Monday, December 8, 2014

Map Monday: The Californians

 California is a great spot to go birding. List-oriented birders are well aware that California boasts two endemic species as well as a number of range-restricted birds most reliably seen in the Golden State. Let's test your bird distribution knowledge: here are the (unlabeled) maps of twelve specialties. Included are the six birds whose names honor California: the gull, the quail, the condor, the thrasher, the gnatcatcher, the towhee. The other six are birds that my friends from the East (or, heck, the Rocky Mountains) covet. What are they? And which is which? Good luck.

1. A coast-hugger with a predilection for vagrancy...

2. A patch here, a patch there...

3. This one is only found in California--provided, of course, your definition of California includes the Bajas.

4. Woah, woah, woah, hold up. Why's this in here?

5. What do Cabo San Lucas and Eugene have in common?

6. I don't think it's supposed to be in Hawaii...

7. Nice how it stops at the Oregon border!

8. Let me get my magnifying glass out...

9. Ok...

10. This is getting hard!

11. Oof...I swear, the last three have been exactly the same.

12. California and California only!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

An Encounter with the Masked Birder

             Sodden leaves and pulverized acorns robbed the parking lot of space delineations. I haphazardly swung my Taurus to a halt across two or three spaces without excessive guilt—the lot was desolate, and I deemed it unlikely that anyone else would appear on such a blustery October day. I exited the car and shivered.
I consulted my trunk, that veritable pantry for outdoor exploration. After a short interval, I located my jacket, scope, and one glove. Oh well. You really only need one hand to scan.
I had been visiting Manistee Lake daily, enjoying my role as its only birder. There are so few birders in northern Michigan that one can possess a harem of lakes to scope. Therefore, I was highly surprised to see a lean figure, binoculars raised, at the lake’s margin. Fighting feelings of indignation, I told myself, “Come now. A public lake is not a concubine. You can share.”
“Hey!” I called as I approached, “Seeing anything good?” The figure lowered his binoculars and turned.
He was tall, positively gaunt, a haggard heron of a young man. And his face was concealed by a bandana that had once been red.
“Your Red-necked Grebe from Wednesday is still here. Plus a couple Surf Scoters.” He seemed positively frosty, so I set up my scope at the maximum distance that is socially acceptable among birders. Obviously, he knew who I was, but to me, he was a man in a mask. I scanned in silence.
I had been squinting at a bobbing flotilla of Aythya for five minutes before he spoke again. “We’ve met before, you know.”
I looked up. He was scanning with his binoculars—an ancient pair of Zeiss, at least twenty years old. They looked like looked like they had been through the laundry multiple times. “Yeah? When?”
“Mouillee, April 2004. Looked at a couple Yellow-headed Blackbirds together.”
I remembered the birds but not the birder. “You must have not been wearing the mask,” I observed.
“Nope. That was before I turned vigilante.”
I chuckled, for now I knew who—or rather, what—he was. The Masked Birder. A mysterious celebrity in the ABA, a sort of birder Bigfoot. Rumors swirled. Some speculated that he was the illegitimate son of one of the birding greats. Some considered him a sort of Messiah, others disparaged him as a bum, and still others dismissed him as a narcissistic Quixote. Me? I’m impartial. I mean, birders are a strange bunch. A birder wearing a mask and bumming around the country isn’t that unprecedented. Hell—there’s birders who eat cat food, birders who refuse to ride in internal combustion vehicles, birders who keep meticulous lists of the birds they’ve seen while urinating…
“So—what brings you to these parts?” I asked.
“I was at Whitefish for a week…working on a personal project on sparrow migration, so I’m following the White-throats south. Saw your eBird reports from this place and decided to stop in.”
I glanced up and saw him entering an eBird list on an iPhone. It clashed with his wayfaring persona. “Hey, since when does the Masked Birder have a smartphone?”
I suspect he would have looked embarrassed had it not been for the bandana. “It’s, uh, new,” he said. “I was in Alberta a few months ago and led a rich twitcher to his life Boreal Owl. His 700th. He was so happy that took off his Swaros to give to me. Well, I’ve got these,” he said, patting his Zeiss. “They were my dad’s, and I’ll never bird with anything but them. I told him that, and he said, ‘Son, well, you better take this. You gotta put your stuff on eBird,’ and handed me his phone.” 
“Wow,” I said, scanning through a cloud of gulls settling to roost. “How do you get around?” I asked, remembering the dearth of other cars in the lot.
“Walk. Hitchhike. Commandeer snowmobiles. Grayhound if I have a few bucks. Bald Eagle,” he said, gesturing overhead. The bird circled, catching the last rays of sunlight.
