Tuesday, January 28, 2014

In Search of the Elusive Greater Roadrunner

Dude: "Embarrassingly enough, I've never seen a Greater Roadrunner."

Me: "That's not that weird if you've not really spent much time birding the southwest."

Dude: "You think we have a chance of seeing one today?"

Me: "I never really count on seeing a Roadrunner, I just kind of run into them while I'm driving somewhere.  I mean, we may see one, but it's all just kind of luck, you know?"

Cut to several hours later...

Me (driving): "Roadrunner!"

Dude: "Where?!?!"

Me: "We just passed it on the side of the road."

Wheels squeal as we turn around...

Me: "It just ran under that fence, out of sight. Did you see it?"

Dude: "Yea, definitely."

Me: "Badass.  Wish we could have had better looks."

Cut to 90 seconds later...

Me: "Dude, there's another."

Dude: "There are three of them!"

Me: "Holy shit, dude!  Look at them all out in the open, not giving a fuck!"

Crest raised, tail cocked.  These fuckers kill rattlesnakes by bashing them against rocks.  No lie.  Fucking metal.
Postocular streak of blue and red bare skin.  Does life get better than this?  And goddamn; look at the pattern on the crest.
So, that's how that went down.  Dude is this guy I met while leading a bird walk the day before.  Dude is in town doing some work for his post doc.  Dude seemed cool, so I invited him on the Long-tailed Duck chase.  Dude got some nice life birds.

As I've pointed out with sparrows and longspurs, the backs of birds are undervalued.  Look at that shit.
I love everything about this bird.  Next time you see one, pull over and look at it.  It will change your life.
In addition to the unexpected but much appreciated Greater Roadrunner, we got Dude on a bunch of southwestern-ish life birds: Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Canyon Towhee, Verdin, Black-crested Titmouse, and Golden-fronted Woodpecker.

Rufous-crowned Sparrow - another under appreciated bird of the southwest.  In addition to looking exactly like a Rufous-crowned Sparrow, the black lateral throat stripe is diagnostic.
Canyon Towhee

So, yea.  That's how you see a Greater Roadrunner.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Ode to the Ephemeral Long-tailed Duck

Oh, you Long-tailed Duck.  You beautiful, beautiful lady.  Why did you have to come visit me here in Texas, all the way from the frigid reaches of northernmost corners of our continent?

Please don't misconstrue my words, for I am flattered that you found me worthy of the no doubt long and arduous flight.  But you will leave me soon, and I'll be counting the days until I make your acquaintance once again.

And darling, who knows how long that will be.  Months?  Years?  I know people who've not yet had the honor of melting in the presence of your ethereal glow.  And, while I pity these poor souls, I can't help but wonder if I'm not the worse, as I know the powers that your beauty holds, and I must battle the seasons well aware of how empty my life has become without you.

Oh, you Long-tailed Duck.  How you haunt my dreams.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Anahuac NWR

Anahuac NWR is home to a shitload of badass birds.  Anahuac is also home to the famous Yellow Rail walks, of which I have yet to take part.  Basically, Anahuac is the place to go to get killer looks at birds you rarely get even shit looks at elsewhere.

King Rail
Decent looks at rails are enviable.  Crushes of rails are what dreams are made of.  Maybe I'm a nerd.
Sneaky, sneaky.
The roads leading into the refuge are good for raptors.  This Red-tailed Hawk has an extremely white head, even for Krider's, but the belly band is obvious.  Weird bird.  It's confused nerders, previously.

I swear to God, when you look at this thing head on, it resembles a Snowy Owl from the chest up.
Merlin - after only posting shitty pictures of this bird in the past, I can finally offer something not horrifically embarrassing.
Shitloads of geese hang out here in the winter.  Blue and White Snow Geese are fucking everywhere, and Greater White-fronted Geese frequently honk by overhead.  Boat-tailed Grackles are easy here, as are waders.  It's hard to put into words, but the refuge has this weird, prehistoric feel, like you stepped back in time.  It's trippy.  

Snow Goose - Blue and White morphs.
Boat-tailed Grackle - In addition to the horrific/awesome noises this bird makes, Gulf Coast and Florida Boat-taileds have brown eyes. 
White Ibis - "pick it up, pick it up, pick it up!"  This is what a White Ibis would look like at an Operation Ivy show.

Black-crowned Night-Heron - what was initially 8 birds quickly turned into about 300 after a close encounter with a Northern Harrier.
My interpretation of a Crossley.

Roseate Spoonbill - I don't know what to say about this bird that it doesn't say itself.

That is all.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Weekend on the UTC

There are many good birds on the Upper Texas Coast.  As I am often consumed by my obligations to work, whiskey, and all around revelry, I see these birds much less frequently than is generally advised.  That was remedied this weekend.  Here are some of these birds.

