Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Boat Season Has Arrived

When August arrives, birders across the continent have one thing on their obsessive brains: shorebirds.  This Global Birder Ranking System #7 U.S. birder?  Two things...shorebirds, and seabirds.  Oh, and another thing, pointing and screaming bird names as loud as possible with a captive audience.

Of course, there are always seabirds Out There, but the end of July heralds the beginning of pelagic season.  Away from Monterey Bay and Half Moon Bay, there is no where else on the west coast where boats depart on the regular to troll for tubenoses, for alcids, for boobies, for get the picture.  I am lucky enough to be able to get on a lot of these trips (mostly out of Half Moon), and spend time with this impressive and difficult group of birds...the birds of The Deep. In anticipation of my first west coast seabirding trip of the year (and yet another shot at Hawaiian Petrel, a bird I need), I thought I would cobble together some photos from past July and August trips. As always, if you are thinking about doing your first west coast pelagic trip, or your first ever pelagic trip, what are you waiting for? Get on a boat!

But these anxious feelings are nothing different from any other year.  What is different about this year is El Nino...not a speculated one, not a possible one, but a real one.  The nonbirder associates El Nino (sorry for the lack of tilde) with rain, the west coast seabirder associates it with rare birds. Weird seabirds have already put in appearances in California this year...a Red-footed Booby, a Nazca Booby, a Kelp Gull, a Bridled Tern...and none of those birds were even seen out to sea!  So who knows what will be out there?  Frigatebirds have already been showing up in SoCal, another encouraging sign.  Fingers crossed for Cook's Petrels, an El Nino special, but I will be happy with a Hawaiian (no fucked up ocean currents required), which is very much a bird of August.

Late summer is a good time for albatross, and Black-footed Albatross are almost always out there this time of year.  Unlike many other seabirds we see, if you see a Black-footed Albatross, you are going to get great looks.  It's also a good time for Laysan Albatross (top photo) as well, but a word of warning: 75% of Laysan Albatross called out on boat trips end up being Western Gulls.  Don't become part of that gruesome statistic...caution is warranted.  

Shearwater diversity does not tend to be very high at the beginning of pelagic season, but Sooty and Pink-footed are never missed, assuming the boat gets out of the harbor.  An early Buller's or Flesh-footed is never out of the question, and of course there are a great many other possibilities.

Small numbers of Northern Fulmars are often found on these summer trips, and the birds usually look something like this. They are ragged. They are haggard...and lets face it, they are godawful. Hideous. It's amazing they can even fly, they are molting so hard. Fulmars later in fall are very respectable in appearance and flight capabilities, not so much our summer lingerers. Luckily, if you've never seen a fulmar before, they are not at all afraid of the boat, so you can wonder at their horrible glory from close range.

August is a great month for jaegers, especially Long-tailed, who often will still be retaining their brilliant extendo-tail. The bulk of southbound Long-taileds seem to pass through from August to mid-September, so now is a good time to get them. The always-popular Skua Slam is always within reach this time of year as well.

Black (above) and Ashy Storm-Petrels are the expected storm-petrels early in the season, though Wilson's are not unusual. With El Nino brewing, this could be a good year to find Least Storm-Petrel this far north, though probably not this early. That said, the birding legend they call Papa Echo Lima recently saw some from shore down La Jolla way, which portends great things for those who want to see them up here.

Fact: 75% of Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels claimed on trips are actually phalaropes...but if you are one who warrants caution, then that 75% is not for you. These are Red Phalaropes, the less common, chubbier, more desirable phalarope.

Speaking of chubby, Cassin's Auklets are expected on trips throughout the summer and fall, though their numbers vary.  Unlike albatross and fulmars, Cassin's Auklets hate boats, so getting good looks at them can be stressful.

I know this isn't a compelling photo, but I think it sums up what looking at murrelets can be like over the deep.  Scripps's Murrelets (above) are the expected species, though last summer Craveri's were seen on a number of boats in July and early August. I'm hoping they come back for an encore this year.

