Sunday, August 31, 2014

Half Moon Bay, 8/17 and 8/23

Sooty Shearwater. Angular.

Some coverage today from the August 17 and August 23 pelagic trips with Shearwater Journeys out of Half Moon Bay, CA. My next boat will be on September 7, with This Machine Nate, Laurence of Arizona, and Flycatcher Jen. I have never been on a boat with so many bird bloggers...the tremendous weight of our combined nerd-strength could sink us before we get out of the harbor. Hopefully they will get some lifers...I believe this will be Laurence's first pelagic, so I expect he will be flipping out and spewing puns for the duration. As for me, September 7 is still within the Hawaiian Petrel window, so that is my target bird...don't worry, I'll be looking for White-chinned and Great-winged too, but I am a humble birder. Warm water conditions persist in much of the eastern Pacific, and there are a lot of Sulids in the area right now, so you never know what we might find.

As I compose this post, I am impressively ill. I mean, no one is going to be doing any ice bucket bullshit for me, but existence is rather unpleasant at the moment. So for today I will cut the loquacious crap, and each photo is going to get exactly one word to accompany the species.

Rhinoceros Auklets. Gloomy.

Tufted Puffin. Inspecting.

South Polar Skua. Skippy.


Black-footed Albatross. Hello.



Common Tern. Wedged.


California Gull. Cinnamon.


Pink-footed Shearwater, with Western Gulls. Disparate.


Pomarine Jaeger. Pomatorhine.


Pacific Loon. Fresh.

Steller's and California Sea Lions. Blondes.

Steller's Sea Lion. Sneers.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

GBRS Rule 8425.8: Exterminating The Mystery Bird

Female and immature Brown-headed Cowbirds are one of the most abundant American Mystery Birds. An impressive portion of birding America are not capable of identifying them, despite their horrific abundance and depressing distribution, which is almost everywhere. Can this bird be difficult to identify? Yes. Is it...mysterious? No. Photographed off of Half Moon Bay, CA.

You may have heard by now...I am the Global Birder Ranking System's #7 U.S. birder. I don't like to talk about it, but I think it serves as a salient starting point for today's topic. With high ranking comes great authority. With great authority comes great power. With great power comes great responsibility.

Today, we are talking about the "Mystery Bird". If you are reading this blog, you know what that means. In fact, taking a different route I have previously tried to put this topic to rest, but the Mystery Bird lives on. The Mystery Bird is as popular and widely distributed as a Bald Eagle or Red-tailed Hawk. But before we get into the current status of the Mystery Bird, a little background.

I began birding in 1994. Back then, we didn't really have the internet. The internet was in a sort of fetal state back then. Birders communicated through phone trees and rare bird hotlines. Mystery birds, per se, did not exist, as there was almost no public, electronic forum for them to be talked about. A few years later, email lists became a popular tool for birders, and the Mystery Bird was born. At first, Mystery Birds were not used in the abundance that you see today. Experienced birders tended to use the phrase, because if you are an experienced birder and saw a bird you could not identify, the bird's identity was truly a mystery. Use of the Mystery Bird title was very select and discrete. So when a Mystery Bird was reported, it often was of interest to many other birders. It was a meaningful phrase.

Orange-crowned warblers are apparently very mysterious. Ugh. Coyote Hills Regional Park, CA.

Now, of course, we are in the Facebook Generation of birding. The usage and meaning of the phrase "Mystery Bird" has changed considerably. The phrase is now most often used by relatively new and inexperienced birders, and it is used a lot. The unsaid but obvious definition of the phrase is "I cannot identify this bird". But inexperienced birders are not supposed to be able to identify everything correctly. We have all gone through this stage; it's part of birding. So now the real meaning of the phrase is: "I cannot identify this bird because I am not good at bird identification." This could, in fact, explain why a certain bird can not be identified...there is nothing mysterious about that. We are left with a simple truth: there is no mystery left in the Mystery Bird. 

Greater Yellowlegs know what it's like to be a Mystery Bird. So do their relatives, Lesser Yellowlegs and Solitary Sandpipers. They should all be renamed "mysterylegs". Famosa Slough, San Diego, CA.

