Sunday, July 17, 2016

Split, Lump, Whinge, Repeat

I am now king of the scrub-jays, having seen California, Florida, Island (above) and Woodhouse's. With that milestone, I now just need to become the king of...lots of other things. 

When I first started birding, I had seen one species of scrub-jay. This is not because I hadn't yet been to places like Santa Cruz Island, Arizona or Florida, it is because the only scrub-jay that "officially" existed was the Scrub Jay. Now, the Scrub Jay has been left by the wayside, stripped of its capital letters but gaining a hyphen...and most notably was made into four separate taxa. We've come a long way.

The newest American Ornithologists Union (AOU ) supplement just came out, and a lot of birders are happy with gotta love armchair lifers, or at least I do. Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay was my only addition from north of Mexico, but I got several more from Mexico and Costa Rica. I did not delifer at all, which is how I prefer it when these supplements come out. I'm not anti-lump, I just dislike losing birds. You understand. The vast majority of birders in North America bend the knee to the AOU (the king in the north!) regarding what is considered a full species and what is not, though we are rarely totally happy with what they decide.

Lesser Violetear was one of my armchair lifers. While I am pleased that I now have Mexican Violetear and Lesser Violetear instead of plain old Green Violetear, many are left wondering why the name Lesser Violetear was chosen...there is no Greater Violetear, after all. But hey, I'll take yet another poor bird name if that means a legit split got to go through.

What fascinates me is that there are a number of birders out there who are can't stand all this tinkering with species. They are neither splitters nor lumpers, they just dislike the amount of splitting and lumping that goes on. They are essentially against taxonomic revisions altogether. They dislike the new names, the new species. To them, this is just a nuisance, something they have to endure. Why is this so?

A poor grasp of science comes to mind immediately. Believe it or not, a lot of people fail to comprehend that our understanding of science is constantly changing, and overall these changes are improvements. Like many people, many birders don't really understand basic scientific concepts. People like to pigeonhole things, it's in our nature, at least culturally, and the tendency of pigeonholing is at direct odds with the changing ways we perceive and describe the world around us. We don't want to find out that the planet is not round, that the sun does not rotate around Earth, that American Coot and Caribbean Coot are conspecific. So while a lot of folks are really hung up on things staying the way they were originally taught, science marches on.

There is another reason birders advocate for a static taxonomy...they have trouble being up to date. In other words, they are simply unaware that the AOU is responsible for making these decisions and that it happens annually. A surprising number of birders believe that the American Birding Association (whose primary focus is advocating birding, not science) is "in charge" of splitting and lumping, which is indicative of the general ignorance on this topic out there in birderdom.

Finally, there is a distinction between birding and ornithology. Not all ornithologists are birders, at least not in the traditional sense. One does not simply earn the title of ornithologist after a few years of birding. Almost all birders are not ornithologists (no, "field ornithologists" don't count in this case). Science does not have to answer to the whims of birders; that's just how it is, but some birders have great difficult accepting this.

There is no doubt that birders have a lot to contribute when it comes to the field of ornithology, such as documenting the abundance and distribution of seabirds like Long-tailed Jaeger. That does not entitle reluctant birders to a moratorium on updating avian taxonomy. The AOU does not have a list enforcement arm (unlike bird record committees), so if you don't like what they do, you don't have to play by their lists.

Obviously the AOU is not perfect. If you follow the AOU very closely, you are probably aware there is no shortage of criticisms that can be lobbed at them. One could say that they act extremely slowly, they give birds poor names, they split things that should not be split and they lump things that should not be lumped. However, no one who is well-versed in taxonomic relationships, and science in general, advocates for keeping taxonomy static. There is no reason to release a single AOU supplement every 25 years just to make sure all the whinging birders are ready for it. Advocating for a fixed list of species is basically just saying "Fuck off, science. I don't want to be bothered by things changing"...and that, obviously, is a myopic, selfish and bizarre way of viewing the world. If you want to reject the fact that our collective knowledge of birds is constantly growing and changing, then you can go ahead and reject the names of birds and established species altogether. Call the Common Gallinule an American Coot one can stop you. Lesser Nighthawk?, that is a Greater Daybat. Island Scrub-Jay? Napes. Mainland Blue-Flapper.

