Showing posts with label common tern. Show all posts
Showing posts with label common tern. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Desperate Birders Have Been Known To Render Desperate Deeds or: How I Learned to Stop Vomiting and Love the Seabirds


Black-footed Albatross is the reigning lord of California waters, at least until Short-tailed Albatross make a dramatic comeback. Working with Black-foots on Midway Atoll enamored me with them; this is a bird I never tire of seeing. I love the fact that I can go on a pelagic trip off of California and have a real possibility of seeing a bird that I saw on Midway 4 years ago. It's over 3,000 miles from Midway to Half Moon Bay; not only do Black-foots cross this expanse before and after breeding begins, they do it just to forage for their chicks! The mileage these long-lived birds put on their wings must be staggering.

With fall shorebird migration raging up, down, and across the continent, shorebirders are happy. But before warblers, vireos, flycatchers and their ilk sweep south, late summer is when seabird season really gets going. Under cover of darkness, hordes of ravenous birders pile on to boats up and down the California coast, to try their luck when the day breaks with the birds of the wide open ocean.

It is a novel idea. Many nonbirders struggle to come to grips with it. You go way offshore to watch birds? There are birds out there? Isn't that kind of hard? How much does that cost?


I cannot say enough good things about Buller's Shearwaters, the bird rumored to use human bones as nest material. Maybe this fall I will finally give them the crushing they deserve.

For many of the birders getting on boats in the coming months, it is their first time at sea. Pelagic birding comes as a shock; being jammed into a crowd of similarly-garbed birders, the motion of the boat, the fast-moving birds disappearing behind troughs...then there is the extreme difficulty of identifying any and all seabirds, for the colors of seabirds exist on a limited spectrum of white, gray, brown, black...the legendary Economy of Style. And then there is the puking; The Sickness. While one birder may describe a pelagic trip as a glimpse of Heaven itself, another birder on the same trip would describe the experience as a hellish ordeal that left them broken and empty inside (literally).


Once again, the frantic cries of "SKUUUUAAAAA!!!!!" will pierce the salty air, as a hefty brown bird makes a quick pass by the boat. A species that never ceases to cause birders to froth at the mouth, I'm hoping to get South Polar Skua off both coasts this year.

For others birders, they have spent many days at sea in pursuit of seabirds...their own white whales, their own sea monsters, so to speak. It keeps them going, it sustains them. For some, their monster may be a Hawaiian Petrel, or Streaked Shearwater. My monsters go by many names and forms...I must rise and do battle with them all. I cannot rest until they are all defeated...and so again and again, I must go to sea. It will never end. We are not deterred by the long days, the sleep deprivation, the horrendous vomiting, the possibility for complete and catastrophic failure on the rarity front...no. As long as the birds come, the birders will rise to meet them.




Sabine's Gull is a severely underrated bird. Aside from being our easiest gull to identify (that wing pattern is so distinct it might as well just read "Sabine's Gull"), they have a bold fashion sense and are true pelagic birds for most of the year. Our Pacific birds breed in the Arctic and winter off of western South America; the Atlantic population repopulates in the Canadian Arctic and winters off southwest Africa.

I am no different. In my continuing lust for seabird observation, I am scheduled to go on pelagic trip after pelagic trip this fall...a pair out of North Carolina and a bunch out of California, as a leader for Shearwater Journeys. Desperate birders have been known to render desperate deeds, and I think the boat time I will be racking up in the coming months is a sign, at the very least, of a severe and incurable addiction.

All photos today are from various pelagic trips the last couple years, out of San Diego, Monterey, and Half Moon Bay, CA.




Arctic and Common Terns (above) are encountered on the regular in fall. All too often they make a single pass, leaving birders with eyes glazed over and mouths agape in confusion. It is times like this when chimping can make or break an ID.


I think this is a good example of some of the challenges pelagic birders face; to put it as eloquently as I can...looking at birds is hard. This is a basic-plumage Tufted Puffin head. TUPU is a somewhat rare but regular bird on these fall northern California trips.


Parasitic (above) and Pomarine Jaegers are staples of any California pelagic trip. It is in late summer and early fall when that precious jaeger, the Long-tailed, migrates through the area. Of course, finding jaegers is one thing, identifying them can be quite another.




This is a second summer bird, although at first glance it looks more like an adult that had already dropped its fancy tail feathers. The breast band is actually made up of dingy barring, a remnant of the bird's youth, not the dark wash one would expect in adult Pomarine and Parasitic Jaegers. With the potentially confusing breast band out of the way, one quickly notices the bird has completely dark underwings, which renders this bird a Long-tailed Jaeger.


