Sunday, September 14, 2014

Arizona Part II: Beyond Chuffed or Lifers For Slick

Scott's Orioles are not known for being the most cooperative members of their tribe. But in Ash Canyon, they are jelly junkies, and it's easy to get quality looks.

I had come to Ash Canyon for two reasons: Lucifer Hummingbird, and geri-birding. It was hot, it was mid-afternoon, so what else is there to do but sit on your ass and let the birds come to you? Unfortunately Lucifer didn't show that day, but decent geri-birding was had.

Cooperative Lark Sparrow, with a bit of an overbite.

Acorn Woodpeckers are often described as being "clownish", which is too bad, because no one likes clowns and everyone likes Acorn Woodpeckers.

It's easy to take Acorn Woodpeckers for granted as a westerner. But just because something is easy means we should embrace it. Familiarity does breed contempt, but this is one of the great charismatic upland birds of the west, and they make everything better.

This young male Scott's Oriole is already a jelly addict. What is the world coming to?

Mexican Jays litter the mountains and hills of southeast Arizona. They are one of my favorite kinds of litter. 

After a night in Tucson, I got my shit together and rapidly lurked down to Florida Canyon, my old home from a few years ago. A Plain-capped Starthroat had been reported there recently, and it would be a solid ABA bird for me. The starthroat and residentish Black-capped Gnatcatchers didn't show, but it was a nice morning of Summer Tanagers, Varied Buntings, Gray Hawk (unusual there) and Northern Beardless-Tyrannulets.

Broad-billed Hummingbird is both crippling and common in the area. Florida Canyon, AZ.

Eventually I decided to hike up canyon, to revisit the Rufous-capped Warblers. Florida Canyon is the only place in the country where this species is reliable, and they have been here for several years now. Encountering no one on the trail was nice, because there are shitloads of birders in Arizona, and you are better off not encountering most of them. Eventually I heard a quiet, unusual song across the stream but could not locate it...I was momentarily distracted by a female Summer Tanager when she did me a solid and landed right next to the singing Rufous-capped Warbler. This is all part of being #7, you see.

It quickly skulked off, but I was happy. A few minutes later my avian company was replaced by a haggard-looking dude with a massive camera set up, his arms covered in cuts. He was sweating profusely, had a thick southern accent and kept calling me "Slick", which I'd never heard before outside of movies. He had obviously been trying really hard to see/photograph the Rufous-capped Warbler, and despite being there for hours had failed up to that point in the morning.

"It used to come into tapes," he said, with obvious disappointment in his voice.
"Well yeah. When everyone is using tapes on a bird, it will tape the bird out", I observantly pointed out to him.

I told him where I last had the bird and he stumbled over to the spot, looking forlornly at the slope that the warbler had previously occupied a few minutes earlier. Eventually he came back to me and said, "Hey Slick. I drove 3,000 miles for this, I'm going to play a tape." I responded unenthusiastically and got the fuck out of there.

There are few heartening things left in this world. One of them is watching a Black-throated Sparrow feeding a fledgling. Try it some time. Florida Canyon.

Later in the day, I rolled up to the Kubo Cabins, former home of the most dependable Flame-colored Tanager in the country. He must have passed away, but he was at those cabins for so many years that he must have had a nice, long, facemelting life...I was lucky to see him for many of those years. Good birds are still to be found there though...the guys I was geri-birding with at Ash Canyon the day before told me about an easy Whiskered Screech-Owl that sat in a cavity across the street from the cabins. It only took a couple minutes to find it, and I was a bit chuffed. In fact, before I knew it, I was beyond chuffed...I was fucking stoked.

This was my Arizona nemesis bird. I have birded the area extensively and have heard countless Whiskered Screech-Owls, but I could never actually see one...I don't count heard-only birds on my life list, so listening to them torture me at night was not going to cut it. And at long last, here it was, in broad daylight, right in front of me...sleeping.

This is one of the sleepier life birds I've gotten. Madera Canyon, AZ.

After the screech-owl success, it was time to take on Proctor Road. Proctor Road had the star attraction: a reliable, accessible Buff-collared Nightjar. Already happy with my victory over my nemesis earlier in the day, I would have been happy with just hearing the thing (I had no experience with them, aside from fondling a freshly deceased one in a shoe box in California...seriously).

As I arrived at the appointed spot, I came upon a familiar face.

"Hey Slick!", the familiar face beamed at me.

Are we in Men in Black? Are you Tommy Lee Fucking Jones? Do I look like Will Smith to you???? I wasn't surprised to see Tapey McGee there, but I was kind of bummed. Fortunately, he took off well before the time the bird was expected to begin calling (who knows why). Despite all of this, I'm glad there are still people out there calling people "Slick".

Having previously done field work in the area, I knew that I could get closer to the bird without getting too close...there was no reason to stick to the road, unless I wanted to be annoyed by other birders. So I lurked off into the bushes toward the nightjar's favored hill and waited. Eventually a birder from New York walked in to the shrubbery as well, and while we chatted the bird began calling. Great success! Shrewdly picking up on the fact that I was wallowing in the mesquite because I was trying to avoid birders, he headed back to the road. If only all birders were so adept on picking up social cues.

