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Friday, December 30, 2011

Go East, Young Birders!

Between Christmas and New Years, the best birding in North Carolina can be had along our famous Outer Banks, those narrow strips of land that could scarcely be considered sandbars, and yet represent a major hub of tourism in our state. However, once all the tourists have left for the season, waterfowl flock to our shores in numbers only found in a few select sites around the country. As birders, it’s our job to count them.

The morning before the legendary Pea Island Christmas Bird Count, James and I headed out with local and international birder extraordinaire Norm Budnitz and his friend Patsy to try and cram another day of birding into our Outer Banks excursion. The weather, however, had other plans, and as we left the Triangle fat drops of rain already splattered across the windshield. Thankfully, as we cruised eastward, we began to outrun the storm system, and as we reached Greenville the rain had ceased altogether. In the overcast sky, we found the first sign that we were nearing our target – on the side of the road, a large pond abounded with a flock of enormous Tundra Swans, home now from their summering grounds in the high Arctic. We pulled over, and as James leaped out of the car to photograph them, the murmuring din of a hundred swans vocalizing at once spread through the air, and I knew I was back for another year of fantastic winter birding!

I only get to see these guys once a year, and I love it every time!

Once we viewed the swans to our hearts content, we decided to stop at a random agricultural center run by NC State. Normally it wouldn’t be anything special, but part of their research involves finding better fishery techniques, and the large pool of fish this research hinges on is frequented by scores of majestic Bald Eagles two score, in fact, as the numerous adult and immature eagles we saw totaled almost forty individuals! While the American Kestrels perching atop the nearby telephone wires were cool, and the Northern Harriers dancing low over the fields were awesome, nothing quite beats seeing Bald Eagles up close and personal, and this young bird put on quite a show in a small pine right next to the gravel road.

He's giving us the "evil eye" - or, would that be the "eagle eye"?

Alas, as we left the fishery, rain began to drizzle once again on our car’s windshield, quickly whipping itself into a downpour before we reached the highway. Nearing our hotel in Nags Head, we decided to visit Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, a wildlife drive that on good days can house bears and bobcats, not to mention Short-eared Owls and a whole host of rarities. But today, the pouring rain and the frequency of gigantic Dodge Rams full of hunters meant that a couple Song Sparrows and Yellow-rumped Warblers were all we could muster out of this legendary site.

The rain couldn’t stop our lust for birding, however, and soon enough we were driving down to the marina at Wanchese to look at gulls roosting atop the pylons and moorings. Once there, we spotted a whole flock of Red-breasted Mergansers just off the dock, and James dashed out of the car to photograph them before they could sidle away. I grabbed an umbrella to keep the rain off his camera, but the winds proved too much, and before long a gust had turned the umbrella inside-out. We reached the dock’s edge just as the mergansers began to swim too far out of range for photography given the conditions, when with a sudden quick splash a whole cadre of beautiful males jumped out from under the dock and paddled in the ocean waters just in front of us.

The Red-breasted Mergansers gave us fantastic looks all three days!

I’ve seen Red-breasted Mergansers many times before, but seeing them so close up was a real treat, especially when the males looked their breeding best. Having had our fill and a little too much rain, we retired to the car and our hotel room. As darkness neared, the clouds broke and a little twinkle of sunset shone upon the adjacent beaches. Tomorrow we’d have much better light, but with it came its own slew of birding highlights and disappointments.

Come back Monday, when our Outer Banks adventures continue with Part II - The Stop Short!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

'Twas the First Count of Christmas...

In all honesty, I’ve inherited pretty much the coolest spot on any Triangle-area CBC. For the last couple winters, I’ve been able to count the mudflats that form on the northern arms of Falls Lake in the latter half of the year, an area which probably hasn’t been covered fully in the past. But it’s my spot now, and I love it – not just for the unique winter birds, but also perhaps for the solitude I can find amongst the vast expanse of mud and grass.

