Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Vanquishing a Nemesis, Cetacean Backs, Sweet Succulent Seabirds

There are some birds I have special feelings about. Some of them I've never come close to seeing (Spoon-billed Sandpiper), some of them I've been painfully close to seeing (Ivory Gull), some of them I've seen but not well enough to count (Red-breasted Chat), some languish on my heard-only list (Black Rail), and some I've seen...just not in a particular place. As many of you know, since I have been bitching about it for years, Northern Gannet falls into the latter category. I've seen them on the east coast, but there has been one in the bay area for years now, successfully eluding my attempts to see it in three (3) different counties. What the fuck? Finally, persistence paid off...on my first pelagic trip of 2016, I saw a glowing white speck way off in the distance on the side of a cliff. It wasn't really identifiable as a bird, but I knew that I had finally met my destiny. We motored closer, and it was indeed The Bird. State birds are good birds, especially when you have been pining for them for years and dipped on them over and over again.

Of course, the only reason I was on a boat looking at a gannet in California was because I was on my first pelagic trip of the year, out of Half Moon Bay. There have been a very large number of whales off of Half Moon Bay this fall. We've had no trouble getting great looks at Humpbacks.

The lumps along the lower back are an easy way to ID a Humpback. This one has a more pronounced dorsal fin than many.

Along with all the Blue and Humpback Whales, there have also been Fin Whales! Fin Whales are relatively rare in the area (I've never seen one here before this year). They are similar to Blue Whales in size and shape, but are solid gray and have a more pronounced dorsal fin. They also move extremely fast.

When there are lots of krill-eating whales offshore, they are typically accompanied by Cassin's Auklets. There were hundreds of these diminutive alcids on this day, more than I'd seen in a few years. In classic embarrassing form, a good number were too full to fly away from the boat.

We had a pair of Craveri's Murrelets next to the boat, but frustratingly I was looking at a jaeger overhead at the time and totally missed them. Even more frustratingly, I saw what was probably another one but got unsatisfactory looks. I've seen them a couple times before, but you know what? That is not enough. Need more murrelets. At least this Scripps's Murrelet was cooperative...they seem to be doing well where they breed down in the Channel Islands, so hopefully this species will be increasingly easy to see on pelagic trips.

While reviewing photos for this blog post, I came across this shearwater that at the time I just passed off as a Sooty. I only took photos of it because it was close to the boat. Funny...it doesn't look like a Sooty now...

The bird has a very small bill, whitish throat, round head, and underwing pattern that does not match Sooty. A couple knowledgeable Bird Policemen and I came to the consensus of Short-tailed Shearwater, which is an excellent bird for August; they typically do not arrive until the beginning of October, and are generally hard to find even then. I'm not the biggest proponent of birders becoming photographers (not that there is anything wrong with that, obviously) - I recommend getting a scope before a camera - but having a decent crusher can pay huge dividends on pelagic trips.

Whales were not the only marine mammals in abundance. It is always a pleasure to meet up with a pod of Pacific White-sided Dolphins.

This sea lion looking thing is actually a Northern Right Whale-Dolphin. Most people have never heard of such a thing, so if you were one of those people a few seconds ago, now you are not. NRWDs are uncommon and typically travel with large pods of other dolphins. They are mostly black and have no dorsal fin at all...they are very easy to identify but adept at not allowing themselves to be photographed well, even though they will bowride.

When you hear the phrase "birding is hard", one of the very first things that comes to mind should be jaegers. Take these birds for example. When we saw this pursuit, another leader and I agreed that the bird with a fish was a Parasitic and the other bird was a Long-tailed. What we didn't realize (which I do now, checking photos) was that the bird with the fish had just flown over the boat a minute before, and at that point we called it a Long-tailed. Balls! Looking at my photos, I am not completely satisfied with either ID...the confusing bird does not look particularly large in comparison, but the bill does not look particularly small and the back seems quite dark...but there is still some contrast in the secondaries...maybe it would have a lighter upperwing if it was older...ugh.

