Tuesday, February 20, 2018

In The Absence of Hawks

Drive out in the darkness and turn the dial until you find the preacher. The one who spits fire. Turn him down to a low flame. Take only the fire and leave the fuel for others.

Head east until the exit where the bloated bovine lies between the off-ramp and the interstate. A sandy road winds north from the large pullout at the end of the ramp. A popular spot for long haulers to spend the night, as evidenced by the dozens of plastic bottles filled with piss strewn about. Trucker bombs, the colloquial term. They begin to peter out as you move further from the pavement. A final cluster of them at about the distance a grown man could throw a quart bottle filled with liquid. Head north.

Now it is just the sand and the preacher. An occasional nighthawk erupting from beside the path and twisting in the headlights.

Bump out along the creosote as the mountains around you begin to take form.  Change the station. Find the cantina horns that stumble woozily out of the speakers, swaying with the truck. Attempt a sip of coffee. Scan the area for your mark. There, the stake and the flag. The chair in the dirt. Cut the engine but let the horns sway some more.

It is early May in the Little Colorado Desert, and somehow someone is paying me to watch hawks from this particular point on the earth. There has been a proposed energy project for this area. Two large towers, 300 feet tall and topped with bulbs full of oil, with mirrors surrounding the towers and aimed at the the bulbs. The concentrated heat of the mirrors boil the oil and turbines are spun and energy is generated, stored, sold and distributed. This is the plan. But first the land and sky must be studied.

The authorities that grant permission for this type of commerce require data. There is concern that this area is within a migration corridor, that great rivers of hawks and songbirds use it on their movements to and from breeding grounds. There is concern that golden eagles, a bird not endangered but still heavily fortified by law, nest in the nearby mountains and hunt this patch of desert. There is concern that the mirrors and the boiling bulbs will interfere with these movements, this hunting. There are disconcerting rumors of raptors perching on the bulbs and their talons fusing to the glass.

Rumors that the overhead travellers mistake the mirrors for water and descend into the superheated air mass and are baked to exhaustion or death and plummet into their reflections...

Have another sip.

All is calm at this primordial hour. Indistinct forms coalescing into Something. Speciation. The articulation that light brings. Hear the kit foxes yipping, the den we found earlier in the month only a few hundred feet away. Jeez, look at all these holes. A conspiracy of burrows. And then two big ears and eyes staring from out of an opening. You’ve watched this family come and go, heart aching at the sounds of their calls, the magic trick of their disappearing into the earth. The wish to do the same as the sun climbs up and looks at you with all its might. The Grand Inquisitor in the sky, forcing confessions as it tracks westward. Eventually, you will tell it everything.

Exit the truck and start the hawk sit. Eight hours to go.

Every couple minutes scan the sky, interrogate the horizon. Repeat for the rest of the day. This is the elemental core of the job. To be a pair of eyes looking through a pair of eyes. The basic tool and assumption of scientific inquiry. To be eyes cut away from the heart. To be the eyes beyond your eyes. An eye distilled.

No hawks yet, as is normal for this hour.  A short walk to stretch the legs, achy from the time in the truck. An irregularity in the sand right below the next foot fall. On my knees and a fringe-toed lizard is blanketed under the sand, sister witness to the dawn, her eyes and mouth exposed periscope-like. This was another magic trick I saw the other day. A lizard darted across the sand and I gave chase. It crested a small dune, I did the same...and it suddenly wasn’t there. No bushes nearby to hide in. Bolts of sand rolled out in all directions. You simply saw it and then you didn’t. There are its tracks and there they are not. Scoop up the sand at the end of its trail and there it is. Rabbit in the hat.

Scan the sky. Trace the ridge with your binoculars. Dopplered sound of shifting rocks, maybe borregos picking their way through the skyline. Search the mountains face. A fissure of small cobbles, pebbles cascading down a steep ravine and terminating in a rubble pile. Lazy column of dust climbing out of the pile. The top becomes the bottom.

You feel it, the first rays of sun. The verdins voice, wilted laser, is this suntouch put to sound.
The soft, disembodied call of the LeConte’s thrasher, mimid of the sand barrens, starts up. Slight breeze and the sound of dunes moving against themselves, grating their grains into even smaller pieces. My shadow is thrown behind me long and skeletal. Spindly alien, marooned and starving, reduced to bones.

The sun is welcome and warming at this hour. A sip of coffee as the palo verde trees burn pink.

The first vultures of the day begin to move. They are floating off their night roosts and heading towards the carcass near the freeway. It’s been a project of theirs for days now, this roadside windfall. A favored breakfast stop before the real heat begins and rising thermals make flying easier.

A train of Swainson’s hawks is spotted about 300 hundred meters away to the southeast. Count them, gauge their height, scribble down the numbers, their direction of movement. Soak up their company, their beauty as they drift north. Impossible to sever the eyes completely from the the heart. Who would want to? I know many who have. A dark bird leads them, light morphs follow and another dark bird brings up the rear. Much melanin in these bookends. Intrepid travellers nearing the end of their northward migration. Perhaps the pampas of Argentina lie at the other end of this eternal loop as this species follows the bloom of grasshoppers across the hemispheres.

Pour another cup of coffee as you consider another traveller that passed through this desert, Juan Bautista de Anza and his band of friars, families and cattle. Road signs commemorate this hero and his historic trail throughout this area. A freeway now runs where he once rode. A car ride of a few hours takes you from Nogales to San Francisco, a journey that took him and his crew three and a half months to complete. On his trek, occasionally a bovine falters and is left behind, expired and bloating in the sun. Vultures wobbling above the carcass, learning that food sometimes follows in the wake of these strange, helmeted men on horseback. The party continues through the desert, encounters a tortoise lumbering amongst the wiry shrubs. In an attempt to lift the spirits of the expedition, Juan Bautista halts the party and has them surround the animal. The captain removes his helmet and places it on top of the ancient reptile. The sight of this slow moving beast capped with the high-ranking officers military hat brings delight to the party, the women giggling and the children bright-eyed and renewed. Juan Bautista makes a comparison between the devotion of their chore, to bring true religion and superior meats to San Francisco, and the nature of this unfaltering and consistent beast. The armor on its back that protects it from predators akin to the Faith that each person in the party holds close to their hearts that helps them thwart the temptations of the Devil in all its forms. Bautista ends this weighty moment by removing the helmet from the tortoise and placing it on the head of a small boy. The crowd erupts in laughter and grows hysterical as the explorer picks up the boy and puts him atop the tortoise. Vayan subiendo! Bautista cries and a great release ripples through the crowd as the difficulty of their task, the solemnity with which they are executing it, is leavened with humor. Later, another tortoise is encountered and promptly slaughtered by the soldier at the rear of the guard, it’s meat served to the people in its own shell.

