Monday, August 26, 2019

Adventures In Geri Birding

I was once what they call a "young birder"...but no longer. I may still be younger than the average birder - much younger - but I can't identify with being a young birder anymore, or even just young. As my youth and vitality slowly drain from my body and mind, leaving aches and pains and codgery notions and inclinations in their wake, I am reminded more and more each year that middle age has crested the distant horizon and is quickly coming for me.

The past few years have bore all the signs of being left by the wayside of youth. I have worked the same job for over five years. There has been less travel...less socializing...finding a new band to embrace has become a huge challenge...and whether I care or not, I am really losing track of what is, or is supposed to be, remotely cool. Of course, there are more responsibilities too, even a child!

Are you there, Perpetual Weekend? It's me, Steve.

But there are benefits to being 37 and not 27. Like I am hungover way less, I'm not broke, I drink better bourbon, 5MR birding exists now, I'm a little wiser, and with Annie here with us I am never, ever bored. But one benefit that I am now reaping every day at this age is GERI BIRDING.

Yes, geri birding. Although some people scoff at geri birding, I have always reveled in it. Really, the main downside (which can also be an upside, depending on your sense of humor or appreciation of irony) of geri birding is that you are often forced to do it in a confined space with other birders, and you have to overhear their conversations or unwillingly get sucked into them. Something that has always stuck in my mind (I think it was from some standup comedy bit) for years now is that almost every random snippet of conversation you overhear from strangers ends up sounding completely idiotic. I have found that anecdote to be unnervingly accurate - most conversations I overhear sound somewhere between incredibly boring, trite, recycled, or utterly moronic, and that percentile is no different when you gather a bunch of birders together at some fact, it is probably worse, and all but impossible to tune out. Satre said "Hell is other people!" and that is hard to argue with if you spend enough time geri birding where other birders congregate. You are going to hear some excruciatingly vapid exchanges, people who live to hear themselves talk, incorrect scientific and bird facts, abhorrent misidentifications...often, all at the same time!

But geri birding is not just something you only do in southeast Arizona or at some rainforest lodge, there are geri birding opportunities almost anywhere...if you build it, they will come. In the sanctuary of your own yard, you don't have to deal with all of those, well, geris. Although I definitely miss going to cool places for field jobs, I have found in my increasingly middling age that having a yard to bird from is pretty great. Yes, Rancho de Bastardos happens to be situated in a uniquely awesome location for yard birding purposes (the ponds behind my fence really ups my yardbirding game), but the feeders and garden bring a lot of species in too, often just as many species or more than the ponds. Geri birding is what you make it, and I'd like to focus on that aspect for most of this post. So in that spirit, here are some anecdotes and lessons I have learned over the last couple years, since I got serious about geri birding in my own yard.

Many geri birders welcome back a host of migratory species to their feeders in spring and summer - that is unfortunately not the case at my house, but one obvious migrant species we get for about 5 months a year are Hooded Orioles, which nest in various neighborhood palms. I always put out this leaky, hard to clean hummingbird feeder for them because they can actually nectar from it - the ports in our other feeders are too small. I did try putting up orange wedges at one point, but the rats got to them...maybe I'll spring for an actual oriole feeder before next year. The adult males are super skittish for some reason so I'm still waiting for the crush of a lifetime, but the females and HY birds are a bit more confiding.

I'm still trying to figure out the deal with hummingbirds at my house. So far, it does not seem like hanging up a grip of hummingbird feeders is actually going to attract more hummingbirds than a couple feeders, though I'm tempted to try it - I think they would still be dominated by one or two super territorial Anna's. My current hypothesis is that the Rancho is not located on a major hummingbird flyway and/or lacks an adjacent area that draws in large numbers of them (i.e. a park with a lot of blooming plants/eucalyptus, for example). Perhaps one day, at a future Rancho de Bastardos, I will bring in swarms of them.

Before I embarked on this voyage that we call geri birding, I would have raised an eyebrow if you told me that Bewick's Wren was a frequent denizen of feeders. I also didn't think of them as being terribly confiding for a wren. But my yard wrens have shown me that it was I who was mistaken...about a great many things. Bewick's Wrens are fearless and cannot say no to either suet or seed....huh! Geri birding...easy, fulfilling, and educational!

This year I finally put up a suet feeder. I waited a long time to do this. For some reason, I just assumed that it wouldn't really get put to use by the local yardbirds...I was wrong again. The suet feeder is MAGIC. I haven't lured in anything rare with it, but it just gets absolutely hammered by the yard birds. The wrens love it. The chickadees love it. The titmice love it. The nuthatches love it.

The nuthatches. White-breasted Nuthatch was a yard rarity the first year we were here. Now? The yard is straight nuthatch-mania. As Frank might say if he were here, "nuthatches galore!"

It has been interesting to see what locally common species have "found" the yard as time has gone on. The first year here, White-breasted Nuthatch and Spotted Towhee only came in to the yard once or twice. Now nuthatches are one of the most reliable visitors, and I counted three different Spotted Towhees this morning. Of course, birds do different things year to year...this year, though they could care less about what is happening in my yard, Vaux's Swifts have been much more uncommon overhead than 2017 and 2018.

Yup, as easy as geri birding can be, it's not quite as easy to do everything you can to maximize the geri birding potential of you own yard. Reaching maximum geri birding potential is not as easy as you might think, especially if you are working with a modest budget. Having the correct feeders up (and the correct feed to offer) can make all the difference, as mentioned above with the oriole-accommodating hummingbird feeder and the suet feeder. In fact, just last week I went from a very small tray-style feeder to something much larger, figuring birds will find something roomier more inviting. The result? Within a week of trading feeders, my high count of Black-headed Grosbeak in the yard went from 1 to 3...and all three were seen on the feeder together! Not bad for a yard in suburban tract housing with no native trees.

