Monday, November 11, 2019

It's Getting Late Early: November in The 5MR


This Common Merganser bellows a simple song: FIVE MILE RADIUS! FIVE MILE RADIUS! Photographed at Almaden Lake in San Jose.

And then it was November. Suddenly the heinous notion of the year 2020 is not such a far-fetched idea after all...it is a terrible reality, just waiting for us right around the corner, lurking in the shadows cast by the specter of what Hunter S. Thompson would surely call "this foul year of lord, 2019." By the time we realize it is here, it will be too late.

But Hunter has been dead since 2005, and from his point of view...maybe that was for the best. Here we are in golden weeks of 2019, an age when Hope is Dead and Idiocracy is Real. But one phenomenon swept over birders in 2019 that has changed many hearts and minds forever, and the world is not a worse place for it. No, it's not ID by democracy or identifying everything as a hybrid, it is the FIVE MILE RADIUS. It's high time BB&B checks in with my 5MR, which is running smoothly after a grinding start to the fall.


You may recall that I connected with an Eastern Kingbird in my YARD of all places back in June. July delivered a radial gift on a similar scale - a self-found Red-eyed Vireo, which I found by walking out my back gate out to the ponds behind my house. Red-eyed Vireo is a MEGA vague for Santa Clara County and the first I'd seen in California in many years, though they are more expected in coastal counties. Like the kingbird, it was a one day wonder and easily one of my top 5MR birds ever, let alone this year. Photographed at the Los Capitancillos Ponds.


But after a surprisingly productive summer, things really slowed when fall migration was supposed to get under way, at least on the year bird front. August had but a single new addition to the 5MR year list (Scaly-breasted Munia, ew), and September had only two, a Willow Flycatcher (clutch - they are very uncommon and come through for a brief window) and American Wigeon (a "gimme" I knew I would run into eventually). By the end of September, I was wondering if my radius would actually be fading in fall instead of lighting up. September was good for Vaux's Swifts at least, like this one at Los Gatos Creek County Park.


Incredibly (to me), on this day many swifts were foraging *on* several conifer trees - they would make contact or "land" briefly among the needles as they presumably gleaned insects. I have never seen a Vaux's Swift previously make contact with anything denser than air. Here you can see a swift entangled in the foliage, and yes, this is a Vaux's Swift-Anna's Hummingbird combo.


More gleaning swifts. There is also an eastern gray squirrel partially hidden in there, which I didn't see at the time. I love me some novel swift combos.


The fall rarity drought vanished as soon as the calendar changed to October. I successfully chased this spiffy Clay-colored Sparrow, which was also a county bird. Not only was it a county bird, it is the species that sparked the entire Lori Meyers fiasco from last year! Not the vaguest vanguard but a very nice rarity for the county. I would also go on to find two more Clay-colored Sparrows of my own last month, all in my 5MR! In the fall of 2018, Clay-coloreds went unrecorded in the county entirely. Photographed at Vasona Lake County Park.


This was the last Western Wood-Pewee I saw this year. Sadly, I likely will not be adding additional flycatchers in 2019, although I hold out hope for a vague runt Eastern Phoebe or something of that sort. I will most likely finish the year with a middling 9 flycatcher species, with Eastern Kingbird headlining that group and Western Kingbird and Olive-sided Flycatcher being new for the 5MR. I missed a locally rare Cassin's Kingbird last winter, and its likely Hammond's Flycatcher passed through undetected. Photographed at Vasona Lake.


One day, while sitting on the couch vacantly staring into my backyard, I saw a yellow-green bird appear next to the Rancho de Bastardos bird bath. I almost didn't look at it with binoculars, utterly convinced it would be yet another Lesser Goldfinch, but I am the Global Birder Ranking System's #7 U.S. birder, and one of the reasons you all look up to me is because I practice and preach DUE DILIGENCE. So I went ahead and hopelessly glassed the bird as it plopped down into the bath, and almost fell off the couch when I saw it was in fact a TENNESSEE WARBLER...which was not just a yard bird, not just a 5MR bird, but a county bird! And the only one seen in Santa Clara County in 2019. It was also the first warbler of any species to use the bird bath since April! I was, and still am, astounded. Don't you just love geri birding?


