Tuesday, April 7, 2015

A Shrike of Two Tails (***MEGA***)

It has been a glorious 2014-2015 fall and winter for Siberian vagrants in California, with the highlights being Olive-backed Pipit, Common Scoter, Rustic Bunting, multiple Bramblings (only one chaseable), the returning Falcated Duck, and this bird...whatever it is.  First disclosed to the birding public in early March, hundreds of birders have made the trek to scenic and windswept Mendocino coastline to see a young Brown Shrike, a horrifically rare bird, even on Alaskan islands where Sibes aren't something out of the ordinary.  Having lifered the Humboldt County bird a few years ago, I wasn't highly motivated to put in the drive time, but since Justine Stahl was visiting and offered to do the drive, I did what I thought was best. Now, bear witness to these horrid (torrid) images that are the fruits of our birding labors.

The bird behaved in a completely different way than the Humboldt bird, in that it was incredibly easy to find (other birders were looking at it when we walked up), it was almost always perched in the open, and it was very active, wagging its tail back and forth, flycatching and frequently procuring huge insects which it appeared to stash in various thickets.  It was an immensely rewarding chase, especially since we didn't even get there until well after 1 PM. As one famous birder has said, "Middle of day is best time for make rare bird!".

By the day we saw the bird, a number of birders were becoming very concerned about the shrike. Not for its well-being or anything, but for the fact that it didn't really look like any of the other Brown Shrikes that have shown up in North America, which have all ostensibly been of the subspecies cristatus.  In fact, some birders were thinking that this bird didn't really look like any kind of Brown Shrike at all...they were thinking the bird could be a Red-backed Shrike, which would of course be a first North American record.  One of the reasons for this is that the bird is molting in new blackish central tail feathers, which can be seen above, lying on top of its old brown tail feathers...most Brown Shrikes do not sport a tail this dark.  The bird is in the process of molting in to adultish (SY) plumage, so we are all hoping it will stay for a while longer, and that it will finish molting and then be readily identifiable.

Although this bird is relatively easy to see, getting close to it is another issue, which makes documentation a bit of a challenge.  The bird's exact color tones seem to differ significantly depending on angle, lighting, and gear used for photography.  Here the bird looks significantly less gray-headed than above, but with the new tail feathers still looking very black.  Some observers claim these new feathers are actually brown though, which is one of the many confusing sticking points about this bird.

Look at this stunt...the shrike is completely hiding its new dark tail feathers entirely, showing us nothing but old tail.  What this does photo show well is that the bird has a brown rump.  An adult Red-backed Shrike has a gray rump.  Everyone is waiting with bated breath to see if the rump will begin changing or color, or if it will stay the same.

Strong contrast between the new and old tail feathers seen here.  The word on the street is that the bird is now sporting some white at the base of the primaries, which is not evident in any of my flight shots.

So what the hell is this bird?  One thing everyone agrees on is that it is not a cristatus Brown Shrike. It could be a bright-backed lucionensis Brown Shrike.  It could be a "confusus" Brown Shrike.  It could be a dull Red-backed Shrike.  It could be a Red-backed X Isabelline Shrike.  It is probably one of these things. What do I think?  I think birding is hard.  It is very unusual that such a popular non-gull rarity gives birders this much trouble, which simply speaks to how completely unfamiliar North American birders are with this species complex.

Here is the shrike, sporting two tails.  New, shorter retrices on the right are still growing in (being held further out from the body), longer, retained HY retrices pointing straight down.  Here's to the bird sticking around a while longer and letting us know what it truly is.  All of these photos were taken on March 28, the bird probably looks a bit different by now.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Of Duff Diving, Nerd Networking and Junco Basking: HBP Brings You Christian Schwarz.

Today, the Human Birdwatcher Project ("birders are people too!") brings the birding scene that rare touch of humanity that only few of us will ever achieve. For this installment of our legendary interview series, we speak with Christian Schwarz, a truly multi-dimensional birder who can be found leading both pelagic trips and mushroom walks.  His upcoming book is expected to shake the west coast fungal community to its very core...with excitement, that is.

