Monday, February 28, 2011

Seabirds from boats

Marbled MurreletMarbled Murrelet, from a boat off Newport, Oregon on 21 February, 2009 by Greg Gillson.


Last week's post discussed a seawatch--viewing seabirds from shore. In it, I showed views of seabirds as they would appear using binoculars and spotting scopes.

In last week's post we "magnified" a pair of Red-necked Grebes about a half mile offshore. In the magnified view--a view as would be seen with a spotting scope--we discovered another small speck of a bird that I identified as a Marbled Murrelet in flight.

Over time, a dedicated seawatcher may see many of the Pacific Northwest's oceanic birds. However, many seabirds would be just specks--even with a spotting scope. Without closer-range experience, one would not be able to learn the distinctive flight characteristics that would help identify some birds. And many seabirds rarely come near land off the Pacific NW.

The only way to see these birds better, in the Pacific Northwest, is to board a boat.

Boats do present some logistic challenges: route, instability, expense, and mal de mar (seasickness).

Unless you own your own seaworthy craft, the only way to get the boat to go bird watching is to charter it. Chartering a vessel in the Pacific NW may cost $750 for a small boat ("six-pack," which carries 6 persons on a 20-30 foot boat) or a larger Coast Guard certified vessel that may carry 20-30 passengers on a boat 40-55 feet long for a rate of about $2500 per day. Sharing the cost among the participants is a way to make such a trip affordable--but usually can't be done on the spur of the moment.

In the Pacific Northwest, the only two regular providers of bird watching trips by boat, or "pelagic trips," are Westport Seabirds in Washington State and The Bird Guide in Oregon. Shearwater Journeys operates out of California (primarily Monterey area) with some trips in northern California. There are a couple other providers (often Audubon Societies and dedicated individuals) that offer pelagic trips from Monterey south to San Diego.

Only the larger boats are Coast Guard certified to travel beyond 20 miles of shore--out to the albatrosses and several other more oceanic species. Thus, a dedicated group pelagic trip on a large boat is the most direct way for an individual to view seabirds. A full-day trip may cost $150 per person.

On such a trip, many birds will still be distant. But unlike on a land-based seawatch, you can get closer with the boat. A chartered pelagic birding trip is designed to go where the birds are. During the day, chances are good that you will see thousands of seabirds, many at very close range. On your first such trip you are likely to add 15-20 life birds--species you've never seen before!

Because the boat bobs on the waves, a birder on a regular pelagic trip cannot use a scope and tripod--binoculars are required. Of course, bobbing up and down looking through binoculars is not easy on your equilibrium, leading to queasiness (or worse) for some people. Despite these challenges, a pelagic trip is the best way to see seabirds. They are timed for the best birding and led by expert seabird guides intent on showing you seabirds and helping you to identify them.


Happy birders encounter fishing vessels trailing thousands of seabirds (albatrosses, shearwaters, fulmars, jaegers, petrels, and other birds, not to mention whales and dolphins!) on a pelagic trip off Newport, Oregon on 31 May 2003 by Greg Gillson.


There are a few options besides a scheduled pelagic trip. These options are less certain than a pelagic trip--you may not see any birds worth mentioning. Or worse--you see lots of birds just a few hundred feet away but the boat won't travel toward them so you can identify them, because... it is not a birding trip. More important, you'll often have to identify the birds yourself.

1) Whale watching trip: From certain ports on the West Coast, specifically at Newport and Depoe Bay on the central Oregon coast, local fishing charters lead out trips to view Gray Whales at $20 per person. These trips will often be right along shore, though in winter they may go out 5 miles. These trips last an hour or two. Gray Whales and Marbled Murrelets feed on the sandy bottom and are often seen together. You might see a Rhinoceros Auklet, Tufted Puffin, or Northern Fulmar. You may see nothing, not even a whale.

2) Bottom or salmon fishing trip: "Deep sea fishing" is not done in the deep sea. Boats rarely go out more than 3 miles for bottom fishing, often less than one mile to "inner reefs." However, if you want to join fishing friends for 4 hours, you can often get a 1/2 fare for non-fishing passenger, or about $35. These won't see any more than on a whale watch trip, but are offered from more ports. Expect lots of cormorants, murres, and Pigeon Guillemots, and probably some Marbled Murrelets and maybe some other nearshore pelagic birds and harbor porpoises.

3) Halibut or tuna fishing trip: These trips go out 20-40 miles and take you into albatross waters. However, once there you are likely either to sit in one place or troll round and round in a small area. These trips are 12-18 hours, cost about $350 per person, and usually do not allow non-fishing passengers. If you like to fish, this can be a great trip. However, there may be hours at a time with no birds whatsoever. The best birds are often seen on the trip out and back, which may be at dawn and dusk. Halibut trips such as these are offered only May and August. The tuna trips are July to early September.

