Saturday, October 3, 2015


Western Gull at sunrise
I had been looking forward to this one and only pelagic this year off the coast of California with Magill. This ten hour journey was intense but VERY worthwhile.

We, along with 88 other people(can't even get away from the people offshore!), went with Pacific Nature Tours to find lots of great birds.  The ocean weather was hot and I.....overdressed:) My mission?  To study jaegers, shearwaters, storm petrels and auklets. 

Sooty Shearwater
Surprisingly, I was able to move around the boat without too many people getting in the way.  The hierarchy of birders was also evident. I think we had everyone from beginners to the pros on this trip.  Our ebird reports certainly show the depth of reporting that had occurred!

Pacific Nature Tours
Pelagic photography is some of the hardest thanks in part to a moving boat, rocky waves, overcast(or bright) conditions and lightning fast birds.  And of course....maneuvering around people when a rare bird was seen:)

Pomarine Jaeger
Jaeger fest was a success!  We had all 3 Jaegers show up around our vessel.  I really had a great time studying the VERY slight differences between the three species. I now know some of the field marks, and hopefully I should be able to ID these jaegers down the road by myself.  Well in theory:)

The Pomarine Jaeger is a bulky tank with wings.  The Long-tailed Jaeger(below) is as elegant as it is beautiful.  But why isn't this a Parasitic Jaeger?  Well it's duller in color, but that's not a good field mark to go by. The best field mark? We were able to see the tail which was flat and not pointed.  This bird is also more tern-like in flight. It has a flight pattern similar to that of an Elegant Tern....slow with deep wing flaps. Observing the behavior was key here.  The Parasitic and Long-tailed Jaegers can be difficult species to separate when they are in their basic plumage. 

2nd Year Long-tailed Jaeger
Also along for the ride were many Common Terns and a few Arctic ones as well.

Common Tern
During the course of the day, we saw many of the very brown Parasitic Jaegers.  At one point, one chased a Common Tern!  Very exciting. 

Parasitic Jaeger chasing a Common Tern
The Parasitic Jaeger did not get the tern.  But the flight for life action happened for a good couple minutes. 

There were a few birders on board who have seen most of the birds in the U.S. and only needed ONE special bird to complete that goofy artificially created American ABA list. They were looking for the endangered and rare, for the U.S. at least, Craveri's Murrelet.  Our adventure would take a "tern" for the worse as a birder lost his balance and hit his head on a metal rail. He went out like a light! And I could hear groans from both sides as he went down....literally. 

The guy on the right is one of the several lead ebirders on board recording accurate distance and taking bird counts. We were not to submit our own reports as this company would do it for all.  No complaints here and THANK YOU!  That let us really bird.  And the ebird reports were stunning!
Unfortunately, according to the rumblings, this man did not plan well for the pelagic journey and forgot to take his diabetic medication. People went to help him and he did recover.  The Coast Guard was called and we were ordered to return back to port.  For the birders searching for the elusive Craveri's Murrelet, they lost their chance. There were a lot of angry birders.  Some vocal.  Some not.  Who was more selfish? The birder who didn't plan well?  Or the birders who paid good money to find a rare bird?  I'll let you all be the judge.  It is the price we pay when we all bird together in large groups.  If it's one thing I've learned this year from Mexico and now this pelagic, it's that I prefer to bird with a small group of friends or alone.  But sometimes you can't avoid the crowds...especially on a pelagic. 

Pink-footed Shearwater
Eventually my eyes blurred from the intense sun and blue ocean.  I began to get a headache from straining my eyes into the distant horizon.  There were smaller birds like the Cassin's Auklet. 

Photo by Justyn Stahl
The world is such a complex place. I visibly see things changing.  Our planet is changing.  And global warming is real.  We read or hear about it in the news.  But I actually see it!  I don't know how I feel about it all.  I am just an observer in this short lifetime. 

My action shots of this relatively small bird:)
Some birds are taking advantage of this climate change while others face extinction due in part to their food source disappearing or moving to another area.  This year alone, the Pacific coastline has seen a massive die off of the Cassin's Auklet and other sea birds. 

I am constantly in deep thought about this planet. Eventually my brain shuts down and my eyes give out. And so I just focused on the moment and art of the Western Gull.  Lifebirds are challenging.  When there aren't new birds to find, I just relax and enjoy the moment. That's when my art can happen. 

