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.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

From Anous to Thalasseus: Tern Heroes


Brown Noddy is a truly slick looking bird, with shades of gray, brown and black all somehow seamlessly melting into one another.  I'm told they can be pretty aggressive around nests but in my experience with them you just walk up to them and they let you stare at them super hard. Photographed at Midway Atoll.

I have a plan...a plan to see a certain species of tern.  A species I haven't seen before.  I'm not going to try for another couple of months, but I'm really looking forward to it.  I don't get lifer terns very often (the last couple were Bridled in 2013, Aleutian in 2010) so I'm getting pretty worked up about it. Terns are a big deal.  They are aesthetically pleasing, highly migratory, prone to vagrancy, and often offer a worthy ID challenge.  Many species are stunning, even while still comfortably constrained by The Economy of Style.  In anticipation and celebration of this event, I'm going to post a suite of other terns that have improved my life in myriad ways.


My experiences with Black Noddy, on the other hand, have not been similar.  They look at you from trees and don't want to be near you.  Although I saw many, many Black Noddies while out at Midway, this was the one and only really approachable individual I found...which I am grateful for, because it chose the perfect perch and perfect background. Note the longer, more slender bill in comparison to Brown Noddy.


Sooty Terns sure do get around...around the world, that is.  It's one of two tern species I've seen on the east coast, west coast, and Hawaiian Islands (Least Tern being the other).  This bird was (still is?) part of the colony on Eastern Island at Midway Atoll.

Ahhh, my last life tern, and what a sweet lifer it was.  Before seeing them I was always confounded about how these could be told from Grey-backed Terns (which do have some range overlap in the South Pacific), but I can see a difference now. This Bridled Tern was photographed off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.


Grey-backed Terns are sweet birds...they sometimes nest in the same places as Sooty Terns, but are always less abundant and less annoying (Sooty colonies are loud and intense).  I've always considered them the luxury car of terns, although I don't know why and that probably doesn't make sense to anyone else.  Note the finer bill and paler back than the Bridled Tern above; Grey-backed also has less black in the primaries when seen from below. Photographed at Midway Atoll.


Least Terns and I go way back...they are one of the handful of birds that I remember well from those dark ages of before I was a birder.  I worked with these birds a lot in San Diego a couple years ago, unfortunately all of their breeding colonies fared horribly and it was kind of depressing (colonies up and down California failed that year).  Photographed in Escondido, CA.


As far as photography goes, shooting feeding terns never gets old.  Here is a Forster's Tern, mid-plunge. Photographed at the Tijuana River Estuary, CA.


Though shackled with a...common...yet horrible name, Common Tern is always a bird we enjoy seeing in California.  Rarely common, we most often find them during fall migration at the Salton Sea, coastal wetlands and well offshore, in the realm of Arctic Terns.  You would not expect to find a bird from the Canadian prairie far out at sea, but luckily birds have a habit of defying birder expectations.  Photographed at Ormond Beach, CA.


Arctic Terns are tantalizing.  Unless you are lucky enough to bird where they breed, they always seem so...ephemeral.  Uncommon off California during fall, they are never really dependable on pelagic trips, and sightings are usually brief and of poor to mediocre quality. I want to see more. Photographed off Bodega Bay, CA.


I first met Sandwich Tern at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve (in Orange County, CA) back in the mid 90's when one had teamed up with an Elegant Tern to make hybrids.  It would be over 10 years before I saw another, but now we make sure to eyeball each other with more regularity. Photographed at the Dry Tortugas, FL.



Elegant Terns are a common sight up and down California in summer and fall.  As breeders, they have increased in the state over the years, forming colonies in San Diego, Orange and most recently Los Angeles Counties...no minor achievement, considering how few breeding colonies there are in the world.  Photographed at Half Moon Bay, CA.



Unlike on the Atlantic coast, Royal Terns do not venture very far northward; they are a rare bird away from southern California.  Despite frequently associating with Elegant Terns (which provide great comparisons), they are often misidentified...but such is the fate of many terns South Padre Island, TX.


For the world's biggest tern, you would think Caspian Terns would have some different behaviors from the rest of the family...but aside from monstrous vocalizations, they are pretty similar.  Fortunately, those horrible calls are quite charming.  Photographed at South Padre Island, TX.


Gull-billed Terns, on the other hand, know how to stand apart.  Gull-billed Terns are just as content foraging for horned lizards in the sand dunes as they are fish in the surf line.  They hunt bird eggs and chicks, and will get mobbed by other tern species.  They are everything Caspian Terns wish they could be, all while carrying themselves with a certain grace and elegance. Photographed at the Tijuana River Estuary.


Black Terns have always been there for me.  Back when I started birding, a Black Tern was one of the first Vague Runts I ever saw (at the Ventura Water Treatment Plant, if you must know). They are always there for me at the Salton Sea in the summer.  When I needed them most (for lack of humanity to spend time with), they were there in the greatest of numbers in North Dakota.  I would be lying if I said I wasn't dying to see their Vague Runt brethren, White-winged Tern, but until I do Black Terns will continue to validate my existence.  Photographed at Lostwood NWR, North Dakota.


