Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Fall Pelagics: Blue Whales, Whalebows, Murre[let]s, The Burden

And just like that, the pelagic season has come and gone. I already covered my first two trips of the year, so I figure I can go ahead and wrap up the September and October trips I did out of Half Moon Bay.

The September trip was full of marine life...there was a lot going on offshore. Humpback Whales were present in large numbers, frequently giving great looks near the boat.

Lots and lots of Humpbacks. The sea was boiling with whales. The sea wasn't boiling whales though, climate change isn't that bad yet.

We had nice looks at Blue Whales as well. This is always a major bonus of any trip. I don't think a lot of participants know that this is something they can realistically see on trips here, so there is always an atmosphere of bewildered excitement when one of these surfaces near the boat.

It's always a great honor to get good looks at the largest animal to have ever existed. That's some heavy shit...literally.

The day was bright and sunny, and ultimately bad for photography; I have no crushes to offer you. More importantly, we had good numbers of skuas and jaegers, and hundreds of Sabine's Gulls, the most I had ever seen. The western U.S. has been plagued with them this fall, both offshore, along the coast and on interior lakes; there must have been a bumper crop of them this year.

The real drama came when a Hawaiian Petrel was called out...I was quite convinced (ok, totally convinced) I saw it at one point, but when I chimped my photos, all I could find was a goddamn Pink-footed Shearwater. Great confusion ensued...people were calling it out repeatedly...eventually (after the trip), we all realized that no one had gotten a photo of it and only a couple of the leaders really saw it in the first place. That said, when I was going through pictures for this post, the very first photo of the "petrel" I took shows a bird that...well, it looks like a Hawaiian Petrel, not a Pink-footed Shearwater, but it's so bloody poor that I don't think anything can be conclusively made of it. Did I actually see a Hawaiian Petrel, but it pulled the ol' fucking switcharoo with a shearwater? I do not, and cannot know. This is all very typical, as it would be a life bird and is one of the motivating factors for me to keep getting on boats. So fucking close.

Unlike Hawaiian Petrels, which hate me, the local Northern Gannet loves me now and lets me look at it all the time. Here it is majestically surfing Mavericks.

On the first weekend of October, I led my last pelagic of the year. We were pleasantly surprised early on by the numbers of Black-vented Shearwaters (year bird!) we ran into. Black-vented Shearwaters are very unpredictable north of Monterey Bay, so we're always happy to get them on Half Moon Bay trips.

These little homely shearwaters mostly prefer to spend their lives in inshore waters, though some will venture out over the shelf edge.

Rhinoceros Auklets occasionally allow close approach by the boat, a refreshing change from how they normally react.

It's hard to take interesting scenery photos with no land in sight, but I think this uncropped photo has it all. The excitement of cruising up on a giant feeding frenzy of whales (complete with whalebows), sea lions and seabirds does not ever wane.

One of these murres is not like the other. In fact, one of these murres is not a murre.

2016 is, for me, the year that murres and murrelets come together. I have seen a great many murres and a lot of murrelets, but before this year I've never seen a murrelet of any kind seek the company of a murre. Earlier this fall I found a Marbled Murrelet hiding in the middle of a murre flock next to Sail Rock (famed gannet perch), and then there was this Scripps's Murrelet doing a good impression of a baby murre...what in the fuck is the world coming to?

It's not that unusual I suppose, but novel nonetheless. A pair of Scripps's Murrelets were the most unusual species on this day; they are a difficult bird to come by in October. This was actually the one and only "slow" day I've had offshore this fall...we had no storm-petrels, and for my third trip ever, no Black-footed Albatross. We were in weird, gross brownish water almost the whole time, so I suspect the bulk of the local seabird population were elsewhere.

Lots of Red Phalaropes offshore this fall, outnumbering Red-necked on some days. Most mellow.

Dall's Porpoise...such a good mammal, one of my favorites. This is another one of those species that is neither rare or expected on boat trips here, you just have to hope the boat will blunder into a pod. They do bowride, so you can get great looks, but they are agonizing to try and photograph because they are so fast. Most dolphins are slow and slothful in comparison. You would think that a mammal as big as a person would not be so difficult to crush 15 feet away, but such is life.

The Economy of Style has been absolutely rampant in this post, have you noticed? Black, gray, white, brown, plus a dash of color on the head of the gannet and the bill of the auklet...all part of pelagic birding. Well, no bird off our coast pulls off a limited palette better than a Buller's Shearwater...unfortunately this was another down year for them (locally, anyway) so we only saw a handful, and yet again I will go another year without Flesh-footed Shearwater...unexpected this is. And, unfortunate.

