Saturday, October 31, 2020

I Have Become Terrible At Blogging And Am Filled With Shame

Like the Savannah Sparrow waits for rain to rejuvenate its beloved grasslands, birders everywhere wait with bated breath for BB&B to start posting enough to finally put an end to the blog drought. Photographed at Byxbee Park in Palo Alto.

I know it, you know it, so I might as well come out and say it...BB&B has found itself in a drought of blog posts. How embarrassing. It's not like I've been in a coma for months, and I have been birding quite a bit. I actually had a real good run here in Santa Clara from about the end of August to early October. I can offer some of the the usual excuses for not posting, including but not limited to 2020/the president/racism/coronavirus/megafire sucking, not to mention my wonderful child exuberantly sucking much of the life force out of me as well. I'm sure there are lots of other things that suck that I am forgetting, but the truly unique thing about this year is that I know you get the idea. This is the year of surviving, not thriving, and nobody seems to be doing really great. As The Descendents said, "Everything sucks today!" and that seems to be true almost every day. Life is pain.

Anyhow, I shall return sooner than later I hope, and life-giving blog posts will one day rain from the sky, replenishing the parched and thirsty blogscape. The time will come once again when you will be able to stand on the shoulders of giants, as this sleeping giant will be awake before long. BB&B is, of course, a keystone member of the Birdosphere, and birding as we know it would likely collapse and cease to exist without us. The burden is heavy, but we will be back.

I am posting to my Instagram account regularly at least. It's a poor substitute for sweet sweet bloggage but as everyone in the world knows it's quick and it's easy compared to this format. Follow, follow The Great Ornithologist Felonious Jive over on IG @feloniousjive.

Monday, August 31, 2020

2020: The Dawn of The Geri Birding Renaissance

California Scrub-Jays were daily yard visitors for a good part of the summer but are currently all but undetectable from the yard, although they are certainly still nearby. It is fascinating getting to learn some of the habits and vagaries of local common shit that you thought you knew like the back of your hand already. All photos in this post were taken at Rancho de Bastardos.

Geri Birding. Now, more than ever, it matters. BB&B readers know that we have always been staunch proponents of Geri Birding, whether you are doing it in your own backyard or at some lodge buried deep in a rainforest. But with the arrival of Covid-19, Geri Birding went from a pastime to somewhat of a necessity, at least for a while.

Do you remember those days in early spring? Here in Santa Clara County, California, we went straight from business-as-usual šŸ˜Žto shelter-in-place šŸ˜·practically overnight, pretty much before the rest of the country. Fear and confusion and anger reigned supreme...and I guess that really hasn't changed, though the shock has certainly worn off. But I was a gut punch any way you look at it.

Back then, "wear a fucking mask" was not a thing. The thing was "don't leave your fucking house"...although no one was actually saying it quite like that then, or now, because that's not something anyone can tolerate for very long, potential life saving action be damned. There is a reason house arrest is a thing. However, that was indeed the message being sent by some birders for a little while. Birders were taking to listservs and social media, courageously proclaiming to all that would listen that they refused to chase mega rarities 15 minutes away and bashing all who did.

A big change in the yard this year was the Nuttall's Woodpeckers finally getting hooked on the suet. After being very occasional visitors to the feeding station they now visit on the regular. I've seen a great many of these in my life but can now say the best looks I've ever had of them were in my own yard. Here is a juvenile showing its distinctive red forecrown.

You may think I am cusp of delivering some harsh judgement, one way or the other, or am on the verge of launching into a long and rambling self-righteous screed on how birders should now conduct themselves in The Age of Coronavirus...but I am not. I am just setting the stage to tell you that I sure as shit have spent a lot more time at home than usual this year, and the best part of that has been GERI BIRDING.

As soon as things went south in March, I began geri birding with renewed vigor and have not stopped...never stop geri birding, you know what I'm saying? Can't stop won't stop geri birding. The results have been very rewarding, and Rancho de Bastardos has performed as advertised. I geri birded so hard this spring that I suspect I may actually now be geri. I catch myself doing stuff like complaining about my back, unironically yelling dad cliches at my daughter, and asking basic, embarrassing questions like "Honey, have you seen my keys?" or "What the fuck is Tiktok?"

