Birds of Wildcat Canyon: June Edition

Juv. Black Phoebe in Wildcat Canyon

Birds of Wildcat Canyon June Edition

**As always in our new normal, please check with local agencies regarding safety alerts and closures. **

My update from May still broadly applies in June (and July). We’re not going to see much in the way of turnover of birds until August at the earliest. Birds are singing less and many are going to look a bit ragged as they molt into new feathers. Many of the birds you will see will be youngsters, so be prepared for some unfamiliar-looking versions of our familiar favorites. Pay attention to overall shape of the bird, the habitat it is in, and its behavior. Also watch to see who it hangs out with, since some of our parent birds will still keep an eye on the kids for some time after fledging.

Wild Turkey Poult resting in Wildcat Canyon

Since there’s not much new to point out bird-wise, I thought I’d take the opportunity to share some resources for birding. This month I’ll focus on binoculars and (paper) field guides. Next month I’ll mention some apps and web resources.

 

BINOCULARS

Most birds want to stay away from people, so we need something to spy on them from farther away. Thankfully now there are a ton of (reasonably) affordable alternatives for binoculars. The high-end models run thousands of dollars, but you can definitely jump in with great results at ~$150-$250 or even better if you hit a good sale. Check out a recent (2019) rating from The National Audubon Society. 

If you are new to birding, the best advice is to get something in the range of 7x-10x magnification (as opposed to 12x or higher). Higher magnification gives a double-whammy of being heavier and magnifying shakes, making them more difficult to use. If you aren’t sure, go with 8x to start out with.

The second key stat on a pair of bins is the objective (the “42” in 8x42s for example). Larger objective diameter will mean a wider field of view and vice versa. You’ll need to figure out where you are in the trade-off between portability and light gathering. 8×20’s are likely to be ultra-compact but give you a narrow tube to look through, compared to 8×50’s which will be bigger but give you a nice wide and bright view.

 

If you have the chance to visit a store, try out the different sizes and see which brands feel most comfortable in your hands. If you are a glasses-wearer like I am, pay particular attention to the eye relief and how the image circle looks. Local stores like REI or Wild Birds Unlimited will have some selection, or get overwhelmed by the stock at Out of This World in Mendocino or Cabela’s that have pretty much everything.

Spotting scopes and camera optics are separate worlds from binoculars. Happy to answer questions about them but I’ll skip those topics for now. I’ve laid out my general opinion about camera gear for wildlife here.

PRINTED FIELD GUIDES

There are digital alternatives, but I’m not sure an app can invite you into the world of birding in the same way that flipping page after page of gorgeous bird images can (they do have their advantages, which I will get to next month). The small pamphlet-style guides are fun but it’s impossible to cram enough species and different views of a given species, so if you are going to invest in a hard copy go all out and get a regional or national guide. The top birders have seen over 300 species in Contra Costa County and several hotspots have over 200 species seen; a trifold picturing 40 species is only going to get you so far.

You can always add sticky notes and highlighter to mark your familiar birds in a bigger guide!

My Favorite:

Sibley Guide to Bird of the West. For me this offers an amazing balance between portability and detail, and David Sibley’s illustrations are widely lauded for capturing realistic postures characteristic of each species.

 

My Runners up:

National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America

If you are a used book fan, you can always get an older edition, but just be aware that bird names and relationships are a little fluid as ornithologists learn more, so your vintage guide may list antiquated names Western Flycatcher or Solitary Vireo that are now antiquated and possibly unhelpful. If you do go the used route, the newer the better.

Birds of Wildcat Canyon: May Edition

Another in my series of posts on local birding in the Richmond hills, originally published on NextDoor.

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It’s been a strange spring. My impression is that it’s been a poor migration this year. Some of the birds I mentioned in the April update haven’t really put in an appearance yet. Between last year’s fires and this year’s extreme drought, I don’t think we should expect a normal year. But maybe they’re just late? This past week seems to be ushering in a lot of new birds to the hills. As Emily Dickinson wrote, hope is the thing with feathers.

 

**As always in our new normal, please check with local agencies regarding safety alerts and closures. **

 

NEW ARRIVALS: Hopefully lots! As I mentioned above, if you haven’t yet seen “my” April birds like Lazuli Bunting or Ash-throated Flycatchers, they should be pulling into town now.

 

Western Tanager, Lake Tahoe.

