Thursday, November 20, 2014

20 Years In The Game: Never Stop Birding...Sentimental HJs...Birds Remembered



Look at all these nerds. Although I am currently retired from bizarre field jobs, they have done a lot for me (and my life list). After the long and glorious LBJ days came to an end in Humboldt County, this was my first job...slavishly censusing Burrowing Owls for Jeff Manning (of "Two Jeffs One Cup" fame) and his mysterious dog Palouse in the Imperial Valley. Those times were good times, and things have never been the same.

As a birder, this month was special for me. Not because I achieved any sort of listing milestone or saw a particularly rare bird (groan), but because I realized that I've now been birding for 20 years. Of course there are a lot of birders out there who have been birding that long (and substantially longer), but I would wager that most of them are not 32. Let's face it...those people are old. OLD. One day I will probably be OLD as well, but other than an increasingly large beer gut and a decreasing amount of hair, I feel pretty good about myself, and I intend to enjoy the waning days of youth.  At any rate, this is truly an anniversary of an incredibly nerdy magnitude, and really, really embarrassing.

When I started birding as a stupid 12-year old, once I started it never occurred to me that I would ever stop birding. It was too good, even if I was doomed to be a nerd for the rest of my life. I became a bird addict, a depraved junkie who just cannot get enough...maybe not the kind who would give an HJ in a back alley in exchange for a life bird...ok FULL DISCLOSURE I actually invented that whole bird-hj bartering system and that is totally me. Buddies, I'm still waiting for all those HJs...

Right. Buddies. While I don't have the endless financial resources that some have to pour into their state and county lists (surely there is something better to do with that $$$...or is there?), I have made lots of friends on the way. And friends, to a birder, are worth more than any Code 5 rarity. Birders, as I'm sure you have noticed, don't have many friends, due to the weirdness in their brains and debilitating lack of social skills. Luckily somewhere between 12 and 32 I managed to trick some people into liking me and now I have many a buddy. So now when I run into an old friend at a bar, they greet me joyous cries of "Number 7!", whether they are a birder or not. I have a girlfriend, Booby Brittany, who forced us to chase a Little Bunting last winter because she knew my soul would shrivel up and die if I didn't (she also has a thing for Sibes, though). It has been an honor and a privilege to have met so many good people on this godawful, shameful journey. So to all my friends I've made while working weird jobs (birders and otherwise) that made life tolerable (birded/drank with me) and to everyone who has lent me a couch or showed me a lifer while on some fucked up birding road trip or were down to be dragged around through the Arcata Bottoms at incredibly slow speeds...you know who you are. I owe you a big fat HJ.

I guess you want to see some pictures or something. I can't share images from the 90's (although I do have slides somewhere) and from most of the 2000's, so I figured I would at least break out the old hard drives and post some random pictures chronicling some more recent Great Successes.


In February 2009, I ditched my desk job in Concord, CA, for a volunteer position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Midway Atoll. I wanted to get to know seabirds...and I got to know them quite well, particularly albatross. Truth be told, they are quite addicting. Anyways, though not really a seabird (although it does overfly vast distances of ocean), one of the birds I met on Midway was the Bristle-thighed Curlew, which is never something I had realistically thought I would ever see up to that point. This is the last North American bird to have it's breeding grounds discovered, and even there it is not very common. Saw hella on Midway though.


After Midway, I went out to Pennsylvania to work with Bat Conservation International, where I got my first taste of the wind energy industry and what it can do to birds and bats. After I finished there, I figured "Well, this is as close as I've ever been to Florida, so I might as well go". So I drove down to the Everglades, and picked up a quantity of lifers. Wood Stork was not one of them, but any place you can go where Wood Storks lurk by the roadside is a good place. Did you know they have pink feet? Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, FL.


In the spring of 2010, I took a job in southeast Arizona, one of my favorite places to bird. It's great getting paid to look at birds where thousands of other birders drool about visiting. We lived in Florida Canyon much of the time, and put up a bunch of hummingbird feeders; this Violet-crowned Hummingbird was one of the more unexpected birds to show up.


After Arizona, I thought it would be best to move to the Aleutian Islands for the summer. I got to meet many Asian strays and a shitload of amazing seabirds, but one of my favorite moments was finding this Ancient Murrelet chick after a night of mist-netting Whiskered Auklets. This little chick, just a few days old, was going balls-out for the water, leaping astonishing distances into the air like a goddamned kangaroo in order to get over the seemingly impenetrable boulder field on the beach. We could hear a parent calling to it from the water. I have no idea what terrain had to be conquered or how far that chick had to go to get to where I saw it, but I have no doubt that it made it to the water.


