Friday, September 5, 2008

Chasing the "improbable"

Jay Carlisle called me early yesterday right after finding the young (male...female?), sixth state record Blackburnian Warbler at the Idaho Bird Observatory Lucky Peak site... but I didn't get the message until about 7:30 PM.

Photo by Jay Carlisle

Now be aware that, even though I've not seen a Blackburnian in Idaho, I've seen many, many of this species in both spring and fall while living on the East Coast for a number of years. In fact, during a late April visit to the Dry Tortugas, FL with my wife Teresa in the late 80's (who is a sometime, usually incognito birder with a personal Life List tucked away somewhere), there were literally scores of this little gem in a small tree near the ship loading dock... so many eye-poppers that we called it the "Christmas Tree." (If you've seen a male Blackburnian Warbler in spring, you'll definitely understand our descriptive christening.) But understand that yesterday's bird doesn't even resemble the ostentatious gaudiness of a spring male. Fall birds of the year are one of those "under the radar" pieces of complexity and comparative drabness that give "fall warbler identification" a widespread, but undeserved, bad reputation (and Garrett and Dunn a good residual income from the writing of the indispensable milestone tome, Warblers.)

Regardless of familiarity though, as soon as I could get away this AM (I fortuitously didn't have a class to teach today until noon), I was bumping, jolting and shaking my way up to the Lucky Peak site in my trusty 1990 Jeep Cherokee.

Maybe...just maybe, there was a slim, outside chance that this eastern visiting, western rarity spent the night. But by his message to me, I had already figured that Jay wasn't going to be there to help me look. And I clearly understood that the available habitat, even had it stayed, was immense and impossible for one person (or even an "army of birders") to adequately cover. And additionally, it took no genius to presume that this vagrant had randomly landed at the IBO station when the sun came up this morning, after spending a long night of internally driven, fat-burning, migration mis-direction... and was by now most reasonably somewhere many miles distant (but probably no more on track) by now.

So.... why drive about twenty miles at a slim notch under $4 a gallon, risk the inevitable "He's probably out with his binoculars birding again" comment by my long-suffering vocational partners, miss lunch, and look worse than a misplaced REI salesperson in the wilderness to the IBO research and grad students there with my binocular adorned sport coat, dress shirt and tie?

Here are seven very good reasons for you (and myself):

1. I have an incurable illness that can only be temporarily assuaged by regular, short intervaled, periodic high doses of wild winged encounters, e.g. "birding."
2. Although I hate to admit it, I'm a "Lister" at heart.... So I wanted this one for my Idaho Life List and Year List, my North American Annual List... even my Ada County List.
3. I love the puzzle of "fall warblers" (and confirm my insanity by equal doses of fascination with - even prolonged study of- gulls, shorebirds, empid flycatchers, sparrows, and eclipse ducks... among others.)
4. Even if unfruitful in the quest for the target bird, there are always other "interesting" birds to see. (In this case, five other species of warbler were identified, plus numerous other migrants and residents... including my Idaho year-bird Clark's Nutcracker, and my Ada County year-bird Lewis's Woodpecker... all on a "very birdy" morning, when something was always moving around in the trees and bushes.
5. If I wait to see only the "sure thing," stake-out birds, I'd never see anything of value.... even if I should be so lucky as to see the thing valued. (Take a moment to figure this one out, OK?)
6. There is never a "bird outing" where I cannot learn something new (although I wish I always did so)... if I keep my attention focused, my ears open, my eyes searching, and my "hard drive" mind processing. I don't believe that I've "arrived" as a birder/field ornithologist... or that in this life, I ever will do so.
7. I'm a "passionate teacher" at heart, and without new avian experiences and discoveries to draw upon to add to my mental "note cards" of field identification, there would be no later enlightening tid-bits of understanding and knowledge for myself and others to draw upon.... All would be repetitive and excruciatingly boring.

Seven is the ancient number symbol connotating completeness... and in this very present case, my justification for the "Blackburnian Warbler Weekday AM Expedition" is fulfilled.

By the way, my wife just e-mailed me from work: "I hope you saw your wittle birdie. How did that work out?" Somehow a short "No, I didn't see it, but I'm not in the least bit sorry I went" isn't worthy of what took place this morning.... But then, can the "unwashed masses" of non-birding hoi polloi even understand? [If you should happen to read this, I still love you anyway, Sweetie.]

Oh, and I also just received a call from Cliff Weisse who was on the way back from American Falls.... where he and Darren Clark found three gull-chasing Parasitic Jaegers and a Glossy Ibis....
Hmmm.... I can't get there tomorrow, but....

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Old Question, New Answer

No matter the birding message board, someone periodically has the courage (some would call it audacity) to ask this question. And just as the question is generally legitimate and sincere, so too is the ensuing multitude of often contradictory and confusing answers. Unfortunately, since the inquirer is quite often a fairly new birder, the end result is that she or he is left in a deep pit of bewilderment and uncertainty, unintentionally, yet most artfully, dug by some of the “experts” in the birding community.

“What is the best field guide on the market?”

That’s it… a very innocent, legitimate and reasonable inquiry, right? No matter the level of experience, skill, and knowledge there is no birder that hasn’t asked this question at some time. It is a question which deserves an answer, and to be fair, we should consider some of the more common, well intentioned and not necessarily wrong in and of themselves, replies before continuing.

There are the “Sibley people” who swear by the merits of his monumental, single person, artistic and descriptive accomplishment. Not to be silenced by such a singular achievement, defiantly chiming in with their choice is the “NGS (National Geographic Society) group,” eloquently extolling the comprehensive, multi-source “obvious superiority” of the Dunn and Alderfer work. Not to be left out is the “Kaufmann clan,” the legitimate offspring of the progenitor of all field guides, the late Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Birds, telling all that will listen that if simplicity and succinctness is valued, Kenn Kaufmann’s handy, “arrow enhanced” guide, reminiscent of the granddaddy of all guides, is what everyone is really needing.

Lest I forget, some swear by the “photos only” guides, rejecting all three of the above as nothing more than an artist’s imperfect perspective and expression. Seeing what a bird actually looks like through the eyes of a camera lens is received as “more realistic” than anything an artist can replicate. Field guides recently published by those advocates of all that is still natural and untamed in our world, the National Wildlife Federation and the National Audubon Society, fall into this category.

