Friday, May 22, 2015

#MAYNERAYGE



Black-throated Green Warbler is a common bird in many places, and those places are not places I bird commonly, at least not for the last year.  Soon, I will reunite with this bird, though this time it will not be in the company of Roseate Spoonbills and Green Jays...birds like Razorbills and Spruce Grouse will be much, much closer.  Photographed at South Padre Island, TX.

Kelp Gull?  Nazca Booby?  Yuck.  Those are not birds I want to see, especially not in California. Tomorrow I leave for Maine, where I will join other nerds for whiskey and lifers (as opposed wooski and Vague Runts, as some nerds I know will be attempting to drink in) and competitive bird blog coverage.  There will be migrants.  There will be seabirds.  There will be boreal birds.  There will probably be lobster, although I'd much rather be eating crab.  We won't even be looking for vagrants, but if another Little Egret decided to drop into Scarborough Marsh right about now I won't be complaining. There are ten (10) target birds I need as lifers, and a whole host of other shit that I haven't seen in years...American Woodcock, Saltmarsh Sparrow, etc. Stoked.

BB&B will be back in June.  Stay thirsty, my friends.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Total Chaos


It's been a while since I've done one of these posts, and I will go ahead and admit it up front: this post is nothing but old-fashioned TOTAL CHAOS.  Anyone remember that band?  Not sure why anyone liked them.  Anyways, this post is nothing but random birds that have not yet found their way into any other posts yet, but here they are.  There is no rhyme or reason, just a smorgasboard of bay area birds from earlier this spring.

Let's lead things off with a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.  Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is a rare bird here...nothing anyone would shit their pants over, but it's a good bird to bat leadoff in today's post. This bird has wintered at Don Castro Regional Recreation Area the past few years and I thought it would be best to pay it a visit.


It was hella cooperative, loafing on a tree next to the trail, occasionally sidling over to its sap wells for some sugary goodness.



Did someone say...gulls?  No?  Phew.  Can you imagine if it was gull season year round?  Fuck, that would be brutal.  Luckily, despite how well-adapted gulls are to humanity, they still migrate away from where I live for half the year.  This male Thayer's Gull is a long, long way from here right now.


Despite the identification challenges involved, birders love Thayer's Gulls.  They really do.  That's why I post so many of them on here.  Unlike most birders, I have the opportunity to walk right up to them and crush them with reckless abandon, without any regard to my personal safety.  Why do I do it? Because being scared of a Thayer's Gull is a ridiculous notion.


Far less inspiring, I am also not afraid to get close to Herring X Glaucous-winged Gull hybrids.  It's pretty gross though...I am always left feeling so...impure.  Note the yellowish orbital on this abomination.


Like silent gulls, silent dowitchers can always provide an identification challenge.  The bird coming into alternate plumage on the left (yes, the one with the short bill) has distinct, fine spotting on the breast, which is mellow for Short-billed Dowitcher.  The bird on the right has some different patterning on the breast, but since it is molting I'm not quite sure what to make of it.

A dowitcher is half the size of a Marbled Godwit, if that, though that doesn't seem to prevent them from wanting to unnecessarily roost inches away from one another...maybe the dowitcher was using the godwit as a wind break? At any rate, if this scene doesn't represent total chaos, then I don't know what does.


From one vantage point at a local park here in the east bay, the voyeuristic birder can watch feeding shorebirds directly beneath you on the rising or falling tide.  Western Sandpipers in high spring fashion have fantastically intricate back patterns that are hard to ignore.  I've said it before, but I don't understand the birder who doesn't have the stomach for sorting through shorebird flocks.



Look at those linear chevron patterns on the mantle.  This is really an underrated bird if you ask #7...look at one of these little cripplers for too long, and it will break your will to look at any other birds the rest of the day, abundance be damned.  Feeding in bubbles isn't helping things.


Forster's Terns have finally quit looking horrible and regained their simple yet elegant form of spring.


Up Mendocino way, this Golden Eagle greeted our crew of vagrant-starved nerds as we set out to see the Brownish Shrike.  As far as omens go, it's hard to top a Golden Eagle, and the cooperative shrike popped up after only a couple minutes of waiting.