A low flying falcon shakes me from the time travel. She veers off her course and loops high in the air, peeling off south. Down the data goes. A quick scan and the vultures are moving in all directions now. Some go north, bound for Oregon Territory, unwavering in their course, others move in groups floating over the washes and along the highway. Locals. At this distance they look like giant black butterflies tottering against the mountains.

The heat is real now. The sun well above the horizon and my shadow grows squat. Walk back to the truck for a drink of water, maybe a little snack. Can’t find either of my half gallon jugs. Small flame of panic as I tear through the truck. Not a drop. Only what is left in my thermos, another half cup of scalding coffee for the remaining 6 hours. Not a problem, really. I’ve got gas in the tank, I can always leave early, compromise the data, seek hydration. No problem to stick it out either. Juan Bautista and his company weathered much worse. Hell, they didn’t even have the coffee. I pour a cup and let it cool in the shade behind the tire of the truck.

A long period of low activity follows. Mandate of the desert. The hours of siesta. The morning movements and dawn chorus give way to a hot baking silence that lasts until the late afternoon. An occasional murmur from the interstate. A harsh, hand-buzzer scold from the resident shrike, Lanius, the butcher, as it drifts past.  On the hunt, looking to build it’s larder. Macabre collection of small birds, rodents and insects impaled on the thorns of an ironwood tree or barbed wire fence. The conquistadors would’ve found a kindred spirit in this animal, its larder decorated with perforated victims. It’s inquisition era mode of meat curing. The gentle and welcome breeze begins to build, not yet a fury. Soon though, the plastic bags in the surrounding shrubs will fly sideways in the windwhip. Skeletal bushes will cartwheel past comically, just like tumbleweeds in an old western. Someone is mumbling, their voice distorted in the noon heat. It was you talking, to yourself.

I go to drink the cooled coffee. It is full of grit and still warm. I pour the last cup and put it in the truck to let it cool in there.

Four hours to go.

Take your mind off the water concerns and stretch the legs a bit. A vague path continues away east from the truck. There are parallel paths, spaced a few feet apart. In the more compact soil, the faintest suggestion of treadmarks. These are Patton’s tank trails, now some 70 years olds, the movements still readable on the land. This is where the great general trained his men for the desert battles in North Africa. For Rommel drives on deep into Egypt. A museum on the interstate nearby commemorates the training, a few retired and weathered tanks visible from the road. This is where Patton came to learn about the desert, to prepare for the heat, the light. To get his head ready for its shifting sands. His men stopped nearby here, where I am standing, in a wash, finding shade under the ironwood trees. Smoking with their backs against the tank. A man spots a tortoise trundling by, takes a long last drag and goes to the reptile. He picks it up and carries it back to the group, the animals face barely visible within its shell. The man holding the tortoise makes a crack about the shared resemblance of the reptile and Churchill. Someone puts a helmet on the tortoise and poses for the camera. The animal is offered a cigarette. Patton strolls up, the surprised men snapping to attention. The General orders that someone find enlistment papers for this new recruit and the men have a nervous laugh. A man offers up the Churchill connection to The General and Patton responds that he sees more likeness with the prime minister’s wife. The men howl, their love for this man and his gruff wisdom and surprising humor and humanity growing with each passing day. Patton comes over towards the tortoise, crouches beside it. He tells his men that their task isn’t too much different from this fella right here. Our duty is to survive in the desert, to persevere. To endure the elements and the enemy. Only we’re gonna have a helluva lot more firepower then our friend here. More howls, whoops. Now back to to it, men. We got a date with some Nazis. The men disperse, their wills steeled and spirits renewed.

Later in the week, during target practice, a tortoise is sighted and the tank turret swivels, the gun barrel leveling on the animal. The slow swinging of the head mirrors the arc of the turret. Laborious chewing of a low growing borage. The boom travels through the washes and up the ravines of the surrounding mountains and the pillar of dust climbs towards a group of vultures rocking quietly above the desert floor.

Occasionally I find tortoise scutes, pieces of the shell scattered in the sand. Old holes, cobwebbed and home now to other critters. Maybe there are tortoises here, underground. Buried timekeepers, made into examples of longevity and stalwart resolve over the centuries. Made into meals. Strange tradition of having metal helmets placed on them. Culinary tradition of being baked in their own carapace.

The last cup of coffee is long gone and my lips cracked from licking them, the wind wicking them. This wind keeps building out of the east. A river of trash floats above the freeway, plastic shopping bags moving erratically above the traffic, spiraling upward in the wakes of the semis. Dust devils build, wrapping up twigs, dirt and plastics in their helices. The sun has baked my head, cracked it as if were made of desiccated clay. Sudden, unshakable truths are allowed to flood into it. These dust devils, they are the departing souls of snakes. Recently dead, this is their spirits departing. But where do serpents go when they die?

And the rising sand itself, it is being deposited back on the top of the mountain. And by combined force of freeze/thaw, the hooves of sheep and The Hours, it will trickle down to the valley floor again. The mountain is turning upside down. The top becomes the bottom. Just as the dune moves, grain by grain, as a slow wave across the flats, the mountain rolls like a terrible cartwheel across the earth. I am looking at a giant hourglass, the seconds and the minutes flooding down all around me.

The crushing weight of time is sudden and visceral. A burden defined. And now that it is named, its tyranny is unbearable. In the middle of nowhere, surrounded by wilderness, a claustrophobic expanse is tightening around me. An eye boiled.

Beneath the sun, a Prairie Falcon cuts south through the middle of the mountain. Blood dribbles, tick tick, from a desert iguana in her talons. Its dangled body dripping, watering the sand below.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Best Birding

Prairie birds have left a lasting, indelible mark on my soul. It didn't make the list today, but I highly recommend birding the prairies and wetlands of eastern Montana and western North Dakota during the warm months. This friendly Chestnut-collared Longspur was at Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Montana.

Great birding. Don't you love it? Is that question even necessary? I would argue that with all the different ways birders get their kicks now, it is. Now I'm not talking about watching a Black-backed Oriole of dubious origins at a Pennsylvania bird feeder, or driving 7 hours to chase a Northern Parula because it is in a county you have not seen one in before, or the time you had to elbow your way through a crowd of crazed photographers to see your first Snowy Owl...I'm talking about actual great birding. Birding that sticks with you for a lifetime, and the birding that will surface in your mind while you lie on your deathbed, if only for an instant. While some perpetually chase the rarity dragon (or the bizarre County Bird Dragon) without reprieve, others have seen the light and set aside time and resources in search of great birding. Truly great birding often means travel to faraway places and getting drenched in bucketloads of lifers, but not always! Just because familiarity breeds contempt doesn't mean some of the most monumental birding you've ever experienced could not have happened in your own state, or (if you are really lucky) your own county.

