Monday, May 27, 2019

The 5MR (Bourbon) Challenge and The Quicksilver Cat

Acorn Woodpecker is one of the signature species in my 5MR - most of what hasn't been paved over is oak woodland. This one was at Guadalupe Oak Grove Park, which is brimming with confiding ACWOs.

The 5MR reigns supreme. So much of my birding this year is done within my 5MR...who could have seen this coming? Not I.

I have embraced it.

Have you?

Many birders enjoy the competitive aspect of birding...while I can understand that, I don't watch birds as a result of some misplaced sense of competitiveness, or need to measure the length of my list against that of others in order to wrench pleasure out of embarrassing is that? Most of the birding competition I engage in these days is with myself...I'm not going to go chase a freaking Mandarin Duck or a European Goldfinch just to pad my eBird top 100 numbers. Don't people have better things to do? 5MR birding is pretty much the antithesis of rabid competitive county birding or large-scale big year horseshit, and I think that is one of the many reasons a lot of people have gotten on board with 5MR in the past few months.

That said, the real question for 2019 many species can I see in my 5MR this year? Much of my birding has turned into a sustained campaign of seeing how much avian goodness I can wring out of my radius before December 31, though what I'm really looking for is new 5MR birds more than just year birds. I've missed some uncommon/rare stuff that will definitely be challenging to find later in the year (Solitary Sandpiper, Cassin's Kingbird, Yellow-breasted Chat, Swamp Sparrow, etc.) and some stuff I will absolutely have another shot at later (any non-Canadian goose, any teal, American Wigeon). The most gut-wrenching miss involved a bird I actually saw...Officer Stahl aided me in some intense 5MR birding back in March, and he found a Varied Thrush while standing next to me...but I only caught a glimpse of an orange flash as the bird flew away, never to be seen again.

Life is pain.

Right. I've described my radius here before, so am going to give that a break...I'll just say I'm not going to get 200 species here in a year, I don't think it is feasible without being unemployed/retired/completely socially isolated/obsessive-compulsive to a degree that even most birders would consider alarming. I can live with that...not everyone can live next to a major birding destination or momentous migrant fact, most of us don't. Heck, I still haven't seen 200 in my radius, period, and it is still very rewarding to bird.

That said, I'm checking in at 161 for 2019. On this date last year, I was at 143. Seventeen species were completely new for the 5MR.

While Horned Grebe are not rare in my county, they definitely are for my 5MR. I successfully chased this bird at Los Gatos Creek County Park, and went on to find Eared Grebe (new), Long-billed Dowitcher (new) and Greater Yellowlegs (new for the year) at the same site. It was a glorious time in 5MR birding...never have I been so chuffed to see a drab Long-billed Dowitcher.

One morning I went out to my Grasshopper Sparrow spot on the outer rim of my 5MR and was amazed to see a Swainson's Hawk fly by. This is a rarity in the county away from their one known nest site, which is not in my 5MR. For some reason this immature had been in the general area for a couple weeks, but I was still shocked to see it. Definitely one of the best birds this spring. Photographed at Santa Teresa County Park.

Not that it's news to any of you, but winter is long gone and spring, at least here, isn't long for this world either. There are still one or two lingering Buffleheads in the ponds behind my house (where this photo was taken) but I expect them to be outta here any day now. 

So, in other words, I'm kicking ass. It's encouraging, and it only makes me want more.

So why not give myself some extra motivation? A little reward if I continue to flog the shrubbery with such success?

What about...heroin?

Ahhhh, heroin. That's the stuff. Talk about giving yourself a well deserved prize, know what I'm saying?

A couple of you probably do, but most of you probably don't...and I don't either. Never tried it, don't know where to get it. Well, I have some street corners in mind (the Tenderloin hasn't changed that much recently, has it?), but it's not something that runs in my friend circles these days. Like, say if I did have to go out and try to "score" (do users really say that? or just on tv?), what the hell would I call it? I don't know the street slang. Would someone who sells heroin actually sell heroin to some random who says they are looking for "heroin"? I doubt it.

But I digress. I am not only a pillar of the birding community (pillar #7), I am a parent, after all. I have to set an example, and this isn't the way to do it. I will promote something that surely has never killed anybody or ruined anyone's lives...alcohol.

What did you expect? Have you seen the title of this blog? It's time to put my liver where my mouth is.

I have breeding Lark Sparrows in my radius, how sick is that? I don't know about you but most birders I meet love these things, and I am no different. Is this one of the best sparrows? Top 3? Seems like it would be a Top 5 for almost everyone. Photographed at the secret-not-secret spot in my radius.

This bobcat was also at the secret-not-secret spot. Bobcats are one of my fav mammals and it's great to have them so close by. I also added another kind of cat to my radius list the other night...and it was not Felis catus.

I went out after sunset to get my 5MR Common Poorwill for the year (great success), on a trail I had never been on before. Walking in, I passed signs about mountain lions being present, which wasn't a surprise considering the good habitat for them and the amount of use this trail gets; I had also previously found a lion-killed deer just a couple miles away, next to a different trail. While waiting for the poorwills to start calling, I was surrounded by three different groups of deer, which made me think about lions again a few more times. After listening to the poorwills for a while I headed back to the car, using my awesome mega-torch to check for any interesting wildlife on the trail...I had strongly considered not bringing it and just using my shitty headlamp instead, but opted to take it at the last minute. 

