Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Always In Motion Is The Future

The Great Ornithologist Felonious Jive often ponders the future of birds, and this time he has done it within the Birdosphere.  Will it be a future without Swainson's Hawks?  Will agricultural pests swamp the continent?  Will there even be agriculture?  Will Swainson's Hawks farm agricultural pests on their own? Find out more over at 10,000 Birds.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Winter Birding In Humboldt: Pipers of Rock to Suckers of Sap

Winter birding in Humboldt County is always rewarding, with a little effort.  Even on days when you want to bash your own skull in with a rock because you did not see BRAMBRING, the birding is solid.  One of the spots worth checking is the North Jetty of Humboldt Bay, which is where everyone goes for seawatching and rockpipers.  The South Jetty is equally as good, but it takes a hell of a long time to get out there in comparison.  One of my favorite non-BRAMBRINGs species we saw was Rock Sandpiper, which are hella localized in California.

Even though there are always, without exception, Rock Sandpipers at the mouth of Humboldt Bay in the winter, that doesn't mean you will actually see one.  They are fickle birds...go at the wrong tide and you have a good chance of dipping.  I maintain that low tides are best, but I suspect not everyone is in agreement about that.  At any rate, not only did we see Rock Sandpipers, we saw fearless Rock Sandpipers, which were valiantly trying to take the notion of "confiding" birds to a whole new level.

I've never had such good looks at one, even in the Aleutian Islands where they are common. Confiding rockpipers are not unusual on the jetty....along with Rock Sandpipers, Surfbirds and Black Turnstones are common in winter, and a few Black Oystercatchers are often around as well.  In migration, Ruddy Turnstones and Wandering Tattlers join the party.

Here is a second individual, with more white above the eye, enjoying some salt spray.

Although not a pelagic bird, Rock Sandpipers likely go for months at a time without ever having fresh water available to drink.  While this bird looks like it is experiencing a catastrophic, possibly lethal sneeze, it's actually just expelling salt water filtered out by the salt glands in its head.

The humble Surfbird is always popular with birders who don't get to the west coast very often.  It is a basic, utilitarian bird, lacking any bells and whistles.  Birds in alternate plumage are very striking, but for much of the year Surfbirds are fiercely loyal devotees to The Economy of Style.

This sculpin is not stoked, which you can probably deduce by its horrible facial expression and the fact that it is on land...something it likely has not suffered through before.  It is experiencing a long, painful, drawn out death at the hands of this interestingly marked gull.

While much of this gull leaves the impression that it came out of the Western Gull factory (black primaries, yellow orbital ring, dark back), the amount of duskiness on the head, back, and side of the neck seems excessive for a Western...on the back, it looks like there is some horizontal barring.  I think this Western Gull has some Glaucous-winged Gull components.

For those of you distressed about the doom of the sculpin, I offer you some comfort: we will all end up this way.  That is the way of things.  The way of the sculpin.

Unlike the sculpin-gobbling beast above, this Olympic Gull is not disguising itself as a Western.

Black-legged Kittiwakes are reliable from North Jetty in the winter, and they are not unusual to see inside Humboldt Bay either.  This is a very tough bird to get from shore south of Humboldt County, so go to the jetty and enjoy them...no scope required.  There were also a handful of Ancient Murrelets further out this day, and all three species of scoter.  Not bad.  Don't go out there when the surf is big though, as you can be swept off and drown.  Not joking.

We did ok with some other local rarities, relocating a Tricolored Blackbird and Loggerhead Shrike, but the highlight for me was this Red-naped Sapsucker at College of the Redwoods.  This was a sight for sore eyes, as besides dipping on BRAMBRING we had also dipped on the 2 Red-naped Sapsuckers that were living in the same neighborhood.

This bird was easy to find and hella cooperative.  Interesting to me was how the throat pattern on the left side of the bird was classic for Red-naped (muddled black and red border), while the right side of bird featured a typical Yellow-bellied pattern...which is not suggestive of anything, I think, except that sapsuckers are variable.

It's a striking bird, no?  Even in the daze of a catastrophic dip, birding in Humboldt can always lift the spirits.  

Monday, February 23, 2015

Onward To Melty Face/South to San Vito

Behold; one of my most wanted needed birds of all time.  

In the spirit of finishing what I start, I think it's time, once again, to revisit the Costa Rica trip that part of me seems to refuse to finish wrapping up.  The Great Ornithologist Felonious Jive thinks you readers out east could especially use some tropical facemelt about now...so here we go.

