Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Human Birdwatcher Project Presents: How To Chase a Rarity

I've seen only three Yellow-throated Warblers in California. All were wonderful, and all found by other people. I used a nominal amount of wit, cunning and persistence to find them. But what is a nominal task for some birders is a seemingly insurmountable hardship for others. It doesn't have to be that way. Photographed at Ferry Park in San Francisco, CA.

According to the Human Birdwatcher Project (where "birders are people too!"), approximately 95% of birders will chase rarities at least occasionally, and 87% of birders will chase a bird at least once this year, be it near or far.

I am the 87%.

I chase a lot of birds, within a certain radius anyway. Always have, probably always will. I love seeing birds, don't care who found them. Sure, self-found birds are way better, but the idea of snobbishly avoiding going to see a rarity because someone else found it is absurd at best. If you are waiting to find your own Ivory Gull instead of looking for one someone else reported...good luck with that. I hope you have a long life ahead of you...you're gonna need it. The trick is not getting into the habit of doing nothing but chasing. But I digress, because this post is dedicated to chasing. More specifically, how to maximize your chances of success and comport yourself with some dignity.

Why write this post? For years, I never really believed that writing this post was necessary. Chasing a bird properly never seemed overly challenging, though of course there is never a guarantee that you will find what you seek. However, birders are a...special bunch. They need help sometimes. I've seen this at stakeout after stakeout, and it is time someone speaks up about the fact that, sadly, many birders are astonishingly bad at chasing birds.

Do you find that you dip and grip more often than you nail your target birds? Do you ever leave a chase feeling confused and embarrassed? The Human Birdwatcher Project is here to help. Let us cut to the chase...

I knew the approximate area where one could find the secret, not-so-secret Common Black-Hawk in Sonoma County, but once I got myself there I did not really know where to look. Mistakes were made. Luckily, some last minute texting got me pointed in the right direction, and all was well in the world. Photographed at a secret, not-so-secret location in Sonoma County, CA.

1) Get directions to get to the right place. This is fundamental, but if you don't have the fundamentals down then you don't have anything. Use Google Earth/Google Maps satellite imagery to pinpoint the exact spot and the correct access route prior to loading up your chasemobile. Know that when birders provide coordinates for a bird, even if that means nothing to you, you can just copy and paste them into Google Maps and that will display the location of where you need to get yourself. For example, I got my lifer Long-toed Stint at 52.371129°, 175.882463°. Plug that in and see where it takes you.

Read all the emails in the listservs, which typically provide better directions than eBird descriptions. It's usually pretty simple, and does not require you asking everyone in the listserv all over again about how to get to see the so and so when directions that could not be any clearer have already been posted for your convenience.

2) This is for you Geris out there...and with that said this is going to be ironic, but here goes: don't be ageist. I can't count the number of times my birding testimony at stakeouts has been doubted by other birders who don't know me, simply because I am unwithered and not wearing a Tilly hat. We "younger" birders don't assume old birders are untrustworthy, so why does anyone under 40 get viewed with suspicion by the ancients? This habit will not help you see your birds, ageist Geri birder.

You would think that any birder chasing a Falcated Duck, one of the most facemelting and unique waterfowl species in the world, would not need help identifying it. Sadly, you would be wrong. Photographed at Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, CA.

3) Study first. Again, this is fundamental stuff, but it bears repeating. What does the target bird look like? What does it sound like? Is it similar to other birds likely to be in the area? What are the clinching, diagnostic field marks? I've seen a great number of birders show up at a stakeout and require the bird to not only be found for them, but to be identified and interpreted to them as well. In short, they need their hand held. Hey, I like to hold hands too, but it's better to be prepared to identify a bird on your own.

4) Look at photos of the actual individual bird you are searching for prior to looking for it. While this was impossible 20 years ago with how long it took to process film and distribute the results (which in turn required a freaking projector if slides were involved), these days it couldn't be any easier. Check eBird, check listservs, etc. While not necessary for some birds, it can be extremely helpful for Vague Runts of many species.

