Wednesday, February 11, 2015


BRAMBLING/BRAMBRING.  Photographed in Sunnybrae, CA, by the illustrious Rob Fowler.

May, 2010.  I stepped off the Zodiac onto Attu Island, sacred birding ground.  My first lifer on Attu? BRAMBLING.  A couple days later, I step onto Buldir Island.  My first lifer on Buldir? Rustic Bunting.

January, 2012: Lurking in someone's backyard in central Oregon, a BRAMBLING appeared.  It's good to see you again BRAMBLING...hopefully it won't be long until we meet again.

November, 2014.  I was doing field work in Humboldt County, and decided to stay for the weekend afterwards.  I didn't grow up there, but I am not ashamed to say that my years Humboldt County made a huge impact on who I am (and no, I am neither a tweaker nor a pot farmer).  I had a great weekend with friends, and without guilt did no birding whatsoever.  Arcata, where I was staying, is about 5 hours from where I currently live, so I only get up there once in a while.  The problem with living 5 hours from Arcata is that you don't really want to drive there very often, but it gets more than it's share of exceptional birds in the area.  But on this weekend, there were no stress-inducing rarities around to worry over.

I left town on Sunday, and upon getting back to Oakland I got word that Arcata's famed bird artist Gary Bloomfield found a Painted Bunting in his yard. That hurt me, as I had been just a few blocks from his house and needed PABU for my beloved state list.  But PABU was just a tremor compared to the earth-shattering news that came the following day...a BRAMBLING, of all things, had been found in Sunnybrae, which was just a couple miles from where I had been staying.  Now I had seen my share of BRAMBLINGS on Attu Island and later on Buldir, but I had not seen once since the summer of 2010.  It had been a while since I had eyeballed one...and here one had just been right under my nose, on what part of me still considers my home turf.  It was excruciating.

BRAMBLING is not an unusual bird in the western Aleutians, but it's a hell of a bird in California.  It was the first chaseable one that had been found since I started birding.  To add to BRAMBLING'S allure, it was a Sibe.  Californians love Sibes, and I am no exception.  So suffice to say, I found it remarkable that not one but two high quality vagrants had shown up immediately after I left town. Remarkable indeed.  Day after day people would refind BRAMBLING, without much apparent difficulty.

I was tempted to quit birding.

December, 2014. A few weeks later I drove down to Ventura for an early Christmas.  The unthinkable, yet somehow expected event happened; another MEGA showed up right after I left town. This time, it was the Rustic Bunting in San Francisco.  Another Sibe!  I couldn't fucking believe it. What horseshit! What did I do to deserve this torture?  It could have been worse...none of these avian torture instruments were life birds...but at this point it hardly mattered.  I had been brutally gripped off by what seemed like all my birding friends.  It was all rubbish.

I was this close to retiring from birding.

Remarkably, the Rustic Bunting decided to spend the winter in the exact same spot where it was found, and I was lucky enough to see the bird a couple times.  Things were becoming ok again.  Even more remarkably, BRAMBLING decided to stay put for the winter as well, and I knew it was just a matter of time before I could bolt back up to Humboldt to meet it.

January, 2015. Everything had fallen into place.  Dipper Dan and I drove from Oakland to Arcata on a Friday night; BRAMBLING had been seen earlier that day.  Despite having the odds stacked against us (that is another story), we both managed to show up at the appointed BRAMBLING viewing spot early the next morning to meet Rob Fowler and his group of eager birders for BRAMBLING stakeout.  We waited.  And waited.  No BRAMBLING.  The owner of the house who usually hosts BRAMBLING was going out of town, so we didn't get access to her yard, like many birders did in the past.  Hours passed.  We left, and returned later that day.  No BRAMBLING. Hours passed.  It started to rain.

We had dipped.

Sunday morning coming down.  After another eventful night, it was back to BRAMBLING, this time with Justine, Sadowski and Natarie to assist us in not finding the bird.  They did exactly that...we did not see it.  We gave up before 10:00 AM and went to eat a taco omelette.  And let me tell you, that was some taco omelette.

Later that afternoon we returned to Sunnybrae.  We had a good idea about what was going to happen, but we had to try.

Hours passed.

This time we got to sit around in the backyard with a bunch of college kids, so a bunch of us got to dip on BRAMBLING together.  Unfortunately, every other fucking person there had seen it already besides me and Dipper Dan.

I wondered why I bothered to chase birds with someone who is a known "dipper".