After our second round of birding the Talamancas, Dipper Dan and I headed south for unbirded territory.  Once we passed the turnoff to Talari Mountain Lodge in San Isidro, everything was new. We made good time heading south, and didn't stop to bird much except for a Bat Falcon here and a Smooth-billed Ani there...the Southern Pacific Slope of Costa Rica has been heavily deforested for agriculture, at least along the road between San Isidro and San Vito.  There just wasn't much to see. There was one positive aspect to driving through miles of pastureland though...I knew we would have a chance of running into a certain flycatcher that I was hellbent on seeing.

When a Fork-tailed Flycatcher swooped by our car it was all I could do to keep from diving through the window to get a better look at it; a vein in my forehead exploded, sending geysers of blood all over the front of the car and temporarily blinding Dipper Dan.  I wailed and moaned.  My entire life, up to this moment, had been spent waiting for this brilliant bird. There turned out to be a roadside pair that were extremely obliging; I actually got these photos by walking up to the birds instead of gawking at them from the car (which is how I get most of my kingbird and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher pictures).

Much like the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, this is a bird you have to see to believe.  I had one shot at seeing these birds before coming to Costa Rica; I was assured that we would find one in the lowlands east of Veracruz, Mexico, but the day we were to look I was bedridden with intestinal agony. Redemption is mine!  This was one of my top target birds for the trip; we only saw one other during the trip, out near the Esquinas Rainforest Lodge.

That night we met up with Leslie Tucci and Dave Spangenburg, both friends of friends who happened to be living in San Vito at the time.  The next morning it was off to San Vito OTS and the Wilson Botanical Garden for another dose of lifers.  Before we started birding the grounds we got stuck at the fruit feeder, where a suite of sweet tropical birds were going to town on fresh fruits. Silver-throated Tanagers are everywhere in Costa Rica but its hard to not look at them, for reasons I suspect you understand.

As sharp as the Silver-throateds are, very few birds can touch what a Speckled Tanager brings to the feeding station.  It's been two years since I took these photos and I still can't believe this is a real bird. This creature brings the facemlt like few I've ever seen.

The mind reels...and boggles. Talk about a crippler.

Crippling, blinding, facemelting...this bird has it all.  This was a species that I first saw in a field guide, thought "Oh, that looks pretty cool", then saw in real life and thought "Holy shit! How come no one told me about these things?".

Although completely outmatched by the Speckled Tanager in boldness and looks, it was still nice to see a Thick-billed Euphonia come in to join the morning tanager salad.  If you haven't birded south of the border, euphonias of different species are common throughout Central America and occur in a variety of habitats.  I wouldn't be surprised if one showed up in the U.S. someday...for example the distance between Scrub Euphonias in Mexico and McAllen, TX, is shorter than the distance between McAllen and Kingsville.

Above the fruit fray a Blue-headed Parrot stopped in for  a few minutes to catch some sun.  This singular (and very easy to identify) parrot was the only one of the trip, if I remember correctly.

This hawk is a Roadside Hawk.  Along with Gray Hawks, this is one of the most abundant and highly visible raptor species in the country (from a car, anyway), and they can indeed be found along roads and in a variety of disturbed habitats.  We never did see a Gray-lined Hawk though, oh well gotta go back.

Scale-crested Pygmy-tyrant!  This post needed a real rainforest bird, one that will not be drawn into the open by the allures of fresh fruit or sunlight.  This bird was ricocheting around in the foliage right in front of us, flashing it's gigantic, ridiculous crest that is 100% not visible in any of the photos I got. Awesome bird though.

While walking around the woods, we were greeted by a small flock of Crested Guans on the trail. Not an unusual event in many parts of Costa Rica by any means, but as a pinche gringo it takes some getting used to.  If you had only seen turkeys a couple times before and then walked in to a flock of them, you would find it weird too.

More to come from the Southern Pacific Slope...eventually.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Sustainable Blogging In The Birdosphere

BB&B was birthed into the Birdosphere in 2008, back when my photography efforts were limited to the occasional digiscoping.  Unlike in 2015, there wasn't much crushing going on back then (or even proto-crushing), but I think this Lucifer Hummingbird is decent. Ash Canyon B&B, AZ.

