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 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".


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 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'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 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!

Monday, August 26, 2019

Adventures In Geri Birding

I was once what they call a "young birder"...but no longer. I may still be younger than the average birder - much younger - but I can't identify with being a young birder anymore, or even just young. As my youth and vitality slowly drain from my body and mind, leaving aches and pains and codgery notions and inclinations in their wake, I am reminded more and more each year that middle age has crested the distant horizon and is quickly coming for me.

The past few years have bore all the signs of being left by the wayside of youth. I have worked the same job for over five years. There has been less travel...less socializing...finding a new band to embrace has become a huge challenge...and whether I care or not, I am really losing track of what is, or is supposed to be, remotely cool. Of course, there are more responsibilities too, even a child!

Are you there, Perpetual Weekend? It's me, Steve.

But there are benefits to being 37 and not 27. Like I am hungover way less, I'm not broke, I drink better bourbon, 5MR birding exists now, I'm a little wiser, and with Annie here with us I am never, ever bored. But one benefit that I am now reaping every day at this age is GERI BIRDING.

Yes, geri birding. Although some people scoff at geri birding, I have always reveled in it. Really, the main downside (which can also be an upside, depending on your sense of humor or appreciation of irony) of geri birding is that you are often forced to do it in a confined space with other birders, and you have to overhear their conversations or unwillingly get sucked into them. Something that has always stuck in my mind (I think it was from some standup comedy bit) for years now is that almost every random snippet of conversation you overhear from strangers ends up sounding completely idiotic. I have found that anecdote to be unnervingly accurate - most conversations I overhear sound somewhere between incredibly boring, trite, recycled, or utterly moronic, and that percentile is no different when you gather a bunch of birders together at some fact, it is probably worse, and all but impossible to tune out. Satre said "Hell is other people!" and that is hard to argue with if you spend enough time geri birding where other birders congregate. You are going to hear some excruciatingly vapid exchanges, people who live to hear themselves talk, incorrect scientific and bird facts, abhorrent misidentifications...often, all at the same time!

But geri birding is not just something you only do in southeast Arizona or at some rainforest lodge, there are geri birding opportunities almost anywhere...if you build it, they will come. In the sanctuary of your own yard, you don't have to deal with all of those, well, geris. Although I definitely miss going to cool places for field jobs, I have found in my increasingly middling age that having a yard to bird from is pretty great. Yes, Rancho de Bastardos happens to be situated in a uniquely awesome location for yard birding purposes (the ponds behind my fence really ups my yardbirding game), but the feeders and garden bring a lot of species in too, often just as many species or more than the ponds. Geri birding is what you make it, and I'd like to focus on that aspect for most of this post. So in that spirit, here are some anecdotes and lessons I have learned over the last couple years, since I got serious about geri birding in my own yard.

Many geri birders welcome back a host of migratory species to their feeders in spring and summer - that is unfortunately not the case at my house, but one obvious migrant species we get for about 5 months a year are Hooded Orioles, which nest in various neighborhood palms. I always put out this leaky, hard to clean hummingbird feeder for them because they can actually nectar from it - the ports in our other feeders are too small. I did try putting up orange wedges at one point, but the rats got to them...maybe I'll spring for an actual oriole feeder before next year. The adult males are super skittish for some reason so I'm still waiting for the crush of a lifetime, but the females and HY birds are a bit more confiding.

I'm still trying to figure out the deal with hummingbirds at my house. So far, it does not seem like hanging up a grip of hummingbird feeders is actually going to attract more hummingbirds than a couple feeders, though I'm tempted to try it - I think they would still be dominated by one or two super territorial Anna's. My current hypothesis is that the Rancho is not located on a major hummingbird flyway and/or lacks an adjacent area that draws in large numbers of them (i.e. a park with a lot of blooming plants/eucalyptus, for example). Perhaps one day, at a future Rancho de Bastardos, I will bring in swarms of them.

