West Coast Expedition Day 3: Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park = Dozens of lifers, Part 1

On May 21, after the long day birding the previous day, I was up and ready to go.  This morning, we planned to go to Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park, in Foothill Ranch, CA.  I didn’t know what was in stock yet for today, but nevertheless, I was incredibly excited.

We came to the park at about 9:30 a.m, and immediately upon stepping out of the car, the birding began.

My father said that his employer’s building has bird feeders to which the birds flock.  He said that when we drove up to them, we would be sure to get an Acorn Woodpecker, a species that he has seen there many times before, and a potential lifer for me.

After wandering aimlessly among a group of House Finches and California Towhees for 10 minutes, there were no signs of any lifers.  I decided to do a final scan of the scraggly bush in front of me.  The weather at that point was overcast, making it difficult to see any beneficial fieldmarks, other than their silhouette.  So, as I was scanning, when I picked up a silhouette of a large Woodpecker, I wasn’t ecstatic.

It wasn’t until the Woodpecker flew to the feeders that I could identify it, and then, with that, my target bird appeared out of thin air!  The Acorn Woodpecker.  Then there came another, and another.  Three of the same target bird at the same time. ** Details of the Acorn Woodpecker will be described in the next post.

Then, I continued my scanning, and, also continuing were my lifers!

In some scrub next to the Acorn Woodpecker snag, there was a mixed flock of birds.  The one that stood out was a black Cardinal with a bloodshot eye (maybe its nictitating membrane was dysfunctional).  This was an incredible bird, in my opinion.  I had never seen anything like it!  My first Silky-Flycatcher, the Phainopepla.  More on the Phainopepla will be mentioned in a later post as well.

The others were some House Finches (in their native range), and then one more, different-looking bird.

This mystery bird was a light brown color all over, it had a crest, and was relatively small, about House Finch size.  A Titmouse.  I was thinking in the past, so initially called this bird a Plain Titmouse (stupid of me), but then I remembered the only Titmouse that could be seen in that area was an Oak Titmouse.

The Plain Titmouse was split into two species, the Oak and Juniper Titmouse by the American Ornithologist’s Union (AOU) in 1996, due to many distinct differences in the two species.  The OATI that I saw has a range that is restricted to the coast and center of California, and northernmost Baja California.

The Juniper Titmouse, on the other hand, has a range that reaches, according to Cornell’s All About Birds, mainly the Great Basin area. The two species look almost identical, and, other than differences in range, are very difficult to tell apart.

After scanning for a mere 10 more minutes, we decided that there was no more bird life to be seen here, and so we drove to the main entrance of Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park.

The first bird that was to be seen at this side of the park was a Black Phoebe, what by then I dubbed “The Robins of Southern Cal” for the extreme ratio difference of Robins to Phoebes here compared to home (I probably saw about 75 individual Black Phoebes on the trip, while I only saw 1 possible Robin).  It was hawking prey from a snag branch of a Sycamore, the exact behavior that I witnessed the day before.  Along with hawking from the tree, it was using some lights as a lookout.  The droppings reflected how often the park is used for the feeding of Black Phoebes…

We walked towards the main trail by a grouping of billboards.  In a small tree to the right of the entrance, there was a large amount of activity.  Upon closer inspection, the birds were Bushtits, and then there was one puzzler.

The puzzler was of a drab tan/cream white color.  It had an off-white supercilium, and had the body of a vireo or warbler.  It was a Warbling Vireo.  A VERY familiar face from back home.  I thought that, although common in the area, it was a good find in a flock of Bushtits.

We made our way to the beginning of a sand trail.  With chaparral encroaching on the path, we had to walk single file into unknown habitats harboring unknown avian life.  The clouds were even clearing up.  Exciting.

The familiar face from home, a Warbling Vireo

Oh, scary. The funny thing is that we didn’t encounter a Mountain Lion the whole trip.

THIS is how you tell if the area is popular with the Black Phoebes

"The Robins of Southern Cal"

The silhouette of the Oak Titmouse

Not a great shot, but it gives you a good idea about how the California Towhee is colored.

