Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Rustic Bunting, Bicolored Blackbirds, Worries and Dread

After having a miserable, sickly New Years Eve, I thought it would be best to start the real birding year with the local Rustic Bunting. I met up with AJ Johnson of Austin fame, who had somehow tricked his family into letting him bird for a few hours. The bunting took me 4.5 hours of waiting to see it on my first try, but I had no need for such patience on this day.

Not only was patience not required, the bird did not at all act like the reclusive, cowardly, nervous Vague Runt that barely showed itself to me only two weeks earlier. It refused to leave the area once it showed up. We were with it for a good part of the morning, and the bird had little fear of its nerdy fan club that had gathered nearby. One could even say it was confiding.

I can't tell you what a relief it is to have seen this no-longer-cryptic bird a couple of times now. It's a sharp bird. It's a rare bird.  When it was found the day I drove down to Southern California, I was about ready to turn in my binoculars and start stamp collecting...which is like the only thing birders can think of when they talk about something more nerdy and obscure than birdwatching.  Little do birders know that no one has collected a stamp in about nine (9) years.

What a bizarre little crest.  Cool bird!

I'll be honest....I've struggled a bit with this bird.  For a Bicolored Blackbird (the local form of Red-winged Blackbird in the bay area), it's hella dark and dull. No rufous tones. For a female-type Tricolored Blackbird (is this a HY male? It's awfully blackish) it seems like it has some contrasting edging on the wings and back that you would not necessarily expect...but then again blackbirds tend to look pretty fresh still this time of year. It also has some pink in the face (much more of Bicolored trait than a Tricolored) and the bill does not look particularly Tricoloredy...but if you look at a lot of Tricolored Blackbirds you will figure out that the bill shape/length can be quite variable. I suspect this is a Bicolored, but I could be they ever appear this dark and colorless? Photographed at Lake Merced, San Francisco, CA.

Overall it is quite shabby looking in terms of a color palate...what do you think?

Here is a pretty typical Bicolored Blackbird, for comparison. Check out all the rufous on the back and much more prominent, richly-colored edgings on the flight feathers...yet its still pretty drab compared to other populations of Red-winged Blackbirds. Photographed at Lake Merced.

Birding may be hard, but that doesn't matter when you meet a creature that is telling you, "life is pain". This Townsend's Warbler had Eucalyptus gunk smeared all over it's bill and face, and was pathetically attempting to forage on the ground. It constantly had it's bill open and seemed quite stressed. Photographed at Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA.

How would you like to have your nostrils plugged with resin?  How would you like to mouthbreathe to survive?  It amazes me that there are so many Eucalyptus deniers out there who claim this does not happen to birds. And yes, this bird was right next to a big blooming Eucalyptus tree.

Of course, Ruddy Ducks never have to worry about such things. This one is worrying about being round and plump. You needn't worry, Ruddy Duck. Photographed at Golden Gate Park.

Many waterfowl can be seen enthusiastically courting this time of year. Most ducks seem to get the job done by doing wonderfully weird things with their heads. When you see a female getting in on the head-bobbing action, you know the drake is doing something right.  Photographed at Golden Gate Park.

Arrowhead Marsh, in Oakland, is famed for being a reliable place to actually lay eyes on Ridgway's Rail. It used to be easier, back when you could actually walk out on the boardwalk into the marsh. Now it's become a decent shorebird roost, so at least somebody is using it. The marsh is still a good place to get on this choice rail species, as I had a whopping 9 Ridgway's Rails in one scope sweep on this day.

A young Peregrine Falcon. You know, we take these birds almost for granted's hard to believe how rare they were just a few decades ago, and I'm grateful for the DDT ban and the Endangered Species Act.  I dread what the house and senate will attempt to do in the constant Republican campaign to gut environmental laws in the coming is sure to be brutal. Photographed at Arrowhead Marsh.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Purplepole Warbler

Look at this. Do you see? This is from a bird book. I really don't want to associate Blackpoll Warblers with such graphic imagery...that's just fucked. How is this a published thing? Do you not see what I'm talking about?  Here, let me show you.