Before I embarked on this voyage that we call geri birding, I would have raised an eyebrow if you told me that Bewick's Wren was a frequent denizen of feeders. I also didn't think of them as being terribly confiding for a wren. But my yard wrens have shown me that it was I who was mistaken...about a great many things. Bewick's Wrens are fearless and cannot say no to either suet or seed....huh! Geri birding...easy, fulfilling, and educational!

This year I finally put up a suet feeder. I waited a long time to do this. For some reason, I just assumed that it wouldn't really get put to use by the local yardbirds...I was wrong again. The suet feeder is MAGIC. I haven't lured in anything rare with it, but it just gets absolutely hammered by the yard birds. The wrens love it. The chickadees love it. The titmice love it. The nuthatches love it.

The nuthatches. White-breasted Nuthatch was a yard rarity the first year we were here. Now? The yard is straight nuthatch-mania. As Frank might say if he were here, "nuthatches galore!"

It has been interesting to see what locally common species have "found" the yard as time has gone on. The first year here, White-breasted Nuthatch and Spotted Towhee only came in to the yard once or twice. Now nuthatches are one of the most reliable visitors, and I counted three different Spotted Towhees this morning. Of course, birds do different things year to year...this year, though they could care less about what is happening in my yard, Vaux's Swifts have been much more uncommon overhead than 2017 and 2018.

Yup, as easy as geri birding can be, it's not quite as easy to do everything you can to maximize the geri birding potential of you own yard. Reaching maximum geri birding potential is not as easy as you might think, especially if you are working with a modest budget. Having the correct feeders up (and the correct feed to offer) can make all the difference, as mentioned above with the oriole-accommodating hummingbird feeder and the suet feeder. In fact, just last week I went from a very small tray-style feeder to something much larger, figuring birds will find something roomier more inviting. The result? Within a week of trading feeders, my high count of Black-headed Grosbeak in the yard went from 1 to 3...and all three were seen on the feeder together! Not bad for a yard in suburban tract housing with no native trees.

Everybody knows that birds love bird baths. I was dead set (unnecessarily) on getting something that I could put on the ground, which turned out to be a little more challenging than I thought it would be. I settled on this rocky looking basin thing, which could be purchased without the accompanying standard bird bath pedestal. I wish it was a bit bigger but it performs well, along with a bubbling rock thingy (fake rock with a small pump inside) to add some movement to the water. It gets hella use, though mostly from birds that are towhee-sized or smaller. Lincoln's Sparrow likes it.

One day, when I am a homeowner, I will build the water feature to end all water features. Birds will be falling out of the sky to use it. Well, maybe not, but it will be a couple of steps up from the current situation, and it will be situated to maximize crushing opportunities, which is currently not really possible with our small yard combined with less-than-ideal lighting conditions. Having a south-facing house is a positive thing in many circles but from a birding or photography perspective, it sucks. Why would you want to maximize the amount of time spent looking into the sun? Ugly, ugly light.

Right. The water feature of my geri birding fantasies may one day become the bane of my existence, but I look forward to the challenge and subsequent avian rewards (cough VAGRANTS cough cough).

Hey, is this the first Rock Pigeon I've ever posted? Only took almost a thousand posts! But this isn't just any old pigeon...its someone's homing/racing pigeon! What are the chances we would be visited by a pigeon of such honor? Such calibre? It stayed around the house a few days before resuming its voyage home. In that vein of weirdness, we've also had two different Budgerigars at Rancho de Bastardos, and just recently there was a mysterious, tiny blue dove with a short tail in the yard very briefly...the brain paralysis that thing induced was swift and total. I still don't know what the hell that was but am confident it was an escapee.

Crushing opportunities must be maximized, even when having to deal with harsh lighting much of the time. When it comes to geri birding, any zealous bird photographer will tell you it is all about fake perches. Fake, as in natural looking perches set up in artificial about keeping it real. I don't really obsess over this sort of thing (as I've said a hundred times, I'm not a photographer, I just take pictures) but I will readily admit that a picture of a bird on a stick usually looks better than a bird on a feeder. So, to facilitate crushing, I've got several sticks ziptied to things around the yard, and I think the birds appreciate the additional spots to wait their turn if a feeder is filled with a pile of doves or Band-tailed Pigeons. The Chestnut-backed Chickadees here readily use these perches and now only have a modicum of fear of me (I often reach to refill a feeder and am surprised to find a chickadee still sitting on it, only a couple feet away) so make ideal photo targets, although they don't exactly sit still much. They are also the best looking chickadee of them all, so might as well go to town.

