Saturday, December 31, 2016

Top 10 birds of 2016

 2016 was a big year for me. I forayed to the Neotropics for the first time, staged two cross-continental road trips, and entered graduate school. We shall see what 2017 holds--hopefully, many birds (and possibly a new blog--but more on that later). For now, here are my favorite ten birds of the year.

10. Hooded Warbler –8/9/2016

Just a Hooded Warbler, you say? Well—I do love Hooded Warblers. This one was particularly special—I saw it down the street from my house in my first week or so of living there. I heard the metallic chink and tracked down a handsome male. It inspired me to regularly bird my yard and neighborhood.

9. American Tree Sparrow—11/23/2016

Photo by Trish Gussler
Finding a rare bird is the ultimate dream for birders. Serious avian addicts crave vagrants like narcotics, and a self-found waif is especially desirable. I grew up seeing American Tree Sparrows on a regular basis in Michigan, but this one that I found at Bolsa Chica with my friend Maxx represents only the third record for Orange County.

8.  Pinyon Jay—5/11/2016

“Have you ever seen a Pinyon Jay around here?” Joel asked as we coursed down the highway that leads to the Such lair in the foothills above Boulder. “Don’t think so,” I said. Moments later, a blue bird flew across the road—followed by a battalion scores strong of Pinyon Jays. Joel claims that it was a coincidence.

7. Williamson’s Sapsucker—5/7/2016

My long-lost friend Andrew guided me around Montana for a couple days. We launched a campaign to the Bridger Mountains in search of this, the smartest of the sapsuckers. We eventually found a male and watched it until our attention was stolen by a pair of goshawks. I don’t see either of these species frequently enough.

6. Hispaniolan Trogon—3/16/2016

Trogons are crowd-pleasers. This—one of Hispaniola’s endemics—inhabits pine and cloud forest. My comrades and I undertook an epic hike and finally—after multiple false alarms and alluring calls—spotted one.

5. Sharp-tailed Sandpiper—11/20/2016
Sandpiper success with Dad!
A vagrant common enough in North America to be illustrated in field guides but rare enough to never actually be seen. A wayfaring juvenile was kind enough to coincide its visit to the Los Angeles River with my pilgrimage home to California for Thanksgiving. I went to see it with my dad, who shared and facilitated many of my formative birding experiences and with whom I don’t bird with often enough anymore! We saw the bird despite a ferocious downpour that forced us to retreat to the shelter of a bridge.

4. Gray-throated Chat—1/15/2016

A pretty bird of the tropical dry forests of Mexico, Belize, and Guatamala, and one that I very much wanted to see on my Mexico trip for reasons I can’t explain. While birding the nonpareil Calakmul ruins, my friend Joel encountered a pair attending an ant swarm.

3. Red Phalarope—10/14/2016

Uncropped phone photo!
A great rarity in Alabama. The sighting was all the more notable by the fact that the bird was fearless, floating within five feet of our astonished faces and lenses.

2. Hispaniolan Woodpecker – 1/24/2016

I spent many hours this winter observing Hispaniolan Woodpeckers and suffered greatly for it—lichen particulates lodged in the eyeball, feet planted in hidden piles of cow excrement, arcs of bat guano raining down upon my head, sore muscles from hunching in a burlap blind.

1. Keel-billed Toucan—1/11/2016
It was my first full day of birding in the Neotropics. The end of the day was approaching; my friend Joel and I had had a long day of being traumatized by Mexican driving and being overwhelmed by a dizzying array of new tanagers, orioles, and flycatchers. We were standing beside a small pond when we heard it coming. Whoosh whoosh whoosh—the wingbeats of a large bird. A pair appeared overhead—my first toucans!

Farewell, 2016. 

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Close to home

Home is for now a modest house in a modest neighborhood populated by working class families and students. The lots are small. The trees, big. It is no Cape May, no Whitefish Point, but it is home.

The alarm tinkles. I do not want to get up but do anyway. Stagger to the bathroom, pee. Then stumble to the coffeemaker. While the coffee percolates, I set my binoculars on the back deck so they won’t be fog-crippled for the morning bird walk. Alabama’s reputation for humidity is merited.