A lot of species that we now take for granted were once considered two or more species, or lumped in with other species. Long-billed Dowitcher was once considered a subspecies of Short-billed Dowitcher (above).

It all comes down to change...the last thing the world needs are more people who cannot accept the fruit of new studies and research, and the accompanying changes in the way which we understand said fruit. Sure we can be skeptical and not accept everything the AOU does as ordained by the gods of ornithology (though much of what the AOU does is ordained by ornithological gods), but change is going to come and that isn't something to be afraid of. You don't have to agree with it. The science in this field is not always perfect (the infamous Kumlien's Gull study comes to mind), as we are imperfect beings...but all the world's authoritative entities on bird taxonomy (the AOU, the IOC, the Clements checklist) can agree on one thing...taxonomy should be updated regularly. In attempting to refine the relationships between the world's birds, trying to figure out the passenger manifest of Noah's Ark is not going to cut it!

Will Red Crossbills ever be split? There was a lot of hype about it for years...but maybe an 8-way split is just too gnarly, and perhaps it is just simply not deserved...these "types" are thought to have diverged less than 100,000 years ago (for comparison, Eastern and Western Willets diverged 700,000 years ago). Whatever new information that can be gleaned about Red Crossbill types and how they are related will be fascinating to learn. Whole new frontiers of bird knowledge are opening up, and I hope those who would rather drag their sluggish feet in the past will eventually want to keep pace with the rest of us, regardless of whether field guides change or not.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Sierra Summer Birding Part I

Back in early June, Billy and I ditched the bay area and headed east into the Sierras. We were destined for Mono County, but to get there we had to endure the grotesque and horrible Yosemite National Park. Most people go to Yosemite Park, but I have a habit of just driving through it on the Lee Vining-Oakland commute. There are worse places to have to fact, most places are worse. We did stop and walk around a few random complaints about Mountain Quail, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Townsend's Solitaire, Nashville and MacGillivray's Warblers, Green-tailed Towhees...not to mention delicious, fresh mountain air. A few Mountain Bluebirds were taking in the air at Tuolumne Meadows (above).

This yellow-bellied marmot was holding it down at the meadows as well. Good luck getting this as a lowland vagrant.

Nothing was blooming in the meadows yet...a good portion was still under water. The marmot was probably still groggy from being asleep for months, unlike their Pika relatives who stay awake through the winter.

That afternoon and the following day was spent bouncing around Mono Basin...Vesper, Brewer's and Sagebrush Sparrows were quality year birds, and what I think was a Black-throated Sparrow (only sang once from a great distance away) was almost a nice year bird as well. Some Brant at Mono County Park (later seen at Rush Creek Delta on the south side of the lake) were pleasantly rare, and a bewildering number of Virginia Rails made a cacophony of unfamiliar sounds...they do more than just grunt, take that to heart. A couple random Geris (not birders) pointed out a Golden Eagle nest up Lundy Canyon, and thus I got my lifer Golden Eagle chick. The Grub showed us what he had been doing with the DeChambeau/County Ponds...I think he is determined to pull in some kind of meguh vague runt there some day, but he is currently content to nurture the sizable Yellow-headed Blackbird colony; a lone ibis and Blue-winged Teal were deec county birds for me. White-breasted Nuthatches of the Great Basin flavor were fairly common and scattered about, patiently waiting to be split into their own species. Looking for Black-backed Woodpeckers at a burn along Owens River Road was fruitless, but we did get White-headed Woodpecker, Bank Swallow and a weird sunbow (above).

That night I got hammered at the Mono Inn, which was entirely predictable.

The next morning we headed up to Virginia Lakes, which is heck of high, hella scenic and features one of the few decent Geribirding spots in the entire state. Mountain Chickadees were there (not shocking), and I hung out with this particularly confiding bird for a bit as it foraged close by.

Mountain Chickadee is my favorite chickadee...maybe from birding Lockwood Valley (Ventura County) as a kid, but I'm not entirely sure why. They sound superior to all other chickadees, in my opinion, and they've got that white eyebrow that sets them apart from everything else. Boreal Chickadees are cool, but all the others haven't built a cavity nest in my heart like Mountain Chickadees have. I guess I can't comment on Gray-headed Chickadee, but when the fuck am I going to see one of those?

Where there is Geribirding, there will be finches of some kind. Because Virginia Lakes is so damn high, Cassin's Finch was the only finch on the menu while we were there.