One day, I looked for this Snow Bunting. I did not utilize all the available resources because I did not think finding the right spot would be difficult...I was wrong. Rookie mistake. Not only did I miss the bird, I never got to the right place. Luckily a couple days later I met Flycatcher Jen for the first time and she took me straight to it. Photographed at some parking lot by the Portland Airport, Portland, OR.

5) Utilize all available resources. Check multiple listservs, eBird, forums, rare bird alerts. The more information the better!

6) Birders are notoriously awkward and socially stunted. When at a stakeout, don't be afraid to talk to people to get details. Birders will sometimes be looking at the MEGA RARITY that you drove 3 hours to come see, and they won't bother telling anyone around them, knowing you are there for the same reason they are. Not chill. Talking to people at stakeouts can pay off in all manner of ways. Also, if a bird is not showing and birders are spreading out to track it down, it is wise to exchange phone numbers with someone else scouring the area.

7) Though I encourage birders to communicate, that comes with the caveat that most birders are not experts, and some are downright stringy. It takes practice to figure out the type of birder you are talking to when they are a total stranger. Are they legit? Inexperienced? Stringy? If someone says, "the split supercilium was surprisingly conspicuous from certain angles", they are probably more credible than someone who says "we knew it was different because it was feeding differently". So keep this in mind...when you roll up someplace and someone says, "oh, the bird was just here", that may not necessarily be true.

Unless you pray at the alter of your county list and nowhere else, you don't need to look for the unexpected Surf Scoter, Black Scoter, or White-winged Scoter that turns up. You must look for the Common Scoter. Crescent City Harbor, Crescent City, CA.

8) Sometimes, you just have to go. Veteran birders have a good sense of when they absolutely must drop everything and go for a bird immediately, beginners and intermediate birders don't. This is in part because they are acutely aware of the level of rarity any species has in their area, and to a lesser degree because they have a good grip on what species may be "naturally occurring". As the old saying goes, "look for the Barnacle Goose in January, not the one in July".

There isn't a birder out there who does not regret missing out on a certain chase, but it's better to have one chase regret (California's last Eastern Whip-poor-will immediately comes to mind for me) than ten. When in doubt, go for the bird!

9) Don't be afraid to look for the bird somewhere else besides where it was last seen if it's not showing up. This could simply mean looking a few hundred feet away, or a mile away. There is risk in this, but the reward can be great, and if you do refind the bird elsewhere you won't be standing in the middle of a crowd of birders, feverish with birdlust.

10) Time and tide are not to be ignored. Birds often settle into patterns quickly when they arrive someplace. Take note of the time of day when stakeout birds are being seen. If you are in a coastal area and are searching for a waterbird, tides often make a huge difference on the distribution of birds. I recommend getting an app for tides in your local area.

Cass and I waited an entire day for this Great Gray Owl to appear; many birders came and went, and a couple of them even made fun of me for Brambring. But, as anyone who has seen a Great Gray can attest to, the wait was well worth it. Since then, frankly, things have never been the same. Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, Humboldt County, CA.

11) Be patient/try again. This one is simple. Sometimes, it literally takes all day to find a bird. Don't be afraid to put in the work. It may also take 3 or 4 or more attempts to find the bird you are looking for. Birding can not only be hard, it can be pain, and you have to be willing to endure it.

12) If you have the time, don't forget to peruse other birds in the immediate area. The Patagonia Picnic Table Effect is real...ignore the other birds around at your own peril.Vague Runts beget Vague Runts.

13) Most importantly...don't string. I know this is hard for some people (I'm looking at you, notorious repeat stringers). If, for example, you string a stakeout bird and are the last person to report it, there is a good chance you are going to cause birders to drive out to look for the bird from god knows how far away. That's a dick move, isn't it? And when they see your facepalm-inducing photo or bullshit description on eBird, you aren't going to be winning any popularity contests (#birdingpariah). Most importantly, your birding victory is an empty accomplishment, false and hollow. And somewhere, deep down in your heart of hearts, you know it to be true. Can there be anything worse?


There you have it birders...hopefully you learned something, or at least got a refresher. Forever and always, The Human Birdwatcher Project is here for you.