4) Cruise ship repositioning trips: Lasting 3-4 days, these trips on luxury ocean liners are surprisingly affordable ($200). They travel out at 60 miles, beyond large numbers of birds, including albatrosses--out where any bird could be a mega-rare petrel or other seabird. Great whales are often spotted. A 3-day cruise will cost you far less than 3 regular one-day pelagic trips (especially if you include travel, motel, and food for 3 days). You'll have to come up with a bus ($75) or rental car from Vancouver, British Columbia and a flight from either San Francisco ($170) or Long Beach, California. So, maybe $550 per person (from Portland, Oregon), double-occupancy, in a lower-class room. Advantages of a cruise ship include a bed if you get tired, food is included in the price, and you can set up your spotting scope on the deck. You usually bird from a covered deck on about the 7th floor of the bow. In many ways, this is like a seawatch. For the past several years small groups of birders have been arranging these trips--so you may find a trip with other expert seabirders to help spot and identify birds.

This post is co-published on the Oregon Seabirds blog.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Friday Foto: American Coot

Dark-eyed JuncoAmerican Coot, Commonwealth Park, Beaverton, Oregon, 22 January 2011 by Greg Gillson.


Most coots look dark slate gray. This one has highlights of blue and purple.

This photo shows the lobed toes discussed in a previous post about American Coots.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Barely Spotted Towhees Get Super Spotted Visitors

Spotted TowheeMale Spotted Towhee, Beaverton, Oregon, 19 February 2011 by Greg Gillson.


The Spotted Towhee above is typical of the "Oregon Towhee" (Pipilo maculatus oregonus), the subspecies of Spotted Towhee found west of the Cascades in Oregon, Washington, and coastal SW British Columbia. It is the least spotted of all Spotted Towhee populations with reduced white on the wings, scapulars, and tail. Compared to all other races it truly is barely spotted.


Spotted TowheeFemale Spotted Towhee, Beaverton, Oregon, 18 February 2011 by Greg Gillson.


Above is the grayish-brown female Oregon form of Spotted Towhee. She is even less spotted than the male. Both sexes of the Oregon Towhee have deeper brown (less orange) sides than other forms of Spotted Towhees.

Because the winters are mild where this form breeds, these towhees don't undergo a north-south migration, and most birds are thought to be residents, but there are some seasonal movements in and out of some locations.

These aren't the most artistic photos I have of Spotted Towhees--you can see a piece of the base of the bird feeder in two shots, and I'm looking down on the birds rather than the preferred level photo angle. But there they are, right outside my window. So, I can sit here and type a few lines and stand up, turn around, and snap another photo.... Oops, there, I did it again! I can't get any work done here--I love it!

But I wanted to show you the above birds first, so that I can show you the next photos. The birds below are apparently the "Nevada Towhee" (Pipilo maculatus curtatus), the form of Spotted Towhee found east of the Cascade crest from interior southern British Columbia and Idaho, south to northeast California and central Nevada.

The Nevada Towhee may winter sparsely in their breeding territories, but most seem to migrate to Arizona and southern California, and Sonora, Mexico.

I can find no documented occurences of Nevada Towhees in western Oregon. Thus I present the following photos.


Spotted TowheeSpotted Towhee, Beaverton, Oregon, 18 February 2011 by Greg Gillson.


The photo above is an apparent male Nevada Towhee, perhaps the first documented occurence in western Oregon. However, there are two of them. The following bird is even more spotted, super-spotted, if you will.


Spotted Towhee
Spotted Towhee, Beaverton, Oregon, 18 February 2011 by Greg Gillson.


Notice that these birds have more spots on the wing and scapulars. The outer tail feathers are edged in white and the tail spots are very large. The orange sides are a bit paler than the Oregon form.

You may notice that the primary wing feathers of all these birds are more brownish and worn than other blackish feathers of the wing, back, and tail. These molt limits indicate these are all one-year-old birds. Next fall they will molt their wing feathers and enter full adult plumage, never again to be aged by plumage.

On the female Oregon Towhee and the lower Nevada Towhee, you can see some white pin-feathers in feather sheaths on the face near the eyes, indicating active body molt.

At least for the Oregon Towhee, adults probably remain on their home territory year round. Young of the year venture out and establish their own territories. Thus, it is possible that come spring, these young birds will move on to better breeding territory than my backyard. Since there are no adults here now at all, maybe the habitat is not good enough for breeding. We'll have to wait and see.

The two Nevada Towhees above will no doubt migrate back over to the proper side of the Cascades here in a few weeks.

We have discussed Spotted Towhees before.


This female, and slightly aberrant (see rusty crown patch) Nevada Towhee put in a one-day appearance on 23 February 2011.


Spotted TowheeSpotted Towhee, Beaverton, Oregon, 23 February 2011 by Greg Gillson.


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Attract birds to your backyard: Part 2: Shelter and breeding habitat

Bewick's WrenBewick's Wren, Hillsboro, Oregon, 4 March 2010 by Greg Gillson.


In Part 1 we discussed that all life needs food, water, and shelter. Specifically, we looked at a bird's need for water and food. In this post we discuss their need for shelter and breeding habitat.

As in real estate, attracting birds is all about 3 things: location, location, location.

