Thursday, April 19, 2018


A person can only endure so many Yellow-rumped Warblers before they break, and I am about 11 Yellow-rumped Warblers away from breaking. Time for some Chestnut-sided Warblers to make everything better. Photographed at South Padre Island, Texas.

Yard birding, 5MRs and county listing are well and good...but sometimes you need to get the fuck out of Dodge, know what I mean? And I have been spending a lot of time in Dodge lately, being very loyal to a small territory, much like a California Towhee.

Despite my resemblance to a California Towhee, I am no more of a California Towhee than you are. I am not confined to the same patch of oak woodland-coastal scrub-suburbia for my entire life..always looking down at my feet, shunning mixed flocks, knowing not what lies beyond a particular bay laurel shrub or fenceline. I am not a California Towhee, but a neotropical migrant...and so my instincts tell me it is time to descend from upon a life-giving migrant trap, and a few in particular come to mind this time of year.

Spring has been very kind to me so far, mostly in the form of a lot of county birds and wildflowers. No complaints about what Santa Clara County has produced in the last few weeks, and I'm sure I'll be paying the price and missing some other county birds while I'm gone...but these are prices I am willing to pay! For most often the truly great birding does not come to you, you must seek it out.

With that in mind, I have been asked to once again lead a trip for MAX REBO BIRDING TOURS, this time to that bastion of geri birding, the Upper Texas Coast! I have even been told that MAX REBO himself may join our group as a coleader for a couple of, our participants will be in for a treat! He could even bring out the famous red ball jet organ, but you may have to buy him a couple of drinks to get him to play, ho ho!  MAX will leave most of the scouting and leading to me though, and I am happy to oblige. 

Check right here for more details, in case you missed it. BB&B will be back in May with a full trip report! Happy April!

Thursday, April 12, 2018


April means a lot of things to a lot of people, but one thing it means around these parts is the departure of the Zonotrichia. Golden-crowned and White-crowned Sparrows make up such a large proportion of the passerine avifauna in northern California for so much of the year, it's always strange to realize one spring day that they are gone until September. Well, nuttalli White-crowned Sparrows don't migrate, but you know what I'm saying.

Both of these birds are common feeder attendants here at Rancho de Bastardos, so of course I am always checking them for a White-throated or a Harris's while I still can, or something even more unexpected...and the unexpected did finally arrive. Last week I was surprised to see the bird pictured above.

This is a newly-arrived migrant that has made a prolonged stopover here at the Rancho. It has been here over a week now, and is easily discernible with the naked eye from the living room. At first I thought it was just a slightly aberrant White-crowned Sparrow, but there is more weird to it than just the almost entirely missing postocular line.

Also surprising is the amount of contrasting white in the throat and malar area, and the thin black crown stripes.

The bill is pinkish, distinctly different from the other orangey-billed White-crowneds that populate the Rancho.

View of the back of the head.

It's a weird bird. I've never seen a great number of White-crowned Sparrows and have never seen one like this. It's the same size as a White-crowned, though does seem bulkier at times. It's definitely not molting, it's a very fresh, bright looking bird. I heard and saw it sing once, and it sounded pretty much like the other White-crowns here.

Right. Don't worry any longer, I will ask The Question you have all been waiting it a hybrid? Could it be that great unicorn of the Zonotrichia, a White-throated X White-crowned Sparrow? An F2 even?

Well, this isn't a quiz bird. Your guess is as good as mine, or better....or potentially far worse, depending on who you are. Let's be honest. I don't have total and complete confidence in identifying it, this is essentially a new bird for me. It's worth mentioning that sometimes the bird gives off a very White-throated vibe, appearing very plump and having a long, flattened crown in profile. If it is "just" a White-crowned, it sure has a lot of mutant characters appearing all at once.

I am inclined to say that this is a hybrid. For reference, I checked eBird of course...there are a total of four White-throated X White-crowned Sparrows with photographs in eBird. One is obviously a Golden-crowned Sparrow and is hopefully being purged as I type this, but the others bear a significant resemblance to this bird. Notably, they all have the minimal (vestigial???) postocular line, though it is such a bold feature on both parent species.

What do you think? In any case, it's fun to have such a weird bird lurking around here at Rancho de Bastardos and have the chance to study it at length.

In case you are wondering, the Golden-crowned Sparrows are looking sharp now. No study required, only appreciation.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Rancho, Rarities, Radii and Rebo

Christ on a cross! Should I just quit while I'm ahead? Put BB&B to sleep forever? The 5MR post has quickly shot up to the third most popular post we've ever had...and in case you've forgotten, that is ten years of blogging, close to 1,000 posts! What have I been doing with my life?! The only more popular posts are LIFE IS PAIN (thanks to Reddit) and RISE OF THE STORM WIGEON (thanks to birders and hunters).

Well, I'm not sure how to follow that up, so I suppose I can just cover some recent birding, which I've practically stopped doing somehow...blogging about it, that is.

