Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Birds in Video Games: California Games and Town & Country Surf Designs: Wood & Water Rage (NES)

I am old enough that I plated the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) when it was new. It ruled. We had our own console and games, but we also partook in the time-honored and must-missed pastime of shlepping to the video store to rent games.

Renting was a great system, because back in those days you could beat an entire video game in a night or a weekend, rather than spending hundreds of hours tweaking the length your avatar's moustache handles or whatever games are like now. Plus, you didn't feel bad about playing a crappy game because you were only out the cost of the rental.

Two of those crappy games were California Games and Town & Country Surf Designs: Wood & Water Rage. 

I remember them specifically as rentals because each had its own eye-catching box art that was hard to miss on the shelves. California Games, from 1987, featured a babe in a yellow bikini. The cover of Town & Country Surf Designs: Wood & Water Rage, from '88, was an absolute mess of shit including a surfing gorilla, a giant yin-yang, and some guy in like a tribal mask? It looks like hell, but I remember it clearly.

Both games looked to cash in on the late-80s popularity of skateboarding, surfing, and other "alternative" sports. Town and Country Surf Designs, aka T&C Surf Designs, is actually a surf shop in Hawaii, which is, having been to plenty of skate/snow/surf stores in my day and meeting the owners, quite a goddamn coup if you ask me. 

Anyway, California Games lets players choose between skateboarding, surfing, footbag, "flying disc," roller skating, and BMX. T&C Surf Designs has just surfing and skateboarding. Wikipedia tells me that California Games was a massive blockbuster, selling more than 500,000 copies. T&C Surf Designs was less of a blockbuster, and, in my experience as a player, sucked ass and was wicked hard.

But since they are both outdoor games they both have birds in them. Let's start with T&C Surf Designs.

Players, like this cat in a tuxedo (??), encounter a gull-like bird during the surfing stage. The bird flies in from stage left and tries to knock the player into the water. It's not a very well rendered bird. Logic would assume it's a gull, but there is nothing that black and white anywhere, and the bird is proportionally more like a goose with its big head. Frankly, I don't like it and don't want to talk about it any more.

There's a better-looking gull in California Games. 

This bird flies over the players head during the footbag stage, and the player can kick the sack up and cause the bird to flip out of control. It's a well-done gull! Gray wings with black tips and a yellow bill. The unmarked yellow bill makes this a pretty good fit for a Short-billed Gull (though the proportions and size are off), which can be found in the Bay Area in winter. The extremely revealing shorts that Alex is sporting in this screencap aren't maybe ideal for winter (though they are ideal for showing off those buns! Get it, Alex!), but there appears to be snow on the mountains in the background so who knows.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Birding the Azores in April

The first thing that made me want to visit the Azores was a computer game, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. Indy and his friend visit the islands to try to track someone down or something ... I don't remember much except thinking "whoa that place looks pretty nice."

The second thing that made me want to visit the Azores was Google Street View Birding, where I'd digitally-explored the islands looking for the Azores Bullfinch. I never found the bird on Street View, but I found views beyond belief. Massive, verdant, rural hillsides leading down in every direction to glistening blue waters - what was this place?? 

The third thing was my family. I can't just "go on vacation" with my non-birding family in a place that has a bunch of new birds. I'd go insane. Every second taking selfies or touring the cheese factory or whatever while life birds flitted around outside, unseen, is pure panic. Can't do it. The Azores, with just a handful of endemics and just a couple dozen resident species, are a great compromise. I could do a little birding, but I wouldn't be worried about missing everything. 

Plus, a direct flight from Boston. We hit the road over my son's April vacation from school.

Island Background

The Azores are an archipelago of volcanic islands in the middle of the Atlantic. Culturally and politically the islands are Portuguese -- they are officially called the Autonomous Region of the Azores -- and the islands' villages showcase the narrow streets and white buildings of Portugal. It's really beautiful. There are nine main islands, and we traveled to the two most populous: Terceira and São Miguel.

Traveling around the Azores is very easy. We were able to rent an automatic car (I know, I know), and the roads are excellent around the island, though narrower than what's in the U.S. The islands we traveled to are very well set up for tourists, and most everyone speaks English. The currency is the Euro, but most everywhere (except for one or two places) takes debit cards. 

