Monday, May 23, 2011


Howdy, Birders,

Did you know that registration is now open for the 7th Annual Monterey Bay Birding Festival? This fabulous festival offers an outstanding array of field trips, workshops, speakers and just plain fun with awesome folks. This festival has ALL of the birds of the central coast— and, then some— mammals, as well. Reasonably priced, with al la carte selections make this the best value birding event around. This post will concentrate on the pelagic trips offered by Shearwater Journeys, Inc. for the festival.

Shearwater Journeys is the sole provider of pelagic trips for the Monterey Bay Festival. And, why not? Debi Shearwater has offered pelagic trips departing from Monterey's Fisherman's Wharf since 1976 — some 36 years running. Over 60,000 people, from professors to housewives, Nobel Prize winners to truck drivers, have participated in the Shearwater trips. Welcome to our ocean world.

For a quick glance at the seabird and marine mammal species observed on our four 2010 festival pelagic trips, click here.

Monterey Bay is a unique place that makes observing seabirds and marine mammals a pleasure when compared with other places in the USA, and world. For one thing, the bay is half-moon shaped, offering protection from the prevailing northwest winds. This makes for easier boat rides since it is the wind that causes swells. A huge submarine canyon, comparable in size to the Grand Canyon, bisects the bay. Indeed, the Monterey Submarine Canyon was one of the major reasons why this area was declared a National Marine Sanctuary. The presence of this canyon so close to shore means that deep water loving seabirds and marine mammals can be found within minutes of departure from the dock! Seabirds at the doorstep, as it were!

The following information may help you plan your visit regarding the pelagic trips. At the end of this blog is a species list of the wildlife encountered on last year's festival trips. Please look it over.

A few basics: Trips are offered on the following dates:

THUR, SEP 22- Leaders: Jennifer Green, Wes Fritz & Debi Shearwater
FRI, SEP 23- Leaders: Abe Borker, Jennifer Green, Adam Searcy, Wes Fritz & Debi Shearwater
SAT, SEP 24- Leaders: Scott Terrill, Linda Terrill, Abe Borker, Adam Searcy, Wes Fritz & Debi Shearwater
SUN, SEP 25- Leaders: Joe Morlan, Abe Borker, Adam Searcy, Wes Fritz & Debi Shearwater
MON, SEP 26- Leaders: Wes Fritz, Adam Searcy & Debi Shearwater (this trip is not listed on the festival web site)

All trips meet at 7 am, promptly at Chris' Fishing Shop on Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey. All trips are on the vessel, Checkmate, with skipper Tinker. All trips return about 3 pm. The boat is a US Coast Guard licensed, certified and inspected vessel. It has a bathroom, or "head" as they are known on ships. Bring lunch, drinks and dress warmly. Park in the large parking lot near Fisherman's Wharf. Let the folks in Chris' Fishing Shop know that you are participating in the Shearwater Journey's trip, to receive your parking validation coupon. This will save you money when exit the parking lot at the end of the trip.

A number of leaders will accompany each trip, as listed above. Additional leaders may be added to some trips. Beginners and advanced seabirders are welcome. Our leaders are anxious to share the marine world with you and will not only spot the birds and marine mammals, but help you see them and identify them, too! All leaders are equipped with radios to communicate with each other and with the skipper. A public announcement system will be used to call out birds, as well. An introductory talk, once everyone is on board, by Debi will explain how the trip operates. Chumming for seabirds is part of the trip. This helps to attract birds closer to the vessel, and it may pull in a curious bird. Although we will be traveling for much of the time, there will also be times when the vessel is stopped for close up views, or for photographers to obtain some images— for instance, such as this BLACK-FOOTED ALBATROSS, below.
Birding begins the very minute we depart from the dock— there is no waiting! PIGEON GUILLEMOTS, in flight, below, nest on the pilings under the dock. This is one of several inshore species that we shall search for. Others include ELEGANT TERN and HEERMANN'S GULL.
Just about 30 minutes after departing the dock, off Point Pinos, with land well in sight, we might encounter our first shearwaters of the day. Above, a PINK-FOOTED SHEARWATER glides effortlessly over the sea. Up to eight species of shearwaters are possible on these trips. Because the deep Monterey Submarine Canyon is located so close to shore, we rarely need to venture far out to sea. In fact, one often sees far fewer seabirds offshore. This submarine canyon, along with the prevailing currents and winds, causes a reaction known as upwelling. Upwelling brings the deep, cold nutrient-rich waters to the surface, feeding the entire food chain from zooplankton to grazing blue whales. This is where the seabirds concentrate— near these rich feeding grounds.
Surprises and "bonus" birds occur at sea, too! This TUFTED PUFFIN was one such bird. Tufted Puffins are not common on Monterey Bay, even though their nearest nesting area, the Farallon Islands is not that far away.

By offering four days of pelagic trips in a row, we are able to determine the best birding areas to search for seabirds and marine mammals. Sometimes, feeding concentrations of thousands of shearwaters remain in the same area over several days. It is as important to know where to search for seabirds as it is to know where not go search! Negative data can help chart a more productive route. Regardless, our seabirding experience is second to none!

