30 April 2014

Gannet et al.

A NORTHERN GANNET was found on the Farallon Islands about 2 years ago.  This species, which belongs on the Atlantic Ocean, not the Pacific, was a mega-rarity that attracted a lot of attention.  Fast forward to April, 2014 when a gannet, presumably the same one, showed up on Alcatraz Island.  It was actively defending a patch of cliff and we assume the only thing missing for this bird was... another gannet.

Well, Ashley and I finally ventured over to downtown San Francisco where birders had been able to scope the bird.  We walked out on the Aquatic Park Pier, set up the scope, and... well... it wasn't hard (look for the only white bird):

Here's a map showing where the bird hangs out and where we viewed it from:

View Northern Gannet viewing in a larger map

It was cool to see Alcatraz.  The out-of-service prison was more than a mile away from where we were:

FYI, the lighthouse on Alcatraz is the oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast of the US.

Through the spotting scope, we could see things pretty well including the Social Hall (building on the right) which was destroyed during a 19-month occupation by Native Americans:

Also visible from the Aquatic Park Pier was the Golden Gate Bridge off to our left (west):

Back to the Central Valley... Ash and I walked through Cosumnes River Preserve the other day in hopes of some year birds.  We did have a decent showing of warblers including:

Orange-crowned Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
"Audubon's" Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Gray Warbler
Townsend's Warbler
Wilson's Warbler
... and this Hermit Warbler:

... oh wait... this thing has streaks on its flanks.  Well THAT'S JUST GREAT.  It's a hybrid between Hermit and Townsend's... so it doesn't really count as any species.  You can see the streaking again in this picture:

It was a good visit to Cosumnes though; we ended with 76 species in less than 3 hours of birding.  The highlight for me were some WILSON'S PHALAROPES seen from Desmond Road, my first for the year.

Most recently, I took a lap around Don Nottoli Park in Elk Grove.  It's obvious that this BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAK was just trying to make the passers-by do a double-take at the seed sticking out of its mouth:

He took things to a whole new level when he deftly landed between some razor-wire:

It's easy to imagine that MOURNING DOVES are stupid.  Let me be clear... I don't think they are BUT any wild bird around here that doesn't fly away until I'm 4-feet-away-and-closing probably has personal space issues.  This particular one was perched on the fence along my walking route (I wasn't just approaching for photos):

The best find this morning was this empid.  This slick git was a devil to keep tabs on but I eventually managed a few pics.  First, the bill looked decently small and basically all black which, in theory, limits the ID to either DUSKY or HAMMOND's:

In this blurry photo, you can start to see what might be long primary projection (which favors HAMMOND'S):

The next two photos also show primary projection that I think falls within the range of HAMMOND'S.  The bird also showed a slight crest which I loosely associate with HAMMOND'S as well:

Lastly, here's an angle that made me think twice about the bird... could it be a DUSKY?   It looks like the primary projection I was referencing earlier just vanished.  Thanks a lot.

Anyway, in the end I called it a HAMMOND'S.  

This ID was WAY MORE problematic; a WHITE-TAILED KITE overhead:

27 April 2014

Pacific Golden-Plover

Staying in Sacramento County paid off this morning when I stumbled onto a PACIFIC GOLDEN-PLOVER on Sherman Island.

The bird was mixed in with 48 BLACK-BELLIED PLOVERS and 188 WHIMBREL.  The bird, which looks like a male in nearly complete alternate plumage, stood out like a sore thumb.  You'll also notice how the white on the flanks and sides of the breast continue down to the undertail.  The undertail coverts were black and spotted with white.

Instead of choosing a couple of photos, I'll just attach the whole batch:

Here's a map of exactly where I had the birds:

View PAGP in a larger map

According to eBird, this is only the 4th PAGP for Sacramento County and is the first one away from the Bufferlands.

26 April 2014


A check at Don Nottoli Park, our preferred local patch here in Elk Grove, yielded this female BLUE GROSBEAK which so happens to be my 200th species for Sacramento County this year.  It also happens to be a new species for the local patch list:

It even flew up to the pumping station fence and landed on some razor-wire.  Eassssyy there, big brown buddy:

Oddly enough, it wasn't the only grosbeak present; I had two BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAKS as well which represents only the 2nd record for this particular patch (the last was on 13 May 2012).  Here's the distant male from today:

Although Ashley has had one at Nottoli before, it was my first time seeing a LAZULI BUNTING there (as you can see, I didn't pursue it for better photos):

All for now...

