Monday, November 20, 2017

California Birds: The Newest, The Next, and The Blocked

While the occurrence of many rarities can be predicted, some just seem to fly in from left field. Earlier this fall, one Adam Searcy found himself entombed in a deep and birdless fog on top of Southeast Farallon Island. The last thing he expected was a first state record to Kermadec Petrel to uncloak itself and make a couple passes before heading back out to sea. What will be the next bird to join the ranks of California's long and lovely state list? Photo by Adam Searcy.

California. With 665 species on the official state list tenderly and affectionately curated by the California Bird Records Committee (CBRC), California has the largest state list in the country. This has been made by possible not only from California's size, but because of its habitat diversity and unique location; species from the Old World, the far north, central and eastern North America, Mexico, and all over the Pacific make their way here on a regular basis. To give you a sample of the sometimes bizarre diversity of birds California gets, my last five state birds were Red-footed Booby, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Scarlet Tanager, Parakeet Auklet and Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay. Sometimes (like when I wrote the previous sentence) I feel extraordinarily lucky to be a birder here. But just like birders everywhere, I am sometimes left wondering what will be next? What mega will leave me in utter shock and disbelief?What is the next bird that will set off statewide episodes of catatonic grip-off?

Maybe if we take a look at the newest species the CBRC has accepted to the state list, that will give us an inkling of rarities to come. Beginning with the most recent additions, they are:

1. Buff-breasted Flycatcher
2. Purple Sandpiper
3. Kelp Gull
4. Common Scoter
5. Tundra Bean-Goose
6. Salvin's Albatross
7. Nazca Booby
8. Marsh Sandpiper
9. Common Swift
10. Great Black-backed Gull

Recent, well-documented sightings of Kermadec and Jouanin's Petrels, Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, and Eurasian Wryneck are likely to be accepted by the CBRC as well.

I think \these additions are a good representative sample of our vagrant composition - on the continent, California is the best state/province for seabird diversity, hands down, so it makes sense that so many of our recent state additions are ocean wanderers. We also get more Old World species than any state outside of Alaska (usually "Sibes" found in eastern Russia), so the goose and Marsh Sandpiper fit in with that pattern; the scoter and swift were shocking though. Great Black-backed Gull is a bird that seemed inevitable, but Kelp Gull was comparatively surprising - this Southern Hemisphere resident is rare north of Ecuador, so it is fitting that the bird that visited California (and seen in multiple counties!) was found by a gull expert who also spends lots of time south of the equator. With past records of Belcher's and Swallow-tailed Gulls, the Kelp Gull record does fit into a pattern of sorts.

A spring overshoot Buff-breasted Flycatcher really caught us with our collective pants down, but California does bring in a modest number of migrants/vagrants from Mexico or even further south - for example, Greater Pewees, Dusky-capped Flycatchers, Tropical Kingbirds, Painted Redstarts, Grace's and Red-faced Warblers all occur with some regularity. Purple Sandpiper was a longshot to get here and a longshot to identify correctly due to the presence of Rock Sandpipers, but since it first appeared at a very unusual location (the Salton Sea), suspicious birders were able to eventually able to identify it correctly.

So with those birds in mind, what are the next state firsts? In no particular order, here are my Top 10:

1. Taiga Bean-Goose - Many birders believe that there has already been a well-documented bird in the state, but it was ultimately accepted (not without controversy) by the CBRC as Taiga/Tundra Bean-Goose. Luckily I did not see this bird (after trying and dipping for days on end) so I don't have to attempt to come to terms with that label. Anyways, a Taiga Bean-Goose will eventually be sucked in to the California vagrant vortex and provide redemption for us all. Or the record will be recirculated.

2. Arctic Warbler or Kamchatka Leaf Warbler - Ok, this is two species, so I might be cheating, but hear me out...before these species were split, California had a number of Arctic Warbler records. Of course, once they were split, the CBRC realized that they could not prove with complete confidence which species were involved with any particular record, which at present even includes this bird (left) that was in hand on Southeast Farallon Island. Vocalizations are the key. Only a couple months ago, an Arctic/Kamchatka Leaf Warbler was seen in San Luis Obispo County, but frustratingly never called. Photo by Dan Maxwell.

