Mission Trails Regional Park | Bird walk + incredible Merlin sighting

Today I woke up early-ish (actually late for me if I'm being honest, but early for you) and dragged myself down to Mission Trails Park on this Saturday morning for what almost turned out to be no good reason at all. I had planned to attend a guided bird walk at 8am, but instead of meeting at the stated rendez-vous point, which apparently was Gate 9 (wherever that is?), I just drove to the Visitor's Center.  

I swear I've been to Mission Trails a bunch of times for different things and I'm discovering that things ALWAYS start at some new location there that I didn't know about. How big is this park? It's confusing when you've planned poorly and you realize that you're late for the hike. 

By 8:18 I parked my car at the right spot (Gate 9?), which was a perfect four-way intersection with no indication of which way the group had gone. I literally had to just randomly pick a direction to walk, figuring that there was no way I'd catch up with a group that would probably start very punctually. 

Thank God birders are actually very slow, because I noticed far off in the distance a group of people just standing by the roadside with binoculars up at their eyes. This was the group! I was off to steal knowledge and maybe some good pics.

Now if you think "birding is easy, birds are everywhere" then consider that when you are actually looking for them (as opposed to hoping they don't steal your snacks in the wild), you are faced with this:

Where are the birds???

A quarter of the way into the hike, one of the guides pointed out a Mourning Dove for the group. I have to admit that my prior dove-hunting experience allowed me to spot four other doves before the fifth she finally pointed out, and I thought about how in that other lifetime of mine I would've already had a few in the back pocket of my bird hunter's vest... but I digress. 

It only takes some patience and a quick scan with your binocs to find a surprise beauty like this: a male Spotted Towhee. This was pretty exciting for me since I see California Towhees all the time and this one looks so different. It's a "lifer" for me (a bird species you have never seen before in your life, for all you non-Bird Nerds), but I was to see several more lifers on this day.

Now before you judge me on the clarity of this pic, know that this bird was rummaging around like all towhees love to do: kicking up leaves beyond a stream separating me from him, all behind some bushes - so getting this shot was actually super hard. It was like aiming into a garbage can and trying to take a pic of a balled-up piece of rubbish halfway down into the bin.

Speaking of stream, look at this pair of Coots scoring food at the same time. If we could all be so lucky! Bonus points for you if you can tell me what they're holding in their beaks, because I would really love to know. My handy Peterson's Field Guide to Birds book says that they like "aquatic plants, seeds, insects, frogs, crustaceans, and mollusks." But the one on the left appears to be holding a fish (unlikely in these murky waters) and the one on the right totally has a dangerous snake I think.

Now if you thought the towhee photo was bad, get ready to lodge another complaint! This here is a Western Meadowlark. It's in the upper right-hand corner of the bush. The guides would set up a lovely monocular and train it on any good bird who stayed still long enough for us to get a look, and believe me when I tell you that this bird was majorly cute. You'll kind of have to take my word for it since all you can see here is a small blob of yellow.

We also saw some birds from such a distance that I didn't even bother trying to capture them with my camera. I could barely make them out with the monocular, marveling at the beauty of a red-shouldered hawk, a white-tailed kite, and some kind of woodpecker. 

This is a Say's Phoebe - we get the Black Phoebe in our yard and it's a regular joy to watch hunting.

They told me that this was a Tree Swallow. We also watched a pair of them soaring over the chapparal - they have a distinctive flight when they are hunting which looks almost like circles or figure-8s. It's how they catch flying insects. 

While birding, it occurred to me that there are so many parallels between birding and hunting. You are hunting for birds - to find them, anyway - and what you call "glassing" in hunting parlance is just scouring the landscape for animals to see as a birder. Birders and hunters tend to be completely opposite types of people (more in their own minds than in mine), but it's funny how similar they actually are. Especially the Eat-What-You-Harvest, conservation-minded hunters. But that is a story for another soapbox!

Next up we have the lovely little Savannah Sparrow. Isn't it cute? It might take you a second to spot it since it is so superbly camouflaged.

This little one was just hopping around in our own local "savannah" of sorts, looking for unknowing seeds and insects to eat. Well I guess all seeds are unknowing... or are they? We may never know the full wisdom of the trees, but thinking of the potential wisdom of seeds that this bird is eating sure puts a sinister spin on what seemed innocent to begin with.

Now hold onto your hats, because apparently we found a lovely little Rufous-Crowned Sparrow. We spent so long waiting for this one to come out of the brush! We enjoyed the funny little call that it makes - very distinctive. Just understand that my dignity prevents me from trying to type it out phonetically for you.

You would think that we were waiting for Toucan Sam to arrive by the amount of hoopla surrounding this bird's appearance! 

Incidentally, I took exactly 300% more selfies than any of these other birders given that they took none (that I could see) and I took 3. I'm not proud of this fact, just noting it for the records. And don't bother correcting me if my math is wrong on this... my point still stands.

Okay, now for the star of the show. Once we had almost reached the main road on our walk back - after two long hours of hiking and birding - some sharp-eyed birder spotter this dollface way up high in a tree:

She was so small and blended in so well in fact, that even when told her position in the tree, about half of the birders present couldn't find her. With binoculars!

I present: a lovely little female Merlin. She is a falcon, or "bird hawk," and she's faster and steadier in flight than her better-known relative, the Kestrel. What's fascinating is that she's holding her prey in her talons. 

Bonus points to you if you can tell me the bird she's holding. Early bets were on White-Crowned Sparrow but to me the beak is wrong (more House-Finchy to me). Another birder has said "Lazuli Bunting" but I just don't see them much around these parts. Our amazing guide, Millie Basden Thomas, revised her initial guess to "Yellow-Rumped Warbler" after I sent her these pics, and that might just have to do.

The merlin started plucking the feathers off so she could enjoy her meal.

The guides thought she was a Cooper's Hawk and since I've previously captured a juvenile Cooper's Hawk feeding on a bird, I thought they might be right. But this bird of prey seemed so much smaller, and when I looked over the photos when I got home, I could see that the coloration was totally different from a Cooper's.

Coincidentally, not minutes after these photos were taken an actual Cooper's Hawk flew in, probably trying to steal this little one's meal.

 In a flash the Merlin was gone, taking her meal with her! All I got was her tail, leaving.

 And I also snapped the Cooper's who scared her away.

This is a better look at the Cooper's Hawk looking off in the direction the Merlin had flown.

Hope you enjoyed the tour, and if you're ever thinking that you might enjoy something like this, I highly recommend keeping up with Mission Trails Regional Park's events page to see fun and free local activities and adventures.

Thanks for looking!


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