Birding California: Lifers by Sea

Most birders in this country dream of eventually hitting the Big 4: Florida, Texas, Arizona, and California. Each of these states offers its own unique collection of birds in addition to just a general abundance of birds.  A birder can skip visiting many states but must hit these at some point if they want to fill out their collection of North American birds.  I have tapped Arizona repeatedly over the years but still hadn’t made it to the other three since I’ve become a birder.  Needless to say, I was getting antsy to get another “mega” birding state under my belt.  This summer it finally happened as we took a family vacation to San Francisco.  Even though it wasn’t an exclusive birding trip, I knew my life list would be given a nice boost.  I was excited.  Heck, I couldn’t even wait to see a Western Gull–the first official lifer and arguably most abundant bird of the trip.  Western Gulls were a constant presence around San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.

Western GullWestern GullAs a newbie Cali birder, I eagerly scanned the Bay when we first arrived at the waterfront, looking for absolutely anything new and different.  Though not a new bird, I was pleasantly surprised to see a Red-throated Loon loafing about San Francisco Aquatic Park.

Red-throated Loon

Red-throated LoonI was equally surprised to pick up this long overdue Clark’s Grebe lifer.

Clark's GrebeThe next day of our trip was Alcatraz day–a bucket-list item for Melissa. I was excited to experience the Rock myself, but the ferry ride over to the island would be my first “pelagic” of sorts so my mind was more on the potential lifers. Taking Steve Gardner’s advice, I was sure to grab a spot at the front of the boat to be in position to see anything that might be moving out of the way of the boat. We had barely left the dock when the strategy already paid off with some handsome Pigeon Guillemot lifers.  This was an expected species that was still exciting to see nonetheless.

Pigeon Guillemot

I wondered what other goodies we might encounter in the Bay on the 1.5 mile boat trip to Alcatraz.

Golden Gate BridgeThe Rock looms large, though, and commands your attention itself regardless of what birds may be on or near it.

Alcatraz Island Alcatraz IslandAs we waited to disembark, Pigeon Guillemots served as a bookend bird for our short boat ride, giving better looks this time at least.

Pigeon GuillemotPigeon GuillemotIn addition to its fame as a federal prison and an Army post, Alcatraz is an important bird area, as there are huge colonies of nesting birds there.  Western Gulls are one of the main breeders on the island.  Their nests were absolutely everywhere on the island. Mommas and their chicks were a common sight on the steep hillsides as we hiked the switchback road up to the famed cell house for an audio tour (I highly recommend this tour BTW).Western GullWe stopped in an air-conditioned Civil War era building to get some relief from the heat and the climb and to learn something about the island from an informative Discovery Channel video shown on several large screens in the catacombs of this building.  One thing mentioned in the video was how Alcatraz is an important bird area, and the video hilariously portrays a ranger eagerly looking over a rail to show some excited tourists a Canada Goose on the steep slope below.  Life imitates art as they say, and as we continued our hike up to the top after the movie, Evan looked over a rail and said, “Hey, look! A goose!”  We all had a good laugh since he truly did spot a Canada Goose.  And since it was my California CANG, I was mildly excited.

Inherently, Alcatraz is a place of regrets, and I had my own after we toured the cell house. Since I was busy growing my fledgling California bird list, I was trying to identify everything.  I took a photo of this blackbird and just wrote it off as a probable Red-winged Blackbird.  It didn’t even dawn on me to consider the California endemic Tricolored Blackbird and try to see the wings.  What an idiot.


On Alcatraz, Freedom and Tricolored Blackbirds are tantalizingly close but a world a way.

One lifer that was not unexpected at all on Alcatraz was the Brandt’s Cormorant.  They are not too tough to find as they nest on the Rock by the hundreds.

Brandts Cormorant Brandts CormorantA Pelagic Cormorant or two had been reported among the Brandt’s, but trying to find one was a needle-in-the-haystack exercise, something that was tough to do in the company of non-birders.

Later on in our San Francisco trip, we found ourselves at Ocean Beach.  The Pacific Ocean was new to the kids and me on this trip, so it felt good to get beyond the Bay and experience it properly.

