Thursday, July 10, 2008

Southeast Arizona birding

2008 Trip, July 15-July 31
The annual trek to Arizona is scheduled for July 15th, which means I will begin birding early on July 16th in Cave Creek. Drew and Pam Pallette, San Diego, will spend some time in the Chiricahua's with me. Jim Rowoth and Frances Oliver from Morro Bay will spend a week, later in the trip. Drew and Pam probably don't have any real targets to find. But Jim and Frances do, and we will get most of them.

I've contact Helen Snyder, Portal, and several other SE Arizona denizens re: weather and such. It has rained torrents there for about a week. Should make it interesting and very different from the past few trips.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Clay-colored Sparrow, Winter 2007-2008

A Clay-colored Sparrow has been in or near the group picnic area, east of Lake Ming since December 1. After having been questioned about such sightings in the past, I kept it quiet and only suggested to John Wilson he look at the bird during the Bakersfield Christmas Bird Count. I was certain it was a Clay from the beginning because of the white, central-crown stripe and the buffy ear patch. There was no dark line extending in front of the eye. It wasn't a Chippy, but I was still gunshy. Johnny confirmed it was a Clay.
I saw it again today, March 23rd. It is now feeding in the group picnic area, near the first set of restrooms. Today, it was about five feet to the south of the restrooms, for the first time. It has been to the north for many weeks. Among the other birds in the flock are many Lark Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, a couple Chippies, a couple Lawrence's Goldfinches, White-crowns, House Finches, and today - several American Goldfinches. There was a single Savannah one day and there was a Lincoln's one day. Among the Dark-eyed Juncos, there was a Slate-colored, for awhile.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Thoughts on education

What has happened to education in California? In 1977, the California public gave up the right to local school governance via Proposition 13. At the time, it seemed most Californians thought it was a good idea. And politicians still point to Prop 13 as a good thing, for the most part. Since that time, the state has been increasingly fearful of "not being fair" to all segments of society, and has gradually lost touch with what makes education tick: a good, dedicated teacher in a room with kids. Period. Everyone else in the process has to remember their primary function is to facilitate THAT great truth. But the more distant the governing body has become from the process, the less leaders seem to care about that scene - the teacher and the kids.
Local school boards often spend the majority of their time promoting pet projects and advocating personal agendas. They have lost the power of financing, so have little to do with the important functions of education. Change can only come with financial support. So, advocating change when you have no financial leverage doesn't matter. ONLY the state has the power to make a difference, any more. And at the state level, ONLY political expediency and soundbite philosophies matter. Without financial stability, California schools are doomed to a certain mediocrity. And it is not the teachers who are at fault. People who choose to teach are mostly in it because they care and want to make a difference in the lives of children. Hearing politicians complain about teachers is infuriating. Politicians have money. They have TIME. Not one of them would make it through a school year of five hours a day with 200 kids. They haven't worked that hard in years, if ever.

I have heard from many sources over many years that you can't solve education's problems by "throwing money at them." But no one has EVER tried that. How would they know? California's schools are chronically underfunded because the state government refuses to "fully fund education."
In the grand scheme of things, 40 year of teaching may be insignificant. I certainly feel insignificant. But I care deeply about my kids. So, why is it that we repeatedly undervalue what teachers do? Perhaps I see a very limited scope of education. Perhaps I am not aware of teachers who fit the vision some public officials seem to have of us: lazy, uninspired, unethical, drug-using, abusive, unmotivated, under-achieving, unambitious. I don't know those teachers. That doesn't mean there aren't any who fit those descriptors. I just don't know them. My expertise is forthy years in the classroom at virtually every level of education. I have no idea how unmotivated people survive the classroom. I work hard to get the knowledge into the kids' heads and to get them to produce at a high level.
In the business world, I think there is a view that an ambitious educator must want to move from the classroom to administration. I understand that promotion in the business world signifies success. When you are good at what you do, you move up the line and get more money. That is not necessarily so in education. That's business. But in education, we don't produce a "product." We deal with human beings. Many of us got into the education world to work with kids. We have no desire to move away from the kids into administration. Wouldn't it be something if we really prized the experienced teacher enough to pay them commensurate with their commitment to the profession? Wow. What a concept!
Why is it so hard for non-educators to acknowledge they have no expertise in education? You cannot affix a business model to education and make it work. The product is never the same. No two years are the same and no two children are the same. A static business model may work on a car, but it doesn't work on a teenager. You can fix a car. You can't fix a child. And that's not our job, in education. The legislators who are funding education should learn to listen to educator. We are not mechanics, working on a human brain. We respond to the needs and uniqueness of each child and try to impart knowledge, wisdom, and understanding.
And there's the rub! Society is a mess, in some ways. Drugs. Violence. Broken homes. Crime. And entertainment that glorifies the above. So, some believe education must solve all these problems. And frankly, some of us really try. But we do it one child at a time, while legislators saddle us with 35 or 40 children per hour. One child needs help. And we see 200 of them every day. Needless to say, it is a challenge and it is very hard work. And we don't always succeed.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Owling Kern County

