Monday, July 9, 2018

Conceited Soloists, Migratory Musicians (Happy Birthday to Pablo)

It is said that when he died, a flamingo feeding on the Altiplano vanished into thin air, so as to bear his body into the heavens.

Rumor is that he still writes from the afterlife. His pen now the rivulets of lava flowing from volcanoes, his words found in the flight lines of geese skeins, in bark beetle galleries, whale songs.  


painting by Alberto Ramierz Leg

He began his life as Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoaltoand had his life taken as Pablo Neruda, when he was murdered by order of the brutal dictator (and dear friend of the CIA) Augusto Pinochet in September of 1973. If Neruda's fate were different, he may have been celebrating his 114th birthday on Thursday, wheezing on a constellation of candles with his pet coypu by his side and a swarm of green-backed firecrowns about his head.
Among his many achievements (Nobel Prize winner, esteemed diplomat, losing his virginity in a barn to an older woman) Neruda wrote some mindbending poems about birds, including the one below. Put it in your mouth. Wash it down with a glass of pais. Let it fester in your throat. Refuse antibiotics. 
And spread the Good Word of Neruda.

Feliz cumpleaños, Pablo.
Ode to Birdwatching

to look for birds!
The high iron branches
in the forest,
the dense
fecundity of the soil,
the whole world
is wet,
rain or dew
shines, a tiny
in the leaves:
in the early morning
mother earth is cool,
the air
is like a river
that shakes
the silence,
it smells of rosemary,
of space
and roots.
a wild song,
a waterfall,
it's a bird.
from a throat
smaller than a finger
can the waters
of this song fall?
Luminous grace!
of music
in the leaves,
sacred conversation!

Clean, washed, cool
is this day,
like a green zither,
I bury my shoes
in the mud,
I leap over springs,
a thorn
nips me and a gust
of air like a crystal
separates on my chest.
are the birds?
Was that one, maybe,
whispering in the foliage
or that fugitive ball
of gray velvet
or that sudden shift
of perfume?  That leaf
which the cinnamon tree let go,
was it a bird?  That dust
from the irritated magnolia
or that fruit
which fell resounding,
was that a flight?
O invisible little cretins,
fiendish birds,
to hell
with your twittering,
with your useless feathers!
I just wanted
to stroke them,
to see them glisten,
I don't want
to see their lightning embalmed
in a showcase,
I want to see them alive,
I want to touch their gloves
of genuine leather,
which they never forget in the branches,
and to talk with them
on my shoulders
even if they leave me like certain statues
undeservedly whitened.

They can't be touched,
they can be heard
like a heavenly
whisper or movement,
they talk
their observations,
about whatever they're doing,
on whatever exists,
certain sciences
like hydrography
and know for certain
where all the grains
are being harvested.

Well then,
of the forest, of the woods,
of the pure bower,
birds of the acacia
and of the oak,
crazy, amorous,
astonishing birds,
migratory musicians,
one last
I go back
with wet shoes, thorns
and dry leaves
to my home:
I love you
far from the shotgun and the cage,
this is the way
I love you,
united and sonorous
society of the heights,
of the air,
of smoke,
flyers and singers,
aerial, terrestrial,
sailors of the wind,
of the softest nests,
messengers of pollen,
of the flower, uncles
of the seed,
I love you,
I'm going home,
happy to have lived with you
a moment
in the wind.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Bolivar Flats and Anahuac: Friends, Fevers and Feelings

Back to Texas! Let's start with the legendary Bolivar Flats. Our wonderful group went on a couple different days; it was quite good one day and more on the meh side on another day, but it was easy to see why it's such a heavily-birded spot. The first time out we had good looks at this Glaucous Gull, which was lingering late into the spring. This is the southernmost Glaucous that I have ever seen, which also gave better looks than what I'm used to.

I expected a lot of great birds on this trip, but hulking arctic gulls were not among them. You just never know what will turn up when MAX REBO BIRDING TOURS is in the field! Speaking of unexpected hulking arctic birds, we just missed a Pomarine Jaeger by a few days that had been hanging out at Rollover Pass. I've never even seen a Pomarine Jaeger sitting on solid ground before, and I've seen a lot of them. The Vague Runt potential of the Bolivar Peninsula is not to be taken lightly.

