Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Birder's Guide To The Internet, 2017 Edition

1994. That was the year I officially became a birder. It was a good time to be a birder, but everything was much, much harder. You think birding is hard now? Well back then, you could get lost! You got around using actual paper maps! You didn't have field guides and bird songs in your cell phones...people didn't even have cell phones! The only computer that would answer to your voice commands was aboard the USS Enterprise. It sounds like the stone age, and while the world didn't look that much different from today, the tools we have at our fingertips now seem light years ahead. The myriad of online resources available to birders have, for some, changed everything.

As the #7 birder in the United States (as ranked by the Global Birder Ranking System), I feel like I should lift up the birding community. I will pick you up and carry you on my back, like a birding horse. Even with so many tools these days, we must still be honest with ourselves...birders need so much help. Many birders just don't know what is out there, don't know that they can answer a great many of their questions themselves if they are willing to spare a few minutes of their time. They need to be uplifted, and that is why I am here today. In that spirit, here is a list of some of my fav websites that can help you learn more about birds, and help you see more of them.

Compulsively checking Sialia over and over again will eventually pay off for you in a big way...that is how seeing this MEGUH Marsh Sandpiper was made possible.

Sialia/ABA Birding News - Listservs are nothing new, but are still absolutely crucial. Most grizzled veteran birders know that if you find a rare bird, you don't put it on Facebook first, you don't put it on eBird first, you slap that thing on the listerv ASAP. Do you live in an area where multiple listservs have coverage nearby? Want to see all the listservs in one place? Check Sialia (my preference) or ABA Birding News. I've seen a number of fantastic birds here in northern California simply because I compulsively check Sialia for breaking news of Meguhs.

Xeno-canto - A vast and totally free library of bird vocalizations that grows on the daily. Most of the material is downloadable. Ace. Something like this was inconceivable 20 years ago.

Birdingpal - Travelling someplace? Want to have someone basically act as your guide for a minimal cost? Check out Birdingpal! Or you can just hit up a birder for the info you are looking for. You can also use this site to hire "real" guides for a nonminimal cost.

The more users eBird gets, the better it gets as a tool for birders. Among the many services it provides, eBird is rapidly becoming a great resource for birders looking to know where to get in the field south of the border...for example, without it we would not have had crippling looks at Rufous-bellied Chachalaca in Lo de Marcos, Nayarit, Mexico.

eBird - eBird is imperfect, it is flawed, and it is still the best thing since sliced bread...and you know how important sliced bread is. You also know what eBird is and what eBird can do for you already, so I'll leave you to it. eBird.

Cloudbirders and Surfbirds - Trip reports, trip reports, trip reports. If you are planning a birding trip someplace, not only do you want to utilize the tried and true "birder's guide", you want trip reports to find new information on an area. These two sites are great resources. Note that trip reports by some tour companies (both included on these websites, and elsewhere) vary in the amount of details provided...some tour companies will provide a lot of detail on where they bird (very helpful), while others lamely will keep their hotspots "secret", and may not even mention where they stay. Weak.

Last year the nerds and I stayed at the fantastic Rancho Primavera in El Tuito (Jalisco, Mexico), where we could nonchalantly watch a Blue Mockingbird pig out at a feeding platform from the deck of our rental house. I never would have found out about the place if not for coming across it in a blog post.

Blogs - Talk about old-fashioned...yes, even blogs like this one can still be resources for the birder! What do you think this post is for? Since birding blogs can and do cover all things bird, we can potentially help you with identification issues, trip report material, you name it. One of my favorite blogs is the vastly underappreciated Birds of Passage; if you are considering birding anywhere from Mexico to Ecuador, you need to read up on their material. The Budget Birders have traveled a lot and provide a lot of helpful information as well. Of course, Earbirding has a lot of great content on bird vox. Obviously, there are too many good blogs out there to list; check out the sidebar on the left for more.

Migration forecasts - We don't use these much here on the west coast (though there is a Portland site) due to the nature of migration here (the nature of which is incredibly boring compared to many states...but California gets the best vague runts, so it evens out), but in a large part of the country this is something worth getting addicted to during spring and fall migration. Maybe some of you eastern birders take it for granted by now, but I think it is incredible that there are people who can forecast how good (or bad) the birding may be on a particular day in a particular area using traditional weather radar. If you would have told 1997 me that this would be a thing, you probably also could have convinced me that aliens were real and that I was going to be abducted. Hey, I was watching a lot of X-Files at the time. Anyways, Birdcast is a good place to start, but there are multiple region-specific sites.