As I’ve mentioned before, venturing out onto the flats themselves takes some effort – there’s a half-mile hike down railroad tracks before traversing a steep rock flow, but after taking the trip so many times, I’ve learned which rocks are loose and which are stable, which helps in, you know, not breaking my neck. The flats themselves are pretty devoid of birds, save for a few Savannah Sparrows that’ll pop out of the sedges in front of you, but if you find a flock of birds, man you’re in business! Pretty soon, I found the shorebirds that make this place special – a wintering flock of six dozen Least Sandpipers suddenly burst into view following a cadre of flushed Killdeer. It’s a species that’s extremely hard to find within the count circle, but given proper habitat, they will stick around during the colder months. 

However, that day James and I had a second quarry in mind. Traveling farther down the flats, I could hear a high-pitched double whistle, and before long we spooked them – a large flock of American Pipits flushed from in front of us, and instead of flying away from the large, annoying humans, they flew right towards us! Pretty soon James and I were consumed by birds zipping between us and low over our heads, swerving and dodging to avoid the two humanoid obstacles in their way. Several of the birds landed in a nearby tree, and as one of the birds made its way up a branch, bobbing its tail the whole time, I was struck by how odd it was to see them perched and so high off the ground.

Check out those ridiculously long hind claws! All the better for perching with, I suppose.

Having made our way to the end of the peninsula, I could see a large flock of gulls congregating about a half mile from us. Most of them were Ring-billed Gulls, but I could clearly see a couple large Herring Gulls mixed in. Like any good CBC counter, I had to get a closer look, so we headed back to make our way to the far mudflats. On the way, however, I found myself distracted by a reedy whistle. Immediately I recognized it as a Golden-crowned Kinglet, a bird that’s common enough around here, yet one I can never get a good look at. So, I decided to try a little playback, which will attract the ire of any nearby Ruby-crowned almost immediately yet never seems to work on their gilded brethren. A couple seconds later though, a small bird landed on the isolated tree in front of us, then a second, and a third. The Golden-crowned Kinglets had shown up in force, and I thoroughly enjoyed my amazing views of these tiny little birds with their unfathomably neon orange crests.

Golden-crowned - great Kinglet, or the greatest Kinglet?

Continuing along the railroad tracks, James and I came upon few species, chief among them being a couple Hooded Mergansers and a very special Fox Sparrow (more on that later). Upon reaching the far flats, however, we were greeted to the sight of a large flock of Northern Shoveler flushing from in front of us, with a few Bonaparte’s Gulls mixed in for a little flavor. The gulls gave their odd hollow screech as they kited on the strong winds towards the main gull flock. Setting myself up on a close peninsula, I made an effort to count and identify every gull there. Most were Ring-billeds as I’d surmised, and sure enough there were a couple Herrings mixed in. But one gull had a dusky head, and a darker mantle than these two species should show, plus size-wise it lay halfway between the more expected species. I’d found a Lesser Black-backed Gull, a bird that’s seen only a couple CBC's a decade around here, and probably our best bird of the day.

It's the gull in the middle. No, the other gull in the middle. No, the other gull in the middle!

That’s as far as the flats got however. Now having nothing but water between us and the interstate, we turned back only to find our flock of Northern Shovelers had nestled itself into the cove we’d just passed to get to the gulls. Most of the birds were females, but there were more than a few smart-looking drakes to be had, their golden eyes showing bright against their dark green head. Obviously, it would have been nicer to get closer to these birds, but it’s hard to stay mad at a flock that flushes because it’s shot at every day of the week except Sunday. If hunters had seen the shovelers as we had, they would have had point-blank shots at the birds peacefully foraging along the shallow shoreline. Instead, we merely enjoyed.

Every day I'm shovelin'...