Unfortunate that I know the truth?

No! Unfortunate that you rushed to face him. That incomplete was your training. Not ready for the burden were you...

Sorry. Got a little carried away there. Sometimes dipping on Flesh-footed Shearwater feels like learning Darth Vader is your father.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

September Sickness

September and October in the bay area means GET YOUR ASS TO THE COAST. I feel bad for birders who don't live near the coast in this crucial time...the window is wide open for rarities. Most of the year, it's just cracked, and sometimes it's even closed. Light south winds on September 11 meant it was a day to be out on Point Reyes, and we were rewarded with some juicy birds...American Redstart, Canada Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, and a flock of 3 Clay-colored Sparrows. Clay-colored is rare but regular here, but three together was a bit on the bizarro side of things.

The next Saturday it was nice and overcast, so it was out to San Francisco this time. Across from Lake Merced, the continuing Magnolia Warbler made for a fine county bird (thanks Aaron) and a Black-and-white Warbler was very satisfying as well. This female Bicolored Blackbird did a good impression of a female Tricolored, but was too warmly colored. Approach with caution.

It's always good to be checking listservs constantly in September, you never know when the news of the next MEGA will come. Checking the listserv as I was about to leave Lake Merced proved to be timely, and I quickly abandoned the rest of my plans and went straight to Golden Gate Park for another vague runt that had just been found. While waiting for the tasty eastern warbler, I kicked it with this Brown Creeper, a bird that apparently has never made it onto BB&B before...weird. Welcome Brown Creeper!

This is another common denizen of forests and parks (like tweakers, but creepers and tweakers are unrelated, despite what you might think), and accompany many a mixed flock. They're ain't confiding or abiding though, which I guess explains why I have so few photos of them.

Brown Creeper fact of the day: You probably know the northernmost reaches of their range are in Alaska, but you can also find them as far south as Nicaragua. I'd like to see some of the mixed flocks they travel with down there, Jesus.

Ugh, I just looked at an eBird checklist with Brown Creeper in it from Nicaragua...there's some gnarly stuff in there.

Eventually I refound the Canada Warbler, which much like the Point Reyes bird was relatively easy to keep track of but exceedingly difficult to photograph (I failed entirely with the other bird). I have some kind of nostalgia with blurry rarity photos for some reason, so I am forcing you to see this awful image. It stayed in the same tree for a whole hour, and I couldn't do any better, but I never claimed I was a photographer. Ahhh...getting Black-and-white, Canada and Magnolia in the same morning in California is what September is all about.

September actually isn't all warblers and rarities though, it's also cuddling Bushtits.

I love eastern wood warblers. I absolutely adore them, no matter the time of year. I spend a lot of time looking for them, whether it is in Florida or California or Mexico (not Midway though). However, California gives you the opportunity to see more than wood warblers...we get warblers as well.

Sibes...I fucking love Sibes. This Dusky Warbler was the undisputed highlight of September, not just for me but for pretty much everyone else who saw it. It sounds like the bird was much more cooperative the first day it was found (when I saw it) than subsequent days; the Dusky Warbler found recently in Orange County disappointed pretty much everyone who chased it (sorry Justine). Speaking of Sibes, the Bird of October might just be the Lesser Sand-Plover Matt Lau found yesterday south of Abbott's Lagoon, but we'll see if sticks around or not.

The day after the great Dusky Warbler Victory of 2016, Billy and I went up to Hawk Hill in the Marin Headlands to check on some other kinds of migrants. This resident Red-tailed Hawk had no intentions of migrating anywhere, but chose a nice lichenized outcrop to perch on.

It's always so much easier to find Sharp-shinned Hawks at Hawk Hill than anywhere else locally. Not that they are rare here by any means, but if you spend a morning birding and you don't see one, that seems perfectly normal. Spending a few hours at Hawk Hill and missing them would be, well, bizarre.

Here's another one, with a deceptively-shaped tail. Note the barred flanks and "pigeony" expression. Or don't, you're welcome not to.

September 30 is generally a day you must be out birding in California. If the vague runt window is open in September, then by September 30 the window is completely shattered and rare just comes blowing through at will. With this in mind Abe Borker and I went back out to Point Reyes...except it wasn't rare birds we found blowing through, it was the goddamn wind. With strong northwest winds, our chances of landing a huge migrant harvest were quite low. Even this coyote seemed perplexed at the lack of rare birds around.