I currently have this perch up. It's an interesting one, I'm not sure what to think of it. It's kinda too girthy to be real popular for songbirds to perch on it very much, but I had Accipiters in mind when I put it up. This Cooper's Hawk made my vision complete. It's nice to have raptors in our little yard pretty often, though the Mourning Doves don't agree. The perch manipulation is also a fun experiment just from a behavior's interesting to see how a perch is almost completely ignored in one spot, but moved a couple feet over gets used 3 or 4 times as much by birds wanting a good waiting spot before landing on a feeder.

Although I always knew in my heart of hearts that I would be a geri birder someday, I didn't quite realize how much gardening that would entail, or that I would kind of like gardening. The gardening aspect really makes gerifying your yard feel even more geriatric than just hanging up a bunch of feeders. Since we are renting and will never buy the home we are in, we haven't planted any trees, but it is tempting! Instead, we've most planted shrubs; a lot of sages, native and otherwise. The hummingbirds love many of them but I'm still waiting to see them get a ton of use by other birds, though I suspect once they mature more they will at least provide good cover. This is another geriatric activity I can see myself getting really into someday...gardening with native plants and landscaping. How embarrasing, can't believe I just admitted that.

Just dump me in a grave already.

I have to say though, it is a few of the *nonnative* trees in/just outside the yard that seem to bring in a lot of birds. Birds love our random backyard juniper and the Peruvian pepper trees (Schinus molle) just outside our yard. Pepper trees are notorious in California for being sapsucker magnets , and I owe my yard list's Red-breasted Sapsuckers entirely to a neighbor's pepper tree. But a lot of other species are drawn to them as well, including a number of neotropical migrants, and even Western Screech-Owl, which spent one very vocal night in said pepper tree.

Of course, if you are going to put food and water out, you are going to attract some unwanted visitors. These can range from Brown-headed Cowbirds (above) to cats to rodents (native and otherwise) to bears, depending on where you live. Here at Rancho de Bastardos, we have to contend with native and nonnative squirrels, the occasional cat, Norway rats, House Sparrows and cowbirds.

I hate the rats. I hate the cowbirds.

The cats are infrequent enough that chasing them off by yelling with a hose in hand like a senile old man seems to deter them most of the time. Rats and squirrels have to contend with a squirrel proof feeder and a squirrel baffle for another feeder - incredibly, both of those deterrents work perfectly. The presence of House Sparrows and cowbirds have motivated me to experiment with seed mixes: black oil sunflower and safflower go in the feeders, smaller seeds get sprinkled on the ground. For whatever reason, this has worked pretty well and the feeders don't get overrun by the House Sparrows, though the cowbirds have grown fond of the feeders lately...a source of much brow-furrowing and hand-wringing.

But enough about shitbirds...I will leave you with my greatest geri birding accomplishment to date. The hands-down highlight of geri birding here in the last couple of years came in June, and I can safely say it had nothing to do with all of the plants we've planted, or the feeders, or really anything else going on in the yard. I had been out grocery shopping and was bringing bags of groceries in...without binoculars, of course...when I glanced up at the power lines behind the house. There sat a passerine facing me with a black head, white throat and white breast. For an instant I thought it was odd that a Tree Swallow was sitting there, that isn't normal, but then I saw the Mourning Dove next to it and realized the bird was much bigger than a Tree Swallow, and there was only one thing it could possibly be...a VAGUE RUNT EASTERN KINGBIRD!!! Almost as soon as this dawned on me, the kingbird took flight, flew overhead and disappeared far to the west...I assumed it would never be seen again.

I was astounded. Not only is Eastern Kingbird a very good rarity in the state, it was particularly good for Santa Clara County, where no one had seen one in many years. And this bird was sitting above my yard!

