heads northish towards the picnic area and reserve gate. I stopped for another Black Crake but was disturbed by another car. Being a lovely Sunday morning, local birders were out and about too, so I had to pull across on the single track road to let them through. As I checked my mirror to reverse back to the crake, I saw some shapes in the shadows at the side of the road. I opened the door and looked back to see 3 Spot-throated Otters cross through a puddle and into the reeds.
The grass is high at Marievale this week. The roads have become rutted after all the rain. Driving a tiny car with very little clearance was quite a challenge in some spots.
Along the causeway, a Fiscal Shrike was feeding on a small frog that it had anchored onto a peg.
The Malachite Kingfishers were in residence, but were not posing for pictures today. In the rank grassland, weavers in their non-breeding drabness were flocking in their hundreds. A flock of Yellow-crowned Bishops looked like a swarm of huge bees. Levaillant’s and possibly other cisticolas were common here too.
I crossed the causeway and scanned the large mound of spill. Catching up-currents from the steep sides were 2 African Marsh Harriers. I had nearly reached the Shelduck Hide when I noticed a small bird in the road. It was distinctive with it’s dark plumage with striated flanks, a red bill and white goggles. These features all added up to an African Quailfinch.
At the hide some Red-eyed doves were roosting on the roof. They were joined by a Pied Kingfisher as I arrived, but he was not keen to stay as I approached. The Shelduck Hide gives out onto open water which was very quiet today. Only a few coots, cormorants and 3 Great Crested Grebes were showing. The Goliath Heron flew over but settled out of view. On the way back, I stopped at the causeway to get out and walk for a while. The terns were coming over and I wanted to get a picture. Among the White-wings was a Whiskered Tern.
A couple of local birders crossed the causeway and introduced themselves as Ernie and Rose Buric. They were full of information and bird lore. The birds, for example, had predicted the heavy rains which the weathermen had failed to forecast. This year, the weavers built their nests higher than usual and they have lost their fine breeding plumage early which is apparently a sign of a cold winter. Remember, you heard it here first! A last drop in to the duiker hide yielded a very accomodating Greater Striped Swallow. It sat for a picture then languidly took flight.

Bird species seen; 65

Little Grebe 2, Great Crested Grebe 4, White-breasted Cormorant 3, Long-tailed Cormorant 30, African Darter 8, Black-headed Heron 1, Goliath Heron 1, Purple Heron 2, Black Egret 3, Intermediate Egret 1, Cattle egret 1, Squacco Heron 2, Striated Heron 1, Sacred Ibis 1, Hadeda Ibis 2, African Spoonbill 5, White-faced Whistling-duck 20, South African Shelduck 2, Spur-winged Goose 7, Yellow-billed Duck 20, Hotentot Teal 2, Black-shouldered Kite 3, African Marsh Harrier 2, Amur (Eastern Red-footed) Falcon 35, Helmeted Guineafowl 5, Black Crake 9, African Swamphen 4, Common Moorhen 15, Red-knobbed coot 60, Blacksmith Lapwing 12, Crowned Lapwing 8, 3-banded Plover 2, Wood Sandpiper 2, Whiskered Tern 2, White-winged Tern 20,Red-eyed Dove 200, Ring-necked Dove 20, Laughing Dove 6, Grey Go-away Bird 1, African Palm Swift 6, White-rumped Swift 30, Malachite Kingfisher 6, Pied Kingfisher 1, Plain Martin 40, European Swallow 12, White-throated Swallow 3, Greater Striped Swallow 8, Cape Longclaw 1, Cape Wagtail 6, Common Stonechat 25, Levaillant’s Cisticola 25, Lesser Swamp Warbler 2, African Marsh Warbler 4, Common Fiscal 2, Common Myna 8, Southern Masked Weaver 1, Yellow-crowned (Taha) Weaver 100, Red Bishop 200, Long-tailed Widowbird 100, Common Waxbill 2, Zebra Waxbill 6, African Quailfinch 1, Pin-tailed Whydah 20, Yellow-eyed Canary 1.

Mammals species;

Spot-throated Otter 3.

