Saturday, September 12, 2015

An Apology To Oregon

Dear Oregon,

About a year ago, in the second-most successful post in this blog's short history, I outlined a Birder's Map of America. I thought it was pretty good, personally - except there was one glaringly obvious problem with it. I completely swindled you, my dear Beaver State. A question mark, an ignorant statement about a lack of visiting birders, and an all-too-easy cable television reference was all you got from me. I received several complaints about this oversight, which started to nag at me. Could I really have screwed up that map? Well, it's time for me to admit that I did.

By a stroke of complete luck coupled with a slight dose of irony, I found myself at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in your southeastern corner, where I interned for the summer. I have to say, I've never seen so many birders in my life. Not to mention that two months of relatively nonchalant birding and working (a blurred line in some respects) has yielded me 191 species of birds.  This all in one county, under "birders don't go here either" on the map. Yeah, yeah, I messed up. It was so far from the truth it could probably just be interpreted as shitty sarcasm.

Malheur NWR
What makes this place so special? Hell, just about everything. It's a giant waterfowl-laden wetland in the middle of a desert, surrounded by beautiful lava cliffs and sagebrush country. I've peered into Golden Eagle nests, been mobbed by Long-billed Curlews, gotten face-to-face with Common Nighthawks, and had both Long-eared and Short-eared Owls in one binocular view at the same time.

Just 5 feet from a nighthawk.
Is that a LONG-EARED OWL fledgling? Out in the open in the evening light? Yes, yes it is.
Then there are the vagrant traps, a somewhat alien concept to an easterner like me, where off-course migrants get concentrated in unusually high numbers. I have to admit, finding a Least Flycatcher in my backyard out here was quite a surprise, as was watching a Rose-breasted Grosbeak feeding amongst a flock of Black-headeds. The locally-rare male American Redstart that showed up at Fields Oasis made me stop and appreciate this rather dapper bird, a common migrant in my neck of the woods.  And the Cattle Egret I stumbled on out near Benson Pond ended up being a state bird for many Memorial Day visitors.

The only trees for miles around can be a haven for lost passerines. This doesn't happen in the East, because literally everything is forested.
From the Harney Basin it's just a short drive up into the mountains, where Townsend's Solitaires, Black-backed Woodpeckers, and flocks of Red Crossbills can be found. Red Crossbill has been a bit of a nemesis for me, so it was pretty sweet to see a mega-flock of about fifty up in Malheur National Forest (along with around 300 more over the course of my trip).

What a bad-ass finch.
Oh- and all of this was all just in once county. A few forays into outlying areas, including the beautiful coast, brought my Oregon trip list up to around 230, a pretty satisfying number in my opinion.

I could go on and on - but in essence, Oregon, you've been good to me. And I'm really sorry, despite your excessively low speed limits and bizarre rule about not pumping your own gas. I hope you will look past my blundering oversight and accept my apology. It would mean a lot to me.



Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Pie Chart: How Birders Spend Their Time

How do birders spend their time? It's pretty much different for everyone. But if we are generalizing, this pie chart should be a good breakdown of a birder's free time. Birding makes up a decent chunk of this time, but not all of it, as you will see below. We even manage a decent amount of normal human interaction - that's good news!

(Click to enlarge)
We also took the liberty to further dissect the "birding" slice, below:

(Click to enlarge)

After some thinking, we realized just how little time is spent actually looking at birds - we spend much more time looking for them than at them. Of course, everyone is different. Coffee drinkers, for instance, will sacrifice birding time in order to satisfy their debilitating caffeine addiction. People that drive the speed limit or avoid sketchy game lands in the wee hours of the morning will probably not be pulled over by the police for "excessive speeding" or "looking suspicious" (speaking from experience here).  People who generally bird alone probably won't laugh much, unless they are crazy. This is meant to be a generalization, after all.

Is there anything we left off? What makes up the bulk of your Free Time Pie Chart?

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A Sad Realization amid March Meh-ness

March is arguably the most uneventful month of birding in the state of North Carolina. The only exciting news is usually in the form of returning Tree Swallows and Ospreys while the bulk of the migrants are still a long way off. The gulls and ducks are all leaving (or have already left), and the winter birds have all been seen. The good news is, I will be using this time to build up some new material for this oft-neglected blog.

The landfill gulls are still hanging around, but not for long. Kiss winter and gulling goodbye.
This lull in bird activity leaves us some extra time on our hands. Freed from the crippling ID pitfalls of worn large white-headed gulls, and predating the influx of Black-throated Blue Warblers and the like, March's meh-ness gives us a chance to think about our own birding. I like to plan things out in advance, so naturally, I decided to look at what sorts of birds I will be able to see this year.  I noticed one thing that really, really pissed me off.

The dates of April 29-May 7, when read aloud, conjure up images of Prothonotary Warblers, Veerys (Veeries?), Eastern Whip-poor-wills, and Yellow-breasted Chats. This is peak migration in central NC, when every birder and their brother is out kicking around the local hotspots. Unfortunately, due to NC State University's debilitating schedule, I won't be enjoying much of this migrant free-for-all. Because these are the dates of our final exams. Really. They did this to me.

Ah, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, I may miss you this spring. But it's not my fault, I promise.
So while I have an obscene amount of free, birdable time on my hands this March (it's Spring Break right now), I will have next to none come peak migration. My rather impressive North Carolina year list I've compiled thus far will be severely handicapped by my need to maintain a decent GPA. Aside from a few quick ambles down the campus greenway (which luckily can be surprisingly productive), I'll be locked in my dorm room, wishing I was outdoors.