You may look upon this image and think to yourself, "well this is certainly rubbish"...but you would be wrong.  For this is not a terrible picture of an American Robin, it is actually a profound photograph of a Varied Thrush.  The Varied Thrush is a bird of the ground, and a bird of the shadows.  This image captures the very essence of the Varied Thrush, and you know what that means...you are looking upon art.

Friday, May 8, 2015

This Week In BB&B: Traffic Jam, An Unbirdy April, HJs On Deck



Allen's Hummingbird is a nice spring bird.  There has been a distinct lack of nice spring birds in my life this year, though that will all change soon.  Lake Merced, San Francisco, CA.

Wow...what a month April has been.  And I'm not talking about birding...I'm talking about the blog! Between a pathetic three (3) posts for the entire month of April and randomly getting linked to on Reddit (this photo is why), BB&B has had drastically more web traffic than ever before, which is nice after all these years of toiling in the blog mines.  We are only going onward and upward here at BB&B, and the Birdosphere continues to be taken by storm...by me.  Thanks for reading everyone, and I hope to maintain the same level of...whatever it is that keeps you coming back, and especially if I keep getting bizarre emails from those jealous of my high rank in the Global Birder Ranking System.  That is why I do this!

Apologies for the lack of output lately...April has flown right by, and I did not give it the amount of birding attention that April rightfully deserves.  I feel much shame, and have done you, my birding family, a great dishonor.  I haven't even seen a Nashville Warbler yet this year...how embarrassing. And sad.  Oddly, I've spent more time looking at shorebirds than looking for warblers and flycatchers...it's been a weird spring so far for me.  This time last year I was pretty much obsessed with birding South Padre Island, and always fixated on the fallout that never came.


Surfbirds are among the humblest of birds much of the year, being built like obese plovers, staying relatively silent and repping the Economy of Style.  But in spring they shed their shabby attire for fancy scapulars and intricately patterned upperparts, and if you get too close you might find your face getting a little melty.  It's not difficult to discern the difference between the new and old feathers on the bird in this photo, the same goes for the Willet on the right as well. Emeryville Marina, Emeryville, CA.


Western Sandpipers in spring are really striking, as are their Dunlin brethren (molting bird in center). I understand why beginning birders struggle with shorebirds, but if they worked on them in the spring the learning curve would not be steep at all.  Middle Harbor Shoreline Park, Oakland, CA.

That said, my birding is soon going to be different...very different.  I am taking the unilateral decision to make a very important public announcement.  In less than 3 weeks time, I will be combining forces with the following bird bloggers: Birdcrusher Dan, Flycatcher Jen, and This Machine Nate.  Why would we do such a thing?  Such an embarrassing thing?  To bird where none of us have birded before...Maine.

That's right, Maine.  As the years go by, there are fewer and fewer birds that I have yet to meet in the Lower 48, and many of the remaining species for which I quest are found in Maine.  I've also never even been to Maine, and am longing for a change of scenery...keep in mind The Perpetual Weekend is dead (long live the Perpetual Weekend!), so being nonmigratory for so long has gotten to me...gotten to all of us.  We must get life birds.  We must surround ourselves with birders that we actually want to be around.  We must drink whiskey, to toast birds we may not see again any time soon.  We be will covering a fair amount of ground, from Machias Seal Island up to Bicknell's Thrush country, and lifers will be had by all.  The HJ rule will, of course, be in play, which is an entirely different sort of thing to prepare for.



California is Catharus depauperate state.  We have Hermits and Swainson's, anything else is pure gold.  To say that I am looking forward to reopening my eyes and ears to Veery, among certain other thrushes, would be a gross understatement at best.  South Padre Island, Texas.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Fall of the Bird Police: Death by EBird?






The Crescent City Common Scoter, a jaw-dropping rarity and first North American record. Do I have it an eBird checklist?  Yes.  Did I send a report to the Bird Police?  No.  Are these things connected?  Read on.