I know right? It's a bad scene, but I am not ashamed. Geri birding makes hanging out at home a much more enjoyable, perhaps even more gripping experience than normal, especially in semi-normal weather conditions (i.e. under 100 degrees and without a megafire raging nearby) and in spite of things happening in the rest of the world that are trying their best to send you spiraling into a state of catatonic depression that you will never climb out of ever again.

Another major yard upgrade this year was the addition of this little oriole feeder. I wasn't sure how birds would take to it but the neighborhood Hooded Orioles love it. I even saw chickadees and a Song Sparrow or two using it.

The Hooded Orioles here have always been skittish, especially males. It's like they know how facemelting they are and don't want to hurt anyone by letting them get too good of a look. I got some deec pics this summer though. They have all departed now and are southbound, but we had some good hangs this year.

How about some more babies? Here is a juv Oak Titmouse. They are much more confiding than adults, usually look a touch spiffier and have more of a cowlick than a very prominent crest.

A young Northern Mockingbird can do a very convincing Sage Thrasher impersonation.

One afternoon we had a big family group of Tree Swallows perched above the backyard with a bunch of fresh brown and white juvs still getting fed by parents. This is a local breeder that disappears very early in the year - I have no eBird records of them from the yard past June. Like the jays that opened up this post, they are certainly in the area longer than that but I do find it interesting that they are dependably absent from my microzone by July.

This was a big year for Song Sparrows in the yard, the local breeders produced some bumper crops of youngsters like this one. On some days there would be an actual double-digit pure flock of Song Sparrows in the yard, which I am not accustomed to seeing anywhere.

This Cooper's Hawk is not a baby at all anymore but not a grownup either. In fact, it doesn't get much more intermediate than this, look at all those adult feathers coming in and that orange eye. Raptor highlights so far this year include more Sharp-shinneds than ever before, both eagle species (annual but always appreciated), and a banded Peregrine Falcon trying to kill Forster's Terns (after failing, killed a passerine instead).

As of this writing I am up to 113 species seen or heard from Rancho de Bastardos this year - my single year record of 126 species, set in 2018, seems well within reach but topping it is not a certainty either. El Rancho has been endowed with 7 new species in 2020: Scaly-breasted Munia (expected and disappointing), Willet (a calling nocturnal spring migrant, astonishing and rather rare in the county away from South San Francisco Bay/salt ponds), Swainson's Thrush (overdue, finally heard some nocturnal flight calls this spring), Western Kingbird (spring migrant, a pleasant surprise), Western Wood-Pewee (a not unexpected but very appreciated spring migrant), and Wrentit. The Wrentit is something I might hear sing from the riparian along the nearby creek at some point, but I was amazed to both hear and see a pair in my actual yard one midsummer day. My yard is decidedly terrible Wrentit habitat, but perhaps better than I thought? That leaves one more new yard bird... 

Red-winged Blackbirds have always nested in the pond behind my house but this year they decided to get real familiar with my yard in 2020, possibly because of a newish feeder that they could be more comfortable on. In previous summers they would disappear by the end of June but this year they have stuck around, and in greater numbers. Not only was it nice to have them linger and loiter longer, they helped lure in my newest yard bird.

I was astonished to look outside one day and see this thing going to seed town (Seed Town?) on the platform feeder one day with the local Red-winged flock. I'd only ever seen one in the county before, and here was a bright male right in the July! THIS IS WHY I GERI BIRD. This was both a new yard bird (obvi) and a new 5MR bird too, which made it that much sweeter.

The Yellow-headed Blackbird made itself at home very quickly and visited the yard a number of times a day, bossing around other birds, calling frequently and settling in near the top of the yard bird hierarchy. So, so sick. This is not the rarest bird that has been in the yard, but I am left wondering if things will ever be the same.

A surprising number of birders came out to the Los Capitancillos Ponds to chase it, most of which eventually had success. Apparently, scoping into my yard from the other side of the ponds became a thing people were actually doing.

