Saturday, September 27, 2014

Spurred On in a Slow Day's Birding

There has been a lot of talk in the news about California's on going drought and water-related problems. Perhaps surprisingly, we're having the opposite experience in Arizona, where this summer's monsoons have brought record rainfall to the valley (including the most in a single day and also overall). There have been flooding problems in many of the lower areas around town and even on the interstate. There was a heavy microburst Friday night and another this evening on Saturday. Even though the timing for birds (late September) isn't great, and Pops and I tried for some west Phoenix birding just in case something of particular interest had been grounded during the storms. 
Water levels were predictably high in all but Basin 1 at the Glendale Recharge Ponds, and we did not have any surprising Peeps or Gulls/Terns except for the lone, immature, and annual Short-billed Dowitcher (It seems we get one at this location every year in almost identical circumstances). 

The best birding highlight of the day was a single Greater White-fronted Goose in Basin 6 and some distant but nonchalant Rails.

In addition to the Goose, all three Teal species were represented as well as Shovelers, which seems pretty early for all involved. The anticipated waders were in good numbers as well. Somewhere in this picture is an American Avocet, adopted and raised by the Stilts with their milk and culture, truly believing it is a BNST. Can you spot it?

Even though Stilts can be kind of a gossipy, snooty bunch, the Avocet would insist it is one of them. It's a touching thing in this cruel cruel world, but biology can only be denied so much, and Avocets can't bank as well as Stilts...revealed!

Oddly enough, the day's highlight came away from the water, in one of the run-off canals that was littered with masses of vegetation and silt from recent flooding.

The tortoise was making a break away for the shaded, muddy mouth of the wash, moving with incredible speed and a battle-hardened determination that comes with carrying one's own house on one's back everywhere (Snails know what I'm talking about). He was mobile-homing like a beast; we caught up to him in about 10 seconds.

Pretty impressive forearms. This tortoise was a large tortoise, probably close to 40 pounds and bristling with spurs. He had a bit of camouflage on his face, though it did not leave much to the imagination.

Obviously, one doesn't get the opportunity to consort with such ancient and slowly-metabolizing creatures every day, and I had many pressing questions, the foremost being, of course, what to do to stop The Nothing from destroying everything. As one might expect, I was sneezed on several times. What I did not expect was how super creepy tortoises look when they blink.

Pops brought some fruit down from the car to see if we could entice the ol' terrapin. It responded immediately, as if it had interactions with people before...

This is not a species of Arizona Desert Tortoise, but I believe an African Spurred Tortoise. This species grows to be the third largest tortoise in the world and the largest that is not island-bound. African Spurred Tortoise, and you have guessed, are not native to North America. I didn't know the species until doing some research at home later, but this animal's ready response to our offerings already had us believing it to be a release or escapee.

We were musing as to how this fellow could have survived the heavy flooding that the area experienced, an indeed its possible he was only recently abandoned. I'm tempted to swing by again tomorrow, both to quickly scan the basins and reclaim Brandon Marla, as I now name it, for a rescue shelter. 
It's introduced, and while I have no doubt it could find subsistence and is probably too big to worry about predation, flood waters are something it might be unprepared to deal with. On the other hand, post-monsoon and early spring are the only two times in the year when tortoises are active, apart from that they mostly hang out in semi-subterranean haunts.
About an hour after first finding Brandon Marla, we followed its tracks just for funsies and found it had moved all of 10 feet, some prospects for relocating are good, will update.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

I Pelage Allegiance...

It has been two weeks now, two weeks since my maiden pelagic birding expedition out of Half Moon Bay. It has been two weeks since the hard lifering and substantial sunburn, the (mildly) choppy seas and foggy horizon. 
"Life will never be the same," some folks like to say. Well, that's not entirely true. My time and experience of birding in Phoenix in the past couple of weeks has been nothing to speak of, so there is some consistency. At any rate, I've waited long enough since this first Pelagic Date. I can post now without seeming desperate. I can play it cool and act like it's not really a foregone conclusion, my greatest dream and desire, to do it again. Even doing it again, it wouldn't be the same. It could be better and it could be worse. In fact, by most standards the Sept. 7th HMB Pelagic was mediocre. Even so, it's not every day one gets to see one gigantic lifer framing another with its 8 foot wing span.  