Monday, August 7, 2017

A Victory For BB&B, A Victory for eBirders!

"The flagging privilege is strong in my family. My father had it. I have it. My sister has it. You have that power too." - Luke Skywalker

That's how that scene went in Return Of The Jedi, right? Right.

It was only a few months ago when BB&B called out eBird for their bizarre policy regarding who could flag photos of misidentified birds, and who could not. Amazingly, the post generated a great amount of interest while limiting the confusion and butthurt that often follow interesting things around the internet, especially when birders are involved.

Here I am, the #7 birder in the United States, and they don't want my help in tracking down and destroying misidentified birds in their data set? At least a couple BB&B readers/eBird reviewers actually went to the trouble of contacting eBird about my plight, but they were stonewalled with inaction and silence, which is not really what eBird is known for. I figured I had angered the mighty eBird gods somehow, and was doomed to forward tainted checklists to mistake-hungry eBird reviewers for eternity.

But I was wrong.

Like a bolt of nerd lightning out of the internet blue, I am happy to announce that I have been awarded new powers...and if you were in the same boat as me, there is a good chance that now you have that power too.


There it is...wrong species!!! This lucky observer will now have the wonderful opportunity to edit their checklist, changing Yellow-green Vireo to Tennessee Warbler. Now you only have to contribute 100 checklists a year in order to flag misidentified birds, instead of the lofty 365. Mellow. So pretty much everyone who was in the same impotent boat as me before is now in a much more potent boat with me, and we didn't even have to become reviewers!

Sure eBird broke the news about this already (if you missed it, jump to eBird for more details), but if you think BB&B is just going to sit here and not take any credit for this breakthrough, you will find that it is you who is mistaken. About a great many things.

We are birding's leading tastemakers and daymakers, and should not be underestimated. We are the champions of the reasonable birder, beginner and bird police alike, and where there is birding injustice, we will be there to answer the call. 

Be warned, stringers, pseudoscientists and overzealous photographers. We are watching.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017


You may recall the news I broke to you at the beginning of June...the news that I Am Yardbirder. What has happened at Rancho Del Bastardos since then? A little and a lot. I'm here every day, I would know.

To be truthful, it's been a mixed bag. Some chocolate, some yogurt-covered almonds, and far too many disgusting Brazil nuts. Who likes Brazil nuts anyway? Talk about an unnecessary food. It doesn't matter, because by the end of July there was not a Brazil nut in sight.

Lesser Goldfinches love the thistle feeder to the point that they don't care if you are standing next to them, crushing them without respect or restraint.

If you're reading this, you are a birder, and you are intimately familiar with the phrase "summer doldrums", which plagues almost the entire state of California under 5,000 feet in elevation. If you think birding your favorite places in summer is uninspiring, you know that your backyard is not exactly going to be "going off".

In the first half of June I added two new species to the yard total - Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers. However, after HAWO, I was solidly shut out until the middle of July, when I got a heard-only Barn Owl with an assist from Annabelle, who had kindly woken me up in the middle of the night in order to get the bird. Apreesh. That brought me to 83 species for the yard, which is a pretty nice number if you ask me. Fall migration is underway, so I expect to do better in August than I did in July. The Los Capitancillos Ponds are full to the brim though, so my chances for adding some shorebirds other than what I have already (Killdeer and Spotted Sandpiper) are dishearteningly low at best.

Hooded Oriole/Black-headed Grosbeak yard combo! Sure this may be a normal combo in some southeast Arizona yards, but it is novel for me. Hooded Orioles are fairly common in the neighborhood, but grosbeaks have only put in a handful of appearances so far. The late spring Rose-breasted I wanted to visit so badly never materialized, so I am now waiting for a fall Rose-breasted.

In May, you will remember that Rancho Del Bastardos had the highest species list of any yard in the state of California (ranked by eBird), an honor bestowed upon me that I did not accept with nonchalance. Who knew that my little bastard-filled ranchito would be so dominant? Well, I am happy to report that not only did Rancho Del Bastardos take top honors in May, we took it in June!

Incredible! Back-to-back big months!