If you don't already geri bird with zeal, I do recommend giving it a shot. I know not everyone has a living situation where this is possible, or your shitty apartment is simply too urban to be conducive to this...I have lived in those situations for most of my adult life. Trust me, I've skipped a lot of articles and posts about yard birding over the years, had my eyes glaze over when yard birding makes its way into conversation, but we must face the music...the time for geri birding is now. Have you felt The Long Shadow of Senescence slowly creeping over you? Let go of your fears, of your wasted youth, and your journey towards the Geri Side will be complete. Birders everywhere have finally made some effort to really bird their yards for the first time this year and have reaped the rewards. What better time to start than September? 

To you grizzled veteran geri birders out there, I hope your yards have brought you similar good fortune in 2020. This has been the year to really cement our geri birding legacies, right? As much as I look forward to having property of my own so I can go crazy with planting natives and installing an imposing state-of-the-art Vague Magnet Water Feature like Flycatcher Jen, Rancho de Bastardos continues to produce surprises and helps soothe some of the daily angst that comes with the territory this year. September is now upon us, the window is open and anything can happen, so good luck to everybody this month, Geri or otherwise.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Costa Rica Part V - Hotel Gavilan and Tirimbina

We got nice looks at Collared Aracaris while kicking it in front of our rooms at Hotel Gavilan, while trying-but-not-really to take afternoon breaks from birding.

Yeah, I'm doing it again...taking my sweet time with these Costa Rica posts aren't I? Well, these aren't normal times, or good ones. I could say that bird blogging feels silly, trivial and trite in light of current events and that I have not been in a good headspace to be churning these things out...but I won't say that because I've always had trouble churning out travel posts, even during The Perpetual Weekend (what is dead may never die). 

While the year has mostly been shit, steadily snowballing into an even bigger and more dangerous rolling boulder of shit that we are all trying to stay in front of while running down a mountain of doom, there have been good times, the pre-shit times. So while bird blogging seems as insignificant as ever, it's also about time BB&B gets some of the attention it deserves, from me anyways. Cass and Felis really nailed it with the last post, didn't they? BB&B is, after all, an institution, a life-changing blog. So without further witty banter to get us off the proverbial ground, I will just say I am packing this post with a shitload of photos...more in one post than ever before I reckon. So no more time to talk, away we go.

Getting to travel to some exotic location sounds especially tantalizing now doesn't it? Costa Rica continues to beckon, though I am really happy with how this year's trip turned out and grateful we did it when we did. Here at Hotel Gavilan, I eventually figured out that the aracaris were so reliable because they were getting their nest on in the legendary The Tree of Lifers.

We heard and saw many Yellow-throated Toucans over the course of the trip but I think this is the only one I have passable pictures of. They are exotic and large and ridiculous and, when I look at this photo, I feel that being bitten by one would be highly regrettable.

In 2012, Hotel Gavilan provided a pair of easily viewable Spectacled Owls. No such luck this time (here or anywhere else) but there was a Black-and-white Owl that could be seen from the parking area. Sick.

Here is the courtyard with the Tree of Lifers. Other good birds we had here included Short-tailed Nighthawks, Blue-chested Hummingbird, Brown-hooded Parrot (lifer for me), Gray-chested Doves, and a massive Turkey Vulture migration one day. Jen and Jacob also found a sloth latrine (lifer latrine) - sloths refuse to shit from up in trees for some reason, they descend all the way to the ground to unload. It is an interesting and unexplained approach.

Very unlike 2012 (rage) we actually put in effort trying to find interesting herps at night on this trip. The abundance of blue jeans frogs/strawberry poison dart frogs was surprising, as was my complete inability to spot them the first night. Obviously, this is one of the best frogs in existence. We also saw the legendary red-eyed tree frogs for the first time ever.

I have no clue what this is. An exotic-but-not-exotic-looking frog.

I do have a clue about this - this is a cane toad aka marine toad. They are huge and common. You are probably thinking "Aren't cane toads a terrible toxic pest?" and you would be right...if you were thinking about Australia. They are native in Costa Rica and therefore lovely.