The owls of Kern County include Barn, Short-eared, Long-eared, Great Horned, Spotted, Western Screech-, Flammulated, Northern Pygmy-, Northern Saw-whet, and Burrowing.
Up Breckenridge Mountain, Western Screech-Owls occur as low as the Cottonwood Creek crossing on Breckenridge Rd. They become common at about the 17-mile mark and occur where oaks predominate up to about the 20-mile mark. (Mile markers are on the reflective paddles alongside the road.) Once you pass the 22-mile mark and pines become common, Northern Saw-Whet Owls may be seen/heard at just about any stop. I have had Spotted Owls from this same point all the way to the campground at the top, but a pair has been at the 25-mile mark for several years, including 2007-2008. At the very top, along the crestline from about 28 miles to the entrance to the campground, I have heard as many as 6 Flammulated Owls. Northern Pygmy-Owls are quite common from 22 miles to the top at dawn and for the first few hours after. Great Horned Owls are not common, interestingly enough, although I have had them in the area of the campground at the top of Breckenridge Mountain. This may be more a function of their not being sought as much as the others. I have called the other owls in, but have never attempted calling Great Horned.
March 21 trip, 2008
I didn't manage to get out early enough to hear the "good stuff." I arrived at the 26-mile mark of Breckenridge Mountain about 5:30. It was still dark, but showing some light on the eastern horizon. I played the Spotted Owl, but had no response. Shortly thereafter, a Northern Pygmy Owl began to sing, spontaneously. There was a distant answer. Off and on for the next hour, the Pygmy continued to sing from various perches, near where I was parked. I couldn't proceed higher because the snow fields were becoming larger and deeper on the road. I turned around and headed down. I played both Western Screech- and Pygmy to attract songbirds. Both birds called back at multiple locations. The lowest elevation response fromt he Pygmy was at 20 miles.
After extensive reading, I assume Flams arrive the last week of April. I'll try then. Saw Whet and Spotted are around, but I haven't tried for them. Maybe in the next couple weeks, I'll try to get back up there. It was only 38 degrees at the highest elevation, so snow will continue to melt.

May 2-3 trip
In conjunction with the 2008 BioFest, Gary File and I led an owling field trip up Breckenridge Mountain. We found 5 Flammulated Owls from mile 29 to mile 33 at the crest of Breckenridge Rd., leading to Breckenridge Campground. We also had 3 Northern Saw-whet Owls in that same area. These were the first occurrence of Flams so far this year, including those seen at the top of the Greenhorns on a May 2 field trip led by Dan Lockshaw. Our Flams were calling spontaneously, for the most part. The territory at about mile 29 (the top of the hill coming from the west) had two owls. The other three were singletons.

June 14, 2008
This trip was with Nick and Mary Freeman, from Pasadena. We started in Breckenridge Campground where, much to my surprise, there was a Flammulated Owl located by Mary, using her ipod recording of a Flam as encouragement. The owl responded at dusk, before complete darkness set in, and we could watch the bird flit from tree to tree, finally getting a spotlight on it for a few seconds. We worked from about the 29-mile mark. A Saw-whet responded at that spot, but did not come in. About .5 miles toward the campground, another Flam responded and we found that one in the light, as well. (A Flying Squirrel was a weird addition to the night animals at the next stop.) At the third stop, a Saw-whet AND a Flam responded. And at the fourth stop, a Saw-whet gave a virtual recital of calls, some of which I had never heard, before. We didn't try for any other species. I departed as the sun rose, and much to my chagrine, the Freeman's didn't find a Northern Pygmy in the morning. Ugh! I should have stayed and gotten them that bird.
The Freeman's are expert birders and owlers. I think I learned much more than they. Watching them was a real lesson in owling and a treat for me. All I did was get them in the territory and they did the rest.
July 5, 2008
Bob and Chita McKinney traveled all the way from Rochester, New York, to try for Flam, Pygmy, and Spotted Owls on Breckenridge. We departed at about 1 a.m. and were playing Spotted recordings by about 2:30. No luck. I don't think the Spotted Owls are present on that part of Breckenridge, this year. At the same starting point as usual, at the top of the hill above the vacation cabins, there were three Flammulated Owls. We stopped every half mile and had two Flams at each of the next two stops. After trying again for Spotted Owls working down from mile 27+ to about 25.5, there were no responses, so we awaited dawn. But we did have another Flam responding the Spotted Owl recording at about 27.5 miles. That was the first time I've had Flams below the 29-mile mark. Once the sun was up, we had 3 Northern Pygmy Owls and visuals on two around the 26 and 27-mile marks.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Bakersfield Waste Water Treatment Plant