Rewinding a bit, this date was not a solo date--further reason why I can't get too clingy too quickly. With the incomparable Seagull Steve leading and chief lieutenants Party Don't Stop Jen and Nate "McGowan's Longspur" McGowan also on board alongside the expected slew of a dozen other birders, this boat was dorkier than a pod of titillated Sperm Whales.  Turns out, birders are way easier to photograph than birds on a Pelagic (also, always). Since many of the birds we saw were in unappealing mid-molt plumages, the birders were sometimes prettier. 

My pre-Pelagic poemy prayer had been answered. Although I arrived days behind and late to the party, Steve and Nate were good enough to take me birding Saturday afternoon at the Sutro Baths. There I was able to log Western Gull, Elegant Tern, and Surfbird, in that order, which meant ABA #500 was not the dreaded WEGU. That was but a taste of the tip of the sweet sweet lifeburg to come. We were joined later that afternoon by Jen in an ill-fated romp after a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, because the birding gods are not without a strong sense of irony. 
Sunday morning came both too early and too late. We were full of grogginess but not of grogg, and forgot to sacrifice to the necessary deities prior to departure. As you have no doubt read on other more punctual and better-decorted blogs, this trip was pretty muted by HMB standards. But luckily everything was new to me, much like the Common Murre chick first heading out to sea. 

These unassuming alcids proved to be one of the most common birds of the day, predominantly in their father-son dance pairs and often filling the air with grunts and croaks. All of the adult males I saw were well into their winter plumage (or rather, were well out of their breeding plumage). COMUs spend 1-2 months flightless as a part of their molting process too, but for the most part they prefer to dive anyway, sometimes past 550 feet!

The HMB harbor was littered with Brown Pelicans, Double-crested, Brandt's and a few Pelagic Cormorants, and Elegant Terns, as well as Western and California Gulls. Especially in the early morning and throughout most of the day, heavy cloud cover prevented sharp photography so we had to pass painstakingly close by these infrequent sights (for an Arizonan) and head for deeper water. The COMUs were waiting just as the harbor opened into the bay, and not long after that the tubenoses came, filling a void  in the soul that had been yawning open since nigh the days of puberty. 
**Since it was preponderantly overcast throughout the morning, I'm borrowing some photos from later in the afternoon to show birds seen first early in the day. 

Brand'ts Cormorants were one of few birds seen from the boat that were not a recently accrued lifer. They weren't even sporting their snazzy sapphire throats for the sex-making, but after so many, many years of Double-crested and Neotropic, any change of Cormorant is a good change. 

Of the truer pelagic birds, species one seldom sees close to shore, Sooty Shearwaters are the first to emerge. Their rapid wingbeats and no-nonsense drab plumage speak of the harsh life many birds endure out in the salted, alien world.  

Although Sooties are not especially unique as far as tubenoses or other recognizable pelagic birds go, the first one of these birds I saw made an immediate impression as it darted across the water. There are no birds I have seen over land with proportions or movement like this bird. It was at once drab and dazzling in comparison to so many more terrestrial species. 
Of course, as anyone who's weather a pelagic or two knows, the differences between these exclusive seabirds and those favored by us land-lubbers only grows more pronounced the far one creeps from shore.  