My boy Steen already identified this for me but since I'm a bad person I don't remember what it is. We saw a few. Litter toad (Bufo haematiticus) perhaps?

Wow this is really turning into a major herp barrage. I don't think I've ever posted so many herps, ever. Exhilarating. Look at this very long/very thin anole thing. It's got a tail for days.

Finally it was time to check out of Gavilan and move on. After a preemptive ATM run and scraping together many colones (their card reader was down), and then much waiting around for the correct person to wake up in the morning (it's fine, this isn't the U.S.), we were taken care of. I would still recommend staying here, especially if you want to save some $$$...just don't expect much variety in the meals or a super comfy bed. It is definitely tranquilo though - not a tourist trap - and certainly has some good birds...and herps!

We didn't have to go far for out next stop though, the Tirimbina Preserve was right down the road.

The first birds we saw after parking, while still in the parking lot, was a small group of Plain-colored Tanagers....PARKING LOT LIFER. And no I don't mean that I've just never seen them in a parking lot before, I hadn't seen them anywhere. So not only were they parking lot lifers, we would never see them again! Birding in Costa Rica requires Constant Vigilance.

This Rufous-winged Woodpecker was hanging out near the reception area, devotedly pecking at the same spot and refusing to move. I can only remember seeing one before, very early in the morning with little light and a tremendous amount of bleariness. This was much better.

One of the species that drove me crazy in Belize after my piece of shit new Nikon camera body died was White-whiskered Puffbird. At Black Rock Lodge you can walk right up to them, they just sit there along the trail like you are utterly nonthreatening and unimportant. Still butthurt about missed photo ops, as you can probably tell. Anyhow here is a mediocre pic of a definitely non-mediocre bird.

Orange-billed Sparrow is an appealing ground-dweller that knows it is not always necessary to be skulky.

Tirimbina gave us our first taste of suspension bridges for the trip. I had forgotten how great they are for seeing things when absolutely no one is moving, and how maddening it is to see anything when someone is walking on it from even a great distance away. The highlight of the first bridge was this Purple-crowned Fairy nest that a guide pointed out to, not a nest I ever expected to see in my life. It's hard to even see one of these stay in any one spot for more than a few seconds, so this was some luxurious viewing.

Crossing over the Sarapiqui River.

On the other side of the river I found a pair of Black-crowned Antshrikes, another bird I hadn't seen since 2012. We then heard a strange sound coming from back by the bridge and so returned to watch a Chestnut-colored Oropendola fly past - life bird, and the only one of the trip! We then were tortured by a mostly uncooperative mixed flock for too much time.

A pair of Broad-billed Motmots allowed themselves to be seen well at least. This became a ho-hum bird after a while, but it was undeserved. It's truly an obscene species.

The trails at Tirimbina were muddy...very muddy. Maybe the trails we did not go on were less muddy, but this one was pretty gnar. I was glad I was wearing my hiking boots. Here is FJ doing a semi-controlled-but-almost-not descent down a steep mud slope with a Tirimbina employee doing trail work looking on approvingly.

This post is brimming with herps, so why not another? Here is some kind of whiptail thing that seemed pretty common.

While taking a brief break on the trail during some rain FJ noticed that we were standing right next to a Semiplumbeous Hawk. Everything is fine.

It was at this point that reality had confirmed my suspicions - that I was probably not the best member of our group at spotting things in the rainforest and I was probably lumbering past fantastic wildlife all the time. Oh well, at least my earbirding game was pretty good. Semiplumbeous Hawk didn't seem to care that we were all hanging out with it. After watching it for a long time we left it on its weird giant noodle perch and continued on our way. 

Pale-billed Woodpeckers seem too large and exotic to be common, but they seem to be in most places/countries I've seen them. Considering the luck that other large Campephilus have had in the Anthropocene, that's a very good thing. I don't think I can fathom the number of species (bird, mammal, insect and otherwise) that make their homes in old Pale-billed cavities.

After exiting the forest and crossing the suspension bridge again we ran into a big mixed flock - don't you love a mid day mixed flock? It's always such a pleasant surprise. This confiding Eye-ringed Flatbill (aka "flatbill jealous") was a trip bird and got a lot of attention from us. Be sure to note flatbill sad face/frowny mouth in the first photo

Female manakins can be very confusing, but when they are showing off glowing orange gams they are not - this is a female White-collared Manakin.