Minutes later, a Western Tanager dropped in. I had seen and heard them from the yard a number of times, but this was the first one *in* the yard. Quite the day of geri.


The yard has continued to produce good birds ever since baptized by the Tennessee Warbler. This Northern Pintail (left, Gadwall on the right) was not only a yard bird, it was a new radius bird! Cackling Goose, Greater White-fronted Goose, and Pine Siskin from the yard all were new recent 5MR year birds.


Ok, this is the last yard bird, I swear. Though I've seen one from the yard once before, a California Thrasher has been a totally unexpected addition to the yard flock, and it has been here daily for the last couple weeks. It's a nice bird to have in the 5MR, where they are fairly common at a few places, but it's a weird yard bird considering the less-than-marginal habitat in the area.


Seeing this normally retiring scythe billed friend casually hanging out with the sparrows, towhees and doves all the time has taken some getting used to. It seems to relish our wood chip situation, as it really flings those things with reckless abandon. It's not particularly wary. When in Rome, right?


I'm lucky to have a little bit of grassland at the edge of my radius. I recently hiked up here in a desperate bid to get a new radius bird (I had a few targets in mind) and was rewarded with a Prairie Falcon, my latest and greatest new 5MR bird. I got it only because I was doing a stationary count in a spot where a White-tailed Kite was sitting nearby - the falcon appeared out of nowhere and started tangling with the kite. This was part of the November 5MR Challenge, but of course you knew that. It was a steep hike so I didn't bring a camera (and I knew I would see something good if I left it at home) so here is a picture of the area from earlier this year when things were green - this is a good microcosm of my radius, awesome open space on one side colliding abruptly with urban sprawl.


Not new, not rare, and not photographed in my yard - I just like Red-breasted Sapsuckers and so do you. Glad they will be around again for the winter. Photographed at Vasona Lake.

I'll finish with 10 target birds I've got for the rest of the year, we'll see how it goes. Some are more likely than others, but all of these could be present...simultaneously...in my 5MR as you read this. A disturbing thought indeed.

American Bittern
Snow Goose
Ross's Goose
Greater Scaup
Western Gull
Mew Gull
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Varied Thrush
Swamp Sparrow
Evening Grosbeak

We'll see if I get many (any?) of these in about 7 weeks! My self-imposed 5MR bourbon challenge is still in play and I may find myself forced into buying whiskey any day now...my goal for the year in my 5MR is 185 and I'm so close I can taste it. Good luck to all you radius birders out there for the rest of 2019...you're gonna need it.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

September in Mono County


The Grub directed us to camp at the Lundy Canyon Campground, operated by Mono County. We had a great site and it was nice and quiet EXCEPT for the first night, when some woman at the edge of the campground made terrifying shrieks and screams at the top of her lungs...she sounded like she had just come upon a grisly murder scene, or was getting stabbed over and over again. It really sounded animalistic and was very unnerving. Grub and I investigated but did not actually go knock on her camper as things still seemed very weird, but at least we discerned that no one had been stabbed to death (or stabbed at all). I think she was having a bad trip on something - Grub pointed out it was Burning Man season, and this location was in the post-burn dispersal path - but who knows what the truth is? Anyways, lots of Mountain Chickadees at the campsite...unlike hallucinogens, Mountain Chickadees are always pleasant.

How is that for an opening caption? Some more explanation is required...in September we took a family trip to the east side of the Sierras to hang out in one of my favorite parts of the state, Mono County. It's a weird place (see above, for example). There is good birding, facemelting scenery, and aside from a few places, not a whole lot of people. We met up with a couple friends of the blog: Alexis (Arexis), who is responsible for entirely shaping my fate, and famed east side financer, The Grub, who BB&B has spoken with at length (most recently here). Mono County is the part time home of The Grub, everyone's favorite venture capitalist and bitcoin miner, who lives in a junkyard there during the warm months. I don't mean to say he has a shitty house there (his house is in Nevada), I mean he lives in an actual junkyard. The Grub is, of course, the richest person you and I know, but he shuns the mansion and the Mercedes for a tent and Pinyon Jays. He is, after all, an artist, and that just complicates things further.