Every now and then I get asked about the best places I've birded, and that question is blog fodder without doubt. I've finally given it enough consideration, and so this post is birthed into the Birdosphere. Below, in no particular order, are the places where I've had the best birding experiences. I won't claim they are actually the best places in the world to bird or anything, but these are the places where I've had my greatest successes. It's a bit heavy on California (what do you expect?) and a bit light on Ecuador (never been there), but I had a lot of fun putting this list together. Lots of memories of good times, some bad, but without exception, fantastic birding.

El Cielo Biosphere Preserve (and environs), Mexico - Just like Justyn ("JUH-STEEN") did before me, I had my first taste of tropical birding at El Cielo Biosphere Preserve and surrounding areas in the state of Tamaulipas. The quality of the birding there was unlike anything I'd ever encountered north of the border...Singing Quail, Blue-crowned (now Blue-capped) Motmots, Blue Mockingbirds, Crimson-collared and Hooded Grosbeaks, tanagers galore, Crescent-chested and Fan-tailed Warblers, rampaging mixed flocks the size of Rhode Island, etc. Oh yeah, and this is all less than a day's drive from Texas! That's right, you can wake up in the United States, drive for a while, and be looking at Bat Falcons and Squirrel Cuckoos before the sun begins to set...for you birders wholly focused on the ABA Area, the birds of the Lower Rio Grande Valley are just the tip of the avian iceburg, if you know what I'm saying. Anyways, at some point while we were there I think my face completely melted off my head and dripped into the leaf litter; fragments were carried off into the underbrush by enterprising Spot-breasted Wrens and Gray-breasted Wood-Wrens. Birding there really messed with my priorities in life, and things have never been the same.

The ongoing war with the cartels in Tamaulipas is a huge bummer on many levels...birders essentially no longer having access to the entire state (for safety reasons) is a minor one compared to people dying and families being torn apart, but since we are birders it still sucks. I believe there are currently three cartels in the state currently warring with one another, not to mention warring with the Mexican government. I have no photos from here because one of the cartels relieved me of my camera later in the trip (not near the preserve). I'd absolutely love to come back to this place someday though, if and when things ever settle down.

Red-footed Boobies cuddle at their nest in a Naupaka bush on Eastern Island at Midway Atoll. How can you describe such faces? I suggest that they are "dreamy".

Midway Atoll -  I've blogged extensively about Midway here, so I'll keep this short and sweet. Being among the seabirds at Midway is amazing, and that is not hyperbole. The other birds there ain't bad either (i.e. Laysan Ducks, piles of Pacific Golden-Plovers, Bristle-thighed Curlews). The birding here is quality over quantity for sure - you will never rack up a huge species list, but your experiences with the birds that are here will stay with you forever. Nothing I can say really does it justice. I do hope I can go back someday, but in case I don't at least I won't miss the horrible centipedes. I hate them.

Braulio Carillo National Park (Quebrada Gonzales), Costa Rica - On my lone trip to Costa Rica (seems like it's time for another) I was able to cover a large part of the country, lifering constantly and finding great birding more days than not. With that said, the birding at this particular site really stands out in my mind still. Some of the best mixed flocks I've seen in my life have been here - they were nothing short of spectacular. I'm not even going to tell you what we saw, it won't come close to capturing the size and diversity of the flocks here. I didn't even bother trying to take photos of birds here - that's right, the birding was too good to even bother with photography. If you are going to find yourself birding the Sarapiqui region at any point, DO NOT miss this site.

Also, we totally dipped on Snowcap and Black-crested Coquette at a reliable site just down the road from there, and I'm still pretty torn up about it. Redemption and vindication on this front are much desired.

Almost everyone who has seen Buller's Shearwater well has become enamored with them, and I am no different. Can't wait to see more of these squid-fiends this year. Photographed somewhere west of Half Moon Bay.

Pelagic Trips out of Half Moon Bay, California - I've done more of these than I can remember, and some of them were pretty poor, but there have been so many good ones! We have had some truly great days out there. The seabird diversity can be fantastic, and it is one of the best places in the country to see large numbers of storm-petrels, which includes four regularly-occurring species. I've seen five murrelet species on those trips, and had the honor to be out on the water the day of the Salvin's Albatross. Looking forward to getting back out there.

Blackburnian Warbler is a big deal to a lot of people. This is totally justified. Photographed at the community center on South Padre Island.

South Padre Island, Texas - I've harped on this a lot over the years, but I cannot emphasize enough how different migration is in the western U.S. than it is in the east. There is a reason that California birders are like "oh spring will be here soon, I guess that's cool, some year birds are coming, Lazuli Buntings are pretty" and eastern birders are like "FUCK YES SPRING YES YES YES YES PLUNGE THE WARBLER SYRINGE INTO MY CHEST". Hell, the last BB&B post (RETURN OF THE GERI) was all about birding the Texas coast. Anyways, this is a great migrant trap and I got really addicted to birding there during spring migration, but it's all done in a pretty strange setting.

Yellow-throated Warbler was one of many migrants that had a layover at Garden Key in Dry Tortugas National Park. I can see why everyone goes in spring, but I was pleasantly surprised at the diversity of species recorded on a multi-day October trip.

Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida - I was there in October for several days (we camped)...a great time was had by all, and though some days were better than others, the birding was generally very satisfying. No one really birds it in fall, so I didn't know what to expect, but I left with a full heart and a sizable island list. Talk about a scenic migrant trap, goddamn! What a fun place to bird. Some of the newly arrived migrants were really tame, such as the Black-throated Blue Warbler that landed on our picnic table and the Ovenbird that foraged beneath it. There weren't even any Sooty Terns or noddies around (we were too late in the season) and the drip wasn't even running (I overheard some poorly uninformed woman who worked there claim it would prevent birds from migrating south for the winter...astounding), and it was still pretty sick. Need to go back in spring.

A Black Skimmer pulls up after slicing through the waters of Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge (Wister Unit) at the Salton Sea.

The Salton Sea, California - The Salton Sea has a special place in the hearts of many. There is nowhere else like it, especially when you consider the human aspects, landscape, habitats, smells and birds as a whole. Birding the sea used to be, well, phenomenal. The sheer numbers of birds was staggering. It's still pretty good, but water levels have declined greatly over the last 20 years and a lot of formerly great spots are high and dry, and the salt and the pollution in what's left is even more concentrated; it's been some years since I birded it but those seemingly unending flocks of birds that used to be such a constant are getting harder and harder to come by. Sadly, Fulvous Whistling-Ducks have disappeared entirely and no Wood Storks have been seen since 2015. Yellow-footed Gulls continue to be dependable at least. The future of the sea is completely uncertain at this point, and it's anyone's guess what the birding will be like in a few decades...but it was glorious.