Miraculously, Billy refound the bird later in the day while looking out Annabelle's window, foraging from the neighbor's pepper tree. I got some acceptable photos and a few local birders were able to see it from a nearby public path. Pretty sick that one of my best self found county vagues came in my own yard...a geri birder's dream come true! For one day, I got to live my best geri birding life.

So there you have it, the comprehensive geri birding update from Rancho de Bastardos. The yard list currently stands at 138 species after being here for less than two and a half years, with the most recent additions being an "overdue" Bullock's Oriole and a true gift from the geri birding gods in the form of a flock of Western Sandpipers. May the lords of geri birding continue to smile upon me, and you.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The Human Birdwatcher Project Presents: To Catch a Stringer

Most birders think about things like, "Why don't juvenile Band-tailed Pigeons have neck collars?" or "Are the Mourning Doves in my yard now the same ones I see in winter?" or, shamefully, "What would a Mourning Dove x Band-tailed Pigeon hybrid look like?" But there are a few birders out there who are on an entirely different trip, contemplating how to convincingly fake a White-winged Dove sighting instead.

To be the Global Birder Ranking System's #7 U.S. birder, you have to have been around for a while. To achieve such an astounding rank, breathe such rarefied air, one not only needs to know birding, but to have a sixth sense about it...a sensitivity to The Force of birding, if you will. You must be able to predict the future, intimately know the past, and trust your instincts. This sixth sense comes to some after years of experience; other birders seem to lack this entirely, no matter how many years they have toiled in the field. You may not be lucky enough, or cursed enough, to feel The Force flowing through you...but if you are, not only will this preternatural sensitivity help you find birds of interest and identify them correctly, it will also inform you on the claims of other birders without necessarily knowing much about the people beforehand. The Force is an excellent judge of skill, and of character.

For some birders, this isn't important. Birding isn't about other people, is it? Birding is a personal experience....but these days that seems to apply to only a minority of birders. Most birders do not exist in a vacuum. We have birding friends, birding foes, we look for birds other people find, we go to places other birders recommend, we study bird photos online that other people take, etc. Other birders matter, even if we go birding specifically to avoid people. If Flycatcher Jen (a real person, as most of you know) happens to meet Johnny Nightingale-Thrush (not a real person) while out birding, and Johnny tells her "I saw an Intermediate Egret two miles down that trail", Jen will want to know if Johnny is a trustworthy birder before she goes out of her way to look for that bird. Or Stilt (also a real person) may be able to infer that the Cassin's Sparrow reported by Karen Chlorospingus (not a real person...though it should be) in a listserv post is probably not worth looking for, since Karen is new to birding and probably highly prone to sparrow misidentifications. Or The Eggman (legit) will know that David Diving-Petrel (fictional) is just a classic stringer and that there is a 110% chance that the Long-toed Stint David just reported is actually a Least Sandpiper. Knowing what should be followed up on, and what should not, is an incredibly helpful skill for birders.

So like I said, it pays to be strong with The Force (of Birding). You will see more birds, more rare birds, and spend less time on snipe hunts and wild goose chases. Weeding out claims from stringers is key. Most stringers go out birding, find a bird (or these days, find photos of someone else's locally common bird online and claim it is actually a rarity...estringing), and predictably try to turn it in to something uncommon or rare to pad some lists, convince others they found something great, convince themselves they found something great...or god knows why they do it. According to the Global Birder Ranking System's statistics, between 97-98% of the world's known stringers fall under this know them well.

But that is not the only type of stringer. There are those who do not misidentify birds out of misguided optimism, overconfidence, or poor identification fact, they don't appear to misidentify birds much at all. These are the stringers that fabricate sightings without ever seeing a bird where and when they claimed, either by just creating a sighting out of thin air, giving no evidence at all, using photos stolen from somewhere online, or using their own photos they took in another place at another time to provide the basis of a sighting. These are the miserable, wretched, bottom-dwelling, maggot-infested stringers, and never will you find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.