Willet - doing its best Redeemer pose.
American Oystercatcher - Embarrassingly enough, this was a new bird for This Machine.  I don't think I will escape unphased.

Look at those stubby fucking toes.
There are a ton of sick places to visit on the UTC.  A quick stop at the Texas City Dike was followed by a short ferry ride to Bolivar Shorebird Sanctuary.

Roseate Spoonbill - Somebody had scavenged the actual spoonbill.
Piping Plover 
Snowy Plover 
American White Pelican - The noise generated from the flapping of their pouches is quite stunning.  Not long after this shot, some asshole flushed the whole group. 
Western Sandpiper
Long-billed Curlew
 Not far from the shorebird sanctuary is Rollover Pass, a killer spot for terns, among other things.

Black Skimmers and Forster's Terns
Black-bellied Plover 
Parts of the UTC are vaguely reminiscent of scenes from Mad Max.  I do not believe even the phuzz feels comfortable in this part of Texas.

There is no "kitsch" involved with this sign.  There was nothing around here but refineries and shipyards.
Tree Swallow - many people would be surprised to see any type of swallow in the States in January.
This was my first real foray into photographing swallows in flight.  It was maddeningly frustrating.
A random stop on the way home was WG Jones State Forest, most notable for harboring a population of the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker.  Although night was quickly closing in and breeding season has not yet begun, extraordinary luck provided me with three individuals, a second life bird for the trip. 

Red-cockaded Woodpecker - low light and great distance killed any hopes of a crush, but diagnostic photos were obtained, and I can't not post photos of this bird on this blog.
Three birds on one tree.  Disgusting.

Great Horned Owl - I was fortunate to watch this lady make sweet, sweet love to her mate.
A trip to Anahuac NWR was included in this trip, but that place deserves in own fucking post.  Stay tuned, nerds.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

An Interview with Sam Fason: Travis County Big Year Birder

So, this is my friend, Sam Fason.  Sam did a Travis county big year last year, and ended up with a pretty impressive total; 4th best ever.  Sam was kind enough to sit down with me at Epoch Coffee for a quick little interview about his experience.  All of the pictures in this post are Sam's.  Here we go.

Alright.  How long have you been birding?  Wait, wait, wait.  How old are you?

17.  I was 7-ish when I started birding.

And why did that happen?

Good question.  I don't have a solid answer.  I was just interested in stuff.  I went through phases of like dinosaurs, and sharks, and birds, and I guess birds just stuck, for whatever reason that is.

Did you know anybody when you got into it, or did your parents take you on hikes and stuff?

Yea, my family was always really outdoorsy, and my grandparents sort of were birders, you know?  I mean, like they knew enough people that the first birder I ever met was Victor Emanuel; they already knew him.  Whenever something crazy would show up in Austin, Victor would ask me and my dad if we wanted to tag along.

Black-headed Grosbeak
That's nuts.  What was the best bird you saw in the county, when you were still a kid?

Lewis's Woodpecker.  I was 8.  And I saw the Fork-tailed Flycatcher when I was 9.

Jesus.  Can you speak to any of the history of Travis county big years?

Well, going into the year, all I knew was that Kenny had seen a ton of birds in 2012, 302.  And I knew Fergus had the record, but I didn't know what his total was.  That was about it.

So, why did you decide to do it?

I don't know what really propelled me to.  I got interested in trying to build my Travis county list about midway through 2012, so I was already starting to pay attention.  I set my goal at 280 at the start of the year, and I was surprised when I met that somewhat easily.  I hit that mark in early October or late September.  But, I was surprised at how fast that came, so then I set it for 290, which happened surprisingly fast, too.  So, I was like, "Shit.  Maybe I can get 300."  And I hit it right on the nose. 

Scarlet Tanager
What day did you get 300, and what was the bird?

300 was the Calliope Hummingbird.  I got it on Dec. 22.  I got two year birds that day; that and the Brown Pelican.  Nothing else after that.

So, January 1st, did you know you were going to do a bird year?

I didn't know that I was going to do like an official, all out one, but I knew that I wanted to try.  I birded a few times out of the county in the first two weeks of the year, and I waited awhile to get some existing stuff, like the Harris's Hawk and Buff-bellied Hummingbird.  I didn't get those until the second week of January, which was not a smart move.  But, by mid-January, I was set on it.

Lesser Black-backed Gull
We became friends this year.  I think we met looking for Short-eared Owls in January. Did you become friends with more people this year, and did being out more for the big year have anything to do with it?  I kind of feel like now that you're a bit older, it's easier to relate to some of the other birders here.