Google Streetview, which can be toggled on and off using Google Maps or Google Earth, is fascinating. Here is where I used to live on Midway! Yes, those are albatross in the yard.

Google Earth and Google Maps - These are great tools for planning a birding trip or scouting an area without being on the ground. Do you know how amazing it is to bring up sharp satellite imagery on command? I would have killed for that ability for some of my early field work back in the day. Want to know where I saw my first Short-tailed Albatross? Well put these coordinates (28.199202°, -177.383157°) into Google Maps, turn on the satellite imagery, and you can see exactly where I was. I think it's brilliant. Anyways, Google Earth is free to download and you can do even more with it than Google Maps, so check it out if you have much of a map fetish. You probably already look at Google Maps on the regular and have the app installed on your phone, but for the few of you who don't, you are missing out.

Reserve America - Wanna camp? Don't know where to go? Then this is the site for you. Find campgrounds all across the country, reserve your site. Though not all campgrounds are listed here, it's a good place to start.

Airbnb - Staying in a house is better than staying in a motel. That house might even have some good birding on the property. I've used Airbnb on birding trips to Colorado, Maine and Puerto Rico so far with great success, and I'm sure I'll be using it on many future trips. Use Airbnb for birding, business, family vacays, wild sex parties, it's your call.

Not every birding site is created equal, however. You will notice that I omitted Facebook groups - this was done on purpose. Though you certainly can get helpful information in these groups, as a general rule some of the most frequent posters (be it in regional groups, gull ID, etc.) are self-proclaimed experts whose advice can be counterproductive at best. Indeed, if you are a legend in your own mind, then there is no better place to broadcast your "expertise". Google Images are also dangerous to work with, which BB&B has previously covered in Adventures In Birding Online. I also have mixed feelings about the always-improving Merlin app; while it could be (already is?) incredibly helpful for rank beginners, I could easily see it becoming a crutch. It also requires the observer to have a reasonably good camera, which is definitely not necessary to get into birding. At any rate, neither you or I want our primary contribution to the birding community to be "ID please" posts, know what I'm saying?

I'm sure I left something out. If you have any other recommendations, please share! I may be #7, but only #1 knows everything.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Roadside Attractions, A Particular Cuteness, Sustained Facemelt, Dorsal or Death

One of the good birding opportunities that comes packaged with going to SoCal every year is my favorite rest stop on Highway 101. That's right, the Patagonia rest stop is not my favorite rest stop...ya'll can have that one. If I hear someone describe the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect one more time like it's some novel new idea, said someone will be destroyed. Anyhow, I want the rest stop with Yellow-billed Magpies.

Those that live in the valley may get to see a lot of magpies on the regular, but for those of us who don't (which is most of us), they are not a trash bird by any means...they are a glorious endemic, and are aesthetically superior to the continent's other magpie. Just look at this especially leggy individual with yellow eyeliner.

Another quick stop off Highway 101 on the way south was productive; this FOY/LOY Ross's Goose had been living at a dirty little duck pond at the Gonzales Winery for several years. Like every Ross's Goose, it was small and mellowing. A few Ross's have been known to make this tradeoff in California in the past, seemingly exchanging the chance to pass on their genes for endless free handouts. Interesting approach.

Though I haven't lived there since the year 2000, my Ventura County list is still higher than any other county list I maintain...and though that statement was supposed to reflect on how good birding can be in Ventura at times, it probably reflects more on how pathetic I am at county listing, which I am very proud of. Anyhow...aside from success with the Little Gull, I managed to get a modest amount of additional birding in. Burrowing Owls winter in low numbers on the Oxnard Plain, sometimes right next to poison dispensers meant to kill their ground-squirrel friends. Yikes.

Unfortunately, life is not all Yellow-billed Magpies, Little Gulls and Burrowing Owls. Life primarily consists of Savannah Sparrows. That's right, life is Savannah Sparrows. Your average day is a Savannah Sparrow, a bird that is neither that good or that bad, and ultimately not incredibly memorable. Photographed at Arnold Road on the Oxnard Plain.

My parents' yard in east Ventura has been made into a hummingbird magnet of sorts since I moved away...though they are still waiting for a Broad-billed or Violet-crowned (which is a way overdue bird to be refound in the state), they do get a pretty good showing of the expected California species. I never got a Calliope in Ventura County, but a number of them have passed through their yard...there is nothing like getting gripped off by your own flesh and blood. They get multiple Costa's Hummingbirds every year, one or two of which often overwinter.