I try to reacquaint myself with Flame-colored Tanagers every couple of years; the mountains of Nayarit and Jalisco are a great place to do this. This one was parked above an army ant swarm at Sierra de San Juan in Nayarit.

Nayarit and Jalisco, Mexico - This one is really cheating. I can't just throw in two entire states can I? But I did. There are birding sites galore. There is a vast menu of mouth-watering species possible, including regional endemics. There is a lot of variety in elevation, and thus a lot of different habitats. The river trip with Chencho up Rio Lo Tovara is not to be missed! And unlike other parts of the country, there is a lot of high-quality, accessible habitat in these states, and you aren't forced in to birding from the side of a highway very much. I think these states often get overlooked by gringo birders in favor of Oaxaca, Chiapas or the Yucatan Peninsula, but they require your attention, I assure you.

I have no memory of taking this photo, but stoked I unearthed it...an Olive-sided Flycatcher with a tarantula hawk! If this was a female (who possess the famously potent stinger), this is a seriously badass prey item. Photographed at Galileo Hill.

Kern County California oases - Some of the rarities southern California gets really grip me off (Olive-backed Pipit quickly comes to mind), but I really miss birding the desert in late spring and fall, especially the Kern County sites. Galileo Hill might as well have been built by birders for the sole reason to make a giant migrant trap in the middle of the desert - that's not what it is meant for, but that is what it is. In the last few years, state megas like Buff-breasted Flycatcher (the state's first), Gray-cheeked Thrush and Red-faced Warbler have turned up here. California City is not really what it used to be, but Butterbredt Springs is still legendary. Lots of birds, lots of variety, lots of rarities and some distinct weirdness at these sites, and I wish they weren't so far away.

Did you know that Crested and Least Auklets form giant murmurations that rival any flock of sandpipers, blackbirds or starlings? I didn't either, until I got to the Aleutians. It's really something to behold...a magical experience even, particularly when you have the privilege of having these flocks zooming by a few feet overhead. This is an uncropped, unshrunken photo by the way, feel free to double click for a better look at the birds.

Buldir Island, Alaska. Working and living on Buldir was more like being a part of a wildlife spectacle than birding, though we certainly put in our time searching for Sibes and found a modest number of them. By Buldir standards, I was there on a relatively poor year for vague runts (in the next couple of years after I was there, Eurasian Bittern and Eurasian Oystercatcher were recorded!), but I can't complain very much. The seabirds though....wow. Both the numbers and diversity that nest there are on a whole other level, the likes of which I may not see again. You end up getting attached to birds like Whiskered Auklets and Red-legged Kittwakes, especially if you have to handle them, which is a trip in and of itself.

Honorable mentions of areas that didn't quite make this post go to southeast Arizona, large chunks of Costa Rica, the prairies of Montana and North Dakota, Point Reyes (CA), and the good old Oxnard Plain (CA), which is what I was reared on. And yes yes yes I know how great [insert country here] can be, but chances are I haven't been there yet, no need to convince me. Obviously, a great deal of birding needs to be done in places I've never been before, and just exploring the lands (and seas!) of this continent will take many more years to come.

But I have to ask...what would you put on your list? Anywhere that people wouldn't immediately think of? Light up those comments nerds.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018


Seagull Steve has returned to the state of Texas in an attempt to rescue his friend This Machine Nate from the clutches of the vile Geri Birders.

Little does Steve know that the GERIATRIC EMPIRE has secretly begun amassing an unstoppable army even more powerful than the dreaded hordes that swarm South Padre Island.

When assembled, this ultimate army of Geris will spell certain doom for the small band of birders struggling to restore good identification skills to the birding galaxy...

How does that grab you? I don't really have the capacity to do an opening crawl in blog format, so this will have to do. Though the Jedi were obviously the protagonists in Return of The Jedi, the Geri are decidedly not the heroes of Return of The Geri. They are the rising darkness, and we are the light to meet it. 

Always in motion is the future, but I can see it now. The mosquitoes will be thick, and Geri will be thicker. Photographers (Geri and otherwise) high on bird lust and low on almost everything else will inspire anger, fear, aggression. When brightly colored birds in plain view within spitting distance are pointed out, Geri will struggle mightily to locate them and demand more instruction so I cannot enjoy watching the birds myself. Birds will be misidentified constantly. Black-and-white Warblers will become Blackpoll Warblers. Tennessee Warblers will become Philadelphia Vireos. Eastern Wood-Pewees will become Acadian Flycatchers. Ovenbirds will become Wood Thrushes. All Catharus thrushes will become each other. Red will become blue and one will become two. There will be squadrons of Geri to wade through at many of the sites, indeed, an army I feel I may not be able to defeat. But does it spell certain doom? Perhaps, but much like Lando Calrissian, Nien Nunb and Wedge Antilles defied the odds and destroyed the second Death Star, we may be able to find a way around the legion of Geri and get into some fantastic birding. That depends on the birds, the weather, our birding strategy, and a lot of luck.

Geri may be a force to be reckoned with, but a confiding Hooded Warbler can become more powerful than you could possibly imagine. 

Cheesy/stupid intro aside, we are excited to announce that BB&B will be returning to Texas this spring. Ostensibly, I will be leading a custom trip organized by the up and coming MAX REBO BIRDING TOURS ("No one can find Ortolans like Ortolans!"), and meeting up with famed Bicknell's Thrush expert and Jawbreaker scholar, This Machine Nate. But the real reason I am going is to bend the knee and worship at the altar of Spring Migration. Like most of you, I have never seen a proper fallout...I've been around for some good waves of migrants (what some would call "modest" fallouts perhaps, which seems oxymoronic to me), but not the genuine article...warblers littering the ground, ungodly hordes of exhausted migrants, too much for one birder to possibly take in...one of the great climaxes of North American birding. I've been close enough to the real deal to develop a strong appetite for it though, and so I must head east.

I like to see Indigo Buntings. I like to see lots of them, at extremely close range. For the birder looking to get high on Indigo, spring in coastal Texas is the time and the place to do just that. 

Now, as you may have heard, I am the #7 birder in the country...it's not like I am going into this situation blind. Even if I was going to spend weeks out there (I'm not), I'm not expecting to be so lucky, or for the birds to be so unlucky. I will be completely happy just to reconnect with a bunch of different species and be there when a decent number of newly-arrived migrants drop in to the woods.  I am expecting some slow, perhaps excruciatingly slow, days on the passerine front...but this is what one must endure to have the best chance at being around for an iconic migration event. Or just plain old good birding! It's not like I require 25 species of warblers in a day to be satisfied.