BB&B will turn 7 years old this year.  Sure there are other active Birdosphere blogs that have been around longer (10,000 Birds, A DC Birding Blog, Nemesis Bird, etc.), but in blog years BB&B is something like 60 years old.  You see, although there is no shortage of bird blogs out there (and thank you for choosing this one today), there is a very high mortality rate among bird blogs...they just don't last.  Bloggers, for whatever reason, simply lose interest in their projects, regardless of the topic. Granted, there are good reasons for this...lack of time due to a job and/or kids, or a major life event that rearranges all your priorities, leaving your blog in the dust.  It happens.  That said, I don't think this is why most blogs fall by the wayside.

I'm an old hand at blogging now.  Sure I still don't know a thing about html or how to do anything to make BB&B look like a well-oiled blogging machine, but aesthetics aside I do have some kind of idea about what I am doing.  I am even getting used to being recognized in the field by people I've never met before, simply for blogging....which, aside from being a monumentally nerdy reason to be recognized, is weird because I hardly ever post photos of myself on here.  I never saw this coming. Felonious Jive, the Great Ornithologist, says he saw this coming from the start...but when he's not talking about birds, that guy is full of shit.

Which is not why we are here today.  Here are some tips on how to keep your blog alive and kicking.

1. Feeling like no one is listening?  Have confidence!  Assume people care about what you have to say, because they will.  Every bird blog will have an audience once it's been around long enough, regardless of your writing and photographic skills.  I know that sounds crazy but I swear its true. There are numerous bird blogs out there that I consider profoundly boring, yet its clear they get a hell of a lot more traffic than me so they are doing something right.  If you write it, they will come.

I'm equally comfortable with making fun of birders, talking about vagrants, and discussing the joys of "shaking hands" with Laysan Albatross (seriously, it's awesome).  For the birdosphere, that makes BB&B a pretty loose place, but that approach doesn't work for everybody. 

2. To niche, or not to niche?  If you ask me, I think a bird blog can go one of two ways...carve out a niche and own it (i.e. Earbirding, Anything Larus) or be very open to a wide range of topics, which is the route BB&B has gone.  Either way will give you plenty to talk about, and if your blog is going to be around for a while, you need plenty to talk about.  If you stick to the worn path that is I-went-here-and-I-saw-this, you will always have readers, but you as the writer might find that format getting stale after a while.  After all, sometimes you go birding and it sucks...I certainly am not motivated to write about those days unless it is truly horrific.  That said, if you really enjoy the writing patterns you fall into, there is nothing to worry about.

3. Take pride in your writing!  I genuinely enjoy writing, even if it is in this weird format.  I am always trying to improve my skills and trying to write in such a way that once someone reads a post for the first time, they will want to keep coming back.  I blogged extensively before BB&B started and was always stoked that my friends were into it, even if it was pretty jokey shit (and no, I am not going to link to it).  Any sort of writing can be a challenge, and a fun one at that.

4. Read!  Whenever I read a damn good book, I am always inspired to get blogging.  If you're experiencing some blogging apathy, just dive into something from your favorite author.  They may not mention a bird for the entire book, but it really doesn't matter.

Do: I like Sooty Shearwaters.  I like Common Murres. Seabirds are amazing.
Don't: After my surgery, I wasn't sure if going on a pelagic trip was such a good idea.  It still hurts me when I turn my body too far to the left and I still have to move slowly sometimes.  Luckily, the seas were calm that day!  I was really worried that bla bla bla bla bla bla....

5. A few tips, if you want to attract some new readers and keep them around:
- DO NOT talk about problems with your physical health.  It sucks to be in pain, I know, but birders do this excessively...on listservs, in Facebook groups, and in blogs.  It's really quite the phenomenon. Please stop.
- DO NOT spend too much time talking about your bird lists.  Most people don't care.  I don't want to bum anyone out, but search your feelings...you know it to be true.
- DO talk about what you know.  Be it the genetic studies done that validate a new split, migration, local rarities, or your hatred of feral cats, use your knowledge and/or special interests to add fuel to the blog fire.

6. Have some kind of goal in mind for your output, just for a little extra motivation to stay active.  I always try for two posts a week, although I don't always manage that anymore.  That said, there is no reason to put up a post that you feel is mediocre or somehow incomplete.

7. Build a community around your blog.  Interact with your readers, it makes everything more fun. Comment on other people's blogs, and don't be shy about giving shout outs and linking to their content.  You know it's always a positive thing when people give props to your blog, so why not do the same for others?  You might even make a few friends out of it.

9. Not posting very often?  Then team up, and watch your bloggish productivity soar.  A lot of blogs have gone the multi-author route, and none have seemed to suffer for it. I know BB&B certainly wouldn't be the same without Felonious Jive to help me out, and it's my pleasure to have a buddy write a guest post once in a while.