BB&B has covered this story before. Almost every BB&B reader is aware of Swallowgate and what happened...or what did not North Carolina. That birder has since been excused from the birding community, his record Big Year purged from the record books in a firestorm of purification. Although I was privy to many details of that story, I was not a part of it...until now. I recently became a vigilante bird policeman in my very own county, to catch a stringer so twisted and evil that it is a wonder she even exists. The Human Birdwatcher Project takes great pride in bringing you this story today, for history is written by the Winners, not those who were vaporized on an exploding Death Star.

It all started last September. I occasionally go through the photos users upload to Santa Clara County (where I live) in eBird to see what is being crushed, misidentified, etc. I was surprised to come across a Clay-colored Sparrow, a solid if unspectacular rarity here, as it did not show up on either my Santa Clara needs alert or the rarity alert. And according to the date and location of the checklist, I had been at the same spot at the same time! What gives? Why wasn't it reported anywhere? Well, users can hide their birds from needs and rarity alerts, but still continue to contribute to eBird's public output. I didn't understand why this observer, who I will call "Lori Myers", wanted to hide their birds from everyone else, but it wasn't long before I figured it out. Looking at eBird's Top 100 for Santa Clara County for 2018, Lori Myers was doing a County Big Year.

Ugh. Ok. Lori wants to chase other people's rarities (evident by looking at her eBird photo gallery), but doesn't want to share the ones she finds? That's fucked up and pretty stupid...but in one respect it makes total sense. She is listing to win. I disagree with it, it makes big year birders even more unappealing than they already are, it could result in other local birders missing out on chaseable rarities...but I get it.

After being clued in to what Lori Myers was doing, and keeping an eye on photos she was submitting in the county, it became clear she was finding a lot of rare birds on an alarmingly regular basis. I guess Lori didn't have a job? I was briefly impressed, as I had never met this person and she was seemingly finding and documenting a lot of cool birds considering she was decidedly not one of the more skilled birders in the area - she seemed to be mainly a photographer. I even chased one of her birds, which is one of the low points in my life.

Strong with The Force I am...but not that strong.

It did not take long before I stretched out with my feelings, to listen to the The Force, and The Force started telling me that something was Wrong. I was wrong about her. Deeply, treacherously wrong. Lori Myers was finding too many rarities. Santa Clara County does not host as many rarities as the coastal counties, and Lori was finding vagrants at a clip that would be impressive for anywhere in the state. I then started looking more closely at the photos she was posting - *every* rarity she claimed had an accompanying photo, which just doesn't happen. And in the photos themselves, I started noticing patterns of irregularities...really weird crops, missing metadata, perches/backgrounds/weather that I knew were not consistent with what the locations looked like, or other photos in the same checklists.

My opinion of her quickly turned to the dark side, but for good reason...she had betrayed us all. For months I watched Lori post garbage, but mostly* plausible, rarities in eBird. It was torture...knowing exactly what was happening, but having no proof or power over it. Poor Billy had to listen to me rant and rave about this rampant stringing going on every time some horseshit vagrant hit eBird, which at times happened day after day after fucking day.

The turning point came when she attempted to take credit for finding a rarity I had found myself! I had found a flock of Mountain Bluebirds, less than annual in this county, then noticed later that week that Lori Myers had subsequently eBirded seeing one the day before me in the same area. An eBird policeman dug into it and confirmed that she did not submit that checklist until many hours after I had already reported the birds!

That was the last straw for me. Soon, I joined a cabal of eBird and state bird police that had one goal in form a rebellion and resist this Sith Lord of Stringing.

In the end, after months of surveillance, we were finally able to prosecute her for her heinous, cruel and unusual birdcrimes. Lori Myers knew that her charade was over, that she had been found a final act of cowardice, she tucked her tail between her legs, changed her eBird account to anonymous, and hid all of her data and photos from public output....but it was too late. The eBird tribunal found her guilty as charged, and Lori Myers was banned from eBird's public output anyway, in case she ever wanted to attempt to "contribute" to eBird again. Her Big Year has now been erased from history, and I am told she has never submitted anything to eBird again, even for her own personal lists...but of course that was never the point for her. To protect the birding law enforcement and prosecution team from revenge killings, they will remain safely anonymous, but their valiant efforts will never be forgotten by those who were there.