In 2011, I thought it was time to get weird. I completed a road trip through eastern Mexico, which was rad, although not after getting robbed by a cartel...which was not rad. A month after that incident I was back in Mexico because I am crazy, counting migrating raptors for the spring in Chavarrillo, one of best places on the continent for seeing birds of prey during spring migration. I was enamored with the swarms of Mississippi Kites that moved through later in the spring. Que chido.


After Mexico it was off to North Dakota to do Piping Plover monitoring for Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge. It was a weird scene (though not nearly as weird as Mexico), but the birding was great. We had field sites all over the place and some of them had good numbers of Baird's Sparrows, which worked out quite well for me since they are one of the most lusted-after sparrows in the U.S. This bird was on private property, but if you ever get out that way, look for them at Lostwood or Medicine Lake NWR over in eastern Montana. PS fuck frakking.


In January 2012 we were evicted from the Space Station, our squatter house in San Francisco, which sent me packing north for a doomy road trip. In Washington I finally got to meet the iconic Snowy Owl, one of the best birds in existence.

My most-crushed Vague Runt is this drake Tufted Duck, which has been wintering at Lake Merritt, a few minutes from my house, for years. Hopefully he comes back soon so I can crush him for the millionth time. You want to join the crush party? Come visit!


In summer of 2012 I found myself living in San Diego, toiling with Least Terns and Snowy Plovers for the San Diego Zoo, and living in a cabin in Jim and Jim's backyard. Jim and Jim were great landlords, and their backyard was an excellent place to party. Many good times back there. I managed to survive the toxic birding scene, did a lot of great birding and made a few buddies...and I still like terns and plovers. Here is a young Snowy Plover chick that hopefully is a lot bigger and more feathered now.




At the end of 2013 I migrated south to Costa Rica for a few weeks, which is still being chronicled on BB&B because I am so damn lazy...but not as lazy as Don Mastwell, who still needs to enter a bunch of eBird checklists. Anyways, the birding was facemelting. If you are contemplating taking your first trip down that way, don't let some hippie nonbirder friend of yours convince you to go to some other country down there instead where everything has been clearcut to death. Here is an Emerald (Blue-throated) Toucanet from La Cinchona.



Fast forward to this spring, when I moved to the Lower Rio Grande Valley for another couple of wind energy projects. I had ample time to bird and get to the coast, where I really got a heavy dose of migration in the eastern U.S. for the first time. I didn't really know what picture to put up to represent the birding there (a crowd of annoying/clueless photographers would have been appropriate) but I think this crushed Indigo Bunting from South Padre Island sums it up.


What better way to finish than with the rarest Vague Runt I've ever seen? A beloved albatross, no less? I've lead a lot of pelagic trips the last couple years, and this has been the bird of all birds. Thank you Salvin's Albatross, you were my destiny. Half Moon Bay, CA.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Birding Is Hard: Return of the Gulls


Glaucous-winged Gulls, and their associated hybrids, are abundant in the bay area during the winter months. The most straightforward ones to ID look something like this; dark eye, pale bill, dark/barred (as opposed to streaked) hood, and pleasantly pale primaries. All photos from this post were taken at Oyster Bay Regional Shoreline, San Leandro, CA.

Here in the bay area, November is typically the month where birders begin looking at gulls again. I never look forward to this. By this time, I typically have not been obsessively looking at gulls since March, and my Larid skills have gotten a bit rusty. Luckily, November is generally not a great month for vagrant gulls (although Slaty-backed has shown up this early), so it's good to get my inner Gull Machine (a large part of my brain that is devoted to doing nothing but process gull identifications) firing on all cylinders again.

I hate gulls, but I just can't help myself. I must look at them. They demand my attention. I want the glory, the fame, and the sex of finding the state's second Great Black-backed Gull, or another precious Black-tailed Gull. I want to be able to competently discuss such obscure identification features that if I try to describe them to another birder, their eyes will just glaze over in utter horror and confusion...and you know what? I'm well on my way there, but unfortunately many birders are still able to understand what I am talking about, gulls are still frustrating to identify, and birding is still hard...and that is why I fail.



Thayer's Gulls are back; this is the first adult I've seen this year. Note how tiny it is compared to the big hybrid gull in the background. Speaking of the hybrid (note the almost-but-not-quite black primaries), it's clearly part Glaucous-winged, but I'm not sure who the other parent is. It's shaped like a classic Glaucous-winged X Western but the way the mottling/streaking (strottling?) looks on the head makes me wonder if Herring genes are in there. I don't know, you tell me...isn't birding hard?