March vagues. Well, somehow suddenly spring is here. It's been a real slow winter for yours truly as far as vague runts go, but the previous winter featured a Ross's Gull, so I can live with that. While great for wildflowers and so-so for spring migrants, this month is a mediocre (and I'm being generous with that adjective) time in the state for seeing chronic rarities. There have been a handful of notable exceptions in the state recently though...but I'm sure as shit not going to chase the goddamn Gyrfalcon again, which was well photographed this month and is quite possibly still here. As usual, Humboldt/Del Norte sucked in another winter MEGA in the form of a Black-tailed Gull, which (this year) is too far for me to see. A more-or-less-confirmed Steller's Eider has been seen by several observers in Humboldt County, which would fulfill a prophecy made by a certain visionary birder back in November. I would be exceptionally gripped off if other birders were having much luck refinding it, but high surf, bad weather and a lack of an elevated viewpoint is preventing that from happening...but I could really use seeing a megaeider right about now.

Closer to home instead of Nome, I dipped on a Slaty-backed Gull over the weekend here in Santa Clara County, which is very typical for me and that species - in general, February and March seems like a great time to find them in the state though. It's only the second in the county, but with all the gulls that winter here and the relatively few observers around who could identify one, I suspect they are here with some regularity. The bizarre, long-staying Garganey may have finally left its duck pond (mostly a Mallard pond) down south, as it has not been seen for a week.

Inexplicably, this year has been heavy on Bald Eagles for me so far, despite putting in no effort to see them (very nice, I like) - I've seen three from my yard alone! This one was next to my house at the Los Capitancillos Ponds.

This Anna's Hummingbird had the brilliant idea of building a nest right next to my hummingbird about convenience! She was able to incubate eggs while protecting her feeders at the same time. I suspect the chicks got eaten though :/

Rancho de Bastardos. The yard birding is pleasant as usual, but it has been a long time since a new bird has been added to the yard list. The most recent highlight was a California Towhee with a white head that bounded through the yard. The yard list sits at 120 species (newest addition was Red-breasted Merganser in January), with 87 recorded so far this year...that is tied for #1 in all of California, by the way. With spring migration in effect, I'm hoping it won't be long before we get something new...Orange-crowned Warbler, Bullock's Oriole, Allen's or Rufous Hummingbird would be nice.

March is a good time for scouring your 5MR. This White-tailed Kite was along the Los Alamitos Creek Trail, a part of my radius that I plan on giving more attention to this year.

The 5MR. What's funny (in a sad way) is that I've seen and heard about a ton of other 5MRs in the last week or so as this thing has blown up, and it turns out mine is one of the worst of them all in terms of potential for species diversity and rarities. No matter, I will keep on toiling! Incredibly, my last new 5MR bird (Rufous Hummingbird) was also a county bird....fuck yeah.

Winter rarities. As I said earlier, I've given up on catching the blog up on all the birding I've done...but it's not like it's been a completely dull winter, despite the lack of lifers and state birds. Here's some of the rarities I've met up with from the past few months.

I was hoping that this Barrow's Goldeneye (surrounded by Commons) would return to Shoreline Lake this winter, and the dude obliged. Nice county bird, and typically a species I only see a handful of times each year anyways.

After seeing the goldeneye, I bumped into this "Common" Teal in Charleston Slough, which I had totally forgotten was present. Sweet. We Nearcticans think of them as just another subspecies (or two, can't forget nimia), but the IOC treats them as a separate species. Will the AOS ever be persuaded to embrace this vision of distinct tealness?

Vesper Sparrows are really hard to come by in the bay area; they just don't venture to the coast very often. This obliging and confiding stub-tailed bastard at La Honda Creek Open Space Preserve (San Mateo County) was the first I've seen locally.

I went to San Luis National Wildlife Refuge for the first time this winter; it was mellow, not as birdy as Merced, but this Swamp Sparrow at a random part of the auto tour route was a nice find. It is only the 8th eBirded record for Merced County, though I'm sure with the amount of good habitat out there they occur on the reg.

This Vermilion Flycatcher wintering in Coyote Valley is the first Santa Clara County record, and was a great way to kick off local birding in 2017. This species has become considerably more regular in much of the state since when I started birding in the mid-90's, even factoring in the increase in observers.

And just like that, winter is singing its swan song and spring will be in full effect before you can say "five mile radius". I look forward to the year birds....and county birds! I didn't get out a ton in Santa Clara last spring, for reasons too boring to state here, but this year is different.

Of course, spring birding is really going to be kicked up a notch when I get out to Texas to lead a trip for MAX REBO BIRDING TOURS (no one finds Ortolans like Ortolans!), where every day will cough up all manner of avian rewards. I will be gagging on neotropical migrants. It will be truly gluttonous birding, even with slow days at the migrant traps. And while I mention it, a space just opened up on the trip...don't miss this opportunity!

Contact MAX REBO BIRDING TOURS for details.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Five Mile Radius

The Five Mile Radius. Is there anything more chic in the birding world right now? Let me answer that for No there is not. But if you are still in the dark about this transformative approach to birding, I am happy to enlighten you.