I found this Scarlet Tanager in the middle of the day ("best time to make for great birdwatch", according to one notorious birder), smashing a large moth in the middle of a suburban street with nothing resembling respectable stopover habitat in sight. I shot this crippling lens-cracker out my car window. No doubt this is a bird that meets all standard fallout criteria (tired/voraciously hungry/in weird coastal habitat/totally oblivious to people/facemelting), but unfortunately one bird does not make a fallout.

Aside from seeing a lot of birds and getting some crushing in, I do have one particular target bird in mind - Swainson's Warbler. I have never seen a Swainson's Warbler, and I hope to rectify that unfortunate situation by the time I return to California. While pretty much everyone else is looking up for yellow, green, blue, orange and red, I will be looking down for brown...at least some of the time. I am merely mortal, unable to resist the canopy-loving species, and one in particular has a special draw. If you are new to BB&B, you may not know that I dream about Cerulean Warblers more than any other bird, and I dream about birds with embarrassing frequency. I think it's a fantastic bird to dream about! Just last week, in a dream, I had male Cerulean and Blackburnian Warblers in the same binocular view...what a combo! You could even call it a dream combo. Will these birds make the jump from my subconscious to my binoculars in a few months? And if they do...what are the implications? Can anyone be ready for something like that? If you missed it from back in 2014, From South Padre Island to The Astral Plane: A Cerulean Warbler Vision Quest is a pretty good read. It is completely accurate account, with no fiction or exaggerations of any sort. Big lenses may be raised against me in anger once again, but I am not afraid...

Right. The mind begins to wander. Possibilities of glory on the scale of an exploding Death Star or failure the size of Alderaan seem equally plausible. Is my fate intertwined with that of the Cerulean Warbler? Is my entire life just a Franzenesque cliche? A lot of questions may be answered on this trip.

When the Geri-to-warbler ratio is askew in the woods, there will be no shortage of other great birds to look for instead. Upland Sandpiper is one of a great many shorebird species that use the area in spring, and I haven't seen them since the last time I was in the Lone Star [Beer] State.

Well, now you know the main plotlines we will be working with. Top priorities are freeing This Machine from the carbonite, lifer Swainson's Warbler, ask Cerulean Warbler about interdimensional travel and astro-projection. Eastern Whip and Black-whiskered Vireo are both needed birds as well, but I reckon a lot of luck would be required for either and my expectations for those are not high. Most of the time, it will be all about year birds! And our clients, of course...MAX REBO BIRDING TOURS is famous for going above and beyond to coddle (not cuddle) clientele, and this trip will be no exception.

I guess I should wrap this, considering nothing has even happened yet and it is still winter. The passerines in this post were photographed on South Padre Island, and the UPSA was in some ag fields north of Harlingen. All in Texas, obvi.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Straight Outta Massachusetts

Few people know that I originated in the Berkshires, aka Berkshire County, aka The Shires of Berk, in western Massachusetts. That is where my dad's side of the family lived for many generations, and family still dwells there to this day. In October, I took my new family back to meet my old family, then drove out to the coast for something resembling an actual vacation...which, of course, means there was birding. Not hella, but enough to scratch the itch. I didn't really have any dedicated time to bird in the Berkshires (where I got a great many lifers when I was younger), but we did get to spend a lot of time outdoors around Cape Ann, Ipswich and Plum Island. While we didn't rack up a very high species list (we were too late for most Neotropical migrants, which had already gone south), we did see some east coast goodness and I got a handful of bird photos worth sharing. Oh yeah, I got a LIFE BIRD too.

This extremely confiding Downy Woodpecker voraciously attacked the stalk of a sunflower at Halibut Point State Park, which turned out to have some of the best birding of the trip. I think a lot of birders consider it primarily a seawatching site, but for a west coast birder starved for eastern passerines, it definitely hit the spot.

Not a whole lot was photographed, granted, but the birding was good! Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Red-eyed and Blue-headed Vireos, Gray Catbird, Magnolia Warbler, Swamp and Field Sparrows were nice migrants. Flocks of White-throated Sparrows were larger than I had seen anywhere else. It had been a few years since I was around eastern White-breasted Nuthatches, which a look a bit different and sound a lot different from California birds. Remember, this was almost a split a few years ago.

As I said, Halibut Point is known for its quality of seawatching...I didn't have high hopes and didn't really intend on doing a serious seawatch, but it did not disappoint! The number of sea ducks going by was really impressive, we rarely see numbers like that moving on the west coast. In fact, I think the only place I've seen so many scoters on the move was in the Sea of Cortez.

White-winged Scoters were the most abundant migrant. Gannets went by in pleasing numbers, and Razorbills (something I did not expect) and Cory's Shearwaters (my first ever from land) were very nice to pick out. I could definitely see myself spending a whole lot of time here if I was in the area more often.

I really only had one target bird in mind for this trip though...Great Cormorant. I had never seen a Great Cormorant, but found them easily enough. Life bird! Not the juiciest life bird I've ever had, but hey a [native] life bird is a life bird. These two were at Bass Rocks, a traditional site for them, but I had them at a couple other locations as well. As advertised, they were both large and quite cormoranty.

Great Black-backed Gull is a novel bird to me. I really want to find one in California sometime. This one was at Eastern Point Wildlife Sanctuary in Gloucester, where there were great multitudes of sparrows and the only Indigo Bunting of the trip. It was a bit confusing to get there, but if you just ignore all the private property signs, everything is fine!

Chipping Sparrows are much more abundant on this part of the continent than what I am used to. Usually I look through flocks of sparrows to find a Chipping. In the east, you look through flocks of Chipping Sparrows to find something else. I got into a thick swarm of them at Eastern Point.

Eastern Point, and coastal Massachusetts in general, is SWAMP SPARROW COUNTRY. The locals here have no need to demand MAKE OUR COUNTRY SWAMP SPARROW AGAIN because the COUNTRY is already SWAMP SPARROW. This photo is proof.

Andrew's Point is another famed seawatching spot, just east of Halibut Point. I did a more dedicated seawatch here, and I'm glad I did. This GBBG (pronounced "guh-buh-buh-guh") has a moon nestled in the crook of its wing.

This dude pulled in a huge striped bass while I was there. He braved some serious surf, slippery rocks and terrible weather to land it...impressive. Most impressive. How come California fishermen don't go to such lengths? What have you got to say for yourselves?

The seawatching was very good here as well - I got my first Atlantic Northern Fulmar ever, a nice bird to bank in case of a split. Common Eiders (above) went by frequently, as did all the scoter species and a sizable number of Red-breasted Mergansers. Razorbills and Cory's Shearwaters made more appearances, and I saw my first eastern Red-throated Loon.

I was surprised to see a very distant Peregrine Falcon darting after something in between troughs. It caught something a few moments later, then headed back toward land to consume it. I was shocked to see it was a Leach's Storm-Petrel! I hadn't seen any at all, and would certainly not have seen this one (it was too windy and choppy) if the Peregrine had not caught it and showed it to me. Per eBird, another birder photographed a Peregrine doing the same thing to the same species a few years ago from the same spot.

