Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Blazing a Fiery Trail of County Birds

As the sun sets on this Short-eared Owl (COUNTY BIRD!), so too does it set on another summer of relative birding slumber. For the rest of the year, the birding in Santa Clara should be quite good, and I hope to see more pleasant county birds like this one. Photographed at Coyote Valley Open Space Preserve.

September. Sweet, sweet September, how I've missed you. BB&B sings the praises of September each and ever year, and as long as my heart beats and about half my brain works, I will continue to do so. September just doesn't get old. In just a few short weeks, the state of local birding has gone from the hot, grim dirge of summer to that special time of year where anything can happen. September is gripping. We are no longer looking at a dim and distant light at the end of the tunnel, we are basking in the light of full bore fall migration. That holds true even here in humble Santa Clara County, where finding eastern-flavored rarities is a back-breaking (but not impossible!) task compared to the coastal counties.

I think I've said it before, but when I first moved to San Jose my main coping mechanism to unexpectedly find myself living here was getting really into birding Santa Clara County. Not obsessively, but semi-devotedly. Now, about 16 months in, I feel like I have a grasp of birding here. I know what my easiest needs are without consulting eBird, I have an inkling of where to be looking for what, and I'm very interested in checking out all the birding sites I haven't been able to visit yet.

Here are a few observations I've made about the birding here in general:

*There are lots of birders here, but not many regional or state rarities. Yup, there you have it. Since moving here, the only review bird I've seen was Will Brooks' Little Stint in August of 2017...that is over a year ago. The only other review species seen here since then that I am recalling was a Slaty-backed Gull in March, which I dipped on. Where are the vagues?

*Well I know where some of them are...they are probably flying right over my house. There are huge numbers of gulls in the county in winter, and thousands (mainly Herring, California, Glaucous-winged and Iceland) may go right over Rancho de Bastardos on some days. I suspect Slaty-backed Gull may actually be an annual bird here that just goes unseen or unidentified. There is high potential for other rare Larids, I reckon, review species and otherwise.

*Shorebirding in Santa Clara is simultaneously great and frustrating. We have numerous salt ponds but very limited access to tidal mudflats, despite being right on San Francisco Bay. This results in the weird scenario of me having seen 2 Little Stints in the county and just 1 Sanderling. Rockpipers stay further north in the bay, and we don't have any good grasspiper or Pluvialis spots. However, Santa Clara could easily be where California's next greenshank, redshank, Curlew Sandpiper, etc. shows up.

*Speaking of said salt ponds, I want to start biking around them...that way I could really cover some ground, see some shit, get to places I wouldn't normally be able to get to. The salt ponds cover a vast area and there is a lot of public access - I suppose that means I should get a bike. Or someone could get me vehicular access out there to do some shorebird surveys or something. Any takers? I am the #7 birder in the United States...and a biologist.

*Santa Clara has a number of species that other bay area counties lack or scarcely have, such as Swainson's Hawk, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Pileated Woodpecker, Yellow-billed Magpie, Canyon Wren (above, belting out its heartmelting song at Coyote Dam), Bell's and Black-chinned Sparrows and Lawrence's Goldfinches to name just a few. Although vagrants may be tough here, there is quite a good diversity of upland species overall.

*Alviso Marina may be one of the most reliable places for Black Rail in the entire country. After being relegated to the "heard only" list for years, I finally saw a Black Rail! I took a picture of a Black Rail! I have done the impossible! This wasn't a county bird like everything else photographed in this post, but who gives a shit? It's a BLACK RAIL.

So how have I done with the county birds this year? I started 2018 with 220 species in Santa Clara County. As of this writing, I've got 244 according to what eBird tracks. It ain't nothing to brag about, but I'm pleased with my progress. 250 is in my sights, a number which I see as evidence of established residency in Santa Clara County. And with fall migration now peaking for another month or so, it's possible I could get there before 2019, a year shaping up to be filled with mystery and intrigue. Since so much of my birding in the this year has not come up in BB&B, why don't we revisit some of these county birds?