Let me preface everything else I share by stating emphatically that “I have most of them”… and realized quickly some time ago that there is no ultimate visual field guide… and that its creation is actually but a fond dream… and an impossibility. No one guide can ever fully represent the various races and morphs, as well as the seasonal, sexual, and age plumage differences of each species of bird you or I may possibly see. Every credible guide needs to be selective by reason of practicality and portability… most people just don’t have room for a library (and that’s what it would take!) in their backpacks…. And even if someone could take “it all” along on their birding trips, they definitely shouldn’t spend all the time it would take looking in the various guides, comparing and sorting (something that would have to be done to arrive at any hope of identifying some birds), while they could actually be looking at the birds themselves.

If you are one of the very many that have only one guide, let me be so bold to emphatically say that you are cheating yourself. It will not take you long to find a bird that is not “just like the illustration.” And then what happens?

Before moving on to my “new answer,” let me make it clear that having multiple guides is a good thing. Often what you see in the field is neatly and accurately illustrated in one, while absent from the rest. And if you haven’t discovered them for yourself yet, you soon will realize that some illustrations and photos can be downright misleading when used as the only source of identification for a specific species, e.g. Vesper Sparrow in NGS. So, when financially feasible, purchase those“ other” guides. Having two artist illustrated guides and one photo guide would be a nice minimum. You can’t go wrong by choosing from those that I’ve already mentioned.

From the “multiple general field guides” position, I’m sure that many will want to (and should) go on to obtaining bird family specific guide books dealing with some of the more identification troublesome taxonomic groupings, such as A Guide to the Identification and Natural History of the Sparrows of the United States and Canada by James Rising, or Gulls of the Americas by Jon Dunn and Steve Howell. While you will not find books like these for all species, the ones that are available will be invaluable.

But finally, here is a guide that few birders know about, and even fewer procure and utilize, yet I believe it to be a treasure chest of valuable identification information that no “serious birder” (you know who you are!) should be without. It is one to which I personally refer often… and would not be without. Peter Pyle’s Identification Guide to North American Birds, Part I is that guide. While only 395 Passerrine species (and 855 subspecies!) are dealt with (Doves through Weaver Finches) and that this is the guide used by bird banders for “in hand” identification, there is so much detailed, invaluable information that I believe it to be the one and only guide that no birder should be without. Now, be assured that I have no financial interest in more of this extremely detailed work being sold, other than as someone who cares deeply about carefulness and accuracy of all avian identification, there is no birder that I would not urge to take the extra effort it takes to purchase. Yes, you must order it by mail; it is not available in any store. One place to find it is at the Point Reyes Bird Observatory (PRBO) website:
or just Google the title and author.

Be advised, if you’re looking for elegant, artistic drawings or revealing photos, where all that is necessary is to “compare and match,” this guide will be an absolute disappointment. You will find nothing even coming close to the realization of those kinds of expectations. But if you’re looking for superbly detailed written information (with a few feather or other body part drawings thrown in when needed) about the seasonal, gender, age and subspecies related variations we all encounter, this book is for you. Sure, quite a bit of what you’ll find is only applicable to banders, but there is also a wealth of knowledge which is helpful for all of us “regular birders” that just cannot be found anywhere else. Also, be warned that some material may seem a bit technical and difficult for the average recreational birder to understand…. But even knowing that to be the case, what is available and important for everyone else is priceless.

So, what is the “new answer” to the same of old “What’s the best birding field guide” question? Without any reservation, especially if you already have an assortment of other guides, it is Pyle’s monumental work. Give it a try… it will not disappoint.

(By the way, Part II, covering all the rest of the birds in North America, is “coming soon”).

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Dissatisfaction Factor

If you are totally satisfied with your birding ability right now, don’t read any farther…. In other words, if you grab your binoculars, go out to a favorite birding spot, or even your yard, find undisturbed, absolute enjoyment in what you see with no thoughts or wishes of more “proficiency of skills”… Hey, God bless you… stop here… sit down and relax… and forget about reading my ramblings which follow.

Phil Unitt, Curator, San Diego
Museum of Natural History

I’m one of those “never satisfied” types. I can’t help it. Who in my progeny is to blame is a moot point, but this is definitely me. My long suffering kids and wife endure. My real friends realize its part of sharing my journey. And I’m sure any detractors or would be enemies just snicker… and stick another pin in the doll.

But for me, I’ve decided that this not too cleverly disguised strain of perfectionism isn’t such a bad thing after all… especially when it comes to birds. Now, if you’ve already summoned the foolish courage to read this far, I’d like to be so bold as to share this affliction with you. In fact, I would love to see it become an incurable contagion, sweeping through the birding population, sparing no one in its careful, measured march to a new level of field observation proficiency.

Over thirty years ago in Southern California, during the first exciting decade of my birding experience, I met Phil Unitt, the current editor of Western Birds, Curator at the San Diego Museum of Natural History, and arguably one of out most knowledgeable ornithologists. All good now, except in the early-70’s Phil would have been hard pressed to tell you the difference between an Ovenbird and the proverbial “20 blackbirds baked in a pie.” Then he may have been more into eating pie than identifying the latest avian rarity discovery at Death Valley’s Furnace Creek Ranch, the California birder’s world equivalent of Mecca and Medina. (Well, maybe I'm exaggerating a little bit.) But needless to say, anyone that was "a somebody" in the birding community went there on at least a twice yearly journey of discovery, searching for the steady stream of eastern rarities predictably encountered there.

Living in San Diego, Phil too made the obligatory long car trips, but in the process was cursed with one of the biggest blessings of his newly conceived and embryonic birding journey… his often inescapable birding companions were Jon Dunn and Guy McCaskie. Jon was arguably then already one of the most talented young field ornithologists to tackle the newly emerging intricacies of identification, distribution and vagrancy. And Guy was the acknowledged West Coast icon of a small but growing cadre of birders whose field identification (and finding) skills would become legend… and he was a mentor of Jon too. Through those lengthy weekend car trips to everywhere and anywhere in the state, Phil endured the pokes at and the prods of his field skills, often silently assimilating, digesting… and steadily improving in a way that inevitably no one would dare question.