This post requires an additional hummingbird - how about a Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer? Green. Pink feet. Excellent.

A pair of mellowing Smoky-brown Woodpeckers were members of the mixed flock.

Finally we were able to stumble out the other side of the flock in search of food. It's not easy eating nothing but cookies for breakfast day in and day out. We ate lunch at Tirimbina's restaurant, which turned out to be challenging because there was pretty much a stationary mixed flock right outside the entire time, despite no feeders being present...BONUS GERI BIRDING. This Black-faced Grosbeak was kind enough to drop by for a minute.

Golden-hooded Tanager is a mixed flock staple in secondary forest/edge habitats but it's always painful to tear your eyes away from them. They cannot be ignored.

We had good times at Tirimbina, although the mature forest on the other side of the river was not quite as birdy as hoped. That said, there is no doubt the birding could be ace if we hit it on another occasion - just crossing paths with another mixed flock could have totally changed the outlook. The bird activity by the entrance/reception/restaurant was excellent though and I would totally recommend you consider staying there if you are birding the area - they were booked during our visit (and Geri were pretty thick) but they are affordable.

Phew, this was a hell of a post to finish, thanks if you made it through. The next CR post (whenever that is) will take us to the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge and the warm embrace of Chambita, an extraordinary guide.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Dispatches from Mescalia

What else to do in these uncertain days of turmoil and unrest than to retreat into sweet sweet NOSTALGIA. The following tales are plucked from a six week trip spent aimlessly wandering the mountains and beaches of Old Mexico. Felis and I can not guarantee the validity of any these recollections, as many of them were made under the influence of strong spirits, sold to us by a woman and her parrot at the beginning of our journey. 

Ave de Mexico
Oaxaca Highlands
Up in the mountains, perched someplace between yucca drylands below epiphyte-laded cloud forests above. At the center of a small town, a 17th century cathedral rests like a dormant spacecraft that landed centuries ago. A village built around this artifact from Andromeda. A teenager shoots from the foul line of a basketball court built adjacent to the courtyard. A woman next door puts laundry out to dry in the morning sun. We sleepily make our way from the cabina towards food and day ahead.
Magdalena welcomes us each morning with a slow, measured, monotonous BUENAS DIAS CHICOS. Her booming voice at once jarring and nurturing. We mumble our reply, shuffle to a table and play out the rest of the script. CAFE? Si, gracias. CHOCOLATE CON AGUA? Si, gracias. We mostly eat in silence, occasionally making halting, probably incomprehensible small talk with Magdalena. Our attention drifts out the window to a kestrel perched upon the crucifix that crowns the church belltower. The red paint of the cross does nothing to diminish the idea of this taloned sentinel spilling the blood of rodents brought back as offerings to god. But what god? Whose gods? 

Sangre de los ratones

As per protocol, Magdalena brings us two sandwiches which will be our sustenance during the daily exploration. Like two schoolboys off to the classroom, equipped with our brownbags, Magdalena, our madre whilst here, our madre still in some ways, booms after us BUEN VIAJE CHICOS as we depart for another day. Back out in the courtyard, a descending series of cries emanate from within the cathedral. Over and over, these plaintive calls repeat. Magdalena’s voice, elemental and grounding, mixes with the mind-splitting spiral singing of the canyon wren in the bell tower. It's vertiginous song, echoed and trapped within the tower, transports us back to the 17th century. To the building of the church-the blood and sweat of slave labor mixed with the mortar that holds these walls. Back further still, to when the rocks were stacked along the trails we've been walking these past days—rocks covered with millennial lichens, the craggy oaks above laden with epiphytes whose folds and fissures are ceaselessly interrogated by warblers and vireos. The imprisoned song gets compressed further and the mountains are leveled. We come to, back to the present. We look around, shaking off the shackles of time the wren has saddled us with. Now equipped with the knowledge that the current flora and fauna that surrounds us is only the latest incarnation in a series of living skins this range has adorned, we step into the future.  