I popped out quickly on the first evening to case the joint at Northern Farm. As a visit, I did not have the time to do it any justice and it does not warrant a separate post, but for the sake of completeness, I include a brief list. And a trip total of 132

Species seen; 32

Long-tailed Cormorant 6, Cattle-Egret 3, Sacred Ibis 1, Hadeda Ibis 1, Egyptian Goose 1, Comb Duck 2, Black-shouldered Kite 1, Steppe Buzzard 1, Lesser Kestrel 1, Helmeted Guineafowl 8, Common Moorhen 8, Red-knobbed Coot 2, Blacksmith Lapwing 8, Crowned Lapwing 1, Wattled Lapwing 2, 3-banded Plover 4, Red-eyed Dove 6, Red-faced Mousebird 7, European Bee-eater 6, White-throated Swallow 2, Common Stonechat 10, Tawny-flanked Prinia 2, Black-chested Prinia 2, African Marsh Warbler 3, Common Fiscal 2, Pied Crow 6, Common Myna 10, Mossie 2, Red Bishop 200, Red-collared Widowbird 200, Pin-tailed Whydah 60, Black-throated Canary 8.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Sanjay Ghandi National Park, Mumbai, BOM, Bombay

Sanjay Ghandi National Park is the obvious choice for a quick and easy bird-watching trip in Mumbai (Bombay). The entrance is near Borivali, about 25 - 30 minutes by cab from the international airport.
The area around the entrance gate is usually busy at any time of day. At 06.30 on a Saturday morning it was thronged with people taking early morning constitutional walks. There are areas for contemplation and relaxing beyond the entrance area and a lake. If you are looking for peace and quiet as a condition for your patronage of the park, you need to move immediately beyond this area. Keep to the right and you will find yourself on the road towards Kanheri Caves. Nearly 1km after passing through the entrance gate, just beyond the rail tracks, you will pass a small settlement. Beyond here the people tend to thin out and it becomes possible to focus on the birds.
I spent a little time around the entrance area this morning. I had never heard so many Asian Koels before. In one tree there were 5 birds calling hysterically with others in neighbouring trees adding to the noise. House Crows and Rose-ringed Parakeets screeched their welcome to the day. Only the Oriental Magpie Robin and the Coppersmith Barbets were able to inject a little tone and timbre to the early morning chorus.
The camera and tripod provoked too much attention and curiosity, so I struck out towards the remoter regions of the park. Just beyond the aforementioned small village, there is a path leading off the road to the left. This was much quieter and I was able to start birding at last. A fruiting tree was attracting Coppersmith Barbets, so I set up my tackle for a picture.
A long-billed Acrocephalus warbler in an adjacent tree may have been a Blythe’s Leaf Warbler and some Asian Palm Swifts called from a clear, blue sky. Eurasian Orioles were common along the path as were Oriental Magpie Robins and Chestnut-tailed Starlings. Bulbuls put in a good appearance too with Red-whiskered, Red-vented and most notably the seldom seen (by me) White-browed Bulbul.
An iora made me reach for my field guide. Mumbai is within reach of the distribution area for Marshall’s Iora, but lack of any white in the tail made me plump for Common Iora. A better look at the earlier warbler enabled me to confirm Blyth's Reed Warbler. It seemed an odd habitat for an Acrocephalus, but Grimmett and the Inskipps (Birds of India, Princeton) give it as the only one that is commonly found beyond moist environments.
I had not seen another person for 30 minutes now and I was beginning to enjoy the sense of isolation. The habitat was dry and scrubby with palms and tangles. It was almost reminiscent of African acacia scrub without the thorns. This feeling was enhanced by the roar of a lion in the distance. In fact, the path runs nearly parallel with the road and only about 200m from it and the roar came from a captive cat in the safari exhibit.
Soon enough I came upon a couple of deserted forest bungalows by a dry riverbed. This must have been an idyllic spot once upon a time, but decay and neglect had prevailed. It proved to be the hot-spot of the day. There were a few large, leafy trees in contrast to the rest of the park which was scrubby and leafless as the heat builds towards the monsoon.
An Orange-crowned Leafbird was seen briefly, but well enough, in the greener trees with orioles and a Black Drongo. On the ground and in the lower vegetation were some pipits which I was not able to identify and a Tickell’s Flycatcher which I was. A Crested Serpent-eagle flew over, mobbed by crows. The House Crow was giving a little ground to the Jungle Crow now that we were further into the forest.
In such a picturesque setting, I stopped for a while on some rocks overlooking the dry riverbed. Cotton-wool-like fibres from the Kapok trees were caught in drifts among the boulders. I was visited by something that looked like a Chiff Chaff (but what doesn’t?) and then a Pale-billed Flower-pecker that made me spill my water bottle in the excitement. Green Bee-eaters hawked from a snag above me as I contemplated returning to the hotel for a sleep.
Before I could make a decision, 2 men on motorbikes arrived and suggested a good place for bird-watching further on. Ganesh and Sanju work in the National Park as movie shooting location co-ordinators (the park is a popular Bollywood backdrop) and gave me a lift to the Nature Trail (cross the bridge, turn left and continue for 200m towards the safari enclosures)
It was 11.30 by now, over 24 hours since I last slept and it was hot. With the best will in the world, I was only able to give the trail the most cursory of glances, but I did see a beautiful Chital (Spotted Deer) stag. It looked like a very promising area and I will try to start from here on my next visit.
Walking back towards the entrance, I noticed a flock of Jungle Babblers. These approachable birds are often referred to as "the seven sisters", and this flock contained, yes you've guessed it, three.
There is a lot of contradiction and confusion about the park and it’s policies. In my experience today I can state that the park is open to pedestrians before 06.30, but large gates prevent any vehicle access. I am told that taxis and private vehicles are not allowed in the park, yet I saw quite a few. To reach Kanheri caves from the entrance is about 10 – 12 kms. A bus runs there, but I did not see an official bus stop nor any schedules (nor any buses now that I think about it). Walking towards the caves is towards the rising sun. Try if possible to get as far into the park as possible and then return slowly towards the entrance with the sun behind you. Depending upon your outlook, you may be lucky enough to find evidence of leopards that frequent the park.
There are no facilities beyond the entrance. Toilets are just inside the gates and street stalls sell water just outside. Taxis are easy to hire from the gates for the return. The fare should cost around IR150 for a black and yellow. People are plentiful and cheerful. On the road, I would venture that the park is safe enough. I did not feel threatened at any point, but there are isolated places off the road where your own judgement should be the best guide.

