Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Train Wreck: The Siberian Express Derails in California

Spring is a loathsome time in California when it comes to rare shorebirds...compared to fall migration, they are very, very hard to come by. It is worthwhile to search for the very occasional Hudsonian Godwit or White-rumped Sandpiper, sure, but what about Sibes? It is a sad state of affairs.

Several years ago, while I was out in Texas, a freak Marsh Sandpiper was seen for a couple days in Solano County. A Marsh Sandpiper is a meguh. It's a species birders wistfully look at in their books and think "maybe I'll see one in Alaska some day", or, more commonly, "yeah, right". Being out of state saved me from some of the pain and stress I would have experienced if I was back at home and not seen it, and I just wrote the bird off as one of those things that I will just have to live with. Something to live with, and something to die with, in a nagging, unresolved way.

Earlier this year, the impossible happened...a Marsh Sandpiper was reported less than two hours from my house. In April! An hour later it had been confirmed, and I was on my way. After a short wait, the bird reappeared and provided great looks for the next hour and a half. This was not a life bird I was anticipating to get on this continent, but that is California birding for you.

The bird showed off its distinct white back wedge on a number of occasions. Though it never wandered very close to the birders, it was very cooperative. I couldn't believe my luck. I always thought I would see something like a Spotted Redshank (which is absurdly, painfully rare) in the state before a Marsh Sandpiper, yet here the bird was.

It had something like a Wilson's Phalarope X Lesser Yellowlegs structure. Luckily, I did not have to listen to any birders make the ludicrous suggestion that this is what the bird really was. Yeah, it's gotten to the point where I'd rather hear about blatant misidentifications rather than hybrid conspiracy theories.

This is one of the best birds, in terms of rarity, that I've seen in California over all these years. Considering I really like Sibes and I really like shorebirds, it's a tough one to top (though Common Scoter and Salvin's Albatross come to mind). It's not a flashy species, but damn it was a satisfying bird to see.

What is the deal with Red-necked Phalaropes? They are very pleasant birds. They are shorebirds, but they swim. You can see them way out at sea or far from the sea. They look fantastic in spring and not so bad in fall. Impressive credentials. Photographed at Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge.

Red-necked Phalaropes are masters at picking edible crud off the surface of the water, and they make it look good.

Eared Grebes were also in abundance, all in slick black and gold alternate plumage. But Red-necked Phalarope and Eared Grebe were not the bird we were seeking. In a dramatic development, a Little Stint had been found here two days previous. That's right...another April vague runt shorebird...another April Sibe...another bird I had never seen in California, or any other place in my life. What were the chances? We trolled the side of a salty impoundment, back and forth, until finally another birder got all stinty.

Little Stint! Little Stint! Unlike the Marsh Sandpiper, which is unfathomably rare, this is a bird that I had been waiting a long time...a long time. They are pretty much annual in California, but I had never come across one, and my time on Buldir Island back in the day had yielded only (!) Red-necked and Long-toed. The bird foraged earnestly out in the impoundment with a group of Dunlin and Western Sandpipers...this may sound dumb, but I didn't expect it to be so...little. The bill was indeed slight with a fine tip, not at all what I would expect from a Semipalmated...but that seems like something that could be easily overlooked by just about anybody who didn't have spring stints on the brain.

The internet played a big role in developing the story of this rarity as well...Will Brooks, who found it, originally thought (as almost anyone would) that this was a Semipalmated Sandpiper, but the eBird reviewer (I believe it was Marshall Iliff) who looked at his photos thought Little Stint was a better fit. Word got out, and the following day photos were obtained showing that the bird lacked any webbing between its toes. The rest is birding history.

That's it on the left, being dwarfed by a Western Sandpiper. Even in the harsh light at a less than ideal distance, you could make out the rufous edging to the alternate tertials that had recently molted in. I couldn't believe my luck...three consecutive weeks in early spring had bore fruit in the form of Glossy Ibis, Marsh Sandpiper and Little Stint, a state bird and two lifers. This put a temporary end to whisky-fueled nights of screaming unintelligible obscenities and shaking my fist at the night sky.

I went back a couple times afterward to get better looks at the bird, to no avail. Instead, I got to see these avocets fuck. They sure make it look elegant. Pretty sure people look like trolls in comparison when they do the deed...actually, I am absolutely sure about this.

Even the dismount looked graceful.

Post-coital avocets are just the cutest thing. This is their version of spooning.

Even in the eye of a spring storm of Siberian meguhs, I can still stop and appreciate the rufous and chevrons of a Western Sandpiper. Ignoring Western Sandpipers isn't going to solve anything.

Of course, April birding in the bay area is not all hot-shit vague runts, hell, this might be the first and last time...but there are locally rare my grunts to look for. I live just a couple minutes from Emeryville, so one day after work I lurked over to the Emeryville Marina to check out a Gray Flycatcher that Aaron Maizlish had found.

Aaron was actually leaving when I pulled up, but was kind enough to go back and point the bird out to me. He's a BB&B reader, so naturally he is a good person. The Gray Flycatcher was a nice year bird and addition to my home county list, which I generally am not very excited about. Why that is, I couldn't tell you. Gray Flycatchers are always worth garnering some excitement for, though maybe its just because I don't see them on the regular.

Compared to Dusky vs. Hammond's Flycatchers, identifying Gray Flycatchers is a walk in the park. The bill alone is usually enough to clinch it for me. Grays are rare but regular along much of the California coast; they are much easier to find as my grunts in the desert or breeders (brie duhrs?) in or near patches of sage. If there was a Sage Flycatcher, I think this would be it, but since Gray Flycatcher is a spot-on description (albeit boring), I can live with that.


  1. "Ignoring western sandpipers isn't going to solve anything." I am going to start dropping this line into convos with random birders.