Month: October 2022 (Page 2 of 2)

eBird Checklist Hall of Fame

In my dreams, Owen Wilson, Steve Martin, and Jack Black all have eBird profiles

Some truly fantastic eBird checklists

There are many reasons to love eBird. For a stat and graphics junkies like me, its organization and presentation of data is delightful. It does the dirty work of keeping your county/country/life/year lists. Some birders use eBird for more than just submitting checklists and keeping life lists. It’s an indispensable planning tool. It’s a window to the birds of the world and what might could be if we were just able to be in the right spot. You can find individual eBird hotspots in Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador with lists of over 600 species (I haven’t even seen 600 species in the entire United States!). You can find single checklists with well-over 100 species seen, and crippling, close-up photographs of unfathomable birds. Someday, we dream, we’ll get to visit these places and submit a checklist like that. There are the “Wish I Was There” checklists – of birders finding mega rarities, like this report of a Harpy Eagle in Costa Rica seen while looking for damselflies. Or maybe you’re the last person (in eBird at least) to have ever seen a particular species before it presumably went extinct, like this 2018 report (with a photo!) of a Bahama Nuthatch.

But over the years, a few eBird checklists have caught my attention and stuck in my mind. Some of them are notable for their implausibility. These reports are not confirmed by the intrepid team of volunteer eBird reviewers, and are thus pretty ephemeral. But if you are paying attention, you can see some real gems from time to time. This one might be dubbed “the greatest 13 minutes of parrot/parakeet birding ever.” 

While covering 4 miles in a mere 13 minutes, this birder claims to have seen almost every possible L.A. county parrot and parakeet, including some species that are almost never reported anymore. Not only that, he (at an average speed of 18 miles per hour, mind you) was able to tease out some very tough IDs that turn on subtle color differences in crown feathers or a small patch of color on the underside of the wing. And on top of that, he saw all these birds in a short span of time a full 2 hours before sunset. As local birders know, during the day, the parrots and parakeets disperse over a wide area to feed in small groups. It’s only at sunset when they gather in mixed company for their evening roost. (It’s an awesome sight to see, by the way). But there’s more – this report was in the middle of summer, when the parrots and parakeets are much more dispersed around the L.A. basin than they are in the winter.  Especially nice are the 10 parakeets he couldn’t distinguish b/t Mitred and Red-masked. We have no idea how many of the other parrots and parakeets he saw, but it is precisely 10 he couldn’t identify between Mitred and Red-Masked. Why even bother counting these birds.

But the icing on the cake for me are the 30 rock pigeon and 3 ravens (exact counts this time) presumably there to give the checklist a veneer of truth. “It’s not just a list of all the possible parrots and parakeets an out-of-towner might need for their life list” he’s trying to suggest, “it’s a legit checklist, because, look, I also reported some pigeons and ravens.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are other equally optimistic (i.e. fictional) submissions from this birder in eBird. Short story – don’t be this guy. No one cares about the length of your eBird life list. And scientists rely on the accuracy of eBird data to do real science and track bird populations. Checklists like this distort what’s actually out there. Bird honestly, report truthfully.

I also love checklists in the category of  what might be called “my first-ever-and-only eBird checklist, reporting a rare bird, accompanied by a distant blurry photo of a common bird”. We have here a report of a rare fall, post-migration Tennessee Warbler in L.A. It includes no description of the bird, or any comments about when and where it was seen. Instead, the location is “Los Angeles”, where the person was apparently stationary for three hours. There’s a distant, out-of-focus shot of a Yellow-rumped Warbler attached to the report. I find these kinds of reports harmless, and much more laudable than the intentional lies of the one above. What we have here is probably a new, enthusiastic, and optimistic birder. 


But nothing, in my mind, can top this checklist. I can’t post an image of it here because the checklist is far too long. Over the course of almost 10 hours, up in Quebec, Canada, this birder had “the greatest birding day of my life.” And he’s not kidding. 726,383 individuals reported during an incredible day of migration. It boggles the mind to imagine seeing numbers like that. Among the astonishing sightings, 144,300 Bay-breasted Warblers, 108,200 Magnolia Warblers and 108,200 Cape May Warblers, 72,200 Yellow-rumped Warblers and 72,200 Tennessee Warblers, 50,500 American Redstarts, 28,900 Blackburnian Warblers, 14,440 Canada Warblers, and 1 Palm Warbler. 

Someday I hope to have a legendary checklist like that one.