This blog post is not just a story of a rising Darkness, and Light to meet it. Now, you too can identify an ultra stringer like Lori. Again, I'm not talking about your everyday, run of the mill stringer who tries to turn a Warbling Vireo into a Philadelphia, I'm talking about people like Lori who are making a conscious effort to lie. Here are some of the questions that are begging to be asked if you suspect you have the misfortune of encountering such a person.

Is the suspect a good birder? If the answer is "no", they are potentially stringer material.
How frequently do they find rarities? Think about how often the suspect reports documented/substantiated rarities relative to other birders in the area.
How thorough are their descriptions? A stringer of this magnitude is not going to go to Marantzian lengths to describe a rarity - they will probably offer two or three sentences and avoid any overly technical sounding field marks, molt terminology, discussion on distribution and migration, etc.
Does anyone bird with them? Stringers of this sort work alone.
Does anyone else see their birds? Lori Myers tried to get around this problem, partially, by reporting some rarities to eBird months after she had initially allegedly seen them - no one can chase an Eastern Phoebe from 9 months ago. She also hid her data from needs and rarities alerts and did not contribute to any listserv or Facebook group. If someone is really going out and finding rarities left and right at places that get birded a lot, inevitably some of them are going to be seen by other observers.
Where are they in eBird rankings? Stringers inevitably wind up at or near the top of a given category in eBird. What is the point of stringing if you are in 35th in a Top 100 list?
Is a big year involved? Nothing brings out stringing like a big year. It is known.

And some questions just about photos:

What does the metadata say? Lori's most blatant photos of fabricated rarities had no metadata visible to eBird users. The vast majority of photos in eBird have that data available. Indeed, most of Lori's pictures of expected, totally reasonable species had the expected metadata being displayed as normal.
Are the backgrounds and perches consistent with the location and season? This one doesn't need an explanation. Lori's November Ovenbird with vibrant, bright green deciduous leaves in the background was bizarre.
Any weird weird crops? A number of photos Lori posted appeared to crop out perches that were not appropriate for the location. For example, why post a extreme closeup of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak but lop off the bird's legs entirely?
Is the lighting and photo quality consistent throughout? Many of Lori's checklists had a lot of normal looking photos of common birds in addition to the strung rarity. In a great many cases, the photo of the rarity looked very different from the rest of the photo set - different quality, lighting, weather conditions, etc.
How many photos do they upload for each rarity? Lori Myers typically uploaded 1-2 photos per rarity of a bird she lied about finding herself; in contrast with this, she would often post more than one of known rarities found by other birders in the area. If you are going to fake a sighting, its much easier to just use a single photo than four or five.

Much like Luke respected and feared Vader's power, I will give Lori Myers credit where credit is due...her rarity selection of things she decided to string was very good, very believable if you did not examine her collection of lies as a whole. Tropical Kingbird, Northern Waterthrush, Magnolia Warbler, Indigo Bunting...these are all quality birds for Santa Clara, but not the sort of thing that would lead to dozens of birders from around the region dropping everything to chase. Her ploy worked for some time, but in the end she just couldn't control her crazed impulses and her reign of terror was put to rest. It was maddening, painstaking, and the entire treacherous experience filled my heart with hate, but in the end birding justice was served. She has never been heard from again.

Stringers will be seen for what you really are. For The Force is my ally, and a powerful ally it is.

*=One rarity in particular really stood out as being incredibly unlikely and significantly contributed in obtaining a warrant for her. She got cocky - her overconfidence was her weakness.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Return to Blogorado: Gunnison

Samantha found this Horned Lark. It's a good thing she did, because it was a TRIP BIRD.