Note the rust undertail coverts and vent of the California Towhee, similar to that of the Gray Catbird.


West Coast Expedition Day 2 Off to California, Part 4

So, I left off at the birds in the field.

Along with the Western Bluebird, there were two other birds on the soccer nets, both Phoebes.  Again, one was black and white, and the other was tan (with a yellowish tint to it’s stomach).

First, the black and white one.

The identification of this bird was very simple.  First, you start with the type of bird that you are dealing with.  Based on habits alone (hawking prey, and then flying back to hawking spot, bobbing tail), you could tell that this bird was a type of Flycatcher.  Then, you want to be able to think of any Flycatcher that you know of that is black and white.  There aren’t any that can be found in the United States that fit those colors and color patterns (white from the undertail coverts coming to a tip at the breast, and black everywhere else), other than the Black Phoebe.  Studied closer, the range fits, so you have your match.

Now, the second Phoebe.

Again, this bird was easy to identify.  Because of the habits (same as Black Phoebe) this bird can be placed in the Flycatcher family.  The tan and yellow color on this Flycatcher is a little bit harder to work with, because tan is a much more universal color among the Flycatcher world.  But, this bird was completely tan, with a bit of a yellowish tinge on its belly, a darker tan on it’s tail, and no prominent wing bars.  Because of the area that this bird was seen, along with the reasons listed above, I came to the conclusion that it was a Say’s Phoebe.

So, with an additional two lifers for Pinecrest Park, we moved into the wooded section of the trail.  For a distance, there was nothing besides the occasional Song Sparrow and a House Wren that made a nest in a bird house along the trail.  Then, a shot of orange caught my eye.  The bird that I saw was an unmistakable male Hooded Oriole.  Up in a tree, the Oriole was out on a limb, giving me a excellent but quick look at it.  With a black face, bib, wings, and tail, along with white wing bars, this bird has a stunning orange-yellow color everywhere else on it’s body (male only), making it appear that it is indeed hooded.

Then after it flew off, the activity in the woods really picked up.  There were Bushtits in the bushes along our sides, Black Phoebes on tall snags, some other unidentified Flycatcher species flitting around, and a Wren on the ground, as well as a Warbler in a tree.

The Warbler in the tree was very easy to identify.  Based on the overall yellow color with a bit of olive mixed in, and the midnight black cap, it was quickly identified as a Wilson’s Warbler.  I assure you that if you are ever to see one (or if you already have), you will know it right away from this simple description.  As far as standing out goes, it is sort of like Canada Geese… (almost as common, too)

And the Wren tricked me a bit.  I could have guessed Bewick’s, but, from spending 8 years birding on the east coast, I automatically turned to Carolina.  But, as you can take from the bird’s name, the Carolina Wren probably doesn’t show up in California 🙂  I think of the Bewick’s as the western Carolina, just think of it that way.

Just as we finished up those sightings, along with another one of those California Towhees, we walked a bit farther, and then came to the woods edge where there was a field.  Unfortunately, we had to leave, as we were going to my father’s business’ annual party.  But finally, right before we left, I was able to catch a Spotted Towhee, the second of three Towhee lifers in California.  To identify this bird, just think, if you are familiar with the Eastern Towhee (as I am), then picture it with spots on its back and wings, and you have the Spotted Towhee (or my better name for it, the Western Eastern Towhee)!

Upon leaving, I got more and more excited about the coming day, as it would be the first full day of birding in CA!

See the resemblance between the Bewick's Wren (shown here) and the Carolina Wren?

The second Phoebe at Pinecrest Park, Say's Phoebe. Note the yellow-tinged belly.

Very, very similar to the Eastern Towhee back home.

West Coast Expedition Day 2, Off to California : Part 3

I was very thankful that we were able to have such a kind friend up in Colorado who endorsed my love in birding.  Without her kindness, I would have had six less lifers!

