Friday, December 27, 2013

Eyewitness! Snowy Owl Irruption 2013

Through November and December I had been forced to watch this year's incredible snowy owl irruption from behind my computer screen.  While seemingly everyone else on the east coast had owls coming out of their ears, I was stuck in DC with no car and no time to chase anything.  Like a child, I resorted to passive-agressive jealousy, sending out sassy tweets like these:

I knew I'd have a chance to join the lucky hordes of birders when I came to Maine for Christmas.  Was I successful, you ask?  Thanks for asking.  Yes, yes I was.  Let me tell you about it.

I got home late on Sunday and had some emergency gift-shopping to do on Monday morning.  I told my mom that I was going to look for a snowy owl before I looked for gifts, and this intrigued her enough to tag along.  Of course, finding a Snowy Owl is never a sure thing, even in a year such as this, so I tempered her hopes and we headed to the airport.  Also, it was sleeting, so that sucked.

SUSPENSE?  No, I found an owl almost as soon as I got out of the car.  Whammy!  A heavily-barred bird in a grassy median between runways.  Awesome.  I showed my mom, her first snowy owl ever.  (Aside: I reported the bird to the listserv and was sent a stern response that one shouldn't report airport owls because they'd be shot.  This is something I knew well, but didn't think was an issue in Portland.  Turns out it had been, but the same pressure that forced a change at JFK also forced a change at Portland, which now traps and releases owls.)  Anyway, here's my mom (owl not visible):

So, that was a pretty good start.  On Wednesday I set out for some more birding, trying to clean up some species to hit ABA 400 on the year.  I got my year Greater Scaup (I know, right?) and Barrow's Goldeneye before heading to Biddeford Pool to try to scope out some alcids or King Eider.

The first bird I saw when I turned onto Mile Stretch Road at the Pool was a Snowy atop a chimney (I wonder how Santa dealt with it).  Great start.  While scoping from the tip of the Sanctuary, I saw a second bird near the lighthouse on Wood Island (why didn't I digiscope?  I don't know).  Leaving the sanctuary (no alcids 'cept Razorbills) I ran into a couple who told me they were visiting from Colombia and did I know of any good birds around?  Well, have you seen any of the Snowy Owls?  They hadn't heard of the irruption and probably had never dreamed of seeing a Snowy Owl, and they begged me to take them to a bird.  They followed me back to the Hattie's Deli parking lot, where I spotted an owl out on the marsh (third of the day).  Other folks saw us scoping, and soon a group of 10 or so folks was there viewing the owl - and another bird joined, my 4th of the day.  On my way out, I snapped a digi-binned shot of the first owl (the whitest one) that had moved to a nearby rooftop.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Lapland Longspurs at the Washington Monument

My downtown DC office was officially closed yesterday due to a massive snowstorm that turned out to be a massive nothing.  I went in anyway, because I'm hardcore, and also because I knew I could leave whenever I wanted to go birding.

The National Mall is actually not a bad little place for birds.  The Reflecting Pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial (#20 below) and the nearby Constitution Gardens (#16) had both held scoters over the weekend, and a Long-tailed Duck had been spotted in the all-concrete Capitol Reflecting Pool (the water in front of #26) a week before.

I left around noon and walked down 12th St NW.  My destination was Constitution Gardens which, because of its natural shape and small, reedy island, is the best bet in the area for waifs.  However, I stopped at the grounds of the Washington Monument (#25) to peer through the huge flock of Canada Geese feeding in the muddy grass.  It was a funny place to see such a huge flock of birds - look one way and you see the Monument, one of DC's most famous landmarks, and look the other and you see the goddamn White House.

Anyway, as I was looking through the flock for "better" geese (there weren't any), I noticed a group of small, tan-colored birds feeding quietly on the ground in front of me.  Horned Larks!  I peered through the flock and immediately found two other birds, immediately identifiable to me by the boxy frame behind their ears (the auriculars) - Lapland Longspurs!  Cool.

I knew they were good birds and sent a message to the listserv before attempting to digi-bin them.  Goddamn is digi-binning hard.  Holy cow.  I managed some awful shots and then moved on.  The rest of the day was great - a Canvasback and lots of Ring-necked Ducks at Constitution Gardens and American Pipits everywhere.

It wasn't until I got home and checked the listserv again, though, until I realized how rare the Longspurs were: just the second record in eBird, the previous one from 1985!  I'm glad I was able to get a picture, however garbagy.  Look for the longspur at the top center of the frame.  Good birding!

Lapland Longspur with Horned Larks

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Fast-Paced World of Field Guides

My latest piece for is up today - about the history and future of birding field guides.  Here it is:

Kirtland's Warbler

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Birds at Large: Bob Odenkirk

Fans of anything good in this world know Bob Odenkirk from somewhere.  His most visible roles have been as half the titular comedy duo on Mr. Show with Bob and David or as the seedy lawyer "Better Call" Saul on Breaking Bad, but he's also been on a million other shows, comedy podcasts etc.

BUT IS HE ALSO A BIRDER?  No.  No, I don't think so.  BUT MAYBE.  Two recent Odenkirk or Odenkirk-approved shows have featured jabs at birding, more than enough to warrant a mention on this dumb blog.

Here, first, is Odenkirk's appearance on the IFC show Comedy Bang! Bang! as Tommy Shalders, a former prodigy bird-calling champion.

So, there are clearly many, many errors with the songs, the bird names, and the photos there.  All errors.  It's all full of errors.  Still, I get a bit of satisfaction from hearing Odenkirk and Scott Aukerman, two of my favorite comedians, say "White-rumped Sandpiper" on TV.

Lemme get into a bit of the nitty grit on this.  Hit the 2:25 mark on that video when the host, Aukerman, asks Odenkirk to give his best bird call.  Odenkirk says he'll be performing the White-rumped Sandpiper, and sets the stage as May 28 on the shore of Lake Huron.

Okay.  First things first, what are the chances of seeing a White-rumped Sandpiper on the shore of Lake Hebron in May?  You know, it's possible!  Here's the eBird map:

Unlikely, but possible.  Next, how much does the song Odenkirk sings sound like a White-rumped.  About zero percent.  No percent.  Check out the Xeno-Canto calls for a WRSA here (there's a recording from May at the very bottom)(also, damn Xeno-Canto is the best goddamn website).  Sorry.

Himalayan Snowcock?  No.
The second Odenkirk birding clip comes from a new sketch show called The Birthday Boys, for which Odenkirk serves as writer, executive producer and actor.  Check out this sketch, which is a fake "Tips" video that makes the activities look far too easy (the birding stuff starts at the 1:15 mark, but the whole thing is funny):

Okay, they also got everything wrong.  All the birds are fake, as are the noises that go with them.  Also, here's a screenshot of the checklist the guy was marking off at the end.  There are African birds like the Carmine Bee-eater on there and also Indian birds like the Emerald Dove ... so I don't know what that checklist is for but it certainly ain't American birds.

All in good fun, though!  I give props to the troupe for not making birding the butt of the joke.

I saw The Birthday Boys when the live Comedy Bang! Bang! tour swung through DC - they were hilarious and deserving of birders support.  Odenkirk is a comedy legend and I wish him all the best on his Breaking Bad Saul spin-off.  After all this Walter White nonsense, Saul will probably looking for a new, calm activity he can enjoy in his new life in Omaha - how about birding?

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