3. Juan Fernandez Petrel - Honestly, this entire list could be comprised of tubenoses and it would be pretty reasonable still, but that is boring so I'm just going to pick one. It is bizarre that Arizona would get a species of seabird before California, but birds do bizarre things, particularly when hurricanes are involved.

4.Olive warbler - As with tubenoses and Sibes, there are many vagrant candidates from Mexico. It was tough to settle on one, but for my Mexico pick I'm going to draft Olive Warbler, which are actually found with regularity in the mountains of western Arizona, intriguingly close to the state line. Olive Warblers are not long-distance migrants prone to overshoots, but they are close by, migratory, and easy to identify. There also should not be any provenance issues with this species.

5. Siberian Accentor - There are a number of scattered records north of California, and this species will come to feeders.  It's also one of the most distinctive Sibes we can possibly get; most birders will know that an accentor is, at the very least, something special when it pops up in front of them; the same can't be said about many of the other Sibe passerines. I'm waiting for one to put in an appearance in the northern half of the state (hopefully not on Southeast Farallon Island).

6. Gray-streaked Flycatcher - Not as obvious as a Siberian Accentor, but again, certainly a species that would stand out more than some other Sibes that could potentially occur. Common Sandpiper looks like Spotted Sandpiper, Temnick's Stint looks like Least Sandpiper, snipes look like grass, Phylloscopus warblers look like each other and stay hidden, Pechora Pipit looks like Red-throated get my drift. Most California birders would not be able to identify a Gray-streaked Flycatcher reflexively, but a lot of us would at least be able to call it an Old World flycatcher and go from there.

7. Black-tailed Godwit - Gotta have a shorebird in here. Despite being a fairly regular migrant in Alaska, this is not a bird showing up anywhere on the west coast south of there. Yet. California happens to be a lovely place to migrate through, if you can get past all the Peregrines.

8. Acadian Flycatcher - Like a certain warbler that dwells in the east, I don't think there is any reason one of these will not be found in California - we have records of pretty much every other eastern neotropical migrant. They are a common and broadly-distributed bird through much of the eastern U.S., and one is destined for the California state list. Maybe a vocalizing bird at Butterbredt in a future spring? Caught in a mist net on Southeast Farallon Island? The Acadian above was photographed on South Padre Island, TX.

9. Swainson's Warbler - I think we are going to get one. I feel strongly about's just a matter of time. Their powers of skulk are not to be underestimated, but California is due for this bird. If we can get a Golden-cheeked Warbler, we can get a Swainson's. This is BB&B's official position on the matter.

10. Red-bellied Woodpecker - Probably not on a lot of people's radar, but even Oregon has a recent record. A bird particularly stricken with wanderlust could make its way to one of the northernmost counties. 

How about some wildcard honorable mentions that are really against the odds? Pure speculative fiction? It doesn't hurt to prepare for Waved Albatross, Gray Heron, Eurasian Hobby, Brown Noddy, or Rose-throated Becard.

What do you think? Am I crazy? What's on your Top 10? I'm sure I'm missing an obvious bird or two. But we're not done yet...almost as drool-worthy as the new state additions are the blockers - birds that have occurred in the past, often repeatedly, but have been absent for so long that newer birders never got to see them. There are a great many species that belong on this list, but to make it more interesting I omitted the birds with only a single record (i.e. White-tailed Tropicbird, Greater Sand-Plover) or were not chaseable (e.g. Ringed Storm-Petrel, Least Auklet, Buff-collared Nightjar). Oh, and I have not seen any of these species in the state.

1. Whooper Swan - There are a modest 11 accepted state records, but just one in the last 10 years. What gives? My Sibe intuition tells me that one will show up again sooner than later.

2. Baikal Teal - Few waterfowl can wonderfully assault the eyes with the force of a male Baikal Teal. There are 7 records, one in the last 10 years...I believe that bird (in Humboldt) was shot, if I recall correctly. Seeing one of these would only feed the Sibe Fever I've been suffering from for years now, but that is a risk I am willing to take.

3. Streaked Shearwater - With 18 accepted records, it's safe to say that Streaked Shearwater was considered a regular bird in California for some time. However, there have been none since 2008, even though there are now more pelagic trips than ever. What happened? Hopefully population declines won't keep them away for good.

