IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT
But the next day dawned crisp and clear, though the world remained saturated. Fallen leaves lay in sticky, dark little piles like boiled spinach. Puddles filled low spots in streets, sidewalks and clearings. The air had the heavy, damp feeling that comes from being suffused with water. Each small lake in Golden Gate Park was at the brim, sloshing gently against embankments and the tule edging. On the many evergreen plants droplets still hung on the lower points of a leaf and tree trunks showed the dark, damp stain of dripping water. A few cala lilies bloomed and the scattered acacia trees drooped from the weight of their soaked yellow flower heads. And all the birds about were busy with the day's eating and activities.
Two Ravens perched atop a wind bedraggled Monterey cypress with only a few dense clusters of needles. There was a raspy croak or two, but the pair seemed content simply to survey their realm. Far over head a steady, uneven flow of gulls moved eastward from the Pacific. They were Western, headed inland for patrol duty on near cafes, in parking lots, wherever man and his throwaways would concentrate. As soon as Bridget and I got out of the car I heard the familiar staccato chips of a Black Phoebe. This flycatcher is content to spend the winter where the rains and cold nights would make most of his co-geners uncomfortable or even sick. This hearty phoebe sticks around catching bugs when it's warm enough, filling in the hungrier times with seeds or berries. Outside the breeding season you only see a lone phoebe, flocking is not to their liking. He'll eschew the cheery little gangs of chickadees or Bushtits in the foliage. Avoid the hustling crowds of sparrows that hops across open spots and sidewalks.
Likewise, he'll ignore the aerial swirls of blackbirds and Starlings. The Black Phoebe and its cousin, Say's Phoebe, is a loner. One open perch, one black-backed, white-bellied bird per territory. The chip notes seem to mean, "It is I, Phoebe of the realm. Abandon claim, all ye who enter here. I am Phoebe and what I see, I possess."
From the north end this first small lake seems empty. But a burst of Coot sound says otherwise. One book describes Coot sound as an "emphatic punk-uh-punk-uh-punk." I move to a vantage pint where I can see past the shrubs lining the lake. There along the near bank is an American Coot. The white nose shield bright against the overall sooty gray of the bird and dense brown lake water. The Coot paddles along the shore, occasionally stopping for a morsel. Mostly Coot food is aquatic plants, but they will take small animals when possible. Yum, a minnow. There are numerous Coots throughout Golden Gate Park in the winter. By May most will have returned to their breeding grounds inland and further north along streams and lakes and prairie potholes. A few pairs remain to nest in San Francisco. This is a bird adapted to be flexible. A strong swimmer, a capable if inelegant flier, the Coot often comes onto land. The feet are white with dark veins and the toes are lobed, giving both extra push when swimming and stability when walking. No birder has ever professed to having favored Coots, over, say Wood Duck or Common Loons. But they are a sturdy, rugged, successful, adaptable species. If there are still birders in a million years, it's likely there'll be a species of coot for them to watch.
As I walk further around the lake a female Ruddy Duck suddenly pops up to the surface. Then another diving duck appears, a male Bufflehead, then another and a female soon after. By the time I reach the far end of the lake I will have seen seven of these energetic, plate-sized black and white ducks. Today's bright sun brings out the iridescent colors on the dark feathers of the male Bufflehead, hints of dark green and purple and some whisper of bronze that seems to appear but you can't quite see, as if the spectrum were wavering along the feather tips. I'm colorblind anyway so this unsettling uncertainty of color just seems to confirm my long-held suspicion that colors are only matters of social agreement, not real facts. Blue may be like any popular economic theory, it's real only so far as we all agree it's real. So with the Bufflehead male—black and white, sure, like an oil slick on the water with many colors swirling and mixing and giving off a feeling that it is black, but upon close examination it's really just another economic theory being floated before our eyes.
Some Mallards noisily gabble as they move around a point toward where I am watching. And the sheen of the male Mallards' dark green heads may come from the same oil slick as the Buffleheads' dark colors. In a nearby tree I can hear the Yellow-rumped Warblers fussing with one another. I look up and notice House Finches in the same eucalyptus, one with blossoms that attract insects as well as birds. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet flies out from a branch and back into the foliage. When most of our flycatchers by name have gone south, we get flycatching behavior from the warblers and kinglets.
