By Brian Fitch
For many years now, I’ve been compiling a list of bird species that I’ve seen from my home near Corona Heights Park in San Francisco. It’s not technically a “yard list,” partly because I live in a third story flat, with no deck or yard space at all, and partly because I count anything I can see, even in the distance. When I’m home, I usually watch birds during brief breaks from other activities, from one of several windows, and rarely from the front stoop. I’ve been putting off bolstering this list until I’m too old to head out into the field much, but here we are with the coronavirus, and I’m staying home much more than I’d like to.
And it’s now April.
My only shelter-in-place worthy outdoor space is my flat roof, so on the 1st of the month, I retrieved the ladder from the basement and climbed up. I have done sky watches here before, but it’s not my favorite locale for many reasons, not least of which is the three-story drop with no railings. And with views only to the west and east, migrants heading north or south can be frustrating, as too often a bird will flash by me so quickly that there’s no way to tell what it is. I have to specialize in high-flying things that allow me at least a few seconds to work through the ID.
The westerly wind off of the Pacific wasn’t the best for channeling migrants to my neighborhood, east winds are better, but the clear sky let me see what was passing over.
Highlights from the April 1st included six Turkey Vultures, a Sharp-shinned Hawk, and a White-throated Swift flying among Violet-green Swallows. 21 species in total between 11 am and 1 pm. Dominant in the sky over SF are the ravens, growing in number every year, and Anna’s Hummingbirds appear daily regardless of any weather conditions. Beyond those two givens, there are 20-30 regular species I can see in a week, many more that pass through in migration, and then there are the special species that appear rarely, or only once (so far).
With such a singular viewpoint in the heart of a dense city, but also on the Pacific Flyway, my list is rather odd. I’ve never seen a Brown Creeper or a Tree Swallow, and just got my first Warbling Vireo last fall, after 30 years of living here. I’ve seen one Song Sparrow ever! Conversely, some very interesting species have made appearances, leaving me wondering, as I’m sure many of you also wonder, what happens when I’m not watching?
On November 30, 2012, a storm cleared the air more than I had ever seen, and I set up my scope by the east facing kitchen window. At that time, I could still see some Bay water, and during a short watch, I spotted my only Red-throated Loon, Heermann’s Gull, and Surf Scoter.
On Thanksgiving in 2009, I was cooking on a warm day with the window open and heard geese. I reached the window in time to see a small flock of Snow and Ross’s fly over toward the Bay. One morning, as I was lazing in bed, my wife called out that some unusual birds were approaching the house. I managed to get up, retrieve my glasses and binos, and reach the window in time to see our first flock of Caspian Terns, but flying among them was a pair of Franklin’s Gulls, still the rarest thing I’ve seen here. And just last fall, I watched a Broad-winged Hawk, a Ferruginous Hawk, and then a Prairie Falcon fly by within a single midday hour. The last two were house firsts. Gulls and raptors make up a good portion of the house list, with ducks and shorebirds adding very little, which makes sense as I live near the base of the central hills and well away from the water. The gulls ride thermals over the hills nearly as much as raptors do.
There have been some other strange occurrences as well. My only Bullock’s Oriole appeared in the spring of 2006, and my only Hooded Oriole in autumn of the same year. My only Cliff Swallow flew by two weeks before my only Barn Swallow in spring of 2015. I saw my only Tropical Kingbird in the fall of 2015, and had to wait until September of 2017 for my first Western Kingbird. The topper in weirdness was to finally see an owl from the house, but not the expected Great Horned or Barn, species which live here in SF. My first owl was a Short-eared in October of 2018, but the real weirdness came on Halloween last year, when another Shorty flew down 14th Street toward my living room window and looked me straight in the eye as I stood there in awe. There are no odds that could predict such oddities!
So if you get tired of Zooming with humans, or watching nest-cams, or viewing documentaries on birds and travel, don’t forget that the real world is available free of cost, and that spring has sprung.
A multitude of species will be flying over our heads very soon, with too few watchers paying attention to their passage. If you don’t have a decent window to view from, maybe there’s an uncrowded place near your home where you could spend an hour in natural light focusing on what’s moving through your area. But I suspect that if you have any window that faces any greenery, or views even a sliver of sky, you’ll be surprised at what might swoop by, especially during migration. Put a chair there if you can, and look up or out every once in a while. Or if it gets really good, for many hours in a row.
Brian is a GGAS member and led field trips for many years on Corona Heights. To date he’s seen 120 species from his home.
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