Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Half Dome In Humboldt


In January, I posted about the Great Gray Owl in Humboldt County. I wanted to go north for this bird, but had severe anxiety about reliving the Brambring experience. But the owl continued to be seen at Elk Prairie, so (no surprise) I made my way up north after obsessively checking the listserv and eBird on a neurotically frequent basis. Of course, I was not surprised when the inevitable happened...the day I arrived in Arcata, the bird had gone missing. After being reported every day for weeks on end, the bird was dipped on by everybody.

The next morning I braced myself for the worst and gathered up the Cassowary from his Bayside abode and headed north. I warned him in advance that if he went with me, we would be glued to the prairie for the entire day if that's how long it took to see or, as I thought, thoroughly dip on the bird. We arrived at the parking lot next to the bird's preferred spot, and waited. And waited. And waited. We wandered around a bit, but there was not much to see in terms of birdlife. Eventually, the gang of photographers camped in the parking lot disappeared, and we had the place to ourselves. There was much bullshitting...talk of friends, nudibranchs, Star Wars, Mexico, etc. Finally I decided we needed a break from the depressing monotony and headed up the freeway to check some of the owl's alternate spots (without success), and then down to Orick for breakfast at the Palm Cafe, which is one of my favorite restaurants in the world. And if you think I'm crazy for saying that...you are missing out on many of the good things in life.

After late breakfast, we lurked back to the prairie to continue our wait. People came and went. Not one, but two birders I knew separately found me and brought up the fucking Brambring, which was fitting considering The Brambring Incident had happened almost exactly a year before and we were currently in the process of dipping on the Great Gray a la Brambring...one of them had even seen me in my suffering on that awful weakend, slumped over on a curb of that goddamn cul de sac.

They too came and went. It was getting later in the day...finally some elk came over, which provided something to look at.


Elk train.


Sparring elk.


Elk clash.


Covert elk.


After I couldn't take the elk madness for any longer, I wandered down the road toward the other side of the prairie. All the birders and photogs were clustered next to the elk, and the area was not being covered very well. Cassowary broke off and joined me, eager to escape the elk-mad geri masses. Further down the road ahead, we saw a vehicle stopped. I had noticed that these people had two white poodly things with them earlier, but I figured that even poodly people could spot a massive owl, and there were no elk nearby who would give them a reason to stop. We walked down toward where their SUV was stopped and predictably saw nothing (they probably had to stop to pamper their dogs), so I scoped the signs and benches across the prairie in case the owl had decided to come out and perch in some ridiculously obvious place.


And there it was. I couldn't believe it...I had thought we were doomed the entire day, but there it was, sitting next to the park road, unconcerned while cars passed by a few feet away. I was floored, rendered slack-jawed. Talk about a quality lifer. However, it was all about to get better.


After moving into a more reasonable viewing distance, the bird disappeared into the woods after choking down a vole. As we walked by where the bird was last seen, the Cassowary uttered a low, booming vocalization. I turned around to see the owl toward me. A few seconds after this photo was taken, it banked sharply toward me and glided down...it was going to try to land on me. Jesus. However, it did realize I was alive and not a good perch, so it quickly pulled up and landed in the tree next to me instead.


What a crippling bird. Few birds have ever brought the level of stoke that this bird did.


After it left the alder, it promptly flew right into the center of the group of birders behind me. I couldn't believe it. The photog in the photo is actually not aiming the lens at the owl, he was too afraid to move when it landed right next to him.


Incredibly, the owl actually to chose to perch in the center of this ring of nerds. My god, what a confiding bird.


The bird continued to hang out with us at intensely close range, perching on signs and foraging nearby in the meadow. It was brilliant. We saw it catch several voles that evening. Thankfully, the prairie must have been packed with prey and the owl was a good hunter, or else it would not have lingered there for so long.


Viewed in profile, the bird's head bore a remarkable resemblance to Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. It was uncanny.


See? I'm not even sure if this is Half Dome, this might be a Great Gray Owl.