After we left the Cape we headed west where we got another Airbnb at Great Neck, technically in Ipswich though it is not exactly close to town. Though the birding here was disappointing (it can be quite good apparently), it was a beautiful spot with access to a private beach. We were up on a hill overlooking Clark Pond and the mouth of Plum Island Sound...the southern end of Plum Island was just a few hundred yards away! Considering it takes almost an hour to get there by car, it's a pretty funny situation. For anyone who has not birded in the area, Plum Island/Parker River National Wildlife Refuge is a legendary birding spot in the state. Generally speaking, everything that shows up in Massachusetts seems to show up at Plum Island at some point, or within a few miles. Of course, we birded it, though the birds and the weather did not cooperate enough for much photography. This Song Sparrow (very different from the locals here in the bay area) took pity on me at least.

Parker River has lots of American Black Ducks throughout the year. In fact, probably the vast majority that I have seen in my life have been at this refuge over the years...but apparently I haven't seen enough to really provide meaningful commentary on them. What does it mean to be an American Black Duck? How is the soul of an American Black Duck different from that of a Mallard, a Mottled Duck, a Mexican Mallard? These are the things that keep me up at night.

This is the view of where we stayed, looking south from Plum Island.

Huh...guess I didn't do much crushing on that trip! Good thing I don't claim to be a photographer. The birding really was better than what the pictures indicate, seriously. Other avian highlights from Parker River include Long-tailed Duck, American Golden-Plover, Stilt and White-rumped Sandpipers, Fish Crow, Lapland Longspurs, a plethora of sparrows (Field, Swamp, Clay-colored, White-crowned, etc) and Purple Finches.

Maybe next time I'll get out to Cape Cod again. Did you see that footage from last year of shearwater flocks practically feeding on the beach (there's some good video *here* - skip to about 35 seconds in)? I want to be a part of that.

Oh yeah, Annie turns one today! I think she enjoyed the trip. She was particularly enthused about the apple orchard and a mudflat...she is a child of many habitats. I wonder if that ridiculous pink suit still fits, we need to get some more mileage out of it. Billy had a birthday this week too...much love to my girls, looking forward to our next trip together!

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Justyn Stahl: Birder, Bird Police, Shrike Savior, God Emperor

A new year, a brand new interview brought to you by The Human Birdwatcher Project! Birders are people too! Occasionally, anyway. It's been too long since we've done an interview, but with such high demand it's time to get out there and talk to the birders of the world. Now, more than ever, The Birdosphere is swimming in mundane interviews, so it's time for a different kind of voice to rise above the masses.

We would like you to meet Justyn Stahl, one of those increasingly rare dedicated bird biologists who is also a dedicated birder, with his fingers (coated in Taki dust?) in seemingly everything...eBird reviewing/policing, California's bird police, the Christmas Bird Count, the San Diego Field Ornithologists, etc. I don't know how he has the energy for all of this; few birders can operate with the weight of this nerd burden without respite, but as you are about to find out, Justyn is no ordinary birder. Join us in a conversation about the birds of San Clemente Island, the journey from nonbirder to birder, and the current state of birding. 

BB&B: For the record, how do we pronounce your name? Some birders are very uncomfortable with your name.

JS: I’m not sure why it’s so difficult for people to wrap their heads around it. It’s pronounced just how it looks: Juh-STEEN. I guess that trips people up.

So what is it you do, exactly?

“It was whispered that while the shamans of the mainland might kill their enemies with poison, those of the islands were fierce wizards who used wolves to carry out their lethal designs.”

My official title is Le Roi D’l’isles Channel, which translates loosely into God Emperor of All Offshore Rocks South of Point Conception. My duties are largely ceremonial, involving the management of the San Clemente Loggerhead Shrike recovery effort. You may have read about it in Ranger Rick in the 90s. Prior to acquisition by the U.S. Navy in 1934, San Clemente Island (hereafter, the island, or simply SCI), was a wool ranch, and prior to that illicit things even too heinous for your dear readers occurred. The ranchers left behind thousands of goats, which went feral and ate pretty much every plant on the island, save for a few trees, and apparently, the box thorn on the west shore. While the Horned Larks and Western Meadowlarks were stoked, most land birds were not.  The Channel Island Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia graminea, extant on Miguel and Rosa) and the San Clemente Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus clementae, extant on Catalina and Rosa) were extirpated, and the island-endemic San Clemente Bewick’s Wren (Thryomanes bewickii leucophrys) went into that little tree cavity in the sky. Two that squeaked by ended up on the Endangered Species List: the San Clemente Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus mearnsi), which reached a low of 14 in 1998, and the San Clemente Bell’s Sparrow (Artemisiopiza belli clementeae), which bottomed out at 38 in 1984. Fortunately, the Navy has funded a massive recovery effort involving goat removal (finished in 1991; more than you could ever want to know about that is available right here), habitat restoration, predator control, captive breeding, release, and monitoring. I head up the last two projects: managing a crew of 10 biologists tasked with surveying the island year-round, attempting to find, band, and monitor every shrike and its nest on island, and in late summer releasing captive-hatched shrikes (raised by the San Diego Zoo here on SCI) to help augment the wild population. I’ve been doing this since January 2008 (Jesus, we’re almost up to the 10 year anniversary here), when I decided Jimmy John’s was not the best use of a Master’s degree in ecology.

Let’s just say the subs were too fast for me.

He wasn't kidding about Ranger Rick. This is gold!

How are the shrikes and sparrows doing? What's the outlook? 

I should open this portion of the interview with the caveat that I am not speaking on behalf of my employer or the United States Navy. That said, I was really hoping for a superbloom of shrikes to go along with the wild flowers that really went nuts out in the desert last spring. The stage was certainly set for such an event. As you know, we’ve been crippled by drought the last several years here in Southern California, and many of the storms that hit the mainland just skirted us. Winter 2016-2017, however, was one of the wettest years on record for the island and that should have (based on previous years’ data) meant good things for shrike productivity. Unfortunately, it appears one or more of the predators (seemingly rats) out here also bloomed and we ended up with one of the worst years, in terms of nest success, to date. The current adult population is somewhere around 85. And a poor year like this can only mean a decline into the next, so we’re not pumped for 2018. The sparrows, on the other hand, are thriving, and I hope they can ultimately be delisted. As the habitat on island has recovered, the breeding range of sparrows on SCI has dramatically expanded out of their box thorn refuge, with the last population estimate around 7,000!

San Clemente Island Bell's Sparrow. Appealing to many, seen by few. Photo by Justyn Stahl.

