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Shorebirds of the Rocky Pacific Coast

Fall is an excellent time to head to California's central coast.  While it is the ideal season to set out on a pelagic birding trip across famed Monterey Bay, simply scoping for seabirds from the rocky headlands of Point Pinos can be productive as well.  If seabirds are out of range, turn your attention to the rocks: a host of shorebirds partial to the rocky coast are sure to delight.  
While Long-billed Curlews, Marbled Godwits, Willets, Whimbrels, Sanderlings and several species of plover are almost certainly to be found probing sandy beaches and wading in quiet shallows, the five birds presented here are more likely to be found scuttling over barnacle-encrusted rocks just out of reach of the pounding surf.

The Black Oystercatcher (Heamatopus bachmani) is a noisy bird, often alerting birders and beach-goers alike to its presence by its shrill call.  Black Oystercatchers are found year-round exclusively along the rocky West Coast of North America, where they forage for shellfish an…

Unraveling the Mysteries of Migration

Fall migration is upon us, that delightful time of year when long-absent birds return, while other familiar feathered friends depart.  Unlike spring migration, fall migration is a rather drawn-out affair in California.  Some shorebirds begin returning from their northerly breeding grounds as early as mid-summer, while some waterfowl delay their trip south until much later in the fall or even mid-winter.  Even so, September is the month that fall migration really begins.

But what, exactly, is migration?  Avian migration may be defined as the regular, seasonal, predictable movement of birds, which occurs annually as entire populations travel from their summer breeding habitat to wintering habitat, generally in the pursuit of warmer weather, longer daylight hours, and most importantly, food.

Seventy-five percent of North America's breeding birds exhibit a form of migratory behavior, moving to some extent between summer breeding habitat and overwintering habitat.  Many follow the trad…

A Word About Wildfires, Wildlife & The Ways Of The World

In California's Great Central Valley, wildfires are not generally an imminent threat, surrounded as we are by acres and acres of irrigated farmland.  But that is not the case over much of California's grasslands, woodlands, forests, and chaparral ecosystems, all of which have evolved and adapted over the millennia to thrive with regular renewal by fire.

Fire is an essential part of what makes California so very uniquely California.

I, however, dislike wildfires.  My gut reaction in the face of what we perceive as "devastating" wildfires is one of grief: grief over the loss of life and the good green things of this world.  Much as I prefer to skip Tolkien's penultimate chapter in The Return of the King, titled "The Scouring of the Shire," I would rather not dwell too much on wildfires and their ravaging forces.  (Aside: I totally get why Peter Jackson left out the scouring of the Shire when he made his trilogy of films!  But we can talk about that anothe…

Ode to Jetty Road

It's an unlikely spot, I'll give you that much.  It often smells of low tide, the restroom situation is iffy, and broken glass sparkling on the sandy roadside shoulder is evidence that car break-ins can and do occur.  The two towers of the Moss Landing Power Plant rise across the harbor where fishing boats lay at anchor in the quiet waters, protected by rock jetties bespangled with bird droppings.

A romantic seaside destination it is not.

And yet, this place holds a profound romance, an appeal, an irresistible draw all of its own.

At least, it does for me.

Situated directly off of California's scenic Highway 1 just north of the mouth of Elkhorn Slough and the tiny fishing village of Moss Landing, Jetty Road is among the top birding destinations along the central coast.
The entire Monterey Bay area is one of our state's finest jewels, and little Moss Landing Harbor is one of its most dazzling, if humble, facets.   From the turn off of Highway 1, Jetty Road runs for thre…

Wandering Tattler: What's In A Name?

Bird names are funny things and, right now, the topic of heated debate.  (Who would have thought.)

Most people, I hope, learn a few common names of birds from a young age, and are familiar with the general groups known as the sparrows, woodpeckers, owls, hawks, hummingbirds and the like.  Hopefully most people are also aware that flycatchers, nuthatches, titmice, warblers, wrens and thrushes are birds as well, but perhaps not.

Some common names are wonderfully simple and descriptive: Bluebirds are endearing little blue songbirds, which come in the Western, Eastern and Mountain variety, for example.  And there are plenty of blackbirds, like Red-winged and Yellow-headed, which are not to be confused with other black birds, like grackles and crows.  Often, species' scientific binomials are equally descriptive... for those who know Latin!  The brilliant red Vermilion Flycatcher, for example, is known as Pyrocephalus rubinus, which translates descriptively to "fire-head red."

Rufous Hummingbirds: Ginger Sprites of the Forest

Maybe I just have a thing for redheads.  I am married to one, after all!  That would explain the great affection and admiration I feel toward the Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus), the little ginger sprite of the Pacific Northwest.

Rufous Hummingbirds pass through California's San Joaquin Valley twice each year, on their spring and fall migrations to and from their breeding grounds in the Pacific Northwest.  Their northward spring migration takes place during March, April and early May, while their southward fall migration begins as early as late July, and lasts through August and September.
Chasing the wave of blooms, Rufous Hummingbirds show a strong affinity for mountain meadows.   Observers have noticed a clockwise pattern to the annual migration of the Rufous Hummingbird: the majority of northbound migrants travel through California, but return south later in the summer along the Rocky Mountain chain.  This isn't a hard and fast rule, of course, and here in central C…

Birding the Eastern Sierra

Eric and I recently returned from a week-long camping trip in California's eastern Sierra Nevada, where we hiked, paddled, and birded around Mono Lake, Mammoth Lakes, and the White Mountains.  The following is a recap of some of my favorite bird encounters from the trip.

Our first stop was at the popular fishing resort of Virginia Lakes, nestled below Dunderberg Peak just north of Mono Lake and west of Highway 395.  While the resort (which consists of a small store, a few cabins, and a campground) caters to anglers, it also maintains a few bird feeders outside the general store, next to the parking lot.  This arrangement is delightfully convenient and draws one particular bird that many birders come especially to see: the Gray-crowned Rosy-finch.  Gray-crowned Rosy-finches are birds of high elevations, making their living far above the range of the average biped, on alpine fell fields and snow fields above timberline in the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains.  Generally only during…