I don't feel like this particular content warrants much verbosity. Instead are a few photos from a visit to my nearest local patch yesterday. This PRAIRIE FALCON is a fun bird to have around locally, especially when it decides to circle overhead twice:
I also worked on the local WESTERN MEADOWLARKS a little bit. Actually, just this particular meadowlark (yeah, it's mouth is open because it was hot outside. Welcome to Cali).
And then today I spun south to Staten Island in San Joaquin County. My goal was to scope through the wintering flocks of "ALEUTIAN" CACKLING GEESE looking for banded birds. I ended up finding 7 geese with neck collars (blue collar, white font). I reported them online; I'll keep you posted on what I find out when the Bird Banding Lab gets back to me. In the meantime, here are some Aleutian Cacklers:
On my way home, I scoped through some ducks on the north side of Desmond Road (part of Cosumnes River Preserve). This male EURASIAN WIGEON, which was my first for this location, stood out like a sore thumb:
As before, you can see my checklist from Desmond Road here. Btw, if you're ever curious where these locations are, click on "map" at the top of the checklist.
I don't expect everyone to share my passion. Don't worry, having been interested in birds since I was 10 years old, I've grown up with that already engrained in my head. My skin is thick. Fast forward 20 years and I still don't expect everyone to share my interests even within the "birding community". And it's all too common to hear folks say "Oh, I'm interested in ALL birds" as if to distance themselves from the bird-chasing, rarity-studying whackos. I'm not sure what category I would fall into or what bin my gangly limbs would be sticking out of, however, the self-realization that "I don't look at Black Phoebes with much interest anymore" is both true and... well, expected (that's not to say that I know everything about Black Phoebes; far from it actually). For me, like it or not, I always seem to have my eyes peeled on the next step, the next corner to explore, and.... the next rarity that might be within striking distance. I've long been obsessed with rare birds and I blame it on a lifetime of birding. Deal with it.
Even at this point, after the news of this newly released book has started to trickle through social media portals, I'm not really sure if most of you are aware of what's waiting for you at Princeton University Press. I had heard about this "rare birds" book ages ago but didn't really know much in the way of details. Had I known what I was in store for, I would have been *seriously* chomping at the bit for much longer.
"Rare Birds of North America", by Steve N. G. Howell, Ian Lewington, and Will Russell, was published in 2014 by Princeton University Press. It is 428 pages long, hardcover, and costs $35.00.
Where to begin? Well, this book focuses on 262 rare species that have been found in the US and Canada (excluding Hawaii). But first, the introduction.
I've slowly become (shamefully) disenchanted with introductions of most bird books. They're usually filled with the same material, the same terminology, the same stuff I skip over (gasp). Well, the introduction of this book is by far the most interesting one I've ever read. It contains a multitude of tables covering the regional origin (and seasonality) for the 202 rare birds new to North America during the last 60 years. An example is a monster Table 3 which covers all the East Asian waterfowl/shorebirds with seasonality descriptions for each of these locations: Western Aleutians, Pribs, St. Lawrence Island, elsewhere in AK, NW USA, CA, and other areas. In fact, the tables continue to flow about rarities down south, out east, etc. However, probably the most valuable parts of the introduction are the pages and pages of information about drift, overshooting, dispersal, maps of overshooting patterns and misorientation, etc. If you're a birding nerd who appreciates vagrants, rarities, and the background of how/why/where they wander, this introduction should put you on the fast-track past Cloud 8.
The bulk of the book is comprised of the 262 species accounts and their corresponding plates. The plates AREN'T clumped at the start of the book, instead, they're placed within the species accounts. Personally, I think that's a step in the right direction (I've never been a huge fan of clumping plates).