Jump on board with Shearwater Journeys,
Debi Shearwater

SBT: Where are the migrants? Recent sightings.

Howdy, Birders,

This is a report of some recent bird sightings in San Benito County. Before I get to that, I'd like to say that I've spent more hours and miles birding in San Benito County this spring than any other spring since I moved to the county 17 years ago. Some springs, I have spent a minimal amount of time birding, as I've been on trips elsewhere in the world. But, many springs, I've been home. There has never been a "slower" spring in my experience. In past years, I've never been hard pressed to find, say, a black-headed grosbeak. But, here is it, the third week in May, and these birds are not all that easy to come by. It just doesn't seem like I should not have to "hunt and peck" so much to find neotropical migrants. Perhaps, various species are arriving in "waves", but I am not seeing that in this county. In any case, in years past I have seen far more numbers of a given neotropical species than what I am finding this year.

Recent bird sightings have included:

GRASSHOPPER SPARROWS returned to Lone Tree Road on 19 May, with at least 6 singing birds. It has been thought that these birds might nest in places such as Panoche Valley early in the season. This was recently confirmed by another local birder who photographed a GRASSHOPPER SPARROW in Panoche Valley, carrying food. After this brood fledges, it is thought that the birds move to other locations that are cooler and more humid, leaving Panoche Valley.

Newly fledged BROWN CREEPERS were on San Juan Canyon Road on 19 May, while a WESTERN WOOD PEEWEE was peeling strips of bark off a redwood tree, then stopping to snatch lichens from an oak tree, to build a nest. Other migrants/arrivals on this road included TOWNSEND'S WARBLER, YELLOW WARBLER and two WESTERN TANAGERS at the very top.

The BALD EAGLE nest had one very actively, wing-flapping, brown eaglet on 21 May. The male BALD EAGLE was still guarding the nest. There was a large, second eaglet, but I did not see it on this date, and do not know if it survives.

In Panoche Valley on 21 May, fledgling HORNED LARKS numbered about 36, a ROADRUNNER was carrying food to a nest near Silver Creek, 2 migrant BLUE GROSBEAKS were nearby. About 5 pm, a single CASPIAN TERN was at Paicines Reservoir.

On 22 May, an OSPREY was flying northwest over Paicines Reservoir, while a male BALD EAGLE was perched in the oak grove on the west side. Nearby, a male WESTERN BLUEBIRD was feeding noisy young in a nest on a dead tree, while some recently fledged young were on the dirt road.

Finally, at Pinnacles National Monument on 22 May, I hiked the Bear Valley Trail from Bear Valley Gulch, hoping to find a yellow-breasted chat. The highlight was a singing GREEN-TAILED TOWHEE, a species that is listed on the park checklist. According to reports, only two records of this species exists for the county, both at Pinnacles National Monument in 1954. This would represent the third county record. Other birds on the hike included PACIFIC-SLOPE FLYCATCHER (only one bird), a beautiful male YELLOW WARBLER, quite a few singing WARBLING VIREOS, HUTTON'S VIREO (2), BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAK (2), ASH-THROATED FLYCATCHER (1), many singing ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLERS and HOUSE WRENS. Two CANYON WRENS were on two different territories, and could make for good stops for photographers. Oh, and quite a lot of RUFOUS-SIDED TOWHEES.

Elsewhere in the county, I visited the recently discovered LONG-EARED OWL family. The young are still "branchers." I tried video taping them, but failed. Operator error. Will try, again. To protect these birds, I cannot divulge their location, however, long-eared owls are common in San Benito County.

Happy Trails,

Debi Shearwater
San Benito County Birding

Thursday, May 19, 2011


Howdy, Birders,
After several dreary days of rain, I decided to head out for some San Benito County birding. My goal was to head to Lone Tree Road, off Fairview Road, to search for Grasshopper Sparrows. I've looked for them at least five times this spring. We missed them on the San Benito County Big Day. It was still quite overcast and dark, since it was late afternoon. The view of the Diablo Mountains from Fairview Road is the image below.
On the lower portion of Lone Tree Road, YELLOW-BILLED MAGPIES were busy, their large, football-shaped nests in plain view in the sycamore trees. A pair of RED-TAILED HAWKS were both at their nest, busily feeding the large, white fluffy youngsters.
It turned out to be a great "wire birding" evening. First, a female BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAK popped up on the barbed wire fence.
Next, a male BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAK popped up. Then, I heard several singing GRASSHOPPER SPARROWS, and one individual popped up on the fence.
A small flock of half a dozen LAZULI BUNTINGS, along with two LESSER and two LAWRENCE'S GOLDFINCHES were feeding in the thistles along side the road. A poor shot of the Lawrence's Goldfinch is below.

Continuing with my wildflower theme and yellow flavors, I believe the above flowers are Mule Ears, a bit worn down from the rain, no doubt.
A lucky moment, with a RUFOUS-CROWNED SPARROW perched up! Often this localized sparrow is very secretive, skulking on the ground under shrubbery, making it very hard to see.
It just so happens that I know this particular individual has a nest nearby. There is also a Rock Wren nesting in the same area. And, it looks like a male Lazuli Bunting is singing on territory in the same locale. Must be something great about that spot.

