Monday, September 30, 2013

Boca Chica Beach

Well, one pelagic has come to a close while another shines brightly on the horizon.  The Texas pelagic came and went without much fan fare and without many birds.  We ended up with 3 Cory's Shearwaters, 1 Audubon's Shearwater, 2 Bridled Terns, 2 Jaeger sp., 1 Magnificent Frigatebird, and 1 Masked Booby.  Such is the life of the TX pelagic birder.  None of them offered great looks, so you will see no photos here.  Other than the birds, there was quite a bit of vomit.  Rough seas and hot weather made for some very uncomfortable nerders (fortunately, I was not in this group).

Great Blue Heron - munch fest. 
Caspian Tern - this was one of only 3 or 4 that we saw.
American Avocets - again, birds in low numbers.
AJ and I did some birding around the valley on the day before the pelagic, and it was pretty productive.  We spent some time at Boca Chica Beach, which is just on the border with Mexico.  We were looking for a Lesser Black-backed Gull, but came up empty on that front.  Five species of tern were a nice consolation.  Also, it was a pretty neat experience birding on the border.  There were several Mexican families playing and fishing 40 feet away from us, across the shallow mouth of the Rio Grande.  

Common Tern - this was one of about 3 we saw.  Also had one far out on the pelagic.
Caspian Tern - the most abundant bird, both on the beach, and on the pelagic.
Sandwich Tern
Brown Pelicans - mixed group of adults and juveniles. 
Ruddy Turnstone and Sanderling - sharing a rotting catfish.
Piping Plover - we found this banded bird, and I've yet to have any success in finding where to report it.
Red Knot
Yea, so that was Boca Chica Beach.  Not much to say, just good looking birds.  More valley stuff to follow soon.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

New Local Patch

Not much birding has been had by your's truly lately.  Although there are definitely things around, I haven't had much chance to get a look at them.  I co-led a bird walk at Hornsby this past weekend, and added 3 birds for my county year (American Avocet, White-faced Ibis, and Yellow-headed Blackbird).  This puts me at a respectable 245 for county year, which I feel is a good number considering I was out of town and dealing with selling the house during the peak of migration.

I had a group of Europeans Starlings harassing a Red-tailed Hawk.
Lesser Goldfinch
I've been frequenting Hyde Park lately, which I'd like to make my new patch.  It's only two or three square blocks, but I think the habitat is good for migrants and winter birds.  Not many pictures to share, but here are a few things I've found there in the past week or so.

Wilson's Warbler - one of the early migrants arriving around town.

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
This weekend marks the start of a crazy 10 days of birding for This Machine, first with a trip to the valley and a Texas Pelagic, followed by a trip to San Francisco for some land birding and a Half Moon Bay Pelagic with the notorious Seagull Steve.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Masked Duck: A TMWB Flashback

August, 2011.  This Machine had been into birds for no more than a couple of months when a coworker mentioned an interesting bird on his old man's property.  

"My dad has a Masked Duck on his stock pond." 

Bullshit.  Even as a budding nerder, I knew about Masked Duck, and I knew the odds of a Masked Duck being on a stock pond in East/Central Texas were about slim to fucking none. 

"Hmm.  That'd be pretty wild.  Would love to see some pictures, if he has any."

Pictures were promptly procured, but proved to be inconclusive.  Said pictures were forwarded to a couple of advanced nerding channels.  Maybe Argentine Blue-bill or Peruvian Ruddy Duck?  Fuck if I know.  Better get out there and see for myself.

Next evening, 90 minute drive after work.

"Hey, I'm your son's coworker.  Yea, I look at birds.  Weird, I know.  Let's check out this duck."

Masked Duck
Masked Duck
Fuck me.  Masked Duck.  Mottled brown on the back, black limited to the face, blue bill.  Out in the open, in the middle of a stock pond, hanging out with junk, barnyard ducks.

"Um, sir.  This is a really big deal."

Showing off its stiff tail.
Not shy about hanging out with the bigger, but fundamentally lesser domestic ducks.

Bam.  Brazos Valley record and one of only a handful of sightings north of the Rio Grande.