Christian, you are quite busy these days. What is keeping you so hard at work that you can't come to my house party this weekend for some liver conditioning?

Indeed. In 2010, I embarked on a project that has put my health, sanity, and relationships with other humans at great risk. Noah Siegel and I decided to write a new field guide to California mushrooms. Mushrooms aren’t like birds though: We don’t know how many species live here, many of them are still unnamed, and we don’t even know how to reliably identify a lot of the ones that are named. There has been much wrangling of primary literature. Minutia have been scrutinized. DNA has been sequenced. Beers have been drunk. After six years of work, we’ve settled on around 750 species to include in the book, and even so, it won’t be comprehensive. Thankfully, Ten Speed Press picked up the project and Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast is scheduled to be on bookshelves early next year.

There's a million bird books out there...some are indispensable, most are highly dispensable. What is the field guide scene like in Kingdom Fungi?  Where will your work fit in to the canon?

Currently, the mushroom field guide scene is blessedly simple to navigate. Arora’s Mushrooms Demystified is the gold standard. There will probably never be a better book for beginners (although it is in desperate need of updating). Lincoff’s Audubon Guide is excellent for the East Coast. Desjardin, Wood, and Stevens’ Mushrooms of California is the Johnny-come-lately, but promises to be a significant step forward. As for Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast, I have no qualms saying our book is going to be the best one for identification-minded mushroom folks in California. I think the fact that we’ve spent a shit-ton of time in the field will be apparent. Noah’s photos are the best around. That said, it might be a tough book for beginners who aren’t highly visual learners. But who knows, maybe people will hate it? Only time will tell.

Sclerotinia sulcata, by Christian Schwarz.

Aside from duff-diving, you are a confessed birder.  How did this come about exactly?  What drew you to the feathered ones?

The ongoing drought has had a lot to do with it. If I hadn’t been able to gaze at ducks and sparrows during those parched and rainless January days, I probably wouldn’t still be among the living. Then again, even in wet years, sometimes you’ve just been down in the duff too long and need to come up for air. Bird are obviously way more behaviorally interesting than mushrooms. That’s a big draw for me. I value birds for their soothing and hilarious properties especially.

Interesting...if true.  Describe your average birder for us.  What do they look like? What do they think about? What are their fundamental flaws?

Oh god. My role as myco-outsider has given me the privilege of choosing to have infrequent encounters with the birding “community”. Thankfully, as a young man first coming to terms with my ornithophilia, I was adopted by a Fellowship of Nerds who lived at the King Street Refuge for Naturalists. Although now a countrywide diaspora, the fellowship remains close to this day. I don’t think they’re really like other birders, but since I primarily go birding with them and their associated hangers-on, I’ll describe them. I wanna keep it short, though, so Imma do a haiku. Here goes:

Kids on the spectrum
Multitaxon burrito 
Love for life’s chaos

Whoa...what happened? I think I blacked out. That probably wasn’t my best work. I need a beer.

Please indulge us with your worst birding memory.

Getting robbed of everything I owned (including my passport) while birding in southern Mexico was pretty horrible. It pains me to think of the journal I lost, which I had filled with watercolors of extravagant Chiapan moths. Thanks to my fellow Bigoteros who did me a solid, I survived and made it back to the United States wearing a Hello Kitty Backpack with a grand total of 5 US dollars and 5 Mexican pesos to my name. But I did not die. The Gods decided Otherwise.

You are not known for chasing escapades, more for holding down Santa Cruz County. How is the Santa Cruz birding scene?  What should visiting birders be checking out?