Storm-Petrels are the Empidonax of the sea; small, innocuous, and brutally difficult to tell apart from one another...except they don't ever vocalize away from their breeding islands, so really they make Empidonax seem easy in comparison. Black Storm-Petrels are one of several regularly seen species seen on pelagic trips off northern California.


Of course, there are other things to see besides birds on these trips, which brings great distress to some birders. Just behave, and hope the knife doesn't come out!


Thursday, October 4, 2012

Common vs Forster's Terns


A Common Tern gives itself a shakedown. Note the partial black "hood" extending all the way around the back of its neck, and bold carpal bar. Ormond Beach, Port Hueneme, CA.

Birders struggle with tern identification...it is a source of Fear and Loathing for beginner and veteran alike. Royal vs. Elegant, Black vs. White-winged, Sooty vs. Bridled, Common vs. Arctic, Common vs. Roseate, and perhaps most frequently of all, Common vs. Forster's. Here are a few shots and notes that could be helpful to tell immature birds of these two species apart. The process is frequently messy and not always a perfect match for field guides (which is their fault, not yours), but it can be done! As always, knowing status and distribution can provide some great hints, but anything can happen during migration.


Forster's Tern, with "earmuffs" that don't wrap around the back of the head. Common Terns never sport this kind of headgear. Poe Road, Salton Sea, CA.


A Common Tern conveniently shows off its outer tail feathers, which feature black on the outer webs. Ormond Beach.


A Forster's Tern stoops to catch a Tilapia. Check out the white/gray tail. This bird has extensive black in the primaries, which birders often assume is associated only with Common Tern. Poe Road.


One of my better Common Tern shots. Note how pale the primaries appear from this angle, which is not what birders expect...but everything else points exactly to Common, including the delicate bill. Taking tern pictures can be extremely frustrating, but when they suddenly bank to dive on a fish or other prey, it makes for a pretty sweet shot if you can catch it in time. Ormond Beach.




This is a pretty good quiz bird. There is black in the tail, but the outer retrices are clearly edged in white...this is a Forster's Tern. Poe Road.


Here's a pretty "typical" Forster's Tern, with earmuffs and pale upperwing. Also note the slightly longer and heavier bill. Poe Road.


Common Tern. Compare the underwing pattern of this bird with the above Forster's. Ormond Beach.


This Common Tern has a touch of yellow at the tip of the bill. Although not a frequently observed trait, it happens enough for a birder to think twice before you think you find an out of range or hybrid Sandwich Tern. Poe Road.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Death Of The Mystery Bird

In the age of the internets, birders can communicate and share photographs like never before, which along with digital photography has lead to a dramatic jump in the prevalence of "mystery birds" over the past several years. To label a bird as a mystery bird, of course, is simply just a way of saying you are unable to identify a particular bird. Nowadays, listservs, forums and facebook groups are awash in these things. I do like weighing in on these anonymous birds from time to time, despite the plethora of horrible photographs to wade through. The most infamous realm of the Mystery Bird is the ID-FRONTIERS listserv, which consists of birders willing to slit throats over such fascinating issues as the amount of expected wear on the lesser coverts of a molt-retarded 3rd-cycle Herring X Glaucous-winged Gull hybrid in July (that occurred out of normal range, but not in a completely questionable location)...which is all well and good of course, but I don't always have the stomach for such in-depth and brain-numbing semantics. That's more of The Great Ornithologist Felonious Jive's thing.

Since I am, as you know, our great nation's Number 7 birder, it's not difficult to weigh in on the mystery birds that surface here and there throughout the internets. It's fun to debate birds, and gives everyone a chance to learn something. BB&B is very pro-birducation of course, so I do my best to keep it real. I do admit to being wrong one (1) time of late, when an outranking birder whose name rhymes with "Benn Baufman" correctly nailed down a sparrow that I could not. All hail!

Over the past few years of checking out these Birds of Mystery, certain patterns begin to emerge that I think are representative of the challenges that birders throughout the U.S. and Canada often face. So, now, I give to you, The Final Guide to Identifying Mystery Birds. Chances are, if you've only been addicted to birds for a few years or less, the fuzzy, blurry, anonymous bird you have a picture of will be pictured or mentioned somewhere in this post. You are welcome.

The bird groups that people seem to struggle with the most are flycatchers, sparrows, buntings, warblers and shorebirds. Surely seabirds and gulls have surely crippled many a birder as well (I'm still working on my degree in International Storm-petrel Studies), but I can't argue with Pure Statistics.

And now...your mystery birds are revealed.


Is your mystery bird yellow? Is it a warbler? Good chance it's a Yellow Warbler. They don't look like this in fall, so don't expect them to. Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge, ND.


