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