I knew a few people before this year, but I didn't know a lot of the people I'd end up knowing.  I had seen your name before, I think I'd met AJ once, but I didn't know Arman, and I had never met Kenny.  I definitely think this year helped build more of a community.

You lead the Laguna Gloria walk.  How long have you been doing that?  What's your list there?

Two years now.  205, I think.

Least Bittern
So, you were out of town for good bits of the year, yeah?  Where did you go?

I was in Colorado the last week in June.  Missed Royal Tern then.  And, I was in Romania for three weeks in the middle of July on a kind of school biology trip, but I didn't really miss anything that I didn't pick up when I got back. 

Alright, the fun part.  Hits.  Best birds you found, and favorite birds you saw.

Oh god.  Best bird I found solo was probably the MacGillivray's.  Right under that would be that Golden-winged that we had.  Favorite birds I saw?  That's tough.  Nelson's Sparrow was number one for sure.  Cerulean, two.  Piping Plover is probably three.  Least Tern, I had just got back in the country.  Totally random.  Right place, right time.  If I'd been looking away for 5 seconds, I would have missed that bird for the year.

How many new county birds did you have?  What's your county total now?

33, I think.  County total is 315.

Chestnut-collared Longspur
Shit.  That's a lot.  Okay, misses.  The ones that sting.

There are a lot.  Marbled Godwit.  No, Allen's Hummingbird was the worst.  I don't think I need to explain that story.  Marbled Godwit was definitely number two.  Pacific Loon.  Woodcock kind of pisses me off.  So does Lapland Longspur.  But Lapland pisses me off because they were regular at the time when I was kind of teetering with the idea of a big year, you know?  If I had made the conscious effort to not like swing by in the afternoon after I had slept in, I probably could have got them, but I didn't.

What happened with the Allen's?

A bird present all winter had been confirmed as an Allen's in the morning, and I go over that same afternoon.  Sam (the homeowner) had seen it 45 minutes prior to me getting there, and I thought it was a sure thing.  But it wasn't ever seen again.  All winter that bird was there, and it decides to bail not even an hour before I get there.

Brutal.  Best spots this year.

Windy Point, for sure.  That Colorado River Preserve was pretty good.  I had never birded there before.  Hadn't birded Windy Point before, either.  Roy Guerrero was pretty good, too.  Those three probably were the best.  Species wise, Hornsby was probably number one, but it felt like kind of an off year there.  I mean, I got at least 15, maybe 20 birds there that I didn't see anywhere else, but it just did not feel like it was as good as it should have been, you know?  But still, Piping Plover showed up.  Willet showed up.  Least Tern.

Yea, dude.  What was up with Windy Point this year?

It really blows my mind how it was a totally unknown spot prior to 2013, and 10 months later it's birdy enough that Neil Hayward drops by.  I mean, early on Rich kept cranking good stuff out of that place, which gave it deserved coverage.  And look at what happened... Nelson's Sparrow, Reddish Egret, Long-billed Curlew, Hudsonian Godwit.  And, I could go on.  Hell, I saw a total of eight Snowy Plovers there over the course of this year.  If you told me at the beginning of 2013 that I would see eight Snowy Plovers in Travis county, I would have told you that you were out of your mind.

Snowy Plover
That place was nuts.  Okay, best non bird.

Cottonmouth at Reimers.  Way out of range. Think it would be a county record in Blanco county, which is a couple of miles away.

Anything else?  Lessons learned?  I know it's a bit cliche.

That's about it.  It kicked my ass.  It was frustrating at times.  If anything, getting to know other people who are not like, old ladies in khaki vests.  Pretty good.

Alright, you've got an exceptional taste in music.  Give me your big year soundtrack.

Titus Andronicus - The Airing of Grievances
Real Estate - Days
No Age - Everything in Between
Kurt Vile - Wakin on a Pretty Daze
Thee Oh Sees - Floating Coffin
Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
Tame Impala - Lonerism

Badass.  Thanks, dude.  Good times.

Sedge Wren
So, Sam finished 2013 with 300 birds in Travis county.  Pretty impressive for someone who was taking his SATs and applying to college.  The record prior to last year was 305, and it was broken by my good friend Kenny, with 307.  I only met Sam at the beginning of the year, but we saw a shitload of birds together, and I learned a lot from him.  One of my most memorable experiences from birding with him last year was when he ID'd a Cassin's Sparrow that popped up in front of us.  I was babbling from bird brain, trying to rule out every other sparrow I could think of, and he popped off with "Cassin's Sparrow" in about 2 seconds.  Pretty impressive.  So, there you go.  Remember his name.  Dude's going places.

Getting his Rusty Blackbirds for the year.