Thursday, February 6, 2014

Brazil Sneak Peak

Well, I'm back from another successful trip to Brazil.  I'm still going through photos and entering eBird checklists but I wanted to give you all a sneak peak at some of the birds I was lucky enough to see down there.  All in all I got over 60 lifers on this trip, and some shorebird highlights included Curlew Sandpiper (second year in a row), 19 Bar-tailed Godwits (new high count for Brazil), 5000 Scarlet Ibis (eBird world high count all at once!), 3 Marbled Godwits (very rare in Brazil), and close to 20,000 Semipalmated Sandpipers, among lots of other cool birds.  Some great northeast Brazil specialties that we got included the Araripe Manakin (discovered in the last 30 years), Red-necked Tanager, Gray-breasted Parakeet (critically endangered), and Gould's Toucanet among countless others.

Here is a taste of what will be coming in the next week or so.

Cactus (Caatinga) Parakeet in Quixadá, Ceará, Brasil
Red-necked Tanager in Guaramiranga, Ceará, Brasil

Silvery-cheeked Antshrike in Crato, Ceará, Brasil

Monday, January 6, 2014

Back To Brazil

Leaving tonight to head back to Brazil to study Semipalmated Sanpipers in Northeastern Brazil.  Last year we had lots of cool birds to brag about including Curlew Sandpiper and Bar-tailed Godwits, and dozens of other interesting and beautiful tropical and coastal species!  This year we'll be taking three days at the end to do some birding in Caatinga, a unique and beautiful ecosystem with loads of endemic species!

Wish us luck and see you in three weeks!

Lettered Aracari from last year

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving

A special happy Thanksgiving from this Golden-crowned Kinglet, a perfect November bird.


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Is Peregrine Falcon the worst bird in the ABA Area?

A Peregrine harasses this poor, helpless Short-eared Owl as it searches for a spot to roost on Southeast Farallon Island.
The ABA area has a lot of contenders for worst bird – American Crow, House Sparrow, Yellow Warbler. Some people hate Brown-headed Cowbirds for their uncanny ability to threaten the populations of the critically endangered Kirtland's Warbler (one of the ABA's best birds) among countless other passerine species by laying their eggs in the other's nest.  Personally, I rather like BHCO.  I find it fascinating that they've evolved the unscrupulous ability to mess with other birds so badly. And let's be honest, Kirtland's Warbler wouldn't be quite so alluring if it wasn't on the precipice of extinction.  A world with an endless supply of Kirtland's Warblers would be a cruel one indeed.
This Kirtland's Warbler patiently waits for a mate and is probably praying to god that its nest isn't targeted by cruel-hearted brood parasite, the Brown-headed Cowbird.  Lucky for it, the US Forest Service actively traps cowbirds on this patch of forest in Grayling, MI.  Even more lucky for it, it doesn't have to worry much, if at all, about death by Peregrine.

However, most people plainly agree on one thing.  Ask almost any birder, bird watcher, or bird enthusiast what they think of the ever more abundant Peregrine Falcon, and you will hear a number of phrases ranging from "epic" to "freaking awesome" to "badass" to "they're cool just because" to "the fastest animal on the planet" to "one of the most impressive and successful conservation initiatives ever in the history of the universe."

Despite its resumé, I have never understood the typical birder's obsession with Falco peregrinus.  A classic article in The Onion argues that "Peregrine Falcon [is] acting pretty cocky since being taken off the endangered species list".  While some people refer to Peregrines as an “apex predator," in reality PEFA is the bully of the bird world.
Surely this bird is up to no good.
I can't even begin to conceive how many rare birds (dare I say first Lower 48 records?) have been stripped from the air on their way to Southeast Farallon Island by a patrolling Peregrine before their shear existence was ever even dreamed up by island biologists.  I can at least say with a high degree of confidence that just about every vagrant and mega that has ever set foot on that island met its demise in the scaly palm of a PEFA.  How can you really defend this cruel beast when the fate of your lists might depend on it?