Your backyard, even if only an urban deck, is part of your larger neighborhood. The surrounding neighborhood, then, has a direct bearing on the number and types of birds you can expect in your own bakyard.

Thus, if there is an unmanicured woodlot next door, you might expect wrens, such as the Bewick's Wren above, to visit your yard from time to time. They are primarily interested in insects they can find in the brush or low bushes.


Orange-crowned WarblerA migrant Orange-crowned Warbler hides out in evergreen landscaping, Newport, Oregon, 30 April 2010 by Greg Gillson.


Evergreen shrubs provide shelter all through the year. It gives small birds a place to hide when a cat appears. During migration, your evergreen shrubs may host tired and hungry neotropical migrants, such as warblers, vireos, tanagers, buntings, and others.

If you have trees, you will attract even more birds.


Spotted TowheeA Spotted Towhee sings from a fruit tree, Scoggins Valley Park, Gaston, Oregon, 3 May 2009 by Greg Gillson.


In whatever neighborhood you live, you can attract the most birds by varying your landscaping. More birds are found in "edge" habitat, than in monoculture. Birds will appreciate an area that combines lawn, trees, shrubs, hedges, and gardens.

But what if you live in a simple residential housing area without large trees or mature landscaping? What can you do to make your yard more attractive to birds if you are renting your property and can't make major landscaping changes?

If your yard is mostly lawn, consider planting a central island of shrubs. How about creating planters or container gardens with small bushes, flowers, or vegetables?

Not everyone can have an old snag in their backyard to attract cavity nesting birds. However, setting up a bird house can accomplish the same purpose.


Northern FlickerA juvenile Northern Flicker peers out of its nest box, Hillsboro, Oregon, 19 July 2010 by Greg Gillson.


Once you have done your best to make your yard attractive to birds with natural food, water, shelter, and breeding habitat, you are ready to set up a bird feeder.

Which foods attract which birds? What options are available as bird feeders, and which are best? We'll discuss these topics in the next two parts of this series.

Part 1
Part 3

Monday, February 21, 2011

Virtual seawatch at Boiler Bay, Oregon

What are these people doing? Looking for Gray Whales at Boiler Bay State Wayside near Depoe Bay, Oregon!

Good viewpoints for whales are positioned not too far above or away from the water. Not surprisingly, good places to view Gray Whales are also good places to view nearshore seabirds. And Boiler Bay is perhaps the best seawatch site on the West Coast.

But if you don't know what to expect, you may be disappointed.

On the rocks near the water you may find Black Oystercatchers, as in the photo below. Click the photo for a view that would approximate what you would see with binoculars. [I suggest you right-click and "open link in new window," so it doesn't take so long to reload the page using your "back" button.]

Time spent scanning for seabirds is called a "seawatch." Seawatches are not very successful with only binoculars. It usually requires a higher-powered (20-60x) spotting scope to bring the birds closer into view.

In fact, the photos presented here are all designed to show you what you would actually see with binoculars or a spotting scope on a seawatch. I took these photos in August 2009, just to see how bad photos of seabirds from shore would be (in general, bad, just as I surmised). Not magazine quality, are they? But they prove useful in teaching about seawatches.

Just beyond the first breakers you may see cormorants. In the photo below, a Pelagic Cormorant leads a Brandt's Cormorant. Click for a view such as you would see with binoculars.

You may also see Common Murres quite near shore. Such as in the photo below. Again, click to view the photo as it would appear with binoculars.

And here is a photo of a Pigeon Guillemot out about 1/4 mile. Click on the photo to make it appear as you would see it in binoculars.

On a seawatch, most of the birds are quite distant and views are usually no where near "field guide quality." It takes practice to identify seabirds and to learn what field marks you can see at a distance. By watching nearer, known-identity, birds fly away, you can learn flight shape and characteristics that will allow you to put a name on more distant birds.

Your binoculars aren't much use for birds more than a half mile distant. But with a spotting scope, you can identify birds 3 miles at sea or more.

For instance, take a look at this fishing boat about a mile offshore. Click the photo to give you a fairly accurate view of what you would see with binoculars.

Do you see the bird just behind the boat? If you watch the flap-and-glide progression of this long-winged bird, you could guess it was a shearwater. However, you need more optical magnification. So, click on the following photo to see what you might see with a 25x spotting scope.

You can see the long-winged bird flying right-to-left. The left wing is pointed right at us, so we can't see it. What we see is the underside of the right wing. The white underwing linings are clearly seen, identifying this bird as a Sooty Shearwater!

Here is another photo of a pair of Red-necked Grebes flying south about 1/2 mile out. Click the photo to see what view you would have of these birds with binoculars only.

Oh, that speck would be hard to identify with binoculars only, wouldn't it?

A lot of time on a seawatch is spent scanning with binoculars, then switching to the more powerful scope when you find something. Scanning with the scope has too small of a field of view--you'll miss more birds than you'll find if you scan with your scope. So find the birds with your bare eyes or with binoculars, then switch to higher power.

For instance, once you spot those flying "specks" in the above photo, get on it with your scope and you'll see something interesting. Click on the photo below to see what you would see with a spotting scope.

