Monday, January 13, 2020

Cracking The Code of The Rebus: A Band Return For an Evening Grosbeak

Do you get to see Evening Grosbeaks often? I don't. I haven't seen one in years. The lowlands of the South Bay are, unsurprisingly, a poor place to live if you want to encounter this charismatic species very often. A quick check of eBird confirms my already dire suspicions...I haven't seen an Evening Grosbeak since 2013, when I made a rare foray into my now current county to see them in suburban Sunnyvale.

2013? Good lord. It has been too long.

But the winter of 2019-2020 has not been like most other winters. It has been an invasion year for Red Crossbills and Evening Grosbeaks in much of California, and as the old saying goes, I was "on heightened alert due to the Grosbeaks". You may not remember that one, but I assure you it's a thing. Luckily I was not the only one on heightened alert, and local birders found a flock of grosbeaks in downtown Los Altos, where they settled down and were too good to pass up. 

As you have already figured out, I found them. After some mixed success with getting looks at the flock, I stumbled on to the main group of birds while walking back to my car a few blocks away. No birders were there, no people on the street asked me what I was doing, and cops ignored me as I tried to crush the brazen grosbeaks raining down berries upon me from low overhead. It's rare to be birding around tons of people and not get interrupted, so I had a particularly excellent time.

This is what Evening Grosbeak habitat looks like in Los Altos. It's a weird place to be birdwatching.

The name of the Evening Grosbeak game around here is Chinese pistache, an ornamental tree commonly planted in the area that get fully loaded with berries in late fall and early winter. Lots of birds love pistache berries, including the grosbeaks. Just look at this glutton.

After my time with this gripping little flock, I was sated. Fingers crossed to not wait another six years to see them again.

But the good grosbeak times did not stop when I left the birds behind. Several days later I uploaded my photos and was shocked to plainly see a band on a female I had taken quite a few pictures of.

Finding bands on birds is always fun, but finding a band on a passerine someplace where there is no banding going on is almost unheard of. I also had no idea the bird was banded while I was taking pictures of embarrassing.

A few days later, Friend of The Blog David Tomb contacted me and told me had refound the banded bird. This is what finally got me to actually look closely at the band...I had assumed that there was no way I had good enough photos of the band that the entire code could be readable. USFWS songbird bands are tiny and definitely not meant to be read while the bird wearing it is moving around uninhibited.

I was wrong.

I was shocked, again, to find that I could make out 8 consecutive digits of the band numbers in my photos. That's not supposed to happen. Then another thing that wasn't supposed to happen a Hail Mary check of eBird photos, I found that one other observer had put up a photo of the banded bird. The one and only number she could make out was the one I was missing. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

Lo and behold, I had somehow gotten the entire band number of a tiny band I had no idea was there when I was staring right at it. This is not how it is supposed to go. I got the banding info immediately, and there it is. The bird is from western Oregon, or at least spent time there in the past, which makes it presumably a Type 1 Evening Grosbeak, as opposed to the Type 2s that are found in the Sierras. It's not a young bird either! 

Pretty chuffed about the whole thing - I might never recover a songbird band in this manner ever again!

I will leave you with a fitting passage on Evening Grosbeaks, from the inimitable William Leon Dawson, back in 1923:

His garb is a patchwork; his song a series of shrieks; his motions eccentric; his humor phlegmatic; and his concepts beyond the kin of man. Although at times one of the most approachable of birds, he is, on the whole, an avian freak, a rebus in feathers.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Radius Roundup: Lessons and Results From a 5MR "Big Year", and The Shortest Big Day

A Ruby-crowned Kinglet unleashes a terrifying bellow into the chilly radius air. Photographed on the Guadalupe River Trail.

There has been an awakening.

Have you felt it?

eBird Top 100 listing rises, and Radius birding to meet it.

