Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My 2014

Well nerds, that's about it for 2014. Another year has come and gone, and I'm still alive and kicking to see this one out. On a personal level, I think the best word to describe my 2014 is "chill." That's a good thing. I'm content, which is honestly about the best you can hope for.  The hate in my heart died down a little this year, so I guess that's a plus. On an avian level, things went pretty well too. Let's reminisce together.

2014 was a good year for trips and hanging out with other nerders. As much as I complain about how insufferable most birders are, Austin houses a large number of cool ones.

This Swallow-tailed Kite was seen on one of many, many trips with my good friend Arman. We seek and we destroy.
American Oystercatcher from early in the year.
This Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl was seen on an intense weekend with Arman and AJ.
Seagull Steve and I got to hang out/bird in Corpus and Austin this year, and I was able to get him on the worst looks possible of Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo. We spent a couple days in Corpus without seeing much, the highlight of which was probably this very crushable Chuck-will's-widow.

Arizona happened in May, and I finally got to meet up with The Laurence. He pulled a cactus out of my leg and we ate "Pancake." There were too many sick birds to dive into here, so I'll just put up this White-eared Hummingbird.

September saw another trip to California, and this time Flycatcher Jen and The Laurence met up with me and Steve. Jen and I also competed in another Taken For Granted Challenge, which I narrowly won. On the plus side, Jen got to post stupid pictures of me.

Black-footed Albatross was a life bird on what turned out to be a pretty slow Half Moon Bay pelagic.
Steve and I saw these Peregrine Falcons at Point Reyes, and then saw a bunch of dipshits running to look at Pacific-slope Flycatchers.
I neglected Travis County more than I usually do this year, in exchange for more birding on the Texas coast. In light of what other people saw this year, it seems this was a good idea. The exception was this county record Brown Booby. If you want to crush a Brown Booby, this bird is still here and routinely giving disgusting looks.

I chased quite a few things this year, but Collared Plover has to be the winner. I actually saw this bird twice, even though it's a 5 1/2 hour drive from the ATX.

So let's break shit down. First, the numbers.

ABA: 439. Not great, but not bad, considering I didn't get any further east than the TX/Lousiana border. My final life bird tally was 68. I'll be lucky to halve that next year.

TX: 343. I'm not as concerned about my Texas list as some others, but there aren't too many states where you can break 300 without much effort.

Travis County: 229. This is actually pretty weak, but I'm okay with that. Not the greatest year, and I haven't been around a lot. What really stings is that I was shooting to hit 300 on my Travis life list by the end of this year. I'm at 299 with nothing to chase. Failure.

Light and dark morph Broad-winged Hawks at Smith Point Hawk Watch.
Favorite life birds (based not on the Bird Points System™, but on overall emotional satisfaction):

10. Swainson's Warbler
9. Yellow-green Vireo
8. Red-faced Warbler
7. White-collared Seedeater
6. Bar-tailed Godwit
5. Slaty-backed Gull
4. Swallow-tailed Kite
3. Elegant Trogon
2. White-eared Hummingbird
1. Buff-collared Nightjar

Best bird trip: There were a lot of them, and it's hard to beat the King Ranch/UTC trip where we had Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Yellow Rail, and well over 20 species of warbler, but the great HDNT American Flamingo trip was insane.

Worst birder experience: Some dude trying to TOUCH A YELLOW RAIL.

Best birding soundtrack of 2014: Jawbreaker - Unfun. Jen reminded me to pull this album out.

Best food eaten while birding: Barbacoa Tacos from a filling station near Hargill just after getting Collared Plover.

So yeah, that's my 2014. Not sure what 2015 holds; most likely a quick winter trip to Arizona, and some early summer birding in Iowa. Shit will happen. I am prepared.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

L'enfer, c'est les autres

Christmas Bird Count season is upon us. This year, I've partially participated in one, and plan on wholly participating in another. To be honest, CBC's aren't my favorite thing. I don't like the idea of being tied down to one specific area for 12 hours, and I really don't like the idea of having to spend those 12 hours with people not of my choosing. I don't want to sound like an asshole or anything, and I'm not opposed to meeting new people, but I only want to do that under certain circumstances. 

It is a shame that some people have no Crested Caracaras in their lives.

