26 October 2007

Bird learnin'

12September2007, Wednesday afternoon (though not transcribed from the pen & ink journal 'til Saturday 15Sept07)

I took the back way out towards the mouth of the creek this afternoon, via the southeast corner of the estuary. We're in the middle of what's to become a mostly overcast week: not much fog...just high, gray clouds.

I'm enjoying the self-imposed challenge of trying to figure out the birds of this beach. I'm thinkin' that by taking notes and taking some time and writing this shit down, I might actually remember what the hell they all are for more than 19.5 hours. The problem with my brain is that it generally works in a big picture frame. I see best the landscapes, broad concepts, sweeping history. I don't see as well leaf shapes, temporary flowers, white eyebrows above the eyes, women's haircuts, and daily bureaucratic minutiae. Not a weakness (I've convinced myself), just a recognition of what works with me.

So, when a small shore bird strolls across the opposite shore, my attempt to train myself begins. A small, long-legged shorebird, though not real tiny. My first uneducated thought without the bird book in my pocket is some sort of plover or sandpiper, cuz I know that plover and sandpiper are popular names for shorebirds here. Some of the things I note for later when I do have the book: a white breast and belly, mottled brown wings and back, a narrow and pointed black beak, and, in what I hope will be a couple of defining characteristics - an off-white eyebrow above a distinct black band around the face and double-black ring (below white) under his neck.

You real birders probably already get it, but it took me a few minutes back at the office of wandering through Sibley's guide to narrow it down. It's a killdeer! (A bird I actually once knew way back when, believe it or not.) It's the double black on the chest that gives it away.

As I walk down the back of the estuary, I can only hear the ocean. On the sand horizon created by the high berm of the beach, a line of gulls stand in silhouette. I watch a female gull (or perhaps it's an immature something or other, though I'm probably premature in calling it immature since I really know nothing about this particular bird's character), pick up a 6" driftwood stick, fly up about 25 feet, and deliberately, so it seems, drop it into the middle of the gathered flock. For what purpose, I wonder. A teenage prank? Perhaps he is rather immature after all. A display of jealousy or juvenile manhood? Certainly not nest building. Curious, eh?

One Caspian tern, bright orange beak and black head slips by. I'll see him later, the lone tern in a mass of a hundred gulls.

Where the creek bangs into the ocean's sand spit, it takes a brief left (southward) turn. At the head of the small inland peninsula, eight tiny birds skitter at the shallow water's edge. Smaller than the killdeer, again I think sandpiper or plover. The notes: a light brown head and speckled backs and wings, speckled chest gradually fading into white belly, black tipped tail, long and narrow black beak, and a small patch of white over the eye. There are eight of them in the group, dipping their long beaks into the water...bug shopping I'm sure. They're tiny...I guess 4-5 inches tall at best.

The answer? Semi-palmated plovers most likely. While there could be a couple other good choices, the size seems to indicated the SP plover over the others.

It's just after high tide here. Climbing to the top of the sand spit, only gulls stretch from one end to the other today, plus the aforementioned lone Caspian tern. There are no pelicans gathered on the beach today. Occasionally, a single pelican slips by in the mist, but it's odd they're not here after weeks of huge populations.

A few small clusters of common murres coast off-shore. A smaller bird, mottled underbelly and black above paddles purposefully through the quiet waves. Head raised upward at a slight angle. I guess marbled murrelet, our threatened symbol of the redwood-marine ecosystem. I guessed right, I'm pretty sure, upon consulting Mr Sibly later. Just the one, though.

Three cormorants flash by, wings flapping furiously, on their way south.

I wade into the flock of gulls to see if or how they react. A couple hundred of 'em are in my path, mostly the gray and white western and California gulls with a sizable contingent of Heerman's gulls. The Heerman's are clustered together, a gray patch surrounded by the white-topped rest of 'em. I walk into the crowd slowly. The birds only cautiously stroll away enough to give me room to pass through. Without any herky-jerky motions, they're content to let me move quietly among 'em. It's only when I raise my arm up to pull off my spectacles so's I can use the binocs that they briefly swarm skyward and relocate to new safe positions, again, not too far away.

I think I'm beginning to figger out some of these damn gulls. The Heerman's are surely distinctive...all gray with the bright orange beaks. Not too tough an ID.

We've got your western gulls....tall with a bright yellow, heavy beaks - more bulbous at the tip with a solitary red spot towards the tip of their snout. Their pinkish legs...something I hadn't cued into before, combined with the beak shape seem to help pull the westerns out from the rest of the group. I'm thinking, as I spy through the binocs, that this seems to help in looking at the women and immature gulls too.

Now that I'm deep among them, I'm convinced finally that there are California gulls here as well. (How idiotic this must read to someone who actually knows these things.) Smaller than the westerns, but with similar white heads and bellies over solid gray wings. Brownish, streaked heads, a slimmer beak than the westerns, and with both black and red splotches at the tip of the beak. Pale yellow to white legs help differentiate them from the westerns as well.

Herring gulls should also be in the neighborhood but it's gonna take another trip out here to figger if they're here or not. I suppose I could ask someone who knows, but the discovery is proving fun.

Three pelicans glide down the the surf just inches above the waves. A group of six cormorants accompany them, like the destroyer escorts protecting the battleship. A single seal pops up from the surf, just watching me.

Hasta la proxima.

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