Thursday, June 21, 2012

Field-friendly bird sequence
Chicken-like Birds

Ring-necked PheasantRing-necked Pheasant, Harney Co., Oregon, 27 May 2007 by Greg Gillson.


The 13 categories of North American birds listed in the Field-friendly bird sequence: Part II are:

Swimming Waterbirds
Flying Waterbirds
Wading Waterbirds
Chicken-like Birds
Miscellaneous Landbirds
Aerial Landbirds
Flycatcher-like Birds
Thrush-like Songbirds
Chickadee and Wren-like Songbirds
Warbler-like Songbirds
Sparrow and Finch-like Songbirds
Blackbird-like Songbirds

A beginner should be able to quickly place a bird they see into one of these categories.

Chicken-like game birds are well-known to all. Small bills, strong legs, and plump bodies are typical.

Chicken-like birds include grouse and quail, pheasants and turkeys.

California QuailCalifornia Quail, Malheur NWR, Harney Co., Oregon, 24 May 2009 by Greg Gillson.


Ring-necked PheasantRing-necked Pheasant, Malheur NWR, Harney Co., Oregon, 24 May 2009 by Greg Gillson.


Saturday, June 16, 2012

Where should I go birding in July?

July usually has pleasant warm weather in the Pacific NW. It's one of my favorite times to visit the high Cascades. Those master singers, Hermit Thrushes, give their symphonic flute music in the pre-sunrise forest gloom. And I could search burns in the high alpine forests for Black-backed and American Three-toed Woodpeckers.

Amazingly, adult shorebirds are already coming back from the Arctic. Nesting duties done, the adults start back for their wintering grounds. The juvenile birds will spend a few more weeks feeding on the abundant insects in the Arctic. Then they, too, will head south, guided only by instinct, and join the adults on some Central American beach or marsh.

If it gets too hot inland, I will head to the cold foggy beach. The Brown Pelicans and Heermann's Gulls undertake a post-breeding reverse migration of sorts. After they breed in Baja, they come north along the coast to feed in the rich waters of the California current, north to British Columbia, before heading back south in November.

There seems to be no bird festivals held in July in the Pacific NW.

Those are my ideas. What about you? Where will you be going in July? Where do you recommend?

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.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Those cursed Yellow-headed Blackbirds!

This spring saw an unprecedented migration of Yellow-headed Blackbirds into my home county in NW Oregon. There were Yellow-headed Blackbirds everywhere I went this spring!

It's true. They were seen just before I got to the wetlands.... They were seen moments after I left.... Sometimes both. And sometimes they were even seen at the same time I was there, but across the marsh!

I knew it was bad when a non-birding "friend" text-messaged me:
Saw my first yellow headed blackbird here @ Tualatin Refuge... I didn't even know yellow head blackbirds were in Oregon.
Then the next day:
Oh Greg... Wish you were here @ Fernhill... Guess what I saw? I had my cam this time. Can't believe back to back days for this... Cool.
Sure, Byron, rub it in.

I chased reported Yellow-headed Blackbirds at Tualatin River NWR, at Fernhill Wetlands, at Jackson Bottom Wetlands Preserve. My mistake might have been not chasing the 2 birds reported at Emma Jones for several days in April--even if this wetlands park is officially closed to the pubic....

Yellow-headed Blackbirds are rather common marsh birds west of the Mississippi and south of the boreal forests, wintering to southern Mexico. However, in the Pacific NW they are common in the Great Basin lakes, but not so much west of the Cascades. We discussed this bird in What is that black bird with the yellow head? back in July 2009.

It's not like I haven't seen Yellow-headed Blackbirds before--even in my home county. But it has been a couple of years. But my birding this spring was making good progress at seeing most of the expected annual migrants. I didn't want to miss an "easy" one. Besides, eBird tells me that Steve and Joe keep pushing ahead of me in county year bird species this spring.

April and May came and went, and reports of Yellow-headed Blackbirds ceased. So I gave up. However, on the final day of May I finally saw a Yellow-headed Blackbird! It wasn't a very close bird. It wasn't a bright adult; it was a first year male. But I managed a documentation photo (translation: really bad photo).

Monday, June 11, 2012

eBird best practices
Use the Hotspots

The concept of a "hotspot" in eBird is fairly simple and powerful, but sometimes eBirders are confused by exactly what it means and what it does.

A hotspot is simply a public birding area. It must be publicly accessible and a place where more than one birder frequents. It can be a park or refuge, a beach or wetlands--anywhere known to birders as a specific location to stop and watch birds. Note that it does not require the location to have lots of birds. In fact, it could be a place where birders stop for a single species.

All observations submitted by all observers at a hotspot are pooled, and you can view the weekly abundance and frequency bar charts for this one area just as you would for a state or county. Thus, to add to the data you would choose the hotspot off the map when submitting your list. You can then have these hotspots available in your "My locations" list of personal birding locations.