Aside from the typical field marks, female Costa's have a particular "cute" quality overall that female Anna's and Black-chinned lack. These species, which are admittedly very similar, are frequent sources of confusion for birders in the western states, particularly in geri-bound Arizona, where there are a great many hummingbirds and a great many birders unable to identify them very well.

If a jet of hot sugary hummingbird pee being fired out of an Anna's Hummingbird is the sort of thing you're into, then I don't have to convince you to spend some time looking at this graphic photo.

After seeing many thousands of Anna's Hummingbirds over the years, I can tell you that the facemelt wrought by an adult male Anna's is still alive and well.

Isn't this absurd???

As one of LA's leading lights of birding recently pointed out via listserv, this angle is not at all helpful in identifying male Allen's or Rufous Hummingbirds...give me dorsal or give me death. Though some could be tricked into thinking that this a Rufous Hummingbird, this is actually a very typical-looking Allen's Hummingbird when viewed at other angles.

Here is a immature male Allen's, displaying no real helpful field marks at all. These days Allen's are much more common year-round residents at my parents' place than 20 years ago; I think there's a lot more overwintering in east Ventura overall now.

In a bid to bring BB&B even more fame and fortune, let's wrap this post up with a bird that almost no one has any interest in...a hen American Wigeon. No one is at fault for that, since this lawn-loving grazing machine aesthetically brings little to the table. This individual doesn't have much of a black gape border, which is a field mark that can help differentiate female Americans from Eurasians. The popularity of this field mark has always been a bit of mystery to me, because if you are close enough to see this obscure bit of coloring you shouldn't be struggling to tell the two species apart. Photographed in Conejo Creek Park, Thousand Oaks, CA.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Bourbon, A Bastard, and Birds.

Many have whined about the lack of bourbon coverage on this blog over the years. While I do drink a lot of it, and it is a sensational and most inspirational spirit, this is a birding blog...if you want to see closeup photos of alcohol for some reason, please try Instagram or Facebook, where crushers of pints and cocktails abound.

What no one has accused me of is the lack of bastards. I know a great many bastards, though only in the loose sense of the word. They appear here regularly. However, I am very committed to bastards...I have a true bastard girlfriend, whom I love very much. In fact, we just made our own bastard daughter together, out of wedlock! Her name is Annabelle, she makes cute noises and likes milk very much. Elijah Craig and Sibley are there for scale. I doubt she will ever want to be a birder, and that is totally fine...her job, for now, is drinking milk and doing cute shit. Oh, and sleeping, hopefully she will excel at that.

I finally did it...bourbon, bastards, and birds, all in one post! Close enough anyway.

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Rorschach Thrush

*editor's note: in the following paragraphs there is a suggestion that the arrival of the Swainson's Thrush is concurrent with the spring equinox. As this is undoubtedly true for some parts of the world, the approximate arrival dates for this bird in Washington State are mid-late April. The first songs are heard a couple of weeks later, generally. However, the weather is so shitty here on and around March 21st that I would argue that Relative Spring comes much later...say, around the time that Swainson's show up and start belting it out. Apologies for the incongruity. Forgiveness is begged.

Winter solstice has come and gone from these northern latitudes. The spent champagne corks of New Years Eve have all washed out to sea. The Nativity scenes that once graced lawns across the city have been broken down and stored away for the season; the 3 Wise Men stacked, crotch-to-nose, beneath the teats of the Holy Cow, among the winterized mower and moldy badminton set. Baby Jesus, pinned to the garage wall by string and a roofing nail, floats above the bovine head, his angelic face mustachioed and left arm missing, blasphemous modifications from a merry band of vandals that swept through the neighborhood on the eve of His birth. Joseph, for his part, stands alone in a corner, behind the golf clubs, while his virgin wife sits fireside within the comfort of the house, her soft gaze fixed on the brandy-breathed homeowner arrayed at her feet. A halo of spent nitrous-cartridges surround them, his weeping wetting the cradled plastic foot in his hands.

Here, tucked just south of the 49th parallel, our solar rations grow a little larger each day and though we are still firmly in the icy grips of Deep Winter, we are allowed to dream a little. With caution we cultivate small embers of hope. Meager longings are given longer leash. Thoughts of what the spring will bring forth, if it should ever come again, are again permissible. In the low angled light we venture out, bundled in earth toned rags and loud stocking hats, seeking the sparse rays that occasionally, miraculously penetrate the gray gloom.

