Monday, August 22, 2016

Wolves Writing Rivers

In our ongoing coverage of that bowel quaking range, shaped like a trash picker's sclerosis, that splits this country in two, here's a piece that is completely out of season but may provide some respite from the recent heat wave. All photos by the irredeemable J. Felis Felis. 



Winter in Yellowstone. Ribbons of water, liquid helices, winding through a frozen, smoking whiteness. A buried clockwork of thermal rivers roiling away beneath. Brown bears snoozing somewhere between the pines and this sulfuric underworld. A profound serenity is washing over me as we move through this magnificent landscape which contains, among its many wonders, a bison calf, it’s lower half stuck in a mud pot, its face and upper body eaten off.

Later we visit a bobcat who has been living inside a buffalo carcass, its adorable face poking out the top of its edible winter home. Snowflakes disappear as they land on its nose.

Thermal pools rimmed in emerald and cobalt. Diseased eyes searching the heavens, their vision obscured by vapors weeping upwards. Bacterial mats, ancestral life, edge the springs. Hyperthermophiles thriving. Another bison calf, this one alive but with rear legs burned, flesh bright red raw from having momentarily slipped into scalding waters, closely trails its massive mother.

Among these myriad wonders is the singing of wolves.                                      



We  are out floating atop the snow on skis, shoes and sleds following this singing, searching for the pack and learning what we can in the wake of their kills. Amongst our gear is a small butcher kit, used to take pieces of the dead back with us. Cutting out mandibles to get at the storied teeth. Hacking at rounds of bone for to see the marrow within. Samples that will help researchers divine the relative health of the prey at the time of its death. This fieldwork is a small piece of a great puzzle, a body of work that is being built that seeks to understand the profound impact that the wolf is having upon Yellowstone. The puzzle suggests that the wolves have the power to move rivers. That fish and amphibians thrive in their footfalls. That birdsong follows them wherever they roam.

In the wake of the wolves return to Yellowstone, after some 70 years of absence, the fauna and flora of this region is being reshuffled. Their presence has modified the behavior of elk, who spend less time grazing the willows and cottonwoods along the waterways where they are vulnerable to an ambush. These riparian trees and shrubs thrive with less browsing pressure on them, resulting in a population boom of the North American beaver.

The beaver, Castor rodent, paddle-tailed engineer, through its industrious woodworking, has re-written the valley bottoms of Yellowstone. They’ve braided the waters of this world into a network of oxbows and side channels. Through their dam building and tree felling they have inundated thirsty floodplains, flats that haven't tasted standing water for decades. Fish and amphibians thrive in these diverse waterways. Hydrophilic plant life find footholds here, while ducks and shorebirds hunt and nest in these backwater refuges. Wolf as landscape architect.

An elk kill has been located and we go to investigate. Bundled, teary-eyed detectives stumbling across this ice planet. Graceless bipeds picking their way through the boiling vents pockmarking the flats surrounding them. Ungulates gather around the heated pools, their silhouettes regal against the fuming landscape. Great curls of vapor erupting from their nostrils.

The heat from these thermal features melt the snow surrounding them, which allows the bison, deer and elk easy wintertime grazing. The geothermal waters of Yellowstone also render the vegetation surrounding these features rich in silicate.

Over time this mineral ruins the grinding molars of the grazers. Later in their life, after years of eating this glass-like forage, they are unable to feed optimally. They are thus weakened by these springs that are providing them warmth and easy meals throughout the winter. This weakening is in turn exploited by the wolves, who prey on the less fortified.

As we come upon these kills, invariably there are other animals working the carcass. A fox is startled as we approach and bounds away to the cover of nearby pines. As we hammer away at the dead animal, the fox cautiously lurks back to its corner of the animal, and we all work side by side for a time.

We  notice small teeth marks on a bone we're handling. The bone has been scraped by a small rodent, who has raked the skeleton for the minerals it contains. A mountain chickadee alights upon an exposed rib and begins feeding on the small, frozen sinew stuck to the bone. Later, as the light fades from the day and the temperatures plunge below zero, this bird will join others of its species in a tree cavity, a dozen or more of them huddled together in a feathered orb, the micromeat burning warm in its birdbelly through the night.