Colorado is home to a few species I've still never seen, the most notable and arguably best of which is Gunnison Sage-Grouse, almost endemic to the state. Dipper Dan, Sultry Sam and myself had a wedding to attend in Denver, but after raging with many old friends, the old tribes of Sunnybrae and San Francisco disbanded and the three of us made the trip out to Gunnison, which if you are unfamiliar is actually a good area to see Gunnison Sage-Grouse. We knew we would require some luck and there was a decent chance we would dip on them...and we did! No need to build up any suspense over our fail, or go into excruciating detail about hours and hours of driving through sagebrush really slowly and constantly stopping to look at grouse-shaped rocks or grouseless patches of was shitty. Fortunately, it was a pretty sweet area to explore so it was still a good time - here's a few photos.

We did a whole lot of not seeing grouse in very scenic places. Here is Danmantha not seeing grouse near Tomichi Dome.

Brewer's Sparrow was one of the most abundant birds in the area, though that didn't prevent me from failing to crush, as you can see. This is as good a place as any to confess that we didn't even see Sagebrush Sparrow, which mystifies me considering the habitat we were birding in.

Our Airbnb on the west edge of town was Great Success, as it turned out to be a serious geri birding situation - feeders galore! Here is a Sage Thrasher on a yard bench as geri birding evidence. Other feeder birds included Vesper Sparrow, Green-tailed Towhee, and Cassin's Finch. A side benefit of staying here was finding a male Lark Bunting on the road into town one morning (a flagged rarity in eBird), while on our way to toil in the grouse fields.

One of the Airbnb Vesper Sparrows chants a dawn curse, making grouse completely invisible to us despite our efforts. By this point in the trip, Dan and Sam's marriage had come under incredible strain, partially due to some lingering angst from partner-swapping with other wedding guests back in Denver (hey, it's 2019) and partially because we hadn't seen any grouse. Luckily, they had me to help keep the ship afloat. If anyone needs a marriage counselor or some couples therapy, hit me up, I'm cheap...and a great listener.

Empidonax for the trip were represented by a modest number of Dusky Flycatchers (above) and a Willow Flycatcher at the McCabe Lane Wetlands.

We here at BB&B have a long and storied tradition of taking meh/mediocre (mehdiocre????) photos of Townsend's Solitaires. I admittedly am ready to move on to straight crushing, but the solitaires are not.

The photog opportunities were not many, but I did manage a Mountain Bluebird crush, which I had been hoping for. This crush came at the cost of some fresh facemelt, which will only add to the disfigurement I have previously endured from seeing other Mountain Bluebirds.

Another view of the big sage basin near Tomichi Dome. There must be many grouse here. So close, yet so far...

I did not expect the wildflower scene to be so good...really should have brought my macro lens, but here are a few token shots. Here is some kind of penstemony/beardtonguey thing.

This white phlox was everywhere. Mellowing.

There were some great patches of larkspur (Delphinium nuttallianum) around. These were a bit too stunning to be mellowing.

This part of the continent is laden with mammals. Well, almost every part is, but it seems like you see a lot more of them in places like Colorado and Wyoming. We got elked on the reg.

I guess this is a Wyoming ground squirrel? It may have been a lifer squirrel. They were very, very common. They look like several other ground squirrel species I've seen before, so I only now realized they were something else.

If I got the species right, apparently these have had quite the range expansion in recent years and pretty much no one is excited about it...not people, not golden-mantled ground squirrels.

One of the most beloved squirrels in all the land, the one and only quasi chipmunk, the golden-mantled ground squirrel.

Least (?) chipmunks were enthusiastic attendees of the geri birding scene at the Airbnb. Mammals we saw that are not pictured include coyote, pronghorn, mule deer, white-tailed jackrabbit, marmots, and prairie dogs (east of the Rockies).

Needing a little break from driving around the sage in a futile grouse search, we decided to do a short hike and not see grouse while walking. This is the view looking north into the Gunnison Basin/the town of Gunnison from Hartman Rocks. Hecka scenic here...saw some more new plants and some trip birds, including Ash-throated Flycatcher, another eBird rarity.

Well, we failed, but the fail was more fun than not. Since I need to see the grouse someday, there is a good chance this wasn't my last visit to Gunnison.