We only had two species of Shearwater on the day, missing out on both Flesh-footed and Buller's--probably the best looking bird found off HMB--but the Pink-footed stepped up their game. We encountered many rafts of these polymorphic tubenoses throughout the trip in addition to the singles and pairs that would fly strafing runs past the boat and drift into the gull-filled chum line every once and again. Though calmer in demeanor than the Sooties, the Pink-feet kept busy throughout the day, and likewise kept their observers busy and bustling around the boat. Whereas the Sooties were immediately recognizable even from distance, the greater similarity of Pink--feet to other Shearwaters made every distant bird worth an examination. Never long did the binoculars rest, nor the eyes that used them.

The night before our voyage we had sat and brooded (and brewded) over our most desired and possible species for the next morning. Northern Fulmar was one of my answers, a stocky, variable, and recognizable bird with perhaps the most pronounced naricorn of them all. This was one of those birds in the guide books to which I was drawn for no particular reason, maybe just because it stood out from most of the other shearwaters and gulls that all lumped together in my mind.
When Seagull Steve called out this dark individual floating twenty yards from the boat I felt great excitement...and to be honest a bit of disappointment too, for I had been looking at the thing rather blankly without realizing what it was.

That bill gave ol' Freddy Hitchcock nightmares as well as inspiration for sure. Like most of their pelagic ilk, Fulmars are more comfortable in the air than on water or land, and this bird soon attempted to get airborne...which it did with great difficulty. This molt = nasty.
Also nasty but cooler is the tendency of Fulmars to projectile vomit a triglyceride stomach oil at other predatory birds, matting their plumage and causing immobility. It is also as a food-source for young, used in the same manner as many humans use Prego sauce.

Less bilious than the Northern Fulmar, South Polar Skua was the other bird I put atop my most wanted list. There were three or four individuals on the day, none of which were very close nor quite as scrutable as the Fulmar. But hey, stocky, macho bird with blaring white at the base of the primaries...tis' only one thing it could be.

There were plenty of dull periods on the trip too. We had a constant stream of Gulls lured behind the boat with popcorn and beef grease, the idea being that baiting these birds would bait in other, more specialized birds to investigate the Gull party. Sometimes no one else would show, and other times there would be a flurry of activity, like when a gorgeous Sabine's Gull cruised directly behind the boat for a minute while lifer Black-footed Albatross cut past the wake.

...and then nothing again, just the cool breeze nipping at the neck. If patience is a virtue then I left mine stuck somewhere in a vice. Pelagic birds can be patient. Pelagic birders--at least, greenhorns--are an excitable and jittery bunch. 

There are multiple ways to deal with the highs and lows, the triumphant feeling of a sharp observation and the crushing blow of a miss (diving Cassin's Auklet) as well as the lulls in between. Likewise there are different ways to deal with the chilly weather and the possibility of seasickness. Most people bird as much as they can, snack, socialize, and sometimes fall into a snoozy state of being at the aft of the boat. Some people also choose to play solitaire on their iPad for, like, the entire friggin' trip, even when sweet birds are being called out. They then put their email address on the list at the end of the day to share in all the eBird sightings of the group...Well birders often imitate their quarry (except for really sociable birds), and many the bird poaches without shame, as a South Polar Skua would readily admit.

Speaking of poachers, a brazen Pomarine Jaegar cutting right across the chum line probably won the 'best sighting of the day' accolade from Butler's Birds (though no doubt the Sabine's Gull was pretty sweet). Where exactly these slender, aggressive Skuas came from is still open to debate, with some sort of extensive hybridizing between Arctic and Great Skuas eventually resulting in a separate species being one of the leading theories.

By ancestry this bird may be a bit of a bastards, and by attitude it certainly is, but the Pomarine Jaegar is also a tough customer, a commander of respect, a dropper of jaws. The sighting lasted all of ten seconds, typical for a pelagic bird. Alas that our chum line held nothing of promise for the bird and he cruised on to pillage elsewhere. 

The passing of the Jaegar and distance of other predatory birds was better news for this Wilson's Storm Petrel, one of only two species and two total procellariiformes seen on the day. How these dainty little birds survive out on the open ocean is beyond me. I need to see more, lots more, and further ponder, but mostly appreciate. They look like they belong on a placid pond in suburbia, and yet flocks in the thousands have been seen on these trips before.