Earlier this month, frequent Bird Policeman for the California Bird Records Committee (CBRC) and beloved birding legend Kimball Garrett wrote the following email to the local L.A. listserv:

L. A. Birders, 

In corresponding with CBRC Secretary Tom Benson, I learned that he has received documentation for the Thick-billed Kingbird in Horsethief Canyon Park in San Dimas this past winter ONLY from a single observer on 22 November 2014. Yet eBird records indicate that the bird was found on 15 November and seen by dozens to at least 3 January 2015. Many eBird submissions during that period were accompanied by photographs and/or descriptions. 

Similarly, the Worm-eating Warbler at The Village Green, seen by approximately 23,687 people, was documented for the CBRC by only three submitters. Yet there were about 125 eBird entries, many with good photos and other documentation. 

This is (yet) another plea for observers to submit documentation for CBRC review species to the committee for review, even if you know that many other observers also saw the bird. First, you might be surprised by how little documentation the CBRC receives even for long-staying mega-rarities. Second, your added documentation can provide crucial information about changes in appearance (e.g. through molt) and behavior of rarities, and can provided important information on phenology by helping to pin down the date spans over which they are present. Finally, and most importantly, the CBRC maintains a thorough and permanent archive of rare bird records for California, and your submissions become part of that archive. Photos on photo-sharing sites (such as Flickr) that are linked to eBird submissions may not be there in a decade, or a year, or even next week. 

Yes, the eBird folks are working on a more permanent way of archiving documentation photos, video and audio, and the ways in which records committees, North American Birds editors, and eBird users interact will clearly evolve over time. But at present the laudable emphasis in the birding community on eBird has unfortunately translated to a vast reduction in direct submissions to the CBRC. 

Well...what do you think?  Kimball is certainly not condemning eBird in any way, but is eBird really behind the drop in record submissions to California's Bird Police?  Is there a direct correlation between the rise in eBird use and the decline of reporting to the Bird Police?  Being the nation's #7 birder, as ranked by the Global Birder Ranking System, this issue is of great interest to me.  Some thoughts:

- While eBird is not a permanent place for documenting bird records, it is ostensibly pretty close. EBird is not going anywhere anytime soon.  If you put something in eBird, it is going to stay there for as long eBird is around, which will probably be for a very long time.  That said, like any website, it is vulnerable to hacking.  Can you imagine what would happen if a disgruntled birder (and there are a lot of those) acquired some hacking skills? Or, much more likely, if Flickr got hacked?  Yeesh. Observers can delete their checklists at any time. Photographers can delete their photos at any time. We must give the Bird Police some attention.  But am I ever going to be deleting/hiding my eBird records and my photos?  Nope.


San Francisco's long-staying Rustic Bunting was seen by hordes of birders, I suspect well over 1,000.  I wondered how many folks submitted documentation to the CBRC, so I checked.  The answer is ten (10).  I wonder how many birders even thought about submitting documentation to the CBRC...  

- An eBird reviewer may make the incorrect decision of negating an observation of a very rare bird; eBird reviewers, after all, often do not have the credentials of your average Bird Police Officer and they are only one birder.  Conversely, there is no doubt that misidentified rarities slip through the cracks and make their way into eBird.  When an eBird reviewer thinks they personally have found a rarity, you can be sure that they will get it into eBird, whether it was correctly identified or not.  All birders are fallible. Princess Leia's classic line comes to mind: "I am not a committee!".

- A huge proportion of the birding community do not care about submitting documentation to the Bird Police, regardless of experience, age and skill.  There are a multitude of reasons for this, and it has nothing to do with eBird.  I'm not dissing the Bird Police here, just stating fact.

- I've been birding for over 20 years now, and I am comfortable saying that there are more birders now than ever before...which means there are more new birders than ever before.  Shouldn't that automatically translate to more love for the Bird Police?  Well, no.  Newer birders generally do not concern themselves with submitting records to the Bird Police.  They often lack the skills and the confidence to submit records, and it probably does not seem like a high priority for them if they are still struggling finding and seeing comparatively common birds.  And if they associate with other birders who don't submit documentation either, then they won't be doing it any time soon; it's just not in their culture, so to speak.