Yeah. That's a big, raging, (apparently circumcised) purple boner, complete with arrows that demonstrate migration...the migration of HUMAN SPERM. Just look at this thing. I'm surprised they didn't draw some big veins in there too. I knew there was something odd about this bird guide....and that something is a big...gnarly...weiner.

There are a limited number of situations that can explain how this thing came to be published for an audience of one of the most sexless subcultures in the world...either it is a perfectly crafted inside joke by whoever did the maps (if so, good on ya), or no one involved with getting this book out had the ability to recognize the most glaring phallus possible. Knowing birders, I reckon the latter situation is more likely.

So...any publishing companies want me to review a book? It's been a while.

A fall Blackpoll Warbler is a good thing. A pure thing. I really like them, despite the fact they are barely a rare bird here in autumn. I do not want my mental image of them to be polluted by massive, discolored erections. The only DICK I am excited about seeing in a field guide is a Dickcissel, know what I'm saying? Zing! Thanks to Natarie for providing the bird porn for this post.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Marin Birding: The Le Conte's Sparrow, A Suspect Sapsucker and Reversed Gender Roles

Most sparrows don't earn the title "crippling"....but most sparrows are not Le Conte's Sparrows. Abbott's Lagoon, Point Reyes, CA.

The rut is over.  The birding doom and gloom that plagued the Global Birder Ranking System's #7 U.S. birder late this fall has lifted, and the Vague Runts have been raining down upon me ever since I lurked back north from the Salton Sink.  Have you ever had a vagrant shower? Try it some is invigorating.  It is cathartic.  You are not immune to need birds, and rare birds will really jolt your system.

As 2014 drew to a close, a few things became apparent:

Despite my consistent denials, people think I am Nelson Briefer. The One True Nelson Briefer.

Since we are on the internet and you can't see me, I can neither confirm nor deny that I am Nelson Briefer.

Therefore, I am possibly Nelson Briefer.

In my mind, I really don't think I'm Nelson Briefer. But am I? Dark forces may be at work.

None of this is relevant today's post, of course, which features some fine recent birding in western Marin County.

Le Conte's Sparrows are well known as one of the most skulking passerines to be found north of Mexico, and in the past that's held true for me. That said, if I were to have written this bird up for the Bird Police (which I did not do), I would have used this phrase to characterize it's behavior: It didn't give a fuck.

It truly didn't. We were all surprised. This was by far the most confiding member of it's species I've seen, which is fantastic since it looms on the verge of facemelting and I've only seen a handful in the past. It's also blindingly rare here on the west coast. No wonder this very species was responsible for tearing the San Diego birding community asunder, as "Todd Ingress" knows so well.

Perhaps you would prefer a more panoramic view of the Le Conte's Sparrow. Here it is, surveying it's domain of lupine.

When winter storms come through and strong winds blow off the ocean, it is not unreasonable to expect to find Red Phalaropes in northern California's coastal wetlands. On this cold, rarity-infused morning, Red Phalaropes had come off the sea to take a mellow respite at Abbott's Lagoon.

Look at this face. How can one know this face? How can one truly come to grips with a pelagic sandpiper? I get the strong impression that this is the most didactic of all shorebirds. It is telling us something, of this there is no question....and I think that something is this: Reverse your gender roles. Wear hella red, have sex and get in fights for one month a year, then dress simply and live at the whim of the ocean for the other eleven months. And whatever you do, don't raise your own offspring.

If you ever thought Seagull Steve was some kind of pipit would be right. Here is an American Pipit, balancing on a pole. This is the sort of bird that makes casual bird enthusiasts not want to dive into actual birding...fuck that noise. I love pipits.

