29 December 2013

Sizable slowing

As the "Sizable Year" is coming to a close, I've had half a mind to focus on chasing year birds whereas the more logical half just stays local.  

The part that whispers rotten things in my ears, like "Go to Bodega Bay, maybe you can find an Ancient Murrelet or Short-tailed Shearwater" got the best of me last week.  Neither of those year birds materialized in my optics so I had to take pictures of more common species.  First up, a standard WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW:

The number of BRANT was pretty decent (~1500), as one would expect, including some that weren't way out in the middle of the bay:

The wintering flock of MARBLED GODWITS and WILLETS were reliable as ever at Porto Bodega:

Birders who have been birding for a long time notice when other birders mispronounce names.  It just happens.  An example I've heard a lot through the years is calling a scoter a "scooter".  Well, here's the boat version of this FAIL:

I really do like Bodega Bay although THE BIRDS never seem to mob me for some strange reason.  Here's a view of the jetties on this clear winter day:

I also took a quick trip down to Morro Bay in San Luis Obispo County.  Although I didn't see any year birds, I did find these three ROSS'S GEESE roosting with a flock of gulls!  This sighting was apparently quite uncommon for this location; the last time 3+ had been seen was back in 2007:

I think I'll be back to Morro Bay soon; it's a really species-rich area with a lot of potential (yes, I'm only realizing this after living in CA for 2-3 years).  

But like I said above, some of my birding has just been local.  For instance, I drove south 15 minutes to Staten Island which is a great place to sift through waterfowl.  In jotting down a few neck collar codes on "Aleutian" Cackling Geese, I stumbled on this weirdo.  It looks to be a CANADA X GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GOOSE hybrid:

I do have some more plans to chase year birds in this last week so stay tuned...

20 December 2013


Getting news like this was difficult... difficult because I had just left California for Missouri.  You see, the news came in of a LITTLE BUNTING in Humboldt County, California.  I knew I'd chase it as soon as I got back to CA on Sunday but that's only if the bird stuck around.  Would it?

The Little Bunting doesn't belong in this part of the world and I had never seen one before... anywhere.  Although there are many records from western Alaska, they're even harder to come by down here in California.  In fact, this particular bunting was the 4th for California and only the 5th for the Lower 48 states.

Day after day passed and the bird thankfully was seen each and every day.  In fact, I saw one report saying "nobody has missed it".  Hmm, sounded promising!

After we returned from the Midwest, I headed up to Humboldt County without much hesitation.  I arrived at the cow pasture with only an hour left of daylight:

View Little Bunting in a larger map

Thankfully, birders were still present and had the bird primed and ready.  Hanging out with SAVANNAH SPARROWS, you can see the LITTLE BUNTING in front with the chestnut ear-patch:

I was pleased!  So much so that I figured I'd return the next day to enjoy the bird some more.  When I arrived, even more people were present:

It doesn't look like much but this portion of the field is home to a Little Bunting, a code 4 rarity from Asia:

Birders said it was present in this patch of grass.  Do you see it?

No wonder LITTLE BUNTINGS aren't found more often, it blends in quite well when it has its head down feeding.  But wait until it pops up, now it's not so subtle:

I snapped a few more photos before I moved on, this time digiscoping (holding a point-and-shoot digital camera up to my spotting scope):

My next destination was the north jetty there in Humboldt County.  I wouldn't mind snagging ROCK SANDPIPER and maybe some murrelets for my year list.  I found some shorebirds without much trouble but the sandpiper I wanted wasn't with them.  Here's a photo showing SURFBIRDS and BLACK TURNSTONES.  The Surfbirds are grayer with a pale base to a more-blunt bill.  The turnstones have a thinner, mostly-black bill:

Here's a SURFBIRD a bit closer:

... and likewise with this BLACK TURNSTONE:

I did see several MARBLED MURRELETS off of the jetty (year bird) but didn't see any other alcids or phalaropes.  I had some other targets but I headed home instead.  I'll be back up here in a week and I'll worry more about those targets later.

