Sunday, February 15, 2015

All Aboard The Scote Train

This is a scote train.  One of the passengers is not like the others, and it's not the Western Gull...

Every now and then, news goes around of a bird so rare that you are just completely blindsided. It is not a bird on your don't even think of seeing this bird because your brain is busy pining away for more realistic birds that you also haven't seen.  You just aren't expecting to ever see that just aren't prepared.  And let me tell you, as the #7 birder in the United States, I am prepared for a lot of different birds that I have not seen.  I am prepared for a Swallow-tailed Gull.  I am prepared for a Wandering Albatross.  I am prepared for a Sinaloa Wren.  Do you see?  There has been much preparation on my part to be ready for the mental blow these birds would inevitably cause.  Just hearing about a legit sighting would trigger a cavalcade of birding emotions...shock, jealousy, envy, intense desire, and wanton birdlust.  So while I can't even tell you what a Pycroft's Petrel looks like, I can say with 100% certainty that if someone called one out on a pelagic trip, people better get the hell out of my way.  I am prepared for that.

What I wasn't prepared for was a scoter.

I wasn't the only one.  California birders were so unprepared for this creature that several folks didn't even know it was a species.

"Common Scoter you say?  Cool subspecies bro.", was the collective dismissal of a multitude of birders.

It was only in 2010 when the AOU deemed the Common Scoter it's own species, severing it from the Black Scoter we all know and love.  However, since no one had ever documented one in North America before, this split received little fanfare from ABA birders.  When one did show up, people just weren't ready.  Even the AOU wasn't ready...the current edition of their checklist lumps them with Black Scoter!  How embarrassing.

Still reeling from my failure with BRAMBRING, I was loathe to just get back in the car for another chase up the coast.  Crescent City is a long ways from Oakland, over 6 hours, but I knew I couldn't let this MEGA of all MEGAs just pass me by.  What choice did I have?  As luck would have it, the bird had stayed put in the exact same place ever since being found, which made the decision that much easier.  All aboard the scote train!

I think you have figured out by now that this is not another sob dip story, this is a story of Great Success.  People were already on the bird by the time we arrived, and after a bit of waiting the choice scoter abandoned the open water outside the boat basin and recklessly steamed in to shore, right to where we were standing.  The bird could care less about the very moist, very stoked group of nerds observing it from a stone's throw away; in fact there were many times the scoters were so busy diving we couldn't even find the Common Scoter, although it was obviously somewhere right in front of us.

So where did the Common Scoter come from?  The closest known place they occur regularly is Iceland.  Going the other way around the world, the next closest place is central Russia.  Although further away, a bird migrating east through Siberia and down the west coast of North America seems like the most straightforward route.  But that said, how did California's Northern Gannet (which is still here) arrive?  How do Tufted Puffins get to Maine?  Obviously a determined, and severely misoriented bird (or perhaps one that does not give a fuck) is certainly capable of weaving their way through the convoluted maze of islands in the high Canadian Arctic to emerge on the other side.

The rarity of this bird is staggering, and I had no idea the bird was going to end up being so confiding.  No scoter will ever be as savory...things will never be the same.

As with every bird that has "common" in it's name, I find this bird's official title to be cringe-worthy. It's a lazy, uninspiring, unimaginative, pedestrian way to refer to an entire species that I can now say I enjoy looking at.  I don't care if the AOU was trying to be consistent with the Euros...they seem fine with different names for loons, jaegers, etc.  Even something as basic as "European Scoter" would be better. What if every abundant, widespread species was named in this manner?  The U.S. would have Common Vulture instead of Turkey Vulture, Common Hawk instead of Red-tailed Hawk, Common Kestrel instead of American Kestrel, Common Hummingbird instead of Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Common Dove instead of Mourning Dove, Common Wren instead of House Wren, Common Kinglet instead of Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Common Warbler instead of Yellow Warbler, Common Sparrow instead of Song get the picture. Doesn't that sound bleak? Wouldn't that suck?  I would like to put an end to so-called "common" birds once and for all...that probably wont happen, but at the very least we shouldn't be making new ones.

A shot of the scote train coming into shore to feed, conveniently as close to us as they possibly could. My love of scoters is particularly strong these days.

Samantha and Natalie steel themselves against the coming onslaught of scote train.  As of this writing, the (un)Common Scoter has not been seen for two days.  Considering that every single person who has looked for the (un)Common Scoter up until Friday afternoon has seen it, this might mean the bird is gone for good.  The scote train may have come to an end, and I consider myself lucky to have been on board for the glorious ride.

A Harlequin Duck had boarded the scote train as well, feeding close to shore.  Harlequins aren't the easiest birds to see up close in California, so it was nice to be reacquainted, even with a homely individual.

Harlequin Duck and Common Scoter didn't seem to get along, taking turns harassing each other.  If you were to ask me if I was prepared to see a Harlequin Duck and a Common Scoter playing California...I would have to say no.  Not in the slightest.

Another bird that I've had poor luck with, in terms of seeing at an appreciable distance, is Long-tailed Duck.  In fact, this is the first Long-tailed Duck ever to make it into a BB&B post, which is long overdue because I really like Long-tailed Ducks and have a constant desire to see more of them.  As you can guess, this bird was riding high on the scote train as well.

My, what a lovely face pattern you have Long-tailed Duck, especially in comparison to a female Surf Scoter. Perhaps all of these birds will be back on the train next winter?  You never know...stranger things have happened.


  1. : ::sigh:: : I have been waiting for this inevitable post to arrive. True to form and expectations it did not disappoint, and it was pretty cruel to dangle HADU and LTDU at the end of the less-than-Common Scote Train crushes.

    Congratulations. You've had 2 'First in North America' records in the last 6 or so months??

    There are 2 Sinaloa Wrens still sitting pretty in AZ, by the by...

    1. Salvin's was recorded once in Alaska, but yeah the rarity gods have been generous ever since I got back from Texas.

      I have managed to dip on SIWR in AZ before, hopefully next time it won't be so...dippy.

  2. Nice. Very nice. Hoping the scoter train decided it should head north to Oregon...

    1. It's highly likely that Uncommon Scoter is in your state at this very moment. Brutal.


    1. He was goin down that grade makin 90 miles an hour
      When his scote whistle broke into a scream
      He was found in the wreck with his hand on the scote throttle
      Scalded to death by the scote steam

  4. Glad you all got to see the Scroter so well. So Scrote-tastic. Very fine Scrote action. Up close, personal. The way all Scroters should be seen.

    I'm not envious at all.

  5. "...And how can this be? For he is the Kwisatz Haderach..." Unbelievable. Just, gah...