24 April 2014

Men or Meiss?

The pace of new Sacramento County year birds definitely seems to be slowing as of late.  I mean, I still need Warbling Vireo, Hermit Warbler, Blue Grosbeak, Western Wood-Pewee, and Olive-sided Flycatcher to name a few but I'm not even sure the latter 1-2 species will arrive before I depart in 17 days.  

A walk-about at Cosumnes the other day didn't yield much other than a vocal PACIFIC-SLOPE FLYCATCHER feeding near one of the sloughs.  Compared to the other recent empid photos I've posted, note the completely yellow lower mandible, thick eyering, noticeable crest, and short primary projection:

The one new year bird came when Ashley hurriedly motioned me towards the patio window; perched in a tree bordering the boulevard was a female BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAK.  It looked around for quite a while before flying and actually landing on the patio.  I can't recall the last time I was ever this close to any species of grosbeak:

Today I took a spin out along Meiss Road to check on things.  If you aren't familiar with this part of Sacramento County, you're in for a treat.  Stretching in front of you is an expansive vista of foothill grasslands, complete with the snow-capped Sierras in the background:

The road is definitely one not oft-traveled ... which is why I love it so much.  The grassy roadsides act as an active SAVANNAH SPARROW dispenser right now; you move, they pop out.  In the end, I counted nearly 100 in a 7.5 mile stretch.  Here's a view of the road:

Another crazy-abundant species out there was WESTERN KINGBIRD.  I carefully counted 77 on the same 7.5 mile stretch of road.  That averages out to more than 10 kingbirds per mile... or 2-3 kingbirds every 200 meters.  Here's one that stuck tight:

Late-April can be a good time to stir up interesting sparrows out in the grasslands.  For example, I was successful in finding 2 BREWER'S SPARROWS which is a rare species any time of year in Sacramento County (but if you're going to look for them, now is the time).  I especially enjoyed hearing one bust out into song; if you don't know what they sound like, play around on Xeno-Canto.

I also had 3 GRASSHOPPER SPARROWS, an uncommon breeding species here in Sacramento County.  And for some reason, this particular one didn't appear very wary of the car:

Anyway, I ended with 25 species after 82 minutes.  You can see the full checklist here.

21 April 2014

Gray Fly & others

We were happy to stumble on a GRAY FLYCATCHER at Don Nottoli Park this morning.  This park, which is only a mile or two from where we live, has turned into a favorite local patch of ours.  Although I don't think it was ever birded before we moved here, the species total for the park is closing in on 130.  Gray Flycatcher was a new one (and a county lifer for both of us).

Digiscoping with my iPhone turned out to be a great way to photograph this bird:

I also took a video of the bird which you can see here.  Note that the tail dips downward which is distinctive for this species.

The bird was feeding low along the edge of the northwest portion of the marsh.  Here's a map of exactly where it was hanging out (zoom out if you'd like to see where this park is in general):

View Gray Flycatcher in a larger map

I think this is only the 5th GRAY FLYCATCHER I've ever seen so it was great to review ID marks.  I think the most obvious fieldmark is the GIANT bill with a bright yellow lower mandible that's tipped in black.  Pac-slope has an all-yellow lower mandible and Dusky/Hammond's have smaller, darker bills.

We also took a spin up to Michigan Bar Road in eastern Sacramento County.  We first bumped into 3 CHIPPING SPARROWS about 1.7 miles up from Highway 16 (yes, they're flagged and rather uncommon around here; a completely different story from back east).  We also heard a LAZULI BUNTING singing at the same spot.

At about 2.4 miles up from the highway, we found what we came for, two BREWER'S SPARROWS:

This is another rather uncommon, flagged species here.  However, April and early-May is the time to check grasslands around Michigan Bar Road and Meiss Road.