In fact, probably the best attribute of this must-have book are the truly top-notch illustrations by Ian Lewington. And guess what... there is a plate for EVERY species covered (which never happens these days in any of the popular field guides... although this isn't a field guide). Here are a couple of samples, first is the Taiga Flycatcher plate:
I've never actually seen a Broad-billed Sandpiper but here's the plate:
I've been lucky to have seen some of the rare birds listed in this book (36 species) and Dusky Thrush was actually my 600th ABA bird (we found one in Barrow many years ago). Here's the plate for this boldly-marked thrush:
One specific feature of the plates that I'm really digging is how similar species are sometimes placed together and all in the same poses. This logical idea, which dates back to Peterson's art, makes for great comparisons of some tough groups. Plus, if there is a similar species that isn't a rarity, it's also included. An extreme example is on page 114-115 when 30 different birds are drawn to exhibit the variation between Great, Lesser, and Magnificent frigatebirds. Here's a different example, a nice side-by-side of snipe complete with Wilson's (sorry for the crappy phone photos):
Here's a look at an entire layout:
Sometimes I find myself flipping through just to read about the dates/numbers of random species. For example, some of the records from Attu kinda blew my mind:
25 Lanceolated Warblers on 4 June - 15 July 1984
14 Taiga Flycatchers on 4-6 June 1987
27 Siberian Rubythroats on 1 June 1992
27 Gray-streaked Flycatchers on 2 June 1999
40 Pacific Swifts on 18 September 2004
Or, well, these stunning numbers that occurred on Attu during the infamous 17-18 May 1998 fallout:
225 Olive-backed Pipits
9 Pechora Pipits
193 Rustic Buntings
180 Eyebrowed Thrushes
700 Wood Sandpipers
Of equal interest to me were some records I honestly hadn't heard of before or knew very little about. Did you know that a Dark-billed Cuckoo was found in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in 1986 but rejected based on provenance? Or a personal favorite, a Blue Rock Thrush found in British Columbia in 1997 that was also rejected? Then there is the Azure Gallinule found in New York in the winter of 1986. I don't know about you but I find this stuff crazy cool to read up on!
Oh, the terminology. The authors chose to use the term "escapes" to mean birds that escaped. I've *always* gone by the rule that those are termed "escapees" but Howell et al. isn't following that train of thought. I also see that the authors are choosing to break down the common names in ways that don't exactly match up with the ABA Checklist. Birders might notice slightly different names such as:
Eastern Blue Bunting
Mexican Tufted Flycatcher
Mexican Yellow Grosbeak
It's no big deal but there are a couple of typos here and there; I suppose one would expect some of those to slip through the cracks (Eye-browed Thrush, Pintailed Snipe, Alaska, etc).
So in a world of "revolutionary" photo guides (i.e. useless) comes this book. The art is consistent, extremely crisp, and comes from people with actual serious skill. The content is both interesting, very well summarized, and completely eye-opening. We can break it down like this:
1) Plates are friggin awesome
2) Plates are interspersed within the species accounts
3) Plates will sometimes put similar species right next to each other in all the same poses
4) Data presented on individual records is unsurpassed
5) New material summarized about vagrancy, disorientation, migration patterns, etc.
1) I'm not a fan of them changing common names but honestly, but that's hardly a sticking point
2) "Escapes" vs. "escapees"... what's the truth???
2) A tiny amount of typos
I don't use this language often but this really is a "must-have" book if you're one of those birders that chases, wants to chase, or just wait on the edge of your seat for the next rarity to show up on the Aleutians or St. Paul. So my advice? Sell all your Crossley ID Guides and buy this book instead. I'm happy to say that of all the books I've reviewed for Princeton University Press, this is my favorite. I'll end with my biggest complaint; this book has made me completely anxious and needful of some more rare-bird birding!
I received a complementary copy from the publisher for review purposes,
but the viewpoint expressed in this article is entirely my own.
And here I am 6 days later, finally with some sightings actually worth blogging about (ok, mildly debatable). I'm sure all 3 readers are ecstatic.
The biggest news revolves a big white bird. "Oh cool, a Snowy Owl, right?"
