Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Clam Cravers, The Majestic Scale, Winter Gulls

Birding is happening. I'm taking a lot of time off work this month, and more birding is in the forecast. I'm currently writing this from Ventura, so expect some slightly different stuff in the next couple weeks. This post is all about birding the bay area though...and no, I did not see the Rustic Bunting, it was found the day I left Oakland (reported widely the day after that), so I appreciate everyone's concern but I die a little bit inside whenever someone asks me if I saw it...however, it's not a life bird or an ABA bird for me, so I can manage to keep it together...barely. So that aside, this is the first White-winged Scoter I have ever photographed, and I was stoked to get some crushing in. San Leandro Marina, San Leandro, CA.

White-winged Scoters are uncommon in much of California, and rarely seem to be close to shore. This bird was actually present here last year and I kept missing the damn thing, so it was good that we could finally meet. San Leandro Marina, CA.

Come to think of it, this is the best look I've ever had of a White-winged Scoter anywhere. I've definitely never known that they had purple heads (look behind the white eyeliner). Great success. San Leandro Marina, CA.

Scoters are crazy. They just wolf down entire shellfish...just swallow that shit whole. People admire vultures for their ability to digest carrion, but I think scoters deserve some digestive credit too...they must have insanely strong innards to be able to internally pulverize the shell without shredding their entire digestive tract. San Leandro Marina, CA.

A jubilant clam craver. San Leandro Marina, CA.

This White-tailed Kite got aggro on a passing Merlin. This is the first time I ever photographed a kite and a Merlin in the same frame, and I expect it will be my last. Mount Trashmore, Hayward, CA.

I have never completely understood those isolated black spots on the underwing of White-tailed Kites...none of our other raptors show anything similar. How did that evolve? Is there any functionality associated with them? They do look good, I have to say.

While roaming around for longspurs, this Golden Eagle periodically passed overhead. I hope it got to nail a Canada Goose for a Thanksgiving feast. Photographed at Mt. Trashmore.

Whenever I get to see a GOEA up close (which is not very often), I am always struck by how freaking big their talons are. No wonder they can take down a deer. This is one the leading birds on the "majestic" scale, as far as I'm concerned.

And on the opposite end of the majestic spectrum, we have the Lapland Longspur. Oddly, aside from my time in Alaska (where they were everywhere), I have put far more time and effort into finding longspurs than Golden Eagles. I hope that somewhere a hawk counter is reading this and is completely disgusted by that statement. Photographed on Mount Trashmore.

I don't think I saw a single longspur last year, of any species. Pathetic. Now I can say I saw 3 Lapland Longspurs this year, which feels much better.

Now we are really getting away from majesty...but Thayer's Gull has a solid fanbase, myself included. Lake Merced, San Francisco, CA.

Here's an attractive Western X Glacous-winged Gull hybrid (I think)...they normally don't appear this nice and frosty, but they are a winning gull when they do. San Leandro Marina, CA.

I hardly ever post California Gulls on here...but it's not because I'm not seeing them, I assure you. They are fun to watch at Mono Lake, where they dip for brine shrimp and charge clouds of brine flies, but on the coast they are a parking lot bird. Thankfully, they are not big on hybridizing, but they have not been able to convince their larger relatives to stop doing that. Photographed at Lake Merced, CA.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Taken For Granted Challenge Rematch: Austin vs. PDX

Will This Machine Nate be able to find a Least Grebe tomorrow? Who cares? Two people do...very, very much. Photographed at Sabal Palm Sanctuary, Brownsville, TX.

Last year, Flycatcher Jen of I Used To Hate Birds (Portland, Oregon) and Nate of This Machine Watches Birds (Austin, Texas) faced off in a brutal competition....the Taken For Granted Challenge. The rules? Each birder gives the other birder a list of species that can be reasonably expected (perhaps even taken for granted) to occur in his/her home county; Jen gave Nate a list of birds to track down in Travis County, Nate gave Jen a list for her to track down in Multnomah County. Lists were exchanged less than 24 hours before the day of the Challenge. The day of the Challenge, each birder set out trying to find as many of their assigned species as possible in a day...and get a photo of each.

2013's TGC event ended in a bitter defeat for Flycatcher Jen. I think she almost quit birding. Nate found 2 of his assigned birds, while Jen found only a paltry 1. She wore the humiliating loss like an albatross around her neck for months, and vowed never to do anything like this again...because she hates it. With a narrow but decisive defeat, she was forced to mail Nate a 6-pack of local beer.