Many of the "usual suspects" were found, including my favorite GOLDEN EAGLES on their high, rocky cliffside eyrie. It was thrilling to see one of the adults perform a territorial flight display— soaring up high, folding the wings completely against the body, diving head-straight toward the ground with a last second, upward, U-shaped pullup. I wonder if that's where stunt aircraft fliers got their ideas! This is a very spectacular flying feat. Finally, the eagle who was in the audience became impressed, and took off to the skies as well, joining the displaying bird. WHITE-THROATED SWIFTS zipped around the cliff tops.

Suddenly, I glimpsed a cat at the right side of the road! No sooner did I see it, than it vanished (I thought), downhill. I stopped the car, killed the engine, grabbed my camera— for once, not forgetting it. Well, let's be honest here, I was hoping this was going to be a young mountain lion. I jumped up the embankment and saw— nothing. Felt the eyes on me— and, there was a BOBCAT, sitting on a trail! As I tried to get closer, I fell, sliding down the wet grass hillside on my butt. Oh, great, that will surely make the cat run away. Nope, there it sat— talk about a "Cheshire grin"! And, wait a minute— there's TWO BOBCATS!!
More on the tale (tail) of the two bobcats in the next blog. Have to get out birding, now!
Happy Trails,
Debi Shearwater
San Benito County Birding

Monday, May 16, 2011


Howdy, Folks,

Somehow I forgot to include WOOLY BLUECURLS (Trichostema lanatum) in my last post. A few nice stands of this low, rounded shrub were in bloom on Gloria Road. I just love long, hairy spikes of these erect inch-long blue flowers. The stamens can be up to two inches long.
This chaparral plant can be found below 3500' from the Monterey area, south to Baja California.
Debi Shearwater
San Benito County Birding (and wildflowers)

Sunday, May 15, 2011


Howdy, Birders,

In pursuit of spring neotropical migrants and following on John Luther and Jim Lomax's recent report of a good fallout elsewhere, I set out early on Saturday, May 14, 2011 for Fremont Peak State Park, usually a great spring birding road. The morning began disappointmentingly cold, 41 F, with fog rolling in on a breeze, just like the San Benito County Big Day morning! Ugh. Practically no one was camping in the campgrounds. It had rained the night prior. It was incredibly quite for birds, and just about everything else. So, I began heading downhill, stopping whenever I heard birds, pishing and whistling various owl calls. Suddenly, I realized that a Northern Pygmy Owl was returning my call! It sounded so perfect. Now, I have had a lot of good luck with owls (keep reading), even calling out pygmy owls in the daytime. However, I just had to consider that it could — just possibly, be — another birder. And, there he was — emerging on the hilltop above me, behind the trees! I called out, "Lomax, Lomax."

Jim and I hooked up to bird our way down San Juan Canyon Road. We did come across a number of migrants— quite a few HERMIT WARBLERS, TOWNSEND'S WARBLERS and WARBLING VIREOS, plus lots of the "regulars", in particular a lot of NORTHERN HOUSE WRENS singing. However, our best bird on this road was a single PACIFIC WREN. This wren is not so easy to find in San Benito County. It does not breed in the county, and only a handful are seen each year, if that. Some recent reports have come from Pinnacles National Monument. So, it was no surprise that this was a new county bird for Jim and a year bird for me. This was great news. In our search for Cassin's Vireo, which does nest on this road, we failed. Still, a county bird put us in good spirits. Jim set off on his other county pursuits, while I headed to Gloria Road, where I had not birded "in forever."

Gloria Road is a hard-packed dirt road, south of Paicines on Highway 25. Reaching the road is a lovely drive in itself through oak forests dotted with gray pines. The predominant habitat is chaparral, with chemise covering the hillsides. A permanent, willow fringed creek flows alongside the road.
Nuttall's Woodpecker and Acorn Woodpeckers are common on this road. Above is one of the many granaries of the later.
Several species of oaks are dripping with the Spanish moss like vegetation. Mistletoe is also found in many of the trees. Best place to look for Phainopepla is the first 50 yards of the road, after the turnoff on Highway 25, also known as "Airline Highway."
All birding is from the road, as there is no public land. Please do not trespass. This is a public road, however. It is one of the few roads that crosses the Gabilan Mountians. The summit is the county line for San Benito and Monterey Counties. It is possible to follow the road all the way down to the town of Soledad, in the Salinas River Valley. I meandered, very slowly along this road. Some flowers were in bloom. Scarlett Bugler (Penstemon centranthifolius), above and below.
These flowers are very attractive to hummingbirds. On one May day in 1992, I found six species of hummingbirds on the San Benito County side of this road: Anna's, Rufous, Allen's, Black-chinned, Calliope (male), Costa's. In some years, Costa's Hummingbirds nest here. Chinese Houses (Collinsia heterophylla), I think, below:
BELL'S SAGE SPARROWS, along with WRENTITS and CALIFORNIA THRASHERS also breed on the sloping chemise hillsides. All of these resident species were easy to hear and see on this day. Pretty Faces (Triteleia lugens), below:
Like so many places, HOUSE WRENS and ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLERS, were singing non-stop. Every time I heard a WARBLING VIREO singing, I stopped to look for migrants. It was interesting that they would all be clumped in one tree— so, all six WESTERN TANAGERS were on one, small oak tree. Likewise, all four BULLOCK'S ORIOLES were in one oak. Overall, it was pretty quiet for bird sounds. Maybe too cold. I don't know. Not even the WESTERN WOOD PEEWEES were calling. In past years, I've seen LAWRENCE'S GOLDFINCHES building nests in May. However, they were simply feeding in the fiddleneck flowers. I did find two pairs of nesting LARK SPARROWS and newly fledged OAK TITMICE.