Kill Fish, See a Nazca Booby

Brown Booby checking out our haul of dorado

Wandering the Pacific Ocean in search of fish and birds

If you think birders get up early in the morning, you haven’t met my sportfishing friend James. He chartered a boat for a handful of us to fish the waters off San Diego a couple of weeks back. We combine it with a night at a Mission Bay hotel where we grill up a delicious dinner and some doughnuts for a nice Dad getaway. But don’t stay up late at the hotel, because James wants to be 30 miles out in the ocean when the sun rises. That means setting our alarms for 3:30am so we could leave the dock at the ridiculous hour of 4:15am. It was dark, and nothing about this time of day deserves the modifier “in the morning.” Nautical twilight (first light) wasn’t until 5:45. The sun wouldn’t make its appearance above the horizon for almost two and a half hours.

Predawn bioluminescent algae off Point Loma

The dark boat ride out allowed us to see the bioluminescent algae in our wake, which was cool.  It took until 20 minutes after sunrise for me to spot our first seabird – some Black-vented Shearwaters. But this wasn’t a birding trip. We had a destination, and we weren’t slowing for any birds. Around 7:15, the captain cut the engine. To me, it looked exactly like every other spot in every single direction for as far as you could see. But fishermen see things differently. We were near something called the 302 spot, an area about 25 miles or so off Point Loma where the seafloor rises quickly on the southwest edge of the San Diego trough. Within minutes, we were casting our live sardine bait into the water. And, in decided contrast to all the fishing I’ve ever previously done, we were catching fish. Indeed, it was comically easy. It didn’t take longer than 10 seconds from the bait hitting the water to have a 15-20 pound blue, green, yellow, and silver dorado on the hook. They are beautiful fish who put up a respectable fight. The school stayed with the boat, so our killing spree lasted about 45 minutes. The wind was kicking up, and the waves were just on the edge of tolerable. Satisfied with our haul, we decided to head back in.

After killing fish, I turned my attention to birds

After the fishing excitement, I concentrated on birdwatching. I’d already seen a few nice birds. A couple of Black Storm-Petrels hung around the boat while we were fishing, a tiny Least Storm-Petrel made a brief appearance, a Pomarine Jaeger cruised by, and a couple of Sabine’s Gulls wandered past.  As we motored back to San Diego harbor, the ride became all about the boobies. First, an unidentified juvenile booby flew by almost a hundred yards away from the boat. I had no chance to ID it in the field, but I got some crappy photos that showed a white collar and brown head. That narrows it down to either a Masked or Nazca Booby. I’d never seen a Nazca Booby before. Relying on that sighting for a lifer wasn’t a happy thought, though. Thankfully, I’d get amazing looks at a pair of Nazcas about an hour later.

A lifer Nazca Booby giving great looks

Before we made it all the way in, we stopped at the Nine-mile Bank to fillet our dorado. Tossing the carcasses into the water instantly attracted a bunch of Western Gulls. As I scanned the gulls, a bigger, darker bird flew in. It had a classic booby shape – long pointy wings, a pointy long bill in front, and a pointy tail in back. It had dark brown wings, a dark head and chest clearly demarcated from a white belly. It was a Brown Booby. Brown Boobies live in tropical regions around the globe, and seems to be expanding northwards.  Before this year, I’d only seen them in Hawaii, but we saw several on the San Diego pelagic trip I took in August, and ended up seeing 4 individuals on this boat ride. Calmer seas closer to shore allowed for some decent shots of the curious bird.

Then, the money birds arrived. A pair of striking white-backed boobies appeared, with a wide, dark slash along the trailing edge of the wing. They were either Masked or Nazca Boobies. A few years ago, each would have been a pretty mega sighting in California waters. But with each passing year, more are being spotted off California. Still, both are pretty rare. The difference between the two is bill color. For Masked, it is all yellow. On Nazca, the bill turns orange-ish pink at the base. Before 2002, Nazcas, which mainly breed on the. Galapagos Islands, were considered a subspecies of Masked Booby. The pair I saw swooped around the gulls, and then one came over to the boat to explore. My photos were good enough to show the bill color, which was an orange-ish, pinkish color at the base, indicating Nazca Booby. This pair of adults, and a couple of juveniles, has apparently been hanging around these waters and the Coronado Islands off Tijuana all summer. I kept my fingers crossed for a Red-billed Tropicbird, but didn’t get so lucky.

At the end of the day, fishing just isn’t my jam. Getting up at 3:30am has days of after-effects. The six+ hours of wavy travel was a lot. The three-hour ride from the fishing spot to the dock was fine on the way back when I could look for birds in the daylight, but the early ride in darkness was pretty tedious. That said, you can’t see the seabirds if you aren’t out to sea. So I appreciate that my friend arranged for us to be out on deep water. That we ended the day with a boatload of mahi mahi, which has proven delicious in the many forms we’ve eaten it in the last week, was an unusual bonus.





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