Some believe that the shrikes on Santa Cruz Island are at least as distinct as the San Clemente shrikes, or even more so (i.e., they should be awarded full species status). Any opinions on that?

Let me back up and take the opportunity to thank you for not confusing the taxon we’re dealing with here. When I tell people I live on San Clemente Island, most (non-birders) say, “Oh, I drive through there on the way to work.” Not possible. Most birders are also off-track, “Oh, you work with scrub-jays!” False. I suppose this is not as bad as the tourists up north mistaking Los Farallones for Hawaii, however.

Off the top of my head, I would suspect that being closer to the mainland, the shrikes on Santa Cruz would be less distinct. That land was all connected at some point, and we’re dealing with an uplift out here.  The subspecies occurring on Cruz (as well as Rosa and Catalina) is L. l. anthonyi (the Island Loggerhead Shrike).  A few anthonyi, I believe, have been captured on San Clemente in winter, and I know genetic mixing between clementae, anthonyi, and the migratory migrans was still occurring in the early 20th century.  A recent paper illustrated this...and in re-reading that, it seems that anthonyi is more distinct. Shows what I know. Feel free to dismiss any further claims I make in this interview.

For a birder, you're not exactly old. Do you recall what life was like before birding? What drove you to the feathered ones?

I grapple with being 37. I still self-identify as young, but realize I’m somewhere in the realm of middle age at this point. Gray hairs. Back pain. Unexplained rashes. My employees not knowing who Kris Kross is. I think my behavior at times is confusing to older birders. Life before birding (1980–2002) revolved almost exclusively around punk (and later hardcore) and skateboarding. I went to as many shows as possible, occasionally touring with bands that friends were in. I worked at a radio station for 4 years. I suspect few birders came out of that environment. You and Dipper Dan did, I believe. The birder-photographer Rick James’s punk roots run deep. I was straight edge for 7 years. As for my origin story, it’s not the typical “ever since I was 4, I’ve been attracted to nature and birds” bullshit, no offense. I, admittedly, got in late. In my senior year of college, I needed a biology elective, so I took ornithology. I bought some cheap binoculars and had the eastern Peterson. I’d basically just go what I think we call bird watching; walking the trail at the nature center with the paper checklist from the kiosk, and seeing the same Black-crowned Night-Herons every time. When I got to grad school, I met a guy, Chris Burney, who is probably the real reason I got seriously into birding. I think he had asked me how many birds I’d seen, which I didn’t know was a thing, but I had checked them off in the guide (in the actual checklist in the back). 157. Chris, having been to Peru, Mexico, and South Africa was over 1000. I was like, “Whoa.” We started birding a lot together, seriously neglecting our graduate studies to catch migration at a few places around Gainesville. That winter we drove through South Texas and into Tamaulipas and spent a few days at El Cielo/Gómez Farías. I don’t recall the actual moment, but at some point I was surrounded by birds I’d never even heard of and that was probably the moment that I was like, “OK, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” So I guess the bullshit spark story happened for me too, just much later.

Since transitioning, I’ve had fewer ankles injuries and no run-ins with skinheads, but I’ve found several parallels between birding and skating. California is clearly one of the best places to pursue either, often in the worst neighborhoods, and some of the best spots are kept secret by locals. Both have had very influential clothing styles, and there is strong mistrust of rollerbladers throughout both demographics. One major difference, besides the age distribution, is that I’ve never witnessed a former birder stumble out of a bar drunk, grab someone’s binoculars, and attempt to show off in front of his buddies. I mean, I’ve certainly been birding drunk, but I’m still actively birding. Speaking of drinking and birding, we need to hang out more often.

Since that fateful road trip, Justyn birds the Neotropics regularly. He photographed this Black-faced Antthrush (a bird I have on my stupid heard-only list - ed.) at Calakmul, Mexico.

The Human Birdwatcher Project has documented a noticeable increase in the number of younger (for birding, that means <40) birders in recent years. Why is birding no longer only the realm of stodgy geris?

The strange thing is I’m not witnessing this increase in person. Between San Diego and Los Angeles, there’s what, 10 million people? I can count on two hands the number of relatively active birders I know that are my age or younger. But with the frequency the phrase “Young Birder” is thrown around, you’d think the streets would be crawling with them. Where are these people? On that topic, I don’t really like that “Young Birder” phrase. What is that even supposed to mean? I can understand wanting to have a club or camp and not have geris show up, but I don’t know, saying “I am a Young Birder” makes me uneasy. Just be a kid.  I guess it’s not as bad as self-identifying as a “Hipster Birder” or a “Jeopardy Winner,” however. Or an “Oregon Birder.”

They are out there...the kids I mean. I see them on the reg. They are probably reading this post. When I was a childbirder, it was just me and one other kid in all of southern California, as far as we knew anyways. Maybe you are shielded from them by some kind of inner circle…but I’ll ask you about that in a minute.

You do most of your birding in Los Angeles County, even though you live in San Diego. How do you like it? 

I pay rent and get mail in San Diego, but 20 days a month I’m out here in Los Angeles County. Due to the nearest point of land, San Clemente Island is considered to be in LA, but that really only matters to birders, the fire department, and the sheriff’s department. But it certainly matters to birders. Aside from being an above average location to find Vague Runts, it also hosts introduced/established populations of Chukar and Gambel’s Quail. I get complaints from mainland birders about the rarity scene out here, but I suspect the daily/hourly eBird Needs Alerts for the game birds must really drive them up the wall. As a wise man once said, “Anyone who subscribes to hourly Needs Alerts deserves what they get.” I know one chemist who counts a mainland LA Chukar, though.

I know very little of the Los Angeles birding scene. I know there are a few people there in perpetual Big Years as there are here in San Diego. The traffic there is heinous. I’ve attempted to go there a few times, only to sort of flail around in the heat of the day, get stuck in traffic, and then just give up and go get a donut before driving back south, generally without whatever I was chasing..although immediate success was just had with a White-eyed Vireo on my last trip up there. It’s fucked though. I’ve seen the only two Common Redpolls, the only Smith’s Longspur, the only Bluethroat, the only Red-flanked Bluetail, etc. etc. in Los Angeles County but not a GREAT HORNED OWL.

But I spend most of my time off in San Diego missing whatever rarities are around by a day or two.

Much has been said of San Diego's powerful and secretive Inner Circle, who are alleged to control all of San Diego County birding. Is it a drunken, fanatical conspiracy theory, or are the rumors true?

Let me start off by congratulating Todd Ingess on his full recovery. The San Diego birding community almost lost one of its longest resident members. Not many people knew of Todd prior to the Great Sparrow Incident of 2013 (he had been hospitalized since a car wreck in 2001), but he is known to those in the Inner Circle. I had assumed the worst, as I’d not heard from him since his last plea for “one of those special birds [to] fly up to [his] window and bless [him] with just a few moments of its life.” But in December 2016, at an Inner Circle Ceremony prior to the Anza-Borrego CBC, there he was, back on his feet and healthy as ever. 

