Monday, 2 January 2012

California Dreaming: San Jose 4-11th December 2011

Working at an engineering company in West Yorkshire isn't the best place to see exotic wildlife. So when that company asks you to go and work for a week at their site in San Jose ("the capital of Silicon Valley") in California, well you don't say no. And so on 4th December I arrived in California, further west than I'd been before.

I had a few hours at San Francisco airport before my colleague arrived, so I did what came naturally: I drank beer and went birding. Bird watching in airports, in and around the terminal, is practically pointless – there’s not much to see but gulls and crows. Of course, the good news is if you’re new to the territory as I was, the gulls and crows are all new birds for you. So it was, my first life-tick of the trip was a California Gull (Larus Californicus), which was stood on a bus shelter outside the domestic departure area.

Smaller than a Herring Gull, with a more streaked head and neck, yellow legs, pointier wings with blacker tips, and the most obvious ID feature: a red and black spot on the gonydeal angle.

California Gull - San Francisco Airport, Sunday 4th December 2011

Unfortunately, because I was working during this trip, and because of the restricted hours of daylight in winter, I wasn’t going to be able to give all the birds here such a good grilling as that gull.

San Jose and Milpitas
I was staying in downtown San Jose and working in Milpitas to the northeast. Both were quite built-up areas, with sparse vegetation. Time was limited too, because at this time of year the sun didn’t rise until about 07:30 and set before 17:00.

I got out into downtown San Jose only a couple of times during daylight, and was pleasantly surprised to find Acorn Woodpeckers in the park off the main Market Street.

I didn’t get much chance to go birding around the office area in Milpitas; I was working indoors all day, away from windows. I did see one or two birds here: Black Phoebe - a very confiding bird – and lots of the ubiquitous American Crow. The other birds around the office eluded my novice identification skills.

Black Phoebe - San Jose, Tuesday 6th December 2011

On the way to work each morning we passed a scruffy area on the CA-87 freeway and every morning I saw a Northern Mockingbird (Mimus Polyglottos) stood on a prominent post, right at eye-level. After the first sighting, I was ready with my bins each morning, helping me clinch the identification. Also in the same area was Western Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma [californica] californica), probably of the coastal californica subspecies. A beautiful, exotic looking bird – although no more exotic looking than the Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius) that I get in my garden I guess. Further along on the freeway each morning there was a huge flock of feral pigeons on the overhead wires – hundreds of them favouring just one section of wires. They may have been staying together for warmth – it was colder here than I anticipated…

The most surprising and welcome bird on the morning commutes was a Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) on some rough ground by the Lowes store at the junction of the i880 and Brokaw Road. I managed to pick it out four mornings from five, and get good views as we queued in traffic. This is a bird I’d travel long distances to see in the UK. It was an absolute peach, but it was a little weird to see such a “rarity" (in UK terms) stood in the car park of a hardware store.

Guadalupe River Park

Northern Mockingbird (sat on the sign) - Guadalupe River Park, San Jose, Tuesday 6th December 2011

A couple of blocks west of the hotel I was staying at (the De Anza), and just under the CA-87 Guadeloupe Parkway, was Guadeloupe River Park. It was around here I went birding most mornings, getting 45 minutes in before setting off to the office.

Black Phoebe was the most conspicuous bird here, calling constantly as it picked its way around the concrete structures and homeless people (downtown San Jose certainly had plenty of these).

Mallard and American Coot were on the river itself, and the trees on the riverbank had loads of American Robin and Starling every morning. Lots of the ubiquitous American Crow and Feral Pigeon around too. On the Tuesday morning I caught sight of a pair of American Kestrel high on some overhead wires. After five minutes or so they mated, which seemed odd given it was early December.

The bird that got me most excited was the chunky warbler-type with the yellow flashes, flitting around the smaller trees. It took me ages looking through Sibley’s and National Geographic bird guides before I finally settled on Yellow-rumped Warbler. Then there was the Cedar Waxwing flock, the small group of House Finch, and the really confiding Northern Mockingbird. Probably really boring stuff for most Yank birders, but all very new and compelling to me. These photos aren't great: I'm no photographer - all these photos were taken with a £95 Canon Ixus...