Oh yeah, crippling rarities can show up any just takes a shitload of luck, and maximizing your time on the water. This Salvin's Albatross was the star Vague Runt (albeit one not so runty) of the pelagic season last year, and things have never been the same.

All photos were taken offshore from Bodega Bay and Half Moon Bay.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Last of Maynerayge: Machias Seal Island Part II, Nate's Support Team, Trust Falls, That me!

This it it, the proverbial home stretch...the last post from Maine.  I've been stretching it out, I know, although at least I haven't given it the Costa Rica treatment (that trip ended two and a half years ago, yet the blogging continues...).  Right.  I haven't been birding much post-Maine, but with shorebirds coming through now and pelagic trips to lead rapidly approaching, that is all about to change.

So as I alluded to last time, we did actually get to land on Machias Seal Island.  Machias has the distinction of being claimed by both the United States and Canada.  You would think that having a territorial dispute with Canada is not actually a very stressful thing (sure, I'll play up the stereotypes), but according to first mate Tyler it is a significant source of contention for the local fishermen. Canadian fishing regs are very different from Maine's, so apparently the fishermen get into it from time to time when it comes to what laws apply in waters nearby and effects on local fish stocks.  I wonder if any birders ever jump into the fray whenever a Vague Runt shows up out there (a Tufted Puffin was on the island last year, for example).

As soon as we set foot ashore, we were surrounded by Arctic Terns, which, as it turns out, is a very good thing to be surrounded by.  Lots of courtship behavior, carrying fish back and forth, landing nearby for photo ops and generally carrying on.

Classic sexy tern pose on sexy lichen boulders.  Brilliant.

It's really strange to be all up in a breeding colony of birds that you have only had poor to mediocre looks at for so many years, crushing them without remorse.  Strange and wonderful.

Not only do Arctic Terns "winter" at the edges of Antarctic pack ice (where it is summer), it is speculated that during the Northern Hemisphere winter, they may actually circumnavigate the continent before flying north again.  Seabirds...the mind reels.

Arctic Terns are maneuverable, but you knew that already.

Ralph, the lighthouse keeper, shows his portfolio of crushes to Dipper Dan, Flycatcher Jen and assorted Geri.  Ralph is not only the island's lighthouse keeper, he is also a birder, and not someone to be fucked with either.  He will be nice to you if you ask him birding questions but otherwise any conversation you have with him will somehow leave you with the feeling that you are a complete moron and generally Wrong...about a great many things.  Ralph informed us that most years they get multiple fallouts, which is just fucking crazy...but in my experience, if you put in enough island time, good birds happen.  Christ I want to see a fallout.  The migrant passerines we saw on the island during our short visit were limited to a Gray Catbird, Dark-eyed Juncos, White-throated Sparrows, and a Common Yellowthroat.  Meh.

Oh, hello there Atlantic Puffin.  I wasn't sure if you were going to get all up in my face like this, but I really don't mind.  My personal space is Puffin Space.  What wrinkly, orange lips you have.

It turns out Atlantic Puffins act much like Horned and Tufted Puffins on the west coast.  They look really funny, waddle around like old men with bent spines, perpetually wear a slightly embarrassed expression, and make hilarious groaning sounds from under the ground beneath your feet.  And much like Horned and Tufted Puffins, seeing them hella close to you will leave you quite chuffed.

Hopefully the puffins and other seabirds of Machias are having a good summer.  Breeding colonies of seabirds are at the mercy of local water temperatures; if the water gets too warm, their food source goes elsewhere.  With a warming climate, things look grim for many seabird populations, who also have to deal with pollution, overfishing, rats and cats in breeding colonies, etc.  Being a puffin ain't easy, although being a puffin is adorable.

Can you believe that people still eat puffins?  Isn't that fucked?  Deec article about puffin consumption here.