Here's how it works out in my head. There is probably 10-15% of the population that I'm genuinely interested in talking to, getting to know, etc. I think that's actually the case for most people. So, the odds of me meeting someone and actually being engaged in their presence are relatively low. In most social situations (i.e. not bird counts), it's not that big a deal. You sip your beer, have some asinine conversation about what they do for a living (spoiler, it's always computers), and you move along. Fair enough. I understand how these things work. I'm not a social deviant, I just know what I like. So now imagine that there are 8 of these weirdos, and you're not at a friends house or a bar, where it's easy enough to politely walk away. Imagine that you're stuck in a room with them for 12 hours. That's the potential for disaster that comes along with bird counts. Hard pass.

Rusty Blackbirds are back for the fourth winter in a row.
Being the problem solver that I am, though, I made it work. Instead of being tied down and thrust into Sartre's metaphorical room in Hell, I crashed the count area of some good friends. We had decent birds, I ran some errands and took a break in the afternoon, and overall we had a good time. I think the trick is recognizing and accommodating your limitations. Also, beer.

I don't know how or why this happened. I'm perplexed.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

More Bad Pictures of Good Birds

They can't all be winners, I know that. Every photo isn't going to be a crush, and for that I apologize. These are all birds that were seen yesterday, some from great distance, some in flight, and some in low light. Honestly, other than the TGC, I haven't seen a ton in the past few weeks, so this is where we're at.

This is a Trumpeter Swan. It is a review species in Texas, and a life bird for This Machine. It is also the subject of a horrible photo.
This is a horribly underexposed photo of White Ibis. The only way to save it was to give it this horrific fuzzy, Hallmark glow. Don't be fooled by photos like this. They're shit.
Red-tailed Hawk
I know it's a tricky ID, but the tail is a very subtle hint.
Sprague's Pipit

So, this is cool. I've never noticed the underwing of a Common Buckeye in the fall before. Apparently, it gets blood red like this.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

TGC: The Rematch Results

Fuck, it was a long day. Forgive me if this post is less than comprehensible; I'm writing on Saturday night, after I've been birding for 12 hours and I'm now enjoying a Widmer Brothers Upheaval IPA (which was a belated gift for winning last year's TGC). So, for those of you who don't know, Flycatcher Jen and I had a rematch today of our Taken For Granted Challenge. As opposed to last year, when there were allegations of unfair bird selections, this year we appointed Seagull Steve as the judge, jury, and bird selector. He published a post with our birds late Friday night/early Saturday morning. Last year, Jen and I struggled to get 3 cumulative birds, so this year Steve made it a bit easier, which is much appreciated, and probably makes this post more readable. You can and should read Seagull's post here as it spells out the rules, lists the birds, and as always with Steve, is just a goddamn enjoyable read.

So, anyways. Here we go. My birds were:

1. Least Grebe - So here's the deal with Least Grebe. About 4 years ago or so, people started finding Least Grebes. And it was a fuuuuuuuuucking good bird. And then, like Couch's Kingbirds and Ringed Kingfishers, they kind of got a couple little populations established. Unfortunately, and unlike COKI and RIKI, Least Grebes seem to have receded back to more southerly counties in the last year or so. I've seen one Travis County Least Grebe this year, in January on Pond 3 at Hornsby. There have been reports, but I hit a few places and came up empty. Kind of figured that's how that one would go.

Party boat assholes do not bode well for Least Grebes.
2. Field Sparrow - Field Sparrow is this years gimme (i.e. Blue-headed Vireo). It was easy to find and easier to photograph. Reimer's Ranch.

3. Scissor-tailed Flycatcher - This one was going to be rough. Scissor-tailed Flycatchers are ubiquitous (but not taken for granted) in Travis County throughout much of the year, but most of them recede south around mid November or so. Fortunately, I remembered back to the 2012 CBC when a Fork-tailed Flycatcher was found and how it was associating with STFLs. I drove around that area this afternoon without much luck until I spotted one on a wire as I was exiting the freeway. Recklessly, I pulled over on the side of the road and jumped out to start firing the camera, which was right about the time The Phuzz (Travis Co. Sheriff) pulled up behind me. Fortunately the dude was cool and just making sure I was okay and not tweaking/blitzed before he let me be.