This is one of two (2) Rusty Blackbirds I have ever seen, both of which fall under the jurisdiction of the CBRC.  I've yet to see one where they actually belong, though I have a chance next month!  Photographed in Santa Cruz County, CA.

- One thing that eBird is great for, in terms of rarities, is documenting exactly how long a rarity is being seen at a particular site.  The Bird Police, as far as I know, has no good mechanism for this; they just hope birders will keep on submitting records for an (usually) already well-documented bird. I suspect it is a common situation in which a records committee will receive a small number of records of an individual Vague Runt that may actually be seen over a span of weeks or months.  Do the Bird Police completely ignore the data that is readily available on eBird about the dates the bird was really being seen for?  I suspect it depends on which department (er, state) we are talking about.

- I will readily admit that I was one of those birders who eBirded the Thick-billed Kingbird mentioned above, but did not send a record to the Bird Police.  For posterity, here is my description: "Heard only by Dan Maxwell and myself.  Originally heard from a great distance in the housing tract west of the park making short, 2 or 3 note calls that I was not familiar with that sounded similar to a Cassin's Kingbird. Eventually the bird came considerably closer, and once clearly and loudly uttered a single series of distinct and varied calls that Western (extremely unlikely to be present here during this season), Tropical and Cassin's Kingbirds are incapable of making; Thick-billed Kingbird has much more variability (and sometimes, melody?) in their vocalizations than any of these species, which we clearly could discern.  Identification was confirmed by checking recorded vocalizations on site. We lingered in the area but we never heard the bird again."

That's it.  That's all I've got.  I would never in a million years send this to the Bird Police had I not known that a Thick-billed Kingbird was present on site, and I feel that follow-up reports should bear the depth worthy of accepting the record as if it were a first-time sighting...or at least have a decent photo/recording of the bird.  I am 100% sure we heard the Thick-billed Kingbird, but let's face it, my description sucks!  Would it really get accepted? Does it belong in the annals of Bird Police History? I think that when you yourself would strongly consider rejecting your own record (and I am #7!), that is a valid reason for not offering your observation to the Bird Police.

- I think there is a very strong case for claiming that birders will use eBird instead of notifying birders of notable species via listserv or RBA or North American Birds, you won't get any argument from me there.  I'm guilty of that myself, though I don't consider myself a chronic offender.

- Birders are generally unaware that when hundreds or thousands of people see a review bird, almost no one is submitting documentation to the Bird Police.  Kimball was right to bring this up; it is not a widely-known fact.  Even some Bird Police will neglect to submit documentation of committee birds that someone else found, and they know full well about this problem.



This is the famous Monterey Arctic Loon, which wintered near the Municipal Wharf and was relatively easy to see, unlike the other members of its species I've seen in the Aleutian Islands. Querying the CBRC database, I found out that the first Arctic Loon I chased (unsuccessfully) years ago ended up being rejected by the committee...good to know, and I'm glad that information is available online.  Bird Police departments everywhere should do their best to maintain an active online presence; I think it's good for all of us.

So the real question is this: how often do birders submit their sightings to eBird as a direct substitute for submitting documentation to the Bird Police?  Despite appearances, I believe this happens relatively rarely. When I enter a record of a committee bird into eBird, that does not mean that I would have sent the CBRC documentation had I not been an eBird user, and I think that the same applies for thousands of other birders.  I do not make the conscious decision to submit a photo or description of a review to bird an eBird checklist as a direct substitute for sending it to the Bird Police. Personally speaking, when I don't submit documentation of a review species, but know that I should, it's almost always because I know that other Bird Police officers have seen the bird. Part of their sworn duties as Bird Police are to submit documentation of review species they see, amirite?  As Kimball said, I suppose one should never assume that a rarity is being packaged up, sealed, and sent to the Bird Police's evidence room for safe keeping.  All birders, even the Bird Police, are fallible, and all but the most demented of us have tendencies of laziness.

