Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Semilocal Birding - Love, Contempt, a Prairie Falcon and a Falcon of the Prairie

Common as they may be, I've never been ungrateful for Common Loons...they have one of the best bird calls in the world, forage for crabs excellently and dive righteously. They are better-looking than Red-throated Loons, more approachable than Pacifics/Arctics, and only occasionally resemble Yellow-billed Loons...which are probably a more interesting bird, but I've only seen a couple. Emeryville Marina, Emeryville (duh), California (duh duh duh).

In recent years it has been a struggle to keep up with my formerly furious pace of blogging that once went hand-in-hand with The Perpetual Weekend...what is dead may never die. This is not due to a decreased interest in the Birdosphere or even laziness (!), but due to the horrible reality of having a permanent, full-time job...and now a full-time baby. Looking at my recent posts, I am happy to see a wide range of subjects being covered...Puerto Rico, eBird, Humboldt County, Ventura County, the "internet" (whatever that is), and best of all, Cass' Swainson's Thrush post...but one topic is noticeably absent. Where the fuck is the local birding?

Somehow, the bread and butter of almost all bird blogs has gone woefully unblogged in the past couple months. This blog glitch will now be fixed.

Pick your jaw up off the floor, dear reader...yes, this really is a SPOTTED SANDPIPER.

Fascinating that so many sandpiper and plover species can cram into so many different habitats, but the Spotted Sandpiper alone (in North America anyway) is willing to breed along rivers, creeks and mountain lakes. An ingenious move, as far as avoiding competition. Maybe this explains why they are so undiscerning about habitat selection outside of the breeding season...once they've mastered habitats that no other shorebird would dare to breed in, they can live anywhere.

Sadly, living in California does come with birding disadvantages, and the lack of sea duck diversity is one that stings every winter. Sure there are a couple Black Scoters here and a Harlequin Duck there, but Surf Scoter is the only common one. Keeping in line with this trend, Long-tailed Duck is a nice low-level rarity, and two in one place is a lot in California. These were the only Long-tailed Ducks I saw last year 😥. By the way, the caption in the Blogger toolbar for that emoji reads "Disappointed but relieved face."

San Francisco isn't that far from the east bay, but I've yet to bird it in 2017. I've caught a couple good shows there at least.

In January, very soon before Annabelle was born, I convinced Billy that going to see a Black-tailed Gull in Monterey was important for some reason. I thought I would luck with chasing Vague Runts had been exceptionally good for almost a year, and I was due to miss out on a lifer...and miss it we did! There were hardly any gulls to look through, and the bonus Slaty-backed Gull that had been hanging around was also absent. The lone birding highlight of the day was noticing a pair of Tundra Swans in a small slough as we ripped through the sky drove above them on an overpass.  Ah, what a relief...a sweet sweet self-found rarity, and a bird I missed entirely in 2016. Photographed south of Castroville.

After dipping on the Black-tailed Gull, I figured it was time I dip on something closer to home...the Harris's Sparrow at the Las Gallinas Ponds in Marin. This highly desirable bird had been present for several weeks, and it was high time I unsuccessfully searched for it. Despite putting in a great deal of time loitering around the parking lot waiting for the bird to show, I failed. Fortunately, this is a very birdy site in winter, so all was not lost. Lincoln's Sparrows are usually on the retiring side, but this one was bolder than most.

Song Sparrows are a great deal more common and confiding. Unlike their Lincoln's brethren, who swear a vow of silence every winter, Song Sparrows happily sing year-round.

Since we are on the topic of common birds that some of you are probably wincing at, this Common Yellowthroat should not surprise you. Sadly, California has just four common warbler species that overwinter - Yellow-rumped, Townsend's, Orange-crowned and yellowthroats. This is not an ideal situation. Hopefully a certain proposed split will pass, and we will have five species of warblers instead. Speaking of which...