If you've checked in on BB&B a few times this year, you already know that I've put my full weight as one of birding's marquee influencers into propping up the FIVE MILE RADIUS. 5MR is now flourishing throughout the land, particularly in my state of California. But this year has been so much more than simply harvesting Flycatcher Jen's vision and going Johnny Appleseed with it all over the nerdscape...I've not only been talking the radial talk, I have spent this entire year walking the radial walk. Like several of you, I've taken part in Jen's 5MR Challenge, doing my own big year of sorts in my 5MR. More and more I find "big year" to be a cringeworthy phrase, but I guess it is what it is. I admittedly didn't go all out and missed my share of birds (more on that below), but I spent a shocking amount of time within five miles of my home this year while actually doing quite a bit of birding. To say it was nice would be a gross was time well spent birding instead of sitting in the car, driving somewhere, burning gas, chasing things that some list may have "needed" but I did not actually need to see. Rather than feeling tied down by my radius, shifting my focus to what was really local felt almost luxurious at times.

How did I do? I finished 2019 with 187 species in eBird, with the only species not sanctioned by the Bird Police being European Goldfinch, which have been present in very low numbers in a part of my radius for a number of years but rightly are not considered established in the state by the CBRC. The goal I set for myself earlier in the year was 185 species, so I was surprisingly on point there. Many U.S. birders exceeded that total in their respective radii this year but I am still really happy with how I did. Lifetime (aka from spring of 2017 until present) my 5MR now stands at 196 species. I started the year with 169 species, and eagerly look forward to the 200 species milestone, which should be possible with spring migration coming this way sooner than I will be ready for.

While some spots I've recently started birding did not yield anything unexpected, I think it is only a matter of time before some of them bear radial fruit. Martial Cottle Park is one such place, and until that time its Poop Fairies Western Bluebirds will continue to remind dog walkers to pick up their shit.

Long story short, after a lot of work, strategy, staring at Google Earth and exploring, The Year of The 5MR has been Great Success. I'm very happy with how it went, and thought I'd share some final thoughts before easing off the radius gas pedal for a bit.

My radius is probably best described as moderately birded by other people. There is a small but dedicated and active group of birders who already do much of their birding within the confines of my radius, and there are a number of places that are productive enough to draw in birders from further afield. In terms of radius rarities I managed to see this year, I certainly benefited from the efforts of others (i.e. Horned Grebe, American Bittern, Swainson's Hawk, Red-naped and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Summer Tanager), but I am very pleased with what I found myself (Long-billed Dowitcher, Glaucous Gull, Pileated Woodpecker, Eastern Kingbird, Red-eyed Vireo, Tennessee Warbler, Clay-colored Sparrows, Red Crossbill). I certainly did chase some birds but am happy to report that this was no run-of-the-mill year listing effort where I spent tons of time chasing species found by others, which was part of the idea baked into this thing in the first place.

While I did very, very little chasing outside my radius this year, I had no problem tracking down radius-rare stuff found by others. This Red-necked Phalarope found at the Los Capitancillos Ponds by Ann Verdi was without a doubt one of the Top 10 birds to be found within my radius this year, and possibly the most unexpected, even though they are fairly common migrants about 15 miles away.

I can't speak for Flycatcher Jen, but I always assumed 5 was chosen for the radius distance because it is a nice, round, modest number. For where I live, I am totally fine with it, 5 miles really does seem perfect. However, for other people I know that it isn't so appealing...obviously, people don't all live with the same diversity of habitats within 5 miles and, equally importantly, have comparable access to potential birding sites as everyone else. There's a lot of private property out there, a lot of public land that doesn't have real access, a lot of vast expanses of homogeneous habitat (i.e. sage, creosote flats, intensive ag, etc). In some places, a larger radius could be more appropriate than 5 miles, or *gasp* the whole radius thing isn't necessary. I would say that places not suited for 5MR are certainly the exception and not the rule though.

I touched on this already, but I found a great many locally uncommon and rare birds myself, including a number of species that are downright rare for the county. This is what I had hoped for but did not dare to actually expect, and is consistent with the experience of a lot of other 5MR birders this year. Rarities are out there waiting to be found, often in places where relatively few birders are searching. Tired of chasing stuff? Want to break from the pack and find your own birds more often? Your radius awaits.

I knew going in to 2019 that my radius is very, very tough for shorebirds, and results bore that out. However, I am now convinced that we actually could get numbers of shorebirds in the rare event that water levels at wetland sites actually become suitable. This flock of Western Sandpipers photographed from my backyard was, as far as I know, the one and only flock of peeps seen by anyone in my 5MR in 2019.