Glaucous Gull bills look almost tubular to me sometimes, due to the depth and relative lack of a gonydeal angle on many individuals like this one. We also had Great and Lesser Black-backed Gulls here on this day...three quality gulls, especially for late spring, all of which were Sierra Bravos for me. Over 300 in Texas now, mmmm.

This Machine Nate and Officer Shaw courageously plow through distant flocks.

California has a lot of great birds, but Wilson's Plover is not among them. Birders who dwell within the range of Wilson's Plovers should consider themselves lucky. Be sure to stop and smell the Wilson's Plovers next time you are around them, I bet they smell good.

It's hard not to think of Wilson's as a heavily enhanced Snowy Plover. What invertebrate could withstand the bludgeoning bill and furious charge of a Wilson's Plover? Snowies, while similar, appear to woo their prey into submission by being cute.

We never could find any actual Snowies. Our trip list suffered for it, but we soldiered on.

Black-bellied Plovers were in abundance, as expected, and were looking mighty fine and crispy. At another site, we saw some get strung as American Golden-Plovers...which isn't a digression of the Summer Tanager-Blackburnian Warbler class, but very typical all the same. One past trip report I read from the area (probably at the same site where this misidentification went down) showed photos of an obvious American Golden-Plover, with the author discussing how it was an Upland Sandpiper and how he convinced his whole dubious group of the identification.

Geri, how do you do it? The blunders never cease.

Continuing with the plover theme, Piping Plovers are very lovable and easy to find at Bolivar. I wish I could have spent some more time with them, as they are worth all the time in the world. Speaking of time being a Piping Plover (as opposed to a flat circle), this species has grown into a major blocker in California...I think we are due for another.

One of the great perks of birding the UTC (and the thing that mostly makes the birding so great in the first place) is seeing migrants drop straight in from who-knows-where, like these Wilson's Phalaropes did. Yankee bravos! Oh by the way, you can potentially get ticketed for parking here without a beach pass, which you can apparently get from many local businesses. We just missed getting busted by a couple minutes one day.

Dan found a sand friend (sand-friend), and leaned in to hear what he had to say. His sandy compatriot whispered, "Your work here is finished, my friend. Go out to the command ship and await my orders."

Not as famous as Bolivar Flats but birded just as hard (since it is conveniently halfway between High Island and Bolivar) is Rollover Pass. We didn't see anything too juicy here but there was an enormous tern flock (mostly Commons) here one day.

Back to Anahuac! Yes, I will stoop to taking Cattle Egret photos. Disgusting, I know. What won't I do? Well, you don't get to be #7 by being classy. I will say that I won't chase unambiguous escaped birds though...some things are just wrong. Mandarin Ducks come to mind...seems like quite a few have turned into chase targets in recent years, which defies logic. The only Mandarin Duck I've seen was by accident, and I feel shame in even mentioning it.

Least Bittern in a classic pose. This is much better than a Mandarin Duck. I'm amazed this photo came out, I was pretty much shooting into the sun. Bless you Least Bittern, mysterious wraith of the reeds. Bless you Nikon, god of cameras.

Piles of Purple Gallinules await you on the Shoveler Pond Loop, where they are acclimated to cars and aren't shy. Check out the length of that gallinule talon!

Common Nighthawks were indeed common on multiple days. We didn't have the luck to blunder in to any Eastern Whip-poor-wills anywhere, but incredibly had a day-flying Chuck-will's-widow cruise high over Officer Shaw's Sugar Land yard right before yours truly had to drag himself to the airport. Classic April Magic in Texas.

Dipper Dan and I specifically went down into the bowels of the refuge in search of Seaside Sparrow, which I've only seen a few of and Dan had not seen at all. Finding them was an easy task...there were dozens of them out in Yellow Rail Prairie, singing and displaying everywhere. Seaside Sparrows galore! We were chuffed. Despite our Great Success with seeing copious amounts of Seaside Sparrows, we never did connect with any Nelson's here or anywhere else.