Everybody knows that birds love bird baths. I was dead set (unnecessarily) on getting something that I could put on the ground, which turned out to be a little more challenging than I thought it would be. I settled on this rocky looking basin thing, which could be purchased without the accompanying standard bird bath pedestal. I wish it was a bit bigger but it performs well, along with a bubbling rock thingy (fake rock with a small pump inside) to add some movement to the water. It gets hella use, though mostly from birds that are towhee-sized or smaller. Lincoln's Sparrow likes it.

One day, when I am a homeowner, I will build the water feature to end all water features. Birds will be falling out of the sky to use it. Well, maybe not, but it will be a couple of steps up from the current situation, and it will be situated to maximize crushing opportunities, which is currently not really possible with our small yard combined with less-than-ideal lighting conditions. Having a south-facing house is a positive thing in many circles but from a birding or photography perspective, it sucks. Why would you want to maximize the amount of time spent looking into the sun? Ugly, ugly light.

Right. The water feature of my geri birding fantasies may one day become the bane of my existence, but I look forward to the challenge and subsequent avian rewards (cough VAGRANTS cough cough).

Hey, is this the first Rock Pigeon I've ever posted? Only took almost a thousand posts! But this isn't just any old pigeon...its someone's homing/racing pigeon! What are the chances we would be visited by a pigeon of such honor? Such calibre? It stayed around the house a few days before resuming its voyage home. In that vein of weirdness, we've also had two different Budgerigars at Rancho de Bastardos, and just recently there was a mysterious, tiny blue dove with a short tail in the yard very briefly...the brain paralysis that thing induced was swift and total. I still don't know what the hell that was but am confident it was an escapee.

Crushing opportunities must be maximized, even when having to deal with harsh lighting much of the time. When it comes to geri birding, any zealous bird photographer will tell you it is all about fake perches. Fake, as in natural looking perches set up in artificial about keeping it real. I don't really obsess over this sort of thing (as I've said a hundred times, I'm not a photographer, I just take pictures) but I will readily admit that a picture of a bird on a stick usually looks better than a bird on a feeder. So, to facilitate crushing, I've got several sticks ziptied to things around the yard, and I think the birds appreciate the additional spots to wait their turn if a feeder is filled with a pile of doves or Band-tailed Pigeons. The Chestnut-backed Chickadees here readily use these perches and now only have a modicum of fear of me (I often reach to refill a feeder and am surprised to find a chickadee still sitting on it, only a couple feet away) so make ideal photo targets, although they don't exactly sit still much. They are also the best looking chickadee of them all, so might as well go to town.

I currently have this perch up. It's an interesting one, I'm not sure what to think of it. It's kinda too girthy to be real popular for songbirds to perch on it very much, but I had Accipiters in mind when I put it up. This Cooper's Hawk made my vision complete. It's nice to have raptors in our little yard pretty often, though the Mourning Doves don't agree. The perch manipulation is also a fun experiment just from a behavior's interesting to see how a perch is almost completely ignored in one spot, but moved a couple feet over gets used 3 or 4 times as much by birds wanting a good waiting spot before landing on a feeder.

Although I always knew in my heart of hearts that I would be a geri birder someday, I didn't quite realize how much gardening that would entail, or that I would kind of like gardening. The gardening aspect really makes gerifying your yard feel even more geriatric than just hanging up a bunch of feeders. Since we are renting and will never buy the home we are in, we haven't planted any trees, but it is tempting! Instead, we've most planted shrubs; a lot of sages, native and otherwise. The hummingbirds love many of them but I'm still waiting to see them get a ton of use by other birds, though I suspect once they mature more they will at least provide good cover. This is another geriatric activity I can see myself getting really into someday...gardening with native plants and landscaping. How embarrasing, can't believe I just admitted that.

Just dump me in a grave already.

I have to say though, it is a few of the *nonnative* trees in/just outside the yard that seem to bring in a lot of birds. Birds love our random backyard juniper and the Peruvian pepper trees (Schinus molle) just outside our yard. Pepper trees are notorious in California for being sapsucker magnets , and I owe my yard list's Red-breasted Sapsuckers entirely to a neighbor's pepper tree. But a lot of other species are drawn to them as well, including a number of neotropical migrants, and even Western Screech-Owl, which spent one very vocal night in said pepper tree.

Of course, if you are going to put food and water out, you are going to attract some unwanted visitors. These can range from Brown-headed Cowbirds (above) to cats to rodents (native and otherwise) to bears, depending on where you live. Here at Rancho de Bastardos, we have to contend with native and nonnative squirrels, the occasional cat, Norway rats, House Sparrows and cowbirds.

I hate the rats. I hate the cowbirds.

The cats are infrequent enough that chasing them off by yelling with a hose in hand like a senile old man seems to deter them most of the time. Rats and squirrels have to contend with a squirrel proof feeder and a squirrel baffle for another feeder - incredibly, both of those deterrents work perfectly. The presence of House Sparrows and cowbirds have motivated me to experiment with seed mixes: black oil sunflower and safflower go in the feeders, smaller seeds get sprinkled on the ground. For whatever reason, this has worked pretty well and the feeders don't get overrun by the House Sparrows, though the cowbirds have grown fond of the feeders lately...a source of much brow-furrowing and hand-wringing.

But enough about shitbirds...I will leave you with my greatest geri birding accomplishment to date. The hands-down highlight of geri birding here in the last couple of years came in June, and I can safely say it had nothing to do with all of the plants we've planted, or the feeders, or really anything else going on in the yard. I had been out grocery shopping and was bringing bags of groceries in...without binoculars, of course...when I glanced up at the power lines behind the house. There sat a passerine facing me with a black head, white throat and white breast. For an instant I thought it was odd that a Tree Swallow was sitting there, that isn't normal, but then I saw the Mourning Dove next to it and realized the bird was much bigger than a Tree Swallow, and there was only one thing it could possibly be...a VAGUE RUNT EASTERN KINGBIRD!!! Almost as soon as this dawned on me, the kingbird took flight, flew overhead and disappeared far to the west...I assumed it would never be seen again.

I was astounded. Not only is Eastern Kingbird a very good rarity in the state, it was particularly good for Santa Clara County, where no one had seen one in many years. And this bird was sitting above my yard!