Look at this COUNTY BIRD. It's not just any county bird, it's a Pileated Woodpecker, and this one gave the best looks I've had of one in my whole stupid life. I have no idea how long I stood there staring at it like an idiot. I couldn't believe my luck. It gave neither two shits, nor a fuck, about my presence. I stood as close to it as the intervening terrain and vegetation would allow. It was so engrossed in digging into this tree trunk that it wouldn't even look at me...probably because I looked like a total wanker just standing there with jaw agape. Photographed at Sanborn County Park.

With a bit of eBird sleuthing, I was able to figure out where to find a day-roosting Western Screech-Owl! I love it when piecing vague details from eBird comes together to coalesce into a COUNTY BIRD! This is only the second WESO I've been able to have truly leisurely looks at, and it was as invigorating as you would expect. There is something about the patterning on screech-owls that I find mesmerizing...fuck mossy oak, camo makers should be putting out screech-owl.

Willow Flycatchers pass through the bay area in appreciable numbers in fall. Rare breeders in California, I presume these birds are mostly coming from breeding grounds in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, but perhaps they include individuals from further east as well. For most species, we really don't know shit about migration, do we? Anyhoo I am grateful for the existence of Willow Flycatchers because they are easy to identify compared to other western Empids, unless you are trying to turn one into an Alder, in which case you are fucked. This was not only a COUNTY BIRD, but a satisfying addition to the 5MR ledger as well.

Hermit Warbler was a recent COUNTY BIRD, the last holdout of the west coast warblers. The autumnal diaspora of Hermits mostly occurs in August and September...hopefully this won't be my last of the year. This one was at Ulistac Natural Area, which seems to be the premiere (publicly accessible) migrant trap in the county. Fingers crossed this won't be the last new warbler I see in Santa Clara this fall. That would suck.

One of the best birds seen in Santa Clara in 2018 was the Anderson Lake Zone-tailed Hawk. I didn't see it. In fact, I didn't even bother looking for it, and saved myself many hours of fruitlessly standing around a parking lot in the process (most birders dipped on it). Why? My best self-found bird in the county since moving here was an immature Zone-tailed Hawk last November on Laguna Road in Coyote Valley. It is the second county record in eBird, and first photographed. Here is a classic crappy photo. COUNTY BIRD! And the first I've had the pleasure of seeing north of Santa Barbara, it is a solid rarity north of there.

Whether you give a damn about getting county birds or not, I hope you all have a good September. Bay area birders, please find something like Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Gray-cheeked Thrush or Cerulean Warbler. Those would be STATE birds...

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Masked/Nazca Booby in Monterey Bay!

Yesterday, August 24, was my first time leading on a Shearwater Journeys trip for the year, and it turned out to be a great day to be on the water. We had the calmest seas I've experienced in years and a very nice marine layer that lingered late into the morning. On the way back into the harbor at Monterey, about a mile or less off Pt. Pinos, I picked out a distant, but clearly very large Sulid flying over a feeding flock; the size and dark and light patterning quickly narrowed the options down to a couple species...Masked or Nazca Booby! Luckily Captain Tinker was willing to go check it out even though it was getting late, and we managed to stay on the bird and get to it quickly. The boob made several close passes, flying directly over the boat, and even did some plunge diving off the bow! On at least one occasion, it did successfully grab a fish.

This was one of those rare and special occasions where we had talked about our chances of finding a specific high quality rarity and had those hopes come to fruition. We were on the lookout for rare boobies all day, as it has been an excellent year for finding several species from San Diego north to Monterey, specifically Red-footed, Masked and Nazca. Incredibly, 6 species of Sulids have already been reported in California this year! It just seemed like there was bound to be one of these birds around.

However, the jury is still out on what species this is, or if it can safely be identified to species...immature Masked and Nazca (both Bird Police species in California) are notoriously hard to tell apart, and I have no experience with Masked in this plumage, or with Nazca whatsoever. If you have some familiarity separating these two species, I'm very interested to hear what you have to say. All photos in today's post can be viewed at full size, so please feel free to double click on images and comment away.

Below is a crop from the above shot, the best I was able to manage of the uppertail. Lots of molt going on.

And here is a garbage photo that at least does show the overall uppertail pattern again.

Whether Masked Booby, Nazca Booby, or the dreaded Slash Booby, I'm stoked.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Grasspipering, Winnie Pro Tips, Sea Rim State Park, Sabine Woods

Being true to my nature, I am really dragging out reporting from Texas this spring, but we are getting close to the end. Also, this post somehow seems more relevant now than a couple of months ago, as we are all again experiencing the passage of shorebirds and passerines that are such a big part of what makes us do what we do.

