Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Human Birdwatcher Project Presents: Plotting a Chase

Hello, mouthbreathing nerds. What is the good word? I thought I would take a respite from Mexico posts for some much needed bullshitting...time to dust off The Human Birdwatcher Project, where birders are people too!  Allegedly. There is a cornucopia of topics to touch on today...we could talk about the new round of AOU proposals, the Malheur Incident, El Nino...nah, lets just stick to rare birds.

I've just returned from a very weak morning of birding some of my favored local spots...and once again, I am left wondering why I favor them at all. Bird of the day, in terms of rarity, was a Eurasian X American Wigeon hybrid....a truly underwhelming bird. The actual bird of the day was a Turkey Vulture flying around with an enormous dead rat, which really sums up the quality of birding I experienced this morning. Some birders say that any day of birding is a good day...but they are wrong. They are lying to you. There is such a thing as poor birding, and I've experienced it hundreds of times. This is to be expected. Unless you are out chasing rarities every single time you go birding (gross), you are not going to see rare/interesting/satisfying birds all the time.  So, about those rarities...

For California birders, the big question this winter seems to be "where are the megas?". Where are the rarities that make your heart skip a beat when you hear about them?  There just hasn't been a lot to write home about for the California bird junkie...nothing newish anyways.  A Yellow-billed Loon was a one-day-wonder in San Francisco, a handful of Slaty-backed Gulls are in bay area counties (this is normal), the LeConte's Sparrow at Abbotts Lagoon is wintering again, the Field Sparrow is still taunting me from Ojai, and let us not forget that the fucking gannet is still lurking around...which probably excites no one but me.  The one glaring exception to all these great-but-not-groundbreaking birds is the Great Gray Owl in Humboldt County. Humboldt County! Hey, I really like birding there! I used to live there! That would be a county bird...oh wait, that is one of the most sought-after species on the fucking continent, and I've never seen one!


For those of you out of state, you might be surprised to learn that California actually has a not insignificant population of Great Gray Owls that occupy the Sierras and points north...so while this individual is a vagrant of sorts, it's not exactly on par with one showing up in someplace like Texas. However, those Sierra birds are extremely hit or miss. Some people are lucky enough to blunder into them, other folks just dip on them for years and years. Most birders have to log a lot of time in Yosemite to get Great Gray in California, especially now that the famed Wawona birds aren't a good shot anymore (I believe one of them was hit by a car), although they are still in the area. So I have no doubt that there are a number of Great Gray Owls that are actually closer to me than the Humboldt bird. What is so intriguing about the Humboldt bird (aside from that Great Grays do not show up as vagrants anywhere in the state, except for when one showed up at exactly this spot over 30 years ago!) is that NO ONE DIPS ON IT. If there was ever a particular Great Gray to look for in the state, it is this very reliable bird.

And so here I am, for approximately the 16,000th time, trying to time when I should attempt to see this bird. I will chase the shit out of a rare bird, as you know, but goddamn...I am not a big fan of driving hours and hours, just to turn around and waste my time driving more and more hours. That said, I don't want to be stupid about this...a few years ago I decided not to look for a relatively reliable Gyrfalcon (life bird) and King Eider (state bird) that were wintering in Humboldt, because I didn't have much money at the time (a poor reason) and because...because I was stupid (the main reason). I do not want to be stupid again. Going up for the Little Bunting was very intelligent, and seeing the Common Scoter was an even better decision. There are several factors working against me though when it comes to this bird:

1. I have a job. This seriously gets in the way of birding. If you want to become a better birder, quit working. I'm not joking.

2. I have friends. Unlike many birders, I have friends that I want to see when I go up Arcata way, so just blitzing up the coast for a two day chase (with 11-12 hours spent driving) is not my idea of a good time. Ideally, I have time to bird and rage. That requires more than a two day weekend, which needs to be planned out with some advance notice (see #1).

3. It could leave. Birds disappear all the time, for all manner of reasons. Why do you think I've never seen an Ivory Gull? If birds did not leave, birding would be really easy...alas, birding is hard.

4. Great Gray Owls breed. Great Gray Owls, like most life forms, want to breed. In Oregon and California, where this bird presumably was born, Great Grays lay eggs in March. That means this bird may soon want to wander to a place that has a member of the opposite sex around.

5. It could fucking die. It spends a good chunk of time next to Highway 101 and another paved road. Great Gray Owls love to get hit by cars. The last one in Humboldt County, at the same place, met its fate in the form of a hurtling logging truck. The irony of this has not been lost on anyone...anyways, it could die before I get there.

6. A photographer could kill it. Aside from this species' proclivity for getting bashed by vehicles, this bird also is getting a lot of attention from birders and photographers. It does not require a stretch of the imagination to envision someone with a camera (monstrous lens or smartphone) getting too close and flushing the bird into the grill of a speeding truck. Luckily, the bird has been seen by so many people now that the crazed crowds are diminishing.

7. Brambring. Brambring happened just about a year ago, which is a bad omen. I do not want to repeat that again. Attempting a chase on the anniversary of Brambring, to the same county as Brambring, has ominous overtones at best.


Who knows how things will unfold? The Answer will come along soon...but I caution all of you that I may not be able to withstand another Brambring incident. Another Brambring could break me. Keep in mind that I haven't even told you the full story of what happened that fateful weekend, in order to protect certain associates as well as myself. I was in a state of extreme physical and mental duress...and although I battled through it, it was all a fruitless endeavor in the end. To do it all over again, with a bird that hits 10/10 on the majestic scale, would impact me in ways I cannot begin to fathom.

Thinking about this owl, specifically thinking about driving up there and not seeing it, instantly strikes me with The Fear...this is what causes people to not chase birds...but I may have to take the gamble anyways. After all, as The Great Ornithologist Felonious Jive always says, it is better to be Wrong than it is to be Stupid.

Photos of the bird that is driving me crazy courtesy of Rob Fowler, a Humboldt County birding wizard. 

14 comments:

  1. Would the #6 ranked birder in the world have The Fear? I think not.

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    1. "The one who birds without fear is the one who birds without brain." - ancient birding proverb

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    2. "For a man without hope is a man without fear." - ancient Daredevil proverb

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    3. I like that one. The bleakness is palpable.

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  2. Replies
    1. That is the plan, but plans sometimes take a Brambring route. This should get resolved soon, one way or another.

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  3. Ahh...I should have gone to Humboldt County instead of Minnesota. The crushing looks and constant availability of this bird cause me much pain.

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    1. You were right to go to the frozen north though...Ivory Gull? Gyr? Good god.

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  4. Save yourself the angst of the decision and buy a plane ticket to MN. We have at least 10 in the SZ Bog alone this year and those are just the breeders; wait for an irruption year and your chances are all the better.

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    1. But that is far! And not applicable to my CA list!

      If only there were IVGUs there every winter...

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    2. So is Mexico, and do not life list needs trump state list needs?!

      IVGU was cool, but what we do have every year are Great Grays and these guys...

      http://www.aboywhocriedheron.com/2016/02/08/guide-series-lets-go-see-some-hawk-owls-eh/

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    3. Hawk-owls...yeah, that would be nice. More than nice. However, comparing travelling for birding to Minnesota in January with West Mexico is...well there is no comparison. Not trying to throw shade on your state or anything.

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  5. Well, good thing I rubbed in that whole BRAM thing today. Apologies, sir.

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    1. You were not the first one to do that on Friday. All is well.

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