Much like the Emperor counseled Luke Skywalker, for the past year I have encouraged Flycatcher Jen to embrace her hatred..."Good, good...let the hate flow through you" and "your hate has made you powerful", and so on. After months of training, I was not surprised to learn that Flycatcher Jen was up for a rematch...but I was shocked to be notified that it would be I, #7, assigning lists for both Jen and Nate. So here I am, in the middle of a Jen and Nate sandwich...just what I always wanted. I have a passing familiarity with both Travis and Multnomah Counties, so I guess that makes me vaguely qualified for this sort of thing. And so, as referee and friends of both lovely yet hate-filled individuals, I am proud to present to you the 2014 Taken For Granted Challenge rematch: I Used To Hate Birds vs. This Machine Watches Birds. Neither Jen or Nate have been notified of what is their birding homework for tomorrow until this blog post went up. So without further delay, here are Nate's birds.

1. Least Grebe - a quality ambassador for Texas.

2. Field Sparrow - because Field Sparrow.

3. Scissor-tailed Flycatcher - an even better ambassador for Texas.

4. Pine Warbler - Austin is a east meets west type of place. This is a bird of the east.

5. Harris's Sparrow - A mid-continental specialty.

Oh Jen, Jen, Jen...wouldn't you just love to spend the TGC trying to track down a Thayer's Gull?  HAHAHAHAHAHA. Photographed at Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA. HAHAHAHAHA.

Jen's birds are:

1. Tundra Swan - a wonderful fowl of the water.

2. Horned Lark - I only look for Horned Larks to find longspurs and Snow Buntings. Jen will have to look for Horned Larks to find Horned Larks.

3. California Quail - representing the West Coast.

4. Mew Gull - mew mew mew mew mew mew.

5. Purple Finch - Nate has never seen one.

In the event of a tie, the person who saw the rarest bird during the day (as scored by eBird's Target Species feature) for their home county in the month of December will take home 2014's TGC trophy. The loser will mail the winner a 6-pack and compose a very, very special blog post in honor of the winner.

Tensions have been mounting for weeks now. Both Nate and Jen have been preparing by talking shit to each other at every opportunity, and each competitor has been on a steady diet of steroids and PEDs for months. Jen has procured a sizable quantity of cocaine in order to keep her sharp during the competition (which may or may not be related to her recently-publicized adoration of Katy Perry), while Nate has obtained several syringes of pure adrenaline that he will plunge into his own heart every four hours.

So to This Machine Nate and Flyctacher Jen: The hate is swelling in you now. Give in to your anger. It is unavoidable.

It is your destiny.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Human Birdwatcher Project Presents: The Murrelet Incident

"I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror...and were suddenly silenced". - Obi-Wan Kenobi

While Obi-Wan was describing the destruction of the planet Alderaan by the Death Star, he is also feeling what I felt on November 26, 2014, when the legendary Japanese Murrelet chase came to an abrupt and psychically violent end. Many birders arrived at Point Reyes that morning with the highest of hopes...that they would be lucky enough to see a Japanese Murrelet from a California shoreline. After many hours, only a brightly-marked Ancient Murrelet was seen, and when the photos of The Bird were finally posted to the ABA Blog, a collective scream of terror was uttered by birding America. The large chase crew left broken and defeated...many have since gone silent, locked in their bedrooms, enduring an incapacitating catatonic depression. The entire California birding community was completely crushed, and we have still yet to heal. Bitter memories of the Mile Square Park "Cape May Warbler" came rushing back to more than a few birders. A misidentified Red-footed Booby (it turned out to be a Brown, of course) at Point Reyes a few days later was just more salt in the wound. Some have suggested that this may be as good a time as any to completely quit birding.

What happened? How did this tragedy come about? The Human Birdwatcher Project ("Birders are people too!") and BB&B have put together a timeline of all relevant public communications about The Murrelet Incident...and you can see exactly when the "apparent" Japanese Murrelet becomes something more.

November 24, 2014. A Bird Policeman posts to the California Rare Birds Facebook group:

I haven't seen it on any email lists yet, but Keith Hansen called to tell me that Steve Howell photographed an apparent Japanese Murrelet (Synthliboramphus wumizusume) at the Point Reyes Fish Docks. Unfortunately he did not identify the bird visually, it just showed up in his photos. A number of people were looking until dark today and the bird was not seen.
Just acting as the messenger.