Check out the massive white apical spots on this bird. Lookin' sharp.


My, what an appealing wing pattern you have Thayer's Gull. This is a pale-eyed Thayer's Gull, which are not uncommon locally.


The adult gulls here are still molting in their new primaries; check out p10 coming in on the leading edge of the wing, and how far it has to go before it's fully grown in. Wonderfully vivid feet on this bird, which is to be expected.

For more on Thayer's Gull ID, or if seeing a bunch of Thayer's Gull pictures is what gets you going, be sure to check out my sprawling Thayer's Gull post from earlier this year.


Shortly after the adult Thayer's Gull flew off, I spied this bird bathing in the same area. It looked rather similar...pale eye, heavily-marked head (not streaky like a Herring), relatively small...another Thayer's?


Hmm...there's no mirror on p9, which is highly indicative of Herring Gulls in the western U.S. And the mottled head is starting to look crosshatched, a very Glaucous-winged trait.


And now the bird seems pretty pale on the underwings...not dissimilar to a Thayer's. So if a gull has a wing pattern that looks like a Thayer's from below but a Herring Gull from above, what is it?


If you guessed that this bird was a Glaucous-winged X Herring Gull hybrid, I would wager that you are correct. If you ask me, this hybrid combination resembles Thayer's Gull more than any other. Fortunately, the "Cook Inlet Gull" is common here during the winter and provide ample opportunities for study. Unfortunately, the "Cook Inlet Gull" is common here during the winter months and I am forced to waste countless hours looking at them trying to figure out what the hell they are.


I only got to look at this bird very briefly in flight, and even more briefly on the water. At first glance I assumed this would be a 2nd-cycle Glaucous-winged X Herring Gull, but with my short look at the bird on the water and looking at these photos now, it appears to be Glaucous X Herring. Nelson's Gulls can be challenging to track down around here (for me, anyway), so this turned out to be a pretty nice bird.


Though a bit dark, I think if you took off this bird's head and attached it to a Glaucous Gull torso, it would look right at home.


Luckily, Bonaparte's Gulls are attractive and don't want to grind cloacas with all their closest relatives. And for that, Bonaparte's Gulls, I thank you.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

I Still Fiend For Vague Runts, But I Can Actually Look At A Common Bird (And Enjoy It)



Hey buddies. Felonious Jive (The Great Ornithologist) and I have just not been good bloggers lately. We've hardly been birding, to be honest. Between work and raging super fucking hard various social obligations, life has been pretty eventful, but not in any avian sense. In fact, I've been birding so rarely of late that I can now actually look at a common bird and enjoy it. Like today I looked at avocets and was able to appreciate them, instead of wishing they were a different shorebird species that were more apt to have rarities associating with them. Of course I still fiend for Vague Runts, but in time, my urges will be sated, once again. Thank Christ that goddamned pipit is gone so I don't have to think about it anymore; the Brambling doesn't hurt nearly as much.


That said, let's start this post with a Vague Runt Tropical Kingbird. Tropical Kingbirds are not unusual in late fall up and down California, generally a low-level rarity along the coast, but we don't get tired of looking at them...especially when they are vomiting. Lake Merced, San Francisco, CA.


Did you think I was being cute or something? That UFO on the left side of the photo came out of the kingbird's mouth. Look how far away the kingbird was able to fling it! Talk about hurling.


This female Black-throated Blue Warbler spent some time at Mendoza Ranch on Point Reyes last month. I know this isn't really a crush, but bear with me...it was really dark under the canopy and my ISO was set at something like 50,000, so it's amazing that anything is visible at all.


Also amazing is how confiding members of this species can be. It always astounds me...for whatever reason, they just don't seem to give a fuck. A bird on the Dry Tortugas brushed me with it's wing. This bird was feeding at eye level, less than 3 feet from my face. If you want to suck someone into birding, arrange for them to have a meeting with a Black-throated Blue Warbler. They will be hopeless bird junkies after that.


I said I would give you common, so I'm going to give you common...here is a Common Raven having an aerial tangle with a Red-shouldered Hawk. Photographed at Lake Merced.


The same two birds. I would imagine that if you are any sort of bird of prey larger than a Sharp-shinned Hawk, you would hate ravens. They are relentless in their harassment of raptors, and apparently impossible to kill. Anyone ever see a bird of prey get a good whack at a raven?


Not common, but Tricolored Blackbirds are to be expected on outer Point Reyes. This male is showing off that long bill that can often be of great use in distinguishing them from Red-winged Blackbirds.


