Sunday, July 23, 2023

Shearwaters in the Gulf of Maine

There are four regularly-occurring shearwaters in the Gulf of Maine: Great (the most numerous), Cory's, Sooty, and Manx. Telling them from one another can be tricky, especially when the boat is rocking and/or you're actively barfing. I took a whale watch boat out of Boothbay Harbor this week and got pretty good looks at all four species, and so wanted to take a moment to compare them for you. 

Shearwaters are encountered offshore, usually seen resting on the water, skittering awkwardly out of the way of your tour boat, or flying incredibly gracefully low over the water. I think it was that old philosopher, Wikipedia, who said it best: "These tubenose birds fly with stiff wings and use a "shearing" flight technique (flying very close to the water and seemingly cutting or "shearing" the tips of waves) to move across wave fronts with the minimum of active flight." 

Sooty Shearwater

These guys are the easiest so I'm getting them out of the way first. Sooty Shearwaters are all brown. They're the only all brown ones. Their underwings are flashy silver, which may help in certain lighting conditions or when you see one far away, but their all-brownness is the thing. They're about the same size as Greats.

Great Shearwater

The Great (not Greater!) Shearwater is the most common shearwater seen in the Gulf of Maine, oftentimes by a factor of 20 or so to 1. It's the default species, and so getting a good mental image of their size, plumage, and structure is important to use as a baseline to compare other species.

The most notable field mark, I've found, is the white on their head. Both in flight and on the water, Greats have white feathering that wraps most of the way around their neck, giving them a capped appearance. For me, that cap is the first thing I look for when seeing a shearwater: if it's got a cap, it's a Great. 

Cory's Shearwater

These shearwaters are bulkier than Greats, without a capped appearance and all-brown on top. Their yellow bill, if you can see it, is a cherry on top. On our recent trips these birds numerous, and for some stretches about equalling the number of Greats. 

There are two subspecies of Cory's in the Atlantic: the borealis subspecies (the expected on in the Gulf of Maine), and the diomedea subspecies, known as Scopoli's Shearwater. The easiest way to separate the two is by the amount of white in the underwings, with Scopoli's showing more white in the primary feathers near the tip of the underwing. 

Manx Shearwater

Manx Shearwaters are the smallest regular shearwater in the Gulf. They are, oh I dunno, 2/3 the size of a Great? That feels about right. Though they have white on the face, it's much more limited than on a Great, and doesn't really give them a capped appearance in flight (thought it does on the water a little bit). They're a darker brown, close to black. The bottom photo shows a Manx taking off above a Great, making for a helpful comparison. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Birds at Large: The Birds of Elden Ring

I know I'm about a year late on this but who cares. Elden Ring is a video game, and it rules. It's the latest in a series of games from a company called FromSoftware where the player travels some forsaken countryside killing monsters and knights and ghouls and all kinds of other what-have-yous. It's the first game in the series that I've ever played, but I've been obsessed with it for the past bunch of months.

Not everything in the Elden Ring universe is, like, a murderous skeleton or a blood-spewing demigod. There's also wildlife! They're just hanging around and living their little lives in the middle of an insane world of death and despair. There are deer and sheep and bears and pigs. And birds. Let's talk about the birds.


The first bird you encounter in Elden Ring are these eagle-looking birds, just hanging out on cliff edges. They're vaguely Golden Eagle-looking, though aren't exactly that. They make a sort of chirping noise that I can't really place, and they fly when you get close. Maybe the most numerous bird in the game. 


The cliffside eagles aren't hostile, but there are some other eagle-type birds that do come after you and they're a real pain in the ass. Warhawks have blades attached to their legs (some of them also have falconry hoods), and they're massively annoying when they come attack you. Players just getting started through Stormveil Castle know what I'm talking about, but they're not any easier later in the game, like a nasty gauntlet of them in Crumbling Farum Azula, which you have to run through while also dodging a lightning-casting dragon. Ugh. 

Here I am about to get chonked in the back by this jerk in Stormveil Castle. 


These alcids are fairly common on the oceanside cliffs and beaches in the southern part of the map. Fitting with the UK bent of the wildlife in this game, this bird is what we in the states would call a Common Murre (EDIT: or, perhaps more likely, a Thick-billed Murre). The Guillemots in the game call when you're close to them, but it doesn't sound like the sound of real Common Murres, not sure what it is.