We watched the eagle in silence for a couple minutes. Then, I started to collapse my tripod legs. “Listen,” I said, “There’s a bar just down the road. Wanna go? I’ll buy you a beer.”
“Sure!” he said. He grabbed his tired-looking backpack and followed me to my car.
By the time we were buckled in, he had warmed up to me sufficiently that he was babbling nonstop about birds. First, it was jaeger identification—apparently, during his week at Whitefish, he had developed a formula for identifying jaegers based on wing beat frequency (though, variables for wind speed were still giving him trouble). Then, he was on to thermodynamics and migration. “…you see, bird populations must conform to the laws of entropy…”
Our arrival at Dingman’s interrupted his discourse. “Guess I’d better take this off if we’re going in there,” he said, loosing the bandana and letting it fall around his neck. His face was youthful and ornamented with wispy facial hair that anyone above the age of thirteen would not be proud of. His eyes reminded me of a mountain stream—blue, icy, darting.
As we began to sip our beer, I asked, “So…why the mask?”
He belched delicately and waved his hand. “Aw, man. The birding community is just so full of bullshit. Being anonymous and elusive stirs the pot.”
“Bullshit? Like what?”
“Oh, for one thing, this obsession with Big Years. Big Days. Big Everythings. Everything in birding has to be bigger. Kaufman, Komito, Hayward…get real, people. It’s been done before.”
“Well…some people think it’s fun.” I said.
He drained the last of his pint and snorted. “Yeah, whatever…then there’s the issue of reputation. You make one mistake, and you’re screwed for life. Like this kid I used to mentor—one day he reported a Curlew Sandpiper, turned out to be a Dunlin. Know what? Since then, he’s become phenomenal, but still, no one believes his reports because of that one little ID fart five years ago.”
I couldn’t help but agree.
He continued his rant. “And you become defined by the rarities you find. I’ll bet the ABA has a database listing all birders by social security number, name, and rarest bird they’ve found.”
“I don’t believe that.”
The bar tender came over. Asked, “More beer?”
“Sure!” said the Masked Birder.
“Nah, I’m driving,” I said.
“Okay, well, maybe the database thing is an exaggeration. But even I know that the rarest bird you’ve ever found was a Bar-tailed Godwit in 2009. You’d better find something else fantastic before they forget you.”
I was speechless. Finally, I said, “Well…you’re right, I guess. Whenever people meet me they say, ‘Oh, you’re the fellow that found the godwit.’”
The beer arrived, and the Masked Birder took a draught. “So—what’s the rarest bird you’ve ever found?” I asked.
He sneered. “I don’t report my rarities, so that doesn’t happen to me—“
That makes you an asshole,” I pronounced.
“Well, wait, wait. I make sure people find out about them. I’ll be birding around Cape May and find a Garganey at Lake Lily. I’ll go up to the next capable-looking birder I see and ask him what he’s been seeing. Then I’ll say, ‘Man, you really should go check out Lake Lily. There were tons of ducks there, and with the winds we’ve been having, it’s high time a Eurasian duck showed up.’ Of course, he’ll run over there, find the Garganey, and get the glory.”
“But what if you’re in the middle of nowhere?”
“Well…that happens. Either I’ll leave an anonymous message on the rare bird alert, or I won’t report it. That’s what happened with my Eurasian Kingfisher in Newfoundland…”
“WHAT?!” I exploded.
“Uh…yeah. Last October. Didn’t bother reporting it.”
“But that would be the first ABA record!”
“Okay—that makes you an asshole, I’m sorry,” I said.
To my surprise, he looked hurt. He drained the last of his beer and signaled for another one. The bartender raised an eyebrow and fetched another stein. The Masked Birder shifted in his seat and said, “Yeah, I guess I feel bad about that one. But, in a couple years, I’ll submit my photos and documentation.”
Our conversation turned to happier matters—gull identification, Ron Pittaway’s winter finch oracle, the paucity of young female birders. After his fourth beer, the Masked Birder staggered from his seat and said, “Well, I’d better get going. Thanks for everything.” He lurched toward the door like a Reddish Egret.
I jumped up and grabbed his shoulder. “No way, man, you come with me. You’re drunk, and it’s cold out. Stay at my house.”
He didn’t resist and followed me to my car. The whole ride home, he sang Pish & Twitch parodies and hallucinated Boreal Owls on the roadside. I ushered him into my house, and he instantly collapsed on my couch, binoculars still looped around his next. I threw an old blanket over him and went to bed.
Screaming Blue Jays awoke me in the morning. Snuggling back under my covers, I was nearly asleep again when I realized that my encounter with the Masked Birder had not been a dream. It all seemed too bizarre to be true, so I extricated myself from the blankets to confirm my memory’s veracity. To my surprise, he was gone. He had left a note—scribbled in child’s handwriting—that read,