Large numbers of Audubon's (above) and Myrtle Yellow-rumped Warblers both winter in the area. Perhaps no bird more personifies the phrase "familiarity breeds contempt". There is nothing at all about them that is not likable, they are just so fucking common that by the time you have been birding in this state a few years you have said or thought the phrase "Just a Yellow-rump" more than any other phrase you've said or thought in your life.

Here is a Myrtle, for your edification. I'm a bit more partial to Myrtles than Audubon's, partially because they have a more interesting face pattern and partially because they are kinda rare down Ventura way, which is where I started birding. Unfamiliarity breeds love. The vast majority of Audubon's and Myrtle alike will be gone within a month, but we will see the likes of them again.

Few of California's birds spend more time on the wing than the White-throated Swift, which are often easier to see near freeway overpasses (where they will roost and nest) than traditional birding spots. The Las Gallinas Ponds are a haven for swift and swallow alike throughout the year, so they can make for a good place to get good looks and poor photos of our only expected winter swift.

Good morning old friend.

Ah, the Sora. Few birds are so humble, yet so successful. You can see a Sora in the Yukon Territories, you can see a Sora in Ecuador. They are pleasant to come across wherever you may be.

This may look like a run-of-the-mill Red-winged Blackbird to you, but this is a mellow oh-that's-nice bird for discerning bay area birders. Bicolored Blackbirds are the abundant Red-winged form here, and females are extremely drab and dark, looking eerily similar to Tricolored Blackbirds. Bright, well-marked females like this are clearly from other realms, and stand out readily from the locals.

A solid highlight of the morning was Haynoring a Prairie Falcon perched on a transmission tower a mile away for a self-found sweet-but-hearty Marin County bird. Well, checking eBird, it looks like someone else found it a couple weeks earlier, but hey I didn't know that at the time. Speaking of falcons of the prairie...

Mmm yes, a prairie falcon indeed...this "Prairie" Merlin jumped off a fence post and took a bath in a puddle. This is what some would call a "lifer situation". I only see 1-2 Prairie Merlins per winter in California, so this crisp blue-backed bastard was a very good follow-up to the Prairie Falcon.

No Harris's Sparrow, but very good birding Marin County Snow Goose was foraging near the access road on the way out. Two Marin birds! Billy didn't go into labor while I was birding! Great success!

Monday, March 13, 2017

Humboldting: Rarities From Far and Near (?)

In birding, one of the few certainties we can cling to is that little is certain. I will now provide you with one of these rare certainties...

Every winter, an extremely rare bird will show up in Humboldt County.

Don't believe me? Since 2013...

Little Bunting (2013)
Gyrfalcon (2013-2014)
King Eider (2014)
Brambring (2014-2015)
Snowy Owl (2016)
Great Gray Owl (2015-2016, 2016-2017)

Oh, and these were just the chaseable winter. Never mind the rest of the year. Oh wait, I forgot one...

Common Pochard (2016-2017)

Common fucking Pochard. Until this bird was found, this was one of the biggest blockers in California...there has only been one chaseable bird in the state ever...oh, and other than Alaska, there has also never been one in any other states or provinces. Talk about a MEGUHHH!!! Sweet, sweet, Siberian doesn't get much better than this bird, and I am still trying to get out the stains in my pants from when I first learned about this bird.

Of course, not only would this bird be a lifer for me, it is a totally bizarre bird in some respects, something good to look at and ponder...a bird that seems to perfectly fit in the center of the Canvasback-Redhead spectrum. Since the Old World has neither Canvasbacks or Redheads, this somehow makes sense.

However, Billy was about to have a baby, in when the pochard news initially broke, I did not actually think I would see the bird. Going to Humboldt at this time would be absurd. But Billy knew my severe gripoff pain and we went north, and we got the bird at a most frigid dawn at the Redwood Creek Oxbow without difficulty. Though I spotted the bird before she did, it is safe to say that I owe Billy a luxurious HJ.