Despite all of The Grub's financial success, he would be nowhere without The Great Ornithologist Felonious Jive, which at least he readily acknowledges. Knowing how close I am with Felonious, Grub was more than happy to help us track down a Black-backed Woodpecker, so he took us to Inyo Craters, where they have reliably seen most of the year. It was my first time there, and was a fruitful stop.


The White-breasted Nuthatches at Inyo Craters are the interior subspecies (Sitta carolinensis tenuissima), which sound very different from my backyard birds here in San Jose (S. c. aculeata). You may recall that it wasn't long ago when the AOS considered splitting WBNU three different ways, these two subspecies and the eastern birds...I suspect that this potential split may be revisited at some point. In the meantime, for a nice breakdown of the distribution of S. c. tenuissima and S. c. aculeata in California, look here.


Here in California, it's a Red-breasted Nuthatch invasion year! What a relief, it has been a while. I've only had a few in my 5MR but they were very common at many sites in Mono County during our visit.


Williamson's Sapsuckers are a true high elevation specialty bird and just too great to ever really get accustomed to. They are more distinct than the other sapsuckers in plumage, genetics (they don't hybridize willy-nilly), and habitat preferences. This one was more cooperative than most.


After not seeing one in about a decade, it was relief to not wait very long to find a Black-backed Woodpecker near the parking lot. We would go on to see a total of three, and heard two more! My personal Black-backed dam that has been building for the last decade has finally burst. I thought it was interesting that this area has so many Black-backeds, as there is no sign of any fire, and these birds are known fire followers. Other birds of note here included Red Crossbills and a Band-tailed Pigeon.


See? Scenic. Not that phone photos really do the place justice. This is Minaret Vista, just outside the entrance to Devil's Postpile National Monument.


Green-tailed Towhees were abundant...which is ideal, considering they are the best towhee and one of the few green birds in the west. Still hoping to get the ultimate crush of one of these, maybe next time.


We were too late for most wildflower species, although rabbitbrush was blooming all over the place. Here is one of the year's last blazing star blossoms, somewhere in the sage flats near Mono Lake.


This aquatic thing was blooming mightily up in a few patches at the Lundy Canyon beaver ponds. Nerds, tell me what this is please.


Annie had her Mono Lake baptism, which she really enjoyed. Once she realized all the black stuff was a mass of flies she was slightly put off but was happy to wade around nonetheless. She did appreciate the brine shrimp.


Other than Black-backed Woodpecker, this is the bird I had my heart set on seeing. Like the woodpecker, I had only seen Greater Sage-Grouse once before, about a decade ago. After dipping hard on Gunnison Sage-Grouse earlier this year, I had a serious grouse itch (grouse-itch) that just had to be scratched. Luckily, Arexis found a flock for us at Bodie, which allowed for great looks.


So, so sick. Behold the majestic grouse surveying its domain. A supremely satisfying birdwatching experience.


Bodie State Park is an isolated ghost town, way out in the sagebrush north of Mono Lake and not far from Nevada. It was my first time there, and pretty fun to walk around in despite all the tourists. We also saw another distant group of grouse.


The cloudscapes were brilliant during out shortish visit.


It was pretty windy too, but some birds were still out making the best of it. The "town" was littered with not only Europeans, but also Mountain Bluebirds.




Brewer's Sparrows were the most abundant Bodie bird other than Mountain Bluebirds. I assume this very fresh looking, warmly colored individual is a Hotel Yankee.

Other birding highlights included Pinyon Jay flocks, a Mountain Quail loitering in the road, and a huge crossbill flock at June Lake. The water level of Mono Lake was extremely high at the time, which is generally a good thing except it made for poor conditions for shorebirds and the such - consequently, the number of species we actually saw using Mono Lake was pretty pathetic.

But with GRSG and BBWO in the proverbial bag, the trip was Great Success! Hopefully we will go back next year, maybe getting into the White Mountains...who doesn't want to camp in the bristlecones?