Miraculously, Billy refound the bird later in the day while looking out Annabelle's window, foraging from the neighbor's pepper tree. I got some acceptable photos and a few local birders were able to see it from a nearby public path. Pretty sick that one of my best self found county vagues came in my own yard...a geri birder's dream come true! For one day, I got to live my best geri birding life.

So there you have it, the comprehensive geri birding update from Rancho de Bastardos. The yard list currently stands at 138 species after being here for less than two and a half years, with the most recent additions being an "overdue" Bullock's Oriole and a true gift from the geri birding gods in the form of a flock of Western Sandpipers. May the lords of geri birding continue to smile upon me, and you.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The Human Birdwatcher Project Presents: To Catch a Stringer

Most birders think about things like, "Why don't juvenile Band-tailed Pigeons have neck collars?" or "Are the Mourning Doves in my yard now the same ones I see in winter?" or, shamefully, "What would a Mourning Dove x Band-tailed Pigeon hybrid look like?" But there are a few birders out there who are on an entirely different trip, contemplating how to convincingly fake a White-winged Dove sighting instead.

To be the Global Birder Ranking System's #7 U.S. birder, you have to have been around for a while. To achieve such an astounding rank, breathe such rarefied air, one not only needs to know birding, but to have a sixth sense about it...a sensitivity to The Force of birding, if you will. You must be able to predict the future, intimately know the past, and trust your instincts. This sixth sense comes to some after years of experience; other birders seem to lack this entirely, no matter how many years they have toiled in the field. You may not be lucky enough, or cursed enough, to feel The Force flowing through you...but if you are, not only will this preternatural sensitivity help you find birds of interest and identify them correctly, it will also inform you on the claims of other birders without necessarily knowing much about the people beforehand. The Force is an excellent judge of skill, and of character.

For some birders, this isn't important. Birding isn't about other people, is it? Birding is a personal experience....but these days that seems to apply to only a minority of birders. Most birders do not exist in a vacuum. We have birding friends, birding foes, we look for birds other people find, we go to places other birders recommend, we study bird photos online that other people take, etc. Other birders matter, even if we go birding specifically to avoid people. If Flycatcher Jen (a real person, as most of you know) happens to meet Johnny Nightingale-Thrush (not a real person) while out birding, and Johnny tells her "I saw an Intermediate Egret two miles down that trail", Jen will want to know if Johnny is a trustworthy birder before she goes out of her way to look for that bird. Or Stilt (also a real person) may be able to infer that the Cassin's Sparrow reported by Karen Chlorospingus (not a real person...though it should be) in a listserv post is probably not worth looking for, since Karen is new to birding and probably highly prone to sparrow misidentifications. Or The Eggman (legit) will know that David Diving-Petrel (fictional) is just a classic stringer and that there is a 110% chance that the Long-toed Stint David just reported is actually a Least Sandpiper. Knowing what should be followed up on, and what should not, is an incredibly helpful skill for birders.

So like I said, it pays to be strong with The Force (of Birding). You will see more birds, more rare birds, and spend less time on snipe hunts and wild goose chases. Weeding out claims from stringers is key. Most stringers go out birding, find a bird (or these days, find photos of someone else's locally common bird online and claim it is actually a rarity...estringing), and predictably try to turn it in to something uncommon or rare to pad some lists, convince others they found something great, convince themselves they found something great...or god knows why they do it. According to the Global Birder Ranking System's statistics, between 97-98% of the world's known stringers fall under this know them well.

But that is not the only type of stringer. There are those who do not misidentify birds out of misguided optimism, overconfidence, or poor identification fact, they don't appear to misidentify birds much at all. These are the stringers that fabricate sightings without ever seeing a bird where and when they claimed, either by just creating a sighting out of thin air, giving no evidence at all, using photos stolen from somewhere online, or using their own photos they took in another place at another time to provide the basis of a sighting. These are the miserable, wretched, bottom-dwelling, maggot-infested stringers, and never will you find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.

BB&B has covered this story before. Almost every BB&B reader is aware of Swallowgate and what happened...or what did not North Carolina. That birder has since been excused from the birding community, his record Big Year purged from the record books in a firestorm of purification. Although I was privy to many details of that story, I was not a part of it...until now. I recently became a vigilante bird policeman in my very own county, to catch a stringer so twisted and evil that it is a wonder she even exists. The Human Birdwatcher Project takes great pride in bringing you this story today, for history is written by the Winners, not those who were vaporized on an exploding Death Star.

It all started last September. I occasionally go through the photos users upload to Santa Clara County (where I live) in eBird to see what is being crushed, misidentified, etc. I was surprised to come across a Clay-colored Sparrow, a solid if unspectacular rarity here, as it did not show up on either my Santa Clara needs alert or the rarity alert. And according to the date and location of the checklist, I had been at the same spot at the same time! What gives? Why wasn't it reported anywhere? Well, users can hide their birds from needs and rarity alerts, but still continue to contribute to eBird's public output. I didn't understand why this observer, who I will call "Lori Myers", wanted to hide their birds from everyone else, but it wasn't long before I figured it out. Looking at eBird's Top 100 for Santa Clara County for 2018, Lori Myers was doing a County Big Year.

Ugh. Ok. Lori wants to chase other people's rarities (evident by looking at her eBird photo gallery), but doesn't want to share the ones she finds? That's fucked up and pretty stupid...but in one respect it makes total sense. She is listing to win. I disagree with it, it makes big year birders even more unappealing than they already are, it could result in other local birders missing out on chaseable rarities...but I get it.

After being clued in to what Lori Myers was doing, and keeping an eye on photos she was submitting in the county, it became clear she was finding a lot of rare birds on an alarmingly regular basis. I guess Lori didn't have a job? I was briefly impressed, as I had never met this person and she was seemingly finding and documenting a lot of cool birds considering she was decidedly not one of the more skilled birders in the area - she seemed to be mainly a photographer. I even chased one of her birds, which is one of the low points in my life.

Strong with The Force I am...but not that strong.

