Saturday, December 7, 2013

Not the Pacific Northwest

December 6, 2013
 As you can see from the photo above I am no longer living in the Pacific Northwest.

At the end of September Marlene and I made a long-dreamed move to the San Diego area. We thought we had a great job working together in a beautiful area. Our best-laid plans didn't work out exactly as we hoped. Our job lasted only 3 weeks. We thought we were going to have to move back to the Pacific Northwest and abandon our dream. It wasn't until December that we found another job in San Marcos in San Diego's "North County." [The city of San Diego is about 20 miles north and south and 10 miles east and west. Every area of the very large San Diego County not in the city limits is either North County or East County.]

So this is the end of this blog. It started covering backyard birds of the Pacific Northwest [See Backyard Birds of Portland, Oregon for links to each common backyard bird]. When I had covered those adequately, I went on to more advanced topics [See Advanced Birding means learning the basics]. In most cases this has been an educational blog, not a personal blog.

I have been thinking about my next blog. Do I really want to start another? Why? What would be its topic? I think a personal blog might be what I want to write. It would still intersperse photos and commentary of birds I see in San Diego, but also cover a myriad of other personal interests and observations. If/when I start such a blog I will put the link below. For now, it is goodbye...

See my new blog: Greg in San Diego

Greg Gillson

Friday, October 4, 2013

Wetlands Restoration FAIL

In the Pacific Northwest there are several invasive species that wetlands managers attempt to control. These include animals such as bullfrog and nutria, as well as plants such as reed canary grass and Himalayan blackberry.

Certainly I applaud all efforts to restore wetlands. It is very encouraging to see such efforts and associated costs going in to try to fix some of the damage we humans have inflicted on this planet due to ignorance and greed. My complaint here is with the bird aspect of wetlands restoration.

When trying to restore wetlands, I'm not sure that managers are thinking long-term. The word is "succession." If you remember back to 7th grade science class, you will remember that this refers to the changing of habitats over time. So, scrape the land bare of all those evil invasive plants and level to create a shallow pond, plant some native shrubs and trees to shade out the reed canary grass and try to out compete the blackberries, and voilĂ : a restored wetlands, right? Well, not for long. You see, the wetlands tend to channelize over time, the grasses and sedges are replaced by trees, and the ponds dry up.

This action is sped up by a certain plant I call a "native invasive species." It is the willow. This pernicious weed is a favorite of wetland plant ecologists--it grows well--really, really fast and dense. It quickly gives the appearance of a restored wetlands.

As far as bird watching goes, willows tend to clog up and destroy wetlands. They block the view and reduce avian biodiversity. Instead of numerous ducks, herons, and sandpipers, a few rather uncommon yellow warblers and willow flycatchers are found in summer, and not much else the rest of the year.

Here, let me show you. I have birded at Jackson Bottom Wetlands in Hillsboro, Oregon, since the mid-1980's and watched the changes. I love this place and know and respect many of the people that work here. It is a sample of many other locations--not an indictment of this one locale.

Wetlands FAIL
Ducks Unlimited pond at Jackson Bottom Wetlands, Oregon. Created 2012.
Above is a newly restored wetlands. This was formerly an annually flooded grassy field (Meadow Mouse Marsh). In winter it may flood 8 feet deep after rains. It dries out almost completely in summer. In the past 2 years this new wetland has attracted numerous migrant shorebirds, breeding ducks, raptors, herons, and other birds. Wonderful. But do you see the problem? Planted rows of willows--native invasive species alert!

This pond is not too different from that created adjacent to this 25 years ago. Do you want to see what this older pond looks like now--and what this new one will look like in a few years?

Pond at Jackson Bottom Wetlands, Oregon. Created about 1988.
What happened? Willow clumps grew up. The edges, rather than shallow and sloping as originally created, eroded and deepened. The bird species diversity that abounded for a few years immediately after the ponds were created are now reduced. Mudflats have disappeared and the open edges that birds wanted in order to watch for predators closed in. So they left. What happens next?


Kingfisher Marsh
Kingfisher Marsh, Jackson Bottom Wetlands, Oregon.
Yes, there is some nice restored native wapato planted in a swale. But 3 years ago there were mudflats here, grasses, sedges, rushes: herons, shorebirds, ducks. Now? Well, it is on its way from being a grassy marsh (the intent) to a wooded swamp (not the intent).

The view stands (not to mention the huge and expensive back deck of the nature center) now look at nothing but dense willow thickets. Gone are the expansive views of the marsh. Forever.

When restoring wetlands, land use planners should plan in willow removal every 5 years. I recommend burning, as every little cutting of willow that falls on the ground will grow. I know this is completely opposite of recommended wetlands restoration theory. But I have warned you! The wetlands you think you are making today will soon be consumed by willows.

Oh, and one other thing since I am on my soap box, wetlands restoration planners.... The photography blinds and view stands should face north or west--not east or south into the early morning sun. Doesn't the person designing these structures have any insight into their use?

