Friday, December 30, 2011

American Wigeon portrait

American WigeonAmerican Wigeon, Beaverton, Oregon, 15 November 2011 by Greg Gillson.


A previous post on American Wigeon.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

How eBird makes you a better birder

In my previous post ("eBird revisited: one year later") I discussed how eBird is an essential birding tool for you, even if you decide not to submit your own sightings.

Adding your own personal sightings to eBird contributes to citizen science, makes your sightings valuable beyond your own enjoyment, and makes eBird that much better.

However, the way eBird is structured when submitting observations gives the one submitting a better understanding of bird status in the area being reported.

You see, when you submit your list of sightings from a field trip, you choose from a checklist of birds that are expected in that specific county during that specific month. If the bird isn't on the default checklist, then it is considered rare by local experts. If you then switch to the "Show Rare Species" checklist, all birds ever recorded (in any month) in the county are listed. If your bird is not on this list, either? Then it is likely a first county record! You select "Add Species" and type in the name.

But there is more. Every species ever recorded in the county has a filter number for each month of the year. If you report more individuals of a selected species than the filter considers "normal" you are notified that you have seen an unusually high number!

A third option for checklists that you can turn on or off is the ability to "Show subspecies." This option displays on the checklist such things as Red-shafted Flickers, Slate-colored Juncos, Myrtle Warblers, but also subspecies local experts deem worthy of recording. Thus, you can learn of important regional subspecies in the county you are reporting. If a certain subspecies isn't on the list? Try "Add Species" and look to see if it exists on the eBird master species list.

eBird works very hard to make sure the data collected is accurate. Thus, any time you record a high number of individuals or a species not on the default checklist, eBird asks you to confirm and give comments. This is the place to write a brief description or add a photo or photo link. Every location in the world has a volunteer local expert that reviews these unusual sightings. They tag unusual species as likely correctly identified or possibly not by what you say in your comments and a personal email, if necessary to gather more information. These expert Reviewers can help you with status and ID questions.

You can, of course, add comments for any species, rare or not. eBird's "Comments" section allows you to record age and gender data as well as breeding bird codes. Besides simply noting presence ('X') you are encouraged to estimate numbers of individuals. Instead of recording just the highlights, you are encouraged to record every species. Rather than a day's list, eBird encourages you to record species in more and smaller areas.

All of these things will make you a better birder.

Rebecca in the Woods started eBirding in September 2011. In October 2011 she wrote: How eBird is making me a better birder.

Nate Swick of the Drinking Birder also tells How eBird makes me a better birder.

We're starting a new year. This is the perfect time for you to start entering your field birding sightings. No more excuses! Become an eBirder in 2012.

Monday, December 26, 2011

eBird revisited: one year later

It was just a year ago when I wrote my first blog post about eBird (What is eBird?), the citizen science and personal listing program sponsored by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society.

eBird may be most simply described as an online checklist program. It allows one to input their bird sightings and keep track of their lists. All sightings are pooled from around the world and the data is accessible both to the user and to any interested person, scientist or hobbyist. (Read About eBird from their own web site.)

About the same time as my post, Dave Irons, over on the BirdFellow blog wrote about eBird, too (The eBird Conundrum). I recommend reading all the comments, as you can see how the program has grown and improved over the years. Read especially Shawneen Finnegan's comments (Comment #9). Of those who weren't as excited about eBird, they were concerned with the possible time and effort of changing the way they birded and entering their sightings checklists.

Everyone is missing the point!

Forget entering data for a minute. (Anathema!)

Without you ever entering a single personal checklist...

eBird is an absolutely indispensable real time world-wide bird status and distribution tool.

How do I emphasize this sufficiently? eBird is tracking the location and abundance of every bird in the world. Right now. From Abdim's Stork to Zosterops (species). Ten-thousand species plus thousands of field identifiable forms (subspecies, species pairs, "spuh's" (Empidonax sp., gull sp., etc.), and even exotics).

The world-wide aspect is just over a year old now, so obviously the bulk of users (because of the 6 year head start) are in North America and New Zealand. But use is increasing throughout the world.