The food is so damn good, and relatively cheap (especially in grocery stores). Surprisingly, for its location, seafood plays second fiddle to locally-grown meat and cheese. Fine with me!

Bird Background

Centuries of human habitation have greatly changed the Azorean landscape. The majority of the islands have been cleared for agriculture -- much of it in the form of a, frankly, beautiful checkerboard of small cattle pastures bordered by walls of volcanic stone -- and very little native vegetation remains. What's left is mostly at high elevation or in inaccessible areas. There were likely multiple bird species endemic to the Azores before humans arrived -- here's evidence of at least one additional bullfinch -- but for now there are only three: the Azores Bullfinch, closely matching the plumage of a female Eurasian Bullfinch but limited to about 1,400 acres of native vegetation on the slopes of Pico de Vara mountain on São Miguel; the Azores Chaffinch, a widespread bird recently split from Common Chaffinch; and Monteiro's Storm-petrel, a close relative of the Band-rumped Storm-petrel that nests on a few islets off Graciosa island.

There are a host of subspecies on the islands as well, each with varying cases for full specieshood. Island subspecies include Azorean Common Buzzard; Yellow-legged Gull; several subspecies of Goldcrest; Blackcap; Quail; Blackbird; Starling; and more. 

True excitement, though, may be the vagrants. Situated as they are right in the middle of the Atlantic, the islands are a magnet for wayward migrants moving along both the North / South America and Europe / Africa flyways. Though I didn't plan it this way, my trip at the early stages of peak migration meant that vagrants could show up anywhere, and they certainly did. More on that later. Let's get into some specific spots.

Terceira - Paul do Cabo da Praia

Well, I told my family that this wasn't a birding trip but I'll be damned if I wasn't out with the bins at this spot about 15 minutes after getting off the plane. It's a former quarry off an industrial area that is renowned for attracting shorebird species from both sides of the Atlantic. It didn't disappoint. There were a ton of birds here, including my lifer Kentish Plover and Common Greenshank, alongside Red Knots, Curlew Sandpipers, a ton of Sanderlings, a Dunlin, Common Ringed Plovers, and even a vagrant and very out-of-place-looking Long-tailed Duck at the back. There were also apparently Semipalmated Plover and Whimbrel around, though I wasn't able to find them. I was only about to spend a half hour here before my family got eager to get on with the trip, but it was unforgettable. Here's the list

And we weren't even done! My wife and son were playing on a nearby seawall while I birded, and I took a peak over into the water when I went to meet them before heading out. Immediately I saw something I knew I shouldn't: a diving bird swimming in the water. There aren't cormorants or sea ducks or alcids on the Azores, and so I knew this was something good. Thankfully, the dagger bill and body posture were immediately recognizable: it was a Common Loon! Vagrants abound!

Terceira - General

After the quarry the plan was to just circumnavigate the island to see the sights. It's only a few kilometers around, so it doesn't take long. We slowly made our way around, stopping at various viewpoints and tourist type places.

I was immediately impressed at how birdy everything was. Everywhere we went there were birds flying around - out of and into fields, off rock walls, overhead. Most of these birds were birds introduced from Europe -- House Sparrows, European Starling, Eurasian Collard-Doves; Common Wood-Pigeon, etc. -- but also plentiful Azores Chaffinch, Island Canary (endemic to just these and some other Atlantic islands), and welcome birds like Eurasian Blackcap, Eurasian Robin, and Eurasian Blackbird. It was nice.

One especially nice stop was Miradouro da Ponta do Queimado, a lighthouse and overlook on the far west side of the island. We were just there for the views, but I noticed some birds riding high on wind above the cliffs. First, Barn Swallows (from the European "White-bellied" subspecies), a not-unexpected vagrant to the islands and a pleasant surprise. Then, something better: a large, dark swift. The only bird I'd ever seen like it were some Black Swifts back in Colorado, but I knew that this weren't them: this was either a Common or a Pallid swift, a much less common vagrant from Europe. Yeah! I stopped the car in the middle of the road and jumped out with my camera but only managed a single terrible photo before the bird disappeared. Still, not at all a bad first day in the Azores.