EBird has brought countless rarities and birds of interest to the public sphere that likely would never have seen the light of day otherwise.  As others have pointed out, there are a lot of birders who utilize eBird who do not contribute to listservs or RBAs at all, let alone bend the knee to the Bird Police.  By now, many thousands of birders owe something to eBird, whether they are active users or not.  The Bird Police are going to have to start incorporating eBird data sooner or later; it is truly the elephant in the Bird Police Station. Exactly how this unfolds will be fun to watch.

Thank you for all your hard work officers, for keeping us safe from the stringers and the sketchy birders.  And thank you, eBird, for being god's gift to birders...you seem to be winning the popularity contest.  If you are one of those people who do pledge allegiance to the Bird Police, at least once in a while, we would like to hear your take on all of this, and obviously if you are a Sworn Officer of the Birding Law, we need to hear from you.  Despite appearances, your birders need you...now, more than ever.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

A Shrike of Two Tails (***MEGA***)

It has been a glorious 2014-2015 fall and winter for Siberian vagrants in California, with the highlights being Olive-backed Pipit, Common Scoter, Rustic Bunting, multiple Bramblings (only one chaseable), the returning Falcated Duck, and this bird...whatever it is.  First disclosed to the birding public in early March, hundreds of birders have made the trek to scenic and windswept Mendocino coastline to see a young Brown Shrike, a horrifically rare bird, even on Alaskan islands where Sibes aren't something out of the ordinary.  Having lifered the Humboldt County bird a few years ago, I wasn't highly motivated to put in the drive time, but since Justine Stahl was visiting and offered to do the drive, I did what I thought was best. Now, bear witness to these horrid (torrid) images that are the fruits of our birding labors.

The bird behaved in a completely different way than the Humboldt bird, in that it was incredibly easy to find (other birders were looking at it when we walked up), it was almost always perched in the open, and it was very active, wagging its tail back and forth, flycatching and frequently procuring huge insects which it appeared to stash in various thickets.  It was an immensely rewarding chase, especially since we didn't even get there until well after 1 PM. As one famous birder has said, "Middle of day is best time for make rare bird!".


By the day we saw the bird, a number of birders were becoming very concerned about the shrike. Not for its well-being or anything, but for the fact that it didn't really look like any of the other Brown Shrikes that have shown up in North America, which have all ostensibly been of the subspecies cristatus.  In fact, some birders were thinking that this bird didn't really look like any kind of Brown Shrike at all...they were thinking the bird could be a Red-backed Shrike, which would of course be a first North American record.  One of the reasons for this is that the bird is molting in new blackish central tail feathers, which can be seen above, lying on top of its old brown tail feathers...most Brown Shrikes do not sport a tail this dark.  The bird is in the process of molting in to adultish (SY) plumage, so we are all hoping it will stay for a while longer, and that it will finish molting and then be readily identifiable.


Although this bird is relatively easy to see, getting close to it is another issue, which makes documentation a bit of a challenge.  The bird's exact color tones seem to differ significantly depending on angle, lighting, and gear used for photography.  Here the bird looks significantly less gray-headed than above, but with the new tail feathers still looking very black.  Some observers claim these new feathers are actually brown though, which is one of the many confusing sticking points about this bird.


Look at this stunt...the shrike is completely hiding its new dark tail feathers entirely, showing us nothing but old tail.  What this does photo show well is that the bird has a brown rump.  An adult Red-backed Shrike has a gray rump.  Everyone is waiting with bated breath to see if the rump will begin changing or color, or if it will stay the same.


Strong contrast between the new and old tail feathers seen here.  The word on the street is that the bird is now sporting some white at the base of the primaries, which is not evident in any of my flight shots.


So what the hell is this bird?  One thing everyone agrees on is that it is not a cristatus Brown Shrike. It could be a bright-backed lucionensis Brown Shrike.  It could be a "confusus" Brown Shrike.  It could be a dull Red-backed Shrike.  It could be a Red-backed X Isabelline Shrike.  It is probably one of these things. What do I think?  I think birding is hard.  It is very unusual that such a popular non-gull rarity gives birders this much trouble, which simply speaks to how completely unfamiliar North American birders are with this species complex.