After Abbott's Lagoon, we headed back to Bear Valley Road, where both Yellow-bellied and Red-naped Sapsuckers had been reported from the same tree. We saw this bird, which definitely had a red nape.

But wait...something is off. The red cap seems almost contiguous with the nape, which no California birder ever wants to see. But there's something else...something is missing...

What is wrong with its face????

That's right...the bird has no white eye line on either side of the face. Not even a hint. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. It's not like the bird is a super obvious hybrid, it doesn't have red all over it's head, but where there should be white there is only a resolute and very definite blackness. I've never seen a bird like this, have you? In any case, due to the nape patterning and facial weirdness, I suspect this is a hybrid Red-naped X Red-breasted, possibly backcrossed with a Red-naped.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Salton Sea: Birding A Post-Nature Dystopia

I finally got to visit the place where this classic line was uttered..."No Matt, that's a fucking catbird." Last month I made my first winter visit to the Salton Sea in many years, the last time being when I had notoriously dipped on the Bean Goose for three (3) consecutive days. Luckily there was no such painful dipping to be endured, but then again there were no rare birds to dip on...which is why you are about to get slammed with a series of nonbird photos.

Caution is warranted at Barnacle's; nude swimming alone is not warranted.

Victory at last: SCAR and Dipper Dan celebrate seeing a large flock of Cedar Waxwings. Multitudes of Bombycillids inspire much posturing in nerds. Shortly after this photo was taken, SCAR and DD began trespassing into various yards with reckless abandon, bragging about waxwing observations and trying to pick fights with locals. Can there be such a thing as too many waxwings?

Paul E. Lehman courageously leads the charge of his nerd platoon. They were looking at a Varied Thrush, which is the rarest bird we had at the Salton Sea that weekend.

Some people go to the Salton Sea to crush birds; other people go to the Salton Sea to crush dead fish.

There seems to be a disturbing amount of art popping up along the southeastern shore of the Salton Sea. That looks like an old heron nest that has been redecorated. What does it all mean? And why does looking at it give me so many feelings?

Oh, but what is the bird directly in front of the art? It is a Lesser Black-backed Gull, a sort of rare bird (we saw 4 that day). This image is profound, and larophiles and art critics alike are already saying that it will change everything. We may be on our way to birding a post-nature dystopia, but goddammit it's going to look fucking meaningful.

For the Christmas Count, Dipper Dan and I were assigned the Imperial Irrigation District wetlands in Niland. We were specifically supposed to find Least Bitterns, which we utterly failed to do. It was embarrassing, but we birded the shit out of those ponds. There was no shortage of Yuma Ridgway's Rails though, and this one was not afraid to feed just a few feet from the car.

Hella confiding...Ridgway's can be quite brave compared to many of their cousins, perhaps in part due to their size.  Back when I was not #7, I used to wonder about how I would tell Clapper and Virginia Rails apart. It seemed like it might be difficult (give me a break, I wasn't born #7).  Plumage characters aside, Clapper/Ridgway's/King Rails are all enormous in comparison; these big rails are closer to coots in size than Virginia Rails.

We had a few Vermilion Flycatchers on Pound Road, at one of the duck clubs. As with the past several winters, there wasn't much around in terms of rarities, but we did ok...American Redstarts, Yellow Warbler, Yellow-footed and Thayer's Gulls, and Horned Grebe were all decent birds. The water level of the sea looked as low and sad as's still good birding, but it's not what it used to be. Bummer.

We made a quick stop in San Dimas on the way down, to try to find the wintering Tango Bravo Kilo India. I'm still working on getting a decent White-throated Sparrow shot...I have a long way to go. This brightly-marked bird was at Horsethief Canyon Park; we also heard the Thick-billed Kingbird here, calling from the suburbs west of the park.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Eurasian Wigeon Eyelid Exam, Rarish Flycatchers, and STORM WIGEON (reprise)

Snowy Plover, a male. Few other birds appear so fruit-shaped. Hollywood Beach, CA.