Here I am sneaking up on some of these MFers on a beach. So confiding! Maybe they're sick, from all the death. 


The least common of the cliffside birds, in my playing experience, is this owl. It's clearly a Northern Hawk Owl, but it sits on cliffs rather than on the tops of trees like real hawk owls. The Elden Ring owls make a soft hooting noise instead of the undulating sounds of a hawk owl. A missed opportunity if you ask me. 

A Bunch of Birds That Swirl Around 

If you climb up near the top of Mt. Gelmir, real close to where you have to fight that big rock bull guy, there are all these birds flying around. They sound like crows, but they're barely rendered and look more like swallows or something. I dunno. They're birds. 

Here's my dude climbing up the ladder and you can see some of the birds in the background. This isn't a funny post or anything these are literally just the birds from this video game.

Oh god no those Giant Crows

Some of the game's scariest and toughest non-boss enemies are these nightmares found around Caelid and Mohgwyn Palace. The Mohgwyn ones are covered in disgusting bloody sores, for good measure. I hate these shits and never want to see them again.


There are four of these "field bosses" that appear at night in certain areas of the map. They're birds, I guess, in that they have "bird" in their name and they have, like, the skull of a giant baby owl. But they also have wings and arms, and are just generally not very birdlike. They're skeletons for chrissakes. Plus each and every one of them kicked my ass multiple times before I could find the right cliff to stand on to smoke them with arrows from a mile away.

Thanks that's all! Great to see you all!

Monday, January 23, 2023

Sugarloaf Bird Man

Ugh sorry no blogs for so long MY FAN(S) IS/ARE FURIOUS! I've been doing a lot of writing recently, just not on here. Will have some more info to come when I can.

But I did want to share a recent appearance of mine on WSKI, a local access channel in Carrabassett Valley, Maine, home of the Sugarloaf ski area. I've been going to Sugarloaf my whole life and watching the low-budget-but-high-spirits WSKI for that whole time. It was a true pleasure to join the crew for a morning in December. Check it out!

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Mississippi Big Day Attempt

I spent just a single year living in Mississippi but the impact has been much greater. My largest continuing connection is through a group called Delta Wind Birds, a non-profit started by friends that works to protect shorebird habitat in the floodplains of west Mississippi. It's been a real pleasure to see the group go from its kitchen-table beginnings to helping protect hundreds of acres in this under-conserved region. (Plus they released an awesome collection with my favorites at Bird Collective.)

For the past several years, Delta Wind Birds has tried to raise funds by attempting to break the Mississippi Big Day record. I joined them in 2017 where we fell just short of breaking the then-record of 175 species. They tried again the next year without me (look, it's fine), and succeeded in setting a new record of 179 species. They continued to refine the route, but COVID threw things off a bit, but in 2022 they were back, and once again invited me along.

I love everything about these Big Days. I love being in Mississippi; the landscape is so open and beautiful and different from what I'm used to. I love the atmosphere down south and the food. I love the dudes I'm birding with -- Jason Hoeksema, JR Rigby, Hal Mitchell, and Andy Bell -- who are all much better than I am but also all funny as hell and don't ever let things get too intense or serious. 

Friday, April 15, 2022

700 Quest! Part II: 700 Quest!

Click here for Part 1 of 700 Quest!

I came home from Texas with 699 ABA birds and with no idea how long I'd have to wait for 700. What could it be? Would I make a trip to Canadian breeding grounds to finally connect with a Connecticut Warbler? Could I talk my wife into taking our son on a one-in-a-lifetime vacation to Oklahoma to see a Lesser Prairie-chicken? When and how??

The answer, it turns out, was six days.

On the afternoon of Thursday February 17, a text message from my ol buddy and Maine Audubon colleague Doug Hitchcox popped up in the group thread. He asked a simple question, about whether I'd ever seen a Common Gull. No, I replied, I had only seen a Short-billed Gull, the American species that was recently recognized after splitting Mew Gull into Short-billed and Common. Oh, he replied, well a Common was just seen in Washington County, Maine. Eyeball emojis followed. If I could connect, it'd be 700.

