Thursday, July 20, 2017

March Mildness, Marin Wildflowers, The Pullout Method


And so we blog onward, in the heat of the desiccating and unrelenting San Jose sun, until BB&B is all caught up with current birding events. I'm not sure how long this will take, but I'm happy to put the work in. You know, BB&B will be ten (10) (!!!) years old next year, and it's never too early to start ramping up the blogging activity in anticipation of this epic milestone. We have a lot of special things in store for you next year, and as long as this microdosing thing keeps working, the inspiration to do even more will keep flowing!

A long time ago, in a harbor far, far away, a Greater Yellowlegs was molting in some crisp, clean alternate coverts. It was springtime in Alameda. Is there anywhere that matches the glamour and glory of an Alameda spring? Yes, a great many places...no offense Alameda birders. Photographed in Ballena Bay, Alameda, CA.


This Long-billed Curlew would would soon be exchanging it's patch of mudflat for grassland. Like some other shorebirds, curlews may defend nonbreeding territories - this bird may have already returned to this patch of mud by now. Unlike my species, procrastinating and other forms of lollygagging have not been documented in curlews.


On another March morning, I birded China Camp State Park to see if I could get a couple Marin birds that had been holding out on me. This White-throated Sparrow was not a county bird, but was an unexpected surprise. Around here, March is not a month that bursts with the potential of coming across extremely uncommon birds, so this gave me a good birdbuzz.


It was a very cooperative bird, but spent most of its time feeding actively in the deep shade. Some genuine, potentially legendary crushes were missed, but I was happy to spend some quality time with it. Year bird!


A male Spotted Towhee took a break from wailing against the leaf litter to soak up some sun.


I did succeed in getting one county bird that morning...Black Rail. There was one calling from the saltmarsh pictured below...


...and several calling from this freshwater marsh, which really surprised me. Black Rails in the bay area generally are found in saltmarsh or wetlands with tidal influence, though they use freshwater habitats in many parts of the state. I suspect this marsh is totally dry during drought years, so the rails were probably chuffed to have this habitat available this spring.


Billy has used her powers to make me unwittingly pay more attention to plants than I used to, so I couldn't ignore some of the mellowing wildlowers in bloom, particularly the iris. Pretty sure this is Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana).


This could be the same species, I think they are pretty variable. That said, I have almost no idea what I'm talking about.


An even paler blossom. Is this a different species, or is this still douglasiana?


Death camas! Not only deadly, but replete with aesthetics.


Not sure what species this is, but owl's clover has always been one of my favorite wildflowers.


This was a wallflower we hadn't seen before. Headland wallflower (Erysimum concinnum)? This was in the coastal scrub of the headlands just south of Muir Beach, Marin County. Not sure if there are any other wallflowers with white blossoms growing in the area.


On another March morning, Matt Sabatine and I went out to Mines Road, south of Livermore, to see what we could find. Mines Road offers some of the best road birding in the bay area, and one of the only spots to easily find Yellow-billed Magpie in Alameda County. I got a number of Foxtrot Oscar Yankees and new Alameda birds that morning, including chaparral-loving Rufous-crowned Sparrows. But aside from finding a Golden Eagle nest, the other highlights all appeared at the same random pullout.

Immediately after getting out of the car, I thought I had found a Red-naped Sapsucker, though the bird was distant and I was unable to get photos. Aaron Maizlish eventually crushed the bird, which turned out to be an apparent Red-naped X Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, an extremely rare hybrid in the state. His photos can be seen here. I wish we could see the right side of the bird, but shit, I wish for a lot of things.


This bobcat was much more cooperative than the sapsucker. So far, no hybrid allegations have been brought forth, but I wouldn't put it past your average birder to do so. This hybridphilia has got to stop...but I digress. Bobcat is a great bird!


Bobs usually don't casually saunter across the road a stonechat's throw away while you are standing there fumbling with your camera. They are still fairly common in many parts of California, but my stoke for seeing them is genuine, prolonged and sustained.


You may be thinking to yourself, "Goddamn Steve, how much shit can you possibly see at a random pullout in fucking Alameda County?" Well, how about a blazing-hot county rarity, one that is not a stupid hybrid? This Townsend's Solitaire flew in from up-canyon, perched nearby for a few minutes, then continued on its way north, never to be seen again.