Listen, I’m all for a good predator-prey interaction, but how many innocent vagrants have to take their final breath while being crushed and skewered by a pair of these raptorial talons?  Sure they’re graceful avian athletes, vigilant and mighty predators of the sky.  Sure they have evolved some tremendous abilities to catch a wide variety of avian prey from shorebirds to ducks to songbirds to urban pigeons.  Sure their bodies are anatomically and physiologically built to be both aerodynamic and incredibly powerful.  Sure, watching them fly and hunt is breathtaking to say the least.  Some would even say that they are truly noble and incredible birds.  I just don’t like losing lifers to their stomachs. 
A peregrine Falcon perches on granite boulder on Southeast Farallon Island, patiently formulating a plan for how it will consume its next vagrant victum.
I watched SEFI’s first Chestnut-sided Warbler of 2013 extracted from the sky by a juvenile anatum.  Some of us found the remains of the island’s first Long-eared Owl of the year ruthlessly and surreptitiously killed by one of the island’s resident falcons.  Many have argued that this behavior adds to their intrigue.  I need not restate my opinion.
Shorebird watching becomes a truly laborious task when a Peregrine Falcon is around.  Have they no consideration for others?
Indeed the success of the Peregrine is widely appreciated by conservation biologists.  The cause of their near demise was pinpointed, and actions were taken—including the banning of DDT, a harmful pesticide, which caused the thinning of eggshells in many species of birds—that resulted in relatively rapid repopulation throughout much of its range.  In some ways, the success of this initiative gives conservationists hope and great encouragement for the future of the conservation movement.  Yet in some ways it causes my lists and I great pain.

Peregrines appear to have it all; the charisma, the power, the hearts and minds of the people and conservationists (nobody likes a showoff).  My point is that if everybody likes it, it’s probably not that cool (if you’re under the age of 35 you probably live by this motto whether you know/like it or not).  So by this alone, I would argue that PEFAs are the most overrated and least interesting bird that the ABA, if not the world, has to offer...  

...Ok, maybe they’re pretty cool ;)
Yeah I guess they are pretty magnificent.


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

I Heart Mirounga

Elephant Seals, E-seals, Mirounga: What's not to love about these guys.  They loaf all day in gulches and are the most appetizing prey to great white sharks.  They might be the best of the Pinnipeds on the Farallones.
Sure they appear slow and indolent, but they have a certain charm about them, perhaps due to their eccentricity.

They groan and grunt all day nipping at each other over a few extra inches of beach space.   Their fart-like vocalizations never fail to cause uncontrollable laughter.

They're always watching, helpless and confused from their place in the gulch.

All about "Crane Crane" the Sandhill Crane

The date was September 26, 2013.  It was a windy day.  Bad weather had pretty much dominated the forecast for several days.  I was outside when I heard Jim's thunderous voice come through the radio, "Sandhill Crane, there's a Sandhill Crane over East Landing."  I ran out the door and there was a crane flying in closer and closer.  This was the second record of Sandhill Crane so everyone was ecstatic.  

Eventually the bird landed, and we crept up to get some photos.  Little did we know, this bird would stay with us for a while.
Craney Crane
We all felt sorry for this poor juvenile crane who must have gotten separated from her flock, and blown off course to end up on this place – surely a wasteland for any crane.  But on the first day, Don Mastwell took a dead mouse from the mouse trap, chirped a sweet trill the bird's direction, and dangled the tiny rodent by its tail out for the bird to see.  The crane, soon to be named Craney Crane, followed by Crane Crane, approached skeptically and plucked the mouse from Donald's hand.  It was love at first sight.  Crane Crane loved Dan, and Dan loved Crane Crane.
Before long all of us were feeding this lucky bird straight from our hands.  But we knew that wasn't right.  This was a wild animal after all and it had to learn how to forage by herself.  I began giving her foraging lessons.  I would sit down and start digging under rocks, turning up beetles and brown funnel-web spiders plump and ripe to a Crane's tastes.  But still, she was getting too close.  She took too much of a liking too us.  
Dan and his bag of crane food and water
One day we had a huge wave of migrants and all of us were up on the hill looking through flocks of sparrows and Hermit Thrush (and one Williamson's Sapsucker) only to look out at Crane Crane circling up higher and higher then circling around us.  She tried to land at the lighthouse a few times, chirping at us all along.  She was jealous of the other birds.

We all decided that the crane, Crane Crane, had overstayed her welcome.  We stopped feeding her and foraging with her hoping that she would begin fending for herself.  We loved the Crane, sure, and that's why we needed her to forage alone.  She needed to build up enough energy to get away, but not have a reason to stay.
We saw her foraging often, then, even catching her own mice and her own spiders.  We chased her away from our nets so that she wouldn't try to eat our captured birds, and she grew afraid of us.  She started paying close attention to the Brown Pelicans as they flew over, often tilting her head up towards them and calling to them.  Eventually she began flying out over the ocean with them.  Each time she got further and further away before heading back.  She was ready to go. One day Don woke up and looked outside at Crane Crane foraging as usual.  Later that morning she was nowhere to be found.  Two days later a juvenile Sandhill Crane was seen in Napa.  I like to think that that was our Crane Crane.