The gull and ducks could have been the high point of the count for us, but not so. I decided to scope one final arm of the lake before heading home, and as James tried to photograph some cormorants, I heard a distinct “Woah!” emanate from his direction. Assuming it was a cool bird, I turned towards him, only to hear something crashing through the underbrush, panting and snarling the whole way. I prepared to give some hunter a piece of my mind, telling him he can’t be hunting on Sundays, and he should probably train his dog better than to jump on people. But then the thing hurtled in my direction, almost running headlong into me, before swerving at the last moment and leaping with surprising ease over a tall log. Mid-jump, I could see the rufous tinges to a silver body, and immediately I knew I’d just been less than two feet from a magnificent Gray Fox. It's the first Gray Fox I’ve ever seen in the Triangle, and unless something seriously changes the psyche of foxes, it’s the closest I’ll ever get to one. At the end of a long day of Christmas Bird Counting, the birds proved more than memorable – but perhaps somewhat ironically, the Gray Fox will always be that thing I remember best.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

#47: Gadwall - San Diego River, CA

There we were, James and I, on the side of a road looking down a concrete barrier into the San Diego River below us. Had this been North Carolina, perhaps we could have expected a couple Mallards, maybe a few Canada Geese or so. Instead, even in the middle of August, the river abounded with ducks, coots, and grebes, birds that seem to prefer the East Coast only in the dead of winter. But this was California, baby!

Of all the ducks we saw in California, I found Gadwall to be the most common. On our side trip up to Big Bear Lake, several family units of Gadwall would frequent the small wooden dock next to our rental. Young American Coots kept their distance as they to forage for insects on the water’s surface, while young Pied-billed Grebes learned to dive away from humans for the first time, but the baby Gadwalls were learning to dabble from their mother while just feet away from us watching birders.

Sure, he could have a nicer plumage, but seeing a Gadwall when it's not freezing out is a HUGE plus!

This particular Gadwall is a male, and as it was the middle of summer his plumage hadn’t attained the subtle brilliance of grays and blacks that it would in a few months time. His all-black bill remained the only clue to his gender, and while the rest of his family rested across the San Diego River from us, this male seemed to want to show himself off to us, boldly parading along the close bank despite his drabness. To this day, it’s the closest I’ve ever been to a Gadwall, but I won’t rest until I find that one drake willing to parade around in his breeding best.

Sunday, December 18, 2011


James and I had a fine time birding the Ellerbe Creek mudflats for the Durham Christmas Bird Count: lots of ducks, a few lingering shorebirds, and a Gray Fox that almost ran headlong into me. But that’s all a story for another time. This story is about the bird of the hour. James and I were headed to Hickory Hills Boat Ramp to see what we could see, when we got a text from Brian Bockhahn, a ranger for Falls Lake: “GWFG in that farm pond that had the Snow Goose last year.”

Last year’s Snow Goose was my first real CBC find – for as common as it is on the coast, it’s incredibly rare inland. Scott first saw it flying over in a large group of Canada Geese, but I only saw a small goose flying over. So, after birding the flats and finding some first-of-the-count Dunlins, we headed out to check some of the ponds in the area to try and confirm our sighting, and after cruising around a while we found a large group of geese loafing around, including that nice blue-morph Snow Goose. Which means that when we got Brian’s text, we knew exactly where to go – the farm pond that has now held two lifer geese for me on each of the last two Durham CBCs.

Pulling off the side of the road, the Canada Geese were loafing around just like last year, some in the water, some roosting on the grassy hillside. Among the roosting geese sat a smaller one, its orange legs showing brightly while its more subtle browns and blacks lay cast in shadow. There’s no mistaking the bird – a beautiful Greater White-fronted Goose, a bird I’ve wanted to see for a long time, and my fourth wild goose in the Triangle this year (quadfecta?). Just one problem – the goose roosted with its head in its wing, hiding its namesake feature, which is no way to enjoy a lifer!

Yes, I could have been satisfied with this life look. Orrr...