4. Anhinga - Five accepted records...but again, no records in the last 10 years. Unlike Streaked Shearwaters, there are a lot of Anhingas to go around, and their return to California is overdue. I'm looking at you, Imperial, Riverside and San Diego counties, to make this dream a reality.

5. Eurasian Dotterel - Want to know something odd? When I was a young birder, I always thought I would see a dotterel in California one day. That said, no one has ever said adolescents have a very well developed ability to see into the future. Not only has this not happened, there has only been one in California seen this century, which was never reported to the public. I'm still waiting patiently for this bird, my favorite plover that I have never seen and a bird that just generally makes me froth at the mouth.

6. Bristle-thighed Curlew - There are two accepted records from 1998, an invasion year, when this species appeared all over the Pacific Northwest. Two other reports from that time period were considered "credible" but were unaccepted. This species could easily slip by undetected - most birders would not know if they were looking at one. My understanding is that these birds arrived on our shores as a result of unusual Pacific weather patterns...the perfect storm for Bristle-thighed Curlews. With enough sacrifices to the bird gods (in the form of cats?), maybe one will blow our way in May, 2018. The birds above were photographed on Midway Atoll.

7. Steller's Eider - Three records from the state, including two wintering birds that were seen by many. The most recent accepted record in California is from 1992. I long to meet this exotic northerner. Past records were in Del Norte, Humboldt and Sonoma counties, and those are all perfectly good places to look for another. Del Norte County actually has records of three eider species!

8. Red-headed Woodpecker - Though declining in some areas, this bird is still fairly common in much of the country, but the last accepted record for the state is from 2000. If one of these popped up in the state right now (which could seemingly happen anywhere), there is no doubt in my mind that birders would go absolutely apeshit.

9. Violet-crowned Hummingbird - It's time for California to get another earth-shaking hummingbird species, and I think this bird is ready for a triumphant return. There are 6 records, none in the last 10 years. Xantus's Hummingbird may be a more classic blocker (I was too young to see the one in Ventura, though at the time I lived only a few minutes away!), but I would be pleasantly stunned if a Violet-crowned did not reappear here first. The bird above was photographed in Florida Canyon in southeast Arizona.

10. Black Rosy-Finch - It hasn't been that long since the state has had one of these cripplers, but how many California birders are looking at rosy-finches in winter? Hardly any. Out of all the species mentioned in this post, this one seems most likely to be found far away from population centers. Predictably, the last records are from Aspendell, and the next record may come from there as well.

11. Eastern Yellow Wagtail - I was going to stop at ten, but I 'm really feeling this one. Migrants of this species are very much expected on a number of Alaskan islands, and they breed on mainland Alaska. No wagtail this fall...yet...but sticking with our theme, it's been ten years, and I don't think it will be much longer.

If you've made it this far, thanks for nerding out with me. I know this read was intense, prolonged, and most of all, genuine. I'll end it all on this note...if I could have gotten this post out a couple weeks ago, Sedge Wren would have been #1 on the blocker list, but freaking Adam "Kermadec Petrel" Searcy just found and photographed this one on Santa Barbara Island. Ugh.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Introducing Rancho de Bastardos


This Cooper's Hawk was nice enough to pose on a ziptied perch I put up specifically for crushing. I fucking love geri birding, especially in my own yard.

Big news here from the BB&B Campus...that's right arch-nerds...Rancho del Bastardos is no more. The name has changed to Rancho de Bastardos. Most of you could give a fuck, but a handful of you should be happier...I hope.

Right. So other than this major, multi-million dollar rebranding campaign we've got going for my yard (targeted solely at Spanish speakers), the other big news is that I have once again had the birdiest yard in California for the last month*. That makes five (5) months in a row! This wasn't supposed to happen...I tried to share the prestige of this accomplishment...I left the state for 12 days! I gave you a chance! What more can I do? Die?

Please don't kill me.

The October breakdown: 73 species total, the most we've ever had in a single month...and again, I was out of state for 12 days. We also eclipsed the 100 barrier! New additions to the yard were Townsend's Warbler, American Goldfinch, Glaucous-winged Gull, Merlin, Green-winged Teal (the first teal here of any species, put down briefly by a storm), Hermit Thrush, Fox Sparrow...a very October list of birds. This brings the total yard list to 105. The yard is quite birdy now, as a small but dedicated mixed sparrow flock is typically present at any given time...fingers crossed for a White-throated or something better. I'm eagerly looking forward to what November will bring, especially since I will be deploying a water feature!