Our efforts were not in vain, however. This Magnolia Warbler (county bird!) was at the lighthouse, and stayed still just long enough to get brutally crushed. Nice to see one in San Francisco and Marin in the same month.

We got brief looks of the bird below the park housing in the lupine patch, then the bird came around the parking lot and foraged right beneath us. The wind taketh away, but in this case the wind giveth a very sharp, mid-level rarity.

See? Fucking windy. American Redstart was the only other eastern-flavored bird of the day, but who knows maybe it had just cruised down from northeast Washington, where they are not an uncommon breeder. That said, Magnolias aren't a strictly eastern bird either; they breed in eastern British Columbia.

Almost every patch on the Outer Point has Great Horned Owls, where they probably are out terrorizing the Barn Owls every night. This one was down in New Willows, were I had not seen one before. If it is indeed a resident bird, it has probably seen more rarities than you could possibly imagine. It may have even eaten some of them.

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Coast Is Alive With The Sound of Vague Runts

September went by very, very quickly...I have much catching up to do. September is generally considered the best month of the year to be birding in California...seabirds, shorebirds, and passerines are barging through the state in huge numbers (by West Coast standards) and the potential for finding a rarity is as high as it can get. Not that October is any can be just as good, if not better...the main problem this month is that you have to battle the Yellow-rumped Warblers. This week rarity fever has been particularly acute...after Sunday passed, day after day has been absolutely perfect for putting down Vague Runts on the coast, and I've been stuck in the office like a chump...the Perpetual Weekend looms large, in memory. Birders at Point Reyes and Bodega Bay have been getting rewarded every day with the overcast skies and south winds...the patches are just clogged with rare right now. No Yellow-green Vireos for me this week (three have been found in the greater bay area in the last few days, two photographed...fuck), but fall is not over yet.

This fall was a good one for Baird's Sandpipers, it seemed like they were getting reported a lot more than in most years. Seeing them in California always feels like a mild victory, though they aren't quite unusual enough to be a true rarity. Frank's Dump, Hayward, CA.

Lesser Yellowlegs bring the mellow compared to their louder, larger relatives. We get good numbers of them at Coyote Hills (where this bird was), but they are pretty local throughout the bay area.

In early September I moved from Oakland to Albany, to move in with Billy so we can raise the shit out of this baby that is on its way. Albany (on the north side of Berkeley) is a tiny city that is little-known outside of having Golden Gate Fields and the Albany Bulb, so tiny that most people who don't live here don't even have an opinion about it...and we in the bay have a lot of opinions. Anyways, my last morning in Oakland I thought I should bird my patch one last time before I had to start a new one. Middle Harbor Shoreline Park has never rewarded me with anything really juicy (an extremely late fall migrant Common Tern was my best bird to date), but I always though the place had a lot of potential for waterbirds. As expected for early fall, a horde of loud Elegant Terns were loafing on the mudflats. A throng of birders, presumably an Audubon group, was also there; when they moved past me without mentioning any birds of interest I presumed that it would be another typical visit. I was wrong.

Within minutes of the group finishing their trip and leaving, I found a no-doubt BAR-TAILED GODWIT not far away on a mudflat. I couldn't believe it...finally a rarity here...and not only a self-found vague runt, the best bird I'd found in a few years!

Unlike the godwit I had seen at Bolinas just a few weeks before, this bird was quite close. I walked out to the end of a breakwater and hoped the sleeping would come in closer as the tide came up, which worked out brilliantly. I was quite chuffed.

I was out there for a while, and eventually the birds accepted I wasn't a threat and went about their business. Great looks at this quality rarity, this quality SIBE. Now, I'm not a big proponent of the One Bird Theory, but with the help of Peter Pyle I was able to compare photos of this bird, the Bolinas bird, and the Don Edwards bird, all of which had been seen within weeks of each other in three different counties. Personally, I feel there is a strong probability that this bird and the Bolinas bird were one in the same, while the Don Edwards bird was another individual.

Luckily, the bird stuck around a few more days and was relished by a great many birders; I'm only aware of one or two other records for Alameda County, and people were stoked. I guess I can't call it quits on this patch after all.

Now that we got this rarity out of the way, we can go back to robin-stroking. We take them for granted here, but there is nothing not to like about Chestnut-backed Chickadees. They are one of a handful of our native passerines that have adapted well to urbanization, and their flocks often lure in various migrants that will join up. Lake Merced, San Francisco, CA.

When I talk about robin-stroking, I'm serious. Young American Robins are rather interesting early in the fall. Don't deny it. East Wash, San Francisco, CA.