Though humorously arranged, this Brown Pelican probably did not die a peaceful death.  By now it has faded into oblivion altogether.  Don't let your blog be like this Brown Pelican.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

All Aboard The Scote Train

This is a scote train.  One of the passengers is not like the others, and it's not the Western Gull...

Every now and then, news goes around of a bird so rare that you are just completely blindsided. It is not a bird on your radar...you don't even think of seeing this bird because your brain is busy pining away for more realistic birds that you also haven't seen.  You just aren't expecting to ever see that bird...you just aren't prepared.  And let me tell you, as the #7 birder in the United States, I am prepared for a lot of different birds that I have not seen.  I am prepared for a Swallow-tailed Gull.  I am prepared for a Wandering Albatross.  I am prepared for a Sinaloa Wren.  Do you see?  There has been much preparation on my part to be ready for the mental blow these birds would inevitably cause.  Just hearing about a legit sighting would trigger a cavalcade of birding emotions...shock, jealousy, envy, intense desire, and wanton birdlust.  So while I can't even tell you what a Pycroft's Petrel looks like, I can say with 100% certainty that if someone called one out on a pelagic trip, people better get the hell out of my way.  I am prepared for that.

What I wasn't prepared for was a scoter.

I wasn't the only one.  California birders were so unprepared for this creature that several folks didn't even know it was a species.

"Common Scoter you say?  Cool subspecies bro.", was the collective dismissal of a multitude of birders.

It was only in 2010 when the AOU deemed the Common Scoter it's own species, severing it from the Black Scoter we all know and love.  However, since no one had ever documented one in North America before, this split received little fanfare from ABA birders.  When one did show up, people just weren't ready.  Even the AOU wasn't ready...the current edition of their checklist lumps them with Black Scoter!  How embarrassing.

Still reeling from my failure with BRAMBRING, I was loathe to just get back in the car for another chase up the coast.  Crescent City is a long ways from Oakland, over 6 hours, but I knew I couldn't let this MEGA of all MEGAs just pass me by.  What choice did I have?  As luck would have it, the bird had stayed put in the exact same place ever since being found, which made the decision that much easier.  All aboard the scote train!

I think you have figured out by now that this is not another sob dip story, this is a story of Great Success.  People were already on the bird by the time we arrived, and after a bit of waiting the choice scoter abandoned the open water outside the boat basin and recklessly steamed in to shore, right to where we were standing.  The bird could care less about the very moist, very stoked group of nerds observing it from a stone's throw away; in fact there were many times the scoters were so busy diving we couldn't even find the Common Scoter, although it was obviously somewhere right in front of us.

So where did the Common Scoter come from?  The closest known place they occur regularly is Iceland.  Going the other way around the world, the next closest place is central Russia.  Although further away, a bird migrating east through Siberia and down the west coast of North America seems like the most straightforward route.  But that said, how did California's Northern Gannet (which is still here) arrive?  How do Tufted Puffins get to Maine?  Obviously a determined, and severely misoriented bird (or perhaps one that does not give a fuck) is certainly capable of weaving their way through the convoluted maze of islands in the high Canadian Arctic to emerge on the other side.

The rarity of this bird is staggering, and I had no idea the bird was going to end up being so confiding.  No scoter will ever be as savory...things will never be the same.

As with every bird that has "common" in it's name, I find this bird's official title to be cringe-worthy. It's a lazy, uninspiring, unimaginative, pedestrian way to refer to an entire species that I can now say I enjoy looking at.  I don't care if the AOU was trying to be consistent with the Euros...they seem fine with different names for loons, jaegers, etc.  Even something as basic as "European Scoter" would be better. What if every abundant, widespread species was named in this manner?  The U.S. would have Common Vulture instead of Turkey Vulture, Common Hawk instead of Red-tailed Hawk, Common Kestrel instead of American Kestrel, Common Hummingbird instead of Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Common Dove instead of Mourning Dove, Common Wren instead of House Wren, Common Kinglet instead of Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Common Warbler instead of Yellow Warbler, Common Sparrow instead of Song Sparrow...you get the picture. Doesn't that sound bleak? Wouldn't that suck?  I would like to put an end to so-called "common" birds once and for all...that probably wont happen, but at the very least we shouldn't be making new ones.

A shot of the scote train coming into shore to feed, conveniently as close to us as they possibly could. My love of scoters is particularly strong these days.