Another of the primary tenets of 5MR birding is to go check out sites you have never been before, places that are underbirded, or not birded at all. I'm happy to say I was able to do all that very fact, on my last morning of birding of the year, 2 of the 3 sites I visited were places I'd never been to before 2019. eBird helped with this of course, not to mention just scrolling around satellite imagery in my radius and some local help too. It really is satisfying going to new places nearby and finding some that are worth repeat visits. Last month I walked up the "back side" of Santa Teresa County Park and snagged my first radius Prairie Falcon - I never would have tried this trail if it wasn't for 5MR....and I would not have seen the falcon if I was not doing the monthly challenge, which happened to be a stationary count!

Also, I have said this from the beginning, but 5MR is really perfect for birders with time constraints, such as when you have small children and can't afford to be gone all day without seeming like a Kenny Bostick. I knew radius birding was a match made in heaven with parenthood even before Annie was born, but this year really drove that point home. A number of other parents have echoed the same sentiment.

Birding a lot in my 5MR has really driven home the point that Cooper's Hawks have adapted quite well to suburban life. They are common here year round. Sharp-shinned Hawks, on the other hand, are very uncommon and nowhere reliable. This Cooper's was strutting around my back yard one day last summer.

For those of us who are interested in nonavian life, exploring your 5MR can be very beneficial as well. My non-bird highlight of the year (which was uncomfortably close to being a lowlight) was inadvertently walking up to a hunting mountain lion at Almaden Quicksilver County Park. I am still convinced it was waiting to ambush one of the many radius black-tailed deer in the area and would have ignored me had I not noticed it, but I still feel a bit lucky that I noticed it when I did and not when I was 7 or 8 feet away. Anyways, a sketchy but cool experience, happy to be able to see a lion up close and not have it be in a threatening mood.

What else? I bought less gas than I would have, burned less gas than I would have, potentially saved on some car maintenance, and only rarely found myself birding where more than a couple other birders were present at the same time. These are all very good things. And since I reached the 185 species plateau, I completed the bourbon challenge I issued to myself earlier this year. As a Champion Radius Birder, I bought myself a bottle of Black Skimmer Bourbon and WOW...if you are a whiskey fan do yourself a favor and pick some up if you are ever in a treat yoself mood. The Black Skimmer Rye is also very good, and is a few bucks cheaper.

Were there negatives to doing so much radius birding? Sure, birding in July and August (with one notable exception) was even slower than usual, and I didn't see a ton of Vague Runts this fact, I did not even get a state bird...which stings, honestly. I love getting state birds. I would have chased the Yellow-browed Warbler but luckily a prior engagement prevented me from trying for it when I otherwise would have...which would have resulted in joining in a big fat group dip with 100+ other miserable birders from around the country. The shortage of Vague did make the rareish birds I saw in the radius that much better though. My backyard Eastern Kingbird will forever be one of my favorite self found Vague Runts, and I still reel over discovering a July Red-eyed Vireo, which is a bird I discovered without even driving.

And this should be obvious to everyone, but I would advise that you make sure to still bird out of your radius sometimes! Focusing solely on your 5MR is likely to make you crazy and make birding sound like a lackluster idea, which is really unnecessary. Don't foresake the places that you love! Birding your 5MR does not mean you are breaking some holy vow if you go bird outside of it.

Want to become the master of your domain? 5MR birding will get you extremely attuned to birdlife in your radius...not just status and distribution, but arrival and departure dates and breeding behavior or lack thereof. My radius Pied-billed Grebes had chicks very late this year at multiple locations - this fish exchange between an adult and a chick took place on November 9, which seemed strangely late in the year. Photographed at Los Gatos Creek County Park.

In November I listed my top 10 target birds for the remainder of the year; I managed to see 4 of them. My last new species of 2019 - this Golden-crowned Kinglet - was on the list. This fall/winter has been very good for many irruptive birds like this in the region, though the Varied Thrush invasion I was hoping for did not pan out. Photographed at Greystone Park.

And with that, here is everything that I know of that I missed that was seen in my radius this year. Most of these were just one or two records.