Dear Neil—thanks for the company. I need to continue south. You might want to scope Big Twin Lake this morning. Yours, The Masked Birder.

I jammed my bare feet into boots, grabbed my scope, and sprinted down the driveway towards Big Twin Lake with my laces undone and bathrobe flapping. Breathlessly I planted my tripod in the damp sand, began scanning, and—there, fifty yards offshore, was a pristine drake Smew with a raft of Hooded Mergansers. “You sneak,” I said aloud, reaching for my phone to spread the news.
It stayed on the lake for two days, and, as the first state record for Michigan, it attracted birders the way overripe bananas attract fruit flies. People began to refer to me as “the guy who found the Smew.” I cringed every time.
           A year passed. The guilt mounted—until now, I never disclosed that it was not I who found the bird. I have not received word of the Masked Birder since. I often peruse prominent birding blogs in hopes of seeing mention of him. But—he is ungraspable, like a migrant songbird passing overhead at night, undetected save for a single note. If you ever encounter the Masked Birder, treat him to a beer and tell him that I say “hi.”

Monday, November 24, 2014

Map Monday: Hooded Merganser

Hooded Merganser is a long-time favorite species of mine--at the age of eight, I made a watercolor copy of Jim Arnosky's Hooded Merganser painting in Watching Water Birds. I saw my first one on November 27th, 1999, at Belle Isle in Detroit, Michigan.

"Homies" are uncommon in southern California. Finding one is always a treat, but it won't send you scrambling to document and report it. A flock of five hens has been fishing at the neighborhood lake this week (a long-overdue addition to my neighborhood list), causing me to wonder about their range...

First, the general purpose eBird map. They are widely spread across the Lower 48, the Rocky Mountain-ish area comprising the weakest link.

Summer (Jun-Jul) distribution. Aha. Here it seems we have another coverage issue. I bet if platoons of high-intensity eBirders swept through Northern Canada, we'd have solid purple from Lake Superior to Churchill. Notably, the bird seems to be present in most of the places it winters with the exceptions of the Southwest and the far South.

And, winter (Dec-Feb). I'm struck by the concentration on the immediate East Coast.

And finally, the obligatory Southern California perspective. Most of the records (except for the Colorado River and the Imperial Valley) are within 75-ish miles of the coast. And interesting detail--there seem to be more concentrations slightly inland, in the foothills and mountains (e.g., north of Los Angeles). From San Diego County Bird Atlas: "..the Hooded Merganser avoids San Diego Bay and occurs in most other coastal wetlands only rarely...the Hooded Merganser is as likely to occur in the higher mountains as at most places along the coast."