The other day, as we shuffled through the brown slush beneath the witch fingered trees that line our charming, burnt out downtown sector, an esteemed colleague of mine, Scout Kremlin, Master of Owls and of Irredeemable Real Estate, received a call. He has for his cellphone ringtone the song of the Swainson's Thrush.

It is difficult to approximate the ecstasy I felt upon hearing that unearthly ringing escaping from his pants. The rising, spiraling thermal of broken glass sent me into a reverie that left me huddled against a brick wall, eyes watering, mumbling incoherently to myself. A passersby lobbed some coins at me. I came out of my trance, purified, awestuck, 37 cents richer.

The Swainsong has always had a time-travelling effect on me, sending me back to the first time its beauty was brought to my attention. Tall Paul, renegade handy-man, flyfishing wizard and dirtbag naturalist, his Pall Mall trailing smoke, following the Swainsong skyward, taught me my first bird songs and rudimentary IDs. The dark-eyed junco wears a Darth Vadar helmet, its song a phone ringing. The fire-eyed towhee calls like a cat. Red-breasted nuthatch sounds like a truck backing up.

Everytime I hear the Swainson's, there I am, dumb-ass teenager, wounded, spiteful, pissed at the world, the same world whose beauty is just beginning to melt my cold, boreal heart. Tall Paul looms large in the memory, lighting his next smoke with the previous one's cherry, a circle unbroken, wiping out the old fire on his pant leg. The spent ciggy butt is inserted into his pants pocket, for Tall Paul doesn't litter.

Fused with this memory are all subsequent springs that the song has ushered in, a helix of sonic stasis, of time suspended. The bird's vibrating syrinx a unifying conduit of an Equinox Eternal. An ever-expanding moment, a floating world that materializes out of the mist only to rise up and disappear into the ether.  

I had to know if the Swainsong had the same effect on others. Surely, even among non-birders, the song had to elicit Deep Feelings. Maybe some would hear it as an inquiry into the Great Mystery. Perhaps it would unsettle some bowels, a naturally-occurring Brown Note, the infamous tone sought after for centuries by clergymen and other weirdos.

A recording of a Swainson's Thrush song was played for individuals as encountered at St. Andrew's Assisted Living Community, Blackbird Coffehouse and Franklin Elementary School. A lackluster hacky sack circle at the community college was also sampled. The subjects were asked to describe the song in whatever language came to mind, however florid or plain. The following list catalogs these descriptions.

Raspy ascending yodel
A toilet being flushed
A warble unraveling
It's doing spirals!
Frantically optimistic
Hysterical laughter
As if water is flowing upstream
I think it could be the last sound, as everything we could ever know
     is spun down a cosmic drain into a black hole.
The sound my head makes as it spins upward in the forest, looking for a secret
Some elf dude, really high, playing, like, a flute
A tornado that makes harmony instead of chaos
Window into eternity
The piper at the gates of dawn
Swirling cascades of mist
Waterfalls made of clouds
Kinda like when Mario eats a mushroom in that old Nintendo game
Exuberant spirals of metallic bubbles
A pretty chicken

photos by Seagull Steve
sonagram by Mike Nelson Birdtour Asia 

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Multiple Birdgasms: The Ventura Little Gull

Before I was #7, before I was Seagull Steve, I was the Ventura County Kid. I began birding in Ventura, California, when I was 12 years old. My dad and I wandered into the Ventura Settling Ponds, and I saw a shitload of ducks that I'd never seen before...I was already bird-curious, so this was a tipping point...I had no chance, and it was too late to go back. I got a lot of life birds at the Ventura Settling Ponds back in those days and have seen a couple rarities there, so when Billy and I were down in Ventura for Thanksgiving with nothing better to do, we lurked into the ponds for a check up. No one thinks of this place as an amazing vague runt trap, but these are the sewage ponds of my heart.

This site is not quite as birdy as it used to be, in part because it used to have some additional ponds that were entirely removed. As we walked out, I lamented the loss of these ponds, which always used to have a flock of Bonaparte's Gulls...which are mellow, entertaining and elegant birds in and of themselves, but when you have Bonaparte's Gulls, there is always hope for rarities like Black-headed and Little Gulls. Bonaparte's Gulls were a thing of the past at this location though (and practically anywhere in the county, in numbers anyway), and so was almost all hope of ever getting Black-headed and Little Gulls again.

