Monday, January 30, 2012

Review: Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America

Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America: A Photographic Guide by Steve N. G. Howell. 2012. Princeton University Press. Cloth. $45. 520 pages. 7 x 10 inches. Shipping weight 4 pounds. 975 photos and figures. 66 maps.

If you want only a field guide to seabirds north of Mexico, then the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th Edition, is the only seabird guide you need to own.

However, if the sea and its specialized birds draw you to them, you'll love the treasure trove of seabird identification tips and extensive taxonomy treatments found in this scholarly, and weighty, volume. If you want to know the status, distribution, and identification of all the Procellariiformes from Panama to the Arctic, including all vagrants, then this highly anticipated book won't disappoint. If you are interested in the latest Taxonomy then this book is for you. If you are planning your next pelagic trip to the Gulf Stream in order to search for Cape Verde or Desertas Petrels or taking a cruise off western Mexico in the hopes of spotting Ainley's or Townsend's Storm-Petrels then this is a 'must-have' book.

The first 50 pages is a thorough Introduction, covering such topics as What are Tubenoses?, Ocean Habitats, Taxonomy, Field Identification, and Conservation.

The bulk of the book is the species accounts. The main headings for each species include an Identification Summary, detailed Taxonomy, Status and Distribution, and a large map showing detailed at-sea range and time of year when most frequently present.

For seabirders, the Field Identification section is wonderful. The detailed and thorough Similar Species subheading discusses how to tell each species from look-a-likes. It then goes on to describe Habitat and Behavior, and detailed plumage Descriptions, including differences between younger and older birds, and males and females, if different. A section on molt timing is useful in separating age-classes, as well as cryptic species that may look very similar but breed, and thus molt, at different times of year. Each species account has numerous photos, most by the author, with highly informative captions.

East Coast birders will not find any additional species from the Caribbean that don't reach North Carolina. However, both common and rare seabirds of western Mexico add 3 shearwaters, 5 gadfly petrels, 5 albatrosses, and 2 storm-petrels to the birds in your "North American" field guide.

I didn't find any errors in this well-researched textbook. In a work such as this it is nearly inevitable that a photo is mislabeled. But I didn't notice anything--a tribute to good editing.

You may notice that some of the Similar Species sections get repeated. The species account for Bird A tells how to separate it from Bird B. The species account for Bird B repeats nearly the exact same information to tell it apart from Bird A. I don't know any other way to do it without changing the way the species accounts are formatted. But it is such a large book that one would think a different way might have been found in order to save space.

I checked for rare bird sightings on the West Coast. The only "oversight" I noted was the failure to acknowledge a 2002 sight record of Juan Fernandez Petrel accepted by the Oregon Bird Records Committee.

Unlike the trivialities above, however, the quality of the printing is a concern to me. Many of the photos have too much red hue. In some instances gray skies are a touch pink, blue waters are purplish, sooty-gray birds are overly reddish-brown. The photos are still very usable for identification, but rather than a highlight feature to really make this book stand out, the uneven color balance for this "photographic guide" becomes a distraction to me. Perhaps it won't bother you.

In summary, this is a 'must-have' ID textbook for serious seagoing birders.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Cackling Goose

Cackling GooseRidgway's Cackling Goose, Hillsboro, Oregon, 10 January 2012 by Greg Gillson.


Still having trouble telling Cackling Geese from Canada Geese? You'll want to revisit last year's post: Greg's white-cheeked goose rant... I mean, primer.

And don't forget this great resource (pdf): Identification Field Guide to the Geese of the Willamette Valley and Lower Columbia River by Kelly Warren for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

eBirder interview: Shawneen Finnegan

Name: Shawneen Finnegan
Home town: Portland, Oregon
How long birding? 29 years
How long eBirding? 4 years

Why is eBird important?
eBird has several levels of importance for me. First, it is easy to use and allows me to track my personal observations. Admittedly I have always been a chronic list keeper. The most important aspect of using eBird is that it allows me to easily contribute to the understanding of bird status and distribution no matter where I go. While my individual sightings may not be significant, when added together with those of other observers, it can make a huge impact. Many people watch birds everyday, be it out their kitchen window or birding hard all day long. Consider the database we might generate if all of these people kept track of what they saw and entered it into eBird. The number of data points collected would be staggering and invaluable in monitoring trends. This is citizen science at its best. No matter how many scientists are working on collecting scientifically-based data, they can't match amount of data that amateur birdwatchers can generate if we all start contributing our checklists to the eBird database. Fascinating animations are already being created using our data. One of my favorite animations is that of the Pacific Wren / Winter Wren pair. It helps one visually understand why the species was split. See

