Sunday, January 15, 2006

11 - Brewer's Blackbird

What to say about this bird? You see them everywhere. It's very much an urban bird, equally comfortable hopping around in street-side gutters and beneath benches in the park. The beggars come bouncing up to your feet, cocking their heads to peer at you with a bright yellow eye, demanding your sandwich. Just a bite. Just one. Come on. Seriously, please. Just one.

It is, I thought when I tried to think of what I would say about it, an utterly unremarkable bird. But it counts all the same. And I thought maybe I would just note where I saw it--on Fell Street in a pack of five or six, nosing around in a heap of leaves at the edge of the street opposite the ATM.

And so that's what I'll do. I'll just note where I saw it and when. What is there to say? And besides, there are so many left to catalogue, what could I possibly say about such a mundane wallflower. Who contemplates grackles?

But of course, they weren't grackles at all. They were Brewer's Blackbirds. Only I didn't know that until I went to check it off in my field guide. Grackles are much larger--ten to twelve inches--and are only occasional on the Pacific Coast.

And when I found that there was something to this bird, after all. A case of mistaken identity, for one. I'd been calling it by the wrong name for as long as I can remember. In my mind, it took me back to the fields of Marin county, where the Brewer's red-winged cousins swarm fence-rows come Springtime. And I wonder if I'll ever see these little birds again without thinking of the Beatles and Charles Manson.

Sometimes a grackle is just a grackle, but in this case it was something more.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Hoot Hoot

Last night, as we were going to bed, we distinctly heard an owl hooting. Not once,but repeatedly. It seemed to be coming from Buena Vista Park.

We saw an owl on Angel Island, a few years ago. It flew spellbindingly silent across the trail ahead of us, like feathered fog. I wouldn't imagine that it's a far flight, for an owl, from here to Angel Island. But I never would have expected an owl in the middle of the city.

It made me wish, however, that I could identify birds by their songs, or calls. Numerous birders use birdsong to identify birds in lieu of visual confirmation. Indeed call identification was integral to confirming the Ivory-billed's existence.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

10. Northern Flicker

This morning, while there were a bunch of Juncos, Finches, and Dove around the feeders, I noticed an odd-looking bird sitting two houses over, on the peak of the neighbors' roof. It didn't look quite like a dove, and I alerted Harper, but she didn't know what it was either. As I scrambled for my field guide, it flew to the roof of the house next door, just outside our window, and began drinking some of the standing water left there from the recent rainstorms. I snapped a few pictures--zoomed in with the digital zoom--and made a conclusive ID. A Northern Flicker.

The head confused me somewhat, and has kept me from identifying the particular sub-species. It has red markings in the back of its head like a Yellow-shafted Flicker, but also in the front, where none should appear. Furthermore, the Yellow-shafted variety should only appear East of the Rockies. However, the marking on the back--which should be visible in this photo--is indicative of the Yellow-shafted variety, and is not found on either the Gilded Flicker (a southwestern subspecies) or the Red-shafted Flicker (found West of the Rockies).

My suspicion is that this is a hybrid or "intergrade" of two different subspecies, which my field guide notes are regularly seen in the Great Plains and Southwest. Either that, or it's a subspecies not listed in my field guide.

Either way, I'm confidant of the species identification, and was excited to come across a bird I'd never seen before on my 7th day into this attempt.

Update: This is most likely a hybrid variety of the Red-Shafted Flicker.