We stayed with the bird until it was dark, and cameras were rendered useless. This is one of the best birds I've ever seen, hands down....it's immensity in size and the majesty the bird was oozing was not possible to overcome, and it's confiding ways were absolutely ridiculous. It gave us punishing looks, I really couldn't have asked for more after waiting for it the entire day. We left the bird sitting on top of the entry kiosk to the park, a fittingly absurd way to end the day. Great Success!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Breaking News: The Cassowary Joins the BB&B Staff


Cassidy Grattan has been a scumbag ally and nerd colleague for years. Together, often with the Great Ornithologist Felonious Jive, we have sweated for owls at the Salton Sea, donned sky island dresses in southeast Arizona, waded through deep Olympic snows for Pine Grosbeaks, braved the charges of Wilson's Plovers on the beaches of Baja, and drank absolutely obscene amounts of liquor over the years. Cass is, without a doubt, one of the most singularly bizarre and unique birdcentric writers of our time. For years, he has been kind enough to donate his musings to BB&B, most recently on Cave Swallows and a certain mockingbird. With each passing guest post, our readers have gone from simply being impressed to craving his posts like depraved junkies. And with that kind of attitude, which I espouse myself, the only thing to do that seemed Right in light of our friendship and the building public fervor was to extend an invitation to officially join BB&B as a writer. You will be happy to know that he accepted.

You can read the newly updated page about The Cassowary and BB&B's other, less gifted authors right here. I will leave you with an excerpt of an interview he gave us, some years ago:

"Sure I've got problems. It has always been unclear to me the relationship between personal strife and birding. Perhaps the answer is too horrible to bear. I try not to think about it often. At it's most benign, birding is a reason to go outdoors and get some air, exercise your brain, and take pleasure in the splendor and beauty of it all. But perhaps it is all you have, and the addiction has known this the whole time. Over the years it has slowly and gently herded you into isolation and obscurity until you have nothing else BUT birding. Hopefully The Truth lies somewhere between these poles, perhaps on the pole...which is where Truth belongs.
- Cassowary

Monday, April 18, 2016

Pointless Perching, A Nemesis No More, Sage Baron


There's still much to catch up on post-Mexico, so that is what we will do. Let's start things off with a Black Oystercatcher, a bird that is universally celebrated. California is a state rich in rockpipers...we have Black and American Oystercatchers, Wandering Tattler, Rock Sandpiper (and currently a possible Purple Sandpiper at the Salton Sea), Surfbird, Black and Ruddy Turnstones. The possibility of Gray-tailed Tattler looms large. I appreciate this rockpiper diversity, as it can't be matched anywhere else in the Lower 48. Sometimes I think about what it would be like to live on the east coast, and though warblers bring the stoke I always cringe when I think about the paltry rockpiper scene over there.


How long will my range overlap with that of the Black Oystercatcher? Ten years? Two years? Twenty years? Impossible to say, pointless to wonder about. Miller-Knox Regional Shoreline, Richmond, CA.


Great Blue Herons are looking good this time of year. I can barely look at young Great Blues, they look like total rubbish compared to alternate adults like this one. Photographed at Miller-Knox Regional Shoreline.


Moorhens and gallinules are accomplished at perching on stuff, although it usually doesn't seem necessary. Look at this...does this seem necessary to you? Fortunately, it is quite novel for the rest of us. Las Gallinas Ponds, Gallinas, CA.


Common Mergansers don't make it onto BB&B with much frequency, though they are deserving of it. "Familiarity breeds contempt" does apply to some birds, but not this one, I just don't get to photograph them very often. Photographed at the Las Gallinas Ponds.


A male Long-billed Curlew (note the short bill length) prowls goose-grazed grassland for invertebrates. Middle Harbor Shoreline Park, Oakland, CA.


Aren't grasspipers great? So bucolic, not to mention pastoral. Long-billed Curlews are early, short-distance migrants, and we are only without them on the coast for a couple months of the year; they will be back in numbers in July. A nice bird to have at my patch on the regular.