The most valuable type of data comes from observations made during regular (daily/weekly) visits to the same area, especially if you cover that area using consistent protocols (i.e. covering the same route at the same time of day). Keeping track of what you see in your backyard, home patch, or a favorite birding locale can provide valuable information. For example, Wink Gross recently shared a program at our local Portland Audubon Birder's Night about what he has learned by keeping track of the birds he sees and hears during daily dogwalks in the neighborhood around Pittock Mansion. Wink has been recording his observations over many years, thus his data reveals population changes in some species that wouldn't necessarily be evident otherwise. Entering this sort of collection of observations into eBird makes it easy to do and gives those interested in analyzing the data access to your information.

Somewhere in my storage locker are trip lists, birding notes, and rare bird writeups that eventually I would like to enter into eBird. Though my notes vary in detail, eventually having that information go into a database means that there is some greater use for my notes than just keeping track of lists.

How has eBird changed the way you watch birds?
It has greatly enriched my birding experience and taught me be more observant. I always kept track of what I saw, but now instead making a list at the end of the day I keep lists for separate locations. It makes one look more closely at age and gender, which really helps one learn how to identify birds. Counting birds was never something I enjoyed doing, but now it is fairly automatic and rewarding in its own way.

In what areas has eBird not changed the way you watch birds?
It hasn't changed at all the fact that I love to look at birds, or my appreciation of them.

How has eBird changed the face of birding?
I believe that eBirders become much better birders faster. It changes the way you look at birds. It has provided a citizen-science platform more accessible to all of us than any other that I am aware of. And the data we provide helps us understand what is going on with birds in far more detail than ever before. Data is now being submitted for many Christmas Bird Counts and Point Counts.

Why should someone start eBirding? What's the incentive?
For starters, I think it's fun. It is easy to keep track of what you see and where. If you bird with other people it is simple to share both note taking and data entry duties. For example, if you are birding with a friend or a field trip full of people, you can share your combined sightings with them either by emailing them a copy of the list or if they are already an "eBirder" then the list can automatically be added to their eBird account. Did you see something the other person didn't? Just add it in. If they spotted something you didn't see, it's just as easy to delete that species from your copy of the checklist without affecting the person's list who entered the data. It is fun to look at a map to see how many different places one has submitted notes, not only in one's local haunts, but virtually anywhere one travels.

Do you have any personal eBird goals as respect special birding locations or species?
I want to try and keep better track of what is going on in my neighborhood and at the house. It is pretty slim pickings at my abode so it isn't much work! eBird makes me want to explore more. There are many far flung corners of Oregon and even in my local area that is underbirded. By looking at eBird generated maps the rarely birded areas become more obvious. There is a good article recently posted to the eBird website showing such examples at:

How do you use eBird data?
In a variety of ways. I am signed up for several bird alerts--my local county, Oregon, and the USA so I can see what interesting birds are being seen. One very cool use is for navigating to an interesting location or rare bird. Using a smart phone or other GPS device one can click on a sighting and get the map and directions with just a few keystrokes. When traveling one can also use this technique to get to locations that you are not familiar with.

I have used the "Explore Data" links to research bird occurrence for trips, at my job, and in the past year since becoming a subregional editor for North American Birds I mine the data for interesting sightings and date spans. The national alert helps me track new sightings for BirdArea, a global database I have worked on for over 20 years.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

House Finch

House FinchHouse Finch, Beaverton, Oregon, 28 November 2011 by Greg Gillson.


This common backyard bird wasn't always as common. For more information see In the backyard... House Finch.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Field-friendly bird sequence
Part One

It happened to most people who are now bird watchers. They saw some bird that was so colorful, or so unusually-shaped, or behaved in such an interesting manner that they decided to find out more about it. They picked up a field guide to birds...

If they are like most people they couldn't immediately find the bird. The birds seemed to be arranged randomly throughout the field guide. Eventually, in frustration, they began a page-by-page picture search trying to match what they saw with the bewildering array of birds in the field guide.