Living in Oakland the past few years, I don't get into high country often enough, so Cassin's Finches are still fun to look at...familiarity breeds contempt and all that. Note the classic streaking on the undertail coverts.

Take a gander at the length of those primaries...that is a bird built for wandering. You wouldn't want to get into a dispersing contest with a Cassin's Finch.

Clark's Nutcrackers were raging...I'm not sure if I'd seen so many at once before. It looked like whole family groups were coming in to eat peanuts.

Nutcrackers, as some of you know, are vital to the health of whitebark pine forests. It's not often you see a bird that essentially manages the forest you are standing in.

Judging by the short bill, this is a hatch year bird. It looks like there are a bunch of very fresh tertials growing in as well.

While Virginia Lakes is always dependable for nutcrackers, birders come here for another reason...Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch. There is no better place in the state to see them in the summer without burning a few thousand calories in the process, which is very unappealing to most birders.

The Rosy-finches finally came in to the resort's feeder after almost two hours of waiting, and promptly got down to the business of gorging. It's not the most "natural" setting, but rosy-finches are crippling birds and they are damn hard to get to (at least in this state) so I'm not going to complain if they want to frolic in a pile of seed right in front of me.

Why there are so few pink-feathered birds is unbeknownst to me. It's a very fetching color on birds, especially passerines. Rosies are just killing it with the pink-black-gray-chocolate brown combo.

Speaking of combos, here is a Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch-Least Chipmunk combo. Of all the avian and mammalian visitors to this Geribirding oasis, rosy-finches are probably the least wary of humans. It warmed my small, shriveled nerd-heart to see these creatures close up once much so that I am going to Colorado this month just to look at Brown-capped Rosy-Finches to keep that rosy flame burning. Well that is not the only reason, but it would be a damn fine year bird, no doubt about that. If I had a dollar for every day I've seen Brown-capped Rosy-Finch, I would dollar.

I would prefer to have two.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

It's that time. The Big Rain has returned to the thirsty Sonoran.

San Pedro River Valley, southern Arizona. Monsoon season.
Boiling morning water on the edge of a field. Botteri's Sparrow in duet with the dry, rustling grassland. Coffee and milk put to sound. The conversation is sparse and sleepy at first. We are all overwhelmed by the simple fact of having seen so many staggering birds in such a short period of time. Everyone is wincing even though we are taking our coffee in the shade. Too much beauty over the last few days. It is a tolerable pain. 

Who was Botteri? How did he die? The talk drifts between open-ended inquiry and observations of the surrounding phenomena. Rustle of cottonwood leaves. Ants circle the coffee pot. What winged facemelt awaits us today? The timing of the coffee's detonation within our brains coincides perfectly with our mounting bird lust. Camp is quickly broke and we set off across the field to the riparian and the promiscuity of more birds.

Already, the seeds of cumulus clouds are above us. They will grow steadily throughout the day. The monsoon is a slow and relentless clock, its ticking the strange midday darkness that creeps in and replaces the desert light. Great gray billows that will rip open under the weight of water, stitches blown out and the world below violently bathed. Mexican-born butterflies will saturate the air in the wake of this deluge and later, after the sun ignites the torn clouds during its setting, we will fall asleep listening to elf owl families work the night. Dreams of violet-crowned hummingbirds disappearing into sycamore cavities and emerging with firestones. Of finding a covey of scaled quail tucked away in the bottomless pockets of your coat. Wake up and live the day over again.

The field is slowly crossed. We bow to the singing Botteri's as we pass. The cottonwood and willowwall of the river loom large before us. The sounds within this riverine cathedral are kaleidoscopic. Waterwords and morning chorus. Our eyes in the treetops, we are startled by a nearby voice that joins the divine racket. 
'What a place. What a place,' it sings. 
A squat elderly man ambles toward us, his bird head cane swinging wildly. Bohemian in dress, he regards us from out the corner of his weathered and watery eyes. Ancient but excellent field glasses hang from his neck. 
'Sure is beautiful in there. Feels like I just been to church.' 
Spontaneous river spirit, his talk and demeanor at this boundary render him wise and gnome-like in our minds. None of us can manage a morning hello to this wraith.
'Looking for any birds in particular this fine morning? I know this spot pretty good.'
'A cuckoo would be nice,' someone eventually offers.
'Oh, there's cuckoos alright,' he chuckles. 'Take a seat, get comfortable and they'll come and find you.' And with a wave of his cane, the strange sentinel teeters off into the field, his quiet cackling mixing with the dry rustling of the grasses, with the Botteri's.
We turn back from him and regard the river, nay, this church, before us. In the old man's wake, a vast reverence has befallen the world. We are hushed and our pace slowed as we advance towards the water.