Here is the shrike, sporting two tails.  New, shorter retrices on the right are still growing in (being held further out from the body), longer, retained HY retrices pointing straight down.  Here's to the bird sticking around a while longer and letting us know what it truly is.  All of these photos were taken on March 28, the bird probably looks a bit different by now.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Of Duff Diving, Nerd Networking and Junco Basking: HBP Brings You Christian Schwarz.

Today, the Human Birdwatcher Project ("birders are people too!") brings the birding scene that rare touch of humanity that only few of us will ever achieve. For this installment of our legendary interview series, we speak with Christian Schwarz, a truly multi-dimensional birder who can be found leading both pelagic trips and mushroom walks.  His upcoming book is expected to shake the west coast fungal community to its very core...with excitement, that is.

Christian, you are quite busy these days. What is keeping you so hard at work that you can't come to my house party this weekend for some liver conditioning?

Indeed. In 2010, I embarked on a project that has put my health, sanity, and relationships with other humans at great risk. Noah Siegel and I decided to write a new field guide to California mushrooms. Mushrooms aren’t like birds though: We don’t know how many species live here, many of them are still unnamed, and we don’t even know how to reliably identify a lot of the ones that are named. There has been much wrangling of primary literature. Minutia have been scrutinized. DNA has been sequenced. Beers have been drunk. After six years of work, we’ve settled on around 750 species to include in the book, and even so, it won’t be comprehensive. Thankfully, Ten Speed Press picked up the project and Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast is scheduled to be on bookshelves early next year.

There's a million bird books out there...some are indispensable, most are highly dispensable. What is the field guide scene like in Kingdom Fungi?  Where will your work fit in to the canon?

Currently, the mushroom field guide scene is blessedly simple to navigate. Arora’s Mushrooms Demystified is the gold standard. There will probably never be a better book for beginners (although it is in desperate need of updating). Lincoff’s Audubon Guide is excellent for the East Coast. Desjardin, Wood, and Stevens’ Mushrooms of California is the Johnny-come-lately, but promises to be a significant step forward. As for Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast, I have no qualms saying our book is going to be the best one for identification-minded mushroom folks in California. I think the fact that we’ve spent a shit-ton of time in the field will be apparent. Noah’s photos are the best around. That said, it might be a tough book for beginners who aren’t highly visual learners. But who knows, maybe people will hate it? Only time will tell.



Sclerotinia sulcata, by Christian Schwarz.

Aside from duff-diving, you are a confessed birder.  How did this come about exactly?  What drew you to the feathered ones?

The ongoing drought has had a lot to do with it. If I hadn’t been able to gaze at ducks and sparrows during those parched and rainless January days, I probably wouldn’t still be among the living. Then again, even in wet years, sometimes you’ve just been down in the duff too long and need to come up for air. Bird are obviously way more behaviorally interesting than mushrooms. That’s a big draw for me. I value birds for their soothing and hilarious properties especially.

Interesting...if true.  Describe your average birder for us.  What do they look like? What do they think about? What are their fundamental flaws?

Oh god. My role as myco-outsider has given me the privilege of choosing to have infrequent encounters with the birding “community”. Thankfully, as a young man first coming to terms with my ornithophilia, I was adopted by a Fellowship of Nerds who lived at the King Street Refuge for Naturalists. Although now a countrywide diaspora, the fellowship remains close to this day. I don’t think they’re really like other birders, but since I primarily go birding with them and their associated hangers-on, I’ll describe them. I wanna keep it short, though, so Imma do a haiku. Here goes:

Kids on the spectrum
Multitaxon burrito 
Love for life’s chaos

Whoa...what happened? I think I blacked out. That probably wasn’t my best work. I need a beer.

Please indulge us with your worst birding memory.

Getting robbed of everything I owned (including my passport) while birding in southern Mexico was pretty horrible. It pains me to think of the journal I lost, which I had filled with watercolors of extravagant Chiapan moths. Thanks to my fellow Bigoteros who did me a solid, I survived and made it back to the United States wearing a Hello Kitty Backpack with a grand total of 5 US dollars and 5 Mexican pesos to my name. But I did not die. The Gods decided Otherwise.