Along with Arctic Terns and puffins, the other seabird you can easily befriend on Macias is the Razorbill.  They hang out in the same areas as the puffins, and while we were there many softly bellowed.  I've heard a lot of alcids before, but I've never seen any just sitting out in the open, softly bellowing over and over again.  It was weird and amazing.

I assume the Razorbill bellows for traditional bird reasons, although checking the species account in Birds of North America, there is nothing about Razorbills just sitting on boulders in broad daylight and just bellowing endlessly.

It was a pleasure getting to know the Razorbill.  They are so murreish, yet so different.

Machias had been good to us.  After we finished our time in Lubec, we headed inland to the Greenville area, our last target area for birding...we all needed Bicknell's Thrush, after all, and Big Moose Mountain had them.  Birding in the area was ok, but hampered by repeated storms rolling through the area.  Black-throated Blue Warbler and Philadelphia Vireos were nice trip birds, and I could have sworn I heard a White-winged Crossbill, but never laid eyes on it.

We gambled on when to go for the thrushes, hoping to catch a break between storms, but it turns out we are not good at gambling.  The hike up Big Moose Mountain was...hard, especially for this biologist who is morbidly deskbound and is utterly out of shape.  The hike was not hella long, but it was steep as shit.  And it was raining the entire time...for once wearing all of my rain gear really paid off. We started out hella early, but it was a while before we got up to the turns out it didn't matter, because the top of the mountain was in the rain cloud.  Luckily a shack up top for one of the radio towers was not locked so we had a place to get inside and get out of the rain once in a while. While standing next to the shack, soon after we got there, This Machine Nate called out from down the trail that he was looking at a Bicknell's Thrush.  Holy shit!  Sweet redemption, it would all be worth it! Well, the thrush took off down the mountain and none of the rest of us ever saw one, or heard one. It was dismal, a dip for the ages. Essentially, Dipper Dan, Flycatcher Jen and I were all Nate's Bicknell's Thrush support team, and we didn't need to see a goddamn Bicknell's Thrush anyway.  All that mattered was that Nate saw it...right?  The trip's birding essentially ended when we got off the mountain, although back in Portland we did see a confiding Brown Thrasher (a decidedly unabundant bird in much of Maine) and a Peregrine Falcon stoop on a Ring-billed Gull from the parking lot of a Motel 6.

The trip was a great success...I managed to lifer Spruce Grouse, Purple Sandpiper, Roseate Tern, Black Guillemot, Razorbill and Atlantic Puffin, and saw a shitload of other good birds.  Just as importantly, our nerd group had good chemistry and did horrible and shameful things while drinking to excess and generated countless inside jokes along the way.  It was how a birding trip should be.

Monday, July 13, 2015

BB&B Presents: Sanderling

Today's post is brought to you by BB&B's writer in residence, Cassidy Grattan. His skill of unifying the myriad worlds of the intertidal and littoral zone, both in the written word and in philosophy, has not been matched since the days when Ricketts and Steinbeck roamed the Great Tide Pool. - Felonious Jive

they are stitching the sand together. their beaks the needles, weaving together the endless worms. a great golden rug growing and unraveling is the coastline. bill bottomed out, their eye balls leaving faint, ephemeral dents in the sand. are their eyelids closed at moment of whisper impact? to violently stab with your face, forever.

so we went running across the constellations in the sand, some avifaunal braille the cluster of birds had made.

a group of eight pelicans stiff winged above the dunes, passing us every so often. 'they are tethered to the sun' Sandman says. lips wet with pear juice. Sandman, those pears, youreallyknohowtopickem

so many dead birds. strange fruit these auklets, small burnt eggplant along the wrack. seal skull, wrapped in bloodied parchment. pelican jaw, we stretched the pouch out. Skyguy feeds it an ice plant flower. rolled some logs looking for legless lizards. found none but buglife.

awhile back, a bit further south from here, perched on a jetty, we watched humpacks gulping and breaching not one hundred feet away. grown ass men shrieking. elderly women cooing. children unable to move, enchanted by the monsters. i couldn't stop watching the folds of its throat, flesh obsessed. encrusted with massive barnacles, nudibranchs somewhere in there. the water streaming down through the troughs. thousands of skeleton shrimps on its head, genitals, wounds. its face wrapped in these algae eaters. dead skin eaters. sometimes picking at the whale wounds.

