Sunday, October 30, 2016

Post #80 - My thoughts on Hawaii joining the ABA area....(LONG!)

For those that haven't yet heard, the ABA this past week voted to bring Hawaii under the rather arbitrary umbrella that is its jurisdiction. The most notable consequence of this largely symbolic change is that ABA birders can now count species that they observe in the 50th state towards their ABA totals. Beyond this, the decision has few functional consequences, but no one would know that from the amount of debate that the change has precipitated. Most of the debate centers on how ABA birders will administer their life lists moving forward. This is a rather trivial consideration as far as I am concerned, so what the heck is all the ruckus about?!??!

I'll do my best to briefly outline the debate. I'm sure I'm going to miss a point or two, but from what I've read I think these seem to be the main concerns of those who pushed for Hawaii's inclusion and those who pushed against it.

- The ABA area includes the other 49 states, so it may as well include Hawaii as well.
- Including Hawaii in the ABA area will make it easier to highlight the conservation challenges facing the state and its species.
- It will inject some fresh species into the ABA birding equation.

- Hawaii's birdlife is more Asian than it is North American. It should be lumped into the South Pacific or Oceanic region, not the ABA area.
- Hawaii is too far away and/or isolated for most birders to visit. Its inclusion in the ABA area mostly benefits those with sufficient funds to reach it.
- The decision reflects the wishes of the ABA brass more so than the average birder.
- If Hawaii is added, Guam, Puerto Rico, and other areas might weedle their way in as well.
- Hawaii hasn't traditionally been included in the ABA area, and it should stay that way.

I can totally understand the argument that Hawaii may as well be included so as to bring it in from the cold, so to speak. If someone had 8 kids living with him/her but had only formally adopted 7 of them, the last one would understandably feel left out. From from an inclusion standpoint, I'm on board. Sure, some Hawaiian species, native and introduced, might seem misplaced considering the avifauna more traditionally encompassed in the ABA area, but who really cares? We love vagrant species precisely because they don't fit into our ABA or North American boxes. Yes, Hawaii had a disproportionate number of introduced Asian species, but that's the way the world is going. ABA birders currently count all sorts of introduced species, so Hawaii really isn't that different. A visit to South Florida or Southern California will easily reinforce this notion.

Common Amakihi -
from my VERY early photography days

As for the conservation argument, I guess it mostly holds water - if we put on hold for a minute the certainty that including Hawaii in the ABA area will, if only in small amounts, drive increased numbers of birders to the islands as they try to build up their ABA lists. I generally think that the increased attention on issues of Hawaiian conservation will outweigh what pressure increased traffic from birders will cause, but we'll have to see moving forward.

As Hawaii is far away, getting there can be expensive. It just doesn't strike me that reaching Hawaii is any harder or more expensive than reaching many of the more remote points (Dry Tortugas, Northern/Western Alaska, e.g.) already included in the ABA area. I also think that a person is smoking crack if its his/her birdlist alone that motivates a trip to Hawaii. The archipelago is as culturally and biologically distinct as anywhere on the planet and makes a fine vacation destination regardless of whether or not its bird species count towards one's ABA list. If one is thinking that he/she now "has to" visit Hawaii to keep up with the listing Joneses, I think that that individual needs to take a serious look at his/her priorities. My one visit to Hawaii was amazing - the people, food, scenery, and everything else as much as the birds that I saw.

And, at this point, let's just call a spade a spade: Big time listing is more a function of money than anything else - birding skill or more general ecology knowledge included. This is why I don't really put a ton of emphasis on it. Yes, I know exactly where my own list currently stands, but I fully recognize that it says little about me as a birder or, more importantly, a human being. That some percentage of people might not be able to afford to travel to Hawaii shouldn't be a reason to exclude it. Hell, I can't afford to got to Gambell, Barrow, St. Paul, Adak, or Attu (mainly because I spend all my money on camera gear instead of running up my list), but that shouldn't be a reason to for me to whine about their inclusion in the ABA area. Each person should be content to bird within his or her own means. Everyone is always going to wish for more, myself included. That's not a reason to impede those who can from doing. And, since it was brought up in one online debate, I feel ZERO pity for some hard-core ABA lister who hasn't been to Hawaii being "jumped" by someone lower on the roles who has been to Hawaii. If one is so high in that ABA rankings that it matters to quibble over species, he/she certainly has the funds to go to Hawaii and collect those additional species. Ain't to many broke folk above the 800-species plateau, right? RIGHT?

Hawaiian Goose - also from my early days!

The decision to include Hawaii was not made by some grand dictator. While the ABA brass might have favored one outcome over another, the proposal ultimately passed by on an 80/20 percentage among the 2,000 people who voted on it. It was a small sample size, but, given the spread, the final outcome is likely representative of the larger community. It never got near "hanging chads" in this particular instance.