The lists birders keep are mostly based on temporal (big day, year, big sit) and geopolitical (ABA, country, Lower 48, state, county) boundaries that were generally decided on by people who are long dead. The big exception is, of course, patches. A patch can be anything...a tiny park, a huge national wildlife refuge, a whole cluster of sites...there are no rules or borders to conform to. A list for your Five Mile Radius (5MR) is basically a cumulative list of all the birds you can find within five miles of your house - a patchwork of local patches, if you will. Simple, right?

Unlike my last 5MR, which had close to no fresh water birding spots at all, the new 5MR has numerous ponds and a couple of lakes. Stoked - this certainly helps compensate for the lack of saltwater in my new radius. I've already had all three merganser species within the 5MR, including this snazzy leucistic Common Merganser. Photographed at Almaden Lake.

Here is the pasty wonder with a typical female for comparison.

The idea (my interpretation) is that you should bird a lot within your 5MR, because almost everyone should be birding more locally than they already are. Less fuel burned, less time in the car, less going to the same old places where everyone else goes. If you think it is fun to get to know the birds of your county (let's face it, that is definitely your idea of a good time), then just think of the joy and ecstasy of mastering the status and distribution of birds within 5 miles of where you live! Plus it gets you exploring more, and what can be more rewarding than finding a gem of a hotspot or a gem of a rarity in your own backyard, so to speak? If you are wondering what your own 5MR may encompass for you, it can easily be displayed in Google Earth, which you can download for free (use the ruler tool, then select the circle tab). The simple but radical concept of a 5MR was created by Flycatcher Jen of I Used To Hate Birds, and after simmering a couple years in the hearts and minds of other birders, its popularity is beginning to boil over. The birding Zeitgeist is moving on from big years, and right into the 5MR!

Red-naped Sapsucker is a nice, low-level rarity in much of the state, but a great bird for a 5MR! This is also the only one I've seen in the county so far. Photographed at Almaden Lake, where it also wintered 2017-2018.

As a major arbiter and birding trendsetter, BB&B is more than happy to be a proud sponsor of the 5MR, and as a sponsor I have been very active within my own 5MR lately. I moved to San Jose less than a year ago, leaving behind a rather short-lived 5MR that included the Berkeley Hills and extensive bayshore areas in Alameda and Contra Costa counties - this is where the now-classic Five Mile Challenge went down, where I trounced Flycatcher Jen in Portland, OR, and This Machine Nate in Austin, TX. It wasn't a fantastic 5MR, but it was pretty good. So what is up with this new Santa Clara County 5MR? Well, that's it right there at the top of this post, you can see what it looks like. Basically, more than half of my radius is terrible, soul-crushing urban/suburban sprawl with a handful of greenbelts and one potentially interesting county park that I haven't been to yet. Pretty shitty from a birding/ecology perspective, there is no way around it, though I'm sure there there are some other parks up there that could yield some surprises. But the southern half of the 5MR looks very different....much of it is comprised of county parks and publicly accessible open space.

Western Bluebirds are abundant in the southern half of my new 5MR, seemingly present everywhere I bird. Can't complain! Photographed at Vasona Lake County Park.

Visiting birders often want to know where to find California Thrasher - for years I didn't have any great recommendations, but now I have spots for them within my very own 5MR! There is lots of readily accessible chaparral and scrub in my radius, and so there are readily accessible thrashers. Photographed on the Alamitos Creek Trail.

Human-tolerant Green Herons can easily be found at many sites. Photographed at Vasona Lake County Park.

Black-crowned Night-Herons abound as well. My hopes and dreams of discovering a wandering Yellow-crowned have so far not been met, but I am going to keep looking and looking and looking and looking. And looking. This half of the state is overdue for another one. Photographed at the Los Capitancillos Ponds.

Shorebirds are extremely hard to come by in my 5MR, but I am happy to say there is no shortage of gulls. There are several sites where one can comb through 1000+ gulls (with Herring being the most abundant), and to be honest, the rarity potential is scary high...I would be surprised if there wasn't a Slaty-backed or Lesser Black-backed somewhere around here. Iceland Gulls are pleasantly common as well. Photographed at Los Gatos Creek County Park. 

There are hordes of Canada Geese about, which act as bait for other species of geese to settle in. This young Greater White-fronted Goose was at Los Gatos Creek County Park. This is another species I've seen only in my 5MR in the county.

A handful of statistics; out of the very modest (sub-modest?) 225 species I've seen in this county so far, I've recorded 143 of those in my 5MR, which is 64% of my entire county total. Not so bad eh? My previous Albany 5MR was left at 149, and god willing, the Rancho de Bastardos 5MR will top that in a few months. I no longer have saltwater habitats available, which are powerful weapons to deploy in 5MRs, but the sheer number of ponds and semi-intact upland habitats I have at my disposal should get me there soon...spring migration is already underway, after all. Of course, my incredible yard list has a part to play in all of this too, but that is for another post.