As the late afternoon merged into early evening, I slowly meandered toward Hollister, taking a few twists and turns on lonely side roads. I was thinking that the Pacific Wren was certainly the "bird of the day." When, suddenly, POW— an orange puffball of feathers swooped past my car in a moth-like flight! It only lasted 3 seconds at most, but my brain registered, LONG-EARED OWL! As it was still very early, with lots of light in the sky, sunset still on the cloudy horizon, I stopped the car, and got out. POW— suddenly the owl swooped past me, and then another owl did the same. One Long-eared Owl perched in a gray pine. I could hear soft, muffled sounds of fledglings in a nearby nest. Obviously, all the swooping was due to my presence near the nest. This is the first known nest outside of Pinnacles National Monument, in San Benito County.
The two adults began calling back and forth to each other. It was entrancing to hear their sounds in such close proximity. Not wanting to disturb them, I moved on. Did I say I was Lucky with Owls? One more chapter for my owl storybook!
Long-eared Owls are common throughout San Benito County, nesting from as far north as Fremont Peak to the very south of the county line, near Coalinga Road, and all throughout the middle parts, including at Pinnacles National Monument. But, to actually SEE Long-eared Owls while it was still daylight in San Benito County, was a real treat.

Many birders visit Mercy Hot Springs, Fresno County, in Panoche Valley to see and photograph Long-eared Owls. A few pairs also breed there. The fee for owl visiting and photography is $5 per person. It is also possible to spend the night, camping or in their small cabins.

A couple more owls— Great-horned and Barn, popped up on the way home, as a soft rain began falling. What a fine ending to a cloudy, cold spring day, enlivened by the cheery House Wren songs, everywhere. In fact, I think I had to shake those wrens out of my shoes at day's end.

Happy Trails,
Debi Shearwater

San Benito County Birding

Friday, May 13, 2011


Howdy, Birders,

Continuing with the San Benito County Big Year, I headed out at the late hour of 2:30 pm today. For the life of me, I could not decide where to go. It seems that there has been a lot of reports of Yellow-breasted Chats and some Least Bell's Vireos. I thought I should try looking for them, but could not make a decision. So, my car just sort of lead me to Paicines Reservoir — the place I always like to go, anyway. The reservoir is very, very high right now. No mud flats for shorebirds exist. In all honesty, there is not much bird life around. However, I was in for a surprise. A solitary BLACK TERN was feeding near the Highway 25 pullout at 2:45 pm. I watched it for the next half hour.

Next I decided to bird along the San Benito River. On my way, I watched a pair of CALIFORNIA TOWHEES in a garden for about ten minutes. They seemed to be feeding young. And, sure enough, I found the nest with three newly hatched chicks. See below:
I wandered along the river, pishing up a lot of SONG SPARROWS and a few COMMON YELLOWTHROATS. TREE SWALLOWS were nesting in a hole and a female LESSER GOLDFINCH was collecting nesting material. Suddenly, a male COOPER'S HAWK responded to the pishing, landing on a snag only a few feet off the ground. I could hear a lot of noise in the forest. So, I walked into the dense willows, finding both of the COOPER'S HAWKS near their nest. This is only the second Cooper's Hawk nest that I have ever found. It is about 25 feet high in a Goodding Willow tree. The nest is the dark area in the image below.
I wandered around for a bit. Watched a female NORTHERN HARRIER carrying food to her young, although I have yet to nail this nest down. While sitting in my car, writing my notes, at the edge of the river, a BOBCAT walked along the dirt road into the grass. Then, it returned to the road, and just sat there. Suddenly, a male CALIFORNIA QUAIL walked across the road, noticed the Bobcat, started to run— well, of course, I thought the Bobcat would snatch it, since it was only inches away, but instead, the Bobcat was genuinely startled, jumping up and away from the quail! Wandering along the river, hoping for another view of the Bobcat, but all I found were these tracks in the mud. Raccoon, I suppose.
Looped back to Paicines Reservoir. No Black Tern in sight, but a male WOOD DUCK scurried under the single willow tree nearest the pullout.

I drove home by way of Brown's Valley Road and was happy to see a few newly fledged HORNED LARKS, along with some adults.