Ocean BeachMelissa and the kids ventured down to the beach while I hung out by the famed Cliff House, looking for a pair of reported Black Oystercatchers to no avail.  Eventually I joined the family at the beach and looked for seashells with the kids and a Common Murre lifer for myself.  I was not successful with the latter.  After spending sufficient time at the beach, we stopped for lunch at the Lands End Lookout visitor center.  The Oystercatchers were bugging me.  I knew this was probably my only chance on the trip for this species.  I had to take one more stab at it. While the fam poked around the gift shop, I descened the stairs down to the Suttro Baths to see if I could find these odd, conspicuous birds.  Going down to the Baths did allow me to see my lifer Heerman’s Gulls up close.

Heerman's GullIt’s such a good-looking Gull, both the deep sooty-colored juvenile and the adult with that white head and red bill.Heermans GullThis isn’t the greatest photo, but it captures the awesome color-scheme of this bird.

Heermans GullAs nice as the Heerman’s Gulls were, I really wanted to find the Oystercatchers.  I gave up trying to pick out a Pelagic Cormorant on these rocks that were covered in Brandt’s Cormorants and Brown Pelicans.

Suttro BathsAs I hiked down toward the ruins of the Suttro Baths, I paused to scan the rock in the foreground of the photo above.  Finally, I picked out the large black birds I was looking for–they were in the deep shadow of the large cleft on the right side of that rock.  Their orange bills stood out like beacons from the dark recesses of the shadow.

Black Oystercatcher

Black OystercatcherBlack OystercatcherBlack OystercatcherIt wasn’t until a few days after our time at Ocean Beach that we made it back to the Pacific Ocean proper.  On our last day of vacation we drove down the Coastal Highway with no real destination.  I did want to stop at a spot near Half Moon Bay to look for an inland bird that I’ll write about in the next post.  Little did I know that I would nab two pelagic lifers as a bonus when we stopped at Dunes Beach State Park and enjoyed the ocean one last time.

Evan MarinWhile the kids studied a log rolling in the surf, I studied beach chickens.  It was good practice to work on going through the key field marks of this immature California Gull, as seeing one in Minnesota is a rare but real possibility.  It was also good to see another “California”-named species in California. There will be more “California” birds in the next post.

California GullI also scanned the surf as the bird life was super abundant at sea. There, just beyond where the edge of the breaking waves, were several Common Murres, another lifer.

Common MurreI certainly wished I had my scope along to better enjoy these birds and look for other interesting pelagic species. I did note that the Cormorants I was seeing looked a little different…

Pelagic CormorantWith the steep forehead and thin bill, this one looked good for a Pelagic Cormorant.  I would have liked a cleaner look, but I’ll take the lifer.

The ocean and its birds are fascinating.  Seeing the endless amount of bird life, the vast majority of which went unidentified due to distance, gave me my first appetite for a pelagic birding trip.  Someday.  For now there is still much work to do on land.  In the next post I’ll highlight my inland lifers on our California trip.  It will feature a big moment and a big bird.

None Greater–The Story of Our Sage-Grouse Lifer (The Epilogue – Bonus Lifers and Other Good Birds)

When I planned the trip to Montana to see Greater Sage-Grouse with my dad, I had blinders on.  I was fixated on one bird and rightly so considering its significance.  Somewhere along the way, even as I was making birding plans for Arizona and a late winter trip to northern MN, curiosity got the best of me regarding central Montana. I began to wonder what other cool birds we could get.  Studying eBird bar charts for the Billings area, I started to realize there was a unique chunk of birds we could add to our life lists that would be difficult to find where we normally bird in MN and AZ. The prospect of bonus lifers was indeed exciting.  Not only could we pick up life birds, but we could pick up all kinds of other western goodies as well.  In both regards we were successful and had a lot of fun.  Here’s the run-down.

Good Non-Lifer Western Birds

1. Say’s Phoebe – still need one in MN and therefore still like seeing them everywhere else, even if that’s at a rest stop on I-94.

