Thursday, November 20, 2014

20 Years In The Game: Never Stop Birding...Sentimental HJs...Birds Remembered

Look at all these nerds. Although I am currently retired from bizarre field jobs, they have done a lot for me (and my life list). After the long and glorious LBJ days came to an end in Humboldt County, this was my first job...slavishly censusing Burrowing Owls for Jeff Manning (of "Two Jeffs One Cup" fame) and his mysterious dog Palouse in the Imperial Valley. Those times were good times, and things have never been the same.

As a birder, this month was special for me. Not because I achieved any sort of listing milestone or saw a particularly rare bird (groan), but because I realized that I've now been birding for 20 years. Of course there are a lot of birders out there who have been birding that long (and substantially longer), but I would wager that most of them are not 32. Let's face it...those people are old. OLD. One day I will probably be OLD as well, but other than an increasingly large beer gut and a decreasing amount of hair, I feel pretty good about myself, and I intend to enjoy the waning days of youth.  At any rate, this is truly an anniversary of an incredibly nerdy magnitude, and really, really embarrassing.

When I started birding as a stupid 12-year old, once I started it never occurred to me that I would ever stop birding. It was too good, even if I was doomed to be a nerd for the rest of my life. I became a bird addict, a depraved junkie who just cannot get enough...maybe not the kind who would give an HJ in a back alley in exchange for a life bird...ok FULL DISCLOSURE I actually invented that whole bird-hj bartering system and that is totally me. Buddies, I'm still waiting for all those HJs...

Right. Buddies. While I don't have the endless financial resources that some have to pour into their state and county lists (surely there is something better to do with that $$$...or is there?), I have made lots of friends on the way. And friends, to a birder, are worth more than any Code 5 rarity. Birders, as I'm sure you have noticed, don't have many friends, due to the weirdness in their brains and debilitating lack of social skills. Luckily somewhere between 12 and 32 I managed to trick some people into liking me and now I have many a buddy. So now when I run into an old friend at a bar, they greet me joyous cries of "Number 7!", whether they are a birder or not. I have a girlfriend, Booby Brittany, who forced us to chase a Little Bunting last winter because she knew my soul would shrivel up and die if I didn't (she also has a thing for Sibes, though). It has been an honor and a privilege to have met so many good people on this godawful, shameful journey. So to all my friends I've made while working weird jobs (birders and otherwise) that made life tolerable (birded/drank with me) and to everyone who has lent me a couch or showed me a lifer while on some fucked up birding road trip or were down to be dragged around through the Arcata Bottoms at incredibly slow know who you are. I owe you a big fat HJ.

I guess you want to see some pictures or something. I can't share images from the 90's (although I do have slides somewhere) and from most of the 2000's, so I figured I would at least break out the old hard drives and post some random pictures chronicling some more recent Great Successes.

In February 2009, I ditched my desk job in Concord, CA, for a volunteer position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Midway Atoll. I wanted to get to know seabirds...and I got to know them quite well, particularly albatross. Truth be told, they are quite addicting. Anyways, though not really a seabird (although it does overfly vast distances of ocean), one of the birds I met on Midway was the Bristle-thighed Curlew, which is never something I had realistically thought I would ever see up to that point. This is the last North American bird to have it's breeding grounds discovered, and even there it is not very common. Saw hella on Midway though.

After Midway, I went out to Pennsylvania to work with Bat Conservation International, where I got my first taste of the wind energy industry and what it can do to birds and bats. After I finished there, I figured "Well, this is as close as I've ever been to Florida, so I might as well go". So I drove down to the Everglades, and picked up a quantity of lifers. Wood Stork was not one of them, but any place you can go where Wood Storks lurk by the roadside is a good place. Did you know they have pink feet? Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, FL.

In the spring of 2010, I took a job in southeast Arizona, one of my favorite places to bird. It's great getting paid to look at birds where thousands of other birders drool about visiting. We lived in Florida Canyon much of the time, and put up a bunch of hummingbird feeders; this Violet-crowned Hummingbird was one of the more unexpected birds to show up.

