Thursday, October 19, 2017

Massive Berserker Post

Although we are now in Ross's Goose season, this was a bird of spring. With a dent in its head for some reason, but more importantly, a bird from last spring. As you can guess, I have much blogwork to do. Stafford Lake, Marin County, CA.

Where did September go? Well dorks, there is one thing that we can all agree on...I have a lot of catching up to do with this blog. So with that unfortunate fact on the table, this post is going to be a photo blitz! No time for ruminating on the state of birding affairs or the usual bullshit. I typically don't include so many photos in a single post, but these are not typical times...

This Black-and-white Warbler was a totally unexpected find in a mixed flock at Point Reyes in mid-April. Most spring BAWWs in California are found in May. Five Brooks Pond, Marin County, CA.

I'm not used to seeing chipmunks at sea level, but then again Marin is the place to be to see mammals both of land and sea. I'm not familiar with this richly-colored species, which was also at Five Brooks Pond. Anybody? RT? JK?  Christian and TaxMan helped with the ID - this is a Sonoma Chipmunk.

I am used to seeing Pacific Wrens at sea level, though I pretty much never get to photograph them. 

This bird was singing from an exposed perch, with no apparent urge to hide as usual. Thank you Pacific Wren.

One day, Billy, Annabelle and I headed to the Santa Cruz coast to see a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. We failed in this endeavor, and were forced to look at this pair of nesting Western Gulls instead. Not unexpected, but still unfortunate.

One of the big upsides to moving south from Albany to San Jose is that now I'm much closer to Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge, a great place for shorebirds and waterbirds in general. This Forster's Tern, which breed there, was in the midst of a display flight. Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge, Alviso, CA.

And this Forster's Tern had a wiggly cap.

I've pointed it out a couple times before, but it bears repeating...Forster's can have a gray wash on the underparts, like Commons, which is visible on all three of the above individuals.

Crushing terns brings me great joy.

This is one of my favorite FOTE shots I've ever taken, and I've taken a great many. I rarely get head-on shots with perf composure and focus, not to mention lighting.

These terns were discretely having some sex. Other birds were not so discrete that day.

Caspian Terns breed at the refuge as well. I think it is safe to assume that all the birds foraging behind my house (in the Los Capitancillos Ponds) all summer were commuting to and from nests here at the refuge - it's cool to see the home base of my backyard fish fiends.

These exhibitionist avocets decided to get down to some avosex right next to the trail.

This is how avocets are made.

The cloacal kiss!

The avocet version of a post-coital cuddle.

Black-necked Stilts were hanging around, doing it in the open as well.

Crossing bills and a wing-cuddle while copulating? I don't think PDA can go much further than that.

The male dismounted when finished but continued with the kissing and cuddling. Gross.

Thankfully, their display of raw stilt hedonism came to an end and we could all part ways without making eye contact. 

There were a few local rarities around on this morning as well, the best of which was this lingering Glaucous Gull. After going years without seeing any, I've seen them in three different counties so far this year. And so it goes...

A Savannah Sparrow, one of the local breeders, teed up briefly next to the trail. I would say more about it, but if I am being completely honest with you...I need more coffee.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Mojave National Preserve Part 3: Ivanpah Road, Quality Snake Time, Sunbonnets

Finally, we have arrived at the final installment of the Mojave National Preserve trip. I've already prattled on about the preserve and most of the specialty birds, so let's kick it off with this sick native bee. It was a good year to be a sick native bee in the desert.

And while I've got you bug nerds worked up, here's a nice butter I'm not familiar with.

On this particular morning, I had taken the Ivanpah Road to explore another section of the preserve, with the goal of finding Juniper Titmouse, which we had missed at Mid Hills Campground. Eventually I stopped at a random area with junipers and managed to find some after a bit of walking around.