We take a breather after packaging the samples for transport. Tea is poured, frozen cookies are dipped. Sitting there in the low angled sunlight, watching the chickadee work merrily. Dozing lightly, an image begins to coalesce in my sinking brain.

A wolf with a large ring in its mouth, keys of various makes hanging from it.  Behind the wolf stand an elk, deer and calf bison. Trinity of Prey. In the neck of each of these animals there is a keyhole. The wolf walks over to the elk and, with its teeth, lays the key in the lock. With a quarter turn of its head, the wolf rotates the key until it clicks, as light bursts from the neck of the elk.

With grizzlies underground for the winter, wolves are the only predators awake who regularly take down big game, unlocking the energy inherent in the large herbivores. After the pack is done with the carcass, the remains of the dead animal continue to nourish the inhabitants of the valley, from fox to mouse. Eagle to
chickadee. These remains are crucial feed during this harsh and barren season. Sunlight banked in the form of flesh and bone. Wolf as key.

Samples packaged, we salute the fox and leave it to its scavenge. We are moving again, towards another kill site. Flying over the frozen earth on a snowmobile, following the pings emanating from the collared alpha female of a nearby pack. The telemetric signal gets us close but it is the ravens who lead us to the doorstep of this next banquet, their croaking from the treetops defining the perimeter of the site.

Wolfbirds, as ravens are sometimes known, have long been seen as allies to the wolf, circling high in the sky and calling to alert the pack to an opportunity for another hunt. In return, the birds are allowed the leftovers. It is an ancient partnership between bird and mammal. Elemental alliance between land and sky.

Beyond the pragmatic relationship these two species have with each other, there appears to also exist a genuine friendship between them. There are reports of these animals engaged in a version of tag, where a raven dives at a wolf, lands just out of reach, and takes to the sky as the wolf lounges for the bird. If the wolf tires of the game, the raven calls raucously until the wolf indulges it again. Wolf as friend.

Beyond the cackles of the raven, other songs have trumpeted the wolves return. The explosion of willow and cottonwood habitat has allowed for a greater density of riparian nesting neotropical birds. Tendrils of salix reaching up and snagging migrants, coming from Mexico or points further south, who would instead be passing over these rivers in search of more suitable habitat. Birdsong has grown along the rivers, in symphony with the babbling waterways and the howling of the pack. Wolf as conductor.

The roaring engine of the snowsled is cut. Our ears accustom to a world without the whine of combustion. A different cacophony fills the air. It is the chorus of the hungry.

The wolves are still here. Fox, squirrel, weasel, magpie, snow bunting and junco are lining the periphery of the kill. All waiting their turn to take part in this feast that the wolves and elk have laid out. We will wait our turn as well. More tea and daydream. I indulge in my keychain fantasy, the wolf making the rounds, in turn unlocking each ungulate. The light from the animals flooding the air, pouring onto the earth. From out of the ground sprouts a lush carpet of wildflowers, rivulets of water running amongst them. Tangled willow shoots climb the legs of the dispatched elk. The sound of birdsong and frog chorus is deafening.

The watery croaking of ravens bring me out of my reverie. The pack is moving, the wolfbirds trumpeting their departure.


Meat drunk and muzzles red with gore, the pack emerges from the timber. The young wolves are exuberant and prankish, sledding down the hill, nipping one another playfully. The elders sluggish and content, lumbering towards a midday nap. Tolerant of the shenanigans of their sons and daughters, nieces and nephews. They disappear into another stand of trees. The faint sound of keys ringing can be heard. A dinner bell, announcing to the other denizens of this valley that it is time to eat.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Rocky Mountain National Park: Medicine Bow Curve, Endovalley, The Rabbit and The Rock


Our second morning in Colorado, we awoke early...destiny does not come for the late riser. This would be a fateful day, one way or another. By the end of the day I might be a birding hero, or it could all come crashing down on me. If failure was in the cards, this would be a memorable dip indeed. Following in the footsteps of probably thousands of birders before me, we would aim for arriving at Medicine Bow Curve as early as possible for the best chance of bagging a White-tailed Ptarmigan, the undisputed target bird of the trip. White-tailed Ptarmigan was one of those birds I saw in a field guide as a kid that seemed especially fascinating...though it was a bird found in the Lower 48, who knew when I would actually get to look for one? Never? Over 20 years later, I finally had my chance.