November 25, 2014. A birder posts to a listserv:

Just got a call from Keith Hansen. He, Steve Howell, Ed Harper, Jon Dunn and others saw the bird from a great distance off the Fish Docks on Pt. Reyes this morning. It took several hours of waiting and the bird appeared for 15 minutes, then disappeared. It has the characteristics of a breeding plumaged Japanese Murrelet and was compared with nearby Ancient Murrelets. This bird was first found closer to land and photographed by Steve Howell yesterday afternoon, but not seen after it quickly vanished. I have not seen the bird nor the photos.

November 25, 2014. Another birder posts to a listserv, this time with a very different tone:

…ahem…ahem..excuse me, 

So that everyone gets the word, there is a distinct possibility that a Japanese Murrelet has been found in Drakes Bay at Point Reyes yesterday afternoon by Steve Howell. Today other excellent birders saw it again and now it seems to be a Japanese Murrelet. Identification is difficult from distance (photos were taken yesterday and appear diagnostic) but we up here have been convinced to look tomorrow for it. This would, of course, be a first county record. Actually, a first continental record. 

Seeing is believing so I along with others will be there at first light. 

Remember, a large storm is coming in this weekend so sooner is better….unless your optimistic…and stupid. 

November 25, 2014. A birder posts to eBird a Japanese Murrelet observation. He describes the bird as having a crest, which is an absolutely diagnostic field mark for Japanese Murrelet. This report has subsequently been disappeared.

November 26, 2014. Many of the state's best birders converge at the Fish Docks, searching for the Japanese Murrelet. These included many past and present members of the Bird Police, and some folks came all the way from San Diego. Many Ancient Murrelets were seen, including one in breeding plumage with giant white eyebrows that converge at the back of the head, very similar to how a Japanese Murrelet would appear. In the early afternoon, two days after the initial sighting, Steve Howell posts on the ABA blog the full breakdown of the bird, complete with photos. At no point does he claim that the photos show proof of the bird being a Japanese Murrelet, nor does he claim he is convinced it is a Japanese Murrelet. He makes no mention of the bird having a crest, and bemoans the fact that birders have somehow turned a theoretical Japanese Murrelet into the real thing. The photos showed an intriguing bird (to me, anyway), but ultimately lacked anything truly convincing.

According to multiple witnesses, when the birders at the Fish Docks searching for the murrelet saw the photos on somebody's cell phone, everyone died a little bit on the inside. The chase was off.

Most birders, at least privately, now suspect that there was never a Japanese Murrelet...that the bird in question was an Ancient Murrelet in breeding plumage (like the one above). Since November 26, no one has publicly claimed to have seen a Japanese Murrelet. So what went wrong? How did more than 80+ birders converge from all over the state to twitch a bird that was not real? Birders have turned on each other left and right, reputations are being shredded, and more than one angry twitcher desires actual bloodshed.

Some things to consider:

1) Was there really a Japanese Murrelet out there, as some thought in the beginning? Was the bright-browed Ancient Murrelet seen November 26 the same bird from the photos? The same bird seen, very distantly, on November 25? Will all of this one day air on a new episode of Unsolved Mysteries? Personally, I don't know...I certainly didn't see any of these birds so I really can't comment. But I know that a bunch of birders can simply will a rarity into existence, given the right circumstances. Much like those who have once claimed success in the Ivory-billed Woodpecker hunt, there is no longer anyone willing to publicly admit that they believe they saw a Japanese Murrelet.

2) Some have whined that the photos did not go public until 2 days after the initial sighting, which is a long time when it comes to coverage of a MEGA. This certainly played a role in contributing to the mass hysteria and panic that briefly gripped California birders, but think about it...the person who found the bird was not actually convinced the bird was a Japanese Murrelet, so what was the rush? Despite his status, he doesn't owe it to anyone to get the photos out to the general public ASAP...I'm sure he sent it to a few friends for consideration, which normally would be the wise thing to do. If I had poor, undiagnostic photos (accidental photos, no less) of a potential continental record, I might not be rushing to have every birder in the country scrutinizing it either.

