Thursday, January 29, 2015

Signs of Winter

I'm never really convinced winter is here.

The reason is strikingly simple: because it really never does come here in Southern California. Call it what you will, but our winters are just summers in crappy, falling-apart Halloween costumes.

Sure, the predict El Nino will happen every year although it never does and this winter, we even had a miniature version of the 2014 East Coast snow disaster.  But just a paltry three days ago there were enough heat waves rising off from the ground that you could have fried a piece of pork on there and not contract salmonella. The birds can convince anyone otherwise, too. It's not yet February and Wilson's Warblers  are piled up into yellow dollops. Bullock's Orioles are rocking out on the streets to the wagging tails of summer empids. Only the occasional waterfowl waltz-in is an avian wake-up call for birders as to what season it supposedly is.

Sometimes we get enough Ring-billed Gulls at the dumpster to call it a White Christmas, but that's about as close as ho-hum SoCal gets.

Lewis’ Woodpeckers (OC winterers) are essentially woodpecker-flycatchers. How can such a trumpy* thing exist? Ask the strange ways of evolution.

Anything that has a huge, thick bill is automatically lovable. Like this, and this. 

The main difference that winter brings for me is that my suburban yard suddenly becomes completely devoid of anything flying and fruit-colored for a couple months. Unless you count adorable Lesser Goldfinches, which are sort of an aged, moldy banana shade.

Then, there's also the winter irruptions. 

Apparently, SoCal's vacation vibe has infected this winter's irruptive avian visitors, which influxed faster than a load of twitchers to an ABA Code 7 and let birders across Southern Cal have looks that would make any Northerner birder go red. 

There are so many Ancient Murrelets spilling across the SoCal coast that seeing them has already become old. #getthejoke

Varied Thrush outnumbered American Robins this winter. California, you're so weird. 

What are YOUR favorite signs of winter? 


Monday, January 26, 2015

Atrocious Bird Puns that will make you want to gull away

Atrocious Bird Puns that will make you want to gull away and hide

by chiccadee

No murre puns for now, I promise.


Thursday, January 22, 2015

What Birds Do When We're Not Looking Carefully(#2)

What do birds do when we aren't looking (carefully)?

2. They engage in wild eagle-chases.

Here is a Red-tailed Hawk, apparently not giving a f...eather that the Golden Eagle it is banishing from its territory is approximately three or four times more massive and also a FREAKING GOLDEN EAGLE. Sparkle sparkle.  From the archives of Chiccadee's Unpublished Birdiness. Riley Wilderness Park. 

10 minutes later. Holy crap, this guy's serious. 


See a barfing kingbird here in the first episode of  What Birds Do When We're Not Looking Carefully

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Bendire's Thrasher

Lifer Journal #2: Bendire's Thrasher 

A beautiful Pyrrhuloxia. I can only imagine how its name came to take place. The guy who discovered this species probably told the guy who was recording the name, "OK, I'll name my self-discovered bird a.... P- errrrrrr HACK HACK COUGH VOMIT HACK COUGH-choke" and thus the name was born. 

When one imagines southeastern Arizona birding, one does not imagine a sandy field strewn with dollops of cow poop.

The Thrasher Spot in Arizona is a buff-breasted-flycatcher-colored, uneventful piece of land that is, every winter, graced by the presence of some of the rarer thrashers in North America, and with them loads of insane birders.Its presence is marked by absolutely nothing but a fallen, stingy barbed wire fence  with a weathered sign expressing the four dreaded words no birder wants to see, ever, at a good birding hotspot: Keep Out. Private Property.**  On this particular day, I'd made up my mind to go check out what all the fuss is about.

My snarky brother piped up. 

"You might get shot if you go on that land. Arizona people will do stuff like that." ***

"This paper is by the Audubon society. It says it's right here and that it's government land that's ignored or something" There's me, ignoring the state-ist (statist? arizonaist?) comment.

"I'm staying the car."

As it turns out, I did get shot, with the horrid stench of cow patties. The scenery was essentially a large sagebrush plain, a smattering of green plants, and massive heaps of plastic trash, everywhere. It was worth it. In the first five minutes I spent prowling in there, a Bendire's Thrasher shot its tail up and sprinted into cover like an Arizona landowner was firing at it with an AK47.  