Chickadees and robins are well and good (what would we do without them?), but those are not birds you want to devote a lot of energy to in September. Gray Flycatcher, on the other hand, is one of those birds. Westerns and Willows are the only expected Empids on the coast any time of year; anything else from that genus is a very solid bird. Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA.

I love getting county birds in San Francisco, even though I haven't lived there for a few years now. I also love seeing birds out of range, even though Gray Flycatchers breed about 4 hours east of here in Mono County. A life of seeking rarities will do that to you. Hopefully this individual continued south along the coast, and wasn't so turned around that it thought the best migratory route it should take was southwest over the Pacific. That's not how I would have done it.

Wild Turkeys drink bourbon, not sure what it was doing here. Coyote Hills Regional Park, Fremont, CA.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Death of The Bird Blog

This gleeful horsetender used to dwell in the Birdosphere. In fact, that is the only reason I know her. Like many, she got sucked into the gravity well of a non-blogging black hole, where so many of my comrades have met their fate.

Ah, the bird blog. At one time, it was very popular to be a blogging birder...but like so-called patriots telling us to "never forget", those days are long behind us. Most bird blogs lie fallow, with no fresh material being added for years. My flock, once large and thriving in the Birdosphere, is dwindling rapidly...there are only a handful of bird blogs I look forward to checking now. We are going the way of the Dodo...or to be more contemporary, our population decline mirrors that of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken. Our fate is uncertain, but it is decidedly gloomy for now.

So what has lead to the decline of the bird blog? It's not difficult to figure out.

Sometimes, when I'm not feeling particularly creative, I can slap something like this into a post and all I can really think of saying is "This is a Double-crested Cormorant...I sure see a lot of these. Yup...Ok moving on now...". That is neither fun to read, nor is it fun to write.

Most bird blogs are really similar in content and format. The vast majority of bird blogs that have surfaced followed the tried and true "I-went-here-and-saw-these-birds" format, with little variation. I'm not the first one to point this out, nor is this the first time I've stated this here. Obviously there is nothing wrong with this format (I follow it constantly) but unless you can really make your posts interesting and not the same stale, recycled trip report over and over again, it can be hard to get much of a readership...and knowing people actually read your content is key to having the motivation to create more. This leads us to a plain and simple fact:

Most people are not good writers. There is a reason that not all people are writers...most people are not good at it. That includes birders. If you don't have the ability to write in a way that draws people in, that makes people want to come back for more, then your writing won't gain much traction. Sure some bloggers honestly don't care about accruing readers, but hella people do. Of course, another reason bird blogs were popular was because it was a good place to see bird porn, which leads us to...

I like this Magnificent Frigatebird photo. It's not the most amazing photo, but I think it's definitely likable. Good bird, good pose, sharp, good light, no editing done except the slightest bit of cropping. Not long ago you wouldn't see bird photos of equivalent quality plastered all over Facebook or embedded in every listserv post or eBird checklist; blogs were actually a good place to check out bird porn. Bird blogs no longer have the significance they once did for photographers.

Photographers. Everyone is a photographer now. More birders carry some kind of camera than those do not, at least that is my impression, and there are a great many photographers (who aren't really birders in the traditional sense) who specialize on birds. This was not the case 6 or 7 years ago. And not only are there more photographers now, everyone is also sharing their photos everywhere they can. It's easy to see tons of bird porn on Facebook without even trying. Ugh, remember the "seven day nature photo challenge"? Glad that's over...I wasn't in to the whole birdspam thing. You couldn't avoid seeing bird photos if you wanted to.

A spring male Rose-breasted Grosbeak is a true thing of beauty, the sort of bird that can turn someone into a birdwatcher (sorry Savannah Sparrow). Is there room on Facebook to do this bird (verbal) justice? Is someone really going to launch into a profound ode to Rose-breasted Grosbeaks in a podcast? If so, please tell me when that becomes available. 

Social media is not just for sharing photos of course, the anecdotes and stories that once were prime blog fodder now get posted elsewhere as well. Aside from Facebook, podcasts have also begun to take up space in what was formerly blog territory. Who doesn't love podcasts? That said, if you are going to do a birding podcast you have to put a lot more effort into that than a blog post, and you better be good at it if you are going to have an audience. I can only imagine that making a consistently entertaining podcast is a hell of a lot more difficult than slapping a string of decent blog posts together, so I am very skeptical that podcasts are really going to catch fire in the birding world considering the necessary talent and effort required...also, birders tend to be very conservative in their public displays of humor, and that is not a recipe for good podcastery.

