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When I first contemplated returning to visit this Greek island in the Mediterranean, it was to see the marvelous Minoan ruins at the palace of Knossos.  Having visited briefly in the 1980s, I remembered the beauty of the landscape and the wondrous archaeological finds.

Minoan archeological site at Palace of Knossos

Ancient history is one aspect, but when I recently started learning about the natural history of Crete, I was hooked.  This was to be my next overseas destination!  Upon arrival in Heraklion, I visited the Natural History Museum of Crete. The exhibits are great, and I bought a good introductory book: “Crete: A Continent in an Island”, by Demos Tsantilis (2015). The more I studied the geology and the flora and fauna, the more I realized striking similarities with our own California, which has often been referred to as a “Mediterranean island.”

Mt. Psiloritis, ancient Mt. Ida, elev. over 8000 ft.









Crete, like California, has a turbulent geologic past.  It’s located where two continental plates collide – the African and the Eurasian–giving birth to volcanoes and frequent earthquakes.  As a result of geologic upheaval, the topography is one of high, rugged mountains and steep gorges.

Kourtaliotiko Gorge


The island has what they call an olive tree climate – a Mediterranean climate –symbolized by the narrow belt of conditions where olive trees grow best. California, too, being located on the west side of a continent between the 30th and 40th parallel shares this rare climate zone.

Read more »

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March 9, 2016:

Today’s plan involves driving south of the Pyrenees to an entirely different habitat.  This is where Alberto lives, in a little town surrounded by agricultural lands.


White Storks nesting on a deserted building


White Storks at nest


Monegros Steppe on a rainy day

The whole area has been termed the Monegros Desert, a semi-arid zone nearer to Zaragoza than to Huesca, but still in Aragon.

I am looking for a suite of completely new birds today:  sandgrouse, owls, larks – and neither Alberto nor I forget that I still don’t have Lammergeier, the greatest vulture of them all, so we’ll have to return here to look for it at the end of the day.

Lots of driving!  But this new area is fascinating!

Besides, rain is threatening, the sky darkens and lowers.  It’s a good thing we did our montane birding yesterday.

The true Monegros habitat survives in bits and pieces, surrounded by barley and wheat fields.  If left without irrigation, the soil here endures salinity and dryness.  Small, aromatic shrubs and the taller, feathery Ratama  comprise the Monegros steppe vegetation.

A harsh land, yet with a certain beauty all its own.

Our first target:  the stately Eagle Owl.  Alberto shows me a ledge of gray rock, sets up the scope, and I see the gray-brown shape of the enormous female as she sleeps, her body leaning against the side of the miniature cave she’s chosen in which to produce her young year after year.  She looks as big if not bigger than our Great Horned Owl.

Eagle Owl in the Ebro Valley by Alfredo Sánchez

Eagle Owl by Alfredo Sanchez


Eagle Owl nesting habitat



Alberto in the Monegros Steppe

We drive on, entering now one of the few remaining natural areas that’s been set aside by the European Union, in order to offset the encroaching agricultural fields.  But the fields produce many jobs, too, and that’s an issue here.

Alberto slows the car to a crawl, so as not to flush the larks.  Larks frequent this country of shrub-steppe.  They whirl up, hover, sing on the wing, then land on top of a nearby bush.  The larks are big – nearly the size of our Western Meadowlark.

Calandra Lark in Monegros by José Damián Moreno

Calandra Lark by Jose Damian Moreno


A pool of water in otherwise dry terrain

I see CALANDRA LARK and THEKLA LARK.  Life birds with lovely, subtle plumages.

We approach a tumbled down stone farmhouse, and RED-BILLED CHOUGHS fly up.  These deserted structures are now used for nesting by owls and other species.  I hear the whirring of wings and a group of four BLACK-BELLIED SANDGROUSE fly over.  The life birds are coming fast now.

Terrific views are had of Little Bustard, which I’ve seen in France, but never as well as this.  One of our targets proves as impossible to achieve as we suspected:  Great Bustard.  There are so few of them left now, with the cereal crops taking over.

We did see STONE CURLEW and DOTTEREL, both shorebird migrants that were new for me.

It’s raining pretty hard.  And, since we’re driving Alberto’s other car, which is older and better for these rough roads, one of his windshield wipers isn’t working!  He peers sideways out the front of the car and I try not to worry.

In the distance a few stray Olive trees and Almond trees break the horizon.  Alberto heads for them, mumbling something about GREAT SPOTTED CUCKOO.   Now that’s a nice bird.  They’ve just arrived from North Africa, and they parasitize magpies.  So, they’re lurking around, trying to stay camouflaged in the few trees available.  No magpies visible, but perhaps we can find the cuckoo?