See a weird sparrow? Well...is it a Song Sparrow? Song Sparrows are one of the champion sparrows for confusing people. Like Yellow Warblers, they are more variable than people think, with a staggering 24 subspecies in the U.S. That is more than any other North American bird! Amazingly, 11 of these breed in California, with 4 other subspecies occurring in winter. Point Reyes, CA.


Western Wood-Pewee. People are terrible at identifying flycatchers (I don't blame them), in particular both species of wood-pewee. Lack of eyering and long primaries make it easy though, and the dull wingbars help as well. Advanced birders struggle with vagrant pewees (a Western in Eastern Wood-Pewee range, and vice versa); for silent birds, I see no end in sight to this problem. Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, San Diego, CA.


Willow Flycatchers are equally notorious for confusing birders, since they resemble both wood-pewees and Alder Flycatchers, and can also be confused for other Empidonax. Some birders are under the false impression that Willows never have eyerings (which they can, particularly in the east), which makes it even messier. But lets face it, this genus stems from its own special circle of Birder Hell. Port Hueneme, CA.


Common Terns seem to be the Most Mysterious Tern. Probably because they can turn up anywhere on the continent, and that they are frustratingly similar to Forster's, Arctic and Roseate Terns. Ormond Beach, Port Hueneme, CA.



Looking at people's "mystery shorebirds", Least Sandpiper wins the award for our Most Mysterious Sandpiper, despite the fact it is our only peep with yellow legs. Being tiny, their name is a good clue as well. Just the other day a local birder reported 4 Sharp-tailed Sandpipers at a marsh...can you guess what they were? San Diego River, San Diego, CA.


Tennessee Warbler. In spring they look like vireos, in fall they can still look like vireos, as well as a number of other warbler species. An understandably confusing bird for fledgling birders. Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge, ND.



Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Despite being practically the only "eastern" hummingbird, they somehow continue to confuse birders within their normal range. A great example is one in Maryland that was recently reported as a Magnificent Hummingbird. We know this to be the case because the photos show a Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Sadly, a number of birders attempted to chase this staggering rarity in vain. Chavarrillo, Veracruz, Mexico.


Savannah Sparrow ("Belding's" subspecies pictured). Savannah Sparrows are hard for people to come to terms with, but with a massive range and a number of different and probably incorrectly described subspecies, this is understandable. Streaky sparrow give you brain freeze? Think about these duders, whether in a coastal marsh or open grasslands...yellow lores are a giveaway. Imperial Beach, CA.


Chipping Sparrows. People recognize them in their summer duds, but not as a grotesque juvenile or basic-plumaged bird. Juvenile Spizella can be nightmarish to identify for many a birder, but Chipping is (arguably) the easiest to identify in this streaky state. Point Reyes, CA.



Common Yellowthroat, by my calculations, is the Most Common Mystery Bird Of All Time. Female, juvenile, and hatch year birds of both sexes get misidentified for all sorts of other warblers. And yes, despite the tens of thousands I have seen by now, I still don't have a good photo of one...how embarrassing! Tijuana River Valley, CA.

Are none of these species your mystery bird? Are you sure? Well, it seems that Magnolia Warbler, Indigo Bunting, Swainson's Thrush, Western and Baird's Sandpipers, juvenile Verdin and Brown-headed Cowbird all turn up frequently as mystery birds. You should consider them in your quest for The Final ID.

I should remind birders to use their field guides to their fullest...i.e. don't just look at the pictures, read the text and range maps. It's good stuff, I swear. That makes all of this a lot easier.

There you go. Case closed. No more mystery birds, ever again. Rejoice, and bask in wisdom and knowledge!

Friday, September 14, 2012

Some Terns Drink At Carpal Bars


Common Tern and Western Gull. Common Terns are uncommon fall migrants throughout most of California, and are rarely common anywhere in the state. If any species of bird is going to teach you what a "carpal bar" is, this is it. Ormond Beach, Port Hueneme, CA.

The Perpetual Weekend. You may have heard it. Not everyone can do it. It is for brave souls, who do not feel the need to hide behind the facade of raising a family, or who squander the last of their youth by languishing away in grad school. It is for those who are not afraid to meet the challenges of a society who measures one's success not by happiness or contentment (or numbers of birds seen, for that matter), but by how much you get paid to spend your waking life in a job you don't like, and for many of you, outwardly resent. If you crave stability and security, then The Perpetual Weekend is not for you. But if you believe in Freedom, Liberty, and The Pursuit of Happiness...indeed, The American Dream as we know it...then you must throw down your shackles and embrace The Perpetual Weekend. How else can you go birding whenever you want?