I've only seen Juniper Titmice a handful of times before, so it was very mellowing to have a bunch of confiding birds to follow around and hear vocalize - definitely not the same sounds I hear from my neighborhood Oak Titmice. I even saw one pulling fur off a dead squirrel for nesting material, but unfortunately I was too slow to crush. And yes, I am seriously contemplating putting a pile of dead squirrels in my backyard next spring to see what comes looking for nesting material. If you have any lying around, please send them my way next March.

Juniper Titmouse with juniper berries. I dig this image. How bucolic. How appropriate. In case you are wondering, about ~90 miles of desert separate these birds from the nearest Oak Titmouse populations, which are in the Twentynine Palms area.

I took too many Black-throated Sparrow pictures that look like's ok, but more of a habitat shot than anything. I didn't have the best of luck with bird photography on this trip - I didn't even see a Scott's Oriole, though I heard a bunch - but with 4 thrashers (not counting mockingbird), 2 state birds, Juniper Titmice and a number of species I didn't see at all last year, birding was Great Success.

Luckily, almost any herp you run across is bound to be crush-worthy. You will invariably run into some cool lizards out here. Zebra-tailed is an old favorite of mine - this one actually let me get pretty close without easy feat.

This is one of my speedier buddies. Check out the gradual transitioning in patterning from the top of the head to the tail, its pretty brilliant.

Some interesting pink tones on this moth-skipper-probably-moth thing.

I found hella Amsonia tomentosa growing in a verdant wash I poked around in. Some of the plants had white blossoms like this.

Others had blue blossoms.

On the way back to Primm, a ranger flagged me down and asked me to not run over the Mojave Green Rattlesnake crossing the road up ahead of me. Unfortunately for the snake I did end up crushing it flat...with my camera.

Not a monster, but a very cooperative snake that took its time meandering across the road.

Definitely the best looks I've ever had of a Mojave Green. I am guessing this is the most abundant rattlesnake species in the area, but I don't get into their range much very often.

On the way back to San Jose I convinced Billy to take a random road off the highway somewhere west of Baker to check for wildflowers. We found a really good patch that featured a lot of this little facemelter, lilac sunbonnet (Langlosia setosissima).

It was a total brainflower for me, I'd never even heard of it, but it was all over the place. Great wildflower, highly recommended.

I think this is Mojave golden poppy (Eschscholzia glyptosperma). Not a far cry from the familiar California poppy, but different enough, even to me.

We said goodbye to the desert lily, put on a weird (but enthralling) Henry Rollins interview, and headed back to the bay.

I would love to go back to Mojave National Preserve, specifically to camp and explore some more. Though there are only a couple of campgrounds, there are a lot of dispersed roadside sites scattered throughout the area, allowing you ease of access (especially if you have 4x4), privacy and some isolation...a winning combo. I'd be stoked to go back and take Annabelle again, but I think for the next couple years she will be a major cholla magnet like this poor wanker, and that is the last thing in the world I want to deal with. I got hit by a cholla bomb while I was there and that was bad enough.

At any rate, if you haven't gone, there are a whole lot of great birds/reptiles/plants waiting to meet you. I reckon March and April are probably best for wildflowers and tolerable temperatures, though the typical suite of target birds are all resident. Don't wait as long as I did to visit, check it out!

Monday, October 2, 2017

Updates From A Yardbirding Empire

Earlier in the summer Band-tailed Pigeons would come feed in the yard on the reg, but for the past couple of months they have been usually observed as flyovers. This crisp, freshly-baked juvenile was an exception, making itself at home for a few hours one evening. This is a plumage I've hardly seen before and was chuffed to get to crush.