I couldn't find any when I went to the east coast in October, but luckily a Black-throated Blue Warbler was waiting for me when I got back home! Brilliant. Without a doubt, this is the best bird I've seen in my new 5MR so far and it seems unlikely that I will be seeing another one in the county any time soon. Photographed next to the Santa Clara Valley Water District pond.

So what do you have to lose? Dare to be different. Draw up your own 5MR and start tearing it up. Bird it relentlessly. Become one of those "local experts" you've always heard so much about. Reap the rewards (and savings!) of being a patch-pummeler. If you want to be weird and do a 3MR or a 9MR instead, no one will stop you (not even the bird police!)...or you could be part of the 5MR movement, and join me in shaking up the birding world with a new kind of list. It's a lot more fun to compare your 5MR with someone else's, after all. To that effect, birders in Los Angeles County are even doing a year long competition of sorts with a bunch of new 5MRs sprouting up, which is fantastic!

Come join us and draw up your 5MR today. Depending on where you live, birding your 5MR may not be the most glorious kind of birding, but you will quickly find it scratching an itch that you may never have known you had.

Monday, February 26, 2018

A Nice Refreshing Winter Dip (Or Two)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love year birds.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

In The Absence of Hawks

Drive out in the darkness and turn the dial until you find the preacher. The one who spits fire. Turn him down to a low flame. Take only the fire and leave the fuel for others.

Head east until the exit where the bloated bovine lies between the off-ramp and the interstate. A sandy road winds north from the large pullout at the end of the ramp. A popular spot for long haulers to spend the night, as evidenced by the dozens of plastic bottles filled with piss strewn about. Trucker bombs, the colloquial term. They begin to peter out as you move further from the pavement. A final cluster of them at about the distance a grown man could throw a quart bottle filled with liquid. Head north.

Now it is just the sand and the preacher. An occasional nighthawk erupting from beside the path and twisting in the headlights.

Bump out along the creosote as the mountains around you begin to take form.  Change the station. Find the cantina horns that stumble woozily out of the speakers, swaying with the truck. Attempt a sip of coffee. Scan the area for your mark. There, the stake and the flag. The chair in the dirt. Cut the engine but let the horns sway some more.

It is early May in the Little Colorado Desert, and somehow someone is paying me to watch hawks from this particular point on the earth. There has been a proposed energy project for this area. Two large towers, 300 feet tall and topped with bulbs full of oil, with mirrors surrounding the towers and aimed at the the bulbs. The concentrated heat of the mirrors boil the oil and turbines are spun and energy is generated, stored, sold and distributed. This is the plan. But first the land and sky must be studied.

The authorities that grant permission for this type of commerce require data. There is concern that this area is within a migration corridor, that great rivers of hawks and songbirds use it on their movements to and from breeding grounds. There is concern that golden eagles, a bird not endangered but still heavily fortified by law, nest in the nearby mountains and hunt this patch of desert. There is concern that the mirrors and the boiling bulbs will interfere with these movements, this hunting. There are disconcerting rumors of raptors perching on the bulbs and their talons fusing to the glass.

Rumors that the overhead travellers mistake the mirrors for water and descend into the superheated air mass and are baked to exhaustion or death and plummet into their reflections...

Have another sip.

All is calm at this primordial hour. Indistinct forms coalescing into Something. Speciation. The articulation that light brings. Hear the kit foxes yipping, the den we found earlier in the month only a few hundred feet away. Jeez, look at all these holes. A conspiracy of burrows. And then two big ears and eyes staring from out of an opening. You’ve watched this family come and go, heart aching at the sounds of their calls, the magic trick of their disappearing into the earth. The wish to do the same as the sun climbs up and looks at you with all its might. The Grand Inquisitor in the sky, forcing confessions as it tracks westward. Eventually, you will tell it everything.

Exit the truck and start the hawk sit. Eight hours to go.

Every couple minutes scan the sky, interrogate the horizon. Repeat for the rest of the day. This is the elemental core of the job. To be a pair of eyes looking through a pair of eyes. The basic tool and assumption of scientific inquiry. To be eyes cut away from the heart. To be the eyes beyond your eyes. An eye distilled.

No hawks yet, as is normal for this hour.  A short walk to stretch the legs, achy from the time in the truck. An irregularity in the sand right below the next foot fall. On my knees and a fringe-toed lizard is blanketed under the sand, sister witness to the dawn, her eyes and mouth exposed periscope-like. This was another magic trick I saw the other day. A lizard darted across the sand and I gave chase. It crested a small dune, I did the same...and it suddenly wasn’t there. No bushes nearby to hide in. Bolts of sand rolled out in all directions. You simply saw it and then you didn’t. There are its tracks and there they are not. Scoop up the sand at the end of its trail and there it is. Rabbit in the hat.