Some of the pass-through migrants are also making pit stops. Within the past week I’ve seen Western Tanagers, Hermit Warbler, and Yellow Warbler.  These birds spend the winter south of us and are just on their way north or to the higher mountain areas to breed. If you enjoy the excitement of finding birds that only put in a brief appearance, these are for you! Also appropriate for fans of the color yellow. Western Tanagers slightly larger than a bluebird with a stout bill. They range from dull to brighter yellow, with the males also showing a bright red face or head. Hermit Warblers show a stunning pure yellow face, males adding a rich black throat for good measure. And Yellow Warblers are pretty much yellow all over, with some reddish streaking on the breast in the males. Your best bet is to check the tree canopies for birds foraging for insects.

Male Hermit Warbler, Gyuto Foundation, Richmond.

 

Swainson's Thrush, Wildcat Canyon

Also listen for Swainson’s Thrushes in the wooded areas. These birds have now replaced the very similar looking Hermit Thrush (Swainson’s are a shade paler and grayer, usually with slightly lighter chest spots and if you get a good look at their face, a light bar in front of their eye kind of like the nose piece of a pair of spectacles). Their song spirals up in a rising series of flute like notes. I most often hear these towards the bottom of the canyon, and at least right now, the earlier in the morning the better.

 

Of course, late spring and summer are about more than just the new birds on the block. It’s family time! Species that got an early start may already be out and about with their broods. Listen for noisy flocks of chickadees, titmice, and bushtits. Woodpeckers will be shuttling back and forth to their nest cavities. Owlets may be branching out from their nest. Fledgling birds are like teenagers, always hungry. Their begging calls may be unfamiliar as they transition from nestling peeps to adult calls, but their faces are usually giveaways since they often sport vestiges of the bright yellow or orange “lips” (bill coloration) that helps parents see where to aim their food.

 

WINTER BIRDS ON THE MOVE: Most of our wintering birds should be gone. One that’s still here (and singing!) is the Townsend’s warbler. Other exceptions include some of the more nomadic species that rarely if ever breed here, things like Pine Siskin, Cedar Waxwing, or Red Crossbill. For the rest, you’ll need to wait until the fall migration picks up towards the end of the summer.

Townsend's Warbler, Gyuto Foundation Richmond.

OUTSIDE THE CANYON. Although the hills are drying out quickly, there’s still time to head to interior Bay Area/east county sites to catch the breeding birds there.

 

For birds at least, our parks along the Bay are going to get less and less exciting for the next few months. Waterfowl and shorebirds numbers are mere fractions of what they are in the fall and winter. That’s not to say there aren’t interesting birds still around. Maybe you’ll come across an endangered Ridgeway’s Rail, or a Least Tern up from the breeding colony in Alameda, or an American Avocet in its breeding plumage. Also look for Ospreys ­– many are nesting now and their growing chicks will need a steady supply of fish. And who doesn’t love watching a bright white Snowy Egret shuffle along the shallows looking for food.

 

Maybe it’s time to go farther afield? Bring your binoculars when you head to the Sierra Nevadas and say hi to some of our winter friends, and meet some new birds like Cassin’s Finch and Evening Grosbeak. Or sign up for a whale watch and be amazed by the long-winged shearwaters and albatross that lurk just off shore.

Birds in Wildcat Canyon: April Edition

Spring has sprung! Birds are singing, flowers are blooming, the poison oak is nice and juicy. Pop a Claratin and get out there! Lots of birds to feature in this update.

 

**As always in our new normal, please check with local agencies regarding safety alerts and closures. **

 

Lazuli Bunting, Wildcat Canyon

NEW ARRIVALS: Who’s new to the neighborhood? As the vegetation on the hillsides matures, we’ll get some fresh birds in the open areas before the month is out. There should already be lots of red-winged blackbirds making homes of the taller weed patches, but look and listen for a couple of other species. First is a small finch-like bird called the Lazuli Bunting singing from the edge of fields or the middle of mustard thickets. Male Lazuli Bunting have coloration reminiscent of a bluebird with the saturation slider cranked up to 11, electric blue head and back with a rusty swatch on the sides and breast. They repeat their cheerful song frequently – it bouncing quickly along in a series of notes that can be repeated in pairs. These are definitely one of my favorites here in the canyon!

 

Grasshopper Sparrow, Wildcat Canyon

The other grassland bird I’ll highlight here, the Grasshopper Sparrow, often falls into the ‘seen but not heard’ category. If you are hiking in the open areas of the park, for example above the Belgum grove or along the lower reaches of the Mezue Trail, listen carefully for a long, even, insect-like buzzy trill emanating from the slopes. The sparrows themselves tend to be hard to localize and spot. My best advice is to check distant shrubs for little brown birds on top. The pretty patterning won’t be visible unless you get a close look.

