Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Good Times, Bad Times, Weird Times: 2020 In The 5 Mile Radius

From 2017-2019, I had seen but only a single Snow Goose in the now legendary Rancho de Bastardos Five Mile Radius. In the fall of 2020 I saw three! All maximum tame and slumming it with breadline Canada Geese. This one was at Hellyer County Park.

Ah, an old-fashioned annual end of the year round up post! Ok it's not exactly on time but what do you expect these days? Life is pain and blogging is hard.

Well, it seems like it has always been fashionable for some people to publicly bitch about each year as it comes to a close...it's the one time of year it is cool to publicly whinge about what a rough go of it you've had on social media, instead of just trying to convince everybody how fucking brilliant your life  is. I'm sure sometimes that is totally valid (it's not like tragedy and suffering, or fear and loathing, is limited to 2020), but in retrospect most of that seems pretty wimpy compared to the gargantuan cluster that was last year. This really is the time that I'm just relieved to have a year be over with, but at the same time I don't kid myself about how quickly 2021 will right the ship. One could say the short term prognosis is rather...bleak.

***UPDATE: All of the above was written before the storming of the capitol by obsequious far right Trump worshippers/fucking insane conspiracy theorists/human garbage white supremacists...oh yeah and our old friend 'Rona is going stronger than ever before. So 2021 is exactly like 2020 so far, what a surprise.

Anyways, birds. It's a cliche at this point, but I think I need to say that birding really has helped with getting through 2020. I must bird, but it was crucial in 2020. Obviously, I ended up birding a ton in my 5MR, as 5MR birding is even more suited to pandemic era birding than it was before. I was not doing any sort of concerted year listing, as 2019 was more or less a 5MR big year and I had no interest in putting in that amount of effort again, but 2020 ended up being a great year for my radius. I picked up 17 new 5MR birds, 4 of which I detected only from my yard and nowhere else! This also involved an absolutely torrid stretch where I got 9 new 5MR birds in about 5 weeks. So despite going without chasing a number of birds and dispensing with a lot of target birding, I finished with 185 species...only 2 off my my 2019 mark, when I was feverishly birding the radius in comparison. I am very satisfied.

Alright, we can move on - contrary to what almost most birders will tell you, I'm acutely aware that list numbers are rarely interesting to anyone besides their keepers. In this post I'll mostly focus on birding highlights from the second half of the year, since I've done such a shameful job of blogging lately and that's when a lot of the best birds appeared.

After a slow start to the year, the quality of 5MR birding seemed to really pick up in April. The vague runt highlight (and new radius bird for me) of the spring my grunts was undoubtedly a Northern Parula, but my favorite spring bird was this Calliope Hummingbird I found at a nearby Echium patch. I had sustained and satisfying long looks very close up, which I can't say I've had many of when it comes to adult males. Photographed at the Santa Clara Water District headquarters.

Though not a regional meguh, few birds in my yard have caused me the sort of distress that this Yellow-headed Blackbird did upon first seeing it. A 5MR/yard bird twofer, I was amazed that this thing was frequenting my backyard, particularly in July, a month known for poor lowland birding if you don't count shorebirds. There's nothing like getting some shock and awe in your very own backyard.

One perk of 2020 that came with living in the bay area was the MEGAFIRES. I was lucky enough to not have to worry about losing my home, but the smoke...it was astounding how bad the smoke was on some days. This Pygmy Nuthatch probably lost its home in the Santa Cruz Mountains to the CZU Lightning Fire and took advantage of my feeding station for a day - though the circumstances were a bummer, this was not a species I anticipated getting in the radius, let alone my yard.

This fall was my fourth here in Santa Clara County, and it was by far the best as far as rarities are concerned in my 5MR. Vasona Lake County Park was the place to be - it started with a Northern Waterthrush, which was a county bird for me. I then found another one in the same spot weeks later. Soon after that I found this shadowy Blackpoll Warbler above, a new radius bird. Then that same day some other birders and photographers found a Bay-breasted Warbler (FIRST COUNTY RECORD) while trying to track down the Blackpoll.


A first county record, right in my very own radius! You gotta love that, and I did enjoy some views of this bird on a couple different days. Bay-breasteds are quite rare in the state, although of course some of the more vagrant-wealthy counties seem to entrap them with some regularity. This is only the third I have ever seen in California. Birders flogging the area shrubbery also turned up an American Redstart, which I also chased successfully for a new 5MR bird. I dipped multiple times on a Nashville Warbler here, but there are worse things to dip on.

While the fall of 2020 was great for Brewer's and Clay-colored Sparrows in much of the state, we in Santa Clara did not get very many of the latter. I was happy to find this one at Vasona, one of three individuals seen in the county last year and the only one in my radius.

Lawrence's Goldfinches are not difficult to find in certain spots in Santa Clara County, but this isn't a species I considered fait accompli in the 5MR; they have an affinity for pretty "wild", undeveloped areas here that don't happen to fall close to home. So on that tinkling note, I was surprised when one was found at a random, seemingly unbirded park in my radius this fall in the middle of a vast sea of suburbs. I'll take it - this is one of my favorite species in California, so getting long looks at one here is an especially fulfilling radial victory.

Last fall was a big one for uncommon and rare sparrows in much of California. I happily chased a Vesper Sparrow at Don Edwards NWR as a county bird...then chased another at Vasona Lake County Park, which was a new 5MR bird and the first ever eBirded from within my radius. Shortly afterward I found my own Vesper Sparrow at a local park which almost no one birds, so I was really happy to turn something up there. It really captured the spirit of 5MR birding I reckon. Photographed at Martial Cottle County Park.


Northern Pintail is a classic species that is very common at a number of sites in my county but incredibly hard to find in my radius. A small group I found last fall were only my second personal record here, where I do a bit better with diving ducks than I do with dabblers. Photographed at the Los Capitancillos Ponds.


This is old news to everyone on the west coast, but this has been an epic year for Pine Siskins in my radius and seemingly everywhere else. Previously it was a special occasion to look out the back door and see one in the yard, but now it's an everyday occurrence. A "green" siskin (bottom photo, upside down on right) is not an everyday occurrence though, so that was a welcome feeder guest. I had not seen one in years. Photographed at Rancho de Bastardos.

The last new addition to the radius was this Green-tailed Towhee, which was also a county bird. It mostly feeds out in the open in an orchard with a Zonotrichia flock, a very un-GTTO setting. When I saw it, it was somewhat distant but super cooperative. Even though I've been birding the bay area for a long time this was the first I've seen in any of the regional counties. Photographed on the Calero Creek Trail.

I could totally pad this post with some more fun birds, including common ones, but I gotta get it out there at some point. Again, sorry for the lack of posts last year, it really does bring me angst. Follow me on Instagram @feloniousjive if you're into stuff like that, I try to post birdses on there more regularly. I'd like to wish you all a happy 2021, but I think that ship has sailed! So go forth and bird your radius, and if your radius is not that great, bird your county! Those lurking local vagues aren't going to find themselves.

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 me...er, 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 😎to shelter-in-place 😷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 digress...it 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 yard...in 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 us...wow, 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.