I love birding in Santa Cruz. The patches are charismatic, and it gets occasional Vagrants of Exceptional Quality. The birders here are good folks, the drama is minimal, things are relaxed. Biggest downsides are lackluster habitat diversity (which is to be expected for such a small county), and the unreliability of getting pelagics to spend time in our waters (I’m a bit of a home-county lister). Visiting birders should head straight to Watsonville. For numbers, diversity, and an all-round pleasant time, south county is hard to beat. I particularly like visiting the CARE Park on the Pajaro River in spring (migrant Passerines), and Harkins Slough and College Lake in mid-winter (waterfowl and sparrows).

How do the mushrooming and birding communities differ?  What are their similarities?

Honestly, they’re pretty different scenes. For one, there isn’t enough known about mushrooms (in our area) to support much compulsive twitcher-type behavior. There’s common ground to be sure, but Christ, mushroomers are a lot weirder. Less disposable income, more often in trouble with the law, scruffier. But mushroomers really know how to cook, a lot of them brew spectacular beer, and boy can they party. I feel right at home.

Pycogonum stearnsi, Stearns' sea spider, by Christian Schwarz.

Aside from birds and mushrooms, you are known for your turnstone styles, lurking in tidepools. What world awaits you in the intertidal?

I was a tidepool fanatic before I got distracted by mushrooms. The siren song of saltwater has recently led me back to the brine. Looking for invertebrates along the rocky shore is very similar to hunting mushrooms - my brain falls into the same groove. But once you learn about the ecology of the intertidal, the similarity stops. I can barely fathom the life cycles of some of these crazy invertebrates. As for what awaits me? Brilliantly-colored soft-bodied things. Things with hard, articulating exoskeletons. Octopi that are smarter than some of my college classmates. Delicious mussels. Fish to fuel nightmares. Inspirational sponges.

Flabellina iodinea, spanish shawl, by Christian Schwarz.

Inspirational sponges...I believe there is a market for that.  You recently started an eco-tourism company of sorts.  Tell us about it, how it came about, how you like it so far.

Right! It’s called Redwood Coast Tours. We lead outdoor walks and workshops focused on local organisms and their ecology, mostly geared towards adults. I got the sense that there was a desire not being met - I heard people saying “Hey! I’d really like to know more about these organisms!”, but not really having anywhere to turn. So I’ve been working to build a network of natural-history nerds who are really excited about their organisms of interest, and who love to teach people about them. Whether it be mushrooms, birds, snakes, butterflies, squirrels, whales, spiders, plants, or sea slugs, I want people to come to us and find their curiosity engaged by excellent naturalists. As a company, we’re brand new, but so far I’ve had an amazingly fun ride. It’s been a privilege to work with the naturalists who’ve led trips so far, and the participants have been uniformly lovely folks. When I see people get super excited about weird little organisms, Life Is Not Pain.

Obligatory question: If one were to go birding under the influence of select mushroom varieties, what might transpire?

Hypothetically? Well, one might have a really good time. One might feel profoundly affected by the songs of vireos. One might see behind the mask and recognize the Wrentit for what She Really Is. One might bask in the wholesomeness of a bathing junco. One might see undulating waves of grassland rise to meet the ocean’s horizon whilst surrounded by the bizarre songs of meadowlarks. One might feel content at one’s core.

Photos of Christian with dead pintail, dead Blue-footed Booby, and live Bird Policeman by Adam Searcy, Amy Patten and Lindsey Mercer.  Thanks to Christian for doing this interview, and for showing us the incredible bonds that can be forged among the half-dead tilapia and swirling flocks of the Salton Sea.

Monday, March 30, 2015

A Pygmy Horned-Owl, Blossoming Blossoms, the Halloween Thrush.

Seeing a Northern Pygmy-Owl usually tops any day of birding; seeing one that you can walk right up to puts your day in a whole other birding league.  Mines Road, Alameda County, CA.

Well now that I have gotten the obligatory winter is ending/spring is coming post out of the way, I don't have to talk about that shit anymore.  So other than migrants, what is the good word?