So, standing along the road on the far side of the pond from our lifer, I hatched a plan, one of those things that you come up with on the fly but ends up poorly on execution. I started clapping. Loudly. Trying to get the goose’s attention. The Canada Geese took notice, perking up and moving away from the noise. The Greater White-fronted continued to roost. Only after I stopped my ludicrous display did the bird raise its head and make its way towards the water, giving James and I one heck of a look at this fantastic lifer.

I really didn't expect to get a lifer today... but damn I'm glad I did!

There’ve been some good birds so far this Durham CBC, like a Lesser Black-backed Gull James and I found on the mudflats, and an extremely late Anhinga just north of he city. But to me, the Greater White-fronted Goose really takes the cake! I’ve gotten two rare geese on the same random pond during the last two Durham CBCs, so I guess this one goes out to all the Ross’s Geese out there: Welcome to Durham!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Species Spotlight #16: Western Fence Lizard

While birding in San Diego, Cabrillo National Monument became one of my go-to spots: the habitat was nice, the birds were plentiful, and during the week there weren’t a whole lot of people. Plus, the it was really close to the place I was staying, and the while you had to pay an entrance fee, the pass you got lasted a whole week. The only problem, however, is that the place didn’t open til 9am, which is much too late for a jet-lagged East-Coaster.

Luckily, the nearby Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery is a nice spot in its own right. Housing the graves of countless armed service members, the steep chaparral hillsides that line the cemetery are filled with birds – mostly common stuff like California Thrasher, Spotted Towhee, and Ash-throated Flycatcher, but all new birds for me! James and I visited one day after birding the whole of Cabrillo (and very successfully at that), and as we watched Western Kingbirds singing from the tree-tops James photographed this lizard lounging along one of the many stone walls in the area.

Looks like it belongs in 60 Million Years, BC!
Speaking of which - Raquel Welch is like 71 this year! Who knew?

It’s a Western Fence Lizard, and like its name suggest, it’s closely related to the Eastern Fence Lizard we get out in North Carolina. Really closely related, as a matter of fact – I probably couldn’t tell you the differences between the two species except that we totally found this one in California. Still, fence lizards are pretty cool, and I’ll take an awesome lizard any day of the week!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Who're You Callin' a Red-neck?

I have a curse, and a blessing. Luckily for me, however, the blessing outweighs the curse in every situation, but it’s really really annoying! You see, I seem to have the uncanny ability to sink in mud. I suppose it has been lessening of late, but last winter I found myself waist-deep in mud – not ten minutes later, I had my lifer Yellow Rail. This summer, after finding myself merely thigh-deep in mud, I viewed my lifer Red-necked Phalarope. Today, I found myself just ankle-deep. But the curse continues, and so does its blessing.

Mark and I decided to try for a Red-necked Grebe that’s been hanging around a small lake in Greensboro. It’s a bird I’ve chased more than three times before, yet never seem to have located – most recently, I missed the bird by less than five minutes. So when Mark brought it up, I was totally game! Unfortunately, as we neared the marina where the bird had been seen, we found a very discouraging locked gate, because it totally makes sense that Tuesday is the only day of the week the marina should be closed. Plus, a fence ran around the nearby dam and basically everywhere you could view the lake with good light, which could have put a damper on the entire morning. But we were birders, and we found ways to persevere. Dirt trails run around the whole of Lake Brandt, but I found they didn’t run nearly close enough to view the lake – so it was time to trailblaze!

And that’s where I made my mistake. The woods around Lake Brandt were oddly damp, and Mark and I found ourselves looking at a shallow puddle filled with dying leaves, but just on the other side lay a perfectly dry stretch of land leading right to the lake. Just one giant step and I could make it… one step and… NOPE! Ankle deep in mud! But the step after that was totally dry, and I made my way up a steep hill to the lake. I started scanning the vast expanse before me, but Mark, having found a drier way around, shouted “That’s it!,” having apparently seen the bird with his naked eye. Incredulously, I asked “Where?!” to which Mark replied “Well there’s a bird out there, anyway.” Yeah right, Mark. So I turned my scope to check out a bird lounging near one of the buoys, and… well you tell me!