All of the places that I have gone on this trip have been so different from one another.  On a larger scale, you have California compared to Colorado, and then those two compared to Pennsylvania.  Then, on a smaller scale, you have Evergreen Lakehouse compared to Anza – Borrego Desert State Park (to be described in a future blog post!)  So now, finally, I was just about to get a taste of California for the first time!

We arrived in California at about one o’ clock P.M, and then, by the time we got our things in the hotel and got situated (plus eating lunch), we got out birding at about three o’ clock.

Driving in the rental car from John Wayne International Airport to the hotel in Mission Viejo was probably one of the most memorable and exciting times of the trip.  It sounds weird, but I felt the same way in Colorado.  I think that it had a lot to do with feeling so anxious.  I saw Swifts, Hawks and Hummingbirds, and, each time I spotted one, the thought raced through my mind that I may be missing out on a lifer.  At that point, I just didn’t feel like looking at the birds (just kidding!)

Prior to leaving for California, I researched parks right around the hotel.  I didn’t really care about the details (amount of habitat, specifically, because many of the parks in the area seemed more urban), because I figured that at any park, no matter what the circumstances, I would get a good number of lifers.  The park I chose was Pinecrest Park.

Approximately 2 miles from our hotel, Pinecrest Park is located in Pinecrest, California.  Included is a playground, a soccer field, a trail around the soccer field, and a trail through some woods.

Descending a slope to the trail around the field, I noticed quite a commotion in the bushes to my left.  Of course, the birds were Bushtits.  Bushtits have taken the place of Chickadees in California (as CA does not have any), if you can imagine that.  For now, that is all I will say about Bushtits, as there are many other lifers to talk about in this post.

Along with the Bushtits, I noticed a lone California Towhee.  If you are in the area (coast of Southern California), then this bird is not only easy to locate, but very easy to identify.  An overall tannish-brown bird with a noticeably rusty vent (think Gray Catbird), and a subtly rusty face.  Since it is the only bird on the California coast that looks like this, I could easily identify it as Lifer #2!

Then, while still in the same area, I noticed a Hummingbird.  I then discovered that, because of the gorget pattern and color, that this was an Anna’s Hummingbird.  Now, this was the first time that I got to witness the extraordinary display put on by a Hummingbird, for the Ruby-throats back home do not put on nearly as thrilling a show.  What I saw was incredible.  The male and female Anna’s were sitting together on a branch, and then all of a sudden the male burst off of the perch and slowly rose nearly 100 feet in the air, and then came down like a bullet next to the female once more, but now hovering.  Then, this procedure was mimicked by the female.  Incredible.  But more on them later.

So, after three lifers, my luck was still not running out.  Directly below the performing Anna’s Hummingbirds were two stunningly yellow Lesser Goldfinches.  Not at all like our American Goldfinches back home (color pattern wise), the male Lessers have an olive color on their napes extending to their mantle, which is speckled with black.  Their wings are black and white, and their caps are a slate black.  Lastly, there is a prominent yellow extending from their chins down to their undertail coverts.  They would play around in their giddy manner much like the American Goldfinches would, so you could easily guess that this bird was a Goldfinch.

Next (and this post keeps dragging on and on…), we turned our attention to the field.  Flying across was a familiar sight.  A House Sparrow.  I have a hatred for them, but that is for an entirely new post.

Anyway, in the field were three distinctly different birds.  One was black and white, one was tan, and the other was blue-gray.  The blue-gray bird was a female Western Bluebird.  The male of this species was described in an earlier post, and as for the female, if you can picture a female Eastern Bluebird, you’ve got it, it looks so similar (although the blue on the female Easterns is a bit lighter than the Westerns).  The Western was behaving much like the Easterns back home – sitting atop a hawking perch, and then going down and snatching it’s prey.

Now, to give you a rest, I will tell you more about the black and white bird as well as the tan bird in the next post which will come very soon.

The female Western Bluebird (one from Colorado, actually. Didn't get a good picture here in Califonia).

A female Lesser Goldfinch. Slightly resembles the American Goldfinch, but still two distinct species.

The pesky murderous House Sparrow.