My god. Despite the fact that this bird was just a few hours' drive away, I was on the fence. I'd have to take a day off work, and I'd just cashed in some "Can you please take care of our son while I go chase birds" chips the week before with my Texas trip. Looking back through the text messages I wasn't sure I could or should go. I had plenty of excuses: the weather was going to be crummy; the bird probably wouldn't stick around; it was too far; maybe waiting another day until the weekend was a better idea. Etc.

But this is why Doug is the best. Doug was the first birding friend I ever made - the only other person under the age of 50 at Evergreen Cemetery when I met him by the ponds in 2008. We bonded immediately and began chasing birds together - first to Massachusetts for an Ivory Gull, and later to Florida, Texas, and all across Maine. In that time I've watched him grow from a bird (and beer) obsessed kid to a bird-obsessed professional, one of the best and most respected and without a doubt the most beloved birder in Maine. 

Plus he's dedicated to chasing birds, and as a result is just two birds away from hitting 400 in the state, an incredible milestone only achieved by one or two people in history. Much of that success, I think, is because Doug has a simple but effective rule for chasing: go, and go now. Don't wait around. Don't wait for a better or more convenient day. Go get the bird as soon as you can.

And that's what he did to me. From our texts: "But would it return there in the rain?" I asked, cowardly. "I don't know. Gulls will keep foraging in the rain." He replied. "Hahaha I don't know either. I'd love to get 700 with you but everything else about this bites," I said, stupidly, using a term from, what, 1992? "Let's just go for it." He said, smartly. "fuck ok" I capitulated. It was on.

We met at the wretched hour of 4:30AM at an unremarkable park-n-ride near Gray, Maine and headed north. The bird had been spotted in Eastport, the absolute furthest eastern town - Downeastern, really - on Maine's map. We set off in the rain and drive into the dawn, quickly and painlessly making our way to the spot where the bird had been seen the day before.

The weather was not helpful. It was howling wind, like a can't-open-my-eyes-or-the-car-door type wind. Rain was pelting us sideways. Gulls were swirling all around us, riding the wind in huge messy flocks, mostly distant and out of view. For a bird like a Common Gull, which looks remarkably like a Ring-billed Gull, picking it out of a flock like that -- if it even was still around -- would have been impossible. 

(I should say that a species is a species is a species, but Common Gull isn't exactly the most exciting bird there is as far as 700s go. It is a recently split, and looks for all the world like a stunted Ring-bill, which is perhaps the boringest bird on the planet with all due respect. Some friends urged my not to go after a Common Gull for 700 because it's so lame. But it's a species, and a cool vagrant, and a perfect representation of life on Earth! Let's go!)

Doug and I scanned the small flock of Ring-billed on the grassy lawn where the bird had been seen the day before but didn't see anything. We weren't sure what to do, but then a car parked a ways up ahead of us turned around and drove down towards us. It was a birder. "You're the Birdist, right?" the driver said. "Do you see it? It's that one right there, right?" He pointed to a bird we must have scanned over towards the back of the flock, and we took a closer look. Sure enough. Common Gull, ABA 700.

We watched the bird for as long as we could tolerate the wind and rain. I got some terrible pictures, and Doug (as always) got some better ones, found here. We did it.

The birder in the car was none other than Seymore Gulls, aka PDXbirder, the birder, artist, and field guide author from Portland, Oregon. He was in town to see the Steller's Sea Eagle, which was still present off and on in the Boothbay area. But the eagle was unreliable and a Common Gull was probably less likely to show up in Oregon, so he bombed up from the Midcoast even earlier than we had. 

And thank goodness for it. 700! It felt good. A relief, mostly, that I didn't have to be nagged by getting to this big number, or felt obligated to spend time and money chasing some bird that I didn't really care about, and could focus my attention on birding in places I really want to. Mission accomplished, and now time to start some new missions.

We bid farewell to the bird and kept going. Seymore wanted to try to find a Spruce Grouse and I'm always down for that, so we checked Boot Head Preserve but came up very empty (raven, BCCH, and HERG and that's it). Seymore headed south to find the eagle (successfully!), and Doug and I checked around a bit. 