The birding world has been bereft of much new controversy lately, for good or ill, though there has been some intrigue...your life list may get a bit shorter soon, and there is still a Brown(ish) Shrike lurking 3 hours north of me...maybe I should try to see it or something.  I say Brownish because it does not really look like the Brown Shrike I saw in Humboldt County a few years ago, and Red-backed Shrike could potentially reach North America.  Equally plausible, it is a different subspecies of Brown Shrike, it is an intergrade of different Brown Shrike subspecies, or most horribly of all, it could be a hybrid. Who knows how the Bird Police will rule?  I know how....WITH AN IRON FIST!!!!!  Naw not really, they are nerds, sorry guys (and Kristie). Anyways, I may be #7, but this is out of my birding wheelhouse.  Old World birders, you are our only hope!

This bird was sitting directly above a moderately used road, completely ignoring traffic and only briefly acknowledging Cass Grattan and myself with a few seconds of eye contact.  It was silent the entire time, and was completely zoned in on a handful of shrubs on the other side of the road.  No playback required for this one.

While it is not too difficult to figure out where Northern Pygmy-Owls might be found, I rarely get to see them...in fact, I don't even remember the last time I saw one.  What an epic bird to hang out with. The tail almost looks like an afterthought of sorts.  It never flushed, and when we came back an hour later, it still had not moved.  Patience rewards the hungry pygmy-owl.

This bird actually had horns out for a while. Did you even know that pygmy-owls had horns?  I think it's worth showing such a shitty picture just so you can see what I'm talking about.  Life plumage feature for #7.

Other things besides birds are appearing now.  This is a Castilleja, some kind of owl's clover. Maybe dense flower owl's clover?  Castilleja is the same genus that Indian paintbrush belong to, but I don't get to see owl's clover nearly as often. Mines Road, Alameda County.

Dodecatheon, shooting star, is another beloved wildflower around these parts. Del Valle Regional Park, Alameda County, CA.

Sometimes it's hard to think of a caption for certain birds...Northern Rough-winged Swallow is one species that presents such a challenge.  They are adherent to the Economy of Style.  They don't make remarkable noises.  Unless you are someplace where Southern Rough-winged Swallow also occurs, they are easy to identify, and there is probably not a soul in the world whose favorite bird is this bird. It's nice to see them perched on something other than a power line though. Lake Elizabeth, Fremont, CA.

Stll, no one can deny that NRWS is a pleasant bird...it's just so mellow.  And hardy...they are one of the very first spring migrants to arrive in the spring, though the last few years a bird doesn't exactly have to be hardy to spend a winter around here.

Phainopepla, the bird in the shining robe.  Many birders associate Phainopeplas with desolate, arid landscapes, but they can are equally at home in oak woodlands.  You show me mistletoe and I will show you Phainopepla. Del Valle Regional Park, CA.

I wonder how male Phainopeplas became black. They sit in conspicuous places within often bleak landscapes, and frequently live in areas with triple digit temperatures...yet somehow manage to avoid predators and don't overheat. They got dressed by the same force that dressed Bronzed Cowbirds, ostensibly...they both even have red eyes.

Last fall and this winter was an INVASION YEAR for Varied Thrushes in much of California, with more than one bird making it all the way to Imperial County, where there is absolutely no Varied Thrush habitat to speak of...the one I saw was foraging in palm trees. This bird was in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA.

One of the big birding perks of living in northern California is being able to see Varied Thrushes regularly, and getting to listen to their wondrous and soothing songs. No other bird commands your attention as much in a redwood dawn chorus.

They are fabulously constructed birds, even their undertail coverts are interesting to look at.

A Red-tailed Hawk sits above Highway 101 gridlock and ponders the idiots below. San Francisco, CA.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Human Birdwatcher Project Shamelessly Updated

The Great Kiskadee is lucky.  It may have to migrate, to find its own food, to survive in the elements, to avoid death at the talons of the raptor...but it will never have to know the awkward and tedious pain of being a human birdwatcher.