White Tern is a singular bird...there's nothing quite like them. They nest pretty much anywhere that isn't the ground, just plop out an egg where hopefully the chick won't be too exposed to the weather. They are tame. They come hover next to your head as you walk by their perch. If you haven't seen one, they are your favorite bird waiting to happen. Photographed at Midway Atoll.


Last but not Least Tern, I finally give you a stupid tern pun and offer you an honorary tern, a Black Skimmer. Skimmers look great on the wing, but they always look so grumpy at rest. Maybe if no one could tell that I had eyeballs, I would seem grumpy too.  Photographed at South Padre Island, TX.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Winter Hangs On In The East Bay


Mmmmmm....Nelson's Sparrow.  Show me your orange face.  Show it to me at high tide.  Does anyone else think of Nelson Muntz whenever they hear the name of this bird?

Much of the Birdosphere is already talking about spring, and the eastern half of the U.S. is dying for spring, but here at BB&B we are desperately clinging to winter, if only because that is the season we associate with desperately needed rain and snow.  Listservs are being flooded with grave news of birds pairing up and flirting with each other, but that is not a dialogue that BB&B will be joining...not yet.  Foxtrot Oscar Sierra and Foxtrot Oscar Yankee are not phrases that abound, at least not for another couple weeks.  Winter birds are still here, after all, and aside from a swallow here and an Allen's Hummingbird there, the local avifanua remains distinctly winter-flavored.  Well, let's start things off with a rare bird and take it from there.


Nelson's Sparrows winter in California in low numbers (very low numbers), and after trying many times over the last few years to see our local bird or two at Arrowhead Marsh, I finally succeeded.  Although secretive (as expected), the bird was pretty confiding, giving some of the best looks I've ever had.


I had to manually focus for this shot, and bump up the ISO a bit.  Not bad, eh?  If I had a county nemesis bird, this would be the one, so getting such good looks was supremely satisfying. Good luck to you Nelson, on your way back to Saskatchewan or wherever it is you are about to be going.


Like Nelson's Sparrows, Marsh Wrens hate when you look at them, especially if you are nearby with the sun to your back, so it's always nice when they pop out in the open and even better when they sit for a portrait.  Unlike Nelson's Sparrows, Marsh Wrens have yet to be split, although some feel that that would be appropriate.  Photographed at Arrowhead Marsh.


For years I have known that Lake Merritt's outlet, the channel that connects it with the bay, was a good place to see Barrow's Goldeneyes up close, but I had always settled with seeing them occasionally on the lake itself, often at great and uninspiring distances.  I finally decided to check out the channel and was rewarded with this female Barrow's, my Foxtrot Oscar Sierra and Lima Oscar Sierra, which provided some of the best looks I've had of the species.


Interesting pattern on the bill...I'm not sure how much of that darkness is actual pigment and how much is accumulated gunk.  It's possible she is a young bird, retaining some of the mandibular darkness of a juvenile, but I don't think there is a way to conclusively know.



Perhaps you, the discerning birder, were concerned about the first two photos of the Barrow's Goldeneye.  Perhaps you liked the yellow bill, but not the head shape.  This is where your concerns can be laid to rest.  This is where you can tuck them into bed and say goodnight, and sing them the last lullaby they will ever hear.  Birds can change their head shape....it is known. Diving ducks often flatten their crowns when actively feeding...now you know.


It would have been preferable to have the hen Barrow's next to a hen Common, but drakes are better looking so I'm not complaining.



A female Common Goldeneye shows off the classic head shape and bill pattern one would expect of the species, although I wasn't expecting to see her on such a towering perch. Interesting approach.


Greater Scaup are the bane of molluscs, and they take their mollusc-bane very seriously. Photographed at Lake Merritt's outflow.


I wish my digestive system would allow me to just choke down entire shellfish...but if I could do that I might be a type of scaup, which is an odd thing to consider.



Big plumes are sprouting from the backs of egrets everywhere.  Great Egrets are ubiquitous in wetlands around the bay, and despite their abundance they will not be ignored.   I think it's fascinating that birds with such large ranges can be incredibly variable or, to our eye, very homogeneous...for example, there are 13 recognized subspecies of Marsh Wrens in North America, but just 1 subspecies of Great Egret that we know of.  Perhaps if they had more variety in their color palate there would be noticeable geographic variation, but then again maybe not.  Photographed at the Lake Merritt outflow.


Is Willet the new phalarope?  A Peregrine Falcon in the area was keeping the shorebirds from their preferred roosting destination, and out of frustration this Willet flock simply landed on the open water. Photographed at Arrowhead Marsh.


Did that unconvential Willet flock get you worked up?  Relax with this bucolic Spotted Sandpiper. Photographed at Lake Merritt's outflow.


You all know Hank, the world's most famous American White Pelican that lives at Lake Merritt.  I prefer to photograph Hank's wild, free-flying buddies when they are around (Hank is a cripple and was brought here from Oregon, where she collided with powerlines), but Hank just looks so damn sexy this time of year I had to crush her face.  And yes, as far as anyone can tell Hank is a girl, she was presumably named before anyone saw her next to any other pelicans (males are noticeably larger, though there is overlap).


This is my favorite photo I have of her, without a doubt.


In case you were thinking about being in a good mood today, here is a lynched cormorant for you to look at. What a shitty way to die...life is pain. Photographed at Lake Merritt.