3) While Steve is not California's birding Godfather, he is viewed as a sort of deity by many. Not many other people write entire books on rare birds, gull ID and seabird fact, no one else has those credentials. Steve's opinion on bird ID is considered gospel by the masses. Even if he thought the bird could be a Japanese Murrelet, that was enough to make people think the bird was real. Attaching Jon Dunn's name to the bird probably didn't help things either.

4) On November 25 a notorious county lister, who had never seen the photos of the bird, claimed that the photos were diagnostic. To quote a famous birder, "that's not how I would have done it". This statement, and then the following eBird report, is where the bird appeared to jump from "apparent" to "confirmed"... and a lot of people were probably convinced to make the long drive to Point Reyes. He also stated that those who were not going to chase the bird were stupid, which did not work out very well for him and 80+ other people in the end.

5) The eBird report from November 25 mentioned the bird having a crest, the most crucial field mark to see. No one else has ever mentioned seeing this, at least publicly. This is seriously sketchy.

6) Birders nationwide have been concerned that so many good birders were involved in The Murrelet Incident. One retired bird policeman from the east coast was quoted as saying, "This shit wouldn't even fly in New York" (I guess New York has a lot of sketchy birders? News to me.). Indeed, many of our Bird Police and alumni were out looking for this bird, but I cannot fault them. If birders are people too, then so are the Bird Police. Almost every birder has a bit of Fox Mulder in them...we want to believe. We all wanted a true-blue Japanese Murrelet to be out there, because we want to see the damn thing.

7) Ancient Murrelets can be in breeding plumage in winter. And they can have huge white eyebrows that meet in the back of their heads. Now we know.

8) Things will never be the same.

Many thanks to John Puschock/Zugunruhe Birding Tours for supplying the Ancient Murrelet photo in today's post.

Friday, November 28, 2014

When Your Mother Is Crying Into The Stuffing, Winter Is Coming

The Eurasian Wigeon are season is upon us, once again. Be wary of female "Common Pochards", already reported in Oregon and California this fall, that turned out to be Redheads. Crab Cove, Alameda, CA.

It's the day after Thanksgiving. You feel bloated, and being confronted with your weird family is crushing your soul. You suspect one of your uncles of being a Klan member and your other uncle keeps hitting on front of everyone...which is really weird. Your cousin clearly has done too many designer drugs and you wonder how the rest of your family isn't noticing this. Your brother's hippie girlfriend is discussing the power of certain crystals on auras with your dad, who in turn is judging her mercilessly. Your mother is silently crying into the cold stuffing while Rush Limbaugh spews hatred and bullshit from the radio. These people are driving you deep into the you better go birding before everything is totally fucked.

Fall is almost in the history books, and winter is starting to take it's gentle grip here in California. It's even rained a few times, which has been a worryingly rare event for the past few years, so fingers are crossed for more rain and rare birds. I've finally begun clawing my way out of a rare bird rut, and am looking forward to what the winter has to offer.

Right. Here is a platter of recent winter-flavored birds. Good luck with your weekend everybody.

Eurasian Wigeon are regular winter visitors to much of California, especially in the Central Valley, where you can see double digits in a day without much difficulty. It would be nice to know where these birds actually come many of these birds breed in Alaska? How many are coming down from Russia? The male in front is still doing a bit of molting, and that's a female EUWI lurking in the back.

Eurasian Wigeon females don't tend to be reported nearly as often as males, which is totally understandable, considering their blandness. Note the richly-colored head compared to an American Wigeon.

Here's a standard-issue American Wigeon hen for comparison. Photographed at Crab Cove.

Spotted Sandpiper. One thing that photography makes me do is pay attention to common, taken for granted birds much more than I would otherwise...this SPSA is a prime example of that. Oyster Bay Regonal Shoreline, San Leandro, CA.

Common Sandpiper is a bird that would probably be overlooked by 99.9% of birders if one will ever be (has been?) seen in California. It's just not a bird on our radar, although I don't think anyone would ever be shocked if it did occur. One thing to check for Common Sandpiper is how wide the white wing stripe is at the base of the wing...on Spotteds, as this one demonstrates well, the wing stripe narrows and fades toward the base of the wing, whereas it would look comparatively bold on a Common in this area.

There is no doubt that American Avocets are the most graceful of our shorebirds. That said, I think an Avocet bill would make for an insidious murder weapon. Photographed at Oyster Bay Regional Shoreline.