Well...its time for full disclosure. Until this year, until this bird above, I have never seen a Northern Saw-whet Owl. This was my Nemesis Bird. Sure I've heard lots of them, but the stars never would align for me. It was agonizing hearing them all the time on Santa Cruz Island (where they lived outside the ranch where I was staying)...there were many nights walking in circles under calling birds in the trees with nothing to show for it. When I told people my horrible truth about NSWOs, they would always ask "Really?", with a look of bemused scorn on their faces. And let me tell you...there is nothing more fucking tiresome than being looked upon with bemused scorn.


This bird had more brown in the facial disc than I expected, and relatively little streaking on the crown...this is not an adult bird, I reckon.


It's really nice to not have a Nemesis anymore. Really, I can't think of one for the Lower 48. Most of the birds I still need are not species I've invested a lot of time in seeking out...Eastern Whip? Swainson's Warbler? Great Cormorant? None of those species invoke feelings of anger or shame within me (just typical birdlust) so I think I'm good for now...I am pretty pissed at all the Hawaiian Petrels I haven't seen though, so if I go through another pelagic season again without seeing one (which, for me, would be typical) I will know who I have beef with. Anyways, this LIFE BIRD was a one-day-wonder at Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA.


As the Great Ornithologist Felonious Jive has said, birding is hard. We all know that. If it wasn't hard, there wouldn't be stupid phrases like "Nemesis Bird", and I certainly would not feel compelled to capitalize that. Authors at the ABA Blog have really run with Felonious Jive's phrase, devoting no less than three different blog posts to this idea. Look, obviously birding is easy if you go are really happy to look at Mallards and Ring-billed Gulls all the time (which is terrible), or if you are geri birding (which is fantastic), or if you go to a new country and you are surrounded by life birds (which will never get old). I get that. That said, birding is hard. That's what makes the easy moments so glorious. That's part of what makes seeing great birds so great. So when I went to look for this Sage Thrasher near a particular bench, I was quite chuffed to walk up to the bench, see the thrasher naked-eyeballed next to the bench where I was supposed to look, then watch it perch on the bench itself. Success! A much-needed reprieve from hardship!


I then unleashed a torrential crush-rain onto the bird. This was easily the most cooperative Sage Thrasher I have ever seen. To describe the bird's behavior in scientific terms, I would describe it as giving none fucks. It made a House Sparrow seem about as confiding as a Black Rail...and this Sage Thrasher is no more of a House Sparrow than I am.


Sage Thrashers are very early migrants, but seeing this Vague Runt in a coastal county in January was not on anybody's radar. As expected, it only hung around a few disappears before disappearing, hopefully reorienting in a direction where more sagebrush was to be found.


Life is good when you have a Sage Thrasher hopping around at your feet. Schoellenberger Park, Petaluma, CA.


If you've never been to Northern California before, there is a good chance you've never seen a Bicolored Blackbird. This is the locally-breeding subspecies of Red-winged Blackbird, readily identified by the lack of a yellow border on epaulet and (to my ears) a somewhat shittier-sounding song than other Red-winged Blackbird subspecies. Females are markedly different as well, looking annoyingly similar to female Tricolored Blackbirds. Photographed at Schoellenberger Park.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Manuela The Mandarin, Stowed Sparrows, Winter Gulling


Damn...no more Mexico posts...I guess I could finish off posting about the Costa Rica trip, but that would be too, um, prudent. I think I'll get caught up on winter birding instead.

After Mexico, Don Francisco and I birded for a few days around the bay, racking up year birds left and right. Don Francisco found this Greater White-fronted Goose at Golden Gate Park, which is always a nice bird to see in San Francisco. If Don Francisco ever finds a bird rare enough, I'm just going to start calling him San Francisco, which will thoroughly confuse everyone.


Golden-crowned Sparrows are supremely crushable at Stow Lake, and this bird got smashed pretty badly. I think I might have hurt it.


Fox Sparrows are usually not as confiding as crowned sparrows and are more interesting to look at, so I could not help but steal the (apparently grainy) soul of this bird.


This is a Sooty Fox Sparrow, the common form in northern California. Will the large and confusing pile of subspecies that comprise Fox Sparrow ever get split? I'm going to go on record here with a "no".


I will even take junco pictures still. I am a man of all birds.