Birders, aside from this kiskadee photo, I have no new material to offer you today, but I have the next best thing...BB&B has organized and updated The Human Birdwatcher Project page.  Now you can easily find everything you are searching for in one place...even if you didn't know you were searching.  Read the cutting-edge features, become repulsed by our interview subjects (honest-to-goodness human birdwatchers), and marvel at the most unlikely art form of all...birders as art.  But despite what you read, you must never forget...birders are people too!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Rage, Rage Against The Dying Of The Vagrants

I don't see Long-eared Owls very often, or for very long, so it was great to finally get to spend some quality time with one, even if we were separated by a few sticks.  Birding like this typically doesn't happen in March, and as one might expect this is a bird I met a couple months ago.  Coyote Hills Regional Park, Fremont, CA.

If a birder was out to find the unusual, as birders are apt to do, March is typically not the most rewarding month in California.  It is a month when few birding heroes are made.  It is a somewhat dull span of time in which wintering birds leave, few spring migrants arrive, and rarities are very hard to come by...you know the story.  Lucas at The Birder's Conundrum described the birding situation this month as "March meh-ness", which is apt.

March is the month that California birders often come crashing down from a vagrant high that lasted for months, typically starting with weird shorebirds in July and August, peaking later in fall, and often lasting the entire winter.  The shorebird scene was poor last year, but pelagic trips brought me multiple lifers and fall on the mainland was great.  Northern California had an epic winter for vagrants, with BRAMBRING (you know the story), Rustic Bunting, Falcated Duck and Common Scoter, and out of left field we have been gifted March (!!!) Brown Shrike and Tristram's Storm-Petrel, not to mention the resident not-so-secret Common Black-Hawk and the incredibly persistent Northern Gannet that is still being seen on the Farallon Islands that has been here for years now (I'm going to see it this year, I swear).  Other birds like Slaty-backed Gull, Black Vulture, Crested Caracara and Le Conte's Sparrow were frosting on the vagrant cake for area birders.   

So while I can no longer flog the shrubbery and realistically expect to find a rare bird, I humbly await the flycatchers, vireos, warblers and orioles that will soon be upon us.  It won't be like spring in South Texas, a la 2014, but we all can't have spring in South Texas...at least, not all the time.

This bird was the most confiding owl I've ever seen, of any kind, unfazed by its attendant photographers, hordes of small, horrible children, and wankers blaring shitty music out their smartphones less than 20 feet away. I almost felt bad for the bird, but it had chosen to roost next to one of the busiest places in the park, so I chose not to feel bad for it.

I hadn't seen a Long-eared Owl in a long time, a long time, and I doubt I'll be meeting such a mellow member of its species anytime soon.

Everyone kind of likes harriers...if they weren't all over the place, birders would really like them, but familiarity breeds contempt and whatnot.  I'm always trying to get a decent harrier photo, and this bird actually obliged as the the sun began to set.  Peep those hearts on its flank! Photographed at Coyote Hills. 

Look at that half hawk, half owl face...I'm surprised that's not a more common feature in the raptor world, because harriers seem to have great success with it.  I wonder, to what extent, harriers actually use hearing in their hunting efforts. Are their ears offset at all, like an owl's? Strange ponderings on this March afternoon, before the night's beering begins.

Early this month, after dropping by the Rustic Bunting to say "hi" and get my Vague Runt fix for the day (I am a bird junkie, after all), I spent some hours lurking around the lakes at Golden Gate Park. A confiding Hooded Merganser was one of the highlights, as not only is it a charismatic bird, they're pretty damn hard to get very close to almost everywhere else in the state.  It's not like you can find them grazing on a lawn like a goddamn wigeon or eating wonderbread like a Tufted Duck.

Hoods up!  Check out the raging tertials on this bird.