11 December 2013


"COTINGAS AND MANAKINS", by Guy M. Kirwan and Graeme Green, was published by Princeton University Press in 2011.  It is 624 pages and costs $55.00.

Ahh, what a refreshing change from my last book review!  Here is a book that is both useful and completely astounding.  I won't waste time either... if you want the best resource on cotingas and manakins, go buy this book!

Many of you are probably familiar with "the gull book" by Howell and Dunn, right?  Well, this book follows much of the same format but obviously focuses on the cotingas and manakins of the world (more than 130 species).  Oh, and it makes the gull book look like child's play!  And by that.... I mean this book is a beast of research.  Let's take a quick random peek inside before I go any further:

Exactly.  That's just a portion of the account for a single species.  In truth, this book seems like a culmination of every piece of knowledge ever published on these exclusively tropical New World families.  Yes, this is very much a reference guide but one that you'll probably pull out from time to time even if you AREN'T planning a trip to South America.

One of the reasons this book blew me away was simply the art (by Eustace Barnes).  Other books often have all the manakins jammed onto 2-3 plates which makes it colorful... but maybe not all that easy to navigate between A and B.  The plates in this book though are big, spacious, and detailed.  Here are some samples:

The species accounts are incredibly in-depth, more so than probably any other single source on these families.   Here are the subheadings found with most accounts:

Geographical Variation
Natural History
Food and Feeding

With those categories, followed by a culmination of literature on each, you can imagine reading about some of these strange species.  For example, the Chestnut-capped Piha, which was discovered only in 1999, is limited to a narrow belt of ultra-humid premontane 'cloud forest', at 1,500-1,820m in Colombia.  It was actually discovered in an area that was politically unstable but still largely ornithologically unexplored.  Reading about such species, it really makes me wonder how many other species might be lurking around, completely undiscovered.

There are very detailed range maps accompanying these species accounts (including all the known subspecies); here's a quick sample of the map for Sharpbill (Oxyruncus cristatus): 

As you're probably aware, there are many genera in these two families, some that you might not be aware existed there.  Besides species with the actual "manakin" and "cotinga" in the name, here are some examples of included genera:


All in all, I found this book not only to rose to exceedingly high standards with the plethora of information and research, but I also found it visually stunning with amazing art and detailed map layouts.  Although I, personally, haven't had the good fortune of spending time with many of these species, I can't imagine another more-detailed resource for these species exists.  In truth, this book was almost capable of causing me depression... depression from not having spent more time around these fascinating and still relatively unknown tropical species.

I received a complementary copy from the publisher for review purposes, 
but the viewpoint expressed in this article is entirely my own.

09 December 2013

Mister Rogers' Neighborhood

Oh, Fred.  Did you even know that Fred is the first name of "Mister Rogers"?  How's that for some info to groove to?

Regardless of how creepy that show looks to me now, I've kept a keen eye on what birds have been around here in my neighborhood ever since I got back from my travels (no green sweater sightings as of yet).

See, I live in an urban neighborhood south of Sacramento.  Well, not really a downtown-in-a-city setting but urban enough that I have a major boulevard running by only 30 feet from where I'm sitting.  However, I'm on the second level which gives me a bit more view of the sky (never a bad thing, I suppose).  And as many birders do, I keep close tabs on what birds I see from my yard.  Of course, since I don't have a yard, I'm basically limited to what I see out of my windows and from my patio.

I'm closing in on 100 species for this particular yard but have only seen 29 species in the 8 days I've been back (* for the most reliable species):

Canada Goose
Common Goldeneye
Common Merganser
Double-crested Cormorant
Turkey Vulture
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Long-billed Curlew
California Gull
* Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
* Anna's Hummingbird
Northern Flicker
Black Phoebe
Say's Phoebe
Western Scrub-Jay
American Crow
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
American Robin
* Northern Mockingbird
* European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
* Yellow-rumped Warbler
Red-winged Blackbird
Western Meadowlark
* House Finch
American Goldfinch

Not good enough for you?  Here's a sample checklist from the yard.

Venturing away from the yard a little bit, I enjoy rummaging through my "local patch" from time to time (Don Nottoli Park in Elk Grove).  My last loop through there wasn't too bad (you can see that checklist as well).