Alberto slams on the brakes, gets out of the car, grabs the scope, and points to the top of an Almond tree.  In the rain, there’s the cuckoo, that rascal – so big, with his white spots on a gray background.  Perfect for cryptic coloration as he sneaks around; his mate the same, well-suited for laying eggs in other birds nests.

Great Spotted Cuckoo in Monegros by Luis Gracia

Great Spotted Cuckoo

As the rain comes down, we drive out onto a main road and stop for a coffee.  We need it!

One thing about Alberto:  he never gives up.  We drive endlessly searching for Great Bustard, but it’s not to be.  We do find LITTLE OWL, perched up in one of the ruined stone farmhouses.  Nice!

O.K.  So it’s back up to the foothills of the Pyrenees now, as the mid-afternoon sun comes out and the clouds fade away.  We have to try for Lammergeier!

One of the reasons Alberto took me yesterday to Salto de Roldan was to make good on his promise of being able to look down upon the GRIFFON VULTURES as they came in to roost on the ledges beneath where we were standing.

And this afternoon, while scanning for Lammergeier, I have a chance to watch Griffon Vultures as they come into a communal roost on a rock ledge.   These vultures are social, both in and out of the breeding season.  They nest in loose groups of several pairs, each with their own nesting platforms on the steep rock faces of the Mallos.   The whitewash beneath the nest marks its location; the birds haven’t split off for the breeding season yet, though.

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Griffon Vulture

No Lammergeier.  The evening is approaching fast.  Am I going home without it?


March 10, 2016:

This morning, Josele Saiz decides to help me look for the Lammergeier.  How marvelous of him!

Gib drives, and we three ride up along a spectacular road that follows a gorge to the dam at Embalse de Vadiello (Vadiello Reservoir).

I want desperately to see this largest of European vultures, the Lammergeier; the name means “bone eater” in German—the bird eats the bones of its prey in order to get at the marrow.  Here in the central Pyrenees, Lammergeier is very scarce, with only two breeding pairs in the area (500 pairs in all of Europe).


Vultures, including Lammergeier, frequent these cliffs

I follow dutifully as Josele gets out of the car and starts walking across the dam.  This is how you get the  most exposure to the skyline, he explains.  And he seems to have eyes in the back of his head, because suddenly he yells “LAMMERGEIER!  Look, flying across that cliff face!”

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Lammergeier by Jan Pedersen

And I see it!  Yes, this magnificent vulture with a huge wingspread, long tail, and a suffusion of orange on its underparts.  The morning sun highlights the Lammergeier against the blue sky as it makes its journey to its nesting place, far beyond this ridge.  Josele knew it would be coming to make a nest exchange about this time in the morning!

“Never take your eyes off the sky!” he says, as I try to catch my breath and thank him profusely.

Hmmmm.  I wish that was all it took to be a good birder.  But in Spain, on my birding adventure, I have to agree that he’s absolutely right.

I collected 19 life birds during my stay at Boletas!




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March 7, 2016:

We’ve arrived at a 15th Century farmhouse in the village of Loporzano, located in Aragon at the foot of the Pyrenees.

This is Casa Boletas Birdwatching Centre, our home for the next three days.


View from our window looking north to the foothills of the Pyrenees

(“Boletas” means Egyptian Vulture in the local dialect).  Egyptian Vulture?  That would be a life bird.  I thought they were in Africa!

We’re welcomed by proprietors, Josele Saiz and Esther Diago Millan.  Esther (pronounced “Estair”) prepares marvelous homecooked meals, and Josele is the master tour guide.  He mostly leads tours outside of Spain these days, but he’s assigned his longtime friend, Alberto Bueno, to be my guide birding around here for two days.

Alberto is the best.  So friendly, knows the local birds like the back of his hand, speaks English, and drives me in his car!  The perfect birding vacation.


March 8, 2016:

I’m sitting grabbing a last cup of coffee at the long dining room table at Boletas.  A knock on the door means Alberto has arrived.

I’m determined to go for the highest mountain birds first:  those found at the Astun Ski Resort at the very top of the Pyrenees.  My targets:  Snowfinch, Alpine Chough, and Alpine Accentor.

Winding upwards, the road leads us higher and higher.  We approach Somport Pass, between Spain and France, elevation 5,380 feet.  The temperature feels much colder than 25 degrees F.   My California blood is FREEZING — as we get out of the car in the middle of driving snow and walk gingerly down towards the front of the resort.  The snow and ice are thick, but Alberto bears the spotting scope fearlessly forward.


Astun Ski Resort

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Alpine Accentor



At last, we take shelter in the cafe and warm up while observing the birds.  Everybody stares at us.  Skiers are curious as to what we are doing here.