4. Pine Warbler - I kind of thought this would be a gimme bird as well, but it didn't turn out that way. I've got a spot and everything. Pine Warblers are not by any means common in Travis County, but I've never struggled to see one (although I've never specifically set out to see one). I honestly spent probably half my time today looking for this bird and came up empty. It's a tad embarrassing. Moving on.

Feral cats do not bode well for Pine Warblers.
5. Harris's Sparrow - Not necessarily a gimme bird, but Harris's Sparrow can be pretty difficult to track down when you need one. I first stopped at Sunset Valley this morning, where, even though it was a long shot, I thought I may be able to get all 5 birds, which would have destroyed Jen. It's always been my Harris's Sparrow spot, but this morning, that shit was dead as disco. I ended up getting one bird at Reimer's Ranch.

Bonus birds - So, in the event of a tie, the winner would be decided by "who saw the rarest bird during the day (as scored by eBird's Target Species Feature) for their home county in the month of December." As I was already at Reimer's Ranch for sparrows, I figured I'd start at the spot where the Curve-billed Thrasher has been hanging out. It was there, and this record was the first Travis County December CBTH record in eBird. (CBTH is a really fucking good bird here).

Not long later, as I was walking away from the only Harris's Sparrow of the day, I heard an unusual chipping, which I soon discovered was coming out of a Pyrrhuloxia about 10 feet from me. Pyrrhuloxia is a pretty good bird for the county, so I snapped a couple shitty pictures before it flew away. I ended up killing about 30 minutes there waiting for a good friend who needed it for the county (he never refound is pain.)

So, Jen's birds were Tundra Swan, Horned Lark, California Quail, Mew Gull, and Purple Finch. I'd trade all of my birds for a Mew Gull. I yearn for that bird. Anyways, Jen got three birds as well. We tied. I won on the tiebreaker of rarest bird. I got lucky. I knew it may come down to a tie, so I'm fortunate that the Thrasher and Pyrrhuloxia were at the really good sparrow spot. Regardless of all this shit, Jen is one of the coolest chicks I know and I'm fortunate to be able to consider her a friend. Also, many thanks to Steve for coming up with some awesome birds and the even better Galactic Empire analogy.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Dipping Spectacularly (or, Valley of the Leps)

I'm of the opinion that when you set out to do something, you should do it fucking hard. Raging, loving, puking - all of these things are best done intensely. As is dipping. I've never been one to get upset when I chase a bird and miss. I may have curmudgeonly tendencies, but I'm not naive enough to think that I'm going to see every bird I set my sights on. That's not really exciting, anyways. 

Sickle-winged Skipper
Brown Longtail
Obviously, this is supposed to be leading somewhere, so here goes. Myself and a buddy chased the Red-legged Honeycreeper in the valley on Sunday. We dipped. Hard. The "hard" qualifier is important here. I've dipped on birds that were painful to miss, but I've never expended as much time and energy as I did with this goddamned Honeycreeper. We left Austin at 3 in the morning and got to the valley around 8. From 8 until 5, we were extremely successful in not seeing the bird. And then, just like nothing, we drove our happy asses 5 hours back home. Life is pain.

Two-barred Flasher

The thing is, if you let that shit get you down, then you're not having fun. You can't take anything seriously, least of all a fucking bird. Make the most of what you're dealt, and laugh at all the shit that goes wrong. Cactus in the leg whilst waiting for your car to get fixed in the middle of nowhere, Arizona? Hilarious. 9 hours looking at a bunch of House Sparrows amidst a sea of khaki and a dog vigorously licking its asshole? Even better. There's humor in everything. Find that shit and get on with it.

Tailed Orange
Obviously, this post is not filled with pictures of a Red-legged Honeycreeper. It is filled with leps. Most of these are life leps for me, which is exciting. So, no birds today. Just butterflies.

Cloudless Sulphur

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The TGC Returns!

So last year, my good friend/perpetual nemesis Flycatcher Jen and I participated in the first ever Taken For Granted Challenge (TGC). If you don't remember, the challenge was to find and photograph 5 birds (with a bonus 6th new county bird) as picked by each other. The idea had come about a few weeks earlier, as I was out birding and texting with Jen about how there were no good birds around. She asked what I was seeing, and I told her I was looking at 5 Crested Caracaras. She correctly called me out on my bullshit complaining. After that, we decided that the TGC would be a good idea, in that it would help inspire us to make sure we weren't taking for granted the awesome birds that reside in our respective home counties. The idea has recently spread, with Hoosier Greg challenging The Laurence last weekend. You can see their respective results here and here.

