Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Alas 2014, I knew Thee Well.

Ha! A ha ha! A ha! ha! ha!
You thought you were finished. You thought you had seen the last of the end of the year birdosphere posts until the end of next December, but you were wrong! Butler's Birds has been biding it's time 100% of the time all the time forever the time, and waiting for just such a moment of let-down guards to bust out its own 2014 Wrap Up! Much like nitrogen, water, carbon, rocks, and an environmentally conscious pre-disgraced Lance Armstrong, Butler's Birds is recycling! Without much further adieu, here's an insufferable look at some of the superlatives from 2014, mostly to remind 2015 to get its act together.

Best Birding Experience:

On the whole, 2014 was probably the best birding year I've weathered. I made trips to Texas, Carolina, and the San Francisco Bay area in addition to the far flung corners of Arizona after birds. North Carolina offered such fantastic birds as Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Prothonotary Warbler, and a nemesis Barred Owl (never mind on that backstory). The Half Moon Bay Pelagic out of San Francisco likewise offered lifer upon lifer, and I also met up with and learned from major dorks Steve, Nate, and Jen (no, we did not see actual whales nor whale accessories on the trip).

Even so, the award for best birding experience goes to my central/south Texas trip. It was every ounce an analgesic dose of near-unreality, a surreal escape coming after a grueling year of work and personal hardship to boot. The Texas trip was also one I had to postpone from the previous summer when I had reconstructive knee and shoulder surgery, so there was all the additional expectation and anticipation going into it; it did not disappoint at all. 
I lived in a car for several days, "showered" at a public restroom that had no showers, ate at a Cracker Barrel that had no food, tried to bird at sites that no longer exist, split crumby HoJo motels with Iowa's Voice, lifered like crazy, crushed a lot of birds, got drunk most nights, got sunburnt most mornings, and had every ounce the birding trip I was hoping for. There'll be more specifics on some of those TX birds later. For now, make unwavering eye contact with this flamboyant Texan swamp chicken. 

Worst Birding Experience:

There were plenty of outings in 2014 that resulted in nothing of consequence, no great finds or photographs, or even great looks at much at all. But most of these forays were unambitious and less than energetic; I kinda new they'd be busts from early on. The most disappointing trip award goes to my September weekend in the White Mountains. I went with some friends for a couple days' camping and hiking, planning to scour the Mt. Baldy wilderness for Dusky Grouse and Pine Grosbeak among other things. The day we left, the highway was shut down for a wreck, delaying us for about 3 hours so we got to the campsite super late. Everybody was way too tired to hike the following day and some people got sick, so we ended up calling the trip early by mutual consent (myself included). I was very lucky to get a lifer Gray Jay on the brief, unascendant hike we did make, but relative to the potential and expectation I had for this trip, plus the costs of gas, campsite reservations, and a weekend, it was a pretty big bust bird-wise. Next summer it shall be done right. I even have a highly portable hammock now, cruise to snooze! 

Coolest Non-Birding Find:

Definitely the two rattlesnakes making the beast with several backs at Robbins Butte in west Maricopa County. It's not often one sees rattlers, and it's even less often one sees rattlers making more rattlers.

Best Bird Seen While Going to the Bathroom in Nature:

I know of three birders at least who keep track of birds they've seen defecating. This is right on, a thing most worth doing. For a slightly different take, I invert those roles and keep a list of birds that have seen me doing the business in one way or another. Granted, this sort of list is sketchy because whenever one sees a cool bird one can just drop trou and add it, but hey so much else in birding is on the honor system, and this list is legit. 2013 set the bar pretty high with Spotted Owl and Flame-colored x Western Tanager. The best bird added this year to the BBMD: Western Tanager.

Worst Miss/Worst Bird of 2014:

Trying for the Fulvous Whistling-Duck three times in December and coming up empty probably takes the cake, though that is also the most recent in memory. I was also pretty missed at logging Costa's Hummingbird at 5:37pm, 37 minutes after the 5:00pm deadline for my TGC in December.
But this sort of award, generally speaking is similar to the "Worst Experience," so I'm going to tweak it now to the "worst" bird, a bird I did see but at which I am still pissed off until I get a formal apology. I've already caught flak for blaspheming the admittedly great and valuable Chiricahua Mountains, but apart from my cheery little campsite, the hiking and birding there was freaking terrible. Nonetheless, I flushed a Short-tailed Hawk and found the much-vexing Mexican Chickadee. It took two days of hotter than expected hiking, less than expected water, a beaten up car, and various other blood prices. So glad I did it, so glad it's over (I'll definitely be back in the Chiris, but it will be so much less stressful now).   

Best Birds of 2014:

Enough pessimism huh!? In 2014, my face was melted so much I felt one of the Nazis from an Indiana Jones movie. For being such good sports and bearing with all my bitching, not just in this post but throughout the year, here are my 10 favorite birds from 2014 for which I also have decent photos (Buff-colored Nightjar would otherwise, certainly, be on this list):

10: Sabine's Gull: This bird trailed behind us on the HMB Pelagic in an unusual show of friendliness. It was a truly foreign bird for an Arizonan, and it was also in super sexy plumage, unlike many other birds we saw that day.

