Saturday, July 14, 2012

Nerdy Birdy: Big Bear Mountain in the Summer

Mr. & Mrs. Owlbait were leading a trip up to find summer birds on Big Bear Mountain. Originally I had planned to stay the night with the rest of the group but with a houseful of company I decided to just wake up early and drive in. The group were meeting at 7AM and since the location was 2.5 hours away I had to get up super early, sigh. Once I got there and saw the group I started to get excited. I was hoping for a few new birds today as we were covering a ton of locations that I hadn’t previously visited.


Our first stop was some birdfeeders behind one of the participants houses. Backyard birding is a great way to get very close to some of the more common birds in your area. With the large group we had that porch was pretty crowded and with my big lens I had a hard time trying to get the photos I wanted. Seeing the birds that close however was exciting. There were many that I had seen before, birds like the House Finches and the oh so adorable the Mountain Chickadee’s.



My first new bird found to cross off the Nerdy Birdy List was the Pine Siskin. A small little heavily streaked bird with yellow markings this guy was a little elusive for me. I have found groups twice before but both times they took off before I could get a single photo. Since I don’t actually count birds to cross-off my list I was super happy to find a whole flock of these birds on the feeders. Sometimes waiting for a bird is so worth it.



Another beautiful bird to flit around the feeders was a pair of Black Headed Grosbeak’s. Both the male and the female gave us very good looks. The male bird is so striking with his bold black, orange and white markings. Generally you don’t get size comparison often when looking at birds, but in the last photo you can see the male Grosbeak sitting on a feeder next to a female Pine Siskin. There is a big difference!




My second new bird to cross off the Nerdy Birdy List was the Cassin’s Finch a bird that I may have seen before but that I hadn’t actually gotten a good identifiable photo of. I am still having problems with birds that look so much alike to me. The differences between the House Finch and the Cassin’s Finch are still hard. It is great to be with a group who have much more experience to help point out the differences as the bird is sitting right in front of us. I always learn so much on these trips.



After spending time with the feeders we headed off to our second location. After parking we took a short hike to a lovely meadow where the leader was hoping to spot some sparrows. Walking in through the trees on the way to the meadow we heard several birds calling.


Since several of the people in the group hadn’t seen the Red Breasted Nuthatch, and since I only had one terrible photo of one, Mrs. Owlbait paused when she heard the little guys call. Getting out her recorder she played the nuthatches call and a pair came flying in. Although they didn’t get CLOSE by any means we still were able to get pretty good views. And I got to get a much better photo of the Red Breasted Nuthatch, see the old photo here.


We arrived in the meadow and the flowers were blooming. The meadow was so idyllic. A perfect place to spread a picnic, to sit and eat with the love of your life, to take a nap in (Argh I am soooo tired).


After searching for a while we finally found what we were looking for. The Lincoln Sparrow was hiding out in a large bush. With such a large group he hid for a while but then after patiently waiting he popped out for a few moments at a time. Although I didn’t get a Kodak shot I got some ok photos; another new bird to cross off the Nerdy Birdy List. That makes three new birds so far and we still have a long day ahead.


With our target bird found the leader headed us back to the cars and someone spotted a Green Tailed Towhee. That is one of the best things about being in a bird group. It isn’t just your eyes looking for the birds, you have over a dozen experienced birders all looking. I have only seen the Green Tailed Towhee once, over four years ago, and I was happy to get GREAT looks at this beautiful bird.


Our next location was a path near a small stream. A large part of birding is to know your habitats. This is the perfect place for Kinglets and in the past the Golden Crowned Kinglet has been in this area. Sadly although we all looked the bird couldn’t be found.


We did however spot several species to add to our running list of birds found. There was the White Breasted Nuthatch poking around the crevices in a pine tree looking for bugs. This was our second species of Nuthatch for the day.


We also spotted a few Brown Creepers. It’s funny how once you see a bird, know its habits and how it moves, it becomes that much easier to find the bird again. The Brown Creepers are perfectly camouflaged for their habitat. Love these little silent guys.