We got out of our Airbnb at Horsetooth Reservoir acceptably early, passed some Swainson's Hawks at their night roost, avoided a predawn collision with a herd of bighorn sheep crossing the road and quickly got up to Medicine Bow Curve. The park was beautiful early in the morning, and practically devoid of human life. We were the first people to arrive at the curve, the weather was sunny and calm, so I thought our chances of crossing paths with this bird was very good.

As the morning dragged on, my opinion of our chances started to fade. Back and forth I trodded along the short trail, scanning the rocky ground for a rock that would move. This went on for some time. Finally, I knew it was time to admit defeat...Billy and I were almost back to the car when I made my ceremonial last scan (As the GBRS ranked #7 birder in the U.S., I highly recommend taking a thorough last scan for interesting birds whenever you are about to leave a site. I can't tell you how many times this has resulted in lifers and rarities, whereas I would have had nothing to show for it otherwise). Wayyyyy upslope above me, I noted a rock with a protrustion that resembled a head and neck of a ptarmigan. This was not exciting, and not even really interesting...I knew, in my heart of hearts, that it was just a rock that happened to resemble a ptarmigan. What it certainly was not was an actual ptarmigan.

Then, I thought I saw the head of the rock move. Could it be? Finally, the entire rock started strolling away, with 5 golfball-sized rocks following it.


Suddenly, the air was filled with imaginary fireworks. Ticker tape rained down on us, and squadrons of F-18s flew low overhead in a show of birding patriotism. The shimmering ghost of Roger Tory Peterson stood with the spirits of Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi, proudly regarding the winning birders. We had done it!

The ptarmigan and her escort of tiny chicks seemed to have a particular destination in mind, which looked like it happened to be right next to the end of the trail, so we scurried back down the trail toward where I thought the birds were heading. Sure enough she reappeared above, with a vanguard of ridiculous ptarmiganlets leading the way.


While ptarmigans are reported with comforting regularity from this location, they are not by any means a sure thing. Among birds in the Lower 48, perhaps no other species has camouflage equal to that of the White-tailed Ptarmigan, made possible from the drastic molts they undergo each spring and fall, transforming from a peerless sheer white even Snowy Owls are envious of to an indescribably intricate pattern of gold, tan and black. This is a product of living in an environment of extremes, of course, the sort of place that for many years involved a major undertaking for humans to get to. There is a reason that so many cultures believe that The Creator dwells on the highest mountain top. And who does The Creator keep for company for much of the year, when all other creatures go to sleep or flee for warmer climes? The pika, and the ptarmigan.


Unlike the chicks, the hen was wearing  a lot of accessories...leg bands, a radio collar, and a big antenna that sprouted from her back. The ptarmigans here are part of a long-term study to detect changes in population density and monitor reproductive success; this species is vulnerable to climate change and may also be impacted by elk browse on alpine willows.


The fam fam (pfam pfam) strolled right by us, just as I had hoped. Though extremely hard to spot (as advertised), they also were very confiding (as advertised). I couldn't believe that it had all come together like this...was it all luck? Was Frank Mayer down in the valley below, emanating beams of his notoriously excellent luck?


A baby ptarmigan is not something I thought I would ever see. I get all choked up just thinking about it. Look at those stout little legs.


After our time in the company of the ptarmigan was over, it was back down Trail Ridge Road. The Mountain Bluebird nest at the visitor's center restroom was about to explode with fledglings.

The Brown-capped Rosy-Finches again abided at Lava Cliffs. A stop at Rainbow Curve for Pine Grosbeak (which a birder had just seen there earlier that morning) and Gray Jay was met with failure, but in the light of the come-from-behind win with the ptarmigan family, that didn't matter very much. Finally we decided to visit Endovalley, which is popular with birders and surely held some more yankee bravos. It really is a pleasant place to bird and hang out; we happened to park next to a calling Hammond's Flycatcher, which would be the only one of the trip. We walked along the gurgling stream, which Billy enjoyed like a normal person but which simply frustrated me because I kept seeing dipper shit on the rocks but with no accompanying dipper. Finally we came up on an area with no dipper shit, but an actual dipper.