Bird species; 32

Indian Pond Heron 8, Black Kite 6 Crested Serpent Eagle 1, Rose-ringed Parakeet 50, Asian Koel 30, Greater Coucal 4, Asian Palm Swift 40, Coppersmith Barbet 60, Black-rumped Flameback 1, White-throated Kingfisher 2, Green Bee-eater 3, Red-whiskered Bulbul 12, Red-vented Bulbul 8,White-browed Bulbul 2, Golden-fronted Leafbird 1, Common Iora 1, Oriental Magpie Robin 20, Yellow-bellied Prinia 3, Blyth’s Reed Warbler 2, Common Tailorbird 2, Chiff Chaff 1, Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher 1, Jungle Babbler 3, Purple Sunbird 6, Pale-billed Flowerpecker 1, Eurasian Golden Oriole 6, Black Drongo 4, House Crow 500, Jungle Crow 150, Common Myna 15, Chestnut-tailed Starling 30, Chestnut-shouldered Petronia 1.

Sanjay Ghandi National Park, Mumbai, BOM, Bombay, Borivali, India

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Happy birthday to me

On 10th March, Redgannet has been blogging for one year. Incidentally. Martha Fox is celebrating 10 years of lastminute.com today. How auspicious.
After 75 posts, I thought I might like to take stock.
There has been a schism to separate the odontologists from the ornithologists, a naked woman and a huge beer debt built up in favour of GL. Thank you to those of you who have left comments and encouraging e-mails, I appreciate it very much.For those of you who like lists here are a few for my first 12 months on-line.
The numbers as at 10th March are as follows:

Bird species seen; 799

Lifers since 10th March 2009; 29
Sites visited; 79

Top 3 birds by number of sightings;

1 Mallard – 27 sightings
2 Common Starling – 23 sightings
3 Common Moorhen – 22 sightings

So what is the point of going abroad?
Top 3 birds by individuals;
1 Dunlin – 15,208
2 Northern Pintail – 4539
3 Northern Shoveler – 3061

So what is the point of going abroad?
Personal favourite top 3 birds;
Perhaps I should do this one in reverse order.
3 Bearded Reedling, Kent, UK, April 2009
2 Malachite Kingfisher, Johannesberg, June 2009
1 Elegant Trogon – Phoenix May 2009

Let’s not forget the mammals with a top 3 personal favourites;

Also in reverse order
3 Lion – Nairobi July 2009
2 Naked Woman – Los Angeles August 2009

1 Ratel – Johannesberg October 2009

Personal favourite top 3 photos;