Let's face it...I am the product of Ventura County, CA. I'm still trying to figure out what that means. Some people call my hometown "Ventucky", which refers to the heavy white trash/bro factor that is hard to ignore. Some people think Ventura is a nice place. Some people think Ventura is a great place...which is wrong. Ventura County has good birding though, this I know.  I spent some time there last month, and these are some of the avian fruit that I managed to harvest. And let me tell you...I love harvesting avian fruit.

Snowy Plover, also a male, but not as sexed out. He's an old bird, give him a break. Alexis, here is your chosen one.  Hollywood Beach, CA.

My crushiest Red-throated Loon photo to date. It is also the crushiest photo of whatever fish species that happens to be.  Ventura Harbor, CA.

LETS KEEP THIS CRUSH TRAIN ROLLING!!!!  Eurasian Wigeon. Conejo Creek North Park, Thousand Oaks, CA.

Sibes typically are wary of cameras...after all, how many cameras do they encounter in Siberia? Most don't know how it feels to be crushed in this manner. This Eurasian Wigeon, pounded into the two-dimensional image you see here, will never be the same. 

Bah. Crushes. Lets face it, anyone can crush anything, just put a camera with a big fuck off lens in their hands. Whenever you show someone a crush, all you are saying is "Look at me. I saw X species of bird, and it was X feet away." That's pretty much it. Sure some photographers put a lot of time and effort into their crushing endeavors...but most don't. Do you want to know about the effort I put into crushing this wigeon? I walked right up to it, then knelt on the ground for a better angle. That was it. Crushing is easy, so easy. And now I know the color of a Eurasian Wigeon's eyelid.

My STORM WIGEON post is one of BB&B's most popular of all time.  These things must drive hunters fucking crazy, because I know it's not birders who are working up a sweat over them. So with that in mind, some of you will be really excited to know that lightening has struck twice...I found a second STORM WIGEON in the exact same place (literally, the same stretch of water) where I had found one the year before. Bubbling Springs, Port Hueneme, CA.

This STORM WIGEON is not as white and pristine as the bird from Y2K13, but I reckon it still counts. Compare this white-faced bird to your everyday normalwigeon below.

Typical. Very typical.

Self-found Vague Runts are the best Vague Runts, even if eBird does not flag them. This is the first Vermilion Flycatcher I've seen in the county away from the Mugu area. McGrath State Beach, CA.

Round Mountain Pond? No one birded this place back before I was #7....did it even exist? I finally birded it for the first time with Don Mastwell and Gareth Jones, where the highlight was this Tropical Kingbird. Don and Gareth (who are rapidly degenerating into depraved Ventura County listers) had been dipping on this bird for weeks, and had gotten pretty aggro about it. When it finally was where it was supposed to be, they were chuffed. This bird was ace. Brill. It was a blinding success. You get the picture. Round Mountain Pond, Camarillo, CA.

For whatever reason, California gets a number of Tropical Kingbirds wintering in the state every year. They are more common than Western Kingbirds in winter. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

California Thrasher...a mellow bird, despite the name. This is my first acceptable photo of one. Photographed at Round Mountain.

And now we have arrived at the inevitable Thayer's Gull portion of the blog post...I wish the lighting was more conducive to photographing these birds properly. Here is a bird from the dark end of the spectrum. Photographed at Bubbling Springs.

This bird, present in the same flock as the above bird, was drastically paler. Strikingly so, with a comparably faint tailband.  So although this is a perfectly good Thayer's Gull photo, I don't think it actually represents the bird very well. Does that make sense? Gulling is hard.

Same bird, still looking darker than it did in real life.  Oh well. You know what I didn't see last year? A Glaucous Gull. You know what I didn't see the year before that? A Glaucous Gull. I shouldn't even post another Thayer's until I see another Glaucous. I probably will...but I shouldn't. Right.