Tundra Swan (also a county bird)
Greater Scaup
Bonaparte's Gull
Solitary Sandpiper
Cassin's Kingbird
Purple Martin
Varied Thrush (damn you Justyn)
Pacific Wren
Hermit Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler
Yellow-breasted Chat (also a county bird)
Swamp Sparrow
Evening Grosbeak

I'm sure there were some other species that could have been found on the fringes or passed through undetected, such as Northern Pygmy-Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Ferruginous Hawk, Greater Roadrunner, Hammond's Flycatcher and Tricolored Blackbird. I'm very surprised that Snow Goose wasn't seen by anybody in the area this year. A Calliope Hummingbird was seen a stone's throw from my radius and was probably actually visible from inside at some point. But missing birds is a fundamental part of any kind of birding experience, no need to do a thorough autopsy on birds not seen.

In other radial news, on December 21 I met the monthly 5MR Challenge issued by her lordship Flycatcher Jen and did a BIG DAY in my radius. What better day to do a big day than the shortest one of the entire year?! It was not a max effort day as I did not go owling and I had done no scouting specifically for this, but I went pretty lunch break or anything like that. I started off by walking out my back gate and doing some of the ponds behind my house in the predawn light, which quickly netted me 46 species. After that, I was off like a shot.

You can't make out much in this photo but I think a lot of you recognize that silhouette. A Phainopepla has been wintering at Guadalupe Oak Grove Park for many years now and was readily findable on The Shortest Big Day. This is still the only one I've seen in the entire county; I assume the freakish flyover Phainopepla I had at my house once was this very bird.

I decided on 90 species as a goal...seemed reasonable, and was above the 86 species that was my previous day high back in 2017 for the 5MR challenge, which was done in the northwestern corner of Alameda County back when I lived in Albany. I could have gotten more on that fateful day, but I abruptly had to quit in the afternoon to go chase the Ross's of the best decisions I've made in my whole life.

Instead of giving an agonizing blow by blow, I'll just skip to the end. Steller's Jay and Eurasian Collared-Doves were the biggest misses, and I easily could have picked up Wild Turkey and Band-tailed Pigeon had I gone up into the hills at all. I also probably could have found a Red-winged Blackbird if I stood in my backyard long enough at sunset. But otherwise I did very well, having less-than-ideal weather at only one spot and having much fortune with waterbirds and upland species in general.

I missed this bittern multiple times at the beginning of the year, but luckily it returned for another winter and I was able to connect with it a couple times late in 2019. One of those times was during my Solstice Big Day, which was heck of lucky considering it often isn't hanging out someplace visible.

I finished the day with a stunning (to me) 101 species! I couldn't be happier with that...considering the short day and lack of preparation, I think it is a sign of fruitful radius. It does make me wonder what time of year I could actually squeeze the biggest day out of my December/January as good as it gets? April? November? Maybe I'll attempt another one in 2020 and find out.

And so it goes. I'm going to give 5MR coverage a well-deserved rest for a while, as I've said my piece and don't plan on getting cray with year listing on any scale in 2020. That said, with the beginning of the new year I hope more birders give perpetual county year listing a break and give the radius a try! 

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Nikon No More or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Canon

Brown Pelican photographed with the new rig. All photos in this post are cropped but have had nothing else edited. Apologies in advance for all the camera speak that is about to occur. Lake Merritt, Oakland, CA.

For years, I have been living life as a minority. No, not as a lonely half Korean half Welsh intergrade (are you out there HKHWs?), I mean I'm a birder who uses Nikon camera gear. Most birders use Canon, it is known. But I was not about to fall in line...for years I withstood the microaggressions, the slights, the taunts, the outright persecution.

And now it has come to this. I have jumped ship. I am a defector.

I recently switched from a Nikon D7200/Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G AF-S VR ED lens to the Canon 90D (their new APS-C body) and the extremely popular 100-400mm IS II USM lens. Why?

It wasn't the hostility from other nerds that got to me. In fact, I have had repeated problems with my Nikon gear over the years. For example, my most recent Nikkor lens performed very well at first, but by this time last year it was no longer to able to produce sharp images of objects at just a moderate distance away. It was all but impossible to get a tack sharp image of a bird in flight unless it was very close - and this was not a result of dirty lens or camera contacts either. I tolerated this unhappy situation for too long, and perhaps some kind of calibration may have helped...but when I did the ultimate dumbass move and dropped my shit on a sidewalk, Nikon refused to fix the lens because it was a gray market product. I had never even heard of the gray market (in this case, that means it was not supposed to be sold in the U.S., it was made for other markets), and this information is buried in their website. Around this same time is when the D7200 died while birding in Belize, when it was only 6 months old...I have had other previous problems and enough was enough, I was not going to give them my business any longer.