Samantha and Natalie steel themselves against the coming onslaught of scote train.  As of this writing, the (un)Common Scoter has not been seen for two days.  Considering that every single person who has looked for the (un)Common Scoter up until Friday afternoon has seen it, this might mean the bird is gone for good.  The scote train may have come to an end, and I consider myself lucky to have been on board for the glorious ride.

A Harlequin Duck had boarded the scote train as well, feeding close to shore.  Harlequins aren't the easiest birds to see up close in California, so it was nice to be reacquainted, even with a homely individual.

Harlequin Duck and Common Scoter didn't seem to get along, taking turns harassing each other.  If you were to ask me if I was prepared to see a Harlequin Duck and a Common Scoter playing grabass...in California...I would have to say no.  Not in the slightest.

Another bird that I've had poor luck with, in terms of seeing at an appreciable distance, is Long-tailed Duck.  In fact, this is the first Long-tailed Duck ever to make it into a BB&B post, which is long overdue because I really like Long-tailed Ducks and have a constant desire to see more of them.  As you can guess, this bird was riding high on the scote train as well.

My, what a lovely face pattern you have Long-tailed Duck, especially in comparison to a female Surf Scoter. Perhaps all of these birds will be back on the train next winter?  You never know...stranger things have happened.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015


BRAMBLING/BRAMBRING.  Photographed in Sunnybrae, CA, by the illustrious Rob Fowler.

May, 2010.  I stepped off the Zodiac onto Attu Island, sacred birding ground.  My first lifer on Attu? BRAMBLING.  A couple days later, I step onto Buldir Island.  My first lifer on Buldir? Rustic Bunting.

January, 2012: Lurking in someone's backyard in central Oregon, a BRAMBLING appeared.  It's good to see you again BRAMBLING...hopefully it won't be long until we meet again.

November, 2014.  I was doing field work in Humboldt County, and decided to stay for the weekend afterwards.  I didn't grow up there, but I am not ashamed to say that my years Humboldt County made a huge impact on who I am (and no, I am neither a tweaker nor a pot farmer).  I had a great weekend with friends, and without guilt did no birding whatsoever.  Arcata, where I was staying, is about 5 hours from where I currently live, so I only get up there once in a while.  The problem with living 5 hours from Arcata is that you don't really want to drive there very often, but it gets more than it's share of exceptional birds in the area.  But on this weekend, there were no stress-inducing rarities around to worry over.

I left town on Sunday, and upon getting back to Oakland I got word that Arcata's famed bird artist Gary Bloomfield found a Painted Bunting in his yard. That hurt me, as I had been just a few blocks from his house and needed PABU for my beloved state list.  But PABU was just a tremor compared to the earth-shattering news that came the following day...a BRAMBLING, of all things, had been found in Sunnybrae, which was just a couple miles from where I had been staying.  Now I had seen my share of BRAMBLINGS on Attu Island and later on Buldir, but I had not seen once since the summer of 2010.  It had been a while since I had eyeballed one...and here one had just been right under my nose, on what part of me still considers my home turf.  It was excruciating.

BRAMBLING is not an unusual bird in the western Aleutians, but it's a hell of a bird in California.  It was the first chaseable one that had been found since I started birding.  To add to BRAMBLING'S allure, it was a Sibe.  Californians love Sibes, and I am no exception.  So suffice to say, I found it remarkable that not one but two high quality vagrants had shown up immediately after I left town. Remarkable indeed.  Day after day people would refind BRAMBLING, without much apparent difficulty.

I was tempted to quit birding.

December, 2014. A few weeks later I drove down to Ventura for an early Christmas.  The unthinkable, yet somehow expected event happened; another MEGA showed up right after I left town. This time, it was the Rustic Bunting in San Francisco.  Another Sibe!  I couldn't fucking believe it. What horseshit! What did I do to deserve this torture?  It could have been worse...none of these avian torture instruments were life birds...but at this point it hardly mattered.  I had been brutally gripped off by what seemed like all my birding friends.  It was all rubbish.

I was this close to retiring from birding.

Remarkably, the Rustic Bunting decided to spend the winter in the exact same spot where it was found, and I was lucky enough to see the bird a couple times.  Things were becoming ok again.  Even more remarkably, BRAMBLING decided to stay put for the winter as well, and I knew it was just a matter of time before I could bolt back up to Humboldt to meet it.