Here's a NORTHERN FLICKER.  With that red malar, it looks good for a pure "Red-shafted" male:
... or not:

See, that faint red nape crescent = no dice for a pure Red-shafted.

SAY'S PHOEBES are fairly common winter visitors here (in fact, I just added this species to my yard list).  Here's one from the park though:

I was pleased to see that FERRUGINOUS HAWKS are back and findable at the local park.  "Not a bad bird for the neighborhood," Cory proclaims.

A stack of MODOs:

This is a HOUSE WREN that was feeling less shy than normal:

Last but not least, we've checked the local urban lake once and found that the BARROW'S GOLDENEYES are wintering in the neighborhood once again (checklist).  I blogged briefly about them last year as well (see post here).


It's been a loooong time since I've done any book reviews here on SYAS but I need to work on catching up.   Maybe you'll disagree after this post!  Like it or not, Princeton University Press has graciously provided me with various books just as long as I review them here on See You at Sunrise.

So today I'm putting some thoughts down regarding "How to Be a Better Birder", written by Derek Lovitch, and published by Princeton University Press in 2012.  It is 192 pages long and costs $19.95.

You'll notice one thing already, it was published in 2012.  Yes, there is a reason I haven't gotten around to reviewing this book for almost 2 years... but we'll get to that in the last paragraph.  Or if you'd rather, just skip to the last paragraph at the sound of the beep.    -BEEEEP-

This book, although not physically hefty, isn't a light, story-telling kind of journey.  In fact, I don't find much of a journey at all; it feels more like I'm sitting in high school being preached down to.  That may seem harsh BUT that might be a result of the audience in this circumstance; I wouldn't say this is a book for somebody who has spent their entire life birding.  Although some might disagree with me on that... well, that's fine, you do that.  But seriously, I imagine the folks that will enjoy this book the most are birders who are just getting on their own two feet about "Ok, that's a House Sparrow".  They still need to hear stories about how geography can play a role in birding, or that fallouts happen, or that weather does in fact change migration.  If these are new concepts to you and you're looking for a guide to what better birders already know, you've just hit a serious jackpot!

Here are the chapter titles:

Chapter 1 - Advanced Field Identification
Chapter 2 - Birding by Habitat
Chapter 3 - Birding with Geography
Chapter 4 - Birding and Weather
Chapter 5 - Birding at Night
Chapter 6 - Birding with a Purpose
Chapter 7 - Vagrants
Chapter 8 - A New Jersey Case Study
Chapter 9 - Patch Listing

Ok, let's dig around for something I can truly say was interesting... umm..... ok, the author talks a bit about birding at night in Chapter 5, or more importantly, using NEXRAD doppler radar.  This is a topic that has been in the spotlight for many years but it's not one you find in your average bird book.  I fully agree with the author that more people should be familiar with it... and that's that.

There are a few photos here and there through the book with captions like "Exhausted and hungry, this Blackburnian Warbler found shelter under a birder on Monhegan Island, Maine, during a fallout.  A Merlin is unlikely to hunt under people!"  I won't lie, even though what was said is true, captions like this make me cringe on the inside.  (Side note: ever notice how a lot of birders like pictures of themselves with their binoculars up to their face, seemingly wanting the reader to be amazed at the top-of-the-line bins they're lucky to be holding?  Personally, I've noticed more and more of this phenomenon and sure enough, page 115 has the author doing just that.  I won't spend too much time judging but I would like to encourage birders to be more creative, don't fall for the ploy that you have to be wearing a tan vest and have to pose with your bins just to be taken seriously.  Although it's true that there ARE pictures of me out there with bins to my face, I was never aware they were being taken!  Ok ok, it sounds like I have another blog topic brewing).

There is a delicate balance, I think, between trying to convince yourself (and others) that "hey, this is a great book" and straight-up admitting to yourself that "I don't like this thing".  Maybe I can bypass it completely and simply say that I won't be recommending this book to friends.  To be fair, I DO think this book could be tremendously helpful to some birdwatchers, perhaps beginners or some intermediates who are looking for a high-school-like lecture... but that's not me.