Monday.  Dan and I once again lurked in suburban Sunnybrae for hours.  By this time, we had been giving conflicting tips on viewing the bird by countless local birders, and I was pulling my hair out.  I gave hate looks to the local neighborhood Merlin, who had obviously gotten into a pattern of hunting birds at a feeder a few houses down, a feeder BRAMBLING was sometimes seen at.  I saw it kill a Pine Sisken...did it kill BRAMBLING as well? Or was it the local Sharp-shinned Hawk?  Or a cat? Despite our refusal to give up on BRAMBLING, Dipper Dan and I had a sneaking suspicion that the bird had just been eaten by something else.

Hours passed.

At one point I slipped on some grimy moss and ate shit in the street, slamming my camera onto the pavement.  Given our birding luck the past few days, I really thought that was going to be it for my birdcrusher, but it was oddly undamaged.  Later, as I stood peeping over the top of Cindy's fence into her junco-filled yard (for the record, she would not have had a problem with this) I decided to check eBird....and there it was.  Allegedly, while I was a few miles away eating a Taco Omelette the day before, someone saw BRAMBLING.  It wasn't exactly a compelling report...but shit, it's BRAMBLING.  Sure there are a lot of sketchy birders out there, but BRAMBLING is hard to misidentify...right?  We were stunned by this news, and Dipper Dan immediately went into complete denial about it....but it made us stand there even longer.

By now Dipper Dan and I had gotten sick of talking about the BRAMBLING with nonbirders, and only referred to it as BRAMBRING.  It was fun to hear bewildered nonbirders talk about BRAMBRING.  We BRAMBRINGED several people.  Despite this juvenile (yet deeply gratifying) form of entertainment, one thing was clear: the bird wasn't there.  We had put in so many hours in the last 3 days...we had to give up sometime. We clearly weren't going to see it.  So we left.

Later that day, we were coming back to the car after dipping on even more birds at Crab Park, which is not anywhere near the realm of BRAMBRING.  This is what happened next:

Random Lady: Are you guys photographing? Looking for seals?  Or...

Seagull Steve: No, not photographing.  Birding.  We are looking for-

Dipper Dan: Brambring.


Random Lady: Did you say..."Brambring"?

Dipper Dan: *nods*

Random Lady: What is that?

Dipper Dan: Bird.

Random Lady: Oh!

That moment brought a fleeting moment of light in what was otherwise a dark abyss. We knew we had just missed BRAMBRING by the slimmest of margins, and it was never going to be seen again. And for a while, it wasn't.  So that was a fitting end to the BRAMBRING story...or so we thought.

February 2015. We were back in Humboldt County...again...once more dipping on even more birds that Dipper Dan needed to see.  We dipped on all sorts of stuff.  But the weather was shit and it was time to go home, so back to the bay we went.  The next day, I was in my office when Rob Fowler broke the horrible, treacherous news....BRAMBRING had been seen again.  Like a Siberian Phoenix, it had risen from the ashes to taunt Dipper Dan and I.

What are the chances? Could C-3PO even calculate the odds of this outcome?  Can you fucking believe it?  Do I have a BRAMBRING hex on me?  That is the third time in three months where I've been just a few miles from BRAMBRING by a day or less have been unable to make contact with it. How can that happen?  The mind reels.

Some birders say they know of suffering.  Some say they know pain.  You think life is pain?  Please, tell me about it, but I only have one response...



  1. Brutal. Where the hell does a bird go for exactly 3 days and then reappear?Was he trying to get back to Asia, and then decided to turn around and hunker down in CA?

    Is it still around?

    1. It was gone for about 3 WEEKS. Who knows what BRAMBRINGS do? I don't, because I don't see them outside of Alaska. BRAMBRING resurrection was Monday, so I'm sure it's still there.

    2. It hasn't been seen since it was reported by the homeowner on Monday. My story is probably worse than yours.

      I was visiting Humboldt with family on the weekend before Veterans Day. We were driving back to Sacramento when I got the call about the Brambling. Then it just kept staying and staying but I couldn't get back up there. Too much to do with work and family.

      Then it disappeared. I went up this last weekend for the Common Scoter and the bird was seen again the day after I left.

      I still don't have Brambling on my life list.

    3. You have a similar story Verm (leaving Humboldt and then it gets reported...twice) and for that I am sorry, but be glad you didnt spend 3 days at that house doing nothing but looking at juncos and house finches. It's not something I recommend. At least we can take solace in that the bird hasn't become easily viewable again, so far anyway.

  2. Did you not see the one in Oregon a few years ago?