What, you don't see it? Trust me, I was there!

If you looked at it just right, you could see the remnants of the bright rufous neck that gives the Red-necked Grebe its name. Yet with its long bill and rather elongated body, even in this non-breeding plumage the bird seemed strikingly unique, totally unlike any other waterbird we get in North Carolina. Getting this life bird felt good, but for some reason, the views I got of this incredible bird, over 500 yards away on the other side of the lake, weren’t satisfactory. That’s when we hatched a plan to move down the shore a ways and park ourselves at the point of a little peninsula – it didn’t seem like much, but the move halved our distance to the bird, and through the scope I finally got those views I’ll remember for the rest of my life – a large grebe, neck tucked in to one side, one foot outstretched while it treaded water with the other, slowly circling around. No picture can express the experience I had watching that bird do what it does best.

The harsh light makes it look almost like a loon. Just, not as awesome!

And that was that. Mark and I had to get to work, and living over an hour away from the lake meant leaving time to return. Sure the bird could have been closer, and the light could have been better, but can you really blame fate when a bird that breeds in western Canada finds its way to a random lake in the southeastern United States? (The answer is no, you cannot.)

That should have been the end to a successful day, but upon my return home I noticed a White-tailed Deer feeding just three feet outside my apartment window. The shade made photographic this congenial mammal impossible, so I stepped outside only to noticed two more deer standing in perfect light feeding across the parking lot.

I had trouble fitting it in the frame... and this was taken from across the street!

For some reason the image stabilizer on the camera started having trouble, but even still I managed this sweet shot of a deer that much improved upon our old one, and a nice behavior shot of an animal that seemed totally obvious to me. That is, until I took a step closer, which apparently was one step to far. One Red-necked Grebe down, one White-tailed Deer well-photographed, and suddenly, work didn’t seem so bad. At least, for today.

Friday, December 9, 2011

#46: Horned Lark - Fiesta Island, CA

I have to admit, with all this Fiesta Island-bashing I’ve been doing, I actually purposefully chose it as a birding destination. You see, whenever I go somewhere I’ve never been, I always check out eBird first. It’s a great resource that helps me figure out what birds are common to the area and where the best places to find them are. In this case, Fiesta Island turned out to be the one place in the San Diego area where large flocks of Horned Larks had been reported, and so I figured it was a good place to start. We don’t really get larks in the Piedmont of North Carolina, probably because they prefer oddly specific habitat. In Europe, they call them Shore Larks, mostly because they’re common on beachfronts, and I’ve found that more specifically, Horned Larks just like sand. It’s hard to come by out here, but Fiesta Island is nothing but sand, and that makes it perfect Horned Lark habitat.

Which is why I found it odd that after driving around the entire island and subsequently wandering around a good portion of its interior, we hadn’t found any yet. James and I were starting to get pretty bummed about it when I spied movement in one of the few patches of grass that eked out an existence in this sea of sand. They were Horned Larks, and not just a couple, but a whole flock! They blended in surprisingly well to the scrubby brown grass, and we edged closer because the camera was having a tough time picking them up. The flock alighted, but not too far, so we kept trying for that perfect shot. Every time we neared, the flock would flush again, and after a good half mile of this, James and I finally gave up and made our way back to the car. Unfortunately, we took a different path than we did the first time, and we found ourselves exactly one large dune away from our transportation. As we climbed over to the other side, the Horned Lark flock flew in from nowhere, and this beautiful male had the decency to land on top of the dune right in front of James.

I love this shot because you can totally see those namesake tufts of feathers!