Gray hawks and kingfisher calls pepper the air, rising staccatos that spike the blood.
Thrashersongs in the distance and Myiarchus flycatchers darting through the mid-canopy, calling between their crushing of insects bodies.  The drunken hiccups of a summer tanager. Various makes of warblers, yellow, Lucy's, beastly chat, scrawl through the treetops. The river reflecting the world above it, whispering back all the songs it hears. I shut my eyes. It is too much. All together, it is too much.

By themselves, the sights are breathtaking. Alone, the songs an ecstasy. But taken together I feel as if my heart will give out. Which would be welcome. Let me expire in this place, my broken body tumbling into the river. Warm near-corpse floating downstream. The splinted sunlight as a heron descends to pluck my eyes are the last things I see of this world. Let every one of these beautiful winged souls take a bit of me as I sail away, bloating in the day's building heat, fish and water bugs feeding in my shadow from below.

Still alive. Eyes still closed. With effort, I can still make out Botteri's song.

A faint misting against my face. Too early for the monsoon. Haven't heard the boom of the thunderclap yet, either. The boom always comes first, a great gong announcing the imminent reckoning. 
No, this is just a sprinkling. I make mention of it and everyone can feel it now. Eyes skyward to check the clouds. Someone notices movement in the branches high above. We raise our binoculars in unified ritual. Supplication to whatever lurks above.  
A cuckoo, yellow-billed and wild-eyed. In its beak is a massive caterpillar. The bird is beating the larva to death against a branch and with each whack, guts of the caterpillar explode from it and rain down upon us.
We are being bathed in innards.

When the clouds finally broke that day, it was the great cuckoo in the sky at work. Feeding the earth with its violence, the rivers swollen with hemolymph. The world baptized in viscera.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Business, Spring Gulling, and Dreams Really Do Come True

We are in the depths of summer now...there is no doubt about it. You know how I can tell? If I wake up late on a Saturday morning I don't have immediate FOMO, thinking there is some rare bird nearby that I should be looking at. It's a disappointment, and also a relief, but reminds me that I should just be out birding anyways.

I do have some more spring birding to catch up on, so let's get to it. After the Siberians packed up and left, it was out to the Hayward Regional Shoreline marshes to look for some migrant Black Terns and a vague runt Laughing Gull. The crippling Black Terns had packed up and left the night before, but the modest young Laughing Gull was easy enough to find, picking up and periodically flying above a Least Tern breeding colony. This is only the third I've seen in the state away from the Salton Sea, and is an exceedingly good bird in this half of California.

By this time, local breeders were already conducting their reproductive business, while other lingering migrants in the area still had thousands of miles to go before they were in the right business-conducting habitat. Black-necked Stilts had already made their cute fuzzy precious babies.

Black Oystercatchers poke around the rocks at Middle Harbor Shoreline Park, in Oakland. They are my favorite resident shorebird. They put a lot more effort into chick-rearing than the other local shorebirds, actually delivering food to their chicks (plover and sandpiper chicks do their own foraging) and continuing to do so for months. Chicks that survive to fledging are thought to migrate with their parents.

That said, I have no idea if the birds present in the bay area through summer are year-round residents or disperse in fall, or both. Our winter climate is pretty tame compared to some of the places they winter, so it seems like there would be a lot of permanent territories here.

This is the view looking west at downtown San Francisco from Middle's not very far away. There are some Red Knots in that shorebird flock between the Canada Geese, which was a nice addition to my patch list.

In late May I went with Billy and several nerds to Point Reyes, with high hopes of eastern vagrants and low expectations to match. Low expectations won out, but it was still a nice day on the point. A couple Rhinoceros Auklets close to shore were a surprise, and hundreds of Pacific Loons migrating past Chimney Rock made for a mellow consolation. The resident Great Horned Owl pair at Mendoza Ranch successfully stopped traffic.