Distant but good looks at this lifer with Redheads and Ring-necked Ducks were had, and after chatting with Officer Fowler of Fowlerope Birding Tours, we took a walk through the facemelting old growth at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. No Gray Jays or Pileated Woodpeckers appeared, but the forest was as ridiculous and grandiose as ever.

I couldn't help but give a Steller's Jay a mild crushing on our way out. Sure they are abundant and eat Marbled Murrelet eggs, but think back on the first one you laid your squinty nerd eyes on...crippling, eh?

There was plenty of daylight left, so we lurked down to Arcata Marsh, since that is always the default place to bird if you have nothing to do. This time it was hosting a couple rarities to provide extra motivation for a visit.

Billy came up with a nice group of Redheads feeding close to the trail. It's hard to see these birds up close in California, so I was chuffed. Not pochard chuffed, but chuffed nonetheless.

Ahh, sweet, succulent and locally uncommon Redhead, it is much better to observe you up close. Remember, if you meet any pochards in your travels, try to convince them to stay on this continent. It is the flyway less travelled...if you are a pochard.

Those Redheads will probably never meet a pochard, but they were acquainted with another Sibe. While I was staring at the Redheads, Billy got on the most popular bird at the marsh, a totally incognito female Tufted Duck. I've seen a handful of female Tufteds before, and this was by far the most indistinct individual I have seen, though she had the classic small, dusky white spot at the base of the bill. She really looked quite scaup-like though, and would not be eye-grabbing at all from a distance.

I'm no Tom Johnson when it comes to flight shots (in fact only Tom Johnson is Tom Johnson in that regard) but I was pleased to collect this girl's soul as she took wing on her way to Allen Marsh. I did not expect her to have the head shape of a Rhinoceros Auklet, but there it is.

Most of you know I lived in Humboldt for a long time...a long time. It has a special place in my heart, so much so that I am all about county listing there. Some years ago, while getting things up to speed in eBird, I actually had to reconstruct my Humboldt list using actual checklists, which is just about as novel as it can fucking get. Amazingly to me, I could never find any record of seeing Blue-gray Gnatcatcher in the county...which was finally rectified when some rando birders got me on the one wintering at the marsh. Local rarity! County bird! Victory!

A life Humboldt County...and another Humboldt County bird in the same day...with a bonus Tufted Duck. What a fucking day! But we weren't finished yet...

Next to Arcata Marsh is the infamous V Street Loop, a classic car-birding site. Short-eared Owl used to be a gimme here, but with much of the former grassland now converted to tidal wetland, they aren't nearly as dependable. Northern Harriers are still abundant though.

This hell of gray Savannah Sparrow caught my eye next to the road; I don't see birds like this very often. I wonder where it's from...any ideas? It was accompanied by 1-2 similar individuals.

Almost no color in the lores. So plain, but so striking. So Economy of Style. This bird gives credence to the argument against that old adage, "Life is Savannah Sparrows".

Finally, it was time to look for yet another absurd bird...a Great Gray Owl on the edge of town. Unbelievably, this was the second in Humboldt County of 2016 (and no, I do not think it is the same bird from Prairie Creek). The closest source population for these birds is not in the Sierra Nevada, it is in southern Oregon (i.e. the Ashland area, a mere 115 miles northeast as the owl flies), but obviously there is no way of knowing where Humboldt's birds originated. I presume Great Grays occur more often than we think in Humboldt, Del Norte (no records in eBird) and especially Siskiyou (no records in eBird) counties, which all have vast areas of potentially suitable habitat that get no coverage by birders. There are quite a few records in Oregon within 20 miles of the Siskyou County line. Interestingly, there are no coastal records of this species in Oregon, where there are considerably more Great Grays than there are in California...Humboldt County alone has what, four individuals now? Only in Humboldt...

More important than speculating about the One Bird Theory and source populations is seeing a Great Gray Owl. It is a spectacular bird. Photos do not do them justice, it is a bird to be seen to be truly believed.

