Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Mojave National Preserve Part 2: The Binoculars In The Stone, Two (!) State Birds


The night after the thrasher gods (who resemble a cross between cactus and sagebrush) smiled upon me, I scoured eBird/satellite imagery to find some potential areas to track down Gilded Flicker - our search for them the previous day had come up empty. I know I've raved about it before, but having high quality satellite imagery at your fingertips as a birder is something I will never take for granted. With a vague search plan in mind, the next morning we wandered around the world's largest Joshua Tree Forest. At first, it was a lot of flicker cavities and no birds....then it was distant heard only birds...but finally we struck state birding gold with a nice male. State bird! Victory!


Shafts of gold. Almost all of California's population of Gilded Flicker resides in the Joshua Tree forest of Cima Dome, which is a very different habitat from what they use elsewhere.


A pair of bonus Bendire's Thrashers in the same spot successfully distracted me from the flicker, who lurked away undetected while I was watched the Bendire's. We also had Sage Thrasher at this location...few California birders are lucky enough to see Sage, Crissal, Leconte's and Bendire's in the same weekend. What incredible luck! I literally only know one person who is accustomed to this kind of luck, I did not deserve it.


When we arrived at this vortex of incredible desert birding, a car that obviously had spent the night had been parked directly beneath this large, messy, and very low nest. I paid it no mind at first, but after homeboy drove away I took a closer look while basking in post-flicker/thrasher glow. It looked like a sprawling mess, completely unmaintained, but then I noticed a pair of ears sticking up...


This enormous, blobular nest was actually owned by a Great Horned Owl. I wonder what the owls thought about having someone park directly beneath them the whole night. I doubt that dude got quiet, uninterrupted sleep, that's for sure.


I've come across many interesting things while searching for birds over these last 23 years of birding. Most are related to the natural world...mind-boggling insects, sea turtles, sharks, mountain lions, bears, blue whales, orcas, etc. However, we live in the Anthropocene...weird humanoids and the objects they leave behind are bound to occur in the pursuit of birds. I've encountered people making sex. I have been offered sex. I've awkwardly run into smugglers in the Huachucas of southeast Arizona. I've been robbed by a cartel in Mexico. I rolled up on a dude who had blown his brains out earlier that morning. I saw a lady who looked like Mimi from the Drew Carey Show but she wasn't in a tv show and she was laying out all these little toys and objects next to her in rows on the ground that matched her purple attire and it reminded me of a perverse, hideous bowerbird and it was hilarious but equally sad (this was in California City, if you must know). I've found sex toys in the strangest of places, and more human poo than you can possibly imagine...you can ask Alex Wang about this. But none of that...the sex, the drugs, the death, the poo...would prepare me for what I discovered baked into the ground of the Mojave Desert.

Excalibur. The Binoculars In The Stone. The legend is real!!! Only the one true birding king may part these binoculars from where they have rested since the dawn of time. With Excalibur in his hands, the birding power he would wield is hard to fathom for us plebes. Of course, I tried to pull them out, but the binoculars did not budge...


We left the flicker and Excalibur behind, and headed east to explore another part of the park. Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay was up next on the birding menu. As advertised, they were found without difficulty at Mid Hills Campground.


Unlike California Scrub-Jays, Woodhouse's are not known for being confiding and crushable. The birds here weren't exactly skulking, but they sure knew how to avoid getting photographed well. Oh, by the way, this was another state bird. I love, love, love getting state birds. The last time I got two state birds in a day? Salvin's Albatross and Craveri's Murrelet in July of 2014...and yes, both were lifers at the time.


This was a good hillside to explore. So many barrel cactus. Few plants are as welcoming and jolly as barrel cactus. I feel like like I am looking at a hillside of friends.


This is Chylismia claviformis, aka "Clavate fruited primrose". Have you seen anything so clavate in your entire life??? "Clavate" means club-shaped, if you are wondering, and yes I had to look that up.


Behold...a small plant of mystery. It's name is not a name that I know.


Some wildlflowers are both aesthetically pleasing AND easy to identify, like this desert aster (Xylorhiza tortifolia).


Buttes! I love buttes. It's not every day you see a butte. Buttes are especially butteful when the desert blooms beneath them.


Full disclosure...I don't remember what this pleasant little shrub is. I recall the blossoms were a shade purpler IRL. Habitat: sub-butte


This Astragalus was one of my favorite wildflowers of the trip. The blossoms were very large and showy for the genus, especially considering the small stature of the plant.


Can anyone ID these beautiful vagina flowers to species?