Now you can see the white face and white secondary wing patch identifying the two Red-necked Grebes in the lower left of the photo.

But notice what else appeared in our virtual spotting scope view? In the upper right of the photo is a bird flying left with pointed wings bent sharply at the wrist. The throat is pale and the head appears slightly raised on a short neck. Can you make it out? That's a Marbled Murrelet--at least, that's my best guess in this single photograph.

So, to answer your question... yes, seawatchers identify distant birds with only minimal pattern, shape, and flight style clues. Even with spotting scopes the views often are not very good. But scopes do allow you to see small specks of birds about 3 miles offshore or farther, depending upon atmospheric conditions.

Here are some hints to make seawatching more successful.

1) Go at dawn. Seabirds are nearer shore first thing in the morning, then move off. By 2 hours after sunrise activity may be mostly over for the day. In May, that could mean that all the action is over by 8 a.m. On the West Coast, the sun comes up behind you, giving you the best light at dawn.

2) Scan with your naked eye or with binoculars. Only when you find something do you switch to your spotting scope.

3) Go seawatching during spring and fall migration, April-May and September-November.

4) Go during really nasty weather. Those big November windstorms often push seabirds near shore. Go between downpours. Dress warmly. Protect your optics. Head for a hot bowl of chowder afterward.

5) Practice, practice, practice! Identify close seabirds, then watch them as they fly away. What do you see as they get farther and farther away? Learn seabird patterns, shapes, and flight styles.

Andy Frank took some photos of Ancient Murrelets at Boiler Bay in December.

[This article is co-published on the Oregon Seabirds blog.]

Friday, February 18, 2011

Greg's white-cheeked goose rant... I mean, primer

Can you tell the difference? A pair of long-necked Canada geese with their chicks among short-necked Cackling geese. The Cackling geese are just getting started on their migration to the Arctic to breed, while these Canada geese have already had success locally! Fernhill Wetlands, Forest Grove, Oregon on 22 April 2006 by Greg Gillson.


Empidonax flycatchers, small sandpipers, immature gulls, female hummingbirds,... All these are notoriously difficult to identify. However, there is another abundant taxon that is proving to be surprisingly difficult for many birders to identify accurately on a day-to-day basis.

In 2004 the American Ornithologists' Union split Canada Goose into two species, creating the name Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii) for the smaller forms and keeping Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) for the larger forms.

As a reviewer for eBird, it seems that most birders still do not know how to separate them. What I see happening is that a birder will identify a few Cackling geese, and then lump all other geese they see that day into the catch-all "Canada Goose."

As you can see from the above photo, the larger resident Western Canada Goose is 45 inches long, while the smaller migrant Ridgway's Cackling Goose is only 25 inches long--barely larger than a Mallard. The Cackling Goose is named for its high-pitched yelping calls. The Canada Goose gives the stereotypical deep honking call.

I don't want to over-simplify (because this is a very complicated situation) but 80% of the time it is pretty much that easy. Big or little.

Yes, it is true that there are at least 3 races of Cackling and 4 races of Canada Goose in western Oregon. Yes, the largest Cackling (Taverner's) is very similar to the smallest Canada (Lesser). But, frankly, if you don't spend time with a spotting scope carefully analyzing these intermediate birds, then the proper label for eBird (and your personal list) is "Cackling/Canada Goose."

There is nothing wrong with listing 25 Cackling Goose, 50 Canada Goose, and 600 Cackling/Canada Goose on your list. In fact, such honesty and accuracy is praiseworthy.

In western Oregon it is unusual to see more than a couple hundred Canada geese at one location. Most of these will be the big resident honkers, the white-breasted Western Canada Goose. At the Willamette Valley goose refuges you may see 1000 of the dark-breasted Dusky Canada Goose, but the entire world population of this form is perhaps only 7000 individuals. There may be a few Lesser Canada Geese mixed in.

The tiny, dark-breasted Ridgway's Cackling Goose is an abundant migrant and common winter visitor in western Oregon. Taverner's Cackling Goose is common in winter.

As an eBird reviewer for northwestern Oregon, I expect to see perhaps 100 Canada Goose and 5000 Cackling Goose on your non-summer lists, as typical. At Finley NWR, near Corvallis, Oregon, maybe 1000 Canada Goose and 7000 Cackling. Do you see that, in general, I expect 7-50 times as many Cackling geese as Canada geese? How does that compare with what you are reporting?


Cackling GooseDo you recognize that these are Cackling geese, and not Canada geese? Forest Grove, Oregon, 10 October 2009 by Greg Gillson.


East of the Cascades, in the Great Basin, I expect more Western and Lesser Canada geese and fewer Cackling. But I am uncertain of the exact ratios and seasonality there. But don't expect eBird to help, as the reports of these two species is all mixed up. And reports before 2005 will all be Canada Goose.

The big challenge is Taverner's Cackling Goose and Lesser Canada Goose. I think that Sauvie Island, Oregon and Ridgefield refuge, Washington, are probably the locations where these similar forms are most equally-common. Perhaps also Klamath Falls area. If anyone of you knows, please leave a comment.