Good look at the nape of the neck.  Beautiful bird from all angles.
The bird hung around for a couple of weeks before disappearing, uncharacteristically staying out in the open most of the time.  Several birders got to see it, although it was kept out of the main channels, so as to save that dude from a deluge of dorks with bazooka cameras.  

Size comparison with some junk ducks.
And that was it.  My first good bird, and still, maybe the best bird I've seen.  The sighting was accepted by the TBRC the following year.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Rules For the Internet Birder (or, How to not be an Asshole)

Internet drama.  We've all seen it.  Honestly, we've all probably been a part of it.  You're a faceless name, and your opinion deserves to be heard and respected.  It's imperative that everybody knows that you're against Obama, or Monsanto, and nobody had better try to shut you up.  I get it.  But surely, this nastiness and immaturity could never work its way into the world of birding.  We're a happy bunch; peaceful, loving, and inviting.  We get all gooey hearted at the sound of a singing Hermit Thrush.  We gaze with wonder at a flyover Bald Eagle.  We could never be lowered to fits of petty bickering and egomania.  Sounds great.  But, you know where this is going.  We're all dead fucking wrong.  Many birders of the internet have a distinct tendency to be nasty, bitter pricks.  Take a look at your local LISTSERV (TX is especially bad).  Pop on over to one of the many birder Facebook groups.  Insults.  Degradation.  Overreaction and defensiveness.  The Great Ornithologist Felonious Jive has previously addressed the situation, but I fear that his words have fallen upon deaf ears.  No, no, no my little nerding friends.  You're not above it at all.  And as easy as it is to sit back and judge all these bastards arguing with each other about Orange-crowned Warblers and juvenile Red-tailed Hawks, it's just as easy to get sucked into the madness.  At some point we will all, intentionally or not, dip our toes into some bullshit birding online drama, and I'm here, as a service to you, offering you the tools to avoid all of the nonsense and keep your much earned birder reputation in tact.  And away we go.

An Orange-crowned Warbler is never a good reason to call someone a Motherfucker.
1.  Don't take yourself seriously.  We could delve into some heavy shit about the Buddha and the ridiculous concept of self, but I don't really think that's necessary.  Just stop taking yourself so goddamned seriously.  It only makes you look like a moron.  If somebody suggests a better way for you to interact with the online birding community, take it in stride.  When it comes down to it, we're all just a bunch of nerds who spend our time thinking, talking, and learning about birds.  It's really rather absurd.  Think about it.

2.  Understand your role.  I know, I know.  Everybody is equal and everyone's opinions are as important as everyone else's.  That's obviously the correct way to think about many matters in life.  But birding is an extracurricular activity.  Nobody is trying to take away your right to vote.  Believe it or not, there are people out there that know more about this shit than you, and it would be wise of you to shut your mouth and listen for awhile.  Take the time to learn who is full of shit and who is full of knowledge.  This is really important.  The best birders are leaving these discussions because of the insults getting thrown at them.  Seriously.  Shut the fuck up and observe the discourse quietly for a bit.

3. Do not blow up forums with pictures of Northern Cardinals.  I hate to pick on NOCA, but it's the most frequent offending bird (close with archilochus hummers).  Look, I'm glad that you snapped that great photo of a bird happily munching away at your feeder.  It's nice, they're beautiful birds; I understand.  But don't spam LISTSERVs and FB groups with all of your "glorious wonder" pictures.  Save that shit for your aunt Sandy in Wisconsin.  She'd be so proud of you.  While we're at it, keep the fucking watermarks off of your photos.  I know that we all should be super impressed with your magnificent photo of a chickadee, but adding "Nature's Treasures by Pam" is unnecessary, tacky, and aesthetically offensive.

This is a lovely picture of a Carolina Wren; however it absolutely does not merit posting to any birding forum .
4. Post for ID help sparingly and correctly.  This part could actually be broken down into many subtopics.  First off, refer to rule #3.  Don't blow up ID help forums.  It's just rude.  Don't post shitty images.  "I just can't figure out what this gray blurry streak is.  If you say it's a Lincoln's Sparrow, that would be a lifer!"  No one else can figure it out either.  And I hesitate to call anything a lifer that you can't identify in the field (there may be exceptions to the rule, but a goddamned Lincoln's Sparrow is not one of them).  Listen to what people say without getting offended.  Again, there are people in this world that are much better birders than you. Piss them off, and you'll fuck up one of your most valuable resources.  On the same token, don't respond to an ID question unless you have something to add to the conversation.  Some forums have been reduced to voting (yes, VOTING!) on ID's even after a knowledgeable birder has already chimed in.  Fucking mind-blowing.  Many of the better birders have left the general ID forums for this reason, and it's turned into a "blind leading the blind" situation.