Be careful, though! If there is a hotspot for "Birder's Park," yet you create your own personal location in "Birder's Park," eBird does not combine them. This could happen if you were the first to submit a list to "Birder's Park" as a personal location, and someone later recommended it as a hotspot. Thus, if you bird a public area that is not already a hotspot, you should "recommend" the location be a hotspot when you submit your list.

If you find (by exploring data maps) that you have a personal location ("Birder's Park") but that there is also a public hotspot for the same area, you can edit and merge your checklists for that location into the hotspot. Here's how:
1) Go to "My eBird"
2) "Manage My Locations"
3) Find your location on the list of your locations and "Edit"
4) "Merge" with a location on the map

More on eBird hotspots.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Empid ID in 3 easy steps

I don't need to tell you that flycatchers of the genus Empidonax--Empids--rarely look like the images in the field guide. Humans naturally put more emphasis on color and the face when first trying to identify a bird. That will lead you down the wrong path when it comes to identifying Empids. The bird above is identifiable anywhere in North America just by what you can see in the photo above.  In fact, this bird is in the perfect position for identification purposes! That's a good thing because that's how you often see these birds--above you in the forest gloom, strongly back lighted. Such conditions are the photographer's nightmare, as these poor photos show!

First, of course, you have to identify it as a flycatcher--big head, wide flat bill, upright posture, sits still for a long time then sallies out to catch an insect and then often returns to the same perch. Once you have identified your mystery bird as some type of tyrant flycatcher--the world's most numerous family of birds with over 400 species--your work really begins!

Empids are tiny flycatchers. They are larger than a kinglet, of course, but equal or smaller than a junco, depending upon species. They are drab olive or gray, with obvious white wingbars and an eyering (not strongly marked in the Willow Flycatcher). In the shade the belly often looks yellowish and the upperparts of most species have a greenish cast. But that hint of color often disappears in direct sunlight.

Let's take a closer look at the bird above.

The end of the secondary stack (A) on Empids is obvious from nearly all angles. The primaries (B) stick out from under them. On Empids with short primary extension A and B above would be nearly together. Thus, this bird has long primary extension. Only one-third of the Empids in North America have long primary extension.

[Please note that long primary extension is related to, but not the same thing as, long winged, which is a comparison of how far down the tail the primary tips extend; in other words, B to the end of the tail. You can use that measure, too, but don't get these two different wing comparisons mixed up.]

Next on to the bill. No, I didn't misdraw an arrow pointing to the bill. The line at C in the photo above is parallel to the bill to show how straight the edges of the bill are. Many Empids have strongly convex bills, bulging in the middle. The sides of the bill of this bird is very straight compared to most others in North America. In addition, the mandible on this bird is rather short, and thin at the base compared to other Empids.

Now you can look at the color of the bill. It is mostly dark underneath. Only one species of Empid in North America has more than half dark lower mandibles. Many species have orangish or yellowish or pinkish under-mandibles, some with dark tips of varying extent.

That's it. A-B-C. 1-2-3. Primary extension, bill shape, lower mandible color pattern.

In the Pacific Northwest:
Long primary extension: Hammond's Flycatcher
Long to medium primary extension: Western Flycatcher (Pacific-slope/Cordilleran)
Short to medium primary extension: Least Flycatcher
Short primary extension: Willow Flycatcher, Dusky Flycatcher, Gray Flycatcher

Straight sides to narrow, short bill: Hammond's Flycatcher
Straight sides to narrow, medium length bill: Dusky Flycatcher
Straight sides to narrow, long bill: Gray Flycatcher
Convex sides to wide, short bill: Least Flycatcher
Convex sides to wide, long bill: Western Flycatcher, Willow Flycatcher

Mostly dark lower mandible: Hammond's Flycatcher
Mostly pale lower mandible with dark tip up to 1/3 of length: Least Flycatcher, Dusky Flycatcher
Mostly pale lower mandible with small dark tip: Gray Flycatcher
Mostly or entirely pale lower mandible: Western Flycatcher, Willow Flycatcher

Once you get these first three items categorized, you can go on to other supporting characters such as throat color (yellow, gray, or white) and contrast with breast, eyering shape and color, head shape, tail bobbing or wing-flicking behavior. But if you don't start with the 3 essential ID characters explained above, the other more subjective marks can throw you off. Once you get a wrong first impression based on one of these supporting characters it is very hard to come back to the correct identification on your own!

Of course, on the breeding grounds these birds are incessant morning singers. and it is so much easier to hear these birds than get a good look!

I photographed this Hammond's Flycatcher on June 1, 2012 in the northern Oregon Coast Range at Reeher Camp near the town of Timber.

And now, because I know you really do want to see the face, I present this same bird. Here's looking at you, kid!