A white-morph GYRFALCON was reported earlier this month in the Ferndale Bottoms area of Humboldt County, California. Reports continued to come in and finally, when a KING EIDER showed up in the same county, it was time to utilize the long weekend for a quick stab to the north. Although we didn't see the eider, we did manage to see this impressive bird at the Eel River Estuary Preserve:
As many of you already know, the white morph of this species is the least expected, especially here in California. In fact, when the bird was initially seen earlier this month, it was passed off as a pale Prairie Falcon. Whoops! Either way, I was pleased to see my first white-morph Gyr. I should add that I was impressed with the preserve (even though we had to make reservations to visit); check out their website here. Here's a map of rough where the bird was during our visit:
Back to local stuff, I finally ventured outside of Sacramento County last week and visited Staten Island (San Joaquin County) which is only 15 minutes south of here I live. Although I didn't see any collared geese to scope through, the ubiquitous SANDHILL CRANES, including this banded bird, were obliging:
If I lived closer to the coast, this is the season that Allen's Hummingbirds migrate north. However, I'm "stuck" in the Central Valley where we only have ANNA'S HUMMINGBIRDS for the time being. Although if you catch the gorget in the right light, it's still an attractive experience:
This "slate-colored" DARK-EYED JUNCO was actually my first for California (loooong overdue). And where did I stumble on this charcoal ground-denizen? My local patch, of course:
At the same park I found this TOWNSEND'S WARBLER. Although not exceedingly rare here in the winter, they're by no means common either. This was the first time I had seen this species during the winter months at Elk Grove Regional Park:
Oh the woodpeckers. Can't forget the woodpeckers! The most abundant species around here at the moment is the well-known NORTHERN FLICKER. Best pay attention to these because the different races have no decency whatsoever and hybrids are ransacking all local parks, lawns, and yards. This male, however, is just a pure RED-SHAFTED:
The second-most abundant species of woodpecker around here is the NUTTALL'S WOODPECKER. Nope, not Downy. Here are two recent shots showing a hopefully-obvious difference between the genders:
I recently received Howell's latest book ("Rare Birds of North America") to review and I already know I'm in for a treat. So good! More on that later....
And by that I mean, don't ignore the local parks if you're considering birding somewhere. Lately I've been limiting myself to Sacramento County and I've already discovered more interesting places (and birds) are out there if I'm just willing to explore.
Keeping with the local patch theme that I've been on this year, here are a few sightings from the last week and all within Sacramento County. First up is a DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANT at Mather Lake:
One of the main discoveries I've made this week is William Land Park. Yes, it's a city park not even 15 minutes from here and yes, I know other people have birded it but I was blissfully ignorant of its existence until some recent reports came in of a WESTERN TANAGER. They are common migrants here but winter records are quite hard to come by. And considering I've been trying to stay atop of Sac sightings this year, I figured I'd check this place out. Five minutes out of the car and...
Adding a slightly new flavor to the usual local-park-recipe were these HOODED MERGANSERS that were hanging out on a small pond (yes, complete with fountain):
I also found a couple of VARIED THRUSHES at the park (which is known to be a reliable spot for them; lucky me). Although they're not rare winter residents here, they're still somewhat local:
All in all, I was happy to find a new local patch. You can see the checklist from that first day here. It's actually a relatively big park as you can see here outlined in blue:
Yesterday I birded with a vagrant gypsy/former coworker, who I now call Jubo. Our first stop was William Land Park to see if we could find some uncommon warblers or Varied Thrushes. In the end we did manage to stir up one BLACK-THROATED GRAY WARBLER but no Western Tanagers. One pseudo-stunning discovery was a flock of ~15 VARIED THRUSHES on the ground together... at once. Neither of us had seen this many VATHs at one time in our lives. Weird.
We looked up and spotted this NORTHERN FLICKER, complete with red nape crescent and [mostly] yellow shafts:
Cool, a "Yellow-shafted", right? Well, how pure does this look to you? The shafts certainly look a little bit orangish which gives me pause. It's a little harder to tell because it's a female and females lack the mustachial stripes that males have. Either way, it's certainly mostly a "Yellow-shafted" but at what point do you call a bird pure?
Anyway, we also rampaged through The Nimbus to see what was around (but mostly to gaze upon BARROW'S GOLDENEYES). We certainly owned that desire; we ended with more than 30 of these uncommon diving ducks and only 4 shy of the all-time Sacramento County record.
Among the 6 gull species present were at least two MEW GULLS, perhaps the least common of the "common" gull species there:
There were at least 50 WHITE-THROATED SWIFTS rocketing back and forth along the American River. At times they would come down a little bit lower than normal hence a photo of one:
We ended the day with nearly 80 species with 60 of those coming just from Nimbus... not too bad for being "in the middle of winter". You can see our checklist for Nimbus here.
Oh, and we also had 17 LEWIS'S WOODPECKERS along Michigan Bar Road in eastern Sacramento County. Hardly worth mentioning with how abundant they've been this winter...