Eastern birders absolutely fiend for dippers, and rightly so. There is nothing like a dipper in the east...waterthrushes are cool, but they are no dipper. Western birders are very grateful for their ouzels, we do not take them lightly. We hung out a long time with this confiding juvenile, who serenaded us with some whisper singing that served as the perfect accompaniment to the babbling brook.


The dipper seemed content to do absolutely nothing for quite a while, which I can really respect. Eventually it took interest in a nub on the log, which I also respect. It's all about the little things in life you know?


This ended up being the mellowest dipper I had ever met, probably even the best dipper I had ever seen. For those of you who have not met one of these stream spirits, don't worry...your dipper is out there, waiting for you. Just don't look for one in a dried up stream, or you will find your spirit equally dried up.


After loitering with the dipper, we walked back out along the road to bird the aspen groves. It did not take long before another yankee bravo reared its sappy head...several Red-naped Sapsuckers lurked within the aspens. Though I'd seen many in California over the years, I'd never actually seen one where they breed. Aspens are an ideal place for sapsuckery.


This male is showing the classic red throat washing over the black border of the throat, and of course the reddish nape. Sharp bird.


After we finished up at RMNP, we had a "day off" in the lowlands, hanging out around Fort Collins and visiting a few spots around town. The two Airbnbs we got for this trip had really worked out well, especially the one by Horsetooth Reservoir, where one could do some decent yard birding. In fact, one of the most bizarre experiences of the trip happened there while we were talking to the owners about birds...their cat wandered outside, and came back to us a few minutes later with a live baby cottontail in its mouth, which was squealing in agony. The cat, of course, simply dropped the rabbit (which was bleeding from its neck) and walked away. For the next several minutes, the rabbit would appear to finally be dead, then kick pathetically in the air, then repeat. It was quite awkward, because the owners certainly didn't know what to do about it. Finally Billy decided enough was enough, and volunteered me to put it out of its misery...great. So I held it against a large rock, got another rock, and beat its brain in until there was nothing left of its head anymore (don't worry, I dispatched it on the first blow, I'm good at stuff). It was extremely messy. So in case you needed to be told for the millionth time...keep your shitty cats indoors people!

Since this was late July, I was fiending to find some migrant shorebirds...surprisingly, there are seemingly countless ponds and lakes in the area, but they pretty much all had too much water to support any shorebirds at all. Fossil Creek Reservoir had a couple hella distant sandpipers but these Lark Sparrows (adult and fledgling) in the parking lot were more fun to hang out with.


I don't remember my lifer Mountain Bluebird, American Dipper or Red-naped Sapsucker (was it at Galileo Hill?), but I do remember seeing Lark Sparrows for the very first time. This bird really left a mark on me...never underestimate the power of the Lark Sparrow, or suffer your father's fate you will. Whatever that is.


Both Eastern (above) and Western Kingbirds are very common in the area and happily (or bitterly?) use the same habitats, which is odd since they behave so similarly and are both famously hyperaggressive species...I guess there must be enough food to go around.

The next day we would make the drive out to the legendary Pawnee National Grasslands, where lunch would be served with a large side of longspurs. See you at the next post.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Rocky Mountain National Park: The Alpine


After leaving Upper Beaver Meadows, we lurked upslope on Trail Ridge Road, past the treeline and into the alpine. A great deal of this special, hard-to-access habitat is there for your enjoyment in Rocky Mountain National Park. Though the crowds were not a surprise (we first got there in the afternoon), they were still a bummer, but the scenery and wildflowers were awesome.

The birding up here is not necessarily thrilling...its mostly American Pipits and Horned Larks, with the occasional raven and commuting hummingbird. I did see my only Rufous Hummingbird of the trip zip past up here, as well as a subadult Bald Eagle soaring over Lava Cliffs.


Quickly you get used to seeing fat, slothful marmots scattered around, but if you loiter around rocky outcrops, you can find one of the most prized wildlife species of these areas...Pikas! Pikas, as you surely know already, are unique, endearing and hard to see...not because they are elusive or super rare, but because most of us don't happen to live someplace with Pikas nearby. With so much greenery and a cornucopia of flowers in bloom, we arrived during the brief window of easy living for alpine species.


A great many of these luscious yellow paintbrush flowers were beautifying the slopes above treeline.