Here are the scientific names of the white-cheeked goose forms mentioned in this post. These are the most-likely forms to be found in the Pacific NW. They are listed generally from largest to smallest:
Western Canada Goose (Branta canadensis moffitti)
Dusky Canada Goose (Branta canadensis occidentalis)
Lesser Canada Goose (Branta canadensis parvipes)
Taverner's Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii taverneri)
Ridgway's Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii minima)


Cackling GooseCackling geese have short necks, the dark breast indicates these are the abundant Ridgway's form, Forest Grove, Oregon, 17 October 2008 by Greg Gillson.


Largest and smallest, and both most-likely of all the forms: Western Canada Goose facing left, Ridgway's Cackling Goose facing right. Notice how the wing tips extend far past the tail on the Cackling Goose, but the wings are shorter on the Canada Goose. Hillsboro, Oregon, 31 December 2010 by Greg Gillson.


Ridgway's Cackling Goose are barely larger than Mallards. The rightmost goose is slightly larger with more sloping forehead and longer bill and paler breast and may be Taverner's Cackling Goose, Hillsboro, Oregon, 31 December 2010 by Greg Gillson.


I hate not being able to put a name on a bird. But, frankly, I still don't know whether this flock of 300 geese are Taverner's Cackling Geese or Lesser Canada Geese (or something else, or both). They go down on my list as "Cackling/Canada Goose" or "white-cheeked goose (species)" or "Canada-type Goose," but not "Canada Goose." The small out-of-focus goose in the back with purplish-brown breast facing left is Ridgway's Cackling Goose, Hillsboro, Oregon, 31 December 2010 by Greg Gillson.


If you are interested in pursuing this more thoroughly, you may start with Harry Kruger's page.

We've discussed these geese previously in At the pond... Canada Goose and At the pond... Cackling Goose

Friday Foto: Song Sparrow

Dark-eyed JuncoSong Sparrow, Rockaway Beach, Oregon, 8 January 2011 by Greg Gillson.


Here are all previous posts featuring Song Sparrows.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Attract birds to your backyard: Part 1: Water and food

Evening GrosbeakAn Evening Grosbeak takes a drink, Forest Grove, Oregon, 15 May 2009 by Greg Gillson.


As do all living things, birds need food, water, protective shelter, and breeding habitat.

To attract birds to your backyard you must provide life's essentials. The more variety of these things you provide, the more attractive you make your yard.

Of course, you can stick a bird feeder out in your lawn and hope for the best. You certainly may get some birds. However, with a bit of planning, you can get more birds and really enjoy attracting them.

As the Evening Grosbeak in the above photo shows, birds need water. A simple dish on the ground works. This provides water for drinking. But that's not all. Water is also for bathing.

You can get as elaborate as you want, but the birds don't really care, as shown by the Golden-crowned Sparrow in the mud puddle below.


Golden-crowned SparrowA Golden-crowned Sparrow takes a bath, Hillsboro, Oregon, 29 April 2010 by Greg Gillson.


You may purchase a bird bath or make your own. Plastic bird baths are inexpensive--but slippery. You might add rocks for the birds to stand on, if the bottom is too slippery for them. A concrete bird bath provides rough texture so the birds don't slip. Whatever kind you decide upon, keep the water clean.

Remember, during extended freezing weather birds need fresh drinking water more than they need food. Some bird baths have heaters to keep them from freezing in the winter.

Dripping or flowing water is especially attractive for birds. Again, it doesn't have to be a complex fountain and recirculating pool. A 5-gallon bucket with a small hole in the bottom may drip into a shallow pie-tin for several hours. Use your imagination and artistic flair to design something esthetically pleasing.


Even in lawn, birds can find some food...


American RobinAn American Robin finds a worm, Hillsboro, Oregon, 11 May 2008 by Greg Gillson.


The more varied the plants in your yard, the more types of birds and the higher numbers of each your yard will support.

Trees and shrubs can provide food in the form of seeds, flowers, and berries. Such plants also attract insects, caterpillars, and other small animals the birds may eat.


Cedar WaxwingA Cedar Waxwing eats hawthorn berries, Forest Grove, Oregon, 21 October 2010 by Greg Gillson.


In a future post, we'll discuss specific different kinds of food you can feed to birds, and different feeder styles. But next, we'll discuss how your yard can provide two other essential needs of birds: shelter and breeding habitat.

Part 2

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

How to use eBird... To track migration

Orange-crowned WarblerOrange-crowned Warbler, Newport, Oregon on 30 April 2010 by Greg Gillson.


One of the "games" that birders play is to be the first one locally to see a certain migrant. Birding listservs in spring are often titled: "FOS: ..." for First Of Season.

It is a joy to once again meet up with your bird "friend" in April or May that you may not have seen since last September. Migration is an amazing natural wonder.