Most field guides are arranged in taxonomic order, with birds presumed to be closely related next to each other. The trouble is, birds may be closely related and not look like each other. Other birds, not closely related, can have the same basic appearance. The sequence of birds on a checklist or in a taxonomically-oriented field guide is necessarily linear, but bird relationships are web-like. And scientists are constantly rearranging the sequence!

But, if the purpose of a field guide is to truly help people identify a bird they have seen, shouldn't birds that look alike appear together in the book, regardless of constantly-shifting presumed relationships?

For instance, the Great Blue Heron (below) is known by birders and non-birders throughout North America.

Of course, many non-birders call the Great Blue Heron a "crane" or "blue crane." But herons are not cranes. They are not closely related, and are not found near each other in most field guides.

But they do share long neck and long legs in common. They are both similar in bill shape, size, and coloration. They may even be found in the same locations at the same time. Why shouldn't the Sandhill Crane (below) be placed in the field guide next to the heron?

The crane is, however, very closely related to the American Coot (below), at least, internally. But they don't look that much alike on the outside. The coot looks more like a duck than a heron. But in the field guides the coot is next to the crane, not to ducks or other waterbirds.

In fact, the coot looks quite a bit like the Pied-billed Grebe (below). But are the coot and grebe close together in the field guide? You know the answer. They are nowhere near each other!

Part Two will discuss proposed arrangements to address this problem.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Green-backed Chickadee?

Black-capped ChickadeeBlack-capped Chickadee, Beaverton, Oregon, 7 December 2011 by Greg Gillson.


Sibley, in his account of Black-capped Chickadee, has a box explaining the ID pointers that will separate Black-capped from Carolina Chickadee. This is an identification challenge we do not really have to worry about here in the Pacific Northwest.

Sibley states that the Black-capped Chickadee "has a greenish back and buffy flanks."

Hmm... the back of Black-capped Chickadee has always appeared rather medium gray to me. But now that you mention it... does the back have a greenish cast in the photo above? Perhaps.

Gabrielson and Jewettt in their 1940 book Birds of Oregon, use Florence Merriam Bailey's textual descriptions from her 1921 Handbook of Birds of the Western United States. That description states: "back dark gray, tinged with olive brown."

Please see a previous post on Black-capped Chickadees: (In the backyard... Black-capped Chickadee)

Monday, January 16, 2012

Where should I go birding in February?

I don't know about you, but I find February a hard month to decide where to go birding. This last month of winter has no new bird movements. This can actually be a good thing, as any rare bird reported in the last several weeks is likely sitting tight wherever it is, waiting for spring.

There is one group of birds for which February is often the best time... gulls. Because they are difficult to identify in their immature plumages, many birders "don't do gulls." But there are known concentration points, such as landfills, sewage lagoons, and city parks, where these birds gather in late winter. They allow close study (and photos).

One such place is Westmoreland Park in Portland, Oregon. (See Birding Oregon info.)

Where are you planning on watching birds in the coming month and what species do you hope to see there? Are you a field trip organizer? We want to hear what you offer (fee or free). Leave your response in the Comments section as ideas for others.

I am scheduled to give a presentation at the Winter Wings Festival in Klamath Falls, February 19 (see below). I hope the passes over the Cascades are free of ice and snow! My second wish is for sunny weather for photos that weekend--as I haven't birded in this area in many years!

Bird Festivals:

San Francisco Bay Flyway Festival
February 10-12, 2012
Mare Island, California

Winter Wings Festival
February 17-19, 2012
Klamath Falls, Oregon
Begun as the Klamath Falls Eagle Conference over 30 years ago, this is the longest-running festival in the United States! Naturalist, birder, and author Kenn Kaufmann and international photographer Darrell Gulin will be the keynote speakers.

Whooping Crane Festival
February 23-26, 2012
Port Aransas, Texas

California Duck Days
February 24-25, 2012
Davis, California

Cove Palisades Eagle Watch
February 25-26, 2012
Madras, Oregon

Port Susan Snow Goose and Birding Festival
February 25-26, 2012
Stanwood, Washington

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Ball o' Bushtits

Bushtit"Come join us--there's plenty of room!" Bushtits, Beaverton, Oregon, 8 December 2011 by Greg Gillson.