Everywhere you looked was covered in an array of blossoms. Spectacular.


Cushiony moss campion hugged the ground closely.


Tall chiming-bells and Mountain Bluebirds appear to be cut from the same cloth.


Right before we were about to leave Rock Cut Trail, I decided to cross the street to take a couple scenery shots. The scenery, I was surprised to find, was dominated by this Bighorn Sheep...lifer! It's not often I get lifer megafauna, and I had waited a long time to see one of these. Look how fucking majestic and pastoral this shit is. Downright bucolic.


This ram was super mellow and unconcerned with the handful of tourists who had noticed him, Yellowstone style. Great looks at this sheep, I could not have asked for anything more.


However, my sheeping was interrupted by a Pika running around directly beneath me. I crushed it unapologetically.


So cute it makes me want to throw up.


After the first bighorn wandered off, another appeared on the ridge. Dazzling mammals and crippling views up there.

After deserting the high-elevation mammal outpost, we pulled over at the Lava Cliffs for another target bird. After a short wait, Brown-capped Rosy-Finches started appearing on and next to the snow banks as promised. I have no photos to document this birding victory, so you'll have to take my word that connecting with this species again was good times. I had only seen them once before, and thanks to geribirding (thanks, geribirding) I had not seen a rosy-finch of any sort away from a feeder since 2010. Several more were present here the next day as well.


The Alpine Visitor Center was a complete and total clusterfuck, yeesh. In the midst of the tourist zoo, Mountain Bluebirds had a nest that appeared to be on the verge of successful fledging, despite the bizarre location. Both the male and female dropped by with food deliveries while we were there.


Both birds paused briefly on this beam, casting judgement on the tourists below, before flying to the nest.


The nest, crammed full of big chicks, was humorously built in a hole in the wall outside of the women's bathroom. Interesting approach.


After ditching the visitor's center, I figured some loitering on the trail at Medicine Bow Curve was in order, after all this is the best place in the park for White-tailed Ptarmigan, and Felonious Jive (The Great Ornithologist) always says "Middle of day is best time to make for birding good". I don't know why he talks like that, but he is rarely wrong. The smattering of elk next to the trail were hard to ignore, especially while standing on ridges with epic backdrops.


We dipped on ptarmigan that afternoon (no surprise), but would return early in the morning the next day to punish ourselves again. Sorry I only posted photos of one bird species today, that is super weird, things will be different next time around.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Upper Beaver Meadows, Rocky Mountain National Park


Colorado. I ain't ever been there. I ain't ever birded there, but it offers some damn fine birding considering it is a landlocked state. Sure, July is not the time to go if you want to do the grouse/chicken rounds...but why not check it out? After all, Rocky Mountain National Park is there, and has a reliable spot for a species I very much wanted to meet...White-tailed Ptarmigan. So Billy and I planned a quick trip based out of Fort Collins, which was within striking distance of the park and Pawnee National Grasslands.

Since I only had a shot at one life bird, the best thing to do was go after year birds and birds that Billy hadn't seen. Some years I don't care about year birds (otherwise known as YBs, otherwise known as Yankee Bravos), but this year is not one of them. This is what happens when you start your year in Mexico and see an abundance of exotic species on a daily basis.

Our first stop in Fort Collins had Northern Flickers instead of the Bobolinks. I would have much rather have seen Bobolinks (who doesn't love Bobolinks?) but instead I was forced to wonder at how adaptable flickers are. You show me a habitat that features land, and I will show you a flicker. We did connect with some common species that I don't see very often; Eastern Kingbirds, Blue Jays, Gray Catbird and Common Grackles were good year birds.

The next day it was off to Rocky Mountain National Park. It was hard to figure out where exactly to go, as there are a lot of choices...you may or may not be able to get Scott Roederer's Birding Rocky Mountain National Park for a reasonable price (I could not at the time), which could help a lot. Upper Beaver Meadows is a popular place to bird, so that's where we started. Because I am stupid, we went down the wrong trail, but it was still mellow.


The first flock we ran into had a bunch of juvenile Red Crossbills practicing their face-scissors.


Types 2 and 5 are the most abundant Red Crossbill types in the area; judging by what they prefer to feed on and the surrounding habitat, these birds were likely Type 2 ("Ponderosa Pine Crossbill").