I pitifully bemoaned the loss of the Bonaparte's ponds to Billy as we walked out...and within 30 seconds, lo and behold, there was a flock of Bonaparte's feeding in front of us. Not 30 seconds after that, a small gull zipped by with a neat black cap and a giant black "M" across its wings...could it be? No...it was too good to be true...

I continued to watch the bird as it flew back and forth. Surely I was having a brain aneurysm and was hallucinating some field marks...no, they are real, this was no mutant Bonaparte's...maybe this is a young Black-legged Kittiwake then, because surely it can't be what I think it is...no...it is a juvenile Little Gull. What the fuck? Not only was this a self-found state bird, more importantly I knew it was the first Little Gull to be found in Ventura County since the 80's!

I couldn't believe it...a sweet sweet Ventura County bird, and a sweet sweet California bird...those milestones are not supposed to intersect anymore. It was also only the fourth Little Gull I'd seen anywhere...brilliant. Once my mind finally accepted what my eyes were seeing, my body was rocked with multiple birdgasms. I'm not afraid to admit it. This wasn't a crippler, not a facemelting bird, but it was absolutly stunning...once again, I was reminded of the true power The Economy of Style can unleash on a hapless birder.

Little Gull is a Bird Police review species in California; while there are a small handful of sites where they have shown up multiple times, in most of the state they are considered a MEGUH, at least on a county level. In Ventura County, this bird has long been thought of a major blocker...if you were not one of the few birders to see the first two birds back in the day, you were probably never going to see one in the county at all...they are just absurdly rare anywhere on the California Coast.

What are they doing in California at all? They aren't "Sibes" in the traditional sense; you won't find them along Russia's Bering Sea coastline, or in Japan for that matter. They have a tiny breeding population in North America, so there is a possibility that most (all?) of California's records are from misoriented migrants bravely barging their way east from the interior East Asian population.

Here is a first-cycle Bonaparte's Gull in comparison. Bonaparte's molt out of juvenile plumage very quickly, and by the time young birds reach California in fall almost all of them are well into their first pre-basic molt. The dark trailing edge of the underwing is not present on Little Gull in any plumage.

I found my hands were shaking as I went to text some local nerds about this bird. That's not hyperbole, that's just embarrassing. It's been some years since a rarity has so readily disabled me.

Luckily, the bird stayed put in the same pond for the entire day, and as far as I know everyone who looked for it that afternoon got good looks. Even Officer Searcy made it in time, all the way from Edwards Air Force Base. It was good to Share The Rare with old birder friends, and to find one of Ventura's top birds of the year during a brief incursion to my ancestral county...comparisons to Douglas MacArthur were made, and understandably so.

The Little Gull fueled up on hapless bait fish all afternoon. The next day, Thanksgiving, it had vanished, and many birders who ditched family to make the chase left empty-eyed and broken-hearted...their sacrifices and family betrayals were all in vain.  Indeed, for the birders who were seeking the Little Gull as a substitute for friends and family, it was truly a tragic day...but to be fair, spending time with a vague runt Little Gull could be a lot more appealing than being trapped with ornery relatives.

What a bird! Hopefully it will not take another twenty-seven (27) (!) years for one to grace the shores of Ventura County again.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Puerto Rico Winter Tour Y2K16: La Parguera, Maricao, Puerto Rican Nightjar, Laguna Cartagena

In the afternoon, we called it quits at Cabo Rojo and headed east to La Parguera for some good old-fashioned geri birding. The "hardware store" in La Parguera was easy enough to find, though not so easy to identify correctly. For anyone heading that way, this is what it looks like. You see, BB&B is here to help.

Why were we here? This was the easiest and most reliable place for Yellow-shouldered Blackbird. On the right side of the store, they toss out bread every day to feed the doves/icterids, and Yellow-shouldered Blackbirds are expected among the visitors. Well it turned out we got there way too early, but eventually the bread went out and the blackbirds came in.

Success! Another endemic down. We didn't see very many, and unfortunately 2-3 of the birds we did see (in other words, about half) had growths on their faces that looked a lot like avian pox. It was a bummer...I'm not sure what exactly it was or how they contracted their afflictions, but I suspect feeding them there may not be the best idea...they are endangered and not exactly thriving. We had a much better experience with them a couple days later someplace else, which I will get to in the next Puerto Rico post.