Day by day I force myself to bird the quarter-mile loop, coffee mug in one hand, binoculars in the other. It’s just a twenty-minute ramble, a daily contraction of my birding muscle, just the briefest set of avian calisthenics wedged into an overspilling schedule. I fear atrophy. I want to know what birds are near me.

The number of birds on this humble street ever surprises me. Of course, 95% of them are doves, robins, and jays, but every day I get a mouthful of migrants. Parula Tuesday, an oriole Thursday, two high-flying Eastern Kingbirds today.

Anything can fly over. One morning it was a Caspian Tern. Want to maximize your yard list? Watch the sky. No, seriously. Never abandon your post. Eventually, something like a Juan Fernandez Petrel will traverse your slice of sky. Will you be there to see it?

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

A day afield

I have succumbed to what Scott Weidensaul calls "fat man biology" in Living on the Wind. Yes, I study birds, but I do so from a dumpy office tucked along the sterile hallway of a science building. Yes, I study birds, but stationed in front of screens and textbooks, wrestling with concepts of Bayesian inference and Googling the abundant error messages I encounter with my neophytic coding abilities. Yes, I study birds, but I never see birds--I rely on preexisting databases and the information available from satellite imagery. 

It has been a challenging summer, full of headaches induced by excessive screen time and bewildering Greek notation that I haven't encountered since Calculus class years ago. I've learned a lot. But that comes at the expense of what Mycroft Holmes calls legwork, which I adore. I miss walking, pack embracing my hips, binoculars in hand, the sweat, the mosquitoes...

Finally I could take it no more and took Saturday to reconnoiter sites for my field season next year. I arose at 3:30, weary from spotty sleep (few things excite me such that they impair my sleep, but a day afield is one of them), brewed some coffee, and saddled up my lab's field truck. My mission: to find spots with grassland birds. 

I initially targeted some relic prairie fragments in the environs of Livingston in extreme western Alabama. But the fragments were just that: fragments, too small and too choked by invading cedars to host proper grassland birds. I kept myself occupied with Mississippi Kites, a common species that nevertheless always tickles my Yankee bird background. 
Another species I seldom saw growing up was Summer Tanager. They are verminous in Dixie.

The major drama of the morning occurred when I encountered a bird that I almost couldn't identify. I'd like to be modest, but...that seldom happens. After a double take, I realized that this was a hatch-year White-eyed Vireo, just dissimilar enough from its parents to prove confusing with its dark iris and muted plumage.
 I have the inexplicable obsession of photographing birds in flight. This is a Common Grackle--there were lots of them flying around in packs, a sure sign of late summer. It is engaging in some primary molt--and his tail is looking ratty as well.
 As the classic Alabama Swelter reached unbearable levels in the late morning, I jettisoned my mission and repaired to some shaded areas along the Tombigbee River. There I found lots of birds, including this Prothonotary Warbler, one of a group of four cavorting along the riverbank.
If I had to choose between seeing a cool bird or seeing a cool amphibian, I think I might choose the frog. I've seen so many birds in my life. I know less about frogs; they seem more mysterious; they are also fun to catch.
 Insects also beguile me. Every time I'm afield, I notice insects, and every time, I'm awestruck by just how little I know about them. Butterflies are the easy ones, the cardinals and robins of Class Insecta. This one is an Eastern Comma, lapping up residue from a deer skull leftover from past hunting season.
 It was hot, so I stopped in the mom-n-pop grocery at a backwoods crossroads. Attempting to blend in as an Alabamian, I asked the proprietor, "Y'all have sweet tea?" He was not fooled, immediately drawling, "Where ya from?" in response. 
Wood Stork
I finally found my grassland birds by accident at the end of the day. I stopped to gape at the swirls of vultures, herons, and Wood Storks around the sprawling catfish farms on the road back to Tuscaloosa, and there, in the old pastures and hayfields, I saw meadowlarks, Dickcissels, and Loggerhead Shrikes. A fallow field sandwiched between catfish ponds may not be as sexy as a restored nugget of prairie that enjoys prescribed burns every year, but if that's where the birds are, that's where I'll be. 
Catfish farms, the economic backbone of the Black Belt of Alabama