But I ask not for your sympathy. I dream of a day when bird-obsessed college students like me can take their final exams after the bulk of the migrants have moved through. Maybe we can establish a university where birder kids can take their finals in July and March, when no one wants to go birding (at least in my neck of the woods).

But hey, there's always fall migration. That's more fun anyway.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Ferry Freeloaders

We hear a lot about ship-assisted vagrancy these days. "So-and-so bird is crazy, so it must have been carried over on a ship" some birders proclaim with each rarity that visits our continent. This is a big deal - a bird that rode over on a ship would be non-countable, according to the prevailing view. Well, the truth is, there are some birds that hitch rides on ships within our sacred ABA area borders that people are completely ignoring. The effect these birds have on our lists is absolutely detrimental. Hell, I've seen birders count these ferry freeloaders. They count them! It's madness.

We became aware of this sick and twisted phenomenon last weekend, while birding in New Hanover County, North Carolina. Aside from being home to the most populous Wilmington in the United States, it is also home to the mouth of the Cape Fear River, the largest river entirely within North Carolina. There is a ferry that connects one side of the river to the other, running from Fort Fisher across to Southport. But there's one problem. Southport isn't in New Hanover County. It's in Brunswick.  Birds (especially gulls and grackles), have a habit of riding the ferry, due in part to the easy supply of bread given to them by children. These freeloaders spend the day riding back and forth across the Cape Fear and across the county line.

Go ahead, look into the eyes of this heartless ship-assisted bastard - but don't you dare count it for your Brunswick or your New Hanover lists.
These birds have probably been border-hopping on this boat for months (especially those grackles). It has reached the point where we can't even tell which side of the river these birds are originally from. Can you count any of these birds? Do they count when you first get on the ferry, but not when you cross the border halfway through the ride? Hell, all the grackles and gulls around both ferry terminals have probably ridden the ferry at some point in their lives. So those don't count either? And how can we be sure that any of the birds within several miles of the terminals didn't ride on that ship? Did the birds even originate in one of the two counties? They may have ferry hopped all the way from - God forbid - South Carolina. I know those Mottled Ducks at the Fort Fisher Aquarium looked awfully guilty.

Where did you come from?!?
This first-cycle Herring Gull never made it onto the ship while we were watching - but there's no telling it hasn't landed on the boat in the past.
I can only see one solution to this problem: shut down the Southport ferry, and wait for all the birds that rode it to slowly die off. I'm tired of paying the $5 fee anyway. Or I guess we could just stop worrying about ship-assisted birds and ignore the arbitrary non-countability rule that someone made up long ago... but that's crazy.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

What We Learned In 2014 (or Lookin' Back is 20-20)

Twenty Fourteen was a hell of a year for us. We saw some amazing birds.  We made a blog (this one). And now we feel like we have to push out that obligatory end-of-year round up. But, to spare you from reading a long list of notable sightings (and I'm sure other bird bloggers saw better stuff than us), we decided to review some things we learned in 2014.

1. Remember to Pack Food (or The Ghost of the Horseman: A Forney Creek Experience)
This may sound like something two teenagers would remember. But, for some bizarre reason, we decided to only pack about 800 calories worth of food per day for our Smoky Mountains birding/backpacking trip. We felt like we were starving, eating only crackers and tuna each day. I think the lack of food may have been the cause of the possible-hallucination Ghost of the Horseman sighting. But that's another story. At least we got Ruffed Grouse.

2. Eat Well Before a Pelagic (or We "Fogata" Eat Well)
Basically what we learned: Don't eat bad Mexican food the night before a Pelagic...even if Gidget's is closed. Though we didn't get sick, pre-pelagic sketchy Mexican food (from a place named "La Fogata") is never a good idea. Luckily, the Dramamine saved the particularly wavy day.

3. Don't Leave Your Valuables Unattended (at a Sketch Campground)
Things get stolen. While searching for Black-throated Green Warblers in the Uwharrie Mountains, Lucas made the mistake of leaving his headlamp on the counter in a campground bathroom while he took a shower. The shower was running (and he was singing), so he couldn't hear the sound of it being stolen by people with the confederate battle flag taped to the front of their truck. We just assumed they were part of the Confederate Army. Oh, the South.
The very table where the idea for The Birder's Conundrum was created, then by another name.
 Also the campsite where we had our little run-in with the Rebels.  

4. Drive Slower on Market Street at 4 in the Morning
Running raccoon. Bump. Splat. "It looked into my soul", Sam whined. Enough said.

5. Don't Underestimate the Strength of Cold Brew
Just because it looks weak does not mean you need to add packets of instant coffee. However, this stuff is the cure-all for the mid-afternoon big day lull. It's like crack (we assume). Once we got over the gritty consistency and the burning sensation, the coffee really wasn't that bad. One moment we were falling asleep on our feet but after a few gulps of cold brew we were singing at the top of our lungs and picking out Loggerhead Shrikes on power lines while flying by at 60 miles per hour.

Mason Jar Cold Brew selfie. An oldie. How we've changed.
 And I don't really remember why we chose mason jars. 
We are looking forward to many more stories and learning experiences over this coming year - it's half the fun of birding. So here's to a great, bird-filled 2015. And here's to more crazy situations that only really happen to birders. We've already had one ridiculous adventure....