On day two we climbed Monte Brasil, a major volcano peninsula dominating the landscape above the largest city on the island, Angra do Heroísmo. Climbing Monte Brasil is a primary goal for tourists during the summer high season, I'm told, but it wasn't very crowded at all for us. The birds were just OK -- there were plenty of the regular blackbirds, blackcaps, greenfinches, goldfinches, and others -- but the highlight was seeing some nice low-soaring individuals from the Azorean race of Common Buzzard at the caldera. Here's the eBird list.

Terceira - Pelagic

The Azores are famous for whale-watching, with dozens of different marine mammals seen. Some are residents, like Sperm Whales and a few dolphin species. The islands are also a hotspot for migrating whales, including my absolute dream species: the Blue Whale. I booked two different whale watches during our trip -- the middle of the high season for baleen whale migration -- in hopes of catching up to a Blue Whale. 

It wasn't meant to be. Strong storms for the week before we arrived were just dissipating, and our trip was the first our tour company, OceanEmotion, had been able to run in several days. We did not get lucky. For whatever reason, most of the whale watch folks we spoke to said that the baleen whales had moved past already, even though most sources say that the season runs through June. I guess March is really a better time if you want to see a Blue Whale. 

The birding was, frankly, not very exciting. Though one would expect that these waters would support all kinds of seabird species there was only one around this time of year: the Cory's Shearwater. We saw them by the hundreds, and they were visible any time I could get bins on the ocean. I had some good looks, but after a while hoped for something different, even if it were a Scopoli's Cory's Shearwater from the Mediterranean. There are storm-petrels around, apparently, but I didn't see any, and the endemic Monteiro's Storm-petrel does not breed near Terceira. Still I got a couple of decent photos.

Terceira - Paul da Praia da Vitória

Our final stop on the third day was Paul da Praia da Vitória, a park and small wetland lake near the airport. Lots of different vagrant birds had been reported here. I didn't have a whole lot of time, and didn't really walk in the right direction, I think, (should have crossed the bridge on the side away from town), but did manage to see some Western Cattle Egrets, a Great Egret, and a Bank Swallow. There was more there, I think, but I missed it. Next time.

São Miguel - Lagoa das Sete Cidades

We left Terceira and flew to São Miguel. The largest of the Azorean islands, and the most populated. But, similar in all ways, including its beauty. Our first stop was the Lagoa das Sete Cidades, a beautiful set of lakes set inside a dormant volcano on the west side of the island. The views are extremely Instagrammable, and the hikes above the lake were the most touristy things we did during the trip. I can't imagine how much busier it must be during the summer - though the crowds petered out a lot just a few feet away from the main parking lots.

There weren't many birds to speak of on the top, but things picked up a little bit down by the lakeshore. Again, as with any freshwater water body on the islands, any type of vagrant water bird would be possible. I didn't see anything particularly great, though there were apparently some good birds on other parts of the lake. Family time overruled birding time, but I was after some good stuff in the morning. 

São Miguel - Azores Bullfinch

Aside from the recently-recognized Azores Chaffinch, the Azores Bullfinch is the only endemic passerine on the islands. I wonder if there were more before the arrival of humans, like Hawaii, or if science will recognize island subspecies as full species in the future. For now, though, the bullfinch, called the Priolo, is the major birding draw on the island.

It's pretty amazing the bird is still with us. The island's native forests have been decimated by agriculture and the takeover of invasive plant species like Japanese cedar. Only small areas of its preferred habitat, mostly Macronesian Holly, remains on the steep slopes of Pico de Vara on the island's west end. It's believed that the bird's entire range is barely more than 1,400 acres. 

Restoration efforts have helped bring the bird back from the brink, thankfully, from just 30-40 pairs in the 1970s to more than 700 pairs today. Still, that's not very many, and the bird is somewhat notoriously difficult to find despite its limited range. My understanding was that weather was a major factor in a successful chase, with the mountain's frequent rain, wind, and fog often thwarting hopeful birders. 

I watched the eBird reports in the weeks leading up to my trip and saw that there are basically three areas most people find the bird: the southern slopes, the northern slopes, and the eastern slopes / Interpretation Center of Priolo. We were staying the night in Furnas, on the southwest side of the mountains, but eBird convinced me to try the roads along the northern end. A major help were some reports from Maine young birder extraordinaire, Matthew Gilbert, who happened to be vacationing with his family just a week before my arrival. Matthew kindly shared some good advice about where to look for the bird, but his eBird checklist comment -- "Finally!" -- wasn't reassuring. Apparently he looked three separate times for the birds, all in foul weather, before finally hearing them at this spot. I only had one morning to search, and would have to take whatever weather I was given. 