Before BB&B leaves the High Island area entirely, a few more quick notes...grasspipers and Hudsonian Godwits were target species for the trip, and we did quite a bit of driving around in Chambers County (where Anahuac NWR is) before sweet victory. American Golden-Plovers (front bird in the above photo) were fairly common and not difficult to find, but it took a while before we finally connected with Buff-breasted (above) and Upland Sandpipers, which are both marvelous species that I am perpetually starved for here on the west coast. I dig the white wing linings glowing on one of the Buff-breasteds above.

There are a plethora of roads on the coastal plain that could potentially lead you to good shorebirding or grasspipering; we barely scratched the surface. Our Field of Dreams for grasspipers was a very large field with very short grass on farm road 1941, west of TX-124. Flooded fields in a few places had additional Buff-breasted Sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstones (which I don't consider to be ag field birds, but they know better), White-rumped and Baird's Sandpipers, etc.

A few logistical tips for anyone planning on making the trip next spring:

*We stayed at Motel 6 in Winnie. It was relatively cheap and totally fine, aside from the clogged sink that the staff took days to fix. I would stay there again though.

*In Winnie, we ate at Al-T's steakhouse a lot, which you should do as well. We also ate at the Crawfish Box, which was awesome. That was my lifer crawfish meal, and I can't wait to do it again. I also made Dan and Nate eat at Waffle House, because I love Waffle House.

*I looked into Airbnbs before the trip, but the only options in the immediate area were out on the Bolivar Peninsula and they were not cheap, though if you were travelling in a group renting out a beach house would definitely make sense. Any resident of Winnie or High Island who lists their place on Airbnb could potentially rake it in March-May, provided their listing consisted of something nicer than a decaying trailer (which are locally common). 

*As far as we could figure, the best coffee in Winnie (which is not the same as good coffee) is at Brewed Awakening.

*The Market Basket in Winnie has all the groceries you need, aside from liquor.

With the Galveston and Chambers sites wrapped up, let's move on to Jefferson County! Jefferson is the easternmost county on the UTC and is right on the Louisiana border. Sea Rim State Park is one of the hotspots in the area. According to Steve from Kansas City (Hi Steve!), Sea Rim once hosted a willow patch that was an absolute gem of a migrant trap, but was inundated with brackish water from a hurricane several years ago and is no more. The park is still good for a variety of water birds though, including this confiding Solitary Sandpiper.

I'm not saying this is a skulky or wary species, but I have had a hell of a time getting to close to them most places. This bird had no qualms about lingering in crush range.

I think the bird is just expelling some salt out of its nostrils, but this appears to be the equivalent of a Solitary Sandpiper sneeze.

Lesser Yellowlegs are one of the most abundant shorebird migrants on the UTC. This one was still mostly in basic plumage.

Oddly, Greater Yellowlegs were an uncommon bird everywhere we went, which just doesn't compute to me considering the abundance and diversity of shorebirds in the region. Compare the bicolored, recurved and longer bill on this bird with the Lesser Yellowlegs above.

Long-billed Dowitcher. It's not a field mark I use, but supposedly the kink in the bill visible in the first photo is supposed to be a helpful field mark for Short-billed Dowitcher. These days everyone seems to have their own suite of field marks they like to use to ID dowitchers that they apply very liberally...what happened to caution? Has it been thrown to the wind, no longer warranted? At least Short-billed X Long-billed Dowitcher doesn't seem to be a popular identification yet. The increasing (yes, still) tendency of birders to identify birds as bizarre hybrids continues to be disappointing.

Least Bitterns, on the other hand, are never disappointing, even if they prefer to stay hidden in the reeds.

Even Boat-tailed Grackles aren't disappointing if you go long enough without seeing them. This one was doing its best to strike a pose that would eliminate all iridescence and recall a Melodious Blackbird (perhaps the most overdue Mexican bird yet to be found in the states), but with such a boaty tail and unmelodious voice it had no chance.

When Roseate Spoonbills are flying overhead at sunset, all is very briefly right with the world.