One more desert post to come. I know it's September and all, but I really do plan to catch up to current events someday, promise.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Mojave National Preserve Part 1: The Pilgrimage, The Relifer, The Desert Blooms

For those of you without kids, yes, having a baby is as hard as you think it is. However, there are upsides. One of the big perks earlier this year was taking a long leave from work when Annabelle was born, much of it paid. Billy and I debated about whether we should take some kind of trip or not while we were both on leave, but we were both really tired with frayed nerves...at that time, any kind of overnight trip seemed like a daunting, serious undertaking.

Which turned out to be meaningless in the end, because we decided it would be best to drive all the way out to the Mojave National Preserve. Neither of us had been there before, it had birds and wildflowers, and seeing thousands of "superbloom" posts on social media for the previous month had only fueled our desire to return to the desert. Billy booked us a room at a casino's hotel in Primm, and we were off.

The Mojave National Preserve is a massive parcel of land on the California-Nevada border. Anyone driving between Las Vegas and southern California goes right by the northern edge of the preserve. It is decidedly less crowded than Joshua Tree and Anza Borrego, the two most popular desert destinations in California for birders and nonbirders alike. Although the preserve lacks particularly good migrant traps (with the notable exception of Zzyzx on the west side), it does feature some birds that are very local in California: Gilded Flicker, Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay, Juniper Titmouse and Bendire's Thrasher. This is the only reliable place for the flicker in the entire state, so California birders who relish their state lists are destined to make the pilgrimage here if they are around long enough. The time had come for yours truly...I donned the ceremonial flicker pilgrimage garb, said some ceremonial words ("An unturned stone, an undiscovered door leading to the gift of hope renewed, eternity for you, the masses of humanity will always have to suffer..."), and drank ceremonial goat blood straight from the jugular of a living goat, which was painted to look like a Gilded Flicker. Yes, birders have a rich history of birding the preserve, and our ways are steeped in tradition. Demonic, heartless tradition, but tradition nonetheless...call me old-fashioned.

Goat blood downed with relish, we were off to the desert!


Wildflowers were good but not superbloom status, but they were more than enough to keep me entertained and we found some really good patches here and there throughout the weekend. This was the first time I'd ever spent springtime in the desert with someone who knew their plants (that would be Billy), so it was nice to know what I was looking at for a change. This is Fremont's phacelia.


Desert marigold was by far the most abundant wildflower of the trip.


Do you know what is even harder to experience than lifering? Relifering. I had seen one Bendire's Thrasher, over 20 years ago, at Sycamore Canyon in Ventura County. It was a high quality Vague Runt that was quite confiding and stuck around for a while. I had never managed to see another anywhere else, but on our first morning in the preserve I found a couple pretty easily from the roadside. I didn't expect this kind of luck with such a major target bird...relifering ain't easy. No crushes, but good scope views. Can't complain!


Side-blotched lizards are one of the most common reptiles in California, but the blue-backed individuals like still grab my attention.


A panoramic view from the Teutonia Peak Trail, which is on the north side of the bizarre and fascinating Cima Dome. Few geographic features so large are so...subtle. I actually didn't shrink this image, feel free to double click to see a larger version.


Mojave mound cactus was one of the best plants of the trip. We found a few thriving clumps in bloom here and there.


Luckily, Black-throated Sparrow was one of the most abundant birds in the preserve. This is not unexpected, but it was a good bird to reconnect with.


Another avian highlight of the trip was finding a pair of Crissal Thrashers on the Teutonia Peak Trail. This wasn't even a bird I was looking for, as they are uncommon in the area, with no highly reliable spot to find them (at least, not from what I could see in eBird). This was no relifer, but I hadn't seen one in seven years, back when I was point counting in southeast Arizona. Crissal and Bendire's Thrasher in one morning...that's a pretty great combo, at least in California.


I love me a good bird combo, but I can also appreciate this flower that I can't identify, and this similarly mysterious butterfly. I would rather see combos of rare and uncommon birds though.


I followed this large, humorously shaped bug for a while as it scurried around with surprising speed at Kelso Depot. Nerds, if you know what this is, clue me in.


Desert lily! This was my favorite plant of the trip.


This patch of hundreds of blooming plants was growing roadside just south of Kelso Depot. I was impressed.


The Kelso Dunes...scenic from a distance, not so much going on up close. They may have been raging with wildflowers earlier in the spring, but not while we were there. But more importantly, I found a LeConte's Thrasher on the way back to the car...holy shit! LeConte's, Crissal, and Bendire's all in the same day? In California? What are the chances??? This combo will be remembered for years to come. The desert never ceases to surprise and amaze.