It did not take long before I stretched out with my feelings, to listen to the The Force, and The Force started telling me that something was Wrong. I was wrong about her. Deeply, treacherously wrong. Lori Myers was finding too many rarities. Santa Clara County does not host as many rarities as the coastal counties, and Lori was finding vagrants at a clip that would be impressive for anywhere in the state. I then started looking more closely at the photos she was posting - *every* rarity she claimed had an accompanying photo, which just doesn't happen. And in the photos themselves, I started noticing patterns of irregularities...really weird crops, missing metadata, perches/backgrounds/weather that I knew were not consistent with what the locations looked like, or other photos in the same checklists.

My opinion of her quickly turned to the dark side, but for good reason...she had betrayed us all. For months I watched Lori post garbage, but mostly* plausible, rarities in eBird. It was torture...knowing exactly what was happening, but having no proof or power over it. Poor Billy had to listen to me rant and rave about this rampant stringing going on every time some horseshit vagrant hit eBird, which at times happened day after day after fucking day.

The turning point came when she attempted to take credit for finding a rarity I had found myself! I had found a flock of Mountain Bluebirds, less than annual in this county, then noticed later that week that Lori Myers had subsequently eBirded seeing one the day before me in the same area. An eBird policeman dug into it and confirmed that she did not submit that checklist until many hours after I had already reported the birds!

That was the last straw for me. Soon, I joined a cabal of eBird and state bird police that had one goal in form a rebellion and resist this Sith Lord of Stringing.

In the end, after months of surveillance, we were finally able to prosecute her for her heinous, cruel and unusual birdcrimes. Lori Myers knew that her charade was over, that she had been found a final act of cowardice, she tucked her tail between her legs, changed her eBird account to anonymous, and hid all of her data and photos from public output....but it was too late. The eBird tribunal found her guilty as charged, and Lori Myers was banned from eBird's public output anyway, in case she ever wanted to attempt to "contribute" to eBird again. Her Big Year has now been erased from history, and I am told she has never submitted anything to eBird again, even for her own personal lists...but of course that was never the point for her. To protect the birding law enforcement and prosecution team from revenge killings, they will remain safely anonymous, but their valiant efforts will never be forgotten by those who were there.

This blog post is not just a story of a rising Darkness, and Light to meet it. Now, you too can identify an ultra stringer like Lori. Again, I'm not talking about your everyday, run of the mill stringer who tries to turn a Warbling Vireo into a Philadelphia, I'm talking about people like Lori who are making a conscious effort to lie. Here are some of the questions that are begging to be asked if you suspect you have the misfortune of encountering such a person.

Is the suspect a good birder? If the answer is "no", they are potentially stringer material.
How frequently do they find rarities? Think about how often the suspect reports documented/substantiated rarities relative to other birders in the area.
How thorough are their descriptions? A stringer of this magnitude is not going to go to Marantzian lengths to describe a rarity - they will probably offer two or three sentences and avoid any overly technical sounding field marks, molt terminology, discussion on distribution and migration, etc.
Does anyone bird with them? Stringers of this sort work alone.
Does anyone else see their birds? Lori Myers tried to get around this problem, partially, by reporting some rarities to eBird months after she had initially allegedly seen them - no one can chase an Eastern Phoebe from 9 months ago. She also hid her data from needs and rarities alerts and did not contribute to any listserv or Facebook group. If someone is really going out and finding rarities left and right at places that get birded a lot, inevitably some of them are going to be seen by other observers.
Where are they in eBird rankings? Stringers inevitably wind up at or near the top of a given category in eBird. What is the point of stringing if you are in 35th in a Top 100 list?
Is a big year involved? Nothing brings out stringing like a big year. It is known.

And some questions just about photos:

What does the metadata say? Lori's most blatant photos of fabricated rarities had no metadata visible to eBird users. The vast majority of photos in eBird have that data available. Indeed, most of Lori's pictures of expected, totally reasonable species had the expected metadata being displayed as normal.
Are the backgrounds and perches consistent with the location and season? This one doesn't need an explanation. Lori's November Ovenbird with vibrant, bright green deciduous leaves in the background was bizarre.
Any weird weird crops? A number of photos Lori posted appeared to crop out perches that were not appropriate for the location. For example, why post a extreme closeup of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak but lop off the bird's legs entirely?
Is the lighting and photo quality consistent throughout? Many of Lori's checklists had a lot of normal looking photos of common birds in addition to the strung rarity. In a great many cases, the photo of the rarity looked very different from the rest of the photo set - different quality, lighting, weather conditions, etc.
How many photos do they upload for each rarity? Lori Myers typically uploaded 1-2 photos per rarity of a bird she lied about finding herself; in contrast with this, she would often post more than one of known rarities found by other birders in the area. If you are going to fake a sighting, its much easier to just use a single photo than four or five.

Much like Luke respected and feared Vader's power, I will give Lori Myers credit where credit is due...her rarity selection of things she decided to string was very good, very believable if you did not examine her collection of lies as a whole. Tropical Kingbird, Northern Waterthrush, Magnolia Warbler, Indigo Bunting...these are all quality birds for Santa Clara, but not the sort of thing that would lead to dozens of birders from around the region dropping everything to chase. Her ploy worked for some time, but in the end she just couldn't control her crazed impulses and her reign of terror was put to rest. It was maddening, painstaking, and the entire treacherous experience filled my heart with hate, but in the end birding justice was served. She has never been heard from again.

Stringers will be seen for what you really are. For The Force is my ally, and a powerful ally it is.

*=One rarity in particular really stood out as being incredibly unlikely and significantly contributed in obtaining a warrant for her. She got cocky - her overconfidence was her weakness.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Return to Blogorado: Gunnison

Samantha found this Horned Lark. It's a good thing she did, because it was a TRIP BIRD.