We had our fair share of non-avian lifeforms too. Common Dolphin, Elephant and Fur Seals, as well as Sealions were all recorded. Though we went without whales, the mola molas were abundant. These giant, stony, prehistoric, even extraterrestrial creatures would suspend themselves near the surface for Gulls to come and preen them of parasites, before they would seemingly release ballast and sink back into the deep. (I know that's the opposite of how ballast works, but with these fish all the usual physics seem inverted. They're so heavy and bony, the water is their floating atmosphere).

Additionally impressive to me, among the many other things we saw on this trip if not a large overall number of birds, was how tirelessly the baited gulls stuck with our boat. Of course I wouldn't swear to it, but some of the individuals were pretty recognizable and they seemed to stay with us from dock to dock, a good eleven hours or so, only landing to scoop up the occasional popcorn kernel. 

Photo courtesy of Jen Sanford

Obviously flying vast distances is part of the daily routine for most pelagic birds. banding and geolocators and nesting sites and myriad other tools, as well as data, amaze us with the feats of travel they record or deduce from pelagic birds. But reading and thinking about it is one thing. Seeing a bird exerting itself for that long, with so little respite (especially a bird like a Western Gull, which isn't built for the same sort of flying as a Tern or Albatross) is another.

At any rate, after all my whining and worrying about Western Gull being my 500th ABA bird, it seems only fitting to make peace and end on a conciliatory note. This fellow was handsome--in far nicer, fresher plumage than almost every other bird we saw--and he might well have stayed with the boat all day, patiently waiting while we sought the looks and attention of other, more specialized or rarer birds, and happily drawing our attention back when he was all we were left with. 

Where next and when and how?? Any coast, ASAP, by any means necessary--take a page out of the larus handbook.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Vacation Birding sans Deracination: County Roots in Carolina

Automatic County Bird lists and the Top 100...two of eBird's greatest innovations in growing use and support for its admirable program. Every birder likes to watch his or her list grow (even if that's not the main goal), and some birders also like seeing their list grow in relation to other people's. There has always been that competitive element to birding. It's a very faint factor sometimes, and at others it is palpable. When one is birding with the local Audubon group there is seldom any Big Day-type competition. At the other side of the spectrum there is the World Series of Birding, Big Years, Big Day's, and Big Nerds, competitions over many timeframes and in many regions. EBird nicely keeps track of all of it for us. 

Gotta Catch 'em All!

Most birders have a life list, and many more keep national, state, and even county lists, in addition to yard or maybe work patch lists. The county listing is often the repast for very experienced birders, those who have seen just about everything they can in their state, or who do not travel very much outside of it. Seeing birds in one's home county, or every county in a state, provides new challenges with the same birds. EBird even solicits county moderators as the most local level of its information filtration. The longer you're in the birding circles, the more county listing seems to come up.

Truth be told, I never paid it much heed. There was still too much to do on the State and National level with the birdies (and yes, I realize this violates the sacred semi-libertarian principle of subsidiarity). In massive states like Texas it made more sense to me, but county lines seemed so arbitrary around Arizona I often found more annoyance than enjoyment in specified county listing. I had no county listing goals nor compared myself to other birders in Arizona. That being said, I kinda liked that eBird kept track of it for me anyway. This ambivalence changed for me this summer, when I spent a bit of time in Wayne County, one of 100 little boroughs in charming NC. 