Curve-billed Thrashers are delightfully plain. Note: this photo was not taken at the thrasher spot. 

The first words I hear when I return to the safety of our car are:

"There were a bunch of thrashers that came here when you left. Can you identify them?"

Fine. I'll try my best."Describe them."

"Let's see. They were brown."


"Had curved bills."


Arizona Woodpeckers cannot be seen in the Thrasher Spot, but they're a hecka cool bird anyway. Here's one that showed up after a failed search for Montezuma Quail. Maybe it will make up for the disappointment caused by the lack of any Bendire's Thrasher photos on a post dedicated especially for them.


*I guess I'm qualified to be one of them, given the fact that I just identified a piece of land as "buff-breasted-flycatcher-colored."

**It's not actually private property, anymore, not by any sources I can find. The sign looked like it was 10298 years old. Before Roger Tory Peterson was born, anyway.

***Joke. Cough, cough, birdhurt people.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Lifer Journal 1: Franklin's Gull

Franklin's Gull: The Heartwarming Story of Frankie the Gull, who Traveled Thousands of Miles Through Deadly Storms, Devastating Hurricanes, and Worst of All, Kansas, to Finally Arrive at his Cruddy Winter Home at a Concrete Pond in Orange County

California, for birders, is essentially a gazillion mile long, eighth-a-gazillion mile wide mushy pot hole of vagrants.

In winter? No sinter (nothing else rhymed). Rare birds? You bet. No sweat (HAHA GET IT BECAUSE IT'S WINTER)!

 In summer? No bummer!

Spring?  Time for a bird fling.

Fall? It's a goddang bird mall.

Here is a Song Sparrow, for absolutely no good reason whatsoever. 

Which is all nice if you're a compulsive lister, a normal birder, or a birder looking to compose absolutely atrocious poems, but for the average, middle-aged Susan John birder with a job, it's kind of a pain in the binoculars to have to browse slowly and agonizingly through pages of finicky reports with photo-contest winning shots of some arrogant Rustic Bunting or annoying Roseate Spoonbill or punch-in-the-face Bronzed Cowbird that's only a couple hours away and could be accessed if it wasn't for some little painful thing. And this goes on for all the seasons. A heap of rare bird reports the size of all the swimming pools in Beverly Hills. It can turn any wannabe twitcher more insane then they already are, which is an accomplishment. 

Of course, this is all just a small pimple on the face of California birders. California is, after all, the place where you can take a leisurely drop in at a concrete lake with 2 potted bonsai trees and stale water filled with dead koi and get in-your-face looks at an Eurasian Wigeon, or two. Or a Falcated Teal.

Eurasian Wigeons may be considered as a tad rare here, but I still don't think much of their sanitary habits. 

This poopy (literally) pond was also a home to a Glaucous Gull and an Aleutian Cackling Goose last winter. 

On this particular day, I was strolling along at some hole-in-the-ground lake that was chock full of pooping coots and domestic mutt Mallards.  And then, there, sitting on the crap-carpeted fence, was a Franklin's Gull making the most hideous "waffle, waffle" racket I have ever heard from a gull, and that means it's bad. I scrutinized its rather ubiquitous plumage from 10 feet away. It didn't budge a Gony's spot.* The first thing I thought was "Shoot, I forgot this darn thing was even here. Of all places." The next was "Crap," because that's what I had leaned on without realizing it.**

A heartbeat later, some cool biker dude zoomed right past the gull. Almost being barreled into by a cool biker dude was apparently too much for the gull, which took off over the concrete coot-filled lake, never to be seen again (or for the next hour or so) by the next two birders who came a second too late. 

Cheers to the best kind of bird lifer there is.

*The Gony's spot is a part of a gull's bill. On Western,  Herring, etc. gulls, it's the thing that looks like a miniature Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer nose. On other species of gulls it can be a lot less noticeable.

**And because I forgot my binos and cam. This time, it was a known continuing bird, so I just enjoyed the view. But imagine being unarmed with Weapon of Vagrant Proof (camera) while being in the same park as a House Finch or European Starling. Yikes. I can imagine the eBird confirmation emails already. 