Yes, a water feature. Am I going full geri? Judging by my yardbirding habits and when I go to sleep (early) and wake up (early), that seems to be the case.

*=Someone claimed a higher species list for the month, but their last checklist at their "yard" was a 2 mile trip at Las Gallinas Sanitary District, a well-known birding spot at a water treatment facility. By even the most forgiving standards for what constitutes a yard list, this is not at all legit.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Swift and Swallow Swarm, Yellow-throated Vireo, Summer Birds

Are you ready for another barrage of photos? Here goes...

One of the birding perks of being located where I am is the number of Vaux's Swifts present from April-September. This one is about to gobble its target, which you can see floating around innocently in the top left corner.

One day last spring I set out to get some Vaux's Swift photos that weren't completely horrendous for a change, which I did have some success with. I didn't have to go far...the swifts are a daily fixture at the Los Capitancillos Ponds, which are the ponds behind my backyard.

Few birds are more frustrating to photograph than swifts, but it was fun to see so many foraging down low. It turned out there was a big insect hatch in the ponds that day, and a swarm of swifts and swallows were feeding near eye level next to the trail.

My camera decided to focus on the rear bird in this photo...

...but a second later, locked on to the front bird when it suddenly banked.

Here is an eBird abundance map for Vaux's Swift in the region - I live in the single, darker purple cell that denotes more frequent observations than the rest of the area. For whatever reason, the ponds (and my yard!) is one of the most reliable places to see them in central California. It's no McNear Brickyard, but it suits me.

White-throated Swifts are much less common in the immediate area, but are generally much easier to find in the bay area; they will often nest under highway overpasses, and there is no shortage of those here.

Juvenile Anna's Hummingbirds can make for a challenging ID, as they typically lack any markings on the throat. This can render them into Costa's or Black-chinned imposters.

The faint rows of tiny spots this bird is displaying looks a lot different from the big dark blotch on the throat an adult female will show.

Black Phoebe production in the area is satisfactory.

Amazingly, while standing in the swift blizzard I managed a couple flight shots of a male Violet-green Swallow, often overlooked as one of the most crippling species in the west. Odd that Northern Rough-winged Swallows and Violet-green Facemelters occupy much of the same range and habitats, and aside from nest sites, they generally behave very similarly. Yet the males of one species are stunning, but poo-colored in the other.

That color on the rump is hard to fathom, and the only other ABA Area species that I can think of that has something close is Varied Bunting.

Tree Swallows, on the other hand, are significantly more fathomable. I saw them at the ponds very infrequently this year, and I spent an inordinate amount of time standing in the backyard checking swallow flocks for Bank Swallow/Purple Martin/Black Swift. Better luck next year with those, hopefully.

Late May and early June is when the window is open in California for spring vagues. These spring rarities are a different beast than the fall birds though...they can often be found by song (great!) and look their best (sick), but except at a handful of desert sites there are far fewer of them and they are much less chaseable. Always in a hurry to get someplace, they are. Other than the Black-and-white from the last post, I only managed to see this one other eastern bird last spring, but it was a great one.

Yellow-throated Vireo is a wonderful bird to see in California. Though not a Bird Police species, they are rare enough that most birders here will start grinding their teeth upon hearing about them. This is only the second individual I've ever seen in the state, and it was a hell of a lot more cooperative than the first.

This bird roamed around a few blocks at Moss Beach, adjacent to the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve. Amazingly, it stayed over a week before taking off to points unknown.

White-crowned Sparrow is one of the most abundant birds around here now, but most of these birds are migratory and leave in March and April. This is one of the year-round residents. Photographed at Half Moon Bay.

Hey! It's a Spotted Towhee! Also in Half Moon Bay.

In June we went south for Peak's wedding, which was fantastic as expected, but not good blog-fodder for nerds. I was able to get one morning of birding in with Dipper Dan. No rarity glory - finding a spring vague runt in Ventura County is like winning the lottery - but I got my 2017 Blue Grosbeaks at Canada Larga Road, where this Hooded Oriole teed up briefly. See you in March, Hooded Oriole.