further back, north of here, at the mouth of the pajaro, skimmers and snowman plovers. an enormous whale vertebrate. it made a good seat. my own spine terminating in a massive final lumbar. thought of Ahab and his narwhal stool. poor Ahab. flesh obsessed. perched upon tusks. perched upon teeth. of course he ends up in the mouth of the whale. I escapes by coffin. doomed ark floating upon the sea. before he is fed upon by frigatebirds, I sings the entire tale to the wind, the water, the glowing plankton. Melville hears it from them.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Maynerayge Day 7: Machias Seal Island, Part I ("I Hate This")

The word on the birding street was that if you can get to Machias Seal Island, you should go...who was I to argue with that? While not a large island, nor someplace you are going to rack up many species, it is the only seabird colony in Maine the birding public can access on a regular basis...and being a veteran of seabird colonies, I wanted to be in one again. If you haven't worked in/visited a seabird colony, I assure you that your life is not being lived to its full potential. With that in mind, we booked a boat trip many months in advance, hoping for encounters with friendly puffins and Razorbills...but would the ocean be calm enough?

The day of our boat trip, we were weathered out.  Captain Andy said we could just reschedule for the next day...but that was weathered out too.  As luck would have it, we were still in the area, so on the third day of trying the wind finally switched and seas calmed down. We still were not guaranteed an island landing, but we were certainly going to get there. Geri had us completely surrounded on the boat, but knowing that lifer puffins were waiting in the fog, we were steadfast, although the Geri photography class tormented us constantly. In the was worth it.

Razorbills are one of the most abundant seabirds at and near the island, if not the most abundant. Having seen precisely zero (0) before this Maine trip, suddenly seeing so many was hard to grasp. A few pairs looked like they were doing courtship flights, gliding in formation on wings held in a high dihedral (top photo). I saw Thick-billed Murres doing something similar up in Alaska, when they leapt off high cliffs, but their wings seemed too puny to be able to do this in sustained flight. Razorbills look much more comfortable in the air than murres do, I know this now.

While bobbing around the island, there were no shortage of Razorbills making close passes by the boat. It was hard to stay calm when we first got there. Once we were awash in birds, it was easy to forget about Geri. Terns and Razorbills were flying every which way, not to mention...

This. This bird was no surprise, and was one of the reasons we all decided to #Maynerayge in the first place...between the four of us, a lot of lifers were had during the trip, but this was the one and only life bird for everyone! Welcome to my life list Atlantic Puffin, I have been waiting for you a long time, a long time.

Thank the birding gods there were puffins. Can you imagine going to Maine in late May, without ever having seeing a puffin, and then leaving without seeing one?  I would have just quit birding. I got very well acquainted with Tufted and Horned Puffins while living and working in the Aleutian Islands, so it was great to be back at a breeding colony, of a new species no less. I just wish there were more kinds of puffins...someone please change the name of Rhinoceros Auklet to Rhinoceros Puffin, I think that will help.

The first birds I really noticed when we first broke out of the fog that morning were the terns...there were a lot of them, and they were practically all Arctic Terns. Tyler, one of the leaders, kindly informed us all that it was almost impossible to tell Common and Arctic Terns apart by sight alone, and it took all of my inner strength to not whip out my Global Birder Ranking System USA #7 card and do a citizen's pelagic arrest on the grounds of felony Sterna libel.  The kid has probably seen 10 times the number of Arctic Terns as me, for god's sake.

But I digress. I've seen a few horribly distant Arctics up in Alaska, so this was really the first time I've been somewhere they breed.  It was an honor, and a great way to complement the lifer Roseate Terns I had gotten earlier in the week.