I'm watching this beautiful dolphin jump and then am startled to find a microphone up my backside! I mean....let's have a drink first buddy! Geez! A very large man hung his body over the side of the boat to capture their sounds and crunched me into a tight space where I almost lost my balance.  SO RUDE!  I left.  If I could swim, I would have jumped in with these dolphins to get away from some of these goofy people. 
We found so many species of dolphin and whale.  On our trek we had migrating Blue and Humpback whales. 

When all was said and done, we got back into our rental car and were glad to go back to our open spaces in Arizona.  

I'm naturally claustrophobic but on our trek into California, I was reminded why I moved away from this state so many years ago.  There were TOO MANY people. Everywhere. 

Eventually someday, I will have to bird areas with even higher concentrations of people.  I'm thinking Japan here.  I'm a giant and I know how crammed their country can be:)  Birding does not come without challenges.  But again, that's what is exciting about it all. 

It's fun getting old and cranky:)  Life is good.  This pelagic trek netted me several more life birds.  I am now 4 short of 700. Where will the life bird adventure lead us now?  Stay tuned for more.   

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Mark of Gideon

Orange-crowned Warbler
Captain's log.  Stardate 47634.44.  We have entered an area overpopulated by a humanoid species known as the Californi.  Their population continues to increase at an alarming rate while their planet suffers from an extreme drought.  Almost every square inch of their land has at least one humanoid on it. Our mission?  To aide and assist the feathered species of the planet who "share" this space with these fascinating humanoid characters.


While on this mission, Captain Weber joined me from the USS Hattie.  Under the principles of the Prime Directive, we dressed like the native peoples of this area so that these humanoids would not notice us.  We put on shorts and colorful "beach" shoes.  The Californi wear little to no clothing in a settlement known as San Diego.  We have found the temps to be extremely hot.  Their planet seems to be under some sort of "global warming".

Our mission included several popular "bird" areas known as the Rosecrans National Cemetery, a tidal mudflat near a place called Ocean Beach and the Cabrillo National Monument. 

Rosecrans National Cemetery
At Rosecrans National Cemetery, we surveyed the area.  There were very few people at this burial site because most of them were deceased.  It was a curious sensation to not have people around us. In fact, I personally enjoyed this space the most while we were on this "trek".  It was so quiet and peaceful.  

American Crow
We found a lot of avian life flying around the tombstones.

Black Phoebe
It was cooler at this location and located above the city of San Diego.  Rosecrans National Cemetery is known as a great location to find rare and migrating birds who need to stop for a break during their long journey over the ocean waters.

After we had a nice report from this location, we battled the Cabrillo National Monument.  There were many humanoids of every kind here in this small space.  It was difficult to find anything, but the views were amazing.  I can understand why the Californi would live here.  Unfortunately, the wildlife was not present.

Cabrillo National Monument
It was difficult to navigate around the crowded paths, but we somehow managed avoiding the larger groups of humanoids.

We eventually moved to the mudflats where avian life was reportedly high.  And it was! We were in constant danger as these Californi raced up and down the paths while we tried to count the avian species.  There were several moments that had us at RED ALERT! A transport vehicle almost ran me over while observing a Red Knot.  Others ran in large groups with strange leaders shouting at them. Some of the Californi were angry and complained about how crowded every space was.  We agreed!

A Californian trying out the latest trend
During our mission survey, we discovered a rare anomaly.  Above us, Greater White-fronted Geese flew over our heads.  It was an amazing moment.  This was deemed rare by Admiral Nunn who thought we had made a mistake, but I assured him with my tricorder readings that these were indeed the GWFG.  These kinds of moments are the reasons I became a Captain in Starfleet. The exploration, the unknown......

A rare sighting of 26 Greater White-fronted Geese
And while there were many humanoids in the area, we had our highest count of birds at this tidal mudflat.

San Diego River-tidal mudlflats near Robb Field
Our mission was a success.  We now prepare for a mission that will take us deep into the waters of the Pacific Ocean. 

Until next time.  Live long and prosper friends.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Keeping Hope Alive

A covey of Gambel's Quail
A week went by and I sat behind my desk.  I did my lectures, graded papers and kept thinking about the White-eyed Vireo. It's what any normal middle aged person does, right?:) And then there was THAT report. Trapped behind a desk, I kept muttering the words "purple" over and over. So what could be worse than dipping on a vireo? How about reading a report stating that there was also a Purple Gallinule hiding in the reeds around the same area of the vireo??!!!  This was indeed a RARE bird alert!  But would it stick around the entire week?

