Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Happy Leap Day

Ah Fresno...the huge trees of Fresno...Airport

Big Year Days 60-61

Big Year Total:  468
Coded birds:  31
Cool animals: Bobcat, Harbor seal, gray whale, California sea lion, pronghorn, porcupine, sea otters, Island gray fox, 

Miles driven.  13,500
Flight Miles 38,200
flight segments: 42   Airports: 23
Hours at sea: 25
Miles walked 64
Miles biked 2
states/ prov. birded:15

...California Continued.  In an attempt to continue to share useless but hopefully mildly entertaining information describing my avian adventures

Day #3

Again, to catch up, I'm traveling with one of my twins, Allwin, who is a traveler and eagle eyed but has never birded before.  Allwin is a junior at Ripon College majoring in German and Chemistry, speaks fluent Swedish and German, (also has 4 years of Spanish) and is currently studying abroad in Bonn and is home for a month on break.  Any job ideas out there?

We woke at 4am to hit the Angeles Crest Highway after spending the night in Glendale.  Even the huge metroplex of LA hadn't woken up yet this Leap Year Day, my bonus day for this big year, as I get an extra day than many who have done big years have had.  We climbed and climbed in the darkness and I expected a long journey with many incoming vehicles on Hwy 2 but where the road goes to Palmdale, the traffic just ended.  Hwy 2 past the ski resorts was still closed due to winter unlike when I came this exact way 3 years to the day but going the other way, and it was open.

Tom Ford-Hutchinson one of three California birders I have emails for or Facebook friend (met him on Dana Pt Pelagic) had given me an owl and quail tip for Red Box, and all of a sudden as I drove up the mountain, we were there.  We stopped and got out and listened.  A man in a cable repair truck was sleeping in the parking area....cable guys....white vans...NSA, kidnappers, spies...?...maybe here it was just a tired guy taking a nap.  After hearing absolutely nothing, It was so quiet without traffic noise, city noise, or unfortunately birding noise, we drove up to Mt Wilson and stopped where we could, but we still heard nothing.  I had heard reports of spotted owls at the observatory area but all we heard was the wind and the hum from many towers buzzing the early morning cable and news to many homes in the valley before us.  Maybe even sending "Ex's and Oh's" on the radio to everyone below.

Back at Red Box, and now with the sun coming up, we walked the trail down the mountain for about a third of a mile and started to hear a cacophony of something unknown.  What was this bird noise?  It was certainly not from a quail?  They kept going and going, and it was getting harsher in character.  it was so noisy that when the Mountain quail finally did call out I could hardly hear it.  Then we spotted the culprits of the noise....squirrels, dangest noisiest squirrels anywhere.  I need to improve my squirrel identification.  Then thankfully more Mountain quail called out and so we looked for them and intermittently tried to determine the guilty tappers of the trees, but we could only see acorn woodpeckers.  We never spotted a quail.  We came back to Red Box and then heard some more mountain quails call and then something else called from about two trees away, the steady toot toot of a northern pygmy owl.  Cool!  We looked in every tree and then it seemed to change to the opposite side of the valley by the parking lot and so we came over there.  I called the owl and the one on this side stopped and then continued on the other side. I'm not sure we had two owls but we definitely had one. but try as I might, we couldn't actually find the bird.   Then behind the museum (there is a Native American museum of some sort at Red Box) a dog spotted me, and began to bark.  It never stopped.  The little owl did, though and I with the dog yapping so, I couldn't hear anything...it was time we should go.

Chilao Visitor Center was out next stop.  It is only open this time of year on weekends from 10-3, closed on this non-holiday, Leap Day of course, it being Monday, but it is a good spot for birds.  They have many feeders and squawky jays.  I saw bird number 465...an old nemesis, the white headed woodpecker.  However, it still isn't a perfect shot.  I have more blurry and out of frame shots of this bird....

plus many band-tailed pigeons.

Steller's Jays,

even ones that seemed to want us to feed them.  Allwin wanted to go get peanuts for the friendly bird, which upon getting one, basically told us to leave in "Jayese".

I saw a warbler that was probably a hermit warbler but it wasn't a 100% proposition, up in a pine tree and well, I couldn't call it...we called for Clark's nutcrackers which I assumed were here but no signs of any, and despite looking, we didn't see anything.  Allwin started to climb on the rocks so I decided we needed to keep on moving, before he fell or I died of freight..