Heading out tomorrow, early!
Happy Trails,
Debi Shearwater
San Benito County Birding

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


Howdy, Birders,

The Common Poorwill, Phalaenoptilus nuttallii, was just about the final bird of the San Benito County Big Day, April 29, 2011 with Scott Terrill, Steve Rottenborn and Don Doolittle. I spotted this small nightjar, on the side of Panoche Valley Road, just as we were leaving the valley floor. Looking at the image, below, it seems that there might just be a tiny piece of trash, or rock on the side of the road. The bright, orange eye shine gave the bird away to me. This orange color is just about the same color as Bott Dots, the raised markers on some roads. However, eye shine moves, and Bott Dots don't. It helps to drive relatively slowly.

After stopping the car, Don slowly got out, and shot the image, below of the little critter. This was the only bird that we photographed throughout the day, as we were just too busy looking for birds!
Poorwills are one of the few birds known to hibernate, or go into a torpor, during winter. This image shows it's cryptic coloration. Poorwills nest in San Benito County, and can sometimes be found on warm winter nights. I have seen them on the following roads in San Benito County: Highway 25, Panoche Valley Road, Quien Sabe Road, Gloria Road, San Juan Canyon Road, Lone Tree Road and Coalinga Road. They are fairly widespread in the arid regions of the county, from one end to the other. Their sound is a very distinctive, loud, "poor-will" call.

Happy Trails,
Debi Shearwater

Images, copyright, Don Doolittle.

Saturday, May 7, 2011


Howdy, Birders,

On Friday, May 6th I decided to attempt to find a loon. This is not an easy prospect in land-locked San Benito County. Naturally, this means visiting the major bodies of deep water. I began the morning at Paicines Reservoir. If you asked me to choose one place to start the day in San Benito County, I would almost always choose Paicines Reservoir. The mirror reflection of of the cattle lined up along the distant edge of the reservoir was beautiful and peaceful. No loons in sight. However, I did get to enjoy my morning latte with the BALD EAGLE! She flew in from the northeast on a straight shot for the small oak on the levee, landing as though it was her old friend. The eagle was a nice consolation prize. Driving through the town of Tres Pinos on Highway 25, I stopped to watch a flock of CEDAR WAXWINGS, feeding on berries of a pepper tree.
At Paicines Reservoir, above, the water level is very high.
Below, a newly hatched Killdeer at the sewer ponds.
En route to San Justo Reservoir, I stopped at the Hollister Sewer Ponds. This facility is open to birders on weekdays. Be sure to sign in and out at the office. At the office front door, I found a garter snake who was quite confused about which direction to go. One of the staff carried the snake to a better location. Best birds here were: SHORT-BILLED DOWITCHER (7), SEMI-PALMATED PLOVER (4), SPOTTED SANDPIPER (1). At the Hollister Industrial Ponds, nearby, best birds were: GREAT-TAILED GRACKLE (1 female, nesting), RING-NECKED DUCK (4), NORTHERN SHOVELER (2), SPOTTED SANDPIPER (2). At San Justo Reservoir, I found another SPOTTED SANDPIPER, courting WESTERN GREBES, one EARED GREBE, and 2 LAZULI BUNTINGS. The reservoir is closed to the public, including birders. Again, I dipped on loons. Maybe this would not be a day for loons, after all, I thought. So, I headed for one of my long time favorite spring birding roads — Lone Tree Road, pictured below.
Seventeen years ago when I first moved to San Benito County, Lone Tree Road was steady spring birding road. It rarely disappoints me. Today was no exception.

I headed nearly to the top of this dead end road, passing by YELLOW-BILLED MAGPIES and WESTERN BLUEBIRDS. Stopping to shoot a few pictures of wildflowers, I heard quite a few birds near the 10 mile marker where I finally stopped to bird. In this area I encountered a wonderful flock of migrants, including: BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER (2), NASHVILLE WARBLER (4), BLACK-THROATED GRAY WARBLER (1 male), TOWNSEND'S WARBLER (2 males), MYRTLE WARBLER, ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER (1), WARBLING VIREO (2), HUTTON'S VIREO (1), BULLOCK'S ORIOLE (3), SWAINSON'S THRUSH (2), WESTERN TANAGER (2), GRAY FLYCATCHER (1), ASH-THROATED FLYCATCHER (2), WESTERN WOOD PEEWEE (1), BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAK (2), and the usual resident bird species. These birds were high in the oak trees.
California Poppy
Blue Dick
There is a significant California/Bay Laurel Tree stand as shown above.
Apparently, I just happened to stop right near the nest of a CALIFORNIA THRASHER, as both adults jumped out! One tried to lead me away, down the road.
Sticky Monkey Flower

At the very end of the road, I encountered three lovely LAZULI BUNTINGS, two of which were singing males. Belting it out, really. Heading back down the road, I espied an adult GOLDEN EAGLE, perched on a high rocky craig. CHIPPING, LARK and RUFOUS-CROWNED SPARROWS, AMERICAN and LESSER GOLDFINCHES and ROCK WREN were along the roadside. Next, I headed out to Santa Ana Valley Road.
It is mowing time for hay and other grains. However, my heart stopped at the sight of a tractor cutting the field where I suspected nesting NORTHERN HARRIERS. I stopped and spoke with the driver of the tractor, in my very broken Spanish, asking him if he would mow around any nesting birds on the ground. I can only hope. As I drove away, I saw both a male and female harrier in the air, over that field. Best bird finds on this road were CASSIN'S KINGBIRD and an intermediate morph SWAINSON'S HAWK.