Colorado is home to a few species I've still never seen, the most notable and arguably best of which is Gunnison Sage-Grouse, almost endemic to the state. Dipper Dan, Sultry Sam and myself had a wedding to attend in Denver, but after raging with many old friends, the old tribes of Sunnybrae and San Francisco disbanded and the three of us made the trip out to Gunnison, which if you are unfamiliar is actually a good area to see Gunnison Sage-Grouse. We knew we would require some luck and there was a decent chance we would dip on them...and we did! No need to build up any suspense over our fail, or go into excruciating detail about hours and hours of driving through sagebrush really slowly and constantly stopping to look at grouse-shaped rocks or grouseless patches of was shitty. Fortunately, it was a pretty sweet area to explore so it was still a good time - here's a few photos.

We did a whole lot of not seeing grouse in very scenic places. Here is Danmantha not seeing grouse near Tomichi Dome.

Brewer's Sparrow was one of the most abundant birds in the area, though that didn't prevent me from failing to crush, as you can see. This is as good a place as any to confess that we didn't even see Sagebrush Sparrow, which mystifies me considering the habitat we were birding in.

Our Airbnb on the west edge of town was Great Success, as it turned out to be a serious geri birding situation - feeders galore! Here is a Sage Thrasher on a yard bench as geri birding evidence. Other feeder birds included Vesper Sparrow, Green-tailed Towhee, and Cassin's Finch. A side benefit of staying here was finding a male Lark Bunting on the road into town one morning (a flagged rarity in eBird), while on our way to toil in the grouse fields.

One of the Airbnb Vesper Sparrows chants a dawn curse, making grouse completely invisible to us despite our efforts. By this point in the trip, Dan and Sam's marriage had come under incredible strain, partially due to some lingering angst from partner-swapping with other wedding guests back in Denver (hey, it's 2019) and partially because we hadn't seen any grouse. Luckily, they had me to help keep the ship afloat. If anyone needs a marriage counselor or some couples therapy, hit me up, I'm cheap...and a great listener.

Empidonax for the trip were represented by a modest number of Dusky Flycatchers (above) and a Willow Flycatcher at the McCabe Lane Wetlands.

We here at BB&B have a long and storied tradition of taking meh/mediocre (mehdiocre????) photos of Townsend's Solitaires. I admittedly am ready to move on to straight crushing, but the solitaires are not.

The photog opportunities were not many, but I did manage a Mountain Bluebird crush, which I had been hoping for. This crush came at the cost of some fresh facemelt, which will only add to the disfigurement I have previously endured from seeing other Mountain Bluebirds.

Another view of the big sage basin near Tomichi Dome. There must be many grouse here. So close, yet so far...

I did not expect the wildflower scene to be so good...really should have brought my macro lens, but here are a few token shots. Here is some kind of penstemony/beardtonguey thing.

This white phlox was everywhere. Mellowing.

There were some great patches of larkspur (Delphinium nuttallianum) around. These were a bit too stunning to be mellowing.

This part of the continent is laden with mammals. Well, almost every part is, but it seems like you see a lot more of them in places like Colorado and Wyoming. We got elked on the reg.

I guess this is a Wyoming ground squirrel? It may have been a lifer squirrel. They were very, very common. They look like several other ground squirrel species I've seen before, so I only now realized they were something else.

If I got the species right, apparently these have had quite the range expansion in recent years and pretty much no one is excited about it...not people, not golden-mantled ground squirrels.

One of the most beloved squirrels in all the land, the one and only quasi chipmunk, the golden-mantled ground squirrel.

Least (?) chipmunks were enthusiastic attendees of the geri birding scene at the Airbnb. Mammals we saw that are not pictured include coyote, pronghorn, mule deer, white-tailed jackrabbit, marmots, and prairie dogs (east of the Rockies).

Needing a little break from driving around the sage in a futile grouse search, we decided to do a short hike and not see grouse while walking. This is the view looking north into the Gunnison Basin/the town of Gunnison from Hartman Rocks. Hecka scenic here...saw some more new plants and some trip birds, including Ash-throated Flycatcher, another eBird rarity.

Well, we failed, but the fail was more fun than not. Since I need to see the grouse someday, there is a good chance this wasn't my last visit to Gunnison.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Yellow-billed Magpies of Convenience

Any birder visiting California for the first time is absolutely drooling over the thought of seeing a Yellow-billed Magpie. Not only are they a stunning and fascinating bird, they are endemic to the state! With fall migration not far off (a time when many birders visit California, coinciding with pelagic season), I thought now would be a good time to give a few pointers on where to find them in my realm of our great state. Obviously you can check eBird for ideas of where to find them, but for birders who will find themselves in the greater bay area, or taking Highway 101 between the bay and southern California, let me make it easy for you.

While Yellow-billed Magpies can be locally common here along the western edge of their range, it is possible to miss them if you aren't looking in the right places. To prevent that devastating scenario, here are three of the best, most reliable and convenient spots to find them if you find yourself birding in these areas or just passing through.

Palm Avenue/Coyote Valley Open Space Preserve, Morgan Hill, Santa Clara County. Just south of the San Jose megasprawl, this site is just a few minutes from Highway 101 and is very, very reliable for magpies, both along the southwestern part of Palm Avenue and at the parking lot for the preserve at the end of the road. You can also walk the trails in the preserve (no admission fee) and see them there if you miss them on the way in. This is a great area for raptors in season (Golden Eagles, Prairie Falcons, Ferruginous Hawks) and a tame Rock Wren can sometimes be found at the parking lot.

Alternatively, you can see magpies at the west end of nearby Laguna Avenue, though they are not as reliably available for close views. This is another great area for raptors (I found a Zone-tailed Hawk here!) and other open country birds. Any blackbird flock will typically contain Tricolored Blackbirds, particularly from early fall through winter; this is another popular target bird for birders from out of the area and they are very regular here. Bird along the road from Santa Teresa Blvd southwest to where Laguna ends; the end of the road is best for magpies.

Tricolored Blackbirds and Brown-headed Cowbirds with their bovine companion in a pasture next to Laguna Ave. This site is not as legendary for seeing Tricoloreds as Moonglow Dairy (Monterey County) or Outer Point Reyes (Marin County), but they are readily available to be picked out of any blackbird flock in this part of Coyote Valley.