 

Black-headed Grosbeaks, female (l) and male (r). At feeder in Richmond, CA

We also welcome back a colorful bird that might be familiar to those of you with backyard bird feeders, the Black-headed Grosbeak. These stout-billed relatives of tanagers and buntings are striking to look at, with bold blocks of black, white, orange and yellow in males and broad stripes on the head for the females. Their song resembles a loud robin song, swinging up and down in pitch through variable phrases, but with notes that are more staccato and more impatient rhythm. Listen for them in the tree tops in the canyon and your neighborhood.

 

Ash-throated Flycatcher, Wildcat Canyon

With Spring comes more insects, and with those come more insectivorous birds. Flycatchers are one such type, they comprise a sprawling collection of species that mostly share a hunting style – making short flights from perches to catch insects on the wing. We have resident species (Black Phoebe) and wintering species (Say’s Phoebe) but most of the flycatchers we meet here are migratory birds who show up to have their families here. The Ash-throated Flycatcher are Personality Plus, loudly announcing their presence with “BrrrReeeeep” calls and sporting a punk hairdo. Ash-throated Flycatchers nest in boxes or tree cavities much like bluebirds and you often find them along fences, scrub, and forest edges.

Pacific Slope Flycatcher, Wildcat Canyon

At the tinier end of the spectrum is the Pacific Slope Flycatcher. Pac-slopes are not much bigger than a warbler. You may see these in the forest, perched on a branch bobbing their tails and broadcasting their abrupt “Ptik” call. Look for their teardrop-shaped eye ring that’s slightly wider towards the back of their head than towards their beak. Pacific Slope Flycatchers are members of the genus Empidonax which are notoriously hard to identify even for seasoned birders. They are the only one we commonly see here in this close to the Bay, but several other species are possible especially during migration. Telling them apart requires a good look at their shape, color, behavior, and ideally, a description of their call.

 

WINTER BIRDS ON THE MOVE: Time to say goodbye to more of our friends. Most of our wintering sparrows will head out this month, led by our Sooty Fox Sparrows, followed by White-crowned and Golden Crowned Sparrows. The Golden-crowneds all breed in western Canada and Alaska. The White-crowneds make a much more complicated patchwork of resident and migratory populations with California migrants traveling to the Sierras or up the coast and even all the way up to northern Alaska. We are just on the edge of the range for some of the resident populations (apparently there are some in the scrubby areas of Hillside Park in El Cerrito, along with some spots closer to the bay and coast), so it’s not completely out of the ordinary to find one here in the spring or summer but for most of us in this part of the bay we won’t see them until the migrants return it the fall. For now, just enjoy their last days here as they sport their fresh breeding plumage and zip around full of vim and vigor.

 

Other woodland birds heading out soon include the tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglet and the Hermit Thrush. As the Hermit Thrushes leave, their cousin the Swainson’s Thrush will arrive from the south, but that is a story for next month…

 

OUTSIDE THE PARK: There is no bad place to bird right now! As I mentioned in the March update, this is the perfect time of year to check out parks and trails in the interior East Bay.

 

Need an excuse to get out? April 10th is the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory’s Photo Big Day. This is a fundraiser for a bird research and conservation organization on the Peninsula. The special theme for this event is “color”, either pictures of colorful birds or birds with a colorful background. For more information visit https://www.flipcause.com/secure/cause_pdetails/MTEwNjMx

 

Stuck at home? Golden Gate Audubon Society, one our local chapters, has some classes and virtual field trips. Many of these are also important fundraisers as part of the GGAS Bird-a-thon. Visit https://goldengateaudubon.org.

 

More Wildcat Canyon images available at alankrakauerphotography.com

(This essay was originally posted on NextDoor)

General Thoughts on Cameras for Birding and Wildlife (2021)

As someone who shares a lot of bird photography, I often get the question “What kind of camera should I get?” There are now a lot of great options so it’s important to think about how you plan to use the hardware. But first let me introduce the two general categories of cameras.

 

Quick note: I will not be discussing video recording. All cameras will be capable of some video recording, but since there’s less uniformity in what people want out of video, I’m not even going to open that can of worms.

 

Superzoom/Bridge (Point and Shoot) cameras. These are all-in-one cameras that have a permanently-attached zoom lens. These rank highly on convenience in that they are relatively small and lightweight for the amount of magnification they provide. Also, since their lenses cover a range of focal lengths, you can jump from taking a picture of a distant bird to a portrait of your friend to a wide shot of the sunset without reaching into your camera bag to change glass. Cost is on the lower end as well. The downsides to the smaller size are that the image sensor is smaller and you won’t have the highest quality lens elements. Not all models make manual adjustment of settings or manual focus convenient, so if these are important to you then make sure to study the camera specifications carefully.