After school was out, I went to several places in Tucson and just let my mind unwind.  I'm not sure if it's the stress or the heat, but these days, this birder struggles to maintain his sanity.  Our neighbor was placed into a jail where he should be left for a long time. But we know he'll be back. I've never seen so many people show up at one of these HOA functions! After it was all done, our community developed an action plan against this dangerous man. It has been both mentally and physically exhausting for all the residents here.  But I will not let this all interfere with my passion for the outdoors.  And during a moment of quiet solitude at Sweetwater, a covey of 20 Gambel's Quail surrounded me. 

They scurried around me feeding underneath the mesquite trees. We all spent a moment together in harmony. At one point, I just put the camera down and took it all in.

Granite Basin Lake
Come to find out, I wasn't the only one with the vireo flying around inside my head. Apparently Magill was in the same mind frame.  We are cheeseheads and very stubborn.  So we went back to the Granite Basin Lake in Prescott for both the White-eyed Vireo and Purple Gallinule.  This time, we would not dip. And for the records, there is only one version of "dip" that is good and it involves food. 

A VERY Green Heron
 I moseyed my way up to Phoenix stopping in Chandler to find an American Bittern.  But I ended up watching all the other birds instead!  There were so many flying around the riparian areas of this park.  The Yellow-headed Blackbirds are back and I ended up observing them instead of chasing a rare bird. 

Black-tailed Jackrabbit
There were Black-tailed Jackrabbits everywhere along the path and it was so much fun to observe them hopping...or leaping...around the various cacti. 

Chipping Sparrow
 Afterwards, I met up with Magill and we headed back to Prescott.  This time we discovered that it wasn't a hike that was needed but a bit of strategy and patience.  Actually, a LOT of patience.  People were active around the entire lake with their splashing dogs and crying children. We simply sat on a picnic table overlooking the entire lake with a scope and waited.  Another birder joined in the search and together we had every angle covered.

The secret to finding a rare Purple Gallinule is part luck and part understanding of its habitat requirements(lily pads near reeds).  It sounds simple enough but the bird is also known to be secretive. And rare for Arizona. Oh and purple. During the previous weekend, Magill and Gordon had joked about finding a Purple Gallinule in the area because the lake had all the right requirements. They both had a nerdy birder's laugh that sounded a little like a Sora calling:)  Little did we know.  Anyhow, back to that moment, Jeanine McCabe gave us the bat signal that the bird was visible.  We grabbed our equipment and headed to the area observing this secretive bird using the reeds like a staircase. We were able to watch this bird for a few minutes before a screaming child entered the picture.  Of course.  Another kid showed up and wanted to demonstrate to us how he could throw rocks in the water.  He instead got an education about how it's best to be quiet so you can find purple birds. His Dad didn't seem to mind:)

Purple Gallinule
 While we waited for the Purple Gallinule to show up, we heard the White-eyed Vireo call from across the lake a couple times. I had seen the bird before and am familiar with the call. Instead of chasing the bird for a pic, we just made note of it on our report. I have a pic below of the bird from a trek last year to Corkscrew Swamp in Florida. 

White-eyed Vireo
While they weren't lifers, they were important birds for us to add to our Arizona list.  Sometimes it pays to be stubborn:)  I can now begin my work week with a clear mind. One last story....

I met my first Purple Gallinule back in 2011 in the beautiful town of Gamboa.  I was having a nice drink with my friend on the Changuinola River during a beautiful monsoon storm.  I wasn't a birder at this time in my life but I couldn't help but notice a "purple duck" walking towards us.  It tripped me out.  Was this bird real?  Did I have too much to drink?  My friend, however, said the words, "Purple Gallinule".  While the Lance-tailed Manakin "sparked" my interest into this epic birding adventure,  it was this "purple duck" that helped tip the scale from amateur photographer to amateur birder.  Every life bird has a story.  And every time I see one of those birds from my life list, I remember that first moment observing them.  Here is a video from that special moment. At 1:50, the Purple Gallinule makes an appearance. 

Until next time friends....