However, some individual birds of many of our migrant species, may winter locally. Or, maybe there is one adventurous bird migrating early. Averaging the first arrival date over several years gives a good idea of when the first individuals of a certain species might be expected. But eBird allows us to examine migration in so much more depth.

As we discussed previously (What is eBird?), eBird is a free web-based software tool that allows you to record your bird sightings. With it you can track your personal birding lists. However, its power comes from combining your list with thousands of other birders' lists.

What follows is a detailed explanation of how to use eBird to track migration near you. I want you to be able to do this yourself....

So, the first thing I do is select a location of interest. Since I live in the Willamette Valley bio-region of western Oregon, that's where I start. View and Explore Data is the tab to choose. I select the abundance Bar Charts. Then I choose my location. Oregon is the state, but now I choose Counties in Oregon and hit Continue.

eBird allows you to combine up to 14 counties at once. That is usually enough to define a smaller region among Oregon's 36 counties. I will choose the 9 counties of the Willamette Valley. In this case I am leaving off the southernmost, Lane County, as it includes part of the coast. Many birds arrive on the coast first, before the inland valleys. Not a perfect solution, but it will do.

Now eBird builds a complete checklist of all sightings ever reported in the area I specified. eBird then creates an abundance bar chart for each "week" of the year (each month is divided into 4 weeks, so some weeks have 7, 8, or 9 days).

Now I scroll down and select Orange-crowned Warbler (right-clicking on my Windows PC mouse and opening in a new tab, so I don't "lose" the entire bar chart and have to hit the "back" button and reload it all).

When the Orange-crowned Warbler page opens, it again shows the bar chart for this species. You can choose any time-frame, in one-month intervals. Below this is a map with all sightings mapped with "push pins." Click on each pin to see the location, date, number of individuals counted, and the name of the observer.

At this time, however, choose the Frequency tab. This will tell you how many (%) of all checklists in your defined area that week reported the species. This tells you how widespread the species was in your area.

Below is the frequency of Orange-crowned Warbler sightings in the Willamette Valley for the years 2007-2010 (right-click and open in new window for a larger view).

By examining the screen shot above, you can see that there are some individual Orange-crowned Warblers found in winter in the Willamette Valley. You can't really be sure if the one bird you see is the "first" detected migrant or not. However, beginning with the 4th week of March (week starting 3/22), Orange-crowned Warbler sightings jump! By the first week of May they are the most widespread, being found on 30% of all checklists reported anywhere in the counties containing the Willamette Valley.

Orange-crowned Warblers then move to the hills to breed, so they aren't quite as widespread during the summer. But in September, they start migrating south and are found in more areas, peaking (being most widespread) the 3rd week of September (week beginning 9/15). By the middle of October, Orange-crowned Warblers are mostly gone.

But now select Totals and see, not how widespread, but how numerous they are throughout the year (screen shot below, right-click and open in new window for a larger view).

Looking at this data, we see that Orange-crowned Warblers are most numerous the 4th week of April (week starting 4/22). And though the Frequency charts showed they were fairly widespread in late September, this Totals chart shows they are not numerically very common then.

How does this compare to what is written in Handbook of Oregon Birds, 2009 by Herlyn and Contreras? Well, they say: "Spring migration begins in mid-Mar along the s. Ore. coast and peaks in Apr.... Fall migrants peak in early to mid-Sep, and most are gone by mid-Oct."

Also listed are compilations of average first-arrival dates: March 21 for Benton County, and March 19 for Portland area.

So, eBird data refines the area and quantifies the general Oregon status given in this great little book.

Some of the other tabs, showing the data in other ways, may prove interesting to you. They will be more accurate as the database grows. Since eBird usage seems to be growing about 25% per year in Oregon, the information gleaned is getting more and more accurate--and interesting.

There it is, then--Orange-crowned Warbler migration in the Willamette Valley charted and graphed. We didn't look at the other tabs. I leave that as an exercise for you.

I am sure you can think of a migrant bird in your area that you would like to graph out this same way.

View all posts with the label: "eBird"

Monday, February 14, 2011

If you were on a desert island and could only have one bird book...

Red-tailed HawkDoes this photo remind you of a particular popular bird book cover? Red-tailed Hawk, Fernhill Wetlands, Forest Grove, Oregon on 22 November 2007 by Greg Gillson.


Birders love bird books. And it seems a new one comes out every week, making your library obsolete.

Recently I moved residences and had to pack up most of my library and put it in storage. Yikes! I could only "keep" one small shelf of bird books, and none of my birding magazine series--they all went into storage. What would I keep out and available for day-to-day use?

Here is a partial list of the books I kept available to me. These are general bird watching and reference books. I also kept local status and distribution works and bird-finding guides. And, of course, I kept out most of my seabird reference guides for my ocean bird watching trips.

Here are my "must-have" bird books.

Field Guides

  • Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th Edition. Jon L. Dunn and Jonathan Alderfer. 2006. National Geographic Society, Washington D.C.