Phil learned that dissatisfaction coupled with action was the doorway to endless horizons of continuing improvement. Today Jon (primary consultant and editor for the National Geographic Society Field Guide to the Birds of North America, a member of the American Ornithologists’ Union Checklist and Nomenclature Committee, and a much sought after tour guide for Wings) and Guy (longtime regional editor of the Southern Pacific Coast Region of North American Birds, Secretary of the California Bird Rarities Committee, frequent author and consultant, and acknowledged dean of California birders) both hold little, if any, superiority in knowledge and ability to Phil. At the least, through a relentless pursuit of “dissatisfaction resolution” he has become their equal.

Let’s be personally practical. What is your “dissatisfaction factor?” What is the next hurtle to meet head-on, rather than avoiding? What are the "id issues" that frustrate you? Maybe it’s that all time nemesis of many birders, gulls in anything less than full adult, field guide perfect plumage? Or perhaps those very confusing, nondescript ducks in their post-breeding drab eclipse plumage? And then there are always the juveniles of almost every species, bearing little apparent resemblance to their adult relatives. Vocalizations are another hurtle for many who find the quick “That’s a ___________” identification, without ever seeing even one feather of the living bird, a bit incomprehensible.

Each one of us knows… this one isn’t a mystery… what the next step for us as birders may be… the step to move beyond our “dissatisfaction factor” is very clear. And just as its clarity is universal, so is its uniqueness very individual and personal. Your step is your own, and quite unlike mine or that of anyone else.

Right now, my personal step is getting to know all the subspecies that can be seen in Idaho, and then being able to identify those that are separable in the field. I’ve made a dent in the process…. I make numerous mistakes. Sometimes I just want to give up in frustration…. Many times I’m sure that no one but me even cares about which race of an Orange-crowned Warbler they’re looking at… so why in the name of John J. Audubon should I care?!

But I’ve decided to persist… and so can you in whatever the dissatisfaction factor may be that is dogging your steps. You can take the next step! None of us may be the next Phil… or Jon… or Guy…, but you can become the next you! There is an unspeakable satisfaction in knowing that you were not satisfied with your dissatisfaction, did something about it, moved on… and became all that you could be as a birder.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

By the Numbers.... My Hero, Count von Count

One of my favorite Sesame Street characters has always been Count von Count, or more affectionately, just The Count. Whether attracted by the exaggerated eastern European accent reminiscent of Bela Lugosi, the overdone vampire-like Count Dracula appearance, his uncanny ability to put the entire physical and conceptual world into the context of numbers, or a combination of all three, I’m not sure. But I definitely thought The Count was cool and that imitating him by walking around the house counting everything in sight with that unmistakable and oh so artificial accent, all for the benefit of my boys of course, was actually most enjoyable. OK, I admit it, for some genetically inescapable reason, I like to count things… including birds, not in an arithmomania fashion, but definitely a greater than average fondness. And if you’re reading this, you probably do also.

Most of us have life lists, while some keep state, county, locality, and perhaps even backyard all-time or less extensive time period list. Maybe you have the counting affliction a bit more strongly and count birds each year, even month, or heaven help you, each week or day. But let me ask a leading and very important question.

Exactly what is it that you’re counting? My guess is that for the most part you’re counting the number of species you personally see and identify. Rarely do we count numbers of birds, unless they happen to also be rare, and it hits you that it sounds somewhat more impressive to say that you saw “three Yellow-bellied Lintcatchers.” Of course, there are the institutionalized counts in which we periodically imbibe, such as Christmas Bird Counts, an occasional Breeding Bird Census, Project Feeder Watch, and the relatively new Great Backyard Bird Count. Successful and respected as these may be, how many birders count birds every time that they go out, not just for special occasions? Some of us have enough trouble keeping track of the number of species we see on any given day (if we even do that), no less individual birds.

OK, some of you faithfully enter your foray stats into either eBird or BirdNotes, both commendable activities. And to you The Count respectfully bows and addresses his most sincere, but still maniacal approval. But from personal experience I know how many of those lists are completed is for the birder to go home, open up the appropriate website, enter the locality information, and check off the species, guessing at numbers seen, especially if it is a species that was encountered multiple times during the day… and is considered “common.”

Let’s just cut to the chase… uh sorry, I mean the count. While at times estimates of some species numbers is an inescapable reality (for instance, I don’t/can’t count each individual Red-winged Blackbird at Ted Trueblood WMA, even if I wanted to do so), and with practice we can teach ourselves to estimate in a reasonably accurate fashion, whenever possible actually counting birds in a manner that would make The Count proud is a valuable skill that we should unfailingly practice every time we go out birding.

I spent part of the early 70’s birding in California with the likes of Jon Dunn (Chief Advisor to NGS Birds of North America, AOU Checklist Committee member and Wings guide) and Guy McCaskie (undisputed dean of California birders, author, and longtime Editor of the South Pacific Coast Region for North American Birds journal), and was taught many of my first birding practices and skills by C. Roy Smith, a pioneer birding expert in Michigan. I’m indebted to these three and others since for immeasurably adding to my field ornithology skills, consciousness, practices, and perspective (quite often even without their knowledge of the gifts they were giving to me). One thing that I learned in that early “birding enlightenment” process was to always count, never just identify. Or restated, be very detailed and precise in your identifications, but also know how many of each carefully identified bird (and they all should be “carefully identified”) is present at any given locality. Soon after moving to Maryland, I received a thick envelope of typewritten pages from one of the above mentioned mentors, chronicling their year birding all across California (in case it was too long ago for some of you, typewriters were used before computers to neatly print what most people would not attempt to read if it were written by hand). Guess what I found throughout each page? Right you are…numbers, counts…highs, lows, averages.

The logical question that begs to be answered is “Why?” Why not just go out, enjoy the day and the birds, and not worry about how many there are. Who cares?

Let’s use the example of an established, institutionalized count, the annual Christmas Bird Count. Without numbers, accurate numbers, it is impossible to detect population variation… from year to year, as well as over longer spans. Also, recognition of deviations in distribution from place to place becomes a rich source of avian movement trends, abnormalities, habitat usage, and even potential heretofore unknown danger signals in targeted populations. And if we learn anything from CBCs it is that putting all the pieces together is fun. Just look at the evening group get-togethers which follow most Christmas Bird Counts… long faces, grumpy people because of all that counting, right? Wrong.