I love the San Gabriel Mountains.  There were exactly 6 other people up there anywhere and it was so peaceful and quiet despite just being above the huge city.  I liked it when 26 years ago I went with my then fiance Silja and we took a ski lift to the top and saw the rare desert bighorn and I like it now.  Then driving out not far from Red Box, two mountain quail flushed from the side of the road and flew over the hood of the car...."quail!" I yelled and was out of the car looking down the canyon for them.  No quail to take a picture, but we did hear a flurry of talk from the two of them before they quieted up and we got tired of looking.

You know, it is Leap Day and I have seen all of the quail....all of them this year.  That is a happy thought.

  Tom had also said this oasis in Kern County may be very good for goldfinches and as such we decided to go...it wasn't that far directly north and well it was such a nice day.  Let me say one thing here and now....Advice #1 for anyone doing a big year.  "TEXT YOU DESTINATION TO SOMEONE!"  We didn't and as we drove deeper into the hills on the side of the Mohave Desert, we lost cell phone service, and then lost a decent road, and if we had lost an oil pan or tire we could have lost our lives.  Advice #2  "DON'T RENT A FAMILY SEDAN TO BIRD OFF ROAD!"  The Ford Fusion wasn't meant for the San Marcos Road (which I learned was replaced in 1962 due to too many people complaining of car sickness) and it certainly wasn't meant for the Jawbone Canyon, then Kelso Valley Road and it CERTAINLY wasn't meant for the Butterbredt Canyon Road, and the drive to the Nature preserve at Butterbredt Springs on the bottom.  The internet warned it was rough, but didn't say HOW rough.  Sigh....it was lucky we didn't loose a tire OR a whole wheel...note to any of you buying used Hertz cars?  I kept checking underneath for leaks every time we scraped something.  So avoid a deep blue Ford Fusion, it was hard miles on it...  even worse, we found no goldfinches either, not much of anything was out here, ruby crowned kinglets and spotted towhee.

Oh my, we would have never been found out here.  Birders die of exposure to the desert....

We drove back to Fresno, stopping to see the absolutely orange hillsides of the hills above Bakersfield, it was one of those times to stop and enjoy the moment.

We stayed in Fresno, and ate our first evening meal at Denny's...otherwise we were too tired for supper, except for one time we ate at In-and -Out Burger in Ventura....wow marketing geniuses they are.  Gordon Ramsey would be proud of the simple menu they have.  The lines in the drive-thru truly amazing.  Menu--Hamburger, cheeseburger, or a double burger, and with or without onions.  Here is lunch in Palmdale....

Morning arrived and I still had unfinished work to do before our 4pm flight east.  We returned to the scene of the Ruff alert, Merced NWR.  The rangers were on high alert as when we walked out to an overlook one followed us and then she saw someone through here binoculars apparently too far from his/her vehicle in the distance, off she ran to her pickup and then sped across a dike to the scene of the crime.

Another "criminal" at Merced was that dogone Ruff, standing us up for a second day....rats!  I did see a bushtit out of Allwin's window for something....ruff or bushtit...?  Some get the gold, I get the tit...not sure that sounds correct...

Debbie Shearwater sent me a pleasant message when she learned I had driven near her house.  She asked me what I needed and it turned out I had driven right past a Lawrence's goldfinch hotspot, she had just seen them at the Antelope Fire hall up Panoche Road....this time I avoided the blocked section although she said she had gotten through it, but I bet she didn't have the family car I had.  Although the fire hall yielded no finches, I would like to thank Debbie for encouraging me to get this bird....I almost let it pass as we had struggled with it so, nearer to LA. Who is kidding who?  We struggled with it today

We drove up on the Panoche Hills Access road a place many have been seen as recently as Sunday...no finches.  We stopped at Mercey Hot Springs and well, usually never a shy one, I am shy about having too much camera equipment or bins near naked people and when a woman walked up to her car wearing a loose bathrobe, very loosely...and gave me a look, we stayed out of the campground and looked a little outside for the finch, but struck out.  I'd love to come back here and stay a while with my female escort...Silja some time or I should have birded here during my last clothing optional big year.  Alas, that was then and this was now.  I spotted a finch just outside on the road as we crossed the first bridge-- a house finch and then 4 cliff swallows flew out of under the bridge...a returning migrant, bird #467.  These nest on the side of my cabin and get into my cabin much to the annoyance of Lena, my daughter, so I never thought of the camera but I bet ebird is going to give me grief for these but they weren't tree swallows, 8 of those were also overhead.  My first migrants!

Off we drove watching the clock...we stopped at every ranch up to the fire hall and every ranch down.  At the Panoche Inn, we pulled off the road as I heard finches and got out.  Three guys were drinking Coors outside the bar, one apparently the owner petting a black and white cat.  He was curious if we wanted a beer or drink and then curious what we were up to.  I didn't feel comfortable really giving his property a once over and we stayed in the parking area as he and my son talked about Germany.  I periodically scanned the trees.

then Allwin said, "there is one in a tree, I see yellow"... I looked without enthusiasm.