On the way back in from Trinity Bay and the Seaside Sparrows, we stopped at the one and only little woodlot next to the road before the Shoveler Pond turnoff. It was hella birdy! And there was a drip! In eBird this is called the Jackson Prairie Woodlot - I had never heard of it before but it was quite birdy, and I recommend it highly. We saw very few Blackpoll Warblers that week, this is the only one I got deec photos of.

While we had to put some work in daily to find Blackpolls, the other monochrome warbler migrating through the area was abundant day in and day out. Yes, you are in for a treat...I am talking about the Black-and-white Warbler.

On one emotional, tear-filled night, a choked up Dipper Dan confessed to me how much Black-and-white Warblers mean to him. Luckily for Dan, we saw them pretty much constantly. He had Black-and-white Fever, flogging the migrant patches for maximum Black-and-white yield.

Who am I to argue with these warblers, these feelings, these interesting approaches? Not even #7 has jurisdiction over such things.

Speaking of fevers and waking one point my head became tongue swelled up, and a salty liquid discharged from my eyes. What had gone wrong? Was this the end of Seagull Steve? It almost was. You see, Bay-breasted Warblers also occupied the woodlot, and this bird was suddenly gleaning about unnervingly close to me, closer than I've ever been before. The crippling effects of this species are not well-publicized compared to other warbler species, but I assure you they are very real and very serious. I thought this was a close call, but it was nothing compared to what I was about to experience at Sabine Woods...more on Sabine in the next installment.

Yet another Philadelphia Vireo that loves to forage in close proximity to people. This is the people's vireo, the vireo of the commons. Philadelphia Vireos are for all to enjoy. For a bird that is misidentified so much, they sure are considerate about trying to make sure everyone gets to see them well.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

A Summer Dispatch from Rancho de Bastardos and the Five Mile Radius

I lied. The newest BB&B post will not be about about we change it up? What about the local birding? What is the good word? How are things going at Rancho de Bastardos? What of the Five Mile Radius (5MR)? As everyone knows, you can't be a birding darling without birding locally!

Well we renewed our lease of Rancho de Bastardos, so will be holding it down at least until next spring. The current Rancho list stands at 122, with 6 new species so far this year: Lesser Scaup (expected), Phainopepla (very unexpected), Purple Finch (expected), Red-breasted Merganser (quite unexpected), Rufous Hummingbird (not necessarily expected), and Orange-crowned Warbler (long expected). A hoped-for-but-unsurprising Snow Goose showed up right at the end of 2017, found by my dad who was visiting from out of town (above).

Getting new yard birds this year has been a major pain, and I suspect I won't be getting another until August or September...the potential for new birds before then is really low, especially if the ponds behind the house remain too full to be attractive to shorebirds...but if shorebird habitat was actually allowed to develop, there are a whole bunch of new birds that could potentially drop in. Same old story...the impossibilities are truly endless. A crippling drake Wood Duck hung out right behind our back fence for a morning earlier in the month, which was a life-affirming (if not life-changing) summer surprise and a new one for the 2018 Rancho list. Speaking of which, the 2018 Rancho list is at a solid 104, and with a little luck I think 120 can be reached by the end of the year.

This seemed like a good spring for migrant hummingbirds in the county (namely Rufous and Calliope), and multiple Selasphorus made visits to the feeders at Rancho de Bastardos in the spring. All the males seen well enough to ID were Rufous (above), though several females and an immature male or two could not be identified to species. I'll be on the lookout for Allen's Hummingbird next spring, a prime candidate for the yard list.

The putative White-throated x White-crowned Sparrow hybrid ended up hanging out for several weeks in April. Here is a head-on shot that shows the crown pattern pretty well, which is a closer match to White-throated but doesn't perfectly match either species.

Compare it to this White-crowned (presumably pugetensis). All of the Rancho's Zonotrichia migrated north while I was in Texas in late April, not a single bird remained by the time I got home. I guess they had an exit plan.