Scan the sky. Trace the ridge with your binoculars. Dopplered sound of shifting rocks, maybe borregos picking their way through the skyline. Search the mountains face. A fissure of small cobbles, pebbles cascading down a steep ravine and terminating in a rubble pile. Lazy column of dust climbing out of the pile. The top becomes the bottom.

You feel it, the first rays of sun. The verdins voice, wilted laser, is this suntouch put to sound.
The soft, disembodied call of the LeConte’s thrasher, mimid of the sand barrens, starts up. Slight breeze and the sound of dunes moving against themselves, grating their grains into even smaller pieces. My shadow is thrown behind me long and skeletal. Spindly alien, marooned and starving, reduced to bones.

The sun is welcome and warming at this hour. A sip of coffee as the palo verde trees burn pink.

The first vultures of the day begin to move. They are floating off their night roosts and heading towards the carcass near the freeway. It’s been a project of theirs for days now, this roadside windfall. A favored breakfast stop before the real heat begins and rising thermals make flying easier.

A train of Swainson’s hawks is spotted about 300 hundred meters away to the southeast. Count them, gauge their height, scribble down the numbers, their direction of movement. Soak up their company, their beauty as they drift north. Impossible to sever the eyes completely from the the heart. Who would want to? I know many who have. A dark bird leads them, light morphs follow and another dark bird brings up the rear. Much melanin in these bookends. Intrepid travellers nearing the end of their northward migration. Perhaps the pampas of Argentina lie at the other end of this eternal loop as this species follows the bloom of grasshoppers across the hemispheres.

Pour another cup of coffee as you consider another traveller that passed through this desert, Juan Bautista de Anza and his band of friars, families and cattle. Road signs commemorate this hero and his historic trail throughout this area. A freeway now runs where he once rode. A car ride of a few hours takes you from Nogales to San Francisco, a journey that took him and his crew three and a half months to complete. On his trek, occasionally a bovine falters and is left behind, expired and bloating in the sun. Vultures wobbling above the carcass, learning that food sometimes follows in the wake of these strange, helmeted men on horseback. The party continues through the desert, encounters a tortoise lumbering amongst the wiry shrubs. In an attempt to lift the spirits of the expedition, Juan Bautista halts the party and has them surround the animal. The captain removes his helmet and places it on top of the ancient reptile. The sight of this slow moving beast capped with the high-ranking officers military hat brings delight to the party, the women giggling and the children bright-eyed and renewed. Juan Bautista makes a comparison between the devotion of their chore, to bring true religion and superior meats to San Francisco, and the nature of this unfaltering and consistent beast. The armor on its back that protects it from predators akin to the Faith that each person in the party holds close to their hearts that helps them thwart the temptations of the Devil in all its forms. Bautista ends this weighty moment by removing the helmet from the tortoise and placing it on the head of a small boy. The crowd erupts in laughter and grows hysterical as the explorer picks up the boy and puts him atop the tortoise. Vayan subiendo! Bautista cries and a great release ripples through the crowd as the difficulty of their task, the solemnity with which they are executing it, is leavened with humor. Later, another tortoise is encountered and promptly slaughtered by the soldier at the rear of the guard, it’s meat served to the people in its own shell.

A low flying falcon shakes me from the time travel. She veers off her course and loops high in the air, peeling off south. Down the data goes. A quick scan and the vultures are moving in all directions now. Some go north, bound for Oregon Territory, unwavering in their course, others move in groups floating over the washes and along the highway. Locals. At this distance they look like giant black butterflies tottering against the mountains.

The heat is real now. The sun well above the horizon and my shadow grows squat. Walk back to the truck for a drink of water, maybe a little snack. Can’t find either of my half gallon jugs. Small flame of panic as I tear through the truck. Not a drop. Only what is left in my thermos, another half cup of scalding coffee for the remaining 6 hours. Not a problem, really. I’ve got gas in the tank, I can always leave early, compromise the data, seek hydration. No problem to stick it out either. Juan Bautista and his company weathered much worse. Hell, they didn’t even have the coffee. I pour a cup and let it cool in the shade behind the tire of the truck.

A long period of low activity follows. Mandate of the desert. The hours of siesta. The morning movements and dawn chorus give way to a hot baking silence that lasts until the late afternoon. An occasional murmur from the interstate. A harsh, hand-buzzer scold from the resident shrike, Lanius, the butcher, as it drifts past.  On the hunt, looking to build it’s larder. Macabre collection of small birds, rodents and insects impaled on the thorns of an ironwood tree or barbed wire fence. The conquistadors would’ve found a kindred spirit in this animal, its larder decorated with perforated victims. It’s inquisition era mode of meat curing. The gentle and welcome breeze begins to build, not yet a fury. Soon though, the plastic bags in the surrounding shrubs will fly sideways in the windwhip. Skeletal bushes will cartwheel past comically, just like tumbleweeds in an old western. Someone is mumbling, their voice distorted in the noon heat. It was you talking, to yourself.

I go to drink the cooled coffee. It is full of grit and still warm. I pour the last cup and put it in the truck to let it cool in there.