Nearby is Comstock Road, another one of the foothill roads off Fairview Road, outside of Hollister. This can also be a great spring birding road. But, on this day, I only added a few new species, including a calling PACIFIC-SLOPE FLYCATCHER. I did not find any migrant flocks. Two WHITE-CROWNED SPARROWS at the end of the road were late.

Finally, I wandered south on Highway 25 to Bitterwater Dry Lake. The "dry" lake is actually quite full of water, even creating a second smaller lake. Here, I found a SOLITARY SANDPIPER, SPOTTED SANDPIPER, AMERICAN AVOCET along with three CANADA GEESE and MALLARDS. The Solitary Sandpiper is a rare migrant in San Benito County, but it is seemingly a great year for them with many turning up.

I continued south on Highway 25 to La Laguna Vieja Rancho, pictured below. Due to the excellent rains that we had this past winter, there is quite a wetland at this location. However, no unusual birds, or loons!
On Coalinga Road, it was getting dark. A single VAUX'S SWIFT was flying with some swallows, while a GREAT-HORNED OWL called from it's nesting area in a cliff. It was a fabulous day of spring birding, even though I was skunked in my search for loons. Tomorrow is another day.

Happy Trails,
Debi Shearwater

All images, copyright, Debi Shearwater

Sunday, May 1, 2011


Howdy, Birders,

This is a report of a record setting San Benito County Big Day by Steve Rottenborn, Scott Terrill, Don Doolittle and Debi Shearwater. The previous record for this county was 149, held by Steve Rovell and R.J. Adams on April 25, 2006. We recorded 155 species of birds on April 29, 2011. As always, we raced against the clock, drank a lot of coffee, battled unseasonably chilly winds, and found some surprise birds.

After driving hundreds of miles, some of it very productively, participating in Audubon California's Tricolored Blackbird Survey, Shearwater had a good idea of what birds were lingering and which migrants had not yet arrived. Shearwater and Doolittle did a scouting Big Day on April 27th. Yet, all did not look well. Shearwater had not detected any gulls or terns, anywhere in the county for several weeks. Neotropical migrants were barely showing up— only one BLUE GROSBEAK was on territory. No Lazuli Buntings were found. Neither Hermit, nor Swainson's Thrushes were around. Precious few warblers had arrived. The first of spring, SEMI-PALMATED PLOVER had arrived and WHIMBRELS seemed to be on the move, but few other shorebirds were around. Many of the hoped for duck species had departed, along with the single remaining Ross's Goose. Things did not look too hopeful for a successful Big Day.

Scott Terrill provided the shining light— while winds had been steady and consistent from the southwest, they were forecast to shift overnight to the northwest. This they did, with big gusts smacking against my house about 8:30 pm. This wind shift could very well put migrants down, improving our birding chances, but would also mean that we'd have to deal with the dreaded wind.

Everyone gathered at Shearwater's home in Hollister at 1 am on April 29th, loaded with coffee. Spirits were high. Over the past many months Shearwater had gained access to several private ranches which would prove key to the final tally. Debi made one announcement, "I can guarantee that, somewhere in this county, there is a Calliope Hummingbird and a Solitary Sandpiper. Somewhere." These two species had been turning up on many reports on the various list serves.

The early morning hours found us driving through the grasslands, where we easily found the same GREAT-HORNED OWL and family of BARN OWLS that Shearwater and Doolittle had seen on April 27th. At the top of Quien Sabe Road, we had hoped for Poorwill, but none appeared or called. Too cold and too windy, although another BARN OWL was added. At a pond on a private ranch, we added calling, SORA, VIRGINIA RAIL and COMMON MOORHEN, MARSH WREN, all apparently nesting here, as Shearwater had them staked out. Only another GREAT-HORNED OWL was added on Cienega Road.

Next, we headed for San Juan Canyon Road, the road that leads up to Fremont Peak State Park. This must surely be the best owling road in the county. Despite the wind, we added COMMON POORWILL, LONG-EARED OWL, NORTHERN PYGMY OWL, WESTERN SCREECH OWL and NORTHERN SAW-WHET OWL. This was a smashing start to the day!

We drove to the top of Fremont Peak and had an hour to spare before dawn arrived. A short rest was deserved, but we were mostly too excited to sleep. ACORN WOODPECKERS greeted the first light of day. We spent the next several hours, birding our way down this mountain, stopping each time we heard any singing birds. It was a very chilly 37 F, all the way to the bottom! Some of the key species recorded here included: a singing RUBY-CROWNED KINGLET, a calling HAMMOND'S FLYCATCHER, OLIVE-SIDED FLYCATCHER, BAND-TAILED PIGEON, BROWN CREEPER, HERMIT WARBLER, BLACK-THROATED GRAY WARBLER, WILSON'S WARBLER, NASHVILLE WARBLER, YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER, countless singing ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLERS, TOWNSEND'S WARBLER, WESTERN TANAGER, CHESTNUT-BACKED CHICKADEE, PINE SISKIN, CEDAR WAXWING (by day's end, we would see many flocks of waxwings, definitely on the move this day), CASSIN'S, HUTTON'S and WARBLING VIREOS, BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER, BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAK, LAZULI BUNTING, PURPLE FINCH, LESSER, AMERICAN and LAWRENCE'S GOLDFINCH and GOLDEN EAGLE, SHARP-SHINNED HAWK. This road could possibly be the best spring birding road in the county! If only we didn't have to rush on to other places. At the bottom of the road, Rottenborn suggested checking the first Washington Palm Tree for HOODED ORIOLE, which we promptly ticked.