See...I will even photograph a non-countable exotic! How embarrassing! How low can you go? I'm really scraping the bottom of the birding barrel here. Anyways, this is the same Mandarin Duck that has been at Stow Lake for over a year now. She still occasionally gets identified as a Wood Duck...but hey, there are worse mistakes one can make. She is not as popular as "Manny The Mandarin" and does not have her own Facebook page, which upsets her, but the world of birding is better for it.


If a Great Egret wants to sit a few feet away for a quick crush sesh, then I will oblige it. They're still pretty impressive birds to be up close to.


After dropping off Don Francisco, I went back out to the Richmond herring run to see if I could hang out with the Slaty-backed Gull some more. As expected, there were many Mew (left) and Thayer's (right) Gulls gorging themselves on herring roe.


This first-cycle Thayer's was a good-looking bird, already acquiring a lot of pink in the bill.


I refound the young Glaucous X Glaucous-winged Gull that we had seen earlier in the week. Not a bad looking bird for a hybrid gull.


The best find of the day was this adult Glaucous-winged X Glaucous Gull...just look at all the white on the primary tips....frosty! I had never seen an adult of this hybrid before, so I had some mild stoke going with this bird. Come to think of it, I've still never seen an adult Glaucous Gull...its a sad state of affairs.


Compare the hybrid's primary pattern with the Glaucous-winged Gull's primaries conveniently poking out from the left side of the frame.


Glaucous-winged X Glaucous Gull with a typical Glaucous-winged Gull below. I assume adult GWGU X GLGU primarily winter north of California, which is definitely how GLGU arrange themselves.


It's not unusual to find banded Western Gulls in the bay area, as they have been banded on the Farallon Islands for many years.


This Western Gull, silver-winged, leucistic Western Gull was a cool bird to see, and possibly the best Western Gull I've ever laid eyes on.


It's not unusual to see thousands of Mew Gulls at herring runs. Patches of the bay can be open, uninhabited water one minute and a seething froth of Mew Gulls the next.


I did not get to do as much gulling last winter as planned, and my multiple-year streak of not seeing any Glaucous Gulls continues. I'll miss these vulgar displays of Larus, but not being confronted with numerous birds (often at once) that are better left unidentified. No point in stringing, is there?

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Winter Mexico Tour Y2K16, The Final Days: Laguna La Maria, Playa del Oro, Rancho Primavera


Ahhh, the final Mexico post. Let's push through! Laguna La Maria is known for its picnic tables. This is because Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrushes (trip bird!) like to forage near them.


This is the same Black-throated Green Warbler from my last Mexico post. I don't know if I'll see any more this year, so here is another photo. Farewell, Black-throated Green Warbler.


There's a lot of Solitary Vireos in Nayarit, Jalisco and Colima. Most are Plumbeous, but Cassin's (like this one) are fairly common. This is isn't a crush obviously, but Cassin's Vireo has never graced BB&B before, so there it is and here we are.


Dipper Dan was fuming from the lack of lifers that morning. Can't say I blame him.

After making our way west to the coast and north past Manzanillo, we took a detour to check the Manzanillo airport marshes, mentioned in Howell's guide...it was awful. Definitively the worst birding spot of the trip...the marsh is not what it used to be, and I don't recommend setting aside any time to bird here. Only bird of interest was an adult male Snail Kite soaring over the road.

That night we stayed in Barra de Navidad, which is full of gringos but small - legit seafood though. Sweet, luscious concha was had. We randomly found the place that was listed as the cheapest in town according to my Mexi travel guide, and I'm pretty sure that title was not awarded unjustly. Don Francisco was giddy, it cost so little money. Lucky for us, we got a room on the roof, which overlooks a little lagoon, which turned out to be a great place to drink and bird simultaneously. Unexpectedly, Barra de Navidad happens to be home to an absolutely enormous Barn Swallow roost, which was located just a couple of blocks away.


Don Francisco, Stilt and Flycatcher Jen gaze upward into the swallow swarm directly above us, getting ready to land on things like windowsills for the night.