I may not see another Hooded Merganser for many more months...I'm going to have to live with that. For the time being, my days spent frolicking with small, fish-eating ducks has come to an end.  No more walking around with my head in the clouds, knowing that at any time I could go someplace and see a sort dwarf merganser.  Oh well, at least baseball and Game of Thrones will be starting soon...

Mew Gull is definitely one of those birds we take for granted on the west coast...it's always disconcerting when a visiting birder tells you they are looking for a Mew Gull, but then again it makes sense.  They are only in the Lower 48 in the winter, and only on the west coast.  So for those of you who think that looking at a Mew Gull is a fabulous idea, drink it in.  Photographed at Golden Gate Park.

This bird may soon be nesting in a tree.  Can you imagine that?  A white-headed gull nesting in a tree.  That is what they do, at least sometimes...Mew Gull, just for once...let me look on you in your tree nest with my own eyes.

As long as we are looking at gulls with alluring orbital rings, check this bird out.  We don't get to see Herring Gulls in alternate plumage here on the coast very much, and I was really struck by how colorful this bird's orbital was.  Photographed at Oyster Bay Regional Shoreline, CA.

One's experience with Ridgway's Rails is difficult to predict.  It's easy to find out where they live, but seeing them is another matter...sometimes you would never know they are there, other times you can hear a dozen of them but not see a single one, and occasionally they are just out strolling around in the open with the discretion of a coot in the grips of avian cholera. Photographed at Arrowhead Marsh, Oakland, CA.

Luckily for birders, though they are fond of not being looked at, Ridgway's Rails aren't the wariest of birds and can present quality viewing/photo ops from time to time, showcasing their sturdy pink legs.  And yes, that is an antennae sticking out of the bird's back.

There's nothing quite like the golden hues of a Ridgway's Rail in the afternoon sun. It looks like...home. 

Despite their absurd abundance, I will still look at Black Phoebes and even photograph them. No one, in the scheme of things, is above liking a Black Phoebe.  It is the best phoebe, after all. Photographed in Golden Gate Park.

Fans of YANG MING will appreciate this...just when you think you are going to have a mellow day of kayaking out on the bay, FIRMAMENT ACE comes along to plow you into oblivion.  If you can't see them, the kayakers are on the waterline below where "ment" is painted on the hull. FIRMAMENT ACE was blasting their billion decibel horn at the kayakers to get the fuck out of the way, which probably added to the thrill of almost getting killed by a megaship (or, as they are called in the east bay, a hellaboat) named FIRMAMENT ACE.

Monday, March 16, 2015

A Variety of Cheese-laden Baleen

Baleen. When you see this, you believe it to be a variety of cheese-laden baleen. Surely this is baleen, no? Or perhaps the soft parts of a seagoing mollusc...just another friendly clam. Hello clam friend. Or is it just layers and layers of delicious sherbert lasagna?

There seems to be a large hole involved. Maybe we see a sea cucumber butthole? What's in that hole? A little fishy? Some have suggested that it is the armpit of an elderly birdwatcher; elderly birdwatchers can frequently be identified by their vibrant armpit colour, everybody knows that.

Nah, you are looking at none of those things. Just a wrinkly American White Pelican pouch.

This is one of the wild American White Pelicans that comes by to visit Hank at Lake Merritt for part of the year.  Once settled in they take a clue from Hank and abandon all fear of humans, and instead attempt to get handouts of succulent Tilapia from the staff at the lake' nature center.  I'm used to seeing Brown Pelicans stoop this low, but it is an odd thing to be looking at wild white pelicans from a few feet way while it eagerly hangs its massive bill over the short fence in hopes of a fish treat. They are imposing birds, after all.

Such sturdy feet.  Such stout legs.  So profoundly orange.

I don't often get to see how broad the mandible is on these birds, a perfect trap door for anything unfortunate enough to get caught in the bird's pouch.

Breast feathers.  I find this image calming.

If you are ever lucky enough to get friendly with an American White Pelican, enjoy it!  Despite the limited color palate, there is a lot to take in.