 

Interchangeable Lens Cameras. These are camera bodies that come with separate detachable lenses. They tend to be heavier than the point and shoot cameras, but with larger and better image sensors and typically better responsiveness and controls for advanced shooting. The quality of the image will also depend on the quality of the lenses used, and here there’s a much higher ceiling for price and quality. More on these in a bit.

 

Which of these types of cameras should I be looking at? Think carefully about the pictures you want to be taking. Here are a few questions that might guide your self-reflection.

 

  1. Is it important to get the most difficult photos of birds and other wildlife, such as in low light conditions, birds in flight, etc? (In contrast, will you mainly use your camera for birds at your feeder, birds you see on hikes, waders and waterfowl at the park, perched hawks, etc).
  2. Are you the kind of person who compares your photos to those you see online from experienced photographers on nature websites, birding groups on social media, etc.? (In contrast, are the photos primarily for you as a record and reminder of nature experiences, to help document and identify birds, etc.?)
  3. Do you want to do a lot of printing, especially larger prints? (In contrast, will you primarily share small or medium sized photos over email or on social media?)

 

If you answered NO to all of these questions, then the bridge/superzoom camera may be a good choice for you. These will always be at the ready and can make excellent photos. You can check places like Digital Photography Review to compare the current offerings and find something in your price and feature range.

 

However, if you answered strongly in the affirmative to any of these, you may be looking for a camera with more responsiveness and potential for better image quality than the point and shoot models can provide.

 

Mirrorless or DSLR? These are the two common types of modern cameras with interchangeable lenses. DSLR are digital versions of the SLR (Single Lens Reflex) that in normal operation use a mirror to either bounces light up to the eyepiece or to the image-making sensor. In contrast, mirrorless cameras use the imaging sensor for everything – autofocus, showing you the preview on the rear screen or, if present, small screen in an eyepiece, and capturing the image.

 

In my opinion, there is broad enough overlap between DSLR and mirrorless in size, price, and features that we shouldn’t look at them as completely separate categories. I use a DSLR (Canon brand). Eventually sensors and eyepieces will continue to advance to the point where mirrorless technology has a clear advantage over the (mostly) non-electronic eyepieces and mirrors of DSLRs, and we may already be there with the top-of-the-line models, but at this point both techs offer excellent options for most consumers. That’s not to say there are not differences, but I’m not going to get into them here.

 

The bigger challenge is to get the most bang for your buck at a given price point, and that is going to mean thinking about both the camera body and the lens. You could have the best camera body in the world but if the glass that passes light from the outside world to the sensor is not of very good quality, then the image will suffer. The goal is to get the brightest, longest lens you can afford and carry around with you. A rough breakdown of telephoto lenses would be:

  • 200-300mm: Get your foot in the door. Usually lighter and smaller than the longer options. Especially for small and distant birds, this may not feel like quite enough reach, but is often a good choice if you don’t do a lot of wildlife photography or are starting with a limited budget before you invest more.
  • 400mm: This can be a good compromise between portability and reach, although there will be a jump in price from the entry level zooms.
  • 600mm: These are now higher quality and cheaper than ever before. The added reach comes with a cost though – they are big (hand-holdable for some but not for all). Great choice if you don’t often stray far from the car or don’t mind lugging around a larger lens.

Here are a few examples of kits to you give a sense of what you might be able to get with your money. Feel free to ask if you have specific questions.

 

  • Budget: ~$600 –  This is towards the low end of the possible price scale. Look for either entry model kit (possibly used) with the entry level telephoto zoom lens. Example: Canon T7 + 55-250mm or 75-300mm lens
  • Budget: ~$1200 – This opens up a few more options, either to jump in at a higher tier of camera body with an entry level lens, or a slightly older camera body with a lens upgrade (either quality or length). Examples: New Canon T8i + Canon 70-300 IS II; Used Canon 70D + used Tamron 150-600mm G1 or used Canon 300mm f4/L
  • Budget: ~$2500+ – Top of the line pro-sumer options, you’ll be able to get the highest grade lenses and very capable body behind it. Large option: Sigma 150-600mm sport, more mobile option Canon 100-400mm mk2 plus Canon 90D or Canon 7D mkii

Buying Used. It is natural to hold some hesitancy about purchasing used equipment. Will it work? Is it stolen? Buying pre-owned can be a great way to stretch your camera dollars. Refurbished items are ones that have been serviced by the manufacturer or authorized technician, and will offer a small discount along with a warranty. There are also reputable used dealers such as MPB.com, KEH.com, or used sections of B&H or Adorama, and of course there’s your local camera store like LookingGlass Photo in Berkeley. These outlets may not match the savings from a rando on Craigslist but they should offer safety and no-hassle returns if the item is not as advertised. Overall they tend to rate the condition fairly conservatively so even if it is not pristine it will likely function perfectly well. And don’t forget to take advantage of these outlets should you want to sell your gear in the process of upgrading your camera kit!