Mountain Bluebirds are one of the kings of cripple in western birds. Few other western birds are so obscene in their salient beauty. If everyone paused and took a good look at a Mountain Bluebird, there would be a lot more birders out there. Now, I'm not saying that is a good thing (have you ever talked to a birder? yeesh), but it is the truth.


Juvenile Mountain Bluebirds don't start life coated in mesmerizing, sky blue plumage. Because of this, they all wear frowny faces instead.


On the trail, I noticed this flower getting pollinated. On the way back, Billy pointed out that the pollinator was dead on the petal. Pollen overdose?


Napes. This perfectly camouflaged crab spider had been lying in wait. When the yellow death pulls your card, there is no escape.


Rocky Mountain National Park lies with the eastern Rocky Mountains. Downslope (east) from the park, the Great Plains begin. A large number of western species are at the edge of their range here, including Pygmy Nuthatch.


Like many other species in the area, Western Tanagers were busy making food deliveries. An absurd proportion of the birds we saw were either recently-fledged juveniles, or were carrying food to waiting young. So goes birding in late July.


One of the target birds for any birder at Upper Beaver Meadows is American Three-toed Woodpecker. We failed to find any (here and elsewhere in the park), but again this is probably due to going down the wrong trail. However, the wrong trail did produce another very good species, a yankee bravo, and one that I hadn't seen in several years. This juvenile female Williamson's Sapsucker was following around it's mother, which was detected by giving an unusual rolling/churring call, very different from what I've heard from other sapsucker species.


Life plumage! This is also the first Williamson's to ever make it to BB&B...rejoice! Hopefully it won't be so many years before I connect with one again. This is, after all, the best sapsucker.


Unlike bluebirds and tanagers, faded Vesper Sparrows do not make people weak in the knees, do not illicit stuttering speech. This is not a bird beloved by the lowest common denominator, this is a bird that strikes fear into the timid heart of the beginning birder...when you were just starting out, do you remember how many Savannah Sparrows you tried to make into Vespers? Dozens? Hundreds? Those birders that overcome this identification hurdle do eventually accept Vesper Sparrows as what they are...a pleasant singer, and champion of The Economy of Style.


While I only saw one Vesper Sparrow in RMNP, Lincoln's Sparrows (a Mellowspiza) were abundant in areas with riparian and aspen growth, where we were bombarded by repeated volleys of their mellowdious song. I always forget what gifted singers these otherwise unobtrusive birds are. In California, they absolutely refuse to sing away from high elevation breeding habitat, which I have but limited and irregular access to.

Coming up next...after mixed success at Upper Beaver Meadows, we were off uphill to visit the alpine.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

A July Shorebird Cake With Stint Frosting


July. Birders have four options in July...if they are fortunate enough to have the right habitats nearby, they go to the mountains, or go to the mudflats. If these habitats are unavailable, they either don't bird at all, or optimistically (some do so abysmally) bird through it, noting newly fledged young and what species the local cowbird population has successfully parasitized. In much of California, after a quick two week break in late June, we don't have to suffer through a hot, boring, and brutal July...we can get back to the business of searching for interesting my grunts...that's right, the fall vague runt window is suddenly thrown open after a brief reprieve, and all of a sudden a birder may sort through peeps like a kid in a candy store. Southbound shorebirds begin returning in late June, and by the second week of July a birder can go out to a favored shorebird spot and see thousands of birds.


After managing to avoid the site (not purposefully) for years, I finally visited Frank's Dump, a great shorebird site along the bay in Alameda County. The impoundment was absolutely packed with shorebirds, including over 100 Red Knots, which you can see above mixed in with similarly-colored dowitchers. This is the most knots I've ever seen in California, quite an impressive showing for this normally uncommon species.


Western Sandpipers were back in force, there were thousands. My attempts at picking out a Semipalmated proved futile again; I have yet to see one anywhere in the bay area, for some reason. In typical fashion, someone saw one shortly before I arrived. I still have many weeks left of prime Semipalmated Sandpiper time, so maybe this will finally be the year. Semipalmateds have always been of unusual interest to me, probably because that was one of the first "rare" birds I got adept at finding and identifying when I was a sniveling little bastard teenager.


