West Coast Expedition Day 2 – Off to California, Part One

Have you ever seen the sunrise over the Rockies?  If you haven’t,you are missing out on a lot.

I awoke at 5:30 at the mountain house on May 20th, easily early enough to be able to catch some great views of the sunrise over the mountains.  Our friend’s mountain house sits up high on a hill with no trees growing high enough to spoil the view of the mountains.  So basically, when standing on the front deck, you can see for miles, and within those miles, you have ridges, conifer-covered mountains, and snow-capped mountains.  It was beautiful.

Since I was not yet birding, I could really take time to absorb the lurid beauty of my surroundings.  As I stood there and watched and waited for something to happen, the mountains turned a deep pink color, like that of cotton candy that one would get at a baseball game.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera with me right away, so I was unable to get a photograph of this exquisite natural phenomenon until after the color died down a bit later on.

After all that excitement, I got dressed, ate breakfast, and was ready to depart, not yet for southern California , but to do some more Colorado birding.  Before departing to a birding location near the airport, I wanted to bird Pine once more.

Once again, I emerged from the warmth of the house and was greeted by the same crisp wintry air as the day before.  As I started off with both adults, all you could hear was the crunch of the brittle snow beneath our feet.  Then, as we followed the dirt road around Pine, you could hear the bird activity picking up.

We started to see branches shaking and hear birds calling; the overall atmosphere reverberating with birds.  We had Black-Chinned Hummingbirds zipping by, Mountain Chickadees flitting in the tops of pine trees, and a Chocolate Lab bounding towards us… uh oh!

One of my only fears are dogs bigger than me, especially fast ones.  This thing was sprinting towards us at full speed, and not slowing down, so our friend simply stepped towards the dog, and started talking to it in a soft, steady voice.  Sure enough, the dog was a teddy bear!  Anyway, I was wondering if this sort of talk would work on birds, if, say, you have a great closeup look at one, and you don’t want it to be spooked and fly.  If you talk to it like that, maybe it would stay.

We rounded a bend in the road, and came to the house of the “Creeper”.  There was even more activity at his stations than the day before.  This time, we got excellent views (did I mention that there was hardly a cloud in the sky?) of Mountain Chickadees, a Black-Capped Chickadee, and a couple of Evening Grosbeaks.  With those kinds of temptations, I couldn’t resist inching my way onto his property once again.

There was only a subtle difference between the dirt road and my location on the man’s property when Mr. Creeper came out his door once again.  I immediately hopped back onto the road.  Angry and hateful as ever, he stepped onto his snow, and, not approaching us any further, started to converse with us.

This is the actual conversation held between us and Creeper.  I recorded it on my phone.

Family friend: Hello!

Creeper: Why is that kid on my property with binoculars?!

Friend:  Well, this kid is a young birdwatcher!

Creeper: I don’t care if he is watching birds or not, it is illegal to trespass on someone else’s property.

Friend: Sir, he just saw some interesting birds at your –

Creeper: I tracked his footsteps all over my property yesterday *hence the name Creeper* (that was a lie. I ventured maybe ten feet max in two places on his property)

Friend: Well, we are sorry, and won’t bother you again.  Have a nice day.  Bye

Creeper:  Bye

So, you can see I had a pretty interesting experience today, and, to top it all off, an instant after the Creeper went back inside, a beautiful male Steller’s Jay came to a nearby ground feeder!  Lifer!

Clingin' to a tree

A poor picture of a Steller's Jay

PART 2: West Coast Expedition, Day One: From 200 feet above sea level to 8,500 feet above sea level

A funny thing happens up in the mountains of Pine, Colorado during blizzards.  The visibility increases for what seems to be just a moment, but then the snow slowly creeps back over the world, reducing your sight to what seems to be just the tip of your middle finger on an open hand with your arm stretched out at its farthest reaches.

Fortunately, after about four hours of being inside, the haze and snow showers lifted for an hour to allow some great, beautiful mountaintop birding!

As I stepped out of the warmth of the cabin-like house, I was hit with a shocking blast of 30-degree-Fahrenheit air.  I was allowed to go within sight of the house, and I obeyed those boundaries (give or take ten or fifteen yards, for birding purposes 🙂 ).  To get an idea about how far I could go, I walked out until I could no longer see the house, and then birded my way back.

Although I heard calls in the distance, the surrounding woods were silent.  I moved swiftly to the nearest grouping of calls.  At this point, I got to really take in all of the beautiful snow-covered evergreens, undulating in the gentle breeze.  I was able to really listen to the subtle crunch of the wet snow underfoot.  Just the overall serenity of everything here – no sound of bulldozers, no sound of planes, only the curious sound the snow makes as it falls off of trees.  Then, finally, I came upon the source of the calls.