Common Nighthawk was a common migrant during our week on the UTC. This one chose to roost on the boardwalk out over the marsh. Like all nightjars, they are extremely novel to see up close.

Sea Rim was nice but not exactly thrilling, though I'm sure it can get really birdy at times. And we didn't even get out to the beach, so who knows what was lounging on the sandy sand? We gave a valiant effort to try and hear a Black Rail, donating blood to mosquitoes at dusk, but none vocalized. We really let Nate down, which haunts me to this day.

The last hotspot BB&B is going to cover from Texas is Sabine Woods. The first afternoon we visited yielded tons of birders (gross), which brought Boy Scout Woods to mind, but more importantly lots and lots of birds, mostly ground-loving and low-in-the-canopy species like this Worm-eating Warbler. Not a fallout, but there were a shitload of migrants. It was an impressive showing - migrants seemed to be everywhere at times - and yet another reminder that migration in the region really is a spectacle. The patch itself was really nice to bird - large, canopy openings, drips, ponds, edge habitat, relatively low numbers of mosquitos, lots of room to spread out and get away from other birders when necessary.

Who doesn't love Black-billed Cuckoo? Everyone was stoked to see Black-billed Cuckoo, especially considering their status as a MEGA (and a BLOCKER) in California. Nate and I had seen one earlier back at Hooks Woods but this is the only one of the trip that was chill enough to be photographed. I'm glad I don't see them very often because I suspect I could get strongly emotionally attached to them if I lived within their range.

There will be one more Texas post, featuring nothing but Sabine Woods, and the best day of birding the entire trip.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Saying Hello To The Nikon D7200

The D7000 and I have been together for a long time. Here is a Green-winged Teal back from our early days together, when everything was fresh and exciting and we were still exploring each other's bodies...er, when I was exploring the D7000 camera body. Cropped and color corrected, 1/800, F6.3, ISO 900. Photographed at Radio Road, San Mateo County.

I've said it in this space over and over and over again...I am not a photographer. Have never claimed to be. I do, however, take photos. Get it?

Some of you do, and that is all I can ask for. With that major disclaimer on the table, I have to mention that I do actually put in some occasional effort to take good photos...BB&B has hosted a large number of photos over the years, and hopefully they are only cringe-worthy every now and then (vagues). I rarely go birding with photography as my primary goal, but let's be real, having good photo ops adds to the quality of any birding experience if you are the sort who likes to carry a camera around.

I do get asked about camera gear, techniques, etc. from time to time, and now that I have a new camera, I thought it was time for the rare (first ever?) BB&B gear post. This isn't going to be super in depth, but it will hopefully be informative for a few readers who are thinking about upgrading their camera, or getting their very first.

For a number of years I have been using the Nikon D7000 (first released in 2010), which has been fine, though not amazing. The vast majority of content you have seen on BB&B for the last four years or so has been shot with that. It has been solid, performing well in low light compared to what I was using previously (the Nikon D90), though I have had some noticeable focus point issues the last couple of years that I'm sure are more the camera's fault than the lens I use. These problems were encountered both with birds in flight and birds out in the wide open, i.e. on the water or mudflats. Now it's no mystery to me why a camera can struggle with knowing where exactly it should be focusing for a sandpiper strolling through the muck 300 feet away, but a big Buteo soaring 300 feet away in good light should not be a challenge for a camera to figure out, you feel me? It won't be a crush, at least with a 400mm lens, but I expect sharp images at least.

The D7000 has never had difficulty figuring out what to do with anything in true crushing distance though, like this California Ground Squirrel surveying its domain. Unedited. 1/1000, F7.1, ISO 800. By the way I rarely post full size images to the blog, but this time they all are; double click on any photo to see it full size/high resoultion if interested. Photographed at Rancho de Bastardos.

Good chance a dirty AF sensor or contact is to blame for my D7000 problems, but now figuring it out is not a top priority. I'm happy to say that this summer I have upgraded to the Nikon D7200, which was first released in 2015 (hey, I didn't say this was a cutting edge post), which is two generations newer than the D7000; the Nikon D7100 came out between the two, but it was so similar to the D7000 that I had no interest in it.

So now to the meat of this post...what is there to like about the D7200? How is the D7200 different from the D7000?