The Common Murre colony below the lighthouse was getting crowded. There is much business to do.

The secret-not-so-secret Western Screech-Owl in Lafayette was still holding it down in May. It's possible this bird did no business at all this year. Here it is dreaming about sitting in a tree cavity all day....luckily for the owl, its dream happens to be its reality.

Earlier in the spring, Billy and I checked out Briones Regional Park after a rain. Other than a Golden Eagle, the birding was pretty weak, so I had to find pleasure in the nonavian. California newts were on the move and provided the pleasure that I was seeking.

One patch along the trail was particularly rife with fungus. I don't know much about fungus, but my friend Christian does...check out his blog! Christian is not just another breed of nerd with a blog though, he just coauthored a pioneering mushroom identification guide that any west coast mycofiend would do well to own. Read all about that here.

I just don't know what to caption a fungal photo with. I know nothing about fungus. This kind likes logs and is pretty.

We better get another bird in here...I don't want ya'll to get intimidated by expertise in mycology. Aside from dipping repeatedly on the gannet at Half Moon Bay this year, I managed to gather up the Kelp Gull to join in my Half Moon Bay Dip Party. The only interesting bird I saw at the mouth of Pilarcitos Creek was this bird on the right. The contrast between the mantle of this bird and the surrounding California Gulls was even starker IRL than it is here. It was so freaking pale...but it was just a California Gull! Gulls continue to amaze and enrage me.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Night Is Dark And Full Of Ptarmigan

Last night I dreamed about White-tailed Ptarmigan. A new population had been discovered in Sierra County, California. There really is a small ptarmigan population in California, but they are introduced. What was odd about this group of birds was that they were located at a mid-elevation site, far lower than they are normally found anywhere in the Lower 48. I got a brief look at one, somehow, even though I had no intention of chasing them. There was a huge crowd of birders gathered to see them, just throngs of them...which I did not understand, because I knew how they got there. You see, all of these birders thought this was a previously unknown naturally-occurring population, and I knew otherwise. They had been put there, Tyrion Lannister. He told me so.

If you watch Game of Thrones, you can appreciate how absurd this, and if you don't, stop what you're doing and start watching Thrones. Let me make it clear that it was in fact Tyrion Lannister who informed me where they came from, not Peter Dinklage. I also dreamed a non-birding friend of mind showed me a photo of what he claimed was an adult Slaty-backed Gull. The primary pattern looked good but the primary tips were awfully gray (not black), so I thought it was probably a hybrid. This dream was not as good as the ptarmigan dream.

Thursday, June 23, 2016


You might not think that folks try to string Belted Kingfishers into Green Kingfishers like this one...but folks do, trust me. The people who are prone to doing this are, without fail, serial offenders of attempting to make common birds into less common birds. The Great Ornithologist Felonious Jive has broken his long silence at 10,000 Birds and talks about these people...these stringers. But this is no long-winded whinge session...he is trying to bring these hapless stringers into the light of good birding. Read all about it right here.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Train Wreck: The Siberian Express Derails in California

Spring is a loathsome time in California when it comes to rare shorebirds...compared to fall migration, they are very, very hard to come by. It is worthwhile to search for the very occasional Hudsonian Godwit or White-rumped Sandpiper, sure, but what about Sibes? It is a sad state of affairs.

Several years ago, while I was out in Texas, a freak Marsh Sandpiper was seen for a couple days in Solano County. A Marsh Sandpiper is a meguh. It's a species birders wistfully look at in their books and think "maybe I'll see one in Alaska some day", or, more commonly, "yeah, right". Being out of state saved me from some of the pain and stress I would have experienced if I was back at home and not seen it, and I just wrote the bird off as one of those things that I will just have to live with. Something to live with, and something to die with, in a nagging, unresolved way.

Earlier this year, the impossible happened...a Marsh Sandpiper was reported less than two hours from my house. In April! An hour later it had been confirmed, and I was on my way. After a short wait, the bird reappeared and provided great looks for the next hour and a half. This was not a life bird I was anticipating to get on this continent, but that is California birding for you.

The bird showed off its distinct white back wedge on a number of occasions. Though it never wandered very close to the birders, it was very cooperative. I couldn't believe my luck. I always thought I would see something like a Spotted Redshank (which is absurdly, painfully rare) in the state before a Marsh Sandpiper, yet here the bird was.