Here’s my challenge to myself and to you too… Whenever possible, count. Count the individuals, if necessary estimating the large flocks. Record them somewhere where they are accessible. Compare them. Share them.

Make The Count proud!

Friday, March 21, 2008

A New Use for Yearly County Listing Data

This marks the fourth year, beginning soon after Stacy Peterson and I put online for the first time in 2004, wherein the county yearly listing frenzy has continued. What at began as just a few “crazies” in a limited number of counties competing against each other for biggest yearly species list bragging rights has swelled into an all-county (or almost so) statewide, all year, record keeping marathon, all kept on a somewhat sane, orderly keel by Lew Ulrey.

I like to occasionally look at the web page and check out how the various counties are doing as much as any other insane Idaho birder. And I find the updates on IBLE (some more regular than others, simply because of the personnel coverage advantage that some counties have) interesting… and yes, informative. But I would like to suggest a more “serious purpose” for these lists than the obvious.

When looking at each migratory species across the board, it becomes quite obvious what are the arrival dates (both early and mean) for each bird throughout the state… and in each county (and with a little bit more application, each geographic, or even topographic, section of the state).

Let’s look at it this way: Let’s say that someone wants to know when Chipping Sparrow first arrives in Idaho each year, as both an earliest arrival date and as a mean/average arrival, the information is easily accessible to make the necessary determination. And obviously with each additional year archived, there is a greater sampling from which to draw.

If this is starting to sound like an entry level statistics class, let me hopefully make it more practical. Yesterday there was an article by Seth Bornstein, an AP Science writer, published here locally in the Idaho Statesman newspaper refers to the changing dates (much earlier) for both the Washington D.C. cherry blossoms emergence and various butterflies appearing in flight over recent history. Many have also declared with anecdotal authority that our migratory birds, Neotropical and North American, are arriving earlier each year.

Well…these county lists can be Idaho’s database for a realistic assessment of arrival dates for all our migrant species.

But for these otherwise meaningless appearing dates to have any lasting significance, here are some vital things in which we all, to some degree, can have a part:

1. Carefully and accurately note all of your first arrivals of the spring.
2. Post your arrival dates directly on IBLE, Inland-NW-Birders, or SWIBA.
3. Send your dates to your county compiler (they are listed on the site… even if you think your sighting may not be the first of the year… You never know, it may.
4. “Someone” needs to compile and work with the available dates on each of these birds (arrival for each, mean arrival date over the years, earliest arrival date), put the data in a spreadsheet form, and send the information someone who has a very specific plan for its wider utilization… Me! (More on that later… I promise.)
Maybe someone with an accountant’s mind (or who just desires to provide a lasting, potentially impacting service for understanding Idaho’s birdlife) wants to take on a few counties (or just one)… or maybe even head up this project (help put it together)? I want to definitely hear from you…. Please… pretty please. :)

There are some other just as important sides to this, which need to be worked out also. Perhaps you have an idea that you could share that would set us here in Idaho on our way toward getting all of these necessary bits of information:

1. Departure dates are needed, just as arrival dates. How can we begin to amass them?
2. Dispersal dates – arrival and departure – would be very valuable. For instance, when do we see our first Red-breasted Nuthatch in the lowlands each year (perhaps even none in some years)? When do they leave (or as in a recent case, stay over the summer)?
3. Winter (or sometimes summer, depending on the birds) invasion/dispersal species from the “North” (some predictable, others not) need to be “mapped.”

We are sitting on a goldmine of information, information that at least partially is very readily accessible and just waiting to be utilized.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Swan Identification Dilemma

Idaho is one of the few localities in North America where differentiating between Trumpeter Swan and Tundra Swan is a necessity... at least if we want to be carefully accurate in our observations. All too often I've heard "It looked too big to be a Tundra" or "There was no yellow on the bill" or even "They kept away from the others, so...."

Idaho Migratory Waterfowl Stamp, 1990-1991 - Trumpeter Swan

Unfortunately all of the preceding are not good reasons in and of themselves to make an accurate determination. And although Trumpeter Swans are regularly seen in western Idaho, I wonder a bit about numbers often reported, especially considering the obvious drop-off in occurrence when moving away from the eastern Idaho breeding areas. Even the map utilized at the conclusion of this piece designates a "non-breeding, resident population" in western Idaho.... Don't mistake that as meaning the birds are there all year long. It means nothing more than they can be present during non-breeding times (non-summer or breeding season)....

David Sibley makes some good (and as usual, well illustrated) points, primarily based on a visit to Skagit Valley of Washington State to view both species. The material is worth careful consideration, especially at this time of the year:
Personally, I have found two id points to be most helpful in sorting out these two very similar species. First, I have not found the head shape to be a variable between the two. As with white-cheeked geese, taking careful note of the relationship between bill and head is very telling. With practice, it is quite easy to see the much more rounded shape of the Tundra Swan head, which is even more accentuated by the steeper slope of the bill in relation to the head. Trumpeter Swan head/bill relationship is much more continuous in nature, from bill tip to top of head, which often seems quite peaked with what can even be an abrupt point at the rear of the crown. A head-on view of a bird might be more of a challenge, but usually the bill/head relationship identification point is diagnostic of itself. Another little referenced but extremely useful point when looking at a bird "head-on" is the fact that the bill outline of Trumpeter Swans forms a "V," whereas that of a Tundra is much more of a "U."

A second point that can be very helpful is the positioning of the eye. Even when viewing the suggested 10% of Tundra Swans which have no yellow on the bill at all, the eye still seems to be "disconnected" from the bill, whereas in Trumpeter Swans the eye and bill blend together into an indistinguishable whole. I find that even at a distance this trait is useful and, with practice, can be easily noted.

Here are some often used identification points that should not be relied upon, especially if used in isolation:
1. apparent body size of the individual bird
2. presence of (or lack of) yellow on the bill
3. body shape and structure
4. association with or away from other swans
5. leg color
6. isolated vocalizing birds - "bugling" of Tundras can sound strangely like the "trumpeting" of Trumpeters. "Whistling" (hence the former name, Whistling Swan) is not the only vocalization of a Tundra Swan.