If you have more time available in the area, magpies are fairly widespread in Santa Clara County (more so than any other bay area county!) and are waiting to be found in a number of other places, though mostly not as close to a major highway.

Mines Road, Livermore, Alameda County. Highway 580 is another major regional artery and you may find yourself out that way, cutting between the east bay and the Central Valley. A highly dependable magpie stronghold here is the northern part of Mines Road; you can start looking for them as soon as you turn on to Mines off of Tesla Road. There are many eBird hotspots along Mines Road, but here is the general one for your edification.

Mines Road is a well-known birding area and can provide hours of birding entertainment, depending on the season and how far you are willing to go. Other target species further down this road include Northern Pygmy-Owl, Greater Roadrunner, Bell's Sparrow, Lawrence's Goldfinch, and Lewis's Woodpecker.

A confiding bird struts through one of the Bradley rest stops, which are popular loitering and rummaging ground for area magpies.

Highway 101 Bradley rest areas, Monterey County. This is well south of the greater bay area, but so many birders come through here on their way to or from the bay, I just have to mention it. If you are using Highway 101 to cover some significant distance, you will likely find yourself passing through the Bradley area in southern Monterey County. Just south of Bradley there are two rest stops, one for southbound traffic and one for northbound traffic. Both of these rest stops are very good for very approachable magpies; often you can see them before you get a chance to park. The southbound stop is particularly reliable for them...I have missed them here, but most of the time the magpie viewing doesn't get any easier.

That's about all there is to it! Magpies are loud and extremely conspicuous, so finding them isn't very complicated if you can get yourself to the right areas. I won't jinx you and say you are guaranteed to see them at these places...but it will be hard to not see them.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Belize! Part VI: Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, Mayflower Bocawina National Park, Hopkins

Morelet's Seedeater (formerly White-collared Seedeater) is one of the most abundant and widespread birds in Belize. I was hoping for a Morelet's Seedeater-Morelet's Crocodile combo but it never happened. Photographed at Hopkins Bay Resort.

After Black Rock Lodge, it was time to head over to the coast for the last part of our trip. We made the semi-long drive (by Belize and/or driving with toddler standards) over the Hummingbird Highway without any birding stops, as it rained most of the time...which the Black Rock army ant swarm had correctly predicted, for the second time. We made it to Hopkins in the afternoon, where we checked in to the Hopkins Bay Resort at the very north end of town...this was the first time I've ever stayed at a typical beach resort, and while it worked for our family purposes I wouldn't recommend it to birders visiting here. It's expensive, the birding on the grounds is mostly poor, they spray the beach sand with pesticide every morning (!) and rake up any sargassum on the beach, and they try to claim to be all sustainable despite clearing out large swaths of mangrove forest...not going to be staying there again. On the flip side, I will say I did have a couple great cocktails there, and the resort is right across the street from the old cemetery in town...this is where I lifered Yucatan Vireo, which I was super stoked on, and I also had my first really good looks at Mangrove Vireos a little further north.

Tropical Kingbird are, as one might expect, dirt common in Belize. It's still a nice looking bird though. There were Couch's Kingbirds at several sites but Tropical was generally much more abundant. Photographed at Hopkins Bay Resort.

Hopkins has a lot of visiting foreigners but is also pretty's certainly not overrun by tourists and not dominated by sky-scraping mega resorts or anything. There is a great deal of good birding within 45 minutes of town, and with many lodging options it is a sensible place to be based out of for birding in the area if you don't opt for staying at the lodge in Mayflower Bocawina National Park or the rustic Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary cabins. Bordering the west side of town is a huge marsh, which provided some trip birds but more importantly got me my first Ruddy was a heard only, but I'll take it!

No matter how many of them you have seen, if Brown Pelicans are plunge-diving next to you, you must stop what you are doing and watch. Or crush. Photographed at Hopkins Bay Resort.

While our lodging sitch in Hopkins wasn't super productive for birdlife, I was able to get out for multiple ace mornings of birding while staying there. One morning I went out to Mayflower Bocawina National Park, just 20 minutes or so up the road. Of course the camera was out of comission at the the time so I've got nothing to illustrate my time there, but the birding was very entertaining and I would definitely recommend a day or two here. Within the boundaries of the park is the Bocawina Rainforest Resort, which gives you excellent access to the area and no doubt has good birding right there on the grounds...I would definitely consider staying there if I return to the area. As for birding the park itself, I was impressed. Highlights included looks at Gray-headed Dove, Blue Ground-Doves, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, and Stub-tailed Spadebills. Here is my eBird list from my visit, if you're interested.

The last birding spot of the trip turned out to be the very best - Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, where I was lucky enough to spend two mornings. Billy had been here before and recommended it highly, and she was right to do so. In doing my research before this trip, I found Cockscomb listed in surprisingly few trip reports despite the blood red pin it sported in eBird's hotspot map...why birders overlook this gem while birding in Belize is a mystery to me. This place is fully legit. Visitors have the option of staying the night here at some rudimentary cabins, but I suspect you have to bring all your food/water/supplies in with you. This was the one place we visited where both diversity seemed very high and bird abundance was staggering at times, and I was super impressed with the quality of birding both days I was there. The place is huge and there are lots of trails to choose from...I totally could have birded there a third day and probably seen a grip of birds I missed the previous days. The entrance road alone is probably worth a whole morning, and the one place I pulled over yielded the only Green Honeycreeper of the trip.

Shockingly, my camera worked one of the days I was at Cockscomb, so here are some more pics!

Northern Waterthrushes are one of the commonest neotropical migrants that winter in Belize. This one would not get out of the path I was walking down so I took its picture.

White Hawks were easy to find on the trip...huzzah! Back before I saw my first White Hawks in Costa Rica some years bak, this was a neotropical bird that really stood out in my imagination...difficult to fathom a bird like this without seeing it with one's own eyes. Like a handful of other prominent birds, I literally dreamed about seeing these (as opposed to just fantasizing about it, like usual) before I actually did. Easily one of the coolest raptors I have ever seen.