While this photo is identifiable (Green-tailed Towhee), most photos of this quality are useless, annoying, and a waste of everyones time.
5. Know your birds.  This is just simple and it applies to every one of the above topics.  Nobody's saying that you need to understand subspecies distribution or anything like that, but every interaction would be greatly improved if you had a general knowledge of expected species in relation to time and space.  Get a field guide, find a local bird checklist, anything to help you understand what you should be seeing when.

This is not a lovely photo in and of itself, however a simple understanding of species distribution shows that a Calliope Hummingbird is a pretty damn good for many parts of the country.
6. House Sparrow and Red-winged Blackbird.  Learn them.  Especially the females and juveniles.  No two birds have stumped beginning birders more than these two.  There is no shame in it.  But figure that shit out.  People are sick of seeing those things all over the internet.

7.  Follow the fucking rules.  This should be a no brainer.  Every forum has a moderator or owner that has set up rules.  Look at them.  They are there for a reason.  These forums are not some government non profit; they are set up by individuals to help birders communicate.  Nobody owes you anything, so don't huff and puff and storm out because someone draws attention to the fact that you're fucking up the forum by violating the rules.

Ta-da!  That's it.  You're done.  Follow these simple steps, and you won't be met with eye rolls and quiet grumblings by local birders you meet in the field.  You may actually have the opportunity to be a constructive member of your community and not some faceless asshole whose reputation is quietly torn down before it ever gets built up.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Barn Owl Update

I'm not sure how much I've gotten into about the nesting Barn Owls at the old airport tower here in Austin, so here goes.  Barn Owl is not a gimme bird in Travis county (and let's not pretend that I'm the only county lister in the birding blogosphere).  It's just not a bird you can get.  So, there used to be an old airport in Austin, which was closed down like fifteen years ago or something.  For a short time, the property was left pretty vacant, with the exception of Robert Rodriguez's movie studio and a couple other random things.  Not long after, development started up with a shopping center, a couple of parks, a fancy neighborhood, and the children's hospital (attentive readers will recognize that I work at the children's hospital).  

Adult Barn Owl leaving the nesting room in the old Mueller air traffic control tower.

Throughout all that, the old air traffic control tower has been left alone.  I'm not sure when the owls first started nesting there, but at one point there were two breeding pairs nesting in the same room.  My enthusiastic buddy AJ has been monitoring the birds and he has seen two broods per year for the last couple of years.  He's been kind enough to take me up with him several times this year, mostly because I have a better camera than him and can get good shots that will hopefully convince the neighborhood and the development company to help maintain the nesting room.  Seriously, the development company has been great about helping us keep the birds around.  They've been super accommodating and I am very appreciative of them.  So, long story short, we went up to check on the second brood of the season this weekend and saw that all six eggs had hatched and everyone was doing fine.  Hopefully, they'll produce more birds next year, but development keeps happening, and I'm not sure how much longer they'll have good hunting grounds in the area.

6 Barn Owls between 4 and 6 weeks old.
This was the bravest (and probably youngest) of the bunch.  We were pretty quick in our visit so as not to stress the birds, but this one little owl kept coming towards us and hissing with the voice of a thousand demons.  It was a pretty horrifying noise.

In other news, it's been unbearably hot here the last week or so, and I've been struggling to get myself outside for more than a few hours at a time.  Birds are starting to trickle in and it looks like fall migration might be pretty good.

Semipalmated Plover
As usual in September, about 8000 Yellow Warblers show up on the road between the Hornsby Ponds.
Cave Swallows have been hanging around a bit more than usual lately.
Spotted Sandpiper
Killdeer.  A bird I too easily brush off, they're actually pretty spectacular looking.
Finally!!! Travis county Tricolored Heron had been eluding me for way too long.  I picked up this young bird and a Prairie Warbler to bring my county total to 278.