Also, of interest are the total reported Trumpeter Swans in the Great Backyard Bird Count, beginning in 1998 through 2008, for Idaho, Oregon, and Washington:


One issue also worth mentioning is the identifcation of first year birds. Bill size and shape is not reliable on young birds, particularly since young Tundra's bills seem quite "large." Young birds (gray-brown in both species) which have pure white on scapulars in December and January are always Tundras (Trumpeters are still in full juvenile plumage during this time period). During the months before December, when juveniles can seem quite similar in plumage, Trumpeters are said by many to have a more patterned, scaly look resulting from lighter feather edges. I cannot personally speak to this potential differentiation.

Of instructional value may be detailed range maps for both species (provided by

Tundra Swan

Trumpeter Swan

(As always, your critical comments about the helpfulness, accuracy, and reliance of any identification material is welcome.)

Monday, March 10, 2008

A Call for L.I.C.S. (Locality Intensive Coverage Surveys)

I should probably be the last to bring up this subject, but having actions matching our convictions would be a worthy goal for anyone’s deeper aspirations, right? And I for one am definitely into that type of “matching.”

Ted Trueblood WMA, North Pond
Photo: Courtesy of Tom McCabe
So, with that cryptic preface, let me launch out boldly to say that I’m sure it’s a given that few of us non-professionals in ornithology have unlimited field time (unless perhaps we may be so fortunate as to also have “bottomless pockets”), most of us picking and choosing our time in the field from an assortment of weekends, mornings, evenings or days off from doing the things that bring in the paychecks and keep our lives, whether family or personal, from falling apart. Where we spend those limited hours of birding does make a difference…at least if considering a larger picture than just enlarging our home county, state and/or life lists.

I know… I can hear some of you already…Yes, I’m the guy who spent an entire year running around Idaho, chasing every possible lead, probably single-handedly pushing up the price of gasoline by my personal use and demand, often idly wishing I could get some kind of frequent flyer/use awards for repetitively traveling I-84 east and US 95 north from Boise. But I’m happy to say that my family, budget, and ethics all survived that year’s peripatetic quest, which by December left me wondering what mental magical euphoria the ability to truthfully and proudly state that I had seen “318 different Idaho bird species, recognized, accepted, and greater in number than any other birder before me in this state during one calendar year” was all about. In retrospect I’ve come to the conclusion that although it was a definite challenge and personal achievement stretch, I’ve boldly and indelibly etched on the tablets of my psyche “Never again!”

Yes, you’ve probably already guessed it. This is going to be an impassioned, but hopefully most logical, appeal to not be a bird chaser, but rather a bird finder…and then not just to anywhere your fancy may strike you on a given day or weekend, but at a specific, regularly checked, carefully tabulated, explored, and consciously selected locality or route that you stick by for not just a few weeks or months, but perhaps even years, season in and season out…a LICS or Locality Intensive Coverage Survey.

Everyone wants to be in that place “where the birds can be found”…as many and of as great a variety as possible. No one wants to spend their precious, limited time looking at little of number or consequence. If I’m going to put off mowing, cleaning, fixing, and shopping (to name just a few, often family assisted, glaring needs that have a way of “intruding” on free time), then I want to make sure I’m not wasting my energy on a potentially bird-less landscape, right? Why not go to where someone else has already assured me of a good shot at numbers, variety, and even possible rarities?

Before I answer my own rhetorical questions… (definitely beware of people who talk to themselves!), let me tell you that I’m the kind of person that doesn’t like life just handed to him by someone else’s actions. I actually enjoy the hard work and effort necessary to accomplish. I get a rush out of seeing it happen because I myself make it happen. For me “passivity” and “conformity” are in the same category as malignant cancers, the N.Y. Yankees, big oil companies, Soap Operas, and Country Music… I know that I can’t escape them and can’t outrun their relentless resiliency and pervasive power, but in no way or form do I want to succumb to their ever encroaching evil either, and be branded by them. (I figure that I’ve lost about one-half of you with that last sentence, but…I believe honesty is still a virtue.)

Let me put it this way, especially for all you hardcore listers. By doing the hard work of selecting an area to regularly and carefully census, recurrently and conscientiously following through on surveying that area, and then keeping permanent records over the course of many seasons, records which in some way can be shared with others about observable changes in avian populations, you and I can potentially be adding an important piece to a larger puzzle of occurrence, distribution, dispersal, population, and habitat adaptation of various species, to say nothing of chronicling potential changes in the land itself and its environmental suitability for birdlife.

I know, the Breeding Bird Census, Christmas Bird Count, Great Backyard Bird Count, and various other lesser known and appreciated “counts” having been doing this very thing for years… but they are all one time, seasonal, “give me your best now and then move on to something else” at best.

Let me share my personal example. As of this writing there are few active birders in the Mountain Home, Elmore County area. After Stacy Peterson left for Alaska, there were few that ventured down to Ted Trueblood Wildlife Management Area and the area around C.J. Strike Reservoir on a regular basis. Yet the area always seemed to have “good birds” when checked by birders passing through or deciding to give it a seasonal shot for a day or so. The Bruneau Christmas Bird Count attests to the possibilities of at least a portion of the area. Ted Trueblood WMA is but 52 miles from my front door, and I can make a round trip, after continuing on through Grand View to the Strike Dam, finally stopping at access points along the south shore of C.J. Strike before returning home, totaling approximately 150 miles (at $3 or so per gallon, that’s about $18 to $20 per week). While I may not be able to “run my route” on the same day of the week, 52 weeks per year, I have decided to come as close as possible to that precision regularity as schedules, family, finances, and the serendipitous nature of life will allow.

Initially I will be able to compare my sighting results to other more irregular visits I’ve made in years past (and perhaps the visits of other birders also). But the fun really starts when comparison can be made going into a second or subsequent year, looking at species numbers, arrival and departure dates, dispersal patterns, breeding and over-wintering records, etc.

Here’s my challenge to you: find a place, any place, that you can “make your own.” Set out your own schedule of coverage. Maybe it can be more than once a week, perhaps in some cases even close to daily. It might even be your own backyard! Or it could be that you can only cover your area every other week, or every ten days… it’s your project. You can set the parameters and boundaries of coverage.