After Arizona, I thought it would be best to move to the Aleutian Islands for the summer. I got to meet many Asian strays and a shitload of amazing seabirds, but one of my favorite moments was finding this Ancient Murrelet chick after a night of mist-netting Whiskered Auklets. This little chick, just a few days old, was going balls-out for the water, leaping astonishing distances into the air like a goddamned kangaroo in order to get over the seemingly impenetrable boulder field on the beach. We could hear a parent calling to it from the water. I have no idea what terrain had to be conquered or how far that chick had to go to get to where I saw it, but I have no doubt that it made it to the water.

In 2011, I thought it was time to get weird. I completed a road trip through eastern Mexico, which was rad, although not after getting robbed by a cartel...which was not rad. A month after that incident I was back in Mexico because I am crazy, counting migrating raptors for the spring in Chavarrillo, one of best places on the continent for seeing birds of prey during spring migration. I was enamored with the swarms of Mississippi Kites that moved through later in the spring. Que chido.

After Mexico it was off to North Dakota to do Piping Plover monitoring for Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge. It was a weird scene (though not nearly as weird as Mexico), but the birding was great. We had field sites all over the place and some of them had good numbers of Baird's Sparrows, which worked out quite well for me since they are one of the most lusted-after sparrows in the U.S. This bird was on private property, but if you ever get out that way, look for them at Lostwood or Medicine Lake NWR over in eastern Montana. PS fuck frakking.

In January 2012 we were evicted from the Space Station, our squatter house in San Francisco, which sent me packing north for a doomy road trip. In Washington I finally got to meet the iconic Snowy Owl, one of the best birds in existence.

My most-crushed Vague Runt is this drake Tufted Duck, which has been wintering at Lake Merritt, a few minutes from my house, for years. Hopefully he comes back soon so I can crush him for the millionth time. You want to join the crush party? Come visit!

In summer of 2012 I found myself living in San Diego, toiling with Least Terns and Snowy Plovers for the San Diego Zoo, and living in a cabin in Jim and Jim's backyard. Jim and Jim were great landlords, and their backyard was an excellent place to party. Many good times back there. I managed to survive the toxic birding scene, did a lot of great birding and made a few buddies...and I still like terns and plovers. Here is a young Snowy Plover chick that hopefully is a lot bigger and more feathered now.

At the end of 2013 I migrated south to Costa Rica for a few weeks, which is still being chronicled on BB&B because I am so damn lazy...but not as lazy as Don Mastwell, who still needs to enter a bunch of eBird checklists. Anyways, the birding was facemelting. If you are contemplating taking your first trip down that way, don't let some hippie nonbirder friend of yours convince you to go to some other country down there instead where everything has been clearcut to death. Here is an Emerald (Blue-throated) Toucanet from La Cinchona.

Fast forward to this spring, when I moved to the Lower Rio Grande Valley for another couple of wind energy projects. I had ample time to bird and get to the coast, where I really got a heavy dose of migration in the eastern U.S. for the first time. I didn't really know what picture to put up to represent the birding there (a crowd of annoying/clueless photographers would have been appropriate) but I think this crushed Indigo Bunting from South Padre Island sums it up.

What better way to finish than with the rarest Vague Runt I've ever seen? A beloved albatross, no less? I've lead a lot of pelagic trips the last couple years, and this has been the bird of all birds. Thank you Salvin's Albatross, you were my destiny. Half Moon Bay, CA.


  1. Awesome Seagull, very much awesome.

    That being said, I'm confused how this HJ-for-birds system works. Call me naive, but how do you get the goods after you give the goods? If the person has a life bird for you in their pocket or something, it's not countable. All this is to say...I think you were doing it for more than the bird life. What would your hook ups text you?

    Sweet crushes. I envy the Baird's Sparrow most, which makes no sense.

    1. Well you are a sparrow fiend, so I understand. Spot on with the text.

      Basically, the process goes something like this: I point a bird out to Don Mastwell. Don has not seen this species before. Being grateful for my services, he in turn provides HJ services.

    2. Don Mastwell sounds like a Pornstar name for sure.

  2. I enjoyed the read, young but wise Number 7. You should witness what I do for a good bird tip. :D

  3. This is badass, brother. Lots of shit I've never seen here before. The ANMU chick is awesome.

  4. Cheers, buddy! You have lived. In 15 years when I will be as nerdy as you are now, I will still not be half as nerdy as you are now. But I will wish I was.

    I know I owe you a ridiculous number of HJ's. But sometimes being owed HJ's makes one more powerful than the actual receipt of said HJ's. Its an old proverb.