While not abundant, Pale-billed Woodpecker is another widespread, fairly common woodpecker...but they are huge, exotic, and are in the same genus as the iconic Ivory-billed and Imperial Woodpeckers. The day after I took this photo, I came back and got a glimpse of it (or its mate) almost get taken out by some kind of large, black raptor that went plunging through the trees after was livid.

One of the many idyllic creeks that run through the preserve. I was unsuccessful, but Agami Herons are regularly found in Cockscomb in places like this.

Ruddy Woodcreeper was a lifer back at Black Rock, but I was able to get a few identifiable photos of this bird here in a nice mixed flock.

While not exceptionally scarce, Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher are notoriously difficult to actually they say. I had no such misfortune with this tiny todyish tyrant of the tangles, a true trip target. Luckily I had the prescience to memorize their song and found this shrub friend (shrub-friend) relatively easily instead of walking by it obliviously as it sang away, which I've probably done with dozens of other neotropical would-be lifers in the past. How embarrassing. 

One of the wildlife highlights of the trip was seeing this tayra! I only knew what it was because we had seen them close up at the Belize Zoo the week before...way to go Belize Zoo for successfully educating a dumb tourist. A tayra is like a giant mega weasel, a wolverine-otter looking thing. Megawolverotter. It paced back and forth across the trail in front of us a few times for good looks before trotting away.

From this angle it looks more like a bear-weasel combo. This was a very high quality lifer mammal - we also saw brocket deer, which the zoo had prepped me for as well. No jaguar sign (Cockscomb is famous for jaguars) but those were two sweet lifer mammals.

Pretty sure this was a lifer creature as well, white-lipped mud turtle (right?). It was crossing the entrance road during a rain storm. I know I am GBRS #7 in the U.S. and all that, but did you know my first real love of wildlife was herps? 

Billy and Annie in action. Billy's action was probably scanning for a Gray-headed Tanager I failed to get her on before it flew away (sorry Billy). Annie's action was sleeping.

Some unphotographed highlights from Cockscomb: absolutely stunning views of a confiding Black-faced Antthrush (the first I've seen, rather than just heard), lifer Yellow-tailed Orioles and Royal Flycatcher, getting the Leptotila hat trick (seeing White-tipped, Gray-headed and Gray-chested Doves in the same morning), and mixed flocks and concentrations of birds of such quality that I was beside myself.

I'll do one more post to kind of summarize the Belize trip for anyone who is thinking about going, but this will about wrap it up! You can thank Nikon for making a shitty product - the lack of photos to sort really enabled me to actually blog the whole trip in an almost respectable amount of time.

Monday, May 27, 2019

The 5MR (Bourbon) Challenge and The Quicksilver Cat

Acorn Woodpecker is one of the signature species in my 5MR - most of what hasn't been paved over is oak woodland. This one was at Guadalupe Oak Grove Park, which is brimming with confiding ACWOs.

The 5MR reigns supreme. So much of my birding this year is done within my 5MR...who could have seen this coming? Not I.

I have embraced it.

Have you?

Many birders enjoy the competitive aspect of birding...while I can understand that, I don't watch birds as a result of some misplaced sense of competitiveness, or need to measure the length of my list against that of others in order to wrench pleasure out of embarrassing is that? Most of the birding competition I engage in these days is with myself...I'm not going to go chase a freaking Mandarin Duck or a European Goldfinch just to pad my eBird top 100 numbers. Don't people have better things to do? 5MR birding is pretty much the antithesis of rabid competitive county birding or large-scale big year horseshit, and I think that is one of the many reasons a lot of people have gotten on board with 5MR in the past few months.

That said, the real question for 2019 many species can I see in my 5MR this year? Much of my birding has turned into a sustained campaign of seeing how much avian goodness I can wring out of my radius before December 31, though what I'm really looking for is new 5MR birds more than just year birds. I've missed some uncommon/rare stuff that will definitely be challenging to find later in the year (Solitary Sandpiper, Cassin's Kingbird, Yellow-breasted Chat, Swamp Sparrow, etc.) and some stuff I will absolutely have another shot at later (any non-Canadian goose, any teal, American Wigeon). The most gut-wrenching miss involved a bird I actually saw...Officer Stahl aided me in some intense 5MR birding back in March, and he found a Varied Thrush while standing next to me...but I only caught a glimpse of an orange flash as the bird flew away, never to be seen again.

Life is pain.

Right. I've described my radius here before, so am going to give that a break...I'll just say I'm not going to get 200 species here in a year, I don't think it is feasible without being unemployed/retired/completely socially isolated/obsessive-compulsive to a degree that even most birders would consider alarming. I can live with that...not everyone can live next to a major birding destination or momentous migrant fact, most of us don't. Heck, I still haven't seen 200 in my radius, period, and it is still very rewarding to bird.

That said, I'm checking in at 161 for 2019. On this date last year, I was at 143. Seventeen species were completely new for the 5MR.

While Horned Grebe are not rare in my county, they definitely are for my 5MR. I successfully chased this bird at Los Gatos Creek County Park, and went on to find Eared Grebe (new), Long-billed Dowitcher (new) and Greater Yellowlegs (new for the year) at the same site. It was a glorious time in 5MR birding...never have I been so chuffed to see a drab Long-billed Dowitcher.

One morning I went out to my Grasshopper Sparrow spot on the outer rim of my 5MR and was amazed to see a Swainson's Hawk fly by. This is a rarity in the county away from their one known nest site, which is not in my 5MR. For some reason this immature had been in the general area for a couple weeks, but I was still shocked to see it. Definitely one of the best birds this spring. Photographed at Santa Teresa County Park.

Not that it's news to any of you, but winter is long gone and spring, at least here, isn't long for this world either. There are still one or two lingering Buffleheads in the ponds behind my house (where this photo was taken) but I expect them to be outta here any day now. 

So, in other words, I'm kicking ass. It's encouraging, and it only makes me want more.

So why not give myself some extra motivation? A little reward if I continue to flog the shrubbery with such success?

What about...heroin?

Ahhhh, heroin. That's the stuff. Talk about giving yourself a well deserved prize, know what I'm saying?