Sedge Wren was a bird on my list last year. I did not see it. In fact, this individual right here was my county Sedge Wren, and was seen just this past weekend. Stoked.

Anyways, back to me and Jen. It was a hard fought battle, both physically and emotionally. We both struggled with our darkest inner demons, but in the end I eeked out a win and Jen didn't talk to me for like a month and a half. Cut to this week, and Jen is hankering for a rematch. I don't know why; she hated it so much last time. My theory is that her hate for me burns stronger than her hate for competitive birding. Regardless, this shit is happening. And because last years competition was tarnished with allegations of "impossible" birds and whatnot, we've turned to an independent mediator to select our birds for each other. Who could possibly have enough knowledge about expected birds in two counties as far away from each other as Multnomah, OR and Travis, TX? Who could ever presume to be worldly enough to lay out a level playing field of birds that are equally tough to find, see, and photograph? Your answer? Number. Fucking. Seven. That's right, the honorable Seagull Steve has agreed to play judge and jury for this volume of the TGC, and bird blog readers of the world should unite in joy and reverence. This shit is going to be epic.

Le Conte's Sparrow was another bird I missed on last years challenge. This bird was seen with the Sedge Wren last weekend.

So yeah. The shit goes down on Saturday, December 6th. If you live in Austin, be on the lookout for my list that morning and hit me up on the FB if you see the birds that I'm looking for. I'll buy you a beer.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Bird Points System™

So, I recently spent three outdoor days with the founding members of The Bird Watchers Watchers (BWW), a highly exclusive cabal whose primary focus is studying bird watchers in their natural setting. Their studies cover everything from adornment to behavior, and they generally leave no stone unturned. As a certified bird watcher, membership in this club is not attainable to me, but I do have an inside track into their inner workings. And, as much of their research is mysterious to most bird watchers looking in, some of our unique habits are still not completely understood by the BWW. Over the course of our three days together, this became abundantly clear. Hoping to grasp an insight into the mind of the bird watcher, members of the BWW attempted to mimic the subject, mostly in the practice of pointing at random birds and yelling, "10 points!" Needless to say, these interlopers were quickly sniffed out and discarded as the trash that they are. And as poor as their futile attempt proved to be, it did get the wheels turning in my head. What of this points system? Why did I reject it so quickly? Surely it wasn't because birds cannot be graded; we all know that this is not the case. The fundamental error that the BWW made was not having an accurate grasp on what birds should be allotted what points. Rock Pigeons are not worth 10 points. Great-tailed Grackles are not worth 10 points, at least in Austin, Texas. Double-crested Cormorants are worth 10 points, although only so in very specific places.

This Wilson's Snipe was seen in at Hornsby Bend in Austin, TX 15 November 2014, thus giving it a BPS score of 13.

At the risk of offering the nefarious BWW a small glimpse into the customs of our culture, I think that the points system needs to be hashed out and explained. My vision is that this may eventually become a tool to help bridge the gap between bird watchers and non bird watchers, which is a constructive effort, and not a destructive effort, such as those employed by the BWW. I offer this more as an investigation and a starting point for discussion, as opposed to a peer reviewed dissertation on The Bird Points System™.

While this Cave Swallow may be capable of obtaining triple digit points in some places in the country, here it is awarded a paltry 18 points.

Let us begin by defining the upper and lower parameters of The Bird Points System™ (BPS). The range shall be from 0 to 1000. Notice that the range begins at 0, as opposed to 1. This is a very important function of the BPS, as many birds are worth 0 points on both hyperlocal and national levels. Some common examples are Rock Pigeon, House Sparrow, and European Starling. As a reference point for 1000, I submit the Rufous-necked Wood Rail found in New Mexico in July of 2013. I remain open to other suggestions as a better pinnacle for 1000 points.

Bronzed Cowbird at Roy Guerrero Park in Austin, TX. 29 points.