But yes, there is an Inner Circle. There are Inner Circles, I suspect, in many bird communities. Or at least every one that takes itself seriously (i.e., I doubt there is one in Oregon). If you look for and find rare shit, are willing to chase other people’s shit, and aren’t a dick/stringer, you can find yourself on the fringes. You can’t get upset when you don’t get a call or email about stuff though. Sometimes birds show up in sensitive areas and hordes can’t be allowed in. Sometimes you get a rep for being a jerk and you aren’t getting a call then. But no one is suppressing stuff to hurt non-assholes. Shockingly, those completely outside of the Circle often find Vagues that no one else sees (to wit, the Swallow-tailed Kite in San Diego) or that everyone but one Platinum Diamond Select™ Inner Circle member sees (to wit, the first chaseable White Wagtail in San Diego).

I really shouldn’t be talking about this…but one more thing needs to be said. In middle school, there was a sale on cassette singles at the music store at the mall: three for $10. One of those purchased by a young me was “Bad Boys (the theme from Cops)” by none other than Inner Circle.

A horrendous and shameful photo of a monumental rarity. Photo by Justyn Stahl. How embarrassing.

Let's face it, with the birds you've found or helped document on San Clemente Island (Los Angeles County's first Smith's Longspur and second Dusky Warbler most recently), you are one of California's unsung birding heroes...you get little credit for your constant coverage of a fascinating migrant trap because none of the birds you see, which have included staggering megas, are chaseable.  What affect has this had on your self-esteem, on your relationships with friends and family?

Working on SCI has taken a serious toll on my family life. My mom disowned me when I sent her the shitty photo I had of the Bluethroat. I’d documented California’s first fucking BLUETHROAT with a point and shoot camera. Like 4x even. It was embarrassing and a shame on the family. I think they were evicted from their house and all manner of misfortune followed.  “You mean Red-flanked Bluetail?” No, that was years later, and found by Jethro Runco, with his beautiful mustache and extremely tight Wranglers. That bird got a metric shit tonne of attention, so much so that I nearly lost my job. Someone somewhere thought that “rare bird” meant endangered (or even extinct?) and thought I’d spoken to the media about it without going up the chain of command.

Side note: one thing that’s frustrated me year after year is how few field biologists are really into birding. Working out on the island, all you have to do is have functional vision or hearing and you can (and will) find good shit. You find more if you really try but the birds are there, just look at them. Very few people have, over the years, had any interest in it. Which is fine, I suppose, that’s not their job, but I treat it, for myself, as an obligation at this point...out here with the torch keeping the darkness away. I worry that if/when I depart, the fire here will go out. There have been a few people willing to put in work though, most notably in recent years: Nicole Desnoyers, Ben Sandstrom, Jimmy McMorran (an annual fall migrant), and the enigmatic Johnny Galt.

In recent years, I’ve gotten more credit, I suppose, recently being deputized by the Bird Police, which led to higher than normal feelings of imposter syndrome, and eBird review privileges. I must say, truly, I was honored to be asked to do this interview as well.

Describe what the average birder is to you. What they look like. What they think about. What keeps them up at night.

The average birder? The average birder, to me, is still that caricature that everyone pictures: geri, Tilly hat, bino bra, zip-off tan quick-dry pants. You know, the group photos in all the bird tour catalogs. They show up in hordes at the Biggest Weak. They sit at feeders in Madera Canyon for hours. They probably actually think about things other than birds, but pursue it as a hobby. I doubt they stay up too late.

Are there any tendencies or recent trends with birders that rub you the wrong way?

How much space are you willing to set aside for this answer? In no particular order: tagging whoever the current Big Year birder is on every ABA rarity on Facebook; referring to eBird as Ebird, e-bird, or ebirds; incidental eBird reports of crows and grackles from the highway in your home state; the need for an ABA [field] guide to every state; unidentifiable photos submitted to eBird; those “me too” posts of photos to listservs for the latest low level rarity; the proliferation of Red-tailed Hawks and female Brown-headed Cowbirds in bird identification forums;  a general unwillingness to explore new areas, but instead just going to the same rarity trap over and over...I don’t even want to think about this question anymore.

Justyn and Dipper Dan bravely head offshore to take terrible bird photos to pointlessly upload to eBird checklists. Someone has to do it!

Speaking of recent trends, I wanted to ask you about eBird, since you are heavily involved with it these days. How do you think eBird should treat chronic stringers? Should eBird continue to tolerate them in an attempt to be open to everyone, or should they show they actually care about data quality and ban some users from contributing to public output?

A timely question, as big changes are allegedly afoot for data quality in eBird. Chronic stringers, I believe, are excised like the cancer that they are. The problem, however, is proving that they are stringers. Good birders can smell one a mile away. Most cannot. There are a few I’d like to see outed, but it’s outside my jurisdiction. The plebes hold these metastasized humanoids up in high regard, largely due to social media presence. I think actually proving the stringing can be difficult, though. Being a bad birder is acceptable at eBird, however. But they’re supposed to be working on an eBird-lite for those folks.

Interesting. I am under the impression that most chronic stringers not only get to submit data to public output like the most skilled contributors, they actually can get reviewer privileges. But enough of eBird, big years are as popular as ever as well. It's becoming increasingly predictable to do a big year then write a book about it. Does this hold any interest for you?

I haven't read any big year books except Kingbird Highway and The Big Year. Just because you’re a birder doesn’t mean you are a writer. For that reason, I would really doubt that any of those Big Year books are any good. But that’s just my prejudice. The Big Year (the book) was fun, but written by a writer. The movie was shit. As for doing a big year? Sure, why not, especially, since it’s now possible to just crowd-source the funding for it. But big year birding, at least in the ABA area (however you choose to define that), seems so passé. Granted, a lot of birding is just chasing, but an ABA area big year is almost exclusively chasing. But once you do one, you’re somehow held up as some sort of expert, regardless of how much you actually know.  I’ve been saying it for years, if people want to really throw down, do a Total Ticks Big Year. No sleep. No blog posts. No wasted time on Attu. You’d need a damn stenographer to keep up, but if you survived it? Props.

The game of Pocket is a cherished pastime on birding trips. Do you have any experience with this that is appropriate for public consumption?

I will say only this: I had not eaten Takis prior to that night. I may again someday, but I can say with almost absolute certainty I will never again watch a grown man eat them out of someone else’s hand like a baby deer.

My friend, it has been a pleasure (cueing up Avail 4 AM Friday). Congrats on the child. I look forward to seeing you in a few weeks. I think the last time was looking at that bastard hybrid shrike in Mendocino. Saludos.