When Alberto tosses a crust of bread on the snow bank nearby, an ALPINE ACCENTOR and two ALPINE CHOUGHS come swooping down.  Alpine Chough is like a miniature crow, with a bright, yellow bill. The Accentor, a small sparrow-like bird, hops around oblivious to the Arctic conditions.

Alas, one of my special wants — Snowfinch–was nowhere to be found.

“Vamos a ver!” Alberto says.  That means “Let’s go!” In Spanish.

So we leave the snowy heights and drive down, down the Pyrenees to visit the mountain town of Jaca  (“haca”).

Here, Alberto brings the car to an abrupt halt.  Looking up, I see my first RED KITE and then my first EGYPTIAN VULTURE!  Beautiful!

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Red Kite

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Egyptian Vulture

The Egyptian Vulture has just arrived from North Africa. They breed here in the Pyrenees.  Amazing wedge-shaped tail as it goes soaring overhead.  This is the land of soaring raptors; they love the north winds that whoosh down the mountains making great up-drafts.

I have never been so cold!

To the south, looming above us, is a great massif.  At the summit, we stop at San Juan de la Pena, a fancy resort with nobody around. It’s sunny, but snow lies on the ground as we wander through a deserted campground.


Road to San Juan de la Pena

Never underestimate Alberto.  He grabs his phone and lets fly a racket of a woodpecker call.  Suddenly a large BLACK WOODPECKER — a male, swoops in and lands on a tree trunk very close.  How lucky can we get?  We are on a roll!

Black Woodpecker in the Pyrenees by Luis Lorente

Black Woodpecker by Luis Lorente

Meanwhile, in the back of my mind, I’m thinking:  ” WHERE’S THE WALLCREEPER?”  (“Treparriscos” in Spanish).

Yay.  Alberto proclaims the Treparriscos is next on the agenda.

We drive down, down again into a gorge, and I see in the distance what I’ve been waiting for — the red limestone cliffs of the “Mallos” formations at the town of Riglos!


En route to Riglos and Wallcreeper!


The Mallos Formation: Wallcreeper habitat

Lunch is by the church in the hamlet of Riglos.  Great cliffs loom a thousand feet above us, and we hear the sound of rock climbers calling to each other.

O.K.  So this is it.

I flew many miles to get here and I can’t imagine finding this tiny bird on such a vast rock face!

Alberto says:  “Look at the lower third of the cliffs.”

I examine every crevice. You’ve got to be kidding!

Some of the cliffs are red, some are gray — the exact color of the little gray Wallcreeper.

After an hour of scanning, Alberto spots it.

And I don’t.

At last, at last, there’s the bird, and I get it in the scope — a fabulous gray bird behaving like a nuthatch, hunting methodically up and down the cliff face.  It creeps in and out of moist cracks in the rock, often out of view for minutes at a time.

Wallcreeper in the Pyrenees by Fernando Carmena

Wallcreeper by Fernando Carmena

And when it flies, you see the crimson wings!  Never have I been so happy!

Two minutes later…..GONE.  The Wallcreeper flew purposefully off across the rock facade and disappeared.

That’s O.K.  I GOT IT!

Exhausted, elated, we walk back to the car.

Alberto has an idea of a place we should try for Lammergeier this afternoon.

Called Salto de Roldan, it’s a rock formation located in the Sierra de Guara Nature Reserve.

We’re climbing again, this time up to an amazingly steep, windy precipice.

Alberto leads the way along a narrow trail.  The underbrush is full of spikey shrubs and junipers.  The strong wind tears at my parka.  I’m unsteady!  We’re so close to the drop-off below.

In the distance, the gorge of the Flumen River cuts deep. The rivers here feed into the Ebro River, which culminates in a famous estuary along the Spanish coast.


Salto de Roldan: Alberto Bueno, my guide


Soon, we’re joined by a friend of Alberto’s, a young biologist who’s monitoring the nesting Bonelli’s Eagle.  She’s on a nest so far away that even the powerful scopes can barely pick it up.

The guys are set up 20 feet downslope from me, but I’m scared to scramble down and join them.

Come on, Joan.  You can do it.  I decide to give it a go and carefully pick my way down the steep, rocky hillside.


The view from Salto de Roldan


View down to the Ebro Valley from the Sierra de Guara Nature Reserve

The far away view of the female Bonelli’s on her nest is my reward.  Too distant to really i.d., but I’m thrilled.

This is my wild Spanish birding trip, and I love it!

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Hooded Merganser by Hugh Ranson




I don’t know of any other Christmas Bird Count in the country that has quite the unique qualities of Santa Barbara’s. Why?

Of course, we have the mild weather, which is shared by many of the states in the southern portion of the U.S., providing food and shelter for wintering birds.  But hey, why are we still ahead of Counts in Florida, Texas, and coastal Southern California when the totals come in?