And it seems to me you lived your life like a candle in the wind...so long, solitaire. I would have liked to have known you, but I was just a kid. Few birders have ever had the pleasure of seeing one in Alameda, a decidedly unpleasant county for solitaires to linger in.

Yes, that was from an Elton John song. I am unapologetic, but I should probably quote Minor Threat instead next time.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Great Glorious Gulling in San Mateo County


You knew it was coming...it was unavoidable. I don't think I've done a gull post since 2016. Is a full-blown Larid post in July appropriate? Not in the slightest, but here it is and here you are reading it. Don't worry, this should be better than a photo study of Ring-billed Gulls or some similar garbage.

The winter of 2016-2017 was quite good for California gullers. While the Ross's Gull was undoubtedly the undisputed highlight, a close second was the Black-tailed Gull that was seen in Monterey County (where Billy and I dipped the day the Ross's died) and then again in San Mateo County. That is what brought me to the mouth of Gazos Creek, where I found Terrills, Michael Park and other unidentified birders, but no Black-tailed. At least there were kittiwakes though.


Last winter was tremendous for Black-legged Kittiwakes in this part of the state, being seen from shore with regularity in many places. This was another bird I had missed entirely in 2016, but they were easy to find early this year. Seeing pelagic birds on shore really feels like cheating.

This was the second time I had dragged Billy and Annabelle (the first time in fetal form) out to dip on this Black-tailed Gull. Hopefully this event won't repeat itself again.


Luckily, kittiwakes were not the lone highlight of the day. This Lesser Black-backed Gull in Princeton Harbor (Denniston Creek Mouth) was a very nice consolation rarity. Despite their abundance in some parts of the continent, this is still a very rare bird in most of California. To give you an idea of how good the gulling was around this time, there were a minimum of 3 individual LBBGs in San Mateo County; in eBird, there is only one record in all prior years.


On another day, I lurked across the bay down to get my usual punishment at Pilarcitos Creek Mouth...this is a legendary gull spot where I have failed to see anything interesting year after year after year. This newly-arrived Allen's Humingbird was next to my car when I got out; a good omen?


I bumped into Ken Schneider, who let me know about a Glaucous Gull at the creek mouth. I arrived just as the bird peaced out to the northeast, possibly to visit one of the inland reservoirs.


I stuck around for a while, hoping something else of interest would stop in; this roost site is well-known for its high turnover of gulls. I felt the old familiar presence of rarities...but where were they? This attractive Glaucous hybrid (presumably Glaucous x Herring) dropped in to the flock, but that was not what I had on my mind.


Finally, a Vague Runt worth writing home about materialized...Laughing Gull! Like Lesser Black-backed, this is a Salton Sea specialty in California. Show me a Laughing Gull anywhere else in the state, and I will show you a damn rare bird.


Ok gull nerds...what do you think the bird in the center is? This is not a quiz, I honestly don't know. Note the bright red orbital ring, red gape, eye color, bill shape and pattern (see below as well). It superficially resembles a Herring Gull, but there are things "wrong" with it. Those are Mew Gulls in front and to the right, and a Western Gull on the left for comparison. The primaries are the typical four-year gull black with white apical spots. I did not see leg color, the bird disappeared almost immediately after I found it, flushed by wankers.


Lots of conflicting weirdness here.


You may have noticed a theme in this blog post so far...no, not the gulls, I'm talking about the shitty photos. Here is a decent kittiwake to help redeem myself. Speaking of shitty photos and redemption, let me betray a photographer's secret to all you noobs (n00bs)...if you want to convince everybody that you were born with a camera in your hand and that you are god's gift to nature photography, don't post shitty photos. Only post good ones. It's that simple. Fortunately for you and me both, I don't pretend to be a photographer, I just take photos. Some are good, most are not, but I will show it all...gross.


This kittiwake was bellowed at by an asshole Western Gull. Luckily, no harm was done.


This kittiwake demonstrated the classic pleasantness and unobtrusive nature characteristic of the species. The kittiwakes that morning were the most confiding I've seen south of Alaska.

It is also worth mentioning that at this site alone, over a couple different visits, I witnessed birders string Laughing Gull, Slaty-backed Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull and Glaucous Gull. I appreciate that trying to identify rare gulls is an exercise in self-harm for many, but let's be careful out there friends.