Four hours to go.

Take your mind off the water concerns and stretch the legs a bit. A vague path continues away east from the truck. There are parallel paths, spaced a few feet apart. In the more compact soil, the faintest suggestion of treadmarks. These are Patton’s tank trails, now some 70 years olds, the movements still readable on the land. This is where the great general trained his men for the desert battles in North Africa. For Rommel drives on deep into Egypt. A museum on the interstate nearby commemorates the training, a few retired and weathered tanks visible from the road. This is where Patton came to learn about the desert, to prepare for the heat, the light. To get his head ready for its shifting sands. His men stopped nearby here, where I am standing, in a wash, finding shade under the ironwood trees. Smoking with their backs against the tank. A man spots a tortoise trundling by, takes a long last drag and goes to the reptile. He picks it up and carries it back to the group, the animals face barely visible within its shell. The man holding the tortoise makes a crack about the shared resemblance of the reptile and Churchill. Someone puts a helmet on the tortoise and poses for the camera. The animal is offered a cigarette. Patton strolls up, the surprised men snapping to attention. The General orders that someone find enlistment papers for this new recruit and the men have a nervous laugh. A man offers up the Churchill connection to The General and Patton responds that he sees more likeness with the prime minister’s wife. The men howl, their love for this man and his gruff wisdom and surprising humor and humanity growing with each passing day. Patton comes over towards the tortoise, crouches beside it. He tells his men that their task isn’t too much different from this fella right here. Our duty is to survive in the desert, to persevere. To endure the elements and the enemy. Only we’re gonna have a helluva lot more firepower then our friend here. More howls, whoops. Now back to to it, men. We got a date with some Nazis. The men disperse, their wills steeled and spirits renewed.

Later in the week, during target practice, a tortoise is sighted and the tank turret swivels, the gun barrel leveling on the animal. The slow swinging of the head mirrors the arc of the turret. Laborious chewing of a low growing borage. The boom travels through the washes and up the ravines of the surrounding mountains and the pillar of dust climbs towards a group of vultures rocking quietly above the desert floor.

Occasionally I find tortoise scutes, pieces of the shell scattered in the sand. Old holes, cobwebbed and home now to other critters. Maybe there are tortoises here, underground. Buried timekeepers, made into examples of longevity and stalwart resolve over the centuries. Made into meals. Strange tradition of having metal helmets placed on them. Culinary tradition of being baked in their own carapace.

The last cup of coffee is long gone and my lips cracked from licking them, the wind wicking them. This wind keeps building out of the east. A river of trash floats above the freeway, plastic shopping bags moving erratically above the traffic, spiraling upward in the wakes of the semis. Dust devils build, wrapping up twigs, dirt and plastics in their helices. The sun has baked my head, cracked it as if were made of desiccated clay. Sudden, unshakable truths are allowed to flood into it. These dust devils, they are the departing souls of snakes. Recently dead, this is their spirits departing. But where do serpents go when they die?

And the rising sand itself, it is being deposited back on the top of the mountain. And by combined force of freeze/thaw, the hooves of sheep and The Hours, it will trickle down to the valley floor again. The mountain is turning upside down. The top becomes the bottom. Just as the dune moves, grain by grain, as a slow wave across the flats, the mountain rolls like a terrible cartwheel across the earth. I am looking at a giant hourglass, the seconds and the minutes flooding down all around me.

The crushing weight of time is sudden and visceral. A burden defined. And now that it is named, its tyranny is unbearable. In the middle of nowhere, surrounded by wilderness, a claustrophobic expanse is tightening around me. An eye boiled.

Beneath the sun, a Prairie Falcon cuts south through the middle of the mountain. Blood dribbles, tick tick, from a desert iguana in her talons. Its dangled body dripping, watering the sand below.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Best Birding

Prairie birds have left a lasting, indelible mark on my soul. It didn't make the list today, but I highly recommend birding the prairies and wetlands of eastern Montana and western North Dakota during the warm months. This friendly Chestnut-collared Longspur was at Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Montana.

Great birding. Don't you love it? Is that question even necessary? I would argue that with all the different ways birders get their kicks now, it is. Now I'm not talking about watching a Black-backed Oriole of dubious origins at a Pennsylvania bird feeder, or driving 7 hours to chase a Northern Parula because it is in a county you have not seen one in before, or the time you had to elbow your way through a crowd of crazed photographers to see your first Snowy Owl...I'm talking about actual great birding. Birding that sticks with you for a lifetime, and the birding that will surface in your mind while you lie on your deathbed, if only for an instant. While some perpetually chase the rarity dragon (or the bizarre County Bird Dragon) without reprieve, others have seen the light and set aside time and resources in search of great birding. Truly great birding often means travel to faraway places and getting drenched in bucketloads of lifers, but not always! Just because familiarity breeds contempt doesn't mean some of the most monumental birding you've ever experienced could not have happened in your own state, or (if you are really lucky) your own county.