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Apartment 27

Descending the stair I saw people in a knot
Who are they, and what are they doing? I thought.
   Gathered round a turtle
   The scene I deemed fertile
For making friends by asking about the reptile they'd caught.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Birding Shorts: Very Old Friends (Colorado Edition)

Gandalf seeks his old comrade Bilbo for a birding adventure
I knew I had found him, pulling up next to the battered Subaru. There was no mistaking the “Do You eBird?” and “Sea Level is for Sissies” bumper stickers. The lad himself appeared a moment later. Marcel and I were both cute and nerdy high schoolers when our paths first crossed. I hadn’t seen him in years.
Right to left: Marcel Such, Joel Such, me. June 2010
Some things never change. He still saunters. Anything mildly funny still shatters his smirk into a goofy grin. But other things change. Now he’s a longboarding hipster dirtbag who uses lingo such as “dank” and “straight G.”  I suppose I could be described in a similar fashion, just with a less edgy parlance and no longboard.

Arguably homeless between leases, Marcel explained that we would head to BLM land in the hills for the night. That was fine by me. I love camping. And! These hills seethe with Gunnison Sage-Grouse, only described as a species within our short lifetimes, rare enough to make the palms perspire.

We jolted along dirt tracks, hoping for a road grouse. Then we switched our strategy and walked into the sagebrush, dust underfoot, desiccated branches clawing our calves. I eyed the buxom Leicas riding Marcel’s hip.

“Sexy bins,” I said.

“Thanks—it’s Travis.”

It took a moment to register. Then I realized that Marcel was brandishing a celebrity binocular, Travis the Traveling Trinovid! I was star-struck. My own tattered Trins fawned in the presence of greatness.
Can't refuse a photo op with celebrity optics
Light receding, we returned to the car for further cruising. Up a hill, down a two-track. Darkness fell. Meadowlarks warbled in the gloaming. I noticed a smudge in the two-track ahead of us—a bush? No—an ambulatory smudge! The grouse scurried into the brush, then flushed as the car approached. It was the first Gunnison Sage-Grouse I’d ever seen. Marcel punched me in celebration.
The desolate haunts of the Gunnison Sage-Grouse
We repaired to our bivouac, a site we shared with Marcel’s friend Cam. Around the fire, Cam recounted Marcel’s stint as a mercenary in the World Series of Birding. A Wall Street sugar daddy flew him to New Jersey at the last possible moment to join his team. From Cam’s perspective, he was losing Marcel forever. Young Marcel, foolish Marcel, boarding a plane, beguiled by the promise of making a few bucks, only to be dismembered in a dark saltmarsh, losing his vital organs to the black market. At least in his last moments he would hear Black Rails…
We swapped stories late into the night. Then we peed on the coals and the three of us retired to Cam’s two-man tent for the night. Road wearied, I slid into a gradual sleep. Breeze battered the fly. As my neurons punched the clock, I questioned the real purpose of the rain fly—to repel droplets or amplify night sounds.

Marcel and I awoke when the strengthening sun raised the tent’s temperature to a swelter. Cam had left hours earlier for an epic bike ride. We spent the day the way you might expect from hipster dirtbag birders—nursing coffee at the café from which Marcel lusts employment, eating poptarts garnished with peanut butter, bumming around the university, and, of course, looking for birds.

After another night of three-man spooning under the Sound Amplifier, Marcel and I absconded well before dawn for grouse espionage. Cam did not come. He cited exhaustion from his bike ride, but Marcel and I both well understood that he would not allow himself to be seen birding. In the end, it’s a good thing he didn’t come—we didn’t see any grouse. I dropped Marcel off at his fantasy coffee shop and headed east.

I wondered when I’ll see him next. Whether it will be three years again. How we will change in that time. Where our paths will cross, and what birds we will see. Only time will tell.
Marcel, me. May 2016

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Numerical and pictorial highlights of a cross-continental meander


My original summer plan was to travel to backcountry Alaska to work as a research assistant with Kittlitz's Murrelets. However, a stubborn lower back injury rendered me unfit for service, so I opted to head to Alabama early to commence my graduate research. I decided to take the long way.