After the unambiguous victory at Pilarcitos Creek (a first for me), I returned to Princeton Harbor to scour the Denniston Creek flock. Unambiguous success quickly turned into ambiguous success though when John Sterling and I got on this nice "Kumlien's" Iceland Gull. Note the lack of a tail band, which the bird was happy to display repeatedly.


The identification of this bird was actually not the ambiguous thing for once - it even has the dark "arrowheads" on the primaries, which don't tend to persist with a lot of wear. It was the classification that was problematic. At the time, rumor had it that Iceland Gull and Thayer's Gull were to be lumped in some fashion, a rumor which proved to be true...the AOS not only lumped them, it smashed the Kumlien's subspecies into oblivion. So, instead of this being a kumlieni Iceland Gull (a Bird Police species in California), officially this bird is now considered an intergrade between the thayeri and glaucoides subspecieseseseseseseses of Iceland Gull.


That's it on the left, showing the tail and wing pattern one would expect on a kumlieni thayeri x glaucoides intergrade. So for now I have put this bird on the shelf, no point in sending it to the Bird Police.


Here is a somewhat bleached Iceland Gull (formerly known as Thayer's...crap, this is going to take some getting used to) with a very white base color, but still showing the contrasting dark secondaries and darker primaries typical of thayeri.

Oh, and in case you are wondering, I spent a great deal of time looking for Slaty-backed Gulls in February and early March without success, but at least I had some other good birds to show for it. The San Mateo County coast offers some of the best gulling in the Lower 48, hopefully next winter can come close to matching the glory of the last. 

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Bra Collector, A Touch of Turd, The H-Word


When you see a bra strung up on a fence, that can only mean one thing...


...a Loggerhead Shrike has been very busy. Clearly mice and sparrows are not enough for this insatiable fiend.


This fearless, woman-eating shrike (which is pooping out woman in this very photo) was in the Robinson Road area near Rio Vista in Solano County, which is a fantastic area for grassland birds. I dipped on the reliable Mountain Plovers, but it was a very successful day otherwise.


Sometimes a combo just needs to be shown, despite the rubbish photo. This Ferruginous-Swainson's Hawk combo was unexpected, and very much appreciated. Swainson's overwinter in the state in low numbers, primarily in the Delta region. I would go on to see double-digit numbers of Ferruginous Hawks here that morning, as well as several Rough-legged Hawks, one of 2016's big dips. I don't think I've had all three [lovable/amazing/inspiring/thirst-quenching] of these Buteo species in one place before, stoked.


A few Burrowing Owls were holding it down as well. Note the turd in the bottom right...much like myself, the Burrowing Owl loves decorating the entrance of its home with turds.


After giving up on the plovers, I went north for a staked out Glaucous Gull on the side of Yolo Bypass. It was pretty amazing to see the bypass being fully utilized...to the west of the dike I was on it was dry, to the east it was an inland sea out to the horizon! Yolo Bypass exists to keep Sacramento and other cities from flooding; when there is a lot of precipitation in the northern half of the state, a series of weirs upstream divert water from the Sacramento River into the bypass, which is mostly farmland. The farmland floods, the cities don't. Anyways...I was able to haynor the Glaucous Gull from an excruciating distance, and eventually it flew in a bit closer to feed on a dead coot. Not only did this end my stupid stupid 5-year drought of not seeing Glaucous Gulls, this was my lifer adult. Siiiiiiiiick.

Other highlights that day were Surf and White-winged Scoters (the latter was another bird I somehow missed in 2016) from Sherman Island, and a huge Tricolored/Yellow-headed Blackbird flock in a feedlot on the way home. Good times in The Great Valley.


In between winter storms I went out to Richmond Marina to see if anything needed crushing. This Forster's Tern did.


As did this one. That's quite the glaucous upperwing.


This female Common Goldeneye threw its feet out to help brake for landing, which made for a quick tasty crush.


I think it is time to come clean...Aechmophorus make me uncomfortable sometimes, I will admit it. You know, they are totally entitled to do what they do, but when certain individuals are around me I just want to get the hell out of there...not that I'm a Aechmorphobe.