January, 2015. Everything had fallen into place.  Dipper Dan and I drove from Oakland to Arcata on a Friday night; BRAMBLING had been seen earlier that day.  Despite having the odds stacked against us (that is another story), we both managed to show up at the appointed BRAMBLING viewing spot early the next morning to meet Rob Fowler and his group of eager birders for BRAMBLING stakeout.  We waited.  And waited.  No BRAMBLING.  The owner of the house who usually hosts BRAMBLING was going out of town, so we didn't get access to her yard, like many birders did in the past.  Hours passed.  We left, and returned later that day.  No BRAMBLING. Hours passed.  It started to rain.

We had dipped.

Sunday morning coming down.  After another eventful night, it was back to BRAMBLING, this time with Justine, Sadowski and Natarie to assist us in not finding the bird.  They did exactly that...we did not see it.  We gave up before 10:00 AM and went to eat a taco omelette.  And let me tell you, that was some taco omelette.

Later that afternoon we returned to Sunnybrae.  We had a good idea about what was going to happen, but we had to try.

Hours passed.

This time we got to sit around in the backyard with a bunch of college kids, so a bunch of us got to dip on BRAMBLING together.  Unfortunately, every other fucking person there had seen it already besides me and Dipper Dan.

I wondered why I bothered to chase birds with someone who is a known "dipper".

Monday.  Dan and I once again lurked in suburban Sunnybrae for hours.  By this time, we had been giving conflicting tips on viewing the bird by countless local birders, and I was pulling my hair out.  I gave hate looks to the local neighborhood Merlin, who had obviously gotten into a pattern of hunting birds at a feeder a few houses down, a feeder BRAMBLING was sometimes seen at.  I saw it kill a Pine Sisken...did it kill BRAMBLING as well? Or was it the local Sharp-shinned Hawk?  Or a cat? Despite our refusal to give up on BRAMBLING, Dipper Dan and I had a sneaking suspicion that the bird had just been eaten by something else.

Hours passed.

At one point I slipped on some grimy moss and ate shit in the street, slamming my camera onto the pavement.  Given our birding luck the past few days, I really thought that was going to be it for my birdcrusher, but it was oddly undamaged.  Later, as I stood peeping over the top of Cindy's fence into her junco-filled yard (for the record, she would not have had a problem with this) I decided to check eBird....and there it was.  Allegedly, while I was a few miles away eating a Taco Omelette the day before, someone saw BRAMBLING.  It wasn't exactly a compelling report...but shit, it's BRAMBLING.  Sure there are a lot of sketchy birders out there, but BRAMBLING is hard to misidentify...right?  We were stunned by this news, and Dipper Dan immediately went into complete denial about it....but it made us stand there even longer.

By now Dipper Dan and I had gotten sick of talking about the BRAMBLING with nonbirders, and only referred to it as BRAMBRING.  It was fun to hear bewildered nonbirders talk about BRAMBRING.  We BRAMBRINGED several people.  Despite this juvenile (yet deeply gratifying) form of entertainment, one thing was clear: the bird wasn't there.  We had put in so many hours in the last 3 days...we had to give up sometime. We clearly weren't going to see it.  So we left.

Later that day, we were coming back to the car after dipping on even more birds at Crab Park, which is not anywhere near the realm of BRAMBRING.  This is what happened next:

Random Lady: Are you guys photographing? Looking for seals?  Or...

Seagull Steve: No, not photographing.  Birding.  We are looking for-

Dipper Dan: Brambring.


Random Lady: Did you say..."Brambring"?

Dipper Dan: *nods*

Random Lady: What is that?

Dipper Dan: Bird.

Random Lady: Oh!

That moment brought a fleeting moment of light in what was otherwise a dark abyss. We knew we had just missed BRAMBRING by the slimmest of margins, and it was never going to be seen again. And for a while, it wasn't.  So that was a fitting end to the BRAMBRING story...or so we thought.

February 2015. We were back in Humboldt County...again...once more dipping on even more birds that Dipper Dan needed to see.  We dipped on all sorts of stuff.  But the weather was shit and it was time to go home, so back to the bay we went.  The next day, I was in my office when Rob Fowler broke the horrible, treacherous news....BRAMBRING had been seen again.  Like a Siberian Phoenix, it had risen from the ashes to taunt Dipper Dan and I.

What are the chances? Could C-3PO even calculate the odds of this outcome?  Can you fucking believe it?  Do I have a BRAMBRING hex on me?  That is the third time in three months where I've been just a few miles from BRAMBRING by a day or less have been unable to make contact with it. How can that happen?  The mind reels.

