Thursday, February 13, 2020

Bound For Tranquilo


Seven years. It's been seven years since I have had my face melted off by Resplendent Quetzal, seven years since being crippled by an appropriately large and diverse rainbow of tanagers. Seven years since my bones have felt the BONK of a Three-wattled Bellbird. Seven years since I experienced pura vida.

Going so long without pura vida is excruciating. I have been withering, on the inside and out. Luckily, MAX REBO BIRDING TOURS has seen fit to send me back to Costa Rica in a few days, with a focus on Caribbean slope birds. The itinerary is mainly composed of sites we did not get to previously, though some sites are too good and too conveniently located to pass up again.

Target birds will be many and varied for our group. Speaking for myself, I have plucked most of the low-hanging fruit already, but the number of potential realistic lifers that await is well above 100. Bare-necked Umbrellabird and Yellow-eared Toucanet are certainly too rare to expect (but expected enough to look for), so other than those Sunbittern, Agami Heron, Snowy Cotinga and Ocellated Antbird definitely come to mind as top targets that could induce facemelt/cripple/seizures/spontaneous combustion/final birdgasm if seen. But who am I kidding, there is a good chance less-hyped species like Uniformed Crake, nunbird and Song Wren could leave me in a state of catatonic wonder.

And then there is the Collared Plover, my Neotropical nemesis. If you ask me, we have a better chance of finding 27 Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoos than a single Collared Plover, which are documented to be 50,000,000,000 times more common and easier to see for any other birder. It's embarrassing and shameful to admit, but at the same time the only birder without a nemesis is a dead one.

Sorry, I can't help but get a touch dark when Collared Plover comes up. A number of other living legends like This Machine, Coolidge (who is a person, not just a Descendents song), and BB&B's own Cassidy have recently just stumbled out of the steamy jungles of Costa Rica or are still there, sweating and lurching and having chunks of superheated face slough off their heads from constant exposure to great birds. It's the place to be this winter.


The owl highlight of the previous Costa Rica Trip was this Black-and-white Owl, which remains the only one I've ever seen. It was shown to us by Moncho, a security guard at Cerro Lodge. This time we have an owling trip lined up at Cano Negro with the near-mythical Chambita, so fingers are extra crossed for Striped Owl and other night lurkers.


Love geri birding? So does Max Rebo Birding Tours! I think on this trip I'm going to try to take photos of birds that are obviously on feeders instead of attempting shots of birds that don't have feeders or fruit in the frame. La Cinchona has excellent geri birding that features Emerald Toucanets, and we will be checking in on them soon.


Geri birding can often reward one with excellent looks at Green Honeycreepers, a bird that needs to be seen up close, and let me tell you I am ready to sit on my ass and watch a Green Honeycreeper eat a goddamned banana. This one was attending a geri station at Talari Mountain Lodge.


I actually don't expect to see Flame-colored Tanagers on this trip, but I do expect to see other fantastic birds doing unexpected stuff like hopping around in parking lot rubble with the wariness of a Safeway Brewer's Blackbird.

BB&B will be back in March. Until then, take care, and be wary of stringers.

Monday, February 3, 2020

South Bay Winter Slumber


While Santa Clara is not known as one of the premiere gulling counties in the state, that is not because there are a lack of gulls. There are many thousands of Herring Gulls (like the one above) in the county right now, and where there are Herring Gulls there are rare gulls...sometimes anyway. I have at least managed a Santa Clara Glaucous Gull already this year and a 5MR Western Gull, which I didn't see in the radius until November last year. Photographed at Don Edwards NWR.

Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh it's February. I don't know how I feel about that. It sure got here quickly, and as I say in BB&B pretty much every year I'm leery of March birding around these parts. Things have been pretty slow this winter here in Santa Clara, especially if you opt to not attempt feverish county year birding and rechase all the rarities you already chased a month or two ago, or the previous winter. But! But. BUT...the middle of winter is generally a great time to be birding around these parts. If you really need to see a rarity or a year bird or whatever every time you go birding, then just give up birding and be honest with yourself and everyone else...you are not a birder. You are a chaser. You don't enjoy the activity of birdwatching, you like birdchasing.