Well, well, well...another month has come and gone. What was different about this recently deceased month was that it just so happened to be the best month of the year for birding in California. What was not different was that the Rancho you love to hate has again taken top honors for birdiest yard of the month in California* with 71 species. I could tell a lot of birders tried very hard to dethrone me in September, but the yardbirding empire we have built here in San Jose is quite safe from your pitiful little band. And not only did we dominate the monthly standings, we added a sickening number of new yard birds:

88. Lazuli Bunting (hoped for but not expected)
89. Western Gull (inevitable)
90. Say's Phoebe (not rare in the area, but not expected at all - poor habitat here)
91. White-crowned Sparrow (inevitable but most welcome)
92. Lincoln's Sparrow (a single bird visits the feeders daily)
93. American Wigeon (one day wonder)
94. Ring-necked Duck (small flock has taken up residence)
95. Herring Gull (flyover)
96. Marsh Wren (one calling from mulefat/cattails at the end of the month)

For comparison, I got only four new birds in August (three on the eclipse day!) and a paltry one in July. September was very rewarding, with other highlights being Yellow Warblers in the yard every day of the month and another Golden Eagle.

Though I am hoping to break the yardbirding milestone of 100 species in October, I am merciful, a just yardbirding emperor. That's right, I will not be attempting to win Yardbirder of the Month in California, it will be up for grabs. A bone is being thrown. I'm going to Massachusetts this week to see family, attempt to relax, and see some eastern birds that I haven't checked on in a while.

So good luck California yardbirders! But don't get cocky...when dawn arrives on November 1, the empire will strike back.

* = in eBird. Obvi.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Introducing Smith's Flycatcher or Double Bear Attack At Moonglow

I was somewhere far from most other places. Modoc County, California, is the northeasternmost county in the state. It is home to just 9,000 people; for comparison, my current home county of Santa Clara has almost 2 million residents. California birders love birding Modoc, despite how far it is from where most people live in the state. Modoc offers Trumpeter Swan, Black-backed Woodpecker, Bobolink...Cordilleran Flycatcher...and Smith's Flycatcher.

Ah yes, the enigmatic Smith's Flycatcher (SMFL). Genetically, they are somewhere in between Hammond's/Dusky and Least Flycatchers...possibly the worst place for any bird to be. Amazingly, despite its close relations to these other birds, they appear more akin to an Eastern Phoebe with wingbars and longer primaries.

North of Mexico, of all Empidonax, only Buff-breasted Flycatcher has a more restricted range. Smith's breeds only in Modoc County, southeastern Oregon, and a couple of isolated mountain ranges in northwestern Nevada. No one knows where they winter, so if you want to see one, it is necessary to meet them on their breeding grounds. This mysterious species is highly sought after by birders.

That's what I was doing in Modoc County. The trip wasn't exactly going as planned...shorebirds not where they were supposed to be...lodging plans falling through...but eventually I did find the phoebeish little flycatcher in its shady coniferous haunts. What a satisfying bird! All was well.

And all was well at Moonglow Dairy, at least at first. Moonglow Dairy is a dairy farm in Moss Landing, California, on the south side of Elkhorn Slough. Moonglow is known to birders as being one of the few coastal strongholds for Tricolored Blackbirds in the state, and as a legendary vagrant trap. There are few things one can do that are more reasonable than birding Moonglow in fall, and that's what I found myself doing with a few other nerds.

I was concerned, however, about the bears. Bears had been in the area lately, and they had been aggressive. The others in my party did not seem very concerned about them, but within minutes of arriving BEARS came crashing through the brush and confronted us out in the open. It was a mother and her two half-grown cubs. However, she stayed back while the two cubs came forward and attacked myself and other birder.

Luckily, I somehow got a hold of a METAL FOLDING CHAIR, which I held out between and myself and the bear, like an old-school lion tamer. The bear pawed at it and expressed great displeasure at the chair being deployed, and quickly lost enthusiasm. After another minute of halfhearted assault the bear gave up and turned back, and the other followed suit. The whole bear family ambled off together, and we were left to bird in peace.

Of course, the events I just related to you did not actually happen. These were dreams that I had on successive nights, which led right into the weekend. The places are real, but the content, not so much. These dreams were not random though, I assure you, they undoubtedly meant something...but the only way to unlock this hidden meaning was to act on them. So what could I do? I had to bird Moonglow Dairy, I had no choice. Modoc may be far away, but Moonglow is less than an hour south of me. Luckily, birding Moonglow on a September weekend is like coffee and course of action may have been predetermined, but I had no qualms about it.