First, we have a fabulous corps of dedicated local birders that communicate with each other year round.  Our listserve, sbcobirding, and the increased use of E-bird –both contribute to this sense of shared knowledge.

Second, we attract former birders who used to live in the area, but who faithfully reappear every year to join in the CBC effort.

And, lastly, and probably most important of all — we have a super team of leaders that organize and compile our Count, contributing months of time and energy to this enormous beast — the S. B. CBC!

So, how do you know what birds to expect and how do you prepare to cover a circle  centered at the corner of Foothill Rd. and San Marcos Pass, and fanning out to a radius of 7.5 mi. in all directions?

Let me give you an account in real time:

Dec. 20:  I am in charge of the Montecito portion of the CBC, so, like about 9 other section leaders, I must try my best to scout the area before the Count.

People don’t realize how important scouting is.  You see, wintering birds pretty much stay put, once they arrive here for the season. So, if we know of a rare or unusual bird that has been seen previously, we can go get it on the list on Count Day — Saturday, January 3, 2015.

OK, so I’m supposed to wander aimlessly around Montecito doing what?  Peering into people’s backyards?  Sighing with despair as formerly productive locations prove disappointing due to leaf blowers, construction, or drought?

Hmm.  I have to admit that Montecito is a challenge because we have so much habitat, and most of it is on private property.

At least there’d been some rain, so a few of the Eucalyptus were in bloom, always a source of food for orioles and tanagers.  Also, the orange Cape Honeysuckle that is found as a hedge attracts hummingbirds and warblers.

And the Varied Thrushes!  It was an irruption year.  They were everywhere on shady, damp lawns and in moist thickets.  These beauties from the Northwest, which rarely winter this far south, were all over.  So that was fun.  I think in one region — Hope Ranch — a participant counted 96 Varied Thrushes, and there will be totals in the hundreds for this species when the compilation is complete.


Varied Thrush by Linda Frazier

But back to scouting.  First, you drive around, hitting the spots that delivered good birds in the past.  I  get out of the car at a likely looking sunny hedge or pine tree, clip my dog, Happy’s leash, to my fanny pack and walk quickly from one place to another, binoculars poised, ears alert, listening for the chatter of an oriole or the “thrup” of a tanager, or any sound that I don’t recognize.

In scouting, you’re looking for “birdy” places that you might revisit on Count Day, and of course, you hope to spot a rare or unusual bird as you go from street to street.

Dec. 29:  OK, then. Christmas is over, the family is gone, the shopping and eating and decorating and undecorating is OVER!

Yay!  Time to kick it up a notch and get going on some new spots to investigate for birds.

This year, I asked the Montecito Country Club staff for permission to take a golf cart around to scout for birds.  What a blast!


Western Bluebird by Hugh Ranson

I went with Mark Holmgren and we actually found TWO great birds that we hoped to get on the Count:  a Summer Tanager, and a brief glimpse — oh so brief — of a nighthawk of some kind.

We’ll be back on Count Day to refind these two goodies.

Dec. 30:  A very rare bird is found today by 11-year old Lucas Gaede, out by Lake Los Carneros:  a Nelson’s Sparrow, which many folks get to see. Alas, on Count Day it was nowhere to be found.


Nelson’s Sparrow by Hugh Ranson

Jan. 1:  Out-of-towners have arrived early to scout, and the number of different orioles and tanagers they spot is amazing.  I am jealous of Goleta.  South Goleta, along the coast, is one of the prime locations for bird finding in our Count Circle.

Isla Vista, Devereux Slough, and the UCSB campus are famous for their rare birds!

Jan. 2:  The day before the Count is always a frantic one, especially for the chief compilers.  Rebecca Coulter, our head honcho, is cool, very cool.  (As a former compiler myself, I don’t know how she does it!) Read more »

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As the seasons change, and fall turns to winter, it’s fun to review some of the birding adventures I’ve had while teaching a class full of exceptional participants.

My “students” are unusual.

Each one has something to offer:  they all find birds for me, one carries my spotting scope, one locates the correct page in the field guide, and another records the notes on E-bird; and several take photos of the birds we see!

So…..I am wondering who is teaching whom…….but I figure I have a pretty good deal.

Let’s recap a few highlights from our fall field trips:

We started slow and easy at ROCKY NOOK PARK.  Nice views of common warblers, our first Red-breasted Sapsucker, and bunches of Lesser Goldfinches on a private feeder off the lane at the north end of the park.