And with this in mind, I come to you bearing exciting news...none other than the Global Birder Ranking System has issued a new ruling regarding Mystery Birds, and I have been authorized to release it! Without further delay, I present it to you in it's entirety:

"Rule 8425.8: A mystery bird is defined as a bird that is extremely difficult to identify by expert birders, even when provided passable documentation. A bird that cannot be identified by inexperienced or otherwise unskilled birders is not mysterious; it is a bird that cannot be identified because said observer does not possess the necessary knowledge and/or skills to make an accurate identification, and/or they failed to obtain useful documentation.

GBRS highly recommends that birders discontinue the use of the phrase "mystery bird" in subject lines of email messages or forum/messageboard posts, or any other context. In recent years, it overwhelmingly and wrongly communicates to other birders that the bird's identity is a mystery. GBRS finds "identification help needed" to be acceptable in place of "mystery bird". Research conducted by GBRS in 2013 concluded that of all ABA Area reported mystery birds, approximately 4 percent warranted that phrase; in 2012, that figure was only 2.9 percent. Since the exact definition of "mystery bird" has become so clouded, experienced birders are now directed to post mystery birds as "interesting"; for example, instead of titling a listserv message "Mystery Bird" or "Mystery Booby", experienced birders will instead post "Interesting Flycatcher", "Interesting Shearwater", etc.

With these new rules in place, please remain conscientious of GBRS Rule 8336.1, which remains in place and reads as follows: "Birders shall not ever, for any reason, title a message "Interesting Bird", as this phrase carries almost no meaning, has been proven to be found exceptionally obnoxious, and is rarely true."

Violation of these rules may result in a decrease in your GBRS score, which could lead to a lowering of rank."

Even the ubiquitous Red-tailed Hawk knows how to play the Mystery Bird role. And if a Red-tailed Hawk can be a popular Mystery Bird, then we know that we cannot tolerate this so-called "mystery" for any longer. Carrizo Plain, CA.

So lets come correct birders. Let our GBRS overlords smile down upon us, and let their love (that we so need and desire) seep into our bones. Let us put the old Mystery Bird on the shelf, and let it collect some dust...forever. I know we can do it...after my colleague and awful friend The Great Ornithologist Felonious Jive put "Birds have wings. They use them." in the spotlight, this phrase has almost been extirpated from the ABA birder lexicon.

If we can accomplish this, perhaps one day, birds can have some mystery again.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Practiced Wink, Functional Cripple, Bottles and Kettles

After being incapable of seeing an Eastern Screech-Owl for most of my life, I am now adept. And let me tell you...seeing screech-owls is excellent. Not seeing them is the opposite of excellent. This Machine Nate knows this individual very well, which lurks next to an apartment complex in Austin.

With all this working, it's hard to go birding. This is no perpetual weekend. That leaves only a weekend to try to fit in both bourbon and birds, and as you have probably learned, those only work when practiced in a particular order. I seem to forget that...regularly. So, I have relatively little photographic evidence of birdlife in California from the past couple of months...although I do have documentation of that not-so-secret-secret Common Black Hawk (note the sparkling new, unhyphenated look that bird name) from Sonoma County, which year after year is ranked as one of the rarest birds seen within our fine, albeit crispy state.

Thus we return to the Collared Plover State....which is, arguably, a state of mind. However, you will not find a Collared Plover in this post. Texans will probably grow livid as they scroll through this post, with it's blatant and unapologetic chachalaca-stroking. To you people I say, tough shit. I have always told you that life is pain, and I don't intend on changing my tune anytime soon.

This screech-owl is one of several that can be seen Estero Llano Grande; specifically, this is the most crushable and least reliable of several there. This is probably the same individual I lifered with back in March. It came back out in May to say goodbye. That is a practiced wink to a #7 birder if I have ever seen one.

Before we get too deep into Texan material, I'd like to announce Officer Adam Searcy's birth into the Birdosphere. He has resurrected Don Mastwell's TPAD, which you may remember is anchored to happenings on vagrant-magnet Southeast Farallon Island. Although we don't know how long Officer Searcy intends to toil in the blog mines for (TPAD 1.0 lasted one year), you should check it out. Daily.  It is rumored that TPAD 2.0 will be more verbose than the first...for good or ill.