At the southern-most stretch of Mt. Vernon Avenue, south of Highway 58, lies the Bakersfield Wastewater Treatment Plant. The ponds are extensive. Just inside the gate are the settling ponds which seem to attract most of the shorebirds. Least Sandpipers are ever-present, along with a few Black-necked Stilts. Yellowlegs of both varieties have occured here, but most are Greater and virtually all the winter sightings are of Greater. But at various times, we have discovered Pectoral Sandpipers, a Ruff, Dunlins, a Marbled Godwit, Solitary and Baird's Sandpipers, and Semipalmated Plovers. Western Sandpipers join the Leasts in spring and through the summer. A few may linger through winter. Spotted Sandpipers are uncommon, but regular. American Avocets join the stilts in spring and summer, as well. We've often found White-faced Ibis along the levees separating the settling ponds, as well as in the larger, deeper ponds to the north. Both Dowitchers are common in migration and may occur in all months. Beyond the settling ponds, these larger ponds host thousands of waterfowl all winter. Northern Shovelers, Eared Grebes, Pied-billed Grebes, Ruddy Ducks, Gadwalls, and American Coots are most common. Fewer American Wigeons and Lesser Scaups are intermingled with a few Canvasbacks, most days. Western and Clark's Grebes are frequent winter visitors. Periodically, American White Pelicans, Canada Geese, Snow Geese, and Greater White-fronted Geese drop in. Cackling and Ross' Geese are quite rare. A Tundra Swan appeared in the winter of 2006 and rarely, a Eurasian Wigeon is spotted among the Americans. Teal are represented by Cinnamons and a few Green-wingeds. Buffleheads are common, and Ring-necked Ducks range from uncommon to very common. Also during both migrations, Red-necked and Wilson's Phalaropes can become abundant.
Waders are represented by Cattle Egrets and Great Egrets, for the most part. Fewer Great Blue Herons and Snowy Egrets occur regularly. Red-tailed Hawks are common, often perched on the ground on the levees. Golden Eagles are regular. We've encountered Ferruginous Hawks here, as well. But they're uncommon, at best. American Kestrels, Merlins, and Peregrine Falcons are periodic visitors and a Ferruginous Hawk was spotted during the winter of 2007-08. All five swallow species are seen over the ponds. In winter, a few Barn Swallows remain. Tree and Violet-green Swallows also occur, rarely in winter, but commonly in every other season. Cliffs and Rough-wingeds are mostly absent in winter, but occur in all other seasons. The only gulls I've seen at the Sewer Ponds are Ring-billed and California with an occasional Herring. Caspian Terns fly over, occasionally. Ravens and crows are nearly always around. Red-winged Blackbirds far outnumber Tri-colored, but both have been seen.
Burrowing Owls are resident along the levees. And on the east side of Mt. Vernon Ave., there are often thousands of Brewer's Blackbirds and European Starlings on the piles of mulch being created at the green waste facility. An occasional Great-tailed Grackle may make an appearance anywhere in the area.