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Still S.E.V.E.N./Breaking Rad(ius)


How long has it been since the last post? I'm really dropping the ball over here. Well, I've been doing a lot of crud, and quite a bit of stuff too, so it's not like I've had ample opportunities to fire up the blogerator...but still. Even though it has not been sheer, bottomless laziness that is to blame, I have let you down all the same.

I have failed you.

But I am here now. BB&B languishes no longer. Withering away into oblivion is not fait accompli...at least, not yet. Before BB&B fades away, I must pass on all that I know. A thousand blog posts will live in you. Someday, this will be your fight.

And what a fight it will be. The truth about birders must be told, even after I am gone. Although our rate of posting has dwindled, BB&B is constantly taking the temperature of the birding community, and our recent findings are disconcerting at best. Birders are still as nonsensical, annoying, petty, anal and pedantic as ever...perhaps now more than ever. They still fail to apply basic concepts of science to their bizarre, baseless theories while claiming to embrace science. They are still obsessed with making everything into a hybrids. They still spew vicious, evil lies like "there is no such thing as a bad day of birding".

Unbelievable.

Someday, dear reader, you will construct your own lightsaber and your skills will be complete. Indeed, you will be powerful. But that day has not come yet...I am still here, and my journey is not yet over. I am still here, still the Global Birder Ranking System's #7 U.S. birder, still a birding master, still capturing the birding Zeitgeist like no blog ever has.

Still rock my khakis with a cuff and a crease.

Chances are most of you readers are too old or too young to know what that means, but for the rest of you, enjoy that easter egg. Now that we have reestablished my blog wizardry, I feel comfortable admitting to you a deeply shameful fact...September was an utter failure in terms of seeing rare birds. I didn't really chase very much (going to take this opportunity to pat myself on the back here), and while that may be admirable, I also didn't find jack shit locally. I can't remember the last time I went through September without seeing a single vague runt somewhere in the bay area...how embarrassing!

Apparently, I no longer see vagrants. I no longer see uncommon birds. What has happened to me? Can I just go #FULLGERI and retire so I can go bird all the time? If only there were a way...

No, this is not where I direct you to my gofundme page so you can pay for my birding trips. You're welcome.

No matter. The rarities will return, though they may or not be within my 5MR. It hasn't been too difficult to stay in the friendly confines of the 5MR for most of the year though. I've gotten a lot of new radius birds, seen some rarities, and found a couple really good ones of my own. However, that strategy has been backfiring a bit lately, and I think one of the best ways to maintain a good relationship with your radius is to know when to break free of your radial shackles!

So with that in mind, here is some non-radial stuff from earlier this year.


Countless birders went to see this Eastern Bell's Vireo when it set up a territory for a couple of weeks in late spring. Not only was this my first Bell's Vireo of any subspecies in Santa Clara County, this was my first Eastern seen in the state. Easterns are exceptionally rare in California and practically unheard of in spring...it's worth wondering if this split will be revisited again. I've only seen one or two of these before, so this relatively cooperative vague runt gets FIVE STARS. Photographed at Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge, Santa Clara County.


A day later, I hiked out on a trail I had previously not heard of for another county bird, an Indigo Bunting. While it wasn't very cooperative, I did appreciate that it dispensed with the suspense and appeared almost immediately upon my arrival. Photographed on the Stanford Dish Trail, Santa Clara County.


Dark-eyed Juncos isn't the slightest bit rare, but I appreciate friendly ones like this. This was photograped at New Brighton State Beach in Santa Cruz County, where I also got my lifer great white sharks! Standing on a fairly crowded beach while a bunch of (mostly small) sharks swim offshore is quite the spectacle, very Jawsish in a low intensity kind of way. Best moment: despite everyone on the beach knowing there were sharks visible just offshore, a dude on a stand up paddleboard tried to be all nonchalant and paddle around anyway, but had to frantically turn around and paddle to shore when a shark came up next to him. Golden!


The easiest, most reliable Red-footed Booby in the Lower 48 has made its home roost at the end of the Seacliff Pier in Capitola for spans of 2018 and 2019. It's still there, being awesome. Of all the booby species, this one has been the hardest to chase in California until very recently, as they had a penchant of dying immediately after being found. This one is holding it down though.