Pyrrhuloxias are are not easy to come by in my former Texan home county (Cameron) have to go upriver before they become atrociously abundant. Falcon State Park, TX.

Homely females have almost no aesthetic appeal compared to males...the red frontal blaze is lacking entirely, and she doesn't have much to make up for it. I don't even know what to say about this bird. At least it's not a cardinal. Falcon State Park.

Unlike Pyrrhuloxias, the sexes of Green Jays are equally resplendent. It continues to be a difficult bird for me to wrap my head around. I am really struggling here. How is being so crippling also so functional? And why aren't there more green birds? Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, TX.

Our temperate jays are just no match for subtropical/tropical jays in terms of facemelt capacity. I think Blue Jays are pretty sweet, but most people hate them due to their abundance. Such is life...familiarity breeds contempt. Laguna Atascosa.

Most birders love cuckoos, despite the fact that they make no attempt at melting anyone's face off. I am no different. They don't have to. This Yellow-billed Cuckoo was on South Padre Island, TX.

This Yellow-billed Cuckoo is a bit paler in the face and stronger in the eyering than the individual above. A function of gender? Age? Even #7 must ask questions...from time to time. South Padre Island.

Visit the Valley, and you may find Golden-fronted Woodpecker. However, they occupy a very specific niche; they are strictly found on old fence posts with cacti sprouting from the top. As long as there are aged cactus-topped fence posts, we can be sure that there will be Golden-fronted Woodpeckers for a long, long time. Old Isabel Road, Cameron County, TX.

I kid, of course. Golden-fronteds seem to be everywhere. This is a good thing. Hugh Ramsey Nature Park, Harlingen, TX. 

I got to see numerous Cassin's Sparrows this spring, which is a nice change from the usual number I see during any given year (zero). Though they strictly adhere to The Economy of Style, their flight displays make everything better. Old Isabel Road.

Many birders prefer the Black-throated Sparrow to all other sparrows. Can I blame them? They are truly eye-catching birds, which is a big relief considering they tend to occupy habitats lacking in flashy birds with much species diversity. In California they are at home in open desert habitats; this bird shared a brushcscape with birds like Painted Bunting and Northern Bobwhite. Falcon State Park.

I don't think I've posted an American Redstart yet this year. I was surprised I didn't see more of them down south. As most photographers have figured out already, despite their confiding habits male redstarts are kind of a pain to photograph because they don't look like they have eyes in a lot of lighting situations. South Padre Island, TX.

Here is a weird portrait. I'm not quite sure what is happening in this photo, although it turned out a bit crushy. So intense. South Padre Island.

The valley is sick with White-tipped Doves. They tend to walk around constantly and stay in the shade, so they can be more challenging than you think to get a deec image of. I like that the purple nape is visible here, even though the bird is in the shade. Photographed at Estero Llano Grande.

Coke bottle. Coke bottle. Coke bottle. Coke bottle. Coke bottle. Coke bottle. Coke Bottle. Coke bottle. Sabal Palm Sanctuary. Coke bottle. Coke bottle. Coke bottle. Coke bottle. Coke bottle. Coke bottle. A pleasant sound to hear emanating from the southern woods.

Teakettle teakettle teakettle teakettle teakettle teakettle teakettle teakettle teakettle teakettle teakettle teakettle teakettle teakettle teakettle (this is obviously a Carolina Wren) teakettle teakettle teakettle teakettle. It was nice to revisit my wren friends of the east, although they were skulkier than I remember. I don't remember where this was photographed, sorry, but you may find relief in the facts that Carolina Wrens are extremely widespread in Texas and that you probably already have a better photo of one than this.

