Early on a recent Saturday morning at Mountain View’s Shoreline Park, bird-watchers were scattered along the marshy shores. Equipped with binoculars and/or cameras, the dedicated regulars were rewarded with the sight of an unusually large gathering of American avocets.
Among the birders was Yelena Fleytman, who has been birding for approximately five years. Shoreline, a 750-acre wildlife and recreation area, is one of Fleytman’s favorite places to bird-watch. She regularly sees willets, Foster’s terns, Caspian terns, black-necked stilts, snowy egrets, great white egrets and herons when she visits.
Fleytman also spots lots of ducks - especially in winter - and a large number of Canada geese, which "are not supposed to be there," she said. The birds, normally migratory, have for decades made the area their year-round residence.
"It was a good environment, so they had no reason to migrate," she said.
One of Fleytman’s favorite species is Anna’s hummingbird; the male members of the species flaunt rapid color changes of their head feathers during mating season, a spectacle she likened to a "lighthouse - (flashing) green, red, green, red."
Shoreline biologists count, on average, approximately 10,000 birds representing nearly 40 species each year.
Spring and fall are the best seasons for viewing, according to biologist Phil Higgins, "because you have migrating birds going up north (in the spring) and then coming back in the fall."
Higgins recommends birding at low tide, when the mudflats are exposed, and mentioned the area around Terminal Boulevard (at the end of San Antonio Road), where "there’s a little platform you can walk out onto. That’s a great location for looking at birds."
Shoreline Park includes several distinct areas: Charleston Slough, Coast Casey Forebay, Shoreline Lake, Permanente Creek and the Meadowlands. Located a mile or so south of the Terminal Boulevard area, Shoreline Lake is filled with saltwater pumped in from nearby Charleston Slough.
"There’s a little island over on the far side," Higgins said. "We did a survey last week and we counted 34 nests from five different species."
Around November or December (the exact time varies from year to year), small fish appear in the lake.
"I presume it’s little herrings - very small fish to get in through the pumps," he said. "We see hundreds of cormorants, pelicans, all swimming in the middle, and there (are) egrets all standing around the edge. It (only lasts) about two weeks, then it just stops all of a sudden. … It’s amazing."
White pelicans have developed a unique method for taking advantage of that temporary food supply.
"They form a big circle and herd all the fish closer into the middle of the circle, and they all put their heads down at the same time to catch the fish," Higgins said.
In winter, the nearby salt ponds are temporary homes to migratory birds, including pelicans, northern shovelers, ruddy ducks, gadwalls and mallards.
Nesting and burrowing
The largest egret rookery in the South Bay is located at the end of Shorebird Way in Shoreline Park.
"It’s the most unnatural bird nesting area in the world, (with) London Plane trees on one side of the road and buildings on both sides," Higgins said. "There are about 30 nests of snowy egrets, 30 nests of great egrets, and this year we have three nests of black-crowned herons. They’ve been nesting out there for about 15 years. These are water birds - they hunt for fish. … It’s a very unusual place to have an egret colony."
The black skimmer - a protected bird species - nested at Shoreline a few years ago. Like American white pelicans, they have an interesting method of fishing.
"They’re black and white with a big, long red beak, and the lower mandible is much longer than the upper mandible," Higgins said. "So they fly above the water surface with the lower mandible in the water and the upper mandible open, and when they catch a fish, they close (their beaks)."
Higgins said the skimmers, native to Mexico and arriving in California since the 1970s, have attempted nesting on the island for three or four years.
"They make a little hollow in the ground for their eggs," he said. "Unfortunately, because the island is sloped, the eggs kept falling out and going into the water."
The solution was a manmade nesting box - a wooden frame filled with sand.
"They moved in straightaway and successfully had three chicks," he reported.
Some birds are elusive, such as the federally endangered Ridgway’s rail.
"They’re endemic to San Francisco Bay," Higgins said. "They don’t form flocks - they’re just individual birds. I’ve never actually seen one myself."
So how do birders know Ridgway’s rails are present? Higgins explained that an outside contractor conducting surveys does broadcast calls, and the birds call back.
Burrowing owls are another Shoreline specialty. The park is one of four remaining locations in Santa Clara County for breeding the species. Actually spotting one can prove challenging, though.
"They live in burrows … (and) come out to hunt at nighttime," Higgins said. "We’ve had them on the golf course before - people would walk past them and ask, Where are the burrowing owls?"
He said the Shoreline wildlife specialists actively take measures to help the owls settle in and reproduce.
"We’ve done a lot of habitat management - we put in artificial burrows for them, and we do monitoring of the population and banding, so we’re doing everything we can to try and increase the population," he said.
Different times of year attract different bird species at Shoreline Park. Keen observers even spotted a bald eagle this year ("Probably one that’s nesting in Milpitas," Higgins said). In wintertime, the park welcomes a variety of raptors, golden eagles, northern harriers, peregrine falcons, loggerhead shrikes and American kestrels.
The best time of day for bird-watching varies by the type of bird, Higgins noted. Early morning or evening is best for viewing songbirds, while low tide is ideal for spotting water birds because that’s when they fish on the exposed mudflats.
"It’s interesting - all the different leg heights, and different beaks," he said. "It’s a great educational opportunity, especially for kids."
The Audubon Society leads group tours for students on request.
Those working at nearby Google Inc. don’t have to venture far to see such wildlife; egrets and other shorebirds make their homes in trees on the tech giant’s campus.
"It’s a wonderful tribute that Google saved the habitat (while doing) business there," said Lisa Myers, owner of the Los Gatos Birdwatcher shop.
Myers said there are birding hot spots all over the Bay Area, especially as the birds migrate. From warblers to tanagers to sparrows, "(we) never know what they’re going to be - that’s what makes them so exciting," she said.
For more information, visit mountainview.gov/depts/ cs/shoreline. ◆
Recommended local birding spots
• Shoreline Park in Mountain View
• Palo Alto Baylands
• Sunnyvale Baylands Park
• Pearson-Arastradero Preserve in Palo Alto
• Rancho San Antonio County Park in Cupertino
• McClellan Ranch in Cupertino
Upcoming bird-watching events
• Sept. 30: Los Gatos Birdwatcher Saturday morning bird walk at Palo Alto Baylands
• Oct. 21: Wildlife and Harvest Day (birds will include a bald eagle and screech owl), Blackberry Farm in Cupertino
• Nov. 3-5: Lodi Sandhill Crane Festival
• Nov. 16-19: Central Valley Birding Symposium in Stockton
• Jan. 24-28: Snow Goose Festival of the Pacific in Chico
For more information
• Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society: scvas.org
• Shoreline "Birding 101" guide: mountainview.gov/civicax/ filebank/blobdload.aspx?BlobID=6276
• eBird.org: Visiting ebird.org/ebird/places and entering "Santa Clara" in the search box will generate all reported sightings in Santa Clara County
• South Bay Birds Yahoo group: groups.yahoo.com/neo/ groups/south-bay-birds
• Tom Grey’s Bird Pictures: tgreybirds.com
• Los Gatos Birdwatcher: losgatosbirdwatcher.com
• American Birding Association: aba.org