We set out on our hiking adventure with high hopes. The trail sounded promising; a mellow ramble through the hills and dales of Morro Bay State Park. This is a good bit south of our normal stomping grounds, and I am always keen to see a new bird when we stray farther afield. It was a foggy morning, but we figured that would clear out and the birds would be active and abundant. And wouldn’t you know it, we saw a cool bird right off the bat.
You see that blue bird? My first guess is either Indigo or Lazuli Bunting, although through the binoculars it didn’t have the right colors in front for the Lazuli. And an Indigo Bunting is an East of the Rockies bird; it would be quite a rare find out here. Let’s get a closer look.
Yeah, it’s not the Lazuli Bunting, and not a Western Bluebird. There’s too much blue up front for those guys. I’ve only seen the Indigo Bunting once before, on a reclaimed uranium processing site in Ohio. That was a very blue bird, much like our fellow here. But there’s some other color on the side of this one. Just a little too far off to say for sure what that is. And then it flew away. We continue on, but we’ll check again on our way back.
The fog isn’t lifting, and the grass is very wet. We’re getting soaked. And I’m not 100% sure that we’re on the right trail. And there aren’t a ton of birds, other than the occasional Spotted Towhee. Nevertheless, our spirits are high and we openly speculate on the true identity of the blue bird. I take a few pictures of Towhees, even though they’re far away and the light’s not very good. You never know. When I check the pictures later there might be something good. Some readers may recall that feeling of excitement when you’d get your pictures back from the Fotomat or similar photo-finishing service. I get a little bit of that when I import my pictures into my photo editor and have a good look at them.
We wind our way back into a canyon, and it is definitely neat back here. It’s a small grove of dwarf California Live Oak. We’re standing in there, just taking it all in, when Resident Expert sees a Great Horned Owl take off and silently weave its way out of the grove. It was there the whole time. Owls. Here’s the moment just afterwards.
Now we’re climbing over a ridge, up into the fog where we’re hearing lots of birds. The Towhees are most common, but we also see a few quail, Bewick’s Wren, and two California Thrashers (excellent name and bird). The California Towhee is also here. Towhee pair-bonding is pretty tight. Once they get together they stay together for life, and usually stay within a few feet of one another. Here’s a nice couple.
We’re heading out now, having had a chance to see and hear a few birds and explore some unfamiliar and interesting plants and terrain. The Resident Expert stops here to examine something.
But we have one more thing to check on. Remember I said we’d look for that blue bird on our way out? Well, as we get close to the trailhead we hear a songbird. We hang out for a bit, watching and listening. And there he is.
Don’t see him? He’s in the middle of those green plants. We watched for a while as he moved about, and eventually got a clearer view and good look at those wings of his.
At this point we’re pretty confident that we have no idea what kind of bird this is. All of our earlier speculation can be set aside. But we have some pictures, and my good bird guidebook is back at the house.
We start making our way towards the car, and there he is again, ahead of us on the trail.
Up the trail we go, a few slow steps at a time, and then I stop to take another picture. I don’t want to bother him. He’s probably on a long migration and is just trying to rest and refuel, and I’m stalking him like an avian paparazzi. But we slowly get a little closer.
The light’s not great, but I figure I can fix that later. We’re maybe 25 feet away now, and he seems not too irritated. Then he hops over to the yellow mustard plant. This could make a real nice picture, so I quickly fire away. Here’s what that gets you.
Fortunately our bird is a patient soul and lets me take a little more time and get a better picture.
Thank you, sir.
I ran across a quote from photographer Melissa Groo that bears repeating.
Never forget that these moments out in nature are just about photos to us, but to wild animals, every single moment is about survival.
Our mystery bird turned out to be the Blue Grosbeak.