A couple of you probably do, but most of you probably don't...and I don't either. Never tried it, don't know where to get it. Well, I have some street corners in mind (the Tenderloin hasn't changed that much recently, has it?), but it's not something that runs in my friend circles these days. Like, say if I did have to go out and try to "score" (do users really say that? or just on tv?), what the hell would I call it? I don't know the street slang. Would someone who sells heroin actually sell heroin to some random who says they are looking for "heroin"? I doubt it.

But I digress. I am not only a pillar of the birding community (pillar #7), I am a parent, after all. I have to set an example, and this isn't the way to do it. I will promote something that surely has never killed anybody or ruined anyone's lives...alcohol.

What did you expect? Have you seen the title of this blog? It's time to put my liver where my mouth is.

I have breeding Lark Sparrows in my radius, how sick is that? I don't know about you but most birders I meet love these things, and I am no different. Is this one of the best sparrows? Top 3? Seems like it would be a Top 5 for almost everyone. Photographed at the secret-not-secret spot in my radius.

This bobcat was also at the secret-not-secret spot. Bobcats are one of my fav mammals and it's great to have them so close by. I also added another kind of cat to my radius list the other night...and it was not Felis catus.

I went out after sunset to get my 5MR Common Poorwill for the year (great success), on a trail I had never been on before. Walking in, I passed signs about mountain lions being present, which wasn't a surprise considering the good habitat for them and the amount of use this trail gets; I had also previously found a lion-killed deer just a couple miles away, next to a different trail. While waiting for the poorwills to start calling, I was surrounded by three different groups of deer, which made me think about lions again a few more times. After listening to the poorwills for a while I headed back to the car, using my awesome mega-torch to check for any interesting wildlife on the trail...I had strongly considered not bringing it and just using my shitty headlamp instead, but opted to take it at the last minute. 

I passed some more deer close to the trail and was cruising along when I suddenly came up on some big, bright eyeshine about 50 feet away...quite possibly less. It was definitely not another deer, but it was so close and the "eyes" were so large that my first thought was that it cannot possibly be a large animal, because it was certainly not a deer and nothing else could possibly just be sitting there, a few feet off the trail...maybe it was just a couple pieces of reflector tape? But then then it blinked, and then it moved. It was a fucking adult mountain lion! The lion unhurriedly turned around and slinked up the little streambed it had been sitting in, then stopped at a comfortable distance away (for me, anyways) while I passed it.

I have no doubt it was waiting to ambush a deer on the trail I was on. It didn't do anything I considered threatening (I considered yelling at it to encourage it to back the fuck off, which is what you are supposed to do, but it didn't seem necessary), but it was extremely close. Pretty sure it is accustomed to seeing people and I doubt it would have moved if I had not lit it up with my certainly knew I was there before I was aware of it, and it was definitely not in the process of moving away when I spotted it. Some guy was 4 or 5 minutes ahead of me on the trail, and I suspect he may have walked right past the waiting lion...within 10 feet of him...without knowing it. I think I would have done the same if I had been pointing my flashlight in a different direction at that moment.

I'm 99% sure nothing would have happened had I walked right up to the lion, but in theory I could have been killed by a mountain lion solely because of 5MR birding (how embarrassing!) and Flycatcher Jen would have to live with that.

Chaetura does not exactly trigger the same blast of adrenaline as Puma, but that's ok. Vaux's Swift is another signature 5MR species here. We have swifts galore, which is pretty unique for the region. Photographed at Guadalupe Oak Grove Park.

In 2018 I recorded 163 species in my 5MR...not a remarkable total by any account, but solid. With 161 species so far in 2019, I am guaranteed to surpass 2018's total by a comfortable margin....but by how much?

I'm no longer so poor that I have to buy Beam all the time, but I don't have a trust fund lying around to take my love of whiskey to the top's not common that I get a rye or bourbon over $40. That said, what I am shooting for here calls for a nicer bottle than usual. So if I reach 185 species for the year, or manage to reach 200 for my radius (lifetime) by December 31, I will buy a celebratory bottle of Black Skimmer Bourbon, the perfect marriage of a good bird and a good liquor. I have been eyeing Cutwater's Black Skimmer Bourbon for some time now, and I thought their Black Skimmer Rye was great! If I can achieve both milestones before the end of the year, well then I will have to buy another celebratory bottle....but of what? Any suggestions? That would level my radius to a new caliber, so I'd like to try something else new.

So there you have 5MR birding this year will have additional fuel behind it, in the form of some #treatyoself whiskey. Happy to hear what your favorite not-super-popular ryes or bourbons are in case I have to go for a new bottle!

Anyways, as I sit here polishing off a bottle of Black Feather bourbon (recommended!), here are some more radius birds til next time...

Black-throated Gray Warbler is an underrated bird and one that I'm happy is an expected migrant in my 5MR. Yes their attire was put together in the spirit of the Economy of Style, but they are sharper and more distinct looking than many other warblers, and there is practically nothing you can confuse one with if you see it well. And the yellow supraloral spot...what a great touch. Just think, in a parallel universe somewhere the only difference in all of existence is that spot is white instead of yellow....what a trip. Photographed at Guadalupe Oak Grove Park.

A species I didn't realize I needed for 5MR until after I saw them here was Wild Turkey. They were purposefully introduced to California as game birds and have become fairly common around the bay area, but I didn't see them in 5MR (or at least, never eBirded them) until this year. I'm not that into introduced birds (obvi) but turkeys are much more bizarre and fascinating than most. What their impacts are on the grasslands and woodlands where they are found are relatively unknown...not all introduced species have the same impacts (I don't think the Spotted Doves introduced to California caused any ecosystems to collapse), but turkeys are big, eat many different things, and there are a lot of them. Photographed on the Calero Creek Trail.

I think most birders have a few species that make them really appreciate the area where they live...for me, Golden Eagle is one of these. Golden Eagles are common enough in the greater bay area that seeing one in the right habitat is more of an expectation than a surprise, which is a luxury most birders do not have. I have seen them at a number of places in my 5MR this year. Photographed on Hicks Road.