Monday, February 26, 2018

A Nice Refreshing Winter Dip (Or Two)

Yes! Tundra Swans. When you suddenly realize you are in the midst of abject failure, a big flock of Tundra Swans is the right salve for the wound. Photographed at Yolo Bypass Wildlife Management Area.

In the past few months, I've had the opportunity to search for two life birds. In both cases, I was searching for them less than 24 hours since the last time they were reported. In both cases, I saw neither of the desired birds. This is just how birding goes some times, you don't always see what you're looking for, but two consecutive dips on lifers? These are not paltry county birds or year birds, these are birds I have not seen before. Ever. Anywhere. And they were within driving distance. The stakes were high...those sorts of birds don't come by very often anymore, and recalling this double dip makes me wince reflexively.

The first dip was the Citrine Wagtail in Yolo. Talk about a bird that caught everyone with their pants down. So while this is an ultramega anywhere on the continent, only a total of three people ever saw it, and none the day I was there. In fact, this is a bird so rare and so unexpected that I don't even think about them, so I actually didn't come home from this dip all butthurt. Like, do you sit around and daydream about seeing White-crested Elaenia or Southern Martin? Both of those birds have made it to the ABA Area in the past. Yeah, those would be cool to see, but my mind typically drifts toward more charismatic birds like Little Curlew and Eared Quetzal instead, which may also show up again in the ABA Area one day. This Yolo wagtail was a bright, very attractive bird (more so than many other wagtails) but I still am not all torn up about it. I thought I handled it all rather maturely.

I love American Bitterns. Still have yet to find one in my no-longer-new home county. Along with the swans, this was a nice consolation bird.

The wagtail had been seen in a muddy, puddly impoundment, which was also frequented by American Pipits. I looked through a lot of pipits that day. Some of the parking lot pipits had little fear of people, so I did some opportunistic crushing.

Then this other bird had to show up. The second dip involved a bird of a very different nature...the Gyrfalcon in Monterey. Unlike Citrine Wagtail, Gyrfalcon is a bird that belongs on this continent, and has visited California many times. While up to this point in my life, I've probably only thought of Citrine Wagtails for a combined total of several minutes, I've contemplated Gyrfalcons for considerably longer. They come to mind on the regular. Perhaps this could be a new way of quantifying how much someone desires a bird...certainly, a bird dwelled on for many hours, or a bird that surfaces in one's thought repeatedly, can be considered more desired than one thought about for less than ten minutes.

Actually, let's flesh this concept out for a minute - I think it could be worth holding on to. Imma go ahead and call this the Lifer Desirability Index (LDI). It does not try to explain why a certain species we have yet to see grabs a hold of us, it just attempts to assess the effort spent contemplating it. So a species with a low score on the LDI would be some species that I forget exists, like the decidedly ununique Rusty-margined Flycatcher (it's a Social Flycatcher lookalike), or something drab, like Dusky Hummingbird. Species high on the LDI include Ivory Gull (combo of many reasons, including the worst dip of my life), Dovekie (adorable, and the last North American alcid I need to see), Snowcap (crippling and dipped on), Strong-billed Woodcreeper (giant woodcreeper of the cloud forest, seen by friends while separated in Mexico)...and of course Gyrfalcon.

I have lost track of the number of Gyrfalcons I've looked for before this one...three (?) in Humboldt County? Dipped on all of them. All of these birds had huge territories and were totally unreliable, and I stupidly did not try for the last Humboldt bird, the white one that actually was chaseable. So I knew what I was getting into and unsurprisingly spent over 7 hours dipping on the Moss Landing bird other day.

There was much fog at first, which made seeing anything impossible. After than, I saw two falcons that were too far to identify, and an obvious Peregrine. Weak. Rumors abound about rampant stringing going on...though the bird has been reported being seen on at least ten days (probably more), there are only identifiable photos of it from the first two days it was observed. That seems...unusual. I'm not going to claim that no one has actually seen it since day two (others do claim that), but let's get down to brass tacks...there was a Gyrfalcon, I looked for it, and I did not see it. Again. I tire of dipping on this grandiose bird. Well, I've heard a lot about Nome...

The birding wasn't totally awful, at least not for the entire day (it was awful most of the day though, just so we are clear). While staring at the power plant at Moss Landing (where someone had claimed to have seen in it earlier that morning), there was a flock of Red-breasted Mergansers cooperatively foraging in the shallows right beneath me.

The mergansers had to go around the large raft of sea otters. Sweet combo.

Working the shallows, scooting to catch up to the front of the flock.

Around here, females and immatures far outnumber gaudy adult males like these most of the time. I was chuffed to get to see some close up for the first time in too long.

Birders tend to limit their descriptions of "stately" birds to big waders like herons and egrets, but I think female Long-billed Curlews are worthy of that description. This is easily one of my favorite west coast species, a laudable bird worthy of many accolades.

I was surprised to see a Western Gull wrestling with a worm (a worm of the Sea, not of the Earth) in the shallows...that's typically a more curlewian task.

So here we are...after a very productive run in late fall in terms of connecting with rarities and finding some myself, it seems I've run out of luck. The well has run dry. The birding is poor...I'm not suggesting that is the state of things for everyone, the birding is poor for me. Chasing rarities? Doesn't work. Finding my own vagues? Napes. What about seeing the expected stuff and being content with that? Can't find common birds. The last time I tried to go out, I left my binoculars at about a sign.

Right. This isn't supposed to be a pity party post, just the state of affairs. Things will turn around at some point here, as they always do. March may be an uneventful month for rarities, but unless I go blind and deaf, there will be year birds!

I love year birds.


  1. I spent more than a few hours dipping on both of those birds...