Say's Phoebe

2. Sharp-tailed Grouse – I’ve seen and shot my fill; a quick interstate sighting filled any remaining Sharptail void for the time being.

3. American Avocet – I’ve got better photos in the archives. This is probably the only shot I’ll get at seeing them for 2015, so it’s getting posted.

American Avocet

4. Swainson’s Hawk – If the big sky and rugged terrain don’t remind you that you’re out west, freeway fly-overs of this raptor will.

5. Mountain Bluebird – even when it’s a blur, this bird is a welcome flash of color on the monochrome landscape of early spring.

Mountain Bluebird

6. Burrowing Owl – never, ever gets old.  Hunting for them among the similar-sized, shaped, and colored prairie dogs in a dog town is a fresh take on owling.  The challenge is accentuated by the whack-a-mole behavior of both species.

Evan Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owl

John Carlson, the facilitator of our Sage-Grouse adventure, told us that he worries that people who shoot Prairie Dogs for sport may inadvertently shoot Burrowing Owls – a terrible, but possible scenario.

Burrowing Owl

John also pointed out the vocalizations of Burrowing Owls.  I’ve seen several Burowing Owls in Arizona, but I’ve never heard one before.  It was pretty cool and distinctive.  You can bet I’ll be listening for that sound whenever I bird in western Minnesota.

7. Ferruginous Hawk – perhaps an even a better western hawk than Swainson’s Hawk and one heckuva a mother, finding time to rear a brood and decorate.  The word ‘nesting’ to describe the preparatory behavior of expectant mothers was taken from this bird’s efforts.

Ferrugionous Hawk

I never noticed the trash and Christmas lights until I got home and looked at my photos.  It’s not like someone left them on this tree, either.  We were in the middle of nowhere. John had spotted this nest for us and asked us if we wanted to see a Ferruginous Hawk nest.  I asked him later if he had this nest scoped out from a previous trip, and he told us it was his first time seeing this particular nest–he said a nest in a lone, short tree on the prairie was typical for this species.

Ferruginous Hawk

John then spotted the male nearby.

Ferruginous HawkIt was fun to see the male exhibiting the behavior described in the field guide, which is sitting out in the open on the ground and always in a perfect western setting.

Ferruginous Hawk

8. Western Meadowlark – a regular sight back home in MN, but a crazy ubiquitous sight out West.  I have never seen more Meadowlarks.  Therefore, the law of large numbers in birding says that eventually even I will get a good photo of one.  And considering this is Dad’s favorite bird from his childhood days on the North Dakota prairie, I had to post some photos of this bird from our special trip.

Western Meadowlark

Their song is beautiful and could be heard constantly from all directions.

Western Meadowlark

It is the song that my Dad enjoys most about them. Have a listen for yourself.

The only thing better than that is watching my dad’s favorite bird photo-bomb his research bird, singing the whole time.

The Bonus Lifers

1. Sage Thrasher – we saw one. Barely. John pointed out a bird that flew away.  Since we were still on the hunt for Greater Sage-Grouse, we didn’t take time to poke around for it.  It was positively identified by John and seen by us–those are the minimum requirements for a lifer but by no means make for a satisfying lifering experience.  It was an upgrade from a similar sighting with Laurence Butler in the Sonoran Desert last year; in that situation Laurence was pretty sure a bird that flew by was a Sage Thrasher.  We held off on counting it then.  It’s counted now, but better looks are required in the future.

2. California Gull – a very good-looking Gull with that dark eye and red orbital ring.  John found us a smattering of them at the Yellow Water Reservoir in the Yellow Water Triangle where Dad worked in the 1970s.

California Gull

Seeing this Gull has given me confidence in knowing what to look for when we comb through the hundreds of Ring-billed and Herring Gulls at the county landfill back home in hopes of finally turning up a county record.

California Gull

3. Chestnut-collared Longspur – a lifer for Evan.  This is a tough, tough bird in Minnesota.  Last year Steve Gardner and I traveled to Felton Prairie to successfully track down one of only a handful of birds in the whole state.  Here in central Montana, where there are seas of prairie grass, they are way more common.

