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Merry Christmas Bird Counts!

'Tis the season... for Christmas Bird Counts! But... What exactly is the much-celebrated Christmas Bird Count, and why does it matter?   Why spend a frigid winter day (or several days!) outdoors, peering through binoculars and spotting scopes while trying desperately to stay warm enough to retain the use of your extremities?   I'm glad you asked! A Christmas-y looking Western Bluebird on the La Grange/Waterford Christmas Bird Count The history of the Christmas Bird Count dates back to 1900, a time when it was more common to hunt birds rather than count them.  In the 19th and early 20th centuries, competitive "side hunts" took place on Christmas as teams of men armed with guns headed into the field to shoot as many birds as possible.  The side with the biggest pile of feathers at the end of the day won.  (Barbaric, no?) On Christmas Day in 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman of New York began a new tradition, one in which teams armed with binoculars rather than guns took

Sparrows, Sparrows Everywhere!

2021 has been the year of the sparrow for me, with several rarities turning up near home, a successful Harris's Sparrow chase , and the discovery of a couple breeding pairs of Grasshopper Sparrows (a Species of Special Concern in California) on one of my local birding patches.   Boring and brown and altogether uninteresting to nonbirders, I find sparrows, in all their vast array and subtle markings, just beautiful!  And most of them sing lovely songs as well!   Sparrows belong to the family Passerellidae, which also includes juncos and towhees.  Fifteen species of sparrows are relatively common in California's Great Central Valley and surrounding foothills, with various species likely to be encountered in different habitats and at different times of the year.   But I can promise you that on any birding outing, you will meet at least a few sparrows!   Now, it's time to meet them all - albeit briefly - in one place.   Like meeting the fiancĂ©'s entire extended family at

One Single, Solitary Birthday Gift

What better gift than an encounter with a new bird?   Earlier this fall, I spent my birthday exploring the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge complex, which includes nearby Merced National Wildlife Refuge, a popular spot for birders and wildlife photographers nestled in a highly agricultural region of California's Great Central Valley.  The protected wetland habitat hosts tens of thousands of overwintering Sandhill Cranes, Tundra Swans, geese of several species (most prominent are flurries of Snow Geese) and literally millions of ducks and shorebirds.   But on this particular day, one small bird stood out from the crowd: a single, Solitary Sandpiper, foraging quietly along the edge of the wetland. Solitary Sandpipers ( Tringa solitaria ) are the smallest members of the genus that includes Willets and yellowlegs.  Rare in our area, these medium-distance migrants turn up occasionally during fall migration, on their way from arctic breeding grounds to overwintering grounds in Central a

Trying My Hand (Well, Eyes) At Seabirding

You thought flitty warblers were challenging.  You thought little brown sparrows were challenging.  You thought sandpipers and gulls were challenging.  And then you tried seabirding and realized... you haven't really been challenged at all yet!! Or was that just me? Last November, I spent a few days peering through the spotting scope over Monterey Bay from famed seawatch spot, Point Pinos .  And I was hooked.  There, behind a large objective lens, I met shearwaters and fulmars for the first time, magnified somewhere between 20 and 60 times.  There is something inexplicably mesmerizing about gazing (for hours) out over the ocean, waiting and watching to see what turns up! This year, I returned to the same spot to continue my education, and attempted to make the acquaintance of a few more members of that most elusive and mysterious group of birds known collectively as "seabirds." Seabirding last year, in November 2020... while holding a cup of tea, apparently (?).  Don&

Autumn On The Grasslands

Sunrise on the grasslands is a beautiful thing, particularly in autumn when the entire landscape, from horizon to horizon, seems made of gold.  On hazy, cloudless mornings, for just a few fleeting dawn moments, the sky and earth blend together, awash in pure amber light as if the clear dome of sky is an overturned cup, pouring its golden contents out onto the tawny horizon.  The effect is dazzling, leaving onlookers, tiny specks of humanity, breathless, swimming in a veritable sea of gold.  But my favorite mornings are those when great masses of rolling clouds await the dawn, filtering the clear light of sunrise into a thousand shades, from the lightest, brightest white and gold at its heart, to rose, salmon and coral, its fiery glow suffusing the dusky purple half-light with warmth and brilliance. Photos (at least, my photos) don't do it justice. Anyway, enough about the sunrise.  On to the birds! While autumn is not exactly the "best" time of year out on California'

The Mountains are Calling: Crater Lake

This is it!  We have finally reached the last stop on our summer road trip through the Pacific Northwest: Crater Lake National Park.   Way back in June, Eric and I spent a couple of [largely rainy] weeks exploring the Pacific Northwest's forests, mountains, beaches, birds and historic sites.  As summer is rapidly fading away, I clearly need to get it together and finish this series of posts!   We reached Crater Lake National Park after a long and rather soggy sojourn through Olympic, North Cascades and Mount Rainier National Parks.  After being rained on for at least part of the day for something like eleven or twelve days in a row (which, by the way, is unheard of for us Californians), we were eagerly anticipating the sunny, unseasonably warm weather in the forecast for the coming few days at Crater Lake.  While we had grand dreams of being able to sit around the campfire of an evening, rather than huddling in our tent listening to rain drops, what we did not have was... a campsi