For those with the wherewithal to actually experience complete and total freedom for a while (and I'm not talking about Burning Man), I can only say this is a lifestyle I highly recommend. Your bird lists will benefit, as will your birding skills. It is worth mentioning the Global Birding Ranking System does actually take into account your number of hours birding vs. your number of hours working, with some advanced calculus involved in situations where you actually get paid to bird.

I am back in Oakland now. I went 0/2 in my vagrant-hunting efforts yesterday but there's a lot to catch up on...here's a few recent birds from Ventura County, CA, where I became the Number 7 birder I am today.



Here's a better look at the previously-mentioned carpal bar. 


I never get tired of taking tern pictures...being Masters of the Air, there is no shortage of epic poses to capture them in, and since they are so agile, most of my pictures are garbage anyways.


Nuttall's Woodpeckers are present at many coastal sites that California birders are scouring this time of year for vagrants. You may overlook them now, but when migration has passed us by you will once again love and cherish this humble woodpecker. Sycamore Canyon, CA.


This Loggerhead Shrike is looking as cute as a shrike probably can. Arnold Road, Oxnard Plain, CA.


This was my first Merlin of the fall. I look forward to many more. Oxnard Plain, CA.


This beast, an eclipse male Wood Duck, is not something SoCal birders get to see very often. Even looking their worst, Wood Ducks are still bizarre creatures. Bubbling Springs Park, Port Hueneme, CA.


So many colors. An astounding duck at all times of year.


Ahhhhh, urban birding. Great Blue Heron, Ormond Beach, CA.

Friday, June 1, 2012

So Long And Thanks For All The Fish


A common dolphin gets the big air the kids love.

Happy June, and welcome to another astounding Friday edition of BB&B. Of course, this is the only place on the internet that heaps praise upon the American birdwatching community, yet dishes out the cold and merciless ridicule it rightfully deserves.

Here is the last installment from a pelagic off San Diego I went on a couple weeks ago. As you may have guessed, if I start out a blog post with frakking dolphins, it wasn't exactly a very good day for seabirds out there...the power-birders were bummed, and even the beginners got bored. Maybe I just need to go to Monterey Bay next time.


Several pods of dolphins attempted to cheer up the gloomy birders on the boat, with some success. Common dolphins lived up to their name; I think this is a Long-beaked.


Common dolphins can do it all...swim, fly (apparently), star in Douglas Adams novels, save people's lives or even kill them. Why there are not more dolphin-worshipping religions out there is strange to me. I think this one is a Short-beaked Common Dolphin, but I'm no expert.

Remember friends, whenever you buy tuna, you are supporting the only industry that still kills lots of dolphins. "Dolphin-safe" my ass. If you are a fish-eater, stick to Albacore...they do not suffer from greatly depleted stocks and are line-caught, which greatly reduces the potential for cetacean bycatch.


If you care, at all, how your diet may be affecting life at sea (most birders sadly don't), there are a lot of good educational resources out there...Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch is a great place to start.


Pink-footed Shearwaters are one of the 3 seasonally-common shearwaters in California waters, the others being Sooty and Black-vented (SoCal only). A lot of the shearwaters offshore now are in heavy molt and aren't exactly sharp-looking.


Pink-footed Shearwaters are aptly named.


Black Storm-Petrels are easy to find off San Diego. The word "languid" was invented when someone first observed a Black Storm-Petrel in flight. "Languid" is currently used more to describe the flight style of Black Storm-Petrels than anywhere else in the English language.


Least Terns were not something we expected to see 30 miles offshore, but there were more than just these two out there. I had no idea they foraged this far offshore, but am not completely surprised...their wintering grounds are still a mystery, and are thought to be somewhere far from sight of land.



This bird is interesting. This was one of a handful of Common Terns that flew by at one point...curiously, this bird seems to have an entirely gray upperwing, which is not the norm for the species...I attribute that to the season and the atrocious lighting. If anyone really knows their Common Tern wing patterns, feel free to drop some knowledge...I don't think the bird is a Forster's, and blowing up and lightening the photo shows it is clearly not an Arctic just by looking at the bill alone.


Xantus' Murrelet with its Xantus' Murreletlet.


Hella good parenting right here.


Red-necked Phalaropes are some of the smallest birds that make a living on the ocean; like storm-petrels, their (pelagic) diet is restricted to the crud that is at the very surface. Mmmmm, delicious surface crud...


A sad picture of the one Sabine's Gull of the day. Still working on getting a passable photo of one of these sharp birds...this is a species I definitely wish I could see more of.


Risso's Dolphins! I haven't seen one in many years. They are easily identified at a distance by all their scars. Stoked.