Sunday, September 20, 2015

A Goose Chase

The antics of the Rosy-faced Lovebirds at Granada Park
So Magill texts me and the Gordon asking, "Hey are you both up for a White-eyed Vireo search?"  We say, "Yes." Will we find a White-eyed Vireo?  Who knows?  Prescott is an area full of secrets.  Rumor has it that there is a cult bird leader who keeps everything secret from the outside world. There's a special hotline for a special few in his group.  That's fine.  We're birders and we'll find them on our own. I love a good challenge. And it's fun to bird with Magill and Gordon.  Together we all find something rare no matter what. 

So Gordon says to me, "Hey do you want to check out Granada Park before we head up?"  I say, "Yeah.  Sounds like fun."  So I drive up to Phoenix from Tucson.  And I remember quickly that there is a person shooting at cars along the interstate. 

"Oh geez." I say to myself. "What is wrong with this world? Why are there so many stupid morons out there?"  I think about my odds as I drive the sparsely populated interstate during the early morning hours alone.  I safely reach Gordon's place and we take off quickly to survey Granada Park.  Holy cow!  There are lots and lots of Rock Pigeons and Rosy-faced Lovebirds flying around!

I swear these little cuties are taking over the Phoenix Metro area.  We get to Magill's place and see more Lovebirds flying over our heads!  

Then, I get excited spotting a Canada Goose.  There are not many of these birds down in Tucson, but in Phoenix, there are quite a few.  Why?  Phoenix people love their water.  And they have lots and lots of watering holes around the metro area creating perfect Canada goose habitat. 

Canada Geese are cool.  We don't see them often in Tucson
We get on the interstate and once again escape the shooter.  Now we're heading to Prescott.  But I have Catholic guilt.  I'm not Catholic anymore, but the brainwashing still works on me:)  Why?  Well, my bud Cynthia lives up in Prescott.  I was planning on going up there two weekends ago to hang out with her and Mr. Roger.  We were going to do some light birding and have some fun around town BUT a certain someone, ME, flaked!  I am not going to lie.  I have been exhausted lately.  It's the weather and the darned humidity.  And it probably has something to do with a wedding, a crazy neighbor, and work:) Plus I still need Sundays to get the laundry done!  

An early arriving Ring-necked Duck
Anyhow, we weren't going to be in Prescott for long, but I still felt guilty.  So Cynthia, I am going to apologize now to you..... I AM SO SORRY!  

This bee demonstrates pollination at work
We get to Granite Lake Basin and start looking for the White-eyed Vireo.  It starts off hotter than blazes.  But we hear lots of birds around a drainage ditch where this bird is supposedly hanging out. So we check out all the migrating warblers.  While doing so, we end up getting excited about the bugs flying around the area.  

Take for example this hummingbird imposter, the White-lined Sphinx Moth.  This is for my friend Ragged Robin who loves moths.  These bugs are often confused with hummingbirds because of the way they fly and look.  Fascinating critters!

White-lined Sphinx Moth
This is the caterpillar form(below) for that moth above.  I was watching a Robber Fly get close to this caterpillar.  When it "touched" the caterpillar, the caterpillar swung down and knocked it off the branch.   Magill says, "Um, hey can you guys help me over here?:)"  Oh that's right, we're birders. 

A Robber Fly gets smacked off the leaf by a Whitelined Sphinx Caterpillar
So we start moving towards the area where birds are chirping and we find this Metalmark below.  Cool!  

Mormon Metalmark
We spot Wilson's and Townsend's Warblers.....and then a rare Chestnut-sided Warbler(below). I told you we'd spot something rare and not on the list:)  Magill commands me to take pics of the bird to post on the listserv:)  I lock on and get an ID-able photo.  It's cool but not as cool as a White-eyed Vireo.  Where is that bird??!!!  We inspect every plant around the area and just keep turning up Dark-eyed Juncos, Chipping and Rufous-crowned Sparrows and of course, more of the expected warblers. 

Chestnut-sided Warbler
Eventually, we give up and go for lunch.  By this time, the area has cooled down with thunder boomers growing above our heads.  We decide to head to Willow and Watson Lakes.  The shorebird activity is wonderful and we count the birds.  We notice another early bird for this area, the Greater White-fronted Goose making our day really....a goose chase:) 

An early arriving Greater White-fronted Goose sans the white front
As for the shooter?  Well it appears they've caught several of them.  But there are still a couple other incidents that need some explaining. Why do people do this kind of stuff?  It's bad having one person do it, but to have "copycats" just makes it worse.  Ahhh humanity. Anyhow, I'll stick to nature. It's a lot safer:)  Until next time.....