I received a complementary copy from the publisher for review purposes, 
but the viewpoint expressed in this article is entirely my own.

08 December 2013

Return of the Tufted

Lake Merritt, in downtown Oakland, has a knack for hosting a TUFTED DUCK, apparently.  According to eBird, this rare Eurasian species has been at Lake Merritt in 1976-77, 1987, 1991-92, 1994, and then annually from 2003 to 2013 with the exception of 2006.  I first saw the Tufted last winter and wanted to return this winter simply to add it to my "Sizable Year" list.  

The reports were saying it was hanging out in the extreme northeast portion of the lake.  I headed there and found it right where people said to look:

View Lake Merritt in a larger map

It eventually floated much closer to me but it seemed more preoccupied with taking a nap by that point:

Then it did something strange.  Having seen thousands of diving ducks through the years, I thought I had an overall understanding of what they would and wouldn't do... but I was so wrong.  The Tufted Duck start floating towards this dark crack of a culvert... and then it swam INTO it.  Not just briefly... but it went in and STAYED IN for ~10 minutes!  Then a COMMON GOLDENEYE did the same thing... and then a flock of 7 MALLARDS.  Where the hell does that thing go and why were ducks chilling in there?!

I didn't really stick around much to sift through the thousands of other birds present but this close HORNED GREBE let me photographically fondle it for a bit:

This place has the distinction in my mind of being a superior location for getting up close and personal with Aythya species.  Here's a GREATER SCAUP:

Maybe you've heard how the nail (tip of the bill) size and the amount of black can be a fieldmark between some Aythya species.  Well, take a good look at these three birds and see if you can tell a difference:

From the top, it's a LESSER SCAUP, GREATER SCAUP, and TUFTED DUCK.  Now you know.

07 December 2013

Back in Cal

It was December 1st and I finally had made it back to California after a 4 month absence.  Back in September, a major invasion was occurring along the West Coast.  The BLUE-FOOTED BOOBY is a seabird that rarely strays northward from Mexico but the invasion of fall 2013 will be one for the records books.  When this species has strayed north previously, you might have expected one or two at the Salton Sea or coastal San Diego County.  Well, this invasion was a little different... a tad more... intense.  It brought between 100-200 to the Salton Sea alone!  They also filtered north along the coast as far north as British Columbia.  Still to this day there are one or two boobies as far north as Marin County (near San Francisco).

Of course, I was sitting in the UP of Michigan reading all these reports; I was stuck there until December.  Would any of these boobies, a potential world lifer, stick that long?  I was hopeful until I heard that ALL of the Salton Sea birds had either died or left!  That's NOT good!  Thankfully, December 1 rolled around and there were still 4 long-staying birds at Lake Skinner in Riverside County.  These birds, first found on September 13, had apparently found a lake with enough food to keep them well-fed.  Here's a quick map of Lake Skinner:

The four birds were waiting for us, sitting on the boat docks along with cormorants:

After we had our fill, it was time to drive north into Los Angeles for another lifer.  This one just became countable earlier this year.  The NUTMEG MANNIKIN (also known as Scaly-breasted Munia) is a bird native to wet and reedy areas of tropical Asia.  However, they've become established around the Los Angeles area through the years and they're now officially countable for all the ABA listers out there.  Because I was driving through the area, it was high time to finally see these guys.

The go-to spot, as far as what friends had suggested, was Fullerton Arboretum:

It was here, in a thick stand of bamboo/cane, that we first heard the mannikins calling.  We zoned in on the calls and first found several females feeding above us:

A little bit more digging around in the cane and we started seeing males as well including this one:

During our mannikin searching, there were also a couple of ALLEN'S HUMMINGBIRDS buzzing around us including this bright male:

Our targets today worked out beautifully but now it was time for the trek home.  Even once home, I had my eye on a few year birds I had missed earlier.  Stay tuned!

05 December 2013

Arizona Again

As I progressively inched back towards California, I figured it was well worth my time to look around in Arizona for a few days.  I had just recently finished up with "terrible Texas" and needed a pick-me-up.... or at least some year birds.  