*First and foremost, it is said that the sensor is just better, plain and simple. That is my impression as well. Better sensor, better photos.

*The highest ISO the D7200 allows you to use is really, really high. No one actually wants to be shooting at a six-figure ISO...but now they can!

California Quail, cropped but otherwise unedited. 1/640, F6.3, ISO 900. This is the most confident/acclimated California Quail I have ever seen. Photographed at New Brighton State Beach, Santa Cruz County.

Tricolored and Bicolored Blackbirds. 1/5000, F5.6 ISO 400. Very slightly cropped. Kind of surprised this came out considering the low light, but I just let the camera do what it thought was best (while shooting aperature priority) and it worked. Photographed at Alviso Marina County Park, Santa Clara County; I thought the Tricoloreds were a nice find, it's not something I expect to find along the bay in July.

*With the higher ISOs come higher quality performance at higher-than-ideal ISOs. I would love to shoot at 250 all the time but that is a far cry from the reality of bird photography. Photos at high ISO with the D7200 are noticeably not as grainy as with the D7000. With the D7000, I was always hesitant to shoot above ISO 800 due to the grain factor (up to 1600 was sometimes ok if only minimal cropping was needed), but I think I will have a higher ISO ceiling (comfort zone) with the D7200.

*You have much more flexibility with your ISO sensitivity range, and I LOVE having an ISO range to shoot at instead of just shooting at a fixed ISO - this makes a huge difference in how I shoot. With the D7000, the sensitivity range went 200-400-800-1600-3200-Hi1 (whatever that is). Certainly useful but I felt like there was a lot of ground between 800-1600-3200 that was unavailable to use as a maximum ISO. And to be clear, this is just your options for setting up your sensitivity range, not what all your options are when just setting a fixed ISO. With the D7200, you instead get to set a range between 200-250-320-400-500-640-800-1000-1250-1600-2000-2500-3200-4000-5000 etc. etc. all the way up to 25600. Exactly the kind of improvement I was looking for.

Mourning Dove. Tight crop but no other edits. 1/640, F5.6, ISO 1600. The grain is there but it's really minimal compared to what I would expect from the Nikons I have previously used. Awesome. Photographed at Rancho de Bastardos.

And here is the original photo for comparison. It's not going to win any aesthetic awards, but the colors look really nice both in the background and on the bird (and since I am constantly looking at them at extremely close range, I should remind everyone Mourning Doves are actually attractive birds). I'm impressed with the photo quality considering the ISO. Significantly, the grain visible in the crop above hardly looks different from the original photo, and practically no sharpness was lost. 

*The D7200 allows you to wirelessly download images straight from your camera into your mobile device. Pretty sick if you are into social media or getting an image out of a rarity to other birders ASAP, instead of the classic back-of-camera photo that is enjoyed by nobody.

*The D7000 has a small buffer. I have not been able to field test it yet, but the buffer on the D7200 is supposed to be twice as big when shooting JPEG. That means the camera is able to handle shooting a large number of pictures in a short period of time without becoming a temporarily useless hunk of plastic while it processes the photos you just took. The small D7000 buffer was absolutely killing me one day in Texas this spring while warblers were flopping around on the ground mere feet in front of me...there was some serious crushing going on, but how many crushes were missed? I don't think I even want to know.

*Another upgrade with the D7200 I have not gotten to experience much yet is that it supposedly has a more capable autofocus in low light conditions, which would obviously be extremely useful for bird photography, since birding in low light is often par for the course.

Caspian Tern. Mildly cropped with no other edits. The tern's head is partially in shadow but I really dig how much the bird pops, so to speak. 1/3200,F6.3, ISO 500. Photographed at Rancho de Bastardos.

So there you have it. The D7000 will now be the designated macro lens/landscape/people camera, and the D7200 will be doing the heavy bird lifting. So far I'm quite happy with it, and I look forward to all the memories we will make and the souls we will steal together. If any of you use the D7200 and have any tips or preferred settings for shooting birds, by all means leave a comment!