The weather deteriorated after this ridiculously good day of birding, though we did make it out to get better looks at the owl again. On the way back south on 101, we were greeted by a fully legit snowstorm. Unfuckingbelievable. Those of you who are familiar with the San Francisco-Arcata drive can appreciate this...I have never seen anything like it. We pulled over along the Eel to take it all in, and were treated to a real fallout...of robins. Hundreds were falling out of the sky, pouring into the roadside vegetation from upslope. Too much snow for [good] photos, but it was nothing like I've ever seen.

Another great Humboldt visit in the bag. Life bird! County bird! Great Gray Owl! Bonus Sibe! Snow! Billy didn't go into labor! I couldn't ask for much more.

Monday, March 6, 2017

eBird and the 365 Checklists: Quantity Over Quality?

Perhaps you would enjoy the comfort and familiarity of something well-established and obvious stated to you. Let's try this on for size...eBird is good, free, and always improving. It sorts your lists, informs you of rarities, gives you access to reams of data, and contributes to many scientific studies. I mean, chances are that you got at least one life bird because of eBird, and life birds are practically priceless.

That said, eBird does not have the kind of backing that Google or Oracle does. The people responsible for bringing eBird into the world have not become mega-celebrity billionaires as a result. There is no army of coders behind the face of eBird, gentrifying communities and causing white flight, no legion of brogrammers ruining your favorite local bars. For good or ill, eBird is just not that big.

What that means for us users is that change does not come at a rapid clip, which is fine...the real bugs in eBird or the app tend to get sorted very quickly, while new features are rolled out more slowly. Totally understandable. However, there is one particularly irksome thing in eBird that grinds my gears more than anything else...

This one particular shortfall of eBird is the 365 rule. Now at this point, if you are still reading this, I'm assuming you are an eBird user...if you're not, I apologize for how bored you must be right now, but I am not going to accept the blame for that. Anyhow, let me give an example of what I am talking about....

Joey Birdwatcher photographs a Common Goldeneye. He thinks it is a Barrow's and attaches his photo of it to a checklist. Barrow's Goldeneye is not flagged as rare where Joey Birdwatcher went birding, so the regional reviewers do not see his error.

The Great Ornithologist Felonious Jive, who is not an eBird reviewer, decides one day that he wants to look at pictures of Barrow's Goldeneyes submitted through eBird. He comes across Joey Birdwatcher's photo, which is obviously misidentified. Felonious sees the link to click to "report" the photo, and goes to click on it to report the misidentified bird. What he sees is this:

Now nerds, before you freak out, ML45885311 is not actually a misidentified photo, this is just an example for the sake of a screenshot, so calm down. Anyways, you will see that Felonious has only a single option here, and although he considers the misidentified goldeneye both offensive and inappropriate, he does not believe that eBird wants this photo to be flagged as such just because it features a misidentified bird. He figures they have something totally different in mind, like porn or a mound of dead squirrels. So what is Felonious to do? He is not a reviewer, but as you probably know, you don't have to be a reviewer to flag misidentified bird photos. Sadly, he "only" submitted 364 different checklists last year. Had he submitted 365 different checklists, eBird would have rewarded him with an entirely new power...

Wrong species...there it is. Had Felonious been in the 365 club, he would have seen something like this instead...indeed, he would have the power to flag photos of misidentified birds.

As a veteran birder who can identify the shit out of a great many birds, I'm not stoked about how photo-flagging privileges are awarded. It really seems to be that the quantity of checklists submitted has greater importance, in this instance, than observer quality. But let's face it, the number of eBird checklists submitted in a year has almost no correlation to the person's skill set as an observer. Many of the continent's most notorious stringers actually are out birding a lot and submit a great many eBird checklists. Baffling, but true.

The 365 rule also rewards obsessive birders who create checklists while stopped at red lights (no, I'm not making this up) or on daily binocularless walks to their office, which I guess can be fun for listing purposes but generally have very little scientific value. Are these the best birders to be doing quality control in eBird?

