Tuesday, November 25, 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.

Tuesday, November 11, 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!

Friday, November 7, 2014

Introducing the Orange Big Month

Without coast, without mountains, without charisma, the city of Orange will nevertheless produce an enviable avian bounty over the next month.

A renaissance is under way—I have returned to birding regularly. Last February, I went twenty-three days without entering an eBird checklist (yes, I counted, and yes, I am horrified). At one point this summer, I found my windowsilled binoculars serving as an anchor for a gargantuan spider web. This morning, I wiped months (years?) of accumulated sand, food residue, and fingerprints from my binoculars, resurrected my high school bike from retirement, and headed to Santiago Oaks Regional Park to began the City Big Month (hereafter CBM).

A Big Year is too big of a commitment. And I want to limit myself geographically. So—from November 6th until December 6th, I will ransack every corner* of Orange for avian booty. Birds will be ruthlessly located, identified, and reported to eBird; my goal is 125 species. The CBM, I’m hoping, will motivate me to bird locally a lot in the next month.

A tribute to the good old days when I actually had a camera--a Western Bluebird, already battled and subdued as a part of the CBM

Santiago Oaks gave me a good start this morning: Red-breasted Sapsucker, Varied Thrush, Purple Finch. And now, if you will excuse me, I’m venturing outside to listen for the neighborhood Great Horned Owls.

* I will include Irvine Regional Park even though it isn’t in city limits. My reasoning: (1) the park’s street address is Orange, and (2) Irvine Regional Park is awesome. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

!! Olive-backed Pipit !!

Olive-backed Pipit, Yorba Regional Park, 11/2/14. Photo by Tom Benson. (Thanks, Tom!)

Twitching—that strange pastime of expending copious quantities of time, money, and fossil fuels to lay eyes on some avian waif—is ever contentious in the birding community. The die-hards will drive from San Francisco to, say, Orange County for a single bird. Then there are the sanctimonious types who scoff at such Iditarods and laud local green birding. I align more closely with the latter group but still enjoy the occasional twitching libation.

My surveillance of the rare bird networks is woefully nonchalant. Case in point: when Jeff Bray laid eyes on a funky pipit Saturday afternoon, I didn’t hear of the news until a full twenty-four hours later when I was leafing through my inbox and saw the OLIVE-BACKED PIPIT headlines. Binoculars in hand, I stumbled downstairs, grabbed the car keys, yelled, “Mom, you don’t need the car for the next hour, right? Okay, great, bye.”

I was halfway to Yorba Regional Park (a drive of perhaps ten miles—nice and close for a Code 3) and hearing about the UN’s latest global warming report on NPR when I realized that I should have biked. Oh well.

The parking lot was full of birders packing up tripods and camera lenses. Was the bird gone? I power-walked toward the pipit’s lair, briefly stopping to interrogate a white-bearded birder bearing Swarovoskis and a BigPockets vest (incidentally, the quintessential Birder). “Yup, still there…don’t worry, there’s seventy pairs of eyes on him.”

I found a symmetrical semicircle of birders in the open woodland with all manner of scopes, binoculars, and cameras aimed at the circle’s origin.  To the uninitiated, the scene would recall a druid ceremony. The newest convert, I followed the gaze of the dumbfounded crowd to the streaky bird that looked very much like a pipit trying to be an Ovenbird.

The power of this bird is enviable. Those twenty-five grams of fluff altered the afternoon plans of hundreds of adults. It is only the third Olive-backed Pipit to appear in North America away from Alaska. That’s pretty amazing. Although I still cringe at the thousands of miles we twitchers collectively logged, I am awed by the power of The Bird and flame it ignites in a thousand hearts.