Our last stop was at a new area we've been exploring in eastern Elk Grove.  It's the Laguna Creek Parkway Trail.  We walked the stretch that meanders east from Elk Grove Florin Road:

View Laguna Creek Parkway Trail in a larger map

A bit down the trail we bumped into yet another CHIPPING SPARROW for the day.  This one was a bit more photogenic than the other ones (and yet it's still pseudo-hiding from me):

A little farther down the trail we found a nice mini-flock containing a TOWNSEND'S WARBLER, NASHVILLE WARBLER, and this empid.  Best we can tell, it's probably a HAMMOND'S but there were a couple of things that seemed odd.  The bill looks fine for HAMMOND'S/DUSKY but I wasn't sure if the wing projection looked quite long enough for HAMMOND'S:

However, the bird was feeding rather high in the trees which is another point that favors HAMMOND'S:

Anyway, earlier this week Don Nottoli Park yielded a few other interesting birds including this skulking MACGILLIVRAY'S WARBLER:

... and this easy-to-identify HAMMOND'S FLYCATCHER:
Again, note the long primary projection and the small, all-dark bill.  Try comparing it with the above empid.  See the differences?

This SWAINSON'S HAWK was nice... especially because it was soaring directly over the patio:

Hmm, anyway, that's all for now...

20 April 2014


Although tens of thousands of birders weren't lined up waiting for this release, it's a very interesting collection of information and it touches on a subject most birders, including myself, are probably very much interested in.  "The World's Rarest Birds", by Erik Hirschfeld, Andy Swash, and Robert Still, was published in 2013 by Princeton University Press.  It is 360 pages, hardcover, and costs $45.00.

Ok, before I get into the details of the book, check out this awesome-looking bird:

As you can read, it's a LONG-WHISKERED OWLET.  What you might not know about this bird is that it was first described to science only 37 years ago.  Why so recently?  Well, its range is limited to just a few isolated ridges in the East Andes of Peru.  Furthermore, it prefers the understory of very wet elfin forests with abundant epiphytes, bamboo thickets, scattered palms, and tree ferns at 1,890-2400 meters.  The population is estimated to be between 250-1000 birds worldwide.

If I'm being honest, it was reading about species such as this that was part to blame for me becoming so interested in birds many years ago.  The realization that there are species still out there waiting to be described blew my mind (and still amazes me).

Now fast forward to today and this book review... stepping into the world painted by this book is almost like a childhood dream of mine.  Birds have interested me for a long time but RARE birds truly catapulted my imagination as a kid... and now I'm lucky enough to be reviewing a book focused entirely on the stories of birds like the above owlet.

This isn't a field guide.  This isn't a textbook.  Instead I'd call it a photographic catalog/reference guide.  It's based on the IUCN/BirdLife rankings which, if you're not familiar with them, is a widely used conservation status listing and ranking system used for all sorts of creatures (not just birds).  The introduction of the book has a couple of charts highlighting those ideas:

The below chart would do a better job at describing the thresholds than I would... so give it a look:

Also in the introduction was this somewhat-generic map showing species by country.  I'm not sure why I took a picture of it but hey, it's kinda interesting if you like maps, birds, and bird maps:

As best as I can tell, the book is organized by region.  First comes a couple of broad-topic pages filled with nice photos, maps, and illustrations:

Then the species accounts begin.  You'll notice them off to the right of the below spread.  Each species doesn't exactly get an in-depth review but it does highlight where they were/are found, how many are believed alive, as well as the threats that species faces:

Switching regions, here's a view of the introduction page for Polynesia and Micronesia.  Notice the Tuamotu Sandpiper in the lower right, a species I've wanted to study ever since I started working with shorebirds almost 10 years ago:

The following close-up examples should look familiar to most of us; they're found here in North America:

And hey, John Sterling, nice pic:

Seems kinda lame that I wasn't aware that fewer than 5000 BCPEs exist... although I'm not really sure what I expected:

Switching gears to South America... did I mention that the photography in this book is quite stunning?  These 2-page spreads mark the start of a new region... and also highlight some pretty amazing photos.  You might recognize this as the very rare Marvelous Spatuletail from Peru:

Although I was excited to bird in the Amazon Basin a little in 2005, I was much less excited just now seeing what this map shows:

Sweeeet, more mergus (and definitely not one I've seen).  Give it some time and I bet Tim will have one at Tiscornia:

This map shows a generic migration schematic which is pretty self-explanatory:

... as is this one:

In a way, it's really sad that this book has so many species in it.  However, I've never seen such an impressive collection of information about rare birds.  Although it's more of a coffee table/picture book, it's one you must have if you're interested about the rare birds of the world.  Considering I'm well out of my element with many of these species, I really don't have anything critical to say about the book in general.  Is it one that I'll use often?  Probably not.  However, I'm glad it exists!

If you'd like to learn more about it or order it from Princeton University Press, visit here.

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