One of the familiar Pacific NW backyard birds, especially west of the Cascades, is the Bushtit. While they glean the foliage in little straggling twittering flocks, they all share pleasantly at the suet feeder. How many are there on this suet feeder? Over 20 (not counting the one on the fence)!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

eBird best practices
Enter Complete Checklists

Note: For the past year I have been trying to convince you, no matter your skill level, to use eBird to record your bird sightings (Here is a link to bring up all my posts related to eBird). This citizen science project unites birders around the world and in your local community. I challenge you to try it just once--enter a list of birds from your next bird trip.

If you start, or already are, using eBird, there are practices you can use to make your data more useful to science, and thus help the birds themselves. For the remainder of the year, I will present a monthly recommendation of eBird best practices. Below is the first one.

The most useful checklist to submit to eBird is the Complete Checklist.

eBird asks: "Are you submitting a complete checklist of the birds you saw/heard?"

Record every species seen and heard--even common ones.

When you select the Complete Checklist, eBird is then able to compute accurate range maps and bird frequency (how many checklists report that species during that particular week). For instance, if you select Complete Checklist and do not have American Robin on your list, eBird knows that you did not see any--not just that you didn't feel them interesting or unusual enough to write down.

Entering lots of complete checklists doesn't necessarily mean that a person spends any more time birding than you do now. Got 5-10 minutes to observe birds at your feeder? How about doing so more than once during the day? Did you take a 20 minute dog walk or jog today and note any birds? Can you take 15 minutes out of your lunch time to watch birds anywhere? If you record all birds seen during these short time periods, you'll find there are numerous opportunities during each day to submit complete checklists.

All of these data are useful and add to the knowledge of status and distribution of birds. In fact, we know a lot more about birds at wildlife refuges and parks than we know about birds in residential neighborhoods or towns. Your complete checklists--even if only 5-10 minutes--in such areas are likely to add more new bird information than your weekend visit to the local birding hotspot.

In September 2011 I checked the number of eBirders in Oregon submitting the most complete checklists. There were 69 birders submitting at least 1 checklist per week, on average, over the whole year of 2011. Of these, one-third were averaging 1 checklist every other day, or 3-1/2 checklists per week. Combined with hundreds of others submitting far less often it all adds up. In September 2011, Oregon eBirders submitted over 1600 complete checklists. Remember, eBird is worldwide. Just think how much information on bird status and distribution is being gathered by eBird!

More information on this topic can be found on the eBird site, Are you reporting all species?

Friday, January 6, 2012

White-throated Sparrow

White-throated SparrowWhite-throated Sparrow, Beaverton, Oregon, 16 December 2011 by Greg Gillson.


Finding a White-throated Sparrow at my feeder is always a delight. But three? That's special! A tan-striped adult has been present since November, and this white-striped adult for a couple of weeks. Then these two and a streaky immature bird were all together feeding on the ground in late December!

And there's nothing remarkable about our tiny yard in suburban Beaverton, Oregon. In fact, I wouldn't think it worthy of the special birds I've seen this and last winter.

Here are the White-throated Sparrow records in eBird from Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. They show, that when seen, the average is only one-and-a-quarter birds. And they are only found on less of 3% of all checklists, fall through spring.

I discussed this species in a previous post this spring when one of these birds graced my feeders back then.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Separating first winter Thayer's Gull from "Olympic" Gull

gullsFirst year Olympic Gull and Thayer's Gull. Which is which? Forest Grove, Oregon, 23 March 2011 by Greg Gillson.


Right here in the Pacific Northwest we have one of the most confusing arrays of winter gulls in the world.

As if the 13 regular gull species weren't enough, we have numerous rarities and hybrids. In fact, in many locations on the Oregon and Washington coast, the hybrids between Western and Glaucous-winged Gull may be more common than the pure parent species. But we also have hybrids between Herring and Glaucous-winged, Herring and Glaucous, and Glaucous and Glaucous-winged!

The larger gulls take 4 years to reach adult plumage and change appearance twice each year as they do so. No wonder many birders never get comfortable identifying immature gulls--truly one of the more difficult topics of bird identification!