I think the quasi-elitist and increasingly obsolete notion that listing is something to scoff at now borders on being something to scoff at itself. Let's face it, most of us have bird lists that we care about. Listing is not the problem here, heck chasing isn't even the problem. I happily chase stuff on the reg and recommend it highly. The problem is when you get so locked into certain lists that they dictate that you run after other people's birds every time you go out. Going out with the hopes of finding something interesting yourself, once standard practice when one went out birding, is becoming increasingly uncommon and comparatively bold.

Is it time for a great schism in birding? Is it time for the strict chasers to separate themselves from the rest of us? There is already a large and still growing subset of photogs who seem to chase every rarity but never find anything rare themselves. Something to ponder on a cool February day.

But now that I've begun to peel back the lid on that can of worms, I'm going to put it back on the proverbial shelf for another post. That was not a road I intended to go down! Shifting gears (but probably still instilling some butthurt anyway), I've really been enjoying my new CANON gear after kicking Nikon to the curb. With the assistance of CANON, here is a sampling of our winter birds from along the edge of the South Bay.


Iceland Gulls can be be quite common at certain sites right now. Here is a particularly eye-catching bird with a big dark hood. Photographed at Don Edwards NWR.


Here is a more typical looking Iceland (darker eye, whiter face) photographed from the same spot. Photographed at Don Edwards NWR.


While Herring x Glaucous-winged are often the most common hybrid in Santa Clara gull flocks, along the bay Western x Glaucous-winged like this one can be more abundant. The Olympic Gull is a particularly unpleasant creature and I have nothing more to say about them. Photographed at Don Edwards NWR.


Mew Gulls, with their small size and delicate build, are absolutely delightful in comparison. They should have named Daymaker Gulls. Photographed at Don Edwards NWR.


I thought this COMBO was worthy of posting, a ring-billed Mew Gull and a ring-billed Ring-billed Gull. Photographed at Don Edwards NWR.


The occasional close pass by a Northern Harrier is always appreciated. Photographed at Don Edwards NWR.


Familiarity breeds contempt, but as common as they are Turkey Vultures are still cool to see close up. Photographed at Don Edwards NWR.



Santa Clara is not a very goosey county, but we get a light smattering of non-Canadas every fall and winter. Here is part of a family group of Snow Geese that have been wintering next to Shoreline Lake near Mountain View. Photographed at the Shoreline Park kite flying area.



A group of Greater White-fronted Geese is also wintering in the same area and are similarly acclimated to people, no doubt due in large part to the large flocks of JUDAS GEESE (nonnative/tame Canada Geese) here. I like the lawn-mowing lineup.



Sometimes, I think about grebes. Luminous beings are grebes. I am a fan of Horned Grebes, but it is one of those species that makes me wonder why, know what I mean? Like if someone could do a brain scan while I looked at a Horned Grebe vs a Western, there would probably be more HOGR-related brain activity even though WEGRs sound way cooler and have a legendary courtship display. Maybe it all goes back to when I first started birding, where HOGRs are harder to come by. I'm sure a great many of my feelings and opinions about certain birds, and birding in general, are heavily colored by those early years more than I realize. Photographed at Shoreline Lake.



EARED GREBE/HORNED GREBE COMBO!!!!!!! The HOGR is showing off its flatter crown, thicker bill, and more contrasting face/neck/flank pattern.




While I think of it, I wanted to mention another aspect of my new Canon gear that I forgot to bring up in my previous post about it. For all previous combos and iterations of Nikon bodies and lenses I've used (which are numerous), one flaw that all of them had was that when the subject was on a flat surface (i.e. sitting on or flying low over water, on mudflats, in short grass) and not close up, the camera invariably have a very difficult time focusing on the intended subject. I could shoot 50 similar frames and sometimes less than 10 would have the subject acceptably sharp with good light and good settings and a near-stationary bird, which is a really shitty ratio. I have no such problem now with the Canon 90D/100-400mm II and couldn't be happier. Photographed at Shoreline Lake.


These Western Sandpipers just had to probe the same exact spot. Must be awkward to bump bills under the mud. Photographed at Charleston Slough.



Let's wrap things up with some avocets, photographed at Charleston Slough. Avocets simultaneously look gangly and awkward in flight, but somehow also striking and graceful. There are a shitload of avocets in the South Bay and I'm pretty happy about it. 

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 it...how 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 happened...in 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 understatement...it 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 frequently...in 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 year...in 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 hard...no 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 Gull...one 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 5MR...is 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 computer...how 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 days...like 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.