April 13, 2008
Today's visit - the only good birds were the two MARBLED GODWITS. 19 White-faced Ibis were along the bank of one of the big ponds. Still LOTS of ducks, but nothing unusual. The peeps were all Leasts.
August 5, 2008
A short visit this morning resulted in at least two Baird's Sandpipers and a single Semi-palmated Plover. There were about 35 Least Sandpipers. Didn't have time to do the big ponds.
August, 2008
Repeated visits from the 7th through the 17th of August revealed very high numbers of shorebirds, dominated by Long-billed Dowitchers. Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs are common. A few California Gulls and several Caspian Terns dotted a sandbar on the second pond on the east side of Mount Vernon. On August 16th, I found seven Common Terns, a first for the ponds and my first for Kern County. Least and Western Sandpipers continue in fair numbers, and at least one Baird's was present each visit (up to four). Two different Marbled Godwits were present for at least four days. Long-billed Curlews are around, as well as White-faced Ibises. Duck numbers are increasing, but they are in eclipse plumage, so I haven't even tried to id any of them. Both Wilson's and Red-necked Phalaropes continue in numbers.
August 24, 2008
There are still lots of dowitchers at the ponds. Numbers of Western Sandpipers have increased. Leasts are still plentiful. Two Marbled Godwits continue - at least, I assume they're the same birds. 21 Caspian Terns is the highest total I've seen. Still no rarities in 2008.
September 13, 2008
Today's trip, with Kern Audubon, was uneventful. Two Marbled Godwits were the only really notable birds. We had a single Baird's Sandpiper. Frankly - boooooring.
September 14, 2008
A Pectoral Sandpiper appeared this morning. This is 13 days later than last year.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Kern County Birding destinations

Bakersfield-area birding sites:
Hart Park:
The park is located northeast of Bakersfield, on Alfred Harrell Highway. It features two ponds - one called Mirror Lake and one called "the Paddle Boat Pond." The pond is the larger of the two, and is east of Mirror Lake. Mirror Lake is just inside the west boundary of the park. There are two canals running through the park and the northern border of the park is the Kern River.

Lake Ming:
Lake Ming is located off Alfred Harrell Highway on Lake Ming Rd. Horned Grebes and Common Loons have occurred here. There is a nesting colony of Cassin's Kingbirds on the west shore of the lake in the Eucalyptus Trees.

Group Picnic Area, Lake Ming:
This is one of two picnic areas near the lake. The Group Picnic area is east of Lake Ming, on an extension of Lake Ming Rd. which runs between Lake Ming and the Kern River Golf Course. This area is famous for a Clay-colored Sparrow for all of the winter of 2007 into 2008, from December until March. It has had Harris' Sparrows and White-throated Sparrows, as well.

"Elevated" picnic area, Lake Ming:
This picnic area is west of the lake on Campground Rd., elevated above the lake.
Desert sites
The best sites for birding in the eastern, high-desert reaches of Kern County are Butterbredt Spring, Galileo Hill/Silver Saddle Resort, and California City.
Butterbredt Spring is a small oasis, preserved by the Santa Monica Audubon Society as an Important Bird Site. It is a relatively limited area but has a history of remarkable migratory activity. There have been reports of flight days of 1500 warblers per hour from the "overlook" at the spring. All 11 western warblers are seen routinely in one day. My personal high is 14 warbler species in a day. The best time to bird the spring is from the middle of April until the first week in June. Fall is not particularly good, because the spring at the overlook is dry.
Butterbredt Canyon seems to act as a funnel for migrating birds. At the narrow point of the funnel is a spring with large cottonwoods and willows. It must be a relief for tired migrants to see this stopover. Rarities often stop for a few seconds and others may stay for weeks.
Galileo Hill is actually the Silver Saddle Resort. There is a small lake with several small ponds and "streams" running among them. All the water features are man-made and even have fake color. BUT the water is an incredible migrant magnet. Some of the most note-worthy rarities in California have occurred here: Eyebrowed Thrush, Arctic Warbler, and Upland Sandpiper are among those that come quickly to mind. For several days at the end of April and into the first weeks of May in 2007, the lawns of the resort were FULL of warblers, grosbeaks, sparrows, buntings, and even flycatchers. An Indigo Bunting and a White-troated Sparrow were feeding within a few feet of each other, with a Hermit Warbler a bit farther away. The Kern River Preserve's BioFest is held during prime birding time in the desert - usually at the very end of April or the first week in May. Birding is always spectaculay with over 200 species seen and nearly always at least 13 warbler species annually.
The spring of 2008 has been decidedly underwhelming. I made my first trek to Galileo, this morning (5/10). Tom Edell (Cayucos, great birder) and his wife, Chris, were out there. Drew and Pam Pallette (San Diego friends) were there, as well. The birders were much more interesting than the birds. Vermilion Flycatchers are there - this is at least the sixth year. A Townsend's Solitaire was probably the high point - not very impressive.
On 12 April, 2008, I discovered another population of PLUMBEOUS VIREOS at Sageland Ranch - Keith Axelson's place - in the Kelso Valley, east of Lake Isabella and the Kern River Preserve and north of Butterbredt. I saw three, one of which had more extensive gray on the breast than I've seen before. After all these years, it's the first time I've seen Plumbeous' away from Chimney Peak Campground, probably 20 air miles north of this sighting.