Many bloggers quit out of sheer laziness. That's cool, laziness happens. I can be pretty slothful myself. Life can get in the way too; yup, some birders have those. This is all totally understandable.

So there you have it - the bird blogger population is dwindling rapidly, and it is no great mystery why. With that all said, BB&B is going to call it quits.

Nah. I lied. BB&B has no plans for throwing in the proverbial towel...what would all of our interns do? Maybe we are atavistic scum-nerds with shit for brains, but we will blog onward. There are stories to tell, birders to lampoon, photographs to post in between the realms of Facebook and Flickr. The Birdosphere is not a popular place to be anymore, and that's just fine by me...if you really care about what is popular, then you shouldn't be birding. However, I will soon be facing a hurdle in my blog output...I'm going to be a daddy in a few months. Isn't that fucking crazy??? Not that it should surprise you (have you read the title of this blog?). I won't use that as an excuse to bury BB&B though, you have my word. As I said, what would all of our interns do?  

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Alcids, Ashies, Albatross, and a Lifer Genital Slit

My second pelagic of the year out of Half Moon Bay was pleasantly birdy to begin with, but let's cut right to got a lot better when we happened into a pod of motherfucking Orcas.

Orcas. One of the coolest, most interesting animals in the world? Easily. People absolutely lit up when we came upon this group, which we were able to stay with for a while.

There was much frolicking, rolling around, tail slapping, general flopping and other things I could describe more scientifically if I was a whale nerd. Isn't that a crazy pectoral fin? The massive width is a good way to identify it as a male.

The wee individual in the front was the smallest member of the pod. It was interesting to see all the different shapes and sizes of dorsal fins.

Tail slappin'.

There was one big, full-grown male in the group - I think he was the one waving his tail around above. He hung out with one other larger individual the whole time, while the rest of the pod stayed together some distance away.

We got stunning looks at these animals, easily the best in my life. The big boy came up right next to the boat...too close to crush! I can't believe I'm lucky enough to get to see stuff like this...the Blue Whales are good enough, this is just excessive.

Orca belly, complete with genital slit. His ween lives in there.

Shortly after we left the Orcas, we got on our bird of the day, this Laysan Albatross. In northern California (off Monterey, Half Moon Bay and Bodega Bay), these birds are much easier to come by in August than later in the season, and this August 19 boat hit the albajackpot. This was the first, and presumably last, I got eyes on this year.

Despite seeing a satisfactory number of them in California over the years, I've never had really great looks at them here. What's up with that? Good thing I got to pet a bunch on Midway.

I've met birders who haven't seen Sabine's Gulls before. Generally, they are not happy people. They have this vacant look, almost like they are empty inside. Not surprisingly, those with regular exposure to Sabine's Gulls are generally bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, though they are not necessarily enjoyable to be around (they are birders, after all).

No deluge of Cassin's Auklets like the previous week, though they were out there. The trick to seeing one well is to find a bird that is too full of food to attempt flying away, and too lazy to dive underwater when the boat comes near. This bird fit the bill.

This was a weird year for Blacks at all, which are not only expected up here, but they can often outnumber the other expected species (Ashy, Fork-tailed and Wilson's). Ashy Storm-Petrels did show well in August though.

Ashy Storm-Petrel putting on the brakes, right before dropping to the water to grab a miniscule morsel of food. By the way, the longevity record for ASSP is 30 years...seabirds can live heck of long lives, no matter what the size.

This has been a good year for seeing lots of Red Phalaropes offshore. This is my most adequate crush I can offer you.

This Common Tern made a close pass by the boat. In the greater bay area, it is much easier to find them 20 miles offshore than it is along the coast, though there is seemingly no shortage of good habitat (we have the Forster's Terns to prove it). It would be interesting to know where these birds are coming from...Alberta? The Northwest Territories?

Like many Common Terns, Tufted Puffins can hold dual citizenship, but this bird is likely one of the local breeders on the Farallones.

Despite how easy (relatively speaking) Tufted Puffins are to see during and immediately following their breeding season throughout their range, this is one of those birds that people just don't see very much the rest of the year. The only "off season" TUPU I've ever seen was a deceased bird that washed up in Humboldt County. Where exactly the bulk of the population winters is unknown.

Just a gannet hanging out on Sail Rock. No big deal.

Sooty Shearwaters were doing their normal afternoon thing, streaming by Pillar Point Harbor as we came back in. Another good boat trip in the books!