Wildcat Canyon Birding: Late Summer

Townsend's Warbler

This is the second essay I wrote on birding in my local open space. Originally posted on Next-door as a way to reach out to neighbors and get them excited about enjoying the biodiversity in our local park.

 

 

 

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Birds in Wildcat Canyon: Late Summer Edition. After more than a week of extreme heat, smoke, and park closure, my binoculars and I finally made it out to Wildcat Canyon yesterday. It was pretty quiet, but I ended up with around 37 species including several fall migrants. I heard a Western Tanager, so they are still coming through. I also had four species of warblers, a sure sign that fall is approaching! Wilson’s Warblers breed in the park so the one I saw may have been a local bird from this summer, but Yellow Warbler, Townsend’s Warbler, and Black-throated Gray Warblers are all newly arrived from their breeding grounds. [photo is a Townsend's Warbler, probably a young female]

FALL WARBLERS: Up for a challenge? Fall warblers can be tricky to find and to identify. In the spring, male warblers are considerate enough to SING LOUDLY AND DISTINCTLY, OVER AND OVER AGAIN. We’re not so lucky in the fall, and today I was straining my ears to pick out quick, infrequent call notes. Also, the adult birds will now be mixed with the young of the year, so be prepared for some drabber plumages along with the more vibrant yellows that the spring males of some species show off. Sometimes warblers will join our noisier resident birds in foraging flock, so if you come across some chickadees or bushtits, take a moment to pick out bird movement in the trees and maybe you’ll spot some other species too. The warblers and other migrants can show up anywhere, and different species may prefer different vegetation, but in general good places start your search include patches of willows in Wildcat Canyon and the mixed woodland along Wildcat Creek in Alvarado Park.

ACORN TIME: Fall in our oak woodlands means the start of a food bounty for some of our local wildlife. Watch for Western Scrub-jays flying around with their mouth full. Like many corvids (crow relatives), these jays will obsessively collect food then stash it around the landscape. And of course there are the aptly-named Acorn Woodpeckers. Family groups of these noisy hoarders can include multiple breeding males, multiple breeding females, and stay-at-home kids from previous years! The whole family works together to stash large numbers of acorns in tree sections called granaries. Other wildlife that incorporate acorns in their fall diet includes Wild Turkeys, California Quail, Band-tailed Pigeons (our fantastic large native pigeon), Woodrats, and Fox Squirrels. The Huchiun Ohlone people who lived in what is now Wildcat Canyon also relied on acorns as part of their diet.

LEAVING SOON: if not already gone, many of our breeding birds that head further south for the winter. These include the Wilson’s Warblers and Orange-crowned Warblers, along with Black-headed Grosbeaks.

OUTSIDE THE PARK: Looking for other places to see migrating songbirds? Wildcat Canyon is pretty dry, and in our parched summer landscape birds may be a little easier to find around water. Keep your bird bath filled, you could get surprise visitors to your backyard! One spot I’ve visited in late summer (although not yet this year) is Creekside Park on the Albany/El Cerrito border, on the north side of Albany Hill. The solitary wooded hill rising out of the urban landscape may be an attractor for birds coming through. Once they’re drawn in, they pause and forage in the trees along the creek. I’ve never had a sketchy experience there but as always be aware of your surroundings.

One of the most exciting bird migrations we get in the Bay Area is the fall migration of raptors. Not all raptors migrate, but some species and populations do, and they often take routes with advantageous topography and thermals to make their way south. The best place in the Bay Area is probably Hawk Hill in the Marin Headlands just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Prime days will see dozens or hundreds of hawks of several species zoom past, some practically at eye level. Osprey, Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks should start increasing soon, and the overall peak is usually late September. Go on a sunny day for your best chance. Visit https://www.parksconservancy.org/programs/golden-gate-raptor-observatory for more details.

I’ve always thought we should get more migratory raptors along San Pablo Ridge than we do. Could be I’ve just not caught the right day yet!