We saw at least a couple of different primrose species, but not many of this big-blossomed thing.


Bladderpod! Few shrubs are as entertaining as the bladderpod. So many bells and whistles.


Purple mat, mmmmmmmmm.


Why not stick with the pink theme? Pretty sure this crippling bloom is sprouting from a hedgehog cactus.


Beavertail cactus has a similar facemelting blossom, but looks much less threatening when you look at the rest of the plant.


It's not difficult to spot a blooming beavertail from a great distance away in this bleak landscape.


Life in a beavertail blossom.


My bastards. More Mojave coverage coming soon!

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Serpentine Sparrow, The Frog of The Falls


At the end of March, Billy and I were growing bolder about where we would take Annabelle, as she was a couple of months old and seemed like a fairly robust little creature, at least compared to her ultra-larval state that she was in back in January. We decided to go for a hike out on the Pine Mountain Fire Road in Marin, where I could potentially get a precious Marin county bird and there was a good chance we would see some decent wildflowers. A few Band-tailed Pigeons crossed over the ridge and into another drainage when we arrived.


Look at this sick habitat shot...BB&B is "not just a bird blog", eh? EH? Sound familiar to anyone? Anyhow, it didn't take long to figure out we were in a serpentine zone, as evidenced by the soil color and interesting plant community that made up this large, impressive swath of chaparral. A Black-chinned Sparrow was found out here after I moved south to San Jose, can't say I was surprised.


I reckon this is Bolinas ceanothus (Ceanothus masonii), which is a serpentine-loving Marin endemic. It was blooming all over the place that morning.


Less endemic but more familiar, a handful of red larkspur (Delphinium nudicaule) was in bloom down near Carson Falls.


Rufous-crowned Sparrow was the main draw for me that morning. We managed to find one pair, but oddly they weren't in any of the huge chaparral patches. They were frolicking in a grassland just downslope from a modestly sized patch of chaparral.


Rufous-crowned Sparrow is very uncommon in Marin, so it was great to check out a new zone and snag a desirable county bird at the same time.


We unwittingly found another highly local being, this one even rarer (but perhaps more dependable) than the sparrow. Carson Falls still hosts foothill yellow-legged frogs, which have been extirpated almost everywhere else in the county.


These stream-loving/pond-hating frogs love a good current and some good basking sites nearby. COUNTY FROG!!!!!!


This was the best flower of the day, checker lily (Fritillaria affinis), looking all dewy and soothing.


Little crippler!


My bastard girls with some nice yellow-legged frog habitat. There's so much good stuff in Marin, it was great to be so close for a few months. Now I am in the process of discovering the good things Santa Clara has to offer. There's no Point Reyes...or ocean...but the shorebirding is great. If only there were some sod farms...


On another day in March I was back at the Las Gallinas Ponds. Cinnamon Teal were still looking as Cinnamon Teal should back then. All the ducks are currently recovering from eclipse plumage now, and don't look like a whole lot.


What a strange body type you have Common Merganser.


This is a long bird. Beware.


A Bewick's Wren offered itself up for a solid crush, which I was obliged to partake in. I'm sure I've mentioned it before, but I can't help but mention it again...Bewick's Wrens are so abundant and adaptable in California, it's strange to think that their eastern populations have fared so poorly in comparison. Is competition with other species (other wrens?) to blame?


Bewick's Wrens have little to fear from Marsh Wrens. By this time Marsh Wrens were belting it out in full force, beckoning the Least Bitterns (local legends) to return. It only works when you do the splits though, which this bird knows. I did snag one of the bitterns for my YOHOMBSLBFTINFOLF eventually, though it was heard only.


Pied-billed Grebe is one of those birds I see constantly but photograph rarely. This extra-fluffy one was too good to pass up.


No wings. Only fluff.


Adults in alternate have a solid black throat, which I admittedly forget about sometimes since I don't spend a lot of time looking at Pied-billed Grebes, despite all the opportunities I have to do so. How would you describe the voice of a PBGR? Jon Dunn (via the Natty Geo field guide) says they deliver "a loud series of gulping noises". Pretty good, they are certainly loud, though American Bittern is considerably gulpier. I would go with loud and hollow "coos" and "cowps", and a series of nasal, rapidly uttered "hey-hey-hey-hey-hey-hey-hey-hey" delivered in the same pitch. Ugh, I can't imagine having to describe a field guide's worth of bird vocalizations.