In July, things were different though...by checking California yard lists in eBird, I could tell that other yardbirders were getting pretty fucking pissed off by Rancho Del Bastardo's dominance of California yards for two months in a row. But I birded, and birded, and birded the shit out of my yard. By the final days of the month, I was tied for first place, and the rest of the competition had been outbirded (sorry Brian, we can't all be #7....oh and please don't kick me off eBird).

While I can see Acorn Woodpeckers distantly every day, they have only come to the feeder a couple times. On this occasion, the bird enthusiastically tried to impale House Sparrows with its bill, a gesture I appreciated.

Bewick's Wrens are constantly in the yard. When will the scolding cease?

Finally, I decided to take decisive action. I could not tolerate this yardbirding stalemate any longer. I spent some time outside one evening, to see if anything different from the morning scene would fly by...and I did not have to wait for long. BANG Barn Swallow. BOOM White-throated Swift. KAPLOOEEYYYYYYY Common Raven!!! Ok, none of these are rare birds or anything, or new to the yard list, but they were all new for the month! And with these final additions, Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey joyously embraced...a triple crown for Rancho Del Bastardos!

Like the San Francisco Giants once had, I am now in the midst of a yardbirding DYNASTY here at Rancho Del Bastardos. More species have been recorded from my yard than any other California yards for three consecutive months...I am waiting for eBird to send me my championship yardbirding rings.

Some of the local mockingbirds are constantly doing this wing-flashing thing when they are foraging, it's pretty funny. This recently-fledged juvenile also embraced the technique.

It's a very deliberate and conspicuous habit, not just a quick wing flick. More mockingbirds should do this, it is very becoming.

Caspian Terns are foraging behind my house constantly. I haven't had a whole lot of luck crushing waterbirds from my backyard, but the terns do give some good opportunities. Also, it is really weird to be accustomed to hearing the guttural, violent calls of these these things from your own suburban living room.

I want to thank all of you, because we have the greatest fans in the world! This is for you! And don't worry, we won't be resting on our laurels over here...a fourth month of yardbirding glory sounds even better than three.

See you at the victory parade.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

March Mildness, Marin Wildflowers, The Pullout Method

And so we blog onward, in the heat of the desiccating and unrelenting San Jose sun, until BB&B is all caught up with current birding events. I'm not sure how long this will take, but I'm happy to put the work in. You know, BB&B will be ten (10) (!!!) years old next year, and it's never too early to start ramping up the blogging activity in anticipation of this epic milestone. We have a lot of special things in store for you next year, and as long as this microdosing thing keeps working, the inspiration to do even more will keep flowing!

A long time ago, in a harbor far, far away, a Greater Yellowlegs was molting in some crisp, clean alternate coverts. It was springtime in Alameda. Is there anywhere that matches the glamour and glory of an Alameda spring? Yes, a great many places...no offense Alameda birders. Photographed in Ballena Bay, Alameda, CA.

This Long-billed Curlew would would soon be exchanging it's patch of mudflat for grassland. Like some other shorebirds, curlews may defend nonbreeding territories - this bird may have already returned to this patch of mud by now. Unlike my species, procrastinating and other forms of lollygagging have not been documented in curlews.

On another March morning, I birded China Camp State Park to see if I could get a couple Marin birds that had been holding out on me. This White-throated Sparrow was not a county bird, but was an unexpected surprise. Around here, March is not a month that bursts with the potential of coming across extremely uncommon birds, so this gave me a good birdbuzz.

It was a very cooperative bird, but spent most of its time feeding actively in the deep shade. Some genuine, potentially legendary crushes were missed, but I was happy to spend some quality time with it. Year bird!

A male Spotted Towhee took a break from wailing against the leaf litter to soak up some sun.

I did succeed in getting one county bird that morning...Black Rail. There was one calling from the saltmarsh pictured below...

...and several calling from this freshwater marsh, which really surprised me. Black Rails in the bay area generally are found in saltmarsh or wetlands with tidal influence, though they use freshwater habitats in many parts of the state. I suspect this marsh is totally dry during drought years, so the rails were probably chuffed to have this habitat available this spring.