A Black-headed Grosbeak did the same. We will reunite in April, Black-headed Grosbeak.

It's all about the juniper...and I do mean an actual juniper tree, not Juniper Titmouse. This is an Oak Titmouse in the backyard juniper tree. The juniper tree is crucial to what goes on here at Rancho del Bastardos - birds love it. One of these days I'm going to do another thorough yard post, and you too can share in the glory of my juniper tree. I'm also going to have to change the name of Rancho del Bastardos, as it's been pointed out to me by a couple people that my Spanish is bad and the name of my Rancho is gramatically incorrect...and you fucking bird people cannot sleep at night if you've encountered bad grammar during the day, so I will concede that something must be done.

Look at the soft complexion of this gentle titmouse. This Oak Titmouse in a juniper. Backyard birding during the summer was just slightly more surprising than watching paint dry, but we did get titmice in the yard a lot for a couple months - these days I typically only hear them calling from across the ponds.

Alright, that's enough, this was a pretty extensive post. Go birding, drinking whisky, etc.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Massive Berserker Post

Although we are now in Ross's Goose season, this was a bird of spring. With a dent in its head for some reason, but more importantly, a bird from last spring. As you can guess, I have much blogwork to do. Stafford Lake, Marin County, CA.

Where did September go? Well dorks, there is one thing that we can all agree on...I have a lot of catching up to do with this blog. So with that unfortunate fact on the table, this post is going to be a photo blitz! No time for ruminating on the state of birding affairs or the usual bullshit. I typically don't include so many photos in a single post, but these are not typical times...

This Black-and-white Warbler was a totally unexpected find in a mixed flock at Point Reyes in mid-April. Most spring BAWWs in California are found in May. Five Brooks Pond, Marin County, CA.

I'm not used to seeing chipmunks at sea level, but then again Marin is the place to be to see mammals both of land and sea. I'm not familiar with this richly-colored species, which was also at Five Brooks Pond. Anybody? RT? JK?  Christian and TaxMan helped with the ID - this is a Sonoma Chipmunk.

I am used to seeing Pacific Wrens at sea level, though I pretty much never get to photograph them. 

This bird was singing from an exposed perch, with no apparent urge to hide as usual. Thank you Pacific Wren.

One day, Billy, Annabelle and I headed to the Santa Cruz coast to see a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. We failed in this endeavor, and were forced to look at this pair of nesting Western Gulls instead. Not unexpected, but still unfortunate.

One of the big upsides to moving south from Albany to San Jose is that now I'm much closer to Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge, a great place for shorebirds and waterbirds in general. This Forster's Tern, which breed there, was in the midst of a display flight. Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge, Alviso, CA.

And this Forster's Tern had a wiggly cap.

I've pointed it out a couple times before, but it bears repeating...Forster's can have a gray wash on the underparts, like Commons, which is visible on all three of the above individuals.

Crushing terns brings me great joy.

This is one of my favorite FOTE shots I've ever taken, and I've taken a great many. I rarely get head-on shots with perf composure and focus, not to mention lighting.

These terns were discretely having some sex. Other birds were not so discrete that day.

Caspian Terns breed at the refuge as well. I think it is safe to assume that all the birds foraging behind my house (in the Los Capitancillos Ponds) all summer were commuting to and from nests here at the refuge - it's cool to see the home base of my backyard fish fiends.

These exhibitionist avocets decided to get down to some avosex right next to the trail.

This is how avocets are made.

The cloacal kiss!

The avocet version of a post-coital cuddle.

Black-necked Stilts were hanging around, doing it in the open as well.

Crossing bills and a wing-cuddle while copulating? I don't think PDA can go much further than that.

The male dismounted when finished but continued with the kissing and cuddling. Gross.

Thankfully, their display of raw stilt hedonism came to an end and we could all part ways without making eye contact. 

There were a few local rarities around on this morning as well, the best of which was this lingering Glaucous Gull. After going years without seeing any, I've seen them in three different counties so far this year. And so it goes...

A Savannah Sparrow, one of the local breeders, teed up briefly next to the trail. I would say more about it, but if I am being completely honest with you...I need more coffee.