As many other birders do before heading to a new area, I checked out the eBird data in this mid-state, coastal plain region. It was...unimpressive. In fact, it was paltry. There have been a total of 69 different eBirders in Wayne County, who submitted a total of 111 checklists. This is not a daily, monthly, nor even annual rate, as one might expect of counties in Arizona or California. Those are the All-Time totals. Wayne County NC (there are like 13 other Wayne Counties in the U.S.) has a total of 225 recorded species, with its All-Time leading eBirder standing at 96 species. To lend some perspective, a good day at the Tres Rios site in west Phoenix can yield over 100 species. There are hundreds of lists submitted in California and Arizona counties every day, and my home county, mid-state Maricopa, has over 400 recorded species. That being said, as mentioned in the comments below Wayne County does have some great birders and has played host to some great birds, but this doesn't carry over to a big presence on eBird.

I do not bring this up simply to dump on Wayne County. In fact, the relatively poor eBird numbers were not a deterrent whatsoever. It's not too far from the coast. There's plenty of water. There are some nice parks and plenty of forest, as well as farmlands and sewage ponds, lending some habitat variety even if there is little elevation. There are certainly birds in Wayne County, in fact probably not many fewer than in the heavily birded Research Triangle area around Raleigh/Durham. The stark reality is that very few people are eBirding in Wayne County (this is probably true, maybe even more so, for the identical counties around Wayne that have even smaller populations). Rather paradoxically, the very low eBirding done in Wayne County, the lack of recorded sightings and established information, as well as established feudal lords of the fief, was exciting for me. 
I've chased birds all over Arizona, but the county lists there seemed meaningless to me. There are so many people out birding every day, who have seen it all and seen it everywhere, so to speak. There wasn't many point in trying to compete or compare. But here in Wayne County I could be a pioneering eBirder again, I could accomplish something that was even relatively impressive for my low expectations. I could actually be a top county lister! I could be...NUMBER 1. In Wayne County NC, I could be the awesome guy on the far left, except with less bracelets!!!

This renewed enthusiasm was greatly helped by the fact that there were several possible lifers waiting in the vicinity, and bearing these things in mind I made sure to fit a few birding trips to the best-looking spots in the area. In early July and with limited time before returning to Phoenix, I knew the All-Time record was not yet in reach, but for the year..? 57 would win it. Since I would also be birding with birder-tolerant and bird-interested friends I could get away with the early mornings, but a visit to the local sewage pond was out. This meant that shorebirds, gruiformes, and their ilk would have to wait. The birds would have to come from the forest.

There are a couple of eBird hotspots listed in Wayne County, and seemingly the largest, most well-established is the Cliffs of the Neuse S.P. This sizable preserve has many different trails, paved roads, and even a small lake (with swimming kids, dogs, and almost no birds). I had the fortune of jogging here a few days before as a sort of preliminary scouting. Returning with all the birding gear, knew that the Spanish Moss trail would be the most productive, winding as it did through deciduous woodland, open grasslands, and recently flooded river banks. 
From the visitors center we scanned the lake for riparian birds and came up empty handed except for Kingfisher. We then walked to the less peopled, more overgrown section of the park, along the way recording chattering Titmice, Chickadees, picoides Woodpeckers, and hiccuping Summer Tanagers, one of which was uncharacteristically accomodating.

As soon as we approached the trailhead we were assaulted with the songs of Carolina Wrens and even more enjoyably, those of the Wood Thrush. This had been a 'heard-only' bird for me, and while the dense foliage and semi-cloudy skies didn't make for great photos ops, finally getting good looks at this bird was somewhat cathartic. Not Veery sighting cathartic, mind you, but still pretty good. 

True to the trail's name, the pine, cyprus, and oak woodlands were sufficiently overgrown with Spanish moss. Acadian Flycatchers and Northern Parulas maintained a formidable cacophony above the spooky paths, joined occasionally by inquisitive Yellow-billed Cuckoos and one very persistent, upset Red-shouldered Hawk. The Wayne County ticks were coming thick and fast; I was feeling I might have a place on the podium, when everything suddenly froze. Everything, that is, except for the larger, brownish and barred bird that flushed from near the trail. Finally...FINALLY...lifer Barred Owl was obtained. 
The Owl tarried but for a minute, allowing for the sort of blurry photo that would make Bigfoot proud before making direct eye contact, as if to say, "Alright, we're square," and departing.
Knees buckled, expletives were uttered, and there might have been excitement vomit too. Years of living in central Texas, birding in south Texas this summer, multiple attempts in Pennsylvania, and even a few days in Florida where these birds seem to grow on boardwalk trees...none had yielded the Barred Owl, none but for beloved Wayne County.