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Juvenile Spotted Sandpipers masquerading as Solitary Sandpipers!

"Now I suppose you're going to tell me that juvenile spotted sandpipers don't have spots."

Well, yes; that is true. I know, fall shorebird identification is complex.

As a volunteer eBird reviewer I want to make sure birds reported into eBird in my local area are correct. Too many incorrect reports can really corrupt the data. Without this volunteer "cleaning" of the data, eventually every bird would be reported from every location. It becomes harder to find errors when birders are misidentifying birds that do occur in small numbers.

As reviewer I try to make these requests for more details a non-confrontational educational experience. [Oh-oh, the "E" word that my children used to dread!] It is my desire to create better birders submitting more accurate and complete lists of birds. When I go birding far away from home, it is not unusual for me to receive such "are you sure?" requests from other local reviewers asking about unusual species I may have reported. So don't take it personally.

For instance, when I see checklists with reports of Solitary Sandpipers (which do occur in small numbers in fall), but no reports of the abundant breeding Spotted Sandpiper, I ask the observer for more details for confirmation. [You can look up eBird fall reports of Solitary Sandpipers in your own county and check for this possible ID error yourself.]

Both Solitary Sandpipers and juvenile Spotted Sandpipers are medium small shorebirds with yellowish legs, a white eyering, and rather plain brown upper breasts. They are smaller than Lesser Yellowlegs, but barely so. Yellowlegs have a pale eyebrow stripe and longer, bright yellow legs.

Compare the following two photos taken at Fernhill Wetlands in Forest Grove, Oregon. Then we'll discuss them below. Initially they look much the same. Can you find 4 significant differences?

Juvenile Spotted Sandpiper
Don't let it fool you! This is a juvenile Spotted Sandpiper. Photo August 2, 2013 by Sandi Morey.

Solitary Sandpiper. Photo April 24, 2005 by Greg Gillson.
Did you find 4 differences in the above photos? Go ahead. Look again. I  have time...

OK, here they are.

1. Habitat. Empty mudflats on top, emergent weeds on the bottom. Yes, habitat is a key field mark for Solitary Sandpiper. Farm ponds, grassy edges. In contrast, the Spotted Sandpiper likes it a bit more open and often rocky--including rocky stream edges and lake shores.

2. Back and wing coverts. Both have brown upper parts. However, did you see the wavy black lines on the juvenile Spotted Sandpiper? What about the Solitary Sandpiper? It is lightly speckled with little white or pale cinnamon (western population juveniles) dots.

3. Breast. The upper breasts of both birds are rather smooth brown. However, the Solitary Sandpiper shows some streaking on lower breast.

4. Bill. The bill on Spotted Sandpiper is rather thick, especially compared to the needle thin bill of Solitary Sandpiper.

I hope this helps. The next time you record Solitary Sandpiper on your eBird list, go ahead and describe the habitat, wing coverts, breast, and bill in the comments section. Then anyone looking at your list will know that you didn't make this tricky identification error!

Friday, July 26, 2013

eBird best practices
Using BirdLog

The BirdsEye BirdLog is an application that runs on your smart phone and allows you to create and submit your eBird checklists right from the field. Brian Sullivan of eBird tells me that about 20% of all eBird checklists in the US are submitted by BirdLog and this number is rising rapidly.

I previewed this amazing technology when it first came out in March 2012: BirdsEye Bird Log: Killer app for eBirders.

eBird has their own best practices for BirdLog but I wanted to write my own best practices based on my experience over the last year or so. I'm using an Android phone; the fine details may be slightly different with the Apple iPhone. I do recommend looking at eBird's pointers, though.

Frankly, data coverage for cell phones is spotty in Oregon. I am using Cricket and they use the Sprint network for 3G data. This means that I have web access to the BirdLog phone application at home, up and down the I-5 corridor, and in major towns in the Willamette Valley and along the coast. When I am birding in areas with web access for the BirdLog app on my Android phone, it works quite well. For most of my countryside and forest birding, however, I do not have web access with my phone, and often not even roaming voice or text messaging. There is no web service in the Coast Range, Cascades, and most of the eastern two-thirds of the state. Thus I use the "Create offline checklist" feature of BirdLog on over 50% of my birding trips.

The main differences between the way BirdLog works with the online checklist and the offline checklist are primarily as follows. The offline checklist uses the entire default North American checklist rather than the local list of expected species for that time of year and county. It therefore doesn't know which birds are rare in your area, and sometimes requests confirmation for every species (a bug in the program of (only?) Android phones (has this been fixed in the latest update I just downloaded?). The offline checklist uses the sometimes inaccurate GPS alone to locate your position, and not the seemingly more accurate interactive map of the online checklist. Thus you can't locate your checklist on a hotspot, for instance, until you edit the location at home later. You can save your offline checklists to your phone, but can't submit them to eBird until you are back in the web coverage range again. These differences, however, don't significantly change the way I use BirdLog.