Birders in California lead the way with nearly 15,000 checklists submitted each month (based on November 2011 rate)! Ottawa, New York, Texas, and Florida led the pack in November 2011. The number of checklists submitted in California has nearly doubled in one year (8500 to 15,000 per month in November of both years). Brian Sullivan, one of eBird's founders, reports that about 80,000 birders have submitted at least one checklist to eBird; 6,000 birders are regular contributors right now. A recent article in PLoS Biology (eBird: Engaging Birders in Science and Conservation) estimates that the 2011 total will be 1.7 million checklists from 210 countries! Every new checklist submitted--whether historical lists from the past, or this morning's field outing--increases eBird's accuracy and usefulness.

The maps generated by eBird are often better than those appearing in field guides. Maps can be made at the resolution of individual months (or any requested block of months or years). Frequency is shown on the maps at large scales by latitude-longitude blocks until you zoom in to see the individual details of each and every sighting.

So, even if you have decided not to contribute your sightings to eBird, the useful information about where birds are being seen today is such that every birder would want to search eBird each day. What can you find out? Here are two items you may find useful. 1) eBird Alerts: Sightings of birds you haven't seen ever or just this year in a specified county or state emailed to you. 2) Rare birds (ABA Code 3 and above) nationally emailed to you. 3) Weekly frequency and abundance bar charts for every bird in a birding hotspot or county where you may plan to visit. 4) Maps and details of any species in the world showing actual sightings in the last 30 days. Oops! That's four useful items.

I suggest you go to and explore for yourself and see what you've been missing!

My next post will tell you why you should submit sightings to eBird. No, not because it contributes to citizen science, helps the birds, and makes the world a better place. Rather, I will show how eBird makes you a better birder!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Orbital rings

Western GullWestern Gull, Beaverton, Oregon, 15 November 2011 by Greg Gillson.


On adult gulls the skin around the eye is often colored brightly. This can be a clue to identification. The hue and intensity can change with breeding condition or other factors.

Typical adult Western Gulls have yellow-orange orbital rings.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

eBirder interview: Robert Mortenson

Name: Robert Mortensen
Blog: Birding is Fun!
Home town: Bountiful, Utah
How long birding? 7 years
How long eBirding? 6 years

Why is eBird important?
eBird is important to me personally because I can keep track of my bird sightings and I love to be able to see the comings and goings of the various species in my personal birding patches and in my backyard. eBird is important to bird science and conservation and I believe it will continue to be more and more relevant to science and politics. eBird really is the best tool to understand bird distribution and migration patterns, which in turn tells us which habitats are most critical.

How has eBird changed the way you watch birds?
eBird has greatly changed, improved, and enhanced the way I watch birds. I used to be a trip-ticker...just a big list of all the birds seen on a bird outing. Now I count the birds of each species I see and hear. I even pay attention to gender and age if I have learned it for that species. When I take a bird trip, I now break it down into checklists for each stop - and even five-mile sections of highway if its the same kind of habitat.

In what areas has eBird not changed the way you watch birds?
Counting the birds and reporting them in eBird has not diminished in any way my enjoyment and amazement of the birds themselves. The color of Bullock's Orioles, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Western Tanagers, and Yellow Warblers is what hooked me on birding...and they still hook me every time I see them.

How has eBird changed the face of birding?
I think many birders used to keep track of their sightings in their own field guides, notebooks, or on a spreadsheet. I think all of us eBirders now go about birding a bit differently, but for the better. Now our citizen-scientist sighting data can be used and is available for free to the world. I believe that all this data will improve the quality and accuracy of range maps in field guides. We are gaining a greater understanding of migration ranges and for the frequency of vagrant birds in locations outside of their typical range. The information is quickly and easily communicated across the globe through eBird, when in the past, such bird data would have to be collected from each region of the world.

Why should someone start eBirding? What's the incentive?
I started eBirding simply because it was a free online service that did a good job keeping track of my sightings. Then I discovered how it contributes to bird science and it made me feel good. Later I discovered I could play around with the data and have fun learning new things about birds. eBird is also a great tool for birding in locations new to you. You can find out what species are being seen during each week of the year. eBird is really the birders best friend, tool, and resource. I hope all birders everywhere will recognize the personal and global benefits of using eBird, the greatest citizen-science project of all time.