In other bastard news, Annabelle can now identify Mallards ("duck"), Canada geese ("gee"), Mourning Doves ("duhv") and California ground-squirrels ("wheeo"). She even made a rudimentary song about the goes "Whee-oh, Whee-oh, Whee-oh, Whee-oh." Fully legit. She also peed on my binocular strap and on my camera case the other day, which is not a problem I've dealt with previously.

My 5MR list has matured nicely this year as well, and has climbed to a modest 156, surpassing my previous 5MR based in Albany. Many (most?) of you have higher 5MR lists, but I am pleased with how mine is progressing, nay burgeoning...I've already added 19 species to it in 2018. Let's hear it for local birding! This is about 65% of my entire Santa Clara County list, which I think is a nice ratio and reflective of what the 5MR has to offer relative of the general area.

If only eBird could whip up a quick target list for my 5MR...

They are an abundant bird in the bay area and they are in my yard every day, but since I grew up in a chickadee-depauperate part of the state they still hold some novelty for me. This Chestnut-backed Chickadee was photographed on the Los Alamitos Creek trail in San Jose, in the 5MR of course.

On the same trail on another day, I came across a Turkey Vulture feeding on a deer carcass (note the ribcage in the upper right). This generally isn't blogworthy, especially considering the rubbish quality of the photo, but this section of trail wasn't next to a road (it's actually separated from area roads by a tall fence) and the trail was saturated with warnings of mountain lion sightings. I think this deer wasn't taken down by a Jaguar, but by a mountain lion, know what I'm saying? Eh? Eh?

The southern half of my 5MR is absolutely brimming with Acorn Woodpeckers. It is the cradle of Acorn Woodpecker civilization as far as I know. This is the sort of bird that you want around in great abundance, especially when they aren't wary of people. Photographed at Guadalupe Oaks County Park.

While we are on the hot topic of 5MRs and the perpetually hot eBird, I have a proposal to make. Those of you who have an ear open for you at eBird Central Command (or are a part of Central Command) should tell them to embrace the 5MR. I know almost half of you who read this are eBird reviewers, so we have a nice, potentially powerful little lobby here. The 5MR encourages local birding, it encourages birding lightly-covered (or uncovered) areas (a major goal for eBird), and it encourages eBird use (an even greater goal for eBird). If a 5MR tool is added to patch lists, 5MRs will become the shining jewel of that feature. So eBird, go ahead and do a quick interview with everyone's favorite famous post-Oregon birder Flycatcher Jen, add a 5MR feature, and let it rip! Many birders will chill back on their excessive checking of Top 100 state and county lists, and be all about comparing the Top 100 5MRs in their states and counties instead. This will really level the playing field for those who are interested in comparing patch lists, considering that many users (including have bullshit patches that are hundreds of square miles.  Anyhow, do us all a favor and let eBird know...if they actually had some interest in this idea, things may never be the same.

I'll close this post out with series of Great Egret vs. gopher shots from the Los Alamitos Creek Trail, part of my 5MR I've been birding on the reg. It's a nice zone and has some Vague (not vague) potential, unfortunately it starts getting real crowded by mid-morning...but when you live in a city with over a million people, what do you expect? Gross...

Surprisingly, the gopher ate the egret in the end.

Jk the egret won, gopher-egret matches are always fixed. I'm glad I don't have to worry about being impaled by giant birds, just stuff like cholesterol. More from Texas in the next post, for reals.

Word is bond.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Anauhac National Wildlife Refuge

If you haven't been, one of the great things about doing a trip to the High Island area is all the other superb birding opportunities (that can be as good or better) that are there for the taking within an hour's drive. Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge is a large refuge northwest of High Island that demands attention, and I went a couple different times with This Machine Nate and Dipper Dan. Chances are you've been there or have heard about it, so I won't blast you with too many accolades about it other than saying that I think it might actually be underrated for viewing springtime Neotropical migrants - marsh birds typically get most of the attention there.

This tyrant isn't exactly newsworthy - Eastern Kingbirds are abundant at Anahuac - but I will give EAKIs the attention they deserve, especially when they are down to be crushed.