Watching Arctic Terns at a breeding colony is much more satisfying than watching them from a distance on a rocking boat in the middle of the Pacific, I know that now. I will also appreciate them more. This is an ultra-migrant, after all, and it is not often you get to spend time with such well-traveled and worldly birds.

The Machias Seal Island lighthouse has a protective vanguard of auks.

Though not as numerous as the Razorbills, Common Murres were present in numbers as well. Note the two murres wearing spectacles on the left (lifer form!).  I had hoped we would be absolutely choking on Black Guillemots out there, but found out that they don't really nest on Machias.  I flogged myself bloody that night for my profound ignorance on the subject.

A Razorbill masterfully puts the Economy of Style to good use.

Another bucolic shot of the lighthouse and auk vanguard.  I wish my house had a vanguard of auks.

On another rocky islet a couple miles from Machias, Captain Andy motored us out to check out/flush a bunch of hauled out seals.  I got my lifer Gray Seals (I'll spare you my bullshit photos), which was mammal of the trip (short-tailed weasel was runner-up).

A Harbor Seal gives the geri-ridden boat the stink eye.

Dipper Dan and his sad but oddly empathetic companion. Dan is wearing an odd, disgruntled-seal look on his face (see previous photo)...for what reason, I cannot say. As you probably know already, we did actually get to land on Machias and spend some time crushing the living hell out of some seabirds.  My camera was smoking by the end, and even Flycatcher Jen, who hates blazing grits, was chain-smoking after our birdgasmic couple of hours ashore. That's all coming next time, on BB&B.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Maynerayge Days 4-6: A Belly Flop and A Bean Goose...Do You Have Razorbirr?...Just Browning Around.

This is Down By Law Dan.  He is intimately familiar with Down By Law's entire discography and the nuances of their sound. He also knows that iPads make for excellent eBird machines.

After our glory with the small gulls at Pine Point came to a close, it was time to move north. The next morning we went straight to Mr. Bagel, at the edge of Scarborough Marsh, for sharp-tailed sparrows. Knowing that Saltmarsh Sparrow would be a life bird for some, I again sacrificed for the greater good and left the camera in the car. We got both sharp-tailed sparrows and a putative hybrid or two, and rolled north. Sparrow crushes were obtained, but not by me of course. Also, sharp-tailed sparrowing is hard.

Our one and only stop we made after leaving Scarborough was at Higgins Beach, where Down By Law Dan hoped to lifer a Piping Plover, which was done with great ease.  Believe it or not, I used to be in the Piping Plover business, and I continue to relish this species more than most.

Common Terns were a common bird at Higgins Beach, which was a surprise to no one. You can call me a robin-stroker if you like, it would not be inaccurate in this case...I have no shame. 

Adults are so short-tailed compared to Forster's/Arctic/Roseate.

We eventually found ourselves nestled next to the Canadian border in Lubec, where we had rented a house ("THE EDGE") for four nights, which was perched on top of a cliff overlooking Johnson Bay. It was great.  The birding was hit-or-miss in the area, although our trip list grew frighteningly quickly. Some nice pickups in the area included Boreal Chickadee (Lower 48 bird), Black Guillemot (lifer!), Alder and Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, Palm Warbler, and American Woodcocks doing flight displays, which I've never seen before (it was awesome)...I haven't seen one for so long it was almost like a relifer.  We also just picked a random field and hoped they would be there, so that worked out pretty well...even better, earlier in the afternoon Flycatcher Jen made a "peent" sound in the car and Down By Law Dan and This Machine Nate both thought it was actually a woodcock for a considerable amount of time. How embarrassing. In fact, it was even more embarrassing than when I got lost trying to drive home for an absurd period of time just a couple hours later.

Down on the Bold Coast, we had a nice walk out to the ocean hoping for Black-backed Woodpecker (dip), Spruce Grouse (dip) and other boreal specialties. When we got to the coast there were Razorbills flying by close to shore, which I did not expect at all. This one was diving in the surf right below us, like a goddamned scoter. This was a great lifer, and I owe Flycatcher Jen an HJ.