Our next stop was Vista Park Hill, in downtown Hollister. This park is planted with many ornamental shrubs and trees. It is the highest elevation in the surrounding area. These two characteristics make it attractive to migrants. Upon entering the park, is a row of bottlebrush shrubs which usually have more flowers open at this time of year. (The hot weather of this coming week may help to pop open more flowers). This is a haven for hummingbirds, orioles, tanagers and sometimes, warblers. I have seen upwards of 100+ hummingbirds at one time, feeding in these flowers. We were not disappointed! Before long, we had tallied, RUFOUS, ANNA'S BLACK-CHINNED, and TWO CALLIOPE HUMMINGBIRDS. Also added to the count were AMERICAN KESTREL. We were at this park from 9:25 to 9:55 am.

STARBUCKS was next on the agenda! Refueled, and having a bathroom stop, we headed to Southside Road marsh in hopes of a lingering Ring-necked Duck. Although they were present only a week ago, all had departed. Debi's staked out BLUE GROSBEAK was next on Cienega Road.

Soon we were on private property, again, near San Justo Reservoir. Here, we spied WESTERN and CLARK'S GREBES and GREEN HERON. From there, we visited the Hollister Sewer Ponds where signing in and out, is required. Best birds here were: two SPOTTED SANDPIPERS, SEMI-PALMATED PLOVER, NORTHERN SHOVELER, RING-NECKED DUCK, BUFFLEHEAD, GADWALL, GREEN-WINGED TEAL, RUDDY DUCK, CINNAMON TEAL, and GREAT-TAILED GRACKLE, apparently nesting.

A quick check on Lover's Lane and Pacheco Creek did not turn up anything special other than more nesting GREAT-TAILED GRACKLES. So, we headed to San Felipe Lake at the north end of the county where it borders Santa Clara County. A flock of five WHIMBRELS flew overhead on Lake Road. Special birds here included: BURROWING OWL, GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GOOSE, CACKLING GOOSE, one WHITE-FACED IBIS and NORTHERN PINTAIL. Missing American White Pelican, we headed over to San Felipe Road marsh. I guess the Bald Eagle had driven them off, after trying to catch and eat one two days ago! One AMERICAN WHITE PELICAN was found here, thankfully!

We made our way back toward the central part of the county by way of Santa Ana Valley Road, where we found the staked out CASSIN'S KINGBIRD. Driving up Lone Tree Road, we also found the staked out ROCK WREN and RUFOUS-CROWNED SPARROW, but dipped on Grasshopper Sparrow. (Shearwater had not found any in recent searches). WHITE-THROATED SWIFTS were zipping along the rocky peaks. Near Bolado Park, we added PRAIRE FALCON. Paicines Reservoir was our next stop, hoping for the Osprey that had been hanging around for the past week. We dipped, again. On nearby private property, however, we added first of spring, singing YELLOW WARBLER. A PHAINOPEPLA nest spot that had been staked out did not yield the bird on the scouting day, but did so on our count day. Tick! Checking the wetlands, Rottenborn spied not one, but two SOLITARY SANDPIPERS! There are fewer than ten records for the county of this species.

Finally, we headed out to Panoche Valley for the day's end. So, in essence we never made it south of Paicines Reservoir. Although we tried for Canyon Wren on Panoche Road, we dipped on that one. However, several small flocks of VAUX'S SWIFTS were zipping along with the swallows in this canyon. The staked out HORNED LARKS were a piece of cake. As the sun was setting, our last hopes of adding new birds to the day were dimming. We headed to yet another stake out spot. Almost simultaneously, Rottenborn spotted another PRAIRIE FALCON, and Terrill spotted a LESSER NIGHTHAWK.

We had hit 155, and broken the old record. It was 9:30 pm. So, we decided to not wait for the staked out Short-eared Owl. In retrospect, we probably should have waited, as it would have meant that we ticked all of the owls and nightjars known to the county at this date. But, we were tired, especially the two of us who had put in two of these Big Day counts. So, we headed home. While we were still on the valley floor, a COMMON POORWILL was spotted on the road. Debi stopped the car while Don got some photographs of this little gem. This was teh only bird we had time to photograph all day. (Images forthcoming). We arrived at Debi's house about 10:45 pm, having driven 295 miles. It was a very fun day of birding a little known county!