It had something like a Wilson's Phalarope X Lesser Yellowlegs structure. Luckily, I did not have to listen to any birders make the ludicrous suggestion that this is what the bird really was. Yeah, it's gotten to the point where I'd rather hear about blatant misidentifications rather than hybrid conspiracy theories.

This is one of the best birds, in terms of rarity, that I've seen in California over all these years. Considering I really like Sibes and I really like shorebirds, it's a tough one to top (though Common Scoter and Salvin's Albatross come to mind). It's not a flashy species, but damn it was a satisfying bird to see.

What is the deal with Red-necked Phalaropes? They are very pleasant birds. They are shorebirds, but they swim. You can see them way out at sea or far from the sea. They look fantastic in spring and not so bad in fall. Impressive credentials. Photographed at Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge.

Red-necked Phalaropes are masters at picking edible crud off the surface of the water, and they make it look good.

Eared Grebes were also in abundance, all in slick black and gold alternate plumage. But Red-necked Phalarope and Eared Grebe were not the bird we were seeking. In a dramatic development, a Little Stint had been found here two days previous. That's right...another April vague runt shorebird...another April Sibe...another bird I had never seen in California, or any other place in my life. What were the chances? We trolled the side of a salty impoundment, back and forth, until finally another birder got all stinty.

Little Stint! Little Stint! Unlike the Marsh Sandpiper, which is unfathomably rare, this is a bird that I had been waiting a long time...a long time. They are pretty much annual in California, but I had never come across one, and my time on Buldir Island back in the day had yielded only (!) Red-necked and Long-toed. The bird foraged earnestly out in the impoundment with a group of Dunlin and Western Sandpipers...this may sound dumb, but I didn't expect it to be so...little. The bill was indeed slight with a fine tip, not at all what I would expect from a Semipalmated...but that seems like something that could be easily overlooked by just about anybody who didn't have spring stints on the brain.

The internet played a big role in developing the story of this rarity as well...Will Brooks, who found it, originally thought (as almost anyone would) that this was a Semipalmated Sandpiper, but the eBird reviewer (I believe it was Marshall Iliff) who looked at his photos thought Little Stint was a better fit. Word got out, and the following day photos were obtained showing that the bird lacked any webbing between its toes. The rest is birding history.

That's it on the left, being dwarfed by a Western Sandpiper. Even in the harsh light at a less than ideal distance, you could make out the rufous edging to the alternate tertials that had recently molted in. I couldn't believe my luck...three consecutive weeks in early spring had bore fruit in the form of Glossy Ibis, Marsh Sandpiper and Little Stint, a state bird and two lifers. This put a temporary end to whisky-fueled nights of screaming unintelligible obscenities and shaking my fist at the night sky.

I went back a couple times afterward to get better looks at the bird, to no avail. Instead, I got to see these avocets fuck. They sure make it look elegant. Pretty sure people look like trolls in comparison when they do the deed...actually, I am absolutely sure about this.

Even the dismount looked graceful.

Post-coital avocets are just the cutest thing. This is their version of spooning.

Even in the eye of a spring storm of Siberian meguhs, I can still stop and appreciate the rufous and chevrons of a Western Sandpiper. Ignoring Western Sandpipers isn't going to solve anything.

Of course, April birding in the bay area is not all hot-shit vague runts, hell, this might be the first and last time...but there are locally rare my grunts to look for. I live just a couple minutes from Emeryville, so one day after work I lurked over to the Emeryville Marina to check out a Gray Flycatcher that Aaron Maizlish had found.

Aaron was actually leaving when I pulled up, but was kind enough to go back and point the bird out to me. He's a BB&B reader, so naturally he is a good person. The Gray Flycatcher was a nice year bird and addition to my home county list, which I generally am not very excited about. Why that is, I couldn't tell you. Gray Flycatchers are always worth garnering some excitement for, though maybe its just because I don't see them on the regular.

Compared to Dusky vs. Hammond's Flycatchers, identifying Gray Flycatchers is a walk in the park. The bill alone is usually enough to clinch it for me. Grays are rare but regular along much of the California coast; they are much easier to find as my grunts in the desert or breeders (brie duhrs?) in or near patches of sage. If there was a Sage Flycatcher, I think this would be it, but since Gray Flycatcher is a spot-on description (albeit boring), I can live with that.