This bird, the pursuer in the above photo, was not hard to ID. This immature Long-tailed Jaeger has the completely dark underwings of an adult, which Pomarine and Parasitic would never show. It's a particularly shitty photo, I know, but it gets the field mark across.

The other bird still retained the underwing of a more youthful bird. Here it is being whimsical.

No obvious white flash on the upperwing of this bird. Only three primary shafts were white, which is typically a very helpful mark for Long-tailed Jaeger, though they can occasionally have more. If I have to choose and call this bird something it would be Long-tailed, though I do not do it with great conviction or courage.

You know, when someone in a guide or leader position misidentifies a bird in the field, it often causes raised eyebrows, or if it happens repeatedly, feverish gossip. This is not so with jaegers...if someone misses a call, we all move on. No biggie. They are the great equalizer, and a group of birds that I would really like to know better.

While the experience of watching jaegers at sea lies somewhere in between maddening and great fun, watching Black-footed Albatross is always warm and comforting. Watching folks absolutely light up when they see them for the first time doesn't get old.

Brown Booby was a solid bonus rarity. Unlike last year, when they seemed to be everywhere, they have been few and far between in 2016. This boob must have been stoked to find such an excellent drum to perch on.

Mmmmm...Sabine's Gulls. Almost everyone who has not yet seen an Ivory or Ross's Gull will usually pick this bird as their favorite (also, favourite) gull, and I am not in any position to throw shade on this pick. I feel very fortunate to see them every fall.

Sabine's Gulls are heartening...nay, delightful to see in and of themselves, but generally speaking the more Sabine's you see the more terns, phalaropes and jaegers are around. If you are seeing a lot Sabine's on a particular day, chances are there will be a lot of other good seabirds around.

There is generally not a big audio component to pelagic trips other than leaders screaming about birds we are spotting. The one major exception to this rule is Common Murre; we hear lots of murre dads bellowing to their chicks, and lots of murre chicks pitifully peeping at their dads. This is a typical murre dad letting loose with a loving bellow.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Siberian Express Comes to San Mateo

This morning Ron Thorn found a Dusky Warbler at a seemingly totally random patch of fennel in South San Francisco (San Mateo County), a testament to how thoroughly he birds the county. Leonie Batkin quickly got the word out and provided directions, so I immediately abandoned my plans of checking shorebirds and running errands and went straight for the bird. Ron and Leonie were still there when I arrived, as well as a handful of other birders. The bird began calling in front of us almost immediately after I showed up, and miraculously hung out more or less in front of us for almost two hours despite a lot of usable habitat stretching toward the bay. Not that it was a confiding bird, but considering how skulky this species is, I thought it was fairly cooperative. I was decidedly unable to crush it (there was a lot of manual focusing involved), but here are some usable photos.

I don't know much about Phylloscopus warblers, but the bird seemed like a solid Dusky; no wingbars, long tail (it looked very "long" overall), short primary projection, very thin bill, and the call (which I heard dozens of times) was very similar to a Lincoln's Sparrow chip note and essentially was identical to the calls the 2015 Marin Dusky Warbler was giving.

The only unusual field mark to my (untrained) eye was the noticeably pink legs; they are "supposed" to have dark legs. One source says that 34% of all Dusky Warblers have all-pink or yellow legs however, so this feature would certainly fall within what is considered normal variation.

If you go for this bird, beware the Lincoln's Sparrows in the fennel patch, as their calls can lead you astray. I would also advise against barging straight into the patch, which I overheard a couple birders suggest today. The bird shows itself regularly and calls frequently, folks have photos, so there really is no reason to lurch around in there unless you are aiming to scare it away. Watch the bird from the edge of the patch on the top of the hill, or you can go the Michael Park route and try from the other side of the creek. Check Calbirds or pen-bird for directions.

The warbler had a habit of feeding low in the fennel, then working its way up the stalks and into view; once it got to a certain height, it would drop down and move over a few feet, then repeat.  It was most often foraging alone, though sometimes a flock of Bushtits would overrun the area the bird was occupying.