To my surprise, there was a house that had a feeding station consisting of a couple of full feeders.  The house had a REAL cabin design (like the type of wooden cabin that one may see at a campground), and was small compared to the others in the area.  One story and made of wood, it looked like it had seen many years and many harsh winters up there in the mountains.  It was certainly singular.  The question was, would a singular person be living there?

Now, viewing the feeding station that undoubtedly had lifers on it from twenty yards away (yards meaning three feet, not yards meaning people’s properties) isn’t exciting, so I decided to get a closer look.

Sprinting to the nearest tree for cover from any watching eyes, I went onto the guy’s property.  This brings up a perplexing argument.

Do birders have the right to trespass onto somebody’s property just because they have cool birds?  I say no.  BUT, I don’t think that, on the first offense, they should be reported to the police.  I could see if I was a homeowner, and I saw a thirty-year-old guy with binoculars and a camera on my property, I may be upset (I really wouldn’t be though, because I would understand that he probably isn’t a Peeping Tom).  The thing is, if a birder trespasses, they never mean any harm – never.  That is why I unhesitatingly trespassed.  From my point of view, I wasn’t doing any harm.  I wasn’t getting uncomfortably close to the house, nor was I angled so I was pointing my binoculars at the house.  From my perspective, what I was doing was fine.

I got incredible looks at the birds on the feeders.  I saw the usual Pygmy Nuthatches (my fourth and final Nuthatch species of North America) and a huge flock of Chickadees.  I wrote them off as just “Chickadee species”, but then I quit thinking that I was still in PA, and realized that there were only Black-Capped and Mountain Chickadees here, no Carolina, and these both have their own unique characteristics.

It was obvious that the Chickadees that I was seeing were not Black-Capped Chickadees.  They had two distinct superciliary lines on either side of their head, dorsal to two, very prominent white lateral crown stripes.  Then, below those, there was a black median crown stripe.  The Black-Capped, on the other hand, has a completely black head, and none of that fancy stuff!  So, I concluded that they were Mountain Chickadees – another lifer!

So, with a lifer already, I thought I should do some more exploring of this guy’s property.

Not traipsing too far onto the property looking for birds was a challenge – the guy’s feeders attracted so many birds!  From afar, I did manage to pick up the steady, monotonous drumming of a Woodpecker.  I closed in on the bird’s position, and discovered that the bird looked more like a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker.  This bird had a red cap with a bit of red caudal, a red throat, a yellowish chest and stomach speckled with black, and a black back with a white barred “U” shape extending to either side of the median.  It was drilling on a type of conifer.  Knowing that the Yellow-Bellied range doesn’t extend that far west, I crossed off that possibility, but still kept it in mind because it looked so similar.

Next in the Sapsucker possibility lineup was the Williamson’s Sapsucker.  The adult Williamson’s were a definite NO, as the male has no red on it’s head (other than a bit on it’s throat) and a bold yellow stomach.  The female Williamson’s looks more like a Red-Bellied Woodpecker, in my opinion, because of the heavy barring of the back.

Our third contestant, the Red-Bellied Sapsucker, was also a definite no.  If not because of it’s range of the immediate west coastline, only extending as far east (in the United States) as central Utah, then because of the male’s striking red-rose head, extending caudally to it’s breast.  The female looks very similar to the male.

Our final species possibility was the Red-Naped Sapsucker.  This bird is probably the best match to the bird I saw.  The range fits, the habitat fits, and the description fits.  So, I decided that it was the Red-Naped Sapsucker, my second lifer of the day.

After all that, the owner of the property stepped out onto his lawn – or should I say snow -, crossed his arms, and stood there giving me the evil eye.  Not wanting to have to deal with this creeper, especially because he wasn’t brown (I love employing bird puns, especially bad ones 🙂 ), I fled the scene.

When I arrived back at the house, my mom and our friend were just departing to do some birding along with me.  But, as they were descending the outdoor stairs from the elevated deck, I noticed a little zip around the Hummingbird feeder placed strategically by our friend so she could see the feeding hummers from indoors.  Upon putting my binos up to it, I confirmed it as a Black-Chinned Hummingbird.

Being one of two Hummingbird species in our area of Colorado, the bird was very easy to narrow down.  The two choices were the Broad-Tailed or Black-Chinned hummer.  Immediately I noticed that this bird had a black/purple gorget, a distinct characteristic of the Black-Chinned Hummingbird.  To back up this identification even further, the Broad-Tailed has a red/pink gorget and a bright green back.

I then went inside of the house and grabbed my camera, feeling stupid that I did not have it with me previously.  Upon returning outside, there was a clamor so great that I had no choice but to investigate.