Here are the things that are important for you to do to make this a potentially valuable part Idaho’s permanent record of birdlife (or wherever you may live):

Choose the coverage area
Set out a schedule of coverage, keeping as close to set reporting times and dates as possible
Keep careful record of not only species seen, but numbers of each species, first and last dates seen during any season, major movements of species into the area, etc.
Note weather and viewing conditions on each day
Make note of any divergences you make from the preset observation patterns, for instance, any places you may have skipped or added on a given day.
Take down descriptions of any unusual or rare birds seen. (“Rarity” can be a very relative term, because what is rare for your viewing territory might be “common” elsewhere, or visa versa. You are the expert on the birds of your area; you have the records; you are the one who knows what birds are worthy of note.)
Regularly share your findings on a forum such a IBLE (or the bird message board of your choice for the area in which you live)

What will doing these LICS (Locality Intensive Coverage Surveys) accomplish? What’s in it all for you?
The personal satisfaction of discovery and adding to the collective knowledge of the birdlife of an area, if not also a state
Becoming THE EXPERT on the birdlife of your chosen area. No one will know more about the birds of your area than you know about them.
Refining and fine-tuning your identification, observation, and recording skills in a way that few birding exercises can accomplish

Some of you have been participating in LICS before I gave it a name and made it a potentially new birding acronym. Whether in your backyard, local park, nearby reservoir, National Wildlife Refuge, or ?...this is nothing new to you. People like Darrell Marks at Dry Lakes, Canyon County, or Cliff and Lisa Weisse in Island Park, or many others have been setting the standard (my apologies to those that I did not mention by name).

But my challenge to the rest of you is to also take up this golden opportunity. Idaho is yet “young” when it comes to what we actually know about its birdlife compared to neighbors such as Oregon and Washington, or even Utah and Nevada. I would love to see what some of you come up with. If you need suggestions or assistance in getting started with you personal LICS, let me know and I’ll be more than happy to give you some suggestions.

LICS for Idaho…and the West!

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Looking At Downys in a Whole New Way

Downy Woodpeckers are found throughout the state of Idaho, at almost every elevation and habitat with necessary trees for nesting and foraging. As one travels across the state from west to east there is a noticeable morphological difference in this species, so much so that in 1972 when Thomas Burleigh published his then definitive work, The Birds of Idaho, he assigned two subspecies to the state. One is found throughout the state, from north to south and then east to almost the border with Wyoming. It is near the eastern border, that he designates another subspecies, one then found continuing on all the way to western Nebraska.

Burleigh assigned the subspecies Dendrocopos pubescens parvirostris to the vast majority of the state. The AOU never recognized this subspecies, and while clinal, it is morphologically distinct. Later the Downy Woodpecker was officially renamed on the Family level to Picidae, thus changing its binomial to Picoides pubescens, and in turn designating the race of all Downy Woodpeckers found in Idaho P.p.leucurus. In other words, the current accepted taxonomy gives us only one recognized subspecies which stretches from east of the Cascades through the Great Basin and Rockies and on to western Nebraska.

Regardless of official subspecies recognition or not, we cannot lose sight of the undeniable fact that Burleigh’s statewide parvirostris is visually distinct from the extreme eastern Idaho (though apparently not northern Idaho birds) of leucurus, especially when we are looking at birds near the western border of the state as opposed to those viewed in the east. If I’m losing you, let's just say that the birds of this species which I regularly see around Boise in the southwest look different from birds seen near the eastern border by observers aware of the color and structural differences.

View these photos, making sure to read through the caption explanation under Photo #1:

Of interest to some might be a generalization called Bergman’s Rule, which simply stated is that birds of a species are larger from the north and higher, cooler elevations, while smaller from the south and lower, warmer elevations. This understanding is applicable to the seven recognized subspecies of Downy Woodpecker, although size can be a very difficult characteristic to gauge in the field for a species like this.

Downy Woodpeckers have not been shown to be migratory, but there is strong evidence for dispersal of birds during migration times (they would have to return to place of origin to be considered truly migratory, and that has not been shown to be the case). Whether this dispersal, sometimes for very long distances, and not just altitudinally, is in response to food needs and/or changes of season and vegetation, particularly deciduous trees losing their leaves, is also unclear. There are no areas where this bird breeds that it is not also present at any other particular season of the year.

Identifiable specimens of parvirostris have been taken as far north as Bonner County south to Owyhee County. As with Horned Larks, banding data would be interesting and informative to gather from various areas of the state…even examining data already gathered from Idaho Bird Observatory stations in the west and east could make a difference in our understanding… if any such morphological differences were ever noted or photos taken.

Could we possible find other Downy Woodpecker subspecies in Idaho? Reasonable possibilities would be P.p.turati (smaller and paler gray, not immaculate white below as Idaho birds tend to be), which is resident from north central Washington to central Oregon, all east of the Cascades, or P.p.gairdnerii, resident from south west British Columbia to northern California, mainly west of the Cascades (and is actually similar in wing appearance to Burleigh’s parvirostris, with few spots, but with underparts usually a very dingy white, sometimes even a brownish gray).

Confused? Frustrated? Don’t really care? But just think of the upside, the enjoyment, of getting to know this bird, and for that matter any bird, so well. If you’ve come this far with me…and even studied the pictures with their captions, I am willing to bet that you will never look at a Downy Woodpecker in the same way again! And this is a great time of the year to really start looking, because drumming birds are so much easier to locate in spring and early summer.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Should We Bother with Subspecies? or "I'm Tired of the Listing Game!"

[The following was first written by me in 2005 in answer to many questions from fellow birders and others about my obvious deep fascination with subspecies, and the attendant identification and distribution problems and issues which inevitably are the object of so much of my attention. I believe that it was a good apologetic for subspecies investigation then, and I believe it is still such today...perhaps even more so. Furthermore, I believe this direction of effort has made me a more detail oriented and careful field observer...and in the process increased my ultimate satisfaction and joy in studying birds.]
Photo: North Park, C.J.Strike Dam, Elmore County, ID
16 February, 2008

When I first started birding the challenge was to see as many “new birds” as possible…. birds to check on, check off, and then check out from. If it was pictured in my Peterson’s or Golden Bird Guide, it was an undeniable object of desire. And like the addict which I was, I’d visually “use it up” for its instant gratification value and hurry on to my next avian fix. Concern about range, age, and plumage variation was almost non-existent. To me there were only eastern and western birds, a few immatures (that I would probably never see anyway), and those magical “arrows of identification” that gave me the necessary assurance to put that coveted check mark next to the object of my feathered lust.