This crisply marked Least Sandpiper endured only minimal wear and tear on its way south from Alaska or wherever the fuck its from. Who knows? It could be bound for Peru, the Galapagos...the world is your oyster when you are a Least Sandpiper.


As much fun as it is to muse about where Least Sandpipers may or may not be going, that is not why I found myself at Frank's Dump. No one goes to Frank's Dump just to look at Least Sandpipers, as far as I know, and if anyone does please tell me all about it.

Right. July is not just to be celebrated for the return of shorebirds, it is to be celebrated because it is the best month of the year to find stints in California. This Red-necked Stint was kind enough to follow the flightpath of misoriented stints of the past, and gave some good looks although it never came close enough for a reasonable photo. But unlike the photogs lying in the mud (literally), I was able to enjoy the bird through a scope.


This was just the third Red-necked Stint I've ever seen, the first being a juvenile on Buldir Island (AK) and my deucer being another adult on the Los Angeles River. This was a brilliant, glowing bird, a true gasper if that is possible for a peep. It was very easy to pick out from the nearby Western Sandpipers; aside the reddish-orange face, the contrasting bright white belly made it easy to locate as well. At one point a bright alternate Sanderling landed next to it, looking surprisingly similar in plumage, but not in size and structure.


What a year its been in northern California for shorebirds...Marsh Sandpiper, Purple Sandpiper, Little (the one in Santa Clara and one just reported in Del Norte) and Red-necked Stints! As August has just arrived, I am hoping out incredible run of vague runt shorebirds will continue. What's next? Lesser Sand-Plover? Common Ringed Plover? Spotted Redhank? Gray-tailed Tattler? The potential for Sibe shorebirds to show up in California has almost no ceiling. Maybe that Black-tailed Godwit I've been waiting for will finally come our way.


Of course, most of the birds here are not Sibes, and have no idea that Siberia even exists. This worn American Avocet is one of those birds.


Unlike other shorebirds, young avocets like this one molt into something that closely resembles an adult in alternate plumage when they lose their down. Why that is, I could not tell you, but then again stilts and avocets are not in the same family as sandpipers, which all attain a unique (if sometimes indistinct) juvenile plumage that they retain through the fall.


The Elsie Roemer sanctuary is one of a handful of Alameda (city) sites that gets much attention from birders, who go for the shorebirds. Terns use the site as well. This time of year there are lots of Forster's (above) and Caspian Terns flying around with fish, trailed by not only their offspring but sometimes the offspring of other terns as well.


Young terns may beg for fish for an extended period after fledging; we often hear the plaintive begging of young Elegant Terns (which also just returned, not pictured here) well into fall.


Black-bellied Plovers are back in large numbers. Most are already shedding their slick black underparts in favor of doomy gray duds. It was fun while it lasted.


This bird was missing a foot, which look like it came off a while ago. I wonder how many north to south migrations this bird has completed while handicapped. If you think that is impressive, I once saw a Snowy Plover with NO FEET, true story. I think these birds can often overcome major injuries, as long as their wings stay intact.


Back at the beginning of the month, Felonious Jive went up to Humboldt County to attend the wedding of ASOC and Nice Lady, both very important figures in his life. Felonious reported getting quite drunk and having a good time. He also took a few shitty photos at the Arcata Marsh, which I will include here because why not?


This Great Egret caught a nice scuplin, and did the typical wader thing of shaking and bludgeoning it and flipping it around in its bill until it worked up the courage to swallow it.


The egret eventually gulped the sculpin down once it was good and slathered in mud, and continued on its merry way.


A male Norther Harrier hunting over the marsh flew by with some hapless young bird. I may be #7, but not even I can ID the prey item. Felonious told me he knows what it is, but won't tell me. Asshole.


Vaux's Swifts were abundant that day, and as usual were almost impossible to photograph due to being fast. This tattered bird is the first Vaux's Swift to make it onto BB&B, where we welcome it with open arms.


A Northern Red-legged Frog made an appearance in its usual spot at the side of the log pond. It is a handsome frog.

Well, hopefully that was enough of a shorebird onslaught to hold you over for a while. Next up, I started a new state list a couple weeks ago, and there was a lot of good birding put into that list. For the first time, I took BB&B and several of our interns to...Colorado!