"Just a flycatcher."  I said dejected.  It was an ash-throated flycatcher, not a bad bird...that I had seen already.  I then gave up.  I tried to extricate ourselves from the situation as the guy was so friendly and I guess as long as we were't despised solar developers, we were interesting.  We chatted about a French couple who stopped looking about a roadrunner and the pretty green hills and then Allwin said.  "there it reallyIS this time to the right of the flycatcher."  It almost wasn't worth the effort to turn my head.

Damn, he was right!  It was the bird!  WOW!  Gray finch, yellow head and yellow on the bum, its back was to me and into the sun and then it flew with a 2nd one briefly landing on a barbed wire fence showing its front profile.   Then poof, they flew off as the bar owner standing by us never waivered in his story.  Lawrence's Goldfinches!!  My final missing endemic California bird.  My disposition improving, we headed to Fresno, mission accomplished...but then as luck would have it just at Mercey Hot Springs the car flushed a flock of 50-100 Lawrence's as I drove past a large patch of the yellow fiddle-neck flowers on the side of the road.  Why now, the 3rd time through here?   Really?  It was just the way it was and then I spotted two dudes with a camera at the first bridge north of Mercey, I slowed and asked them what they had...they were flower chasers, not birders...I don't know what rarity they were photographing.  I know less about flowers than squirrels.

Allwin then asked me if I had everything.  I said everything but would have liked another look at a Bell's sparrow, everyone has been reporting them in here and then on a sage, I spotted one of the little skulky bastards...sitting up in perfect light.  I slammed on the brakes, grabbed for the camera and as word came to it apparently from the birding gods that Olaf was near...it vanished.....I hate those sparrows. ..anything that used to be a sage sparrow, I never get a good camera shot at either of them.   At least I got a good look at this one but to all of you with great photos of this bird on fences and on sage, and sitting up all pretty...phooey on you....or congrats...I'm not sure which.
bird summary

Feb 29
San Gabriel Mountains CA

463.  Mountain Quail
464.  Northern pygmy owl
465.  white-headed woodpecker

March 1
Merced NWR, Merced CA

466.  Bushtit

Mercey Hot Springs

467.  Cliff Swallow

Panoche Rd.

468.  Lawrence's Goldfinch

It ended up being a bit ugly birding, late looks, quick looks, wrong side of car looks, heard only and no looks, and especially no ruff looks, but you know, I got everything I needed but unfortunately not what I really wanted.  All totaled, we drove 1150 miles in California in 4 days, plus 200 miles to get to Minneapolis, 13 species of year birds and well happy memories with my son.  That alone was priceless....

It was a Leap Day, I'd always remember.  I don't think I will get to bird with my son the rest of the year and hardly will see him....Allwin spent the trip reading a book on obsolete English words and then telling me about them....I made the trip between sights quicker but ...well....I was never a word smith, but words like owling (don't confuse with looking for owls in the dark) and gefunkle and maybe even oko-pogo seemed mildly amusing and useful.

a couple of extra memories for me


PS trips upcoming

Sage grouse chase to North Dakota tomorrow
then leaving for Newfoundland
I may go to Texas to get hook-billed kites/ red-billed pigeon/ and tropical parula after that if nothing better appears before going to Arizona the following weekend with daughter and wife to go owling in Madera/ Sierra Vista...any added intel would be appreciated, we are staying two nights at the Beatty Ranch.  I have a few birds missing at both locations...let me know  


  1. Olaf: Glad that you and Allwin could spend some quality time together, and good on him for spotting the elusive Lawrence's Goldfinch. Another 22 till 500. Go get em, and have fun.

  2. Olaf: Got me there. Was thinking 468 plus 22 equals 490 when I was just outside. Rush in to change and guess who beat me to the correction? Hard to get anything by this guy; or maybe I was just trying to give you extra birds?

  3. Just noticed that "Mr 522" disappeared from the eBird top 100. I wonder what the story is there? Anyway good to see Olaf back at the top!

    1. All Harris county Texas except a redwing chase. Think he errored entries. He has over 800 life list. Way over. Canadians know of him. Whatever if it was real would have been a great achievement. He is on Facebook. I never contacted him as I have birds to find

    2. Ah... He is currently #1 all time in Harris County with 505, which is 123% of the total. And his last sighting was in 1900.
      I bet he is trying to upload a large number sightings from another database into eBird and is having trouble getting the fields lined up. I have heard that can be tricky.

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