Since all that BS went down I have spent almost a year of using my ancient 80-400mm backup lens. It has been collecting dust for years but can still produce great images and had great sharpness with distant objects, much unlike my much newer, more expensive lens that was failing me even before it kissed the pavement.

Double-crested Cormorants at Lake Merritt.

But I could only deal with that setup for so long...the backup lens has an agonizingly slow autofocus and the D7200 had proved untrustworthy. Now, I am a Canon man. I'm ready to be sponsored, lets make a deal Canon, I'm your guy. Better hurry and set something up with me while I'm still in the honeymoon phase.

A few initial impressions, as a fresh Canon convert:

Regarding the gray market, from my "research" it seems that the Canon service department will fix Canon stuff no matter what, gray market items just are not covered by their warranty. In contrast, Nikon has tried to make it very difficult for independent operators to service Nikon equipment (whether a warranty is supposed to be in effect or not), and they won't service any of your gray market items at all.

There is almost little to say about the 100-400mm II lens. It is fantastic. Fast autofocus, great images, and definitely a closer minimum focusing distance than its Nikon counterpart. It also feels extremely well built and will hopefully be sturdier in the long run. So far it performs AS ADVERTISED and I can see why it is so popular with birders.

Ring-billed Gull at Lake Merritt.

I do have a bit more to say about the 90D. Having used nothing but Nikon before, it took a while to get used to the physical setup of a Canon DSLR, things are just arranged differently. No strong feelings about the differences yet but I do miss how easy it was to change focus points on the Nikon while shooting, though I know with the 90D you can "reassign" certain tasks in the menu so I can potentially do a lot of customization.

The battery life was better in the Nikon D7200, the D7000, and even the D90 (that's right, not the Canon 90D, the Nikon D90...real original naming schemes these companies have). It seems considerably better in the Nikons in fact. Oh well.

While learning the camera, for a good little while I thought I was just slow catching up to Canon menus, but after a bit of digging I discovered that getting the best performance out of the 90D is not really intuitive for anybody, even for very experienced Canon users. However, there is some great content on Youtube about this camera, if anyone gets a 90D I highly recommend checking out all the content Michael The Maven has made for it - good stuff and usually explained in a straightforward manner at a reasonable pace. He also made a FB group specifically for Canon 90D users, which is also informative and people are usually civil. I don't agree with all of his advice about what settings to use but even so he has put out a lot of helpful material.

Western Gulls at Lake Merritt.

Now that I know a little bit about the camera and what settings are good to play with, I've got to say I like it so far. The focus tracking is excellent, and the photos I've taken so far require no sharpening outside of the camera, even when objects are far and a lot of cropping is involved.

My first impression was that noise was more of an issue at higher ISOs in the 90D than the D7200, but I am becoming less convinced of that as I have gotten to shoot more in less than ideal conditions. In any case, I'm not dying of a grain overdose.

ISO range is more heavily customizable in the D7200, which is better in theory...but I feel like the 90D sensor may actually be smarter/better, and when using auto ISO the camera is not so quick to jump to a high ISO when it is not actually necessary. I would say the Nikon options for this are better, but the execution (which is what counts) seems to be in the 90D's favor.

A Glaucous-winged Gull at Lake Merritt.

The insane frame rate the 90D has is something I'm still adjusting to. The shutter is also more sensitive - this means that I'm often shooting 2 or 3 shots at a time involuntarily. Not a big deal, I'll get use to perfecting the light touch.

What else...oh yeah having a touch screen on a DSLR is just crazy to me. When I first got the camera I forgot the LCD display was a touch screen and wondering why navigating the various menus was so weird. It was a geri moment. Speaking of geri, I also failed to wirelessly upload photos to my embarrassing. The camera does not come with a USB cord for image upload (lame) but luckily I found one that works lying around. At least I can get the camera to upload files to my phone without much difficulty.

Ok, that's a good start I think. It's not like I'm a photographer, right? The new Canon goods were a great way to ring in 1,000 blog posts, and I feel like it really has made crushing a lot easier even though I'm using the same focal length I have for years.