After that, I saw a couple Horned Larks here and there around San Diego, always on sand and nearly always on the beach. I glimpsed a couple on Coronado as beachgoers yet again let their dogs run free (has anybody ever heard of a leash law in California?!) and fighter jets flew into the nearby naval base, but never again would I see flocks of them like I did that day. It’s an experience I’ll never forget, and seeing that flock of Horned Larks almost makes me remember Fiesta Island fondly. Almost.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Species Spotlight #15: Side-blotched Lizard

I’m not much of a herper. Don’t get me wrong, I think reptiles are pretty awesome; it’s just that I’ve never actively sought them out, nor have I relished the thought of trying to identify some of the more cryptic ones (I mean, am I the only one who finds turtles incredibly difficult?). So here I had this unidentified lizard from our trip to California laying around on my hard-drive with no clue as to its true identity, so I did the only thing a non-herper can do – I asked for help.

Thankfully, in any community of birders, there’s always a bit of overlap in knowledge. Sure I may not be able to identify every lizard I see, but if you ever need to know something about dinosaurs or early bird evolution (not likely), I’m your guy. I asked a bunch of young birders I know to help me identify this lizard, and sure enough someone familiar with southwestern lizards answered my plea. Now, there are a couple things confounding the ID here – first, and perhaps most notably, the lizard has autotomized a good portion of his tail (i.e., he shed it as part of some defensive behavior), and judging by the fact he’s still alive, it worked. But now I can’t get a good read on how long it may have been, or its pattern, so it’s completely useless to me now. Secondly, the lizard’s head seems proportionally large compared to his body, indicating he’s a juvenile. With many animals, including lizards, juveniles have different color patterns than adults, so just going through pictures of southern California lizards on the internet wasn’t going to help me in the slightest.

Talk about blending in to your surroundings!

However, after a bit of discourse and a lot of process of elimination, we got an answer. This little mite-ridden juvenile James and I found atop a cliff near the tide pools at Cabrillo National Monument was a Side-blotched Lizard, something fairly common in the San Diego area, but completely foreign to us. The thing had been a complete mystery for over a year, so it felt really good to finally have a one-hundred percent positive, unequivocal, and definitive identification. If only every reptile could be so easy.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

City Slickers and Country Bumpkins

It’s a constantly changing force, this thing we call evolution. Living things have to continuously adapt to their surroundings lest they fall behind and, you know, die; in the immortal words of Michael Scott: adapt, react, readapt, apt. The most tumultuous change in recent history has been the spread of humans across what had been vast swaths of untouched land, and as such the bird life all around us has had to change in accordance.

So it should be no surprise to me that birds, those dinosaurs which through extreme adaptability were able to survive a mass extinction of most of Earth’s wildlife, permeate my urban environment. Earlier this week, I pulled up to my local grocery store to the sound of Cedar Waxwings. As 90% of my Cedar Waxwing sightings involve birds flying overhead, I immediately looked to the sky for a flock passing over. Then I realized the reedy whistles were much louder than I’m accustomed to, and seemed to be staying in one place. These waxwings were, in fact, a mere ten feet above my head feeding on the fruit of a decorative Bradford pear tree.

This one kept on preening instead of feeding - maybe he got his fill elsewhere?

No doubt the other patrons of the parking lot in question eyed me quizzically as I grabbed my camera and started photographing this noisy tree. But what can I say, I’m a sucker for Cedar Waxwings, they’re probably my favorite part of winter birding. I remember one incident as a kid when I walked across a pedestrian bridge between two buildings on Duke University’s medical campus. Tall bushes lined the sides of the breezeway, and waxwings were eating their fill of berries, but clearly something was wrong with these birds. One lay keeled over on its side, another sat swaying back and forth, and none of the birds would flush when you got near them. The berries had apparently fermented, and the birds were, for lack of a better term, drunk. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen this behavior from any birds, and it’s definitely stuck with me because of it.

I don't want to calculate a blood alcohol limit for Flying While Intoxicated,
but if I did, it'd be... infinitesimal.