Do you have any personal eBird goals as respect special birding locations or species? I love to track the birds in my local patch and my goal is to have at least one checklist for each week. I feel compelled to eliminate all those hatched/grayed-out columns showing that I missed a week here and there. I also do my best to average submitting at least one checklist a day...even if its only from my own backyard feeders, that data is important. Through my birding blog, I am currently encouraging others to join me in taking the "One-a-Day eBird Challenge." I also use the eBird "alerts" to notify me of birds I have not recorded for the county in which I live. I have a goal to never get an alert email, because I have already seen all of those species. That alert email is actually pretty helpful in letting me know where species are being seen, so I can go there myself.

How do you use eBird data?
One of my favorite ways of using eBird data is making animated maps of bird migration patterns. eBird has some really fancy animated maps that they are creating for many species, but not all species have these fancy maps yet. I take screenshots of the eBird sightings maps and convert them into animated GIF's with Sometimes I look at month-by-month patterns to understand seasonal migration. Other times I look at species expansion over the years...the Eurasian Collared-dove is the prime example.

When I was preparing to go to Ohio for the Midwest Birding Symposium, I looked at the bird sightings in Ottawa County for the middle two weeks of September. I downloaded the data into Excel and from there pared down the list to just the life birds I was hoping to see. Then I sorted the data by the frequency of eBird reports for each species, which gave me an idea of the probability of seeing those species. It worked splendidly and accurately.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Green Heron

Green HeronGreen Heron, Beaverton, Oregon, 15 November 2011 by Greg Gillson.


A previous post on Green Herons.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Where should I go birding in January?

The Coast? Mountains? Desert? Gorge? Sound? Valley? The Pacific Northwest has it all. But sometimes I just can't decide where I should go birding. If I don't plan in advance, I'll end up at the local sewage pond wetlands... again. Not that this is a bad thing, but sometimes I'd like to go to a new place and see different birds.

In this monthly post I ask: Where are you planning on watching birds in the coming month and what species do you hope to see there? Leave your response in the Comments section as ideas for others. While I am looking primarily for birding locations and target species in the Pacific NW, please feel free to mention other places in western North America, or anywhere in the world.

Field trip organizers are also welcome to use the Comments section to announce field trips in the Pacific NW. Be sure to indicate if free or fee and contact information for those interested in attending.

Additionally, I'll list next month's bird festivals, as well. If you organize or regularly attend one of these festivals, what do you especially like about the Festival and what are the target birds? If you know of birding events or festivals next month, leave a comment as well.

As for myself, I like to bird the Oregon coast in January, searching for Rock Sandpipers at Seal Rock or Depoe Bay, and Long-tailed Ducks and Ancient Murrelets from Boiler Bay.

Bird Festivals:

Wings Over Wilcox
11-15 January 2012
Wilcox, Arizona

Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival
13-16 January 2012
Morro Bay, California

St. George Winter Bird Festival
26-28 January 2012
St. George, Utah

Snow Goose Festival of the Pacific Flyway
26-29 January 2012
Chico, California

Winter Bird Festival
28 January 2012
Galt, California

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Bath time!

House SparrowHouse Sparrow, Beaverton, Oregon, 6 November 2011 by Greg Gillson.


As winter weather approaches, remember that having a daily source of unfrozen water is more important for survival than food.

A previous post on House Sparrows.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Cosmopolitan Sanderling

SanderlingSanderling, Coos Bay, Oregon, 28 August 2011 by Greg Gillson.


Flocks of small sandpipers chasing the waves in-and-out on the beach--anywhere in the world--are likely to be Sanderlings. Like wind-up toys they run in quick bursts on stiff legs.

Sanderlings are circumpolar nesters in the remote Arctic of both Siberia and Canada. They winter along nearly all the coasts of North America. But that's not all. Some birds migrate south from their breeding grounds through all continents south to southern South America, southern Africa, Australia, and New Zealand! In other words, there aren't too many places in the world where Sanderlings don't visit.

SanderlingSanderling, Coos Bay, Oregon, 28 August 2011 by Greg Gillson.


In the non-breeding season they are pale gray; in the breeding season they have a brownish-red plumage. They can sometimes be mistaken for other shorebirds--even the rare Red-necked Stint. However, as you can see by the top photo, Sanderlings lack hind toes, while most other smaller shorebirds have them.

In the Pacific Northwest, Sanderlings are common on the outer beaches from August to February, less common March-May and July. A few non-breeders may be found in summer, but mostly they are absent from the last week of May to the first week of July. Rare inland, nearly all inland records are from August, during the southbound migration.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Sunshine at the feeder

Lesser GoldfinchLesser Goldfinch, Beaverton, Oregon, 19 November 2011 by Greg Gillson.