Female Canvasback at Lake Merritt.

Male Canvasback at Lake Merritt. I miss hanging out at the lake and all its tame birds, but the Oakland the Nikon days...have come and gone.

One of the best birds to show up in Santa Clara County this fall was this Plumbeous Vireo at Charleston Marsh in Mountain View. This was a county bird for me and the first one I'd ever seen in northern CA. Luckily finding the bird was less difficult than figuring out where to park.

I was surprised at how well the new setup tracked the bird as it foraged in a pine. The vast majority of the shots I took had the bird nice and sharp, even though lighting was not ideal, it was moving around a lot, and of course there were constantly sticks and pine needles in front of it.

Acorn Woodpecker in dreary conditions at Guadalupe Oak Grove County Park in San Jose. I do like how the roof tiles look in this one. 

Belted Kingfisher at the Los Capitancillos Ponds in San Jose. This one is much more heavily cropped than the other pics in this post. Looks good from here.

Bewick's Wren at Rancho de Bastardos, not heavily cropped.

And here we are, at the dawn of The Canon Era. Hopefully Canon will be more dependable for me than Nikon was. At this early point in our fresh relationship, I not only feel resolution with a long conflict, but a sense of absolution as well. I'm optimistic that my camera-related grievances will be minimal for a good stretch, which will be quite the about face from the past several years.

If you're still reading this camera heavy post, thanks for bearing with me. Soon we will be back to your regularly scheduled blogging, bashing some birders, reppin the radius, maybe finding some vanguards, and chronicling my tireless journey to find other HKHWs.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

One Thousand Posts of BB&B (We Don't Need Their Scum)

Look at these unripe young nerds. Here is Cassidy and myself in Anza Borrego camping out with the 2008 BUOW crew, probably at a high %, a few months before the inaugural BB&B post in 2008. That was a good night. Little did we know that our lives would eventually interwine so much that we would eventually become blog bros.

We have arrived. We are here. We have really done it. We have reached the summit, planted our flag. The peak has been bagged...scumbagged, that is. This filthy, rarefied air is incredible.

The milestone has been reached. With this post, the bizarre bird blog nobody asked for, the bird blog nobody thought they needed, the bird blog of a generation has reached #1000.

One thousand posts...this is not something I take lightly. I'm not even sure how to go about writing this post, but clearly some kind of retrospective is in why don't we go back to the beginning, before post #1. Life has changed greatly since we first launched in 2008, when I took this sacred blog oath:

"Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children one child. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men birders. I pledge my life and honor to the Night's Watch this blog, for this night and all the nights to come."

If this sounds strangely similar to the vows of the Night's Watch, it is purely coincidence I assure you. There was no Game of Thrones television series in 2008, after all, heheheh....

Right. Since BB&B burst forth into the Birdosphere, I have seen about twice as many species of birds, made many new friends, began and ended The Perpetual Weekend (what is dead may never die), visited and worked in some fantastic places, started a family. On a smaller, blogular scale, BB&B has acquired a coauthor, the singular Cassidy Grattan, who can write better than any bird blogger out there. I have become a better birder, leveled up with better gear and scraped together some rudimentary skills at taking bird photos. We have conducted a bunch of surprisingly good and readable interviews, started the enchanting Human Birdwatcher Project, and offered you Exclusive Birder Coverage that could be found nowhere else.

What has always set apart BB&B from the rest of the Birdosphere was not our love of birding and enthusiasm in discussing birds, but our willingness to take on birders themselves, their behaviors and tendencies, their follies and failures. Unlike most blogs, who will have you think that birders are the most pleasant group of people on earth populated with amiable novices thirsty for knowledge to be dispensed by steadfast, infalliable experts, BB&B resolved from the beginning to not blow smoke up your ass. You, beloved reader, deserve better than that. Our willingness to shine a light on the dark side of birding, to be the light that brings the dawn, is what cemented iconoclast status for BB&B.

It made us Birding Heroes.

In 2009 I had the great fortune of going to Midway Atoll to volunteer for USFWS. I can't even really begin to describe that experience in a little caption (you can check the BB&B nascent 2009 archives for our Midway coverage) but overall it was brilliant. Laysan Albatross is known as the flagship bird there and the love they get is deserved.