The class at REFUGIO STATE BEACH was tops for migrants.  Here we had the Nashville Warbler in the little creek by the stone bridge, and lots of activity offshore.  Wes Fritz joined us, which made it even more fun.  The kicker came when Glenn Kincaid suggested we go up Refugio Creek after the official class was over.  Great excitement as we looked at a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and a drop-dead gorgeous Painted Redstart – both rare vagrants for our region. (see previous blog post on this day)

Hoping for more fall rarities, we hit the END OF CORONADO DRIVE, where the little “seep” was dry, and the most activity was at the car wash, where a dripping faucet attracted many Townsend’s and Yellow-rumped Warblers.  The walk out to the bluffs at More Mesa held Downy and Hairy Woodpecker for good comparisons, and many shorebirds along the beach, plus a Common Loon still in breeding plumage – a surprise for those of us familiar with its plain winter outfit.

At GOLETA BEACH and COAL OIL POINT RESERVE, we had especially rich field trips.


Bottle-nose Dolphin by Linda Frazier


Egrets fishing at Goleta Beach by Linda Frazier


Cormorants herding fish at Goleta Beach by Linda Frazier


Great Blue Heron by Linda Frazier

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Male Surf Scoter by Glenn Kincaid

Both are excellent places to observe waterbirds.  At Goleta Beach, some of the highlights were:  watching Double-crested Cormorants “herd” a school of fish in front of them in the lagoon, then proceed to dive and feed in a fine frenzy; many shorebirds gathered on the edges of the lagoon, ranging in size from the tiny Least Sandpipers to a couple of stately Long-billed Curlews; and one nice flock of gulls that contained Royal and Elegant Terns standing together – a good lesson in differentiating these two hard-to-i.d. species.


Elegant Terns foreground, Royal Terns in back by Linda Frazier


Whimbrel by Linda Frazier

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Long-billed Curlew by Glenn Kincaid


At Coal Oil Point, we had a marvelous mixture of land and waterbirds.  Turns out that the two rarest birds– the Summer Tanager and the “Yellow-shafted” Northern Flicker—had nothing at all to do with the water at Devereux.  (We found them in the dying tamarisk grove near the bridge at the south end.)  But the walk along the bluffs looking down on shorebirds feeding in beach wrack, the Peregrine Falcon hurtling by and landing in the eucalyptus grove, and the chance to see some returning ducks like Bufflehead and American Wigeon in the slough made the day an even more outstanding one.


Summer Tanager by Linda Frazier


“Yellow-shafted” Northern Flicker by Linda Frazier (top and bottom photo)


Sanderlings on Isla Vista Beach by Linda Frazier

At CARPINTERIA SALT MARSH NATURE PARK, we saw a mixed flock of feeding shorebirds which revealed Long-billed Dowitchers and Western Sandpipers, and we got great looks at Green-winged Teal as they, too foraged in the mud.  A walk over the bridge towards Santa Monica and Franklin Creeks, on the newly preserved Land Trust property, brought sightings of the state endangered Belding’s Savannah Sparrow.


Green-winged Teal by Linda Frazier


Male Bufflehead by Linda Frazier


WINCHESTER CANYON with a subsequent visit to BELLA VISTA OPEN SPACE provided some of us who lingered – accompanied by a dose of patience! – fine sightings of three of the Fox Sparrow subspecies that winter here:  the Red, the Sooty, and the Slate-colored.   Who could believe that these shy Fox Sparrows chose this busy, rather trash-strewn urban park in which to spend the winter?  They foraged quietly in the leaf litter under the Toyon bushes (difficult to photograph!). The “Red” Fox Sparrow is a favorite, and to think of its boreal breeding range and how far it must’ve traveled to get to coastal Santa Barbara County, makes us realize just how random bird-finding can be.


Red-shouldered Hawk at Winchester Canyon by Linda Frazier


Male (top photo) and female (bottom photo) Purple Finch at Bella Vista by Linda Frazier


Common Yellowthroat at Bella Vista by Linda Frazier

Fortunately, we benefit from all the skilled birders in our area who find great birds and then post them on the sbcobirding website.

Stay tuned for the last class at LAKE LOS CARNEROS!


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Refugio State Beach: October 15, 2014


On a cloudy, cool morning, the Wednesday bird class ventured up the coast to Refugio State Beach, a well-known coastal vagrant trap for passerines in fall migration.

As a teacher, I look at Refugio as somewhat of a challenge.  It’s not all that aesthetically pleasing, lots of tree have recently been removed, and drought conditions have made the creek here little more than a stagnant lagoon.

But hey.  You’ve gotta give it a go….every fall….it’s a tradition.

As a group we’re rather large.  This has its advantages and disadvantages. More eyes see more birds, but more people may scare them away.

At the stone bridge, we began to see Yellow-rumped Warblers coming down to bathe and drink.  An Orange-crowned Warbler, several Townsend’s Warblers, and a Nashville Warbler — the best find — appeared and then quickly disappeared.  The birds flew back and forth between the nearby Eucalyptus trees and the willows lining what looked like foul water, but these are thirsty migrants and they’re not particular.