We stayed in Barra de Navidad in order to bird the Playa Del Oro road the next morning. The birding was good! The major highlight was a Golden-crowned Emerald that Dipper Dan found, which was the last lifer of the trip for me. After so many hummingbird failures and the stress of being gripped off on yet another target species, this was truly satisfying. We dipped on Flammulated Flycatcher, but had lots of Orange-breasted Buntings, White-bellied Wrens (new trip bird, common here), and an absurd number of Red-billed Tropicbirds scoped from the beach.


Looking southward along the beach at Playa del Oro. See that big offshore rock on the right? It is surrounded by tropicbirds. We had some Black Terns offshore as well (trip bird!). The eBird checklist from the morning can be perused here.

After Don Francisco frolicked in the water and promptly lost his glasses (which gave birth to "Hank", whom we all love and miss dearly) and lunching in Barra de Navidad, we lurked north up the coast, stopping at the same random wetlands that we birded on the way south, in order to dip on Collared Plover yet again. The dip was a success!


This Yellow-crowned Night-Heron is not a Collared Plover.


Neither is this Roseate Spoonbill.


Flycatcher Jen and Stilt ensure that no Collared Plovers are nearby.

That afternoon we made our triumphant return to Rancho Primavera. Bonnie informed us that a Sparkling-tailed Hummingbird had appeared while we were gone, which enraged Dipper Dan. We did not see it. But we did have a mellow morning of birding the property on the final day, which was a good way to end the trip.


Streak-backed Orioles came in for the crushiest encounters.


We saw a lot of dingy Streak-backed Orioles on the trip, but this one brought the facemelt.


Before this trip, I had only seen one Plain-capped Starthroat...for about 5 seconds. It was not a pleasant experience. Rancho Primavera provided many superior viewing opportunities.


This is a good bird...large hummingbirds have a certain allure to them. I'll have to look at one in Arizona sometime. According to Bonnie, the property doesn't get the number or diversity of hummingbirds that they used to get, but I reckon that could change at any time.


Goodbye Yellow-winged Caciques. You are a weird endemic.


So long Masked Tityra. In what country will I see you next?


Adios, Orange-fronted Parakeet. May you remain plentiful.


Vaya con dios, Black-throated Magpie-Jay. I still do not quite comprehend how you exist.

After dropping Stilt off at the Puerto Vallarta airport, the remaining nerds made one last desperate try for Collared Plover (a bird that I hate) at a river mouth at the edge of town, which of course was unsuccessful but it was very birdy and seems like a good spot for them. After that, we drank some mezcal in the airport and went our separate ways...except I sat next to Flycatcher Jen on the plane (Mexican Miracle) and got a ride home from Don Francisco's family from the airport in San Francisco.

There's not a whole lot I would have done differently on this trip...a second day birding "Voclan de Fuego" would have been great, and we should have birded Microondas La Cumbre instead of birding north of Colima (toward Laguna La Maria). A second day of birding Tecuitata (Nayarit) would have been good as well. There are some additional locations near San Blas that we did not get to, but I feel like we did quite well with our target birds there.

But, of course, we did not get everything. I got gripped off on Amethyst-throated Hummingbird and Red-breasted Chat (repeatedly and hurtfully). We did not get Banded Quail, Collared Plover, Mexican Hermit, Sparkling-tailed Hummingbird, Bee Hummingbird, any interesting swifts (ugh...major failure), Eared Poorwill, Bare-shanked Screech-Owl (not that we looked, they are at Microondas La Cumbre), Thick-billed Parrot, Flammulated Flycatcher, Mangrove Vireo, Aztec Thrush, Colima Warbler, and Ruddy-breasted Seedeater. I think that covers most of the dipped-on birds we could have reasonably seen.

But you know what? Fuck those birds I didn't see. I got 47 lifers on this trip (!) and had a hell of a time. I saw 350 species or so in less than two and a half weeks, and I only had food poisoning for one day! Thanks to Flycatcher Jen (who gets listed first because she craves notoriety), Don Francisco, Stilt and Dipper Dan for joining me on another very fucking nerdy and very fucking successful birding trip.