Every now and then I get asked about the best places I've birded, and that question is blog fodder without doubt. I've finally given it enough consideration, and so this post is birthed into the Birdosphere. Below, in no particular order, are the places where I've had the best birding experiences. I won't claim they are actually the best places in the world to bird or anything, but these are the places where I've had my greatest successes. It's a bit heavy on California (what do you expect?) and a bit light on Ecuador (never been there), but I had a lot of fun putting this list together. Lots of memories of good times, some bad, but without exception, fantastic birding.

El Cielo Biosphere Preserve (and environs), Mexico - Just like Justyn ("JUH-STEEN") did before me, I had my first taste of tropical birding at El Cielo Biosphere Preserve and surrounding areas in the state of Tamaulipas. The quality of the birding there was unlike anything I'd ever encountered north of the border...Singing Quail, Blue-crowned (now Blue-capped) Motmots, Blue Mockingbirds, Crimson-collared and Hooded Grosbeaks, tanagers galore, Crescent-chested and Fan-tailed Warblers, rampaging mixed flocks the size of Rhode Island, etc. Oh yeah, and this is all less than a day's drive from Texas! That's right, you can wake up in the United States, drive for a while, and be looking at Bat Falcons and Squirrel Cuckoos before the sun begins to set...for you birders wholly focused on the ABA Area, the birds of the Lower Rio Grande Valley are just the tip of the avian iceburg, if you know what I'm saying. Anyways, at some point while we were there I think my face completely melted off my head and dripped into the leaf litter; fragments were carried off into the underbrush by enterprising Spot-breasted Wrens and Gray-breasted Wood-Wrens. Birding there really messed with my priorities in life, and things have never been the same.

The ongoing war with the cartels in Tamaulipas is a huge bummer on many levels...birders essentially no longer having access to the entire state (for safety reasons) is a minor one compared to people dying and families being torn apart, but since we are birders it still sucks. I believe there are currently three cartels in the state currently warring with one another, not to mention warring with the Mexican government. I have no photos from here because one of the cartels relieved me of my camera later in the trip (not near the preserve). I'd absolutely love to come back to this place someday though, if and when things ever settle down.

Red-footed Boobies cuddle at their nest in a Naupaka bush on Eastern Island at Midway Atoll. How can you describe such faces? I suggest that they are "dreamy".

Midway Atoll -  I've blogged extensively about Midway here, so I'll keep this short and sweet. Being among the seabirds at Midway is amazing, and that is not hyperbole. The other birds there ain't bad either (i.e. Laysan Ducks, piles of Pacific Golden-Plovers, Bristle-thighed Curlews). The birding here is quality over quantity for sure - you will never rack up a huge species list, but your experiences with the birds that are here will stay with you forever. Nothing I can say really does it justice. I do hope I can go back someday, but in case I don't at least I won't miss the horrible centipedes. I hate them.

Braulio Carillo National Park (Quebrada Gonzales), Costa Rica - On my lone trip to Costa Rica (seems like it's time for another) I was able to cover a large part of the country, lifering constantly and finding great birding more days than not. With that said, the birding at this particular site really stands out in my mind still. Some of the best mixed flocks I've seen in my life have been here - they were nothing short of spectacular. I'm not even going to tell you what we saw, it won't come close to capturing the size and diversity of the flocks here. I didn't even bother trying to take photos of birds here - that's right, the birding was too good to even bother with photography. If you are going to find yourself birding the Sarapiqui region at any point, DO NOT miss this site.

Also, we totally dipped on Snowcap and Black-crested Coquette at a reliable site just down the road from there, and I'm still pretty torn up about it. Redemption and vindication on this front are much desired.

Almost everyone who has seen Buller's Shearwater well has become enamored with them, and I am no different. Can't wait to see more of these squid-fiends this year. Photographed somewhere west of Half Moon Bay.

Pelagic Trips out of Half Moon Bay, California - I've done more of these than I can remember, and some of them were pretty poor, but there have been so many good ones! We have had some truly great days out there. The seabird diversity can be fantastic, and it is one of the best places in the country to see large numbers of storm-petrels, which includes four regularly-occurring species. I've seen five murrelet species on those trips, and had the honor to be out on the water the day of the Salvin's Albatross. Looking forward to getting back out there.

Blackburnian Warbler is a big deal to a lot of people. This is totally justified. Photographed at the community center on South Padre Island.

South Padre Island, Texas - I've harped on this a lot over the years, but I cannot emphasize enough how different migration is in the western U.S. than it is in the east. There is a reason that California birders are like "oh spring will be here soon, I guess that's cool, some year birds are coming, Lazuli Buntings are pretty" and eastern birders are like "FUCK YES SPRING YES YES YES YES PLUNGE THE WARBLER SYRINGE INTO MY CHEST". Hell, the last BB&B post (RETURN OF THE GERI) was all about birding the Texas coast. Anyways, this is a great migrant trap and I got really addicted to birding there during spring migration, but it's all done in a pretty strange setting.