You are not known for chasing escapades, more for holding down Santa Cruz County. How is the Santa Cruz birding scene?  What should visiting birders be checking out?

I love birding in Santa Cruz. The patches are charismatic, and it gets occasional Vagrants of Exceptional Quality. The birders here are good folks, the drama is minimal, things are relaxed. Biggest downsides are lackluster habitat diversity (which is to be expected for such a small county), and the unreliability of getting pelagics to spend time in our waters (I’m a bit of a home-county lister). Visiting birders should head straight to Watsonville. For numbers, diversity, and an all-round pleasant time, south county is hard to beat. I particularly like visiting the CARE Park on the Pajaro River in spring (migrant Passerines), and Harkins Slough and College Lake in mid-winter (waterfowl and sparrows).

How do the mushrooming and birding communities differ?  What are their similarities?

Honestly, they’re pretty different scenes. For one, there isn’t enough known about mushrooms (in our area) to support much compulsive twitcher-type behavior. There’s common ground to be sure, but Christ, mushroomers are a lot weirder. Less disposable income, more often in trouble with the law, scruffier. But mushroomers really know how to cook, a lot of them brew spectacular beer, and boy can they party. I feel right at home.






Pycogonum stearnsi, Stearns' sea spider, by Christian Schwarz.

Aside from birds and mushrooms, you are known for your turnstone styles, lurking in tidepools. What world awaits you in the intertidal?

I was a tidepool fanatic before I got distracted by mushrooms. The siren song of saltwater has recently led me back to the brine. Looking for invertebrates along the rocky shore is very similar to hunting mushrooms - my brain falls into the same groove. But once you learn about the ecology of the intertidal, the similarity stops. I can barely fathom the life cycles of some of these crazy invertebrates. As for what awaits me? Brilliantly-colored soft-bodied things. Things with hard, articulating exoskeletons. Octopi that are smarter than some of my college classmates. Delicious mussels. Fish to fuel nightmares. Inspirational sponges.





Flabellina iodinea, spanish shawl, by Christian Schwarz.

Inspirational sponges...I believe there is a market for that.  You recently started an eco-tourism company of sorts.  Tell us about it, how it came about, how you like it so far.

Right! It’s called Redwood Coast Tours. We lead outdoor walks and workshops focused on local organisms and their ecology, mostly geared towards adults. I got the sense that there was a desire not being met - I heard people saying “Hey! I’d really like to know more about these organisms!”, but not really having anywhere to turn. So I’ve been working to build a network of natural-history nerds who are really excited about their organisms of interest, and who love to teach people about them. Whether it be mushrooms, birds, snakes, butterflies, squirrels, whales, spiders, plants, or sea slugs, I want people to come to us and find their curiosity engaged by excellent naturalists. As a company, we’re brand new, but so far I’ve had an amazingly fun ride. It’s been a privilege to work with the naturalists who’ve led trips so far, and the participants have been uniformly lovely folks. When I see people get super excited about weird little organisms, Life Is Not Pain.

Obligatory question: If one were to go birding under the influence of select mushroom varieties, what might transpire?

Hypothetically? Well, one might have a really good time. One might feel profoundly affected by the songs of vireos. One might see behind the mask and recognize the Wrentit for what She Really Is. One might bask in the wholesomeness of a bathing junco. One might see undulating waves of grassland rise to meet the ocean’s horizon whilst surrounded by the bizarre songs of meadowlarks. One might feel content at one’s core.



Photos of Christian with dead pintail, dead Blue-footed Booby, and live Bird Policeman by Adam Searcy, Amy Patten and Lindsey Mercer.  Thanks to Christian for doing this interview, and for showing us the incredible bonds that can be forged among the half-dead tilapia and swirling flocks of the Salton Sea.

Monday, March 30, 2015

A Pygmy Horned-Owl, Blossoming Blossoms, the Halloween Thrush.