Start the application

When I first pull in to my birding location, before I even get out of the car, I immediately start up a new BirdLog checklist. Because GPS can be off, I always type in a descriptive location in addition to the longitude and latitude coordinates. I'll check, move if necessary, and rename the location later from within eBird, when I get home, using the "edit location/choose new location from a map" option.

Record species

As I bird, I record the new species I detect. This can get distracting, so I tend to bird slower than I used to--a good thing, as I detect more species! But don't miss birds because you have your nose in your phone! After I step out of the car I record what I can see and hear immediately, then only update the species list every 3 species (three being the number of things I can remember without forgetting...).

There are several ways to record species. You can scroll through the list. This is handy to make sure you haven't forgotten something. But if you are working offline you will have the entire North American list, so better only when you have the local list that comes with web access and cell phone coverage. BirdLog uses the bander's 4-letter code (KILL for Killdeer, AMRO for American Robin, WSJA for Western Scrub-Jay, etc.). But also, BirdLog will auto complete after the first 3 letters. So BAR will bring up Barn Owl, Barred Owl, and Barn Swallow for you to choose from. THR will bring up the thrushes and thrashers [Useful tip: if you have web access and are working online, and you see a bird that has a look-alike, say, one of the brown thrushes, typing in THRU will bring up all the local thrushes, but the most common will be listed first.]

Subspecies can be recorded too. MOF will bring up moffitti/maxima Canada Goose. AUD will bring up Yellow-rumped (Audubon's) Warbler. For Red-shafted x Yellow-shafted Flicker type FLI and hold your finger down on the drop down list to bring up further options.

Record numbers

I don't record numbers as I see them. Rather, I wait until I am returning to the car to make estimates. This is done by only looking at the species recorded, so I don't have to scroll through birds I haven't seen. When back to the car I check the numbers one final time.

For unusual birds I add COMMENTS to the field when I see them. One great tool is to be able to record the exact GPS coordinates in the comments field. This is newly computed and different from the initial checklist coordinates that were computed when you first started the checklist. This is a great way to give directions to a rare bird! My phone has both Swype and speech-to-text that work very well rather than typing to add comments in the field.

Time and Distance

I estimate how far I walked. Then I hit CALCULATE to record the time, which keeps track of my birding time from when I started the checklist. Since I always start the checklist when I arrive at a birding location, the time is accurate. 


I SAVE the checklist, but don't SUBMIT--even if I have web access. Invariably, as I drive away I'll see something in the parking lot that should be added to the list (or remember a bird I left off). So I'll wait until I am away from the birding area and back in cell coverage submit the list.

Since BirdLog is so easy to use, I create numerous checklists as I travel through the woods or country, often stopping at good looking habitat and doing a 5-15 minute Stationary point count.

More checklists. Checklists right from the field with no copying notes into eBird later. BirdLog is an eBirder's dream.

Friday, July 19, 2013

What is a County Birding Blitz?

On June 22-23 the Oregon2020 project ran its first County Birding Blitz. The purpose is to inventory the birds in a small location (county) on a single day or weekend. It is apparently modeled after a Bio Blitz, a word coined in 1996 by a US National Park naturalist for a public-assisted biodiversity census in Washington DC.

Twenty-seven birders participated, generating 436 eBird checklists throughout many areas of Polk County (results summarized here to OBOL email birding list). Polk, a county in the central Willamette Valley, was chosen as it is near a large number of birders yet under-represented in eBird.

As an example of the data they gathered, look at the eBird map of sightings for Chipping Sparrows in the northern Willamette Valley during May and June 2013. Throughout their range they like pine/oak, but in the Willamette Valley Chipping Sparrows here are hard to find and their preferred habitat is hard to explain. Generally, they like overgrown Christmas tree farms, filbert orchards, oaks, and small 5-acre horse "ranchettes," preferably all together adjacent to wheat fields. Such locations are found scattered around the foothills of the Valley, and I usually have to take several visits to favored locations near my home each spring in order to find one for my local county for the year. But look at all the Chipping Sparrows found on the Birding Blitz by hitting more randomized locations:

Chipping Sparrows on Polk County Birding Blitz (west of Salem)
Blitzing a county is sure to produce surprises. When the next Birding Blitz is scheduled I want to make sure to attend!

But even though I missed this one, I made sure to imitate this by making some "random" stops when I am out birding and record birds for 10-15 minutes at a stationary point for eBird (point count), especially when I am in unusual (not frequently birded by locals) habitats. I did this last week in my home county in agricultural areas hoping for Vesper Sparrows (found none), and later in the forest at several different stands of noble fir and clearcuts where I found Townsend's Solitaires and Hermit Thrushes).

More stationary counts and less traveling counts in eBird!