Chestnut-collared Longspur

Chestnut-collared LongspurI don’t recall the name of the road we traveled where we saw this Chestnut-collared Longspur, but whatever it’s called, I’ve dubbed it Longspur Road.

Longspur Road

Why Longspur Road?

4. McCown’s Longspur – gobs upon gobs of this hoped-for bird were seen pecking grit off the road in the 40 mph wind. We literally saw hundreds.  John figures we were witnessing a large migration movement and not just birds on territory.

McCown's Longspur

This Longspur has such a limited range in the west/central part of the U.S. with most of its summer territory being in Montana.  Not only were we in the right part of the country, but we were there at the right time of year to see these awesome Longspurs in their breeding plumage.

McCown's Longspur

McCown's Longspur

5. Long-billed Curlew – this was another hoped-for bird that is a summer resident to the grasslands of the Great Plains.  I had the pleasure of spotting this lifer myself as this strange-looking creature seemed out of place as it strolled through the grassland interspersed with sagebrush.

Long-billed Curlew

It seemed so bizzare to see this giant shorebird out in the sea of grass and sage with no water in sight.  It reminded me of seeing the resident Marbled Godwits at Felton Prairie back in Minnesota.Long-billed CurlewWe ended up seeing a second Curlew a little later, but neither were very photogenic.

We had a couple life bird misses, but no one is complaining here.  In addition to the big lifer of the Greater Sage-Grouse, Evan picked up five additional lifers and I picked up four new ones.  These birds were the icing on an already delicious cake.

The Ducks of North Dakota

On our way back home, we again spent the night in Bismarck.  The next day I decided to make a quick stop east of town to look for some reported Hudsonian Godwits.  There were no Godwits around, but one thing North Dakota is never short on is ducks.  Certainly this state has to have the highest duck to person ratio in the nation.  Try to not see a duck in North Dakota.  The highlight duck for me was seeing hundreds of Northern Pintails.  They are usually just a single digit bird back home and seen only during migration. Despite their numbers, I had trouble finding any that weren’t shy for photos.

Northern Pintail

With thousands of ducks you’re bound to get a good photo opportunity or two, even if they are common species like the Gadwall and Blue-winged Teal.


Blue-winged Teal

Blue-winged Teal

Shenanigans in Minnesota

On our trip, we saw three giant bird statues: Sandy, the 40-ft tall Sandhill Crane in Steele, ND; the world’s largest American Crow in Belgrade, MN; and the world’s largest Greater Prairie Chicken in Rothsay, MN.  In hindsight, I should have stopped at all three for photo ops, but at least we made the stop in Rothsay.  We were on a Grouse high after our big trip, so it only seemed fitting that we should stop for this one.  It wasn’t long before this trip that we were birding in Arizona with Tommy DeBardeleben and learning to inject more fun in our outings.

Greater Prairie Chicken EvanThis next photo was not completely orchestrated by me.  Evan really did discover the lesser end of a Greater Prairie Chicken all on his own.  The smiles are 100% natural. Oh, to be 8 again.

Evan Greater Prairie Chicken

Here’s one the grandmas can approve of.

Evan Greater Prairie Chicken

After seeing Greater Sage-Grouse do their mating display, Evan and I decided it would be fun to reserve one of the Minnesota DNR’s blinds this upcoming spring to watch booming Greater Prairie Chickens near Rothsay.  And eventually, I’d like to see all the Grouse species do their respective, springtime mating rituals.  There is no better way to see Grouse.

As our trip was drawing to a rapid close as we were racing to get back in time for a piano lesson, we squeezed in one more quick stop.  We simply had to.

Evan Evansville

This was a monumental trip for Evan and me filled with good memories, great birds, and new and old friends. There will no doubt be more birding adventures, both little and grand, but none will top this. I hope you enjoyed tagging along through these posts.

The story of our Montana Greater Sage-Grouse Lifer with Rick Wallestad is made up of four parts: 1) The Prologue–The Impetus, 2) Part 1, 3) Part 2, and 4) The Epilogue–Bonus Lifers.