In 2010 I again hooked up with USFWS, this time spending the summer on Buldir Island in the western Aleutians. Unlike Midway, where there were dozens of people around and folks coming and going regularly, for most of the time it was just 5 of us on the whole island. Like Midway, the seabird situation was nothing short of stunning. These are Crested and Least Auklets, which would form giant murmurations. Auklet murmuration > starling murmuration.

Or Birding Anti-Heroes? Uncertain am I.

But that is where the uncertainty ends. Now, 1,000 posts later, I know birders now more than ever. My finger is on the pulse. For years we have preached our sermons, spread the tenants of good birding. You have listened, you have learned, although some were reluctant to face The Truth. BB&B has always been strong enough to hold a mirror up to the birding community though, where we have always spoke truth to power.

This is the way.

And who holds the power of birding? Sure, you could say it is The Bird Police, The eBird Reviewer, The Field Guide Author, The AOS North American Checklist Committee. Perhaps it is the so-called "Birding Elite", or the mysterious and obscene Great Ornithologist Felonious Jive. Perhaps it lies with other birding power brokers such as Bourbon, Bastards, and Birds.

In 2011 I connected with USFWS for the third and final time, but did the opposite of going to a North Pacific island...I went to North Dakota to work with Piping Plovers. In addition to spending a lot of time with plovers (which had a horrible breeding season due to region wide flooding) I spent many hours embedded with grassland birds. Baird's Sparrow is a very enjoyable species to come across while on the clock. Photographed on private property in NW North Dakota.

In 2012 I took my first trip to Costa Rica, with Dipper Dan, Frank and Stilt. Hella lifers. One of the fairly common birds that had a big impact on me was the Golden-hooded Tanager. I know they aren't the most facemelting tanager out there but they they struck a nerve nonetheless. Photographed at what is now known as Dave and Dave's Nature Park in the Sarapiqui area.

But they are just the beginning. Birding power is so much more than those few is all around us. It is, in many respects, the status quo. Power is wielded in mansplaining, obsessive compulsion to detail at the expense of the big picture, fixation on hybrids, the growing reliance on the Merlin App to make identifications. Power is reporting a MEGUH with little or no detail, causing widespread Fear and Loathing and sometimes Panic. Power is spamming listservs and FB groups for "likes" and web embarrassing. Power is whining, entitlement and butthurt. Power is the need to be Right at all costs. Power is someone wrongly telling you that you misidentified a bird, and power is stringing. Even photographers wield power over birders...just the other day I was sitting at the edge of a pond, off trail, minding my own business taking some Bufflehead pictures. A photographer walks right up to me, between me and the birds, causing them to scatter. Keep in mind that to do this had to go out of her way, and also have not the faintest idea she was being a huge floppy dick. She asks me if I had seen any Bufflehead. Incredulously, I motion to the group of Buffleheads behind me that are now swimming away. She looked confused and responded with "I don't think that's what they are". I walked away in disgust...she could have her Non-Buffleheads. And yes, the now legendary Santa Clara Stringer was also a photographer, she apparently did not even own binoculars. But I digress, the open feuding between birders and photographers should be a post in and of itself...

In 2013 I was lured back to North Carolina for the inevitable OBX pelagic trip, as up until then I had seen hardly any species of Atlantic seabirds. That situation has thankfully been rectified. Trindade Petrel was a huge unexpected bonus bird, something I wasn't even hoping for, and one of multiple lifers.

In 2014 we took advantage of the landlord's vacay home he had in Todos Santos, Baja California Sur, and rented it out for a week or so. It was my first and so far only time in the southern part of the Baja Peninsula. Though not strictly a birding trip the birding was good and I learned that Xantus's Hummingbirds are awesome. Photographed in Todos Santos.

What is the common denominator here? These are all abundant traits and habits in birders (and photogs) that serve to turn off people from the birding community, to make the rest of us want to disengage from this scene of sorts altogether. People can be turned off to birds altogether, especially those right on the verge of being potentially hooked on birding. So while true power may look to you like a bird cop saying the record you submitted should be rejected, in reality it takes on many and varied forms.