Townsend’s Warbler


Nashville Warbler

We wandered the campground, trying not to invade the privacy of the campers with our binoculars.

When we got to the west end, we looked offshore to see a small flock of Western Grebes floating in the calm, gray sea.

Wes Fritz, a local professional bird guide, arrived to help us out.  Wes and his super big spotting scope helped with the Royal and Elegant Terns flying by, as well as a big, bulky Common Loon feeding offshore.

A Red-breasted Sapsucker showed well at the top of a palm tree.  That’s the second Red-breasted Sapsucker in two classes — I think it’s going to be a sapsucker year!


Red-breasted Sapsucker

And in the short kikuyu grass growing right near the pavement, we had great looks at a Savannah Sparrow. Totally out of its native habitat of dry open fields, this streaky sparrow was an obvious migrant.   Too exhausted to continue flying, the sparrow dropped down here because it saw a patch of green grass.


Savannah Sparrow

After class, about ten of us accompanied Glenn Kincaid up Refugio Road to see if we could locate the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker he thought he’d seen in a pre-class exploration.

We drove to the second crossing, parked the cars by the corrals there, and walked back south along Refugio Road.

We scanned the willows along the creek, then somebody spotted all the sapsucker workings in a dense cluster of Coast Live Oaks close to the road.

Another Red-breasted Sapsucker hitched its way up one of the trunks.


Red-breasted Sapsucker


And each time I said I thought it might be time for me to go, I’d run back to the group of birders as they found another bird:  this time it was Carol Rae who spied the juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsucker way back in the oaks.  But it came closer and closer, began to interact with the Red-breasted, and Wes was snapping photos like crazy.


Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Glenn remarked that the Yellow-bellied was NOT the bird he’d seen early that morning (someone else had seen a Red-naped Sapsucker, so that’s probably what Glenn saw).

And suddenly, with no warning, without a sound — a beautiful red and black and white warbler was dancing among the limbs of the oak trees!  It flared its white tail edges as it swooped and darted – a vision of a Spanish dancer in the warbler world.


Painted Redstart


Painted Redstart


You want migrant warblers, we’ll give you migrant warblers…..but this?  Well, never in my wildest imagination could I have picked this beautiful bird as the treasure that some of us were lucky enough to see.


Painted Redstart

I just wish more than half the class hadn’t gone home, and I want lots more folks to get the opportunity to see this bird.

But from what I understand, it may already be on its way south to Mexico, where it belongs this time of year.

The elusive Painted Redstart had not been refound the next day at this writing.

You just have to love fall birding, don’t you?




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Birding from Camlica Hill in Istanbul!

Sept. 24, 2014:

It’s full name is Buyuk Camlica, the highest hill overlooking all of Istanbul and the Bosphorus.  The Bosphorus, that marvelous channel that separates two continents — the European and Asian sides of the city—is a famous route for raptors in fall migration.

I was determined to get up there and check it out.

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View of Istanbul from Camlica Hill

There was only one problem: our  cultural tour began that morning. But I skipped it, and persuaded my terrific Turkish guide, Ayse, to come with me, caught a taxi from the hotel, paid a taxi driver to make the journey in rush hour traffic, and arrived at the site absolutely clueless as to where to go or what to do.

So here I am, clutching my binoculars, dragging along trusty Ayse, the young Turkish woman who has no idea whatsoever about birds but she’ll be my interpreter, and we get out of the taxi.

We start walking toward the view point–the whole of Istanbul clear and gorgeous lying beneath us–and my heart leaps.


The “line up” of birders


A phalanx of birders manning Swarovski and Leica scopes appears!

I have never been so glad to see a group of weird-looking birders in my life.

Behind us is a little park with a slope of green grass, but most of the birders are all lined up along a fence, after which the hillside drops off steeply.

“Do you speak English?” I say, hesitantly, to the first young man in the “line up” of heavy duty scope-bearers.

“Yes,” he says in an accent, and he explains he’s Swedish, and so are the half dozen others there, and behind them on the grass is gathered a group of Danes.

Image 6

My Swedish friend Michael to the left

The Swedish guy on the end of the line seemed quiet and shy, so I decided to stick by him.  Having no spotting scope, I would never see the birds if I couldn’t look through someone’s scope.

I am eternally grateful that he let me borrow his scope and helped me identify what we were seeing.

I realized that most of the birders touring Turkey are Northern Europeans and they come for a week and go all over Anatolia, not just here.

I had been in touch with the famous founder of Birdwatch Turkey, Karem Ali Boyla, but he was super busy.  He said he’d send his “assistant” up to help me. (But by then it was too late, and I had to go….)