According to Ron, this is the first San Mateo County record; I believe it would be the 11th record for California. Last year's Dusky at Redwood Creek was the only one I'd seen before, and trying to get a look at that bird was an absolutely heinous experience. Getting solid looks at this bird was no problem in comparison; we had better looks of this Siberian MEGA than we did of the Yellow Warblers and White-crowned Sparrows that were also around.

Isn't September great?

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Plovers, Peeps, Goose-like Wingbeats

This adult Black-bellied Plover still has some appeal, but lacks in crispness/crispiness. In August, adult southbound shorebirds still wear the ragged remains of their once-impressive plumage they sported on the tundra or taiga. Sometimes it can present an ID challenge (i.e., with adult golden-plovers), at other times it is a simple statement...migration is on, the birds are back, and you need to be out looking for that rare shit. Elsie Roemer Bird Sanctuary, Alameda, CA.

It's September now, and I've been cruising. Unlike last year, when hoped-for rarities did not seem to start materializing until the very end of the month, things have been going swimmingly so far. Vague runts seem relatively plentiful, and disappointments have been few.

But as I said, there is much to catch up with. Before September, there was August. Here in the bay area, the birding has just gotten better and better...June is boring, July is better (shorebirds return), and August brings pelagic trips and plentiful shorebirds, not to mention a whole lot of suspense around the big question seasoned California birders ask each other (in trembling voices) every year...what will September bring? In other words, August birding is exciting again, and I thought I would pay respects to some of the birds of shore (not just shorebirds) prominently featured during the month.

Oh, and before we get in too deep, think of a bird (not a goose) with goose-like wingbeats. Got it? Now put it in your pocket and we will take it out for another look at the end of the post.

Snowy Plovers are patchily distributed around the bay area, favoring salt ponds and a few select beaches along the coast. This adult was washing off the salt at Frank's Dump in Hayward, CA.

Despite being adorable and intensely, Snowy Plovers are very territorial and often chase each other off or do battle if it is called for. The faded bird snuck up on the unsuspecting bather and chased it off. There were still a couple of broods of tiny, downy chicks out here this day (which seemed a bit odd...it was late August), so the aggression was not a surprise.

The Global Birder Ranking System (GBRS) lists me as the #7 U.S. birder, based on hundreds of factors. One of those factors is my ability to pass on knowledge, to not just hoard what I have learned. In that spirit, I want to let you you in on a secret...Semipalmated Plovers have white outer retrices. Did you know that? Middle Harbor Shoreline Park, Oakland, CA.

I may be #7, but I am just like you in a lot of ways...I have fears. Not of slipping to #8 or anything absurd like that, but genuine concerns that I dwell on, that keep me up at night. For example, I have seen many thousands of Semipalmated Plovers...could one of those have been a Common Ringed Plover? Talk about a bird that would be easy to overlook...at any rate, this is a standard Semipalmated.

In August, the mudflats at this park were inundated by Least Terns, mostly from the nearby Alameda colony (I assume) but possibly from elsewhere in the bay. I counted 190 individuals one day at the beginning of August, which to me is a staggering number to see away from a breeding colony. There were a lot of juveniles around (which is good news, as Least Terns are federally listed in the state) and a lot of strange looking molting birds, like this one. Almost no tail on this bird...why????

This fresh juvenile was not confusing, only encouraging. It was good to see Least Terns in something other than alternate plumage, because they get the hell out of dodge almost as soon as breeding is complete so it's not often we get to see much variation in these birds, beyond full alternate. I'm sure I've already seen my last Least Terns of the year already...it's been real.

A great many Western Sandpipers use San Francisco Bay during migration, which I am very grateful for. Here is a typical juvenile male, showing rusty scapulars and a relatively short bill. I've spent an inordinate amount of time this fall sorting through Westerns, looking for a Semipalmated, as it would be a year bird and I've never been able to find one in the bay area...how embarrassing. The search has been in vein, but the search for other vague runts continues.

Now that I think about it, I've spent a not insignificant part of my life sorting through Western Sandpipers. I'm ok with that. It's more enjoyable than sorting through Least Sandpipers.