Lastly, I totally hear the argument for tradition. Even though I will get an instant bump of about 30 species or so from Hawaii's inclusion, I'll still cling tightly to my 712+2 tally moving forward. In fact, the next lifer I get will to me be #713, not #743 or whatever it proves to be with my Hawaiian birds thrown into the mix. I may at some point come around and starting quoting the full number, but for the moment I'll stick to what is familiar The bottom line is that adding Hawaii doesn't really change anything - unless you want it to. If you don't want to count Hawaiian birds, then don't. It's really that simple.

I imagine most readers could care less about this decision, and that's really the way it should be. It won't change the fact that most all of us will spend what free time we have in the field, near to home or farther afield. I would have been fine had the Hawaii issue never surfaced, and I'll be fine now that the state in included. Its inclusion makes more sense than nonsense, and I probably won't give it much thought moving forward anyway.

And, since I just got back from a really fast trip to Colombia, I'll post the best photo that I collected during my only two days of birding in the Andes. Like my first visit in March, I was brought along on a press trip as a writer/photographer. We are hoping to package my content from this trip with that from the first for a rather long essay on Colombian birding. (We were waiting for the peace deal to pass to release the content from my first trip which is why it hasn't materialized - yet.) So, please stay tuned for that at some point!

I will venture to say that it is going to take one hell of shot in the next two months to displace this shot as my favorite for 2016. I couldn't believe my luck when this incredibly secretive bird stepped right into the one beam of light that penetrated his usually dark, tangled, and understory home.

Chestnut-crowned Antpitta - Grallaria ruficapilla
Canon 100-400mm f/5.6 IS II on EOS 7D2
1/200 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Post # 79 - My desire to photograph every bird, Rock Wren included!

One of the things on which I pride my photography is my desire to shoot every species regardless of how magnificent or ordinary it appears. I imagine that tendency stems from my birding background, where I have over the years probably spent more time sorting out the identification of small brown birds than I have anything else. A species is a species, after all, and each has it own evolutionary history, behavioral trivia, and identifiable field marks. Beyond a challenging and rewarding endeavor unto itself, I have found that photography, and particularly photography of those usually less magnificent species that are more difficult to identify, has actually made me a better birder. Its tough not to learn the birds better when one spends as much time as I do staring at them on my computer screen!

Anyway, I bring this up as I was last weekend doing some general LA County Birding at the Santa Fe Dam Recreation Area when I heard a Rock Wren calling behind me. I took a few steps towards the source only to see a small bird come flying directly at me. The curious bird lit on a rocky slope and began actively foraging just 20 feet from me. He was quite approachable, and, with nice light even in the later morning, proved to be a very nice photographic subject. I had photographed this species well only once before (in Colorado in 2014), so I seized on the opportunity to follow the bird around for the better part of 15 minutes. It was really a lot of fun, and I am very happy with a few of the shots that I captured. Though not a particularly flashy bird, he is perfectly at home in rocky habitats that discourage many other species. I particularly like the close-up shot as it affords a perspective on this species that isn't often appreciated.

For these shots I really went to great lengths to keep distracting background elements out of the frames. Though sometimes I like to have a bit of habitat context, here I wanted all the focus to be on the bird. My hope is that such clean shots of this Rock Wren will forever etch the species into your birdbrain the way they did into mine.

Rock Wren - Salpinctes obsoletus
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 7D2
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 400

Rock Wren - Salpinctes obsoletus
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 7D2
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 400

Oh, as a last aside. I actually put together a gallery-collection of my favorite headshots on my website. I know some folks really enjoyed my headshots from a few posts back, so I decided to collect more of them in an organized form on my photography website. For those who are interested, you can find that gallery here.

Til next time!

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Post #78 - The HUGE thrill of finding rare birds

While I am not a no-holds-barred-sort of ABA lister, I certainly enjoy the occasional or indulgent foray into the sometimes taboo pastime. Rarity chasing injects a distinct sort of excitement into the birding process, and it almost inevitably yields some memorable or funny story irrespective if the sought bird is found or missed. For example,I have chased 3 would-be ABA lifers in the last year: Gray Thrasher, Streak-backed Oriole, and Marsh Sandpiper. I was - thankfully - successful on each occasion, but the California Records Committee later tossed out the thrasher on grounds of questionable provenance. Regardless, each of the chases was a fun and exciting exercise and will be forever a part of my birding memory.

However, the excitement of chasing rarities, "poaching" as I often refer to the process, pales in comparison to finding rarities for myself. The feeling when I realize that I am looking at something totally unexpected simply isn't replicated by chasing previously reported birds. The last time I had that feeling was the 1st ABA record of Red-legged Honeycreeper that I helped find and document during my 2014 bicycle Big Year. I bring all this up as I, alongside Orange County birder Roger Schoedl, found a fantastic rarity in Central Park in Huntington Beach this past Saturday. Roger initially spotted the bird low in the lake bed, and I soon picked the same bird as it made its way towards me.