Yellow-throated Warbler was one of many migrants that had a layover at Garden Key in Dry Tortugas National Park. I can see why everyone goes in spring, but I was pleasantly surprised at the diversity of species recorded on a multi-day October trip.

Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida - I was there in October for several days (we camped)...a great time was had by all, and though some days were better than others, the birding was generally very satisfying. No one really birds it in fall, so I didn't know what to expect, but I left with a full heart and a sizable island list. Talk about a scenic migrant trap, goddamn! What a fun place to bird. Some of the newly arrived migrants were really tame, such as the Black-throated Blue Warbler that landed on our picnic table and the Ovenbird that foraged beneath it. There weren't even any Sooty Terns or noddies around (we were too late in the season) and the drip wasn't even running (I overheard some poorly uninformed woman who worked there claim it would prevent birds from migrating south for the winter...astounding), and it was still pretty sick. Need to go back in spring.

A Black Skimmer pulls up after slicing through the waters of Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge (Wister Unit) at the Salton Sea.

The Salton Sea, California - The Salton Sea has a special place in the hearts of many. There is nowhere else like it, especially when you consider the human aspects, landscape, habitats, smells and birds as a whole. Birding the sea used to be, well, phenomenal. The sheer numbers of birds was staggering. It's still pretty good, but water levels have declined greatly over the last 20 years and a lot of formerly great spots are high and dry, and the salt and the pollution in what's left is even more concentrated; it's been some years since I birded it but those seemingly unending flocks of birds that used to be such a constant are getting harder and harder to come by. Sadly, Fulvous Whistling-Ducks have disappeared entirely and no Wood Storks have been seen since 2015. Yellow-footed Gulls continue to be dependable at least. The future of the sea is completely uncertain at this point, and it's anyone's guess what the birding will be like in a few decades...but it was glorious.

I try to reacquaint myself with Flame-colored Tanagers every couple of years; the mountains of Nayarit and Jalisco are a great place to do this. This one was parked above an army ant swarm at Sierra de San Juan in Nayarit.

Nayarit and Jalisco, Mexico - This one is really cheating. I can't just throw in two entire states can I? But I did. There are birding sites galore. There is a vast menu of mouth-watering species possible, including regional endemics. There is a lot of variety in elevation, and thus a lot of different habitats. The river trip with Chencho up Rio Lo Tovara is not to be missed! And unlike other parts of the country, there is a lot of high-quality, accessible habitat in these states, and you aren't forced in to birding from the side of a highway very much. I think these states often get overlooked by gringo birders in favor of Oaxaca, Chiapas or the Yucatan Peninsula, but they require your attention, I assure you.

I have no memory of taking this photo, but stoked I unearthed Olive-sided Flycatcher with a tarantula hawk! If this was a female (who possess the famously potent stinger), this is a seriously badass prey item. Photographed at Galileo Hill.

Kern County California oases - Some of the rarities southern California gets really grip me off (Olive-backed Pipit quickly comes to mind), but I really miss birding the desert in late spring and fall, especially the Kern County sites. Galileo Hill might as well have been built by birders for the sole reason to make a giant migrant trap in the middle of the desert - that's not what it is meant for, but that is what it is. In the last few years, state megas like Buff-breasted Flycatcher (the state's first), Gray-cheeked Thrush and Red-faced Warbler have turned up here. California City is not really what it used to be, but Butterbredt Springs is still legendary. Lots of birds, lots of variety, lots of rarities and some distinct weirdness at these sites, and I wish they weren't so far away.

Did you know that Crested and Least Auklets form giant murmurations that rival any flock of sandpipers, blackbirds or starlings? I didn't either, until I got to the Aleutians. It's really something to behold...a magical experience even, particularly when you have the privilege of having these flocks zooming by a few feet overhead. This is an uncropped, unshrunken photo by the way, feel free to double click for a better look at the birds.

Buldir Island, Alaska. Working and living on Buldir was more like being a part of a wildlife spectacle than birding, though we certainly put in our time searching for Sibes and found a modest number of them. By Buldir standards, I was there on a relatively poor year for vague runts (in the next couple of years after I was there, Eurasian Bittern and Eurasian Oystercatcher were recorded!), but I can't complain very much. The seabirds Both the numbers and diversity that nest there are on a whole other level, the likes of which I may not see again. You end up getting attached to birds like Whiskered Auklets and Red-legged Kittwakes, especially if you have to handle them, which is a trip in and of itself.

Honorable mentions of areas that didn't quite make this post go to southeast Arizona, large chunks of Costa Rica, the prairies of Montana and North Dakota, Point Reyes (CA), and the good old Oxnard Plain (CA), which is what I was reared on. And yes yes yes I know how great [insert country here] can be, but chances are I haven't been there yet, no need to convince me. Obviously, a great deal of birding needs to be done in places I've never been before, and just exploring the lands (and seas!) of this continent will take many more years to come.

But I have to ask...what would you put on your list? Anywhere that people wouldn't immediately think of? Light up those comments nerds.