I quickly found the source of the incredibly loud and vexing noise in my binoculars, and identified the large yellow birds as Evening Grosbeaks.

Evening Grosbeaks are typically seen in this area only in winter.  They are a larger bird that usually travels in flocks.  The males are mostly yellow, with a brownish head, black and white wings, and a black tail.  The females are duller with more white on the wings and tail.  They are also a member of the Finch family.

I noticed these birds in a flock of about eight or so individuals, which provided some cool and continual looks at this lifer.  This was certainly one of the most exquisite birds that I saw on this trip.

With that, we departed to go back out birding, literally retracing my footsteps.

Soon we arrived back at the neighbor’s feeding station, and the creepy guy was no longer there.  Because of that, I didn’t mention anything to either adult.  But, soon enough, after I had shown the two all of the birds on the property, the man came out again, with that same disgusted countenance.  Quickly, I jumped off of the guy’s property (there was a little drop-off until you came to the dirt road), and backed up until I no longer felt penetrated by his unblinking gaze.

Our friend, however, said that this man was quite friendly, and that she had known him since her mountain house was constructed.  Having already seen all of the birds this feeding station had to offer, and seeing that I didn’t want to have anything to do with the man anymore, my mom and our friend willingly left to go back to the house.

Now, with the lifer total capitalizing to a whopping 6, I decided to end the day of birding, excited for all that was in store for tomorrow.

*As for the pictures that would normally be here, well, I wasn’t able to get any good ones, unfortunately, but I certainly did for Day 2, so stay tuned!

West Coast Expedition: Day One From 200 feet above sea level to 8,500 feet above sea level, Part One

Before I start this post, I want to make it clear that I have failed to write about a number of previous trips, and I will be posting them at a later time.

So, May 19, 2011, I have begun my eight day odyssey into beautiful southern California.  First, though, we will be stopping over in Denver, Colorado.  We have a family friend there, and she would like to do some birding, so to start the journey, I’m going to have a little CO birding!

Approx. 9:30 am

We have landed!!  Immediately, I am looking outside the plane and I am noticing some hawks.  Unfortunately, I can’t identify them.

Now, we are meeting the family friend at the baggage claim, and we are about to walk out to the parking lot.  In the parking lot, I am seeing House Sparrow (darn), Rock Pigeon (grrr…), European Starling (argh), and a Western Kingbird (woo-hoo!!!)  The Kingbird isn’t a lifer (I saw one at Bombay Hook NWR last year), but still a cool western bird.

Approx. 11:00 am

Now, we are driving up to our friend’s mountain house.  She is stopping at a few good parks along the scenic route, although the weather is overcast and drizzly.  Our first stop was Lair O’ the Bear Park.

Lair O’ the Bear has proved very productive.

As we entered the main trail, off in the nearby grassland area, I saw a brushy area.  There was a high amount of flitting inside of it, and, as I took a closer look, there was a Flycatcher species (so far unidentified, but most likely a lifer), multiple “Audubon’s” Yellow-Rumped Warbler (a western subspecies of the Yellow-Rumped Warbler), a Yellow Warbler, and Chipping Sparrow.

Then, we headed right where the trail branched in two, and along that found a Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher and Song Sparrow.  This trail curved along a stream, and, my guess is that in nice weather, it would have attracted a good number of birds.  The trail led us through a meandering woodland habitat, eventually leading to another spot where it branched in two.

At this point, we were in a field setting, and you could really feel the wind.  The breeze brought along pelting bullets of a wintry mix (not rain and not snow, but in between), which didn’t make the excursion very enjoyable.

At the branch, we made a left, which took us through yet another wooded setting.  Here, there was an odd noise to be heard.  It was a very stately “chip”-like call, which was replied by the same call off in the distance.  As we approached the call, I noticed the bird.  It was a Flycatcher.  It was frequently bobbing its tail (by frequently I mean about twice a second, no exaggerations), and was moving about quite a bit.  It had olive upperparts with cream-color washed underparts (to my best recollection).  It is still unidentified, but it seems to closely resemble a Hammond’s Flycatcher.  If this is true, it would be the second lifer for the trip.

We continued up a bit, still in the unrelenting, poor weather.  Then, as if out of nowhere, there was a cricket-like buzzing noise.  Perched up on a branch above us was a female Hummingbird of some sort.  In my days, I have only seen one kind of Hummingbird, the Ruby-Throated.  In turn, this had to be a lifer.  The only Hummingbirds readily seen in this part of Colorado are the Black-Chinned Hummingbird and Broad-Tailed Hummingbird.  Since I only got a quick glimpse at the bird, and no photograph, I will have to leave it unidentified.