Monday, November 17, 2014

Map Monday: Mew Gull

1st-cycle Mew Gull from Mile Square Park, 1/1/12

I birded with Michael and Roger Woodruff yesterday. Twice I have birded with Michael; both instances involved date shakes (trust me, delicious!) and visits to the Salton Sea. Anyway, we found a Mew Gull at Tamarisk Lake at Desert Center. Happily unaware of the rarity of this species in the Riverside County deserts, we snapped a few mediocre photos without thinking too much of it. Turns out that it occurs once or twice per year in the county deserts--and usually at the Salton Sea. This sparked my curiosity about the bird's range.

The Desert Center Mew Gull, 11/16/14

Mew Gulls occur in the Eastern and Western hemispheres (though, there is disagreement about the status of the (sub)species--another one of those Green-winged/Common Teal conundrums). This map nicely illustrates their occurrence in Europe and North America--and it also illustrates the lack of coverage in Asia. It will be interesting to look at a map for this species in a decade or two once the eBird surge hits Asia.

Ah, North America. Like Varied Thrush last week, the Pacific Northwest seems to be the core of the reports. Records away from the Pacific Coast are scattered widely across the whole country.
Also, Mew Gull reaches the southern end of its (wintering) range in southern California (though, note the records from northern Baja and the Gulf of California--there would be more records if more people birded there. Perhaps it is not judicious to claim southern California represents the "southern edge" of ranges based on eBird maps. Hmm.)

Zooming in to California, we see that they stick pretty close to the coast, with the Salton Sea and the Central Valley the only places they wander far inland consistently. Closer to the coast (e.g., Los Angeles County, Orange County, western Riverside County) it consistently wanders inland a short distance, often frequenting small urban lakes.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The CBM: Update

Here we are, one week into the City Big Month. I feel somewhat deceptive calling it a "big month," as my birding habits are virtually unchanged. I mount my bike and bird local areas almost daily--the only deviation from my normal routine is my creation of a new eBird patch for the city of Orange to track my totals. 

Speaking of totals--my total is 105. I've covered the first tier of "effortless" birds--now, it's time to work on the second tier of birds that will be found with a small amount of effort--Greater Roadrunner, Cactus Wren, and Rufous-crowned Sparrow, to name a few. 

The biggest black eye is the drought. Two of my key waterbird locations--Peters Canyon Reservoir and the Santa Ana River--are largely dried up. I've managed to patch together a half-decent assemblage of waterfowl, but many holes remain in my list. The most exciting find was a Surf Scoter this afternoon at the gravel pits at Katella and Hewes a few miles from my house. Per The Birds of Orange County, California: Status and Distribution, there are only three previous inland records of this species in the county; Doug Willick wrote to say that there have been no additional records since the book's publication in 1996. Though Surf Scoters are verminous on the coast, they virtually never wander inland. According to the San Diego County Bird Atlas, Surf Scoters migrate overland from coastal southern California to the Gulf of California, causing the occasional inland record (though more commonly in spring than fall). This eBird map illustrates their preference for the coast.

Doug also gave me some input, suggesting I expand my area to the Orange "sphere of influence" which extends out past Irvine Lake (see map). Doug also pointed out, "...birds at Burris Basin should be countable, at least if one was on the berm that separates the SAR from Burris (this being city of Orange). " Both Irvine Lake and Burris Basin should ameliorate the waterbird crisis. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Experiments in Avian Culinary Art

I was splitting logs, a doubly productive activity—providing firewood for the next day’s lesson while simultaneously draining frustration from teaching rowdy kids. Whack. The dry pine sprang apart. I wiped the sweat from my forehead and adjusted my suspenders.
“HEY, KLAAS!” yelled my coworker Casey, calling me by my teaching alter ego.
“What’s up?”
“The weirdest thing happened when I was taking the kids up,” he said.
“Yeah, what?” 
“We flushed a grouse and it hit the dining hall window,” he said.
“No way,” Casey smiles perpetually, so I was unable to discern whether he was being serious. I leaned on my ax and spit. “And died?”
“Well, where is it?”
“C’mon, let’s get it. We should eat it.” I eagerly followed Casey. Sure enough, he led me to the still-warm Ruffed Grouse. It had left a large smudge on the window. We admired its intricate plumage and the fringed scales on its toes.