We found ourselves at Quoddy Head State Park, a Maine landmark that I'd somehow never visited before. It's the easternmost point of land in the US, and just a gorgeous spot. The birding was OK, but the scenery was amazing -- the waves were huge and dramatic. It was a nice moment for me, and reminded me of just what I love the most about birding. It's not necessarily the birds themselves, it's the places they take me. Just a week before I was standing on the banks of the Rio Grande among palms and mesquite near the southernmost point in Texas, and here I was a week later breathing the salt air looking across a wintery bay towards Canada. Birding is an adventure, from number one through number 700 and beyond. I can't wait to keep going.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

The Ultimate Biography of Earth and the ABA Field Guide to the Birds of Maine

I didn't learn how to bake sourdough during the pandemic, but I was still productive! I was honored to have been asked two write several books in the past few years, the first two of which are out now.

The amazing folks at Workman asked me to write a complete history of the Earth aimed at middle school kids, and the result is The Ultimate Biography of Earth. I'm so proud of it. It's fun and funny, but also serious and complete. It's chock-full of incredible illustrations from UK artist Jason Ford, who I think perfectly captured the tone and style I hoped. It's a delightful book, and is getting good reviews from folks who review books like this.  

The second book is the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of Maine. An absolute honor to put this book together. To think that I've come from writing about the dumbest bird stuff imaginable to creating a field guide to the birds of my beloved home state is just a real dream come true. As with all the ABA guides, it's illustrated with incredible photographs from Brian Small. The book covers more than 260 species found in Maine, making it a great reference and a perfect gift.

I'm thrilled to have these two books finally coming out after working hard on them during 2020 and 2021, and am grateful to both my friends at Workman and at Scott & Nix for their trust in me. And stay tuned, I have two other books in various stages of done-ness, that will hopefully hit shelves in the next year or so. Excited to share them with you. Good birding!

Thursday, March 24, 2022

700 Quest! Part I: 699 Quest

For as long as I've been birding in the U.S., 700 was the number. Hitting 700 meant that you'd been everywhere, and seen most everything. I've been on a slow march towards 700 for a long time now, but, as any birder knows, it gets harder the closer you get. I saw 500 species in my first 5 years of birding, getting a Kentucky Warbler for my 500th ABA species in north Mississippi in early 2011. 600 was two years later -- still a pretty good clip -- a Gray Vireo in southern California. 

Things slowed after that. I got 12 ABA birds in 2016, 11 in 2017, 1 in 2018, 0 in 2019, 3 in 2020, and 3 in 2021. There just weren't a lot of birds I could see without a lot of effort and expense, two things in short supply with a youngster in the house. At the beginning of 2022 I was sitting at 697 ABA birds and after two years of pandemic madness I was itching to get moving.

Plus, I wanted to hit 700 so I could start focusing elsewhere. In my younger birding days, international birding seemed somehow impossibly complicated and exotic. The U.S. was big enough. But that's changed, and the lure of totally unique birds and big trip lists has overtaken everything else. 

But I was within striking distance of 700, and wanted to cross that finish line. Texas obliged, and at the beginning of 2022 there were 4 lifers hanging around the Lower Rio Grande Valley pretty regularly - a Bat Falcon (!), Social Flycatcher (!), Golden-crowned Warbler, and Crimson-collared Grosbeak. I could do it in a long weekend, I thought. My wife acceded, and I booked it. 

I texted my birding dudes in case anyone wanted to join. They couldn't. I prepared to go alone. (I love birding alone and was fine with it, and it felt actually like a full-circle completion to U.S. listing, where I birded alone for years before meeting birding friends.) But the day before I left I texted the group again and talked about my preparations. My friend Ed texted back - wait are you actually going? I thought you were joking. No, I'm going. Want to come? Leaving tomorrow. Yes. Incredible. Ed's a great birder and one of the best guys and had never been to Texas before, and all of a sudden this trip just got a lot more fun.

The flights down were uneventful, and we met in San Antonio at about the same time despite taking different airlines. We grabbed a car and drove the always-long-than-you-remember trip straight south to McAllen. We headed straight to Santa Ana NWR hoping to catch the Bat Falcon at dusk, but missed. No matter, we were suddenly among the palm trees and cacti in South Texas and life was good. That night we dined at a auto-mechanic-turned-taco-shop, giddy that this was actually happening, happy to be out of the Maine winter, and ready to get some good birds. 

Bat Falcon at Santa Ana

We were up at dawn and headed back to Santa Ana. The Crimson-collared Grosbeak hadn't been seen for a few weeks, so now I needed hit all 3 of the remaining birds to make 700. A tall order, but they'd all been reliable. We waited along the entrance road in front of the Bat Falcon's favorite perch -- a telephone pole above a noisy road -- and - there it was. No one even saw it fly it, it was just there, suddenly, perched on the pole. 