A nice surprise at the feeder!

A previous post on Lesser Goldfinches.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Horned Grebe

Horned GrebeHorned Grebe, Hagg Lake, Washington County, Oregon, 1 November 2011 by Greg Gillson.


In autumn, Horned Grebes move from their breeding grounds to deeper ponds and lakes south or coastally to winter wherever deeper waters remain ice-free. Two birds were swimming and diving right under the floating dock at Hagg Lake on November 1, allowing me really great looks at 10-15 feet away.

Where can you find them right now?

Map of Horned Grebe sightings in the Pacific NW in eBird, October-December 2011.

A previous article: ID Challenge: Horned and Eared Grebes in winter

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Anna's Hummingbird in flight

Anna's HummingbirdYear-round resident Anna's Hummingbird, Beaverton, Oregon, 6 November 2011 by Greg Gillson.


Even though I recently sang the praises of the new National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds (6th Edition), it didn't help with the identification of the hummingbird outside my window. Though I knew that the hummingbird was likely an Anna's Hummingbird, the NatGeo6 hasn't changed its artwork of Costa's Hummingbirds since the first edition. Frankly, this field guide doesn't help with the separation of female Costa's and Anna's Hummingbirds.

That's why I have many field guides, and specialty guides too. No book can be all things to all people. And even if one field guide was superior, there's nothing wrong with variety.

In his book, the Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding, Kenn Kaufman has a chapter on hard-to-identify hummingbirds.

Perhaps because I rarely go to places with any hummingbirds but Rufous and Anna's, I've always had trouble with female hummingbirds of the Anna's/Costa's/Ruby-throated/Black-chinned type--in other words, hummingbirds that look very similar to the one depicted above.

So I spent some time recently observing the hummingbirds at the feeders outside my window. I practiced observing tail feather shape, facial pattern, and inner primary width--with the help of my camera. I feel a bit better prepared now in case some unexpected female hummingbird pops up (as they can do in the autumn of the year). Better prepared, yes, but I still would hope that a future rare hummer at my feeder will be an easier to identify male!

Map of winter range of Anna's Hummingbird in the Pacific NW based on eBird data.

A previous post on Anna's Hummingbirds.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The wing

Black-footed Albatross, off Newport, Oregon, 15 May 2011 by Greg Gillson.


The wing of birds is analogous to the arm of humans. This is most evident on longer-winged birds like the albatross above. They have a shoulder, elbow, and wrist. They have similar bones--a humerus in the upper arm, and radius and ulna in the lower arm. The hand, or manus, is composed of several fused hand and finger bones--it's more like one long finger.

Primaries are attached to the hand. Primaries are numbered from inner to outer, P1 to P10 in the photo above. Birds have from 8-11 primaries, depending upon species. In general, most non-Passerines have 10 primaries; most Passerines have 9 primaries.

Secondaries are attached to the ulna. Secondaries are numbered from outer to inner. Birds have a variable number of secondaries depending upon the length of the wing.

Primaries and secondaries are called the flight feathers of the wing, or remiges. (The tail with its retrices, are also considered "flight feathers.")

True tertials or tertiaries are feathers attached to the humerus, the bone from shoulder to elbow. They are not considered to be flight feathers, or remiges. Very long-winged birds have more tertials than shorter winged birds. Some bird families, including shorebirds and gulls, have modified tertials that are longer and distinctively marked.

In many smaller birds the humerus is so short as to be lacking separate tertial feathers. However, sometimes the inner 3 secondary feathers on passerines are called tertials when differently shaped or colored than the other secondary feathers.

Black-footed Albatrosses have 10 primaries, 25-29 secondaries, and numerous tertiaries or tertials.


Western Gull, Beaverton, Oregon, 17 February 2009 by Greg Gillson.


Most gulls have 10 primaries and 24 secondaries. They also have some true tertial feathers.


Vaux's Swift, Forest Grove, Oregon, 22 September 2009 by Greg Gillson.


Vaux's Swifts have 10 primaries, but only 6 (or 8, if you count very tiny) secondaries.

The very different lengths of the parts of the arm cause different styles of flapping.