The next morning was just a total clusterfuck. There is no other way to describe it, although we did lifer Puerto Rican Vireo in the process. Not only did we get lost, we also definitely would have gotten ourselves stuck if not for being able to use 4X4. Google Maps was our enemy that day. We were trying to get to the Maricao forest, sanctuary of the Elfin-woods Warbler and supposedly one of the best places to bird...well it turns out getting there from the south is easy (go to Sabana Grande, take 120 all the way there), but that is the only way you can go! Don't even think about trying any other horseshit, unless it is from the town of Maricao itself (north of the forest).

We did finally make it, first stopping at a little unused track that goes north of 120 at the 13 km marker. We got great looks at Puerto Rican Vireos, which are not dissimilar from Eastern Bell's Vireo.

We couldn't ask for better looks really, so this was very satisfying. After getting vireo'd, the next bird we saw was a female Elfin-woods Warbler...holy shit! I thought those birds were supposed to be hard! A Green Mango was flitting around, and a little while later Dipper Dan and Officer Searcy found the male Elfin right on the main road.

If I was British, I would tell you that the views we had of this bird was superb. I'm not though, so the views we had were fucking sick. The bird was very cooperative, not being in any rush to get anyplace, and wasn't acting that much different than a typical warbler. Before I knew what was happening, it was already too late...I had birdgasmed.

I like this photo because it is confusing. Behold the No-headed Warbler ("No-faced" subspecies).

Though it lacks the power to melt face or cripple body and mind, seeing this bird well was one of the highlights of the trip for me. It is only found in higher altitudes on the island, and Maricao is the one really reliable place for it...had we missed it, we would have come right back up the next morning. It was first discovered in 1969, which is astoundingly recent. These idols of inconspicuousness managed to remain safely unidentified for an incredibly long time.

The rest of Maricao was...disappointing. It turns out middle of day is not always best time to make for greatest of bird. We had some mediocre road birding elsewhere, but the area around the ranger station was quite dead (though Officer Searcy did get another Elfin here), and we got kicked out of one of the recommended birding trails. There was some sort of bizarre operation going on that involved some biologists doing something bird-related who did not want to talk about what was happening, I don't know exactly what they were doing but it looked interesting. Which is not what needs to be talked about...the point is that I'm sure the birding is better earlier in the morning. We were bummed to not pick up anything else new for the trip (at this point, not seeing Lesser Antillean Pewee was getting stressful), but we got the bird that mattered most and headed down to roll the dice on Masked Duck.

Dipper Dan and I knew the fix was in even before we got out of the Jeep. We knew how the Masked Duck game works...the Masked Duck wins every time and anyone else playing eats shit. Simple. And so we made a long, hot walk through the mud (the roads were way too wet to drive) to the known Masked Duck pond in Lajas Valley. There were some crappy exotics, Least and Pied-billed Grebes, a Purple Gallinule (trip bird!), a rail that scurried over the aquatic plants that went unidentified (this is a good spot for Yellow-breasted Crake as well...dammit). No duck, as expected.

At least the incoming storm was nice to look at. I got stuck in the mud at one point on the way back (how embarrassing!), but at least we made it back to the Jeep before the rain really hit and no one had broken into it. Success? No.

Life is pain.

Maybe I will have another chance at Masked Duck in 2017. Or 2018. Does it really matter? I'm not going to see one.  Anyways, after our unsurprising failure we made the brilliant decision of quitting birding for the rest of the afternoon instead of hiking to another pond through the mud where we would not see Masked Duck again, and retreated to our place in Guanica. We got dinner fixins at a grocery store, chilled for an hour, then set the next nerdplan into action.

The good thing about staying where we were is that we were right next to the Guanica Dry Forest. El Seco is good for daylight birding and all, but what that really means is that we were staying right next to Puerto Rican Nightjars, which are pretty much endemic to this rare and restricted habitat type. Instead of looking for them where most people do, we turned east on 333 and slowly drove with the windows down, listening...we had them within 5 minutes! We heard multiple individuals and had great looks at one, though we lack photos to prove it...

The stretch of road around 17.957622, -66.869134 was quite good for them. I couldn't believe our luck, they were remarkably easy to find considering this species was thought to be extinct for a considerable span of time. How often do you get to see a species that has come back from the dead. Nocturnal [e]mission complete!