Walking around the boreal forest near the coast, there is no missing the abundant porcupine sign on dead snags everywhere.  In some places there is so much of it that you would think that the forest was just littered with porcupines.  We found this fine specimen on the ground next to the trail, and it hitched up the nearest tree at an unimpressive speed (but fast for a porcupine, I thought).

The business end of a porcupine.  Porcupines are fantastically equipped for defense against predators, not so much with automobiles though.

A bog rimmed by boreal forest at West Quoddy Head.  Our first Yellow-bellied Flycatcher of the trip was near this edge.

The Spruce Grouse stress was beginning to build.  At some point before the trip, it somehow became my Number 1 target bird, although it took me a long time to realize it.  Why that is, I'm not entirely sure, but by the time we were on the ground in Maine I was ready to admit it...I needed Spruce Grouse.  My checklist didn't need it, I did.

Spruce Grouse is not a rare bird in Maine.  They are relatively widespread, but it's not like you can just show up at a lek and expect to see one, since they don't do that.  So we groused here, we groused there, but there was not a grouse anywhere.  Fresh-out-of-the-oven eBird reports of Spruce Grouse in the Lubec area were encouraging though.  We were hot on the grouse trail, no doubt about it, but it was not an easy bird to get.  This Machine Nate thought he saw one right next to the car and got everyone really stoked, but that lead only resulted in confusion and disillusionment...the birding gods were especially sadistic that day.

Eventually we decided to try out Boot Head Preserve, which featured both recent eBird records and fairly specific directions for grouse-finding in the Maine Birding Trail. I was in front of our shameful, socially-challenged group of uber-nerds on the bog boards, when suddenly it was happening.

I was being charged by a Spruce Grouse.

My initial reaction to being charged by a male Spruce Grouse was not to call out "Spruce Grouse!" to the others in my group, but instead at a moderate volume I said, "Grouse grouse grouse grouse grouse grouse grouse grouse grouse grouse grouse grouse" very rapidly, which I thought was an interesting (and unplanned) response to such a bird.  This Machine Nate was taking a leak at the time I gave my grouse alert, and promptly got caught in his zipper.  He may have become permanently mangled, but that is the kind of risk we take when we are out in grouse country.  But take this to heart...when he saw the brave grouse strutting around on the moss, the tears in his eyes were not those of fresh physical disfigurement, no.  They were tears of joy.

The vigilant grouse ran towards us on the forest floor, and promptly flew up on a low perch to take a good look at us.  The grouse was, to put it bluntly, ridiculous.  It completely lived up to its species' rep of not being afraid of people.  The courage and heart that this bird displayed that day will live on forever in our memories.  It would walk around in a certain patch on the ground, fly up to a certain perch, fly up to another certain perch, fly back to the ground, and repeat the process over and over and over again.  It defended the shit out of its territory.

The other ridiculous aspect of this bird was how facemelting it was.  The fine detail but vast variation in feather patterning it displayed was hard for me to process all at once, there was almost too much to look at. Truly, it is one of those birds that far exceeds your previous notions of them you may have had before seeing one. The red eye comb was also the single reddest thing I have ever seen on a bird, maybe period. I still can't quite fathom the degree of redness emanating from this bird's face.  It makes Scarlet Tanagers seem modest in comparison.

The Maine Birding Trail was almost spot on about their grouse advice for this site, the bird was exactly where they suggested looking, and the eBird assist was clutch as well.  With our collective grouse-lust finally sated, we headed back to town for horrible food (delicious bread though, which seems to be abundant in Maine...why?).  After 3 days of rough seas and boat cancellations, we would finally be going out to Machias Seal Island the next day, and preparations had to be made. Though more lifers were on deck, this was definitely the bird of the trip for me.

Bogs are not nutrient rich places, and lovely insect-consuming pitcher plants abound in these places. Oh, and in case you were concerned about This Machine, don't worry, he has come out unscarred and vigorous, and with Spruce Grouse on his life list.