Some birders say they know of suffering.  Some say they know pain.  You think life is pain?  Please, tell me about it, but I only have one response...


Thursday, February 5, 2015

Confessions of Filth: Birding After the Death of the Perpetual Weekend

Meet Troglodytes pacificus meligerus, the form of Pacific Wren found from Buldir Island to Attu Island, in the western Aleutians.  Some birds can't be chased...you just have to go where they live.  Buldir Island, AK.

There are castes of birders.  It is known.  I know this, you know this...the Global Birder Ranking System (GBRS) knows this.  There are the birding legends and pioneers, there is birding scum (chronic stringers, of course), and there is everything in between.  While some take decades to build their reputations, be it good or bad, others can see their GBRS rank skyrocket in a single moment. San Luis Obispo birder Bill Bouton recently experienced this when he photographed a Black Scoter in Crescent City, CA.  Looking at his photos a week later, he realized that something was wrong...and so he put the word out.  He had found, and documented, a Common Scoter...a rarity to end all rarities. He had told people where to find the Common Scoter.  And the next day, birders ventured forth and refound and the Common Scoter.

Bill Bouton became a birding hero.

I've never met the guy, but I know this.  Deep in the bottom of my heart.  And so does everyone else. He may even be a bad person, but he will always be a hero.

Which is neither here, nor is it there.  We are not here today to worship our heroes, or demonize the villains.  We are here to talk about one of the commonest activities that fall under the umbrella of birding...we are talking about chasing.

Black Tern.  I have been blessed to see many thousands of Black Terns, and I hope I will see many more.  I highly recommend seeing hundreds at once instead of a wayward migrant. Photographed somewhere in North Dakota.

Why does this come up?  Well you may remember, not long ago, I experienced something called the Perpetual Weekend.  Year after year I would get to bask in the warm glow of the Perpetual Weekend, and bird to my heart's delight.  I was birding at will.  I could go abuse myself with gulls, or go after some rarity.  I had ample time to do both.  Often I would chase, often I would not.  You remember that Common Cuckoo that showed up?  You want to know what I was doing that day when I heard the news?  I was sitting at home, drinking coffee, hitting "refresh" on my browser over and over again waiting for news of a rare bird.  When the initial report of a "probable" Common Cuckoo showed up, I just sat there waiting for the inevitable confirmation or denial of the bird.  When I got the green light 20 minutes later, I was already packed and ready to go.  I saw the bird very well, had prolonged and sustained views, and managed to beat the hordes of birders that showed up later that day.  It was glorious.

But no more.

Now I work 5 days a week.  No more sitting around on weekdays, casually pondering if I should go out and flog the shrubbery myself or wait for some Vague Runt to be dropped into my lap via the internet.  I no longer have the luxury of birding at will, because I feel the need to maximize my available birding time.  Like most wage slaves, now I can only bird 1-2 days a week. And what do I find myself doing more and more often?  Chasing other people's goddamn birds.  If one wants to see the most unusual birds for the smallest amount of effort, this is what many birders end up doing.  It's completely understandable.  But I've been doing it so fucking much lately that I just feel...dirty. Filthy, even. For reasons I cannot explain, I'm experiencing a sort of anxious guilt. And let me tell you, not every chase has a Common Cuckoo kind of ending.  The singular worst birding experience of my life (that did not feature horrific car accidents or getting robbed at gunpoint) was the monumental misery that was the treacherous Ivory Gull Chase of Y2K10.  I was left in a catatonic state of depression for months afterwards, and Dipper Dan almost died of a broken heart. Things have never been the same since then, and I dread having to relive it over and over again with a constantly changing cast of rare and awesome birds.

And I haven't even told you about BRAMBRING yet.  I could...but it will wait another day.

Osprey.  This bird flew over us as we were forlornly staring at the sea lion carcass that the Ivory Gull had just been feeding on.  I felt like the sea lion.  I felt like that headless fish. Sometimes, I still do.  Pismo Beach, CA.

Of course, if you don't dip on the birds you are chasing, everything is aces.  It's great.  That's how birders can stand to do big years (not counting modest county-level big years), which consist of mostly just chasing birds other people find.  They end up seeing most of the shit they chase.  It works, I suppose.  That said, just thinking about spending an entire year doing that or compulsively chasing all over the state just to inflate some county lists leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  There are birders who do nothing but chase other people's birds...all of the time. And by all of the time I don't mean just regularly, I mean pretty much every time they go "birding".  They almost never find interesting birds on their own...they don't care to try.  They don't care to bird without rarities on the brain.  I can't imagine that. Travelling is fun, yes, but never birding for the sake of birding?  It's kind of gross.