After the Hummingbird sighting, the weather started to get more intense, so we decided to head back to the car and drive on.  There was one last stop that our friend wanted to show me, regardless of the weather.  The next stop is to be O’Fallon Park.

The park was about a half an hour away from Lair O’ the Bear, and we were about to find out that it was worth the drive – and putting up with the poor weather!

The main section of O’Fallon was less coniferous forests and more grass, but as you got deeper, it converged back into the usual pine groves.  The park borders a small stream that, as with the stream at Lair O’ the Bear, would have attracted a good amount of birds on a nicer day.

As we pulled into the park, I noticed some more Audubon’s Warblers, as well as an American Crow, and a couple of Mallards and Geese.  Then, I spotted a blue bird.  Thinking that I was still in the east, I immediately thought that the bird was an Eastern Bluebird, and then quickly changed my frame of mind to western birds, and reevaluated the species as a Western Bluebird.  Sure enough, as I examined the bird more closely, it was a Western Bluebird.

Western and Eastern Bluebirds are not hard at all to tell apart.  If the range of the two doesn’t already tell you, there is one other identification tip that almost never fails.  The male Eastern Bluebird has a solid blue back.  This is not the case with the Western species.  Male Western Bluebirds have a chestnut patch below their nape, their most obvious field mark.

As we continued down the path, still in awful weather, there was a flock of finches.  A yellowish bird that stood out appeared to be a Goldfinch.  No closer inspection could be made, as the bird flew away at the first sign of us approaching.  I did catch a very quick glimpse, and in that time I saw that it looked like a Lesser Goldfinch.  With no proof that it wasn’t just an American, I decided not to count it as a lifer.

The males of both species are very easy to tell apart (not cutting myself any breaks, but in poor weather, and a second’s look, they aren’t).  Lessers have black only on their cap, wings, and tail.  Their backs are an olive-green color, and their breasts and stomachs are yellow.  The Americans, on the other hand, have black on their cap, wings, and tail, and yellow everywhere else.

After that, we continued in the freezing (no pun intended) weather.  All that were in front of us were Chipping Sparrows and American Robins.  At that point, the weather started to become very intolerable.  We decided to head back to the car and grab some lunch.

As we briskly walked to the car, I saw a small, gray bird that seemed like a sort of sparrow.  Upon closer inspection, the bird was a “Gray-Headed” Dark-Eyed Junco.  This is a Rocky Mountain region subspecies of the Dark-Eyed Junco.  As you can see in my (poor) photograph, it has an overall gray body, but black around its eye, and a chestnut patch below its nape. All of the Junco shots in previous posts have been “Slate-Colored” Dark-Eyed Junco, common to northern United States.

With the end of that last sighting, we headed back to the car to go get some lunch.  As we passed the creek at the entrance, I saw a Nuthatch.  There are only three types of Nuthatches to be found in Colorado – Red-Breasted, White-Breasted, and Pygmy.  I knew that it wasn’t the former two, so it had to be a Pygmy.

Out of the two, Pygmy Nuthatches resemble White-Breasted Nuthatches the most, although they still have very distinct differences.  There is not a single ounce of red on them, so there is no resemblance whatsoever with Red-Breasted Nuthatches.

Male White-Breasted Nuthatches are full of a multitude of vivid colors.  They have midnight black on their cap and nape leading down to around their shoulders, much of their wings, most obvious on their primaries, and on parts of their tail.  They have a light blue-gray color on their back (transitioning with the black on shoulders), mixed in with the black on their wings, and mixed in with the black on their tail.  Almost everywhere else on their body is white, with the exception of a very light rust color on their ventrals.

Male Pygmy Nuthatches have white on their throats and cheeks, leading all the way down to their stomach, where it changes into more of a gray color.  The rest of their body is a deep gray color, with the exception of some obvious black (and some white) on their primaries.

With that, there were no more new birds to be seen, and I swore I was getting some frostbite!

Finally, we got out of the park and on our way to lunch.  With two confirmed lifers so far today, I figure that I am doing well so far, but my birding day is now over because of the intense blizzard conditions, which would undoubtedly get worse as our altitude increased…

Personally, I think this subspecies of Junco is much more interesting than our "Slate-Colored" back at home

Although birded in poor weather, this small park high up in Colorado yielded a variety of birds new to me, being from Pennsylvania

This flycatcher was seen near Pine, Colorado on May 19th, 2011. It was frequently bobbing its tail (around two times a second, no exaggeration). Buffy-white front.

This flycatcher was seen near Pine, Colorado on May 19th, 2011. It was frequently bobbing its tail (around two times a second, no exaggeration). Buffy-white front.

At Lair O’ The Bear Park in Pine, Colorado

Much different from our "Myrtle" back home