Giving up on finding the Golden Crowned Kinglet we moved on to our next location. We drove over terrible dirt roads to reach a meadow and small lake on the top of the mountain. The lake was super far but with scopes we looked to see if there was anything interesting. A thousand Coots were hanging out, several of them with little adorable baby Coots but nothing more. We moved on down the path.



I love the joy of birding. Not only is it fun trying to find the birds but it is invigorating being outside, the sunshine, the fresh air, the hiking all make me feel fantastic. Plus I just adore anything in nature. Whenever I go hiking I always find tons of other interesting stuff besides the birds. I spotted this gorgeous dragonfly. Mr. Owlbait identified it as a Blue Eyed Darner. I am still really behind on my bugs, my lizards and my trees. Soon I will get there.


Along the mile or so path we kept our eyes and ears peeled for our target bird, the Williamson Sapsuckers. We were in LUCK within a short time we found a Williamson Sapsucker female. She wasn’t close, these birds can get pretty high up in the trees but Mrs. Owlbait played her recording and got the bird to land directly overhead. It wasn’t a great spot to take photos, with the sun directly behind the bird, but everyone was ecstatic to get such a good look. The group moved on to see if they could find the male while I stayed a little behind hoping to get a better view of the bird for a photo. My luck held out, she flew relatively low and in a quick moment hopped right up into a ray of sunlight. I got a gorgeous photo and was so happy. The Williamson Sapsucker is my fourth new bird to cross off my Nerdy Birdy List today. HURRAH!!


We were all looking at every woodpecker closely still looking to find the male and for a second I thought I had found him. Seemed like instead, upon looking a little closer, that I had found the White Headed Woodpecker instead. Last time I saw this bird a week ago I got atrocious photos of him. Even though I spent two hour following the bird around he was just too far up in a very dense tree for me to get a photo that would identify him as a white headed woodpecker. Although today I ddint get a fantastic photo I did get a photo that I can tell is the White Headed Woodpecker. A fifth bird to cross off my Nerdy Birdy List I am on a roll now!


We continued hiking further up the mountain still looking for the Male Williamson Sapsucker. We found several other birds but one of my favorite was the Western Wood Pewee. He was perched on a branch in a perfect beam of sunlight. Again and again he would flit off and come back with some juicy bug or another. Although he was far I liked how this photo came out.


Finally after an hour of searching we found the Male Williamson Sapsucker. He was very high up in a dead tree and although I didn’t catch the telltale red flash on the back of his head, either he kept it hidden or he was a juvenile male and the red hadn’t grown in yet, I did get an identifiable photo. BIRDING IS FUN!!!!!


With our target bird found we headed quickly back to our cars. We were behind schedule for the stops that Mr. & Mrs. Owlbait wanted to make. I ended up falling WAY behind the group when the Townsends Solitaire was found. It was another new bird to cross off my Nerdy Birdy List. If it had been a bird I had seen before I would have passed it up, but a new bird just couldn’t be ignored.


As tired as I was I had to semi jog so I could catch up with the group. It wouldn’t have been such an issue if I hadn’t been carrying my big lens. But I was happy that I did catch up with the group before they reached the cars. I didn’t want to be the cause of holding up the group. Being a photographer on these trips is difficult. Usually I find a bird and spend quite a bit of time with it to get that perfect photo. While traveling with a large birding group like this however I have to speed shoot while trying to not get in the way of the other birders. I am always so thankful that everyone is so nice about letting me get photos. Most even help me find the best locations to set up my tripod for the best views.

Our next location was super far away. By now it was sweltering hot and we were all tired. The hour long car ride would have been nice and relaxing if the road hadn’t been so awful. I was driving a car load of people and I was stressing at the road conditions. Mrs. Owlbait said that she had never seen the road this bad. I was just hoping that the trek up would be worth it.