I've chased my share of Chestnut-collared Longspurs here in California.  But seeing all of those birds doesn't come close to watching crippling males bust out song-laden, facemelting flight displays on the prairie in summer. Photographed at Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge, MT.

So why do I chase at all?  Why does the #7 birder in the United States stoop to chasing birds other people find?  For the same reasons that #1-6 and #8-10 chase birds...we fucking love birds.  We are hopeless bird junkies.  We love looking at birds we've never seen before. We love looking at birds we've only seen a couple times before.  We love looking at birds we only get to see every few years, or once or twice a year. In fact, we love looking at birds.  That's why I've never understood birders who are revolted by the very idea of chasing.  Don't you like looking at birds?  Especially ones you don't get to see very often?  It's bizarre.  Sure I like to pad my California list and a few counties, but I am fully aware that no one gives a fuck how high my lists are except me...and if anyone did care, even a little bit, they certainly wouldn't tell me.  So it's not like I'm competing with anyone.  It's not like I'm doing a big year.

It's time to put this rambling screed to rest, I think.  As I've said, though I love Vague Runts, I feel a bit dirty these days...though it might be the BRAMBRING talking.  In time, I will find a balance.  I've never birded the bay area in spring before, and soon I will be hurling myself at common migrants left and right. I'm looking forward to it.

Right.  I like birds.  Pretty big news I suppose.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Colusa National Wildlife Refuge: Get Goosed

You show me Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, and I will show you a Falcated Duck. It's true. I've looked for the bird three times, three different years, and seen it every time.  I know most people don't have that kind of luck.  This may sound all nerdy and braggy but I just experienced one of the worst dips in my life (more on that soon), so cut me some slack.

Anyways, I didn't crush a Falcated Duck this time, but there are a handful of other birds that use the refuge, as you can see.  This post is about those birds.

The Central Valley is the realm of the goose.  The popular and somewhat sought-after Ross's Goose winters in abundance. Remarkably, in the early 30's their entire population was thought to be down to 6,000 individuals or less, mostly as a consequence of market hunting. Obviously, they have since rebounded, with a total population around 2 million.

As I've said before, Ross's Goose is the cutest goose, especially when they're not blowing up with warts.

A favorite fact of mine to learn about a particular bird species is the longevity record, so here we go; the oldest known Ross's Goose was "collected" at the ripe age of 22 and a half.

Many Ross's Geese have a lot of warty growth at the base of their bill. Here I have documented a Rhinoceros Goose. FACT: The first known description of a Ross's Goose, years before being formally described by science, called it the "horned wavey".  I have no idea what a wavey is, of course.

Snow Geese are a bit more common.  "Lesser" Snow Goose is the expected type here in California.

One of my most long-lasting birding memories from my formative birding years was seeing huge flocks of Snow and Ross's Geese for the very first time.  It's really a spectacle, and it has never gotten old.

And now, I present to you The Best Snow Goose I Have Ever Seen.  Is this not the Goose of Ages?

This Snow Goose rolls with just one black primary on each wing.  This bird is pretty much the physical manifestation of not giving a fuck.  Who needs those black primaries anyway?  Why not just be hella white?

Here it is attacking a normal, black-winged Snow Goose.  All geese bow down to Snowy Snow Goose.

Cackling Geese are uncommon at Colusa, but investing any sort of mild effort this time of year should result in turning up a few.  It's not like there's a shortage of geese to look through.

Let's not forget the humble "specklebelly", as bird destroyers call them.  The Great Ornithologist Felonious Jive is known to hold this bird in especially high regard.  Could it be because of the pleasant slope of the culmen?  The slightly hoarse honk?  Or that time he had words with a photographer and was skull-bashed with a 800mm lens?

One of the highlights of the day was a pair of ostensible Snow X Greater white-fronted Geese, which Felonious Jive featured at 10,000 Birds this month.  Here is a link to another very similar bird, found on the internets.

Fine, fine, here is a nongoose.  No, not a mongoose, a nongoose.  Northern Pintails are elegant ducks, I don't think that statement requires any further elucidation.  Thanks to Abe Borker for organizing a check-in with the Falcated Duck, and for Officer John Garrett for providing safe passage and general bird policing services.