BB&B was not the first blog to call out birders, to ridicule them (just think about us for a moment...we are asking for it), nor is BB&B the only one to mock them in the birdosphere (I don't think we've ever gone this far). I cannot take credit for that, but if you are reading this now you probably realize that our willingness to confront what is wrong with birding has really resonated with many BB&B readers. To that end, I believe we have been doing something Right all these years...perhaps we were needed after all.

2015 was the year of MAYNERAYGE. Spruce Grouse was one of my top target birds of the trip and we finally found one after putting quite a bit of effort. Hanging out with buddies and this relatively fearless, crippling bird is still my favorite grouse experience of all time. Photographed at Boot Head Preserve in Lubec, Maine.

In December of 2016 I made my last big birding trip before fatherhood consumed me. Dipper Dan, The Eggman and I went to Puerto Rico for Caribbean goodness and endemicos. It was not the birdiest trip but we did well with target birds and had many soul-satisfying views of the lovable Puerto Rican Tody. Photographed at Bosque Estatal de Guanica.

In 2017 I was lucky enough to see the Holy Grail of Vague Runts, the Ross's Gull. Out of all the rarities I have seen (and there have been some great ones), this one is on another level. When I think about the time in the setting sun I was lucky enough to spend with the doomed bird, the timeless Binary Sunset plays in my mind. We may never see its like again, and things certainly have never been the same. Photographed in Half Moon Bay, CA.

So much has transpired since post #1, when I took that first step into a larger world. BB&B has gone on to change lives, and I say that not with hyperbole, or for effect; we are in the real talk portion of this post. BB&B is now The Great Communicator of the birding world, The Tastemaker, The Taker of Temperature, the Birding Messiah at the top of Mount Olympus...ok that actually was a lot of hyperbole. What I should say is that I am proud of what we have done here over the years, and humbled that anyone gave a shit. It is with Great Honor and Immense Humility that I can say I've actually made friends because of this ridiculous blog.

TO ALL MY FRIENDS, who read BB&B (and even the ones who don't), you are loved. Thanks to Cass who has made so many great posts for BB&B over the last few years. Thanks to everyone who has offered their couches, spirits and company while I was on the road. Thanks to everyone who has invited me on birding trips, or have gone along on mine. Thank you to all whom I still owe hjs too, sorry to keep you waiting, I am in your debt. Thanks to Billy for not only understanding that I am a bird addict, but for enabling my habit...and for being a great mom to Annie, who just the other day said, unprompted in any way, "I love birds". That remains to be seen, but there is hope.

Most of all, thanks to Felonious Jive, The Great Ornithologist. I could not have done this without you, bro. You are a truly great birder, a real BROrnithologist. You are my ride or die.

You are my everything.

In April of 2018 I birded the Upper Texas Coast for the first time. The winds and weather were with us, as the lulls in migration were usually short and the birding generally varied between very good and absolutely fantastic. I got to see multiple Swainson's Warblers, which was a lifer and my only lifer for the whole year. Photographed at Sabine Woods.

In January of 2019 Billy, Annie and I made our way to Belize. It was our first international trip together. I won't claim it was the smoothest trip (traveling with a toddler is challenging) but from a purely birding perspective the itinerary delivered as hoped and overall it was very successful. Yucatan Jay was one of dozens of lifers. Also, Annie still occasionally tells me she wants to go to the jungle, so I think it left a good impression on her. Photographed at Crooked Tree.

What lies ahead for BB&B? The impossibilities are endless. It will likely be a long time before I get to post as often as I would like again. Seriously though, I need to thank you readers who I don't know well, or at all, which is most of you. Thanks to everyone who has been a friend of the blog over the years, left supportive comments here or on FB or IRL, has ambushed me while birding and told me the blog is good...or just absolutely punished me, I should be grateful for that too. I never thought I would get recognized by random strangers in the field because of BB&B, especially since I hardly post photos of myself. I really do appreciate all the love I've gotten doing this...I've never done this in an attempt to make money, promote some shitty book about a stupid big year, sell my photos or try to get people to try and sign up for some tour I'm guiding on. I bird for the sake of birding, I blog for the sake of blogging. Many bird bloggers have jumped the blogship over the years, but I intend to keep the old ways alive. BB&B will continue to be the shield that guards the realms of birders, and our watch has not yet ended.

See you next time!


Monday, November 11, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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