After he left, the bird began calling in earnest, and I could tell the bird had moved off the hill and was coming closer and closer. I drooled horribly, knowing that I had a chance of actually getting eyes on the thing. But as the suspense mounted, I heard some other birders pull up on the road behind me. They were not good birders. The nightjar was singing loudly, almost incessantly, and from the snippets of conversation I could hear it was obvious that the new birders had no clue they were listening to it (New York birder eventually pointed this out to them). New York birder later told me that they then asked if they could do playback, New York birder said "no", and they responded by saying they had driven too far and they were going to do it anyway. Sound familiar, Slick?

And so they began blasting nightjar song while the bird was still singing, and of course it immediately shut up. Heads were about to roll. But then the truly unexpected happened...the bird flew right by me, at eye level, and started singing again a couple hundred meters away before shutting up again. Holy shit!!!! It wasn't exactly a crippling view, but I quickly rocketed from chuffed to stoked to something like awe. What luck! I had almost no expectations of seeing it, and I ended up being the only person who saw the bird that night.

The playback dudes left, and I walked further down Proctor Road by myself. It was a beautiful, peaceful night. Soon other night birds began calling...Common Poorwills, a Lesser Nighthawk, an Elf owl, a Whiskered Screech-Owl. Eventually the Buff-collared Nightjar returned to the roadside and started calling, while another bird countersang in the distance. Such nightbirds! Two Buff-collared Nightjars (yes, I am positive it wasn't another birder using playback) and a whole suite of others. It was a good night. It was also my birthday...that night I camped in Bog Springs Campground in Madera Canyon and drank an impressive amount of bourbon.

These are Arizona Sisters. They look like California Sisters. But they are no more California Sisters than I am California Sisters. Madera Canyon.

The next day I hiked up Madera Canyon, all the way to the Carrie Nation Mine, where I don't think I've been before. I had some nice year birds...Red-faced Warbler, Cordilleran and Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers...and then it was time to leave. Although I prefer birding southeast Arizona during the monsoons, it was a hell of a trip, and I will be back. If you missed it, here is Arizona Part I.

Crushing songbirds can be difficult, so I recommend crushing other life forms in their stead. From time to time.

Unlike most songbirds, Yellow-eyed Juncos are eminently crushable, which pleases me. They are fearless birds, for reasons that I have only begun to grasp. I also am pleased with how closely they resemble Baird's (of Mexico) and Volcano Juncos (of Costa Rica and Panama), not to mention "red-backed" Dark-eyed Juncos. Madera Canyon.

I watched this junco thrash this lep into little bitty pieces. It was intensely violent and fun to see. Nerd points to anyone who can identify the prey.

Ever since that day, I wake up every morning and am grateful that I am not a medium-sized lepidopteran that dwells in high-elevation springs of the sky islands of southeast Arizona. Junco-bashing must be a rough way to go.

The harmful bellow of a Plumbeous Vireo is truly something to avoid. At least it is uttered more intermittently than Cassin's. Madera Canyon.

For the herpers, here is a Yarrow's Spiny Lizard (I think). Madera Canyon.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Call It A Comeback

Though many birds continue to decline (like Marbled Murrelets, above), some species that were on the brink of disappearing a few decades ago are coming back strong.

It's Extinction Week over at 10,000 Birds. The Great Ornithologist Felonious Jive covers some imperiled U.S. birds that, luckily, are making a recovery and are still with us today....but they easily could have gone the way of the buffalo. Read the post!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Window Is Open! The Window Is Open!

California birders get very excited this time of year, because of the Vague Runts. Common Cuckoo was a nice bird, to put it mildly, from a couple Septembers ago. Watsonville, CA.

It is VAGUE RUNT time here in California! Despite a disappointing shorebird season so far (one stint, some Ruffs, a couple Buff-breasteds and a Tringid that got away), passerine migrants are barreling down the coast, bringing along a bunch of eastern birds already. Just yesterday, two Philadelphia Vireos were reported (one in Marin County, one in Sonoma County), which would be the most significant songbird Vague Runts of the season already. However, I strongly suspect one of those birds was a Tennessee Warbler...if true, the Global Birder Ranking System will punish the observer swiftly and without mercy. Birder justice can be an ugly thing.

Other birds reported "locally" in the past week include Red-eyed Vireo, Eastern Kingbird, Gray Catbird, Ovenbird, Canada, Prairie, Tennessee, and Blackpoll Warblers, Northern Waterthrushes, American Redstarts, and Orchard Oriole. The Farallones have had a number of Least Flycatchers and Bobolink. These Vague Runts are important not just because they are on the early side, but because last fall was fucking horrible for rare birds in northern California. Tragically bad. I was this close to slipping into a catatonic state of depression. Hopefully the birds reported in the last week are a sign of things to come, and we won't have to face the specter of 2013's disastrous September.

The birding was so bad last September that I took pictures of a Black Phoebe. A Black Phoebe! Christ. This is not what you want to be taking pictures of in September. Photographed in some stupid park, somewhere.

All California birders should stop reading this blog right now and go flog the shrubbery for Vague Runts. September is every California birder's favorite month, and this part of the state is already producing...don't let September pass you by! I will be out birding the next three days, both onshore and off. Fingers crossed for Vague Runts!!! The window? Open.

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.