I passed some more deer close to the trail and was cruising along when I suddenly came up on some big, bright eyeshine about 50 feet away...quite possibly less. It was definitely not another deer, but it was so close and the "eyes" were so large that my first thought was that it cannot possibly be a large animal, because it was certainly not a deer and nothing else could possibly just be sitting there, a few feet off the trail...maybe it was just a couple pieces of reflector tape? But then then it blinked, and then it moved. It was a fucking adult mountain lion! The lion unhurriedly turned around and slinked up the little streambed it had been sitting in, then stopped at a comfortable distance away (for me, anyways) while I passed it.

I have no doubt it was waiting to ambush a deer on the trail I was on. It didn't do anything I considered threatening (I considered yelling at it to encourage it to back the fuck off, which is what you are supposed to do, but it didn't seem necessary), but it was extremely close. Pretty sure it is accustomed to seeing people and I doubt it would have moved if I had not lit it up with my certainly knew I was there before I was aware of it, and it was definitely not in the process of moving away when I spotted it. Some guy was 4 or 5 minutes ahead of me on the trail, and I suspect he may have walked right past the waiting lion...within 10 feet of him...without knowing it. I think I would have done the same if I had been pointing my flashlight in a different direction at that moment.

I'm 99% sure nothing would have happened had I walked right up to the lion, but in theory I could have been killed by a mountain lion solely because of 5MR birding (how embarrassing!) and Flycatcher Jen would have to live with that.

Chaetura does not exactly trigger the same blast of adrenaline as Puma, but that's ok. Vaux's Swift is another signature 5MR species here. We have swifts galore, which is pretty unique for the region. Photographed at Guadalupe Oak Grove Park.

In 2018 I recorded 163 species in my 5MR...not a remarkable total by any account, but solid. With 161 species so far in 2019, I am guaranteed to surpass 2018's total by a comfortable margin....but by how much?

I'm no longer so poor that I have to buy Beam all the time, but I don't have a trust fund lying around to take my love of whiskey to the top's not common that I get a rye or bourbon over $40. That said, what I am shooting for here calls for a nicer bottle than usual. So if I reach 185 species for the year, or manage to reach 200 for my radius (lifetime) by December 31, I will buy a celebratory bottle of Black Skimmer Bourbon, the perfect marriage of a good bird and a good liquor. I have been eyeing Cutwater's Black Skimmer Bourbon for some time now, and I thought their Black Skimmer Rye was great! If I can achieve both milestones before the end of the year, well then I will have to buy another celebratory bottle....but of what? Any suggestions? That would level my radius to a new caliber, so I'd like to try something else new.

So there you have 5MR birding this year will have additional fuel behind it, in the form of some #treatyoself whiskey. Happy to hear what your favorite not-super-popular ryes or bourbons are in case I have to go for a new bottle!

Anyways, as I sit here polishing off a bottle of Black Feather bourbon (recommended!), here are some more radius birds til next time...

Black-throated Gray Warbler is an underrated bird and one that I'm happy is an expected migrant in my 5MR. Yes their attire was put together in the spirit of the Economy of Style, but they are sharper and more distinct looking than many other warblers, and there is practically nothing you can confuse one with if you see it well. And the yellow supraloral spot...what a great touch. Just think, in a parallel universe somewhere the only difference in all of existence is that spot is white instead of yellow....what a trip. Photographed at Guadalupe Oak Grove Park.

A species I didn't realize I needed for 5MR until after I saw them here was Wild Turkey. They were purposefully introduced to California as game birds and have become fairly common around the bay area, but I didn't see them in 5MR (or at least, never eBirded them) until this year. I'm not that into introduced birds (obvi) but turkeys are much more bizarre and fascinating than most. What their impacts are on the grasslands and woodlands where they are found are relatively unknown...not all introduced species have the same impacts (I don't think the Spotted Doves introduced to California caused any ecosystems to collapse), but turkeys are big, eat many different things, and there are a lot of them. Photographed on the Calero Creek Trail.

I think most birders have a few species that make them really appreciate the area where they live...for me, Golden Eagle is one of these. Golden Eagles are common enough in the greater bay area that seeing one in the right habitat is more of an expectation than a surprise, which is a luxury most birders do not have. I have seen them at a number of places in my 5MR this year. Photographed on Hicks Road.


  1. Do you think seeing less Acorn Woodpeckers is due to more Starlings? Asking for my sister, Connie :)

    1. I haven't been here very long so can't really comment, but the Acorn Woodpeckers are very abundant and are larger than starlings, so I suspect they aren't impacted by them much compared to smaller cavity nesters.


  2. Conor Scotland
    Wed, May 29, 9:48 PM (1 day ago)
    to me

    I agree that black-throated grays are particularly sharp looking birds (by western warbler standards anyway). Today while in the car, my wife and I ranked the 10 expected warbler species we have in coastal Southern California. My wife had BTYW as number 2 (behind hermit). I don’t blame her. My rankings are as follows:
    1. MacGillivray’s
    2. Hermit
    3. Nashville
    4. BTYW
    5. Townsend’s
    6. Wilson’s
    7. Yellow
    8. Common Yellowthroat
    9. Orange-crowned
    10. Yellow-rumped

    Obviously not based solely on looks, otherwise Mac would be near the bottom (super awkward looking warbler). More like, what's funnest to come across. Agree, disagree, or neutral?

    1. Interesting...I am also inclined to put Mac near the top, but would definitely bump up YRWA a few notches just because spring males are really crippling birds, and when you can see both alternate Audubon's and Myrtle in the same place, that's even better. OCWA is at the bottom for me.

  3. uhm, awesome mountain lion encounter!