Seeing a Northern Pygmy-Owl usually tops any day of birding; seeing one that you can walk right up to puts your day in a whole other birding league.  Mines Road, Alameda County, CA.

Well now that I have gotten the obligatory winter is ending/spring is coming post out of the way, I don't have to talk about that shit anymore.  So other than migrants, what is the good word?

The birding world has been bereft of much new controversy lately, for good or ill, though there has been some intrigue...your life list may get a bit shorter soon, and there is still a Brown(ish) Shrike lurking 3 hours north of me...maybe I should try to see it or something.  I say Brownish because it does not really look like the Brown Shrike I saw in Humboldt County a few years ago, and Red-backed Shrike could potentially reach North America.  Equally plausible, it is a different subspecies of Brown Shrike, it is an intergrade of different Brown Shrike subspecies, or most horribly of all, it could be a hybrid. Who knows how the Bird Police will rule?  I know how....WITH AN IRON FIST!!!!!  Naw not really, they are nerds, sorry guys (and Kristie). Anyways, I may be #7, but this is out of my birding wheelhouse.  Old World birders, you are our only hope!


This bird was sitting directly above a moderately used road, completely ignoring traffic and only briefly acknowledging Cass Grattan and myself with a few seconds of eye contact.  It was silent the entire time, and was completely zoned in on a handful of shrubs on the other side of the road.  No playback required for this one.



While it is not too difficult to figure out where Northern Pygmy-Owls might be found, I rarely get to see them...in fact, I don't even remember the last time I saw one.  What an epic bird to hang out with. The tail almost looks like an afterthought of sorts.  It never flushed, and when we came back an hour later, it still had not moved.  Patience rewards the hungry pygmy-owl.


This bird actually had horns out for a while. Did you even know that pygmy-owls had horns?  I think it's worth showing such a shitty picture just so you can see what I'm talking about.  Life plumage feature for #7.


Other things besides birds are appearing now.  This is a Castilleja, some kind of owl's clover. Maybe dense flower owl's clover?  Castilleja is the same genus that Indian paintbrush belong to, but I don't get to see owl's clover nearly as often. Mines Road, Alameda County.


Dodecatheon, shooting star, is another beloved wildflower around these parts. Del Valle Regional Park, Alameda County, CA.



Sometimes it's hard to think of a caption for certain birds...Northern Rough-winged Swallow is one species that presents such a challenge.  They are adherent to the Economy of Style.  They don't make remarkable noises.  Unless you are someplace where Southern Rough-winged Swallow also occurs, they are easy to identify, and there is probably not a soul in the world whose favorite bird is this bird. It's nice to see them perched on something other than a power line though. Lake Elizabeth, Fremont, CA.


Stll, no one can deny that NRWS is a pleasant bird...it's just so mellow.  And hardy...they are one of the very first spring migrants to arrive in the spring, though the last few years a bird doesn't exactly have to be hardy to spend a winter around here.


Phainopepla, the bird in the shining robe.  Many birders associate Phainopeplas with desolate, arid landscapes, but they can are equally at home in oak woodlands.  You show me mistletoe and I will show you Phainopepla. Del Valle Regional Park, CA.


I wonder how male Phainopeplas became black. They sit in conspicuous places within often bleak landscapes, and frequently live in areas with triple digit temperatures...yet somehow manage to avoid predators and don't overheat. They got dressed by the same force that dressed Bronzed Cowbirds, ostensibly...they both even have red eyes.


Last fall and this winter was an INVASION YEAR for Varied Thrushes in much of California, with more than one bird making it all the way to Imperial County, where there is absolutely no Varied Thrush habitat to speak of...the one I saw was foraging in palm trees. This bird was in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA.


One of the big birding perks of living in northern California is being able to see Varied Thrushes regularly, and getting to listen to their wondrous and soothing songs. No other bird commands your attention as much in a redwood dawn chorus.


They are fabulously constructed birds, even their undertail coverts are interesting to look at.


A Red-tailed Hawk sits above Highway 101 gridlock and ponders the idiots below. San Francisco, CA.

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!