Hooded Warblers and Great-crested Flycatchers arrived just in time to stave off mosquito/tick-onset depression, and we emerged into a grassy clearing that provided Field Sparrow along with Indigo Bunting and Blue Grosbeak, always solid birds to find first time on a new site.
I had regressed well down from the point of specifically hoping or expecting to see Barred Owl--I just figured it would happen one day when I was 88 years old--and yet even this bird didn't quite steal the show. For Cliffs of the Neuse S.P. is itself a well-maintained park, but the Neuse River itself, or at least the Wayne County portion, well, it's flattered and appreciative when people only call it "icky."

Plenty of agri. and hog farm run-off, silt, and the normal gunk of lowland rivers all accumulate along its lazy, snaking course. It often floods its banks and leaves behind stinking mudflats pierced by mighty cyprus trees and their ambitious roots, with sagging willows bending obeisantly to gravity's demands in between. Yes Yes...pause to smooth the hair on the back of your neck--I must as well--for we have just traipsed through ideal Prothonotary Warbler habitat.
The bird that melted a thousand faces, the bird that undid Alger Hiss, the bird that convinced bananas to cease being green and turn to yellow...sing ye proud, Prothonotary Warbler.

This bird is "sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet"

I had seen one briefly--the original lifer--from across the closed gates of the Anahuac preserve in Texas (the aggravation of arriving here on a Tuesday and finding it closed shall not be mentioned in further detail, for sake of the children), and few more immature birds in Croatan N.F. on the inner banks. The earlier sightings were of an unsatisfactory nature at beautiful places. These Wayne County sightings were supremely satisfying, and took place along the banks of the gnarly Neuse River. The Prothonotary Warbler is a bird of supreme aesthetic, but it is not a snooty britches. 

Faces were cobbled back together and ice packs were applied. The Proths just did not care. They perched and sang like young Pavarottis. Absolutely no record, milestone, or other quantifiable goal was achieved by seeing this bird--it's expected and recorded in Wayne County already, by the way--but bar none it felt like the best bird of the day, even over the lifer BAOW, and one of the best birds of the trip.

Swinging through some larger-scale farmland produced Blackbirds, Meadowlarks, Grackles, and a few other list-buffers to round out the day. I finished my time in Wayne County on 57 species, the highest total at so far in 2014 with no waterfowl, herons, egrets, or shorebirds yet recorded. Perhaps this Christmas, and for sure by next summer, there will be a new (and only) birder in the Wayne County century club, and he will make T-shirts telling people about it. 
Does this fill me with an unwarranted, frankly embarassing sense of excitement and hubris? Yes.
Does this encourage down, dirty and thorough birding next time I'm in WCNC? Yes.
Is this county listing business outside of my own home state, with its much more heavily and skillfully birded counties (relative to Wayne County, not all Carolina Counties), a sign of insecurity and cowardice on my part? Yes.
Is this perhaps papering over an early-onset mid-life crisis? Yes.
Is all of that secondary because, Hell Yeah, Ima' be Number One at something birding-related? Yes.
Plus, I'll be bale to post up some useful eBird data for ornithologists and hobbyists alike to also use. The world must be eBirded!

*Please, any North Carolina birders reading this post, do not go wrack up crazy birds in Wayne County and ruin my dream. I have the eye of the tiger and the heart of the lion but they just couldn't take it. Incidentally, I am now forever banned from the San Diego Zoo, but that is another story...