The sky was blue.  Big white puffs of clouds began to build.   The wind was wrong, of course.  Yesterday it had been stormy, so I’d had high hopes for today, but it was too fair and calm.  Northwest or northeast winds drive the hawks and eagles south along this route as they head to their wintering grounds in southern Africa.

We waited and waited.  Nothing for an hour.

Finally, finally, my Swedish friend, Michael, turns to me and says in his heavy accent, “I see an eagle very, very far away,” and I’d read a lot about these Lesser Spotted Eagles and how common they are here in migration, so I was thrilled beyond measure to see this tiny speck with the floppy wings in flight as it made it’s way far, far in the distant clouds and headed eastward.


Lesser Spotted Eagle from Dick Forsman’s “The Raptors of Europe and the Middle East”

Pretty soon, these amazing birders would get onto a bird far away and they’d try to describe its location — of course in Swedish – and I knew they were giving directions for spotting these distant specks, but I couldn’t understand.

Eventually, somebody calls out “Two Booted Eagles!” and points way up there where that blue break comes between the two white clouds, and I look through Michael’s scope and see what looks like a brown speck with heavy fingered wings soaring.   No way could I i.d. these eagles on my own!

And then comes the highlight: a flock of FIFTY Levant Sparrowhawks (like our Cooper’s Hawks) appear high, high up all flying together like a gathering of swifts.  I’ve never seen hawks flying in such a tight kettle before and then they are up and twirling and whirling away, disappearing to the east out of sight.

More and more eagles soared as the thermals heated up and the morning wore on.  Michael pointed out a Black Kite and a Pallid Harrier.

But how exciting.  I can’t believe I’m actually here!

During a lull I ask Swedish Michael where was home.  He said he lived on Gotland, which is a large island south of Stockholm, and when I asked him what he did he said he was the janitor for a twelfth century church on the island.  Could this be true?

Moreover, Gotland is also the home of Lars Johnsson, perhaps the most renowned bird artist alive today – certainly in Europe.  I treasure a little guide book I have of his, but  he mostly does paintings now, according to Michael.   Wow!


Birders from all over gather here to watch raptors in fall migration

So that was my experience at Camlica, and although it wasn’t the Big Bang, it was the Little Bang and that’s better than no bang at all.

I’ll take my Lesser Spotted Eagles by the 5s and 10s, if necessary, and my 2 Booted Eagles, and my 50 Levant Sparrowhawks.  And yes, I heard about “Oh you should’ve been here yesterday, there were 5000 eagles going over and you could see them easily!”  And then I learned about the Italian birding group that simply lay down on the grass and counted the eagles as they passed directly overhead.

That’s OK.

This was good enough for me.  So I thanked Michael, and gave him my e-mail and I hope I will have the karma to pay it forward to some other struggling foreign  birder if I come across one back home in Santa Barbara.

Posted by & filed under My Nature Journal.


Will I successfully get myself to the top of Camlica Hill in Istanbul, Turkey, to watch the migrant raptor show?

My husband and I are going on a fantastic cultural tour, staying in Istanbul for a few days before boarding a sailing ship and traveling from there through the northern Aegean to Athens!


I’ve been on these trips before, and invariably I am the only birder.

I have found that–with a good field guide and a bit of luck, you can actually tramp around ancient ruins, listen to smart professors as they lecture, and spot good birds all at the same time.

But I’ve had to be resourceful in my preparations.  Finding birding guides off the beaten path is challenging.  They have to speak English, for one thing.  And for another, I usually have to squeeze my birding in whenever possible.

You can get on the internet and find good trip reports from other birders who’ve visited Istanbul.  Usually, they’re British travelers and they’re very knowledgeable.

But I really wanted someone there in Istanbul to act as a field guide.

Last May, I began e-mailing Kerem Ali Boyla .  He’s the founder (and one of the few practicing guides?) of Birdwatch Turkey.

He finally responded to my e-mail in July and was most cordial.  When I outlined what dates I would be visiting Istanbul this month, he said he was sorry but he had a group of 20 Danish folks that would be totally occupying him.

However, if I wanted to get myself to the top of one of two hills:  Camlica or Toygar — both on the Asian side of the Bosphorus with commanding views of the surrounding area — I could join his group of Danish birders.

The Bosphorus is famous not only as the channel of water that separates western and eastern Istanbul (not to speak of two continents!), but as a pathway for migrating birds from Bulgaria and parts of Europe on their way to southerly wintering grounds.

Theoretically,  I could see storks and all sorts of raptors, if conditions are good.

In his last e-mail, Kerem took pity on me and sent me the name of a man to contact who would meet me in Uskudar (to which you take the ferry from our hotel) and drive me up to one of these hills to meet the group.