3 Anna's Hummingbird, San Francisco, Feb 2010
2 Orange-breasted Sunbird, Cape Town, Jan 2010

1 Willet, Los Angeles, Jan 2010

Most memorable moments:
3 Marsh Owls hunting over Marievale, Johannesberg, June 2009
2 Taking up dragonfly watching.
1 Lion hunting hartebeast in Nairobi NP.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Los Angeles, California

My target bird for this week was the California Thrasher, Two elements needed to be fulfilled to have any chance of finding one. First, go to California (Long Beach, Los Angeles was my scheduled trip for this week), secondly, find the right habitat i.e. chaparral. To this end, I found myself at Santiago Oaks Regional Park near Villa Park in Orange County, California (Google Earth 33 49 18N 117 46 31W). I received a very warm welcome from the lady who mans the gate from 07.00 ‘til sunset and takes the $5 fee per car.
Birds were apparent as soon as I stepped out of the car. Some Western Scrub-jays and a Northern Mockingbird flew over, a California Towhee watched from a wall and a flock of parrots, possibly red-crowned, probably alien, called raucously. Rather gallingly, Red-crowned Parrot would be a red crayon bird in other circumstances. Another non-native, a Nutmeg Mannikin, flitted through the Historic Orange Grove.
A belt of trees and bushes run alongside the creek. Here were Acorn Woodpeckers, Bushtits, Spotted Towhees and in the higher branches, Yellow-rumped Warblers. Two woodpeckers landed in a tree just ahead, stopped very briefly and flew off, but they stayed long enough for me to get a good look and identify them as Red-naped Sapsuckers. That made up for the parrots. A persistent drumming proved to be a Nuttall’s Woodpecker which is a handsome bird in the binoculars, but I was unable to do him justice with the camera.
The weathermen had predicted rain, but I have come to take their forecasts with a pinch of salt and had applied my customary factor 30. To spite me it seemed, the sky remained dark, but at least the rain was holding off for the moment.
A flock of birds caught my attention from the top of a leafless tree. It was a mixed flock of House Finches and Lesser Goldfinches. Below them a Cottontail Rabbit was feeding watchfully.
Beyond the riparian zone, trails led up onto the canyon’s slopes and a low scrubby habitat. To my inexperienced eye, this was the chaparral habitat that I hoped would harbour the California Thrasher. Chaparral is a heath-like community of plants characterised by low-growing drought-resistant plants such as Black Sage and California Buckwheat, with emergent individuals such as Yucca and Sugarbush. The actual constituents can vary with altitude and distance from the coast. The normally arid conditions in which it grows makes it prone to fire.
On meeting a group of flower-spotters however, it became clear that the area had suffered a fire a couple of years before and the growth I was looking at was made up of early colonising plants rather than the classical chaparral. I continued for a short while in the pleasant company of a lady named Valerie, before deciding to move on. A White-tailed Kite gave us a fly-by as we made our way back down the canyon slopes.

Bird species; 26

Turkey Vulture 4, White-tailed Kite 1, Red-tailed Hawk 3, White-throated Swift 8, Anna’s Hummingbird 2, Allen’s Hummingbird 1, Acorn Woodpecker 4, Red-naped Sapsucker 2, Nuttall’s Woodpecker 3, Northern Flicker 1, Black Phoebe 2, Bewick’s Wren 2, Northern Mockingbird 1, Ruby-crowned Kinglet 1, Bushtit 6, Western Scrub-jay 20, American Crow 30, Common Starling 12, House Finch 30, Lesser Goldfinch 60, Yellow-rumped Warbler 15, Spotted Towhee 4, California Towhee 6, Song Sparrow 3, White-crowned Sparrow 6, Dark-eyed Junco 4.

Valerie kindly showed me the way to Tuckers Wildlife Reserve at the top of Modjeska Canyon (Google Earth 33 42 38N 117 37 09W). On the right side of the road, opposite the visitors centre, is a reserved parking area.
A family of Acorn Woodpeckers were maintaining their food store in a utility pole while Western Scrub-jays undermined them by stealing their acorns.
A fenced area contains a small circuit leading visitors through well-attended feeders with the added facility of a comfortable, rain-proof porch to watch from. California Quail, White-crowned and Golden-crowned Sparrows, Spotted and California Towhees pecked for feed on the ground. A Northern Mockingbird watched from the top of a cactus.
The day had turned brighter and Valerie heard a thrasher calling from the slopes across the road from the feeder garden. She pinpointed the area with some advice from the warden and we climbed the trail to see if we could find it.
Thrashers respond well to playback and it took only one try to get the result we were after. Valerie called my attention to a sugarbush (?) where a large, curve-billed bird sat in full view. It was a California Thrasher. He sat well for a few photos and even gave his own regional variation of the song. At this point I would like to urge the responsible and conservative use of playback as the breeding season approaches. I am building up a large beer debt with the latest going to Valerie.
Back down in the garden I had a good look at a flock of Band-tailed Pigeons with their distinctive white hind-collar.
The very interesting visitors centre is run by Marcella who offered to let me in early for photographs in her pyjamas. I wonder if I heard her correctly?