Migrants can and do appear frequently and randomly along the roadsides, like this Blue Grosbeak. This is a big refuge so a lot of migrants are dropping in throughout the area in spring, but there aren't many conspicuous wooded areas to concentrate warblers, vireos and other tree-hugging species.

Where there are trees, there can be quite a few birds. The area at the main entrance of the refuge (across from the restroom) had a smattering of migrants, although the scattered planted trees there didn't exactly scream "migrant trap"...but in this area, practically any clump of trees can hoover in spring migrants. This obliging Philadelphia Vireo gave great looks.

I've seen a lot of vireos over the years, and have come to the following conclusion: the most obliging vireo species north of Mexico are Philadelphia and Hutton's. Perhaps this behavior, what biologists describe as "not giving a fuck", lends these species species certain advantages, much as it can with Homo sapiens.

Tell your friends.

Some Scarlet Tanagers were also being obliging, giving only one or two fucks.

You know it's happening when stuff is on the ground that shouldn't be on the ground.

I may be #7, but I am not a King Rail expert. That said, I will claim that Anahuac is one of the best places to see them, and there are great numbers of them there (and Clapper Rails, and presumably intergrades too). This little King Rail chick got separated from its fam and was running around on the road and Shoveler Pond boardwalk, calling pitifully for its parents before finally leaping off the boardwalk back into the marsh. I was afraid some rednecks were going to push it all the way to the end of the boardwalk (where it most certainly would be fucked), but they were surprisingly patient with it and waited for it to go on its way. I say this because a few minutes earlier one of them tried to move a big turtle off the road, but then dropped it onto the pavement upside down, kicked it back over, then left it there.

That's not how I would have done it.

Here is an adult King Rail Officer Shaw rustled up for us in a ditch just outside the refuge. Heckof colorful, even when partially obscured. This is a bird I haven't seen in over a decade...not quite a "relifer", but close to it.

This Machine picked out this American Bittern hunting near the Shoveler Pond boardwalk. It's been some years since I had the chance to see one this well. Mellowing.

Other events that transpired on this boardwalk:

*We saw a Glossy Ibis. Twice. That's a good bird. Double good.

*One birder was totally bored and unimpressed by the above bittern because it wasn't a Least Bittern. I've never seen a birder so utterly unenthused by an American Bittern before, didn't know that was a thing.

*Another birder thought this was a Least Bittern!

*Barn Swallows were nesting under the boardwalk, offering point-blank views as they are prone to do. A pair of birders identified them as Purple Martins...unbelievable. They were from Oregon.

*At the parking area, some out of shape Geris asked us if they should even bother walking on the boardwalk. They were not joking, they really wanted to know.

The boardwalk seems to be an excellent place to document birder blunders and to take in all the beauty and grace that mankind has to offer.

The UTC is thick with Least Bitterns. This one was teed up on a shrub next to the road, which I suppose is not a weird thing there (it is in California).

To this west coast birder, Sedge Wren is a really good bird. I've never seen one in California and maybe never will...haven't seen one in years anywhere, in fact. I was surprised to find that not only are they abundant in the UTC, they remain so all the way through April, even though they don't breed in the region.

Once I locked down their song in my head, it didn't take long to realize I was surrounded by Sedge Wrens almost everywhere I went. Bizarre...I did not know they were so abundant there.

Novel Sedge Wren pose. It's hard to believe that a number of species shaped like they shouldn't be flying more than ten feet at a time are actually accomplished migrants, i.e. Sedge Wrens, Yellow Rails. Impressive...most impressive.

My worst misidentification of the trip (I think) was of this fat black water was big and girthy and sunning itself at the edge of a pond. I thought it was a cottonmouth at first.

But look at that face. That blank, vapid, round-pupiled face. That is not a cottonmouth face.

The first thing some visitors will see at the refuge is a Cliff Swallow impaled on a spike (left bird) under the veranda where folks like to get lunch. Come on refuge, dick move.

This post is running long...more from Anahuac in the next post! And Bolivar Flats!