So my question is this:  just how many of these unfamiliar birds might I be able to i.d.?  Will they be just specks so high in the sky that I can’t see them with binoculars?  Or will I see the Black Storks, Lesser Spotted Eagles, Booted Eagles, Levant Sparrowhawks, etc., for which this site is known by birders worldwide?

I’m leaving soon.

Stay tuned!

Posted by & filed under My Nature Journal.

Birders’ behavior can be almost as interesting as bird behavior.

Definitely, birders have their own stamp of individuality when it comes to interacting with others of their kind.

Some generalities can be made, however.

The number one characteristic is rudeness.  I’m sorry, but it’s true.  I’ve known some really rude birders and I’m one of them!

The problem has its root in a birder’s desire to observe birds — above all else.  In their single-mindedness, they can absolutely ignore social conventions.

For example, a large group of birders is waiting around for a rarity to appear.  I’ve witnessed this so many times:  a birder walks up — curtly addresses somebody in the group with,

“Was it still only last seen at first light?”

A murmured answer to the affirmative by the person standing nearby brings out sighs of frustration in the new arrival.

But does he (or she) say hi to anybody else in the group?  No.  Does he introduce himself?  No.  Does he smile cheerfully at the prospect of a long and perhaps fruitless wait?  No.

This birder will set up his scope, start checking his iphone, and may never utter another word until the bird is spotted, usually by someone else, at which point he or she becomes almost voluble with “so what’s going on with the scaps?”, or “but look at the primary extension!”

Very bad form to show too much enthusiasm. OK. That I can live with.

But rudeness to other birders in the form of not introducing oneself or one’s companions, or in the form of only acknowledging the “top birders” in the assembled group — I’ve seen it all too often.

One of the most egregious examples of birding rudeness was when yours truly left a sit down dinner party at my host’s house to chase a bird with a man I’d never met before!

I’m serious.

I was in Montana with our friends who have a house near Missoula, and the guy who ran the Montana State birding hotline offered to take me to see a Boreal Owl.

Life bird!  Rude behavior alert!

I left my husband and my kind hosts in the lurch, drove an hour and a half down the Bitterroot Valley, and finally arrived at ~8000 foot Chief Joseph Pass.  Here, where an old nest box had been set up years ago, a female Boreal Owl was our goal.

Scaling a snow pack that was 8 feet high beside the highway, I and my companion, Terry Toppins, saw this gorgeous owl as she perched before her nightly foraging flight.

Was I rude? Of course!

Would I do it again?  Of course!

So you see that birders are very odd indeed:  not only can they be rude, but they show little remorse.

I guess those are just characteristics of the species……

Posted by & filed under My Nature Journal.


I know I risk this entry being called an advice column, which it is NOT.

Many birders don’t want to talk about family obligations and how difficult it is to maintain our passion/sport/hobby and still manage relationships!  Couples have foundered, children have been neglected, ageing parents haven’t been visited — all because we wanted to chase a bird.

How many rare county, state, or life birds have you missed because of family obligations to children, non-birding spouses and non-participating significant others?

Birding requires a lot of time, patience, and devotion to detail.

Let’s face it:  you can’t be a good birder without spending hours in the field.

The regular chunks of birding time — a morning here, a class there, a weekend field trip:  well, those can usually be managed.

Our families put up with SCHEDULED birding.

But now fall migration is approaching, and we birders know what the problem is going to be.

In fall, the birds don’t wait around.  They’re headed south, and typically these rare or out-of-range individuals do not linger more than an hour or a day — several days if we’re lucky.

These urgent rarities are the ones we birders agonize over, because most of us can’t just drop everything and run to see a rare bird!

The list of hard luck cases ranges from “My son is the star player on his soccer team and I have to drive him to the game!”  to “We’re supposed to be leaving in ten minutes to go to a reception honoring my grandmother (or boss, or father-in-law), and I can’t possibly get away.”

Those of us who’re lucky enough to have patient non-birding “others” in our life know our good fortune.

But that doesn’t mean that we don’t cringe when we say,

“Ummm, honey, there’s a really, really rare bird in Santa Maria, do you mind if I leave immediately and am gone the rest of the day????  And could you please meet the plumber and tell him where the new hot water heater has to go???  Oh, and I don’t have time to go to the store, so could you pick up dinner, too????”

So this is a problem to which there are few solutions.

In my experience you can:

1) Put on a happy face, but kind of sulk the rest of the day,

2) Hope and pray the bird will stay one more day so you can go first thing tomorrow,

3) Bemoan your circumstances to sympathetic birding friends who can’t get away either and are just as frustrated.

Actually, the only solution is to ask for eternal tolerance, good cheer, and cooperation from our loved ones, right?

And now, so sorry I have to go.

I just heard about a __(fill in the blank)__ , AND I HAVE TO SEE IT BEFORE SUNDOWN because it’ll surely be gone by tomorrow!!!