Another point worth bringing up is that the 365 rule penalizes users who have lives outside of birding...believe it or not, not all birders are retired, or wealthy/free enough to be able to bird most of the week, every week. If I still lived life as a Perpetual Weekend six months a year, 365 complete checklists would not seem out of reach, but alas I work full time, year-round, and now I have a baby to care for...let's face it, I'm not going to submit 365 checklists in 2017, and probably not in 2018 either. I will be birding regularly of course, and not to sound conceited (a popular character trait among birders) but I consider my ability to ID birds in photos to be above average. I will not stoop to stoplight birding just to bump up my checklist total, or make checklists for the walk from my driveway to my front door...I have my dignity, and know that these sorts of lists generally cater to the birder's dirtiest obsessive desires more than they do the scientific community.

Of course, it's easy to just complain about something without offering a better idea. An alternative solution? Give eBird reviews the ability to award users this power. Perhaps a reviewer can only give flagging privileges to a certain number of other users, so not everyone and their mother is patrolling eBird and mistakenly flagging photos as the wrong species. Of course not all reviewers have the best judgement either, but I think most would recommend the most skilled users who could flag misidentified photos.

What is the problem indeed?  I wish I could do something about this Orange-breasted Bunting, but alas I cannot. I am unworthy of such immense power...and I don't know who the appropriate reviewers are or how to reach them. But for the sake of finishing this post, I'm sure there are other good (better?) ideas out there for figuring out who should be able to flag misidentified solution is no Final Solution.

To reiterate, I am grateful for what eBird does already and the vast majority of changes they have implemented over the last few years...but this one is hard to swallow. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Puerto Rico Winter Tour Y2K16: Refugio de Vida Silvestre de Boquerón, Cabo Rojo

It's been a weird winter here in the bay area. It seems to rain constantly, and I am in a persistant daze due to the newborn baby that strangely requires frequent attention. However, I can't bitch about not getting to the tropics this winter, because it was only back in December that our group from MAX REBO BIRDING TOURS were slaying Caribbean birds in Puerto Rico. The trip report must go on...

It is about time I posted a picture of one of my first lifers of the trip...Greater Antillean Grackle. I somehow did not get to crush them as well as I could, so I had to settle with photographing them while sitting around eating lunch after we birded Laguna Cartagena. An old lady with bad Parkinson's was feeding them rice, so I stole a few grackle souls.

These are one of the most abundant native birds of Puerto Rico. They are quite small, more like a Common than a Great-tailed, and haven't totally abandoned native habitats in favor of streets and parking lots. They are also much less cacophonous and obtrusive than Great-tailed...I ended up liking them a lot, considering they are literally a trash bird.

After lunch we decided to check out Silvestre de Boqueron, a coastal site that is not mentioned in a single trip report that I could find, but boasts a very robust (for Puerto Rico) site list in eBird. We found the entrance road easily enough and parked at the admin buildings. Here, there is a boardwalk trail through the mangroves, and longer trails that go to the south and to the west. We chose to walk the southern trail, which ended up being very rewarding...almost immediately we got our first White-crowned Pigeon of the trip, which was a lifer both Officer Searcy and Dipper Dan. They turned out to be fairly common there, and one of the dudes who works at the refuge says they nest next to the other trail that we did not take.

White-crowned Pigeon did not turn out to be the highlight though...a few minutes later, we were blessed with an increasingly rare group lifer (#grouplifer) long last, we had found a Lesser Antillean Pewee!  YESSSSSSSSSS!!!!!! This was a major target bird of the trip (again, all Caribbean species were targets for us), and I was getting worried that we might end up dipping on it. The Puerto Rican birds population may be treated as their own species someday, so it was a very bankable bird as well.

