Friday, December 30, 2016

Post #86 - 2016 in Review including Top 10 photos!

My 2016 was filled with many amazing birding experiences and memories. My two trips to Colombia were certainly the highlights, but my first cruise ship pelagic, my attendance at various birding festivals, and a newfound interest in 'county birding' were certainly noteworthy as well. I also this year pushed my ABA Life List (non-Hawaii) to the 700-mark with the addition of White-throated Thrush in Texas in February. That plateau is one at which I have been looking for nearly 30 years, so it felt really nice to finally join that club!

ABA #700 - White-throated Thrush
Estero Llano Grande State Park, Weslaco, Texas

Let me first say that I realize I have shorted readers on Colombia coverage. This is by design as I have promised to give the Audubon Society first crack at my content. We'd hoped to be able to release that content after the proposed peace deal was signed this fall, but the failure of the measure to pass a public referendum has delayed our plan. We want the content to make a nice 'splash' once the peace process is officially done. That being said, a revised peace deal looks like it is right now being brokered, so I hope to be able to share more Colombia content in the near future. I will say that as important and as historic as the peace process has been, there really isn't any reason to delay travel to Colombia. The country and its people are fantastic, and, with a bird list approaching 1900 species, it should be at the top of every birder's attention.

Tayrona National Park on Colombia's Caribbean Slope

Closer to home, I went to Texas twice, once in February for the Laredo Birding Festival and again in November for the Rio Grande Birding Festival. Between those events, I made an appearance at the SW Wings Birding Festival in August. At each of these I met many wonderful folks and managed to see some cool birds. The same can be said for the cruise ship pelagic I took in May. Those excursions, coupled with a few new birds I added in California and  few 'armchair ticks', pushed my non-Hawaii ABA list from 698 to 713.

699 - Crimson-collared Grosbeak (4) (TX, Feb)
700 - White-throated Thrush (4) (TX, Feb)
701 - Blue Bunting (4) (TX, Feb)
702 - Scripps's Murrelet (CA, Feb)
703 - Marsh Sandpiper (5) (CA, May)
704 - Cook's Petrel (3) (CA, May)
705 - Murphy's Petrel (3) (CA, May)
706 - Hawaiian Petrel (3) (CA, May)
707 - Eurasian Skylark (3) (Victoria, BC, May)
708 - Woodhouse's Scrub-jay (Split, July)
709 - Red-legged Honeycreeper (5) (First accepted ABA record from Texas 2014)
710 - Plain-capped Starthroat (4) (AZ, Aug)
711 - Craveri's Murrelet (3) (CA, Aug)
712 - Dusky Warbler (4) (CA, Oct) - Found by Roget Schoedl and me in Orange County!
713 - Amazon Kingfisher (5) (TX, Nov)

Closer to home, 2016 was a continuation of the SoCal holding pattern that began in 2015 when we moved to LA to be closer to Sonia's family. I greatly - and only very begrudgingly - prioritized birding over photography this year. While I actually prefer shooting, the results around here have been too inconsistent to justify passing on what is usually good birding. If I drive a few hours to escape the coastal hoards I can find the personal space in which to shoot, but weekday work and weekend family commitments usually prevent that. There is decent birding much closer, so that's where my time has been spent. Most of my local birding was done in Orange County, but I've more recently done some birding in my home LA County to at least get a flavor for it before we move. I did also find a tiny local park near our apartment that I try to visit once a week or so. Building up my park list has been a fun diversion on those days when other commitments or traffic prevent getting further afield.

My local patch, like a boss.....

Overall, my photographic output plummeted this year; It was my least productive in the last seven. My standards for a keeper have certainly increased over the years, but most of the decline was due to lack of subjects here in 'the sprawl'. I did manage to squeeze out a few good frames, and I'll give you these as my 2016 Top Ten.

Please click images for nice, high resolution views!!!

Cactus Wren - Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus
San Diego County, CA
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 7D2
1/3200 at f/8, ISO 800

Mallard X Northern Pintail hybrid
Orange County, CA
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 7D2
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 640

Elegant Tern - Thalasseus elegans
Orange County, CA
Canon 400mm DO IS II on EOS 7D2
1/5000 at f/5.6, ISO 400

Black-chinned Sparrow - Spizella atrogularis
Orange County, CA
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 7D2
1/2500 at f/8, ISO 800

Black-vented Shearwater - Puffinus opisthomelas
Orange County, CA
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 7D2
1/4000 at f/4, ISO 800

Western Sandpiper - Calidris mauri
Orange County, CA
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 7D2
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 400 

Gambel's Quail - Callipepla gambelii
Amado, AZ
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO on EOS 7D2
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 640

Hooded Oriole - Icterus cucullatus 
Amado, AZ
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 7D2
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 800

Multicolored Tanager - Chlorochrysa nitidissima
Cali, Colombia
Canon 500mm f/4 IS + 1.4x III on EOS 7D2
1/125 at f/7.1 ISO 1600

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

So, that's basically what went down this year. I want thank everyone for hanging in with this blog. The more time I spend birding, the more I believe that birding is as much about the community as it is anything else. This blog is one small little way that I can stay connected to that community, so its nice to see at least a few of you enjoy reading what is effectively my personal birding journal. There's lots more comming next year, so please stay tuned! Best of luck with your own 2017!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Post #85 - The Human Side of Urban Birding

Those who read regularly know that I have often lamented my overly-urban existence here in Metro Los Angeles. I have, however, had a couple of birding experiences in my current surrounds that have etched themselves forever into my memory. Today I am going to share 3 of these stories with you.