The most important aspect of the BPS, and one that may well prove to be the most difficult for the BWW to fully understand, is that points are awarded on the very, very specific criteria of time and location. For example, over shared drinks with two members of the BWW in my neighborhood of Hyde Park in Austin, I spotted an Osprey. I quickly informed the two philistines that the bird was a 32 point bird. Only by explaining that the same bird seen just a few miles away over the Colorado River would be worth just 8 points was I able to help facilitate an understanding as to the expected status of the bird in question. Note that without the Bird Points System™, this number is completely meaningless. Let's look at another example, this one focusing on timing. In winter, a White-crowned Sparrow in the Austin area will score somewhere between 4 points and 13 points. Now take that bird, and put it in the same location in the middle of the summer. Suddenly, that low scoring bird shoots up to a staggering 264 points. Astounding.

Travis County Curve-billed Thrasher. 389 points.

It is important to remember that the average, local birding adventure will be fortunate to turn up a bird that scores higher than 40 or 50 points on the BPS. The threshold for local Rare Bird Alert qualification is 45 points. Though not factually correct, the system seems to function much like the Decibel system, in that the Decibel system operates on a logarithmic scale. It can be quite confusing, but such is the nature of birding.

Tricolored Heron at Anahuac NWR, TX. 15 points.

When assessing the scores of birds in your area, please remember that no two scoring systems look the same. While this is obvious in relation to California vs. Massachusetts, it is also of the utmost importance on a hyperlocal level (i.e. neighborhood to neighborhood).

That said, and with emphasis on the fact that this is a hyperlocal affair, I'll offer an example of the BPS for my home.

0 - Great-tailed Grackle
10 - Inca Dove
15 - American Robin (highly variable with timing of occurrence)
100 - Grasshopper Sparrow
500 - Northern Saw-whet Owl
990- Ivory Gull
1000 - Swinhoe's Rail

For good measure, the highest scoring bird I have ever seen was a Collared Plover, which came in with 763 points. In addition, for a bird to obtain #mega status, it must present at least 500 points.

Great-tailed Grackle. 0 points.

With that, I'd like to leave the floor open to discussion. I know that this is a frightening proposition, but I would argue that this is a function that has been in practice for hundreds of years. Ignoring it will not diminish its relevance; only with understanding may we harness its true power.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Tricky Identification Tips from This Machine

As a good friend of mine has said again and again, birding is hard. So many birds looks so much alike, and there are hundreds of different species. Birding can be intimidating and frustrating, especially when you are just beginning. Fortunately, there are many experienced birders among us, who are more than willing to offer tips and tricks gained from months and months of experience. The best forum to find these birding stars has proven to be The Facebook Bird ID Group of the World. However, if there are any of you not hip to the Facebook (it's pretty underground), you may find some of these identification tips useful. I'm here to serve.

This is a Clapper Rail, although differentiating Clapper Rails and King Rails can be difficult. The most obvious differences are that Clapper Rail is a half inch shorter from bill to tail and weighs about 3 ounces less than King Rail.
Herons and Egrets can prove especially tricky for birders to identify. This is a Great Egret, as demonstrated by the broken left leg. 
Compare this Greater Yellowlegs with the Lesser Yellowlegs below. Some people struggle with this complex, but it's actually very simple. The key thing to notice here is that GRYE weighs 160 grams, while LEYE weighs 83 grams. Shorebird identification is nearly impossible without my trusty Leica Avian Field Scale.
If a group of yellowlegs are in flight, you can see that the wingspan of GRYE is 28 inches compared to LEYE, which is 24 inches. Birding really isn't that hard, folks.
Terns offer another difficult identification challenge, especially in extremely poor light, as with this Sandwich Tern.  Fortunately, it is obvious that this bird is 15 inches long which, according to Sibley, rules out every other tern save for Bridled. Many birders will leave these two tricky terns as "Tern Spuh", but Sandwich Terns are usually seen near water.
Fortunately, Ammodramus sparrows are relatively easy to identify. This is a Nelson's Sparrow, as evidenced by the fact that is weighs 2 grams less than Saltmarsh Sparrow.
Ammodramus sparrows are notorious for giving great looks from high perches. They are easy to see, and easier to identify.
Although it is classified as an Ammodramus sparrow, this Seaside Sparrow is most often confused with White-throated Sparrow. It's an easy mistake to make, as they are virtually inseparable in appearance, habitat, range, and abundance. You will need to hear the bird sing in order to confirm the identification.