9: Chestnut-sided Warbler: This bird is rare but annual in Arizona winters, so the vagrants are always in non-breeding plumage. This situation is one of the greater tragedies in many western birders' lives. I saved myself for this looker of a bird. It was worth it, when we came together on the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina. 

8: Canada Warbler: This bird, another Carolina lifer, is not annual in Arizona. Vireos ogle its goggles with great envy and prissy princesses do the same for it's ebony carcanet. Jaw dropper. Game changer. Jaw changer? Yes.

7: Red-headed/Red-cockaded Woodpecker: I'm a sucker for Woodpeckers, and I saw some great ones this summer. They are so equally great, in fact, that I'm putting both of them as a conjoined #7. Red-headed Woodpecker is probably one of the most gorgeous birds in North America, and Red-cockaded is a rare, threatened, and declining species, while also being a lot of fun in their very specific habitat. Red-headed was an NC lifer in 2014 while Red-cockaded graduated from the heard-only list. #headbangers

6: Golden-cheeked Warbler: Endangered and protected, these Texas specialties can be hard to come by. I went after these early breeders somewhat late in the season. Nonetheless, at the Kerr WMA (which also had public showers--thank you Kerr WMA) I found a foraging family of three with one juvenile bird. The parents stayed near the canopy but the young guy came down for close views, making this relatively rare and range-restricted Warbler species also one of my best viewed Warbler species. 

5: Yellow-green Vireo: I saw a lot of incredibly cool birds in Texas and Carolina last summer, but the YGVI was probably the rarest of the bunch. It didn't show extremely well for me, but the circumstances of the sighting were compensatory. I was at Blucher Park in Corpus Christi looking for any super late Chuck-Wills-Widows (no dice) and stumbled across this bird. Not having read a TX listserv since beginning my trip it felt pretty great, and looked even better. To boot, it vocalized often and well. **This bird had been discovered weeks before.

4: Prothonotary Warbler: They said, "No PRWA, you've got too much yellow on already," but he kept putting on more. "Please stop, PRWA, you're becoming overloaded." He continued to up the ante. "For sake of all that is holy, PRWA, you're like a singing ball of sulphur!" Yes, yes he is. This bird provided the best looks and best audio of any warbler I saw in 2014--what a champ. 

3. Groove-billed Ani: Pretty high mark for this shabby, zygodactylic goth cuckoo eh? We found two birds early in the morning at Resaca de la Palma, and another at Sabal Palms the same day. It was a trip to hear them vocalize, and my mostly blurry photos were entirely the result of early morning overcast and not these birds' shyness. The Ani was one of my most anticipated species, one I had looked at and thought about in guide books for many years. It's such a peculiar bird, especially to be seen in North America, that the importance and fulfillment I attached to its sighting outweighed that of more colorful competitors. Also, have I mentioned before that a group of Anis is called a cooch?

2: Black-capped Vireo: The heartbreak of not crushing these properly was still far overshadowed by the satisfaction in finding them. Like the Ani, the special, peculiar aesthetic of these birds stuck in my mind for many years. Throw in the fact that they're a threatened species and this was the first really good (and not easy, like PABU or STFL) bird I saw on my Texas trip, the bird that got things rolling, and it's one of the best memories of 2014 birding. That head is so shocking.

1: Common Paraque: I could stare at this bird's intricate patterns for days on end. Hell, I have stared at this bird's plumage for days on end--but always secondarily, from photos and other renditions. This species is found very reliably at Estero Llano Grande during the right time of year, and many people have obtained crushing photos of them from their well-known haunt. When I arrived at the park, the docents told me nobody had seen any for a while. I then ran into a very snooty birdwalk leader who scoffed at the very idea when I inquired if his group had seen any: "Psht, no. Good luck finding one now. They're all moved back into the dense vegetation (a.k.a "don't point out my failing in front of my tour group buddy; I'm trying to score here").
It took some hours of desultory searching, random wandering and accrued sunburn. And then all of the sudden, by chance looking at that exact spot, THERE IT WAS. No doubt, in retrospect, this was not the rare or incredible find it felt like, but that adrenaline rush had me going for hours. Of course, I quietly photographed the bird and marked the spot (simultaneously adding it to my BBMD List haha kidding/not kidding) so I could go find my birder buddy. But never, never when birding by myself (and y'all know what I'm talking about; it's different when birding with people who can high five you back) have I celebrated such a find before--running, jumping, shouting, making an ass of myself, the whole nine yards. This was one of the main birds for which I came to Texas. Adversity was overcome. My face melted even more than the celebratory ice cream I'd been carrying in my pocket all day. Far and away my favorite bird and individual sighting of 2014.

What misadventures will 2015 hold? Well, hopefully karma is looking the other way.