Toad in the Hole

February 14, 2006

Vagrant Trap

You know how sometimes you just get a bug up your ass about some bird? We -- OK, mostly Joe, but I was getting there too -- had tried two, three, many times for the northern waterthrush that people had been seeing at the southernmost pond in Aquatic Park in Berkeley. It was probably made worse by the fact that I got a diagnostic, if unsatisfying, glimpse of the thing's butt on Friday. Literally, just its vent and tail for a second or so. The way it bobs its ass, very like the way a spotted sandpiper bobs its ass, is a diagnostic. I'd forgotten that little thing and had to ask, "Hey, does this bird bob its ass?" And of course the little bugger didn't show up again then.

Aquatic Park is rather un-placid, especially that corner of that pond. Serious traffic: cars heading for the freeway; cars coming back, though I'm not sure from where; cars heading for the little parking lot at that end of the park; cars heading for lunch or coffeebreak on the road shoulders with a view of the ponds; the freeway -- I-80, lots of fast or slow traffic all the time; the railroad tracks just a few yards away, with freight and passenger trains and the odd lonesome diesel engine at amazingly frequent intervals and blowing their horns at the several grade crossings; and human traffic, including people with dogs and homeless campers and it's an old traditional gay men's cruising site too. (I'm amazed people still do that, but I guess there's such a thing as time-honored custom.)

Of course the willow thicket where the bird hangs out is a hot spot for camping and hustling -- relative privacy, beaten paths. This winter must've had an effect on the local economy, because there were herds of birders there too. Today was the first time in several visits that we didn't see another birder, and sometimes there was barely room for everybody without jostling someone's binocs.

Lots of bird traffic too. Black-crowned night herons roost there, out over the pond, and though they generally kept a baleful orange eye on us they didn't flush even when we got within ten feet of them. A snowy egret looked more nervous but didn't leave either, just kept preening its nuptial plumes. White- and golden-crowned and song and fox sparrows, hermit thrushes and brown towhees darted around in the tangle.

One interesting thing was the willows' evident productivity. That park is full of non-native plants, no surprise, but a group called EGRET (I forget what that stands for) has been making native gardens here and there, hacking out the worst invasives, planting locals, and they cut out several syzygiums (aka eugenias -- trash-ornamental tree) to let the sun into that corner for its native willows. Potter Creek trickles into the pond there, eventually to the Bay, and willows will prosper given half a chance. There's one or two syzygiums left, and some birds were in them and evidently tasting their berries -- I saw a couple on the ground with nibbles taken off the surfaces -- but the real action was the willow flowers.

They were being worked rather casually by Anna's hummers, more intensely by honeybees and native bumblebees, housefinches, American and lesser goldfinches, yellow-rumped and at least one Townsend's warbler, bushtits, chickadees, and ruby-crowned kinglets. Some of those were probably eating bugs -- I found a teeny translucent inchworm that uses lots of webbing, and a little spider or two too, probably part of the feasting -- but the housefinches at least were eating the flowers; I saw several chomping on big green fuzzy mouthfuls, and I know they eat the succulent bases of plum blossoms too. The goldfinches, with their narrower bills, had a different technique; they bit into the deeper bits between the fuzz.

We saw all these tweeties within less than ten yards, mind, while looking for something else. And over our shoulders too. People do get mugged and shot in that park with some regularity, sometimes in daytime, and that end's the best possible set-up for it. Just BTW, we also saw stilts, avocets, yellowlegses, willets, herons, both egrets, coots, cormorants, a Selasphorus hummer, robins, crows, assorted gulls, Canada (and a pair of domestic) geese, and assorted ducke inclusing red-breasted mergansers, hooded mergansers, scaup, bufflehead, canvasbacks, mallards, and the famous visiting tufted drake over the last couple visits, besides the other species I've mentioned.

And the waterthrush finally showed up this morning. We we just standing there, for a long time, legs going numb and all, watching bird after bird comne to bathe in one sunny spot in the creekflow, and finally the movement way over in the tangle wasn't another sparrow or warbler. I spotted the movement, got Joe onto it (though my directions were so vague I don't think they helped much), and we watched it bob and look around and preen as long as we could keep our glasses up.


Oh -- "vagrant trap" is birder jargon. It means a place where birds who find themselves way out of their normal ranges (aka extralimitals) are likely to turn up. Good examples are certain sewage plants and the windbreak trees planted by the farmhouses out on Point Reyes.

Posted at February 14, 2006 12:46 AM