Billy has used her powers to make me unwittingly pay more attention to plants than I used to, so I couldn't ignore some of the mellowing wildlowers in bloom, particularly the iris. Pretty sure this is Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana).

This could be the same species, I think they are pretty variable. That said, I have almost no idea what I'm talking about.

An even paler blossom. Is this a different species, or is this still douglasiana?

Death camas! Not only deadly, but replete with aesthetics.

Not sure what species this is, but owl's clover has always been one of my favorite wildflowers.

This was a wallflower we hadn't seen before. Headland wallflower (Erysimum concinnum)? This was in the coastal scrub of the headlands just south of Muir Beach, Marin County. Not sure if there are any other wallflowers with white blossoms growing in the area.

On another March morning, Matt Sabatine and I went out to Mines Road, south of Livermore, to see what we could find. Mines Road offers some of the best road birding in the bay area, and one of the only spots to easily find Yellow-billed Magpie in Alameda County. I got a number of Foxtrot Oscar Yankees and new Alameda birds that morning, including chaparral-loving Rufous-crowned Sparrows. But aside from finding a Golden Eagle nest, the other highlights all appeared at the same random pullout.

Immediately after getting out of the car, I thought I had found a Red-naped Sapsucker, though the bird was distant and I was unable to get photos. Aaron Maizlish eventually crushed the bird, which turned out to be an apparent Red-naped X Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, an extremely rare hybrid in the state. His photos can be seen here. I wish we could see the right side of the bird, but shit, I wish for a lot of things.

This bobcat was much more cooperative than the sapsucker. So far, no hybrid allegations have been brought forth, but I wouldn't put it past your average birder to do so. This hybridphilia has got to stop...but I digress. Bobcat is a great bird!

Bobs usually don't casually saunter across the road a stonechat's throw away while you are standing there fumbling with your camera. They are still fairly common in many parts of California, but my stoke for seeing them is genuine, prolonged and sustained.

You may be thinking to yourself, "Goddamn Steve, how much shit can you possibly see at a random pullout in fucking Alameda County?" Well, how about a blazing-hot county rarity, one that is not a stupid hybrid? This Townsend's Solitaire flew in from up-canyon, perched nearby for a few minutes, then continued on its way north, never to be seen again.

And it seems to me you lived your life like a candle in the wind...so long, solitaire. I would have liked to have known you, but I was just a kid. Few birders have ever had the pleasure of seeing one in Alameda, a decidedly unpleasant county for solitaires to linger in.

Yes, that was from an Elton John song. I am unapologetic, but I should probably quote Minor Threat instead next time.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Great Glorious Gulling in San Mateo County

You knew it was coming...it was unavoidable. I don't think I've done a gull post since 2016. Is a full-blown Larid post in July appropriate? Not in the slightest, but here it is and here you are reading it. Don't worry, this should be better than a photo study of Ring-billed Gulls or some similar garbage.

The winter of 2016-2017 was quite good for California gullers. While the Ross's Gull was undoubtedly the undisputed highlight, a close second was the Black-tailed Gull that was seen in Monterey County (where Billy and I dipped the day the Ross's died) and then again in San Mateo County. That is what brought me to the mouth of Gazos Creek, where I found Terrills, Michael Park and other unidentified birders, but no Black-tailed. At least there were kittiwakes though.

Last winter was tremendous for Black-legged Kittiwakes in this part of the state, being seen from shore with regularity in many places. This was another bird I had missed entirely in 2016, but they were easy to find early this year. Seeing pelagic birds on shore really feels like cheating.

This was the second time I had dragged Billy and Annabelle (the first time in fetal form) out to dip on this Black-tailed Gull. Hopefully this event won't repeat itself again.

Luckily, kittiwakes were not the lone highlight of the day. This Lesser Black-backed Gull in Princeton Harbor (Denniston Creek Mouth) was a very nice consolation rarity. Despite their abundance in some parts of the continent, this is still a very rare bird in most of California. To give you an idea of how good the gulling was around this time, there were a minimum of 3 individual LBBGs in San Mateo County; in eBird, there is only one record in all prior years.

