Saturday, December 26, 2015

Santa Cla's Christmas Bird Count

Red crossbill, Loxia curvirostra.
Today I was offered a ride to the Santa Clarita CBC, and I could not refuse! Even though the chances of seeing anything great was minimal, I was determined to enjoy it nonetheless!

I started off my enjoyment of the day by leaving my camera at home! I put my camera down on the dark countertop amidst the darkness of 5am while sorting through my bag, and, given the camera was also black, is how it ended up being left behind. A disaster, but at least Dan had his camera! As much as I like birding without the hefty lens I may have occasionally used it. So much for proving that I wasn't obsessed with the device.

The day started near Dry Gulch road, where we heard and saw red crossbills. While I was out of a camera (sort of) I did have my phone on hand. The crossbills were hard to hear through traffic and wind at times, but I was able to produce a clear enough sonogram to determine they were the western hemlock type, or 'type 3'. This is my first sighting of the bird in North America, where several different "types" are recognized. These types are only reliably distinguished by the shape of the sonogram. For type 3 the call sonogram is a sort of fuzzy zigzag.

Rough sonogram of type 3 crossbills.
Along a few unsuccessful stops for Bell's sparrow I picked up a few new plants, although all very common species in the drier, more rural parts of desert California: brittlebush, California broomsage, California matchweed, and Davidson's buckwheat. We scoured several dark-eyed junco flocks closer to town and in the abundant Oregon-type juncos we picked out a grey-headed junco. While it wasn't a new species for me was a form of dark-eyed junco I had not previously encountered. This grey-headed form is not as much grey-headed as it is almost entirely grey, but regardless it is very uncommon in California and a pleasing bird to look at. A possible pink-sided junco, another uncommon subspecies in the state was also seen, but not confirmed.

Dark-eyed junco, the grey-headed subspecies, Junco hyemalis ssp. caniceps.
We later stopped by Castaic Lagoon where we found a fourth dark-eyed junco subspecies, the slate-coloured junco! I have seen this in Canada before but it was my first sighting in the states. A surprise though was a large falcon overhead, which could only have been prairie falcon! This bird was at least peregrine sized, and I later learned that prairie falcons are much bigger than I had taken them for in the field guides. Even though the camera was off I was just quick enough to grab one shot before it was obscured entirely by trees. Whew! Close call. I'm sure I'll see another one someday anyhow.

Prairie falcon, Falco mexicanus.
We headed back into town and were treated to golden eagle soaring high overhead, only my second sighting of this species and arguably my best encounter! If only I had my telephoto lens, though! Ah well, another time.

At Lake Casitas we had a frustrating encounter with a rather short-tailed brown bird in reeds, which was probably the continuing LeConte's sparrow, a real rarity in these parts and a difficult bird to see. This rare bird was first documented a while ago by other birders, but it had been a few days since it was last reported. Luckily I have seen two in Florida before during a mist net operation, but still a shame that we could not confirm it here!

This lake side habitat was unfortunately too dry for any interesting plant life, although I did see some western marsh cudweed. Truly a fascinating trip full of surprises...

Friday, December 11, 2015

Paramount Ranch Ramblings

Lark sparrow, Chondestes grammacus.
I had a quick chance to look over Paramount Ranch today. The idea was to check for a certain nocturnal snake that had been, for at least a while, quite reliable at a certain area of the site. Although I did not find it I was able to scavenge some other interesting species.

The real highlight though must have been seeing an incredibly confiding canyon wren. I first heard this bird calling under the wooden bridge adjacent to the old town, where I eventually saw it foraging in the rocky ditch. At one point it entered a ground squirrel burrow. I quickly moved over and with the camera ready, the bird soon emerged. What followed was the most memorable experience I've ever had of this bird. Incredible.

Canyon wren, Catherpes mexicanus.
Canyon wren, Catherpes mexicanus.

With a few good photos I backed away slowly. At first it was confiding but after a while I think it was starting to get a bit agitated. As a photographer the last thing you want to do is disturb the subject. It is not good practice.

I turned up a few rocks here and there and found a decent number of tule beetles, as well as something less expected, a female western brush cricket. Along the Coyote Canyon trail I found what looks to be Acarospora badiofusca, a reasonably common lichen that I have not had much confidence in claiming before. On a similar note I recorded my first confident sighting of poplar sunburst lichen, Xanthomendoza hasseana, as well, growing on a Siberian elm. The tree has possibly dubious origins in that it may be planted directly by human hands, but it seemed reasonable to me.

Tule beetle, Tanystoma maculicolle.
Western brush cricket, Hoplosphyrum boreale.
The lichen Acarospora badiofusca.
Poplar sunburst lichen, Xanthomendoza hasseana, growing on Siberian elm,
Ulmus pumila.

A small foray into shady riparian turned up several whitefly pupae on coffeeberry plants. I've been informed by experts that these are a match for Aleuroparadoxus iridescens, a species that is probably not too common but one that has until now never been photographed alive. I cannot find a description of what the adults look like, but knowing whiteflies, they are probably little white insects. Something about the name makes me wish there were dark grey or even black whiteflies around. That could be a very elegant look! Maybe somewhere in the tropics such a creature exists...

Aleuroparadoxus iridescens, on coffeeberry, Frangula californica.

On a less related note, has anyone ever seen these bright red leaves form on stork's bill (Erodium spp.) before? Every now and then I find a population showing it during late winter or early spring.

Common stork's-bill, or dark-stemmed filaree if you are
American, Erodium cicutarium.