Jackrabbits? I'm a fan...especially in scenes that strike a nice balance between bucolic and pastoral. They are so fast that they can suck the wind right out of your lungs. Did you know jackrabbits grind their teeth? They do it both when they're stressed and when they are content, kind of like how a cat purrs. By the way, it is critical that you look at this. South Padre Island.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Bravery Applauded: July Quiz Answers

Birding is hard. Quizzes are hard. I know. I applaud the bravery of the disturbingly few birders who submitted answers to last month's quiz, whether publicly or in private. Birders, being nerds, often don't have much going for them outside the birding world, and so it is understandable that many tremble at the thought of publicly misidentifying a bird. If they wrap up their entire identity in their birding skills, and those skills are shown to be lacking...then what is the desperate birder left with? Nothing.

However, my wonderful readers, you have a precious resource available to you. You may have heard of it. It's called, "#7". Since I am, in fact, #7, let me offer you some's ok to be wrong. Believe it or not, I have been wrong...many times. It's fine. Let go of that horrible, putrid, nerdy arrogance, and allow yourself to be vulnerable. It's amazing what people can learn, with minds and hearts open wide. That's how you get to the next level. If a birder deludes himself/herself into thinking that they are the absolute shit (and most birds are definitively not that), then their capacity for soaking up and being able to use new information is severely diminished. I hope the next BB&B quiz gets more participation.

On to the quiz results. A few people guessed White-eyed Vireo for Quiz bird #1, but White-eyed  typcially have more strongly-colored backs and yellower/greener secondaries. The vireo above was photographed on South Padre Island, TX, in the spring of this year. I am comfortable with identifying it as a Blue-headed Vireo, the expected "Solitary" Vireo there, from the drabbest end of the spectrum. The contrast with the throat and head is quite strong, as is the color in the flanks...otherwise, it looks very much like a Cassin's Vireo. The back is somewhere inbetween gray and yellow, and the head is certainly not any shade of blue. If this bird was found in California and submitted to the bird police as a Blue-headed Vireo, would it be accepted? I would wager it would not. That said, I feel a lot of west coast birders do not have a strong grasp of the variability Blue-headed can show...they tend to have their hands full with Cassin's vs. Plumbeous.

I would like to mention at this point how dissatisfied I am with how National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America (6th edish) treats the Solitary Vireo complex. For starters, the illustrations suck, and each species only gets one paltry, sucky illustration. On top of that, the web of ID problems these birds can present is not really addressed in the text. Blue-headed Vireos are alleged to have "yellow-tinged wing bars and tertials", when obviously that is not always the case (take a look at this bird...or this bird or this bird). "Greenish yellow edges to dark secondaries", also listed as a Blue-headed field mark, is frequently found on Cassin's. I generally like the Natty Geo guide (it is the only book I've been recommending to other birders since the 90's), but the Solitary Vireo section needs some serious work.

Now, in the interest of embracing being Wrong, let me know if you have a convincing argument for this being a vagrant CAVI instead of BHVI. We can talk this out. The bird does sport "distinct white on outer tail", visible in other photos, but I'm not sure how unique that feature actually is to BHVI. Where is my Pyle guide???

Quiz bird #2 was, admittedly, fucked up. You could see a strongly colored Empid, gray-headed and yellow-bellied, with a solid eye ring and dark throat. These are helpful field marks, but you could not see the bill or primaries. One could deduce that the bill wasn't particularly long, but even that was a bit of a stretch.

Several people did guess correctly, despite that it was almost not possible in that photo to distinguish between Hammond's and Dusky Flycatcher. The dark gray throat, however, is characteristic of fall Hammond's Flycatchers, not Dusky. This Hammond's Flycatcher, photographed in the fall (when Empids are often the most colorful) was at Coyote Hills Regional Park, Fremont, CA.

For the record, I consider HAFL vs. DUFL to be the most difficult ID problem of "common" passerines that we have to face in California. Both species are significantly more difficult to find during fall migration than in spring, so I thought it would be nice to put up a plumage we don't get to see very often.

This jaeger suddenly becomes easily identifiable with the wings at a slightly different position. The dark secondaries scream Long-tailed Jaeger, as does the small bill. Bodega Bay CA.

Quiz 4? It's a Brown-crested Flycatcher. Texas birds have relatively petite bills compared to BCFLs further west, similar in size and shape to Great Crested but thicker than Dusky-capped. Ash-throated, of course, lacks the strong yellow coloration on the belly. Hidalgo County, TX.