Northern Mockingbird - Guadalupe River Park, San Jose, Tuesday 6th December 2011

House Finch - Guadalupe River Park, San Jose, Thursday 8th December 2011

Cedar Waxwing - Guadalupe River Park, San Jose, Thursday 8th December 2011
Cedar Waxwing - Guadalupe River Park, San Jose, Thursday 8th December 2011

City of Sunnyvale Landfill 
On Wednesday lunchtime, I sneaked away from work for a couple of hours and drove up to Sunnyvale, and joined the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society on one of their monthly trips around the Donald M. Somers Water Pollution Control Plant. This was an inspired idea, even if I say so myself. I spent an hour or more in the company of some knowledgeable and extremely helpful local birders, plus around 30 beginner birders, seeing a mass of birds mostly new to me. The site is part of a working landfill and water treatment site, but the area we toured was a former landfill heap that gave us a great lookout over lagoons, drains, settlement beds, and southern San Francisco Bay.

I could barely keep up with all the new birds I was seeing and new information I was hearing. Here's a list of the birds I saw at the landfill (there were more, but like I said, I just couldn't take them all in during the time I had): Canada Goose, Snow Goose, Pintail, American Wigeon, Shoveler, Ruddy Duck, Pied-billed Grebe, Double-crested Cormorant, Snowy Egret, Great Egret, Green Heron, Turkey Vulture, Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, American Coot, Moorhen, Least Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher, American Avocet, Black-necked Stilt, Lesser Yellowlegs, Burrowing Owl, Belted Kingfisher, Black Phoebe, American Crow, Hermit Thrush, Starling, American Pipit, Orange-crowned Warbler, and Yellow-rumped Warbler.

Borrowing Owl - Sunnyvale landfill, Wednesday 7th December 2011

Belted Kingfisher - Sunnyvale landfill, Wednesday 7th December 2011

Turkey Vulture - Sunnyvale landfill, Wednesday 7th December 2011
Hermit Thrush - Sunnyvale landfill, Wednesday 7th December 2011

Half Moon Bay
I was cheeky enough to take Friday afternoon off and head across the San Andreas fault to Half Moon Bay. My colleague was mostly interested in driving along Highway One, whereas I wanted to see more wildlife and, for the first time in my life, dip my toe in the Pacific Ocean.

El Granada, Half Moon Bay, California, Friday 9th December 2011

On Wednesday night we'd had a takeaway curry (a really good one, surprisingly) at the home of an Apple executive (an old school friend of my colleague). While they didn't divulge any Apple secrets, they did recommend this place. And it really is a lovely, quiet, beautiful place (although I suspect it's very busy in summer).

On the wide sandy shores of the Half Moon Bay State Beach were some very tame Sanderling, and groups of loafing California, Western, and Ring-billed Gull. We travelled up Highway One to El Granada at the northern end of the bay, seeing Red-winged Blackbirds and possibly Mourning Doves on the roadside wires. In the picturesque harbour at El Granada, I watched a Great Blue Heron stalking the shallows, while Pied-billed and Western Grebes dived nearby. Lots of ducks here (you can see them behind the Great Blue Heron in the photo above), but I couldn't get a decent vantage point to get a positive ID - just one of many that got away.

(One-legged) Western Gull - Half Moon Bay, Friday 9th December 2011

(Two-legged) Western Gull - Half Moon Bay, Friday 9th December 2011

San Francisco
The last full day in California, and where else to go than San Francisco? Well, I had a few other ideas, but my companions (we were joined by another co-worker) opted for SF. What an absolutely brilliant city. Didn't do much birding here - I just enjoyed actually being here.

We did do the tourist boat trip out to the Golden Gate Bridge and around Alcatraz Island, seeing Double-crested Cormorants and California See Lions at the quayside, and Heermann's Gull following the boat at close quarters.

 Heermann's Gull - San Francisco, Saturday 10th December 2011
 Heermann's Gull and Alcatraz - San Francisco, Saturday 10th December 2011

We had a good look around SF later in the afternoon, and bumped into a few Santas before stumbling upon a thousand of them in a park. A great day out to round off a brilliant trip. It was hard work (I was working long days in between all this birding, honest!), but well worth it. Here's hoping for more foreign trips - the company I work for has sites at Manaus in Brazil, and Tierra del Fuego in Argentina... Better get back to work. 

Santa Con - San Francisco, Saturday 10th December 2011

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