I don’t necessarily find my apartment complex an especially birdy locale, but I’ve noticed an increase in activity of late. Every morning White-throated Sparrows flit through the shrubs lining the buildings, and Yellow-rumped Warblers chip and flycatch through yet more Bradford pears while House Finches flock above them. These are birds that have adapted well to an urban lifestyle, and as such seem incredibly common to us humans. One morning I awoke to dried leaves moving along the parking lot under their own volition. Turns out another common urban bird, a Carolina Wren, was foraging for small insects or other scraps of food among the leaf litter. He seemed pretty intent on feeding and didn't notice as I inched towards him. All the better for me, I suppose!

Apparently, photographing a moving target is difficult. Who knew!

Recently, I’ve also been hearing the staccato rattle of Ruby-crowned Kinglets around my apartment. I love kinglets, and not just because they’re small and occasionally colorful. It’s the way they feed that makes them special to me – moving quick like a warbler only to dash out and hover under a branch to glean a quick morsel. They act more like a hummingbird than a Passerine at times, and their activity seems totally out of place on a cold winter’s morning. Still, I was able to watch one at close range as it foraged along the hedgerow behind my place. If only it would flash it’s namesake ruby crown for me!

These female birds aren't nearly as bold as the males, but still bolder than most!

Later in the week, I decided to forgo my surroundings and head out to rural Orange County to visit some of the freshly plowed fields. I had a goal in mind, to find the large flocks of American Pipits that frequent the farmlands, but like combining lemon and lime to make Sprite, there’s more to it than that. If we ever get the rare Lapland Longspur in the Piedmont of North Carolina, they’ll be hanging around pipits, and that’s the bird I was after. Regrettably, after looking through a flock of almost 400 pipits, I couldn’t spot a single longspur, nor could I hear their distinctive double-call as the flock swirled across the field. While Eastern Meadowlarks sang from unseen perches, I noticed a bright spot sitting atop a dead tree overlooking one of the fields. My suspicions were confirmed as I put my binoculars on this American Kestrel surveying his fallowed environs.

This is the closest I could get to him... that's what I get for taking my time with scope views!

The falcon looked ridiculously small as he sat atop this massive tree, and for good reason – kestrels would probably fit in the palm of your hand if they ever gave you the opportunity to do so. I tried to sidle my way closer to this fantastic male individual, but the traffic grew heavier along the road, and one extremely loud truck later the bird bolted across the field. I would say it’s too bad, but just being in the presence of this amazing little bird is more than enough to make my whole week’s birding totally worth it!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Species Spotlight #14: Brush Rabbit

Last week, we highlighted that common rabbit of southern California, the Desert Cottontail. But like North Carolina, where we have the more common Eastern Cottontail but the rarely seen Marsh Rabbit, southern California has its own second, cryptic, and rarely seen species – the Brush Rabbit.

Unlike the Desert Cottontail, which inhabits the dry and sandy areas of San Diego, the Brush Rabbit is a specialized resident of the chaparral which lines the coastal cliffs that grade into the Pacific Ocean. While its xeric cousin is quite conspicuous, the Brush Rabbit prefers to skulk and hide in its habitat of scrub and sage, much like the Marsh Rabbit does around here. Even though we had decent pictures of these two rabbits, I still found identification difficult. I definitely felt I had two different species – this one lacked the rufous nape and seemed slighter than the Cottontail – but I couldn’t be sure, until I learned a little trick online. The Desert Cottontail will always show a black tip to the ears, while the Brush Rabbit shows none. Here, we can clearly see the lack of black-tipped ears, thus solidifying its identification.

This guy looks more like our cottontails, but is rather distantly related.

James and I found this particular Brush Rabbit at Cabrillo National Monument, as we watched birds at the famous location known as ‘The Drip’. While Black-headed Grosbeaks and Bell’s Vireos drank from the leaking faucet, this little guy fed among the dry leaf litter not feet from us, completely oblivious to our presence. Good for us, of course, but perhaps he should be more mindful of the local wildlife, like the California Whipsnake I found at this very location just a day later!