I had my eye on a few year birds, I won't lie, even though I had reached my goal.  Yep, I had hit 600 species finally this year and with that goal achieved, now I was just on clean-up duty to see if there were any more year birds I could snag as I headed west.  However, there were no potential year birds at Willcox and yet, considering I was driving right by, it would be daft to pass this place by.

Here's a basic map showing the golf course and the main pond which are attractive to both birds and birders:

As I was nearing the ponds, I noticed a swarm of... something... along the shoulder bordering the golf course.  I slowly passed by, doing my best rollin' smooth n' creepin routine.  Woah, they were all SCALED QUAIL!  I stopped and snapped a picture of one of the smaller flocks:

However, then they started to scatter... towards me!  I counted between 40-50 in this one flock; I had never seen so many quail (of any species!) together like this.  Some even posed for pics:

Checking the main pond, I was surprised to find it completely void of shorebirds.  Ducks, though, were another thing.  There were hundreds of dabblers (NORTHERN SHOVELER, AMERICAN WIGEON, etc).  Some divers were present too including BUFFLEHEAD, RING-NECKED DUCK, and this backlit (but uncommon) RED-BREASTED MERGANSER:

Another bird caught my eye... a CLIFF/CAVE SWALLOW flying around!  Although I couldn't get good enough photos, I thought that it looked fairly good for CAVE SWALLOW:

This LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE couldn't have chosen a more richly-colored background:

I had left the pond and was driving back past the golf course when I noticed a flock of birds flying in behind me.  I stopped, raised my bins, and found they were white-cheeked geese.  Not really knowing how uncommon or rare they might be, I turned around and returned to the pond.  What I found was... confusing:

They were white-cheeked geese, that's for sure (that's what you can can Cackling/Canada geese), but there were multiple sizes of birds present including some very small guys.  Cacklers?  Long story short, I believe there were 23 hutchinsii CACKLING GEESE and 6 moffitti CANADA GEESE.  It was then that it dawned on me how uncommon this sighting was.  Twenty-three CACKLING GEESE... in SE Arizona?  Are you kidding me?  We'll see how things progress from here (like if I'm banned from the birding community for misidentifying small geese).

After Ashley arrived, we headed for Florida Canyon in the Santa Ritas.  Our one and only target was the RUFOUS-CAPPED WARBLERS that are usually present about a mile up the canyon.  Being a long-time nemesis bird for her, this is where we went first.  We hiked way up the trail... no warblers.  We milled around... no warblers.  We started coming to grips with missing this species yet again.  Demoralized, we turned and started back down.

At one corner we stopped; there was this faint chipping sound coming from a nearby yucca.  At the based of it... a RUFOUS-CAPPED WARBLER!  It wasn't long before another one popped into view.  For the next 10-15 minutes, we enjoyed views of these rare warblers at no more than 5-6 feet away:

As you would expect, that greatly improved our moods.  Maybe we'll have luck finding our other targets too?  As we headed back down the canyon, I stopped for a few butterflies; the first being a MEXICAN YELLOW (I think):

Also this FATAL METALMARK which, as it happens, is a species I tend to see every trip up this particular canyon:

With higher hopes, we then headed for one of the SINALOA WRENS that has been present this fall.  However, the return of the Cory Curse reimplemented itself swiftly and we thoroughly missed the bird.  Luckily, we were present for the first ABA record back in 2009 in Patagonia so we were essentially just missing a year bird.  But still....

Our next target didn't treat us any better.  We wandered out to the San Rafael Grasslands in hopes of turning up a BAIRD'S SPARROW.  Instead of finding this year bird, a rock ripped something out from under the car (usually not a good thing).  After an emergency fix involving electrical tape that I found in my trunk, we decided we had had enough and headed back to Tucson.  The clock was ticking and we were done with AZ.

After all of this... I had scored exactly zero year birds in Arizona this time through.  I wasn't too worried though, there were two potential life birds waiting for us in California.  It was finally time to return to the GOST.