    The "National Geo" guide has been my favorite guide since the first edition was published in 1983. I love the 5th Edition. It is quite updated from the 3rd Edition (1999) with redesigned cover and the addition of thumbtabs to help newer birders. There are some new illustrations and map corrections. It has a nice clean layout with larger illustrations than many other guides. It has all species of birds ever recorded in North America up to 2006--967 species total.

  • National Audubon Society--The Sibley Guide to Birds. David Allen Sibley. 2000. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

    This is the "big Sibley" and so very well done. Averaging 8 illustrations per species this book has most of the plumages you may expect to encounter in the field. The advantage this book has over others includes the arrows and supporting text pointing to and explaining the illustrations. And it is unsurpassed in showing even passerines in flight. But it is showing its age, being quite behind the times in new bird names and family sequences that have occurred in the 10 years since it was written. It doesn't cover the most rare North American birds. And, of course, it is too large to fit in a pocket for field use and becomes damaged laying loose in the vehicle.

There is a smaller "Western" Sibley [The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America. David Allen Sibley. 2003. Alfred A. Knopf. New York.]. I especially like the 5-color maps, far exceeding the 3-color maps of the National Geographic and most other guides. However, even fewer species are covered. Frankly, some of the rare birds to the West are just the ones I need in a field guide, since I am quite familiar with the common ones. So I want a continental bird book, not a regional one. Thus I own the "big Sibley" and not the Western Sibley. (The same can be said for the regional National Geographic guides on the market now.)

There really isn't any competition (yet) with the above field guides. Peterson has an updated guide suitable for beginning/intermediate birders.

No photographic guide is acceptable as a primary field guide, though John Rakestraw thinks the new Stokes guide is quite good. Here is a June 2008 review of photographic field guides by Rob Fergus. And here are some plates for an exciting new photographic field guide "under construction" by Richard Crossley.

Advanced Bird Identification

  • The Peterson Field Guide Series--A Field Guide to Advanced Birding: Birding challenges and how to approach them. Kenn Kaufman. 1990. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston.

    Though a bit dated, with line drawings rather than photos, this is still a good reference for learning how to identify gulls, Empids, sparrows, peep, jaegers, dowitchers, winter loons, etc. It covers only a select group of the more difficult to identify birds.

Bird and birding references

  • Birding Essentials: All the tools, techniques, and tips you need to begin and become a better birder. Jonathan Alderfer and Jon L. Dunn. 2007. National Geographic Society, Washington DC.

    My old 1969 Peterson field guide had 20 pages in the Introduction entitled "How to Watch Birds." Newer field guides ran out of room to tell the user essential information about bird identification, birding tools, and bird watching fieldcraft. This 224-page book is the "introduction" on "how to watch birds" that has been "left out" of modern field guides since Peterson was supplanted as the most popular field guide in the mid '80's.

  • The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. John K. Terres. 1980. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

    At nearly a million words this large volume covers each bird in North America, birding term, and historical person you are likely to encounter. Species accounts give scientific name and meaning, description and measurements, feeding habits, nest, eggs, incubation, other names, age, host to cowbirds, hybrids, weights, and range. If you want to know about bird smell, who Smith's Longspur was named for, smoke bathing, or songs and singing, here it is alphabetically. There is a newer 1995 version available.

  • Ornithology in Laboratory and Field, 4th Edition. Olin Sewell Pettingill, Jr. 1970. Burgess Publishing Co., Minneapolis, Minn.

    All birders should own an ornithology manual. Such a book details topics such as feathers, anatomy, distribution, field and laboratory identification, behavior, migration, eggs and young, ornithological field methods, and more. [A more modern textbook is Ornithology, 3rd Edition. Frank B. Gill. 2006. W.H Freeman & Co. New York.]

For many birders, getting a brand new bird book is akin to getting a new car. You may baby it for a while, but before long you've driven it to the top of the forest service lookout and through some "roads" that were barely rabbit trails and your new books look like these.

Thus, I recommend buying used from online book sellers such as I visited a Powell's book store a couple of month's ago and came away with 5 "previously viewed" bird books in great condition, all for under $80.

My shelf runneth over....

Friday, February 11, 2011

Friday Foto: Green-winged Teal

Dark-eyed JuncoGreen-winged Teal, Dawson Creek Corporate Park, Hillsboro, Oregon, 31 December 2010 by Greg Gillson.


This male Green-winged Teal is a small, but strikingly-colored duck.

We discussed Green-winged Teal previously.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

eBird and Troglodytes

Pacific WrenPacific Wren, Timber, Oregon, 22 November 2007 by Greg Gillson.


Back in July of 2010 the American Ornithologists' Union (A.O.U.) split the (formerly) holarctic Winter Wren into 3 species: Eurasian Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes), Winter Wren (T. hiemalis), and Pacific Wren (T. pacificus).

The genus name, Troglodytes means someone who lives in a cave--a caveman. It refers to the damp, dark, cave-like root wads and brushy tangles these birds favor.

Here in the Pacific Northwest we have the Pacific Wren. It is a resident bird in damp forests, but we get an influx of winter birds from the north. We have discussed this bird previously, including the possibility of this split, under the former name, Winter Wren.