Then a strange but ultimately wonderful thing happened: I moved to a very different and geographically removed part of the country and noticed that some birds that I had been used to seeing and that usually didn’t merit more than a casual look in my previous area of residence, looked a bit different than I remembered. For instance, Red-tailed Hawks were still recognizable as to species, but something had changed. But what was it? Although I did not realize it at the time, I was experiencing my first wonderful introduction to the "world of the subspecies."

It can be pointedly and rightfully asked: “Why bother?” And the answer definitely depends on if one’s interest in birds goes beyond the “lure of the lists"… the potentially endless, and often sterile daily statements of what species were seen, on which trip, sometimes even without a quantity notation, hurriedly jotted down on some soon to be lost scrap of paper. If this is where birding ends, then so does my interest level…and even mentioning subspecies is both needless and ultimately inhabiting.

But maybe, just maybe, there is another dimension to birding… an amazing “new frontier” whose understanding focuses us on distribution and dispersal and detail in a manner as never before.

First, let’s look at the basics of classification or taxonomy. All living organisms are classified into a hierarchy, with standardized Latin or Latinized names. There are seven main levels of classification in this hierarchy. From the most to the least inclusive they are: Kingdom, Phylum (of Division), Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species. Subspecies are a grouping of organisms that differ from other members of their species by a possible combination of color, size, or various morphological and genetic characteristics. Often these subspecific groupings are called a “race.” What makes subspecific birding a bit tricky is the reality that sometimes races of a species are distinguishable and therefore recognizable in the field… and quite often they are not, only being classified by “in hand” examination, or through DNA sample comparisons, both obviously unavailable to the average birder.

Additionally, and hopefully not to confuse, there are what we call “morphs,” which do not necessarily represent different subspecies. A morph is an observable typing, quite often characterized by the color of a species, and may be inclusive of more than one subspecies. So for instance, a dark morph Red-tailed Hawk may be a possibility in various subspecies of the one species, namely Red-tailed Hawk.

Confused yet? Still hanging in there with me? OK, let’s dig a bit deeper.

Let’s say that one fall season you notice Mountain Chickadees showing up at your backyard feeder and also unexpectedly on you weekend lowland forays. You know that they belong in the mountains, and make the easy and reasonable assumption that they have “come down” for the winter. But what if it were possible to identify the chickadees you are seeing as to subspecies and thereby be able to tell what maintains they had come down from? Maybe they are not from the population of birds closest to home, but because of some trigger event in their normal area of residence, they have moved to your town and your backyard to seek food and ensure survival? Wouldn’t that make for a much more satisfying identification than to just mark down another “generic” Mountain Chickadee seen?

And consider the much taken for granted “I see them every day, without even looking for them” Canada Goose. Somewhere on their subconscious mental snapshots taken, most birders knew that this ubiquitous waterfowl came in different sizes, shapes and shades. But it has only been since the American Ornithologists Union and the American Birding Association pronounced that “science” has demonstrated that there are really 11 subspecies of 2 distinct species, that the birding fraternity has started paying attention. [You didn’t thank that a Brantaphile like me would get through this piece without mentioning my beloved white-cheeked geese subspecies, did you?] That wonderful bonus of listing, “the split,” always involves previously recognized subspecies. Remember the “species origins” of Juniper Titmouse, Cassin’s Vireo, Cordilleran Flycatcher, and others? And what about when taxonomists reverse the process and "lump" species, making them subspecies, as with Red-shafted Flicker, Oregon Junco, and Audubon’s Warbler? And in case you think it's all finished, just around the corner are nine subspecies of Red Crossbill clamoring for full-fledged species status (one endemic to Idaho), to say nothing of the Fox Sparrow.

Who is there that lifts binoculars to follow the flight of that unidentified treetop denizen or squints through a scope at mere blobs bouncing in the waves that doesn’t want to increase and fine-tune their powers of identification? Believe me when I state that there is absolutely no better way to make that happen than to practice the careful attention to detail that subspecies id requires. Subtle differences in color or pattern, bill shape, feather extension, even vocalization differences make up the wonderful world of the subspecies.

Do I have your interest yet? Are you willing to give it a try? Obviously, you will need an id source to give you an idea of what to look for. A very simple (and to be noted, often over-simplified) place to start is with the differences noted by Sibley in his field guides. Going a small step further would be to look at his website pages dealing with subspecies Pull out your book and compare it to names and comments on the web.

Are you hooked yet? Want to go further? Get a copy of the AOU Checklist (1957) with Supplements, or subscribe to Birds of North America online (Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology). Begin taking notes and photos… even of the “common stuff”…and then compare as you travel to different geographical areas or diverse habitats. Note if there are species in your state or region which comprise more than one race, and then as you travel begin taking note of the visual or vocal differences. In so doing, often the common becomes rare, and the rare finally becomes geographically placeable.

But some words of caution are in order, now that you’re all ready to go “subspecies hunting.” First, get to know the birds well, even the very common ones, in your area. Take notes, draw sketches, and snap photos. Second, when you see that bird that looks a bit different, or is in an area where a distinct subspecies should occur, understand that many subspecies are clinal, that is they have overlapping characteristics, often poorly understood or documented. Finally, continue to carefully note differences from your home population when looking at as wide a slice of birds as possible which may be present in a new area.

Here it would be wise to note that some have taken a fancy to using – and even listing or counting – “identifiable forms.” This is not necessarily the same as subspecies identification. An identifiable form may be inclusive of more than one subspecies, or conversely more than one identifiable form may comprise a single recognized race, as where locally distinct, yet consistent, clinal differences are present.

So in summary, why should birders bother with subspecies?
1. As an alternative to traditional listing
2. As a tool for new and expanded awareness of species distribution and dispersal patterns
3. As a path to a more careful attention to plumage and vocal details, and thus an attendant increase in overall identification skills
4. As a potential addition to developing a species/subspecies knowledge base
5. As a facilitation to a more thorough understanding of actual and potential “splits” and “lumps,” before, after, and as they occur.