Monday, July 30, 2018

The Human Birdwatcher Project Presents: Birding by Flavor Profile

Sibley uses words like "neat, clean, striking" to describe Buller's Shearwater. Dunn uses "gleaming, graceful" and..."striking". All of these descriptions are true, and in the case of "striking", double true, but what if I told you that this bird could be described in an entirely different way? The depth of this bird's nuanced but definitively unsubtle visual flavor profile is nothing short of bottomless. The mellowing effects of the strong vanilla notes fades before the abrupt finish, as the bird disappears into a trough forever, never to be seen again...and you are left needing more. The aftertaste? A hint of calamari and a whole lot of desire.

The foodie. The wine connoisseur. The beer sommelier. The cicerone. The coffee cupper. I don't have a whole lot in common with these people. I still eat Top Ramen with rigor, even though I am 13 years removed from college. I hardly drink wine at all, and I will drink Tecate or Pabst or Hamm's just as happily as most (not all) other beers. I do love good coffee, but there is no way I would ever pay to go cupping. However, there is something that all these food and drink snobs have in common with one another, and with myself...in order to be so in enthusiastic abound indulging themselves in food and drink and trying to convey that to people, they also need to have a love of the language that comes with the territory.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, here are excerpts from a breakingbourbon.com (which has some great content if you like your bourbon...and you know how BB&B feels about bourbon) review about Sazerac's 2013 George T. Stagg Straight Bourbon. To wit:

"Sitting with this bourbon for the first time you're instantly hit with a sense that this is a sophisticated bourbon. A smell of aged wood, raisin, caramel and a hint of corn dance across your nose, transporting you right to the middle of an aging warehouse on a warm spring day in Kentucky. While the alcohol wants to overpower the senses, overall the balance of the wood smell evens this bourbon out nicely. Let this one sit for a few minutes, and the smell just keeps getting more and more delicious...Initially a sweet taste of caramel hits your tongue that instantly is replaced with a taste of all-spice and leather... As it mellows, you get hints of candy corn and rubber, finishing on a note of wet wood and tobacco."

Fascinating. Now I'm not familiar with this particular bourbon, but this is a very interesting description, fanciful as it may seem. Candy corn? Rubber? I've consumed a lot of bourbon and those tastes have never entered my mind. It's ridiculous and whimsical but people really get off on this sort of thing. As easy as it is to just call "bullshit" on this sort of thing, I think it's fantastic that folks are being so creative and enthusiastic in describing something that a lot of consumers put no mental effort into characterizing whatsoever...i.e. a lot of people relegate coffee to being either good or bad, hot or cold. Nothing more. But there is so much more!

And now to finally bring this post around to birds...here at the Human Birdwatcher Project, we firmly believe that "birders are people too!", and in the last decade a whole lot of people have bought in to the foodie treatment thing. I think it is time that birds get the same sort of attention to detail that so much of the nonbirding world has been delving into. All too often a bird is described the same way over and over again...beautiful, bright, cute...striking...or on the other end of the spectrum, dull, plain, or even than repulsive cliche that never seems to die, "little brown job". These abundantly used descriptors are ok for field guides, which have little space available and require utilitarian phrasing regardless, but what about all the other bird books? The magazine and web articles? The blogs and the trip reports? We can do better, bird writers! What would it be like to apply these foodcore descriptions to a bird's appearance...a visual flavor profile, so to speak? Well, there is only one way to find out...

Yellow-billed Magpie. This endemic demands your attention. To look away when a magpie is near is to do your eyes, heart, and visual palate injustice. Most of what this bird has to offer, strictly in terms of looks, is a sudden blast to the retinas; it is superbly balanced, with strong notes of oak and dried grass. You see what you get very quickly, though this is a bird that needs to enjoyed both while it is perched and in flight. When seen close up and in good light, you will notice a salty but wet taste - these are the tears flowing down your face, which the magpie's incredible iridescence has triggered reflexively.

Before we go on, all of these food and drink items that get critiqued are typically assigned some sort of score, mostly because people really like to rank things. With that in mind, and because birders still mercilessly use the word "jizz" seriously (birders are still clueless, apparently), I will now introduce the Bourbon, Bastards & Birds Visual Jizz Tasting Scale™! The magpie gets an 8/10 on the scale, with the only significant mark against it being that much of it appears identical to Black-billed Magpie.