When the thought of your crazy family begins bubbling up into your consciousness, remember the serenity of the roosting avocet.

Ah, the regal Canvasback. Always a refreshing bird. Lake Merritt, Oakland, CA.

The diagnostic "seduction pose".

A female Bufflehead uses her tail to come in for a perfect and picturesque landing. Photographed at the Berkeley Fishing Pier, Berkeley, CA.

Unlike where I grew up in SoCal, Surf Scoters are both plentiful and approachable here in the bay area, which is not something I take for granted. Photographed at the Berkeley Fishing Pier.

Surf Scoter. It's not considered to be on the list of face-melting birds, but I reckon it comes pretty close. Photographed at the Berkeley Fishing Pier.

A young male Surf Scoter, perhaps frustrated that is has no aesthetic appeal to speak of, utters a deadly bellow. All nearby mollusc shells were blasted to pieces. Photographed at the Berkeley Fishing Pier.

The Horned Grebe, a flat-headed wonder of nature. If you are a beginning birder and have mastered the Horned vs. Eared Grebe ID challenge, know that you are going places. Photographed at the Berkeley Fishing Pier.

Eared Grebe, ubiquitous in California. If this bird still presents problems for you, I suggest you quit birding entirely and take up grebeing instead. They are wonderfully mellow birds; watching them for hours on end will do wonders for your mental health, if not your ID skills. Photographed at the Berkeley Fishing Pier.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Plateau Effect

Many of us recognize this bird, a young male American Redstart, to be a wonderfully easy bird to identify. However, a significant number of birders not only struggle to identify birds like this, they will always struggle with birds like this. The Plateau Effect plagues birders everywhere...but why? The Great Ornithologist Felonious Jive examines this today at 10,000 Birds...take a look.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

20 Years In The Game: Never Stop Birding...Sentimental HJs...Birds Remembered

Look at all these nerds. Although I am currently retired from bizarre field jobs, they have done a lot for me (and my life list). After the long and glorious LBJ days came to an end in Humboldt County, this was my first job...slavishly censusing Burrowing Owls for Jeff Manning (of "Two Jeffs One Cup" fame) and his mysterious dog Palouse in the Imperial Valley. Those times were good times, and things have never been the same.

As a birder, this month was special for me. Not because I achieved any sort of listing milestone or saw a particularly rare bird (groan), but because I realized that I've now been birding for 20 years. Of course there are a lot of birders out there who have been birding that long (and substantially longer), but I would wager that most of them are not 32. Let's face it...those people are old. OLD. One day I will probably be OLD as well, but other than an increasingly large beer gut and a decreasing amount of hair, I feel pretty good about myself, and I intend to enjoy the waning days of youth.  At any rate, this is truly an anniversary of an incredibly nerdy magnitude, and really, really embarrassing.

When I started birding as a stupid 12-year old, once I started it never occurred to me that I would ever stop birding. It was too good, even if I was doomed to be a nerd for the rest of my life. I became a bird addict, a depraved junkie who just cannot get enough...maybe not the kind who would give an HJ in a back alley in exchange for a life bird...ok FULL DISCLOSURE I actually invented that whole bird-hj bartering system and that is totally me. Buddies, I'm still waiting for all those HJs...

Right. Buddies. While I don't have the endless financial resources that some have to pour into their state and county lists (surely there is something better to do with that $$$...or is there?), I have made lots of friends on the way. And friends, to a birder, are worth more than any Code 5 rarity. Birders, as I'm sure you have noticed, don't have many friends, due to the weirdness in their brains and debilitating lack of social skills. Luckily somewhere between 12 and 32 I managed to trick some people into liking me and now I have many a buddy. So now when I run into an old friend at a bar, they greet me joyous cries of "Number 7!", whether they are a birder or not. I have a girlfriend, Booby Brittany, who forced us to chase a Little Bunting last winter because she knew my soul would shrivel up and die if I didn't (she also has a thing for Sibes, though). It has been an honor and a privilege to have met so many good people on this godawful, shameful journey. So to all my friends I've made while working weird jobs (birders and otherwise) that made life tolerable (birded/drank with me) and to everyone who has lent me a couch or showed me a lifer while on some fucked up birding road trip or were down to be dragged around through the Arcata Bottoms at incredibly slow know who you are. I owe you a big fat HJ.