Species seen; 19

Turkey Vulture 4, California Quail 5, Band-tailed Pigeon 16, Mourning Dove 6, Anna’s Hummingbird 2, Acorn Woodpecker 4, Northern Mockingbird 1, California Thrasher 1, White-breasted Nuthatch 1, Western Scrub-jay 8, American Crow 8, Common Raven 1, House Finch 6, Yellow-rumped Warbler 16, Spotted Towhee 6, California Towhee 6, White-crowned Sparrow 25, Golden-crowned Sparrow 2, Dark-eyed Junco 4.

The rain had held off and the sun had even come out for a while to make a very pleasant afternoon, but the clouds were gathering again as I closed the circle with a fly-past at Bolsa Chica (for a detailed tour of Bolsa Chica, I refer you to the post of January 2010).
The wind was cold now and the rain was starting, but a quick trot along the boardwalk produced 20+ species. Snowy Plover, Royal Tern were species not seen on the previous visit and a very close look at a Surf Scoter made the discomfort worth while.
Species seen; 25

Pied-billed Grebe 2, Eared grebe 2, Brown Pelican 5, Double-crested Cormorant 60, Great Egret 2, Snowy Egret 8, Mallard 4, Blue-winged Teal 2, Northern Shoveler 2, Greater Scaup 20, Surf Scoter 200, Bufflehead 6, Red-breasted Merganser 2, Ruddy Duck 80, Peregrine Falcon 1, American Coot 40, Snowy Plover 2, Short-billed Dowitcher 120, Marbled Godwit 12, Willet 16, California Gull 80, Western Gull 120, Royal Tern 16, Forster’s Tern 4, Song Sparrow 2.

Without the car on the second day, I took a gentle stroll down to the harbour at Long Beach ostensively to do a bit of gull-watching. A Willet and a Marbled Godwit showed very well on a tiny patch of sand left by the retreating tide.I had never noticed an Eared Grebe’s pre-dive routine before today. The usual appearance of this species on the surface is like a fluffy ball. Just before it dives, it contracts it’s feathers, expelling all the air and dramatically reducing in size and buoyancy. Then it is ready to submerge which it does with an elegant dive. A Snowy Egret allowed me to approach closely and this time I remembered to underexpose by a couple of thirds to prevent his whiteness burning out the detail.
A pair of Black Oystercatchers were working a mussel bed by the Aqualink ferry at Dock 4. It struck me that a boat ride might be a nice idea. At $5 for a 20 minute trip to Alamitos Bay Landing, it seemed good value, so much so that I came back again. As an added treat we made a stop beside the Queen Mary at her permanent mooring.
Birds on the water within the ocean wall included Western Grebe, Double-crested and Brandt’s Cormorants and a Western Gull that took exception to it’s own reflection in the cockpit window.
Surf Scoters were especially common within the docks at Belmont Shore. They gave great picture opportunities when they took to the air as the boat approached.Today was my highest ever Peregrine Falcon count. The first was seen flying straight at me from my hotel window. The second, from the boat and the third was circling the top of the Wells Fargo building at the corner of Pine Street. With such close proximity, the chances are that it was the same bird or part of a pair, but each was separated by enough time, distance and direction to count separately.

Species seen; 20

Horned Grebe 1, Eared Grebe 8, Western Grebe 15, Brown Pelican 8, Double-crested Cormorant 25, Brandt’s Cormorant 2, Snowy Egret 1, Mallard 2, Surf Scoter 600, Peregrine Falcon 3, American Coot 15, Black Oystercatcher 2, Marbled Godwit 2, Willet 8, Common Sandpiper 2, Heerman’s Gull 4, Ring-billed Gull 6, Californian Gull 14, Western Gull 40, Yellow-rumped Warbler 15.