We arrived at our location, what once was a gorgeous pine forest, now burned badly. Our target bird, the Hepatic Tanager, has been found in past years in this pine forest. Of course now with the fire we weren’t sure it would be still here. We saw some pines in the distance and decided to try and hike to them. Without a path, and with the rugged terrain of fallen trees and uprooted soil the going was slow. Not only was the trail bad but with the trees all dead we didn’t have any cover from the now burning sun. It was a hot sweaty hike.


One of the first birds we spotted was a Rock Wren singing his little song on a bare branch. Although it was sad to see a whole forest burned like this it did make it much easier to spot those little birds.


While looking for the Hepatic Tanagers in the pine trees we found several other birds including this tiny little Pygmy Nuthatch. Seeing this bird meant that we had found all three of the nuthatches all in one day. Pretty neat! Love this little midget.


Someone also spotted a gigantic wasp on one of the low flowering bushes. According to Mr. Owlbait it is a Taranchula Wasp, also known as the Taranchula Hawk. With a blue green body and bright orange wings it is unmistakable to identify, and a good thing too. This wasp has a special place in Mr. Owlbaits heart. He got stung a few years ago and will never forget it. The sting of the Taranchula Wasp is considered one of the most painful insect stings in the world. Yea I ran away after I heard that fact. Not interested in finding out what that sting feels like at all.


After about an hour and a half of hard hiking without any sign of the Hepatic Tanager we decided to turn back. After all we still had a few more stops and we were losing sunlight. When we were almost to the cars Mr. Owlbait and I flushed out a Mountain Quail. Where there is one quail there are sure to be more so someone swiped out their recorder and started playing the quails call. Within minutes someone spotted a male, standing in the sunshine calling right back to the recorder. I have seen this bird so many times, always running away from me, always in dense shrubs and I have never gotten a single photo. I couldn’t believe my luck, practically a perfect photo of an elusive Mountain Quail. It was a new bird to cross off my Nerdy Birdy List and it just so happened to be a lifer for many others in our group. It was a rare treat after all the hiking we did.


And then much to my amazement the bird started browsing and walking toward us. We waited and a mere ten minutes later the bird reached a clearing on a slope not more than 30 feet from us. We all got fantastic looks. What a very accommodating beautiful bird.


I haven’t had much opportunity until recently to spend time with other birders. This trip we had about fifteen people in our group. Most of them have a ton more experience than me and share their knowledge freely. A pair of women, friends since their early twenties rode in my car with me. They talked of their travels around the world together, their love of similar things and their ability to keep their friendship strong for so long. I can only hope my girlfriends and I keep our connections as strong as these women have.

This time I wasn’t the youngest in the bunch. Nope I got beat by a mile. The most adorable little boy joined us and he was fantastic. He knew so much about birds already, he and his dad are both interested in birds and it melted my heart to have this little man already so involved in nature. What a great thing to share with your child. He was such a trooper!


After a brief rest we all piled back in our cars for the long bumpy drive down the road. We pulled over a couple of times to listen and try and find other species. Although we didn’t find anything incredible the vistas sure were gorgeous.





At our last stop we did find a whole tree covered with juvenile Violet Tailed Swallows. I have only seen this bird once on my trip to Yellowstone, and although these birds were not as vividly colored it was fun watching them trying to fly. Most were super clumsy; some were still being fed by the parents. It was a cool look into birding behaviour.


It was now late, we were all starving and swung into a pizza place for dinner. My friends who carpooled with me bought me dinner, so sweet of them! We all sat around the large table talking birds and getting excited about the next leg of our trip. Sure it was dark and sure we had been birding already for 12 hours but there were still the owls to try and find.


We spent over three hours looking for the owls, stopping, playing the calls, listening, getting back in the car to drive to another location. Each and every time I took my camera and tripod out of the car. If I thought I was tired before it was nothing ot how I felt now. At midnight we all called it quits. The group returned to their hotel room and I started my VERY long trip home. Thank goodness for books on CD that helps keep me up when I am so tired.

And whenever I would get tired I would just think about the seven new birds that I can cross off my Nerdy Birdy List in one single long day. Totally wicked!


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