Along the west side of lake is a small grove of cypress trees in the water. Among their roots and drooping lower branches, are five small ducks. Hooded Mergansers. As with many ducks, the females are subdued in plumage, earthy tones of brown, gray and russet. There is the usual rough crest feathers behind the head. The thin fish-snatching beak of the merganser family that preys mostly on fish caught underwater. But there is one juvenile male and two adult males. These guys are stop your eyes and your breath. A disc-shaped head atop a thin neck, dark on ledge with a brilliant white center, black and white vertical bands on the chest, sides that are fine tweed of a warm chestnut color and a black back with parallel white stripes shaped like fine willow leaves arcing along the flanks. There are more brightly colored ducks on earth but none have any finer black & white design than the male Hooded Merganser. As he glides through the muck-colored lake, trailed by his muted mate, this drake is the epitome of the dandy in fine clothes. After each quick dive, his head crest re-emerges from the water in perfect shape, little beads of water drip off the white and dark crest plumage. Each drip making a tiny circle in the water, little rings within the larger ring of waves that surround the duck as it bobs to the surface.
I move from North Lake to Middle Lake. There a Varied Thrush sweeps up from a trailside bush to pose, motionless on a high tree limb. There are black face lines over the rusty orange background color of this forest dweller. The bird doesn't move and I study the orange of his chest and belly. It could almost be the color of raw redwood limbs torn by a storm. The black is really charcoal dust turning to the color of the darkest tree bark on the bird's back. The bird and its native forest are now inseparable in tone and stillness.
Near the end of the lake a bright Orange-crowned Warbler flutters through the low brush. Then there's a gurgling sound, perhaps more of a guttural warble. Then an answer in a higher key. It is two Pied-billed Grebe calling to one another. They will soon nest among the tules here where dozens of Red-winged Blackbirds and Starlings roost in a welter of bird-swearing each evening. Looking up at the top of a dead tree still forty feet I catch sight of two Pygmy Nuthatches inspecting cavities. They, too, soon will be nesting. Just beyond the lake from some eucalyptus top a Red-shouldered Hawk begins a series of slurred scream notes. Another sound of the spring imperative, mate, nest, eggs, territory, young. In a few days another Red-shouldered Hawk in another park will make a direct dive at Bridget, our unsuspecting dog. A warning to competing predators to be gone. In a more open area of the Presidio, a group of birders on a field trip will witness yet another Red-shouldered Hawk chasing its larger buteo cousin, a Red-tailed Hawk.
In Sutro Heights Park, birders are surprised at the frantic circling Chestnut-backed Chickadees, a little gang of four in hot pursuit of one another. Feral cala lilies and nasturtium are in bloom. So are the earliest of the plum trees. The resident pair of Red-tailed hawks sit serenely atop one of the tallest pines in the park. They have nested here successfully for the past five years, rearing at least three young each season. The smaller, dark male and his paler mate know this is their turf, with only the resident Raven pair to occasionally cause them trouble. Across the street from Sutro Heights is the more one area of Land's End.
Just a hundred yards from where the waves crash onto the rocks, a wintering Merlin stares down at finches, Mourning Doves, sparrows from atop a slender dead tree. The young female dislikes the binoculars all pointing at her and streaks directly, swiftly into the nearby cypress and albizia thicket. Song Sparrows and White-crowned Sparrows are giving voice to calls for an early spring. Western Scrub-jays contend over the best nesting trees in raucous, but apparently non-violent, combat. Bushtits move about in pairs, not their winter flocks of two dozens fluffs of cotton. And just yesterday I heard the first American Robin sing, not the whinny of an alarmed bird but the first set of slurred chords that is the real music of any spring-fed thrush. It's another two months before I expect the Hooded Oriole to appear, perhaps several weeks before the Mockingbird begins not to just guard the holly in my back garden but to sing from its heights. But I know what is in store and the world is ready.
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