Black-necked Stilt in the morning light at Santa Ana

An incredible bird. The first ABA record, and just an attractive species. We were pleased because sometimes it wasn't cooperative at the telephone pole and birders had to chase it all over the Refuge, but not us. We were in good spirits, and now had time to kill. The Valley Nature Center, where the Golden-crowned Warbler had been hanging out, didn't open for a few hours, so we explored Santa Ana.

young Gray Hawk at Santa Ana

We had the place to ourselves, and spent a beautiful morning walking the trails past spoonbills, stilts, pelicans, kingfishers, woodpeckers, Green Jays, Long-billed Thrashers, Gray Hawks, and a bunch of south Texas specialities. Ed saw the Rio Grande for the first time, and we pondered over this sleepy stretch of river that caused so much heartburn and heartache. 

We made the drive to Valley Nature Center, and walked to the back section into one of those scenes you hate to see as a twitcher: a bunch of birders aimlessly walking around shrugging, saying "haven't seen it yet, not sure where it is." Oh. We poked around for a few minutes and then -- there it was. This tiny warbler came chipping through the dense vegetation, briefly posing for good looks. Golden-crowned Warbler is rare but regular in the LRGV, and I was thrilled to connect. Sitting now on 699.

Golden-crowned Warbler at the Valley Nature Center, ABA 699

We had hit two of our three targets and it was Saturday at noon. We figured we'd walk right into the Social Flycatcher at the University of Texas RGV campus and then have a whole extra day to explore. Our minds raced. Should we head up to Laredo and get the seedeater? Should we go to Aransas NWR and get Whooping Crane, Ed's number one most wanted bird? We were dizzy.

We rolled up the campus and walked to the beautiful resaca habitat. There were a ton of birds around in what proved itself to be a perfect migrant trap, including my lifer Texas Black-throated Gray and Black-throated Green Warblers, and Fulvous Whistling-Duck. But ... there was no flycatcher, and no one had seen it that day. We waited, and walked around. The weather worsened. Brownsville is much closer to the Gulf than McAllen, one of the local birders said, and it's often much windier. It was howling, and raining. We spent six hours at the campus, and left birdless.

We were back at it the next morning, but decided to make a stop at dawn at nearby Eserto Llano before making the hour plus drive back to campus. EBird checklists showed that the Social wasn't really a morning bird, and we wanted to pick up Buff-bellied Hummingbird and White-tipped Dove so we stopped and enjoyed those birds and more before heading back south. 

We arrived to find another stomach-dropping scene: a bunch of birders celebrating and high-fiving after seeing the Social Flycatcher and then seeing "We just saw it, but it's not here now." We had missed it by maybe 10 minutes. At least it was around. We settled in with our hopes renewed.

the best sighting at UTRGV

Six hours later we still hadn't seen it. We'd seen every goddamn bird (and Bobcat) in every goddamn bush in the whole park, but not the Social. Our legs were sore from walking laps. We wanted to do something else. So, stuck on 699 and with no clear next lifer in sight, we bailed. I was so ready. 

Unburdened from the wait, we have a great afternoon of birding. We drove out to Old Port Isabel Rd. and got distant looks at Apolomado Falcon, as well as a number of trip birds including Long-billed Curlew and a bunch of waders. Then we scooted up to a Red-crowned Parrot roost in Brownsville and reveled at the squawking mass on telephone wires right over our heads. We listened to the Super Bowl in Spanish on the way back to the hotel, reveling in the not-Maine-ness of it all. 

Green Jay /heart eyes emoji

We got up early the day of our flight out but didn't have time to head back down to Brownsville, so cranked up towards San Antonio, stopping at a few out-of-the-way places en route. We scored some distant Mountain Plovers (only my second ever) at a random farm field in Frio County, and picked up some nice little common state birds in a park in Castroville. 

I left Texas sitting on 699 with no clear answer for 700. How long would it take? What bird would it be? Connecticut Warbler was the most likely possibility - though would still require a ton of effort - and everything else was a wild card. I'd have to wait and see. 

Turns out, it didn't take long at all. TO BE CONTINUED!

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