The next morning it was off to Laguna Cartagena, one of the best wetland sites on the island. White-winged Parakeet was a reluctant lifer en route. We approached from the only recommended entrance point, turning south off 101 at 18.028426, -67.109147. This is a straight shot down to the western access points of the refuge, but the road was covered in vast, deep puddles...it would not have been possible to barge this in a sedan, but we had no problem with the jeep. We made it to the trail to the tower without any problems.

There were a great many butterflies here...here is a buckeye thingy.

I think this here is a cracker thingy.

This American Kestrel (not a thingy) was following the trogon methodology of domain surveying.

When we first got to the tower, I was kind of disappointed...the laguna is highly filled in with sediment and vegetation, but with persistent scoping we found some ducks and gallinules in the smaller, more open pockets that hadn't been choked out by reeds and shrubs.

The tower really did provide a good view, as Officer Searcy demonstrates. Most importantly, it allowed us to find West Indian Whistling-Ducks (many!), which are very uncommon on Puerto Rico and not at all something that was guaranteed...this lifer helped make up for the lack of Masked Duck, which presumably can also be found in this large wetland. Dipper Dan even found a pair of whistling-ducks with ducklings, for bonus bird points. Other trip birds we got here included Ring-necked Duck, Ruddy Duck, Black-crowned Night-Heron, and Sora.

[Insert caption here]

After the tower, we walked another trail from the entrance road out into the marsh (18.012569, -67.108868). The "trailhead" is well-marked, and a short distance north of the parking area for the tower. It is very overgrown but there was still some decent visibility toward the end. Fortunately, some West Indian Whistling-Ducks were holding things down, and although not hell of close I did my best to soak them in with my eyes.

West Indian Whistling-Duck and Glossy Ibis (trip bird!) combo. I really like that combo.

The marshes here are absolutely saturated with Purple Gallinules, I don't think I've ever seen so many in one place.

I've still never dealt one the crushing this species deserves, but I think you get the idea that these crippling blue bastards are just begging to be looked at. Why do they exist? How lucky are we to live in a world with Purple Gallinules?

Horrendously large numbers of butters here. Just terrible. Plagues of them. It was great.

Our eBird checklist for the morning is here. The birding had been very rewarding, and we were whistling-duck heroes...but there would be more heroics and more lifers before the day was done.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Fulfilling Destiny: The Five Mile Challenge

Last week I decided to take an impromptu day off...it had been raining day after day on end, we were finally going to get a break, and I wasn't very busy at work. It turns out when you are about to have a kid, you unexpectedly get a bunch of free time on your hands right before your fetus levels its warrior and becomes a baby. Anyways, I was twitching to go birding, and not just any kind of birding...I had a Five Mile Challenge (5MC) to do.

Flycatcher Jen had already carried out her challenge, getting 60 species despite below freezing conditions. She had threatened to attempt another challenge with a more intimidating species total, but the better weather she was hoping for never came. Portland currently resembles the North Pole more than the North Pole does. While 60 species was commendable considering the conditions she was stuck with, I thought that it would take a very bizarre turn of events for me to not exceed that number. I don't know my Five Mile Radius (5MR) like the back of my hand, but let's acknowledge the elephant in the room...I am the #7 birder in the United States. So, banking on my sevenness, I did what I thought was best and decided to plunge into the challenge, even though a storm had not quite finished passing through.

Unfortunately, when I arrived at my first site that fateful morning, I was essentially birding in a rain cloud. It sucked. 25 minutes spent at Lake Anza in Tilden Regional Park ended up being a total waste, with only 17 species, all of which I would see again during 5MC. I also missed target birds like Belted Kingfisher and Ring-necked Duck. Ugh...if I had to do it over again, Lake Anza would be out. So much for sevenness.

The next stop was another part of Tilden Regional Park, Jewel Lake and the area around the nature center. The weather was still pretty wet and dismal. This stop was supposed to provide the bread and butter for my passerines for the day, an area my 5MR is not particularly strong in. Fortunately, the birding here didn't end up being as regretful as it was at Lake Anza...Band-tailed Pigeon, Red-breasted Sapsucker and Purple Finch were all quality pickups, and by the time I abandoned Tilden I was up to a modest 35 species. I had missed some easy birds, but I figured that I could just wallop the bayshore sites and make my 5MC list swollen with waterbirds.

The Emeryville Marina was my next stop, which I had timed to be at high tide to pick up roosting shorebirds. Day birds came at a rapid clip...everything was proceeding as I had foreseen.