Olympic Gull
Western Gulls breed along the Washington coastline southward. Glaucous-winged Gulls breed from the central Oregon coast northward. Thus, their breeding ranges overlap for about 200 miles, centered at the mouth of the Columbia River. In this area of overlap there is considerable hybridization. Due to backcrosses, there is complete clinal variation from one end of the spectrum to the other. South of the Columbia River birds looking more like Western Gulls become more common. To the north, gulls that appear more like Glaucous-winged Gulls become more prevalent. This swarm of Western, Glaucous-winged, and hybrid Western x Glaucous-winged gulls is called the "Olympic Gull."

In winter, these coastal breeding hybrid gulls are found also inland in the Puget Sound and the Willamette Valley, and south along the coast regularly to at least San Francisco. Pure Western Gulls are rare inland; most adult "Western Gulls" reported inland show some evidence of past hybridization if you look closely at winter head streaking and intensity of black in the wingtips.

Hybrids, especially those tending toward Glaucous-winged Gulls in appearance, are easily confused with Thayer's Gulls. This post discusses these birds in the first year only. However structural features are consistent across various age groups.

First, correctly age the gull by looking at the back
First year gulls are rather brown-barred throughout. In the second year the upper back feathers become smooth gray similar to the adult coloration. Thus, on first year gulls the back is barred brownish. Most first year gulls have blackish bills and pink legs, so the color of these important adult ID field marks are of little to no use during the first year or two.

Look at the size and shape of the bill
Because there is so much plumage variation with hybrids, look next at the bill. Western Gulls and Glaucous-winged Gulls (and, thus, hybrids between the two species) have very large, thick bills. There is considerable size variation between the sexes (males are larger) but, even so, the bills are thicker than all regular Pacific NW gulls, and average longer than all gulls except the largest Glaucous Gulls. The bills are widest on the gonys. This is the point on the lower mandible where the right and left halves fuse together and angle up sharply to the bill tip, as shown on the adult Glaucous-winged Gull head photo, below.

The bills of Thayer's Gulls are shorter and thinner than the Olympic Gull. The female Thayer's Gull has an especially small bill, often described as "petite." The angle of the gonys is not as sharp as the Olympic Gull--the lower mandible of Thayer's Gull appears straighter.

Look at the primary/tertial/rest-of-wing contrast
Now turn your attention to the other end of the gull. It is important to be able to identify correctly the back, the scapulars, wing coverts, secondaries, tertials, primaries, and tail.

In the photo below, the tertials, primaries, and tail are identified. Most first year gulls have back, scapulars, wing coverts and secondaries very similar in color and pattern, as below. It is the contrast (or lack thereof) between the primaries, tertials, and the rest of the folded wing, that provides the final clues to reaching an accurate identification.

Most of the larger white-headed gulls in first winter plumage (Mew, Ring-billed, California, Herring, Western) have blackish primaries and tertials, contrasting with the rest of the wing which is barred brownish and pale.

Pure Glaucous-winged Gulls have matching colors to the primaries, tertials, and barring of the rest of the wing on a first year bird. Often the color is a very pale gray-brown.

First year Thayer's Gulls are the only pure gulls that show medium-brown primaries, contrasting with a paler wing panel.

Hybrids--the Olympic Gulls--show a similar pattern to pure Glaucous-wingeds. There will be little contrast between the various wing feathers, but they are often much darker brown than pure Glaucous-winged Gulls, especially on the primaries.

If the primaries on a first year gull are brown, you are probably looking at a Glaucous-winged hybrid (most-likely an Olympic Gull) or a Thayer's Gull.

The key is in the contrast of the primaries, tertials, and rest of wing. These match in coloration on Glaucous-winged hybrids. Thayer's Gulls show a unique difference--three shades. The tertials are darker than the secondaries and wing coverts, and the primaries are darker than the tertials.

Are you ready to identify these gulls? What do you see on the next photo? Big and thick bill or smaller and slight? Do the primaries, tertials, and rest-of-wing all contrast strongly with each other and get paler with each feather group?

Olympic GullHybrid Western x Glaucous-winged Gull ("Olympic Gull"), Forest Grove, Oregon, 7 February 2009 by Greg Gillson.


How about the next photo? Same questions. Big and thick bill or smaller and slight? Do the primaries, tertials, and rest-of-wing all contrast strongly with each other and get paler with each feather group?

Thayer's GullThayer's Gull, Portland, Oregon, 19 February 2011 by Greg Gillson.


Now you are ready to go back to the top photo and puzzle it out.