Take this bird for example. Bright yellow-orange bill, pale flanks...solid Clark's field marks. But the black cap is sitting right on top of the bird's eye, and the dark nape stripe has a lot of girth to it. I'm inclined to call this a Clark's x Western Grebe hybrid, and you know how I feel about dropping h-bombs. Both Aechmorphorus may look different in the winter than in summer, but I don't think Clark's broaden that nape stripe when temperatures drop.


Here is a typical winter Western, with paler lores and dusky cheeks.


Aesthetically this photo has nothing to offer, but it does give you a good comparison of the broad nape stripe of a Western Grebe (left) with the narrower stripe of a Clark's (right).


When I still lived in Albany, I tried a number of times to see the Burrowing Owl that lived next to the parking area for Albany Bulb. Who does not want to see a Burrowing Owl just down the road from their house? However, I failed repeatedly, and all I got was judgement from this Say's Phoebe.


Luckily, Say's Phoebe did not go home with the "bird of the day" award. Small numbers of crecca Green-winged Teal, presumably from Siberia, make their way to California every winter; they are easier to find than Tufted Ducks, but rarer than Eurasian Wigeon. This is no crecca though...this is crecca x carolinensis. Not something you see every day. Don't let your kids look at this image, as few photos have been taken of something so impure.


A nice, clear-cut intergrade. The white lines on the face are pretty weak (carolinensis), but the bird possesses both a strong white vertical breast bar (carolinensis) and horizontal scapular bar (crecca). Cool bird. Albany Mudflats, Albany, CA.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

I Got Rails, Rails Around My Feet


The bay area is blessed with numbers of a couple very special rail species - Ridgway's and Black. Luckily, Ridgway's aren't nearly as elusive as Black Rail, which I've still never actually seen (they slip in and out of other dimensions at will, it is known). One day last winter I was out in the saltmarsh during a particularly high tide, and the Ridgway's were forced out of their usual haunts. Several rails had their souls stolen on that fateful day. Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, CA.


Behold the peerless grace and unmatched power of this ultra-efficient flying machine.


Though rails are famously good dispersers and accomplished migrants, this bird did little to convince me it was capable of dispersing more than six feet.  Here it is falling out of the sky. Have some dignity, rail.


Ridgway's Rails aren't afraid to go for a swim...in fact, there is little that they are afraid of. Their courage compensates for their wraithlike, shadow-dwelling Black Rail relatives nicely.


This is a weird juxtaposition. Those are 2 Ridgway's Rails aquatically convening in the foreground, which is an odd thing to see in and of itself. More noticeable is San Quentin Prison in the background, which houses a great many inmates on death row.  It was also the venue for one of my favorite live albums, Johnny Cash's At San Quentin (yes, I do think it is better than At Folsom Prison).


I wasn't at Corte Madera for rails though, what really lured me there was this SONG SPARROW.


Just kidding. I can robin-stroke with the best of them, but even I cannot pass off such bullshit to my treasured readers. I was there for the Nelson's Sparrows, obvi.


Sweet, sweet Nelson's Sparrow. A regular wintering bird in many marshes up and down the state (though you are overdue for another, Humboldt), yet rare enough to cause a lot of birders to chase. I suspect they are also regular winter visitors to parts of Baja, but incredibly this species has yet to be eBirded from anywhere in Mexico.


Who will be the first to eBird a Nelson's from Mexico? They have been recorded in the country, just not eBirded yet.


Nelson's, as anyone who has seen one knows, is one of the best sparrows in existence. They are mild-mannered to a fault, inhabit very interesting habitats, and of course are marked boldly with artisinal streaks and stripes. No one would describe their song as inspirational, but few birds are perfect. A high quality county bird to be sure.


On another day, I met up with Matt Sabatine and had good luck with the Harris's Sparrow that was wintering at the Las Gallinas Ponds. Like the Nelson's Sparrow, the Harris's had some mellowing ochre tones in the face that were hard to resist, not to mention a comforting plumpness.


This Cinnamon Teal would not lift it's head up, even though I hurled numerous rocks at it (like any good photog would). This made Matt very uncomfortable, though I have no idea why. In the end I accidentally crippled it with a piece of cement and all I got was this lousy photo to show for it.

Kidding, kidding...I don't really consider myself a photographer.


Let's wrap up this post with Bufflehead, because Bufflehead.