Having given up on the hunt for Great Horned Owls for a bit after having had zero success finding any recently, this week took me in search of other birds at some of my favorite spots. After a couple of unusually rainy days, a return trip to Alameda Open Space turned up those Ruby-crowned Kinglets still making a fuss along the riverside drainage ditch. This time I walked the side of the ditch they’d been on a few days earlier and got a bit closer to them, although in typical fashion they didn’t stay in one spot very long.
The next day, but a little earlier than usual, I made a quick trip to nearby Embudito Canyon. A smart move, as the birds were more active and visible earlier in the morning. And there were a couple of special ones that morning. First up was a thrasher singing loudly from a small oak. Most common in the canyon are Curve-billed Thrashers, but this guy turned out to be the much less common Crissal Thrasher with its black mustache, unstreaked chest, and rufous coloring under the tail.
Even more surprising was seeing a Rufous-crowned Sparrow sitting out in the open with a couple of Canyon Towhees. This is a bird I’ve very rarely seen and we’d only gotten a quick look at during the Audubon Thursday Birder visit a couple of weeks ago.
Didn’t hear any quail that morning, but there was a rather cooperative Greater Roadrunner, several Black-throated Sparrows, a Ladder-backed Woodpecker, and a couple of other birds, including a Cactus Wren (A return visit later in the week would turn up three of this species all squabbling over perching rights on a single post.).
As the week went on, the weather got progressively better. Early in the week, the mornings were still pretty cold but things would warm up as the day went by, and for the last two days and probably through the weekend, temperatures are reaching the most pleasant mid-60s by the afternoon.
Each morning, I headed out to different spots for a couple of hours to see what birds might be out and about; Tuesday to Corrales and Wednesday to Los Poblanos and Tingley Ponds. The riverside drainage ditch at Corrales had a Great Blue Heron perched high in a cottonwood and I’d see two more later at Tingley the next day. Best picture that day, however, was one of several Song Sparrows that came down to the water for a drink.
There was also a Hermit Thrush and a number of goldfinches, sparrows, nuthatches, doves, and woodpeckers around, especially at one house that had several feeders. Los Poblanos the next day wasn’t very busy unfortunately. Although the Sandhill Cranes, a pair of American Kestrels, and a couple of Say’s Phoebes were seen, I didn’t see the Northern Harrier, Greater Roadrunner, Ring-necked Pheasant, or the Western Screech-Owl from my last visit. Tingley Ponds, which had been quiet like that on my last visit, this time had a good number of different ducks, a couple of Neotropic Cormorants newly arrived, the two Great Blue Herons perched in the trees, and a Belted Kingfisher. Always one of my favorites, a Pied-billed Grebe paddled quietly by.
Thursday turned out to be the most fabulous day yet, as the Audubon Thursday Birders headed down to Bosque del Apache NWR for a full day of excellent birding. The weather was perfect, with no wind, sunny conditions, and warm enough to lose the jacket early on. Our rather large group of 26 people in 9 vehicles ended the day with a very respectable total of at least 68 species, including a few that were quite special. At our first stop on the way to the refuge, we had a number of the fairly uncommon White-throated Sparrows in with a flock of the much more common White-crowned Sparrow.
Also present in that excellent habitat with well-stocked feeders were Pine Siskins,
and a couple of Spotted Towhees.
As we were driving through San Antonio toward the refuge, everyone got excellent looks at a Ferruginous Hawk sitting up on a power pole, and soon after, what I first took as probably a bunch of dried leaves high up in a cottonwood turned out to be a Merlin, a bird not seen all that often and certainly not as well as we would that day.
Stopping at one of the ponds just inside the refuge to take a look at a large flock of Snow Geese and several species of ducks, including a Cinnamon Teal, we quickly spotted a pair of Bald Eagles perched in the one cottonwood overlooking the pond – by the end of the day, we’d spot a total of six of them.
After lunch at the Visitor Center, we also got good looks at the normally quite shy Green-tailed Towhee, a bird I don’t see all that often anywhere.
Absolute highlight of the day for me, however, was getting definitive looks at the Northern Shrike that’s been in the area for several months and that had been the target of our unsuccessful search a few weeks earlier. It’s not that often anymore that I get a ‘lifer’ so it was a treat to get such good looks at it to be able to see the very minor differences from the more common Loggerhead Shrike. The mask on the Northern Shrike is a little narrower than on the Loggerhead, and most telling is the light color of the lower mandible.
This morning, I couldn’t quite decide where to go at first, but then remembered it had been quite awhile since I had taken a look around the Route 66 Open Space just east of the Four Hills neighborhood. It was good to see that the paintball wars there seem to be over and most of the paintballs that had colored the area on past visits have either been cleaned up or degraded away. It was also wonderful to see the creek through the area flowing well; on my last visit it was completely dry and some of the other creeks in the foothills continue to be either dry or have only a small amount of water. The open space still seems relatively undiscovered and as usual I didn’t see any other people there on my visit. Other than a few juncos and a pair of Red-tailed Hawks flying overhead, it was pretty quiet for birds, too, except for one rather large bird that I caught a glimpse of as it vanished in the woods. Apparently it hadn’t gone far, since I soon spotted it hiding nearby, an adult Cooper’s Hawk who let me take this picture before again taking off into the woods.
And you know the old adage about how when you’re looking for something, it’s always in the last place you look? Not far from where the hawk had caught my attention, sure enough an odd-looking lump in a nearby tree was a Great Horned Owl – the bird I’d just spent the last two weeks looking fruitlessly for all up and down the river!
No partner or nest nearby that I could find, but at least they’re back in the area, so I’ll have to take another look again soon and start keeping an eye out all over town for the active nesting that should be starting any time now.