This is a pretty typical Herring X Glaucous-winged Gull. It has the bulkiness of a GWGU, but the bill pattern of a HERG. The primaries are perfectly intermediate in color between what we expect in HERG and GWGU. This hybrid can be quite common in northern California in winter. Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA.

So there we have it. Thanks everyone for checking these birds, and we'll see you again soon.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Pelagic Season Begins: July 26, Half Moon Bay

July 26 was my first pelagic trip of the year, leading for Shearwater Journeys again out of Half Moon Bay. Little did I know, it would be a date that would live on in infamy...the birding would reach a crescendo, although I did not expect it.

I was stoked to start doing some boat trips this year, as since I've returned from Texas I've hardly gone birding. I was also interested in what we might find offshore so early in the "fall", since I've never done a July pelagic before. It was (and is) Hawaiian Petrel season, and a boat the previous week had several Craveri's Murrelet, a bird I yearned for and usually does not get much north of San Diego. After seeing some guillemots in the harbor we plunged into the inshore fog bank, and headed out to sea. Eventually the fog broke and we started getting into some birds...a couple Scripps's Murrelets, a flyby Craveri's (which I missed...ouch), and then a Laysan Albatross appeared ahead of the boat.

I wouldn't call Laysan Albatross "rare" offshore here, but they are certainly rareish...they are not recorded as frequently as, say, Flesh-footed Shearwater, but they are never totally unexpected. Since I spent three and a half months with them on Midway Atoll, they hold a special place in my heart, so it's always good to check in with them.

Soon we were in deeper water, where Black-footed Albatross are plentiful. I never get tired of these birds (they get posted to BB&B almost more than anything else) and although they have only about 3 colors, they can make for some creative photography. They are well known for their big bodies, bill bills and big wingspan, but how about those big fuckoff feet?

Like many waterfowl, albatross will use their humungo feet for brakes and steering when making a quick landing.

I dig the long wake this gooney is leaving behind.

Of course, later in the day we got to see this bird, this rarity of rarities, which you probably know about already. If not, get the full story right here. I'm recovering, slowly. I'm still fighting myopathy and I've just been able to start eating solid food again.

The AOU did just recognize Salvin's Albatross as a full species, less than two weeks after our sighting. Thanks guys. Still marveling that we got to see this bird, and so well at that.

In less majestic and more disgusting news, we had a fair number of Northern Fulmars offshore that day, almost all of which looked like shit. Look at this bird. It's awful.

Several of these dark-morph birds were so worn and bleached that they had white mantles. Look at those horrible primaries! The decrepit tail! It's amazing these birds can even get airborne.

As expected for late July, most of the shearwaters we ran into were Pink-footed (above) and Sooty. We did get one Buller's (the best of all shearwaters), which was on the early side. Most shearwaters now are in heavy wing molt and have big chunks missing from their primaries and secondaries. At least they don't look like hideous fulmars.

This is the same bird. They'll be looking better in a month or so.

There were dozens of Common Murre dads leading their fuzzy, flightless chicks around. Maybe the murres had a good breeding season on the Farallones?

Another murre family scoots out of the way of the boat. I will admit that on this day, I committed a misidentification at sea. I mistook a Orca dorsal fin for a Humpback Whale pectoral fin. Embarrassing, I know. This may sound like an odd thing to do for some of you, but a humpback pec fin is similar in size and shape (but not color...) to a male Orca dorsal fin, and humpbacks frequently lie on their sides or on their backs and will wave a fin in the air, for reasons that only other humpback whales could possibly understand. I feel no shame...mostly because it wasn't a bird. Steller's Sea Lion was also a nice bonus mammal.

Oh, I did see a pair of Craveri's that day, so everything is fine. I'll be on Sunday's pelagic out of Half Moon Bay, so maybe I'll see some of you then. The marine forecast looks very good for alcids and finding rafts of storm-petrels this's also worth mentioning that there recently have been 4 species of Sulids in San Mateo and San Francisco waters!!! Not baffling, but welcomed.