On another day, I lurked across the bay down to get my usual punishment at Pilarcitos Creek Mouth...this is a legendary gull spot where I have failed to see anything interesting year after year after year. This newly-arrived Allen's Humingbird was next to my car when I got out; a good omen?

I bumped into Ken Schneider, who let me know about a Glaucous Gull at the creek mouth. I arrived just as the bird peaced out to the northeast, possibly to visit one of the inland reservoirs.

I stuck around for a while, hoping something else of interest would stop in; this roost site is well-known for its high turnover of gulls. I felt the old familiar presence of rarities...but where were they? This attractive Glaucous hybrid (presumably Glaucous x Herring) dropped in to the flock, but that was not what I had on my mind.

Finally, a Vague Runt worth writing home about materialized...Laughing Gull! Like Lesser Black-backed, this is a Salton Sea specialty in California. Show me a Laughing Gull anywhere else in the state, and I will show you a damn rare bird.

Ok gull nerds...what do you think the bird in the center is? This is not a quiz, I honestly don't know. Note the bright red orbital ring, red gape, eye color, bill shape and pattern (see below as well). It superficially resembles a Herring Gull, but there are things "wrong" with it. Those are Mew Gulls in front and to the right, and a Western Gull on the left for comparison. The primaries are the typical four-year gull black with white apical spots. I did not see leg color, the bird disappeared almost immediately after I found it, flushed by wankers.

Lots of conflicting weirdness here.

You may have noticed a theme in this blog post so far...no, not the gulls, I'm talking about the shitty photos. Here is a decent kittiwake to help redeem myself. Speaking of shitty photos and redemption, let me betray a photographer's secret to all you noobs (n00bs)...if you want to convince everybody that you were born with a camera in your hand and that you are god's gift to nature photography, don't post shitty photos. Only post good ones. It's that simple. Fortunately for you and me both, I don't pretend to be a photographer, I just take photos. Some are good, most are not, but I will show it all...gross.

This kittiwake was bellowed at by an asshole Western Gull. Luckily, no harm was done.

This kittiwake demonstrated the classic pleasantness and unobtrusive nature characteristic of the species. The kittiwakes that morning were the most confiding I've seen south of Alaska.

It is also worth mentioning that at this site alone, over a couple different visits, I witnessed birders string Laughing Gull, Slaty-backed Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull and Glaucous Gull. I appreciate that trying to identify rare gulls is an exercise in self-harm for many, but let's be careful out there friends.

After the unambiguous victory at Pilarcitos Creek (a first for me), I returned to Princeton Harbor to scour the Denniston Creek flock. Unambiguous success quickly turned into ambiguous success though when John Sterling and I got on this nice "Kumlien's" Iceland Gull. Note the lack of a tail band, which the bird was happy to display repeatedly.

The identification of this bird was actually not the ambiguous thing for once - it even has the dark "arrowheads" on the primaries, which don't tend to persist with a lot of wear. It was the classification that was problematic. At the time, rumor had it that Iceland Gull and Thayer's Gull were to be lumped in some fashion, a rumor which proved to be true...the AOS not only lumped them, it smashed the Kumlien's subspecies into oblivion. So, instead of this being a kumlieni Iceland Gull (a Bird Police species in California), officially this bird is now considered an intergrade between the thayeri and glaucoides subspecieseseseseseseses of Iceland Gull.

That's it on the left, showing the tail and wing pattern one would expect on a kumlieni thayeri x glaucoides intergrade. So for now I have put this bird on the shelf, no point in sending it to the Bird Police.

Here is a somewhat bleached Iceland Gull (formerly known as Thayer's...crap, this is going to take some getting used to) with a very white base color, but still showing the contrasting dark secondaries and darker primaries typical of thayeri.

Oh, and in case you are wondering, I spent a great deal of time looking for Slaty-backed Gulls in February and early March without success, but at least I had some other good birds to show for it. The San Mateo County coast offers some of the best gulling in the Lower 48, hopefully next winter can come close to matching the glory of the last.