I guess you want to see some pictures or something. I can't share images from the 90's (although I do have slides somewhere) and from most of the 2000's, so I figured I would at least break out the old hard drives and post some random pictures chronicling some more recent Great Successes.

In February 2009, I ditched my desk job in Concord, CA, for a volunteer position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Midway Atoll. I wanted to get to know seabirds...and I got to know them quite well, particularly albatross. Truth be told, they are quite addicting. Anyways, though not really a seabird (although it does overfly vast distances of ocean), one of the birds I met on Midway was the Bristle-thighed Curlew, which is never something I had realistically thought I would ever see up to that point. This is the last North American bird to have it's breeding grounds discovered, and even there it is not very common. Saw hella on Midway though.

After Midway, I went out to Pennsylvania to work with Bat Conservation International, where I got my first taste of the wind energy industry and what it can do to birds and bats. After I finished there, I figured "Well, this is as close as I've ever been to Florida, so I might as well go". So I drove down to the Everglades, and picked up a quantity of lifers. Wood Stork was not one of them, but any place you can go where Wood Storks lurk by the roadside is a good place. Did you know they have pink feet? Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, FL.

In the spring of 2010, I took a job in southeast Arizona, one of my favorite places to bird. It's great getting paid to look at birds where thousands of other birders drool about visiting. We lived in Florida Canyon much of the time, and put up a bunch of hummingbird feeders; this Violet-crowned Hummingbird was one of the more unexpected birds to show up.

After Arizona, I thought it would be best to move to the Aleutian Islands for the summer. I got to meet many Asian strays and a shitload of amazing seabirds, but one of my favorite moments was finding this Ancient Murrelet chick after a night of mist-netting Whiskered Auklets. This little chick, just a few days old, was going balls-out for the water, leaping astonishing distances into the air like a goddamned kangaroo in order to get over the seemingly impenetrable boulder field on the beach. We could hear a parent calling to it from the water. I have no idea what terrain had to be conquered or how far that chick had to go to get to where I saw it, but I have no doubt that it made it to the water.

In 2011, I thought it was time to get weird. I completed a road trip through eastern Mexico, which was rad, although not after getting robbed by a cartel...which was not rad. A month after that incident I was back in Mexico because I am crazy, counting migrating raptors for the spring in Chavarrillo, one of best places on the continent for seeing birds of prey during spring migration. I was enamored with the swarms of Mississippi Kites that moved through later in the spring. Que chido.

After Mexico it was off to North Dakota to do Piping Plover monitoring for Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge. It was a weird scene (though not nearly as weird as Mexico), but the birding was great. We had field sites all over the place and some of them had good numbers of Baird's Sparrows, which worked out quite well for me since they are one of the most lusted-after sparrows in the U.S. This bird was on private property, but if you ever get out that way, look for them at Lostwood or Medicine Lake NWR over in eastern Montana. PS fuck frakking.

In January 2012 we were evicted from the Space Station, our squatter house in San Francisco, which sent me packing north for a doomy road trip. In Washington I finally got to meet the iconic Snowy Owl, one of the best birds in existence.

My most-crushed Vague Runt is this drake Tufted Duck, which has been wintering at Lake Merritt, a few minutes from my house, for years. Hopefully he comes back soon so I can crush him for the millionth time. You want to join the crush party? Come visit!

In summer of 2012 I found myself living in San Diego, toiling with Least Terns and Snowy Plovers for the San Diego Zoo, and living in a cabin in Jim and Jim's backyard. Jim and Jim were great landlords, and their backyard was an excellent place to party. Many good times back there. I managed to survive the toxic birding scene, did a lot of great birding and made a few buddies...and I still like terns and plovers. Here is a young Snowy Plover chick that hopefully is a lot bigger and more feathered now.

At the end of 2013 I migrated south to Costa Rica for a few weeks, which is still being chronicled on BB&B because I am so damn lazy...but not as lazy as Don Mastwell, who still needs to enter a bunch of eBird checklists. Anyways, the birding was facemelting. If you are contemplating taking your first trip down that way, don't let some hippie nonbirder friend of yours convince you to go to some other country down there instead where everything has been clearcut to death. Here is an Emerald (Blue-throated) Toucanet from La Cinchona.