So if you’re looking for a new challenge in birding, try entering the wonderful world of the subspecies. You won't regret taking the plunge!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Horned Lark Subspecies in Idaho

This is a follow-up to my post on IBLE of 25 January, 2008 which began to deal with the complexities of Horned Lark subspecies present and identifiable in Idaho during the winter months.

Photo: Bob Martinka, taken
in Helena Valley, MT
2/4/08. Probable E.a.
merrilli intergrade.

Let me say, right off the top, that the more I investigate this situation the more complex and not straight forward it becomes. Although there are 21 subspecies recognized by the American Ornithologists Checklist, 5th edition (1957), it must be understood that this species exhibits much intra-population variability, with numerous intermediate populations between the established races. What we have are endless variation possibilities, with micro-populations based on color and size differences resulting from a blending of the typical forms of each subspecies population. Clinal variations and differences are the rule rather than the exception, with “typical” being a nice technical term that has difficulty finding much viability in the realities of field observation with this species.

With that said, let’s look at what identifiable subspecies have been documented to be present in Idaho, where they can be expected to be found (based on recorded, available data), and how these subspecies can reliably be identified (perhaps) by observers in the field, especially outside of the breeding season.

(Let it be it noted here that there is a dearth of banding data available, which if it were systematically gathered by knowledgeable personnel at strategic and appropriate habitat locations throughout the state during the winter months, when conditions are unfortunately most unfavorable to human activity, many of the missing pieces of Horned Lark dispersal and distribution would become available. )

Subspecies that have been observed and/or collected in Idaho:

Eremophila alpestris arcticola
This race is the largest of the western subspecies and regularly migrates from its breeding grounds in Alaska, the Yukon and through the mountains of British Columbia south to Northern California and east to Wyoming. This is the only western race that does not intergrade with adjacent forms, therefore we do not see the potential variation here that is the bane of other subspecies field identification.
It has a white throat and eyebrow stripe, a pale, neutral gray back, boldly streaked with dusky brown, a pinkish-buff nape which bisects the streaking of the dorsum which continues onto the crown, a trait unique to this subspecies and not detailed in field guides. Its larger size is noticeable with careful comparative observation, especially appearing somewhat plumper than any of its potential winter associates.
It has been recorded by both collection (first record, Coeur d’Alene, 1897) and observation along the north/south length of the state. Specimens in the Colorado Museum of Natural History document 109 records from southern Idaho, spanning the area from Ada County to the eastern state border, from 4 November to 20 February.
The subspecies is possible anywhere in the state beginning at about the start of October until the beginning of March.

Although not mentioned in Birds of Idaho (Burleigh, 1972), it undoubtedly occurs regularly during winter, most probably throughout the length of the state. One of only three races that are entirely migratory, it breeds from northern Baffin Island to northern Alberta, across Canada to Ontario, wintering south to Nevada (including Idaho) and across to Michigan (Beason, BNA, #195). Burleigh does cite records of E.a.enthymia from the southeastern portion of the state based on identifications by provided Oberholser of specimens in the Colorado Museum of Natural History. I question this based on Beason who contends that E.a.enthymia is a Great Pains breeding bird whose range extends a bit further south in winter, but is a long distance from Idaho (and inconsistent with the numerous records cited). Further fitting into the picture of misidentification is that enthymia is morphologically very similar to hoyti, and would be difficult to visually tell apart…and as mentioned, Burleigh does not even reference hoyti as a visitor to Idaho, which it is undoubtedly.
This race is primarily identified visually by its white eyebrow and yellow throat.

This is one of three breeding races of this species in Idaho, this one primarily in the southern portion of the state, documented as far north as Custer County. Although most of the population moves out of Idaho during the winter months (this is the northern boundary of it breeding range), there are scattered remnants of the population that overstay the winter, often being most readily found in larger mixed flocks of the species.
Unique to this race (for Idaho) is its matching yellow eyebrow stripe and throat (although the stripe may be a bit lighter). Additionally it had a drab nape and crown, and dusky brownish back.
Breeds in the coast mountain ranges of western Washington, and primarily winters in the lowlands surrounding those mountains. Apparently it does occur regularly in northern Idaho, most often reported in association with flocks of E.a.arcticola. Specimens have been taken primarily in February, although there is one September record from Lewiston, and one southern Idaho record on November 23 from Emmett.
According to Beason it resembles the migratory arcticola but “E.a. alpina is smaller and less brownish than E. a. arcticola with a darker back and more pinkish nape, uppertail-coverts, and upperwing-coverts. (This may be a difficult one to separate in the field.)

Another Idaho breeder, this one in the southwestern corner of the state, according to specimens not north of Ada County nor east of Owyhee County…a very restricted breeding range in the state. It apparently can (and does) occur in the winter months also, while occasionally also being present in northern Idaho during that period, apparently moving from its breeding grounds on the arid sagebrush plains of eastern Washington.
Similar to E.a. arcticola in appearance (along with E.a. alpina), the base color of the back is darker (less gray) than arcticola, with the striping and base color blending together, lacking the dramatic contrast of arcticola. Also, to my knowledge, the dorsum striping pattern is not seen on the crown.

This is the third breeding population in Idaho, most common in the north, and found from the Canadian border to as far south as Washington County. In most areas it is absent during winter, retreating to the southern portion of its range (n. California), although there are two Moscow, Latah County specimen records from December. Apparently it is resident in the Lewiston area all year long, at times very plentiful and easy to find in “flocks of 20-200” (Burleigh, 1972).
This is the darkest of all the subspecies, with the back being blackish brown, nape brownish, extending around the wing wrist, the throat yellow, and a lighter yellow eyebrow line. It is fairly easy to pick out of any mixed group because of it contrasting dark color.

To date five subspecies of Horned Lark have been documented in Idaho. Few, if any, birders or researchers out in the field have paid much attention to plotting subspecies presence, therefore there is still much to learn of the movements of these groups, especially during migration and winter. For the amateur who likes identification challenges…and for the professional wanting to add some important pieces to the body of knowledge of this species, opportunities abound.

Some photos of Horned Lark subspecies in Ada County:

(Be advised that this is far from a completed work.... Much field work remains to be done. Photos of Horned Larks are always welcome.)

Harry Krueger

Boise, ID