Story #1
In August, an American Golden-plover appeared in the LA River in downtown Los Angeles. For those unfamiliar with it, the LA River is not so much a proper river as it is a large concrete drainage ditch. It's heavily littered and generally polluted, but, as the only water for miles, the shallow flow does attract a fair number of ducks, shorebirds, and gulls. The river also attracts countless homeless, most of whom reside under the various overpasses that span it. Interactions with the homeless are unavoidable when birding the LA River, but I've never personally had any problems with any of them. On the contrary, they've helped me to widen my perspective.

LA River diagram. From Hollywood to Long
Beach is about 25 miles, for reference.

Some stretches look like this....

....while others look like this.

Back to the golden-plover. I had just observed it for my still embryonic California State list when a man came walking down the opposite, concrete river bank. He was yelling and gesticulating wildly. As he passed me on that far bank, he removed his shirt and pants, and proceeded to run into the water at ditch's center. He emerged with a Western Gull carcass that he held above his head as he sprinted further down the shallow channel. Whether he had mental issues, substance abuse issues (his behavior was very indicative of PCP, particularly the clothing removal), or a combination of both I couldn't say for sure. Either way, my birding exploits suddenly seemed of secondary consequence to his circumstances. I wondered how far the man had fallen to reach that point. It was an equally sad and eye-opening meditation, and the golden-plover suddenly seemed of greatly diminished importance. Perspective, like rare birds, often surfaces at the least expected times.

Story #2
After Sonia's mom passed away (see last post), the hospice folks said they couldn't reuse or recycle the mattress they provided for her. I hate letting anything with potential utility go to waste, so I took the mattress with a plan to clean it and take it to homeless camp in South Central. I put the folding, semi-portable mattress in the back of the car seat and forgot about it.

Fast forward to two weekends ago. I decided to spend a morning looking for a locally rare Yellow-throated Warbler at Earvin "Magic" Johnson Park in Compton (Yep, Compton, its been cleaned up quite a bit from the NWA dayz). I arrived at 7am and spent the better part of the next 3.5 hours searching for the wayward warbler. There were at least a dozen birders present, but we were collectively unable to relocate the bird. Returning to my car, I saw the mattress in the back seat and realized I was already halfway to the homeless camp. I hopped back on the 105 Freeway, veered north onto the 110, and rolled into the camp 5 minutes later. The guys were admittedly a bit skeptical as I hauled the mattress out of the back seat, but a quick explanation dispelled any suspicions they had about me or the mattress. One dude laid claim to it, and they all thanked me for bringing what was otherwise trash to them.

At the precise moment I was passing the park on my way home, I received a phone call informing me that the warbler had resurfaced. I swung in and collected the bird after a bit of additional searching. Though not a believer in anything divine, spiritual, or the like, I did take a certain amount of satisfaction in knowing that my effort to help someone else indirectly led me back to the warbler. It was karma at its finest.

Yellow-throated Warbler - record shot only

Story #3
Last weekend I made a quick stop at my local patch, a small park that backs up to the San Gabriel River. As far from a proper river as the LA River, the scrubby foliage that owns the ditch is also popular with the homeless. However, on that most recent visit, many of the regulars were missing, presumably ousted by the local authorities as is periodically customary. As I viewed this apparent former dwelling, birding again seemed insignificant in the grander scheme of things. To me the park and adjacent river is a convenient but generally crappy place to find birds; To others, it is - or, at least, was - home.

San Gabriel River about a mile
from my apartment in Norwalk

Vacated dwelling on the river bank

All of these stories remind me that as much as I love my various birding lists and photographic adventures, at the end of the day it's just birding. Our lives are going to go on regardless of what birds we do or don't find/photograph. LA birding certainly leaves much to be desired from an aesthetic standpoint, but it's also served as a constant reminder of just how insignificant are most of my so-called problems. I'm am going to try to remember this during the holiday season. I hope you will too.

For the record, my best LA River bird to date? I did not find this, I just poached it in mid-November. It stayed for two weeks.

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper - record shot only
Not even a lifer! Saw one in NYC a few years back.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Post #84 - A special dedication, personal and professional shake-ups ahead....

This post is going to be very long and much more personal than usual. If you make it through one post on this blog please make it this one. I will get to birds, I promise. Here goes.

First, I should briefly summarize the two years since I got off the bicycle at the end of 2014 as it will frame what follows. Sonia and I were planning on moving back to Boston at the conclusion of that adventure. Our plans changed completely in February of 2015 when Sonia's mother was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer and given less than 2 years to live. As I had no job at that time and Sonia worked remotely, we decided to move to LA so that Sonia could be closer to her mom.