Ah, the homely Least Sandpiper. They don't get a lot of love. If someone asked you, "What would you rather, have American Redstarts go extinct or have Least Sandpipers go extinct", you know you would pick the sandpiper over the vast majority of other birds. It's not their fault they are so drab and abundant, and they certainly aren't obnoxious or anything. They're just being Least Sandpipers. I liked the cracked mud this one was coursing over. 

Now that I've lulled you to sleep with common birds, how about something else...do you see a godwit (the startling pale one...on the left) that is not like the others? Bolinas Lagoon, Bolinas, CA.

Bolinas Lagoon hosted this Bar-tailed Godwit for about a week, which we were able to see from Highway 1. I've only seen one in the state before, so when Peter Pyle reported this bird, the drool started flowing in earnest. Though it never came particularly close, the bird readily stood out from the Marbleds, even at great distance. Seeing a Sibe always feels like a major accomplishment, and this bird brought the warm and fuzzy rarity endorphins I knew it would. Also present were a Ruddy Turnstone (oddly, somewhat of a rarity in Marin) and a fantastically distant golden-plover, which Peter and others had previously identified as an American.

A lone Long-billed Curlew provided the godwitting birders close company on the shore of the lagoon. Sibley notes "goose-like wingbeats" and "foraging movements graceful"; neither of these thoughts have ever occurred to me, though I won't go on record as denying them.

Perhaps he will note "forceful bellowing" in the next edition.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Bay Area Specialties

Heermann's Gull is one of the many California specialties that the bay area is home to. It's just one of our common local birds, but visiting nerds from outside the state drool over a lot of the species we get to enjoy on the regular.

The bay area. Home to millions of people, millions of birds, and several thousand birders. Nine different counties come into contact with the bay, and almost all of them offer a multitude of high quality birding spots. If you put aside the unfortunate traffic factor, it's a perfect recipe for quality birding almost year-round.

Because the bay area has so much to offer in the way of birding opportunities, and is such a population center and transportation hub, we get a lot of visiting birders here. Aside from chaseable rarities, they are usually looking for the same set of species. Since we at BB&B are here to serve you, dear sweet most loveable reader, we thought we would slap together a quick post on where to find some of the most highly sought-after local goodness.

Before we dive in, I have to get the standard disclaimer out of the way...eBird and the local listservs are invaluable resources on where your target birds and bonus rarities have been observed lately. Check them thoroughly and frequently!

Ridgway's Rail can be challenging to see, but they have multiple strongholds in the bay where they are relatively common. They vocalize frequently and loudly, so if you are into counting heard-only birds, tracking this species down should not be problematic. Far and away the easiest place to see RIRA is at Arrowhead Marsh in Alameda County. They can be seen at any tide, and during winter king tides it's not unusual to see multiple individuals at once that have been pushed out of the marsh. Black Rails, while almost impossible to see, are resident at China Camp State Park (Marin), Martinez Regional Shoreline (Contra Costa), and the saltmarsh next to Alviso Marina (Santa Clara), among other places.

Mountain Plover is exceedingly rare in the coastal counties, but are regularly found in Solano County during winter. Explore the fields east and west of Highway 113 (east of Vacaville, west of Rio Vista) during the winter. Again, eBird may be able to save you some time and point you toward the right pasture.

Pacific Golden-Plovers are very uncommon and tend to only sporadically show up within the bay, but a reliable place in fall and winter is Schollenberger Park in Petaluma (Sonoma County), where they often roost at high tide, or can be seen feeding in the adjacent mudflats if you are there with the right tide and a good amount of luck. Spaletta Plateau on Point Reyes is another reliable place for golden-plovers during the fall.

Rockpipers are consistently in high demand. Surfbirds can be found both in the bay (the little island at the San Leandro Marina (Alameda), roosting on the south side of Marina Park Pathway at high tide at the Emeryville Marina (Alameda)), and along the coast. Wandering Tattlers are much easier to find on the coast than in the bay, but are the most difficult rockpiper to track down. Check structures off Fort Mason, the rocks at Sutro Baths (both in San Francisco), and the outer breakwaters at the Pillar Point Harbor (San Mateo County). Black Oystercatchers and Black Turnstones are common and widespread.

