Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Post #88 - Alder Flycatcher and the bird chase that never was....

Congrats to Tim Avery (UT) for being the first to figure that out that I am missing Alder Flycatcher from my ABA list. I know, I know, it's criminal. I am sure that I've seen one at some point, but without a call to definitively separate it from the very similar Willow Flycatcher, it's remained off my list. Alder was one of those birds I just figured I would run into at some point but never did. The sad truth is that this bird was a casualty of my alcoholism as much as anything else; Birding took a very distant back seat to drinking for many of the years I lived in Alder's range. Once I got sober and found bird photography as a replacement addiction, Empids (Flycatchers of the genus Empidonax) honestly weren't a high photographic priority. I guess it's appropriate that I bring this up this week, the 7th anniversary of my sobriety. 

Alder Flycather? Hell no! It's an underexposed Willow
from my very early photography days....

As for the rest of this installment, most of you know that I am a avid (though not rabid!) ABA lister. So, when California's second Ross's Gull showed up in Half Moon Bay (HMB) this week, I prepared for my first big bird chase since May of last year. That particular chase took me 6 hours north, from LA to Sacramento, to successfully tick the Code 5 Marsh Sandpiper as ABA bird #703. This Ross's Gull chase would prove to be of equivalent length and hopefully net me a species rarely seen outside the Arctic Circle. 

Self explanatory (I hope)

Ross's Gull sightings in Southern Canada, US

The HMB Ross's Gull was found and identified on the afternoon of Thursday, January 12. Here, I should pause to explain my "third day" theory of bird chasing. This applies to chases where a good chunk of the day ( > 3 hours, one way) will be required to reach the sought bird. It seems to me that a significant portion of rarities are of the "one and done" sort; They appear one day and disappear the next, and, in so doing, guarantee that any second day chase necessarily fails. However, if a bird stays long enough to be observed on a second day, then at least something can be said about its behaviors and tendencies from one day to the next. At that point, the first data set exists, and it is from that information that I decide if I'm going travel some great distance to try/travel to see the rarity on the third day. In short, I'm willing to trade some amount of success ('ticks') to avoid some amount of failure ('dips').

In the case of the wayward CA Ross's Gull, I was anyway unable to chase on Friday (Day 2) as I had work responsibilities that couldn't be postponed. Work responsibilities and the "third day" theory thus dictated that Saturday would be the day of the big chase - assuming the bird was seen on Friday (which it was). The problem was that I had an unbreakable commitment in LA from 10am to 2pm on Saturday. Even if I left right after that event, it would be dark when I reached HMB, so my search would need to be conducted the following morning, on Sunday (Day 4).

Watching my phone during that Saturday commitment, I could see the HMB bird was showing well through the morning and midday of Day 3. It was feeding in the same muddy field as it had been on Friday, and the chances that it would be present there or very nearby on Sunday to me seemed very good. All systems were "go" for a Saturday evening drive and Sunday morning search.

Incidently, Ross's Gull has been sitting like a splinter in my mind for the last 3 years. It was actually the last species that I chased a great distance but failed to tick. I drove 5 hours from Boston to Montreal and 8 hours return - in heavy, heavy snow - only to come up empty in December of 2013. 

And so it was with redemption in mind that I wrapped up my Saturday commitment, loaded up the car, and prepared for the 6-hour drive. Adrenaline was pumping, and I had my favorite Celine Dion CD in hand to keep the high going. Well, not really. Anyway, just after I locked the front door and turned to walk to the loaded car, I received word that a Peregrine Falcon had just caught and killed the Ross's Gull. The chase - like this story - ended that fast.

Here is an eBird checklist showing the Ross's alive - and in the grips of the falcon. 

It was like this...

....or this

Instead of chasing the gull, I had a surprisingly productive weekend of photography around my usual SoCal haunts. I'll leave you with one of the shots, a nice consolation prize for the shortest bird chase in history.

Osprey - Pandion haliaetus
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 800
*click for larger, higher resolution view*


  1. Congratulations on your 7-year milestone, a great Osprey photo, and not wasting a 12-hour round trip!

  2. Thanks Greg. Those years seem to have flown by. Guess that means I'm getting old as well. I was certainly glad to have received word before I got onto the road. If I'm gonna miss, I'd rather miss this way than after doing the drive. That return drive would have been awful!

  3. The only thing that would have been worse would be to drive to HMB with nothing except Celine Dion.

    Congratulations on the anniversary (reminds me of Maron), the Spain invite, and what's up with Florida?

    1. Yo Greg, thanks a lot. Can't imagine how much further along my photography would be had I not done more than a decade of heavy drinking and drugs! Also sent you PM on FM.

  4. Dorian: Any " twitcher " can relate to your pain, but, as you say, at least you didn't have to make the drive.
    You'll just have to " wrangle " a speaking engagement in Barrow, say the first week of October!!; or run a photo trip up there. That would be an interesting trip; how to take good quality pics in that fading northern light.
    Good luck on your quest for this bird. They can show up anywhere. Where I live in Southern B.C., one year one showed up just across the border on a very accessible lake in extreme northern Washington.

  5. Hi Thor

    I'll get to Barrow a some point, I just have to be patient. Until then I can hope another Ross's shows up somewhere down here. Its not likely to be as close as this recent bird but who knows, right?

  6. Dorian, I got to to see that Ross Gull a few hours before the predation event occurred. It's too bad you missed it as it was just doing it's thing maybe 30-40 away, not a care in world (which probably helped contribute to it's ultimate demise). Was the first rarity we chased, and was convenient as we live on the other side of the hill :-) I was on the palegic trip this past Saturday, I saw your name on the eBird lists Alvaro shared out, which lead me here to your great site. We are in San Carlos, so will probably run into you again at one of the many birding hotspots in the area!