Our 2015 move....

I was fortunate to have a friend and former MGH/Harvard colleague offer me a job at USC when she heard we were moving to LA. We now have a perfect arrangement; She gets someone over-qualified to help her run her lab (we study small RNA biogenesis), and I get the freedom to travel whenever I want. That's how I have been able to travel so much while still holding a "real job". I hate my commute (60-75 mins, each way), but I otherwise enjoy the work and the flexibility it provides me.

Our plan was to stay in LA until Sonia's mom inevitably passed and then move somewhere - anywhere - else. The familiar Boston was one possibility. The outdoorsy Colorado was another. Our respective professional situations would dictate a lot, but with Sonia working remotely in the travel industry and me holding a Ph.D. in Cell Biology and Genetics, I wasn't too worried about finding work where ever we ultimately landed.

Fast forward to September of this year. Sonia's mom was taken off of chemotherapy and put into hospice care as her condition worsened. Sonia was at that same time offered an incredible job in San Francisco. Sonia turned the job down, citing the obvious need to be near her mom and family here in LA. The company - incredibly - understood her circumstances and made her a revised offer, one that bent policy to let her work remotely while her mom's situation resolved. At that time, Sonia and I would move to SF.

It pains me greatly to report that Sonia's mom, Yolanda, passed 3 weeks ago. We were all in her home with her as she peacefully slipped away. I won't go into too much detail as that is really her family's story to tell, but I would like to dedicate this entry to her memory. She was one of the kindest, most caring human beings I have ever met, and she will be missed by all that knew her, myself included. November 30 would have been her 71st birthday.

Sonia and Yolanda in Costa Rica (May 2015)

In the wake of these events, Sonia and I are slowly turning our attention towards Northern California. There will still be more people and more traffic in SF than what I consider ideal, but I am cautiously optimistic that the Bay Area and surrounds will suit us better than does Southern California. It is easier to escape SF than it is LA. I am familiar with the Bay Area from my undergraduate time at Stanford, so I at least have an idea of what to expect. LA was never a long-term option for us; Though we don't expect it to be, SF might prove so. Only time will tell, right?

Our future home....

I will need obviously to resign my position at USC when we move in the next few months. This will hurt quite a bit as I am doubtful that I will be able to find an arrangement as perfect anywhere else. Rather than immediately looking for an equivalent position, I am, as of now, planning taking some time off to pursue a couple of other projects. 

The first of these is my book. I had hoped to have it finished by the end of this year, but that it just not going to happen. Working and commuting 60 hours per week is not at all conducive to writing, particularly when one understands that the book is as much about my alcoholism as it is a bird-motivated bicycle trip around America. It has been a really personal and very challenging process to expose myself in a way that I hope people will find both identifiable and interesting. I'm getting really close, so two full-time months to finish it off will probably do it. Here's a bird, since you've made it this far. This was taken here in LA County three weeks ago.

Eared Grebe (winter plumage) - Podiceps nigricollis
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO + 1.4x III on EOS 7D2
1/2500 at f/5.6, ISO 400
***Click on image for higher resolution view***

What lies after the book project is finished is far less certain. I could always find work in some scientific capacity, either at a university or a biotech company. I am, alternatively, giving serious consideration to trying to make birding, photography, writing, and adventuring my full-time job. This would take a leap at least a large as my original bicycle trip, and I must confess that the whole idea is at this time both exciting and terrifying. There is certainly a degree of practicality that needs to be considered, but with a confidence in a scientific fall-back plan and a supremely talented and amazingly understanding spouse, the whole notion might just be crazy enough to work. There is also serious consideration being given to "Biking for Birds 2", but I'll keep the details of that prospect under wraps for right now.

I would also like to know if any of you might have any interest in traveling/birding/photographing with me as a guide. I think that I am decent company and that I don't smell too terribly bad - most days. If I had a few folks who wanted to go to Costa Rica or Colombia I feel confident that I could put together something really awesome for us. I'm not sure I want or would be able to guide full-time, but, if I could fit some of that around whatever else I fall into, it might work well as a part-time gig. Seriously, I'd love to hear from you guys. Ideas beyond adventuring, writing, and guiding are also welcome - encouraged even. Conservation, non-profit, anything! Birds occupy so much of my personal life, that I may as well think about making them my part of my professional life. If you don't feel comfortable commenting publicly, you can always send me an email at Public comments are great as they allow others to chime in on them, so please consider that.

OK, that's it. I know this is a departure from the usual bird- and photo-centric content, but this is what's happening right now. The move is really giving me pause to think about what I want moving forward, and I wanted to share my situation and thoughts on it with you. Thanks for sticking it out; It really means a lot me.

One more bird. This is a species that has surprisingly eluded me here is SoCal. They're so common that I kinda take them for granted. Their calls echo around any park or open space around here. We don't get much Autumn color in LA, so I spent quite a bit of time trying to position him against this small sample for the shot. I hope you like it.

Black Phoebe - Sayonis nigricans
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 7D2
1/1600 at f/7.1, ISO 800
***Click on image for higher resolution view***