California Dreamin’

I welcome any excuse to take a break from the regular routine and get away for a little while. It’s even better when the invitation to escape includes cause for celebration. Earlier this year, I received a “save the date” card from Kevin, my brother-in-arms from some of my favorite college escapades, and his new fiancée Hannah, a fellow Cornell biology major. I was thrilled to hear that they were finally getting married, and even more excited to learn that their union was scheduled for a Saturday over an extended weekend. The planned date afforded me the chance to travel for the wedding, and a California mini-vacation turned out to be exactly what I needed a month into the school year. I flew out Friday night and secured lodging with my old friends Dylan, Aly, and Christian. The entire trip was chock full of fun and fond memories from beginning to end. My highest highlights were focused around merriment, entertainment, and refreshment, but this ain’t that kind of blog, bruv. What kind of birder would I be if I didn’t have an eye out for West Coast widllife?

I wanted to maximize the time spent in the company of my buddies, but the call of the wild is strong and my circadian rhythm was still set to East Coast Time. While my friends dozed in the early hours of the day, I found myself waking up before sunrise. Rather than sit around the house and wait for them to rise, I decided to scratch my exploration itch and get back in time for brunch. On my first morning, I was awakened by the call of a California Towhee just outside my window. When I stepped outside to search the yard, I got my first visual of a Golden State bird since last summer: a Yellow-billed Magpie that flew over the house. It’s only fitting that I was greeted by the most Californian of all birds, a true endemic. When I strolled down the streets of Fair Oaks to nearby Phoenix Park, I found dozens of the dapper corvids strutting their stuff on the lawn.

As much as I love racking up lifers on expeditions to new locations, there’s something special about getting reacquainted with familiar faces when you return to a place you enjoyed. It’s almost as nice as reuniting with human friends…almost! I found a good mix of local specialties like Oak Titmouse, Acorn and Nuttall’s Woodpeckers, and California Scrub-Jay along with western counterparts of bluebird, phoebe, and goldfinch.

I moved on to Mississippi Bar along the banks of the American River, where I added Spotted Towhee and Bewick’s Wren to the day list. Flocks of twittering Bushtits swirled through the foliage, and Anna’s Hummingbirds darted around at high speed. I eventually received a notification that the others were out of bed, so I began the trek back to base. I passed a feeding flock of turkeys and an adorable puddle of bathing songbirds along the way, and the meal I returned for did not disappoint. I put my binoculars aside for the day when I suited up for the ceremony, which was held at the picturesque Rome Valley Vineyards. I couldn’t help noticing some Band-tailed Pigeons and other species flying around from my vantage point atop this scenic hill, but once the event got started the birds were the furthest thing from my mind. It was a beautiful night of celebration, complete with plenty of jokes, reminiscence, tasty food and wine. I’m thankful that Kevin and Hannah included me in their special day. It was absolutely worth the trip!

Despite staying up late to keep the party going, my internal alarm clock woke me up at an hour that was relatively reaspectable for New York and well ahead of the California sunrise. I summoned an Uber to ferry me to Sacramento Bar on the American River Parkway, a promising eBird hotspot. Even as the sun crept over the horizon, the moon was putting on a spectacular show. The newlyweds had intentionally chosen a weekend with a bold and bright lunar scene, and it delivered.

My number one target was the Phainopepla, the only new bird I could reasonably expect to find with my limited search time and radius. These silky-plumaged creatures are resident along the Parkway, but they can be difficult to track down. After some careful searching, I heard a promising whistle. An unfamiliar silhouette passed overhead further down the trail, with a long tail, gray plumage, and a Yellow-rumped Warbler in hot pursuit. I got my glass on it and confirmed a shaggy crest and faint pale patches on the flight feathers. Score. I continued to explore the extensive habitat along the water, and I was rewarded with a nice diversity of species. The brushy trailside vegetation was rich with avian activity, including confiding Spotted Towhees and Golden-crowned Sparrows.

I got distant views of a White-tailed Kite hovering over the far bank of the river, and there were several Red-shouldered Hawks and a Sharp-shin hunting on my side. I tracked down a Black-throated Gray Warbler and tallied my long overdue first Orange-crowned Warbler of the year. A far-off siren set off a chorus of confused Coyotes, yapping and howling from all directions. It was an amazingly lovely morning, but I decided to wrap it up and return home before getting the signal from my buddies. I made it back just as they were getting prepped for the day, satisfied with the successes of my solo outing.

We drove from Sacramento down to Dylan’s place in Mountain View, laughing it up all the way with stories and humorous podcasts. After some gaming and television, we brought Christian to his relative’s place for a barbecue. His family was nice enough to invite us to stick around their Portola Valley residence for the evening. I spied Steller’s Jays and Chestnut-backed Chickadees in the hillside woodlands, but I was soon distracted by delicious cocktails and a buffet of fantastic comestibles. Such hospitality! I eventually returned with Dylan and Aly to wrap up the night and crash on the couch. It was hard to say good night and good bye, but when I awoke in the predawn darkness to catch my flight I had no complaints about my getaway. The weekend was a categorical success from start to finish. Next time, hopefully I can get my friends to visit my neck of the woods!

Year List Update, October 9 – 394 Species (+ California Towhee, Yellow-billed Magpie, California Scrub-Jay, Anna’s Hummingbird, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Black Phoebe, Western Bluebird, Oak Titmouse, Acorn Woodpecker, Lesser Goldfinch, Spotted Towhee, Bewick’s Wren, Bushtit, Band-tailed Pigeon, Golden-crowned Sparrow, White-tailed Kite, Phainopepla, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler, Steller’s Jay, Chestnut-backed Chickadee)

About timhealz

A recent graduate (Cornell '14) and lifelong explorer cataloging my thoughts and travels.
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