"Best" birds of the day: Hammond's Flycatcher (1), Solitary Sandpiper (2), Calliope Hummingbird (2 females), Cackling Goose (3), White-faced Ibis (1), Northern Saw-whet Owl, Lesser Nighthawk, Hermit Warbler, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Ruby-crowned Kinglet (1), Whimbrel (5). Biggest misses of the day: American Wigeon (all had departed only days ago), Snowy Egret, Cooper's Hawk, Dunlin (only recently arrived), Western Wood Peewee, Canyon Wren, Hermit Thrush.

I would sincerely like to thank my awesome birding companions— Scott Terrill, Steve Rottenborn and Don Doolittle. We had a lot of good fun. As a County Birder in California, Scott surpassed 200, not counting introduced species, for his San Benito County list. As a birder who is doing a San Benito County Big Year, I reached 201 for the year, not counting introduced species. The previous Big Year record is 237 in 2006, which I hold. So, I'm trying to better my own record. The total San Benito County species list is 301 (308 with introduced species, including California Condor).

I would also like to thank the owners of the private properties that we visited. Without their generosity, we would not have been able to capture this day. Please stay tuned for future birding opportunities on private ranches in San Benito County.

The complete species list for APRIL 29, 2011 SAN BENITO COUNTY BIG DAY follows:


Happy Trails,
Debi Shearwater
San Benito County Birding


Howdy, Birders,

Beginning at 1:15 am on 27 April, Don Doolittle and I made a "dry run" of my route and planning for a San Benito County Big Day. We traveled some 305 miles throughout the northern and middle areas of the county, the clock being the limiting factor in our quest to find as many birds as possible within 24 hours. In the end, we tallied about 120 species. This was not enough to beat the record holders, Steve Rovell and R.J. Adams who tallied 149 in 2006. Still, we were encouraged. It was a tough day, with precious few spring migrants showing. We could only hope that more would arrive before our planned Big Day on Friday, April 29th.

Some of the highlights included: a flyover WHIMBREL; lingering GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GEESE; nesting GREAT-TAILED GRACKLES at three locations; a family of BARN OWLS in a barn owl box, a nesting GREAT-HORNED OWL nesting in a barn, a flyby WESTERN SCREECH OWL, calling LONG-EARED and NORTHERN SAW-WHET OWLS; a nesting BALD EAGLE that tried to take out a WHITE PELICAN and a BLUE GROSBEAK on territory.
Osprey, copyright Don Doolittle

At the end of the day, we headed out to Panoche Valley. We were surprised to see several YELLOW-BILLED MAGPIES harassing this perched OSPREY on Panoche Valley Road, about a quarter mile from the intersection with Highway 25. Two days earlier, I had seen the same Osprey hovering over Paicines Reservoir. And, the next day, Jennifer Green and I saw it, again, over Paicines Reservoir.

On Panoche Valley floor, the light was fading fast, marking the end of our hopes of birds. However, we were able to find LESSER NIGHTHAWK, many BARN OWLS and a few BURROWING OWLS, and finally, a possible nesting SHORT-EARED OWL.

We enjoyed the antics of the GIANT KANGAROO RATS along the sides of the road, on our return drive to Hollister. The Giant K Rat was listed as a Federally Endangered Species in 1987.
Giant Kangaroo Rat, copyright Don Doolittle

Giant Kangaroo Rats live in sandy, arid grasslands. Their long tail, which makes up 130% of their body length, is used for balance. They eat seeds and grains. Their average life span is about 10 years.
Giant Kangaroo Rat, copyright Don Doolittle

Giant Kangaroo Rats communicate with each other by scent and foot thumping, a behavior in which the rats hit their hind feet against the ground repeatedly. Long, elaborate "footrolls" can average 100 drums at 18 drums per second. Foot drumming helps identify neighbors, establish territory, and communicate mating status. They are critically endangered, restricted to a small area in western central California that is only about 2% of its former range. Panoche Valley is a critical habitat for this species.

On our return to Hollister, we saw a few more BARN and GREAT-HORNED OWLS before crashing out for some much needed sleep. The real Big Day was set to begin in just 24 hours!

Happy Trails,
Debi Shearwater

Birding San Benito County

Paicines Reservoir

Howdy, Birders,

It has been quite awhile since I've posted to the blog— well, because I've been too busy, out birding in San Benito County. It has been a wonderful ending to winter (I hope!), with spring having finally arrived. Some days, it has still very much felt like winter, though! In pursuit of breaking the San Benito County Big Year, I've been birding just about everywhere possible.

Paicines Reservoir, just under ten miles from my home, remains my most favorite birding spot in San Benito County. However, I've been out and about, covering the entire county. In April, I surveyed Tricolored Blackbirds for Audubon California, covering the county from one end, Coalinga Road, to the other, San Felipe Lake. It was a fabulous time. Flowers were beginning to bloom.
Owl's Clover

One evening, I enjoyed watching six California Condors, 4 adults and 2 immatures, soaring over a ridge for 45 minutes as they went to their evening roost. This was quite a distance from Pinnacles National Monument and not at all inside of the park boundaries. It is always a thrill to see these ancient birds.
California Condors
Unusually cool weather and rain seemed to have delayed the arrival of spring migrants. Hoping for these birds for the Big Day count!

Happy Trails,
Debi Shearwater