Here are a pair of female Tricoloreds, wallowing in shit. Don't feel bad for them, they love it!


Golden-crowned Sparrows are horrendously abundant this time of year, but they are still fun to encounter by eye and ear. Even though the bird is sitting on an "artificial perch", I'm kind of into how intensely brown this photo is. #Shadesofbrown is the new #Shadesofgray. Arrowhead Marsh, Oakland, CA.


Although I've met a number of Common Loons that seemed pretty fearless, I don't meet Red-throateds very often that lack their species' usual disdain for humanity. Photographed at Arrowhead Marsh.


Brown Pelicans are truly charismatic birds, being capable of both inspirational majesty and baffling clumsiness. I honestly think this is a species that nonbirders (with the exception of some fishermen) appreciate more than birders do, since they are huge, abundant, highly visible, and prefer to fly awesome routes in tasteful formations. Photographed at Arrowhead Marsh.


Raptors aside, I can't think of another bird in the bay area that is more fun to watch while they are feeding. Photographed at Arrowhead Marsh.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Last of the Talamancas


Well, I haven't been birding hella lately. I know that's not what you want to hear, since I am a birding hero and all. EBird has been getting little love from me, as has eCreosote ("Do you eCreosote?"). Not having a Perpetual Weekend really gets in the way of scouring the earth for Vague Runts. So instead of posting uncrushy, nonrare things I thought I would dip into my everlasting Costa Rica cache. As readers know, I was there for a few weeks 2012-2013 and saw hella birds (which, as I've said, I've not been seeing lately), and I can't ever seem to finish posting the whole trip on here. So here is to the tranquilo times.

Dan found this crippling eye-fucker above the Savegre Lodge, in the Talamancas. We had decent looks at them before at Paraiso Del Quetzales, but this bird was low and unobstructed. Holy shit, what a bird. Just looking at these photos makes me want to utter endless strings of expletives. It is truly something to behold.


The length of the tail is staggering. How can such a thing exist, let alone thrive? Nature is a humbling thing. Oh, this is a Resplendent Quetzal, in case you were still wondering.


Last time I posted a photo of this bird it was called a Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager. Now it is called a Sooty-capped Chlorospingus, which is silly but at least it's a good "birder's bird" sort of a name. Anyways, if you run into a flock of these in the highlands of Costa Rica, be sure to sort through them for other goodies with better names and more rarity.


Hey! It's a Steely-vented Hummingbird! I don't know too much about this species, we only had them at a few sites. Obviously, they are attractive and I wish to see more of them.


In the canyon up the road from El Toucanet Lodge, we saw this Red-faced Spinetail building a massive and ridiculous nest overhead. As it was a lifer that day, it came as a total shock that such an unassuming bird was into constructing such grandiose, fuck-off nests. But hey, I was surprised the first time I saw a Bushtit's nest too.


Flame-colored Tanager is one of my favorite tropical birds, as they are a of a likeable abundance, don't skulk and make me happy when I look at them.


Many of Costa Rica's crippling tanager species will come to feeders, and Flame-colored is no exception. This one was in a parking lot though, I'm not sure what it was doing besides cleaning it's bill on that railing.


To the tune of Black-faced Solitaires (a lovely tune), Don Mastwell surveys the Talamancas.


White-throated Mountain-Gem is another winning hummingbird to be found in the Talamancas. The feeders at the Savegre Lodge was the only place we had them. We did not stay at Savegre, which was quite large and seemed like an actual resort, but I can't deny the nearby birding opportunities it has to offer.


I know it looks satanic with the eyes flashed like this, but this is actually a lovely bird. Quite the crippler at the right angle, as you can probably surmise.


Ochraceous Wren is a good-looking bird as well...not that you can tell from this photo. Who wouldn't like an orange wren that only dwells at mid to high elevations?


This is the commonest sparrow in Costa Rica, which is insane because it looks better than practically every sparrow in the U.S...and it's a Zonotrichia, of all things. Rufous-collared Sparrows galore in Costa Rica.


Not that I remember what they sound like anymore, but I recall being quite chuffed when serenaded at close range by these birds...but like White-crowned Sparrows here in California, you can only handle so much of a good thing when you are trying to find less abundant things.

After the Talamancas, Dan and I lurked south toward San Vito, to meet up the Dave Spag and Leslie Tuc. Lifers were to be had, a weird rodeo was to be attended, and much cheap, ineffective beer needed to be consumed. It might take another three (3) months for BB&B to get there, but get there we must.