I was up at dawn and driving up out of the caldera and around towards the north side of the island. The mountaintops were shrouded in fog when I left our apartment, but I continued along the island ring road until turning off on M1033 and heading up. Things were looking calm and clear. Perfect birding weather. I was feeling good. 

But, no birds at the first stop, including down the little side road that Matthew had heard his birds. The roads here are dirt but are wide and of good quality. It's a little unclear whose property things are, though the first set of buildings I parked at appeared to be owned by the government. There was no one around, and I had the gorgeous tropical mountainside morning all to myself. 

I headed further up and parked off the side where a couple of roads diverged, then began slowly walking up the road. With the weather so nice, I knew it was now just a matter of getting lucky and bumping into some birds. I strolled around a tight corner and spied a pair of chunky white birds flying across a field and into a group of bushes. I knew immediately I had found my birds. Here is the exact point

The pair (there was a third further down) fed in the bushes for about twenty minutes while I watched. It was perfect: me, alone on a stunning morning on a mountainside in the middle of the Atlantic with a pair of birds who beat the odds to survive. They didn't make a sound the whole time, just fed until they were full then popped up into a cedar, and then headed out back across the field. A perfect morning, and I was back at home before my family had finished breakfast. Here's the final checklist

São Miguel - Lagoa de Furnas

Furnas is a lovely little town in the mountains famous for its hot springs. There is an impressive collection of fumaroles downtown, and a really fancy hotel and grounds, the Terra Nostra, with a geothermal pool open to the public. I recommend it. 

We also took the short trip down to the nearby lake, which is bordered on one end by a geothermally-active field where local restaurants bury pots of meat and vegetables to cook their famous stew known as cozido das Furnas. We strolled along the lake sipping freshly-made rum and pineapple drinks and, what do you know it, like every body of fresh water in the Azores, there were rare birds around. Specifically, a spotted vagrant American birds, a Pied-billed Grebe and a Glossy Ibis against the sure. I'm sure there could be other birds if I had spent more time and looked over more of the lake. A fun visit. 

São Miguel - Pelagic

My family was reluctant to take another pelagic after our bouncy ride on the rubber boat on Terciera, but I can be very convincing. This would be our last chance to see a Blue Whale! We signed with Terra Azul, leaving from the port in Ponta Delgada, and left on board a real, actual boat with a top deck and seats and everything. We had a much smoother ride this time (because the seas had calmed in the intervening days, mostly), but didn't fare any better with pelagic birds. Got a Ring-billed Gull for the trip (there is really good gulling in the Port), but otherwise just the now-standard truckload of Cory's Shearwaters. I'm not complaining, but hoped for some more diversity. Same on the marine mammals side. We had some nice looks at the resident Sperm Whales and more Common Dolphins, but nothing with baleen. I'll have to return.

São Miguel - Boca de Ribeira 

I wanted to swim at some point, but swimming isn't super easy in the Azores. Lots of the coastline is sheer cliff, and the ocean is rough, cold, and unforgiving. Some towns have built public pools right at the edge of the sea that constantly refill with seawater washing in from the waves. It's pretty gnarly, and we found our way to one such pool in the northeast corner of the island, pretty much the closest spot in the Azores to Europe.

After descending a crazily-steep road we parked at the pool. There were only a few others around, it was a really nice scene. I took a very quick dip into the icy water and was pretty pleased with myself. Things got even better when I glanced up towards the high cliffs above us and along the nearby ravine. A bunch of birds were foraging right at the top -- Barn Swallows, Western House-Martin, and ... large swifts! Looking closely, there were both all-dark Common Swifts and the white-bellied Alpine Swifts, both rare visitors from Europe. Alpine Swifts had just a few records in eBird for all of the Azores. What a treat! I highly recommend a visit to this pool, and bet that it's a regular vagrant trap despite it not even being a hotspot in eBird.


Alright, that's what I've got. I had such a fun time with the family on the Azores. I didn't spend nearly as much time birding as I could in another part of the world, but it was thrilling to find so many vagrants and to see such a rare endemic. I highly recommend a visit to these beautiful islands.

About Us | Site Map | Privacy Policy | Contact Us | Blog Design | 2007 Company Name