Despite the warm weather and clear skies, Moonglow was very, very birdy. Lots of cooperative Tricolored Blackbirds greeted me on the way in.

Horned Larks and this fresh Western Meadowlark were along the road as well, searching for encroaching bears.

A couple Pacific-slope Flycatchers foraged in the Eucalyptus at the parking area. It soon became apparent that there were a lot of migrants around. A Black-headed Grosbeak gave a brief view, and a yellow female oriole appeared near the treetops - luckily, it began calling repeatedly, so no doubt about it being a Hooded. I considered myself fortunate - she never came down very low, so it easily could have resulted in a cringe-worthy Hooded/Orchard situation.

This Willow Flycatcher accompanied some low-foraging Yellow Warblers.

Yellow first I thought there were a lot of Yellow Warblers around, then it became increasingly clear that there were more Yellow Warblers present than anywhere I'd birded before. Ever. They were utilizing all the vegetated habitat around, low and high. It had the vague feeling of a fallout.

A MacGillivray's Warbler was lurking at the edge of the pond with a throng of Yellows. This species is very hard to find on the coast (it was a year bird for me); the dedicated fall birder may see more of several "eastern" species than of western birds like Cassin's Vireos and MacGillivray's Warblers.

It had been a long while since I had good looks at a Pectoral Sandpiper. This bird was very obliging.

An unearthly bellow shattered the peaceful silence, and I dared not approach any closer. Was this the rarely observed bear alarm call that I have read so much about?

No sounds were uttered from this creature, bellowed or otherwise. I determined that it was not a bear.

Elkhorn Slough, which backs up against Moonglow, is well known for its abundance of trusting sea otters. Sea otters, of course, are one of the best organisms on the face of the earth. If you find yourself in the area from out of country or out of state, make sure you make an otter detour. You won't regret it.

I went back to bird the Eucalpytus grove again - things had really quieted down, and the teeming herds of my grunts present earlier in the morning seemed to have dispersed. I was following a couple Pacific-slope Flycatchers around when another bird appeared.

At first, I was confused. This sure was a strange doesn't seem to be very yellow...the eye ring is quite round...the bill seems a tad short....why does it have crazy white stripes on the tertials?'s a Least Flycatcher. Least Flycatcher!

Though a far cry from a Bird Police species, Least Flycatchers are quite rare in California, and like all their bretheren, are misidentified on the regular. I stuck around for a while to look at it as much as I could. In typical fashion, at one point I had refound it at the exact moment when the Moonglow owner pulled up to chat with me...there was nothing I could do but turn my back to the bird. Persistence did pay off through, and I got quality looks before I left. As an aside, you gotta love when private landowners let birders roam freely on their vagrant-riddled property, even if you have to talk to them at inopportune times.

Aside from not being a yellow bird (the vast majority of empids we get on the coast are yellowish Pacific-slopes), one of the most striking features about this bird was how much the bright white tertial edgings stood out compared to the Pacific-slopes and Willow that were also present. This was apparent even in poor light. I never managed a good photo that showed this, but I did managed a crap photo that shows this (last photo above). Everything else looked typical for a fall Least from what I gather, though a touch of darkness at the tip of the lower mandible would have been the frosting on the flycatcher cake.

I had done it. I had come as close as possible to finding Smith's Flycatcher...this was my first self-found Least west of Texas, and I owed it all to a couple of bizarre nerddreams. In a certain sense, I had fulfilled my cosmic destiny, carried out the orders given to me on the astral plane. It turns out that most people have never fulfilled their destiny, so I'm not sure how much you can relate...but I assure you, it is accompanied by a special kind of glory. Things will never be the same. But what does it all mean? I may have to return to Modoc to find out