           “So, what’s the best way to clean it?” I asked.
“I don’t know—I’ve never cleaned one,” said Casey. This shocked me. I had assumed that Casey--a northern Michigan hunter type--would know how to clean a grouse. YouTube came to our rescue. The video made me nauseous.
“Well, you ready to do it?” Casey demanded.
“Are you sure you don’t want to?” I asked, feeling squeamish.
“Nope, you’re doing it.” Casey ceaselessly tries to nurture country tendencies in my urban hipster soul, and he wasn’t about to budge. With no small amount of trepidation, I carried the bird outside.
The actual act of dismembering the bird was much less disturbing than the video of the same procedure. Now that I’ve ripped apart a grouse with my own hands, I can watch the video without the slightest ill feeling. I am calloused.

Our rough parody of the YouTube Oracle!

The YouTube Oracle that almost made me sick.

After fifteen minutes of pulling/twisting/cutting, I finally freed the breast from the wings. At this point, we simultaneously realized that we had no idea how to best prepare grouse meat. Casey phoned Dave Mahan for counsel but reached voicemail. He left a facetious message: “Hi Dave, it’s Casey. Me and Neil were out in the woods and saw a grouse in the trail, so I threw a rock at it and killed it. We were wondering if you had any good recipes.” He hung up, and we collapsed laughing.

An hour later, Lynn Drew, office manager of Au Sable, knocked on our door with a recipe in hand. “Dave called. This is my son’s favorite camp recipe for grouse.” I glanced at it—butter, potatoes, onions. Had to be good!
As dinnertime approached, Casey selected some country tunes to play and opened two brown ales as I set about the difficult task of de-boning the breast. The volume of usable meat was small—smaller than I would have expected from a grouse. Soon, the delicious aroma of meat frying in butter permeated the house.

The result was delectable. Perhaps it was the copious amount of butter, perhaps it was the freshness of wild meat, perhaps it was the excitement of ripping apart a bird—but, for whatever reason, I’ve enjoyed few meals as much as that one.

I eagerly anticipate the next day I will eat grouse. This absurd experience of wrangling wild flesh into a meal affirms my desire to take up hunting. It won’t be easy for a suburban-bred boy like me, but I figure I can begin by walking around the woods carrying a large sheet of glass.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Map Monday: Pilot Test

In an effort to revitalize this ailing blog, I'm going to try out a series of posts exploring bird distribution. I plan to post a nugget every Monday.

Let's talk about Varied Thrushes. They're cool, right? Correct answer: right. Basically, someone took an American Robin, spiffed it up with Arabian geometric designs, and replaced its jolly song with a haunting New Age whistle. Oh, and instead of lawns, Varied Thrushes inhabit fog-shrouded coastal forests. Doesn't get much cooler than that.

It so happens that this is shaping up to be an above-average year for wintering Varied Thrushes in southern California. Normally, SoCal represents the southern tip of the thrush's winter range. Orange County is blessed by perhaps one Varied Thrush in the average winter. At least ten have been spotted in the county so far this season. In the words of Doug Willick, 2014-2015 may be "one of the best flight years in memory" for Varied Thrushes in southern California.

First, let's look at a classic range map, swiped from

Now, the analogous map from eBird. The most significant difference is the eastern occurrences--Varied Thrush is not unprecedented in the winter in the East, but it is by no means regular or expected.

Next, an eBird map showing the breeding range. The core of the breeding range seems to be British Columbia and southern Alaska. Central California (i.e., Big Sur region) seems to be the southern tip.

Next, the winter range (sightings from October through March).

And finally, a map of southern California showing individual sightings of Varied Thrush. The red pins are sightings from the last month. Many are already appearing in the coastal plain!