This was my only place to get Surfbird, a plump west coast specialty which did not disappoint. This roost site is one of the few reliable spots for Surfbird in Alameda County.

The godwits and Willets also sheltered Whimbrels, dowitchers and Black Turnstones. Redhead was definitely the best bird at this stop, and a completely unexpected bonus for the 5MC. The total lack of scoters was worrying, but I figured I would pick them up elsewhere.

An impromptu stop at Aquatic Park in Berkeley was next. I've never birded here before...is that weird? A lot of people bird here. Anyways, I'm glad I stopped because I just piled on more and more day birds, a number of which I didn't get anywhere else that day. I finally got my 5MC Great Blue Heron, which was my first of 2017...what a relief. However, as I had been anticipating for months, one of the locking arms in my tripod finally gave out, meaning that my tripod could only function if I was sitting down or on my knees. This was an ominous turn of events...would this end up crippling my effort?

Berkeley Meadows was the next stop. A distant woodpecker frustratingly had to go down as Downy/Hairy, but White-tailed Kite, Say's Phoebe and Lincoln's Sparrow were all new for the day. A flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers held another new 5MC species...

Mmmmmm...Western Bluebirds. This was one of the few sources of facemelt I got to experience during 5MC. With a decent haul from the meadow, Berkeley Marina would make for another quick stop as it was right next door. The Berkeley Fishing Pier is still closed (railer), but I finally got my Surf Scoters, and Downy Woodpecker, Golden-crowned Kinglet and Red-winged Blackbird all made for quality bonus birds.

By this time, I knew I had surpassed Flycatcher Jen's total...it was just a matter of if I had done well enough to be out of reach of This Machine Nate yet. Since I don't have an iphone, the eBird app doesnt keep a day list for me, so I didn't quite know how I was doing. At any rate, it was time for a sandwich.

Getting a sandwich from Sea Breeze Deli (next to the marina) was very fortunate, in part because they make damn fine sandwiches, but also because I got another day bird behind the parking lot...Greater White-fronted Goose. Fuck yes...I was on a roll. Talk about the stars aligning! Ok GWFG isn't a monumental rarity or anything but it's locally rare and was one of the best birds of the challenge.

By now it was mid-afternoon, so after getting goosed I thought I should stop by the Albany Mudflats real quick to finish my sandwich and take advantage of the falling tide...Northern Pintail, American Avocet, Long-billed Curlew, and Mourning Dove were all new birds. At this point I felt invincible...I still did not know what my 5MC list was at, but it had to be over 70 and I still had to bird Meeker Slough, Richmond Marina, and the Albany Bulb...I was going to kill it. Who knows how many more birds awaited? But before I could go on to the next stop, I got a text message. This text message turned out to be life-changing. I knew, then and there, that the 5MC was over for me...there was something very important to do, something that could not wait, something that might not ever happen again in my entire life.

I know what you are thinking...no, Billy did not go into labor during the 5MC...that would make for a great story, but something even more unexpected had happened...a Ross's Gull had been found in Half Moon Bay, and that is where I had to be.

But that is for another post. My 5MC was completed with over two and a half hours of daylight remaining. I had missed a lot of birds, even taking into account my abbreviated day...Bushtit, Pacific Wren, American Pipit, Savannah Sparrow, American Goldfinch come to mind first...as I said, passerines are not the strong suit of my 5MR. But none of that matters now...I am the winner of the 5MC.

I just figured out my 5MC list while writing this post. I saw a lot of birds...I did not think I would get as many as I did, and now I know that it is possible to do a Big Day in my 5MR and get over 100 species...that's pretty fucking sick, don't you think? The final stats are: six hours, no help, no chased birds, no naps, no poops, some farts, one Contra Costa County bird (Red-breasted Sapsucker), one new 5MR bird (Redhead), one thermos of coffee, one ginger ale, one hella good sandwich, one awkward couple getting into a fight because their dog got loose, 40 year birds...and 86 species, most of which were in Alameda County, though 20 species were recorded in Contra Costa only.

I am the king of the 5MC. It is an honor and a privilege. I love getting 86'd, who knew it would be so good? Though I am a birding champion, props to Jen for making the 5MR a thing that seems to be catching on fast. You can read about Flycatcher Jen's effort here, and This Machine Nate's attempt with near-identical total over here - it is good to see him blogging again.

Well I would like to stick around and gloat, but I need to pick out my prizes...