Lewis's Woodpecker. Few birds taste as utterly unique...visually...as a Lewis's Woodpecker. This bird is sherbet for your eyes, but also so much more. A big woodpecker almost the size of a crow that is black, green, gray, red and pink...what? How can that be? But just like Jagermeister and soy eggnog sound absolutely incomprehensible together, we know it somehow works. And unlike Jagnog, encountering a Lewis's Woodpecker will never fill you with pain or regret the next day. Your soul will be full, though you may have an undeniable urge to track down some rasberry sorbet.

A criminally underrated species, Lewis's Woodpecker gets the high marks on the BB&B Visual Jizz Tasting Scale™: 9/10

House Finch (juvenile). Not only do species vary in their visual flavor profiles from one another, a single species can vary significantly in plumage as well. Take the House Finch. Despite seeing thousands of House Finches every year, every once in a while I will still be struck by a particularly bright male beaming his cranberried colors into my eyes. They are visually a mess, like they fell into some strawberry compote, but you can't deny that berry-colored birds are well received no matter how sloppy their attire. This juvenile House Finch, on the other hand...well, this just doesn't inspire the visual taste buds. It is overall bland but slightly tart, with textures of dead leaves and clay-laden soils. The more of these you see, the quicker the bitterness accumulates. Looking at this bird reminds me of eating a stale saltine...a stale saltine with no salt. Some of the fresh browns are warm and mellowing, sure, but there is no other shortage of brown birds that are far more inspiring. It doesn't help that the species is also ubiquitous (much like corn syrup and palm oil) and nonnative to much of the country. This particular bird gets points for fresh plumage and not much else; if most birds looked like this, there would not be birdwatchers.

The juvenile House Finch gets a 2/10 on the BB&B Visual Jizz Tasting Scale™.

A harsh review? Perhaps. I have no animosity toward House Finches, but we need to be true to our tastes, true to ourselves, and true to the birds (not to mention the jizz). Like food and drink, birds cannot be savored equally.

How about a couple more? I will now hand over the blog reins to my co-blogger Cass for some additional species, to get his take on birding flavor profiles.

Blue headed vireo. Maybe it’s just the eye ring but this bird inspires a deep lust for rolls. Sushi rolls to be exact. An understated blend of subtle flavors and textures, wingbars and flankwash, covert edging and vent glitz, this vireo was built with the same ethos that went into the architecture an 8 piece Kappa maki….HARMONY. As with most things Japanese, an element of  asymmetry is found in the final analysis. Chaos, i.e. nature, must have the final edit. With this bird it is that hooked crab-cracker glued to the front of its face. The bill is the bite, the wasabi punch that carries the vireo through is flirtation with mundanity and buries its memory deep in your stomach. A point blank viewing will make your eyes water and your grip on reality will be touch and go. As with sushi, the viewer is satiated with surprisingly little, as the visual nutrition is so dense. A gastronomical bonus; the blue headed vireo’s casual foraging speed, somewhere between the boorish/jolting sit-then-sally Empid and the frenetic wood warbler, also promotes proper digestion. Itadakimass!

Wood Duck (female). Belonging to the forgotten 3rd tribe of anatidids, the lurkers (the other two being, of course, the dabblers and divers), this backwater beauty is the chic, ice-veined femme fatale to her overblown, coked-out counterpart in the 80’s power couple known as Aix sponsa. Even the scientific moniker smacks of a New Wave band name.

Now to assess this birds flavor profile. For starters, resist the temptation to pick up this F%#*ING PERFECT duck and stuff it in your pocket. If resistance proves futile then bury your face in her neck and inhale the heady top notes of fermenting algae. Next, place her feet in your mouth in the hopes of ingesting a rogue toad egg she has caught between her toes. The numbing effect of the bufotoxin should kick in shortly, just in time for you to offer her a mouthful of mosquito larva that she will most likely attack with fervor and violence. The feeding will leave you with hideous face scars you'll carry with you for the rest of your days. Though you won’t feel a thing due to the bufotoxin, your heart will soar as you add another tick to your animals-that-have-eaten-out-of-my-mouth list.

Whoa. Well, this just goes to show you how many ways the visual flavor profile can go...who knew things would veer toward Nyotaimori? Birding by flavor profile isn't going to revolutionize the arcane genre of bird writing, but I think there are avenues of perceiving and describing birds that birders should be open to exploring.

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.