Here it is back in 2018. Back then, it looked a bit more blonde-headed and pink-billed.


I live near sea otters. They are very east to see down at Moss Landing (where this one was) and in the Monterey area. This proximity has enriched my life. Everyone would be a lot happier if they had access to sea otters. Alas, most of the world is a sea otter desert.

And so the world burns.




Unlike otters, summertime Long-tailed Ducks are not at all expected, as they are a good find even during winter. These two decided to pass their time going through gnarly molts in Moss Landing. 


After driving by it countless times without stopping, I finally checked out Moss Landing Wildlife Area. I'm glad I did, because there was a Snowy Plover nest hatching right next to the trail! Crazy timing. Look at that little chickie! It's still wet and has eggshell in its down. I spent less than 30 seconds next to the nest and then booked it out of there to make sure it was minimally disturbed...after all, I am not a photographer. Hey-oh!



Microfishing is all the rage now but Great Egrets have been doing it since there have been Great Egrets. Photographed at Shoreline Lake, Santa Clara County.



Can you imagine connecting with this microtrophy with hook and line? Oh, the stories you could tell. 



Shoreline Lake is also a popular fishing spot for Forster's Terns and a great place to see them up close, since they are very acclimated to fishing next to the well-trafficked footpath. I love me some acclimation. Too bad the Black Skimmers that nest there now aren't so prone to cruising by the shore.




It's not like I'm a photographer or anything, but one of my favorite things to shoot is terns in flight. Shooting many flying birds (swifts, hummingbirds, most passerines, almost anything on pelagic trips) often ends in nothing but crushed hopes, massive disappointments and some mediocre keepers, but terns have such nice lines, some tolerance for people and aren't obnoxiously small. Also, anything that feeds by plunge diving gets extra points from me.



Willets are underappreciated. Nice to see this confiding friend just returned from its breeding grounds...where their obnoxiousness is what is unappreciated. Being near a Willet nest is not a pleasant sensory experience. Photographed at Shoreline Lake.



Cliff Swallows are still occupying their wonderful ovenish nests in late summer. Photographed at the Palo Alto Baylands, Santa Clara County.



At the Casey Forebay pumphouse, I settled in to sort through the swallows that roost there. I don't get to see/study juvenile swallows as well or as often as I would like, and the flock here provides a good opportunity to see birds up close. Here is a somewhat bedraggled adult Cliff flanked by juveniles.




I was surprised to find this white faced juvenile Cliff Swallow. At first I thought it was an abnormality, but then I noticed several other white-faced juveniles in the flock.



This is a different individual. Bizarre. Well it's most likely not bizarre at all, but I did not expect it. Anyone know what's up with this whiteness? How long it is retained? Do only a minority of birds get this or is this a pretty typical part of their molt?



In the back of my mind, I had an alterior motive for standing there with the swallows. I wanted to find a Bank Swallow. They are a rarity in Santa Clara and I had never seen one here. You can imagine my surprise when one casually swooped in and landed on the railing 15 feet from me, allowing me to crush it through the chain link fence.



Uh....what? Finding rare birds usually does not work like that. Finding a rarity...a county bird...is always ace, but finding one in July is the icing on the cake. Having the bird come to you within scope and tripod hurling distance is the crushed up painkillers sprinkled on the icing on the cake. This business with betraying one's radius is not so bad after all, eh? Although they nest at a couple places on the coast, I don't often get to see Bank Swallows and this was my one and only of the year.



While the Bank Swallow was confiding, it did not stick around for long so I was left with the other swallow species. It was cool to have all the other brown swallows represent in the swallow roost, which made for a great comparison with the Bank and with one another. Here is a juvenile Tree Swallow.




And here it is bellowing.



Here is a juvenile Violet-green Swallow, showing just a tad bit of white above and behind the eye.



And last but for once not least, here is a juvenile Northern Rough-winged Swallow. Yes, typically this swallow is one of the absolute drabbest North American birds, but they are pretty cool looking as juveniles! So many rich colors...relatively speaking! A veritable rainbow of browns. I'm probably about done taking swallow pictures for the year, so I hope you enjoyed the brownbow!