Piel de las montaƱas 
And Magdalena. Somehow she has always been here.

Puerto Escondido
Two gringos walking the busy coastal highway, too cheap to rent a taxi, too dumb to understand the bus service in the area. No matter, the ditch birding is incredible and when coupled with the life-threatening danger of oncoming traffic, the experience is transcendent. The obscene conglomerate of feathers and pluck that is the white-throated magpie jay causes Felis to yell IS THAT A BIRD. Moments later, after a near decapitation from a passing trucks' side mirror, a foraging streak-backed oriole is found. THAT IS THE MOST BEAUTIFUL BIRD I'VE EVER SEEN I scream into the roar of traffic, my reasoning perhaps influenced by the recent near-death encounter. That said, it is certainly a bird to die for.

Awkwardly (everything we do in this country is awkward), we rent two kayaks and set out upon an estuary? Bay? River mouth? What is this big bodied brackish mirror we're floating on? We see a mangrove hawk we think, looks like a black hawk. Range/habitat seems right. Who knows. Who cares. Heat stroke squashes any sort of shit giving re: lumping/splitting/ID in general. A dragon descends and skims the surface, a frigatebird drinking. We nearly capsize. A bush in the middle of nowhere keeps producing boat-billed herons as we draw nearer. Like Mary Poppins' bottomless purse, the scene is positively impossible. They just keep coming, 5, 10, 20, clapping their massive bills at us, the racket shattering the serenity of this mysterious pond. The herons shit as they fly past us, their turds milking the still waters, the only clouds we see that day. 

Cold and pre-dawn, we bounce up a steep mountain road in the back of a camioneta. Two tall gringos, we don’t fit. Blood-pumping warmth begins to return as we climb stairs into high forests of abeto, pino, encino, oyamele at first light. We see a few monarch butterflies, but expected many more. Cold and tired, convinced we’ve been led into another gringo tourist trap, we glance at one another in dismay. We are impatient. We are American.
Then we look harder into the slowly-brightening understory, and we see. They hang from the trees like dead dusty leaves. Strings of mussels. The branches are laden. The branches are strained to breaking. The sun has risen high enough to bring some warmth. Some fluttering movement begins. Dozens of monarchs begin descending out of the trees, floating down towards food. For a moment, we think it’s a lot, we are impressed. We are winners.
But as the sun’s warmth grows ever stronger. They keep coming. They land on every surface. What was dozens is now thousands. Tens of thousands. Millions. Uncountable, all-encompassing. The sky is thick with gliding orange and black kites. The air is audibly moving from the push of their collective million wingbeats. A river of wind courses between the treetops. They land in mud and water to drink, wings twitching, like they are straining to take off and carry the earth back up into the sky with them. They mate, rolling circles in the air, the male carrying the female in coitus. They mate on the ground, rolling in the mud over the wings of their dead, recently dispatched by the red warblers that take only the heads and thorax. 

Flores para la vacia

Los arboles que estan hechos de mariposas
Suddenly and without notice, the day has passed and darkness nears. Eight hours dissolved into an infinitum of wingbeats. We descend from Monarch Mountain exhausted, emptied out. Gravity pulls us to our beds somewhere in the town below, miles away, hours away. The song of the brown-backed solitaire, atmospheric ice glitching and tumbling, drags up deeper into the valley. The ice bits rise and merge with the first burning stars above. 
The next morning, awake in a mountain town, a boozeless hangover, we lurk forth in search of cafe, pan and whatever else along the way. Miraculously the solitaire's song, still ringing in our heads from the night before, is heard from the middle of town. It is close. We follow the winding street to the headwaters of this ethereal ringing and find it. Caged and tailless, he is rendered comic and tragic without his beautiful rudder. The song fills the town and spills into the alley gardens, passes through the panaderia, the trashed choked streams and up into the groves of sleeping monarchs above.
Los ornitologos
If you haven't had enough of these frivolous tales of bumbling self-indulgence then continue on to our Palenque fiasco which was featured in an earlier episode of BB&B.  Vaya con pajaros - Cassowary