 The mystery bird appeared along that scrubby
edge on the far side of the muddy lake bed

We didn't really have any solid leads on what the bird could be as it had so few field marks. Its eyeline and overall brown color were really all we had to go on. We kicked around a number of possibilities, mostly in the warbler and vireo realms, but nothing really fit given our brief views. Finally, the mystery bird sat still long enough for me to get a decent photo.

Mystery bird

When I reviewed the photo on my camera, I immediately felt my mind turning over the possibilities. I knew we had something, REALLY good in front of us. I said to Roger, "Dude, call me crazy but I think this might be something from the Old World, like a Dusky Warbler." This was as around 8:50am. We watched the bird for another 5 minutes or so before it vanished into a large and impenetrable tangle of reeds, branches, and bushes. We immediately called a few birders who we knew were nearby. Two of them arrived in time to see the bird when it resurfaced 40 minutes later. That second appearance was painfully brief but enough for Brian Daniels, familiar with the species from time in Eurasia, to confirm the ID. At that point all alarm bells were sounded. Birders gathered through the afternoon, but the bird never resurfaced. Dozens of people searched all day Sunday, but the bird wasn't refound on that day either. So, it was apparently a one day - nay a hour hour - wonder! It was super exciting to find such an incredibly rare bird (ABA Code 4) during what I thought would be a pleasurable but otherwise routine swing through one of my usual haunts. You never know, right? That's a big part of why most of us love birding!

Ironically, Dusky Warbler was on my radar screen as one had been found in San Francisco just last week. I decided against chasing that bird as SF was too far and chasing migrating passerines is usually a losing proposition. I did look at a lot of the photos of that Dusky, so those images were fresh in my mind when our bird appeared. It is, of course, tempting to speculate that out bird and the SF bird are one and the same. The SF bird could have easily made its way to Huntington Beach during the intermittent week or so. There's no way we'll ever know for sure, but it's fun to consider the possibility. As rare as Dusky Warbler is, we probably miss a hundred for each one we find. I find it amazing that our bird (and the other CA birds) migrated to the correct latitude on the wrong side of the Pacific!

Alaska sightings from Gambell, Pribiloffs, and Attu.
All other North American sightings from CA.

Dusky Warbler sightings in California.
Orange pins are from the last month.
Ours was the first in SoCal in 20 years.

So, that's the story of how ABA seen species #712 joined my list. It was really, really sweet! Felt kinda like this.....

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Post #77 - An apology, photo edits

First, I must apologize. I am sorry, I have been TERRIBLE about responding to comments that you readers have been kind enough to contribute to this blog. In reviewing some of my older posts, I can see exactly how bad I have been, so bad, in fact, that one comment politely and appropriately pointed this out to me. It really means a lot to me when people leave me notes as those words reassure me that the content is actually resonating with people. I should take the time to acknowledge these comments as I am sure that those people that post them would like to know that I read what they took the time to write. So, moving forward, I am going to be much better about responding to your kind (and even your nasty!) blog comments. Hopefully that will spur a bit more dialog between us moving forward.

OK, now that we've dispensed with that, let's get to some bird stuff. Migration is in full swing here in SoCal, and it is the best birding of the year right now what with eastern vagrants and whatnot. For reasons that will become clear in coming months, I have actually been doing a bit more birding in Los Angeles County in recent weeks. I have in the past month visited, beyond my new local patch, other sites in LA County including Legg Lake, Peck Water Conservation Area, Whitter Dam, Santa Fe Recreation Area, Frank Bonelli County Park. If hit early enough on the weekends, these areas can be quite pleasant and productive (sadly, I can't bird during the week). After 11am , most of them turn into unbirdable nightmares complete with blow-up bounce houses and loud music. I am really looking forward to exploring beyond the heavily populated coastal areas of the county, specifically in the San Gabriel Mountains and the desert north of that range. So, do please stay tuned as I do a bit more exploring of my home county.

LA county - I live at the little yellow star (south and central)
4,750 sq miles, 10,000,000 people, 534 recorded bird species

Lastly, I though it might be fun to show exactly what can be done with decent photo editing software. I use Lightoom for the vast majority of alternations, but I will occasionally use Photoshop as an extension should I need to do something beyond the usual minor tweaks. This is a photo that I took last weekend. It is interesting as all of the illumination was provided by an external flash (the trunk/bird were in full shade). Flash is best when used to highlight detail on subjects rather than as the sole lighting source. I normally avoid flash altogether, but I figured I could use some practice with the technique. Since I suck at flash, the photo needed some serious work in order to be serviceable. I think I got it to a decent place, but I had to do quite a bit to get it there.

Acorn Woodpecker - Melanerpes formicivorus
Canon 400mm /4 IS DO II on EOS 7D2
1/500 at f/7.1, ISO 1600
Original of left, edited on right

OK, that's it for now. SD pelagic this weekend - stay tuned!