20  -  days on the road
4298.2  -  miles traveled
9  -  peanut butter burritos consumed
261  -  species of birds
14  -  states
-  life birds
7  -  cans of iced tea imbibed (Georgia Peach Peace Tea being the favorite)
1  -  night of sleep in a Walmart parking lot
-  life states (Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Arkansas Mississippi, Alabama)
2  -  factories toured (Noosa Yogurt and New Belgium Brewing)
27  -  episodes of The Memory Palace podcast enjoyed
1  -  bird-car collision (I think it was a Barn Swallow)
16  -  plays of the Songs for Traveling CD
Three weeks behind the wheel
Svelte Stilt Sandpipers slice the sky. Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma.
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma
Field Sparrow bouncing acoustic balls. Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, Oklahoma.
Western angles, nostalgia. Tulsa, Oklahoma
Yellow-headed Blackbird staking his claim somewhere on the divide between the Rockies and the Great Basin
Give us this day the tenacity of weasels. Great Salt Lake, Utah.
Brutal phalarope fly-by. Great Salt Lake, Utah.
Possibly one of the least appreciated birds in North America, the peerless Downy Woodpecker. Boulder County, CO
Bound for the taiga, a Blackpoll, a rare-ish bird in the shadow of the Rockies. Boulder County, Colorado.
Bighorn Sheep. Gunnison, Colorado
Creative scoping solutions for windy days
Antelope Island Causeway near Salt Lake City, Utah

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Vignettes: Chasing the Wind (Montana edition)

I rolled to a stop outside the collegy-looking house and walked into a graduation party. "Is this where a certain Andrew Guttenberg lives?" I asked the guy who opened the door. "Gutes!" the dude yelled over his shoulder, "Someone is here for you!" And there he was, the legend himself. The man who will surely illustrate many field guides in his time. Don't believe me? You should.

Rather than launch immediately into birding escapades, we demonstrated our ostensible maturity by joining a rousing football match with the Bros. We saved birding for the following day. And that day can only be described as a Big Day--albeit a relaxed one. "Our birding today was like firing a shotgun...our pellets scattered wide but all managed to hit targets," Andrew said* at the end of the day.

A male Calliope Hummingbird was on the bush precisely where Andrew said it would be. Only my second one. Ever.
A Ruffed Grouse drummed in the undergrowth. A ventriloquist, the grouse always seemed right beside us. Then it was there. We saw it at the same time. Neither of us had ever watched one drum, an act I found strangely intimate.
Cottonwood Reservoir, an oasis for ducks and shorebirds in the sage desert. "I wish it were a bit more windy so my knuckles would dry out faster," complained Andrew. We took turns scoping--the gale rendered our eyes springs.
Gray Partridges fled the roadside, hoping to evade addition to my North American list. They could not.
Howling winds in the foothills of the Bridger Mountains prevented us from hearing much, which should have crippled our birding efforts. But then Andrew spotted two Northern Goshawks wheeling overhead. As we admired them, a male Williamson's Sapsucker flitted over our shoulders.

We could not resist stopping to admire an abandoned leather couch along a mountain road. Neither could we resist posing for photos with it.
Vociferous drunks at the Boreal Owl campground dismayed us. Surely no owl would tolerate such ruckus. We walked around--legs stiff from football--as the sun set. A female Dusky Grouse tried to camouflage herself in the gravel but could not. After a half-hearted search for owls in the gloaming, excessive bodily fatigue and shrieking wind forced us to capitulate.
I bade Andrew farewell and drove east, hoping to find two small brown birds of the prairie that I had never seen before. One of them I found: a Sprague's Pipit, aloft on quivering wings, circling, fighting the breeze, spilling forth an amorous cascade to the prairie below.

* This quotation may or may not be entirely accurate. When Andrew uttered this (or similar) proverb, it was late and my only focus was not falling asleep at the wheel.