You can see the humongous Gony's Spot quite clearly on this Western Gull. Apparently the owner of this bag of chips did not. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

First Pelagic Trip: Expectations vs. Reality

Here's the text generator I used to make the title. cooltext.com Does this text ruin the majestic clean power of the pelican photo combined with the alluring effect of the deep blue glowing text? Yes? I'll try and make it smaller and smaller and smaller now you can't read it haha

Expectations vs. Reality

Expectation: You will see a Code 7 on your trip. But if you don't, you'll probably see a bunch of Code 2s, anyway. 


If you're going on a pelagic trip in Southern California, you'll see Black-vented Shearwaters which are from some unfathomable, inexplicable reason listed as Code 2s on the ABA list, right next to Olive-backed Pipit, a bird that has only been recorded in the lower 48 4 freaking times.The Ivory-billed Woodpecker has been recorded a couple more hundred times than that. Alaska, you're so unfair.

Guess what? Black-vented Shearwater butt. 

Also, you can see Black-vented Shearwaters from shore.

Pelagic trips are like Russian Roulette. Don't expect to get anything 100%, unless you're in Southern California in the winter. Then you can expect Black-vented Shearwaters. LOTS.

Somehow, I missed seeing any jaegers, fulmars, or albatrosses on my first pelagic trip. Someone thought they spotted a fulmar near an oil rig, but from the views I had with 8X binoculars it could have been a magical pink flying bigfoot (That line "it could have been bigfoot for all I know" is way too cliche in the birding world. I had to stir it up a bit).

Expectation: There are many birds out in the ocean. 

Reality: There are lots of gulls in the ocean, and Black-vented Shearwaters if you're in the right place in winter. That's if you chum (toss out food for birds). As soon as you run out of buttered popcorn and stale bread to give gulls diarrhea with, the number of birds goes down faster than a pelagic ship in a storm. Of course, on the pelagic trip I went on we ran out of chum right before a Little Gull showed up.
Have you seen enough pictures of Black-vented Shearwaters yet? 

Expectation: You will see many lifers, if it's your first time.

Reality: You will see more than many lifers. You will see enough lifers to make yourself feel like a beginner for the rest of the month. Like I said though, pelagic trips are games of Russian Roulette. The predictability of getting a large set of expected birds is similar to the probability that the ABA checklists coding and taxonomy will one day be fixed to make sense (I could go on and on...).

Poop-pocalypse 2015? No, just a whole lot of chumming.

One year there could be thousands of Ancient Murrelets moving down the coast. The next year Ancient Murrelets down in Southern California would be a myth unheard of by most birders except those legendary old-timers that went on the previous year's pelagic trip.

You know shiz's gone down when you can see Ancient Murrelets swimming ten feet from the harbor. Keep in mind that this is a species I tried to scope out five miles from shore in Central CA, while this dandy cute fellow was swimming ten feet from dry land back in Southern CA. Argh. 

Expectation: Shearwaters are big and cool.

Reality: If gulls are the buff guys that work out at the gym, shearwaters are the little skinny nerd birds (see what I did there??) that everyone makes fun of for being undersized.

Expectation: There will be alcids. 

I thought that was a loose feather at first, but no, that little bump is the horn of a Rhinoceros Auklet.

If birds had to pass a flight safety test and get a license, murrelets and auklets would be forever stuck in the water. They provide the number one entertainment for slightly sleepy bird-starved pelagic birders. Watch their attempts to lift off closely.

None other than the famous Common Murre, which are considerably better-looking than most other murres but are trashed upon because of their name. 

Scripp's Murrelet, which may or may not exist depending on how old your field guide is.

Expectation: It's easy to take photos of flying shearwaters.

Reality: Good luck on that one.

Expectations: Identification is a pain! 

Reality: Your trip leaders identify every single bird before you even see them, so identification is one of the least of your problems. Identification improvement? Definitely harder. Me? I'm still trying to differentiate between distant Northern Fulmars and magical pink flying bigfoots.

At least I can identify Brown Boobies.

Here is an oversharpened Brown Booby. Revel in its oil-rig-lantern glory. 

Adult Brown Boobies are much more attractive, but have poor aesthetic choices when it comes to perching places.

There was nowhere else to post this Red Phalarope, so I inserted it here. 

Expectations: You might get your  my nemesis Red-necked Grebe.

Reality: Red-necked Grebe manages to be reported in the relatively isolated-from-ocean harbor hours before we go there and then, it suddenly disappears.

Happy Pelagic Birding (and a very late new year!)