We saw multiple pewees on this trail, in a habitat where none of us were expecting them...they are not exactly considered a mangrove species from what I could tell. Though the birds would rarely sit in crushable light, they were bizarrely cooperative, which I appreciated very much. Their buffy underparts and trusting ways were most mellowing. We would not go on to see them anywhere else, though I did hear one at Bosque Susua.

Puerto Rican Woodpeckers were common and widespread. This eye-catching endemic is built to last, occupying many different habitats...unfortunately I never got the crush that this bird deserves. It is much, much more interesting than your average Melanerpes.

The most surprising thing about our time at Silvestre de Boquerón was how fucking birdy the place was. Almost everywhere we birded on the island was somewhere between not birdy and kinda birdy, but there was a lot of activity here. Northern Parulas were very common, showing up in almost every mixed flock we crossed paths with.

As with most sites, Puerto Rican Flycatchers were holding it down.

Unlike the pewee, Prothonotary Warblers are known to be lovers of swamps and mangroves. This dimly-lit (but still facemelting) rarity was another excellent trip bird; a Black-and-white Warbler near the parking area was another new North American migrant for the trip list. Good times at this place...if you are interested in checking out this site, our eBird checklist can be viewed right here. Note that during the hunting season the refuge is not accessible seven days a week. We were also told that it was ok to park outside the entrance gate and walk in to bird outside of normal hours.

We had some daylight left, so it was back to Cabo Rojo to continue the never-ending search for trip birds (other than the mythical Masked Duck, we had run out of lifers to get in immediate area). Our spot that previously produced a huge peep flock and Franklin's Gull earlier was almost devoid of birds, which did not surprise any of us. Still a bummer though.

This friendly Merlin provided some consolation. I don't know about ya'll, but friendly Merlins are few and far between out here. Oh, and while I think of it, how come Merlins seem to be so unpopular with falconers? Seems like the next logical bird to graduate to after a kestrel, and they are fun as hell to watch hunt. Oh well, leave them in the wild, suits me.

Our search for waterbirds took us all the way to the end of the road, at the parking area for the hella popular beach. Despite a great deal of good habitat, there was little to see...maybe the tide was too high?

We did see some cool terrestrial snails at least. Who doesn't appreciate a good snail?

On the way back we pulled over where some shorebirds and a group of icterids were roosting; Dipper Dan noticed some Yellow-shouldered Blackbirds in the flock, so we hung out and looked around.

The trees along this stretch of road were clearly the site of a significant night roost for Icterids. It was fantastic to see Yellow-shouldered Blackbirds in a more natural setting than the La Parguera hardware store.

A little while later, we refound the Franklin's Gull picking at shit out in the lagoon...a nice bird, but there was a lot more to look at...the closer to sunset it got, the more and more birds we noticed began to arrive...and that is when we realized it was happening.

Thousands of icterids flew south down the peninsula to roost next to where we had parked. Shiny Cowbirds (above) comprised a large portion of these birds, which I had mixed feelings about; they are a major factor in the decline of the blackbird...but they were also a bird I had just lifered only days before. We also started seeing Prairie Warblers fly in to roost (!), which was a most fetching thing to watch.

Luckily for us, Yellow-shouldered Blackbirds came streaming in over our heads with the grackles and cowbirds. Ace.

Amazing looks at these hell of rare birds. While it is easy to think of them as just a Red-winged Blackbird with a different wing patch, there is another major difference between the two species, phenologically speaking...the sexes have identical plumage. Yup, these might be females. Astounding, no? I wonder how this unisex plumage evolved.

Flocks of Stilt Sandpipers and Lesser Yellowlegs wheeled around over the laguna while we watched the blackbirds fly in, adding to the birding ambiance.

The laguna and distant Guanica Dry Forest glowed beneath afternoon storm clouds in the fading light. Our time here at the blackbird roost was one of the definite highlights of the trip, and I would highly recommend attempting to see the blackbirds here (17.954779°, -67.198514°) in the late afternoon instead of the mutant bread-lovers at the hardware store.