Fast forward to this spring, when I moved to the Lower Rio Grande Valley for another couple of wind energy projects. I had ample time to bird and get to the coast, where I really got a heavy dose of migration in the eastern U.S. for the first time. I didn't really know what picture to put up to represent the birding there (a crowd of annoying/clueless photographers would have been appropriate) but I think this crushed Indigo Bunting from South Padre Island sums it up.

What better way to finish than with the rarest Vague Runt I've ever seen? A beloved albatross, no less? I've lead a lot of pelagic trips the last couple years, and this has been the bird of all birds. Thank you Salvin's Albatross, you were my destiny. Half Moon Bay, CA.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Birding Is Hard: Return of the Gulls

Glaucous-winged Gulls, and their associated hybrids, are abundant in the bay area during the winter months. The most straightforward ones to ID look something like this; dark eye, pale bill, dark/barred (as opposed to streaked) hood, and pleasantly pale primaries. All photos from this post were taken at Oyster Bay Regional Shoreline, San Leandro, CA.

Here in the bay area, November is typically the month where birders begin looking at gulls again. I never look forward to this. By this time, I typically have not been obsessively looking at gulls since March, and my Larid skills have gotten a bit rusty. Luckily, November is generally not a great month for vagrant gulls (although Slaty-backed has shown up this early), so it's good to get my inner Gull Machine (a large part of my brain that is devoted to doing nothing but process gull identifications) firing on all cylinders again.

I hate gulls, but I just can't help myself. I must look at them. They demand my attention. I want the glory, the fame, and the sex of finding the state's second Great Black-backed Gull, or another precious Black-tailed Gull. I want to be able to competently discuss such obscure identification features that if I try to describe them to another birder, their eyes will just glaze over in utter horror and confusion...and you know what? I'm well on my way there, but unfortunately many birders are still able to understand what I am talking about, gulls are still frustrating to identify, and birding is still hard...and that is why I fail.

Thayer's Gulls are back; this is the first adult I've seen this year. Note how tiny it is compared to the big hybrid gull in the background. Speaking of the hybrid (note the almost-but-not-quite black primaries), it's clearly part Glaucous-winged, but I'm not sure who the other parent is. It's shaped like a classic Glaucous-winged X Western but the way the mottling/streaking (strottling?) looks on the head makes me wonder if Herring genes are in there. I don't know, you tell me...isn't birding hard?

Check out the massive white apical spots on this bird. Lookin' sharp.

My, what an appealing wing pattern you have Thayer's Gull. This is a pale-eyed Thayer's Gull, which are not uncommon locally.

The adult gulls here are still molting in their new primaries; check out p10 coming in on the leading edge of the wing, and how far it has to go before it's fully grown in. Wonderfully vivid feet on this bird, which is to be expected.

For more on Thayer's Gull ID, or if seeing a bunch of Thayer's Gull pictures is what gets you going, be sure to check out my sprawling Thayer's Gull post from earlier this year.

Shortly after the adult Thayer's Gull flew off, I spied this bird bathing in the same area. It looked rather similar...pale eye, heavily-marked head (not streaky like a Herring), relatively small...another Thayer's?

Hmm...there's no mirror on p9, which is highly indicative of Herring Gulls in the western U.S. And the mottled head is starting to look crosshatched, a very Glaucous-winged trait.

And now the bird seems pretty pale on the underwings...not dissimilar to a Thayer's. So if a gull has a wing pattern that looks like a Thayer's from below but a Herring Gull from above, what is it?

If you guessed that this bird was a Glaucous-winged X Herring Gull hybrid, I would wager that you are correct. If you ask me, this hybrid combination resembles Thayer's Gull more than any other. Fortunately, the "Cook Inlet Gull" is common here during the winter and provide ample opportunities for study. Unfortunately, the "Cook Inlet Gull" is common here during the winter months and I am forced to waste countless hours looking at them trying to figure out what the hell they are.

I only got to look at this bird very briefly in flight, and even more briefly on the water. At first glance I assumed this would be a 2nd-cycle Glaucous-winged X Herring Gull, but with my short look at the bird on the water and looking at these photos now, it appears to be Glaucous X Herring. Nelson's Gulls can be challenging to track down around here (for me, anyway), so this turned out to be a pretty nice bird.

Though a bit dark, I think if you took off this bird's head and attached it to a Glaucous Gull torso, it would look right at home.

Luckily, Bonaparte's Gulls are attractive and don't want to grind cloacas with all their closest relatives. And for that, Bonaparte's Gulls, I thank you.