You can look at a field guide range map and see the different populations in the East and West. However, what I want to show you is your contribution to the range maps. On the eBird site is an animated map of Winter Wren and Pacific Wren in the US.

As the map sweeps through the year, one week at a time, you can see the eastern Winter Wren migrate from the wintering range in the Southeast states to the summer range in just the northern tier of states.

In the West, however, the range of Pacific Wren expands in winter and contracts in summer, but doesn't show north/south migration.

This animated map is only possible because you (the common, everyday, ordinary, bird watcher--no offense intended) use eBird. That map was made with your sightings!

I mean, you do eBird, don't you?

Just as binoculars and field guide has defined a birder for the past 75 years, I believe eBird will define what it means to be a birder in the coming decades. Start now!

You don't want anyone to call you a troglodyte, now, do you?


It is my intention, as an eBird convert and champion, to present some ongoing articles on how to use eBird, especially how to get useful and interesting data out of eBird. One of the previous complaints about eBird was that it was (my own former words): "in only." They wanted my data, but didn't give me anything useful back. That has changed. I'll show you how.

See my previous post: What is eBird?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Dabbling duck silhouette quiz: Answers


Last week's photo quiz was very popular! We had over 230 visitors check out the quiz on both Monday and Tuesday (we average about 100 visitors per day). This blog post even got mention on the ABA Blog!

If you haven't taken the quiz yet, I have reproduced the silhouettes below. So, go down there and really look at the shapes.

Many people said they were "just guessing" at some. However, since most guessed correctly, these birders actually were using shape to identify the ducks. They didn't know how they were using shape, they just did somehow. They were unable to put their identification technique into words.

Dave Irons posted a very revealing comment about this quiz on OBOL (Oregon Birders On-Line mailing list). Irons said that the quiz likely would have been "much more difficult" had I shown actual photos (such as above). Irons noted that the colored camouflage plumage was actually a "visual distraction" that prevented birders from seeing the shape of the birds. Once they were simple silhouettes, he found the identification "remarkably easy."

That was my point. Of course, if you've never used the paradigm of identifying birds by shape, then it might not be so "remarkably easy" for you, at least not yet. But with practice it can be.

Once you can identify these birds by silhouette, those camouflage-brown patterns aren't nearly as confusing. You'll be identifying those previously ignored hen dabbling ducks in no time!

Here, again, are the silhouettes, and below them are the answers.


The identification and description of birds by shape are often in comparison to some "standard." In this case, the familiar and common Mallard is the standard by which to compare other dabbling ducks.

A) Northern Shoveler.
The body is fairly long. The head is rounded. And that bill! It's longer than the rest of the head, and flattened at the tip like a spoon or shovel. Now you know where it got its name, shoveler, as well as another popular name, spoon-bill.

B) Northern Pintail.
This bird is long and elegant throughout. The bill is rather thin. The forehead is gently sloping. The neck is long and slender.

C) Cinnamon Teal. (Also Blue-winged Teal)
In life you may be able to compare this small duck to others around it to gauge size. Note that the bill is as long as the head and flattened--though not to the extent of the shoveler. The head is small compared to the body, and rounded. The bill of Cinnamon Teal averages longer and flatter than Blue-winged Teal, but I wouldn't use that as the only field mark.

D) Green-winged Teal.
This squat, compact little duck has a small, squarish head, with steep forehead, and small bill.

E) Gadwall.
At first blush this duck is quite similar to Mallard. However, note this duck's more compact shape, slightly taller and less flattened bill, and bump on the forehead forming a squarish head.

F) Mallard. (Also Black Duck and Mottled Duck, but not in the Pacific NW)
The prototypical duck. The largest of the dabbling ducks with a rather heavy body, medium neck, large rounded head, and large flat bill.

G) American Wigeon. (Also Eurasian Wigeon)
This compact duck has a square head on a short, thick neck and a short bill. The tail is rather long and pointed.

Practice with these silhouettes until you can name them at a glance. Then go out to your local pond and practice identifying the hen dabbling ducks by shape!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Friday Foto: Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Chestnut-backed ChickadeeChestnut-backed Chickadee, Rockaway, Oregon, 8 January 2011 by Greg Gillson.


A cute little guy from a recent visit to the coast.

See other posts about the Chestnut-backed Chickadee.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Introducing the ABA blog: Where are the ECDs?

Eurasian Collared-DoveEurasian Collared-Dove, Forest Grove, Oregon, 2 January 2010 by Greg Gillson.


If you haven't seen it yet, you should take a look at the new blog by the American Birding Association. It has multiple authors, but Nate Swick is taking the lead in getting it going. It is at

A recent article by Paul Hess asks: 'Where are the Eurasian Collared-Doves?' In a few short years these birds have expanded across the North American continent from Florida westward all the way from Mexico to Alaska, yet they seem slow to fill in the mid-Atlantic, Great Lakes, and New England areas.

The ABA article uses world-wide data from eBird to map the range of Eurasian Collared-Doves.

See my previous articles: What is eBird? and Coming to a backyard near you... Eurasian Collared-Dove.