Thayer's Gulls are typically not hard to find, but often present a significant ID challenge to those inexperienced with them. We have no shortage of confusing hybrid gulls to confuse them with. Thayer's can be tracked down in winter in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park (Stow Lake and Lloyd Lake), the mouth of Pilarcitos Creek (San Mateo County) and the north end of Oyster Bay Regional Shoreline, among many other places. Herring runs can feature impressive numbers of Thayer's and regularly lure in a Slaty-backed Gull or two every winter; check listservs for San Francisco, Marin and Contra Costa counties if you are around in January or February, it is great gulling and a great spectacle.

If you can't get on a pelagic trip, there are several good spots for seawatching - try Pigeon Point (San Mateo), the south end of Ocean Avenue (San Francisco), Sutro Baths (San Francisco), or Bodega Head (Sonoma). Depending on the time of year, you can find sea ducks, loons, shearwaters, jaegers, alcids (including Ancient and Marbled Murrelets in winter), etc. Of course, a scope is a requirement and the earlier in the morning you go the better.

Burrowing Owls have lost much of their habitat around the bay to urbanization, but thankfully are still holding on in a few areas, especially down in Santa Clara County (i.e. Azino Ranch), near the east shore of Cesar Chavez Park (Alameda) and the access road to Arrowhead Marsh (Alameda). Fall and winter is typically best for finding these cute little bastards.

Yellow-billed Magpie is an endemic, and rightfully one of the most sought-after species in the entire state...luckily we get them along the western edge of their range. Try Mines Road, just south of Livermore (Alameda), where a little effort should reward you.

California Thrasher is widely distributed, but uncommon in patches of chaparral in many bay area counties. They are resident and can be found year round, but are easiest to find in spring when they are singing the most frequently. Mount Diablo and Claremont Canyon (Contra Costa County), and Mines Road come to mind as reliable areas...this species is relatively widespread in the bay area, but many of their strongholds aren't places that get besieged by birders.

If you are new to West Coast birding, you may not know how tricky (to put it nicely) it can be to find many western migrants here that are not as difficult in other parts of the state, both in terms of quantity and diversity. For example, spring birding in Kern County will easily bag you migrant Gray, Hammond's and Dusky Flycatchers...but those birds all come with a *rarity* tag here in the bay. Actually, I've never even seen a Dusky Flycatcher here, now that I think about it. I've seen more American Redstarts on the coast than I have MacGillivray's Warblers...migration is a bizarre and wonderful thing.

Despite how uncommon a lot of western migrants are here at any given season, I would be remiss to neglect mentioning Point Reyes, one of the best migrant traps on the entire west coast, best birded from late August to early November. While known as a magnet for eastern birds, the Outer Point patches will give you a better shot at bagging species like Hermit and Black-throated Gray Warblers than other coastal migrant traps through the fall. The patches at Bodega Bay (Sonoma) can also be very productive in fall. During spring migration, Mount Diablo (Contra Costa) can offer a nice variety of western migrants and breeders, including the drab but ever-popular Cassin's Vireo.

Tricolored Blackbird is a near-endemic, sought by many out of state birders. Luckily, a significant proportion of the population hangs out at Point Reyes during the fall. A quick look at the blackbird flocks at "B" Ranch or "C" Ranch always rewards birders. Rush Ranch Open Space (Solano) and Del Puerto Canyon Road (Santa Clara) are also good bets.

Lawrence's Goldfinches are a tough customer...you may just have to grind and grind to find one of these little cripplers. Sometimes they are present throughout the year, sometimes they don't linger so long, but spring and summer is your best bet, though you have a legitimate chance of getting them in the fall. Try Mines Road (in both Alameda and Santa Clara counties) and Del Puerto Canyon Road (Santa Clara County).

I know, I know, I probably didn't mention one of the birds you are looking for and you're pretty bummed about it, but life goes on. Some birds are just really tough to connect with (i.e. Northern Pygmy-Owl) and others are so common that you should have no trouble tracking them down (Allen's Hummingbird in season, Nuttall's Woodpecker, Wrentit, etc.). At any rate, hopefully this post will come in handy for a few people and some wanton lifering will be carried out. Good luck out there!